Subscription conniptions: how many is too many?

Like many people these days, I pay for a number of different subscription products that are beneficial in all kinds of ways.

Amazon Prime is one of the smartest and most innovative subscriptions for anyone who orders stuff regularly from Amazon… which is a lot of people. You pay a yearly fee, and you figure the cost kind of covers itself in “saved” shipping charges alone. And then, when you’re a TV geek such as myself, the bevy of original TV shows you can see with an Amazon Prime subscription — ranging from The Fabulous Mrs. Maisel to Patriot to the recent debut of Good Omens and on and on — makes it feel like you’re getting to see all of this great stuff for free.

I also pay $15 per month for HBO Now, HBO’s standalone streaming service. While it’s cool to know that I can access HBO classics such as The Sopranos or The Wire (and see much more on this in this week’s Pop Culture Arcana Arcade: sign up for the newsletter below!) anytime I want, and there are always a handful of really high quality shows on HBO that I’m looking forward to seeing, I do sometimes consider dropping the service. I suppose it comes down to the seemingly overwhelming value of an Amazon Prime or Netflix (with its gargantuan content offerings and throw-it-all-at-the-wall array of shows) versus the much smaller and much more curated TV series that HBO produces.

The end of Game of Thrones, perhaps the last true “watercooler” TV show for the foreseeable future, offered a natural milestone to revisit this choice. Of course, this is something that HBO is acutely aware of, and which is why it has put a 2:10 trailer in front of all of its offerings, showcasing everything in its production pipeline, it seems, over the next year or two.  And you know what? It worked, at least in my case. Between the return of Succession and new shows like The Righteous Gemstones, I’m going to stick around for a while.

All of this was on my mind when reading about “Streaming’s cancel culture problem“:

  • Data shows that consumers across all ages are more than 30% likely to cancel a subscription streaming service after the show or series they are watching has ended. This creates big headaches for streaming companies over how to keep consumers from leaving, especially as the streaming space grows increasingly competitive.
  • A new Axios/Harris poll conducted after the “Game of Thrones” finale aired found that that 16% of HBO subscribers say they planned to cancel their subscriptions now that the show is over.
  • Most people only plan to hang onto subscription services for less than 6 months upon initially signing up, according to the most recent Video Entertainment Survey from media research firm Frank A. Magid and Associates

When you broaden out from TV stuff and think about all of the subscriptions that many people carry — from cable Internet to phone to magazines to luxury services such as Birchbox and Lootcrate — it brings up the question of whether people might hit “subscription fatigue” based on cost or other factors.

new report out, if it’s to be believed, relays that the subscription splurge may well continue for some time to come:

  • U.S. consumers are still embracing subscriptions. More than a third (34%) of Americans say they believe they’ll increase the number of subscription services they use over the next two years, according to a new report from eMarketer. This is following an increase to three subscription services on average, up from 2.4 services five years ago.

Key point and question here:

  • Subscriptions, after all, may still feel like luxuries. No one needs Netflix, Spotify, groceries delivered to their home or curated clothing selections sent by mail, for example. There are non-subscription alternatives that are much more affordable. The question is which luxuries are worth the recurring bill?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to head out to hit the gym, followed by an evening of cooking up some Blue Apron while listening to a custom playlist on Spotify.

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

Ranking HBO’s TV show rankings

Usually, I have a few ideas floating around of what I might want to dig into for “next week’s newsletter.” For example, there was a meme on Twitter recently involving the best TV series finale of all time. This is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about, so I’ll likely get into it here sometime (Berlin Files TV fanatics, let your hearts be warmed!).

And then sometimes I see a headline like this and I know there is going to be some deep level nerding happening in the near-term: “Every HBO Show, Ranked.”

What follows are selections from the 74 ranked HBO shows from the list with some of my own thoughts on the show, where it was ranked by Vulture, and then my own take on where it should be ranked in my not so humble opinion.

