Raja-ranjani – The maestro’s experiments in Sivaranjani

November 29, 2020

For lovers of Indian film music, Sivaranjani/Shivaranjani is associated strongly with Shankar Jaikishan. Especially so for their immortal Mukesh-rendered number Jaane Kahan Gaye Woh Din. O Mere Sanam from Sangam is another brilliant Shivaranjani number. Those of a later generation would also think of Laxmikant Pyarelal’s Tere Mere Beech Mein from Ek Duje Ke Liye. Come to the 90s and Dhak Dhak Karne Laga is a classic Shivaranjani.

It also happens to be ripped off note for note from Ilayaraja’s Abbani Teeyani Debba!

Not one of my own favourite Raja moments but it’s a good gateway into his own experiments with Sivaranjani.

To be clear, some of his most popular Sivaranjani songs are those where he has handled it the conventional way.

O Priya Priya (also copied into Hindi) comes immediately to mind.

Adi Athadi from Kadalora Kavithaigal

Or Kuyil Paatu from En Rasavin Manasule

But I am more interested in two relatively less heralded songs where he goes off the beaten path.

There is another ragam that Raja is fond of – Hamsanandi.

Look at their notes and there is little overlap between Sivaranjani and Hamsanandi.



And yet, Raja manages to find ways to blend the two ragams! If I had to guess, this is achieved because when you use notes from a ragam without following the sequence, you can still retain its flavour. And then, you change a note or two and hey presto! The ragam has changed.

The first is a song that is very much in Sivaranjani but its treatment is unconventional and evokes a Hamsanandi flavour in places.

The song is Manjal Poosum Manjal Poosum from Sakkarai Devan.

First, the line “Vaasa Poovin Thene” in the pallavi. It overlaps a little with Raathiriyil Poothirukkum, a timeless Hamsanandi from Thanga Mahan.

Come to the first line of the charanam: “Nee illadha nithirai yedhu” and it evokes “Veenai Yennum Meniyilae”, the first line of the Raathiriyil charanam.

Other than these lines, the song stays in Sivaranjani but the phrase most strongly evocative of the ragam is the first line of the song, “Manjal Poosum Manjal Poosum…”. The leitmotif etches the ragam in your mind, allowing him to proceed to take you a long way away from it.

The other song I am going to take up here is Adhikalai Neram Kanavil from Naan Sonnathey Sattam.

Rendered by SPB and Asha, this is a lost classic. I confess for a long time, I never gave this song a fair shake because the intro put me off and I wrongly assumed it was an overly sentimental pathos number. Had I only stayed till the flute portion in the intro, I would have realised how wrong I was.

The interlude stays with flute and proceeds to beautifully elucidate patterns you expect in Sivaranjani. And THEN, from nowhere comes a santoor part that is in Hamsanandi. Which still somehow resolves such that the charanam gets back to Sivaranjani. As far as I can tell, the vocal portions never drift into Hamsanandi.

But in the second interlude, the maestro again orchestrates the proceedings (pun intended) such that he can pursue these experiments. An expansive string section first opens up the horizon and then proceeds into Hamsanandi territory with the last phrase almost getting into chromaticism. This potential for chromaticism in both Pantuvarali and Hamsanandi is no doubt what fascinated Raja.

The thing that’s special about this song is he doesn’t really get into fusion (Indo-Western) territory. Even when the violins come in, they sound maybe Hindustani at times but rarely Western.

It’s another noteworthy aspect of Raja. The master of harmony, the king of walking basslines could completely shut off harmonic development in songs like these and compose just Indian melody, both for vocals and for instruments. And he could still conjure up the space to innovate in these very conventional, traditional Indian settings.

Nostalgia part 2: the noughties and how they came to nought

November 27, 2020

I wrote about the 90s here. I haven’t much reflected on the noughties – I did in the earlier post touch upon a combination of rising aspirations and rising cynicism in that decade – but two separate events brought the period back to my mind.

One was a forum thread on best movies in each decade and, relative to the other decades including the ’10s, I struggled to name really, really memorable movies that had touched me from the 00s. The other is that I am reading Obama’s new book and he is describing the meltdown.

I think the meltdown was in many ways the perfect, whilst also terribly cruel, culmination of a decade in which things seemed to be going swimmingly well…for some of us.

Maybe that is why I have difficulty recalling that period. Because some part of my mind is probably scarred by the bruises of shattered aspirations. Even while India did not, at least immediately, suffer much blowback from the crisis, it was already clear that things wouldn’t be the same.

Oh, but how wonderful it would have been were it not for the crisis! But was it really?

What about Iraq, is the immediate counterpoint that comes to my mind. The economic boom we rode was juxtaposed against the wanton destruction of a country that had no part, none whatsoever, in the 9/11 attacks on the US. And the US strikes were premised on the purported presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). WMDs that, as it turned out, were never found. Rumsfeld quipped, “Shit happens.”

It was a remark that incensed me then and still does to date. But it summed up the times aptly. With the economic gravy train now speeding more like a bullet train, we didn’t care, let’s be honest. No we didn’t, really, not beyond venting our perfunctory dose of indignation at the Imperial States of America.

