Tagged: Pitchfork

Radio Silence

My Comm Arts directory photo. Observe the tired eyes and grown-out DIY haircut–hallmarks of a graduate student. Also, I killed it with this outfit.

It’s really been over two months since my last post? Wow, time flies on the other side of the semester. After SXSW, I went to a conference and then it was Spring Break and now, well I’ve posted my students’ grades and gotten my own and Memorial Day weekend (along with WisCon and Christeene’s album release party) is just around the corner.

A lot has happened in those two months, hasn’t it? We keep losing great musicians (First Etta, then Whitney! Levon! MCA! Duck! Donna! Chuck!). Dan Harmon lost his job. We’re edging toward a recall election here in Harmon’s home state, which means I’m seeing a lot of Scott Walker’s hairy forearms in ads where he lies about job creation (vote against him June 5th). Kanye made a movie. So did my friend Brea. A few friends had kids–two of them made a set of twins together. Some friends came to visit. Annie Petersen wrote a piece for the latest issue of Bitch. I completed the first year of my PhD program.

I’d like to once again thank the people who came out to Get Off the Internet during SXSW and supported us financially or emotionally (often, it was both). As I was but one player and often not the engine driving the train, I’d also like to thank Tisha Sparks, Jax Keating, and Lynn Casper, who I would work with again in a heartbeat. I’d next like to acknowledge why I got off the Internet. This was a busy semester for me. We hired a new faculty member to our program. We brought in five new students for the fall. And we are sending off four graduates.

I also took a cultural theory seminar, a seminar on feminist research methods, and a seminar on director Agnès Varda. The first two were really tough classes and I wanted to make sure I was present enough in my studies to do justice to the reading material and the seminar papers I produced. The third course, as my friend Mary put it, was dessert. Varda’s a damn treasure. After each screening I was so full and giddy from feasting my eyes and brain on this filmmaker’s dizzyingly brilliant work that I often needed to savor the moment, which usually meant talking for hours with Mary. I also pitched a book proposal, which may or may not get picked up.

It also promises to be a busy summer for me. I’m working on a book chapter for an anthology and revising a term paper for publication. I’m also serving as acting co-editor for Antenna–my program’s media studies blog–for the next three months. I’m going to be an instructor for the first session of Girls Rock Camp Madison. I’m doing preliminary research on two projects I’m planning to turn into term papers (and then articles, because that’s how the game works). I’m going to Console-ing Passions to talk about Zooey Deschanel anti-fandom. I’m grading for some cash during the summer, and (like my partner) vying for some temp work as well. Hopefully I can score a little freelance money too. I’m prepping the class I TA next fall (goodbye, Intro to Public Speaking! hello, Intro to Television!). I’m going to spend some quality time at the Center for Film and Theater Research, because it’s ridiculous that I haven’t gone over there at any point this school year. I’m plant-sitting for my girl Sarah and I hope nothing dies. There’s other stuff I want to keep on the low for the moment. And I’ll be watching Girls because y’all, we need to talk about Girls.

I might also get some coffee with a former student because I’m that kind of instructor. You know, the kind you can call by her first name. And today I’m making a cat cake with Mary for the Varda seminar’s end-of-the-semester party. Well, and for Zgougou obviously.

But I miss writing. I miss being in the conversation. I miss sweating over a sentence in my pajamas. I miss the immediacy of having my fingers fly over an opinion. I miss you. I miss this part of me. So my plan is to adopt a MWF posting schedule. I have a back log of stuff to write about–those pieces on Before Sunrise and Chavela Vargas I promised, as well as Norah Jones and Faye Wong’s film work with Wong Kar-Wai, Girl 6, seeing YACHT and EMA in concert, and stuff I don’t know I want to write about right now.

I’ll say one more thing about this blog’s future. I’m taking a digital production course this fall. I’m not sure what all of this will entail, exactly. Since I try to go into at least once class a semester without a paper topic in mind, I find the uncertainty rather thrilling. But part of the point of this class is to get graduate students comfortable with TAing a new course on the subject that we’re offering in Comm Arts for undergrads. I’m absolutely taking this class so that I can TA the intro class later. For one, I think media scholars should have a handle on production.

