From one Jewish hip-hop artist to another…

SoCalled’s 2007 song “You Are Never Alone” and Drake’s recent Sprite commercial, presented without comment except to thank Matt for the heads-up.

Participation, the Wauwatosa casserole brigade, and the notion of gospel brunch

A few weeks back, Matt and I went to gospel brunch at the Chicago branch of the House of Blues.  For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, gospel brunch is exactly that: you go to a brunch event at which a gospel group performs.  I don’t remember how we alighted on this as an option when we were trying to think of a performing arts event to go to, but alight upon it we did, both because we like gospel and because we thought it would be sociologically interesting.

As we made our way up to the near north side, we tried to guess what it would be like, who would be there and how they might react to or interpret gospel.  At first, with no prior knowledge of how gospel brunches work, we thought that the audience might be predominantly black; when we got there, we were surprised to see that not only was the audience predominantly white, but that the audience seemed primarily composed of white tourist types who looked very much like the soccer moms and Lutheran casserole brigade of my hometown, Wauwatosa, WI.  (Not that I’m knocking Tosans–I say this in a loving way!  But, you know, some of my friends like to refer to it as “Comatosa.”)

We waited in the lobby for a long time before we were allowed to go in and sit (which I thought odd); the food was served buffet-style, and was in my opinion pretty darn good although lacking in vegetarian options (unnecessary bacon in things, always so frustrating); and then we all sat down for the show.  The bandleader, of the group William Smith Jr. and the Renewed Voices for Christ, opened by introducing the group and welcoming everyone to the “ecumenical church of…” and listed just about every religion under the sun.  The music was fantastic, in my opinion: they had a mixed choir, a drummer, and an organist; all the musicians were truly excellent at what they did; the arrangements were tight and energetic; the repertoire selection was good, etc.  I bought their CD and have listened to it a couple times.

What I was really interested in was the interaction between the musicians and the audience.  The bandleader was really good about trying to have the audience participate, exhorting us to clap, sway, dance, sing responsorial phrases, and at one point had a couple people come up on stage and mock-conduct.  Here’s where things got awkward.

In my past experience (having a preschool teacher who was an excellent singer and did gospel with us, and doing fieldwork in a Jamaican Pentecostalist church, as well as going to various friends’ churches here and there), gospel is a participatory musical form: although there are designated “musicians” or “performers” in the church setting, everyone joins in one way or another, by clapping, singing along, pulling out a tambourine, dancing, or just active, engaged listening.  Those who raised their hand when the band asked who had been to gospel events before seemed to know this.  Matt and I, the family next to us, and various other small groups scattered throughout the crowd had no problem clapping, waving our hands, dancing or singing as we felt moved.

However, the casserole brigade folks were painfully reticent, to the confusion of the bandleader.  At first I chalked it up to the combination of intercultural awkwardness, perceived lack of musical knowledge on the part of the audience, or the desire to eat rather than participate in the goings-on.

A few days earlier, I had begun to read Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, by ethnomusicologist Tom Turino.  In this book, he introduces a four-part classification scheme for all musical types that I think is really useful: 1) participatory traditions, musics in which there is no distinction between performer and audience, such as, for example, the traditional Andean music that he studies, or Irish session music, and many more; 2) presentational traditions, such as European classical music; 3) high-fidelity recording, or recording that tries its best to capture an audio event accurately; and 4) studio audio art, or recorded music that does not pretend to have any fidelity to acoustically produced sound, such as computer-generated music.

What I realized about the gospel brunch after reading this book is that the very notion of the gospel brunch seeks to use a participation-based tradition in a presentational setting.  In my experience, gospel tends to run along a spectrum of participation: at one end is the model where the entire church participates in singing gospel hymns, a completely participatory experience; in the middle is the setup I mentioned earlier, where there are designated musicians but the churchgoers actively participate in “secondary” ways; and at the more presentational end of the spectrum, commercial gospel concerts where the audience nonetheless is often actively and physically engaged.  This expectation of a participatory experience is what conditioned me and those few others who did clap and sing along at the brunch.

However, Turino also makes the point that, in contemporary American culture, especially urban and suburban culture, the majority of the music we know is presentational or falls into one of the two recorded categories.  The average American musical experience includes attending concerts at which audience participation is somewhat limited (perhaps restricted to cheering or clapping) and purchasing recorded music.  The only participatory moments that many of us have might be at our preferred place of worship or if we happen to be musicians ourselves, which is not terribly common.

