Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Learned Some Things Today...

About angels and cemeteries. I am trying to have a hobby. It's very important to have hobbies to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue. On a side note, according to The New Yorker cartoonists, dogs can also suffer from burnout:

Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled programming. According to the experts, it is very important for people who are at risk of compassion fatigue to have a hobby. A hobby that has nothing to do with the profession that may be causing burnout or compassion fatigue. Just a totally random, hypothetical example that I completely pulled out of nowhere, but let's just say someone works at an animal shelter. An appropriate hobby would be something that does not include animals. You know, like riding a bike or playing a musical instrument. Things that would probably not constitute a hobby that would help prevent burnout for a hypothetical animal shelter worker would be, oh, walking dogs, fostering dogs, taking pictures of shelter dogs to promote adoptions, etc. This is just an example of course.

So for approximately 4 years, I've been in a field prone to burnout and compassion fatigue. And I've been more or less hobbyless, especially since most or all of my hobbies revolve around my field of work (except baseball- I am not professionally involved in baseball in any way). So I'm trying to take more pictures. I have an awesome camera and I recently got Photoshop. If only I could learn to use these things up to their par, or even a bit of their potential, I would have a full blown, awesome hobby. Today I headed to a local cemetery to shoot pictures and potentially ease some stress. Along these lines, I learned things about angels.

Did you know that some angels have butts? I find this fascinating and quite endearing.


An angel with a tush is a much more approachable angel, I think. Angels also have emotions, at least in Oakland. I couldn't decide if this young lady was saying "Well, I never!" in shock, or swearing secrecy in a "Cross My Heart" mode:



I learned more things, too, but I'll let you discover them on your own: themacinator visits the cemetery and converses with the angels.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

David G. Campbell: Land of Ghosts

This was an extremely difficult book for me to read. I'm not a strictly "fluff" reader, and I am no stranger to tough subjects (see recent reviews of "The Rape of Nanking" and books on the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but from the first few pages of this book it was clear to me that I have an existential fear of deforestation, species becoming extinct, disappearing of the Amazon, and general environmental degradation. It sounds trite, but David Campbell's scientific journey into them mostly charted Amazon to count and classify and otherwise study trees in a certain area over time literally made me physically ill. I think it was about page 8 when I realized that it would take me a long time to get through this book (normal people might have put it down, but readers of themacinator should know by now that I never put a book down and that this is a "C" book in my "reading unread books A-Z" which made it doubly tricky to put it down):

I am no futurist, but I accept that the loss of the Amazonian forest will deplete the soils, create worldwide changes in climate, and result in an extinction of species as great as that at the end of the Cretaceous Era, sixty-five million years ago, when the indifferent heavens- a collision with an asteroid or comet and the subsequent darkening of the sky with smoke and dust- caused about 50 percent of all species to disappear. Life on Earth, I'm sure, will eventually survive the human catastrophe, too. Earth is a forgiving mother with a long memory. Yet after the Cretaceous collision it took ten or fifteen million years for new players to evolve and replace those that were lost... Human history is but a microsecond on Earth's time scale; as far as we're concerned, we are changing the world forever. (p 8-9)
I took a religion class once with a Jungian professor. She told us that for her generation, the most scary existential thing to think about was nuclear war. According to her, it caused all sorts of millennial feelings and writings and cults. Well, when I read this kind of book about environmental destruction, I feel the same kind of existential dread that I imagine she was speaking about: total fear of the end, in a sort of physical way.

This book is about more than doom and gloom: Campbell paints pretty pictures of the Amazon, discusses minutia of some interesting flora and fauna, and gives us snapshots into the people living in the forest. Although the book is not particularly a page turner- more like the opposite- he describes his work as a taxonomist beautifully:

The children of northern India are taught the story of a monk... who devoted his life to reciting the countless names for God. He believed that God was manifest in every part of the world, living and inanimate, even in the shadow of an insect on a blade of grass. God had as many names as there were kinds of plants and animals- and Sanskrit had a word for most of them. The monk never finished naming all the names. A journey of that magnitude could never be accomplished in a single lifetime. Like that monk, taxonomists give names to all of life's creation. indeed, for Linnaeus, the naming of species was an act of worship. For him each name, each description, was a prayer, one of the names of God (p 144).


