Originally published in The Worcester Journal on July 1, 2015
The older I get, the more I see how watching TV can be like reading a poem. Only a few shows have struck me in this way – despite my deep affection for Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, and other shows, their poetry is not as resonant as that of, say, Lost or Breaking Bad, or even The Office (for a little while). Of course, not every sitcom will be a “Road Not Taken,” and not every drama can be a “Howl,” but when each episode rings so truly to the humanity of its characters and is equally if not more potently beautiful when perceived as part of a larger story, the poem becomes more visible. When each rewatch further embeds into your subconscious how we are it and they are us, and with each revisit, these realizations slowly guide you towards something like an answer to a question you hadn’t yet asked, the poetry becomes clear. Maybe nothing strikes you at first, but maybe when it’s over the sheer richness of what you come away with overcomes any sense of an ending, the fullness of the story somehow leaving just enough blank space for you to look forward to one more careful reading.
Some shows are like this for me; now, I’m thinking of Mad Men.
“It’s the real thing!” The final statement of the series looms over its ninety-two episode arc in retrospect, casting the light of a question over everything we’ve seen before; what is The Real Thing? The dichotomy between real life and the life advertisements would have us believe is attainable has always been one of the leading forces of Mad Men; Sterling Cooper, as a glamorized beacon of the in-between state, where its troubled employees inspire manufactured ideas of happiness for the rest of us to consume, is a purgatory for Don Draper and the others, who come face to face with their ideals every workday (and sometimes weekends) and yet find themselves unable to produce such fulfillment in their own lives.
This fundamental failure to connect the dots between the flaws of reality – sexism, racism, rape, and cancer, to name a few – and the impossible dream of perfection pervades the life of every character. When modest co-heroine Peggy, whom we’ve seen climb from secretary to copy chief, deems Stan a “failure” for being content with his work instead of trying to find something better, we – particularly my generation, I believe – are uneasily reminded of ourselves, of the need to try harder, score higher, and make more, which unconsciously determines perhaps one too many so-called “life-changing decisions,” even when we are convinced we make such choices ourselves. Her realization that there’s more to life than her job reminds overachievers everywhere that sometimes good is good enough.
The impossible quest for perfection, however, is far from the pursuit of happiness – it’s being able to tell the difference that finally releases most characters from their self-imposed suffering. Betty, for instance, was quite the opposite of Peggy in this regard: whereas Peggy valued her work above any expectations of her gender, letting opportunities for marriage and motherhood fall behind the prospect of a career, Betty tried and failed for most of her life to believe that marriage and motherhood was enough. When an old friend forces her to question how satisfied she is with everything she once wanted –“I thought they were the reward”– she starts thinking more like Peggy (who, incidentally, starts thinking more like the unexpected workplace feminist Joan, who has always been capable of thinking for herself but is now free to think only for herself). The attraction to an ad man like Don is obvious, for Betty is nothing if not the ideal consumer, always living just the life ads said she should – she married a handsome man, mothered three kids (when the housekeeper went home, of course), wore the right clothes, smoked the right cigarettes, and maintained the image of charm and grace she thought every woman should.
But there’s a danger to “shoulds” – as Don learns in the final episode – and this is ultimately what the show teaches us; there is no right way. Even the folks at Sterling Cooper know it, they’re just doing their job by trying to sell it to us under the guise of what it is we really want – which the finale title, “Person to Person,” articulates in its most basic terms. In the significant mid-season-seven pitch to Burger Chef, Peggy recalls the remarkable feeling of knowing that, during the moon landing, while she and Don and the rest of the team were watching on TV in their hotel room, everyone else she knew and didn’t know was watching their TV too, sharing the experience and “doing the same thing at the same time.” She notes the “pleasure of that connection,” and that they were starved for it.
This rivals only one other pitch on Mad Men for its potent authenticity; as with Don’s nostalgic approach to selling “The Wheel” in season one’s finale, Peggy here taps into an undeniable truth and a basic human anxiety — to sit down to dinner, for example, away from television or music or anything that isn’t the people sitting right in front of you, then look them in the eye and share a meal and conversation – Peggy herself wonders, “Does this family exist anymore?” The question is still relevant, and the connection is one we still starve for. When the IBM supercomputer suddenly becomes part of the Sterling Cooper company in “The Monolith,” it is this connection that is threatened, and this threat which eventually drives some of its employees insane; when a father first sees his child do something that makes him mean the love he thinks he is supposed to have, as Don realizes with his young son Bobby, it is this connection being formed; and with every phone call made to daughters, lovers, and friends (brothers, clients, and nieces), it is this connection we are aching to imitate – but it’s not The Real Thing.