I realized that the people who seemed awkward probably came in with the expectation of having a presentational musical experience: the gospel group performs during brunch, and they expect to sit and appreciate it rather than participate directly, as they had probably been trained to do in other musical settings.  The difference between the varied sets of expectations was probably a major cause of the stiffness and tension.

After all, I grew up in the same kind of environment that I am assuming many of these folks came from–so why did I feel comfortable clapping and singing where others might not have?  It seems to me that the answer lies in my particular set of musical experiences, arrived at somewhat randomly: if I had had a different preschool teacher, or chosen not to take the course “Field Methods in Ethnomusicology” during the semester in which it had been decided that we would all do fieldwork in a particular type of church, I would not have known what to do or felt comfortable doing it, given that the majority of my musical training as both performer and audience member has been within the context of the highly presentational tradition of European classical music.

To me, this insight gives some hope.  Rather than attributing the reluctance to participate on the part of the white folks in the casserole brigade to racial issues, or to some inherent rhythmic deficiencies that people joke about white people having,

it’s about our exposure to diverse musical traditions and the communities in which they are embedded that helps us develop ease and comfort with each other and with each other’s music.  Granted, this doesn’t take away the complexity with which these encounters are often fraught, but it does speak to the power of relationship-building, of sustained engagement with the unfamiliar, and of not being afraid to mess up.

I haven’t really addressed here the complex issues of putting historically black musical traditions on display for paying white audiences, a topic that’s highly fraught.  I admit that the situation made me uncomfortable at first, especially because it brought up the specter of gospel tourism, something I’ve previously discussed: the increasing trend of white people going on tours of black gospel churches, gawking at what they seem to consider a primitive spectacle put on for their benefit.  In my previous post, I expressed my belief that learning about new kinds of music is a good thing, and building respectful relationships with members of the communities that make that music is also a good thing, but that objectifying and exploiting people is obviously not.

I would rather have a bunch of white suburban folks pay to go to a gospel event that is designated as a commercial performance–thus ensuring the consent and fair compensation of the performers, and not turning an overtly participatory event into an overtly presentational one–than go to a gospel church as a tourist.  The gospel brunch setup seems more fair.  The House of Blues setup is a space designated for controlled, consensual spectacle, as it were.  In this context, I felt that it was okay.

The final point that Matt and I pondered was, what is the motivation for tourists to come to a gospel brunch?  We went out of curiosity as to how such an event works, and a love of gospel, but we’re not tourists; it was something to do on a Sunday morning in the city in which we live.  We came up with a couple hypotheses:

  • If you’re a tourist, you have to eat on Sunday morning, and why not go to a brunch that also has some music?
  • White Americans have long been both fascinated with and scared of African-American culture, especially music.  Chicago is well-known for its excellence in several musical styles rooted in the African-American musical tradition: blues and jazz, among others.  Rather than going to a jazz or blues club on a weekend evening in a predominantly black neighborhood, which might not be considered “safe,” or a predominantly black church, which offers a very different worship model than your average white Lutheran church, the House of Blues, a corporate chain barely out of the Loop, presents a way of engaging with gospel that feels safer, easier and more comfortable–it’s perceived as just like going to any other concert.

So, in conclusion: stepping out of our comfortable molds is difficult.  People may not know the behavior that is expected of them, or the setting may conflate conflicting sets of behavioral expectations (which I think was part of the difficulty at the House of Blues).  Unfortunately, our society prescribes such rigid racial/ethnic/cultural boundaries that we often have few if any tools at our disposal when we want to try something new, much less build relationships with those who are not like us in one way or another.  On the one hand, an experience like this gospel brunch can reify some of these boundaries; on the other, it’s a better alternative for allowing people to begin to engage with new cultural experiences than gospel tourism.  This is compounded by the fact that American culture does not teach us how to behave in participatory musical settings, such that many people feel awkward and ashamed about their perceived lack of musical ability despite their desire to try to participate.

What could some solutions be?  Nothing simple, I’m afraid.  A true solution would have to encompass a vast and concerted effort to combat the racism that still lingers in our culture, and a similarly large-scale effort to build participatory music-making, and music education, into daily life.  In the meantime, conscious attempts at self-education and relationship-building, in both areas, would go a long way.

Thinking about the “Telephone” video

As anyone with an internet connection probably knows, Lady Gaga (or perhaps more accurately, the Haus of Gaga?) dropped the video for “Telephone,” featuring Beyoncé, last week.

First, take ten minutes of your time to watch it, if you haven’t already:

The narrative of “Telephone,” of course, picks up where “Paparazzi” left off:

First, I’m really intrigued by the prevalence of female musicians who have been victimized by men in a real or imagined way (Rihanna by Chris Brown, Gaga in these videos) turning the tables in a very violent and stylized way in subsequent music videos.  I don’t know that revenge is the best way to solve such issues, but it is nice in a way to see women taking control of the narrative of abuse.

