Thursday, December 15, 2016

Only in Florida: Pitbull Courts Controversy By Releasing Terrible Song

Let's start with saying what needs to be said: Pitbull's song, 'Sexy Beaches' is terrible. Some of you know that I have no lost love for Rhianna's 'Birthday Cake.' 'Sexy Beaches' is worse. 'Sexy Beaches' is on a par, artistically, with a song by Paris Hilton. It sounds like washed-up Flo Rida. It sounds worse than the made-up hit single 'Drip Drop' from Empire.

It is terrible. Don't say I didn't warn you (it's so bad, I can't even get Blogspot to post it from YouTube).

But here's where it gets all Florida (there is a more detailed summary here).

1) This song was commissioned by Visit Florida, the state-sponsored tourist organization that tries to entice people to visit the Sunshine State. In what can only be viewed as a bureaucratic move, the good people at Visit Florida felt that having Pitbull sing a Florida song might entice millennials to visit. I would love to read the minutes from that meeting. My imagined version of those minutes:
Bureaucrat #1: Do you know what millennials love? Pitbull.
Bureaucrat #2: Who?
Bureaucrat #3: We're rescuing pitbulls?
2) In case you were not already aware of it, the state of Florida has some interesting laws. Some of them pertain to openness in all government dealings, also known as the Sunshine Law. This is where Pitbull courted controversy: apparently he viewed his deal with Visit Florida as a 'trade secret' and refuses to disclose the paperwork surrounding this song. Except that the contract has now been disclosed. Someone may be prosecuted. It may be Pitbull. This story got very confusing the more sources I read.

3) As a result, lawmakers may eliminate all of the money that previously went to Visit Florida from the state budget. All $74 million dollars of it. A Florida legislator is on the record with the following statement:
“This Pitbull ad called 'Sexy Beaches' has women walking around in thongs and their chests hanging out,” [Richard] Corcoran said. “There’s just no one in the Florida Legislature buying the argument that this was necessary to get millennials to come to Florida.”

I have a lot of questions:

1) Will Visit Florida cease to exist? By extension, will people no longer visit Florida?

2) How are you going to have a Pitbull song without mention of 'Mr. Worldwide' (perhaps not appropriate for such a Florida-centric song) or at least a yell of 'Dale'? This song is the Pitbull equivalent of phoning it in.

3) Is this simultaneously one of the most banal and costly advertising jingles in history? I'm basing this on the assumption that Visit Florida loses its $74 million per year. So this song cost an agency $74 million, in addition to being a terrible song. Plus they paid Pitbull one million. That's $75 million for 'Sexy Beaches.' I suspect that if you put the lifetime salaries of Handel, Bach, Haydn and Mozart together and adjust for inflation, you might get one quarter of 'Sexy Beaches', tops.

4) Did no one, no one, say the words 'Sexy Beaches' out loud before signing this contract? Because the contract (yep, that links to the actual contract) stipulates that the song would be called 'Sexy Beaches' and was being released by the state tourist agency.

And lastly, one surprise twist: this is not even the worst tourist video ever made of Florida. Or even the worst tourist song. Behold!

And just in case you don't have 18 minutes to spare, the song.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

In which Zoë perhaps dives too deeply into Bob Seger's 1978 Live in San Diego Performance of 'Still the Same'

This blog often engages in important work about music, culture, race, and, you know. The important stuff.

This is not one of those posts.

Instead, it is an unabashed appreciation of Bob Seger's Live in San Diego 1978 performance of his classic song, 'Still the Same.'  A song that I have spent the past four days listening to unrelentingly:

I offer no apologies, only this extended excursion into why this video has earwormed its way into my heart.

First, this is a great song. It just is. I shall hear no dissent on this point. If it were by Schumann, everyone would be studying it as a prime example of the Lied. With a little analysis, I could probably elucidate why this is so, but I prefer to enjoy this song in a pristine, somewhat naïve state. I will merely allude to the descending bass line that comes in every so often but never fully resolves or rests, suspending a harmony that remains 'still the same.' Indeed, 'some things never change.' Perhaps this idea will surface later as my discussion continues.

But let's talk about the performance, because I own a copy of Bob Seger's Greatest Hits, but I haven't been listening to the studio version over and over again. And to be clear, my fascination with this performance is not limited to the start when you can try and figure out what is on the Banner That Cannot Be Read.

First, Bob Seger himself. Trim that hair and get rid of that vest, and 1978 Bob Seger Live in San Diego is effectively the modern-day hipster. This fact is particularly noteworthy when you compare him to his band mates, who could be extras in Spinal Tap--Mr. Bass Player, I am calling you out. Bob Seger, on the other hand, could be preparing your nitro cold brew at your local coffeetorium. He could be tweaking the hops ratio for your limited edition in-house craft beer. He may just be the Ur-Hipster, based on this video evidence. Check out those shoes. Again, check out those shoes.

Next, let's talk about the siren calls stemming from the mostly anonymous background singers, whom I have nicknamed Exquisite Pantsuit and Ms. Tambourine Woman. I have some questions about either how those voices were captured on microphone or the performers themselves. This is a velvety smooth background vocal, far more so than is on the album track. Not to go overboard or anything, but I am going to go overboard here: I am reminded of the solo female voice that emerges at the end of Parsifal, Act I, entering as a ray of hope after the precariousness of the knighthood is revealed. Only there are two of them. They are not quite a ray of hope, but rather a smooth wave of sound.

That's right, I brought in Wagner in my discussion of Bob Seger. And I regret nothing.

One more quick note about Ms. Tambourine Woman: if you keep going to the next track from Bob Seger's 1978 San Diego performance that YouTube will undoubtedly recommend, you will see that 'Hollywood Nights' has not one but two unheard tambourines. That is a solid commitment to mimed performance.

Lastly, and this is the key point, I need to you go back and listen to when Bob Seger sings, 'You still aim high'. Now here, his voice quavers even more than on the studio track, quavers in a way that the crowd responds to with an enthusiastic cheer. It's a splendid moment. If you think through the lyrics, that particular line doesn't rhyme with anything at all (consider this within a song that had earlier forced the words 'forsake' and 'fake' to rhyme). 'You still aim high' is only heard once, it extends that dominant seventh without ever resolving it in the vocal because everything, in the end, is still the same. It aims high.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Historicizing the Diversity Problem in American Classical Music

The Howard University Orchestra in 1940 (taken from Dial M for Musicology)

It's 6 am and my brain is up and I (Kira) have about an hour to write this before I pack up my bags and fly to Vienna for the weekend. My brain was thinking (against my will at 5 am) about the article we posted on facebook (follow us on facebook, y'all!) listing that less than 2% of orchestral musicians are black and that only 1.5% of the music on an orchestra program is by a woman.

For the sake of time, I'd like to focus on that first number: 2% of orchestra musicians are black. This doesn't mean I don't care about the problems other underrepresented groups face in classical music, or the crazy-ass sexism women face in classical music, either. It's because it's 6 am and I need to get this post done in under an hour.

I think we like having this narrative of progress in our lives. We might look at that first number and think, my goodness! If only 2% of orchestra musicians are black today, how terrible was that number in the past?

And this is where we might consider checking ourselves before we wreck ourselves. Because here's my suspicion, based on my research in different American and European archives: counting for population growth and all that jazz, I suspect that the number of African Americans in the world of classical music has either not budged over the last 100 years or has actually declined.