For another, as a feminist media scholar I’m invested in closing the gender gap in university production programs and I think this is the next logical step. I fully take to heart Mary Celeste Kearney’s charge to melt the celluloid ceiling (y’all–she presented a paper on this at SCMS and went on a rant about this later at the conference #stillmymentor #whoiwanttobewhenigrowup). But one of the objectives of this course, as I understand it, is to have us work on media projects. All of my work in that class will go toward this blog, most likely toward developing a podcast series that I’ll launch in earnest after I finish course work the following spring. So keep that on your radar.

Finally, I thought I’d close with some stuff I’m listening to–at least when I’m not listening to Rihanna‘s Talk That Talk or the new Beach House record (sidebar: this thoughtful Pitchfork review once again proves that 2012 is critic Lindsay Zoladz’s year). Though I abstained from blogging, I never took off my headphones. Also, Sarah said she was looking for some summer music. So let’s kick out the jams.

That Grimes record is good y’all. It’s, to use music critics’ parlance, a grower. Her other records are good too and this song is not my favorite on Visions (it’s “Be A Body”). But I like that this video was shot at McGill (Canada reprezent), that the album art recalls a Routledge book that’s been masterfully defaced by a bored college student (Claire Boucher knows her audience), that this song–stripped away of its electronic affectations–basically sounds like something Roy Orbison would write, and that we get some naked, riled-up, male, sports spectator booty in the video. I hope you kill it at Pitchfork, Claire.

Santigold’s Master of My Make-Believe is an early contender for Album Art of the Year. So good. Like Annie Lennox before her, Santi White masters the art of passing as both male and female, and occupying the slippery space within the binary. I wonder how different the video for “Disparate Youth” is from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” and if it’s because–to extend the comparison–Santigold is Simon LeBon-ny enough to wear floral prints with stripes while not using the shoot as an excuse for sex tourism. Then I watch it again.

Is THEESatisfaction’s “QueenS” video of the year? I think so. Party of the year? Without rival. Music journalist and personal heroine dream hampton directed the clip and I just love it. I smell the incense, I love the outfits, I’m humbled by the level of self-possession and skill with home decor. I also love their bell hooksian way with capitalization. awE naturalE is one of my favorite records of the year. So mellow, so subtly sexy, even more subtly complex, and so self-assured. This is music for brainy, grown-ass people. If you’re ever wondering what I listen for in a record, I listen for music by women and girls who know who they are and are open to share it with you; guitars optional.

As a culture of pop music engineers, the Swedes know their way around a groove so well that this song once again convinces me that we should buck the career Republicans and demand socialized health care. Charli XCX wrote this song and it would fit in Robyn’s canon, but it has its own snarl that I can’t get enough of. Bottom line: I’ve jogged to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and I’ve toasted Lindsay Zoladz’s freelanciversary to it as well. It gets results. It’s that good.

You know what? Charlie XCX is that good too and Simon Reynolds’ piece on women in synth pop should have given line credit to Tara Rodgers’ seminal book Pink Noises. So…

Staying on the Reynolds piece for just a bit more, I wanted to give the nod to Maria Minerva because she’s got an album called Cabaret Cixous, she’s completing a masters in art and theory at Goldsmiths, and because if you really want to refine a search for music you think I’d like, focus on women who play electronic instruments. Just as I believe that the rural United States has a special relationship to punk, so too do I think that working with synthesizers and sequencers can be an inherently punk gesture. If you only need to know how to play three chords on your guitar to have a band, you often need even fewer faculties to play electronic instruments. When David Bowie began working with Brian Eno, they’d amass a bunch of keyboards for the studio and throw out the manuals because they didn’t want to know how to “properly” operate them.

Following my friend Ricky’s example, I’m a champion of the Shondes. Power pop should, above all else, hold sorrow and triumph closely in each hand yet not so tightly that both emotions slip through your fingers. Based on their music alone, this Brooklyn-based quartet has a profound sense of empathy. I recently caught them at a show in Madison, wherein bassist-lead singer Louisa Solomon made the following observations: 1. as you wrap up your 20s, more people you love die (preach, girl) and 2. as “Give Me What You’ve Got” intimates, women can be mean to each other. She offered both of these observations as inquiry, which is why I love her and this special band.

K.Flay gets my-my dark moments better than everyone and nobody can hellllp. Also, off-trademark Muppets.

If you follow Rookie, then you know those grrrls are spearheading this Scottish goth-pop outfit’s comeback. And just in time for tube top weather (help me embroider an upside-down cross on mine, Rookie staff).

