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WAP the hell?

Once every so often, a music video drops that momentarily captures everyone’s attention and dominates social media chatter. Given that broadcast TV no longer shows music videos, this continued influence is impressive. Music videos are now available on demand in the endless online jukeboxes of Vevo/YouTube and, if you’re even less audio-internet savvy, a simple Google search. (Google has owned YouTube for a while now, so whatever.) However, watching music videos today is an active, purposeful process. ’80s kids like me are sad that you can’t just flip to MTV and BET and find a new favorite by accident, but that’s how it works today.

As the latest example of this phenomenon, “WAP” began bubbling up on my social media feed this week. I found the reactions so evocative that I thought I’d go watch it for myself. Besides, I really like Cardi B. She’s very easy to root for and such a fun and magnetic person.

(By way of background, you can either look up the video yourself or read this brief summation: Cardi B, the hottest female rapper of the past three years, and Megan Thee Stallion, the hottest upstart female rapper of the past year, have joined forces for this sex-heavy song fixating on the acronym of the title “WAP,” which is thoroughly NSFW, with an explicit accompanying video.)

After watching the spectacle that is “WAP,” I laughed, shrugged, and went back to my life. Then one of my more socially conscious Black friends fired shots online, declaring war on the song and video as a horrific example of the exploitation of Black women. As I read the thread around his evaluation, I began processing the various themes involved and taking the critiques.

As a white male viewer of the video, there’s elements that won’t resonate with me in the same way as Black and female viewers. As a gay viewer of the video, there’s other elements that definitely won’t resonate with me in the same way. (There’s lots of near-total female nudity.) However, as a music lover and someone who has devoted a lot of mental energy to social and racial justice, I do have an opinion. If you want to hear it, here it goes.

My initial and default response to music in general is positive. Music reflects where people’s energies and passions are, and for someone to care enough about something to write a song, perform a song, and create a visual around the subject matter, whatever it is, is good.

It’s problematic when the subject matter is destruction, misogyny, despair, pure materialism, or any of a number of other topics, but at least the artist is giving voice to those thoughts and not letting them fester. Music is an outlet for these thoughts, and it’s a good thing to have an outlet.

The social ramifications of people, especially younger and more impressionable people, hearing these “negative” songs and taking them as truth rather than perspective, is not something I’m prepared to discuss in the space of this writing. If the subject matter of “WAP” were more inherently problematic, I would try to address that.

But “WAP” is about sex. It’s basically two Black female rappers boasting about their sexual prowess. That’s why I laughed and shrugged upon my initial listen. Nothing new here. Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were trailblazing this territory in the ’90s. The first things MCs uttered in the ’70s were boasts. (Granted, the raunch quotient has continued to explode ever since.) “I’m the baddest, I’m the most stylish, I’m the richest, I’m the smartest, I’m the best rapper, I’m the most confident, I’m the best-looking, and I’m the best lover,” in endless variations, has been the core mantra of hip-hop from the beginning.

Of course, just because something is well-established doesn’t make it right. But sex is a good thing, and women who are comfortable expressing their sexuality are bringing light to the world, right? For those of us, myself included, who are in favor of a sex-positive society, this makes “WAP” a good thing. The lyrics and video are drenched in explicit imagery, so maybe Cardi and Megan could turn that dial down from 14 to 10. It’s like they spilled the entire salt shaker into their sexpots.

But the general idea–great! Isn’t it?

Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. One person’s positivity is another’s exploitation. And because we’re talking about art, the interpretation is always subjective.

One of the lingering racist narratives that has dogged Black women and men for centuries is the myth of hyper-sexuality. This depiction has been weaponized to show Blacks as sub-human, as morally deficient, and generally inferior and fearsome individuals who need to be controlled. “Hyper-sexual” is one adjective that could easily be applied to any number of hip-hop videos of the past two decades, and to “WAP.” To the extent that Black artists play into this caricature of hyper-sexuality, they can be said to be perpetuating it.

This is where it gets confusing. It is easy to dismiss music as “minstrelsy.” Black entertainers have always had to deal with the social impact of their music, and to be aware of the ways in which their modes of expression play into the hands of the racism of American culture in general, and the entertainment industry in particular. On our way to denouncing music as reinforcing racism, though, we run into at least three detours.

The first is reclamation. The most infamous act of reclamation is the use of the n-word among Blacks, but it exists among gays, women, and almost every marginalized group. It’s always confusing for the dominant group, which is largely the point. “Why is it that I can’t do this but you turn around and do the same thing?” is the usual cry of the dominant group. I think we could cut through a lot of the nonsense about how reclamation works if people would just be honest and answer, “because we want to eff with your head.” It’s a form of resistance, and it’s subversive in the most devious way.

Applying reclamation to the “WAP” video, we could say that Cardi and Megan are using the visual language–booty shaking, lesbian innuendo, nudity, outrageous wigs–and the explicit lyrics that male rappers have been using for decades to objectify women, and they are reclaiming them as empowering and proud images of their sexual, female strength.

The second detour is satire and comedy. It’s difficult to watch the dazzling, technicolor palettes and the exuberant set design and camera swoops of the “WAP” visual and not detect a note of tongue-in-cheekiness. Cardi in particular always seems to keep her lyricist pen dipped in funny ink, and she maintains a personality rooted in exaggeration and media-savvy campiness. (Buffoonery, however, is another racist trope. So we have to be careful, there, too.)

The final detour that doesn’t allow for a direct condemnation of the “WAP” video and its ilk, is determining where the line should be drawn. Black women have been declaring their sexual prowess through music in ways large and small for years–when does it stop being empowering and start being exploitative? Should Whitney Houston have demurred from singing “Saving All My Love For You,” wherein she was luring a man from his steady woman? Should Janet have not released “Any Time, Any Place,” declaring her willingness to go at it in public? Should Aaliyah not have boasted that she was “More Than a Woman”?

My hunch here is that the expression only becomes a problem for any individual when it crosses some internal line of decency. Ironically, as the expression of sexuality becomes more “indecent,” it also becomes harder to take seriously because of its straight-faced brashness.

So, where does all this discussion leave us?

My view is that virtually no woman is going to place a version of herself on record or on camera where she ends up obviously exploiting herself. Women should be trusted and empowered to make these decisions with their own self-expression. If they’re being coerced or controlled by a record company or a Svengali, however, that can undercut this view. And admittedly, expressing that view is just me spitballing.

I think the first bottom line is the Black artists, in consultation with their friends and colleagues, can best navigate this tightrope of public messaging. Concerns from fans like my friend should also be made known, and the artists can digest those or not as they please.

The second bottom line is that what we all love about music, whether we realize it or not, is the fact that it transports us to some place different than where we are. So much of that journey depends on our own experiences and preconceptions, so I think it’s important to know that we meet the music somewhere in the middle, and to consider that maybe the negatives we project onto the music may be more about us than the artist.

