Category Archives: music

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


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.


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?


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.

Kanye and Old Glory: A Confrontational Soul

I was sitting on the deck of a pirate ship in a non-descript office building in San Francisco celebrating the nuptials of my close friends from earlier in the day when a voice next to me said, “I heard you like Kanye West.”

I knew it was bait. And I took it.

An hour later and my voice is straining above the usual din of pirate ship-themed bars in non-descript buildings and I’m on my second tropical drink and haven’t even really gotten past the most recent album and the whole “leather jogging pants” thing.

A week later my friend Cliff posts this article about Kanye West, Frantz Fanon & Double Consciousness by Jessica Ann Mitchell. I shared the article on my own Facebook page with the amendment, “I am preparing a Kanye-like rant on why Kanye is the most important cultural figure…. ever (Kanye was not above hyperbole).”

And so, agreeing with one of my good friend’s brother, I want to tell you why “Everyone should want to be like Kanye.”


On Not Burying the Lede

There are two things I learned back when I was doing a lot more music journalism that are appropriate for this post:

  1. Don’t bury the lede. As rant-heavy as this post will be, here’s what you need to know: the very things that make Kanye reviled today are exactly what we need more of. In particular, I want to focus here on why we need more men of color being indignant and not settling for labels like “brash,” “petulant,” or “pompous.” I am not being ironic when I say that Kanye’s  actions  are revolutionary in intent and execution. And while I agree with the thesis of Jessica Ann Mitchell’s article, I also believe that Kanye’s confrontational behavior is not simply Dubois-like “double consciousness” but as distanced a move as Kanye can make within the capitalist mechanisms his profession has entrenched him in.
  2. The second thing I learned as a writer was to not pull the hipser-y card and describe music by just name dropping other artists. For example, for Yeezus I wouldn’t want to say, “Imagine Metal Machine Music for the millennial hip-hop generation.” You’ll see this move from music journalists a lot and it’s a lazy one. Name dropping and using the “it sounds like” are a big no-no: “yeah man, imagine if Rick Rubin produced Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison live album and told him to only cover Hall and Oates songs but in the style of Philip Glass.” [Aside: but seriously, imagine how awesome that album would be.] While it would be convenient to throw in a litany of other artists and activists that help define Kanye’s actions I want to follow in the footsteps of his ego and focus on Kanye. As an individual in America. Today.
  3. (Okay I said only two things but …) I’ve written at length on this blog about how we can extend critical pedagogy vis-à-vis Kanye’s work. I would encourage educators to look here for less rant-y thoughts with clearer theoretical and pedagogical ramifications.

Since this post spilled beyond the 2k word count, the rest is below the jump. Continue reading

Beautiful Dark Twisted Pedagogy: New Article in Radical Teacher

My article, “Beautiful Dark Twisted Pedagogy: Kanye West and the Lessons of Participatory Culture,” is now  available in the most recent issue of Radical Teacher. It can be read here.  Here’s an abstract:

 This article builds off of the author’s classroom experience as a high school teacher in South Central Los Angeles and looks at how cultural shifts with regards to media consumption and production impact liberatory pedagogical practice. Using media superstar Kanye West as a case study, this article argues that today’s classroom practices must expand in ways that reflect a more participatory culture. In particular, West’s marketing and engagement with his audience during the release of his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy highlight how mainstream media practices offer pathways for renewing critical pedagogy in the 21st century.

This article started as a series of rumblings and throat-clearing on this blog here and here and here. I owe thanks to many of you for helping to continue this conversation with me online and at conferences. As I briefly mention as a footnote here, I am intrigued by West’s latest musical direction (even if he cancelled his recent show in Denver, effectively killing our Sunday night plans). I hope to continue to push on contemporary notions of critical pedagogy through looking to what’s happening in popular culture.

The Problematic Charity of Jay Z’s Picasso Baby

Over the weekend I watch the extended music-video-quasi-art-thing Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film. I would argue it’s one of those three nouns: a performance. And while I think Jay Z has been making  strong efforts at pushing himself and the hip-hop genre into loftier domains, I think Picasso Baby is representative of what’s wrong with his strategy.

The daylong project is essentially replicating Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” installation but with, like, music and dancing and hoots and hollers. However, the attempt feels more like a bastadization of Abramovic’s work than a transformation.

