The Genre-Defying Rage of Rico Nasty

The rapper Rico Nasty begins her latest project, Anger Management, with a scream. For fans of the eclectic Maryland-raised artist, that yell conjures a feeling akin to the pleasant stomach-churn of a roller-coaster climb: When Rico shouts “KENNY!,” the name of her longtime producer, you know electrifying chaos is about to ensue.

Rico metabolizes life’s frustrations by raging about them—and invites her audience to do the same. Anger Management is Rico’s first tape released entirely as a collaborative project with the DJ and producer Kenny Beats, but the two have already established a signature sound, one that spans a wide range of influences, particularly punk and heavy metal. The 21-year-old rapper has been a prolific musician since she was in high school, and her work showcases not just her own tremendous range but also the limitless sonic possibility within rap as a genre: For every subdued “Sugar Trap,” there’s an amped-up “Smack a Bitch.”

Kenny helped shape two of the defining tracks of Rico’s massively successful 2018 tape, Nasty. Both “Rage” and “Trust Issues” are metal-inflected anthems of suspicion and fury, and Kenny’s production lends Rico’s missives an eerie, knocking quality. The rapper channels her anger with a menacing wail, her throat scratching and her face often contorting when she performs. Anyone who’s seen her live can attest to her dynamism onstage; Rico’s energy is contagious, and her concerts feel like one giant mosh pit. When the rapper shouts that she loves “bad bitches who be ragin’,” it’s hard not to believe her.

Anger Management’s greatest thrill is how seamlessly it continues the trajectory of Nasty without sounding gimmicky. The new Kenny Beats collaboration is a compact project: nine tracks in just 18 minutes. But it’s packed with a broad array of musical flourishes, clever wordplay, and cross-medium samples. And, fittingly, there’s no shortage of rage-fueled bangers: It’s the kind of tape that makes you feel like you can run through a wall.

On the first track, “Cold,” Rico is characteristically weary—“It be the same thing, just on a different day”—and confident: “She can try but she don’t compete / When I pull up, you know it’s me / Ain’t none of these bitches cold as me / Cross you just like a rosary.” On “Big Titties,” she brags about the notoriously raucous energy of her shows, where she’s almost always “signin’ on some”—well—“big titties.”

Anger Management finds the irreverent artist, who grew an early fanbase with tracks named for the shows “Hey Arnold” and “iCarly,” sampling a very different television series. “Cheat Code” (featuring the “Harlem Shake” producer Baauer) begins with a quote from the VH1 reality series Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta that will be immediately recognizable to the show’s largely black audience. (The scene it’s from quickly turned into a ubiquitous meme.) Then the beat drops suddenly and Rico raps over a ricochet of percussion: “People keep tryna test my gangster / Pull up on your block with a mask like Jason.” As the song progresses with a symphony of screams, she sounds equal parts charming and terrifying.

Born Maria Kelly to a Puerto Rican mother and African American father, Rico drew her stage name from a moment of teenage hostility. The artist, who in high school frequently wore a lanyard around her neck that read “Puerto Rico,” changed her Instagram name to “Rico Nasty” after a boy shouted the phrase at her in an attempt to comment on her body odor. It’s that kind of audacious response to adversity that animates much of her music and makes her raps so compelling.

Rico’s rage is multi-directional and genre-bending: On Anger Management, she takes aim at her own haters, to be sure, but also at others, including a certain Trump-supporting athlete (“Take the air out you, Tom Brady”). And “Hatin,” which samples Jay-Z’s braggadocious “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” is perhaps the record’s most direct dismissal of sneering men. Rico is, after all, one of still-too-few prominent women in the stubbornly male-dominated rap industry. So on “Hatin,” she flips Jay’s hook and addresses her female listeners directly: “If you got your own shit, you ain’t ever gotta listen to him, girl / Niggas be hatin’ on bitches.”

Rico raps with the kind of force—and regards her fans with the kind of enthusiasm—that invites listeners to imagine themselves wielding her lyrics, not targeted by them. Her music lends itself to any number of pump-up situations, such as strenuous workouts or pre-party dances in front of the mirror.

The artist’s openness and raw emotionality makes her moments of triumph all the more satisfying to hear. On “Cheat Code,” for example, she tracks her success by amusingly specific metrics of luxury: “No more motel, eatin’ on oxtail.” How gloriously serene.

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A Voting-Rights Debate Reveals Why Democrats Keep Losing

Two separate stories this week about criminal justice and the right to vote offer a sharp microcosm of the difference between the major U.S. political parties.

The Democratic presidential field has spent most of the week tying itself in knots over whether prisoners should be able to vote—an important but largely abstract debate. Meanwhile, Florida Republicans are close to passing a law that allows felons to vote after serving their time, but places serious hurdles before them.

The debate demonstrates much about the two parties. It contrasts the Democratic tendency to focus on national solutions to problems with the Republican emphasis on state-level policy. It shows a Democratic tendency toward abstraction, and a Republican emphasis on action. And it suggests why conservative policy ideas are winning across the nation, despite evidence that America is a center-left country.

