Thursday, January 31, 2008
Actually, some people might argue with the statement that his first album wasn't overtly political, and maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but I believe I'm right in saying that. It's extraordinarily hard to make compelling art that is overtly political, and almost nobody really succeeds at it. Musically, you could make a case for success in examples like Woody Guthrie, Bob Marley, and the Brecht and Kurt Weill collaborations. But even in those cases the songs that really last and continue to move people aren't about specific political doctrines, they tend to be about finding strength in your own heart. (And that used to be a good description of Saul Williams, before he embarked on his current exploration of dissonance and obscurity.)
There's a lot of art which I like that gets branded as political, but I would argue that in any case in which art is worthwhile, "political" is too simplistic a way to describe it. One prime example would be James Baldwin, an author who (for all his faults as a novelist) I keep coming back to again and again in my reading. Many of his harshest critics discuss him in terms of his political views, and describe him as a failure in that the "protest novels" he was trying to write were ineffective. But I've never agreed with that characterization: early in his literary career he rejected the idea of writing protest novels, and while some would argue otherwise I don't believe he ever went back on that rejection. To me the prevailing theme of his novels tended to be love: struggling to love yourself, to find love with others, to find a way to love your country, or to love life. While the novels could be called political in the sense that the struggles of the main characters tended to be bound up in the injustice of their socioeconomic status, I don't think Baldwin ever meant them to serve a political function, or to be a rallying cry for any political movement. In his own words he wanted to be a "witness" to the hardships he saw around him, and it's this passionate documentation of life (not any political agenda) which makes his novels worthwhile.
A similar example is The Wire, which even its creators tout as a political show, but which I would argue (though I won't belabor this post by getting into detail here) in important ways is not, but rather simply documents the realities of life in a 21st century American city, (stands "witness" to them, perhaps) and for that reason I think it's a show that's likely to endure.
At any rate, I'll finish off by posting Nina Simone's personalized cover of Brecht and Weill's "Pirate Jenny"...a song which certainly has some political overtones, but which is really compelling because it paints a fascinating portrait of an angry woman who's mad as hell, and is not going to take it anymore--not because it makes a particular political point.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Stereogum: Vampire Weekend is Out: Now Counting Down to Backlash
I want to write about this more in depth later, but I approach all of this from the perspective of the older brother of someone in a band struggling to make it, and as a frustrated music fan irritated by the groupthink that leads everyone to like the same thing at the same time, and then suddenly reject it because everyone else likes it. This ever diminishing hype cycle is not only bad for fans, it's bad for bands too (arguably worse for them, since now a band like Vampire Weekend will not be able to develop and build a natural fanbase before they are thrust into the spotlight and then rejected as has-beens within months, if not already (and their debut came out just YESTERDAY!)). Jess Harvell wrote about this in Idolator with regard to the Black Kids a few months back and it's worth reading.
There are two obvious solutions to all of this. One is to recognize that the hype (and the anti-hype) (as displayed in the Stereogum comments) is confined to a tiny subset of hipsters who need to feel ahead of the curve and that most listeners are both more discerning and more loyal. The other is to check out of the process entirely-- be incredibly wary of any and all hype, and only buy albums long after the hype cycle has died down to determine if they're really worthwhile. That's what I tend to practice.
But all of this makes me nostalgic for some halcyon time when the "scene" was more organic. How did indie bands that have had varying degrees of longevity make it? I'm thinking of groups like Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, Pavement, Sleater-Kinney-- the quintessential "indie" bands really. Those bands all had long careers where they steadily built an audience without the blog hype-cycle or a Best New Music rating from Pitchfork. Basically, I think it's fun to get excited about new bands, but the way things are now, it's just such a pain in the ass.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Their album (Security) is pretty great, helped in part by producer John McEntire of Sea and Cake fame. As such the percussion sounds great. the whole thing sounds great. go John.
i've recently discovered afrobeat (Fela Kuti, etc.), so expect more posts on this subject.
While I'm on a semi-political rant, and i am now vaugely asserting that we should be able to post beyond music related issues (agree or disagree as you will in the comments), here is a great article by Christopher Hitchens on the recent Clinton/Obama scrape in SC.
