Everything Happens So Much

Last summer over at Pitchfork, music critic Lindsay Zoladz has brought her “Ordinary Machines” column to a close with a piece entitled “Everything Happens So Much.” In it, she recounts her recent trip to Germany, and reflects on “the strange fatigue of digital life.” For many, these words of Zoladz’s will likely sound familiar:

These days, my daily internet behavior is depressingly predictable: Every morning I’ll click on more articles than I’d ever have time to read, clutter my browser with tab after tab after tab, and then at some moment every afternoon I’ll finally admit my own mortality and close all the things I didn’t get to.

Many of us make “the rounds” online every morning. Coffee in hand, clad in pyjama pants and a t-shirt, I browse various news and music websites, scrolling through feeds and opening up each interesting article in a new tab. Whatever articles I can’t get to before it’s time to get ready for work simply await me after work, only to be (a) bookmarked but never read; (b) quickly skim read; or (c) closed out in a small gesture of digital defeat. (In a cruel twist of irony, “Being A Better Online Reader” appears to have suffered fate [a].)

I’m slowly learning to give myself permission to miss out, but it takes time, especially since I’m the kind of person who’s naturally interested in cultural goings-on. Reading these websites isn’t a chore. But the act of spending so much time flitting between webpages online can, nevertheless, have negative effects and undermine one’s stated priorities.

While there is a certain amount of individual responsibility at play here, the Internet pushes us along as well. When every webpage seems designed to get you to open up as many tabs as possible, it begins to feel a bit sinister. Am I just a ping-pong ball bobbing down the stream, contributing to “traffic” counts on a website? Websites are driven by analytics. The old model of thinking about media content held that you and I being delivered a product via a news medium — a news medium that includes some advertising so it can stay afloat. The new model, however, acknowledges that, in fact, that advertisers are being delivered attentive eyeballs via a news medium — a news medium that includes just enough original content so it can continue bringing in attentive eyeballs.

As Zoladz notes in her column, vacations help: who cares about what the latest viral news item is when you’re in freaking Berlin! Though even here, social media encourage us to obsessively chronicle our vacations, both pictorially and in writing. Doing so takes us out of the moment and places us back inside the Internet’s push/pull, again making us realize, when the din dies down at the end of the day, that everything happens so much.

Being a music journalist, Zoladz writes about how the Internet gradually changes our engagement with music over time. Significantly, she notes that her early interactions with pop music were characterized by scarcity and limitations, but that her relationship with music, and her online life in general, have now been transformed by the endless streams of information that comprise the Internet 2.0. Think of social media feeds and the changes made to Google Images, or websites with recommended links at the bottom: all expand as you scroll, sometimes endlessly. The content has no edges, and so we keep wandering around in it. Zoladz notes that this feature of the Internet appeared in 2009, and it is a big reason why I quit using Twitter: things become too time-consuming when an online website or platform eliminates the sides and bottom, making all termination points arbitrary.

Of course, the endless stream is still tempting sometimes, and Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) drives us, even when we know there are healthier motivating factors. Zoladz continues,

Shouldn’t unfettered access to music mean we all have impeccable taste and an intimate familiarity with all records previously deemed Classic and/or Important? Maybe, but I have to admit that in the past few years I’ve noticed that the stream has had a counterintuitive effect on my listening habits. For some reason, it’s made me jaded about greatness and even a little less likely to seek out Important Records—having all of them splayed out before me has reduced them to inherited experiences, foregone conclusions, boxes to tick off on a checklist. Too often I feel paralyzed and overwhelmed by history, by all that I don’t know. Everything happened so much.

My relationship with the Internet might be described as limited gratitude mixed with frequent bouts of disapointment. For me, the Internet is a life line to the outside world. I live in an insular, quiet Mennonite town in southeastern Manitoba, and it’s culturally stifling. The Internet allows me to feel like a global citizen, and to access niches of culture that don’t find expression in my immediate geographical surroundings. But the Internet but is also a curse, sucking time away from friendships, writing, exercise, and other worthwhile pursuits. It fractures my attention and creates new neural pathways in my brain. I don’t even have to contend with social media, and yet I still fret about how much of my free time is spent online. Some of it is worthwhile, but sometimes it feels like I’m skiing 10 feet in front of a thundering avalanche, and the only way to stay ahead is to read all of the fifteen articles the New Yorker puts online every day. Everything does indeed happen so much, and there’s nothing wrong with making a sharp left turn, heading back to the chalet, and hanging up your skis for a few days.

