The week was pretty stressful for this moi. I have a bunch of half-formed thoughts about why the Girl Talk record is consistently fine but not, you know, revelatory and why I don’t care that the Beatles are once again being resold to a questionably hungry market via i-Tunes. I’ve been revisiting disc two of Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me following her great show at the Paramount, pairing it with Cat Power’s Moon Pix and imagining a conversation where they don’t talk about Bill Callahan. I recently watched Pedro Almodóvar’s Pepi, Luci, Bom, which doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test but merits a future entry here. A lot of my mindgrapes that needs, if you’ll pardon the pun, fermenting.
As we head into Thanksgiving week and I go to a friend’s birthday party tonight, I thought it would be fun to post a couple of music videos from some acts I like who make music to dance to when you have insomnia or are running from zombies at a disco. You know, stuff that would be on a playlist with Glasser’s “Mirrorage.” Enjoy!
“We Want Our Things”
Am I Real?
Directed by Ola Vasiljeva
“All Around and Away We Go”
Color Your Life
Directed by Mike Luciano
Directed by Jacqueline Castel
Yesterday, I gave a lecture with Kristen at Act Your Age, a friend and colleague since we got to know one another as masters students in the media studies program at UT. We actually didn’t become friends until our second semester with the program, as I was pretty shy during the first semester and was working full-time. But I knew I liked her from the moment we met at a department mixer when she said that she hoped grad school wouldn’t be like that scene in Ghost World where one of protagonist Enid’s classmates shows off her “found object” tampon in the teacup art piece. I’d estimate that our friendship really developed during the thesis process, as we shared an adviser and second reader. Of course, working at the same 9-to-5 keeps us close, as does working with Girls Rock Camp Austin.
I may never have admitted this to her before, but I heavily relied on her as motivation when we started collaborating. The first time we worked together on a project was for a Flow column we wrote about 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon and her negotiations with power. Earlier that summer, I was asked by a friend who worked at Latinitas to give a talk about how girl pop stars are represented in music videos. I accepted the offer, which I later bailed on when I had a bout of depression and felt like I couldn’t possibly put together a valuable educational resource. I’ve always been ashamed that I let my friend down and had such little faith in my abilities at the time. So I figured if I worked with Kristen, maybe we could maximize each other’s potential. I’d like to think we have.
I should note that we also work well separately, though I ask for her feedback on my projects and am available as a springboard for her. That said, I really like to work with her, less so now because I feel like I need her as motivation, but because 1) we like to model that women can successfully come together and share responsibilities on projects and 2) we like proving that “important” work doesn’t have to be done in isolation. Also, I just like her.
So we’ve worked together for a while, both on GRCA stuff and on other academic pursuits. We wrote a column together, moderated a roundtable discussion for the 2008 Flow conference, and put together a panel for SUNY Cortland’s Reimagining Girlhood conference this fall. Thus, when our friend Curran invited us to give a guest lecture for his race and media course at UT (a class that transformed me when I took it as an undergrad), we of course accepted.
This was a bit out of both of our comfort zones. Kristen never gave a college lecture before. I delivered one for my thesis adviser’s undergrad class on gender and rock culture when she was presenting at SCMS. But that was a very different set of circumstances, for even though I organized the screening materials, I lectured on a reading she assigned. Kristen and I created this lecture entirely on our own, picking the topic, readings, and presentation materials.
We selected the intersection of race and girlhood as our topic, paying particular attention to the exnomination of whiteness and the cultural construction of hipster girls and appropriations of girlhood in contemporary American film. Our case studies were Juno and (500) Days of Summer.
Curran (wearing a Shonen Knife shirt because he’s awesome) generously introduced us to his class, plugging our blogs and referring to us as experts. As humbling as it is to be called an expert by a friend whose academic work you admire tremendously, I recognized that we do know a lot about our topic. Kristen wrote about two of the films we discussed in the last chapter of her thesis. I wrote about a few of the films for conference papers. We’ve talked about many of these texts on our blogs and have seen most of them.
The lecture represented both of us well. Kristen studies mediated representations and sociological surveys of girlhood. I look at convergent music culture from a feminist perspective. Add to the fact that we’re both white women who were both white girls and heavily problematize white privilege and class in our work, and this lecture was basically as close to a scholastic mash-up as you can get. Add our PowerPoint to the mix and you can even listen to it like Girl Talk or The Hood Internet or play it like X-Men Vs. Street Fighter. Plus we call shit on patriarchy and white privilege. Here’s what I learned.
1. I like building PowerPoint presentations. As Kristen created the one we use for GRC, I wanted to give it a shot and it’s a really effective tool when used properly.
1A. Of course, it was not news to me that I would stay up until 2 a.m. futzing with layout design. I know myself.
