Category Archives: music

“Knock, knock, did you say who you’ve come for?”: Books Read in 2020

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I’m halfway into Steve Hyden’s This Isn’t Happening and a few dozen pages into Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. So, as usual, here’s my breakdown of my reading for the year of hindsight:

Books read in 2020: 141
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 28
Books of poetry included in reading total: 11
Books reread included in reading total: 3
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 17
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 9

Some thoughts (as usual, here are my posts on books read in 2019201820172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009):

The pandemic hit me as a reader. I didn’t feel as into the reading that I did. I didn’t have the same reading highs as I have had in previous years. I chalk that up to the damping effect of sheltering in place with low-key high levels of anxiety for the majority of the year. Maybe I made some poor reading selections, but reading wasn’t the respite I could have used this year. Sure, I read fewer books, too. That’s not really the point; I do think I might have read a few more books in a non-pandemic year, but I think this is close to my reading capacity while still trying to be a present dad that no longer has weekends/afternoons for selfish page-turning right now. (Side note: Ally pointed out that we read a ton of board books everyday with the kids. If Besos for Baby was included on this list, my reading count would be straight-up astronomical.)

I almost hit my goal of averaging a book of poetry a month. The books I did read were great. The Danez Smith collection (mentioned here) and Hanif Abdurraqib’s most recent collection were easy highlights.

I read two books by Olivia Laing this year, The Lonely City and Funny Weather. They were both wonderful and sent me down a spiral reading about a handful of artists I didn’t know much about like Chantal Joffe and Louise Bourgeois. The Lonely City also got me to listen to a bunch of Klaus Nomi this year.

I flew through all Martha Wells’ Murderbot series. As quick, fun sci-fi, it was my ideal semi-conscious, falling-asleep series of books for a chunk of the year. Likewise, Susanna Clarke’s long awaited follow-up novel, Piranesi, was short, engaging, and made me hope she’ll put out more work more frequently.

Charlie Kaufman’s debut novel, Antkind, is the most Kaufman-y thing he’s made and the funniest book I read all year. Also the most tedious. It’s not worth trying to summarize the plot about a film critic trying to write an academic book about the greatest film ever made of which only one person has seen and of which only a single frame still exists and so this critic uses hypnosis (and other methods) to attempt to recreate the reclusive filmmaker’s opus in his mind. It’s that kind of book. There’s a tangential plot line around a U.S. president named Donald Trunk who falls in love with a robot of himself. There’s nerdy film humor that made me enthused about rewatching Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. There’s a bunch of complaining about the films of Charlie Kaufman. You get it.

A Third University Is Possible was such an inspiring read at the beginning of the year that I ended up folding it into a class I was teaching, inviting K. Wayne Yang to close the Speculative Education Colloquium, and riffing on it in my own writing for future publications. I also really enjoyed Alex Rosenblat’s Uberland as representative of the possibilities of ethnography in the era of social infatuation with “algorithms” (ahem).

Comic books: I really liked Carmen Maria Machado’s horror story, The Low Low Woods. Tillie Walden continues to be one of my favorite comic creators and Are You Listening was no exception. Ines Estrada’s Alienation was confounding and I hope others read it so we can talk about it.

Finally, earlier this month a colleague recommended Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff, a book I missed in the middle of **all of this.** I flew through it. It made me miss poker, think about how I assess professional risk, and consider how limited information occludes some of my decision making.

The last concert that I attended was seeing Destroyer in San Francisco at the end of February. I consistently listened to his most recent album (contributing to this post’s title) throughout the year.

Early in the year, I picked up a copy of Cory Daye’s 1979 record, Cory and Me. The album isn’t on the major streaming platforms and disco dancing with the family to this record has been one of the real highlights during our sheltering in place.

Aside from this record, I played a lot of the new Fiona AppleBlack DressesPhoebe Bridgers, Haim, and Hayley Williams albums for my kids.

A good chunk of my time in quarantine was spent listening to 75 Dollar Bill, Moor Mother, Boris, Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood, and PJ Harvey’s smattering of demos. I spent a bunch of money supporting these bands and smaller artists on Bandcamp throughout the year.