It's going to take me several years to find the data on this, and it can't happen until after I publish my first book. But here's what pops into my head when I hear conversations about representation in classical music today:
* The Italian tenor Eduardo Ferrari-Fontana asking in 1925 if there were any black women who could sing the part of Aida for the Met, only to have over 250 singers request an audition.
* The formation of several "National Negro Symphony Orchestra" projects in the 1930s and 40s (prior to projects like the Sphinx Orchestra or Chineke Orchestra today!)
* The number of black students from the 1890s-1950s studying classical music not only at places like the New England Conservatory of Eastman but also HBCU's like Fisk University, Howard University, Spelman College, and even the Tuskegee Institute for crying out loud (my own personal records).
* The number of African American opera singers, opera companies, and opera-related projects from the early 1900s until the 1970s/80s. In the postwar period, the Vienna Staatsoper had more African American than white American opera singers performing there. Think about that for a hot minute. More African American than white American opera singers performed at the Staatsoper in 1950s and 60s Vienna than white American singers.
* The number of black conductors with permanent positions with orchestras in Europe (but not in the States!)

Outside of the world of elite concert music, there were tons of black piano teachers, music educators, etc. since the 1870s as well.

I've been calling the 1920s through the 1960s the "golden age" of classical music in African American life, and I think other books and articles that I've been reading lately would probably back me up on that claim.

If I'm right, if my suspicion eventually gets confirmed, then what does that tell us about diversity in classical music education today? Being a historian, of course I'm going to say this: we need to look to the past to see where/when/why African Americans began to move away from classical music. Above all, we must acknowledge black agency in all of this as well as the greater systemic problems they faced trying to perform the music they loved.

Some, like Nina Simone and Will Marion Cook, got pushed out of classical music and ended up in popular music. Many went to Europe and never came back (that's my project!).
African American opera singer Anne Brown, who moved to Norway in the 1930s and later became a Norwegian citizen

In the world of opera, many were (and still are!) frustrated by the lack of roles available to them, being told all the time that they'd make an excellent Bess (Porgy and Bess) or a fabulous Othello, even when the person is a light Mozartian tenor. Um, what?

Others began to question the popular notion at the time (1930s and 40s) that performing classical music uplifted the black race and showed their advancement as people of color in America. Langston Hughes, for example, became critical of African American involvement in classical music for this reason.
The Ways of White Folks (1934) is pretty critical of black performances of classical music.

Outside of the professional world, black musicians also faced economic challenges. Over the past several decades, the erosion of public and private funding for music education has led to fewer full-time music teacher gigs. Becoming a music teacher became a less secure way to entering and then maintaining a comfortable middle class lifestyle, no? There's a decline in general of the full-time piano teacher who can support his or herself through that kind of work. Working as a K-12 music teacher anywhere has also become a less financially rewarding (and more frustrating!) career. Church organist jobs have also declined over the years.

So. Instead of thinking about diversity in classical music as a contemporary phenomenon, instead of doing this weird victim-blaming thing ("why don't underrepresented groups like classical music? Why can't they appreciate it?"), let's look for its origins in the past. Let's find ways to celebrate amazing black talent who sang Verdi or performed Buxtehude during a long history of Jim Crow while also thinking more seriously about the long-term repercussions of this unique history of racism and discrimination. Which pathways were open for black talent and which ones were not? If you're a talented young pianist in 1940s Ohio, what do you do with the choices that you have?

I need to go pack. But I'll be thinking about this later. What might it mean if the number of African Americans in classical music hasn't really changed or might have actually grown smaller? How might this knowledge change how we talk about diversity in classical music today?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Hey everyone, it's okay to like Lil Wayne

Before I get to the main topic of this post, I want to make it clear that it's okay to like any kind of music that you like. Far be it from me to judge what you enjoy listening to, as I frequently find myself unable to resist the lure of Britney Spears' siren song 'Break the Ice' when YouTube suggests it and I'm secretly--now not-so-secretly--hoping for a Skee-Lo revival (it would likely be very brief, as the link there was pretty much the entirety of his oeuvre). But I suspect that I am not the only person in Schenkerian Gang Land who occasionally has qualms about some of the music that I enjoy, specifically when the lyrics refer to women in derogatory terms. Perhaps this reaction is particularly strong when it occurs in hip hop. Those with less power in disenfranchised groups are often the most disenfranchised. More specifically, those railing against authority in hip hop often denigrate those who have even less power: the women around them. There is a much bigger discussion here about how misogyny continues to surround much of hip hop, but I am not the person to do this crucial issue justice. However, I am aware of it, and it is a problem that I wrestle with often in terms of my listening choices.

[As an aside, we do have an almost infinite tolerance for the culture of misogyny when it comes to other genres, even 'high art' ones such as opera, so let's not pretend that this problem is unique or limited to hip hop]

Here is where we come to Lil Wayne.  In a song such as 'Steady Mobbin,' where the chorus repeatedly talks about 'pop[ping] that pussy', it sometimes causes me to reflect about why I am listening to this for the umpteenth time and whether I can (or more importantly, should) simply relegate these seemingly chauvinist lyrics to the realm of entertainment. Well I am here to say that I have reconciled this issue, and not only because I think 'Steady Mobbin' has a great hook that involves this climb to an octave that never quite makes it decisively (a similar trick can be found in Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy the Silence,' although I suspect this is a coincidence. If anyone has any evidence to suggest that Depeche Mode has influenced Lil Wayne's production style, kindly send it my way).

Why do I think it's okay to like Lil Wayne even though he has another song with the less-than-subtle title 'I'm Goin In'? First, it's worth noting that many of his lyrics are quite clever; one of my favorites is from his collaboration with Drake, 'The Motto,' in which he declares that 'money talks/and Mr. Ed.' A Mr. Ed the Talking Horse joke! Who expects that in modern-day hip hop? Later in that verse, he makes a direct reference to 'Baby Got Back,' one of the most novel of all novelty hip hop songs. There are plenty of scatological jokes scattered throughout Lil Wayne's works, several of which are pretty funny (go check out 'Steady Mobbin' for a particularly great line about how Lil Wayne plans to commemorate the size of his giant house. Hint: there are a lot of bathrooms). Even the manner of production makes it feel as though Lil Wayne is having fun as we frequently hear him laughing, a rarity in today's tracks. Second, and maybe this is more important, Lil Wayne tosses around a lot of words that are potentially offensive, but the overall ambiance in his songs are remarkably less so. While relistening to 'Lollipop' in preparation for this post, I realized that there is an awful lot about what the Unnamed Shortay in the song wants. We may not agree with Shortay's Weltanschaaung, but she wants a thug, and Lil Wayne is there to provide. So while there may be elements of misogyny, Lil Wayne is less committed to them in his songs than his lyrics might initially suggest (for contrast, go check out 50 Cent's contribution on a related theme, 'Candy Shop,' which is far more authoritarian in its demands).

That Lil Wayne means to make us laugh points to his role within hip hop: he is a trickster, an archetypal figure from African folk culture that has been integral to black American culture (I am not even going to pretend to be an expert here, but will refer you instead to Henry Louis Gates). Arguably, he is one of the few who has the talent to turn language around in a unique way combined with his trickster-like treatment of topics. Although virtually all rap is in some way engaging with what Gates identifies as signifying, Lil Wayne does it best in his manner of combining rhymes and humor.

