Trump press corps

I am not one for conspiracy theories but I’m beginning to wonder about what’s up with the feud between the Trump Administration and the press corps. They ostensibly hate each other but somehow this bickering redounds to the benefit of both of them.

TV news ratings surged during the 2016 political season, when the media gave the then-long shot candidate Trump billions of dollars in free publicity, and they haven’t abated much during the early days of his presidency. The print media seems to doing equally well, with the New York Times reporting a quarter million increase paid digital subscriptions last quarter.

Consider the case of CNN’s Jake Tapper, well-known to political junkies but relatively invisible to the vast American public – at least until he was the subject of a notorious Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Kellyanne Conway with a fatal attraction for being booked on his show. How many other political reporters have, like Tapper, seen their visibility soar since they started hooking horns with the Administration? Maybe someone like Rachel Maddow, whose All Trump All the Time diatribes have sent her ratings soaring?

For his part, Trump’s refusal to abide by the niceties of established presidential decorum has kept him front and center of the American consciousness almost every single day since January 20. Plus it makes him a big hero among that very sizable portion of the U.S. public that absolutely loathes the media.

I honestly don’t think news organizations understand the full extent to which conservatives despise them. If they did they wouldn’t wear it like a badge of honor or think they must be doing something right whenever conservatives complain. This antipathy predates Trump by thirty years and his willingness to endure media scorn is precisely what propelled him to power.

When Trump and the media go at it, they are like the codependent parents of a dysfunctional family and the rest of us are the innocent kids who wish they’d either stop fighting or just get divorced. It’s exhausting and there’s never a day off because whenever it starts to get normal, Trump will wake up on a Saturday morning and tweet something crazy, giving the media another excuse to go berserk when the rest of us would just like to take a nap.

The reason recent presidents have tried unconventional ways of communicating with the public is that traditional media have lost interest in being the main vehicle through which presidents get their message across. Two or three decades ago you could count on the president giving three or four major policy addresses a year, plus few annual primetime press conferences. These were all dutifully presented live on TV before huge audiences.

Then the networks, under competitive pressure from entertainment cable channels that had no intention of covering a presidential speech, decided there was no “news value” in primetime presidential addresses and dropped them altogether. Adieu primetime Oval Office speeches. What we got instead was the spectacle of the president of the United States appearing on Zack Galafanakis’s “Between Two Ferns,” Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee” and Mark Maron’s “WTF” podcast. It was a short step from that to Twitter.

To hear the media and the left tell it Trump’s attacks on the media are part of a secret plan to inaugurate American fascism. But what has he done besides name-calling? OK, it wasn’t nice to call them the “enemy of the people” or to blast them to their face in an impromptu press conference, but it was the Obama Administration that used the Espionage Act to go after whistle blowers who leaked to the press and who destroyed press privileges in the federal Fourth Circuit court with subpoenas against The New York Times reporter James Risen.

Oh sure, there is the incident in which White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer excluded The New York Times and CNN from a background briefing that was attended by Breitbart and The Washington Times. This has to be the most inconsequential inside baseball story in the young history of the Trump administration.

These small gatherings, called “gaggles,” involve a chosen few reporters who come into the press secretary’s office and get some background information. There is always a pool reporter present who reports back what was said so The New York Times and CNN were able to use that information to inform their readers and viewers of any news that transpired. And besides, remember when the Obama Administration tried to keep Fox News out of their briefings?

What GaggleGate boils down to is that Spicer was petty in not inviting some A-list reporters he didn’t like into his office and these reporters got their noses out of joint. For some reason this was national news.

Clearly there is no censorship or “chilling” of press freedom in this country. Trump gets pounded pretty good by the media every day, and I suspect he secretly likes it, being a practitioner of the “any news is good news” approach to publicity. The media doesn’t HAVE to go caterwauling every time Trump calls them a bad name, but if they didn’t they wouldn’t be able to call attention to themselves either.

So Trump and the media are having a jolly old time slugging it out with us, the innocent public, caught in the middle. This was starting to get old even before the Inauguration but now that we’re two months into the Presidency, can we please dial it back and hear about something else that’s happening in the world?

whcd-red-carpet

If Donald Trump manages to accomplish one positive thing it might be to drive a stake through the heart of the White House Correspondents dinner — that star-studded, multi-platform orgy of preening and mutual ego-stroking that seems to serve no purpose other than to give the Washington elite a chance to show how powerful and well-connected they are.