2. It’s exciting and weird when people write down what you have to say.
2A. As a result, I’m always going to have to remember to slow down when I talk.
3. It’s great to watch a colleague be in total control of herself when presenting information. Kristen’s a clear, succinct conveyor of ideas. She’s also patient and calm and clearly has a lot of personal investment in the process, which will make her a great professor.
4. No bullshit, but I’m great at it too. It feels natural to me. I have much to learn, but I’ll be a great professor.
5. It’s fun to volley. I kinda knew this from GRC workshops, but sometimes I worry that she carries my weight when I blank or get flustered. This time, I feel like the back-and-forth was breezy and perfect.
5A. I need to be kinder to myself and recognize that we both share the work and bring out the best in each other. I definitely did that yesterday.
6. It’s delightful to apply complicated theories from the readings to the lecture topic, especially when the students nod along and seem to get it. It lets you know that you picked the right material and make sense explaining it.
7. Revisiting essays when selecting readings is fun, as well as a good yardstick for what you’ve learned during the interval between now and the last time you read the piece.
8. Clips and images really help illustrate points and trigger related ideas.
9. We forgot to talk about Ghost World! Oh well. Next time. We didn’t talk about TV at all, but have so many texts to discuss.
10. This was a quiet group, but I think a lot of the students were into the topic and got something out of the lecture. They may have, in fact, actually learned something. To be witness and have a part in that process is the best part of all.
Dammit, Glee. Quit hogging the posts!
I don’t intend to catalogue all of the events of “Vitamin D” (which ended with a double doozy — I know I’m gonna love Sue, the blythely devious cheerleading coach played with aplomb by Jane Lynch, mixing it up with the glee club; I don’t feel similarly about Emma’s impending nuptuals). I will say, though, that I liked Kurt’s alliance with the girls and Rachel’s alliance with pregnant cheerleader Quinn (who is dating Finn, Rachel’s crush). I also happen to think kids who abuse pep pills are funny. Ask Lisa Simpson. Or Jessie Spano.
What I will highlight briefly is that I thought the show’s use of mash-ups were interesting and fun. I highly doubt that kids these days are stringing together Usher with Bon Jovi for strongly-regulated school competitions (my killjoy hunch is that Ohio, much like Texas, has a regulatory body that rules what songs are acceptable or legal to perform). However, that this increasingly ubiquitous format has become so mainstream that no one really seems to care if Danger Mouse pairs Jay-Z with The Beatles or Girl Talk combines Notorious B.I.G. with Elton John speaks to how drastically the way we hear music has changed over this decade.
Or does it? Because the other interesting thing tonight’s made-for-TV mash-ups made clear to me is how similar this is to a time-honored musical tradition: the medley. That the songs just happen to be from different artists opens up the suggestion that popular music is in constant dialogue with itself, contending generic conventions and its attendant identity baggage along the way.
As tonight’s episode was a battle of the sexes, I will keep in character and side with the girls. While I usually do this anyway, I think their mash-up was way better than the boys strained Danny-Zucco-by-way-of-The Strokes routine to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and Usher’s “Confessions,” which just played too faux macho and triumphant. Also, I think I heard a bit of AutoTune doctoring with Finn’s solo, which is an automatic dq. You better bring it next week, fellas. 😉
I think the girls totally brought it. Mercedes’s selection is Beyoncé’s “Halo,” perhaps an essentializing choice for the show’s lone African American character, but a lovely ballad nonetheless. It is paired with female-led band Katrina and The Waves’s “Walking on Sunshine,” a zippy new wave ode to urgent, addictive sexual ecstacy. I even like the mismatched yellow dresses fine. Initially, they brought bridesmaids to mind instead of girl groups. But I reconsidered after thinking about how the wardrobes may reflect each girl’s personality. Also, I wonder if the sunny color, which alludes to both songs, is a conscious choice to provide contrast to the myriad of dreary social and economic issues that Rachel hilariously rattles off to the judges prior to the girls’ performance. I wouldn’t put it past these girls, and don’t it feel good?
Thanks to my friend Evan, who alerted me on Monday that some serious Aughties musical canonization was going down this week, I’ve been following Pitchfork’s unveiling of the Top 500 tracks of the decade. As it may be of interest, I thought I’d share my feelings.
In subsequent posts, I may comment on their impending coverage of the decade’s best music videos and albums, as well as their formulations on the reclamation of pop, the exploration of noise, and the mainstreaming of indie rock. I won’t devote posts to it, though, because there’s a fine line between providing useful commentary and hearing yourself type. And my hunch is that discussing the singles list will suffice, as it presents, by microcosm, a general set of criticisms I’ve long held about the “tastemaker” e-zine.
