Archive for August, 2008

Bjork on music press sexism

Pitchfork has a report on recent comments from Bjork about the music press’s frequent failures to give women artists full credit for their work. She talks about how men involved with the technical end of her record Vespertine have often mistakenly been given credit for more substantial creative work like production and arranging, and also about how the music press has similarly inflated the importance of Diplo’s work with M.I.A. The undercurrent here is that the press often assumes lesser creative roles for women who in truth do a great deal of their own production and arranging work. Women are understood to be singers, and little more; for everything else, the press figures there’s bound to be a man tending to things somewhere in the background.

Pitchfork’s news story is half-apologetic, half-defensive—but I’d say that even quite apart from this particular situation, they often fall very far short in terms of their treatment of women artists. For example: take a look at the lineups for the Pitchfork Music Festival these past four years, and you’ll see very few female artists and female-led bands. This year, for example, they might easily have booked any number of female artists who are presently doing substantial and interesting work in the indie rock mode—why not St. Vincent, or Nina Nastasia, or Marnie Stern? Pitchfork also very rarely gives women artists a heavily favorable lead review, or does much to promote them into band-of-the-moment status. St. Vincent did get that kind of momentary buzz-band boost, but then come the end of 2007, her very fine record Marry Me didn’t even make the cut for their annual Top 50 list. Or, take the way that women artists are often taken to task in reviews for failing to meet preconceived ideas about what a female performer ought to be doing:

Case’s lungs-for-days Dollywood boom may be as direct an emotional instrument as there is in contemporary music, but her increasingly prominent songwriting skills tend to eschew visceral connections for intellectual intrigue and poetic mystery– and Flood features Case’s most cryptic lyrics to date. The odd disconnect here between singer and songwriter is absorbing: Though shaded by finely-tuned, country-noir twang, the rapturous belter’s high-minded lyrical aspirations often undermine her throat’s unhindered veracity….As a refined version of Blacklisted, Flood provides alluring riddles and obsessive desolation, Case subverting her easy-access vocals with difficult abstractions and heady projections. Yet, after fishing through Flood’s 12 intricate tracks, a plainspoken love song delivered in that voice would not be unwelcome.

That’s from the Pitchfork review of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, in which critic Ryan Dombal expresses a wish that Case would just quit it with all this complex poetic songwriting business and get back to singing “plainspoken love song[s]” like a good, simple woman singer should. What really gets me here is that Dombal even seems to think that Case’s “difficult abstractions and heady projections” do make for good songs—but he would seem to prefer it if she’d stick to a more conventionally-accepted role for a female performer, that of the big-voiced country chanteuse.

In any case: kudos to Pitchfork for at least mentioning the issue. If Bjork’s comments lead to any more self-examination around their offices, it’s bound to be a good thing. But meanwhile I’m not holding my breath for more substantial coverage of women artists in the music press.

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The New York Times style police

For those of you fascinated by things like the official difference between “premiere” and “premier” and the original meaning of the phrase “begs the question,” I’d like to recommend After Deadline, a Times Topics blog to which deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett makes weekly posts about the varied and numerous stylistic errors that slip by the New York Times copyeditors and make it into print. In this space, Corbett (who maintains the paper’s official style manual) points out not only plain and simple mistakes (such as “parking break” for “parking brake,” or “G.I. track exam” for “G.I. tract exam”), but also tracks incidences of cliche, colloquialism, and many other kinds of stylistic sloppiness. Writers and grammar geeks would be well-advised to check it out.

Zadie Smith on E.M. Forster

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith has used the release of a collection of E.M. Forster’s BBC radio broadcasts as an occasion to examine his tendency to walk “the middling line” as a novelist and a critic. Smith’s affection for Forster is well known—her novel On Beauty even begins with an allusion to Howards End. Though here she briefly entertains the idea that Forster’s middlebrow sensibilities might have limited his powers, it’s little surprise that she judges in his favor in the end, concluding that his open-minded moderation made it possible for him to see more clearly than many of his more aesthetically partisan peers.