And if you want to know what I’m cooking in my kitchen, that’s none of your business unless I invite you over for dinner. But Little Dragon is usually the soundtrack to time spent stirring the pasta, sauteing the onion, and sprinkling the white pepper.

Summer is ready when you are, y’all.

Kara Walker, songwriter

Kara Walker at work; image courtesy of walkerart.org

Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.

I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.

But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.

Kara Walker's "Endless Conundrum, An African Anonymous Adventuress" (2001); image courtesy of walkerart.org

Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red. 

Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.

Play Sleigh Bells’ “Treats” at full volume . . . as if you have a choice

Sleigh Bells' "Treats" (Mom + Pop, N.E.E.T.; 2010); image courtesy of wikimedia.org

NPR is currently streaming Sleigh Bells’ full-length debut Treats, which came out yesterday. Folks were all a-Twitter (nyuk nyuk) about it, including folks like Maura Johnston. This release, off M.I.A.’s N.E.E.T. label, is hotly anticipated. It follows “Crown on the Ground,” which Pitchfork named one of the best singles of 2009. Community‘s Donald Glover also sampled the song for his rap outfit Childish Gambino. As additional incentive, the album boasts a sweet cover. A photo of a cheerleading squad with the girls’ faces scratched out? Some Gleeks must feel vindicated.

For those unfamiliar with Sleigh Bells, the duo make abrasive pop music that grinds Derek Miller’s harsh guitar riffs and pounding drums against Alexis Krauss‘s sugary vocals. Imagine Lush‘s Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi singing to Ratatat‘s hard rock guitar loops with The Go! Team contributing samples, claps, and children’s choruses. Then turn the amps to 11, blow out your speakers, and feel your ears bleed. This is the kind of music you want to pump in your car, but probably shouldn’t so as to avoid becoming a road hazard.

Now, I’m not sure if I’ll champion Sleigh Bells when we look back on the decade. We’ll see how if they live up to their (literal and figurative) buzz. I like “Infinity Guitars,” though note some problematic lyrics that brings to mind Jessica Yee’s dress-down of hipsters’ Native American appropriation. I love “Rill Rill,” but am not sure how much of this has to do with lyrics about girls with braces or the sample of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That.” But for now, we have a pretty solid debut that juxtaposes the harsh muscularity of metal and rock guitar with deceptively sweet female vocals. Play it loud.

My thoughts on Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat”

So I finally got around to seeing the much-discussed music video for Erykah Badu’s single “Window Seat,” from her new album New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), which came out yesterday. In it, she is featured walking around a Dallas street, stripping before a gaggle of pedestrians before being shot. The video concludes with the word “GROUPTHINK” oozing in blue letters from her head and a spoken outro. I’ve since seen it several times and can now trail behind the tweets. If you haven’t seen it already, you can check it out here.

First off, I’ll come out and say that I like this music video. I’ve liked the song since I heard Badu perform it with longtime collaborators The Roots on Jimmy Fallon a few weeks back. I’m also really glad people are talking about it. As a long-time fan of her work, it’s about time people acknowledge that she has consistently been at the center of some of the most interesting, challenging, and readable music videos since the start of her career. “Honey” (which she co-directed) is my favorite video of the past few years — it’s overtly political, visually compelling, dense with references, takes a revisionist’s attitude toward music history, and is funny as hell. But she’s had me as a supporter since the first time I saw “On & On” back in 1997.

It’s a little disheartening that people are only now starting to talk about one of her music videos, as I think some of why Badu has been overlooked has to do with our culture’s racialized conceptions of how female musicians are supposed to comport themselves as video subjects across musical genres. White ladies like Björk or Madonna can “elevate” the medium to “art,” but black women — usually packaged as R&B, hip hop, or pop stars — need to be commercially viable. If they’re down with glamour, spectacle, and easy objectification, so much the better.

Badu’s never played that game, and has perhaps been under the radar as a result. I’m not worried about how this renewed attention will impact her career. She’s quite capable of fielding Twitter follower requests. And I’m not certain that it’ll substantially boost opening week sales of her new album. Some folks may buy (or more likely download) out of curiosity, most likely stumbling upon a cerebral listening experience. If they recognize that New Amerykah is a sequel, maybe they’ll investigate and give a listen to its incendiary predecessor. She’s a veteran artist, and her career isn’t about to be compromised by becoming a tweeting trend. But at least the video is taking some of the attention away from Lady Gaga.

