Mercury Confidential: "Mercury is more than just a workplace. It is a family"

by Meg Storm

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes at Mercury Radio Arts? Just how do all of Glenn’s crazy ideas get done? Does anyone ever get a chance to sleep? Well, over the next few months we are going to take you inside MRA, giving you the inside scoop on everything from publishing to special events, 1791 to Markdown to GBTV. We will be interviewing members of our New York, Columbus, and Dallas staff, bringing you all the info, so you can know what it’s really like to work for Glenn. Part 1 (Kevin Balfe – Publishing)Part 2 (Liz Julis – GBTV/Special Events), Part 3 (Joel Cheatwood: CCO & President of TheBlaze), Part 4 (Eric Pearce: VP, TV Operation of TheBlaze)

You know you love your job when you call traveling to Israel and not sleeping for two weeks the best experience of your professional career. But that is exactly how Michele Vanderhoff, Network Operations Manager at TheBlaze, describes the event.

Vanderhoff, who studied newspaper journalism and political science at Syracuse University, first thought she wanted to be a foreign correspondent for a major newspaper, and then she thought she wanted to be a producer for a news program, and yet she has somehow found herself overseeing the ever-growing production staffs in two states for a major online streaming network.

“I thought I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and write these big long pieces about international politics from war zones,” Vanderhoff said about her initial ambitions. “One of my professors had worked for the Chicago Tribune in the 1960s, and he had all these great stories about journalism in the 60s. He basically embodied how I pictured a newsroom. I kind of romanticized journalism in my head.”

She might have been going to school to be a newspaper reporter, but, ironically, Vanderhoff never wrote or worked for a newspaper. Instead, she found internships at two highly regarded radio stations – WAER in Syracuse and 77 WABC in New York – where she gained the bulk of her production experience.

“So even though I was training to be a newspaper reporter, I actually interned as a producer for WAER, which is the NPR affiliate in Syracuse,” she explained. “I would go out and get the interview, come back and write the piece, voice the piece, and then work with an editor and get it done. That’s kind of when I really started to love the production aspect of things.”

It was during her internship with 77 WABC that Vanderhoff learned just how much she loved the industry. “I interned with 77 WABC in New York. It is where I learned how to write for broadcast. Their newsman – his name was George Weber – taught me how to write succinct, concise, get it out there type stories.”

Weber even used one of her stories on air. “I remember the first time he let me write one,” she recalled. “He was like, ‘This is going to be a test run. This isn’t going to go to air, don’t worry.’ I think like Michael Vick was very much in the news, Lindsay Lohan was very much in the news, and so I wrote something up. About 30 seconds before we went to air, he said something like, ‘Yours is better than mine. I am going to use yours.’ I remember just sitting there with my mouth open thinking I wrote that! I loved the newsroom after that.”

Despite these wonderful opportunities, her experience was still solely in radio. “I was completely foreign to TV, which is funny because television is my life now,” she said laughing.

Vanderhoff graduated college in 2008, a rough time for any business, but the media industry was particularly hard hit. She ended up taking a job in ad sales at CBS – a job she hated, but it paid the bills.

“I did ad sales for six to eight months. I hated every second of it. I was terrible at it. The only part I was good at was producing the commercials afterwards. So I was there, and I tried really hard, but it wasn’t working for me.”

With the economy not in her favor, Vanderhoff had to take matters into her own hands. Her alma mater, the Newhouse school at Syracuse University, has a large alumni network that she knew she had to take advantage of. “I wanted to start networking,” she said. “[Syracuse] put me in touch with a producer at CNN, Josh Belsky.”

It was a phone call with Belsky that ultimately got her in the door at CNN. She went in to meet with one of Belsky’s colleagues, Eric Pearce, a producer at CNN at the time and current Vice President of Television Operations at TheBlaze. “Eric Pearce called me, and he is like, ‘Come in. Let’s have a conversation.’ I go over there, and he at the time was on Issues with Jane Valez-Mitchell. I went in, and we talked for a while. He called me the next day and offered me a freelance position, which I so happily took.”

At CNN, Vanderhoff was a production assistant for Issues with Jane Valez-Mitchell. She worked closely with Pearce, a producer on the show, and her fellow production assistants – Adam Ford and Brett Zoeller, both of whom are now producers at TheBlaze.

“So while I was at CNN, I worked with Adam Ford, who is now down in our Dallas office, and Brett Zoeller, who is here in New York,” she said. “The three of us – that was my team. Eric was like the dad, and we were his kids. I made the move [to Mercury] first. I was here for a year or so, and [Adam and Brett] were bugging me constantly. They eventually came over too.”

At CNN, Zoeller, Ford, and Vanderhoff were known for their teamwork. “It was very high pressure with breaking news and stuff, but we knew we had each other’s backs,” she said. “We just worked really well together.”

There is a sign on Vanderhoff’s desk that reads ‘BAM’ – a catch phrase that served as a running joke for the production team at CNN. “That was the running joke for the three of us because seriously everybody told us that we were the best production assistant team that they had,” she explained.

“That was the order we came to Issues with Jane Valez-Mitchell: B was Brett, he came first; A was Adam, he came next; and M was Michele, I was last. Adam and I made that sign for Brett on his first day at Mercury.”

