The book can be downloaded an .epub file which can be opened in a compatible e-reader application on many devices. An email address, along with a name of college/university, is required. Find the book here.
When did Americans lose the ability to think and act rationally? Or did they ever, on the whole, have such ability? These are the questions at the heart of the Big Think video above, a supercut of interview clips from public intellectuals — Neil DeGrasse, Michael Shermer, Tyson, Kurt Andersen, Bill Nye, and Margaret Atwood — opining on the state of the nation’s intellectual health. Unsurprisingly, the prognosis is not good, as Carl Sagan predicted over 25 years ago.
Of interest here is the diagnosis: How did the country get to a place where it is unable to defend itself against a deadly virus because millions of citizens refuse to take it seriously? How did Americans let Exxon wreck the climate because millions of Americans refused to believe in human-caused climate change? How did a failed mogul and reality TV star become president? How did Qanon, Pizzagate…. How did any of it happen?
The roots are long and deep, says writer and former host of NPR’s Studio 360, Kurt Andersen, who has spent a significant amount of time thinking about the culture of American irrationalism. On the one hand, “Americans have always been magical thinkers and passionate believers in the untrue,” from the time of the Puritans, who were not persecuted refugees so much as fanatics no one in England could stand. And the problem is even older than the country’s founding, Andersen argues in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History — it dates to the foundations of the modern world.
On the other hand, and somewhat contradictorily, it was those Puritans again who kept the worst of things in check. “We also have the virtues embodied by the Puritans and their secular descendants,” Andersen writes at The Atlantic: “steadiness, hard work, frugality, sobriety, and common sense” — such virtues as helped build the country’s scientific industries and research institutions, which have been steadily undermined by the relativism of the 1960s (Andersen argues), the effects of the internet, and a series of devastating political choices. The delusional irrationalism was built in — but hyper-individualism and profiteering of the last several decades supercharged it. “The United States used to be the world leader in technology,” says Bill Nye, but no more.
Margaret Atwood, who is Canadian not American, talks mostly about the universal human difficulty of letting go of comforting core beliefs, and the uses the example of the outcry against Darwinian evolution. Yet her very presence in the discussion will make viewers think of her most famous novel,The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she imagined what lies beneath the supposedly enlightened common sense of the country’s government. The stage was long ago set for a revolution that could easily turn the country against science, she believed.
As Atwood wrote in 2018 of the novel’s genesis: “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already…. The deep foundation of the United States — so went my thinking — was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the Republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of Church and State, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England — with its marked bias against women — which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.”
Rather than identifying the problems with Puritans or 60s hippies, Neil DeGrasse Tyson — as he has done throughout his career — discusses issues of science education and communication. On both fronts, there has been some improvement. “More journalists who are science fluent… are writing about science than was the case 20 years ago,” he says, “so now I don’t have to worry about the journalist missing something fundamental…. And [science] reporting has been much more accurate in recent years, I’m happy to report.”
But while the internet has amplified our opportunities for scientific literacy, it has also done the opposite, grossly muddying the intellectual waters with misinformation and a competitive need to get the story first. “If it’s not yet verified, it’s not there yet…. So be more open about how wrong the thing you’re reporting on could be, because otherwise you’re doing a disservice to the public. And that disservice is that people out there say, ‘Scientists don’t know anything.'”
There are also those who choose to side with handful of contrarian scientists who disagree with the consensus. “This is irresponsible,” says Tyson. “Plus it means you don’t know how science works.” Or it means you’re looking to confirm biases rather than genuinely take an interest in the scientific process. For all of their insights, the talking head critics in the video fail to mention a primary driver behind so much of the U.S.’s science denialism, a motivation as foundational to the country as the Puritan’s zealotry: profit, at all costs.
Oh, to be in the studio audience of CBS’ Television City in Hollywood on September 9th, 1956, to see Elvis Presley’s gyrating pelvis rocket him to superstardom on The Ed Sullivan Show.
His appearance made television history, but 60 million home viewers were left to fill in some major blanks, as the rising heartthrob was filmed from the waist up whenever he was in motion.
Sullivan had been hesitant to book Elvis, not wanting to court the outrage the magnetic young singer had sparked in two “suggestive” appearances on The Milton Berle Show earlier that year. Elvis, he told the press, was “not my cup of tea” and “wasn’t fit for family entertainment.”
