Knowledge gaps are a funny thing. As a media studies graduate student, I’m frequently confronted by what I haven’t seen. Some of these titles baffle my students and colleagues–The Goonies, The Hunger Games, all six installments of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator 2. I caught up with Psy’s “Gangham Style” last summer. I saw Die Hard a few weeks ago. I watched the Beyoncé album two days before Christmas, which is a lifetime ago for Internet traffic. I’ve never seen a complete season of Seinfeld, despite its deathless existence in syndication.
Of course, I could make closing these gaps more of a priority. To some extent, I do. I’ll often take cues from my friends and carve out a little time for certain films, television shows, and music. For example, I’m currently watching cult Lisa Kudrow vehicle The Comeback in honor of my friend Erik because I miss him. Last winter, my partner and I started a holiday tradition of watching guild screener copies of “For Your Consideration” fare with his Chicago-based aunt and uncle who work in the entertainment industry. And I’m always keeping a list. But the above admission may suggest a couple of things about me. First, it might seem curious for someone who cannot keep up with such widely accepted touchstones of popular culture to keep a music blog and pursue graduate education in media studies. Second, more skeptical readers may intuit a curatorial function to my limited exposure.
But who doesn’t curate what they consume? When I was younger, I made a conscious effort to avoid a lot of blockbuster fare because I assumed things like Sid and Nancy were more important. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about the larger political implications behind my consumer decisions. I tend to be rather dogmatic in my choices. Seth MacFarlane doesn’t need me to support his various entertainment ventures, so I have no reason to watch Family Guy and witness the program’s awful treatment of Meg Griffin. As a result, I usually prioritize media and art created by women. Even if I take issue with what I’ve seen or heard, I recognize the relative difficulty of finding an audience for such work. And taking issue means thinking, either in writing or through conversation. I was lucky enough to catch a screening of UW-Madison alumna Jill Soloway’s excellent feature debut, Afternoon Delight and even luckier to ask her about the productively messy collision of the film’s feminist and class politics during the Q&A. Exposing myself to these things and engaging with the women who made them is always going to matter to me.
Yes, I tend toward “cool,” feminist/women-affirming, indie/left-of-mainstream things. This is why I tend to avoid doing a year-end write-up. My favorites probably wouldn’t surprise you. And while I love reading other people and publications’ lists–if for no other reason than to play catch-up–ranking systems often evade me. What does it mean to be the seventh-best album of the year? What does it mean to be “Album of the Year” in the first place? But during my first year at Madison, I befriended a feminist media scholar who, to my mind, came to her subject of study (comics) for the same reason I cared about the production of music culture: it enriched our feminism.
Last year, my favorite album cover was Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe. In general, I think Santi White makes fun, innovative pop music. This album was no exception. But I was especially taken with White’s multiple, fragmented presence in the composition–in a bespoke suit as a man, in duplicate as glamorous attendants, in a Napoleon-ic pose as a work of art. I struggled to find words to interpret the cover’s larger meanings. Defeated and distracted by other obligations, I abandoned the draft. Similar feelings and responsibilities kept me quiet this year. After a point, you wonder if it’s too late to contribute one more post about Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. You’re not sure where to fit a thousand words over your ambivalence about the presence of Deerhunter front man Bradford Cox’s queer, Marfans-formed body in Dallas Buyers Club. You let things go.
I’m sad about that, as I’m happiest when I give myself the opportunity to write independent of mine or others’ expectations. Recently, my thesis adviser shared a blog one of her students started. What struck me the most about it was its seeming immediacy. When I started this blog, many of my posts boiled down to 200 words of “hey, look at this thing!” I miss that. I believe in making soft resolutions at the dark, cold start of a new year. That’s how I started this blog. While I’m going to try not to put enormous pressure on myself to be a prolific, visible writer, I will attempt to share more.
One thing I’m always willing to share is album art. Much of what first drew me to music were evocative covers around which you could build your world. I imagine that this same sense of wonder, of seductive immersion, brought people to Star Wars too. Here now are a selection of some of my favorite album covers and a brief explanation of why I loved them.
Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Cover Art: Sam Spratt
If I were to give out an award for album of the year, it might go to this electric lady. As with her previous outing, I would still like her to refine her focus a bit more. But I’m not going anywhere. If Beyoncé is our Queen of Pop, then Monáe is our two-tone funky Prince(ss). I love this cover for the same reason I love Master of My Make-Believe (the leader has a pompadour, but the Monáettes each have a distinct personality under their matching mod bobs) and also because I was so happy that Erykah Badu recast herself as the female, pink version of the Love Below in OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” video.
