The Strange Intersection of Musicians and Politicians

We have a strange political system here in America, where we have managed to turn elections into multi-year affairs.  A lot of this is the fault of the media and especially 24-hour cable news networks, which have to find something with which to fill their airtime, and incisive policy discussion ain’t gonna cut it.  As a result, we end up with breathless coverage of every single appearance that a “candidate” may make, followed by countless pieces which attempt to either present us with straight-up bullshit or worse, find a unique bullshit angle to discuss the bullshit.  No, I am not a cynic.

One such example is this recent piece published in the New Republic concerning music played at political rallies.  There have been several instances over the years where artists have asked candidates to refrain from playing their music, with several providing cease-and-desist orders and threatening other legal action.  The author of this particular piece pleads with these musicians to stop engaging in this practice, and in the name of bipartisanship allow their music to be played without regard to the candidate’s politics.

To this I say: Fuck no.

The author makes a very simple mistake in his argument, and that is to confuse a candidate’s personal taste with his or her professional work.  Simply put, when music is played at a rally, there is an implicit connection made in the minds of the audience between the artist and the candidate.  This is not unintentional–the music is selected to convey a particular message, so there is definitely a level of forethought to the presentation that exists beyond “the candidate likes this song.”  And just as it is the case in film and television, an artist has the right not to associate his or her work with a candidate.  Few would argue that an artist must comply with a filmmaker’s demand or an advertiser’s wishes to include a particular song, so why would one assume that a politician should be able to use a song without regard to the wishes of the artist?  That is part of the protections offered by copyright, and a musician should certainly be able to defend that right.

Squishy notions of bipartisanship should not play a part in the decision at all; it may be that the vast majority of examples of refusals may be against Republican candidates, but an individual musician is under no obligation to make up for the gap when their politics are entirely diametrical.  Survivor had every right to be pissed when their megahit “Eye of the Tiger” was used as the soundtrack to the recent rally for Kim Davis–they would much rather have their song associated with the triumph of Rocky instead of affirming the beliefs of a bigot.  If it means that more conservative candidates have to lean on country cliches, that says more about the current sad state of the genre than anything else.

The editorial was on the right track when it discussed the intrusion into the personal lives of candidates; Springsteen does come off as a dick in his interactions with Chris Christie.  If the candidate can separate personal and professional lives in meeting with a hero, the artist should be able to do the same.  I have no doubt in the sincerity of various politicians when they profess their love of certain bands–even though Paul Ryan’s budgets make it seem like he has never listened to a word that Rage Against The Machine has said, he would not be alone in ignoring the content of their message.

Oh, and just because Neil Young wrote “Rockin’ in the Free World” as a protest against the policies of President George H.W. Bush, that does not mean Young should allow it to be used by a competitor against Bush’s son.  Everything that Young said about Bush goes ten-fold against Mr. Trump.


I Cannot Believe I Have To Defend Taylor Swift

Most of the time, I find it rather easy to avoid any and all news related to Taylor Swift.  It is not a problem at all to simply skip over any headlines related to Ms. Swift whenever they pop up in my various social media feeds, and in my limited excursions into the outside world there is little risk of being bombarded with her music.  Most importantly, since the only music videos anyone watches these days are the ones that they select for themselves via YouTube, it would only be my own damn fault if I ever watched the latest video from T-Swizzle.  At least, I thought that was the case.

A couple of days ago, a friend shared a story from NPR entitled “Taylor Swift Is Dreaming Of A Very White Africa”, and that headline was apparently enough for me to end my loose embargo against clicking Swift-related links–all it takes is to accuse the world’s current reigning pop star of being racist, or at the very least ignorant.  As I read the article, it became apparent that the piece was an incoherent mess, and that thoughtful analysis was merely a secondary concern–it is not a good sign to see someone cite Lawrence of Arabia as an example of romanticizing colonialism, since that seems to indicate the only contact one has with the film is seeing its poster.  I had to see for myself how Taylor Swift managed to do such a poor job of portraying Africa.

[ponders whether the authors of the article even have the capability of sight]

It is clear that the two authors were so quick to grab their Jump To Conclusions Mat that they neglected to realize that the video is not even close to depicting a couple in colonial Africa, but is instead depicting a romance between actors on a film set during Hollywood’s Golden Age.  There is not even the beginning of an attempt to depict life in Africa, which is the primary concern of the authors; instead, it is the twice-removed setting of the typical Swift-ian failed romance.  I guess if we got rid of the limited context of the story in the four-minute video and ignore the entire easy-to-follow narrative, one could say it is a depiction of colonial Africa, but this seems like a lot of effort to expend only so one could get outraged.  The question then is why do so at all; life is too short for that nonsense.

As someone with a closer connection to colonialism than most*, I am usually willing to join the bandwagon on bashing any such depictions.  However, it is pointless to pick such battles when there is no reason to engage in one, as is the case here.  There may be a valid case in arguing that maybe Swift should try to expand beyond the typical jilted-lover storyline, or perhaps pursue a feminist-based critique and maybe ask her the question of why her “wildest dreams” involve only the hoariest of romantic cliches.  These problems are much more related to what is actually contained in the video.  If anything, the most controversial bit of misrepresentation in the entire video may be using the marquee of the Schnitz in Portland to stand in for Hollywood.

