A few interesting links

Here are a few articles I’ve been interested in over the last few days:

  • The delightfully scathing Guy Trebay analyzes Lady Gaga’s fashion choices.  I like the comparison to mashups.
  • JDub and Nextbook announce a new partnership.  Interesting for young Jews who like Jewish things that aren’t kitschy, and for me given that both of the artists that I’m using as case studies for my thesis have been nurtured by JDub (note, I promise to discuss this at some point–I’ve been spending so much time on the research itself that I don’t ever feel like writing a blog post about it.  But blog I must.)
  • Check out this NYT lookback at how the rules of the music business have changed over the last 10 years (including an amusing story about the author’s first MP3 player, in 1998).  It’s a bit strange for me to read things like this, as my (and my peers’, of course) musical coming-of-age has coincided with all these crazy and unprecedented changes.  My preschool had a record player, which I used a lot, mostly to listen to Mahalia Jackson and Chubby Checker (!); after that I just rocked out in Suzuki violin training for a while until I developed musical tastes of my own in late elementary school or so.  In between, I was at the mercy of adults’ musical picks (from my 4th-grade teacher’s Concrete Blonde albums to my 5th grade teacher’s inexplicable love of 98 Degrees to my parents’ Paul Simon and Motown) and technological knowhow.  By the time I figured things out a little bit, iPods were ubiquitous (though I did have a well-loved Discman for quite a while).

Deconstructing Joan’s accordion début on Mad Men

I know this is a little late, but bear with me because I think it’s super interesting.

As anyone who watches Mad Men (or reads the entertainment section of most major news outlets) knows, office manager Joan Holloway–with the gorgeous red hair–hosted, along with her surgical-resident husband Greg, a dinner party for Greg’s boss and coworkers in the August 30 episode.  It was quite fraught with tension for a variety of reasons and I won’t go into all the (sexist) drama between Joan and Greg during the majority of the show (it has nothing to do with music and it has been dissected thoroughly all over the internets), though it’s fascinating and you should look it up elsewhere.

Anyway.  After dinner, Greg essentially trotted Joan out like a “dancing bear” (as people have aptly written on other blogs) and had her play accordion (which James Wolcott over at VF amusingly referred to as a strap-on) for the guests.

Another interesting ethnomusicological note: watch for the boss’s wife’s comment that “It’ll be just like the olden days–we used to sit in the parlor after supper and my mother would play the piano while we read.”  Here she marks herself as coming from the late-19th/early-20th-century middle class (who could afford pianos but not hired musicians to play them, and for whom the bourgeois social culture of the parlor was of great importance), for whom this was the primary method of listening to popular music.

Now, back in the 1960s accordion was quite a bit more popular in the urban northern U.S.–i.e. in an area like the New York City region where Joan and Greg live and work–than it is now due to the greater prominence of Euro-ethnic folk music (I’m purposely ignoring the current minor fad for it among hipsters, btw).  But it had certain implications: that anyone playing it or listening to it was not “fully assimilated” into American whiteness; that anyone playing/listening to it was likely from a working-class Eastern European, Irish, or Italian background; etc.  Given that Joan was playing a big piano accordion (as opposed to something smaller, or a button accordion or concertina) I’m betting on Eastern European of some kind.

Greg is trying desperately to climb up the social ladder, which is exquisitely highlighted at this dinner party, where he’s even willing to break accepted etiquette and seat his boss, one of the top-ranking surgeons at the hospital, at the head of the table (normally where the host should sit, according to Emily Post) in order to kiss ass as vigorously as possible.

Therefore, even if he has an accordion-playing wife from a less-than-suitable background vis-à-vis the occasion, and is willing to force her to perform to cut the awkwardness in the air, it would have been wholly unacceptable for her to play anything as déclassé and ethnically-obvious as a polka (this is one of my favorites, by the way; polka at the ballpark’s seventh-inning stretch was one of the greatest musical aspects of growing up in Milwaukee):

So, Joan plays a French café song–at the height of the vogue for all things French given Jackie Kennedy’s heritage and cultural preferences.  She masks the fact that her background puts her at risk of some level of bigotry by using the skills it has taught her to perform something fashionable and prestigious.  But, as is highlighted in the kitchen conversation amongst Joan, another resident’s wife, and the boss’s wife, though it’s recognized that Joan has many talents and works hard, it’s never quite enough to completely hide the truth of her situation (in this case, the fact that they must still be “poor” because Joan still “has” to keep her office job despite the fact that she’s married).

Joan may hide her less-than-fashionable ethnicity (and I admit, I’m only presuming her ethnicity) by performing a more-prestigious one, but the fact that she, in 1963, is a competent accordionist at all shows quite a lot about her background given that it was only in certain ethnoeconomic settings that people still learned it.

And for the closer, a supreme irony: Donna Trussell (and friends) over at WomanUp on Politics Daily does a good job of pointing out the other ways race and ethnicity are worked through in this episode (I didn’t even touch Roger Sterling’s blackface performance!), but misses the boat on the accordion:

Darling Joan aside, Episode 3 was also noteworthy for addressing ethnicity, as my colleague Mary Curtis discussed in Carla, Roger, and Racial Stirrings on ‘Mad Men.’ And gender, as my colleague Bonnie Goldstein pointed out in Peggy Olson: ‘My Name Is On the Door.’

