Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dr. Chonga?

In Miami, a special word has been coined for a certain type of girl, that word being "chonga." If you are not aware of what a chonga is, I would suggest that you check out the youtube video chongalicious for a good laugh. I teach many self-described chongas in my English class.

Here is a sample of two journal entries from one chonga. The journal entries here are in order of when they were written and the author is the same for both. All grammatical and spelling errors have not been corrected.

My Spring Break

"Well on spring break the very first day I went to the fair when it first opened. I went with all my friends but I didnt get on the rides I just went to chill and talk and pick on people (LOL) just kidding! Well I almost got in a fight with a girl I have beef with for a looong time, so I saw her there, and I tried her nasty so we can fight but the b**** didn't wanna fight me so I just gave up."

Here is her journal entry the day after the My Spring Break entry:

Studying After High School

"After High School I plan on going to college and study medicine. Right now am not sure what am gonna be doing. But right now my interest is medicine, but I might change my mind!"

Paging Dr. Chonga . . .

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Mirth Over Matter"

For our contribution to Chris's Music/Lyric Throwdown project, Blue-Eyed Wonder and I collaborated to make the song "Mirth Over Matter." It can be listened to in the first position of my myspace song queue, here.

When Mindy first told me her idea of putting together a song based on the concept of "mirth and matter" (one of the stipulations of the Throwdown was that lyrics pertained in some way to the blog), I decided to represent this musically by creating a dichotomy between major and minor key centers in the harmonic progression and exploiting this ambiguity. The chorus, for instance, begins in B minor but soon alternates to sunny B MA7. Another concept I worked with was the idea of an extended crescendo throughout the whole song. It was a pleasure to work with such a talented lyricist and I hope my tune lives up to the quality of the lyrics. Enjoy! (and please leave comments on my myspace page!)

From Blue-Eyed Wonder:

I was, of course, intimidated to all holy hell by the breadth and complexity of the song clips Zach kept emailing me, and was quickly making no progress on my lyric-writing assignment. But somewhere on a walk home from campus I had a sudden inspiration: maybe Mirth and Matter needed a theme song. Or at least those two words would be an interesting place to start. I borrowed the name Beatrice from Shakespeare -- she's the one who says, "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter." My original idea was to write a lyric character sketch of the Shakespearean character (one of his snarkiest and most badass heroines), but the song quickly took on a life of its own and something else entirely was born.

"Mirth Over Matter":
Sweet lady Beatrice wears slippers to the prom
/ says, "half this world is crazy, and the rest is going wrong." / So while the friends and lovers are dancing two by two / she's busy taking potshots at the generals of Peru.

Oh darlin' can't you see that the world is more than earth?
You think no mirth can matter, when in fact all matter's mirth.

Dear lady Beatrice is always up all night / so many letters to the editors to write. /
Her windows have thick curtains to keep out the light of day / you can bring her bread but roses she will always turn away.


Fair lady Beatrice can't guess why she's alone / all that charm and grace just sitting there beside the phone. / She looks into the mirror at her hair, her skin, her lips / a lovely mouth through which a single giggle never slips.


It may be true that seeing clear is proof of your sharp mind / but when you live on salt and headlines there's so much that's left behind.

Quick lady Beatrice step out into the sun / the blossom's on the cherry and this day has just begun. / There's time enough for reason, your cerebral life's an art / but the work of being human's where the laughter meets the heart.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The "highdown" on low art

Karlheinz Stockhausen, famous electronic and avant-garde composer whose career flourished in the 50's and 60's, was chastised for remarks he made about the September 11th attacks. He certainly was not praising the deaths of innocent people: he was saying that self-sacrifice and wanton destruction can be considered art from a cosmic point of view. Birth, death, chaos, and tranquility are all forms of art. That in itself isn't license to create it though.

Guillermo Habacuc has the world in a frenzy over the inhumane treatment of stray dogs in his latest series of art exhibits. I have seen this forward/bulletin/post/internet fodder in a number of places, all decrying that my outrage is imminent and my signing of their petition is inevitable. Cruelty to animals is horrid, don't get me wrong. One of the reasons I eat a vegan diet is because of factory farming. The problem is that art is challenging. Andres Serrano received a lot of flack for "Piss Christ;" partially for the anti-Christian metaphors and in part because he received NEA grant money to do it. The sensitivity of the issue has eased up a bit, partly because people are starting to realize that Christianity is in dire need of a challenge. In that sense I find an insatiable compulsion to question this so-called "art" in a way. What is the artist trying to convey? Is he trying to deliver a message about the inhumane treatment of animals? Is he trying to solicit emotional reactions from people? Is he forcing people to face the reality of the world they live in? Is he simply trying to make a buck? In a sense I can see this as art (although I'm not certain it's good art). That doesn't necessarily mean i like it or condone it.

Here I have posted the forward as it is being spread around the internet:

In 2007, the 'artist' Guillermo Vargas Habacuc, took
a dog from the street,
tied him to a rope in an art gallery, and starved
him to death.

Art Gone Too Far

DOG Guillermo Vargas Habacuc

For several days, the 'artist' and the visitors of
the exhibition have
watched emotionless the shameful 'masterpiece' based
on the dog's agony,
until eventually he died.

DOG Guillermo Vargas Habacuc,

DOG Guillermo Vargas Habacuc

Does it look like art to you?

DOG Guillermo Vargas Habacuc

But this is not all... the prestigious Visual Arts
Biennial of the Central
American decided that the 'installation' was
actually art, so that
Guillermo Vargas Habacuc has been invited to repeat
his cruel action for the
biennial of 2008

DOG Guillermo Vargas Habacuc

It takes a second to help put a stop to animal abuse.

