Media New Year’s Resolutions

In 2010, I won’t be making any comment on politics and the media. Everything I post, no matter how well-intentioned, spawns a comment thread that I really don’t enjoy. And a lot of it is based on political beliefs that I don’t necessarily have. My comments aren’t driven by a desire to favor one party or one politician. They’re driven by a frustration that the truth is being obscured. Basically, we in the media are getting played like a Mike Mangini drum kit.

So before I shut my mouth, I’d like to make one humble suggestion for the media in 2010: It’s time for a reverse McCarthyism.

Here’s what I mean: McCarthy was a master manipulator of the press. He knew when to make his statements to coincide with press deadlines. Wire services put the newest info first; most newspapers cut wire stories from the bottom up. The result: A lot of newspapers with a whole lot of unchallenged McCarthy statements. (See Joe McCarthy and the Press, by Edwin Bayley.) Edward R. Murrow changed all that by challenging McCarthy and calling out his misstatements.

We couldn’t get played like that again, could we?

Here are a look media manipulation, then and now:

Similarity Then Now
Media weaknesses Deadline structure
Reticence to challenge officials
Focus on conflict and snark
Postmodernist “all viewpoints are valid” approach
Lack of time
Exploited by … Well-timed releases
Spurious claims
Outlandish, misleading or incorrect statements
Populist/paranoid appeal Anti-Communism
Anti-intellectual
Anti-tax
Anti-intellectual
Anti-war
Anti-terrorism

So the challenge for journalists in the coming year will be to channel their inner Murrow (or Jon Stewart) and challenge what they’re hearing. If that appears to favor one “side” in the oversimplified red-blue political divide, tough. Maybe discrediting some of the more extreme folks on one “side” will let more reasonable voices come to the fore.

Good luck with that. In the meantime, I’ll be tuning out a lot and reading some alternative media. Maybe even some books.

Happy 2010, everyone.

Does Death Cab for Cutie need a hug?

I don’t read as many album reviews as I did in my late teens and early 20s, so I was pleased to see from this insightful Rolling Stone review that the art form isn’t dead.

The key sentence, repeated on the Wikipedia entry for the album, is this: “The result is a dark, strangely compelling record that trades the group’s bright melancholy for something nearer to despair.”

I’m not an expert on DCFC by any means, having just gotten past the name (had I known it came from Neil Innes, I would’ve made the leap sooner) and heard some wonderful songs on Pandora. But I can tell that they walk a very fine line in their exploration of melancholy places — sometimes brilliant, sometimes whiny. Aimee Mann walks that line as well, though when she falls short, her efforts just sound dreary. DCFC runs the risk of lapsing into a depressed 16-year-old’s journal entry.

Let’s make this clear first: Narrow Stairs is a very good album. Most of the album’s best offerings are uplifting in some way despite the subject matter. Cath … takes care not to judge too harshly when someone gives up a bit of passion to marry the “well-intentioned man.” Grapevine Fires captures the anxiety and impending sense of loss while watching wildfires sweep over neighborhoods while sounding a few notes of resilience. My favorite song that hasn’t had wide release is Your New Twin-Sized Bed, which is written in second person and gently prods the subject not to give up so easily.

Judging from the comments rounded up in the Wikipedia entry, the band was worried about releasing I Will Possess Your Heart, written from a stalker’s point of view. They needn’t have worried. It’s really no different in theme from Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, and it’s just as well-written.

For me, any controversy begins with No Sunlight. The bouncy melody and enthusiastic first verse disguises the fact that the rest of the lyrics are completely nihilistic. It’s a clever artistic technique to have lyrics and music so different in tone, but the lyrics are just too lazy for the song to work. Perhaps if it were a little more ironic, it would work as some sort of “Oh, they’ll be hanging me in the morning” death song you’d expect from the Irish, but it’s all too simple. When the protagonist was young, the sun was shining and he loved it. Then as he got older, clouds formed, and he didn’t like it. That’s disappointing.

The album closer, The Ice Is Getting Thinner, is just as disappointing. It’s entirely too hopeless and entirely too simple.

Also disappointing is the video for Grapevine Fires, which removes one interesting theme in the lyrics — a little girl dancing in a cemetery — and substitutes a storyline in which a main character’s girlfriend is devoured by the fire, either metaphorically or literally. Once again, the complexities are removed, and we’re left with something a little too heavy-handed, like those latter-day ER episodes in which they just tried to outdo themselves in tragedy.

The point here isn’t to pick on Death Cab for Cutie, not when they’re clearly a cut above their peers. This is constructive criticism. Musically, every song on this album is interesting. Most of the songs also have something to offer lyrically. They’re capable of greatness, and they achieve it on several songs here and a soundtrack offering called Meet Me On the Equinox, a breathless take on the old “carpe diem” sentiment. They just need to remember to pull back from the edge and take another look at the scenes they’re painting when they get too close to hopelessness.

Going back to my music-magazine-devouring days, I remember Husker Du sounding a bit of regret over their mope-rock album Candy Apple Grey, saying they had a few fans with dark circles under the eyes coming up and saying, “I really loved that album.” Like Candy Apple Grey, Narrow Stairs captures a band at the peak of its musical power. Husker Du added some musical savvy to a punk-rock foundation; Death Cab for Cutie has extraordinary melodic talent.

Husker Du’s Bob Mould broke into a pretty good solo career with a song called See a Little Light. Perhaps a little light would help the gifted Death Cab for Cutie reach the next level and produce a masterpiece with their next release.