I really really want to thank you for dancing to the end.

So, there are these three videos from Janelle Monae’s new record The Electric Lady that I keep watching, over and over.  They tie into, and are the latest episodes of a long-running future history narrative arc that she’s used to connect every bit of her publicly released work.  I don’t know nearly enough about that narrative enough to explicate it, but maybe these folks can help with that. In the meantime I just want to put them up here, possibly counterpoised with some other “emotion pictures” (as they’re known in the world of Monae’s alter ego, Cindy Mayweather, the Archandroid.  Here’s the first, the scene setter:

And, as I watch that video I find myself seeing this one out of the corner of my eye:

There are some obvious nods, in the multiple roles that Janelle and Andre play, and in the twitchiness of the filming. What else?  

Concrete Jungle

There was at least a solid two years in Fayetteville where it seemed like you could not go to a party or hangout or a show without hearing “Legend.” Usually on cassette, and typically turned over a couple of times. This, and the whole jambandization of reggae in general has probably led me to take bob Marley for granted, and forget that I used to hear punk and reggae as musical coefficients. Anyway, this rocked my world. if you find an hour and a half of reggae daunting (I do) start here at 20:06 with “Concrete Jungle.” and skip ahead to 33:27 for “Them Bellyful,” both deep grooved and blistering deconstructions of the real situation.

Cultural Exchange

Dave Bruceck has passed, and everywhere on the net, “Take 5″ is playing.  That’s a wonderful thing, but here’s a lesser known bit of the Brubeck legacy, a musical written by Dave and Iola Brubeck, starring Louis Armstrong and Carmen Mcrae, among others, about the cultural and political paradox that was the US State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program, during the era of segregation and the Cold War.

Selling Out

Some notes from an email I sent into a discussion list while working on ideas about how to talk about pop music that stands against pop music.  It’s not exactly right in some places, but it does a good job of explaining where my thinking about pop music and authenticity comes from.  Written in reply to the estimable Tony Thomas,  I’m trying to salvage what was good (or at least necessary) about being worried about selling out, while recognizing what’s really problematic about the foundations of the whole idea.

I came of age playing  and putting on punk rock shows in the early 1980s. During this time what we were doing seemed, to us, to be part of an attempt or  series of attempts by various people in various cities across the country to take control of the various means of production (venues, record labels, recording studios, records) that brought music into contact with audiences. Within the context of trying to build alternate channels, or of trying to craft a set of more humane relations of production that could still exist under capitalism, the idea of “selling out” has a little more meaning.

Now, that doesn’t mean that even in those contexts it was more often than not a dubious idea mobilized in pernicious ways. people who had a measure of social power within the scene might mobilize it to police other people’s stylistic choices, for instance or to attempt to delegitimize bands, venues, record labels, etc. that were more successful than their own, even on the local micro-scale. Our purity was largely imagined, perhaps only existing  in some kind of negative ratio to how fiercely we defended it.

But, there was something (not purity by any means) going on in our little town that had fractured links to similar activities across the US. And I do think that it was healthier for all concerned when we (and others in other cities and the next group of kids that followed us, about 10 years later, etc.) were putting on shows for each other, sharing postering, set up and clean up duties as well as any little
money that was made, than when the local beer merchants decided they could make some money off of having these “alternative” bands play at their clubs. To some degree, the idea of “selling out” helped to counter the appeal that playing in a “real” club still offered. The discourse of “not selling out” was for better and worse part of our sense of mission, although the mission itself proved unsustainable and on a larger scale “alternative” and “indie” became the newest entries in the rock lexicon of faux authenticity.

I’m sorry if these thoughts tend towards rambling, I’m just trying to make some sense of these ideas and my own history with them. Because I do think that attempts to democratize, localize, and overall humanize music making are good. And, it’s good to recognize the predatory nature of the system we’re working under when we try to do those things. but, as Tony points out, the bohemian mirror image of “artistic purity” is also poisonous. DIY-centric punk rock scenes tend to be generationally centered towards younger kids, perhaps in part because they depend on a kind of volunteerism that can only be maintained with energy and free time that are mostly available to adolescents. And this free time is bought and paid for by the work that other people (parents mostly) do, work that’s pretty much invisible to teen-age scenesters who are most likely to level charges of “sell out!” at others, and elided by essayists in the popular press who are invested in making a living out of the debris of rock and roll mythology that’s scattered around our popular culture.