DOG Guillermo Vargas Habacuc

sign the petetion to stop this asshole by going to

http://www. msplinks. com/MDFodHRwOi8vd3d3LnBldGl0aW9ub25saW5lLmNvbS9lYTZnay9wZXRpdGlvbi5odG1s

Until Every cage is empty.

Please, tell me your opinions on the subject.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Today's blog is brought to you by the letter "Z"

Get past the cheesy intro and watch what you can. Don't worry, you can do it in installments, youtube makes it easy.

This blog is not officially endorsing Zeitgeist, nor is it turning into a conspiracy theory underground publication. I'm only asking you to consider these opinions and observations, especially in context of the Democratic primary. Sure, you may see this as a bunch of conspiratorial bulls**t, but think about it, consider it, and tell me why in God's name you would give any more power to a corrupt system by keeping the same two families in the White house for a potential 36 years?

POINT: Hillary as president is not a good idea.

Pennsylvania Primary Live Blog

We first tried live-blogging back on Super Tuesday and it was pretty fun (we also got a "Mirth and Matter" record high number of hits), so we thought we'd give it another spin. Amazingly, two and a half months after the near-national primary, the Democrats are still slamming it out for the nomination. Drop by the comment board if you have any observations about the race, the media's coverage, or whatever else pops into mind. I'll be updating the results in the main body of the post periodically.

Happy live-blogging!

8:57: Clinton 53% Obama 47%
6% reporting and the networks have called it for CLINTON.

The Gig Diaries

Anyone else who is or used to be a performing musician may find solace in this post.

I play jazz saxophone… Yes, part of my meager income comes from shameful, self-effacing gigs. And as a person who regards music with utmost seriousness (sometimes to my own disadvantage), it is as emotionally disheartening as it is socially humiliating. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that the role of the modern-day performer has changed. Businesses don’t want music for music’s sake—they want the image of music being performed. Usually a companies’ tasteless entertainment contractor will dictate the role of the performer: they are the ones who tell you what, how, where and when to play. They are my artistic slaveholders and I am their music slave. Yes, they give me money for my services but they also enslave my artistic aesthetics.

Perhaps more appropriately, I am their musical prostitute. I accept their money and in return, I provide them with a submission of any values that may or may not have been already squandered. Once I was replete with my musical “womanhood”: my beautiful, unadulterated, Venusian body, my virginity and innocence…and I’ve sold it to the men on the street.

I’ve condensed the main types of gigs I play into a group of 4 categories:

1) The restaurant gig – this is the gig where you play in a small, make-shift corner of an upscale restaurant. This is the environment where it is very common for the restaurant owner (“asshole”) to impolitely order you to “play quieter” or suggest some vague adjective to describe a type of genre (i.e. “jazzier” or “peppier”). Usually after 3 hours of unresponsive, passionless playing, you leave to receive your 50 dollar check 3 months later.

2) The Corporate gig – or the “Wedding Gig”. This is the gig where you play every song that you’ve learned to hate because they have engulfed your audible existence. These are the songs that sneaky songwriters throughout the ages may or may not have inserted subliminal messages in an attempt to have you humming in shower. Also, these are the gigs where the audience is always drunk--shouting, song demanding and singing are the consequences. Oh yeah, and “Sweet Home Alabama” MUST be played. There are no exceptions. Nevertheless, these types of gigs generally pay well so I’m able to overlook some of these annoyances.

3) The Private Party gig- or the “I’m old, can I live vicariously through your music and youthfulness? Gig.” The audience is always old and it is usually a celebration of a 50th anniversary or a birthday. These are the gigs where I am paraded by old people who have some distant connection with jazz, saxophone or the standard jazz repertoire we tend to perform. I’m bombarded with stories from when they were young and asked repeatedly how old I am. I don’t really mind these encounters with the senior community and it enables me to justify my sometimes hostile, horn-honking episodes with old people on the road.

4) The REAL gig – Yes…some people are fortunate enough to play music for an attentive audience at a real, “performance” venue where people have come to actually listen to the music. This is the gig that I used to think I’d be playing when I was young and naïve.

Please don’t think that I expect sympathy from this post. The main intent of this post was humor. That being said, even though most of these generalizations are taken from my experiences here in Miami, I still believe that many of these stereotypes are ubiquitous to other regions of the U.S. as well. So next time you take a date to that nice, upscale restaurant, remember that I am that pitiable guy in the band looking disinterested, still waiting for the next impolite command from the owner. I hope it’s a good conversation starter.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cooling down south of the border

Most weekends Zeno, my black Lab, and I get to climb up the small mountain range that embraces, with one arm at least, my small town in the interior of Brazil. Zeno takes his weekly bath in one of the ferruginous pools of cascading water, just by diving repeatedly after a tossed tennis ball, and I get to clear my head in such bracingly pure air that bright orange and yellow lichen grows in patches on bare rock faces.

Since moving from the monster city of São Paulo nearly six years ago, I have done without cable or satellite hook-up and my Brazilian t.v. only picks up, its rabbit ears fully splayed, a channel and a half of local fare. Consequently, I have done without television news or newspaper deliveries for longer than I can remember, which is just as well these days, as I get to avoid most of the hothouse humidity of the States during an election year. With my patchy internet connection, I do get to peruse a few web sites, including one from England that reproduces over 700 newspaper front pages, a surfeit of electronic information parading as the real thing which, disturbingly, often dissolves into digital chaos before my eyes. Ditto the primaries.

