Culture & Criticism

Check it out here or read it below. At the bottom I’ve also included two paragraphs that help contextualize/give more background on the evolutionary logic. Enjoy!

The men featured are young. Most are white. Many have tousled hair, a couple sport grizzly beards, and a few are tattooed. As a rule, the men are good-looking. Their cheekbones would make Derek Zoolander proud, but the models are not sitting for their “Blue Steel” close-ups. They are all posing for their mug shots. They are all under arrest.

The existence of—recently featured on BuzzFeed as “13 Mugshots of the Hottest Guys Ever Arrested“—undermines the popular notion that criminals are usually unfortunate-looking. When browsing the website’s thumbnails, one is struck by a pattern, not of warty asymmetry, but of strong chins.

Scientists have tried to decipher why that pattern exists—to unlock the evolutionary meaning of face shape. Their research suggests “roguish good looks” are actually a cluster of physical characteristics, from wider faces to longer ring fingers.

Undergirding all of this is the influence of testosterone. Facial width and finger ratio have been proposed as proxies for testosterone levels, and both have been used predict to antisocial behaviors ranging from cheating in games to verbal and physical aggression—just the kind of mischief that landed our Tumblr sweethearts a late-night date with the sheriff.

Being hot and busted, then, goes hand-in-hand with masculinity. But why might good looks be packaged with a nasty temper?

A sample of faces on Hot & Busted (

Evolutionary theorists know that costs (in this instance, anti-social behavior) can obscure hidden benefits. Women prefer men with faces that are more masculine—i.e., more testosterone-inflected—than average, at least for sexual relationships. If these are the same men that are so prone to troublemaking, why would they be worth the worry—why are women attracted to them at all?

Some scientists believe that, like a peacock’s tail, more masculine faces signal underlying genetic strength. Presumably, these strong men are better able to get what they want—food, women, status—through aggression. Direct confrontation was historically a winning strategy, triggering coevolution of a psychological makeup that encouraged confrontation. Today we rely on social institutions to resolve conflict, but aggression continues to accompany masculinity.

Genes are famously selfish; evolution acts at the level of the gene, not the group. All things equal, anti-social traits will persist so long as they provide their owners a reproductive advantage. Consider not just the bedroom but also theboardroom, where dominant, masculine physical characteristics are still privileged over merit.

We can even relate the results of the 2004 U.S. presidential election in part to face shape. Voters prefer leaders with more masculine features during times of belligerence. With the Iraq War freshly launched, citizens weren’t about to hand control over to John Kerry and his longer, more cerebral face.

Should voting guides include facial breakdowns so that citizens can recognize their own biases? Perhaps, but the affinity for manly faces is built-in for both sexes, so the theoretical voter’s guide would also have to mention that hostile world leaders might be more likely to capitulate to dominant-faced presidents. A threat delivered by Sly Stallone seems—and probably is—more credible than one from Steve Carrell.

Returning to our rowdy heartthrobs—will the NYPD start profiling based on face-width instead of race? Perhaps the police could station female officers at street corners to frisk approaching hot dudes? Luckily, we will probably avoid this porny dystopia. No scientist would testify on behalf of such a program because biology does not equal destiny. Inclination is not action. Genes are neither a promise of reproductive success nor a guarantor of bad behavior. Masculinity may be carried into the present by genetic inertia, but its merit—like any evolved trait—is mediated by our choices, and by the world around us.


Omitted paragraphs on dual reproductive strategy–maybe the basis for a separate article!

[Knavery aside, masculine sires still promises better genes for their offspring. Note the word choice: sire, not partner. The ideal reproductive strategy for human women (romantics, avert your eyes) suggests that the sire—the biological father—might best be a different male than the woman’s life partner. Evolution, like capitalism, knows the benefits of specialization. Women maximize their fitness by ensuring that their offspring survive and procreate. Survival requires both good genes and good parenting. However, the men with the best genes are not necessarily the best fathers; because they are so desirable, they tend towards promiscuity (doing so maximizes their own fitness), meaning their attention and resources are divided amongst many partners. Moreover,there’s still that whole “aggression” thing to deal with. The point is, there are other men out there better suited to raise the children. But the best outcome is offspring fathered by a masculine, genetically strong sire, then reared by an appropriate partner.

To accommodate the two-pronged nature of this strategy, women’s tastes change every month with their cycle. The preference for masculinity—for signals of underlying genetic quality—is heightened during ovulation, the moment of peak fertility, and moderated throughout the rest of the cycle, when preferences tip towards non-genetic factors.]