Campbell is much more optimistic about his project and the world in general than I am. He and his team spent time on the river collecting samples of each plant that they encountered to disperse among labs and museums in order to keep them on file. Near the end of the book, the people he stays with are involved in a mass "slash and burn" project in order to create farmland and grazing land in order to have food to survive. I'm not sure how Campbell left these years of study with his optimism intact, but he did. The forest is dissipating, whole cultures are going extinct, and as he writes, "This is the immolation of Eden" (p 204). If this was a better book, I would recommend it to everyone, in order to encourage activism. As it is, I'm just going to encourage the activism: DO SOMETHING! Even if it's just acting locally, I don't think we've got many chances left.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Celebrities

I've been thinking a lot about celebrities for the last few months, ever since I had my first real run-in with one. It was more of a 6-degrees-of-separation thing than an actual meeting (though I did say (or mumble) "hi" and shuffle by) but said celebrity was a topic of conversation for a few weeks among people that I see 5 days a week (trying to preserve some semblance of anonymity here...). It's amazing what star-struckness will do to people you think that you know. It's amazing the arcane knowledge that people carry around about other people who are, for one reason or another, famous. The main thing I've been thinking about is "WHY?" Why do we care? I have not solved this question, or really even come up with any reasonable answers. The closest I can think of is that generally speaking, people who care about celebrities are bored or otherwise in some way dissatisfied with their lives. Other people's lives are more interesting/satisfying/fulfilling. Which is itself bizarre to me, since the media spins most celebrities as trainwrecks waiting to happen.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Recently, I read an (out-of-date, of course) article in the New Yorker about how our perception of movie stars has changed over time. I can't find the complete article online, but here is the abstract:
Fallen Idols. David Denby's article is a book review of a new book by Jeanine Basinger (Wesleyan Professor, incidentally), about how movie stars from earlier movies- think Clark Gable- worked differently than our current friends like Matt Damon. Stars in the good ole days were kept out of the media limelight and as the abstract says: "Stars today are paid more but valued less." I'm not sure they're valued less, but their privacy sure is. I'm leaning toward holding the opinion is that stars are valued exactly for how sordid and raunchy they can be: Member of a crazy religi-cult? Crashed your car into a tree lately? Been caught with your hands in someone's pants? Awesome! Sign on this dotted line. My, things have changed, according to Denby, who is really parsing Basinger.

So I've been mulling this over for a month or so, when I read another (also outdated (note: themacinator reads a lot. Eventually she will get to it. It might be old, but she will read it.)) article about celebrities. This time, the Sunday Style section of the New York Times featured an article by Alex Williams called Boys Will be Boys, Girls will be Hounded by the Media. I'm not sure it's a simple as that, but it does speak to the phenomenon most recently illustrated by the hush-hush treatment of Heath Ledger's death vs. the rubber-necking, OJ Simpson-like treatment of Britney Spears' mental illness. So now my question is further complicated, I guess: Why do we care so much about celebrities, and why do we hold so much stock in seeing female celebrities crash and burn? The NYT writes "Some editors confirm that they handle female celebrities differently. But the reason, they say, is rooted not in sexism, but in the demographics of their audience." So, apparently, mostly women are reading/consuming this stuff, and women want to read about other women. They particularly want to read about other women in trouble. And that's not sexism, that's capitalism.

Maybe. I was a precocious reader (see above about being a late reader- that's a new thing) and read Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth" and Susan Faludi's "Backlash" early in my developing feminist conciousness. Sure, women buy and wear makeup, and many women will tell you that they do it because it makes them feel good and/or pretty. Many women also wear 6" heels and have expensive and painful procedures for the same reasons. Basically, Wolf and Faludi would argue that popular culture in the '80s and the 90's was a direct backlash against feminism. Can't beat 'um at the joining 'um game? Beat 'um at the not pretty enough game. I think this is relevant to the current obsession with female celebrity downfalls. I haven't put all of the pieces together yet, but it's untenable to have women be as powerful, rich, and famous as men. If the media publishes and broadcasts the (ultra rich and famous) damsel in distress, that is what women will buy and strive for, just as when they broadcast the super woman who is professional and perfect looking.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Blood Type and My Childhood

Today, I needed to know my blood type. I do not know my blood type, which says something about me. But I also learned something else about me, courtesy of dear old Dad, who I have blogged about before. I thought to myself, who better to know my blood type then my parents (aren't they supposed to know these things? I don't have a TV, but I've seen enough TV shows to know that when there's an emergency, the cops or the doctors in those emergency shows ask the parents "What's her blood type? Quick!" And the parents save the day. Well, the parents tell the answer and then the cops or the doctors save the day). Apparently I am the last to know that my life is not a TV show. My mom did not answer her cell phone (also known as 1-800-Mom-Help), so I called Dad.

Conversation went like this:

themacinator: Hey, Dad, What's my blood type?
Dad: I have no idea.
themacinator: Aren't you supposed to know these things?
Dad: Maybe. But I don't. Call your doctor.
themacinator: When I was a kid, what would happen if I was, like, bleeding to death?
Dad (laughing): Well, I guess you would have bled to death.
themacinator (laughing, sort of... also sort of alarmed, but not particularly shocked): Um, that's a little disturbing.
Dad (pretending babythemacinator is bleeding to death): Sure, get the tourniquet, but don't get any blood, because we don't know what kind we need.
themacinator (now cracking up): That's awesome, Dad. It's all clear to me now. This is DEFINITELY going on the blog.
Dad (also cracking up): What can I say?

