Bass Lines, Bootstraps, and The Myth of the Individual

Last night I cut a baseline in a studio that I felt was really great.  I almost thought about bragging about it, in fact I totally did to a couple close friends!  However, I started thinking about how that bass line was the result of listening to lots of other bass players and that, whether it is good or not, I only had a little hand in its creation.  Also, on top of that, I have had friends, teachers, mentors, and parents, that have in some way shaped how I played, whether directly or in allowing me to learn my craft.  Not only that, but every musician on any record has a similar story of people that helped them to learn what they do.  You get four, five, six, ten people on an album, plus those doing the technical work, and all of sudden you have links to hundreds if not thousands of other people.  How many records did they listen to?  Who taught them?  Who paid for their first lesson?  If they were writing lyrics did they read a lot of different writers, who in turn have their own groups of people?

In America we like to tell ourselves that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  But doing something completely by yourself isn’t really possible.  We love the individual, and certainly some people are more unique than others, but the individual never accomplishes anything completely on their own.  The most you can hope to do is to combine things in a way that others have not done, and that is original enough for me, but to do something that has no ties to any other person is something that only exists in myth.

I also was thinking how we devalue music in our current cultural atmosphere.  Some people scoff at paying for songs.  But think about it, really think about it, and you will realize that it takes a staggering amount of hours and people to give birth to even the simplest of songs.  The same can be true of any art form.

I also reflected again on the ending of Mad Men.  (Spoiler alert)  A friend talked to me about the end of Mad Men, where Don Draper’s whole journey led him to create a Coke commercial.  His view was that one way to interpret it was that nothing created comes out of a vacuum.  In another way, and I would be one that can see it this way, this is a sad ending as a man’s life long struggle ended up as nothing more than a piece of advertising.  However, at the same time it is a great way to view anything that has been created.  Nothing comes from out of nowhere.

Matthew Weiner Discusses Mad Men Ending

Major spoilers for Mad Men are involved in this post.

Matthew Weiner Discusses Mad Men Ending

Mattew Weiner has done a discussion about the last season of Mad Men and the final images displayed.  The whole article is worth reading if you are a fan of the show.  He claims that the last image of the show was not meant in any kind of cynical way:

“My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is,” Mr. Hamm said. “And who he is, is an advertising man.”

Mr. Weiner didn’t touch on how the Coke ad did or did not fit within the show’s narrative. But he defended the ad, with its notably multicultural cast, against those who would now dismiss it as “corny.”

Now, I definitely interpreted it that way.  However, Weiner is defending the ad in it’s place and time and not ours.  He talks about how five years before the ad you couldn’t even have black and white people in the same ad.

In one way, if the creator of something says something is so and so, you could say I was wrong.  However, I think it is a credit to Weiner that the end was interpretive enough, so well put together, that its interpretations are more varied than just what he was thinking when he put it together.

I remember one time I wrote a song and someone misheard the lyrics.  What they heard was even more compelling than what I wrote.  Often when writing or doing anything, one goes on intuition more than reason.  David Lynch is a director that is really interesting to watch work, as he operates almost wholly on intuition.  Some of the things I have written that I’m most proud of, I don’t even know what they are till later on.  Also, there is the argument that once created, something is the audience’s as much as it is the creator’s.

A friend of mine said that the ending also hinted at the artistic process.  That so much goes into one song, or scene, etc.  Nothing is created in a vacuum.  It took Draper his whole life to arrive at a place where he could create that commercial.  I think this is another brilliant way to interpret the ending.

I remember reading another interview with Weiner where he talked about how there was positive and negative advertising.  There was advertising that tried to make what was being sold look appealing.  Then there was negative ads that tried to make people feel like they would be losers if they didn’t by the product.  Think of all of the male deodorant commercials that basically say if you don’t buy this you will never get laid.  Draper was someone that believed in creating positive ads.

Now I still stick with my original interpretation of the ending.  Even though the show takes place in the past, the viewing takes place in the now.  Advertising has consumed and co-opted so many things by this point that it is hard not to be cynical about ads.  In my mind tying peace and love to a Coke diminishes peace and love.  If you take my friend’s interpretation about art, art is at least trying to communicate something of value.  It is trying to represent the real experience as best it can so that other people can understand it.  It is trying to build communication.  Meanwhile, commercials end goal are to get you to buy a product.  In the case of the Coke ad, peace and love are being used to try to get you to buy something that causes tooth decay and childhood obesity.  It is turning peace and love into nothing more than a marketable commodity.