Early hip hop was steeped in exactly this combination; going back to 'Rapper's Delight,' much of that track is quite silly, particularly the part where they get going about collard greens. But as hip hop became more tied to activism, the trickster element began to disappear. Perhaps the most memorable figure in this regard was Flava Flav as part of Public Enemy.

I'm going to assume that you don't need this picture as reference, but you do need it because a Viking helmet???
At first glance (and possibly many subsequent glances), Flava Flav seems like little more than comic relief to Chuck D's far more serious persona in songs such as 'Fight the Power.' Why is there a guy with a giant clock asking about the time? But his occasional contributions can also be understood as signifying. 'Fight the Power' begins with Chuck D's pronouncement that it is 1989. Sure, prominently stating the year of the song is a hallowed rap tradition that goes at least back to Big Daddy Kane's 'Ain't No Half Steppin', but Chuck D is raising another point: that in 1989, racial issues persist that have been around for centuries. Flava Flav's references to time, then, are better understood as reminders that the time has come for change. His other exhortation is to 'get this party started right,' which seems like little more than a throw-away line (and a reference to Strafe's 1984 song 'Set It Off'). But 'party' has a second meaning, specifically political, and as the video for 'Fight the Power' makes clear, it is time to take action.

[I have no answer for what happened on 'Flava of Love'. I am not even going to try.]

If Lil Wayne is hip hop's current trickster, then his most significant contribution to date is 'Mrs. Officer,' an R&B-esque song that chronicles Lil Wayne's arrest and subsequent seduction by his arresting officer. The implication is that even when he is totally helpless, Mrs. Officer is unable to resist his sexual energy (worth noting: this song also features the best example of the Renaissance technique of word painting that I know of in the modern age with the depiction of the police siren in the vocal line). On the surface, this song seems like little more than an amusing diversion--it gives another meaning to the phrase 'fuck the police,' if you get what I mean--with great text painting, but there is more here. Lil Wayne hints at one of the justifications that white society concocted for persecuting black men: sexual misconduct, a trope entrenched so thoroughly in American race relations that it is at the core of the widely-read To Kill A Mockingbird. The fear that black men would rape white women was, in part, a fear that white women would succumb to the allure of black men; in 'Mrs. Officer', this is precisely what happens, as Lil Wayne is irresistible. It's not known if Mrs. Officer is black or white here, but on some level it doesn't matter. Lil Wayne has 'infiltrated' (or penetrated, if you get what I mean) the white power structure that is manifested in the police. But this is, naturally, fantasy, and Lil Wayne brings back the reality of what the police can do in an unusual moment when he references Rodney King not once, but twice in a row, as a quick reminder of how dangerous Mr. Officers can be.

So yes, I like Lil Wayne. And upon some reflection, I no longer have any qualms about enjoying his music. His voice is a unique one in the world of hip hop and it is one that should be taken seriously--or at least as seriously as any other trickster.

"GET THE F&CK OFF STAGE!" Nationalism, Racism, and Sexism at the Deutsche Oper's Production of Mozart's "Abduction from the Serail"

- The Deutsche Oper, Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I (Kira) am in Berlin for the summer, pretending to do research in archives but mostly trying to write my damn book in the few hipster coffee shops that have wi-fi here. And while I'm here, I do what I always do in Berlin, which is go to the opera. It's almost like I'm a carrier pigeon. The homing device in my brain beeping towards the Deutsche Oper kicks in pretty much instantly once I land at Flughafen Tegel.

I've only seen two productions so far in the week that I've been here (Richard Strauss's Elekra and Mozart's Abduction from the Serail) but the second one (Abduction) that I saw was by far the most disturbing. And it's taken me some time to figure out why I found Tuesday's performance so traumatizing and strange. But I think I've figured it out (mostly) and I'd like to share my thoughts with you all about it.

I'd already been told that the Deutsche Oper's production was a wacky staging of Mozart's opera, The Abduction from the Serail/Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It's an exotic opera (as most of you already know), set in a palace in the Ottoman empire. It is, as critic Edward Said argued back in the late 60s/early 70s in his famous book, Orientalism, an imagining of the Orient. Europeans imagined that harems (the section of the palace where women lived separate from men) were exotic, erotic, sensual, glamorous, and forbidden. That's not what harems were actually like. But that's not the point. It's how Europeans imagined them, and we've been living with the consequences of Europe's imagination for some time now (ugh).

Anyway. A few things about the plot that are necessary to know before I explain what I experienced: Belmonte (dashing young tenor) is in love with Konstanze (despondent beautiful soprano), who has been kidnapped by the scary Pasha Selim (male speaking role). Guarding the harem is Osmin, a brutish baritone who's not the brightest crayon in the box (bless).

I've seen this production many, many, many times. I've seen different DVDs of it. I've seen it at the Staatsoper. I've seen the crazy Calixto Bieito staging that everyone hates.
Calixto Bieito's staging of Die Entfürhung aus der Serail at the Komische Oper (

But this evening, my naive opera-going self did not know what she was getting into.

Where do I even start????

With the booing. There was so much booing. Loud booing. Enraged booing. Shouting back and forth, people saying nasty things to the singers on stage (directly calling them out by name!), saying nasty things to each other. The booing started pretty much instantly and did not let up for about 20 minutes. I'm not kidding! And the shouting was so full of outrage, anger, and venom that I honestly worried I was in a Rite of Spring moment (note: people rioted at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Rite of Spring in 1913. Booing, fist fights, and everything. Fighting poured into the streets). It was so intense that my heart wouldn't stop beating quickly. It was so intense that a woman about ten rows behind me passed out and the ushers had to call for a doctor as she was carried out of the theater.

Why were they booing? Because the director changed all of the dialogue from German into English. This enraged a woman in the balcony so much she just wouldn't stop screaming about it. Every time a singer opened his or her mouth to say something in English, she howled. "DAS IST DIE DEUTSCHE OPER!/THIS IS THE GERMAN OPERA!" Everything should be in German!

My first thought when I started realizing that people were outraged because the singers (most of whom were American, actually) were speaking in English was of African American mezzo-soprano  Vera Little's debut as Carmen at the Deutsche Oper in 1958.
People were absolutely shocked by the audience's response to her performance. The booing was so vociferous that stories appeared about it in the news for several days after her debut. People wrote in also explaining why they had booed her. It was not (entirely) because she was black, but rather because she was foreign. And they wanted to keep The German Opera House truly German. One local opera-goer wrote,

"In reference to your 'Carmen' critique, I would like to say that the booing did not refer to the singer Vera Little herself, to her achievements, or to her being a Negress. The protesting is focused on the fact that more and more good German [male and female] singers are being laid off. Instead, foreigners are engaged who are not better, but at best just as good. I would be interested to hear how the intendant of the City Opera justifies this fact." (Not naming the source - my own private stash, and I have a book to publish!)

Another separate letter also lays this bare:

"There are only five soloists in the ensemble of the State Opera, who have world-class status and who are beloved by opera visitors: Ms. Grümmer, Ms. Trötschel, Mr. Greindl, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau, Mr. Suthaus. But how much longer before these last great talents will also leave? None of these soloists were engaged by Intendant Ebert, but rather underused. Who does he engage? Names like Parabas, Lane, Pilarczyk, Konya, Heater, Roth- Ehrang, and Neralic."  (same deal here)

What do all of those names have in common? They're all, of course, foreign names.