74. 1st & Ten — I get that this show is ranked dead last, but it does hold a tiny but special place in my childhood, “sneaking” HBO to watch this absolutely ridiculous T&A-fest and cheesy sports comedy. And by ridiculous, I mean that it’s ridiculous even by 1980s standards. The fact that O.J. Simpson plays a major character alone dooms this thing for all posterity.
72. Dream On — Another show that I spent many hours of my adolescence getting my eyes in front of. My re-rank: high 50s.
70. The Brink — Spot on ranking. This show should be amazing — a political satire starring Tim Robbins and Jack “Jaybles” Black — but it’s not. It’s unwatchable.
69. Entourage — A big loud boo for this low of a ranking. I’m pretty annoyed with how much flak Entourage gets for not having enough “depth” overall, frankly. Is it a fantasy for guys? Kinda… but it’s also consistently funny (particularly the first several seasons) and the characters are great. I’d have it in the 30s at least.
67. Vinyl — Another boo and hiss. I’m in the minority here, but I thought the single season of this show was fantastic. I’m a sucker for New York stories, stories about music and music culture, and anything Scorsese-related, so it maybe it was custom made for me. The show’s worth a higher ranking for Ray Romano alone (who is amazing in this and, more recently, Get Shorty the TV show). I’d rank Vinyl in the 30s as well.
66. The Newsroom — Overall, this show was a noble failure and often a snoozer. Pretty solid ranking, but having all of the Chris Lilly shows (Summer Heights High, et al) one rank higher — and higher than anything else, really — is a tragedy for all lists ever created.
59. Lucky Louie — This one isn’t O.J.-level problematic but it’s problematic for some obvious reasons but also because this is a pretty unusual show, a comedy so grounded that it sometimes feels like a searing drama (and for the next step in this direction, see CK’s later effort, Horace and Pete, a web series that’s as black as night, tone-wise). All of that being said, it’s an interesting experiment, and I’d put it in the 40s.
58. Camping — Another show that I find nearly unwatchable. This is high 60s territory for me.
56. Family Tree — Oh man, I found the single season of this Chris O’Dowd-fronted show (also wonderful in the aforementioned Get Shorty) to be absolutely delightful, a surprisingly funny and charming gem. Was very sad that it didn’t get picked up. Ranking: 20s.
53. Crashing — It’s tragic that this show and Family Tree landed in the 50s. I love everything about this Pete Holmes show. If you don’t know who Pete Holmes is, stop reading this and go watch Crashing immediately. Ranking: 20s.
51. How to Make It in America — this was not a great show, but it was a good show and did what it did really well. Ranking: 30s.
46. The High Life, 47. K Street 45. The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency 44. Doll & Em — If you’re wondering, I’m at least somewhat familiar with a scary number of shows on this list (read = all of the original television series that HBO has produced, ever) but these three are examples of shows that I have not seen. So bake that into the margin of error in terms of my re-rankings if you like.
43. Togetherness — This is a perfect show. For me, anyway. It’s a tremendously well executed dramedy, which is so so hard to pull off. A lot of it is in the writing, but really it’s the cast: Mark Duplass (it’s a classic Duplass brothers project, with brother Jay behind the camera), Melanie Lynskey, Amanda Peet (in her best performance that I’ve seen), and Steve Zissis, a guy I wish I could be friends with in real life. Ranking: single digits.
42. Tenacious D — Am I a card-carrying worshipper of the D? Yes, I am. Pairing this show and Togetherness at #43 and #42 should lead to the writer of this list needing to have to face off against the devil in a rock off challenge. Ranking: 20s.
37. Carnivale — This is a strange show that’s occasionally transporting. I’d probably go low 30s.
35. Luck – Even with the David Milch pedigree and star power of Dustin Hoffman, I really didn’t like this drama about the horse racing life. Ranking: 50s.
30. Big Love — Looking back, I can’t believe I spent five seasons watching this drama about polygamist Mormons in Utah. Not that it was a bad show… but it wasn’t that good, either. Ranking: 40s.
29. John From Cincinnati — This is a super bizarre show (another from Milch), cancelled after a season, that might have been profound but I didn’t get it at all. Ranking: 60s.
28. Bored to Death — I love how well the quirky vibe of this show was nailed episode after episode. Love everything about the cast as well: Jason Schwartzman (in my favorite role of his), Ted Danson, and Zack Galifanakis are perfect together. Ranking: I’d bump this up to high teens.
26. Girls — This is one where I don’t envy the list makers who had to rank this one “for real.” There’s a lot that I really like and admire about this show — including Lena Dunham’s all around bravery both in front of and behind the camera. It’s also a show with lots of problems, and one that at times wasn’t particularly entertaining (though I watched all the way through pretty eagerly, to be fair). Ranking: probably about right.
23. Westworld — Just… no. Ranking: way lower.
19. Rome — The worst thing about this show is that it was cancelled after two seasons. Ranking: pretty spot on!
16. Succession — Pretty darned bold to rank it this high after only one season is in the books (Season 2 coming this summer!) but I have so much love in my heart for this wildly funny black comedy-meets-family drama that I’m very okay with this ranking. I think.
15. Boardwalk Empire — Another exceptionally tough one to rank. It’s very prestige-y and features an amazing cast, production design, and some incredibly dramatic moments… but it also got very draggy and drowsy at times. And as much as I love Steve Buscemi, I’m not sure if he was the right actor to carry this show. Ranking: mid-20s.
13. Barry — As with Succession, some recency bias is showing here… but it’s warranted. This show is flat out brilliant. I’m actually going to show my own recency bias and bump it into the Top 10.
8. Game of Thrones — There was a time not too long ago when I mused about GoT moving into my personal Top 5 Hall of Fame. The final season has prevented that from coming to fruition. Still, Game of Thrones is an amazing achievement in countless ways. Ranking: bump it down a few notches.
6. Sex in the City — I like this show very much and recognize it’s relative place in TV history and all but… come on, let’s not get crazy here. Ranking: mid-teens.
4. The Larry Sanders Show — It’s fantastic and innovative. Just not #4 good. Ranking: high single digits.
3. The Wire and 2. Deadwood — Totally fine, but just need to flip these two around.
1. The Sopranos — Anything else here would be ridiculous.

