Thoughts and questions on Personal and Institutional Change

Hello! This was a post I made to one of my EECS professors here at UofM. I am curious about opinions and ideas that people have on instituting effective methods for personal change, as well as institutional reform. If you have any opinions or thoughts on the topic, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

 

“I’m a student from last semester who met with you once after class to discuss the difficulties and logistics of creating personal change. We talked a bit about how challenging it is to “will” oneself to change – it’s unlikely that a drug addict not faced with the macro consequences of their decisions (or external pressures) would suddenly “decide” to stop. Tangentially, I still think that narrative structure tell us a lot about how people change; the Call to Adventure, or some inciting event, sets us up to experience challenge and failure, which eventually has us “return to the familiar” with a changed mindset – a structure that seems to map well to how people realistically end up becoming better or worse. Similarly, I think hitting “rock bottom” for addicts might be an inciting event that eventually leads to rehabilitation and change.

Given that we can’t exactly control if and when we experience “inciting events” in our lives (i.e. Frodo [or, I suppose, Sam, if you think he’s the real hero] can’t have chosen to have Gandalf give the One Ring to him; Chihiro didn’t exactly ask to be dropped into a magical spirit world), what are some ways we may be able to push ourselves towards change? Should we take actions that would increase our probability of having “inciting events?” Or is gradual change entirely possible, and we should introduce small, unfamiliar events into our lives? How much blame should I place upon myself for my failures to change (is rationalizing the difficulties of change just an excuse for a lack of willpower, or laziness, and the only solution is just to get up and stop being lazy and do it already you punk)?

 

It seems that experiencing failure is one such impetus, and you recommended essentially “setting yourself up for failure in a low-risk environment” (i.e. taking on too many responsibilities to handle within a relatively low-consequence situation) as a possibility. Are there any other studied ways on how people improve?

 

Besides the issue of personal change, what are some ideas on institutional change? I’m two seasons into The Wire, and its perspectives on progress are bleak. (spoiler-free ahead) The show makes a point that characters are perpetually trapped in “the game,” institutionalized by some inevitable human propensity for crime, or the bureaucracy of “chain of command”, or even familial pressures, all components that seem to strip the characters of agency (and perhaps blame?) and the ability to impact the system. Some of the Barksdale crew are barely even aware of life outside “the game” – in which case, it seems moral responsibility and blame are highly dubious for these characters, more so than for others. It’s easy to see that Stringer Bell and Wee-Bey have sin, but Wallace? It seems obvious that micro-level actions look hopeless against the churning machine of “the game,” or the systems in place (are students, too, stuck in some “game” of competitive high schools, colleges, medical programs, etc? To become software engineers and doctors?). Are there studied ways that end up creating meaningful change in our systems? The second season does seem to suggest that at the very least, technological progress will naturally wipe out the past and change the future, although not necessarily for the better in the case of the Sobotkas and the dock workers. Are we truly relegated to just waiting around for improvements? What are some opinions?

 

I get that these are all probably difficult questions without clear answers (some of which I think might teeter close to opinions on moral responsibility and free will) – I’m really just interested in personal opinions or thoughts from others on these topics (this wall-of-text is probably just an excuse because I wanted to talk about The Wire). Feel free not to answer this post, too – professors are busy, and I wouldn’t mind! Thanks for reading!

 

 

TL;DR – What are some ways we might be able to impact meaningful, positive change on ourselves, and our institutions?”

Great Singles: “浴室” (Bathroom) by Sheena Ringo

I’ve been rather into the Japanese music scene lately, exploring some city pop with Taeko Ohnuki, drone with Boris, and whatever bucket Cornelius falls into. I’m a big fan of each of these albums below, and I’d easily recommend every one. Sunshower is definitely the “easiest-listening,” with really sweet vocals and jazzy, catchy instrumentals. I’m not particularly a fan of drone, and Feedbacker tested my patience on the first listen, but revisiting the album makes me like it more every time. It’s loud and heavy. Fantasma is campy and fun, and it kind of sounds like Cornelius is trolling at times (he samples a fly…), but then there are these great moments within the tracks that are super creative or just drop-dead gorgeous (second half of “Micro Disneycal World Tour” – holy shit).

Image result for SUnshower albumImage result for feedbackerImage result for fantasma cornelius

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anyways, the other artist I’ve been listening to is Sheena Ringo. Specifically, her album Shōso Strip, and more specifically, my favorite single on the album, “浴室”, or “Bathroom.” Damn, I love this track. It might just be my favorite pop song ever. It’s chaotic, catchy, lush, weird, noisy, listenable, experimental, plus a bunch of other buzzword adjectives. There are sections of harsh noise that preempt soaring, reverb-heavy psychedelia, just as there’s groovy, beat-driven bass complemented by Ringo’s eccentric yet alluring vocal performance.

