In the first chapter to her book, The Promise of Happiness, Sara Ahmed makes the following argument about the meanings that we put into the things we own:
If we arrive at objects with an expectation of how we will be affected by them, this affects how they affect us, even in the moment they fail to live up to our expectations. Happiness is an expectation of what follows, where the expectation differentiates between things, whether or not they exist as objects in the present (29).
This makes a lot of sense to me. Records are my happy object.
Objects accumulate meanings because of the associations and feelings we bring to them. On last week’s Mad Men, an engineer helps install an IBM 360 in the middle of SC&P and explains computers’ dark thrall to Don Draper: “It’s been my experience these machines can be a metaphor for whatever’s on people’s minds.” Conveniently, recent Mad Men episodes have been framed by promos for AMC’s new period drama, Halt and Catch Fire, which details the development of a fictional Texas-based computer company in the early 1980s. In the clip, a character states: “Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”
Ahmed would love that sentence’s circularity. Also, you could replace “computers” with just about any other word and the sentiment would still hold. In Ahmed’s mind, the thing we’re trying to get to is happiness, which we never completely arrive at and often only recognize in retrospect. I was reading Ahmed’s book during Record Store Day, which my partner and I observe every year. As I thumbed through the crates, posted images of my findings, pored over the covers, filed away my vinyl, and threw on my newly purchased copy of the Life Without Buildings reissue, I thought about what expectations collectors put into records. Technologies are often thick with possibility. We may think that a new gadget or toy will be “it.” Instead, we frequently integrate some of their features into our daily lives (load it, check it, quick – rewrite it). We only notice their object-ness when they don’t work (buy it, use it, break it, fix it).
I’m literalizing Ahmed’s use of the word “object.” She uses the term to express how individuals orient themselves within culture. According to Ahmed, people can be objects as well. When they congregate, they often objectify one another. Ahmed argues that this results in children becoming distinctly burdened as symbols for hope. That could explain why the dinner table is a volatile place for some families. But we often symbolize people and risk turning them into our happy objects. It also explains why making a mix for someone always means more than putting a sequence of songs together. The mix is the thing that gets us to the thing.
There’s a curatorial function to record collecting, but it doesn’t mean anything without people. Building a collection implies a sense of discernment, which is learned from living in the world and absorbing social norms. This ascribes unequal value to objects, which we should always question. You may ask yourself if a piece of music “deserves” to be on vinyl and folded into your collection. You may also get rid of things because of unfortunate associations. How often do break-ups forever alter your relationship to music? How often is that association shame? “Happiness is an expectation of what follows,” indeed. Because of a boy, I started college with three Blink-182 albums in my CD collection (including the yellow version of Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, the one with “Fuck a Dog” on it). Other records—Björk’s Homogenic; PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea; The Dismemberment Plan’s Change—remind me of that time, but they made it to the other side and accumulated new meanings for me. But when I was ready to let it go, Dude Ranch didn’t even make it to a used record store. I flung it into a parking lot. Part of it was me being spiteful; it was a gift. Part of it was me applying feminism to music snobbery; I was done with pop-punk dick jokes. Part of it was me being a music snob; at 19, pop-punk was my bad object. A big part of it was shame; I didn’t like who I was when I was with him.
Sharing and combining record collections is an act of faith. What if you hate your partner’s records? What if you lose things? What if you end up having to divide everything back up into boxes and go your separate ways? I’ve merged my record collection with another’s exactly once. The ease with which we did it eight years ago was a good sign. We’ve schlepped our records to three homes and two states, but the process never bothered me. When I look at our records, I like being able to see what was him before me (The Aquabats), what was me before him (Depeche Mode), what we don’t share as a couple, what we brought to each other, and what became us.
