Former President Barack Obama is 59 years old. Every summer he releases an amazingly curated summer playlist filled with hot new shit, obscurities, deep cuts from legendary artists, and other stuff that for whatever reason tickled his fancy this summer. Like, what’s Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” doing on the same list as Anderson Paak, Frank Ocean, Megan Thee Stallion, Billie Holliday and Nina Simone? It’s just shit he’s into.
And it’s reading this playlist (and without diving too much into politics because quite frankly, I don’t feel like it), that reminds me of how I miss so much about the pre-Trump era. Regardless of whether you support President Trump or you don’t, in my lifetime no president has dominated our collective consciousness the way this man has. And it’s all such a joyless slog.
As difficult an intellectual exercise as this will be, let’s ignore for a moment that we still live under threat of a deadly virus, that our economy has cratered to a point unseen since the Great Depression, that despite the entire world now watching, police continue to murder unarmed black people, and that our President is actively waging a disinformation campaign against the post office in order to undermine the impending election.
Ignore all that. Just for a couple of paragraphs, and then think about it to whatever extent you please. Let’s say everything was normal and more or less fine. What do you think our president would be doing? He’d probably be holding rallies, settling petty grievances through his Twitter account, and nurturing a persecution complex that seems to bring him no joy, but also functions as his sole reason for doing anything.
I think back to Obama, and I remember him taking time to fill out an NCAA Tournament Bracket. Or creating a summer playlist each year. Or just naturally being funny playing opposite Zach Galifianakis or Jerry Seinfeld. Or having interesting shit to say to Anthony Bourdain while in a tiny noodle shop in Hanoi. He was like a fully realized human being, and not putting candy bars on the heads of kids in Halloween costumes in a way only a space alien attempting to look like a human would do. In short, Obama was a dude, and irrespective of whether or not you agreed with him politically (I frequently didn’t), he felt like a good dude.
Would you want to hang out with Donald Trump? Does he seem like a good dude? A fun dude? Even a dude at all? In some ways it feels like we’re all forced to hang out with him constantly considering his ubiquity in what feels like every aspect of our daily lives. But the dude never laughs. He only seems to find small moments of joy or satisfaction when he’s zinging an opponent or someone he perceives to be lesser than himself. Outside of golf and seeing his own name and big stupid face on television or in a newspaper, what are the man’s interests? I’ll give you a crisp high five if you can name one that paints a picture of someone even sniffing well-rounded individual.
My point is, the president demands all the attention, frequently achieves it through uncanny social media ability, and it’s all so tediously one-note. And then, remember all the stuff I told you to ignore for a couple of paragraphs? Well, that still exists, too. Thanks to his communication style, every single disagreement in our culture has been weaponized. Every divide exacerbated. Every choice a declaration of political intent. That’s no way to live. Or at least no way to live happily.
I deleted Facebook and Twitter off my phone. I’ve rationed my news intake dramatically. I no longer have to hang out with Donald Trump nearly as much as I used to. Nor do I engage in 2020’s national pastime – doomscrolling – hardly ever. I am less pissed off at the people I like but disagree with because I don’t have to be constantly reminded of the extent to which I disagree with them, and I am less irritated with the people I like and agree with because they can’t seem to stop bloviating about the grimness of our current condition and wallowing in posting misery porn about that condition day after day after day, sometimes several times a day.
Look, I know the world is fucked up. I work in public affairs on many issues of controversy. This current federal administration notwithstanding, I choose to believe that the majority of people in leadership roles who shape our society are good people doing the best they can with what they’ve got in impossible conditions. I recognize that worldview as a choice. And the dialogue on social media distills complexity into glib platitudes that are anathema to growth, happiness, fulfillment, and contentment.
I used to think social media, taking every single aspect of it into account, was ultimately a force for good. After realizing that no one in the history of the platform has ever used Twitter more effectively than President Trump, I think that’s a condemnation of the entire platform and that it probably shouldn’t exist at all. Facebook is somehow worse. I was much, much unhappier overall when I was engaged frequently with social media.
In a change of philosophy that’s novel for me, I’m actively trying to choose happiness. It’s quite a trip!
So let’s recap from the first section… global pandemic, economy largely in the toilet, the pain and discomfort of reckoning with the role of police in our culture, and the attempted destruction of the post office in service of craven political goals aimed at winning an election he likely wouldn’t be able to without cheating. That’s where we find ourselves in 2020. It’s a real shit sandwich, and I am existentially terrified and exhausted when I think about the enormity of our current moment. So this next paragraph isn’t meant to turn a blind eye to any of that, nor diminish the extremely real struggles so many are going through. I feel them, too, and I’m frequently torn between not knowing what to do and feeling feckless in the things I do try.
On a personal level, 2020 is still somehow better than my 2019.
I began 2019 with an absolutely blistering and embarrassing hangover, and it just got worse from there. I’m not going to belabor the low points of 2019 any further, but one thing I hadn’t mentioned in public before now is that the capper on the end of the year was getting dicked out of $14,000 by a client. After some legal back and forth, I know that I’m never, ever going to see that money and that it absolutely wasn’t my fault, which makes it doubly frustrating. 2019, man. From start to finish, just… muah! *chef’s kiss*
What I’ve learned in 2020 is that I’m scrappy, resilient, resourceful, and ultimately indefatigable. My business dropped by about 75% in April, but I got a PPP loan, which was a desperately needed lifeline. I maintained four clients, added others, have some optimism on the horizon, and from a business perspective am weathering this unprecedented and all-encompassing weirdness pretty well, all things considered.
