Sep 19, 2018

27: The Most Perfect Album

More Perfect is back with something totally new and exciting. They just dropped an ALBUM. 27: The Most Perfect Album is like a Constitutional mix-tape, a Schoolhouse Rock for the 21st century. The album features original tracks by artists like Dolly Parton, Kash Doll, and Devendra Banhart: 27+ songs inspired by the 27 Amendments. Alongside the album they'll be releasing short stories deep-diving into each amendment's history and resonance. In this episode, we preview a few songs and dive into the poetic dream behind the First Amendment. The whole album, plus the first episode of More Perfect Season 3 is out now.

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Speaker 1:

Hey, wait, you're listening ... (Laughs).

 

Speaker 2:

Okay.

 

Speaker 1:

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Speaker 2:

Okay.

 

Speaker 1:

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Speaker 3:

You're listening to Radio Lab.

 

Speaker 1:

Radio lab.

 

Speaker 3:

From ...

 

Speaker 4:

WNYC.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Jad Abumrad, Radiolab ...

 

Robert:

Are these all 24 amendments, you have songs?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh my friend. Did you say 24 amendments?

 

Robert:

What are there, 26? I don't know how many there are.

 

Jad Abumrad:

There are 27.

 

Robert:

There are 27, okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

You of all people I thought would know that.

 

Robert:

(Laughs). I know they- they add one every so often.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So, okay, let me explain this- let me explain this project for you.

 

Robert:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay so uh, More Perfect Now is entering its third season.

 

Robert:

Right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The first two seasons, what were they? They were- they were extended investigative uh, highly reported and researched and elaborated stories about the Supreme Court, cases in front of the Supreme Court. But the idea was- of More Perfect was always broader than just the Court. I mean, the idea was to look at the argument that just so happens to happen at the Court. And- and the process of America sort of trying to- trying to claw its way out of the muck to get its higher ideals.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Now those ideals of course are outlined in the Constitution.

 

Robert:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Which has been amended 27 times in ways that are crucially important, especially right now. And uh, most Americans can't name more than one or two of them. I was one of those people before More Perfect. And so uh, when I was on my break, I had this idea, crazy idea, which was could we make an album, could we make a School House Rock for the 21st century? That reanimated these amendments.

 

Robert:

Oh, modest aspiration.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay? Oh, well, they say you gotta go big, right?

 

Robert:

That's a very didactic thing. Like, that- in those songs, you actually are told exactly how to feel about the concept.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yes, but the idea was could we take the spirit of it but not like, didactic in the way the old stuff was. But like, taking these things that we have been covering for two seasons, the amendments to the Constitution.

 

Robert:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jad Abumrad:

The bill of rights, 1-10. The other ones, from 11-27. Uh, taking them and- and- and because they're so stodgy and musty, like the language-

 

Robert:

Well some of them are really opaque.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, I mean- and so the idea was could we take these stuffy, stodgy sometimes opaque, but deeply important uh, words and bring them to life? So we reached out to a ton of different musicians and asked them, like, would you interpret these amendments? Uh, you can talk explicitly about the amendments if you want, or you can turn it into something very personal to you.

 

Robert:

But could they do it though? Like just-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Well yeah. Let me- I don't know, let me just play you a couple. Let me see, what should I play one?

 

Robert:

Should I choose one?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Choose one, yeah.

 

Robert:

Okay. I'm gonna choose women's suffrage. Which one is that? That's uh, 19-

 

Jad Abumrad:

19, yeah. Oh, you can- chose a good one. You chose a good one, my friend.

 

Robert:

Who- who am I gonna get, musically, first of all?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, you're going to get, drum roll please, Dolly Parton.

 

Robert:

Dolly Parton?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Dolly Parton.

 

Robert:

Come on.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Dolly Parton.

 

Robert:

Doll E. Parton, or Dolly Parton? (Laughs).

 

Jad Abumrad:

The Dolly Parton.

 

Robert:

You know what I mean, if you had somebody, an attorney or something.

 

Jad Abumrad:

This Doll- Doll, hyphen, E?

 

Robert:

No, no, I was thinking maybe her middle name, like Robert E Lee. His first cousin, Doll E Parton.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Doll E Lee. (Laughs).

 

Robert:

No, I- you got Dolly Parton.

 

Jad Abumrad:

No, the Dolly Parton!

 

Robert:

Really?

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yes. I'll play you a little bit of her song.

 

Speaker 7:

August 18, 1920. Women's suffrage amendment, ratified.

 

Dolly Parton:

Women have been fighting for the legal right to vote since the 1840s. In 1890, the National American Women's Suffrage Association, NAWSA, was established with Susan B. Anthony its leading force. But women have been fighting for their rights since the very beginning of time.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's so good! If you- there's so many great turns of phrases in that song.

 

Robert:

Wow.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Do you want to hear another one?

