Saturday, December 24, 2016

Once more this year

(photo credit: Newcastle Libraries)

For the past eight Christmas Eves, and the past eight Christmas mornings—except for the year we had that haymaker of a snowstorm, and everything was closed—I’ve trekked out to Parkrose to play the holiday services at the Lutheran church where I am the resident agnostic organist. I’ll be doing it again this year. 

It’s a not-quite sketchy part of town, but it’s not Multnomah Village either (and it definitely isn’t the Pearl). There are these quaint little colonial cottages with metal bars on the windows, and chain-link fences enclosing yards where broad-browed dogs prowl around abandoned Big Wheels and Barbies. Down the street from the church, someone once spray-painted the word “SNITCH” in huge black letters on the wall of a carport. I’ve always felt that it’s a neighborhood with lots of hidden stories. 

It was just before Christmas a few years back when the pastor I work for finally got the funds to purchase a new organ for his congregation—folks mostly in their seventies, who had been asking for the old hymns the way they were meant to be heard. I had a key to the church, and after the instrument was installed, I would sometimes go at night, when no one else was there, and let myself in to practice. That’s when I discovered that the building that could seem empty on a sunny Sunday morning—since the pews were never more than half-full—felt like the abyss of eternity when it was deserted and dark. 

The first time I was in the church alone at night, I turned on as many lights as I could—even the ones that were nowhere near the part I was in. But that didn’t help. It was as if the brightness only invited the ghosts out of the walls. So I turned most of the lights off again, and climbed the stairs to the choir loft, where, after feeling my way to the organ bench, I started playing in the near-dark. 

The first things I played on that brand-new instrument were centuries old—from an Advent and Christmas repertoire that had been brought to life under countless fingers before me. “Once in Royal David’s City.” “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” “Savior of the Nations, Come.” “Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending.” Beautiful, sad pieces, with melodies that were vivid once you blew the dust off. And as I played, and despite my lack of faith—which I prefer to cast as a faith in my own fallibility, or as a faith in the possibility of many truths—the music did what music does. Almost instantly, I felt at home and at peace, sitting there in the gloom, alone and listening. 

People keep saying we’re entering a dark time. I try to stay optimistic, but it’s probably true. I think a lot about the work ahead. But for tonight and tomorrow, I’m going to play the old hymns again, with all my might. And I’m going to hope for the best, for all of us. 

Happy Holidays, friends.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


At last

Now available for pre-order: Breath of Fire, my first album in eight years. Check out the free streaming track: "Flower Gun Song."

I'm honored to have been able to work on this music with David Valdez, Tim Willcox, Ryan Meagher, Andrew Jones, Todd Bishop, Dennis Carter, and Brad Boatright.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Loving Hillary

She’s never gonna make you love her. In fact, she’d probably be offended if you tried—she has grandchildren for that.  
(Samantha Bee)

