Some readers have been back in school for at least a week (hi, mom). But in Madison we start after Labor Day. Today also marks my first day TAing a new class and the first day to my last year of coursework. For many people, today represents possibility–new teachers, new classes, new school supplies, new misadventures. There’s a lot riding on it, which is actually why I prefer the second day of school. But I’m ready to get back to it. I chose my outfit, packed my lunch, and went to bed early. I also picked out some “plate” music.
Next week, my graduate program is playing a kickball game to start off the new year. As an attendant of many ASL games, I understand the importance of selecting the right song for coming up to bat. The use of pre-recorded music at sporting events fascinate me wherever I’m watching, particularly when it heightens our collective response to people challenging themselves and others to win. Remember when Aly Raisman scored lower than expected on her balance beam final and the judges scurried to review the routine after the Károlyis challenged them? During their brief deliberation, Katy Perry’s “Firework” blared in the background. That song was on a loop during the Olympics, but in that moment Perry’s song called attention to the “liveness” of the moment. It played in real time as part of the diegesis and thus sounded radically different.
When you participate in a sporting event, music is just as enveloping. It can also give you a window into the player. The sounds and lyrics people use to create or convey a certain attitude during competition says quite a bit about them (even when they pick Eminem). For me, selecting “plate” music for a kickball game was soothing, as the sport is the root of a number of gym-related childhood traumas. But I bump “plate” music wherever I go. Here are some songs that make me feel invincible, especially on days heavy with expectation.
Earlier this week, Caitlin at Dark Room posted a couple of mixes from her college radio days on Facebook and asked for her friends to contribute some of their playlists. This seemed like an interesting project with findings worthy of disclosure here, especially since I often make casual reference to my tenure as a deejay at KVRX.
I started in the fall of 2002 at the beginning of my sophomore year. A fan of Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume, the urge to have my own radio show was planted during my freshman year of college. My friend Brooke had a show at KANM called “Weakdays” and knowing she could program a show inspired me to give it a go. We both liked The Dismemberment Plan, we both could read PSAs aloud, and I felt confident that I could master the switchboard too.
A few days before the semester began, I filled out an application and secured a timeslot for Saturday mornings at 9 a.m. As KVRX shares its frequency with KOOP and switched over from FM to RealAudio, I felt better knowing I had the entire first semester to iron out any kinks my show may have without being able to get picked up in someone else’s car. The Internet still felt very private at the time, even though RealAudio could get picked up in another part of the world instead of inside the condensed hub of Central Austin.
I named my show “Hang the DJ,” a reference to The Smiths’ “Panic.” As the song was a modern rock radio staple, the program title should be an indication that I was half-hearted in my attempt at becoming a fan. A year later, I’d acknowledge that I just couldn’t get into them as I was developing my show. Come spring 2003, I changed the name of my show to “Cheesecake or Fugu,” a title that came to me in the shower when I was remembering a review I’d read in high school of Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman! that compared their sound to the Japanese delicacy.
Listening to tapes from that time, apart from their lo-fi charm and developing fluency with related technology, two things strike me: 1) I wasn’t yet comfortable talking into a microphone and 2) I don’t listen to a lot of that stuff anymore. Listening to a November 2002 broadcast, it’s surprising to me how many dude singer-songwriters and indie bands I played. Clem Snide, Death Cab for Cutie, and Richard Buckner? Pass. Belle and Sebastian and Okkervil River? Not against it, but wouldn’t fight someone to defend their merits. Some of these acts were indicative of the buzz they generated, as well as the mercurial nature of being of-the-moment. Remember when we were supposed to care about Ben Kweller and The Warlocks? You don’t? Me either.
Of course, that these broadcasts seem foreign to me now is largely the point. During the first six months at KVRX, I hadn’t locked into what I liked yet. I was trying to fit in, catching up to just how much music I now had at my disposal. In all candor, the first six months at KVRX were terrifying to me. The office itself was scary, as it was usually peopled with oft-bespectacled dudes huddled together and volleying well-considered, often incendiary opinions about obscure music. It was full-on High Fidelity. Several of these guys would later become my friends. But at the time I was 19 and not ready to share that I had just heard of the Mountain Goats. So I kept quiet.
Incidentally, KVRX was something of a meet market that seemed particularly inclined toward heterosexual activity. Lots of hook-ups, some of which resulted in marriages or at least amicable splits. It makes sense, as obsessive, esoteric types tend to gravitate toward one another. Young girls can be especially vulnerable and I was no exception. I dated two deejays during my first year at KVRX. Looking back on that time with a more nuanced understanding of feminist politics, I feel weird and more than a little embarrassed about the gendered power dynamics of romantic pursuit. But I also found my partner there, who I formed a relationship with on more egalitarian terms.