I have just finished writing this. Not all numbers have been 10000% fact-checked, but I intend to go through and source everything as best as I can soon. It’s a work in progress. I may change things (that’s the whole point, anyway, is to change minds, and darn if it wouldn’t be arrogant of me to mention that my mind could change, too). Please contact me before using (for or against) so that I can make sure whatever it is I said is correct. Thanks for reading. Peace, love, unicorns. Humbly, guilelessly, sincerely, with love, etc.,


Letter to Davidson: Divestment Song

Hello. My name is Hayden Higgins. I graduated from Davidson College in 2012 and now live in Washington, D.C., where I work for the National Journal and volunteer with and DC Divest. My work with the latter recently led me to the chambers of the DC City Council, where a four-hour hearing on the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act of 2013 was being conducted. Because of my familiarity with the divestment process in D.C., and because I had some preliminary discussions about it while I was at Davidson, I feel I can shed some light on some misconceptions about divestment and explain why I feel the way I do about it. I do this humbly. I know there are others who understand parts of this much better than I. I know my insight is limited. But I owe it to the public record to explain how I’ve arrived where I am today.

Should my recent peers, the students of Davidson College, fail to pass the student referendum on fossil fuel divestment, the measure of my discontent will be great indeed.

There are three major arguments against divestment, which I will address separately. Forgive the less-than-eloquent headings.

Argument One: Divestment means decreased performance for the endowment.

Divestment from direct holdings in fossil fuel stocks will almost certainly have no material effect on Davidson College’s ability to operate at its full capacity. (I cannot speak as well to the effect of divesting from commingled funds, which are more complicated—but there is a lot of time for the conversation about how to divest from those without compromising any fiduciary duties.)

First, a backwards-looking study conducted by HBS professors Eccles, Ioannou, and Serafiem concluded that fossil-free portfolios actually outperformed those containing fossil fuels over the past fifteen years. Moreover, scholars have found stocks that historically track with fossil fuel companies; investing in those companies with that profile would mitigate the potential changes to the overall fund.

Second, it has been suggested that Davidson should invest in more fossil fuels. Au contraire, UBS analysts have suggested that fossil fuel stocks are subject to a “carbon bubble.” This bubble will burst when other analysts conclude that much of fossil fuel companies’ value lies in reserves that are not feasibly retrievable for technical, economic, and political reasons. Morals aside, exposure to further risk on this front is not advisable.

Finally, I should note that at least in DC, direct holdings in fossil fuel companies are only a small part of the fund’s total, and that even in the worst case scenario the loss would be well within the range of effects planned for and brought on by macroeconomic flux.

Argument Two: Divestment from fossil fuel companies will initiate a slippery-slope situation, and calls for more and more divestment will follow.

This is a poor argument. There are two fallacies.

First, we must remember that divestment cannot happen except through a democratic process. It necessarily reflects the popular will. More divestment will only happen if people want it to.

Second, understand that divestment is a tool that has been carefully chosen, chosen because it is suitable to the task at hand. Let me explain. Many people have suggested that it is more effective to change companies from within than from without—that, by owning shares, we can dictate the direction of a company to reflect our values. This can be a powerful tactic for effecting change, especially if you join your votes with others’ to create a bigger voting bloc in a move known as proxy voting (the numbers have to be pretty huge for this to work).

Unfortunately, shareholder activism is not the best tool for changing the harmful setup of our energy economy. That is because fossil fuel companies are basically locked-in, long-term, to a business model that is all about extracting and burning fossil fuels. Investment in a new plant, for example, takes decades to pay off. That means they can’t change their strategy for another forty or fifty years, even under pressure from shareholders. They are who they are. That means shareholder activism is out, and divestment becomes the most effective tool for signaling that the status quo will not work for us any longer.

Argument Three: Fossil fuel companies are actually good for the world.

Let me say it plainly: fossil fuels have overstayed their welcome.

It is true that oil, gas, and coal have provided the cheap and abundant energy that have powered the Industrial Revolution that lifted the living standards of billions and set the stage for the modern economy we live in today. Without these fuels a number of advances in living standards would not have been made. However, the time has come to use the surplus value generated by fossil fuels to lay the groundwork for an energy economy that will do what fossil fuels have done—heat our homes, fuel our cars, electrify our hospitals—but without the immense, immense drawbacks we have seen as a result of their overuse.

