Tagged: Hot Chip

Applying the spirit of the Bechdel Test to dance songs

I wonder what Mo and Sydney think about dance songs; image courtesy of 1979semifinalist.wordpress.com

So, I was having a breakroom chat on Friday with my co-worker friend Rebekah. She was asking my thoughts on the cause-and-effect relationship between Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” and “Monster.” We were discussing what we made of the idea of Gaga directly addressing the threat of sexual assault for women being flirty and getting trashed at a club, in effect providing social commentary for her breakout hit.

I spent a significant part of my week listening to Katy Perry and Ke$ha’s debut albums. In doing so, I thought about how pervasive drunkeness and/or hookups are in dance songs (sexual violence is not as prevalent, though Kiely Williams troubled the waters with “Spectacular”). Another friend is putting together a mix for her birthday party and helping her come up with a track list exacerbated the point. Though I don’t eschew getting drunk or hooking up, Rebekah and I struggled to come up with a song that didn’t focus on these things either with direct language or through euphemism. She mentioned that applying something like the Bechdel Test to dance songs might be interesting, though difficult.

I find a lot of value in the Bechdel Test. It originates from Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For comic series, wherein a character named Mo vows to only watch movies with 1) at least two women in them who 2) talk to each other about 3) something besides men. It’s a simple set of criteria to use on film that is actually difficult for most texts to abide by (in addition to the clip above, read Rachel McCarthy James‘s recent TelevIsm’s post about applying the test to television shows).

So I hope to draft a list where drunk behavior and hookups aren’t mentioned. I haven’t come up with a snazzy handle, but the idea is there. I came up with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” ESG’s “Get Funky,” Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s Alright,” Out Hud’s “One Life to Leave,” and Hot Chip’s “Over and Over,” among others.

Prince – “1999”

Pylon – “Dub”

Le Tigre – “My Metrocard”

Gossip – “Pop Goes the World”

Janelle Monáe – “Tightrope”

Assuredly, there are others. Feel free to offer yours in the comments section, this blog’s Facebook page, or on Twitter (via @ms_vz).

My SXSW 2k10 guide

SXSW 2010; image courtesy of undertheradarmag.com

Wristbands for SXSW went on sale today. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the music festival is my favorite time of the year. I get no sleep, somehow go to work during the day, my feet hurt real bad, I smell like garbage soup come Sunday morning, and I usually end my nights with deliciously greasy food to soak up the beer. Absolute best. But since I know the proceedings can be a little overwhelming, I thought I’d offer some tips.

First, some petty bullshit.

-Calling it “South By” sounds like you’re trying to break into the industry. If you keep going, you’ll find that “South West” rolls right off the tongue. Okay, you can call it “South By.” Especially if we’re friends. I won’t correct you or make a face. But I will call it “South By South West.”

Now, some practical information regarding comfort.

-Relaxed dress code, ya’ll. Many follow the impulse to get styled out. And hey, power to you if you’re young and like playing with clothes. And if you decide that leather jodhpurs look great with your aunt’s vintage blue sequined tube top and later discover that you’re horribly wrong, Vice or Look At This Fucking Hipster might still take your picture and you can tell/text/Tweet your friends. I’m more casual, however. Hence why you haven’t seen me. The best you could hope for from me is being the brown-haired girl in a red hooded sweatshirt standing almost out of frame smirking at the girl wearing a tube top and jodhpurs.

-Keep in mind that you’ll be on your feet 98% of the time. You’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands or walking to places where you’ll be standing in lines or in front of bands. Some of these places will be outdoors where you’ll kick up dirt. It could rain. Some asshole might drop a full beer bottle or step on your toes. This is not the time to break out those pointy flats, gladiator sandals, platform pumps, peep-toe booties, jellies, or whatever fashionable shoe begs an audience. Think sneakers or, if you must be cool, flat-heeled boots. Also, since the 90s are back, maybe you still have a pair of floral print Doc Martens. If you have them in a size 5 and don’t want them anymore, give them to me.

