The Fascinating Depths: Yeezus, Vampire Weekend, and Mad Men Season Six

The experience of looking down from a great height is intoxicating. After all, why do people climb mountains, if not to look down from a great height? (Unless they’re really into sweat and thin air.) Whether literal or figurative, depths are fascinating.

I recall submerging in Lake Chelan’s limpid green waters, ten feet down, and looking out through the cold clear waters as my heartbeat rang in my ears. I recall standing on top of a bridge, peering down at the flowing river far below, and leaping on a sudden whim, even as my breath caught in my throat. It’s a strange fascination…not exactly a death wish, but rather some odd desire to know exactly what depths we can plumb.

And of course, in Mad Men, those depths are nearly all metaphorical. Don Draper has descended to the depths of depression and depravity before, but this season most heavily underlined those themes than any prior. It opened with Don reading Dante’s Inferno on a beach, just to ram that point home. Even though Don grappled with crushing depression and alcoholism in season four, and prior seasons saw suicides and deaths, this season was even darker, not merely in its portrayal of a nation reeling in the dark late 60s, but also because the darkness pervaded every area of Don’s life.

He tried to be an attentive father and husband in season five, while balancing professional demands, and yet he wasn’t able to pull it off. Throughout the sixth season, Don failed his marriage, failed his children, failed in his work, and even failed in his latest extramarital fling. And yet, in the penultimate episodes, he had to explore the depths even further. Don had to blow work off and take his colleagues’ sacrifices and his place for granted. He had to betray his friend and canoodle with Mrs. Rosen once more in an attempt to rekindle his savoir faire, and consequently fail his daughter more grievously than ever before.

These dark depths are seductive, especially when lived vicariously. It’s no coincidence Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two of the most powerful and compelling shows on TV right now, both explore evil in a very realistic world. Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner know that building a narrative in which we are slowly, almost blindly led into seeing exactly how easy it is to do terrible things, into the depths each of us is capable of sinking to, is how to play to the intoxication of depths.

It took several listens (heck, I’m listening to it right now) for me to realize that was Yeezus‘ appeal also. It’s a different kind of depth; after all, it’s not as if Kanye is capturing his darkness. Rather, what Kanye West seems to be doing with this hasty, intriguing record is plumbing the depths of his imagination, creativity, and audience.

Why did he rush the album through production, and throw in vocals haphazardly? Some critics have guessed that the sound matters the most, or that it’s simply Kanye’s experimentation or boredom with the radio and his own public image. I think some of those are close to the truth, but what’s even more important is that the haphazard nature of the album speaks more to someone who’s rooting out the closet just to find what’s in there.

Tracks like ‘I am a God’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ showcase West’s self-absorption at its most self-aggrandizing, and also his deep urge to address racism…while also conflating such issues with his own past heartbreak. He then mines obscure sounds and throws it all together in Yeezus (which really is best listened to as a whole album rather than singles) in an exploration of his creative depths and those most potent, latent, rooted themes that have pervaded all his work.

Rummaging around in the depths is what also makes Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, intriguing. These themes are extremely religious and relationship-centric. ‘Ya Hey’ and ‘Diane Young’ focus on heavy Biblical themes and doomed relationships, tying together philosophical musings along with the fundamental realities religion grapples with. The depths may not be ego-centric and culture-heavy as those in Yeezus, but they are creative, personal, and spiritual depths all the same.

In the above link Koenig speaks of how he sees this latest album as dealing with more adult issues, which is virtually the essence of true depths. Once you’re a grown-up, the amount of damage you can inflict on not only yourself but others is astronomically greater than the flailing of even the most petulant ten-year-old. Once you’re old enough to grasp how far you can fall is precisely when the depths become most fascinating.

Another critic (the name escapes me, sadly) mused that Yeezus is Kanye’s clean-up record, his method of dealing with all the issues of previous albums, before he embarks on fatherhood. I have no idea whatsoever, but all I know is that the album sounds like someone determinedly creating a meal with whatever was left in his pantry that looked good.

But in the end, the depths are most fascinating because they are what we hope to eventually ascend from to the heights of our dreams. The sixth season concluded with Don’s realization that he simply couldn’t achieve what he wanted if he built everything on a lie (just a snippet of excellent analysis of Mad Men by Todd VanDerWerff which was invaluable to my understanding of the season). Yeezus ends with a cheery chorus and repeated assurance of “Uh-huh honey”, while Modern Vampires of the City overall packages its most disturbing lyrics in its second-catchiest tune, ‘Unbelievers’.