During my brief and bitter foray into post-doctoral academic life more than a decade ago, I had a friend and colleague who swore by the mantra “the best ideas win.” I liked that, though I always worried it was a little naive. Not only did it not come to pass at the institution where we worked, but we were living through the presidency of George W. Bush, who had some really bad ideas, many of which won. 
     I remember spending a lot of time trying to figure out how the Bush phenomenon happened. Pundits kept offering the same explanation: people elect the person they want to have a beer with. I was still a drinker back then, but I don’t think a lifetime supply of the best microbrews in the world could have gotten me to vote for him. Still, I understood the point, in the abstract: apparently the man offered voters some kind of emotional engagement, as compared with his more “wooden” opponents, Al Gore and, later, John Kerry. Whatever ideas were at stake were subordinate to that dynamic. It was stupid, but what could you do? At least we wouldn’t have to deal with it again, once he was out of office.
     Little did I know! Fast-forward eight years, and Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, is treading the proto-dictator’s path, and has much, much worse ideas than Bush (to the extent that he has “ideas” at all). I’m not sure how many people want to have a beer with him—especially since he doesn’t drink, either—but he is very good at stirring a wide range of emotions. And that may be all he needs to do.
     Perhaps that sounds paranoid. I know most Democrats are still riding high from Monday’s debate, and the polls are definitely moving in the right directionbut to quote Han Solo, “Don’t get cocky, kid.” This has been a year of surprises, and it could be a tightrope walk all the way to the end. Trump still has his supporters, and they still adore him—although fanatically enough to make me think he may end up in front of a firing squad if he actually becomes president, because he’s certainly going to fuck them over someday too. 
     But I don’t believe Trump is only interested in the enthusiasm of people who love him. He must know he cannot win if he relies on it. His bigger goal is to damage Clinton (“lock her up”) and the electoral process in general (“the system is rigged”), all while depicting the US as some kind of Boschian nightmare. Hate and anger and fear: that’s how you get Democrats and independents to stay home, or vote third party.     
     Hillary voters have to be careful about contributing to that. We know that her opponent is the horror film phone call coming from inside the house. But every time we say we are resigned to vote for her, or bemoan her as the lesser of two evils, or vow to hold our noses in the voting booth, or complain that doing the right thing makes us throw up in our mouths a little, we’re getting closer to being the schmucks who don’t survive that scene. In this era of electronic communication, those cliches (“tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse,” as Orwell once put it) reverberate around the polity, collaterally shoring up the rationalizations of those who are flirting with Stein, or Johnson, or writing someone in, or staying home. They betray a failure to understand that, in this election, outrage against Trump won’t get us over the hump. It’s just more oxygen for his fire. Hatred for him might not matter if it isn’t accompanied by love for her.
     Yes, you read that right.    

Really, it shouldn’t be so hard. Hillary Clinton has, by far, the best ideas in this election—and many of them would be good ideas in any other election, too. Compared to other mainstream politicians, she is some distance from the lesser evil benchmark. Kevin Drum calls the progressive case for her “pretty overwhelming.” FiveThirtyEight says "Clinton has always been, by most measures [i.e., voting record, public statements, and fundraising] pretty far to the left." Ezra Klein points out her unusual-for-a-politician skill at listening and relationship-building. Jill Abramson, who made a career of investigating Clinton scandals, concludes that she is “fundamentally honest and trustworthy”—a view corroborated by Politifact
     Yes, she’s hawkish, and yes, she’s not afraid to go into the lion’s den—which can sometimes make it seem as if she’s a lion herself. But weigh those things against SCHIP, for example, which provided health care for millions of poor kids and mothers over time. Weigh them against “Hillarycare,” which, though defeated, established a bulwark for the Affordable Care Act, insuring millions of more Americans (note too that she wants to implement the longed-for public option). Weigh them against a statement like “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” which she once publicly and controversially uttered in front of the leaders of a country where female infanticide had been the norm for two millennia. Weigh them against her platform: a $12 minimum wage, comprehensive immigration reform, taxing the rich, tightening banking regulations, moving to renewable energy on a tighter timetable, nominating liberal Supreme Court justices, fighting for equal pay for women . . .
     The inevitable caveat—that Clinton is also flawed, and has made mistakes in her long career—is true, but it seems to proceed from the assumption that there are politicians who are not, and have not. I wonder: where do these mythical beings live? Even Bernie Sanders once voted to dump toxic waste in a poor Latino community thousands of miles from his home state. Hell—Sanders once helped to fund the most expensive bomber in the history of the world
     Not that I’m here to re-litigate the primary, or to ding Sanders’s reputation. (As I once wrote, I love the guy.) The point is that in a pluralistic democracy, political careers should be understood as cost-benefit analyses. You always get the good with the bad. Maybe, if you’re smart and careful and patient, you get a gradual move toward more of the former. 
     Smart and careful and patient: is there any better way to describe the Democratic nominee?
So why do so many people have such a hard time supporting her, and why do so many of her supporters have such a hard time being emphatic in their support? Especially now that the wolf is at the door? Defeating incipient fascism: what’s not to love about that?   
     Hating Hillary isn’t hard, because hate in general isn’t hard—it’s reactive, like a leg cramp, or the rake handle coming up to hit you in the face. Love is the real challenge of human existence. Not the infatuated rush of erotic or romantic love, maybe, but the more serious and beneficial kinds—whether the deep root system of a family, or a long-term partnership; or the give-and-take between best friends forever; or the more mundane, workaday social glue that we need to peacefully co-exist in a large and complex society. Voting should be prompted by something like the latter. Instead, it has become a consumerist transaction, which, as Michelle Goldberg has argued, assumes an act of individual self-affirmation, a kind of lifestyle choice by atomized individuals whose personal experience is paramount.  
     And so there is enormous discursive pressure against loving Hillary in even the most pragmatic ways. Consider how she and Trump are consistently held up together as “historically unpopular candidates,” without context. Stephen Colbert riffed on the idea a few weeks ago, in response to NBC’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum.” As you may remember, the back-to-back interviews with each candidate had taken place on the aircraft carrier Intrepid. Colbert remarked that