Kicking the APD while it’s down

Rayshard Brooks.

The ritual of saying the names of victims of police violence is not exactly comforting, but it is necessary. This most recent incident in Atlanta happened less than 24 hours ago as I write this, and more details will likely emerge as the investigation continues. A fact we do know is that the situation was not successfully de-escalated. A man fell asleep in his car at a fast-food drive thru and ended up dead. There’s something very wrong with that story, and it’s not the first part.

Atlanta Police chief Erika Shields will be re-assigned as Mayor Bottoms looks for new leadership. As this incident gains national attention, the question that presents itself is whether the Atlanta Police Department is really troubled or whether this is an isolated incident. While others will cite prior history to answer this question, I choose to answer for myself on a personal, anecdotal level. The officers I’ve encountered are terrible.

The main incident I want to relate is one that happened to my partner, who is black, about four years ago on July 4 (insert irony here). The two of us were involved in a low-speed collision less than a block away from our house in the Washington Park neighborhood near downtown Atlanta. A car pulled directly out into the street from a side street without stopping, and my partner didn’t brake in time to avoid a fender-bender. He called the police to document the accident, and the entire incident was turned around on him.

First, the responding officer actually made the statement that my partner, as a driver on the main street with the right-of-way, was responsible for slowing down when approaching unmarked intersections to make sure no one comes flying out illegally.

Second, the officer ran my partner’s ID and ending up arresting him and placing him in jail, where he stayed until I was able to bail him out early next morning. The reason he was handcuffed and led off to jail? He had missed a court date three years earlier; the notice for the court date was sent to our old street address and he never received it. This missed court date was a continuance of an earlier court date, which we attended; the matter could have easily been resolved at that time.

The reason for the initial court date? In 2012, another inept driver ran a red light and T-boned us in an intersection. That responding officer (also APD) made the decision to cite both drivers, which is to say my partner received a ticket for being in the path of a car that ran a red light.


Of course, I can’t prove race had anything to do with either situation. However, the officers in both situations had discretion and in both cases used that discretion to create more work for themselves and more headaches for the members of the public they were supposed to “protect and serve.” Nobody’s safety or protection was enhanced by locking up a man for missing a court date for a traffic accident. Even if it’s protocol, it’s a foolish protocol, devoid of context and common sense. It seemed suspiciously like a technicality to meet a quota, but that’s just speculation. Even so, I, as a white man, have been stopped by police several times in my life and have managed to leave each interaction with my freedom.

Overt police brutality receives and deserves attention. But there’s also situations like Mr. Brooks’ where a shoot-first police mentality takes hold and then takes parents away from their children. And then there’s cases like my partner’s arrest, where we (we being all the cogs supporting the American justice system) are depriving people of options and opportunities in little, bite-sized pieces. Frivolous arrests lead to criminal records, which lead to fewer job opportunities, acclimatization to the jail system, and for some, a sense of inevitability and hopelessness. I’ve overheard young black men in public discussing going to jail like it was a trip to the grocery store–just part of life’s routine. Every now and again, you get picked up and taken there.

My personal experience of the APD’s incompetence doesn’t end there. In 2016, I was stopped by Atlanta’s best while walking from the MARTA transit station to my home. I had a laptop bag slung over my shoulder, but my appearance was otherwise unremarkable. It was around 10 or 11pm. The police intimidated me by directing the blinding spotlight of their squad car over to me, and then asking me to stop. The officers detained me. One asked me where I was going, smirked condescendingly when I said I was walking home, then asked for my ID. Since the ID had my address on it, proving I lived two blocks away, I was happy to oblige in order to wipe the smirk off his face. He also implied that I was lying by stating he hadn’t seen me in the neighborhood before. This statement was patently ridiculous; I had been walking back and forth from the Ashby train station daily for three years, so he was clearly not in any position to opine on how often anyone was in the neighborhood.

Clearly unhappy that he hadn’t caught me in a lie he could escalate and use against me, he told me to “be safe” while driving off in the direction of my house. Of course, if my personal safety had really been his concern in stopping me, he could have offered me a ride the rest of the way. He didn’t. I walked home alone in the dark.

The whole incident was complete BS. I give people the benefit of the doubt, but there was none to be had there. I don’t know if they were fishing to meet their quota, just wanted to flaunt their power, or if they assumed that a white person in the neighborhood (which is predominately black) was there to buy drugs. Based on the reflexive incredulity that I was met with, I assumed the last.

So, the APD, in my experience, sucks. I think an overhaul is needed. Overpolicing and inept communication with the citizens in the community, even without the racial angle, appears to be a problem.

But hear me on this: race, even when it’s not the fundamental issue, still becomes an issue in the context of the broken justice system and in the context of systemic racism. Bad policing has a disproportionate impact on black people.

Even my personal experience, as infuriating as it was, was never a life-or-death situation. The officers did not perceive me as a threat. I didn’t have any issue going into my pocket to fish my ID out of my wallet. As a white man, I didn’t even consider that such an action could be dangerous. The police may have even targeted me precisely because they thought I didn’t pose a risk to their bullying tactics.

I hope the APD can turn the page and do better. This is the right social moment to make that change.

Amy & Karen Redux

I posted three days ago about some thoughts I had regarding the Amy Cooper (“Central Park Karen”) situation, and I’ve been beating myself up a lot about that post. A stern post that two people shared on my social media feed yesterday really brought home that awful feeling. The article was about how white people (women particularly) should not respond to that exact incident in order to be a good ally. The bottom line of that post was to de-center the conversation, and don’t make it about you.

Of course, what did I do? I talked about my father and our propensity for disagreement, and answered the completely unsolicited question of what racist white people would have to say in support of Amy. And how that was wrong. And so on in Imaginative Argument Land.

I did the opposite of de-centering. For anyone who may have read that post and felt bewildered or abandoned by the angle I took, I apologize. Look, I don’t have a neat little story to tell about this, just fragments and observations.