Amen

There aren’t many statements that make me say “Amen” anymore. But hearing Cornel West talk does just that. Ever since I first studied his thought in a sociological theory course back in 2010, his words have resonated with me. This recent interview he gave — on Letterman, of all places — is reason enough to rouse my blog from slumber. “Let the phones be smart; let us try to be wise, compassionate, and courageous.”

Cornel West will give a lecture at the University of Winnipeg on May 8th.

Best Music of 2014

Music is a funny thing. It’s often said that recorded music is static, while live music shifts and changes, allowing for improvisation and variation. In a strict sense that’s true. But listeners are always changing, and so, in a more subjective sense, so are albums. Recorded music weaves through our lives; a recording can resonate more or less with someone at different times. The old saying is true: you can never step into the same river twice.

That’s why, in some ways, whatever album from this list I’m currently playing is the best album of 2014. Good art takes in listeners and renders the arms-length critic’s posture difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. Of course, one can listen to the same album both as a fan and as a critic, but perhaps not at the same time, or at least not without some compromise. I think it’s fun to switch hats as I listen. I hope you do too!

As always, there is lots of good music that isn’t on this list. Scrolling alphabetically through my iTunes, I’d say that The Antlers, Beck, Conor Oberst, Cold Specks, Hiss Golden Messenger, Marissa Nadler, Peter Matthew Bauer, Real Estate, Sam Roberts Band, Tune-Yards, and TV On the Radio have all turned in very strong albums that deserve attention. Other acts, like Broken Bells, released solid, though not fantastic, albums. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji is at or near the top of many year-end lists, and while it is an emotionally devastating album, it’s not something I would call a favourite. And while I certainly won’t complain about getting U2’s Songs of Innocence automatically and for free (c’mon people), it is another mediocre U2 album with 3 or 4 good songs.

There was also a lot of music that I couldn’t keep up with. I have not heard Jack White’s Lazaretto, The Black Keys’ Turn Blue, The Gaslight Anthem’s Get Hurt, nor Coldplay’s Ghost Stories. These are all big releases from acts that I used to like a lot more than I do now, and I simply decided not to spend money on them in favour of checking out more interesting releases from less familiar artists. The recent Stars album also didn’t catch my attention, possibly because it’s just too disco for me (although being “too disco” seems like its point). I’ve also not heard either of Neil Young’s releases this year — the bare-bones A Letter Home and the orchestral Storytone. Same goes for Tom Petty’s Hypnotic Eye (though it’s interesting to note that Petty’s highway-rock sound is behind at least two of my top-10 picks).

And on and on the haven’t-heard list goes: Mac DeMarco, Jenny Lewis, Thom Yorke, Interpol, The New Pornographers, Damon Albarn…there’s just too much to keep up with. I have to limit myself not only because I’m a music lover on a budget, but also because there’s no sense in fracturing my attention into a million directions when I could give fewer releases more careful attention (or give quieter voices a chance). There are a couple 2014 releases that I still do intend to get around to checking out, including Hundred Waters’ The Moon Rang Like A Bell.

Looking ahead to 2015, I’m eagerly anticipating Club Meds (Jan. 13), the new release from Dan Mangan + Blacksmith. Mangan made a huge leap forward in between his last two albums, and I can’t wait to see what he and the band have been cooking up over the past 3 years. The Decemberists (Jan. 20) and The Dodos (Jan. 27) are also releasing new albums soon, and the lead singles from both bands sound promising. A beloved early-2000 rock act, Sleater-Kinney, return with No Cities to Love on Jan. 20. Bob Dylan’s album of Frank Sinatra covers drops Feb. 3, and I’m not sure how I feel about my beloved Bob releasing a standards album. Isn’t that territory tread by has-beens? Anyway, a week later we’ll see a new album from Father John Misty (Feb. 10). Jose Gonzalez of Junip, fresh off his work soundtrack work for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, is back with a new album on Feb. 17. Laura Marling will be releasing a new album on Mar. 24. As-yet-undated upcoming releases include Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth LP — their last featuring founding guitarist Chris Walla — and the highly anticipated new album from Modest Mouse (Mar. 3). Later in 2015 there is a chance of new music from Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket, and Radiohead, but no firm plans have yet been announced. Personally, I’d love to hear some new music from Explosions in the Sky, Mutemath, and Feist, but at this point that’s just wishful thinking.

