Tagged: DIY

Add Tara Rodgers’s “Pink Noises” to your shelves

Cover to Pink Noises (Duke University Press, 2010); image courtesy of thestranger.com

Tara Rodgers’s book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound collects interviews from a variety of female musicians who work with electronic instruments, either as deejays, composers, sound artists, or sometimes a composite of all three. Anticipation was high for this book, which began as a Web site Rodgers started while in graduate school at Mills College. I began reading over the interviews available online when preparing an encyclopedia entry on female DJs and found it an invaluable resource. When I finally picked up a copy and began pouring over the cover — which features Jessica Rylan playing a self-fashioned synthesizer — I was sold.

The project takes its name from both femininity’s associations with pink and a technical term which refers to variations of white noise that contain low frequencies, resulting in an equal distribution of energy per octave. I was especially inspired by Rodgers’s work, as she launched the Web site while in graduate school. She used the site as an opportunity to pursue personal and scholarly interests by interviewing musicians (many of whom were professors or colleagues). She also provided a resource for female instrumentalists who had technical or musical questions, thus also creating a safe space from women who didn’t want to be condescended to or demeaned by (male) “experts.”

Female musicians engaging with technology is the book’s main theme. One thing that is especially productive about the book is that, by focusing on software and electronic instrumentation, it acknowledges that instruments are fundamentally technological. This helps dispel the myth that music has to made with string, brass, or woodwind instruments. Also, despite the lack of guitars, many of these women are influenced by punk’s DIY ethos. They also challenge the music-making process. For some, this rebellion comes in opposition to their professional position as members of the academy, particularly at institutions like Mills College and the University of Illinois-Champaign. Pauline Oliveros made a name for herself for pioneering the concept of Deep Listening. Christina Kubitsch incorporates electromagnatic induction and light panels into her compositions, which are meant to be experienced rather than just heard. Annea Lockwood finds music in rivers, devoting much of her career to archiving the sounds of bodies of water from around the world. Others have little to do with the academy and use their work to challenge electronic music’s cerebral tendencies. Maria Chavez is a turntablist who often uses broken records.

Furthermore, I was particularly heartened by Rodgers’s interviews with women who create their own instruments and their reading about their relationships with them. Laetitia Sonami created the Lady Glove, an electronic instrument she had grafted onto her hand. Rylan’s developed the Personal Synth, and other systems, as a direct response against sweatshop labor and electronic waste. Many of these women are engaged with political activist groups dedicated to social justice, most notably DJ Rehka and Mutamassik.

A final point that the book contributes, and Alley Hector astutely pointed out in her review for AfterEllen, is queer women’s contributions to electronic music. This is evident with the inclusion of Le Tigre, Pauline Oliveros, Susan Morabito, and Bev Stanton (aka Arthur Loves Plastic), who has some interesting comments to make regarding lesbians’ actual musical preferences which she notes tend to be more cutting edge than bars and clubs suggest them to be. As many of these women champion subversive and unconventional approaches to composition — and work extensively with their hands — it follows a logic that many of them, not unlike guitarists Kaki King and Marissa Paternoster, identify as lesbian and bisexual, as well as encompass a broad spectrum of representations and expressions from within those categories.

One minor quibble I had with the book is that it (intentionally) gets a bit technical, gear-heavy, and theoretical, which is also one of the book’s main contributions to complicating the gendered notions of musicians’ technological interactions. While there’s a glossary to guide folks through the terminology, I would recommend reading the book an interview at a time and giving yourself a moment to process the information. Finding performance footage may help make concrete some of the artists’ more abstract assertions.

However, those willing to wade through a little bit of jargon will be rewarded by a good book that champions the musical output of a variety of female electronic instrumentalists who continue to challenge how we conceptualize popular music.

Why you should make a mixtape for Explode Into Colors

I’ve yet to visit Portland but know it by reputation. Many friends call it home, even if none of them currently claim it as residency. I’ve often taken the opportunity to razz them about their Pacific Northwestern biases, but I understand the affinity. As an Austin transplant, I’ve imagined Portland as this city’s wetter, more overcast fraternal twin. It’s the home to Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls and Bitch and boasts establishments like Powell’s Books, Food Fight!, and Voodoo Donut. Like Austin, it’s got an independent music scene nurtured by DIY enthusiasts. Pass me one of your microbrew dogs and I’ll twist open a Shiner for you. Let’s hang.