Vanderhoff made the move to Mercury in July 2010. “Eric brought me over as an associate producer. I sat by myself over in the corner on the other side of floor, before there was a Blaze newsroom,” she recalled.

“I remember Eric didn’t know what to do with me at first,” she continued. “I ended up like writing critiques of the radio show. And he had me looking for Benjamin Franklin quotes. But that was just the first week. After that, everything just hit hyper speed, and it hasn’t slowed down since.”

She assumed she would stay on the editorial side of things – producing packages for various projects and helping to create content – but as is customary at Mercury, things didn’t really go as planned.

“I kind of always thought I would stay on a more editorial track,” Vanderhoff explained. “But I had a knack for the operations stuff. I was good at just kind of organizing everybody. I was good at distributing jobs and assignments.”

“I actually remember the day that it happened,” she continued. “Eric and I used to sit next to each other when the production team was a lot smaller, and we used to send out an email everyday with assignments. He was in and out of meetings, and I was like, ‘Do you want me to send out the assignment email?’ He was like, ‘That would be great.’ And I have done it every day since. From there, I would just see the need for something to get done, and I would just do it, or I would see that he was just doing two different things, and I would be like give me this one.”

After a few months, Pearce and Vanderhoff sat down to revaluate. “We sat back down, and Eric was like, ‘You’re really not doing editorial anymore. You are doing operational stuff. Let’s make that official.’ That’s how I ended up here,” she said with a laugh.

Vanderhoff’s hard work paid off. She quickly worked her way up to Network Operations Manager, which comes with the responsibility of overseeing production in New York and Dallas. For someone like Vanderhoff, who likes to be “really hands on,” the sheer fact that she couldn’t be two places at the same time seemed daunting.

“I like to make sure anybody I am working with knows that they can rely on me – knows that they can come to me. And I have that rapport with New York because I am here. I am busting in on them all day asking how is this going, how is that going,” she explained. “I am really lucky that I have good conversations with everyone in our department. They can tell me exactly what they are thinking, and they know that if I can make it better, I will.”

“With Dallas, I can still talk to them, but it is not the same as being able to walk in and have a conversation,” she continued. “But we have all gotten a lot better with our communication, which has made it a lot easier. Checking in with each other a few times a day, and really seeing what the production needs are for Dallas, and seeing how I can help them balance their work load, help them manage their time.”

She keeps things operating through organization – lots and lots of organization. The staff is still relatively small considering Mercury’s productivity levels, but everyone is dedicated and wears many hats. It has become a bit of a joke around the office that Vanderhoff keeps it all running with the help of her trusty white boards that list the members of her team, where they are, and what they are doing (virtually at all time), but it’s the best way to keep all the moving parts straight.

“Since I now have my hands on both places, I can now hopefully make it as efficient as possible,” she said. “Everyone is so dedicated. And everyone loves what they do. I think that really shows in what we produce every day.”

Since Vanderhoff joined Mercury right before the Restoring Honor events in Washington D.C. in 2010, she wasn’t fully in the trenches, but by the time the 2011 Restoring Courage events came along, Vanderhoff would not only be in Israel, she would be forgoing sleep and her sanity for a week.

“It’s funny because I love talking about Israel with people because everyone has such a different vision of what it was,” she said. “Some people are like, ‘Oh my God it was so beautiful, and I saw the most amazing things.’ I saw a control room, and a hotel room, and that was it. But it is still – I will always say this – the best experience of my professional career. Hands down.”

For Vanderhoff, who had never left the United States and didn’t speak the language, figuring out how to manage her staff in a foreign country with limited resources was not an easy task. “The stuff that we did there just blows my mind because we were operating off road Macs, laptops, and we had hard drives linked to each other, and that’s what we edited off of. That’s what we used, and it didn’t blow up. As soon as I touched down until the moment we left, it was just go, go, go, go, go,” she said.

She became somewhat of a dispatcher over the course of the trip – sending crews X, Y, and Z to points A, B, and C to capture stories and then return to the hotel that was serving as the makeshift production studio.

“We did capture these really amazing stories. And then we would come back. And we called our home base the Frat House because that is what it became,” Vanderhoff said. “It was just all of us in this one beautiful room, but all on top of each other, ingesting media, breaking it down, putting it together, and there were just a lot of sleepless nights. A lot.”

The majority of the GBTV (now TheBlaze) staff flew back to New York on the day before Hurricane Irene was set to hit the east coast. It was a mad dash back to the city because GBTV was set to launch in just two weeks. “We got home from Israel that Friday and there was a hurricane coming. I was on the ground a few hours before my building got evacuated,” Vanderhoff recalled. “I still hadn’t slept.”

Her instinct was to drive to her mother’s home in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. While the town floods often, her mother’s home hadn’t flooded in many years. Because she was concerned about not being able to get back to the city for work on Monday, Vanderhoff decided to go to safer ground.

“I called my Mom and said that I really didn’t want to come over in case the towns around her are flooding – we are launching a network, I am going to need to get to work. I went to my Aunt’s house in Clifton, New Jersey instead. For the first time in half a century, my Mom’s house actually flooded. It actually flooded very badly. It was a scary situation,” she explained.