My year in live live music features concerts by Arcade Fire, Cold Specks, Neko Case, St. Vincent, and local favourites The Wailin’ Jennys. Interestingly, Pitchfork readers voted St. Vincent and Arcade Fire as the top two live acts of the year. I’m glad they swung through humble ol’ Winnipeg! But anyway, that’s enough preamble. On to the list!

Way Out Weather

10. Steve Gunn – Way Out Weather – Philadelphia has a ridiculously strong music scene right now. Stepping out from behind the shadow of Kurt Vile and the War On Drugs is Steve Gunn, a talented guitarist growing into his songwriting and singing skills as he begins a solo career. There’s a wonderful meditative quality to Gunn’s songs. The jammy, meandering guitars swirl around each other, anchored by bluesy song structures and impressionistic lyrics. And a bonus: your dad will love this album as much as you do. Gunn also put out what is probably my favourite music video of 2014, which you can see below. The video, like the album as a whole, is a welcome antidote to the frantic pace of late modern culture.

Free Will

9. Bry Webb – Free Will – This is the most underrated Canadian album of 2014. It served as my introduction to Bry Webb, who some of you may know as the frontman of Constantines. Not well promoted by its small Canadian label, it nevertheless contains some lovely instrumentation, including delicate interplay between pedal steel, lap steel, Hammond organ, and mellotron. The close-mic’d vocals lend it an intimate quality even when the lyrics are hard to decipher. Taken as a whole, Free Will reminds me of sunlight filtering through a sunny, cedar-paneled room. Oddly, advance singles “AM Blues” and “Receive Me” proved to be the only upbeat songs on the album, but this doesn’t end up being a problem. “Let’s Just Get Through Today” is a touching ode to new fatherhood, and even the occasional misstep (the clunking melody of “Policy”) retains a contemplative quality. Webb ends the album with a rather calming poetic epitaph: “We’ll dress only in linens / And make peace at our beginnings / And never damn a single thing.”

St. Vincent

8. St. Vincent – St. Vincent – Taking in St. Vincent at the Burt this past June was an experience that resorted my faith in live music. When I think back to that show, I recall Annie Clark’s ability to completely command the attention of everyone in attendance. It was hard to take my eyes off the stage, such was her presence on it that evening. Given that high praise, some may wonder why I have placed this album so far down the list. I think it’s because I still find St. Vincent’s music to be a bit hard to bond with on anything other than an intellectual level. It’s so cerebral and other-worldly that some listeners may find it hard to move past cool-headed aesthetic appreciation. Still, her sound has fully matured and the album is a fantastic collection of high-energy songs partnered with surprisingly insightful lyrics for those of us who spend too much time in front of screens, sharing digital facsimiles of ourselves. “What’s the point of even sleeping / If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me?” Reductio ad absurdum at its most pithy.

Sukierae

7. Tweedy – Sukierae – Many were hoping for a new Wilco album late this year, but instead Jeff Tweedy teamed up with his son, Spencer, and recorded a double LP filled with some surprisingly good tunes. Tweedy reportedly has a large and expensive guitar collection, and it shows. The electric guitars on this album sound unrelentingly gorgeous, snaking around the songs’ arrangements and defining their edges. Tweedy’s songwriting sounds both effortless and bold, as he pares down some of his songs to their most basic arrangements. The lovely simplicity of “Fake Fur Coat” and the dusty shuffle of “Desert Bell” are a case in point. I could listen to songs like this all day long. Of course, the full-band tunes are also great, in a relaxed kind of way. The groove of “Low Key” is especially infectious. Enjoy the Nick Offerman-directed video below.