 

Robert:

I mean, I'm really curious about like, an amendment like a technical amendment, like the 25th. Like what could you possibly ...

 

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, let me play you the 25th. You want to hear that one?

 

Robert:

Oh, 25th is the- is the-

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's the impeachment one.

 

Robert:

... Is the impeachment one. Oh, that's very interesting.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's- it's- technically the s- succession one. The 25th is the amendment that- that establishes an order of succession if the President can't do his job.

 

Robert:

Right.

 

Jad Abumrad:

So Devendra Banhart is a um, is a sort of a freak folk musician. He does like sort of psychedelic folk. Uh-

 

Robert:

Psychedelic folk.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's- it's a whole genre.

 

Devendra Banhar:

Hello. My name is Devendra Banhart, and I chose the 25th amendment, which is about succession.

 

Jad Abumrad:

He's a- an amazing songwriter, and he wrote a- a really funny song that takes you through the line of succession.

 

Robert:

So what he's doing is he's knocking off every person who becomes President, and then you find- then you meet the next one in the line.

 

Jad Abumrad:

And I think- I think that sort of the- the whole conceit is that everybody dies and it also- and it ends up with him being President.

 

Robert:

Wow. So- so m- so musicians really went to law books and just looked very carefully-

 

Jad Abumrad:

It some cases, yeah.

 

Robert:

... it sounds like.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

 

Robert:

You know what, try one where- where- where we just get somebody took the idea of the amendment and with a feeling rather than with the legal matter.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. First amendment is good.

 

Robert:

The first amendment.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Number one.

 

Robert:

Yep.

 

Jad Abumrad:

The big one.

 

Robert:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Jad Abumrad:

Let me play you that one after the break.

 

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Ilya Marritz:

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Jad Abumrad:

This is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad, here with Robert Krulwich. Uh, offering up a preview of an experiment that we're doing for the new season of More Perfect, uh, where we are releasing an album. Uh, it's called 27: The Most Perfect Album. You can find it on iTunes and Spotify. You can also find all the songs at themostperfectalbum.org. Now on the podcast, uh, we're not just putting out music, we're- we're telling stories. We're telling these sort of funny, quirky, poetic, sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, uh, sort of explainer stories about each of the 27 amendments. I think of them as sort of like audio liner notes for the songs. Uh, let me play you, uh, the- the story that we tell in conjunction with the first amendment-

 

Robert:

Okay.

 

Jad Abumrad:

... in the podcast. Sarah Qari, producer at More Perfect created this little story. I'm gonna drop into the middle of it, where she's talking with a guy named Bert Newborn, who is a law professor, and he- to him, the first amendment is like a poem. So let's drop into that one. You'll hear, uh, reporter Sarah Qari, uh, actor Jeffrey Wright, reading the amendments, and Professor Bert Newborn talking about them.

 

Sarah Qari:

First amendment.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.

 

Bert Newborn:

It consists of six ideas.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

 

Sarah Qari:

One.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

 

Sarah Qari:

Two.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Or abridging the freedom of speech.

 

Sarah Qari:

Three.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Or of the press.

 

Sarah Qari:

Four.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.

 

Sarah Qari:

Five.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

And to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

 

Sarah Qari:

Six.

 

Bert Newborn:

It's only 45 words long. Could have been written on the back of an envelope.

 

Sarah Qari:

These days, the first amendment is wrapped up in all kinds of thorny stuff like kneeling at football games and hate speech and money and politics. But if you just step back from all of that and you read the text of the first amendment, and you really try to think about what the words are trying to say, you find that the logic behind it is kind of beautiful.

 

Bert Newborn:

The order of the words in the first amendment is the life cycle of a Democratic idea.

 

Sarah Qari:

Here's what he means.

 

Bert Newborn:

So those first two clauses ...

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

 

Bert Newborn:

... create a free space inside your mind to think and believe as you wish.

 

Sarah Qari:

That's the founders saying that space inside your head, where you think your thoughts, that's sacred. The government can't touch that.

 

Bert Newborn:

Without that free space, there can be no self-government.

 

Sarah Qari:

So that's the first idea. The freedom of your thoughts.

 

Bert Newborn:

Once you've believed and thought something, then- then it's natural for you to want to say it.

 

Sarah Qari:

Which brings us to the next clause.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Or abridging the freedom of speech.

 

Bert Newborn:

The speech clause says if you've got an idea formed in the freedom of your mind, by all means go ahead and share it.

 

Sarah Qari:

So you have the freedom to think a thought, the freedom to speak that thought.

 

Bert Newborn:

But that's not enough. If you really want to make a real uh, dent in a society ... So you need some way to be able to speak to a mass of people. To speak in a very loud voice.

 

Sarah Qari:

Which brings you to the fourth clause.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

Or of the press.

 

Sarah Qari:

Which is speech amplified.

 

Bert Newborn:

Then, once you've gotten your message out to a large number of people, when people have listened to these and moved by them, it's natural for those people to want to do something about it. To move together, um, to organize.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

For the right of the people peaceably to assemble.

