Thursday, October 29, 2009

You can't make this shit up... unfortunately


Pop and gossip sites were sent into a tizzy today with news that starlet Taylor Swift was photo'd at Katy Perry's birthday party next to an idiot wearing a swastika on his t-shirt. Yep, that's right, a swastika. There are no doubt plenty of folks out there with a seething (and justified) hatred of pop music fighting back every kind of joke you can think of right now. Trust me, I'm there with you.

Normally, it wouldn't be worth the time and space at Rebel Frequencies to ruminate on the doings of the pop elite. This might be an exception, though--and not because I'm looking for RF to somehow compete with PerezHilton.com, but because this pic actually seems to reflect Swift's position in music surprisingly well.

First of all, Swift has no obvious political opinions of her own--and the record companies want it that way. Her blonde-haired, blue-eyed (yes, Aryan) looks and waifish voice have been spun into an image of an innocent, helpless housewife-to-be who somehow picked up the guitar. In the country world, she is the anti-Dixie Chicks. And her lyrics, far from country's normal, under-class narrative, speak to an experience that is intensely narrow, middle-class and suburban. Hers is the kind of music that will militantly insist that the only thing possibly wrong with the world is that the high school quarterback with the new Escalade didn't ask you to the prom.

Of course, that's an aesthetic that necessarily takes a social stance: one of defense of the status quo. The guy with the swastika on his shirt is almost certainly not himself a neo-Nazi (and some posts have speculated that he "looks Jewish," which is itself problematic). But outside the far-right fringes--whose ranks are unfortunately growing in this era--the kind of person who paints a swastika on his t-shirt nowadays is cut from the same cloth as the college frat-boy who shows up to a party wearing black-face. White and privileged, and imbued with little life experience outside of the country club, these are the kinds of people who will use hate and racism supposedly to poke fun and "be edgy." They truly and honestly believe that racism, sexism and homophobia don't exist on any kind of real scale today because doing so would admit that there is something wrong with a society that has given them such a charmed life. They were the kinds of people I normally would only look at to spit on in college, and that's the way it should be.

Not so for Katy Perry or Taylor Swift. Swift's publicists have insisted that she didn't know the guy and wasn't aware of what was on his shirt when the picture was snapped. Though there's no reason to not take her at her word (it was a large party, after all), that doesn't really matter. The same publicity team who threw every demeaning term they could at Kanye West is also stubbornly refusing to apologize for the picture--instead lambasting the media for leaking it. This response along with the snapshot speak volumes about the universe of mainstream pop. Swift, and even the jackass in the photo are most likely not fascist sympathizers. But they are part of a world whose very existence is predicated on not shaking the status quo. These are the same folks who deny that racism is any kind of real problem in this country. To them, a swastika is little more than a harmless symbol that is fair game for humorous schtick--unless it gets outside the bounds of their privileged bubble.

I highly doubt that Latino day-laborers in Riverside, California feel the same way, and I'm equally sure that these folks have little use for Taylor Swift. The same can be said for any of us who live, work and fight in the real world.

*****

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We can be heroes...


"DJ Hero" dropped today for XBox 360 and Playstations 2 and 3. I'm not into video games--in fact, I haven't owned a system since Sega Genesis, and yes, I can hear you laughing derisively even via the web. I have, however played "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band," and I can definitely attest to their attraction. Simply put, it's an opportunity to tap into that deep-seated need to play with a group and just rock out. That this is being applied to DJing is pretty damned cool.

An article in today's Chicago RedEye, though, revealed some slightly more complex feelings on the game coming from DJs themselves. Recent years have seen the popularity of DJing blow up. And as it's risen, so too have concerns about it becoming watered down.

Part of it is the evolution of the DJ as a popular figure. For the most part, they've always been the backup for the emcees or other performers. Over the past decade and a half or so, it's become recognized as a complex and intricate art-form unto itself. More than that--the DJ's often the star!

Technology, too, has widened folks' access to DJ-ability: people trade in their turntables for laptops. "DJing is so popular right now," Fathom DJ tells RedEye. "We deserve credit for being the foundation and the vessel for the music, but the trendiness and commercialism is creating an anybody-can-do-this energy for people."

There's good reason for working DJs to be wary of commercialism in their art and the possibility of its integrity being compromised. DJing is certainly no joke--it takes an immense amount of practice, a skilled ear for rhythms and often an encyclopedic knowledge of music. But, as RedEye's Kyra Kyles points out, "[s]cratching, blending and mixing songs is now the result of keystrokes rather than physical agility... [and] makes it too easy for anyone to play DJ."

"Nick Cannon a DJ?" exclaims local scratcher Timbuck2. "Give me a break. Just because you weren't respected as a rapper doesn't mean you can be a DJ. Do you hear me trying to rap or model?... It's like a fad."

But attempts to co-opt the art-form shouldn't be confused for its popularity--or the shifting rules of the game. For every celebrity using their connections to get a club gig there are innumerable kids out there experimenting with something new on their laptop. Something that could very well be groundbreaking.

Fantom may be suspicious of the "anybody-can-do-this energy," but from it's earliest days, one of the things that distinguished mixing and scratching was that anybody could do it. You didn't need a degree in musicology; you could just swipe your dad's James Brown records and create something new and interesting by looping the break-beat. Technology has further democratized the practice, giving kids who wouldn't normally have access to the normally expensive equipment the opportunity to create their own beats on their computer--which is something more and more DJs are getting wise to.

That being said, the worry that "DJ Hero" could further corrupt the art is well-placed. Corporate mitts on a bottom-up aesthetic should always be viewed with disdain. The creators of the game, at the end of the day, want to make money, hands down. But if a kid can be exposed to it and inspired enough to sit down with their sound-files and create something nobody has ever heard before, well, then they're just changing the rules. Let's not forget that no matter how much our art is co-opted, there always lies within it that kernel of thoroughly bottom-up creative freedom.

