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John Jeremiah Sullivan: An Appreciation

This week, John Jeremiah Sullivan was among the winners of the Windham Campbell Prize alongside Geoff Dyer and Edmund de Waal in the nonfiction category — an honor that comes with $150,000. Sullivan is the Southern editor of the Paris Review, and an all around gem in contemporary literary non-fiction. If you're tempted to despair at the state of that particular genre, Sullivan's work is a counter-argument.

His long-form essays pop up everywhere from GQ, the New York Times Magazine, to the food journal Lucky Peach, and they're never boring or predictable. This owes a lot to his deep research and attention to detail which lets his subjects shine through in all their particular weirdness.

Take, for example, his profile on former star of the reality show The Real World, nicknamed "the Miz." Even only knowing that piece's premise, it is easy to see how Sullivan could have played his subject matter for laughs. "The Miz" is one of a host of reality television stars who make club appearances for a living after their show has aired, but Sullivan doesn't stand apart from the circus and point. The Miz comes across as someone you could have known once. Even more, Sullivan is willing to say more than the obvious about reality television — in all its staged feelings and produced hot-tub scenes — and its appeal, then go ahead and implicate everyone.

And I just get so exhausted with my countrypeople—you know the ones, the ones you run into who are all like, "Oh gosh, reality TV? I've never even seen it. Is it really that interesting?"...To me that's about as noble as being like, "Oh, Nagasaki? I've never even heard of that!" This is us, bros. This is our nation. A people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.

Did I mention he's funny? He's really funny.

I particularly wanted to point out one of his more well-known essays, Upon This Rock, which also originally appeared in GQ. Sullivan goes to a Christian music festival — a curious event in itself — but about halfway into the piece's 11,000 words, we discover that Sullivan was once a creature of that vibrant evangelical subculture. So while the essay describes the bands, the Christian rock industry and its colorful fans, it's about confronting a faith that has died, but still haunts you. "I love Jesus Christ," he admits.

 "...Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can't I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?

Because once you've known Him as God, it's hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won't slacken.

Sullivan is both faithful to his old faith, and his current disbelief. This might be a strange description of an 11,000 magazine article, but it's full of restraint. Toward the end, he concludes of his new festival-going friends, "They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were."

Dylan Does It His Way

How should one approach Shadows in the Night, the new Bob Dylan collection of American standards once sung by Frank Sinatra? With curiosity, of course, or curiosity tinged with dread, or a roll of the eyes at the adoption of this latest persona. Or, if you're among the legions of indefatigable disciples and completists, with advance purchase and ravenous consumption. After a critic friend warned me a couple of months ago the disc would include "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, we traded emails trying to one-up each other with versions of the lyric "once you have found her never let her go" in imagined Dylanese (his winning entry: "Once yubba fondue Lehigh Lego glue"). Thus add ridicule to one of the possible prejudgments, though both of us should have known better than to underestimate Dylan.

Which isn't to say Shadows in the Night is a great record. Everyone has accepted that a new Blood on the Tracks or Desire, to say nothing of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, is not in the cards. But of the studio recordings it's no Infidels or Knocked Out Loaded or Shot of Love; four listens in, I can say easily and with relief that it's not an embarrassment. It's definitely weird; it may even be good.

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Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Pentatonix is the hottest a capella group in American pop music.  They've got the biggest selling 2014 Christmas album; and it opens with "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".  It is---and is not---your grandmother's "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", thereby hinting at both the timelessness of Christ's birth and the ways in which each generation can (and does, and must) make the celebration come alive anew. 

Merry Christmas.

 

No Room At The Inn

Building from Pops Staples' incantatory, heavy-reverb electric guitar lines, and raised up by the tight vocal harmonies of his children, this slowed-down version of "No Room At The Inn" from The Staple Singers is about as deeply rooted in the eschatological and prophetic traditions as any Advent song.

It also fits neatly with the Ignatian practice of reading and praying the scriptures, as the narrator vividly imagines---in her own Jim Crow context---the scene from Luke 2:7 ("Well, there was the bellboy, the porter, and the waitress and the maid and the cook") and places herself in it, not just as a passive observer but as an active participant:

    "I'm gonna be there (a witness);

    In that great judgment day, when we all hear them say how they drove poor Mary away;

    They had no room at the inn; they had no room, had no room….

The Yale ISM Review

I am pleased to share with the readers of the blog a project I’ve been working on: a new online publication of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. It’s called The Yale ISM Review, and I’m the general editor. It’s an open-access publication for practitioners of sacred music, worship, and the related arts, and anyone else who may be interested. It includes contributions from Yale faculty and other leaders in the field. I’ve had a lot of fun working on it, and the initial responses we’ve received have been very positive. I hope you'll enjoy it.

