Home / General / Friday Music Thread: Aretha, And How the Paranoid Style Deals With the Paranoid Style In American Politics

Friday Music Thread: Aretha, And How the Paranoid Style Deals With the Paranoid Style In American Politics

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As you would expect, there has been a lot of great writing about the departed titan Aretha Franklin — see, for starters, Wesley Morris, Ann Powers, Carl Wilson, Rob Harvilla, Robert Christgau, and Amanda Petrusich. In addition to being as great a singer as American popular music has ever produced, she was a wonderful pianist and talented songwriter. And while like any artist who recorded as much her catalog was very uneven and hit a real fallow period in the mid-70s, she has a very deep catalog. If you only know the biggest hits, try streaming, say, Spirit in the Dark or Young, Gifted and Black and you’ll be in for a treat.

Then there’s this, from the National Review:

I might not rate her as the single greatest female vocalist of the rock era. Kelly Clarkson and Linda Ronstadt come to mind as more versatile across musical genres and more varied in their emotional resonances.

I’m guessing that Mr. Crank might be getting some opprobrium on the Twitter dot com website?

Anyway, to cleanse the palate from that nuclear take longtime friend of LGM and songwriter/frontperson for The Paranoid Style Elizabeth Nelson had a great interview with Miles Kahn, the executive producer of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.Lots of great stuff here, including how songwriters and comedy writers should deal with the age of Trump. Enjoy!

An old adage holds that all comedians want to be rock stars and all rock stars want to be comedians. Elizabeth Nelson from the Paranoid Style isn’t a rock star, exactly, as this would require actual fame. But she is a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter who has released some of the most memorable and politically charged music of the past half-decade including the rollicking night terrors of 2016’s Trump-anticipating Rolling Disclosure LP and its dazed hungover companion piece Underworld USA released last year. Emmy winner Miles Kahn isn’t a comedian, exactly, but he is the executive producer and a writer for TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and a long-time former producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. To celebrate the band’s recent split 7” with Cincinnati’s Wussy and in anticipation of Bar/None Records’ August reissue of the Paranoid Style’s torrid 2015 Rock & Roll Just Can’t Recall EP the two close friends engaged in the following dialogue/therapy session, addressing their roles and responsibilities within the culture, the process of making meaningful political art and debatable virtues of carrying on under the darkening shadows of societal collapse.

 

EN: I know you are – to use your preferred term as one who is deeply refined – a cinephile. I wanted to ask you about how learning about film and studying it in college informed your perspective on political art. If you’ll indulge me, I’d venture that Full Frontal and The Daily Show exist in a lineage with not only the truth-to-power satirical voice of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove but also the Neo-Realist tradition of De Sica or Roberto Rosselini. I know you aren’t thinking of these sorts of things in particular when you are working on the show, but I wonder what was the work that grounded you in the possibilities of being not only entertaining but also trenchant and provocative?

 

MK: OK, first of all I just want to point out that this is your first question and I’m completely unprepared to sound as smart as you. I will try to keep up.

 

When it came to film I can’t say I was ever influenced by politics. At least not directly. I came up during the late 80s and early 90s indie film explosion so I was quite taken with smaller, personal filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Mike Leigh and the Coen Bros. I also loved classic 70s American cinema from the usual film school heroes like Scorsese, Coppola and especially Terry Gilliam. When it came to satire I was weaned on movies like Love & Death and Blazing Saddles – cultural and historical satire more than current events. When it came to politics and satire my first exposure was probably SNL, The Simpsons and then of course The Daily Show.

 

I was a huge fan of The Daily Show and I was particularly taken with the field department since it was wall-to-wall satire of a particular format that deserved to be mocked – local news. But I wasn’t particularly “political” when I got the job several years later. I was certainly a snooty progressive New Yorker and I read the Sunday New York Times, but that was about it. I think I was taken more by the comedy, the irony and the style parodies than then the overall political messaging. And to be fair, early field pieces weren’t very heavy-hitting. They did a lot of “news of the weird” and “small town yokel builds spaceship” kind of stuff. But Jon quickly started shifting what we did and I very got a fast education in government, politics and policy. It was like going to grad school. So to answer your question, I was hooked by the promise of doing sharp comedy and learned how to incorporate messaging after I got there.

