We Bought a Zoo: Because Sometimes Crazy Is Just What We Need


Matt Damon and Cast

We Bought a Zoo is a good movie. I just listened to Filmspotting‘s list of top 10 movies of the year and you won’t find We Bought a Zoo there or probably any other list of the critically acclaimed. (Of course I’ve only heard of a handful of what they did mention.) And it shouldn’t be. The plot is simple and even predictable. Damon is effective in the lead and Scarlett Johansson redeems recent performances, buy neither blows you away. Thomas Hayden Church is the hammy pessimist. John Michael Higgins and Elle Fanning are show stealers. And it works. It’s good. Sitting there in the theater it hit me that, with the over-dramatic, computer generated, and suped-up special effects, the art of the good and pleasant movie is somewhat lost these days. We Bought a Zoo is just … good.

We narrowed our list of potential movies to Sherlock Holmes, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and We Bought a Zoo. I don’t know how you go about making the decision at your house, but for us deciding which movie we’re going to watch gets tough once we get the decision down to three. It came down to this: Cameron Crowe. He struck magic with Jerry Maguire. Hit Oscar with Almost Famous. Became iconic with Say Anything. Entered the vernacular with Fast Times. And struck a profound chord with Elizabethtown. Suffice it to say, Crowe is one of our favorites. And even though it felt like he didn’t really know how he wanted to shoot this movie or where he wanted to insert those great lines of his, he’s still Cameron Crowe and he can still bring it. In We Bought a Zoo Crowe creates more than a few magical moments.

What was best about We Bought a Zoo, though, was much simpler. Our world is anything but certain these days. The economy remains a mess and lots of us are upside down on our houses as a result of another bubble gone “poof.” It can and is hard for a lot of people stuck between stagnation on one side and inability to act on the other. Damon’s character, Benjamin Mee, is facing a circumstance that should resonate with all of us. Far from a passive type, Mee is living an adventure when we are first introduced to him. But then he is invited into a greater adventure by the Larger Story of life. He responds by taking a chance. He takes a shot. At its heart, We Bought a Zoo is about a dad that responds to life’s call and does something right. When faced with one of tough life decisions, he chooses to act.

Our decisions in these moments are not always the right ones. But the important thing, it seems, is to make a decision; to take your shot. And that’s what Benjamin Mee does. He does something many would call crazy—and they would be right. But in taking his shot Benjamin Mee is taking ownership of his life and the future of his family. That’s always a good story. Agonistes recommends We Bought a Zoo as a show of support for the people that make good movies.

An Alarmist’s Response to Media

I joined Facebook more than two years ago. I initially resisted it—actually, I just didn’t understand it so therefore saw no real value in it. But in my work it became clear to me that it was something I needed to do. Not a big deal. And I loved it. I loved finding friends from my fraternity days and catching up with them. And Facebook allowed me to find friends from my Navy days that I otherwise would probably not have ever found. High school, of course, and in the early days it was a way to share pictures of my family, what we’re up to, and trips etc. for close friends and family eg. people that care.

Twitter came later. At first Twitter seemed to be everything that was bad about Facebook rolled into one single technology—minus any of the good. It came off as self-indulgent and narcissistic. Over time, however, it has proven to be a great tool for not only communicating with and within networks but also for getting news—real-time, lightning fast news—from other communities and affinity groups.

And so here we are, I think, at a place that seems logical for pushing “pause” and considering what all of this means. Shane Hipps, author of Flickering Pixels and The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, wrote an article last year for Relevant Magazine titled “Is Facebook Killing Our Souls?” I encourage you to read it by clicking here. Yes, this is an opinion piece but Hipps makes some great points— specifically how it can create a minor split between who we are and who we think we are—and I would add, who we want everybody else to believe we are. Another interesting observation he directs at Twitter. Twitter, Hipps assesses, “begs me to step out of the stream experience long enough record it.  The affect is that we are no longer present in any of our experiences.  We are living as unpaid journalists who chronicle life as it passes by.” To me, this is just frightening at some level.

