S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. I’m Stephen Metcalf, and this is the Slate Culture Gabfest Dancing Queen edition, it’s Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021. On today’s show, last night in Soho is the latest from filmmaker Edgar Wright, the British filmmaker. It’s about a country lass who at night in her wildly vivid dreams, is transported back to London, swinging 60s. It stars Thomasin McKenzie and the late great Dame Diana Rigg, and then the original members of the Swedish pop group Abba. They’ve reunited after four silent decades. I mean, Abba’s everywhere thanks to Mamma Mia! But they haven’t produced new material in 40 years. We will discuss their legacy in their new record. And finally, rock and roll was supposed to be a gigantic double middles to the self-righteousness of the adult world. Why on earth does it have a Hall of Fame? I’ve already told you what I think will be joined by Chris Molanphy he of Slate to discuss. First, though, joining me is Carl Wilson Carl. This is your first time as a fill in for all three segments. Co-host Welcome.
S2: Thanks so much, Steve.
S1: Carl, of course, is the music critic for Slate, but he’s also the author of Look, I think it just is legitimately a classic of pop culture criticism. Let’s talk about love, the remarkable book that began as a 33 and a third about Celine Dion, but was just such a perceptive discourses on taste, formation and popular culture that it’s become. It’s kind of own phenomenon. Anyway, a great book if you haven’t read it. And of course, we’re joined by Dana Stevens, the film critic for Slate, whose great book is forthcoming. Like mine?
S3: Hello, Steve. Good to be here, Sally.
S1: Everyone ready. Everyone good.
S2: Let’s do it.
S1: Let’s do it. Last night in Soho, it comes to us via the writer director Edgar Wright Dana, known for
S3: Oh, Shaun of the Dead Hot Fuzz Worlds. And I mean, everybody knows Edgar Wright. He is the great Spooner, I would say of directors of his generation. The auteur of parody.
S1: Exactly that. Baby Driver is another one that comes to mind.
S3: Baby Driver is his biggest hit. That’s the first one I should have said, but it’s my least favorite of his movies. So yeah, my mind.
S1: This one stars Thomasin McKenzie as Eloise. She’s simple. We’re meant to take her as this. She’s not simple, but at first we’re meant to take her as a simple English country lass. She’s obsessed with the music, the look, the fizz, the feel of 60s London. She’s also descended from seamstresses, and at the beginning of the film, she’s admitted to fashion school. In her Valhalla. She moved to London only to discover it’s a viper’s pit of strivers and under minors, but also something more unsettling begins to happen to her. At night in her bed sit, she falls asleep in dreams. She’s back in 60s London at first. Of course, this is total heaven for her, and for us, it’s an amazing visual feast. In her dreams, she’s transformed into sandy and elegant, sexy, cocky, gifted young woman, a head turner and a singer and a dancer. But pretty soon, Sandy’s existence turns into a nightmare of sexual exploitation. From there, deeper into this nocturnal diurnal mystery. Louise begins to wonder who this woman is, whose life she’s been inhabiting at night, and what foul and did she come to? In addition to Thomasin McKenzie, the movie stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandy. You’ll know her from Queen’s Gambit, Sandy, her nighttime double and and Dame Diana Rigg, a fly in my all time biggest TV crush, Emma Peel Dana. Before we listen to the clip, will you set it up for us?
S3: Sure, you’re going to hear hear the voices of Anya Taylor-Joy playing the double of Thomasin McKenzie and her dream world, and Matt Smith, who plays Jack, the man who starts out as her boyfriend and becomes something more sinister afterward. Hello, there!
S4: The bartender said I should get to know the handsome fella standing next to Cilla Black can should and you are the next set of black. Oh, you know, we know she started out as a coach, a girl. You went to work your way off course, a project between Sandy and love of Vesper James. We love Vesper he. So what do you think, Sandy and I sing? Of course. As you don’t seem to have a demonstration.
S1: All right, Dan, I’ll turn to you. I very often I don’t read your reviews because I want to hear your opinion fresh and respond to it fresh. I did glimpse, though this time I had a little foretaste. It is a beautiful review, as always, but it’s really, really perceptive about the various flavors and ingredients that went into the blender to make this movie talk a little bit about about the flick.
S3: Yeah, well, thank you on the review. I mean, I love writing about Edgar Wright because he always gives you a lot to talk about. This is maybe not his best movie, but I feel like I’m. I was very excited by the fact that he was trying something new, and I really loved this movie in spite of its. We can talk about this in spite of its third act problems, which it definitely has. It could have used another, you know, round of polish on some of the plot was toward the end because it gets so heavy with red herrings that the the suspense kind of gets lost. But the style of this movie is really it’s hard for it to get across in an audio clip. Exactly. But specifically in that portion of the movie that we heard a clip from, which is, you know, the middle chapter, you might think of it as the moment that the doppelganger relationship between these two women is being established. The movie just looks and sounds so fantastic and does so many daring, interesting things with sound and with the camera that we can, we can maybe get into. But the way that the devil ness is sort of gotten across only through camera movement, camera positioning, production design, right? There’s not any sort of expositional moment where we figure out, Well, is it supernatural? Is Thomasin McKenzie’s character mentally ill? As is implied toward the beginning, she, you know, may be very emotionally fragile for various reasons. Is this really happening? Is it happening in, you know, some sort of alternate reality? I love that the movie doesn’t sit down and posit these things, but instead just kind of dazzlingly draws us into this world and makes it feel like it’s happening to us. And the idea, as you said, Steve, that what starts out as this very happy, fantastical dream while I’m in my dream era, right? And the movie marquees have all the movies of 1966, the year I wished I lived in and how that, you know, very steadily devolves into this sort of nightmare, I think actually makes it a kind of a. nostalgia piece in a way that’s really interesting. And also with it, it’s about women. That’s the last thing I have to say about it is that I’m very impressed that Edgar Wright, who I’ve always loved but who’s just always been, you know, he’s he’s a guy’s guy. He has two of his best friends, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, that have appeared in almost all of his movies. Right. He tends to have male protagonists. There tend to be pub crawls with packs of lads. And this movie really issues all of that and is all about this kind of psychological thriller doubling between two young women. And it’s just such an interesting road for him to go down at this point in his career.
S1: Yeah. Carl. This movie is really a double rebuke, and it’s quite powerful, and both of those scores, it is both a rebuke to nostalgia, you know, really kind of perilously delivered, in my estimation, but it’s also a rebuke to a lad centric worldview and laddie movies. I mean, it really is. It’s really presented as something of a feminist parable. How did it work for you?