Erykah Badu, weirder than Lady Gaga; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

Now onto the Coodie Rock-directed clip itself, which has courted controversy for its display of nudity and allusions to the JFK assassination. I will reflect upon some key aspects.

1. The JFK assassination: It’s clear that Badu is conveying a sense of place. President John Kennedy was killed in Dallas in November 1963. Badu was born Erica Wright in the same city in 1971. In the interval, Vice President Lyndon Johnson took office, bringing about considerable gains for racial equality through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was also (though not without a heavy conscience) responsible for the escalation of the Vietnam War, which killed or forever altered many young men, many of whom were African American.

While I don’t want to overstate matters, Badu was clearly influenced by the gains and the ongoing struggles of American race relations. This consciousness moved her to change the spelling of her first name and take on the surname “Badu,” which has origins in both Ghanaian and in Arabic languages. It may have influenced her enrollment in Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and Grambling State University. It’s also evident in her lyrics, which often grapples with the dimensions of racial tension and oppression, as well as celebrate the philosophic tenets of the Nation of Islam. Thus I read Dallas as both a site of American political tragedy, the birthplace of Erica Wright, and space out of which Erykah Badu came into being.

2. Badu’s clothing and body: As Natalie Hopkinson reminds in her assessment of “Window Seat,” the black female body is a site of troublesome discourses around race and sexuality. Indeed, this seems to be at the fore of that which Badu is trying to confront her audience. But I think it’s worth discussing what kind of a body being presented, along with the manner with which she sheds her clothes, and the clothes themselves. I believe that doing so points out a myriad of ways that the artist is subverting the process of video-making and her role as a pop star.

While disrobing and nudity are concerns here, let us first pause to consider what clothes Badu is wearing. She is dressed in casual attire — what appears to be a sweatsuit and a head scarf (for more on the subject of head scarves and their utilitarian and aesthetic functions for black women, I highly recommend reading this post from Kristen at Dear Black Woman,).

Furthermore, the way in which Badu takes off her clothing is clearly the cavalier actions of a self-possessed woman. She isn’t engaged with the camera, much less the people around her. She isn’t even engaged with the song, which reflects on her need for freedom and support from her partner and her struggles to acquire it amid conflicts from her relationship, and the struggles to balance her professional life with motherhood.

Badu, not particularly concerned with the camera; image courtesy of cbsnews.com

As for Badu body, I’d like to refer to the tattoo stretched across her shoulders. “Evolving” is clearly what she is doing and her body is a reflection of that. It’s been nearly 13 years since the release of her debut Baduizm. In that time, she’s matured and her physicality has changed as well. At the start of her career, she was slight, gamine. But age and motherhood shaped her figure, which she first alluded to on Mama’s Gun with a song called “Cleva” and later elaborated on with “Me” from Amerykah Part One. In both songs, she explicitly mentions sagging breasts, pot bellies, and the thickening of her legs and backside. As if that isn’t enough candor, she actually tweeted about the birth of her third child in real time last year.

In short, we are not watching a conventional video vixen here. Beyoncé’s washboard abs and Sasha Fierce glare cannot be found. This video’s subject is a woman we don’t often get to see in the medium — a mother and working professional who is imperfect, proud of her imperfections, and unconcerned with returning or engaging with the cinephilic gaze, even as she’s willing to use social media as a marketing tool.

Badu's not studying this; image courtesy of nydailynews.com

And if the minute or so that Badu languishes in her underwear prompts certain viewers to fetishize her form, the carpet quickly gets pulled out from under them. The much-hyped nudity lasts about five seconds and abruptly ends with gunfire.

One thing I’d like to add about this music video is its inspiration. The clip for “Window Seat” begins with a dedication to Matt & Kim, a Brooklyn-based dance-punk duo who incorporated nudity and guerrilla-style film-making for their “Lessons Learned” video. This music video takes place in Times Square — perhaps an indictment on the commercialization of tourism that may motivate artists to move to lesser-known areas (that they then turn them into tourist destinations is another matter).

Unlike “Window Seat,” Matt & Kim revel in their shared nudity for a considerable period of time. One could argue that their hipster whiteness allows them this moment, as their bodies are seen as less threatening than Badu’s. However, in an interview with Pitchfork, the duo revealed that the police brutality depicted was very real. It seems a lot of fuss over some nudity, but then again naked bodies are never that simple. Thankfully, there are a few brave pop stars who recognize that. I’m so glad Badu is one of them.