Incidentally, this conversation was happening in police headquarters, which led themacinator to state: Just so you know, Dad, I'm surrounded by policemen, none of whom can save me in the case of sudden hemorrhage, since you have failed to tell me what kind of blood type I have.

Now you know why themacinator is the way she is.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

We Love Warm Weather!

After all the rain and suffering that Mac and I have been exposed to, we deserve some perks from global warming (over 70 in February? no way!). Here is a sneak peak of what we did yesterday, with our buddies Carolyn and Booker. Mac got to drink out of a stream, play in the mud, and even got a bling bling collar (pictures of that to come). For more, go check out flickr.com:




Monday, February 11, 2008

Sing-Along Songs for the Very Weird

A few months ago, I posted one of my favorite songs and a bizarre YouTube video of it. I was subsequently informed that I am very weird. What a suprise, right? Well, this inspired me to make a play list of some songs I like. I've been working on it for months, and I think it's finally ready for publication. It's entitled "Sing-Along Songs for the Very Weird" in honor of a Raffi tape we had when we were little ("Sing Along Songs for the Very Young"- at least that's what I thought it was called, turns out it's called "Singable," but it's close enough). All of these songs make me burst into song. Some I sing the whole thing, some just the refrain, some just a few choice words. But there is no way to listen to this play list without singing. Anyone who wants a copy burned to CD needs to let me know- I'm more than happy to share the weird wealth. Hope you enjoy- this is a true labor of love.

I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar
: Jonathan Richman
Red Dirt Girl: Emmylou Harris
Me and Mrs. Jones: Barry White
My Lovin' [You're Never Gonna Get It]: En Vogue
Jesus Christ: U2
Ms. Jackson: OutKast
Killing Me Softly: The Fugees
Girls on My Mind: David Byrne
Uncle John's Band: Grateful Dead
In The Navy: Village People
I Wish You Wouldn't Say That: Talking Heads
Roxanne:The Police
Beverly Hills: Weezer
Free Fallin': Tom Petty
Jackson: Johnny Cash (With June Carter)
Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss Uhn Tiss: Bloodhound Gang
Ass Like That: Eminem
My Humps: Black Eyed Peas
You Can Call Me Al: Paul Simon
There Are Places I Remember: The Beatles
Money (That's What I Want): The Flying Lizards
Keep On The Sunny Side: June Carter Cash
My Ding-A-Ling: Chuck Berry
Just Can't Get Enough: Depeche Mode
Book of Love: Peter Gabriel
Cecilia: Simon & Garfunkel
When God Made Me: Neil Young
You'll Never Walk Alone: Elvis Presley
Angel in the Centerfold: J. Geils Band
So Fresh, So Clean: OutKast
Lola: The Kinks
Changes: David Bowie
Last Kiss: Pearl Jam
Mistadobalina: del tha funkee homosapien
Quitting Smoking Song: Princess Superstar
Surrender: Cheap Trick
Again: Janet Jackson
Roam Around The World: B-52's
Shoop: Salt-N-Peppa
Sweetest Thing: U2

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Mac is Even More Famous!

Seriously, I think the fame is going to our heads! I already call Mac "bighead," but soon, I'll have to start calling him "biggerhead."

I recently posted that Mac had made the blogosphere. Well, not even one week later, he's made it again, all the way across the country!

I urge you to check out Mac's second claim to fame and not just because it mentions mac. B-More Bulldogs has way more bulldog content than I can ever hope to have, and while Mac is pretty friggin cute (ok, the cutest dog on the planet), that blog sports THREE adorable dogs. Quantity or quality? You decide. Just don't tell me if you chose quantity, because I'll have to kill you.

And a gratuitous Mac shot:

Friday, February 08, 2008

Kazuo Ishiguro: When We Were Orphans

I see these books, or they get passed on to me, and I just assume they will be good. I start reading them, I can tell they aren't good, and I just won't put them down. Kazuo Ishiguro has a great reputation. I read good reviews of his books all the time, this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, he wrote "Remains of the Day," which was not just a movie, but an acclaimed book. All signs point to "When We Were Orphans" being a good book.

Signs were wrong. Always check with a real map (or reviewer). I thought this book was beyond mediocre. I thought it was worse than bad. It was a mystery, or detective fiction, whatever the genre would be, and I just didn't get it: poorly fleshed out characters, plot twists without a plot, and jumps in time which forced the whole story to be told in the past. The whole book felt contrived and artificial. The reader is supposed to follow the career of a detective without seeing him solve a case. Fat chance.

