Friday, January 30, 2009

Kill Your "Idols"


This may be the make or break year for American Idol. With its eighth season underway, the producers are scrambling for anything they think might inject some fresh blood into the show and pull it out of its three-year slump in viewership. With the economy in crisis and music industry CEOs starting to feel the pinch, the prospect of losing one of their biggest cash-cows is horrifying indeed (at least for them), and they are clearly desperate for anything that can help them bridge the ever-widening gap between profitability and substance.

Look closely enough, and the contradictions have always been there. On one hand, American Idol puts on display the fact that there lies an immense sea of talent and creativity in the masses of ordinary working people. It's precisely why millions of folks tune into the show every week hoping to see a little bit of themselves becoming a star. On the other hand, it's obvious that the AI producers would have no idea what to do with most of the talent out there.

Last season saw the show constantly criticized for being out of touch. Critics grew tired of the same old formula. They took to task the monotonous, stale litany of celebrity guests, each of which only seemed to cement AI's disconnect from current popular tastes (Dolly Parton and ZZ Top? Really?). That America's best-known judges predicted the barely pubescent David Archuleta's deep-fried Disney voice would beat out David Cook--even as the latter's impressive stage presence would gain him the victory by over 12 million votes--further confirms how out of it the show has indeed become.

And so, recent years have seen the show try to "shake things up." First, they allowed contestants to play their own instruments. Then they allowed original material to be sung during auditions. Now they've upped the team of three judges--Simon, Paula and Randy--to four by adding record producer Kara DioGuardi. It's a bit strange to think that DioGuardi, one of the most established figures in the record industry and daughter of former Republican Congressman John DioGuardi, might somehow be more relatable to middle America.

DioGuardi is certainly in good company. Watching Cowell, Jackson and Abdul stretching to bring in people with "originality" is quickly becoming the most entertaining part of the show. That's because no matter how much AI attempts to widen the pool, it still ends up shoving all the contestants into the narrowest of funnels. One has to give show creator Nigel Lythgoe credit; he certainly realizes that every groundbreaking musical act has come from among the masses. What he's completely missed is that none of them--from Billie Holiday to the Beatles to Grand Master Flash--made their name by dumbing themselves down or fitting into a "type."

Despite the show's stabs at genuine populism, its very existence as part of an increasingly out-of-touch music industry means that American Idol will never truly be able to fill the gap between top-down and bottom up. In fact, one could even argue that AI represents not an attempt at opening the gates, but tightening the industry's grip around music itself.

Think about it: other than Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson none of the crowned "Idols" have had a visible recording career lasting more than a few years. Though some have gone on to successful theatre and movie gigs, most have faded from the public view rather quickly. Given that most record companies keep close tabs over artists' first two or three albums, American Idol has definitely given the industry a renewed sense of control over some of their biggest stars.

Veteran rock critic and historian Dave Marsh framed the dynamic quite well in a recent interview:

"You go on American Idol and what's your run? Your run is 18 months to three years... you ain't getting to the third album, you're certainly not getting to the fourth! By the third album the curve is down and they [the record company] are gonna go work on somebody new--which is a new phenomenon... Why is that? The record companies figured out something that is very basic to their economics, which is that if you're going to build a career like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen who makes more than fifty or a hundred albums... [you're going to start] really getting paid for them... So the record companies, I think, made probably a fairly conscious decision at the highest levels not to have long-term stars anymore because it's too expensive."

This is, in essence, what American Idol is. It is a machine built for churning out quick, ready-made stars who can be discarded at will after all the money has been squeezed out. Though the show may drape itself in some vaguely democratic American dream, it's really run by the same short-sighted bottom line as any mortgage company or shadow banker.

Perhaps this is why the ratings for Idol's season premiere have declined for the third year in a row. It's hard to revel in the success of "one of your own" when so many others are losing their homes, jobs and any basic sense of certainty in their lives. And therein lies the crux. Tapping into the massive amounts of talent and creativity among folks out there would require a lot more than a contest. It ultimately means doing away with the system that pits us against one another in the first place.

This article first appeared on SleptOn.com.

*****

Thursday, January 29, 2009

We Want Bread, and Roses Too

As this recession worsens by the day, more people will be losing the things that help them survive--their jobs, their homes, their basic security. Rarely mentioned is the toll this crisis will take on art. In a country where the social and political is hermetically sealed off from all things artistic, it's seldom acknowledged that art is essential to human happiness and survival.

The past thirty years have seen school art and music programs gutted. Public funding for community cultural centers is almost non-existent, and the National Endowment for the Arts has never truly recovered from Reagan's slashes. All of this means that our art, music and literature is even more vulnerable.

The petition below aims to create a WPA-style department for the arts. It would divert a small portion of the proposed stimulus package toward creating such a program. Every artist, activist and person of conscience should definitely view and sign it.

-----

One Percent for the Arts Campaign

Congress will soon pass a stimulus package aimed at creating jobs and stimulating the economy. We ask that 1% of the stimulus support the arts. In the 1930s the Work Progress Administration created by Roosevelt created 3 million jobs. They built roads, streets, highways, bridges, parks, and public buildings. They also worked in the arts.

Our generation deserves no less.

The WPA employed 40,000 artists, writers, musicians, theater workers, and performers. Public support made it possible for people of modest means to dedicate themselves to their work. The WPA supported Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, Saul Bellow, Zora Neal Hurston, John Steinbeck, Sterling Brown, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, and many other great talents, known and unknown. The WPA arts projects reached wide audiences and made the theater, music, and the arts accessible to low-income people.

An arts stimulus package could increase fellowship and scholarship money, create workplace arts and reading programs, foster cultural exchange programs, support artist-in-residency programs in schools and libraries, and more.

We are also calling for a cabinet level position for a Secretary of the Arts.