The range is called Serra do São José and further up has a few ‘slave sidewalks’ or flagstone trails laid down by slaves nearly 300 years ago, in order to help gold-ladden mules get mushed over the passes. No longer. But the stone pathways are still there, complete with cross ridges and other erosion control contrivances, and are in impressive condition considering their age and the violent thunderstorms that sweep over the land – in fact, they appear better engineered than many more contemporary public works. Our hike lifts us up from Tiradentes’s high plain altitude of 900 meters by another 300 or so, and transitions from Atlantic rainforest tucked into the range’s protected foothills through patches of cerrado (the world’s most diverse prairieland and Brazil’s second largest biome) to a sparse, rocky landscape called campo rupestre of stunningly stark beauty. The range is a federally protected environmental area and was recently upgraded to a state Dragonfly reserve (due to over 18 sub-species, encouraged, once again, by the pristine air), but unfortunately this does little to discourage much environmental degradation, caused by the ranchers who shortsightedly burn the high fields, to the weekend joy-riding dirt bikers who cause much trail erosion, including the chipping and breaking of those 300 year old flagstones. The range is composed principally of quarzite bedrock topped by mineral-deficient sandy soils, so continued burning is more likely to create a desert than a sustainable pasture. Such is the price of lack of education, respect of laws or follow-through.

Stretching my legs during the hike up, I stop occasionally to dig out the erosion sluices clogged up by the last storm. The physical labor gives me a chance to reflect on the political donnybrook spreading across North America and I can’t help but believe that many group- and holier-than-thou thinkers are setting themselves up for a fall this autumn as we divide and sub-divide into so many tribes. It’s a pity. Sometimes I feel that the U.S. has turned into another nation than the one I knew.

Zeno is nearly a three-year old Lab, and was given as a gift to me by a kennel up in the mountains outside of Rio after my last Lab, Atlas, died young. I tried various times to pay for Zeno – who in local terms would have cost two monthly minimum salaries – but the unfailing generosity of Brazilians is hard to buck. Today's will be a four hour hike, an hour up to the top, an hour and more along the high ridge, down the far side beyond the Mailman’s Cross (for a colonial letter carrier of ill tidings, who was murdered on the spot – how’s that for blaming the messenger?) to the dipping pools, then an hour and more back over the range’s spinal column, descending finally to my small town of 6,000 souls.

A cool wind dominates that early morning, with screeching caracarás gyrating in the tall escarpment’s updraft. The southern hemisphere’s autumn is pressing up from southern Brazil in rolling gray-bottomed cloud banks. (As usual I am delighted by the always-alive sempre-viva flowers, which looks like a small burst of frozen white fireworks.) Then the sun wins out by mid-morning, such that when I tilt my head upwards the sunlight refracts off the lower edge of my rimless shades, splashing my corneas. Zeno, leashless in a wildlife area, has been taught to pause by my left side for permission before charging ahead on trail or field. He brushes my left hand with his nose and when I look down his brown eyes also fill with the tropical light – just before I say "Go!"

N.B. The doctoral thesis Field Guide to the Orchids of the Serra de São José (1991), by Czech-Brazilian Ruy J. Valká Alves, has always contributed greatly to my geological understanding of the Serra.

Grab Bag: Erykah Badu's "Amerykah"

It is cause for celebration whenever an artist of Erykah Badu's depth and stature releases a new album. Fans has been waiting five years for this one, too, so there was a lot of taut expectation accompanying its release. Interestingly (or perhaps predictably) for such a prominent artist, however, Badu's new record is being met with extreme reactions, both from the critics and from audiences. To many of the neo-soul faithfuls, their long wait was in vain: New Amerykah, Part 1: Fourth World War follows very few of the soulful formulae that defined her earlier work, and a quick survey of reviews reveals a lot of disappointment. To fans of indie hip-hop and progressive soul (think George Clinton meets Cannibal Ox), however, this record represents a powerful homecoming of political activism and sonic experimentation into the mainstream of black pop music.

The first thing listeners will notice about this release is that it is much more sample-reliant and produced than her earlier efforts. In fact, she even made some of the beats herself on GarageBand, and moments in the album have a very indie vibe, especially for someone as established as Badu. But one thing we have learned from her previous albums is that this is an artist who only surrounds herself with the best of the best: when she dove into a little acid jazz and groove music back in the late 90s, she grabbed up ?uestlove on drums and Roy Hargrove on trumpet. Similarly, the producers she works with on New Amerykah are all top-notch, although you won't find any household names here. The producers are all kings of the underground, with 9th Wonder and Madlib (of MF Doom, Madvillainy, and Quasimoto props) leading the roster.

A couple of amazing production moments stand out to me: the first song-proper, "The Healer," is a remarkably gentle, subtle affair - not something one would expect to kick off an album. There is a mood of incense-beclouded eastern mysticism here, complete with bells playing a pentatonic theme and even a koto (or perhaps pi'pa) sample. This lulling, down-tempo style of production is still relatively rare in hip-hop: if I had to chose any sampled and produced song to meditate to, this would be the one. Badu's vocal begins with a blended together list of world deities: as many rappers shout out to their crew at the beginning of a song, Badu gives a shout out to a pantheon of gods. Only at the top of the totem pole in the lyrics - "bigger than religion / bigger than government" - is hip-hop itself. Her artistic reorientation away from live bands and towards the hip-hop aesthetic of samples and beats is proclaimed from the start.

"Twinkle" is perhaps the most "indie hip-hop" track on the album; it's also a powerful statement for black empowerment. After a smattering of gun shots and violence at the beginning, the skittering beat enters. The production ethos on this one is similar to El-P and some of the best Def Jux records: even a jumpy, irregular pattern, when repeated enough, can groove. This cut is an amazing example of reinforcing lyrical content with production qualities, in this case that disempowered ghetto-dwellers are really gods ("They don't know they're angels / They don't know they're gods / They take what they are given / Even if it seems odd"). The "twinkle" inherent in these people are sonically represented by the pulsating, jittery synth line in the beat, and to great effect. Rarely do production and vocal delivery/lyrics come into such perfect yoke as to generate a genuinely moving statement.