Want; image courtesy of blackdovevintage.blogspot.com

-Free beer is great. If candy be dandy, then liquor be quicker. But you’re gonna need to drink lots of water. Dehydration is not the move.

-Remember that deliciously greasy late-night food I was talking about? Might I recommend Star Seeds or the vegan-friendly Kebabalicious for your cravings? Can’t go wrong with a treat from Mrs. Johnson’s either, especially since you can get a fresh glazed donut for free. I haven’t been to the 24 Diner yet, but it might be worth pursuing. If you wanna go the drive-thru route, What-A-Burger is Texas’s gift to tourists. I’m not so into Kerbey Lane or Magnolia Café, but they get it done. These are just some after-hours options. Entertaining the idea of what restaurant to eat at in Austin is a decision to step into a larger world. We’ve got good food locked down. If you’re looking for vegan fare, Lazy Smurf was good enough to provide a comprehensive list of restaurants. Happy eating!

-Sunscreen is a buddy. Earplugs are buddies too. But I always forget to bring them.

And now, the music.

-If you wanna gadabout and maybe see some shows, there’s lots of options. The festival offers tons of free, all-ages stuff put together by good people like Todd P. They’re even nice enough to offer those listings in neat little indexes you can fold in your back pocket. But if you want to see specific acts, particularly buzz artists covered by The Onion, Pitchfork, NPR, or others, you’re most likely gonna need a wristband. This is an international festival. Venues fill to capacity. If you can’t make this happen but you’re a student on spring break or can take off work, day shows and after-hours parties are your buddies. You can see a lot of up-and-coming acts that will be playing in the evening for little to no cover.

-Even if you can make it happen, take some time to enjoy the day shows. KVRX always delivers. TerrorbirdMedia put together great showcases. Yard Dog is for sweethearts. NPR is a buddy. GRCA is putting together a great day show.

-If you are coming in from out of town, please make sure you check out our local talent. Austin’s touted as the live music capital for a reason, as the city is lousy with awesome bands. One only needs to check out Matador’s Casual Victim Pile compilation for recent evidence (note: the title is an anagram for “live music capital” — har har). As a local, I tend not to see so many local bands during the evening because they’re around and I have to prioritize. But if I didn’t, I’d see as many Austin bands as I could. You should too.

-If you like an act, check to see what label they’re on. Chances are you might like another band on the roster. If you do, it’s probably worth checking out the label’s showcase. Some record labels I follow: Merge, DFA/Astralwerks, Warp, Kill Rock Stars, K, Stones Throw, anticon., XL, 4AD, Carpark, Kranky, and Sub Pop. They usually put on day shows as well, sometimes with other labels.

-If you feel like exploring new sounds or are intrigued by an act because of its name, do a little investigating. Might I suggest checking in with that thing called MySpace as a starting point? It has to be good for something.

-Don’t be afraid of bands you don’t know. Trust your friends and their tastes if you have evidence of compatibility, because you might discover something really special. In 2005, I remember going to the Church of the Friendly Ghost (RIP) to see a band because someone I knew thought I’d really like them. They were a British dance band and I don’t believe they had a deal in the states yet. They were a polite, brainy bunch who put on a great show and had lots of energy. They even did a charming cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Miracles.” Their name is Hot Chip and I haven’t been able to catch them since.

Hot Chip: officially too big to call me back; image courtesy of guardian.co.uk

-Build a schedule. You can do it through SXSW’s Web site. Print it out or plug it into your phone. You’ll want it with you at all times.

-Stay connected. I posted this today, but acts will be added up to the last possible minute. Check SXSW’s Web site, Twitter, Facebook, listservs, various e-mags, etc. I will also update this post as more acts I like are announced.

