Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It Happened

The last few days have been a lot. I have a couple remarks:

There's an incredible sense of "we" in this victory. Maybe it's because I surround myself with liberals and Obama supports in particular, maybe it's because I live in Chicago. But the rhetoric has all been focused on a communal achievement. I went down to Grant Park Tuesday night, and one of the common cries was "We did it." Not He did it or They did it but We did it. That's something. Maybe it's always like this when a president you support wins (I wouldn't know), but something felt different.

This was my first presidential election. My father is in his mid-50's. Earlier in the campaign he told me that he never thought he would live to see a Black person with a chance to be the next president. Much less to win. He thought (and a sentiment I've heard echoed countless times) that never in his lifetime did he think that we as a country would do this. What will the election be like when my children vote for their first president? How far have we come, and how far is there left to go? Sometimes in movies a Black guy (often Morgan Freeman) will be cast as the president to show that in this fictional world things are really great and advanced. Now we did it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Recession

Young Jeezy, when he first started appearing in the public’s consciousness, represented a gritty South, in both literal and metaphorical terms. He was rural (from Macon, GA), Southern (ibid), and a drug dealer. He was outside of even normative rap culture. Jeezy rapped about parallel markets, about how a seemingly placid rural Southern existence is fraught with navigating pickup deals, gang violence and the perpetual fear that everyone else is trying to get what you’ve got. He was paranoid and nihilistic and, at times (especially w/r/t the “snowman” brand) surrealist. Jeezy could have been compared to a David Lynch, in that his lyrics exposed a darker side of the ordinary. It may have been a cheap gimmick matched with a clever ad campaign at the right time (big ups post 9/11 mid-Bush administration), but his records have worked at a critical and at a popular level.
So things seem perfect for Jeezy’s new album, The Recession right? In the weeks since it’s been finished (and leaked) the global economy has taken a swan dive into the deep end, with the most extreme among us suggesting a new depression. How lucky for the perpetual pessimist that things somehow managed to get worse.

Does he deliver? Well……no. The intro more than does its job: “It’s a recession/ Everybody broke/ So I just came back/ To give everybody hope.” This song accepts that Jeezy has diversified his profits into multiple enterprises, and even though his clothing line might go under, he won’t be back in the unemployment line (or on the corner) anytime soon, yet still cements him as a people’s champion – something which the US has been looking for lately (according to recent polling and

But then it kind of falls apart into the same high-paced high-hats, cheesy synths and empty threats. Jeezy has never been a marvel of lyrical experimentation – you should go see him, according to TI, for the birdplay, not the wordplay. What he rested on earlier was his delivery; his grit. Jeezy’s voice got him halfway to a spokesman for the further disenfranchised young poor, who now might be facing homelessness (…..again) but his lyrics left him. “I’m young by the way/ The one by the way/ I ain’t tripping I just do this shit for fun by the way” (from “By The Way”) is about the silliest hook this side of snap, and that it comes from someone who seems to want to think of himself as a disciple is ridiculous. Jeezy hasn’t said anything in a while, and it’s disheartening now that the political and cultural environment has fallen into his lap and he still can’t really capitalize on it. The “Ha-HA!”s and “Yeah!”s are running thin.

But two notes: 1) “Crazy World” and “My President” appeal to vote for Obama which is funny considering Jeezy’s past with candidate endorsement. Earlier this summer Jeezy made a shout out to McCain, which, to be fair, probably makes good sense for his personal economic security. This didn’t fly. In a fascinating backlash by the urban black music media, it became obvious that Jeezy wasn’t just alienating himself from his fanbase, he was becoming everything he had ever fought against. Forget a thug’s inspiration, he became a traitor – to his people, his race, his economic status. On 106 and Park he later “clarified” that, of course, he supports Obama…to thunderous applause from the audience. Rappers have to be liberal, I guess. But more so black people have to be black. And black people vote for Obama.

2) “Put On”, the single with Kanye West that’s been circulating for a few months (and that Kanye played at Lollapalopoza) attempts again to connect to the disenfranchised rural poor, but it falls wells short. The video is encouraging but ultimately is barely descriptive of general poverty that’s been rhymed about for the last twenty years, much less the misery of the present situation. We get it guys, you’re rich and your cities are poor. Everything you do you do for us? Uh… Great. We gonna get a cut of the album sales or something? Rampant representing of where you’re from is beyond meaningless at this point.

