Category Archives: Music

I Bet You Think This Blog is About You: Blurred Lines and the Problem with Direct Address

blurred-lines-cover

Who are you?

Or, I guess, who are “you”?

More accurately, if less grammatically, who is “you”?

“You” has been very busy, at least going by song lyrics.  Other genres—including a lot of poetry, even though people think of lyrics and poetry as the same thing—stay away from using “you” as the dominant pronoun.  You can count on one hand the number of novels written in second person.  (Bright Lights, Big City; something by Italo Calvino…  OK, on two fingers.)  Instruction manuals, and their snooty siblings, self-help books, sure, “you” yourself away.  Nonfiction—and blogs—use direct address as an occasional rhetorical device (“You can count on one hand…”).  But every song is about You.  Here’s a rundown of some song titles that begin with “You”:

You, Breaking Benjamin

You, REM

You & Me, Dave Matthews

You and Your Friend, T-Ride

You Are Not Alone, Michael Jackson

You Are the Everything, REM

You Are the Girl, Cars

You Belong With Me, Taylor Swift

You Better Run, Pat Benatar

You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon

(You Can Still) Rock in America, Night Ranger

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Stones

You Can’t Get What You Want, Joe Jackson

You Can’t Kill Michael Malloy, Primus

You Can’t Kill Rock & Roll, Ozzy

You Can’t Stop Progress, Clutch

You Could Be Mine, Guns n Roses

You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute, Flight of the Concords

You Don’t Know Me at All, Don Henley

You Don’t Know What Love Is,, White Stripes

You Drive Me Ape, The Dickies

You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Gap Band

And that’s just the “You D–“’s, with more than 40 more You-first, not including “You” contractions. This is just from my iTunes library.  (Yes. Taylor Swift.) Go pull up your own playlists and see for yourself (and go ahead and post favorite or significant titles in Comments).  And obviously this list can’t include all the songs that revolve around “you,” since that would be nearly all of them.  “You” had to be a big shot.  Who is “you,” and how do you have so much time to do everything?

All of this is a way of getting to the Song of the Summer, in caps, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.  Yes, it’s crazy popular, and you can’t listen to the radio for 10 minutes without hearing it.  But it’s controversial, because the lyrics have been declared rapey, a word that fills an important vocabulary niche but that still sounds, meaning aside for the moment, like the name of a cat.  A lot of it comes down to this line:

You know you want it.

It’s pretty damning out of context, especially the way I used sinister italics, sitting on the page like that creep on the public bus. And I’m not here to defend the song. (Hourman hates controversy.)  But a few things are interesting about it.  First, its context is not the page but rather a pretty sweet R&B song, which is melodic, playful, and even a little corny (musicians: it’s all in the flat 7s, the corniest of all intervals).  How else can Robin Thicke, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots pull off an all kiddy instrument version of the song?  (Of course, I am conveniently ignoring that OTHER video.)

And the song sounds and feels nothing like what I think of as the (intentionally, to be make fun of that sort of thing, according to the group; Thicke said something similar about his own song) rapeiest song of all, Stone Temple Pilots’ raucous Sex Type Thing.  Featured lyric: “You wouldn’t want me have to hurt you too, hurt you too,” totally worse than “You know you want it.”  (Musicians: the main riff revolves around a flat 5 interval, which everyone knows is the devil in music).

Maybe the song could deflect its accusations better if it were one of those He said/She said songs that allow for more than one point of view and point of “you”—think Don’t You Want Me’s first verse by the Guy:

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

 Followed up in the second verse by this, by the Girl:

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you

Balanced, dueling “you”s.  Or more recently, Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody I Used to Know, where we get the sense that both the man and woman are hurting over the breakup, not that one is right and the other wrong. First Gotye sings this:

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember

Later followed by Kimbra’s POV:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

No assumptions about what the woman wants, since the song allows her to tell us.

It’s also interesting to compare Blurred Lines to the runner-up song of the summer, the maybe even catchier Get Lucky by Daft Punk.  Here’s the chorus:

She’s up all night to the sun

I’m up all night to get some

She’s up all night for good fun

I’m up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to the sun

We’re up all night to get some

We’re up all night for good fun

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

No “you” at all!  Instead, the song uses “she” and “I’ before settling on “we.”  If the repeated line had been “You’re up all night to get lucky,” a la Blurred lines, it wouldn’t sound so sex positive:

 You’re up all night to the sun

You’re up all night to get some

You’re up all night for good fun

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

 Now it sounds so accusing, kinda shamey.  Now, it’s not a story about two individual people, She and I, who together comprise We, but rather the lyrics’ male speaker looking at and judging the behavior of an unnamed woman.

The same thing happens if you contrast the next line in Blurred Lines: “You’re a good girl.”  It’s the singer’s assessment of what the woman thinks of herself, not necessarily what she thinks.  Contrast it with Tom Petty’s Free Falling, which begins with the exact same line but in 3rd person:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

And with 3rd person comes the feeling of objectivity, which may be at the heart of the Blurred Lines—and, for me, the “you”—controversy.  “She’s a good girl” sounds like an omniscient narrator.  It means what it sounds like, or at least doesn’t call attention to its own possible ambiguity.  “You’re a good girl” sounds subjective—who are you to say or know whether she/I/ you is/am/are a good girl?  Blurred lines indeed.  Whether we find the line—and “You know you want it”—offensive or not boils down to whether we believe the singer.    If the singer—he—is reliable, and she—the recipient of the song’s words—is a good girl, and does want it, and the blurred lines of the title represent  the internal conflict within the woman herself, then the song is seductive, which I take as Thicke’s—and every lyricist’s—intention.  But if we doubt him, and hear situational blurred lines—he thinks that she wants it, but she doesn’t—well, that’s rapey.

But it’s up to you to decide.

Time: Over time, about 80 minutes, since I didn’t keep track that well, with double apologies for going italics crazy.

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Learning to Sing Hours and Hours of Cover Songs

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or George Carlin, did or did not say.[i]  Except, of course, that it’s not.  It’s more like writing about architecture, except more fun, frequent, and widely-appealing.  Humans strive to put abstractions, like justice; emotions, like love; senses, like taste; and art, like, um, art—that is, that which seemingly defy the verbal—into language all the time, a kind of symbolic synesthesia. Plus, the analogy does not hold, since music is unique; in addition to listening to music, playing music, and writing about music, we do dance to music, and create architectural structures devoted to it.

And yet, ZappaCostelloCarlin is/are also on to something.  For the past nine months, I have been playing music semi-professionally—three paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here.    And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and have written an academic essay on the rock novel, it turns out that there’s still more to learn from playing the music itself.

For one thing, unlike my romantic, idealistic former self, the one who wrote the music and lyrics and refused to play covers, my current self is happy to play other people’s music.  If anything, playing covers is more like what I do for my day job—interpreting books and literary criticism.  In some cases, I find myself less faithful to the original artist, while in others, I’m more faithful.  Some of this is just me—everything I play on the guitar sounds metallic, so even Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” gets an inadvertent metal makeover.