Yes, this was the decade in which we (as in people living outside the USA) came to perceive a thinly veiled hubris of invincibility in US’ actions and loathed them for it. Perhaps the hubris had always been there but it was as if a curtain had been lifted in the Bush era. In his Hollywood-like pronouncement right after 9/11: “Wanted: Osama Dead or Alive” or the later statement “In the War against Terror, you’re either with us or against us”, the styling of the war on Iraq as Operation Shock and Awe to Rumsfeld’s unapologetic apology of “Shit Happens”. It did feel from the outside that the US had mistaken war games for, uh, games. Games without the terrible real world consequences that they had wrought.

But again, what did we really do? Did India, then a still non-aligned nation and in fact governed by a multi party alliance supported by the Communists, rally around the Third World in opposition to the war or build bridges with voices of dissent in France? Nope. If anything, we doted on Bush as the first US President who was ready to do business with India. And that was true enough, yes. But we learned to compartmentalize the ‘Bad Bush’, the one who was blowing up Iraq, from the ‘Good Bush’, the one who would let India keep its nuclear facilities. We did that again with Trump, by the way.

It was then a decade of immense possibilities but also immense hypocrisy. To pick up the thread from my previous post, this was the decade in which we got malls. We started pushing trolleys in supermarkets where we used to shop in crowded and dinghy markets (without the super). Mumbai and Pune were brought closer by a world-class expressway. Uh, I don’t know about Chinese highways or the Autobahn but I have been on a bunch of Interstates in the US and the section after Lonavla (towards Pune) compares well, I kid you not.

We got airconditioned cafes that were more like lounges where you could take your own sweet time to sip the coffee and devote more of your time to conversing with your companion. We got more and more of the glass-fronted office complexes that are ‘normal’ today but were almost entirely novel back then. And these complexes housed not just a who’s who of India but verily of the world as more and more MNCs headed to India to grab opportunities.

Yup, in a world of endless possibilities, grabbing opportunities was the no.1 priority. Real estate was already beginning to get costly but still within reach of the middle class and many families, including mine, upgraded our living conditions more than significantly in this decade. It was the perfect opportunity. Our cars improved, first steadily, then dramatically. And just forget about the mobile phones. At least here in India, we did eke out most of the decade content with those bulky and clunky Nokia phones but the more affluent and more ‘with it’ amongst us could already be seen upgrading to phones that cost a five figure sum in Indian rupees (or about two hundred and fifty dollars in noughties rupees). Believe it or not, that sounded like a lot to us.

The chartered accountant under whom I apprenticed had already got himself a Blackberry by 2007 or so. It was around 2007 too that the Indian stock market ascended dizzying heights. Said chartered accountant had a junior partner in his firm who traded a lot in the stock market.

I knew nothing then about the impending housing crash in the US, that we were about to witness the greatest ‘main street’ crash since the Great Depression. I did sense, however, that the valuations on the stock market (and I mean the Indian one, not even Wall Street) were starting to look out of whack. I remembered what I had read in Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad – that when people who normally stay a North Pole away from the stock markets start asking where they should invest is the time to book your profits and get the hell out. I told this junior partner (and my immediate boss) to do so and he scoffed, seeing me as a Negative Nancy of sorts. I told my mother too and after repeated haranguing, she listened.

I had the satisfaction of being proved right even without knowing everything that had been going on. The markets tanked in early 2008 and we picked up some stocks on the rebound. We picked up a bit too early because it had another dip before getting back on steady footing. But we did sell those stocks for a handsome profit years later. My junior partner on the other hand made a big loss.

It wasn’t a devastating loss for him, he was ok. But it was for many others, especially those on the other side of the Greenwich Meridian. Much like the characters of the wonderful movie The Big Short, I felt empty even in ‘victory’. It was a pyrrhic victory. I had prevailed over the excessively exuberant. But in the wake of this ‘victory’ lay utter economic carnage.

A new US President bookended the chapter of endless possibilities by achieving what had hitherto been inconceivable – of winning the top job in the world as a black man. Alas, the road to recovery that lay in front of him, in front of us was long and arduous. And not only did he not possess the superhuman powers that his fans seemed to believe he did, he turned out to be an incremental reformer, a cautious moderate and hardly the swashbuckling populist he had been mistaken to be. He did a decent job of turning things around but as we know now, he left too many high and dry in the process and those turned to Trump in 2016 when faced with the prospect of a Hillary Clinton Presidency to cap Obama’s.

But much as I came to be a trenchant and cynical critic of Obama over the years, he had set himself up for a task he was always bound to fail in. Rather, we set him up for failure.

Because what we wanted was impossible. In truth, what we wanted from him was the noughties back. But the noughties could never come back. The noughties were built on the back of a phony real estate market and a phony war. Neither in and of themselves were desirable in the least. But it was they in tandem that propelled the best of all times, at least for those of us who lived through those times and weren’t in, uh, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Afghanistan…you get the drift.

When the real estate market in the US collapsed, it was described as a house of cards. But what also had turned out to be a house of cards was our collective aspiration for a tomorrow that would keep getting better and better. That tomorrow looks increasingly distant and covid has taken away the one fig leaf the eternal optimists used to offer us – that world conditions are empirically better than ever before. No, in 2020, they are not going to be better than 2019 or 2018.