Plunging into the depths wouldn’t be nearly as fun if we couldn’t climb back up on the bridge, or eventually kick our way to the surface, and climb back out into the sun.

(All images are reproduced from non-licensed material, I believe. My dad’s a lawyer; I was trained to exercise due diligence.)

Mad Men Season 6

A friend of mine once observed that she’d stopped watching Mad Men because she had begun to identify too much with the characters. Whether true or not, there is something of a seductive quality to the characters on Mad Men. Not only are they beautiful people living in an enviable fashion, with peerless interior decoration, expensive tastes and absorbing jobs, they also are human in a very tantalizing way. They make mistakes, fail in marriages and other relationships, exude frustration midst their material comfort, and most of all seethe with a faint uneasiness…and look good enough doing it that I can both relate and desire to be them.

To me, that is the mark of Mad Men’s greatness, and it is exemplified best in this current season. I’ve read some mixed reviews on this season, namely in the Atlantic, and it’s tempting to see how the sixth season, thus far, could be somewhat sputtering. There’s not much forward progression, it appears, for numerous characters. Pete and Trudy separate, Don’s affair with Sylvia Rosen intensifies, but nothing too surprising or apparently momentous happens. Indeed, there are hints of professional and the ever-present personal troubles, but even the show almost seems to dismiss them offhand (the consequences of Heinz Baked Beans jumping ship, for instance, seem minuscule).

Yet this slow-burning momentum is the thing that I love best about Mad Men, and what, to my mind, renders it so seductive. After all, even though a show structured like Mad Men requires compression of time and events in order to remain compelling, it is one of the shows that most successfully captures the slow shift that comprises actual life. Few life-changing events wholly occur in a short amount of time. Rather, the tectonic grind of clashing personalities in professional and personal spheres gradually changes the landscape of daily life until sudden eruptions occur. Even the cinematography reflects that sentiment this season, with slow shots, careful framing, and sober color contrast (at least with the most conflicted characters…Peggy, for instance, wears bright colors, along with Megan; both are not nearly as conflicted as Don).

I think Todd VanDerWerff at AV Club voiced a similar sentiment, mentioning how Mad Men was great at proffering small events, almost as if they were insignificant, and yet weaving many such small moments into something far larger and important than previously assumed. Don’s marriage to Megan was one such event. I was surprised, at first, at the nuptials, but then, after rewatching much of the first four seasons of Mad Men, realized how it was not only presaged by Don’s character but also small events built up throughout the fourth season.

And that’s what I think this sixth season is, to an even greater extent than ever before. The shifts are gradual, with ostensible showy events on the surface (losing Heinz Baked Beans, the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, Don’s affair) that seem to fade, but all build to something, piece by piece. What is that eventual point? I don’t know. I know what I hope for, or at least I think I hope for, and that is something Sylvia said to Don: peace.

That elusive peace is one of the most seductive elements in Mad Men. We live our lives as stories, and each of us is the hero and narrator of our tale. But we are trapped in these stories; the average of our weeks, months, and years may even out to a recognizable arc filled with joy and sorrow, satisfaction and unease, peace and discord, but in the day-to-day, peace is elusive. Mad Men exaggerates emotions by virtue of a fast-paced, highly-charged environment and profession in a colorful time period and lucrative field, but even so, it evokes the plodding evolution of longing very well.

Above, I referenced the fallible nature of Mad Men’s characters as seductive elements. The stories we live abound with our own foibles, so mirroring flaws is merely canny and candid. Yet what’s even cleverer than that is showing how those foibles come about. They all derive from that sense of unease, that longing for something, whether it be some vestige of happiness or a different satisfaction altogether (happiness would seem to be the obvious answer, but we don’t always do things because they’ll make us happy).

Whether or not you can identify with Mad Men’s characters, or even if you want to, the show does succeed in capturing that particular nature of our own lives. And, of course, delivers it to us in as attractive a packaging as possible, which may or may not be a meta-commentary on the show itself. Even if we do want to see part of our own lives played out onscreen, we want to look good, after all.

 

P.S. Several other reviewers have speculated this season’s theme to be something akin to Purgatory. With explicit religious overtones in Don’s affair with Sylvia, it’s an interesting take, but something that may take a few more episodes to truly develop, in my opinion.