On the personal front, my family unit is strong. Unlike a lot of other kids I talk to, ours don’t seem to be as mentally overwhelmed by COVID. My wife and I have worked our asses off to try and make this as fun as possible. My ultimate, long term hope is that my youngest hardly remembers it at all while my oldest thinks back on it like, “Hey, remember when we all had to wear masks and I did the first part of kindergarten on an iPad? That was weird, wasn’t it?” Will it play out that way? Who knows. But we’re putting in the work to make that a reality. And make no mistake, I have never worked harder at any point in my life.
Have there been breakdowns? Of course. Have I blown up at my kids (almost certainly) unfairly? Yep. Have I gained weight? You know it! Am I consuming too much booze and other mood elevators and intoxicants? Let’s just say a drink-off between COVID-me and college-me would be a fascinating toss-up.
I had something like 36 songs I dumped into the playlist that I use to create this mix each year, which is unwieldy. Some of you might wonder why I bother putting it into a traditional format at all and limit it to the length of a CD-R. I remember when Rick Reilly joined ESPN.com after ESPN The Magazine folded, and someone asked him why he still wrote 800-word columns when he is now unburdened by that constraints of a print publication. He said, “I’ve been writing this way for too many years. Imagine you’ve kept a dog in a fenced-in yard for its entire life. Then one day you arbitrarily take all the fences down. How far outside of that area do you think that old dog is going to go?”
I have made, and I’m not making this up, more than 100 different mix CDs in my life. So, 1) I just like the format. And 2) I want something I can listen to on one trip to Fort Collins. That’s the ideal length to experience what I want to experience when I make one of these things.
Normally I provide a bit more color about the actual music selections, but you’ve been around since August of last year. You know how things are going. Check out the song titles in the list below for the overall vibe of the year that was. Thematically it’s not exactly a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
And sure, there are little autobiographical details I don’t want to forget. “Move” by Saint Motel played on a party bus I was on when a group of friends all went to Camp Christmas at Stanley Marketplace and we rocked the fuck out to it. “Bad Guy” by The Interrupters is a cover of that inescapable Billie Eilish song which I also heard on the party bus, and makes it better. Everyone on the bus agreed. Plus, my girls refer to it as “jumping Bad Guy.” I think it’s currently their favorite song. “Don’t Know How to Party” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones brings me back into my buddy Jim’s car in Chicago on the weekend we went to NXT Takeover with our wives and I had better seats than I’ve ever had for any wrestling show in my life. That memory is filled with wrestling, beer, Italian beef sandwiches, tavern style thin crust pizza, and just happy, happy times.
But mostly this list reminds me of podcasting, and why I feel so blessed to be able to make that such a key part of my life. Both “Outta Control” by Spells and “Leaving Town” by The Mazlows feature people I interviewed on Jon of All Trades. “Oh, Brother” by MakeWar featured prominently in my interview with NERF from 93.3 KTCL. “Reasons to Smile” by Not Tonight and the Headaches (hilarious name, btw) and “The Taste of Ink” by The Used were pertinent in one way or another on Chris DeMakes A Podcast, my current favorite podcast not produced by me.
Once we were all quarantined, I realized punk rock informs my entire life from top to bottom, which is why the genre is overrepresented on this playlist. I was always prepared to have it out with some of the anti-mask dipshits in whose misplaced defiance I expected them to invoke a punk ethos. That’s not what punk is. It’s not rebellion for its own sake. It’s not anti-science fake patriots shooting their mouths off about freedom.
Punk is about recognizing the system and the hegemony of the world is often fucked up. It’s about knowing that since no one is going to do anything for you, it’s up to you to do it yourself. Build your own scene. Grow your own community. Take charge of your own life. Care for the people who have fallen into the margins or who can’t speak up for themselves. Take care of your community. And don’t take shit from bogus authority or phony intellectuals. Know when you’re actually full of your own shit.
I don’t know what this year will bring for us. One year ago when I wrote this same type of article, I had crawled my ass out of a deep, dark depressive hole determined never to return. Sometimes I feel my foot slipping back into the hole, but knowing what’s down there, just how unpleasant it is, and how fucking difficult it is to climb out makes me readjust my footing and get back on firmer ground.
This year I’m continuing to work on being kind to myself. I want to continue to minimize the negative self-talk in my head and the snark I hurl at others. I’m actively choosing happiness for myself wherever possible, which, again, feels refreshingly novel. I want the country to heal in every sense of that word, and I’m trying to figure out how to do my part. Me subjugating myself in my own personal misery chamber inside my own head isn’t doing anyone any good.
Mostly I’m choosing to be optimistic. It’s not always easy. But it is rewarding. I hope you’ll join me.
- “You Don’t Know How It Feels” by Tom Petty
- “Hell N Back” by Bakar
- “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers
- “Outta Control” by Spells
- “Reasons to Smile” by Not Tonight and the Headaches
- “Leaving Town” by The Mazlows
- “Don’t Know How to Party” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
- “Bad Guy” by The Interrupters
- “Oh, Brother” by MakeWar
- “World on Fire” by The Bouncing Souls
- “Peach Fuzz” by Caamp
- “Dear Winter” by AJR
- “Care” by beabadoobee
- “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen
- “Move” by Saint Motel
- “SUPERBLOOM” by MisterWives
- “Kids in Love” by Mayday Parade
- “The Taste of Ink” by The Used
- “Gangsta Gangsta” by N.W.A.