All posts by Ben


TRACK MARKS 2020: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

Track Marks is a recurring feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

1. History and Context

Do you ever listen to an old song and ask, if this song came out today, would it still be a hit? Sure, there are songs that are clearly of their time — a grunge anthem that typifies the ’90s or an early hip-hop song of the ’80s that might not translate well. But then, there are those songs from whenever they came out that make you think, yeah, this is still a banger.

“Blinding Lights” answers a different question: If you created a perfect ’80s synth pop song with post-2000s production technology in the year of a quarantine, would it be popular?

Sure, the ’80s has its gems. Yes, Pitbull can sample Ah-ha’s classic “Take On Me” in “Feel This Moment” to push out a party anthem, but Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) along with Max Martin and Oscar Holter (with a few others) did something remarkable: They created a song for 2020 with its roots clearly in the 1980s (if not a little before), and they made it slamming.
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The Podcast: 1999 Albums – 69 Love Songs by Magnetic Fields

Our miniseries on notable albums from the blessed year of 1999 is finally coming to an end, with an episode recorded a year ago and lost until today, well past the 21st anniversary of 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields. This episode is a showcase for frequent contributor Ben, who has a close and complicated relationship with the best-known, most acclaimed Magnetic Fields record, and who was really on the scene back in 1999. Are we all absolutely cuckoo for Stephin Merritt’s massive concept album? Listen and find out! It’ll only take one sixth as long as listening to the album itself!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The Best Album of the 2000s Came Out in 1999

The best album of the 2000s was released in 1999, and it was 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields. This is not the first time this happened. The best album of the 1980s was London Calling, and it was released in 1979. Both albums perfectly pivot the previous decade and anticipate the best music in the one that would follow.

69 Love Songs capped a decade when the alternative went mainstream and became commodified. Alternative rock went from a subcultural scene in the movie Singles, but became the punchline in the early ’00s movie Rock Star. Indie labels got bought by big labels as part of a portfolio play. And, everything was being drowned out by the manufactured pop industry (c.f., Britney Spears, N’Sync). Pop would continue like that throughout the next decade — and even up to now.

So, what is the bellwether for a time like this? An album that points to fact that love songs are an industry with a formula and just a flavor of genre. At a time when the Music Genome Project was trying to prove that all songs come from a defined set of characteristics, Stephen Merritt and his bandmates of morose musicians set upon a concept album of all love songs of all different genres. And, sure, not every song is a gem, but every song is necessary — every song anticipates what a pop / rock love song could be, and reminds us that this is all artifice. The chords are going through the motions, the tunes are genre archetypes, and the lyrics are well-worn.

Those 69 Love Songs anticipate so many of the songs that wound up on the list that we chose, and so, to that end, I present 25-plus of the 69 Love Songs that could be swapped with those that wound up on the list of best songs of the ’00s.
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Another Season of Halt and Catch Fire—Burn to the Ground and Begin Again

There will be spoilers in everything that follows

Thirty years ago this week, Steve Jobs was pushed out of Apple through a series of reorganizations and board maneuvers. Yet one can’t think about that failure outside the context of his second act: Steve Jobs rising again. He spent time at Pixar, created NeXT, got brought and bought back by Apple, and put Apple on the path to being the most valuable company in the world, which it is today. That is one hell of a second chance story. That is a second-chance story that Halt and Catch Fire wishes it could tell. In fact, the season finale of Halt and Catch Fire alluded to Jobs’s Apple exit in a quick cut that was almost easy to miss:

Steve Jobs Fortune

Again, in the near-historical, alternate history of Halt and Catch Fire Apple—the most familiar of tech stories—plays the foil. The series used Apple last season when the introduction of the Macintosh stood in for innovation at a time when the central character Joe (Lee Pace) had just made the profit-driven decision to simply make the machine they were creating faster and cheaper. In contrast, the Macintosh “spoke.” Because Halt and Catch Fire must operate in this bizarre world of almost-real computing history, it nodded to the true history, although never quite hitting the same historical notes in the way that Mad Men could.

