6 research-backed sites and apps that can boost your kid’s report card


(Credit: iStockphoto/RonTech2000)

Common Sense MediaFor many parents and kids grading season isn’t the slam-dunk, high-five, fist-bumping celebration you were hoping for. But you don’t need to hire an expensive tutor or run off to the after-school learning center when straight As prove elusive. Plenty of free and low-cost tools can help give your kid high-quality practice in the foundational reading and math skills that are key to students’ overall performance. And research proves it. The recommendations below are either aligned with current research about learning or have been the focus of independent research that demonstrates their effectiveness. And that’s cause for celebration!

Bedtime Math, Grades K-3, Free
Practicing something every day is the way to make progress, but not all digital practice is created equally. This website offers math problems in the form of a story, usually based on a situation or fact from the real world. Each problem is available at three skill levels. The idea is that families can use the site or app together to build math into each day. Check out the study that demonstrates its effectiveness.

Learn With Homer, Grades K-2, Free with in-app purchases
Created with best practices and reading research in mind, this app can get kids pumped about reading with skill-building exercises and supportive materials. Unlike many other reading apps, Learn With Homer not only includes phonics, but it also provides stories, songs, creative play, and a safe social element called “Pigeon Post.” Though its intent is very serious, it’s kid-friendly, accessible, and fun.

Starfall.com, Grades K-2, Free with fee-based additional content
This site is a great starting place when kids are gearing up to read. It introduces the basics by teaching letter recognition, skill repetition, and beginner-level ebooks. Based on research and with proven efficacy, it also has some math activities and expanded options via membership.

IXL, Grades K-12, Free to try; membership-based
IXL offers a wide area of practice material, and there’s an app for when you’re on the go. Researchshows that IXL can improve performance and even kids’ attitude about math. Two things that set it apart are its distraction-free interface and step-by-step explanations for incorrect answers.

Wuzzit Trouble, Grades 2-8, $1.99
Disguised as a fun math game with cute creatures, this app has some research backing, too. Going beyond simple addition and subtraction, it requires kids to use problem-solving skills to get the maximum points available. The gears mechanism to help free the Wuzzits feels fresh, which is great for kids who might be wary of yet another math drill game.

Get the Math, Grades 7-10, Free
Remember going to school and wondering whether you’d ever use algebra in the real world? This site aims to prove that algebraic thinking pays off in real-world tasks. And it, too, was the subject of a study that showed its value. With a combination of videos and real-life problems, Get the Math helps kids practice mathematical concepts while solving real-life problems.

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The most targeted ways to help support Hurricane Harvey victims — and more key activism events this week

Harvey Flood evacuees

Rescue boats fill a flooded street as flood victims are evacuated. (Credit: AP/David J. Phillip)


The nation watched in horror as, for the second time, torrential rains drowned an American city. Since our president could do little more than marvel at the power of Hurricane Harvey from Camp David, and wish Texans a dismissive, “Good luck,” it’s up to everyday Americans to pick up the slack. Read on for how you can help hurricane victims, protect DACA recipients and march against white supremacy.

Protect DACA (Again)

Donald Trump has wavered on whether to abolish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, almost since he announced his candidacy. While blunt about his disdain for immigrants in general, and Mexican immigrants in particular, he was less consistent regarding children born in America to undocumented parents. In April he told the Associated Press that DACA recipients should “rest easy,” and that he is “not after the Dreamers [recipients of DACA],” but “after the criminals.”

Then, 10 attorneys general, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions demanding that the Trump administration dismantle DACA by September 5, or they’ll sue. Jeff Sessions is no fan of the program, and with the deadline looming, many advocates are afraid Trump will abandon his “rest easy” rhetoric, and eliminate the program in order to score points with his base.

This means a renewed push to call your senators and ask them to co-sponsor the bipartisan Durbin-Graham DREAM Act (S. 1615). You should also call your House reps and ask them to co-sponsor Rep. Luis Gutierrez’s American Hope Act (H.R. 3591), which would also provide a path to citizenship.

Hurricane Harvey help

Texas governor Greg Abbott called Hurricane Harvey “one of the largest disasters America has ever faced.” It’s already left the Houston area deluged with 40 inches of rain, and forecasters are predicting at least 10 more inches of rain by week’s end. At least 10 people are dead, with many more missing, and thousands displaced from their homes.

As the hurricane continues to batter Texas, organizations on the ground are focusing on basic needs and immediate recovery. Unless you have a boat and can get to people in need of rescue, the best action you can take is donating cash to organizations, especially local organizations, engaged in the rescue and recovery efforts.

New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, a Houston native, has compiled a guide to local organizations on her Twitter feed. So has Texas Monthly, NPR and the New York Times (which also includes advice on how to avoid scams). The Red Cross may have the easiest and most recognizable text-to-donate system, but we’d recommend you read ProPublica’s series on how the Red Cross mismanaged its donations following Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy, before making a donation.

The recovery effort, Gov. Abbott admitted, will be a long one. Compounding the problem is the Trump administration’s rollback of the 2015 executive order establishing federal flood regulations. That order established a federal flood risk management standard, which developers seeking federal funds for their construction projects were required to meet. Repealing the order was an opportunity to do what Trump loves best: eliminate regulations for big businesses and undo President Obama’s legacy. Then there’s the National Flood Insurance Program, which with 5 million policyholders and $24.6 billion in debt, is set to expire September 30. Several proposals from both sides of the aisle were floated around the Senate Banking Committee, but as Paul McCleod and Zahra Hirji report in Buzzfeed, “dealing with the fallout from Harvey is pushing back those discussions.” It’s “been put on the backburner,” a Senate staffer told them.

Even without a clear bill to push, you can still call your reps and demand that they send aid to Texas, and that some of that funding goes toward preventing future disasters. You can also support organizations dedicated to disaster prevention and rebuilding, like BakerRipley.

Charlottesville to Washington, D.C., March Against White Supremacy

The Women’s March organizers, along with Color of Change, Indivisible, Repairers of the Breach and the Movement for Black Lives, Working Families Party, and others, kicked off a 10-day March against White Supremacy on Monday, August 28.

They’re doing so to protest Donald Trump’s weak response to Charlottesville, and a rise in hate crimes and emboldened white supremacists. Marchers will cover anywhere from 3 to 18 miles a day, stopping at Confederate monuments and picking up new marchers along the way. If you want to participate, but your legs and lungs aren’t up to it, you can choose the section that works best for you. The website has all of the logistical details.

The march ends in Washington, D.C., with a series of actions on September 6. Organizers are keeping the specifics of that action underwraps as of this writing, but those interested should keep an eye on the website.