The Democratic conversation kicked off during a CNN town hall on Monday, where Senator Bernie Sanders said that people serving time in prison should be allowed to vote. He mentioned that Vermont’s state constitution guarantees that right. This is a neat demonstration of how Sanders’s presence in the race shakes up the Democratic primary. While Democrats have focused in recent years on the importance of re-enfranchising people who have completed prison sentences, there has been less focus on the people who are still behind bars.

[Conor Friedersdorf: Florida votes for democracy.]

Sanders forced his rivals into a difficult spot: Should they agree with him, satisfying a party base ever more focused on social justice, at the risk of being tarred as soft on crime? (Sanders himself took heat for saying that even the Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote, although that’s the obvious implication of such a rule.) Or should they tack right against Sanders, courting centrist voters but risking activist backlash?

Mayor Pete Buttigieg opted for the latter, saying that while in prison, felons shouldn’t be able to vote. Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro tried to split the difference, saying they backed voting rights for nonviolent felon prisoners. Senator Elizabeth Warren was cautious, saying, “I’m not there yet.” Senator Kamala Harris was more cautious still, calling for a “conversation.”

Conversations are useful, and policy is better made deliberately than haphazardly. The question of the right of felons to vote is important—though not important to as many Americans as whether ex-cons can vote, nor as politically advantageous for those who support it. It’s unlikely, however, to be a defining issue of the Democratic campaign, and unlikely to be a top priority if the Democratic nominee wins the 2020 presidential election.

Contrast that with this week’s proceedings in Tallahassee. In November, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment that automatically gives people who have committed felony offenses, except for murder and sex crimes, the right to vote once they complete their prison sentence as well as parole or probation. (Previously, people could apply to a state board for restoration of rights after five years, though a small portion of requests were granted.) Although some experts contended that the law might have little real impact on elections, the prospect of 1.5 million new voters in one of the swingiest states in the nation got partisan attention. Democrats hoped that ex-felons would add to their coalition; Republicans feared the same.

After the amendment passed, the Florida legislature began working on enabling legislation—in other words, hashing out the nitty-gritty of how the amendment would work in practice. Both chambers of the state house are controlled by Republicans, as is the governorship. On Wednesday, the state house passed a bill, along partisan lines, that would require that anyone who wants to vote has to pay all court fees, fines, and restitution associated with their case. The state senate is considering a version that requires that restitution be paid, but not fees and fines in many cases.

Many advocates see the bill as a betrayal of the amendment’s spirit. By insisting on payment of the moneys, which are often substantial, the bill would guarantee that many of the people who appeared to be in line for rights-restoration under the November vote will never actually be able to cast a ballot.

[Read: Florida felons want their voting rights restored.]

In short, while Democrats are engaged in a largely theoretical exercise on the national level, Republicans are moving aggressively to achieve their political goals at the state level.

The Democratic Party has long had a national focus. In part, that’s ideological: The party tends to believe in top-down government solutions, making Washington a natural locus for policy, while Republicans have long emphasized local control. It’s also historically contingent. Starting from the 1930s, Democrats often held a strong advantage over Republicans in national politics.

Since the 2010 election, Democrats have also been badly overmatched at the local level, and while the party made significant gains in 2018, Republicans still have the upper hand in state capitals. That has allowed the GOP to implement its policy views on a range of issues. Republican-led legislatures have expanded gun rights, restricted abortion rights, and hamstrung organized labor, to choose just a few. This isn’t to say that the entire Republican Party is a well-oiled machine for implementing policy, particularly at the national level. Nine years after the Affordable Care Act passed, the GOP still hasn’t come up with a plan to replace it, despite repeated promises.

On the question of felons and voting, however, the pattern holds. Republican actions on the state level speak louder than Democrats’ conversations.

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‘To Love Is to Give Space to Grow’

Finding a path in life is a tall order for anyone. But when you’re the son of a Buddhist monk, discovering your purpose can seem even more daunting. In her short documentary Sit, Yoko Okumura tells the story of her father, the Japanese Sōtō Zen priest Shohaku Okumura, and her brother, Masaki, who lives at home and struggles to find the motivation to go out in the world and seek a place for himself.

“Birds need to fly in order to figure out what the sky is like … We human beings need to do something in order to find [out] what this world is like,” says Shohaku in the film. Though in many ways their values align—the monk admires his son for his lack of concern for money and material possessions—Shohaku believes it’s important for Masaki to find work that he is passionate about in order to live independently in the world.

One problem, according to Masaki and Yoko, is that their parents’ practice of Buddhist detachment manifested in a hands-off approach to parenting, with very little guidance in the way of career building. “I kind of wish they had more expectations of us,” Yoko says from behind the camera while interviewing her brother.

In a recent interview, Yoko acknowledged the fine line between Buddhist detachment and the kind of ennui that Masaki feels. “There’s no one way to draw that line,” she told me, “but since detachment of the Buddhist nature is about being free from the cycles of suffering, I think at the end of the day if your detachment in the form of demotivation is causing you suffering, you’re not really achieving the Buddhist purpose of detachment.”

