What got you through Year Two of Trump?
No one needs to tell you that 2018 felt like a long year a lot of the time. But maybe you’d like suggestions from SW writers about what made it a little easier for them.
Looking back on the music I had in heavy rotation this year — Robyn’s honey-coated heartbeat-laced electropop, Lucy Dacas’ devastatingly sharp personal-as-political lyricism, Janelle Monae’s digital funk...and Mitski, Cardi B, Dessa, and so many others — it turns out that, with a few notable exceptions (the Struts’ unabashedly joyful glam, rock) my list featured a lot of women artists — and a lot of women’s assertion of rage and power.
It’s not all that surprising, in a year that started with an expression of the power of women’s anger — the massive Women’s Marches — and ends with two sexual harassers on the nation’s highest court and abortion rights in peril.
At the very top of my list is Tell Me How You Really Feel from Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett. Among standout tracks, “Hopefulessness” becomes a personal protest anthem about sexism and self-doubt, while “Nameless, Faceless” — with its lyrical riff on Margaret Atwood’s axiom that “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them” — is a “step off” message to the sexist trolls who derive joy from attacking women on the internet.
Yet even so, the message is delivered with an attempt to understand the loneliness of those infected with the frustration and misogyny Barnett sings about.
Writing political music that’s not wooden is a tricky thing without it coming across as a “manifesto.” Barnett never descends into political parody by acknowledging exactly those difficulties.
And because all of life doesn’t need to be “political,” my other pick this year is a song that is so ridiculously over the top that it never fails to make me smile: party rocker Andrew W.K.’s single “Music Is Worth Living For” — because, well, it just is.
Socialism is on the rise. So is fascism. Maybe that’s why in 2018, I’ve been drawn to utopias — which always contain a bit of dystopia inside them.
The best example is Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Which I’ve seen like five times already — only partly because I organized a whole class around it at Ohio State, called “Why Wakanda Matters.”
The utopian aspects of Black Panther are self-evident. It was transformative to watch a film, with a Black-majority cast and Black director, and imagine what an African country might be, untouched by the ravages of colonialism and the slave trade. Black Panther is part of a Black Renaissance, tied to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
But it is the dystopia of Black suffering that drives the movie. Characters clash over Wakanda’s responsibility to an African diaspora that did not escape the legacies of slavery and colonialism.
Though the royal T’Challa kills the rebellious Killmonger, turning towards CIA support and NGO models of liberation, the movie strikes a deep chord because the political and personal crises caused by the legacies of slavery and empire are so real, and so unresolved. As actor Chadwick Boseman put it, T’Challa might be the real enemy.
And the category is...Queer television! While LGBTQI folks are facing attack after attack in real life, on the small screen, 2018 was a year of unprecedented representation, both in terms of depth and breadth for queer characters. The stellar family drama Vida and the fabulous/earnest pageant that is Pose anchored an amazing array of new characters and stories.
Both series are centered on women of color: Vida follows Latinx sisters navigating family, sexuality, gentrification and assimilation in the wake of inheriting their deceased mother’s bar in LA. Pose is set in the 1980s drag ball scene where its largely trans cast struggle to survive and thrive, and bring home the biggest trophies at the height of the AIDS crisis.
But if that’s too real for you, Netflix’s Emmy-winning second season of the smash reality reboot of Queer Eye more than earned its tag line of “I’m not crying, you are.” A great fluffy antidote to the sewer of toxic masculinity that is our world, QE shows men caring about and caretaking other men — and holding space for them to really open up, show themselves and connect to other people.
Black Lightning is epitomized by a scene where a young Black queer woman, an activist, educator and med student, uses her new superpowers to smash a Confederate statue. If that doesn’t make you feel good in the Trump era, I don’t know what will.
DC’s latest superhero show is uneven, but the strongest episodes are about how Jefferson Pierce, his wife Lynn and his daughters Anissa and Jennifer deal with the challenges of being woke. Or having superpowers. Metaphors are tricky.
