Monday, March 24, 2014

3000 or 2000

A very happy 72nd birthday to the Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin. She's back in the news again because of her birthday party this past weekend, which apparently featured a surprise visit from Denzel Washington. She also mentioned that she's working on some songs with some young producers, including Babyface and Andre 3000. What I particularly like is that, in a total diva move, she forgets Andre 3000's name. "Andre 2000--is it two or three? 3000 is going to be doing some of the tracks with him." Awww, she's still got it. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Message

I’m a news junkie, and I read way too much on the internet. If you’re reading this blog, that probably applies to you, too. 

Reading things on the internet can be a good thing, particularly if you’re an academic who studies contemporary culture. Being well-informed is great, and there have been plenty of random things that I have read on the internet that have made their way into my “job”—which is writing about popular music and culture. In fact, the day before I gave my first talk at a big national academic conference, I read an article in the New York Times about a study that gave me a crucial piece of evidence for something in the paper. I quickly incorporated it into the talk that I gave the next day, and when that talk finally made it into a journal article and got published, the study I had stumbled upon was still relevant and survived into the final draft. If you write about contemporary culture, you never can tell where inspiration and ideas are going to come from. And while reading a wide variety of tangentially-related current news can definitely serve as a procrastination tool, I think it also helps to make me a better scholar. The trick is keeping those things in balance. 

Another trick is to read with a critical eye and try to figure out, not only what content might be relevant for your own thinking, but what rhetorical strategies from other writers are worth emulating or avoiding. I’m trying to lean towards the "emulation" these days. True, there is a ton of bad writing out there, and perhaps the thing we are trained most to do as graduate students and junior scholars is to point out all of the flaws we see in the writing of others—and bonus points if you can aim a cutting assessment towards some rising superstar with a plum gig and a flashy book. And that’s helpful training, sure. But at a certain point it’s a lot more rewarding to put something out there yourself, rather than just tearing others down. And if you find fault with a writer, make sure that you’re avoiding whatever mistakes he or she is making. And also try to find the good in what they do and think about how you could use it it to make your own writing stronger.

At least, that’s what I’m thinking this week after reading an article in the Huffington Post by Lynne Huffer. (And I don’t read the Huffington Post often, but it’s amazing that her last name is Huffer and this was published in the Huffington Post.) I found it from a likely source: a friend had linked to it on Facebook. The actual content of the article isn’t super-relevant to what a want to talk about here, but a brief summary might be helpful: her argument is that we shouldn’t let the Supreme Court’s invalidation of DOMA blind us to the fact that they also struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And the bigger picture for Huffer is that we shouldn’t think that race problems in the U.S. are over and that we can now focus our attention squarely on LGBT civil rights; instead, there is much progress still to be made on both fronts. 

To which I say, “hear, hear.” But I don’t actually think that the attitude Huffer warns about actually exists, at least not among the politically-engaged progressives she cites. Here’s the evidence she gives: 

For example, lawyers, pundits, and activists regularly compare the inevitability of same-sex marriage rights to Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision that struck down state statutes prohibiting interracial marriage. On the day of this year's SCOTUS decisions, Evan Wolfson, the head of Freedom to Marry, applauded the death of DOMA but lamented the failure of the Prop 8 decision to end marriage discrimination nationwide. But, he assured us, invoking historical precedent, we too will finish the job. "The Supreme Court first punted on interracial marriage before it finally did the right thing in Loving v. Virginia in 1967--and brought the country to national resolution," Wolfson said. 

Or take Barney Frank's comments at the DNC last fall as another example LGBT activists' "like race" equations. In a clear analogy between gays and blacks who become traitors to their cause, Frank slammed the Log Cabin Republicans by calling them Uncle Toms. And let's not forget the August 2012 cover of The Advocate depicting Obama in the place of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, transforming a symbol of our nation's union after a Civil War over slavery into a story about the wedding vows of same-sex couples. 

The message behind these comparisons is clear: racial discrimination is a thing of the past. Now that race is taken care of, it's time to move on to equality for gays and lesbians. 

I don’t actually think she earns those last two lines, especially her introductory clause of “the message behind these comparisons is clear.” Do you really think that Barney Frank wants to send the message that race is no longer a problem in the U.S.? And if he does think that, Huffer doesn’t give us any real evidence for that being the case. In fact, the message isn’t clear at all. 

I was struck by this, however, because I use “the message is clear” in my own writing. Like “thus” and “therefore,” it’s a handy way of drawing various pieces of evidence and guiding the reader to the conclusion you want him or her to make. But anyone can just use those words to lend credence to an argument, whether or not the evidence you’ve marshaled actually supports your conclusion. So the takeaway for me as a writer is this: if I’m going to write that “the message is clear,” I better make double sure that it actually is.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Musical Instruments

A very cool project from some friends and former grad school colleagues was unveiled today. It's called the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments, curated by Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson. Check it out.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Hacks, Hacks Everywhere

I wrote one of the first posts for this blog on Paula Deen. And wouldn’t you know it, she’s back in the news again. 

