Many, many writers and journalists have documented what a shit show our president has made of managing the coronavirus in America. President Trump recommended that all Americans wear masks, then he refused to do so himself. He said that no one could have seen how bad the pandemic would be for our country, even though one of his trusted economic advisors wrote about it in a January 29 memo. The president either ignored or didn't bother to read what Peter Navarro laid out. Trump isn't much of a reader.
Next, he said that governors will make decisions about when it's safe for their states to reopen (despite falsely asserting that he had "total authority" on the matter), only to undercut state-level decisions with reckless tweets that produced scenes like this, captured by Alyson McLaran:
This unnamed tank-man of the #pandemic silently obstructed the path of "patriots" protesting Colorado's stay-at-home order. It is fitting that a healthcare worker would be a metaphorical mask, blocking the spread of fear and anger unleashed by our president's petulance. The only thing that's obvious about the way Trump "leads" in this time of crisis is how he can't seem keep his thumbs from contradicting what his mouth says just days earlier ("follow the guidelines." "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!"). We need clarity from our president. We get confusion instead. Hence...
"BALL OF CONFUSION" - LOVE & ROCKETS
"Vote for me and I'll set you free..." - Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong
"Ball of Confusion (That's What the World is Today)" was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. They were part of the Motown Records hit factory that made sure the Model-T Ford wasn't the last thing made in Detroit that profoundly shaped American culture. Their song was recorded and released by the Temptations in 1970, reaching number three on the Billboard charts that June. Since then, the song has been covered, to varying degrees of success, by Tina Turner, Leon Bridges, and Duran Duran. As truly great as the original version is (how can you not like the backing track laid down by the Funk Brothers) it's the steely, slightly faster version recorded by Love & Rockets in 1985 that resonates with me these days.
Even though it's part of my COVID-19 Soundtrack, "Ball of Confusion" was, like me, born during the Nixon years. Until January 20, 2017 Richard Nixon was arguably the worst American President of the modern era, but Tricky Dick has nothing on the very stable genius running our nation off the rails right now. If you need an example of leadership during a time of crisis, look no further than this exchange President Trump had with Peter Alexander, the White House correspondent for NBC News back on March 20th:
Alexander: What do you say to Americans, who are watching you right now, who are scared?
President Trump: Peter, I say (looks directly into the camera), my fellow Americans, it's okay to be scared. These are scary times, and we're facing a tremendous threat, a tremendous threat unlike we've ever seen (pauses to look at notes). The coronavirus doesn't hide behind a flag. It doesn't attack using weapons. Guns. It doesn't use planes. Instead, it takes the hands we use to hold our loved ones, and the mouths we use to say "I love you" and it makes them dangerous. Deadly. So you can be afraid, but you need to be strong, too. America has the best people. The best people. People who know how to stand up to fear. We did it in World War II. We did it on 9/11. I was there at Ground Zero, as you know, and I saw it. And we're going to do it in the days, weeks, and months, I can tell you. I can promise you, my fellow Americans, that my administration is going to throw everything we have at the coronavirus, and with your help, we're going to win. So stay home, stay safe, and stay strong.
Here's how that exchange really went down:
Alexander: What do you say to Americans, who are watching you right now, who are scared?
President Trump: I say you're a terrible reporter. That's what I say.
It says a lot about Trump's leadership that a high school special education teacher could come up with a better answer to Alexander's question, especially since it was tailor-made for making one seem presidential. The man who once claimed to have the best words couldn't muster anything worth saying to the country. Instead he attacked a reporter for asking a perfectly valid and appropriate question.
In fairness, President Trump then added that the American people needed answers and they needed hope, but these are two things he has been unable to adequately supply despite his daily attempts to do so. The president's answers are usually lies ("Anybody that wants a test can get a test"), and his idea of hope is pushing an unproven drug he has a small financial stake in. His briefings often raise more fear than hope, particularly when the Drs. Fauci or Birx aren't present. In fact, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 35% of Americans surveyed trust the president on the coronavirus. Conversely, the same poll found that 66% of the respondents trusted their own governor, despite decisions like this coming out of Florida.
