Song On My Mind XIII

My friend Aaron recently got a glockenspiel. Always quick to make seemingly random connections, my mind reached back into the past to grab an indie song featuring the glockenspiel and played it endlessly on my mental stereo system.

After several futile attempts at Googling for the song, I gave up and sent a voice recording of me humming the song to a friend. Bingo. The song is called Blood by the Middle East, an Australian band who broke up several years ago. It is at various points charming, haunting, soothing, uplifting and touching. It is a great song.

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Song On My Mind XII

Confession time: I have fallen into the addiction that is Hamilton the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda and co have produced an astonishing work of art—more accurately, a series of small pieces of art—on the fascinating life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton.

It is bold, wondrous, uplifting and highly educational. With each re-listen I uncover more of the plots, themes and elements that Miranda has deftly weaved throughout the musical—love, war, friendship, rivalry, betrayal, fatherhood, loss, legacy, and more. This is a soundtrack that richly rewards multiple listens. It is crazy good. Here is an emblematic song that tells of Hamilton’s rise:

 

Favourite Things of 2015

For my last post of 2015, I thought I’d summarise my favourite things of this year. In no particular order:

Movie – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie that many people have been eagerly anticipating. I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. If you go searching for them, you will find plenty of flaws with the movie’s plot, execution, its derivative nature, and so forth. However, you would also be missing the point. J.J. Abrams’ reboot packs a whole lot of pathos. It filled me with wonder. It made me feel. It was space operatic escapism at its best.

TV Show – Damages

I’m not a big TV-watcher, so this one basically wins by default. However, having recently binged on Season 1 with my wife, I think Damages deserves acclaim as a compelling legal thriller. The show follows the story of recent law graduate Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), who must navigate tricky legal, professional and personal waters as an associate at the law firm of Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). The characters are multidimensional and the plot twists relentlessly. As a former student of law I found the issues explored here—especially the nature of trust, ethical boundaries and what makes for an effective lawyer—to be engrossing, even if somewhat heavy-handed at times.

Album – 1989

Taylor Swift hooked me in with Shake It Off and I had to listen to the whole thing. I am extremely impressed with this album. Every song holds up on its own, even if it took a while for some of them to grow on me. 1989 makes me happy, and I’ve gone back to it again and again without any diminishment in joy.

Show – 1989 World Tour

Swift is the best entertainer in the world right now. It was a privilege to take part in the live spectacle.

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Book – Creativity, Inc.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walter Disney Animation Studios, wrote Creativity, Inc. to distill his experience on how to develop, nurture and sustain an organisation that produces top-notch creative work. As someone who is interested in the power of culture and psychology, this was a fascinating read.

Catmull has written an engaging and informative book on, as he put it, the noble endeavour of managing people. It also contains neat stories of how various Pixar films came to be, and also Catmull’s dealings with the irrepressible Steve Jobs.

Article – Unsustainable Liberalism

This article by Patrick J. Deneen was written in 2012 but I came across it recently. It is a long but worthwhile read on the contradictions of liberalism and how its unfettered growth leads to illiberalism. What I found most interesting is the idea that the contemporary Left and Right are both species of liberalism and are problematic in their own ways.

The Left wishes to carve out ever-more personal freedoms under the rubric of “if it doesn’t hurt anyone it should be permissible”, and using the power of the state to enforce them. The Right, as Deneen puts it, “embraces a market orthodoxy that places the choosing, autonomous individual at the center of its economic theory”, and seeks to expand the reach of the free-market in all human spheres. The result?

Both the left and the right effectively enact a pincer movement in which local associations and groups are engulfed by an expanding state and by the market, each moving toward singularity in each realm: one state and one market.

[The right] seeks to promote family values but denies that the market undermines many of the values that undergird family life. The left commends sexual liberation as the best avenue to achieve individual autonomy, while nonsensically condemning the immorality of a marketplace in which sex is the best sales pitch. The encompassing Leviathan daily attains more reality.

Fascinating stuff, and I hope to write more on this in the future.

App – Instapaper

I browse Twitter and the web daily to look for interesting stuff to read. Instapaper is invaluable in collecting them, synced across my devices and the browser, for later offline consumption. When my eyes could use a rest, there is also an option to speak the text. Neat.

Scientific Event – New Horizons Flyby of Pluto

On January 16, 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons probe on a mission to Pluto. After nine and a half years zipping through cold space, New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, forever transforming our image of the dwarf planet from a pixelated blob to breathtaking high resolution pictures. As with any good scientific endeavour, the data sent back so far raises as many questions as it answers about our understanding of this icy body.

Place – Château de Chenonceau

In the Loire Valley, on my honeymoon. A château over the water, surrounded by immaculate gardens. Magnificent.

