The weirdly perfect song (for you)

There’s a running joke that Netflix creates its shows by mashing up its viewer’s search history, like some sort of game of algorithmic Mad Libs. Let’s see, this week we have a [spins wheel] teen [spins wheel] mystery [spins wheel] with aliens. I think this concept comes from articles that came out around the time of House of Cards, where Netflix had all sorts of metrics that “guaranteed” the success of the show (you’d think then, if their algorithms are so accurate, then every show would be a success 🤔, but then again, I’ve written before about how all this data we hand over for personalization still amounts to absolute garbage recommendations, and nothing has replaced the joy of another human being telling you a show or album is worth your attention).

I don’t know what causes Netflix to green light shows (or does it even say no to anything???), but there’s no denying they seem to viewers like game of Mad Libs. But this has little to do with this blog post.

This blog post is about The Weakerthans song, “Our Retired Explorer (Dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961),” which feels like an algorithmic song written specifically for me. Not for emotional weight or some connected feeling, but like, literally, the references in the song. As a mid-tempo rock song from old punks about a certain Antarctic explorer and French philosophy it’s essentially Mad Libs for Thorin, especially in 2003.

Let’s just break it down by the lyrics.

Just one more drink and then I should be on my way home
I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about
I’ve had a really nice time, but my dogs need to be fed
I must say that in the right light, you look like Shackleton

Okay, I don’t have dogs, but, I am very much a “just one more drink and then…” type, and more importantly, I was, in the early 2000s, a huge Ernest Shackleton nerd (and still am, but from around 2001-2006 was the height of it).

Shackleton was an Antarctic explorer, who, in an attempt to be the first to cross the entire continent, got himself and all his men stuck in the ice (Shackleton had wanted to be the first to the pole itself, but Roald Amundsen had done that already, beating out another explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, who died. Scott’s story is truly insane, and I recommend his journals, which were found with his body). Miraculously, all the men survived, but only after Shackleton and a handful of his men did some wild survival shit to relay word back to civilization of their fate (okay, not all the men, as technically, the expedition was two ships, with one going ahead of Shackleton to leave supply drops. Three people died on that expedition, which is especially poignant since it was utterly without purpose, as Shackleton never even got to those drops).

I have several books about the explorer (my most recent favorite is a graphic novel), a bottle of the whiskey recreated from the casks found frozen in a hut, a DVD of the made-for-TV movie where Kenneth Branagh plays Shackleton, was gifted a high quality reprint of the ghostly night shot of Shackleton’s ice-locked ship, The Endurance, and even released a whole damn concept album about Shackleton’s fateful journey.

I adore this story, on the cheesiest level, because it’s ultimately about human endurance which is exactly what it says on the tin [points to the ship’s name] (and yes, sure, is also now currently embodied by white male leadership in board rooms as some sort of alpha sign of whiteness and masculinity, but it can be both that and something cool and inspiring for everyone. Personally, I find it amusing that these square jawed board room execs flock to quotes from a man who failed miserably at his core mission and is most famous for not dying, though it’s also worth remembering that when he returned to the continent years later, he died there of a heart attack. There’s some sort of metaphor there when you tie it all together with work-life balance.).

It’s not like I’m the only one so keen on Shackleton, in an interview with their record label, Weakerthans songwriter John K Samson said, “I just really think he’s an interesting figure; he was an Antarctic explorer at the turn of the last century. He’s just really this interesting guy who explored Antarctica; so, I don’t know, I think about him a lot.”

Comment allez-vous ce soir?
Je suis comme ci comme ça
Yes, a penguin taught me French
Back in Antarctica

This line doesn’t mean anything to me, but I assume it’s referring to Canada in some way, where the band’s from? I don’t know, no animals have taught me French.

Oh, I could show you the way shadows colonize snow
Ice breaking up on the bay off the Lassiter coast
Light failing over the pole as every longitude leads
Up to your frost-bitten feet, oh, you’re very sweet

I’m pretty sure the Lassiter coast is further inland than Shackleton was, but I always get confused by maps of Antarctica, since the continent is one thing, but the ice is another altogether. Anyway, everyone on that ship had some form of frost bite, and frost-bitten feet resonated with me deeply in 2003, as I was working a job where I was outdoors for eight hours a day, often in the snow. I’d typically wear two pairs of socks on those days, and on the worst of them wrap one pair in a plastic bag to keep the inner-pair dry.

Thank you for the flowers
And the book by Derrida
But I must be getting back
To dear Antarctica

Derrida joins Foucault here as the second post-modern philosopher, something I was extremely into in 2003, when I was in college. The idea of anti-traditional thinkers was something that appealed to me deeply as someone who never felt like they fit in anywhere—basically both Foucault and Derrida’s view of the world clicked with me, or at least the little bits that I understood of them (you can also toss in Barthes here for the full trilogy of my understanding of art and the world around it, even if I only comprehend around 10% what any of them are saying). Anyway, the idea that one of Shackleton’s men would sit down for an impossible dinner with Foucault and talk about Derrida is delightful (and twee as hell, but whatever).

Say, do you have a ship and a dozen able men
That maybe you could lend me?

There’s a myth about the Shackleton expedition that he took out an ad that read something like, “Men Wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success,” but it turns out that whole story was pretty unlikely. In reality, Shackleton worked for months to get funding, a ship, and hand-picked the bulk of his crew of 27 men (and one cat, who Shackleton had shot along with several dogs, which—yeah—sucks real bad). I don’t know that that has anything to do with this line, but it is something I always think about when I hear it.

It’s bizarre how finally tuned to me the entire album this song comes from, Reconstruction Siteis, with songs from the point of view of a cat, politics, philosophy, fiction, and hating (loving) your city. But I’ll adore it forever for that, regardless of where my music tastes have taken me over the last 18 years.

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