Don Draper ought to know this more than anyone, but he’s the last to figure it out. His crucial struggle to relate to those around him has never been more clear than when, in a group exercise during his climactic retreat to California, he is instructed to simply express how he feels towards another human being. Looking around the room with utter blankness, his partner finally pushes him out of frustration which leaves Don only more bewildered. Taking cues from a number of similarly confused and isolated protagonists from major Italian directors of the 1960s – it’s no coincidence that Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) is mentioned at one point as Don’s favorite foreign film – Don grapples with his inability to accept himself throughout the series, as his Dick Whitman past continues to haunt him in spite of his apparently tried-and-true “move forward” strategy. (Indeed, Don looks more and more like the man he might have been as his season seven road trip goes on, until he’s finally seen in a flannel and jeans, having shed everything external that made him Don Draper.) In the same vein as Red Desert’s Giuliana (Antonioni, 1964) and 8 ½’s Guido (Fellini, 1963), Don’s emotional moment of epiphany centers around his ability (or rather, inability) to love and receive love.
Although the finale makes this clearer than ever, Don’s fundamental sense of detachment is foreshadowed as early as the very first episode, in a remarkably revealing conversation with client-to-lover Rachel Menken. “Mr. Draper,” she says during one of their earliest exchanges, “I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.” While Don manages to brush the moment away and their relationship (both business and personal) is short-lived, it is obvious why Rachel, of all the many, many women in his life, is the one who reappears to him during one of Mad Men’s signature surrealist moments in the final season’s opening scene. Rachel isn’t the only woman to have Don figured out over time, but she is arguably the one who is both most and least like him. Her ability to empathize is striking to Don, but not something he can name or learn himself until much later, for although most of Don’s life has been spent “in another man’s shoes,” so to speak, he has never put himself there for the sake of understanding someone else, only to hide further from himself.
“I don’t think I realized it until this moment,” Rachel tells him in the same conversation, “but it must be hard being a man, too.” Bringing gender into the exchange – another one of the most important facets of the show – Rachel also presages the arrival of Leonard, a stranger and crucial character seen only in the finale. Leonard is a foil to Don in many ways (invisible, whereas Don is used to turning heads) yet both face the same essential struggle – the one Rachel articulated ninety-one episodes before. Though much of the series rightly focuses on the realistic sexism and mistreatment of women at the time, Don and Leonard’s group therapy session proves how right Rachel was; for all the shortcomings of the privileged (and probably white) male, there are arguably few demographics who are more emotionally repressed. We see this in Don’s gradual decline, and Don sees it, and himself, in Leonard. No longer forcing the belief in his individualism or trying too hard to project or create the connection he craves (as he did with the enigmatic waitress Diana), Don genuinely relates to this stranger and finds himself uninhibited, for the first time, in his physicality; hugging Leonard in a moment of sincere empathy, Don finally sees The Real Thing.
Perhaps your twenties are supposed to feel this way, or perhaps it’s because my generation is among the most lonely and confused there has ever been, that I felt I understood Don Draper so much – for he, of all tragic and redeemed anti-heroes, is most certainly lonely and confused. These are some of the most significant feelings of Mad Men, explored kaleidoscopically through the nuances of each character as he or she struggles through separate and intertwined journeys. Through each of the show’s seven seasons, these perpetually shifting impressions of the cycle of isolation and reconnection take many forms, and existential notions of identity and purpose are subtly woven throughout the narrative more and more until the finale’s spiritual peak. Fans like me who initially took interest in the show for its notable 1960s setting will be satisfied to see evidence of the era’s counterculture (an infrequent but always welcome visitor for viewers as it enters, interrupts, and edifies the lives of Sterling Cooper’s staff) in full bloom at last as we get a final glimpse of our anti-hero in the company of his fellow human beings. “People just come and go, and no one says goodbye,” he laments in frustration near the end of his journey – an obscene hypocrisy, considering the vast number of people and places Don himself has left behind – but he knows this already, that “people can come and go as they please,” that they will and they do. With nothing left but the possibility of a new day and new ideas, the poem of Mad Men closes out its final stanza, and leaves us to turn off the TV and sign out of Netflix, to see ourselves and those around us – face to face, person to person.