The annual dinner probably sounded like a good way to establish closer relations between Calvin Coolidge and the men who covered him back in 1924, when Presidents started attending.  President Coolidge was a famously tight-lipped guy so an off-the-record night of roast beef, cigars and brandy at fancy hotel undoubtedly helped to loosen everyone up and give reporters a better understanding of the president’s thoughts.

Since then the dinner has metastasized into a bizarre marriage of the worst of the Oscars and Davos.  Calls to end the extravaganza have increased over the years and Samantha Bee, for one, has launched an alternative gala, which is being called “Not the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”

And now Trump himself has said he won’t attend, which is not much of a surprise considering his feud with the press.  It would have been pretty hypocritical of all involved if he’d showed up and everyone had made light-hearted jokes about each other.

Back in the Reagan Administration, I attended one White House Correspondent’s dinner.  That was so long ago that the evening’s entertainment was a comedian that no one had ever heard of but who killed that night – Jay Leno.  This was also the notorious night that hooked the press corps on celebrity. I’m sure the Baltimore Star had no idea what they were unleashing when they invited Oliver North’s secretary, Fawn Hall, to sit at their table, but ever since then media outlets have competed to land the most talked-about guest.

fawn-hall

Until the Fawn Hall invitation, the informal rules for the dinner were pretty straight-forward.  Media organizations and lobbyists bought expensive tables and invited sources to sit with them.  These might be Senators and Representatives, White House staffers, agency press people – someone who had something to do with governing and who could be helpful to the media in their coverage of the government.

Fawn Hall changed all that because her appearance was so sensational. In 1987 she was Washington’s idea of a celebrity – in addition to being beautiful everyone at the dinner knew her through her televised testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings. She wasn’t at the dinner because she was a source but because she was a famous footnote to the biggest scandal of the 1980s.  All anybody could talk about that night was how the Baltimore Sun had snagged Fawn Hall and wasn’t that such a great idea to get someone who could lend some glamour to the occasion?

In the overall scheme of things, Fawn Hall was only a B Minus celebrity, but in the years to come, news organizations tried to one-up themselves with actual celebrities, including movie and TV stars, ranging from George Clooney and Steven Spielberg to Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan.  Vanity Fair started hosting an after-party and the cable news channels started to broadcast it live.

And now there’s a red carpet component: the idea that the White House Correspondents Dinner can justify having red carpet news coverage makes me want to puke.  Something else that revolts me is that people have started calling it the “Nerd Prom.”  Celebrities think that nerds are smart in addition to being antisocial so this is a self-deprecating way for them to imply there’s a hidden depth underneath all that glamour.

Aside from the red carpet, the main event at the dinner is the entertainment, in which, traditionally, the President makes self-deprecating jokes and the emcee, usually a comedian, makes snarky jokes about the President (if he’s a Republican) or snarky jokes about the President’s critics (if he’s a Democrat.)

President Obama was born for these events and his performances at the dinner were rapturously received.  Obama is smart, witty, and tied in with the cultural zeitgeist so his speeches and one-liners were snappier and funnier than the monologues of any late night hosts.  Last year, for example, Keegan-Michael Key for Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele” appeared as Luther, Obama’s anger translator, and “translated” Obama’s moderate comments into angry rants.  This of-the-moment humor, combined with the deft flattery of the White House press corps made Obama the undisputed star in a room full of Hollywood A-list actors.

There is no chance that President Trump could have hoped to match Obama’s performance.  He has no sense of humor, much less a self-deprecating sense of humor and the audience was unlikely to fall to their feet in supplication as they did to Obama.