I'm with those 66%. I avoid the president's briefings, and instead I rely on my state and local officials for answers, for hope. I schedule my daily routine around Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker's coronavirus updates. Baker has been steady to the point of stoic, yet when he does show emotion, it's in a way that reaches to the heart of what many of us are feeling in world where people have to say goodbye to dying loved ones over FaceTime. I also welcome the recorded messages from Beverly Mayor Mike Cahill, whose sensible response to the virus has made international news. Mayor Cahill always starts this messages with "Hi friends," and before he gets to reminding us about social distancing and wearing masks, he asks us to think of our neighbors who are sick, and to say prayers for the families of those who have passed. These leaders aren't perfect, but their leadership is more reliable, even in its imperfection, than the flailing indignation in the face of failure we get from President Trump.
I get that people are scared, even those (maybe especially those) who are protesting stay at home orders. I'm scared, too. But we can't be willing to put lives at risk today simply because death is inevitable some time in the future. Whitfield and Strong acknowledged in their "Ball of Confusion" that there were people interested in learning and "talkin' 'bout love thy brother" and we have people like that in our confusing world, too. Instead of demanding the right to play golf and get haircuts, the people protesting stay at home orders should unfollow Trump and start listening to those Colorado healthcare workers, and the thousands of others like them, who have asked us to stay home so that some people infected with the virus don't have to die today. There is nothing confusing about their daily heroism, and the quiet leadership that drives it.
You can download "Thank You" by Thomas Wimberly, along with other artwork donated by artists dedicated to the fight against COVID-19 at Amplifier.org.
The coronavirus is not the first pandemic of the Twitter age, but it will be the most remembered. Even though almost 12,500 Americans lost their lives to H1N1 during the Spring of 2009, March was still mad. Kobe was still alive and winning championships. Baba-Booey was still throwing out horrible first pitches. America, for the most part, stayed open. Today H1N1 is mostly a stick pundits use to measure both our government's reaction to the coronavirus and the media's coverage of that reaction. H1N1 and Twitter shared time together on the planet (still do), but COVID-19 is the first #pandemic. It will take years for us to come to terms with the swiftness with which it blew through our houses and slammed our doors shut.
Even though we've been forced to retreat behind closed doors and makeshift masks we are, in some ways, more connected in the face of COVID-19 than we've ever been. Because of Zoom, my wife currently spends more time with some of her co-workers than she did when they shared the same building. Even though venues are closed, concerts are common because social distancing doesn't apply to social media. Until an equally potent virus infects our devices, the way we cope with and relate to this new kind of isolation is something we can share and others can consume, which brings me to the next song on my COVID-19 soundtrack:
"ISOLATION" - JOHN LENNON
"People say we got it made. Don't they know we're so afraid?"
John Lennon made and released "Isolation" during a time of great personal and professional upheaval. It's the fifth track on his first official solo record, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a starkly raw record that was a sharp left-turn away from the gloss and polish of The Beatles (despite their attempt to get back to basics with Let it Be). With each song, Lennon gives the audience a glimpse into what it's like to simultaneously quit drugs and The Beatles cold turkey. He sonically and lyrically lays his grief bare on "Mother" and wonders, now that he's stepped away from being a Beatle, "who am I supposed to be?" on "Look at Me."
This album is a good example of the dichotomy of celebrity. For Lennon, and probably for most famous people, fame and popularity can make you feel alone in a way that seems inconsistent and out of place when there's a version of you plastered here, there, and everywhere (thanks, Paul). At the height of Beatlemania, John, Paul, George, and Ringo found solace in one another's company by hanging out in their hotel room bathroom because that was the only place where they could be themselves on their own terms. Celebrities become wealthy by producing a version of themselves for our consumption. In that trade-off, they get trapped by the expectations that come from being who we think they are. For fans, it's easy to forget that there is an actual, feeling human being behind the pictures in the TMZ stories. With "Isolation" Lennon presents that humanity like an open wound.