S2: Yeah, and very tired. And it’s hard to talk about the ways that I’m torn without spoiling anything. But I would say that, you know, one of the things that works really beautifully about it is that for a movie that kind of hinges on a dream world from the protagonist, you know, it really achieves bringing you into that dream and the dream becoming a nightmare. And visually, as Dana was saying, and sonically, it’s really enveloping and and. Achieves something that I think is really difficult, which is in bouncing back and forth between it, it’s sort of an historical frame in the dream world, in the present frame. In the now, that can often be really clumsy, and I felt those transitions were really we’re really strong. But as much as it succeeds at being a rebuke to nostalgia and telling us a feminist story around that nostalgia, it ends up going so far in in in its attempt to hammer those lessons home to us that I think it ends up with the opposite problem and we can talk about this, that it ends up being kind of smug about the past and imagining that the past is a place full of regressive bad things compared to the great present when feminism has triumphed. And and that ends up being the thing, along with sort of pacing problems and plotting problems that I felt like got very clumsy in the second half of the movie, the way that it tries to hammer home its lesson about the bad old days that are, you know, overly Gaza fighting and romanticized today. It ends up drawing a strict line that in some ways makes it too simplistic about the past, and that’s something I felt disappointed by.
S1: Yeah, I mean, it’s such an odd thing that it could be both so schematic in one sense, as an attempted parable about, you know, a unapologetically patriarchal kind of mobbed up and patriarchal Arkle past of the London of the 60s, this forgotten part of all of the things that we still see and can consume the music, the spectacle, the fashion behind which were, you know, a lot of a lot of very powerful older white men exploiting younger, vulnerable women, often from the provinces. Right? Totally fine with that, by the way, and necessary corrective, maybe to a certain degree of nostalgia with how oddly incoherent the film becomes, especially towards the end where the pieces of the parable parable get scrambled, but not in an interesting or nuanced way. But because it seemed to me that the screenwriters, one of whom is Edgar Wright, lost a little bit of control of the material, couldn’t make its various pieces resolve into one another. Things about this movie. I absolutely loved the performances of both women. It’s important that Sandy be completely captivating at night that the Thomasin be. A curious mix of rural simplicity and a kind of intelligence that will find its way to the surface and the mean girl clique formation that happens around her and excludes her and makes her the butt of jokes is very, very economically and well portrayed Italians emotionally. You hate those mean girls you really love and root for her. That’s important. I found it painful, and maybe this is a measure of the movie’s success. That is that as the nighttime world begins to invade her daytime world, the specter of mental illness gets raised and very consciously by the movie because we find out that that her mother struggled quite badly with mental illness. And so we are made to believe through expert filmmaking technique, we’re made to see that that the Thompson is experiencing, that Louise is experiencing very intensely these vivid daytime hallucinations that we in some sense. As the people rooting for her believe or want to believe her real as her behavior presents to the people around her, including the mean girls as psychosis, I found that incredibly painful. At that point, the movie began to make me squirm. Though I’m sure that’s the intention of the filmmaker, that’s where a lot of the drama comes from. But but it’s in the third act that it really falls apart, and a lot of my goodwill for the movie got lost Dana because I don’t even think really, what was strong and important maybe about the feminist parable stays intact very well as you get these twists. What felt like a kind of didactic purpose for better and for worse earlier in the movie just gets hopelessly thrown out of all kinds of whack. And it I had a hard time staying emotionally connected to the material because of a
S3: yeah, I would agree, and I think I say some of that in my review. It’s really hard for a movie to pull off all the things that this movie is trying to pull off, right? I mean, it’s pastiche doing various film styles. It’s, you know, incorporating all these needle drops. It has incredible clothes and sort of 60s fashion, but it also is trying to accomplish this parable about sexism, about sexual exploitation in the modern day. In the olden days, I actually disagree with Carl that it does what I think of as the Mad Men thing, you know of snidely looking back on the past, and that
S2: was the comparison I was going to raise.
S3: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I haven’t even watched Mad Men, but I know from, you know, Slate’s obsessive coverage of it at the time, a great deal about it. And I know that that is one of the critiques of Mad Men’s kind of historiography, right? The lens is that it has on history. And I mean, we couldn’t talk about it at Carl without spoiling it. So we have to have a separate off Mike conversation, but I didn’t see that particular dynamic going on in this movie’s relationship to the past. I do agree, though, that in terms of just the simple plot, the last 10 to 20 minutes of the movie almost sacrifice since on the altar of, you know, mounting suspense, which actually gets less suspenseful because I won’t reveal what it is, but the sort of scariest image of her nightmare world of Louise’s nightmare world get seen so many times toward the end of the movie, and it sort of loses its scariness. Yeah, precisely. There could have been some, some trimming of the end and possibly the big rug pulling twist. Although I see the satisfaction in writing that twist on the page maybe should have been rethought as as far as how it works via the the parable. I think I agree with all of that. And yet this is a movie I’m willing to to cut a lot of slack because it’s wildly original. It’s tons of fun to watch. It’s scary in parts. It’s, you know, extremely pleasurable in other parts, and it just takes a really creative filmmaker down a new path. And so for that reason, I think I was I was willing to cut out a pretty big exception for the fact that, yes, the ending falls apart a bit, as will happen when you over plot your thriller.
S1: Mm hmm. Yes, I did beautifully, said Dana Carl. We’re out of time, but I have to turn to you before we go about the music. I mean, as you point out, this is not a soundtrack filled with cream. And you know that Clapton Band or, you know, a lot of the later 60s rock and roll that we come to associate with London. It’s really the Petula Clark Sixties. Maybe just talk a little bit about that.
S2: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the things that I think is is wonderful about it. In fact, I’m with Dana that despite all of the holes that I could poke in it, I still would hardly recommend people see it. And partly, it’s for recovery of that, especially British nightclub 60s that precedes all of the kind of Carnaby Street and hippies swinging London and images. And you know, there’s one of the first needle drops is Cilla Black singing You Are My World and Cilla Black is actually sort of briefly, an on screen character.
S4: You’re my world, your every breath I take. You’re my world, your every move I made.
S2: Other people like Cilla Black and Shirley Bassey and Sandie Shaw, who I think probably partly inspired the name of the Anya Taylor-Joy character, are all brought back. And this is the music. You know that in the actual Beatles era in the in the rise of the Beatles was the music that that led that Britain was actually listening to. And to a large extent, you know, in its kind of rat pack equivalents and all of that that America was listening to. The one criticism I would make of the music in this movie is that strangely, when we’re in the present day, with the exception of one or two tracks, we never actually hear any modern music, which I guess is an attempt not to break the spell of that of that swoony old music. But it kind of is a I wish that contrast was there. And you know, there was there’s a point where there’s a Halloween party and the kids are also listening to 60s music at the Halloween party. And why is this happening? I, it would be nice to actually have that back and forth between if the kids were listening to hip hop and techno and things that they would be listening to in that scene. And it might actually highlight that the specialness of the early music a little more.
S1: Mm hmm. Fair point. The movie is last night in Soho. It’s in theaters only for now. One day it’ll be streaming. If you’ve seen it, we’d love to hear what you thought of it and where you come out. These you the panel’s opinions. OK, moving on. OK, before we go any further, this is typically where we talk business Dana, what do we have?
