December 31, 2018

Manic songs of early 2010s find new interest as audiences tire of vulnerable phase

Over the past couple weeks, I've noticed a burst of songs from the early 2010s on the adult top 40 station I listen to, as well as in the retail places I frequent.

It's rare to hear these at all nowadays -- typically I've heard a few per month, and now it's more like several per day. In fact, it's been rare to even hear songs from 2016 or '15, let alone from 2010-'14.

They're from the manic phase, and stand out in stark contrast to the sentimental emo music of the current vulnerable phase. The radio programmers are clearly trying to offer something quite different tonally to the listeners, though without having to go back so far that it sounds retro / oldies.

You're all moped out from the five-millionth play of "Girls Like You" or "In My Blood"? OK, we're taking the hint -- how about we liven things up every hour with a surprise like "I Knew You Were Trouble" or "Roar"?

I'm even hearing a few songs from the late 2000s, the restless warm-up phase that hinted at the manic phase to come ("Wake Up Call" and "Bad Romance").

But nothing from the previous vulnerable phase of the early 2000s -- that would just be another variety of soft mellow music like today's.

At first I thought maybe it was a seasonal change to coincide with New Year's Eve -- a nostalgic look back at the hit songs of years past. But they didn't do that in previous years for the holiday. And again, they're avoiding going back into the early 2000s.

I think people are simply feeling exhausted of feeling exhausted, and that the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle is coming to a close. We're in the part of the refractory period where it's just about to return to baseline, and that 2019 will be the last of the 5-year phase, right on schedule. Radio marketers are desperate to keep their finger on the pulse of fickle listeners, and they're responding to this subtle change in attitude by dialing down the emo-tude of their playlists.

This does not mean we're about to enter another manic phase, or a full-blown revival of earlier manic phases. They're only playing a handful of these songs per listening session, but it's still a major change from the past year or so. It's more like we're winding down the vulnerable phase, and will enter the next restless warm-up phase around 2020. The next manic phase won't hit until around 2025.

Reflecting on the previous revival of manic-phase music, there was an explosion of '80s music -- meaning, primarily early '80s new wave / synth-pop music -- in the late 2000s. Hardly at all during the early 2000s. By the restless warm-up phase, people were trying to get back into the swing of things, and returned to something familiar that they knew would get them excited and pumped up. They didn't know what the next manic phase would sound like, but returning to the '80s would at least prepare them for it. And the soaring popularity of '80s night made sure that their bodies would be in the habit of dancing for whenever the next manic phase erupted.

They did not return to the most recent manic phase -- the late '90s -- probably because it was not so intense of a manic phase, compared to the others. During the upcoming warm-up phase, I expect they'll get warmed up with the familiar manic phases of the early 2010s, or all the way back to the early '80s again -- linking that music with its revival period more recently, not the original context (when they weren't even born).

Although Millennials will be poised to get nostalgic for the late '90s, it was just way too weak to serve as a stimulant, when the early '80s and early 2010s are readily available. And Gen Z-ers will form a big chunk of the audience, not just Millennials as they've been used to so far. And I don't see Gen Z giving much of a shit about the late '90s, which they barely remember if at all. They'll go back to the early 2010s when they're mining the past for manic stimulants to get them back on their feet during the warm-up phase.

December 21, 2018

Putting purportedly anti-neocon news in perspective (Reminder: psycho Gaffney will replace Mattis)

On its face, the news about Trump planning to withdraw US forces from Syria, and thousands from Afghanistan, appears to be a welcome change. But given the track record of disappointment on foreign policy from the Trump admin, let's put these announcements in perspective.

First, they have not happened yet -- the last time Trump said he wanted to pull the US out of Syria, the Pentagon's jihadist allies staged a fake chemical attack, and the military bombed Syria again. And the last time Trump threatened to withdraw Americans from Afghanistan, the Pentagon made him read a neocon speech in primetime, followed by sending thousands of Americans more back into Afghanistan.