  1. Context is important. In any direct response to people of color, I’d like to think that my angle and tone would not be what it was in that post three days ago. My intent was to get my thoughts down and to approach the story from a personal angle.
  2. That being said, in an environment where people are processing very raw emotions about what happened to Christian Cooper, I would have been well-served to not post that response publicly right away.
  3. I underestimated the personal impact of the story on people, and that was tone-deaf of me. The subtext of the angle I took on the post was that, hey, Christian is fine, nobody got hurt, Amy got fired and had her dog taken away. So no harm done, now let me be the professor and talk about how this incident fits into the larger picture of racism in America, which is something that I do have experience with on the producer side.
  4. I take it as a given that my voice is the voice of a white man and nothing else. I can’t give voice to others, and I can’t speak for others. That leaves me to discuss the things that I know about. De-centering the conversation means I have nothing to discuss, unless I want to take the tack of the article I read and tell other allies to shush, say you’re sorry, and move on.
  5. I’m not going to mince words. Racial injustice is one of the main sources of fuel for my desire to write in the first place. It’s a quandary I can’t think or write my way out of. So I’m always going to butt up against this barrier of lived personal experience and hurt when talking about these issues.
  6. It wasn’t easy confessing that my father used racial slurs. There’s lots of people on my social media that knew my father and probably judged me (or would judge me if they read it) harshly for telling something personal like that about him. I’ve been sitting on a lot of resentment for my father, including resentment for the fact that he put me in a position where I either had to sit on that knowledge (and other knowledge) or reveal his ugly secrets to the world. The way I see it, if you share your life with me, our experiences become shared experiences, which means they’re just as much mine to share as yours. Nobody alive knows my father as well as I do, so I felt entitled to share that experience.
  7. At the same time, it was an ugly attention-grab to lead off my post with that revelation. I conceived of it as a bold way to personalize the evil of racism, which is hiding in plain view for many of us. But I also see it in retrospect as just another lurid clickbait lede on the internet.
  8. What makes me the most paranoid and anxious about the post is the deafening silence. I was proud of the post when I first wrote it, and shared it on my timeline and my story. I spent several hours weaving together my thoughts, and thought I had really nailed my angle. I received one comment and one like (from the same person), and nothing further. Nobody yelled at me, nobody congratulated me, nobody gave me constructive criticism. This is the farthest thing from de-centering the conversation, but if I messed up, I need somebody, anybody, to disagree with me or correct me.
  9. I think the most likely scenario is that my post was senseless and represents a conversation (much like this one perhaps) that should have just remained in my head.
  10. The parallel track to all of this is that I’m trying to create content. I’m forcing myself to write when an idea strikes me, and I just don’t feel motivated to write things that no one else can see. Maybe I should just be honest and trade in my ally card and admit that I’m trying to get published, and that I’m trying to get views and clicks to encourage myself to keep writing.

So there you have it. That post was weird and tone-deaf, and I guess now I’ve talked myself into taking it down. Failure is how you get to success, I suppose. Better luck next time.

False, false equivalencies

Note: in researching the source of this meme, I found it on a Reddit thread dated nine months ago. However, I saw it for the first time today.

I saw this image on my Facebook feed today, and was alarmed.

For context: watching white people being racist in the various infuriating and tragic videos that have emerged in recent days has been gut-wrenching and embarrassing for me. But those videos did not set off any new alarms, because I already know the terrible baseline of racism that exists in this country.

However, this seemingly kumbaya, equable, self-owning meme set off fresh alarms. It’s so dangerous because it’s so easy to believe, and so dangerous to believe in an election year. It speaks to a larger truth which I won’t deny–we should stop bickering and get things done.

However, it has an inherent weakness. It’s an anachronistic throwback to the pre-Obama years where voters were exposed to differing opinions that didn’t violate basic rules of discourse and logic. That simply isn’t the political landscape that exists in 2020.

I don’t relish the partisan divide that has consumed our nation, but it’s also not something that can be ignored or glossed over. To me, this meme and its message is almost as misguided as Trump’s “fine people on both sides” discourse on the Charlottesville rallies.

Since Obama was elected in 2008, Republicans have had one goal and one goal only: defeat him and prevent him from accomplishing anything. This isn’t partisan hyperbole–it’s well-documented that Mitch McConnell laid out this goal as his blueprint for action during the Obama administration. It has also been the animus behind a great deal of the Trump administration’s policies–undo anything and everything that Obama did.

Certainly, the opposition party will always work to counter proposals from an administration which has a different political philosophy. Certainly, a new president will walk back policies that it doesn’t agree with from the prior administration. But starting in 2008, fueled by the rabidly misinformed Fox News cohort that they had spent a generation grooming for the task, Republicans began skipping the cogent policy arguments to support their positions. Instead, they stoked anger against Obama to destroy any proposal, no matter how thoughtful or moderate that proposal, that he brought forward for consideration. Once the older, poorer, and less educated Americans who were predisposed to hate liberals were exposed to the rawer, less intellectual symbolism of unadulterated obstructionism, they ate it up.

This obstructionism came to a head with the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, which was simply ignored by the Republican-led Congress until Obama’s term ran out. They gave a bullshit reason (that they didn’t even bother to seriously defend) for refusing to even vote on the nomination. Their base loved the obstructionism, so why waste time constructing a real defense?

Republicans have been granted an able assist by the “let’s get along” crowd embodied by the meme above. Many supposedly logical people shared the meme of the demonic twins from The Shining with Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s faces superimposed. The message was clear throughout the election: they’re both equally bad choices, so who do I pick? Even if you bought into Pizzagate or any of the other ludicrous Clinton conspiracies, it’s still pretty hard to back into any calculus whereby Donald Trump is a better choice to lead the free world. But the news cycle and the political cycle plodded along with this assumption, so it became true as a simple matter of perception.

The false equivalencies in both that meme and this new meme refuse to die. They are propagated by well-meaning people who want to send out the message that it’s about the people and not the politicians. The politicians are just going to “argue with each other.” The Democrats and Republicans are both enemies of the people. We can’t trust them so let’s do something else. What is this “something else”? It’s not really clear. The two-party system we have is going to continue until something systemic changes, and until then we have to continue to pick a side. Throwing up our hands in equal disgust at both of them is not an option when one side will not engage in the elementary task of explaining its capricious decisions.

This new meme even has the audacity to ask us to blame ourselves for electing these awful people, like there’s some special “bad politician” disclaimer on our ballots that we can reference so that we don’t elect these argumentative types. And to be absolutely fair to politicians, they are supposed to debate policy before voting on it–that’s part of their jobs. Arguing isn’t the problem (another reason why this meme is lacking in coherence), it’s not coming to an equitable solution after arguing.

Politics is a job. The presidency is a job. There are people who make money at their jobs, and there are people who make a difference at their jobs, and sometimes people manage to do both. Subjecting an entire profession to a separate standard of human behavior is just setting ourselves up for disappointment. Let’s stop demeaning the job of politics and fill up our representatives’ phone lines, town halls, and inboxes so they know what they need to work on to continue to make a living as our employees.

And yes, that applies to Republicans and Democrats equally. Democrats aren’t saints. They can be racist, corrupt, and dishonest. They just happen to be going up against a party that has no social relevance and, thanks to the actions of its benefactors and its current godfather-in-chief, no soul.

Post-Script

The meme has a multitude of issues–the more substantive ones are above. But there are other, more cosmetic missteps which are hard to overlook.

If you look closely at its iconography, the meme is strikingly off-base. A MAGA hat is not equivalent to a tattoo and a nose ring. MAGA is a nativist, dog-whistle slogan. There’s no correspondence there to counterculture ink and piercings, which connote lack of conformity and not a whole lot else.

