Friday, December 31, 2004

Friday Offspring-blogging: All Together Now!

One, two, three, four,/Can I have a little more?/ Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten/ I love you! Posted by Hello

The Band Crush

I get band crushes: these intense fascinations with an artist, often in a sudden burst of discovery, craving more, looking for the full catalog. If they're an artist with a history, you get to work backward and forward from wherever you entered, then keep that thread going into the present and future, assuming the artist is still active. Even if you lose track of the thread sometimes, you can find it again. And these threads, woven together, create a fabric of experience which shapes us.

Example: I first encountered XTC in 1982, just after English Settlement, when I saw the video for "Senses Working Overtime," still one of my favorite songs, maybe ever. (Though I'm constantly baffled as to why the world's most infamous sufferer of stage fright could sing on film. Wouldn't that be worse?) I went backward and fell head-over-heels for Go 2 and Drums and Wires and the whole early catalog, as different as they were from what XTC would become in the 80's. I stuck with them, briefly baffled but eventually entranced by The Dukes of the Stratosphear, rooting for the occasional radio appearances of "Peter Pumpkinhead" or "The Man Who Murdered Love." My children have been rocked to sleep by my achingly poor rendition of "Love on a Farmboy's Wages." My recent "Dear God" encounter with my daughter has already appeared in this space (see comments section of "Bonus Christmas Babe-blogging"). And I feel a vague sense of adulterous irresponsibility at my failure to own the ever-burgeoning collection of Fuzzy Warbles discs, though I know I'll rectify this at some point.

So maybe crush is the wrong word. Maybe this is more like a lifelong commitment one can make to multiple partners, whose claims on various corners of the soul can't be questioned. But crush definitely describes the early fascination, the minor obsession, the sufficiency of one CD in the car, the running of music through the head in the shower, as one falls asleep and wakes up, the utter domination of mental and aural real estate for a while. I've had a whole bunch of these, to quote Helen from The Iliad, "slut that I am." I have one now.

And once you've had a band crush, you never really lose it. You may forget it, but you're likely to relapse at any second. A couple of years ago, I made the acquaintance of a woman in Colorado whose musical tastes dovetailed so completely with my own that we spent a good six months shipping CDR's back and forth across the continent, guessing what each other might like, rarely wrong. She asked, via email, whether I knew The Records. I said yes, but didn't have any on CD. She sent me Smashes, Crashes, and Near Misses, and I smiled, putting it on while I worked on something else. I only gradually became aware that I was singing along to something I thought I only kind of knew, and hadn't heard in well over twenty years. And this wasn't "Starry Eyes" or "Hearts in Her Eyes"--no, this was "I Don't Remember Your Name," which as far as I know was never a hit. And I knew every word. So there's an unconscious aspect to the process as well.

The list of my band crushes is long, and has little to do with whether a band was ever commercially popular or not. In fact, I would argue that the relative obscurity of a band increases their crushability, since there is an incredible charm to the idea that this is your own little thing. We crushers love to share our obsessions with others, thrilled and excited to find fellow travelers, and that's simply not as intense a process when just anyone knows who your crush is.

True: I was at a party the other night and a guy was looking through the artist list on my iPod, trying to find the song of the band of the mutual friend who was hosting the party. I found the process oddly intimate, this list of artists who make up my consciousness on display for this person I'd barely met. But it was all okay when he said, and I quote, "Shoes! No way! Cool!" (or something to that effect). Our host looked in and said from the other room, "You didn't just say 'Shoes' did you? Uh-oh." He and I shared a look and burst out laughing, my ongoing attempts to convince him that they are one of the greatest bands of the last thirty years being something of a standing joke at this point. (I am right about this, Bill; you'll see that someday.)

Eventually, the intensity of the crush fades a bit, and the weaving process can begin. That's when you become aware that you no longer are content with one CD in the car, but now want to make a mix which includes the crush band with others you like too, sometimes even former crushes, like introducing a human crush to your friends to see how they coexist. All of which I tell myself to help keep things in perspective.

And I don't believe for one second I'm the only person who does this, though such a confession may simply convince others that I need a twelve-step program more than a blog.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Bad Girls, Uppity Women, and the Problem of the Field

Yesterday, while wrestling with my cool new iPod (Thanks, Thers!) I had lots of time to poke around online and read.(The solution I worked out--hardly ideal--was to import all my mp3s and wma files into my heretofore unused itunes program, then cut the ones I decided I didn't need to hear regularly (as they exist elsewhere), then copy all that onto the device. But there must be a better, less time-consuming way. Mustn't there?) I found myself totally sucked into a quite interesting piece by Caryn Brown over at Perfect Sound Forever, suggesting a rough equivalency between the traumas faced last year by Liz Phair and the Dixie Chicks. Brown argues compellingly that:
Liz Phair faced a subculture war, the kind that's been raging in Bohemia even before Allen Ginsberg declared that the best minds of his generation were "poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high." Liz Phair went public with the fact that she wanted to go pop, and wanted to appeal to a mass audience; she hired the Matrix, a trio of hit-making producers, to work on some of her songs. For these actions, she was exiled from Bohemia. Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks) publicly declared her distaste for the commander-in-chief in concert, uttering that she was, "ashamed that the president of the United States of America is from Texas." For this, her band was banished from much of country radio.

Neither of these acts is pop, per se, but I'm interested in the way generic distinctions shape our responses to public proclamations by musicians.