It seemed like we were just about to take off for the stars when the ladder got pulled away from below us, leaving us to fall and fall hard. And the thought that our starry-eyed dreams were built on a foundation of lies and deceit is a heck of a hard swallow.

Well, in the words of a famous philosopher, the one with the best words, ‘it is what it is’.

Kal Ho Na Ho cover

November 27, 2020

Song: Kal Ho Na Ho

Film: Kal Ho Na Ho

Singer: Sonu Nigam

Music: Shankar Ehsaan Loy

I am not the biggest fan of this song but the lyrics are apt for these times, I think.

In fact, learning to sing the song has made me gain more respect for the composition as well as the lyrics. I like the change of melody for the second antara and it’s not quite as intuitive as it sounds (the ‘palkon pe leke saye’ part). The words too resonate with me more than I thought they did as an adolescent turning his nose up to the song back in the day. I did like Sonu Nigam’s rendition back then too and that obviously hasn’t changed.

Taare Ginn take 2

November 27, 2020

I did Taare Gin pretty close to the release of the music, maybe a week or so after.

I thought of giving it another go.

In the time since my first stab at it, I have graduated to a ‘proper’ mic and a bare-basic mixer as opposed to the little karaoke mic with built in speaker that I was using before. It’s still not remotely like a studio set up because the mixer is connected to good ol’ Logitech speakers, the only PC speakers on the market that have a 3.5 mm pin rather than a USB one. Therefore, the set up is nowhere near perfect. But it’s better than before, I hope.

I picked up the song from the antara this time. Whilst I am able to sing the breathless duet portion (Jabse Hua Hai Yeh…) in, well, one breath, it doesn’t sound comfortable and my experience last time convinced me that not everybody is going to understand why it is difficult so might as well not bother.

Raja-Naatai v/s Rahman-Naatai

November 22, 2020

Listening to an amateur singer deliver a really good rendition of Narumugaye set off this train of thought in my mind.

Narumugaye is based off Naatai raagam and rendered by Unnikrishnan and Bombay Jayashree.

As Unnikrishnan had already done on Ennavale (or on the Raja-composed Maharajanodu), he does not adjust his singing style for film music and sings as you would expect in a Carnatic recital.

But in this song, there is another layer to this. The melody itself is composed in a Carnatic manner (pokku, you could call it in Tamil). It’s not just that the melody has a lot of gamakam. Aesthetically too, it is expected to be rendered in a Carnatic style.

In 1997, I consumed Rahman and Raja soundtracks as they came along and only fleetingly paid attention to contemporary Hindi film music, finding most of it mediocre. By 97, I had already heard my dad’s OP Nayyar-Asha compilation a million times. In 97, I was all ears for Minsara Kanavu/Kadhal Desam. I didn’t particularly notice the soundtrack of Iruvar.

I can see why in hindsight.

I guess I have never liked the idea of transferring Carnatic style vocals to film music where the situation didn’t specifically demand it. That is, I obviously don’t have a problem with this approach being used in Sindhu Bhairavi or the parody of Sundari Neeyum/Madathile. Rahman’s own Minsara Kanna for that matter.

In Rahman’s early years, he too tended to not to do this. You don’t get this in the very Carnatic based tune of Malargaley. The singing is still filmi, in a good way. But in songs like the above one from Iruvar and others in the years to come, this strain became more and more dominant. At least until Bollywood became a priority in the noughties and it seemed to influence Rahman to return to a more minimalist direction in melody.

As a contrast, let’s take an iconic Ilayaraja Naatai.

The song is rocking with Hendrix-like riffs and fusion violin that evokes Jean Luc Ponty/Mahavishnu Orchestra. But the melody itself is very Carnatic (while SPB’s rendition is not). Just try singing it in a Carnatic pokku and you’ll see.

Raja understood that myriad possibilities lay in marrying the rich melodic traditions of India with Western harmony writing.

I am sure Rahman understood it too. But Rahman had to succeed Raja and therefore had no choice but to tread new ground that Raja hadn’t. Sometimes that new ground simply meant returning to old ways. One of those being returning to age-old bifurcations between Carnatic and film. Where a Carnatic based song is meant to be sung in a particular way.

Hum Jo Chalne Lage – driving on Indian roads

November 21, 2020

Hum Jo Chalne Lage – the pleasant (and copied) Shaan solo composed by Pritam for the film Jab We Met – brings forth idyllic impressions of travelling in India. But does driving in India square up with such visages? Lately, I have a ringside view and I believe driving on our roads tells us a lot about why things are the way they are.

I say lately because I didn’t used to drive, didn’t have to. Having grown up in Mumbai, I am used to navigating the packed local trains in this city and inured to the supposed difficulty of it…on most days anyway. I took driving lessons and got my licence made years back. But everybody knows driving school and the business of actually driving by yourself in India are entirely different.

But as the pandemic and the attendant lockdowns raged on, I realized that local trains would be shut for a long time, longer than it would take for at least my workplace to resume office operations. And even if they did, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the complete lack of distancing in the trains. So I used the time to learn driving…this time with my dad’s driver. It was his parting gift of sorts to me, as my dad retired this year. He taught me important things about the practical aspects of driving in and adjusting to dense city traffic. After a few trips back and forth to my workplace, he said I was ready and pushed me off the nest. It’s been three months since then and I have been doing OK. If I did have close shaves occasionally in the beginning, I am in control these days, to the extent one can be on Indian roads and I will get to that.

