South African vuvuzelas at the World Cup

Interesting article from the NYT about fans’ use of trumpets, called vuvuzelas, at the World Cup and the controversy this is causing.  Also: an audio clip!

Weekend links

  • A perspective from the NYT‘s Happy Days blog (which deals with how we stay sane in these bad economic times) on death metal and how it helped one Ira Gershwin fan get back on his feet after losing his job.  The standard music-scholarship line on metal is that it was born out of white working-class male frustration at the postindustrial lack of economic opportunity.  The fact that this guy was drawn to the sound after losing his job dovetails with that analysis  in interesting ways.

Tuesday links: L’shanah tovah!

This week, more from the Times–an uplifting story for Rosh Hashanah and another article about World War Two music.

Rush vs. Jay-Z: Is talk radio gangsta rap for angry white men?

David Segal has an interesting breakdown in yesterday’s New York Times comparing right-wing talk show hosts to rappers, especially gangsta rappers.  He admits that both groups would probably not be happy to be compared to the other, and I agree, but I still think he has a point.

Segal argues that four key things are necessary for success in both fields: an enormous ego that you’re not shy about discussing; haters; feuds with others in your field; and verbal skills, especially an ability for improvisation and free-association.  This is true, but not the most profound analysis–yet.

Segal then describes how rap can be among the most politically conservative of genres: that it “exalts capitalism and entrepreneurship with a brio that is typically considered Republican.”  And so do Rush, Glenn Beck, et al.

Rap loves the Second Amendment; right-wing talk radio fans are probably the kind of people who made gun sales spike right after the 2008 elections.

Both rap and talk radio regularly assert that criminals cannot be reformed–but “gangsta rappers often identify themselves as the criminals, and are proud of their unreformability.”


Finally, rappers and conservative talkers both speak for a demographic that believes its interests and problems have been slighted and both offer stories that have allegedly been ignored.

Obviously, there are limits to all these parallels, but there is one more worth noting: rap has inspired its share of fear and now, liberals and moderates are asking the same question about conservative talk radio that conservatives have long asked about rap: How dangerous is it?

Interestingly (with respect to the first paragraph of the quote) rap was often referred to as “black TV” in its early days for its timeliness and opinionated, sometimes paranoid take on current events.  Anyway, I will admit that I am much more scared of Glenn Beck’s followers than those who listen to Ludacris (notwithstanding the fact that I’m in the latter category), but perhaps that’s just the socialist-health-care-loving left-winger in me talking.

Anyway, I think that overall Segal’s right on here.  I would have been interested in a little more gender analysis, though.  It is well-documented that gangsta rap is (at least partially) about working out a very specific kind of masculinity in the face of oppression or perceived oppression–a tough, heterosexual, homophobic, muscular, violent, self-sufficient masculinity.

This has not been as studied in the case of right-wing talk radio, but anecdotally, it seems to serve the same purpose for angry white men.  In fact, Rush Limbaugh is well-known for tasteless rape jokes, Glenn Beck has made misogynistic remarks about women’s looks and a host of other things, and Michael Savage has stated that “any heterosexual woman today over the age of 25 who grew up in America is basically a dominatrix.  You ask any heterosexual guy” as well as making some nasty transphobic comments.  (Note, I find it interesting that Ann Coulter, who doesn’t have a talk show but who is a public figure who says a lot of similar things, is often characterized as “mannish.”  Perhaps we are picking up on this gender work going on in right-wing media, albeit in a sexist way.)

And this doesn’t take into account the xenophobia, pro-gun and pro-war positions, and other macho and bigoted things that come out of these guys’ mouths.  They are constructing a notion of white American masculinity that is even more unappealing than gangsta rap’s portrait of black American masculinity.  Men can do better!

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…

Reincarnating the Beatles–and redefining musicianship in the process?

I know I’m late on this, but I had better things to do (such as make money!)…anyway, last weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a long article on the forthcoming game The Beatles: Rock Band which I think is worth looking at.

