In Defense of Long Songs

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 9:02 PM EDT

mojo-photo-kraftwerk.jpgWhile Joshua Allen's piece in the Morning News appears to have tongue firmly planted in cheek, there's something intriguing about its thesis: that there is a "golden mean" of pop songs, and it's exactly two minutes and 42 seconds. As proof, he presents us with multiple unassailably great songs that clock in right around the two-and-three-quarter-minute mark: The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry," Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," The Beach Boys "God Only Knows," Prince's "I Would Die 4 U." Fine tunes all, and, as he puts it, they're "100 percent fat-free," with their brief running time forcing them to get right to the point. But does the 3-minute length zone really have a monopoly—or even a plurality—of great pop songs?

While there are lots of toweringly great 10-minute-plus tracks (Sonic Youth's "The Diamond Sea," Low's "Do You Know How to Waltz,") I'll concede these don't exactly fit into the mold of pop songs, with their extended sections of instrumental improvisation and feedback. But even within the accessibility restrictions of "pop," there are more, shall we say, full-flavored pleasures than the slim-and-trim pop nuggets listed above. Example #1: New Order's "Blue Monday." In its original version, this 1983 single runs 7:29, nearly three times the length of our "perfect" song, yet not a moment is wasted: it's structured so there's little repetition, and while the instrumental intro lasts over two minutes, new elements are introduced every few seconds, giving the track a sense of drama and majesty. Funny story: a boss at my old radio station once asked me to make a shorter edit for airplay, but I refused, since there's nothing that can be cut without changing—ruining!—the song's intricate progression. Yes, I am annoying to work with.

After the jump: sometimes you just gotta have that coda.

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McCain Tries To Steal the Bloody Shirt of a Civil Rights Hero

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 6:45 PM EDT

Did John McCain travel all the way to Selma, Alabama, today so he could bask in the glory of a civil rights hero with whom he has no connection and who endorsed Barack Obama? Apparently so. As I noted elsewhere:

Speaking at the site of a critical civil rights clash, McCain described in detail that turning point in America's history:
Forty-three years ago, an army of more than five hundred marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; an army that brought with them no weapons, which intended no destruction; that sought to conquer no people or land.

He went on to cite, in much detail, the heroic actions of John Lewis, who led that protest and who today is a Democratic congressman supporting Obama:

At the head of the column, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, tie and tan raincoat, marched a twenty-five year old son of Alabama sharecroppers, John Lewis. They had planned to march from Selma to Montgomery, but they knew they would never reach there.....
On the other side of the bridge, row upon row of state troopers in blue uniforms and white helmets, many on horseback, prepared to charge and stop with violence the peaceful army, intent only on conquering injustice. John Lewis took the first blow, a baton thrust to the stomach that shoved him back on the marchers behind him. He took the second blow, too, a hard swung club to his head, leaving a permanent scar where it struck. Blood poured from the wound, darkening his raincoat. He tried to struggle to his feet, and then collapsed unconscious, his skull fractured.

McCain went on to note that millions of Americans "watched brave John Lewis fall." He referred to Lewis and his comrades as "the best kind of patriots." He quoted Lewis. ("When I care about something, I'm prepared to take the long, hard road.") He cited Lewis' adherence to Martin Luther King Jr.'s concept of the "beloved community."

McCain said all this to make a political point: he would be "traveling to places in America that aren't enjoying the prosperity many other parts of America enjoy" and would be listening to those Americans. You know, he would be a compassionate conservative.

Gates Says U.S. Air Force Mired in "Old Ways of Doing Business"

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 6:32 PM EDT


The U.S Air Force was created to drop bombs and lots of them. It's a task the service has performed with great enthusiasm over the years... and the job has given way to the image of the Tom Cruise-style fighter jock—the smart-talking, glamour-boy pilot who's a pain in the butt on the ground and your best friend in the air. But just as technological advances have brought into question the usefulness of manned space exploration, the fighter jock is quickly being supplanted by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can track and destroy targets without risking the life of a human pilot, all from the comfort of an airbase in Nevada.

Perhaps sensing that its Top Gun image stands to suffer from new technologies, the Air Force has continued to invest heavily in big-ticket, Cold War-era defense systems like the F-22 Stealth Fighter, an amazing machine to be sure, but one that is, shall we say, of limited use in a war against IED-planting insurgents.