it was a great night. Once the two of them were on board, a lot of people were tempted to just cut the lines and let it drift out to sea. Bon Voyage! Bye-bye! Say “Hi” to the Somali pirates for us!
I like Colbert (who doesn’t?), but this is madness. If an aircraft carrier drifting out to sea is a metaphor for unpopularity, there’s no way that Clinton and Trump are in the same boat. 
     Here’s the difference. Trump is historically unpopular because of what he has said and done. Clinton’s unpopularity is more literally historical—it has the weight of history behind it. Sure, it is underscored by her prosaic speaking style, her tendency to overcompensate (personally, I think that’s the source of her hawkishness), and a defensive posture all too easily construed as compulsive secrecy. But given her obvious qualifications for the job, the underlying cause is no mystery, as Michael Arnovitz, Caroline Siede, Larry Womack, and others have shown. To wit: it’s the sexism, stupid. 
     People act as though it’s cheating to point this out. Nonsense. It’s the alpha and omega for why we are where we are. Explain why we’re supposed to care about Clinton’s bout with pneumonia, if it isn’t because of the same paternalistic mania about women’s bodies that suffuses the abortion debate. Explain why we’re supposed to indict her for the sins of her husband, if it isn’t because of the assumption that women are mere extensions of men. Explain why Trump, for so long, got away with genuine scandals, while Clinton buckled under fake ones, if it wasn’t because of a glaring double-standard against powerful women, in a culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the charm of anti-heroines.
     It is no response to say that some of these barbs are being thrown from the left, as if that validates them. Sexism among progressives is a good example of how insidious bigotry can be: of how it works in part by shutting down the bigot’s self-awareness. The irony is that many progressives who have a distaste for Clinton would recognize their behavior if they saw it in others—for it is a variation of one of the central tenets of misogyny, in which women must be either Madonna or whore, but never anything in between.

The salt in the wound is that this election is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The presidency of Barack Obama did not usher in a utopia, but a lot of the groundwork for more extensive change has been meticulously laid over the last eight years. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason we’re so hungry for change is that we’ve had our appetite for it so effectively whetted. Before Obama, the idea of an African-American president, while appealing to many, seemed impossible. And now that we know that impossible things are possible, we want them all. 
     As well we should. The world is not a Boschian nightmare, but there is a lot that is wrong, everywhere around us. Yet I suspect we won’t get where we want to be, ever, if we hamstring the whole enterprise because we’re not getting there now. The most idealistic candidate in the 2008 election, Dennis Kucinich, was practically laughed off the stage—but he got farther than the idealist who came eight years before him, Ralph Nader. This time, Sanders got farther—much farther—than either. In other words, we’re approaching the real ideal. Next election: who knows? Again: good things happen when you’re smart and careful and patient.
     When you’re not smart and careful and patient, Trump happens. Stopping him—not just stopping him, but causing him to face-plant, beating him by wide margins and electing Democrats up and down the ticket—is another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Trump’s very existence as a candidate suggests that his party is in its death throes. If he goes down hard, maybe Republicanism goes down hard, and maybe someday soon we'll be looking at a two-party system of center- and left-Democrats. That would be nice. If he wins, however, Republicanism may just morph into something more obviously obscene—different in degree if not in kind from what has been going on with the party since Reagan, rising again like the old South it came to embrace after it stopped being the party of Lincoln. The hunger of the other side has been whetted too.
     So: loving Hillary . . . or at least liking her more forcefully. If you’ve never thought of this election that way, try it—if only for the next thirty days or so. If your vote is already a given, someone who is on the fence might be swayed by your enthusiasm. And maybe the best ideas will win this year.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Disaster Gambit

