What songs, books, or films describe our current moment? Whether it’s something that brings hope, or simply something that captures what it feels like to live in a time of extraordinarily heightened risk, ambiguity, and uncertainty about the future—here PVG editors and contributors share what resonates with them in times like these.
Definitely “Mad Max” (the original). Signs of decay are everywhere. Our eerily quiet streets are interrupted by motorcycle gangs and monster trucks “laying coal”. And trust in institutions declines almost daily. The impending sense of doom is palpable.
I was just thinking to myself on my walk to the office this morning that I needed to listen to some Simple Minds. So, I put “Alive and Kicking” on and felt at peace for those few minutes.
Their lead singer, Jim Kerr, said something to the effect that the band were in New York recording an album when this song came to them out of their feeling of positivity that they were on the verge of something really great.
I think the song hits a chord for me today for two reasons. First, and most importantly, I just watched the family of Breonna Taylor hold a press conference in which the sense of hope blew me away. Second, and much more frivolously, we are about to exit Summer (read 105 degrees too many days) here in Tucson and enter the long and glorious stretch of Fall and Spring.
I’ve been re-watching Schitt’s Creek on Netflix in anticipation of the upcoming premier of the final season. It’s a television series that offers just enough of a distraction from the dumpster fire we’re all living through right now, while at the same time communicating a very powerful message. It’s a show that, as Annie Murphy who plays Alexis Rose so perfectly puts it, “stands for love and kindness and inclusivity and acceptance, because those four things are things that we need more than ever right now.”
1. Song: Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”
2. Poem: Khadijah Queen, “Anodyne”
3. Books: Fahrenheit 451 and 1984
One of the movies that burst into my head is the 1966 film King of Hearts. Here is the description from Wikipedia:
Charles Plumpick is a kilt-wearing French-born Scottish soldier of the Signal Corps, who is sent by his commanding officer to disarm a bomb placed in the town square by the retreating Germans. As the fighting comes closer to the town, its inhabitants—including those who run the insane asylum—abandon it. The asylum gates are left open, and the inmates leave the asylum and take on the roles of the townspeople. Plumpick has no reason to think they are not who they appear to be—other than the colorful and playful way in which they live their lives—so at odds with the fearful, war-ravaged times. The lunatics crown Plumpick the King of Hearts with surreal pageantry as he frantically tries to find the bomb before it goes off.
Spoiler alert: After he figures out that they are insane, he decides he is much better off living with the inmates than returning to a reality that could produce horrors like World War I. Reality, in other words, it what’s insane; and insanity can be quite rational.
We are obviously at one of those moments in history in which a so-called rational world makes little sense to many of us.
The painting Judith Beheading Holofernes (Artemisia Gentileschi 1620) depicts Judith beheading Holofernes. Gentileschi, a brilliant painter and very successful in her time, was raped and brought her rapist to trial and won in 1612. Scholars interpret the painting as Gentileschi exacting revenge on her rapist.
The painting speaks to the empowerment of women in relation to the #MeToo movement, and the achievements of trailblazing women, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
By Claudia Rankine
Appeared in the New York Times Book Review in June 2020
On a scrap of paper in the archive is written
I have forgotten my umbrella. Turns out
in a pandemic everyone, not just the philosopher,
is without. We scramble in the drought of information
held back by inside traders. Drop by drop. Face
covering? No, yes. Social distancing? Six feet
under for underlying conditions. Black.
Just us and the blues kneeling on a neck
with the full weight of a man in blue.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
In extremis, I can’t breathe gives way
to asphyxiation, to giving up this world,
and then mama, called to, a call
to protest, fire, glass, say their names, say
their names, white silence equals violence,
the violence of again, a militarized police
force teargassing, bullets ricochet, and civil
unrest taking it, burning it down. Whatever
contracts keep us social compel us now
to disorder the disorder. Peace. We’re out
to repair the future. There’s an umbrella
by the door, not for yesterday but for the weather
that’s here. I say weather but I mean
a form of governing that deals out death
and names it living. I say weather but I mean
a November that won’t be held off. This time
nothing, no one forgotten. We are here for the storm
that’s storming because what’s taken matters.
For me, this poem by Claudia Rankine speaks to the gravity and urgency of the storming times we all face together. It calls for solidarity to weather this storm of assault on life at the ‘knees’ of humans and pandemic alike (especially by voting in November), while also haunting us with the specter of “whether” we will prevail.
World War Z—the book, not the movie—captures nicely how countries vary in how they respond to a pandemic and how early mistakes can be overcome by the application of science and diligence.
On a completely different note, the Star Wars prequels portray the monopolization of power by a duly elected leader—the Chancellor becomes the Emperor—an autogolpe. While the story of Anakin and other stuff overwhelms the rise of the Emperor, that story of the Emperor resonates really well right now unfortunately.
Take the Power Back by Rage Against the Machine. This song captures the essence of the ongoing struggle for equality, social justice, and to reclaim the narrative about America’s founding. The lyrics perfectly capture the current fight against structural racism, and the social construction of cultural norms which deny dignity to certain groups of people. It’s an angry song, but also a hopeful one, as it offers the promise of giving power to ordinary people who have been marginalized for generations.
“One-sided stories for years and years and years
I’m inferior? Who’s inferior?
Yeah, we need to check the interior
Of the system that cares about only one culture
And that is why
We gotta take the power back”
The song I keep going back to is Four Non Blonde’s “What’s Up?”. First, it is easy to play on guitar and is a fan favorite. Second, the pre-chorus:
And so I wake in the morning
And I step outside
And I take a deep breath and I get real high
And I scream from the top of my lungs,
“What’s going on?!”
Keeps playing in the back of my head after every absurd news story.
My two picks deal with alienation between the state and its most marginalized citizens. Both works intimately describe the frustration, alienation, anger, and resignation in the face of racist state institutions seeking to hold certain folks down. I think it captures the current mood of US democracy right now.
Film: La Haine (in English hate).
Song: Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) -Marvin Gaye
This passage from Seamus Heaney’s North strikes a chord with me right now:
This morning from a dewy motorway
I saw the new camp for the internees:
a bomb had left a crater of fresh clay
in the roadside, and over in the trees
machine-gun posts defined a real stockade.
There was that white mist you get on a low ground
and it was deja-vu, some film made
of Stalag 17, a bad dream with no sound
Is there a life before death? That’s chalked up
on a wall downtown. Competence with pain,
coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
we hug our little destiny again.
A song that I feel like encapsulates the feeling of living right now is “Supermassive Black Hole” by Muse. Most of the song is a repetition of these two lines:
“Glaciers melting in the dead of night
And the superstars sucked into the super massive”
Behind every single threat to democracy and disease is the “final boss” threat of climate change, which has taken a backseat in most people’s and government’s minds (whether intentional or not). It’s not going away, even if we are preoccupied at the moment.