The Dixie Chicks kafuffle is infamous: a popular female country band who'd already raised eyebrows with their zestful tune about spousal homicide (and spawned a line of "Earl's in the Trunk" bumper stickers) simply apologized to their (foreign) audience for American foreign policy. It was stage banter. I'm sure we've all heard much worse. But the point was not the words, it was the speaker, or, more importantly, the audience. Eminem can declare "Fuck Bush" openly, but country musicians do not diss their president (though reportedly, Maines' comments were well received in the room).

The faux-outrage engineered by ClearChannel in defense of patriotic America reminded me, humorously, of All You Need Is Cash, the piss-funny documentary Eric Idle made in the 70's about "The Rutles," Dirk, Nasty, Stig, and Barry, who together "created a legend that would last a lunchtime." In the episode mirroring Lennon's famous "more popular than Jesus" statement, Idle's sonorous narration informs us that, "people were buying albums just to burn them. Sales skyrocketed." Hee hee.

But I also had a serious response, the standard liberal intellectual recoil from the sight of any conflagration of media, even that in which I don't personally indulge. In that sense, I follow Andy Partridge:
I believe the printed word is more than sacred
Beyond the gauge of good or bad
The human right to let your soul fly free and naked
Above the violence of the fearful and sad
The church of matches
Anoints in ignorance with gasoline
The church of matches
Grows fat by breathing in the smoke of dreams
It's quite obscene

The problem was that the audience for country and country-pop does tend to be of the yellow-ribbon magnet variety (though in those giddy days of 2003, we lived in a largely ribbon-free society), and not so eager to hear the political opinions of a bunch of girl singers, no matter how kickass the fiddle. Had the Dixie Chicks been a pop act, or the Dixie Dudes, they would not have been, as the resultant coinage became, "dixie-chicked." (I first heard this term from Salman Rushdie, though Thers assures me it was current in the blogosphere before that. Still, I attribute it to Rushdie, because the man who wrote The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children can pretty much get anything from me. Linguistically, that is. But I still have to read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, his rock-and-roll novel.)

The parallel Brown draws between these events and the Liz Phair implosion seems absurd, at the outset. I mean, Phair knew her audience, chose her path. But Brown lays it out differently:
This is about time and place and action and reaction. This may be about fans (what happens when the performer you idolize turns out to be something different than you expect?) and it may or may not be about boundaries (who gets to set them, who gets to move them, and are they sometimes fluid). This may be about the glories of war, about how it sometimes it takes a culture war to really find yourself, and how a real war influences culture.

I liked Liz Phair in the mid-90's; I thought Whip-smart was a great record, and "Supernova" one of the greatest love songs ever written ("Your kisses are as wicked as an M-16/And you fuck like a volcano and you're everything to me"). I do, however, remember once hearing her cover of "Turning Japanese" on the radio on my way to work, stalking into the classroom fuming, and cursing my students that their lives should become kitsch while they were still young enough to realize it. They were bemused, and rightly so. In any case, I worked backward through Exile in Guyville and I liked what she did and who she was, though I was also aware that she resisted her social position. I once heard her interviewed and she said she had no interest in being "the next feminist spokesmodel" or something like that.

I had no strong feelings about The Matrix intervention, except that it seemed silly to me to hire someone to do for you what you seemed perfectly capable of doing for yourself, like hiring a personal shopper or something. Decadent and unnecessary, kind of. And I do take the general point that she's getting a bit long in the tooth to do the whole Avril Lavigne thing--Christ, she's my age (within about 6 months). But she looks good, and the record doesn't suck. I have it, but it's not something I go back to often, like probably 90% of the stuff I own.

But then it was not the resultant record that people objected to; it was the violation of a code, a moment Brown compares to Dylan going electric, though I wouldn't grant it such epic status myself. In that sense, it never mattered what the record sounded like, merely that it existed. Similarly, the Dixie Chicks violated an idea (or ideal)--and paid the price.

The inequity here is that the Dixie Chicks' transgression seems to have paid off, while Phair's hasn't, at least not to the satisfaction of her (now major) label. This is getting long, but I want to propose one other thing that Brown, I think, leaves out: the idea of cultural capital. According to Pierre Bourdieu, both of these artists were caught up in struggles for capital within their respective fields. Now,I'm not the Bourdieuian around here, and we're traveling today, but I'm going to try and get Thers to come on here and explain this to you all in a comment.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Bonus Christmas Babe-Blogging

Improbably, this child is also a NYMary production... Posted by Hello

Friday Babyblogging!

Finally got one where her eyes don't look brown! They're actually dark blue, like mine. Posted by Hello

Thursday, December 23, 2004

No 2004 Wrap-up Here

I am a bad blogger. Having spent the last few days cruising around to other people's sites (and refusing to contribute to the one I titularly advise), I now realize that the sine qua non of the blog is the year-end wrap-up.

And I'm not doing it.

2004 was a pretty mixed year for me personally. Good things did happen: I had a child, made some friends, started this blog. But lots of shitty stuff happened, too: I spent the summer on bed rest, became theatrically, remarkably unproductive, didn't get to go to the Bloomsday 100 celebration in Dublin. I taught twelve sections of various things, most of them badly.

And then there was November, which still makes me cringe in horror at the absolute idiocy of my countrymen, whose ignorance and fear that someone, somewhere might be having nonprocreational sex apparently trumped their desire to live safely and leave their children a decent world. Unless, of course, the election was stolen technologically, which makes me cringe in a different way, like a little kid hiding under the bed from an abusive sibling whose power cannot be restrained. When do Mom and Dad get home?