I’d like to think that dating fellow deejays had less to do with setting me apart than the talent I developed during my time at KVRX: writing reviews. As deejays needed to log four hours of volunteer time each month in order to keep their shows, drafting reviews for new releases was a great opportunity, especially since the station would receive hundreds of new albums each month. A review for one full-length album translated into a volunteer hour. I averaged about three reviews a week, thus gaining awareness of several artists as well as the output of the labels they were signed to. Through this, I fell in love with artists like Broadcast and Electrelane. As a journalism major, this acclimated me to a constant writing schedule. Through reviews, I developed my musical preferences and found my voice as a writer. And people started noticing my reviews, even occasionally printing them in The Call Letter, KVRX’s ‘zine.
But nothing got me better acquainted with music than putting together a weekly show. And while many deejays had specialty shows where they focused on particular genres like death metal, hardcore, or the blues, my show was decidedly free-form. At KVRX, free-form shows abided by the following requirements: each hour of free-form programming had to feature artists from five genres, two Texas artists, and five selections from the new bin, where the most recent reviewed offerings were kept. In addition, KVRX maintains a strict “none of the hits” policy. During my time, that meant that any artist who received even moderate success on any mainstream music network or radio station within the past ten years could not be played. Some deejays found these sanctions to be restrictive, but having these limitations motivated me to dig deeper and listen more broadly.
I also learned how I wanted my show to be perceived conceptually. I made sure the music was continuous, even going so far as to select instrumentals to talk over while I ran through my playlist, which I’d update after a three-song set. I also tried to vary songs from genre to genre, pairing Tom Zé’s “To” with Deerhoof’s “Milkman.”
I was also fond of layering songs into one another, overlapping the final moments of Sack and Blumm’s “Baby Bass Buss” with the intro to Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic.” I made sure that song selection went with the time of day, which once I got on FM was always in the evenings, particularly during safe harbor so I could play hip hop and Gravy Train!!!!. I also tried to bridge the content of my show with promos, tags, and the programs that bookended mine. Before I got to Raymond Williams in graduate school, I was familiar with the concept of flow.
I also became aware of my voice as an on-air talent. Though some deejays mumble or try to take focus away from themselves, hearing my voice bandy words about (often to myself) made me cognizant of articulation, elocution, and tone. There was also a performative quality to presenting an on-air persona as I intoned an idealized version of my natural speaking voice. It also skeeved me out when some dudes would call in to inform me of the supposed sexiness of my voice. I got really good at telling strangers to fuck off and hanging up on people mid-conversation. Unfortunately, these instances were fairly common amongst my female peers and some endured more serious harassment.
BTW, kudos to the dude callers who were supportive and respectful. Thanks to the nice lady callers as well.
Oddly enough, this awareness did not lead me toward doing a female-only show. I dabbled in it occasionally. I did a women’s issue news program one summer with a girl named Kelly I met when we were cast in The Vagina Monologues. I briefly took over a friend’s female-only show when she quit during her first semester in the UT American Studies master’s program. At the time, I found doing a female-only show limiting. Now I think I’d have to do a free-form female-only show. Why not pair Umm Kulthum with Dessa?
I started graduate school in fall 2006. I thought about returning to KVRX after about a year off from undergrad. But I felt like it was another group of kids’ turn. Also, I simply didn’t have the time to devote to a weekly show and its related responsibilities. When I applied to PhD programs, the schools’ radio stations were a determining factor and will continue to be when I reapply.
In the meantime, a podcast series is appealing to me, especially after I started listening to Veronica Ortuño‘s “Cease to Exist“. Rest assured that when I do start another radio program, all broadcasts will be well archived so I can dig ’em up and tune in again.
Thanks to my friend Evan, who alerted me on Monday that some serious Aughties musical canonization was going down this week, I’ve been following Pitchfork’s unveiling of the Top 500 tracks of the decade. As it may be of interest, I thought I’d share my feelings.
In subsequent posts, I may comment on their impending coverage of the decade’s best music videos and albums, as well as their formulations on the reclamation of pop, the exploration of noise, and the mainstreaming of indie rock. I won’t devote posts to it, though, because there’s a fine line between providing useful commentary and hearing yourself type. And my hunch is that discussing the singles list will suffice, as it presents, by microcosm, a general set of criticisms I’ve long held about the “tastemaker” e-zine.