Elvis was displeased by this jokey spin, but submitted, and newcomer Allen’s ratings clobbered Sullivan’s that week.
Sullivan sent Steve Allen a telegram:
Steven Presley Allen, NBC TV, New York City. Stinker. Love and kisses. Ed Sullivan.
Whether Sullivan was throwing down a gauntlet, or delivering congratulations with a side of poor sportsmanship is somewhat unclear, but Sullivan was now ready to claim his stake, at ten times the price.
The $5,000 appearance fee that had been floated prior to Elvis’ appearance on The Milton Berle Show, had ballooned to the jaw dropping sum of $50,000 for 3 episodes.
Sullivan and Presley’s names are forever linked for that historic first appearance, but injuries from a car crash knocked the host out of commission. Actor Charles Laughton subbed in as host from Sullivan’s New York studio, and was charged with ushering in Elvis’s remote appearance in a very particular way.
Presley was the headliner, and a Sullivan headliner normally opened the show, but Sullivan was burying him. Laughton had to make the moment invisible: to act as if nobody was actually waiting for anything. He did it instantly, with complete command, with the sort of television presence that some have and some — Steve Allen, or Ed Sullivan himself — don’t. It’s a sense of ease, a querulous interrogation of the medium itself, affirming one’s own odd, irreducible subjectivity against the objectivity enforced by any system of representations: that is, getting it across that at any moment that you might forget where you are and say whatever comes into your head, which was exactly what half the country hoped and half the country feared might be the case with Elvis Presley.
Laughton, who elsewhere in the show used a reading of James Thurber’s Red Riding Hood parody, “The Little Girl and the Wolf” to insinuate that “it’s not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be,” settled on a non-committal “and now, away to Hollywood to meet Elvis Presley!”
Elvis, clad in a non-threatening plaid jacket on a set trimmed with guitar-shaped cut outs, thanked Laughton, and wiped his brow:
Wow. This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life. Ah. There’s not much I can say except, it really makes you feel good. We want to thank you from the bottom of our heart.
His first number, “Don’t Be Cruel,” had an immediate effect on the teenage girls in attendance, who knew what they were seeing.
“Thank you, ladies,” he said, coyly acknowledging what all knew to be true, before going on to debut the title song of the motion picture he was in town to film, Love Me Tender, his first of 31 such vehicles.
Disc jockeys tuned in to tape the unreleased song for play on their radio shows, shooting pre-sales up to nearly a million.
As a great philosopher once said…’You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!’
A week later, The New York Times’ Jack Gould alleged that in booking Elvis, Sullivan had failed to “exercise good sense and display responsibility,” moralizing that “in some ways it was perhaps the most unpleasant of (the singer’s) recent three performances:
Mr. Presley initially disturbed adult viewers — and instantly became a martyr in the eyes of his teen- age following — for his striptease behavior on last spring’s Milton Berle program. Then with Steve Allen he was much more sedate. On the Sullivan program he injected movements of the tongue and indulged in wordless singing that were singularly distasteful.
At least some parents are puzzled or confused by Presley’s almost hypnotic power; others are concerned; perhaps most are a shade disgusted and content to permit the Presley fad to play itself out.
Neither criticism of Presley nor of the teen-agers who admire him is particularly to the point. Presley has fallen into a fortune with a routine that in one form or another has always existed on the fringe of show business; in his gyrating figure and suggestive gestures the teen-agers have found something that for the moment seems exciting or important.
“Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Hound Dog” were on the menu again, along with a brand new release — “Love Me,” above.
Señor Wences was not the tough act to follow here.
The appearance resulted in more wildly high ratings for Sullivan, and a growing awareness of the perils of rock n’ roll, as embodied by Elvis’ well lubricated nether regions, which the camera, fooling no one, again shied from at crucial moments.
Cue another million teenage fan club enrollments, as well as parents, clergy and other concerned citizens who came together to burn the singer in effigy in Nashville and St. Louis.
Nearly as notable, from the perspective of 2021, was the public service Elvis performed backstage, allowing himself to be photographed receiving the polio vaccine, in hopes his legions of admirers would follow suit.
Elvis’ third visit to Sullivan’s show, January 6th, 1957, would prove to be his last, owing to the astronomical fee his manager Colonel Tom Parker set for future television appearances: $300,000 with the promise of two guest spots and an hour-long special. An attempt to book Elvis for Sullivan’s 10th anniversary celebration, was thwarted by the fact that Elvis was abroad, serving in the Army.