So this forces the issue for what’s my Top 10 HBO shows of all time, right? Okay, here you go:

10. Game of Thrones 
9. The Larry Sanders Show
8. The Deuce 
7. Barry
6. Six Feet Under
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm 
4. Togetherness
3. Deadwood
2. The Wire
1. The Sopranos

Hit me back and tell me where I’m wrong, and what your Top 10 is.

Also: speaking of Deadwood, the decade-in-waiting sequel movie was released this weekend on HBO, and quoting myself from Twitter:

  • #DeadwoodTheMovie is good. It’s better than good, it’s a return to form. It’s great. Everything we could have hoped for. Almost worth the wait. Man, it’s always so much fun to be delighted and surprised and floored all over again by a story expertly told.

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

2020 Democrats: state of the race (June 2nd, 2019)

The rules for who is allowed in the debates for the Democratic nomination is very “inside baseball,” but can potentially have a dramatic impact on how things play out.

The best example of this is from 2016, when the GOP had a massive field with no real front runner early on (if you’ll recall, Trump’s support gradually grew while a series of “boomlets” for other candidates rose only to pop). As with the Dems 2020, the GOP of 2016 decided to showcase 20 candidates over the two initial nights of debates with ten being featured in each. In the GOP case, they chose to give the second night to the ten candidates with the highest polling average, leaving the first night for the so-called JV squad or “kiddie table.”

The early GOP debates helped to shape the field. The dominant story line became Trump bulldozing the field with his now cliched brand of labeling his fellow debaters with nicknames (“low energy Jeb”) and other fun time attacks. But there the desired “winnowing effect” of the debates also took place in other ways.

Most memorably, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie annihilated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (both considered viable presidential nominees at the time) for using the same canned lines about President Obama repeatedly. It really is a beautiful take-down and moment of political theater. Ah, Mr. Christie… such a gifted natural politician, yet so flawed.  And then there’s one of my all time favorites from the 2012 cycle.

Anyway, cut to 2020 and the Democrats have taken a different tack: they’re still going with ten candidates a night over two nights (June 26th and 27th), with the inclusion of the 20 (because there are more than 20 candidates in all, if you haven’t heard!) determined by a combination of poll standings and fundraising criteria. But instead of having a “kiddie table,” the invited candidates will be selected randomly for which night they’ll appear on, with the caveat that candidates with a polling average over 2% will be again randomly sprinkled over the nights to further ensure that we don’t get an “accidental” JV squad debate.

As with many things, I can see this criteria having consequences that we can’t predict as yet. We won’t know the make up of the debates for a few weeks, but they may well have a lasting impact on how the nomination process plays out (or… maybe they won’t, who knows?). For example, even though the “major” candidates polling over 2% will be spread out over two nights, the specifics of this selection could be crucial.

For example, if Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are selected for the same debate, that automatically becomes the “major” debate, with the relative impact that the other debate may get a lot less attention. Further, let’s say that Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg land in the same debate, along with some longer shot candidates like Jay Inslee and John Hickenlooper. This then becomes both a major debate and then the de facto “white dude debate.” You could have an old versus young version of this dynamic, or Senators versus non-Senators, etc.

With all of that being said, it totally makes sense that “No One Knows How to Prepare for the Democratic Debates.”

And meanwhile, the stakes for the third debate, set to take place in September, ramp up the qualifying criteria significantly:

  • DNC to raise qualifying threshold for third presidential primary debate in Sept. Now candidates need to hit *both* thresholds, which have doubled: – 2% in 4 major polls – 130,000 unique donors, including 400 from 20 states.

As Nate Silver notes:

  • Bad news for anyone not named Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Kamala, Pete, Beto and maybe Amy or Cory or Andrew.

So, really, the winnowing will likely take shape based on this but again, we don’t know what the unforeseen consequences of these largely behind-the-scenes rules (for most) will be.