Cover Art: Jane Chardiet
Margaret Chardiet is mythologizing herself when she says that this tableau is a recreation of a moment when she found maggots eating a dead flower nestled inside an old love letter. But all mediation is mythology anyway. And this image nicely reflects Abandon‘s brutal beauty. I can’t wait to see her live.
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Cover Art: Kathleen Judge
It’s easy to reduce this to Case’s “depression” album, and I certainly don’t want to do that (Case contains multitudes). Yet this image elegantly represents the perilous creatures you invent in your mind and the woozy clarity that comes with wrestling your own sadness and anger. Also, I marvel that her voice and writing get sharper and more formidable with each album. If I were a lit major, I’d more confidently assay a Flannery O’Connor comparison. But really, Case is on her own journey.
The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
Cover Art: Martin Falck
Beets are my favorite vegetable because they taste like the earth, look like vital organs, and stain cutting boards with a lurid, eye-searing pink. If it’s not hot pink, fuchsia, or magenta, go home. Pink needs to call attention to itself, make itself strange. Pink cannot be a complicit color. It must be rude and loud and slightly disorienting. Our queer brothers and sisters know this, and so do the Knife. Also, stick around for Liv Strömquist’s sleeve art. Actually, I’d be comfortable with claiming this as my favorite album, as I always had it on hand when I wrote.
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
Cover Art: Dean Chalkley and Rob Crane
When you have the bearing of a queen and the voice of a superstar, you don’t need to face forward. We can meet your gaze. We can marvel at your profile and anticipate you drawing in your breath before you start in on another song.
Cover Art: Isaac Gale
Upon second glance, this picture appears to be a woman waiting for her hair dye to take hold. But the vivid, austere combination of pale skin, blue wall, and smeared red substance suggest, much like the album, a presence more menacing in its intimacy. Something tells me that the feminist theorist after whom the album is named would appreciate the image and its myriad interpretations.
Cover Art: Tom Manaton and Daniel Sannwald
One of my favorite late-night performances of the year was M.I.A.’s one-two punch of “YALA” and “Come Walk With Me” on The Colbert Report under blinking red and green lights to match her album art. My entire relationship to this album is through YouTube and, with the pixelation, that sounds about right. A nice companion piece to Shaking the Habitual.
The Julie Ruin, Run Fast
Cover Art: Allyson Mitchell
If I designed the cover art for Run Fast, I would try to capture my feelings from listening to this record, which disrupted any household chore with a one-woman dance-off. Then I found out that the image is part of a series called “Ladies Sasquatch” by artist Allyson Mitchell about “imagining utopias or queer/politicized worlds where gender is dreamed about outside of social construction.” I still discover new heroes and heroines each time I listen to “Hot Topic,” and now I can add Mitchell to the list. This is just one more example of how Kathleen Hanna transformed my citational politics.
The Blow, The Blow
Cover Art: Melissa Dyne
The triangle is the support structure to so much architecture. It’s the basic unit for stars, pyramids, and yield signs. It’s a shape that delights in difference, able to be scalene, isosceles, equilateral, right, obtuse, acute. Khalela and Melissa know this, and pitch their warped pop music somewhere between the mundane and the divine in tribute.
Dynasty, A Star in Life’s Clothing
Cover Art: Simone Cihlar and Darryl Richardson
If only this image were in motion, as there’s not a dull moment on this lively album. Like the best pop stars, Dynasty is a beauty who moves. She’s another artist I can’t wait to see live.
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Cover Art: Gaspar Noé
Gender is definitely operative in taste curation, and often subordinates femininity. Such concerns apply to Ferreira, a young pop star who captures the imagination of male creative types like filmmaker Noé, producer Ariel Rechtshaid, DIIV front man Zachary Cole Smith, and fashion designers Marc Jacobs and Hedi Slimane. But there’s a depth, candor, and rage to her voice (qualities sharpened by survival) that informs this cover and makes the Shirley Manson comparisons more than a question of eyeliner.
Savages, Silence Yourself
Cover Art: Antoine Carlier and Richard Dumas
Because finally a group of women can update Joy Division and beat countless art school boys at their own game. And because “Husbands” and this cover seems to have something to do with Patti Smith’s Horses too.
