Songs w/ Substance #3: The Mountain Goats – “Dance Music”


I’m always surprised that I like this song. It’s a quirky song sung by a singer with an annoying, whiny voice, but for some reason both the lyrics and the beat still find a way to reach out and grab me.

Maybe that’s because this song is about something that we have all at times experienced—the medicinal properties of music—the ability of music to heal in times of sadness or pain.

Unlike the singer, I never had an abusive stepfather or a girlfriend with a “special secret sickness” (or maybe I did?), but like everybody else, I’ve experienced struggle, and I know that during those times of struggle, music has often been incredibly therapeutic.

Dance music wouldn’t be my first choice. I’m more of a rock-country, indie slow-jam kind of a guy. But that’s another great thing about this song. Even though parts of the lyrics refer to the personal narrative of the singer, other parts are purposefully vague so that we can make our own connections and bring our own narratives into the song too.

“So this is what the volume knob’s for”—got to be one of the greatest lyrics of all time. Turn this one up.

music heals

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Politics, USA

Contemplating a Clinton vote: The trials of a third party voter

Hillary Clinton supporters have a point.

I am normally an advocate for the third party vote. I have voted third party in each of the last two presidential elections—Ralph Nader and the Green Party in 2008 and some socialist candidate whose name I don’t even remember in 2012. I voted for those candidates not because I thought they could actually win, but to express my dismay with a stupid electoral system and a much too moderate Democratic party. Of course, in both those elections, I desperately rooted for Barack Obama, but I also felt good about holding strong to my ideological convictions and using my ballot to cast a vote of dissent.


But this election is different. Donald Trump is a certain kind of scary that is forcing liberal third party voters like myself to rethink whether or not this election is one where we want to risk taking an ideological stand.

Clinton supporters are right to try to convince us that it’s not—that for this election we should swallow our political pride and vote for the only major party candidate that is not named Donald Trump. This is a conversation that we should be having, and I am glad that we are having it. But what sends me flying into a homicidal rage is the way that Clinton supporters have chosen to engage us in this conversation.

Contrary to what the author of this article might tell you, not all third party voters are “human tire fires.” I’ve been frustrated with a lot of the Bernie Bro’s too, especially the jeering jackwagons at the DNC, but what Clinton supporters need to realize is that many of us have very rationale reasons for voting third party that have nothing to do with a personal vendetta against Hillary and everything to do with our ideological convictions about what is best for our country. Some of us are willing to abandon those ideological convictions for this election in order to prevent a Trump presidency. That’s a big concession to make. But if Clinton supporters want to be successful in convincing us to make that leap, they must concede something too:

A vote for Hillary Clinton is a major compromise.

This is obviously not the case for diehard Hillary fans who have been behind her since day one, but it is most certainly the case for any potential Hillary voters who, under an election system that doesn’t totally suck, would be voting for a more progressive candidate. Hillary Clinton may very well be a progressive human being, but as a politician she is a calculating pragmatist. Her current political platform features a lot of positions that fit the progressive mold, but I don’t think that she would have taken those positions publicly if the polls hadn’t deemed it politically advantageous to do so. And while a grueling primary with Bernie looked to have moved Hillary considerably to the left, her VP nomination suggests that her general election dash back to the political center is already underway.


This is what makes settling for Hillary such a hard pill to swallow for so many third party voters. A vote for Hillary is a vote that lends implicit support to politics as usual in America’s two-party system, a system that we all fucking despise.

Clinton supporters would of course argue that the consequences of a Trump presidency would be far worse. I tend to agree with them. A Trump presidency could do immense damage to our country, and that is something that I desperately want to avoid. But I also think that another rubber stamp for our two-party system could do some immense damage as well, and that’s in addition to the immense damage that this system has already done.

If you look at the last twenty years, which do you think has done more collective damage to our country: Republican politicians or the two-party system? I have no doubts that your average Clinton supporter could go breathless listing all the harmful legislation that Republicans have enacted during that time, but they also need to remember that probably every one of those pieces of legislation had significant Democratic support. The ‘94 crime bill, DOMA, the Iraq invasion, and the expansion of drone warfare are just a few examples of initiatives that were either supported or spearheaded by prominent Democrats, Hillary Clinton being one of them.

