Wednesday, June 30, 2010

More from WeAreMany.org...

Of course there is my speech on "The Music of Liberation and the Liberation of Music" from this year's Socialism 2010 conference, but there is a lot more to be heard at this site, which has got to be one of the most comprehensive radical collections of video and audio on the entire World Wide Web.

On top of the numerous talks on immigration, labor, criminal injustice, people's history, on the struggles against racism, war, sexism and homophobia, the cultural section is quite impressive in and of itself. Given the hunger that exists for radical ideas in general (and radical ideas about culture in particular), WeAreMany.org is undoubtedly a valuable resource.

For example: there's Nicole Colson's talk from Socialism 2009 on "The Man In Black: Johnny Cash." Hopefully the folks at the site will be posting her talk on Bob Marley from this year. There's my talk from last year (which I know some folks have been anxious for me to post) on "You Can't Stop Us Now: Hip-Hop in the New Political Era." There's even a talk by Jessie Kindig on "Mozart and the Age of Enlightenment." Those who haven't had the chance to go through this site with a fine-tooth comb are clearly missing out!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Return of the Working Class Heroes?


The Gaslight Anthem must be sick of the Springsteen references by now. Ever since bursting into international consciousness a few years back, there’s been no shortage of critics willing to draw the connections between them and the Boss.

It’s not that these comparisons are wrong. The members of Gaslight have been quite open about the cue they take from Springsteen, and have even shared a stage with him (they are, after all, from Jersey). Anyone who hears the group’s exaggerated garage rock dynamics or lead-singer Brian Fallon’s gravel-gutted, heart-on-sleeve testimonial can clearly hear the influence. Rather, it’s the sheer laziness of these comparisons that has this writer’s pen flying off the page.

With their third album American Slang on the shelves and tearing up the charts, the boys from New Brunswick may be finally moving out from under the Boss’s shadow. Good thing too, because this is a band that clearly stand on their own. And the tradition they spring from, maybe even reviving, runs a lot deeper than any one artist--even Springsteen.

It can be heard in the pounding exaltation of the opening beats and the melancholy final notes: tales of youthful aspirations bound to hit the brick wall of reality. In the lead title track, Fallon wails with reckless desperation about “where the angels and devils meet”:

“Look at the damage
The fortunes came for the richer men
While we’re left with gallows
Waiting for us liars to come down and hang”


These are the folks that populate American Slang: nameless and alienated millions reaching up from the bottom in a world of too many heartaches and too few working class heroes. No doubt, Fallon has a knack for writing about people who, as he describes in the high-octane track “Boxer”:

“...took it all gracefully on the chin
Knowing that the beatings had to someday end
You found your bandages inside the pen
And your stitches on the radio”


Lines like these have naturally provoked the requisite reference to Bruce Almighty. They’ve also flummoxed many a critic. In an otherwise positive review, 411mania.com’s David Hayter remarks that “[i]t feels too prototypical and too cliche.”

As Fallon himself will attest, though, these subjects don’t exist merely in songs. The group’s lead singer describes the lyrical content of American Slang as “more autobiographical” than that of 2008’s The ‘59 Sound. Growing up in New Brunswick, Fallon’s upbringing was “not extremely bad, not extremely good... None of us were like, really, really broke. I never feel like any of us had it worse than anyone else.”

Still, this kind of life is hardly the stuff of dreams. Speaking of his step-father, Fallon told the Washington Post Express that "[h]e's just that kind of guy, a real blue-collar guy... Right off the bat, he was like, 'you don't want to do what I do; you should pursue [music], and, in the worst case, if you fail, the factory is waiting for you.'"

It’s almost as much a threat as it is a promise, enough to motivate a young Fallon to not just pursue music, but vividly pour his heart and soul into it. How that heart feels about its surroundings isn’t always so clear-cut, as Fallon relays in the album’s highlight track “Orphans”:

“Goodbye circus wheel, may you rest upon the sea
I have given you the fire of my youth and the triumph o’er my enemies
Goodbye fair-weather home, and your faithless factories
I have given you the blood and the truth, from the wounds they laid into me”


This need to escape the humdrum hell of hometown half-life can certainly be heard in Springsteen tracks like “The River,” the solace of music in “No Surrender.” But they can also be heard throughout the rich history of American popular music, from Bill Haley to Buddy Holly to Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine.”

It wasn't too long ago, however, that everything embodied by these artists' songs was written off as out-dated. As experts waxed on about the "end of history" and the irrelevance of classes, so did the rock & roll archetype of the blue-collar rebel become obscured. If Springsteen has spent the past three decades as the torch-bearer for this legacy, it has to be seen at least partially in contrast to a music establishment that has become increasingly segregated from the grassroots.