*****

Sunday, October 25, 2009

U2: An Almost Extinct Species


One could say that as goes U2, so goes capitalism. Few rock bands have provided so effective a bellweather for the health of the world economy than this one. In previous eras, any strong criticism of Saint Bono and his apostles was guaranteed to be met with a mix of shock and aversion: "But he does so much for the poor. Plus, he's such a good entertainer!"

Now, the possible decline of one of the world's biggest rock bands isn't just a matter of opinion--it's in the numbers.

Despite being on the road for seven months and playing over 40 shows for an estimated 3 million people in support of their most recent album No Line on the Horizon, financially U2's current tour has yet to break even.

They've sold out every show, charging between $30 and $250 for tickets. Such figures might normally make for a monetary bonanza. But the sheer overblown bombast of their stage show has made for massive overhead. The custom-made, 140-ton stage used on the tour--the biggest of its kind in history--costs a whopping $750,000 a day to transport, assemble and maintain.

And so the group that has waxed sanctimonious for years about aiding the poor has to date spent at least $30,000,000--enough to feed countless impoverished families--on their stage alone! Add to that the price tag for the group's flights and extravagant hotel accommodations, and you're looking at a total cost for this tour that makes mind-boggling little sense--especially in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades.

Even Bono himself might be aware that his eyes have gotten bigger than his stomach. As he told USA Today before the tour's launch, "I want to put on an extraordinary show, but I'd like to own my house when it's over."

The character of U2's concerts is especially confusing given that such decadence is looked at today with more suspicion than ever. The modern "indie" aesthetic, with its emphasis on substance over spectacle, has more or less become the dominant current among today's young musos--not just in rock, but in dance, electronic and hip-hop too.

If there's a term that can easily describe them, it would be "out of touch." This is highlighted by the disappointing sales of No Line on the Horizon. The album was released in March, but only recently has it surpassed 1 million copies sold worldwide. Compare this to 3.2 million for 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and 4.3 for 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind, not to mention 14 million for 1987's The Joshua Tree, and it's clear that No Line is the slowest selling U2 album in quite some time.

Neither of the album's two singles, "Get On Your Boots" and the laughably longwinded "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," have broken the top ten. With the music industry in a deep crisis, U2's efforts to stay ahead of the curve have fallen flat. Bono vented his frustrations to Spinnermusic: "We felt that the album was almost kind of an extinct species, and we should approach it in totality and create a mood and a feeling, and a beginning, a middle and an end. And I suppose we've made a work that is a bit challenging."

It's a bizarre logic straight from the dead horse's mouth: we thought we could stay alive by flogging ourselves.

Contrary to Bono's condescension, No Line on the Horizon isn't "challenging." It's more of the same. The Edge's hypnotic guitars and Bono's testimonial vocal style might have been stunning fifteen, even ten years ago, but in 2009 we've been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and are ready for something new. The world's music fans have reflected this by spending their ever-dwindling dollars elsewhere.

According to U2's twisted reasoning, though, albums fail because the public just don't understand, the millions blown on their tour are justified as long as they throw crumbs to starving Africans, and their own rich-boy arrogance is actually just a reaction to being "humiliated."

Irish veteran activist and journalist Eamonn McCann, who has made something of a hobby out of chronicling U2's excesses, quotes drummer Larry Mullen as having noticed "a new resentment of rich people in this country ... We have experienced [a situation] where coming in and out of the country at certain times is made more difficult than it should be--not only for us, but for a lot of wealthy people ... The better-off (are) being sort of humiliated."

Says McCann: "Perhaps Larry was angry that peasants arriving on no-frills airlines hadn’t formed a human carpet on the tarmac for people like himself... to walk over."

Indeed, whereas U2 were once considered ambassadors for an economically prosperous Ireland, nowadays they're in the running for most hated Irishmen. Ever since news broke that the group were basing their business in the Netherlands to dodge taxes in their native country, pickets and placards demanding "Make Bono Pay Taxes" have come to reveal a growing resentment on the part of Irish workers.

The gap between their own existence and simple, basic reality has come to personify U2. As time goes by, their words and actions smack less of a righteous rock band than they do the pompous pronouncements of CEOs using our money to pay their own bloated salaries. Much like these prehistoric parasites, they are now left scratching their heads, wondering why their profits have tanked and the world seethes with rage. They have nobody to blame but themselves.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Friday, October 23, 2009

Where the sisters at?


A recent post on the NME's blog by Rae Alexandra definitely resonates here at RF. Asking "what happened to all the ferocious female punks," Alexandra looks back at those acts of the mid '90s--L7, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, etc--and wonders where the hell they all went.

"[W]e furious girl writers, girl musicians, girl photographers, girl rockers, felt like maybe, together, we could create a musical environment in which none of us would ever be groped in a crowd again; in which female musicians would not be dismissed more quickly than their male counterparts, or judged more on their appearances than on their ability to write a good song; and in which girls could go to shows and not be treated like a boyfriend accessory or a groupie."

Damn right. Riot grrl represented a big push forward in terms of women's position in punk rock and music in general, coinciding with acts like Salt 'N' Pepa and MC Lyte in hip-hop, and artists like PJ Harvey were a big part of the "alternative" pastiche. Strong women were an integral part of music in the '90s.

But though a lot of these acts are soldiering on, Alexandra is correct in saying that most of them aren't in the public consciousness the way they once were. It's a retreat that goes well beyond music itself. Rock 4 Choice, which organized massive concerts attracting some of the best-known rock acts of the early '90s and was one of the few unapologetic voices for abortion rights, has by now regressed to little more than a few local, low-key shows to raise funds for the Feminist Majority Foundation. It's a basic dynamic that most of the pro-choice movement has followed.

Maybe this is no surprise when one really thinks about where the debate around women's rights is at right now. Serious talk about the wage disparity, child-care, the right to choose and other issues that affect working class women. Likewise, Mariah Carey and Britney Spears are more or less accepted as the epitome of female pop stars: glitzy, empty-headed nightingales who are empowered only insofar as they accept their roles as sex objects.