I was particularly struck by what Smith had to say about Forster’s attitude toward his audience. She writes: “He was the sort to send one manuscript to Virginia Woolf, another to his good friend Sergeant Bob Buckingham of the Metropolitan Police, and fear the literary judgment of both.” Unlike Joyce or Woolf, he worried about being able to reach a broad audience; but at the same time, he did also value the power and sophistication of “highbrow” literature. Smith perceptively puts her finger on the core values underlying Forster’s attitude toward his audience:

It really didn’t matter to Forster if a fellow had read Yeats or not (he is consistently sentimental about the unlettered: peasants, sailors, gardeners, natives). But to deny Yeats, because he was not to your taste, or to deny poetry itself, out of fear and incomprehension— that mattered terribly. The only philistinism that counted was the kind that deforms the heart, trapping us in an attitude of scorn and fear until scorn and fear are all we know.

What’s important is not literary sophistication itself, but rather being open to its powers and pleasures—as well as to the powers and pleasures of works that might not have met the approval of a serious-minded literary elitist like Eliot. This, I think, is a principle that I can very much get behind: the idea of approaching literature (or any kind of art) with an open mind and an open heart.

Second Graders Love John Coltrane

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (registration required) ran a charming piece by Nat Hentoff about a class of second graders in Queens who’ve become such passionate fans of John Coltrane that they’ve begun holding “raffles, cake sales, and books sales” in order to save his Long Island home from being torn down by a developer. (It’s now looking likely that the house will, indeed, be preserved.)

Coltrane lived on Long Island during the last years of his life—the house was where he composed A Love Supreme and all his other late, great works. The students were introduced to Coltrane by their teacher, Christine Passarella, who discovered that her students responded enthusiastically, even passionately, to Coltrane’s music when she played it in the classroom. According to Hentoff:

John Coltrane, Interstellar Space

John Coltrane, "Interstellar Space"

Ms. Passarella’s second-grade students, she says, would have told him how moved they were by not only the ballads “but the more avant-garde recordings, such as ‘Interstellar Space.'” She notes that, through her teaching, “I have discovered that young children have open, welcoming minds, and the more pure and emotional the music, the more they connect. Soon they were hooked on John Coltrane’s music.”

Many jazz fans and critics hate Coltrane’s “late period” work, put off by its perceived harshness and difficulty. But I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten myself thoroughly lost in late records like Meditations or Ascension, which I’d argue are among the most beautiful in Coltrane’s catalog. I’m sure it would have made Coltrane very happy to know that these children are able to connect to his music so directly—he’d be pleased to hear that people who aren’t burdened by lots of musical expectations and experience are able to get right to the heart of his expression. Folks who get caught up in one narrow idea or another about what jazz or music ought to sound like would do well to pay attention to the way these kids are approaching Coltrane’s late-period, avant-garde work: with open minds and open hearts. It’s music that you can understand intellectually, and place in historical and musical context—but that’s not at all where its power can be found. With records like Meditations or Interstellar Space, it’s far better to close your eyes, open your heart, and just give yourself over to the music, while maintaining as much of a child’s openness and innocence as you can manage.

William Hogarth, Richard Martin, class, and animal rights

William Hogarth, The Second Stage of Cruelty

William Hogarth, "The Second Stage of Cruelty"