Of course if Trump had wanted to play the inside Washington game he could have hired the best speechwriters and joke-smiths and shocked the world by offering an olive branch.  Nancy Reagan did exactly that when she performed a skit at the Gridiron Dinner singing “Second Hand Clothes,” which mocked her image as a clothes horse and White House China addict. By making fun of herself in front of the press she transformed from Marie Antoinette-like to a beloved Washington insider herself.

nancy-reagan-second-hand-clothing

Trump won’t play Nancy Reagan’s game.  He’s getting too much mileage out of his press feud and becoming their darling, no matter how temporarily, is not in his interest.  And that’s fine with me.  If the President is not at the dinner, it becomes exposed for what it is: not a nerd prom but a regular prom where the most popular and most beautiful people swagger and celebrate themselves. The White House press corps already think they’re pretty special, they don’t need a night to emphasize it.

meryl-streep-golden-globes

Remember those halcyon days when you could turn on a football game or awards show and not worry that you were going to be assaulted by someone’s inane political opinion?  Those were the days, way back in the early 2010’s.

We now live in a world where even a feel-good Budweiser ad can’t be shown during the Super Bowl without splitting the country in two over its purported political message.

As for the awards shows, they have become increasingly mouthy.  Even back in the Age of Obama, when award winners adored the president, they still found something to gripe about.  But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, Hollywood is melting down and the awards shows have become a major platform of dissent.

Meryl Streep, the industry’s grande dame, opened the floodgates with her anti-Trump tirade at the Golden Globes.   Then the SAG awards unleashed nearly a dozen speeches condemning the Administration.  The subsequent Director’s Guild Awards took it easy on the president – only five direct attacks.  As recently as last Saturday night, Streep doubled down at a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign and called Trump’s supporters “brown shirts,” a commonly used term for followers of Hitler. And then at the Grammys on Sunday, Busta Rhymes blasted “President Agent Orange.”

And into this environment comes the Academy Awards, the biggest stage of them all.  The Oscars show is usually the most-viewed non-football broadcast of the year.  It’s one of those special live events that keeps some people holding off on cord-cutting just a little while longer.

But while there is no official anti-Hollywood Oscar boycott in the works (not yet at least), there does seem to be considerable word-of-mouth chatter among Trump voters that this is the year to skip it.  I’m surprised by the number of people who have told me they won’t watch because of the politics.

This could be more than an idle threat.  In 2008, the left-leaning Jon Stewart delivered the least watched Oscar broadcast in history, drawing just 31.7 million viewers.  By 2015, the number of viewers had climbed back to 37.3 million but last year, in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, viewership fell back to 34.4 million.

Even if ABC and the Academy would like to see politics kept out of the ceremony, and they probably do, there’s no way for them to accomplish that.  For starters, there’s the case of the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign language film.  As a foreign national from one of the seven countries from which the Trump Administration suspended travel, Farhadi would have been prevented from coming to the U.S. if the travel pause hadn’t been suspended. He still might not attend in protest (and of course if the pause is reinstated by February 26, he will be officially shut out again).    Given that he is someone directly affected by a government policy, Farhardi becomes a potent symbol for Hollywood “resistance.”

Farhardi won the Oscar in 2012 for the excellent “A Separation” and would have been a favorite again this year, even without the martyred status.  Now, if there’s anything more certain than “La La Land” getting the best picture it’s an Oscar for “The Salesman” and a righteous speech by whomever is designated to accept on his behalf.

But if Farhardi has a legitimate reason to make a political statement, what’s the excuse from the fine folks who brought us “La La Land”?  If Ryan Gosling wins Best Actor is he going to mention that he’s an immigrant (albeit from Canada)?

“La La Land” is a lovely movie, but it’s a self-reverential paean to the movie-making industry itself and the fact that it is poised to win a slew of awards demonstrates what’s so aggravating about the political posturing at the Oscars.  After all, this is a movie about a white guy who wants to save Jazz from bastardizers like the African American bandleader played by John Legend.  Its hands aren’t exactly clean on the political correctness front.

The entertainment business is as brutally capitalistic as any industry in America, with a price tag applied to everything and executives who are as richly rewarded as you can get.  Male actors are routinely paid more than females.  By constantly portraying Muslims as terrorists Hollywood has done more to shape negative perceptions of Islam than any other institution in the country.  It doesn’t take much courage to stand up before a group of film colleagues and criticize Donald Trump.  It would take a lot more courage to criticize the industry itself.