At other times, it’s the problem of trying to adapt a studio creation to a three piece guitar-bass-drums performance.  Even a relatively straightforward pop rock song like Ratt’s Round and Round overdubs multiple lead singing tracks (and guitar tracks, a different problem), so that each first line of the verse very slightly overlaps the one before it, making it impossible for one person to reproduce live. This overlap is almost inaudible and of no concern to anyone—except someone trying to sing it live.

Whereas other songs are just fun to copy, like Green Day’s Basket Case, where making myself nasal and deliberately trying to imitate Pee Wee Herman’s serious voice—the one he’s using when not screaming—becomes a pretty solid approximation of Billy Joe Armstrong.

And it is really the singing, much more than the guitar playing, that’s the challenge for me.  I like playing the guitar. I want to play guitar.  Every part of it is fun—practice, repetition, volume, the instrument and gear itself.  While I’ve resigned myself to being a singer, it’s much harder.  For one thing, I have to use my voice ALL THE TIME, for work, for leisure, for everything.  I want to save it and keep it safe and preserved, yet I keep having to take it out to do all sorts of things.  I imagine taking my guitar out of the case, say, to sweep up, or knock a Frisbee out of a tree, and what a dangerous waste that is to use an instrument for a nonmusical, mundane purpose. Yet I’m stuck doing that will my voice all day, every day. Tea and honey can only repair so much.

But even more than the challenges, learning covers, especially singing them, has made me think more about how songs work, and their structures.  Although they use words, rock songs are not narratives—rock operas , all those Billy Joel songs with verses that  begins with people’s boring first names, and Iron Maiden epics to the contrary.  Songs have too much recursion and repetition.    It’s a cliché to say that rock songs are verse/chorus/verse.  And in reality, it’s usually closer to intro/verse/prechorus/chorus/verse/prechorus/chorus/solo/bridge/chorus/repeat chorus fade.  But they don’t move linearly from beginning to middle to end the way a story does.

Yet they’re also not poems, Dylan and Lennon and Baez to the contrary as well.  They have elements of poetry, like rhyme, rhythm, and meter (although at this point I roll my eyes at any rhyme schemed or formulaic poems written after about 1940).  But they’re not usually interested in exploring or developing ideas through imagery the way poems are.  And they’re certainly not essays, all Rush lyrics to the contrary.

What the words often are, then, are part of the music itself.  Their sound, their tone, their shape in the singer’s mouth makes the song.  Rockists like to make fun of the toe-tapping masses who say things like “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just feel the beat” [comma splice sic].  And I admit to being something of a lyric fanatic, whether it means greater appreciation or greater disappointment.  Mock if you want, and I’m iffy about some songs, but Pearl Jam has some strong lyrics. Spin the Black Circle, Even Flow, Jeremy: these are songs where the lyrics, as sung and together with the music, turn Eddie Vedder’s voice into a pure rock instrument.  And sometimes, I’m flummoxed : The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane, a song I’ve heard a million times, is nothing but a series of crude sexual non-sequiturs, somehow  palpable because  Klaus Meine’s German accent makes the lyrics vary between percussive and sweet ‘n’ sibilant at the right moments.

In the end, why the opposition to writing about music at all? It turns out that music needs words a lot more than words need music.  There’s only so many times even an ardent rock fan can listen to YYZ.  On with the show.

Time: 55 minutes.


[i] Quote Investigator does a pretty stellar job tracking the sources of “writing about music…” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

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“Call Me Maybe”: The Deconstruction

Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” is the musical embodiment of what critical theorist Jacque Derrida refers to as “différance.”  Unlike “Call Me,” the previous hit song by Blondie of almost the same name, “Call Me Maybe” throws the initial utterance, the command to “call me,” into question, even forces it under erasure, through the retroactive emendation of final ambiguity, “maybe”; “call me” lies simultaneously with its very negation.  Yet the call itself has not been placed, and in fact exists only in the world of the Imaginary—that which, in Lacan’s parsing, by definition we cannot know. The call forever remains hypothetical, subjunctive, unrealized: deferred.  As Derrida explains, “the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being—are always deferred.”

At the same time, the title’s syntactical construction posits its speaker, “me,” in the object position, the patriarchal relegation of the feminine, even while the speaker simultaneously issues the grammatical imperative, “[You] call,” (re)positioning her in symbolic authority.  Derrida suggests that “Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences … the simultaneously active and passive…”—just as the speaker of “Call Me Maybe” implies as well.   Further,  the lyric sheet reads “Call me, maybe,” with the comma to separate the command from the adverb, suggesting a heightened claim of ambiguity.  Yet the title, “Call Me Maybe,” with its elided comma and conventional titular capitalization, refigures its meaning entirely: the statement employs the dative declension, echoing literature’s most famous manifestation of this form, Herman Melville’s opening line to Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.”  She is commanding the listener that she should herself be called Maybe, a name that is Not.

The speaker’s utterance, but also the speaker herself, has thus been rendered indefinite, unknowable, and differed ad infinitum.  The title must be read simultaneously as “Call me, maybe,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Call me, maybe,” if the call is never placed, or “Call me, maybe” if it is. We therefore find Carly Rae Jepson in the rhetorical situation of Derrida translator Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak.  In her Translator’s Preface to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Spivak writes that her “predicament is [that of being] ‘under erasure.’  This is to write a word, cross it out, and then print both the word and deletion.  (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out.  Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)”

While I have been using the gender specific pronoun “she” to refer to the speaker, since Carly Rae Jepson’s voice, clothing, and sex all code her as “heterosexual female,” the gender identity and sexual orientation of the speaker are in fact ambiguous as well. The opening line, “I threw a wish in the well/Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell” recall the famous “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law established under the Clinton presidency preventing gay and lesbian solders from revealing their sexual orientation, under the risk military discharge.  The ending, or “punch line,” of the “Call Me Maybe” music video introduces the possibility that what we had been viewing all along is not a heteronormative enactment of adolescent dating rituals but rather their subversion, playing upon the complacent viewer’s culturally rigid assumptions of masculinity.

Indeed, the song not only embodies différance; it embraces paradox.  The repeated last line to each verse, “And now you’re in my way,” as well as the reiterated “Where you think you’re goin’, baby?” imply the threat of male coercion despite the feminine vocal delivery.  And the final bridge section, repeating  “Before you came into my life/ I missed you so bad” like a mantra, becomes a Zen kōan, reflecting upon a sublime yet uncanny sense of temporal disconnect.  The notion that one can miss something that has not yet been experienced recalls haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, who writes of the ways in which one can long for an interior, emotionally subjective construction of life even at the expense of its own reality:

Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto

The sense of différance set forward by the lyrics is further augmented by the music behind the chorus. The standard popular song follows a I-IV-V-I pattern: firmly establishing its chord progression with the I cord, developing tension through the IV and V chords, and then resolving the musical conflict by reestablishing the root or alternately moving to the root’s relative minor.  In “Call Me Maybe”’s key of G major, however, the chorus chords move back and forth between C (the IV) and D (the V) without ever returning to G (the I) or moving on to E minor, never resolving, a musical manifestation of différance itself, even throughout the end of the song, which, unlike the conventional fade-out, ends in a pitchshifitng downward spiral, deferring even the idea of a musical conclusion.