In her recent book For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement (see below), Kathryn Shevelow uses the anti-cruelty engravings of 18th-century artist William Hogarth as one example of the ways in which ideas about class shaped early English efforts at protecting animals from cruelty. In the world of Hogarth’s engravings, it’s working-class people who are most often shown tormenting animals: he depicts a cart driver savagely beating a horse, a rough-and-tumble crowd chasing after a bull with sticks, and urchins torturing dogs on the street. Hogarth certainly also believed that the members of the upper class could be guilty of cruelty—but it’s telling that he chose to focus on depicting acts of violence against animals perpetrated by poor people, rather than by (say) noblemen on a fox hunt. Later in her book, Shevelow points out that early efforts at legislating against animal cruelty were likewise aimed squarely at pursuits favored by the lower classes. Sport fox hunting wasn’t banned in England until 2002; but bear-baiting came under consistent attack early in the 19th century. Conservative legislators who opposed animal cruelty legislation frequently (if disingenuously, as very few of them could honestly claim to have the best interests of the poor at heart) argued that such bills should not be passed because they unfairly targeted the working class. Why forbid bear-baiting, cocktossing, and the abuse of draft animals, but not fox hunting or other bloodsports favored by the elite? Animal protection advocates were thus painted as inconsistent, hypocritical classists and elitists whose real objectives had less to do with protecting animals than with looking down their noses at the behavior of ordinary people.

Reading these centuries-old arguments, I was struck by how similar they are to one line of argument commonly applied today in opposition to the adoption of many environmentally-friendly practices. The argument typically goes something like this: organic food is expensive, a luxury item accessible only to those elitist latte-sipping, NPR-listening liberals who have enough money and leisure to worry about such things. Or: hybrid cars aren’t really about protecting the environment; they’re about proving that you’re better than your poorer neighbors who can’t afford them. I find this kind of reasoning maddening, but also somewhat difficult to counter, because it does contain more than a grain of truth. Many well-off liberal environmentalists are, indeed, elitists who hold themselves superior to the masses because they buy hybrids or organic food (or fair-trade coffee or what have you); and many of them do, indeed, fail to consider that many people simply can’t afford to buy environmentally-friendly household goods or adopt green lifestyle practices. In many respects, being green is a privilege available only to the well-off and well-educated.

But of course that in no way changes the fact that organic produce (for example) is better for the environment than its conventionally-grown equivalents—and it’s telling that this kind of argument often comes from the mouths of conservatives, who in some cases are no more likely to be true champions of the poor than was an 18th-century British lord. Self-satisfied elitism is obnoxious, and people should be called out on it—but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the genuinely environmentally-friendly practices and products that elitists have sometimes been among the first to adopt. Rather than condemning people who buy a hybrid or an organic apple for their elitism, we should ask the question of how we can make hybrids and organics affordable for everyone. And surely if most people can’t afford to adopt environmentally friendly practices, it’s that much more important for those who can afford it to do so.

Further, the onus is on people in positions of privilege to do whatever they can to help the rest of the world catch up. One current example: instead of complaining about developing nations’ failures to adopt more stringent carbon dioxide emissions standards, rich nations ought to be putting their financial and technological muscle behind efforts to make green practices more practical and affordable everywhere on earth. Again, Shevelow’s book offers a relevant example. When animal cruelty legislation was finally passed in 1822, it forbade the abuse of horses, donkeys, and other animals that were frequently employed in the everyday working lives of England’s poorer citizens. The legislation’s chief sponsor—a charismatic and eccentric Irish aristocrat named Richard Martin, who was famed as a duelist in his youth and who was known to switch between a rich populist brogue and a refined upper-crust accent as the occasion warranted—was known to actually patrol the streets in order to catch Londoners in the act of abusing their animals. More often than not, the men Martin brought to court were poor—but, recognizing this fact, Martin would often pay the fines levied against the very person he’d testified against moments earlier, just so long as he felt assured that they’d learned their lesson and would not abuse any animals in the future. Martin recognized that the point of his legislation wasn’t to make poor people pay fines; instead, it was to prevent animals from being abused, and he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make certain that this end was actually served.

Martin’s behavior here is a bit uncomfortably paternalistic for my tastes—any contemporary model for change really ought to incorporate solutions that empower disadvantaged people to work to address the roots of their concerns. But regardless, people in positions of privilege do need to be keenly aware of the ways in which their own practices and goals might place economic or other pressures on other people. To extend the comparison further, here’s Shevelow on Hogarth:

The audience Hogarth could and did reach comprised middle- and upper-class people who, though they might not have acknowledged it, shared culpability for tolerating such cruelty and often benefited from the overloaded wagon or whip-driven stagecoach. These were also the people who were positioned by class, education, and income to create and support a reform movement dedicated to seeking recourse in the law.