But I wanted to expand his thoughts to include other forms of media, namely television in its various forms and smart phone technology. Just last night my daughter was flipping the channels and we landed on a television show called “Turtle Man” in which two Kentuckians were capturing possum in a whiskey distillery. (Agonistes can’t make this stuff up folks.) The show is not lacking in entertainment value. But relative entertainment is far from the point. Closer to the point however is the number of hours of reality television programming available to us—and sports programming, domestic entertainment, movies, and people just … being people. There was a day when (1) there were only 4 or 5 channels (2) then there was a day when there were around 30 channels (3) and there was a day when television actually ended. Remember that? The “TV Day” typically ended with the national anthem and then it either went black, went to fuzz, or to some random number with circles around it. (Which, when I think about it, is a little weird.) I remember trying to explain to my daughters how TV would end at the end of the day and they just couldn’t grasp it. The point is that it ended. It said, “Go to bed.” The day of TV ending is gone and the day of absolute media saturation has come.

And smart phone technology has, at least in my case, allowed me to become subject to the tyranny of the trivial. That is, I will break from a conversation or train of thought to ask Google what it is that I’m trying to remember, the weather, what movies are playing, the score of a ballgame, my texts, emails. Years ago I was in a telephone conversation with a guy named Leonard Sweet. Len is a very smart person and in our conversation, not so ironically talking about technology, he said that according to Moore’s Law a person would essentially be able to download his or her brain by 2020.

Admittedly I didn’t understand what Len was trying to tell me then. I didn’t understand, that is, until I asked Google who played second base for the 70s Boston Red Sox during a conversation with a friend of mine. And that’s when it hit me that I was counting on Google to remember for me. The smart phone is different from regular search engines that are really electronic encyclopedias in that they are with us all the time. So what happens, when over time, we continue to lean on a Google app for our memory instead of … our memory for our memory? What happens to muscles when they don’t get used? We are definitely moving into new territory.

This is most certainly not a rant against television, computer technology, social media, or smart phone technology. These are all useful tools—very useful. What it is, though, is something like a question: When is it too much access to information? Or maybe better put, at what point do we get to a point at which we become something less than what we were created to be as living beings?

It’s all so fascinating. If not early adopters, my wife and I have usually been in the second wave of technology adoption. That’s due in large part because of price. But in the last few months I’ve noticed media in its various forms and information accessibility saturation creeping more and more into the most sacred space of my mind. Shane Hipps makes some valid points, but he’s also right in that technology—progressive technology—isn’t going away. We need to learn how to manage it else learn how to say no. Agonistes also believes that there is a technological danger zone at which something can surely be lost.

A Few Thoughts on The Demise of Guys

Lets assume for a moment that Philip Zimbardo is accurate in the conclusions that he draws both from these statistics and as these statistics relate to his own research. I guess you could argue that boys have always been like this and so have men. Because I think that people tend not to change a whole lot I could go along with that … partially. But lets table that for the time being and respond simply to what Zimbardo is saying.

He opens up this discussion by citing it as fact that men are flaming out academically, wiping out socially with girls, and wiping out sexually with women. (Women, do you agree?) Throw in a fear of intimacy and a high level of social awkwardness and Zimbardo has made his opening case for the demise of guys. Even though it’s got to be more complicated, he sums it up by saying that men now prefer an asynchronistic Internet world to the spontaneous interaction of social relationship—I’m not totally sure that this is limited to men. This leaves men vulnerable to something he calls “arousal addiction”. That is, the constant need for something different. (Got to admit, that’s pretty interesting.)

So here’s what Agonistes thinks. Psychology, analysis, and the like can get us only so far, as valid as it is. We can sponsor research and draw conclusions that can address many of the issues raised in Philip’s introduction and be successful to a greater or lesser extent. What needs to happen, simply put, is that we need to expect more from men. Extended adolescence is the plague of postmodern masculinity. And, yeah, today’s world is definitely hard. For sure it’s a difficult place to navigate. But these circumstances should call out the masculinity, not suppress it.