Furthermore, when you look at what scares people about Trump—his capricious hawkish tendencies, his hate speech towards women and minorities—none of it is exactly new. Trump has definitely raised the bar to an apocalyptic level, and that’s an important distinction to make, but invading other countries and assaulting civil liberties is a long-standing tradition in American two-party politics. Of course modern Democrats have a far better record in each of these areas than their Republican counterparts, but conservative or liberal, if you really want to reduce military spending and protect civil liberties, you should not be voting for Republicans or Democrats—you should be voting for Libertarians or Socialists.

To do otherwise is to surrender to the status quo. It is a concession to the powers that be to leave their system in place by settling for a candidate that they have deemed appropriate. But if there’s one thing that I know about the status quo, it’s that if the status quo ain’t challenged, the status quo ain’t changing.


To be sure, there are many other, more effective ways to challenge the status quo than the presidential ballot. Revolutionary change almost always starts at the ground level, not at the top. But in a democracy, the vote is one of our most treasured change-making tools, and I’m not sure that I want to waste mine on a candidate that could not be more representative of all that I hate about the American political system.

I don’t want this write-up to sound like a self-absorbed defense of my right to express my opinion. I realize that my vote has consequences that affect people other than me. I also realize that in the case of a Trump presidency, white guys like myself would probably be more immune from the consequences than would women and people of color. But I’m still not convinced that settling for the proverbial “lesser-of-two-evils” is always the best decision. Trump may be a special case, but rank-and-file Democrats have been shaming third party voters into voting (D) for as long as I can remember, and as a result, the two-party system remains without so much as a whisper of reform.


I hope that Hillary Clinton is our next president, but if the election were tomorrow, I would not vote for her. That’s because I live in Minnesota, and there’s no chance that my state will be voting for Trump under the rules of the electoral college. Minnesota has been blue since 1972—the longest running streak in the nation.  No matter who I ultimately vote for, in my state, Hillary Clinton will be winning a plurality. This means that I can have my political cake and eat it too—I can cast a consequence-free vote of dissent against the two party system and still be sure that the Democrat comes out on top. However, if I lived in Virginia, Ohio, or even next door in Wisconsin, I would admittedly have to rethink this strategy.

I look forward to continuing this conversation as the election progresses. Believe it or not, my militancy on this issue has actually softened considerably over the last few months thanks to some well-written articles and eloquent friends. If that trend continues, I may very well find myself casting a Clinton ballot this fall. I just hope that as Clinton supporters continue to try to persuade us to vote for their candidate, they can refrain from scolding lectures and instead engage us in real conversations. I hope that they can admit that Hillary Clinton is a candidate with some major flaws, and that liberal third party voters are justified in their skepticism towards her and the Democratic Party in general. I hope that they can acknowledge that those who choose to challenge the status quo in this country serve a very important role, as do those who choose to compromise with it.

We need people that work within the system—people that make certain concessions and pragmatic decisions in order to get the best results possible, even if those results leave a lot to be desired. We also need people that work against the system—people who hurl rocks from the outside and make the people on the inside a little less comfortable. I’m not sure which group I will be a part of this coming November, but rest assured that whatever decision I make, I will make because I truly believe that it’s the best course of action to take for the good of my country. I hope that Clinton supporters can respect that.

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Animals, Travel, World

When being a tourist feels good: The Phang Nga Elephant Park

I have a love-hate relationship with being a tourist. On the one hand, I absolutely love to travel the world. Travelling drives me. Travelling is me. My international experiences have made me a better person than I would be otherwise—enlightening me, humbling me, motivating me to be better. My desire to travel is a big part of the reason that I went into teaching. There are not many other professions where you get the opportunity to spend nine months out of the year teaching kids about the world and the other three traveling and learning about it yourself.