The bottom is a still of Andrew Yang at a Democrat debate. He hasn’t even been elected to an office yet, so it’s pretty difficult to understand picking him as the poster child for argumentative, do-nothing politicians. Maybe it’s because he’s in the middle of arguing a position–so what, candidates aren’t even supposed to have debates to let voters know how they stand on issues?

Or, since Yang’s campaign slogan is on the top border of the still, is this being presented as one of his campaign’s social media promos? That can’t possibly be the case, unless his campaign was run by middle-schoolers. The poor punctuation, along with captioning his image with an unflattering description of arguing politicians, would not pass muster for clarity of message in any campaign context.

So, even though this may be nit-picking to some, I believe that if a meme wasn’t designed in a logical, thoughtful way, then that doesn’t bode well for the ideas the meme is trying to convey.

Navigating the Pandemic: I Feel Good, Is That Bad?

When I was a child, I played a morbid psychological game with myself. To some degree I still play it. It’s a riff on the bargaining stage of grief while paying homage to a few foundational religious sentiments.


In this game, I imagine that I have control over whether I am happy and am able to have fun. The trade-off is that in order for me to be happy and stable, I have to agree that I will not have too much fun on the outside. It’s like karma’s chaperoning a party and goes over to shut things down when it gets too raucous.


A corollary to the master rule of the game is that I must always be properly armed with the knowledge of how awful things in my life can get and heed that reality before I can move forward into positivity.


Most people who know me can attest to the fact that I am reserved, thoughtful, even boring. There’s one colleague of mine who openly admits that he only starts yawning uncontrollably when he speaks to me, while somehow also assuring me it’s not about any quality I possess or project. So, yes, I get it. I’m not dynamic in person. It’s why I like to write.


What most people don’t know is that until I was about eight or nine years old, my demeanor was completely different. My kindergarten teacher found me very rambunctious. I remember calling a boy a “jackass” and being reprimanded. (I don’t think I’ve called someone a colorful name in the intervening 40 years since. I’m really good at following instructions.) I would always look over and make sure the other kids were doing their work correctly, instead of doing my own work.


I was such a bundle of mischief, relatively speaking, that to this day I can honestly say I received my worst grades in kindergarten. Translated, that means I was a regular, happy-go-lucky kid as far as I know.


What happened next is ultimately one for the psychologists, but I have my theories. The first is that school did such a good job socializing me that it sucked out my childlike qualities. As noted above, I’ve always excelled at following instructions. Once I internalized that I would be in school for at least 13 years, and possibly longer, the only sensible thing to do was to get with the program and focus on the qualities that matter in this environment: 1) pay attention; 2) don’t cause disruptions; 3) follow rules; and 4) learn the material.


That mindset translated into disproportionately good grades in school. I graduated as valedictorian from arguably the best high school in Tennessee, while being less academically brilliant than several of my classmates. It’s also made me a pretty reliable adult citizen. I’ve always kept a job. I have only had minor brush-ups with authority figures. I vote. I’ve always been valued and respected at my various jobs, except for one that I’ll save for another post. Blech.


However, was all of this at the expense of being a normal, happy, rambunctious child and a spontaneous, fully realized adult?


I don’t think that’s the whole story. My second theory relates to a fateful trip to an intown Nashville restaurant known as Cajun’s Wharf. The establishment was a sprawling concept restaurant that had nooks of seating, arcade games, and fun nautical tchotchkis. My family took an uncharacteristic detour from our usual Shoney’s dining experience that evening, and I recall our having a great time. My father ordered some type of white fish that was sautéed in a white wine sauce and let me have a bite. For a picky eater like me, this was pretty wild.


I remember us trekking back home to Gamaliel, Kentucky that night after dark. I don’t recall being inside the body of someone who would sing along to the radio with abandon around other people, particularly my parents, but I do seem to remember a little second-grade kid in the car doing exactly that. And I am an only child.


Then disaster struck. I felt queasy. I felt queasier. I told my parents I felt sick, and they pulled over by the side of the road. I remember standing beside the car awaiting the inevitable, but it didn’t happen. I was shuffled back into the car and my father made a beeline for the house. I went to bed, feeling gross and feverish. I threw up beside my bed a time or two and was generally miserable.


I can’t even remember the car trip all the way back down to Nashville the next morning. My pediatrician diagnosed me with strep throat, and I was sent back home to recuperate.


Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the disaster. The antibiotic regimen I was prescribed may have placed a definitive end to my rambunctious childhood.


The rest of my recovery was uneventful. I think I felt ok most of the time. But upon my follow-up visit to the doctor, he was concerned that I needed to replenish my gut bacteria to make up for the antibiotics. (I was always told my pediatrician was an outstanding doctor, and this does seem a little ahead of the curve for the early 80s.) In 1982, there was no Culturelle that I could pop, and even if there was, Dr. Micromanage probably would not have gone for it. He told my parents that I was required to eat two servings a day of probiotic dairy products. Although bacteria-enriched milk was available (Purity had sweet acidophilus milk in an orange carton), no one in our family connected the dots. My choices of poison, per my doctor, were buttermilk, cottage cheese, and yogurt. Buttermilk is inedible to me, and the texture of cottage cheese is beyond repulsive. So I went for yogurt. It was sweet, creamy, and it had mix-ins that would distract me from the bothersome, creepy tang.


Bad choice. Just maybe, if the innovative, dessert-y yogurt flavors of today had been available, with chocolate, caramel, cheesecake, and coffee, I would have been fine. Just maybe, if my mother had thought outside of the box (which she never did when it came to food), she would have just bought me plain or vanilla yogurt and added Hershey’s syrup to it.


As it happened, I forced down two small cups of yogurt every day for two weeks, complete with the slimy, cloyingly sweet fruit flavors that were the only options at the time. I’ve never been a fan of most fruits, and the yogurt ordeal cemented my aversion to them. To this day, I can’t even bear the residual smell two hours later when someone has had yogurt in a room.


I threw up at least twice more during my yogurt-boarding experience, out of sheer disgust at what I was ingesting. I almost never threw up as a child. The combination of that strep throat and the yogurt therapy aftermath was a significant chunk (ha) of my experience with it as a child.


The fallout from this second-grade experience was immense. All yogurt-based dishes are off the table for me. (And if they’re not, I’ll swipe them off the table in a soap opera-worthy flourish.) I struggle with fruit. I can’t enjoy most fruit and dairy combinations, not even something innocent like strawberry ice cream. I’m distrustful of doctors, who I believe relish the idea of submitting a patient to torturous therapy when something entirely palatable is available. I have a lifelong, paralyzing fear of vomiting, which led to me not eating properly for at least three years after this incident and still presents regularly as an adult.