The Tribes or Groups so common today (call the Friends Effect), the opportunity keep relationships at a distance, and the asynchronistic Internet world that Philp Zimbardo mentions have all, one way or another, provided men a place to hide-out. But so does the rescue. Entitlement programs, bail-outs, and political promises don’t exactly ask men to exercise the muscles of greatness. Instead what it asks men to do is … just wait. Hang out. That’s what the beer commercials suggest. And how many times have you heard a man’s mandatory”cave time” referenced. (Is that really what we need?) In other words, we need to our own “man on the white horse.” So essentially what you’ve got is not so much the demise of guys, but a generation of men that is yet to be “activated.”

So I’m reading a book called King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Maculine. It’s a different kind of read and—admittedly—over my head most of the time. It’s somewhat liberal (it is psychology, after all) but interesting in an on-again-off-again kind of way. The most interesting point the author has made—at least to me—is making a distinction between Boy Psychology and Man Psychology. There are healthy expressions of each, of course, but what left the most significant impression was the fact that without an initiation of some kind—some event, rite of passage, or ceremony—Boy Psychology remains for the most part in play and goes unchecked. The authors hypothesize that Western culture is by and large void of these initiations. Events like going off to college, military basic training, and athletics have saved us from absolute ruin I guess. Without a rite of passage of some kind, though, the mature masculine is never realized as Boy Psychology remains a man’s primary driver, ranging somewhere between the extremes of “high chair tyrant” and “weakling”.

This all says to me, unless the man is called out, the mature masculine will never step into the role our culture needs from him. Hard economic times have the ability to call out the mature masculine if we allow it to. Staring down adversity and dealing with the challenges at hand can conjure the man from the boy. Confronting life with all its nuances and unpredictability instead of retreating to the cave—that can call out the mature masculine as well. And yes standing face to face with someone of the opposite sex, as Zimbardo puts it, that gives off “ambiguous, contradictory signals” summons the man as well. But the industry—sports, TV, gaming, media to name a few—as Zimbardo says, has become very adroit and keeping men on the proverbial couch … and the mature masculine dormant. Our failure, however, lies in not calling the mature masculine into play and allowing (even encouraging) the boy into a life expectancy beyond what is healthy and normal. Maybe we don’t have so much a “demise of guys.” But maybe what we’ve got is actually a demise in expectation. And maybe men haven’t changed over the years, as we are tempted to conclude, rather the cultural environment has changed dramatically.

I was asked about possible solutions by a reader not too long ago. I think when it comes to reversing the demise of guys the solution can be relatively simple: guard the ground that’s been won and take back the ground that’s been lost. Consider this in light of the issues raised by Zimbardo.

Finding a Place for The Help

 A friend asked me this week, “So did you like The Help?” We’re all used to the question. It’s a familiar entree into a discussion about a particular movie—or it can also be an opportunity to give a short answer and move on. It comes as no surprise to you that most of the time I already have a position in mind before the question is asked. It’s just what I do. But where The Help is concerned, when I looked at my friend, ready to give an answer, I was unable to answer the question. I couldn’t answer the question because I’m having a difficult time responding to The Help, written and directed by Tate Taylor and based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.

The Help is a very well-crafted movie. The stakes are high—survival, identity, even life and death, the story compelling, and the characters are strong. The photography is sufficient but director Tate Taylor seems to get enough out of his ensemble cast to make up for a lack of memorable shots. (But with emotionally charged material like what we’ve got in The Help, the “Don’t blow it” rule is definitely in play.) There are several really good performances but I thought Cicely Tyson (Constantine) and Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly) were the most powerful. It’s also worth noting that I enjoyed my first Emma Stone experience and thought Viola Davis was effective in her role as Abileen Clark, the impact character that tends to drive the story. With ten nominations for Best Picture these days … who knows. It wouldn’t be a shocker to see The Help make the list in February. This movie feels important.