There are certainly still plenty of unapologetic woman artists out there, but they're mostly in the underground scenes, and this is no coincidence.

The absence of strong female voices relays back to punk, as Alexandra points out:

"There are multiple reasons women have recently lost their voice in rock but SuicideGirls.com--and the copycat sites that have sprung up since--has arguably been the most damaging thing to happen to women involved in alternative music ever. These sites have given young women the impression that the best way to be an asset to the subculture is simply to get some tattoos and piercings and get their kit off."

Tragically true, but it's not just sites that objectify punk rock girls that are to blame. The roots lie in the sorry state of the women's rights movement today. With a few notable exceptions, clinic defenses and grassroots organizing have been replaced with back-room dealings and "don't rock the boat" philosophies. You don't even need to watch TV for ten minutes nowadays to see women exploited or stereotyped in our pop culture.

Still, if punk rock, a culture that has long prided itself on independence and bucking the dominant trend can also succumb to this sexist pressure, then things are indeed dire. Misogyny in punk is nothing new--Lauraine LeBlanc chronicles it well in her book Pretty In Punk--but it still always seemed to provide a bit more space for young women to throw off the shackles. Riot grrl in particular was an extension of that.

I'm not the only one sick of it, either. There are countless folks out there--men and women--who are pissed that our Kathleen Hannas and Lauryn Hills have been traded in for the Pussycat Dolls and Rihanna. Female empowerment in music isn't just a nice idea, it's something that makes music itself more complete. Finding a way to inject it back into our culture isn't an easy task, but I'm pretty sure the first step is building a new, bottom-up movement for women's liberation.

*****

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Go on singing..."


Readers will recall my short obit to Mercedes Sosa two weeks ago here at RF. Below is a longer piece by Bridget Broderick recently published at SocialistWorker.org that does her work much more justice. -AB

----------------------------------------

I was reminded again two weeks after her death of just how many people miss Mercedes Sosa, the renowned Argentine singer who died October 4.

At a fundraiser for the resistance to the coup in Honduras, musicians played a tribute to "La Negra," (Sosa's nickname due to her indigenous heritage).

The next day, in an Argentine grocery store, the owner spoke about Ms. Sosa in loving terms. He had pasted the front cover of the local newspaper with the singer's face on the windows of his store, and while a soccer game blared on in the background, he talked about "La voz de América" (The voice of America), and her influence on everything from Latin American music and politics to soccer.

Mercedes Sosa was born in Tucuman province in northwest Argentina, far from cosmopolitan Buenos Aires. She was of French and indigenous descent, and her parents were day laborers. She showed early talent as a singer, and won a local radio station amateur hour contest at 15 years old. From that point, she became involved in forging the Nuevo Cancionero, or New Song, movement in Mendoza, Argentina, in 1963.

Its manifesto claimed a search for a new national music based on new content--traditional instruments and music styles should be used and experimented with, from folclor to tango, without commercial interests or attempts by the market to create niche audiences and divisions. While aspiring to a national music, the movement eschewed a "closed regionalism," aiming to communicate with and exchange ideas with artists and movements throughout America. Finally, the New Song movement claimed it would:

"struggle to convert the Argentine people's current support of a national music into an inalienable cultural value. [We] affirm that art, like life, should be in permanent transformation, which is why popular song seeks to integrate with the creative process of the people, to accompany the people in their destiny, expressing their dreams, their happiness, their struggles and their hopes."

The New Song movement was influenced by Argentine folk songwriter/musicians such as Atahualpa Yupanqui as well as Chilean artists Víctor Jara and Violeta Parra. In turn, the New Song musicians inspired and worked with songwriters and artists throughout the continent, from Daniel Viglietti in Uruguay and Carlos Mejía Godoy in Nicaragua, to Cuban Nueva Trova singers Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez, and Puerto Rican salsa innovator Willie Colón.

In the 1960s and 1970s, during a general period of political and cultural radicalization in Latin America--in the face of U.S. political and cultural imperialism, and national dictatorships and repression--the New Song movement artists conveyed the dreams, struggles and hopes of many throughout the continent to older and younger generations of activists. Their songs incorporated traditional instruments and political yet poetic lyrics that spoke to millions.

Sosa was a pivotal singer in the New Song movement. She didn't compose songs, but her beautiful contralto voice gave poignant expression to some of the best works by her peers, such as Leon Gieco and Víctor Heredia ("Todavía Cantamos"/"We Sing Still") and Violeta Parra ("Gracias a la Vida"/"Thanks to Life").

She brought to life the composition "Como La Cigarra" ("Like the Cicada") by Argentine poet and children's songwriter Maria Elena Walsh, and sang a loving eulogy to female poet Alfonsina Storni ("Alfonsina y el Mar"/"Alfonsina and the Sea") based on her final poem before her suicide. Her repertoire expanded five decades as Sosa sang throughout Latin American and Europe and the U.S.

As an artist, Sosa was admired greatly for her voice and stage presence. Yet she became "La Voz de America" because of her commitment to blending politics with music during a time of social and political upheaval in which speaking out publicly could mean imprisonment, or in the case of Víctor Jara in 1973 Chile, torture and death.

Sosa continued to perform politically charged songs after the Argentine dictatorship of right-wing nationalist Jorge Videla came to power in 1976. The military junta that ruled was responsible for the disappearances of at least 30,000 leftists and social activists. Mercedes Sosa sang many of her songs in defiance of a government ban.

In 1979, Sosa performed "When They Have the Land" about agrarian reform at La Plata, a university city. Security forces arrested 200 attendees, and an officer publicly performed a body search of the singer on stage to humiliate her.

As a result of international pressure for her release, Sosa was set free, paying a $1,000 fine. Yet she was forced into exile after facing threats to her life and surveillance by secret death squads. She was unable to perform in Argentina, but from abroad, she continued to sing about the dreams and struggles of Latin America.