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This “cool black girl” is gone

Coffee Date

(Credit: Getty/Salon)

“I have a tattoo of a Confederate flag,” my date tells me. I look up from my coffee in disbelief.

In his defense, he says it sheepishly, like he’s confessing something he knows he should be ashamed of.

In my defense, he says it at all like he’s asking for an absolution I should never grant.

I stutter, and he rushes on, assuring me he was from Texas and got it out of Texan pride, not any other association. I don’t ask why he didn’t just get a Texas flag tattoo.

He promises me that he has only used the “n-word” once in his life, when he was young, and his mother slapped him so hard he never used it again. I don’t ask if the fear of being slapped is still the only reason he doesn’t use it.

He prefers dating black women; he says this like it’s a compliment. I don’t ask if they prefer dating him, or if when they see his tattoo under his shirt they recoil.

He looks at me and levies the accusation that I fear most in moments like this: “I feel like you’re treating me like I’m racist.”

A few years ago, Gillian Flynn popularized the concept of the “cool girl” in her novel “Gone Girl,” where she explained the unrealistic social expectations that women were supposed to fit into in order to be desirable to men — one that required they embrace sports, unhealthy food and casual sex, abhor commitment and above all else conform to conventional standards of beauty.

Black girls have our own version of the cool girl. The cool black girl is urban but not hood. She’s down enough to use slang her white friends will want to poach, but won’t embarrass them by sounding too black. She’s willing to date white men, but is unbothered when they don’t want to date her. She’s unflinchingly patient and endlessly supportive of the white women around her. And above all else, she never — ever — makes a white person feel uncomfortable about race.

I used to be the coolest black girl.

Accusing someone of racism — particularly when that person is saying things that make them sound racist — is the cardinal sin for a cool black girl. So I dig deep into my cool black bag of tricks and bond with him over an obscure TV show. We laugh. It’s no longer awkward, at least not for him. It had already become incurably awkward for me, but that’s OK. Cool black girls are, after all, still black girls, which means we’re stronger than everyone else. We can take it.

He texts me after that date, and maybe it’s the expectation in that text that we would hang out again or the three texts that followed the first, showing he didn’t even suspect maybe I was ignoring him. As though there were no reason that I may reject him. Maybe it was just me.

I lose my cool.

“I don’t think I was clear enough — the tattoo for me was a dealbreaker. I take you at your word that the flag doesn’t mean anything racist to you. But that’s all it means to me,” I text back.

He is offended and shoots back that he can’t “believe [he] is being judged for something he did 20 years ago.”

“Well, then I’m sure it’s my loss,” I respond. I’m not sure he gets that I’m being sarcastic, and that makes me laugh.

It’s freeing to commit a cardinal sin and realize the punishment feels better than years of virtue ever had. For being the cool black girl, I had been rewarded with the Sisyphean task of making insecure white people feel better about race and the hollow satisfaction of investing in the comfort of people who clearly weren’t invested in my own. The penalty for failing to be the cool black girl was not having to be one.

It gets easier after that. I stop trying so hard to avoid offending people with suggestions they have offended me. I stop using racial self-deprecation to indulge “ironic” senses of humor. I stop laughing when it’s not funny or nodding when it doesn’t make sense. I stop playing the defendant when they want to play the devil’s advocate — allowing them to intellectually experiment on me with their worst arguments, leaving themselves unscathed and richer for the exercise and me, diminished. I stop making them feel better for making me feel worse.

I don’t become unrecognizable. I continue to forgive good faith missteps and let intentions count for a lot, even when they’re accompanied by inelegant wording. But the cool black girl is gone. She doesn’t leave all of a sudden, in a fit of rage. I don’t cut her out of pictures. We outgrow each other, and we both know it, too. It’s a conscious uncoupling. She takes the toaster, and I wish her well. She calls sometimes, but I don’t answer. I don’t miss her.

After Charlottesville, a friend asks if I believe everyone who marched to protect Confederate statues is racist. I think of my date and his tattoo and his indignation and my coffee. Had he been racist? Do I care?

My friend wonders if maybe it’s possible to bring some of those people to our side if they don’t feel so attacked.

I tell him I can’t bring myself to care about their feelings, and he is surprised by my reaction. He’s an old friend. I used to be cooler when he knew me well.

I believe in grace for people who are imperfect allies and generosity for those interested in learning but haven’t yet. But I no longer believe the comfort of white men is more precious than my own. They brought weapons. They clearly don’t mind if we feel attacked.

It’s not that I think allegiance to a Confederate flag or monument automatically makes someone racist. It’s that I don’t care whether they are or not. It’s a dealbreaker for me. Maybe that makes me cavalier — or cool. Maybe my friend is right, and some of them could be brought to our side if people like me invested energy in making them feel less judged and more welcome. But since I don’t, they stay on their side.

I’m sure it’s my loss.

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Trump hides behind the storm


People evacuate a neighborhood inundated by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston, Texas (Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel)

On 9/11, as the World Trade Center collapsed and the Pentagon was in flames, Jo Moore, an adviser to one of British prime minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet members, sent a short email to her boss’ press office: “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors expenses?”

This stunningly crass and cynical move — she was suggesting the use of a global tragedy to divert media attention from a minor story about pensions for local officials — ultimately forced Moore’s resignation.

But it comes from a long tradition of politicians and public officials trying to hide news behind other events or releasing it at inconvenient times when you hope few people will notice.

(In the days before he became president, John F. Kennedy, aware that many would object to the naming of his brother as attorney general, joked, “I think I’ll open the door of the Georgetown house some morning about 2 a.m., look up and down the street, and if there’s no one there, I’ll whisper, ‘It’s Bobby.’”)

Friday nights at the start of the weekend have become Washington’s golden hour for dumping bad news. Donald Trump’s White House already was using this timeless trick barely days after the Bible on which he was sworn in had a chance to cool off.

You’ll recall that he tried to rush his immigration ban executive order over the goal line on Friday, Jan. 27, hoping the crowd and the refs would have their collective backs turned away from the line of scrimmage. No such luck — on Saturday night, angry demonstrators thronged the airports and a federal judge quickly blocked Trump’s decree.

Even though the constant bombardment of the 24/7 news cycle may have diminished its effectiveness, the ploy has been hauled out several times since, including the Friday night they released the financial disclosure forms of some 180 presidential staffers, which revealed that in combination they were worth billions. So much for The People’s President.