But then “My President” pulls through again. Nas helps out to say, “Hey! Shit’s fucked up! But things are gonna get better!” It’s a progression from “The World Is Yours”’ “I’m out for dead presidents to represent me” that is useful. I don’t know if you guys heard, but ten years after “Changes” came out and Tupac said “And although it seems heaven sent/ We ain't ready to see a black president” a black man is favored (at four-to-one odds!) to be our next president. This is big shit, guys. Are benefit shows all that you’re really going to do? So Jeezy and Nas really pull this one off. It is what The Recession should be: scared, gritty, nervous, but hopeful. Instead, regardless of what’s going to happen in the next few months, it’s obvious that Jeezy is more than surviving. Couldn’t he at least pretend that things were worse?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Streets

One of the albums I've been listening to a lot lately is the new Streets album, Everything Is Borrowed . There was a time for me when the Streets were my favorite. I understood Mike Skinner's obsession with the trivial and the mundane on his first two albums, and I connected with them. With him. From stories about boredom and alcoholism (though, admittedly, I was a teenager, barely drinking and experimenting with drug use) and malaise in contemporary urban life, I found in the Streets a man to connect to. It's not necessarily that I saw MYSELF in Mike Skinner, but rather I saw a friend of mine. Or someone who I would like to befriend. Original Pirate Material talked to me about coming of age when the more traditional methods (losing one's virginity, getting a job, etc...) didn't mean that anymore. As I was trying to define my emergence into adulthood I found a new model in Mike Skinner.

Then, on A Grand Don't Come for Free I really got it. After hearing about how obsessing about music, getting high and sitting on the couch with your friends is a common, acceptable method of dealing with the growing world, it got personal. It got really personal. Skinner's detailing of his relationship with Simone was what I needed to hear: a frank, emotional account of constructing masculinity within a post-modern era. For some of my friends this was Fight Club (we were teenagers in the early 00's, this is how it goes), but for me, it was Mike Skinner. He taught me how to rationalize dancing at parties and wanting to see tits with long drives and sunsets. It was as emotional as it was reflective. It taught me how to be with others but to be by myself. It was perfect. The story was fabulously told and I remember sitting on my floor during the last minute of "Empty Cans" when he finds the box. I was so engaged with the narrative, I remember feeling anxious-- what IS in the back of the TV. It was perfect. It's still one of the few albums that I can never put on for just a song or two-- it has to be heard in its entirety. It's a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, that mapped out a plausible course. This blog, then, attempts to be as such: a reflection on popular culture through the guise of a man entering his own place within it.

The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living was, of course, a letdown. He became a pop star and I wasn't able to relate to him anymore. Everything Is Borrowed, then, is similar. He's not making music for himself and people like him (namely me); he's making music for everyone. Sure, the lessons are better than before - "I came to this world with nothing/ And I leave it with nothing but love/ Everything else is just borrowed" is pretty and meaningful - but he's not a man I know anymore.

Relating to musicians as people, through their art, is a weird sort of relationship because it's not personal. But when it happens, when someone comes through their art and reveals themselves as shows themselves as fallible human beings who you relate to, it's really special. I might not listen to the new album forever, but I'm kind of in the mood to hear A Grand Don't Come for Free right now.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On Terror

Steinski- "Number Three on Flight Eleven"

I‘ve been thinking about September 11th recently. The seven year anniversary recently occurred, of course, and with it came a slew of execrably silly tributes, from Second Life to a silver $20 commemorative bill. I’m not from New York. I grew up in Northern Arizona, but, like probably everyone in America, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard what was going on. It was a school day. I was a freshman in high school and my father grabbed me as I was getting out of the shower and told me that something had happened. That we needed to turn on the news. Initially, when only the first plane hit the first tower, the situation was still very unclear. Most people were under the impression that it had simply been an accident, and that was that. But then the second tower was hit. And I remember distinctly being in my living room, listening to a report from someone inside the Pentagon when there were conflicting stories as to whether or not a plane had crashed there, as well. Of course, as we all now know, it had.