This New York Times story does a good job of framing the “race within the race.” Pull quote:

  • With a historically large field of 23 candidates apparently now set, Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both African-American, are competing with Mr. Biden and other candidates for the support of black voters; Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke, who are both under 50, are vying for the mantle of generational change; Senator Elizabeth Warren is encroaching on Senator Bernie Sanders’s support from the party’s left wing; and six women are making the case that it is long past time for a female president.

I think the use of the word “overblown” here is, well, a little overblown, but it’s a fair point that it’s exceptionally rare for a front runner to march to the nomination without some serious competition along the way:

  • Best illustration of the race’s volatility isn’t just the appetite of activists for a Biden alternative – it’s also Bernie’s softness w some of his ‘16 voters. Public + priv polling we got shows Warren encroaching on his left esp w the most upscale & engaged.

I personally would like to see a candidate eventually consolidate the support of the left (and in my view Elizabeth Warren would be an exemplary candidate to pull that off) and then have an active debate with the eventual “centrist” front runner (and while Biden has a very solid shot at holding onto this territory it’s by no means a done deal at this point).

Let’s do some quick hits on some of the candidates:

Elizabeth Warren 

Good NYT piece that fits with the Warren is gradually gaining on Sanders story line: “Elizabeth Warren Gains Ground in 2020 Field, One Plan at a Time.”

  • Ms. Warren still faces the long-term challenge of growing her support to include a broader population of Democrats, including nonwhite voters as well as moderates. And she faces obstacles in multiple directions: In addition to competing with Mr. Sanders for voters on the party’s left flank, she faces stiff competition from other candidates to emerge as an alternative to Mr. Biden, whose centrist campaign could appeal to a broad swath of Democratic voters.

I do wonder how much, “I’ve got a plan for that!” will work as a campaign slogan over the long haul. That being said, the substance of her proposals are indeed notable and could help her to break through. For example, a timely “plan for that” this week involves allowing the Department of Justice to indict a sitting president.

Beto O’Rourke 

Beto to The New Yorker

  • [T]he thirty members of the press, in your face, at the first event, at the second event, at the third, and then day after day after day, and asking almost nothing about anything that we just experienced together in that room.”

Makes you wonder why the press isn’t asking about what happened in the room, bringing original reporting of a unique event to break through the din and what’s largely commoditized reporting… is their job to follow these candidates around to get quotes about the national news of the day?

Mayor Pete 

Pete Buttigieg was on The New York Times’ The Argument podcast recently, arguing that he’s the right Democrat with the right experience for our times. By talking about how as a mayor he makes executive decisions and runs municipal departments that congresspeople don’t have to, and the fact that he’s the only candidate with military experience (save for Seth Moulton), and that he’s the youngest and only openly gay candidate, he does an exceptional job of turning the, “Isn’t this guy the mayor of some city in Indiana?” question on its head.

Kirsten Gillibrand

One candidate who seems like she “should” be more of a player in the 2020 race but to date hasn’t been a factor is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Hailing from Democratic power center New York and successor to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, she would seem to have a natural base to launch a campaign, but this Politico piece looks at her “failure to launch.” As with the rest of the pack, there’s lots of talk about how early things are and how little poll numbers mean at this point.


On Trump’s re-elect chances, Harry Enten notes:

  • I’d be far more sold on the idea that the economy was going to carry Trump to victory in 2020 if he had an approval rating above ~42% with what most observers would argue is a good economy.

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

Google Home, podcasts, and Luminary

Last week, I wrote about how Google is now indexing podcast episodes and the potential ramifications for how people might discover and listen to podcasts based on that update.  I then realized that you can also play podcasts directly through Google Home, though interestingly it will only play the “latest” episode of any given podcast as opposed to a specific episode that you might want to hear.

Additionally, as with Google web search, you can listen to some podcasts that are otherwise only available via standalone mobile applications. For example, if you want to hear The Adam Carolla Show via mobile app, you have to download the standalone app that showcases this and other podcasts that are part of his network (I also wrote more about Carolla a few weeks back if you’re interested). However, you can access it via Google Home, but again, you’ll just get the latest content that’s available from that feed. This makes for a somewhat awkward listening experience in that the Carolla show releases each episode in two-part chunks these days, so by its nature the “latest” episode will always be the second half of a given “show.”

In any event, this is clearly another way in which Google is competing, perhaps indirectly for the time being, with streaming services such as Spotify, which are looking to leverage the growing interest in podcasts as part of their audio content offerings. And new podcast app Luminary is looking to distinguish itself by offering premium podcast content behind a paywall.