Until now, conservative viewers have responded to the Oscars’ political speeches with bemused eye-rolling but in today’s hyper-politicized environment they might now be so forgiving.  We’ll know whether they voted with their eyeballs on February 27, when the ratings come out.

roger-goodell

The long football season comes to an end on Sunday with the annual nacho-fueled spectacle that is the Super Bowl.  It’s been a tough year for the NFL and its declining ratings, which means that it’s been a tough year for network television, which relies on the appeal of live viewing events to ward off cord-cutting.

The ratings decline was particularly severe in the beginning of the season when viewing declined by double-digit percentages.  Everyone had an opinion on this phenomenon, my own being that it was caused by an over-saturation of football, a lot of mediocre games, and a lack of positive story lines following the retirement of Peyton Manning, the suspension of Tom Brady and the underwhelming performance of other high-profile quarterbacks.

Of course anything as highly visible as pro football quickly becomes a huge target upon which we act out our personal obsessions, and in a white hot election year, the NFL quickly became tangled up in the political correctness debate, thanks to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.

I don’t think that the Kaepernick controversy actually eroded football viewing but it significantly infuriated many of the game’s most important constituencies and wiped out decades of effort by the league to wrap itself in the flag.  It got to a point where the right-wing Drudge Report was actively gloating each week about low NFL ratings.   When a lot of conservative white guys are actively rooting for your ratings to go down, you’re in a bad place if you’re a major sports league.

For its part, the NFL tried to blame the ratings slump on the election, the theory being, I suppose, that fans were out attending Donald Trump rallies on Sundays instead of staying home to watch football.   They claimed vindication of a sorts when it turned out that ratings were “only” down two percent in the six weeks after the election.    (Personally I think that it wasn’t until the final third of the season that the interesting storylines emerged.)

Better still for the NFL have been the play-offs.  When there was a good game the fans watched.  When the games stunk they didn’t.  For example, the thrilling Cowboys-Packers game on January 15, featuring two high-profile quarterbacks and a down-to-the-wire victory, was the most-watched NFL divisional play-off game ever.

For me, though, the relevant question is not why football ratings slumped this year but why they’ve soaring for the past few years in the first place?  In the last decade, football went from being a very popular sport to a hugely popular one.  For years and years the final episode of “M.A.S.H.” reigned supreme as the most-watched broadcast of all time, but since 2010 the Super Bowl has broken that record seven straight times.

And what’s particularly surprising about this rise in popularity is that it occurred just as we were coming to terms with the human cost of the concussions and other injuries inflicted on the players for our enjoyment.  Far from being turned off by literally watching fellow human beings beat their brains to mush, the American public actually embraced the sport even more enthusiastically.

For football to become more popular it had to expand its appeal beyond existing fans and convert casual viewers to regular ones.  It was able to do this via the rise in fantasy sports and online gambling, which gave fans a reason to watch more games with more intensity.  Even more important was the emergence of a new generation of charismatic quarterbacks who became the face of the league in the same way that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan revived the fortunes of the NBA in the 1980s.

In other words, the biggest threat to football’s long-term health isn’t cord-cutting but the poor quality of quarterbacks coming out of college.  Because college football is increasingly dominated by spread offenses and no-huddle play, recent QB prospects are not prepared to lead an NFL offense.  With Manning retired and Brady, Aaron Rogers, Tony Romo and Drew Brees growing long in the tooth, the NFL has been unable to nurture a new generation of appealing superstars.

There will be one more chance to check-in on the health of the NFL this year.  If the Super Bowl sets yet another record for viewership this year, the league will be able to breathe a sigh of relief that football remains hugely popular despite the hiccups in the beginning of the season.  And with much of the nation wondering whether Tom Brady will be in a position to smash the Lombardi trophy into the face of Commissioner Roger Goodell, that might just happen.

 

 

 

Gardens earned a poor reputation in the Bible. The two worst betrayals in history occur in Gardens. Humankind betrays God in the Garden of Eden and Judas betrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. So if a cynic were to write a hymn he’d call it, “Stay Out of the Garden.”

Fortunately Alan Miles, who wrote “In the Garden,” was no cynic. A pharmacist yes, but a cynic no. Miles later claimed that a vision inspired him to write this song as he sat at his desk with his Bible open to John Chapter 20. In this vision he witnessed the weeping Magdalene being comforted by the resurrected Savior. As soon as he awoke he wrote the lyrics fast — as quickly as they could be put down on paper, and exactly as they appear in the hymnal. Later that night he wrote the music.