One Portland band that’s been on my radar since early last year is Explode Into Colors. I missed them during the last SXSW but am fully prepared to catch them this time.

As if their sound wasn’t enough, word circulated that they’ll be accepting mixtapes as cover for their upcoming Holocene gig. When they come to Austin for SXSW, I hope they’ll be taking other fans’ mixes as a good will gesture.

Explode Into Colors; image courtesy of holocene.org

I’m an ardent supporter and maker of mix CDs. I value them as an aural marker of someone’s history and treasure them as homemade gifts made and traded by friends. Each tracklist tells a story, as does the presence or absence of liner notes and album art. I believe my friend Kaleb of Karaoke Underground proposed the idea of a mix CD swap. I fully support this and would be happy to participate. Expect lots of cuts from Vince B.’s A Reference Of Female-Fronted Punk Rock: 1977-89 anthology, pulled directly from Kängnäve.

Tapes have been on people’s minds lately. Rob Sheffield used mixtapes to shape his autobiographical Love Is A Mix Tape. On 3o Rock, TGS star Tracy Jordan offered to make General Electric executive Jack Donaghy a Phil Collins mixtape as a token of their burgeoning friendship (Donaghy accepted because he has “two ears and a heart”). More recently, Simon Reynolds and Marc Hogan wrote some interesting essays outlining the wave of acts associated with glo-fi (or “chillwave” or “hypnagogic pop“) and the surge of upstart tape distros. With nostalgic fondness for “failed” technology and a desire to re-experience music as something less immediate and more holistic than an mp3 file, many people are returning (regressing?) to tapes. Perhaps Dennis Duffy was right. Technology is cyclical, at least for some.

I’m certainly intrigued by this deliberate move toward difficult and faulty antiquated technology. I’m also a bit of a cassette enthusiast. As a deejay, I recorded several of my shows on tape. It was around this time that I inherited my grandmother’s Mercury Grand Marquis, which I drove until it had to be traded in. As installing a CD player proved too costly, I often played my broadcasts in the car, along with holdovers from my youth, like The Pet Shop Boys’ Discography and The B-52s’ Cosmic Thing. I like that tapes forced me to listen to sequences rather than tracks. The tapes from my show are still in the glove compartment of my Mazda 626, waiting to be lodged into a tape deck.

I love most when a tape warps, changing the speed and sound of the recordings and making tracks at once familiar and foreign. Tapes may document a moment in time, but their vulnerability toward degradation makes them unreliable historians. To bend another 30 Rock character’s words, tapes (like Donaghy’s ceramic cookie jar collection) are alive. They change shape as they age. I hope Explode Into Colors keep the stacks of mixtapes they may be inheriting from their show at Holocene. Who knows what they’ll sound like or conjure up over time.

What a doll!: Playtime with Lady Gaga

Barbie gone Gaga; image courtesy of flickr.com

Just wanted to make sure you all heard about the unofficial Lady Gaga dolls created by Veik11, which I saw one friend post on another friend’s Facebook page earlier this morning. If not, Perez Hilton is excited about them. As with all things Gaga, I’m ambivalent. While my overall opinion isn’t too different from how I felt about Mattel’s Ladies of the ’80s collection, I have a few notes particular to Gaga in doll form. Pros and cons time.

Pros
1. I like the DIY spirit of Veik11’s dolls and his approach to fandom. Better a Bratz or Barbie doll be turned into Gaga by the owner than stay a Bratz or Barbie doll. I can only hope girls and boys were this creative in turning their gifts into artistic projects.
2. Likewise, better she be outfitted in crazy, homemade versions of Gaga couture than the store-bought glittery pink duds she tends to wear in the box.
3. I like the idea that any doll can be turned into Gaga, regardless of color. In fact, having a black or Latina Gaga might ease some of the blonde white lady racial tension she inherited from Madonna.

Cons
1. Even better if a Ken doll be turned into Gaga, don’t you think? I do.
2. Let’s ugly Gaga up a bit more, shall we? Cover her in more blood, dye some of her hair black or purple, and give her a longer nose. In short, make her more grotesque. In doing so, owners might be honoring their burgeoning feminist idol while at the same time challenging the normative constructs of both the doll and the girl in her.
3. Give her a band or something. Maybe bring in a stuffed animal to play kazoo. Maybe have a Groovy Girl on the drums. Let’s just make sure that the diva doesn’t have to stand alone.
4. Barbie doesn’t have to be Gaga. She can be whatever the owner wants her to be, whether it’s a sleeping companion, a boy, a drag queen, the first female President of the United States, an audience for his or her unseen short film, or a discarded figure on the floor.

