Saturday, April 27, 2024

Thoughts inspired by Taylor Swift’s 31-song notebook dump

What a haunting, inescapable riddle life was.

— Walter de la Mare, born on this date in 1873

DAMON LINKER: Thoughts inspired by Taylor Swift’s 31-song notebook dump.

Bruce Springsteen gave Dylan a run for his money as a curatorial editor, especially in the years when he was most prolific. The Boss reportedly recorded as many as 70 songs for his fourth record, Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). The final album included 10 of them. Springsteen gave away several songs to other artists, held onto others for his next album, and left the overwhelming majority of them in the vault. When 20 or so of them were released in a few batches decades later, fans were shocked by how many of the abandoned songs were gems. But Springsteen considered them either too derivative of other artists or too overtly commercial to fit his stark, uncompromising vision for the Darkness album.

The same thing happened with his next album, The River(1981). Springsteen and the E Street Band recorded something on the order to 50 songs in several sessions. One version of the final album included ten songs. Then Springsteen changed his mind and expanded the project into his first and only double album of new material. The final version included 20 songs, which meant another 30 were left behind. Once again, the extraordinarily high quality of the abandoned songs thrilled his fans when many of them were released a number of years later.


Now imagine Springsteen’s early career took place in the streaming era, without the constraints imposed by vinyl pressings and the need to produce and ship a physical product. In this alternative timeline, the Boss puts out almost everything. In addition to the 30 songs he actually released in those years, he releases 40 more. That could have meant four more single albums of new songs from the Boss in these crucial years of his career. As I’ve noted, there’s an abundance of great material there. Many fans would have been ecstatic. But what would have been the artistic consequence of flooding the market in this way?

Most likely, Springsteen and his fantastic band would have come to be known as prolific craftsmen of highly enjoyable pop songs and expert musical ventriloquists capable of mimicking the sound of a 1950s ballad on one track and the amped-up punk aggression of The Clash on the next. They might have sold a lot more records, but they also might have sold fewer, as Springsteen lost much of his distinctiveness as an artist, and his universe of fans was kept fat and happy with a steady diet of new material and never left hungry for more.

Good-Enough Songs

The past five years have been a period of mind-boggling productivity for Taylor Swift. By my rough count, she has released 138 “new” songs since August 2019. (This includes the track listings of the new studio albums LoverFolkloreEvermoreMidnights, and TheTortured Poets Department: The Anthology, plus the vault tracks/outtakes/b-sides included on the re-recordings of her albums FearlessRedSpeak Now, and 1989.)

In terms of quantity, that’s an extraordinary songwriting accomplishment. But I wonder if the volume of output—especially with her latest release—speaks to a failure or disregard of curatorial editing. It’s one thing to release 17 songs on Folklore and then another stylistically similar 17 on Evermore five months later. It’s a lot, but at least listeners had some time to digest the first batch before the second was dropped into their laps. But now imagine she combined the two albums into a single record with only the very best songs from each included, holding the rest for release years or decades from now. Wouldn’t that have been better, elevating this imagined single album above the extremely accomplished records she actually did release?

What happened on Friday of last week is as far away from such an approach as one could imagine. That’s when the previously announced 16-track new album was released but then became a 31-track magnum opus two hours later. This is a bigger version of what happened when Midnights was released in October 2022 with 13 tracks that became 20 later that night, when then the “3am Edition” dropped.

* * * * * * * *

It’s an old modern story: As external, received constraints on our choices are removed (through political reform, moral and theological liberalization, or technological advances), we are left with the burden of imposing constraints of our own choosing on ourselves—or else opting to give up on limitations altogether. I fear some of our greatest popular artists are showing signs of taking the latter path, and with less-than-entirely-positive results.

Of course, in just a few years, we’ll all look back at how quaint things were when songwriters actually had a process they carried around in their heads, instead of letting Brill Building GPT craft their material: What Happens to Songwriters When AI Can Generate Music?

QUESTION ASKED: What Happened To World War II Movies?

The year 2008 marked a curious transition in the national mood.

It was the year Barack Obama was elected president. [Pat] Buchanan published his contrarian “Churchill, Hitler and The Unnecessary War,”claiming that the World Wars were partially the cause of the West’s decline. It was also the year Quentin Tarantino directed “Inglourious Basterds”—a brutal satire of how war films are used as a tool of warfare and propaganda.

Some combination of stress from the financial crash, Obama-era moral relativism and ascendant isolationism fundamentally changed the public’s desires for constant WWII entertainment. Maybe people felt it was backward-looking or stale or merely had their minds on the present.

As a result, the tone of the genre changed.

“The Pacific,” “Red Tails,” “Fury,” “Midway,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Dunkirk,” “Greyhound” and “Masters of the Air” all felt more detached, less passionate, or more cynical than their predecessors. The sweeping orchestras and valor of prior WWII projects were replaced with reflections on the horror of death and the meaninglessness of war.