 

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“Bathroom” is this great amalgamation of a bunch of different elements, and it absolutely grabs your attention from the start. The groove is established by this continuous, bubbly baseline, which gets further layered with complexity throughout the song. At around 1:00, the track introduces a second bass, and there’s a great counterpoint-like moment that’s really effective in ramping up the track for the gorgeous refrain.

The refrain is a lush wall of sound with reverb-laden guitar, a soaring string section, and glistening piano embellishments. But it’s definitely Ringo’s unique singing as the centerpiece here – it’s somewhat nasally, which might turn off some listeners at first, but you become adjusted to her eccentricities quickly. Ringo also likes to trill her R’s, which I think adds even more character to this already sultry, colorful track. There’s a bit of discordance with her use of noise and glitch elements, but this contrasts well with how smooth the production of the refrain is. I love the bits where harsh noise leads into the dreamy refrain; it’s like surfacing from a dark underwater crevasse into some rosy, verdant oasis.

Let’s take a look at the lyrics:

“I’m laughing more than usual today,
but earlier I had a dream in which you died, and I couldn’t help but love you
No matter what, don’t desert me”

“Wash me, and cut me open in the water
It floods my respiratory organs
Make sure that I dry out completely
Polish me, and tear me open in the water
I let myself over to weightlessness
Once I’ve completely dissolved, be sure to consume me immediately”

Well… that’s dark. I’m not entirely sure what the song is about, although I have a hunch it might be about washing away and “dissolving” all her perceived faults, as if she’s “impure” or dirtied.  There’s a strong vibe of helplessness and self-hatred with some of the phrasing, and it’s obvious the song is dealing with some kind of dependency on her lover. I wasn’t quite expecting lyrics as dark or abstract as this, but I think it’s another factor that contributes to how versatile and unique the entire song is.

The rest of Shōso Strip is pretty fantastic as well, and there are a few more standout tracks that I’d highly recommend. I hope you give it a shot!

Super Cool… Album Covers? Ft. Weyes Blood, Björk, and the Death Grips!

The importance of an album cover shouldn’t be understated – it’s the one visual medium that the artist chooses to communicate to the listener, so you can bet there’s been a ton of thought put into what exactly that message should be. Before music streaming was made popular and people had to actually, you know, buy the vinyl to listen to music, people would often make decisions on the cover itself – judging an album by its cover. And besides just being an important means of getting your album heard, it’s a component of the album’s whole that can really contribute a lot as some kind of subconscious mental priming for the listening experience. Here are a few of my more contemporary favorites!

 

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Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood! I love this album – it’s my AOTY for 2019! The music itself is lush, spacey, and gorgeous, which is reflected well by this scene of Natalie Mering herself in some kind of ethereal, underwater fantasy. Homey and domestic, yet soaked in some kind of nostalgic tint. It works really well with my favorite song on the album, “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” which I always imagine as the story of some wizened mother cooing to her hurt child – life’s hard, and you’ll have to learn how to get hurt… but until then, I’ll still be here for you. Argh, it’s too good.

 

Mount Eerie by The Microphones! Unfortunately, I can’t seem to go a week without talking about one of Phil Elverum’s works. Mount Eerie is a pretty abstract record that deals heavily with mortality, and that seems to be the focal point of our cover as well. This old woman, staring at some animal’s skull, seems to me like her own reflections on death – that she knows that she too will eventually become this dilapidated chunk of bone. The pen-and-ink style is very raw, which if you know Phil Elverum, is exactly his vibe.

 

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Guns by Quelle Chris! Quelle Chris and his wife Jean Grae are seriously underrated – check out Everything’s Fine for a hyper-sarcastic take on modern culture and our political system. The cover to Guns is really great too, with its sawed-off acting as Chris’ nostrils and the guns literally coming out of every orifice, a metaphor for how ubiquitous the gun-control issue has gotten in our lives. There’s not much else to say. It’s political.

 

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The Money Store, by the Death Grips! No longer some underground hip-hop act, this album cover is pretty well-known nowadays. Super-reflective of the BDSM-type violence and sexuality that’s present in the album, you can make out “DEATH GRIPS” flayed into the “gimp’s” chest. And it’s interesting to note the androgyny of the “submissive” as well. All in all, I really like how grotesque-but-not-really-we’re-just-being-human the whole thing is. Or maybe I’m too prude and it’s not actually grotesque at all. Hmm.