-Finally, I’ll offer up lists of bands I’m planning to see so that setting a schedule can be a bit more manageable. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but rather my list. I’m not interested in being a tastemaker. I’ve taken the liberty of putting my selections in tiers. Tier 1 are acts you can only see during SXSW (last year’s example was Flower Travellin’ Band, a 60s-era Japanese psych-noise band). Tier 2 are the acts I’m really hoping to see. Tier 3 are the acts that have a lot of hype around them or staying power to them and are worth seeing. The Texas section is self-explanatory, and is all-killer, no filler. It’s a hierarchy, but it keeps things tidy. Also, I provided links to every artist so you can check ’em out.

Tier 1
Anti-Pop Consortium, Big Star, Death (returning after Fun Fun Fun Fest), The Zeros. (Note: Where are the women besides Wanda Jackson? Melissa at GRCA would also like to know.)

Tier 2
Aa, Julianna Barwick, The Besnard Lakes, Best Coast, Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra, Black Milk, Bomba Estéreo, Breakestra, Califone, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Exene Cervenka, Daedelus, Kimya Dawson, Dengue Fever, Dosh, Damaged Good$, Dam Funk, The Entrance Band, Explode Into Colors, Fashawn, Flying Lotus, GZA, Invincible, Jean Grae, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Les Savy Fav, Liars, Lyrics Born, Madlib, Major Lazer (their debut album didn’t meet my lofty expectations, but they should be fun in a live setting), Mayer Hawthorne and the County, Memory Tapes, MEN, Mountain Man, Murs, 9th Wonder, Peanut Butter Wolf, Jemina Pearl, People Under the Stairs, Phantogram, Pharoahe Monch, Psalm One, Smoosh, Themselves, Tobacco, Toro Y Moi, Total Abuse, Viv Albertine, The Walkmen, Wye Oak, The xx, YACHT.

Tier 3
Matias Aguayo, Andrew WK, Blue Scholars, BO-PEEP, Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles, Bowerbirds, Kría Brekkan, Broken Bells, Broken Social Scene, Buckshot, !!!, Class Actress, Cocktail Slippers, Crystal Antlers, Drawlings, The Ettes, 4th Pyramid, The Fresh & Onlys, General Elektriks, Golden Triangle, Ha Ha Tonka, Hole (if it happens), Horse Feathers, Hunx and his Punx, jj, Kid Sister, KIT, Solange Knowles, Sondre Lerche, Thurston Moore, Neon Indian, Nappy Roots, No Age, Denitia Odigie, Peelander-Z, Pocahaunted, Pomegranates, Ra Ra Riot, The Raveonettes, Rhymefest, The Ruby Suns, Rye Rye, School Of Seven Bells, She & Him, Slum Village, Surfer Blood, Thee Oh Sees, Titus AndronicusTyvek, Uffie, The Very Best, Visqueen, Washed Out, Wale, Warpaint, The Watson Twins, Yip-Yip, Jonneine Zapata, Zs.

Texas
Balmorhea, Best Fwends, Scott H. Biram, The Carrots, Dikes of Holland, Daniel Francis Doyle, Follow That Bird, Girl in a Coma, Paradise Titty, Pink Nasty, RATKING, Spoon (sorta local, though a big-tent act; they get a pass because Transference is my favorite album of 2010 thus far), The Strange Boys, T Bird and the Breaks, Ume, When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, Wine and Revolution, Woven Bones, White Ghost Shivers, YellowFever.

Have fun! See you around town!

Borrowed nostalgia for the reremembered 00s: Pitchfork sizes up the decade’s singles

Thanks to my friend Evan, who alerted me on Monday that some serious Aughties musical canonization was going down this week, I’ve been following Pitchfork’s unveiling of the Top 500 tracks of the decade. As it may be of interest, I thought I’d share my feelings. 

In subsequent posts, I may comment on their impending coverage of the decade’s best music videos and albums, as well as their formulations on the reclamation of pop, the exploration of noise, and the mainstreaming of indie rock. I won’t devote posts to it, though, because there’s a fine line between providing useful commentary and hearing yourself type. And my hunch is that discussing the singles list will suffice, as it presents, by microcosm, a general set of criticisms I’ve long held about the “tastemaker” e-zine.

