Thursday, February 29, 2024

A metrosexual Swiftie

One day when Miles was four, we went to the swimming pool. After some splashing, he began playing in a sandbox; I watched him and enjoyed the weather. Then I noticed that three boys who were maybe ten or eleven years old were looking at me and whispering to each other. That week, my visiting niece had painted my toenails, so I wondered if that had gotten their attention. Sure enough, one of them then pointed at my toenails and asked, "Are you metrosexual?" I remembered this story yesterday when I had all my fingernails painted in the ten colors Taylor Swift associates with her ten albums. I'm a metrosexual Swiftie! (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 29 February 2024)

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

The difficult but rewarding narrative promised by the opening of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986)

In our first discussion today of Kazuo Ishiguro's "An Artist of the Floating World" (1986), we concluded that the opening sentence of retired painter Masuji Ono's narrative not only provides directions to get to Ono's house but also offers instructions and encouragement for how to read the narrative as difficult but rewarding: "If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as ‘the Bridge of Hesitation’, you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees." This may be a "steep climb", but it promises visibility. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 27 February 2024)

Monday, February 26, 2024

Weaknesses for the sake of the despicable in “Great Expectations” (1861) and in my own life

In Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" (1861), when blacksmith Joe Gargery plans to visit his upwardly-mobile brother-in-law Pip in London, Pip is happy Joe will visit him at the apartment he shares with Herbert Pocket, and not at Herbert's parents' house, where the unpleasant Bentley Drummle also lives. Pip fears Drummle would look down at working-class Joe: “So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.” I'm reminded all too well of my schooldays: bullied myself, I rejected the interest of a charming girl who was just as unpopular as me, because my bullies would have made fun of us. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 26 February 2024) 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Music from the Alex Sipiagin Quartet at the Bird’s Eye, plus a marriage proposal (and some Taylor Swift)

Last night at the Bird's Eye in Basel, Alex Sipiagin (trumpet and flugelhorn) played two wonderful sets last night with a superb band: pianist Antonio Faraò, bassist Makar Novikov, and drummer Sasha Mashin. Sipiagin's son Nikita played alto saxophone on one tune. But one couple will remember more than the music: after the first set, a man proposed to his partner from the stage. She accepted; he gave her a ring. But I remembered the proposal rejected in Taylor Swift's "champagne problems": "Sometimes you just don't know the answer / 'Til someone's on their knees and asks you." Anyone making a public proposal better be sure the answer will be "yes". (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 25 February 2024) 

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Ed Yong’s “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us" (2022)

In his brilliant book "An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us" (2022), Ed Yong dedicates chapters to senses humans have as well as those only other animals have: smells and tastes, light, color, pain, heat, contact and flow, surface vibrations, sound, echoes, electric fields, and magnetic fields. The next-to-last chapter, "Uniting the Senses", considers how the senses an animal has come together to form each individual's view of the world, with an especially fascinating discussion of how animals distinguish their perceptions of the world from their perceptions of their own actions. The conclusion addresses "Threatened Sensescapes": how humans disrupt the senses of the world's other animals. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 24 February 2024)

Friday, February 23, 2024

The sound of Taylor Swift’s early and recent albums

In my preparation for my Taylor Swift course, which starts next week, I keep going through her albums in chronological order. Whenever I get to the end and go back to the beginning again, I experience a small shock: from the mostly sparse and often ambient textures of the three latest albums ("folklore", 2020; "evermore", 2020; "Midnights", 2022) back to the power pop country of 2006's "Taylor Swift" and 2008's “Fearless”). I don't dislike the latter; in fact, I find much in them to admire and appreciate. But to me, there’s much less space in the sound of the early records, less room for my kind of listener, in a sense. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 23 February 2024) 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

"He prophets most who bilks the best” (“Finnegans Wake”, 305.1-2)

"He prophets most who bilks the best": This line from James Joyce's “Finnegans Wake” (1939, 305.1-2) parodies the Rotary Club's 1911 motto, "He profits most who serves best." Instead of coming from service, Joyce's profit comes from fraud. And it is not just being the best fraud, but also defrauding the best people. Then, "profits" as "prophets" makes prophets not servants of the divine but rather frauds themselves, and prophecy becomes being "practiced at the art of deception" (to quote Mick Jagger in a Rolling Stones song from thirty years after "Finnegans Wake"). The combination of profit and prophecy – of capital and religion – thus makes for the best deception of all. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 22 February 2024)

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

After The Grateful Dead broke out “All Along the Watchtower” at Berkeley’s Greek Theater in June 1987