 

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Homogenic by Björk! I find this cover fascinating. It definitely draws your attention with how unnatural the whole image is, what with the alien-like gaze of her eyes and the giant symmetrical rings of hair. It’s simultaneously regal and rugged, her stern demeanor a good representation of the coldness of songs like “Hunter” and “Bachelorette”… and all the other songs too. Luckily, Björk has talked about the meaning of the image as “someone who is put into an impossible situation, so impossible that she has to become a warrior. A warrior who has to fight not with weapons, but with love.”

Super Cool Singles: “Night Shift” by Lucy Dacus

Usually on this blog I like to write about singles that are special in some defining means – “Through the Trees, Pt. 2” for its dramatic poetry on being alive in a strange universe, “Fireworks” for capturing an oddly midwestern sense of malaise, “These Chains” a super creative and beautiful Korean folktronic sound, and “The Rip” for Beth Gibbons’ vulnerability in delivery and overall isolating sound.

“Night Shift” as a single is a lot more straightforward. The closest track out of the above is definitely “The Rip,” in which both songs have this great female vocal lead carry you through themes of melancholy and regret. But “Night Shift” isn’t as intricate as the imagery of Portishead’s “wild white horses” and crushing self-doubt; our narrator actually tells herself that she “regains her self-worth in record time.” Rather, “Night Shift” is fixated on this simple narrative of meeting a past lover at a coffee shop and all the icky, sad feelings that are dredged back up.

Maybe it’s my recent moodiness, but I’m very moved by this otherwise simple indie rock song. The lines depicting this guy “staring at his feet” at the coffee shop communicate a lot of unspoken tension – why did we even come here? Is there something that needs to be said between us? Or did I just come to see you again? There’s nothing left to be said – I’ll “pay for my coffee and leave,” and “walk four hours in the dark, feeling all hell.” What a biting line! It’s so easy to imagine the regret and bitterness that stems from this previously precious relationship, now just an awkward amalgam of wistful feelings.

And of course the narrative expands on the meaning of “Night Shift” – since you work nine to five, I’ll work the night shift so we’ll never have to see each other again. The song soars from here; a droney and punchy guitar backs Dacus’ soulful rendition, a cathartic release of built-up tension, like finally being able to let go of the knot in your chest.

I feel that there’s a lot of power in “Night Shift’s” simplicity. In general, stories might fit into these four boxes: a simple narrative with simple meaning, a simple narrative with complex meaning, a complex narrative with simple meaning, and a complex narrative with complex meaning. While songs like “Through the Trees, Pt. 2” probably fits within a simple narrative and complex meaning, there’s something more low-level and fundamental about songs like “Night Shift” that I think perfectly targets our base human reactions. One of my favorite movies, “Groundhog’s Day,” also utilizes this simple narrative and simple meaning to great impact – it’s a fundamental tale of “becoming a better person,” which is hard not to admire and reflect on, even if you disliked the movie as a whole. I guess what I’m trying to say is that these simple stories are often piercingly honest and relatable, and maybe that’s a lot more important than just looking for art with a lot of “depth” (not that anyone disagreed, of course). In that sense, “Night Shift” is really great.

Super Cool Singles: “Through the Trees Pt. 2” by Mount Eerie – the probably *actual* most beautiful song I’ve heard

Finally! I once again get to express my love for works by Phil Elverum (AKA The Microphones AKA Mount Eerie AKA a lot of other names). His seminal album, The Glow Pt. 2*, is my favorite album of all time, and Mount Eerie is fantastic as well. The albums regarding the death of his wife Geneviève feel just too intrusive for me to listen to often, but they highlight a kind of perspective on death that’s been watered down by media and our understandable “normalization” of death, in that “death is real,” and when you really end up coming face-to-face with having someone you love die, it’s just no longer something to be making art out of, or using as a trite plot device in your novel, or philosophizing about – it’s suffering and it’s horrible and it’s not some abstract concept that’s funny to be joking about anymore. So if you can handle the raw emotional weight of “Real Death,” and I mean real death, not the silly “fake” concept of death often shown in action movies and video games, you (very tentatively) might want to give A Crow Looked at Me a shot. And I’m aware that by writing about death in this manner and being somewhat insipid about this whole deal, I’ve also abstracted away the brutal honesty of death.

*This is kind of a meme, but the first three tracks to The Glow Pt. 2 is like, the strongest consecutive string of tracks ever. Memes are based on truth.

Anyways, back on “lighter” topics of existentialism and the odd duality of man’s technology and nature – “Through the Trees Pt. 2,” the opening track to Clear Moon, expresses what it’s like to be alive today in such a breathtaking and honest way that I can’t help but feel like it might be one of the best songs ever made. The act of writing about and analyzing songs like “Through the Trees Pt. 2” or the experience of real death is somewhat pointless – it will never be as legitimate as really understanding for yourself. But I love this song, so I’ll try my best to communicate why I think it’s so moving.