“I remember after the storm passed, everyone was like ‘That was it. That was no big deal,’” she continued. “My hometown was devastated. My hometown is still devastated. There are still dozens of houses on each block for sale. There are three or four houses on each street that are completely abandoned. At the height of it, it was four to five feet of water in our house. My Mom had to get rescued by the National Guard.”

Vanderhoff and her fiancé went to pick her mother and brother up from the Red Cross drop off location. “I said to her, ‘Mom, I am coming to get you. You have to leave.’ My fiancé and I found these back roads and mountains and finally got to the Red Cross drop off point. She and my brother had to get onto a National Guard boat, which brought her to a Humvee, which brought her to the Red Cross center. At the Red Cross, my fiancé and I were setting up beds and cots and helping organize the kids because it was shear chaos. So it always bothered me when people said, ‘Oh nothing happened’ because my hometown is devastated. That was really hard.”

She brought her family back to her apartment and called several people at Mercury to let them know she wouldn’t be at work on Monday because she would be on the phone with insurance companies and the like.

“That actually brings me to my favorite Glenn story,” Vanderhoff said. “Glenn was the first person from Mercury to call me. I had finally gone to sleep, so of course I missed his first call. I was just passed out on my couch. When I woke up he called again, and I answered the phone, and it was Glenn asking if I was okay, if my family was okay. I very emotionally told him everything that happened, and the love that I felt from him was just - I can’t even explain it.”

“I have always said he is the best boss in the world, but he really showed that Mercury is more than just a workplace. It is a family,” she said emotionally. “He literally said anything that I need – if my family needs a place to stay, let him know, he will help set it up; if they need clothes; if they need food; if they need anything. And it was just the outpouring of kindness that Glenn and Tania showed us those first couple of days. It was just – I get emotional even thinking about it still. At that time I had only been at Mercury for a year, and I had gotten to know Glenn, but not really on a personal level, so the fact that he took the time out and did that just means everything.”

Glenn then asked Vanderhoff if he could speak with her mother. “He called my mom and sat on the phone for a while – 30 or 45 minutes. And we all know what Glenn’s schedule is like, so the fact that he was able to do that. He had never met my mother, and they actually prayed together on the phone, which I know was a very special moment for my Mom. To this day she adores Glenn, and not just because of what he does, but because of the person that he is.”

“It is a small story, and people could say that it doesn’t say much, but it meant so much,” Vanderhoff said. “I think it shows Glenn’s heart and what this company means to him and what his employees mean to him. To me that sums up Glenn Beck.”

Vanderhoff made it back to work not too long after that, just in time for the launch of GBTV. “It was so crazy leading up to the launch of GBTV. Since all of our efforts were focused on Israel for so long, we came back and we had never done any of the things we were trying to do,” she said.

What is often taken for granted at a major network was now the responsibility of Vanderhoff and her team. “That’s what was so interesting,” she said. “We were producing a better looking TV show than anything on the major networks with paper and glue. Like that is essentially what we had.”

The network has grown substantially since those first couple of days, and as it continues to grow so too does the staff and, therefore, the scope of Vanderhoff’s job. But if past performance is any indication, it looks like everything will be just fine.

“As crazy as it is, I love it,” Vanderhoff said smiling. “And that is one of my favorite things about Mercury in general – you constantly have this feeling of purpose and know that none of your efforts are being wasted. Everything you are doing is for a reason. You go crazy getting to that reason, but you know what the goal is. And seeing it come together is so satisfying.”

He may not be a super hero like he plays in the movies, but Chris Pratt is proving once again why he's a hero to so many. The silver screen protector of the universe announced on his Instagram page a contest that will benefit the Brain Treatment Foundation, who is a partner of Mercury One that does amazing work with veterans. The Brain Treatment Foundation specializes in helping combat veterans who are suffering from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The contest asks fans to donate $10 to the foundation for a chance to win a trip to drop in on the Guardians of the Galaxy star on the set of his new film Tomorrow War.

Watch his video below to hear all the details.


Ryan: The Ascent of Kanye West

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Apollo, god of poetry, light, prophecy, dance. Star of Greek mythology, rivaled only by Zeus, his father. God of justice. God of purification, knowledge, healing. God of the Sun. But most of all, god of music. So they called him the Leader of the Muses.

And on a bright Sunday morning midway through November, at the tail end of a decade, Kanye West looked out at the congregation of Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, a 16,000-seater originally built for the Houston Rockets, and said, "Jesus has won the victory: Now the greatest artist God ever created is now working for him."

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Kanye's newest album, Jesus Is King, had been out for three weeks, and like every Kanye album, it was controversial, as adored as it was unaccepted.

Critics had shown a mostly tepid response, but nobody could tell if their disinterest was genuine, or if it was politically motivated.

After all, for the past year, Kanye had once again managed to penetrate the epicenter of American society. The last two Presidents had literally shamed and cursed Kanye, but, still, who could've guessed he would befriend this one?

Photo by Caroline Ryan

The week after Kanye's Olsteen appearance, at the House impeachment hearings, as the entire country watched and listened, Congressmen and diplomats would mention longtime Kanye collaborator A$AP Rocky no less than five times, in casual reference to the Kardashians and the deal between Trump and Sweden, struck at the urging of Kanye West.