There is so much more I could say about the brilliant, beautiful, and somewhat disturbing, to me at least, ending of this great show.  But the whole thing about such a great ending is that you don’t have to decide.  You don’t have to tell yourself that this ending represents one interpretation and that nothing else is correct.  The ending raises more questions, connects with more ideas, than Weiner, my friend, or myself have about it.  The ending is art and that is a beautiful thing.  It is not a final destination, but a river than can lead you to so many different places.  Cast off from shore and explore this world and others on your own.

The Brilliance of Mad Men's Ending

Spoiler alert for the finale of Mad Men

The more I think about the ending of Mad Men, the more I think it was brilliant.  I want to try to ignore doing any kind of traditional recap, as there are plenty of those online.  I want to talk more about how things ended with the shows main character, Don Draper.  His story line wrapped up in a way that was perfect in that in some way it gave people what they wanted, but was also disturbing and critical as well.  It somehow managed to be happy and depressing at the same time.

Don Draper finally seems to find a glimmer of inner peace while meditating.  He says, “ohm”, and you hear the sound of a bell.  The next and final cut is to a famous Coke ad where people sing about harmony and how Coke is the “real thing”.  (This is a real ad.)  I don’t see any other way to read this than Don created the ad from his life experiences as he had all series.

In one sense those fans that want Don Draper to find a happy ending got one.  He will essentially be alright.  Stan said earlier that Don was a “survivor” and Peggy replied that he was always right.  You get a sense that whatever happens to Don Draper after the credits role, he will survive and be essentially alright.

However, as a character, even if he does or doesn’t find lasting inner peace, he is basically ending up at the same place he began, turning his life experiences into advertisements.  He is commodifying the experiences of life.

What is disturbing is that this is essentially what advertising does.  It takes real experiences, strips them of their meaning, and uses them to sell people things that they don’t need, some of which are even harmful.  Don’s inner peace was used to sell Coke, a product we know to cause tooth decay and child obesity.  As my brother said, “Draper took all of the pain, all of the things he learned, all of the idealism of the 60’s, and turned it into something banal.”

So much of our society commodifies and cheapens things that should be sacred.  In free market capitalism the market takes everything in life and reduces it into something that can be sold on the market.  Peace, love, and happiness become just mere commodities, stripped of any higher purpose.

The brilliance of the ending is that Mather Weiner, Mad Men’s creator, was able to give Draper an ending that was both happy and disturbing, and that also commented on his character, his TV show, and the real world all at once.  That’s quite a feat to go out on.

Mad Men Finale Will Never Live Up to Expectations

Mad Men Finale Will Never Live Up to Expectations

This is more about television in general and not any kind of real review.  I largely agree with it.  It talks about how finales should be viewed in the context of the larger work, in the same way that the last chapter in books or the last minutes of a film are.

Mad Men, Mad Max, and Music

I’ve been taking some time off with friends and family.  I have many things I want to write about in depth, but just a few brief thoughts in the meantime:

1.  I will need to ponder the Mad Men final for awhile.  I thought it split the difference between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. It gave the audience some of what they wanted and at the same time was interpretive enough that I think any quick judgment of it is misplaced.  My emotions and thoughts were complex while watching it.  I feel like any kind of summation at this point would not do the material justice.

2.  The new Mad Max is simply fantastic.  It is visually stunning, exploding with unique imagery, full of non-stop action, and batshit insane.  It’s entertainment with ideas and clearly directed by someone with true vision.  It makes other summer blockbusters look like marketing decisions.  I should throw in that it is emotional and subversive too.  But even if you just go see if for pure fun, you won’t be let down.

3.  Went on a walk today with My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and Chromatics.  Three great bands for enhancing a mood while still giving you space to think.

