The Top Ten Best Hit Songs of 2017

Welcome back, everyone. Last time, I mentioned that I thought 2017 was a pretty good year for pop music, and here I’ll get to explain exactly why I feel that way. Like I said on the intro for the worst list, there was a lot of diversity, and lots of artists outdid themselves, both artists I like getting a rare shot at the mainstream, as well as established hitmakers exceeding my expectations. I had to make several cuts when I finalized my worst list, but I also had to make just as many cuts here. As far as I’m concerned, that’s an indicator of a solid year for music.

Now, the rules for eligibility are the same as before. A song must appear on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Chart for 2017. And just like I made an unofficial worst list last year, I did a best list as well. Here it is:

10. Zara Larsson and MNEK – Never Forget You

9. The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses

8. Twenty One Pilots – Stressed Out

7. One Direction – Perfect

6. Ariana Grande – Into You

5. Tim McGraw – Humble and Kind

4. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – Starboy

3. The Weeknd – In the Night

2. Mike Posner – I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Remix)

1. Adele – When We Were Young

Now, again, my choices today wouldn’t be quite the same as last year. So an amended list would look like this:

10. Zara Larsson and MNEK – Never Forget You The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses

9. The Chainsmokers ft. Rozes – Roses Coldplay – Hymn for the Weekend

8. Twenty One Pilots – Stressed Out

7. One Direction – Perfect Tim McGraw – Humble and Kind

6. Ariana Grande – Into You One Direction – Perfect

5. Tim McGraw – Humble and Kind Ariana Grande – Into You

4. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – Starboy

3. The Weeknd – In the Night

2. Mike Posner – I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Remix)

1. Adele – When We Were Young

Not as many changes as on the Worst List, in large part because songs I hate are far more likely to lose my interest than songs that I like. The only omission is Never Forget You, which has cooled on me a bit since last year. Hymn for the Weekend has grown on me since then, so it made the most sense as a replacement. And again, anything from this list is ineligible for the list I’m doing now. In other words, Starboy is out of the running despite recharting this year. And now, let’s begin with honorable mentions.

R&B                                                                      Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 3

Yeah, Bruno Mars is a pretty easy choice for a lot of lists like this. His command of classic R&B is basically beyond reproach now, and like the best showmen, he’s got a suaveness to his delivery that’s always a joy to listen to. This song is pretty arrogant in a sense, with the boasting and the rattling off of luxury branding, but it’s inclusive, as well: Bruno promises nothing but the best for his girl, and the bright production plus his infectious charm leaves a smile on my face every time.

Hip hop/Disco                                                     Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 71

And from the solid reliability of Bruno Mars, we go straight to one of the biggest surprises in this year’s pop music. A hit for Frank Ocean, and a song where Calvin Harris and Migos deliver quality work? If I hadn’t listened to some of the stuff Harris had released before he got big, I’d never have believed he had it in him to produce a slick melodic groove like this. Frank Ocean himself seems spaced out here, but that seems to fit given the subject matter, a kind of low-key affair that doesn’t have a deep connection, but he’ll enjoy it while it lasts. And Migos’ trademark triplet flow is actually perfectly suited to this beat, with Offset being the standout as usual.

More than anything, this is soothing music done well. A lot more so than the neo-easy listening I lambasted on the worst list, this actually feels relaxed, rather than angsting for ill-defined reasons, and I can appreciate it for what it is. And speaking of strong grooves…

R&B/Funk                                                           Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 22

And while we’re on the topic of artists who defied expectations. Charlie Puth’s disastrous Nine Track Mind was one of the worst albums of 2016, and his pitiful efforts at blending early 60’s doo wop with mid-2000’s hip hop production gave us the unforgivably awful Marvin Gaye, which was also a big influence on my thoughts about the mono-genre on the worst list. This year, though? He’s reinvented himself, but in a way that actually makes a lot of sense. He always wanted to present himself as a smooth man of romance, but he’s chosen a much more potent instrumental direction for that kind of ambition. That bass line is simply to die for.

What’s more surprising are the lyrics, which are refreshingly honest in portraying an ugly affair, as well as how his own weaknesses reinforce the bad relationship. He knows that the girl he’s singing about isn’t really interested in starting things up again, that she’s trying to pique his attention for its own sake, but despite that awareness, he can’t quite resist the temptation and snaps at the bait. It also helps that he’s playing in his lower register, rather than that thin falsetto he used to indulge. The bit on the bridge where his voice cracks is still a weakness, and kept this out of the top ten, but still, it’s a major improvement, and leaves me genuinely interested in where he goes from here.

Pop rock                                                                    Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 23

And speaking of artists from last year’s worst list outperforming expectations, we have this, a song so good, his record label is apparently manipulating his Wikipedia entry, to try and convince us that this track was on Illuminate all along. And I can see why they did it. It’s as if at some point, somebody realized, “Hey, we’re marketing Shawn as an acoustic guitar singer, it might help if he actually got to show off his instrumental chops at some point.” And so we get a guitar rollick that’s infectious as hell, and far more reminiscent of his early stuff like Something Big, rather than the moodier music he’d been doing after Stitches was a hit.

And again, the lyrics match the new sound. Instead of some moodiness about some failing or abusive relationship, we’ve instead got a song where Shawn Mendes is pushed into bolder, more adventurous territory by the girl he’s with. Now, I can only imagine that for him, adventure involves going to a dive bar once a month or something. But you know, baby steps. Mendes’ delivery has this wry bemusement to it, which is a much better emotional fit than the angst or, worse, predation of Stitches and Treat You Better. And with this song doing as well as it did, I can only hope that Mendes continues in this vein, with nothing holding him back.


Country                                                           Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 57

Now, this is an unusual case – you don’t get this kind of neotraditional sound on the Hot 100 much anymore. Now, there’s a drum machine, which I’m tired of hearing in country music, but otherwise, the production is solid. The guitars have some nice textures, and Brett Young is a good performer, with a distinctive raspy voice that has some real sincerity. And the lyrics may not be anything special, but they’re sincere, and a straightforward love song about how he cares even if he’s not great at expressing it all the time – well, it’s a very relatable sentiment, and I think we’ve all been there. It’s a solid, straightforward song.


Pop                                                                Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 96

And here we have two more artists I previously disliked delivering quality music. This was the other problem I mentioned with calling Camila Cabello the worst vocalist in pop music. Despite her serious, serious limitations, this song kills. Like Charlie Puth, she has a pitchy and thin upper range, and so by focusing on her lower register in this song, she was able to play to her strengths. And the production is also on point, providing convincing atmosphere for a smoky bordello from a hundred years ago. And with a fantastic trumpet solo near the end, this song sounds incredible.

Young Thug is a bit of a weakness, but he also stays in a lower register than usual, and it still fits the atmosphere surprisingly well. And the fact that this did as well as it did, rising to number two on the charts and being a shoo-in to re-chart much higher next year, it leaves me with some hope that Camila will give us more strong music in the future. There’s not much more I can ask for.

Indie rock                                                       Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 45

And here’s another shocker. Just as I’d been thinking that indie rock crossovers were sputtering out, suddenly one of the biggest names in the indie scene were surging into the top ten. And while I’m not entirely sold on Portugal. The Man’s new direction, this is still a solid Motown groove they’ve put together here. The lyrics are maybe a little too ironic for my taste; I’ll certainly get into this in more detail when I get back to political writing, but now’s not exactly the time for rebellion “for kicks”. Still, this added some upbeat, cerebral diversity to the pop charts, and I’m happy it exists.

And on that note, let’s begin the list proper.

10. Now, I talked a fair bit about tropical house on the worst list, and how I felt like a lot of it was playing in very safe, easy listening territory. I do think that a lot of that’s intentional. The idea of incorporating tropical flavors into house music was to create something relaxed, and that’s not inherently a bad thing. Still, to make it really interesting, you need an edge, and I’ve seen two big ways you can provide that. You can do what Seeb did when they remixed I Took a Pill in Ibiza, and play up some melancholic emptiness, which house music is well-suited for. Or, you can do what Kygo does, and emphasize more texture in the mix. Or, if you’re Clean Bandit, a little of both.

10. Clean Bandit ft. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie – Rockabye

Tropical House/Baroque pop                            Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 44

Now, this is another of the tropical house hits we’ve been getting over the past couple years, but I think it’s far better than most, for a few reasons. First, Clean Bandit were already a deep house act, so the transition to tropical sounds, basically just a subgenre of that same style, weren’t nearly as stark as for Ed Sheeran or Maroon 5. Hell, they were mixing reggae and house music before the world had even heard of Kygo. They already knew how to make this sound work, and despite losing their violinist, Grace Chatto’s cello still adds some texture that makes this stand out.

And those lyrics. My favorite EDM is often in this vein, romantic with big emotions even if they’re not especially complex. That’s why I loved Rather Be so much in 2014, and they deliver again here. The nursery rhyme on this chorus works because it fits the theme, of a single mother trying to protect her child and make sure he lives a better life than she has. The chorus is spoken as words of comfort, but you can still hear the desperation behind it, especially in the prechorus. The result is a thing of beauty, and even if it falls short of Rather Be, that’s still a high bar to clear.

9. Of course, with tropical house being as big a musical trend as it has for the last couple years, it was only a matter of time until the originator himself could leverage that into a hit. And the result was amazing.

9. Kygo and Selena Gomez – It Ain’t Me

Tropical House                                               Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 27

Like I said, Kygo is several steps ahead of his peers in house music, and with the balance of actual guitars with the synths, this song has a sense of real tangibility and weight that imitators tend to lack. And this might be Selena Gomez’s best song, since it plays to her strengths. She can’t belt like Ariana Grande or Demi Lovato, so playing towards a more reserved haughtiness fits a lot better. And despite being more restrained on the verses, this song also features an incredible singalong chorus, with Selena telling someone she’s had enough. But, again, there’s a wistfulness behind this, which forgives the choppy vocaloid drop thanks to the emotional context. That provides a sense that although it’s time for Selena to move on, there’s still something being lost here, and that kind of pathos elevates your average breakup song. It’s a great track, and not even the best on Kygo’s sophomore album, so I’m looking forward to whatever he gives us next.

8. Now, the Chainsmokers might be the most divisive act in pop music right now. Closer was one of the biggest hits of the decade, but also one of the most despised. And although I count myself in the latter camp on that specific song, there are other songs of theirs I like, despite my misgivings about their production skills and the incipient chauvinism that permeates even their good songs. But add a good performer and some less contentious song concepts, and they can still work some magic.

8. The Chainsmokers and Coldplay – Something Just Like This

EDM                                                                      Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 5

Now, there are some real shortcomings to this song, mostly relating to production – the drop is clearly recycled from their previous hit Roses, and the hook is the same cadence as Hymn for the Weekend. Of course, I like both of those songs, and considering what’s coming up on this list, I can only get so mad at that. And of course, the fact that they brought along the whole band instead of just Chris Martin is a big help; Jonny Buckland’s guitar solo really puts this over the top from a musical standpoint.

Still, I’ve always been more interested in the lyrics, because they’re what made me realize that this collaboration brings out the best in both acts involved. The Chainsmokers occupy a strange place as songwriters, because I’ve always gotten the sense that they feel like they were born in the wrong generation. Their breakthrough hit #Selfie was a trite novelty, lambasting a shallow girl at a club, but that same focus on Millennial angst and frivolity has appeared in their music again and again, and you start to realize that this is a big part of their appeal. They speak to a generation that’s been told again and again that they’re what’s wrong with the world, and they’ve internalized a lot of that criticism. Here, they confront imposed expectations that seem insurmountable, and Chris Martin sells that uncertainty with real earnestness. And with the help of the girl he’s singing about, he’s able to overcome that weight of unreasonable expectations and accept who he is. It’s cathartic, and basically makes this the Stressed Out of 2017. I’m still deeply skeptical of the Chainsmokers in general, but I can’t deny the kernel of brilliance here.

7. Of course, the Chainsmokers weren’t the only ones who fought through emotional baggage for a moment of pure catharsis, so let’s talk about a much better EDM act who did the same thing.

7. The Weeknd ft. Daft Punk – I Feel it Coming

R&B/French House                                         Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 34

Now, I don’t know how popular this opinion is, but I think I like this even more than Starboy. Yes, it’s very reminiscent of Michael Jackson, but let’s not let that distract us from what an unusual step this is for the Weeknd. He’s always played towards the angstier side of R&B, so to close out his album with this, it shows the emotional growth he’s gone through. He’s singing about/towards the same dead-eyed, damaged girl he’s always referenced, but this time, he can finally offer more than just empathy, he can offer hope. You can tell that he sees something of himself and his own damage in her, and that offers a connection he can reach out with.

And of course there’s Daft Punk, who offer a lot here as well. The slick, lush production here is just fantastic, and I’ve always been a sucker for their vocoder vocals as well. They’re always so emotive in their odd way, and they add to the euphoria on this track. This just fills you with hope, and I’m nothing but optimistic for what both acts have to offer us next.

6. There are those who seem to take offense at retro pandering on principle, especially in R&B, but honestly, I just use one simple yardstick to decide if something retro works. If it’s good enough on its own merits that it would have been recognized as quality music in the time it emulates, then it’s a good song. And I submit that this delivers on that front just fine.

6. Bruno Mars – 24K Magic

R&B/New Jack Swing                                            Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 16

Yes, this is Uptown Funk again. Got a problem with that? I can say this for 24K Magic in particular – it woke me up to a big part of Bruno’s massive appeal, specifically in his songwriting. Now, if you pay attention to the lyrics in songs like this or Uptown Funk or That’s What I like, then you’ll notice some major flexing and arrogance in all of them, as I noted above. But there’s a way he defuses what could otherwise become obnoxiousness – he plays up his boasting to such comical extremes that you know he’s not quite serious. Whether he’s singing about making dragons want to retire, or of giving the color red the blues, you’re just left laughing and chanting along to his backing singers’ ad-libs. It’s ingenious, and makes songs like this an absolute thrill to listen to.