[photo by Matt Brown]

And so another presidential election is upon us. I really hope I get to vote for a Sanders-led ticket in November. I would do it wholeheartedly: I have loved that guy since he was a regular on Thom Hartmann’s radio show. I want him to win the nomination. He still might. I guess we’ll know more on Tuesday.
     But this post isn’t about Sanders. It’s about what some progressives are threatening to do if he isn’t the nominee. It’s about an argument that goes back at least to 2000 (when it enticed me into voting for Nader, an act I will always regret), and is now resurfacing again. It’s about the “Bernie or Bust” movement, and this odd prose-poem by Michael E. Sparks (“Imagine that I have to vote for her just to keep the GOP out / I still struggle to do it / It’s like asking me to choose between death by burning or death by drowning / I choose neither / I would choose to vote for Jill Stein if it comes to that / At least then I could live with myself”), and especially these comments by Russ Belville:

Picking the lesser of two evils allows the evil to become more evil and entices the good to become less good . . .

If Donald Trump wins the presidency over Hillary Clinton, it’s not the fault of people like me who won’t vote for Republicans. It's the fault of the Democratic Party for nominating a Republican. For me, the horror of a four-year Trump term is less frightening than cementing in the Far Right / Center Right corporate duopoly in American politics created since Hillary's husband sold out Democratic principles on welfare, crime, race, labor, trade, drugs, and media.

Remember the tale of frogs in the pot of water? You turn the heat up slowly and they'll boil to death, but put them in an already boiling pot and they'll hop out. Donald Trump is the boiling pot and Hillary Clinton is the slow heat. A President Trump in 2016 equals a President Warren in 2020. A President Clinton in 2016 equals a re-elected Clinton in 2020 and the next milquetoast Obama-like speechifier in 2024 . . .
     Belville’s take is the most disturbing to me. I call it the disaster gambit. The disaster is the election of the most egregious candidate, and the gambit is the idea that by passive-aggressively facilitating it, progressives will prompt a national anger so profound that we will finally have a revolution.
     I suspect that disaster gambit thinking—whether explicitly articulated or not—informs much progressive rejection of Clinton. It’s a way of rationalizing away the consequences of a bad choice made under difficult circumstances. But it doesn’t change the fact that if Clinton really is the lesser of two evils, the lesser of two evils is still, by definition, less evil. Let’s be clear: those who embrace the disaster gambit are saying that they’re willing to contribute to an outcome that will cause more suffering for more people. And in order to justify that, presumably as collateral damage, one has to ignore the possibility that the imagined revolution may not happen, no matter how hot the pot of water gets. The truth is that a President Trump doesn’t guarantee a President Warren any more than a President Bush guaranteed a President Kucinich. And if the revolution doesn’t come, the suffering will have anyway.