You’ll never have enough records. There’s a beautiful sadness to that fact when you’re a collector. I’ll never hear all of the necessary sounds in the world and I’ll never have enough shelves to house them in one place and that is very comforting. Of course, technological progress has radically changed our perception of ownership and storage. Digitization has made just about anything available through both legal and illegal means and we can place that stuff in increasingly smaller, light-weight, and ephemeral spaces. Toward the end of a long, uncertain semester, I started to scan all of the paper I accumulated during course work and teaching. I did this to achieve a sense of control. I may not know what shape my dissertation will take or what its impact will be. But I imagine being happier and more at ease once the stacks on my desk and floor disappear. However, new stacks will probably spill over in their place. Happy objects are messy.
What I’m talking about is gathering. In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed waxes poetic about tables and returns to them briefly in The Promise of Happiness. According to Ahmed, the table is a writing surface, a technology that bears the traces of its use, a gathering space, and an item that recedes into the background until certain interactions cause its presence to intensify (2006). Her meditation on tables reminds me of how scholars like David Morley, Lynn Spigel, and Ann Gray have theorized the television and the political significance of individuals and families’ interactions with it in the home. It also made me think about when Mary Kearney described television as something you need to dust during a class activity in her feminist television criticism graduate seminar. I never looked at another television set without thinking about dust, and I think about what else accumulates in my home full of objects. Records gather meaning in dust and in scuff marks. We put them there.
Few words in the English vernacular are as slippery and imprecise as “cool.” I don’t know what it means. If someone were to apply the word to me, I’d be tempted to respond with, “But I’m so sweaty.”
“Cool” has been applied to me. Usually it has some connection to my music fandom, though perhaps my stern resting face and propensity for color blocking contribute to the association. I think it’s been used as a compliment. Sometimes, it feels like a pejorative or a judgment, particularly when the usage seems like a synonym for “hipster.” There’s truth in it. I would paraphrase Panda Bear’s “Comfy in Nautica” in order to hazard a definition for coolness that honors the bravery of kindness. In the past, I’ve revealed some of my pretensions by claiming that I was the kind of teenager who didn’t “understand” the electric guitar and preferred atonal choral music. Yet for me, there’s distance with that vexing descriptor.
First, I have to consider how music shaped my adolescence. Of course, to do so requires an acknowledgment of my privileged access to resources like media technologies, musical artifacts, and domestic privacy. I got a clock radio for Christmas when I was ten. At around this time, I also received a portable tape player and later a Discman. These devices offered entry into a larger world. It provided me with the pleasures of then-unknown sounds, like that day in sixth grade when I stayed home sick and played a cassette of Duran Duran’s Rio on a loop. They also promised a respite from silence. A bit later, I would inherit my parents’ sound system, which allowed me to record radio programs and play CDs. At ten, I also began reading Rolling Stone, a magazine which I subscribed to throughout high school.
Early adolescence was a formative period for me. As a chubby and socially withdrawn pre-teen, I had trouble making friends and feeling comfortable with myself. Music made me feel included during a period of time when I felt most left out. Thus I didn’t recognize my listening practices and identification reflected in the opaque, uneven codes of exclusion that make coolness hegemonic. I didn’t listen to music to amass cultural capital. I didn’t even hear that term until I started graduate school. I taped stuff off the radio, read music criticism, and slept with Depeche Mode albums tucked under my pillow to feel less alone in my bedroom.
A lot of people might relate to that sentiment. Some of those folks are my friends and a few of them circulated Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “uncool” scene from Almost Famous following the news of his sudden passing. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find footage of Hoffman’s maverick deejay breaching the water in Pirate Radio. I’ve yet to revisit many of his films because Scotty J, Phil Parma, Jon Savage, Caden Cotard, and Lancaster Dodd remain too beautiful to bear. I’m scared of meeting the guy he played in Happiness. So I settled on a loop of scenes from The Talented Mr. Ripley, Punch-Drunk Love, The Big Lebowski, Along Came Polly, and Patch Adams (the first thing I saw him in; I side with Mitch). I finally saw Hard Eight, a debut feature that suggests enough of Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision underneath all of the Scorsese references, just to watch Hoffman taunt the film’s protagonist in one scene. I realized that a whole range of male friends absorbed something in his nihilistic cool—his lank hair, his way with a cigarette, his sneer. It’s time to revisit Doubt and Capote or, failing that, Twister.