Please help us get the word out by forwarding this petition to friends and networks.

SIGNERS:
Susan Brennan
Sarah Browning
John Cavanagh
James Early
Sam Hamill
Barbara Ehrenreich
Daniel Heyman
Jaime L. Jarvis
Micheline Klagsbrun
E. Ethelbert Miller
Marcus Raskin
Andy Shallal
Melissa Tuckey


Over 4,000 people have already signed. To do so, go here.

*****

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Life and Debt in Hip-Hop America


When one of the most well-known producers and beat-makers in recent hip-hop history can't leave something behind for his next of kin, isn't there something wrong? The most recent issue of Vibe includes a story looking at the legacy--both musical and financial--of James Yancey, better know to the world as J Dilla.

There isn't a single head today who doesn't owe a great debt to Dilla. His creativity and innovation represented one of those points in time where music was evolving by leaps and bounds rather than gradual steps, and for that reason he had everyone from Q-Tip to Busta Rhymes clamoring to work with him. When he passed away three years ago he was at the top of his game.

By now, J Dilla's musical legacy has been written in stone. That much is safe. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his financial legacy:

"Meanwhile the 60-year-old woman everybody calls Ma Dukes [Dilla's mother] faces health problems of her own, and financial challenges as well. Although numerous memorials and 'benefits' were held in his name, the proceeds didn’t change his family’s life. Dilla left two daughters—Ja’Mya, 7, and Paige, 9—(by two different mothers) to provide for, a sizeable IRS bill, and unresolved legal issues surrounding the use of his beats. Ma Dukes says she has never received money from her son’s estate and that her plans to establish a foundation in his name were quashed by the executor of his estate. Somehow, she was not reduced to tears even after Dilla’s attorney informed her that she had no legal right to use her own son’s name or likeness for commercial purposes. Not even to support his family."

It seems that past the hype of artists living large there is, once again, a harsh reality that these very same artists have to face. In a society where people's basic human needs are thrown aside for sake of profit, where daring to exercise our right to an education or decent medical care can put you in debt for decades, where a lifetime of hard work can be wiped out with the stroke of a pen, it's unsurprising that Dilla's family have little to show for his phenemonal contribution to music. Dilla deserved a lot better than this. We deserve better than this too.

*****

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

India to the Black Lips: You Suck!


It seems the Black Lips have learned from the people of India what the critics in the United States didn't have the spine to tell them: they are an irritating, unimaginative bunch of shysters who should have stuck to playing Ramones covers at frat parties. Though the original story of their abandoned tour of India was greatly exaggerated on the band's blog (it involved police chases and sneaking across state lines), what we do know is that the group was indeed pelted with plastic bottles and booed off-stage at their opening gig headlining a battle of the bands in Chennai, and the promoter subsequently pulled the plug on the remainder of the tour.

The Lips, now in Germany recording a new album, describe the fiasco as "a cultural-clashing shitstorm." Of course, they fail to mention that the crowd didn't feel the need to hurl projectiles at the several punk and metal acts who went on before them. India is known for having a thriving underground rock scene. Might it have been that the audience just thought the Black Lips suck?

To this writer, that seems the most obvious answer. Not some kind of Kipling-esque "clash of cultures." The Lips' explanation amounts to the arrogant posturing of a pith-helmeted explorer armed with an iPod full of Nickelback going to "civilize the brown people with our freedom-loving rock 'n' roll."

If it's any kind of omen, then there will hopefully be more of these responses to the Black Lips, a group whose break-out was due solely to the fact that there was very little else happening in indie-rock. Their entire attitude communicates as much: an insipid, insulting, pompous sneer that reads "I can't believe we made it this far by producing such heartless crap." The fans in India weren't chucking bottles because they didn't understand the Black Lips; they were doing themselves a favor.

*****

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Flying Lotus - Los Angeles
If you listen closely enough, it's pretty obvious that Steven Ellison, a.k.a. Flying Lotus is descended from the Coltranes. The beats and soundscapes this savant creates are at once abstract and all-too-concrete, the failures of "post-industrial" life turned inside out and made to look in on themselves placed over steady, boom-bap beats. This is intelligent, multi-faceted electro-hop that takes on the rarely accomplished task of being timely and relevant based solely on sound rather than lyrics. It's no wonder that some of today's best-known artists are lining up to work with this guy.

2. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Upbeat without being irritating, completely lacking in pretension and 100% sincere, Spoon also twist in just enough of that unique, Austin TX weirdness to make them stand apart from most of the other acoustic indie groups out there. In many ways they're the flip-side of Fleet Foxes. The musical integrity, song-craft, melodies and attention to detail are all there, but rather than relying on introspection, Spoon are arms-aloft (which is only accented by the group's stellar horn arrangements). And of course, anyone who doesn't love the line "you got no fear of the underdog / that's why you will not survive" clearly doesn't understand pop music.

3. 2Pac - Greatest Hits
My usual aversion for hits compilations notwithstanding, this past week definitely provoked me to look back at Pac's life and catalogue with an air of contemplation. In particular, it's worth noting how much has changed since the album's release eleven years ago ("we ain't ready to have a Black president"), and how much has indeed stayed the same ("cops give a damn about a negro / pull the trigger, kill a nigger, he's a hero"). The myth-makers of hip-hop have definitely deified 2Pac, but if one even halfway pays attention to the substance of what he's saying, then the real meaning of the man's message is hard to miss, and urgent as ever.

4. The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Giant Robots
Yet another album that simply keeps popping up on these weekly playlists; a "perennial" if you will, or maybe a "returner." Wayne Coyne's own genius is undeniable; that kind of innate, instinctual, heart-on-sleeve-without-even-acknowledging-it creativity that has given him and the Lips legions of loyal fans. On top of that, it's albums like these that will make music historians fifty years from now view the Flaming Lips as a seminal and incredibly influential act, despite the willful ignorance of today's fickle radio programmers.