Three other quick thoughts from this year’s listening:

  • The Man Man album that came out this year was their best/most melodic and it feels like absolutely no one picked it up or reviewed it.

  • Jimi Hendrix’s role as a central figure in how we conceptualize Afrofuturism is probably not given enough due. I think poor marketing and over saturation of bad reissues through the ‘90s and 2000s diminished his legacy. (This Buddy Miles song has been a highlight from my wider listening of Hendrix live recordings.)
  • The Sign O’ The Times boxset is absolutely incredible.

Finally, Mac Miller’s posthumously released Circles haunted my 2020. Thematically, “Good News” is the song that feels 2020 to me.

Dispatches for Luna & Max (#06)

  • If ever there was a band that should have been an utter disaster, Dead Man’s Bones would have been the one to bet on. A celebrity’s (Gosling) side project, a halloween themed album, and a children’s choir? That sounds terrible. And yet, a decade later, it’s still one of my most listened to albums. (I always appreciated the opening of the Pitchfork review of the album in this regard.)
  • “Name in Stone”–as far as I can tell–was the only non-album track that was released from this project.
  • “Name in Stone” doesn’t have the same highs as some of the other songs on the album proper (e.g. “My Body’s a Zombie for You” or “Pa Pa Power“)
    • Sub dispatch: “Pa Pa Power” might be one of the more affirming songs I would listen to when I needed a boost. It also might be anarchic, anthemic song we need in this current pandemic moment, “Burn the street, burn the cars, Pa pa power, pa pa power!”
  • It’s weird how Gosling’s career interwove his singing more and more after this album’s release. He does a song in Blue Valentine and then, of course, La La Land a while later. In whatever context you get the same guttural doo-wop-y vocals that are central to Dead Man’s Bones.
  • The video approximates the goofiness of the band’s live shows. The different times I saw them around L.A., the children would be dressed in retro halloween costumes and the opener would be something of a variety show/camp-y magician act. It was very in step with the atmosphere of Dead Man’s Bones: “fun” scary. (You get the vibe in this video, I think.)
  • I appreciate that the “Name in Stone” video feels like a cobbled together, student-film. Like their shows and the album as a whole, it feels like it was fun to make. It was probably a fairly expensive side project that couldn’t have been all that profitable compared to the demands of Hollywood. The band would play a couple unreleased songs at their shows, but I can’t imagine a second album ever making a lot of sense financially.
  • “I raised my flag up into your heart, and you let the winds come tear it apart.”
  • “Uh, Dead Man’s Bones Name in Stone take two. UH.”

“We are ranking the great shipwrecks”: Books Read in 2019

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Yesterday, I finished Jenny Slate’s Little Weirds and I’ve been slowly moseying my way through this collection of essays about Elizabeth Bishop. So here’s my breakdown of my reading for 2019:

Books read in 2019: 170
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 42
Books of poetry included in reading total: 8
Books reread included in reading total: 5
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 15
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 26
Roleplaying Game-related books (rules, modules, settings – related to this research): 3 [I’m mainly writing up findings from this work now; unless something substantial changes next year, I’ll stop tracking these texts at this point.]

Some thoughts (as usual, here are my posts on books read in 201820172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009):

Rather than bury the lede, I’ll share that Ally and I welcomed twins into our family in July. They are (usually) great! I’ll be referring to them by their middle names on this blog moving forward: Luna and Max.

Okay. So, the first half of the year was taken up with a lot of pregnancy-related books, most of which offered conflicting advice. (As parents might predict, the summer was filled with books related to baby sleep habits. These, too, largely offered competing and unhelpful advice; yes, I changed them and fed them and swaddled the hell out of them already.) The world of publishing around pregnancy and twins/multiples is much more limited and I found bits and pieces of these books useful in reducing some of the stress we felt in the first two trimesters; but I thought these were also pretty bad for the most part. (I may go more in depth on the pregnancy/parenting book genre in a longer post because I have #feelings about these texts, the market for literally the most mundane yet precious aspect of human culture, and the pedagogical expectations of mainstream books.) On the off chance that any readers are expecting twins in the near future (congrats!), feel free to get in touch–I’m happy to share some specific recommendations.

Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream Housewas the best book I read this year. Intentionally unsettling, Machado pushes on the boundaries of form and genre while excavating trauma and abuse in a book that’s unlike anything else I’ve come across. It’s definitely a BSRAYDEKWTDWT-contender and, considering how much I liked Her Body and Other Parties, Machado is a new favorite writer. 

And while I realize it got a ton of press, I would universally recommend Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. It’s not a pleasant read but I am grateful to have gotten to learn from Miller’s words.

Though eight doesn’t look like much in comparison to other kinds of books account for, I read a lot more poetry than in recent years. I’m going to shoot for one collection per month in 2020.To be honest, I was kicked back into a poetry mood as I ruminated on the loss of musician and poet David Berman earlier this year. Rereading his collection, Actual Air, was a painful reminder of Berman’s genius and humor, the title of this post comes from this collection. Likewise, I’ve been regularly coming back to Zadie Smith’s reading of Frank O’Hara’s “Animals.” The text has crept into a couple of my academic talks and part of it serves as an epigraph for a short essay coming out in 2020.

Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon was the weird, overly long sci-fi novel I had fun getting sucked into. It feels like only due to largesse did Ted Chiang release a new collection of stories this year. It is, of course, impeccable.

In terms of comics, Tom King’s Mister Miracle is a refreshing take on the superhero genre (and maybe a spiritual sequel to his Vision run). Not unlike In The Dream House, it’s a stunning mix of fitting within the confines of genre and form while also channeling pathos through every page. I also found the diary-style comics of Keiler Roberts to be exactly the sense of humor and reflection to take me through a sleep-deprived fall. Her most recent, Rat Time, is as good a place to start as any.

For a year and a half now, a couple colleagues and I have been systematically reading select YA books published across the past two decades. As a result, I read a lot of YA I didn’t like this year. I’ll note that—as frustrating and #problematic as I found the series—the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants offers some interesting ideas around multimodal literacies. (Years too late to be any kind of warning, I’ll also note that the final book in the series is infuriating.) Also surprising, I found Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen was an intriguing book for thinking about trauma, romance, and multimodal composition. I guess you could probably say that about 70% of YA books, but how many of them feature a corded house phone, a parental car phone, and a cell phone all at the same time? It’s a pretty revelatory reflection of now-discarded social uses of technology from just a decade ago. As a recent book, Jason Reynolds’ novelization of Miles Morales: Spider-Man hit the comic’s tone perfectly while still hitting the same emotional and critical notes that I’ve come to consistently appreciate in Reynolds’ books.

 

In terms of music, I’ve been trying to play only female artists around the house to orient around dominant voices my kids hear singing as they grow up. We have a Luna and Max playlist that is bratty and whiny and loud. I try to cycle through that as much as I can. I’m thinking of collecting the scrapbook pieces of media—on that playlist or otherwise—and sharing sporadically on this blog in the future.

FKA twigs’ Magdalene was my favorite album of the year.

For being my least favorite album that they’ve put out, I really like Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride.

I did a lot of writing, in equal measure to Colleen Green’s album length cover of Blink 182’s Dude Ranch and to Sunn O)))’s Pyroclasts.

Synth-y, gloomy pop feels like the right vibe for 2019 in terms of national malaise. I’ve been listening to the new Black Marble album a bunch lately. 

Lastly, six years ago I closed my year-end post noting that I’d been listening to this live version of Yo La Tengo’s song “Nowhere Near.” We use the album version as the song we play during Luna and Max’s bedtime routine, so—by sheer repetition—it’s the song I probably heard the most in 2019 and that’s great. Here’s the album version to help you put your year to rest.

