Sunday, March 31, 2024

Beyoncé’s incredible run: "Lemonade" (2016), "Renaissance" (2022), and "Cowboy Carter" (2024)

Last week, I took a deep dive into all of Beyoncé's albums to prepare for the release of her "Cowboy Carter" on Friday. I've listened to Beyoncé in bits and pieces in the past, but never all at once. Her first five albums – "Dangerously in Love" (2003); "B'Day" (2006); "I Am... Sasha Fierce" (2008); "4" (2011); "Beyoncé" (2013) – are all full of good songs and are more than worth many listens; I was especially struck by "If I Were a Boy" and "1+1". But "Lemonade" (2016), "Renaissance" (2022), and now "Cowboy Carter" (2024) are extraordinary; they belong to any list of three great albums in a row by the same artist. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 31 March 2024)

Saturday, March 30, 2024

"Your body renews itself every seven years”: An idea that’s been around at least since John Dos Passos’s novel “Manhattan Transfer” (1925)

I'd have assumed that the idea that the cells in human bodies are completely replaced in a seven-year cycle arose during my lifetime, so I was surprised to find Congo in John Dos Passos's 1925 novel "Manhattan Transfer" making the point in a scene before World War One: "Your body renews itself every seven years." While I haven't been able to find out when the idea originated, or with whom, I have learned that while the average life of human cells may be seven to ten years, the life spans of cells vary widely, with some cells in the lens of the eye forming in the embryo and surviving until death. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 30 March 2024)

Friday, March 29, 2024

Reafference, exafference, and a possible origin of the mind (thanks to Ed Yong’s “An Immense World”)

According to Ed Yong's "An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us" (2022), organisms distinguish between the sensations of their own activity ("reafference") and those from outside ("exafference"). Even organisms with a few hundred neurons have a system like this: the signals generating activities split to also predict how each activity will feel. The predicted perceptions can be compared to actual perceptions to distinguish "reafference" from "exafference". Yong quotes neuroscientist Michael Hendricks: sentience might be "the process of sorting perceptual experiences into self-generated and other-generated." If so, the origin of the mind must lie in that separation of self and other, even in the simplest nervous systems. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 29 March 2024)

Thursday, March 28, 2024

My imaginary eleven-piece band for a joint country-pop tour by Beyoncé and Taylor Swift

Back in 2018, I imagined a jazz nonet to tour with Beyoncé, but with her turning to country music now with "Cowboy Carter" due out tomorrow, I've come up with an eleven-piece band of international musicians from the United States, Benin, Cuba, Chile, and the United Kingdom for a joint country-pop tour by Beyoncé and Taylor Swift with jazz soloists, big-band arrangements, and several other incredible singers: Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, vocals), Lionel Loueke (guitar, vocals), Chris Thile (mandolin, vocals), Esperanza Spalding (bass, vocals), Eric Harland (drums), Alison Krauss (violin, vocals), Nicholas Payton (trumpet, arrangements), Soweto Kinch (alto saxophone, rap), Jany McPherson (piano, vocals), Robin Eubanks (trombone), and Melissa Aldana (tenor saxophone).  (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 28 March 2024)

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Hapax legomena in Taylor Swift’s “crumpled masterpiece”, “All Too Well (Ten-Minute Version)"

Taylor Swift's "All Too Well (Ten-Minute Version)", from "Red (Taylor's Version)", 2021, the ponders a relationship as a work of art destroyed by an ex: "But maybe this thing was a masterpiece / Till you tore it all up." In Swift's work so far, "masterpiece" is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in a corpus. Another such word in "All Too Well" is "crumpled": "I'm a crumpled-up piece of paper lying here." With the "crumpled-up paper" of a self after a breakup and the torn-up pieces of that "masterpiece" of a relationship – out of these singular words – Swift composed the song that many have considered her own masterpiece. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 27 March 2024)

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The shirt in Walter Benjamin’s Franz Kafka essay and the scarf in Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well"

In preparing to discuss objects in Taylor Swift's "All Too Well (Ten-Minute Version)", I remembered a story I learned from Walter Benjamin's 1934 Franz Kafka essay. In a Chassidic village, the men gather in an inn; in the corner sits a newly arrived beggar. When everyone says what they wish for, the villagers want a workbench or a son-in-law, but the beggar says he wishes he was a king who escaped a war in his nightshirt and eventually found himself in this village. "What good would that do you?" – "I'd have a shirt." – Objects (that imagined shirt; the scarf in "All Too Well") transport stories from kingdoms to villages and back. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 26 March 2024)

