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John Green reviews the Hall of Presidents and the song "New Partner" by Palace Music.
Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale, even if we have a cold. My name’s John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing the Hall of Presidents, a purported attraction at Disney World, and also a 1995 song called “New Partner” by the band Palace Music.

But let’s begin with the Hall of Presidents. Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the world’s most-visited theme park, cast a long shadow over my childhood home of Orlando, Florida. It was strange to grow up a few minutes away from the most magical place on Earth. Orlando was such a tourist city when I was a kid that whenever you flew out of the airport, a message played saying, “We hope you enjoyed your visit.” To which my parents would always sigh, and then mutter, “We live here.”

I first visited the park in 1981, when I was four and it was ten. At first, I loved the Magic Kingdom. I remember meeting Goofy as a young child and allowing myself to believe that this was actually Goofy. I remember getting scared on the Snow White ride, and feeling big because I could ride Thunder Mountain, and I remember being so tired at the end of the day that I’d slept with my face pressed against the glass of our Volkswagen Rabbit.

But then I got older. As a teenager, I began to define myself primarily by what I disliked, and my loathes were legion. I hated children’s books, the music of Mariah Carey, suburban houses, and all forms of sport. But most of all, I hated Disney World. My friends and I had a word for the artificiality and corporatized fantasy of pop music and theme parks and cheerful movies—we called all of it “plastic.” The TV show Full House was plastic. The Cure’s new stuff was kind of plastic. And Disney World? God, Disney World was so plastic.

This period of my life coincided with a terrible blessing—my mother won a community service award for her work with at-risk children and domestic violence victims, and the award came with four free annual passes to Disney. That summer, I was fifteen, and we went to Disney World all. The. Time.

Now, I realize I’m probably not garnering much sympathy with my sorrowful tale of getting into Disney World for free dozens and dozens of times in one summer, but trust me, it sucked. For one thing, it was always hot, and at the time I had a semi-religious allegiance to wearing a trench coat, which did not pair well with the pounding and oppressive swamp heat of Central Florida summers. For another thing, I hated all the people visiting Disney World. I was repulsed by the idea that they were giving money to a corporation in order to escape their horrible, miserable lives that were horrible and miserable in part because our corporate overlords controlled all the means of production and etc. I probably don’t have to get too deep into this, because you’ve known or been this kid.

At any rate, I had to survive many long summer days at Disney World. I usually started out sitting on a bench near the entrance to the park, scrawling snippets of stories into a yellow legal pad, and then eventually the day would get warm, and I’d make my way to the Hall of Presidents, which is one of the least crowded and best air conditioned attractions at the Magic Kingdom, and then, for the rest of the day, I’d attend the Hall of Presidents show over and over, writing in that legal pad all the while. It was at the Hall of Presidents, actually, that I began the first real short story I ever finished—it was about a crazed anthropologist who kidnaps a family of hunter-gatherers from the rainforest of Brazil and takes them to Disney World.

The Hall of Presidents is what’s known as an opening-day attraction at the Magic Kingdom—that is, it has been a constant presence since the park opened in 1971. And it feels old—it is one of the Disney World’s least visited attractions. One review notes, “The theater is large and is rarely full, making it a great place to escape the weather.”

In a building modeled after the Independence Hall in Philadelphia (where the U.S. Constitution was debated), visitors first enter a waiting room which features busts of several Presidents and also a bust of the Disney corporation’s founder, Walt Disney, who is identified as “An American Original.”

There’s almost never a wait to get in to the Hall of Presidents, so fairly quickly you enter a large theater, whereupon you’re told that the attraction is dedicated to the memory of Walt Disney, which seems a bit unnecessary, since the entire park is named after him, but anyway then there’s a movie about America, before eventually the screen gives way to the 44 stars of the show—life-size animatronic re-creations of all 44 Presidents. Grover Cleveland is only there once despite having been both the 22nd and 24th President. The animatronics are at once creepily lifelike and terrifyingly robotic. As my 5-year-old daughter said at a recent visit to the Hall of Presidents, “Those are NOT humans.”

Only a couple of the Presidents actually speak—Abraham Lincoln stands and recites the Gettysburg Address, and since the early 90s, the animatronic current President makes a speech at the end, using their own voice.

