Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Appropriative white men

This morning, Thomas Friedman wrote a piece in the NYT on the new 'Graceland' documentary, which rehashes, among other subjects, Paul Simon's conflict with the African National Congress over his collaboration with South African artists for the album. Friedman is his usual ham-fisted, squishy-jowled self, but the news of the documentary re-ignited a personal conflict: what to do about first-world (what people really mean when they use the code "developed nation," so whatever) artists incorporating third-world beats and motifs into their work?

This is a conflict I will never manage to shake because most of my favorite artists--Simon (& Garfunkel), the Beatles, Talking Heads, to name a few--are appropriative white men. The Beatles did it with rock n' roll, which was copied pretty much wholesale from black artists (not all by themselves, but I'm not a Stones or an Elvis fan, so), and then with raga. Talking Heads did it with Afrobeat and Afro-Cuban music, and then David Byrne did it all over again for his solo career. These artists were already head-and-shoulders above their peers at the beginning of their careers; it is exciting for me, the listener, to hear these genres push them creatively as I move deeper into their catalog.

But at the same time, neither raga, nor salsa, nor mbaqanga, nor the blues (least of all the blues) exist for the purpose of helping white artists push their creative boundaries. These genres exist, in their respective cultural contexts, for themselves--in the case of the blues, specifically as a form of resistance against white supremacy. When a white artist airlifts a nonwhite genre over to a US studio, that context is removed, and raga/salsa/mbaqanga/the blues are reduced to another loose bolt in the musician's toolkit.

I understand and appreciate a musician's desire to share sounds they find pleasing with a wider audience. I'm grateful to Simon; I can't think of a more personally significant album than 'Graceland.' (Except maybe the Buena Vista Social Club compilation, another brown-person album with white-man fingerprints all over it.) As I tap my fingers along to "Gumboots," though, I keep coming back to the idea that bringing South African genres to the US for our consumption has an impact on real bodies. After all, it isn't as though he dug up the rhythms on an empty beach somewhere.

In a cultureless, race-less, genderless vacuum, we could maybe claim this and sleep a little easier at night. Minor details like colonialism should give us pause, though. After metropoles and their descendants have stripped the brown world of its economic freedom, history, and dignity--ensuring that the playing field is tilted severely in our favor--it's an injustice to want to suddenly claim an even exchange.

But 'Graceland' is so good, though.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

wherein I hope the creator of 'Glee' is a secret philosopher

I started watching Glee a few months ago and, like a surprising number of people I know, I've only had one good thing to say for every hundred complaints about the show. Among them: the writing is painfully lazy; the songs are Autotuned in such a way that makes Stevie Wonder's talk box seem like a perfectly natural vocal range; all the minority characters are shoehorned into eye-rollingly predictable token roles; none of the characters they want you to root for are the least bit likable. (My favorites thus far have been Sue Sylvester and Brittany, who is the closest thing our generation has to the fabulous, chola-tastic Mary Cherry.) There is next to nothing redeeming about this show. So why keep watching it, especially since I came to it so late in the game?

Answer: Because while I watch, I imagine that Glee is actually an elaborate, high-concept, "theatre of the absurd"-type work masquerading as a mediocre TV show.

To let Wikipedia speak for a moment on the definition of "Theatre of the Absurd":

"…in a godless universe, human existence has no meaning or purpose and therefore all communication breaks down. Logical construction and argument gives way to irrational and illogical speech and to its ultimate conclusion, silence."

THIS IS GLEE EXACTLY. None of the scriptwriters seem to care enough to create a coherent story arc (at least after the pilot episode), and the individual episodes themselves are broken up periodically by events that, despite their flash, make no sense to the story, like cheerleading routines drenched in pyrotechnics. I imagine the writers' room scheming together like those rebel Disney employees did when they whispered to Jasmine to take off her clothes and drew "SEX" in the air during The Lion King*: "Oh, you know what would be hilarious? Sticking Brittany in a cannon!" (That the writers treat Brittany's fear of death with such levity is another example.)