I went to school that day. What else was I to do? My friends and I all stood and talked in hush tones before class. We knew that something big was happening, but we weren’t exactly sure what this would mean. Every class watched the news all day. There was nothing else to do.

Again, I am from a small town, and while I’ve been to New York a number of times when I was younger with my parents to see the requisite Broadway show, I don’t necessarily feel a deep connection to that city. But that’s really beside the point. What matters is that the meaning of New York changed along with the skyline, and I feel that the United States is still in a process of understanding what that means. Every time I watch a movie or TV show set in New York that was filmed before 2001 I also notice how the towers are still in the frame. It’s always a conscious thing that I watch out for. Which is ironic, honestly, because before Sept 11 I wouldn’t’ve been able to name those buildings. Now all one needs to say is “the towers” and the nation – if not the whole world – knows what is meant.

I know people, though, who grew up in the city, and I’ve heard stories of men walking up from downtown covered head to toe in ash. About how the subways and busses weren’t running because no one knew what was going on, and how every missed call seemed like an emergency where families would be lost. Even in my small town, panic had set in. People at school were worried that a terrorist attack would happen at the local university’s sports dome. It’s actually silly, but no one knew what was going on. It wasn’t really a sense of terror, but instead a sort of realization that bad things could happen. Something unknowable had been made real, and in the face of that no one really knew what to do.

I’ve been listening to the Steinski song that he made as a tribute to Sept 11, “Number Three on Flight Eleven”, which used the voice recording of an airline stewardess on one of the flights talking about what’s going on. It’s a poignant, terrifying piece, and it’s really affecting. It’s interesting to note not just the extent to which Sept 11 changed the national-political worldview (in terms of rhetoric as well as foreign policy) or subtly changes cultural pieces (where art starts developing new themes of paranoia and fear of the Other), but also how pieces explicitly about Sept 11 are framed. From The Rising to Pete Miser’s “Might Be” to Talib Kweli’s “The Proud” (which places Sept 11 in a narrative of the breakdown of the American conscience stretching through the Oklahoma City bombing through the murder of Amadou Diablo by NYPD), not to mention things like United 93 or The 9/11 Commission Report, the outright confrontation of a specific moment in our history is usually treated with mourning and sadness.

A common trend in our contemporary historical narrative which I personally cannot stand is to look at historical moments as breaking points; to assume that the there was a “pre-event” and a “post-event” world, and that one specific incident caused a rift. Of course history is contingent on a multitude of factors (in this instance the US hostilities that arguably led to Sept 11, the institution of FAA flight regulation, the establishing of an Israeli state, etc…), but that doesn’t change the fact that cultural products still function this way. History is seen and interpreted as a series of moments that change the course of life in between them.

What I really want to say here, though, is that before Sept 11 New York, to me, was Lou Reed and the Ramones. It was CGBG and the Factory scene and club kids and the Lower East Side. Afterwards it was gentrification in Brooklyn and Vice Magazine. These things, probably, are independent of the events of Sept 11 (in the way that anything can be independent of anything else), but to me, as an outsider, a teenager at that, only looking through a narrow window of cultural production, New York changed. Through !!! songs and, yes, Vice Magazine I hear about the glories of “Old New York,” before Giuliani and the cabaret laws and the lack of hookers on 41st streets (is that where they used to be?). I heard “53rd and 3rd” and “Waiting for the Man” and Biggie and heard about Basquiat and Bob Dylan’s Village and thought that that’s how the city used to be: a treasure trove of independent artists and thinkers and drugs and parties and it’s scary and it’s threatening but it makes you real. Now all I hear about is that LCD Soundsystem song “New York I Love You” (the next line to which is, of course, “but you’re bringing me down”) and about how I’ll never be able to live in Manhattan because I can’t afford it, and even most of the rest of the city is off limits. I hear about Marc Jacobs stores and how they’re closing McCarren Park Pool to (OMG Can You Believe It?!?!?!?) make t a pool again. New York has changed, from my perspective. And though I’ve never lived there I’ve seen it crumble.

How I long for New York.