Meanwhile, Jesus is King became the ninth consecutive Kanye album to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 — a feat he shares with Eminem and The Beatles — and the sixth time in the 2010s alone. And, to be fair, his only studio album not to debut at number one was The College Dropout, his first, which went triple platinum and earned the third-most Grammy nominations in one night, winning Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song with "Jesus Walks."

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Jesus is King was also the first record ever to top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, Rap Albums, Christian Albums, and Gospel Albums simultaneously. All eleven tracks charted on the US Billboard 100, joining the other 96 Kanye songs to have landed on the Top 100.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

This album was different, and not just because of Kenny G. For the first time, Kanye was not a god or a self-destructive fallen angel. He was a father, a husband, a son, and, most important, a man full of belief, with his hands outstretched, surrounded by a choir.

"I remember sitting in the hospital at UCLA after having a breakdown," he told the congregation, "and there's documentations of me drawing a church and writing about starting a church in the middle of Calabasas."

That night, following an afternoon of ice-skating at the Galleria, Kanye returned to Lakewood Church and performed a concert. Imagine hearing a his electro-gospel opera in an arena designed, acoustically, for professional basketball games. Only better, because everything had been padded. With LSD graphics on the swirly blue carpet.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

When we experience art, it changes us.

So there I was, four rows from the stage, crying in front of FoxNews. Because Kanye had brought his Sunday Service choir with him, and they were singing "Ultralight Beam," one of the few perfect songs ever made, a song that played during my wedding ceremony, the song my daughter, God willing, will be born to, a song I have never once listened to without at least tearing up.

“Jesus Is King" A Sunday Service Experience at Lakewood Church with Kanye West youtu.be

"This is a God dream, this is a God dream. This is everything."

Kanye was the only person onstage dressed in his own clothing, a neatened blazer. The choir were draped in grey, like holy silhouettes.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

So who cares about FoxNews and their snotty reporters in their shoulder-padded blazers. The rest of us had drifted into the immediacy of it all. And I wasn't about to play stoic journalist here. I wasn't a reporter first and a human or an American later.

The choir zigzagged on the loft flanking the stage. Each of them had a headset microphone, like Garth Brooks.

God only knew how they sang so perfectly. How did they project their voices like that? More beautiful than anything we had ever heard, more beautiful than water.

After "Ultralight Beam," it was "Every Hour," the mesmeric opening track of Jesus Is King.

Sing every hour, Every minute, Every second, Sing each and every millisecond, We need you

Every Hour youtu.be

The performance felt all the more sacred because this was church, where people gathered to lose themselves, to sing as a chorus, to confront who they really are.

Across the street, one protestor stood hollering.

Meanwhile thousands of people waited at the entrance, giddy to get in. They would join us in no time. Soon, they would fill every seat in this church.

*

That morning, Kanye told Olsteen,

"It's like the devil stole all the good producers, all the good musicians, all the good artists, all the good designers, all the good business people and said, 'you gotta come over and work for me.' And now the trend, the shift, is going to change."

Jesus Is King was the result of a new cultural and artistic movement that more or less started with 2016's Life of Pablo, Kanye's closeted gospel album. Which was a surprising departure from 2013's Yeezus, with its tangled social commentary and fashionable solipsism. And that drum sound, the one every half-decent producer has spent the last six years failing to emulate.

The 2010's saw him grow more cerebral. He even teased a book of philosophy titled Break the Simulation.

Then, in 2018, he released Ye, the second of five albums in a Kanye-produced series, all recorded at his Wyoming studio. In keeping with the criticisms of hip-hop he voiced on "Ye vs. The People"

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Kanye eschewed many of the themes he'd embraced for so long, replacing them with meditations on mental illness, fatherhood, suicide, love, and addiction. The album's working title had been "LOVE EVERYONE."

On "I Thought About Killing You," he raps,

The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest.

The title "Ye" is not just the diminutive of "Kanye."

As he said in an interview

I believe 'ye' is the most commonly used word in the Bible, and, in the Bible, it means 'you,' so it's [saying] "I'm you, I'm us, it's us." It went from being Kanye, which means the only one, to just ye – just being a reflection of our good, our bad, our confused, everything, that I'm just more of a reflection of who we are, just as beings.

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that

All individuality is a manifestation of universal life, and hence everyone carries a tiny bit of everyone else with him, so that divination is simulated by comparison with oneself.

In the months following the release of Ye, Kanye would live out this idea, and build his own movement, a reflection of who we are, then begin his church in Calabasas.

*

At 10:30 that morning, the three of us — Samantha Sullivan, my wife Caroline, and me —- strolled into the arena and claimed seats in the media section.

That place resembled the inside of an ant colony. We were three ants.

The service began with errorless music, then shifted into a quick, stirring message by Osteen, who always seemed to appear onstage from nowhere, privvy to the kind of big-money stage tricks you find at a Shania Twain concert.

The entire place and all the Jumbo-Trons and all the people, it all had a cinematic presence.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

A preliminary giddiness spread through the room. Then, Kanye emerged, there on the stage, and the place erupted.

A man in a "Jesus is King" shirt danced around his seat.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Everyone took their seats, but one man standing in the crowd shouted affirmations. "Speak truth my brother," he shouted.