The final result of this radical indeterminacy is that “Call Me Maybe” is a musical Mona Lisa, rendering itself a cultural cipher, a tabula rasa upon which any reader may impose meaning; with over 222,500,000 views on YouTube, its video is a floating signifier capable of accommodating virtually any viewer.   As such, the Internet is inundated with “Call Me Maybe” memes, each imagining a different, resolved signified of the song that, taken together, negate each other, paradoxically denying any such certainty.

And so many more

Maybe.

Time: 75 minutes

Derrida quotations from “Interview with Julia Kristeva” in Positions (University of Chicago P, 1981)

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Live Music; or, the Song in the Age of Digital Reproduction, an Essay in Eight Tracks

 

Track 1: This is me, around 1991. I still had long hair in my dreams for years after I cut it.

Track 2: Eight years, age 15 to 23, I could only imagine music, being a Famous Rock Star. It’s hard to say how many hours a day or days a week I practiced, because it was never work.  Even then, I loved that English used to the word “play” for an instrument, because that’s what I felt I was doing. But it was as much as I could: a few hours a day, not including at least six hours a week of band practice, not including at least two shows a month, not including going to other bands’ gigs twice a week.  I held down a job (record store) and earned easy A’s in school, but I lived music.

Track 3: And then, suddenly, I didn’t.  I spent the next decade learning to be a reader, writer, teacher, husband, and father.  For years, I didn’t even have a guitar. No one knew who I used to be, who, in some sense, I really was.  Music was the secret identity I left behind.  It was too hard to be everything.  Like the mopey tween calendar montage in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, or the mopey tween sun rising and falling montage in Beastly (I need to lay off the mopey tween monsters), time passed.

And as time was passing, something interesting happened, almost behind my back: music went digital.

Track 4: I am no vinyl purist. I’ve always preferred electric to acoustic. Unlike the fans who booed electric Dylan in 1965, if my favorite heavy rock band showed up with acoustic guitars, I’d boo them. (I’m looking at you, Nirvana.) Thank God the unplugged fad of the 90s is over. I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more, either.

Yet I can see why the folkies didn’t feel that electric music was authentic. The electric guitar puts more steps between the player’s fingers and the listener’s ear.  Not just the vibrations of the string, but the pickup, the signal, the wire, the amplification, and the distortion—sweet, dirty, deliberate distortion—of the signal. The electric sound of the guitar’s amplification is then further captured electronically by microphones, processed even further into the analogue of reel to reel tape, then mastered onto vinyl.  So many steps in the process of producing and reproducing the sound, each step, for the purist, one further away from the original.  Not the reel but the real.

But going electric and going digital are not the same. Something about listening to all music in MP3 format seems different, the final step that remasters once more, finally and irrevocably converting the analogue sound into binary computer code, Dylan’s plaintive wail (is there any other kind?) and guitarist Mike Bloomfield’s rich squeals into a cold series of ones and zeros, compressed, then uncompressed.  Look, overall, I love the iPod, love having 6332 songs made portable, love the slightly junky, slightly tinny, slightly robotic tone, love the intrusive insertion of the earbuds jacked directly into your brain, rather than warmly, maternally enveloping  your ears like the admittedly superior hi-fi earmuffs of yesteryear. (Yes, I know you can still get them. No, I never see anyone wearing them.) But I don’t mistake what I’m hearing.  Not music exactly, but an excellent simulation: “I’m not the song, but I play one on an iPod.”

Track 5: Walter Benjamin, from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936): “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.…  By making many reproductions it [the technique of reproduction] substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”   The part that messes with people today is that Benjamin, a Marxist when the word still meant something, saw this AS A GOOD THING. The destruction of the aura could only benefit the masses.  With the artwork’s aura destroyed, the work’s hegemonic power, not artistic power, its elevated class and economic status, would disappear, since the same picture would be available to all.  Technology, and ultimately “the capitalistic mode of production,” could “create conditions which would make it possible to abolish capitalism itself.”   Yet that is not what has happened to art in the time since Benjamin wrote his essay.  Instead, the more frequently a work of art is reproduced, the more expensive and more coveted the original becomes.  Look at yesterday’s New York Times article on the subject of rich, famous art—including Munch’s Scream, mentioned in last week’s entry, now likely to “fetch” (Times’ word choice)  $150-200 MILLION.  That’s some puppy.  But music is an altogether different animal. It wasn’t records or tapes that finally destroyed music’s aura, but digital reproduction.  Music, in every sense of the term, now is free.  

 Bad joke. Sorry.

SIDE B

Track 6: Jean Baudrillard, from Simulation and Simulacra:

“Such would be the successive phases of the image:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;”

[me: i.e.,  acoustic guitar string]

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

[electric guitar string –>pickup –> amplifier]

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

[electric guitar string  –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording]

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum.”

[electric guitar string –> pickup –> amplifier –> analogue recording –> converted to digital recording]

Track 7: But I started to listen to music again, and play.  A few years of noodling, riffing, realizing that the hours of play had hardened into neural muscle memory and that there was no remediation needed.  My first real foray back into playing came when I bought a new amplifier last year, a Fender G DEC 3. Not to get all ad-speak with Walter Benjamin in the room, but it’s a clever idea: build MP3 backing tracks right into the amp and loop them to simulate playing with musicians. 

As an actual amplifier by itself it doesn’t sound that great.  In fact, it sounds exactly like a digital simulation of an electric guitar amplifier. But with the simulated tracks, the simulated sound is perfect. And as recorded by my digital camera, and uploaded onto my laptop, and linked to the world wide intermesh, and fed through your speakers, who can tell?

Electric guitar string –>pickup –> digital amplifier –> digital recording –> my laptop –> internet –> your laptop

  But because it’s digital, we could reproduce it a thousand times, a million more times, and it would sound just like the original.  Benjamin missed his prediction for art, but foresaw the future of music.

Track 8: Then, not long after I got the amp, I started playing again, for real, with actual people.  And it’s not like playing with simulated tracks at all.  I could hardly eat before or after each rehearsal, and when we were done I left wracked with stomach pain. I thought it was the stress of singing after a long hiatus, the churn of old pipes and machinery, or even nerves.

But later, I realized I recognized and remembered that pain.

It was called excitement.

Same guy, same guitar, one haircut, 21 years later

Jesse Kavadlo

Time: Over again, which is becoming the new norm. Eighty minutes, not including making the amp video just for this occasion. Time to go back in time to 60 minutes.