Anthropogenic climate change, as caused by greenhouse gas emissions, is something that the vast majority of scientists agree upon. The world’s best scientists have come together under the auspices of the IPCC and have repeatedly, with greater and greater insistence, urged politicians worldwide to do something to curb emissions drastically. Those pleas have fallen upon ears deafened by mounds of campaign contributions, hush money from those who would play dice with the planet and the people on it as their collateral.

That’s right—dice. We do not know what will happen. (That’s why it’s climate change or global weirding, not global warming.) Science operates by induction (ask a philosopher), and that means that we’re out on a limb when we project what the effects of climate change. It could be that nothing will really change. Or it could be the collapse of civilization, as suggested by Stanford scientist Paul Ehrlich. The WHO recently estimated that climate change presently causes about 150,000 deaths annually. (Other estimates are as high as 400,000.)

That is roughly the same number of people killed as a consequence of the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in 1945. Climate change, at its present rate, is like dropping a nuclear bomb directly on the heads of 150,000 people, once a year, for the foreseeable future.

I ask you please: what kind of math would make you comfortable with continuing down this path? What do the odds have to be to make this Russian roulette palatable for you?

Christians believe every living thing is God’s loving creation. Buddhists believe we are all connected. Even for someone whose morals come from purely material grounds—like Peter Singer, the radical utilitarian—distance from harm does not decrease the damage done. It does not matter if the ones we could save live on a small island in the Pacific that we will never see. It does not matter if the ones we could save live seven generations hence.

It matters that we have the choice, now, to try to do something about it.

You may not be convinced yet that it is given to you to right every wrong in the world, much less this one. I appeal, ye students, to that deity of the liberal arts, Immanuel Kant, the substance of whose categorical imperative runs thusly: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

A choice is an action. There are some who would choose that we remain silent as climate change accelerates. They are, by the categorical imperative, voting for a world where everyone remains silent on climate change; they are, by the categorical imperative, responsible for the consequences of that silence. If Davidson is silent, it chooses a world where all are silent. If all are silent, our present course will continue unaltered. As the Stern Report put it, that course endangers the basic building blocks of human civilization.

I will only quote one more dead white man, this time Milton, in whose epic Paradise Lost an angel commands to Adam, then enjoying the fruits of creation for the first time: “Dream not of other worlds.” What I would like for you to take out of this is that there is no other world for us; there is no Planet B. We are not in a disaster movie that we can walk out of into the sunlight: we are on our only planet, and we would risk it if only to fatten the pocketbooks of a small echelon of shareholders.

(By the way—there seems to be a thought that “global warming” is a conspiracy. Where do they meet? Is Dr. Hauser involved? Ask yourself, cui bono? I’ll tell you where the conspirators work and what their names are. They are not the underpaid postdocs in your labs. They are the companies posting record profits for every year we postpone our transition.)

Speaking of pocketbooks—make no mistake: the move away from fossil fuels encompasses a broader shift away from inequality in our society. Apparently some are saying, “We won’t be able to educate the poor if we divest from fossil fuels.” The sanctimony is astounding. Why speak of educating the poor if behind your backs you are going to fund the 1% who pollute their lungs, colonize their lands, and destroy their lives? The arrogance is astounding, too. Why would you expect the people—from the Philippines to New Orleans to New Jersey—whose lives are threatened, why would you expect to retain their admiration? If Davidson is to be on the sideline, to allow evil to run untrammeled, it no longer merits the attention of the poor scholar at all. It ceases all claim moral leadership as an operating principle.

I have encountered powerful opponents who blithely maintain the facile opinion that because divestment is largely symbolic, it is also ineffective. The book of American history defies that equation. Our country’s revolutionary movement was catalyzed by the symbolic act of tossing British tea into the Boston harbor; what is divestment if not boycott continued? Would they argue that Tommie Smith’s raised fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics was ineffective because it was symbolic? Yes, like Tommie Smith’s epochal, gloved gesture, divestment is symbolic—symbolic of the larger will, of a change that is going to come.

Martin Luther King, Jr. told us that the moral arc of human history is long, but it bends towards justice. As he well knew, it does not bend on its own, something he dedicated his life to illustrating. It takes bravery to change the course of history, a course that as of now, if left unchecked, will cause untold human misery in the name of personal convenience, political expediency, and financial greed. Change is not easy but it is our moral prerogative.

