A few weeks ago, that most-cherished traitor, Tom Brady, won his seventh Super Bowl ring, and in the wake of all the nonsensical sports talk radio debates that have continued to rage since then (“okay, so he’s the Greatest Quarterback Of All Time, but does that make him the Greatest Athlete Of All Time? Where does he rank next to MJ, next to Serena, next to Michael Phelps?”) I have been thinking a lot about the general concept of “greatness”. What it means, and how we recognize it, and why, as a society, we can’t seem to stop having discussions about it.
Human beings have a natural inclination to commemorate greatness. We diligently keep track of historical records. We rank the accomplishments of one legend over another and engage in endless arguments over which one of them was the best. Entire award shows are predicated on this concept– the Grammy’s, the Tony’s, the Academy Awards. Buildings have been built, from Cooperstown to Canton to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, for the sole purpose of enshrining the moments, careers, and people that we believe deserve to be remembered.
I don’t have a television special or a physical museum or anything half so grand, but I do share in that same compulsion to document whatever greatness I believe I’ve encountered. Enter: the GOAT Farm. A metaphorical grazing ground I’ve just established for all of the books, music, and assorted pop culture ephemera that have made my jaw drop and my eyes widen in wonder over the years; the art that I consider to be among the Greatest Of All Time. I think keeping a running record of all the things you’ve loved is just another way of being able to look back upon your life and understand yourself better, the ways you’ve been shaped and influenced and changed, maybe without even having realized it at the time.
But how can you know which things constitute a transformative kind of love, and which are just fleeting passions? Certainly not in the moment, when the freshness of your admiration for a work of art might cause you to mistake it for something that will impact your life permanently. I am very guilty of declaring various entities “The Best Ever” immediately after I’ve consumed them– this is as true for books and movies as it is for bowls of potato leek soup. If my GOAT Farm is to have any credibility, this uncritical exuberance simply will not do.
Official halls of fame tend to have established rules to avoid being compromised by this kind of recency bias. Baseball and football both require that a player be retired for five years before they can be considered eligible. Hockey plays things a little looser, with a waiting period of only three years, while the music business demands their potential honorees endure a full agonizing two and a half decades between when their debut album was released and any kind of induction ceremony.
To me, five years sounds like a reasonable and fair enough rubric for this arbitrary exercise of mine. So today I’m reflecting back on the year 2016 to find the newest class for the GOAT Farm– an institution that is basically as prestigious and rarified as any of the others mentioned above. Not necessarily art that was especially acclaimed or lauded at the time (but in some cases, it was indeed the most acclaimed and the most lauded) the only mandatory criteria for entry into the GOAT Farm is my love. Is this deliberation process as opaque and inconsistent as the Hollywood Foreign Press’ inexplicable choices when it comes to the Golden Globes? Potentially. But at the same time, it’s also significantly less susceptible to corruption. You can be sure that each of my GOATs earned its place purely because of how deeply it left its prints on my brain. Because when songs or stories are truly great, you don’t commemorate them because you want to remember them, but because they’re something you know you’ll never forget.
I was not an especially prolific reader in the year 2016, though whatever I was stymied by at the time I can’t remember now. I know that it took me several months to finish All The Light We Cannot See, which would maybe seem like an argument against its GOAT status, but this is a story that has managed to linger around the edges of my memory despite my initial resistance.
Set against the backdrop of World War Two and centred around a pair of unlikely protagonists (Marie Laure, a French teenager who has been blind since childhood, and Werner, a German orphan with a gift for science and mechanics who is recruited by the Nazis) this book is carefully constructed and elegantly written. It asks you to consider whether or not love and joy and curiosity are worthwhile pursuits– or even possible– in a time of global conflict, and it laments all of the quieter things that were lost to the war: lost moments, lost childhoods, lost innocence. Ultimately it’s a book I’m glad I took my time with in retrospect, because it allowed me to appreciate the full decadent weight of both the story and the style. Not a book you can binge, and not one I am likely to re-read any time soon, but, either despite or because of that, most definitely a GOAT.
Eleven Tony Awards, a Grammy, the Pulitzer Prize, Kennedy Center Honors, potentially a future Golden Globe, and now a place in the GOAT Farm, will the accolades for Hamilton ever stop? No, and they shouldn’t, because this is a staggering work of singular genius, the kind of art that makes you take full stock of all the years that humans have been on this planet and making things, and realize exactly “how lucky we are to be alive RIGHT NOW” to witness this particular creation.
I wasn’t among the earliest of Hamilton acolytes (I’m not nearly cool enough to keep abreast of the latest off-Broadway productions) but I had a murmuring awareness of the phenomenon by the fall of 2015. I finally downloaded the soundtrack myself in early January 2016, and the experience was what I will call transformative on a cellular level. That sounds like I must be exaggerating, but I assure you it’s true.
Listening to it for the first time took all day. I brushed my teeth while Alexander Hamilton’s tragic backstory was described by Aaron Burr, his famous foe. I walked my dog while the American Revolution played out in lyrics that borrowed from hiphop and show tunes with equal familiarity. I literally stopped in my tracks when I first heard “Satisfied,” the tour de force performance by Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler, that not only raises the personal stakes for the characters but fully reinvents the narrative possibilities of a stage musical. I went to the gym and ran on the elliptical during most of Act 2– though it turned out to be not the ideal cardio soundtrack, especially since the duel and death of Philip Hamilton wasn’t something I knew to expect. My tears and my sweat became indistinguishable from each other. People on the neighboring machines were probably concerned.
The fact that I can still recall note by note my introduction to this masterpiece makes Hamilton the equivalent of a unanimous selection to the GOAT Farm. (Technically, yes, all selections are unanimous, since I am the only person who votes, but I mean this one in the symbolic sense.) Four years later, I was able to finally see the touring production in person when it came to Toronto, courtesy of my sister’s elite Christmas gifting skills, and the magic of the music had not faded a bit. Art that stays with you, art that endures. These are the true hallmarks of greatness.
I sometimes struggle to remember a time in my life when Wallace, my dog, wasn’t a part of it. This is certainly not an accurate recollection, considering Wallace is only eleven and as such could only possibly be around for a fraction of my time, but still, it’s the way I feel. And it’s similarly the way I feel about the music of Brian Fallon, who I only discovered in 2016 by chance, when he appeared as the musical guest on The Daily Show, which I no longer watch beyond the occasional YouTube clip, and watched only intermittently back then. He was promoting his first solo record, Painkillers, which would become my top played album that year, in all its gravelly, nostalgic, yearning glory. But he had been making music long before my first encounter, since the late nineties as a member of the rock band The Gaslight Anthem. Though both his solo work and The Gaslight Anthem catalogue were new to me, I devoured all of it with the zeal of the newly converted. I didn’t grow up listening to these songs– they aren’t the bedrock of any memories from longer than five years ago, they didn’t bring me comfort as a teenager, or soundtrack the summers of my youth, but somehow it feels like they did. Like they must somehow have always been with me, on some mystical playlist just out of reach.
3 thoughts on “The GOAT Farm: 2021 Book & Music Inductees”
“Hamilton” is my go-to when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I miss someone, when I am perfectly happy being alone. In other words, all the time.