Speaking of Luminary, it has been heavily advertising on major podcasts of late. Its business model is set up to offer a number of “free” or ad supported podcasts that you can find on other competing podcast platforms but then provide paywalled access to “premium” podcasts — such as some impressive-looking offerings such as by Trevor Noah and a Bill Simmons-fronted Rewatchables1999 spin-off.

That said, after checking out Luminary’s mobile app, I really wonder if a significant number of people will cough up $7.99 per month to access its premium offerings. There’s the continued splintering of media across the board coupled with a renewed emphasis on paid subscriptions to support content business models, for one, ranging from television to news websites and now to podcasts. I’m also not sure that its strategy of allowing people to access only one episode of premium podcasts for free (and not the “latest” episode but one single episode total) before hitting the paywall will be effective.

In any event, it’s exciting to see the explosion of interest and investment in podcast content and companies, and so we’ll be seeing a lot of experimentation with business models and strategy for years to come.

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

2020 Democrats: state of the race (May 26th, 2019)

This sum up of the state of the 2020 race on the Democrats’ side from The Ringer‘s Justin Charity will likely make a great many people howl with outrage, but it’s interesting at least as a discussion point:

  • Biden suggests an old-school liberalism pitched to nervous centrists who resent Trump, and Sanders suggests a passionate left-wing program pitched to disenchanted voters. The 22 other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination do not complicate the foundational contrast; they simply reinforce the Biden-vs.-Sanders distinction. O’Rourke, California Senator Kamala Harris, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg are Biden, but younger. Warren, the wonky ex-Republican, is Sanders for self-described pragmatists.

A big and as yet unanswered question for Biden is how enthusiastic his supporters are, and how that enthusiasm will manifest not only in keeping on board with the former VP through the primary season (and beyond that too, of course) but how willing and able his core supporters will be to volunteer, knock on doors and make calls, and eventually do the hard work of compelling other less enthusiastic supporters to vote on or before Election Day. Here’s how Amy Walter, National Editor for the Cook Political Reporterframes it:

  • After watching the Biden campaign thus far + Philly rally yesterday, my takeaway is that his candidacy is like one of those ‘casual’ nice restaurants that you go to b/c they have a big menu and everyone in your group can find something they’ll eat. No one is unhappy (“look, honey they have grilled cheese for the kids and I can get a salad), but no one walks away thinking that was an amazing meal or experience. It’s not risky, but it’s also not totally satisfying either.

Both national and early primary state polls have Joe Biden continuing to dominate the 2020 Dem field. A Florida Atlantic University poll for the Sunshine State primary has Biden at 39%, with Bernie Sanders (12%), Elizabeth Warren (12%), Pete Buttigieg (9%), and Kamala Harris (7%) trailing. A few somewhat interesting tidbits to pick through here is a slow but steady uptick for Warren where she’s vying in some polls for the second place slot long occupied by Sanders. Also notable to see Mayor Pete holding his own in fourth place, keeping in mind that he was considered the longest of long shots before entering the race.

Really though, this is a Biden domination story, and will likely remain so pending “big news” of some sort at least until the first Democratic debates at the end of June. The FAU poll also pitted some of the 2020 Dems against Trump in Florida, and not surprisingly Biden fared best, though he came in at a 50-50% tie (The 2000 election says, “What up?“). Florida, a steadily red trending state over the last few cycles, is no longer as crucial to the Democrats’ chances as it once was (with states like Virginia and Colorado trending blue) but it’s another state where if the Dems can lock it in, the odds of their getting to 270 electoral votes spike up dramatically.

From Ronald Brownstein:

  • To topple @JoeBiden another D must find a way to loosen his grip on older voters. In the new Florida (FAU) poll, he’s over 50% w/voters >50. Sanders is in single digits w/them. Even with eh #s <50 that’s a powerful base 4 Biden-reminiscent of Trump’s hold on blue-collar Rs in ’16

And meanwhile:

  • New Monmouth poll shows Bernie Sanders support in 2020 falling from 25% in March to 15% in May

We’ll have to see if that’s statistical noise or if Sanders’ support is waning in favor, perhaps, of Warren (this piece argues that she’s “slowly and persistently… on the rise”)  or Harris.

Speaking of polls, a Quinnipiac poll finds that 54% of voters will “definitely” not vote for Trump in 2020.  That implies that he has to absolutely max out his existing base to pull the same “inside straight” to win again in 2020.

From Harry Enten:

  • Early days yet, but the strong opposition to Trump’s re-elect remains historically high.