The Wallace Fund in Washington, DC recently became the largest foundation to date to have committed to full divestment of its endowment from fossil fuels. Their Executive Director, Ellen Dorsey, recently reported that they have since outperformed their pre-divestment benchmarks. It is not too late for humanity to outperform its grim projections as well. As a child, I sang, “If I had a hammer.” Now I have that hammer. We hold a vote in this election—a referendum on nothing less than the planet and the people that live on it—and I would like for us to use it. I said, “If I had a song,” and now I sing. I have a humble voice in this congregation—a group of loving, respecting, courageous peers—and I am speaking out. I urge you to do the same.

…is not very difficult. Can we get rid of the myth of white male as savior of oppressed peoples the world over? From colonial origins to its corporate, Randian manifestation today–o ye Provider of Jobs–it’s just kinda disgusting. Friends showed me the One Dollar Shave Club commercial the other day, and I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be so funny. There’s this straightfaced mock-bravura thing that is becoming the only way anyone markets to males. Probably it started with, or was popularized by, the Old Spice and Most Interesting Man commercials. But the tired shtick is adopted to poorest taste by Dollar Shave Club:

Mike the White Male CEO: “We’re not just selling razors, we’re making jobs. Alejandra, what were you doing last month?”

Alejandra: “Not working.”

Mike the White Male CEO: “What are you doing now?”

Alejandra: “Working.”

Is it possible Alejandra is a real employee? Maybe. But I can’t be the only one spotting the insidious myth of minorities as lazy–as necessarily manual labor (Alejandra works in the warehouse)–as spoken to, not speaking.


Raise your hand if you knew Wild Nothing played dance music.

* * * * *

Five p.m. yesterday and I don’t know the person to my right, my left, or right in front of me. My phone’s dead. I might sublet from this one guy, but I don’t know his last name, and by today I’ll realize I probably wrote down his number wrong.

Things I do know: Wild Nothing is playing at the Black Cat. Wild Nothing is Jack Tatum. Wild Nothing makes dreamy guitar music that’s normally pillowy enough that calling it “rock” feels like a stretch. Tatum’s melodies are as memorable as anyone’s.

Things I don’t know: where the Black Cat is; whether there are still tickets available; how much tickets cost; whether they take card; what time the show starts.

Just a rumour: Dave Grohl owns the Black Cat.

* * * * *

When I heard Wild Nothing’s Gemini several years ago, I mentally slotted their work alongside peers like Toro y Moi, Washed Out, Craft Spells, and Small Black. What was originally called “chillwave” has, with the maturation of those artists, turned out to be more of a similarity of origins than direction. With second and third albums, those artists have diverged in sound, but their beginnings remain similar: bedroom auteurs, bands with one member, whose style has more pop than rock to it. Their most prominent characteristic was the way that, as Athenas sprung from the forehead of a creative Zeus, each one occupied a shamelessly idiosyncratic headspace.

Surprise, surprise, then, to see the four mics lined up across the stage at the Black Cat. There’s no reason to think this is now a Grizzly-Bear style democracy–Tatum’s still the total author–but it’s also no longer a headphone experience. This is music to be played live, with a thick bass and backup vocals and extended synth intros. Thank god for extended synth intros.

* * * * *

The way I entered DC probably didn’t do the city any favors. I flew redeye from San Francisco in early July, arriving in the middle of a heatwave that left me smelling in ways I thought I’d left behind when I finished studying abroad in humid South India, and I almost immediately started work. For the first couple weeks I stayed close to the known territory of the Orange-Blue line I took to and from work, rarely straying from the guiding hands of my friends who knew the city better than I. In all, it was hardly a flattering way to get to know the place.

Saturday was a bit of a change from that. On my own, I wandered down the vital 14th St corridor, unsure exactly where the venue was but with enough of a head start to be sure I’d make it. With a couple friendly gestures from strangers, I found myself inside the Black Cat. It was twenty minutes and a dollar down the jukebox until I realized the show was actually upstairs, but hey. You can’t win ’em all.

The opener, UME, was a mystery to all parties questioned by yours truly before the show. From their first chords on, UME did everything in their power to dispel any mystery at all about their M.O.: hard and fast lady-led guitar rock. Straightforward they might be, but frontwoman Lauren Larson did everything she could to bend, choke, and twist every last squawk out of her various guitars. Despite a high, slight voice when speaking, Larson roars in song, and even then usually loses the fight for volume against her bandmates’ muscular playing and her own usually-screaming guitar. (The band proved adept at incorporating moments–mostly fleeting–of arpeggiated balladry, an aspect that will have to be expanded upon to give their sound appeal to those who don’t necessarily want to be relentlessly pummeled with shredding.)

