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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 23, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Election New Year, Good New CDs

Christmas is over, as you read this -- but I'm writing it the week before. I have no idea yet what Santa brought, but I can bet on a few things.

I'll bet, for instance, that Santa was much more generous with the children of rich parents than with the children of poor ones.

And yet, unfair as this might seem, I'll bet that the poor kids had at least as much fun, on average, as the rich ones -- and maybe more. Partly because the poor kids are much more likely to have had a neighborhood full of other kids to play with and hang out with.

On the other hand the more well-to-do kids are more likely to have both their father and mother still living in the same house with them, and that makes a big difference, too.

So maybe, on average, everybody pretty much had as good a Christmas as anybody else. Some better, some worse. The statistics can tell us some things, but happiness isn't measurable. It comes to people one at a time, and to different degrees.

I'll bet, though, that the quality of everyone's Christmas depended far more on the quality of their family life and the personalities of the people they live with than the amount of money spent on gifts for them.

Kids with kindly parents had merrier Christmases than those who were tiptoeing around hoping not to get anybody mad.

*

So now we're heading to another New Year. This should be a glorious celebration, because some wonderful things happened in 2007. Our President found the commander, and the strategy, that are leading us to victory in the Iraq campaign.

So the lives that were invested in fighting this war on foreign shores instead of at home were not wasted -- they will bring the return that was promised. It doesn't bring any of the lost ones back, but it makes their sacrifice meaningful.

Our economy is robust and, while it is never under anyone's control, it seems to be doing well, with blips -- in other words, business as usual.

And yet ... somehow, as we head into the New Year, many Americans will actually be frustrated that we're doing well in the war -- they may even be trying to deny it and convince people that we're still losing.

Others will be claiming -- falsely -- that our soldiers have caused unending disaster in the countries we liberated from vicious dictatorships.

Many are trying to convince us that financially we're all in desperate shape, and all that prosperity is illusory, or the wrong kind, or going to the wrong people.

Why such a disparity between reality and the image commonly presented on our national media?

Why, because it's an election year with a Republican incumbent, of course!

When there's a Democratic incumbent, then of course everything is rosy and no stories are bad. All actions were brilliant accomplishments; all inaction was wise rather than indolent or cowardly. Everything spins to the plus side.

But in years when a Republican is in control of the White House, you'd think an asteroid had struck America, the stories are so dire. All that head-shaking and tongue-clucking. So worried, these commentators. Things look so downand dark. We need a change.

Don't be deceived. We've had eight years with a president of extraordinary courage and moral strength and, yes, wisdom. Bad at selling himself to the people, but then, he had to contend with the continuous hostility of the press, so it's not as if we could ever get to know him without them filtering everything.

Our business is not to vote on President Bush this year. Our business is to look at the candidates and decide which person has the wisdom to deal with problems as yet unforeseen, and the strength of will to stand firm after decisions are made.

We need to determine which candidates are honorable and say what they mean and mean what they say; which candidates know how to make a promise and keep it, no matter what.

I remember back in 1992, as I looked at Bill Clinton, saying to anyone who would listen: If he can't keep his promises to his wife, why should we believe any of the promises he makes to us? And, sure enough, he was in office about twenty minutes before he was breaking promises to almost everyone.

(The only exception was his stand in favor of limitless abortion -- which is what won him the silence of the so-called Women's Movement when he was committing perjury to conceal his exploitation of powerless women.)

His life already revealed his moral character, and we got the president we paid for.

In an election year, we can't possibly guess what future the president will be presiding over. But we can decide what kind of person will lead us through that future, and what moral principles will guide him.

Will it be the person who obviously took bribes but simply denies it?

The person who used public money to conceal an adulterous relationship?

The person who uses religious bigotry as a tool to bring down a frontrunner, even as he claims to stand for constitutional values?

The person who claims to champion the poor, but treats ordinary people with disdain when he happens to run into them?

The person who kind of wants to be president but doesn't want to do any of the work required to actually get the office?

I remember commentators nodding wisely and saying that the "character issue" doesn't really matter. I shook my head in despair. If a candidate's character is bad, if they can't be trusted, what does it matter what he or she might promise us?

Look at their life, at their past, at what they actually do. That's how you find out the kind of person you're going to have in charge.

Of course, that isn't how we got George W. Bush. We got him because he was the most electable Republican in a year when Republicans were desperate to get rid of Bill Clinton. We didn't know at the time how dishonest and stupid Al Gore was -- that was revealed later, in his attempt to steal the election and his fraudulent exploitation of the global warming scare.

But enough people in the right states were fed up with a cynical, unprincipled presidency to vote for the other guy, whoever he was. And we ended up with a decent man in the office -- and a patient one, who has put up with an unprecedented level of slander and misrepresentation while governing us very well.

There was an old saying once: "God protects fools, drunks, and the United States."

Sometimes I think that having George W. Bush as President was God's last gesture of protection.

If we're so stupid we can't recognize a good man when we're led by one, if we can't take responsibility for our own defense and the defense of helpless people in other lands, if we can't recognize when we're truly blessed and keep trying to make changes that can only make our situation worse -- well, maybe it's time for God to say, in effect, "OK, kids. You think you know how to do it better. Go ahead. Have it your way."

So even as we are living in a wonderful time, prosperous and victorious, I face this New Year with foreboding, because I'm not sure the American majority wants to be free and strong and decent anymore, not at a national level or a personal one.