“If we are all immersed in the ocean of Western values that hold fame, fortune, and purpose on a pedestal,” she added, “people who don’t have a strong drive for those things can appear like they have a problem.”

Sit is ultimately a moving meditation on the myriad ways we find meaning in our lives, and how we begin to find ourselves in the process.

“I was surprised to find that making the documentary became a reason to talk in our family,” Yoko told me. “There is so much I wouldn’t have known, and would never have asked them, if it weren’t for this documentary.”

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Photos: Climate Change Protests Around the World

Since the beginning of the year, large numbers of protests against government inaction on issues of climate change have been taking place in cities worldwide. Most of the movement has taken place in Europe, largely student-led, and inspired by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, who has been speaking out and demanding action from leaders since last year. On March 15, thousands of environmentally-concerned students in 80 countries held a “Fridays For Future” strike, marching through the streets with signs. This past week, parts of London have been brought to a standstill by protesters from “Extinction Rebellion,” who have called on the British government to negotiate with them, and to prioritize environmental protection.

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Radio Atlantic: To Impeach Or Not To Impeach?

Subscribe to Radio Atlantic: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Play

Atlantic Ideas Editor Yoni Appelbaum and Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein have both deeply researched the question of impeachment — and each came to a different conclusion.

Appelbaum argued in The Atlantic’s March cover story that the House of Representatives “must immediately open a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and bring the debate out of the court of public opinion and into Congress, where it belongs.”

Klein argues that “impeachment will be a partisan war over the president’s removal, and anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. The fact-finding potential within the process will be overwhelmed by the question of whether impeachment is merited.”

With that question pressing in the wake of the Mueller report, they sit down with Isaac Dovere to discuss the history of impeachment and make their cases: should Congress move ahead with impeachment?

Listen for:

  • Why Andrew Johnson — not Richard Nixon — is actually the better impeachment example to use when discussing President Trump

  • What changed (and what didn’t) after the Mueller report

  • Where Klein and Appelbaum actually agree on impeachment


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When Obama Talked Biden Out of Running for President

Barack Obama stood in the Rose Garden, watching Joe Biden announce that he wasn’t going to run for president—exactly what he wanted and had helped make happen.

Four years later, the president has come a long way on his views of a Biden run.

For many Democrats, Biden’s 2020 announcement on Thursday is the bookend to the anxiety and regret they’ve been filled with since Election Night 2016, when they watched the “blue wall” of midwestern states fall away from Hillary Clinton: He would have held on to those white working-class voters and beaten Donald Trump, they believe. He would have won.

“It’s one of the great imponderables,” Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who supported Clinton but on Thursday immediately endorsed Biden, told me hours before the former vice president released a campaign video that he will follow with events in Pittsburgh and a tour of the early primary states over the next two weeks.

[Read: Joe Biden is running for president]

Biden has had that conversation about what might have been in 2016 with himself over the past two and a half years, and he was having it with Obama four years ago.

This time around, Biden said he’s running as an “Obama-Biden Democrat.” In his 2020 announcement, he leaned heavily into the Obama associations and a sense that he is the heir to the Obama legacy. Obama isn’t quite saying the same, though his feelings about this run are complicated too—word went out from the former president’s office on Thursday saying Obama isn’t endorsing anyone, for the moment. But an Obama spokesperson cited their closeness and put out a statement that said Obama had always valued Biden’s “knowledge, insight, and judgment throughout both campaigns and the entire presidency.” Putting Biden on the ticket, the statement said, repeating a thought Obama has often expressed himself, was “one of the best decisions he ever made.”

Biden, speaking to reporters at the train station in Wilmington, Delaware, later on Thursday morning, insisted, “I asked Obama not to endorse.”

Obama played a far different role in the summer of 2015, when he urged everyone in the White House to give Biden time, and space, as he talked about getting into the 2016 presidential race. Obama had decided early that he wanted Clinton to be his successor, and that she was the best fit for the job and would be the strongest candidate. Obama didn’t think running was a good idea for Biden, politically or personally. Biden was in pain after the death of his son, Beau, and he would figure this out on his own, Obama told his aides, but he wanted it to be Biden’s decision.

[Read: Joe Biden bets the country will accept his ‘affectionate’ behavior]

The long conversation Biden had with aides in the summer and early fall of 2015 about whether to run for president in 2016 was fraught with emotion. Biden’s son Beau, the Delaware attorney general, had died of brain cancer at age 46 over the Memorial Day weekend. The grief had been overwhelming for Biden in the months that followed, so much so that on some days, aides got used to seeing his attention suddenly wander off in discussions about running as a thought about his son hit him.

As Biden processed his grief, he found himself reengaging his lifelong dream of becoming president, which he’d all but shelved. Part of the reason Obama’s aides put him on the ticket in 2008 was that they figured that after his unsuccessful 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns, and at 65 then, they wouldn’t have to worry about competing political ambitions from within the White House. Before Beau Biden got sick, the vice president had mostly transferred his presidential dreams to the next generation, “Joe 2.0,” as Obama would lovingly call Beau in the eulogy he gave at a church in Wilmington that June.