The man shouted several more times, then Kanye politely told the guy to hold off on the support because it wasn't helping, because Kanye needed relative quiet to capture and release his flow.

The ceiling glowed in skittish purple.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Kanye described the corrupting force of the media. A chill came over the room. Behind him, the unapologetic blue of Jesus Is King.

It was my first encounter with Joel Osteen, and I was surprised and somewhat baffled to find him likeable, based on everything I'd ever heard about the man.

Kanye said as much, that Osteen is nothing like the version of Osteen many people have broadcast.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Osteen laughed, "When you've got Kanye defending you, you've made it, man."

Rays of light danced through the arena. I'm talking Pink Floyd light show levels.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

With 21 Grammys, Kanye is tied with Jay-Z as the most decorated hip-hop artist of all time.

Osteen asked Kanye what he would say to his younger self, if he could go back in time.

"You know, it's nothing I can say to the younger Kanye through words," he said. "I could speak to the younger Kanye through music."

*

Osteen played the middle section of "God Is," arguably the focal point of the album.

And Kanye danced and rapped along with it. And the surreality of the situation was daunting. Was that really Kanye West up there? with Joel Osteen? dancing to his gospel song?

Six or seven years ago, I saw Kanye a mile away at the Toyota Center — coincidentally, the current home of the Houston Rockets — for his and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne tour. It was a much different experience than this.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

When Kanye finished, the media flooded out. As did a quarter of the people in the congregation. This bothered many of the regulars.

Security and ushers yanked big grey mop buckets from cabinets, and dispersed them down aisles, and money music played.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Then the time for prayer. Prayer leaders lined the walls and pews. And anyone could walk over to them and pray. Men and women clung to strangers, crying sometimes, hugging. Holding hands, whispering phrases.

*

One of the media coordinators pulled us out of the sermon, led us through passageways and elevators, past classrooms and security guards, through a black sheet, then behind a barricade.

This is where all the media had rushed off to like old folks trying to get the best seat for bingo.

Each news outlet was allowed one question.

After 15 minutes, the energy changed and you could tell they were near.

Then, Kim Kardashian-West was walking our way, holding her daughter's hand, followed by Kanye, who was followed by Osteen.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

"Nice tags," Kanye said, referring to my "GOOD" necklace.

Then:

Brief interview with Kanye West and Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church, Nov. 17 in Houston, TX www.youtube.com

Some of the outlets asked more than one question, but that was on them. They were the ones sinning in church.

*

As Kanye and Olsteen shuffled away, down the line of journalists, I said hello to a small crew from FoxNews as they packed their equipment.

"We're from TheBlaze," I said, smiling. To which they sneered and glanced at one another then got back to their conversation.
Samantha rolled her eyes and the three of us wandered around for an exit.

"Did we just get stiff-armed by Fox News?" Said one of us. "I didn't think they were allowed to look down on anybody."
"I've had that with people from Fox on several occasions," one of us replied.

"I mean, I thought I was doing them a favor a favor by acknowledging them. Nobody else does."

Then it happened again, a few minutes later, this time with someone we had worked with, someone who knew us.
You bet we were salty.

Bad as it felt to be judged like that, it was good to be underestimated. A relief. It meant we could perform without anyone caring or watching.

They had no idea who we were or what we were really doing. Good.

*

In November 2007, Kanye's mother died during a routine surgery. He and his mom, Dr. Donda West, had always been incredibly close. She raised him alone, after Kanye's father left, when Kanye was three.

A few months later, his engagement with Alexis Phifer abruptly ended.

He was 30 at the time.

Oddly, this tragic sequence of events would cause the birth of auto-tune in rap. Broken-hearted, Kanye wanted to sing. So he ran his voice through a vocoder.

Kanye's album 808s & Heartbreak, which like Jesus is King has no curse words, shoved music ahead at least two decades, into a world of synth-driven robotic R&B/Rap love songs belted out in janky auto-tune. That description doesn't sound ridiculous today. But that's only because Kanye eschewed the stale hip-hop of the early 2000s and reinvented the genre, something he has accomplished with every album.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Then, he went on tour. But he never took off any time following his mother's death. And, by the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he'd fallen to what he calls his sunken place.

He and then-girlfriend Amber Rose brought a bottle of Hennessy with them to the award show. They took slugs in the limo. Then on the red carpet.

When Taylor Swift won the award for Best Female Video, Kanye stormed the podium, sunglasses on, and grabbed the microphone, said "Imma let you finish," then let everyone know the award should've gone to Beyoncé, for "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)."

He was kicked out immediately. He tweeted, "Everybody wanna booooo me but I'm a fan of real pop culture... I'm not crazy y'all, I'm just real."

Followed by an apology. Then a few days later, during an appearance on debut episode of "The Jay Leno Show"

Leno asked Kanye, "What do you think [your mom] would have said about this?"

That hit Kanyelike a punch to the jaw. He teared up, froze.

He publicly apologized to Swift. Several times.

But it did little to quell the blowback. Once again, it felt like the entire nation hated Kanye. Compounded by a hot-mic recording of Barack Obama — the country's first black President — calling Kanye a jackass.