Not wanting to dwell on this too much, long story short, no wrap-up.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Why I Miss Records

Those who know me are aware of my somewhat Luddite obsession with vinyl, which I still purchase, when available, and, yes, play. A couple of years ago I picked up one of the few remaining copies of Black Vinyl Shoes, the classic record-made-in-a-living-room (and a bedroom and a kitchen, but I gather it was a pretty small apartment). I had a copy from the 70's, but on PVC, so it wasn't Shoes' own release, and I had it on CD, but I have to confess: from the moment I heard there were still a couple of these kicking around northern Illinois, I coveted it. Eventually, I steeled myself and paid a ridiculous amount of money for the thing, a bargain, considering it came with a sticker and a t-shirt transfer. (and yes I did, but I scanned it and printed it onto modern t-shirt transfer paper, thank you very much. What do you think I am, a geek?)

When it arrived, my teen was fascinated as I slit the plastic and unpacked the sleeve. "Why don't CD's come with all this cool stuff?" She watched in awe as I put it on the turntable, she and the 70's-era stereo components being the best things I brought out of that relationship. "How can you tell where the next song starts?" she asked, and I felt like I was teaching her how to churn butter as I showed her the vinyl in the light, like I was sharing some arcane, medieval ritual. Once I put it on, she shrugged and left, but I heard the beauty of nondigitized sound. What can I tell you? It's a fetish.

I was remembering this encounter today as I was reading a series of essays from the PopMatters crowd about shopping for music in the current climate. They reflect on the importance of the internet, the boorishness of record store clerks, the thrill of the hunt, sneaking music in on one's spouse, shifting generic boundaries.... all in all, a cool collection of essays. My favorite, though was Zeth Lundy's "The Plasticine Aroma of History," in which he discusses the Benjaminian aura of the record store.
[I]f music is my religion, then record stores are my places of worship. Shopping for music is as absorbing an exercise as listening to music, one that requires more than sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen. Record-searching and record-buying is a visceral, obsessive thing, an activity that demands physical contact. There's a calming comfort in being surrounded by row upon row of discs and vinyl, a sense of solidarity imbibed by standing among decades of recorded music. You can't help but feel a part of it all. Moving from "A" to "B" to "C", the hunt for specific albums begets the surprise of unexpected bargains begets the discovery of releases you didn't even know existed. Shopping in record stores means bumping into fellow obsessives pawing through the row adjacent to you, "Street Fighting Man" scissor-kicking its way through the overhead stereo, fingers flirting meticulously through the myriad of possibilities.

I can't remember the last time I was in a record store. Well, that's not quite true. I was in one last week, looked for something very specific (Half Smiles of the Decomposed), didn't find it, and was out again inside 90 seconds. I cursed myself for not picking it up a week ago online, Lundy's great boogeyman. I get most of my music online or from my friends, though I have not yet made the great iPod leap (Christmas is coming, Thersites!). My addiction to CDBaby, where you get to hear two minutes of every song, borders on the comic.

Lundy's is essentially an urban complaint: any kid who grew up in a small town knew that the chances of finding what you wanted in your local record store were slim. My brother and I used to frequent a used record store whose owner resembled a pederast and whose collection leaned heavily toward the Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods side of things, but he had the benefit of being willing to trade three of yours for one of his. I learned to shop for records there, perfected the flip, the cursory study of the sleeve, the close inspection of the condition of the disc. Lundy is right about that: it was a tactile, visceral process. Personally, I think the death of the record store mirrored the rise of the CD, since CD's don't, in my daughter's phrase, come with "all this cool stuff." How do others buy music, I wonder? Are we Lundy-style purists? Or mp3-tossing fools?

Friday, December 17, 2004

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Do We Know It's Christmas?

'Tis the season for overspending, overeating, overreaching, and crap, crap music. And yet I find myself oddly inulgent toward the crap this year, partly because I'm in that weird Christmas space where you actually want to bake and shit. I'm actually quite a fabulous cook, and make all sorts of treats my family can't live without: old family recipes like the nasty-sounding but actually delightful Tomato Soup Cake (a spice cake with cherries and nuts), the evilly addictive Peanut Blossoms (a peanut butter cookie with a Hershey's kiss on top), and Scotch Shortbread, dense and buttery as fudge (a favorite of Thersites). Little Thersites has requested gingerbread men, so we'll do that, too.

But when I bake, I love to listen to Christmas music. I have the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown CD, and The Roches Three Kings, and some damn version of The Messiah. But hands down, my favorite is a collection (currently gone missing in my house) of Christmas songs by Black Vinyl Records called Yuletunes. Great stuff, really; Shoes, Matthew Sweet,The Spongetones, 92 Degrees, Herb Eimermann.... it's a terrific disc. Feeds both my demons at once. I'm hunting for it today.

But oddly, none of these tunes made the cut for this year's favorite Christmas song. Not even the newly rerecorded "Do They Know It's Christmas?" has managed to displace, you guessed it, "Fairytale of New York" as the preferred song of the season, according to a VH-1 poll. My heart just glows:
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last!

*Sniff!* I think I'll go get some egg nog....

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Calling Tipper Gore!

I read over at Launch that Walmart is being sued. The issue? They sold a CD that contained the word "fuck." It was from Evanescence, one of those bands that barely causes a blip on my radar, but I hear the kids love 'em. I have better things to do with my time. But apparently, middle America does not, and fear for the purity of their children.
"I don't want any other families to get this, expecting it to be clean. It needs to be removed from the shelves to prevent other children from hearing it," said plaintiff Trevin Skeens of Brownsville [Maryland].
Skeens said he and his wife, Melanie, let their daughter buy the music for her 13th birthday and were shocked when they played it in their car while driving home.
While shocking rubes is a time-honored tradition, their abject horror (which is apparently worth $74,500. Each. I've gotta drum up some abject horror, I think.) is a bit surprising. I didn't even know that "fuck" was dirty anymore. I thought it was the new black.