Since the world cocooned, many of us have been contending with who we are. We go through familiar routines that, despite their sameness, are different from what we're used to. Shopping remains a necessary pastime. We have to eat and have toilet paper. Lots, and lots of toilet paper. Other constants aren't required, but not surprising in their constancy, like our obsession with celebrity. Almost 40 years after Lennon died, the world is still enamored with the concept that he helped create, came to hate, and was ultimately murdered by. We still consume the famous, even under quarantine. Want proof? For a lot of us, the threat of the coronavirus didn't become real until Tom Hanks -- America's Dad -- got it (you can check out his wife's quarantine playlist here). But we still want celebrity on our terms, which was never fair, perhaps even less so now. For example, BuzzFeed wants you to know that celebrities are pandemic shopping just like the rest of us. There's even pictures of Miley in a mask! Yet, that same media outlet laments that celebrity nonsense is at an all-time high, while The Nation explains how the coronavirus reveals that the stars are not like us (perhaps not even Forest Gump).
I disagree with The Nation's headline. Stars are like us, they just don't live like us. Yet it's as if there's a certain degree of worry, fear, suffering, and foolishness that isn't allowed celebrities, even though their world -- which admittedly is drastically different from ours -- has changed just as much. Vanessa Hudgens saying, “Yeah, people are gonna die. which is terrible. But like, inevitable” on Instagram is similar to Glen Menard Nordal saying "None if us are getting out of this world alive...virus or no virus....it's fear mongering at its best" on Facebook. The only difference is Hudgens has 38.8 million followers on Instagram and Nordal has 32 followers on Facebook. Not 32 thousand. Just 32. Insensitivity is another constant... virus or no virus.
Our continued consumption of celebrity quarantine culture is hypocritical and unfair. Even as we deny the rich and famous the right to fear and frustration, we still expect them to assuage ours. Hudgens was forgiven for her coronavirus faux pas as soon as it was announced that she would be participating in a High School Musical cast reunion singalong (add "We're All in this Together" to your quarantine playlist). Our how could they! during quarantine incredulousness moved onto Justin Timberlake and his public frustration with the demands of 24-hour parenting, even though social media was filled with things like this from "normal" people, once quarantine closed schools and remote learning ensued:
Neither of these pictures look like they were taken on a Montana ranch. I don't know Cara Biddings but her Twitter profile says she lives in Maine, and she seems nice. Yet, I see the same thread running through her and Timberlake's comments. They're both just humans. Victims of the insane situation we all are in.
Two years before "Isolation" was released, Lennon shouted "I'm lonely! Want to die!" on "Yer Blues." I'm definitely not there, but I am adapting to a new sort of loneliness. I'm thankful for my wife and my pups. I appreciate the virtual connectedness I have with others, but it is a pale substitute for the physical, human interactions I didn't know I'd miss until they were gone, like Thursday night trivia at my local dive bar. I want to stand outside my classroom between bells again, share the Jeopardy Clue of the Day with my colleagues, and joke with my students. The free and easy exchanges of "please" and "thank you" that occurred in restaurants and shops are either gone or given a new and tangible weight in today's circumstances, where buying groceries can be deadly.
When this is all over, I'd love to spend time in the Grenadines on David Geffen's 400 million dollar superyacht. But I wouldn't want to be stuck on it while the rest of my life was put on hold. For now, all of us still shop, celebrities in nicer stores, with a new distance that can't be measured in arm-lengths. The situation, not the setting, is what makes "Isolation" so heavy.
Music has always been a source of joy and strength. I even dedicated an issue of PC to the topic, and I have written a lot of things rooted in or inspired by music or musicians. So when it became clear about a month ago that I would be working from home as a result of the coronavirus I made a playlist. It reflected my thinking at the time -- this will pass, and probably quickly. I didn't choose the songs because I was looking for any deep or sustaining meaning in the face of an indefinable threat because I didn't know how serious the threat was then. I chose songs because choosing gave me an excuse to group together an hour or so's worth of music I liked that was tangentially related to a topic I didn't.
I had "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police, which is about social distancing, but not the kind we're tasked with now. "Fever" by Peggy Lee made the cut, as did "You Sound Like You're Sick" by the Ramones. There was "Cough Syrup" by Young the Giant, and "Can't Feel My Face" by the Weeknd. "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" by the Georgia Satellites was suggested by my wife, and I started things off with "Time to Get Ill" by the Beastie Boys. When it was all done, my playlist looked a lot like others I would see on social media as people sought not to minimize the virus, but to make it manageable; approachable even, until it blew over.