Now the Air Force's continued insistence on expensive, pilot-operated planes is under new scrutiny. In a speech today at the Air Force's Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates (himself a former Air Force officer), offered some plain talk on what he expects from the service in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, namely more emphasis on UAVs.

Excerpts from Gates' speech, as reported by the Associated Press:

In my view we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt. My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield...

Regarding the slowness to deploy UAVs to the battlefield:

People were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth... All this may require rethinking long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots and which do not. I'm asking you to be part of the solution and part of the future.

Consider the gauntlet thrown down.

African Longshoremen Unite Against Zimbabwe-Bound Arms Shipment

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 3:15 PM EDT


Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission is now in the process of recounting ballots from last month's presidential election in which the long-time strongman Robert Mugabe appears to have lost out to opposition parties, including the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Mugabe's primary political nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai.

As the recount continues, there are reports that Mugabe's party, ZANU-PF, could be preparing for a crackdown. Human Rights Watch last week accused the regime of establishing "detention centers" in remote areas, allegedly to be "used as torture camps to punish rural voters for supporting the MDC." Reports today suggest that Zimbabwe's hospitals are quickly filling with victims of political violence.

Meanwhile, there's another ominous sign of trouble ahead—a cargo ship loaded with weapons and ammunition from China, bound for Zimbabwe. According to reports in the South African press, the vessel, called the An Yue Jiang, carries three million AK-47 rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortar shells. It was due to arrive in the South African port of Durban last week, but when word of the ship's cargo reached shore, dockworkers refused to unload it. The dispute was referred to a judge, who upheld the dockworkers claim that the weapons, once transported to Zimbabwe, could contribute to "internal repression or suppression of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

A Tale of Clintonian Spin: Trying to Blow Past the Weathermen Question

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 1:30 PM EDT

All campaigns spin. All candidates spin. But there is something about Clintonian spin that is...well, spinnier than conventional spin.

Here's an example. Last Thursday, following the mis-moderated Clinton-Obama debate of the previous evening, the Hillary Clinton campaign decided to follow up by blasting Barack Obama on two issues that had been tossed at him the previous evening: his past support of a handgun ban and his connection to William Ayers, a former Weather Underground radical who has become a distinguished professor and education expert. During a conference call that morning, Howard Wolfson and Phil Singer, two senior Clinton aides, hammered Obama for having held a fundraiser in 1995, during his first campaign for state senator, in Ayers' apartment. At the time, Ayers, who has admitted taking part in bombings during the 1970s (which never caused any loss of life) and who was never arrested for any of his radical actions, lived near Obama, and the two served on the board of a nonprofit that provided grants to groups working on poverty issues. Obama, Wolfson insisted, had "to be more forthcoming" about Ayers.

During that conference call, I asked Wolfson whether Senator Clinton supported the pardon Bill Clinton issued in 2001 to two Weather Underground radicals: Linda Evans, who was sentenced to prison for participating in a series of bombings in the 1980s, and Susan Rosenberg, who was charged with being part of a bank robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead. Whether or not the Ayers matter was a non-issue, if Hillary Clinton's aides were going to bash Obama for having once had a connection to a former radical who had never been arrested, it seemed fair to wonder if she had opposed her husband's pardons of two radicals who had served time for their crimes.

U.S. Army, Marines: Recruiting The Best And The Brightest?

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 1:04 PM EDT


Both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have complained that the pace of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuous deployments and the limited rest time in between them, has sapped overall readiness by wearing out equipment and restricting the time available for retraining. The heightened wartime risk of injury or death has also had an impact—causing many potential recruits to think twice before signing on the dotted line. Recruiting problems have especially come to plague the Army and Marine Corps, which have borne the brunt of the fighting (and the casualties) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The solution, as has been reported, has been for the service branches to lower their standards by granting "personnel conduct waivers" to recruits who in prior years would have been turned away.

According to the Army Times, waivers granted to new recruits for things like misdemeanor or felony charges have grown 11 percent since 2004. (Recruiters, it should be noted, are still instructed to reject recruits with criminal histories involving sex crimes or substance abuse.) A bewildering truth about the practice of granting conduct waivers is that recruits receiving them typically perform better and are promoted faster than their peers. This, however, has not alleviated concerns on Capitol Hill, where Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, plans to hold a hearing May 22 to look into the matter.