If the scriptwriters don't care enough to have the story make sense, why should the viewer? It's almost enough to make me stop watching entirely, this obvious underestimation of the Glee audience's intelligence. But then completely ludicrous elements like the cannon thing appear and I'm like, "Well, okay, it's clearly not supposed to be real life." But it looks so much like high school! (Or, at least, what we've been told a normal high school is supposed to look like.) The real and the fantastic come into conflict so much that it's disorienting, and without any sort of path for the story to follow, everything begins to break down.

Also, Finn ate that Jesus sandwich earlier in the season, so God's been gone for some time now.

Sex and the City already set the stage for the kind of lowbrow-highbrow mesh that an absurdist Glee would require; Lady Gaga extolled its virtues to anyone who would listen. Now, think of the possibilities of setting a concept like this in a major-network high school with a soundtrack pulled from the Billboard Hot 100! Pretty much nothing has any real meaning in a suburban high school--not the big game, not the prom, not the relationship drama. (Bullying, yes. Bullying has serious repercussions that shouldn't ever be made light of; in this respect I'm glad that 'Glee' exists and is trying to explain better what it means to be bullied at the most vulnerable point in one's life.) But teenagers are emotionally chaotic--positive hormonal entropy encased in flesh--and so EVERYTHING IS MAGNIFIED A THOUSAND TIMES and at the most unpredictable moments. It makes sense to view high school through the lens of absurdism, because the whole point of high school is that everything is so important and ground-breaking but at the same time, none of it matters.

It looks like a real high school but is so obviously not a real high school--this is why I keep watching this show. Seeing so much drama so hastily Autotuned together in a way that suggests that not even the creator himself believes in the product is engaging, if you pretend it's all done intentionally. And if Ryan Murphy is as smart as I know he is (well, as I want him to be), we'll soon see that final, absurd silence.

*Despite what Snopes says I HAVE SEEN AND HEARD THESE THINGS BEFORE WITH MY OWN EYES AND EARS. In high school, naturally.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

yeezy taught me (how to love)

Taylor Swift be damned--I first began to really identify with Kanye West as a teenage girl. I was exactly 15--just starting to appreciate hip hop, starting to form some semblance of a political consciousness, and profoundly insecure in a way that only a teen girl can be--when he first appeared in a real way, out of the shadows of Jay-Z albums and on Chappelle's Show with my future husband, Mos Def, in 2004. (I had moved on from Ron Weasley sometime around age 13 1/2 or so.) "Two Words" was powerful, from Mos Def's opening verse to the Harlem Boys Choir-powered bridge. And so the last vestiges of "you can't spell crap without rap" fell away from my outlook on music, and I began to explore.

I acquired the rest of the album and spent the rest of mis quince trying to pick my jaw up off the ground. The opening song, "We Don't Care," was all consciousness, wit and bravado, just like the Mos Defs and Talib Kwelis with whom I had already fallen in love, but the next track…wait a second, "I'm so self-conscious"? So he does actually care what people say? I expected this from the Get Up Kids and their genre, but not from rap music, which was built almost exclusively on a foundation of one-upmanship--and definitely not from the mainstream, which, in 2004, had no room for emos like Atmosphere. Hearing self-doubt in what was supposed to be a Billboard contender was strange and intriguing and strangely, something I could empathize with. And anyway, when you're fifteen and somebody tells you they're insecure, you've got to believe them.

"All Falls Down" establishes Kanye West as a study in contradictions, a subject upon which he then goes on to elaborate over the course of the rest of the album. He expresses his frustrations with the retail industry; he goes all John 8:7 on the audience and questions his relationship with God; he humbles himself before Jay-Z; he has a light-skinned friend who looks like Michael Jackson and a dark-skinned friend who looks like Michael Jackson. The production, his theretofore claim to fame, is on point from start to finish. Of course, he indulges in hedonism here and there, but even "Slow Jamz" and "The New Workout Plan" are obviously tongue-in-cheek. I didn't even mind the boasting by the end of the album, because he explains it all for us before we get the chance to ask: "I use my arrogance as a steam to power my dreams."