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Listening to Barack Obama on Shuffle

 

In the 1989, as an impressionable Poli-sci major about to defect to English, I was blown away that Václav Havel, playwright, poet and protester, could become Václav Havel, President—as it turns out, last president—of Czechoslovakia.  Naturally, I thought: Never in America.  And ten years later, when professional wrestler and professional lunatic Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota—a year before I actually moved to the state under his governance—naturally, I thought: Only in America. 

Yet after reading Dreams of My Father, I can’t help but think of Barack Obama as a writer first and a politician second, a man of letters, one of us who made good, real good.  And while I like the book’s merging of memoir with manifesto, of a personal identity crisis with a national one, much of my admiration comes from the way Obama himself reads it.  Mode and code shifting, voices, rhythms, accents reflecting Nairobi to Chicago, multiple inflections: the man knows how to tell a story.  Obtuse teleprompter jokes on the one hand and overblown praise on the other both aside, Obama’s verbal dexterity is best reflected in writing, and his reading of his own writing, rather than off the cuff comments or speechwriter’s words.  Obama—Barack, as I keep wanting to call him after listening—exhibits the consummate writer’s power to ponder, picture, revise, and reflect[i].  

I don’t have many audiobooks, but I couldn’t help getting Barack Obama’s DoMF during the 2008 campaign.  Yet a funny thing happened: I seldom listen to it linearly or chronologically. Like many iPod People, I mostly listen on shuffle. 

Ah shuffle.    

Does any word better reflect contemporary sensibilities toward music? The word the kids love and, therefore, lovingly abuse, is “random,” but I’m a bigger proponent of using “shuffle,” or “on shuffle” as slang for unlikely, juxtaposed, or unexpected.  [Using old man voice] Back in my day, we used to argue about what kind of music was the best, although not as bad as the previous decade’s “Disco sucks” wars or the decade before that seeing Bob Dylan booed by his own fans for going electric.  But now, ask a college student what kind of music she prefers and prepare to be bored: a gamut of responses ranging widely from “I like a lot of kinds of music” to “I like all kinds of music” to [puts on breathy haughty voice] “My musical tastes are… eclectic.” In other words, the musical genre that they like is called Shuffle.

But I digress.  Taking up six discs and 108 tracks, Dreams of My Father inevitably pops up occasionally, mixed in with my tunes.  And I always ponder the significance of the juxtapositions between Obama and the songs that precede and follow.  So as an experiment I decided to hit Shuffle and, for the first time, keep track.

Exhibit A—Track: “The first thing to remember” (page 35)

Summary: Lolo, Barack’s stepfather, sees young B with a lump on his head from an unfair fight with an older boy and teaches him to box.  Lesson: male bonding mixed with self-defense in an hostile, alien environment of Jakarta.  

Before: Ramones, Locket Love

Sample lyric: Hang on a little bit longer
Hang on you’re a goner

After: Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone

Sample lyric: How does it feel ?
How does it feel ?
To be without a home ?
Like a complete unknown ?
Like a rolling stone ?

Commentary: Clearly, The Ramones set the tone of perseverance and the budding paternalism and commonalities, aside from funny names, between Barack and Lolo. But then Dylan throws a curve, as he always does, by reinforcing the literal and metaphorical unmooring Barack copes with throughout the whole book, even as he exposes the secret hubris one must feel to be the subject of any attention: a fight, a song, especially one’s own book.

 Exhibit B—Track: Preface  (pg. vii)

Summary: Obama describes his surprising victory in the Senate race and the mixed public responses, one of which was the reissue of this book.  Obama finds that his feelings are still similar, but the world’s context after 9/11, and from Clinton to Bush, is now very different.  Lesson: things change, for better and worse.

Before: Yngwie Malmsteen, You Don’t Remember, I’ll Never Forget

Sample lyric: It was you, it was me,
And we would last forever.
Any fool could see, that we were
Meant to be

After: Ratt, Givin’ Yourself Away

Sample lyric:

It’s there in every move you make
You can’t hide your heartache away
Hey, it’s somethin’ you don’t have to say
It’s written in the tears on your face
I see through the part that you play

Commentary: The book is all about memory, what Barack can’t help but remember in spite of the pain. Or maybe he remembers precisely because of it.  But concern with memory and forgetting aside, Malmsteen’s lyrics basically suck, so let me focus on what people take from his music: the virtuoso guitar playing.  Obama’s writing, however,  is not the equivalent at all: his vocabulary and syntax are complex and engaging but not, I don’t think, showboating or technical. The Preface concludes with a touching encomium to Barack’s mother, who died of cancer just after the book was published, lending the book a sense of emotional urgency that Malmsteen’s solos don’t really strive for.  Yet, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, the Ratt lyrics bring the emotion directly to the surface, even as they allude to one other point Obama makes in the preface: that some of the book’s material is less politically expedient on the national stage but that he refutes none of it.

Exhibit C—Track: “One day as I sat down at my computer” (136)

Summary: Barack hears from a long lost half-sister who wants to visit. But she cancels when her brother—and, really, his, too, although he does not know him—has been killed in a motorcycle accident. Lesson: Things get better and worse.

Before: Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine

Sample lyric:

My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine

You make me smile with my heart

Your looks are laughable, un-photographable

Yet you’re my favorite work of art

After: Black Sabbath, TV Crimes

Sample lyric:

One day in the life of the lonely
Another day on the round about
What do they need
Somebody to love

Commentary: Of course, Davis’s 15-minute live version is instrumental, so there’s less irony in Barack’s tragic loss and estrangement and the lyrics’ goofy celebration of imperfection.  Instead, Davis’s version is plaintive, piercing, and painful, a perfect set up for the book’s distant but real bereavement.  Meanwhile, Black Sabbath’s song is precisely the opposite: a particularly hard rocker, dissonant even for them, with raging, screaming vocals by Ronnie James Dio, even as they lyrics point out the loneliness endemic to modern society that we try and fail to quell though media.  Dio’s, and Obama’s, pain requires human connection that, in both tracks, remains thwarted.

Exhibit D—“I awoke to the sound” (pg. 87)

Summary: Chronologically earlier than “One day as I sat down at my computer…,” this section recounts Barack’s grandparents fighting because, he discovers, his grandmother is upset that a black panhandler asked for money, and his grandfather is upset at her unconscious racism. This is the “Obama threw his grandmother under the bus” section that conservatives like to point to.  Lesson: Critics miss the point: that the people we love and who love us are capable of contradiction and complexity, that racism is often unconscious, impersonal, and systemic,  and that having a black grandchild is not an automatic inoculation against bias.  

Before: Black Sabbath, Neon Knights

After: The Ramones, Ramona

Weird! Black Sabbath and The Ramones twice each.  But I spent too much time on this already, and my hour is out so I need to wrap this entry up right now.

Supposedly, iPod customers have long wondered about the secret logarithms that determine the obvious sentience behind Shuffle. They are certain that it’s not random at all. It’s hard to argue with, given the possible relationships that emerge, even though it’s not, of course, that a pattern emerges or that there’s intelligent design. Rather we, as humans and listeners, invariably create those patterns.  