And there’s the production. Bruno’s never lacked for good music, and here, you’ve got a sort of late-80’s vocoder touch which may take some getting used to, but still helps it stand out. This is cheesy in the extreme, but still just a ton of fun, and really, that’s all a song needs to succeed sometimes. I’m sure Bruno Mars needs to start changing up his formula soon to avoid getting stale, but his charm hasn’t worn out on me yet.

5. Now, this singer released two singles pretty much at the same time early in 2017. One of them was a big hit, reaching the top ten and sticking, while this other one started high, but plummeted almost immediately. I didn’t expect it to make the year-end chart, but it did, and that was one of the happiest surprises the year had to offer, because this song is incredible.

5. Ed Sheeran – Castle on the Hill

Rock                                                                    Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 40

Now, this is the kind of song that I want to hear from Ed Sheeran. Hell, it’s probably my favorite from Divide, something where his detailed storytelling carries the emotional power it needs. A nostalgic reminiscence of his old friends from Suffolk, and how they came of age before going their separate ways, you could make a solid movie out of this kind of story. Ed doesn’t pull any punches in describing things, both in the past and the present, but he also doesn’t judge, simply putting it all out there as it is.

And yes, this is rock music, not even indie or alternative rock, but the kind of overwhelmingly earnest arena rock you’d hear from U2 or Journey. This music and this storytelling hits harder than a hundred mawkish Thinking Out Louds. I don’t have any illusions of Ed switching his focus onto more songs like this – he knows what pays the rent – but still, I’ll happily put up with more Shape of You’s if we can get another song like this out of the man. Songs like this are what will cement Sheeran’s legacy as an artist, and a great one.

4. Now, Adele’s When We Were Young topped my best list for last year, and I stand by that. It’s a fantastic, stirring song, and my favorite from 25 overall. River Lea is probably my number two, and would have been in the running to top this list had it been a hit. And my third favorite was this.

4. Adele – Water Under the Bridge

Pop/Soul                                                              Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 88

Now, 2017 was a year of pleasant surprises, and this is one too, in a way. Because it’s an Adele song where she resists the urge to break up. If 25 as a whole was about moving on after the breakup, then this song represents the fear of being forgotten, and Adele’s need for what they have to mean as much to him as it does for her. Naturally, Adele sells this yearning with the same charisma we’ve all come to expect from her.

The production is another surprise, as instead of a piano, this song is anchored in a liquid guitar line that provides a nice rollicking melody, with the percussion adding more weight to the hook. All in all, it’s probably the poppiest song Adele has released, but it still plays to her distinctive strengths, and was a definite highlight, both on the album and on the charts.

3. When One Direction broke up, it surprised a lot of people that Zayn, of all of them, wound up having the most successful solo career. Now, I’m inclined to believe that that was more dumb luck than anything. He left the band first, so he had the advantage of releasing solo material first. Certainly, I’ve been less than impressed by any of his output. As for Harry Styles, the one we all expected to be the Justin Timberlake of the group? Well, Liam seems to be emulating Justin more, and instead of that, Harry gave us something very different.

3. Harry Styles – Sign of the Times

Pop rock/Soft rock                                                  Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 87

As for surprises, the fact that Harry Styles decided to go the classic rock route actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. One Direction always had a strange affinity for sampling or covering classic rock songs, and well, now we know where that drive always came from. Still, I need to register my greater astonishment that something like this charted at all. When you pay attention, you’ll notice that retro-leaning music on the pop charts is always a throwback to New Wave, or to Disco, or maybe to Funk or Soul. It’s always either R&B or dance music. We don’t get homages to 70’s glam rock, and in a world where rock music feels increasingly irrelevant in the popular consciousness, I can’t help but welcome this on novelty alone.

And like I said above, if a retro song is good enough on its own that it’d be recognized even in the past, then I give it a thumbs up. And Harry Styles delivers extremely well here. In fact, I’d argue that he’s the biggest selling point here, showing off some truly impressive vocal range. From crooning to a falsetto that puts Zayn to shame, to some incredible belting on the outro, Harry shows that he really does have the makings of a superstar here. And again, the music is solid. The guitars aren’t as meaty as they could be, which keeps this song from being even higher on the list, but the piano and drum work give this ample swell for Harry to play off against. He’s still not in the same territory as David Bowie or Freddie Mercury, but to even be in consideration for that at all is a real achievement, and leaves me with only the highest expectations for whatever he comes up with in the future.

2. Now, the rap songs on the Hot 100 this year were unfortunately pretty lousy on the whole. And that sucks, because not only is it not hard to find talented rappers making great music at this or any other time, but the genre, perhaps more than any other, has become very bottom-up in its approach to songs and artists. So many underground or otherwise obscure rappers have launched into the top ten in the past couple of years, but they’re mostly imitators or mediocrities like Desiigner and Cardi B.

We can do better, but lyric-driven, conscious rap music just doesn’t seem to chart right now. So, when this rapper, who’s been a critical darling for half a decade and has certainly flittered in and out of mainstream consciousness for a while now, suddenly surged and became one of the biggest names in music this year, I could hardly believe it. We don’t get bars like his on the radio anymore. But this year? Something’s changed.

2. Kendrick Lamar – DNA

Hip hop                                                                Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 62

Yeah, I can’t deny I’m still shocked by this having been a top five hit. Kendrick Lamar is not the kind of rapper who becomes a huge pop star. He’s too cerebral, too intense, too intimidating, even, and yet somehow, quality has won out in 2017. This wasn’t even a single, its popularity just swelled organically, and forced the record label to belatedly shoot a video. Otherwise, there wasn’t promotion, this got big entirely because audiences were hungry for a rap song with unbridled ferocity and fiendish complexity.

Both musically and lyrically, this is a dark song, with a thrumming bass and trap beat acting as a foundation for three minutes of ruminations over the struggles of the black community, over original sin, and offenses that are borne in the blood. While I keep talking about surprises, I think I owe an apology to producer Mike Will Made It, whose work on Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz and a multitude of other lousy hip hop beats has been largely redeemed by this. To make a sound that plays off the darkness of Kendrick’s bars, and to keep up with him even as he switches up his double-time flow, that’s not something I ever imagined Mike being capable of. This is the kind of song that backpack rap fans would usually enjoy, but not dare imagine crossing over to the mainstream, but somehow, it happened, and it raises expectations for the entire genre. People want more thought, more passion, more depth in their music, and Kendrick has shown how to deliver. This song is so intense, so intricately crafted, so powerful, that it raises the question: what could possibly top the likes of this?

1. Now, I wish I could say that I’ve been with this artist ever since she first got big around the turn of the last decade, but that’s not really true. I can say that by 2012, she’d won me over, and I have followed her tribulations since then with no small amount of anguish. I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that just as she’d been coming into her own artistically, she’d never have a hit again. Thankfully, she’s powered through, and here we are. Kesha, I’m glad to have you back.

1. Kesha – Praying

Pop/Gospel                                                            Billboard Year-End Chart Position: 67

This isn’t exactly a surprising pick – no doubt it’ll make most other people’s lists as well, but although anyone making top ten lists like this needs to balance honesty against predictability, for me, honesty will always come first. And I said before that I tend to leave political leanings at the door when I review music, and that’s still true. As much power as this song has as a feminist statement, it’s also just a powerful statement in general, and an incredibly potent song.

And you know, there’s a certain symmetry in putting this at the top of my list, while Taylor Swift topped the worst list. Both this and Look What You Made Me Do were responses to slights, but their execution is vastly different. For one, this song doesn’t waste its crescendos. It does take its time building up, but producer Ryan Lewis keeps adding more and more to the mix, from piano and organs to horns, a rich and symphonic accompaniment as Kesha builds up to a cathartic climax. Her fans have known for years that she can sing without autotune, but Praying shows that she can do far more than carry a tune; she can belt, and hits a high note that most pop stars would hurt themselves trying to imitate.

The other big difference between this and Look What You Made Me Do is that although it promises karma, there isn’t any ego involved. Kesha isn’t interested in exacting personal vengeance on Dr. Luke, her abusive and vindictive ex-producer, but simply reminds him that wrongs like the ones he committed against her, as well as the moral failings that motivated them, those things carry a price. If not in this life, then in the next. He needs God more than she does, when it comes down to it. And for herself, she finally enjoys the freedom to make the music that she wants, and has the critical acclaim that’s eluded her for so long. With songs like this, that acclaim is nothing but deserved. It’s the best hit song of 2017, and I fully agree with her that the best is yet to come.

I’m not quite done with year-end reviews, though, so stay tuned for next time, when I present the top 50 songs of 2017.

The Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2017

Okay, so if you’re at all familiar with internet music reviewers in general, and folks like Todd in the Shadows in particular, then you already understand what I’m doing here. If not, an explanation: every year, Billboard Magazine publishes a list of the top 100 hit songs, the pop songs that, through a combination of sales, radio play, and streaming, were the most popular tunes of the time. They’ve been doing this since the late 1950’s, and going back through old lists of hit songs is an enlightening exercise.

Of course, I’m not interested in the hit songs of the past right now, but of the present. In general, the 2010’s have been a strange decade for popular music, in large part because pop music has had an increasingly nebulous definition during this time. For any number of reasons, including the dissemination of indie and underground artists, the decline of sales and radio audiences, and the eccentricities of streaming, pop has become less and less dominant in the popular consciousness.

In addition, different genres of music have started to converge on each other sonically, and hell, also lyrically in a lot of ways. This development has been called the mono-genre, where all different forms of music seem to be congealing into the same percussion-heavy, melody-challenged blend of alt rock, synthpop, R&B, hip hop, EDM, country music and reggae that’s become increasingly characteristic of the 2010’s. People have come up with a multitude of explanations for this phenomenon, mostly relating to a desire to cross demographics and appeal to everyone, but I think there’s one observation that people have missed. And it’s this: the mono-genre is the 2010’s answer to easy listening music. I’ll get into more detail on this later, but I suspect that a big part of the mono-genre’s development has been to make music that appeals to everyone, but not just through incorporating sounds different people like, but also generally being inoffensive and unthreatening. Just like the AM soft rock of the past, it’s something to chillax to, rather than more aggressive bangers or dance music. That monotony came to a head last year, which most of the internet seems to agree was an utter disaster for pop music.

But you know, in spite of mono-genre mush still being a big problem, 2017 was a lot better than the year before. Several long time critical darlings managed to score chart success, some previously disappointing artists returned to form, and we got a fair bit more diversity on this year’s pop charts. So, with that in mind, I’m cautiously optimistic about popular music right now. Of course, that doesn’t mean we didn’t still get a generous helping of dreck, so today I’ll sort through some of it.

Now, to lay out the basic ground rules here: to be eligible for this list, a song needs to appear on Billboard’s Year End Hot 100 chart for 2017. The reason for this is that this is, at its core, a form of social commentary. I could spend my time lambasting Jake Paul or Jacob Sartorius or other easy targets, but I wanted to make a larger point here. Not only are all of the songs I’m going to talk about here quite terrible, but they were also exceptionally popular. Also, there’s one other proviso. Privately, I’ve been making lists much like this one for several years now, and for some perspective, here’s the one I have for last year.

10. Justin Bieber – Sorry

9. The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer

8. Charlie Puth – One Call Away

7. Rihanna ft. Drake – Work

6. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – Work From Home

5. Kiiara – Gold

4. Thomas Rhett – Die a Happy Man

3. Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better

2. Post Malone – White Iverson

1. Meghan Trainor – Me Too

Now, my tastes and preferences are as susceptible to shifting as the next guy’s, and so honestly, if I did the same list again today, some of those would be different, or shifted around some. So with that in mind, I think I’d arrange things now to be more like this:

10. Justin Bieber – Sorry X Ambassadors – Unsteady

9. The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer Justin Bieber – Sorry

8. Charlie Puth – One Call Away The Chainsmokers ft. Halsey – Closer

7. Rihanna ft. Drake – Work Pink – Just Like Fire

6. Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – Work From Home Charlie Puth – One Call Away

5. Kiiara – Gold Fifth Harmony ft. Ty Dolla Sign – Work From Home

4. Thomas Rhett – Die a Happy Man Kiiara – Gold

3. Shawn Mendes – Treat You Better

2. Post Malone – White Iverson

1. Meghan Trainor – Me Too

Okay, so the main changes there are the two songs I removed. I think I probably overreacted to Thomas Rhett finally getting a crossover hit, and while Die a Happy Man is still a tepid Ed Sheeran ripoff, and Rhett himself among the worst singers in mainstream country, I just can’t hate it the same way anymore. The turgid incompetence of X Ambassadors was a more than worthwhile replacement, and I likewise swapped out Rihanna for Pink, the latter having disappointed me far more with her most recent output. And that leads me to the last stipulation – nothing that made my 2016 top ten lists may be used again this year, even if it charted in 2017. So in this case, Closer won’t be on this list, even though I still despise it. And with that out of the way, it’s time to talk dishonorable mentions.

Pop                                                                                          Billboard Year-End Position: 1

Yeah, unfortunately the number one song of 2017 was exactly the kind of mono-genre sludge I was complaining about in my intro. You’ve got this stiff and pokey tropical house beat, and Ed Sheeran providing all the details behind a mundane and tedious hookup. Detailed songwriting is nice, but only when the nuances set a mood, and this song lacks one. More than that, it lacks the emotional core of songs like Don’t or Castle on the Hill, and cribs its instrumentation from the same EDM bandwagon that’s been huge for over a year now, plus the beat from Sia’s Cheap Thrills, one of the biggest hits of 2016. This is album filler, and doesn’t display any of Sheeran’s significant strengths as an artist. Ed, you can do better than this.