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Throwing Clinton Under the Bus To Spite Mom

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 12:51 PM EDT

In Slate, the indispensable Linda Hirshman tackles feminism's latest head scratcher: Young women rejecting 'embarrassing, old school feminism' just to annoy their moms. I oversimplify, but so do young women who inherited what we mothers fought for and now want us to disappear so our girls can go wild and pole dance without feeling all guilty. Caricatures work both ways, missy.

This schism has become glaringly apparent as Clinton and Obama vie for the nomination while young women say sexism's not much of an issue anymore. The trouble started when us OG feminists surprised young chicks by pointing out that, oh, they're insane to believe that. And that their skirts are too short. It went downhill from there. Young women, like several other groups of humans, don't react well to being told they have a false consciousness. Or that their skirts are too short. In the end, the moms drove the daughters ever farther from Hillary Clinton. Hirshman offers this example:

Homeland Security Deems Illegal Immigrants Threat To Environment

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 11:31 AM EDT

Ah, isn't it great when the Bush administration starts to channel Ronald Reagan? The linguistic twists alone are so priceless, like this one, from yesterday's Washington Post. In a story about how the new anti-immigrant fence along the Mexican border is threatening endangered wildlife by disrupting migration patterns and cutting off animals from water sources, a spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security suggested that the new fence might actually improve the environment by "reducing the trash left by immigrants crossing the border." And ketchup is a vegetable...

Hillary Clinton's Small Town Feeling

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 2:51 AM EDT


MIFFLINTOWN, PA – Hillary Clinton spent a rainy Sunday afternoon in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the sort of small town that has recently been at the center of her race against Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In a mirror of the Ohio primary, in which Obama took heat for the Goolsbee/NAFTA affair right before election day, Obama has spent the week before Tuesday's Pennsylvania vote explaining his comment that in "a lot of small towns in the Midwest," people are "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion." Clinton has sought to portray Obama as out-of-touch and to portray herself of the true champion of small town values. She entered Greater Johnstown Senior High School (home of the 2007 Laurel Highlands Section 2 softball champions) to the sounds of John Mellencamp's folk rock tune "This Is Our Country." And if that wasn't on-the-nose enough for the thousand or so attendees, she exited to Mellencamp's "Small Town."

But aside from some very subtle references (Clinton said she wanted to be the president of "every city, every town, every village"), the attack de jour was elsewhere.

Governor Ed Rendell, a stalwart Clinton supporter who spoke before the Senator, tipped off the crowd when he paraphrased this statement Senator Obama made earlier in the day:

"You have a real choice in this election. Either Democrat would be better than John McCain. And all three of us would be better than George Bush."

The critique was that Obama was willing to give an inch — the Democratic talking point of the campaign is that McCain is running for a third Bush term, and saying otherwise suggests that the speaker is either soft or naïve.

Clinton used the opportunity to hammer Obama and McCain both, saying:

Happy Passover, Jimmy Carter

| Fri Apr. 18, 2008 10:10 PM EDT


The hysterical reaction in Congress to Jimmy Carter's trip to the Middle East, where he met with a Hamas leader today, is precisely the sort of thing I hope the new "pro-Israel, pro-peace" group J Street speaks out against. This week Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) said she wants to revoke Carter's passport. And Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-MI) introduced the Coordinated American Response to Extreme Radicals Act (CARTER) Act to cut all federal funding to the Carter Center at Emory University. That's the organization that pours resources into humanitarian projects like eradicating the Guinea worm parasite in Africa and was lauded in Carter's 2002 Nobel Peace Prize citation.

New York Democratic representative Gary Ackerman came out against the CARTER Act, but, in the process, managed to be just as petty and juvenile as his Republican colleagues. As the New York Sun reported today:

"The man is entitled his idiotic, moronic, nonsensical, anti-commonsensical, foolish opinions. And all that being said, he is still entitled to have them. I don't think we should be cutting off funding for any ex presidents to do things. We didn't cut off Richard Nixon," he said. Mr. Ackerman added that if Mr. Carter came to his home for the Passover Seder, he would ask him to read the part of the simple son, the boy who does not know enough to even ask a question about the story of the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt.

Shouldn't the Democratic leadership be bothered by this kind of rhetoric directed against a former president of their own party? More important, would Ackerman slap his offensive "simple son" label on Colin Powell or Brent Scowcroft or Zbigniew Brzezinski or Lee Hamilton or Shlomo Ben-Ami, all of whom have called for engagement with Hamas. And what about the 64 percent of actual Israelis who favor direct talks with Hamas?

—Justin Elliott