But the latest news dump was the most brazen, a triple whammy, for not only did it fall on a Friday night, it happened in the face of a Category 4 hurricane that was just about to hit the Texas coast with a still-to-be-determined, massive loss of property and life. And we got not just one but two stories released as the storm’s destruction loomed — the signing of a ban on the transgendered serving in the military and the pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the scourge of Arizona law enforcement.

(There also was the resignation of failed Bond-villain-wannabe Sebastian Gorka, but he released the news, not the president. Then the White House said he was fired. Hilarity ensued.)

In any case, full points for callous opportunism, Mr. Trump.

Arpaio, whose conviction for contempt of court is the least of his multitude of sins (which include racial profiling, prisoner abuse, bogus prosecutions, failure to investigate sex crimes, misuse of funds, promoting “birtherism” and believe it or not, a fake assassination plot), had not even been sentenced yet. But Trump loves his buddy “Sheriff Joe” and will do anything, even trample the rule of law, to help a pal and slake the bloodthirst of the Trump base.

In the face of criticism, on Monday afternoon, at a White House press session with Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, Trump once again pulled his patented, childlike “I meant to do that” routine and declared that he made the Arpaio pardon while the public was focused on Hurricane Harvey not to hide it but because, “Actually, in the middle of the hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.”

Ratings? No matter what he says about why he did what he did, in the face of a major natural disaster and lost lives, it’s a statement of monumental, breathtaking insensitivity.

Trump then proceeded to rattle off from a prepared page a list of pardons made by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama that he deemed more reprehensible, justifying his own bad pardon by citing the arguably bad pardons of predecessors, and Democrats at that. Historian and former GOP presidential adviser Bruce Bartlett described it as “The Trump doctrine — if any other president has done something wrong, he is permitted to do it too.” Yet somehow Trump failed to mention the pardons granted by Republicans Reagan, Bushes 41 and 43 and, most notoriously, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon.

What’s awful is that Trump actually may have pulled it off — this storm is so overwhelming and terrifying that it’s hard to think of anything else and maybe his moves against the transgendered and in support of Arpaio will fade into that brand-new Oval Office wallpaper.

The storm also may succeed in taking the bite out of other news Trump may not have been expecting — the latest developments around his suspicious relationship with Russia. The Washington Post, The New York Times and Bloomberg News all have just reported on aspects of a business negotiation that took place while Trump’s presidential campaign was in full swing — a proposed deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. (Keep in mind that Trump has often said that he has no holdings or interests in Russia — but apparently not for lack of trying.)

Emails show Felix Sater, Trump’s shady Russian-American business associate, boasting to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen about the Trump Tower plan: “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

As delusional as Sater sounds (among other things, he hoped to be named ambassador to the Bahamas), Trump signed a nonbinding letter of intent for the project and Cohen says he and Trump spoke about the deal on three occasions. Eventually it fell through. “Nevertheless,” The Post reports:

[T]he details of the deal, which have not previously been disclosed, provide evidence that Trump’s business was actively pursuing significant commercial interests in Russia at the same time he was campaigning to be president — and in a position to determine US-Russia relations.

The emails “also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid.”

Meanwhile, on Monday, more than a quarter of the members of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council resigned, citing the president’s behavior around the fatal violence in Charlottesville and his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, but also noting, “You have given insufficient attention to the growing threats to the cybersecurity of the critical systems upon which all Americans depend, including those impacting the systems supporting our democratic election process.”

The president’s attempts to obfuscate and to divert from the truth are why the Mueller and congressional probes of Trump and Russian interference with the 2016 election remain so important (and why an independent nonpartisan commission investigating Russia is still a good idea). Like the old Post Office motto, neither the hurricane’s winds nor rains will stay the investigators from their appointed rounds.

There’s no doubt that Trump is still scheming how he will stop them. The Arpaio pardon may foreshadow what he intends to do, providing get-out-of-jail-free cards to all involved.

I wonder: What unknown, upcoming news event will he try to hide behind to snuff out the work of his accusers?

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“Room 104” is both incubator and stage for filmmakers you should know

Dendrie Taylor and Sarah Hay in "Room 104"

Dendrie Taylor and Sarah Hay in “Room 104” (Credit: HBO/Jordin Althaus)

But for a few time-shifts, the Duplass brothers’ anthology series “Room 104” has one set. It is a bland — neither dingy nor ritzy — 400 sq. ft. motel room: Stock motel table. Two stock motel beds. A stock motel dresser with a stock motel television on top. A stock motel desk. A stock motel bathroom.

“When I first looked at it, my first thought was, ‘Wow, it’s really beige,’” said Megan Griffiths, who directed “The Missionaries” and “The Fight,” two episodes that have yet to air.  

The room’s ordinariness was intentional on the part of Mark and Jay Duplass. It could easily recede into the background, and it forced filmmakers to be inventive. Griffiths described having to “work a lot harder to keep your blocking interesting because your backgrounds are changing so minimally.”

Her first episode, “The Missionaries,” is about a night when two young missionaries’ doubts lead them to explore. Her other episode, “The Fight,” is about two female MMA fighters’ scheme to buck an unfair system. The two episodes manage to feel like entirely separate worlds — in one case, developing male minds; in the other, an octagon.

“I think Mark and [the cinematographer] Doug Emmett had conversations about specifically wanting every episode to bring out something different in the room and to make it feel like it has its own personality,” Griffiths said. “Somehow that room was this great blank canvas that I didn’t really expect it to be.”

This weekend’s episode, “The Voyeurs,” marks the midpoint of “Room 104”’s first season. And that aspect — the same blank canvas being reimagined in a fresh way each week — is a big part of what’s made the show consistently thrilling to behold. Each week showcases a different talented, often young, often not widely known, director.

The Duplass brothers approached the series with two rules for choosing directors: They would not direct any of the episodes, and at least half of the episodes would be directed by women. (Six of the nine episodes wound up being directed by women.) From there, the way Mark Duplass tells it, it was a bit like putting together a fantasy indie filmmaker team.

“There are all these directors that I’ve loved and have been fans of but who haven’t necessarily been right to direct some of our scripts because the scripts have been very much inside the Duplass lane,” he said, referring to a tone that mixes comedy and drama and features naturalistic interpersonal relationship dynamics. “But when I write an episode like ‘Ralphie’ and I really take off my skin, I can say, ‘I’m going to try something really creepy with horror. Let me go hire a director who does that really, really well who I haven’t had the previous chance to collaborate with.’”

For “Ralphie,” the series opener about a babysitting gig gone wrong, that director was Sarah Adina Smith. Smith, 34, was coming off “Buster’s Mal Heart,” a thriller starring Rami Malek — equal parts absurd and haunting — about Y2K, an event referred to as “The Inversion,” a character with psychological issues, murder and . . . well, it’s not really important. Suffice to say, there were parallels between Smith’s past work and the tone the Duplass brothers were after for “Ralphie.”

