Social media thrives on battles against imaginary enemies. George Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Online, we are condemned to repeat the Gulf of Tonkin.

Everywhere on Reddit, Twitter, and Tiktok, armies assemble and battle lines are drawn…but the foe doesn’t exist. Or it exists but it’s something really stupid. One crazy person who enjoys eating dryer lint will be spun into an imaginary movement of pro-dryer lint eaters that must be stopped at all costs by us, the brave anti-dryer lint warriors, before their dangerous dryer-lint munching agenda takes over the world.

A good example is pop music. For years and years and years you’d glance into the Youtube comments of a classic rock song and see this cancer voted to the top.

You get the idea: fans of classic rock (like Nine Inch Nails…?) bravely standing up to some supposed horde of brainwashed mainstream pop lobotomy patients.

But you never saw any pro-mainstream pop people in the Youtube comments. You never saw anyone say “Justin Bieber rules, the Beatles drool!” The rockists were fighting a one-sided battle against an imaginary enemy and somehow losing. They came off as deranged lunatics, swatting at spiders only they could see.

The Beatles became a watchword for the good old days when men were men. When lyrics had depth, when musicians had talent and soul and played live with real instruments. Not like today’s music, which is mass-produced commercial crap created by some dead-eyed Swedish DJ named Johann Häågflåärt.

This is all just fanfiction. The Beatles wrote many shallow, mindless songs aimed at a commercial market, and they did sloppy work sometimes – on “Hey Jude” you can clearly hear McCartney say “fuckin’ hell” after missing a piano chord.

The Beatles didn’t play live out of some commitment to artistry but because there was no other option: if Protools had existed in 1967 they would have used it. They took advantage of technology regarded as inauthentic back in the day, such as guitar distortion.

Largely as a reaction to rockist smugness, a counter-movement of “poptimists” appeared. These were people like FreakyTrigger’s Tom Ewing, who enjoyed modern pop music and felt it was worth defending.

Sadly, many poptimists overcorrected and became equally smarmy (and equally brainwormed by politics). Imagine listening to lame boomer crap like the Beatles in 2022. Ew! Don’t you know John Lennon hit his wife? I’m glad nobody from our generation does things like that.

Poptimists branded themselves around progressivism. They wanted to believe that listening to glurge at the top of the Spotify charts constituted a revolutionary act. But, like wearing clothes made in a sweatshop, consuming music created by women or black people is simply not, in and of itself, a particularly heroic act.

The entire war is absurd. Some people enjoy both The Beatles and Taylor Swift. Others enjoy neither. Some enjoy certain Beatles songs more than certain Taylor Swift songs and vice versa. Others regard them as fundamentally alien from each other – varelse, as Orson Scott Card would put it – and beyond comparison. Still others are breaking large stones into smaller stones in an Zimbabwean mine for one hundred trillion dollars a day and have never heard either of them. The world is massive and has many sets of ears, all of them unique.

But war is manichean and abhors complexity. Just as Imperial Japan had nearly no cultural affinity with their German allies, all this uniqueness gets marshalled into some grand “us vs them” battle for society’s soul. Beatles vs Taylor Swift. Tradition vs progressivism. You have to choose a side, Neo. There’s no purple pill.

The truth is, the entertainment complex has only one side. It swallows both the Beatles and Taylor Swift. It swallows the whole world.

You are psyopped if you imagine that your “Beatles vs Taylor Swift” feud means anything to anyone who makes anything. The Beatles often hung out and partied and collaborated with media created “enemies” such as the Monkees and the Rolling Stones, and I’m sure that if Taylor Swift had lived in the 60s, they would have collaborated with her too. Why wouldn’t they? They were all musicians, more alike than different.

Penn Jillette tells a story (in the forward to Howard Kaylan’s biography) of idolizing Frank Zappa…and being shocked when Zappa used the Turtles as his backing band. The hell? Zappa was cool. The Turtles were lame. Was Zappa now a quote sellout endquote???

But soon he realized that it’s foolish to think this way: the entertainment complex doesn’t care about schoolyard cliques. There is not some cool artists table that’s gated off from the rest. High art and low art is a game for critics. To the people who make stuff, it’s mostly all the same.