My beginnings in the punk rock scene led to a decade or so of doing sound work, mostly on a very mercenary basis. it was satisfying to be working so closely with the production and habitation of musical moments, but it was also depressing when i felt like I was just part of the booze/money apparatus, no more indispensable than the beer tap. When I entered academia later in life, part of my motivation was to try to make some sense out of what I had seen. There are ideological traps and knots bound up in the way that people keep trying to build platforms for sustaining unpopular popular music, but there are good reasons why people keep trying with whatever imperfect tools they
find.

No Radio Free Lunch (Blog)

Adele, R&B, & a Century of Generic Purity

This article from The Atlantic is…Interesting.   I’m not going to write about the Club Music as/not as R&B aspect much, because I don’t know much about club music.  What I want to work with is the over all notion of generic purity that a debate like that necessarily contemplates, and, Stephen Merritt’s reaction, originally from the LA Weekly,  to Adele’s popularity :“I like Adele, though I have some reservations about why people like her,” Merritt said. “She really has a lovely voice, but I only get suspicious when people get excited about British people who sound like American black people.”


“Basically she sounds like Anita Baker,” Merritt continued. “And people are not, you know, wild and crazy about Anita Baker. And I think about the whole, with the racism, when people love when British people sound like American black people.” Any genre is going to periodically go through points when it synthesizes and hybridizes, and, if it has listeners still attached to some vision of its past, its also going to have, in response to those moments, calls for purity and a return to essentials.

As the original self-claimed popular  “black music” genre, the one that uses the prideful term that took over from “race records” and “the harlem hit parade” in 1947 (a term that was coined by a Jewish staff writer for Billboard, Jerry Wexler, who went on to become a partner in Atlantic Records) R&B exhibits a lot of tension around notions of generic purity.  Part of what black artists and producers and entrepreneurs have been trying to do with the idea of what R&B means, for decades, is to push back against white appropriations of black folks musical labors.  Overall, this is a good thing, but it gets sticky when white folks start producing really good music that speaks to the purer (and often older) notions of what defines the genre.  And this has been happening for a good long time too.   When Stephen Merrit says he gets suspicious of people getting excited over British people singing like American black people he’s basically saying he’s suspicious of  a huge chunk of the history of rock and roll post-1963.
I find Merrit pretty annoying (tho that whole “Stephen Merrit is a racist because he doesn’t like hip-hop thing seems bogus) but this is not simple territory.  There’s probably something to the idea that if Adele was black, then the mass of white folks who buy her records wouldn’t have found as much to identify with in her music.  And, because her sound is part of what black folks, at least since the soul revolution in the 60s, have loudly and proudly claimed as a “black sound,” then that matters because it speaks to the racialized conditions of the market.  You can say that our ears ought to be colorblind, and that’s true, but you can’t just wave away 100 years of egregious exploitation of African American musical labor.
 On the other hand, Merrit’s comments also imply that a (white) British R&B performer is necessarily suspect, even tho she’s singing music that she could easily have grown up surrounded by, and loves, and finds expressive of her feelings.  And this suggests that there are, somehow, natural musical paths for black and white folks and that we should be skeptical and suspicious when they step off of those paths.  And, the exploitation of black musical labor that I cited above is founded on a century of marketing that whole idea: that there are “black sounds” and “white sounds.”   And, Adele is coming to this game so late, after The Righteous Brothers, Van Morrison, Teena Marie, etc. and is doing such an old-fashioned, musically conservative reading of the form, that its fair to ask whether people who aren’t music mavens even hear what she’s doing as a particularly “black sound.”
The reality is much more complex than the market driven idea of “black” and “white” sounds.  There are musical traditions that have been maintained and innovated largely by one racial group or another, and the musical traditions maintained and innovated by black Americans have been tremendously influential, and those influences and innovations have been unevenly rewarded.  But the notion of racially pure musical traditions has always been a marketing lie, although its one that encouraged and created further racial separation in the practice of music making.  The bluegrass banjo is a black instrument.  Howlin’ Wolf’s wolf-call came from his attempt to  imitate Jimmy Rogers’ yodel.  Etc.

