Friday, August 31, 2012

Humpty Hump's Head

In a parking garage in East Oakland’s Jingletown neighborhood, an enormous piece of local music history gazes out at parked cars. More than ten feet tall, and sporting sunglasses, the relic is a stage prop modeled after rapper Shock G. The head was featured in a 1993 music video by rapper Shock G’s platinum-selling group, Digital Underground, and went out with the group on tour. Now it collects dust and dirt from exhaust pipes.
Rockaliser readers may be interested to know that I reported on the above, for the website Oakland North. You can click over there, for the whole thing. It's not criticism, but do you really need to be reminded how great Sex Packets is? I'll be writing quite a bit on Oakland North in the coming months. Mostly, it won't be music related, but I'll let folks know via the blog or our Twitter if/when any music-related stuff surfaces over there.

Anyways, this was a pretty fascinating subject to devote many hours of my life to. It even involved an interview with Shock G (over email), the Digital Underground maestro himself. The fate of this enormous prop head makes you wonder what ever became of the Pink Floyd pigs (created by the same people who built the Humpty Hump head), or the Beastie Boys cock.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jody Rosen and the People's List

Slate's pop music critic Jody Rosen is an occasional guest on the Culture Gabfest, a weekly podcast put out by the online magazine which features weekly cultural discussions between movie critic Dana Stevens, deputy editor Julia Turner and critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf. A couple of years ago, they devoted a segment of their show to a discussion about a candid John Mayer interview in Playboy. At the beginning of the segment, Rosen attempts to bring audiences up to speed on who Mayer is and what type of music he plays. In the course of this, a minor disagreement between Rosen and Metcalf ensues.
Rosen: But just a little word of background about John Mayer...he is, for the record, not only good in technical terms--in technical terms he's a great musician, he's a great guitar player. He sort of instantly achieved this, you know, muso-wanker status right up there with Clapton and those guys. He is a sort of a "classic rock level guitarist" and is regarded as such. You know, he's constantly...the Police have him on stage to play with them. He's that sort of level of player, like a Mark Knopfler-style dude. Considered very cheesy by hipsters because of that. So it's not...
Metcalf: That...that cannot be the reason that hipsters regard him as cheesy. 
Rosen: No, but...
Metcalf: It has to be his status as Dave Matthews-lite, right? I mean...his awful singing voice...sorry. 
Rosen: ...I just want to complete the thought.
Of course he doesn't. It's a mostly unnecessary remark, and even if it wasn't such a cliche it would still add nothing to the discussion. Metcalf rightfully points to logical lapses in this blanket statement about "hipsters," and Rosen calmly ducks the rejoinder by talking up the cheesiness of "Your Body Is a Wonderland." Later, Rosen admits, "I'm not a fan of John Mayer's music at all. I am a fan, however, of John Mayer the celebrity, which is its own distinct thing."

Rosen seems to be one of those music critics who tends to view the act of listening to and enjoying music as secondary to the cultural experience of being a "music listener"--in other words, he's more interested in music fandom as a badge of status than he is in listening to anything for the art or pleasure itself. Of course, Rosen pretends to be all about "pleasure"--the music he listens to is inherently more pleasurable because it is popular and on the radio, seems to be the argument--but he also spends an awful amount of time chiding  fellow Brooklynites for not sharing his cosmopolitan, "poptimist" aesthetics as enthusiastically as he does. In fact, he seems to do a lot more of that these days than he does, well, reviewing music. To Rosen, honest aesthetic differences in the case of pop, R&B or country bely creeping racist, classist, or sexist resentments. If we were really being honest about what we'd like, he argues, we would listen to Brad Paisley and the Black-Eyed Peas, but "artsy-fartsy rocker types" (one of Rosen's terms for music listeners who don't precisely share his tastes) are terrified of being caught enjoying something popular. In fact, in Rosen's world it seems like music fans are a constantly-cowed, terrified bunch, obsessively weighing their tastes against others in bids to see who can agree the most with the narrow sociocultural niche-consensus. Ironically, that description seems to more accurately fit Rosen himself. This isn't music criticism, it's just "criticism" untethered to any set of tastes and cultural presumptions other than nihilistic political gamesmanship and Internet social-climbing.