“Darling Joan” is precisely at the intersection of both of those with her “strap-on” (sorry, it’s too amusing).  Her husband forces her, in a shockingly (at least, to our contemporary sensibilities) nonchalantly sexist move to manipulate her ethnic presentation in the service of his socioeconomic climbing.  Mad Men always astounds me with how deep–and how subtly deployed–its historical knowledge is across such a broad range of disciplines.

What’s under Lady Gaga’s leotard?

The internets have been buzzing with news that Lady Gaga is possibly a hermaphrodite (or is “intersex” more appropriate? please enlighten me if you know), as video footage from one of her concerts shows her getting off a moped-like thing and pulling a Britney Spears in the audience’s direction.  If you look real hard at ~1:10 and squint your eyes, it kind of looks like there might be more going on down there than we had previously thought.

So of course lots of people are talking about how crazy/gross/maybe kinda hot this is, and whether she really has the parts she’s now purported to have or whether this is just a stunt.  I frankly don’t really care; she is who she is.  What I do hope is that this provokes meaningful conversation about the interplay between (biological) sex and gender, and the complex ways in which we choose to go about presenting our sexual identity to the rest of the world.

Because Lady Gaga is, without a doubt, the current mainstream artist most able to provoke those kinds of conversations.  She’s aware that she is as much performance artist as singer and she fully intends to provoke discussion about sex, sexuality and gender.  Let’s roll with it then, and talk about body parts, etc. regardless of the kind(s) that Gaga was born with.

Also, if this is true, it leads to endless possibilities for jokes about how her muffin is bluffin’.  Just saying.

On another note: here’s an interesting take on her unconventional fashion choices–that she’s doing it to emulate avant-garde architecture and design.

Is hip-hop masculinity being redefined?

Jonah Weiner makes a provocative case on Slate today that homophobia in hip hop is decreasing and being redefined–primarily, paradoxically, through the use of the phrase “no homo.”  The crux of Weiner’s argument is as follows:

As society becomes increasingly gay-tolerant, hip-hop is reassessing its relationship to homosexuality and, albeit in a hedged and roundabout way, it’s possible that no homo is helping to make hip-hop a gayer place.

Weiner isn’t entirely wrong.  It’s certainly true that American mainstream culture is trending toward acceptance of gays and lesbians (though we still have a long way to go).  And it’s certainly true that hip hop, given how integrated it is into American life, affects and is affected by general cultural trends.  But ending homophobia in hip hop has less to do with perceptions of homosexuality than it does with notions of masculinity.

Scholars from music to African American studies have discussed in detail how hip hop reflects, and helps construct, ideas about how to be properly masculine for both artists and audiences.  From the meteoric rise of gangsta rap in the late 80s-early 90s to more-recent video ho controversies, a very specific type of masculinity is being worked out in corporate hip hop: tough, heterosexual, potentially violent, financially successful, proud, fashionable, potentially misogynist (running the gamut from physical violence towards women to verbal disrespect towards women–see: Chris Brown and Rihanna for an extreme example).  There are certainly exceptions within mainstream hip hop to all these characteristics (some of which are positive and some of which are negative), but on the whole, many artists attempt to put forth this type of image in the name of authenticity and credibility (even if they are not necessarily like this in their own lives).

Heterosexuality is a key part of this image.  Just as it is important to continually reinforce one’s financial success, fashion sense, and other aspects of this persona, it’s important within the genre to reinforce one’s heterosexuality.  One way of doing this is with respect to women, of course: an artist can boast about his sex life, rhyme about his lady, etc.  (Detractors would argue that this method includes misogyny as a method of reinforcing heterosexuality.)  Another way of doing this is by denying any homosexual impulse or affinity.

Hip-hop homophobia isn’t, for the most part, about hating gays and lesbians as such.  It’s about reinforcing a specific notion of masculinity, one that dictates that men have power over those around them in a variety of ways: whether by having one’s own posse, being able to buy whatever one wants, and by having the upper hand in a romantic or sexual encounter.  Being gay negates this latter possibility: one man will be in power, and the other will have been disempowered (within the context of this idea about being masculine, that is).

So I agree in a way–that

no homo tweaks this [homophobic] dynamic because it allows, implicitly, that rap is a place where gayness can in fact be expressed by the guy on the mic, not just scorned in others….When these rappers say “no homo,” it can seem a bit like a gentleman’s agreement, nodding to the status quo while smuggling in a fuller, less hamstrung notion of masculinity.  This is still a concession to homophobia, but one that enables a less rigid definition of the hip-hop self than we’ve seen before.  It’s far from a coup, but, in a way, it’s progress.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the day when “fuller, less hamstrung” notions of masculinity don’t need to be smuggled into mainstream hip hop (with the important caveat that certain artists are already unapologetic about trying to redefine hip hop masculinity).  But it’ll be a good day when it arrives.

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.

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