5. Adele - 19
How the hell does the UK keep cranking out such incredible female soul singers? Though the young-and-strong Adele is right when she insists "we're a gender, not a genre," the phenomenon is certainly impressive, especially considering how few really soulful divas we're able to drudge up on this side of the pond. This album positively drips with the singer's soulfulness, though. From the mournful string-laden "My Hometown" to the hold-ya-head-up bump and jive of "Cold Shoulder," it's easy to see why 19 has put Adele on the map as the new British Queen of soul.

*****

Friday, January 23, 2009

This Change is Our Change

It's hard to not get swept up in the feeling of jubilation this week. Even as a writer who did not support a vote for Obama, the mood is undeniable. For a country built on slavery and racism to inaugurate Barack Hussein Obama is truly staggering history. It's a feeling being shared by writers, activists, musicians, and anyone who has spent the past several years grasping at straws for any shred of hope.

At Monday's pre-inaugural rally at the Lincoln Monument, hundreds of thousands watched as a plethora of artists and entertainers rang in a new presidential era, with Biden and Obama in attendance. All the eyes of news and entertainment seemed to focus on Jamie Foxx's imitation of Obama, or Beyonce's version of "America the Beautiful." But the most moving song of the day came from Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger, whose rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" brought the crowd into a deafening applause. All the decades of co-optation can't quite sanitize that song's message away--especially when those two sing it.

What does this mean? What does it mean for one of the most quintessentially bottom-up, egalitarian songs in American history to resonate through all the pomp and circumstance of the most tightly controlled ceremony in the country?

What does it mean for thousands of gays, lesbians and transexuals to march for civil rights, even while Obama seats a civil rights icon Aretha Franklin next to anti-gay bigot Rick Warren?

What does it mean for the man championed as "the first hip-hop president" to remain silent on the bombardment of Gaza and the police murder of a Black father while MCs and artists have dared to speak out on both?

It means that ordinary people are expecting a lot more than they have in a long time, and they're not afraid to speak up. The dire circumstances of the worst economic recession in decades have meant that Obama's promises of "change" have taken on a life of their own in the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

The night before the inauguration, right down the street from the Capitol steps, a show was held at the Black Cat, one of the few remaining decent rock clubs in DC. Headlined by Ted Leo--one of the most rebellious of today's indie artists--It was a show celebrating the end of the Bush era, and the arrival of a new face in the White House. Leo, however, has never been an artist to settle with allowing an elected official change things for the better. A musician who has called for a militant fight-back against racism and sexism, who has played at countless anti-war protests and events, his outlook can best be summed up by a short post on his website the day after the elections:

"Deep breath...
Feel good...
Recognize and appreciate the significance...
...And let's get down to work!"

We would do well to think of what NaS said in his single "Black President," his endorsement of Obama set alongside scathing rebukes against racism and war:

"I think Obama provides Hope - and challenges minds
Of all races and colors to erase the hate
And try and love one another, so many political snakes
We in need of a break I'm thinkin'
I can trust this brotha
But will he keep it way real?
Every innocent nigga in jail - gets out on appeal
When he wins - will he really care still?"

It's these kinds of questions we should all keep in mind. If Obama was elected by an anti-war majority, why is he sending more troops to Afghanistan? If so many in this country are outraged by the police shooting of Oscar Grant, why does Obama remain silent? If millions are losing their jobs, why does he continue to give billions to banks that refuse to be regulated?

This is indeed a new era. This week the neanderthals who have prattled on about terrorist fist-jabs and baby mama's look like they have taken an anvil to the chest, and it is truly sweet. But the change we need won't come from President Obama or any other official. If this land was "made for you and me," then that change must come from you and me.

Originally appeared at SleptOn.com.

*****

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New Era... New Noise (Or "If we can, if we can, if we can")

With all the talk of "a new era," and the question of what that era will look like still very much open, this video of Refused's "New Noise" seemed to be in order. Gets the point across, doesn't it?



"Can I scream!?!?!?

We lack the motion to move to the new beat
We lack the motion to move to the new beat

It's here for us to admire if we can afford the beauty of it
If we can afford the luxury of turning our heads
(If we can if we can if we can)
Adjust the thousand dollar smile and behold the creation of man
Great words won't cover ugly actions
Good frames won't save bad paintings

We lack the motion to move to the new beat
We lack motion!

When the day is over (Hey) the doors are locked on us
'Cause money buys the access
And we can't pay the cost
How can we expect anyone to listen
If we're using the same old voice?
We need new noise
New art for the real people

We dance to all the wrong songs
We enjoy all the wrong moves
We dance to all the wrong songs
We're not leading

We dance to all the wrong songs
We enjoy all the wrong moves
We dance to all the wrong songs
We're not, we're not, we're not
We're not, we're not, we're not..
Leading

We dance to all the wrong songs
We enjoy all the wrong moves
We dance to all the wrong songs

We dance to all the wrong songs
We enjoy all the wrong moves
We dance to all the wrong songs

We dance to all the wrong songs
We enjoy all the wrong moves
We dance to all the wrong songs
We're not leading

The new beat!!!"


*****

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Notes on the Inauguration

It's official. History has been made. But it's far from over.

Now starts Obama's challenge in walking the line between the hopes of those who elected him and the expectations of those who funded him (and yes, they are two different groups of people).

One can already hear it in his speech: calling out the greed of Wall Street while also saying the recession has come through our collective unwillingness to sacrifice. How he spins that into tangible legislation is anyone's guess. But his campaign speeches, where he invoked the legacy of the civil rights movement, the workers' movement, the abolitionists, and the often hidden bottom-up history of this country, won't be forgotten. They have stuck in people's minds, and if the new president doesn't deliver, then the pandora's box will be opened.