History and politics have patterns, too, even if the truth is that the cosmic iPod of Life is also on constant shuffle, so that one decade’s wrestler in the State House can lead into another decade’s writer in the White House. We like shuffle because life is on shuffle, and I can’t help but see the track sequences as another great example of life’s, and maybe even America’s, many great eclecticisms.

Time: 80 minutes (!), not including listening to all those tracks, although I tried to write and listen at the same time when I could.

Jesse Kavadlo

 


[i] Unlike yr humble Hourman, who writes fast and sloppy and edits faster and sloppier.  Look for a six-month anniversary entry in a few weeks on what I’ve learned from blogging.  

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On Stolen Songs, Snowflakes, Fingerprints, and DNA

We’ve all done it—heard a new song that’s clearly inferior to the music we came of age to, and cried foul.  The “ripped off song” even seems to have become its own YouTube genre at this point.  One of my favorites is this one: 

If you didn’t bother to view it, I can sum it up here.  Thirty-four songs—James Blunt, You’re Beautiful; Richard Marx, Waiting for You; Alicia Keyes, No one; Mika, Happy Ending; Amiel, Lovesong; Black Eyed Peas, Where is the Love?; Alex Lloyd, Amazing; The Calling, Wherever You Will Go; Bush, Glycerine;  Thirsty Merc, Twenty Good Reasons; Lighthouse Family, High; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul to Squeeze; Bic Runga, Sway; Ben Lee, Cigarettes; Maroon 5, She Will Be Loved; U2, With or Without You; Crowded House, Fall at Your Feet; Casey Chambers, Not Pretty Enough; The Beatles, Let it Be; Red Hot Chili Peppers [again?], Under the Bridge; Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror; Elton John, Can You Feel the Love Tonight; Men at Work, Down Under; Banjo Patterson, Waltzing Matilda; A-Ha, Take On Me; Eagle Eye Cherry, Save Tonight; Toto, Africa; The Offspring, Self Esteem; Blink 182, Dammit; One Republic, Apologize; Tim Minchin, Canvas Bags; Natalie Imbruglia, Torn; and Missy Higgins, Scar [whew!] are all stealing Journey, Don’t Stop Believing,

Although it’s hard to see how the artists who wrote their songs before 1981 could have stolen anything, it’s smart.  And funny.  And accurate.  And, for YouTube, exceptionally well done. 

Yet Axis of Awesome, the group behind the video, must also understand, since they also included their own song, Birdplane (thirty-five songs, then), in the medley, the following problems:

1) These songs are all using a standard, conventional rock chord progression.  What they’re calling a stolen song is really just called a rock song.  Would anyone create a medley of blues songs and say, “They’re all following the same pattern!”  (Blues songs all follow the same twelve-bar pattern; it’s what makes them recognizably blues songs.)  If we keep the same chords here—in the key of C, it would be C/G/Am/F—and were a little more flexible, we could in fact include all of the blues (C/F/C/G/F/C, with occasional variations),  all 1950s doo wop and adaptations (C/Am/F/G), and, really, most of pop music (C/G/F, which covers everything from Wild Thing to Hang on Sloopy to What’s the Frequency, Kenneth).

 2) In their original and complete forms, these songs sound much less alike then when reworked, restructured, rerecorded, decontextualized, and resung by the same singers over the same tempo accompanied by the same piano.

Yet in fairness, other videos, like this and this, understand a lot less about music.  But at least they leave the original recording, so that you can hear, however briefly, that once the vocal comes in, or the song changes to the next section, all of a sudden, the songs don’t sound that much alike anymore.

My favorite—and, with 10,000,000 hits, clearly other people’s favorite, though, is this one:

Here, comedian Rob Paravonian makes a similar point as Axis of Awesome, about the humorous but relentless similarities between pop songs, here framed as Pachobel’s personal  conspiracy against him. But even he takes some liberties with the songs; again, it’s the same person singing over the same guitar, sometimes as few as a single line to make his point.

This is not to say that any similarities between any songs are OK.  In the 1950s, white artists like The Beach Boys and Pat Boone certainly did rip off black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, respectively.  (Perhaps more in another post.) And it’s funny that Green Day, in many ways a more interesting and original band than the hipsters give them credit for, seems to wind up on these lists an awful lot.  

But still, if people are so quick to judge songs as derivative, why are we also so eager to declare people’s uniqueness?  Aside from the occasional Chuck Palahniuk character, most of us heartily believe that we’re special and unique.  Unique like fingerprints, even though fingerprints are all nearly exactly the same and their uniqueness only comes into play if you’ve, say, committed a jewel heist.  Unique as snowflakes, although all snowflakes are all white and all cold and all too small to see the differences and all melt too fast to really compare them anyway and for any practical purposes are all interchangeable.  In sum, Everyone agrees that Everyone is unique. Which is not very unique of Everyone.   Fight Club’s Tyler Durden seems to be unique in his opinion that we’re not unique.  And he’s [spoiler alert! That’s right, I’m giving away the end of Fight Club! Um, you have had thirteen years to see it, people] a figment of the narrator’s psychosis, not a real person at all. And a fictional character on top of that.  

I can already picture a Youtube video montage of random people, scrolling through faces that stole the idea of having two eyes, and one nose, and a mouth with lips AND teeth.  Barring accident or abnormality, it turns out that people are like fingerprints and snowflakes: they’re all mostly the same. 

THE MOST STOLEN FACE IN HISTORY!

But despite the overwhelming similarities, I do believe that we’re really all different, beyond fingerprints, beyond gender, race, color, size, clique, style, and the other ways in which people vary. Because we are all truly unique at the genetic level, our DNA representing the chord progressions of our lives, the similar-yet-a-little-different sequences that make us who we are. 

I’m no biologist, so I know I’m oversimplifying and maybe getting some things wrong, but it seems to me that humans are essentially  structured like a song: our DNA is composed (music/biology overlapping word) of only four different bases (basses? OK, a stretch), abbreviated, like chords, by a letter: adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T).  And DNA also like a song, creates difference through sequence and pattern.  No, there’s no T chord, but if you go with the letter F instead, and make A into A minor, you have the famous progression, C/G/Am/ F—the same one in Don’t Stop Believin’, the Most Stolen Song.  Yes, it’s a stretch (it is T, not F).  And a coincidence, even if you accept the stretch. 

But a song’s uniqueness is very much like each person’s—similarly patterned, generally unsurprising, but also recognizable, the same way in which we instantly greet our friends, family, and loved ones without each time thinking that their faces all form the same boring pattern.  A great example for me is Glen Hansard’s Falling Slowly, from the movie Once.

It’s that same chord progression again—mostly C/F/C/G, with occasional Am, almost a melancholy version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  But like the people most important to us, it also feels like the only one if its kind: heartfelt, occasionally surprising (the falsetto leap on the word “time“), and, as we all aspire toward, unique.  

Time: over again! 70 minutes.