Another massive audience tuned in for another helping of hits — “Hound Dog,” “Love Me Tender,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” as well as newer material — “Too Much” and “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold Again.”
Between songs, Sullivan advised the swooning teenagers to rest their larynxes and introduced Elvis’ performance of the gospel standard, “Peace in the Valley,” by urging viewers to contribute to a Hungarian refugee relief fund Elvis supported.
While many fans persist in the belief that the gospel number was included as an affectionate nod to the singer’s beloved mother, Gladys, a letter from Colonel Parker’s assistant to Elvis suggests that the choice had more to do with his host:
Mr. Sullivan thought it might be very appropriate for you to sing a hymn or a semi-religious song on the show. You certainly can sing a hymn very effectively and I think it would make a very strong impression on all the viewers. It has been suggested that a song like ‘Peace in the Valley’ might be held in readiness. We have obtained the music on this song and are forwarding it to you.”
This time, home viewers really were left to guess what was going on below the star’s sequined vest and open collared blouse, described by Marcus as “the outlandish costume of a pasha, if not a harem girl:”
From the make-up over his eyes, the hair falling in his face, the overwhelmingly sexual cast of his mouth, he was playing Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik, with all stops out. That he did so in front of the Jordanaires, who this night appeared as the four squarest-looking men on the planet, made the performance even more potent.
Sullivan’s first co-producer, Marlo Lewis, intimated that the decision to formalize a waist-up policy for Elvis’ third visit was sparked by a rumor that had dogged his prior appearances. To wit:
Elvis has been hanging a small soft-drink bottle from his groin underneath his pants, and when he wiggles his leg it looks as though his pecker reaches down to his knee!
Meanwhile, it appeared Sullivan was no longer willing to be lumped in with Elvis’ detractors, closing the show by saying:
I wanted to say to Elvis Presley and the country that this is a real decent, fine boy, and wherever you go, Elvis, we want to say we’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you. So now let’s have a tremendous hand for a very nice person!
Had Elvis won him over, or was it, as cultural critic Tim Parrish asserts, that Colonel Parker, “had threatened to remove Elvis from the show if Sullivan did not apologize for telling the press that Elvis’s ‘gyrations’ were immoral.”
Watch all of Elvis Presley’s performances on The Ed Sullivan Show in HD here.
For a glimpse of the 1956 Gibson J-200 Elvis played in that final appearance, and speculation as to whether he crossed paths with fellow guests Carol Burnett and Lena Horne, watch Graceland archivist Angie Marchese’s show and tell of ephemera related to his stints on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Facial-recognition technology has come into its own in recent decades, though its imagined large-scale uses do tend to sound troublingly dystopian. Still, some of its actual success stories have been pleasing indeed, few of them so much as the one briefly told in the video above by Bachman Turner Overdrive’s Randy Bachman. Its protagonist is not Bachman himself but one of his guitars: a 1957 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins, a model named after the star Nashville guitarist. “This is the first really good expensive electric guitar I got,” he says, adding that he “played it on many, many BTO hits, and in 1975 it was stolen from a Holiday Inn hotel room in Toronto.”
“The disappearance triggered a decades-long search,” writes Todd Coyne in a feature at CTV News. “Bachman enlisted the help of the RCMP” — also known at the Mounties — “the Ontario Provincial Police and vintage instrument dealers across Canada and the United States. It also triggered what Bachman now recognizes as a mid-life crisis,” resulting in his eventual purchase of 385 Gretsch guitars. Those included a dozen 6120s from the 1950s, but none of them were the one he bought at age 20 from Winnipeg Piano. He must have given up hope by the time the message arrived: “I found your Gretsch guitar in Tokyo.”
The sender, an old neighbor of Bachman’s, had in fact found the Gretsch on Youtube. In the video below, made for Christmas 2019, a Japanese guitarist named Takeshi plays “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” on an orange 6120 that Bachman immediately recognized as his long-lost favorite instrument. Coyne writes that the neighbor “had used some old photographs of the guitar and rejigged some facial-recognition software to identify and detect the unique wood-grain patterns and lines of cracked lacquer along the instrument’s body,” as seen in the original video for BTO’s “Lookin’ Out for #1.” Subsequently, he “ran scans of this unique profile against every image he could find of an orange 1957 Chet Atkins guitar posted online over the last decade and a half.”