Originally published in The Worcester Journal on April 3, 2015
At 25 years old, Aly Spaltro is no stranger to the small ironies and binaries of modern life. As her moniker, Lady Lamb, suggests, there’s a powerful sense of grace in her music and persona, alloyed with the sweetness of a teenage girl who shyly started teaching herself to play guitar and experiment with making music in the after-hours of her part-time job at a video rental store. Since these early undercover days, Spaltro has come a long way. “I ain’t no warrior or king,” she roars in the final chorus of “Vena Cava,” the opening number on her second studio album After (Mom+Pop Music). Knowing that anyone who has heard her work would beg to differ, she is quick to qualify, adding, “But how I am one when I sing.”
I was first introduced to Lady Lamb The Beekeeper (a name that came to her in a dream, and which has since been shortened) as a senior in high school, when she was hardly known beyond the corners of our shared state, Maine. Her first studio album, Ripely Pine (Ba Da Bing! Records) came out shortly after I started college and experienced a rapid procession of feelings from first-breakup devastation to homesickness to newly-found self-reliance and spirit. Spaltro recently told Nylon magazine that she can now see the songs on Ripely Pine as “very dramatic” and “kind of all over the place emotionally,” but at the time I felt that lines like “You make me into an egg without yolk” and “I still need your teeth round my organs” were written specifically for me.
Ripely Pine was almost all I could stand listening to that year. With an offhand blend of unusually long and uniquely structured songs, Spaltro’s first album covers a range of adolescent attitudes, from the intimacy, betrayal, and complexity of “young love” (I really hate this phrase, but what else do you say when someone’s young and in love?) to a pure and quiet affection for her family.Almost all Ripely Pine’s songs can be seen this way: is it about love, or family? Heartbreak or home? Even in these simplistic terms (or perhaps, especially), it’s easy to see why the album would speak so much to a kind of dramatic, very emotionally-all-over-the place 19-year-old; as the composer and wordsmith of such lyrically beautiful and universal expressions, hopefully Spaltro isn’t embarrassed by that.
With this in mind, After seems an appropriate title for the follow-up. Listeners expecting a development, a grown-up looking back at a distance to her reckless teenage years, might very well feel satisfied with After. With a sleeker stage name, succinct song titles, and shorter song lengths, Spaltro shows some real adult-like temperance and maturity (like her debut, After has only three songs that even come close to acceptable radio-standard length, but lacks the added boldness from Ripely Pine’s five songs stretching over the five-minute mark). The twelve-track album is more polished in both mixing and vocal quality, with nothing that comes near to the raw voice cracks in “Regarding Ascending the Stairs” or the sung-screamed lyrics of “Crane Your Neck.” Only two songs explicitly deal with romantic relationships as Ripely Pine did, with the rest either crossing into home and family territory or leading listeners somewhere else entirely.
The recurring words and images in the lyrics are telling: apples, ghosts, and airplanes; birds, blood, and Jesus. Indeed, her infatuation with the vocabulary of eating, death, and animals is reminiscent of the major motifs in the literary nonsense genre of Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll and adapted by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Oranges and nectarines (not to mention strawberry cake) appear, as does chewing, gnawing, and most prominently, starving. Lines like “I could be cracked open like a cartoon watermelon” demonstrate Spaltro’s stomach for potentially gruesome imagery combined with the comical, almost like Wallace Stevens. As with Stevens, playing with the notion of death is clearly important to Spaltro as well, as images of ghosts, skulls, and graves intermingle with her details of ordinary life and often descend through nonsense surrealism into absurdity. “You will become your most favorite color” is her idea of death (from After’s poignant “Sunday Shoes”), while disembodied descriptions like “You with the watercolor eyes, you who bares all your teeth in every smile” are distinctly whimsical and evocative of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat.
And although cats have yet to appear in one of Spaltro’s songs, she does show a Carrollian affinity for creature comparisons, incorporating such “rabid beasts” and “handsome animals” as mice, wolves, dinosaurs, and alligators into her often surreal imagery and metaphors. Deer, ants, whales, and lions appear, but Spaltro’s true affection is for birds–crows, vultures, sparrows, and now an eagle with a fish in its beak. Often, hand in hand with these animal allusions are bodily references to limbs, organs, and bones. Spaltro’s attention to details of the body makes each song feel like a dissection as she severs eyes from their sockets, ribs from their cages, spines and clavicles from their exquisite bones structures. Even after severing the parts she needs, though, the body is often further disfigured by incorporating the language of animals into its description; just as Ripely Pine’s opener “Hair to the Ferris Wheel” has such lines as “It’s a zoo in your room when you part your lips” and “Let’s crawl all over one another like crows on a carcass,” the fairly existential “Spat Out Spit” furthers and exemplifies the thematic association between the human body and an animal one. “Animal hearts, pumping that animal, animal blood,” Spaltro sings lightly and low, leading into the main question of the refrain: “Was I born wild? Have I been asleep this whole damn time, dreaming up a life? Will I awake to find that I’m deep in the woods and I’m snarling on all fours?” This chorus actually brings up other themes in the Lady Lamb catalogue, from the viewing of humans as savage animals to the recurring ideas of infancy, sleeping, and dreaming. Newborns appear almost as often as apples, and the repetition of “asleep” and “awoke” throughout both albums reinforces her uncanny ability to make even unremarkable details of life feel like a dream.