So I guess you could say that, yes, I liked the movie for its artistic and cinematic merit. Its content, however, left me a tad disconcerted. The Help is one of those films that rolls the proverbial snake over to reveal its terrible underbelly. The snake in this case is 1960s Jackson MS. And the underbelly is the servile industry of Jackson’s urban elite—or maybe its middle class. Regardless, there is a gentile crowd whose insensibility is on display as perhaps the most natural and subtle form of depravity I  can remember seeing on the big screen. As a result I’ve had a really difficult time taking a position on this movie. On the one hand I believe that it’s healthy and productive to revisit even the most painful moments of our past. There are lessons both to be learned and remembered. On the other hand there is a part of me that very much wants to put issues like those raised in The Help to bed once and for all.

And then there’s the tension that emerges from the nature of this fiction. I’ve got to give Stockett and Taylor credit for their creativity. Technically speaking, The Help had a touch of Renaissance drama story-within-a-story to it that gives it a classic vibe. I love what this kind of presentation asks of its audience, too. But a message this strong and sensitive needs more spine than mere fiction has to offer. In other words, writers don’t have to work hard to make a community, people group, or in this case entire region look bad. It’s easy. Accordingly I really wish this story wasn’t made up. And then I catch myself thinking that and feel ashamed because the better thing to wish for is that it never happened. I think maybe that the net effect is that  it feels less than honest to me. Not that Stockett isn’t justified or that the ethos is inaccurate—because it definitely is true of 1960s South and most likely still true to a greater extent than what anyone cares to admit today—but that these nameless and faceless individuals deserved their own voice. Not Stockett’s. This is not criticism of the author or her craft. It’s just commentary.

As a child of the South I’m familiar with the peculiar servile industry The Help uses to advance its plot. I can remember adults of my early adolescence working alongside black women of the day. It seemed benign enough to me. I certainly do not remember any uncomfortable moments and do not recall the tension that is definitely present in the movie. And that is what bothers me. William Faulkner’s Quentin Compson concluded that his Aunt Rosa told him the story of the south over and over because “we breathe the same air.” Collectively, the South has come into a unique ownership of this problem. In the end The Help isn’t about what’s going on in the movie or what may or may not have happened in 1960s Mississippi or any kind of statement that may be made about today. In the end it’s a movie about honesty and dishonesty. It is not about understanding, but an effort to understand. Or as Kathryn Stockett has posted on her web site:

But what I am sure about is this: I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially the 1960’s.  I don’t think it is something any white woman, on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck, could ever truly understand.  But trying to understand is vital to our humanity. 

Simply Enjoying the Dance

One of our family’s favorite shows is So You Think You Can Dance. And we’re not alone. Even though it dipped in popularity a little this year, it was still a strong top 20 program during the summer months when television viewing is at its lowest. It has won 7 Emmy’s, 5 of those for Outstanding Choreography.

I’ve written about it before here, but So You Think You Can Dance is, if anything, a celebration of the human spirit. My wife and I are often compelled to remark, “Dancers are the happiest people EVER.” Even though the temptation to compare SYTYCD to other similar shows such as American Idol and Dancing With The Stars is certainly in play, they really couldn’t be more different. While Idol and DWTS are “made for TV” cheese with little to no substance, So  You Think You Can Dance only addresses and perpetuates the art of dance. These guys know they aren’t going to get rich quick so they—the judges, the contestants, the choreographers—are engaged only for the sake of advancing their art form. And even though I got dragged kicking and screaming into its viewership, I am admittedly drawn by the show’s sincerity as well as its simplicity.

We just recently watched the finale during which the last 4 dancers/contestants are whittled away in 15-20 increments down to the champion. Surprisingly, this year’s finale was a little disappointing. There was one particular performance in which the dancers clearly failed to meet the standards of the choreographers. (I do know more about dance now that I ever thought I would have. Good thing? Only time will tell.) At the end of course, the dancers were all smiles. The camera shot turned to the choreographer, whom I expected to express at least a degree of frustration or disappointment or both.