Persistence, at least in this case, paid off. But since Takeshi felt nearly as strong a connection to the guitar as Bachman did, an arrangement had to be made. With the Japanese wife of his son Tal (also a musician, best known for the 1990s hit “She’s So High”) acting as interpreter, he negotiated with Takeshi the terms of an exchange. As Bachman tells it, “He said he would give me back my guitar, but I had to find him its twin”: the same model — of which only 35 were made in 1957 — in mint condition with all the same parts and no additional modifications. And for a mere thirty times the $400 price he originally paid, he eventually found that twin. Now all that remains, as soon travel restrictions ease between the U.S. and Japan, is for Bachman and Takeshi to meet up at the Gretsch factory in Nagoya, play a gig together, and take care of business.
At an event celebrating the release of his new memoir, The Storyteller, Dave Grohl paid a visit to the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles and revisited his Nirvana days, playing drums to the original track of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s a little a remembrance of days long past. Enjoy….
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Over the past 59 years, the duty of performing a James Bond movie theme has fallen to the likes of Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, Bono, Madonna — and most recently, for the latest installment, No Time to Die, Billie Eilish. But one of the greatest Bond themes ever written has never been heard in any of the movies. This, in any case, is the contention of the video essay above, “How Radiohead Wrote the Perfect Bond Theme.” Commissioned for 2015’s Spectre, the second-most recent film in the series, Thom Yorke and company came up with a song that moves Listening In creator Barnaby Martin to declare, “This is Bond, but it’s also unmistakably Radiohead.”
Like many Bond title themes, Radiohead’s “Spectre” is in a minor key with “added blues notes,” working off the distinctive chord progression composer John Barry employed in the series’ original instrumental theme. And while, like most Bond title-theme performers, Radiohead are popular musicians, their actual work has always refused to align perfectly with straightforward pop-music expectations.
“Spectre” embodies both the band’s “love of rhythmical ambiguity” and their “trademark harmonic ambiguity.” The “beauty and simplicity of the music contrast painfully with the words,” reflecting “perfectly that dichotomy in contemporary Bond: a man struggling to reconcile love and duty.”
As if that weren’t enough, Radiohead’s song also includes unexpected but consummately Bond-esque compositional and instrumental moves. “It’s jazzy but discordant,” says Martin. “It’s a modern re-imagining of John Barry’s big-band orchestrations.” In every section the piece exquisitely maintains the tension between Radiohead and Bond, creating “an instantly compelling and dark musical world. Alas, it was ultimately replaced, ostensibly because the mood of the music and lyrics didn’t fit properly with that of the film: “We had this beautiful song,” lamented director Sam Mendes, “and we weren’t able to use it.” But that hasn’t stopped Bond aficionados from imagining what could have been, and you can get a sense of it in a fan video, previously featured here on Open Culture, that reunites “Spectre” with Spectre.
To lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, we owe much of what has endured from Western popular culture of the mid-20th century: consider, for instance, the latter half of the Beatles’ oeuvre. In Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald describes LSD as “a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement — an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it.”
So profound is that alteration that some came to believe in a utopia achievable through universal ingestion of the drug: “If there be necessary revolution in America,” declared Allen Ginsberg, “it will come this way.” But most Americans didn’t see it quite the same way. It was for them that CBS made its broadcast “The Hippie Temptation.” Aired in August 1967, three months after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, it constitutes an exposé of LSD-fueled youth culture as it effervesced at the time in and around San Francisco’s countercultural mecca of Haight-Ashbury.
“The hippies present a strange problem,” says correspondent Harry Reasoner, later known as the host of 60 Minutes. “Our society has produced them. There they are, in rapidly increasing numbers. And yet there seem to be very few definite ideas behind the superficial glitter of their dress and behavior.” In search of the core of the hippie ideology, which seems outwardly to involve “standing apart from society by means of mutual help and love,” Reasoner and his collaborators delve into the nature of LSD, whose users “may see a wild complexity of images, hear a multiplicity of sounds. This is called ‘taking an acid trip.'”
Alas, “for many, the price of taking the shortcut to discovery the hippies put forward turns out to be very high.” A young doctor from UCLA’s neuropsychiatric institute named Duke Fisher argues that most LSD users “talk about loving humanity in general, an all-encompassing love of the world, but they have a great deal of difficulty loving one other person, or loving that specific thing.” Also included in “The Hippie Temptation” are interviews with young people (albeit ones cleaner-cut than the average denizen of late-60s Haight-Ashbury) placed into medical facilities due to hallucinogen-related mishaps, including suicide attempts.