Another important factor for 2020 and any election, really, is turnout. And turnout for the 2020 election could be historically high, which could be, well, bad for Trump:

  • According to Michael McDonald, an elections expert at the University of Florida, turnout for the 2020 presidential election could be as high as 67% — the highest it’s been since at least 1916. If that happens, President Trump will have a tougher fight for a second term.
  • The bottom line: For all of his struggles in the polls, Trump is the incumbent and he has a booming economy. But a historic election turnout could wipe out those advantages — and the early signs suggest that’s exactly what we’re about to get.

This AP story discusses the importance of Hispanics in Democratic primary voting, noting that there simply aren’t many of them in the early voting states (6% of Iowans are Hispanic, for example).  However, with Nevada and then delegate-rich Texas and California voting relatively early in the cycle (the latter two as part of Super Tuesday on March 3rd, 2020), Hispanics may have a greater influence this time around. Those factors will certainly be in the plans and hopes of Kamala Harris (D-CA), Beto O’Rourke, and Julian Castro (both D-TX) as part of the 16-dimensional puzzle to break out of the pack and become a player heading into the post-Super Tuesday part of the primary calendar.

It seems pretty clear that the president is focused (read = obsessed) with two things: the prospect of Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee, and the potential face off of Trump v. Biden in the latter’s native state of Pennsylvania:

  • “Don’t forget, Biden deserted you. He’s not from Pennsylvania. I guess he was born here but he left you, folks. He left you for another state,” Trump said, referring to the Biden family’s move in the early 1950s to Delaware. “Remember that, please. I meant to say that.”

Then, on an equally incorrect and incoherent note:

  • “This guy talks about ‘I know Scranton.’ … He left you for another state and he didn’t take care of you because he didn’t take care of your jobs. He let other countries come in and rip off America. That doesn’t happen anymore,” Trump said.

And in a dispatch from #MAGA country, there’s “relief” that Trump is restoring “the old ways.”

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

In defense of ska music

Huge news from Bill de Blasio this week. The New York City mayor and 843rd declared candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination “loves ska.”  So while he’s likely not to be the nominee, we can all feel well assured that he is special.

I wasn’t surprised to see some snickering and derision about de Blasio entering the 2020 fray (people… don’t like him very much) but I was surprised to see some anti-ska sentiment tossed in when this mini-moment (mini-meme?) went down.

For example, Brian Koppelman, co-creator of Billions and a really thoughtful and interesting guy (his podcast, The Moment, is great), surprised me by proclaiming the following:

  • I love ska is bro talk for “i don’t really like or understand music very much.”

I was a little miffed when I read this, and started to think about why I love ska so much myself, and why ska sometimes gets a really unfair wrap.

A little background. Ska can mean all kinds of things, which can lead to some confusion. The style dates way back to the Jamaica of the 1960s, capturing a mix of “Caribbean mento and calypso with American jazz and rhythm and blues.”  Most Americans likely associate ska with “thrid-wave” ska and particularly the stuff that came out when ska became kind of trendy for a little while in the mid-’90s. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones appeared in the movie Clueless at the peak of this period, for example. Reel Big Fish capture the moment nicely too with a song that ironically/not ironically became a hit, called “Sell Out.”

The signature sound of ska is the “ska upstroke“:

  • Most ska music is played in 4/4 time, and a big part of getting the ska groove right is playing on the off- beats – this creates that bouncing rhythm that ska is famous for. This rhythmic pattern is also known as the ska upstroke.

A lot of times you get horns with ska music, but not always. The ska upstroke works really well with all kinds of styles, and typically upbeat or aggressive music ranging from jazz to rock to punk to hardcore. I’ve always loved its energy and ebullient spirit when applied correctly. While the Pixies are credited with bringing a signature quiet-loud-quiet sound to alternative rock, the Bosstones brought a fabulous hardcore-grooving ska sound, particularly on their early records (tons of examples right from the jump on their debut LP, Devil’s Night Out).

I came up with a ska starter kit, and admittedly went a little nutso with it, but why not?

  • “54-46 Was My Number” – Toots and the Maytals
  • “Too Much Too Young” – The Specials
  • “Skankin’ to the Beat” – Fishbone
  • “Rudie Can’t Fail” – The Clash
  • “Recimination(s)” – The Toasters
  • “Draw Your Breaks” – Scotty
  • “William Shatner” – Scofflaws
  • “Sound System” – Operation Ivy
  • “Drunks and Children” – Mighty Mighty Bosstones
  • “Got the Time?” – Perfect Thyroid
  • “Super Rad” – Aquabats
  • “On Mercury” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • “Walking Contradiction” – Voodoo Glow Skulls
  • “Pyramid Scheme” – Mad Caddies
  • “Keasby Nights” – Streetlight Manifesto
  • “How’s My Driving, Doug Hastings?” – Less Than Jake
  • “I Wanna Riot” – Rancid
  • “Dry Spell” – Pepper
  • “Tight” – Murphy’s Law

I think ska gets a bad wrap because being “into ska” became associated with being a poseur during its brief trendy phase. In theory, such a person wasn’t really into a highly expansive style that covers laid back Jamaican ska to the brilliant ska punk of the Flatliners to the eclectic innovation of a Perfect Thyroid (an incredible band that I had the privilege of seeing many times during my college years).  And I guess the stereotype would enjoy talking about being “into ska” while really just enjoying wearing a pork pie hat and skinny tie or something.