Abramovic’s work (watch this for a short primer) presented a moment of interaction as a gift and built upon it. (And she made a lot of people cry in doing so.) Jay Z? Not so much. Instead of Picasso Baby being about individuals getting these one-on-one moments of reflection with an artist, the film represents the moment as something closer to worship. Abramovic’s work was (to me) about that interaction between two people. A mutual exchange that felt like it changed both participants. Jay Z on the other hand simply reinforces hip-hop swagger in a new space–a whiter space (both in terms of color aesthetic and in terms of racial representation).

This is media spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Aside from Jay and a bunch of hipster-approved celebrities, the most apparent things in the film are the presence of cameras and the absolutely bonkers responses from fans.

How do we read this?

The film highlights two young men of color yelling, “Brooklyn’s in the house.” Does this give street cred for an artist in an otherwise exclusionary space from his past audience? Is it, instead an invitation into art spaces urban youth may not see as welcoming? Or is Jay Z leaving behind this audience? The design aesthetics of Magna Carta Holy Grail and Watch the Throne were an artsy move that could, for instance, be interpreted as a step toward even bigger hip-hop bravado.

At one point in the film a fan looks at the camera, addressing Jay Z and says, “You make yourself art. That’s amazing.”

But this is the distant art of an artist out of touch.

Among the things Jay has garnered headlines for over the past months–the sad breakup with his hyphen, the debut of his album art next to the actual Magna Carta–there was a problematic statement he made: responding to a quote from Harry Belafonte about social responsibility, Jay Z said, “my presence is charity. Just who I am.”

So there’s that.

And Picasso Baby reinforces this dangerous belief in Jay’s charity. It’s a dangerous pathway for young people to encounter in an otherwise looser culture of fandom today. While I see Jay Z trying to build on the momentum and hype of a new album, I don’t think this is the approach that creates healthy networks amongst fans. It only offers a singular pathway of idol-worship.

[Note: There is a rant to be made – and likely made ad nauseum elsewhere on the internets – about Kanye and Jay and the two roads diverging on a diamond-studded path. I would say Kanye is just as confounding in his Yeezus-like direction. He isolates audiences across the board and more directly challenges the direction a continually maturing genre is headed. I would also add that the lead up to Yeezus was a masterful example of transmedia marketing in 2013 that educators could directly crib within the classroom. That’s another post for another day.]

Why I Think Educators Should Be Talking About Pussy Riot (Yes, You Read That Correctly)

I’ve been struggling trying to figure out how to talk about Pussy Riot with my fellow educators. Even that sentence sends a bristle down my spine – how many people have already stopped reading because of the name? And isn’t that the point of naming a band something like Pussy Riot or Fucked Up or The Negro Problem? If you are a feminist punk band shouldn’t your name anger and piss off “the man” (probably both figuratively and literally in this case)?

To be honest, I don’t have as much a thesis about Pussy Riot and education as much as I have a hunch.  My hunch is this (and I kind of hope #1 is wrong):

  1. Most educators aren’t aware of Pussy Riot, Pussy Riot Solidarity Gatherings, or even that (after being detained for five months) members of the Russian punk band have been SENTENCED TO TWO YEARS IN PRISON FOR HOOLIGANISM “DRIVEN BY RELIGIOUS HATRED.”
  2. If a larger group of educators were aware of and able to comfortably discuss Pussy Riot and the global organizing that has resulted in support of the group, discussions of how similar strategies may apply within educational labor struggles, discussions of potential allies, and discussions of how to leverage fomenting frustration for social change would ensue.
  3. Perhaps even more importantly, the people that would benefit from a discussion of Pussy Riot are precisely the people that are unlikely to get it (at least in a formal school setting): students. Because of their name alone, I do not feel like I would be able to engage in the precise conversation about feminism and voice and anger that the band encourages. Even if I were allowed to do this as a secondary teacher, I know I would squirm uncomfortably doing so. (It is a similar feeling I used to get when I taught Huck Finn and sustained a conversation about American language and the “N-word.” The difference, however, that the canonical value of Twain’s work assured such conversations –though uncomfortable –  were “safe.”)

This post isn’t about explaining Why Pussy Riot Matter (please look at that link for a comprehensive primer and this discussion from Riot Grrl Kathleen Hanna). However, considering that in the past two days a Pussy Riot e-book was announced (proceeds will support their legal team) and the Russian Prime Minister has called for the members of Pussy Riot to be released, I am surprised that I have not seen any of my fellow educational organizers, teachers, or researchers interested in what Pussy Riot can mean for education and student conceptions of civic participation.