Jeff Chang posted his "Notes on Day Zero" today, where he sums up the hopes of the Obama campaign, as well as the hopes for ordinary people to win what they deserve:

"Onto this body of Barack Obama we have projected all possibility, and the faith that we are moving toward answers. And yet Obama also materializes the same question that has haunted people of color on American soil—the lands of native peoples—since long before W.E.B. Dubois articulated it over a century ago: how does it feel to still be a problem? Does our desire for hope and change and progress lead us further from the actual thought and practice of justice, or closer?

And yet if we really care about these questions, we will
never have the luxury of doing nothing.

This moment will not mark the end of our struggles over questions of nation and race, nor will it mark the end of our Duboisian double consciousness. It's the beginning of something—I'm not sure what—but it's something that we, the new majority, must write."


Maybe we're already writing it. Not to sound like a broken record, but we've already seen a vibrant movement willing to fight for gay rights, large protests against Israel's slaughter in Gaza, and victories for working people in this country that, though small, are the kind we haven't seen in a long time.

Historic moment? Yes. End of history? Far from it.

*****

Monday, January 19, 2009

Reaching for the Mountaintop

There is, of course, a greater poignancy to this year's Martin Luther King Day than any before it, as tomorrow the United States, a country built on chattel slavery, Apartheid-style segregation and gutter racism, will inaugurate its first African American president. There are no doubt plenty who believe this is the ultimate fulfillment of King's dream.

And yet, it's worth stating that to the real Dr. King, we would still have a long way to go. The video below is a contribution from the good friends at SleptOn.com. It is a look at the real, un-sanitized, and often radical legacy of this most airbrushed of public heroes. Far from winning the world he wanted, his words carry even greater urgency today.



*****

Sunday, January 18, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Sigur Ros - Takk
Yet another album I simply keep coming back to for its unusually open emotionality. Fellow musos have asked why I didn't like Sigur Ros' more recent, poppier record, and its straightforwardly because they work a lot better as a post-rock group. The melancholy, the sadness, the feeling that despite all alienation things will be okay, works a lot better when they aren't playing within the genre that contributes to so much modern separation (though that may well change with the way both pop, and society itself, are evolving). The stark, warmth-in-cold soundscapes created here are absolutely heart-rending. It's easy to get lost in the vast space of "Glosoli," while the xylophone-string achiness of tracks like "Se Lest" conjure up a feeling of utter safety and security. This time of year, when Chicago resembles more a frozen tundra than a dynamic and inviting city, albums like this are valuable indeed.

2. Various Artists - The Harder They Come
This is one of the greatest soundtrack albums ever compiled, not to mention one of the most important in the history of reggae. There's a reason for that. Every track drips with the tension and struggle that ran through Jamaican life in the 1970s. The blend of anger and hope, strength in the face of heavy manners is so palpable it can be cut with a knife. Of course, Jimmy Cliff rightfully dominates with the now-iconic title track, as well as "Many Rivers to Cross" and "Sitting in Limbo." But it's no coincidence that some of the most recognizable tracks in ska and reggae also turn up in the film and on the album, from Toots and the Maytals' "Pressure Drop" (quite possibly one of the most covered reggae songs ever), as well as the legendary "007" by Desmond Dekker. One can practically hear the shanty towns rising up.

3. Joell Ortiz - The Brick (The Bodega Chronicles)
A flat-out fantastic album. It's really quite shocking that Joell hasn't become better known. His rhymes are brutally honest in a way that today's "conscious" hip-hop just can't muster. He's proof that ultimately, there's very little dividing the conscious stuff from the mainstream or gangsta. The message is always in the roots, and the message always tells it how it is. It's not for nothing that he has everyone from Styles P to Immortal Technique to Big Daddy Kane guesting on this album. It's hard to pick out highlights on this album, but "Brooklyn Bullshit" definitely ranks on there, as does "Modern Day Slavery" (his joint with Tech), and the fun-yet-poignant "Hip-Hop." There's currently a debate on many a message board on who should be joining this summer's upcoming "Rock the Bells" tour. If you ask me, it would be a massive mistake to not put Joell up there.

4. Chumbawamba - Tubthumper
I'm walking a very thin line by admitting that I like this album. Those who liked them in their crust/squatter days will ask why I'm listening to their sell-out album. Those who didn't know who they were and would have liked to forget them after they faded from public view will wonder why I'm listening to such a flash-in-the-pan act. The simple answer? It's good. Chumbawamba prove themselves way past the title track on this recording (which most people didn't bother to listen past anyway). If anything, I would say their sound matured on this record. In fact, I would be willing to wager that much of the dance-punk resurgence that has taken place in recent years is because "Tubthumper" was on every radio station and video show in the country. This is intelligent, radical pop music that came about at a time (remember '97?) when pop itself was rotting from the inside. All the elitism in the world won't change that.

5. Roll Deep - In At The Deep End
Any regular reader of this blog will be completely unsurprised by my disappointment at grime never really making it to this side of the Atlantic. While purists and nay-sayers were declaring hip-hop "dead" two or three years ago, they weren't just ignoring anything outside the most marketable, they were ignoring anything not American! Roll Deep is one of those dynamic groups who have been putting out impressively original and face-melting material for years now in the UK. In At The Deep End is their first full-length, and it's obvious why they are so well-known in England. Roll Deep embrace their grittiness the way few acts do nowadays. All their roughness has been spun back into a well-honed point well-made in their single "When I'm 'Ere": you're gonna love us, and if not, too bad because we're not going anywhere.