The show’s cast is almost entirely Black. Musician Jill Scott as a deliciously evil supernatural drug lord is particularly enjoyable.
Alas, enjoying Black Lightning is harder since disturbing court documents were filed about the showrunner’s domestic abuse. Hopefully he will be fired and forgotten, and future episodes will feature the Pierce sisters teaming up to jack up domestic abusers.
A ludicrous year deserves a ludicrous film to match it, and in 2018, that film was Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You.
When hapless telemarketer Cassius Green’s (Lakeith Stanfield) magical “white voice” is only the 10th-weirdest thing in the film, you know you’re in for a wild ride. Sorry to Bother You pings between dystopian surrealist comedy and the all-too-real violence and humiliation of late capitalism with absurd humor and a killer soundtrack.
It even has the year’s best take on apathy: “If you show people a problem, but they have no idea how to solve it, they’re just going to decide to ignore it.” Also featured: 2018’s most cringeworthy rap and full-frontal horse nudity.
Years ago, I read the Herman Melville novella Benito Cereno that centered on an 1800s slave revolt on a Spanish slave ship where the slaves held the crew hostage. So as to avoid suspicion from other ships, the liberated slaves pretended that they were still captive as they tried to force the ship to return them to Africa.
I only learned later that Benito Cereno was based on a true event that forms the core of Greg Grandin’s Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World. Grandin’s history retells the stories of the key actors, especially those of the slaves.
Each chapter takes the reader down a different path: on the importance of slavery to the development of world capitalism, the role of Islam in slave communities, the ecology of whaling and sealing, and the African presence in Latin America, and many others. It’s a fast-moving and fascinating history that at times reads like a novel.
The night of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, exhausted and cold from a long day of protest, I curled up to the couch and remembered a cult classic feminist film, Teeth.
Released in 2007, at the tail end of the purity and abstinence movements, this film seemed the perfect escape. The film follows Dawn, a teen spokesperson for virginity pledges. She cannot resist her blossoming sexuality, but when a consensual encounter turns into a nightmare, Dawn’s powers are realized.
There is some frantic Googling of the term “vagina dentata,” and it becomes clear to the audience that Dawn is the living embodiment of the male nightmare of the toothed vagina. Once she realizes the power she holds, and the destruction she can unleash on men, she is unstoppable. The film is corny and cloyingly acted (purposefully) — and a perfect popcorn popper for a feminist who just needs a little revenge.
A white guy recommending a white songwriter’s tune “White Man’s World” — performed on Country Music Television, no less — is pretty much asking for trouble. Consider me called out. But I hope some readers will check out this video of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit anyway.
If you do, be sure to give it more than one listen. Isbell is a master at creating lyrics with narrators in situations so difficult to navigate that important details are easy to miss. In his early song “Decoration Day,” for example, the feud between two families ends when the singer refuses to avenge his father’s death, burying him in an unmarked grave — between verses, and without saying so.
The first-person voice in “White Man’s World” is a bit more direct — but what sounds at first like it might be racist swagger turns out to be something else entirely:
I’m a white man living in a white man’s town
Want to take a shot of cocaine and burn it down...
There’s no such thing as someone else’s war
Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for
Still breathing, it’s not too late
We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate
At the same time, it’s not a solidarity anthem or even a protest song of a familiar variety. The tone is melancholy; it might even be the remorse of a Trump voter who’s realized what he may have done to his daughter’s future. It’s the voice of someone who won’t get fooled again.
The perfect antidote for wanting to give up on humanity is Season Six of The Great British Baking Show, because it reminds us of the very best qualities of human beings. Watching contestants find immense joy in the weekly challenges of a baking competition with no monetary prize, and support rather than undercut each other, shows us that people aren’t so bad after all.
Despite our anxieties about not being good enough, best embodied by endearing contestant Rahul, this show teaches us if we try, we might surprise ourselves with our own success. And how could Kim-Joy’s eccentric animal creations not make you smile?
This show is the warm fuzziness we need to escape to when we feel like the world’s a dumpster fire. Whether you like baking or not, you will come to love the wonderfully quirky, authentic people you get to know over the course of the season.