Julia Holter, Loud City Song
Cover Art: Rob Carmichael
Apparently Gigi served as inspiration for Holter’s third album. I have trouble making out the references–perhaps Chevalier is eclipsing my recollections of Caron, perhaps I should read some Colette. But this photograph–of some building on a Los Angeles city street–reminds me of that feeling of waking up from a long car trip, rubbing your neck and losing grip on your last dream, to a place not quite recognizable as a destination.
Cover Art: Jonathan Turnaer
In many ways, this cover reminds me of the kaleidescopic Ring, save for a few key differences. First, the muted color palette. Second, a clearer sense of place. Finally, Cameron Mesirow’s decentered but guiding presence.
Cover Art: Garrett Born
First, BEST DENIM JACKET EVER. Second, I saw Lizzo open for Poliça earlier this year and she shut it down. Third, one of the songs on this album is called “Lizzie Borden.” Fourth, she’s part of a crew called GRRRL PRTY and I don’t need to explain to you why that’s awesome. Fifth, I appreciate her commitment to that hat even if it doesn’t offer proper shade. I don’t know where she’s at or where she’s planning to go in this picture, but I will follow her and the party that forms around her. Pump this album at full blast in your car. Dance like it’s your friend’s going-away bash and she’s not getting the deposit back. See Lizzo if she comes to your town. Get your life.
At some point during the winter holidays, I found myself in an airport terminal checking my Twitter feed. Sarah Jaffe tweeted that she wakes up to Azealia Banks’ “212”. By the end of my first term at Madison, I integrated it into my morning routine. It’s forward-looking pop that’s brimming with attitude. Banks’ filthy mouth rivals her pop star’s ear. No wonder you can buy t-shirts emblazoned with the song’s oft-quoted lyric. I hope Karl Lagerfeld paid for one.
Mainly, “212” made me feel good. It made me feel 50 feet tall on my afternoon jogs. It made me feel invincible as I was wrapping up term papers and posting students’ grades. It made me feel good while drowning out crying babies or trying to wrap my head around Judith Butler’s “Contingent Foundations” on the bus. It still makes me feel like the pedestrian bridge is my runway when I’m heading over to Memorial Library from Vilas.
But I began to wonder why I felt good listening to “212”. Look, I’m not anti-pleasure. Let’s celebrate our bodies. Let’s enjoy each other. Let’s play. But as a feminist, I think we have a responsibility to account for how our pleasures are constituted, what they mean, and if they harm or exclude others. So I could easily pull apart the elements that make it a great pop song. Any well-constructed pop song can withstand such deconstruction and usually does without its permission.
There’s Banks’ giddy delivery. She thrilled that she’s getting away with lines like “cock-a-licking in the water by the blue bayou.” There’s the beat, of course, coupled with passages of relentlessly inventive, unfolding, interlocking hooks. And there’s oh so much fun queer sex at play that I don’t even care or notice if I’m being dominated. Actually, I like it! The song’s deceptively simple melody and complex production design reveals itself gradually upon repeated listens. It is rich with “details and decisions that” according to Tom Ewing, “suggest a scary degree of pop talent.” And like any good piece of pop art, it’s projectable. It sounds like a dystopian rave remix to “Miss Mary Mack.” It sounds like a dance party at zero gravity. It sounds like tripping balls, making crank calls, and scissoring on the moon. It transcends all of these empty proclamations.
But as a feminist, I wondered how or if I could justify liking this song, or if that was missing the entire point. I couldn’t figure out how I felt about the song’s trash talk. Which of course made me think about all of the other female MCs I love who could teach graduate seminars on the subject. Trash talk is the foundation of battle rapping. Importantly, it’s something women in hip hop engage in with one another as well as with their male counterparts. Roxanne Shanté took on Sparky Dee and UTFO. It’s also integral to the process of star formation, uttering a self in opposition and from an elevated platform (at least seemingly) of her own making.
Does trash talk fit into feminist practice? This is a follow-up question to another issue I’ve posed on this blog: how does feminism account for feminists who don’t get along with each other? I don’t like to think of any feminist as my enemy, but I knew at least one in my early twenties who is no longer my friend. How does feminism account for that? Sisterhood is about collaboration, but collaboration is hardly utopian. Even people with the same goals will radically disagree and may even make each other angry. I try to be kind to myself and not negatively compare myself against “more successful” colleagues in my small moments. As a feminist, I feel it’s my duty to be supportive or, if I can’t be so noble, at least not petty. But I have as much “Imma ruin you, cunt” in me as I do “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten.”