Pop/R&B                                                                                     Billboard Year-End Position: 26

Okay, I’ll freely admit that this song’s association with the Fifty Shades of Grey series makes it an easy target, but trust me, it’s every bit as unsexy as the films. Actually, it occurs to me that the simplest way to describe this song is as an uninspired sequel of its own, specifically to Earned It by the Weeknd, from the original Fifty Shades soundtrack. Zayn attempts to emulate the Weeknd’s style and image, but his piercing falsetto is agonizing. Taylor Swift isn’t much better, alternating between distractingly breathy and just checked out, and the lyrics aren’t particularly evocative, of the film or of anything in particular. So in other words, this is below the usual standards of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. And that’s certainly the meanest thing I’ll have to say on this entire list, so let’s move on.

Pop Rap                                                                                   Billboard Year-End Position: 41

I expected this to make the list proper for the longest time, but in the end, there just wasn’t room. Still, I had my reasons to single it out. They foolishly decided to sample Out of My Head by Fastball, but translating a rootsy alt-rock song into a pop rap single isn’t an easy task, and that’s before you get to Camila Cebello, formerly of Fifth Harmony on the hook. And let me get this out of the way: but for two minor details, Camila is the worst vocalist in pop music. Her voice audibly cracks when she tries to hit those high notes, and neither she nor Machine Gun Kelly sound the least bit sexy on this song that’s supposed to be about kinks. For his part, Machine Gun Kelly’s bars are painfully basic, and with this likely going down as his only hit, he’ll be remembered as just another of the mediocre white rappers of the mid 2010’s. No John Dillinger, this one.

R&B                                                                                           Billboard Year-End Position: 65

Next, the passionfruit! When your assailant lunges at you with a passionfruit, thus –

All right, obvious reference there, but Drake wishes he could be as funny or as quotable as Monty Python. I’ll have more on that subject later, of course.

Hip-hop                                                                                 Billboard Year-End Position: 81

Okay, this is the first of what’s gonna be a multitude of mediocre trap songs on this list, and they all have roughly the same problems: the beats are sparse, the production is too minor key and dark to be any fun, and the MCs are equal parts disinterested (because boredom is mistaken too often for sounding cool these days) and just plain incompetent. I’m bringing this one up specifically because Kodak Black felt the need to tell us all how “I’m the shit I’m farting, I don’t know how to potty,” a line that even Lil Wayne must be laughing at. Good Christ.

Pop “country”                                                                      Billboard Year-End Position: 100

Wow. Even by the low, low standards of modern Nashville, this is quite possibly the least country song to ever dare market itself as such. Unfortunately, the guitars are also too underweight to provide a solid groove here. And the lyrics are also kind of dumb, as Keith Urban basically gives us a nice guy anthem, with lines like “Cause your precious heart is a precious heart,” not to mention the general absurdity of Carrie Underwood running to him for support instead of the other way around. In fact, Carrie’s talents are wasted in general on this – she doesn’t even get a verse. This wasn’t even the worst song on Ripcord, which is as good an indicator as any that Keith Urban needs to pack it in.

EDM                                                                                      Billboard Year-End Position: 91

I really didn’t want to put Demi Lovato on a list like this, and to be fair, her pre-chorus is by far the best part of this song. The problem is that the rest is an overproduced mess, any power behind Demi’s vocals gets processed away, and the guy from Cheat Codes is so flat, he makes Andrew Taggert sound like a Righteous Brother. Yikes.

Hip Hop                                                                               Billboard Year-End Position: 98

What’s the point of appropriating a nursery rhyme for your hook when you don’t even sing the right notes? Also, “do, re, mi, fa, so fucking done with you”? That’s your hook? Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you?

Well, with those taken care of, let’s move onto the list proper.

10. Okay, Sam Hunt and his execrable Body Like a Backroad dominated the conversation about country music this year, for worse or for worse, and it seems to be making most of the various Worst Lists floating around the internet. Most of the other country hits from 2017 are being ignored in comparison, since nothing else was as big or as transparently idiotic. Still, The Fighter didn’t deserve a pass, and neither does this.

10. Dustin Lynch – Small Town Boy

Country                                                                                 Billboard Year-End Position: 94

While flashier performers like Florida-Georgia Line and Sam Hunt and Luke Bryan draw the most attention when people talk about bro-country, it’s important to remember that this phenomenon has suffocated country music for much of the last five years like so much kudzu, and at its roots, you have b-listers like Dustin Lynch. This song checks all the usual boxes for a bro-country hit, including the lyrical cadence that’s all about checking off the usual boxes of country stereotypes, like a grocery list. Listening to the opening lines, you can tell how Lynch is just racing to invoke the sacred dirt road as quickly as he can.

The rest of it could fairly be characterized as humble bragging, as Dustin rattles off the reasons his girl is so amazing, and expressing his ‘amazement’ that a woman like that loves a guy like him. It’s exactly as smug and insufferable as it sounds, not helped by Dustin Lynch’s sour, acerbic voice. There’s nothing to relate to here, and it’s so transparent that this song was built on an assembly line to pander to just the right demographics to make it an acceptable space filler on the radio. And ultimately, that’s all this is, a cheap substitute for radio static.

9. I understand that for songs like this, I’m not the target demographic, and so the emotional appeal, such as it is, doesn’t resonate with me. Be that as it may, I still maintain that the presentation itself is bad enough that it deserves to appear on this list.

9. Lil Uzi Vert – XO Tour Llif3

Hip Hop                                                                             Billboard Year-End Position: 13

I mean, I think I get why this song exists, and that there’s some existential trauma being worked through here that others could find compelling. Me, I can’t really get past how godawful Uzi’s autotune sounds, or the way he wanders off topic to talk about money, cash, and stealing your girl. I mean, compare this to I Took a Pill in Ibiza from last year, where Mike Posner also talked about money and cars and girls, but actually made a convincing case that they weren’t fulfilling to him in the slightest.

I’m leaving this low on the list because there’s at least the kernel of an interesting idea here, but pain doesn’t excuse terrible behavior. Also, there are much more flagrant examples of rappers behaving poorly, on record and in real life, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

8. Okay, to go back to what I said about genres converging on each other, and revealing easy listening as the core of the mono-genre, it’s occurred to me that this is a big part of why mainstream rap music has become so downbeat. There are rappers like Sage the Gemini or Future who seem to think that mistake gravitas for sounding like they don’t care about anything, but I think that misconception on their part bleeds into the kind of rap music that people listen to to relax. There’s not much daylight between the kind of hazy downtempo rap music that currently dominates the charts and the kind of soporific soft rock that dominated much of the early 80’s and early 90’s.

What I’m getting at here, is that if the guy from Air Supply had a rap career, he’d sound like Post Malone.

8. Post Malone ft. 21 Savage – Rockstar

Hip hop                                                                                            Billboard Year-End Position: 56

A lot of my hatred for this one boils down to the artless pretentiousness of Post Malone in general. I utterly loathed his mumble rapping on White Iverson last year, and while he doesn’t exactly reach that same level of repetitious droning on this song, he’s not far off. He certainly doesn’t seem to realize that the reason rock stars were idolized in decades past was because of the passion, energy and charisma they exuded, all qualities that Post himself utterly lacks. Throw in a pointless and forgettable verse from 21 Savage, and this manages to be even worse than the Nickelback song of the same name from eleven years ago.

It also doesn’t help that the music isn’t there to support him. For comparison, Rae Sremmurd didn’t approach being in the same universe of quality as the Beatles like they intended, and their song didn’t much sound like the Beatles either, but that darkwave-esque production still had some dark intensity and power to it. Here, we’ve got some minimal bass, light piano, and synths that sound like they were recorded underwater. The Lumineers rock harder than this.

7. I said that I’d talk about Drake again. And I’ll level with you guys, I’ve had a passionate hatred for the guy for a while now. He was the one who first showed me that easy listening hip hop could be a thing, when he made Hotline Bling sound like literal elevator music. And for a year and change after, he went on a tear, releasing mountains of content with no semblance of quality control, yet somehow becoming bigger than ever in the process.

Until this year, when everything finally collapsed around him. And for a very good reason.

7. Drake – Fake Love

Hip Hop                                                                                           Billboard Year-End Position: 39

What’s unusual about Drake compared to a lot of other rappers is that he’s always worn his insecurities on his sleeve. Even on songs where he tries to show some bravado, there’s still an awareness that his fame will be fleeting. In this song, however, we go several steps beyond that, to paranoid whining about “fake people” feigning affection and adulation to him.

The problem is that there’s no edge to this. He’s doing what sounds like a Young Thug impression and it sounds terrible. More to the point, however, it doesn’t provide the kind of lurking horror or any other appropriate reaction to the idea that enemies lurk behind every corner, crocodile grins firmly in place. It just sounds whiny, like a five-year old throwing a tantrum about how his friends don’t really like him. Yeah, no, if you keep this up, Drake, you won’t have any friends, real or fake. Or, for that matter, fans.

6. Speaking of trends that reached a screeching halt this year, we don’t seem to be getting as many Vine dance crazes as we did two years ago. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a subgenre of sorts where middle-schoolers bray over cheap, generic crunk beats from when the rappers in question were wearing diapers. And although this one appeared late last year, it only charted for 2017, so here we are.

6. Zay Hilfigger and Zayion McCall – Juju on That Beat (TZ Anthem)

Hip Hop                                                                                         Billboard Year-End Position: 50

Okay, this song got picked pretty clean before 2016 was even over. My main observation here is my amazement at just how thin the whole damn thing is. Zay barely fills in six bars, and while Zayion does a lot more, it’s clear that they struggled to fill even two minutes of song, even despite repeating themselves constantly. What also amazes me is how they barely even attempt to make rhymes; Zayion abandons a rhyme scheme altogether when he starts repping for Detroit. God, if only the Motor City had some other noteworthy rappers who could represent it – oh, right.

It is a little mean to pick on songs like this and their purveyors too harshly, especially since they’re significantly younger than me. Still, their age shows on the song itself, and between Zay’s nasal hook and Zayion sounding like he’s out of breath during his verse, it gets on your nerves in a hurry. And when they’re not pulling a Silento and listing other people’s dances (including the song whose production they stole for this one), they’re calling my dad ugly for some reason. Yeah, this is a trite novelty song, where the only novelty is when it gets annoying. Thankfully, these kinds of songs aren’t a good basis for a lasting career, so I’m pretty confident that after this year, Zayn and C.W. McCall here will be well forgotten.

5. To steer things back towards my complaints about easy listening, there was one other pop hit that jumped onto the tropical house bandwagon with horrific results. And if Post Malone is our new Air Supply, then here we have the new millennium’s answer to Peter Cetera.

5. Maroon 5 ft. Kendrick Lamar – Don’t Wanna Know

Tropical House                                                                             Billboard Year-End Position: 38

Actually, that comparison may be too harsh – to Peter Cetera. Yeah, the former Chicago frontman was a terrible vocalist, and dragged down what had previously been an interesting jazz fusion/prog act, but at least his vapid love songs were just that, vapid love songs. No more, no less, there’s a limit to how offensive that can get. Maroon 5, however, love to write these bitter, sour breakup songs instead, that paint Adam Levine as pathetically possessive and petty. You know, when he isn’t going full Patrick Bateman.

And Don’t Wanna Know follows in that vein, a song where Adam whinges about how he doesn’t want to know who his ex is seeing now, and what she’s doing, while giving every impression that he thinks of little else. That internal contradiction aside, there are two other obstacles that prevent this song from wringing out any of the pathos that Levine is aiming for. First, there’s the mountain of prior Maroon 5 songs about this same topic, most of which had more thought and effort devoted to them. Second, while any pretensions Maroon 5 has had to being a rock band, or, for that matter, a band, are long gone, it still beggars belief how phoned in this whole song feels. It’s got the same tepid tropical beat no doubt pulled from the dumpster behind Kygo’s place, and the most embarrassingly lazy Kendrick Lamar verse I’ve ever heard. When one of the best rappers alive feels safe rhyming words with themselves, you know a song just doesn’t matter.

4. I mentioned two minor details that prevent me from calling Camila Cabello the worst vocalist in pop music. This entry is one of those hiccups. Some great singers have failed hard when it comes to writing their own material. By the same token, some professional songwriters should not sing. Ever.

4. Julia Michaels – Issues

Pop                                                                           Billboard Year-End Position: 29

I’ll just say it now: Julia Michaels is the worst vocalist in pop music today. Hell, I listen to a reasonable amount of oldies, and she’s still one of the worst singers I’ve ever heard. Most pop singers aren’t necessarily brilliant, but they’re at least competent, they can carry a tune. The dangerously off-key warbling that Julia delivers is striking in just how transgressive (and not in a good way) it is. Rebecca Black could blow this woman off stage. That Cheat Codes guy I was complaining about earlier at least had some awareness of his own limitations, while Julia Michaels keeps going flat in a vain attempt to hit high notes that are way out of her range.

And despite her background as a professional songwriter for other artists, which gave her connections and a whole bunch of Grammy nominations she doesn’t remotely deserve, I also don’t care for Michaels’ songwriting. Not on all of the Selena Gomez songs she’s written, and especially not here, where she tries to glamorize a broken relationship. It feels a lot like Selena’s rather uncomfortable Good for You (which Michaels also wrote), only more violent. Throw in some pretentious strings and a stalking piano line that sounds like she ripped off AWOLNation, of all bands, and you’re left with a serious mess.

I’ve got issues too, of course. And one of them is studio hacks who grotesquely overestimate their own talents.

3. Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of country music. I like it when some stuff crosses over to the mainstream, even if it tends to pale in comparison to what the underground provides. By the same token, however, when the genre screws up, I’m only gonna be that much harder on it.

So let it be known: when I use the word execrable to describe something, treat it as foreshadowing.

3. Sam Hunt – Body Like a Back Road

Pop “country”                                                                                 Billboard Year-End Position: 8

Do I even need to provide commentary for this one? Isn’t the title condemnation enough, not just that this song is stupid, but the particular flavor of stupid it embodies? In 2017, we officially hit Peak Bro-Country. That’s not necessarily to say that this is the worst bro-country song ever, although it’s certainly down there. No, I mean that no matter what horrors the future has to offer, it’s inconceivable that anyone anywhere will ever write a broier song than Body Like a Back Road.