Sometimes I wonder if Alan Miles was fully aware of the song he’d written. He would not be the first creator to misinterpret his own creation. Because when I read John 20, I get a sense of happiness and joy. This is the moment when Christianity begins.

But “In the Garden” the hymn is a not a happy song. The music sounds like a sad slow waltz and the words have a wistful elegiac quality to them. Here’s the final verse: “I’d stay in the garden with him, though the night around me be falling, but he bids me go, through the voice of woe, His voice to me is calling.” These regretful lyrics signal the end of something, not the beginning of a movement that would transform the world.

The reason “In the Garden” is meaningful to me is because it’s traditionally sung at our family’s funerals. I first became aware how powerful it could be after my grandmother died. My mother had arranged for a soloist to sing it from the balcony at the rear of the church and when she sang the chorus “and He walked with me and He talked with me and He told me I am his own” my cousins and their kids began — one by one — to weep.

We also sang this at my Aunt Lee’s funeral and later at my Uncle Wayne’s. As many of you know, my father died over the Christmas vacation. Before he went into the hospital he handed over a set of funeral instructions that, unbeknownst to us, he had been preparing over the course of several years. And sure enough, he asked that we sing “In the Garden” at his funeral. And we did.

I think “In the Garden” is popular at funerals because it offers a different kind of comfort than the kind provided to Mary Magdalene, and that the garden is a different kind of garden than we see in John.

To me the garden represents heaven, and in the first verse, when we sing, “I come to the Garden alone,” we are coming to see God. We have fought the good fight, we have finished the race, we have kept the faith. It is time for rest, it is time for God to tell us we are His own.

“In the Garden” seems like a farewell song, mixing optimism and sadness simultaneously. The hymn was written to comfort and I do find it comforting that someday we’ll be welcomed into paradise and have a personal conversation with God in the heavenly garden. I imagine a conversation where we tell Him our story, our concerns, and where we fell short. He’ll already know all this, of course, but He’ll listen like an attentive father.

This interpretation is very different from the one Alan Miles intended, but over the years it’s how I’ve come to relate to the hymn. In a way, it’s emblematic of how a hymn operates – making its meaning known after a lifetime of listening and singing. But regardless of what Alan Miles intended, I’m grateful for hymn because it’s brought me comfort and hope at some of the saddest times of my life.

 

disco_duck

I recently argued that 1968 was the greatest year in pop musicyou can make the case that maybe it was 1967 or 1969, but there’s no debate that the late sixties were pretty terrific.

So it’s shocking to consider that just eight years later we had what is probably the worst year in pop music.  I had completely forgotten how bad it was until I listened to Chris Molanphy reviewing the number one hits of 1976 on Slate’s “The Gist” podcast.  I listened to the podcast with growing incredulity as one terrible song followed another.  The year was full of novelty songs, easy listening hits and disco-influenced garbage.

How did this happen?  First of all, it’s important to mention that every year — even 1968 (remember “Honey“?) — has its share of schlock.  But 1976 was impressive for being dominated by schlock. (Here are the top 100 songs of the year.)

It’s easy to point to contemporary events to explain the artistic output of an era, and in 1976 the U.S. was coming out of a bad time, with Watergate, the Vietnam War, gas shortages, inflation and a lousy economy still fresh in people’s mind.  Arguably, the consequence could have been a turn to mindless music.

Then too, there was a rise in Album Oriented Radio, with many of the more serious music fans focusing on albums instead of singles.  Indeed, 1976 had some great albums, including Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life”, the Ramones eponymous album, David Bowie’s “Station to Station,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Bob Dylan’s “Desire.” None of these artists had major hits on the singles charts in 1976.

My own explanation is simpler: cultural trends go in cycles and the tremendous tidal wave of great music from the 1960s had exhausted itself with nothing left to replace it except disco.

In any event, on to the actual music.  Here are some highlights (lowlights?) from Molanphy’s podcast.