“ghosts from dreams of a hard, fast future”: Books Read in 2018

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I just finished the A-side of Jeff Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters and it will probably be the first book I finish in 2019. And so, I think it’s time to round-up my reading from the past year:

Books read in 2018: 196
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 57
Books of poetry included in reading total: 1
Books reread included in reading total: 2
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 23
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 30
Roleplaying Game-related books (rules, modules, settings – related to this research): 6

Some thoughts (As usual, here are my posts on books read in 2017201620152014,  2013201220112010, and 2009):

The easiest recommendation I can make is for everyone to read my friend Nicole Mirra’s book, Educating for Empathy. I’ve gotten to work with and learn from Nicole for more than a decade at this point (how is that possible?!) and this book is a great, accessible synthesis of many of her key pushes on civics, empathy, and literacy. Everyone should read it and it looks like this:

The best novels I read this year were There There (where the quote in this post’s title comes from) and An American Marriage. These are critically acclaimed works and show up on everyone’s year end lists for good reason (I see you, Barry!).

The sci-fi novel The Player of Games was the exact mixture of ethnographer-studies-games-of-foreign-cultures-but-also-in-outer-space that made it the Antero-equivalent of catnip.

I read a bunch of comic books this year and that included digging into the 9 volume collection of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster; it was one of my more sustained engagements with manga and I really enjoyed the entire run. Sabrina is the highbrow graphic novel that I’m not sure if I liked but is a good conversation starter. Mark Russell & Mike Feehan’s The Snagglepuss Chronicles (yes, that pink cat) is amazing. Snagglepuss is a playwright frequenting the Stonewall Inn and facing MaCarthyism head-on. It is timely, poignant, and tragic. 

Moxie is the YA novel that made me listen to a bunch of riot grrrl records for the first time in ages and if it introduces younger readers to the likes of Kathleen Hanna, 3rd wave Feminism, and the Sharpie-and-glue-and-scissors world of zine making, then that is awesome. The reality TV junkie in me also really liked Nice Try, Jane Sinner.

Virginia Eubanks’s Automating Inequality and Christopher A. Paul’s The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games are both books I read for different research projects that I think could be of interest to general readers (the titles are pretty self-explanatory).

In terms of music, Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer was my favorite album of this year and an incredible, moving live show.

I also really liked the new Parquet Courts and Dirty Projectors albums. However, most of my time was spent listening to female-led singer-songwriter-y stuff: boygenius (including all three members’ recent-ish albums), the Crutchfeld sisters, Black Belt Eagle ScoutSnail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Molly Nilsson, Mitski, Robyn, Miya Folick, etc.

YouTube informs me I listened to this cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “LOVE” an embarrassing number of times. Ditto the Mac Miller Tiny Desk Concert.

Finally, I’ve been listening to this old Modern Lovers live album a lot while writing at night. “Morning Of Our Lives” feels like the kind of optimistic psalm to usher in the new year.

 

“And night, night comes to Texas”: I Only Listen to I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats

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Over the past several months, Joseph Finks I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast has been a particularly illuminating listen. Going song-by-song through the Mountain Goats’s 2002 All Hail West Texas, the podcast is an engaging convergence of fandom, analysis, and documentary-like insight. Co-hosted by the singular member of the Mountain Goats (at least at the time that All Hail West Texas was recorded), John Darnielle, each episode finds Darnielle and Fink reflecting on the writing of a single song on the album. Each episode also includes a cover of the song in question and a discussion with the musicians tackling the track.

Even if you don’t think you are a Mountain Goats fan, it’s a unique look into a singular creative process as well as a handful of covers that grow more playful by the episode. Julian Koster’s surreal, instrumental homage to Jeff Davis County Blues is a personal favorite.

Craig Finn’s full band spin of “Fault Lines”  and Amanda Palmer’s anthemic take on “”The Mess Inside” accentuate the strength of Darnielle’s original songwriting.


The somber dusk of this first season approaches as the final track, “Absolute Lithops Effect” will be released imminently.