Sometimes, however, the grand designs of the album fall spectacularly short and end up in a miasma of incoherence. Like some of Badu's past records (Mama's Gun being a good example), New Amerykah follows a very idiosyncratic pacing, with each track containing a couple totally dissimilar grooves and ideas that, on another artist's album, would have comprised two separate tracks. And there's a lot of transitional material, narrative, and sound effects gluing everything together as well. At its best, this technique offers the listener a liberating journey outside of the confines of the traditional album; at its worst, it is ill-conceived and discontinuous, like a 5th grader's collage art project at school.

New Amerykah, flaws aside, is a compelling and timely collection of music. At a time when black radicalism is being hotly debated in the mainstream media (see my "Wright is Right" post), Badu brazenly places herself among the lineage of powerful black leaders that the white mainstream loves to hate (in the track "Me," she sings: "I salute you, Farrakhan"). However, she invokes this history in a totally non-menacing manner: she doesn't snarl about the radical leader, she coos it. Furthermore, Badu tackles inner-city poverty, Iraq, and drugs while managing to stay completely positive. In an age of so much materialism and negativity in mainstream radio music, this comes as a welcome breath of air. In addition to the socio-politically conscious lyrics, Badu's adoption of some of the hip-hop aesthetic makes it easier for her to draw directly from recorded black history, to give homage in the form of samples and reappropriations of old sounds (the funky blackspoitation material of the intro being a good example). On the cut, the narrator sums up the record quite nicely when he says: "we take your history and make it a modern mystery." New Amerykah is totally indebted to history, yet manages to be 100% modern.

Friday, April 18, 2008

I am woman. No, really.

Scrubs is giving me a complex.

No, I don't mean the guilty yet gleeful procrastinatory buzz I get from the fact that I've been watching episode after episode online instead of attending to the more sober business of graduate school. That's all quite ordinary. What I've got instead is a gender issue identity crisis brought on by the interactions I've been observing between the male and female characters. Freud would be so proud of me.

The show's two heroines, Carla and Elliot, are gossipy, scattered, grudge-bearing, emotionally needy, image-obsessed, and frequently lacking in self confidence. They have other, totally positive qualities as well, of course, and are absolutely sympathetic and likable. But what I've been realizing this week is that the show's comedy frequently centers on these negative and stereotypically female qualities. These are the things about women that we laugh at.

Scrubs isn't unusual, either. You'd be hard-pressed to name an American comedy in which the female characters aren't ridiculed for their overtly feminine, nagging, emotional ways. From Elaine to Marge, it's the same old story.

Now, this isn't to say that these women don't have redeeming qualities – they're often the most sympathetic characters, even as they play the straight man to their male counterparts. And I'm not interested in dishing out a post-feminist diatribe about gender relations on American television. We laugh at the men, too. Body image issues aside, all's fair(ish) in love, war, and must-see TV.

My revelation this week came from the fact that I discovered suddenly that I'd been taking all those laugh tracks to heart. Somewhere in my male-friend festooned adolescence I had decided that those joke-inducing stereotypical female qualities were things I shouldn't admit to having. I could (and do) embrace the nurturing, emotionally sensitive aspects of femininity, but as far as demanding that my female nature be embraced in its entirety? No thanks. I'm not going to be that girl.

So what's been happening to me for years is this free-floating anxiety over the fact that not only do I get happy when someone gives me flowers, I'm a little sad when they don't. You'd have to ask the men in my life if my subconscious self-inflicted program of "let's not be annoying and give cause for ridicule" has been working or not: I suspect that it's just been making me annoyingly passive-aggressive. And probably giving me ulcers.

Ultimately, I find that I always forgive the men on these TV shows for their foibles and stereotypical masculinity. And I really do like Carla and Elliot, even while some of their lines make me cringe in shameful recognition. These days, I'm navigating the wild dark forest of a new relationship, and it seems as good a time as any to learn to stand my ground and come with all my femininity fully on display.

I'm a little scared. It's not easy, unlearning old patterns. So I'm watching lots of Scrubs for pointers. Hopefully this tall, kind man in my life will appreciate the fact that I'm the sort of girl who makes him dinner sometimes, and who sometimes demands that he buy her flowers.

He can laugh at me. I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Call me an elitist but . . .

I found a lot of truth in Obama's recent comment about "small town Pennsylvania". Sure it came out wrong, but can we buck the trend for a minute and dig a little deeper.

Michael Lind highlighted Obama's gaffe at, basically reiterating the standard criticisms of the "gaffe". (Ever notice how when John McCain tells the truth, it is straight-talk, and when Obama tells the truth, it is a gaffe?) Obama is out-of-touch, condescending elitist. This paragraph sums up Lind's views, and the now conventional wisdom, nicely:
To judge from Obama's several statements on the subject, he sincerely believes that working-class whites, lacking the self-awareness to recognize the actual economic origins of their distress, seek relief from their pain by praying in church, slaughtering deer, and making illegal immigrants and imports from foreign countries scapegoats for ills that have nothing to do with immigration or trade. They may not be racists, they may even be sympathetic victims, but they are too irrational to understand their genuine problems and their true interests, which are chiefly economic, a fact that university-educated progressives in big cities and college towns can readily perceive.

In other words, "low-information voters". People too uninformed to know what is good for them. By definition, those who govern out of a condescending concern for those too ignorant to know better are elites. The question is whether that was what Obama was actually saying.

Obama's own remarks in clarification of the "gaffe" p
aint an entirely different picture (h/t Numerian at :

When I go around and I talk to people there is frustration and there is anger and there is bitterness. And what's worse is when people are expressing their anger then politicians try to say what are you angry about? This just happened - I want to make a point here today.