Based on my friends’ social media activity, eulogizing Hoffman happened conterminously with taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Many of my friends got Kim Deal on Matthew Perpetua’s ’90s alt-rock grrrl quiz. A few of them were Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Björk, or Shirley Manson. I was PJ Harvey and my partner got Kim Gordon. I found this particular permutation of nostalgic resurgence interesting, largely because a number of those musicians—along with Cibo Matto, Luscious Jackson, L7, and the women in Lush, as well as R&B and hip-hop artists like TLC, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliott—shaped my perception of coolness.
As a young woman, I was taken by the authority of their musicianship. The depths of Harvey’s grief on “Teclo” were so intense that I hid To Bring You My Love under my bed. I studied the Deal sisters’ musical twin-speak. I delighted in Elliott’s ability to build innovative production and throw raunchily quotable rhymes over the top of her creations. I was also taken with image. I liked being unable to predict Jennifer Finch’s hair color. I saw Cibo Matto in a segment for House of Style where they visited their favorite New York restaurants and wanted to get lost in their world, an impulse I indulged in by endlessly studying the sleeve photography for Viva! La Woman! I put on a pair of blue silk PJs and danced in my room whenever “Creep” came on the radio.
Discourses of coolness are embedded in my identity as a music fan of certain female artists, many of whom can claim some sort of subcultural status. But some colleagues and faculty in my graduate program identify as fans of commercial media properties like the Muppets, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics. This has informed their academic contributions, allowing them to bring to bear certain industrial and cultural questions about identity, authorship, legitimation, agency, creativity, collaboration, and labor. But I assume that they came to these subjects because the artifacts captured their imagination first. I also cannot remove musicians from the commercial and regulatory conditions that shape their work. In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I caught myself in the contradictions of authenticity and debates about art and commerce. In doing so, I denied corporate influences at work in the production and distribution of much of the music I enjoy.
Music engendered a sense of possibility for me. Yet as I developed as a scholar in media and cultural studies, it became more difficult to neatly differentiate between the musical texts and producers I align with and others’ fan objects. It also made it impossible to cling to binaries that conveniently avoided all of the contradictions and mess inherent to creating fundamentally commercial work for marketable audiences. This isn’t to suggest that all creators are guided by profitability in the production of art or media. But I’m unconvinced that coolness allows us to answer those questions so much as prevent us from truly confronting them. If we cannot yet dispense with coolness altogether, perhaps we can trouble the perception that it’s a term that is diametrically opposed to whatever is arbitrarily determined to be uncool. In doing so, we might open up the possibilities once closed off by such an unsatisfying and exclusionary word.
This year, three new albums found their way into my constant rotation. One is EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, which is the strongest debut album I’ve heard so far (feelings I share with Lindsay Zoladz and Stacey Pavlick). Erika M. Anderson’s spare acoustic-drone psychodrama is all peroxide and rusty razor blades. It’s an interesting stylistic counterpoint to one of last year’s great debuts, Glasser’s Ring, where Cameron Mesirow encrusted her electro-feminist musings with barnacles and jewels.
The other two albums are huge artistic leaps forward. PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake reminds people who only casually listened to her after Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that she remains one of rock’s most vital artists. These tend to be the same people who wish she revisited Rid of Me, not knowing that she did in 2004 with Uh Huh Her, which is seething and vital on its own terms. tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is the other one, and a beast live. Here, Merrill Garbus proves the Blackberry ad wasn’t a fluke and that her debut album’s lo-fi set-up was less an aesthetic choice than a pragmatic necessity. Like Kala, w h o k i l l foregrounds propulsive drumming and struts and shines like a pop record. Both have been met with near-unanimous critical acclaim. They’re also two of my favorite records of the year so far. No contest.