Jesse Kavadlo

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Women and/or Rock

 

Last week I wrote about VH1’s Metal Evolution  and was thrilled to see it linked to Banger Film’s social media.  I never actually expected anyone to see what I wrote, so I wasn’t thinking about readers’ reactions.  Yet of all the possible reasons to balk, the one that jumped out was calling the show on its gender imbalance.  Feminism somehow trumps Marx and Freud on the controversy-meter.

First, I stand corrected: there were not three women interviewed in the eleven hours; there were ten. 

And, of course, there’s the inherent numbers problem: how many women of metal are there?  No one would take Ken Burns to task for leaving women out of his documentary on baseball.

But music is, obviously, very different.  The easy solution to the skew would be a Women in Metal (or Hard Rock) episode.  It was the first thing I thought of.  And it would probably be great.  This has been Rolling Stone magazine’s way around their usual disparity. Yet while it solves one problem—balance and equality—it raises another: wouldn’t it be better to include women throughout the year rather than offer the consolation prize of a separate—and, according to the Supreme Court, by necessity, unequal—issue?  There is something about a special issue reserved for women that smacks of tokenism, as though female musicians didn’t make the real cut but want their Participant ribbon. 

But you know what? The truth is, I’m not going to resolve any of this here.  And that’s OK with me. 

Here’s what I’m really interested in, anyway: how gender works in rock, or whether gender in rock even matters at all. 

And one way for me to create the closest thing to a study of something as defiantly unempirical and unscientific as the meaning in music (evolutionary metaphors to the contrary) is to look at covers of songs where one version is performed by a man and the other by a woman.  What difference—other than obvious vocal tone—does it make?

Case #1:

No, Joan Jett didn’t write it or even record it first.  But when you listen to The Arrows plod through it—their own song!—after years of hearing Jett, you wonder why she even thought it would be worth recording at all.  When sung by a guy—or maybe, in fairness, THIS guy—it seems a pretty typical homage to the joys of jailbait, and the references to dimes and jukeboxes sound pathetic, nostalgic, and dated, even in the 1970s.

OK, the video does seem a little goofy today.  (See a smokin’ 1980s live version here; I didn’t want to compare studio to live.) But the gender inversion works wonders. Instead of seeming pathetic, like some dude in his 20s (30s?) hanging out by the record machine hoping to pick up a girl about seventeen, Jett seems tough, in control, and able to breathe life into the phrase “I Love Rock & Roll,” a deathly cliché for The Arrows but totally believable and sincere here—even as the butchy jacket and bangs suggest a singer with a wink and wry ironic sensibility. 

Case #2

I know you didn’t need to click on the link—you can hear the whole song in your head at this point just by reading the title.  OK, not rock, exactly, but certainly rockin’, a song that has become synonymous with post-breakup empowerment for a generation of women lip-synch sobbing into their hairbrushes.

Cake did a brave thing by covering a song that women own.  And unlike The Arrows, their version, way after it became iconic, wears well.  But it’s nothing like the original.  Where Gaynor belts it out, Cake plays it cool, except for the one lyrical update, “stupid lock” becomes “fucking lock.” With that shift, and overall laconic, behind-the-beat delivery, the song seems less about getting over an ex than an angry passive-aggressive possible psycho holding a grudge, the mantra of the jilted stalker who protests too much more than the surviving girlfriend. Its cool façade can’t cover the righteous anger. 

Case #3

The famous, the classic, but not the original.

Elvis was hated and feared for his devastating hip swivels and pelvic thrusts in his day, but funnily enough, his Hound Dog is neutered compared to Big Momma’s.  The gender inversion is just weird when you think about it: when sung by a woman, the song is clearly about a cheating man.  You  hear tha anger, but also the passion.  When sung by a man, however beautifully Elvis emotes and growls, it seems to be about… a hound dog. But, you know, 100,000,000,000 fans can’t be wrong.

Case #4

(YouTube won’t let me link to the video, so here is a live version, despite what I said above)

Bias: Possibly the best song on possibly one of the best albums ever.  I vividly remember the first time hearing this when it was released and thinking, “This is like nothing I ever heard.”  It’s like all the heroin in their bodies somehow seeped into the recording, so that between the delay on the guitar riff, the echoing shriek, the modulating keys, and the bouncing beat, it feels like the best nightmare.  The guitar and vocals are somehow so metal yet so blues that it’s no surprise that the song appealed to…

Etta James. [UPDATE 5/30/12: the linked video has since been removed] Too many variables: gender, but also race and age.  Still, James’s version makes the jungle seem like a funhouse, less frantic than Guns and more inevitable: if you’re lucky, and you live, maybe you can enter my jungle.  The thing that’s dangerous in this version of the song isn’t LA, rock, or drugs.  It’s Etta James.

Case #4a: Girls, Girls, Girls, Motley Crue

When feminists want a case-in-point for rock misogyny, they have one-stop shopping with Crue.  “Break her face or take down her legs” in Live Wire; “Use you up, throw you away” in Piece of Your Action, and this.  I hate to get all feminist theory again after last week, but this is a case study of the male gaze, where women exist only as objects.  But the issue isn’t whether anyone agrees with that point, since it’s obvious. The issue is whether you object.

4b: Take it Off, The Donnas

No, this is not, of course, a cover.  But it’s a great flipside and way to wrap after Girls x3.  Taken together, these songs force the listener to consider: What changes when women play and sing a song that objectifies men, where they’re the rockers and the subjects of the sexual chase? The lyrics certainly invert the Crue:

Need your love 1,2,3
Stop starin’ at my D cup
Don’t waste time, just give it to me
C’mon baby, just feel me up
C’mon, just give it up

Go on and take it off
You gotta shake it off baby, for me.

In many ways, it’s less a tribute to MCrue than it is to Joan Jett, decades later.  Reversing the gaze doesn’t seem demeaning to them, or, really, to men.

And the video, playing on viewers’ latent biases and sexpectations of what women in rock are supposed to look and act like, is worth more than a mountain of Rolling Stone’s Women in Rock issues.

Commenters: Got more examples of songs covered by both men and women? Post and discuss.     

Time: I’d love to keep going, but even rushing and trying to keep it short I’m at 60 minutes.

Jesse Kavadlo

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VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

[Previous blog on VH1 and heavy metal]

VH1 concluded the first season, eleven episodes, of Sam Dunn’s documentary on heavy metal, Metal Evolution.  The thing that impresses me most, even more than the obvious time, money, energy, thought, and love that went into it, is the thesis: Dunn is actually true to the title, reading the history of metal as a gradual process by which the music changed into different forms and subgenres over four decades.  The introduction (excerpted in the clip below) shows Dunn hard at work constructing his diagram of categories and hand-lettered band-name logos, using architect-grade pens, an X-acto knife, pushpins, and string, so that the resultant chart is a meticulous assemblage worthy of a lepidopterist,  cartographer, or serial killer. As he works, the camera flashes to a bust of Charles Darwin, and then later to a bookshelf highlighting The Origin of the Species.  Dunn clearly sees metal as deserving of a hagiographic, Ken Burns-style documentary, even as metal, unlike Burns’s jazz and baseball, is not a simple slice of Americana; like an anthropologist, Dunn traverses the globe, frequenting Britain but also hitting Germany, Denmark, Canada, Brazil, and more, all to catalogue the comprehensive metal diaspora.