As Quinapalus knows, i have a conflicted relationship with Hitchens. Despite that, i am allowing him to help me become more and more anti-Hillary.
For my inaugural post, I've got two things on my mind:
1) In today's Best New Music review of current blog flavor-of-the-second, Vampire Weekend's debut album, the reviewer makes extensive comparisons with the Strokes. It's an amusing comparison that should have occurred to me long ago. They don't particularly sound alike-- for those who don't follow these kinds of things, VW sound basically like the Shins, et al, but with the added gimmick of using clean, arpeggiated, vaguely African sounding guitars, a la Paul Simon's Graceland. It's actually a pretty good gimmick, and they have a handful of really enjoyable pop songs. The problem is, like The Strokes, they are Upper ___ Side preppy douchebags to some degree, and so there's a natural hate instinct.
That aside, it inspired me to pull out The Strokes' Is This It. It's an interesting album for several reasons.
- It was arguably the first indie album to receive the kind of huge substance-less internet hype that is now routine within the blogosphere, despite the fact that there was no such thing at the time.
- It was released in September 2001, and as such, one of its tracks, "New York City Cops," was pulled from the American release out of sensitivity for New York's Finest after 9/11. An amusing time capsule/reminder of those weird days when everyone was so freaked out and worried about upsetting people. Today, with the Giuliani campaign, 9/11 is on the verge of becoming a punchline.
- Divorced from the hype, it's actually a pretty good pop album. It's derivative as hell and wears its influences loudly on its sleeve, but so does much of rock and roll. And beyond the obvious New York proto-punk influences that people focused on at the time (because they were so absent from mainstream music) it's interesting now to hear the more straightforward pop and Motown that was just as present in their sound. The playing is simple, the guitars/bass/drums intersect in interesting ways and the vocal melodies are pretty damn infectious. It's got some filler, and the band was comprised of the worst kind of proto-hipsters, but I'll actually defend this record.
Interestingly, the Strokes and the Shins followed a similar trajectory-- strong first album (though the hype for the Shins post-dated that album's release), second album that doesn't sound too different and arguably builds on the strengths of the first, seriously lackluster third album. I see that pattern more and more these days. I think the concept of the sophomore slump is giving way to what I guess would be called the junior slump.
2) Appropriately for my first post, the Beatles. I have nothing original to add to what has been written about the Beatles, except to note that in my boredom at work, I have started listening to all of the Beatles albums in chronological order (since I haven't listened to a Beatles album in a good year or two, having memorized almost every note). Please Please Me, their debut, is an absolute revelation. It's by far the most primitive and stripped down of their albums (most of it was recorded in one marathon all-day session), but listening this time I was absolutely blown away by, in particular, the sophistication of their harmonies. Though they don't get into the worldess doo-wop contrapuntal vocals that Brian Wilson would use to perfection during the Pet Sounds era, the harmony lines are amazingly unpredictable. They use all kinds of contrary motion, and never do the lazy back-up-vocalist-occasionally-singing-a-third-above-the-lead thing that so many "Beatles-influenced" pop bands do now.
Listen to a song like "Please, Please Me" and seriously try and figure out what's going on there-- especially in the bridge, on the line, "Whoah yeah, why do you make me blue." Or, even better, "P.S. I Love You." It's one of Paul's earliest and dippiest dippy love songs, but listen to the way the harmonies come in at the top of every other measure during the verses. They're so dark and weird, especially given how corny the song is. Or, "There's a Place"-- check out the blend between John and Paul on "And it's my miiiiiind..." Perfect.
(embedding youtube isn't working on this computer, so you'll just have to take my word for it).
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Friday, January 25, 2008
In the 1960s there was a well publicized dispute between the African-American author Ralph Ellison, and a white liberal critic named Irving Howe. Howe, speaking in defense of the (also African-American) author Richard Wright, critiqued Ellison's and (James Baldwin's) work, comparing it unfavorably to Wright's in an essay called "Black Boys and Native Sons". Wright's work had fallen out of fashion as being too polemical, and Ellison offered a very different, more nuanced view of black life. Howe believed Wright's talent to probably be superior to Ellison's, however, and defended the polemical nature of Wright's novels by saying, among other things:
"What, then, was the experience of a man with a black skin, what could it be in this country? How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest, be it harsh or mild, political or private, released or buried?"