Yesterday, Rosen wrote a piece for Slate about Pitchfork's recent People's List, an audience poll sponsored by Converse. Nearly 28,000 participants voted on and ranked their 100 favorite albums between 1996 and 2011, and the votes were then tabulated and displayed in all sorts of useful demographic categories. The overall results were fairly predictable and surprise-free, as one expects from committee votes. Who cares if Radiohead tops another list? Jody did, and his contempt for the voters (of which he was one [so was I]) and their aggregated list of choices was swift and damning:
In short, nothing about this list is surprising, and for those of us who love pop music in its many flavors and permutations--including pop music that is actually popular--the usual complaints apply. Aesthetically, generically, regionally, racially, "The People's List" is narrow and conservative. Pitchfork's readers ignored virtually every musical genre other than indie rock and its folk- and electronic-offshoots. The Top 40 scarcely registers a blip in this world. Hip-hop--and for that matter--Afro-America--is represented mainly by Kanye West. (Kanye contains multitudes, but c'mon.) Country music doesn't exist. Metal doesn't exist. Reggaeton, bachato, salsa? ¿Como? The word outside the United States--it's barely there. The United States, Canada, and the UK account for 174 of the 200 albums; the only non-Anglophone nations are France and Sweden.
Give Rosen some credit--he does leave the words "hipster," "rockist," and "pretentious" out of the discussion, thank Christ (I'd like to think us unpaid Rockaliser bloggers have down our part to shame critics into calming down on that a bit).

Rosen goes on to take obligatory shots at Pitchfork and its readers ("as much a niche publication as XXL, or Cat Fancy") before turning his eye at the True Problem, which is the lack of gender diversity. Of the top 200 records voted by readers, only 23 were written or performed partially by women. This is probably the result of a complex interlocking of cultural factors, since Pitchfork readers aren't a representative sample of music listeners OR indie music listeners, and the 28,000 folks who voted aren't even representative of the average Pitchfork reader. Nevertheless Rosen cannot contain his righteous fury against those who had, by exclusion, wronged his favorite female artists:
Still--what the hell is wrong with these dudes? Did it escape their attention that for much of the past decade and a half, female artists have had a stranglehood on the popular music zeitgeist? Have they never heard of Missy Elliott? Can they really prefer The National to M.I.A.'s Kala, to Bjork's Homogenic to Joanna Newsom's Ys? Where are the politics in all of this?
My questions: what kind of "critic" compares his own aesthetic choices against some subjective, randomly-defined "cultural zeitgeist"? Why can't such choices be made openly and honestly without any regard whatsoever for the opinions of others? Yeah, Adele was huge--remind me again why I need to like her, other than that she is a woman and my list doesn't have enough female choices? Why not prefer the National to M.I.A. or Joanna Newsom, and why do you care? And why are "politics" only important  to you when it comes to the taste of indie rockers? On that last point, Rosen believes he has stumbled upon a great political irony, worthy of Voltaire. Indie rock's conservative consensus picks don't gibe with the culture's progressive views on gender and race:
If you surveyed the roughly 24,600 men who submitted "People's List" ballots, I wager you'd find nearly 100 percent espousing progressive views on gender issues. This would not be the case if you took a similar survey of pop, R&B, or country music fans--yet a "People's List" of top recordings in those genres from 1996-2011 with a similar gender breakdown is unimaginable. The fact is, when it comes to the question of women and, um, art, the Top 40's great unwashed--and even red state Tea Party partisans--are far more progressive and inclusive than the mountain-man-bearded, Fair Trade espresso-swilling, self-styled lefties of indiedom. Portlandia, we have a problem. 
Red state Tea Party...Fair Trade espresso-swilling...Portlandia...sorry for nodding off, just nearly had cliche seizure.

Anyway, notice what's missing from Rosen's inclusive summation of "pop, R&B or country music fans"--hip-hop. Rosen knew very well to leave that genre out of this part of his argument (though he mentions it earlier when talking about race) because of course a survey of hip-hop's greatest albums would yield even fewer female artists than Pitchfork's list. By the same token, a list of country music's finest records may include more overall females, but short of Cowboy Troy and a few others the country list is liable to be more white-dominated than even Pitchfork's sans Kanye. The only way Rosen gets away with characterizing such an ill-defined group of people is by moving the goalposts for each genre preference--when he asks "where are the politics," that's really code for "why aren't my aesthetic tastes being reinforced by more people like me?" Music lovers who are actually comfortable with their tastes don't demand that they be approved by others, especially for political reasons. For Rosen, liking Radiohead and its ilk is evidence of oppression against the "Top 40's great unwashed," a view of casual music listeners that no music fan actually shares, other than in Rosen's paranoid imagination. Maybe one of his Slate colleagues (Will Saletan maybe?) should sit Rosen down and read him some Hofstadter.