[Clip: Ad for Metal Evolution series; about 1 minute in, turns into clip of anti-metal diatribe for some reason. Ah, Youtube]

Yet [channeling Carrie Bradshaw] I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the series went on beyond Darwin? [Smiling for not saying “evolve.”] 

Metal Materialism

 

I'm a Marxist. A Groucho Marxist.

Dunn uses the image of evolution to suggest change, but it’s clear that it’s not natural selection as much as the unnatural, invisible hand of the marketplace:  the 1960s and early 1970s are presented as a golden age of metal, only to lead to a bloated, decadent phase of arena rock in the late 70s. Which then led to the energized, revitalized New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWoBHM) 🙂  Which led to late 1980s glam excess and languor 😦  Which led to deeper, darker thrash 🙂  Which led to back-to-basics, punk-influenced grunge (:S [confused face]) Which led to Nu Metal (first 🙂, with Korn, then 😦, with Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, with spelling 😦 the whole time).  In each case, it’s not exactly that the music got old as much as the target market did—record companies were always on the lookout to find the next big seller for the next generation, happy to dump last year’s act in favor of a new flavor, only to dump them, ad infinitum.

But it’s not just market fluctuation as much as a deliberate assimilation of subversion.  Hard rock, then metal, then thrash, then grunge, are systematically stripmined of their rebelliousness; the very thing that in one year makes it dangerous in the next makes it a hot commodity.  Venture vulture capitalism not only absorbs the marginal into its mainstream; it profits from packaging and selling rebellion right back to the teens who invented it, until it’s all gone.  Then it moves on to the next form. This is not evolution as much as a business cycle, or, if you’re thinking generously Hegalian, a series of dialectical movements between conservatism and creativity, reformations and counter-reformations.  

Metal Poststructuralism

Don't be so Saussure

But what about the episodes I didn’t mention above, on Shock Metal, Power Metal, and Progressive Metal? They fall outside—or maybe side by side—Dunn’s partially chronological approach, a kind of concurrent evolution, so that each of these three episodes starts over again in the 60s, even as the first eight episodes were working their way closer to the present.  We can think of metal, then, in Roman Jakobson’s terms: syntagmatic—linear, forward moving, evolving, chronological, narrative—as well as paradigmatic—vertical, categorical, thematic, metaphorical.  Seeing metal as moving from roots to early metal to NWoBHM to glam to thrash to grunge to Nu metal is syntagmatic; seeing the previous episodes as representing the traditional narrative of metal with outliers in Shock, Power, and Prog is paradigmatic.   

Alternately, we can see all of heavy metal as a language system—the langue of heavy metal always consisting of loud, distorted guitars, hard-hitting drums, extreme vocals (whether screaming, high-range, guttural, or Cookie Monster), and rebellious attitude; the parole of metal comes from the specific utterances and subgenres.  The reason your grandma (or a nonfan) can’t tell the difference between any of these episodes is because they’re not native speakers of metal—they recognize only the langue but cannot decipher the particulars of the parole.

Metal Patriarchy

I would not even think about putting a funny caption here

Dunn in general is not looking at metal’s faults.  Fair enough. It’s his show.  Yet the glaring fact is that, over eleven hours and interviews with hundreds of musicians, producers, journalists, and academics, I counted only three women: a manager, a professor, and Melissa Auf der Maur, bassist with Hole and other groups. (I may have missed someone, I suppose). 

Maybe it’s just a numbers game—metal bands are mostly male.  But consider one of Dunn’s very un-anthropological forays into complaint: he is very clear about his dislike of glam metal and seems only to include it out of some fanatical completist’s OCD.  And why does he dislike glam?  It seems, in part, because he sees the groups as feminine, wearing makeup and spandex, although, again, Grandma would see most of these groups as effeminate.  Ugly androgyny and makeup a la Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson, who even assume women’s names, is OK, but not stage makeup or names like Rikki Rockett.  And beyond looking like women—or, arguably, caring about their looks at all—what is glam’s other serious violation? It appealed to—GIRLS!  In fact, the one thing that all of Dunn’s defective eras in metal share—including his open disdain of Linkin Park—is that they had a significant number of female fans.  Dunn’s metal shop is a boy’s club.

(Not that glam isn’t also, paradoxically, a low point in lyrical misogyny.  Dunn is not particularly interested in lyrics anyway.  And unlike the other metal genres, glam has at least discovered girls in the first place.) 

Metal Heliocentrism

Revolution Number 9

Dunn seems to see the 60s as the Big Bang of metal creativity.  And the cosmological model may be better than the evolutionary one, as evolution implies not just change but change into a better form.  For Dunn, it’s clear that the subjects of his previous documentaries, Iron Maiden and Rush, represent the sun around which the other bands and genres revolve.  The introduction plays Maiden’s The Trooper, and these two groups still seem absolutely central to Dunn’s metal universe, rather than mere transitional stages in a larger evolutionary process of species improvement. 

Metal Psychoanalysis

Sometimes a circular saw codpiece is just a circular saw codpiece. Oh, wait. No it's not.

If Dunn can use Darwin and I include Marx and Copernicus, it’s only fitting that I end with the other world-changing thinker, Freud.  The introduction also flashes briefly to photos of Dunn’s childhood and his college degrees on the wall.  It’s hard to wonder whether this whole documentary filmmaker gig isn’t a chance to meet the idols of his youth—and, in some oedipal sense, surpass them.  Many of the former stars are now aging, overweight, bald, and way, way past their era of fame.  Dunn is in charge now, calling the shots and asking the questions, controlling—creating—the metal narrative.  And at what must be a height of about 6’5”, Dunn again and again towers over the rock stars.  The star-struck child returns, and this time he is the symbolic adult.   Power metal indeed. 

Forget metal evolution—Dunn has crafted himself as metal’s Intelligent Designer.

Time: Yeah, I’m over an hour on this one. Yeah.

 

Jesse Kavadlo

UPDATE 2/15/12: Read the follow-up to the part that got people talking: Women and/or Rock.

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VH1’s Metal Fatigue

A typical '80s metal image

In 1985, when I loved heavy metal, the only time I could hear it on the radio was once a week at midnight on Metal Shop ( “M-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-metal shop”), and the only place to watch the videos were the UHF station U68 and the occasional clip in Friday Night Videos.  Both late at night.  This was all pre-cable in Brooklyn, New York, and obviously pre-DVR.  To hear new metal, I’d often chance a record based on the cover alone.  I first heard Metallica that way, which remains my major coup. Savatage, not so much.   Yet now, far, far past the point when I need it, everything on VH1 is coming up metal: Metal Mania, That Metal Show, the million-part documentary Metal Evolution, the preponderance of Iron Maiden and Metallica and miscellaneous metal movies, and Megadeth et al Behind the Music episodes. 