There is something about Indian roads that you would probably not perceive unless you are a driver. Which is that often times, what YOU, as a passenger, may take to be good roads are NOT good roads. A road without potholes is a good one, right? Wrong! The level of the road surface needs to be reasonably constant without unexpected undulations. Unfortunately, that is often not the case in India.

I will talk about a particularly treacherous spot – which is just where the double decker flyover portion of Santacruz-Chembur Link Road (SCLR as we call it here) lands when going towards Santacruz. The flyover kind of bends as you descend and join CST road in Kurla. The problem is there is a steep embankment on the rightmost lane with a sort of pit in the middle. This means your car will suddenly lose ‘footing’ as it gets there. The first time I drove through that patch, I was not aware of this and my car, clocking no more than 70 kph, skidded a bit. I am a vigilant driver, maybe because I am ‘new, so I braked in time and cut the speed enough to get through it. But nothing in the flyover design prepares you for that and it’s a wonder that there haven’t been more accidents in that stretch. While negotiating it, I remembered that bizarre incident where a vehicle practically flew off a flyover in Hyderabad and crashed onto the road below! Yes, that happened, for real!

Was that rash driving on the part of the driver? To some extent, yes. But only a poorly designed flyover would cause a vehicle to simply fly off a flyover. But this is India and we do poor designs all the time.

And THAT brings me to the good and the bad about the experience of driving in India or why drivers have to drive the way they/we do.

The roads are either bad or inadequate for the volume of traffic (or both) and there is also very little space devoted to footpaths leading to pedestrians having to occupy the road shoulders as they walk.

This forces drivers to engage in a constant battle of one-upmanship on the roads to grab that inch of real estate before the other guy does. Trust me, the reason you see vehicles lane jumping and zig zagging isn’t because ‘we Indians are like that only’. It’s because everyone is looking to get out of the mess that we call Indian roads as soon as possible. I know because I do too, as somebody who used to complain about lane cutting from the vantage point of the passenger’s seat. It’s not necessarily because it saves time (though it does, to some extent) but because from the moment you wade into heavy and chaotic traffic, you are trying to get out of the chaos as soon as you can.

You may protest and insist that no, give Indians any road and they will still drive like this. But I have a couple or more of counter examples. On Bandra Worli Sea Link, on the Eastern Freeway or on Palm Beach Road, the road surface is good, cruising speeds are easily attained and drivers tend to relax. I wouldn’t say there is NO rash driving but on these roads, you can sit back and enjoy the experience of driving for a bit. I have yet to take my car out for a spin there but you can observe the same thing on the Mumbai Pune Expressway. There is the odd impatient twat but mostly, even the honking subsides almost to nothing and there is hardly any lane cutting. Why would you cut lanes when there isn’t a car behind or ahead of you for several metres?

But the rest of the time…you are trying to navigate the chaos. And here’s the good part of it. The good part is that to a man, every driver is aware of the chaos. Even the bullies. The bullies may switch on the high beam and honk until you yield but they all calculate their risks.

So…when somebody cuts lanes in front of your nose, you will honk and accelerate and try your best to stop them…right up to the point where you physically cannot thwart them anymore. And at that point, you will brake and let them pass. And they will return the favour when you barge in in front of them. Everybody knows it’s not personal. And everybody knows where to stop before you end up colliding into each other.

This is the paradox of Indian roads. In the chaos, there is safety. We intuit that we are in a high risk zone and we must be careful while at the same time not being so cautious that we get left behind and get stuck in the mess.

Here’s a little video that compares. Of course it cherry picks suitable examples but it’s also true that an accident of the sort you see in the first couple of instances is rare in India because we know better than to speed through a junction. We expect the worst and prepare.

And in this way, Indian roads are a microcosm of life in India. We are masters at navigating chaos. We do it at world beating standards. But we are so good at it that we forget that we don’t HAVE to do that all the time, that we can build our way out of chaos. What got us here may not be enough to get us to where we seem to want to go. But do we really want to, is the question.

US Election: Were the polls really that wrong?

November 7, 2020

Barely had the results started tumbling out on Election Day when fresh obituaries began to be written about the polling industry. How could polls be so wrong again, was the refrain.

But…I have a contrarian take. I do not think they are quite as wrong as being made out to be.

First off, I find poll aggregators like RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight very useful, contrary to the ‘advice’ of ‘traditional’ pollsters. Of course professional pollsters would rather you look at only THEIR poll and no other because they want you to believe theirs is the best and most reliable poll around. But for a user like me, an aggregator averages and levels the extremes between the more Republican-skewing polls like Trafalgar and Rassmussen and the more Dem-skewing ones like Emerson/NYTimes.

I particularly like RCP because it includes Trafalgar that FiveThirtyEight had a lot to say about.

So let’s look at the RCP averages.

For Michigan, the final RCP average was Biden by 4.2. The result was Biden 2.1. That’s an error of 2.1. Not unreasonable.

For Georgia, the final RCP average was Trump by 1.0. Biden leads there by 0.1. A very small error then.