Anyone else willing to bite the bullet, say the “P-word” and help me make sense of this from an educational perspective?

The Mystery of Willis Earl Beal and the Bread Crumbs of Digital Media

It started innocently enough.

It started like this:

Scrounging around the hipster fodder of Pitchfork, I read about and streamed a new track by an unknown singer.

Intrigued, I did a quick Google search.

I read an article that described the outsider artist that only left me with more questions.

I picked up my phone and dialed the phone number that is scrawled along his album art.

No one answered.

I did another Google search and was floored by a YouTube video:

I clicked another link and was floored again:

And then found performances with a band:

Same Old Tears written & performed by Willis Earl Beal from j. harley on Vimeo.

I looked around for copies of the Found Magazine package that was released in limited quantities by Found, Quimby’s, and Ebay all proved to have nothing (though the cover of Found #7 is another Beals artifact).

And then I found copies of visual and narrative art supposedly by the same person.

Did I mention there is a website with even less information?

At the end of the day, I began wondering how much of the enigma of Willis Earl Beal is marketing for his forthcoming major-label debut?

Even the Roots have tweeted about the simmering response he is sure to receive by mainstream media.

Aside from providing a glimmer into my browsing and listening habits in the early days of 2012, I describe all of this to illustrate the changes in information seeking for me. Growing up, musical discoveries were the banal clichés many probably go through. I felt like an insider because I was listening to Velvet Underground and Nico because of the opening pages of Please Kill Me. Likewise, Our Band Could Be Your Life made Mission of Burma a staple in my college listening habits. I “discovered” Yo La Tengo because of … a featured review in Rolling Stone. Before the Internet allowed me to dig toward a more personally curated music repertoire, things like the Factsheet Five guided me toward specific forms of listening.

That an outsider artist like Beal has a significant stream of online media is unsurprising. The machine of online rumor, gossip, otaku fandom, and marketing make someone like Beal an irresistible tidbit to tweet or share in online spaces. What is significant, however, is just how much of a dead end Beal’s online presence has led me. Despite all of the links of information I’ve found. I feel like I still haven’t been able to find out who Beal is beyond a superficial context. I have only found a limited amount of his work and–gasp–I haven’t been able to support this artist’s work or financially invest in a download or physical purchase (aside from the print-to-order art books noted above). That’s not to say that this won’t significantly change in the near future, but I find Beal’s present case an interesting one contextually. In a time when bands regularly give away more music than people can keep up with Beal sparks my interest because of the dearth of content surrounding him.

This process of seek and stream and download is a relatively new one. It’s a process that interlinks search queries with media consumption, participation within affinity groups and individual focused engagement. As I occasionally felt frustrated at not finding the results I sought, I wondered if I was doing things correctly. As digital literacies exhibit a confluence of different skills happening concurrently, self reflecting on a process like diving into the Beals mystery are useful in recognizing changes in day-to-day online practice.

Not Quite EverythingEverything: Why Our Approach to Music Education is Kinda Awful

Over the past week, along with an abundance of holiday shopping, I purchased the updated anthology of Underworld’s selected hits and rarities. It was with nostalgia that the opening arpeggiated notes of “Rez” kicked in that I remembered the way the band seeped into my consciousness.

It was the Golden Age of Napster and it was less a site I understood as leading to piracy than as my own open university. This being 2000 and stuck negotiating space in new ways in a dorm room at UCLA, the possibilities of the system were limited only by the occasional lag in internet service. I felt like I was playing catch-up. Eighteen and recently donned music editor for the school newspaper, I was taking night classes in ’80s hip-hop, IDM, and Impulse Records’ free jazz artists. Confusion was the norm with my poorly skinned Winamp player doing its best to make sense of things for me. I remember downloading a cover of “Brown Eyed Girl” that was attributed to Weezer; though it clearly was not Rivers Cuomo & company singing through my paltry computer speakers, it was an inspired cover that’s been a lost but longed for mp3 in the shuffle of computers and files over the years, a relic of the wild west-like nature of Napster. Similarly, I remember (as part of my self-prescribed curriculum) burning DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing and Aphex Twin’s Richard D James Album on a single disc and, for months, not knowing which was which when it came to musical styles and sonic textures. [RIAA, if you’re reading, I eventually bought both albums along with countless others as a result of the Napster days, a testament to the possibilities of profit that were overshadowed by fear and terrorism and Metallica.]