More so than these perennial images, though, it is clear that what has remained consistently important across Lady Lamb’s discography thus far–and is even more prominent in the new album–is her love for home and her family. The language of travel weaves throughout her songs, but when it’s about love, the plane crashes, the ship wrecks. When the song leans towards home, nostalgia takes over and we are painted a golden map of Spaltro’s memories, spanning from her New England roots in Maine and New York to Arizona and Arkansas. Her parents, sister, and brother are all mentioned, and always in tender solo songs featuring only Spaltro and her guitar. “Ten” comes near the end of After, an ode to home ripe with affection for her sister, best friend, and mother. The song was the closer to Lady Lamb’s recent album release shows in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, and it left the audiences the thought that “there’s a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust on our eyes, once our eyes finally close.” After all is said and done, after the droughts, gore, crashes, slaughter, swords, and pistols, she knows where she ends up, and she knows where she comes from.
Originally published in The Worcester Journal on January 14, 2015
To be clear: I am not here to talk about what’s punk and what’s not. As much as I’d like to have the authority to do so, my knowledge of punk is scant compared to what I really love – pop. And while the two may seem to be diametrically opposed, it seems to me that pop is beginning to take a few small but visible notes from punk’s playbook.
Pop culture infiltrates our lives – in fashion, film, slang, TV – trickling through our minds, memories, and conversations in big and small ways, but perhaps most obviously in music. And right now – sorry guys – women own the playing field. The influence these women can have (and are already having) on thousands of girls today could be immense, but what are we actually learning from them? And is it really as bad as some people seem to think?
Exhibit A: Taylor Swift. Undeniably attractive as she may be, the seven-time Grammy winner is also undeniably more conservative than most of her other female pop peers, somehow remaining as innocent and adorable as when she released her debut album in 2006; for all we know, Ms. Swift has been completely sober and sexless for all her twenty five enchanting years on earth. Despite the self-professed confessional nature of her songwriting, criticism of what some may call an obsession with boys continues to crop up year after year. Referred to as “a feminist’s nightmare” by Jezebel, Swift has publicly admitted that her relationships are most often what inspires the strong feelings behind her songs, with countless defenders who thrive on the connection built between the artist and fans in hearing familiar stories and moments retold in such an articulate, relatable voice. What some interpret to be a “feminist’s nightmare” is Swift’s apparent inability to write about anything but these relationships, with haters arguing that the lyrical message of her music is little more than simply, BOYS; fans, however, see something very different.
NPR interestingly called Swift a “princess of punk” upon the release of her fourth album, Red, in 2012, commenting on the noticeably new attitude of the songs and noting that Swift’s growth is evident in the tones of both anger and acceptance (as opposed to what might have previously been called whining and obsession) felt throughout the album. Swift’s maturation is by far most visible in light of her newly-released fifth studio album, 1989, and is perhaps most palpable in the single “Blank Space” and its music video. In what the New York Times called a “metanarrative” about her reputation as a perpetually lovelorn, occasionally clingy ex-girlfriend, Swift seems to have directly dedicated “Blank Space” to her haters, shamelessly acknowledging her notoriety in lines like “You look like my next mistake” and the gleefully knowing chorus, “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane / But you know I love the players / And you love the game.” The accompanying video brings Swift’s self-awareness to a new level, following a traditional fairy-tale love story and featuring caricatures of Swift’s alternately girl-next-door and crazy-ex personas, teaching us just as much about rolling with the punches and knowing yourself as her earlier songs did with issues of growing up and dealing with young love and heartbreak. Swift is in good company though: fellow pop princess Lana Del Rey also defied the mainstream culture by abandoning the reputation built by hip-hop inspired Born to Die (2012) when packing her second album Ultraviolence (2014) full of slow, psychedelic songs, none of which make the traditional three-minute radio cut. Del Rey took a bow to her skeptics as well, most notably in the Ultraviolence song “Brooklyn Baby,” which highlights haters’ perceptions of the artist whom Rolling Stone called “rock’s saddest, baddest diva” as an unapologetic hipster. Swift may have taken a note from Del Rey’s book as she gave her haters exactly what they were looking for in “Blank Space.” Though Swift’s sugar-sweet, pure-as-a-virgin image may have made (and continues to make) her music marketable to younger listeners and often causes older ones to undermine or disregard her music, Swift is undeniably succeeding in the powerful cultural position she holds – in fact, because her sound is so accessible to young girls, she is actually instilling her ideas of how to work through relationships and expressing strong feelings in girls at a younger age – kind of empowering, right? And isn’t that the kind of ability we’d like our daughters growing up with?