Covering Pitchfork’s appraisal of the decade in this way makes more sense to me anyway, as the 2000s marked the resurgence of the single. Our increasingly digitized media culture cultivated the need for that one song, found at the click of a mouse or the touch of an mp3 player button or phone pad. That song also tended to get posted on blogs, e-zines, and MySpace pages (however briefly) as a means to define the self or selves (this was a decade when Gnarls Barkley, Brightblack Morning Light, and Crystal Castles could potentially coexist on the same shuffle or mash-up).

So, this list is the first time I’ve seen music of my youth canonized in such a way that it now seems historical. When Pitchfork first did the list half-way through the decade, I was 22 and just out of college; an adult, but only sorta. More specifically, the songs were still new. But having graduated from college twice over and a year into my second post-college job in 2009, I can look at songs from 2000, when I was in high school, and feel my age like many folks who transitioned into adulthood in decades prior.

And now, some nostalgia. A lot of the songs on this list bring up specific memories, images, people, and feelings. I remember my friend Brooke trying to teach me a dance routine to Aaliyah’s “Try Again” for our junior prom. PJ Harvey’s “Good Fortune” reminded me of a high school boyfriend which, in hindsight, speaks to an epic love song’s power to project. I remember a classmate singing the chorus to OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” to herself in French class. I remember hearing Jay-Z and UGK’s “Big Pimpin'” at a Claire’s somewhere in New York City on a field trip. Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” confused the hell out of me, but I kept playing it at full volume anyway. Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” was a confusing song that made perfect sense. And if Daft Punk’s “One More Time” was released when the class of 2001 voted for our song, it would’ve been my pick (I submitted U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Counting Crows’ “Hanging Around”; our song ended up being Aerosmith’s cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together” from the Armageddon soundtrack, for some reason).

Then there’s the rough transition between high school and college. Songs off Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Daft Punk’s Discovery suggest my lonely, uncertain summer before college. I started college, withdrew mid-way through my first semester, and resumed in the spring. This was a “the” time — The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Shins, The Avalanches, and the last album by The Dismemberment Plan. It was also when I started to follow Pitchfork, mostly to avoid writing term papers.

After a summer back home, I applied for a college radio show. It was here that I really started learning about music, and just how much music there was. KVRX maintains a “none of the hits all of the time” policy; if a musical act got a single or video on rotation in a commercial market, they could not be played. While I was there, we pulled The Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand from rotation. Some deejays would think that by pulling a musical act they liked out of rotation, we were initiating a taste-based attack on coolness (i.e., undiscovered = good, discovered = bad). While this prejudice existed (and I would certainly perpetuate it at times), pulling an artist embraced by the mainstream out of college radio rotation felt more political to me. “Spoon is on 101X? Great! They’re awesome. Now let’s shine a light on the thousands of other bands who’ll never get that kind of attention.”

Pitchfork made an effort to shine a light too, biases notwithstanding. During my tenure at KVRX, my relationship with Pitchfork became contentious. While I followed Pitchfork, I was also dismissive or derisive of the staff’s opinions (a classic push-pull for many music geeks: we are at once too cool for Pitchfork, yet check to see if we line up with their rulings). As I came into my own as a feminist, I also became more critical of what they covered, how they covered it, and what they dismissed, out of which came, among other things, this blog.

Yet, there are so many songs on this countdown that remind me of that time. I remember my first radio show, when I played Interpol’s “NYC” because I had some vague idea of who they were. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard TV on the Radio’s “Staring At the Sun” and Dizzie Rascal’s “I Luv U.” I remember seeing Spoon perform “The Way We Get By” on Conan and hoping they’d get big. I remember hearing the bass line to Broken Social Scene’s “Stars and Sons” for the first time. I remember fighting The Rapture’s “House of Jealous Lovers” for weeks before surrendering. I remember being unable to avoid The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” I remember playing Broadcast’s “Pendulum” while getting ready for parties. I remember rocking out to The Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control” in the deejay booth. I remember LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” being one of the go-to songs deejays would throw on for a smoke break when we weren’t quoting from it (I alluded to it in this post’s title). I remember hearing M.I.A.’s “Galang” at a party and having it blow my mind. I remember impromptu dance parties after Alliance for a Feminist Option meetings when a bunch of sweaty grrrls I still call friends would shimmy to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” and OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” I remember skanking harder and smiling wider than I ever have with the person I built my life with to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?”