For Arizona, the average was Biden by 0.9. Biden leads by 1.0. If you complain about a 0.1 error, you’d remind me about the “Any excuse for a tyrant” saying.

Lastly, Pennsylvania. The average was Biden 1.2. Biden leads by 0.5.

I want to talk about Ohio and Florida, the two bellwethers that went Red bigly. The final RCP average for Florida was Biden 0.9 and for Ohio it was 1.0.

The polls did get both states wrong by a bigger margin than the ones above. BUT I want to know how pundits thought Biden was winning either state with those numbers.

Here’s an example of somebody who did. Krystal Ball.

She predicted Biden winning Ohio and Florida in addition to Arizona. I know these are just gut feels but I want to know what such gut feels are based on when the polling indicates that they are too close to call and that Trump could well win them. I mean, if you expect Biden to beat Trump more handily than Obama against Romney, you had better have a very good reason.

Here’s Saagar’s own prediction which is interesting:

305 votes. As they say, dude just won the internet! The Rust Belt trio plus Georgia and Arizona. Exactly the states Biden is set to flip.

That is, IF you interpret the polls well, you could in fact get a good feel for what would pan out in the election.

Let me give my own example. A week before the election, a friend and I made our own maps for fun. We both predicted Biden winning Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona but not Pennsylvania. And given how close Pennsylvania is, that seems to have been a fair call. We also thought Arizona was going to be close and hence had doubts about whether Biden would win. Here’s the kicker: neither of us live in the US! It was just a composite of the data, reports from various outlets and our own, uh, gut feel.

I don’t know exactly what he did but it was probably similar to my thumbrules which were:

  1. If you are betting on a state to flip, it should have Biden leading by at or close to the margin for error – 5%. The reason for that is even after a normal polling error, Biden would probably still win the state. Wisconsin and Michigan were offering leads of that range, Pennsylvania wasn’t. Ohio and Florida was simply out of the question.
  2. You could slightly punt on a Southwest state like Arizona because ‘migration’ from California and general growth was turning it a slight shade of blue. There were indications of this too in the Democrats’ performance there in 2018. No such indications in Florida.
  3. No state that had stayed with Clinton in 2016 was going to flip for Trump. Hence we ignored the close polling in Nevada. Again, Nevada is close to California so…

I submit then that polling can be useful IF you remember that they are estimates looking into the future and have an inbuilt potential to be…wait for it….WRONG. What you cannot do is expect mathematical precision from a poll. It cannot even be as accurate as a weather forecast. The weather operates on the forces of nature and cannot change its mind. Humans can. Humans can also lie or troll pollsters.

Remember all of that and you may still get a good read of where things are at from the polls. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What went down at the US Election?

November 7, 2020

We don’t know yet if Joe Biden will indeed become the President of the United States. It may look unlikely that he will be thwarted from here but Trump is attempting a legal battle and we should really hold our horses until the coast is clear on that front.

HOWEVER, it is not too soon to comment on the elections themselves regardless of whether the Supreme Court chooses to honour what the elections say. The elections as they stand do have Biden in slim leads in Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia. While the possibility of a Trump upset cannot be completely ruled out, the trends of new votes being counted point to Biden increasing his lead in all of these states.

So there you have it – a narrow win for Biden that looks deceptively bigger when you add up the tally. CNN has him at 253 Electoral College votes without the above four states. Add them and he gets to 306. That’s as many as Trump won in 2016 (two faithless electors cost him two votes in the actual EC voting bringing the tally to 304)!

Is that a reflection of the unorthodox politics of Trump making the election very close and polarized? Or is it a larger reflection of a divide between the constituencies Democrats and Republicans cater to? The answer to these questions will have a bearing on US politics of the future.

The demographic breakup showed Biden making up the some of the ground Hillary Clinton had conceded in 2016. For example, those without a college degree were split dead even between Biden and Trump. Women favoured Biden by a bigger margin and men favoured Trump by a smaller one. The black support stayed right where it was while turnout often approached Obama levels.

The question then becomes why would Biden still have to struggle so much to win compared to Obama’s 2012 win. Well, for one thing, Obama enjoyed even higher levels of black support with similar turnout (meaning more votes) and likewise ran up even better numbers among Asians and Hispanics. The differences are not huge but then the difference at the national vote share level wasn’t huge between 2012 and 2020 either!

That’s right. Obama won by a margin of 3.9% over Romney in 2012. Biden leads Trump by 2.8%. Even IF Biden improved this margin, his tally would not pass 306 and therefore not match Obama’s 332 votes in 2012. For comparison, Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1%.

Thus, two inferences can be drawn from this:

  1. There really isn’t much in it. These elections are truly contested at the margins and a small swing has a dramatic effect on the EC tally.
  2. It matter less by what margin you win and far more where you win it.

Obama’s comfortable margins in Michigan and Wisconsin were set off by double digit margin losses in Arizona and Georgia, states Biden is winning (the first Democrat to win either state since Bill Clinton).

But Obama also narrowly won Ohio and Florida, states Trump won handily. And Ohio and Florida have 47 Electoral Votes between them. Arizona and Georgia just 27.