And then, after all the talk about how unsure he is about every aspect of his life, he goes and raps with his jaw wired shut. Kanye isn't a perfect lyricist by any means--and producers aren't really supposed to be, anyway--but he spells out his drive on every bar. It isn't that uncommon to hear variations of the rags-to-riches narrative in rap music; Kanye, however, takes his version of the story far beyond a simple retelling of his hardships and actually shows his audience just how badly he wants to make music. Upon first listen, I found that remarkable in itself. Even more powerful for me was the fact that he managed to achieve all that he had using only his ambition, and even most powerful was the fact that he maintains his humanity throughout the entire thing.

His next three albums were enjoyable, though nothing was as good as that first album was for me. The College Dropout's existence allowed me to defend every one of his actions since that album's release--from his comments about Bush (which also coincides with one of the few times I've been disappointed in Kanye--when he apologized in the wake of the Katrina special) to his various award-show tantrums, of which the Taylor Swift incident was neither the first nor the most embarrassing. 808s and Heartbreak? Okay, it was bad, but him some slack; his mother died, his fiancée called it off, and he has some anger to work out. Taylor Swift? Please, he was right about that--and anyway, there are some pretty clear racist undertones to the ferocity and duration of the backlash. He's a jerk and hasn't been all there since about 2008, but he still makes better music than the vast majority of the mainstream. Besides, I used to follow this defense, I heard his next album was going to be more like College Dropout.

Enter My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the result of a brief breakup with the mainstream media in the wake of Swiftgate, when he spent the next year seemingly doing little else but make music and shop for suits. (At least, that's what GOOD Fridays leads us to believe.) Thankfully, it's nothing like his college years--instead of doing a Fifth-Year Senior, he goes the opposite way entirely and tries to make the loudest, brashest, weirdest, most beautiful album ever to use Alicia Keys in the background and Bon Iver on the hook. And he succeeds, sonically as well as visually; the general response I heard from friends who had seen the album's accompanying video was "I have no idea what I just watched, but I love it." He brings out the best in his guest artists and finally doesn't sound like Jay-Z's little brother on the tracks that feature both artists. The social commentary is still present--look at the album art, and the last track, which marks the second time Kanye has sampled Gil-Scott Heron.

Upon hearing the album for the first time, I was disappointed at the lack of All Falls Down-style soul-baring. Perhaps he started microblogging in anticipation of this album--for an outlet for all the self-doubt outside of the album. Then again, we also have "Runaway," the theme song to conscious alienation. And despite the lyrical disappearance of confusion and humility, Kanye makes it clear to the audience that he's put his all into this record and then some. It's not as obvious as "Through the Wire," but it's just as present and exhilarating. Fifteen-year-old me is smiling, pleased, from wherever it is our younger selves go when they’re no longer needed in the physical world.

Call me a Kanye apologist; I'm likely to respond with this and shrug, as he is often wont to do nowadays. He wasn't my first musical love, but he was one of the more significant ones, and true love lasts a lifetime.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

fear of a black hermione

My good friend Kyle is starting a literary/arts initiative intended to try to be a voice for millennials, in the wake of all the negative press surrounding our generation. I wrote something about another kind of media misrepresentation:

When I was younger, around the birth of Pottermania, I wanted to be Ron Weasley's girlfriend more than many other things in the world. Like many of my peers were doing with their favorite Backstreet Boy (indeed, Brian Littrell was my other gingery love), I was daydreaming about sharing butterbeer in a crowded Three Broomsticks, cuddling by the fire in the Gryffindor common room--any number of cheesy romantic situations. This kept my overactive tween imagination busy for quite a few of the books in the series, until I discovered real (albeit non-magical) boys and was much happier.