Are We There

6. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There – If I was ranking these albums by total number of plays, this might be number one. Van Etten’s Tramp was one of my favourite albums of the past several years, so I was really looking forward to her follow-up. While it wasn’t what I expected, it’s nevertheless a great album that showcases her formidable songwriting and lyrical vulnerability. Adding percussion loops and allowing some R&B influences to run a little closer to the surface likely helped Van Etten to garner a larger fanbase, and this she undoubtedly deserves. The album’s centerpiece, both emotionally and musically, is the ambitious, 6-minute “Your Love is Killing Me,” complete with visceral lyrics and pounding snare. Its vocal showcases Van Etten’s singular voice, which sent chills down my spine the first time I heard it.

They Want My Soul

5. Spoon – They Want My Soul – As a more introverted soul, it takes a lot for an album to make me want to buy a convertible and turn the volume all the way up. I’m given more to living room listening. But They Want My Soul is a summer crank-up record if there ever was one. Spoon injected some much-needed adrenaline and cool into the often introspective indie rock world this past August. Although They Want My Soul arrived four and a half years after their last album, don’t call it a comeback: this band is one of the most consistent around, and only side projects (namely, Divine Fits) delayed the release. There’s something so great about the way Britt Daniel always sings at the edge of the limits of his voice. Jim Eno’s hard-hitting drums are consistently awesome, from “Rainy Taxi” to “New York Kiss,” and prove that you don’t have to play fills to be a great drummer. I even learned that I can love a track with no guitars and three keyboards.

Black Hours

4. Hamilton Leithauser – Black Hours – Many would say this is a wild card choice, but I think this album was really overlooked this year. Besides, there’s too much conformity among music critics these days. Considering the fact that the Walkmen announced an indefinite hiatus, it wasn’t a bad year for the band’s members: three released solo albums, all within 6 weeks of one another. Leithauser’s is the best of the bunch. His vocals are placed front and center in the mix, and it sounds like he’s been listening to a lot of golden oldies, especially Frank Sinatra. He continues to have a great ear for vocal melodies, and the tension in his voice communciates so much. Bold instrumentation and fearless singing characterize this album. He also manages to do something really evocative with chord changes and builds, though I don’t know enough about music theory to say exactly what it is. After spinning this record, I’m always left humming its melodies for hours afterwards. Case in point: album closer “The Smallest Splinter.”

Burn Your Fire For No Witness

3. Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness – Released way back in January, Angel Olsen’s singular voice and reverberating guitar nevertheless blazed a path through the entire year, seldom leaving regular rotation on my turntable. It’s interesting to listen to this album alongside St. Vincent’s, as both were produced by John Congleton. While he conjures a very harsh, buzzing landscape for St. Vincent, he captures lots of warm dynamics for Olsen. Congleton is certainly a versatile producer. Lyrically, the album is filled with bold proclamations and sage advice. “Sometimes all you need / Is one good thought strong in your mind,” she intones on “Lights Out.” Taking a bird’s eye view of the album, it comes on strong and doesn’t quit. There are no tracks that are less than stellar. Her ballads are devastating, especially “White Fire.” But her rockers are cathartic and clear-eyed, and that may be why so many were spellbound by Olsen this year. Her next release will be one to watch.

Ryan Adams

2. Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams – I’m as surprised as you are. I went in to this release quite unfamiliar with Ryan Adams. Ryan Adams’ self-titled album has been on the stereo a lot, second only to Sharon Van Etten. From an audiophile perspective, it’s one of the most well-recorded albums I’ve heard, right down to the drums. The album has lots of dynamic range, which is a rarity these days. It’s probably the best sounding vinyl I purchased this year. The way the drums build “Shadows” is brilliant, and the charge of “Feels Like Fire” and “Trouble” showcases some great band performances. Adams reportedly went with the demos on this album, and if that’s so, he was wise to do so, as something is captured that could have been lost in more takes and more layers. His voice remains a formidable instrument, though the excellence of this album really can’t be boiled down to one factor alone. I’m even willing to overlook that terrible cover and the ripped jean jacket.