If you are an American between the ages of 15 and 30 and participate in any kind of social life with your peer group, you have almost certainly heard of Rock Band, even if you haven’t played it.  The standard version of the game allows you to select an avatar (usually wearing some ridiculous/awesome leopard-print outfit) and form a “band” with your real-life buddies’ avatars, and then you select various classic/hit songs to play using plastic instruments following color-coded music notation on the screen.  (Say that three times fast.)

The classic version of Rock Band allows you to pick any variety of songs–any artist, any style, any era offered in the game–to make a set list or to play one at a time.  While it attempts to recreate aspects of the performing experience, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: the point is to have a good time with your friends, not to earnestly make-believe that you’re a rock star.

The Beatles: Rock Band aims at a much more “realistic” experience (whatever that means within the context of a video game…).  The creators (along with Ringo, Paul, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono) are trying to re-create specific concerts, specific recording sessions, etc.  Yet at the same time they gloss over many of the difficulties the Beatles had toward the end of their career together, because they’re attempting to keep the real purpose of the game in mind:

“This isn’t an archival project, it’s a game,” [producer Giles Martin] said.  “It’s entertainment.  That’s what they [the Beatles] were doing here in the first place.  Later, people attached all sorts of significance to it, but they’d be the first to tell you that what they wanted most was to entertain people.”

The point Martin makes–that the purpose of Rock Band in any of its iterations is entertainment–is precisely why I, unlike a few musicians I know, don’t think it will hurt “real” music-making in the slightest, and might even advance the cause.  (The Times reporter more or less agrees with me here.)

One thing I’ve noticed is that people who don’t play instruments (I’m including voice here) often have unrealistic ideas about what it takes to be a competent musician: depending on the instrument and style, they either think it’s really easy (guitar, pop vocals) or really really difficult beyond any average person’s ability (orchestral instruments, opera singing).

The truth is somewhere in the middle: most of the aspects of technique that go into learning any instrument are not that difficult.  The hard part is doing them over and over again until they become second nature.  Anecdotally, it seems to me that most people quit making music not because they’re “bad,” but because they can’t or won’t put in the time.  According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (which I haven’t read, but this trope has been making the rounds) expertise is achieved after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice of a certain skill, whether in athletics, chess, music, or what have you.  As a Suzuki teacher, this makes sense: according to the method’s founder, Shinichi Suzuki, the key to being a great musician is “practicing only on the days that you eat”–a tongue-in-cheek way of approximating this 10,000-hour rule.

Rock Band is like learning an instrument (albeit simplified): each of the individual techniques, such as pressing a guitar button, hitting a drum pad, etc., is not at all hard.  But getting them in the right order and at the right time takes practice.  In my experience, people who play real instruments aren’t inspired to quit because of Rock Band, and most Rock Band players who didn’t play an instrument to begin with aren’t going to be inspired to start because of their favorite video game.

The real benefit is twofold: musicians get a chance to unwind and play music for fun, instead of for a grade, a gig or an audition; and non-musicians get a chance a) to understand, in a small way, what it takes to be a good musician and b) to get a small taste of the satisfaction of rehearsing and the thrill of performing–why musicians do what we do.

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.


The New York Times ran a few music-oriented articles over the past several days that I think are worth highlighting:

  • Carleen Hutchins, a fantastic violin maker (and a violist!) passed away recently after a long and innovative life.  String players–especially violists like myself–know that the instrument designs we’ve been handed down through the centuries are acoustically imperfect.  (This is why violists are always looking for the biggest instrument we can physically handle.  The viola would technically need to be much bigger in order for its acoustics to be ideal, and we wouldn’t be able to play it under the chin then, so we try to get as close as possible.)  Hutchins pioneered research into the minutiae of string acoustics and reimagined the string family–something that hasn’t been done for hundreds of years, essentially since Stradivari.  Now I want to play some of her creations!
  • Will the baby boomers get over Woodstock already?!  Let’s hope we’re not rhapsodizing over Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo like this in 40 years.  Yes, Woodstock was important, but the overly romantic way in which writers of that generation treat it is just absurd and typical boomer narcissism.  I’m happy that at least some of the Room for Debate bloggers acknowledge this.
  • It makes me cry a little inside every time I hear about an instrument mistreated like this.  The story of how this Irish harp, made by the influential Dublin craftsman John Egan, ended up in a dumpster but was rescued and is now being restored, is inspirational in the cheesiest sense, but I love it.