But Sosa couldn't stay abroad for long. Forced exile impacted her mentally and artistically, and she returned in 1982, shortly before the military junta crumbled. She was able to perform to thousands in Argentina and throughout Latin America, and continued to perform works of well-known artists for over 20 years, winning three Latin Grammys and numerous music and social justice awards from around the world. She performed with Luciano Pavarotti, Charly Garcia, Silvio Rodriguez, Sting and Joan Baez.

Sosa continued to sing and incorporate new sounds into the tradition of the New Song movement, and support political cultural causes until her health prevented her. In June 2007, I had the good fortune to finally see Mercedes Sosa perform with special guest Guadalupe Piñeda at a benefit for the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The concert's title was "Building Communities without Borders," particularly appropriate in a city in which hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants had marched to gain respect and political rights for undocumented immigrants.

The artist was clearly in failing health--she needed to sit throughout most of the concert and took extended breaks to allow Piñeda to sing. But when Mercedes Sosa performed, she took command of the stage and made us forget the background noise of the margarita machines in the large basketball stadium. Her voice was strong and clear and beautiful.

Several Chilean attendees were outraged that people were talking during the concert, and asked them to "have some respect." They grew silent in appreciation (or intimidation). Sosa sang new songs from her 2006 CD Corazón Libre as well as familiar hits "Gracias a la Vida," "Canción con Todos" ("Song with/for Everyone") and "Sólo Le Pido a Dios" ("I Only Ask God").

But for me, the one that stood out was, as always, "Como La Cigarra"--poetic and evocative of how one can face and survive a violent but beautiful world again in the community of others.

Cantando al sol como la cigarra
después de un año bajo la tierra,
igual que sobreviviente
que vuelve de la guerra.

Tantas veces me borraron,
tantas desparecí,
ami propio entierro fui
sola y llorando;
hice un nudo en el pañuelo
pero me olvidé después
que no era la única vez
y seguí cantando.

Tantas veces te mataron,
tantas resucitarás,
cuántas noches pasarás
desesperando.
Y a la hora del naufragio
y la de la oscuridad
alguien te rescatará
para ir cantando.


Singing to the sun like the cicada
after a year under the earth
Just like the survivor
Who returns from war

So many times they erased me
So many times I disappeared
To my own burial I went
Alone and crying
I made a knot in my handkerchief
But then I forgot afterwards
That this was not the only time
And I continued singing

So many times they killed you
So many times you will come back to life
How many nights you will spend
Desperately losing hope
And at the moment of the shipwreck
And at the time of darkness
Someone will rescue you
To go on singing.

''There's no better example of artistic honesty,'' her nephew and fellow singer Chucho Sosa said in 2007. ''Her songs reflect how she is in life.'' Mercedes Sosa's death on October 4, 2009, in Argentina leaves us to remember her tremendous voice and spirit in life through her songs.

*****

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Are You Listening?"


Nowadays, the term "pop" stirs negative connotation among a great many music devotees. For some the word itself is little more than the sonic expression of everything that's wrong with the music industry--shallow, trite, and more or less divorced from anything having vaguely to do with reality.

So you might be excused for having a dismissive attitude toward Lady Gaga. That is, until she spoke at the National Equality March earlier this month. Like almost every speaker that day, Gaga delivered a forceful and unapologetic speech from the front of Washington's Capitol Building. Over 200,000 people were gathered to hear a bevy of artists, performers and grassroots activists demand nothing less than full equality for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in the US.

In retrospect, it may seem ironic that Gaga's speech is now one the most watched segments of the march that day. Still, you'd be hard pressed to find any disagreement with what she said:

"I am also inspired by the masses of young people here today--the younger generation, my generation! We are the ones coming up the world, and we must continue to push this movement forward and close the gap... They say that this country is free, and they say that this country is equal, but it is not equal if it is 'sometimes.'"

The presence of one of pop's swiftest rising stars represented a lot more than just a celebrity jumping on the protest bandwagon. For sure, like most pop artists Gaga's songs and persona are contradictions wrapped in yet more contradictions (and in her case, bubble wrap). But there's a bit more to it than that. In heady eras like these, when the restlessness of young and angry people is so tangible you can almost literally touch it, it's not too far fetched to speculate that Gaga may represent a time when the "popular" is being put back into "pop."

There are plenty of things that can be debated and pored over with Gaga's music. She's the kind of artist that keeps postmodernists awake long into the night. What isn't up for debate, though, is that in a music industry where being a woman means being little more than a frail nightingale, Gaga is clearly cut from a different cloth than the Britneys and Mariahs of the world.

For one thing, she quite obviously has a brain! It's rather sad that something as basic as writing your own songs can set you apart from other female pop stars, but alas, that is the case. Far from being some barely-pubescent naif swept into the studio, Gaga's early years were spent experimenting with avant-garde and electro-dance, sounds that inform her present work.

Songs from her 2008 album The Fame, which take as much from Bowie and Klaus Nomi as they do Madonna, seem to paw at a kind of deliberate over-production. Hearing the distorted, fuzzed-out keys that open "Just Dance" isn't to hear the kind of glitzy, care-free pop hit that its title might imply. To say that Gaga has an "edge" that most woman pop-singers might be a bit cliche. More accurate might be to say that there are hints of a jagged menace and imminent post-recession decay lying within her music.

Gaga has also been open about her own bisexuality. And unlike other female pop stars--most of whom are straight--she hasn't used girl-on-girl stories for the sake of turning on a male dominated industry. (Katy Perry, are you reading this? Because it concerns you.)

Far from making non-straight folks into tokens, she has consistently credited the LGBT community with aiding her rise in pop music. "The turning point for me was the gay community," she told MTV. "I've got so many gay fans and they're so loyal to me and they really lifted me up... It's not an easy thing to create a fanbase."

Indeed, Gaga, who called the National Equality March "the most important day of her career," did a lot more for the NEM than show up to speak. When few of the established gay rights organizations would back it, Gaga was one of a handful of artists to support it. In the weeks leading up to the march--organized on a shoestring budget--she pulled out all the stops, hosting shows to raise money for and publicly promoting it.