But there are a lot of negative aspects to international travel too, especially when you’re a white dude from the United States of America. The tourism industry that was built to serve people like me is oftentimes reminiscent of the old colonial relationships between the “developed” and “developing” world where the privileged and powerful exploit the weaker and less fortunate for their own benefit. Even though I try my best to be a responsible tourist abroad, my masochistic desire to overthink things still sometimes leaves me wondering if our collective impact as tourists actually does more harm than good.

I thought about this a lot during my recent trip to Southeast Asia. There’s no doubt that the tourism industry over there has created a lot of jobs and generated a lot of dollars, but I still question how far reaching and inclusive those benefits are. For instance, do the jobs created by the imitation Western restaurants that we patronized and the mass-produced manufactured goods that we purchased outweigh the loss of the more traditional establishments and occupations that they most certainly replaced? It was great to have English menus and cheap goods, but pizza and bro-tanks are probably not the most authentic way to experience Southeast Asia. Does the commercialization of ancient landmarks and temples help to preserve indigenous cultures by educating us tourists about their history, or does it instead work to erode those cultures by transferring access and ownership of venerated sites to Westerners with deep pockets? I learned a lot about Eastern culture at Angkor Wat and Wat Pho, but I received this education amongst a sea of other white people. Also, depending on the venue, there can be something a little unsettling about converting somebody else’s sacred place of worship into a venue for my entertainment. And who ultimately ends up with the majority of the dollars that the tourism industry generates? Public revenue can build hospitals and schools and employees of the industry hopefully earn high enough wages to make a comfortable living, but something tells me that the corporate fat cats out there are still ending up with an oversized slice of the tourism pie, while the locals living in urban ghettos and impoverished rural areas are stuck with the crumbs.


Temple Tour in Siem Reap


Wat Pho–home of the famous Reclining Buddha


The Bangkok red light district serves Cornflakes

But to dwell on such negativity does not do justice to all the tremendously transformative experiences that our adventure provided—experiences where tourism was done right and where tourism felt good. Nothing fits that bill better than the day we spent at the Elephant Park in Phang Nga, Thailand.

It’s not hard to find an elephant camp in Thailand. They’re all over the place. But if you care in the slightest about the well-being of the world’s largest land mammals, most of these camps should make you feel pretty sad. They are packed full of elephants—sometimes caged, sometimes chained, sometimes both—awaiting the next group of visitors to parade around town in carriage-like saddles alongside busy highways and tourist attractions. While the saddle and chains usually don’t physically harm these enormous beasts, the psychological effects do. Elephants are smart and have a tremendously elevated level of consciousness. This means that, unlike an idiotic gold fish oblivious to its own bowl-shaped imprisonment, elephants are quite aware of the fact that they are imprisoned, and quite aware of the less than stimulating environment that their imprisonment provides. If you have ever seen a captive elephant in a zoo or a circus doing something like this, then you have seen an elephant displaying documented symptoms of zoochosis—a medical condition that describes the strange behavior exhibited by captive animals who are clinically bored out of their freaking minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not like this. Although the upfront costs made this experience one of the more expensive things that we did on our trip, it was pretty clear upon our arrival that this park was not trying to make a few extra bucks by cutting a couple of corners. Their mission was an admirable one—providing elephants with a healthy, caring, elephant-first environment in which they can safely interact with human beings. During our day at the park, we were able to ride, feed, and bathe our elephants, all the while receiving a thorough education in what it means to care for nature’s gentlest giants.

Most of the elephants at this camp were rescued from Thailand’s waning logging industry where elephants have been traditionally used as beasts of burden. Due to this physically demanding occupation, these elephants are often in need of major care, and because of their domestication, have also become dependent upon human beings for their survival. The park attempts to provide the elephants that care minus the exploitative treatment so ubiquitous in other camps. You could perhaps say that while visitors in other camps are often unknowingly participating in the exploitation of their elephants, Phang Nga visitors are instead actively learning how not to exploit theirs.