It's really hard to say what bothers me most about this piece: its presumptuous diagnosis of "indie music fans," who are actually not a monolithic group; its patently unfair and incorrect characterization of indie "progressivism," which holds fans to an unfair standard that even then is inconsistently applied; its smug jokes about some of earth's easiest musical targets like Bon Iver; its unwillingness to consider counter-arguments, from the previously-mentioned hip-hop/gender disparity to the existence of identical sampled results from female Pitchfork readers, who also placed white male-written OK Computer at the top of the consensus heap; the fact that this is overall an argument for tokenism, and the demonization of honest expressions of opinions.

But I guess what most bothers me is when he says the Pitchfork list is a "scandal." Really, a list that aggregates the musical choices of .0001% of the population of the US and presents it in various useful, colorful charts and graphs, is a scandal?

I think and write a lot about music and politics. You know what is actually a scandal? It's a scandal that, in the wake of the massive French media conglomerate Vivendi buying EMI last year, there are only three major record companies controlling (and often limiting) the output of thousands of artists. I think it's a scandal the Department of Justice, after only a year's worth of investigation, approved the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster--the DOJ's solution to the inevitable monopoly was a worthless mandate that the company "create" two of its own business rivals. Along those lines, I also think it's a scandal that Ticketmaster-Live Nation can basically buy the support of politicians like Rahm Emmanuel. I think it's a scandal that music education, and the arts in general, are no longer a priority in public schools, and while no politician ever seriously considers this idea it seems long past time that affordable instruments were made a priority for children in low-income communities. I think it's a scandal that aspiring professional musicians on Broadway and elsewhere are losing live gig opportunities to penny-pinching producers who cut live music out of the equation via prerecorded tapes and mp3s. When I walk past a street performer in Manhattan, I often think of how scandalous it is that Bloomberg gets away with charging buskers a $250 fine for being within 50 feet of any city-designated monument. And that's just for a first-time offense.

I think it's a scandal that payola still exists in the 21st century, ensuring the sometimes-awful music that Rosen admires remains on the radio, and to me it is infinitely scandalous (and suspicious) that the one governor who actively prosecuted payola (and Wall Street) fraud was busted in a prostitution scandal and mocked by Rosen's colleagues at Slate for not realizing that corporations mandating a pre-selected set of tunes is just the Way Things Are. It is especially scandalous and pathetic how the FCC rolls over for the RIAA and anyone else rich enough to lobby Orrin Hatch. It also bothers me, though I try not to lose any sleep about it, that "indie" has just become another brand word for publicists, and that people who complain about this are derided by fake, usually white populists as "elite" or "Fair Trade espresso-swilling."

What else? The sampling laws in this country are scandalous, responsible for insane fines and nonsensical legal barriers against legitimate creative expression. It also seems to me scandalous (if not necessarily illegal) that the few Jay-Z-Kanye level artists who can afford to pay for high-profile samples buy them directly from the record companies, and don't consult with the artists themselves. It is horrifying to me that an artist can refuse to put his or her song in a commercial, only to turn on the TV and hear what is essentially a copycat version of that artist. It is scandalous that the RIAA still charges a $150,000 fine for the crime of downloading one 99 cent song. These are just a few musical/"political" matters that bother me a bit more than how many female or black artists a certain ill-defined group of people put in their top 10.

Yet Rosen never reports about any of these issues for Slate or Rolling Stone--he's too busy mocking liberals for their intentions in the Slate-est of manners, smugly characterizing folks like Springsteen as classist poseurs for dealing in some Occupy-type language ("painting WPA murals" he calls it). Much of what Rosen has written for Slate or Rolling Stone suggests he is a proud, active defender of the corporate status quo. That he chides others for their lack of "progressivism," and then looks upon himself as a model of cosmopolitan music fandom is as insulting as it is refutable. Perhaps with this article, those critical of indie fandom will discover how "poptimists" are in fact just as capable of smug, judgmental observations as the artsy-fartsy types or "rockists" who hate on the Top 40 "unwashed masses."