“You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars”: My like-hate relationship with Almost Famous

William Miller, Stillwater, and the Band-Aids, on the road; image courtesy of redriverautographs.wordpress.com

William Miller, Stillwater, and the Band-Aids, on the road; image courtesy of redriverautographs.wordpress.com

All right, folks. I’m home with the sniffles, so let’s roll up our sleeves for this one. I recently re-watched my VHS copy and am ready to get into it. At length. Double-album style. Watching the movie on video means I didn’t listen to any DVD commentaries to formulate my thoughts. And while I have seen the Untitled version, my opinions will mostly be generated from the theatrical release version. Keep this in mind reading on, but feel free to mix it up in the comments section.

Now, this is a movie that pushes and pulls me like few other. As I’ve grown older, depending on how I felt when I watched it, I waft somewhere between charitable introspection and vitriolic rejection, one time even going so far as drunkenly telling a friend who likes this movie to shut up (sorry, Leigh!).

I wasn’t always this way. When it first came out during my senior year of high school, I looooooooved it. I saw it with my best friend Jamie and a boy I would later regret dating. Jamie was the editor of the school newspaper. I made my extracurricular committment to choir, but wished I had room in my class schedule to write for The Clarion. I wanted to be William Miller, the fifteen-year-old journalist protagonist who fills in for director Cameron Crowe and his own (idealized?) experiences as a writer. Figuring I could catch up in college, I set my sights on UT’s journalism school. By graduation, I assumed I’d be working as a rock critic in New York City, perhaps following bands like Stillwater, the fictitious classic rock band based on The Allman Brothers Band that breaks (then promises to make) Miller’s career.

My hope of being a rock journalist was officially dashed the second time I was not hired as a writer for The Daily Texan‘s entertainment section. After this rejection, 19-year-old me reasoned that these fat cats were shills for the man with terrible taste in music. I might have even phrased it that way at the time. From here, I officially cast my lot with college radio.

It’s important to bring up music journalism, not only to burn on it out of bitter feelings of rejection. When this movie originally came out, it was a dangerous time for print publications like Rolling Stone and Spin, much like the early 70s was a dangerous time for rock music. 1973, the year this movie takes place, was a harbinger of the bloated, corporate, cool-hunting enterprise the mainstream music industry would become. By 2000, it had completely transformed into a deregulated, conglomerate behemoth, peddling a handful of marketable, palatable, and safe talent that could sell ancillary products and jack up the retail prices on those ancillary products, which the compact disc had become. Music listeners, irritated by ever-higher CD prices, began downloading illegally in earnest. Sometimes they were met with arrests and lawsuits. Sometimes those lawsuits were filed by the popular musicians they idolized. As a result of these actions, and some truly stupid strategies the music industry has used to push units, people are more incredulous of the music industry than ever.

It’s important to bring in the Internet and the ubiquity of digital technology too, as online communication affected print journalism. Throughout the 2000s, publications scrambled to keep up circulation and readership. Some were bought and sold to other conglomerates. Some turned from monthlies to quarterlies. Some drastically changed their content and marketing campaigns (the saddest one for me was Spin, a high school favorite that was Rolling Stone‘s cool, younger sibling; by the time I entered graduate school, it packaged itself as the hipster version of Us and lagged behind e-zines like Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes in its coverage of new music). Some shilled out to reality TV (looking at you, Rolling Stone). Some simply folded.

Along with publications, staffs shrunk due to budget cuts. Some folks survived the fall-out. Rob Sheffield came into the field from the academy and penned a touching memoir. Eric Weisbard became part of the academy, currently an American Studies professor at the University of Alabama. Some folks, like Sarah Lewitinn and Chuck Klosterman, became cults of personality. But others didn’t fare as well. Sia Michel lost her position as Spin‘s editor-and-chief, though was hired on to be The New York Times‘ pop music editor. At some places, an entertainment staff was whittled down to one person, if there was a department at all.

Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl; image courtesy of daylife.com

Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl; image courtesy of daylife.com

With the implosion of print-based music journalism came the advent of e-zines like Pitchfork and, of course, blogs. These folks, for good or for bad, may shape what criticism will look like in this century. I, for one, do see some good to blog culture (barring, you know, my recent public involvement with it). The principle assets I have found with it are its immediacy and DIY ethic. I couldn’t get a staff position at the Texan. I wasn’t financially able to take an internship. In short, traditional modes of ascension in the field weren’t available to me or many others. But blogging allows (some) writers to continue researching, hone their craft, and figure out just why they’re so interested in their subject of analysis.

Of course, there are hazards to blogging. Our collective attention span for new sounds has diminished. Furthermore, a considerable amount of misinformation gets reported. However, while I’m tempted to attribute this to a lack of fluency with journalistic principles of investigating, reporting, and fact-checking, I don’t know if it’s that simple. I’d hasten to point out that blogging and traditional journalism are both vulnerable to errors, unfair coverage, unequal time, and other ethical issues in the wake of the 24-hour news cycle.

In short, I watch this movie and think three things: 1) I don’t know if William Miller would be a journalist today, as the publications he would want to work at might not be able to hire him, 2) I do think he’d be a blogger, as the fan-critic and musician-journalist binaries in media culture have been considerably blurred since the early 70s, and 3) while this movie seems quaint in its depiction of a just-booming American music industry, it still seems completely relevant, maybe even more so than when the movie was originally released.

So, you would think based on all of this fodder, I’d love this movie. But it’s not so simple and the movie itself is only partly at fault. A major issue I have with the movie isn’t so much to do with its gender politics as it is with the gender politics of its fanboys. I have heard too many fanboys talk about this movie with fervor, as if God touched Cameron Crowe’s camera. They’ll regale folks with abstruse bits of commentary from the Untitled version and quiz people on what songs like Stillwater’s “Love Thing” and “Fever Dog” are really about (I think love and kicking addiction, respectively). They are often humorless, especially if you point out any similarities they might have to Vic Munoz, the movie’s Led Zeppelin devotee. Oh, and they always love Led Zeppelin. Always.

But Alyx. Smelly zealot fanboys shouldn’t keep you from liking a movie, you say. The movie has a lot of good things going for it, you add. There’s even a lot of interesting female characters walking around, being smart and human and brave, you note. You might even say they’re more interesting than altruistic protagonist William Miller, you whisper emphatically. Fair points all. So, let’s do what Mary Kearney did when I watched this movie in her gender and rock undergrad class and run through the women and girls we meet in Miller’s coming-of-age story. Note that many of them are autonomous beings, free agents on the road:

1. The Band-Aids, especially one Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson in what many argue is her only credible screen performance). They are not groupies and consider themselves fans who are autonomous, exercise sexual agency, and are not disposable, though some musicians have trouble seeing them the way they see themselves.

1A. While Penny Lane is clearly the Band-Aid leader, I’ve always loved Sapphire (played by Fairuza Balk). Label it blonde antipathy or brunette solidarity, but it’s hard not to love this rough, mischievous, funny, and wise lady. Can you imagine the stories she could tell? She intimates with William’s mother about his travels on the road and how she should be proud of her son from a hotel phone. She’s responsible for orchestrating the orgy that takes William’s (who she calls “Opie“) virginity. She’s also the one who delivers the hard truth about Penny and William to guitarist Russell Hammond. And she’s the one who insists that younger groupies take birth control, appreciate the music, and quit eating all the steak at crafts’ services.

2. Alice Wisdom, a deejay whose playlist Lester Bangs rudely rejects. Now I don’t like The Doors either, Lester, but that doesn’t mean you should shout over her opinions and discredit her taste in music. Unless you’re actually discrediting the radio station’s taste in music, in which case the deejay’s role becomes even more compromised. And this woman is already compromised by having the regulatory whiskey-throated voice that all female deejays seem required to have or emulate.
3. High school girls running for gym class. Stillwater bassist Larry Fellows perks up at the view from the tour bus; Penny Lane gives them the finger, glad that she’s playing hooky. That she’s not them.
4. Fans. Some of whom are Band-Aids or groupies, most of whom are regular girls and women with jobs and parents.
5. Band wives and girlfriends. They were there before the band got signed, are not often there for the shenanigans on the road, and probably won’t be there after the break-ups and divorces.
6. A particularly shrill feminist stereotype of a Rolling Stone journalist billed as Alison the Fact Checker. Sadly, she probably has to be in order to be heard in staff meetings. Plus, wouldn’t you be pissy if you were trying to forge a career, were all-too-cognizant of sexism and misogyny, but also loved writing about popular music? This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask Ann Powers, Dream Hampton, and Lorraine Ali.