What's great about this Vera Little example is that it reminds us to historicize our contemporary experiences. The fear or suspicion that the Deutsche Oper is becoming a little less German was palpable on the stage that night, and it's also entered German politics. The far-right, racist, xenophobic hate group PEGIDA, for example, recently denounced avant-garde stagings that don't celebrate German values and the hiring of non-German singers as well. Hm. 

But these fears of foreignness infiltrating the German opera world aren't new. And you know what? It's pretty obvious that the "foreignness" of the Deutsche Oper hasn't made it any less "deutsch" over the years. The world hasn't collapsed. People still buy tickets. We rejoice and we will continue to rejoice over good singing, irrespective of who it was who opened his or her mouth to sing the aria we love deeply.

So in other words: the Germanness of the the Deutsche Oper has always been a sticking point amongst fans of the Deutsche Oper. They see themselves as the vanguards and gatekeepers of the best opera house in Germany (they'd say) and the one most representative of what German opera is capable of. But the irony here, of course, is that the Deutsche Oper excels because it hires the best singers from around the world. Some homegrown (Diana Damrau), some foreign (Joyce DiDonato). 


So here's to Part II of this blog post, The Production Itself, Which Was Indeed A Hot Mess.

Because I was so distracted by the booing and the shouting and the fighting in the audience, I honestly didn't have much time to think about the opera production itself until the second half, when things had calmed down a bit more.

And guys. I think I pretty much hated it. I'm not against provocative stagings of opera. I loved Barrie Kosky's staging of Rigoletto from a while back, and that one had evil clowns dancing around everywhere in it (my best friend, Connie, and my husband, Joel, still haven't forgiven me for taking them to see it):
Verdi's Rigoletto at the Komische Oper, 2010

But it was a cohesive staging that enhanced (and did not detract away from) the story of Rigoletto itself.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Deutsche Oper, 2016

Everyone in the opera - including Belmonte and Konstanze, who are supposed to be in love with each other (he travels thousands of miles to rescue her!) - were completely debased, unfaithful, and just all-around terrible human beings. The harem itself was a site of just sheer debauchery. Everyone was on drugs, making drugs, taking drugs, sleeping with each other, etc.  As Belmonte sings of his love for Konstanze in the first act, a film played in the background showing him having a threeway with two other women. True, Mozart always pokes at fidelity in his operas (I'm looking at you, Cosi Fan Tutte), but he does so with a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge. From the perspective of director Rodrigo Garcia, however, everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer. Subtlety just completely went out the window.

That didn't bother me so much as the outright sexism of the staging. All of the women in the harem (dancers mostly) were the same shape and size. Skinny. Big boobs. Flat stomach. You get the gist. 
And I don't think that the director was using them to critique how society defines beauty and womanhood. I think he honestly just thought that this was the model standard of beauty and went with it. 

My other big problem with the staging was that he hired a black woman to play the Pasha Selim, the Sultan-type character who abducted Konstanze to his palace. It's not that I'm against hiring black women in opera (obvs). But it's that he deliberately sought out a stereotype.

The casting call stated that he was looking for tall black women who could play basketball. The woman who won the part, Annabelle Mandeng, jokingly said she got it because she could dribble the best on stage. Um, what?
Annabelle Mandeng as Pasha Selim in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Deutsche Oper 2016 

Even this I was willing to look past if I thought the director was going to do something interesting with her part. But no. Again and again and again, black female sexuality stands for something deviant, titillating, strange, and debased. How do you want to make Die Entführung wacky? Make the Pasha Selim a black lesbian who leads a sex-crazed, drug-obsessed harem. You know what? I'm over it. So, so over it.

Of course, director Rodrigo Garcia and others are patting themselves on the back for their progressivism, for supporting artists of different "migration background" in their work. But we see through that, right? What kinds of roles are different artists of color being assigned? What do these roles signify? That matters just as much as the act of hiring someone who doesn't look like a traditional white German.

It was her monologue, told in a repetitive, Gertrude Stein kind of way ("I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you...") that drew the most ire from audiences. Professed in English from the body of a tall, amazonian Afro-German woman, it made the whole evening all the more strange and, because of the audience's reaction to her, disturbing. 

The singing was beautiful in this production. Gorgeous. Kathryn Lewek (Eastman alum, what whaaaaaat!) was a phenomenal Konstanze! Oh my goodness! Girlfriend can SANG. But the production and the audience's response to it just bothered the hell out of me. Opera is alive, yes! But so are racism, nationalism, and sexism. And they were all on display that evening.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Kanye contra Swift

Spotted in Boston, March 2015

Fans of SGS may remember that early in this blog's history, we posted about the parallels between two of our favorite megalomaniacs, Richard Wagner and Kanye West. But, as a conversation over beers tonight revealed, it is entirely possible that we missed a time when Wagner was Kanyed, by which I mean that once Wagner was told Imma Let You Finished. By Nietzsche. In print. Which was, perhaps, less immediately provoking than Kanye's comments directed at Taylor Swift, but is now indelibly entrenched in history--only time will tell if Kanye's act that launched a thousand memes has achieved the same notoriety.

Allow me to explain.

1) In 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche published The Case of Wagner, a book in which he criticized the master's operatic oeuvre. This stance contradicted the one that Nietzsche had posited in his earlier work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), where he hailed Wagner as a figure of such importance that his works were in the process of ushering in a revival of classical Greek civilization--specifically its ability to blend the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses inherent in all societies (I'm not making this stuff up. It's really in there. Also something about the veil of Maya).

2) In The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche made an extensive argument that Wagner's stage works were deeply flawed because of their misunderstand of true culture. One of the most evocative phrases in his critique is 'Senta-sentimentality', by which Nietzsche means Wagner's tendency to imbue his plots with too much idealism in their reflection of society, an idealism molded by a dangerously nationalistic and chauvinistic lens. Nietzsche argued instead that Bizet's Carmen, to paraphrase, was 'one of the greatest operas of all time' because it was a love understood through natural impulses (feel free to disagree with this. I'm simply reporting on what happened). However, since Nietzsche was not appearing live at the MTV Video Awards, he could not be booed off, and instead he wrote an extensive essay about the ways that Carmen succeeded while Wagner failed.

Most people view Nietzsche's stance as one of provocation: he was reneging the support that he had lent to Wagner's works in the past by instead putting forward an opera that was, on the surface, far more salacious and sensuous than the works of Wagner, whose sensuality was underpinned by flawed beliefs. Did Nietzsche genuinely enjoy Bizet's most famous opera or was his choice more of a direct challenge to Wagner? The nuances of Nietzsche's argument remain a point of contention.

So it's time that we ask the many questions that arise from these unexpected parallels: did Kanye really believe that Beyoncé's video for 'Single Ladies' was the greatest of all time? Or was this simply a platform that Kanye took in order to criticize the overall aesthetic that Taylor Swift represented? Is this an example of Swifty-Sentimentality? Or was Kanye putting out a rallying cry for the importance of 'put[ting] a ring on it' as an artistic statement? Does this make Taylor Swift a Parsifal amongst 'Single Ladies', and Kanye both Wagner and Nietzsche? Tune in next time, when SGS finds more unlikely parallels between 19th-century aesthetic arguments and contemporary pop music figures.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Beauty of Musical Comedies, or Why The Lonely Island was so damn funny, Tenacious D's "Tribute" made us snort, and "Crazy-Ex Girlfriend" has us giggling

So I had the great pleasure of introducing to a colleague of mine this week several music videos from the comedy group, The Lonely Island.