Oh, and my entire personality changed. School played its part, but the strep throat episode and yogurt fiasco challenged my youthful notion that life was great and was there to be lived.


Instead, life began to be something that was managed. Managed with a great deal of care and forethought. My lesson, after a night of seafood and wine and merrymaking, was that having too much fun led to a devastating reckoning. I’d had my fun, then I paid the price.


That’s why you will never see me in a bar dancing on the tables. OK, let’s be real–you’d have trouble finding me in a bar drinking alcohol. Most times,you’d have trouble finding me in a bar at all. Too much fun disorients me.


Further, any action, no matter how minimally transgressive, whether committed by a stranger or friend, drives up my anxiety. I’ve learned to act like I’m going with the flow, but somewhere in my head a voice is muttering, “They should not be doing that.” If the voice possessed a head and a finger, it would be shaking both with vigor. Even being associated with someone who isn’t thinking about the consequences of their actions tempts my fate.


This internal struggle with how to exist in the world has become a little more external with the advent of the novel coronavirus. It’s like the rest of the world is now living in my anxiety bubble–everyone is now asking themselves the same questions I have always struggled to answer. Do I have fun and can I be optimistic about how this plays out? Or do I worry and sit by myself in isolation and hope that being a party pooper will lead to a more positive outcome?


The issues we face are more complex than that, and our individual actions are certainly on a continuum and less binary than presented above. Businesses are starting to open. I have a trip to Chicago booked for June. Life goes on. But we still have a chorus of people and PSAs cajoling us as a society to “just stay home.” I’ve been part of a social media chorus that has been collectively looking down its nose at people who are not isolating and taking the threats seriously enough. Despite a lifetime of experience with having these thoughts about others’ recklessness, after over two months of frowning disapproval, I wonder, is it enough already? Do I need to lighten up?


No doubt I am suffering from some of the isolation exhaustion that has been diagnosed in the media. I fully prepared myself for two or three months of staying home and doing without certain pre-pandemic luxuries, but that timetable is expiring. Cases appear to be plateauing or decreasing, and despite all the manipulation of the stats that has been documented, overall I can’t find a clear difference in the case trend before full shutdown and after full shutdown in my state. Is it really true that a “critical mass” of citizens is voluntarily distancing and avoiding large gatherings and wearing masks, enough so that the spread of the disease has been effectively managed, even with boneheaded government guidelines? Possibly, but how can we know?


(I placed “critical mass” in quotes to avoid any academic discussions about whether I used the term correctly in any specialized academic context. I ain’t got time to research that right now.)


The only truth I have access to is that no one knows any of this for sure. We are dead-center in the midst of this crisis, staring at the bark on the trees and not aware of how the forest looks at all.


But for me, individually, I have created a personal roadmap. I may have freehanded the whole map and the landmarks could all be in the wrong places, so I’m not saying it’s right.


For me, personally, I am optimistic. Experts are paid to tell us the worst-case scenario so that we’re prepared for it. If there’s even a 10% chance that we could lose a hundred thousand more lives this fall in the U.S., then we need to create a plan whereby that chance is eliminated. That doesn’t make the experts wrong if the scenario doesn’t happen–it makes them cautious, and if the actions they recommend are followed, then it makes them right by default.


But the worst-case scenario is exactly that. So a better outcome is possible, even likely.


What the jackasses (sorry, it’s been 40 years–I had to let it out again) in the White House and Republican-controlled states are doing is a classic Tea Party copout. Instead of leading with foresight and wisdom, they’ve grabbed popcorn and a seat in the theater and spout unhelpful things at the screen about how implausible the plot is while not participating in directing the movie. Then they have the nerve to say that they’re acting in the best interest of their constituents by mimicking their behavior.


People in positions to govern should do that. Our president and his knockoffs act just like disgruntled Joe in his recliner with a beer. Joe in his recliner plays a role in our society as a citizen, even as a disaffected and sour citizen without the best knowledge at his disposal. But he shouldn’t be governing. Governance means looking at the big picture, looking beyond the end of your nose and thinking beyond what’s in it for you. If we endanger the lives of thousands of Americans by not taking certain systemic precautions, then that’s a governance issue.


If we as citizens want to be a part of the solution, we can take the same approach. Every precaution you take is a step toward reducing the spread of an unpredictable disease. The individual decisions you make may vary, but if you at least ask yourself what the larger impact of your actions will be before deciding, then you are thinking critically and are on the right path.


Which brings me to my last bone to pick regarding the pandemic and how people are responding to it. Individual freedom has come up numerous times as a talking point on all sides of the issue. To everyone who experiences variations on the anxiety based on a perceived lack of freedom, whether your freedom of congregation, what to wear in public, or expressing yourself on social media, I have one piece of advice: suck it up. As someone who has battled anxiety about how to exist in front of other people for my entire life, I know you can do it. Specifically:


• Enough with this weird preoccupation with masks. If you have a problem with masks from a hygiene standpoint, you should also be opposed to underwear. It’s the same damn concept. If you really wanted to take a principled stand on being told what to wear, you could start with challenging public indecency statutes that legislate clothing itself. That seems way more restrictive than a hygienically-based face-covering guideline in the midst of a freakin’ pandemic.
• I’ve been told my entire life: the church isn’t the building, it’s the people. Most churchgoers know this saying, have recited it, and nodded vigorously when their pastor repeated it. (All the while, many of them put on special clothes and acted like entirely different people for the pleasure of the building.) In my humble opinion, people who feel the need to meet in person for church during a pandemic are not spiritual in the least–they’re just as bad as the spring breakers in Miami who don’t want to be told they can’t have their social gathering of choice. We have the technology to congregate virtually–why is this an issue?
• Cut it out with the socially irresponsible jokes and speculative articles and documentaries on social media. Just because you CAN say something doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Don’t assume that you’re just talking to your inner circle of friends who “get” your humor or what you “really” meant by sharing the “Plandemic” trailer. Especially when your profile is public and/or you have 1,000 friends. It’s incredibly disingenuous to post on the wide-open internet and then claim that someone is barging in on your thread when you post something that could cost people’s lives or create unnecessary panic. Be responsible and accept responsibility.

I was walking home from the train station on a recent afternoon when this parallel between my current quandary about how positive my attitude should be during COVID and the lifelong tension about how much fun I should allow myself to have presented itself. I found myself stuck in a familiar place–feeling bad about feeling good.


And I do feel good. I am hopeful that, try as he might, our fearless and wise president wasn’t quite awful enough to rattle us into a state of mobilization around all the terrible things in the world. It took something even more heartless, mindless, and less human to accomplish that. (It even has smaller hands.) I think the virus has shown us its fangs, and we have collectively (led of course by our scientists and frontline workers) extracted the venom from those fangs and are working to evaluate it and turn it into treatment and healing.