Second, assuming these changes do happen, they do not represent fulfilling a campaign promise -- i.e., fixing a problem that existed before he came into office, and that he was elected in order to fix. Although the CIA was happy to use the jihadist militias as their proxy against the secular Syrian government, we did not have thousands of American boots on the ground, occupying a third of the Syrian land mass, until the Trump admin.

If all that happens is that these forces are withdrawn, it would represent a return to the status quo ante Trump. That's better than continuing to keep them there, but not a bold reversal of an existing policy -- that would require no interference in Syria at all, boots-on-the-ground or otherwise, or switching sides to help out Assad against the jihadists.

The same goes for Afghanistan. After Trump's threat to withdraw troops in August 2017, the Pentagon punished him by sending "about 4,000" Americans back into the country, in addition to the "roughly 8,500" who were already there. Now the reports refer to "more than 14,000" Americans in Afghanistan, meaning the Pentagon last year sent at least 5,500, not 4,000, and likely more.

So, if Trump forces a withdrawal of 7,000 now, for all we know that's just the same number that were sent last year -- again, more of a return to the status quo ante Trump. A true reversal would be to announce that we're withdrawing all Americans from Afghanistan, with only the pace left to be sorted out.

Contrast these two changes with the one real foreign policy change that Trump has achieved so far -- holding the summit with "Chairman Kim," reversing not just every Reagan-era president, but those of the previous New Deal era as well. Nothing further has developed from that summit, but the meeting itself was a big ice-breaking deal, and not to be minimized. When the non-militarist Bernie realignment takes over in 2025, the path toward full withdrawal from Korea will have already been paved by the Trump-Kim summit.

In related news, General Mattis has resigned, confirming a major part of the blind item discussed in this post a couple months ago. Blind Gossip's inside WH source says that throughout October, John Bolton had been scheming to replace Mattis with neocon fellow traveler and Iran hardliner psycho Frank Gaffney, with the president's blessing.

I noted how dark that news was, portending some major action against Iran after the new Congress is sworn in. I reminded people that it's way too premature to declare "At least Trump isn't as bad as George W. Bush because there's no Iraq War". That war did not begin until that president's third year, after the mid-terms, just as his father's Gulf War did not begin until the admin's third year, after the mid-terms. At this point in the admin, we are simply not in a position to judge how war-mongering it will wind up -- even the Bushes waited until year 3.

The spin that Mattis has given, and most are accepting, is that his resignation has to do with Trump's sudden decision to pull troops out of Syria. But this resignation has been in the making for months, and has nothing to do with that. It is just a convenient excuse instead of resigning for apparently no reason. Therefore, Mattis' resignation cannot be interpreted as a loss for the neocons, i.e. "The guy who wanted to stay in Syria just got booted from the WH". It's really, "the guy who couldn't get along with Trump any longer" has left, with an apparently much more neocon war-monger ready to take his place.

For all we know, the ascendant neocons like Bolton and Gaffney will cut their losses in Syria in order to focus all the more single-mindedly on Iran.

And notice: Trump did not say Assad was not an enemy, that Syria is neutral or friendly toward the American people, etc. He framed Syria, Iran, and Russia as our enemies, and claimed that by fighting ISIS, who in turn are fighting Syria-Iran-Russia, we were only helping our enemies. On the campaign trail, Trump said all the secular strongmen were perhaps "bad guys" but were far preferable to the only alternative, the radical Islamic terrorists. Hussein, Assad, Qaddafi -- it was either them, or Medieval psychos who drown people in steel cages. So he has not even returned to his campaign-trail rhetoric and framing of those leaders and their governments, and remains committed to the neocon view of them.

Nor has he criticized Saudi Arabia for its support and participation in radical Islamic terrorism, like he did on the campaign trail and for years in the conservative media before that. Now he's as buddy-buddy as you can get with the jihadists of that nation, with Jared serving as MBS' butt boy.

He has not criticized our support for Israel, but then that is consistent with his longstanding agreement on that policy. The point is, his stance on Israel is also fully status quo.