Covering Pitchfork’s appraisal of the decade in this way makes more sense to me anyway, as the 2000s marked the resurgence of the single. Our increasingly digitized media culture cultivated the need for that one song, found at the click of a mouse or the touch of an mp3 player button or phone pad. That song also tended to get posted on blogs, e-zines, and MySpace pages (however briefly) as a means to define the self or selves (this was a decade when Gnarls Barkley, Brightblack Morning Light, and Crystal Castles could potentially coexist on the same shuffle or mash-up).
So, this list is the first time I’ve seen music of my youth canonized in such a way that it now seems historical. When Pitchfork first did the list half-way through the decade, I was 22 and just out of college; an adult, but only sorta. More specifically, the songs were still new. But having graduated from college twice over and a year into my second post-college job in 2009, I can look at songs from 2000, when I was in high school, and feel my age like many folks who transitioned into adulthood in decades prior.
And now, some nostalgia. A lot of the songs on this list bring up specific memories, images, people, and feelings. I remember my friend Brooke trying to teach me a dance routine to Aaliyah’s “Try Again” for our junior prom. PJ Harvey’s “Good Fortune” reminded me of a high school boyfriend which, in hindsight, speaks to an epic love song’s power to project. I remember a classmate singing the chorus to OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” to herself in French class. I remember hearing Jay-Z and UGK’s “Big Pimpin'” at a Claire’s somewhere in New York City on a field trip. Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” confused the hell out of me, but I kept playing it at full volume anyway. Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” was a confusing song that made perfect sense. And if Daft Punk’s “One More Time” was released when the class of 2001 voted for our song, it would’ve been my pick (I submitted U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Counting Crows’ “Hanging Around”; our song ended up being Aerosmith’s cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” from the Armageddon soundtrack, for some reason).
Then there’s the rough transition between high school and college. Songs off Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Daft Punk’s Discovery suggest my lonely, uncertain summer before college. I started college, withdrew mid-way through my first semester, and resumed in the spring. This was a “the” time — The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Shins, The Avalanches, and the last album by The Dismemberment Plan. It was also when I started to follow Pitchfork, mostly to avoid writing term papers.
After a summer back home, I applied for a college radio show. It was here that I really started learning about music, and just how much music there was. KVRX maintains a “none of the hits all of the time” policy; if a musical act got a single or video on rotation in a commercial market, they could not be played. While I was there, we pulled The Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand from rotation. Some deejays would think that by pulling a musical act they liked out of rotation, we were initiating a taste-based attack on coolness (i.e., undiscovered = good, discovered = bad). While this prejudice existed (and I would certainly perpetuate it at times), pulling an artist embraced by the mainstream out of college radio rotation felt more political to me. “Spoon is on 101X? Great! They’re awesome. Now let’s shine a light on the thousands of other bands who’ll never get that kind of attention.”
Pitchfork made an effort to shine a light too, biases notwithstanding. During my tenure at KVRX, my relationship with Pitchfork became contentious. While I followed Pitchfork, I was also dismissive or derisive of the staff’s opinions (a classic push-pull for many music geeks: we are at once too cool for Pitchfork, yet check to see if we line up with their rulings). As I came into my own as a feminist, I also became more critical of what they covered, how they covered it, and what they dismissed, out of which came, among other things, this blog.
Yet, there are so many songs on this countdown that remind me of that time. I remember my first radio show, when I played Interpol’s “NYC” because I had some vague idea of who they were. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard TV on the Radio’s “Staring At the Sun” and Dizzie Rascal’s “I Luv U.” I remember seeing Spoon perform “The Way We Get By” on Conan and hoping they’d get big. I remember hearing the bass line to Broken Social Scene’s “Stars and Sons” for the first time. I remember fighting The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” for weeks before surrendering. I remember being unable to avoid The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” I remember playing Broadcast’s “Pendulum” while getting ready for parties. I remember rocking out to The Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control” in the deejay booth. I remember LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” being one of the go-to songs deejays would throw on for a smoke break when we weren’t quoting from it (I alluded to it in this post’s title). I remember hearing M.I.A.’s “Galang” at a party and having it blow my mind. I remember impromptu dance parties after Alliance for a Feminist Option meetings when a bunch of sweaty grrrls I still call friends would shimmy to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” I remember skanking harder and smiling wider than I ever have with the person I built my life with to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”
In addition, there was Boards of Canada, Wolf Eyes, Feist, Black Dice, Andrew Bird, Ladytron, Devendra Banhart, Destroyer, Hot Chip, The New Pornographers, Deerhoof, M. Ward, Liars, Junior Boys, The Walkmen, Manitoba (later Caribou), El-P, The Go Team, (Smog), Sufjan Stevens, RJD2, The Books, Talib Kweli, Phoenix . . . . The list goes on. If I ever had trouble keeping up with new artists after graduating in 2005, it was only because I had so many established artists to follow.
