Track-by-Track “Tell Me a Story”

This track gets a tiny bit political — or at least takes a look at some concerns I have about the way we, as a culture, discuss weighty issues. Essentially, “Tell Me a Story” is about the vapid nature of the infotainment that passes for news in our world.

“We play this game, you and I: We hit the gas and close our eyes” is meant to suggest that, on the whole, we tend to act before we think and without regard to consequence. The next lines, “We roll through fire, we roll through flood, we roll past sad men gunning for blood” is, sadly, a line I wrote a few years ago but which continues to be increasingly relevant.

The first part of the chorus, “Tell me a story, sing me a song, tell me it’s okay, tell me I’m wrong,” is directed at two groups: the media and politicians. I feel like both of these groups are, to some extent, responsible for selling us a comfortable myth. Essentially, their job is to tell us that everything is fine when our senses tell us that it’s not.

The second half of the chorus builds on that theme and gives way to the suspicions many of us have even as the evening news assures us that the next day will be bigger and brighter: “Tell me a story, sing me to sleep, I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.”

The second verse builds on the imagery of driving, but this time around “we” aren’t in the driver’s seat any more. Rather, “We go along for the ride. We barely blink when our worlds collide.” These lines speak to our relationship with news media in particular. While there are certainly some news stories that can bring a tear to my eye, I see so many tragedies on the news so often that I’ve begun to become desensitized to them.

Watching the news feels like being shuttled somewhere in a limousine and passing scenes of destruction everywhere we turn. And there’s nothing we can do about it beyond shaking our heads, shuddering and heaving, while other people who don’t have the option of watching all of these events unfold from a safe distance literally struggle to breathe.

Lest anyone think that I’m pinning the blame for the sorry state of the world solely on the media, the last verse turns the situation around and puts some of the responsibility for the way things are on our shoulders as well — i.e., the audience who keeps the 24-hour news industry in business: “We built this world, you and I. We saw it coming and let it slide.”

In the last two lines, I’m thinking specifically of Alec Baldwin’s depiction of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, but also more generally about how we engage in many of our discussions about politics from a cynical distance, as if everything is a joke: “We went for punchlines. We took the bait. We laughed as mad-men turned up the hate.”

I’m definitely speaking from my own perspective here, but my own tendency is always to poke fun at things. If my recollection of a certain MASH episode is accurate, Sigmund Freud once said that anger turned sideways is humor, so this instinct is only natural, but is it productive? Are there better ways to address the ills of society?

Clearly there are, and a lot of people are engaging these ills in productive ways. For the rest of us, though, (by which I mean people like me) this song is meant as a call to question our collective media diet and think about new ways to engage with the world.

In terms of music, I tried to make the serious message of the song a little more palatable by couching it in an arrangement reminiscent of Burt Bacharach. I also think of this track as fitting into the larger premise of the album in that it explains, to some extent, where all of the people went — and why the world is not only populated by answering machines. And the last flourish of trumpets is meant to sound like a circus. Or, if you prefer, a media circus.

Tell Me a Story

We play this game, you and I.
We hit the gas and close our eyes.
We roll through fire. We roll through flood.
We roll past sad men gunning for blood.
Tell me a story. Sing me a song.
Tell me it’s okay. Tell me I’m wrong.
Tell me a story. Sing me to sleep.
I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.

We go along for the ride
We barely blink when our worlds collide.
We shake our heads, shudder and heave
While other people struggle to breathe.
Tell me a story. Sing me a song.
Tell me it’s okay. Tell me I’m wrong.
Tell me a story. Sing me to sleep.
I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.

We built this world, you and I
We saw it coming and let it slide
We went for punchlines. We took the bait.
We laughed as madmen turned up the hate.
Tell me a story. Sing me a song.
Tell me it’s okay. Tell me I’m wrong.
Tell me a story. Sing me to sleep.
I’ve got a feeling we’re in too deep.

Everybody Should Be Reading Philip K. Dick All The Time

thepenultimatetruth1sted-1When Kellyanne Conway introduced the world to the concept of alternative facts back in January, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed. Right about now, though, I imagine everyone who bought a copy of 1984 might be finishing up and looking for something new to read. My suggestion is anything and everything by Philip K. Dick. A little while ago, I wrote about The Man in the High Castle, and like that novel, the vast majority of Dick’s novels are about worlds in which everybody’s sense of reality is based on stories, myths, and lies. Not to put to fine a point on it, but one of his books is actually called Lies, Inc.

Of course, there are loads of PKD (that’s what the hip kids call him) novels. In 1964 alone, he published five novels, and one of them, The Penultimate Truth, is a great place to start. It depicts a world in which the vast majority of people live in underground “ant tanks” because they believe that Earth’s surface is completely uninhabitable. They believe this because they’re fed a media diet of lies by the tiny minority (the top 1%, perhaps?) of people who live on the surface. Even the apparent ruler of the free world, Talbot Yancy, is himself a lie — or, more accurately, a simulacrum of a human being, an electronic puppet whose strings are pulled by the so-called “Yance-Men” who write his speeches and control his public image.

While it’s certainly tempting to draw parallels between Yancy and the current President of the United States, I won’t go there (though, technically, I just did). What I consider the truly interesting parallel between The Penultimate Truth and the world we’re living in today is the role that the media plays in shaping our understanding of the world.