Individually, the components that make the 40ish minutes of each episode so compelling are nothing new. Interviews with artists, fans digging into theories and offering personal anecdotes about art, playful covers of songs—these have existed long before podcasts (like Fink’s other series Welcome to Night Vale) came into popularity. Other than access to work alongside John Darnielle, there is no magical alchemy pulling this show together. That being said, I think the distribution of this podcast highlights the blurred lines of consumption and production in this participatory moment.

Listening to each episode is an invitation into how work is dreamt and produced. It’s also a reminder that the intense connections we might each hold to work are also something we collectively share and that make us human. In this sense, I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats has been a healing podcast for me. Discussing “Jeff Davis County Blues,” Fink describes how the song reminds him of his late father–a personal connection that Darnielle could never have envisioned as he penned the song more than 15 years ago.

The noise of the news-related podcasts I exhaustingly consume in this moment of Trumpism feels unhealthy; Fink and Darnielle’s podcast has been a respite from the loud and political world we continuously work to improve. Perhaps, as The Mountain Goats sing on the third track of All Hail West Texas, the humanity of compassionate creativity can “let the silence that’s our trademark make its presence felt.”

“Do the trap jump? Is the plug right?”: Books Read in 2017

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As I’ve only just begun The Bughouse, I think it’s time for my annual tally:

Books read in 2017: 132
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 23
Books of poetry included in reading total: 3
Books reread included in reading total: 2
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 17
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 17
Roleplaying Game-related books (rules, modules, settings – related to this research): 5

A few thoughts (As usual, here are my posts on books read in 201620152014,  2013201220112010, and 2009):

I would be remiss to also point out I published two books this year as well. I’ve written about Good Reception here and Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay here. Additionally, I read substantially fewer gaming-related books as that work is now moving toward being submitted for publication. Initial work related to tabletop gaming came out earlier this year here and here.

Moving on to things I read, the first book I finished this year (on January 4th) was Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. Perhaps the most relevant and accessible book that illustrates the paths that lead to Trumpism, the lessons here continue to resonate.

A couple of novels I enjoyed: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Dexter Palmer’s Version Control both played with precision and form. They were quick reads that still felt sumptuous. Speaking of form, I read Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter for the first time and the possibilities of that book as a template for conveying ethnography have had me mulling. Likewise John McPhee’s Levels of the Game is a book length reckoning of one tennis match that continues to make me think about how to step up the narrative threads in academic writing; I’m pretty sure this will make some of my graduate syllabi in the near future. 

In terms of YA books, I re-read Cathy’s Book and read Nnedi Okorafor’s stellar Akata Witch both for separate projects, I hope to talk about in the future. I also really enjoyed both of Becky Albertalli’s books this year and look forward to the film adaptation Love, Simon (even if I don’t love the film’s name).

Finally, while Meet Me in the Bathroom was the quicker read about hipster music culture, Damon Krukowski’s The New Analog has been the book that has most directly affected some of my recent research. The related podcast series has been illuminating as well.

In terms of music, Vince Staples, SZA, Bleachers, and Rostam have all gotten consistent rotation. Daniel Caesar was the most surprising artist I learned about early on this year. I’ve probably streamed the Praise Break EP a couple dozen times. The 1-2 punch of the Casablanca interlude and “We’ll Always Have Paris” has been a musical highlight.


“This chapter says ‘Put it out of your mind’”: Books Read in 2016

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I’m slowly flipping through Tim Ferris’s Tools of Titans and a couple of academic books, so I think it’s time for my annual tally:

Books read in 2016: 156
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 30
Books of poetry included in reading total: 2
Books reread included in reading total: 2
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 26
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 13
Roleplaying Game-related books (rules, modules, settings – related to this research): 14

A few thoughts (As usual, here are my posts on books read in 20152014,  2013201220112010, and 2009):

For gaming research that will probably start to see the light of day in 2017, I’ve been thinking a lot about systems. Taking a large portion of the early part of 2016, Robert Caro’s hefty biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, was just as good as everyone says. It points to how sprawling inequities and stratified geographies in New York weren’t accidents but rather human-driven activities. Likewise, Matthew Desmond’s Wire-like opus Evicted—as full as it is of vignettes and nuanced depictions of individuals—points to how systems beget further systems of financial and social hardship. It’s the most accessible academic book I read this year (and for the nerds, I think this book has the best footnotes I’ve come across!). Finally, I have been revisiting this quirky book on system theory from the ‘70s. With pages of random doodles alongside significant contributions to why system-driven individuals build layers of problems, Gall’s text has been helpful in connecting gaming concepts to broader social and learning connections in my own research.