“Sarah has this wonderful, dreamy, surrealist quality to her writing. I was like, ‘Great. Let’s match her up with these weird episodes,’” Duplass said.

The other “weird” episode Smith wound up directing was “The Knockadoo.” It is about a predatory cult, and it features a lot of penises[1] and what Smith referred to as “brain rape.”

Smith’s work on “Room 104” was the first time she had directed something she hadn’t also written. (She also hadn’t worked in television before.) But because the material aligned with her sensibility and because of the directorial freedom she was given, viewers could come away from her two episodes with a strong taste for her work. “I tend to make psycho-spiritual films I guess,” Smith said. “But my sense of humor and my skew towards weird and unsettling and dark, I think all of that comes across in these two episodes.”

The same is true of other filmmakers in other episodes. “The Voyeurs” is a wordless, ethereal dance between a maid and a former occupant of Room 104. It was written and directed by the choreographer Dayna Hanson. She said of the episode: “It shows the fact that I think of dance on a really expanded scale. So a facial expression or a tiny gesture is dance in my book, as much as I’m going to play across the room.”

And though “The Fight” is an episode in which physical combat features prominently, it’s the two MMA fighters’ pathos that shines through. That is because, instead of opting for an action director, Duplass, remembering that real female MMA fighters who had never acted would be cast, instead hired “the most sensitive, performance-oriented director I could find [in] Megan Griffiths.”

In the episode, Griffiths takes the action past where the viewer is comfortable, without losing sight of why the characters are fighting against their own interests. “As a filmmaker, what I think I bring to the table more than anything is empathy for characters and a willingness to not judge them and to allow them to make their own mistakes and explorations,” Griffiths said.

These and other filmmakers’ skills and sensibilities shine for the attentive audience in a way that isn’t standard on television. But more importantly for the filmmakers, the work would be noticed by the industry. “It’s because I directed these two episodes of television that all of a sudden I have a career as a television director. It’s been life-changing in a way that I could never describe having come from indie films, where the business model is so messed up and where it’s incredibly hard to make a living,” Sarah Adina Smith said, as she drove to the set of “Legion.”


[1] An aside: According to Smith, her father saw the episode for the first time while channel surfing and caught it at the wrong time. “He was like, ‘It’s just penis, penis, penis, and then ‘Directed by Sarah Adina Smith.’ What is this? What is this? Are you directing porn now like you need money? What’s happening?”  

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The only back-to-school cell phone rules your kids really need

students with smartphones

(Credit: Getty/dolgachov)

Common Sense MediaWhether your kid is heading to school toting a brand-new device or is already a cell-phone pro, you want everyone on the same page about the dos and don’ts. (Get more information on cell-phone parenting.) You can keep an eye on kids at home (kind of), but at school, they’re on their own. As with any kind of boundary setting, these conversations can be tense. Fortunately, there are only five rules for them to remember — and one for you, to show that you’re all in this together. (Tweens and teens can also play our animated, interactive Digital Compass game to pick up digital-citizen skills.)

Here are our key guidelines for cell-phone carrying kids:

1. Respect the school’s rules. Some schools permit students to use their phones at certain times: between classes, at lunch, on the playground, even occasionally in class. Abusing this privilege — like, by texting during a test or playing Pokemon GO in math class — could get your phone taken away and possibly jeopardize your classmates’ freedom. Only use your phone when you’re allowed to on school grounds.

2. Pick up when it’s parents calling. Ugh, why can’t they just text like everyone else? Sometimes mom, dad, or your caregiver need to talk to you. It’s probably very important, so don’t send it to voicemail.

3. Ask permission before downloading anything. Even if you have your own app store account, get sign off on any apps you download. If something has in-app purchases, those costs could wind up on your parents’ bill — so they need to know what extra charges a download may incur. They also need to make sure it’s age appropriate and reasonably good for you.

4. Don’t flaunt it. Owning a cell phone is a privilege that not every kid has access to. It’s OK to be proud of your phone — it’s an expensive piece of equipment for which you’ve been given responsibility — but showing off could make other people feel bad. Also, it could get stolen.

5. Use your phone for good, not evil. You’ll see all kinds of misbehavior and mischief regarding phones in school. Set an example for others by being respectful and responsible with yours. Ask permission before taking someone’s picture. Take a moment to consider whether a text or video could hurt, annoy, or embarrass someone else. Turn off the phone when you’re supposed to. Don’t let the phone be more important than someone standing right in front of you.

And here’s our essential rule for parents:

Don’t text your kid during the school day. Unless it’s a real emergency — like, you’re going to the hospital — resist the urge to text your kid during the school day. Kids have survived for many, many years without talking to their parents while they’re at school — and they need to be allowed independence. And if your kid texts you, make sure he’s not breaking any rules to do so.

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How men recover from war

Shooting Ghosts

“Shooting Ghosts: A U.S. Marine, a Combat Photographer, and Their Journey Back from War” by Thomas J. Brennan USMC (Ret) and Finbarr O’Reilly (Credit: Penguin)


Finbarr O’Reilly was a canny Canadian war photographer embedded in Helmand province in Afghanistan. T.J. Brennan was a boisterous, profane and skeptical Marine sergeant who played host to O’Reilly in 2010, as he and his men undertook the thankless mission of fending off invisible Taliban fighters in a moonscape of dusty villages.

One day, Brennan, while out on patrol, was knocked down by the shockwave of a rocket-propelled grenade. O’Reilly took a photo of the wounded warrior, and they fell in love.

No, O’Reilly and Brennan are not gay. T.J. is married and has a daughter; Finbarr is an eligible bachelor who had no trouble attracting globetrotting girlfriends. But their deep emotional bond formed in the wake of Brennan’s traumatic brain injury is a masculine love story that runs throughout their new book, “Shooting Ghosts,” a joint memoir of how men experience — and recover from — war.

“Shooting Ghosts” is unflinching, yet it is not stoic. It is sensitive, yet not sentimental. It is especially compelling in the face of President Trump’s announcement that he is sending an additional 4,000 servicemen and women to Afghanistan.

The president’s decision — a reversal of his call in 2012 for “speedy withdrawal” — ensures that America’s longest war will continue. Which is to say, it will continue killing and maiming American soldiers like T.J. Brennan, as well as Afghan civilians, for years to come. If you want to know what Trump’s decision means for the lives of thousands of Americans now serving in Afghanistan, “Shooting Ghosts” is a good place to start.