Covering Pitchfork’s appraisal of the decade in this way makes more sense to me anyway, as the 2000s marked the resurgence of the single. Our increasingly digitized media culture cultivated the need for that one song, found at the click of a mouse or the touch of an mp3 player button or phone pad. That song also tended to get posted on blogs, e-zines, and MySpace pages (however briefly) as a means to define the self or selves (this was a decade when Gnarls Barkley, Brightblack Morning Light, and Crystal Castles could potentially coexist on the same shuffle or mash-up).
So, this list is the first time I’ve seen music of my youth canonized in such a way that it now seems historical. When Pitchfork first did the list half-way through the decade, I was 22 and just out of college; an adult, but only sorta. More specifically, the songs were still new. But having graduated from college twice over and a year into my second post-college job in 2009, I can look at songs from 2000, when I was in high school, and feel my age like many folks who transitioned into adulthood in decades prior.
And now, some nostalgia. A lot of the songs on this list bring up specific memories, images, people, and feelings. I remember my friend Brooke trying to teach me a dance routine to Aaliyah’s “Try Again” for our junior prom. PJ Harvey’s “Good Fortune” reminded me of a high school boyfriend which, in hindsight, speaks to an epic love song’s power to project. I remember a classmate singing the chorus to OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” to herself in French class. I remember hearing Jay-Z and UGK’s “Big Pimpin'” at a Claire’s somewhere in New York City on a field trip. Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” confused the hell out of me, but I kept playing it at full volume anyway. Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” was a confusing song that made perfect sense. And if Daft Punk’s “One More Time” was released when the class of 2001 voted for our song, it would’ve been my pick (I submitted U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Counting Crows’ “Hanging Around”; our song ended up being Aerosmith’s cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” from the Armageddon soundtrack, for some reason).
Then there’s the rough transition between high school and college. Songs off Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Daft Punk’s Discovery suggest my lonely, uncertain summer before college. I started college, withdrew mid-way through my first semester, and resumed in the spring. This was a “the” time — The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Shins, The Avalanches, and the last album by The Dismemberment Plan. It was also when I started to follow Pitchfork, mostly to avoid writing term papers.
After a summer back home, I applied for a college radio show. It was here that I really started learning about music, and just how much music there was. KVRX maintains a “none of the hits all of the time” policy; if a musical act got a single or video on rotation in a commercial market, they could not be played. While I was there, we pulled The Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand from rotation. Some deejays would think that by pulling a musical act they liked out of rotation, we were initiating a taste-based attack on coolness (i.e., undiscovered = good, discovered = bad). While this prejudice existed (and I would certainly perpetuate it at times), pulling an artist embraced by the mainstream out of college radio rotation felt more political to me. “Spoon is on 101X? Great! They’re awesome. Now let’s shine a light on the thousands of other bands who’ll never get that kind of attention.”
Pitchfork made an effort to shine a light too, biases notwithstanding. During my tenure at KVRX, my relationship with Pitchfork became contentious. While I followed Pitchfork, I was also dismissive or derisive of the staff’s opinions (a classic push-pull for many music geeks: we are at once too cool for Pitchfork, yet check to see if we line up with their rulings). As I came into my own as a feminist, I also became more critical of what they covered, how they covered it, and what they dismissed, out of which came, among other things, this blog.
Yet, there are so many songs on this countdown that remind me of that time. I remember my first radio show, when I played Interpol’s “NYC” because I had some vague idea of who they were. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard TV on the Radio’s “Staring At the Sun” and Dizzie Rascal’s “I Luv U.” I remember seeing Spoon perform “The Way We Get By” on Conan and hoping they’d get big. I remember hearing the bass line to Broken Social Scene’s “Stars and Sons” for the first time. I remember fighting The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” for weeks before surrendering. I remember being unable to avoid The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” I remember playing Broadcast’s “Pendulum” while getting ready for parties. I remember rocking out to The Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control” in the deejay booth. I remember LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” being one of the go-to songs deejays would throw on for a smoke break when we weren’t quoting from it (I alluded to it in this post’s title). I remember hearing M.I.A.’s “Galang” at a party and having it blow my mind. I remember impromptu dance parties after Alliance for a Feminist Option meetings when a bunch of sweaty grrrls I still call friends would shimmy to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” I remember skanking harder and smiling wider than I ever have with the person I built my life with to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”
In addition, there was Boards of Canada, Wolf Eyes, Feist, Black Dice, Andrew Bird, Ladytron, Devendra Banhart, Destroyer, Hot Chip, The New Pornographers, Deerhoof, M. Ward, Liars, Junior Boys, The Walkmen, Manitoba (later Caribou), El-P, The Go Team, (Smog), Sufjan Stevens, RJD2, The Books, Talib Kweli, Phoenix . . . . The list goes on. If I ever had trouble keeping up with new artists after graduating in 2005, it was only because I had so many established artists to follow.