S3: Stephen our item of business this week is just to tell you that today’s Slate Plus topic is going to be musical as well as the whole show has been since we have Carl Wilson on the show. As our third host this week, we thought we would stick with music for Slate Plus and this was my suggestion, in part because I’m curious what Stephen Carl have to say about this individually. But I also think it’s a broadly more interesting topic is what music do you listen to while you’re doing work, if any, at all? All of us spend our days at the computer typing away to some box or other, and I’m curious to know while doing so. Do you want to hear silence around you? Do you want to hear white noise? Do you want to hear music kind of music, have vocals and other such questions? So we will talk about that in our Slate Plus segment at the end of the show. If you are not a Slate Plus member and you want to hear bonus content like the segment I just described, you can sign up today at Slate.com. Slash culture plus signing up costs $1 for your first month, and for that dollar, you get many, many things ad free podcasts, bonus content like the Slate Plus segment I just described. And also members only programming on other slate shows like Slow Burn and the Political Gabfest. And also, of course, you will get unlimited access to all of the great writing on Slate.com. You’ll never hit a paywall once you join Slate Plus, and I should also mention that in doing so, you’re supporting our work and the work of all of our brilliant colleagues. These memberships are really important to keep the magazine going, so please sign up today at Slate.com. Slash Culture Plus again at Slate.com slash culture plus. OK, Steve, what’s next?
S1: All right, well, all four original members of the legendary Swedish pop band Abba have reunited to make their first record in about 40 years. Back in the 1970s, they were a hit making machine they put Sweden on on the pop music map. They were known then for their swooping melodies, their tight harmonies and beautiful production values. They had synthy strings and stringy synths, and, of course, known for the 1999 jukebox musical Mamma Mia, which presented their music to a new generation. It was a hit on Broadway. It was a hit in the movie adaptation. In addition, you know, they were a somewhat under-appreciated fact. They were technology and marketing pioneers in addition to using a lot of synths synthesizers. They also made the first CD, released the first CD. As I understand it, they made promotional mini films, and their upcoming tour will feature not their subterranean Aryan selves, but hologram and recreations of the younger selves circa 1979. The new record is called Voyage. It has 10 tracks we previewed at Carl. Your wheelhouse is a place I love being. I mentioned the Celine Dion book up top. Not only are you a. Great, unsubtle critical about the aesthetic experience of listening to music, but about the social significance of who listens to it, who loves it, who promotes it, and ABBA is such a great test case here because back when they were selling their records in the 70s, rock snobs, me included, hated them. Right. So Robert Christgau, the Great Village Voice, a rock critic music critic, said, We have met the enemy and they are them about Abba. And I would say the taste, as has done a 180 since then. I mean, rock snobbery now is in properly and total disrepute or almost total disrepute, and ABBA are considered truly great pioneers, craftspeople and just just great music, right? Certainly. I think of them talk a little bit about that.
S2: Yeah, I mean, I think that one of the interesting things about Abba is that to some extent, the English speaking world and especially America are is really the only place that ever resisted them. And and in the beginning, even American critics were very on side with them until they kind of reached their commercial peak in the disco era. And then it became fashionable to hate them. But that didn’t even last very long compared to a lot of rock snobbery, as you know, by by the late 90s, at least, and probably before that. You know, I think the Gen-X bands, you know, famously Nirvana were huge ABBA fans and counted them as an influence. And I think a lot of indie rock in the 90s also also recognized the kind of incredible tune craft of Abba and their Billy, and especially their the recording prowess to, you know, they they were real after that, after the Beatles. They are arguably the sort of greatest users of the studio as an instrument in the 70s and did all kinds of subtle things from kind of re adapting and the Phil Spector kind of wall of sound techniques to a new set of sounds too, doing like strange overdubbing and and very speed recordings so that they would like speed record vocals at a different speed than than they would play them on on the tracks in the end in order to get particular effects. So all of that, I think, gradually became recognized after that particular sort of disco backlash ended. And I would say that, you know, we look we look at what happened in the late 90s to today when sort of Swedish studio masters, you know, Max Martin, being the most premier of them, became huge players in in the in the pop music world in England, kind of every level from Britney Spears through to Robin through to people like Carly Rae Jepsen and Jessie Ware today, that’s all that those are all the children at up, you know? So it’s really it’s really difficult to and say how huge they are and how much more they are than just kind of a pleasurable kitsch fest, the way that we experience it in the Mamma Mia movies and that kind of thing.
S1: Carl uses the word irresistible. It’s just exactly right. How do you resist Abba Dana? I know you’ve never even tried.
S3: Yeah, well, it’s funny that Carl sort of dismissively. Or maybe it wasn’t dismissively, but, you know, quickly tossed off the words Mamma mia at the end, because there is, I can guarantee, because I live with one a whole generation of people to whom the jukebox musical Mamma Mia! Right first to Broadway smash went all over the world, produced in every country. Then it became two movies that that’s how they know Abba. And they love Abba. I mean, I’ve been to parties where teenagers are, you know, thrilled to be dancing to Abba, like 40 years after this music was made. And even when you listen to, as we have in a few of these advanced tracks, you know, it’s not like I was trying to reinvent themselves for the 21st century. They don’t sound like throwbacks, either. They just sound like Abba, who was always sort of outside of time and in indestructible and sort of not not part of any trend or tradition in that way. And in fact, in respect to that, I actually brought in a quote that I wanted to read from from A.O. Scott’s review. One of my favorite movie critics for The Times of Mamma Mia! Back in 2008, and this is always stuck in my mind when I think about getting Abba earworms, which you know, has happened to all of us in our lives, right? And he writes about exactly that experience as follows. He says, Like me, you may have spent the last 30 years struggling to get lines like those out of your head. He just quoted some Abba lyrics and wondering what they were doing there in the first place. But you might as well have been trying to composed Styrofoam. Those shimmery layered arrangements, those lyrics in a language uncannily like English. The symmetrical Nordic voices. They all add up to something alarmingly permanent. A marshmallow monument on the cultural landscape. The idea of trying to forget Abba songs. Being like trying to compost Styrofoam is just one of my favorite analogies of all time. But I feel like listening to the new songs that you have that same sense like they are still turning out this irresistible marshmallow styrofoam that only resembles itself.
S1: All right, Carl, let’s we’ve heard the new songs. We’ve got 10 of them here. The total of the album Voyage of Voyage. What? What do you hear?
S2: There’s something lovely about it in a couple of levels. One is that certainly, you know, despite these people being in their 70s now, they’re still able to deliver a kind of musical force that’s impressive. The voices of Agnetha and and Frida are still pretty strong, although Agnetha Soprano doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric heights that it once did. And there’s also a poignancy, which is something I think we haven’t really talked about in other yeah, is that, you know, they’re from the land of long darkness and high suicide rates, and there’s always a melancholy that threads itself through either under the surface, especially in their best songs. And that’s here too. Know it starts off with a couple of songs. I still have faith in you, which is great. And when you dance with me, which is less great and kind of so Celtic. But they both sort of start on this kind of metal level of of acknowledging that it’s a reunion and coming back to my head hitting me.
S3: I believe it is in. I know I hear a bittersweet song. In the memories we share.
S5: I still have faith in you.
S2: And then there’s just amazing things that gradually happen, you know, in songs like I Can Be That Woman, which is about an alcoholic, codependent couple struggle struggling through whatever they’re going going through in this kind of country music mode.