As things stand, the Democrats’ tenuous hold over the three pivotal Rust Belt states – Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – combined with their inability to compete in both Ohio and Florida leaves them vulnerable to upsets in future as well. When Ohio went Red in 2016, the Democrats shrugged and dumped it in the ‘to-be-written-off- column. Florida going Red narrows their path to the Presidency dramatically. How many states do you write off before you no longer have a path to 270?

The reason for that can, in my opinion, be summarized as follows: through Obama’s second term coming up to the present day, the Democrats have moved very left on social issues while they are only economically left on taxes and climate change. On trade and immigration, they converged with the erstwhile economic libertarianism of the Republican Party, hoping that the Unions, such as they were, would somehow get the votes of blue collar voters even if the Party was little inclined to offer them much to look forward to.

That would have worked had Trump not run for President. Trump correctly guessed that a large constituency in the US – large enough to give him a fighting change in elections – was to the Right of the Democratic Party on social issues and to the Left on economics. This is the constituency he pulled over to the Republicans’ side. The Party of Reagan became once more the Party of Nixon (see Hard Hat Riots). Then as now, a strange reluctance on the part of Democrats to speak proudly about America proved very convenient for Trump.

It is a great paradox of politics that those of us who are very financially comfortable laugh along with the Ambrose Bierce quote about patriotism being the first refuge of the scoundrel while those for whom their country does not do much in fact find solace and meaning in patriotism. I have great difficulty in believing Trump is proud of anything other than himself but he was shrewd enough to capitalize on this over-educated ennui of the Democratic Party as it is today.

Had Trump not run against an authentically blue collar son of the soil like Joe Biden, it is conceivable he would still win and handily. To the utter shock of Democrats, their own Blue Wave was met by a Red Tsunami and they have only narrowly prevailed.

But the question really is: what after Joe Biden? For all his faults, his slow mental reflexes and age, Biden ran a smart campaign and one that was folksy enough to trump Trump’s efforts to cast him as a member of a snobbish elite. Which is why Trump tried instead to paint him as a Trojan Horse for the socialists, a trope that worked brilliantly in Florida but less so elsewhere (and not even in erstwhile Red states Arizona and Georgia). But who else do the Dems really have who could run the campaign Biden did without looking fake?

They have a bunch of not-so-old white male moderate politicians who are reasonably efficient at governing but less inspiring on the campaign trail (John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee). Likewise their white female moderates are at best combative but hardly inspiring (Amy Klobuchar). Their most inspiring politicians are, in fact, old and rather progressive (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). They stare instead at risky gambits like Pete Buttigieg. Or Kamala Harris.

Much depends on what kind of an impression Harris as Vice President will make. If she can convince a majority of Americans that she will lead the nation with an able hand when Biden’s time is done, the Dems can look forward to staying on in power for some more time.

If not, they need to scout because neither Trump nor his descendants are going anywhere and are very likely to run again in 2024.

US Elections – the boy who cried wolf – Trump and the existentialist argument

October 26, 2020

With just over a week to go to the US Presidential Elections, the polls still have Biden in a comfortable lead. Or…do they?

Unless, unless Biden wins Texas (which is a long shot), he has no realistic path without winning at least one of the three next biggest states in play – Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida.

Of these, he is best placed in PA but polls have been tightening. A 5.1 RCP average lead would, you’d think, be secure but the projected lead in Wisconsin was even higher in 2016 and Clinton still lost that state. So it’s still possible.

And Biden slipped, not too heavily, in announcing that he would discontinue oil subsidies. A normal politician might perhaps have engaged him in a substantive debate and missed the punch. But Trump…he said right off the bat, “Whoa, that’s going to play so well in Pennsylvania, Texas, Oklahoma…and Ohio (said in a near-whisper)”. It was almost a “You just dropped the World Cup, mate” moment if you watch cricket and remember that Waugh-Gibbs incident from the ’99 World Cup. And Biden just might have. They wanted a debate on substance and not just name calling and interruptions unlike the first one. And who improved his debate performance as a result of this adjustment? Trump, not Biden.

Which, in a way, is not a surprise. The Dems want to sell a platform that blue collar voters don’t like…and they want to be able to do it without offending one of various factions of the party. Naturally, then, the platform gets reduced to a bunch of nice sounding rhetoric and, in the Trump era, anti-Trumpism. It’s much safer.

Trump has provided them all the ammunition they need as well in running the Trump as an existential threat to democracy itself. And they are not completely wrong. So why does the argument not work quite as well as they would like? I mean, if Trump is so bad and if he screwed up the pandemic so epically, why is he only trailing by 8 point and still very much in contention in the states that matter?

To understand that would require The Resistance to open their ears a little and listen to what people like Matt Taibbi, Chris Hedges or Katie Halper are saying. People whom they seem to hate even more than Trumpists. Like, how dare they not regard Biden as a good enough candidate? How can they still feel undecided or unethused about this election? How can they not see the stakes? How can they make a suicide pact?

To understand their perspective, you have to understand, like really understand, why most of these people (and I would add Jimmy Dore or Krystal Ball to that list) were strong supporters of Bernie Sanders. You can, of course, go Bernie Bro to summon the spectre of a white male supremacist who switched his vote from Bernie to Trump. You can do so by ignoring that women like Halper or Ball or black men like Cornel West were also in the Bernie camp. Heck, Nina Turner was a Bernie surrogate and yet the media never retired their Bernie Bro trope.