The SYTYCD choreographers have become my favorite “characters” on the show. After watching several seasons and developing would-be relationships with each one of the regulars, we’ve become somewhat familiar with their work. What’s generated the most wonder, however, is how these creators conjure the dance from their own imagination and experiences, show the steps to dancers they’ve only just met, work intimately with them as they impart their vision and their art, all before taking their seat with the rest of the audience as the dancers give life to what was just days earlier only an idea—if that’s the right word. Watching their physicality and facial expressions as they sit in the audience, I’ve wondered aloud what it’s like for the choreographers to trust someone completely with the dance they have created. Just sitting there. Surely there are steps missed, personal touches both added and taken away, or even a complete mis-interpretation of it all.

That’s what I expected to see on the face of this choreographer after this particular what I would call “disaster” in the finale. But it wasn’t. The choreographer seemed just as pleased as she would have had the dancers hit every step, showcased every nuance, and bared all the heart she expected. “It must be the nature of choreography,” I said to my wife, both of us noticing the same thing. “Maybe it’s not about hitting all the steps just right, getting it perfect.” Fair enough.

Because I’ve been taught to pay attention; to note those things that move us, strike a personal chord, and even haunt us, I continued to wonder why I find the choreographers so interesting and the relationship between the dancers and the choreographers so fascinating. For one, they share the dance. One creates the dance but at some point steps back and allows the dancers to put their own touches on it. What emerges from the relationship is a shared art that allows the unique giftedness of each dancer to shape the performance. Second, it’s about intimacy. Not the kind of intimacy that is all over the sit-coms, magazine ads, and feature films these days; rather, the kind of intimacy that edifies, builds, and creates. It’s the kind of intimacy that allows both the dancer and the creator to be known to one another. This is the kind of intimacy that requires effort and, yes, even work. But will always end with something beautiful even if all the steps are not hit exactly right.

And lastly I feel that there is something divine in the nature of the relationship between the choreographer and the dancer. Not necessarily in their relationship, but in the nature of their relationship. Because God is infinite the list of metaphors and illustrations for our relationship with Him is just as endless. But there seems to be an aspect of God as Choreographer—a Choreographer for our lives as a dance. He creates the dance. He knows our strengths. He gives us the steps. He enjoys the intimacy and teaching. He shows us why we fall and helps lift us back into motion when we do. But when the time comes, I can’t help but think that He always enjoys watching us dance. Our responsibilities are multiple, but at the top of the list has got to be (1) pay attention (2) bring everything you’ve got. And don’t forget this “what if” question: What if you don’t have to be perfect?

Running Down the Dream: Drawing Lines Between Dream and Fantasy

San Simeon, California. Photo courtesy of Karen Daniel

It hasn’t happened in a while around me, but it isn’t uncommon for the question, “What do you think she is like in real life?” to be asked about an actress during a television show or, more often, a feature film. The question is innocuous. I mean, it makes sense. There’s a fake life on the screen and there’s a real life in the living room. Upon deeper inspection, however, the question can be telling. For many of us there does seem to be some sort of notion of a reality-beyond-reality—something obviously less than real yet very influential in how we process and see the world around us.

I was in Colorado a few years ago. It was Georgetown, Colorado just off I25. Great town for grabbing a coffee. (So is Idaho Springs. And Leadville. And Buena Vista. Every town in Colorado for that matter.) My family and I stopped to have lunch. I don’t remember anything we talked about or what we ate or the name of the restaurant. The only thing I remember was a button our server was wearing that day. It said “Reality: What a concept.”

There are moments that you remember for a reason. Like your first kiss. And then there are other moments that you remember for no apparent reason—like a server’s button in Georgetown CO. Again, the idea behind the button suggests that there is an option other than reality. It’s not so hard to conclude that we’re all aware of the fact that our lives are stories with alternate endings. What’s confusing, though, is what these endings are, how to get from where we are to a desired ending, and where the lines between fantasy and dream are ultimately drawn. But where “reality” is concerned, there is only one viable conclusion: there is no “alternate reality.”