The theme of the first issue is song. My introduction to the issue explains why we chose that topic. I’d welcome comments or questions, and of course I’d encourage you to subscribe! It’s absolutely free. If you know anyone who might be interested please feel free to share the link.
 

Here’s the press release, for more information.  

Biggest literary influence on The Boss? Flannery O'Connor.

When we talk about the American "Catholic Imagination" in literature and the arts, the work of Flannery O'Connor is a sine qua non. Teaching on this subject, I often surprise people by juxtaposing her fiction writing not with Graham Greene or another great Catholic novelist, but rather with the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen.

Considering The Boss's oeuvre in this light is neither flight of fancy nor mere excuse to play music in class. The topic has been covered in the pages of Commonweal, the man effusively praised on the blog, and his stature confirmed back in 1998 by none less than Andrew Greeley, the scholar perhaps most associated with the analysis of the Catholic imagination.

Now it's true that Springsteen has cited Flannery O'Connor before, but I have not seen a quote as exquisite and evocative as this, from an interview in this weekend's New York Times. The reporter asks:

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

And then Springsteen, who had earlier in the interview already cited O'Connor as the first author to influence his career as a songwriter, offers this assessment of his top literary influence:

One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.

Perhaps he has the final scenes of the short story "Revelation" in mind, but really the quote encapsulates so much of what haunts O'Connor's world -- and thereby the American Catholic imagination writ large.

It is the mystery that does not confuse but halts through wonder; the experience of all life as both suffering and glory; the stubborn refusal to separate nature and grace.

 

The Velvet-toned Tenor

Today's New York Times reports:

Carlo Bergonzi, one of the 20th century’s most distinguished operatic tenors, renowned for the refined interpretive taste and keen musical intelligence he brought to his art, died on Friday in Milan. He was 90.

“More than the sound of the voice, it is Mr. Bergonzi’s way of using it that is so special,” Peter G. Davis, reviewing a 1978 Carnegie Hall recital by Mr. Bergonzi, wrote in The New York Times. “He is a natural singer in that everything he does seems right and inevitable — the artful phrasing, the coloristic variety, the perfectly positioned accents, the theatrical sense of well-proportioned climaxes, the honest emotional fervor. Best of all, Mr. Bergonzi obviously uses these effects artistically because he feels them rather than intellectualizes them — a rare instinctual gift, possibly the most precious one any musician can possess.”

Bergonzi began his operatic career as a baritone, only later discovering his true tenor voice. Listening to him was always a joy, tinged at times with a certain angst. Would he succeed in navigating the notoriously difficult b-flat at the end of "Celeste Aida" – the aria at the very beginning of the first act of Verdi's opera? But so artful was Bergonzi's phrasing and so articulate his declamation that even when he cracked, he cracked elegantly.

Pentecost Song - Holy Spirit

Dorothy Norwood began her gospel music career in 1943 and her solo recording career spans five decades.  In the early 1960s she was part of The Caravans which, in the world of gospel music, is a more or less unimpeachable credential.  (It's like being part of Miles Davis' first great quintet, or the championship Boston Celtics teams of the same era.)

Norwood's "Holy Spirit" isn't just a Pentecost song.  It's a song that captures, I think, something of what happened with Jesus' followers in what we celebrate today as Pentecost.

From its opening bass/high-hat note and the slow, deep groove that follows, “Holy Spirit” announces that we’re dealing with matters of the utmost seriousness.  If it’s not a matter of life and death, then it’s at least a matter of whether life will be worth living.  When that much hangs in the balance, then it’s time to pray—and sing—with every fiber of your being.

We can’t do nothing Lord, until you
Come on in the room;
Bless my soul.

We need your power…
We need the fire;
Come on in the room.

Happy Pentecost.

 

Holding Steady with DFW

The Hold Steady--my favorite band and the subject of a great post here by Eric Bugyis--just came out with a new album called Teeth Dreams. It offers all the pleasures fans have come to expect from the best bar band in America: smart lyrics, rocking music, and an epic, 9-minute song to cap things off. It also offers an example of one great writer, the band's Craig Finn, responding to another: David Foster Wallace.

In several interviews, Finn has talked about how his reading of Infinite Jest--twice, no less!--while working on the album helped shape its particular vision of "American sadness":

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The Singing Nun Is Singing A New Song

Sr. Cristina Scucchia of the Sisters of the Holy Family rocked the house and wowed the judges on the Italian edition of "The Voice" with her cover of Alicia Keys' chart-topping 2007 hit, "No One".

(Check out the reactions of the judges, especially at 1:04.)

 

Commonweal Meets the Beatles

In an earlier post I linked to this L.A. Times roundup of short-sighted critical reactions to the Beatles' first U.S. appearance, fifty years ago this week. It all reminded me of a favorite passage from Muriel Spark's short stories (in this case, from the 1967 story "Alice Long's Dachshunds"):

Sister Monica has said that there is no harm in the Beatles, and then Mamie felt indignant because it showed Sister Monica did not properly appreciate them. She ought to lump them together with things like whisky, smoking, and sex; the Beatles are quite good enough to be forbidden.