Unwavering, ever-expanding support for the jihadists and the Zionists, and unquestioning antagonism toward Iran, is not a reversal of longstanding US policy in the Middle East. If Trump is truly throwing off the shackles of the neocons, is he about to re-commit to the Iran nuclear deal? That would be one of the easiest things to do, since it would not require a whole new plan, but simply signing back onto an existing agreement of the previous admin. Is he going to fire Bolton and replace him with Rand Paul?

I know people want a reason to celebrate, but we've been down this road too many times during the Trump admin. Even if he withdraws the numbers stated from Syria and Afghanistan, that is only correcting his own admin's mistakes, not delivering on a campaign promise to fix the state of affairs of the Obama-or-earlier period. And nothing suggests a re-orientation of policy away from the jihadists and Zionists, or away from their main target, Iran.

When Gaffney replaces Mattis, our foreign policy in the Middle East will get far more disastrous, and we should be prepared for that now, so we don't get blind-sided by it after assuming that removing troops from Syria, and removing the new troops from Afghanistan, means the neocons are on the way out. It may just mean they're consolidating their efforts for one last Hail-Mary plan against Iran, before the Bernie realignment forecloses on that possibility for the next half-century.

December 9, 2018

Intimate soulful ballads during vulnerable phase of 15-year cultural excitement cycle

As a sign of how much the pop music cycle has mellowed out since the manic phase of the early 2010s, the hit songs of 2018 have brought back the ballad as a popular genre. They haven't been this slow and sentimental since the emo early 2000s, or the power ballad era of the late '80s, the soul ballads of the early '70s, or the weepy strings-section sound of the late '50s.

These 5-year periods are all instances of the vulnerable phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, crashing into a refractory state after the excitement and climax of the manic phase, and before they feel comfortable enough to come out of their shell during the restless warm-up phase.

It's not just the depleted energy levels that lead audiences and performers alike toward the ballad during their refractory state. It's also the shrinking social space -- the manic phase also has soulful songs, but they are more exhibitionistic, which assumes performing before a crowd of (friendly) strangers. Once that social energy has been spent, the socially exhausted population feels more like retreating into a private space and interacting with at most the kind of people you'd meet within the home setting.

For romantic songs, that means a single person who you're devoted to and want to spend the rest of all time with -- preferably within that same isolated home setting, since widespread social stimulation is painful during this refractory state. The atmosphere is more intimate and cozy, rather than thrillingly novel as it is during the manic phase when everyone feels invincible.

Rather than list every one of the ballads over the rise-and-fall of their popularity (you can flip through the Billboard Year-End charts at the second link in this post for that), I'll just pick what stands out as the most representative of the trend during each of the vulnerable periods.

"Perfect" by Ed Sheeran (2017)

His earlier hit ballad "Thinking Out Loud" straddled the line between the manic and vulnerable phases, recorded in 2014 and soaring in popularity during '15. A few years further into the refractory state, he was better able to channel the cozy-intimate zeitgeist.

"Your Body Is a Wonderland" by John Mayer (2002)

The early 2000s is the least soulful of these vulnerable periods, but still slow, mellow, and intimate. Outside of romantic songs, there was another more soulful-sounding ballad hit -- "Drift Away" by Uncle Kracker in 2003, itself a cover whose original recording came from an earlier vulnerable phase, by Dobie Gray in 1973.

"Lady in Red" by Chris De Burgh (1987)

Most ballads from this phase were "power" -- guitar solo affairs -- which does testify to how popular the ballad is during a vulnerable phase, that even the rock gods du jour have to perform them. But it also makes them sound less ballad-y. The dream-like, ethereal, slow funk of this song fits in better with the others across pop music history.

"Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye (1973)

The proper contrast here is not with his hits from the previous manic phase, such as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" from 1967, but with his big hit from the following manic phase, "Sexual Healing" from 1982. The soulful ballad from '73 is more familiar with the woman he's addressing, whereas the one from '82 sounds more like he's addressing any ol' woman who he's currently got the hots for, drawn from a broader social space, rather than the one he's devoted to. "Let's Get It On" is about intimacy, whereas "Sexual Healing" makes declarative statements of sex-positive "ideology". (Recall that sex-positive feminism peaks during the manic phase.)