Fallon and the rest of the Gaslight Anthem seem stunningly aware of that same tradition, though. The bouncy, finger-snapping beat of “The Diamond Church Steet Choir” calls on old-school R&B more than anything else. “Old Haunts” relies on the four-chord defiance of hardcore punk as Fallon demands of the listener “don’t sing me your songs about the good times / those days are gone and you should just let ‘em go.”

This broadly appealing yet vividly specific palette can’t be traced solely back to Springsteen. Respect is due to the group’s other influences: Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash. Artists who, despite hovering well below the shiny, happy surface of the mainstream, prove that there is still an underclass--a down-and-out contingent of forgotten souls struggling to find meaning beyond work-a-day anonymity.

Those who find the lyrics of American Slang trite or vague would do well to visit Janesville, Wisconsin, Lordstown, Ohio, or any one of the countless small industrial towns whose painful decline has been interrupted only by the deathblow of the ‘08 recession. Even the Nestle factory where Fallon’s step-father works has faced a typically alarming amount of layoffs over the past decade. One wonders how many young hopes and ambitions have been scattered to the wind in the wake.

At the time of writing, American Slang had debuted at number 16 on the Billboard Album charts. The success of Gaslight and the groundswell of support they’ve received seemingly overnight reveals that their kind of outlook--a rough instinctual class consciousness, a firm belief in something (anything!) better than this--may once again be gaining traction.

“We’re not interested in the party,” says Fallon, “we’re [playing music] because we love it, and we’re doing it to prove a point. We have something to say here.”

It’s not as simple as a slogan, but it’s something well worth saying. In some ways, it’s even more profound. What makes American Slang such a brilliant piece of work isn’t the legacy it owes to the past, but what it says about the future. It’s proof that even when we’re not taking to the streets or seizing the means of production, we still exist. We still live, we still breathe, and yes, we still dream.

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

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Music of Liberation and the Liberation of Music

Apologies for the lack of posts over the past week. As readers know, I was attending the Socialism 2010 conference here in Chicago. To call the weekend successful would be an understatement. Speakers related everything from the resistance against the austerity measures in Greece to the rise of the right in Europe to the kinds of ideas we need to engage in the struggle here in the States.

And then there were the sessions on culture--Martin Smith on John Coltrane, Nicole Colson on Bob Marley, speakers taking up avant-garde art in the Russian Revolution. All of them can be heard at the newly launched website WeAreMany.org.

That includes the session I spoke at: The Music of Liberation and the Liberation of Music, which folks can listen to or download here. It will also be posted shortly on the upcoming audio/visual section here at Rebel Frequencies.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Drake protests oil drilling


Per last week's post. Definitely good on Drake to step up like this. Last night, in DC, Drake was the main performer at a green rally at the 9:30 Club. Plenty have been sickened by BP's behavior and the severity of the spill in the Gulf--the worst environmental disaster in American history at this point.

Still, the rally had the potential of simply being yet another lifestyle oriented affair--targeted more at cajoling listeners to change the way they live more than hold the powers that be accountable. Drake, however, has made clear that environmentalism isn't just about "saving the planet," but about the daily ability for ordinary people to live their lives with dignity.

Though Drake's own words appear to have a bit of the "go green" spin included with them (he points out that his touring is all run in a sustainable way), the name of the rally itself--sponsored by the Hip-Hop Caucus and Green the Block--was "Stop the Off Shore Drilling." In other words, though the concert was billed as an "awareness raising" event, there was an explicit political bent to it.

"Every where you turn, pollution and poverty are hurting our communities," said Drake in explaining why he played the show. Very true, and few feel the affects as harshly as working people do. We're the ones who live near the coal plants, whose drinking water is full of lead, whose livelihoods get destroyed by global warming and oil spills. And if any good can come out of this horrific and devastating disaster, it's that it's made clear who the real enemy is.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The push for Gaga to boycott Arizona


It's a worthwhile cause. Gaga has scheduled a show for July 31st in Phoenix, and a small group of her "little monsters" are pushing for her to cancel. Of course, Gaga has most vocally been a steadfast supporter of LGBTQ rights, and the links between that struggle and the recently revitalized fight for immigrant rights have every reason to cross paths. Both are about the issue of second-class citizenship, which was no doubt one of the reasons that many LGBTQ groups were out in support of May Day and have released statements opposing the recently passed SB 1070 in Arizona.