The best music-related read all year was Jace Clayton’s (aka DJ Rupture) book Uproot. Looking at the globalized nature of digital music, Clayton’s book connected much of the broader music ecosystem to concerns I’ve had with celebratory digital tinkering in education. The online listening guide for the book is excellent. I hadn’t been this fascinated by autotune as I had since its absence in this T-Pain performance.

I read all six of the Expanse-series books. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation yet, but I appreciate the direction and world-building across each of the lengthy tomes. For page-turning sci-fi, I think Leviathan Wakes is a good beginning to a series that only starts to show some stress from the weight of its many storylines in the most recent, sixth volume.

This also seemed like a great year for comic books. And despite the titles of Wakanda gathering mainstream accolades, two trades by Tom King most impressed me. The current run of Vision is the stop-what-you’re-doing-and-read-this-already title I would universally recommend. In both content and form, King and colleagues are doing some incredible work here. Likewise, King’s Omega Men was a continually surprising read. This video breaks down some of the ways King is reinventing the possibilities of the traditional, 9-panel, comic page.

Finally, I’m not sure where I heard about or why I decided to read The Man Who Heard Voices. But for a book about a film director I don’t like (M. Night Shyamalan) making a movie I despise (Lady in the Water), it’s a pretty fascinating look at an uncompromising artist and a deeply flawed film. Go figure.

 

Musically, this was a rough year. I listened to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo much more than any other release. The album is a flawed masterpiece and I think it’s release points to the possibilities of what it means to make an “album” in the 21st century. That being said, as much as I’ve written lots (and lots) about Kanye in the past, I can’t overlook his recent statements or behavior. I am also cautious not to disregard the fact that Kanye’s every word is scrutinized, he became the father of his second child this year, and his wife was held captive and robbed. I’ve been thinking about this Chappelle interview in regards to Kanye, lately.

Finally, I haven’t been able to face Prince or Bowie’s deaths head on this year. (I teared up listening to Starfish and Coffee recently.) Instead, the Prince collaboration with Kate Bush is probably the singular song I played the most this year (and lends it’s opening line to this blog’s title):

Likewise, the NY Times Popcast speculated that the title of Bowie’s final album comes from an Elvis Presley song. This too, has been a haunting track echoing across a harrowing year:

I can’t say 2017 looks to bode better than 2016. I’m hoping to temper what looks like a battle-heavy year politically with texts of optimism and laughter. Suggestions are welcomed.

“Gnawing my way back home”: Books Read in 2015

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I’m currently halfway through Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void and not likely to finish it before 2015 is over. For the 7th year in a row, here’s my breakdown of books read over the past year:

Books read in 2015: 162
Comics and graphic novels included in reading total: 28
Books of poetry included in reading total: 3
Books reread included in reading total: 4
Academic & Education related books included in reading total: 45
YA and Junior Fiction books included in reading total: 13
Roleplaying Game-related books (rules, modules, settings – related to this research work): 22

A few thoughts (As usual, here are my posts on books read in 2014,  2013201220112010, and 2009):

Two different sci-fi novels – perhaps thematically related – were highlights of the fiction I read this year: Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora were robust with ideas, questions, and plot hooks that I continue to ponder nuances from them. I also really liked Station Eleveneven if I wasn’t in search of another post-apocalyptic yarn it was an unputdownable book.

It’s been a while, but volumes one and two of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar were the enticing reads that returned me to the BSRAYDEKWTDWT genre.