That summer, I’d read Generation Ecstasy and it was an eye opener not only in terms of the possibilities of musical genres, but in revealing the possibilities of academic engagement in music in meaningful ways. Later, I remember talking about music with friends and mentioning the book only to find out it was an assigned text in an undergraduate elective about popular music. You can take a class on this stuff?!

I remembered Underworld as that group that wrote that song for Trainspotting and, on a lark, bought their live album Everythingeverything at a Tower Records near my grandparents’ house in Huntington Beach. The sheer size of what Karl Hyde and Rick Smith were accomplishing fascinated me. The climaxed clash of “Rez/Cowgirl” is forever connected in my mind with fevered drives home through the winding roads of Mt. Helix.

And all of this is to prelude a simple question: Why did I have to wait so long for this opportunity? While I was already a music “fan” and immersed in family practices that included going to musical performances, singing at family gatherings, and enthusiastically drumming on car dashboards, it really wasn’t until college that I was able to see music as a source of study, as a place to connect passion with purpose, a place to learn new ways of listening.

Look at a student’s Facebook for even a few minutes, hear their in-class earbuds bleating distorted tones, or ask them what their current ringtone is and it’s clear that music is a source of passion for the vast majority of the kids in our schools today. And yet, we leave music instruction into the hands of people who are inclined on the production side of things (and even then in only limited ways such as marching bands and big band numbers). Why do we wait to make the study of music, its history, and the cultural meaning of it an option only for those students that eventually matriculate into universities? Some settings allow us to engage in “Music Appreciation,” but even that signals very limited understandings of listeners’ and academics’ roles and relationships with music.t

Look at any of the many studies about scaffolding toward academic instruction and utilizing youth popular culture and the academic opportunities for use of music in core content areas are seen in abundance. Music has been a regular presence in my classroom to both instruct and to help foster community. As I continue working with current and aspiring teachers, thinking through pedagogy of incorporating music in English classrooms will continue to be a part of how my courses and in-services are structured. However, I want to make clear that I think that courses in music criticism, music history, and ethnomusicology would speak strongly to the students that often feel disconnected from the curriculum in schools and aren’t necessarily interested in holding a bassoon or lugging around a sousaphone.

Two days ago, I was involved in a rational debate about Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All with a student that had failed my class last year. He spoke passionately about the group’s strong suits and I played devil’s advocate for the purposes of our conversation. A friend of mine, as we enjoyed dinner prior to a record-breaking Kanye West & Jay-Z concert earlier this week, mentioned that his students are really into Whiz Khalifa. Another former student is probably South Central’s resident expert on all things Beatles. Aside from being a novelist and paranormal romance expert, my former student Sam happily shares her listening habits with me, her interests in Chromeo, Vampire Weekend, and Interpol a common system of semiotics in our too infrequent conversations. These are scholars waiting to be acknowledged and engaged and not necessarily wanting to hold an instrument or perform in front of a crowd.

Open up the door of cultural studies and it’s not a big stretch to see new ways of engaging students critically in schools and for meaningful ways. The way I see it, get kids thinking academically about music and movies and it isn’t long until we’re reading Bordwell and Ross in high school. And then it isn’t long until we’re reading Stuart Hall. And then the Frankfurt School. And Marx. It’s not long until we’re listening to music in new ways and hearing in the notes and silence the sounds of change and possibility and cultural action for freedom.

Thinking Through Literary Interconnectedness and Dissertation Format (Another Cheap Rehash: Sonic Nurse Album Review)

Working through analysis, I had a (brief and fleeting) moment of clarity in terms of structure of the dissertation and the opportunity to strengthen a literary reading of critical instantiations of student agency within the community. And while I’m still wading knee-deep into this theory building component of my dissertation, I was reminded of a bit of theoretical interconnections dealing with velocity and knot-tying I’ve written about in the past. I long ago linked back to this review dealing with the fleeting nature of the thrill in hunting the white elephant in popular culture. Below, I wax lengthily on the historical context and timelessness found in the continued output of Sonic Youth. (Review now updated with relevant links! Huzzah!)