Of course, my college radio utopia didn’t last. It couldn’t. My monolithic friend group fragmented. People moved, lost touch, became casual, or just stopped being friends. Perhaps this is really when the decade became more to me than a sequence, instead an evolution of time. Late-in-the-decade offerings like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and Animal Collective’s “Fireworks” convey this for me.
After college, I acquired Deerhunter, CSS, Hercules and Love Affair, Santigold, Bat for Lashes, Grizzly Bear, Battles, No Age, Be Your Own Pet, Girl Talk, Magik Markers, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls, Women, King Khan and the Shrines, and St. Vincent.
Assuredly there will be more new artists for me (and you) to adopt. Just this week, because of the countdown, I picked up on The Knife.
There are artists whose countdown placement evinces moments when we were willing to bet the farm on an act that now seem dated (Death From Above 1979, The Streets, and Klaxons). There are also acts I didn’t “get” but sorta came around on later (hello, Joanna Newsom). There are acts I didn’t know that well in college but came to treasure later (bless you, Neko Case). There are acts I enjoy but could never fully champion (I like you fine, Belle and Sebastian). There are acts I appreciate, but kinda overwhelm me and can’t listen to all the time (Jesus, Xiu Xiu). And then there are acts for whom I just never got the fuss (Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists).
With that said, this countdown plays predictably. Accepting minor issues like what song was selected to represent an artist and where songs fell in ranking, Pitchfork got a lot right. They also got caught up with some songs that I think they’re overselling, and some things they marginalized or completely overlooked. I’ll preoccupy the rest of this post with those flaws.
For me Pitchfork’s big Achilles heel has always been hip hop, primarily because they really only cover mainstream hip hop (Lil Wayne, T.I., 50 Cent, Clipse, Eminem, Cam’ron, OutKast, Kanye West, and Jay-Z — the last three are all over this countdown). And while this isn’t a problem in its own right, it limits how hip hop is defined and what it represents, which, in a lot of commercial hip hop, that still means money, Cristal, whips, blunts, and bitches (though not in all cases). It certainly suggests that the only way for rappers to be successful and culturally relevant is to be part of a corporate mechanism. This seems like something a publication that prides itself on giving visibility to independent artists should re-evaluate. Because, in my mind, if there’s no Busdriver or Jean Grae, I question the validity of the list.
As a result, it largely eclipses underground hip hop which has seen tremendous advancements over the course of the decade, particularly in the states. Talent from labels like Stones Throw, Quannum Projects, Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, and anticon., along with talent at labels like Plug Research, Mush, Warp, and Ubiquity have created some of the most vital and interesting work in the genre, expanding its sound and its content while working outside a corporate mechanism in the process (anticon. runs as a collective). But you’d never know that if you only read Pitchfork, who acknowledged a few efforts, primarily from white male label owners (El-P) and instrumental artists (RJD2, DJ Shadow). No female MCs were acknowledged. This may also speak to the dearth of female MCs in underground hip hop, but doesn’t excuse it (I love you, Jean Grae; I love you, Psalm One). My challenge to hip hop fans in the next decade is to try to create online resources as influential as Pitchfork to get the message out. You’ve got guaranteed spots on my blogroll.
Also, as you may have noticed if you combed through the entire list, only the top 200 songs are accompanied by blurbs from the writing staff. While I understand that writing 300 more blurbs presents its own challenges, I also think it suggests that tracks 500-301 weren’t good enough for a write-up. And this makes me especially sad when many of the women I loved in this decade — Vivian Girls, St. Vincent, Goldfrapp, Sleater-Kinney, Bat for Lashes, Björk, and The Gossip — are thrown at the end and not given any qualifying statements. This especially seems necessary for a song like The Gossip’s “Standing In the Way of Control,” which became an LGBTQI anthem this decade. That would be especially useful to read alongside #18, Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.” This is a great dance song that I’ve always interpreted as an anthem for coming out and living life queer. But you wouldn’t know that from Tim Finney’s write-up.