With every note, Sam Hunt’s smarminess and self-satisfaction bleeds through your speakers, and if you were somehow able to get past that, this DJ-Mustard wannabe production will bore you to tears. The gang vocals are actually one of the less monotonous things in the mix, amazingly enough. And for a song about cars and dirt roads, this music poses a serious risk of leaving you asleep at the wheel.

It’s easy to get lost in the details when a song has lyrics as idiotic as this one. Still, you shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture, either. Just like Dustin Lynch, Sam Hunt here is gloating about the ass he gets to tap, only this time in painful, painful detail. So both musically and lyrically, this is not a country song, so much as it is a bad R&B song. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Sam Hunt doesn’t want to make country music at all, but does it because the field is less crowded than it is over on the R&B stations. In other words, he’s just not talented or charismatic enough to make it in a genre currently defined by superstars like Chris Brown and Jason Derulo. Ouch.

If music is a highway, then this song is the equivalent of week-old roadkill, and exactly as appetizing.

2. Now, I usually talk about politics in this space. That said, when I decide to take that hat off and write about music or movies instead, I like to impose a little compartmentalization on the two broad categories. When I talk music, I’m generally gonna leave my personal politics at the door, even if the music itself is getting more political in its message. Be that as it may, I think there’s still something people of any political stripe can agree on, and that’s contempt for an opportunist.

2. Kodak Black – Tunnel Vision

Hip Hop                                                                                        Billboard Year-End Position: 55

I feel dirty even linking the music video for this one, because it’s such obvious bait. That said, the hamhandedness of that is your first indicator that this song’s hook isn’t exactly the socially conscious message it pretends it is. Now, before we get to lyrical content, I should first observe that the music on this song sucks just fine on its own. The eerie guitars aren’t well supported by the fake strings and that cheap flute loop, and Kodak’s nasal voice as he raps the nursery rhyme hook just leaves a kind of greasy feel over the entire track. It’s kind of an earworm, but it’s exactly as slimy as having a literal worm in your ear would be. Also, it revolves around rhyming “winning” with “penitentiary”, which speaks for itself, and brings me back to the songwriting.

Now, for the uninitiated, some personal context: Kodak is trying to make a song about how he’s a victim of systemic racism, and claims that “they” don’t like the idea of a black kid like him enjoying success. Back in reality, he’s got an arrest record as long as my arm, including rape charges, repeated parole violations, and charges for false imprisonment of a child, a bit where I didn’t even want to probe the details. Now, there’s the argument that I shouldn’t let these things color my perceptions of his music too much: even before the #MeToo movement became a thing, even a cursory knowledge of music history would tell you that many of the greatest musical icons of all time were also terrible people. John Lennon, Phil Spector, Bobby Brown, the list goes on, and I like music from all of those people regardless of their personal ethics.

Two problems emerge when trying to apply that same standard to Kodak Black. First, as I’ve explained already, the quality of his music doesn’t hold up even if you ignore his personal life. His rhymes are are painfully basic, and just like on Drowning, he includes another “I’m the shit” lyric that, just like when Lil Wayne does it, practically invites you to take it literally, and imagine him as talking feces. The second problem, of course, is that he won’t let you ignore his personal failings. The second line of his first verse has been altered in the music video above, to avoid digging himself even deeper during his legal troubles, but originally, it read: “I get any girl I want, I don’t gotta rape.” Yeah, no. Just no. Kodak, you’re right about one thing: they don’t like to see you winning. With the mountain of legal troubles, plus your general inability to control your own impulses, it’s just as well that you won’t be winning for much longer.

1. Okay, a quick history lesson before my number one. So, back in the 1990’s, country music was dominated by Garth Brooks. I wouldn’t call him the most talented artist in his scene or anything, but he did have the goods, and was a downright masterful marketer of his music. And it showed: to this day, Garth remains one of the best-selling artists of all time, with album sales rivaling Elvis and The Beatles. Seriously. So, in 1999, when he was on top of the world, he did something strange. He decided to reinvent his entire image, taking on a new identity, an alt-rock singer named Chris Gaines, and released a film explaining his fictional backstory, plus a rock album titled The Life of Chris Gaines. Now, this was dumbfounding news, especially because Gaines’ image was this brooding Hot Topic anti-hero, and it takes some real imagination to consider this man:

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turning into this.

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Unsurprisingly, the album flopped. Garth had handled some darker subject matter before (see The Thunder Rolls), but nobody wanted an edgy 90’s antihero reboot of Garth Brooks. He spent the next decade and change not making any music, and is only now clawing his way back to prominence. It was likely the stupidest and most avoidable career misstep in music history. Until now.

1. Taylor Swift – Look What You Made Me Do

Pop                                                                                                  Billboard Year-End Position: 39

Here’s a question: what makes a song bad? Lots of things can, of course, but for a song to be the worst of a given year, I think it needs to be a compilation, a place where one sees every negative musical trend and trope of the period all converging on one single track.

And on that measurement, Look What You Made Me Do delivers in spades. You’ve got the dourness of Dustin Lynch, the cheap angst of Lil Uzi Vert, the paranoia of Drake, the disinterest and emotional facades of Maroon 5, and the peddling of controversy to get attention just like Kodak Black. I could go on for days about the myriad things that go wrong here, but let’s start with the production. As many people before me have already observed, this sounds like a bad Black-Eyed Peas song. It also strongly resembles Me Too by Meghan Trainor, which, if you’ll scroll up, you’ll notice was my least favorite hit of last year. This doesn’t have that blubbery bass line that that song did, but the chorus makes up for it with these ear-splitting hi-hats that make it unlistenable. The pre-chorus actually does have a decent crescendo, but as is typical with bad mid-2010’s pop music, that buildup comes to a screeching halt once the chorus begins. The gratuitous music video tries to add gravitas to a song that utterly lacks it, but the one thing it did get right was where Taylor crashes a car at the start of the hook, because that’s exactly what happens to this song’s momentum. Now that’s a metaphor that works.

Now, when it comes to lyrics and tone, I’d say that this song is divided against itself. On the one hand, it’s attempting to intimidate Taylor’s celebrity rivals, promising vengeance for slights real and imagined (I still don’t understand what happened between her and Katy Perry, but it sure sounds pointless). This is undercut, however, by the empty songwriting. I find it hilarious that as she and Katy Perry came to blows, their lyrical styles have converged on each other, with both descending into vague platitudes. And that’s not to mention the parts that are simply unconvincing. “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”? Oh, really, is that why you surround yourself with other celebrities and call them your squad? And as a villain song, it contains no real threats beyond “you’ll all get yours” and “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams”. Compared with Carrie Underwood’s threats to key your car, to say nothing of Lydia Loveless burning your house down and you along with it (and that on a sad song!), this doesn’t exactly leave me shaking in my boots.

But that’s the point, some may say. It’s not a straight villain song, but another satire, in the vein of Blank Space. Taylor’s poking fun at how the media’s portrayed her as a supervillain in the aftermath of her dustup with Kanye and Kim Kardashian. Even the producer said the song was supposed to be camp. Now, the funny thing is, I see a case for this, but it actually makes the song worse, as far as I’m concerned. Here’s why: I’ve always gotten the impression that Taylor Swift is a fundamentally humorless person, and I only recently realized why that might be the case. See, to tell a joke, or at least a good joke, you need to be able to detach yourself emotionally from something. You can’t poke fun at yourself without looking outside yourself first. And Taylor Swift has never been able to do that. With the odd exception of Blank Space, she’s never written a single song where she’s anybody other than herself. That’s been a problem when she wrote songs like Fifteen, which would have been far stronger had she had the courage to portray herself as abandoning her dreams and losing hope at that young age. Without that ability to detach, her attempts at humor come across as bitter and vitriolic, uncorking acid and throwing it blindly in an attempt to create some distance between herself and something that pains her. And I can relate to this; I was actually quite the dour, self-serious little shit when I was growing up. Learning to laugh at myself was the best social skill I ever picked up.

And that fundamental tension is murderous when it comes to this song’s quality. It explains that godawful Right Said Fred sample in the chorus. Taylor Swift simultaneously tried to do two things here: on the one hand, she tried for a campy villain song, but it failed because her inability to detach from herself emotionally meant that she couldn’t make actual humor here. At the same time, she wanted to make a serious song where she’s a rebellious badass out to ruin her enemies. But she’s so drunk on post-modern irony and media cynicism that all she can deliver in defense of her own self-image is this disinterested drone, look what you made me do, look what you made me do. The fact that Poppy, a YouTube star who exists to satirize modern culture and pop music, could still throw more passion and energy behind a song about losing her microphone than Taylor does on this track, well, it’s a sad commentary. This is lol, nothing matters: the song. It’s the inevitable consequence of mistaking artifice for art, and it is the Worst Hit Song of 2017.


Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – A Movie Review

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Well, here we are. I’ve said before that I intend to touch on different parts of culture and cultural criticism in this space, and so I’d be extremely remiss if I didn’t go ahead and review a Star Wars movie when the opportunity presents itself. Even without the sense of obligation, I’d still be interested, of course. I’ve been a big fan of this series since I was a kid, enjoying movies, video games, and especially the Expanded Universe novels that were out there in the 90’s and 2000’s. There was a major drop-off in book quality around 2005 or so, but you can’t have everything. And certainly once I got a little older, I started to see a lot of the flaws in the Prequel Trilogy that the internet has fairly well beaten into the ground over the last decade and a half.

With all that in mind, I really enjoyed The Force Awakens two years ago. It was a breath of fresh air, and although it clearly made a point of evoking classic iconography and set pieces from the Original Trilogy, I felt like it modernized enough of it to make its own mark. A light 9/10 from me, and I definitely recommend it to anyone interested. Certainly, I was interested at that point to see where the franchise was going to go next.

And then? Then things got a little ugly, for various reasons. One big red flag I came across was the revelation that this trilogy wasn’t planned out in advance. Now, there’s a lot to say for incorporating flexibility into an ongoing story – hell, I can relate, seeing how I’m writing a historical fiction project spanning from 1805 to 1950-ish – with a scope like that, I think some wiggle room is a necessity. Still, I would feel a lot more confident about all of this if they had some semblance of guide posts, notes they want to hit in the second and third installments in this trilogy. That way, pacing can be managed properly, and we wouldn’t be in as much danger of padding in one movie and rushing the other.

There’s also the much-publicized remarks by Mark Hamill about his “fundamental disagreement” with how the writers intend to handle the character of Luke Skywalker. Now, Hamill’s criticism was measured, and he emphasized that, having voiced his misgivings, his priority was then to see the director’s vision through to the best of his abilities. Still, that’s not a reassuring sign. And of course, there’s also the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher late last year, which no doubt threw another wrench into whatever semblance of a plan exists at Disney right now. With all of that said, initial reviews for this movie seem quite positive, and I fully intended to watch the film regardless, so I got to a theater on Saturday night and gave it a watch. What did I find?

Well, it’s an odd film. The Last Jedi seems to take a perverse sort of delight in messing with your expectations. I will say that it’s good, but I also feel like it shows some strain in the way it presents the story, and I retain my misgivings about us limping into the final installment.

Now, the last time I reviewed a movie, I decided to be circumspect enough about specific events that a spoiler warning didn’t seem necessary. I don’t think I can maintain that same level of restraint for this one, so I’ll adopt a hybrid approach of sorts. I’m not going to spoil things unnecessarily, but I won’t let fear of spoilers deter me from expressing my thoughts as directly as I can. So, consider this my warning.

Spoiler Warning! 

Now, the first thing that occurs to me here is that in the age of the internet, filmmakers have maybe become too receptive to criticism. I first got this feeling with Batman vs. Superman last year, where they heard all the griping about Superman’s fight with General Zod causing so much death and destruction in Metropolis, and simply used it as a pretext to incorporate even more angst into his character. Likewise, for this movie, you can tell that they heard the criticism that The Force Awakens took too many cues from A New Hope, and went out of their way to create an unpredictable, swerving storyline. Now, I’m not too displeased with the results in this case, but it still rubs me the wrong way when a sequel tries so hard to appease the peanut gallery like this. It comes across like a lack of faith in their creative vision, and in this case, must have been a far more involved bit of rewriting than in Batman vs. Superman’s case.

Now, I’d say there were two ways they went out of their way to dodge the charge that Episode VIII would reprise Empire Strikes Back. The first involves their use of set pieces. Just like in Empire Strikes Back, we see the First Order’s fleet attacking the Resistance just as they’re evacuating a base. But instead of providing a Hoth retread ground battle right away, we instead get a space battle. And in case you were worried that things might get a little to intense, not ten minutes in, we have Poe, the ace pilot from the last movie, start trolling General Hux about his mother to stall for time.

Yeah, that’s the other thing. This is a silly movie, possibly the silliest Star Wars movie ever made, Holiday Special notwithstanding. And from where I’m standing, this is no criticism, largely because the jokes are so rarely the kind of cheap slapstick or scatological humor you’d get in a lesser movie. No, the humor is actually quite on point, breaking up tense moments and puncturing the haughtiness or self-seriousness of certain characters. And yes, that definitely includes Luke Skywalker. I’ll get back to him in a bit more detail later, but suffice to say, the dialogue and comedic timing are sharp as hell in this film, possibly to a fault.

Now, when I say that the film may be too sharp, I’m primarily thinking of some of these set pieces they set up. Honestly, it felt like there were too many in this movie, and too many scenes where they dropped a bunch of exposition to lay out the parameters of a set piece. Worse, I feel like the level of detail they used raised further questions. The Resistance fleet gets chased down by the First Order for most of the movie, without catching a break. This is a new development, and they repeatedly tell us how long it’ll be until the rebel ships run out of fuel and get vaporized. This is kind of a problem for me, since two groups of protagonists have to run off to other planets and back during this time frame that’s explicitly measured in hours.