How do you do it, dream hampton?; image courtesy of thestartingfive.net

"How do you do it, Dream Hampton?"; image courtesy of thestartingfive.net

7. A singer-songwriter jamming with another singer-songwriter who appear to be modeled after Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. William sees them playing in a hotel room during his first visit at the Riot House.
8. William’s big sister, Anita. She has a turbulent relationship with her mother and leaves home to become a flight attendant, leaving her kid brother a haul of amazing records, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue. She even gives him some good advice about how to listen to The Who’s Tommy that seems to have a lasting impression.
9. And, of course, William’s awesome, anti-establishment, overprotective mother Elaine, who is a college professor in San Diego. She is also the family matriarch, and probably was even before her husband died. Besides Lester, Ms. Miller is one of the few rebels. They both hold the distinction of being the only people who recognizes that rock culture, and its attendant cheap thrills and promises, is just another corporate enterprise.

Now, now. The dudes are interesting too, you might say. And masculinity is a discursive minefield here. So let’s walk through it. Let’s make like the movie and use William Miller to do this.
1. Miller himself is a soft-eyed, feminine boy played by then-unknown Patrick Fugit. He is hopelessly in love with Penny, a girl who may be his age but is out of his depth and hopelessly in love with someone else.

William Miller and his quest for truth; image courtesy of blog.lib.umn.edu

William Miller and his quest for truth; image courtesy of blog.lib.umn.edu

2. Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond is the talented, aloof, and cowardly lead guitarist for Stillwater. He’s technically better than his bandmates, and is quick to hover it over them. He takes William under his wing because he’s a fan, only to dismiss him when Bob Dylan makes an appearance at Max’s Kansas City. He also nearly ruins William’s journalistic integrity when his own credibility is on the line. He’s also in love with Penny, but more in love with becoming a rock star. He’s not so in love with his wife, Leslie. He loves himself more than anyone, and hates himself for it.
3. Stillwater lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) feels differently toward Leslie. He also has considerable animosity toward Hammond, whose emergent fame and skill is threatening to eclipse him and the rest of the band.
4. Bassist Larry Fellows and drummer Ed Vallencourt round out the band. Fellows (played by singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, who I named my cat after) seems only interested in barbeque and high school girls. Vallencourt (played by John Fedevich) is silent through most of the movie, until he announces that he’s gay during a traumatic airplane ride.
5. Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) and Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) manage the band. Fellows has been with them for most of their career. Hope convinces the band to cash in and sell out, most symbolically by trading their bus for a jet. They will regret this decision.
6. Jann Wenner and Ben Fong-Torres, Rolling Stone‘s respective editor-and-chief and senior editor, who serve as William’s bosses. Note the Wenner is gay, though at this time in his career, he was married to a woman named Jane. They would go on to have three children before divorcing in 1995. I haven’t read anything on Wenner, but am fascinated to learn how he negotiated all of this. Note also that Fong-Torres is Chinese American and one of the few people of color in both the movie and perhaps the emerging mainstream rock music industry. Note also the “Torres” surname, which his father adopted, dropping “Fong,” in order to pose as a Mexican in order to be granted U.S. citizenship while Chester Arthur’s Chinese Exclusion Act was still on the books. The family later kept both surnames.

Stillwater, on the cover of Rolling Stone; image courtesy of jeffdurling.com

Stillwater, on the cover of Rolling Stone; image courtesy of jeffdurling.com

But William doesn’t really have much in common with Stillwater. He wants to be them, but is in actual fact a music geek. Two like-minded male characters empathize, and share a relationship that is at once classically masculine in its indexical organization of rock’s ephemera and, at the same time, feminine in their romantic, homoerotic obsessive fandom.
1. Lester Bangs, William’s mentor, played by the formidable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is one of the main reasons I’ll be seeing Pirate Radio. Reportedly, his scenes were filmed while he had the flu. Bangs hates what rock journalism has become.