And you know what I realized? I miss The Lonely Island. I miss good musical comedies. The Lonely Island was so funny. They were so damn funny. Why were they so funny? And in the middle of the night last night (because my brain works that way), I started thinking more seriously about that. And the answer to that question has to do with something really obvious but also unspoken: the music itself.

I remember reading a review of The Lonely Island's album, Incredibad, from Pitchfork back in the day and agreeing with pretty much everything they said.
It's clear that the group (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) knew what they were doing as musicians, not just as comedians.

Take our favorite song on the planet, "I'm On A Boat."

It's not a parody of a hip-hop song. It is a hip-hop song. It has the same braggadocio and swag as the music of DJ Khaled, Rick Ross, Kanye, and Lil' Wayne.

And it's musically good, it's aesthetically pleasing, it's well-written. That's what makes it hilarious at the end of the day. I have this theory anyway that the more aesthetically pleasing a creative work, the more convincing (and even manipulative) it is. I think the same thing applies here.

Other Lonely Island songs follow suit. "Three-way" uses classic 90s R&B riffs and lines like "Hop off the bus with the Alizé" that give it its distinct R&B sound.
Pick your favorite Lonely Island song and five bucks says there's something musically interesting going on that makes it work well with the lyrics and video. "Motherlover" and "Boombox" have really great choruses in the major key that temporarily shift the music away from the dominant minor key. "I Just Had Sex" has all of the makings of a 2010 pop song (including Akon as a vocalist). These songs work because they're musically clever and cheeky. Not just because the lyrics are funny. 

Years ago, my brother and I became temporarily obsessed with the song, "Tribute" by Tenacious D. And I think we both liked it so much because it was musically fun to jam to (with our air guitars).
My brother's favorite moment of the song arrives around the 2:40 mark. If you know the song, you know exactly what moment I'm talking about. And that's not an accident. The song is structured like other classic rock songs by groups like Led Zeppelin (Jack Black and Kyle Bass are huge Led Zeppelin fans, and Bass was inspired to write "Tribute" after hearing Metallica live in concert). Tenacious D musically prepared us for the moment when the devil asks, "Be ye angels?" and Tenacious D respond in the negative. They paid homage to other classic rock songs in form and style to make their ridiculous song sound epic and, thus, epically hilarious.

Although the show is hit and miss, the new tv show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" operates in the same way. What keeps people tuned in, I suspect, is the effectiveness of their musical comedy. The song, "Sexy Getting Ready Song" works so well as its own musical number:

Reminiscent of the music of Brandi or Toni Braxton circa 2000, it gives the listener classic R&B poppy hooks while slowly unraveling itself and becoming increasingly absurd. The interlude with the rapper is so perfect as well, as the rapper discovers how much work some women put into for a date and then becomes wracked with guilt over the pressures women face in a patriarchal society to look beautiful.

I had *just* been listening to some early 90s hip hop (Public Enemy and Advanced Chemistry in particular) when I heard the song, "Jap Rap Battle" from the show:
The flow of the rhymes, the musical line of the bass guitar, and the back-and-forth interplay between the two female characters and the call-and-response from the group all make it sound like a classic 90s rap song. And it's a good one.

It's all obvious once you say it out loud. Good music makes good musical comedy. It's deceptively simple. It's so deceptive in fact that people paused when The Lonely Island was nominated for a Grammy for best rap in 2010 for "I'm On A Boat." Shouldn't the group have been in the comedy section of the Grammy's? Was "I'm On A Boat" good rap or good comedy? The answer, of course, is both.

Monday, April 25, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: Hunky Dory (1971)

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

My original plan for the Year of Bowie was to tackle one album every second week or so to ensure that I made it through the whole discography before the year ended. Alas, then life intervened and now I find myself behind, despite the fact that I did start giving Hunky Dory some serious listenings to over a month ago. And part of why I think I found it tricky to write about was that this album felt like the songs I most associate with Bowie: 'Changes,' 'Life on Mars,' 'Oh! You Pretty Things', 'Queen Bitch' (my previous knowledge of Bowie was clearly influenced by the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic). And perhaps my prior knowledge of these songs led to my procrastination in writing about them. This is, in my view, peak Bowie. Vintage Bowie. Definitive Bowie. What more could you say about them? What more could I possibly say about them? How could my listening experience be enhanced by hearing them again?

(This isn't to detract from their power as songs. My most likely sing-along song in the car is 'Life on Mars.' I sometimes sing it to my dog. He doesn't seem to appreciate it. And let's just take a minute to acknowledge that Bowie's gesture at the word 'spit' is one of the great moments in music video. I also try to imitate this gesture when I sing this to my dog. He doesn't seem interested in it either.)

But what stuck with me from this album was less the songs I've heard so many times and instead the moments that were new to me, and perhaps for that reason, more insightful. Like the introductory instrumental section of 'Eight Line Poem,' which vaguely reminded me of the piano exit from 'Layla' and made me want to write about unexpected wistful piano moments in music ca. 1971, the year that both of these songs appeared. In fact, the way in which 'Oh! You Pretty Things' elides directly into 'Eight Line Poem' makes it feel as though it is a piano/guitar exit at first.

Or the part of 'Quicksand' that dissolves into wordless melody that doesn't quite harmonically resolve as it should. This section has been stuck in my head for the past couple of days, much as the guitar duet in 'All the Madmen' stayed with me when I was listening to The Man Who Sold the World.

Or the final song from the album, 'The Bewlay Brothers,' which Bowie claimed was comprised of nonsense lyrics, but is very melodic and beautiful and also wistful. Kind of like piano exit music from around this era, but with a folk-ish sound. In fact, it doesn't feel all that far removed from contemporary music that imitates folksong, à la Passenger; it's surprising that this song hasn't been covered recently by anyone (from what I can see), as I have a feeling it would continue to draw an audience today. 

Anyway, who needs lyrics? They're only really required when you are singing 'Life on Mars' to your dog.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On Music/Art Pedagogy, Integration, and the Institution's Role in Creating Change

The Sphinx Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra

So I had this idea for a pedagogical article or blog post or some such on how to integrate people of color into classical music courses. I was going to point out that even if the recording you're going to play in class is straight-up Mozart, you can always show someone who does not look like Mozart singing it, like Reri Grist:
Reri Grist at the Salzburg Festival in 1966 performing in Le Nozze di Figaro

Speaking of opera singers: it's really not that hard to find a diverse array of opera singers to secretly sneak into your classes. Marian Anderson, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, tenor Ramon Vargas, Leontyne Price, and soprano Sumi Jo are a few that come to mind. You can then also casually ask your student what they might know about said singer - where they grew up, where they trained and studied, etc.

You can of course also play this game with instrumentalists: Yo Yo Ma, Sphinx Orchestra recordings, etc.

Additionally, if you're going to give students an example of sonata form or a rondo, you can always turn to composers of color from the past to give a quick demo. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it, too: feel free to play that Beethoven piano sonata because it IS so canonical (and effing awesome) while also supplementing your canonical material with other works.

Another idea: you can show how other composers utilized well-known and historical musical techniques for their own compositions. If you're talking about 19th-century German choral music, for example, you can point out how some of the colors and textures of choral arrangements found their way in the music of African American composer Nathaniel Dett. Why and how did he utilize them? What did he find useful in historical choral arrangements that he wanted to incorporate into his music?