And typical of manic-phase music, "Sexual Healing" has more musical phrase development, teasing with a slow intro and building gradually toward a dramatic climax, while "Let's Get It On" gets right to the mood and stays there for the whole song. Climaxing is not possible during a refractory state.

"Unchained Melody" by Les Baxter (1955)

This song was recorded and charted highly by multiple performers in 1955-'56, the version above is simply the highest-ranking one on the year-end charts. It's a good reminder for people unfamiliar with pre-'60s music of how closely the late '50s tone veered toward mawkish, weepy, pining, and dejected. For a version that has the full lyrics, and sounds closest to the version you're most familiar with, try this one by Roy Hamilton.

The most well remembered recording was from a decade later, in 1965 by the Righteous Brothers. Springing from the manic phase of the late '60s, that version is much higher in energy and comes off as more exhibitionistic than the originals. An emotional delivery that is so over-the-top does not suggest a cozy-intimate setting and an audience of one who you're already familiar with. It suggests a performance before a crowd of (friendly) strangers, where the focus is more on baring one's own soul. It's not for narcissistic aims, but to cheerlead the audience into feeling the same way, and getting a massive crowd pumped up and resonating on the same emotional wavelength. Still, it is decidedly not an intimate atmosphere, but a crowd-pleasing one.

With so many ballads filling out the 2018 chart, it feels like the genre's revival is done. We're nearly in 2019, which is similar in the cycle to 2004, 1989, 1974, and 1959, by which time the unrelenting mellow-ness was beginning to get old. You can't stay vulnerable forever. Just one more year of (decelerating) vulnerability, and then it's back into the restless warm-up phase again.

It would be interesting to see if any of these ballads from the late 2010s get covered during the next manic phase of the late 2020s, a la "Unchained Melody". I'd guess "Girls Like You," which is weepier and lower-energy than the other big ballads of 2017-'18, and offers the most room for changing it to fit a different zeitgeist in the future. Perhaps even by the same band -- just think of how different it would've sounded if recorded by the manic-phase Maroon 5 of 2013.

December 3, 2018

Soak-the-rich Right revolts in France at end of neoliberal era, as 50-year cycle of political violence also returns

First, some necessary background and context on the French riots from Peter Turchin, whose historical data analysis has shown 50-year cycles in collective political violence -- more organized than individual violence, or crime, but less organized than states warring against each other. The last peak was around 1970, and 1920 before that, and 1870 before that. That means we're due for another peak around 2020, and the view from France certainly looks like we're on schedule.

While the immediate trigger was a rise in the regressive diesel tax on ordinary consumers, the revolt stems from a much deeper anger against the entire neoliberal framework of the past 35 years. From a Bloomberg report on the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes), their demands are populist rather than libertarian or elitist:

The movement’s demands have expanded from rolling back the gasoline taxes to higher pensions, an increase in the minimum wage, a repeal of certain other taxes, the restoration of a wealth tax, a law fixing a maximum salary, cutting politicians’ salaries, and replacing Macron and the National Assembly with a “People’s Assembly.” While political parties have tried to show their support for the movement, the Yellow Vests have rejected any political link.

One of Macron's first actions in office was to dramatically slash the wealth tax on high-net-worth owners, in response to the exodus of financial elites from Paris to London in search of a lower tax burden, and to implement a flat tax on capital gains, also to placate the parasitic financial elites. As usual, the business press had the real news right away (e.g., this report from FT).

Macron gave the usual trickle-down logic to justify these tax cuts on the wealthy, and as always they failed to benefit the middle or lower classes, and only padded the ill-gotten gains of the elite class. No wonder his approval rating sits in the 20s now.

In the model of regime dynamics by Stephen Skowronek, Macron is clearly a disjunctive leader presiding over the end of an era for his dominant coalition. In his case, it is the finance-backed Socialist party that ushered in the neoliberal era in 1981. Like other Mediterranean nations, the neoliberal era in France has been dominated by the relatively more Left of the two major coalitions -- Mitterrand in France, Craxi in Italy, Gonzalez Marquez in Spain, Soares in Portugal, and Papandreou in Greece.