*****

Friday, January 16, 2009

Respect for All, Not Just Some: A Public Letter to Aretha Franklin


Dear Ms. Franklin,

First thing's first: much respect to the Queen of Soul! To be even writing a letter addressed to you is something of an honor. I remember the sounds of your songs wafting through my house as long as I've had a memory. My parents were children of the Sixties; they were there for the musical upheaval you helped usher in, and even as a little tyke I remember thinking "damn, these songs are flat-out amazing." To this very day, my opinion remains the same.

I'm far from the only one with that outlook. Since you took the music world by storm, your influence can be felt in soul, R&B, rock, pop and rap. Show me music that doesn't have your fingerprints all over it, and I'll show you music that is neither heartfelt, righteous nor fun.

However, I simply can't hold my peace on this one. It's no secret by now that you will be singing at the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama this coming Tuesday. Far be it from me to think of anyone else who might be better suited to do so. Your songs were a soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement. While Blacks protested on the streets of America for their basic human dignity, your songs called clearly and definitively for a bit of that "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." You were there for history before, and you should be again.

That moment in history will be undeniably tarnished, though, by the presence of such unadulterated hate and bigotry. I am sure you know to whom I am referring: Pastor Rick Warren. Ms. Franklin, to share the stage with this man is to turn your back on the very ideals your music aspires to.

Obama's selection of Warren--a right-wing, anti-gay, anti-woman preacher--to give the invocation at the inaugural ceremony has left many of the President-elect's most fervent supporters scratching their heads. Warren's Saddleback Church in Southern California publicly denies membership to gays and lesbians unless they renounce their "sin." He equates a woman's right to choose to the Holocaust. And he was among the most vocal supporters of the recently passed Proposition 8 in California, which makes it illegal for same sex couples to marry. How is this the "change" that Obama promised ordinary Americans?

Since Prop 8's passage two months ago, a new movement has captured the imagination of thousands in this country, codifying the long-felt anger at the rampant inequality that today faces the LGBTQ communities.

The movement against Prop 8 is about a lot more than marriage, though. It's about the same basic Civil Rights that your generation fought for in the Sixties and Seventies. Let's not forget that before that era, it was illegal for two people of different races to also marry in many of the United States. The Civil Rights movement was an inspiration to the Gay Liberation movement that sprung up in 1969. In fact, Martin Luther King, a great friend of yours (so influential is your music), was also opposed to oppression of gays, and his longtime ally Bayard Rustin was openly homosexual.

Obama's invitation to Warren flies in the face of this. It has given legitimacy to the idea that it's okay to hate. It has implicitly communicated that Obama has no problem with gays riding in the back of the bus. It's something that we have to oppose. Remaining silent on this gives the President-elect a free ride. Wide swathes of people have already made clear that they don't intend to remain silent. If I may be so bold, Ms. Franklin, neither should you.

There is another sinister layer to this surreal juxtaposition of you and Warren. Ever since the passage of Prop 8, there has been no lack of established media figures ready to place the blame on the Black community. They have used the 70 percent Black vote for the proposition as a way to make African Americans out as backward, self-serving and downright bigoted.

A glance at the anti-Prop 8 marches--Black, white, Latino, Asian and Arab--shows that this is simply not true. Polls and studies show that African Americans are more likely than whites to support gay rights laws. One of the most common slogans at these same marches is "gay, straight, black, white / Same struggle, same fight!"

All of this is why it seems so wrong to myself and many other of your fans that you share the stage with Rick Warren. The message and legacy of your music embody the notions of freedom and inclusiveness. Warren's ideas are the exact opposite. What sense does it make for you to lift your voice in the ever-climbing crescendo of "Freedom! Freedom!" when there is a man sitting right behind you who wants to restrict the freedom to love who we want to?

Should you release a public statement? Should you say something from the stage on January 20th? Perhaps even withdraw your performance? I don't know. What you do is up to you. But it seems to me that now is a time for artists and musicians to take a stand. You have gladly taken a stand before. Maybe you can do so again.

Sincerely,
Alexander Billet

Originally appeared at Socialist Worker

*****

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

In defense of Doherty


Pete Doherty, easily one of the most controversial and hounded artists in modern music, has scheduled a solo album to be released on March 9th in the UK (no word on the US date, but one can assume around the same time). The album, which has yet to be titled, will feature the rest of Babyshambles, Dot Alison on guest vocals, and Graham Coxon playing guitar on every track except one.

It bears mentioning once again that Doherty is one of the most talented and heartfelt people making music today. This is easily forgotten as tabloids focus time and again on his drug addiction and legal troubles. Case in point: the announcement of the new album on the NME's website was overshadowed by Coxon himself, who shared on his blog a well-meaning post about Doherty's personal troubles--going so far as to say that the artist is a "scumbag magnet."

The tragedy of all this is that the quality of the former Libertine's work is lost in the shuffle of selling newspapers. So too is Doherty's own sensitivity to the world around him. Despite the "waster" image, Doherty has shown time and again to be acutely aware of the problems facing young people today (or perhaps that's why he's saddled with such a label). As this planet's economy swirls closer and closer to the drain, more artists like him are going to be needed.

Rarely mentioned is Doherty's alliance with Love Music Hate Racism. His lyrics speak intelligently to the frustration and alienation that kids feel in a world of shrinking opportunity. This writer remembers his first exposure to Doherty being not a shot of him shooting up or smoking crack, but an acoustic solo performance in front of thousands who marched against the war in Iraq after the 2004 European Social Forum.

Should we all hope that the artist get well, that he can one day conquer his addiction and get on the straight and narrow? Of course. But until we do away with a society that grinds people into the dust so much that they will look anywhere for an escape, then truly overcoming our demons is something of a pipe dream. That's a society Doherty has rejected through his entire music career. He should be supported for this, not villified.

*****

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Meen Erhabe? (Who's The Terrorist?)