So the embattled Kanye retreated to Hawaii to record a masterpiece, 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

*

"We are a Christian country," Kanye said at one point, to uproarious applause.

The vast majority of Americans, 90 percent, believe in a higher power.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

And America has the largest number of Christians in the world, with roughly 167,000,000, comprising 65-to-70 percent of the population. But that's down from 80 percent, as part of a downward trend over the last two decades.

The percent of Americans who attend a religious service of any kind — church, synagogue, or mosque — is even lower, less than half.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

One political scientist blamed the public's growing distrust in institutions. Another blamed conservatives. A writer from New York Magazine took it a step further.

Meanwhile, David French.

As always, the issue is far more nuanced than either side will admit.

Somehow, in the last twenty years, church and religion had become not just uncool, but slightly villainous.

All day, every time I looked around — at people singing, at people dancing, at people crying in joy or in the relief and recognition of their pain — I thought, "How could this ever be a bad thing?"

Photo by Caroline Ryan

I had spent my life going to concerts, had seen Kanye West numerous times, and this was something other than a concert, and unlike anything I'd seen from Kanye. It was also more than just religious or spiritual.

A family of strangers in a city of 6 million, in a world of 7-and-a-half billion, broadcast live, led by a man who fought off the devil in front of us for years. Who struggled with life just like we do, only we could nitpick through the one-way mirrors of our phones and our TVs.

But, now, he had been baptized in public.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

Some people were still negative about Kanye's recent faith, especially Christians. As Kanye raps on "Hands On"

What have you been hearin' from the Christians?
They'll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me

Consensus was, they couldn't believe him. As a Kanye fan since I was 13, I can tell you that he is genuine. It's really his only setting. Plus, his spiritual transformation has been building for quite some time.

*

By the time we returned to Lakewood that evening, the sky had turned dark blue, and frantic with airplanes.

The sidewalks around the arena overflowed with people. Police cars jutted out in crooked lines to block entrances or exits, the strobe of red-white-blue whirling onto pedestrians' faces.

Across the street, facing the giant arena, a man with a bullhorn ranted about the evils of sinful music.

Earlier that day, sheepish protestors had occupied the spot, holding red poster-sized letters that spelled out "I M P E A C H." There were only four of them, though, so they had to double up and share, and sometimes the "H" slanted down or the "I" slipped loose.

"Impeach Kanye?" one of us said, laughing.

"Kanye 2020," shouted someone.

The air was electric. People bounced when they stepped, or walked faster than normal, or turned oddly as they spoke like a third-year professor.

They sang along as they passed traffic-jam cars, most of which were blasting Kanye.

A chorus of police whistles and the usual rumble of semi-trucks passing on US-59. Just down the street, porn shops and strip clubs and a Ferrari dealership. Immediately Southwest, the Mahatma Ghandi District. West, the Galleria, home of the opulent Galleria mall, where Kanye and Kim and family gone ice-skating earlier.

Inside the arena, a different world, low-lit and glowing. A dreamscape of lambent crimsons and violets, a deeper, warmer, slower take on the lights atop the police cars outside. Globular squares of blue were arrayed along the ceiling.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

When the musicians emerged to their instruments, the arena was still half-empty. The show had already been delayed 40 minutes. The demand to get in was so ferocious that the security gate was jammed up like a glass Ketchup jar.

Then, like spirits, men and women drifted onstage in all-grey uniforms and matching hats that looked like they should say "VIETNAM VETERAN" but actually said "Sunday Service."

Every single member wore brand-new grey YEEZY Boosts.

From the start, the performance was cinematic, a sort of new-world opera sung by a chorus of young American muses with nose rings or gold chains or dreadlocks or pink hair.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

From the huddle, a young man rose, and began reciting a poem. It was the invocation of the muse.

Gadamer wrote that poetry "becomes a test of what is true, in that the poem awakens a secret life in words that had seemed to be used up and worn out, and tells us of ourselves"

*

After a whirling rendition of Carl Orff's "O Fortuna," the choir began "Ultralight Beam."

They let the song spread. It grew enormous.

The air swirled as the song widened.

Kanye waited out of view, then appeared without ceremony.

A collective gasp when people recognized the melody of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." Which sounds like a dream already, with all that wilderness.

So it was even stranger when the song morphed into SWV's "Weak," a skating rink anthem written by Charlie Wilson of the GAP Band. A classic.

The choir were their own countervailing force. Yet they also connected us to the drama of the performance.
Looking back, I wish I could live in those moments forever.

*

Then came their cover of "Father Stretch My Hands" by Pastor T.L. Barrett And the Youth for Christ Choir.

Father Stretch My Hands www.youtube.com

Kanye has paid homage to Barrett's track on two different songs, from two different albums.

It was his prayer.

Pastor T.L. Barrett, a man who's lived an exciting and at times difficult life, only to become a Pentecostal preacher on Chicago's south side, and form a choir of 40 teenagers from his weekly choir practice.

If you dive into Barrett, you'll better understand what Kanye is doing.

*

Ten seats from Kim Kardashian-West, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (TX) stared ahead in a neat grey suit, occasionally poking at his phone and blasting people on Twitter.

Which means there were at least two people in the building who have appeared on Saturday Night Live.