I think we’ve always had a bent toward escapism. Before television there were feature films. Before films there were novels. Before novels there was poetry. Before poetry there was drama. Before drama there was … farming. OK so maybe that’s where the notion of “alternate reality” began—when somebody finally said, “Man I’m tired of hoeing this field.” So the farmer looked for something to get his mind off of work. He didn’t create a fictitious world loose from the mooring of what he knew. What he did was carve out a place in the real world to which he could retreat. Somewhere in there lies the difference between “fantasy” and “dream.” “And this is important why?” I can hear you asking. Agonistes believes that our newfound game-show culture in which all you’ve got to do is be willing to make a fool out of yourself on television for a few thousand, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, is on the verge of dropping completely into the grips of a fantasy world; a world unhinged from the sights, sounds, textures, and–yes–consequences of reality.

This distinction fantasy and dream hit me during a recent  trip to Disney World—trust me, I’ve got nothing against WDW. It’s one of my favorite places. We were watching one of the shows at Cinderella’s Castle. There were princesses and princes. A villain of course. Good wins—at least judging by the music. Just as the narrator challenged everyone within earshot to “reach for their dreams”  my oldest daughter says to me, “But what they DON’T show you, though, is all of the doubt, the bumps and bruises, the failures, fear, and the work it takes to live the dream.” (She was 15 at the time.) Always on the prowl for a potential blog post, I was struck: that’s the problem. That’s the difference between the fantasy and the dream. More than work, I would couch the  primary difference within what a mentor of mine described as “having skin in the game.” (Also check out Karen Dill’s How Fantasy Becomes Reality.)

Here’s the deal. Being a professional baseball player, for me, is fantasy. It isn’t going to happen. If I was ever good enough, that day is gone. I could hire a coach, a personal trainer, take BP and infield until I was blue in the face, and it wouldn’t matter. I could, however, write a novel. It could happen. For that to happen I would need to confront internal enemies such as fear of failure and lack of discipline—a very healthy enterprise—and do the hard work of developing a compelling story with intriguing characters. It might not be Hemingway, but I could do it. Even if this isn’t the best example, it makes a point: chasing the dream is edifying. Remaining in fantasy is destructive.

But the distinction goes deeper. Lets consider something easily categorized as fantasy … just for argument’s sake … just picking one at random … let’s go with … pornography. I’ve written about this before. Try to look at this emotional pandemic through the edification vs destruction filter above. Pornography requires nothing of a person: no commitment, no emotional investment, no real effort. That’s fantasy. On the flipside, look at what it promises. It promises adventure, but ultimately robs you of adventure. It promises beauty, but delivers only a one dimensional veneer. It promises fulfillment, but only for moments and only leaves you wanting more. It promises control, but in the final analysis owns you.  Granted, this is an extreme example. But this can be applied to just about anything we do compulsively. Why do I watch football? What is that a substitute for? What are so many of us addicted to Facebook? What does that say about one’s desire and how we’ve channeled it?

There is a lyric in an Avett Brothers song that says, “Your dreams to catch, the world the cage”—and that’s exactly right. Our dreams are vast and indefinable, really, while fantasy is localized. The dream sets the heart free while fantasy requires us to be static and still. Yet the fantasy industry—fantasy football, a zillion cable channels, video games to name a few—remains a billion dollar industry.  Thing is, no one can choose for you. The process of separating fantasies from dreams can be a life-long pursuit. As I’ve gotten older and learned more about myself I have sensed the pantheon of possibility narrow—which has afforded me greater focus. The sum of it is that anything worth doing isn’t necessarily easy, but it must be natural—as naturally as leaves to a tree, as Keats might have said.