* * * * *
The disaster gambit is especially problematic in this election, because it seems blind to the kind of disaster it is inviting. Numbed by a political discourse that has been eroding for decades, it overlooks the genuinely apocalyptic implications of a Trump presidency. It assumes the maintenance of a status quo such that there will be another election in 2020at which time we can right whatever wrongs have been committed in the meantime.
     With other Republicans, bad as they are, that assumption might at least have been reasonable. With Trump, it isn’t. The threat he presents is more historic.
     For months now, Trump has been compared to Hitler, and—with apologies to Mike Godwin—for once, the comparison is not unwarranted. It’s not that Trump is sitting on a carefully thought-out program for world dominance and genocide. But there’s an American form of fascism lurking in him—something rougher, sloppier, more off-the-cuff. Trump is the ugly id of America; the distillation and amplification of everything that was merely worrisome about Sarah Palin; the return of the Republican repressed. His psychopathologies, on display for decades now, are quite breathtaking. He seems not to believe in a world outside his own head, or that it is populated with other people who have their own feelings and desires and aspirations and experiences. It’s as if, to him, we are all avatars in a video game, and he wants the cheat codes.
     That’s pathetic, but it’s also urgent. Trump is mercurial and unthoughtful enough to take us past the point of no return before the end of a first term. As commander-in-chief, supreme court appointer, veto maker, bully-pulpit occupier, and wielder of executive orders, he will have no greater opportunity to perfect his violent, bullying brand of politics. By putting all that power in his hands, we will have opened up the possibility of something much worse than the politics-as-usual we have longed to escape. Environmental catastrophe. Race war. Nuclear deployment. Martial law. Internment camps.
     Some of those outcomes may sound unlikely. But the point is that “it can’t happen here” is no longer a viable rejoinder to the problem of Trump. His candidacy has been a series of events that conventional wisdom did not anticipate. His words and actions, offhand and kooky as they may have seemed at first, have accumulated such that they now disqualify him from the benefit of our doubt.
     The thing about American fascism is that it won’t happen until it does.

* * * * *
And what about Clinton? In its distaste for her—certainly understandable, even as it piggybacks a little too gleefully on a culture of misogyny, and condemns her a little too blithely for the sins of her husband—the disaster gambit presupposes politics in a vacuum. It fails to recognize that even a President Sanders would have to reckon with forces that Clinton has taken for granted her whole career—forces that have pulled every other Democratic president to the right since Reagan: Republican intransigence and irrationality, the anti-intellectual impact of corporate media, the depredations of capitalism, the aging of baby boomers, the spread of evangelical Christianity, the shortcomings of our educational system, and so on.
     The disaster gambit misses the fact that influence works the other way, too. Indeed, Sanders’s unexpectedly and unprecedentedly strong showing in the primary means that a President Clinton will have to be impacted, to at least some degree, by the ideas Sanders is known for—just as President Obama was impacted by the ideas that Clinton was known for (health care reform, for instance). If she’s the quintessential of-the-system politician, that also makes her susceptible to pressure from the loudest voices—and (thankfully) there may be no voice louder than Sanders’s right now.
     In any case, there’s a way in which supporters of the disaster gambit are flirting with the kind of glibness that composer Karlheinz Stockhausen displayed when he referred to 9/11 as a work of art: seeing the disaster only in terms of how it is most personally useful. I don’t doubt that their hearts are in the right place. The problem is that in politics it’s not enough to have your heart in the right place. Politics, as we have construed it and as we have to live with it, is inherently dirty, and it will be until that glorious day when we don’t need politics any more. Until then, we are all implicated in its results. If you are voting to make yourself feel good—if you start from the proposition that “it’s not my fault”—you have already misunderstood how this works.

* * * * *

One final thought: if Trump is the Republican candidate, and he not only loses in November, but loses resoundingly and dramatically, it could mean the repudiation and collapse of the Republican party as we know it. If he wins, thanks in part to the defection of Sanders-purists, then it certainly won’t.
     Are we progressives really going to trade that opportunity for a long shot at utopia?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Cheerfulness is an achievement."

(The title is a quote from Alain de Botton.)

(photo by Tavis Ford)

For some, this is the hardest time of year—a nagging reminder of isolation, and the feeling that, as John Keats put it, “we cannot be made for this sort of suffering.” For some, that feeling is made worse by the superficial visions of happiness that trot across our screens, and in our places of commerce. There, the holiday season can feel like an assault—columns of seemingly uncomplicated, impossibly Technicolor people, marching contentedly through a wonderland of material comforts. How easy it is to forget that even the most committed consumers have less sanguine stories to tell—a fear of death, a struggle with self-criticism or insecurity, a shameful memory lurking somewhere beneath the cheery veneer. Caught in the aggro-joy of the marketplace, how many will share those stories this holiday season? How many will ask to hear another’s story shared?