I was in San Francisco talking to a group at a fundraiser and somebody asked how're you going to get votes in Pennsylvania? What's going on there? We hear that's its hard for some working class people to get behind you're campaign. I said, "Well look, they're frustrated and for good reason. Because for the last 25 years they've seen jobs shipped overseas. They've seen their economies collapse. They have lost their jobs. They have lost their pensions. They have lost their healthcare.

And for 25, 30 years Democrats and Republicans have come before them and said we're going to make your community better. We're going to make it right and nothing ever happens. And of course they're bitter. Of course they're frustrated. You would be too. In fact many of you are. Because the same thing has happened here in Indiana. The same thing happened across the border in Decatur. The same thing has happened all across the country. Nobody is looking out for you. Nobody is thinking about you. And so people end up- they don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody's going to help them. So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on. But they don't believe they can count on Washington. So I made this statement-- so, here's what rich. Senator Clinton says 'No, I don't think that people are bitter in Pennsylvania. You know, I think Barack's being condescending.' John McCain says, 'Oh, how could he say that? How could he say people are bitter? You know, he's obviously out of touch with people.'

Out of touch? Out of touch? I mean, John McCain--it took him three tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he's saying I'm out of touch? Senator Clinton voted for a credit card-sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt after taking money from the financial services companies, and she says I'm out of touch? No, I'm in touch. I know exactly what's going on. I know what's going on in Pennsylvania. I know what's going on in Indiana. I know what's going on in Illinois. People are fed-up.

They're angry and they're frustrated and they're bitter. And they want to see a change in Washington and that's why I'm running for President of the United States of America.

The message is entirely different. The message is not that these voters are low-information. Not at all. Rather, they are keenly aware that neither party in the past 30 years has been able to meaningfully affect their day-to-day economic realities. The parties have differentiated themselves, though, on culture issues. Take a look at this snippet from the quote above:
And so people end up- they don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody's going to help them. So people end up, you know, voting on issues like guns, and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage. And they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and things they can count on.
The fact that voters can meaningfully effect changes in gun laws and gay rights by voting for one party or another isn't a cause for celebration in the greatness of democracy. It should be seen as an indictment of the whole of Washington. The message is, Washington cannot get its act together and fix healthcare, save your jobs, secure social security, or properly fund education. But we can let the assault weapon ban lapse! So vote Republican or the next president might bring the assault weapon ban back.

Is there truth to Obama's statements that economically the government has been AWOL for these folks? Let's throw some statistics into the mix. I did not find statistics on Pennsylvania, but I did find some on a place close to a lot of Mirth and Matter writers' hearts, Oregon. This is a chart from the Oregon Labor Market Information System website:

As you can see, Oregon wages, adjusted for inflation, are basically the same now as they were in 1976. As a whole, the country has done a bit better. Of course, the picture is much more complicated then that. Here is the breakdown by county:

Table 1
Oregon Counties' Annual Average Covered Wage
1976 and 2006 (2006 Dollars)
Area 1976 2006 1976-2006 Percent Change
STATEWIDE $38,192 $38,057 0%
Washington County $36,930 $48,140 30%
Gilliam County $24,933 $31,215 25%
Benton County $37,355 $40,475 8%
Multnomah County $41,208 $43,013 4%
Clackamas County $38,076 $39,194 3%
Sherman County $30,984 $31,347 1%
Deschutes County $33,833 $33,329 -1%
Umatilla County $32,686 $30,537 -7%
Malheur County $29,134 $27,212 -7%
Marion County $35,760 $33,322 -7%
Yamhill County $35,418 $32,780 -7%
Jefferson County $32,762 $29,772 -9%
Morrow County $36,205 $32,577 -10%
Lane County $37,151 $33,234 -11%
Crook County $36,908 $32,718 -11%
Jackson County $35,789 $31,677 -11%
Tillamook County $33,043 $29,126 -12%
Lincoln County $32,409 $27,877 -14%
Josephine County $33,419 $28,458 -15%
Klamath County $36,558 $31,091 -15%
Union County $34,737 $29,158 -16%
Lake County $34,738 $28,962 -17%
Linn County $40,356 $33,486 -17%
Clatsop County $36,026 $29,386 -18%
Wasco County $34,973 $28,396 -19%
Baker County $33,362 $27,075 -19%
Douglas County $39,035 $31,401 -20%
Grant County $35,848 $28,683 -20%
Wallowa County $31,665 $25,178 -20%
Curry County $33,992 $26,908 -21%
Polk County $36,095 $28,303 -22%
Hood River County $32,456 $25,340 -22%
Harney County $38,556 $28,469 -26%
Columbia County $44,735 $32,213 -28%
Coos County $39,078 $28,046 -28%
Wheeler County $37,732 $22,506 -40%

Great if you live in Washington or Gilliam county. Not so great if you live in Wheeler county. Now I have never been to Pennsylvania. But I've been to Polk County, Coos County, and some of those other counties which have experience double digit wage decreases in the last 30 years. And when people talk about the vast middle of Pennsylvania, my mind thinks of those places in Oregon.

So when Obama says that people in economically depressed areas are frustrated, can anyone reasonably say that that is not true? And the economic problems span both Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses. Voters are checking out, and voting on the only aspect of the system they feel they can change: the culture. Oh, and this might contribute to that bitterness:

Apparently there is a block of voters that can work the system in their favor to improve their economic stature. The problem is there are just not enough millionaires out there to make up a majority.

So four conclusions can be drawn, not all of which are mutually exclusive:

1) Obama's contention that voters, disenfranchised by the economic state of affairs for the last 30 years, increasingly vote on culture issues rather than economic issues. This disenfranchisement leads to a justifiable bitterness.

2) Obama really is an out-of-touch elitist. By contrast, even though Clinton's policies are 97% the same, she is not an elitist because she either does not believe or ignores the possibility that 30 years of wage stagnation could produce bitterness. John McCain is the least elite of all, even though his party's policies have are largely responsible for the problem. He, however, loves guns, church, and hard work, and thus is in touch with these voters.