And while I’m heartened by the women who did make it to the top 200, especially women like M.I.A., Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Annie, and Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who made the top 20, I can’t help but notice that many of these women are pop artists who work extensively with predominantly male producers. I don’t want to suggest that cutting a track with Timbaland or Diplo or Pharell from The Neptunes means that women are robbed of artistic autonomy, as I wouldn’t say that for Justin Timberlake. However, I do take issue with what female artists and what songs get praise. Or even what versions of songs. While the Diplo remix of the version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that features UGK is great, I wonder why her version isn’t enough.
That said, the 2000s were both a hell of an education and a hell of a time. Pitchfork knows it. I know it. Hopefully, you know it too. It was a great time to be alive. I hope the next decade is even better.
So, Molly Siegel has been on my mind for a while now. When I was conceptualizing this blog, I knew I wanted to talk about her. For those who don’t know, she’s the lead singer of Ponytail, a Baltimore-based experimental pop band. In terms of sound and composition, they aren’t that far off from Deerhoof, a musically adventurous band I got into during my salad days ias a deejay at UT Austin’s KVRX (aka, fall 2002). I’d listened to Ice Cream Spiritual, Ponytail’s first full-length a bit last summer when it first came out. It was okay, but kinda all-over-the-place and I just don’t think I was ready to listen to it. Then I looked on Pitchfork’s year-end lists and the album was selected by Sarah Lipstate of Parts & Labor (who also worked at KVRX) as one of her favorite albums of the year. And, you know, Sarah was always a cool kid, so I thought, hmmm, okay, let’s try this again.
And then shit blew my mind. I went from thinking the single “Celebrate the Body Electric” was kinda okay to a magical place in which I wanted to inhabit. So I played the album and Kamehameha, their first EP, on a loop in anticipation of their attendance at SXSW 2k9. Long story short, their performance at Club de Ville the Saturday that I saw them was one of the best shows I saw during the festival. So great. Damn can they play. And they’re really fun live — they smashed a giraffe piñata and threw candy at the audience. I ripped off a leg for my desk.
But I didn’t just see Siegel on stage. I saw her at the Mirah show (wearing a Ray Lewis Ravens jersey, no less) and also PJ Harvey‘s set as Stubb’s. (Aside: Michael Azerrad, who I saw at both the St. Vincent show at Central Presbyterian and the PJ’s show at Stubbs’ was also at Ponytail’s show. He stood right next to me and took pictures of the piñata. I’m pretty sure my shoes are in some of those shots. If you see a pair of blue Reeboks on the Interwebz, they’re mine). So, I guess I have Siegel’s (and Azerrad’s) taste in music. I’m okay with that. I at least think we could be music geek friends.
But the more I kept thinking about the show, the more entranced I became with Siegel’s performance and style. Anyone who’s listened to Ponytail knows that Siegel’s not one for words, instead usually preferring to coo, grunt, or scream in a sort of automatic language, foregrounded all the more by her spastic, confrontational stage presence. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson asserted in his review of their first full-length that the stream-of-conscious, pre-verbal stages of childhood was a potential influence on both Siegel’s vocal approach and the band’s musical sensibilities (an approach he aligns with the work of fellow Baltimorean Dan Deacon). While there’s definitely merit to that argument, I think there’s something else going on, perhaps a site through which queer, non-normative girlishness can be accessed.
No, I don’t think we can wrench Siegel’s lesbian identity from her persona or performance style. Nor should we. Nor do I think she’d want to, if her casual references to the Indigo Girls (who were playing the same time as Ponytail when I saw them) are any indication.
I can’t speak for Siegel, but I can’t help but wonder if her sexuality is central to how she views her place in music culture. For one, she’s the only woman in the band, no less a band with a noisy, chaotic approach to music. For another, she is not an instrumentalist in that band and is thus in what many folks conceptualize as an objectified, often feminized position for a band member to occupy. To add to that, she doesn’t fit the standard female body type long adhered to within hipster culture. While short, she is far from gamine — a bit stocky, by no means dainty. Also, she doesn’t outfit herself in youthful, fashionable, traditionally female attire (think Jenny Lewis). Instead, she clomps around in Timberland boots and football jerseys, garments traditionally aligned with masculine dress made frumpy and destabilized by her petite figure.
In short, Siegel’s presence is unquestionably queer, a fact which informs her vocal style. Rather than infantile, as others may suggest, I’d argue that Siegel’s voice is actually quite complex — at times angry, giddy, abuzz with sexual delight, flip, petulant, seething with contempt, or uncertain of either herself or the world around her. In short, she seems to occupy a more complex matrices in which women (masculine women, no less) can claim space for themselves.