Similarly, the rest of us, witnessing the fangs of our broken government and social processes, the fractured world order and the tenuous supply chains, are going to work smarter as individuals and as participants in the economy and stewards of our employers to create better processes and make better decisions.


A terrible, overused platitude could destroy this entire post, but I’ll risk it: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think we’re going to be stronger.


And I’m not going to wait 40 more years to call someone a jackass when that admission makes me stronger and frees me up to take action.


I might even buy a yogurt the next time I go to the store. (Don’t hold your breath on that one–especially if you’re wearing a mask.)

My Fabric Softener Epiphany

I was preparing to go to Kroger for some groceries and household items last week when I asked my partner if he had anything he needed me to pick up. I volunteered that I knew we were out of dryer sheets so I already had those on the list.

“Well, then you can go ahead and put fabric softener on there, too.”

For an instant, I thought he had lost his mind and the world had turned upside down. What on earth was he asking me to do?

 

The habits and routines we set up for ourselves are powerful things.

In my case, I am still struggling to escape the pervasive thriftiness of my earlier adult years. As I sunk into credit card debt in my 20s, I became more and more thrifty (also known as “cheap”) with my everyday expenses. It was part of a schizophrenic cycle of treating myself to occasional clothes purchases and restaurant meals that I couldn’t afford (and therefore charged on my cards), on the one hand; and, on the other, following a strict budget for my everyday purchases because of my limited income.

Gradually my cards became maxed out or their minimum payments were eating up my meager budget, so the splurges mostly stopped. By the early 2000s, I was only operating on the thrifty side of the spectrum. I remember spending $15-$20 per week on groceries and treating myself to dollar value menu specials at Checkers and Taco Bell. Aside from bills, I was spending less than $50 a week. This went on for years.

Now here I am nearly 20 years later, with a professional job, a substantial portion of my earnings going to savings, and the ability to take vacations and take care of unexpected expenses that would have devastated subsistence-era me. I’m aware that the sudden fragility of the economy in the wake of the impact of the novel coronavirus could easily take me down a few notches, but so far, so good.

But occasionally I find myself blindsided by remnants of that prior version of myself, still   manifesting itself in the most mundane of ways. The request for fabric softener last week was one of those manifestations. When it occurred, I experienced two knee-jerk responses. First, there was a belt-and-suspenders alert; dryer sheets already soften laundry, so why buy the liquid? Second, and less logically, came the thought: we can’t afford to buy that!

The second thought snapped me back to reality. In point of fact, I’ve been able to buy fabric softener without endangering my financial solvency for ten years or more. But somewhere in my brain, a belief was hard-coded: dryer sheets are much cheaper, perform the same function, and won’t cause me to scramble to pay my other bills. Never buy fabric softener again.

(In truth, washing machines also used to require you to add the fabric softener at a specific point in the cycle, and I didn’t care to have to remember to go back to the machine at that moment. So it’s only fair to mention the ease-of-use, as well.)

This moment of contemplation broke the spell I’d been under. I had a sudden, luxurious thought: I can buy dryer sheets AND liquid fabric softener! And if I buy it myself, I can feel free to use it on my own laundry! In an instant I experienced the rush other, more normal people, must feel when they slip behind the wheel of a new sports car they’ve just purchased.

So I went from a moment of resistance to full-scale excitement about throwing Downy in my cart and having my laundry smell and feel ways it’s never smelt or felt for the past quarter-century!

Fast forward a week to the first load of laundry I washed with my newly acquired luxury good. As I looked down on my washing machine, the little compartment to the left of where I pour in detergent came into focus–I had barely noticed it before. It looked hungry, and with relish I fed it the beautiful, viscous, baby-blue liquid that I had withheld for years. And then I waited for a couple of hours as the washer and dryer completed their work on my clothes. In a stubborn nod to my thriftiness, I only allowed myself one dryer sheet this time–after all, I had already used fabric softener in the wash cycle (and barely half a capful at that–less is usually more!).

Then, the magic moment. I pulled the clothes from the dryer and folded them. The smell and feel of the clothes was top-notch. I took in the moment and felt the value of the experience. Although I did not realize it at the time, this was a final, well-plotted step to breaking the ingrained, hard-coded, no-fabric-softener rule that had held silent sway over my clothes and linens for lo, these many years.

I will now make fabric softener part of my permanent shopping list. And I look forward with relish to the next discovery, the next everyday item I told myself I was fine without. It will no doubt unlock another realm of luxury and further fortify my existence.

My Week: Off and Grounded

I did something this week that I have never done in my adult life. I spent the entire week at home with nothing specific to do. And, as with my breakthrough five weeks ago when I spent my first full week at home with something specific to do, it was much easier than I expected. And a much more positive experience than I anticipated.

There’s been much analysis around the impact of the new normal created by the new C-word. On the one hand, if I hear “these are unprecedented times” once more, I’ll run screaming out of quarantine and into the nearest tattoo parlor. (Thanks, Governor Kemp, for providing me that option! I at least want to die with some killer ink!) On the other hand, it’s a cliché because it’s true. Unprecedented, to my annoyance, is exactly what I’m discovering about my new set of life experiences.

The nearest I can get to a related experience is summer vacation when I was a kid. The best I can recall, my first job was the summer of 1988, so it’s been 32 years since I have had the experience of being at home practically all of the time for more than one day consecutively. I recall the vast stretches of quiet play and appointment television (from Scooby Doo when I was younger to Video Soul as a teen), the idea that each day was laid out before me with an elegant, zen-like simplicity, waiting for me to inhabit it.

There existed no considerations about where I would go, how I would get there, and who and what would be there to shape my experiences. How I focused my day was dependent on my imagination and my easily-toggled preferences (Top 40 vs. R&B? Play outside with friends or inside with my intricate notebooks of play statistics?) (Yes, I was a nerd.)

I have never looked back on those days longingly. I’ve been consistent in my attempt to create my best present instead of wishing for the past. But now that I have recaptured some of that simplicity, it reminds me what was so soothing about it.

In case you don’t know me or haven’t figured it out from the clues above, I am an introvert and an only child. Childhood was not some noisy blur for me. I recall my childhood as quiet. My parents argued. School could be grating with its numerous unsavory characters and its bad acoustics. But for an introvert, the overriding solace I had in my own thoughts was what kept me sane. The calm of summer vacation is sort of a real-life embodiment of my inner world, and so I recall it fondly.

The question that I have been contemplating as I have weathered the current situation: why did I wait for a state-mandated home quarantine to revisit such a peaceful place? The answer is complicated, perhaps too complicated for me to answer with any degree of accuracy. (Note: won’t stop me from tryin’! See below.)

First, as mentioned above, I try not to fall back on the past as a crutch. Not in recreating whole ways of being, at least. I think we all burn through different ways of being as we gather more life experience. Once a phase of our life ends and we need to adapt to new needs and responsibilities, we move on to a different way of being. Trying to recreate the quiet summer vacation playtimes of my youth would be silly because they cannot exist, at least not without serious revisions to how I stage my life as an adult.