Here's what I'm trying to say to be entirely blunt about it: if you manage to teach an entire classical music class without a single person of color in it, that mess is on you. Because it's not that hard to find ways to add different performers and composers to your class. You just weren't looking. And by not looking, by not even trying to look, you ended up reifying Western art music as white, everything else as Other, and encouraging your students to do that, too.

I'm not a fan of having one day or one concert dedicated to "The Music of Mexican Composers" or "African American Concert Music," either. Especially if that's the only way audiences are going to hear them. That smacks of tokenizing. Integrate that stuff into your courses and into your concert halls, people!

So that's what I was going to write about....

...And then I discovered this article by a music professor named Lucius R. Wyatt, called "The Inclusion of Concert Music of African American Composers in Music History Courses." And do you know when it's from? 1996.




Wyatt had already proposed this. He'd already promoted these very same ideas. But using less angry language.

So how are we in the same position today that we were in twenty years ago? And more importantly, how do we get out of it?

A Day of the Dead altar on display at Harvard's Peabody Museum

I've been having a conversation with a colleague of mine who works in Museum Studies, and she pointed me to a really great collection of essays in the journal, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics. Several years ago, scholars and curators from several museums got together to ask the question: how do we bring together art, archeology, and anthropology in the museum?

The reason why they were concerned with this question has to do with how Western museums have historically understood the difference between art objects and anthropological objects. The decision to place an object from Nigeria in an anthropology museum instead of in an art museum was sometimes quite arbitrary, and revealed clear Western biases in aesthetics ("this isn't art because it's not an oil painting;" "even though this is actually a really important local religious object, it's pretty so let's place it in an art museum anyway even though that's not it's function").

The editors Ivan Gaskell and Jeffrey Quilter ask the questions, "Why are some things admitted as art while others are excluded? Who is entitled to decide what constitutes art and what should be treated as anthropological material? Do things look different from other cultural viewpoints, and, if so, how might those viewpoints be represented in both art and anthropology museums?" (RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 52, Museums: Crossing Boundaries (Autumn, 2007 ), p. 5)

One of the conclusions drawn from this conference was that the institution that's best suited to try to change how the public interacts with objects is the university museum. As Henry S. Kim explains, "Whereas most nonuniversity museums must relate to a wide public audience, university museums have a natural group of key stakeholders who engage with them in direct dialogues, between specialists in objects and their counterparts in the faculties, between experts and the students they teach. Perhaps the most important responsibility of a university museum is the role it can play in teaching the undergraduate and graduate curricula." (RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 52, Museums: Crossing Boundaries (Autumn, 2007 ), p. 45)

Not beholden to the public, the university museum is the most free to take risks, and the most able to shape the next generation of curators and art directors, too.

Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is an example of this call to re-arrange objects and place new ones together put into action. They deliberately re-organized their museum spaces, placed different objects in conversation with one another outside of the usual geographic boundaries, and provided lots of new descriptions to re-contextualize the objects viewers saw on display.

That's all great for art historians, anthropologists, and archeologists, but how does this relate to musicology?

I'm wondering what might constitute a risk-free space for music schools to try something similar. What would that space look like? Who has to be on board in order for this project of diversifying the music curriculum to be carried out? According to the authors in this special issue of RES, it's the university art school or music school that's in the best place to radically try something new. What institutions, what spaces and places, are in the best positions to try out something different?

Yes, there's the traditional concert hall at a music school. But I'm already imagining the complaints that would come of that ("students are there to train so they can join an orchestra. They need to learn the standard repertoire."). And the point isn't to stop students from playing Debussy, is it? The point is to put Debussy's music in conversation with other musics, and to find ways to support people of different backgrounds who want to play Debussy, too.

And yes, we can focus on teaching new works in the classroom, but the lesson learned from Harvard's Peabody Museum is that you need to have both the classroom setting and the museum space working together to shape new conversations on art and aesthetics.

What does it take to create radical change in the classroom and in the concert hall? To answer this question, it is worth thinking seriously about the institution's role in intervening in aesthetic discourses, in shaping or challenging what we teach and how we teach it, in interrogating what we love and why we love it. Art museums, concert halls, music schools, and universities create the structures for affirming or negating what we know, love, and understand.

Which institutions have tried to overhaul their music history programs? Which ones are currently struggling with this question and working out their own solutions? I'm curious to hear your reports back.  I'm all for a variety of positions on this topic. I just want to know that institutions are trying.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Unraveling 'untitled unmastered'

In the wee hours of Friday, shortly after midnight, Kendrick Lamar dropped a new surprise album entitled 'untitled unmastered.' Along with this enigmatic title came an enigmatic title image:

Considering all of the hand wringing and fussing Kanye recently made over his new album, 'untitled unmastered' feels like the antithesis of 'The Life of Pablo' in its low-profile release--for example, there is no public record of him consorting with a Kardashian for help with its name. Perhaps Kendrick was recently inspired to pull a Beyoncé (aka drop an album out of nowhere with little warning) while hanging out with Bey and Jay at basketball, although in fairness, 'To Pimp A Butterfly' was also dropped out of nowhere last year:

This really happened
Early commentary on this album has pointed out that it may be closer to a series of sketches than a completed product; certainly the choice of the word 'unmastered' in the album's name suggests this interpretation. However, in thinking over what this album presents, I am struck by the complexities that Kendrick has incorporated into it solely based on these naming conventions alone. An untitled piece of art is not necessarily an incomplete one.

Wassily Kandinsky's 1916 untitled painting

What an unmastered work is remains unclear, at least in this context.

The track names are equally nebulous. Rather than providing specific titles, there are only dates, suggesting that these are works that were abandoned at some point. But what point? What do these dates represent? Start dates, end dates, abandoned dates, studio session dates? This question of dates is not trivial. For example, some of the material in these songs has been heard before on late-night appearances and in other contexts and these dates don't match those in the title for the track. Instead of a specific date, as most the tracks have, 'untitled 7' dates from 2014-2016 and incorporates a range of different recordings that are abruptly connected. Thus this track spans a broad swath of time, beginning with a 'song' that might otherwise be called 'Levitate' (in the vein of 'Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe' from Kendrick's first major album, 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D City') and ending with what sounds like an improvised jam session with friends. Abrupt shifts during a track are not unusual for Kendrick as they abound on 'To Pimp A Butterfly,' but here they reveal that while what we're hearing may be 'unmastered,' it is not unedited. At one point during the start of the jam session, Kendrick states, 'This is a fifteen-minute song!' The whole track is only 8:16, and at that point we are already five minutes in. Consequently, the listener is made acutely aware that either there were cuts or that this was not really a fifteen-minute song. Either way, what is presented to us on 'untitled unmastered' should not be accepted necessarily at face value.

I have two possible interpretations of 'unmastered' for this album. The first is that these are tracks that predate 'To Pimp A Butterfly' and he is suggesting that it is that album which is masterful. Indeed, the tone and language here is somewhat out of place with that on 'To Pimp A Butterfly,' whose trajectory explores many different nuances of controversial terms (and almost entirely eschews the word 'bitch'). So perhaps Kendrick did undergo a change in his artistic outlook between 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D City' and we are seeing its evolution here; these tracks, then, are from before he 'mastered' his art. Alternatively, perhaps these songs simply didn't fit the overall narrative. The albums that bookend these tracks (if the dates on 'untitled unmastered' are accurate) both, ostensibly, had a plot--the plot of 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D City' is outlined more clearly, but there is definitely one on 'To Pimp A Butterfly' as well. These tracks could be leftovers that were not quite right for those albums and didn't fit with the overall structure.

