The Magic of the Melancholy

Picture 3Jazz fans might know the Canadian singer, Holly Cole, and her (in my opinion, wonderful) 1995 album of (again, for me, the wonderful) Tom Waits songs, “Temptation.” In particular, I have in mind Cole’s version of his 1974 song, “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.”

Give a listen to her version:

I find this song to be a great vehicle to discuss how essentialism (and nostalgia) work, for if you listen to the lyrics you’ll quickly see that Waits has selected a series of isolated, almost distilled moments (akin to what’s happening in this deconstruction of advertizing), none more or less indicative of what any particular Saturday night surely feels like (Question: what does Saturday night feel like?), but, together, they begin to paint a picture and, even if you don’t identify with its specific parts, you might yourself longing for this simpler time.

The song opens:

Well you gassed her up
Behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one
Your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Obviously, this is not the heart of the Saturday night that I grew up with in southern Ontario, when we eagerly waited for the theme from “Hockey Night in Canada” to come on TV at 8, to watch the Leafs play.

But I digress; the song continues:

And you got paid on Friday
Your pockets are jinglin’
And then you see the lights
You get all tinglin’
Cause you’re cruisin’ with a 6
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night

Cruising with a 6-pack of beer in your Olds — a very particular Saturday night is being created. The song goes on:

Then you comb your hair
Shave your face
Tryin’ to wipe out every trace
Of all the other days
In the week
You know that this’ll be the Saturday
You’re reachin’ your peak

With few words we now know much about the fellow. Then, not long after, the singer asks:

Tell me, is it the crack of the pool balls?
Neon buzzin?
Telephone’s ringin’;
It’s your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that’s smilin’ from the corner of her eye?
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye.

So here we have a song trying to identify something down in the core, the essence, the heart of Saturday night — not the eve of the weekend, for that would be Friday night, and not the very different eve of the work week, for that would be Sunday night. But, instead, the peak of the weekend: Saturday night. It should be clear that the lyric that begins “Tell me, is it the…” could have had innumerable items listed after it, such as “‘Hockey Night in Canada” theme?” or “fact that you have to work the weekend — again,” indicating that there are as many Saturday nights as their are definers of what counts as the definitive Saturday night, which makes a search for its core rather pointless, no? I recall my older sister, a nurse who worked shift-work all her career, and how the holidays — days that just felt like a holiday, right? — for us were never necessarily the holidays for her; hospitals run 7/24/365 and somebody’s always on the job there.

But the trick is in painting a picture just vague enough to allow the listener to connect with it in some unexpected way — such as how this song, for whatever reason, brings back memories for me (there’s the nostalgia…) of young guys cruising their old cars up and down the streets of my small childhood town, hanging out in the parking lot of a grocery store, or maybe the high school, and lifting their cars’ hoods to, well, just stare at the engines for a while. Listening to Rush playing on someone’s car stereo.

Though I never did that, and that’s not exactly what the song is about, that random childhood memory of my own got hooked on something in that lyric years ago, a lyric which was vague enough not to repel what it was that this one listener wanted to do with it.

(Aside: This is also the secret to good campaigning, no? For if you’re trying to build a broad coalition, then your specificity must be moderated by pithy vagueries that listeners can do as they like with — like: Hope, A Stronger America, A Thousand Points of Light, Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow, or Yes We Can….)

And so — at least for me, with memories of listening to this song having already moved away from Toronto, but with it tethered to yet other memories of discovering Holly Cole while living in Toronto (there’s that nostalgia again…), seeing her preform in a small bar downtown, missing not the song’s home but my home… — this song works. It captures a dream of a forgotten Saturday that, if I’m being truthful, I’ve never had nor ever will. It suggests a simpler time, when pocket change mattered, when second cousins lived around the corner and knew where to find you downtown, when driving up and down the streets was a sufficient pastime.

The trick of being a good essentialist, then, is to select what champions your case and to portray it as universal, yes, but also to keep it vague enough for others to buy in for their own reasons.

And if you don’t know it, here’s the original…

Romance and Puke: A Story of Love

heart clouds

Lest the title of this post leads you to believe that I am about to recount the major details of my college love life, this is, rather, another tale of how the terms we use to define ourselves and our relationships operate as strategies rather than simple, obvious descriptions.  As an example of this, I often ask my students what it means to “be in love,” whereupon they usually talk of romance, giddiness, and a strong chemistry between two people.  But when I ask them how they think their parents might answer that same question, they often get uncomfortable – quickly – for it doesn’t take a room of eighteen year olds very long to figure out that their parents may actually behave in the ways that they were just indicating. Continue reading “Romance and Puke: A Story of Love”

Every New Beginning…

the-beginningThere’s a few pop songs that strike me as containing some great nuggets of social theory, and so they stick with me — such as a line about nostalgia from Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” (that I once blogged about here). Another is Semisonic‘s 1998 hit “Closing Time.”

Don’t know it? Give it a listen, below, while you’re reading. You’ll remember it. Continue reading “Every New Beginning…”

Keep Your Stick on the Ice

Picture 6Each New Year’s day, since 2008, two National Hockey League teams face-off — as they say — in an outdoor game that’s called the Winter Classic. This year, the first to include a Canadian team (another older but more infrequently played series, called The Heritage Classic, has pitted two Canadian teams against each other), was between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs won 3-2 in a shoot-out after the overtime sessions didn’t decide it. (Go Leafs.)

The thing that’s interesting about this game is the way that it quite successfully markets nostalgia, such as the custom-made vintage uniforms they all wear and the “old timers” game between long retired NHL players that’s also part of the weekend’s activities — a point nicely identified by a friend on Facebook during the game, who noted the wonderful contradiction between the old school “leather” look of the goalie pads and gloves but the modern high-tech helmets and visors the players were all still wearing. Continue reading “Keep Your Stick on the Ice”

In the Eye of the Beholder


A graduating senior in our Department recently wrote a very nice blog post, for our Department’s site, on how disappointed a friend of hers, whom she had met while traveling in India, was when discovering a Buddhist monk using a cell phone. (Read her blog post here.) I posted a link to the article on a Facebook group devoted to the History of Religions — a group that, despite being some people’s preferred technical name for our academic discipline, has attracted a diverse membership. Someone in the group, having read the post, soon commented on how a monk with a cell phone was evidence of decay in religions. Continue reading “In the Eye of the Beholder”

Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty Mathematics of the Nones

CE Huffpo headerCulture on the Edge’s Monica Miller and Steven Ramey co-authored the following post,
published originally at the Huffington Post on November 7, 2013.

People unaffiliated with a religion, commonly grouped as the ‘Nones’, are all the rage right now and have beckoned responses from faith leaders to philosophers and scholars of religion. Common among such responses is an unwavering and uncritical belief in the statistical reality of this group; very few, in our opinion, have questioned how this group came to exist in the laboratory of statistical analysis and myopic survey questions. Most recently, a series on the New York Times Room for Debate page featured references to the Nones and the similar Pew report on the status of Judaism in America. However, the methodological basis for all of this excitement is actually quite thin. Continue reading “Meaningless Surveys: The Faulty Mathematics of the Nones”