Here are a few from my own community. A family upended by a daughter’s suicide. Dear friends living with cancer, depression, addiction. Parents living with old age. A woman living out of her car at the other end of the street. Tales of divorce, betrayal, resentment—like tiny fissures presaging the coming earthquake. Life here is not only these things, of course. But even in a beautiful, earthy city like Portland, there is pain and sadness, and I suspect that, without descending into the ridiculousness of Debbie Downer, our task during the holiday season is to at least acknowledge it. Maybe such acknowledgment is where the possibility of hope really begins.

Confirmation bias aside, I couldn’t help seeing the same message in a poem I found yesterday, by Portland Revels founder Richard Lewis:

Call all the heroes home from war
Call them away from their fierce weapons
Let them fight no more,
For now is peace under the Yuletide heavens.
Peace, that is winter’s gift—
The ancient hope, renewed each year,
In song and heartfelt fellowship
In story and salutes of solstice cheer.
Call the people, the young and old together—
No quarrel shall mar this holy time.
When all clasp hands, each with other,
While trees guard the land and silent sky
So are we much in love with love,
At one with all that lives—below, above.

What struck me about these lines was something more than mere “solstice cheer”—though that was important too. But there’s also a landscape that must be “guarded.” (From what?) There’s a silent sky, hovering overhead like an indifferent deity. There’s a sense that hope must be constantly renewed, presumably after periods of hopelessness. It all seemed to cycle back into the mystery of existencea reminder that pretending we have actually overcome suffering, even for the sake of a holiday, is a way of re-inflicting it.

Speaking of the Revels—I took my daughter to see this year’s Christmas show last weekend (Mommy had her book club, and we took the opportunity to get out of the house for a few hours). I must admit that I arrived at the venue in an un-festive mood. At one point, the company came out into the audience, exhorting us to join them in a rendition of “The Lord of the Dance” (the shaker-derived hymn, not the Michael Flatley phenomenon). At first, I resisted. But somehow, something about the way I was invited in—a friendly face and a warm hand, stretched out on the spur of the moment—allowed me to push through my own season-induced melancholy. I in turn led my daughter into that line of dancers, and we circled around the auditorium, singing a song about a savior I don’t believe in, and enacting the endless falling and rising of the world.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Song Machine

. . . that vile element of competition in music. Surely that’s soul destroying in itself?
 (John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten)

Thank goodness John Seabrook’s The Song Machine is sprinkled throughout with quirky trivia about the music industry.

Did you know, for instance, that Lou Pearlman (convicted felon and impresario behind such turn-of-the-century boy bands as the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC—plus a lot of similar fare you probably have never heard of) is cousin to Art Garfunkel? Or that Barry Manilow hated “I Write the Songs,” the recording that probably made his career? Or that the “lyrical concept” for Katy Perry’s “Firework” came from, of all places, a famous bit in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (the paean to those who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”)?

Don’t get me wrong: Seabrook’s book is first and foremost a journalistic examination of the songwriting assembly line that has produced the most lucrative music of the new century—things like “Right Round” and “Umbrella”—and of the “mysterious priesthood of musical mages” (as he calls them) who operate it behind the scenes, under cheeky pseudonyms like Denniz PoP and Dr. Luke. But ultimately, the throwaway nuggets were what enabled me to work my way through. The rest, if I’m being honest, was too damned depressing.

Depressing . . . but not for the reasons you might think. It wasn’t because of the music—even though, as you have probably guessed, “Firework” and its ilk are not my cup of tea. Nor was it because of the mechanistic creative processes Seabrook describes—even though the phrase “the song machine” could be construed as a kind of dog whistle, riffing on longstanding cultural anxieties about technology’s influence in art.

Consider, for instance, the weeklong “writer camps” now routinely convened by mega-artists. From the outside, these seem like musical spam-factories—dozens of writers and producers collaborating in endlessly rotating pairs until someone generates a potential hit through sheer abundance of effort. Or what of the various attempts to harness creativity with science, signified by oxymorons like “melodic math” and “cultural technology”? One could be forgiven for finding these absurd, too.

