On “President”

This is a post about President. Not about any particular individual occupying a particular presidential office, but about President, the idea and aspiration. The thing you once thought you might be one day (at least if you were lucky enough to ever be told you should dream so big–or at least before you learned you shouldn’t).

The first presidential election I remember was Bush v Gore 2000. I got a Kids Voting ballot with pictures of all the candidates, and awarded each of my empty votes to whichever guy I thought had the better headshot. Sometimes it was hard because they kind of looked the same. For the record, I voted for Gore. (In retrospect, I stand by my decision but not my reasons.)

I asked my mom if girls were allowed to be presidents. I learned that they were, but none of them had yet. Like many ambitious little girls first hearing this news, I was less concerned with why this was the case than I was with beating out any other ambitious girls to the “first” spot. (In retrospect, I realize that being the first anything is terribly overrated if you’re the only.)

The people counting the votes needed extra time, my parents informed me, as they watched the news with anticipation. I thought that made sense, because counting that high must be really hard. I later heard that that the guy who got the most votes didn’t get to be president. I thought that might kind of be nice for him, because now he could brag about winning without having to be in charge of everyone. (In retrospect, he sure did.)

Being president sounded like a lot of pressure–people always seemed angry at presidents–so I thought I might aim for vice president instead. I checked that no girls had been vice president either, so I could still be first at something. Thinking realistically, I decided that I would start my career being vice president of small countries, then incrementally work my way up to bigger ones. (In retrospect, that plan could have used some refinement.)

At my neighbor’s birthday party that week, his know-it-all older brother offered a piece of candy to whoever could answer the question “Who was the first president?” He proceeded to inform that me and the three other people who blurted out “George Washington” that we were wrong–George was the first president of the US, but not the world. He didn’t know the name of the actual first president, but insisted that it was someone else. (In retrospect, maybe he didn’t know it all.)

(Today I Googled “first president in the world. The ambiguous definition of “president” across languages and systems of government leaves no clear answer. Possibly Filippo Antonio Pasquale di Paoli, President of the Corsican Republic in 1755. His republic didn’t work out, but at least he was first at something.)

My mom told me that I couldn’t be president of Lebanon because I wasn’t the right religion. I wasn’t quite sure what religion I was, but “Deputy Speaker of Parliament” sounded less cool, so I immediately became a firm opponent of sectarianism. (In retrospect, I had a point, but Deputy Speakers of Parliament can also be cool.)

The next election season, I learned about write-in candidates. I asked my parents if they would vote for me, and was kind of offended that they said no. Unfortunately, they had other plans for positions like “mayor” and “senator,” but eventually agreed to write me in for soil commissioner. (In retrospect, I apologize for trivializing the soil commissioner race. Soil commissioners are as important as presidents.)

(What kind of person would want to be a president anyway?)

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In Defense of Stupid Pop Songs

Being home for me means driving. And driving means listening to the radio. And I listen to Top 40 stations. No shame.

Maybe I should be cool enough to listen to something more hipster, or intellectual-ish enough to turn on NPR (and I do listen to those things sometimes), but particularly when I’m driving, I find myself returning to my cheesy pop music. Even when it sucks.

Sure there are always some songs that are good, but that’s not really the point. The main content is formulaic rhythms, trite lyrics, forced rhymes, problematic messages, and melodies that sound just enough like something you’ve heard before that they will stick in your head immediately. Or if it doesn’t happen immediately, it will eventually, since you will be listening to the same five songs on repeat for the next month. It’s ridiculously annoying. And yet I keep listening.

Why?

First of all, there is a difference between thinking something is good and liking it, and one can occur without the other. Despite being someone who spends a lot of time figuring out how to make good art, being weary of anything that could be considered corny, cliche, or–God forbid–commercial, I doubt that all of art’s value is tied up in it being good. Is “I Love It” an objectively well-crafted song? Probably not. Did it help me get through angry-crying sessions during the last stretch of my senior year when I was in constant tension with my parents, felt generally alone, and wasn’t sure I had much left to care about. Hell yes.

There is also something to be said about what the format of pop radio does to your mind. A small number of catchy songs repeated intensively over a relatively short time period: it creates a sort of auditory index of memories, anchoring your sense of past time and it’s accompanying feelings to periodic sets of songs permanently imprinted into your brain. Songs that are completely and unapologetically not timeless, but instead committed to a very specific and fleeting present (because last year’s songs are so last year).

That’s why I can’t listen to “California Girls” without experiencing the combination of excitement and loneliness, openness and emptiness, of summer 2010, my first few months in the Bay. Or why “So Yesterday” will always remind me of fall 2003, sitting by my school’s butterfly garden with other girls from my third grade class, believing we were the epitome of faux-teenage coolness because we could (sort of) sing all the words. Or why “Larger Than Life” takes me back to my neighborhood pool in summer 1999, when I would passionately debate the lyrics with my sister during breaks (even though we both were actually wrong).

So I’ll keep listening to stupid pop radio, letting it create a temporal framework where I can dump my emotional baggage for later use. Almost like a time capsule.

And no, I’m not going to get too smart or cool for that.