The year in audio files

What did I stick in my ears in 2017? For better or worse, podcasts seem to have won out over recorded music and live concerts. This year also marked my departure from a cable subscriber to a digital antenna owner and dedicated Roku watcher. Too much self-selection and not enough serendipitous living, but that seems to be a trend these days.

When left to my own devices here’s what I plugged into.

The gateway drug – Years behind the ball on this one, I finally got into podcasts in 2017. No surprise that it was PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre podcast (Masterpiece Studio) that drew me to the dark side. I downloaded Stitcher on my Android phone and listened to my heart’s content to stories about my favorite TV shows, including Prime Suspect: Tennison, Grantchester and The Durrells in Corfu.

if we are what we listen to, I am old and white. that checks out.

Baby, you got me – WFUV is my favorite local NYC radio station and Spotify is my music player of choice, so when I began noticing WFUV playlists on Spotify, well, everything was alright. The #FUVEssentials: Elton John playlist was in heavy rotation this summer, and the #FUVEssentials: Emmylou Harris playlist introduced me to her song Born to Run, which I immediately co-opted as my personal anthem.

New favorite – Ok, so it was a tip from a WFUV DJ plus a quick search on Stitcher that led me to one of my favorite finds this year: the Song Exploder podcast. Artists breakdown the backstories of one of their songs, especially focusing on the technical building blocks. Compelling stuff.

Eat your vegetables – It wasn’t all easy listening in 2017. I also bookmarked some things I thought I should listen to, prime among them Fresh Air’s 10 Favorite Terry Gross Interviews. About half of these are interviews with comics, and I’m pretty much always up for some comedic navel gazing. The other half are a mixed bag of subjects, all excellent, but I still haven’t made it through all of them.

Your (alleged) Top Songs in 2017 – According to Spotify the top three tracks I listened to in 2017 were: Kill your Mama, by Alicia Keys; California, by Grimes; and The Space Program by A Tribe Called Quest. I guess that’s accurate? I was rocking out to Alicia Keys’s album HERE a lot in 2017, but The Gospel was my favorite song on it. Also, I recall Grease, by Flo Morrissey and Matthew E. White being in heavy rotation, but it ranks 20 on the list, above Starboy by The Weeknd. Is the algorithm wrong or my memory? And none of these songs were first heard in 2017, so that’s a little embarrassing.

A note from Captain Obvious – The acoustics in the Apollo Theatre are amazingly good! I know this post is about audio files and not live music, but the sound inside the Apollo Theatre really blew me away when I saw Ryan Adams there at the start of the year. Audio files have their own type of excellent, but live music makes you vibrate on a whole other level. Here’s to embracing all the good vibrations in 2018.

This is how the future’s made

News cycle got your head spinning again? This is how the future’s made. A break from the past. This month’s headlines have been dominated by sexual harassment disclosures in the media industry. Or, to quote Limp Bizkit, “It’s all about the he-says, she-says bullshit.”

The primordial sludge of bad behavior and gender inequality has been churning for millennia, but the latest round of disclosures started when Harvey Weinstein was called out in a New York Times article. Similar to Lance Armstrong’s narrative the long-term cover-up seemed even more shocking than the original crimes. It was also kind of a bummer because Miramax used to be a byword for cool back when I would borrow VHS tapes from the library and had pictures of Winona Ryder in my locker. Now those nostalgic indie films from the 1990’s have a tinge of ick to them.

In rapid succession the hits kept coming. Kevin Spacey. Louis C.K. Charlie Rose. Matt Lauer.

street art truthsayer

What happened to all the good guys? They couldn’t keep their bathrobes closed. The rest of us quickly learned the phrase, “I’m still processing this,” as a replacement for “No comment,” and/or “WTF?! Him, too? I haven’t even shared my Facebook outrage over the last one.”

From one perspective it can look like a massive disruption of the workplace we know. But from the perspective of those weary from the struggle, it can seem like after years and years of shouting they said, “one more time with feeling,” and finally their voices were loud enough to hear.

In the name of progress we all sacrifice unwillingly and unknowingly for the next generation. I didn’t have much to lose in this round of growing pains, maybe just some pop-culture disappointment (seriously, Louis C.K., I really expected more from you). But, boy, am I looking forward to a future where sexual harassment at work is as common as smoking at your desk.

Dear Monica Drake, I’m your traveler

Dear Monica Drake,

I’m one of the 9,000 people who applied for the 52 Places to Go writing gig. You’re having a difficult time sifting through all the applications, huh? Relax, you’ve found me. Here’s why.

I’m good at following lists

Your team comes up with a list of 52 places to go every year. I respect that. I’m also a travel list maker. A while back I decided I wanted to travel to all seven continents. Since I have a day job, I couldn’t tackle them all at once, but I rationed my vacation days wisely and managed to see the world one continent at a time.