Though she was also in attendance at the exclusive Human Rights Campaign dinner the night before the NEM, it's clear that Gaga is much more attracted to the grassroots approach. During her speech she urged marchers to take the energy back to "their backyards," including her own, where she pledged to fight against misogyny and homophobia in the music industry.

It might be hard to peg Gaga as a feminist given her sometimes sexually graphic material and propensity for revealing outfits. Pop music has always been something of a clap-trap, providing both the opportunity for women to express their sexuality in ways verboten in the wider world while also painting them as sex objects. In an industry where women are clearly prevented from getting ahead unless they can squeeze into (and out of) a size two, the pressures to conform are undeniably gargantuan.

Her video for "Poker Face" has at first glace all the stereotypically sexist dressings, albeit with a large dose of surrealism thrown in. While it may initially appear to be little more than sexist pop decadence (possibly a parody?) Gaga has revealed that the song and vid are both inspired by her experiences with straight boyfriends as a bisexual woman: "The fact that I'm into women, they're all intimidated by it. It makes them uncomfortable. They're like 'I don't need to have a threesome. I'm happy with just you.'"

That kind of intimate subject matter is bound to come out in messy and contradictory ways. Sexual expression is tangled up in all sorts of ugly repression. Nay-sayers looking to categorize her alongside countless bleached-blonde pinups can easily point to questionable content of her videos. What's a lot harder to admit is that while modern music still relegates LGBT people to the sidelines, Gaga is at least getting the ball rolling.

There will no doubt be plenty who say that there is no real relationship between Lady Gaga's music and her political stance. But to deny that is to deny the very nature of culture itself--and the real opportunities that Gaga's presence reflects. The chaotic times we live in have provided the space for us to inject some real substance into our world--to, as Gaga puts it "close the gap" between business as usual and our actual hopes and needs.

The same can be said for music itself. Gaga may very well be only the start. There's a lot of distance between an openly bisexual pop star standing up for LGBT rights and, say, Jagger's circa '68 dedications to the "street fighting man." But with outrage brewing in a new, confident generation, with a movement on the ascendancy, and possibly much more to come, there's little telling what other kinds of artists are in store. If it's any indication, then those of us dismissive of "pop music" might have a lot more to think about in the coming years.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Clang! Clang!


Anyone doing work around the sick criminal injustice system in this country--especially the prisons--should be amped at this news. Jail Guitar Doors, a program initiated by Billy Bragg in the UK to get guitars and musical instruments to prisoners, will be making its way to the US too!

Bragg's program has already proven effective in Britain, providing prisoners with a musical outlet they might not otherwise get. And in fact, he's already had something of a test-run of it Stateside with a prison in Maine. He has also been in talks with officials at Rikers in New York. Now, with the MC5's Wayne Kramer (who himself did time for possession back in the '70s) behind the project, plans are in the works for JGD to fully take on the US prison system.

On the surface, Jail Guitar Doors might just seem another charity--until one takes into account the individuals behind it. Billy Bragg, as folks know, is known for nothing if not his left-wing politics. Given that the charity was named after a Clash song, it's only natural that Mick Jones has also been involved. And of the surviving members of the MC5, Kramer remains the most unapologetically outspoken and politically engaged.

Furthermore, this is a project that puts prisoners at the center. Here in the US, one in every 100 adults is under some kind of supervision of a correctional institution, and over 2 million are locked up, mostly for non-violent offenses. The US is one of the last industrialized nations that still executes its prisoners. Draconian "three-strikes" laws hand down 25 year sentences to young men for doing nothing more than stealing a piece of pizza. In times like these, if anything is needed, it's for someone to acknowledge that prisoners are more than just statistics, or some threatening "other" to be locked away; they're human.

That is essentially the soul of the JGD project. The interview below was done last week with Bragg and an ex-con named Leon, who since being released has performed at several Jail Guitar Doors events. This particular performance was at the premiere of Breaking Rocks, a documentary by Alan Miles on JGD. That people like this can be given a voice through this project is indeed encouraging.



*****

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

?uestlove on "selling out"

With so much changing in the music biz nowadays, the definition of that old chestnut "sell-out" is also bound to be shaken up a bit. There will no doubt always be those elitist folks willing to pin the label on anyone who has any remote connection to the mainstream--though these heads are always flummoxed when you ask them anything about how progressive acts get their message to a wide audience.

The crux of this ongoing argument was raised like no other when the Roots announced they were taking the job of house band for Jimmy Fallon's late night show. Many wondered whether one of the most independent-minded groups in recent hip-hop history was somehow trading in their artistic credentials for an easy paycheck. But as ?uestlove explains in this footage, there's a lot more to it than that.



As I've pointed out before, that a group like the Roots is being beamed into every American household every weeknight is an entirely new occurrence in popular culture. And the band has done anything but water down their content. Nobody who saw the band's performance of "Bring the Noise" with Public Enemy and Antibalas' horn section can honestly accuse them of such a thing.

Of course, working within an entertainment business whose pull is naturally toward the safe and marketable lowest common denominator is a tricky thing. How artists go about striking a balance--using the industry to get their message out there and push the limits while not allowing that same industry to control the terms of their music--is by its nature shaky ground. The Roots, however, seem to be pulling it off.

*****

Monday, October 12, 2009

Blue Scholars: Beating Back Boundaries


“When you hear a song that is written in a way you never heard before, or you see a painting that is done in such a way that makes you go ‘wow, I never thought this shape and this color could go together,’ that opens a space in your mind and your soul that is equal to growth. You take that expansion and you apply it to everything else, and if you’re constantly thinking forward in that way, then change happens.”

So says Alexei Saba Mohajerjasbi—better known as Sabzi, DJ and producer for the Seattle based hip-hop duo Blue Scholars. Opening up space and shunning convention have long been a part of the group’s M.O. The core of their music—Sabzi’s eclectic, cerebral beats and emcee George “Geologic” Quibuyen’s chilled, calculated delivery—have always stood a cut above most “political” rap. In what can often be a predictable sub-genre, the Scholars prefer not to be backed into a corner.