Ellison took the attacks on him in this essay to mean that Howe was telling him what, as a black man, he was allowed to feel, think, or write about, and defended himself in a famous essay called "The World and the Jug." I won't go into greater detail about this dispute for the sake of making my own essay less lengthy than it already is--but I mention it because I think it is part of a pattern that the coverage of hip hop in Pitchfork falls into. It's a pattern of white, well meaning, liberal critics, attempting to dictate to black artists what they should or should not be writing about, ostensibly in defense of the the angrier, more "authentic" voices from the bottom.
Pitchfork reliably gives fawning coverage to albums catering to the worst stereotypes of black life: gangsters, pimps, drug dealers, misogynists, etc. I'm not going to argue with that particular aspect of their coverage here--to some degree it's a matter of taste, and arguing with it would be full of complicated questions to which there are no definitive answers. What I take strong issue with, however, is how equally reliably they either pan, or give condescending--if in some ways positive--reviews to any rap album that challenges the gangsta status quo. Like Howe, if a black artist isn't "angry" enough, or is angry in the wrong ways or at the wrong things, the Pitchfork reviewers tell that artist that they need to sound more like the stereotype they imagine to be the one "authentic" way for an African-American to express themselves. I have two specific examples from reviews in the past couple of years.
This is the opening paragraph of the Pitchfork review of the Little Brother album Getback, (which I had at number 3 this year):
"In 2005, North Carolina-based hip-hop group Little Brother released The Minstrel Show, a record brazen both in title and tenor that sought to castigate the culture of materialistic, anti-intellectual bojangling that had besieged and benumbed the black community in the form of commercial rap music and mainstream TV programming. Unsurprisingly, this played exceptionally well on indie-rap message boards, in coffee shops, and college campuses coast to coast. But outside the Ivy, where people eat, laugh, fuck, and don't spend a hell of a lot of time thinking about whether their culture is eroding, it didn't make a dent. It's easy for the (over)educated among us to get hip to the underground and then snicker at the poor deluded masses filling their heads and ears with trash, but what happens when we have to step outside our theory-addled cocoons and explain looking down our noses at our neighbors and kin?"
I'd note, first of all, that this paragraph (intended to bring the reader up to date on what Little Brother is all about before reviewing the new album) does not contain a single critical judgment about the actual quality of the music. The terms on which it judges the group are entirely philosophical or perhaps sociological, questioning the value of music that primarily resonates with educated people, who apparently don't "eat laugh" or "fuck". (You could easily question how much of a chance the "masses" got to even hear the album, since it got virtually no radio airplay, but this reviewer chooses not to ask that question.)
If you had never read Pitchfork before, and had only come across this single review, you might be forgiven for believing that Pitchfork was a populist publication whose mission was to take jabs at highfalutin indie acts in defense of unintellectual and/or popular music. But of course this isn't the case at all, in any genre except for hip hop. Pitchfork doesn't stand up for the Toby Kieths of country, or the Nickelbacks of rock, it's only when we're talking about the gangstas and pimps of rap that Pitchfork suddenly bristles and asks us not to look "down our noses at our neighbors and kin."
I want to briefly point out the number of black stereotypes that are buried just within the brief paragraph I cited. First, there is an assumption that "the culture of materialistic, anti-intellectual bojangling" somehow represents an authentic, populist expression of African-American thoughts and behavior (ie, to be against this stuff would mean that you were "behind the Ivy" and had forgotten how to eat laugh or fuck.) Secondly, there is the idea that regular people (again, outside "the Ivy") don't (and perhaps should not) worry their heads about something so abstract as "culture". Given that this was written by someone working for a music publication, it's reasonable to assume that the author believes that culture is important, and that probably someone should be concerned about it. But it's unclear whom (besides Pitchfork) he believes these guardians of culture to be, and I can't escape the thought that while he wants to stand up for the "masses" he doesn't believe they have that much ability to think for themselves (or that they're too busy eating and fucking to concern themselves with thinking.)