So, as a Hispanic woman and a de facto mixed-race individual, I'm pretty invested in the idea of Hermione Granger, the former know-it-all-turned-ass-kicking heroine of the series--and, much to my 12-year-old elation, the love of Ron Weasley's life--being mixed-race. On a more general level, the potential for awesome social commentary (like, what better way to further JK Rowling's anti-racism message by making the Muggle-born girl racially mixed? The symbolism!) is rife with a nonwhite Hermione; on an extremely personal level, I can't think of a single character in mainstream media with whom I could identify on both an intellectual and emotional level (for I, too, was an obnoxious know-it-all for most of my adolescence) and on a purely physical level. I was always the only bookish brown girl in my class; coming from a mostly-white suburb in a mostly-white region of the United States, it wasn't surprising, but it did make those pubescent years quite confusing. Like, why weren't there any smart brown girls on TV? (Though when Angela came around to play the love of Shawn Hunter's life on Boy Meets World, my heart had a little dance party inside my chest. Ditto with Zoe Saldaña's character in Star Trek, itself a reboot of an older, also awesome female character.) Is it okay that I'm interested in reading rather than…whatever it is that brown adolescents are supposed to be doing? (No one ever really talked about it on TV.) Reading books left me much less confused than visual media, because I could easily imagine myself in the shoes of any of the characters, Hermione or otherwise...

Check the rest out on the Millennials Mag website!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Change a word, get a third

Rumors have been swirling that Beyonce takes credit for writing songs that she doesn't deserve. Again.

In an interview with Bossip posted yesterday, producer Bangladesh hints at the singer's stake in the songwriting process:

“The people outside looking in, they wanna know if she writes her own songs or if she ain’t. At the end of the day, she’s on a level where things are handed to her; people wanna be a part of what she’s doing. She either wrote it, or she can put her name on it – it doesn’t matter because that’s the boss you are.”

Though he doesn't say it outright, his take on Beyonce's involvement in songwriting is more than a little reminiscent of the reports that she took credit for songs as far back as Bootylicious. To add to the long-simmering controversy (though I'm not sure it should be labeled as such, since people would actually have to care about these stories to make them controversial), Ne-Yo and Chrisette Michelle have both gone to the press to assert themselves after Beyonce claimed to have written "Irreplaceable" and "Ego," respectively. The singer Des'ree sued her after Beyonce recorded the song "I'm Kissing You" without her permission, and it has been rumored that Beyonce tried to get copywriting credits for her covers of Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know" and Sarah McLachlan's "Angel."

This news should surprise no one, since people other than Beyonce have been doing the same thing for years. Plenty of rap artists, members of a genre that prides itself on organic skill, have been accused of the same--Drake and Lil Wayne, for example, are rumored to use ghostwriters on the majority, if not the entirety, of their albums. I've read elsewhere that Prince did the same for "Kiss." The saying "change a word, get a third" has been running around songwriting circles since the birth of the recording industry, and as unethical as the practice is, owning a share of the songwriting credits allows an artist to make much more money than they would normally. With regard to Beyonce, it seems a bit more redundant to muscle her way into a song; she has so many other moneymaking ventures that it's impossible to use the "struggling artist" argument for why she would want a larger cut. It's entirely possible, though, that the bottom line is the sole reason; I wouldn't be surprised, given that manager/stage dad Matthew Knowles has long had an interest in advancing his daughter's career over anyone else's (examples: all incarnations of Destiny's Child).

There appears to be a premium placed on songwriting abilities; it seems to legitimize the artist more than any singing or dancing ability can. It's a bit puzzling to me, especially since there has been a long tradition within the music world of covering and re-covering songs. And if you're already head an shoulders above the competition in other areas, why should it matter? It's not as though Beyonce is the Spice Girls, who I remember catching a great deal of flak for allegedly not writing any of their songs (and let's be real--they definitely didn't write any of those tracks.) Beyonce could easily focus on being an amazing performer, give her songwriters the credit they deserve, and still leave a proud legacy. If what she wants is to attain/maintain legend status, she could just as easily take a song and make it so much her own that regardless of who originally wrote it, people think of her first--see Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower," Jeff Buckley's version of "Hallelujah," Eric Clapton's version of "Layla," and every Cole Porter song that Ella Fitzgerald recorded.