It’s no surprise, then, that when it came time to release their new EP, OOF!, the Scholars chose a format that is, well, non-traditional. Scratch that—it’s downright anti-traditional. “It’s more than an EP,” explains Sabzi. “It’s more of a multi-media, cross-cultural experiment.”

The whole OOF! package—available on their website—includes not just a download of the 12-song release, but a poster by graffiti artist Aaron “Angry Woebots” Martin, a t-shirt, and the video for the group’s dope lead single “HI-808” shot by Hawai’i-based media groups Kai Media and Honozooloo.

Sabzi is quick to point out that each one of these is an equal component of the project, each of the various collaborators coming in with an equal voice. The approach is refreshing. Too often, different avenues of creative expression find themselves compartmentalized and segregated from each other: “music has nothing to do with film,” “poetry has nothing to do with painting,” and so forth.

To Blue Scholars, such an approach seems stilted, unnatural. The iron wall that hangs between each avenue of creativity seems to mirror the ways in which humanity is, according to Sabzi, “very separated—we have a lot of lines and boxes drawn between each other and around each other than cause difference.” And while the various artists that came together for OOF! are of many different disciplines, they’re all united under a common theme.

That theme is—and here comes another curveball—Hawai’i. But listeners expecting clichéd stories of buff surfers and palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze have another thing coming. The rhymes spun by Geologic—who grew up there when his father was in the Navy—are honestly people-centric. Delivered with a deft humor and frankness, his rhymes drip with the struggles of the island-state’s people, cutting through the polished paradise imagery of a million glossy postcards:

“Nope, it’s not a walk on the beach
So don’t come thinkin’ shit is sweeter than a sugarcane tree
‘Cuz when the beats drop, brah, don’t blame me
And now you wanna curse like Interstate 3
Newsflash jerk: Hawai’i ain’t free
And I vowed on the day I became an emcee
Never not say what I’m made to speak from”


Geo isn’t over-thinking his lyrics. Throughout OOF! he speaks of Hawai’ian self-determination and the Seattle general strike with the same ease as backyard barbecues and rap music itself.

Likewise, Sabzi’s beats mesh together with a freshness that reveals more instinct than anything else. He seems genuinely shocked when I tell him that his production actually sounds like Hawai’i. “I don’t want to say yes, but I also don’t necessarily want to say no. I will say that sonically, when I listen to the record and I think our trip to Hawai’i, they fit.”

Sabzi may not have been overtly conscious of it, but the essence is definitely there—from the surfy Hammond organ to the lightly punctuated guitars and echoing drumbeats. Hearing Sabzi’s surprise I’m reminded of a quote from the late, great Joe Strummer: “It seems to me that origination is perhaps instinct, not intellect.”

Most definitely, there is a lot about this EP that is instinctually radical—both in terms of content and form. Blue Scholars’ own history is one of finding the infinite points in which music and activism collide. Past songs have approached topics like the Battle in Seattle and the occupation of Iraq in a way that dovetails personal experience with outspoken militancy. Since 2002 they’ve taken their live show not just on the road with acts like Kanye West and De La Soul, but to labor organizing conferences, community youth centers and the May 1st “Day Without an Immigrant” protests.

So it’s only appropriate that in finding a forum for a project as ambitious as OOF!, Blue Scholars bypassed the mainstream record business entirely. “Basically, if you have a big record label fund any of this stuff,” Sabzi stops himself, “well, they’re probably not going to even fund it because they don’t understand this kind of artistic expression.”

How true. The typical schematic record deal is one where the terms are dictated to the artist. If you don’t like it, you hit the road. “In that agreement, the label ends up—because of costs of production and ownership of the means of production and all that jazz—having a very dominating role in the relationship. If we were to sign the deals that we were being offered by some of these labels, we would have to turn over certain control.”

Ceding control to a major label can have wide repercussions past the music itself. “The kind of control I want in a music deal, for example, is to approve spending on—and distribution of—promo materials. This is an important issue if the person in charge is culturally removed from the communities they’re promoting to—which is usually the case.”

It’s not for sure that the Scholars’ unwavering, independent spirit would be smothered under the weight of a big imprint. But why take the chance? Distribution of the limited-edition CD version of OOF! will be taken on by Duck Down Entaprizez, though as the group’s press release points out the group didn’t sign to Duck Down. Rather, the Blue Scholars brought the terms to Duck Down, and Duck Down signed to them. Much of the record’s support is also coming from Caffé Vita, a Seattle-based coffeehouse well-known in the area for its progressive business practices. In the end, though, the buck in this unique deal stops with the artists themselves.

Ten years ago, this kind of unorthodox project might not have been possible—at least not if the artist wanted to be exposed to a wide audience. Despite never being on a major, the Blue Scholars haven’t had a problem finding fans. Their 2007 release Bayani (also recently released in a redux by Duck Down) has to date moved over 20,000 units—an impressive number for an indie release—and the group have gained a loyal following over the past few years. At a time when no single sound is dominating hip-hop and the influence of major record labels appears to be scattering to the wind, a growing number of folks are getting hip to the Scholars’ radically humanistic message.

If there were ever an opportunity for new spaces to be opened up, this is it. “The world is more screwed up than ever before,” says Sabzi, “things are really deteriorating.” If there’s anything that sums up his outlook, though, it’s optimism:

“The scenesters today, the kids who really seem to get it are really forward thinking… There’s a certain optimism in young kids today. It’s like they love everything, and yet they’re not buying in and selling out at the same time. I’m learning from them and trying to put that into what we do.”

For sure, there’s more room to learn from each other’s ideas and experiences more than ever. If something better is possible, then such dialogues aren’t only preferable—they’re necessary. Ultimately, they’ll only be successful if they’re the kind of ideas that can break down boundaries and pull folks together. And if they can buck the powers that be in the process, all the better.