Lester Bangs imparting life lessons to William Miller; image courtesy of playground.chronicleblogs.com

Lester Bangs imparting life lessons to William Miller; image courtesy of playground.chronicleblogs.com

2. Vic Munoz, played by longtime Apatow mainstay Jay Baruchel. He’s the Zeppelin fan who follows the band everywhere, clutches a marker frontman Robert Plant once held, and wears his “Have you seen the bridge?” t-shirt at all times.

I should point out, however, that the girls index too. Penny Lane may not want William to take notes during Stillwater concerts, but that doesn’t mean that she, her peers, or William’s sister Anita, can’t rattle off band line-ups, industry players, and song lyrics.

And lest we forget that William actually forges strong relationships with his sister, his mother, and the Band-Aids. While Sapphire, Polexia, and the gang seduce William, they also believe in him, intimate secrets with him, and provide him support, though they sometimes treat him as a minion and less as an equal.

I should also point out, since I opined that Miller doesn’t have much in common with Stillwater, that he does have an interesting relationship with Hammond nonetheless. Miller, a kid brother with an older sister, doesn’t seem to have any male friends or role models before he takes Bangs’s assignment to cover Black Sabbath for Creem, a band for whom Stillwater is opening and launches Miller’s almost-too-good-to-be-true feature assignment for Rolling Stone.

I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Hammond as a friend or role model. Perhaps he’s better suited for an older brother position. At first, Miller looks up to Hammond, calling his guitar-playing “incendiary” and trying (largely in vain) to emulate his slingin’, ‘stached bravado. But, despite a Band-Aid orgy (controlled by the women who believe that “Opie must die”), Miller clearly doesn’t have that kind of swagger. He also doesn’t seem to want it, seeing Hammond’s cowardice beneath it. He also recognizes the irony of such inauthentic displays of machismo and ego in a form supposedly as authentic, romantic, and pure as rock is supposed to be, and is quickly unbecoming. Perhaps he also notices the rigid gender roles and chauvinism that inform the supposed gains of free love and the sexual revolution. This hypocrisy, along with the band’s quick rejection of real fans for industry success and the promise of rock mythology, make Miller able to put Hammond and his band mates in their place during the climactic plane scene. His honesty and integrity also earns him their trust, especially Hammond’s, who finally grants him a real interview at the end of the movie.

As an aside, if Hammond is Miller’s imperfect older brother, he steps right into the role by sassing Ms. Miller when he first talks to her on the phone, immediately snapping into a “yes ma’am, no ma’am” routine when she admonishes his behavior and values.

Miller’s character also wins the respect of Penny Lane, even when she’s ignoring the icky realities of seeing yourself as a fan but being treated as a groupie, as disposable as a real Band-Aid.

Note that it doesn’t win Lane’s affections, at least not physically. She may be too hard for or scared of Miller’s feelings (which are announced, unfortunately, in a scene where Miller kisses Lane, who just overdosed on Quaaludes). She may not be ready for rejecting her own rock star mythology in order to be truly intimate with someone (though she suggests she might when she tells Miller that she came into this world as one Lady Goodman). Maybe doing so would make her the typical teen she (and William’s mother) see little value in becoming. Maybe not consummating this relationship suggests they have no interest in typical interactions with one another.

Yet Miller’s and Lane’s relationship, which seems built on male fantasy, is an issue I have with this movie. I don’t get what the fuss is about, frankly. I understand that Lane is pretty, savvy, and well-traveled, but don’t understand why Miller has such a crush on her, primarily because I don’t understand how loving a band’s music leads you toward doing their ironing backstage while the boy you love in the band can’t be bothered to love you back. More importantly, I don’t know who she really is. Maybe the self-mythology is part of what prevents me (and certainly Miller) from getting close. Maybe the challenge of trying to find out who the real Penny Lane is warrants enough of a fascinating exercise for Miller. And maybe it isn’t any of our business who Lane really is. But I sort of wonder if she’s perfectly matched with Hammond, a man who wants desperately to be the myth he’s created for himself. Maybe this suggests that both of them have something in common with Don Draper. Here’s one scene where I think Lane, alone after a concert, drops the masquerade (note that the scene follows Stillwater’s treacherous meeting with super-manager Hope).