The allure of war

O’Reilly and Brennan are certainly qualified to tell you that war is hell. But first they want you to know that war is also fun, fulfilling, exciting, boring, addicting, awful, comforting, and to the young male mind, very attractive. Like Chris Hedges in “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” they tell of the rush you get from risking your life, especially when you’re high on idealism.

Brennan was a patriotic wiseguy and George W. Bush fan in the Boston suburbs who wanted to test himself by putting kinetic force on bad guys. He went on to join the Marines and exulted when he reached the war front. He blew up houses in Fallujah and Helmand.

“For a demolitions man, there was nothing better than watching a house crumple after firing a rocket through an entryway,” he writes.

O’Reilly, the son of a doctor, had a passionate sympathy for people swept up in war. “Photography for me is about getting inside people’s lives, telling individual stories quietly,” O’Reilly says. He took award-winning pictures in Congo, Iraq and Gaza.

When Brennan is sent home to recuperate, he fights with his wife and ignores his daughter. He feels guilty about letting his men down yet yearns to return to the battlefield. He goes to therapy, but hides his suicidal thoughts and loss of memory. He is haunted by the memory of killing two Iraqi children.

“I’m trapped inside the distorted mindset of a warrior,” Brennan admits. “Our universe is unpredictable, random and unsafe.”

By then O’Reilly was in a tailspin on his own. The adventures that once seemed exhilarating became pointless, even sickening. His harrowing stories of escaping death, photographing plane crashes and losing friends in the battle zones are almost enough to give the reader his own case of PTSD. O’Reilly found himself in a major depression.

“By some cosmic twist, I’ve ended up living comfortably on one side of the lens because of the misery and want residing on the other,” O’Reilly reflects. “If all my efforts and sacrifices aren’t making any difference, what’s the point?”

Road to recovery

In alternating chapters, the two men tell the story of their growing friendship as they recover from war.

Brennan has the rude humor of a self-described “dumb boot.” He rages. He sulks. He bitches about the V.A. (and who wouldn’t?). He starts smoking cannabis and reconciling himself to the awful pictures in his head.

O’Reilly displays the neurotic flourishes of a cosmopolitan striver. His corrosive silences send his girlfriend packing. He studies the science of recovery. He watches re-runs of “Glee.”

Female readers may detect a familiar deficit in the talking-about-feelings department, but the two men go where most fear to trerad. They come to realize the healing power of their intimate and painful bond.

“When I have been traumatized, my only hope for being deeply understood is to form a connection with a brother or sister who knows the same darkness,” O’Reilly says, quoting psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow.

Brennan, who had no higher ambition than to open a coffee shop, decides he wants to become a journalist. O’Reilly, who takes a year off to study war trauma, becomes a mentor with a purpose.

“If T.J. can develop his writing and tell his story, it can serve a real purpose beyond what it does just for him,” he writes. “Others struggling through similar emotional pain might draw strength from a Marine with the courage to speak out.”

Brennan’s searingly honest posts for the New York Times At War blog began to attract attention. He healed his marriage and started his own news blog, the War Horse, with the motto, “bulletproof reporting on war and trauma.”

Earlier this year, the War Horse broke the story of the Marines United Facebook page, where 3,000 servicemen shared nude photos of servicewomen. The story, picked up by the national press, prompted the Pentagon to ban non-consensual photo sharing and revenge porn. Brennan is a peaceful warrior now, although he might kick your ass if you mistreat one of his dogs.

O’Reilly refused to cover any more wars and turned his camera toward the visual splendor of the Dakar Fashion Show where his subjects are models and style, not atrocity and pain.

The two men don’t go deep into the details of the friendship — they’re guys, after all — but the pleasure they take in each other’s company is palpable and so is their commitment to helping others recover from the wounds of war.

“We still feel the tug of war’s allure,” O’Reilly writes, “but we recognize the surrounding myth for what it is — a ruse that allows those who are older, more powerful and more wealthy to send the young and idealistic to do their bidding.”

“Shooting Ghosts” is no easy story of uplift, but one of hard-won wisdom. Brennan and O’Reilly have tamed, if not broken, their addiction to war. Now if only the United States government could do the same.

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“So simple it’s revolutionary”: On the increased variety of black male characters on TV

This Is Us; Atlanta; American Gods; Queen Sugar

This Is Us; Atlanta; American Gods; Queen Sugar (Credit: NBC/FX/Starz/OWN)

Sterling K. Brown, the Emmy-nominated star of NBC’s hit drama “This Is Us,” is reaping the rewards of a long career climb that has at times been unsteady. This will be his second run at Emmy gold in two years; his portrayal of Christopher Darden in FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” secured him a statue for outstanding supporting actor in a limited series or a movie last year.

But these plums are the sweet spot of a career spanning 15 years, which hasn’t always presented him with award-worthy opportunities. “I’ve done doctor, lawyer, cop, criminal, more times than I can count,” Brown said in a recent conversation with Salon. “I’ve died on screen about four or five times. I’ve been beheaded. I’ve gone to the gas chamber … That was my wheelhouse, if you will.”

Now, Brown embodies a character who is successful in business, “but it’s also sort of tangential to who he is as a man and the relationships that he values and cultivates in his life, as a son, as a husband, and as a father and as a brother,” Brown continued. “I love Randall and I love that he gets a chance to come into people’s homes on a weekly basis because he’s such a loving, caring individual who tries his best at everything that he does, sometimes even to his own detriment.

Omar Dorsey, meanwhile, has played an assortment of heavies ranging from the nameless — he’s listed on IMDb as “Thug #1” on an episode of “Entourage” — to the prominent, including the part of Cookie Brown on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan.”

When “Queen Sugar” executive producer Ava DuVernay asked Dorsey to read for the character he now plays on the show, “I was like, ‘I’ve never done this’ …  it’s a character that we never really see on television, you know, but it’s a character that as a black man, has been part of my whole life. You know, a hard-working brother who loves his family, loves his wife. He has no anger issues. There’s nothing negative about him. He’s just a regular man. And so, I was just so proud.”

The predominant options for up-and-coming black male actors working in television, an industry with an endless array of procedurals, tend to be cops and criminals, with the occasional member of a professional class — lawyer, doctor or judge — thrown in for good measure. Paint-by-numbers roles that pay the rent, unless one happens to be a comedian with a recognizable name, whose fame smooths mainstream acceptance to the idea that such a man might have somewhat normal family life.

In that case, you might get a sitcom.