This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Our Music is so Gay: Music and LGBT Liberation


This coming weekend may very well be the kind that people look back on as a turning point in history. Think the 1963 March on Washington or the helicopter leaving Saigon. The National Equality March, taking place this Sunday, is the first national mobilization around LGBT civil rights in over a generation, powered sheerly by the bottom-up outrage that has risen since the passage of Prop 8 in California last November.

There's no doubt that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and even trans folks have never been a bigger part of our national culture. While on the surface, this might posit a crude kind of equality, the reality is that for most working people of non-straight orientation, discrimination is alive and well.

Author Sherry Wolf points out that "[o]n the one hand, top-rated TV shows and Academy Award-winning movies, such as Will and Grace, the L Word, and Milk, portray gays and lesbians in a favorable light. On the other, federal and most state legislation denies equal marriage, workplace, and civil rights protection for sexual minorities."

This contradiction can be seen, perhaps like nowhere else, in our music. High profile stars like Elton John and Melissa Etheridge are able to be open about their sexuality. Others like Cyndi Lauper and Lady GaGa have even lent their voices to support the march.

Even during the height of the conservative '80s, music provided a space for talk about gay culture that the rest of society wouldn't. Top selling artists like synth-poppers the Bronski Beat, featuring the openly gay Jimmy Somerville, would climb the charts with songs like "Smalltown Boy." Telling the story of a young gay man hounded by his family and neighbors, the song's honesty stood in stark contrast to the turned backs of Reagan and Thatcher in the face of a rising AIDS epidemic.

The '80s in particular would see a great amount of gender-bending within popular music, the space being provided by the rise of post-punk's disdain for aesthetic convention. And while some of this approach echoes throughout today's music, to say this is the whole story would be a gross exaggeration.

While John and Etheridge may be secure enough in their positions to be out of the closet, there remains a very real exploitation of sexual minorities in pop music. Singer Katy Perry went to number one on the Billboard charts with her soft-core porn single "I Kissed a Girl," which The New Gay described as "a classic example of the 'guys kissing is gross, girls kissing is hot' line of thought."

Beth Ditto, front-woman of the Gossip (one of the most underrated bands of our time) pulled no punches when she described Perry's song as a "boner dyke anthem for straight girls who like to turn on guys by making out."

Ditto, an out-and-proud lesbian, also placed much of the blame on the industry itself: "To Katy, it's just a party song. But as a gay person, it's like 'oh, of course this straight person singing about kissing a girl goes straight to Top 40 and people buy the record. Who can give a fuck about real gay people?' That's what's really painful about the whole thing."

Too often, LGBT folks in the industry are forced to play the role of "the visible invisibles." You don't have to go far for proof of this. Compare how many bi, trans, gay or lesbian people you know in your everyday life to how many pop on MTV or the radio, and you'll find the numbers just don't match up. OutMusic.com, an online alliance of LGBT artists and performers, calls it "a silent 'don't ask don't tell' policy'" in the industry.

Mirroring the way in which an untold number of working-class LGBT folks remain in the closet for fear of reprisals, countless LGBT acts have struggled to find a voice. A brief scan of OutMusic's site will reveal a bevy of rock, indie, country and hip-hop acts pushed to the sidelines in light of their sexuality.

In a musical world where sixty percent of radio is owned by one communications company, this might be no surprise--especially when one takes into account that the company, Clear Channel, is owned by a "personal friend" of George W. Bush. By now, though, it's become common sense that the mainstream doesn't represent the last word in popular music.

That might be the best thing our side has going for us. The age of the internet has allowed an unprecedented number of acts to gain notable followings without the aid of the biz. It's no secret that most people want a lot more from their music nowadays.

Likewise, support for anti-gay measures is, Prop 8 notwithstanding, at an all-time low. For every pair of feet that shows up in DC this weekend to march for equality and justice, there will most likely be tens of thousands more at home who agree with them. There exists a gap between the faux-freedom afforded to LGBT's in pop media and the actual freedom to have a voice in everyday life. The feeling is that, to put it simply, people want more. From our music, our culture, and our world as a whole. If that can be taken to heart, then the National Equality March is only the beginning of something big.

This article originally appeared at SleptOn Magazine.

*****

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The future of "political rap?"


The Chicago Reader carries an excellent review this week of one of the best groups to emerge from Chicago's hip-hop scene in quite some time: BBU.

Short for--at the same time--"Bin Laden Blowin' Up" and "Black, Brown and Ugly," BBU's sound is an energetic, electro-heavy thump that has more than enough to get the crowd bouncing. I should know, I've seen them live more than a few times here in Chi-town. The profile in the Reader seems to be surprised at how political their lyrics are even as their sound is described as "club-oriented." Lines like "red, black, green, let's get free" and "power to the people in the motherland" abound in their songs, along with references to Fela Kuti and Nina Simone.

This divide, however, has always been somewhat artificial. Insofar as "mainstream" and "conscious" actually exist, they're more propped up by the music industry than anything else. BBU are most definitely aware of this, and see it as part of their task to bridge the gap. "These dudes," says Michael "Illekt" Milam of his two partners, "they love to go to a straight up hip-hop show and see, like, Atmosphere and get down to that, but then they're like, 'Damn, man. I still have all this energy,' and they'll run off to a Flosstradamus show and dance and have fun. It was like, 'How can we bring these two worlds together and not be lame about it?'"

When it comes right down to it, BBU have some poignant things to say about the state of music. To them, it's not just about injecting some soul into club music, it's about getting some grit and life into "political rap." Ultimately, it's worth wondering whether their sound, which seems to hold as much in common with M.I.A. as it does with Drake, might actually be where hip-hop, or music in general is headed in these increasingly heated times. If I can wax philosophical for a bit, I might put forward that the urge to dance and have fun comes from the same place as the desire to tear down the walls. After all, how can everyone join in the party if the cops are controlling the door?

*****

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Viva La Negra Siempre


Thousands of people flocked to the streets of Buenos Aires yesterday to say goodbye to the woman affectionately known as "La Negra." Born in 1935 to working class parents of French and Quechua heritage, Mercedes Sosa's songs and performances lead to her also being called "the voice of the voiceless ones."