Sonic Youth

Sonic Nurse


By Antero Garcia 

It would be a simple and rather enticing affair to don the ubiquitous role of the Magister Ludi and play the ever-important Glass Bead Game with Sonic Youth, labeling, connecting, imbuing the band with the inner workings of the universe. And, I think, to a certain extent, the members of the band want us to play the game, to tinge the world an ecto-green with the noise yr witnessing on each record. We can play connect the dots and build the elaborate, if still unseen, spider web of connections between the band and every breathing, living, existing object in the world. There is a familiarity in each moment of this album, how are we to connect it? And to whom?

Immediately the first track echoes the charging, dismal feeling of “Hyperstation” from the awe-instilling Trilogy off of Daydream Nation. The off kilter riff, akin to the Mighty Mouse theme, harks that yes, Sonic Youth – the Sonic Youth you grew up with and fell in love with music by, that same Sonic Youth that stands in the face of all things conventional, that trumpet the outside and the unknown – is truly here to save the day. The same riff which felt utterly banal and sardonically hopeless as the band utters “Smashed-up against a car at three a.m. Kids just up for basketball, beat me in my head,” is now elevated to true heroics. We’re talking life and death, friends lost forever, growing up, being serious, 9/11. And it’s all purred lovingly by Ms. Kim Gordon. That the song is titled “Pattern Recognition” only further emphasizes the deliberate mimicry of the band’s past output.

Though “Pattern Recognition” is the most blatant nod to SY’s massive discontinuity, that sense of renewed vigor, it seems clear that the band was thrown back 15-20 years into their past the day two planes were jettisoned into the World Trade Center, across the street from the band’s office on Murray Street. This, artistically, is a deconstructed rupture. Though this is most clearly harked to on 2002’s stunning return to form, the post-9/11 American exterior is still a lurking presence on Sonic Nurse. We are still bruised as we listen and tenderly traversing toward the new musical terrain as the band takes its time to sift through the ashes and rubble and see what it can salvage of itself, what needs to be reinvented. If Murrary Street finds the band lost, in dispossession of itself, Sonic Nurse finds the quartet offering solace, searching for amenities, shelter, regrowth. Theirs is a record of reassurance and rekindling. By no stretch of the imagination am I labeling this as “happy,” but there is a sense of coming to accepting the past, of filing the last three years in a nearby folder for constant reference. This too becomes part of the familiar and interconnected world, and we again envelope ourselves with the fictitious role in Herman Hesse’s novel: there he is, the Magister Ludi, sliding the small pebble – completely unvictoriously as the Glass Bead Game is not one of wining or losing, but of maintaining balance, of keeping the world in check – into its slot next to the WTC, next to New York, and, in their own sense, nest to patriotism.

“Dripping Dream” opens swathed in a sea of feedback, it’s umbilical cord still tied to the band’s Glenn Branca-ian  past while simultaneously sucking on the teat of Washing Machine. Soon kicking into a traditional – snare on the 2s and 4s – ditty, this is Sonic Youth in a comforting niche. Slightly off-kilter from the mainstream, these are our music’s grandparents. They show us how to do it, and they do it well. So many bands would do well to learn the lessons being preached in such a song. Wilco, The Jicks, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Le Tigre, Yo La Tengo (who, with the husband/wife thing also going, have a lot in common with the charging forward band), Weird War, and dare I even look to more “upstanding” and “mainstream artists?” This is, perhaps, a good enough portrait to see just how far the tendrils of the band stretch, whom they have penetrated, which they claim as their own, and whom are thus in debt to the band.

Beads, beads, beads. The world is a series of knots, suggests one exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Through Sonic Youth, we are reinterpreting, unraveling the ball of twine that distances you and I like frayed wire on the head of Shakespeare’s maiden. We are pulled apart, dissected, and labeled. We find identity in being separate, as alien as the concept may be.

The few disparate moments in Sonic Nurse, those that do not comply with the ethic of adhering to their past, the moments that feel unhinged from both the outside world and the insular warmth of Sonic Youth’s unseen omnipotence, fee almost like place holders for areas that are to be ventured in the future, placards that would read “coming soon” in the barren, cantankerous museum hall of our minds. Are you seeing the frayed ends of the devilish know? “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” (which made a previous appearance on a split record earlier this year as “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” … damn those fat wallets protecting Mariah’s good name!) is about as far as the band is willing to venture into the SYR-avant-garde the band quietly, independently releases. And even hear is a chorus, a verse, amid cacophony and grating noise this is still, unmistakably, a “song.” We can’t let our little chicks deviate too far from us, can we? While we’re here, discussing the rise of the Kim Gordon who can sing in a way that is actually listenable (at last!) (for once!), why not throw in some connections with the neophytes like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Peaches. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind. We’re all connected in here somewhere. Are you unraveling this knot like I am?