In particular, the media has woven a narrative in which the world is a scary place. This narrative has been in place for decades. It’s reflected in the twin broadcast news rules stating that “if it bleeds, it leads” and “if it burns, it earns.” In other words, to boost ratings, TV news outlets have traditionally spiced up their broadcasts with news of violence and impending doom — so much so that most viewers of TV news believe that the world is a much more dangerous place than it actually is. The result is a world where people are afraid to leave their homes for fear of being mugged or molested by strangers, gunned down by madmen, or blown up by terrorists.

It’s important to note that the current POTUS didn’t invent the “scary world” narrative, but he has definitely and expertly used it to his advantage. His campaign hinged almost entirely on scary stories about terrorists and so-called “bad hombres” making the world — and America in particular — a scary place. Needless to say, that rhetoric hasn’t ceased. To hear him speak, you’d think the world was under attack all the time. And people tend to believe it because it’s in line with the story that the news media has been feeding to us forever.

Of course, the POTUS has upped the ante by employing “alternative facts.” Such facts range from embellishing on the number of people who attended his inauguration to fabricating terrorist attacks both at home and abroad that never occurred. He has also ingeniously pinned the guilt of lying on media outlets that are actually telling the truth while simultaneously endorsing conspiracy theorists who support the fictions he is trying palm off on the American people.

The intended result of all of this is presumably a world much like that depicted in The Penultimate Truth — that is, a world where everybody relies on a media that presents alternative facts for information about the world in which they live, a world in which people are terrified to step outside of their homes, let alone travel abroad, to see what the world is really like.

Without spoiling the ending for anyone, I’ll conclude by drawing parallels between the Penultimate Truth, the world of alternative facts, and Plato’s allegory of the cave. In his allegory, Plato depicts a world in which people who have lived in a cave throughout their lives imagine the cave (and a parade of shadows that dances across its walls) to be the only reality that exists. When one of the cave dwellers leaves the cave, that individual is struck by a series of increasingly startling revelations: the shadows aren’t reality, there’s more to life than the cave, and the world outside of the cave is so bright as to be blinding (but try telling any of that to the people who have never left the cave).

All of this essentially plays out to one degree or another in The Penultimate Truth, and it’s also strikingly similar to the world in which we find ourselves today. To learn the truth about their world, the characters in PKD’s novel need to leave their ant tanks and ascend to the planet’s surface above. To figure out that the people the current administration wants us to fear are in the vast majority of instances just like ourselves in all the ways that matter, we need to venture out — outside of our locked doors, beyond our tiny lives, beyond our closed circles, and beyond our nation’s borders.

In short, we need to confront the shadowy world of alternative facts with the light of truth. As PKD’s novels suggest, it isn’t always easy (and the path can be rife with danger), but it can be done. We just need to look away from our screens in order to do it.

Donald Trump and Kurt Vonnegut’s Man in the Hole Narrative

If you’re at all like me, you spent a good hour or so yesterday trying to follow Donald Trump’s rambling press conference. While we can certainly debate the merits or lack thereof of his arguments against the media and his own assessment of his first month in office, one thing that struck me as I was listening to him was that for all of the tangents he took, President Trump essentially stuck to one of the classic narratives or story-shapes that Kurt Vonnegut describes in his essay collection A Man Without a Country. That story-shape is the “Man in the Hole” narrative, and Vonnegut charted it on a graph like this:

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-7-28-21-am

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Man in The Hole” narrative from A Man Without a Country.

This diagram illustrates what Vonnegut saw as one of the essential shapes a story can take. In this instance, the X-axis is time, and the Y-axis represents fortune. The way the story works is that things are going along okay for someone, but then bad fortune strikes (e.g., falling into a hole), but through trials and tribulations, the man gets out of the hole, and everything not only returns to normal but is actually better than it was before.

We see this story-shape all the time — especially in movie trailers. For example, how many movie trailers have you seen that begin with something like “It was just another day for Steve Jenkins…” and then go on to describe the rug being pulled out from under the hero only for the hero to fight his way to victory? The reason so many stories share this shape is that it’s one we understand. We’ve heard it so many times that we don’t have to think about it. And because we’re so used to it, it’s a story that’s very easy for us to digest.

The genius of Trump’s press conference is that whenever he returned to his notes, he came back to this very story-shape. Everything was going fine for him–great, in fact! He’d just had an amazing inauguration in which, according to him, the clouds parted and the rain stopped while he was being sworn in. But then he fell into a hole–in this case, the mess he claims to have inherited upon taking over as President of the United States. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then embarked on a series of trials and tribulations: according to Trump, the press was creating fake news, leakers were leaking classified information, and the confluence of the two forced him to let his National Security Advisor go…

But then there was the payoff. Starting next week, he promised, things are going to be great (again). He’s going to roll out some new plans that will change everyone’s lives. Sure, the press will still continue to hound him and give him a hard time, but the American people will see through their lies and very quickly begin to reap the benefits of Trump’s new plan.

It’s a good story, one whose basic mechanics have been tested time and again in books and movies and deftly illustrated in Vonnegut’s chart. What’s more, whether one believes the story is almost beside the point. What matters for Trump is that he’s fitting into a narrative that we understand–the narrative of the everyday man who falls upon bad fortune but emerges a hero.

What could be more American than that?