It wasn’t until, as Tatum was striding onto stage and I could read his expression, that I realized that in the time since I’d shown up for the opener the big room at Black Cat had completely filled. I was, to be honest, surprised; perhaps I hadn’t been paying attention. The band’s popularity had escaped me until now. But it’s easy to see why they would hold mass appeal: the Tatum’s strength as a songwriter resides squarely in his ability to craft an earworm melody.

Live, the melodies remain as catchy as ever. The first several songs reminded me of Real Estate, who also foreground interlocking guitar parts. As the show went on, however, the bass–cut up-front and thick–began to gain prominence. Several band members implored the crowd to dance, and honestly a couple cuts could have been Bowie impressions, down to the slackly muttered lyrics and the chiming guitar parts. Tatum admittedly can’t reach back and wail like Bowie, but who can? If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that there’s too little diversity in song style and structure; most everything is mid-tempo, with the same clean sound and drawled-voice tone. Some would say that, unlike Bowie’s rubber soul, the funky parts lack roll and the indie parts lack rock.

Tatum’s made progress there, though. Saturday’s show gave us both the taut dance build-up of “Paradise” and the straight-ahead, careening indie rock of “Summer Holiday.” Both were evening standouts, but stood at opposite sides of the spectrum for Wild Nothing. Exploring the possibilities at the ends of that spectrum seems like the next step in Wild Nothing’s evolution.

Before tonight Wild Nothing, for me, were symbolized, as a band, by the hypnotic, slowly escalating introduction to “Live in Dreams” — an enchanting but ultimately unobtrusive sort of group. Yet that intro escalates to a perfectly chant-worthy chorus, and before I knew it, there I was with a couple hundred other fans, yelling that my lips won’t last forever, and that’s exactly why I’d rather live in dreams, and I’d rather die. They call them truisms because they’re correct: the music came alive, and we all did with it.

Live performance makes up an increasingly large share of artist revenue. That’s not so much because artists are performing more as because other revenue streams are drying up, so it’s not really a good thing, but it does mean that artists rely on performance to live.

I’d argue fans rely on performance to live, too. Not in the sense of “clothe and feed themselves,” of course, but rather in that performance confronts us with an unpredictable alternative to the file-sharing, perfect-replica mp3, 21st-century mediascape. It’s true there’s something magical about a recording–the exact replication of a moment, captured forever, for all to share. But there’s no particularity, no–and I mean this–death. Performance, like life, happens once, and that’s it.

It brings a circumscribed group of people together to share something, and I’m (absurdly) reminded of the Bowie lyric from “Five Years”: “I never knew I’d need so many people.” Because performance is collective, involving audience in unexpected ways, it’s true that every member is necessary, implicit in the definition of that night: I am inseparable from the whole thing. It’s a humanizing experience to have a previously faceless voice tell the audience that his mother is at the show. How could my experience of the performance–and, now, when I listen to his catalog–not be enriched, now that I am less alienated from its reality?

probably a little strong

Where recordings are uniform, performances diverge, and you don’t have to go full Picasso Baby or My Sharona or show that’s not a show to be jolted out of expectation. In this case, I anticipated a sleepy, dreamy sort of indie pop, and was rewarded with full-bore funk. When expectations are shattered, that’s a good thing. That’s life.

I am finally in my bed. I stretch my legs out under the covers and lean my head back into the pillow, sinking as I do so. I haven’t slept but maybe seven hours in the last two days, and I didn’t make up for the lack of quantity with higher quality–no, this was sleeping-bag on hard floor sleep, sleep with a sweatshirt for a pillow, sleep that leaves your collarbones crying for days. I’d just driven back from Santa Barbara, six hours with In-N-Out, after celebrating a friend’s graduation (and celebrating with great abandon). I was exhausted, and for a moment I thought, maybe I should just stay in tonight.

That thought didn’t last long. There was a buzzing in my head that wouldn’t abate–thanks, shitty club with a terrible sound system. I needed melody to counteract the white noise of dying frequencies. I like to say that I try to surround myself with people who say, “yes.” It was time for me to live up to my own standards. I needed to get my ass up and over to San Francisco to see Torres.