Thematically, they have much in common. Put simply, they’re albums about forging and contending national identit(ies) in countries that have or continue to define themselves by war, a point Harvey articulated about England in her recent Fresh Air interview. They also quote from other artists to locate and conjure their country’s musical heritage. w h o k i l l‘s dazzling opener, “My Country,” references “America” and “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, the country’s first prominent interracial, mixed gender rock band. It also champions the United States’ problematic multicultural spirit throughout, with liberal quotations from cultural imports like ska and reggae and Garbus’ omnipresent ukulele. England‘s “The Glorious Land” samples the Police’s “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The saxophone and trombone in “The Last Living Rose” sound like a Kinks flourish. “The Colour of the Earth,” an elegy to a dead soldier, barrels along like a pub anthem. Two of the album’s showcased instruments, the autoharp and the zither, echo the lush stringed instrumentation that made 4AD the nation’s home for dream pop in the album’s three-song centerpiece, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “All and Everyone,” and “On Battleship Hill.” It’s as much a British album in sound as it is for its interest in the First World War and England’s involvement with the ongoing crises in the Middle East.
And while I don’t want to compare Harvey to Kate Bush, another dark-haired musician/lady genius with a complicated obsession with her homeland, I do marvel at how Harvey uses her voice as genderfuck. For an album largely about war and living with its atrocities, I agree that using a breathy tone destabilizes the directness of her words. In its way, it reminds me more of Armando Iannucci’s staggering In the Loop, a piercing satire about Anglo-American politics and the Iraq invasion. Harvey uses her voice to offset and deepen the tragedy. Iannucci and his writing team use comedy to illustrate the stupid, careless banter of ambitious civil servants, career politicians, and military personnel who use words and protocol to kill people and destroy nations. Has anyone synced up “The Words That Maketh Murder” to any scene in that movie on YouTube? It’s intuitive.
But let’s face facts. They’re albums by white women. Of course, we’re a homogenuous group amongst ourselves and these two albums are their own entities. w h o k i l l is an album about being a white woman with a complex interiority. Garbus opines about gentrification on “Gangsta,” fantasizes about making love to the cop who is arresting her brother in “Riotriot,” mourns the loss of a loved one by police brutality on “Doorstep”, and tries to unlearn ingrained body hatred in “Es-so”. While she may be embellishing or fictionalizing at times, she is certainly singing from her peer group’s perspective, specifically the vantage point of relocated urban white hipsters (Garbus recently moved to Oakland). Harvey plays with gender, assuming the role of a traumatized male soldier or embodying a degendered narrator, and her ability to morph into these characters connotes white privilege. Garbus’ play with ebonics (using words like “gangsta,” “powa,” “killa,” and, on her first record, “fiya” for “gangster,” “power,” “killer,” and “fire”) suggests the same thing.
This gets at issues of appropriation. “England” samples Said El Kurdi’s “Kassem Miro” and “Written on the Forehead” lifts Winston “Niney” Holness’ “Blood and Fire” while employing an omniscent narrator to reflect on the cultural richness and war-wrecked blight of some unattributed Middle Eastern country that Harvey has revealed to be about present-day Iraq, even though several countries still use dinar as currency. These songs gesture toward England’s history as a brutal colonizer, as well as its migratory musical and cultural heritage. They are my favorite songs on the record–elliptical, searching, imaginative. But as is often the case with sampling, that doesn’t mean they’re racial politics aren’t troubled.
In the middle of “Killa,” seemingly an ode to female self-empowerment, Garbus asks “would you call me naive and an idealist if I told you I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?” It’s a question imbued in white female privilege. But it’s also an interesting and productive question white people don’t like to ask or think on very often. Best of all, it’s also a question with an answer. It’s why Merrill Garbus was able to study African folkloric traditions while attending a liberal arts college, smear paint across her face, and cite Fela Kuti as an influence. It’s why Glasser’s backup singers put on conical hats for Jimmy Fallon without explanation and no one cries foul. It’s why Kate Bush is allowed to use black people to “color” a music video. It’s why the very concept of eclecticism in popular music is racially loaded and lousy with class signifiers that would make Bourdieu put down his tea cup and furrow his brow.