But I’m stuck in a dead end. I wrote a term paper about anti-fan discourse around Zooey Deschanel last semester. One of my professor’s critiques was that I seemed unable to engage with my own anti-fandom. Which is true. I actively avoided engaging with it because I didn’t want to confuse my hatred of “Zooey Deschanel” (as sign, as image, as marketing tool) with my relative lack of knowledge about Zooey Deschanel, person. I know some infuriating things about her that suggest I would hate her as a person, but I’m not sure where to make the distinction. And I’m worried that the entire exercise might be misogynistic.
“212” uses the word “bitch” constantly, almost as a preposition. It also treats the n-word like a preposition, which is a different but related issue I don’t know how to address. I’m aware that I contribute to a publication that reclaimed “bitch” for feminist purposes. So long as Bitch continues to publish work by people like s.e. smith, Aymar Jean Christian, Alyssa Rosenberg, J. Victoria Saunders, and Audra Schroeder, I’ll remain proud of that. But I’m deeply ambivalent about such appropriation.
I get the tactical reasons behind it–steal and repurpose words that have been imposed on you. But on the one hand, I do not like and do not abide being called a “bitch,” “slut,” or “hoe” as an ironic term of endearment by girlfriends. I don’t think it’s cute. I think it’s oppressive. I feel the ground shift beneath me each time I hear it on a lunch date or at happy hour, as though the subtext beneath the sweetly delivered pejorative is “Imma ruin you, cunt.” All of the sudden an innocent meet-up is a game of chess and I lost my queen. Yet on the other hand, I can’t count how many times I’ve used those words on myself. 30 Rock fans, remember that cutaway gag where a dolled-up Liz Lemon looks in the mirror, yells at herself for sweating, and calls herself a bitch? I only laughed because I recognized an ugly side of myself in the joke.
I may (and do) mouth the words “Imma ruin you cunt” on the way to class and in the middle of the run. But the bridge to “212” is what gets me. It’s the only sung moment, and appropriately, the only truly vulnerable moment. Banks questions her own bravado, laziness, and expendibility. It’s a heavy moment, and one she cannot dwell on because the beat carries her away. As it should. These moments of self-doubt are necessary, transformative, and recurrent, but we can’t be paralyzed by them.
In some ways, “212” is a mirror image of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” There’s a major difference between the two songs, of course. “212” doesn’t end with a gong or indulge in Orientalist notions of Japanese women’s sense of style. Imagine my horror when I was rocking out to it for the fifth time and realized she wasn’t singing “Your hair is sure cute, girl. Damn, you’ve got some wicked style.” Stefani’s desire to “go back and do Japan, give me lots of brand new fans” should’ve been a clue. Or the video. That’s how pop gets you.
“What You Waiting For?” is about Stefani’s fear that she’s an imposter and can’t create new music as a solo artist after years of fronting No Doubt. It’s in the verses that she calls herself a stupid hoe. The bridge is where she imagines herself past the self-loathing and back on stage. Where the comparison doesn’t work is that Banks isn’t colonizing Asian women for personal gain (on that tack, I await her M.I.A. collaboration). But where the comparison does have some salience is in how Banks spends most of the song bragging, talking shit, acquiring sexual favors, and dominating people except in one instance where she’s not sure if she’s worth it. Banks and Stefani have to confirm for themselves that they matter so they can keep on dancing. So do we. Sometimes we need a pop song to help us move forward, even if the reasons why we dance are never innocent.
M.I.A.’s Madonna’s half-time show took some unpacking, didn’t it? You can read my take over at Antenna.
I made a girlfriend a mix CD for Galentine’s Day. This was the reasonable thing to do when said friend made you an awesome batch of vegan Linzer cookies and a homemade card with Burberry hearts. I don’t want to disclose too many of the songs, because I made the mix especially for her. However, here are a few tracks I’m willing to share with ya’ll.
For all the lahhh-vuhhhs.
For promising introductions.
For the soldiers of love.
For those who know the best love is the kind you give yourself.
Jennifer Kelly is my favorite writer at Dusted, my go-to music e-zine. Recently she conceded that this year in music had a lot of contenders, but no clear leader of the pack. She then went on to list ten albums she really liked regardless of music critics’ echo chamber. It’s a good list, and I recommend you check it out. I also think you should give some time to Wetdog, a British punk band I learned about from her list.