S5: You look frail. As you stand before me. Then you comes.
S2: And keep cutting. A dog. And that’s followed by this amazing song called Keep an Eye on Dan, which I think is about single parenthood. You. And Bob will be following that, which is kind of a Fernando esque song, but that is actually about like the bumblebees, it’s the threatened nest of bees in the environment.
S5: He likes that line, like saying. I’ve. He’s just the time, if possible. And I wonder how he can. I know.
S2: So there’s all these kinds of funny, modern notes, but that are in keeping with, you know, this was a band that were two couples who got divorced during the during the lifespan of the band, and some of their greatest songs are about that and kind of Fleetwood Mac rumours way and all of those textures are still here. So it’s it’s I don’t think it’s going to, but again, give it a little time, but I don’t think it’s going to compete with with the greatest peaks of other history. But but it definitely holds its head up proudly in the tradition.
S3: Can we talk about the hologram concert idea and how you guys feel about that? I mean, this is the kind of thing that, for example, when the Michael Jackson one was mounted in Vegas, which apparently the members of Abba traveled to see to think about, you know, what not to do in their own hologram concert, it seemed like a very creepy thing to do. I mean, obviously, it makes a big difference whether the person is alive to authorize it or not. Also, Michael Jackson has his own obviously tricky history there, but there’s something that seems kind of wholesome and nice to me about the idea of young Abba bots abattoirs as they’re calling them. I’m not sure I would pay money to go and see that, but I am certainly happy for people to go and enjoy that spectacle. I wonder whether you guys find that uncanny and strange or sort of wholesome and sweet or what?
S1: Only in the context of these new songs, which are about aging, middle aged, melancholy life gone either wrong or at a bare minimum, unexpectedly. You know, there is there’s like regret. There’s there’s, you know, but also kind of wisdom and acceptance that comes with being, you know, not not just middle aged, but but beyond that at this point, I would find it. I mean, obviously, the fan base is not connected with these songs the way they are with Dancing Queen and you know, the others and are unlikely to be by the time they go. See these these avatars. But but Carl still, I find that’s the discrepancy I find strange. I mean, I hope that in some format they reassemble as their current gracefully aged selves and play these songs about graceful aging. Just as a current contemporary band, there’s a lot of acoustic to me, sounding piano on enhanced piano, often at the beginning of a song before it goes into, you know, angelic synth, you know, choirs and on and on. You know, these songs sound to me, you know, occasionally a torchy quality to them that I don’t associate with ABBA. There’s there are ways in which it would be if nothing else, just like one. One such performance memorialized and streamed on Netflix or something would be, I think, would be kind of kind of great.
S2: I’m with you, Steve, but that’s never going to happen, according to the band. I mean, one of the things about Abba is that they’ve always been reluctant live performers. They did tours in the 70s, but always, always, very reluctantly and not nearly as much as a band as their size would. And and they are kind of militant about a that this is the last album and b that they’re not going to perform live outside of this holographic situation, which you know, apparently is going to be at a whole new level. Although one of the things I love is this this phrase appetisers is like so close to abattoir, and it’s so perfectly, so perfectly in the Abba tradition of getting the English slightly wrong. But yeah, and it’s only going to happen at this one theatre in London, like it’s a custom built theater, which is the only gig. The technology can’t tour, apparently in that kind of thing. So it’s a very odd project, which I’m sure will make a decent amount of money and some people will have a great time. But I think, yeah, with others not the place to look for for a live and live specialization. And I agree I would I would really rather they just made a beautiful movie like playing this song and some of their hits, and then we all got to watch that. But who knows? Perhaps you know, this will be a revelation, and it really could be a moment in in life technology history. It’s very post-pandemic. In some ways, people have been talking about the possibilities of non-live touring in these ways a lot more over the past couple of years. So. So it’ll be something to watch, but I don’t think it’s going to be where the heart of others story, it blows.
S3: One thing I will say in the coverage of this album is that it makes me respect who ABBA is as a band and how they relate to each other as people. I mean, as you say Carl, they are two former couples, right, who got divorced over the history of being a band and continue to make music. The songwriting team Bjorn oveI. Some Benny Andersson have been writing songs together without a break since 1966, the year I was born. That’s pretty incredible. So this isn’t a sort of behind the music story where, you know, there was a a bitter behind the scenes breakup and now they’re reluctantly getting back together. I think that they really don’t want to do this worldwide tour just because they’re in their 70s. They’re enjoying their lives. You know, they’re happy to make some more music together, but they don’t feel the need to sort of revive their youthful glory. They’re letting the avatars avatars do it for them, and I respect that.
S1: All right. Well, the forthcoming album is Voyage. I think it drops soon after the show does. Check it out. Abba, I mean, you know, come on. If you go, you got to love Abba. But if you don’t, I’d love to hear. Get an email from you and here. Why? But anyway, all right. Very good. Let’s let’s move on. OK, well, one thing you might argue that rock and roll does not need as a Hall of Fame, but however much it was created by an Souza and fuckups, it’s been consumed, at least in its early iteration, overwhelmingly by baby boomers. And it’s inevitable that they would, as with everything else, consecrate their own sense of their own destiny as the world’s very first and only as anti-establishment Aryan isms, in their estimation, with absurd levels of self seriousness and pomp. And so the least ceremonious. I think art farm known to humankind now has the most self-regarding ceremony known to, of all things, sports culture. I mean, I just I can’t hide. I’ll just come out right now and say it. I cannot hide my bias here. I think the idea of a rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one big effing oxymoron, but not to tilt the playing field here too much in favor of of my hobby horses. We’re joined now by Chris Molanphy, of course, the host of the Hit Parade podcast and the author of the Why Is This Song Number One column and resident billboard ologist chart ologist. Chris, welcome back to the show.
S6: Thank you, Steve. Good to be here, Chris.
S1: I have so prejudiced this discussion already with my weird, you know, zero fever dream preoccupations. Bring us back to reality. Bring us back to Saturday and tell me, tell me what you think of the concept itself, and then we can talk about the latest inductees and, you know, the principles on which some people are and some people are out. All the all the obvious stuff. But just first, what do you think of it as an institution?
S6: Well, OK. So if you’re in the tank against it, I suppose I’m in the tank for it only insofar as I am a rock hall voter. I I have been a voter
S3: for the last. The man,
S6: I’m the man. And the reason I’m a voter, the reason I am the man in this instance is because I used to cover the rock hall for NPR Music in the early to mid 10s, and I wrote about it enough and expressed enough opinions about it that eventually I got called by the organizers who said, All right, smart guy, you think you know a lot about the hall? We’re going to give you a ballot and then you see how hard it is to pick five out of this list of 18 or 19 artists every year. And they’re right. It’s really hard. I’m also of the opinion. I wrote this in one of my NPR pieces that, you know, the rock hall was probably inevitable, and as long as it’s going to exist, we might as well pressure them to get it right. I do also find I don’t I’m not accusing you of this, Steve, because you have not said anything to this effect, but that many of the people who complain loudest about the existence of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will also tell you. And it’s ridiculous that such and such artists is not in it. And very quickly they descend into debating the actual points of the rock hall, which means, well, you clearly do care. And it’s surprising how many people do in fact care. And the real reason they don’t want it to exist is they just don’t like the way it defines rock, which is frankly the real problem is the definitional problem. And I would say that it is the original sin of the rock hall. It’s baked into the birth of the Rock Hall, which was birthed back in the 1980s. And as you know, some of the organizers, including Rolling Stone, former Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, have admitted it was easier in the early days to get consensus on who the rock stars were. And as we’ve gotten deeper into the later years, you know, the way it works is that artists become eligible 25 years after the release of their first recording. And so we’re now up to the 90s, and it’s getting a lot harder for people to agree about what rock and roll is up to and including the inclusion of everything from dance pop to hip hop to, you name it.