The only time I felt I could like the characters were the flashbacks to when the main character, detective Christopher Banks (aka "Puffin") was young and playing with his buddy Akira in Shanghai. Two foreigners in a strange land, the two kids had fun adventures in the backyard. Then Banks encounters someone he thinks is Akira 30 years later in Shanghai, and we're meant to be confused if this really is Akira or not. Well, that mystery isn't solved, and I was not satisfied. I'm further not satisfied with the main mystery's resolution, or really, with why we should care at all. Three hundred pages, and I never cared. Don't bother with this book, or better, explain to me why Ishiguro is so exciting.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Sasha Frere-Jones on Indie Rock and Race

Another New Yorker article that I read this week (again, I'm so far behind it's not even funny). I'm not sure if I agree with all of this: some of it seems extremely reductionist, and using the word "misegenated" when talking about music, not people, never quite settled with me. Frere-Jones argues that white people can play great soul, but soul is "African-American popular music". Confusing, at worst, thought-provoking, at best. I'm still thinking about this article, and I listen to this music every day. Thoughts appreciated!

A Paler Shade of White
How indie rock lost its soul.
by Sasha Frere-Jones October 22, 2007


Why did rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, undergo a racial re-sorting in the nineties?

In May, I went with a friend to see the Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire perform at the United Palace, a gilded rococo church in Washington Heights that seats more than three thousand and doubles as a theatre. The band was playing to a noisily receptive crowd during what has been a very successful year. Arcade Fire’s latest album, “Neon Bible,” which was released here in March, has sold more than three hundred thousand copies—an impressive number for an indie band during an industry-wide sales slump—and the group was on its second visit to New York in three months.

The band, six men and three women, shared the stage with half a dozen curved screens and slender red fluorescent lights, which encircled the musicians like a ring of candles. In January, at a less elaborate show in a small London church, the band’s members had called to mind Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas—their execution was ragged but full of brio—and I had spent the evening happily pressed against the stage. At the United Palace, even though the music was surging in all the right places, I was weary after six songs. My friend asked me, “Do they play everything in the same end-of-the-world style?”

Arcade Fire’s singer and songwriter, Win Butler, writes lyrics that allude to big, potentially buzz-killing themes: guilt, rapture, death, redemption. And because, for the most part, he deals convincingly with these ideas, the band has been likened to older bands known for passion and gravitas, including the Clash. (On tour, Arcade Fire sometimes plays a cover of the Clash’s anti-police-brutality anthem “Guns of Brixton.”)

By the time I saw the Clash, in 1981, it was finished with punk music. It had just released “Sandinista!,” a three-LP set consisting of dub, funk, rap, and Motown interpretations, along with other songs that were indebted—at least in their form—to Jamaican and African-American sources. As I watched Arcade Fire, I realized that the drummer and the bassist rarely played syncopated patterns or lingered in the low registers. If there is a trace of soul, blues, reggae, or funk in Arcade Fire, it must be philosophical; it certainly isn’t audible. And what I really wanted to hear, after a stretch of raucous sing-alongs, was a bit of swing, some empty space, and palpable bass frequencies—in other words, attributes of African-American popular music.

There’s no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn’t do; what’s missing from the band’s musical DNA is missing from dozens of other popular and accomplished rock bands’ as well—most of them less entertaining than Arcade Fire. I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century? These are the volatile elements that launched rock and roll, in the nineteen-fifties, when Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips.

It’s difficult to talk about the racial pedigree of American pop music without being accused of reductionism, essentialism, or worse, and such suspicion is often warranted. In the case of many popular genres, the respective contributions of white and black musical traditions are nearly impossible to measure. In the nineteen-twenties, folk music was being recorded for the first time, and it was not always clear where the songs—passed from generation to generation and place to place—had come from. The cadence of African slave hollers shaped the rising and falling patterns of blues singing, but there is still debate about the origins of the genre’s basic chord structure—I-IV-V—and how that progression became associated with a singing style on plantations and in Southern prisons. In 1952, the record collector Harry Smith released “Anthology of American Folk Music,” a highly regarded compilation (and, later, a source for Bob Dylan), which showed that white “country” performers and black “blues” artists had recorded similar material in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, singing about common legends, such as “Stackalee,” over similar chord progressions. Even the call-and-response singing that is integral to many African-American church services may have been brought to America by illiterate Scottish immigrants who learned Scripture by singing it back to the pastor as he read it to them.

Yet there are also moments in the history of pop music when it’s not difficult to figure out whose chocolate got in whose peanut butter. In 1960, on a train between Dartford and London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, then teen-agers, bonded over a shared affinity for obscure blues records. (Jagger lent Richards an LP by Muddy Waters.) “Twist and Shout,” a song that will forever be associated with the Beatles, is in fact a fairly faithful rendition of a 1962 R. & B. cover by the Isley Brothers. In sum, as has been widely noted, the music that inspired some of the most commercially successful rock bands of the sixties and seventies—among them Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Grand Funk Railroad—was American blues and soul.