 

A question for you: We’ve been friends for a long time, but I’ve only in the last several years seen you emerge as this muscular songwriting talent. Knowing how important music is to you, I wonder why you didn’t see the possibilities of becoming a politically-minded rock star sooner? How did you conceive your “voice” and how much did it change once you put pen to paper and began adding melodies?

 

EN: This is something I think about a lot – why I waited as long as I did to really forcefully pursue having my own band. I definitely always had ideas for songs and I think the germ of the thing was in my mind for a while, but something sort of held me back. I think ultimately what happened was a combination of a couple things. I had the fortunate opportunity to play as a side person in a few different bands, and that process was very demystifying for me. I saw what went into making albums and playing shows and realized there was nothing particular about it that was beyond my purview. I was comfortable performing and I knew how to play and sing. There really isn’t anything more to it, other than writing good songs. You don’t require a special credentialing. On some level it took me awhile to realize “Oh, I can just elect to do this.” That was very exciting. I think the other thing was, I spent a handful of years getting very deeply into writing music criticism, and the net effect for me was that on some level I didn’t feel like I was hearing the sort of rock music that I was looking for. A lot of it seemed to be about nothing, just lifestyle brand music for festivals. I did and do have a level of contempt for that sort of thing. There is a pronounced strain of indie-rock that essentially exists purely to comfort the comfortable and move high end merchandise and it was very predominant around the time I decided to make records. So rather than wait for great bands like the Mekons or Sleater-Kinney or They Might Be Giants to counterbalance this I figured I’d try and follow their example and enter the arena myself.

 

MK: Oh god, TMBG was like a revelation to me. I was a such a 60’s classic rock nerd growing up and they opened me up to such a new curious thing. I feel like everything political or clever comes out of hip-hop more than rock. Maybe I don’t listen to enough modern pop and indie-rock, but a lot of what I hear seems to be inward-looking and personal. And I like that. But I couldn’t tell you who is rock’s Neil Young today. Also, I’m a giant jazz fan and I fear that rock is the new jazz – it’s become a niche art form for white people.

 

EN: I don’t think it’s possible to dispute the proposition that hip-hop is by far the more vibrant art form than rock at this juncture, almost to the point that it can feel it is justifiably driving rock music to extinction. At the same time, I think it’s slightly misleading to cast the narrative in those terms, in the sense that African-American music and culture has always been at the leading edge and the current experience of its visionary predominance isn’t really novel.

 

MK: Oh, this is so true. Maybe it’s nice to see that white people haven’t had as much luck appropriating hip-hop as they did with rock!

 

EN: To the extent that rock and roll was ever truly an exciting or revolutionary form this was entirely built on the framework of Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry and Motown and Stax and that was the jumping off point for the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and in many ways their entire output was just an embroidering on this initial vision. So I don’t know if what we are describing currently is really all that different. I think there was probably a stretch of time in the 70’s and 80’s where the omniscience of Boomer advertising culture caused “classic rock” to occupy an artificially inflated prominence in our society and now it is just reverting back to its deserved status as mostly overblown, pompous bullshit that deserves to be forgotten. I do have a vote for today’s Neil Young though: Patterson Hood from the Drive By Truckers. He’s pretty brilliant and they are a legit great band to me.

 

I’m curious about the relationship between stand-up comedy and shows like yours. Did stand-up comedy inform your sensibilities in crucial ways? For me, I don’t know that I necessarily find George Carlin hilarious strictly speaking, but the manner in which he addressed government hypocrisy and corporate hegemony seems pretty visionary at junctures. Same with Bill Hicks and of course Richard Pryor (who I do find hilarious).

 

MK: I know I’m supposed to say Lenny Bruce is an inspiration or something, but I was never a big standup nerd. I ignored much of it growing up and really only started to appreciate the format later when Patton Oswalt, David Cross and Sarah Silverman reinvigorated it. They became rock stars – or what rock stars used to be. Do you find inspiration from certain standups? I’d be surprised if the origin of one of your songs came from a Hannibal Buress joke. Speaking of which – what’s your least political and most personal song? Which type of tune is harder to write?