S2: I mean, one of the things that that I think at this point is fundamentally clear about the Rock Hall is that it should never have been called that if it were called the popular Music Hall of Fame, things would be a lot more straightforward at this point. But but it started out of this, you know, and in the mid 80s, very kind of hidebound in rock is Rolling Stone aesthetic. And although the people who organize it have done a lot to try and move away from that, the institution kind of gets dragged unwillingly behind and it’s taken a long time for them to be able to correct for that. And one of the things you know, Chris could get into this a little more deeply, too. Well, one of the things I think, you know, I’m I’m a very ambivalent person about the rock on one hand, and I feel that it’s good that there is an institution that is centered around the history of popular music that, you know, as as an appreciator and to some degree, myself, a historian of popular music. I can’t. Say that it’s that it’s a bad thing to have an institution that popularized that and makes an event out of it every year. But at the same time, the structure of like having these nominees every year, whittling them down to five or whatever the number is, you know, the organizers because the five are always so contentious every year now have created kind of wiggle categories like early influences and and musical excellence and things that they can like shove some extra people in every year that the the voting structure, which is not that different than the Grammys in some ways, if there there’s a selection committee and then there is a vote among a larger constituency that includes people like Chris, but also includes all of the former inductees and includes a bunch of music industry people. There’s a big vote every year and has as much better as the selection committee seems to get year after year and nominating more people of color, more women. You know, at this point, it’s almost the gender imbalances, probably in some ways worse than the racial imbalance in the rock hall. They they try to improve on that. But the popular vote among these kind of grandfathered in industry people, much like in the Grammys, drags it back to a more hidebound idea and a more kind of like grandfatherly idea of of who should be in and who should be out. So it’s very frustrating year after year to see people who the selection committee knows and the critical community knows ought to be recognized over and over again, not getting recognized. And so I have a hard time getting into these debates every year because the artificial ness of the structure makes it feel like it’s the wrong approach to history. And you know, I feel this about a lot of awards that actually have more elitist voting structure might be a better way to go because there could be some more control and thoughtfulness about actually how to develop the institution. And so I find it very frustrating, and I’m I’m kind of glad I’m not a voter, so I don’t have to feel any personal stake in this. But I also think that your stance, Steve, about the like, oh, rock and roll is iconoclastic and should never be honored by a museum. It’s like, that’s ridiculous is the 60 year long genre. At this point, it doesn’t actually have the claim to be like kicking over trash cans behind the Salt Cap anymore. And that’s not. I don’t think that’s really how we should be judging it.
S1: I actually disagree with that very firmly. I think that first of all, first of all, just I think the idea of of of artistry being consecrated or the history of a former genre being told via a like museum like institution or a hall while a Hall of Fame like institution a little bit silly. I just don’t. I see that as like just the fish out of water situation. But rock and roll rock n roll is a specific genre. It goes roughly from Elvis. I understand it precedes Elvis in important ways, up through roughly nirvana, even though I understand people. Since Nirvana have made rock and roll records, it’s overwhelmingly made by young white men with guitars. It’s not the same thing as popular music. It’s not the same thing as pop music. It’s not even the same thing as pop music since Elvis or roughly the 1950s. But it was a specific genre and up through nirvana, a important element of an element of it. And it might have been pretense and it might have been racialist, and it might have been bullshit, and it might have been a marketing ploy was a certain kind of fuck you attitude to the world view of the adult, you know? And I think that that’s so pervasive in the form to claim that that’s like, you know, you know, just not at all. Like part of it’s a sort of a central identity to me is just I just have to disagree with that. I mean, but anyway, Dana, it’s your turn to chime in and put us in our places.
S3: I mean, I’m just thinking that this reminds me so much of the conversations about Oscars and movies awards every year. And that really what you’re saying, Steve, is it’s not so much. Even as Carl was saying, if the name of this institution was changed from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to some other broader musical term that was more inclusive, as it would be named now if such an institute institution were founded right in the present day, then then you might not be having those definitional battles about rock and roll, but you might still have that same resistance, Steve, that which I have to the Oscars as well of, you know, of institutionalizing, ranking and creating this sort of August pantheon for an art form that, you know, by its nature, should be should sort of escape those kind of. Classifications and categorization, so I don’t know, I see it as a as a bigger critique that you have of how do we how do we rate and reward and award our culture right without turning it into something that is hidebound and and by definition not diverse and shuts out new voices? But since we’re drilling down and getting specific, I wanted to read the names of the inductees in the performer category this year and just get, you know, anyone’s response to them. I mean, XML empties I’d be interested in because he’s so familiar with the history of this, this institution. But according at least to the press release from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this is the most diverse list of inductees in its history, and it looks like there’s six of them, not five in the performer category. I’ll just read them off. Tina Turner, who my lord, it took till 2021 to get Tina Turner in there. Tina Turner, I
S6: thought, hold that thought because there’s
S3: that. Very curious about that. So Tina Turner, Carole King, the Go-Go’s. So that’s three female acts to start off with Jay-Z, right? Hip Hop Act Foo Fighters. I guess you could call them rock and rollers. Todd Rundgren. Definitely rock and roll. So, you know, different genres are represented there. Different genders, races. But I wonder, let’s start with you, Chris. How hidebound is that list? How surprising is it? How exciting is it that it’s a diverse list? Or is that just PR for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
S6: They are right that this is very, possibly the most diverse list that’s ever been inducted, which is either awesome or ridiculous. When you consider that it took this long for, you know, the thing to be half women. It’s also a little ridiculous that the Go-Go’s, who have been eligible for this institution for over a decade, were only now put on the ballot and inducted this year, for example asterisks. We need to put them next to the names of Tina Turner and Carole King. Both of them have actually been in the Rock Hall for decades, in Tina’s case with Ike as the performers Ike and Tina Turner. And so there was a tremendous groundswell to induct Tina for her solo work. And frankly, you know, decouple her from her abusive ex-husband. And Carole King was in as a non performer with her former co-writing husband, Gerry Goffin for all of the Brill Building pop, they wrote in the 60s. She’s been in for decades, but there was another groundswell that, you know Carole King needs to be honored for her artistry for recording Tapestry, one of the greatest albums in history. So those are the nominees, and I would agree with you that, you know, certainly Jay-Z is part of the wave of rappers who have been inducted into the hall. They started doing that over a decade ago. Generally, you get in one or a year and they try to clear the field. However, this year and this speaks to what Carl was talking about before, about sneaking people in on other categories. The Musical Excellence Awards, which you didn’t read off it used to be the sideman category, but they’ve now changed the name of it. They changed it about, I don’t know, five years ago to just play musical excellence, and they’re sneaking in. L.L. Cool J, who had been on the ballot about a half dozen times and kept getting passed over. And I think they rationalized that L.L. being as formative to the history of hip hop as he is really, really needed to be in Billy Preston, who is both a performer and a sideman. And Randy Rhoads, the guitarist who worked with Ozzy Osborne, among other people. And then in the early influence award, yet another set of inductees. They included Kraftwerk, who were also on the ballot about five times, and they finally decided, Well, we need to get these guys in, but it’s hard to get, you know, electronic music pioneers elected the traditional way, so they snuck them in the side door. Gil Scott-Heron was put in his early influence and Charlie Patton was putting in his early influence. So and I would say only one of those, you know, qualifies for what we might consider the traditional definition of of early influence. Who was Charlie Patton? But, you know, now we’re expanding that definition as well. So it’s it’s a very diverse class, but you know, there’s all sorts of asterisks and chicanery behind who got picked and why, and it’s all explicable. But you know, it’s not going to improve anyone’s opinion, who is cynical about the process
S3: now that we’ve talked about it? I had never wanted to watch the ceremony before, but now I’m actually curious to see to see what happened. The ceremony is already taking place, but it’s going to be streaming on HBO Max starting on November 20th.