Of course, my college radio utopia didn’t last. It couldn’t. My monolithic friend group fragmented. People moved, lost touch, became casual, or just stopped being friends. Perhaps this is really when the decade became more to me than a sequence, instead an evolution of time. Late-in-the-decade offerings like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and Animal Collective’s “Fireworks” convey this for me.
After college, I acquired Deerhunter, CSS, Hercules and Love Affair, Santigold, Bat for Lashes, Grizzly Bear, Battles, No Age, Be Your Own Pet, Girl Talk, Magik Markers, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls, Women, King Khan and the Shrines, and St. Vincent.
Assuredly there will be more new artists for me (and you) to adopt. Just this week, because of the countdown, I picked up on The Knife.
There are artists whose countdown placement evinces moments when we were willing to bet the farm on an act that now seem dated (Death From Above 1979, The Streets, and Klaxons). There are also acts I didn’t “get” but sorta came around on later (hello, Joanna Newsom). There are acts I didn’t know that well in college but came to treasure later (bless you, Neko Case). There are acts I enjoy but could never fully champion (I like you fine, Belle and Sebastian). There are acts I appreciate, but kinda overwhelm me and can’t listen to all the time (Jesus, Xiu Xiu). And then there are acts for whom I just never got the fuss (Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists).
With that said, this countdown plays predictably. Accepting minor issues like what song was selected to represent an artist and where songs fell in ranking, Pitchfork got a lot right. They also got caught up with some songs that I think they’re overselling, and some things they marginalized or completely overlooked. I’ll preoccupy the rest of this post with those flaws.
For me Pitchfork’s big Achilles heel has always been hip hop, primarily because they really only cover mainstream hip hop (Lil Wayne, T.I., 50 Cent, Clipse, Eminem, Cam’ron, OutKast, Kanye West, and Jay-Z — the last three are all over this countdown). And while this isn’t a problem in its own right, it limits how hip hop is defined and what it represents, which, in a lot of commercial hip hop, that still means money, Cristal, whips, blunts, and bitches (though not in all cases). It certainly suggests that the only way for rappers to be successful and culturally relevant is to be part of a corporate mechanism. This seems like something a publication that prides itself on giving visibility to independent artists should re-evaluate. Because, in my mind, if there’s no Busdriver or Jean Grae, I question the validity of the list.
As a result, it largely eclipses underground hip hop which has seen tremendous advancements over the course of the decade, particularly in the states. Talent from labels like Stones Throw, Quannum Projects, Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, and anticon., along with talent at labels like Plug Research, Mush, Warp, and Ubiquity have created some of the most vital and interesting work in the genre, expanding its sound and its content while working outside a corporate mechanism in the process (anticon. runs as a collective). But you’d never know that if you only read Pitchfork, who acknowledged a few efforts, primarily from white male label owners (El-P) and instrumental artists (RJD2, DJ Shadow). No female MCs were acknowledged. This may also speak to the dearth of female MCs in underground hip hop, but doesn’t excuse it (I love you, Jean Grae; I love you, Psalm One). My challenge to hip hop fans in the next decade is to try to create online resources as influential as Pitchfork to get the message out. You’ve got guaranteed spots on my blogroll.
Also, as you may have noticed if you combed through the entire list, only the top 200 songs are accompanied by blurbs from the writing staff. While I understand that writing 300 more blurbs presents its own challenges, I also think it suggests that tracks 500-301 weren’t good enough for a write-up. And this makes me especially sad when many of the women I loved in this decade — Vivian Girls, St. Vincent, Goldfrapp, Sleater-Kinney, Bat for Lashes, Björk, and The Gossip — are thrown at the end and not given any qualifying statements. This especially seems necessary for a song like The Gossip’s “Standing In the Way of Control,” which became an LGBTQI anthem this decade. That would be especially useful to read alongside #18, Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.” This is a great dance song that I’ve always interpreted as an anthem for coming out and living life queer. But you wouldn’t know that from Tim Finney’s write-up.
And while I’m heartened by the women who did make it to the top 200, especially women like M.I.A., Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Annie, and Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who made the top 20, I can’t help but notice that many of these women are pop artists who work extensively with predominantly male producers. I don’t want to suggest that cutting a track with Timbaland or Diplo or Pharell from The Neptunes means that women are robbed of artistic autonomy, as I wouldn’t say that for Justin Timberlake. However, I do take issue with what female artists and what songs get praise. Or even what versions of songs. While the Diplo remix of the version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that features UGK is great, I wonder why her version isn’t enough.
That said, the 2000s were both a hell of an education and a hell of a time. Pitchfork knows it. I know it. Hopefully, you know it too. It was a great time to be alive. I hope the next decade is even better.