As the summer went on and Biden’s conversations about running continued, Obama grew antsy, according to multiple people who remember the moment.

In his memoir published last year, Biden alludes to the response he got from Obama about a possible candidacy, without providing much detail. One day over lunch late in the process, Biden wrote in Promise Me, Dad, Obama finally asked him directly about whether he was running, and Biden said he wasn’t ready to make up his mind. “The president was not encouraging,” Biden noted.

Out of concern for Biden, a former White House aide recalled, Obama urged him to talk to David Plouffe, the first Obama campaign manager and trusted political adviser.

This was not meant to be a pep talk.

Plouffe arrived in early fall with data, laying out how hard it would be to win the nomination, making a case that Obama agreed with. “Mr. Vice President, you’ve had a great career, you’ve been such an asset to this administration—and we love you,” Plouffe said, according to people familiar with the conversation. “Do you really want it to end in a hotel room in Des Moines, coming in third to Bernie Sanders?”

Biden listened, but he wasn’t convinced.

Biden and a small circle of aides got as far as the basics of a plan in the summer and early fall of 2015. He wrote an announcement speech that he’d read to people, in person and over the phone. That meeting in Washington with Plouffe stopped him, at least for a moment. The prospect of losing started to sink in.

[Read: Joe Biden’s campaign-in-waiting isn’t ready for #MeToo accusations]

Biden made more phone calls and continued thinking about what a campaign would look like. But the worry stuck with him. Hillary Clinton’s team was making moves to pressure him to stay out of the race, which he responded to with a shrug and annoyance. Speculation in the press got intense. “I knew it would be an uphill race against Hillary, but I thought I could win,” Biden wrote in his memoir.

The day before he ultimately dropped out on October 21, speaking at an event with former Vice President Walter Mondale, he shifted a key element of the story of the May 2011 raid by Navy SEALS who had killed Osama bin Laden: Instead of saying he’d opposed it, as he’d done during the 2012 reelection in remarking on how steely Obama was, he said he’d opposed the raid in a national-security Cabinet meeting, but then followed Obama back to the Oval Office and told him he actually was in favor of it. To many, this seemed like an assertion in preparation for a campaign, especially since Clinton was running on her own national-security credentials and was known to have been a strong backer of the risky but successful mission.

That afternoon and into the evening, after he’d appeared with Mondale, his staff fielded questions about how he’d changed his story on the bin Laden decision. As reporters asked whether that meant he was running, Biden continued talking to people about the campaign.

He wondered whether he was ready. His supporters believed he could win.

“It’s hard to look back now, but that’s what I told him,” said James Smith, a former South Carolina state representative and friend who was on the phone with him that night in October, as Biden sat up late at the Naval Observatory.

Biden said he needed to sleep on it. He went upstairs to the residence and talked with his wife, Jill. The next morning, aides woke up still thinking he might run, but Biden had already called Obama early to say he was out. Announce it in the Rose Garden, Obama immediately offered. He said he’d stand by Biden’s side, calling in all the press to make as big a deal of it as possible. Also, he wanted to lock this in. The Biden speculation had been hanging over the administration, the Clinton campaign, the entire Democratic world, and, according to a former White House aide, once Biden had made his decision, Obama wanted it over and settled as quickly as possible.

A few blocks away from the White House, Tad Devine, Bernie Sanders’s main political consultant, and Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s 2016 campaign manager and now senior adviser to his 2020 campaign, were supposed to be meeting two Washington Post reporters for lunch to persuade them to take the Vermont senator seriously. The reporters canceled the meeting over the Biden news. Devine and Weaver ended up sitting at the restaurant bar, watching Biden’s speech on TV.

Most of what Biden said that day was cribbed from the announcement speech he’d been prepping, adjusted with a bit about how there wasn’t enough time to put together a strong campaign. Devine and Weaver were laughing in surprise, relief, and frustration. All the talk about income inequality and free college coming out of Biden—that was their message.

Not that they thought Biden would have won. They just assumed that he would have been Sanders’s only path to victory. “We were rooting for Biden to get in because we thought there was no way to beat [Hillary Clinton] one on one, but maybe with him in …” Devine told me on Wednesday.

But, Devine said, hindsight is tricky, especially in dealing with an election like the one in 2016. “If he could have been nominated, he could have given Trump a run for his money,” he said. “But that would have required getting nominated.”

Now, Biden and Sanders are, at least in the early days, going to be the two candidates leading the 2020 field. Plouffe, who’s advised several of the other people who looked at runs this year, including Beto O’Rourke and Mike Bloomberg, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the assessment he gave Biden four years ago.

Like Obama, Ed Rendell, the former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor, stood by Clinton in 2016. But he too has been close to Biden for a long time. Now Rendell is rustling big donors to come to the first fundraiser Biden is having, scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Philadelphia, and he said he’s been amazed by the response.

Biden is going to be strong because he has the most experience, Rendell told me. That’s why he’s going to beat Trump and win this time. But didn’t Hillary Clinton have a lot of experience herself and make that central to her campaign?