Even if you’re not holding the whip yourself, the chances are very good that you are contributing to the abuse, and so it’s up to you to take the necessary steps to promote positive change.

Solnit on the Olympics and politics

The always-wonderful essayist Rebecca Solnit (who I’ve written about here several times before) has written a fine new article on the Olympics and politics for the latest issue of Orion Magazine.

In the article, Solnit examines the relationship between athleticism, nationalism, and politics, arguing that the Olympics’ “no-politics” rules do not so much remove politics from the Games as reinforce the politics of the status quo. Solnit writes:

The athletes’ bodies are relentlessly particular, concrete, personal, and tangible: the reality of flesh, of heart, of effort, of this tense face, that muscled arm, that DNA, and that training and determination. This is why it’s so peculiar that the Olympics suspend these bodies in an abstracted superstructure of nationalism, as though this feat of balance really had something to do with Austria, that burst of power really represented Japan.

In the Olympics, the individual athlete becomes a representative of national identity—the “public face” or “mask” of a nation. We’re asked to forget that the vast and awesome spectacle of the Chinese games comes at a great cost, and that for every Olympic athlete who is celebrated, there are thousands or millions of other people who suffer in repression and poverty. Solnit goes on:

It serves the nations of the world to support the exquisitely trained Olympian bodies, and it often serves their more urgent political and economic agendas to subject other bodies to torture, mutilation, and violent death, as well as to look away from quieter deaths from deprivation and pollution. In the struggles for land and resources—for Chinese control of Tibet, and for the petroleum fields of Sudan and the timber and mineral wealth of Burma—bodies are mowed down like weeds. The celebrated athletic bodies exist in some sort of tension with the bodies that are being treated as worthless and disposable.

I’ve been enjoying watching the Olympics this summer—I’ve been astounded and amazed again and again by the remarkable feats of athleticism that I’ve witnessed, and on a number of occasions I’ve found myself on my feet and cheering for great performances. But at the same time, I share Solnit’s discomfort with the political context of the Games. I’m disturbed by the stories of children being taken from their families at the age of three to begin training to become a world-class gymnast, and by the simple and obvious fact that athletes from rich countries (and those who can train in rich countries) are the ones who succeed at the Games, whereas athletes from poorer countries win medals much less frequently. I’m also troubled by the complete absence of any images of China’s millions and millions of poor people, and by the general silence of the television commentators on the ways in which so much about China has been carefully hidden in order to present a proud and cosmopolitan face to the world. There’s much to be said for the Olympic vision of international athletic competition as a means to unite the world; but I think the Olympics can’t really take credit for fostering international cooperation if the only means by which they can achieve it is to put on such a dramatic spectacle that we momentarily ignore or forget all that environmental degradation, political repression, poverty, and war.

Hip-hop scholarship

Pitchfork TV has produced an excellent new documentary on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, complete with new interviews with Chuck D and the Bomb Squad (among others). The full documentary (presently available as a special presentation on the Pitchfork site) has three parts, and all are well worth watching, but I was most fascinated by the second (which unfortunately I cannot embed below, due to restrictions on the use of Flash video put in place by WordPress).

In the second part of the documentary, the members of Public Enemy discuss the expert knowledge and painstaking labor that went into crafting the music on It Takes a Nation, describing how their intimate familiarity with thousands of records gave them the ability to choose the perfect samples and sounds to use in order to achieve their musical and thematic objectives. Crate-digging on this level is not only an art, but also a kind of scholarship: it’s a matter of sifting through countless hours of material from the past, building on what came before in order to infuse new work with a greater depth of cultural meaning.


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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