 

EN: I definitely think there are some specific commonalities with stand up and songwriting, and I pay a lot of attention to how certain people build bits, how they use repetition or take things in a surprising direction, the sort of equivalents of key changes and codas. I often think it’s very similar. Eddie Pepitone is my friend, but he’s also my favorite stand up. I’m an enormous fan of his fearlessness and his world building and the fact that he cannot be dissuaded from taking his eye off the ball in terms of his critique even though the incentive to provide comfort food is constant and even oppressive. And in sheer in terms of craft, he is just a person with awesome command of the stage and an audience. I could watch Eddie all day. I think the idea with songwriting, at least from my perspective, is to try and weave together the personal and the political into a coherent and hopefully compelling hybrid. I don’t write a lot of heart-on-my-sleeve songs, but they aren’t policy papers either. Songs like “The Ambassador’s Morning Lift” or “Casual Water” are ones that I think of as existing in the space between those polarities. I’m not a confessional songwriter, but I’m in there if you want to look.

 

You’re in the business, so let’s talk about fake news. We tend to think of the phenomenon of jousting over what is or isn’t “fake news” to be a relatively recent phenomenon, but in fact it’s not as new as we think. In reading The Daily Show oral history, Karl Rove was boasting as far back about as the middle-2000’s about not being concerned with “the reality-based community”, his smug implication being that as White House Communications Director, he would just fabricate whatever reality the Bush administration wanted individuals to accept.

 

MK: No, the notion of fake news isn’t recent, but I think its weaponization is truly new and very sad. Less than a year ago it meant literally “news that is fake.” Now it means “news I don’t personally agree with or want to believe is true.” Also, I hate my life.

EN: The irony of your position, as I perceive it, is that you are by definition a comedy program and yet by dint of the grotesque lengths that entrenched powers are willing to go to advance their agendas, it has fallen to you to locate the nexus of reality amidst an avalanche of carefully cultivated disingenuousness. That war came to your shores – you didn’t ask for it – but I’m curious to know how you experience and shoulder that responsibility?

 

MK: Other than hating my life? Okay, I don’t hate my life. But I frankly don’t see things getting better as far as political discourse. We do our show for ourselves really, and if people who want to see our comedy-based rage they can watch it. If you don’t generally like our POV then we don’t really care since you’re probably going to hate it. Those people won’t like our jokes since they don’t agree on the reality that our jokes are based in. We all have different realities now.

 

So we’re not “reaching out” to convince Trump people that Trump literally lies every single day because those people think that’s “fake news” and that Sam is a witch. I hate that we live in our bubbles. I don’t know how that changes. Do you hate your life now? I’m sorry.

 

EN; Well, naturally, but just the normal amount. It’s been pointed out repeatedly, often by the president himself, that Trump’s ascendance has fostered an ugly symbiotic relationship between his cult of personality and the historic ratings that cable news is currently experiencing. The pitch black but not irrational extrapolation is that there will always be a strong sentiment within the executive class at cable networks that Trump is good for business even if he is bad for the country, and so essentially giving him the full run of the place coverage-wise is a business plan they are obligated to pursue. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this dilemma. Would we be better off with a more robust publicly funded media apparatus along the lines of the BBC? Will all future elections of consequence be consecrated in the style of The Bachelor?

 

MK: To your earlier question, I reject that it’s our responsibility to locate the nexus of reality. Our media, which by and large does a good job, needs to be our nation’s defense against tyranny. However, they have fallen short in many ways, letting the false premise of “news objectivity” skew their coverage. The idea that you need to give equal amounts of time to Hillary’s emails and Trump setting the world on fire is insane. Also, cable news is trash. It’s mostly all bad. They employ some good journalists, but when you have people bragging about how Trump brings in ratings then we all lose. That our tiny comedy show goes out of our way to do under-reported stories is a little insane to me. We ARE a comedy show but having to feed people their vegetables is tough work in our format. We covered Russian hackers before the election, we covered the Federalist Society’s influence over this administration’s federal judge appointments months before Kennedy’s retirement and we covered the immigrant child separation issue before that became a national outrage. Local print journalists and our own in-house journalists and researchers inspire us to tell stories cable media doesn’t get to because they’re too busy shooting an empty Trump podium. We need more investment in local news. We need a President who defends the press.