The perennial offense taken to profanity in music seems a bit ridiculous to me. Lots of music I like is perfectly family friendly, lots isn't. Few are as raucous as Mary Prankster, whose song "Tits & Whiskey" apparently got airplay in Baltimore despite the necessity of riding the mute button rather more often than a ClearChannel employee might wish. (But I'll bet they weren't the ones who played it.) A sample:
Fast cars and explosions,
Party hats and motion lotion,
Let's get down to the ocean
And break out the tits and whiskey.

Fuck me fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,
I am Ernie's rubber ducky.
Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, kiss me,
Let's break out the tits and whiskey.

You know, not a song for when the kids are in the car, particularly as the Sesame Street reference might be misconstrued. Not that I have a damn idea how to construe it, but still...

I suppose there are acts for whom the use of profanity is their claim to fame, but I have to say, it makes less than no difference to me. If I like a song, I'm fine with the lyrics; if I don't, there's really no point in worrying about it. (A friend once told me he didn't mind profanity in lyrics if it was "heartfelt." Still can't figure that one out, but it's funny.) Any limits placed on art are inherently ridiculous, boundaries begging for transgression.

What worries me about this issue is not that Wal-Mart's getting sued over it--I believe they should be forced to give their money to someone other than the Republican Party once in a while--but that this means they'll stop carrying music altogether, or that there will be some governmental oversight put into place for the currently voluntary stickering system. The CD in question was not stickered, which is apparently the salient issue here.

Were Wal-Mart not such an overwhelming presence, I'd shrug this off. But I remember all too well begging my parents to buy me records as an adolescent, knowing that a big family shopping was probably my best bet, that I'd never get them into a record store, not in a million years. Without department stores that sold music, all I would have had to depend on was the radio and the not-always-dependable cool of my older siblings.

That's my prediction: government censorship and less music for the kids. If I may say so, fuck.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Pop with Brains: No Shit!

I'm quite sensitive to the accusation--though I've been known to fling it around myself--that pop is dumb. For me, I suppose reiterating such received ideas acts as something of a defense: I inhabit a world in which people toss around references to Mahler and Schoenberg as though I'm supposed to know what they mean. I smile, trusting in the cast-iron defense of the doctorate, but really have no idea about classical music, except for a few select pieces which connected with me when I worked in theater. And Chopin, who I love. But that's it, really. I defend my lowbrow tastes by hiding behind the tissue-paper "I know it's dumb, but..." excuse.

So I'm pretty relieved when it's not necessary to invoke this fig leaf. Last week, I mentioned the coolest band name I'd heard in a while, Milton and The Devils Party, and have spent a lot of the last week getting to know their music. (There's going to be a release party for their first CD, this year's What Is All This Sweet Work Worth?, in Philadelphia this weekend.) It's pretty straightforward pop-rock, musically, with plenty of brain-invading hooks and guitar work which adheres to no decade in particular, flying by so fast that you can't quite figure out what it reminds you of. The recollections aren't as direct, as, say, a Redd Kross, but the residual feeling is often the same. The difference lies in Daniel Robinson's lyrics, which are sharp and opaque in turns (not that these two are mutually exclusive) and frequently laden with Blakean aphorisms. I have a doctorate, I'm supposed to be good at this shit, and I'm not sure I quite get what all the songs mean. But you can get Robinson's take on some of it here. (It's a pdf, and you need to scroll down to page 13.) And Robinson is unapologetically intelligent, a refreshing change from much of the rest of America.

I won't harp on this issue, though I admit I find it dismaying that the rampant anti-intellectualism in which contemporary culture is soaked might do harm to this band. One blurb announces:
The song "To Jane" was adapted from a Shelley poem, but don't let the bookworm status scare you off--there are plenty of hooks to keep things interesting.
Don't worry folks! There won't be a quiz! Feh.

Anyway, I highly recommend this band, and Philly area readers (you hear this, Eschatonians?) should definitely head out this weekend.

Be sure to check in tomorrow for Friday Babyblogging!

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Cult of the Cult

In Is That It?, Bob Geldof's post-Live Aid autobiography, he narrates with tremendous humor the rise and fall of the Boomtown Rats. (This was before his dubious status as a multiple-suicide-inducing custodial parent, obviously.)Particularly amusing is his tale of their record company's attempt to overcome the "I Don't Like Mondays" kafuffle by sending out real, dead rats to radio stations, and their attempt to ameliorate *that* damage by changing the band's name to "The Boomers." Good God. But somewhere in this process, Sir Bob noted that the curse of all curses had descended upon The Boomtown Rats: "We had become a cult band."

I'm ambivalent about this term, because I suspect many bands I like are probably, by definition, cult bands. (I take the definition to be: fixed at a modestly or moderately successful level; known for one or two songs; possessed of a solid core of true believers. But I'm not married to that definition.) I don't, in fact, hear such a term as necessarily negative. But every now and again, one comes face-to-face not with the cult band, but with the cult, and that can be a disconcerting experience.