The Facebook page reads as follows:

"Lady Gaga your little monsters ask you to join the Arizona boycott and cancel your concert in Phoenix on July 31.

"There has been a boycott called for all Arizona business until hateful laws such as SB1070 are repealed. Governor Brewer recently passed a law making it legal for police enforcement to racially profile individuals based on the assumption that he/she/they are 'illegal.' She has also dropped all ethnic studies programs, and teachers with accents can no longer teach english classes.

Several musicians have pulled their events out of Arizona; and we, the LGBT community, and far extended beyond, have called on Lady Gaga to follow suit and respect this boycott."


As readers are well aware, Gaga wouldn't be the only artist to cancel performances in the Grand Canyon state. Nor would she be the first to listen to the pressure of her own fans. With her "good friend" Kanye west claiming that he's making an effort for musicians he knows to join up, the possibility isn't far-fetched. It would also simply make sense. Solidarity is like that.

Friday, June 11, 2010

M.I.A. is right, NYT is wrong


Lately it seems like the only thing following M.I.A. around more than controversy is bad journalism. To call Lynn Hirschberg's recent New York Times Magazine article on Mathangi (M.I.A.) Arulpragasam "weak" would be too generous. "Hatchet job" might be more apropos. It also reveals how, as more musicians are daring to question the role and limits of their art, the state of modern music journalism remains woefully wanting.

It went down like this: Hirschberg, an established journalist who has been a Times writer for years, published her piece on the iconoclastic artist on May 30th. With her third album dropping in July, and with the hubbub from M.I.A.'s "Born Free" video still fresh, it might seem the right time for an article of this nature to hit the stands.

M.I.A. wasn't pleased with the results. The day after it was published, she posted a message on her Twitter account: "CALL ME IF YOU WANNA TALK TO ME ABOUT THE N Y T TRUTH ISSUE, ill b taking calls all day bitches ;)"

The phone number she included with the tweet was Lynn Hirschberg's. Naturally, the reporter found herself inundated with voicemail messages. Most fans who called were greeted with a full inbox. It's a move whose deviousness is only surpassed by its hilarity.

Reading the article, it seems clear why M.I.A. might want to get a bit of info superhighway revenge on Hirschberg. Throughout, Hirschberg approaches Arulpragasam, unquestionably one of the most important artists of recent years, with the begrudging tolerance of a bored teenager. She seems bent on deliberately half-listening to what it is that the artist has to say--despite some insightful quotes on her part--and writing her off as a base provocateur.

To Hirschberg, Arulpragasam's music and unabashed outspokenness are all simple tools to get middle-America's quills up: "In contrast to, say, Bono or John Lennon, with their peacenik messages, Maya taps into her rage at the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka to espouse violence..."

Never mind that the sanctimonious pronouncements of Bono have precious little in common with the radicalism of latter-day Lennon. The "espousing violence" smacks of crude baiting--the kind that George W. Bush would use against the Iraqi insurgency when he said "bring it on."

True, M.I.A. waffles very little when it comes to the distinction between oppressive force and the violence of liberation. Hirschberg, however, resorted to flipping quotes. The article printed Arulpragasam's thoughts on her memorable performance at the 2009 Grammy Awards:

"I wasn't trying to be like Bono. He's not from Africa--I'm from there [Sri Lanka]. I'm tired of pop stars who say, 'Give peace a chance.' I’d rather say, 'Give war a chance.' The whole point of going to the Grammys was to say, 'Hey, 50,000 people are gonna die next month, and here’s your opportunity to help.' And no one did."

In the ensuing online kerfuffle, the Times printed a correction, pointing out that the section describing the Grammys actually came much earlier in the interview. On the surface, it might seem a minor detail. But switching the two quotes also paints the western world's most recognizable Tamil advocate in a different light. As opposed to prioritizing the very real genocide of the Tamil people that the Sri Lankan government was carrying out in the early months of 2009, Maya is portrayed as a booster of war for war's sake.

In fact, the only other person to reference the conflict is Ahilan Kadirgamar of Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, who despite admitting the atrocities committed by the Colombo government, also denies that they composed a genocide. Kadirgamar's statements happen to fly in the face of what was claimed by countless Tamil organizations world-wide at the height of the civil war.

This kind of tone and journalistic equivocation maintain throughout the article. Ample time is, of course, spent speaking of M.I.A.'s unique clothing styles and genre-bending music. Rather than see them all as a holistic and organic statement rooted in the experiences and upbringing and Arulpragasam, Hirschberg sees it all as a ploy. It's politics as a component of fashion--not the other way round.