Monday, March 25, 2024

My students and the animal imagery in a passage about Mr. Bounderby in Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times” (1854)

When the lies of Mr. Bounderby in Charles Dickens's "Hard Times" (1854) have been exposed to an uninvited crowd in his home, he ushers them out with "blustering sheepishness": "[...] he could not have looked a Bully more shorn and forlorn, if he had had his ears cropped." When I gave this paragraph to my students today, I only asked for comments and interpretations, but they immediately picked up on the animal imagery, which one student even linked to another phrase about "a pedigree." As always, an open discussion led to the primary points that I would have mentioned, while also generating many other angles that I had not yet noticed. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 25 March 2024) 

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Somi and the microphone at her concert in Basel on 23 March 2024

I had a front-row seat at the Offbeat Jazz concert at the Volkshaus in Basel last night by the singer Somi. She served her voice well by how she stood on stage: instead of holding the microphone right up to her mouth as so many singers do, she stood back from the microphone stand and used the microphone primarily to capture the direct sound of her singing, rather than to amplify it. At moments when her band played more quietly (bassist Keith Witty, drummer Otis Brown III, pianist Toru Dodo, and saxophonist Jowee Omicil), I could even hear the power of her voice more from the stage than from the speakers. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 24 March 2024)

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Pale young woman with long brown hair at the supermarket

The pale young woman in the supermarket line has long brown hair halfway down her back. – This morning, she brushed it in the armchair by the window, idly gazing across the street while the church bells rang nearby. She smiled when she finished, as she always does, and she stood up and took her coffee cup to the kitchen. – When the cashier tells her that the bananas had to be weighed, a blank look takes over her face: she doesn't understand. The cashier smiles and goes to weigh the bananas. When she pays, the young woman manages to smile again as she packs her groceries and then heads for the door. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 23 March 2024) 

Friday, March 22, 2024

Remembering reading Isak Dinesen’s “The Blank Page” (1957) and teaching it today

I usually remember when I first read texts that struck me, especially ones I read in college clauses. But although I know I read "The Blank Page" (1957), by Isak Dinesen (1885-1962), during my studies (along with Susan Gubar's 1981 article "'The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Creativity"), I'm not sure what course it was in. Still, I often remember the story's image of a gallery of framed, blood-stained sheets from aristocratic wedding nights, with one sheet blank, along with Gubar's discussion of the story as an allegory of the history of women's writing. And today, I discussed it with students again for the first time in many years. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 22 March 2024) 

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Holiday sauce, the Easy Bunny, and our familect

Years ago, our friend Audrey from Paris visited us in Basel and was horrified to see me making hollandaise sauce from a mix. So she taught me how to make it from scratch: melt butter slowly over low heat, mix in egg yolks, lemon juice, and salt, take it off the heat, and whisk it until it's nice and creamy. Our children were small then, and after one of them called it "holiday sauce", that became our family's term for it. Around the same time, one of them also called the Easter Bunny the "Easy Bunny", but that term did not go on to become a permanent part of our familect. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 21 March 2024)

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

“Working Class Heroes”: From Stephen Blackpool in Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times” (1854) to John Lennon and then to Angelo Herndon

When Kailana Durnan referred to Stephen Blackpool from Charles Dickens's "Hard Times" (1854) as a "working-class hero" in her 2018 article "Getting Bored with 'Hard Times,'" I immediately began singing John Lennon's 1970 song "Working Class Hero" (from "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band": "A working class hero is something to be." After I wondered whether the expression preceded Lennon's song, I was able to find multiple uses of the phrase going back to the 1930s, with the first reference being to Angelo Herndon, an African-American labor organizer whose conviction for violating Georgia's insurrection law was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in the 5-4 decision in Hernon v. Lowry in 1937. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 20 March 2024)

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Taylor Swift, “the sin of wit”, and an “erroneous attribution"