Lost in the Dream

1. The War On Drugs – Lost in the Dream – And here I thought 2011’s Slave Ambient was Adam Granduciel’s breakout album. (He thought so too.) Scratch that — 2014 was the year for this band. How could one feel anything other than pride for the band’s banner year? Granduciel is one of those guys who deserves the attention his band is getting. Lost in the Dream has appeared near the top of every best-of list I’ve read recently, and for good reason. The album manages to walk that fine line between wearing one’s influences on one’s sleeves, and doing something truly original at the same time. But for all the talk of its swirling, meticulous production, I also think Granduciel’s songwriting is deserves to be lauded. Just listen to this solo acoustic version of album closer “In Reverse” if you don’t believe me. Lost in the Dream‘s closing line — “In reverse, I’m moving” — sums up the band’s sound, and their path to success. The album is all highlights, though my favourite may be “Eyes to the Wind.” “Red Eyes” rivals Future Islands’ “Seasons (Waiting On You)” as the single of the year, and this performance of “Burning” at Primavera gets me amped every time.

Songs of the Summer

As the Labour Day weekend passes us by, many may find their thoughts turn to autumn, but I find myself reflecting on summer. 2014 has been a good year for music, and at least within the genres I inhabit, there has been quite a few great summer tunes released. I’m always surprised by how my listening preferences change when summer comes around: normally I listen to a lot of “sad music,” but I just can’t help dusting off or picking up more energetic albums during the summer months. What’s your song of the summer? Here are some of my candidates.

Spoon – “Rent I Pay”

Music journalists can’t review a Spoon album without using the word “swagger.” They Want My Soul, the band’s eighth studio album released August 5th, is no exception. It’s not so much arrogance as an unwavering artistic confidence, and it’s part of what makes Spoon great summer music. Album opener “Rent I Pay” is one of those tracks that makes me fall in love with rock n’ roll all over again. From Jim Eno’s hard-hitting drums to the dual guitar attack, this song is meant to be cranked.

tUnE-yArDs – “Water Fountain”

Hard to type (and to describe!) but fun to listen to, we enjoyed watching tUnE-yArDs open for Arcade Fire a couple of weeks ago. Merrill Garbus’s energy is infectious and seemingly inexhaustible (though that doesn’t mean her lyrics aren’t thoughtful). This music captures a childlike wonder I have not heard expressed in music before. If I worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant, I’d want Merrill to be my coworker, because the time would fly by. Bursting with colour and originality, this song is perfect for summer.

Sam Roberts Band – “We’re All In This Together”

Why was this album released in February? It made no sense until the sun came out. Lo-Fantasy found the band experimenting with more a beat-driven sound and poppier production, and I think it works in the right context (namely, June through August). Really, any of the first 3 songs from this album work well as Song of the Summer. But only “We’re All In This Together” gets me singing along and tapping my feet at any time of the day. This song finds Sam Roberts doing what he does best: making effortlessly catchy music that appeals to the masses, yet that also rewards repeat listens. He manages to subvert the instant appeal vs. longevity problem. In addition, the band as a performing entity is tighter than ever, and they really needed to swing by Winnipeg for an outdoor show this summer. Here’s hoping that happens next year.

The War On Drugs – “Red Eyes”

What would summer be without a road trip or two? Aside from being critically adored, the War On Drugs also makes the best driving music since Tom Petty’s early albums. “Red Eyes” is no exception, with its propulsive beat and that simple, hummable melody bounced between guitar and synth. And who doesn’t love a good “whoo!”

Real Estate – “Crime”

The barbecue is over, empties are strewn about, patio lights hang forlornly from the hedges. This is part of summer too, and you’ll need something to soundtrack it. May I suggest a laid-back gem from Real Estate? The intertwined guitars, the tasteful delay effects, the gentle production, the light tapping of the ride cymbal — it all comes together to make a song that’s perfect for the last two hours of the day, or the first two. Beer on the deck, anyone?

Pluralism and Public Memorials

One of two reflecting pools at Ground Zero

One of two reflecting pools at Ground Zero

Cultural critic, art historian, Massey Lecturer, and New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik has written yet another excellent piece, this time on the new memorial at Ground Zero in New York. While the full article is only available to subscribers (view a snippet here), I want to draw attention to one particular part of Gopnik’s observations. In the essay, Gopnik notes some puzzling features of the new memorial’s design and execution, and then discusses minimalist or “pure form” memorials versus more theatrical ones featuring “gilded heroic statuary” and the like. But in the middle of those two points, Gopnik steps back and reflects on the challenge of making public memorials in a postmodern, pluralistic age. He writes (emphasis mine),

. . .[T]he trouble with the site lies deeper, in the nature of what used to be called the liberal imagination. Royal and revolutionary societies make memorials with an ease that liberal ones can only envy. We walk through European capitals, Rome and Vienna and Madrid, keenly aware that, while the civilization that supervises them not may be more admirable, it has made nothing to match the churches and the monuments of absolutism. Various kinds of absolutism live together architecturally more easily than either lives with us. In Paris, the tomb of Napoleon sits deep inside Louis XIV’s domed Church of the Invalides, even though Napoleon was a devil to the Royalists of his day, who tried to assassinate him several times. The Emperor and the King can slumber together in spirit because they represent similar values of hierarchy and authority, and share similarly pompous styles of commemoration.