The authors do have a legitimate concern with the way that African life has been depicted in Western culture, but a silly video with only a minimal tangential connection to the continent is hardly the most appropriate target of their ire.  This kind of manufactured controversy should not have to rise to the level of a formal response from the director to explain the basic storyline of the video.  It may get people’s attention, but there is danger that when readers go through and assess the critique that they will be turned off by the message if it is done in such a slipshod manner.

If you don’t believe me, look no further than the fact that this terrible argument prompted me to write a defense of an artist for whom I could not care less.

*My father was born in a British colony, and the political struggles that came about as a result were a significant part of his youth and shape his homeland’s politics to this day.

The Wilco File, Part 2

In Part 1 of our examination of Wilco’s discography, we began with a look at the origins of the band and finished with an analysis of their biggest commercial success.  Today, we take a look at the second half of Wilco’s career, as they emerge from their tumultuous early years and solidify into one of the most consistently riveting live acts in the country.

A Ghost Is Born Though Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would ultimately prove to be a high point for the band, the process took a toll on the group.  As the band dealt with the external difficulties that arose from their record label troubles, the group was also once again experiencing internal struggles, culminating with the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett.  In addition, Jeff Tweedy was coping with an addiction to painkillers stemming from his chronic migraines, which would affect the promotion of YHF‘s follow-up.

My entry point into Wilco was A Ghost Is Born, so I have always held it in higher esteem than most, but I still insist the album represents the band’s creative peak.  The band’s sonic explorations had a more clear focus, and instead of being merely ornamental flourishes, helped support the songs themselves, like the Krautrock-inspired “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”.  The album is loaded with some of the group’s best pure rock songs, from “Handshake Drugs” to “Theologians” to “At Least That’s What You Said”, the last of which features the most scintillating and inventive guitar playing of Jeff Tweedy’s career.  The tour in support of A Ghost Is Born also spurred the creation of one of the greatest live records of all time, Kicking Television, a two-disc compilation that served as an effective showcase of the genius underlying that album.

Sky Blue Sky With their record label situation fully resolved and a lineup finally settled, Wilco decided the time was right to relax a bit, and the result was the release of the laid-back Sky Blue Sky.  It is the ultimate lazy summer album, perfect for unwinding with a beer after toiling under the hot sun mowing the lawn, though chilling after engaging in hard labor is hardly necessary for enjoyment.  This is around the time when the band began to be tagged with the derisive label of “dad rock”, and though it is somewhat accurate in reflecting the nature of the music, it need not be taken as an insult.  Sometimes, the mood is just right for easygoing jams like “Either Way” or “Side with the Seeds”, though Sky Blue Sky does feature the most epic guitar jam of the group’s career, with the three-headed attack of “Impossible Germany”, led by Nels Cline’s impeccable lead playing.

Wilco (the Album) The band continued to mine the same vein of Sky Blue Sky with the release of Wilco (the Album), a record that at the time seemed like a fine addition to the Wilco catalog but has come to be regarded as one of their least essential recordings.  Cuts from the album have for the most part disappeared from the band’s setlist, and while there are several pleasant moments scattered throughout (ranging from the soaring “One Wing” to the beautiful “Everlasting Everything” to the restless “Bull Black Nova”), it rarely leaves a lasting impression on the listener.

The Whole Love Wilco switched gears with the wide-ranging and adventurous  The Whole Love, which saw the band scratching that itch for the experimental for the first time in years.  For the first time since A Ghost Is Born, it seemed the band decided to challenge themselves, an intention that is clear from the outset with the multi-part opener “Art of Almost”.  In addition, Wilco prove that they still have a playful side, as seen with the bouncy “Dawned on Me” and the goofy “I Might”, and that they are not afraid to cut loose, as they do with the boisterous “Standing O”.  In many ways, The Whole Love served as a perfect encapsulation of all facets of the Wilco sound.

There you have it.  Oh, because everyone likes lists, here is the definitive ranking of Wilco albums, which also doubles as a handy step-by-step guide to working through their back catalog.

  1. A Ghost Is Born
  2. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
  3. Summerteeth
  4. Being There
  5. The Whole Love
  6. A.M.
  7. Sky Blue Sky
  8. Wilco (the Album)

The Wilco File, Part 1

Last Friday, Wilco released their ninth studio album Star Wars in a more tangible form than “downloadable files”.  We already published our review of their excellent new record, but there are probably several readers who may have been intrigued by what they heard in Star Wars but have yet to take the plunge into Wilco’s extensive back catalog.  Sure, the band helped simplify the process a bit by releasing the greatest hits collection What’s Your 20?, but a compilation only gives you a partial glimpse of the evolution of the band.  So we are here to provide this handy guide to the Wilco discography, broken up into two easily-digestible halves.