Israeli forces are circling around Gaza City today. Palestinian deaths at the hands of the Israeli Defense Forces have passed 900, most of them civillians. Yesterday, two fully operational clinics were destroyed by the IDF, with little evidence that there were any Hamas militants within its walls. Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni, who publicly stated at the beginning of operations two weeks ago that Israel "did not want to re-occupy" Gaza, publicly toyed with the idea of doing just that yesterday.

Below is a video from DAM, a group from the slums of Lod, a town 20 km from Jerusalem. DAM (which stands for "Da Arabian MC's, and also means "eternity" in Arabic and "blood" in Hebrew) are commonly credited with being the first Palestinian hip-hop group, and were prominently featured in the recent documentary Slingshot Hip-Hop, which focused on Palestine's growing hip-hop scene.



Listening to the song, it's rather obvious that young Palestinians have made the genre their own. The blend of boom-bap rhythms with genuine Arabic music make for a listening experience far beyond what so many Western artists can pull off when they try to "appropriate" the rhythms of the far East (Jay-Z, I'm talking to you). Furthermore, despite the language barrier, the urgency and immediacy in these lyrics is instantly recognizable to anyone who has looked to rap as a way to channel the frustrations of daily oppression.

Given that Gaza has been forceably turned into the world's largest prison, it's rather fitting.

*****

Monday, January 12, 2009

We're All Slumdogs Today


Readers are well aware of how I normally feel about award-shows. But there was something encouraging about last night's Golden Globes, where Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's unflinching look at the poverty, racism of slum life in the heart of "the world's largest democracy," swept nearly every major category it was nominated in. Boyle, the director behind such varied and consummately human films as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Millions, has long been underrated. It's good to see his films get their deserving recognition. The film took home best director, best screenplay (Simon Beaufoy), and best motion picture.

Particularly exciting for this writer is the Golden Globe awarded to A.R. Rahman, composer of Slumdog's Bollywood-influenced soundtrack--with notable help from a certain Maya Arulpragasam, better known to the world as M.I.A. Boyle insisted that that "Paper Planes" be part of the film from the very beginning.

Also, it was great to see Springsteen win for his song "The Wrestler." Sure, he has plenty of awards already. But when you're talking about the Boss, "less is more" doesn't really apply.

*****

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Aphex Twin - Come To Daddy EP
Many are probably most familiar with this EP via the title track's ingeniously twisted music video (directed by the brilliant Chris Cunningham). But that song's maniacal, hyper-industrial feel does not characterize this record. Richard D. James is a versatile artist. In fact, "Daddy" is directly followed by the bright airiness of "Flim." The two remixes of the title track are barely recognizable as the original, and yet they maintain the first's willingness to take you just over the line of what's acceptable in techno/electronica. The amazing thing is that almost twelve years after its release, this EP still sounds groundbreaking, which is perhaps why many consider this Aphex Twin's most "pop" record--going to show once again that at what is "popular" adapts to the most experimental works, and that people innately want something fresh and different in their music.

2. Tha Truth - Tha People's Music
See my review from earlier in the week. This album's bluntness is its strength. Tha Truth doesn't beat around the bush about his openly revolutionary views on society. He skewers the drug war, American imperialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, the prison industrial complex, the US electoral system with all the subtlety of a flying mallet. Solid beats only make what he has to say all the more effective. This is an album that proves bluntness need not equal preachiness. The sheer admirability of "shooting from the hip" is something that does not come easily simply because so many artists are told to "shut up and sing." But as our world becomes more political, folks will be searching for artists just like Tha Truth. That he's been bold enough to put himself out there is a damned good sign.

3. Lupe Fiasco - Lupe Fiasco's The Cool
Those familiar with this blog will know that I've been publicly wondering what the next step in rap is, and I keep coming back to Lupe. He's mentioned frequently by artists like The Cool Kids, Mickey Factz and Kidz in the Hall and others in the mis-labeled "hipster rap" wave as a big influence (though whether their modus operandi will become the future is yet to be seen), and The Cool lays out why. Lupe's own deep commitment to artistry and independent thought is hit home on this album, from the opener to the closer. Now that the artist that was once called "a breath of fresh" air is one of the biggest names in hip-hop, his work and philosophy may very well become the standard. If that standard sounds anything like "Paris, Tokyo" or "Hip-Hop Saved My Life," then it's more than welcome as this art-form enters a new and exciting era for the world.

4. Bad Brains - Build a Nation
HR and company have definitely laid the Rastafari on thick with their most recent album. Though they're still right there with the blistering powerchords and exalting reggae, much of the political vitality that characterized their early work is either gone or poured into the "Zion/Babylon" funnel. Not that it's completely bad. Bad Brains are as rebellious, defiant and flat-out crazy as ever! "Give Thanks and Praises" is almost maniacal in the speed with which it switches tempos. The title track creates a wall with such energy and determination it's hard to believe it's composed by a group now in their forties. And "Natty Dreadlocks 'Pon the Mountaintop" reminds us that Bad Brains, on top of being some of the consummate hardcore architects, play some of the best reggae this side of Kingston. It ain't "Banned in DC," but it's nonetheless a hell of a record that makes you glad you heard of Bad Brains all those years ago.

5. Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style
Coming back to this album time and again, it remains hard-to-believe that Strummer hadn't made a full album in almost a decade when Rock Art came out! One can almost hear his cathartic healing infused into the songs as he emerged from his "wilderness years." As an opener, "Tony Adams" seems to scream of a legend's return with all the forcefulness we would expect, yet with the unique style that manages to amaze. Even when showing his vulnerability on songs like "Yalla, Yalla" and "From Willesden to Cricklewood," it's still done with the kind of determination and strength that we knew from the Clash. Though there are countless messages we can pull from Joe's work, the one this album seems to communicate is "if I made it through the wilderness, so can you... so get up off your ass and do something!"