The Hall of Presidents doesn’t ignore the various horrors of American history, but it’s also an unapologetically patriotic celebration of the United States and its Presidents—in fact the last line of the current show is, “Our Presidency is no longer just an idea. It is an idea with a proud history.”

And that’s what I find so interesting about this odd place where I spent so much of my adolescence. The Hall of Presidents is one of the many places in America where nationalism meets capitalism. It seems to me that two of the great institutions of the Anthropocene are the nation-state and the limited liability corporation, both of which are real and powerful and also on some level made-up. The United States isn’t real the way a table is real, nor is the Walt Disney Company. They are both ideas that we believe in. Yes, the United States. has laws and treaties and a constitution and so on, but none of that prevents a country from splitting apart or even disappearing—every nation must convince its citizens that it is real and sovereign and unified, and every nation must also convince its neighbors of those things. This happens partly through force or the threat of it, but partly through coming to believe that the Presidency “is an idea with a proud history.” From the neo-classical architecture of our governmental buildings to the faces on our money, America has to continually convince its citizens that it is real, and good, and worthy of allegiance, and also that it has a proud history that we should revere and seek to continue.  Which is not so different, in the end, from the work that the Walt Disney Company is doing with its emphasis on its history and its reverence for its founding father. Both the nation and the corporation need us to believe in them. They really are kinds of magic kingdoms.

What would happen if we all just rejected the laws and burned it all down and started fresh? What if we all stopped believing that the Magic Kingdom was the property of the Walt Disney Company, or that the constitution was the ruling document of the United States? As a kid, I used to imagine almost gleefully what that moment would feel like when, as Yeats puts it, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. These days, I think we should imagine better nation states, and better-regulated corporations, rather than ceasing to believe in them all together. In middle age I’ve come to believe that shared delusions can actually be tremendously helpful, so long as we are very careful what world we imagine into being. I give the Hall of Presidents three stars.

After the break, we’ll discuss the song “New Partner.” But first….

[AD BREAK]

Heartbreak is not really so different from falling in love—both are overwhelming experiences that feel permanent. Both burst with yearning. Both consume the self. Muslim mystics have written of being annihilated into God, and I think both heartbreak and falling in love are kinds of worldly annihilation.

Anyway, I think that’s what the Palace Music song “New Partner” is about, but I’m not sure. It’s been my favorite song for over 20 years now, but I’ve never really been able to make sense of the lyrics. One couplet goes, “And the loons on the moor, the fish in the flow / And my friends, my friends still will whisper hello.” I know that means something; I just don’t know what. The next line is equally beautiful and baffling: “When you think like a hermit, you forget what you know.”

Palace Music is one of the many incarnations of Will Oldham, who sometimes records under his own name and sometimes as the dandyish Bonnie Prince Billy. I like a lot of his songs—he sings about religion and longing and hope in ways that resonate with me, and I love how his voice often seems on the edge of cracking open.

But “New Partner” is not just a song for me; it’s a kind of actual magic, because it has the ability to transport me to all the places I’ve heard that song before. For three minutes and fifty seven seconds, it makes me into people I used to be. And so through the song I am brought back to heartbreak and to falling in love, with enough distance to see them as something more than opposites.  

Like any magic, you have to be careful with a magical song—listen to it too often, and it will become routine. You’ll hear the chord changes before they come, and the song will lose its ability to surprise and teleport you. But if I’m judicious with a magical song, it can take me back to places more vividly than any other form of memory.

I’m 21. I’m in love, and I’m on a road trip to visit distant relatives of mine who live in and around the tiny town where my grandmother grew up. My girlfriend and I pull into a McDonald’s parking lot in Milan, Tennessee, and then we stay in the car for a couple minutes listening to the end of “New Partner.”

It’s spring, and we’re driving south, and when we get out, we discover that suddenly our long sleeve t-shirts aren’t necessary. I roll mine up, feel the sun on my forearms for the first time in months. In the McDonald’s, I call the number my mom has given me on a payphone, and a woman with a quivering voice answers and says, “Hello?” And I explain that her cousin, Billie Grace, is my grandmother. And she says, “Roy’s daughter?” And I say yes. And she says, “You’re saying that you’re kin to Billie Grace Walker,” and I say yes, and she says, “So you’re saying that you’re kin to me,” and I say yes, and then my cousin Bernice says, “Well, then come on over,” and gives me her address.