The park is not perfect. Still in the nascent stages of its development, Phang Nga is temporarily dependent on contracts with private companies who bus in their tourists for brief ventures into the park. These for-profit companies continue to require saddles for the elephants rather than the more natural, bareback riding preferred by the park owners. Chains are still used as well. Limited space, human presence, and surrounding private lands create situations in which elephants cannot always roam freely. This is less than desirable, but also represents a necessary concession that the park needs to make as it continues to search for additional lands and funding in hopes of creating the most ethical elephant experience possible. Despite these shortcomings, the passion that park owner Jake and his several employees have for their elephants is undeniable. Their words reassure that they are doing the absolute best that they can with the resources they have, and that the well-being of their elephants is first and foremost in their hearts and minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not the only feel good tourism that we experienced in Southeast Asia. Public projects like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh provided powerful educational experiences that provide all kinds of eye-opening knowledge and life-altering lessons, particularly for people who grew up in parts of the world where war and poverty are problems seen on TV. The most southern point of the island of Phuket prohibited certain vendors from its premises, allowing foreigners and locals alike to enjoy an unintrusive visit to one of Thailand’s most beautiful viewpoints. Many of the hostels and restaurants that we chose to patronize were not owned by Western chains that swipe away Eastern tourism dollars, but local small business owners who are able to earn an honest and respectable living by catering to their country’s visitors.


Sunrise at Angkor Wat


Lunch at Phuket’s most southern point

Still, being a responsible tourist is difficult. It’s hard to know where your dollars ultimately end up and who or what those dollars are ultimately supporting. We tried to be responsible and respectful tourists during our time in Southeast Asia, and at times we almost certainly failed. But at a place like the Phang Nga Elephant Park, that task became easy, at least for a day. Phang Nga shows what the tourism industry could be—not an adversarial showdown between two parties trying to make or save a buck, but a partnership in which both parties work together to achieve common goals and do something cool.

These are the kind of feel good experiences that should be sought by all travelers who carry with them a certain sense of responsibility as they move through the world. They help us to transcend our role as tourists and become contributors to the countries that contribute so much to us through the enlightening experiences that they provide. They allow us to work in cooperation with the people and wildlife in a particular corner of the planet in hopes of making that corner a better place. In turn, these experiences also follow us home and motivate us to do better in our own country in the ways that we treat our own people and wildlife in our part of the world. Phang Nga Elephant Park certainly provided this motivation for me and my crew, and if any of us ever find ourselves back in Phuket, we will almost certainly take advantage of their open invitation to return to the park free of charge and help to care for some of the most awesome creatures that walk the planet today. If you’re looking for a similar experience, perhaps for an extended period of time, keep reading below.


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Plug: Love animals and looking for a volunteer opportunity abroad??? Phang Nga Elephant Park might be exactly what you’re looking for. Click here to email owner Jake about a potentially cost-free volunteer opportunity at their eco-friendly elephant sanctuary and provide some care to creatures that need it. The elephants will appreciate you for it.


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Music, Race

Songs w/ Substance #2: Ben Harper – “Call It What It Is” (A Response to Baton Rouge & Falcon Heights)

A lot of times we lack the evidence. Questionable police shootings culminate in ‘he said-she saids’ that ultimately fail to gain criminal indictments of police officers in a court of law. But for anyone who has ever questioned or failed to fully understand black narratives of police shootings in cases like Michael Brown or Jamar Clark (myself included), the last 48 hours have given us a lot to think about.

The video don’t lie. Sure there are still unanswered questions: Where exactly was Alton Sterling’s gun when the officer opened fire? What preceded the appalling footage taken by Philando Castillo’s girlfriend? But to me, the answers to these questions will likely do very little to convince me that what I saw in those videos is anything other than one word:


Like the cell phone footage, Ben Harper’s song is pretty straightforward. What we saw in those videos are inexcusable slayings. It does not matter that the killer wore a badge. It does not matter if the killer’s ostensible intentions were to protect and serve. No matter what those two black men did or did not do to bring themselves into contact with law enforcement on those fateful nights, no matter what further details from their stories emerge, those two black men did not deserve to die.