Honestly, I’m not sure how displeased or skeptical I should be about this, but it seems to tell you that a ship can go halfway across the galaxy in six hours or less, and I don’t think I like the implications of that. It seems like it would have been a wiser move to break up the chase somehow, or throw a little more ambiguity regarding timing into the mix here. The way things are, it seems like it closes off certain other narrative possibilities by making the timing of the scenario so explicit. It just feels like a lack of foresight in terms of what future situations might require to be compelling.

Now, before this review gets too negative, I should emphasize other things that do work about this movie. Like I said, the dialogue and timing are quite sharp, and as much credit as the script deserves for this (compare to the Prequels), I should also praise the actors. I don’t feel like he necessarily gets as much praise for the original trilogy as he deserves, but Mark Hamill reminds you just how good an actor he is here. It’s amazing just how much he can poke holes in other people’s egos, particularly Kylo Ren at the climax, while also being vulnerable to the same treatment from Yoda, who makes an appearance (with a puppet, no less!), voiced by Frank Oz and all. Carrie Fisher also does well, although I’ll admit, having Leia spend a good chunk of the film on life support is uncomfortably meta.

And the new cast are also quite effective, despite the fact that the big three new kids spend most of the film separated. Poe learns that there’s a big gulf between being an effective solo tactician and a leader of a movement, Finn grapples with questions of loyalty a bit, and Rey learns that just because someone can be saved, doesn’t mean they want to be. And for the biggest spoiler yet, Kylo Ren kills Snoke and takes over the First Order here. I’m not too surprised – certainly, when we have those two and Rey in a room together a film earlier than you’d expect, I couldn’t see any other way out of it. What it does mean, however, is that Snoke himself wasn’t too important, except as a way to put Ben Solo onto the wrong path.

I’m not sure how much I approve of this, for a couple reasons. First, Kylo isn’t a character whose most obvious trait is how intimidating he is. Vader had presence, so even if the stunts Ren pulls are more technically impressive, it’s still more obvious to the audience how pathetic (in the classical sense) his character is. And also unlike Vader, Ren doesn’t come across as particularly clever. Second, Snoke seemed to have a unique outlook on the Force, that was different from both the Jedi and from Palpatine and other Sith. I’d hoped we’d hear more, and maybe get some interesting comparisons between his ideals and Luke’s in this movie, as both seemed to want to move on from Jedi traditions. Kylo’s understanding seems more shallow; if anything, he’s just a corruption of the Jedi fear of attachments. It seems like he’s loyal to the First Order now only because it’s different, somehow, but he doesn’t articulate why. We’ll probably explore his motivations in more detail in the next movie, but I’m not sure how interesting it’ll be.

So although this review has dwelt more on the negative side of things, I should say that I enjoyed this one far more often than not. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s original in a lot of its storytelling approach, and the cast is generally quite strong. I’m going to give it a light 8/10, and a recommendation. Even if I’m not sure it sets us up for the last movie on the right foot, it still succeeds on its own merits. And it’s far too interesting and unique for people not to see. So go enjoy it, and may the Force be with you.


The Future of Liberalism, Part Two

What, me, schedule slip? Whatever, let’s finish this.

Welcome to Part Two of my thoughts on the challenges facing modern liberalism. I’ve already written as much in the first part as I did in two parts about conservatism, which either indicates that my perfectionist streak is taking over my writing, or else being closer to liberalism ideologically made me feel compelled to cover my bases better. Probably both. In any case, I’m trying to maintain an analogous structure to this two-parter as I did for the last one. Since last time I dealt with liberalism’s past and how it affects the present, today I’ll address what the Democratic Party is and how that affects the way it can move forward.

I’ve already alluded to the idea that Democrats and Republicans share lingering psychological trauma from the 1970’s, as well as old grudges that divide their coalitions. Today I’m going to expand on that thesis a little more. Before I do that, I feel like I should reiterate the importance of what I’m doing here. I do read the news and all, and with recent Governor’s races and special elections in New Jersey, Virginia and especially Alabama, it seems like the Party finally has something to celebrate.

The fact that Democrats won across the board, regardless of their ideological orientation or tactics, suggests that the fissures I identified last time don’t matter that much, at least to the voters. And the size of the victories is hard to reconcile with a Party as shattered and unsure of itself as I’ve said it is.

I should clarify some things here: first, I don’t think Democrats can easily address the issues and insecurities that I’m identifying in this essay. These wounds have festered for decades, and may not heal until long after there’s no one left who remembers the original traumas. This is no obstacle to winning Congress, the Presidency, or any other office. After all, the Republicans have their own contradictions that I’ve also laid out at great length. Even with both Parties in some state of disarray, only one can ever hold the Presidency at a time, and the balance of Congress is much the same.

That said, for both Parties, the burdens they carry from the 70’s impede their ability to govern. For Republicans, this is no great loss, since governing is something they hold in great ambivalence, to say the least. For Democrats, who care a great deal about governance, these lingering issues must be put to rest, for the good of the nation.

Now, the main internal contradiction the modern GOP wrestles with is the Party’s identification as a Party opposed to a strong federal government. This self-conception is at odds with its desire to use the power of government to aid its constituents, particularly business. The Democrats have a different problem.

Now, quite a few years ago, I read a book about the dangerous ignorance of the average American voter, entitled Just How Stupid Are We? It was written at the tail end of the Bush Administration, and dealt in large part with the public’s inability to grasp policy well enough to resist the manipulations of demagogues.

Honestly, I don’t really recommend it. The figures and anecdotes Rick Shenkman provides about American ignorance sound scary, and in a world with President Trump, it sure sounds like his warnings are vindicated, but honestly, those warnings lack historical context. By most objective measures, I suspect the American public is actually better educated and informed than it was in the past. And Shenkman’s own solutions were half-baked, to put it mildly. Repeal the 17th Amendment? We have popular election of Senators not just because of democratic sentiment, but also because state legislatures often couldn’t agree to send two Senators to Washington at all. Returning to that wouldn’t be an upgrade.

Now, I bring this book up because it made an argument that, when I read it almost ten years ago, I’d never seen stated so baldly. Shenkman was no fan of President Bush and his fearmongering over terrorism, but he nevertheless pinned his hopes for an open challenge to popular ignorance on the Republican Party, repeatedly dismissing the Democrats as too enthralled to popular sovereignty to ever do what’s necessary to save democracy from itself.

Now, I think Shenkman oversimplified the Democratic position (more on that in a bit), and his hopes for the Republicans seem pretty well dashed now, but I think there was still a kernel of truth in his diagnosis. Democrats do concern themselves a great deal with the will of the people. I mean, it’s easy to care more about that than the GOP, which has spent decades batting for free trade and upper-income tax cuts, no matter how unpopular those get. The Republican Party exists to promote those things more than it does to serve its broader constituency, so they happen regardless. They’re too important to allow public opinion to get in the way.

Democrats, by contrast, are always unsure of how far they should push their agenda, and when it’s better to back down in the face of public opinion. The contrast is most obvious when one party wins office in a state that generally favors the other one. Consider a red state Democratic Governor like John Bel Edwards, who touts his credentials as pro-life and pro-gun, and expressed his eagerness to work with the incoming Trump Administration at the start of this year. He’s also done a lot to oppose discrimination against LGBT people as Governor, but still, it’s clear he’s made some significant compromises compared to the national platform. Now look at a blue state Republican, like Bruce Rauner of Illinois. He’s also made compromises, particularly on abortion and immigration, but he’s also been all but single-handedly responsible for major fiscal crises in his state, refusing to sign a budget that dared to raise state taxes. His veto got overridden eventually, but the state’s debt became a serious crisis thanks to his brinksmanship, to the point where Politico called Illinois “America’s Failed State“. Now that’s a far cry from compromise for the sake of getting along.

Now, I want to say there’s nothing wrong with Democrats’ willingness to compromise. One of the main themes I’ve been trying to get across here is that political leaders, in America and elsewhere, aren’t responsive enough to their constituents. If Democrats change some of their usual positions because the public doesn’t like them, well, at least it means they’re listening. But if I’m being honest, there’s at least three problems that I can see with the current posture of the Democratic Party. First, I’m not sure if they understand how public opinion works and is shaped, at least in the way that political scientists have studied it in recent years. Second, the 70’s trauma I keep bringing up has led to a very specific misapprehension on the part of the Democrats. And that second problem leads into the third, which is that Democrats obsess with branding and re-branding, to the point where continuous rebranding has become a part of their brand. I’ll explain all of these at some length now, to explain what the Democrats have become now.

Okay, so the first problem. Democrats, and American politicians and political commentators in general, overestimate the degree to which voters judge them based on positions. I believe that when it comes down to it, almost everyone assumes on some level that the average voter thinks like they do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a salt of the earth farmer or a multi-billionaire businessman, you come to politics with certain attitudes and assumptions, and without even thinking about it, you project those onto the broader electorate.

And pundits seem especially vulnerable to the assumption that, because they spend so much time and energy thinking about policy positions, ideology, and broad themes of political philosophy, voters must do the same. Elections become referendums on liberalism, conservatism, this or that government policy, and the eternal question of how large government should be.

This is, succinctly, bunk. And by that, I don’t even mean that the great majority of voters are mindless drones who will choose the same Party every time, although in practical terms, that’s pretty close to the truth. The truth is, information levels don’t count for much in American politics. Now, I like to think I’m reasonably well informed about politics, policy, and political philosophy. I follow the news daily in some detail, and I’ve read a fair selection of political thought from Marx and Noam Chomsky to Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand.

Still, when Election Day rolls around, I pull the lever for a Democrat, same as the guy behind me who can’t name his Congressional representative. More information and more intellectual sophistication aren’t meaningless, but when it comes down to it, one vote’s the same as another. More knowledge simply makes a voter better at rationalizing their tribalism.

And regardless of one’s level of general knowledge, our political positions are a lot more fluid than we realize. Again, Donald Trump has taught us a lot about how this sort of rationalization works. Since he started his presidential campaign two years ago, the Republican electorate has done neat about-faces both on Russia, which their previous nominee described as our “number one geopolitical foe”, and on the question of whether a President needs to be a moral individual to do a good job. The GOP moralizing during the Clinton Administration feels very, very silly now.

What I’m getting at here is that the Democrats overthink things when they fear pursuing single-payer health care, let’s say, because they fear the voters will reject socialized medicine. But there’s one other policy option that they’re very, very scared of ever broaching again, simply because they fear the backlash that would accompany it. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Now, the second problem. The ghost of 1972 haunts us still. Now, for as much as George McGovern lost in a landslide, it’s important to put his losses into perspective. The economy was doing quite well at the time, something Nixon had fostered through carefully managed price controls. Nixon himself was, of course, a masterful campaigner, who’d built his career on the politics of personal destruction. And with the internal troubles the Democratic Party had at the time (including another run by George Wallace, this time in the Democratic primary), plus the general advantage that sitting incumbents tend to have, and it’s hard to imagine anyone could have beaten Nixon in 1972.

McGovern himself obviously suffered from a fair degree of bad luck, as well. While more careful vetting from his campaign should have been able to figure out that his intended running mate had gone through electroshock therapy, it was still an unlikely bit of happenstance that left his campaign floundering. And McGovern’s clumsy response shattered his own image as the only honest, ethical man in Washington. Put all of this together, and it’s completely understandable that he wound up getting crushed.

But this is where that first problem I identified bleeds into the second. For Democrats then and now, 1972 stands as the ultimate referendum not on the economy of the time, or on McGovern’s mismanaged campaign, but on liberalism itself. Run as a New Deal liberal, and you’ll lose 49 states, too. That’s why McGovern remains a bogeyman among the Democratic Party to this very day. The Party is desperate to avoid reprising that defeat, and because the media loves shoving candidates into familiar archetypes, “the McGovern” will be an epithet for many decades to come.

This leads into the third problem, branding. I remember reading a USA Today article years ago, that mocked the tendency among Democrats to rebrand their governing ideology when they fear it’s become too toxic. As it pointed out, Franklin Delano Roosevelt owed a great deal to Woodrow Wilson, and the progressive movement of the early 20th Century more broadly. However, that movement had become tied to the Democratic Party in particular, and both got roundly rejected in 1920, leading the Democrats to near-extinction before the stock market crash of 1929 revived their fortunes. With that in mind, FDR claimed the mantle of liberalism to describe his policies, and that became the popular label for the next generation of Democrats.

Now, things have changed since those days, and although you can still find some Democrats who call themselves liberal, it’s become a pejorative term more than anything. As such, most Democratic leaders have rebranded themselves as progressives again. The conclusion is clear: scarred as they are by 1972, Democrats have become afraid of their own brand. That’s why it’s changed multiple times, while Republicans have never felt the need to abandon the word conservatism since its adherents first captured the Party in the 1920’s. I would say this is also why Democrats are more likely to bend over backwards to demonstrate their openness to feedback and criticism: Hillary Clinton’s much-derided announcement that she would attempt to be more spontaneous fits into this same mold.

And now, I’ll try and pull all of these thoughts together, and explain the fundamental tension within the Democratic Party today. Now, as I’ve written previously, the problem with today’s Republican Party is that it’s a Party founded on opposition to government, that now finds itself at odds with its own philosophy, because its members have realized how useful government can be to them.

For Democrats, the problem is this. They are a Party that elevates popular sovereignty and the public will above all else. This creates an existential tension, because, traumatized as they are by a misinterpretation of the 1972 Presidential Campaign, they are thoroughly convinced that the American people are implacably opposed to liberalism. They still believe that liberal policy is best for the country, of course, but they’re unsure of how to deliver it successfully when the American public doesn’t want it. And wedded as they are to public opinion, they wonder if it’s even moral to impose their vision on a country that despises it.

