In the final days of compact discs, I commandeered many a car stereo to put in Van Hunt’s self-titled debut album, breaking God’s most important commandment: Never touch a black man’s radio. “But you have to hear to the lyrics,” I would say. “He’s such a good writer.” Back in 2004, pop and R&B lyrics were endlessly frustrating to me, with their ooh-girl this and baby-please that. When I first heard Hunt’s song “Down Here in Hell (with You)” I thought, Wow, this has actual detail. On “Down Here...” and in many other songs, he showed a wide-ranging ability to express nuanced feelings: ennui, ambivalence, and schadenfreude, common emotions that most songwriters don’t, or can’t, touch.
“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” —Nina Simone, 1933-2003
What time of year is more beautiful: spring or fall? A college friend and fellow journalist posed the question on Instagram earlier this week, and I had trouble answering at first. But, after some thought, I’d say spring is the superior, more radiant season. Perhaps it’s the symbolism of life in bloom, or the fact that summer—unquestionably my favorite time of the year—comes after, and gives me something to look forward to, but spring is certainly more desirable than fall. Rejoice internet, temperatures are rising.
Hillary Clinton has a date with history. It was all but inevitable: The former Secretary of State officially announced her candidacy for president this week. Other hopefuls include Republican senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio. I’m stating the obvious here, but Cruz, Paul, and Rubio don’t have a real shot at winning; it will, however, be entertaining to watch them fumble all the way to wherever it is losers go when they don’t win presidential elections.
“It’s time for us to be intolerant—intolerant of all forms of homophobia, transphobia, and all forms of bigotry against LBGT people,” writes journalist/SiriusXM host Michaelangelo Signorile in his new book, It’s Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality. A call to arms-cum-history of recent injustices, It’s Not Over is an invaluable and idiot-proofed argument against resting on our laurels and giving up the fight in the face of recently won advances for LGBT people. Signorile warns against “victory blindness” and “covering” temptations, hits back at Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (he characterizes the term “religious freedom” as “dog whistling”), and points out the lack of equality that isn’t even bothering to hide in plain sight in pop culture and on news programs, which regularly trot out discredited anti-gay activists for the sake of hearing “the other side.”
Here is the best story you will ever read: The Potato Incident, a modern-day parable that begins with a man who has been invited to dinner to meet his girlfriend’s parents. “When I saw that baked potatoes were served I got the idea that it would be very good if I pretended I did not know what potatoes was. That would be funny.” But this choice quickly backfires. He continues:
Breath. It's the first thing I ponder whenever a new police brutality case, officer-involved shooting of an unarmed victim, or wrongful incarceration is reported to the public. If the victim has died, I think of the dozen or so breaths before the end. Staccato, heart-pounding breaths, caught in a snare of panic, as though the breather senses she is nearing her last and wants to take in as much oxygen as she can in the space between, "Step out of the vehicle!" or "Hands where I can see them!" and the first blow or footfall or bullet. If the victim lives, if he is severely bludgeoned or mauled, over-sentenced or falsely imprisoned, I think of a breath pattern permanently altered: breath held, to mimic death, in hopes that the beating or dog bites will end; breath exhaled after an announcement that bail has been granted and isn't too astronomical; or breath made ragged by the news that the assaulting officer won't be indicted or has been acquitted.
Are we being who we think we should be or who we think other people want us to be? Hyun Kim, meditating on the matter of habits, posed this question two weeks ago. But maybe it's less a question of who we think we should be and who we think other people want us to be, and instead a question of who we are. So, who are you?
In this week’s Sunday Book Review, Zoë Heller and Adam Kirsch weigh the importance of an author’s intended meaning versus a reader’s interpretation of the text. Which is more important, they ask. “If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place?” Kirsch argues. “Isn’t literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text’s interpretability.” I instantly thought of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—the 1952 epic that confronts America’s twisted legacy of identity politics, race, black nationalism, and class disillusionment. “I am an invisible man,” it begins. And depending on the reader, the ensuing 500 pages present a multitude of revelations, answers, or questions (or a mix of the three). Yet, no matter which way you interpret the book, its true essence is found, time and again, in the first sentence—all conclusions root back to Ellison’s opening line. “Great works of literature are like stars,” Kirsch concludes, “they stay put, even as we draw them into new constellations.”
In this week's New Yorker, Adam Gopnik questions the bizarre existence of the Warburg Institute. "It is a library like no other in Europe—in its cross-disciplinary reference, its peculiarities, its originality, its strange depths and unexpected shallows." But can the library's private vision endure?
Futurists flocked to Barcelona this week to take part in Mobile World Congress. The annual exhibition gathers technophiles, venture capitalists, and mobile manufacturers in one place for a five-day, tech industry circle jerk. This year's big announcement came via Samsung: the electronics mega-company unveiled new phones—the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. Despite its advanced features, one thing is abundantly clear right away: the S6 resembles the iPhone 6. Gizmodo writer Darren Orf noted, "It's hard to not see the iPhone 6 in Samsung's latest phone... But that doesn't mean the Galaxy S6 doesn't have its own charms." This reminded me a lot of what Matt Buchanan wrote about in 2013 when Apple debuted the iPhone 5S and 5C. "[P]hones have matured to the point that, until a truly radical breakthrough in computing technology occurs, there is not much left to improve on... And, for the next few years, advances in smartphones and tablets will continue to be subtle and iterative, driven by the twin processes of simplification and connection." Mobile technology, it could be said, has entered an era of convergence. Competing phone makers are developing devices that mirror one another, in both design and function. Or, the short version: Samsung is Apple is Microsoft is Amazon. The old axiom proves true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.