And then, there's Hirschberg's treatment of the now-infamous and near-banned video for "Born Free:

"[T]he video for 'Born Free' feels exploitative and hollow," claims Hirschberg. The author goes on to more or less say that M.I.A. had been gunning to be banned from YouTube all along. "As a meditation on prejudice and senseless persecution, the video is, at best, politically naïve."

First, anyone who has seen the "Born Free" video might be forgiven for thinking Hirschberg is a cyborg. The vid is plenty of things--graphic, unflinching, upsetting--but to call the full-on images of twelve-year-old children being shot in the head "hollow" is to mistake the short film for a gutter piece of smut. It's not.

Second, nobody in Hirschberg's position is slapping the "naive" label on, say, the simplistic images of Muslims that abound in Sex and the City 2 (though plenty have called it "bad"). It seems only when a brown-skinned artist turns the logic of the post-Abu Ghraib world on its head that critics balk and start insisting she's on the fringe.

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

The day after M.I.A.'s tweet attack, Hirschberg responded, but was completely unapologetic. She called the posting of her phone number on Twitter "infuriating."

"It's a fairly unethical thing to do," said Hirschberg, "but I don't think it's surprising. She's a provocateur, and provocateurs want to be provocative."

Here we have it folks: a look inside the circular mind of Lynn Hirschberg. M.I.A.'s politics are ill-conceived and tailored only to provoke. Any notion to the contrary and attempt to fire back in any way isn't to be taken seriously because, well, it's just another provocation. Good luck getting yourself out of that intellectual headlock!

In actuality, though, M.I.A.'s posting of Hirschberg's phone number harkens back to a time when music journalists were expected to be held accountable for what they wrote about artists. Says Mat Callahan of the 1960s in his book The Trouble With Music:

"Throughout Europe and North America (and soon after, Latin America as well) magazines and periodicals sprang up dedicated to popular music, which initially made no distinction between political and artistic matters. Writers commonly discussed issues of music, drugs, the police, the Vietnam War and Civil Rights all in the same breath. There was an intimate link between the journalists and the music and politics they were writing about since they had to be involved to speak knowledgeably to their audience, who were the ones being drafted, experimenting with drugs, demonstrating for civil rights and attending rock and roll concerts."

In other words, music and journalism were part of a conversation between equals taking place in broader society as a whole. It was a conversation about broadening their respective roles beyond the realm of mere info-tainment. It was a conversation that, as the '60s progressed, often lead to revolutionary conclusions.

Right away, it should be apparent how all of these things are not Lynn Hirschberg. She is not involved. She is not informed. Any politics outside the mainstream--no matter how grounded in reality they may be--are sneeringly derided as "provocation."

Most importantly, though, Hirschberg shares no intimate link with the music she is writing about. There is no dialogue; her word is the last. Any attempt to call her out is only to be looked down upon from the ivory tower.

In this respect, the New York Times Magazine article is no different than any other call for politically active artists to "shut up and sing." Past years and months have seen a notable widening of artists lending their voices to various struggles. In a culture where even the most unassuming piece of music can shoot around the world in a nanosecond, the calcified notions of art's role in the world are once again breaking down. M.I.A.'s success is a testament to this, and her lackluster coverage is only proof that the same has yet to happen in the world of the music scribe.

What really makes Hirschberg's hatchet job of M.I.A. so contemptible isn't simply that she gets the facts and art all wrong. It's that she is so used to being unchallenged by her very subjects. It may be true that journalists' duties are to point out the foibles of the world around us. But if we are ourselves human, and if we personify the contradictions of that very same world, then, well, who will journalize the journalists?

In a fashion that can only be called signature M.I.A., the artist also posted a new song on her website in the days following the Times piece. Called "I'm a Singer (Haters)," it sums up the interests writers like Hirschberg really represent:

"And the story's always fucked by the time it hits
Why the hell would journalists be thick as shit?
'Cuz lies equals power equals politics"


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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Remember: RF at S'10


Next Friday, June 19th, 4pm at the Palmer House Hilton hotel in downtown Chicago, I'll be conducting a session called "The Music of Liberation and the Liberation of Music," an examination of music and resistance over the past 35 years--from the gestation of punk and hip-hop through the struggle against South African apartheid to the PMRC and the fights that are affecting music in our era.