And yet, even on 'untitled unmastered,' Kendrick has a linking device with a rallying cry 'Pimp pimp, hooray' that appears between various songs and is the last sound on the album. So although these may be 'unfinished' or 'unmastered' tracks, in the end, Kendrick presents a 'master' copy that links together what has come before, and what was originally a simple title proves to be far more complex.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: The Man Who Sold the World (1970)

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

This post is, by my estimation, approximately three weeks overdue, in that I intended to sit down and write it, but never found the time. Now some pretty major events did take place during those three weeks, so we could chalk it up to a busy schedule and not enough hours in the day. But I think the real reason that I hadn't made the time to write up this album is that I wasn't quite ready to let this album go. I'm still not. But the Year of Bowie must move forward, or it will be the More Than A Year of Bowie! So I offer my thoughts, even though they may still be incomplete.

Unlike the previous posts in this series, this was an album that I had heard before. About a year ago, I went through a phase of listening to (the song) 'The Man Who Sold the World' approximately a dozen or more times a day, usually on repeat. In this vein, I decided to listen to the album with what were impossibly high hopes--I think I wanted an entire album of songs like 'The Man Who Sold the World', which is kind of like saying that you're annoyed not every movement of a Beethoven symphony is as good as your favorite. Needless to say, I was disappointed. A bunch of it sounded vaguely Spinal-Tap-esque, what with the flutes and everything, and in general it had the ambiance of Led Zeppelin. This is an unfair criticism to level as it appeared right around the same time, so unsurprisingly it sounded of that time. In my initial re-listening, I wasn't quite so disappointed in it (I guess now I knew what was coming). In fact, I found that it had gradually seeped into my mind and reassessed my initial position.

The way I discovered it had seeped in my head was that I woke up one Saturday morning with the sound of two guitars playing through a chord progression on downbeats of some song and was unable to place it. Turns out, it was 'All the Madmen,' which upon re-listening is a great song, even in spite of its Spinal-Tap-esque flutes. That guitar bit right after the chorus is fantastic. The chords aren't particularly complex (iii - V7 - I - vi), except that they don't really resolve the way you think they will--the third of the chord in the V7 is left hanging, descending down to the 5 in the tonic chord that follows--and also those chord numbers are not really how the chords relate to the rest of the song as we have modulated. This is great, as we think for a minute that we have reached some kind of stability, but really the entire harmonic structure is off the whole time. The topic of this song was Bowie's half-brother Terry Burns, who was institutionalized at the time for mental health problems; Bowie spoke about this at some length in later interviews. But if you didn't know that, you would likely interpret this song as referring to some kind of alter-Bowie, one who felt he belonged more to the madmen than the sad men who are free.

This theme of the split personality is a crucial one on this album and one that drives (the song) 'The Man Who Sold the World.' The lyrics make the divide perfectly clear, as Bowie meets his doppelgänger on the stair and the dialogue shifts back and forth between them. Even the song reflects this dual personality, starting unquestionably in a minor key, then seemingly resolving it in the chorus, only to bring in a deceptive cadence and resume right back in the minor (similar trick to 'All the Madmen'). What is most haunting is the ostinato that starts the song and which returns at numerous points, the simple guitar riff that is inescapable. There were moments where it disappeared, only to return, much like the Man Who Sold the World. But he can never die, and the song ends by acknowledging the eternity of this duality: we hear the ostinato in the guitar and Bowie singing a wordless vocal line, which grows into four separate vocal lines by the end, layered over top of each other. As the song fades out, it gives the impression that it could go on forever, as the chords never fully resolve--there is mostly the minor in which the song opened, but for a brief two-chord progression, there was almost a landing in major. Both 'men' are still there. Perhaps the growing number of vocal lines suggests there are even more 'men' waiting. The many personas that Bowie would take on later seem foreshadowed here, as though they would eventually split into alter egos and not just facets of one person.

Sidenote: the Nirvana cover is all well and good, but by omitting the layering of the voices in the same way during the final bit, it misses out on this crucial facet of the song. Sure, it's live, but there could have been a way. For that reason, I feel that it is inferior. And that is where I am leaving this discussion. Feel free to join the holy wars on YouTube about this topic. The fact that the band initially messes up the start is a testament to the fact that the behavior of the chords in this song is unexpected.

'The Man Who Sold the World' (the album) was unexpectedly with me over the past month or so, as I listened to it in the car, at work, and even when I didn't need to in preparing this post. Other songs got my attention too, like 'Savior Machine,' with that great opening. I am not ready to be done with it, and perhaps I won't ever quite get there. This post ventures more closely to the types of traditional music analysis found in musical scholarship, and I think this parallel reflects the fact that Bowie's songs are constructed in the same tradition with the same interplay between text and music. Just as I could never quite grasp all that is in a Schumann Lied, I will never be quite done with some of those by Bowie.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, Kehinde Wiley, and the Incomprehensibility of High Art

Like the rest of America, I've been following some of the biggest stories to affect us all during this super-intense month of February.

No, no: my hysteria and histrionics have nothing to do with the primaries. Like my fellow Americans, I've tuned that mess out. Instead, I've been obsessing over the live performances of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar.

There's been so much good coverage on these two figures, so I feel almost silly adding my two cents to this public conversation on their music. But something that I've been wondering about lately is if people are freaking out about Beyoncé and Lamar so much because they're producing high art.

High art rests on the premise that the cultural product being produced somehow surpasses or supersedes our aesthetic expectations. We believe its content contains moral, spiritual, cultural, aesthetic values that go beyond commercialism. High art is not here to entertain us. It demands more from us. The more beautifully rendered the work of art, the more it has the ability to mess with our heads.

We admire high art for its beauty, yes, but also for its sophistication. Works of high art often unapologetically demand that the viewer or listener experience the cultural product more than once before it will be comprehensible to them. And high art often simply resists comprehensibility at all. I'm sure we could all come up with a list together of works of music, poetry, or visual art that people have struggled with and written about for decades.

Moreover, there's an unapologetic nature to high art. By the early 20th century we came to accept that Art is Art, and it's not the artist's fault that you can't understand it (see: Milton Babbitt's polemic, "Who Cares If You Listen?"; Duchamp's "The Fountain," et. al). I also blame Richard Wagner for this (but I blame him for everything, soooo....).
Marcel Duchamp, The Fountain (1917)

So I wonder if high art's refusal to apologize for its incomprehensibility is why people are freaking the eff out about Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Beyonce's music video, Formation, and Kendrick Lamar's latest Grammy performance felt incomprehensible to people. Both artists presented works that were not immediately accessible, and they have refused to apologize for that.

For a variety of reasons (none of them good), American culture (both "highbrow" and "lowbrow") has a really hard time seeing black artists as creators of high art. Their musical works, iconography, and texts are supposed to always be accessible because their main purpose is to entertain. People have also identified that this is a problem of commercial music (pop/hip hop/etc), too: we don't think of it as worthy of the label "high art." Hence, Zoe's posts earlier on Lady Gaga and Britney Spears and Sia.