Admittedly, perhaps my problem resides in Kate Hudson’s performance. Perhaps I want her not to channel her mother, herself a manic pixie dream girl of this era, so much. Perhaps I’m projecting Goldie Hawn’s presence and ignoring how Hudson is making this role her own. I do think Hudson does a good job balancing Lane’s contrasts and contradictions, perhaps a better job than Kirsten Dunst (who almost got this role, but was cast in Crowe’s Elizabethtown instead) would.

And I do think I’m being unfair in my dismissal of Kate Hudson and Penny Lane. Because I think my real problem, as it usually is with Crowe’s movies, is the director’s unfortunate habit of crutching on the magic of pop music. Admittedly, this might be a hard habit for a music geek director to break, but it has kept me from enjoying his other movies (including, yes, Say Anything). And it’s probably contradictory for a music fan not to like pop music playing such a pronounced role in Crowe’s work. To me, however, Crowe’s use of pop music suggests the necessity of delicate application. Because I hate how he uses Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in one of the movie’s big reconciliatory moments, as its obvious that he is making the case for how pop music’s universality heals all psychic wounds. When Lane tells Miller that he is home, all I can think is “fucking duh.”

While I feel like the movie’s score adds to the treacle (especially during the scene when Miller runs with Lane’s departing plane), I do admire Cameron Crowe’s ongoing collaborations with wife and Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. We’d do well to remember Wilson’s rock legend status, score work, and Crowe’s relationship with Wilson when making sexist assumptions about Sofia Coppola’s relationship with Phoenix’s Thomas Mars, who is working on her next movie, Somewhere. We might also like to keep it in mind when thinking about Karen O’s involvement in ex-boyfriend Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Going back to Crowe’s unfortunate flirtations with the obvious for my closing remarks, he does make a few other points in this movie in highlighter yellow that I love anyway. So much so that I’ve shaped my life around them. In the interest of full disclosure, I will share them now, suggesting that sometimes flirtations with the obvious are essential and humane.

1) The introductory scene between Bangs and Miller, when Bangs talks about staying up all night, writing about music. Whether or not he was high on cough syrup and speed or the tomes he devoted to The Faces or John Coltrane were dribble didn’t matter. The objective, as William knows well, is “just to fuckin’ write.” It’s an objective I know well too. It’s a key reason why I put this blog together in the first place, and I’m certainly not alone.
2) Lane has a great line as well, one that has stayed with me as I age. I’m a firm believer in the advice she gives Miller when she drives them to the Riot House: “if you ever get lonely, you just go to the record store and visit your friends.” The comfort I have found in record stores cannot be overstated, and I only hope that, as I get older, at least a few of them don’t get completely mowed down to make way for more lucrative businesses. I might have to stay in a city that shares kinship with Austin to assure this, but I think it’s worth it. I’d rather live in a city that appreciates the cultural and communal value of record stores over a city that only sees value in their market returns.

After all this, I believe Almost Famous to be an interesting and challenging movie at times marred by its idealism, sentimentality, and emphasis on one very lucky boy’s experience following around a band and writing down what happened. Thus, it’s a movie I keep coming back to, even if I don’t feel the need to replace the tape.

Check out The Girls’ Guide to Rocking

Cover of The Girls Guide to Rocking by Jessica Hopper (Workman, 2009); image courtesy of timeoutchicago.com

Cover of The Girl's Guide to Rocking by Jessica Hopper (Workman, 2009); image courtesy of timeoutchicago.com

My friend Evan reminded me to give this book a read a few months ago and I finally got around to it. If you’re starting to put a band together, regardless of age, I highly recommend it.

This is an encouraging, user-friendly read written by a woman who has worked as both a critic, blogger, and musician (with some controversial riot grrrl cred — she was featured in a Newsweek article that ultimately resulted in the movement’s media shut-out). Hopper shares her experience the way a big sister or her cool friend would. She is helpful, practical, and candid, She offers personal anecdotes for how she learned the lessons she’s teaching and throws in necessary jargon while always explaining things clearly, sometimes with pretty pictures.

Hopper walks the reader through the entire process of being in a band, from picking out your instrument to getting lessons to starting a band to the song-writing process to the recording process to putting together promotional materials to booking gigs to touring to navigating legalese and accounting. In doing so, she gives really useful, concise advice on issues like how to pick out an instrument, draft a rehearsal schedule, muffle the sound of your instruments so you can practice at home, check in with your bandmates to insure high morale, determine whether or not you need a manager or producer, how to set up a band Web site, and how to put a flyer or a band bio together.