I’m 22, working as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, newly and quite miserably single. I’ve just finished two straight days on call. It’s been a rough couple days. Leaving the hospital, I can’t believe how bright it is outside, or how alive the air feels. I get into my car and stare for a while at the parents and kids walking in and out of that place. I play “New Partner” on my car’s CD player. A child had died for no reason the night before—sudden infant death syndrome, a disease that in its name acknowledges our ignorance of it and powerlessness before it. He was a beautiful baby, and he was gone. His mother had asked me to baptize him. In my faith tradition, you’re not supposed to baptize the dead, but then again, babies aren’t supposed to die. He was the first person I ever baptized, actually. His name was Zachary, a name taken from Hebrew words meaning “God remembers.”

I’m 28, newly married, living in a basement in Chicago with almost no furniture. I’m in the midst of a series of oral surgeries to try to repair my face after an accident, and I’m in pain all the time. The pain is maddening—I’m trying to start work on a new novel, but all I can write is a series of stories in which a young man tries increasingly extreme strategies for pulling out all of his teeth. One of the weirdnesses of physical pain for me is that once it passes, if it passes, the pain becomes hard to remember. I can tell you where my lower jaw hurt that summer, but not how it hurt—unless, that is, I’m listening to “New Partner,” and then the memory of the pain floods back, but in a way that feels safe and distant and survivable, as things only can once you’ve survived them. I remember lying in a borrowed bed in that apartment, listening to “New Partner” to calm myself down, staring at the ancient ceiling tiles with their tar-colored water stains that looked like continents on some other world’s map. Sometimes the song will take me back there so viscerally that I can smell the antibiotic mouthwash I had to use while the wound was still open.

I’m 32. I have a baby of my own. I knew, of course, that the act of becoming a father does not suddenly make you qualified for the work, but still, I can’t believe this child is my responsibility. Henry is only a couple months old, and I’m still terrified by the idea of being someone’s dad, of how utterly he depends upon me, when I know myself to be profoundly undependable. I roll the word father around in my head all the time—father. Father. What a loaded gun of a word. I want to be kind and patient, unhurried and unworried. I want him to feel secure in my arms. But I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve literally read more books about Hamlet than I’ve read about parenting, and he won’t stop crying even though I’ve changed his diaper and offered him a bottle. I’ve tried swaddling and shushing and swinging and singing, but nothing works. Why is he crying? Maybe there is no why, but my brain needs a why. I’m so incompetent, so quick to frustration, so totally unprepared for every facet of this. A baby’s cries really are piercing—it feels as if they cut through you. Finally, unable to get him to stop crying, I put him in his car seat and rock him slowly, stick earbuds in my ears, and turn New Partner up as loud as I can, so I can hear Will Oldham’s plaintive wailing instead of my son’s.

I’m 41. For Sarah and me, the song now sounds like being in love all those years ago, when we were each other’s new partners, and it also sounds like our love now. It’s a bridge between that life and this one. We’re playing New Partner for our now nine-year-old son for the first time, and Sarah and I can’t help but smile a little giddily at each other. We start dancing together slowly in the kitchen despite our son’s gagging noises, and we sing along, Sarah on-key and me way off, and at the end of the song I ask my son if he liked it and he says, “A little.”

That’s okay. He’ll have a different song. You probably have a different one, too. I hope it carries you to places you need to visit without asking you to stay in them. I give “New Partner” four stars.

Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Tony Phillips. Hannis Brown made the music. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Thanks also to Kaitlyn, who asked me to review Disney World, which I tried to do in a roundabout way, and to all the people I’ve listened to “New Partner” with over the years, especially Kathy Hickner and Ransom Riggs. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, please email us at Anthropocene reviewed at gmail dot com, and if you want to help our podcast, you can tell your friends about it, or write a review.

My favorite fact that didn’t make it in to today’s reviews is that according to former aide Cliff Sims, President Donald Trump wanted his Hall of Presidents voiceover to include a line about how Americans had invented the skyscraper, to which he would then add, “Which, of course, I know a thing or two about.” Disney’s imagineers objected, on the grounds that the skyscraper was not actually an invention so much as a “taller building.” Eventually, Trump settled on a few sentences that managed not to veer into self-aggrandizement.

Lastly, today’s episode is dedicated to my childhood trench coat, which I finally gave away earlier this year. I hope whoever ends up with it finds that it protects them, as it protected me, not so much from the weather as from the world.