That pattern contrasts with the Anglo nations, whose nearly identical era of neoliberalism has been dominated by the relatively more Right of the two major coalitions -- Reagan in America, Thatcher in Britain, and Mulroney in Canada. (Australia is an exception, perhaps being too far outside the Atlantic sphere of influence: their neolib era has been dominated by the Left party beginning with Hawke.)

Historical regimes usually turn over by the sclerotic old dominant coalition becoming dethroned into opposition status, while the old opposition realigns itself to attain dominant status. And indeed, the egalitarian Midcentury was presided over by the opposite pattern of the neoliberal era -- the Med nations were governed by the relatively more Right party, and the Anglo-Atlantic nations by the more Left party.

That suggests that the nascent realignment out of the neoliberal era will come from the Right in the Med (and Straya), but from the Left in the Anglo-Atlantic. It's clear that left-wingers Bernie and Corbyn will realign the US and the UK during the 2020s, and the first Med nation has already begun realignment under right-winger Salvini in Italy.

With the current breakdown of order in France against the hated disjunctive Socialist Macron, it seems clear that the post-neoliberal era will be led by France's version of Salvini. As in Italy, the Right in France will have to realign itself in a nationalist populist direction, just as Salvini's party had to realign itself away from regional cultural separatism that would have favored the wealthy north. For most of the neoliberal era, it was Lega Nord ("League of the North"), then to attain real national power it recently dropped the regional separatism to become simply "La Lega" ("The League"), agreeing to a wealth transfer from Northerners to poorer Southerners via the "citizen's income" -- not the "Northerner's income".

Whether it's one of the Le Pen's under a rebranded Front National, or a fellow traveler, the populist Right in France will also have to shed its escapist and separatist fantasies of its earlier years, and promise prosperity for all of France, if it wants to seize national power and hold onto it as a dominant coalition instead of the occasional minority pressure group.

The right-wing character of the French realignment will be revealed once the revolts turn to the migrant question, and join Italy in curbing immigration.

I don't think either side of the Mediterranean-Atlantic divide will close the borders, though, during the post-neoliberal era. They resemble each other at the big-picture level -- including the Anglo-Atlantic nations whose egalitarian Midcentury featured the same closed borders as the Med, even though it was the relatively more Left party in control of the US and UK.

Likewise, the Bernie realignment shows little chance of restricting migration, suggesting that we are not going back to the closed-borders New Deal era, but rather to a new Lincolnian Gilded Age with Ellis Island-era open borders. An earlier post here from August detailed how the Bernie realignment will resemble the Lincoln era of robber barons, open borders, and soaring inequality, rather than the New Deal, on the analogy that the Reagan era has been a revival of the Jacksonian era, and that their successor regimes will be similar as well, taking place during the same phase of a long-term cycle.

Even the far-Left socialists are starting to become aware of how non-socialist the Bernie realignment will turn out to be. From a recent article in Jacobin:

Today’s Democratic Party, to their credit, appears far more committed to preserving civil rights than the late-nineteenth-century Republicans. But as the party consolidates its strength around the wealthy suburbs, the dangers of a Gilded Age–style class division persist. A political coalition led by affluent metropolitans, armed with pietistic certainty about their moral cause, but almost physically allergic to huge chunks of the working-class population: this was the Republican Party of 1884. It does not offer us a roadmap to the future.

If Bernie and Corbyn don't restrict immigration, then their counterparts in the Med probably will not either, despite being from the relatively more conservative side.

Even if immigration does not meaningfully decrease, and even if inequality continues to widen, at the very least we should expect a massive decline in militarism. That was the one silver lining of the robber baron-led fin-de-siecle. Both the Bernie-Corbyn Left and the Salvini-Le Pen Right want to wind down the West's over-extension in so many pointless wasteful military occupations all over the world. Hopefully they can start with putting an end to NATO.

Much further down the cycle, we will see this absence of militarism explode suddenly a la World War I, probably coinciding with another peak in the 50-year cycle of riot-level violence. That will usher in the next phase of egalitarianism, which most of us will probably not live to enjoy, but may at least see the beginnings of.