3) The old adage that people vote with their pocketbooks is false. Rather, people really care strongly about culture issues. So strongly, in fact, that they will vote against their economic self-interest in order to win on those issues. Obama, by attributing concern with culture issues to a sense of economic bitterness, has in fact insulted all of middle America.

4) The old adage that people vote with their pocketbooks is true. Republicans have won by riding a perception of fiscal responsibility that has not been true for at least a quarter of a century. Democrats have lost by succumbing to a stereotype of fiscal irresponsibility that also has not been true for a quarter of a century. In other words, the rabble is misinformed and Obama was simply inelegant enough to point it out. Those in the media and in Clinton and McCain's camps know that to win you have to pander to those voters, not tell them the truth.

To a certain extent all four of these are true. As I've attempted to point out above, there is a lot of truth to number one. A certain percentage of single-issue voters will always fall into group three. And, at the risk of being one of those elitists, number four is also true.

Number two is true in the sense that as long as the media keeps covering the controversy, this perception will become reality, at least in terms of the campaign. This issue is not whether Obama is actually elite. He is. In fact, anyone running for President of the United States, at least in the 20th century, is an elite. They just aren't like you and me. And that is a good thing. We (hopefully) want our President to be elite. We want them to be smarter than us, a better speaker than us, etc.

Rather, the media is less concerned with analyzing the substance of the comment and more concerned with analyzing the effect the comment will have on Obama's candidacy. The effect is that it plays into every Republican/Democrat stereotype for the last 30 years. The dance is that even though all candidates are elite, it is important to project the image of the "everyman". Democrats, especially, must do this, since Republican are presumed to be less elite the Democrats. To not do so risks the chance that you will insult the all-important voting block of the "small-town values voter". Leave aside that the media's gross characterization of this "block" of voters is as insulting as the characterization Obama used. You can't not pander to a group, you can't tell the truth, because to do so will kill your chances of winning. And just in case you aren't losing quite yet, we'll repeat this again and again until you do.

Obama did not retract his statement. He did not apologize. He clarified it, although there is scant evidence that the clarification has changed anything. Perhaps he is hoping we might have a real discussion about real economic problems. He should counter that unlike his and Clinton's policies, McCain's program of offering deregulation and tax cuts, privatized health care and social security, along with an endless, expensive war, is the real insult to the "average American".

Instead, the discussion of the controversy leaves out the complexity of the problem and degenerates into platitudes about "hard-work", "American dream", "elitism", "middle-America", and "values-voters". Thus, the Republicans have won the debate. By definition, Republicans are in touch with these value voters because they like guns, church, and hard work. Democrats, by definition, are elitist because they come from the "coasts" and the "cities". They somehow don't get it. The only way for a Democrat to win is to model themselves after a Republican, go bowling, and hope they can eek out a victory.

In his piece arguing that Obama is an elitist (quoted above), Lind inadvertently makes my point:
Whether the "bitter" controversy helps Hillary Clinton win enough votes in the final primaries to beat the odds and win the Democratic nomination remains to be seen. At press time, she was surging in the polls. One thing is certain: In the fall election, John McCain, whoever his Democratic opponent might be, will portray himself as the candidate who defends the dignity and pride of working-class and lower-middle-class Americans of all races against the disdain of elite liberals. Unfortunately, many progressives will make that task much easier by repeating the litany of contempt: Rubes. Rednecks. Retro. [emphasis mine]
The difference between Clinton and Obama's approach is that Clinton is dancing the dance, and Obama is not. Perhaps this is political suicide for Obama. After all, Clinton is benefiting from the controversy now. As long as the debate is framed this way, though, she will lose that fight in November. By acknowledging how disingenuous the dynamic is, Obama at least has the chance to change the narrative, in the same way that he has tried to change the narrative on patriotism and national security.

Even though 80% of the country thinks we are on the wrong track, the contest between change and more of the same comes out to about 50/50. This makes no sense. I personally don't want another election to come down to whether enough Ohio or Florida voters can break with Republicans in order for the Democratic candidate to scrape out a victory. I'd like to see the red state/blue state map redrawn. In fact, I'd like to see it tossed out the window. But to do so we need an honest assessment of each party's strengths and weaknesses on the economy, foreign policy, national defense, environment, and every other policy. We need some truth-telling, not pandering, and we need a candidate who will take traditional Republican talking points such as fiscal responsibility, economic stewardship, national security, and patriotism head-on. Otherwise we will have more of the same.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Proba Pera"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Abstain from "Abstinence Only"

This recent story underscores how so-called "abstinence only" education in our schools is not only unrealistic - it is dangerous. A survey of Orlando-area teens shows that some kids ("some" is the vague language of the article) believe that drinking bleach can prevent HIV infection; furthermore, certain teenagers believe that drinking Mountain Dew will prevent pregnancy. The survey also indicated that students have very poor knowledge of condoms and sexual health. Local media is reporting that Florida legislatures are meeting to review the "abstinence only" education programs in the state in response to the dismal survey results, but an inside Mirth and Matter informant (ok, it was Alexis) revealed that bills to overhaul the controversial sex education program have been blocked in Tallahassee every step of the way. It will be a while yet before Florida teens learn that condoms can greatly reduce the likelihood of STIs and pregnancy, not household cleaners and soft drinks (or soft drinks that taste like household cleaners, as the case may be).