It’s all too much, too late.

Nevertheless, I’m watching it, and more often than not I’m surprised by what I’m seeing, despite my vague, dream-like glimpses of memories of having seen them before.  The majority of the 1980s metal videos, it turns out, featured futuristic apocalyptic Road Warrior sets—sometimes, oddly enough, accompanied by laser guns and flying saucers; at other times, also oddly enough, accompanied by faux-Renaissance Faire swords and scepters—where the only remnants of the present-day to survive are guitars and, apparently, Aquanet.  Crucially, most videos also feature some kind of bondage, chains, cages, or imprisonment scenario, usually with the band itself incarcerated, although sometimes hot chicks in strategically ripped clothing are, apparently, detained for questioning as well.  The best worst example is Queensryche’s “Queen of the Reich” video, which gets everything right.  Which is to say everything wrong.  “LOL” has become a cliché, but just try not to laugh out loud.

I get the end of the world angle.  This was the ’80s, with the endgame of the Cold War (which of course we didn’t know at the time), The Day After and the trauma dramas on TV, Mad Max and War Games at the movies, the official red carpet entrance of crack, AIDS, eating disorders, and drive-by shootings into the public lexicon and consciousness.  The videos?  Mere trickle down dystopia.  Metal was anti-authority, and no civilization just meant no rules and less clothing.  Let college rock feel fine about the end of the world as we know it; to metal bands and fans, it was fuckin’ awesome.

But this bondage business nags me. Dokken’s Breakin’ the Chains (above image) pretty much sums it up, but Def Leppard’s quasi-crucifixion in Foolin’, The Scorpions’ cages and containers in Rock You Like a Hurricane, Quiet Riot’s and Megadeth’s straightjackets and padded cells, Metallica’s electric chairs and hospital beds, and too many more to name: everyone is trapped, confined, restricted, or in somebody else’s power.  I suppose it’s the oldest and most reliable story in existence, the Master Plot of master plots: tension, release; rising action, climax; loss, regain; conflict, resolution.  But the song does not remain the same.  The images—the chains—do.  Yes, they all break free by the end of the clip.  But first they need to be tied up or tied down. 

I guess there were some now-obvious but at the time (to me) unconscious fetishes at work, but the emotional metaphors trump the sexual ones.  In retrospect, there is the inescapable sense of the inescapable, despite that they—we—were white, and straight, and male, and socially unconstrained, irresponsible in the best sense, and at the height of youth, strength, and beauty.  Yet in the metal videos, all anyone felt were the metal restraints; all they saw were the bars of their metal cages.

The images seem funny and maybe ironic now, even though I felt and identified with the music at the time in a visceral, animal way.  And I’d say that they were funny, except for commercials that punctuate them as they air on VH1 now: a steady stream of Technicolor desperation, ad after ad for credit checks, mortgage and bankruptcy help, baldness cures and hair restoration, and something ominously called the PosTVac, which aims to restore losses of, um, other kinds. 

Popular culture to the contrary, the world didn’t end in the 1980s after all, as it turned out.  For metal fans, something much worse happened: it went on.   And life had much heavier things in store.  If you thought you were in chains and cages then, twenty plus years later, you’ve got another thing coming.

But I get to watch all the metal I want now.

Time: fifty-five goddamn depressing minutes. 

Coming soon:  Darwin, Hegel, Francis Fukiyama, PBS, Ken Burns, and Ozzy Osborne: welcome to the unlikely mash-up that is the documentary Metal Evolution.

UPDATE 2/8/12: Read the Metal Evolution post: VH1’s Metal Evolution as Interpreted by Theorists other than Charles Darwin

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Why Hourman?

Two of my favorite contemporary books, Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in the character within a character The Watcherwoman, use clocks and time as a central motif of mortality.  I can’t go a week without another clock-as-metaphor contender—for example, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  But go back further in time and meet Hourman, an obscure superhero created in 1940 and occasionally brought back as a supporting member of various super teams.  He was a scientist (see also: Flash, Iron Man, Spider-man, Mr. Fantastic, Ant-Man, et al) who invents a miracle drug (named, um, Miraclo; see also: Captain America, Cloak and Dagger, Luke Cage, ad infinitum) and, of course, tests it on himself (see: Dr. Jekyll, Beast), presumably to avoid the IRB paperwork.  The drug grants boring entry-level standard with the vehicle superpowers (super strength, super speed, super endurance), but—here’s the twist—only for one hour. 

The Hour-Man!

A few things interest me about this character. First, his powers are essentially framed as a deficiency—the super lasts only an hour, unlike Superman, who’s always super, rather than against regular people, to whom it’s an hour more super than they’ll ever get [said in sassy tone].  The other thing, though, is his decision to go with the name Hourman, which seems pretty stupid for a scientist.  He’s essentially advertising his weakness: “Hark ye, villains of the world! Just wait it out; I’ve only got a good hour in me,” as if  Superman called himself Kryptonite Man (the name a villain would later take pretty much just to screw with Superman’s psyche).  Later writers would also turn Hourman into a Miraclo junkie, kill him off, bring him back, reboot him, and make him time travel (last one: fair enough with the name), same as everyone else in Hollywood.

Think of how different Hourman is from Sixty Minute Man, from the 1951 song.  The names are nearly identical, but whereas Hourman has powers for ONLY an hour, 60 Minute Man has powers prowess for a WHOLE HOUR!  

There’ll be fifteen minutes of kissin’

Then you’ll holler “Please don’t stop” (Don’t stop!)

There’ll be fifteen minutes of teasin’

Fifteen minutes of squeezin’

And fifteen minutes of blowin’ my top

I’m still amazed at how explicit the song is for its time.  Also, how awesome.  But taken together, Hourman and Sixty Minute Man  present a nicely double sided pair and image—an hour is on the one hand never enough, but it can be, um, a fine, long time as well.  And so that’s my operative image for the page.  

I’ll be writing about popular culture—books, movies, music, and television—for no more than one-hour sittings, and I’ll try to keep track of the time.  Writing this blog for me is really an experiment in process, like the freewriting exercises created and espoused by writers like Peter Elbow and Natalie Goldberg.  Except my goal isn’t words on the page as much as expressing a particular idea for a particular amount of time.  The point of my hour is not to force me to produce, although it’s that too, but also to force me to stop.  Writing time is like dog years—you sit down to spend ten minutes tweaking and realize that seventy minutes have gone by.  For something that I’d write for publication, I could spend an hour on a page, or a sometimes rewriting or re-punctuating a sentence. Hell, I’ve spent an hour just rereading something I’ve written without making any changes at all.  So that hour is both a self imposed limitation as well as an endurance test.  And when I take less than an hour, which I hope to for this entry and maybe others, I’ll indicate the time at the end.

So maybe you won’t turn into an addict, or holler don’t stop, but maybe you’ll return for another episode.

Time: 40 minutes, not including getting the basics of the blog formatting down. That took forever.

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