The people who revel in weakness, dependence, and indecency are so numerous now, and feel so justified in their appalling, self-destructive beliefs and behavior, that I wonder how much longer this will be a nation that's worth defending.

We're a nation founded, not on ethnicity, but on ideals. When we reach a point when most of us no longer believe in those ideals, then what are we standing on? Why do we exist as a people? Should we exist, when our existence, as a nation, has no more meaning than that of countries born of chance rather than design?

That's the kind of thing I think about when New Year's comes around. Just be glad you're not spending New Year's Eve at my house. It's so gloomy, with me brooding around the house about the fall of empires and the decay of civilizations ...

*

Let me end the year with reviews of some music that I've been listening to for the past while.

Jane Monheit's new album, Surrender, is a gorgeous thing. Her voice has a dreamy quality to it, and on this album she has reached the pinnacle, doing the things she does best.

Several Brazilian songs -- including a perfect rendition of "So Many Stars," arranged by and sung with Sergio Mendes -- mark her as someone who understands that jazz was transformed in Brazil into a new music with far more life in it than the American Be-Bop dead end.

When she and Ivan Lins sing "Rio de Maio" ("River of May," perhaps an answer to "Waters of March"), not only is her Portuguese accent nearly perfect, her musical nuances are exquisite. Her choices never seem analyzed, and yet they are endlessly surprising and endlessly right.

The best track on this album is, of all things, "Moon River." Nothing against Andy Williams, but this song has never been so beautiful before. Monheit's vocalizations never feel like showing off; instead, it's as if we're overhearing someone's meditations. Or perhaps the feelings of her heart.

If you've never listened to Monheit, give her a try. This is music for people who actually remember what a melody is, and what a voice is supposed to do with it.

The next album I've fallen in love with is called Love Songs of the 70s. This was the last decade when pop music actually had songs (now real songs linger mostly in jazz and country). But the singer drew together an astonishingly eclectic range of songs -- and nailed them all.

How about Gilbert O'Sullivan's weird and whiny "Alone Again (Naturally)" -- would you believe it can be a soulful introspection with a rather sweet melody?

Then David Gates's "If," matching him high note for high note, and yet making the song sound more mature; with this singer, it isn't just a series of romantic conceits, it's more like a set of serious promises.

"You Are So Beautiful," with all the passion of Joe Cocker, but without the torture. "Mandy," as sweetly as Manilow did it, but not overproduced, so now you realize it really is a song full of regret for a love lost.

"When I Need You," "Laughter in the Rain," along with soul songs like "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Let's Stay Together." The singer is never imitating the original performers -- every song is made his own -- and yet he is still true to the kind of song it's supposed to be.

The result is that we hear a voice of extraordinary range and power, and a singer with a perfect sensitivity to the meaning of the words, so he's never showing off, he's simply placing exactly the right emotion into musical form.

In short, this is a great album that proves that those were good songs and not just popular records.

And the singer is ...

Donny Osmond.

Osmond left "cuteness" far behind him. This is a man's voice; this is the heart of someone who knows something about what life means, and so he can take a song inside him and bring it out again as something new.

Even the wretched excess of Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch," sung by a mature singer with some real understanding, becomes music instead of overacting.

I think Osmond's time on Broadway was more pivotal in his singing career than anyone really understood. He's still a pop singer, but I'm hearing Broadway vocal techniques in his voice.

His ability to absolutely control his range -- he flows into and out of falsetto with almost no missteps, and he can pop that belting voice with amazing power -- is something that is almost unknown in pop music.

But his native talent is still there: His pitch is dead on all the time. In an era when many pop singers seem not to know what pitch is, making it gratingly painful to listen to them sing at a melody like a toddler trying to spear a grape with a fork, it's a relief to listen to a singer who has absolute mastery over his voice and the music he's singing.

Forget the child; forget the cute teenager. Donny Osmond is a man. A man who may well be the best pop singer we have right now.

Taylor Swift's self-titled debut album looked appallingly overdone, from the cover: A holographic 3D picture that looked like somebody's misguided pre-wedding picture.

What a delightful surprise, then, to find that Swift is actually a powerful country singer who knows how to nail a song to the wall like a manifesto.

"Should've Said No" is brilliantly performed. I had to look to see who wrote this great song, because I wondered how this newcomer was able to get her hands on an anthem that any of the big stars would have faunched over.

Guess what? She wrote it herself.

She wrote or co-wrote every song on the album.

No surprise that her album has gone platinum. She's the real thing. She's going to be an important country and pop singer for a long time to come, and she doesn't depend on other people to bring her the songs that will make her memorable.

Isn't it nice when somebody who's being hyped to death is actually worth it?

Nobody's hyping Shannon Brown -- not with the treatment Taylor Swift is getting, anyway -- but she's also a new country singer to be reckoned with. She co-wrote most of her songs, and most of them are by or with John Rich and Vicky McGehee.

The combination is a strong one -- every song on her debut album is excellent. But the best is, not by mere coincidence, the title track: "Corn Fed." By the end of the song I felt as if I'd grown up in Iowa instead of the suburbs in the bay area of California.

And, finally: I'm a fan of Alison Krauss, but not of Robert Plant, so I had trepidation in approaching their first collaborative album, Raising Sand.

My fears were needless. Together, their very different musics become something new and really quite fine. I hope this isn't the last album they do together.


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