Commonweal didn't properly appreciate the Beatles at first, either, though it didn't get around to mentioning them until September 4, 1964. Then, the editors wrote:

Is there any connection between the fact that the Beatles' latest movie received good reviews in New York and Clare Boothe Luce's candidacy for U.S. Senator? As of yet there is no evidence; but, it is said, the FBI is investigating.

Ho ho. But to be fair, it took a lot of people by surprise when A Hard Day's Night -- not just the "latest" but the first Beatles movie, released in July '64 -- was met with critical acclaim. It didn't have to be good to be a financial success, after all. But good it was. Commonweal's film critic, Philip T. Hartung, contributed his own bemused but positive review in the magazine's next issue (September 18, 1964): "No doubt the biggest surprise of the summer was an English film, A Hard Day's Night, in which the Beatles turned up and proved that these four lads have more than so-so voices and mops of hair.... They are completely unpretentious and have sense enough to make fun of themselves along with everyone else."

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Meeting the Beatles

Of all the commemorations of the Beatles' arrival on these shores fifty years ago, my favorite is this roundup of hilarious-in-retrospect negative critical reactions, compiled by Cary Schneider at the Los Angeles Times. While teenagers were falling over each other to get a glimpse of a Beatle (and paying good money for mop-top novelty wigs), cultural critics were trying to outdo one another in expressing contempt for the flash-in-the-pan Fab Four.

That critics would have rolled their eyes at the hype is understandable. That they would have gone out of their way to proclaim the Beatles' music without merit is bizarre. And yet, as this roundup shows, one serious person after another declared confidently that the group owed no part of its fame to talent: "Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well," sniffed the L.A. Times. William F. Buckley, as usual putting a little too much effort into seeming totally above it all, proclaimed, "They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as 'anti-popes.'" And Newsweek said, "Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody."

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24 Hours of Happy

Pharrell Williams is arguably the most influential producer in the American music industry.  He's also a talented and successful singer, rapper, songwriter and musician.

On first listen, his latest hit song, "Happy", is four minutes of pure pop confection---one written for the soundtrack of Universal Pictures' billion-dollar hit movie Despicable Me 2

The video is a sweet confection too:  shots of Pharrell and seemingly random Angelenos lip-synching and dancing around their city to the song.  (Because this is Los Angeles, it also includes celebrities like Kelly Osborne, Magic Johnson and Steve Carell.  Because there's a movie tie-in, it includes characters from Despicable Me 2.)

But "Happy" is much more than that, because there's "24 Hours of Happy".

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Dream Baby Dream

"Dream Baby Dream" is a 1977 song by the more-influential-than-successful punk band, Suicide.  This new version by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band meets what I've come to think of as the First Rule of Cover Songs:  You've got to bring something new to it.

Musically, Springsteen and his band fill out the empty spaces in "Dream Baby Dream" and smooth off its rough edges, beginning with just an old pump organ, slowly building to a climax and then receding back to silence.  It's no longer a young man's nervous, edgy song.  It's an old man's prayer, infused by the hard-earned wisdom of his life's ups and downs.

Visually, editor Thom Zimny captures the quasi-religious nature of Springsteen's live performances with the E Street Band:  the ecstatic peaks of mass communion, the quiet, interior moments of contemplation reflected on individual faces, the call-and-response exchanges---both among the musicians and between them and the audience. 

Towards the end there is---as there was each night throughout the last tour---a brief "communion with the saints" as images of deceased longtime bandmates Danny Federici (organist) and Clarence Clemons (saxophonist) flash on the screen.

As marketing ramps up for the release next week of Bruce Springsteen's new album, High Hopes, it would be a shame if this lovely song and video---released in October at the end of his last tour as a kind of thank-you card to his fans---got overlooked.

Waltzing Around

Because I am reading voraciously about WWI, the Vienna Philharmonic's 2014 New Year's Day Concert raised this question: Was the waltzing around that accompanied the Austrian invasion of Serbia in 1914 a sign of a society that had lost touch with reality? Post here.

Monday's NYTimes (Jan 6), sees the orchestra squarely in another context, the lead up to and WWII. This self-governing body was in tune with Hitler's agenda, including dismissing its Jewish members. James Oestreich (what an appropriate surname!) reviewing this year's performance, "Waltzing Right Past History in Austria," notes several efforts the orchestra has made to remember and acknowledge its past trangressions.

This year's guest conducter, Argentinian-Israeli Daniel Barenboim, while demurring from entering into the orchestra's past history, had this to say, “How much guilt do you want to distribute to people who came four or five generations later?” he said. “Admitting responsibility is always a good thing, and the Vienna Philharmonic has done that.”