I don't dislike Jody Rosen as a writer, I don't want him fired or anything like that. Unfortunately, he's playing the Internet discourse game*, where manufactured outrage over the most asinine of issues is retweeted thoughtlessly by people who like to see their narrow worldview reinforced, never challenged. Rosen defends his piece by saying that, so far, only men have criticized it. Since women haven't, that somehow makes it more legitimate. This is how a writer who can't actually defend his or her arguments deflects criticism, by talking up the people who parrot it uncritically.

By being demonstrably obsessed with the measure of his opinions against others, Rosen is as much a creature of "indie" close-mindedness as those unwashed mashes he mocks. To me, as harsh as that sounds, that's at least a partial definition of a "hack"--someone who fits their opinion around a preconceived political narrative. And it is a common tendency amongst paid music critics. I get it, I took Sociology 101, so I understand there is something called "white privilege" that exists. Now, does pointing that out constantly actually enhance anyone's understanding of the Vampire Weekend album?

Sometimes I wonder if there's anyone left on the Internet with an honest opinion.

*As I am now, way ahead of you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

American R&B: Gospel Grooves, Funky Drummers and Soul Power (Out Now)

Check it out, I wrote a book!

American R&B: Gospel Grooves, Funky Drummers, and Soul Power
by Aaron Mendelson
Available Now From Lerner Publishing

Like Nathan, I've written an entry in Lerner Publishing's "American Music Milestones" series. It's called American R&B: Gospel Grooves, Funky Drummers, and Soul Power. The book is geared towards teenage readers, and I'd be delighted if it found its way into the hands of the budding music fan in your life.

American R&B was the result of a year spent immersed in the history and music of the genre, so I'd like to think it'd be an enjoyable and educational read for people outside of its intended age range. If you don't know how many pounds of sweat James Brown shed at each performance, you might learn something yourself.

In either case, I'd be thrilled to learn what you think of the book. It's a bit expensive--about $23 from Lerner's website, or $30 at Amazon--due to the book's binding, which is built to withstand the demands of school libraries. But hey, that means it'll withstand all those re-readings you're sure to give it! Hopefully the binding will ensure that used copies are still in good condition too.

American R&B starts with R.C. Robinson messing around on piano at a shop in Greenville, Florida. R.C. later became Ray Charles, who helped distill black America's disparate musical expressions--the blues, gospel and jazz--into an explosive new genre. Rhythm and blues.

Artists like Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson and Teddy Riley are towering, influential figures in the genre's history, and get their due in the book. I also tried to emphasize the regional scenes and labels that have left their mark, from teens singing doo wop on New York street corners, to Motown's musical assembly line in Detroit. Cities like Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis revolutionized how R&B was created, what it was about, and how it sounded. Readers in those cities will get a bit of local history with their soul.

R&B also existed within historical and social contexts. Readers learn about how racism and segregation shaped the genre from its earliest expressions, and hopefully come away with an understanding of how R&B fits into the broader contours of black history.

Mostly, though, American R&B is about incredible music. Writing this book was a great experience, but sometimes a frustrating one. That was never the case with putting on Isaac Hayes, the Ronettes, or Off The Wall. It's been exciting seeing our culture get excited about R&B again, whether it's Adele or Frank Ocean. And the genre is shifting in really fascinating ways right now (if I had to guess, this might hold a clue to where we're headed). R&B has such a rich and varied history--you could spend the next year obsessed with classic Motown, 80's funk, disco divas, or obscure soul compilations, and literally hear nothing but passionate, beautiful music. There are a handful of playlists and an appendix of must-haves in the book. They scratch the surface.

That's what the book does too. It's a survey, and at 64 pages, a pretty quick read. There are certainly omissions. (sorry, Gladys Knight and Rick James!) But the goal was to write a concise, engaging review of a complex and evolving art form. If any educators out there have questions about the book, you're welcome to get in touch via email.

I hope you'll read American R&B: Gospel Grooves, Funky Drummers & Soul Power. I'm proud of it. But it's no substitute for the primary sources:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

American Hip-Hop: Rappers, DJs and Hard Beats (Out Now)

As I keep saying, very exciting times here at Rockaliser. For one thing, I wrote a book:

Available at Most Online Bookstores Within the Greater Googlesphere

It's a textbook about rap music, covering the history of the genre from its origins in the South Bronx to the present day, written with a middle school/early teen audience in mind. This entry represents one of six genres featured in Lerner Publishing's "American Music Milestones" series--the others are rock music, Latin music, country, pop, and soul/R&B, the last of which you will be hearing more about soon. Check out all the titles on Amazon.