In many ways, 2010 was an embarrassment of riches. So many big-name artists released career-peak records and lots of up-and-comers made me excited to listen to music each week (day? half-day? quarter-day? how rapid is the cycle now?). On paper, it’s a banner year. Yet I can’t pick one album that defines it. But that’s probably a good thing.
If I were to draft a list, three albums would place at #2. Critical darling Janelle Monáe comes the closest to topping my list. She defied commercial expectations with a pop album called The ArchAndroid about a futuristic metropolis that fused Prince with Octavia Butler. Joanna Newsom channeled Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan to create the dusky reveries on the enveloping Have One on Me. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lifted synths straight out of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and the Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” while borrowing from Berlin-era Bowie for This Is Happening, which was book-ended by two of the man’s best songs.
The last two artists also managed to follow up and improve upon the albums that made them big tent attractions. Like most great pop music, they transcend their influences and ambitions. Yet each album is weighed down by at least one song. I always skip Happening‘s “You Wanted A Hit?,” which is too long and repetitive, even if it is aware of these things. I won’t fault Monáe and Newsom’s scope, but pruning a few tracks off for an EP or as b-sides might have been helpful. I think “Say You’ll Go” and “Kingfisher” don’t have the impact they could have elsewhere. If Newsom were referencing PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, “Kingfisher” would be her “Horses in My Dreams,” but it’s buried here.
BTW, no one’s jostling for #3. It’s Flying Lotus’ elegantly trippy Cosmagramma all the way.
As with every year, there are albums that are overrated and underpraised. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a perfect #11. It’s got fascinating angst and pathos that recalls another celebrity guilt rock record, Nirvana’s In Utero while squarely situating it as a black man’s experiences with fame. West’s bionic, prog-inflected production is the most potent it’s ever been. “All of the Lights” and “Monster” are among the year’s best songs, though credit goes solely to Nicki Minaj for the latter. But Jesus am I tired of reading ovations that cite the rapper’s Twitter feed. Yes, it provides insights into his process. And yes, it is noteworthy how West made so many tracks available to fans before the album was released (and maybe I’d bump it to #10 if “Chain Heavy” made the final cut). But it’s hardly album of the year or even a career best (in my opinion, he still hasn’t improved upon Late Registration).
Conversely, Spoon’s Transference is an ideal #9. People seem to hold one of America’s best rock bands in lower esteem this year for making an incomplete-sounding album. To my ears, this is an ingenious thing for a band so preoccupied with space and compositional austerity to do with a break-up record. I keep returning to tracks like “Is Love Forever” and “Nobody Gets Me,” yearning for a resolution I know I won’t find. I’d also mention that Marnie Stern‘s latest record (which would probably round out the top five) and Dessa‘s A Badly Broken Code (a peerless #4) were slept on. If they didn’t place higher, it’s only because they didn’t feel the need to announce their greatness and came on as slow burners. The same could be said of Seefeel‘s earthy dub on Faults (possibly #7) and Georgia Anne Muldrow, who had an incredibly prolific year that peaked with Kings Ballad (between #8-10). Psalm One’s Woman @ Work series on Bandcamp has me anticipating her next album. Oh, and since this was a year largely defined by albums about break-ups and shaky make-ups, Erykah Badu’s Second World War (#8) needs your attention.
There’s also lots of new stuff I liked this year that I hope ages with me. I’ve made peace with my misgivings about the limited shelf life of Sleigh Bells’ bubblegum through blown speakers, in part because Treats (#12-15 with some staying power) sounds amazing in the car, which is where all great pop records become immortal in the states. I’d like Best Coast more if leader Bethany Cosentino just went ahead and wrote a concept album about the munchies or her cat instead of devoting so many songs to boys. Sufjan Stevens’ indulgence bored me silly, as did Surfer Blood’s inability to rise past their influences and sound like themselves. Big Boi and Bun B’s ambitious releases deserve their accolades, but they should excite me more than they do. I have yet to fall in love with Robyn the way everyone else has, but Rihanna continues to be my girl.
I’m really into the new Anika record, which is tailor-made for insomniacs. However, I’m certain that a woman with a Teutonic monotone snarling her way through catatonia as producer Geoff Barrow quotes post-punk’s buzzsaw guitar noise holds limited appeal. I always welcome a new Gorillaz album, and Plastic Beach certainly delivered. Among others, I liked new efforts from Baths, El Guincho, Noveller, M.I.A., Grass Widow, Sharon Van Etten, Soft Healer, Beach House, Mountain Man, The Black Keys, Cee-Lo Green, Tobacco, Sky Larkin, Tame Impala, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Nite Jewel, Deerhunter, Vampire Weekend, Warpaint, Antony and the Johnsons, The Budos Band, and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, even if the last two artists essentially release the same great album each time out. And even though I get a free cocktail if Merge wins the Album of the Year Grammy, Matador had a good year for me with Glasser, Esben and the Witch, and Perfume Genius, whose harrowing confessionals will hopefully find a larger audience (Sufjan fans, listen up).