(As an aside: I actually want Katy Perry to start doing this. Her covers of Fountains of Wayne's "Hackensack" and MGMT's "Electric Feel" are both great, but the lyrical content of her actual songs never really elicit more than a "meh" from me.)

I'm sure the real motivation here is money. Matthew Knowles more than likely just wants to make as much off of the industry as he can, as quickly as he can. And it may have been necessary to get ahead back in the "No, No, No" days, but at this point, Beyonce really doesn't need to pretend to be any sort of talented songwriter--the gifts that she possesses already are more than enough.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Katy Perry's hidden talent (or, why MTV should replace all of its programming with episodes of Unplugged)

Just a few days ago I discovered an acoustic version of "I Kissed a Girl" on Youtube. Curious (and somewhat incredulous, because no one ever performs acoustically if they aren't already confident in their talent...and I like "Hot and Cold" and everything, but "Katy Perry" and "talent" don't exactly seem synonymous), I clicked. The incredulity factor multiplied.

It starts off like a jazz standard, all bass and percussion, her voice slow and deliberate. By the time she moves into the second verse with the original's vocal styling/instrumentation, I was completely won over. But part of me (that little piece of my heart that hasn't been completely deadened over the years by cynicism) couldn't help but wonder: why doesn't she go this route, rather than making music that is completely indistinguishable from the rest of the Hot 100?

The same reason Dr. Luke is producing those songs instead of maintaining his artistic integrity in the hip hop underground: $$$$$$$. And where completely idealistic, high-school me would have shunned her completely for being a sellout (which, back then, was my favorite slur to throw around, along with "poseur"), now I can't hate her for making her money. As long as she's still got time to do what she wants--and doesn't feel cheaper for making songs like "California Gurls"--it's all good.

Performances like Katy Perry's are the reason why MTV Unplugged remains my favorite music program. I know that MTV is, itself, just trying to make a profit by abandoning music in favor of reality TV, but I hope that, for as long as the network stays on the air, it never stops producing these.

(Oh, and the rest of the album is just as good; "Brick By Brick" is my favorite from the set.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

M.I.A. vs. the NYT: I'd be mad, too

The past few weeks have seen a shift in the structure of the rap beef: less man-to-man and more man-to-monolith. Kanye West recently used the new song "Power" to call SNL out for mocking him back in December; more famously (perhaps only because she's made it her mission to publicize the incident) M.I.A. and the New York Times have been locked in a battle over what the artist claims is a misrepresentation of her character in a recent article. After a series of mostly one-sided attacks--during which, among other actions, M.I.A. posted author Lynn Hirschberg's phone number on Twitter and recorded a song called "Haters" where she disses the NYT--the New York Times recanted and posted a note to the 9-page article apologizing for compiling a series of separate quotes to create a longer one, which was what presumably contributed to M.I.A's character assassination.

Gawker called it a victory for the artist, as it lay more of the blame on Hirschberg for deliberately constructing quotes to present M.I.A. as image obsessed at the expense of any concrete knowledge about her pet causes. Reading the original article, the things M.I.A. says aren't very different from anything else she's said on record (take her recent NME interview, where she calls out Lady Gaga for being too image-obsessed, as an example); she's always been blunt, a bit arrogant, maybe even (though I could be misreading her sense of humor over print) a little humorless. The real damage was done when her quotes were paired with Hirschberg's own writing. For example, the now-infamous truffle fry quote (which MIA later exposed as completely inaccurate):

"I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist."

Definitely incriminating, and quite the departure from her artwork and web design. Obviously she cares more about looking terroristy in the public eye than about actually working to advance the Revolution.