But during the 2016-17 season Brown and Dorsey, as well as Dorsey’s co-star Dondre Whitfield, received the opportunity to show viewers very different depictions of the black male experience in America. Brown’s Randall Pearson, the adopted son of white parents on “This Is Us,” is at the center of one of the most talked about story lines on television. He’s a loving family man who reconnects with his birth father in the final months of his father’s life, holds a high-powered corporate job and enjoys nurturing relationship with his wife and children.

On OWN’s “Queen Sugar,” resuming its second season Tuesday, Oct. 3, Dorsey portrays Hollywood Desonier, a devoted, supportive partner to Tina Lifford’s Violet Bordelon, and a man ministering to a family member with mental health issues. “Queen Sugar” embraces a number of expansively written black male characters, foremost being Kofi Siriboe’s Ralph Angel, a former convict building a new life for himself by caring for his family’s farm.

If these characters sound distinctly ordinary, and if their challenges mirror those of ordinary people, that’s the point.

The actors interviewed for this story are regulars on four different series, including a comedy and three dramas. The time they spent working in the industry ranges from a few years to more than three decades. That honor goes to Whitfield: His first professional credit came in 1986 with a guest appearance on “Diff’rent Strokes,” according to IMDb.

Indeed, the last few television seasons have featured more complexly rendered black male characters reflecting a multitude of social or economic levels — more than we’ve seen in many years. These are men whose characters are granted deep development and complicated backstories, who aren’t connected to some fantastical version of fame and don’t have supernatural abilities.

Don’t get us wrong, there’s much to appreciate about Mike Colter’s work in “Marvel’s Luke Cage” and Terrence Howard’s operatic fire in “Empire.” But there are many more men whose lives and concerns more closely align with those of Hollywood Desonier, Randall Pearson, Ralph Angel and Remy.

Or, for that matter, Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on FX’s “Atlanta,” a guy who sells weed but whose character isn’t defined by what he does to pay the rent.  Henry, whose big break came in the form of a starring role in Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” said he was drawn to his “Atlanta” character specifically because Alfred reminds him of people he knows.

“What was most important for me with Alfred was to make sure that his story wasn’t lost in whatever microaggressions or stereotypes that people wanted to put on an Atlanta trap rapper. That’s not all of who he is, it’s not all of what he encompasses,” Henry said. “And I really wanted to get to the story of this relationship between these two cousins and what their lives are, traversing this life in Atlanta.”

Over on premium cable channel Starz, “American Gods” affords Orlando Jones the opportunity to don the impeccable threads of  the West African trickster god Anansi, known as Mr. Nancy in the story,  a rare offer for a minority working in the entertainment field.

“My excitement about Mr. Nancy was that I was going to be able to take a character that was born out of Africa and bring that character to light in a way that unapologetically spoke about the truth of our circumstances, and in no way, shape or form saw himself as subservient to any element of this story,” Jones said. “Mr. Nancy is a story of survival. Do not talk to me about the moral line he’s walking.  He’s attempting to survive and he has figured out a way to do that using his cunning and using his intellect, the very things that we don’t get applauded for.”

Jones began his career as a writer for “A Different World” in 1991 and cultivated his own brand in front of the camera, notably as a spokesperson for 7UP between 1999 and 2002. By then he had done 10 movies and carved out a recognizable comedic personality as part of the original cast of “MADtv.” This, in turn, culminated in a short-lived stint as a late-night talk show host for “The Orlando Jones Show,” one of FX’s earliest forays into original programming.

To a certain extent Jones’ familiarity places him among a small pool of actors whose name opened doors and opportunities for him where other players could not gain access. Even so, before his role on “American Gods” he was written off of Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” despite his character’s popularity among fans.

And it’s for this reason that Jones cautions against the false idea that this broader range of depictions is indicative of lasting change. “I don’t think you can quite get around the fact that these stories are still by and large being told by white people,” he points out, explaining that much of the time thinly written characters are cast with actors of color to allow networks to add points to their diversity columns. “That’s not diversity of storytelling. That’s not particularly diversity of characters. That’s diversity in the 11th hour of casting. We have seen a great deal of that happen.”

From what can be surmised by lists of film credits, the longer an actor of color has consistently appeared on camera and the more familiar his face is, the better chance he has at scoring recurring roles that aren’t qualified by the designation of agent or cop.

Whitfield spent time in ensembles for a number of popular series including “The Cosby Show,” “Another World,” “All My Children” and “Girlfriends” before joining “Queen Sugar.”

What that series and “Atlanta” have in common are producers and/or creators who are African-American and make a point of depicting aspects of the black experience that either have not been seen, or are rarely portrayed.

Hence we have series that examine how African-American men are made to code switch, moving between the realms of community expectation while being keenly aware of the way white people are predisposed to view them and the women in their lives.

“I have the privilege, and we do as the men on ‘Queen Sugar,’ we have the privilege of being able to play men that are fantastic and humanly heroic, despite their flaws,” Whitfield said. “You can be all of that and still be a flawed human being because we all are. And sometimes I think that a lot of these shows have, in the past, featured us in a way that has been very one-dimensional, and some of our [white] counterparts have had the privilege of being able to be all of those things, to be a man who’s valued in that way, and that is heroic in that way, and manly in that way despite his flaws.

“Just because you have a blemish in your character doesn’t mean that you have to be a downright dirty dog,” he added. “That’s what I love about the men on our show, that the redeeming qualities are so valued despite the flaws.”

That factor is playing out in a significant way on “Insecure” as Jay Ellis’ character, Lawrence, navigates a predominantly white tech-world setting with different expectations about what he represents to his colleagues and to women.

“We’ve gotten to a place where people want to see real worlds. Television for so long was so broad so we could reach the biggest amount of people, but what kind of got lost in that was authenticity,” Ellis tells Salon’s Pete Cooper in an interview conducted in early August.

As he explains, part of that is exploring an idea that is “so simple it’s revolutionary”: that millions of women and men share existences similar to Lawrence’s but aren’t depicted on television.

The availability and development of these characters is keenly important right now, when racial tension in the United States is spiking once again, when a cop feels comfortable with joking on camera about killing black people. Backing this up is a recent examination by the Marshall Project, which determined that whites can kill a black man and face no legal consequence nearly 17 percent of the time.

Many factors led to these depressing statistics. But surely the flood of negative images of black life and black men on television has something to do with the common view of black male lives as disposable. For years broadcast and cable shows flooded the audience with images of black men as either criminals to be interrogated or arrested in the course of solving the crime of the hour, or as professionals who somehow transcend race, with very few deeply developed characterizations of everyday people in between.

That makes the existence and popularity of Randall, Alfred, Hollywood, Remy and so many others extraordinary in their profound ordinariness.