S6: Before I sign off, I’ll just say that if you want to go down the rabbit hole of both good and bad inductions, Bono’s induction of Bob Marley is sort of a douche chill inducing embarrassment that one or another one that’s legendary is Mike. Love talking shit about the Rolling Stones and The Beatles way back in 1988 when they got inducted. And he he was either drunk or just really mad, and there are some legendary ones or the more awkward Blondie getting inducted. And a couple of members of the band hadn’t been touring with the band for years. They were inducted because they were original members, and they were begging Debbie Harry and Chris Stein live at the podium. Please let us play with you tonight and they’re just standing there, stone faced. Like, Fuck you, you’re not playing with us tonight. Like they’re feuding live at the podium. If you want to go down. That rabbit hole, you really can have a field day, but I digress.
S1: All right, Chris, as always, man, just a total total pleasure. Love watching you knock it out of the park. Come back soon.
S6: My pleasure anytime, Steve.
S1: All right, well, now is the moment in the podcast when we endorsed Dana, what he got
S3: Stephen, I usually try to use endorsements to talk about something that is lighthearted and fun. I don’t like to bring something super heavy into this part of the show, especially if we’ve talked about something heavier earlier on. But the fact is that I have been obsessed for the past week, ever since it happened two weeks. I’m not sure how long it is now with this shooting on the set of the Alec Baldwin movie. I know we talked about it as a topic, but more revelations keep coming out about it every day. It’s really disturbing. It points to so many bigger problems, even bigger than, you know, gun safety problems, just about labor relations and all the things that we talked about in that segment. And so I just wanted to point out a couple of things. First of all, and if Julia Turner is listening to us in absentia, I hope this will make you feel good. The L.A. Times is doing an incredible job covering this story. They have lots of people on it from lots of different angles and, you know, new stuff is coming out about it each day just recently, and this is my more specific endorsement. There was a really long reported ticktalk story, right? One of these stories that just chronologically recounts all the events of, you know, the entire day of whatever the event in question is. And so there’s this really long story reported by three different reporters interviewing, I think, 14 different crew members. It’s called the day Alec Baldwin shot Halyna Hutchins and Joel Souza. It’s really, really chilling because, you know you’re reading about multiple dysfunction from all sides of this production. It’s not like one person did a slovenly job. It’s like many, many people did a slovenly job. Other people were not up on what other people were doing. You know, it’s still not exactly clear how this happened. But if you’re at all disturbed by this story interested in reading how it’s developing, I really recommend this piece. And just in general, going to the L.A. Times every day to see what they have to say about it. Hmm.
S1: You’re here. Carl, what do you have?
S2: And since I rarely get a chance to endorse, I’m going to indulge myself and do two quick endorsements. One is another segment that we consider doing a comeback of a of a more recent vintage Billy Bragg, the great 80s punk folk singer, and put out his most recent album. And in the past week called The Million Things That Never Happened, and it’s apparently a very sort of middle aged reflection on aging and isolation and change, very subtly talking about those things simultaneously with the kind of feelings of loneliness and separation through the pandemic. And there’s a nice, kind of mid-tempo, reflective feel through a lot. But the other side of it, as as an activist and a person of the left, is Billy in his 60s, reflecting on younger generations, challenging him ideologically and trying to adapt and not let his ideas calcified. There’s a song called Mid-century Modern, where he talks about the line below, and it’s the kids that pull the statues down challenged me to see the gap between the man I am
S5: and the man I want to be. But the kids that for. They challenge me to see. The gap between my. I am on my. A long.
S2: It’s exciting to listen to somebody, try and grapple with things that way when they, you know, in some ways, really don’t have to. And so it’s not, you know, it’s not the exciting, funny, provocative Billy of of 30 years ago, but I do highly recommend it. And the other one I want to recommend is coming out of our discussion of the Rock Hall is the new book by Kelefa Sanneh of The New Yorker and formerly a New York Times music critic called Major Labels a history of popular music in seven genres from Penguin Press and. It’s a really fascinating look at, you know, we were sort of talking about the raucous and hidebound attitudes that the Rock Hall can reflect and Kelefa in the in the 2000s wrote that the great central piece on rock ism in the New York Times. And in some ways, this book is wholly a response to that idea. It’s about different genres, and it’s kind of a pushback against the tendency among music critics and historians to lionize hybrids and crossover and people kind of blending and overstepping boundaries. And it’s a celebration of what happens when you stay in the tradition. You know, the value of doing just dance music, the value of doing just R&B, the value of doing just country. And it’s a kind of it has the kind of scope that that’s unfashionable. I think in arts writing right now, it really does try to be a history of pop music since the 60s, but it also tries to start this argument about and about what we might overlook about what’s worthwhile about staying in the tradition, about speaking to a community and specifically to that community. And yeah, it’s it’s a book I really highly recommend everybody will have things they want to pick fights with about it, and that’s a great thing in a in a pop history.
S1: Oh, that sounds great. OK, I dropped the ball was hosted around the table favorite Abba song Dana.
S3: I mean, I think the one that just came to mind, but it’s just purely because of Cher’s performance of it in the second Mamma Mia! Movie is Fernando. But I mean, they’re all just equally delicious marshmallows, styrofoam bits. Don’t ask me to choose Carl.
S2: Yeah, it is difficult to choose, but you know, in keeping with my miserable brand, I think I have to choose the winner takes it all as the as the great melancholy song and the indelible one
S3: that is the ultimate brush in the mirror belter, right? That one?
S2: Yes, exactly.