This turn away from the valorization of WWII actually began in the previous decade, in large part thanks to Harvey Weinstein, who bankrolled big screen adaptations of a number of morally-questionable novels, which were invariably Oscar-bait given their sharp contrast with the industry’s summertime obsession with “blowed up real good” action movies. As I wrote in 2017during Weinstein’s stunning fall from Hollywood superstardom:

2008’s The Reader is based on a bestselling, Oprah-approved German novel that attempts to wipe away German guilt for the Holocaust. It starred Kate Winslet as a sexy slimline version of Sgt. Schultz, who knew nothing – nothing! – while serving as a guard at a concentration camp, because she was illiterate (and apparently deaf as well). Regarding an earlier Weinstein WWII movie, as John Nolte wrote in 2010 at Big Hollywood,“For those of you who haven’t seen ‘The English Patient,’ just imagine what Satan would’ve done with ‘Casablanca:’”

This film’s appalling philosophy all comes together in the final act after Laszlo and Katharine’s wicked ways come home to roost and they find themselves stranded deep in the desert. He can walk the three days out but her ankle is broken. Having to leave her behind with only a few days’ supply of water and food, her mortality clock is ticking and after a series of complications back in civilization, our “hero” deliberately sells out the British — the West — to the Germans in order to secure the plane necessary to save Katharine. He gives the Nazis (the Nazis!) crucial maps. Afterwards, when he’s informed that this act likely caused the death of thousands of Allied soldiers and civilians, Laszlo’s reply is like something you would normally hear from a James Bond villain…

“Thousands of people die. They were just different people.”

….except that rather than be chilled and repulsed by this response, we’re supposed to put finger to chin and bask in the poetic profundity of it all.

Even Steven Spielberg, perhaps feeling guilty that Schindler’s List was a bit too on-the-nose, decided to get in on the act, in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, as Mark Steyn noted:

Purporting to be a recreation of the US landings on Omaha Beach, Private Ryan is actually an elite commando raid by Hollywood and the Hamptons to seize the past. After the spectacular D-Day prologue, the film settles down, Tom Hanks and his men are dispatched to rescue Matt Damon (the elusive Private Ryan) and Spielberg finds himself in need of the odd line of dialogue. Endeavouring to justify their mission to his unit, Hanks’s sergeant muses that, in years to come when they look back on the war, they’ll figure that ‘maybe saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we managed to pull out of this whole godawful mess’. Once upon a time, defeating Hitler and his Axis hordes bent on world domination would have been considered ‘one decent thing’. Even soppy liberals figured that keeping a few million more Jews from going to the gas chambers was ‘one decent thing’. When fashions in victim groups changed, ending the Nazi persecution of pink-triangled gays was still ‘one decent thing’. But, for Spielberg, the one decent thing is getting one GI joe back to his picturesque farmhouse in Iowa.

Saving Private Ryan isn’t an anti-war film in the sense that, say, principled pictures like All Quiet on the Western Front are. Instead, as usual with Spielberg, it’s his take on his own childhood: it’s an anti-war-film film. As far as the real war’s concerned, it seems to be too much for him to comprehend. In a few coherent interviews, he’s suggested that the war was worth fighting because it produced the baby boomers. But it’s flattering him to pretend he has any view on the war one way or another: with his customary lack of imagination, he simply cannot conceive of a world where men are prepared, quietly and without fanfare, to die for their country. Perhaps he has a point: in a narcissistic Clinto-Spielbergian culture, it’s hard to see what would now drive the general populace to risk their lives.

In that sense, Saving Private Ryan is the antithesis of Casablanca: the problems of one human being are what count; it’s all those vast impersonal war aims that don’t amount to a hill of beans. You’d have more confidence in this general proposition if Spielberg weren’t so wretchedly inadequate at conjuring vivid human beings: Hanks’s unit is a perfunctory round-up of single-trait types – one Jew, one coward, all very unmemorable. The nearest to a real human being in the film is General Marshall, not just because he’s played by the sturdy Harve Presnell but because Marshall is an actual real human being and thus the director has something to latch on to. Otherwise, Spielberg’s approach to making drama is as impersonal as Ike moving pins around the map in the

“Thousands of people die. They were just different people.”

As for the aforementioned Zone of Interest, it’s a massively overrated WWII movie that merely served as the preamble for its director’s trainwreck Academy Award speech:

Let us—because it’s been a moment since this lion of cinema rose up and roared at Hollywood—recall [Jonathan] Glazer’s fiery words.

“Right now,” he said from the stage of the Dolby Theatre, “we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people. Whether the victims of October—whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza, all the victims of this dehumanization, how do we resist?”

Some mirthless fusspots rushed to note that Glazer was awfully incoherent for a man who’d just won a very big award for writing a thinky film about Auschwitz called The Zone of Interest. Did he mean, they queried, that he and his two producers, who stood beside him, are themselves men who refute their Jewishness? Or merely that they refute the fact that their Jewishness had been hijacked by those who cheer on Israel’s military escapades? The meaning, the critics noted, was unclear.

Such nitpickery is missing the point. Glazer’s speech was stunning and brave because it demonstrated, like few addresses before it, and in front of 19.5 million viewers, the complete, total, and utter moral, spiritual, and intellectual bankruptcy of vast swaths of mainstream liberal Judaism.

In a few mumbly, stumbly sentences, Glazer laid out the credo shared by so many of our self-appointed intellectual and moral betters. In the beginning, goes this leftist theology, was “The Occupation,” the conflict’s cardinal sin, committed, alas, by the Jews. And The Occupation beget The Cycle of Violence, pitting the sons of Jacob against the sons of Ishmael, both righteous and both rightfully aggrieved and both, curses, capable of shedding blood. Israelis and Palestinians, in this telling, are coiled together like a big, bruised Ouroboros, with each fresh outrage prompting the snake to chomp just a bit further on its own tail. And to stop it, we need little more than for brave men and women to straighten the lapel of their tuxedos, smooth the hem of their dresses, put on a pin, and demand, politely but firmly, that the killing stop.

Interesting choice of pin, though:

Which answers in part the question posed by Tyler Hummel at Hollywood in Toto at the start of our post.