7 Continents or 52 places? I’ve got the hand signals for either job.

I’ve got stamina

My most epic spurt of travel occurred in 2014. I went on a two week hiking trip through India and Nepal, returned home to New Jersey for three days so I could move apartments, then flew to Monte Carlo for a week-long work conference, followed by another week of office work in London. Going from one extreme to the other, I found myself roughing it without electricity in Nepal one week and the next week I was at a black-tie gala in Monaco eating gold leaf desserts. You can send me anywhere.

I enjoy the big and little things on the road

Yes, I’ve been to Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. But I’ve also been to more exotic places like the Pen Café in Waiouru, New Zealand and the Mushroom Museum in Kennett Square, PA, which has closed its main building but some of the exhibits have relocated to The Mushroom Cap store. I know because I’ve been to both mushroom locations.

I can write

I’m not just a pretty face with a well-worn passport. I also have a masters’ degree in journalism from Boston University. During my student days I interned at Food and Travel magazine in London. And I’ve been to Lonely Planet’s holiday party once. That last fact counts, right?

I’m a nice person

I’m nice by default, but it has its uses when you’re working as a travel journalist. People open up to you and tell you things they wouldn’t tell other people. If you ask a question about a train schedule, they’ll give you the answer but also advise you that the bus is the better option. Being nice has meant that when I’ve traveled in Brazil and India and England I’ve stayed at the homes of friends rather than hotels. Being nice helps the world feel smaller, which is useful when you have epic travel dreams.

So, Monica Drake, I’m your traveler. Let me know when you want me to start.

Emily Berry

Hey, Mr. History, where are the women?

I’ve been thinking a lot about documentary film historian Ken Burns lately because of his new work The Vietnam War. When I looked at a list of his past works I wondered: where are the women?

Burns has a reputation of being the chronicler of America’s stories, but those stories are only telling half the story, the male half.

My request of histories future is this – may we women have a seat at the table.
We dominate the stories of about the basic elements we’ve always been reduced to: appearance (through fashion and beauty) and reproduction (the never ending abortion battle). But we are seldom equal players when it comes it to the bread and butter of American stories Burns is known for, subjects like war and politics.

There are some exceptions to this, such as Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt’s appearance in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. But they are exceptions.

Burns is not the only one doing this, but he is the titian of the historical documentary genre and thus got me thinking about the bigger picture.

It seems easier for narrators to group us all together (A League of Their Own, Title IX) or to single out those with the largest impact (Dorthea Lang, Henrietta Lacks) rather than to see the stories of women given equal billing alongside those of men.

And even when we are part of a bigger story, like the space program, we have to be lumped together (Hidden Figures) in order for our story to be heard, the same way a small brown body count won’t trigger the type of news stories that a small white body count will. The pile has to be get higher for outsiders to notice.

There is strength in diversification. More people living the stories. More people producing the stories. More people sharing the stories. This is our battle cry. Keep going. Speak up. And don’t leave half the population out of tomorrow’s history books.

If I had Ken Burn’s resources, I’d first start to look at the interesting stories in history (sorry, Serena and Hillary) or at least the elderly (looking at you, RBG!). Maybe develop a script about the steel industry in America featuring a start turn by Rebecca Lukens, America’s first female CEO of an industrial company. There are also interesting stories to be told about Mary Pickford, the token women at the table when United Artists was founded. And move over Jim Henson and Mr. Rogers, we’d like to shine a light on Sheri Lewis, too. Last but not least if the audience still wants a political focus, there’s always the leaders America has absorbed and forgotten, like Liliʻuokalani, Queen of Hawaii.

Notable women lived and breathed, even if the current history on them is quiet. We need to shout to fill the void.

In praise of January

January is one of my favorite months and I’m glad it’s here. The air feels more fresh than frigid since we’re used to the freezing temperatures by now, and the days are steadily getting longer, filled with more wonderful sunlight. Everything is new and there’s a dreamy possibility of what the New Year will bring.

Plus, it always offers a lot of time snuggled in blankets reading new books collected over the holidays or indulging in hot baths or various spa treatments. I love it.

People who hate on January tend to focus on the dark, cold and increase of seasonal depression. But if there’s a month I dread, then it’s probably August, the death of summer and fun. I start to notice the shorter days and fading flowers. August is a total buzzkill.

Meanwhile, everything may be frozen solid in January, but we’re so much closer to Spring, my favorite season, then we are in August.

Embrace January! After the seasonal rush of forced socializing and too many commitments, January gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. Live it up, people.