The one girl who probably has the most to say on growing up is actually the youngest of most pop stars on the radar right now. At 16, Lorde topped the U.S. Billboard Charts in 2013 with her hit “Royals,” from her debut album, Pure Heroine (the name itself basically says all you need to know). Now, at 18 years old, Lorde remains admirable in a traditional sense — incredibly talented, wildly successful — yet at the same time “punk” in the way she defies our expectations; a 16-year-old girl writes an album almost entirely absent of boys, romance, or sex? Her incredibly impressive debut instead focused mainly on the concept of youth and the strangeness of getting older, a theme as universal as Ms. Swift’s obsession with writing about boys. “Royals” even challenges the elements of songs on the radio as of late: “But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room / we don’t care.” How punk is it to write a number one international hit song that rolls its eyes at every other number one hit?
And then there’s Miley. Once the woman of the hour, arguably old news, yet consistently relevant and discussed amongst fans and cynics alike.
Ridding herself of the long, luscious, Hannah Montana locks in favor of a Twiggy-inspired shaved head and bleach blonde bangs, and crowned as “Princess of Twerk” by tabloids everywhere.. Cyrus has gone through an incredible transformation. Under intense public scrutiny for the majority of her life, the singer received shocking amounts of negative publicity in the aftermath of the controversial 2013 VMA performance. Her public sexuality and discussion of drug use has been criticized as an overly dramatic way of saying, “Y’all check me out, I’m not a kid anymore,” and her carefree attitude towards the situation has upset parents telling CNN they are now forced to think that Cyrus does not either a) care what her younger fans think of her or b) hasn’t even bothered to think of what her actions are doing to her image…but isn’t that what continues to make her so awesome?
Despite the scandal created around her new look, Cyrus is flourishing more than ever because she simply does not care – which is why VICE magazine even went so far as to call her “the most punk rock musician around” at the height of her controversy. Subsequent appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Ellen Show proved her capacity for eloquence, honesty, and a good sense of humor (about herself) and what it’s like to suddenly be the most talked-about person in the world. She’s not perfect, but she’s rich, pretty, and testing her limits, paving the way for her own independent image, trying to figure out who she is.
That Cyrus can disguise her fourth album, Bangerz, (which is, in fact, a breakup album) as what most angelheaded hipsters would write off as another shitty pop record trying too hard to get in the Top 40 is actually an incredible feat. When some girls might be tempted to fill their album with acoustic emotion and bittersweet strings, Cyrus shook off her broken engagement with actor Liam Hemsworth by reestablishing her confidence in herself: “So don’t you worry ‘bout me, Imma be okay / Imma do my thang.” The lyrics of the album tell the story of real feelings, but the upbeat quality of most of the songs instills a sense of conviction and empowerment – occasionally admitting to unhappiness, but never giving in to it. “Wrecking Ball” is the obvious exception, but we can allow her a few minutes of sadness, right? And can we please allow her to wear what she wants? To dance how she wants? Though the initial hysteria surrounding the transformation of Ms. Cyrus has faded, I think it’s important to remember how harshly and cynically many of us reacted. Everyone has (had) at least a little bit of Miley in us, in our reckless, fun, experimental youth. We watched her evolve and now here she is, and some people still want to criticize her for not keeping things PG? All I can say is: grow up.
Rock critic Lester Bangs said that “punk represents a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it, and do something good besides.” Not to say that girls like Miley, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde are punk musicians — not at all — but they’re bringing an element of the tradition into mainstream popular music. The women of pop are stronger than ever as they continue to top the charts, make bank, and make the news every week, joining the ranks of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and other established queens of the radio. As they use their words, sounds, and images to express themselves with confidence and be who they choose to be, listeners of our generation should feel more and more comfortable following suit. Punk is, after all, “just another word for freedom.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine STIR in 2013.
organ of criticism