The New York Times has a headline calling the Falcon Heights incident a “police shooting.” CNN ran a story where an officer was simply “involved.” In an NPR headline, a police stop in Minnesota mysteriously “ends” in a black man’s death. But Ben Harper is right. If we really want to address the problem of the destruction of black bodies at the hands of law enforcement, than in cases like these where the evidence is so apparently clear, we need to call that problem exactly what it is: Murder.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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Minnesota, Sports

How much does it cost to watch the last place Minnesota Twins on a Tuesday night following a nearly 3-hour rain delay?

Last night, my buddies and I walked into the Freehouse, one of my favorite Minneapolis establishments, to grab some drinks and food and continue our social outing. It was a little after 10:00 PM when we arrived, which is why we were surprised to see the 2nd inning of Minnesota Twins baseball in progress up on the television. This was not a replay, but a live game taking place a few blocks away at Target Field following a rain delay due to the most epic storm to hit the Twin Cities thus far this summer.

The stadium was barren. At any given camera angle, there appeared to be more players on the field than fans in the stands. This shouldn’t be very surprising. The Twins are by far the worst team in the American League, and a game against the struggling Oakland Athletics is hardly a draw for fans on any night, let alone on a Tuesday post-rain delay. But we were out, we were thirsty, we were hungry, we had money to spend, and we figured, perhaps, for once in our lives, that money might actually buy us a few bargains down at Target Field.

We were wrong.

$17. That is the floor price for tickets to watch two terrible organizations play a meaningless game of baseball in an empty stadium at fucking midnight. No bartering allowed. And for Target Field and the Twins organization in general, this is an unequivocal embarrassment.

Since Target Field was built on the promise of increasing revenue and, consequently, organizational success for the Twins franchise on the field, the Twins have made the post-season exactly one time—their first season in the new stadium back in 2010. Since then, the Twins had put together back-to-back-to-back-to-back horrible seasons, a trend briefly bucked in 2015 when the Twins contended for a playoff spot well into September before ultimately coming up short. At the time, that run created a lot of hope. After the historically bad start to the 2016 season, that run now feels like a distant memory.

Attendance has reciprocated performance. As beautiful as that stadium is, it has failed to compete with the ugliness on the field. In 2015, Twins attendance numbers dropped for the fourth consecutive season, a trend they are unsurprisingly on pace to continue in 2016.


Which is what made last night such a great opportunity for the Minnesota Twins to finally do something good—an opportunity to make up for some of its organizational failures, to open up the gates, to partially apologize to the taxpayers who funded this beautiful ballpark, to generate some positive publicity for the organization for the first time since Opening Day. With one generous gesture, the Twins had an opportunity to say to their fanbase, “We have really failed you, and we acknowledge that. Come enjoy a cheap game on us. You’ve been loyal, and you deserve it. Spend the savings on our vendors, and try to enjoy yourself as much as possible on this unique night of baseball.”

But like the Twins have done so many times over the past six-and-a-half seasons, they blew it. Instead of appeasing a resentful fanbase, they sent us away even more resentful than before. Instead of my buddies and I walking away from Target Field after a rare Twin’s win, a few domestics, and a renewed sense of good will towards our struggling franchise, we returned to the Freehouse more frustrated than Joe Mauer during one of his many batting slumps.

I live four blocks away from the stadium and have yet to attend a game this year, and after last night’s experience, that trend will likely continue through the season’s end. It’s not because I hate the Twins. I’m a loyal fan. It’s not because of a begrudging attitude towards the organization either, all though last night was annoying. It’s because the Twins don’t give fans like me a reason to come out.

The Pohlad’s have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue off of the construction of Target Field, a project mostly built on public money. Yet the Minnesota Twins still rank 20th in the league in payroll, a factor that partially explains why the on-field product is so underwhelming—why the Twins consistently fail to compete with AL teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees, or even small-market divisional opponents like the Tigers and the Royals. This wasn’t supposed to happen in the post-Target Field era, but nevertheless, it has.