While American Hip-Hop: Rappers, DJs and Hard Beats is written for younger readers, it can be read by curious music fans of any age. My hope was that kids and hip-hop laymen alike would be able to pick up this book and learn a decent amount of history in sixty scant pages. The book covers a lot of ground, and is full of neat sidebars and extras, like "Must Download" playlists, timelines, and glossaries of terms, all of which are calibrated for maximum new listener pleasure. If there's one thing that bothers me about the finished product, it's that I had to leave out a lot of artists because of word constraints (a partial list of really, really important rappers I couldn't get to: Busta Rhymes, Kool Keith, Das EFX, Gang Starr, EPMD, Redman, the Beatnuts, E-40, T.I., the Fu-Schnickens, MF Doom--the more I rattle off the worse I feel). Nevertheless, despite its manifold, unforgivable errors of omission I do think the book effectively condenses forty years of music, politics, controversy and fashion in a digestible and entertaining package.

I've always wanted to write a book, and as far as introductory-level work-for-hire gigs go, this was the jackpot. Even when I struggled at certain points--say, when forced to cut entire sections about Fear of a Black Planet--I could rely on the input and patience of editors far more experienced than me, who knew and supported exactly what I was going for but nevertheless tamped down my enthusiasm for random, irrelevant historical trivia. Freelance book-writing gigs, especially for younger, inexperienced writers, can be nightmarish and painful, but this one was almost disturbingly pleasant.  

More importantly, working on this book broadened my appreciation for the genre, which was already substantial. I listened to hundreds of albums, studied rap style and wordplay, researched samples, and read every book I could get on the subject, aiming to get the most complete picture of rap music in my head that I could. The best consequence of this was an enhanced understanding of the hip-hop's capacity for social change, built into the genre from the very beginning. To understand hip-hop, it is important to picture the impoverished and segregated Bronx of the 1970s, a bleak period for the borough which nevertheless inspired these amazing innovations in sound first introduced by DJ Kool Herc in 1973. 

Rap music is not a politically neutral art form. It is only recently, after all, that journalistic "neutrality" in the public sphere has come to be seen as a virtue, and this notion is complete nonsense. Hip-hop is about the individual voice as an instrument of radical change. Forget the boring arguments about what is and isn't "authentic" or "real" hip-hop. A rap scene that doesn't challenge prevailing notions of authority and privilege, that wastes its resources on celebrity gossip and beefs and other such nonsense, is denying its own radical history. That's a plain and obvious fact. In writing about some of the controversies that have fueled misunderstandings of hip-hop culture, I touch on some characteristics of modern race relations that are rarely articulated in the public school classroom. I strongly believe hip-hop remains a relevant mode of expression because it is uniquely capable of contextualizing sometimes dark themes in a profound, uplifting and exciting manner. For younger audiences, hip-hop is an especially potent method of expressing complex ideas about race, politics, and class.

It's a really great time to be a hip-hop fan in 2012. There have been reams of amazing albums to come out this year. Off the top of my head, I can think of killer LPs or mixtapes from Curren$y, Masta Ace, DJ Premier and Bumpy Knuckles, Killer Mike, El-P, Big K.R.I.T., Devin the Dude, The Alchemist, Large Professor, Odd Future, Ab-Soul, and probably others. Rick Ross' new album is shockingly brilliant, as was his mixtape Rich Forever from earlier this year. And the year is only half over, with more to come from beloved veterans Ghostface Killah and Big Boi as well as young upstarts Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. Hip-hop is entering a remarkable new era, with new scenes incubating every day in less densely populated regions of the country. Even my home state of Iowa seems poised for a decent, breakout rapper to make it big in the next few years. Despite the think pieces proclaiming "hip-hop is dead" every few years, the amount of amazing rap music seems to be growing exponentially, as more rappers choose to circumvent the major label system and release music directly on the Internet.

Anyway, all this rambling may be a bad way of trying to convince you to buy my book (if $30 seems excessive--which I totally understand--there are an array of cheaper prices at non-Amazon bookstores). American Hip-Hop is ideal for kids interested in exploring the genre, and already it's garnered a couple of positive reviews from adults as well. Teachers might especially be interested in using it as a potential classroom resource--anyone is invited to email me here with questions or suggestions about using hip-hop in an educational setting. If you like what we do at Rockaliser, please check out this book: it might not be the most comprehensive ever written on the subject, but it conveys what it knows with what I hope is real, palpable enthusiasm for the music and the culture, both of which I have come to respect more than ever.