The Beatles, especially in Paul McCartney’s compositions, married blues and soul with the verse-chorus-bridge structure common to songs from the English music hall and Tin Pan Alley, and hooked teen-agers on a combination of Irving Berlin and Muddy Waters that previously would have been unthinkable. Similarly, when Mick Jagger stopped trying to imitate Bobby Womack he became, musically speaking, an original—a product of miscegenation. He sang with weird menace and charm, and with an accent that placed him in an unidentifiable neighborhood (with more than one bar) somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. Jagger’s knock-kneed dancing may have begun as an homage to Little Richard’s exuberant hamming, but he eventually devised his own style—a bewitching flexion of knees and elbows.

The borrowing went both ways. Keith Richards wanted a horn section to play the main guitar riff in the Stones’ 1965 single “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” on the theory that this would make the song sound like an American soul track. But the song was recorded without a horn section, and immediately became popular, inspiring several covers. One of the better ones was by Otis Redding. (“Otis Redding got it right,” Richards said.)

Until Michael Jackson, another soul singer, achieved international prominence, in the late seventies, however, some of the most successful venders of American black music were not black. MTV had been on the air for nearly two years before it got up the courage to play the video for Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” in 1983. (Jackson was the first black artist to appear on the channel, though it had played videos by the equally gifted white soul act Hall & Oates.) Jackson’s 1982 album “Thriller” is the second-biggest-selling record of all time (after “Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975”), but he alone could not alter pop music’s racial power balance. Black and white musicians continued to trade, borrow, and steal from one another, but white artists typically made more money and received more acclaim. This pattern held until 1992, when the Los Angeles rapper and producer Dr. Dre released “The Chronic,” an album whose star performer was a new rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg.

You could argue that Dr. Dre and Snoop were the most important pop musicians since Bob Dylan and the Beatles. There had already been several important hip-hop hits: the 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang, which marked the genre’s commercial début; the 1986 remake of “Walk This Way,” a raplike song by the white seventies rock band Aerosmith that the group rerecorded with the black hip-hop trio Run-DMC (as pure an example of musical miscegenation as there can be); and the 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton,” by Dr. Dre’s group N.W.A., which helped make sampling and sexually violent lyrics central to hip-hop’s aesthetic.

“The Chronic,” which has sold more than five million copies, upended established paradigms. It presented rappers chanting over smooth funk played on live instruments, as well as over grainy digital samples of old records, and in doing so it changed hip-hop’s sound. It started a conceptual migration, establishing the template for hip-hop from outside New York—especially in the South, a region that has recently come to dominate the genre. Hip-hop became music for driving; it was designed to soothe. (The heavy bass frequencies cause car seats to vibrate, literally massaging the passengers.) The menace was now limited to the lyrics, which featured increasingly explicit tales of gunplay and sex, creating a dissonance between sound and sense that typifies gangsta rap even today.

Videos of songs from “The Chronic” were broadcast on MTV, and Snoop, then a twenty-year-old former gang member from Long Beach, California, who delivered his grim narratives with laid-back aplomb, became the face of hip-hop for many people who had little experience with the genre. If young white musicians had been imitating black ones, it was partly because they had been able to do so in the dark, so to speak. In 1969, most of Led Zeppelin’s audience would have had no idea that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had taken some of the lyrics of “Whole Lotta Love” from the blues artist Willie Dixon, whom the band had already covered twice (with credit) on its début album. (After Dixon sued Led Zeppelin, the band credited him with the song.)

By the mid-nineties, the biggest rock stars in the world were rappers, and the potential for embarrassment had become a sufficient deterrent for white musicians tempted to emulate their black heroes. Who would take on Snoop, one of the most naturally gifted vocalists of the day? Of course, a few did—there have been white rappers and several commercial, if generally unappealing, blends of rock and rap. But, in the thirty years since hip-hop became widely available, there have been only three genuinely popular white rap acts: the Beastie Boys, whose biggestselling album sold to kids who were more taken with the Led Zeppelin samples and the lewd jokes than with the rap music; Vanilla Ice, an anomaly who owes much of his success to his vertical hair and the decision to rap (in “Ice Ice Baby”) over “Under Pressure,” a song by David Bowie and Queen that has proved immune to destruction; and Eminem, the exception who proves the rule. A protégé of Dr. Dre’s who spent part of his youth in Detroit, he had to be better than the local black competition simply in order to be accepted—a fascinating inversion of the racism that many blacks have encountered in the workplace.

In the mid- and late eighties, as MTV began granting equal airtime to videos by black musicians, academia was developing a doctrine of racial sensitivity that also had a sobering effect on white musicians: political correctness. Dabbling in black song forms, new or old, could now be seen as an act of appropriation, minstrelsy, or co-optation. A political reading of art took root, ending an age of innocent—or, at least, guilt-free—pilfering. This wasn’t a case of chickens coming home to roost. Rather, it was as though your parents had come home and turned on the lights.