“Misunderstood
And disillusioned
I go on describing this place
And the way it feels to live and die

The ‘natural world’
And whatever else it’s called
I drive in and out of town
Seeing no edge, breathing sky”

 

“Through the Trees Pt. 2” is a dramatic and incredibly sincere take on being alive. The gentle plucking and heavy reverb of acoustic guitar develops our narrative (and musical) landscape; it’s some solitary moonlit walk through the forest in cold, still air, an understanding of one’s own mortality, and how strange it is to have blood course through your heart and veins and to be walking and breathing at all. At the same time, it’s also that feeling of “walking through the store after work” and driving “in and out of town” – such trivial and uninteresting actions, a kind of ridiculous notion when compared to the weight of being a conscious, living thing. And yet that’s the absurd world we live in – one where mountains and websites coexist.

Phil Elverum washes away the constructs that guide our daily lives, and forces self-analysis at the most primal level – our careers, our place in society, Instagram and Facebook, self-improvement goals, partying over the weekend, social awkwardness, and even our friends and family, are all abstracted away for a raw and no-bullshit look at how overwhelming it is to be some kind of living organism in this gigantic universe. It’s music expressing the naked truth: we live and die in this same fleeting moment, and the marks we make are lost to the infinite expanse of time. The bells of fate chime near the end of our song, but there’s blood flowing through your hands right now.

And that’s really why I think this song is so special. It communicates a strange existential feeling – wondrous, uncomfortable, sad, and contemplative all at once. Have you ever asked yourself this question: “I wonder what it’ll be like when I’m X years old?” And then you become X years old in an instant, and that life of yours you lived N years ago is functionally gone and dead, a memory certain to be lost, to which it becomes clear that this same thing will happen again with this very instant. With really every instant – the tiny one-dimensional snapshot that makes up our lives. Phil Elverum captures that idea in “Through the Trees Pt. 2,” and the result is perhaps the most strikingly sincere song I’ve heard yet.

Super Cool Singles: “The Rip” by Portishead – among the most beautiful songs I’ve heard

 

Genuinely haunting, dark, and meditative, “The Rip” speaks a deeply unhappy narrative of lost love and the bitter aftertaste of regret and grief. The instrumental begins stripped back, a lone acoustic guitar punctuated with chilly synths, and the obvious centerpiece: Beth Gibbons’ incredibly affecting voice is piercingly genuine and tender. The first three lines, along with our barren instrumental, communicate much in imagery:

“As she walks in the room
Scented and tall
Hesitating once more”

Gibbons lingers on each phrase, enunciating meticulously the weight of each word – our character, the woman, walks slowly into frame, where some aching pains of loss, previously felt, return “once more.” The next few lines switch into the scope of “I,” either the previously mentioned “she”, or perhaps some other man or woman, an ex-lover.

“And as I take on myself
And the bitterness I felt
I realize that love flows”

“I” describes the “bitterness” of their lost love, but also a growth in character; after “taking on” the resentful feelings towards their relationship, and reflecting on their own shortcomings, they realize that “love flows” anyways, that through the turmoil and suffering felt, they still feel the ability to love. The chorus captures the emotional core of “The Rip,” the longing desire for relief and freedom from inner grief, or “the tenderness I feel.”

“Wild, white horses
They will take me away
And the tenderness I feel
Will send the dark underneath
Will I follow?”

Uncertainty colors the last phrase, where “I” questions if they will be “taken away” from this state of emotional “tenderness,” or if they will end up spiraling into some even-lower nadir. White and dark contribute as contrasts, driving further the two potential paths that “I” sees themselves in.

Sonically, Gibbons’ voice is achingly sincere and communicates a very human sense of emotional vulnerability. The synths do their job, too, almost as a kind of robotic contrast to the rawness of the vocals, and end up developing into a low, warm-sounding melody that accompanies Gibbons’ higher-register voice.

I love “The Rip” because it tears my heart out. Gibbons’ vocals are gorgeous, the synths are gorgeous, the lyrics are gorgeous, and the song is a gorgeous, mature expression of loss and that swell of feelings afterwards. There are also no wasted sounds in this song. “The Rip” is rather simple, comprised of just vocals, a single acoustic guitar, synths, and some drumming. But it’s truly Gibbons’ performance that convinces us of the human element of inner turmoil, and the sincerity of it is what makes “The Rip” such a relatable and understandable depiction of the wounded feeling of some bygone, previously cherished, love.