Guided by Voices is on their last tour. Their last show will be on New Year's Eve, at Metro in Chicago. Now, GBV has never been huge, really, and Thersites and I suspect a certain intentionality to this. The breakout record was supposed to be 1999's Do the Collapse, produced by Ric Ocasek, featuring a radio-friendly single ("Teenage FBI"), all that sort of thing. But in seeing GBV play regularly, I had never seen them as actively self-destructive as they were on that tour. The show I saw, Pollard brought his teenage son onstage to sing and fed him liquor in front of several thousand people, and Doug Gillard plaintively asked the audience if anyone out there knew how to change a guitar string. It seemed to be a big fuck you in the face of their rising popularity, and seems to have worked, Muzak versions of "Hold On Hope" notwithstanding. (Perhaps the oddest experience of my life: recognizing that bit of Muzak in the grocery store.)

We saw them on Saturday at Irving Plaza. Now, we've seen GBV probably six or seven times over the course of the last five years or so, crowding into Maxwell's on New Year's Eve, or driving several hours to crash a student Spring Fling at Penn State. We've met the band in one of its incarnations (and did things in the basement of Maxwell's we probably shouldn't discuss in a public forum). But things were different this time, and I didn't know whether to expect a poignant goodbye or the royal kiss off.

Three solid hours, with no breaks. The show was decidedly heavy on newer stuff, which surprised me, as I expected a sort of retrospective. But many albums got little or no representation. Hell, I don't even remember them playing "Teenage FBI," and I was pretty sober. Bob was actively apologetic, not for the fact that they were giving up touring, but because they were still there at all. "Two more songs, and I promise not to bother you again." And he seemed, well, tired.

But it was the crowd that struck me as truly odd. The first time I saw GBV, the place was full of true believers, people walking around in t-shirts that read "Pollard's Bitch" and knew all the words to all the songs: the energy in the room was truly amazing. This time, no. The energy of the crowd seemed awkward and strange this time, like everyone was just going through the motions. There were a lot of people there, but many of them didn't stay to the end. Many were very tall, and very beautiful, budging regularly in front of your humble narrator, oblivious to my 5'2" self. Lots of people were also taking pictures with their cell phones. Security was tight (we got yelled at for going up to look at Doug Gillard's effects pedals from the house). And I've never seen a house clear out so fast. (Or so many Brooklyn Lager cans at once.)

I don't know what all this means. Perhaps it's good that GBV take a break, even if this is only a Who-style farewell tour as opposed to a real farewell. Perhaps the attempted expansion of the audience alienated the true believers, and the johnny-and-janie-come-latelies just weren't up to the task. Perhaps what I witnessed was the ugly downside of the geek-to-hipster transition, because, after all, being beloved of hipsters is a limited-time offer. Capture the heart of a geek and you've got it for life! Or am I thinking of this all wrong?

Friday, December 03, 2004

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Apologies & Coming Attractions

Hi, guys. Sorry--as my fellow academics (and any poor sap who's ever been to college) know well, this is crunch time, and though the soundtrack of my life continues unabated, time to reflect on it is in short supply. (Tonight, for example, I head off to show Purcell's 1689 opera Dido & Aeneas to my Ancient Literature class.)

But there are several things stewing in PowerPop land, I'm waiting on CD's and responses, and of course, tomorrow it'll be time for Friday Babyblogging again!

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Rose by Any Other Name?.... Ah, not so much

Gotta love Eschaton. Some reasonable number of the threads, no matter what their purported topic, descend into discussions of music or movies or, in one recenly freakish instance, Highlights for Kids. (And yes, I'm still enamoured of the Goofus and Gallant interpretation of the November election, though in Highlights, Goofus was never rewarded for his behavior. If only life imitated art!)

Anyway, a recent freewheeling conversation over there descended into great actual or theoretical bandnames. watertiger, always a dependable renegade on these threads, borrowed a term from the fundies and decided it would be great to have a band called God's Timetable. I noted the best band name I've heard in a long time, Milton and the Devil's Party, whose CD I eagerly await and will report on here. Robert M. Jeffers, in this vein, suggested "Bandemonium," and we were off. (Personally, I think of Bandemonium as an album title, myself. Or perhaps a pop supergroup.) Other favorite suggestions included: Pudentate and The Joint Chiefs (that's two names, not one), though the latter is a real band, I hear.

Apparently, this is how Robert Pollard used to entertain himself....

Oh, and a link to the Random Band Name Generator, just for fun. I got Mute Moon this time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Where the Boys Are

One of the things I'm gravely concerned about is the apparent gender divisions within music. I blame this, at least partly, on the execrable Camille Paglia, who famously claimed that women cannot play the guitar because they do not have a penis, and so (apparently) are unused to manipulating some externalized object in order to achieve a desired end. Once again, I fail as a blogger by being unwilling to go look this up, but if you wanna see it, it's in Sexual Personae. Look up "rock" in the index and you're there.

Paglia's warmed-over Nietzschean perspective (women, you see, are Apollonian, men Dionysian) annoys on a number of levels, not least because she's a fucking woman herself. St. Augustine's allowed to fling this crap around, Camille; you aren't. Sorry.

But setting aside the issue of production, there's the issue of consumption, for which there is no compelling faux-Freudian or faux-Nietzschean analysis. Like all other consumption within society, the music one listens to is controlled by a whole set of assumptions and distinctions about what it "means"--not so much to oneself, but to others. And for girls, this can be incredibly limiting.