And I’ve decided, against my better judgment, that I’m going to try blogging some more. Why not? The folks at Dial M for Musicology are back after a three-year hiatus. What happened in the interim? A lot of things, clearly, but perhaps the most relevant to this conversation is the rise of Twitter. I think people used to complain that blogs were too fragmentary, ephemeral, and not conducive to real scholarly work. But in the age of 140 characters, blogs seem positively Dickensian. 

And if you don’t like the literary analogy, here’s a musical one. CDs seemed a big step up from vinyl records, right? No more pops and hisses, they could hold more musical time, you didn’t have to flip them. Well, it’s no accident that vinyl came back into fashion (roughly speaking) around the time that MP3s and streaming services became the more common way of listening to music. Vinyl has some annoyances, to be sure, but it’s got a certain charm that 1s and 0s don’t. So blogging at this late date is kind of like listening to vinyl records. Which I also do. For that, you can mostly blame the fact that I live only a few hundred feet from one of the unequivocally great vinyl record stores in the U.S. 

Deen’s in the news, of course, because she’s being sued. In the course of that lawsuit, some pretty sketchy behavior by Ms. Deen has come to light, including her usage of the n-word. There was a swift backlash against Deen, followed by a counter-backlash. And I think now there’s been a counter-counter-backlash. Of musical interest here is the fact that rap has been invoked as a possible defense for Deen’s choice of words. It’s not quite the Don Imus Defense, but it’s a variant on it. The line seems to be, “If it’s OK for rappers to use that word then it’s OK for Deen to use that word.” To which I would just reply, “Only if Paula Deen records a rap album.” 

In fact, I would pay money for a Paula Deen rap album. I’ve even got an idea for the first single. Call it, “Accidental Racist, Part 2.” 

I don’t know if Paula Deen is a racist. Given the behavior that’s being alleged in the lawsuit, it seems likely. But one thing is overwhelmingly certain: she’s a hack. And if this suit means that she retreats from or is forced from public life, I won’t complain. Besides, then she’ll have more time to work on her album.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blogging Blogging The Beatles

As I mentioned here before, my dissertation research paid particular attention to the marking of anniversaries of events in popular music. My fieldwork years coincided with quite a few 40th anniversaries of events (such as concerts or the release of albums) that are now seen as historically important events: History-with-a-capital-H. My argument was that this "historical consciousness" marks a profound shift in the way that popular music (and popular culture more generally speaking) have been viewed. What was previously something trivial and ephemeral was now being treated as something with historical weight, something worthy of being honored, remembered, and--in the case of tribute bands--re-created as "authentically" as possible.

Anyway, such was the case in the late years of the first decade of the 2000s, when 40th anniversaries marking the release of albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or concerts like The Beatles' rooftop concert at Abbey Road studio were celebrated.

Well, a few years later, and now we're beginning to celebrate 50th anniversaries. The Rolling Stones are embarking on a tour to mark their 50th anniversary as a band. And just yesterday, the online news magazine Slate started a new feature called "Blogging the Beatles" to follow, 50 years later, the events of The Beatles' career.

The first entry focuses on the November 26, 1962 recording of their first #1 single, "Please Please Me." I won't say much about the content, other than to say that it seems accurate and well-informed. (Much of its information comes from Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties--a good choice.)

But again, what interests me the most about this is the sheer fact that something like this would exist. The New York Times has a blog called "Disunion" following the American Civil War, exactly 150 years after it took place. The Civil War was obviously a major historical event, with ramifications that can be still be felt. Even concerts marking the 40th anniversaries of the release of "concept" albums make a certain amount of sense; by the time these albums were released in the late 1960s, rock music had already appropriated a certain amount of "artistic" prestige--though I think contemporary observers would have been surprised to see how durable this prestige has been. But the events of early 1960s rock were emphatically NOT viewed as either aesthetically- or historically-important at the time. They really were seen as trivial, ephemeral popular culture. 

So a blog marking the 50th anniversary of these events is really retrospectively giving the prestige and historical importance to events that were not seen as so important at the time. Why are these events seen as important in retrospect? Well, the first answer is because of what the actors involved would go on to do later. The birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 15, 1929 wasn't historically significant at the time, but it became significant (and something we celebrate with a holiday every year) because of what he would later accomplish. Another possible answer is that, in fact, these earlier events were historically significant at the time, that they contain seeds of the greatness that was to come which observers at the time missed. Certainly, this is a popular explanation offered by classic rock fans.