S1: Mine is the condensation of all the rave drugs I’ve never taken in, all the euphoria I’ve never felt. It’s the song Knowing Me, Knowing You, which just has that wonderful kind of, you know, angelic take off on the chorus, and I want to endorse the improbable Marshall Crenshaw cover of it.
S5: No, Amy. There’s nothing we can do knowing. He just happened to visit this town. We. Breaking up,
S1: I mean, I think the song is a magnificent achievement in itself. It didn’t need a snide hipster, you know, you know, pseudo rockabilly hipster covering it. But but it did get that and it got to be beautiful such cover. It’s a live version, by the way, you know, launched in the 80s singer-songwriter, slightly retro singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw. There’s just beautiful, precise kind of sort of rockabilly guitar work on it. It’s a great cover. You should check it out. And then also, yet another Swedish indie band has come my way, come to my attention lately. The amazing I don’t know, Carl. If you ever listen to the amazing I, I really love what they’re doing.
S5: He always carried. Strangest things I’ve ever seen. And tried to bury. I had no.
S2: Things he knew.
S1: I don’t know, it just gives me that. You know, it’s the opposite of of all the rave drugs I never did, it’s it’s all the, you know, like bourbon and loneliness I’ve ever felt, you know, or something, I don’t know. It’s like, it’s just I just I love it. It is like, you know, it is definitely got that Swedish. You know, dusk comes it at 2pm and the sun rises. Never, you know, I mean, it’s just it just has that perma dusk, you know, Nordic feeling to it. But but extracting joy from it nonetheless. Love it. It’s it’s just really it’s really good stuff. Carl, as anticipated, this was great. This was a really nice show, thank you for coming on and filling in.
S2: Thank you so much for having me
S1: and Dana, as always, just a total pleasure. What a great set of topics to hear you speak to Edgar Wright above.
S3: Yeah, it was a very musical week. We didn’t intend it that way, but it was sort of music edition and it was great. Yeah.
S1: All right. You’ll find links to some of the things we talked about today at our show page. That’s Slate.com slash Culturefest and you can email us at Culturefest at Slate.com. Our producer is Cameron Dru’s, our production assistant is Nadira Goff. And of course, the interim music to the show. Up top is from the wonderful film score composer, composer composer Nick Patel for Carl Wilson and Dana Stevens Amy Stephen Metcalf. Thank you so much for joining us. We will see you soon.
S3: Hello, and welcome to this light plus segment of the slate culture gabfest, today’s topic was suggested by me. It’s a musical topic, sort of in keeping with a lot of what we talked about this week and it’s about what music you listen to when you’re working. I think this can depend on a lot of things. What you mean by working, you know what sort of mood you’re in, what you’re trying to motivate yourself to do. I know I have a lot of answers for it. I would have to do a flowchart to really explain what sounds I put on or don’t put on in the background while working. But I will start with you, Carl, since you’re our guest host and our music person of the week. Are you somebody who puts on music when you’re trying to write and or reads and emails other productive things during the day? And if so, what?
S2: Yeah, I do put background music on and partly because it helps me to not distract myself with different tasks in other screens. Well, I’m trying to get something done, but there’s sort of two categories. One is the lucky one that because I write about music, mostly often the music that I’m writing about is the background music to what I’m doing. So after I’ve given something a thorough listen many times and I’m ready to begin writing about it. I find that it’s it works fine for me to just keep the album playing sort of on a loop in the background and keeps me kind of in the mood and the and the mode of the of the artist. So that’s that’s the simpler one. But when I’m writing other things that aren’t particularly about one album or one artist, my big bugaboo is that I cannot listen to things that have lyrics in English while I’m writing. And so it’s either instrumental music or music in a foreign language that I don’t speak works. So sometimes often Brazilian music works well for me. And, you know, sort of the mellow vibes of a lot of a lot of 70s, particularly Brazilian music. And the other thing and this applies, particularly when I’m doing real heavy lifting work, writing a long essay or or book oriented things is minimalist music. I have a I have a playlist on my Spotify called marimbas and mallets, which is pretty much centered around Steve Reich music. And then anything that sort of sounds Steve Reich and I find that that music because it’s, you know, it’s often referred to as an alternative to minimalism as process music, because often it’s about setting up patterns and letting those patterns kind of deconstruct and reconstruct themselves. And very often, I feel like that music is kind of the music of thinking. To me, it feels the most like the way the circuits of the brain work. And so definitely when I’m really trying to concentrate, that’s my go to.
S3: How the music of thinking, I just wrote down that phrase, because that is exactly what I’m always in search of when listening and writing to, but first used, what is your music of thinking or is there nothing?
S1: I would say it’s more for me. The music of housekeeping, the music of chopping scallions, you know, the music of, you know, I don’t know. There’s like a Sunday afternoon where, like the afternoon takes what feels like two days to die fully, you know, kind of music. And it’s seasonal. I mean, there’s all kinds of things to me, the questions a slightly different one, which is, you know, I’ll never forget a new musician one time who’s been a professional musician on and off, not totally on notable. And he once said emphatically, when I was young and impressionable and I just was so receptive to anyone who seemed to know what they were talking about and and had a categorical, like kind of unyielding opinion about something. I was it. I was like, I was like molten wax wax, right? And this opinion just sort of shaped me in some way what he really believed. There was something almost immoral about music being background music that when you play music, you should listen to music plays and put music on a stereo or whatever. And and having it be an accompaniment to another activity was just terrible. And over time, I’ve come to almost completely disagree with this. I mean, music is sort of ours to consume as we wish to never sit and give it a kind of meditative attention, I think would be wrong. But but to programmatically say that you can’t somehow have it be, you know, your evening garlic shopping ritual to put on, you know, Billie Holiday or, I don’t know, Bill Evans, I don’t know, fill in the blank. It’s just it’s news to silly. Obviously, there could be a reverential respect for what certain musicians did and sacrificed in order to do it without. But it took me a while to get there. As in terms of thinking for me, Carl, it’s the opposite. I love the idea that you’re thinking is is iterative and and almost has this, you know, you know, established pattern and theme and then vary and make it subtle while also kind of deepening it through repetition. That’s marvellous. I mean, mine is more kind of I mean, I’m just looking at this gigantic playlist I assembled called a winged victory for the Sullen, which is a the name of instrumental group that I really like and their music like. Here’s the title of the first song on the whole playlist as we played some open chords Requiem for a static king. It’s a very minuet for a piano. It’s it’s it’s got a kind of like kind of oceanic washes. You know, it’s very deeply atmospheric, moody and brooding music. I think, as opposed to like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, you know, patterned repetitive music. It’s it’s more kind of losing yourself in the heath and the fog and then trying to find your way back out, which probably says something about our respective writing habits, you know, or philosophical approaches. So I guess that’s kind of the big, you know, the big the big pattern is there’s just certain, you know, driving is such a huge part of my life and and having a child of mine put on their music and introducing me to it is such a big part of that ritual and finding overlaps. These, you know, funny, serendipitous overlaps between our tastes and me saying, Oh, that reminds me of this put on this. Listen to that. What do you think that kind of dialogue is so central to my life, my relationship with my kids? And this kind of, in some ways, wretchedly central activity of being imprisoned in a car for hours at a time. Dana What about you?