*****

Friday, January 9, 2009

Can You Handle Tha Truth?


To say that Tha Truth is eager is something of an understatement. The Philly MC is downright fanatical--a term this writer uses in its most positive sense. War, racism, sexism, the prison industrial complex and police brutality are all explicit targets on his most recent release, Tha People's Music. He peppers the album with speeches from Howard Zinn, Angela Davis and Cynthia McKinney.

His song titles are blunt and straightforward: "We're All Immigrants," "The Injustice System," "Military Recruiters Lie," etc., etc. Metaphors, poetic devices are completely absent here; his lyrics include sections like this one:

"Healthcare in the US is for profit
It's disgrace!
But yet they fund the projects sending rockets into space
It's not for the common good
The system's rich hoggin' goods
The rich get positions
And the system builds the prisons"


True to his namesake, this is an MC who works from the starting point of "if it's true, it's good." He even has two tracks that attempt to sum up Zinn's People's History of the United States in less than four minutes!

"Yeah... right," I hear you saying, "we've heard it before. Another didactic, preachy hip-hop artist choosing political manifestos over lyrical flare. Yawn." Normally, this writer would be right there with you. But if every artist that put their politics front and cernter was "preachy," then artists like The Coup and dead prez wouldn't have such significant followings. In fact, it was twenty years ago that a little known group from Long Island was accused of "fanaticism" in their overt, militant lyrics: Public Enemy (maybe you've heard of them).

The fact is that Tha People's Music makes for solid listening because Tha Truth is so blunt. It's clear that he isn't blunt because he doesn't know any other tactic (we've all heard those kinds of artists). He's consciously decided that he's most effective when he simply tells, well, the truth:

"There's a lot they're not teaching
A lot they're not preaching
'Cause they're preaching the allegiance
To a system that invades other countries like leeches"


That the beats on this album are varied and intricate certainly helps too. A few basic samples turn People's Music into an audio feast. Jazz and blues play prominent roles in Tha Truth's production, as do thick, bass-heavy bottoms and shimmering keyboards. He even samples an acoustic guitar riff instantly recognizable as "California Dreamin'" on "We're All Immigrants," providing a rootsy, soulful base for an assured missive for bottom-up, multinational unity.

This simple yet effective formula is what has brought Tha Truth to bring his rhymes to anti-war benefits, socialist conferences, even the Green Party's National Convention in 2008. If activists are loving his work, that's because he communicates their hopes and visions so spot-on.

One significant flaw can be pointed out about this album: its heavy orientation toward the '08 election means it's already outdated. The skeptical eye this MC raises toward Barack Obama can certainly suit budding activists well in the coming years, but tracks with titles like "The Campaign of Obama" make for a listening experience that's more disjointed than it has to be.

Ironically, this same flaw is what can make music like this so effective. The immediacy, the urgency, the ability to speak not about lofty notions but to what's going on right now, is something that is often missing from even the most radical music.

That is something that political artists would do well to rectify. The economic crisis, the rising gay rights movement, police repression, the increasing brutality in the Middle East at the hands of western powers--every day there seem to be more developments that in today's world are pushing people toward radical ideas. If they're is going to maintain any semblance of vitality and relevance, then artists and activists need to come to grips with their ability to simply speak its mind. The time for hemming and hawing is over. Now's the time to straight-up agitate. Pulling this off is its own art-form. Tha People's Music is but one example of what this might look like.

Originally appeared at SleptOn.com.

To learn more about Tha Truth, and to listen to his music, go to his website.

*****

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"I am Oscar Grant"

Below is hip-hop journalist Davey D's interview with John Burris, a representative of the Grant family. The police murder of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in Oakland is only the latest outrage. This one, however might have been the proverbial straw. A protest of 1,000 was built in Oakland with only a day's notice. An anti-police brutality march has already been called in DC. From Sean Bell to Amadou to the kids harassed every day in Cabrini Green, it's clear that folks just ain't having it anymore.




Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Whose Music? Our Music!

A mixed victory for our side in the "music piracy" debate. At Apple's MacWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco it was announced that songs sold at iTunes Music Store will no longer carry digital rights management (DRM). Currently, the vast majority of songs on iTunes can only be downloaded onto five devices, be it a computer, an ipod or other mp3 player. After that, the files can't be transferred. Starting in April, all songs sold on the site can be ripped onto as many devices as possible.

One caveat, though: the major music labels are demanding in return that iTunes initiate a three-tiered pricing system. Some songs will cost 69 cents, some 99, and some $1.29. It's more than likely that the Big Four will be placing the highest price on their biggest sellers. Supply and demand, right?

Nonetheless, this is a small but significant victory. Between this and the recent announcement from the RIAA that they will be ceasing the lawsuits against music pirates, it seems evident that the industry is coming to grips with the fact that they simply can't squash the specter of "piracy."

They'll certainly keep trying to control it, though. As we've seen before, the record companies idea of "compromise" is to make as many inches into miles as possible. Still, for now, they've had to give some ground.

*****

RIP Ron Asheton

Ron Asheton, guitarist and bass player for the Stooges, was found dead in his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan today. The most likely cause was a heart attack. Asheton appeared on all the classic Stooge albums and joined the group when Iggy Pop and company reunited it in '03.

His fierce, over-amped rock 'n' roll practically created the punk guitar method. A statement released by the Stooges claimed that "as a musician Ron was 'The Guitar God' idol to follow and inspire others. That is how he will be remembered by people who had a great pleasure to work with him, learn from him and share good and bad times with him."