The session will be but one of over a hundred at Socialism 2010, a gathering of activists and revolutionaries from all over the world from Tariq Ali to Sherry Wolf. Other sessions will SocialistWorker.org's Nicole Colson speaking on the life and music of Bob Marley, Martin Smith of Love Music Hate Racism in the UK on John Coltrane's hidden radicalism, Scott McLemee on the art of the Russian Revolution, as well as talks on the struggle for immigrant rights, the future of the labor movement, and the ideas needed to fight for a better world.

As for the 'zine promised to debut at the conference, it has been delayed. Apologies to anyone who was looking forward to it, but the plan is to have it drop around early July. Locally, it will be available at Quimby's Books and Reckless Records, and can be ordered by emailing rebelfrequencies@gmail.com. More details will follow...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Rhythm and rebellion collide

Junkyard Empire seem to be one of those bands that don't burst onto the scene but slowly seep into the cracks of your consciousness over time until you realize they're everywhere. Example: their most recent album, Rebellion Politik was released last summer, but it was only three days ago that OkayPlayer finally gave it a review.

No doubt about it, their sound and politics are tight--Political Affairs magazine referred to them as "a jazz version of Rage Against the Machine." Though their lyrics can be a bit overly-blunt (rapper Brihanu bothers little with subtlety in calling out war, oppression and capitalism for what they really are) but never seem to get lost in the la-la land of preachiness due to being firmly rooted in a rich musical mixture of punk, acid jazz, funk and instrumental hip-hop. These five guys clearly take the time to hone their craft.

If the group's overall package seems so cohesive, then it's probably because they've risen out of a music and activism scene that has a richness like few others. Junkyard Empire have been a fixture in the Minneapolis-St. Paul club scene, as well as open supporters of local anti-war coalitions and immigrant rights groups. They were among the myriad performers at the protests in front of the Republican National Convention in the summer of '08.

The video below dodges their political side, but does a fairly good job explaining their musical evolution and the traditions they've brought together in their music. This is definitely a group to keep an ear out for.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

BP needs to face the music...


Interesting article on CounterPunch this weekend from David Yearsley, a professor of music at Cornell University. On the surface, it may be a stretch to link up the musical legacy of Bach with the current oil spill, but Yearsley relies on a method seldom recognized even by left-wing music critics: how the sound of the music translates into the meaning of the world around us. As the good professor points out, it's hard to ignore the relevancy of lines like this one from his 1724 cantata:

“Pour yourself out abundantly, you divine well,
Ah! Flow over me with streams of blood!”


Rather appropriate given the devastation working its way through the Gulf right now, isn't it?

What really makes the article refreshing, however, is that many, myself included, have been aching for some sort of musical response to the worst ecological disaster of our time. British Petroleum is guilty of nothing less than a crime against humanity, highlighting how little the long-term interests of the planet matter when it comes to making a profit. Marvin Gaye wrote "Mercy Mercy Me" back in the days before global warming was an accepted phenomena. Now, with the stakes so obviously higher than they've ever been, what are musicians saying about this crisis?

Master P set himself apart earlier this week when he spoke out on the spill. "It's definitely something that's another tragedy for our community," said P, who's from New Orleans. "It's out of control and it's killing the animals and the business people that do fishing in that area. People don't realize how this is going to effect the entire country."

True enough. The ramifications of this disaster haven't even begun to make themselves known. We have seen the local wildlife covered in sludge, tar-balls washing up on the beach, have heard stories of thousands of people losing their livelihoods as the spill in the Gulf worsens with no end in sight. But we haven't even begun to hear about the health problems that this spill will bring to local working people in the American south. Or how the ruined estuaries will make life hard for folks living even further up the Mississippi. These won't be making the news for months, possibly years, and we can be sure that BP will deny any culpability up and down. In their minds, they've already apologized, and the pennies they're scraping together will be all that they should have to pay.

Never has there been a more pressing need for artists and ordinary folks to speak out. But in order for the art to take the mantle, we need a movement first--one that can put the needs of the planet and our communities ahead of those of the system.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Say hi to Dave


Legendary veteran music journalist and editor of Rock & Rap Confidential Dave Marsh has recently launched his own website Virtual Dave Marsh. It's a great place to find his articles, commentaries, schedules for his radio shows and a comprehensive bibliography from a prolific writer.

Marsh carries a kind of cred that few of his fellow music scribes can match. Forty years writing about pop culture, an editor of the infamous Creem magazine, a steadfast supporter of free speech for artists, harsh critic of the music industry. His radical and eloquent voice should be essential reading for anyone concerned with the past, present and future of rebel music.

So while RRC will undoubtedly continue its consistent record of speaking musical truth to power, Marsh's new site will prove to be an invaluable resource.