(Note: don’t get me started on the Arcade Fire. I’m going to be mean and unfair, as I’ve been since I gave up on liking Funeral. Suffice it to say, I’m not fond of them and think I can tell you more about living in a Houston suburb than they can. But it won’t be a productive conversation because I’ll tear up my throat launching cheap shots about dressing for the Dust Bowl and wearing denim jackets to prove that you’re one with the working man. It’s not helpful, so I’ll be kind and say they’re fine at what they do but I want no part of it.)
Part of why I can’t settle on a #1 is because I don’t think it matters. I don’t think I need an album to define the year for me. It’s always seemed that selecting one was a fool’s errand. Steve Albini may very well be an insufferable jerk, but he’s absolutely right when he said “Clip your year-end column and put it away for 10 years. See if you don’t feel like an idiot when you reread it.” Last year, I chose Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone. While it helped situate my feelings for the year, it can’t hold a candle to her modern classic Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But now I’m not even sure what the point is. This exercise doesn’t take into account all of the older music I finally prioritized this year. For me, 2010 is just as much defined by digging through Cocteau Twins and Throwing Muses records (4AD had a good year in all kinds of ways), as well as getting excited about Mary Timony, Jenny Toomey, and Carla Bozulich.
Furthermore, I’ve sometimes lost sight of why I write in this medium. Apart from being vulnerable to having my content scraped by sketchy sites and feeling like I should be doing something more politically important with my time, it can be a challenge to keep the routine of blogging from dulling the impact of your work. This may have more to do with a need to explore scarier forms of writing, like the kind that requires the involvement of a guitar or a storyboard. As a departure, I started a film blog series for Bitch last month. It’s been the right kind of challenging, though I’m not always certain I’m effectively communicating what I hope to accomplish. Music allows for abstraction where films require exposition, which sometimes makes me feel like I’m writing several variations on “I walked to the chair and sat down.” But I’m learning and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’ve also been fortunate this year to contribute content for Bitch, Tom Tom Magazine, Elevate Difference, I Fry Mine in Butter, and Scratched Vinyl, for which I’m grateful and hope I’ve done a service to those publications. In addition to music critics I love like Laina Dawes, Maura Johnston, and Audra Schroeder, I’m excited and challenged by writing from Amy Andronicus, Always More to Hear, Soul Ponies, Jenny Woolworth, Sadie Magazine, Women in Electronic Music, This Recording, and regularly follow podcasts like Cease to Exist and Off Chances.
I don’t mean to be self-effacing toward my efforts, as I’m proud of them. It’s been a good year and it’s healthy to be critical when you’re taking stock. Perhaps I’m responding to a lack of stability. This was a year of change. Some changes were seismic, like when several friends had babies. Others were gradual, like my partner launching a successful music e-zine and me delving into the world of freelance writing in earnest while taking a deep breath and learning to play the guitar. While some friends returned to Austin, others moved away this year and more are soon to follow in 2011. There’s even an infinitesimal chance I’ll be in that number, but the likelihood of uprooting and leaving the food carts and backyard parties of my adopted home is so small and too profound to consider, so I push it away.
But as I’ve thought on these feelings during the year, the lyrics from LCD Soundsystem’s “Home” resonate. Though detractors may note Murphy’s manipulating my generation with lines like “love and rock are fickle things” and “you’re afraid of what you need . . . if you weren’t, I don’t know what we’d talk about,” I’ve taken comfort in crooning them in my car. That’s the best of what pop music can accomplish–taking abstractions and making them applicable to life’s mundane realities, at times clarifying their importance. In whatever medium, I can’t wait for another year of writing about it.
It’s just been reported that Slits’ frontwoman Ari Up died today following sustained ailing health. I literally gasped upon hearing this news and am tearing up a bit as I type this. For me, Ari Up’s legacy can’t be overstated, nor can the influence of her pioneering all-female punk-reggae band. The first song my college station played in its inaugural broadcast was “FM.” Here’s what she gave me.