The Stooges, along with a host of other hard-rocking Michigan bands like the Up and the MC5, helped transition rock music from the increasingly detached world of psychedelia back to a gutsy, raucous, urgent sound. As young kids continued to radicalize in the late 60s and early 70s, their songs found wider audience.

The group never hit the mainstream the way they deserved to, and they split in the mid-70s. Like so many bands, though, they became known as one of the most influential acts in rock history. With the garage rock revival at the dawn of the 21st century, the group reformed and won over a brand new layer of kids. Listening to Asheton's guitar work, it's easy to see why more than one generation of rock addicts:



*****

Monday, January 5, 2009

He's Got a "Heart of Oak"


Ted Leo is one of those artists whose political side took a hit during the second half of the Bush administration. Now it seems like he's been rejuvenated by the regime change about to take place in DC. Leo will be playing a show at the District's famed Black Cat on inauguration night to welcome the Obama administration along with Andrew Bird, Waco Brothers, Freakwater and several other indie acts.

The Black Cat is a venue that has hosted indie acts in DC ever since "indie" was a concept. Typically, the capital's scene has been dominated by much of the hipster cynicism. So for there to be a show of this magnitude and this level of hope (if you'll excuse the term) is a welcome sight. It's also great to see that Leo, one of the most outspoken radical artists in indie rock among the plethora of political artists regaining their confidence is also nothing to take lightly. The slings and arrows have been many over the past eight years, and rebel music fans have felt something of a drought. Leo's most recent album was notably more introspective than previous efforts. This gig is a good sign.

And for those having a hard time relinquishing their cynicism, to the nay-sayers ready to pounce and accuse Leo of "accommodation" to Obama, please read this post on his site the day after the election:

"Deep breath...
Feel good...
Recognize and appreciate the significance...
...And let's get down to work!"


Pretty hard to disagree with that sentiment.

*****

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What I'm listening to this week...

1. DJ Rekha - Basement Banghra
Anyone who hasn't seen Rekha needs to go to one of her shows! Her unique blend of Panjabi rhythms and hip-hop beats produce an end result that is thoroughly danceable. She throws in elements of garage, grime, banghra and reggae too, creating her own genre that is the album's namesake: "Basement Banghra." I've seen Rekha spin several times at political conferences and club gigs. Within ten minutes she can get massive crowds moving and bouncing. It's proof--yet again--that hip-hop has a truly global reach and that music itself--or at least good music--is universal.

2. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
This group and their breakthrough album have managed references to Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. With this in mind, the waves that Fleet Foxes made this year, combined with a litany of other acts whose rock-ism was negligible, makes one wonder if "post-rock" has become the next big step in rock music. For as old-world as some as this album sounds, it's hard to argue that songs like "White Winter Hymnal," "Oliver James," "Blue Ridge Mountains" and, well, the rest of the album, don't somehow reflect the blend of isolation and earnest hope that many young folks have today.

3. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain
Some readers have been asking why Dear, Science didn't make it to the "Best of 2008" list. The simplest answer is that it wasn't as good at Cookie Mountain. TVOTR's indie-rock base serves for a great amount of musical versatility on this album that still keeps it simple and bare-bones. This is an album that simply is what it is. Tinged with gospel, bits of funk and jazz, sparse folk-like arrangements. In many ways, TV on the Radio proved themselves to be a living cross-section of relevant American music with Cookie Mountain. Despite their sophomore effort falling short, there is no reason anyone should write off this Brooklyn group.

4. Steve Earle - The Revolution Starts... Now
Recorded right before the 2004 elections, this is an interesting moment in time for the hardcore troubadour. Earle's hope was that the election of Kerry and the sweeping out of the Bush regime would be just the beginning of something. Songs like the title track explicitly stated it, and songs like "Rich Man's War" and "Condi, Condi" only added to the whole feel. Of course, Kerry lost, and the Bush administration continued for another four years. Earle's 2007 follow-up, Washington Square Serenade wasn't as outwardly political as this album, so it will be interesting to see what he comes up with in an era marked by a considerable amount of hope and optimism.

5. The Roots - The Tipping Point
The Tipping Point is an interesting time in the Roots' evolution. It's sandwiched in between two eras: after the breakout of "The Seed"--the high point of their mostly organic, instrumental period--and the dark electronica of Game Theory and Rising Down. The album manages to walk that fine line. It's more political and DJ-based than Phrenology, but still maintains an energy that is rootsier than the subsequent albums. It's fascinating to listen to this album--or any of their work--and realize that this is the same group that would one day be the house band on the "Late Show," but at the same time, such phenomena are signs that hip-hop has reached a high point.

*****

Friday, January 2, 2009

"This is for Gaza"

Today, 5,000 people marched in Chicago demanding an end to Israel's siege on Gaza. It is one of many that took place today and this week. As most are well aware by now, Israel is a full-week into its vicious assault on the people of Gaza. Most reports indicate over 400 people killed. When we're talking about one of the most densely populated areas in the world, you can guarantee that includes a large portion of civilians.

The video below is the joint "Free Palestine" from Son of Nun, a revolutionary hip-hop artist from Baltimore. Hip-hop itself is quite popular in Palestine, as evidenced by the recent documentary Slingshot Hip-Hop. The song itself is perhaps one of the most effective pieces written by a western artist in recent memory. Angry, outraged in fact, yet calculated and razor sharp.

It has also gained its author quite a bit of infamy. Upon its release 5 years ago it was selected as a finalist for "song of the week" on NPR's website. After it gained attention from several right-wing Zionist groups, the website was flooded with an organized campaign of "counter-votes." Palestine solidarity activists themselves rallied to bring the vote count back up. By the time it was finished, "Free Palestine" had become the most voted for song on NPR's website. The radio station took the feature down the following week.

Couldn't find a version of this that was anymore dynamic than this one, but at the same time, folks might really dig knowing these lyrics:



*****