There were other politicians, including Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick. And even more at the earlier service. You could tell they were politicians the same you can tell a vegan burger from a real Whopper. Several times, Kanye held up his phone up and read the words from his newer songs.

Like "Selah," which built into "Hallelujah"s at the end, intoxicating and perfect, like being sucked into an undertow. Which led into "Follow God," a continuation of "Father I Stretch My Hands."

Kanye uses the image of stretched hands to express his own submission and the process that leads to his healing. As a reference to John 21:18

Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.

But the song is also about Kanye's literal father, and an argument they had. Then, under it all, he adds a sample of "Can You Lose By Following God" by Whole Truth. He ended the song with his Kanye shriek, somewhat confusing and abrasive with a choir present.

Then — something I did not expect. The thumping bass of Cajmere's "Brighter Days (Underground Goodie Mix)."

And now this was cosmic gospel.

It felt like a rave. Have you been to a rave? It's people dancing, taking MDMA. That is what it felt like.

Flourishes like that were part of Kanye's genius. No other gospel performance would dare. You won't find that kind of diversity at any other hip-hop show, either. The acoustic instruments, the choir. Maybe during a set by electronic musicians like Moodyman or DJ Koze. But, no choir. Yet here Kanye was, at Joel Osteen's church, blasting classic techno.

Oddly enough, though, the most popular song of the night was "Closed on Sunday," Kanye's ode to Chic-Fil-A.

Everyone in the arena knew the words. So then there were two choirs, in a dialogue. I didn't think it was possible, but the collective harmony got even more intense and engulfing than it had all night. So much so that the house speakers started to peak in one corner of the arena.

Photo by Caroline Ryan

The Ancient Greeks were the first to use a chorus. In the 5th Century B.C., 50 actors would gather in the orchestra pit and sing in unison, commenting on the action of the play, describing scenes to the audience. They were a collective force. They represented one character, who was able to connect the audience to the characters and events onstage.

Kim Kardashian was front and center filming with her phone, as two of the West kids jumped around on the trippy blue carpet.

The performance was nearing its end, and suddenly Kanye was dressed like everybody else in the choir. Grey Yeezy kit and the Sunday Service hat. His transformation. From Kanye West to Pastor Ye, stretching hands.

Then, he was gone.
One by one, the choir began fluttering off the stage, to the Clark Sisters' "You Brought the Sunshine."

Half were gone, when I noticed the singer with braided hair crying. With every exhale, she collapsed her hands into the floor. Let them fall like tired flowers. Arrayed in fitful blue. She gasped. She heaved her shoulders like a wingspan. For a moment it was like she would actually take flight.

A security guard peered over the railing from above the stage. He looked like God.Symbolically, he was.

New installments of this series on the 2020 elections come out every Monday and Thursday. Check out my Twitter. Email me at kryan@mercurystudios.com

Don't believe in time travel? Think it's just a wild conspiracy theory reserved for late night alien radio programs? Well, we have unearthed bombshell evidence that will blow you away and have you questioning everything!

A 120-year-old photo PROVES climate change activist teen Greta Thunberg is actually a time traveler warning all generations of the dangers of global warming.

Glenn did some exhaustive research and found several other photos and subjects in historical paintings. Check them out here and see if you are now a believer:

Warning Elvis fans

Ryan: Suction energy, pt. 1

Photo by Sean Ryan

After his speech at the Boone County fairgrounds, Joe Biden nodded and people engulfed him like he was their oxygen. Journalists shouted questions, photographers shoved people aside. Biden's bodyguards even drew closer. I found a good oak tree and hid out in the shade, 100 yards from the chaotic huddle.

Photo by Sean Ryan

They shoved closer and closer and closer, with a vacant urgency to their eyes. They had to get as close as possible. It was like some force of nature had taken control of everyone, and now their only goal was to merge their lifeforce with Biden's.

The frenzy of writhing arms and contorted bodies reminded me of Shark Week, when the hulking Great White breaks through the protective cage and how's the diver gonna make it out alive this time?

*

A need for convergence, often leading to upheaval.

Most of the Democratic candidates caused this effect. As did their opponent, to a far greater degree. Because he was the president, and he was Donald Trump, so, for the time being, he embodied this magnetism more fully than anyone else in the entire world.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Every time Trump entered a room or a building or a space of any kind, every person within a reasonable distance felt it. And they couldn't help but bob their head around, and arch up on their tiptoes, scouring till they saw him, and then all they could do was lean forward and wonder if it was actually him.

Some of the Democratic candidates had a stronger magnetism than others. Which meant the gravitational pull had laws that guided it. The term I started using for it was "suction energy."

It was something you could physically feel.

At the Iowa State Fair, Bernie Sanders' suction energy was so intense, so visceral that it reminded me of a hurricane.

Photo by Sean Ryan

People wanted to be as close to the man as possible. They wanted a picture. Proof that it happened—that they had actually seen someone that famous.

And they were perfectly right. And their reactions were understandable and lovely even, and altogether innocent. Encouraging. Because they were genuine.

Even journalists were susceptible to suction energy. In fact, they could spazz even harder. Unlike the public, they were there as workers.

*

Suction energy is an art, something you cultivate. But it's also a result of luck and reality. Some people will just never have an ounce of it.