I tried to sleep on BART, listening to Four Tet’s Pink with a black sweatshirt over my head. I set an alarm in case I fell asleep–no rookie mistakes here. I couldn’t sleep, though, and so I pretended I was asleep. It amounted to the same thing for everyone but me.

* * * * *

I walked out the wrong end of the Civic Center stop, which is par for the course, found Mike, and walked to 155 Fell. A line had formed, and not a big or particularly rowdy one–probably an effect of the Sunday evening date. Mike and I made our way in. The Rickshaw is longer than it is wide, with a bar that opens up to an area that can probably hold a couple hundred people packed. On this night I don’t think more than a hundred showed up, though, so even though I sat through the opener it wasn’t hard to find a prime place to stand once the co-headliners came on. I hadn’t realized it when I bought the ticket, but it was a double bill, with Lady Lamb and Torres sharing top billing and support being provided by Paige & the Thousand. Paige, who mentioned that she used to sing with Noah & the Whale, played a competent but short set that Mike described as “arena Neko Case” (probably a bit of an upsell, but gives you an idea).

When Lady Lamb the Beekeeper came on, I had no expectations, because I’d never heard her play. This isn’t common for me–I usually try to do my research before a show–but the wild weekend had precluded that possibility. Yet, after this experience, I might try to let myself be surprised a little more often. Frankly, Lady Lamb knocked me flat. She opened with an a cappella invocation that set the haunting tone for the rest of the night, her guitar resting for the only moment that night.

The whole set was played solo, which contributed immensely to the vibe. My grasping-in-the-dark equations for her sound that night were Janis Joplin meets Moldy Peaches, or, at times, a female Jeff Mangum who knew more than 3 chords. Joplin, because Lady Lamb could wail when she wanted, and the songs had that dark character I can only honestly associate with the blues. Moldy Peaches–who I admittedly don’t listen to–because of the innocent tumble-down lyricism of “Milk Duds” and admittedly cutesy inflections to “Crane Your Neck.” Jeff Mangum because of the multisegmented songs and the chanting, wild incantations that found their way into her lyrics–see “I’m a ghost and you all know it.” Her guitar playing also occasionally reminded me of Isaac Brock’s more melodic moments; the noodling before “Bird Balloons” finale sounds like something from This Is a Long Drive, and that wasn’t the only time I was reminded of the boys from Issaquah. “It’s a goddamn joke that we can hurt so much even in the sun,” Lady Lamb wailed at one point, and the sentiment might have fit in on any number of indie-rock records on the wimp-twee-emo spectrum of the last twenty years.

click for official website

Despite the comparisons, when Lady Lamb walked off, I felt confident I’d seen something I’d never seen before. I felt renewed. Her style was unique (after having listened to a couple cuts on YouTube, I think I actually prefer her sound without a full band, too). I can’t say whether it was the circumstances or something that I’ll continue to connect to in her music, but in that moment, she had prescribed me a wonderful medicine for a disease I hadn’t even known was afflicting me. I certainly wasn’t tired anymore.

* * * * *

By now it’s been awhile and I haven’t even mentioned Torres, which is on purpose. If this is a concert review I should give you an idea of what it was like to see the show. As with any ethnography, I have to own up, at some point, to the fact that my perspective is limited, my reportage biased.Bias may not be the right word, though; it implies insincerity, or more precisely inaccuracy. We may say a cricket fan is biased against enjoying a baseball game, but that does not make his or her displeasure any less real, does it?

* * * * *

All of this is to say, I found Torres (TORRES?) awesome the first time I heard Come to Terms” a couple months ago, and little has changed in the intervening months.

click for official website

I would call her music revelation, but revelation comes from the sky. And this music isn’t airy. It’s earth music, grounded and physical. Mackenzie Scott, the be-hatted frontwoman of Torres–she may be Torres, it’s always hard to tell in these situations–made mention of her Georgia roots, and she crossed the Appalachians to go to school in Nashville. These songs crackle with the same old staticky magic that haunts those old, old mountains (sometimes literally; there’s a generous helping of string squawk on record and live, and I have zero problem with that). Scott’s voice is warm and moves between registers with familiarity. The songs were excellent: she blew through her incredibly strong record and even added a delicate, lovelorn, frighteningly intimate solo cut apparently written days ago. While there is certainly a dark tinge to the record, it’s by no means one-dimensional, with sing-song lullabyes like “Don’t Run Away, Emilie” and “Moon & Back” balanced by bluesy rockers “Honey” and “Winter.” The beginning of “Chains” even had me exclaim out loud, “witch house!” If anything, the next step for Torres will be in combining these many sides to create songs that don’t always follow the familiar soft-loud-soft formula. In concert she showed signs of doing so, turning up the volume for an impressive solo on “Waterfall” that doesn’t show up on the record. Noise, during this show, was always purposeful.