The Grateful Dead did a six-show tour with Bob Dylan in July 1987, first playing one or two sets and then backing Dylan for a final set. One way they began to prepare to be Dylan's band was to introduce "All Along the Watchtower" into their repertoire on 20 June 1987 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. As I was walking out of that show, I overheard a young woman say to a friend that it was cool they had played "that U2 song". A young man next to them piped up that it was "a Jimi Hendrix song". I chuckled and told all three it was a Dylan tune. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 21 February 2024)

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Andreas Schärer & Kalle Kalima in Romanshorn, 18 February 2024

On Sunday, 18 February, I went to Romanshorn to hear singer Andreas Schärer and guitarist Kalle Kalima perform as a duo. When Kalima took solos, Schärer would often become a percussionist with his multifaceted beatboxing mixed with other sounds – and again and again, I found myself laughing at the joy and humor of it. That in turn reminded me of my thoughts last year about listening to jazz as a comic rather than a tragic form. (For an excellent example of Schärer's mouth percussion, go to the five-minute mark of "Ukuhmaba" on the 2017 album "Out of Land", by Schärer, soprano saxophonist Emile Parisien, accordionist Vincent Peirani, and pianist Michael Wollny.) (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 20 February 2024)

Monday, February 19, 2024

When the right-wing militia suddenly came down from the hills

When the right-wing militia suddenly came down from the hills and swarmed through the town, I was home alone, and taken by surprise. All I could do was put on my shoes and a warm coat and grab my phone, my passport, and my allergy medication. I had no idea where my family was. I slipped out the back door of the apartment building and saw pillars of smoke rising in several places toward the Rhine, with flames sparking through some of them. Slipping through the allotments and past the psychological clinic, I walked the half-kilometer to the border and made it across minutes before French soldiers began to close it. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 19 February 2024) 

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Ages Hence

Ages Hence


At the corner of the bar, an old man in a gray suit and blue tie sits upright on his stool, a tall beer between his hands. Although he's by himself, his voice is loud. His patter shifts from the weekend's football games to a singer whose voice he's never liked, from long-lost bands he once loved to stories from his life, which all seem to come down to how he lived on a farm when he was younger and rode his horse down country roads. Each story ends with him sighing and wondering about moments when he had to make decisions that, he says, "made all the difference." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 18 February 2024)

Saturday, February 17, 2024

The parody of small-town Christmas movies in Taylor Swift’s “’tis the damn season” (2020)

Taylor Swift's "'tis the damn season" (from "evermore", 2020) reads like a parody of Christmas movies where a big-city professional goes to her hometown for the holidays and discovers wholesome smalltown values and true love. The woman in Swift's song does return to her childhood home and an old boyfriend from her school days: "I'm staying at my parents' house / And the road not taken looks real good now / And it always leads to you and my hometown." But she's not going to change what road she's taken: "I won't ask you to wait / If you don't ask me to stay / So I'll go back to LA." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 17 February 2024) 

Friday, February 16, 2024

Two perspectives on a dress: Greg Brown’s “If I Had Known” (1990) and Taylor Swift’s “Dress” (2017)

One of my favorite songs by the folk singer-songwriter Greg Brown is "If I Had Known", the opening song on his riveting 1990 album "Down in There". The third stanza contains a wonderful image embedded in the story of a night of sex on the roof under an August meteor shower: "Summer was invented for her to wear that dress." I like that line so much that sometimes, when I play the song, I stop there and sing the line unaccompanied. Taylor Swift's "Dress", from her 2017 album "reputation", offers a possible flip side of the man's perspective in Brown's song: "Only bought this dress so you could take it off." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 16 February 2024) 

Thursday, February 15, 2024

How the politics of scapegoating undermines the politics of responsibility

In “Die Politik der Schadensmaximierung“, his commentary in Republik on 10 February 2024, Daniel Binswanger connects a politics of maximizing damage with scapegoating: “Es gibt eine Politik, die Verantwortung übernimmt, und es gibt eine Politik, die nach Sündenböcken sucht.” But when a responsible politics serves people who need assistance of one kind or another (social welfare; unemployment compensation), a scapegoating politics will stigmatize the recipients of that receive assistance ("welfare mothers"; "lazy people on the dole"). Then those who support scapegoating will even refuse such assistance when they themselves need it – as when Republican-controlled states in the United States refuse to expand Medicaid even though it would help the states' citizens. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 15 February 2024)


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

“Never Grow Up” (Taylor Swift, 2010) and “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” (Tom Waits, 1992)