Meaning In Mad Men

Spoilers for Mad Men Season 7 Episode 10

Mad Men Recap: The Forecast

I’m a week behind on Mad Men.  The above recap is actually to last weeks show.  I will catch up today.  But the recap from last week had me thinking about how much this show has to offer, when even a recap in Entertainment Weekly features paragraphs like this:

The Forecast” is an episode about children turning into grown-ups, and grown-ups acting like children. In some ways, it’s about grown-ups living the way a child might imagine that adults live. Don eats donuts and vending-machine candy for lunch and never cleans up the drinks he spills on the carpet. Lou dreams of turning his comic strip into a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Mathis might have to wash his mouth out with soap for saying a dirty word. Meanwhile, Sally is signing checks. Glenn is drinking beer. Sally’s friend is flirting with Don, who’s old enough to be her dad. All of them, young or old, are children pretending to be grown-ups. But, as we’ve learned from the agency’s new client, Peter Pan, it’s different when you know you’re pretending. That’s what separates the adults from the kids. 

And later:

“Adolescence, it strikes me, shares some of the generic qualities of divorce,”  (Rachel) Cusk wrote. “The central shock of divorce lies in its bifurcation of the agreed-upon version of life: There are now two versions, mutually hostile, each of whose narrative aim is to discredit the other. Until adolescence, parents by and large control the family story. The children are the subject of this story, sure enough, the generators of its interest or charm, but they remain, as it were, characters, creatures derived from life who nonetheless have their being in the author’s head… But it is perhaps unwise to treasure this story too closely or believe in it too much, for at some point the growing child will pick it up and turn it over in his hands like some dispassionate reviewer composing a coldhearted analysis of an overhyped novel… I wonder how much of what we call conflict is in fact our own deserved punishment for telling the story wrong, for twisting it with our own vanity or wishful thinking, for failing to honor the truth.”

Rarely does a show make me think as much as this one, while simultaneously being entertaining.  It is a show that is pregnant with meaning.

Thoughts On Better Call Saul and Big Ideas in Entertainment

I found myself rewatching Breaking Bad this morning, starting at the beginning.  It’s amazing how entertaining this show is given that this will be the third time I’ve seen this season.  Also, as almost everyone knows, for a show this entertaining it sure was able to deal in some really heavy themes.  I think that is what makes it so great, that it works on different levels, from base entertainment to American tragedy.

I finished Better Call Saul the other day.  Seeing the whole season now has made me want to watch Season 2.  There were several times in the first season that I wasn’t so sure about the show.  The acting has always been excellent.  I’m used to modern TV shows taking a little time to develop and find their voice.  After the amazing ride of Breaking Bad I determined that I was going to give Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt, even when the show was slow.  Several seasons of Mad Men have taken a little time to develop, only to pick up steam in the second half and be unbelievable.  Modern TV, when its at its best, can have almost the detail of great literature.  Mad Men definitely falls into that realm.  I think what Better Call Saul ended up doing throughout the season was great, but it really took me the full season to become invested on an emotional level, where Breaking Bad had an opening episode that hooked you from the start.

I think that any kind of art form has to work on an emotional level first.  If it can expand your mind, deliver big ideas, on top of that, all the better.  I want to get something more than just being entertained out of something if possible.  However, I think if a writer, musician, painter, can pull you in on some way that is emotional, especially if they have a big idea, it is going to have a far greater chance at affecting how people think.  George Orwell is brilliant not only for his ideas, but for his clarity and readability too.  Even if he is talking about something highly intellectual, I am always struck at how the way he writes pulls you along with him.  It’s almost as if you are arriving at the conclusion with him.

That doesn’t mean that every moment of a book or TV show or whatever has to be easy.  I like to be challenged.  I like to hear that weird soundscape in the middle of an album of pop songs, for a show like Mad Men to take its time developing characters so the emotional payoff is bigger by the end, to see a play that has an act that sets the stage for later. Only fools need everything spoonfed to them.

I just got done reading Voltaire’s Candide.  It was written in the 1700’s.  There is a reason, beyond the big ideas contained within, that it has lasted several hundred years.  It is highly entertaining as well as being highly intelligent.