Now why do I think I have some understanding of the Bernie phenomenon? To be clear, I don’t have a LOT of. But I do think I understand it better than somebody like Stephanie Ruhle or Chris Matthews who gets/got unleashed on national television. Why do I say so? Because my cousin is a Bernie supporter and worked for his campaign. She even shared the letter Sanders sent out to his campaign announcing the end of his bid for the Democratic nomination. She remains unethused about Biden even while agreeing that Trump is terrible.

To understand why that is, you need to go back to Super Tuesday. The pre-Super Tuesday polls had Sanders headed for a sweep. That panicked a lot of people, including a much liked Nobel Peace Prize winning former President. Obama pulled the strings from behind the curtain and prodded Klobuchar and Buttigieg to end their campaigns. Bloomberg remained to offer an alternative to those centrists who weren’t convinced about Biden. Warren remained to offer an alternative to those progressives who weren’t convinced about Sanders.

You see, had the Dem field remained as crowded as it had been leading up to Super Tuesday, Sanders would have had a pretty good chance of prevailing in several states that he ended up losing. Instead, the difference between Biden and Sanders’ vote share was, in many cases, Warren.

If you are part of The Resistance, you pooh-pooh this. But you know who else pointed this out? Donald J Trump.

Ergo, you can argue the details till the cows come home but this is the perception and that has been cemented. You can see Kyle Kulinski agrees too. Some like Dore have gone further and called Sanders a sheepdog to pacify the Left and manage their coalition into voting for the Democratic Party.

So why were these games played to ensure a Sanders defeat in the Primary? Because the same people who fear the threat of Trump to American democracy fear the threat of Sanders to the American system equally as much, if not more. It is right to say ‘more’ in at least some cases. Lloyd Blankfein openly said he would vote for Trump if Sanders became the Dem nominee.

Now let’s set this up against the supposed cost of a Trump presidency. They say Trump would kill healthcare. They say he would hurt LGBT rights. Most importantly, they say he would set back the fight against climate change severely. Huh, guess what Sanders is and has long been a much bigger ally of these causes than Biden. It’s not even close. You really think Biden has a better plan to fight climate change than Sanders? Like, come on, man! No, so…the issue is these causes, important as they may be, are not more important than the moderate center-right neo liberal consensus that the establishment is most concerned with preserving.

And…they want you to believe that is somehow acceptable while Trumpists privileging their ideology over climate change or healthcare is not only not ok but deeply bigoted and dangerous. Meanwhile, Biden saying you ain’t black if you aren’t voting Democrat is A.O.K.

Let me tell you something, kiddo, if I can spot these hypocrisies from thousands of miles away, you are not fooling some of the very smart people who backed Sanders. They know nothing is going to change for them with a Biden presidency. How do they know it? Because he said so, already, lol.

So they have dared you. They are not indifferent or stupid. They have called out you on your wolf-cries. You cried Weimar Republic when Reagan ran and again when Bush Jr did. You said Romney would put people back in chains. They’re saying, wait, if democracy is so important, so sacred to you, why do you think manipulating the primaries is ok? They have thrown you the gauntlet. OK, you say we don’t understand the importance of democracy. Fine, we don’t. Let’s see you save it since you do.

In 2016, the Democratic Party ran a referendum on Trump because he was, after all, so obviously unqualified for the job. They lost. In 2020, they are running a referendum again because he has, so obviously, failed at the job. It’s the same bet in essence all over again whilst hoping for a radically different outcome.

Godspeed to that. And while you’re at it, do watch Guardian’s Anywhere But Washington series. And before you scream raceest, sexist, bigoted, understand that their reporting did, in 2016, capture where the race was at with more accuracy than CNN or MSNBC. Listen to Phil Harris’ summing up in the end and tell me he wasn’t prescient. This was months ahead, in the Primaries.

Cut to 2020, Guardian shows the seniors still in Trump’s camp in The Villages in Florida, people deciding to vote in Texas this time after never voting because they fear Trump would lose and close races in Georgia and Ohio. Hopefully that sounds reassuring enough to you as we wait for Election Day and the counting process that is expected to last longer this time.

Not FTBC, Lianne La Havas’ s/t is this year’s singer-songwriter masterpiece

October 12, 2020

Two of my favourite singer-songwriters, both wondrously talented ladies, Fiona Apple and Lianne La Havas, released albums this year, both after long gaps. In Apple’s case, it was nine years after the previous one, Idler Wheel. In Havas’ case, five years after Blood. Apple’s instrument of choice is the piano while Havas plays guitar. They are both amazing players…not in a Wakeman/Satch way but in terms of making the instrument virtually another arm of their body and fusing it seamlessly with their voice, vocally and compositionally.

Confession: I am a much bigger fan of Blood than Is Your Love Big Enough. Some critics seemed to slightly diss Blood as over-arranged. Not me, I loved every bit of these arrangements drenched in richness and style. I also loved the sparseness of Idler Wheel. Unlike critics and like a regular musophile, I don’t take absolute positions. It’s contextual: a great arranger can make a million instruments sing in one voice and likewise deliver the impact of a symphony with a sparse set up too.