“lt’s nice that we’re in a place where the stories of people of color are being recognized for their universal appeal not just to appeal to the demographic that they represent,” Brown observed. “But there’s a universality where people recognize the humanity in themselves regardless of their race, creed, culture and background. It’s always been my belief that you get to the universal through the specific.”

And he’s right. Even Henry is experiencing that with his work on “Atlanta.”

“I usually get approached by older white ladies of a certain class,  with their pearls and, you know, their Talbots on and everything,  and they’re like, ‘We just have to say, we know we’re not your demographic but we love Paper Boi, we really love this show and we love what you’re doing.’ It’s totally cool.”

Of course, in the larger context of the industry we’re merely at the starting line. A wide gap still exists between where the rate of inclusion should be in Hollywood, and where it currently is. White actors still claim the majority of lead roles on television, playing 76 percent of the 806 scripted roles on broadcast series during 2014-15, the most recent season analyzed in the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report commissioned by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

Minorities accounted for 11.4 percent of lead roles in broadcast scripted programming during that time period, up from 8.1 percent in 2013-14. That number still reflects an underrepresentation, proportionally speaking, since minorities accounted for 38.4 percent of the population in 2015.

And minority actors lost ground on cable series during the same time period, where they accounted for 15.8 percent of lead roles in 2014-15, down a percentage point from 16.6 percent in 2013-14.

During these seasons ABC’s “Black-ish” and Fox’s “Empire” aired on broadcast, with Starz’s “Power” having recently debuted on premium cable and the long-running comedy “The Game” coming to an end on BET. Leap forward a couple of years, and these series have been joined by FX’s award-winning and Emmy nominated comedy “Atlanta,” “Survivor’s Remorse” on Starz, HBO’s “Insecure,” and “Greenleaf” and “Queen Sugar” on OWN, among others.

The success of these shows and the variance within these characters also add to the conversation about who gets to tell these stories. “Insecure” is the creation of an African-American woman, Issa Rae. “Atlanta” was created by Donald Glover, and “Queen Sugar” is steered by Ava DuVernay, Oprah Winfrey and Monica Macer.

However, “This Is Us” and Randall came from the mind of Dan Fogelman. “Survivor’s Remorse,” one of the more astute satires about wealth, fame and family on television, follows a pair of black male leads and features a predominantly black cast but was created by actor and writer Mike O’Malley. Both are white.

And “American Gods” is based on a novel by Neil Gaiman and adapted for television by two white executive producers, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green – both of whom made it a priority to adhere to the book’s description of its racially ambiguous main character Shadow Moon by casting Ricky Whittle, a black British actor.

Referring to Fuller and Green, Jones said, “One of the things I’m most proud of is being able to work with creators who actually genuinely appreciate things that many creators just, you know, don’t pay any attention to. I mean those guys are incredible artists and absolutely 100 percent woke.  Like, way woke.”

“We don’t need to be superheroes,” Whitfield said.  Some people want black and brown folks to be featured as superheroes and that’s it. I just want us to be portrayed truthfully. Not one-dimensionally. Not as superheroes. Otherwise I have a problem with that. I just want our stories to be told truthfully and to be a person who has integrity.

“That’s what our entire society should be about,” he added.  And we can actually be a catalyst that maybe society will one day reflect. Instead of it being, you know, art mirroring what is going on in life, life will begin to mirror what art is first. Sometimes that’s what does help to bring about real change.“

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How Jay-Z’s new album and interview made me a Tidal believer

Jay Z

Jay Z (Credit: Getty/Dave Kotinsky)

Over two years ago, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter held a press conference. He gathered some of the music industry’s most famous, most profitable and wealthiest voices to announce the relaunch of the streaming service Tidal, with the slogan “Tidal for All.”

“Every great movement has been started by a few brave people who banded together for a common cause,” the Tidal spokeswoman said, before introducing artists like Beyoncé, Calvin Harris, Daft Punk, Jack White, Rihanna, Kanye West, Madonna and Nicki Minaj. The overwhelming message was: artists should get more money than current streaming companies provide.

It was a bizarre press conference where words and phrases like “revolutionary” and “changing the status quo” were thrown around in a format that was deeply disconnected, and a clear marketing fumble. People felt it, media outlets called it out, and Tidal had a hard time bouncing back from it.

However, on June 30, when Jay-Z’s 13th studio album “4:44″ dropped exclusively on Tidal, things began to change for the platform. And that’s not just because of a new, excellent Jay-Z  album — music piracy and streaming have long made almost any music available for free somewhere on the internet. Rather, it was the content of the album that finally made statements like “revolutionary” in relation to Tidal make sense.

Across the 10-song album (minus bonus tracks), the rapper addresses systematic racism, how to build wealth in the black community, the homosexuality of his mother and his newfound self-reflection and ownership of his past struggles. It’s unequivocally the most personal and vulnerable work Jay-Z has ever delivered.

Jay-Z followed the album’s release with a two-hour long interview released by famous hip-hop journalist, and now Tidal editorial director, Elliott Wilson and rap journalist Brian Miller for their podcast Rap Radar.

In the course of his discussion with Miller and Wilson, distributed exclusively via Tidal, Jay-Z said “nothing was off the table,” when it came to creating “4:44.” The same proved true for the interview.

Jay-Z talked about the intense criticism against Tidal compared to the broad acceptance of  similar streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music. But he also took accountability for “that terrible press conference. I would never do that again,” he said. “That was a powerful lesson for me.”

Accountability was certainly a theme on the album and in the interview. Jay-Z mentioned going to therapy to address “trans-generational trauma.” He talked about how he evolved spiritually after questioning hypocrisy in religion. He took ownership for past lyrics that may have caused critics or casual listeners to see only capitalist motivations in his music and persona. Powerfully, he peeled back the layers of Jay-Z, the entertainer and businessmen, to reveal the core values, struggles and growth of Jay-Z, the human being.

Despite being a huge Jay-Z fan, I was skeptical about the validity of Jay being interviewed by his own employees as much as I was skeptical about Tidal itself. But as I watched a lengthy interview in which a famously guarded star spoke openly and honestly in a welcoming space, I was forced to reexamine the very premise of Tidal, or what would be possible if artists had full control of their means of distribution.

It’s well-known in media that most artists hate interviews. They hate being asked the same questions. They hate when their statements are edited down to soundbites and turned into sensationalist headlines. But Jay-Z did not hate this.

For perhaps the first time ever, Jay-Z could converse at ease, because he did not have those fears. Also, by presenting the interview in full, this enormous figure was pulled down from his typically inaccessible pedestal to the point where we could recognize his humanity. “4:44,” in all its raw expression and vulnerability, did the same thing.