One thing I realized is that one will never ever read every book that is ever written.  One will never hear every piece of music ever created.  One will never see every show that or movie that has ever been made.  Therefore you must choose what you expose yourself.  It’s fine to watch or listen to things that are escapist at times.  The brain needs downtime if it is going to function on a higher level at other times.  But one should seek things out that help to understand the world around you.  If you are looking to understand something in a very specific technical way, then that is a different matter.  However, if you are looking for some kind of broader understanding of the world, there is no reason that one can’t enjoy oneself while doing so.  If you are interested in something, or some idea, or just looking for new ideas, the chances are there is someone that has communicated what you are looking for in a way that is enjoyable too.  A great journalist, dramatist, or songwriter, can do more than one thing at a time.

The Brilliance of Mad Men and Q&A With Matthew Weiner


I’ve been watching Mad Men again in advance of the final run of episodes.  Other than the mighty Deadwood, which I believe is the Shakespeare of our time, I think Mad Men is as good as any TV show ever.  I think no show captures the existentialism and anxiety of modern times better.  For every scene that seems like a setup to explain what was happening in the 60’s, there are 20 that take us into the inner lives of the characters, that ring true to everyday life.  I’ve always found Don Draper to be an incredibly written character.  He is a character that sees through the facade of everyday society and tries to operate within it at the same time.  Although many of his faults come from his childhood, Matthew Weiner is too smart of a writer to make a character’s emotional life just a matter of cause and effect.  Draper sees the world as it really is and as it wants to be, he sees behind the mask, and that unbridgeable gap creates a great deal of the tension on the show.

Interviews with the creator of the show, Matthew Weiner, are always interesting reads.  Here is one that I just read today from Time Magazine:

Q&A With Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner

Our Secret KGB Lust

In the above article a woman gets in trouble with the police when she leaves her son in the car for five minutes on a cool day to go into the store.  The police only know about this because someone with a camera phone, who clearly wishes they were in the KGB, informed them.  The best part of the article is when another mother talks about the odds of a child being harmed left in the car for five minutes vs. driving to the store.  People’s threat factors are way off these days.  Also, just watch Mad Men to get an idea how our parents grew up.  As Terry Gilliam says, “kids bounce.”

How many times has some virulent anti-gay figure turned out to be gay?  Is the reason that we claimed to hate totalitarian Communism all those years, and I am referring to the Soviet kind for the moment, because we secretly loved it?  Why do we need a secret police when citizens feel that it is their duty to inform on other citizens for things other than serious crimes?

One of the things that I find most disturbing about modern social interaction is how nothing is private anymore.  It is one thing if someone wants to disclose their own information online, but we now no longer give people the choice most of the time.  From the disgusting world of TMZ to friends checking you into places on facebook without them asking, it is just getting ridiculous.  Are we Big Brother?

If there is a flip side positive to any of this it is when people use their electronic devices to speak truth to power and protect their fellow citizens.  I am thinking especially of when people take videos of police abuse.  If only more people would realize that we’re all in this thing together.

Dreaming the Wrong Dream

Contains a small spoiler for the latest episode of Mad Men.

It’s been raining the last few days in Austin.  My writing production has been slow.  Ideas can only be dispersed if you are busy collecting them.  Prepare to be inspired as David Milch says.  Last night I had one of those rare nights where you watch TV all night and everything is inspiring.  I watched The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Werner Herzog’s batshit insane My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and the latest episode of Mad Men.  I have been slowly picking my way through the book version of Under the Skin and James Joyce’s Dubliners.  Musically I have surprised even myself by becoming obsessed with Kanye West, especially his new album Yeezus.

Although I’m not far along enough in Dubliners to comment upon it, many of these works deal with the idea that the modern world creates the wrong kind of dreams in one way or another.  We are searching for a connection all while being told by the dominant society to crave material things that bring us no lasting happiness.  The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology dealt directly with these themes.  Mad Men and the work of Kanye West both explicitly deal, in different ways, with the world of the material, but also both show its shortcomings.  The Herzog movie dealt with a character who searches constantly for something to cling to only to finally be driven to complete insanity.

If you are a fan of Mad Men than this review of this week’s episode over at Salon is really good:

I’ll leave you with lyrics from Mad Men’s Bert Cooper’s strangely delivered farewell song.  On one hand they can be seen as too sentimental.  However, in the overreaching story of the show they seemed powerful to me:

“The moon belongs to everyone.
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone.
They gleam there for you and me.
The flowers in spring, the robins that sing.
The sunbeams that shine, they’re yours they’re mine.
And love can come to everyone. The best things in life are free.”