The origin of the music seems, to me, sort of similar to EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, in that they both seem to invoke ghosts left and right. Just as EMA called out to her great-grandparents in “The Grey Ship,” Scott takes the long view, too, noting in “When Winter’s Over” that “even the leaves grow weary of the trees,” then describing on “Come to Terms” that “just because the two of us/will both grow old in time/don’t mean that we should grow old together.” It’s startling maturity from someone who is, frankly, my age.

And that’s just the thing. This show felt special, it felt different from many other shows I’ve seen, and less because of the music and more because of my own relationship to the music. They were peers. This is an artist who’s done something very impressive, but whose situation I can still relate to. The backing band looked stiff at times, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was their first tour. It was Scott’s first time in California. Scott allowed herself a rock-star move or two–starting with her back to the crowd before wheeling around for the first verse of a song–but she also spent a long time tuning between songs, suffered a false start, and needed the bassist’s help to program her keyboard. While I know some people find such moments amateurish, I find them endearing and genuine, serving to bring the performer and audience closer. It was the sort of show where you feel like you can see the genesis of every song, the absentminded plucking that turned into a riff, the corny journaling that becomes the lyrics shouted back by fans. In one milieu, the transparency of the process might not seem so great, but at this point in my life, I think it engendered an even greater connection.

At one point she asked the crowd whether we liked sad songs. In the front row, I leaned over and told Mike: “Nobody should ever worry about me killing myself. I get too much from feeling sad.” I might have imagined it, but I think I saw Torres smile.

After reading Juvenal’s Third Satire, I was struck by the degree to which his lamentations seem relevant today, especially the themes of corruption and inequality. I decided to copy out some lines and I’ll be linking each line to a current-events news story.*


*if I actually followed through on ideas I’d be linking each line to a current-events news story.



“What should I do in Rome? I am no good at lying.

If a book’s bad, I can’t praise it, or go around ordering copies.

I don’t know the stars; I can’t hire out as assassin

When some young man wants his father knocked off for a price…

Who has a pull these days, except your yes men and stooges

With blackmail in their hearts, yet smart enough to keep silent?”

* * * * *

“Put on the stand, at Rome, a man with a record unblemished,

No more a perjurer than Numa was, or Metellus,

What will they question? His wealth, right away, and possibly, later,

(Only possibly, though) touch on his reputation…

His word is as good as his bond–if he has enough bonds in his strongbox.

But a poor man’s oath, even if sworn on all altars,

Has no standing in court.”

* * * * *

“If you’re poor, you’re a joke, on each and every occasion.

What a laugh, if your cloak is dirty or torn, if your toga

Seems a little bit soiled, if your shoe has a crack in the leather,

Or if more than one patch attests to more than one mending!…

All the best seats are reserved for the classes who have the most money…”

* * * * *

“In a great part of this land of Italy, might as well face it,

No one puts on a toga unless he is dead.

But here, beyond our means, we have to be smart, and too often

Get our effects with too much, an elaborate wardrobe, on credit!

This is a common vice; we must keep up with neighbors,

Poor as we are. I tell you, everything here costs you something…

Put this in your pipe and smoke it–we have to pay tribute

Giving slaves a bribe for the prospect of bribing their masters.”

* * * * *

“Who, in Praeneste’s cool, or the wooded Volsinian uplands,

Fears the collapse of his house? But Rome is supported on pipe-stems,

Matchsticks; it’s cheaper, so, for the landlord to shore up hi sruins,

Patch up the old cracked walls, and notify all the tenants

They can sleep secure, though the beams are in ruins above them.

No, the place to live is out there, where no cry of Fire!

Sounds the alarm of the night, with a neighbor yelling for water.”

* * * *

“Codrus owned one bed, too small for a dwarf to sleep on,

Codrus had nothing, no doubt, and yet he succeeded, poor fellow,

Losing that nothing, his all. And this is the very last straw–

No one will help him out with a meal or lodging or shelter.

Stripped to the bone, begging for crusts, he still receives nothing.