 

Again I Say Rejoice

Israel Houghton’s exuberant “Again I Say Rejoice” seems appropriate for Gaudete Sunday.

Rejoice!

Throwback Thursday: Sr. Janet Mead’s gold record

If you were near a radio in the mid-seventies you probably heard a lot of Janet Mead, even if you didn’t necessarily know who Janet Mead was. Her “rock” recording “The Lord’s Prayer” was, as they say in the business, burning up the charts in the late winter and early spring of 1974, peaking at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100--during Holy Week, as it happened.

Peaking, but never really going away, and not just because the song embodied what the word “earworm” must have been coined to describe. It became a Sunday-morning staple on New York’s WOR, to which the knob on my parents’ car radio was permanently fixed. The song seemed stuck in heavy rotation—programmed to play repeatedly during the hours we’d likely be on our way to and from Mass—in the years between my communion and confirmation, a period that spanned three presidencies, three papacies, and, closer to home, the loyal service of three different Plymouth station wagons.

What I didn’t know then was that Janet Mead was Sister Janet Mead, of the Sisters of Mercy order in Australia, where she taught music at a pair of Catholic schools. Originally recorded as a B-side, “The Lord’s Prayer” ultimately went gold—selling more than two million copies in the U.S. (more than three million internationally).

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The Theology of Hip-Hop: Marshall Mathers Edition

If you never thought of rapper Eminem as an artist to turn to for theological insights on the nature and meaning of kairos and kenosis, join the crowd.

However, after viewing this sanctified version of his Oscar-winning 2007 hit single, "Lose Yourself", sung by the Selected of God gospel choir, you might change your mind.

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment;
You own it, you better never let it go.
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow;
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.

New stories on the homepage

Three new stories on the homepage today, including a piece by the editors on the actions of Eric Snowden and their implications for privacy and national security:

It is axiomatic that fighting clandestine terrorist groups requires clandestine methods. Sources and allies must be protected; in preemptive actions the element of surprise must be preserved. Secrets about ongoing investigations cannot be compromised without jeopardizing counterterrorism efforts. It is harder to justify keeping such details secret after the fact. Judgments about the trade-offs between privacy and safety cannot be made unless the American people know what the government has done in our name. Even if everything the government does to combat terrorism is technically legal, not everything legal is prudent, wise, or morally justified.

As a nation, we rely on a system of checks and balances to prevent an excessive concentration of state power. Those checks and balances are strained to the breaking point during times of war, and especially during a war as ill-defined and open-ended as the fight against terrorism. Congress is notoriously pusillanimous when it comes to national-security issues. The courts, meanwhile, are loath to intervene, preferring to leave the conduct of “war” to the other two branches. The executive rarely passes up an opportunity to expand its war-making powers. The result is the steady accumulation of influence by the nation’s security agencies. As political philosopher and former Clinton administration official William A. Galston recently observed, “It may be true that as currently staffed and administered, the new institutions of surveillance do not threaten our liberties. It is also true that in the wrong hands, they would make it much easier to do so.”

Also, E. J. Dionne Jr. comments on the political activism of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing in light of this week’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act:

Whenever conservatives on the court have had the opportunity to tilt the playing field toward their own side, they have done so. And in other recent cases, the court has weakened the capacity of Americans to take on corporate power. The conservative majority seems determined to bring us back to the Gilded Age of the 1890s.

The voting rights decision should be seen as following a pattern set by the rulings in Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Citizens United in 2010.

Bush v. Gore had the effect of installing the conservatives’ choice in the White House and allowed him to influence the court’s subsequent direction with his appointments of Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Citizens United swept aside a tradition going back to the Progressive Era -- and to the Founders’ deep concern over political corruption -- by vastly increasing the power of corporate and monied interests in the electoral sphere.

Tuesday’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling will make it far more difficult for African-Americans to challenge unfair electoral and districting practices. For many states, it will be a Magna Carta to make voting more difficult if they wish to.

The Constitution, through the 14th and 15th Amendments, gives Congress a strong mandate to offer federal redress against discriminatory and regressive actions by state and local governments. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her scalding but very precise dissent, “a governing political coalition has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power.”

Finally, Eve Tushnet writes on the Metropolitan Opera’s recent production of Frances Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites:

This is an opera of questions. The questions are spiritual and psychological rather than historical. Dialogues isn’t especially interested in the French Revolution as such…. [F]or the most part you could set Dialogues in the Roman Empire under Diocletian and its central concerns would be the same. What does it mean to die well? Are there bad ways to be a martyr for Christ? If you die for God, does that cancel out all your prior weakness and irresolution? And conversely, if you die in fear and anguish, is that the final verdict on your life despite all the courage you showed in better days?