S3: I mean, just to clarify, though, Steve, so that means that you can sit and work when there are lyrics in English being sung, because that’s something that Carl said that I didn’t that I completely identify with. But you can do that.
S1: No, no, no. False. I can’t exactly like Carl. I can’t that that that interferes completely disrupts the process completely. Winget victory for the song was entirely instrumental. Okay, all right. Playlist is overwhelmingly to the tune of like 90 to 95 percent instrumental music. If a song comes on with English lyrics, I’ll just fast forward pop forward to the next one. So, yes, no, I mean, like, like slow or Mogwai, like kind of in the I can go into the rock genre, but but kind of big sound Sigur Ros, that kind of stuff. Sigur Ros without lyrics in English, which I think most of them aren’t that kind of stuff, right?
S3: Yeah, it’s interesting that we all three have that limitation, and I’ve heard other people do too. And it’s just occurring to me now that it makes complete sense that at a moment that your brain is trying to task itself with the English language. Right? I mean, we all write in English, we’re sitting there thinking about language. And naturally, if some English language words come on, that part of your brain is going to start picking them apart. And the next thing you know, the lyrics are being, you know. Deconstructed for their deeper meanings rather than whatever it is you’re supposed to be typing. Yeah, my flowchart of music listening would depend on exactly what phase of work I’m in, but definitely across the board has to be lyric free. And it also, as much as possible has to have that that quality that Carl mentioned of of not having recognizable patterns, right? Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any patterns. I mean, music by its nature, has patterns, but they should be patterns that aren’t recognizable enough to my brain that I’m going to start repeating them and and focusing on them earworm style. So I think non-Western music is the main way that I do that. As Steve loves to mock me, it’s not actually usually gamelan listening. It’s it’s generally more like, I
S1: love that it’s not usually a
S3: I mean, I’m not saying I don’t have a playlist somewhere with the odd, you know, Indonesian gamelan group on it. But no, it’s generally Indian music, which we talked about earlier this year when we talked about that fantastic film, The Disciple, still one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2021. That was all about, you know, a young man trying to become an Indian classical musician. That kind of stuff like ragas, you know, sitar music. Any sort of like lyric free Indian classical is one of my go to listens. And that also, for some reason, maybe just now, it’s a Pavlovian response because I’ve listened to it for so long puts me into a certain kind of dream state. It’s it’s more likely to, you know, launch me into a space where I can sort of freely muse on the page. So that might be something I would listen to when I’m in an earlier draft, right when I’m not on really tight deadline pressure, but I actually sort of want to let my imagination run. But then sometimes that becomes too stimulating to write, and there’s moments that you really need to use the music almost as a chill drug to come down kind of experience. And there I would listen to something even more patterned, less that would either be white noise or the rainy café website that I’ve endorsed before on this show. That’s this kind of mixture of ambient clinking noise, plus rain falling in the background and the musical equivalent that gets into the Steve Reich kind of territory that you were talking about, Carl, which would be something like, I don’t know, like John Cage piano, right? I mean, maybe, maybe on a day when I’m just being productive and trying to turn some things out, I would listen to Baroque music, western baroque music, which is my sort of favorite music genre, but is also recognizable enough in its patterns and familiar enough to me that I might be more likely to treat it as pleasurable listening and it wouldn’t be background enough. So really, it’s it’s a continual struggle the same way you can never find the right place to write. Right, Steve, you and I have talked about this like, we have a desk, we start at the desk. But next thing you know, you’re on the kitchen floor or on your kid’s bed or something like that, right? And I think music is sort of like that with me too. I’m constantly searching for this, this frictionless space of thought, the music of thinking is Carl called it and thinking, that’s too much. That’s too much music. That’s not enough music. Now I need silence, you know, and and resetting it again and again. But it’s basically toggling among those things Indian, you know, foreign music. It couldn’t be Brazilian for me because I would understand the lyrics and I would sit there and pull them apart. Yeah, trying to get away from language so that you can focus on the language that’s being generated from your own brain, if that makes sense.
S2: Yeah. And it’s interesting. You know, Steve, what you were saying at the beginning about that position of of being against background music. And obviously it’s way too rigid and ideological. But there is a thing, you know, we’re in the age of playlists and particularly kind of the ubiquity of the Spotify playlist. Spotify is full of playlists that are called like music for study and things like that, which tend to be like chill beats. This is the mean is the main mode. And there’s definitely a level of background music where I start to feel guilty about the background music. You know, I’m like this music is too custom-made and too trying to cater to me, and I have a pushback reaction against music being reduced to simple function on that level. Intellectually, I kind of don’t, but aesthetically I do. And so there’s also that like, I want to listen to music that I like that I actively like. But then I wear the active liking of it doesn’t actually interfere with what I’m trying to do.
S3: Yeah, I also want to be quite secure about what’s going to come on next. You know, I don’t want to put on some sort of wild shuffling playlist where some algorithmic deejay is suddenly selecting and saying, you know, what you want to hear is something this, you know, I want it to be pretty much curated by me. And in fact, on my Spotify, I have a playlist called reading and writing that I just drag things into when they fit the bill for that, you know, which very wide, wildly, but that all have that quality of I chose it. You know, it’s some sort of spacey background and and it’s not going to create patterns that interfere with my own thought. Well, that was fascinating, I kind of want to hear you guys work playlists now if you don’t want to. If you don’t mind sharing them, I would. I would share mine with you and and with listeners if people are interested.
S2: Yeah, I can put my marimba in mallets list out there. So for broader consumption,
S3: reading and writing is my list marimba and mallets. And what is yours called Steve?
S1: Mine is called a winged victory for the sullen.
S3: Maybe that is such an ambitious playlist title. I’ve got to hear a winged victory, but it is.
S1: That’s the name of the of the group who who I first put on the list I just made. I may have even been just automatically assigned it by Spotify because I wanted this winged victory of the soul.
S3: And but it kind of it kind of applies to any writer’s playlist, though, right? We’re the sole and we need the winged victory.
S2: Well, I think this feels like it’s particular to Steve’s entire life’s mission.
S1: I appreciate that Carl. I really do. But it it. I will say that you will find multiple playlists if you search Spotify with that title will link to mine, and mine is the one who’s who’s, you know, progenitor a.k.a. Amy is just the sort of meaningless string of digits I haven’t bothered to name by Spotify account. I prefer not to. So it’s easy to identify, even if you just search for it. But we’ll also have a link.
S3: And I think we’re going to go ahead and put those links to Spotify playlist for all three of us on the main show page so that even people who don’t subscribe to Slate, plus those poor suckers will get a chance to listen to them too. So look for them there after the episode goes up this week. All right, so thanks so much to all of you for listening. Thank you for being Slate Plus subscribers and helping us have these fascinating yet silly conversations about the music of thinking. We hope you’ll join us next week for Stephen, Metcalf and Carl Wilson. I’m Dana Stevens. Thanks again for being a subscriber and we’ll talk to you soon.