“She did, but she made some bad mistakes, and she didn’t run a very good general-election campaign,” Rendell said, arguing that his support for Biden comes down to the math: Democrats need the white blue-collar workers in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan that they lost in 2016 to win, he said, and Biden is the way back on those voters. Many Democratic strategists wonder about that, asking whether in fact the lesson to be learned from 2018 is about motivating new voters, from new constituencies, realizing that there may have been a deeper and irreversible shift among the Democratic electorate.

As far back as his last trip to New Hampshire, in April 2017, Biden was saying at a big Democratic dinner, “The cadre of people who were all ours for so long … they doubted whether we still remembered.” He added: “I’m absolutely positive they want to be with us, but we have to prove again that we understand their hopelessness.”

Whatever debate there may be over whether Biden would have won in 2016, his supporters believe what happened then and since has only strengthened the case for why he’s going to win now.

“In every measure, he is the right leader for the right time,” Smith, the former state representative from South Carolina, told me. “In many ways, that was true then, but now you kind of add an exclamation point to every category.”

Biden, in his announcement video, makes that case himself, saying that a four-year Trump presidency could go down as an aberration, but “if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation—who we are—and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

(Trump responded on Twitter by calling Biden “sleepy” and making a crack about his intelligence.)

“I know in speaking with him, he feels this is the time,” said Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, a friend who is Delaware’s lone member of Congress. “There’s a sense of both urgency and a sense of responsibility that I think he sees this time.”

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How Game of Thrones’ New Song “Jenny of Oldstones” Was Made

It might be Westeros’s heroes’ last night alive: Time for wine, time for conversation, and time for a song. When Tyrion Lannister called for music amid a fireside chat with comrades in the latest Game of Thrones episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” it was the shy squire Podrick Payne who answered his call. “High in the halls of the kings who are gone,” he sang in an unexpectedly delicate, pretty voice, “Jenny would dance with her ghosts.”

Those words, from the second book of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, compose the opening line of “Jenny of Oldstones,” a song that’s referenced throughout the Martin saga. In Westeros history, Jenny was a common woman who Duncan Targaryen fell in love with and married, thus triggering a war (he’d been betrothed to a Baratheon princess) and abdicating his claim to the throne (making way for the line of succession that would lead to the fall of house Targaryen). Jenny believed herself to be descended from the First Men, the ancient race who first populated the continent.

Martin’s books didn’t specify the full lyrics of the song, but the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss filled in the blanks for the latest Thrones episode. Podrick sings of Jenny dancing with the ghosts of those she’d loved and lost “through the day / And into the night through the snow that swept through the hall / From winter to summer and winter again / ’Til the walls did crumble and fall.” As he sings, viewers see a series of tender moments between characters amid preparation for humanity’s stand against the army of the dead.

The song’s slow and lilting melody was written by Ramin Djawadi, the composer for all of Thrones’ music, including the thrumming title theme and the string-laden episodic scores. Only a few other examples of lyrical (and diegetic) tunes have shown up previously on Thrones: “Rains of Castamere,” the Lannister war song, and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” a bawdy drinking tune. I met with Djawadi last year for a glimpse at his process, and after hearing the new song—as well as its haunting cover by Florence and the Machine—I spoke with him again, this time about the musical material heard thus far in Thrones’ final season. This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: Tell me about your assignment for “Jenny of Oldstones.”

Ramin Djawadi: That came together like some of the other songs we’ve done in the past, like “Rains of Castamere.” The song was written into the show, so they needed this piece before they were shooting. Normally I come in after the episodes were shot. But this one, they gave me the lyrics and said, “Write us a song.”

Kornhaber: How do you approach writing a song with lyrics when most of your music is instrumental?

Djawadi: It’s definitely different because I already have something preexisting. I try to find the rhythm within the lyrics and put a melody to it where, when you sing the song, it just feels natural. A lot of times you’d think the song comes first and then you put lyrics to it, but there are definitely occasions—Elton John being a very famous example—where the lyrics exist before.

Kornhaber: So you read the lyrics and hear music in them. How would you describe the mood, the tone, that you felt the words called for?

Djawadi: Definitely something somber. Obviously it’s the night before the big expected battle. It’s haunting and lonely. Those things that go on in your head when you think, “Are we going to die?” That’s what I was going for.

Kornhaber: Florence Welch said it reminded her of “a Celtic folk song.” When you’re writing a song that’s supposed to exist within the world of the show, do you look to any historical sources or styles of music that seem like what they’d be singing in Westeros?

Djawadi: Not really. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We’ve done it with the score as well: I try to stay away from something that you might expect from a medieval time. Obviously it can’t be a song that’s so contemporary in terms of harmony and melody that it feels completely out of place. But also I don’t want to write it specifically, stylistically, for medieval times. I just try to come up with a melody that is hummable and memorable.

I love [Welch’s] version of it. It’s beautifully performed. The version I sent to her was very stripped down, and she did an amazing interpretation.

Kornhaber: What did you think of the voice of Daniel Portman, the actor who plays Podrick?