Conservatives and religious fundamentalists (is there any different anymore?) who discuss this issue talk about the need for stronger families. "We shouldn't teach about sexual issues in public schools," they argue. "This should be the purview of awkward mothers and fathers and the 'birds and the bees' talk, just like it's been since time immemorial." In an ideal world, where all parents are responsible and involved, this would certainly be the case. But that's not our world. "Abstinence only" education is a pipe dream: trying to convince a hormone-fueled teen that sex should only be between a married man and woman not only deprives kids of much-needed knowledge on the topic; it makes them feel hopelessly guilty for their perfectly natural desires. Instead of insisting on this completely unrealistic, losing course, we should address healthy sexual practices in the schools. Morality should be the purview of the family; we owe our kids the basic facts about health and the human body.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Musical Violence, Pt.3: Order and Repetition

Violence as Order

"I believe that music should be collective hysteria and spells, violently of the present time."
- Pierre Boulez

In many ways, the shape of Western music history since the Middle Ages can be likened to a gradually sloping hill, followed by a very sharp incline, then terminating in a cliff. Although the last 800 years of music have been marked with periods of relative stasis, the general trend seems to have been towards greater and greater technical complexity with each successive generation of musicians. Like the story of evolution on this planet, recorded Western music started with its plainsong chant (the musical equivalent of single-celled organisms), then added more voices to that, started adding instruments, greater compositional complexity and scope, denser structures, etc. By the mid-18th century, courts all over Europe had their very own collectives of musicians all playing specialized instruments and reading little squiggles on a page to translate the abstract sound ideals of composers into sound. Music was getting so complex that someone even started to have to stand in front of all these musicians and beat his arms around like a bird just to keep everyone in the same place.

About the first 700 years after the turn of the first millenium were the gradually sloping hill: innovations were driving the direction of creation, but tradition and pragmatic use-function kept music firmly embedded in the context of social usefulness, usually church-related. This was before the era of the "Artist Genius" - in fact, many compositions until the Renaissance and even later were written by anonymous composers. Change was slow and steady.

Now let's fast forward to the steep hill. With the notion of the innovating Genius (c.1800) came a steady stream of technical innovations that led to greater and greater compositional complexity. Of course, composers weren't just combining notes together in different ways for the heck of it: the ultimate concern, as always, was with expressing something. In order to tell more and more nuances stories through music, innovative composers of the Romantic era broke down one wall after another, and the game was afoot. Dissonances that were shunned for hundreds of years were liberated; shocking harmonic resolutions were forged (the so-called "Tristan chord" of Wagner being a prime example); symphonic structure opened up like a fan. With all of this rapid innovation, however, came the specter of an end-game - what would happen when every technical barrier posed by the 12-tone, even-tempered system that we as a culture had developed for ourselves had been breached? What then?

The first twenty years of the twentieth century were a blur of newness. Free atonal music by Schoenberg, Berg, and others broke the question of dissonance wide open, but the final technical leap wasn't achieved until Schoenberg put together a new approach to composition based solely on systematic "rows" containing every chromatic tone of the scale. Fundamentally, 12-tone music was based on control over sound. It was the ultimate puzzle music: the composer develops a row of notes, transforms it in different ways (you can run it backwards, inverted, etc.), then uses that as the formal organization of a piece. It is a music of pure control and cerebral discipline.

12-tone music (or serialism) was the first of two conceptual end-games that put an end to the linear teleology of Western music (the other was John Cage's zen-like emancipation of chance in music, 1950-1970). Amazingly, this style that was developed in the Vienna of the 1920s still sounds totally uncompromising and modern, even though the visual arts of the decade are today quite well accepted by a broad audience. Even after all these years, our ears just haven't gotten used to a musical system based on hyper-controlled, super-dissonant combinations of notes. Atonality still makes people cringe, as evinced by its extensive use in horror film soundtracks (think the shower scene in Psycho).

A huge part of this phenomenon, I think, is the simple fact that at some point in music's development, technique eclipsed expression. From all available documentation, Schoenberg wasn't theorizing serialism in order to express a certain emotion or psychological state that had him stymied before. No, serialism was arrived at because it was the final technical hurdle to jump over. It was the summit of our little metaphorical mountain, and technical progress and experimentalism drove its invention, not an expressive need. (For fairness's sake, I should say that many would argue against this statement.) In fact, serialism was a deliberate, self-conscious turning away from the Romantic tradition: it shunned personal expression in the favor of control over musical form, power over sound.

Schoenberg's revolution outlived the man and grew even more virulent and impassioned in the generation that followed him. At the furthest extreme was Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible student of Olivier Messiaen in mid-late 1940s Paris. Boulez's early works not only serialized pitches, but dynamics, articulations, and all the other contours of music. In his "total serialist" works, not a single dimension of music is left to the vagaries of emotion, chance, or soul.

For a representative example of early Pierre Boulez, check out the second movement of his Piano Sonata #1, "Assez large". Really, for the non-initiated (I count myself among these ranks), the first ten seconds will do just fine to get a sense of the sound world he created in this piece. In a pointillistic spatter of notes, "Assez large" moves up and down the piano like a skittering St. Vitus dance. You won't find a melody, a harmony, or a rhythm you recognize here - all is cerebral density, intended to be grasped best on the notated page than in actual sound. This is music more for the eyes than the ears. And, of course, underlying this aesthetic is a deeply violent control over sound that subjugates human expression to iron-clad rules and formulas. The first movement of this work is marked "violent and rapid," the second "very brutal and very dry." Like the dictators ravaging his continent when he wrote this, Boulez was a brilliant and commanding totalitarian. To many musicians of the day (and continuing to the present time), Boulez became a symbol of the loveless, sneering, and cruel bargain that our musical culture made in the pursuit of ultimate control over sound. (The American John Cage's experiments were a direct challenge to his hegemonic musical paradigm.) Boulez's was a violence of order.