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

We’ll start with the one acceptable number one song of the year.  Believe it or not, this was Paul Simon’s only number one hit as a solo artist (he had three others with Simon and Garfunkel).  It’s not a bad song but is inferior to “Kodachrome,” “Graceland” and “You Can Call Me Al.”  It’s hard to remember what a major musical force Simon was in the 1970s, but he had a string of hits and was a frequent guest on Saturday Night Live (including the famed second episode, which put SNL on the map when he sang “Still Crazy After All Those Years” wearing a chicken suit.)

Disco Duck

From the best number one song of the year we now move to the worst. The problem with 1976 wasn’t disco per se, it was the way disco infected so many acts and spawned so many novelty songs.  Give Rick Dees credit.  He knew that the song was a joke, and maybe fun for about five minutes.  He even named his act “Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots,” suggesting that maybe this was a Mad Magazine spin-off.

A Fifth of Beethoven

Disco strikes again in a semi-novelty record.  Walter Murphy takes the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, some of the most famous musical phrases in music history and gives it a disco beat. Is nothing sacred for crying out loud?  The song, if you can call it that, is not exactly terrible, and how could it be with all that Beethoven?  It’s just deeply weird.  How weird?  The writing credit goes to “Ludwig von Beethoven  and Walter Murphy.”  Talk about cultural appropriation!!!  The song eventually appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, making Murphy a very rich man.

You Should be Dancing

The only pure disco song to top the charts in 1976, “You Should be Dancing,” is not bad a far as disco songs go.  It became even more famous the next year when John Travolta danced to it in Saturday Night Fever.  Oh, and The Brothers Gibb set a fashion style by flaunting their hairy chests, another trend that would not last.

Tonight’s The Night

Welcome to the 1970s, when Roman Polanski thought it was ok to seduce a 13-year-old and Woody Allen made a highly regarded movie about an older man’s affair with a 17-year-old. “Tonight’s the Night” fits right in there — a song about taking a young woman’s virginity that includes the line “spread your wings and let me come inside.”  This is the only number one hit that Rod Stewart wrote on his own, so it’s his full id on display.  Nice.

Afternoon Delight

People were obsessed about sex in the 1970s.  The sexual revolution of the 1960s went mainstream, as did porn (“Deep Throat”), “key parties,” the Playboy Mansion and divorce.  And here we have a number one song about having sex mid-day (“skyrockets in flight”).  The Starland Vocal Band won a Grammy for “Best New Artist” and then never had another hit single.  They did have a variety show for  six weeks in 1977; one of the show’s writers was David Letterman, so there’s that.

Convoy

Another huge fad in the mid-1970s was the CB Radio.  For about 20 years blue collar workers had used the citizen band frequency to communicate with each other. It became a mainstream fascination during the energy crisis when truck drivers started using the CB to evade the 55 mile-an-hour speed limit that the government had imposed to save gas.  The C.W. McCall song “Convoy” exploited that fad and eventually spawned a movie of the same name starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw.  Needles to say, like many other popular artists in 1976, C.W. McCall never had another pop hit.

Silly Love Songs

Now we come to the most popular song of 1976.  “Silly Love Songs,” was Paul McCartney’s answer to John Lennon, who claimed that McCartney wrote insipid love songs.  So Paul’s response was to write an insipid song with an underlying disco beat that asked the burning question, “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, and what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know?”  As Chris Molanphy points out, when “Silly Love Songs” became a massive hit, both Paul and John could point to the other and say “see, this proves my point.”  But really, Paul McCarney’s greatest songs, “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Penny Lane,” “Fool on the Hill”, “Back in the USSR,” and “Eleanor Rigby” were not even love songs so he had no reason to apologize.

So, what a year.  And yet out of the ash heap of 1976 arose new and exciting forms of music.  Stevie Wonder would reinvent R&B for a mainstream audience; Bruce Springsteen would breathe new life into rock; we’d see the birth of Punk and the emergence of New Wave rock stars like Blondie, Elvis Costello, the Talking Heads.  When Disco finally died whole new genres of exciting music were left standing.

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The One Great Song of 1976

Lest you think 1976 was a total loss, there was one terrific song in the year’s top 100.  Sitting way down there at number 72 was “I’m Easy,” the Keith Carradine song from the movie “Nashville.”  In the movie, which takes a sardonic look at American society through the lens of the Country music industry, Carradine plays a manipulative, womanizing folk singer.  It says something about 70’s taste that a gaunt, grungy, hollowed-eye guy like that would be considered such a sex symbol.  In the movie he sings this song to attract the middle class Lily Tomlin character, although three other women that he’s already slept with think he’s singing to THEM.  It’s a soulful sensitive song that actually does manage to seduce Tomlin, although she quickly sees through him. It’s still on my all-time top 20 after all these years and somehow it came out in 1976.