I mention over-arranging because one of the ‘landmark’ points of critique in favour of Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Apple’s release this year) was how sparse it was, how DIY it was. I love both. As I have ‘confessed’ earlier, I love Tyler’s Igor album from last year. But this is 2020 and United States so any appreciation or criticism has to be political/ideological and here the case was that the earlier albums being supposedly over-arranged was men interfering with Apple’s vision and not letting her make the album she had deserved to (what a thing to say, ‘deserved to make’).

Unsurprisingly, this line of argument was conspicuously missing when Havas’ self/titled album came around a few months later. It was widely lauded…with no mention of the fact that this was, instead, recorded in three different locations in professional studios with male musicians playing on the album. I ain’t complaining – it testifies to the power of music to make these SJW critics completely forget their nonsensical arguments and simply enjoy what they are hearing.

And how can you not! I heard Paper Thin and Can’t Fight on Youtube and thereafter wasted no time in getting the full album. Gonna get the CD, if I can, when the covid situation clears up. For now, the sound is great even on the Youtube Music stream.

If I loved Paper Thin and Can’t Fight, I was simply blown away by Bittersweet. And Read My Mind…wow, the chorus is as good as any you will find on a vintage Stevie Wonder album. But as much as I love and admire the work of Wonder, one of my all time favourite artists, Havas has a more gorgeous and supple voice and I am not sure I would get the same emotions from a Wonder-rendition of Read My Mind.

Havas has a way of singing in the uber-staccato Amy Winehouse-influenced style that pervades all of contemporary pop and still sounding more legato than she really is. I normally find that Winehouse-y phrasing super annoying but Havas brings a combination of languid duskiness and raw soul to her vocals that make me overlook such considerations. Again, the power of music to make you forget about your ‘rules’.

This album is neither the raw sparseness of Is Your Love Big Enough or the dazzling lushness of Blood. It’s, simply, accomplished. The arrangements do in fact lean towards the sparse side…BUT they don’t SOUND sparse. The singing, playing, production all put together are so, so beautiful it doesn’t sound lo-fi in any way. A cliche comparison coming from me, but it is sort of like Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Not in terms of any musical similarities but in the way that the songs sound rich even with a limited instrumental palate because they are so beautifully performed and recorded, so dynamic even when they stick to the softer side of things (or because of that!).

That comparison sums up in another sense what this album sounds like. There is a seamless melange of influences current and past such that the album sounds, in essence, timeless. It’s an incredibly soulful set of songs recorded by a black Brit who likes to avoid being slotted in ‘soul’ but whose work reflects the spirit of R&B legends, living and dead. And not just R&B – Bittersweet evoked Erykah Badu for me.

But an even more stunning demonstration of both the range of Havas’ influences as well as the level at which her artistry operates is her cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes. Not every day that you hear somebody take a Radiohead track and make it absolutely her own.

Havas says the session where she and her band recorded Weird Fishes inspired her as to the direction of the new album. It’s not hard to see why, that’s how magical her cover is.

What follows continues to be wonderful though, if you’re like me, you have already found everything up to Weird Fishes so sumptuous you can hardly believe there is still more album to feast on. Problems of plenty. Stick around, though, and Sour Flower is the perfect closer.

In stark contrast to the media narrative around FTBC, Havas stands in quiet defiance of ongoing trends in music. They say the album format is dead and yet, she has delivered something that is not just an assortment of songs lumped together for no apparent reason but one that works together as one cohesive experience. They say arrangements is just too much dress and DIY yada yada, but she has recorded her album with loving crafts(wo)manship. They say it’s more about the sound and melodies and harmonies don’t really matter anymore (an argument intended to make musophiles like me shut up about the relative lack of those in FTBC), but Havas serves up generous portions of both. In a time when the media implore you, me, everyone to pick a side so that they can scream more hysteria about it and boost their ratings, Havas defiantly gives us an intensely personal perspective. And why not! When Nixon was being impeached, maybe Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd both had plenty to say about it but Genesis didn’t, nor did Yes, nor Renaissance. Are their albums regarded as less worthy today for not talking about the things the media told you to talk about?

Don’t get me wrong; I am not one of those who goes, “I loved you until you said XYZ political stuff” on artists. I have remained a fan of Kangana Ranaut the actress (or Clint Eastwood the filmmaker) even as I disagreed more and more with their politics. If you want to go political, do so by all means. And even if it’s an award bait, I don’t care. Your album, your choice. But…likewise, my choice to like it or not which will have nothing to do with which side of the aisle you fall on.

In fact, in releasing this wonderful, wonderful album named, simply, after herself, in a mad, mad year like 2020, Lianne La Havas underlines a simple truth that musicians and musophiles know too well (and which can never get through the brains of the media talking heads) – music is much, much bigger than the moment we live in, bigger than the artists who make it or us the listeners who appreciate it. It was there before you or I emerged from the darkness and it will be there when we are gone there.

So why indeed should music have to remind us of CNN, Fox, Times Now etc? While all this stuff happens – what Annie Haslam described as a bad movie to me – let there be gorgeous, heartfelt music to nourish our souls and help us get through these times. Never stop playing, Lianne, pretty please!

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