As much as I like to use music and humor as masks to diffuse and deflect, it became clear to me after a week in lock down that many of the songs I had chosen weren't appropriate given the gravity of the situation. I still believe we need music and humor, most especially in times like these. But as it became more and more evident that a lot of people were going to get sick, maybe even ones I cared about, having a song from the same album as "Fight for Your Right" -- especially when spring breakers were ignoring social distancing recommendations in the name of partying while people in New Rochelle were virtually walled in -- didn't seem appropriate at all.
That doesn't mean the virus killed music for me. It's just that other songs that seemed like a better fit for what was happening began playing in my head. These songs don't have anything to do with the coronavirus, or illness of any kind as far as I know, and only one is from the list I made BCE (before corona exploded). They are not the end of a playlist, but the beginning of a soundtrack.
In movies, songs can be allusions designed to tune the viewer into a specific frequency. How else do you explain why Quentin Tarantino used "Cat People," a song David Bowie recorded in 1982, during a pivotal scene in Inglourious Basterds, a movie set during World War II? They can reinforce the importance of an action or event the way "Bellbottoms" by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion does at the beginning of Edgar Wright's Baby Driver. On film, songs often accent or expand on a scene's emotional heft, be it joy, sadness, fear, or excitement. We seem to be living in a movie, though what kind remains to be seen.
My COVID-19 soundtrack is made up of songs that, when I hear them after all of this is over, will be linked to this moment when the world cocooned. I'll be presenting them in a series of posts, in no particular order, starting with...
"DOLPHINS" - AZTEC CAMERA
"I've been a'searching for the dolphins in the sea..." - Fred Neil
I could have included "The Waiting" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in this soundtrack because for me these days have been a long, slow exercise in standing by and biding time. My fight-or-flight button has not been pushed. My adrenal glands have kept my catecholamines in check. Instead I wait for information and news and I hope it's not bad. Are the numbers going down, or at the very least, holding steady? What stupidly confusing thing did the president say at today's briefing? Can I go back to work soon? Is everyone safe? These days I burn for hope.
So when news reports from sources like The Guardian and the London Evening Standard began reporting that dolphins were returning to Venetian canals two things happened: I shared the story, and I listened to this song. Originally released by folk singer Fred Neil in 1967, "Dolphins" has been recorded by Tim Buckley, Linda Rondstadt, and even the Black Crowes. I first came to know it via this live version released by Roddy Frame in 1991, and it's my favorite of all the versions I've heard. It's a song about the potential of having your faith in the world restored by nature, by the sight of dolphins gliding through the sea. It's about the possibility that maybe on the other side of that lonely ocean there's someone on a shore thinking about you.
The idea that dolphins would be knifing through clear waters that were just weeks ago choked by commerce and cruise ships made something in me breach. It was a silver shimmer of movement across the dark seas we've been drifting on. But it wasn't true.
Andrew O'Hehir, writing for Salon, explained how "one of the most widely repeated silver-lining stories of the global coronavirus pandemic turns out to be -- not fake exactly, but partly mythical, the result of a single tweet, drawn from fragments of disconnected evidence, that went around the world at lightning speed and launched dozens of thinly-sourced articles." It was an old fashioned game of telephone in the midst of a very modern #pandemic. Short of just debunking the story, O'Hehir went on to identify why it resonated and spread so quickly prior to being properly fact checked: because we needed it to.
Right now waiting isn't enough, especially since that's essentially what we've been asked to do. So we use the power of story to create fact from fiction and we call it hope. We celebrate and share reports of dolphins and drunken elephants that, in the end, turn out to be less than accurate. Why? Because our need to search can carry us when our legs can't (or when they shouldn't, as is the case for those of us being told to stay home). Anyone who has ever looked for Santa as a kid knows just how tangible the things we hope for but never see can be.
Roddy Frame said that "Dolphins" was a song about human nature, and that at least is true. Everyday during this pandemic people are going on fruitless searches and facing down false hopes ("It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine”). That doesn't mean we should give up on what's possible, and that's why "Dolphins" resonates with me. Searching is sustainable. It's one thing we can do when we can't do anything else. Even if there are no dolphins currently swimming in the Canale Grande, the waters are clearer than they've been in a long time. That makes looking easier.