Finally, and most importantly for me, is the fact that he's essentially dictating to Little Brother what they, as rap artists, have a right to talk about. He doesn't care about the quality of music on The Minstrel Show, as he doesn't even mention it. He is simply concerned that this group is stepping outside the established bounds by questioning the legitimacy of a "culture of materialism and anti-intellectualism" and is therefore behaving too much like the "(over)educated". To go back to Irving Howe's question, "what could the experience of a black man in this country be?", this Pitchfork writer clearly believes that the black experience has no business crossing the gangsta divide and stepping into cultural criticism. That, one may insinuate, is Pitchfork's job.
I think this is a pattern that is repeated over and over again in their criticism, but for the sake of (relative) brevity, I'm just gong to include one more example. In this case, it's from Pitchfork's review of Lupe Fiasco's 2006 album Food and Liquor, an album to which they gave a fairly positive review overall, but still included condescending remarks such as the following:
"Reportedly Fiasco modeled Food & Liquor after Nas' adventurous if overblown follow-up to Illmatic, It Was Written. This illuminates everything. Fiasco's putting the Phantom before the horse, so to speak. He hasn't released a classic, gritty album yet. Instead he's attempted to ascend to a status he hasn't earned, and frankly, shouldn't want. This is no call for Lupe to tone down his aggressively thoughtful themes, merely to reframe them. He doesn't have to be a savior. There's no one to save."
This is an example, on the one hand, of the maddening sort of critique Pitchfork gives to all types of music, wherein they give advice to the artist on how they, (the Pitchfork staff) would have done the album differently. But in this case it also takes on a different tone mostly found in their hip hop coverage, in which the reviewer tells the artist to change something fundamental to that artist's style, to make it more palatable to the reviewer's taste.
Let's leave aside the advice that Lupe doesn't have to "be a savior" because there's "no one to save," as it would take me too long to try and parse what he might possibly mean by that statement. (Lupe does have a couple of songs in which he raps about how he's going to change rap forever, but so does every damn rapper in the business, and there is nothing to immediately make it clear why Lupe's take on this was particularly noteworthy.) What I'm more interested in pointing out is the comparison to Nas, and the call for Lupe to make a more "gritty" album. Illmatic was Nas' first record, an acknowledged gangsta rap classic which was hugely influential. After making that album, however, Nas famously decided that he needed to be a better role model and citizen, and began making albums that questioned the value of the kind of gangsta swagger that made him famous. (And the consensus--which I reluctantly agree with--is that Nas never made an album nearly as good as Illmatic again. But that's not really germane to the point here.) Lupe sees himself, stylistically and philosophically, as someone more in line with the ideals of the post-Illmatic Nas, and said that he modeled his album partially off of some of that material.
But the Pitchfork reviewer sees that approach as illegitimate. The argument seems to be that in order to create the sort of risk taking, philosophical, adventurous, (possibly overblown, though that's a matter of opinion) kind of album that Nas went on to make later, you first have to make a gritty (read: gangster-centered) album, to establish yourself as somebody to be taken seriously. Within this argument is the assumption that Lupe should want to make that kind of album, or indeed has the ability to pull that kind of album off. Why should we believe that Lupe would have done a good job of pretending to be a gangster? Or more importantly, why would such an album have helped to legitimize him? Because it would have shown that he could dance the dance demanded of him by the music press?
I want to finish this example with a quick thought experiment: would Pitchfork ever give similar advice to a white artist? Can you imagine them ever reviewing a Will Oldham album by saying something along the lines of "Will Oldham reportedly is a fan of Merle Haggard's late period work, where he set aside the conservative reactionary persona of his early albums. This explains everything, Oldham is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Before you can make a sensitive, thoughtful record, you need to establish yourself by writing an "Okie from Muskogee" style of album. This isn't a call for Oldham to tone down his intellectualism, just to reframe it by throwing in some cowboys and White Lightning."
I'd have to say that the answer is no, Pitchfork would never ask that of a white artist, and that this goes beyond mere matters of taste, it goes beyond preferring Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison, or preferring gangsters to different kinds of voices in rap: this is about setting the intellectual boundaries beyond which black people (in the name of protecting the "authentic voice" of the ghetto) are not allowed to go.