Conversations: “Free” Music

Over at Dangerous Minds, Nail O’Conghaile has a post about the Emily White-David Lowery-Free Music-Piracy conversation that rolled across social media a couple of weeks ago.   Arguing in support of Lowery’s position, O”Conghaile asks “why does the onus always seem to be on the creator of art to accept that their product should be free, rather than on the consumer to analyze the impact of their actions on the quality of art?” and predicts “that we’ll never see another David Bowie or another Prince or another Beatles again. Not because talents such as there’s aren’t out there, but because the financial system that allowed those talents to flourish, and that in turn made the consumers used to obtaining a high level of art on a regular basis, are gone.”   I think that’s a good question to ask right now, and I like the fact that the prediction refuses to unwrap great popular music from its economic structures.

In between those two points, O’Conghaile touched on the role of what I would call the rhetoric of authenticity in justifying piracy.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’ll have more to say about it later, but for now, I left this in comments:

“One day I would dearly love to be able to live off the money generated by my music. So, am I somehow wrong (or perhaps even evil) because I want this?

Some would say that I am, that somehow I am not a “true” artist because I have brought money into the equation and have aspirations to become “professional.” (How exactly does being considered a professional in your field invalidate what you do?!) To these folks I must stay clean and unsullied by money at all times, lest I become some kind of artistic “whore.” (And I LOVE getting called a “whore,” especially by people who can’t stop themselves downloading music like a junkie can’t say no to a fix.)
Well, newsflash: your romantic notion doesn’t pay my rent.”

One of the things that I think feeds into this is the idea that the genres that have occupied the center of the pop universe over the past 4 decades or so, are somehow themselves transcendent of or separate from the marketplace. its an idea that got attached to rock at pretty much the point where it moved into that center, and its been a defining characteristic ever since. there are some exceptions, but the dominant genres between 1965 and today, rock and hip-hop in their various variations, posit themselves as what I call “unpopular popular music” or “unpop,” music distinguished in the market by supposedly resisting those market forces.
In some ways its a by product of what pop music does, the way it makes you feel freed from your everyday, workaday, shackles. But that feeling has always been an illusion, leveraged by musicians and record companies (I’m not equating the two, just pointing out a confluence of interests) to keep people buying music. Now, its being leveraged by people who run file sharing sites and make money off ad revenues, and pay even less (nothing) to the people who make the music.
Given the choice, and we do have one, I’d rather pay the record labels and the musicians. Even the crookedest record labels gave artists a bigger cut than The Pirate Bay.
A lot of folks on here keep insisting that somehow this current state of affairs is more democratic, is better for a wider variety of artists, for people unlikely to have been signed in the first place. Well, this could be true. But it doesn’t have to be, and it won’t automatically turn out that way. The talented and quirky ukulele player will likely have to find a way to support her art or get burned out. if you go and look for ways to pay her for the music you like, she can keep doing it longer. Or, you can throw up your hands and watch the market eat her alive. its really up to each of us.
I’ve beaten this analogy to death on this thread, but I’ll hit it one more time. People decide to pay more for fair trade coffee, or to shop locally, or to eat organic, or to not wear sweatshop clothing. These kinds of choices have even become kind of hip, often with the same folks who think that driving up the ad revenues for a file-sharing site is more rebellious and righteous than buying music from an artist. We can make it hip to buy music. its not about putting the genie back in the bottle, its about asking for what you really want to happen, even if it costs a little cash.

Unpop

…is short for Unpopular Popular Music, which I wrote about in my recently completed dissertation for the University of Iowa Department of American Studies.  The term refers to music (folk music, punk rock, rock and roll as it is remembered if not as it was) that is distinguished in the popular marketplace by the understanding that it is somehow apart from or transcendent of market imperatives.  Its the quality of realness, and is also dominant paradigm for the rhetorical relation between pop music and the market for most of the last half of the Twentieth Century so much so that its obverse–a loud and proud and only slightly ironic fakeness—is sometimes hailed as an even more dramatic expression of authenticity in that it honestly admits the difficulties of claiming such a status.

I will be exploring unpop and other themes and ideas (mostly) from my dissertation, Crossover Narratives: Race, Genre, and Unpopular Popular Music in this space.   I want it to use this space to present my professional work, but also for working through ideas and talking out loud.  Most of those ideas will be related, broadly speaking, to U.S. pop and vernacular music making, or to the South, or both.