My kid, a nifty teen I like a lot, gave me great pause when she had a brief N'Sync phase. To this day, I don't think she ever really liked the music much, just the identity it implied; it was just a thing to do with other girls, a way of fitting in. One of the worst nights of my parenting life was the evening we had what seemed like 417 girls between 8 and 13 in our living room to watch a live N'Sync concert from Madison Square Garden. I found myself watching the girls (God knows I wasn't going to watch the concert) and thinking about the ways in which it's acceptable for girls to "consume" music. Cute and non-threatening boys rank high, dark and dangerous boys rank low, unless you're a "bad" girl, in which case the poles are reversed, not eliminated. In this sense, David St. Hubbins' assertion about girls fearing "armadillos in our trousers" doesn't hold water. Nevertheless, the "cute boy" structures apparently stay in place: My kid told me that the "girl talk" at a recent Incubus concert was all about how hot the singer was.

Now I was as much subject to this as other girls my age, and those who know me know that my thirteen-year-old visceral reactions are as potent as ever, though obviously limited to a much smaller corner of my psyche. But I wonder why we do this to girls, or maybe better, how we do this to girls. Why are girls not allowed to listen to music they like unless there's cute boys involved? Why do cute boys become their own defense, trumping shitty music? (In my daughter's defense, she never listens to N'Sync anymore.) What are the implications of being a genuine female audiophile?

I realize, of course, that this question is being asked of my (largely male) readership, material evidence of the phenomena I'm describing. But what do guys think?

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Why is Pop not, you know, popular?

I once read an interview with John Murphy of Shoes, who commented that, when asked who their favorite band is, the vast majority will say The Beatles. Fair enough. This is still true. I always felt vaguely guilty about glomming onto The Beatles because they weren't mine--I was born into them. But my students, overwhelmingly born in the 80's, are still fans. In fact, I use The Beatles to teach James Joyce, because it's the most useful and familiar model my students have for the artist who may not have done it first, but did it best and made it popular and changed the face of the form in the process.

But Murphy continued, saying that despite most people's declared sentiments, Beatle-influenced groups tend not to be really popular. (Forgive the lack of link here; I remember vividly reading this interview, in which Murphy confesses shamefacedly to liking Chumbawamba's Tubthumper--but nothing to be ashamed of there, it seems to me. I love that record. But I looked for the interview link for an hour and gave up.)

That's always confused me, as it apparently confuses him. Why is pop not pop? Would we still like it if it were more common currency and less of a secret language?

There's enough folks visiting the blog now to start this conversation for real, and you can post anonymously, avoiding all the blogger registration nonsense. If you don't want to be an anonymous "Anonymous," just include your handle in the text. I'm curious what you think. Why can a world that provides "A Clay Aiken Christmas" not provide a decent living for really good songwriters?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

When Pop (Fans) Grow Up

Pop connects for a lot of us, not just because of how it hit us, but when. A year or so ago, making a mix tape for a friend, it occurred to me that the vast majority of the songs I was including fell into one of two categories: music of romance (craving, gaining, losing, regretting), and music of snotty adolescent rebellion (frequently addressed to parents or other absent authority figures). The first of these is decidedly dominant, partly, I think, because it's less fixed in time-and-space. But the second is certainly a long and noble tradition.

Listening again to The Vapors (see "Guilty Pleasures," below), I was reminded of visceral connections between the music we listen to and the lives we lead.

Time's gonna make you a man someday
And you won't wanna go out and play
With your friends
You'll just sit at home and watch News at Ten
And the pub's'll be closed and you won't have been
With your friends

And he picks up the paper and appears to be quite serious
And you smile at him and agree 'cause he's your old man
But still I can't hear you, still I can't hear you
You make no sense to me
Still I can't hear you, still I can't hear you
When the time comes I'll disagree with your policy
But you don't wanna sit tight, you don't wanna play cool
You don't want a whole life like your first day at school
And I wanna fight wars and I wanna die young
So don't keep saying 'like father, like son.'

Or try this (far more obscure) one:

Don't stop me having fun, don't make me be your age
You don't know what's going on, you're past that stage
Now when you say 'you should know better,' well, maybe sooner or later
You'll be as good as me, nobody could be better
Well that's alright, I know what I like
I wanna run with the pack now.

There's maybe five years (more or less) of your life when such lyrics connect with you, but when they do, that's all that matters. In the rebellion mode, pop articulates the nonverbal sneer, often for those too shy and geeky to actually sneer themselves.

I was thinking about the role of snotty adolescence in pop apropos of two reunions on the horizon. On November 26, in Cleveland, Eric Carmen is scheduled to finally take the stage (for the first time in 31 years) with Jim Bonfanti, Wally Bryson, and Dave Smalley, a reunion rumoured for several years. I was never much of a Raspberries fan; like Dylan, they struck me as one of those bands more important for their influence than their product. But then I'm probably overly influenced by the fact that, when I was a kid, the radio was full of Carmen's later emo ballads. Oh, and Dirty Dancing. There's a bit of humor in this: on the website advertising the show, one can sign up for a group discount for the hotel, as though it's a conference or a wedding. "Hey, The Raspberries are performing! And there's a group discount!" I'm joking, sort of... It's actually quite thoughtful of them to consider such things. But there is an element of the ridiculous in it, too. Wonder if the hotel takes AARP?

The other reunion is far more prominent and has received more attention, partly because of the irony. According to Launch, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey may be heading back into the studio. On his website, Townsend says they're both writing and will meet in mid-December to suss out the possibility of a Who2 project. They've been touring on and off for years, but haven't recorded anything new in two decades. The oft-noted irony here is of course the famous line "Hope I die before I get old," a line which has been thrown at The Who at least since their last studio album. (Townsend turns 60 next year.)