I think the first time I heard anything related to ska was by way of a show I saw in Albany, New York in late 1992 or early 1993. The lineup was pretty incredible, including such acts as Cracker and They Might Be Giants. The headliner was the Bosstones themselves, and at that time in my life it was the loudest and hardest rocking band I had ever seen live. I’ve seen them many times subsequently, and they are always insanely good (Live From the Middle East is one of my favorite live albums of all time).

That spring, another live show forever altered my outlook on music. This time it was in Ithaca, New York at a small venue called The Nines. The Skaoovee Tour featured three legendary ska bands: Scofflaws (from my homeland of Long Island, New York), The Pietasters, and The Toasters. Those experiences, coupled with my friend Dave Birnbaum later turning me onto bands such as Voodoo Glow Skulls and Sublime, made me a card carrying member of the “I’m into ska” club.

Anyway, if you have never sampled ska or haven’t given it a listen in a while, check out The Specials, technically a “second wave” ska band. Their self-titled album, which you can listen to in full on the YouTube, kicks off with something of a ska anthem, “A Message To You Rudy.” The album in full holds up incredibly and may well be your gateway drug into sounds further afield.

So if that makes me a “ska bro,” then fine. There are worse things!

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2020 Democrats: state of the race (May 19th, 2019)

I was reminded of how much of a politics nerd I am this week when I got genuinely excited at seeing a Quinnipiac poll released of Democratic contenders versus Trump in the state of Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, Joe Biden performed best of the 2020 Dems that were included, boasting an 11-point lead over the current president (53%-42%).

As I noted on Twitter, I think this is where the electability argument gets real. If Biden can beat Trump in Pennsylvania, the odds of a Democrat winning in 2020 go up significantly. To be fair, most of the other Democrats did well against Trump in this poll as well, with Bernie Sanders up seven points (50%-43%), and Elizabeth Warren up three (47%-44%). Beto O’Rourke was the only polled candidate who was down versus Trump (44% for Beto versus 46% for Trump).

Harry Enten notes:

  • One thing that is interesting and the Q-Pac poll from PA shows is that there is a far larger divide in primary vote choice between very liberal and somewhat liberal Dems than somewhat liberal and moderate/conservative Dems.

At some other point I saw this from Enten, which is one of the more fascinating data points I’ve seen in some time:

  • Biden got up to about ~40% after announcing on average… Question is where does that settle… 30%? 35%? 40%?… Knowing nothing else 35% is about a 50% chance of winning the nom…

And I think therein lies why Biden’s post-announcement bump was underestimated. And at least thus far his lead is not deflating at all.

The more I think about the current state of the race (again, always subject to change pending lots of things, including next month’s initial Democratic debates), I see Biden, Sanders, and Warren as the only candidates drawing significant support, with Biden often doubling Sanders support and likewise Sanders coming close to doubling Warren’s in both national and key state polls. And then when you look at the huge and ever growing field coupled with the fact that Sanders and Warren are drawing from the more liberal side of the Democratic base (with some variables under the hood related to Warren drawing more college educated liberals whereas Sanders draws non-college educated liberals), this all plays towards Biden’s current commanding position.

Here’s an interesting dispatch covering Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail in the Rust Belt:

  • Sanders’ pitch to 60 million red-state voters is, Trump lied to you. He believes many of Trump’s supporters are denizens of a pissed-off working class who bought Trump’s promises of better jobs, benefits and security after decades of betrayal from both parties.

And as for Warren, she’s heading into the “heart of MAGA country,” continuing to strengthen her claim as a courageous and pugnacious potential opponent to the current president. 
From Matt Grossman:

  • The pre-entering Biden strengths I noted remain 1) many Dems are not ideologues & identify with Obama 2) other candidates splitting young voters, leaving older voters 3) women & minority voters not consolidating behind women & minority candidates 4) Dems prioritizing electability

It’s an interesting, open question of whether Biden’s long history in public service — through decades of massive change in American politics and culture, and countless decisions and statements and votes — will ultimately “help” or “hurt” him in securing the Democratic nomination for president. A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll reports that a full 40% of people ages 18-29 are less likely to vote for Biden based on his Iraq War vote, for example. This could potentially play into Biden’s overall weakness with younger voters (not to mention that, you know, he’s kind of old and stuff), yet however his current overall standing as a legitimate sole front runner at this (as yet very early) point in the nominating process remains. 
Dave Wasserman on Biden:

  • Three best things going for Biden, atm: 1) Bernie/Warren both in, splitting the left 2) Neither Harris/Booker catching fire w/ African-Americans, esp. in the South 3) Dems’ *perception* a mod/mainstream nominee = best bet vs. Trump If any of these change, Dem race will change.

