What I did on my winter vacation

First off, though I’m happy we recently celebrated Dolly Parton and Sade’s birthdays, we lost national treasure/bad-ass Etta James this morning to leukemia. She just turned 74. We’ll miss you.

As we begin 2012 and I launch into the spring term next Monday, I’m excited about what the future holds. We’re all going to meet up at Scratched Vinyl editor Chi Chi’s deejay gig at Natt Spil next Thursday, right? But I thought I’d reflect just a bit on what I’ve been up to over the break. This post is part consumer guide, part tribute, all ramble.

What have I been up to? If you’ve been following my blog series for Bitch, you might guess I’ve been watching a lot of movies. That’s a fair assessment–it took me a good week to decompress from finals and watching flashing images on my television is always a nice way to spend an hour or two. I think I spent that whole week in my jammies. I’m hoping to stop into Chicago over the weekend to see Pariah, with which I hope to close out the series. I’m also picking at a seminar paper I am in the process of turning into a book chapter. Slow going. Finally, I revised my lecture notes and am in the process of changing up some of the course material for the public speaking class I teach. I really love the classroom and, after a semester running one, I have a lot of ideas for how to improve as an instructor.

There’s finally snow on the ground in Madison, which is still a novelty to me at this point. I’m just so damn happy I can play the Cocteau Twins’ “How to Bring a Blush to the Snow,” something I waited to do all semester. I’ve walked in the snow a few times and it felt like I was on the moon (but, you know, with gravity). Snow is neat, y’all. As a native Texan, I’ve never lived in it. But I don’t have any complaints (yet). When the sun is out and the earth is still, a snowy winter day takes on an almost alien beauty. As for the cold, I don’t feel it too bad (yet). Ice might run in my veins, I don’t know. The Norwegian in me is coming out for sure. But I’ll pass on the lutefisk.

I’ve been working through grief, I’ll be honest. I miss Esme, and I miss dearly my friends back in Austin with whom I was not able to comfort. Esme’s death also brought up unresolved feelings about my stepbrother, who died last summer in a car accident. They were both 29, loved rock, and had so much life left to give. I was out running errands one night before Christmas. Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” came on the radio. When I was in junior high, I thought the chorus was “Can’t find the butter, ma’am”. I belted it out accordingly until my stepbrother clarified in deadpan, “the song is called ‘Better Man’, Alyx.” Two days after New Year’s, my partner and I made a late-night run to drop off the rent and Elvis Costello’s “(What’s So Fun ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” came on the radio. Both instances prompted me to blast the radio, sob, and wonder if in these moments the loved ones we’ve lost materialize to comfort us and help renew our memory of them. I don’t believe in heaven or a deity. I’m not sure what happens to our bodies when we die. Actually, I do. They decompose. But while I don’t believe in a proper afterlife, I do believe our spirits carry on in these kinds of moments after our bodies expire or are taken from us. I think they have to.

Shortly after Esme’s death, I missed a friend’s baby shower. I happily received lots of pictures and some text messages from the festivities. But if I still lived in Austin, I would have been there. I felt the weight of that absence too. This friend was the first of my college feminist grrrls to have a baby (twins, actually). I’m not really a baby person, at least I don’t think of myself as one. But given the recent losses and some hardships felt within that friend group from the past year, I surprised myself by how much I wished I had been there to help usher us into this new era.

I revisited Portlandia and that Washed Out record with the Cosmo photo on the cover. I’ve somewhat refined my assessment of the sketch comedy show and do think they’re doing quite a bit more world-building than I originally thought. I also think they could be meaner and eat the rich more than they do. As for Ernest Greene’s Sub Pop debut, it reminds me a bit of Moby. Not a criticism, but they should recut the “Amor Fati” video with Christina Ricci.

I’ve also read a lot, because sometimes cold weather is best experienced behind a parlor window while drinking cocoa. I read Girls Got Kicks and Alice Bag’s Violence Girl. Actually I was going to write a review of Bag’s memoir for this blog but Neal Fersko at Canonball beat me to it. He also articulated so well what I liked about it and what its limitations were (i.e., I wish the chapters were longer or that she focused on one phase of her life). So rather than write a review where I recommend that a woman add more content and detail to a 300-page memoir, I’ll point you toward Fersko’s review. But if you’re looking for some post-holiday gifts for the bois and grrrls in your life, buy them a copy of Violence Girl. And if they want to color in Cyndi Lauper’s hair (who doesn’t?), pair it with a copy of Girls Rock Camp Rhode Island’s Women Who Rock Coloring Book.

One of my professors recommends that you should spend vacation time reading. Read widely. Read stuff that doesn’t seem related to your work. Read the things you didn’t have time to read over the semester that sound interesting. So I also took in four “school” books and am currently thumbing through Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses, a collection of scholarly essays and press criticism Angela McRobbie put together. I’m half-way through it now, and the anthology reads like someone cherry-picked the best essays from Pazz and Jop, This Recording, Grantland, Threadbared, Salon, Slate, The Hairpin, The Crunk Feminist Collective, Dusted, Pitchfork, Antenna, Flow, and Racialicious. In 1983, Jon Savage said that the man who once was Ziggy Stardust “has always been careful, has always disdained mess–in his vulgar guise, in his avant-garde guise, even as a wasted rock star. If he is now, as a result, more popular than ever, then he’s a sign of the times–fastidiousness as a measure of the reduced scope of our choices.” Who doesn’t that apply to on the pop charts now? The chapters are short, zippy, and delightful British. Great bedtime reading.

Speaking of works of criticism, I nominated myself for 2012’s Best Music Writing collection. I’m a long-time fan of the series and decided to throw my hat in the ring. I nominated thirteen other pieces I loved from the past year, including pieces by Latoya Peterson, Bene Viera, Issac Miller, Nitsuh Abebe, Ann Powers, Ann Friedman, and Lindsay Zoladz. But I’m especially proud of my post on Bon Iver and the comparative analysis between P.J. Harvey and tUnE-yArDs, so I brazenly submitted them for review. I don’t know what my chances are of getting a piece selected, and would certainly like your support if you like what you read here last year, but there’s never any harm in putting your work out there.

I just returned from a three-day stint in Nashville. I missed Lana Del Rey’s poorly-received SNL performance but I did meet my two nephews. I shocked myself by how excited I was to spend time with them. At one point I was bored out of my mind, because babies sleep and blink and do the tiniest things that people think are amazing. I’m sure being an only child contributed to my boredom (pay attention to me!), as did my task-oriented nature (what are we doing?). But at the same time, watching them figure out who they were was kind of incredible. I’m not 100% sure if I want kids. Sometimes I want kids. Sometimes I just want to have the means to provide a comfortable life for kids. Most of the time, I think having a cat is enough. I’m always happy to be with my honey, with or without kids. So if the time never comes, I’m content with being a cool aunt. You know, the kind who teaches them words like “kyriarchy.”

My partner and I also visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is amazing. We saw Cindy Walker’s typewriter, a dress Wanda Jackson’s mother made for her, a spectrum of Nudie suits, Elvis Presley’s golden piano, a collection of custom-made instruments, Maybelle Carter and Emmylou Harris’ guitars, Minnie Pearl’s hat, and Parton’s handwritten lyrics to “Jolene.” I also liked that the permanent collection featured a short film on country’s political anthems. It included Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” a song and a video that still do me in.

My mind started to wander. After working in an archive, I constantly return to questions about how we package and narrativize information. But I also kept thinking about how the medium of television–variety shows, award ceremonies, music videos, cable networks–shape the history of country music, as well as the media labor involved. So I think there’s a project in there. What can I say? Media scholars don’t take breaks.

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