I'm pretty heartened by all this news, as snarky as I may sound. The adolescent sneer doesn't weather very well, and talent, after all, doesn't go anywhere. I'm not sure music should be something we outgrow. Most of my postings, I realize, consider the question of pop music as an aspect of personal identity, and boxing up and putting away any part of your identity seems risky to me. Some part of this may be the comfort fans receive from the idea that those who shaped their identities in youth are still out there, writing, performing shaping. If they haven't outgrown it, why should we? Plus, age is a lot more relative now. Listen to "When I'm 64," and it sounds impossibly old. But as McCartney himself approaches the magic number (Next June), it's good to see that he's out there doing what he does, most recently with Live Aid. And he has a toddler.

And besides, older fans have the scratch to go places and see older artists. You can buy a lot more music with a real job than you can on a college stipend. That's a good thing.

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Ineffable Wonder of the Theme Mix

A dark confession: I make mix tapes. Sometimes CD's, but mostly tapes, because tapes free me from the vagaries of the mp3 and allow me to roam freely though my musical life, a significant number of years of which occurred before the advent of the CD. I don't have a huge vinyl collection, and I reveal a real prejudice for power pop (duh), but I have a few things that mean a lot to me aside from everything else: an original White Album (the clue is the serial number stamped on the cover), a copy of Skylarking which preceded the "Dear God" kafuffle and lacks that song, but includes a beautiful tune in its place, "Mermaid Smiles" (FWIW, this one is Rundgren's vision, not the restructured version usually purchasable these days), an original copy of Black Vinyl Shoes (complete with iron-on transfer and sticker--I also have the PVC release). My fascination with (okay, crush on) vinyl aside, cassettes allow me the freedom to range freely through the media of my life and pick and choose what I like. Besides, my car was probably one of the last ones made with a cassette player.

Th mix tape is an achingly personal matter, it seems to me. In High Fidelity, perhaps the best novel written for audiophiles of my generation, Nick Hornby's Rob describes making a mix tape for the girlfriend whose loss and return structure the novel:
I spent hours putting that cassette together. To me, making a tape is like writing a letter--there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again, and I wanted it to be a good one, because... to be honest, because I hadn't met anyone as promising as Laura since I'd started the DJ-ing, and meeting promising women was partly what the DJ-ing was supposed to be about. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with "Got to Get You off My Mind," but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the whie music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and... oh, there are loads of rules.
Anyway, I worked and worked at this one, and I've still got a couple of early demons knocking around the flat, prototype tapes I changed my mind about when I was checking them through. (89)

Rob's project is nothing less than creating a snapshot of the soul, because for an audiophile, music is the soul. The mix tape, then, is an aural journal, a set of songs by people you've never met who somehow express who you yourself are. Combining these songs to reveal the warp and weave of thought, of personality, of personal history: that's the art of the mix. And different phases of our lives require different mixes. Thersites, long before we were a couple, made me a tape which included things like Redd Kross's "Blow You A Kiss in the Wind," The Replacements' "Unsatisfied," and Superchunk's "Brand New Love": clearly bait for a switch. ("Any thought could be the beginning/ of this brand new gentle web you're spinning....") I fell like a ton of bricks. Never had a chance.

In a recent Popmatters posting, Elisabeth Donnelly examines the nature of the "dumped" mix:
Breakup albums can become a habit, a way to deal with pain (And do note that I mean breakup albums in relationship to the listener being "broken up", unlike the artist). It's very easy to trace your romantic history out in music. For me it goes something like Spoon, Fiona Apple, Veruca Salt, The Walkmen, and Lyle Lovett. Your mileage may vary-in a poll of my friends, I've found that there's usually a "bitter boy album" slot of the Elvis Costello variety or something that's emo if they're sensitive, the Dirty Three if their sensitivity transcends mere words, and many a girl has a mopey girl album in her collection, Joni Mitchell if she's annoying, Tori [Amos] if she's loopy, and Fiona [Apple] if she's smart.

Donnelly's argument is about whole albums, but it points to the evanescent bubble of the mix. Because as much as we choose music based on who we are, it also shapes who we're becoming. As Hornby says:
People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands--literally thousands--of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don't know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they've been listening to the sad songs longer than they've been living the unhappy lives. (25)

We all have artists who appear on every mix we make, songs or artists that are so indicative of who we are they we can never leave them off. Who are yours?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Guilty Pleasures

Because I was isolated from any real "scene" for much of my life, my listening habits have been pretty idiosyncratic. Except for very broad parameters, I didn't really know what was hip. I knew what my small city DJ's played, and I knew what my older brothers and sister listened to (for an amusing anecdote regarding this latter point, see here), but other than that, I was on my own. One of the implications of this was that I tended to listen to albums and artists rather than songs. Another was that I never really cared if anyone had heard of what I was listening to.

It was my birthday recently, and I got hold of a CD I've been meaning to acquire for some time, Vaporized. I'd bid on it on eBay several times, getting slammed at the last second (a nasty habit those folks have over there). But finally I bit the bullet and bought the damn thing.

The CD contains the first (and as far as I know only) two albums the group produced in their tempestuous 18-month run, the fiercely popular New Clear Days --featuring the ubiquitous "turning Japanese"--and the less-well-known but much freakier Magnets. Magnets is sort of a theme album about death and assassination, and its cover features early work by the Where's Waldo guy. Much better on 12' than CD. In the wake of The Boomtown Rats' creepily popular "I Don't Like Mondays," The Vapors weighed in with "Jimmie Jones," the only pop song I know about the Jonestown Massacre. In my perverse way, I like Magnets better.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Two Reasons to Forgive Texas

Sorry for the delay, folks. I'm sure the reasons are obvious enough, and the need for pop even more obvious. Hell, we have to manage the dopamine levels in our brains somehow. (True: an MSW friend of mine tells me that thinking happy thoughts, reading or watching or listening to things that make you happy, can actually change your brain chemistry and help conquer the blues. Looks like we'll need that advice for a while.)