For last week's Taylor Swift session, I discussed wit in "Mr. Perfectly Fine" from "Fearless (Taylor's Version)" (2021). To begin, I quoted Swift: "Swift has the sin of wit, no trivial crime." Several students had written about the song for their 30-second texts due before the session, so I used their comments to start an initial list of the varieties of wit in Swift: wordplay, mockery, and sarcasm. At the end of my presentation, I revealed my own joke, my "erroneous attribution" (Jorge Luis Borges): it was not Taylor Swift but Jonathan Swift who said, in his "The Author Upon Himself" (1713), "Swift had the sin of wit, no venial crime." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 19 March 2024)

Monday, March 18, 2024

A curse and “a mighty gun” in two Emily Dickinson’s poems

In preparation for my Emily Dickinson seminar this fall, I've begun rereading R. W. Franklin's "The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition". At 10 poems a day, I'll be ready for the beginning of the term in mid-September. As always with Dickinson, I keep noticing things I hadn't noticed before in her work, such as the curse that ends "I had a guinea golden" (Fr12): "And he no consolation / Beneath the sun may find." I was also struck by the eerily twenty-first-century violence that ends "My friend attacks my friend!" (Fr103): "Had I a mighty gun / I think I'd shoot the human race / And then to glory run!" (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 18 March 2024)

Sunday, March 17, 2024

A warm, sunny West Phliadelphia afternoon in October 1989

On a warm, sunny afternoon in October 1989, I went out in T-shirt and sandals to go to a West Philadelphia cafe and sit at a table by the window. The sun warmed my face through the glass, and I immersed myself in whatever I was reading for my graduate-school courses. At one point, I looked up and saw the leaves on the tress outside shivering with a rising breeze, while further up a black cloud was looming to the West. In the next twenty minutes, as the temperature dropped and a heavy rain fell, it seemed like autumn was coming at just that moment. It was a cold walk home. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 17 March 2024)

Saturday, March 16, 2024

The Tom Ollendorff Trio with Conor Chaplin, James Maddren, and special guest Tim Garland at the Bird’s Eye in Basel, 16 March 2024

When Tom Ollendorff takes a solo on his hollow-body electric guitar, he plays singable single-note phrases that shift seamlessly into melodic sequences of chords, and then he drops in an fast flurry upwards or downwards that might end in another set of chords, or just one and another singable phrase. The rhythms of those chordal passages highlight his interaction with Conor Chaplin on bass and James Maddren on drums as they all hit a few accents together before Ollendorff soars off into another flurry of melodic ideas. Tonight at the Bird’s Eye in Basel, the trio was joined by saxophonist Tim Garland on tenor and soprano, who especially sang on soprano. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 16 March 2024) 

Friday, March 15, 2024

Gambling in lyrics by Robert Hunter and by Taylor Swift

Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter often mentioned gambling, as in "Loser" ("I can tell the Queen of Diamonds by the way she shines" – "Garcia", 1971) or "Scarlet Begonias" ("In the thick of the evening when the dealing got rough / She was too pat to open and too cool to bluff" – "From the Mars Hotel", 1974). Taylor Swift's occasional gambling images are usually figurative, as in "Foolish One": "My cards are on the table, yours are in your hand" ("Speak Now (Taylor's Version), 2023). But "Cornelia Street" mentions "card sharks" ("Lover", 2019), and in "the last great american dynasty", Rebekah blows money "on card game bets with Dalí" ("folklore", 2020). (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 15 March 2024)

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Marlon James on Beyoncé haters; me on Taylor Swift haters

Novelist Marlon James posted about Beyoncé: "[T]here is something about Beyoncé that make haters explode and I'm not sure what it is. They simply have to make you know." I could say the same thing about my experiences with my teaching of a course with Rachael Moorthy on Taylor Swift's lyrics: The “haters” of Swift “have to make you know” that they hate her, every chance they get. I try to follow Swift's advice about "haters": "I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake I shake it off, I shake it off." But they make me keep having to "shake it off" again and again and again, and it gets tiring. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 14 March 2024)