This is the fear at the heart of American liberalism, and it explains the seeming cowardice that the Party displays, compared with Republican bluster and brazen willingness to advance extraordinarily unpopular policy. It also explains the Democratic obsession with branding in general: they are constantly attempting to capture some sort of magic formula, some miracle that will persuade the American electorate to reject its own nature.

Whether it involves co-opting conservative ideas, as Bill Clinton did, embracing military iconography as proof of patriotism, as John Kerry did, reframing the narrative to focus on Republican weaknesses rather than the Democratic agenda, as Hillary Clinton did, or emphasizing technocracy, as all three did, a Democratic presidential campaign always rests on an attempt to pacify the public will, which is, they assume, intrinsically hostile.

This basic insecurity also explains the Democratic preoccupation with demographic trends. The Party believes that the America of 1972 would never willingly embrace a Democrat, so their hope is for changes in the makeup of the electorate to shift the balance their way. 2016 showed the limitations of this approach, but it remains favored because it requires a minimum of persuasion or rebranding.

Now, I shouldn’t be too dismissive of the power of demographic change, as it’s already proven its worth in putting states like Virginia and North Carolina into contention. Clearly, these sorts of factors can cause seismic shifts in the balance of partisan control. The problem is that it’s also an easy matter for Republican policymakers to target left-leaning demographic groups with voter suppression, which is already underway in many states. And again, it’s one thing to win elections on the back of favorable demography, but this primal Democratic fear causes other problems.

As I alluded to at the start, the Democratic insecurity about their ideology is crippling when it comes to governing. I think the best example of this in recent memory was outlined in Hillary Clinton’s campaign retrospective, What Happened. At one point, she mentioned that she had toyed with the idea of adding a Universal Basic Income to her campaign platform, but rejected it because “the numbers didn’t add up”.

Now, a universal basic income is getting a bit of a bad name lately, in large part because Silicon Valley Tycoons are touting the idea as a replacement, rather than a supplement to the existing safety net. But if one throws that notion into the garbage and simply advances it with no strings attached, I think it could do a lot to help working families, people between jobs, entrepreneurs, and many others. It would have been a great centerpiece for a campaign. But this current Democratic obsession with “making the numbers add up” is a stumbling block, and it shows the ways in which Democrats have internalized conservative ideals without even realizing it.

Because when Clinton said that the numbers didn’t add up, she didn’t literally mean that such an initiative couldn’t be done. That’s absurd when we spend almost $6 trillion on defense every decade, not counting supplemental spending. What she meant was that the payment mechanisms available weren’t palatable. Now, there are three basic ways that a large program like a UBI could be paid for. First, there’s the option of cutting other spending programs to free up money for it. I can’t really argue with Clinton in being reticent about this. Defense cuts of the level needed for a program like this would seriously degrade our capabilities to do much of anything abroad, and Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are difficult to touch on political grounds, as Republicans keep having to rediscover. Considering as well the practical consequences of spending cuts, and how many people those programs help, I can’t recommend that as an option.

Next, there’s the possibility of deficit spending. Just throw out a whole truckload of additional Treasury bills to pay for something like this. Basic liberal orthodoxy recommends this sort of thing during recessions: as Keynes explained, deficit spending during recessions avoids the crowding out effect on private investing by activating latent economic potential that, due to the economic climate, isn’t being used. We haven’t technically been in a recession for many years, but with hiring and productivity as sluggish as they are, it’s easy enough to argue that we still have some slack in the economy, and room for more debt.

The problem is that Democrats don’t believe in Keynes as much as they pretend to. That’s the only real conclusion I can come to for their skittishness since passing Obama’s stimulus package in 2009. As much as Republicans have abandoned being the Party of fiscal responsibility since the Reagan Administration, Democrats have taken up the mantle. It’s their favorite objection to Republican tax cuts, and explains Clinton and Obama’s efforts to reduce the deficit as soon as they weren’t worried about the economy falling off a cliff in 1993 and 2011, respectively.

And that leads us to the last, and some would say most obvious way to pay for a UBI or a similar program. Democrats could raise taxes. But something frustrating has happened over the last generation or so: Democrats are just really, really scared of becoming the Party that Raises Your Taxes. Again, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Democrats’ basic insecurity about the popularity of liberalism plays a part here, because if you go back to 2008, you’ll remember that Obama’s campaign was almost as eager as McCain’s to emphasize his plans to cut taxes. The difference, he said, was that the middle class would see their taxes cut in his plan, while Republicans only care to cut upper-income and business taxes.

And fast forward to 2011, when the Bush Administration’s tax cuts were set to expire. Obama didn’t have to be seen as raising taxes – all he had to do was block the Republican Congress’ attempts to extend the cuts, and they would disappear. That would have been great under the circumstances, since his Administration had switched focus to deficit reduction by then, and those cuts expiring would have plugged a big hole in the budget. Instead, he took action, and came up with a compromise that made the cuts for middle-income earners permanent and letting the upper-class ones lapse.

There’s no way around the fact that Democrats have internalized Republican orthodoxy on taxes as a necessary evil, something to inflict on the rich and spare the rest of the country from. Gone is any semblance of understanding that taxes might be a part of a social contract, or else a transactional thing, a difficulty that taxpayers must suffer in the short term to be rewarded for in the long run in the form of government services. And for a Party that cares a lot about technocracy and making sure government functions, this is a poisonous dogma to hold.

And that’s the cancer that lurks in the heart of the Democratic Party. Its own fear and insecurity has led it to internalize dysfunctional political and policy dogma from the GOP. And so long as Democrats accept conservative assumptions without examining them, they’ll be unable to govern effectively. Defeating Donald Trump can be done without addressing these tensions. But defeating Trumpism in the long run will require restoring the public’s confidence in government. Before Democrats can do that, they must rediscover their own faith.

The Future of Liberalism, Part One

Alright, so to break the doom and gloom that my usual political material involves, lately I’ve been tackling some cultural stuff. And it’s been a lot of fun, reviewing music and movies and not really worrying about the real world as much. But none of that weightier stuff is going away, and it’s time I finally discussed the Democratic Party and its likely future.

This has been an interminably delayed project of mine, I know, and the main reason is simple enough when compared with my thoughts on conservatism, which I got out in a timely fashion back when this space had a regular schedule. The fact of the matter is that I don’t really talk to many conservatives in my social life, so I wasn’t as worried about offending anyone in particular with my measured, but often bracing criticisms of the modern GOP. By contrast, I’m going to be walking on eggshells here, trying not to offend basically everyone I know with my critiques of the Democrats, who I think are every bit as broken as the Republicans, maybe more so. (To be fair, I’ve been just as worried about not doing the subject justice, but that’s another issue).

Now, that seems like a bold statement to be making now, of all times, with the Trump Administration having accomplished virtually none of its domestic agenda, still being wracked by scandal, and seeing Republican Senators retiring in droves. Who could possibly be more dysfunctional than Donald Trump right now? Well, that brings us back to that same basic question we had to ask ourselves over and over again during the Republican primaries last year, and again following Election Day: who’s more pathetic, Donald Trump, or the people who lose to him?

And make no mistake, the Democrats lost badly last year. They currently hold one more House seat than they did after the disastrous 2010 midterm elections, despite lowered midterm turnout supposedly being their main problem in winning Congress. Their other main problem, of course, being the tactic of Gerrymandering, where state legislatures redraw the boundaries between Congressional districts to benefit their parties.

This has been a problem for some time, so ideally, the Democrats would be making some progress towards winning more state elections, in order to reset the board back in their favor. 2016 showed little progress on that front, however: last November, the Republicans ended up in charge of 68 state chambers, to 31 held by Democrats. The Democrats haven’t been this weak on a national level since the 1920’s, if not Reconstruction, so we have to ask ourselves: how the hell did the Party get into this mess?

Well, if my look at conservatism didn’t make that clear, I’m honestly less interested in horserace politics and more in the ideology and thought processes that define America’s political parties. As such, the tactical missteps that have led the Democrats into the astonishingly weak position they currently occupy are less interesting to me than the underlying philosophy and psychology of the Party. And the Democrats are, if anything, more fascinating than the Republicans in this regard, because whereas the Republicans have until recently defined an ideological comfort zone for themselves and refused to stray from it, Democrats are downright tortured about their place in the political landscape, and have been for decades.

I’ve said before that Democrats and Republicans aren’t mirror images of each other, but one thing I do think they have in common is that their modern incarnations are both shaped by the year 1972. For Republicans, this was the year of the Watergate break-in, and the Party defines itself in response to the turmoil that destroyed the Nixon Administration. They define themselves against the liberal lynch mob that claimed Nixon, and that forces them into lockstep behind Donald Trump, even as they worry about his willingness to betray the cause of free trade, or to bargain with Democratic congressional leaders over healthcare, or whatever jackass thing he tweeted out today.

For Democrats, the lessons they take from ’72 revolve around George McGovern. What’s interesting is that their psychological reaction to McGovern strikes me as one of ambivalence. One the one hand, he remains the archetype of what Democrats consider an ultra-liberal, and by definition unelectable candidate. The Superdelegates that caused so much additional (and unnecessary) consternation during the Democratic primaries last year still exist in large part to ensure that no such unelectable candidate win the Party nomination again.

At the same time, even as Democrats define themselves against McGovern electorally, they still identify with them demographically: it’s already been observed many times that McGovern’s coalition of women, minorities, and educated professionals was much the same configuration that propelled Barack Obama to his two victories. What may be just as important is that Democratic activists and leaders have defined themselves against the enemies that McGovern had within the Democratic Party of his day. In short, I’d put it like this: the modern Republican Party is entirely composed of that 20 percent or so of the country that supported Richard Nixon to the bitter end in 1974. The Democratic Party is unanimously composed of the 25 percent of their own Party that voted for McGovern in the 1972 primaries. For the record, McGovern actually got fewer votes in that primary than Hubert Humphrey did, which probably says something, though I’m not sure exactly what.

Actually, it’s an interesting measure of a Party, looking at the people and groups they define as their enemies. And by enemies, I don’t mean members of other Parties, because it’s easy to tell who’s not in your Party. Rather, the enemies that one identifies inside one’s own Party are the most interesting. And I suppose it’s inevitable I’d start thinking about Parties this way, since the book that first got me into politics and political analysis, Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight, focuses on something similar. At a meeting at the Willard Hotel in 1947, a group called Americans for Democratic Action was born, determined to re-shape the Democratic Party to better fight the rapidly escalating Cold War. To do this, they renounced Communism, repudiating the unified front that the left had formed against Fascism during the War. They also embraced Civil Rights, alienating many Southern Democrats. These fissures caused a three-way split in the Party’s ticket the following year, but Harry Truman managed to win the election regardless, and the direction was set.

Now, this is a pretty weird way to look at the Parties, and it probably makes no sense in the politics of other countries. But in America, each of our major Parties represents over a hundred million people, so fractiousness is probably unavoidable. And it can reveal a lot, to see which factions in a Party are ascendant and which are on the outs. In the case of the modern Republican Party, the main enemy they identify are what they call RINOs, the supposed descendants of the Congressional Republicans who sided with the Democrats during Watergate and forced Nixon to resign. This historical contingent, by the by, included Barry Goldwater, of all people. So whenever you see Jeff Flake or some other arch-conservative hounded out of office by Steve Bannon and his followers, remember that the Revolution has always eaten its children.

For Democrats, well, there’s a low-scale civil war going on within the Party right now, as the 2016 primary reprises itself again and again, generally over low, ill-defined stakes. That’s not irrelevant to what I’m getting at here, but this debate the Democrats are having now is quite different from the intra-Party struggles of the past. There’s been all manner of campaign post-mortems and diagnoses of the Party to take with us moving forwards, but just about the only verboten interpretation is one we’d hear with regularity following previous defeats: “We went too far to the left; we need to try and take back the center.”

So, that raises the question: who’s the Enemy Within inside the Democratic Party? Back in the 50’s and 60’s, this was simple enough: the enemies were Communists, who undermined the Cold War effort and left the Party vulnerable to Red-Baiting, plus segregationists, who undermined America’s moral authority as a force for freedom and democracy, a crucial asset when fighting for the hearts and minds of the developing world. These tensions were laid bare in 1948 and remained a bone of contention for the following generation. Now, I mentioned before that modern Democrats define themselves against McGovern’s old intra-Party enemies, so who were those people?

Well, there were quite a lot of them, considering the Senator from South Dakota only won a quarter of the primary vote in 1972. The biggest foil was a guy I already mentioned: Hubert Humphrey, the Party nominee in 1968, and the runner-up in 1972. Now, this seems like a strange choice if you know much of anything about Humphrey’s long and storied career inside the Democratic Party. For one, he was at the Willard Hotel back in 1947, and the following year he led the floor fight at the Democratic National Convention to add a civil rights plank to the Party platform. Later on, when the Civil Rights Act was facing a filibuster in the Senate in 1964, he used his influence as Majority Whip to help get the bill passed. In many ways, Humphrey was the archetype of the kind of Cold War liberalism that people admired in those days – tough, but compassionate, towards workers and minorities alike. So, where was the disconnect between him and McGovern’s movement?

Well, trying to get a grip on this historical period has been another cause of the delays in writing this piece, but I think I’ve got some answers. There is the obvious issue of personal ambitions causing clashes between the two men as they got in each others’ way twice – McGovern ran in ’68 too – but more than anything, I think there were two main bones of contention between the two that caused their generally compatible brands of liberalism to conflict – labor unions and Vietnam. Now, Humphrey was an old friend of labor, in much the same way as older liberal icons like FDR. As such, McGovern doubtlessly ruffled some feathers in this camp by besting their champion, especially considering that McGovern himself that helped organize the modern Democratic Primary system, and knew its ins and outs better than anyone.