The cover for the Slits’ debut record, Cut, which floored me the first time I saw it. I’ve refrained from writing a post on it because of its iconic status. But it always gets reactions when it’s brought up in the Girls Rock Camp Austin music history workshops I co-teach. Incidentally, I’m about to leave for a girls studies conference in New York where I’m co-moderating a panel on GRC, so this news has an additional layer of resonance.
The electricity of politically charged lyrics, cheek, and amateurish musicianship that’s all over her band’s early output. Why not start a band at fourteen even if we can’t play? Why not sing about shoplifting? Why not cover “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”? Why not piss on stage in the middle of a performance? Why not drop some dub in the tracks? British punk and post-punk took itself quite seriously, but the Slits always made rebellion look like fun. When I finally bought this album on vinyl in my early twenties after years of it being in and out of print and listening to other people’s copies and shitty mp3s, it was a damn miracle.
Her band’s cameo in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee shows them destroying a car. Far more interesting and cool than Malcolm McLaren’s idea to feature them as sex slaves in his idea for the female version of The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle that thankfully wasn’t made.
Let’s not forget Return of the Giant Slits either, as Everett True hasn’t. It featured “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm,” which I think was their best single. It was released as a split single with the Pop Group’s “Where There’s a Will.” I love the Pop Group as much as Lavinia Greenlaw. Up and the Pop Group’s Mark Stewart were later in the New Age Steppers. They were good too. And I certainly don’t think we’d get M.I.A. without them.
Ari Up introduced me to Sister Nancy. While I should probably call Ari on her bullshit as a German-British ex-pat Rastafarian who fetishizes the primitive to offset her publishing heiress roots, I think she believed in reggae and the guiding principles of her adopted ideology. She also never obscured her origins, but reconciled them with her mother’s bohemian tendencies and her need to keep herself open to embrace possibilities and conflicting impulses. Plus, few people could claim John Lydon as their stepfather without it seeming weird.
She was a hell of an interview. She may not have had much use for brevity, but her words were teeming with wit and brilliance. And if she was self-aggrandizing, well, I’d prefer my epic musical personae to acknowledge their own greatness than shrug it off.
Let’s not overlook 2006’s Revenge of the Killer Slits and their follow-up Trapped Animal either. I actually got to see a reunited version of the Slits that fall (sans Viv Albertine, who I’ve since caught as a solo act). I’ll always remember how energetic she was. She was also tremendously available. Even when she admonished a party girl fashionista who rushed the stage during “Typical Girls” for not getting its message, it was just gentle ribbing. And while the band got sharper, particularly bassist Tessa Pollitt and recruited drummer Anna Schultze, Up’s gleeful anarchic spirit remained at the center.
You were a strange, funny, brave, and inspired lady, Ari Up. You’ll be missed.
So, the cool kids already knew back in 1995 that the answer to the “Oasis or Blur” question was “Pulp.” In 1995, I certainly knew I was supposed to like Sheffield’s underdogs who rose from years of obscurity to deliver “Common People,” which is all the more relevant today as trust-fund kids remove the band’s class consciousness to ape their deadpan sensibility and ironic sartorial statements, which seem to be modeled after what European teenagers were wearing in the 80s according to my high school French textbooks. I did like them, and continued to after their 2002 split.
But if forced to chose one or the other, I’d take Blur without question. Their lyrics were clever, their melodies were interesting, and their influences more varied. Plus, the members looked like a nerdy straight girl’s version of a boy band. I liked frontman Damon Albarn, who had a snaggle tooth and a vaguely simian cuteness that comic artist Jamie Hewlett had to be tapping into when he was designing Gorillaz with Albarn. There’s palpable class tension in my preferences, to be sure. Blur were the London-born mockney art school boys Jarvis Cocker was vituperating in “Common People.”
Oasis, on the other hand, were doggedly working class Mancs. They also had no musical vision past Lennon and McCartney. Their lyrics, absenting principle lyricist Noel Gallagher’s dyslexia, were of the worst variety of rubbish: the purposeful kind. The Gallagher brothers also forged a rivalry with Blur for publicity and that their episode of Behind the Music confirms they’re despicable people. I like “Cigarettes and Alcohol” well enough. I enjoy singing “Morning Glory” at karaoke, but my enjoyment of the song completely resides in shouting the lyrics, a singular joy I also bestow upon Girls’ “Hellhole Ratrace” and Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex.” I have no use for these songs as listening experiences — I merely enjoy shouting along with them, largely to drown out the recorded sound. It’s an icky, selfish joy.