I still think “revolutionary” is too strong a word to describe what Tidal is doing, but after this interview, I’m on board. Artists receiving a larger portion for the music they create is a good thing, period. Will artists still get challenged on their statements and beliefs in such a controlled environment as Tidal? I’m not sure, but certainly a place where artists can safely open up about who they are beyond the music is meaningful.

Jay-Z is slated to go on a solo tour this fall, beginning with him headlining his own music festival, Made in America, this weekend. He teased in the interview that the stage setup would be in the middle, “amongst the people, because this is what the album is about — it’s about people, it’s about the culture.”

Source: New feed

A summer of drive-by listening

Kendrick Lamar; Migos; Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee; Jay-Z

Kendrick Lamar; Migos; Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee; Jay-Z (Credit: AP/Amy Harris/Getty/Frederick M. Brown/Sergi Alexander/Theo Wargo)

September 22 is the final day of Summer ’17, which leaves the pop field two weeks to put a small dent in Luis Fonsi’s claim for this year’s Song of the Summer. Fonsi’s hits “Daddy Yankee” and Justin Bieber-featuring Latin dance smash “Despacito” have held the top spot on Billboard’s “Summer Songs” chart for the entire summer — and then some. This week marked “Despacito’s” 16th atop Billboard’s Hot 100 (a different chart that is essentially the same chart without the exclusive focus on summer), tying the record set by “One Sweet Day,” Mariah Carey’s 1996 gospel duet with Boyz II Men.

The popularity of “Despacito” surprised me. I’ve spent the summer only vaguely aware of its existence and even more vaguely aware of what it sounds like. When I listened to it today, I thought perhaps I had never heard it before; when I listened to it again, I thought perhaps I had heard it many times, and it simply hadn’t made an impression on me.

Don’t get me wrong: “Despacito” is notable for a whole host of reasons — not least of which, it’s the first Spanish-language single to top the U.S. charts since “Macarena.” Maybe it’s been the soundtrack to your summer, but for me, it’s been absent. The song hasn’t followed me around like some past summer smashes. Last summer, I had the recurrent experience of being put unconsciously into motion by Drake’s “One Dance.” In previous summers, songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” were impossible to ignore, not only for their beats and hooks but for the way they dominated the conversation, inspiring countless think pieces on topics like consent and appropriation.

But who cares? What is the Song of the Summer if not an arbitrary and unofficial award created to drum up content amidst the doldrums of the Silly Season on sites like this one? You’ll notice that the idea of a dominant summer song has been around for generations in America but that it was only in the mid-aughts — right around the time that blogging was coming into its own — that the entertainment press took the concept and ran. The New York Times’s former music critic Kelefa Sanneh, following in Ann Powers’ footsteps, began regularly writing about the Song of the Summer around that time. Billboard’s “Summer Songs” chart was born in 2010. And in 2013, Stephen Colbert satirized the debate over the year’s definitive summer song with a segment on the “Colbert Report” called “Song of the Summer of the Century.”  

There’s a less cynical way to look at the Song of the Summer, though. The concept arguably became resonant when it did, not because of the need for content but because of the new importance placed on shared experiences. The mid-aughts was a time when CDs and radio gave way to iPods and mp3s en masse and when listening became more solitary. For most people, summer is the only time of year when music is experienced communally. It is the season of barbecues, pool parties and weddings. It is the season of car trips and driving around with the windows down and the volume up. To move around a city in the summer is to be constantly confronted with music played by other people, and usually that music is played with other people in mind. Summer songs need to be crowd-pleasers.  

The shared aspect of the Song of the Summer is, I think, the reason why there is a debate each year over the one song to rule them all. Each year’s song is representative of the culture at large at a given moment. In 2014, Amanda Dobbins described the Song of Summer as, “by its very definition . . . a consensus choice.” She continued: “It is the song that wrecks wedding dance floors. It is the song that you and your mother begrudgingly agree on. . . . It does not necessarily have to hit No. 1 on the charts, but it should probably be on the charts, because it must be widely played. It must bring people together. It must be a shared enthusiasm.”

This summer, I made a conscious effort to monitor what I was hearing in shared settings. Until a few weeks ago, my workspace was near a traffic light on a mildly busy street in the middle of Bed-Stuy, in Brooklyn. When I opened my window, I could hear whatever song was blaring from a stopped car, if that car had its window opened. When I heard a song, I would Shazam it and add it to an ongoing Note. I did the same thing when I was walking around. Some days I forgot to keep track of what I heard. Other times I was too slow to catch the song. And now and again the noises on the street would prevent Shazam from picking up what was playing. What I wound up with was a small, highly unscientific, FiveThirtyEight-unapproved survey of the summer’s songs, captured in an attached playlist.

I took note of about 50 songs, and within that 50, a few songs repeated. I heard a lot of Migos (“T-Shirt” and “Bad and Boujee” particularly), a lot of Kendrick Lamar (“DNA” and “Humble” particularly) and a lot of Jay Z (“Bam” and “The Story of OJ” particularly). Most of what I heard was hip-hop, and most of what I heard was made by men (the only exceptions being “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy and “I Can Love You” by Mary J. Blige).

The list probably looks the way it does because so much of it was generated in Bed-Stuy. Hov’s old stomping grounds may be rapidly gentrifying, but hip-hop remains the area’s dominant sound. (Caribbean music is second.) The predominance of hip-hop on the list also explains why so little of what I heard was made by women: hip-hop, even in 2017, is a mostly male genre.

On the other hand, it occurred to me that maybe men tend to be the drivers who play music loud enough for the world to hear, and men want the world to hear them playing masculine-sounding music, which is often hip-hop. It’s just a hypothesis.

But regardless of why I heard what I heard, I found it interesting that what I heard only kind of jives with Billboard’s “Summer Songs” chart. I heard pop hits like Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I like” and DJ Khaled’s “I’m the One,” but I didn’t hear the ostensible most popular song of the summer (“Despacito”) once. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. Or maybe the communal experience of moving around a city in the summer can’t compare to listening to pop radio.

It was also notable that so much of what I heard was released in the winter and early spring, if not years ago. The tail for publicly playing music is longer than the one for downloading music, it seems. We think of summer anthems as songs that are released in the late spring or early summer, but often the songs that find their way onto summer playlists are just classics — from earlier in the year or from years earlier.

Will “Despacito” be one of those songs? Will it reenter summer playlists in five or ten years? For me, that’s hard to imagine; I was barely conscious of the song at its height. But maybe you’ve been walking around different streets.

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