It’s also a question I could ask to get at why my friend Kristen was one of the few black women in our grad program at UT. It’s a question that gets at the heart at why I didn’t think to introduce her to Cassandra, another black woman in my friend group constellation–because I didn’t want to seem racist for assuming that my black girlfriends would like each other. It also gets at my embedded racism when I sent panicked text messages to them about some pushback I got from my Alicia Keys post. I wanted confirmation that I was racially sensitive and, once I realized what I was doing, immediately apologized for trying to force them into the role of wise black female cultural arbiter when they probably just wanted to sleep or watch television or eat ice cream. It’s why Maya Rudolph’s bridal party is comprised of white ladies. It’s why seeking out a black Zooey Deschanel may be a fool’s errand and thus why it may be more productive to champion Web series’ like the nuanced, hilarious The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl instead. Because class, race, and white cisfemale privilege color all of this, and like Harvey and Garbus, I directly benefit from it.
When I started this blog, it was out of a personal need to highlight female musical contributions. Now sometimes it just seems like I’m just championing white ladies–hence the delay on a post I’ve been writing in my head for a few months. Nowhere is this more evident than in looking at my record collection, which also proves that fetishizing an eclectic mix of genres across identity categories means having the disposable income to do so (or at least deciding not to buy a car or make a baby with it). And as much as I recommend Georgia Anne Muldrow, pump Betty Davis, put Chavela Vargas on mix CDs, laud Cibo Matto and OOIOO, seek out acts like the Lost Bois, celebrate Jean Grae’s new effort, breathlessly await Psalm One’s next album, and agree that white women shouldn’t only listen to artists that reflect their own identities, it probably reads as either defensive or self-congratulatory for being down. Scratch that, it is being defensive and self-congratulatory. That doesn’t mean I’m only going to make mixes with white ladies on it. I just refuse to take credit or feel good about myself for including Ebony Bones or the Bags on a mix CD.
I’m a feminist because I believe there’s value in aligning with an ethos that’s committed to dismantling the patriarchy and celebrating a transinclusive notion of female identit(ies), even when I have to fight for it to be equitable, acknowledge when it isn’t, and help work toward creating a system of -isms that includes all my sisters (even the ones who don’t want me as their sisters). So I’ll keep trying to be an ally, always call race into question when I’m talking about gender, and assume I have much more to learn than I do to teach. I love music because it transports me both within and outside myself and provides me with sites of identification and something to do on a Saturday night, and then forces me to consider the implications of such mental travel and hive formation. I love writing about it because it clarifies my opinions, opens up a dialogue, and holds me accountable. I love Let England Shake and w h o k i l l, because they are angry, varied, and gracious. And it’s because I love them that I have to question why I do.
Last Friday, I was catching up with Off Chances’ podcasts while wrapping up some things at work. As it was around 4:30 and the mix was food-related, I was getting hungry. My appetite intensified after hearing the opening track three times. For some reason, I haven’t gotten around to listening to late jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. I knew of Ashby because James Murphy mentioned her in that generation-defining novelty song that launched his career. Her music is sampled by hip hop artists like Ugly Duckling, Murs, and Pete Rock. And I feel pretty ridiculous that I hadn’t noticed her work on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Billy Preston’s Late at Night, but this blog is as much a repository for lost treasures as anything else. But after stumbling upon the stark, elegant “Joyful Grass and Grape,” I’m hooked. Ashby fans, should I start with The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby?