Those who lack faith in a fixed order and stable places have a harder time building monuments that must, in their nature, be monolithically stable and certain. Happiness writes white, and pluralism builds poorly. An obelisk can never be an irony. A pyramid can never symbolize a parenthetical aside. . .

. . .And so the double bind we find ourselves in is even more double and more binding than we know. On the one hand, no agreed-on figural style can any longer represent a society so plural and so quick to take offense at “partial” representations; a sublime minimalist reticence seems the best we can do. On the other hand, the pressures of lives require feeling, and so the minimal isn’t good enough; we bring American relics and personal scraps, the roadside folk-memorial style, to the temples of sublime simplicity. The American memorial style is powerful as an engine of pathos but is obviously limited as a language of representation. It feels, but it cannot show.

In other words, it’s hard for postmodern skeptics in cosmopolitan North American cities to work in marble; something about the medium seems to misunderstand the message. (But what would be the appropriate medium for doubt? Jell-O?) This is especially true in New York, a truly global city with stunning diversity. It is the epitome of a liberal society. How can a monument that is for the people (and financed by the people) of New York possibly embrace — let alone represent — all the diversity of that city while at the same time speaking with a uniform, intelligible voice? How can a memorial communicate a clear symbolic meaning to diverse cultural groups, or even across generations? How does the memorial even begin to command a certain interpretation of the events of 9/11 when the people who will be gazing upon it come from extremely different social, sexual, ethnic, and religious backgrounds?

I think that Gopnik is right to draw attention to this challenge, as it seems to remain largely unconsidered. As he notes, memorials sacralize by definition, and shame those who interpret differently the figure or event being commemorated — “to build in a way that makes contention come at an extremely high price in social discomfort and disapproval,” as he puts it. Gopnik gives the example of a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.: its presence publicly demonstrates that we think he was a deeply good and virtuous person who positively influenced many lives and shaped history, and that we do not accept the views of those who disagree with us about this. As the decades past, I suspect it will become harder and harder for us to find figures like this whose legacy we can agree is worth commemorating in stone. Americans can agree that the 9/11 attacks were utterly tragic and therefore call out for solemn remembrance and public education, but it’s sobering to remember that elsewhere in the world there are pockets of radicals who would not agree with even this basic moral proposition. Still, I suppose that the very notion of “utter tragedy” suggests that even a robust pluralism has some moral absolutes that it holds dear. (Hence why we can write a document like the UN Declaration of Human Rights and be audacious enough to apply it globally to every human being.)

Anyway, the bind of how to design memorials in a pluralistic age is certainly not going away, and it’s a difficult situation for architects, city planners, and citizens in general to be in. It’s especially humbling because whatever is decided, it’s literally set in stone. I have no solution, though I’m continually fascinated by the predicaments and possibilities that pluralism births, and I think Gopnik’s article does a great job of elucidating one aspect of pluralism at work in culture.

In the end, I can only conclude, along with Gopnik, that “Liberal civilizations, which depend on the assertion of the individual face, are better at sustaining meaningful lives than at commemorating the meaning of deaths.” This isn’t so much a jab at liberal civilizations as it is a reminder that finding real meaning in the face of death is just plain hard. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Perhaps the best memorials move us because they maintain an awareness of their shortcomings, and communicate an existential open-endedness to those who stand and gaze and walk around them. Maybe all that steel, marble, and bronze whispers a surprisingly delicate reminder: that we are fallible, finite, and fragile.