Djawadi: I was really impressed. His version is very toned down and, in fact, the harmonies in that version I simplified even more from how I originally had written the song. I almost wanted him to sing it a cappella. Florence’s version is like I originally wrote it, with more chord changes.

Kornhaber: Do you think the lyrics are reflecting anything going on in the show, or is this just the song that happened to come into Podrick’s mind?

Djawadi: That’s open to interpretation, right? Clearly the relationship dilemma with Jon and Daenerys you could relate to Duncan and Jenny. Now that [Jon] knows who he is, and Dany knows who he is, you can draw a comparison to the conflict or the decision to come.

Kornhaber: The other powerful musical moment in that episode came with Brienne’s knighting. What are we hearing in that scene?

Djawadi: That is actually a theme that we had used for Jaime and Brienne before: the “Honor” theme. We’ve used it in other moments when somebody does something honorable, [like] when the Hound buries the bodies in that house [in Season 7, Episode 1]. It’s one of my favorites. It’s such a beautiful and emotional theme we don’t get to use as much.

Kornhaber: So it’s not a theme tied to a character but rather to an abstract concept. What are the show’s other themes like that?

Djawadi: One we had kind of became the Littlefinger theme. We called it the “Conspiracy” theme. In the early seasons there was a lot of backstabbing going on—I guess it’s the opposite of the “Honor” theme.

Kornhaber: Jon and Daenerys have their “Love” theme, which came out in the dragon-riding portion of the season premiere.

Djawadi: That was just a fun scene. It’s playful in a way, but also very powerful because he’s learning to ride the dragon. The arrangement was big, with percussion. There’s a hint of danger.

What was interesting in Episode 1 was that a lot of the themes had callbacks to Season 1. For example, when Bran and Jaime meet at the very end of the episode, that definitely is a callback to the original, from their first interaction. Jon and Dany arriving at the beginning with their army was a callback to the king’s arrival from Season 1. Obviously the footage is very similar—how everybody in Winterfell was lined up—so we drew similarities to the original cue there.

Kornhaber: Did you write any other original songs for this last season?

Djawadi: Every season, I’ve developed existing themes, and there’s always been room to write some new material and new themes. We definitely have that as well this season. I can say that much.

Kornhaber: Have any of those new themes shown up in these two episodes?

Djawadi: I don’t think so. It’s coming.

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In Biden’s Video, Trump Came Out of Nowhere

The key word in Joe Biden’s announcement video is “aberrant.” If Donald Trump only serves one term, Biden declares, “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.”

Before Trump, the former vice president implies, a moral consensus reigned. America, he declares, “is an idea”—an idea that “everyone is treated with dignity” and which “gives hate no safe harbor” and “instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.” That, Biden explains, is “what we believe”—or at least we did, before Trump came along.

That’s a fundamentally different message from the one being peddled by Biden’s key competitors, who see Trump not as an historical aberration but as the outcome of a long historical decline. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both depict Trump as a manifestation of the class war that the ultra-rich have been waging since the Reagan era; in their telling, this war created the economic insecurity that made working-class whites susceptible to Trump’s racist scapegoating, and Trump is escalating the conflict by handing over the government to corporate and financial interests. Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, attributes Trump’s rise to a America’s long-standing failure to meet the challenges of globalization, a failure that has left Americans susceptible to “the myth that we can stop the clock and turn it back” to an era before automation and outsourcing.   

Biden, by contrast, describes Trump not as the consequence of long-festering American ills but as the antithesis of long-standing American ideals. He starts the video by noting that Charlottesville, Virginia, is the home of Thomas Jefferson, who authored the words, “All men are created equal.” Americans “haven’t always lived up to these ideals,” Biden acknowledges. “But we have never before walked away from them.” Until Trump.

Biden’s distinction—between not “living up to ideals” and “walking away from them”—is meaningless. America “walked away” from the ideals of human equality at its founding when it enforced slavery, ethnically cleansed Native Americans, and denied women the vote. Since then, America has oscillated between eras like Reconstruction, between 1865 and 1876, when it moved closer to equality under the law, and eras like Redemption, when whites reestablished racial supremacy in the years that followed. As Ta-Nehisi Coates and Adam Serwer have argued, America is experiencing an era like Redemption again today.

In every era there are different versions of the American idea, some more inclusive and some more exclusive. Discouraging non-whites from voting—as Trump is doing now—is as deeply American an idea as demanding that they gain access to the ballot. Opposing immigration by people of alien races and faiths is as American as welcoming them.

It’s not surprising that Biden, of all the Democratic contenders, would come closest to a Democratic version of “Make America Great Again.” He served in the Senate from 1973 until he became vice president in 2009. He has to defend the pre-Trump era. If he described Trump the way Sanders and Warren do—as the product of a decades-long, bipartisan descent into oligarchy—he’d be condemning himself.

Biden’s problem is that while most Democrats like Barack Obama personally, the party has lurched left since he left office, and many of its activists now take a dim view of policies that Democrats once deemed mainstream. Thus, if Biden entered the presidential race with a standard biographical video describing his many accomplishments in public life (something his website actually offers), he would immediately prompt a debate about all the positions he once took—on crime, financial deregulation, Anita Hill, and the Iraq War—that Democrats now scorn.