I’ve spent much of my life playing music, and on and off since 1990 I’ve been a member of a funk band called Ui. We’ve had six members, all white, though most of the musicians who inspire our sound are black (the New Orleans band the Meters; several artists who played with Miles Davis in the seventies; various Jamaican rhythm sections) or are white bands heavily indebted to black music (Led Zeppelin, the German band Can). We released our first record in 1993—a vinyl EP available only in England, the first in a series of dubious marketing decisions—and the handful of reviews that it received were factually accurate, citing the bands I’ve mentioned as influences and recognizing that we were primarily interested in making instrumental funk, not in singing. The singing, what little there was, was my job, and it caused me to start thinking about musical miscegenation.

When we played our version of funk or dub reggae, or tried to make a synthesizer sound like a dolphin fixing a tractor (tough but doable), it felt natural. Most of our music didn’t require singing, but a few pieces needed the sound of a human voice to round them out. Yet singing stumped me. Except for a single, miraculous week when I was sixteen, I’ve never rapped successfully, and melodic singing was inappropriate for the jumpy, polyrhythmic music we played. So I fudged, splitting the difference between singing, chanting, and rapping, each time with diminishing returns. (I can hardly stand to listen to these tracks now.) And the problem was clearly related to race. It seemed silly to try to sound “black,” but that is what happened, no matter how hard I tried not to. In some ways, this was the result of a categorical confusion, the assumption that if I could use my hands to play a derivation of black music with any authority I could use my voice to do the same thing. Playing black music never felt odd, but singing it—a more intimate gesture—seemed insulting. By the time we recorded our last album, in 2003, I had given up singing altogether. It had become clear to me that, to understate the case wildly, I lacked the ability of Mick Jagger and Prince and any number of other great rockers to fuse disparate traditions into a sound that was obviously related but unique—a true offspring.

Many indie bands seemed to be having complex reactions of their own to musical miscegenation. The indie genre emerged in the early eighties, in the wake of British bands such as the Clash and Public Image Ltd., and originally incorporated black sources, using them to produce a new music, characterized by brevity and force, and released on independent labels. The Minutemen, a group of working-class white musicians from San Pedro, California, who were influential in the late eighties, wrote frantic political rants that were simultaneously jazz, punk, and funk, without sounding like any of these genres. But by the mid-nineties black influences had begun to recede, sometimes drastically, and the term “indie rock” came implicitly to mean white rock. Pavement, a group that the Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau, in 1997, called “the finest rock band of the nineties—by critical acclamation,” embodied this trajectory. The band’s first drummer, Gary Young, had a strong sense of swing and a solid backbeat (at least, when he managed to stay on his drum stool), but after his departure, in 1993, Pavement began producing a flat-footed mixture of shaggy, improvisational rock and sylvan curlicues taken from obscure folk groups.

During the same period, indie-band singers abandoned full-throated vocals and began to mumble and moan, and to hide their voices under noise. Lyrics became increasingly allusive and oblique. (From Pavement’s 1995 song “Grave Architecture”: “Am I just a bathtub waiting to be gripped or found on shady ground? And the lampshade’s poised on the overwhelm. Drugs, and need the talent to breathe.”) Several groups that experienced commercial success, such as the Flaming Lips and Wilco, drew on the whiter genres of the sixties—respectively, psychedelic music and country rock—and gradually Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys, a tremendously gifted musician who had at best a tenuous link to American black music, became indie rock’s muse. (Two currently popular indie acts, Panda Bear and Sufjan Stevens, are well schooled in Wilson’s beatific, multi-tracked harmonies, which evoke the sound of glee clubs and church choirs.)

Wilco’s 2002 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” which won that year’s Pazz and Jop national critics’ poll in the Village Voice, is one of the most celebrated indie-rock records of the past five years. (It was released on Nonesuch, which was a subsidiary of the major label Atlantic—further evidence that “indie rock” has become an aesthetic description, and no longer has anything to do with labels.) Wilco, which formed in 1994, was initially an alt-country band, whose songwriter, Jeff Tweedy, demonstrated a knack for writing clipped, vernacular descriptions of relationships and emotional states. The band’s 1996 album, “Being There,” is one of the few alt-country records that I play. It is indebted to a couple of readily identifiable sources—country (as the Rolling Stones played it) and bluegrass—and the music has a pleasing crackle. But after that Wilco and Tweedy, presumably under the influence of other indie bands, drifted from accessible songs toward atomization and noise. On “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the lyrics are embarrassing poetry laid over plodding rhythms. (“Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs, tuned to chords strung down your cheeks.”) The album features synthesizer squeaks and echoey feedback-, which fail to give shape to the formless music. A little more syncopation would have helped.