I’ve been to Target Field enough times now. It’s a beautiful stadium. I love it. I’m glad we built it. I’m glad we have it. But I’m also over it. At $17 a ticket, Target Field alone is not enough to draw me out on a Tuesday night after a rain delay to watch one of the most unwatchable teams in baseball. I need a team worth watching, or I need a cheaper ticket.

My experience last night felt like a personal ‘fuck you’ from the Minnesota Twins to their fanbase. I don’t know if it was out of a lack of awareness or a lack of respect, but either way, that is not the message that you want to send to loyal fans that have stuck with the Twins in spite of the organization giving them so little reason to do so over such a sustained period of time. The Twins continue to baffle me at almost every organizational level, and as much as I’d like to think that the tide will soon turn, that the Buxton’s and Sano’s and Berrios’s of the world will soon right this ship and make Target Field a local destination worth coming out to, with everything that I’ve seen from the Twins over the last several seasons, I think that I’ll reserve that good will until they can prove that they actually deserve it.


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Military, Music

Songs w/ Substance #1: Pink Floyd – “A Gunner’s Dream”

“The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” – Joseph Stalin

Everybody knows a Pink Floyd song even if they don’t know that they know one. Hits like “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Wish You Were Here” are universally recognizable even to those who rarely venture beyond the comfortable, unthinking realms of mainstream pop and bro country. But “A Gunner’s Dream” is a song that is perhaps even unknown to many people who would fancy themselves as Pink Floyd fanatics. And for a snobby, self-proclaimed rock-n-roll connoisseur like myself, that alone makes it the perfect selection to be my favorite Pink Floyd song of all-time.

Like all of Pink Floyd’s music, “A Gunner’s Dream” is a pretty thought provoking track. The lyrics offer a unique perspective on warfare by exploring what Floyd frontman Roger Waters imagines to be a fallen soldier’s final dream. The song focuses on the thoughts that are running through that soldier’s head as he floats down through the “space between the heavens and the corner of some foreign field,” descending into what will assuredly be his final battle. While a few of the lyrics require some historical context (such as the real life London “bandsmen” blown-up by the IRA), most of this song is metaphorical—a representation of a fictionalized “gunner” that could be applicable to any war in any era.

The soldier’s dream begins with his own funeral—the “tolling bell,” his saddened mother…but in the second verse, the dream moves beyond himself. He dreams of a world in which everyone has “a place to stay” and “enough to eat”—“where you can speak out loud about your doubts and fears,” and where people “on both sides of the tracks” live peacefully and comfortably.   Perhaps most notably, he dreams of a world in which “no one kills the children anymore,” a world that, considering this young man’s fate, currently ceases to exist.

I love protest songs, but this one stands out to me among many of the rest. That’s because “A Gunner’s Dream” attempts to lend war a face. So often when we talk about war, we reduce it to death tolls and generalizations—names of countries and competing factions. This song, on the other hand, focuses on the experience of a single soldier—his final thoughts, his final dream. Surely, to every soldier, this is what war is. It is not some objective phenomenon to be rationalized or philosophized or strategized or detested—it is their experience.

I also appreciate the ending of the song and the onus it puts on the listener. The soldier is gone; “what’s done is done.” But “we cannot just write off his final scene.”

Soldiers sacrifice. Throughout history, millions of soldiers have given their lives for what most would consider noble causes—surrendering what is left of their existence so that those who remain may inherit a better place. But in order for that better place to become a reality, those who remain need to build it. The soldier is gone. He has given everything that he has to make that better world a possibility, and now it is our job to make it happen. We must “take heed” of his dream.

That is one of the things that a song with substance does. It gives the listener something to think about. It challenges the listener to be better. But even if, in “A Gunner’s Dream,” all of that is lost on the listener, at the very least, we can all still appreciate the moment when Water’s bone-chilling scream damn-near seamlessly fades into a saxophone solo. Substance aside, that part is fucking awesome.

Official Video Linked Here

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.  

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