Biden evades that problem in his announcement video, but at a cost. He bathes the past in a warm glow without defending it substantively. And in so doing, he offers a deeply unconvincing historical narrative in which Trump lands upon the American political scene from outer space.

In his announcement speech, Buttitieg warned against romanticizing “a bygone era that was never as great as advertised to begin with.” Although meant as a dig at Trump, Biden has reason to worry. If his announcement video is a sign of things to come, it could be an effective line against him, too.

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The Atlantic Announces the Expansion of “Our Towns,” James and Deborah Fallows’s 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America

April 25, 2019 (Washington, D.C.)—Since 2013, The Atlantic’s national correspondent James Fallows and linguist and writer Deborah Fallows have been crisscrossing the country, in a plane piloted by James, to report on how small cities and towns across America are faring and thriving. Today begins the next phase of their journey with the launch of “Our Towns,” a reporting project that will see the couple continue their 100,000 mile journalistic feat into the heart of America, underwritten by Grow with Google.

The Fallowses will document their travels at with weekly reporting dispatches continuing through the end of the year. The first stop is Indiana, with visits to Angola, Muncie, Indianapolis, and Fort Wayne, and throughout the year they will touch down their single-engine prop plane in dozens of other towns and cities. Reporting will appear across all platforms at The Atlantic.

“The guiding principle of this reporting will be the one we developed—city by city, story by story, surprise by surprise—through our preceding years of travel,” James Fallows writes in a letter to readers introducing the project. “The central premise is that the most positive and practical developments in this stage of American life are happening at the local and regional level—but that most Americans have barely heard of those developments except in the communities where they themselves live.”

A 40-plus year veteran of The Atlantic, Mr. Fallows has lived and worked in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Washington, Austin, Berkeley, and Seattle. He wrote his first piece for the magazine in December 1974, joined its staff in 1979, and has authored nearly 100 cover stories in the decades since. In 2013, James and Deborah, who is a fellow at New America, took to the skies. Their immersive reporting project for The Atlantic, American Futures, became the best-selling book Our Towns in 2018, and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.

Through their work, the Fallowses have spoken with countless community leaders and local residents on the importance of community investment, and how to retain talent and foster economic growth. With the launch of “Our Towns,” their reporting will continue to provide a fresh perspective on local progress and innovation. Since 2016, Grow with Google has helped people across the U.S. get the skills they need to grow their careers and businesses. In 2019, the program is bringing digital literacy workshops to towns across the country, amplifying learning opportunities for local citizens.

In addition to the editorial elements, the project will also encompass every business at The Atlantic, spanning custom, syndicated, and branded content, including work from Re:think, The Atlantic’s award-winning creative studio.


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Helen Tobin


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Bursting the Aquarium Bubble

The United States is experiencing a new wave of aquarium enthusiasm. Over the past few years, groups in Detroit; St. Louis; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Memphis; Cape Canaveral, Florida; and New York City have proposed or started construction on large aquariums. Springfield, Missouri, and Shreveport, Louisiana, have recently opened aquariums. Boosters for these spaces are selling them as conservation initiatives that will create jobs and bring in revenue—alternatives to sports stadiums and shopping districts meant to revitalize downtrodden downtowns.

But the history of aquariums tells a different story. In the earliest public aquariums, tanks were sparsely populated with somewhat mundane species. These institutions started as traveling fishery exhibits: The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair contained some of the first tank displays. The state of Pennsylvania fashioned a grotto with glass jewel boxes lining a dark hallway that was illuminated from above. The residents—trout, catfish, and others—had been sent via specialty train.

Enthusiasm for Pennsylvania’s exhibit was high, with many visitors returning several days in a row to walk through the grotto. Even after the fish started dropping dead because of excess lime, aluminum, and heat, the vacant tanks attracted crowds that came to marvel at the new technology.

These early exhibitions were successful enough that seven years later, the city of Philadelphia converted the traveling tanks into a stationary aquarium at Fairmount Park. One of the stars was a giant snapping turtle.

Philadelphia’s aquarium was part of a small but rapidly growing community of large public aquariums in the United States, including the Woods Hole Science Aquarium in Massachusetts (opened in 1885), the New York Aquarium (1896), and Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium (1904). Visitors were more concerned with wonder than education, and tanks usually contained local species, the occasional rescued family goldfish or donated lobster, and tropical fish. The aquarium keepers themselves had little interest in conservation. As aquarists developed the craft of holding aquatic organisms captive, many of the fish under their care died. In 1917, the Philadelphia aquarium received 663 fish for exhibition; by the end of the year, 454 had died.

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Unlike zoos, which relied on specialty species such as tigers and elephants, early aquariums showed relatively common species—it was the very act of seeing underwater that drew visitors. By 1920, the earliest American aquariums had banded together to collect tropical fish for exhibition. Starting around 1915, a representative from the New York Aquarium traveled twice a year to Key West, Florida, where he collected a wide array of species. That same year, the assistant director and tropical-exhibits collector Louis Mowbray brought 148 animals from Key West to Detroit, including squirrelfish, spiny lobster, stone crab, a hawksbill turtle, two species of moray eel, and three of grouper.