Other flagship indie bands—the Fiery Furnaces, the Decemberists, the Shins—occasionally produce memorable hooks and moments of inspired juxtaposition. (The Fiery Furnaces have a constantly mutating lineup of instruments, which makes the band sound, at its best, like a jukebox on the fritz.) Grizzly Bear, the indie band that excites me most right now, is making songs with no apparent links to black American music—or any readily identifiable genre. (The band’s sound suggests a group of eunuchs singing next to a music box on a sunken galleon.) But, in the past few years, I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness.

How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities? Where is the impulse to reach out to an audience—to entertain? I can imagine James Brown writing dull material. I can even imagine the Meters wearing out their fans by playing a little too long. But I can’t imagine any of these musicians retreating inward and settling for the lassitude and monotony that so many indie acts seem to confuse with authenticity and significance.

The segregation occurred in both directions. Beginning in the late eighties, there were several high-profile lawsuits involving sampling. In 1991, a U.S. federal court ruled that the rapper Biz Markie’s use on his album “I Need a Haircut” of a sample from a song by Gilbert O’Sullivan constituted willful infringement. (The album was withdrawn from stores and rereleased without the offending track.) A similar suit led to a decision by a federal appeals court, in 2004, that the use of even three notes from someone else’s work could be a violation of copyright, making it difficult for all but the wealthiest rappers to use samples. For twenty years, beginning in the mid-eighties, with the advent of drum machines that could store brief digital excerpts of records, sampling had encouraged integration. (Think of De La Soul rhyming over an excerpt from the seventies educational cartoon series “Schoolhouse Rock!” or of Jay-Z rapping over a snippet from the Broadway musical “Annie.”) In practice, the ruling obliged hip-hop producers to write their own music, which left them with a larger share of royalties. And, as producers became as powerful and as well known as rappers, having a distinctive sound that wasn’t associated with another genre or artist became an asset. Rap musicians, lacking incentives to appropriate other sounds, began to stress regional differences instead: in Atlanta, the rugged, spare sound of crunk; in the Bay Area, the whizzing, burping, synthesizer-dominated sound of the hyphy movement.

The most important reason for the decline of musical miscegenation, however, is social progress. Black musicians are now as visible and as influential as white ones. They are granted the same media coverage, recording contracts, and concert bookings, a development that the Internet, along with dozens of new magazines and cable shows devoted to celebrities, has abetted by keeping pop stars constantly in the public eye. Even unheralded musicians don’t need Led Zeppelin to bring their songs to the masses anymore: an obscure artist can find an audience simply by posting an MP3 on MySpace. The Internet, by democratizing access to music—anybody, anywhere can post or download a song on MySpace—has also made individual genres less significant. Pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it’s a profusion of strands, most of which don’t intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click “shuffle” on their iPods. Last month, in the Times, the white folk rocker Devendra Banhart declared his admiration for R. Kelly’s new R. & B. album “Double Up.” Thirty years ago, Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly’s perverse and feather-light soul. Now he’s just a fan. The uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music a heat and an intensity that can’t be duplicated today, and the loss isn’t just musical; it’s also about risk. Rock and roll was never a synonym for a polite handshake. If you’ve forgotten where the term came from, look it up. There’s a reason the lights were off. ♦

Dynasties

Because I am always three to six (3-6) months behind in reading the New Yorker, it took me till the eve of the Primary Election to find this article by Hendrik Hertzberg on the dangers/weirdness of political dynasties. I've been feeling squeamish all along about Hillary Clinton running (let alone winning) for a reason that sounds sort of hum drum compared to the "real" issues (war, peace, guns, choice, taxes, etc): it's kind of eerie, disconcerting, and downright scary at times to me to think of the possibility of having a Bush, a Clinton, a Bush, and then another Clinton in office. Hertzberg says it better:

Shortly after Hillary Rodham Clinton declared her candidacy for President last winter, Roger Cohen, writing in the International Herald Tribune, declared that “a delicate problem confronts her that few people are talking about: almost two decades of dynastic domination of American politics.” Well, they’re talking about it now. “Forty per cent of Americans have never lived when there wasn’t a Bush or a Clinton in the White House,”


That stat took me awhile to figure out: There are people younger than me who have never known a time when a Bush or a Clinton wasn't in charge. This is starting to feel a lot like a monarchy and a lot less like an electoral democracy... Then I thought, wait, I haven't known this time either. I was born in the very last months of Carter, and George Bush the First was Reagan's VP. Color me dynastic... Hertzberg goes on to discuss various other political dynasties in the illustrious history of this country. From the very beginning, it seems, though "Ruling families are not supposed to be a big part of the picture in our democratic republic, whose very Constitution states firmly, 'No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States,'" the US has had trouble letting sons go their own way: If daddy is in politics, the son probably should be, too.