Still, the conflict ran deeper than that, and feeds into the rift between McGovern and Humphrey’s Old Left where Vietnam is concerned. The central figure in this battle is one George Meany, then head of the AFL-CIO, and an outspoken supporter of Vietnam. He didn’t go so far as to endorse Richard Nixon in ’72, but he might as well have, and he viciously lambasted McGovern during the campaign, calling him “an apologist for the Communist world”, and celebrating Nixon’s eventual victory as America having “overwhelmingly repudiated neo-isolationism” in foreign policy.

Now, Meany wasn’t exactly speaking for the entire labor movement when he declared the AFL-CIO “neither hawk, nor dove, nor chicken” when it came to the Vietnam war. In truth, his hawkishness put him at odds with other labor luminaries, like Ralph Helstein, George Burdon, and Patrick Gorman, as well as the (as of 1970) late Walter Reuther. That said, Meany represented a more culturally conservative strain of the labor movement – he also opposed having his union endorse Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches – and as such, became a prominent symbol of an unreliable faux leftist, an ally who couldn’t be counted on to stand up for the most vulnerable when it mattered.

Humphrey deserved this sort of characterization far less than Meany, but he wound up tarred with it anyways by association with Meany, and with Lyndon Johnson, who effectively silenced Humphrey on the issue of Vietnam until quite late in the 1968 campaign, when he nearly turned the tables on Nixon by opposing the war.

You’d never know this, however, if all you knew of the man was his characterization from McGovern’s supporters. Take Hunter Thompson’s now-legendary retrospective of the 1972 race, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail: in it, Thompson owns up to a certain lapse in journalistic integrity as the narrative progresses, starting out as skeptical of Senator McGovern’s early campaign as any objective observer should have been at the time, only to get swept away in the collective euphoria as McGovern defied the odds and won through the Democratic primaries.

Through this journey, Thompson routinely uses Humphrey as a foil to McGovern, the old, cynical career politician tainted by a thousand shabby deals. This contrast is driven home when you look at the snippet of an interview Thompson got with McGovern shortly after the election, when they discuss McGovern’s grave missteps in filling his Vice Presidential slot after Thomas Eagleton was forced to step down. Thompson is appalled at McGovern’s decision to try offering the job to, of all people, Hubert Humphrey, saying, “To think that after all that stuff in California, that we might possibly end up with a McGovern/Humphrey ticket. I might have voted for Dr. Spock, if it had come to that.”

Okay, with all of that history out of the way, where am I going with this? My thesis is this: the Democratic Party became transformed by the activism surrounding McGovern’s candidacy, and especially its landslide defeat by Nixon after having been repudiated by supposed allies within the Party and the labor movement as a whole. Actually, I rag on so much about how Democrats and Republicans rarely match up symmetrically, but here, they fit together like two shards of a broken mirror. You see, both Parties share a memory of traumatic betrayal: while Republicans focus on disloyal Congressmen who betrayed Richard Nixon, and are on a constant lookout for a repeat of that betrayal from their Congressional representatives, Democrats likewise share a suspicion that “allies” in the movement for equality feign their commitment to equal rights, and will abandon them if the opportunity presents itself. And because of Meany’s shadow looming large, they’re especially alert to betrayal coming in the guise of “populism”, or “economics”.

Yeah, that’s where I’m going with this. Now, to keep things in perspective, only a minority of Democrats seem to actively dislike Bernie Sanders. His approval ratings seem to hover in the mid-50’s most of the time, with his approval among Democrats being closer to 80 percent. You’ve probably heard this before, but he’s the most popular politician in America at the moment. That said, that 20 percent exists, and while the reasons they may dislike him will certainly vary, I feel safe in saying that a big one, if not the biggest one, is the suspicion that, with his seeming tunnel vision on economic issues and income inequality, he simply doesn’t share the same passion for women’s rights, or fighting racial discrimination.

And, speaking as someone who voted for Sanders in last year’s primary, I get it. Now, I maintain that it was never fair to castigate the Senator as entirely concerned with the economy – he prioritizes climate change as much as anything else, and his support for legalizing marijuana steered him towards discussion of America’s obscenely high incarceration rates, as well. Still, believe me, I get the perception that he doesn’t talk about discrimination with the same verve that breaking up the banks gets from him. During the campaign, he was quite slow in adapting the initial message he worked with – which would probably have been more than sufficient for the protest vote he initially thought was the best result he could get. And more recently, he only begrudgingly gave his approval to the pro-fiscal austerity Jon Ossoff in the special election in Georgia, while endorsing pro-life candidate Heath Mello in Nebraska. If Sanders wants to alleviate the suspicion that he values workers over women, he couldn’t have made worse choices.

So, this general suspicion that I feel many on the left have, of “allies” who make perfunctory gestures of support towards your cause or your identity, only to then feel entitled to speak on your behalf, and to ignore your own voice – I get that, I’ve seen it, I’ve probably blundered into acting that way myself more than once. That said, I have to add a note of caution here, because the biggest betrayal of modern liberalism, the DLC takeover of the Party in the 80’s and 90’s, is something that, again, I worry traces its roots back to those aggrieved McGovernites in the aftermath of 1972.

Now, the McGovern campaign, like all big movements of its kind, should be seen both as a symptom and as a driver of social transformation. The New Left would likely have won through regardless of whether a South Dakota Senator decided to run for President. And that movement is worth looking at in detail, seeing as it encompassed antiwar protests, the Civil Rights Movement, Second Wave Feminism, the early Gay Rights Movement, and many other pushes for equal rights. Now, what encompasses most of these movements is a concern with identity. And not so much national identity as personal identity. This was another paradigm shift from the old left as defined by FDR and Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, which emphasized social unity, even as that focus led them towards some decidedly illiberal blunders, such as Japanese internment, the McCarran Act, or Vietnam. These were mistakes, but mistakes couched in terms of reinforcing and defending a united America, so they’re understandable in the lens of the old liberalism.

The New Left was something fundamentally different, in large part because their outlook on America as a whole was gloomier. America, for them, was the nation that failed to oppose McCarthy, that stood by as Bull Conner let loose the hounds, and that re-elected Richard Nixon with a 49-state sweep. With the outside world being such unwelcome terrain, they turned inwards, focusing more on helping the vulnerable through self-actualization than through political organization and government legislation. The traditional Democratic credo was always “Government exists to do for people what people can’t do for themselves.” It took me a while to realize that it had been replaced, but once I noticed, it didn’t take long for me to take stock of the left as it is now, and understand the new motto.

Simply put, it’s something along the lines of “Government exists to make sure that nobody can keep me down because of who I am.” And, to be clear, I think that that is a generally worthwhile direction for government to pursue. There’s just one problem. Think that line over again: the only legitimate use for government is as a breaker of bonds, to snap the fetters that keep certain segments of society from reaching their full potential. Who else thinks and talks like that?

Yes, this is the crux of the argument I’ve just expended 3,000 words building towards. No, duh, the modern Democratic Party is in bed with big business – when it comes down to it, they see the world in the exact same way. Granted, businessmen tend to think about only themselves when they worry about people getting held back, but the common frame of reference remains. And because so much of the New Left viewed organized labor with suspicion because of Vietnam and their frosty relationship with the McGovern campaign, it didn’t feel like a betrayal to shack up with business interests instead – the workers broke up with the Democrats, not the other way around.

So, that’s how we got to the Democratic Party that’s currently teetering on the edge of governing irrelevance. But that gigantic landslide defeat McGovern suffered had another psychological effect on the Democratic Party, one that I’ll have to explore a few days from now, because this post has gotten way too long as it is. Stay tuned for Part Two, where I talk about how Democrats might try and escape their current electoral doldrums.


“Antisocialites” by Alvvays – An Album Review

Image result for antisocialites alvvaysSo, my last music review probably made it clear that I listen to a fair amount of country music, but I also listen to plenty of pop as well. And one of the oddities that I’ve noticed over several years of observing the Billboard Hot 100 is that, well, Summer’s not always a season of Summer songs. The cliche is that there will be a ton of up-tempo dance jams starting every June, but sometimes the opposite happens, and the pop charts turn to downbeat mush instead.

This was probably most true back in the Summer of 2014, when Iggy Azalea’s Fancy was the number one song in the country. That tedious four-note bass line was inescapable, despite it being a terrible foundation for any song, let alone something to enjoy the sunshine in. Those were grim days, so I count myself lucky that a blog I follow happened to drop a review of an obscure Canadian retro-surf act. And that review was very positive, so I found myself listening to the debut from the band Alvvays. Yes, those two v’s make a w, by the way.

And yes, that self-titled debut was a damn solid record. Songs like Atop a Cake and Next of Kin were exactly the burst of upbeat energy I was looking for at the time. More impressively, the band had the songwriting chops to back up their gorgeous melodies, telling some downright fascinating stories that showed some real darkness beneath the sunny B-52’s-esque instrumentals. All in all, that debut was easily one of the best pop albums of 2014, bar none, and it left me looking forward to see where they would take their sound in the future.

Well, the future is here, as the Canadian band have finally dropped their sophomore album, Antisocialites. I listened to and liked the three songs that released in advance of the album, so I got the whole thing on Friday and have had it on repeat since then. So, does it hold up to their excellent debut?

Well, that’s a complicated question, to be totally honest. What isn’t complicated is that this is still a great album and definitely worth your time. Antisocialites shows Alvvays tightening their retro sound even further, and delivering better melodic hooks than ever before. At the same time, I’m not quite sure the narrative ambition is there in the same way as their last release. The level of songwriting detail is still impressive, but the subject matter feels more limited and less subversive. All in all, I’m inclined to call this a bit of a lateral move.

Like last time, let’s start with the production. If you have listened to their first album, then you’ll see that their sound hasn’t changed a whole lot on this project, with the same combination of jangling 80’s alt-rock and 60’s surf music undergirding these songs. Of course, that’s a fair description of a lot of modern indie rock acts, from M-83 to Beach House. What sets Alvvays apart from their peers is a fantastic gift for striking melodies that shined on their last album and is even more accentuated here. The hooks on songs like Plimsoll Punks, My Type, Lollipop (Ode for Jim), and Saved by a Waif will stick in your head for days.

That said, I noticed one detail that has changed in the production compared to their old album is the distortion. On their debut, Alvvays had these more washed-out guitar tones and fuzzy, low-fi production, and none of the polish of their most obvious inspiration, the B-52’s. Here on Antisocialites, the sound is a fair bit crisper and less distorted, especially on songs like Plimsoll Punks or Dreams Tonite. That’s not to say that distortion is gone, but it often seems relegated to the beginning or ending of tracks like Hey (where they seem to have specifically appropriated A Flock of Seagulls), Lollipop or the album closer, Forget About Life. The album actually ends with the instruments coming to a warbling halt and radio static kicking in. Regardless of these minor stylistic changes, I’d still call this album exceptionally well-produced, building on and accentuating their strengths and creating a set of fantastic summer songs.

Of course, what really caught me off-guard about Alvvays when I first listened to them was the ambition and subtlety in their writing, so it’s worth addressing that as well. And on some level, they’ve kept up their standards here, too. Lead singer Molly Rankin is great at capturing a wide range of emotions, both in her singing and the songwriting itself. The lyrics on Alvvays songs are always vividly detailed, from the deeply uncomfortable confrontation on In Undertow, where she and her lover try to convey frustrations that they can’t quite put into words, to the reckless and utterly hilarious partying on Your Type, to the throwbacks to classic Punk icons on Lollipop, and so on. These songs are all expertly written and extremely precise in their focus. So, why am I unsatisfied?

Well, the problem I have is more with the broader theme of this album. Alvvays’ self-titled was defiantly unique thanks to its insightful look at millennial social anxieties, and the struggle of a generation trying to reconcile ironic detachment with that yearning for real emotional commitment. The band spared no effort in showing the bad decisions that could result from that dissonance, and the consequences of those decisions. By contrast…Antisocialites is, well, the breakup album. Clever construction can only do so much to conceal this – Not Your Baby has some nice metaphors, but it’s basically Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson minus that song’s cathartic fury. There just doesn’t seem to be a cogent arc on this album like on their debut.

Now, that’s hardly a dealbreaker by itself, but it does mean that instead of a strict narrative, we instead get an exploration of the various moods that surround a failing relationship. And these still make for some powerful stuff by themselves. In Undertow reminds us of the subversiveness of Alvvays’ use of surf music – in this band’s songs, water is something to dread – where the titular undertow represents the inexorable currents of time and incompatibility pulling two people apart. Dreams Tonite tries to recapture some of the old relationship’s magic even as it’s slipping away from memory. And Already Gone may be the biggest gut-punch here, with its story of a missed connection, the draining pool, and the end of Summer. Rankin ends the song despairing of ever recapturing that moment ever again. The magic is lost.

Thankfully, there is still room for optimism and hope amidst the gloom on this album. Lollipop is a more upbeat tune about the heady rush of a new relationship, and Saved by a Waif does one better by providing the hope that even a flagging love can be reinvigorated. Finally, there’s that album closer, Forget About Life, where Rankin finally lets go of the dread of the water and the astrological superstitions of previous songs, and resolves to live in the present. It wraps things up with a vestige of inner peace attained finally.

So, all in all, I still found Antisocialites to be a very good indie rock album. It’s got some of the best melodies I’ve heard in 2017, along with intelligent writing and an emotive frontwoman who can make you laugh, cry, and regain your sense of comfort and hope over the course of the album. I still wish it had the same subversiveness and scope as their last album, but what’s here is still done well, so I’ll give it an 8/10, and a recommendation. If you’re still wanting to hear some good summer songs this fall, then turn on Antisocialites and forget about life a while. You won’t regret it.

Recommended tracks: In Undertow, Dreams Tonite, Plimsoll Punks, Lollipop (Ode to Jim), Already Gone, Forget About Life

Weakest Track: Not My Baby


Death Note (2017) – A Film Review

Image result for death note netflix

Alright, so last week I watched the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series while I was on vacation. And you know, I liked it a fair bit. Idris Elba captured a pretty complex and emotive character, Matthew McConaughey was entertainingly loathsome, even the kid in the leading role was pretty effective. I thought it lost some steam in the third act, but overall I enjoyed myself. A light 7/10, maybe.