“There is the real danger that more and more young people may follow the call to turn on, tune in, drop out,” Reasoner declares, in keeping with the broadcast’s portentous tone. Even then there were signs of what MacDonald calls “the hippie counterculture’s incipient commercialization and impending decline into hard drugs.” But to this day, “that there was indeed something unusual in the air can still be heard from many of the records of the period: a light, joyous optimism with a tangible spiritual aura and a thrillingly fresh informality” — a quality MacDonald finds concentrated in the work of not just The Beatles but the Grateful Dead, who sit for an interview in “The Hippie Temptation.” LSD may no longer be as tempting as it was half a century ago, but many of the creations it inspired then still have us hooked today.
Whatever the benefits and pleasures of our current internet-enriched world, one must admit that it’s not quite as exciting as the setting of Snow Crash. Originally published in 1992, that novel not only made the name of its author Neal Stephenson, it elevated him to the status of a technological Nostradamus. It did so, at least, among readers interested in the internet and its potential, which was much more of a niche subject 29 years ago. Of the many inventions with which Stephenson furnished Snow Crash‘s then-futuristic 21st-century cyberpunk reality, few have captured as many techie imaginations as the “metaverse,” an enormous virtual world inhabited by the avatars of its users.
“Lots of other science fiction media includes metaverse-like systems,” writes The Verge’s Adi Robertson, but “Stephenson’s book remains one of the most common reference points for metaverse enthusiasts.” This holds especially true in Silicon Valley, where, as Vanity Fair‘s Joanna Robinson puts it, “a host of engineers, entrepreneurs, futurists, and assorted computer geeks (including Amazon C.E.O. Jeff Bezos) still revere Snow Crash as a remarkably prescient vision of today’s tech landscape.” It’s rumored that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will soon announce his company’s intent to change its name to one that better suits its own long-term plan: to transition, as Zuckerberg himself put it, “from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
Bold though this may sound, astute readers haven’t forgotten that Snow Crash is a dystopian novel. The metaverse it presents “is an outgrowth of Stephenson’s satirical corporation-dominated future America,” writes Robinson, “but it’s undeniably depicted as having a cool side.” After all, the novel’s protagonist is “a master hacker who gets in katana fights at a virtual nightclub,” though his virtual existence compensates for a grimmer real-world lifestyle. “In the book, Hiro lives in a shabby shipping container,” Stephenson says, “but when he goes to the Metaverse, he’s a big deal and has access to super high-end real estate.” This may sound faintly reminiscent of certain online worlds already in existence: Second Life, for example, whose heyday came in the early 2010s.
Though presumably more ambitious, Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse remains, for the moment, broadly defined: it will consist, he’s said, of “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.” But as The Verge’s Alex Heath notes in an article on Facebook’s impending name change, the company “already has more than 10,000 employees building consumer hardware like AR glasses” — glasses, that is, for augmented reality, the overlaying digital elements onto the real world — “that Zuckerberg believes will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones.” It’s not impossible that he could be leading the way toward the thrilling, dangerous, and often hilarious virtual world Snow Crash held out to us — and in whose absence we’ve had to make do with Facebook.
Youtuber Polyphonic has done a good job of looking at some hoary old classics of ‘60s rock, but he doesn’t always dip his toe in taking on contemporary music, or even considering a modern canon. Pronouncing what is essential listening of the last few decades is a minefield, especially among the ranks of Commentus YouTubus.
So their choice to explore Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” is a deft one. It’s not Cave’s most well-known song—-that would be “The Mercy Seat”—-but it’s one that many non-Cave fans know regardless. Though released in 1994, it’s now best known as the theme song from Peaky Blinders, though it also showed up in all three of the first Scream films. It’s been used to sell tequila and tourism as well.
Polyphonic first delves into the source of the title—the “Red Right Hand”—as coming from Milton’s Paradise Lost, spoken by fallen angel Belial:
“What if the breath that kindled those grim fires,
Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage,
And plunge us in the flames; or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us?”