 

Among the 76,000

I promise this will be the last post on Taylor Swift for a while. Last Saturday I saw her perform at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, the first Australian stop on her 1989 World Tour. It was a fantastic show. As someone who likes to observe things, I want to share my thoughts on the concert here.

Charm

After kicking things off with a glamorous rendition of Welcome to New York, Swift addressed the crowd with a simple “Hi, I’m Taylor”, accompanied by a beaming smile. Calculated? Certainly. Effective? For sure. The charm factor was off the charts.

Throughout the show Swift would get the crowd involved. Sometimes it would involve action—echoes, sing-alongs, arms in the air. Other times it was rhetorical, imploring us to come on a music journey with her. She took the time to say what a great audience it was, and to express her appreciation for making her album a success and for being present that night.

All photos taken with iPhone 5S.

All photos taken with the iPhone 5S.

Swift was real with the crowd. Here’s what she said in her introduction to the song Clean, which began with her remarking on how passionate and joyful the crowd was:

And let me tell you why that kind of behaviour makes me happy. Because that kind of behaviour is free, and uninhibited, and warm, and the way you’ve treated us is so open and welcoming. And, you know these days there are millions of ways for people to tell you—how to be. How to act in public. What’s cool, what’s not. What’s beautiful, what’s not. And it’s really easy to become completely preoccupied by the idea of trying to be cool. You have a lot of people who will try to make you feel like being cool, is being unaffected, and unexcited, and cynical, and chill. But you know what I think is better than being cool is being happy. And you seem really happy tonight Sydney. [Crowd cheers]

You know when someone criticises you, or says something behind your back, those words that they said about you, it’s like you feel like those words are written all over your face, all over you. And then, those words start to become echoes in your own mind. And then there’s a real risk that those words could become a part of how you see yourself. The moment that you realise that you are not the opinion of somebody who doesn’t know you, or care about you—that moment, when you realise that, it’s like you’re clean.

I think this is more than just a feel-good message. It’s a psychologically important message, especially for the mostly young and mostly female audience. A cynic would say she had crafted all these words in advance, to get the maximum emotional leverage. But I also think she’s being very genuine here. These words come from her own experiences and the (painful) lessons that she’s learnt.

Presence

Swift had incredible stage presence. I was sitting in the stands, so most of what I observed was derived from the big screens. I can only imagine what the effect was for those sitting up close.

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Swift has mastered the runway strut. She moved about the stage with purpose and grace. She has mastered the turn-back pose. She has mastered the hair flick. She has mastered the pause—to look around, soaking in the adulation of the crowd. She has mastered her smile, of which there are multiple variations (subtle, innocent, knowing, beaming, etc.) depending on the situation. She always had a sense of whimsy in her expressions and body language, which was fun and engaging. Her passion was infectious.

Needless to say, the outfits were great. Probably my favourite (and my wife would enthusiastically concur) was the pink two-piece light-up dress Swift wore for How You Get the Girl.

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Performance

I go to live shows not just to hear songs that I like, but to be entertained by an experience I can’t get by putting on my ear buds. I went in with very high expectations, and I was not disappointed.

Swift is multi-talented. In addition to the choreographed set pieces, she rotated comfortably between an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, and the piano. She’s blossomed from a country music darling to a gifted stage performer.

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I loved the variation in music styles—from pop, to punk, to ballad, to rock, to stripped-back. Each live song captured the essence of the studio version and built further upon it. In particular, Swift’s rendition of the two popular songs from her Red album swayed my original opinion of them from annoyance to enjoyment. I Knew You Were Trouble was satisfyingly dark and moody, backed by foreboding strings. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was delivered punk rock style, with Swift working the electric guitar.

Atmosphere

Another dimension to my enjoyment of the show was the crowd. 76,000 adoring fans made the stadium come alive. At no point did the crowd become still or passive. The number of bums off seats was impressive, even for those who were really far away from the stage.

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As we entered the stadium, each person was given a rubber wristband with radio-controlled LEDs, as a “present from Taylor”. These were used to great effect, as the stadium became a roiling sea of white, blue, pink, purple and more, to punctuate the progression of each song.

Swift capped off the concert with Shake It Off, which brought together all the elements of lighting, video, band, dancers, smoke machines, rotating stage, and even fireworks. It was a worthy end to the world’s biggest star performing the best show around.

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Song On My Mind XI

I’m all aboard the T Swifty train right now. Here she is performing an acoustic version of ‘Out of the Woods’. I didn’t like the song the first few times I listened to 1989 because it seemed boring and repetitive, but it’s grown on me. The live version makes me like it even more. Check it out (song starts at 1:05):