Take, for instance, Jay Insleey, who was apparently a Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 election. At some point in my travels, I wound up in the same place as him.

Maybe it was a couple times. A couple, two, three. I can't remember.

All I know is that I went to Clear Lake, Iowa for the Democratic Wing Ding, to see Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren and the 20 other candidates, and this guy Jay Insless ... sorry, I mean Inslee took the stage at some point. It's hard to say when exactly because, as I mentioned, he was impressively forgettable, like a human thumbtack.

Wing Ding featured Jay Insee?Photo by Sean Ryan

He was yammering about something, and, man, he looked and sounded like P.C. Principal, from South Park, and that was pretty funny.

I told my dad, and then we were both laughing. Then my dad did an imitation of P.C. Principal, and we were really hooting.
Then all I could think about was P.C. Principal. So I ducked out into the hall to watch a P.C. Principal clip compilation, and I laughed and laughed and nobody went "Shush!," because there were plenty of others like me.

Photo by Sean Ryan

And, boy, I laughed. I was actually a bit sad when the clip was over. I'd forgotten where I was, and when I caught a glimpse of the guy onstage, my sadness deepened into pity. The feeling you get when you realize that the amateur thinks he can beat the professional. When the replacements think they will know valor. When your dog thinks they're going to the park, but really it's the vet, and they wake up without balls.

Do we have an obligation, a moral imperative, to tell a Square when she's trying to shove into a Triangle hole? How much teeth-lettuce does a person lodge into their incisors before you are inclined to alert them?

Like, after this speech, that guy John Insley, would wander around the walkways of the Surf Ballroom, same as Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang, only he'd lack their glow.

Crowds flocking to Kamala HarrisPhoto by Sean Ryan

At one point, he'd clench his jaw into what must have been a smile, ready for any nearby journalists to sneak a candid photo or rush forward for a quote.

Photo by Sean Ryan

If any of the others noticed, they didn't let on. So here was this chubby kid in a costume knocking on the front door, and I know full well Halloween was weeks ago, but who's gonna feed the harmless lie if I don't?

Photo by Sean Ryan

Nobody, that's who.

So I groaned and shrugged and told my dad, "Let's give the tubby kid some Starburst."

"Wha?" he asked.

Then I asked would he get a picture of that candidate over there.

"Who," he replied. As in, "I can't see an important person over there, which one is running for president?"

In other words, Insleep had absolutely zero suction energy. To a near-magical extent.

Within a few weeks, he would announce the end of his campaign on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Yet there he was, somehow center stage, looking out at the packed Surf Ballroom, where, on February 2, 1959, Buddy Holly played his last show.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Buddy Holly, now there's a man with suction energy. So much suction energy that, when he died, music went with him.

*

When I saw Kamala during the week of the Iowa State Fair, she was at the height of her campaign, having climbed to second place, within nine points of Biden.

Everywhere I went, there was Harris, with her personalized KAMALA bus, and her chartered press pool, and her entourage of staff and fans and media.

Photo by Sean Ryan

On the first Saturday of the Fair, my dad and I wound up seeing Harris five times. Five times! In part because she could hustle. She wanted that job. But also because she understood power and optics.

Before her speech at Jasper Winery, (when she played savage 4D chess with Andrew Yang, she spoke to several hundred people packed into the atrium of Valley Southwoods Freshman High School in West Des Moines, her fourth rally of that day.

Photo by Sean Ryan

When she finished her speech, a horde surged straight for her, eighty or so.

Photo by Sean Ryan

Just a month earlier, The New Yorker had run a glowing profile on Harris. That was huge. As of the release of this story, Harris was the only 2020 presidential candidate that The New Yorker had featured.

Photo by Sean Ryan

At that point of the election, excitement for Harris was so intense that it seemed obvious she would get the nomination, or close to it. So I wrote five pieces about her.

But by the time I finished all five stories and added them to the publishing schedule, Harris had sunk 11 points to 4 percent, which put her in 8th place. In New Hampshire, the first state to hold primaries, she was polling at 1 percent. By comparison, Biden, Warren, and Sanders were locked at 19.

Now, the only headlines were about her foundering campaign and her dwindling cash and her downsized staff. In each case, the sentiment was the same, "Whatever happened to Kamala Harris?"

Which answer a question I posed in my first story. Would Harris "I got this one in the bag" attitude help her or ruin her? Turns out the ostentatious bus and the unnecessary press accommodations had been a premature move, and now she just seemed cocky.
Because suction energy can, and often does, vanish in an instant.

A Bernie can always become a Jay InslepInslee. Nobody is immune, no matter how powerful they appear. Look at Bill Cosby. Harvey Weistein. Both were godlike in their power. Both had a gravitational pull so intense that they raped women for decades and nobody did a thing. Cosby's suction energy was so intense that he collected honorary degrees like a vacuum collects dog hair. 70 of them. Then, off to prison to eat pudding in the dark.

By the time I saw Harris at the Democratic Debate in Houston, a month after she stormed Iowa, she'd begun transforming into Joe Biden, focused on all the wrong things, laughing at her own jokes, without realizing that nobody else was laughing.

New installments of this series on the 2020 elections come out every Monday and Thursday. Check out my Twitter. Email me at kryan@mercurystudios.com