Yet if Asturicus’ mansion burns down, what a frenzy of sorrow!

Mothers dishevel themselves, the leaders dress up in black,

Courts are adjourned. We groan at the fall of the city, we hate

The fire, and the fire still burns, and while it is burning,

Somebody rushes up to replace the loss of the marble,

Books, chests, a bust of Minerva. To him that hath shall be given!

This citizen, childless, of course, the richest man in the smart set,

Now has better things, and more, than before the disaster.

How can we help but think he started the fire on purpose?”

* * * * *

“Here in the town the sick die from insomnia mostly.

Undigested food, on a stomach burnign with ulcers,

Brings on listlessness, but who can sleep in a flophouse?

Who but the rich can afford sleep and a garden apartment?

That’s the source of infection… When his business calls,

The crowd makes way as the rich man is carried high in his car.

He gets where he wants before we do; for all our hurry

Traffic gets in our way, in front, around and behind us…

Such a mob, and what if that cart of Ligurian marble

Breaks its axle down and dumps its load on these swarms?

Who will identify limbs or bones? The poor man’s cadaver,

Crushed, disappears like his breath…

Newly come to the bank of the Styx, afraid of the filthy

Ferryman there, since he has no fare, not even a copper

In his dead mouth to pay for the ride through that muddy whirlpool.”

* * * * *

“If you don’t make your will before you go out to have dinner,

There are as many deaths in the night as there are open windows.

There goes your hell-raising drunk, who has had the bad luck to kill no one,

But here are the young hoodlums, all steamed up on wine, keep your distance!

Shut up your house or your store,

Bolts and padlocks and bars will never keep out all the burglars,

Or a holdup man will do you in with a switchblade.

Here is how it all starts, the fight, if you think it is fighting

When he throws all the punches, and all I do is absorb them.

What can you do when he’s mad and bigger and stronger than you are?…

If you try to talk back, or sneak away without speaking,

All the same thing: you’re assaulted, and then put under a bail bond

For committing assault. This is a poor man’s freedom.

Beaten, cut by fists, he begs and implores his assailant,

Please, for a chance to go home with a few teeth left in his mouth.”

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark, sequels; Star Wars, sequels
  2. Upstream Color
  3. Blade Runner
  4. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  5. The Manchurian Candidate
  6. The Shining
  7. Alien
  8. Taxi Driver
  9. Chinatown
  10. The Birds
  11. Stroszek
  12. There Will Be Blood
  13. Black Swan
  14. The Lives of Others
  15. Rear Window
  16. Dr. Strangelove
  17. A Hard Day’s Night
  18. My Neighbor Totoro
  19. Princess Mononoke
  20. Memento
  21. Strangers on a Train
  22. Dial M for Murder
  23. GoodFellas
  24. Pulp Fiction
  25. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid
  26. Los amores perros
  27. The Usual Suspects
  28. Blowup
  29. The Master
  30. Babel
  31. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  32. Man on Wire
  33. The Great Escape
  34. Help!
  35. The Fugitive
  36. The Departed
  37. Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
  38. Primer
  39. Fargo
  40. City of God
  41. wall-E
  42. Wristcutters
  43. Being John Malkovich
  44. Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind
  45. Donnie Darko
  46. Vertigo
  47. Annie Hall
  48. Cool Hand Luke
  49. Monty Python’s Life of Bryan
  50. Bandé a Part
  51. Submarine
  52. The Tree of Life
  53. Amelie
  54. All the President’s Men
  55. Network
  56. Schindler’s List
  57. Brick
  58. Reservoir Dogs
  59. Winter’s Bone
  60. Children of Men
  61. Lars & the Real Girl
  62. Little Miss Sunshine
  63. The Squid & the Whale
  64. Saving Private Ryan
  65. Michael Clayton
  66. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  67. Shawshank Redemption
  68. Hard Candy
  69. Syriana
  70. The Thin Red Line
  71. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  72. Bonnie & Clyde
  73. Ghostbusters
  74. Die Hard
  75. Barton Fink
  76. Django Unchained
  77. Requiem for a Dream
  78. Contact
  79. Spring Breakers
  80. (pi)
  81. Mud
  82. Enemy of the State
  83. 12 Monkeys
  84. Eraserhead
  85. 28 Days Later
  86. Anchorman
  87. Borat
  88. Fight Club
  89. Hotel Rwanda
  90. Snatch
  91. totally incomplete list subject to revision without notice
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