January hides the blooms of Spring like a secret
January hides the blooms of Spring like a secret

The Ungraceful Gender Defender

Of all the proud feminists out there, I’m not the one to call when the ladies need defending. I’m the ungraceful gender defender. Any eloquence of language that might come through now and again completely leaves the room when somebody, male or female, starts saying dumb shit. (See, I can’t even think of a better, more intellectual term to use than “dumb shit” and we haven’t even left the first paragraph yet.)

my grandma's cooler than you
my grandma’s cooler than you

The speaker doesn’t need to be putting ladies down to be offensive. The person could be trying to give a misguided compliment.

A man once said to me that women are more artistically inclined than men. At first I gave my standard response: What!?! Are you fucking kidding me?

Because this was someone that I’d previously had a bit more respect for, I spent the next several minutes trying to get him to admit that he was joking. He wasn’t. He was convinced this was a deep truth of the universe.

In hindsight I wish I’d challenged his statement with questions such as, “Then why are there so many male artists displayed in museums?” “Why aren’t their more women inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” “Why aren’t there more women on the best sellers list or directing movies or holding high-earning positions in the many artistic careers out there? Surely if we have that natural, God-given inclination to be artists, our culture’s artwork would reflect that.”

Just for all those dumbass readers thinking to themselves, yeah, there are a lot of successful men in the arts, that must mean men are more artistically inclined than women — Nope, it doesn’t mean that. It means you hear about the artists who make money and since men usually hold the power and the purse strings in a society, we usually end up hearing about their art.

And, oh yeah, something like artistic ability isn’t linked to gender, it’s up to the individual.

More recently someone told me I was just like a guy because I like music, beer and dive bars. This isn’t the first time that a guy has called me out like this, basically saying that I’m cool because I’m more like a guy than a girl. And I feel genuinely sorry for guys who think that way because they must know a bunch of lame girls.

I know a bunch of cool girls. Because girls are awesome. And that’s all I have to say about that because, again I’m the ungraceful gender defender. So fuck you.

Sometimes other people pull out their megaphones to reiterate these things, with better language. Think of the recent (possibly copyright infringing) video by GoldieBlox. When I see commercials like that I think those are the chicks I’d be friends with, not the princess patrol, not the trophy wives in training. And there’s nothing shocking about seeing girls as engineers, because I see them in real life, too.

The GoldieBlox video hit YouTube around the same time as Lily Allen’s video for “Hard Out Here.” Lily’s from my generation, and she’s got a way with words.

The chorus puts it bluntly. “Sometimes it’s hard to find the words to say. I’ll go ahead and say them anyway. Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits. It’s hard out here for a bitch.”

Well said, lady.

Child of the U.S.A.

Why the f#*k does The Boss make me weepy?!
Why the f#*k does The Boss make me weepy?!

Sometimes a moment just hits you. Out of nowhere, something happens, your mood changes and you can’t deny it. You are humbled by the moment, and left shaken.

And sometimes these moments crystallize your identity and make you realize things about yourself that you didn’t fully understand or previously see evidence of.

During a semester abroad, I was walking down the street in London on my way to the theatre. I loved living in London and could not have been happier about the situation and my life at that point.

It was autumn and the sun set early, so even though it wasn’t very late, the street were dark and I was navigating a new part of town. As I was walking past shops and grocers I heard Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” come playing out of bar and I started to cry, as I kept walking along.

“I was born in the U.S.A!” I wailed internally, while my mouth wobbled downward and I tried to hold back the tears welling up in my eyes.

These emotions caught me completely off guard. I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t care about this song. I knew I loved America, but so what? That’s nothing to cry about. What was it that provoked this reaction? I have no idea. Maybe I was in denial about my homesickness, or maybe hearing those words “Born in the U.S.A.,” so clearly when I was in a different country just highlighted my American-ness in a very powerful way. I don’t know.

I can wave the flag and sing the national anthem at football games, but it’s these unexpected moments that hit you in the gut that really make you think about your country and what it means to be one of its citizens.

In contrast, there are other times when you see the negative side of America and you wish you weren’t a part of it. I know America does a lot of bad things, but I usually don’t think too long about the specifics of it. Sometimes the injustices of America flicker through my mind, like when I was living in Cleveland and I knew no matter how fast I drove through East Cleveland or how many traffic laws I broke, the cops would never pull a white girl over in that neighborhood.

It’s wrong. It’s bad. It’s a fact. We move on.

But sometimes those things get to you.

In Johannesburg, South Africa in 2011, I was waiting for a plane to fly back to New York City. One of the girls I’d been traveling with was there, too, waiting for her flight home to London. We ate dinner and when it got closer to our flights we walked downstairs to our gates. Every other gate in the airport looked as it always did, looked the same way it did about a week ago when I few into the same airport. But it was a few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the security around the flight to New York was visible.

Continue reading “Child of the U.S.A.”