As for myself, I subscribe in part to both those explanations, but I prefer a third idea: that these events have been treated as historically significant because of power. In the case of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, the events of the early 1960s are treated as significant because the baby boomer generation has succeeded in canonizing the popular culture of their youth. They've done this through sheer demographic might, through purchasing power, and through being in positions of influence as writers, DJs, and record company executives. Nothing nefarious about this. But while we're still trying to understand the music and culture of the 1960s fifty years later, we will understand it better when we realize that its enduring popularity and "historical" nature isn't an accident or a feature of the music itself.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Things Have Changed

I wrote a long post talking about the new Bob Dylan album that was released this past Tuesday, Tempest. The release of a new Dylan record is a big occasion for me under any circumstances, but this particular release carried special interest. Tuesday (when new recordings go on sale in the United States) was September 11th, the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York, the Pentagon, and the foiled attack that crash-landed in western Pennsylvania, about 80 miles from where I currently live in Pittsburgh. This was strange in that Dylan had, in fact, also released an album on that fateful day, "Love and Theft." I went to sleep this past Tuesday after listening to Tempest a few times and being thankful that the anniversary of 9/11 (coinciding with the release of another Dylan album) had passed without incident. So it was a rude shock to wake up on Wednesday morning to the news of the violent protests and attacks in Cairo and Benghazi.

These attacks put my thoughts on Tempest in a new perspective. As did the the release of a few excerpts of an interview that Dylan gave to Rolling Stone magazine. The excerpts contain Dylan's harsh response to critics who have charged him with plagiarism for his quotation of the poet Henry Timrod and the Japanese writer Junichi Saga--as well as his copying of the melody of "Red Sails in the Sunset" for "Beyond the Horizon," a track which appears on 2006's Modern Times. (I should point out here that it was my wife Catharine who noticed this borrowing immediately and brought it to my attention.) Anyway, Dylan says that only "wussies and pussies complain about that stuff"--a sentiment I don't necessarily agree with, but find hilarious nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Rolling Stone decided not to put the entire interview online (and it's long: 10 pages in the magazine). So I actually went out today and bought a hard copy of Rolling Stone magazine, something I haven't done in years, so that I could read the thing. As usual, Dylan ends up raising more questions than he ever answers in this interview. Perhaps the interview's most head-scratching discussion is Dylan's suggestion that he experienced some sort of transfiguration, a realization he comes to after reading a book that mentions that Robert Zimmerman, a former president of the San Bernadino Hell's Angels, died in a motorcycle crash in 1964. (In fact, the book, Sonny Barger's Hell's Angel got the date wrong; the fatal accident actually happened in 1961.) Dylan himself--whose given name is, of course, also Robert Zimmerman--also experienced a serious motorcycle crash a few years later. I'm certain that I don't really understand what Dylan is getting at with this, but I'm in good company: the interviewer Mikal Gilmore also seems not to understand the significance, and Dylan himself may only be vaguely aware of what he means by transfiguration and the bizarre coincidence between these two events. Certainly he doesn't explain it very clearly, despite Gilmore's repeated exhortations to do so.

But then again, bizarre coincidences seem to be what Dylan traffics in these days. How else to explain how the two records he happens to release on September 11th, exactly 11 years apart, coincide with terrorist attacks against the United States?

I'll tell you what. If you're interested in these things, you should definitely plunk down the $4.99 to get a copy of this issue of Rolling Stone with the Dylan interview. I'm going to spend some more time with it, try to figure it out, and then I'll post my thoughts on Tempest here when I've sorted them out.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hegel and Kanye

When Hegel talks about freedom and slavery in one of philosophy’s most celebrated passages, he isn’t just pulling this stuff out of the air. Or, rather, that’s exactly what he’s doing: he’s talking about things that were in the air at the time he was writing Phenomenology of  Spirit in 1805-1806. Specifically, as Susan Buck-Morss argues in her article “Hegel and Haiti” (later expanded into the book Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History), the Haitian slave revolt was very much on his mind and provided the obvious inspiration for his thoughts on this subject. That no one has made this argument in the two centuries of commentary on Hegel strikes Buck-Morss as ridiculous, a kind of huge elephant in the room that has gone unremarked upon by generations of scholars. It's a reminder that philosophy, for all pretensions to exist in the rarefied world of pure thought is inevitably a product of time.

It’s this same kind “real talk” that I hear in one of Kanye West’s verses on “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” The song is about the consequences of so-called “blood” or “conflict diamonds”—diamonds from Africa (including, as the song’s title suggests, from Sierra Leone) the sale of which finances sectarian civil war. But rather than issue platitudes about the evils of the diamond trade, Kanye comes clean:

When I speak of diamonds in this song
I ain't talkin’ ‘bout the ones that be glowin’
I'm talkin’ ‘bout Rocafella, my home, my chain.

Part of what I’ve found so compelling about Kanye over the years (but particularly in his earlier material) is that he’s a materialistic, misogynist brat—and he knows he’s a materialistic misogynist brat, and he feels guilty about being a materialistic misogynist brat, but he’s still a materialistic, misogynist brat. It’s a kind of honesty I find, well, compelling.