Second, this is the first time I’ve seen such a mainstream music video that includes lesbian desire as such a prominent part of the storyline, especially when it’s clearly not intended for male excitement.  There’s an interesting interview in Out with Heather Cassils, the woman who played Gaga’s girlfriend in the prison yard scene, about queer representation in mainstream media and lots of other stuff.  Along those lines, I was also pleasantly surprised by the range of types of female bodies among the prisoners and guards; that’s also not something you see much of in mainstream media of any type.  (Of course, the real breakthrough will come when body diversity isn’t just to reiterate the dirt and grittiness of a group of people we’re supposed to consider problematic–I look forward to the day when Gaga’s backup dancers and the like represent some kind of diversity…)

Third, the layered references to Kill Bill (pretty overt) and Thelma and Louise (vaguely less overt) both reinforce the woman-scorned-taking-violent-revenge theme.  They also reinforce “Telephone” and “Paparazzi”‘s claim to be something more than a music video: a narrative in their own right with a preordained soundtrack as opposed to just something to look at while the music runs.

That’s what I am most interested in here: the growing independence of the music video.  The videos for both “Paparazzi” and “Telephone” are a far cry from simply being dramatizations of the song lyrics or a dance routine or something gimmicky (hey, OKGo!)–which even the best recent music videos, like Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” can be.

Instead, the visual and aural narratives intertwine in confusing or novel ways–for example, when Lady Gaga’s prison phone call is a lover annoying her while she’s in the club, does that mean we’re supposed to equate prison with a club? the club with a prison? are they at all related anyway? is she just lying about where she is? Any of these narratives, and more, might be plausible, and the banal and conventional lyrics of the song are suddenly much richer for their interplay with the images.

I wonder if a case can be made for viewing complex narrative music videos like “Paparazzi”/”Telephone” as the new form that functions like 18th- and early-19th-century opera: high/low mass art that plays on the themes of the day and spotlights the performer, accessible on multiple levels and a way of displaying technical virtuosity (here, in fashion and video editing) for the delight of the audience.  Pretty exciting that this kind of art now premieres on a web site accessible around the world for only the cost of digital infrastructure (admittedly a barrier to many, but better than buying opera tickets…) and endlessly repeatable.

My thoughts here are admittedly disjointed and fragmentary–just a few initial reactions that bear more dedicated thinking.

Ke$ha, white girl rap and the utility of genre classifications

The other day, Jon Caramanica of the NYT checked out the “TiK ToK” singer’s rap credentials, situating her in a lineage of white-girl rappers from Debbie Harry to Peaches to Lady Sov.  Caramanica argues that, while Ke$ha is a rapper, she’s also a pop artist, and this has larger implications for how we think about blackness, whiteness, rap and hip hop–namely, that while rap and hip hop as genres and musical practices used to be only “black,” now they are so common, pervasive and popular that people like Ke$ha are redefining them as “white,” too.  He places Ke$ha within the burgeoning white-lady-electro-rap trend.

Take a listen to the first bit of the song:

As an aside, I personally think her flow sounds a lot like Fergie’s and wonder why that wasn’t discussed more.  Anyway.

I think it’s obvious to anyone that Ke$ha does, in fact, rap during this song.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call her a rapper per se (and neither would Latoya Peterson over at Jezebel).  Here’s why.

Along with Caramanica, I think it’s pretty clear that rap used to be considered a black-only practice, but is now more culturally acceptable for white people to do (though this is, of course, often contentious).  I also agree that “TiK ToK” has quite a lot of rapping in it but is not a “rap song” per se.  Why?  Because she’s white, she’s female and because it’s being used the way dance-pop songs are used and marketed the way dance-pop songs are marketed.

Latoya Peterson attributes the music business’ classification of Ke$ha as a pop artist as “intentional mis-labeling” that speaks to a larger “fear of [racial] cross-pollination” in musical genres–i.e., hip hop=”black” and pop=”white” and ne’er the twain shall meet.  Which is, of course, the way it was quite explicitly for a long time and still is, implicitly.

I don’t think it’s mislabeling, though.  Rapping per se does not make one a “rapper.”  Just as someone who plays a violin can be a classical violinist, a fiddler, a klezmer, a “trad player,” or what have you depending on the musical scene they’re a part of, someone who raps is not necessarily a rapper.  Because Ke$ha, her handlers, and the musical public don’t attribute to her the other qualities that people generally associate with “rappers”–blackness, maleness, urban poverty, flashy stuff–she’s not a rapper.

This shows why genre classifications are pretty useless much of the time, and can often serve to reify nasty ideas about race, gender, class and all the rest.  When we define a genre as the exclusive provenance as a particular type of person, and censure those who don’t conform as somehow inauthentic, we run into a whole bunch of problems.  The homophobia in hip hop, for example, is connected to constructing that genre as the provenance of macho black misogynist masculinity–which, of course, is not the only type of black masculinity (nor, lots of people would argue, a positive type of black masculinity).

Ke$ha raps, yes.  There are also lots of other influences on her song, just as there are on almost every other song, ever.  Peterson spotlights the myriad ways in which contemporary musicians have crossed the imaginary and rather silly borders of genre in the past couple years:

It is this environment that allows for Lil’ Wayne to cut a rock track like “Prom Queen,” that gives space to hip-hop violinists like Miri-Ben Ari, Sarina, and Nuttin But Stringz, to allow neo-soul crooners like Van Hunt to sing ballads and then thrash on guitars, and have one of the most downloaded albums of the decade be a mash-up between Jay-Z and the Beatles. We are in a world where the K-pop sensation The Wonder Girls can open for the All-American Jonas Brothers, and where traveling DJs take Baltimore House and Baile Funk all over the globe, while artists like M.I.A, Esthero and Nelly Furtado dabble in any and every genre they please.

Genre can be helpful in certain ways, most notably to record labels and music-store clerks who have to organize things.  But given that so many artists so openly acknowledge the diverse influences on their work, and given that the internet and digital media more broadly is giving so many people access to tons of new sounds, why bother forcing people and things into narrow categories?

I’m personally more interested in looking at the many ways in which musicians and listeners are part of multiple communities at the same time, and all of the sources from which they draw inspiration–not policing the boundaries of a small, boring genre box and worrying when things don’t fit neatly inside.

What was really groundbreaking about “Rapper’s Delight”?

Matthew Guerrieri of the Boston Globe argues that the truly original thing about the 1979 hit rap single “Rapper’s Delight” is the fact that it doesn’t have a chorus, that staple of the pop-song form since, he says, the 1840′s, when the blackface group Christy’s Minstrels popularized the chorus.

I’m not buying it.

First, what music scholars call “strophic form“–varied verses alternating with the same refrain, or chorus–goes way back, to medieval European folk songs and perhaps even earlier, or in other places (we have no way of knowing precisely because they weren’t usually written down, or written about).  Since then, plenty of musical forms, from hymns to yes, pop songs to jams to lots of kinds of folk music to the twelve-bar blues have relied on this form.

Christy’s Minstrels may have popularized the use of vocal harmony on the chorus alternating with solo verses in the contemporary United States, but that’s nothing new in the grand scheme of things–this practice was commonplace in many musical traditions, from West African music to responsorial chant in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church.

The really original thing about “Rapper’s Delight” was that Sylvia Robinson and the Sugar Hill Gang found a way to get the new musical style of rap to the mainstream.  While rap had already been around for a while at this point, people were mostly performing for fun and for parties and other events–it wasn’t considered a business opportunity.  Robinson capitalized, not without contention from other folks in the rap scene, on the infectiousness and grassroots popularity of the style and made a hit song, paving the way for people like Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, Diddy, Jay-Z and many other hip-hop entrepreneurs.

“Rapper’s Delight” is a good song, but it’s not that original per se in terms of its form or other aesthetic parameters.  It was truly groundbreaking because of what it represented and foreshadowed: hip hop’s potential as a very lucrative sector of the music business.

Here’s a short clip of “Rapper’s Delight” (it’s really closer to 15′):

Also, I think with a little stretching of the standard rules of formal structure, you could consider “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop, the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie the beat” a chorus of sorts.  Just sayin’.

XXL ranks Jewish street cred; some Jews not happy about it

As you may have heard, hip hop magazine XXL put up a blog post ranking members of the hip hop community with numbers of stars of David per their Jewish street cred.  Some regrettable stereotypes find their way into the article (pickles, money, business skills), but I interpreted it as a tongue-in-cheek rundown of the visibility of Judaism in the hip hop world lately (what with Drake, Russell Simmons’ PSA, and all that jazz).

Others didn’t find it quite so funny.  Carly Silver over at New Voices, a magazine for young Jews, got pretty upset about this (h/t Emma Morgenstern), worrying over XXL‘s use of stars of David as rankings, saying that they’re holy symbols (huh?) and believing that this ranking implies that the magazine is worrying about the role of Jews in hip hop.

I’m not trying to downplay tensions between African-Americans and Jews, and the fact that hip hop has historically been a site of tension and negotiation between black people and white people at times.  And I’m not trying to downplay the fact that many Jews are sensitive to their historical status as an endangered minority.  But let’s take a step back.

First, despite the fact that Silver interprets XXL‘s ascription of Jewishness to certain hip-hip figures as a sign that the magazine doesn’t think they have street cred, Jewishness has long been a way for white people to be more accepted in African-American musical communities.  While Ashkenazi Jews are firmly in the “white” column of America’s racial binary today, this only became true 50-60 years ago–much later than other ethnic groups that we would commonly consider white.  Before that, Jews were for the most part considered nonwhite or “not-quite-white.”  Because of this, Jews generally had an easier time negotiating African-American musical styles, primarily jazz at that point (or musical styles that played on the most pernicious stereotypes of African-Americans, such as blackface).

While Ashkenazi Jews are no longer considered nonwhite in the same way, this engagement with African-American music hasn’t stopped, and many of the social interactions are similar.  Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys, for example, were given a degree of credibility within the early hip hop community in NYC partly because they were Jewish–not the same degree of credibility that black artists had, but more than non-Jewish white artists (or producers, in Rubin’s case).

In a musical culture that’s widely discussed as “black,” Jewish people–and white people more generally–stick out and are considered novelties (despite the fact that “white” people, especially Jews, have been involved with “black” music since the age of minstrel shows, generally on the business end, sometimes respectfully and fairly and oftentimes not).

While I can’t say that XXL‘s commentary was the most tastefully-done article I’ve ever seen, it doesn’t surprise me that the recent high visibility of Jews in hip hop was considered interesting to write about.  And I wouldn’t worry too much about the stereotypes.  While they’re slightly tacky, they’re pretty consistent with the way a lot of publications do rankings and lists.  A lil’ bit racist/(hetero)sexist/classist across the board?  Yeah, probably.  Specifically anti-Semitic?  Probably not.

Lady Gaga “will inspire a movement”

Lady Gaga goes on record with Ramin Setoodeh in this week’s Newsweek with more grandiosity: she’s not a singer, she’s a performance artist, and she “believes in a glamorous life.”  Her VMA performance will be

less of me singing a song, and more of a performance-art installation.

She also

hope[s] to say something very grave about fame and the price of it.

I might have to borrow a TV for this one, kids.

Dodai over at Jezebel breaks down precisely why Gaga’s so intriguing:

You might think Lady Gaga is pretentious, a phony.  But if she is, it’s as someone once said of Holly Golightly: She’s a real phony…She honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes.

That’s absolutely true, even if we’re veering into Holden Caulfield territory.  And that’s why Gaga’s great.

Damning with faint praise

I’m surprised that Jon Caramanica even bothered to review Colbie Caillat and Ingrid Michaelson in today’s New York Times. His ornery review is, however, a refreshing change from most of the hyperbole that’s written about pop.

What Caramanica dislikes most about these artists–that their work is bland and seems destined for a TV show soundtrack–is a telling exposure of a choice that they and/or their labels have likely made deliberately.  Music with that economic power is bland on purpose to make it attractive to a particular market, one that desires unobtrusiveness for one reason or another.

It seems to me to be a waste of a soundtrack to play music that has no effect on the visual drama.  The best soundtracks either heighten an aspect of the scene, bring out a detail that viewers might not otherwise notice, or ironically subvert what we’re seeing in some way.  We might not always be consciously noticing the music, but it should certainly have an effect on our experience of the show or film!

Quick hit: More about Paula Abdul

I’m catching up on a backlog of links I found over the past couple weeks so don’t hate on this one being late.  The NYT summed up some of the drama behind Paula Abdul’s contract negotiations (and their dramatic ending via Twitter–text message breakup much?) a few weeks ago.  If you were interested in the story when I discussed it earlier you might want to take a look.  Unfortunately the Idol producers don’t seem to have taken me up on my suggestion of Sarah Palin as Paula’s replacement…

Quick hit: Vibe magazine is back…

with an 808 and it’s bossy.

Anyway, I digress.  Vibe, one of the premier (if not the premier) hip-hop magazines, officially folded about 6 weeks ago under a whole bunch of debt.  It’s being resurrected first as an online-only publication, and its new management hopes to subsequently put it back in print (albeit with a bit of a new spin on the business end).

I always feel that the more written about music (well, the more well-informed, insightful pieces written about music) the better–music is so important, and so useful for understanding other aspects of life and society, that it’s good to have lots of minds thinking and talking about it.

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