But my issue with M.I.A. doesn't lie in the fact that she cares about her image. She's a celebrity, after all; it's her job to manage her image just as it is a journalist's job to take a subject's quotes and work them into a presentable article. Nor does my issue lie with the fact that she went from the projects in East London to a mansion in Brentwood--that's the American Dream, after all--but that she is still trying to maintain the "starving immigrant refugee artist" image even as she's enjoying the fruits of her labor. I love the fact that she remains a voice for people who can't afford to make their own heard (or, to quote her directly, she "puts people on the map that never seen a map"). She's still very unique within the music industry--no other artist, least of all a brown girl for whom English is a second language, has made as much of a name for herself while keeping it relatively real by rapping about her family's life back in the Third World. And no journalist, Lynn Hirschberg least of all, should trivialize her body of work just because she eats truffle fries now instead of government cheese. Her past still belongs to her, no matter where she finds herself in the present.

It's more than a bit disingenuous, though, to claim to be involved in the struggle when all you're really doing is name-checking the PLO in the third verse of one of your songs and decorating your album covers with tigers. Hirschberg did well by calling her out on all that, but using her misinformed politics to continue to paint her and her music in such a relentlessly negative light was a mistake. That's where the real apology should be.

Also, Diplo? Way to come off as the bitter ex-boyfriend, man.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

bum bum bee dum, bum bum beedum bum

So, Shakira has a new single in anticipation of her latest English/Spanish album pair (the English half of which is due out this year). It isn't horrible, as far as bleached-Shakira goes:

However, it does make me want to listen to this song a lot more:

Shakira, you founded a successful NGO. You have two critically-acclaimed albums and have moved 60 million records worldwide. Your appearance on MTV Unplugged was the best thing that channel ever did. So why try and imitate a second-rate Beyonce?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

our butts will always be yours, MJ

I've treated this space sort of flippantly over the past few months, mostly because I'm still more or less attached to Livejournal...but I think it's time to take off the training wheels. Or is switching domains really not that serious? Anyway, what better way to restart than by reposting a reflection on MJ, the only pop artist worth paying attention to in life as well as in death, and whose career peak I sadly missed (thanks, mom and dad).

I'm not a dancer, and I grew up when Michael Jackson was a potential child molester rather than a man who could make girls faint just by walking into a room. I am a voracious consumer of pop culture, though, and so it was absolutely necessary to stop and dedicate last night/today to him. He certainly led a complicated, troubled life--there's no point in playing revisionist historian and ignoring that aspect, especially when the circumstances surounding his past are undeniably (and for better or for worse) what made him the artist who could make girls faint just by walking into a room. At one point in his career, he did begin playing an active role in feeding the media frenzy surrounding his celebrity. He was the first person to take advantage of tabloid journalism for publicity and certainly was among those who made "paparazzo" a viable career option.

I don't believe the molestation accusations leveled against him--in part because by 1993, his image had become such that it would have been easy for anyone to turn his actions against him--but it was more than obvious that he suffered throughout his career from his father's well-documented abuse. It's incredible, given his upbringing, that he could continue making consistently phenomenal music--and utterly change pop as we know it. As someone said elsewhere on the Internet, he was Fred Astaire, John Lennon and Elvis combined--a genius songwriter/composer, a beautiful vocalist, and an unparalleled dancer. Couch it in those terms and it's not surprising to see artists from every genre, not just pop or R&B, breaking down upon hearing about his death. Every single artist I listen to today has been influenced in some way by Michael Jackson's work. For that, if nothing else, I owe it to him to reflect for a minute.

But yeah, not a whole lot of people my age feel this way. Understandable, but I don't know...I feel like I missed out on something big. I'm not convinced that people are going to be this broken up about the death of a Backstreet Boy or a Jonas Brother.

Seriously--65 million copies of Thriller? Do the top 10 artists on Billboard even sell that much combined nowadays?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Autotune update

I'm making another exception.

This use of Autotune is just incredible.