Quick hits: Motown, Barack and media theory

  • The women of Motown had fabulous style.  Too bad when 2009-era white women try to pull it off the result looks like this.  (Please note, I love Amy, but you have to admit the look could use some tweaking.)  At some point, I want to write a post exploring the impact of eyeliner on pop music.  I bet there is something to be analyzed there.
  • I haven’t heard either album in full yet, but both the jazz-hip hop fusions discussed here look amazing.  Here’s one of the tracks:
  • Finally, for a touch of meta, here are two recent NYT articles on the blogosphere (doesn’t that word sound like a relic of some now-discredited ancient Greek astronomical system?) and how researchers are trying to track the internet zeitgeist and who contributes to its formation.  Pretty cool.

What’s going on in Milwaukee’s Third Ward?

This New York Times article on Milwaukee’s own Skylight Opera Theater hits close to home–I have really fond memories of the place between my friends’ performances and of course, the famous Wauwatosa East High School French field trip to see the opera adaptation of The Little Prince.

I’m clearly out of the loop on this–had it happened 3-4 years ago I would have been far more qualified to comment–but the turmoil throws several truths about the Milwaukee arts scene, and arts administration in general, into sharp relief:

  • Milwaukee takes its traditions seriously.  I’m not saying it’s hidebound, but it doesn’t take kindly to drastic rupture, especially rupture for which it doesn’t see a practical reason.
  • Milwaukee is nice. It doesn’t look like Dillner acted much differently than CEO types generally do in budget crunches–that is to say, fairly ruthlessly.  This kind of behavior doesn’t fly in the Milwaukee scene.
  • Performers matter. It’s impractical at best, heartless at worst to ignore the needs and wishes of performers.  Administrators are too often focused on the bottom line–that is, audiences, and more specifically large donors.  While finances need to be a priority for many arts nonprofits, if the performers aren’t flourishing, then the raison d’être of the whole enterprise is called into question.
  • Paying one’s dues is important. If performers don’t respect conductors, directors, et al.–or even lead performers–the situation cannot possibly end well.  (Case in point: the Philadelphia Orchestra debacle under Undercofler/Eschenbach.)  Many of the Skylight performers’ criticisms of Dillner, and their preference for Theisen, fall under this category: they believed that Dillner was simply not qualified for the job, and that Theisen had a much better grasp of both the Skylight’s unique narrative and of the demands of performance on that level more generally.
  • Milwaukee is America’s biggest small town. One of Milwaukee’s best, and worst, characteristics is that nearly everyone who comes, stays, and due to our vaunted friendliness (or nosiness, if you prefer), people generally know a lot about what’s going on in their social networks.  (And these networks are large and dense: for example, when I moved over a thousand miles away to attend college, my dad had been on his high school cross country team with the high school track coach of the guy who lived down the hall from me.  And he had heard this through the sports grapevine before even talking to my hallmate.)  Dillner has really torpedoed the goodwill of the Milwaukee artistic community and the devoted audiences thereof with these actions.  The Skylight will take a long, long while to recover from this.
  • Performers generally don’t take crap. You have to be pretty tough and independent-minded to be a successful theatrical performer.  It’s no wonder the Skylight crew didn’t roll over and take it when they were unhappy about the proposed changes.

On another note: does anyone know what’s up with Strini’s departure from the Journal Sentinel?

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