Hertzberg has some interesting things to say about women in political power. Of course, since I'm way behind on reading this article, Bhutto is dead, and I'm not sure what to make of that in terms of the current election here.

In most cases, the tie has been broken by death. In South Asia, which seems to lead the world in female national leaders, violent death is invariably a factor. In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, a total of four female heads of state have come to power in the wake of male relatives’ assassination; in India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, was herself assassinated, as was her son and successor, Rajiv. (Her daughter-in-law, Sonia, now heads the ruling Congress Party.) Burma’s imprisoned opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is the daughter of the assassinated independence leader Aung San. And the father of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s two-time and perhaps future Prime Minister, was a Prime Minister whose life ended at the gallows; her return to Karachi last week was marked by a suicide-bomber attack that claimed more than a hundred lives.


Hertzberg thinks that (H) Clinton is a different kind of dynasty. She is not just the "wife of" but as much, if not more, a political figure in her own right. Her only problem is Bush:


There’s a downside. The downside’s name is Bush. If, as the voters in 2000 wished, Al Gore, son of Senator Albert Gore, Sr., had been granted the White House, things might be a bit easier—not just for Hillary Clinton but also for her main Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama. George W. Bush has been as poor an advertisement for “inexperience” as for dynasticism. It’s not fair, of course. Bush’s failure to learn much of anything for the past six years suggests a deficit of character, not of experience; his unwillingness to employ his father’s skills and advice on behalf of the nation shows a disrespectful disregard for a dynast’s biggest advantage. He has given both freshness and family a bad name.


I guess I think that there's more problems with dynasticism in the form of Clinton (the female) than just George Bush the Second (although he is a large problem). I'm far from a Constitutional literalist, but there's something to the idea of democracy vs. monarchy, and something that bugs me about the same powerful rich elite being in power over and over and over, for decades on end. I'd like to live in a time where there was no Bush or Clinton in office.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mac is Also Famous!

Man, we get around! (the internet, that is!)

I don't know how we both missed this picture (me and World Best Kids), but I'm so glad she found it. Make sure to click on the picture to see the big version, it really is amazing. Even if it makes my stomach sink like a rock to see that it appears that I am not holding onto his long line and thus he is at risk of swimming away to sea at any moment. (If you don't know that story, you're missing out. But I'm not telling it here because a) I'm superstitious b) it's embarrassing c) I've told it a thousand times and d) you won't believe me.)

I Am Famous!

Dude! I've made the Blogosphere!

Pookiedictable... that's me!

ahhhh.... the small things in life!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

More Things that Have Changed

Is it weird to be so nostalgic? Well, maybe it is, but I can't help it. Remember life before these signs? The ones that tell us how long it will take us to get places, and if highways are closed and small children are missing? In those (not so long ago) days, we had to listen to traffic radio, or even more astonishing, just patiently wait to see what the future had in store: would we get to work in time? Who knows! Would the off-ramp be closed when we tried to use it? Hopefully! Are children missing? We'll find out tomorrow when we read the paper!

Bottled water in general, flavored water in specific:

Water used to come out of a tap. In one flavor: water flavor. If you wanted fruity flavored liquid, you drank juice. If you wanted vitamins, you took pills that had essential things in them and called them, well, vitamins. If you wanted carbonated beverages, you drank some variation of tonic water, bubbly water, soda, etc. If you were really posh, you might drink that water from a water cooler, or as I only knew to call it from my excellent grasp of the Spanglish language, a garafon. I mean, what would life be with out all of those water cooler jokes? So I imagine that water coolers probably existed for a long time before my knowledge of them- in offices and fancy pants mansions- but they came into my peripheral vision slightly before water bottles. I think those filters on the tap came before water bottles, too. Who really wants to drink recycled Oakland sewer water, when you can drink recycled Oakland sewer water that has gone through a filter you can actually see right there in your own kitchen? Then water bottles appeared on the scene, and there were only one or two brands of them. The labels promised fresh and clean water straight from the purest sources- no sewers, no sinks, only sky to snow to alps to meadows to bottles. So, we all started drinking this bottled water, because we need to be pure. So pure that plastic started accumulating in the landfills in an alarming rate, because while we all own cups, glasses, and mugs, and water from the tap is virtually free, we preferr(ed) to purchase water in its own reusable (but not often reused) container. Enter smart marketing people who realized the potential of selling other things in these reusable (but not often reused) containers: Vitamin Water, Mint Water, Flavor Water, Caffeine Water, etc. Seriously, if I didn't know better, I would think it was a joke. This stuff is so powerful, you'd think water was way past out of style. Maybe water has gone out of style. Maybe it's toxic and somehow people know that only flavoring (like Kool-Aid, vitamins, and color) will kill the poison? Granted, I drink Diet Coke like it's going out of style, but not because I can't get enough of this flavored crap. Doesn't anyone use Nalgenes anymore?