But if you’re angling for true Britpop allegiances, I’m closer to siding with Courtney Love on this one. Apparently some time in the mid-90s (possibly during Lollapalooza ’95?), she said that the future of rock music was “Elastica-r-r.” While history and personal drama unfortunately proved that mantle untenable, Elastica were my Britpop band.
I remember buying the band’s self-titled debut at some big box chain in 1995 because I saw them in Seventeen and heard “Connection” and wanted to be a member. I particularly responded to frontwoman Justine Frischmann’s androgynous look and too-cool persona, later finding out that she co-founded proto-Britpop band Suede and was dating Albarn. I already had the short dark hair and wore loose black clothes. I used dry sarcasm as a defense mechanism for being shy and chubby. In my mind, I was as good as in.
The clerk responded to my purchase with incredulity. Perhaps he found them disposable. I’m not sure if the guy was one of those boorish types who think girls shouldn’t play guitars. Their status at the time as a buzz band could have predicted their short shelf life, as assuredly it did for all-male bands like the Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Interpol, and countless others. At around this time, shoegazer bands like Ride were aping the Black Crowes. A year later, peer act Lush would release their final album, Lovelife, which attempted to recast the group in a more contemporary image.
Shaking off the record store attendant’s rebuke, I took the record home and discovered a series of short, spiky songs brimming with frank recollections of a nightlife with friends that teems with the possibilities of bad sex and great sex recounted from a distinctly female voice. It was an exciting sound I was just starting to relate to. Revisiting the album this past week, I’m stunned by how fresh it still sounds. But when I was closer to Rory Gilmore’s age, I was just beginning to understand the frisson of sharing closed quarters with a boy you probably shouldn’t be with.
I wonder if the record store clerk and other folks of his station didn’t like Elastica because they knew the band ripped off bands like the Stranglers and Wire, the latter a lauded post-punk band then still pretty obscure in the states. I’d come to discover that the band lifted a riff from the Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” for “Waking Up” and Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” for “Connection,” among others.
Frankly, I don’t care. Britpop could be defined as a post-modern response to Great Britian’s pop legacy. A band like Blur pilfered from a variety of influences, eventually branching out to American indie rock. Albarn was particularly influenced by Pavement, whose frontman Stephen Malkmus apparently hooked up with Frischmann at some point. A former acquaintance once referred to Malkmus as indie rock’s Peter Fonda. I only abide by this statement as a counter to Love’s pronouncement that Malkmus was indie rock’s Grace Kelly, which sounds great but makes little sense. However, I do think it’s interesting that Frischmann mentions the actor in “Car Song.” I interpret Malkmus responding to the Anglo interest with “We Dance,” a song that sounds like Suede’s Brett Anderson could have sung it.
Oasis swung for the masses with the Beatles, a safe move because everyone steal from them. Elastica appropriated punk’s terse songcraft and tinny production and was penalized for essentially having the same taste as discerning record store clerks. But if you take out the riff to “Connection,” you still have a good song with smart, funny lyrics. If you take all the reference in “Don’t Look Back In Anger” or “Wonderwall,” you don’t have much else left. This isn’t to say that the members of Wire shouldn’t have been compensated. Just as I think the Rolling Stones deserved to collect every penny from the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled a classical arrangement of “The Last Time,” so do I think Wire and the Stranglers deserved credit. I just think, in the name of credibility, swiping from Wire is hardly a big deal. Bands with dudes in them do it all the time.
I also think my indifference toward Elastica’s musical plagiarism stems from the ubiquitous presence sampling has in my listening practices. I grew up on hip hop and probably justify the band’s decisions through that lens. Thus I’m also interested in Frischmann’s connection to former roommate Maya Arulpragasm, who would later become M.I.A. Then a filmmaker, Arulpragasm created the cover art for The Menace and directed the music video for “Mad Dog God Dam.”
(BTW, Robert Christgau agrees with me about The Menace being underrated. This is one of the few times we’ve agreed on anything. Even when we have, as with Sleater-Kinney’s output, he fixates on sex and Corin Tucker’s voice as the manifestation of the female orgasm.)
Arulpragasm would later vacation with Frischmann and write “Galang,” the song which catapulted her to pop stardom. If that’s the legacy Frischmann’s known for as she continues to retreat from public life, that’s a nice consolation prize. But I do hope people remember her band’s own limited output, regardless of its source material.