Now, I considered writing up a review for that movie, but I didn’t. Part of it was that I was busy, between vacation activities and preparing for a wedding. Part of it was also that film reviews aren’t my forte. Music reviews are something I’m more comfortable with, since I listen to lots of different kinds of music, but I don’t watch many movies. But the most important reason was that I’m not particularly familiar with the Dark Tower novels. I didn’t see that as an obstacle to watching and enjoying the film, but I could still tell that it probably wasn’t the most faithful adaptation, and I don’t want to review an adaptation if I can only tell you how it holds up on its own merits. Ideally, I’d want to do that and judge how well it manages its relationship to its source material.

Well, there’s a quick fix for that – review something I’m already well-acquainted with. And so here we are, the Netflix adaptation of the cult classic anime/manga series Death Note. For the uninitiated, a summary of the series: it’s about a brilliant Japanese high school student named Light Yagami, who comes across a magical book, the titular Death Note. If you write someone’s name in this book while thinking of their face, then that person dies. Light, a person of intensely strong ideals but not much humility, decides it’s his destiny to use the notebook to rid the world of crime, killing the world’s criminals to bring about utopia. The killing spree puts him in conflict with the police, as well as an anonymous detective known as L, and the two match wits against each other, and see whose code of justice will prevail in the world.

Now, like I said, this series is fondly remembered as a classic, with complex characters, highly cerebral mindgames, mostly between Light and L but also with others involved, and weighty themes regarding power and justice. Speaking for myself, what I love is that the story deconstructs the Shonen genre of Japanese manga and anime, best known in the West for series like Yu-Gi-Oh! and One Piece and Naruto. Just like in a lot of those stories, we follow a teenage boy who comes into a miraculous power, acquires a mysterious ally (Ryuk, the demonic figure who granted him the Death Note in the first place), and indomitable ideals, who sets out to save the world. The problem is that the power Light finds is inherently destructive, and his ideals blind him to the contradiction in becoming a murderer to bring peace to the world, and so soon enough it needs saving from him.

I don’t intend a long form essay on how amazing Death Note is, of course, so I’ll end it there, with the point being that the strengths of the original are primarily intellectual and psychological – Light and L are towering moral (although Light’s morals are beyond blinkered) and intellectual forces, the result being an amazingly dense series to digest. That’s why I don’t think previous efforts have been great successes. The 2015 TV series was hindered, well, primarily by the writing, which turns Light into an everyman, which misses the point that your average high school student probably wouldn’t have the iron-clad determination or the ability to try and create a utopian society. The 2006 film duology, for its part, suffers for, well, being two movies attempting to adapt a mid-length and, again, extremely dense series into 264 minutes of film. The schemes and the characters and the overall plot are so intense that you need to give them more time than that to develop.

And that finally brings me to this flick, a Netflix original that’s the first attempt by us Yanks to adapt the series. Now, the main controversy surrounding this movie was the fact that they decided to set the story not in Japan, but in Seattle, Washington, and to make the main characters Americans, with Light as a white teenager, and L (who resembles a scruffy human-Panda hybrid in the original) as a black teenager. We already had a major dustup earlier this year when a movie version of Ghost in the Shell came out, with Scarlet Johansson in the leading role instead of a Japanese actress. If anything, though, this Death Note movie took even more flack for “whitewashing” Japanese culture.

Personally, I wasn’t so concerned about that, for two reasons. The first being that several Japanese Death Note adaptations exist, so this isn’t crowding anything out. The second being that the cultural differences between Japan and America could allow the premise to be seen in a new light. American culture is extremely cynical about our justice system, with “Law and order” still a potent force – just ask our current President. And we can be quite vengeful towards people that we think wronged us, something exhibited in many of the wars we’ve fought. The point I’m getting at here is that if any culture would embrace Light Yagami’s theory of justice, and violently purge the criminal element from society, it’d probably be America.

No, what worried me about this adaptation was director Adam Wingard, whose resume mostly consists of horror movies. I can see where that leads, since the Death Note can kill a victim in any way that’s physically possible, but focusing on the gore and gruesomeness doesn’t seem like the most interesting angle to take. Still, how did this go?

Well, honestly, not well. This simply isn’t a very good movie. It’s not terrible, but it compromises exactly the elements that I was hoping it wouldn’t, especially Light and L’s characterization and ideals, and the result is a compromised vision that didn’t really understand its own strengths, and which gave even less time to develop its characters than previous adaptations.

Now, about the horror elements. This is a gory movie, which exploited its R rating to the hilt in showing the grotesque ways a creative high schooler can imagine people dying. Thankfully, I wouldn’t say that it was really the focus of the movie, since the gorefest ends around the halfway mark, and things get more character-driven. That said, the pretenses towards something bloody like the Saw franchise are kind of a waste of time, since they don’t advance the plot much, and if anything, they complicate the character portrayals.

Now, in the original, Light Yagami generally uses the notebook’s default cause of death, a heart attack, to kill his victims. He reserves more creative deaths for when they service a larger scheme. This makes sense when you think about it, because as my summary implied, he’s a character who’s extremely obsessed with his own virtue. He sees himself as a savior, “The God of the New World”, as he puts it, and part of the reason he takes the path he does is to avoid admitting to himself that he’s done wrong. And it’s easier to ignore the blood on your hands if it’s not splattered across the city streets.

And that brings me to the character changes, since Light Turner (the Americanized name in this version) is a different customer from Light Yagami. Yagami’s belief in his moral purity was so strong that it justified progressively greater acts of depravity, and he never seemed to understand what was slowly happening to him. Light Turner has far more self-awareness about what his crusade demands of him, and he steadfastly refuses to turn his power on the innocent, even law enforcement hunting him.

And therein lies the main problem with this movie, in that it tries quite hard to have Light earn our sympathies. Where in the original, Light initially uses the Death Note out of ennui, and a lack of purpose in his life, this Light has actually been victimized by the crime he seeks to destroy, which cost him his mother in the backstory and which he sees around him at school every day. On top of that, where the original Light was almost entirely self-motivated, here he’s pushed onto the path he takes, both by the Shinigami Ryuk, who threatens to put the Death Note in the hands of someone less scrupulous if Light doesn’t use it, and by his love interest, Mia Sutton. By the end, Light wields the Death Note primarily out of fear that it’ll be used by someone more ruthless than him if he loses it.

Now, I’m not a fan of this re-interpretation, but it does lend itself to two of the film’s main strengths. First, Ryuk. Played excellently by Willem Dafoe, he’s one horror element in this movie that does work well, with fantastic use of practical effects to create an otherworldly demon. What’s great about him is that his character is reinterpreted, but not as much as you’d expect, which plays with a fan’s expectations in just the right ways. The original Ryuk drops a Death Note into the human world for curiosity and amusement, to see what a human would do with that kind of power, and while Light Yagami delivers in spades, Ryuk is happy to sit back and enjoy the show. In that capacity, he becomes almost adorable in places.

Dafoe’s Ryuk is different, in that he’s more overtly malevolent in his intentions, and he does far more to steer Light into directions he’d otherwise balk at traversing. This does create one issue, where Light discovers a warning written in the notebook, telling him that Ryuk isn’t to be trusted, and that he’s not Light’s friend. This would have fit in a lot better with the original Ryuk, who had the same ruthlessness, but hid it behind enough charming mannerisms that you could forget how dangerous he was. Dafoe lacks the pretense, so it’s out of place. In a way, though, that may have been the point, since it leaves the audience unsure of just how far Ryuk is willing to be a passive observer in the unfolding events. So much the good.

The other part I see as a strength is Mia Sutton, played by Margaret Qualley. She’s the American version of Misa Amane, Light’s most devoted follower in the original series. Where with Ryuk they toed a very careful line in how far they were willing to depart from his original character, Mia’s differences are much starker, but in a way that still resembles the source material if considered carefully. Misa from the anime is primarily remembered as a lovesick doormat for Light, cheerfully committing murders with the Death Note at his whim and never questioning his judgment or his overt lack of reciprocated affections. Her cutsieness concealed a seriously cold fish, but it was in no way an act.

Mia, well, on the surface, she doesn’t resemble Misa Amane much at all other than as Light’s girlfriend, and even there, Light Turner is actually interested unlike his counterpart. She doesn’t seek Light out as the vigilante responsible for killing off criminals, she’s a schoolmate who he confesses his secret to just as he’s starting out. And most of all, she’s willing to take their war on crime to lengths that Light won’t, to the point of openly defying his wishes.

Related image

This here is pretty much what Light and Misa’s anime relationship was like.

This seems alien to Misa Amane, and yet, in a way, I’d argue it isn’t. Or rather, that it can be reconciled in light of the changes to her backstory. Misa sought out Light Yagami after learning of his role in purging crime because she wanted to thank him – one of his victims had killed her parents and escaped justice, leaving her with nothing to live for besides repaying that debt. And really, that sense of emptiness explains a lot about Misa’s character, when you realize that she doesn’t place much value on her own miserable life. That’s why she’s so reckless on the show, taking suicidal risks that Light would blanch at doing himself. Her spontaneity breaks the stalemate between Light and L and dictates most of the plot in the middle of the series.

Mia lacks that tragedy in her life, which explains why her devotion to Light rather than his power is so much weaker in this movie. But more than that, she represents what Misa was before she dedicated herself to serving Light Yagami. I said before that Misa was remembered as Light’s doormat, but she didn’t start off that way. In fact, when she first appears, the other characters see her as a more ruthless, less idealistic version of Light. What this movie does is realize that initial impression in full.

On their own, I think these reintepretations of Ryuk and Mia are actually quite fascinating. The problem is that they put the two into the role of Light’s corrupters, nudging him forward when his own resolve fails him. And that’s just not as compelling for our lead, since it’s his misgivings rather than his fanatical devotion to a cause that drive his character through the second half of the movie. By the end, the confrontation isn’t so much between Light and L as it is between Light and his own corrupted vision.

And that brings me to L, the only character that I would really say got butchered. The focal point in the original series was this Holmes and Moriarty rivalry between the great killer and the great detective, and that’s the main thing that its fans loved about it. Here, the focus is mostly on the murder-fueled romance between Light and Mia, and their eventual parting of the ways over the lengths that each is willing to go to for their vision. As a result, L gets short shrift. It’s not the lack of focus that rankles me, though, it’s L’s incompetence. The original writers called L the smartest character in a series full of geniuses, and it showed in his powerful yet well-explained deductions, his calm stoicism in every situation but one (and really, that scene felt jarringly out of place), and the way he countered Light at every turn despite knowing nothing about the Death Note himself.

This L, though? Not only are his numerous missteps a plot point, one of them, a precaution he didn’t take with his allies that he did in the anime, pretty much gets the third act going. This is pretty sad considering that he started off promisingly enough, zeroing in on Light in ways that were condensed, but honestly not terribly different from the original. But once the two rivals meet face to face, L goes downhill. The main problem is the disappearance of his trademark stoicism, which actually drives a wedge between him and Light’s policeman father when he tries to physically accost Light under pressure. Ultimately, though, I find myself having to agree with the professional reviewers I saw who dismissed L’s character as an afterthought in this movie. It’s really quite depressing how the deuteragonist of the series becomes all but superfluous in the climax of this movie.

So, the bottom line here is that despite some creative reimaginings, the main characters from the series are badly compromised in their conception here. Another obstacle in realizing their potential is the dialogue, which is really quite weak. If there’s one sequence that I’d consider to be well-written, it’s that bit from the trailer when Ryuk introduces the Death Note to Light and tempts him into using it. Light still thinks he’s dreaming, and Ryuk decides to run with that, encouraging Light to see things as a fantasy with no real consequences, which is powerful because you realize that it’s not simply a way to ease Light into the first kill, but also Ryuk’s own attitude, and the one he wants Light to adopt. He came to our world for amusement and he has no emotional investment in any of us. He’d like Light to see things the same way, to act like he’s playing a video game. Or, well, watching a movie.

Most of the rest of the dialogue just lacks that same spark, though. One egregious example also from the trailers is from L’s first meeting with Light, where he explains his perceived role as a detective. “You’re the one who flew into the Sun,” he says. “I’m just here to make sure you burn.” Apart from being an obvious and not too creative Icarus allusion, it also gets the Greek myth wrong. Icarus didn’t fly into the Sun, but too close to it, and he didn’t burn to death, but rather had his wax wings melted and subsequently fell to his death. What’s sad about this one is that the actual myth is a pretty good foreshadowing of the ending, but you can tell they butchered it for a trailer line that’d play up the Light-L enmity that would ultimately be an afterthought.

Now, the plot. Apart from adapting the series which I’ve described already, this one differs when Light’s first major effort to uncover L’s true identity, with which he can kill the detective, goes awry, and leads pretty directly into the final confrontation. The problem, as I’ve alluded to repeatedly, is that Light isn’t committed to carrying out his vision in extremis, so he finds himself confronting the consequences of his own plans run amok. Even this might have been salvageable in some fashion, had the conflict led to Light making a concerted effort to reclaim control of his own crusade, to be waged on his terms. Instead, what we get is him cutting his losses at the end, and the greatest irony in the entire movie is that we only really get to see the fiendish levels of cunning that Light Yagami would exhibit in pursuit of his vision, when Light Turner decides to forfeit his. In fact, where the original Death Note was a clash between Light and L and their differing visions of justice, this movie concludes with both of them abandoning those visions for their own convenience.

Perhaps I should feel betrayed by this, but it just leaves me cold. I watched Death Note for the characters more than for the grand chess match between geniuses, but I enjoyed both of those elements, and only received some interesting character arcs in this movie, while others were compromised. Overall, this movie isn’t horrible, but neither is it good. I’d give it a 5/10, and I can’t really recommend this when you can watch the anime instead. It simply lacked the space and the audacity to realize these characters properly. To use its own words, it just wasn’t crazy enough.