70s vs 80s: For the Love of the Playlist

A few weeks ago I was in a conversation—actually a debate—about which decade boasts the best music: the 1970s or the 1980s. One guy I was with is a product of the 1970s so  you know which side he took. Another is a product of the 1980s. Of course he was sure that the 1980s had the best music. Also a product of the 1980s, I am most familiar with that decade but would like to see myself as, perhaps, more what you might call objective. Or maybe not. Like many conversations, I took on the role of the passive observer—I needed material for a blog after all— while my friends waxed on the merit of each.

One of the things I thought about during the back-and-forth was, “What do we mean when we refer to an entire decade of music?” Like most of the decades, there is a little overlap. What we mean when we say “the 1970s” doesn’t really begin until about 1974. The same goes for “the 1980s.” For the sake of argument I’m going to start the official 1970s era in 1971 when Led Zeppelin released Zep IV late that year. And even though the 80s vibe was beginning to take shape pretty early in the decade with Air Supply and Kool & the Gang (yeah I said it), acts like Pat Benatar, Queen, Olivia Newton-John, and Blondie (did you know that Parallel Lines is on Rolling Stone’s top 150 all-time list?) were carrying the prior decade’s banner. I don’t think 1981 is that much different. Because of this I’m going to begin the official era of the 80s music with … drumroll … what else but Thriller. Footloose is really really close to being the quintessential 1980s release—happy, tamed anti-establishment, visual—and it was only a year later.

And on the subject of overlap, as I listened to the two throw out artist after artist it became evident that acts like Elton John, Aerosmith, Kiss, Van Halen, and others had hits in both decades. So which decade gets to claim them? It’s a judgment call. The 1970s get Elton pretty much because he was so bad post 1980. Aerosmith is a little more difficult. They probably sold more records in the 1980s so that’s where I put them. Kiss has got to go to 70s while Van Halen goes to both, somehow. Journey, Chicago, and Foreigner … I’m non-committal. Springsteen? He is a statistical outlier in this debate. One thing I know: the 80s get U2.

My 13-year-old daughter recently asked me, “Dad how can you tell which songs belong to the 70s and which belong to the 80s?” I thought about it for a second or two before answering, “Listen for actual musical instruments. If you can hear instruments then it’s probably the 70s.” And it’s true. The music of the 80s seems over produced. Even Van Halen’s 1984 takes one of the great guitarists ever and puts him on keyboards. The music of the 70s, on the other hand, had dark places, mysterious corners, and strange twists and turns that gave us room to explore. The 1970s is so much more nuanced than the 80s and so much more of, in my opinion, what real life has in store for us. It has edges and corners. While the 70s had musical corners where you could go camp out, the 80s was much more cotton candy and polly anna.

In this debate I think we’ve got to consider the launch of MTV in 1981, too. Growing up in a rural community … don’t think I don’t remember the day MTV landed on my black and white television when that guy dressed in an astronaut’s costume put the MTV flag on the moon. Remember Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn? I mean, really, how cool were those guys. And don’t forget Nina Blackwood. Looking back, however, MTV sounded the death knell for true musical artistry for more than a decade. Think about it. Once the era of the music video hit, “music” became less the cultural ethos of a generation and more about the dance, the face, the clothes, and the shock. MTV created Boy George for crying out loud!  Also because of MTV, music ceased being the collective story. And on that note, I hold MTV accountable for almost killing the concept album, too. In some ways, MTV introduced an era of American music when music was no longer music.  With all due respect to the 80s songs I know by heart and love, the 1970s is the greatest musical decade. Not only is the artistry superior, but it’s the last decade of the true storyteller (until recently, but that’s another post).

Is this a trivial conversation to have? Good question—especially in light of our economic woes. But maybe that’s exactly this conversation is important. I’ve come to conclude that the playlist is never trivial. Right or not, the playlist has come to define us even if it’s just for moments at a time. I think most of us would agree that it’s in these moments when we feel most ourselves and maybe even most alive. And I’m not buying the position that music is mere escapism, either. Admittedly it can play that role. But more than escapism, our music gives us a means of expression and articulation—a means of expression when our words come up short. In fact, very often it’s the playlist that speaks on behalf of our deepest places. It’s the playlist that speaks for the heart.