This is the hand of God, and a vengeful, Old Testament one at that. But that will only get you so far into the lyrics of this creepy song. As Polyphonic peels back the layers of Cave’s verses, the man with the red right hand could be God, could be the Devil, could be a man, could be a ghost. He could offer you a Faustian pact, or they could take everything away immediately. It could be government, or capitalism, or the media, or materialism.
Cave, to the song’s credit, leaves everything in a liminal space (as Polyphonic illustrates with the kind of crossroads blues players love to sing about). What’s left is a warning, a sense of unease, a feeling that maybe it’s already too late. Maybe we really are just all fallen angels with no idea how to get back home to paradise.
That’s why Cave includes it in most of his live sets. He can improvise on the lines, adding, as he has been doing, references to Twitter and social media. Cave might have left his religious upbringing in his youth, but he knows that the best way to express the unease of the modern condition is to get biblical. And part of that is mystery. Even fellow Bad Seed Mick Harvey knows not to go looking for answers from his friend about this particular song.
“I still find it mysterious,” he told the New York Post. “I don’t want to know the details, and I’d never ask Nick. Sometimes it’s better to think ‘What the hell’s that all about?’ It’s better that it’s unknowable and spooky.”
As a bonus, here’s Snoop Dogg’s quizzical cover version where he pushes and is pulled between his own style and Cave’s.
As his keyboardist Ron Levy said after an earlier prison concert in Cook County Jail, “If anybody had the blues, it was those people incarcerated. And BB really felt compassion for those guys.” Likewise, Johnny Cash never did hard time, but his childhood poverty, struggles with addiction, and love for underdogs and outcasts lent him an authenticity inmates recognized immediately.
Other matchups between stars and prison audiences have not only been less authentic, but sometimes downright baffling, as when Bonnie Tyler gave a concert at Long Lartin prison in England …. or so the inmates thought. It turned out Tyler had only used her audience as props for a botched music video that never aired. This, clearly, is how not to run a prison concert, also the title of the Bandsplaining video at the top, which begins with Tyler’s kerfuffle and goes on to examine the genre of prison concerts through prison concert films, TV, and albums.
Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead, BB King, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker, The Cramps, Fugazi, and Fugazi’s previous incarnation, Minor Threat, are all covered here. Missing are artists like Freddy Fender (who did it before Cash), Sonny James, and Big Mama Thornton, who released an album called Jail in 1975, compiled from two different prison performances, and who surely deserves top honors for knowing how to do it right. In prison, writes Music Times, “she finally gets to perform her hit, ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain’ — which was made famous by Janis Joplin and The Holding Company — where it was made to be played: Jail.”
Many and bold are the claims made for the power of classical music: not just that it can enrich your aesthetic sensibility, but that it can do everything from deter juvenile delinquency to boost infant intelligence. Making claims for the latter are CDs with titles like Baby Mozart: Music to Stimulate Your Baby’s Brain, a case of trading on the name of one of the most beloved composers in music history. Alas, the proposition that classical music in general can make anyone smarter has yet to pass the most rigorous scientific trials. But recent research does suggest that Mozart’s music in particular has desirable effects on the brain: his Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major on epilepsy-afflicted brains in particular.
For about 30 years the piece has been thought to reduce symptoms of epilepsy in the brain, a phenomenon known as the “K448 effect” (the number being a reference to its place in the Köchel catalogue). Recent work by researchers at the Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) and Dartmouth College’s Bregman Music and Affective Sound Lab has gone deep into the workings of that effect, and you can read the results free online: the paper “Musical Components Important for the Mozart K448 Effect in Epilepsy,” published just last month in Nature. What they’ve found suggests that the K448 effect is real: that the piece is effective, to be more specific, in “reducing ictal and interictal epileptiform activity.”
Writing for non-neuroscientists, Madeleine Mudzakis at My Modern Met explains that when the researchers “played the tune while monitoring brain implant sensors in the subjects,” they detected “events known as interictal epileptiform discharges (IEDs). These brain events are a symptom of epilepsy and are harmful to the brain.” But “after 30 seconds of listening to the sonata, the subjects experienced noticeably fewer IEDs,” and “transitions between musical phases lead to larger effects, possibly because of anticipation being created which culminates in the pleasant nature of a shifted tune.” These neurologically soothing qualities may also have something to do with the pleasure all Mozart aficionados, epileptics or otherwise, feel when they hear the Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major — or what they don’t feel when they hear Wagner, whose music was here employed as the control that every proper scientific experiment needs.
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