 

Sarah Qari:

So you can think a thought, you can speak that thought, you can create a movement.

 

Bert Newborn:

But that's not enough. Finally, the petition clause, which is the sixth idea. The petition clause says once you've assembled, once you've organized ...

 

Speaker 16:

We demand the protection of our first amendment rights! We have served, we have served ...

 

Bert Newborn:

Then you have a right to take your argument to the government.

 

Jeffrey Wright:

And to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

 

Speaker 17:

We speak for this country, and we demand reform now!

 

Bert Newborn:

And force the government into confronting and either accepting it or rejecting it. And then that government, if it says no, is subject to being voted out of office.

 

Bert Newborn:

Um, so that- that- this is Madison giving us the blueprint for Democracy. The big bang, um, when Democracy begins.

 

Sarah Qari:

The- the way I'm hearing it is like- like concentric circles, like, starting in- inside the mind of one person and then like, reverberating out.

 

Bert Newborn:

Yeah, exactly. The first amendment is, uh, a series of concentric circles, beginning within your mind and then moving to your close a- acquaintances.

 

Sarah Qari:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Bert Newborn:

Then to the society at large.

 

Sarah Qari:

Yeah.

 

Bert Newborn:

And then finally uh, to the entire polity, to the entire people. And that- that by the way is the only time in human history that those six ideas have ever been united in a single text. Only time. I went back and looked at every single rights-bearing document in our tradition, all the way from the Magna Carta through the English Bills of Rights, through the Colonial charters, through the state constitutions.

 

Sarah Qari:

Oh, wow.

 

Bert Newborn:

Um, through the French declaration of the Rights of Man. It's never been done before, to put the six building blocks of Democracy together in a single coherent text.

 

Bert Newborn:

The first amendment is the ideal city on the hill. It is the ideal community that the founders were trying to establish. And remember, establish for the first time in human history.

 

Robert:

Wow. I've never thought of it that way. It's a little bit like some kind of uh, very thoughtful relay race where each- as the baton is passed, it's- it's the next logical step to turning what is inside you into powerful statements outside of you.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. So that's uh, the first amendment liner notes.

 

Robert:

Well, actually the other thing about the- about ... Now that you've got me thinking about it. The way that guy described the first amendment as this progression of ideas. I mean, it's- it's- it just comes almost like- just in about a couple of centuries after people like Shakespeare and Cervantes and ... Begin creating interiority. Like this- this-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Robert:

... Like there weren't any- there really wasn't any place to go to hear someone talking to herself or himself.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

 

Robert:

And not even a couple of centuries pass, and then you jet a government that- that takes that idea, that people have an interior and that interior is distinct and needs protection from the government, and then comes this- this six point flow. Wow.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

 

Robert:

I never really thought of that.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, it's a cool idea. Um, but interestingly, the song that that's paired with, I- um, on the album ... I mean actually, we got a couple of different submissions for the first amendment, but one of them came from uh, a guy named Joey Stylez. He's a native Canadian uh, First Nation Metis um, hip-hop artist, and uh, he made a song which sort of argues with the spirit of Bert Newborn's take. Um, he sort of looked at sort of all the people that have been left out of that city on the hill.

 

Joey Stylez:

On my track, Ghost Dance part two, I was dealing with the freedom of religion. From 1870 up until 1934 it was illegal for Native Americans to practice our ceremonies. I had in mind specifically the ghost dance, as in 1890 at Wounded Knee, 150 to 300 mostly women and children were massacred for ghost dancing. And to me that shows they were scared. They were scared of us having our culture and ceremonies because they empower us. I truly hope the warrior spirit shines on this track, and our natural side of being wild and free sets the tone. I hope.

 

Robert:

This is really- I mean, the- the lyrics and the musical traces are all- not- they're ... They really challenge your sense of the amendment a little bit so that these songs, the way they're written and the words that have been chosen, and the rhythms they strike are all either arguments of tempo or arguments of spirit-

 

Jad Abumrad:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Robert:

Or arguments of history.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, I would say 80% of the songs on the record, um, are arguments with the amendments.

 

Robert:

Oh.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Rather than just celebrations or explanations of them. Uh, it's- it's- yeah.

 

Robert:

Well, this is very interesting.

 

Jad Abumrad:

It's cool, right?

 

Robert:

Yeah. It's a very different way to do it.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah. Um, so that- this was just a preview. If you're interested to hear more uh, go to wherever you get podcasts, search for More Perfect. Um, sign up, Radiolab.org/MorePerfect. We'll take you there. Um, if you want to hear the record ... It's a great record, I'm so proud of it. Uh, go to iTunes, Spotify, wherever, search for 27: The Most Perfect Album, and you can hear all the songs in their entirety at themostperfectalbum.org.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert:

And I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad Abumrad:

Thanks for listening. 

 

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