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Wednesday, March 13, 2024

A thesis on early Taylor Swift, immediately disproven

This morning, I was putting the finishing touches on my presentation for the Taylor Swift session today. My topic was wit and "Mr. Perfectly Fine", a song Swift wrote in her teens for "Fearless" (2008) but only published on "Fearless (Taylor's Version)" in 2021. I wrote a note for the lecture: There's not much wit in the songs on the first two albums, so the wit of "Mr. Perfectly Fine" stands out when "Fearless (Taylor's Version)" comes out. – But as I typed up that thesis, "Hey Stephen" from "Fearless" came up, with Swift laughing at her own joke: "But would they write a song for you?" Thus was my thesis disproven. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 13 March 2024)

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The triple meaning of Montresor’s toast to Fortunato’s “long life” in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846)

On their way to the titular Amontillado in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), the narrator Montresor and his friend Fortunato pause in Montresor's catacombs to drink wine, and Fortunato offers a toast: "I drink [...] to the buried that repose around us." Montresor responds: "And I to your long life." For Fortunato, Montresor's toast is an unambiguous conventional formula. For Montresor, it has two senses: the one Fortunato hears, and the irony of his planned murder of Fortunato. But the unidentified addressee of Montresor's story hears three senses: Fortunato's single meaning, Montresor the imminent murderer's double meaning, and the wit that Montresor the storyteller offers to be appreciated. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 12 March 2024)

Monday, March 11, 2024

A possible echo of “Nights in White Satin” (1967, The Moody Blues) in Taylor Swift’s “gold rush” (2020)

Two particular moments in Taylor Swift's "gold rush" (from "evermore", 2020) echo something I heard long ago (and am sure I've heard many times). At 1:00 and again at 2:10, the music swells with string sounds (perhaps Jack Antonoff's Mellotron). Just now, I've followed a hunch and listened to "Nights in White Satin", by The Moody Blues (from "Days of Future Passed", 1967), which has moments at about 0:50 and 1:50 that might be what I've been hearing in "gold rush" (and which features Mike Pinder on Mellotron). Still, I'm not yet sure that this is what I've been hearing in the back of my mind when I hear Swift's song. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 11 March 2024)

Sunday, March 10, 2024

An exemplary three-part song about three moments in a life: Greg Brown’s “If I Had Known” (1990)

As in the two three-part Taylor Swift songs I mentioned yesterday ("The Best Day" and "Never Grow Up"), each stanza of Greg Brown's exemplary "If I Had Known" (from "Down In There", 1990)  takes place at a different time in the speaker's life: the first is about going fishing as a boy, the second about a first kiss at fifteen, and the third about a night of love-making on a roof during a meteor shower. The first two choruses each say "if I had known, I might have stopped fishing / kissing right then", while the third offers the song's twist: "If I had known, I'd do it all over again." (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 10 March 2024)

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Three part songs with themes and variations: Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (1969) and Taylor Swift’s “The Best Day” (2008) and “Never Grow Up” (2010)

In Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" (from "Clouds", 1969), the three verses each have their own theme (clouds, love, and life), as well as a turn in the middle at "but now". Then the choruses all refer to looking at those themes "from both sides now" and "not knowing" each theme "at all." Such a three-part theme with variations offers a model for writing songs; it can also be found in Taylor Swift's "The Best Day" (from "Fearless", 2008, with its three "best days") and "Never Grow Up" (from "Speak Now", from "Speak Now", 2009, with a small child, a young teen, and a young woman who has just left home). (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 9 March 2024)

Friday, March 08, 2024

“Going Slow” with the Roberto Bossard band at the Bird’s Eye in Basel, 7 March 2024

At the Bird's Eye in Basel last night, Raffaele Bossard on unaccompanied bass introduced "Going Slow" with a melodic solo that gradually established the song's rhythm. Then his father Roberto, the bandleader, joined his son on guitar for some counterpoint. After first drummer Dominic Egli and then pianist Lukas Gernet added their accompaniment to Roberto's solo, tenor saxophonist Toni Bechtold joined in to finally play the composition's main melody. After Bechtold soloed, Gernet's wide-ranging solo was accompanied by the rest of the band vamping, an approach I've only heard for drum solos before. This tune exemplified the group's arrangements, which frequently played around with the standard head-solos-head frame for jazz improvisation. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 8 March 2024)