The funny thing to me is that, at this level of control and order, music sounds even more random than the free jazz from part 2 of this post. Although every aspect of these pieces are tightly regimented, and a detailed reading of the score reveals profound symmetries and mathematical epiphanies, you really need the score to appreciate these things. If there is anyone out there who can actually perceive Boulez's music (and late Schoenberg) as being serially derived, who can hear the intense order in it, I haven't met him. Perhaps the ultimate irony of serialism is that a technique developed to exert ultimate control over sound ended up in many ways sounding identical to a toddler pounding keys on a piano.

Violence as Repetition

Our final category is by far the most common in the musical lives of everyday Americans; many of us are so accustomed to it that we don't necessarily perceive it to be sonic violence at all. It is a principle that underlies all music of all people on the planet, except monsieur Boulez (but even bird calls and whale songs exhibit repetition).

To get at the inherent psychological violence of repetition, let's return to a couple examples presented in part 1 of this now exceedingly long post. In detainment and interrogation facilities, not only do US torturers play the music at high volume levels - they repeat the same songs over and over and over again. Prisoners' minds are stuck in a Groundhog's Day loop with no end. This same sort of thing is what all of us go through when we get a song stuck in our heads; take a perfectly good song, repeat it enough, and it becomes an object of hysteria. Like the crazy nanny in that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm who worked in a Loony Toons park where that theme song playing constantly as background music, repetition can make us unhinged. I made great efforts to avoid certain Japanese electronics stores during my time living there because their background music consisted of one phrase of music repeated over and over again. (Imagine the poor workers!)

But this final category is not only referring to the mad repetition of the same fragment of music, a source of obvious psychological violence. Nor do I mean to say that all repetition in music is "violent." Rather, for the sake of the present argument let's narrow this down a bit to look at two distinct phenomenon in much of contemporary popular music: unvaried repetition of the same rhythm or phrase within one song; and repeating pieces of previously recorded music within the context of a new song through the practice of digital sampling.

The treasure-trove source for both of these elements of repetition is of course hip-hop music. I'd analyze "Crank That," since it seems to be becoming a running theme in my blog posts, but it would inflict too much psychological torture on me. Besides, there is so much hip-hop that I do like out there, that harnesses repetition in such effective ways, that I don't need to go to the bottom of the barrel. Also, since readers are probably more familiar with rap than, say, Pierre Boulez, less contextualization is needed here.

Let's turn to the tune that set the pizzeria aflame in Do The Right Thing, Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" (1989-90). In some ways, the production team for Public Enemy, The Bombsquad, were the Igor Stravinsky of the hip-hop world during the group's prime years (1987-1992). Like Stravinsky (Ballet russes era), the beat in this song is dense with overlapping layers of rhythm; it is also packed with aural fragments drawn from other records, just as the Russian drew upon snippets of folk song for his major works of the 1910s. A perfect accompaniment to the MC's lyrical message, The Bombsquad produced beats that were grimy, urgent, and assaultive.

The first layer of repetition here is the steady, unchanging beat. Behind the kaleidescope of sounds is a rhythmic substratum that is looped through the whole piece (with variations during the chorus). We have perhaps grown so accustomed to looping beats in pop music that this does not strike us as annoying or violent anymore; nevertheless, to many people ("curmudgeons" would be too strong a word), repetition of this nature is akin to being hit in the ear with a hammer. Hence the Italian pizzeria owner's breakdown in the Spike Lee joint.

Beyond the repetitive nature of this beat, however, lies another source of sonic violence that is intimately tied to modern technology. (Shameless self-promotion time: those who are really interested in this topic, go here to download my 200+ page study on the digital revolution and music making.) The popularization of digital sampling in the early 1980s allowed producers to grab snippets of sound from other records and manipulate them at will. At its heart, then, sampling is a technique that does violence to the original recordings by repeating sound fragments in a new context: what were once licks can be turned into looping phrases; short vocal ejaculations (James Brown's grunt, for instance) can be spliced into a track for rhythmic emphasis; a few drum strikes can be manipulated into a whole new beat. On this track, we can hear literally dozens of samples all competing for our attention and begging to be discovered. In addition to the JB grunt (on the "and" of beat 4), this beat contains a woman's voice saying "come on and get down," Afrika Bambaataa from "Planet Rock," and a male saying "get up" this is turned, through the producer's talent, into a jittery, complex rhythmic loop, and many others. We are hearing a whole stack of (black) records being fed into a blender and spit out.

Public Enemy, of course, are not sampling JB because they wish to do violence to his recordings. In the hip-hop community, sampling is a form of homage, a shout-out to predecessors and influences. I'm not arguing that sampling something is doing negative violence to the original; it is, however, chopping up and rearranging recorded music to fit a new expressive aim. It is - to use an economic term - creative destruction.

(Brief) Summary

Behind the phenomenon of musical torture lies the question of what exactly in music can be considered a source of violence and of real, psychological aggression. What makes music so interesting is its constant dialog between order and disorder, noise and euphony. This, after all, is a dialectical process that resembles life itself. Music relates to us because it employs the same patterns, symbols, themes, anxieties, and joys that we are faced with every day. It isn't always as obvious as the lyrics being sung (a topic I have completely stayed away from here), but encoded deep within the fundamental structure of any song is a message. We all know this intuitively - this is why music communicates to us.

Noise, disorder, order, and repetition can all be channeled for the sake of psychological violence. But one final point here, and one I should have made earlier: violence is not a bad thing (except when used by psych-Ops to torment Muslims.) Nature itself is full of violent change. This music may be more difficult than we're used to, but in many ways it is also more powerful. It is impossible to play The Dillinger Escape Plan, late Trane, or Boulez for someone without them forming an immediate opinion. I have never met anyone who feels luke warm about free jazz - it's an all-or-nothing style. So as we listen to these examples, keep this in mind: your negative reaction means the music is working. It is pushing you out of your comfort zone. It is violently exposing you to a new sonic reality. You can turn it off or walk away; but the curtain has already been pulled back.