The first stanza of Taylor Swift's "Never Grow Up" (from "Speak Now", 2010/2023) addresses a toddler: "So I tuck you in, turn on your favourite nightlight." After the titular chorus, the second stanza addresses a teenager: "At fourteen, there's just so much you can't do." This adult perspective on a child or teenager reverses Tom Waits's similar "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" (from "Bone Machine", 1992), in which the child or teenager speaks: "Well, when I'm lying in my bed at night I don't wanna grow up." But Swift's final stanza shifts perspective to a young adult: "So here I am in my new apartment [...]. Wish I'd never grown up." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 14 February 2024)

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Recent shenanigans by the Republicans in the United States House of Representatives

First, Republicans in the United States House of Representatives said that they would not consider a foreign-aid bill for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan unless it also addressed the immigration situation, especially on the border between Mexico and the United States. When Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate put together an immigration bill that included many Republican demands, however, Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to consider it. Now Republican and Democratic Senators have passed a stand-alone foreign-aid bill – and Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson refuses to allow a vote on it because of "the absence of having received any single border policy change from the Senate." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 13 February 2024)

Monday, February 12, 2024

How you can tell that Donald Trump was never actually asked the question about a NATO country being attacked by Russia

At a presidential primary election campaign rally in South Carolina on Saturday, 10 February 2024, former United States President Donald Trump told a story about a question supposedly asked at a speech he supposedly gave about NATO: "One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, 'Well, sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us?'" But I can tell that he was never asked that question. After all, it may have been asked by "one of the presidents of a big country", but if it had happened, then that president would have been a "big man with tears streaming down his face." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 12 February 2024)

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Kings and queens in David Bowie’s “Heroes” (1977) and Taylor Swift’s “Long Live” (2010)

David Bowie's "Heroes" (the title song of his 1977 album) begins with a figure for the desire to experience power: "I, I will be king, / And you, you will be queen." But in this vision of a possible future, the power of romance is temporary: "We can be heroes, just for one day." Taylor Swift's "Long Live", from "Speak Now" (2010), which she has said she wrote for her band, turns to the same figure to capture an experience: "We are the kings and the queens." And again, that experience is fleeting: "'Cause for a moment, a band of thieves in ripped up jeans / Got to rule the world." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 11 February 2024)

Saturday, February 10, 2024

The absence of music and lyrics in most journalism about Taylor Swift

When I was interviewed about Taylor Swift last month, I was struck by how all the journalists asked the same questions. Now I've noticed that if you've read one article about Taylor Swift, you've basically read them all. There's all the same information: from Grammy awards to dominating the charts, from her fans causing measurable seismic events to their effect on local economies where she performs, from her biography and her country beginnings to Travis Kelce and her possible influence on elections. But there's little about her music (she moves through styles as quickly as David Bowie) or her lyrics (whose themes range so much more widely than songs about romance). (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 10 February 2024)

The vagueness of desire in Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops On My Guitar” (2006)

The first verse of Taylor Swift's "Teardrops On My Guitar" (2006) ends in vagueness: "Drew looks at me / I fake a smile so he won't see / That I want and I'm needing / Everything that we should be." The teenager doesn't name what she wants from Drew more specifically than that. "Everything" means being a couple: spending time together, going on dates, and seeing themselves and being seen by others as together. But that public side of romance also has a private side, where romantic desire is physical and sexual. The teenager may veil this physical undercurrent of desire in euphemism and abstraction, but its energy is still present. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 9 February 2024)

Friday, February 09, 2024

Lying in Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw”, “Picture To Burn”, and “Teardrops On My Guitar” (from her 2006 debut album)

The teenage girl in Taylor Swift's "Tim McGraw" responds to a boy's flattery by calling it "a lie". While this speaker recalls that relationship fondly when it's over, the speaker of the next song on Swift's eponymous 2006 debut album, "Picture To Burn", is out for revenge and says her ex is "really bad at lying". With lying established as a theme in relationships, the third song, "Teardrops On My Guitar, begins with a third kind after the flattery in "Tim McGraw" and the "bad lying" in "Picture To Burn" – lying for self-protection and the concealment of desire: "Drew looks at me / I fake a smile so he won't see." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 8 February 2024)

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

One possible Taylor Swift starter-kit

I have noticed many online comments from who are those unfamiliar with Taylor Swift's songs but curious about them. I've now settled on a three-step starter-kit. For a four-minute starter (3:55, to be precise), try "New Year's Day" from "Reputation" (2017). For a ten-minute starter (10:13), try "All Too Well (Ten-Minute Version)" from "Red (Taylor's Version)" (2021). And if you have an hour (67 minutes), try the album "folklore" (2020). Whichever you try, be sure to listen in whatever setting you have where you can really hear the music and the lyrics well (for me, on a walk or a cross-trainer). Listen for the storytelling, the images, and her Swiftian wit. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 7 February 2024) 