As far as our realty TV presidency – we opened Pandora’s box with Trump. Ivanka will run. Kanye will run. Logan Paul will be Secretary of Defense. It’s all over.

 

So… how do YOU enjoying writing political music in chaos?

 

EN:  I think as a general matter my tendency is to think of human history as a sort of never-ending contest between the oppressors and the oppressed – the pharaohs building up the temples on the backs of the people – and in this sense I’m always sort of unsurprised by the occurrence of monstrosities like the Trump administration. I mean, undoubtedly this particular bunch of cronies and henchmen and cartoon villains is sort of vividly sinister in a truly mesmerizing way, but at base this is really just the full-blown metastasizing of a decades long criminal enterprise designed to strip the nation of its hard-won resources and funnel those riches into a small gang of oligarchs. And you can see that this has been happening long before Trump – in Citizen’s United, in our war profiteering, in our government’s unwillingness to address entitlement reform in a grown-up manner such that those apparatuses are not fully bankrupt by the time our generation reaches retirement age. So I don’t honestly feel all that differently than I did during the Bush administration. It’s bleak and grotesque, but it’s not new. I could see how it would be a challenge to address it every day in a comedy writing circumstance. It’s farcical, but it’s not exactly funny.

 

MK: As a musician do you worry about creating music that people will enjoy long enough so they stick around and listen to your lyrics? My friend Thao (of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down) asked me once, “Do you think people still listen to lyrics?” It was so sad. She works so hard at crafting personally moving songs. And yet I imagine there’s pressure to move product and sell tickets. I realize as a newer rock band Bar/None probably isn’t up your ass screaming about profits, but how do you weigh making something commercially pleasing and lyrically potent? Or do you not care at all?

 

EN: I guess I view at it as being out of my control. You’d hope people would pay attention to lyrics, but I don’t assume that they will have time, what with the “gig economy” and all. As a rule, I strive to make the songs enjoyable enough in melodic terms that people will find them gratifying on just the surface level of encountering them, and then maybe some of the other stuff will sink in. It’s funny, because people will refer to my songs as “literate” or “wordy” or what have you, and that’s fine, but in my mind they are all just platinum hits!

 

MK: You’re the Carole King of Richard Hofstadter references!

 

EN: When I’m writing them I think every single one is going to be like the new “Photograph” by Def Leppard or at least “The Boys Are Back In Town” or something. I never sit down at the piano or the guitar and think to myself “I’m really going to give ‘em something literary this time…” But I guess it’s just how my mind works. Whatever the case I love Thao’s music and I listen to her lyrics. She’s great. So we’ve got that.

 

One thing that has consistently impressed me with Full Frontal is there never seems to be these impasses that occur on certain news satire shows when the audience doesn’t laugh at a joke or premise, but feels sufficiently lectured to that they feel obligated to simply applaud. As a viewer those moments make me want to die in my chair from mortification. At any rate,  you seem extremely adroit at walking the tightrope between activism and entertainment. Is that tension something you guys consider when putting a together field piece or monologue?

 

MK: Tina Fey once called it “clappter” when criticizing The Daily Show’s more activist-y moments. I get the criticism. Sometimes we say stuff that’s simply cathartic to people and it’s an outlet of relief for them. I always want laughter but I don’t discount the importance of voicing people’s feelings and letting them know they’re not alone.

 

We think about the balance of comedy and “educating” a lot and we often remind ourselves if we’ve gone too long without a real laugh. We’re always making sure our dick jokes are evenly distributed.

 

EN: So best guess, how do you imagine our society in 30 years? Are we locked into a perpetual state of governmental intransigence and executive-level impunity? Or does the energy for meaningful reform a lie just on the outskirts of Trump’s creepy-neighbor corruption? Should we all give up, or is it worth sticking around to see if The Simpsons starts to get really good again?

 

MK: My short answer: I am not planning on having children. Long answer: Matt Groening could’ve easily given Apu a concussion and then when he wakes up his accent is gone and he speaks like a foul-mouthed New Yorker. Then you recast him with the great Aasif Mandvi. I mean, it’d be a win-win.

 

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