A.M. In order to understand the poor reputation of Wilco’s debut album, one needs to know the circumstances of its creation.  Wilco was formed after the breakup of the beloved and influential underground alt-country act Uncle Tupelo.  Tensions had been simmering for a while and came to a head just as Uncle Tupelo was breaking into the mainstream, and irreconcilable differences between the two primary songwriters resulted in the group being split into two bands.  Jay Farrar formed Son Volt, while the rest of Uncle Tupelo lined up under Jeff Tweedy to form Wilco.  The initial critical consensus was that Jay Farrar, who wrote the bulk of the material for Uncle Tupelo, had the stronger debut with Son Volt, and Tweedy’s group suffered in comparison.

However, when you separate the album from the drama that surrounded its release, A.M. holds up much better.  Without those expectations of living up to Uncle Tupelo’s past work, one can enjoy the record for what it is: a light and fun country-tinged rock album.  The band keeps the song structures simple and the tone is very playful, and the inclusion of some of these early songs in recent setlists has been a pleasant surprise.  Those connoisseurs of fine taste, Beavis and Butt-head, knew what was up.

Being There Critics were quick to dismiss Wilco after A.M., but they were quick to reverse themselves when the group released Being There, one of the few double albums that actually works as a double album.  Being There hints at the direction the group would take in subsequent albums, with its shift to a more serious and melancholic tone.  The album also marked Wilco’s beginning into more experimental production touches, most notably their initial forays into incorporating noise and other similar elements into their songs, as can be heard with the opener and audience favorite “Misunderstood”, a relatively straightforward three-chord ballad that is marked by little details like an alarm beeping in the background as well as the big noisy crashes that interrupt the flow of the song periodically.

The division into two discs makes sense from a sonic perspective, with the first disc primarily composed of upbeat rockers with the second one focused on more acoustic numbers.  Though the entire album could fit onto a single disc, the split helps prevent the listener from becoming overwhelmed in attempting to listen to eighty straight minutes in one sitting, and allows the listener to choose a side that more appropriately reflects the mood.  It is a testament to the balance of Wilco’s sound that each disc is qual in quality.

Summerteeth After earning plaudits for Being There, Wilco decided to cut loose a bit and go in a poppier direction, a decision that caused a split with the group’s fans at the time.  Summerteeth is a bright, lush album filled with huge arrangements and a sparkling production that allows all the musical layers to shine.  The album moves at a brisk pace, but the peaks represent some of the best work that Wilco has done in their career, including the groovy “Can’t Stand It”, the driving “A Shot In The Arm”, and the ebullient “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)”.  Still, amid all the happiness, the record is probably best known for the stark, bleak “Via Chicago”, with its memorable opening line “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me” and its several band freakouts.  In the middle of all that turbulence, however, there is still that incredible descending melodic hook that persists throughout and drives the song, summing up the theme of the record.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Considered by many to be Wilco’s masterpiece, the album was close to never being released at all, as documented in the film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.  The initial rejection by the band’s label seems quaint now, with its reputation as an anti-commercial record seeming overblown as the years have passed; the fact that Reprise did not think it could sell the record based on pure pop songs and ready-made singles like “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” says more about their own skills than anything.

However, there is the faintest hint of merit to the label’s concern, as a lot of the songs are gussied up with unnecessarily bracing production flourishes.  These random elements obscure some of the most gorgeous and eloquent songwriting of the band’s career, though it was their clear intent.  It is an album that is meant to be off-putting on the first few listens, but the hints of what lay underneath the surface are enough to entice closer inspection.  Live editions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tracks help strip away some of the artifice to reveal the heart of the songs themselves, and may be a better entry point into the record, but when one gets comfortable with the material, it is easier to appreciate all those extraneous touches.

Requiem For A Radio Station

As one of those Luddites who still has not gotten on the streaming bandwagon, I still care about what happens in the radio industry.  And before you think otherwise, I am not even talking about that new-fangled satellite radio, but terrestrial FM radio.  Part of this may be the result of sentimentality, due to my years in the industry working as a DJ and music director, but this is mainly because FM radio is still a consistent part of my daily life.  Whenever I drive anywhere, my first instinct is to switch on the radio, fiddle through my presets, and then put the car in gear as the appropriate soundtrack for the journey plays.  There is a CD loaded into the stereo for backup, but mainly my interest is in hearing a mix of songs that either are not in my collection already or would not immediately come to mind for me to select.  I have enough trouble selecting an album for every jog and trip to the gym, so it is a welcome relief to not have another situation where I need to shuffle through my extensive musical library.

One of the few perks of living in Salem is that while we are in the middle of nowhere, we are within driving distance in all directions of somewhere.  In this particular case, we are smack-dab in the middle of both the larger Portland and Eugene markets, which means that as I drive around town I can choose between two sets of radio stations.  Even within just a smaller spectrum of alternative/rock radio, this meant at least four stations from which to choose.  However, that number is slowly dwindling.

Recently, KFLY in Eugene abruptly switched formats, from a hard-rock playlist to a…I have no fucking clue, the robot programmer has decided to not give a shit about genre and just play whatever is available.  The worst part about the situation is the way the corporate overlords handled the situation, as they simply fired the entire staff of KFLY without warning.  For two weeks, listeners had no idea about the behind-the-scenes drama, as KFLY simply played reruns of old shows, a common tactic during the summer.  This situation is reminiscent of another recent incident, when KUFO in Portland was converted from a hard-rock station into an right-wing all-talk station, with a lineup of only nationally-syndicated shows.  At least we have the small consolation that KFLY is still playing music.

However, neither of these situations compare to the first time I encountered a format change.  When I was a young kid growing up in Louisiana, my favorite radio station was an alternative rock station called “The Tiger”.  Listening to The Tiger was an essential part of my morning routine, as well as the soundtrack to homework in the afternoon.  I remember one morning when I turned the radio on after taking a shower, only to hear the familiar strains of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” coming through my speakers.  Sure, this was strange, but The Tiger had done promotions before where they would play whatever song people would want for a fee to be donated to charity, so my first assumption was that they were in the middle of conducting another charity drive.  I had to leave for school before the song finished, so I could not confirm my suspicion.  However, when I returned from school that afternoon, The Tiger was playing another classic rock song.  The same with the next day, the day after, and every week until I left town.  I was heartbroken; it was almost as if a good friend had left without saying goodbye.

I still fucking hate Led Zeppelin to this day.

Ruminations on a Weezer Show

In our coverage of Project Pabst last week, we included a brief review of Weezer’s set in our recap of the festival.  However, I wanted to take some time to discuss the ambivalence that I felt as the time for their headlining set approached.  Why did seeing a band that I once loved so much fill me with such dread?

Weezer has had a long and successful career, to the surprise of many–they’ve now released nine albums over the course of twenty years, which is rather astounding considering many believed the band would have folded after the commercial failure of their second album.  There is a whole new generation of fans that have pledged their undying support for the band and have helped maintain the band’s place as a festival headliner; many of these fans had not even even born yet during the time that the devoted message board community in the late-90’s were keeping the spirit of the band alive.  These younger fans probably have no idea why many of the band’s initial followers long ago ditched Weezer.

Much as it pains me to say, I am one of those who sits on the “wrong” side of the generational divide, metaphorically screaming at the young kids to get off my lawn.  In my eyes, Weezer released two perfect albums, followed it with a passable comeback attempt, followed by an underrated and overlooked record, and then several steaming piles of shit.  The Blue Album not only has all those hits that have filled radio playlists for years, but also several other gems of masterful pop-rock that make it a top-to-bottom classic, and Pinkerton was the beautiful mess that turned off the casual fan but whose ragged emotional core thrilled and captured the hearts of the devout ones.  The Green Album and Maladroit each have their merits, but overall they fail to reach the standard of what the band had previously established.

Usually, I am the kind of fan that not only forgives a band for its missteps, but stands up for records that have been treated unfavorably by those who have moved on to the next Hot New Band.  Hell, I am still buying Alice in Chains records after the death of Layne Staley.  It is rare for me to turn my back on a band, but Make Believe caused me to do just that.  I have made it a point to keep the album and transfer the files across several hard drives, only to never listen to it, so I can remember how much I detest the album.*  On its own merits, it is an extremely mediocre set of songs, but more than that it represented that the original Weezer that I had grown up with and loved was gone, never to return.  I remember giving their next effort a chance, and after listening to a stream of The Red Album I decided that I was done with the band forever.  There was no going back, a fact confirmed every time the band would release a new single that would force me to dive for the radio dial.

It was during the Make Believe era, however, that I finally got to see the band in person, and I still have giddy memories of the show.  It was about the best I could have hoped for, with the band hitting the expected highlights of The Blue Album, throwing in some Pinkerton favorites (a recent development, since the band had long had an uneasy relationship with the record), and keeping the new stuff to a minimum.  The band was lively and having fun, with even Rivers loosening up a bit–everybody had a shot at lead vocals for a song, and the guys all had fun switching instruments.

There was no way that Weezer in 2015 could have improved upon that experience, and I did not want to sully my recollections of that show.  Yet I still stuck through to the end, as the band played a strikingly similar set–I got my Blue Album-era stuff, as well as a couple of Pinkerton tracks (including a fantastic version of “The Good Life”), and once again had to endure the same amount of new shit, though in slightly different form.  I may be categorized as part of the “Millenial” generation based purely on my age, but I should not be lumped into the same group of people that cheer as hard for “Back to the Shack” as “My Name Is Jonas”.**

While my initial dread turned out to be misplaced, I still wonder why it is I hold Weezer in such high regard compared to many of their peers, refusing to allow them to change as they see fit.  Much of their new material has much of the same superficial quality of their earlier work, but to me there is something missing.  I want the band that sang about “little ol’ three-chord me” while constructing the musically complex “Falling For You”, or the group that composed the gorgeous instrumental climax to “Only In Dreams”.

I guess I am just selfish that way.

*That sounds like something that should be explained to a therapist

**There were also several fans that cheered along to the absolutely horrid “Beverly Hills”, and I am frightened by the fact that these people are probably allowed to operate motor vehicles

Shining a Light on Shady Journalism

Over the past decade, we have seen the internet become an integral part of everyday life, shaping and affecting not only our culture but many of our professions as well.  This is especially true of journalism, and not only in the traditional cries of how the Web is killing Print.  The very nature of online publishing has changed the way that journalists write stories and how outlets print them; the ephemeral nature of the media promotes a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach, with speed and clicks being the ultimate goal.  After all, pieces and features can be edited seamlessly behind the scenes–with the web one’s mistakes do not always have to live on (at least without an extra bit of detective-work), unlike print.

The question then arises of when is it okay to use the powers of selective editing, especially since it can so often go undetected.  The site RipFork lived up to its name in blasting Pitchfork for their handling of the new album from Sun Kil Moon, after catching their efforts in switching their review.  I encourage you to read their piece, but for those searching for a quick and dirty rundown, Pitchfork clumsily substituted their review of Universal Themes after an incident where Mark Kozelek called out a journalist onstage in between songs, and the fallout left a lot of music critics with a sour taste in their mouths.  In place of a presumably more positive review, Pitchfork ran a review which was less concerned with the merits of the particular album and instead conducted an inelegant meditation between The Artist and The Art.  As a critique of the music itself, it was not much of one.

We have a different philosophy when it comes to editing posts.  Our policy at Rust Is Just Right is to limit the kind of post-publication edits to only correct grammatical errors or make stylistic changes to clarify our points; otherwise, posts remain as written.  We stand by what we publish, and any modifications we make are done purely to better serve the reader.  For instance, we recognized Sun Kil Moon’s previous album Benji as one of the best of the first half of 2014, and we would never dream of going back and altering our decision.*  And to think, we are not even real journalists!

This controversy brought to mind another instance of this issue that I personally discovered.  At some point the site AllMusic substituted their review of My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, switching out one that gave the album a mediocre two-and-a-half stars with a more effusive four-star review.  I had some difficulty tracking down any evidence of the switch, finding only a non-updated reference from Metacritic, and I only knew to search out the discrepancy based on my own memory of the initial review.

The discovery of this swap left me conflicted: on the one hand, I have always felt that AllMusic’s role has been to be that of an objective reference source, so I appreciate that the new review reflects the critical consensus of the album; on the other hand, we should not discourage opinions that break from the mainstream, and we are all better for reading heterodox assessments, so there is merit to leaving the original review in place.  As much fun as I have with citing the fact that Robert Christgau still thinks In the City is The Jam’s best album and how he despises OK Computer, I respect the fact that he has not kowtowed to the majority and still supports his opinions.  I am not saying we should reward people merely for being stubborn, but I have a begrudging respect for those that stick to their guns.

The best solution then is probably to at least have a policy of transparency–if you change a review, it is incumbent on the publisher to provide a notice to the reader that a change has occurred, and to give an explanation why a substitution was made.  And since we are talking about the internet, it won’t even be a waste of ink.

*It is interesting to me that Kozelek received much more pushback for his comments directed at Snapes than the entirety of his “feud” with The War on Drugs.  With one, he said that a woman whom he never met (he does his interviews through email) wanted to fuck him after she crossed a line by interviewing his family, and the other he over a series of months directed vitriol to a band with whom he had minimal contact, culminating in recording a song entitled “War on Drugs Suck My Cock”.  One was considered a major sin by the music press, while the other was portrayed as mere bickering, despite the differences in degree.

Personally, the incidents with The War on Drugs left a sour taste in my mouth, and I stopped listening to Sun Kil Moon on a regular basis.  This partly explains why we never reviewed Universal Themes ourselves–since we only review records we seek out and purchase, there was no need to go out of our way and publish our own take on the album.  However, if we were professional music critics, rest assured we would actually do our job as professionals and review the album strictly on its own merits.

Why Good Intentions Cannot Overcome Bad Arguments

When writing an editorial, it is imperative to understand your target audience.  The focus should always be on the impressionable middle–there is no need to waste time preaching to those who have already been converted, and there are few reasons to bother trying to convince those who are firmly opposed, so concern yourself with the minds you can change.  Once you have determined your target audience, then it is simply a matter of finding an appropriate hook to grab their attention and then building a case from there.  However, if one constructs an argument that relies on faulty reasoning or poor evidence, all the effort would be for naught; best-case scenario is that the person simply ignores your theory, but if worst comes to worst, the reaction may be so negative that it can push people into the opposing camp.

Pitchfork recently published an op-ed entitled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie,” and it suffers from the typical problems that one would expect from the average flaky Salon thinkpiece.  Though the title is pure clickbait, it is easy to imagine that there is some merit to the claim–one only has to hear Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers pop up every three minutes on the radio to think that the author has a point.  Unfortunately, the evidence offered is so poorly chosen and the supporting arguments are so incompetently constructed that it is difficult to go through the whole thing without attempting to cite contradictory points while you read it.  By provoking such a reaction, the whole thing falls apart before reaching the desired conclusion simply because the support for the premise is built atop a shaky foundation.  How can one agree with the author’s goal when there are so many holes to poke through in the argument?

In fact, the introductory example from the piece was so bad that it had to be redone; originally, there was a discussion about the ethnic backgrounds of the people who appear on the cover art of Belle and Sebastian albums, but once somebody pointed out the error in the author’s assessment, the opening two paragraphs shifted instead focus on a film that the band’s Stuart Murdoch wrote and directed.  Somehow, a coming-of-age film by the leader of a Scottish band is supposed to be representative of an entire genre of music, and the connection is pretty much just assumed by the author because of a particular scene that for some reason the reader is assumed to have watched.  This is not a promising start.

As the piece moves along, it becomes clear that the author has no interest in providing any actual documentation of the assertion that indie rock is white, but that the anecdotal treatment of a few acts tangentially associated with the scene should suffice instead.  It is at this point that anybody who has any familiarity with either the construction of an argument or merely an incidental knowledge of anything related to the sciences should be throwing their hands in the air–if you are going to rely on anecdotes to prove your point, you better make a damn good case about how they represent the greater issue.  The author opts instead to make broad assertions about “whiteness” being the goal and then commit such blunders as citing Major Lazer and Diplo as examples of white co-option, when 1) Diplo is the main face of Major Lazer and 2) the other two members of Major Lazer are minorities.  The half-assed interpretation of lazy reviews of Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors that follows is just icing on the cake (the fact that Graceland is used as a shorthand for Vampire Weekend’s debut album need not be indicative of a racial bias, but instead an easy reference point since it is an album owned by millions, and the “idiosyncrasies” of Dirty Projectors can easily be construed as an acknowledgement of the band’s use of unusual time signatures and eccentric sense of melody).  Any hope that this op-ed can recover is gone at this point, as it devolves into a jumbled mess that contrasts the politics of Indian rappers with riot-grrrl punk for some reason (with an additional oversight of not characterizing Das Racist as rappers), and holy shit this thing has gone completely off the rails.  Once the names of Kathleen Hanna and Kim Gordon are slagged through the mud, the only reaction should be “this is why it is important to understand historical context”–this generation tends to assume that progress is self-evident, and should have occurred already, without understanding the sacrifices that specific people made in previous generations to actually induce change.

This whole article is a complete mess, and there is little in its present form that can be done to salvage it.  If one was actually serious about the issue of race among the participants of a certain genre, then it would be best to actually provide some numbers and some definitions, so we can know roughly what percentage is “white” and what exactly constitutes “indie rock.”  For instance, would Alabama Shakes count as indie rock, since they first got airplay on a lot of alternative rock stations?  Decisions like that one would seriously affect any potential analysis.  Once those ground rules are set, then one can go and look at connected issues, such as whether white bands get different treatment than other non-white bands.

There are several counterexamples that one could easily identify: TV on the Radio, Bloc Party, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, The Thermals, Yuck, Deerhoof, and The Shins all feature members who are minorities, and if you open up the criteria to include other underrepresented groups, like women and gays, you will find many more examples.  These are some of the biggest groups in the indie scene from this century, and if you look further back to groups like Soundgarden and the Dead Kennedys, you can find even more.  The question then becomes what is exactly the problem.  Are there other indie bands that are not getting the same attention?  Are musicians not doing enough to encourage minorities to go into the genre?  Are other genres affecting the demographic breakdown?  Or how about trickier considerations, such as should a band be denounced for “co-option” for looking beyond its own insular background by incorporating diverse music and themes from other cultures, when it could easily face just as much flak for going in the opposite direction by only working within a narrow subset of a particular genre?

All of those would be more worthy considerations.  Maybe someone should publish a follow-up that actually contemplates these problems.

Viet Cong and Free Speech: A Defense of the Offensive

Viet Cong is in the middle of a tour in support of their much-buzzed, occasionally brilliant debut album, but experienced a minor problem when one of their scheduled stops was cancelled by the promoter.  Oberlin College was set to host the band this upcoming Saturday but this last week announced that the show will be cancelled because of the band’s name.  Or, to put this in another way: months after negotiating a contract with the band to perform a show, the students who booked the show suddenly felt that they could not host a band with a potentially offensive name, even though the reference from said band’s name was immediately apparent to anyone.  The meaning of the name “Viet Cong” did not change in the past few months, but Oberlin’s reaction to it certainly did.

To a certain extent, I can understand the weariness of the promoter.  Having taken numerous history courses in high school and college that included the Vietnam War in its curriculum, I was well aware of the exploits of the Viet Cong and was initially skeptical of the group purely because of its poor choice of a name. Eventually I reconsidered, mainly because as a music fan and as someone who grew up with punk rock, I’ve long been accustomed to offensive names and never let that stop me from enjoying their music.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to have never listened to the Dead Kennedys or Gang of Four or Joy Division or New Order, and to possibly have been stopped from hearing their music because of their potentially offensive name is as asinine a reason that there could be.  Hell, I imagine most people only learned what the term “Joy Division” refers to after they heard it was controversial, highlighting the fact that people can use controversy to educate themselves; at the very least, it makes the audience think about what a name means and what it can represent.

Here, I’ll let Tony Wilson explain in a more eloquent and condescending manner:

The video should be cued up to the appropriate spot, but if it isn’t, fast-forward to the 2:42 mark*

Offensive band names are part of a larger discussion that we should be having about free speech in our society.  As an artist and as someone who appreciates art, I will almost always err on the side of caution in protecting free speech; we are richer as a culture and as a society when we have a free exchange of ideas and philosophies, and often that involves the discussion of potentially harmful or dangerous concepts.  This is especially true in art, where we explore certain concepts and theories from all angles to better understand the human condition, but often music is held to a different standard than other forms.  We don’t think twice when we see violence and other evils on screen, but if someone raps about the same thing, it’s time to protest.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of this problem is that this principle of free speech is being attacked from both the right and the left.  I’m sure there would be plenty of students who would be upset if they were prevented from offering commentary that attacks the Catholic church or if they could not discuss the tenets and political underpinnings of Communism, yet they want to prohibit a band from playing a show because it adopted a name of a group that shares the beliefs of the latter example.  There certainly would be protests if a college banned artists that attacked Christian dogma or classes on leftist ideology, as well as they should–college is supposed to be a sanctuary where we can have a free flow of ideas with only the bare minimum of restrictions.  The Dead Kennedys were about as leftist as a punk band could be, but they certainly understood that fascism can come from either direction, as they illustrated in “Holiday in Cambodia” and “California Über Alles”.

I understand if there are Vietnamese students who may take offense to a band named “Viet Cong” playing on their campus, especially if many are from families immigrated to America as a result of their actions during the war.  However, attendance to the concert is not mandatory–no one is forcing these students to attend the show.  The aggrieved students could express their displeasure in a variety of ways, from writing tot he band to publishing op-eds in the student newspaper to protesting outside the show itself.  The students make their case and alert others to their concerns, but still allow others to enjoy the show if they so choose.

It’s one thing to complain about the possible offensiveness of the name, but it’s another complaint noted by the promoter that I find far more troublesome, that the name is “appropriative”; it’s not just the fact that the band calls themselves “Viet Cong”, but that it is four white guys from Canada that are using the name.  This specific complaint has become de rigueur in the past few months, and while there are certain contexts where “appropriation” can be an issue, that is definitely not the case here.  When discussing music, “appropriation” is generally applied in a pseudo-intellectual manner as a way to show off knowledge about different cultures, with total disregard for the fact that any form of music is the mix of dozens of genres derived from a variety of settings.  But in reference to band names in particular, it is a particularly galling argument, because 98% OF ALL BAND NAMES ARE “APPROPRIATIVE.”**

NEWSFLASH: If an artist does not identify himself or herself by his/her own name, then they are adopting a persona that is not theirs.  They are guilty of “appropriation.”  In this context, Franz Ferdinand is a group of guys from Scotland, not the Archduke whose death sparked World War I, and we really should not have been expecting the latter to be performing these days.

Let us examine the potential extent of this policy.  Would Oberlin have banned Nirvana from performing since they were not practicing Buddhists?  Would they bar the Wu-Tang Clan from appearing since they are not in fact Shaolin monks?  Would they prohibit the surviving members of The Monkees from performing since they are not in fact monkeys?!?!  And don’t even ask about what Oberlin would do with The Beatles…

Before they became Viet Cong, members of the band were in a previous group called “Women”.  Clearly, they should not have been able to perform under that name since they are in fact guys, but then you have to wonder that if they prevent them from performing under that name there is the implicit conclusion that the term “women” itself is offensive.  It is utter and complete nonsense.

I hope that this incident wakes people up to the potential pitfalls of adopting such a poorly conceived approach to free speech.  While minimal harm was done overall, I certainly hope that the band was compensated despite the fact they weren’t able to perform, since Oberlin breached their contract in such a dubious manner.  Of course, venues are free to book whomever they like, and are under no obligation to hire a specific band for any opening that they have, but once an agreement is made the venue cannot back out for such a questionable reason.  I wish that I was able to hear Viet Cong’s initial reaction for myself, but despite receiving dozens of emails a day alerting me to shows in the area I was unaware that they performed at Mississippi Studios just a few nights ago.  Unfortunately, I feel this will not be the last time that we will be having this discussion, but until then, don’t stop yourself from listening to a band just because they have a terrible band name, even if they don’t have a good reason why they chose it.

*That’s Rob Brydon interviewing Steve Coogan in the clip, which should delight fans of The Trip films/series.

**This is a conservative estimate.

A Defense of Live Music, Which Is Apparently Necessary

A few weeks ago, we linked to a piece from Talking Points Memo that featured the inflammatory headline “Face It, Live Music Kinda Sucks.”  As expected, the article does not improve from its initial comparison that “live music is the grownup birthday dinner of cultural events”, and it certainly does not fulfill its stated promise of providing an “airtight case” of that assertion.  Sometimes an essay can overcome its terrible arguments with some creative and compelling commentary, but there is absolutely nothing in the article that resembles anything that can be construed as entertaining.

Here is a breakdown of the author’s argument: 1). People don’t want to hear bands they don’t know; 2). Musicians can be boring/play for too long/other people suck; 3). Live music isn’t as good as studio recordings; 4). Good bands don’t get booked; 5). People suck and do bad things and somehow this is the result of live music.  This  last part didn’t get its own bullet-point, but was apparently tacked-on at the last minute to score some social commentary points, which is depressing in and of itself–you may have admirable aims in tackling issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of harassment, but if you use a lazy argument it just hurts your overall point, especially if it lacks relevance to the specific issue at hand.  It is completely unproductive, and results in turning off the potentially impressionable as only the converted hear the message.

Even if one ignores the extraneous social commentary, it is not as if the author’s primary arguments have any merit.  For the first point, there is the tautology that the author admits to in his own goddamn article that “nobody likes things they don’t like”, but there is no elaboration of this basic concept.  Sure, it can be annoying to hear crappy opening bands, but for the most part it is rare to hear genuinely awful bands, so maybe it is possible to endure a half-hour of light annoyance in order to hear your preferred choice.  Of course, as rare as it may be, there is always the possibility that you can find a new favorite band from an unknown opener; even if the success rate is rather low in this particular context, it is roughly equivalent to what you would find just scanning the radio.

The second and third points are even more ludicrous.  If you like a band so much that you are paying money to see them live, why would you complain that you may be forced to endure a three hour show?  Most fans appreciate hearing as much of a band’s catalog as possible.  Of course, the solution for someone who thinks that a concert is running too long is rather obvious: leave early.  The other argument has the appearance of some legitimacy, since it is true that there is often a fundamental tension in seeing a band live.  It is a struggle for musicians to satisfy the demand of sounding similar to the studio recordings with which their fans are familiar as well as making the live experience worthwhile by offering a unique experience, but seeing how a musician handles that clash of expectations is half the fun of a live show.  Some bands succeed, others do not, but that is how most things go in life.  However, the fact that the author cites Beck as an example of a musician’s failure to meet those conflicting expectations casts some doubt on his ability to discern as to what makes a good performance; over the years, Beck has done an excellent job of assembling various groups of musicians that do a fantastic job of recreating and reinterpreting his studio albums in a live setting, including during his recent Morning Phase tour.

The final point is just dumb, and is undercut by the author’s own admitted shittery.  Congratulations, you were able to book shows despite the fact that your band was terrible (and judging by the photo you submitted for this piece, I have no problem believing this to be the case).  In general, most venues care much more about their bottom line and simply will not book bands that fail to bring in an audience; half-assed sociological assessments do not usually enter into the picture.  Good work on earning a few hundred bucks here and there by putting on a terrible performance, Mr. Kennedy, but there is a clear reason why we in the public at large have never heard about your musical exploits.  Despite the fact that you didn’t give a fuck about your audience, it doesn’t mean that most bands follow your model.  I have seen Of Montreal perform a gig for dozens in a basement bar in rural New Hampshire and play a sell-out show for thousands in New York City, and they played with the same gusto and enthusiasm for both shows.  In other words, there’s a reason why they are the ones that still have a musical career.

Related to this discussion is the recent questions asked by some about the relevancy of live albums.  It is difficult to think of a less vital position to take, considering that if you do not believe in the endeavor of creating a live album for fans you can choose to simply not to buy the album–it is not as if the existence of these albums crowds out the market for other non-live albums.  But the answer is simple: fans find value in these recordings.  At their most basic level, live albums benefit from the extra energy that infuse the performances, from both the musicians themselves and the presence of the crowd; even if the listener is not physically present for the show, there is still some benefit in hearing a live recording because of this factor.

These albums also allow fans to hear exciting new variations of their favorite songs; the studio recordings do not have to be a “finished product”, and bands can tinker and deconstruct various elements and rebuild them into something new.  As an example, with each of their tours Eels emphasizes different parts of their sound and offer intriguing new takes on their songs, whether it be fuzzed-out rock on Electro-Shock Blues Show or delicate ballads on With Strings.  Live albums also offer fans the chance to hear amazing displays of musicianship and improvisation; there are those that are content with hearing one version of Pearl Jam’s “Black”, but there are thousands of others that enjoy hearing Mike McCready create different beautiful solos with each performance.  Plus, there’s always fun in hearing particularly memorable stage banter that a recording might capture, as many Pearl Jam bootleg devotees can attest.

The point is that live music is great any way you find it.  There is no need to be an ass and try to find reasons to hate it.