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

A Deadhead, a Swiftie, a Brownie, and a Schärer-sharer

I've been a Deadhead since 1982, when I first bought "Workingman's Dead" and then heard them live at Frost Amphitheater at Stanford that October. Until recently, I wouldn't have said I was a Swiftie – I was just someone who appreciated her music and lyrics. But my preparation for my course on her this spring has made me one. My other fandoms don't have standard names, although a Brownie could be a dedicated fan of Greg Brown, but what should a fan of Andreas Schärer be called, especially since I might be the only person who's seen him twenty-seven times? As a proselytizer about his music, I could call myself a Schärer-sharer. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 6 February 2024)

References to Robinson Crusoe in Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen

While reading Charles Dickens's novels, I was struck by what seemed to me to be the relatively frequent references to Robinson Crusoe (seventeen in all in his fourteen novels, according to the CLiC Dickens concordance). So as I began reading Thomas Hardy's novels, I immediately noticed the appearance of Crusoe in "Desperate Remedies" (1871), when Cytherea Graye is told that her benefactor Miss Aldclyffe is "in her soul [...] as solitary as Robinson Crusoe." A search of my e-book of Hardy's complete novels reveals only nine references to Crusoe in sixteen works. For contrast, another online concordance shows that Jane Austen never refers to Crusoe in any of her six novels. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 5 February 2024)

Monday, February 05, 2024

The standards recorded by Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio at concerts between 1983 and 2014

122 different standards (along with Jarrett compositions and group improvisations) from their concerts between 1983 and 2014 appear on the twenty-one albums released by pianist Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Thirty compositions appear at least twice, with five versions each of "Autumn Leaves" from 1945 (Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert, Johnny Mercer) and "When I Fall In Love" from 1952 (Edward Heyman, Victor Young). The oldest is "It's All in the Game" (whose melody was written in 1911 by Charles G. Dawes, Vice President of the United States from 1925 to 1929), the newest is "One for Majid" from 1965 (Pete La Roca). (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 4 February 2024)

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Acoustic versions of big pop songs: “State of Grace” and “Personal Jesus"

"State of Grace", the first song on Taylor Swift's "Red" (2012), is a booming, driving pop song, but Swift has also recorded an acoustic version focused on her voice and Mike Meadows's acoustic guitar. The contrast reminds me of "Personal Jesus" from Depeche Mode's "Violator" (1990). Back when it was first released, I stumbled on a maxi-single that included an acoustic version that, like Swift's acoustic version of "State of Grace", made clear what a solid song was hidden in the pop production. So I was later not surprised to hear the acoustic version of  "Personal Jesus" that Johnny Cash recorded for his 2002 album "American IV: The Man Comes Around." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 3 February 2024)

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Walt Whitman in Thomas Hardy’s “Desperate Remedies” (1871)

"Edward Springrove the elder", the father of the Edward Springrove who eventually marries Cytherea Graye in Thomas Hardy's "Desperate Remedies" (1871), is introduced with a comparison to a contemporary of Hardy's from the United States: "Like Walt Whitman he felt as his years increased— / 'I foresee too much; it means more than I thought.'" The line is from Whitman's "So Long!", which first appeared as the final poem in the 1860 edition of "Leaves of Grass". I was surprised to see a reference to a Whitman poem in an English novel published so soon after its publication; I did not know that Whitman's work had crossed the Atlantic so quickly. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 2 February 2024)

Thursday, February 01, 2024

The persona in Taylor Swift lyrics: Not “the Homecoming Queen”; more like another famous queen at a high school in the United States

I saw a comment on Facebook referring to Taylor Swift as "the Homecoming Queen". While this image fits her current relationship status (dating the star athlete), it doesn't fit the stories told her in lyrics: "She's Cheer Captain and I'm on the bleachers" ("You Belong With Me", from "Fearless", 2008). In the semiotics of the United States, the figure of the homecoming queen is the popular girl. The figure in Swift’s songs is never the popular girl. If she’s a queen, she’s Carrie the prom queen from Stephen King's 1974 novel and Brian De Palma's 1976 movie – and she wants to burn down the school to get revenge against her bullies. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 1 February 2024)

A “moral Gaza” in Thomas Hardy’s “Desperate Remedies” (1871)

Reading Thomas Hardy's "Desperate Remedies" (1871) last December, I came across a phrase with a different resonance than it would have had earlier in the year. In 1835, young architect Ambrose Graye falls for one Cytherea: "After passing through three weeks of sweet experience, he had arrived at the last stage—a kind of moral Gaza—before plunging into an emotional desert. The second week in January had come round, and it was necessary for the young architect to leave town." That "moral Gaza" seemed oddly contemporary in late 2023, even as I wondered what it meant back in 1871, the time of writing, or 1835, the time of the action. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 31 January 2024)