Second, being in my own head is a double-edged sword. The fact that I can retreat to my personal world and it’s always there for me is soothing. However, there are “mind fields” that, when tripped, can blow me into a panicked state. I won’t chronicle here the anxieties that await around the corner from every wayward or negative thought, but for sure they exist and unless you happen to be June-frickin-Cleaver, you know what I’m talking about.

I think that’s the bigger issue. Of course, I’ve had time off over the years. I took vacations and thankfully am now granted vacations. (For anyone who works at an hourly no-benefits job, you know the difference). At most times I’ve had two days off a week. I could have chosen to spend all those days sheltering in place (or cocooning, as it is termed when it’s voluntary). I hear tell of associates and friends that get off work for the weekend and delight in spending the entire weekend at home–gardening, housekeeping, crocheting, reading, cooking, and sleeping.

At some point in my adult life (earlier than I can recall), I branded myself a victim of cabin fever. I can’t stay at home. It’s too confining. I’m like a rat in a cage. A zooed animal banging my tusks against the cold metal bars which restrain me from the big, beautiful world that’s out there to see. I might miss something!

All of the above overblown rhetoric is true in its own histrionic way. Although I’m a card-carrying introvert, I love being out in the world as long as everyone leaves me alone. I further branded myself as a city boy as soon as I moved to Nashville at the age of 12 from the deep recesses of rural northern middle Tennessee. I love being out in the city, with its endless array of shops and public spaces to explore, or more to the point, to walk past and decline to explore with any earnestness.

And yet. And yet.

I really just want to be somewhere that distracts me out of my own head. Because when the other edge of the sword cuts, it slices deep. What happens when I stay home and get cabin fever is that I start thinking about the circumstances of my life; nay, my existence. I careen toward depression before settling into panic and despair. It’s not that my life is bad–but I have enough equanimity to understand that I can look it and see the bad as well as the good. When I start dramatizing my equanimity, I cast the good as naïveté and the bad as realïté.

In a world where malls and restaurants are open, those are the ideal places to go to take cover from these internal doubts. I can people-watch and mall-walk and window-shop. Now, in these unprecedented times, I am forced to avoid these same places in order to take cover from more tangible threats.

My fear six weeks ago was that I would feel cornered by my own thoughts while at home. My fear one week ago was that I would absolutely feel cornered by my own thoughts while at home with nothing to do. Neither fear materialized.

Let’s be real for a minute. I don’t live in a Buddhist monastery. I have Sling and Hulu and Netflix. I have books and magazines and endless Facebook feeds. I have laundry and dishes and little balls of entropy called pets. There’s tons of shit to distract me in the same way that fully precedented times and their hyphenated public activities distracted me before.

That is to say: to some degree I have simply upped my level of engagement with at-home pursuits so they’re just as fulfilling (and void-filling) mentally as my public pursuits. I haven’t beaten down my demons or demined my “mind fields.”

That being said, it certainly helps that I am now skilled at practicing avoidance right at home. It’s like buying an indoor grill!

Lest I wax too cynical, it’s worth pondering whether what I label avoidance is not actually something way more helpful: acceptance. Knowing that bad things can and will happen and being able to carry on with life despite that knowledge–that’s a handy little tool in the Swiss army knife of life.

Not obsessing over negative outcomes is different from refusing to acknowledge real, fixable issues, like broken personal relationships or financial irresponsibility.

In that sense, avoiding those obsessive thoughts is just as sensible as avoiding the mall during a pandemic.

If my six weeks at home yielded a conclusion like that, to hell with the mall. I’m good right here.

 

I’m Afraid to Write

I have had writing on my radar, as one of those “things I need to get back to doing,” for more months than I care to say. I figure the best way to break the drought and get back in is to speak the most relevant and obvious truth I have to share at this time.

I’m afraid to write.

Of course, this post is mostly a self-serving attempt to jumpstart my blog and my writing in general. But it’s also real. So bear with me as my silent therapist and hopefully I’ll get back to sharing stuff that will benefit others.

I’m afraid to write because I’ve tried starting so many times and just get sidetracked with life. I feel lamer and lamer each time I go back and try to restart. I am literally (and literally in the literal sense of literally) all words and no action. However many years old and ain’t wrote a damn book yet. Just trifling.

I’m afraid to write because I don’t know what to write about. Nothing exists that hasn’t already been explained to death, often by others who already didn’t have nearly as fresh a take on the subject as they thought they did. I don’t want to be the billionth navel-gazer,  the billionth person to analyze parent-child angst, the billionth person to try to solve racial, economic, social, and political issues with a lucid analysis that makes each reader facepalm in epiphany and go out and heal the world.

I’m afraid to write because I’m afraid that I’m just talking to myself. There’s keeping a journal on purpose and there’s keeping a journal by accident because you can’t sell yourself and no one is paying any attention to what you’re saying.

I’m afraid of writing because there’s parts of my past that may not be as healed and tidy as I think they are. Around the turn of the year I started plugging away at a biographical novel that became very uncomfortable to write because it was bringing up emotions that I was not ok having a second or third time.

I’m afraid to write because we’re in the middle of the Coronavirus crisis and it seems facile and cliche to begin writing as a means of reflection “in this troubled time.” I’m so sick of all the descriptors in all the commercials and media, as if we don’t already have a baseline for what’s going on right now. I don’t need to hear “shit is crazy” or “in this troubled time” or those plaintive piano notes leading off those empathetic TV advertisements. I know what’s going on, and I don’t want to be one of those people adding to the chorus pointing out the obvious.

But I’m taking the best advice I can remember about writing: just write. It won’t be great at first–it may even be terrible. But keep doing it and you will find your way.

Also–I love writing. I hate constructing/outlining books and developing characters and any of the behind-the-scenes work. I hate seeing a deadline on a calendar or “clocking in” to write for the two hours I committed to writing today. Despise all of it.

But I love writing. I love sitting here and weaving my mental activity into a fabric of words for you to experience. That’s what has always let me back to trying it again and again. So I will keep trying until I get it right or I am unable to try anymore.

It might be a little less painful to push through the unsavory parts of the experience and get it right. What comes after will see if I convert on that understanding.

We Are a Part of the Vindication

I’m bursting with pride over the latest accolade granted to my honorary big sister. She has persevered and persisted, making music on her terms, from her unique perspective, with her unique voice. My belief in her has remained unfailing for 32 years, even in the face of naysayers and some plain old nasty people. I and the rest of the “kids” have drawn emotional sustenance from her work.

On Thursday morning, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced Janet Jackson as one of seven new inductees in its Class of 2019. This is wonderful news for Janet, her fans and her supporters.