But are such practices and philosophies all that different from those that produced music I actually like? Are the writer camps different in kind from, say, the industrial ethos of the Brill Building, or Motown, or Tin Pan Alley, or the Wrecking Crew? After all, the latter were “rock and roll’s best-kept secret” (to use Kent Hartman’s felicitous phrase) for a reason. As for “melodic math” and the like, consider just one precursor: Irving Berlin’s subjectively objective “Nine Rules for Successful Songwriting,” published in 1920. (“The lyric must be euphonious: simple and pleasing to the ear,” Berlin tells us—as if those adjectives mean the same thing for all listeners.)

One could summon other examples, but the point is the same: the mechanisms may be more robust now, but pop has always required an assembly line, or at least an assembly-line mentality. More importantly, given its intended listeners, music is music, no matter the time period or technology.

The real insight of Seabrook’s account is that the “machine” he refers to isn’t the assembly line or its products at all; rather, it’s the demeaning, dehumanizing juggernaut of industrial capitalism itself, taken to the ugly extreme it currently enjoys in the Top 40. As in most other sectors of twenty-first century American life, the musical rich are getting richer, and their numbers are shrinking, while everyone else (the musicians in the so-called long tail) receives ever-smaller shares of an ever-smaller pie. “77 percent of the profits in the music business,” Seabrook points out, “are accumulated by 1 percent of the artists”—a statistic that is even more lopsided than income inequality figures in the broader culture. Focusing on the quality of one form of pop over another (or the quality of pop over some other genre) is almost like saying this situation would be acceptable if more “deserving” artists were getting the piles of dough. The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is getting the piles of dough; it is the piling that is the problem.

In music, this situation is usually excused as some necessary apotheosis of the rock-n-roll dream. Yes, it inspires cruelty and masochism, evident everywhere from American Idol to the troubled relationship between Rihanna and Chris Brown to the fame-facilitated death of Scott Weiland (or Amy Winehouse, or Michael Jackson, or whoever). But it obscures those things with a playful marketing veneer; as, lately, in a flurry of ads (featuring many current pop stars) “that wistfully evokes the opulence of the ancien rĂ©gime of the deposed French Bourbon monarchy.” Indeed, it caters to listeners’ desire to be pop royalty, too.

Thus we might grow jealous at Seabrook’s description of a typical Clive Davis industry soiree, with its survival-of-the-fittest seating-chart hierarchy (current hit-makers sit close to the dais, while has-beens are consigned to the corners of the room). We might be awed by tales of music-biz excess, like the one Seabrook tells of the producer Dr. Luke, who had to buy Miley Cyrus a ten-thousand-dollar toilet when “Wrecking Ball” went to number one. (Apparently, they had made a bet.) We might be astonished at the obscene cost of promoting a single record, and the carpet-bombing mentality that “justifies” such profligacy. (One insider puts it this way: “The reason it costs so much is because I need everything to click at once. You want them to turn on the radio and hear Rihanna, turn on BET and see Rihanna, walk down the street and see a poster of Rihanna, look on Billboard, the iTunes chart, I want you to see Rihanna first. All of that costs.”)

But as easily as we turn away from the onramp indigent, we might also dismiss such things as part of the game, choosing from a set of ready-made rationalizations. High stakes drive artists to be more creative. Financial reward enables charity. Labels need some way to bankroll less lucrative acts. And so on. Ultimately, in the rock-n-roll dream as in the American one, individuals have to make a bargain with power and wealth, validating the system’s inherent unfairness in order to participate at all. And increasingly, aesthetic battles only seem to obscure the struggle we are continually losing. We get tangled in the surface scrub of vague signifiers—words like “genre,” or “beauty,” or “art”—ignoring the thick bedrock underneath it all: class.

In their brilliant new book, The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski describe what the kind of materialism we’re facing here really means. “Amassing wealth,” they write, “marked the beginning of an ancient transition from relatively egalitarian seminomadic hunter-gatherer communities—in which people were valued for their actual abilities—to agricultural and industrial societies, in which people were measured less by actual achievement and more by prestige, which itself was largely based upon the acquisition and exhibition of wealth.” We’re not going back to the seminomadic hunter-gatherer way of life any time soon. The question is whether we can get back to something at least “relatively egalitarian,” and whether music will help us get there, or—unconscionably and unbelievably—prevent us from doing so.