...Apple & Onion: You'll have to excuse a father for boasting but...Not for my kids the canned laugh tracks of a Nickelodeon show. No, this week they came across Apple & Onion, an animated series on Cartoon Network that imagines a New York City populated by anthropomorphic food. I sat down to watch an episode with the kids and got hooked. The humor is both farcical and desert-dry and, sure, maybe borrows a bit too much from the cult HBO favorite Flight of the Concords: Apple and Onion are two British (or at least non-American-English-speaking) musicians who mostly fail to make their way in the immigrant-rich borough of our great animated city, naive to this new land but with an idealism that's infectious. They break into song. They dance. They land themselves in jail. It's kid humor but not really, kind of an indie Pixar.
It's smart as hell. I'm just glad my brood has good taste in TV. That's one victory.
...Rick Rubin's Broken Record podcast: Specifically this week's episode, because Rubin and Spike Jonze sit down with the two surviving members of The Beastie Boys and talk about what went into making License to Ill. I knew Rubin produced the album but didn't know he met the guys when he was at NYU and they were high school dropouts, just wanting to hang in Rubin's dorm because he had two turn tables and the best record collection in the city.
You need to be a big Beastie Boys fan to enjoy the whole episode. If you're not, I'd say skip ahead to the last 20 minutes, when the Beasties talk about opening for Madonna before License to Ill dropped, and Rubin convinced them they needed to make like professional wrestlers and be the heels of every show they performed. Even if the crowd hated them, at least they'd remember The Beastie Boys.
I really like Rubin's podcast. It's the aural equivalent of liner notes, which I used to pore over when I was a teenager with a CD collection. Maybe even better than Rubin's interview with the Beasties is Rubin's conversation with Questlove. He tells a fascinating story about playing drums for D'Angelo on Voodoo, my favorite neo-soul album, and then lets loose the GREATEST STORY EVER about Barack Obama.
It seems every economist has a pet theory for what's going on: Some investors are betting on a "V-shaped" recovery; wealthy people aren't spending on retail or travel so they're stashing their cash in stocks, because the returns in the bond and treasury markets are so low; the pandemic has been very good for colossal tech companies, which have a lot of sway in the performance of stock indexes.
Some or all of these theories could be half-right—I'm not an economist—but none of the theories answered my deeper question. Why was the stock market bearing no relationship to the anxieties of Americans or the realities of the economy?
That's when I came across Explained. It's a Netflix series produced by Vox, the media company whose jam is to explain the present through the prism of history. Explained: The Stock Market speaks directly to this week even though the episode debuted a few years ago. It's a deeply satisfying history lesson: How public companies used to operate more like pubic utilities, concerned for the common good, until Milton Friedman came along in the 1980s and said a company's only concern was that of its shareholders. Soon the Greed is Good era took off, executive pay bound itself to stock-price performance, executive decisions became ever more short-sighted, until we reached the point where we are today, where it's not that something is lost in translation between Wall Street and the businesses listed there. It's that Wall Street and the broader economy are speaking different languages.
Certain media outlets and many politicians still link the markets' performance to that of the economy because, decades ago, there was a real link there. There's not one any more. That's the takeaway of the episode.
...The Unwinding, by George Packer: Man, I love this book. Packer, a longtime magazine journalist, takes as his subject nothing less than the Decline of America over the Last 40 Years. It sounds bleak but Packer's argument is similar to one I made here a couple weeks ago, when promoting The Fourth Turning: America, like the people who populate it, goes through a period of growth, then maturation, then decline, then death, before the cycle repeats it. Packer's book is the chronicle of those decades of decline, through the life stories of a factory worker from Ohio, an entrepreneur from Virginia, an aide to Joe Biden who becomes a lobbyist, and an immigrant named Peter Thiel who becomes the greatest investor in Silicon Valley. Their stories intersect with the story the nation tells itself about how it's doing. It's made all the better by interludes in which Packer tells the story of Oprah, Sam Walton, Andrew Breitbart, Jay-Z, Elizabeth Warren and other bold-faced Americans, whose narratives either reflect the national story or influence the lives of the main characters.
Packer's writing is live-wire electric and the result is a 500-plus page-turner that I didn't want to end. The Unwinding came out in 2013 but goes a long way to explain how we reached this summer of 2020. For writers like me the book is an inspiration. Packer is so inventive here, with the language he uses, with the structure. I know I'm gushing but, damn George, you effin' nailed it.