Lest we forget, though, Janet was eligible for induction in 2007. Madonna, the best reference point among past inductees, was eligible the following year, 2008, and was immediately inducted.

Curious that it took this long for Janet. Why were the RRHOF nominating committees for 2007 through 2015 (and 2018) so reluctant to nominate her? Why were the voters in 2016 and 2017, when she was nominated, so reluctant to induct her?

As it turns out, Janet has always been a bit of a low-key pariah in the “serious” music industry. It has been well-documented that Janet’s blacklisting after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show derailed her career. This year, it was further revealed how dramatic and vindictive that blacklisting actually was, almost singularly engineered by Les Moonves (https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/janet-jackson-s-rock-roll-hall-fame-induction-years-overdue-ncna948101). But that’s only half of the story.

“…she fixates on the sight of lips, waists, and various organs. And who can blame her? Given her family, she’s probably unaccustomed to seeing authentic body parts… For all her newfound sophistication, Jackson still sounds tentative. She still sounds like a young woman from a male-dominated family who is searching for her identity and voice. Mostly, though, janet. sounds like a mess — period. C+”

–David Browne, Entertainment Weekly (May 21, 1993 issue) https://ew.com/article/1993/05/21/janet/

In the above mess (period) of a review, Mr. Browne appears to indict Janet Jackson on account of the fact that he can’t tear himself away from gossip about her family long enough to evaluate her music on its own merits. There’s also some thinly veiled sexism and myopia on display here. A woman who laid the foundation for her record-breaking career by recording Control, wherein she clearly stakes out and establishes her identity, is here depicted as a weak-willed ingenue who still just can’t quite get this whole “being a confident musical artist” thing right, even after two multi-platinum albums, the most successful debut concert tour in history, and 13 top ten pop hits.

Of course, there’s no revenge like success. This C+ album went on to become one of the iconic records of the 1990s. “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which Browne describes as “bland” in this same review, topped the pop and R&B charts for most of the summer of 1993.

But Browne was not an outlier. Janet has dealt with a torrent of insults, poor reviews, and insinuations throughout her career, all carrying the clear subtext that a beautiful young woman from a famous musical family couldn’t possibly have anything important to add to the musical landscape. When she rose to popularity in the 1980s, the battle lines were clearly drawn: she couldn’t belt like Whitney, she couldn’t provoke like Madonna, she couldn’t dance like Michael–ultimately, to many, she was a cute sideshow, riding on MJ’s coattails. To the extent that she was deemed to have released something that was relevant or artistic, credit generally filtered down to her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and often bypassed her.

When she bared her soul, the critics bared their fangs:

“Unfortunately, Rope’s second half is weighed down by sappy ballads. It reaches its nadir on the galling poor-little-rich-girl interlude “Sad.” “There’s nothing more depressing,” intones a sober Jackson, “than having everything and still feeling sad.” Pared down, The Velvet Rope would have brushed up against brilliance. Still, it’s a testimonial to the record’s merits that it’s ultimately stronger than Jackson’s sense of self-importance.”

–Ernest Hardy, Rolling Stone (October 30, 1997 issue) https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/the-velvet-rope-195286/

Again, a male critic bristles at Janet’s apparently misguided attempts to explore identity issues. Again, her fame is used against her as a weapon. It’s somehow “galling” to this critic that Janet recognizes her material good fortune but can’t shake her blues. It appears to be in her artistic best interest to pretend one or the other doesn’t exist.

With more than a decade’s hindsight, however, the editors of Rolling Stone ranked The Velvet Rope #259 in its list of The Greatest Albums of All Time.

More pervasive than attacks on her artistry, though, have been attacks on her voice. Through the years, Janet has had to navigate (and to her credit, completely ignore) these swipes. Critics have creatively insulted her voice for 30+ years. Browne’s review above calls it “thin as a clothesline.” Fans of louder singers have been even more cruel. Even her fellow artists have gotten a piece of the action. A couple of years ago, Elton John vented to Rolling Stone about Janet’s alleged lip-syncing at her live shows.

(For the record, if Janet is lip-syncing at her live shows, she should absolutely fire whoever is recording her vocals ahead of time. All that breathing and all those missing lyrics–they could do a much better job. I’ve attended 12 shows over the past 25 years, and she’s not lip-syncing. Elton is likely just upset that she out-sang him when he invited her to do a duet with him for the Aida album.)

Janet, for her part, is not about to get nodes on her vocal cords straining trying to prove to anyone what she brings to the table as a singer. She has no qualms about shutting up for the better part of a record (“‘Got Til It’s Gone”) or not singing at all. Even to her detriment, she has always prioritized the end product over vocal stunts to prove herself a worthy singer.

This approach to vocals ended up revolutionizing pop music. “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” in 1986, were among the first non-hip-hop tracks to rely on rhythm over melody in a lead vocal. With different marketing, Janet could have easily been billed as the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, six years before Mary J. Blige claimed that mantle.

Starting with Rhythm Nation, she spent countless hours in the studio, laying down multiple vocal tracks, harmonizing with herself to create lush soundscapes of dozens of Janets. She has experimented with all manner of vocal delivery, from chanting to cooing, whispering to yelling, sneering to crying.

She also has range. When they weren’t able to get Prince in the studio to duet with her on “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” Janet shrugged and sang both parts, without changing the male part at all. Her vocal experimentation has been fearless, yet has flown almost entirely under the radar. The existing paradigm held that female singers were simply supposed to stand under a spotlight, sound pretty, and showboat. She broke that paradigm.

Male vocalists like Elton John and Bob Dylan have been pardoned for years for their croaky, imperfect timbres, under the pretext that such singing was part of their unique artistic expression. Janet has a pristine tone and a unique style, just not the volume or the proclivity for extended arpeggios that is highly valued for female vocalists. She’s often been dismissed out-of-hand because she doesn’t sing that way.

It’s simplistic to judge the artistic merit of music by how loud it is. What’s important is the feeling that it evokes in the listener. Janet’s thoughtful approach to her projects, from Control in 1986 to Unbreakable in 2015, has always kept this ideal in mind.

It’s unclear whether the RRHOF voters made those kinds of distinctions when selecting Janet. But it’s clear she could not have sold millions or records or held the adoration and loyalty of her fans without that understanding. And the impact she has had on our lives is part of what the voters were to consider when they made their selections. Further, the fact that she could have the impact she did, doing things the way she did them, further influenced other artists who came after her.

When I listen to a Janet album, I’m not just hearing someone singing. I’m experiencing someone being. With Janet’s induction in the RRHOF, both her legacy and that part of me that feels her art have been vindicated.

From Me to You

Hi, I’d like to re-introduce myself. My name is Micah, and I seem to have misplaced my blog. I left it here about a year ago. Have you seen it?

Oh, wait. Here it is. Can you watch it for me briefly? I’ll be right back.