Lou Reed learned his songwriting craft cranking out surfing songs. Bowie would go from writing progressive rock to exhibiting his penis in a children’s muppet movie. The lines between high and low art get blurred and crossed all the time, and mainstream fluff can be gentrified into “serious art” with little effort: Bowie and Madonna both made their careers out of doing exactly that. Many celebrated masterworks (like the Mona Lisa and the Cistene Chapel) were commissions done for money, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Work-for-hire art can have a human heart beating inside it. That’s the main lesson of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood: that this shitty B-movie director was motivated by the same thing as any director, which is a desire to entertain and move the audience. It only depends on how generous you, the viewer, are prepared to be.

Inversely, lots of “serious art” is created in a spirit of hackish cynicism. I do not believe Damien Hirst has ever been motivated by anything except a desire to make money and belong to a scene.

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If the universe was empty except for a disembodied hand floating in space, it would impossible to know a priori if the hand was a left one or a right one. You might argue that the answer is “neither”: the hand is neither right nor left, because chirality doesn’t meaningfully exist in a universe with only one hand. But suppose a man now magically appears who is missing both hands at the wrist. This supposed “handless” hand would have to fit equally well on either wrist, and that isn’t how hands work. Does the disembodied hand gain chirality at the moment the handless man appears? How can it, if the hand existed unchanged before the man? What other properties exist that we don’t know about because, metaphysically speaking, we only see a single disembodied hand? Truly we suffer more from imagination than reality.

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A fun if cartoonish album, Born Again proves that while you don’t have Black Sabbath without Ozzy or Dio, you still have something.

Sabbath’s first four albums were critically loathed. They were panned as an even worse Iron Butterfly – maggots stewing in the remains of the hippie dream that had died at Altamont. “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter–bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything.” – Robert Christgau.

They’ve been critically reassessed now (actually, most of those critics have died), but 1983’s Born Again is the closest they came to being the band Christgau thought they were: a shameless, faux-Satanic orgy of cringe and awkwardness. It musically sounds like a style parody of their 1970s work, although Gillan’s soaring voice classes things up a bit.

Why do people hate the cover? It’s not bad as Sabbath albums go. I guess it doesn’t touch the singular artistic genius of “guy swinging a sword with the camera exposure broken” or “Bill Ward wearing his wife’s tights” or “I can’t even work out what’s happening here” or “literally the album title on a black background”, or “Hipgnosis has 15 minutes and bills to pay”.

Ignoring the cover, the production, the urban legends, and the Spinal Tap connection, and what’s left is mostly good songs. Side A fares the best. “Trashed”, “Disturbing the Priest”, and “Zero the Hero” are actually spectacular.

“Trashed” is a fast song rather like “Paranoid” or “Neon Knights”. Heavy metal has produced songs about fast cars (“Freewheel Burning”, “Highway Star”), and motionless cars (“Impact Is Imminent” , “A Nightmare to Remember”), and maybe if you average them all, you’ve got a song about a responsible driver who obeys the speed limit.

“Disturbing the Priest” is one of Sabbath’s most intricate and brutal pieces. Ward’s machine-gun blasts of snare and Geezer’s scale-spanning bass runs anchor add complexity to a song that could have sounded very stupid. “The devil and the priest can’t exist if one goes away / It’s just like the battle of the sun and the moon and the night and day.” I’m 14 and this is deep. Some nice ambient and musique concrete elements here too. I assumed this was a shot fired at Judas Priest (who had just released Screaming for Vengeance and were on something of a hot streak), but apparently Iommi got yelled at by a local priest because he was playing too loud.

“Zero the Hero” is a rousing anthem, although far overlong at 7:35 (8:20 if you count “The Dark”). Dare I say it that Ian Gillan is almost rapping in places?

Side B gets a little more serious (and too big for its britches). “Digital Bitch” is a forgettable early Motley Crue kind of song, interesting only because of speculation about who it’s about. Quote from Gillan: ”I remember exactly who inspired this story, but the only thing I can reveal about her identity is that neither she, nor her father, had anything to do with computers.”

“Born Again” has Gillan hijacking the band and turning them into Deep Purple. His vocal performance channels “Child in Time”. It’s a good song, and probably another album highlight, but it leaves the Black Sabbath sound behind. “Hot Line” and “Keep it Warm” are filler and I don’t think I’ve listened to either all the way through.

Something should be said about the production. Born Again is Bass: The Album, with extremely prominent drums and a muffled, odd guitar tone. It’s a weird and messy mix that has its charm. In a world of set-and-forget plugins it’s nice to remember the days when metal albums sounded vaguely different from one another.

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