Random Thoughts on Humility Nowadays

The oddest of all virtues, to my mind. It exists to be unnoticed, when it is truly successful. And as for its popularity, one could look around the plethora of articles and rambles decrying the self-absorption encouraged by the advent of social media, personal gadgets, and so on (here’s an example from the Atlantic). The articles are interesting, although often quite unintentionally humorous; in fact, almost as humorous as the consequent denials. 

And one could argue that the rise of self-expression coupled with the increasing access to avenues of such self-expression, along with a comfortable cocoon of friends as your audience, could lead to self-absorption getting a free pass. But I’m not so sure. After all, it’s not as if this is anything quite so new. As I said before, humility is unpopular. It’s the least appealing of all virtues, even less so than temperance (I had to go get a Boatswain Double IPA just upon the mere contemplation of temperance). Self-absorption, whether or not it is now even more observable due to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, what have you, always has been around. We’re just seeing more of it, as before it existed only in people’s heads.

Now, lest I fall into the category of people who claim it’s all right, I think the above article has a fair point. The unprecedented increase in the ability of people to draw crowds in virtual realities has never happened before. And I’m sure my self-regard has not been damaged by the preening profile I often present on Facebook.

But is a virtual reality really that effective in establishing a narcissistic bubble that can be sustained in human interactions? The neurological synapses can be fooled by chemicals inspired by online interactions (think pornography or interactive flash games), but can consciousness, really? By this I do not mean that I think arrogance, or lack of humility, can NOT be amplified by self-absorption online. I just happen to think that a combination of that, and the opposite, which is the exposure to numerous other perspectives and opinions online (even in a close circle of friends) may make the narcissistic or even self-absorbing effects rather ambiguous.

Plus, there is already a sizable backlash in mental attitude toward online self-absorption among my peers, and even younger age groups. Having an online profile may be somewhat necessary, but immersion is the mark of the unsavvy (which, according to Google, isn’t a word, but it should be, so there it is). Self-awareness, I’d argue, is the prime characteristic inculcated by my peers’ attitudes toward online absorption in this age, along with a desire to manage personal image to not the most popular configuration, but to a reasonably appealing one.

And that self-awareness, sadly, is not humility. (It often can be, but from personal experience, I am all too aware that being self-aware does not lead to humility…just because you can see your terrible haircut does not mean you acknowledge how bad it makes you look.) It involves doing what everyone does on a daily basis – try to be someone they want to be, especially in public – but it is not the realization and acceptance of personal flaws.

Which is what humility is really all about, right? And why it’s the least popular of all virtues. It’s obscenely difficult. I have to detach myself from my actions and not only think about the mistakes I have made, or am likely to make, but accept that I will probably make some anyways. And I have to be at peace (there HAS to be a better word for “be at peace” in English than that vaguely clunky phrase, but I do not know it) with that fact. So, not easy, whatsoever.

And, hypocritically, I may go on to add it really is a sad thing that there’s not more of it. Being able to admit you were wrong, and that you are capable of making mistakes, for example, is something that is justly admired in a politician (usually after they are dead), on rare occasions. I wish that I had that option on my tests every time I take a test (actually, I have written that down, on one occasion, but it rankled greatly). If bankers and financial pundits could admit they did not know what was going on, but this was their best guess; if we could admit that we make mistakes, being human, and thus risk should be spread around as much as possible; if institutions that depend on a few human choices could willingly proclaim their ignorance and caution…well, that institution would probably go underwater, human nature being what it is.

Perhaps in this information-soaked age, it’s hard (for me, at least, especially as I’ve cultivated a reputation of knowing things – ah, those subtle, sinister effects of successful successive bar trivia nights) for those who feel they SHOULD know because the evidence of what they should know is so easily obtained, to admit they don’t. Reputations are ultra-fashionable suits: they wear very well for the season, but can become tiresome, difficult to wear, or anachronistic quite quickly.

On the other hand, reputations, when best fashioned, really are the classic black suit. They never go out of fashion, and while they may need to be taken out or in, they are about as timeless as an article of clothing can get. Humility may not always be fashionable, but it’s timeless. Even if not very appealing…because, let’s face it, other qualities are much more marketable. Strength, honesty, prudence, even temperance (in an increasingly health-conscious age)…

Well, I forgot chastity. Never mind, humility is always more appealing than that.