Thursday, March 07, 2024

My FC Basel – AC Fiorentina souvenir scarf

On Thursday, 18 May 2023, I went to the match between FC Basel and Fiorentina, the second leg of the Europe Conference League semifinal, and I bought one of the souvenir scarves that combine the colors of the two teams and include the date of the match. This winter, I've been wearing it whenever it's been cold, and I've learned to tie it around my neck so that the team names at the ends are clearly visible. Several people from Italy have asked me about the scarf, and people from Basel keep asking me if there's a match today. But for me, it's just a good memory that keeps me warm. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 7 March 2024) 

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

“Purple with ill-smelling dye”: The river in Coketown in Charles Dickens’s “Hard Times” (1854)

The Coketown canal in Charles Dickens's "Hard Times" (1854) is "purple with ill-smelling dye." Purple dyes were among the first synthetic dyes developed in the mid-nineteenth century, and one center of the discovery and production of those dyes was Basel, Switzerland, where I have made my home since 1995. However, Dickens's novel was published two years before William Henry Perkin synthesized mauveine in London in 1856. And both parts of the company that first became Ciba-Geiby and then later Novartis began to produce the synthetic fuchsine dye in 1859. So something made Coketown's river purple, but it wasn't the synthetic dye that was discovered two years after Dickens finished the novel. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 6 March 2024)

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Taylor Swift and Emily Dickinson: Sixth cousins thrice removed

As Michael Sainato reported in The Guardian yesterday, Taylor Swift (b. 1989) and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) are apparently sixth cousins thrice removed: “Swift and Dickinson both descend from a 17th-century English immigrant (Swift’s ninth great-grandfather and Dickinson’s sixth great-grandfather who was an early settler of Windsor, Connecticut)”. I wondered again about how related distant cousins are. According to a table in a 1983 study by Kevin P. Donnelly, sixth cousins once removed have a 94.40% chance of having "no detectable DNA relationship," so while there might be a genealogical link, any literary relationship between the two is more likely to be due to Swift reading Dickinson rather than any shared genes. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 5 March 2024)


Monday, March 04, 2024

“Some sort of witty retort”: Mr. Stevens and possible autism in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” (1989)

In Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" (1989), the English butler Mr. Stevens repeatedly worries about the problem of "bantering" with Mr. Farraday, the new American owner of Darlington Hall after it has left the Darlington family. But on his trip to the West Country to meet Miss Kenton, the Hall's former housekeeper, he also worries about how to converse with the locals at an inn where he is staying: "[S]ome sort of witty retort was required of me." I've read the novel many times already, but only now have I noticed that Stevens's uncertainty about wit and "bantering" could be a sign that he is on the autism spectrum. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 4 March 2024) 

Sunday, March 03, 2024

The correlation between popularity and quality in popular music

The other day, I had occasion to look at the "list of best-selling musical artists" on Wikipedia. Nine artists are listed as having sold over 250 million records: The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Queen, Madonna, Led Zeppelin, Rihanna, and Pink Floyd. Lately, with me teaching a course on Taylor Swift's lyrics, I've been hearing a lot of people insisting that pop success does not equal musical quality. Almost all of them, though, are from my generation (plus or minus a decade), and I know that they would all celebrate some or many of those artists for the quality of their music. Here, at least, popularity correlates with quality. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 3 March 2024)


Saturday, March 02, 2024

The Pablo Held Trio at the Bird’s Eye in Basel on 1 March 2024

Pianist Pablo Held began his Pablo Held Trio concert with bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel at the Bird's Eye in Basel last night with a statement that they work without a setlist and play continuous blocks of music in their sets. What followed was two relaxed and melodic suites of music in which composed passages seemed free and free passages seemed composed. When Held began the second set with a solo piano section, I noticed at one point how Landfermann and Burgwinkel prepared to join in – and then did not. This was just one way in which I saw how they made decisions about what to play and when. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 2 March 2024) 

Friday, March 01, 2024

“A lot of spaces” between Taylor Swift and James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”

When Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia died on 9 August 1995, Bob Dylan wrote a moving statement that included this point that has stuck with me ever since: "There’s a lot of spaces and advances between The Carter Family, Buddy Holly and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes but he filled them all without being a member of any school." That is, Garcia's music ranged from folk to rock and roll to free jazz, and everywhere in between. I remembered this on Wednesday when I went from my Taylor Swift course in the afternoon to my Finnegans Wake reading group in the evening – there's "a lot of spaces" between them. (Andrew Shields, #111Words, 1 March 2024)