Patriot is a darkly funny show streaming on Amazon about John Lakeman, a deeply depressed millennial working two shitty jobs. He’s an operative for a deep-state agency so inept that his failed attempt to make an illicit overseas cash transfer to swing an Iranian election is only slightly more disastrous than his attempts to keep up at his cover job at a Milwaukee piping company.
With so much great TV, there are many reasons not to bother with Patriot: It’s yet another show about the anguish of a murderous white guy; some characters in its Cohen-esque universe are just too quirky; and fuck Amazon.
But it’s also beautifully shot, has unique comic pacing and has some scenes that bring me great joy. My personal highlight is Kurtwood Smith, best known as the father from That 70s Show, playing another aging Wisconsin crank. But in Patriot, his exquisitely registered disgust toward Lakeman unwittingly but brilliantly expresses the impotent rage of someone living in a declining world power that no longer even knows how to make some goddamn piping.
My tolerance for everyday sexism is at an all-time low. Events of the last few years have me at a constant boil — which is exhausting.
Two memoirs by Viv Albertine have helped. Albertine played guitar in the 1970s British punk band The Slits. In Clothes Clothes Clothes Boys Boys Boys Music Music Music, she details her early life in working-class London, and her time in The Slits. Her account of the difficulty faced by women in early punk is often disturbing (teenage singer Ari Up was stabbed twice by angry men on the street).
The book turns to her life after punk: a brief career in film, motherhood (involving several in vitro fertilization attempts), and the dissolution of her marriage. While unexpected, I found this second act riveting.
In her follow-up To Throw Away Unopened, she chronicles childhood trauma — her abusive father, the seething rage of her (eventually) single mom — and how that shaped her. It’s intense and at times shocking.
Albertine’s books are a howl against enduring sexism — and I’m here for it.
Bruce Springsteen got me through a lot of years, but he had another surprise in store this one.
Springsteen has been doing a one-person show in a New York City theater that’s a fraction of the size of his usual arenas, so tickets were nearly impossible to come by — but now, after a one year-plus run, a film of the show is coming to Netflix.
The show is built around a career-spanning set of his music, but in reimagined acoustic versions that turn anthems like “Thunder Road” gentle and melancholy — and the misunderstood “Born in the USA” into the angry and genuinely scary antiwar song it is at heart.
Even more time is devoted to stories from Springsteen’s recent autobiography that weave the songs into the tangled story of a remarkable life that began in unremarkable circumstances — a political lesson in itself.
I managed to score tickets in October, and the songs and storytelling were as amazing as I guessed. What made it life-changing was the intensity and commitment of Springsteen’s performance and the whole production. Moral of the story: We can overcome — but it takes a struggle.
My Brilliant Friend is the first of four in the Neapolitan Novels series, written by Elena Ferrante. The entire series bind together my love of Italy, politics, self-reflection and dynamic female relationships. The novels have recently been adapted into a miniseries on HBO.
What really got me through this year was reading a captivating story about two young girls growing up in Naples. They navigate the dark and complicated culture of Italian — but ultimately global — masculinity and violence that relentlessly attempts to oppress their brilliant minds and bodies.
The author beautifully expresses the character’s complex vulnerabilities, strengths and inward reflections as they maneuver the complicated world both alone and as a duo. Much like the current state of the world, this book will devastate and uplift you within the same scene.
Disaster Class, while sounding nothing like a crusty British anarcho-peace punk band, really helped clear my mind when their record was released in September. This is an independent trio that plays a really interesting mix of ambient, synth-driven rock that interweaves cascading guitar lines and personal lyrics that should be read through a political lens.
For me, Disaster Class came at time when it seemed like everyone in the world was laughing at Trump’s United Nations bumbling, but for organizers, it was and remains a difficult period. There is a quiet brooding in many of the songs that ride a feeling of despair but also eke out a promise of something sanguine peeking around the corner. For fans of Brian Eno, Philip Glass and Joy Division.