Three different music related books I can recommend:The memoirs by Kim Gordon and by Carrie Brownstein were unflinching and feminist looks inside two tumultuous rock bands I’ve spent a lot of time listening to. And unrelated but Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level was the music biography about a musician I didn’t know that I didn’t know I needed to read. (I would encourage curious readers to listen to the two podcast episodes of No Effects with Jesse Cohen where he talks with the author of the book and with the musician Juiceboxxx.)

In terms of non-fiction, there was no book more important or more affecting this year than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. Enough has been written about this book that you don’t really have an excuse for not reading it at this point. Do it.

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation is a book that I’ve been chewing on and thinking about over the past two months.

In terms of more popular non-fiction, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was the book that created some of the more entertaining conversations and arguments with friends. Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance was the book you give to a friend because it looks like another comedian’s memoir but ends up actually being a pretty impressive empirical, social science study.

In terms of other media consumption in 2015, there was no better live music experience this year than seeing Kamasi Washington with family and friends play a flawless and touching (and nearly three hour long) set. Epic indeed.

I listened to the Lady Lamb and the Beekeeper album a bunch (yes, that’s really her name and yeah, I know). The track “Billions of Eyes” lends a lyric as the title of this year’s post.

Other albums I listened to a lot were Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly, the Hamilton Broadway Cast Recording, Miguel’s Wildheart, and Chance the Rapper’s collaborative album with the jazz group the Social Experiment. (Check out Chance’s performance on SNL from earlier this month:)

When it comes to writing, I’ve been regularly listening to this Four Tet album, the titular Viet Cong record, and Jaime XX. (Did I mention, I published two books this year? It was an intense year for writing.)

What did you read and listen to in 2015? What are you looking forward to in the new year?

Dangerous and the Revolution of Michael Jackson’s Panther Dance

I’m loving one of the recent 33 1/3 books (the 100th volume?!) focusing on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. I distinctly remember buying the album just as I began flirting with my own sense of musical interest. My friend down the street would regularly play the record when we were hanging out, while a separate group would shortly engender me in the cult of grunge that was quickly snapping up the interests of many of us (the author, Susan Fast, points out, early on, that Nirvana’s Nevermind would eventually best Dangerous on the charts – probably a key moment in Western musical history). Because of the album’s centricity in my formative years in elementary and middle school, it is probably the Jackson album I’m most familiar with (despite the fact that most of Jackson’s biggest hits were years past in his repertoire by this point).

With 20 years of distance, I appreciate Fast’s emphasis on the album’s two biggest hits as transgressive moments in Jackson’s oeuvre. The saccharine “Heal the World,” being so much more than a feel-good yawn-fest and “Black or White” being a confrontational moment of racial politics.

 [Note: even this version of the video is edited; racist symbols/phrases were added to the windows as if they were what Jackson was smashing.]

Quoting from a couple of pages centered on the notorious (and later re-cut) video for “Black or White” including the famous “panther dance,” I appreciate Fast’s weaving of critical theory and cultural context here:

“But in the original version, of course, [the famous face-morphing scene] was followed by Jackson’s ‘panther dance’ and it was this that made all hell break loose for him and which also allowed us to see what he was really up to in the first part of the short film.

As Eric Lott has written, ‘something so extraordinary happened at this moment that the video’s initial audiences couldn’t take it in.’ The camera pulls back from the morphing scene to expose a film set an crew, the last (black) actress to appear in the morphing scene and the film’s director, John Landis, yelling ‘cut’ and saying to the actress ‘that was perfect; how do you do that?’ There’s no answer to this question: how could there be? For the question is only superficially about a feat of modern technology; a white man has just asked a black woman how she manages to adapt as a minority, in which she must move both as part of her own world and that of the dominant culture and be cheerful in the process (‘that was perfect [behavior]’, a world of double-consciousness.”

And later:

“Jackson begins his dance trepidatiously. After he emerges from the form of the panther he stands still for a moment, settling into his new skin, unsure how to move forward. He dons his fedora and is caught in a spotlight, invoking the idea of the panopticon, which Michel Foucault used as a metaphor for the pervasive surveillance and disciplining (normalizing) of bodies in contemporary society.