 

westworld

Is it fair to pop off about a television show you’ve never seen?  Must you remain silent at the water cooler when your colleagues are discussing a series that has never graced your TV screen?

In a world with 500 scripted TV shows and countless reality series, this is more than an academic question.  No one has the time to watch more than a sliver of contemporary TV content, but chatter about TV is everywhere — and who wants to miss out on the fun conversations?

The extravagant lead-up to the debut of HBO’s “Westworld” and my subsequent aversion to it got me thinking about this.  Initially intrigued by the premise of an adult theme park in the form of an old West town populated with humanoid robots, I was soon repulsed by warnings that the misogynistic male visitors raped, tortured and killed the female robots. I watched exactly one-minute of the series premiere before deciding, nope, don’t want to watch robot rape.  And yet a lot of people were talking about it.

But not watching the series hasn’t stopped me from having a strong opinion about it.  I know the show has intellectual and artistic ambitions and is ultimately supposed to be a meditation on artificial intelligence and the definition of humanity.  And I gather that the violence perpetrated by the flesh-and-blood characters raises questions about whether humans are really all that great in the first place.

So based on watching just one minute of the show, my official opinion is this: All the intellectualizing in the world doesn’t justify the soul-deadening depiction of brutality that is central to the show.  I just don’t want to become inured to violence by watching too much of it on TV.

Is that a valid opinion?  I don’t know for sure, because, you know, I’ve never actually watched the show.  The point is that I have a fairly well-informed opinion in the first place.

The reason I’m confident in my judgment is that when a new series makes a play to be a cultural event, a whole buzz-making industry swings into action.  First comes the in-network promos, teasing the show months ahead of time. Then come the traditional media ads, followed by the online ads.  Multi-episode screeners are mailed to the critics, who dutifully write reviews, first in legacy print publications and then online.

Then the podcasts begin – just about every critic has one, and if the show is important enough, it will get chewed over on dozens of them.  There will be tweets while the show is airing, and about a week or two later the thumb-sucking opinion pieces will start. maybe there will be one in the New York Times Arts section, followed by a commentary on that piece in Slate.  And if the network is really lucky, the show runner will be interviewed on “Fresh Air.”

In other words, if you’re interested in TV, you cannot escape knowing a lot about shows you don’t watch.

And once the buzz-making machine starts, there will be in-person discussions at work, at dinner parties, and family gatherings, when people desperate to find a connection start asking what each other TV shows they watch.

At this point you can either 1) interrogate the people who are watching the show and ask what they think, in order to make your opinions more fact-based, or 2) you can throw caution to the wind and start telling everyone else what YOU think, while carefully avoiding the fact that you don’t even watch the show.  I’ve followed both strategies, and found that you can definitely get away with faking it, because there’s a chance that your interlocutor is faking it too.

How many people have opined about “Downton Abbey” even though they gave up during the first season?  These folks probably have something to say about whether it was good idea to kill off Cousin Matthew regardless of whether they watched that episode.  Similarly, leading up to the “Mad Men” series finale, everyone seemed to have a point of view about whether Don Draper should die at the end.

This strategy doesn’t work for just scripted shows.  I’ve watched not a second of a “Real Housewives” episode, nor learned to tell the Kardashians apart — but I’m more than happy to weigh in on the merits of those shows. It’s not strictly ethical, but it’s not that different from commenting on “Fifty Shades of Grey” without cracking the book.

There are worse sins in the world than stealing other people’s opinions (maybe we should call it “plagiar-pining”).  You could, for example pretend to have read “Moby Dick” in your book group.  Somehow literary fakery seems worse than telling people what you think of Rick Perry’s performance on “Dancing With The Stars” without the concomitant viewing.

So I say, what the heck?  Jump into the conversation. But don’t lie outright about watching something you haven’t seen.  There are so many other ways to fake it.  Just act like a politician.