“It’s later than it seems,” the band warns on “Paper Cup Exit,” a building and tense song that wryly dares to remake a song that’s already been made before… new ears are listening. We are writing our own ending here, one that is continuing to be rewritten on the fly as we thrust forward, and parry to the left. [The end is coming soon now. Can you feel it? You’ve earned it. But, before you reach the concluding words in this rather long, uneventful treatise, I want to offer a bit of a warning. I intend to end with a quote from Sonic Youth that is not lifted from their last album. It’s going to be from an earlier album, one some would say is their most popular, others would say their best. I’m going to do this because – can you not see it by now? – the past and present and future have all commingled within the terms of Sonic Nurse. To look back we reach forward. Redeconstructionism gentrified, courtesy of Geffen Records for the unassuming time travelers at Best Buy and Amoeba Music. When I make this quote, I can say with a certain degree of confidence, I’m still quoting the present; by quoting a record from the ‘80s, I am directly quoting Sonic Nurse. My apologies for the lengthy interruption. On with the show.] Remember our past, connect it to the future, and with a massive power chord that’s improvised on the fly in a tuning that no one has yet invented, blow it away; a discarded kiss to everybody and nobody: “It’s an anthem in a vacuum in a hyperstation, daydreaming days in a daydream nation.”

Rethinking “A Call For Change”: Examining Sara’s Criticism of Tyler, the Creator


Violence? Check. Homophobic lyrics? Check. Potential for social transformation? Check.

Currently making buzz amongst music geeks is this rant from Sara of Tegan and Sara regarding the lack of criticism about Tyler, the Creator’s homophobic, sexist, violent, lyrics.

Two caveats before I move forward:

  1. I’m not an apologist for offensive lyrics. Frankly, much of the violence – specifically towards women – in the album is troubling for me to hear.
  2. When his crew is causing riots and generally rabble-rousing, I kind of doubt Tyler will get an Elton John to come to his rescue.

That being said, I have a hard time in general lambasting the content of most work for being “offensive.” It reeks of elitism to shy away the ideas, language practices, and recurring tropes of one genre or another. Yes, Tyler’s album may be more violent and more homophobic than most, but criticizing this album, is no different that writing off the bulk of mainstream hip-hop. It’s a problematic genre for critical analysis, but the same recurring ideas, concepts, and language is prevalent in other genres and even other mediums if only slightly more subdued. Just yesterday, Daye and I discussed the racist overtones of the noble savage in The Game of Thrones series. Does the fact that it’s a polished work on HBO adapted from a lauded book make it a more excusable exercise in reinforcing oppressive social norms?

About the lack of criticism of Tyler’s music, Sara writes, “I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.” Again, I think she’s off on this. Tyler is now the scapegoat for a larger lack of attention to the origins of violent lyrics that neither starts nor end with rap. Will I recommend my mother listen to Goblin? Of course not, just as she’s ceased to recommend I listen to Dave Koz.

Tyler is unapologetic about blaming an absentee father for much of his verbal aggression. Adolescent rejection, issues with authority, and witnessed violence in the community all present themselves throughout Tyler’s lyrics. In essence, his is a life lived as an urban youth. It’s a quintessentially American album that Tyler’s released and I can understand how that is something that will make a lot of people uncomfortable. How we move forward with an album like this is what is interesting to me. With each swear word, each image of misogyny, and each hyper-violent threat, Tyler invites us to imagine what steps are necessary to move this democratic experiment a step further towards equity.

Funnily enough, I was thinking about the rise of ODD FUTURE WOLF GANG KILL THEM ALL as another example of a Beautiful Dark Twisted Pedagogy. Within months, the group has gone from  obscurity to the subject of derision for mainstream artists, selling out concerts, and getting profiled and reviewed by the majority of music press. This article not only captures the essence of ODD FUTURE’s approach, but it also provides key points to take away from the music group’s entry into mainstream popularity. Educators, it would be great to think more critically about the group’s approach to the sharing of information and engagement with audience. [Related, the post’s author also published a really useful series of interviews that point toward ways to redefine education.]


P.S. Free Earl?


EDIT: After 12 hours being up, here’s a summary of  the searches that lead people to this blog: