When this blog was brand-new, I turned off the commenting feature (even though it frustratingly kept saying “Leave a comment” at the bottom of each post because I am inept at CSS) because all kinds of experts tell you to do that so no one can tell how lame your blog is because it has very little traffic and even fewer comments showing up…

Now that eartotheground has a small but steadily growing audience, some of whom have been telling me they want to comment, I have decided as the resident blogtator that it is time to allow comments.  The “Leave a comment” link should work from now on.

Some ground rules, as per usual (consider this my comments policy):

  • Please limit comments to things that contribute to the discussion
  • Don’t gratuitously link to your own blog (relevant links are, however, welcomed)
  • No personal attacks or derogatory remarks based on things like race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religion, and anything similar that I might have left off the list for the time being.  However, please feel free to disagree respectfully with anything I write on its analytical/intellectual/etc merits, or to comment on an artist or musical phenomenon on its social/musical merits.  For example, you can hate on the phenomenon that is “Hip Hop Shabbat” because it is bad music that is being marketed using overt sexism, or you can argue that it is actually the best thing that ever happened to the Friday night liturgy, but you cannot hate on it because the artists are Jewish.
  • Please don’t comment anonymously unless you have a good reason for it–that really bugs me

I will moderate you right off the blog for any violations! and if you say something particularly interesting or that generates a lot of discussion, I will highlight that in a subsequent post.  That’s the best carrot and stick I can come up with, folks.

As always, feel free to email me at listeningtosociety [at] gmail [dot] com, or you can use my personal email address if you know me–shoot me comments, questions, ideas for posts, or let me know if you’d like to write a guest post.

Hottest track this side of the Delaware

So I lied about no new posts until tomorrow.  The camp I’m teaching at is called “Sounds of Nature” and today’s topic was how composers are influenced by nature, specifically birdsong.  Listen to the masterful track my campers (ages 9-11) laid down inspired by various birds they heard, deer noises, and water:

My students’ masterpiece

More questionable Jewish hip hop

The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av starts tonight, so no new posts until tomorrow night at the earliest.  Please note, I think this track is pretty kitschy and awful, but it’s an interesting addition to the religious hip hop discussion.  I now present hip hop for Tisha B’Av:

Sorry about the lack of posts lately–I’ve been teaching at a music camp in South Jersey this week (really cute pics of my students to come, from the Inquirer).  Next week eartotheground will be back on the normal schedule.

“Poker Face” ad nauseam

An email that my good friend David sent yesterday:


Yeah, what.  Why on earth would this be considered a suitable orchestral piece?  It’s DANCE MUSIC for heaven’s sake–I don’t really see orchestra subscribers getting nasty in the aisles of the Kimmel to this soundtrack (or any other soundtrack, really).

When I first heard “Poker Face,” it really grated on me as I usually don’t like music that is quite so electronically processed (and it was being played EVERYWHERE too).  Also, I thought the latex leggings and Dalmatians were creepy.  At the time I was more aware of the fact that Lady Gaga wears pants as infrequently as possible, and figured that if that was her main claim to fame, she couldn’t put out very good music.

Then I read the Rolling Stone profile (to which unfortunately I can’t find a good link) of her in May, which portrayed her as an interesting person trying to be the next Madonna by revolutionizing how sex is discussed/used/portrayed in pop music.  I don’t know if I buy that she’s on that path yet–the rhetoric around her sexuality and that of her music seems to be “OMG wear pants”/”Wait, she’s bi?” as opposed to anything really fresh–but it’s nice to see someone with a grander project in mind.

But I did run across this acoustic version of “Poker Face,” which shows that Lady Gaga actually has quite a good voice and a command of phrasing that’s better than many people’s.

Interesting what different versions of the same song can reveal.

Torture music

No, I’m not talking about the endless loop of Journey coming from the frat across the street again.  While music is usually a positive thing, unfortunately our military and intelligence agencies have decided to use it against “enemy combatants” in the war on terror.  The Society for Ethnomusicology, the professional association of ethnomusicologists, condemned this practice in 2007.  It took the American Musicological Society (the equivalent for musicologists) until 2008 to get around to taking a stand but hey, better late than never.

It’s been known for a while that American pop music has been projected into battlefields and used in torture chambers to get suspects to crack–both by offending their morals and/or aesthetic taste.  It’s usually part of a more sinister and well-honed torture method (laid out in chilling detail in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, which I’m only now getting around to reading), in which our spooks (or, you know, other countries’ spooks that we subcontract) first deprive prisoners of any sensory input and then flood them with stimulus in the form of strobe lights, electroshocks and loud music.  This causes prisoners to regress to a childlike state, lose aspects of their memories and become extremely vulnerable to the power of suggestion–which is how torturers get confessions out of these guys.

That’s where this list from Mental Floss via the WSJ comes in.  The CIA’s top choices?

1) Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA.” I really don’t like Springsteen either–I think it’s the terrible drum machine.  I hope that doesn’t make me a suspected terrorist.

2) Christina Aguilera, “Dirrty.” Apparently the interrogators chose this one because its sexual content would offend the moral views of some of the stricter Muslim suspects.  I hadn’t seen this video in a while–I forgot about those horrendous assless chaps she used to wear.  Remember when she came on the scene in the late 90s and she was the classy one out of all the teen pop stars (which she kind of is again given the Britney trainwreck)?  Like, my grandma bought me the album with “Genie in a Bottle” on it.

3) Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” I mean, it’s not the greatest song ever, but I don’t think I’d crack after listening to it for a long time (except for maybe that part where the bass line sounds like the bassist is just slowly detuning the instrument…).

4) AC/DC, “Shoot to Thrill” and “Hells Bells.” I dislike AC/DC so much that I am refusing to embed the clips.  Take that, Gitmo.

5) Barry Manilow’s oeuvre (so to speak). I will let this quote from the article speak for itself:

The New Zealand town of Christchurch recently blasted the crooner’s tunes throughout their central mall district to drive away the local punks who had been littering the area with graffiti, drinking in public and doing drugs.

I wonder how it feels to be the entire world’s punchline.

6) Barney the Dinosaur, “I Love You.” Given that 90s nostalgia is apparently au courant right now, just watch this clip and party like it’s 1993 (and you’re at preschool).  Note the dramatic half-step modulation around 0:31.

Like MySpace, but not tacky

My partner Matt (who runs a great transit blog that you should check out) and I were having a discussion just last night about Napster, iTunes, file sharing and the fact that old-school major labels are generally dinosaurs.  We came to the conclusion that artists would start using the internet almost exclusively to distribute their product directly to consumers and that the failure of the big labels to understand this–as evidenced by their quixotic crusade against file sharing–is going to kill them sooner rather than later.

Imagine my surprise when I was clicking through the NYT this morning and found this article (admittedly a couple days old, whoops) about how Radiohead’s manager is setting up ways to do just that.  If this works, I think it’ll be fantastic–a way for artists to retain artistic AND financial control over their own work.

I think it will also eventually weed out a lot of the terrible artists we see that are created and promoted by the major players in the entertainment business (cough, Disney child stars) as they won’t have the drive and hustle to make it work without a significant amount of talent and artistic merit backing them up.

From the article, it seems like EMI is the only major label with the foresight to diversify their business plan enough (by creating a music services division) to adapt to what artists want, so perhaps they’ll survive.  With the high quality of home-studio-type technology and a website, most artists won’t need a label or outside company to do much more than promotion and merchandising (or pressing things like vinyl limited editions), so I think EMI’s move is really smart.

The best thing about all this is that it places the control back in the artists’ hands and will give consumers a lot of access to innovative good music at reasonable prices.  One small step for the music business, one giant leap for listening-kind.

Quick and dirty addition

My friend Zachary Levine, the swashbuckling sports journalist, proposed an addition to the quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery that I thought was apt:

9) Subscribe to the New Yorker even if you understand every third word and every fourth cartoon. This is good because it doesn’t require too much effort to impress your friends–leave it lying around on your coffee table (better yet, your bedside table or desk) and they’ll think you’re great.  Don’t feel obligated to actually read it most of the time; after all, that’s what online media is for: to disguise your lowbrow reading habits.  Just read the occasional Malcolm Gladwell or Alex Ross article to keep up cocktail-party impressions.

Disclaimer: If you subscribe to the New Yorker, I think you–wanting to avoid cultural snobbery in favor of being cultured–should read it (and I think Mr. Levine would agree with me).  I’m not advocating using it as a weapon of highbrow superiority.

Quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery in the digital age

James Wolcott explored the ramifications of digital media on our ability to be cultural snobs in next month’s Vanity Fair (it’s so weird that I can use the past tense to refer to next month’s issue, but you know how magazine print schedules work)–essentially saying that, as our collections of music, film, books, etc. are digitized, we will have fewer and fewer tangible objects to show off to our friends (and potential, uh, romantic partners, as his anecdote about the early Playboy empire shows).  However are we to show our exquisite good taste if we don’t have a collection for our friends to inspect at house parties?

Wolcott suggests that “we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics–our progressive virtues.”  Maybe we’ll do that too, but I think people will always find a way to express their superior aesthetic sensibilities.

Here’s how, at least for music (not in any particular order):

1) Curating the perfect playlist for group listening. What better way to show off your collection than by having your friends listen to it when they come over?  Instead of throwing on the typical party-type songs (if you’re the frat across the street from me, this means an endless rotation of Journey, crunk and Lady Gaga…knock it off already) certain kinds of people will be obsessive about creating mixes that not only set the right mood but also show their superiorly obscure, cutting-edge, and eclectic tastes.  This could be good (maybe the jerks across the street would play something different?) or bad (do you really want to listen to that one friend–we all have at least one of these–blathering for hours about his/her efforts?).

2) Merch. Expect an increase in the number of band t-shirts, posters and other stuff bought and ostentatiously worn/used/displayed by culture snobs.  This tendency may very well extend to strange obsessions such as not washing a concert t-shirt worn in the (tangential) presence of the artist or keeping posters in their original packaging and other weird collector-type behaviors.

3) Increased concert attendance. What better way to show you like an artist than to shell out a lot of money to listen to them live more frequently?  This is clearly not a bad thing in itself, in fact concerts are usually a lot of fun and are much more economically beneficial to the artist than buying their album, so it’s a win-win situation.  Expect the culture snob to talk a lot about each show though and frame or display tickets and/or set lists.

4) A rise in music-subculture-influenced fashion. This is clearly not a new idea, but I think absent other tangible indicators of taste in music people will want to wear it on their bodies if they want to show off what scene they belong to (or, you know, have lined up in their iTunes if nothing else–what’s up, suburban teenagers).  Perhaps styles characteristic of a particular artist or group will be more widely copied or individuals will more strictly adhere to music-genre-based dress codes.

5) Making one’s opinions publicly known via other forms of media. This will certainly include blogging (I won’t snark on this, because I’m uh, writing this on a music-oriented blog) and for the pluckier sorts could even include a column in a newspaper or magazine, or hosting a radio or TV show, including (video) podcasting.

6) Talking about one’s good/diverse/obscure/etc. taste all the time. Yikes.

7) Going old-school and buying tangible media products. Note that vinyl is the fastest-growing category of music sales.  People will do the bulk of their listening on digital, but true culture snobs will have a secondary collection of archaic but better-sounding music technology in order to impress others and hopefully heighten their personal enjoyment.

8 ) Playing music oneself. There’s no better way to appear to know things about music than to be a decently skilled musician.  Even better if you are better than decent.  Get practicing!  This is my favorite option, no sarcasm.  I think it is the best way to inculcate actual knowledge with a minimum of cultural snobbery.

Books are a whole other story.  I wouldn’t be surprised if things like reference books stopped being published in hard copy, but I’m inclined to think there will always be a market for certain types of books (fiction, interesting non-fiction), because people enjoy relaxing with something that looks good, feels nice and has something interesting between the covers, or because certain situations just call for paper books (i.e. cookbooks).

In all though, I think the digitization of media is generally a good thing.  It’s cheaper and easier to produce, faster and more efficient to transport, relatively easy on the environment, and doesn’t take up too much space.  There are clearly drawbacks, as anyone who’s ever lost all their music after a hard drive crash can attest–and more sinisterly, the fact that Amazon remotely deleted books from Kindles this past week after it realized it had mistakenly sold books it didn’t have the proper licensing for.  The technology can be good–but people have to use it the right way.

What I’ve been listening to lately

This is a busy week for me so I’m being lazy and sharing what’s been in my ears lately.  Hopefully I’ll have time for a more substantive post tomorrow.

1)  The Dead Weather, “I Cut Like a Buffalo” from Horehound, which came out last Tuesday.  I rarely buy albums on the release date but I love just about everything Jack White does (except for the Raconteurs, for whatever reason) so I picked this up right away, by which I mean clicked “Download” because waiting in line at a record store is old school and expensive.

2) The Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song” from Hazards of Love because I was cleaning out my wallet and found one of those cards from Starbucks that gives you a free download.  I like the Decemberists but their historicism gets in the way of their music-making, I think.

3) Gossip, “Dimestore Diamond” from Music for Men, mostly because Beth Ditto is, famously, having a moment and I wondered if the music would be affected, and also because Rick Rubin produced this album and I’m always interested to see what he does with a group’s sound.  I think this track is better than the single “Heavy Cross.”

4) Dirty Projectors, “Temecula Sunrise” from Bitte Orca.  I was in Temecula, CA over spring break, celebrating Purim at the local Chabad House with a great group from Penn Hillel.  After the service we had a really amusing discussion with the rebbetzin about vegetarianism–she thought it was totally nuts, essentially because she likes meat.  Chabad has interesting views on vegetarianism anyway…

5) A lot of Socalled as part of my research (more on that later this week).

Hip-hop Shabbat?

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this combination of hip hop and the Jewish Friday night liturgy.  As an artistic project, it’s not the best hip hop or liturgical music that I’ve ever heard, but I can see it appealing to some people.  As liturgy, I’m skeptical.

First, it seems intended more as a gimmick to get people into services than anything else, as opposed to a serious attempt to update the liturgy.  That isn’t the best strategy to build a religious community over the long term; eventually the crowd that’s been there all along will get sick of the gimmick and the newbies will have to adjust to the traditional music, or leave.

People need better reasons to come to services than so-so hip hop every few weeks–they need to feel like the services are meeting their spiritual needs, and that the community is one that they want to be a part of through holidays, board meetings and lifecycle events.  Once the hip hop is gone, if the deeper stuff isn’t there, what’s the point?

Second, even people who could care less about a higher power often come to a synagogue (or any other place of worship, for that matter) to connect with their tradition and to experience the comfort of familiar ritual.  I’m all for updating the liturgy, but it has to be done in a way that has a degree of continuity with the historical tradition.  (Before you get too upset about using pop songs for liturgy, the uptempo melody of “Adon olam” that many of us are used to was originally a German drinking song.)

In the sample “Challah at a Balla” from the Hip Hop Shabbat website, there are fragments of traditional b’rachot, and a smattering of traditional themes from the Shabbat liturgy (“Bo’i kallah” rhyming with “holla,” anyone?).  But most of the track is dedicated to inanities with a faint Jewish flavor (“Don’t mess with my tribe/There’s only one G-d and he’s on our side”…what?), and the whole thing seems like a 52-card pickup of Shabbat iconography.

The final bone I have to pick with these artists is their decision not to use women performers in their upcoming album of the weekday prayer service, Modeh Ani. For my non-Jewish readers, extremely observant Jews observe a halakhic principle called “kol isha,” “voice of a woman,” which forbids a man to hear a woman singing (opinions vary on whether this applies only to solo singing, or to singing when a woman is part of a mixed-gender group) on the grounds that it causes inappropriate sexual arousal.

This clearly limits women’s role in public religious life, including forbidding them from leading religious services, among other things, and in my opinion (and the opinion of most non-Orthodox Jews) is one of the worst manifestations of the pervasive and pernicious sexism found in the Jewish right wing.

Anyway, the guys behind Hip Hop Shabbat are hoping that Modeh Ani will catch on in the observant community, defending their decision to boot women performers by saying, “We are being exclusive in order to be inclusive.”  Exclusive of half the entire Jewish community in order to accommodate  the sexist, backward opinions of the fringes?

Given that the kind of people who observe kol isha are the core group who consistently do weekday services (i.e. the core market for Modeh Ani) it’s more like “We are being exclusive in order to boost sales.”  I’ll always have a problem with kol isha and other similar restrictions on women’s full participation in the Jewish community, but I would have less of an issue with the rhetoric around this particular album if the artists were at least honest about their agenda.

My advice, on both artistic and ideological grounds: this iteration of a hip-hop liturgy isn’t worth your time.  If you’re interested in the idea in general, though, check out The Socalled Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah.  It’s fun to listen to and is a much better-crafted update of the Passover liturgy that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.  Or take a look at Joshua NelsonI especially like his version of “Adon olam” (gospel, not hip hop).

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