Since starting this blog, I’ve always prioritized contemporary female musicians who steer away from the traditional rock set-up. Lately I keep thinking about harps, which may only rival the piano as the most conventionally feminine instrument. PJ Harvey foregrounds the autoharp on her bewitching Let England Shake, which gets better with each listen.
After seeing Joanna Newsom at the Paramount last November, it’s clear to me that the novelty of the instrument can eclipse the difficulty of playing it. Detractors may think Newsom’s association with the harp ups her quirk factor, but she’s pretty virtuosic at an unweildy instrument. It requires great strength and dexterity to pluck and strum a harp. It’s a challenging instrument to approach, as you have to straddle the instrument and nestle your head against it to see the strings. You can’t shred on it as easily as you can with a guitar, which has been naturalized as an extension of the musician’s genitalia. It’s a tricky instrument to keep tuned. What’s more, harps are really expensive. Newsom doesn’t use a practice harp from her middle school days to keep in touch with her childhood; the one she’s saving up for costs $50,000.
Ashby showcased her formidable skill with the koto on Rubiyat, which seems to employ an entire musical grammar I can’t yet wrap my head around. Being able to master two tricky instruments and create sublime music out of it? Oh yes, Dorothy Ashby, I’m going to spend more time with you.
We’re in February now, which means people are releasing albums again. Yesterday, I listened to new stuff from Toro Y Moi, PJ Harvey, and Adele. I giggled at Urban Outfitters streaming Underneath the Pine, but that’s not unexpected. UO and retailers like American Eagle sell compilations upon occasion. As I mentioned in my review of TOKiMONSTA’s Midnight Menu, the first time I heard an Air song was at the mall. It makes sense. Both artists make music for looking at your ass in expensive jeans. Matter of fact, Chaz Bundick is straight up trying to make Air records.
By the way, if anyone has written on department stores using music as a part of brand identification, please let me know.
In anticipation of their official release dates later this month, NPR is streaming Harvey and Adele’s new albums. I’m sure most readers would expect that I’d devote some space to Harvey’s Let England Shake. However, I’d imagine that regular followers of this blog are already digging the new album and are excited about the short films that are accompanying it. They can probably also tell you that she didn’t peak with Rid Of Me and continues to make great records. They might even say that White Chalk is far more intense than To Bring You My Love. Regardless of whether you know this or not, do check it out.
But I thought I should trumpet my excitement about Adele’s 21. It might be a populist vote, and I strongly encourage fans who want to check out lesser-known artists to give a listen to Orgone and Andreya Triana. However, I’m a believer in supporting good musicians with universal appeal–folks like Jill Scott, Sharon Jones, and fellow Texans like Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones. My mom might have acquired a taste for Joanna Newsom when I played “Sawdust and Diamonds” for her, but what’s not to love about these ladies?
The Grammys are this Sunday, and I plan to tune in and perhaps live Tweet alongside the folks over at In Media Res, who are devoting this week to critical explorations in pop music. I’ve got a cocktail riding on the Album of the Year winner. If it goes to Katy Perry, the hellmouth will open and we won’t have any new Septembers. You’ll recall Adele won two awards in 2009, including the contentious Best New Artist prize. I totally think she deserved it. I admitted my love for her (and my scorn for Vogue‘s sizeism) early in this blog’s run. My only reservation with 21 is that I don’t think there’s a song that matches lead single “Rolling In The Deep,” which opens the album and is powerful enough to bring about a Biblical flood. But “Rumour Has It” and “He Won’t Go” are also in heavy rotation, and her version of the Cure’s “Lovesong” honors the original (which I have tepid feelings for, as I don’t need Robert Smith when I have Siouxsie Sioux) and far exceeds the 311 cover. Adele’s sophomore album is exactly what it needs to be–accomplished, singular, and lousy with hits. She’s well on her way to becoming the Dusty Springfield of my generation, and is becoming our Adele in the process.
Yesterday, Katie Presley at Bitch posted a delightful news item: each track from PJ Harvey’s forthcoming album, Let England Shake, will be accompanied by a short film. Maybe this cinematic endeavor will tide her over until she scores a movie.