Though in essence a how-to book, I also appreciate that she recommends books about songwriting, music history, herstory, and musical movements, as well as movies and other supplemental material that will give readers a larger, more comprehensive understanding of how their efforts fit into the popular music’s historical context.

I also like that Hopper makes room for alternate routes to being a musician. While the focus of this book is pretty rock-centric, Hopper is also encouraging of musicians who experiment with line-ups and instrumentation, choose to go solo, and look into performing in non-traditional venue spaces. In short, if you wanna be in a three-person Moog, turntable, and floor tomb ensemble that plays at your local laundromat, she believes in you. In fact, as she says in her book, if you’re a harmonica player who covers Radiohead songs, she’d definitely go to your gig.

One thing I would’ve liked a bit more consideration for (and am interested in reading about more thoroughly) is how to be a vocalist. There is discussion about voice through songwriting, gear, and recording, but I would’ve liked to know more about, say, how to play an instrument while singing at the same time (something neither me nor B.B. King knows how to do). I also would’ve liked more discussion on how a vocalist fits into a band. As they are providing instrumentation as well, it would’ve been nice to talk about how they need to hear the other instruments and if they need to tune with them.

That said, I still found this book helpful, pragmatic, and, above all, supportive. From your inaugural visit to the local guitar shop to completing your first tour and beyond, Hopper believes in you. With the holiday season coming up, this is an ideal gift to show that you believe in the emerging musician(s) in your life, whether they are your seven-year-old neighbor, your GRCA-going tweenage sister, or your 80-year-old grandmother.

“Shines like the real thing, real thing, real thing . . .” Gossip’s “Dimestore Diamond”

Cover to Music for Men (Columbia, 2009), note drag king cover subject is drummer Hannah Blilie; image courtesy of indieelectrorock.blogspot.com

Cover to Music for Men (Columbia, 2009), note drag king cover subject is drummer Hannah Blilie; image courtesy of indieelectrorock.blogspot.com

I’m assembling my thoughts on Anna Sui’s Gossip Girl-inspired clothing line for Target. Since I might bitch about synergy, normalizing skinny, gendered body types for young consumers, and the great malling of America at some point in that post, I thought I’d post a wonderful alternative to these at-this-point rote grievances by highlighting Gossip’s “Dimestore Diamond,” a new song off their soon-to-be-released Songs For Men. You can listen to it here (oh, and should you choose to click on the NPR link, maybe say hi to Lightning Bolt, Dead Man’s Bones, Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down, La Loup, and BlakRoc).

In this very sexy, rocking song that does a great job bridging the band’s bluesy origins with its more recent new wave leanings, a woman (who may or may not be engaged in the world’s oldest profession) is praised for her ability to maximize the fashionable potential out of thrift store togs, cut her own hair, and make her own clothes. Who says you have to rely on high-end fashion or commercial retailers to put together a fly outfit? Here here!

Also, given that “everybody knows” the things this diamond does to please, I can’t help but wonder if she lives in a small town. Perhaps I’m projecting Searcy, Arkansas — the band’s hometown origins — onto the song, but it’s hard for me not to read the song’s narrative as being informed by issues of class and place. This brings a few things to mind for me.

1. In a Bust interview, lead singer Beth Ditto talks about growing up a working class, closeted Southern girl and how, if she hadn’t left her hometown, she may have stayed in the closet, gotten pregnant, gotten married, and lived a lie. 

2. As a tangent, Ditto’s interview also makes me think about Kurt from Glee, FOX’s new dramedy that is starting to get really good. In last night’s episode, Kurt finds himself as a place kicker for his school’s football team, as well as coming out to his butch, widowed father — all because of the power of Beyoncé (and man, talk about a text that plays with lip syncing, dis/embodiment, trying on identities, and drag — put your hands up, Winona Ryder). These are two brave acts from a young man who (at least for now) finds himself stuck in Lima, Ohio.

3. And finally, taking points 1 and 2 together, I wanna give a hug to all the closeted kids I knew in high school who didn’t feel safe with who they really were then (and maybe some still don’t). I hope wherever you are, you’re shining like the real thing.