Fandom, Ownership, and Improvisation: A Triptych on Improvisation

I

Last night Ally and I made the trek to Boulder to see the Brad Mehldau trio perform. I’d seen Mehldau a couple of times back in LA (he’s even released an album titled after my favorite venue). I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the show was Mehldau performing as part of a trio (with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard on bass and drums respectively). I’d expected something closer to this (akin to the direction of his most recent album MehlianaTaming the Dragon):

Aside from beginning with an original song, the entire show was a set of covers. From the Beatles to Gillian Welch to Radiohead, Mehldau’s work weaves familiarity with the unexpected. It’s interesting to listen to the audience reactions during jazz performances (something Paul F. Tompkins lampoons here). There is usually laughter in two places in jazz shows. First, the audience will quietly laugh when they know a song. The excitement of familiarity when Mehldau launched into “And I Love Her,” for instance signaled that the audience knew this song. Conversely, the audience laughs when a line or solo goes in the complete opposite direction of where they expected. A mid-tempo solo that flies into high gear, a series of notes outside of the song’s key, a start-stop drum solo. We find pleasure, surprise, and laughter in the familiar and the unknown. It is the mixture of these two that builds pleasure in the consumer here.

II

Saturday, a day before the Mehldau show, I presented at the Colorado Teen Lit Conference. In my session, I mainly facilitated conversations around how participatory media can act as a tool of empowerment for YA readers. In one example (and as described in my book) I highlighted how Cassandra Clare practiced and developed her YA-oriented writing through engagement with fan fiction communities. At the heart of this discussion are a bunch of complex issues revolving ownership, plagiarism, marketing and capitalism. Several in the room (myself included) discussed how we have successfully gotten kids to write powerful stories through adapting fan fiction models for the classroom. The number of NaNoWriMo submissions I got from my students who inserted themselves in their favorite Cirque Du Freak or Vladamir Tod settings was a powerful testament to how fandom can initiate and sustain writing.

Writing is hard. Getting published even harder. Keynote speaker, A.S. King described the arduous process of getting her first novel in print:

 

Teachers steal all the time. Musicians cover as a staple of their own repetoires. Without consciously building on successful models (and remixing what makes them successful), how can young writers develop a personal voice?

III

Like Mehldau, last year when my colleague Leif and I saw Jason Moran in concert, his set was primarily a series of covers (including briefly schooling the attendees about the “Negro National Anthem”). Perhaps more striking is that Moran would begin many of his songs by scrolling through his iPod, playing a song through the house speakers and slowly begin playing along with the canonized recording. Eventually he would fade out the recorded song and he and his band mates would seamlessly move the song into a new, unexpected direction. Like Mehldau, this was a master of his craft playing along with canonical recordings. Thinking about this from a literacies perspective, I think there are (at least) two important reasons covers are so important in musical performance:

  • First: it is a signal to the audience familiarity. Audience members muttered and harrumphed when the first recognizable melodic lines of “And I Love Her” were played by Mehldau. Minutes later, the song was an unrecognizable, rejuvenating­–and highly original–samba.
  • Second: it grounds the artist in a political, historical, cultural, social, place. Just as the audience can understand and recognize the familiar tropes of a cover, a musician can adhere to, respond to, or redefine the emotional voice from which a cover comes from. By starting with something pre-established, a cover song can create pathways and constraints for new work to emerge.

When an audience member requested Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” at last night’s Mehldau show, it wasn’t because he thought he was getting  the ‘90s rock song version. It was because the piece was both familiar and utterly transformed. Likewise, when Moran launches into “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa it isn’t because they are expecting to hear a hip-hop classic.

All compositions are grounded in complex matrices. The social, historical, cultural, and political intersect in the words we write, the notes we play, the lessons we teach. A cover of a standard, or a Beatles song, or a Radiohead hit, or a Harry Potter setting is a more blatant signal for readers and a powerful starting place in tone or message for the composer. This is what we need to consider (and teach) within a literacy context. Even when we compose new work, our words and ideas are influenced by the world around us. We experience in ways that are shaped by the past.