The parallels with Apple continue into the second season. Like Steve Jobs’s second act, Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 is a season of second (or third) chances. As it begins, the PC division of Cardiff Electric—the driver of the main story of Season 1— is sold off, making an ignominious end for something that took so many episodes to build. But, with that sale, every character is looking for their next chance.

Having flamed out at IBM and again at Cardiff (quite literally), the Joe is on his third chance when the season begins. He’s more relaxed, more authentic, with less product in his hair. His arc for the season is to see if he can be this authentic, honest person and also the successful visionary that he always been promised to be.

But he’s not the only one with vision. The central characters of the second season are actually Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), who struggle to build a company in the world of computers that are connected to phone lines. Apparently, this connected world is going to be big. Their arc is to make the company survive given Camerons no-selling-out ideals and turmoil in both of their personal lives.

And personal lives figure heavily throughout second season, a more conventionally dramatic season than the first. Season 2 has clandestine romances, an engagement, infidelity, a secret abortion, chronic mental diseases that cause amnesia, polyamory, a hate crime, and a marriage. Many critics I’ve read thought Season 2 was the better of the two, and, by conventional measures, they’re probably right. This is a more relationship-focused Halt and Catch Fire. It isn’t about building a company; it was about the people that made up the company.

Yet, missing from Season 2 are the business cases—the narratives about running a company. Yes, there are bad contracts that need to be renegotiated and employees that need to managed, but these were the background to the intense personal drama. Perhaps the narrative most similar to a business case was Cameron’s realization that more customers are interested in online communities than the online game playing she was so interested in creating. From listening to customers, she figures out that the focus of her company is wrong, and she needs to address it. In contemporary startup lingo, that would be the pivot.

Last year I argued that the business cases were a significant reason that Season 1 of Halt and Catch Fire was so interesting, and perhaps, it is the business case of the entrepreneur that so attracted the affluent viewers who made sure there was a Season 2. And, seen in that way, perhaps the most entrepreneurial point of this season is that second, third, and fourth chance. At the end of Season 2, Cameron and Donna are heading out to California as part of the second act of their online company Mutiny, while Joe has secured ten million dollars in funding for Macmillan Utilities, a virus utility company that is reminiscent of Norton Utilities and McAffe. Macmillan Utilities is the result of a virus that is mistakenly designed by his old partner, Gordon (Scoot McNairy)—who sought his own second chance to redeem himself from the slip-ip—and unleashed upon him by Cameron as revenge for a deal gone bad. And, because we live in 2015, we know that these second chances will pan out. As viewers, we know that online communities and computer antivirus will become huge. That’s the comforting thought that the series leaves us with: The next chance might be even bigger than this one. Like, maybe the next Apple.

Halting ‘Halt and Catch Fire’

The only salient reason that AMC could give in its decision to renew Halt and Catch Fire, a deeply flawed, little watched show, is affluence. “Halt and Catch Fire was No. 3 among affluent viewers age 18-49, trailing only The Good Wife and Mad Men.” Sites that do viewer comparisons note that the ratings were close to other shows that AMC had decided to cancel. Go here if you want numbers, but the overarching number is this: Halt and Catch Fire had 1.3 million viewers.

As part of that number, the 0.4 percent of the U.S. population who watch this show, I received news of the renewal decision with a mixture of excitement and sadness because, while there is something in it that I find compelling, it is not a “good show.” It isn’t even a “good bad show”, and I watch plenty of those.

Someone on Twitter asked me if he should watch Halt and Catch Fire, and that question is impossible to answer without probing this question: Why would someone want to watch Halt and Catch Fire? Why did I watch it? And, by extension, what makes Halt and Catch Fire No. 3 among affluent viewers?

The reasons that I can think of are an affinity for business cases, an interest in startups and innovation, and a nostalgia for early computing. But, ultimately, it fails in creating a compelling work narrative. It is too much a business case and not enough of a business fantasy.

I will take those in four parts. And, yes, there will be spoilers for Halt as well as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and a few others.

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