I have a lot of investment with such a project, particularly the manner in which it will be distributed. As someone who wrote her thesis on the Directors Label series (and owns all seven volumes), I’m fascinated by the uselessness of packaging music videos on VHS and DVD. Though it created a new problem with embedding, YouTube’s ubiquity assured video packaging’s demise. Yet music videos have a long history with at-home playback technology. We forget in a place and time when we have immediate access to our favorite acts, but it wasn’t so long ago that fans only really saw their favorite artists in concert. Among other things, music videos simulated a communal space between artist and fan, as well as embellished on the artist’s persona and the fan’s fantasy life. MTV of course was a precursor to YouTube and catapulted videos into the mainstream in the 1980s, effectively changing the course of cable programming and film editing in the process. But sometimes you really wanted to watch the clip for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour” right now but the network took it out of rotation and you forgot to tape it off the television. YouTube now takes care of that need on a second-by-second basis, though not without embedding problems, obnoxious advertising, or clips getting pulled. Before then, fans could fetish video compilations.
Most artists packaged their music videos as companions to their greatest hits collections. This was primarily the market imperative of pop artists like Madonna and Duran Duran, though left-of-mainstream artists like Massive Attack and Pavement played along. Video albums and short films based on song cycles existed alongside them, but were not as prevalent for a variety of reasons. It could possibly be because music videos don’t demand narrative continuity or because pop stars tend to be terrible actors, but the pragmatic reasons are cost and risk. Music videos are expensive to produce. Spreading music video concepts across an album or collection of songs is exponentially costly, especially since music networks are reticent to be casualties to their audience’s short attention span. Not everyone has a “Thriller” in them. Hell, Michael really only had one in him. Carving out 20-40 minutes of programming time to Depeche Mode’s Strange or Strange Two probably seems like a losing bet. Thus many segments were shown out of context on television. Video albums then maximized their medium potential as little-seen items that could slip out of circulation once an act’s rabid fan base got their fix. Yet the Pet Shop Boys’ It Couldn’t Happen Here and Kate Bush’s The Line, the Cross, and the Curve remain curios, as well as clues into their music and image. Possessing copies also says something about taste and fan engagement. The storage format they’re in (or have yet to be converted into) also says a great deal about visual media’s archival instability.
I’m also curious if a uniform artistic or narrative vision will be explored in Let England Shake, or if such things aren’t a concern. Last weekend, I was reading Carol Vernallis’ great essay on Madonna’s “Cherish,” video. In this piece, she attempted to bridge sonic and visual formal analysis with a critical understanding on artist-director relationships, production issues, song content, and representational politics come to bear on what is often dismissed as a solely commercial (and therefore inherently vapid) medium. Videos actually can tell us quite a bit about the artist, as well as illustrate how important sound and music are in our understanding and interpreting of film’s visual elements. As “Cherish” was directed by the late photographer Herb Ritts, with whom she frequently collaborated, I wonder if Harvey worked with Maria Mochnacz.
But videos are also abstract and open to interpretation in ways that differ from narrative films tendency toward plot and resolution. I was reminded of this when watching the video collection that accompanies Beach House’s Teen Dream. The original track list order is not maintained, thus destabilizing its organizational role as an album. There isn’t a sense of narrative or formal continuity between songs, heightened by different directors (including front woman Victoria Legrand) providing a distinct vision for each song. Some treatments work, most notably Kevin Drew’s direction on “Take Care.” Others did not. Showbeast’s puppet antics in “Norway” undermined the track’s stately elegance for me. This recalls criticism against music videos for compromising listeners’ imagination by imposing visuals onto something intangible, as well as misinterpreting a song’s intended or proposed message. Yet each video provides a window into interpreting the song and the band. With that spirit in mind, I can’t wait to see and hear what we think of PJ Harvey’s new record.
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.