If Biden does snag the nomination, some are starting to beat the drum for a Biden/Harris ticket.

Even with the “it’s super early” caveat aside, we are far enough along in the 2020 cycle that candidates who aren’t “breaking out” (which are, let’s see… almost all of them?) are already looking to recalibrate:

  • “Beto O’Rourke is really the canary in the coal mine here,” said Mathew Littman, a Democratic strategist and former Joe Biden speechwriter. “What Beto is going through now is that he’s been surpassed by Mayor Pete [Buttigieg], maybe Elizabeth Warren, in terms of attention. It’s going to happen to everybody in the race. … Joe Biden today is flying high in the polls. But Joe Biden’s not going to be able to go six months without explaining everything on policy.”

Speaking of Beto, here’s Vanity Fair on how the media “fell out of love with him.”  And on that note, we seem to be in the midst of a full on Beto backlash.

We’ve got yet more 2020 Dems, people! Montana Gov. Steve Bullock is now in the race, joining the Western governor cohort (note: there are many cohorts already) that includes Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. All three are touting their bipartisan get-things-done bonafides, with Bullock presumably trying to throw in the part about doing so while in charge of a pretty deep red state, at least when it comes to presidential politics (moderate Sen. Jon Tester, often talked about as a potential presidential candidate himself, also hails from the Big Sky country).

And oh yeah, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has also jumped in the race.  It’s… not going that well so far.

On a related note, Five Thirty Eight looks at why “Some of Today’s Candidates Probably Won’t Make It To Iowa“:

  • Some Democratic candidates will likely drop out even before the Iowa caucuses, which are scheduled to kick off the voting process on Feb. 3, 2020. And large candidate fields have historically winnowed pretty quickly a month or so after Iowa, though there are reasons to wonder if 2020 could be different.

Nate Silver:

  • My working theory is that the sheer number of candidates running is helpful on balance to the big name brands (Biden especially, probably Bernie, maybe Warren, Harris) and really unhelpful to the well-credentialed candidates in the next tier down (e.g. Booker, Klobuchar, Castro).

I caught an interview with Cory Booker on The Axe Files podcast, and was impressed with his story, his intellect, and his seriousness of purpose. He’s basing his candidacy on justice and inclusiveness, and is attempting to highlight some completely baffling and serious injustices in American society, such as the thousands of prisoners locked up for years on end for marijuana-related charges. In such a crowded field and with middling (at best) poll numbers to date, I’m not sure if Booker will be able to have a “breakout moment,” but I do hope he does get an opportunity to get a closer look from early primary/caucus state voters.

Here’s a good news / bad news thing that I pulled out of a UVA Center for Politics-Ipsos poll:

  • Just 7% of respondents said that if Trump loses the 2020 election, he should ignore the results and stay in office.

That’s good… I guess? But then you put that together with this little gem:

  • About two-fifths of all respondents (41%) — and over three-quarters of Republicans (77%) — agreed that a “deep state” is “trying to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency.”

In terms of the Senate, Democrats May Need a Big Presidential Win to Flip it:

  • There is a flip side to this straight-ticket-voting reality: If Democrats win the presidential race decisively, some of those presidential red states could turn blue. In particular, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina are states with 2020 Senate races against Republican incumbents where Democrats think they have a decent chance of beating Trump this time. Add in two states Trump lost last time that have Republican senators up in 2020 (Colorado and Maine), and the odds of liberating the upper chamber from Mitch McConnell’s death grip look a lot better. That means a strong Democratic investment in purplish states with Senate races could pay off doubly.

Speaking of Arizona, from Josh Kraushaar:

  • New polling has Joe Biden leading Trump by 5 (!) in ARIZONA. Trump campaign (and Senate Rs) getting nervous that a huge Sun Belt battleground turning blue.

Finally, a Mayor Pete update! Pete Buttigieg is keeping busy, what with running for president and all, but he found the time to stop by Jimmy Fallon to get some slow jamming on.  Best pull quote:

He’s ready and prepared for a primary battle
His name is worth 800 points in Scrabble 

This post originally appeared in The Berlin Files e-mail newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.