Over a career spanning four decades, she recorded over forty albums and performed for countless people. A long-outspoken communist and supporter of left-wing causes, she was a fixture in the Latin American Nuevo Cancion movement of the '60s and early '70s, along with such legends as Violeta Parra, Caetano Veloso and Victor Jara. Her 1972 album, entitled Hasta La Victoria, brought her international acclaim and remains one of the best-known works from the wide array of Nuevo Cancion.

These were years when Latin American countries were increasingly under the sway of oppressive, American sponsored dictatorships. Three years after the ascendancy of Jorge Videla's military junta in 1976, Sosa was arrested along with 200 audience members during a performance at La Plata University.

Though she was released after 18 hours, she was forced to leave Argentina. "I knew I had to leave," she said. "I was being threatened by the Triple A [government sponsored death squads responsible for the disappearances of thousands]. The people from the navy, the secret services were following me."

Nuevo Cancion was considered a danger to these repressive governments, and Sosa was one of those fortunate enough to outlast the junta that ruled her country for six years. In 1982, she returned to Argentina--right before Videla's regime crumbled.

Despite the hardship that she experienced through exile, and the deaths of several loved-ones, her songs seemed to maintain a vivacious optimism. Her signature composition was "Gracias a la Vida"--or "Thanks to Life."

She passed away on Sunday at the age of 74, but her influence had by no means faded in her old age. Shakira, Sting, Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Baez were among those who collaborated with her in recent years. At the time of her death, she had been nominated for three Latin Grammys.

Fabian Matus, her son by her first marriage, insisted that "she lived her 74 years to the fullest. She had done practically everything she wanted, she didn't have any type of barrier or any type of fear that limited her." Ultimately, it's this spirit that gave her music the ability to outlive Videla and his ilk.



*****

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bad Acoustics: Using Music as a Weapon


It's no exaggeration to say that Pittsburgh was occupied territory when the G20 descended upon it late last month. Ostensibly, the 6,000 police and National Guards that patrolled the streets during the meetings were there to protect the rights of the people of Pittsburgh from the "violent radicals" who showed up to do little more than cause a ruckus.

The nature of the police's actions, however, might reveal where the violence was really coming from. Cops were brutal towards the protesters, using rubber bullets, beanbags, pepper spray and teargas against them. Over 200 people were arrested, many of them peaceful whose only crime was being opposed to the systematic rape and pillage of the world's poorest countries (you know, the "abstractions" that Obama talked about).

The scale of police repression was definitely upped in Pittsburgh. "For the first time on American soil," said veteran activist Ashley Smith, "the police also used a sonic weapon against protesters--the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) that emits earsplitting noise designed to subdue and disperse crowds."

While the LRAD may have made its American premiere at the G20, it's not the first time it's been used by the US to deal with undesirables. The weapon (and it is a weapon) is well known to the people of Iraq. During the siege of Fallujah in 2004, it was used by the Army's 361st Psychological Operations Company, which "cleared the battlefield" with songs like AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" and "Shoot to Thrill."

All jokes about certain music making anyone want to run for the hills aside, the implications of the LRAD are quite dangerous. The LRAD can emit sounds up to 150 decibels at highly concentrated levels. The average human ear can only take 85 decibels, and prolonged exposure to anything higher causes permanent damage. Though this damage might not leave any visible scar, "weaponized music" may have the potential to leave a much more profound mark.

Speaking specifically of the use of music in torture, Cornell Professor David Yearsley points out that "[o]ne of the great advantages of using music as an implement of torture is that it leaves no physical mark. As Plato and many other writers have known, music works directly on the soul. There is nothing more uplifting or potentially devastating."

Indeed, the 361st is well acquainted with this potential devastation. The company has also helped develop new ways to use music in interrogations of detainees. There have been enough stories from Guantanamo alone to churn the stomach. Detainees at Gitmo have had everything from Eminem to Barney blasted into their ears at loud levels for days--sometimes weeks--at a time. Binyam Mohamed, who was imprisoned at Gitmo until 2004, recalls that after a month (that's right, a month) of hearing the same CD played on repeat 24 hours a day, he came close to losing his grip on reality.

News of music as a torture weapon has become so well-known by now that organizations have been formed calling for the tactic's discontinuation. A British initiative known as Zero dB was formed in December of 2008, and has also gained the backing of the Musicians' Union and the lawyers' organization Reprieve. The organization urges musicians to include one minute of silence in their performances to protest the use of their music in torture techniques.

When the great pioneer of Afrobeat Fela Kuti spoke of music as a weapon, he intended it as a tool for education and inspiration in the hands of the oppressed. For the US government, the notion is a lot more literal--and horrifying. That the LRAD has finally made its American debut merely reveals that the American system ultimately holds its own citizens in the same contempt as its foreign enemies. If this system can even dream of using an art-form so essential to the human soul, then that contempt must run pretty deep.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.

*****

Thursday, October 1, 2009

You have no excuse to not download this!


Just a follow-up: K'NAAN and J.Period's mixtape The Messengers has been released in its entirety. And yeah, it's off-the-hook! All three "episodes" can be downloaded for free (yup, free) at the mixtape's website.

Doing a mixtape tribute to not one, not two, but three greats of rebel music--Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan--might sound unwieldy. And it's true that the whole trilogy is almost forty songs long. That being said, the tape never becomes boring. It walks a balance between paying homage and giving its subjects the "screw-chop" treatment. K'NAAN, for his part, spits playfully chill rhymes that blend with Fela, Marley and Dylan quite well. Often, it sounds like he's more or less riffing off what the singers are giving him--which was most likely an intention.

This is one of the best releases to hit the waves this year. That's not hyperbole. An impressive and ambitious effort from one two artists in hip-hop who are only recently starting to get their due. A more in-depth review will indeed be appearing here at Rebel Frequencies. In the meantime, this is a flat-out plug (which I don't normally do--yeah, it's that good). The Messengers is totally free. Once again, you have absolutely no excuse not to download this!

*****