But there's also something more specific here in how we understand black artists and what they are capable of/who they should be speaking to. The poet Harryette Mullen articulated this point back in the 90s in her analysis of contemporary American poetry:
Harryette Mullen

She writes: “The assumption remains, however unexamined, that ‘avant-garde’ poetry is not ‘black’ and that ‘black’ poetry, however singular its ‘voice,’ is not ‘formally innovative.’” Black creativity, high art, and the avant-garde cannot mix.

Kehinde Wiley's paintings of black subjects in highly-stylized 18th century European art forms also point to this fact, too:
Kehinde Wiley, Officer of the Hussars (2008)

His work initially shocks and stuns the viewer. Using huge canvases that hang on the wall like medieval tapestries, Kehinde Wiley creates portraits of black figures who are comfortably nestled into a baroque, ornamental setting. His work appears to us as a contradiction. And his message is clear: we're not used to associating black figures with high art.

I think Beyoncé's video, Formation, functions in a similar manner. We see a mixture of aesthetic historicism in her representation of 19th century New Orleans that requires the viewer to be able to make historical/cultural references:
But we also catch a glimpse of her politics when she uses graffiti to write "Stop Shooting Us."
Kendrick Lamar's Grammy performance was equally astounding in part because of its reverse teleology. Beginning in a prison and ending in Africa, his Grammy performance narrated a different story of black history that we haven't quite unpacked.
But I think my point is that it's ok if we haven't figured out what they're doing with their art yet. It's okay if their works feel incomprehensible. Even better than that: it's a good thing. Recognizing black artists as multidimensional beings who use their amazing brains and talent to creatively share their experiences with us is wonderful.

But it's also precisely because their works are high art that people are uncomfortable with them. Their unapologetic incomprehensibility is audacious to those who are terrified of black creative agency and its power. People don't want to take their art seriously because of the assumptions about blackness, creativity, and entertainment that their work threatens to undo. I think that's why people are having meltdowns. It's not just because their works are politically charged that people are becoming hysterical. It's because they're aesthetic masterpieces, too.

High art is immensely powerful. Aesthetics have so much power. And it's really interesting to reflect on who's found ways to tap into that power and how people have responded to them. The more we recognize that, the more we can see the importance of supporting black artists in whatever field they're in. One can be black and create high art. That is not a contradiction. It's a cause for celebration. Let's figure out how to applaud them louder.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Beyoncé's Black Arts Formation

Over the past weekend, while you were going about your business, Beyoncé managed to drop a song pretty much out of nowhere on an unsuspecting public, then take over the Superbowl halftime show like she was the headliner. Also she reinvented her role in contemporary culture, overpowering the limitations frequently imposed on female pop stars to engage directly with an escalating civil rights movement. Lastly, she almost fell down while performing but recovered without even missing a beat because when she isn't busy with all the rest of this, she evidently takes the time to do some squats. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's go back to the song that launched a thousand--or perhaps even more--think pieces.

'Formation' is, as many commentators have pointed out, a song that indisputably engages with blackness, both in its video's imagery and its sound by drawing on tropes associated with black culture, particularly that of New Orleans. Not surprisingly given the subject matter, the video incorporates images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, culminating in Beyoncé on top of a police car sinking into a lake. 'Formation' conjures up similar imagery to Kendrick Lamar's most poignant contribution to the new civil rights movement, the song 'Alright' and its video. Indeed, it would surprise me if Beyoncé had not had aspects of Lamar's video in mind when preparing hers. But that doesn't diminish from Beyoncé's achievement in any way. The issues that are raised by both--the neglect of black communities, the terror state imposed on them by the police--are the crucial issues at the core of this civil rights movement and their importance should be central to this new Black Art.

Due to the subject matter, the polarizing nature of this song may not be a surprise. Yet there is more here than a debate about civil rights; instead, there is a larger shift in our understanding of what Beyoncé means. As Danielle C. Belton points out at The Root, Beyoncé has been, for many, 'some ethereal, race-less, colorless transformative nymph who could doo-wop pop whatever you projected upon her,' but that this image was always, to some extent, a façade. Belton continues:
What if I told you Beyoncé was always political? Even when she was doo-wop popping in Destiny’s Child. What if I told you that to be black in a public space, with all eyes on you and choosing carefully how to handle that spotlight is a form of politics, a negotiation between the self and the world that all black people must make?
I want to build on Belton's idea by expanding on just how significant it is that this 'transformative nymph' chose to make this video. For it is not only Beyoncé asserting her identity (i.e., her formation) that is key, but particularly that she did so without shying away from the core tenets of today's civil rights.

Prior to 'Formation,' I would argue, Beyoncé was a pop star first, and all other identities second--with this moniker comes certain constraints, particularly for female artists. Acting in a sexually provocative way is virtually mandated; perhaps it is for this reason that many of these women tackle the issue of gay rights, as they are subject to critiques for performing their gender in such a public way, a tradition that extends back to at least Madonna and continues to Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus today. Yet on other issues, female pop stars wield virtually no power. One prominent example is Britney Spears, whose mental health problems were little more than fodder for the paparazzi surrounding her. Female pop stars are expected to sing and act their parts, but otherwise to remain silent.

Even more so in the realm of hip hop, where the lack of women's voices is a critique often leveled against it. This lacuna becomes even more apparent when considering many of the songs that espouse the values of this new civil rights movement. Take, for instance, the opening to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, when Rosie Perez violently dances to Public Enemy's 'Fight the Power.' She may be the one fighting, but there is no indication that this is her fight; instead, she is silence as we hear the lyrics of Chuck D. (in the song's video, women are notably underrepresented).

Beyoncé's music has always resided comfortably in the realm of pop, although she is not wholly disengaged with hip hop, particularly since her husband is Jay-Z. Indeed, the vast majority of her songs would fail whatever the pop song equivalent is of the Bechdel Test, in that men are integral to their narratives. She may be crazy in love, she may be drunk in love, he may be a baby boy, he may have left and is now realizing she is irreplaceable, but there was always a he. Even when he is absent, she is singing to her single ladies about the man who should have put a ring on it. Occasionally, Beyoncé also brings in a girl power song, a pop trope that goes back to at least the Spice Girls' Zig-Ah-Zig-Ahs, but without too much power and far more emphasis on girl. Indeed, the terms found in Beyoncé's career are youthful: child of destiny, girls running the world.

In an age where Disney stars frequently need to throw off the shackles of their childhood careers, we are used to the idea of Lady Pop Stars Growing Up In The Public Eye, a move that can be signaled by a song (Miley's 'Party in the USA' turns into a 'Wrecking Ball') or, in the case of Brit Brit, a song about the ambivalence of growing old ('I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman'), combined with a movie (Crossroads), and one extremely notorious VMA Award kiss from Madonna. Just as their provocations must be sexual, their coming of age is as well--there is nothing particularly controversial about 'Wrecking Ball' as a song, but there certainly is about the video. In terms of age, Beyoncé is fully grown, but it is with 'Formation' that she finally matures in terms of her music. Rather than court sexual provocation, she has focused her energy instead toward the more crucial issues of our day: on black identity and why black identity is in peril. In this, she is unique (so far) among her contemporaries (the vast majority of whom are white).

Beyoncé slays at Superbowl 50

Not only this, but she unveiled this new image at the most public venue imaginable: during the halftime show of the most watched television program of the year. That this song and its subject courted controversy is not surprising; after all, as Bey herself states, 'You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.' But unlike the female pop stars before her, this is the look of power, not the look of provocation. Welcome to Queen Bey and her Formation.