The earliest aquariums had little concern for the impact their collecting might have on the health of a species or ecosystem. Charles Townsend, who became the second director of the New York Aquarium in 1902, knew firsthand through his work with the U.S. Fish Commission that the number of marine mammals was depleted in the wild. This did not stop him from seeking out porpoises, seals, and sea lions along the Atlantic Coast for exhibition. One of the last known Caribbean monk seals, declared extinct in 1952, spent the end of its life on display at the New York Aquarium.

Townsend never thought to use the aquarium as a space for mammal conservation, but he was not entirely inured to the decline in marine populations. In 1929, he imported some of the last Galápagos tortoises to aquariums and botanical parks around the United States and the Caribbean in an effort to save the lumbering giants from extinction. Until his death, Townsend kept close records of the tortoises, moving them to locations that he felt would have luck maintaining and growing captive populations. The year after he died, the first Galápagos tortoises bred in captivity hatched at the Bermuda Aquarium, and in the past decade, the surviving Townsend tortoises were returned to the Galápagos as part of the ongoing conservation initiative.

Through the years, aquariums have done more of this work, becoming integral to conservation initiatives by studying specimens in captivity and funding field research to help maintain endangered species. Established public aquariums are conscious of their past role in marine degradation, and their captive-breeding initiatives, especially for popular species such as seahorses and clownfish, seek to decrease the impact of exhibit collecting on wild populations.

[Read: How a landlocked aquarium gets its seawater]

But these initiatives account for only a small number of the exhibits in large aquariums, and have not stopped debate about the impact of collecting on wild populations. Earlier this year, Moody Gardens, a Texas aquarium, collected a variety of fish from a popular snorkeling area in Palm Beach County, Florida, prompting public outcry. A legal battle in Hawaii has resulted in the closure of some reefs for collectors, but has shifted the impact of collecting to foreign reefs, which are not as well managed.

Creating an artificial underwater environment is still a technological and scientific challenge, with limited initial conservation value. Current aquariums took years to develop the resources required to perform effective conservation; new aquariums will not have the ability to develop these initiatives for years, if ever. If they fail, the extraction of marine riches, required for setup, goes to waste. While many of aquariums’ earliest problems have been solved—we no longer see empty tanks—many new builds are doomed to failure, squandering monetary and natural resources in the process.

Library of Congress

Architects and construction groups design aquariums, but aquarists must make the spaces functional. Often, aquariums’ most popular exhibits, such as mammals or sharks, prove the trickiest to maintain. Keeping sharks in captivity sounds great, but doing so takes specialized knowledge. The Dubai Aquarium, one of the largest tanks in the world, experienced several shark casualties before opening in 2008. The aquarists eventually worked out the optimum number of species for the tank, but other aquariums struggled longer with these issues. The Jerusalem aquarium, a 30-tank, $28.5 million building originally set to open in May 2017, delayed its opening after the loss of many exotic fish and two sharks. Some aquariums continue to try to keep great whites in captivity, with limited success and an almost 100 percent mortality rate.

The stress of acquisition and maintenance often leads to financial struggle. Originally operated by the City of New York, the New York Aquarium has been managed and funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly the New York Zoological Society) since 1902 due to financial strain; the City continues to provide electricity and water, while the Wildlife Conservation Society pays for upkeep and exhibition acquisition. Other early aquariums had to develop similar cost-sharing measures between private organizations and taxpayers. In this century, the Denver aquarium, which opened to much fanfare in 1999, declared bankruptcy in 2002 because of defaults on building loans. (It was purchased by Landry’s, a hospitality company, and reopened in 2003.) More recently, the newly opened Shreveport Aquarium has struggled with almost $500,000 in unpaid construction debt. Many of these spaces are subsidized by tax breaks and bonds, to be paid back when an aquarium becomes profitable. But too often, this goal is not realized. As economic-development projects, aquariums are risky.

[Read: Do we need zoos?]

In the 21st century, entering an aquarium can still conjure a sense of amazement, but for different reasons. I recently walked around the harbor near a public aquarium and saw not fish, but an enormous amount of plastic garbage. Entering the exhibit space, I was struck by the intense beauty of these model environments. There is wonder in seeing so many fish in one place—a protected place—when a reef dive today is more likely to reveal a world in distress. The sense of awe that aquariums can evoke should be mixed with an acknowledgment that the environments we see need saving—sometimes from our desire to see and touch them.

The Fairmount Aquarium in Philadelphia didn’t survive. The cost of maintenance was too much for a financially struggling city; when the call came to update the aquarium to more modern standards, it folded in 1962. The rash of aquariums currently being contemplated or built will eventually face these same concerns, and many will fail. But these spaces will have taken their toll, seizing resources from struggling ecosystems, both human and marine, without the ability to fully give back. And when they close, they will leave even larger holes in those fragile environments.

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