Meanwhile, lest we blame Texas too much for the dismaying state of the nation, it's worth remembering that there's a lot of good music coming out of the Lonestar State Last week, Rhett Miller sat down with The Dallas Observer and talked about past, current, and future plans.
What's on the cover of the album [1994's Hitchhike to Rhome]?

It's an 8-by-10 black-and-white that I found in an antique store. At the time, the kid kind of looked like me, and the girl was beautiful. I still believe the great album covers have women on them--like the Pixies' Surfer Rosa.

The back cover of the album is a distant photo of the band, and I remember that I was so hellbent on escaping the tag of "pretty-boy teen folkie" that I demanded they use a photo where you couldn't see my face. Now it makes me laugh. I'm like, "Oh, I'm so good-looking I have to hide."

According to their website, the Old 97's have just finished a stint on the road where they were joined by several dates by another Texas band, The Deathray Davies. The latter band has been on the road for a few months, and has a bunch of dates through November, mostly in the west and southwest.

(Thanks, Mike!)

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Is this Pop?

I'm never sure how to feel about cover bands, having been decidedly damaged at a pretty young age by Beatlemania. But this actually looks kind of interesting, if only because they're playing a whole album.
Yes, they're going to tackle the album yet again, this time on a Saturday night instead of the middle of the week. Work off that turkey and sing along - maybe it will end up being an annual Messiah-type thing. Drummed & Wired play Black Sea, November 27th, 9pm, $8 door $6 with a flyer, at 14 Below, 1348 14th Street, Santa Monica, CA, 310-451-5040.

What do we think, guys? Endearing tribute or terrifying simulacrum? I mean, after all, it's not like Partridge and Moulding will ever do these songs live....

True confessions: If I lived anywhere near LA, I'd probably go. (And this from someone who once drove 24 hours to see Redd Kross. As an opening act...)

Friday, October 29, 2004

(Relatively) Recent History

A number of bands were influential in articulating the aesthetic of power pop. One of the most important was Big Star. Earlier this year, Pop Culture Press ran a long and interesting article about the band's career. From the article:

Alex Chilton had left the Box Tops, spending time in 1969 in Los Angeles, where he lived with Dennis Wilson, moving back home when Manson and the girls moved into Dennis' house. After that, he spent time in New York City, meeting Bud Scoppa, and learning guitar from Roger McGuinn (this meeting may also have happened in LA, depending on whose story you believe). While in New York, he practiced guitar constantly, developing his famous and distinctive guitar style, and began to write a very serious set of songs, inspired by the Greenwich Village folk scene, and artists like Loudon Wainwright. When Icewater made an aborted trip to NYC trying to score a record deal, Bell visited his childhood friend Chilton, and made him promise to come see his new band when he got home. After seeing the band once at a VFW gig in Memphis, Chilton decided to drop folk music and become a member of Chris Bell's band, Icewater. From this point on, there was a real, cohesive group, and everyone involved and around them recognized it as such.

I came to Big Star late, after The Replacements assured me that they "never go far/without a little Big Star."

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Jeff Murphy Interview

Over at Perfect Sound Forever, Collin Makamson sat down with Jeff Murphy... well, not quite. They did it over email. But it's a great chance to catch up with one of the seminal figures in pop and hear him talk about influences, history, and the current scene.

I think the Beatles were writing the handbook on power pop music as they progressed. Their '65-'66 period was probably the birth of today's power pop religion. Songs like "And Your Bird Can Sing," "Paperback Writer" and "She Said" define it. It's all about simplicity and that elusive guitar riff. Greg Shaw, God bless him, saw the need and did whatever he could to help promote it. I think we're due again!

Welcome to PowerPop!

I love power pop. I'm a complete geek about it. Like all music geeks, I spent my adolescence locked in a room with a record player, listening to anything I could get my hands on, limited only by my small town and even smaller allowance. My four older brothers brought music into the house incessantly, but it was my oldest brother who was most responsible for shaping my musical tastes. He had all the Beatles' albums, and, though he'd never admit it, was a bit of a geek in his own right.

Exhibit A: A cassette tape, 45 minutes long, which included fifteen seconds of every Beatles song then available, in alphabetical order. Terrifyingly, his wife recently asked me if I thought it was possible to get these scraps from mp3s so he could have this on CD.

With role models like him, I never had a chance.

But I was born in 1966; The Beatles really weren't my generation. They were the air I breathed. No, I came of age just in time for the late 70's explosion of power pop. Cheap Trick, Shoes, The Knack, The Vapors, The Records, 20/20, The Undertones, The Beat (Paul Collins' Beat, not the British guys), Starjets... hell, I'd listen to anything. I harrassed record store clerks for posters, I picked up records just because they looked interesting. I discovered 20/20 and The Undertones because my public library had them in their collection. (I'd love to know how that happened!) Some of the bands were popular, some completely obscure. (I have an ice cream sundae for anyone else who owns Starjets, a Northern Irish band who later became The Adventures. Their sole album, as far as I know, is called God Bless Starjets)

Recently, I've been meeting a lot of folks in the blog world who share my obsessions. Guys (usually mostly guys, alas), this blog is for you.