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.