“Them little bitches on the chessboard”: Reflections on ‘The Wire’ Seasons 1-5

(L-R) Wallace, D'Angelo, and Bodie, Season 1

(L-R) Wallace, D’Angelo, and Bodie, Season 1

Sasha and I recently finished watching the final episode of The Wire, the HBO television series that ran from 2002-2008. We began watching the first season in October, a few weeks after settling into our new place. Since we don’t own a television and generally don’t even enjoy TV programs, we were both caught off guard by how quickly the series became a familiar companion through this long, cold winter. Memories quickly became associated with the weeknight evening ritual of watching an episode: stews and other hearty winter fare bubbled away on the stove while we started in on an episode before a late supper. On more than one occasion we endured the cat’s protests as we forgot to feed her on time due to a lengthy season finale. We entered the universe of The Wire as TV rookies and as TV skeptics, and left it impressed, grateful, and with much to ponder. It is the first television series to have an impact on me. It may very well be the last.

What I like most about The Wire is that it’s a show that says something about the world, and is unabashed about doing so. That may seem like an unremarkable quality, or one that we can take for granted, but few of the TV shows I’ve seen are actually interested in doing this. They’re entertainment, or at the very least, overly dramatic. Still other TV series mine the inner world of characters to great dramatic effect (e.g., Breaking Bad). But the characters on The Wire are portrayed as humans interacting with large (and at times, uncontrollable or irrational) social institutions. Their inner worlds aren’t glossed over, but emotion isn’t what drives the plot. So while it’s natural to get attached to certain characters, the show seems to ask viewers to resist this urge (and, over the course of five seasons, throws dirt on all characters to make this point). Think of the system, it seems to say. Despite its large ensemble cast, choosing one’s favourite character feels like an adventure in missing the point. The series’ fundamental unit of analysis remains the city of Baltimore and its institutions: its politics, its economy, its schools, its newspapers, its crime, and the interactions between all of these. Many have pointed to institutional dysfunction as one of the series’ chief concerns, and I’d have to agree. The show’s creator, David Simon, has said that the series is a modern-day Greek tragedy. Its characters are trapped inside a system — “the game” — that is rigged against them. This is illustrated powerfully in a scene with McNulty and Bodie near the end of the show’s fourth season. It is probably my favourite scene of the series.

Seasons 1 and 2 introduce viewers to “the game” (the drug trade and working class life), both for black Americans in the ghetto, and for white Americans at the shipyard. Seasons 3 through 5 examine city politics, inner city schools, and how local events are presented in a newspaper the next morning. One underlying theme through these seasons is the danger of careerism, glimpsed through characters like Carcetti and Templeton. The former’s idealistic yet admirable belief in the power of politics to better the lives of citizens is repeatedly undermined by his concurrent desire to be governor of Maryland. Carcetti works hard to become mayor of Baltimore, only to be handcuffed by his hunger for the state house, and the deal-making this entails. The latter’s desire for the spotlight despite a mediocre work ethic leads him to pursue an industry award at the expense of journalistic ethics. Another ongoing theme is the tension of trying to enact moral ideals in a very compromised social environment. For instance, Colvin’s “Hamsterdam” experiment is not a political statement. It is, rather, an attempt to recover an effective model of policing from a generation ago; one that envisioned the police on the same side as the community, not against it. Similar notions of community are referenced by Bunk in his confrontation with Omar.

The most moving moments of each season frequently occur during the end-of-season montages — the only times the show permits the use of a soundtrack. I won’t show these here; they are best experienced in the context of a season. By the end of each montage, viewers are left with a cliché revealed as true: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” As a drug kingpin is handcuffed, a younger, more ambitious one rises in his place. We see characters experience real growth and maturity (Carver, Bodie, Pryzbylewski) yet also see characters who seem unable or unwilling to give up self-destructive habits (McNulty). Characters slip in and out of the threadbare social safety net. Some make it (Cutty, Namond, Bubbles), some don’t (Duquan, Johnny Weeks, Randy). The genius of The Wire is the show’s ability to demonstrate the problems inherent in social institutions using small moments with two or three characters. The infamous chess scene is perhaps the show’s best example of this. 

And through all the turmoil of the city over five seasons we find the ordinary citizens of Baltimore going about their daily lives. We see them sweeping their steps, watering their flowers, congregating on corners, sitting on their stoop, and walking to work or church. If the show does have a dominant ideal, perhaps it is to uphold the value of the quiet courage of the ordinary citizen.