In addition, there was Boards of Canada, Wolf Eyes, Feist, Black Dice, Andrew Bird, Ladytron, Devendra Banhart, Destroyer, Hot Chip, The New Pornographers, Deerhoof, M. Ward, Liars, Junior Boys, The Walkmen, Manitoba (later Caribou), El-P, The Go Team, (Smog), Sufjan Stevens, RJD2, The Books, Talib Kweli, Phoenix . . . . The list goes on. If I ever had trouble keeping up with new artists after graduating in 2005, it was only because I had so many established artists to follow.

Of course, my college radio utopia didn’t last. It couldn’t. My monolithic friend group fragmented. People moved, lost touch, became casual, or just stopped being friends. Perhaps this is really when the decade became more to me than a sequence, instead an evolution of time. Late-in-the-decade offerings like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and Animal Collective’s “Fireworks” convey this for me.

After college, I acquired Deerhunter, CSS, Hercules and Love Affair, Santigold, Bat for Lashes, Grizzly Bear, Battles, No Age, Be Your Own Pet, Girl Talk, Magik Markers, Vampire Weekend, Vivian Girls, Women, King Khan and the Shrines, and St. Vincent.

Assuredly there will be more new artists for me (and you) to adopt. Just this week, because of the countdown, I picked up on The Knife.

There are artists whose countdown placement evinces moments when we were willing to bet the farm on an act that now seem dated (Death From Above 1979, The Streets, and Klaxons). There are also acts I didn’t “get” but sorta came around on later (hello, Joanna Newsom). There are acts I didn’t know that well in college but came to treasure later (bless you, Neko Case). There are acts I enjoy but could never fully champion (I like you fine, Belle and Sebastian). There are acts I appreciate, but kinda overwhelm me and can’t listen to all the time (Jesus, Xiu Xiu). And then there are acts for whom I just never got the fuss (Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists).

With that said, this countdown plays predictably. Accepting minor issues like what song was selected to represent an artist and where songs fell in ranking, Pitchfork got a lot right. They also got caught up with some songs that I think they’re overselling, and some things they marginalized or completely overlooked. I’ll preoccupy the rest of this post with those flaws.

For me Pitchfork’s big Achilles heel has always been hip hop, primarily because they really only cover mainstream hip hop (Lil Wayne, T.I., 50 Cent, Clipse, Eminem, Cam’ron, OutKast, Kanye West, and Jay-Z — the last three are all over this countdown). And while this isn’t a problem in its own right, it limits how hip hop is defined and what it represents, which, in a lot of commercial hip hop, that still means money, Cristal, whips, blunts, and bitches (though not in all cases). It certainly suggests that the only way for rappers to be successful and culturally relevant is to be part of a corporate mechanism. This seems like something a publication that prides itself on giving visibility to independent artists should re-evaluate. Because, in my mind, if there’s no Busdriver or Jean Grae, I question the validity of the list.

As a result, it largely eclipses underground hip hop which has seen tremendous advancements over the course of the decade, particularly in the states. Talent from labels like Stones Throw, Quannum Projects, Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux, and anticon., along with talent at labels like Plug Research, Mush, Warp, and Ubiquity have created some of the most vital and interesting work in the genre, expanding its sound and its content while working outside a corporate mechanism in the process (anticon. runs as a collective). But you’d never know that if you only read Pitchfork, who  acknowledged a few efforts, primarily from white male label owners (El-P) and instrumental artists (RJD2, DJ Shadow). No female MCs were acknowledged. This may also speak to the dearth of female MCs in underground hip hop, but doesn’t excuse it (I love you, Jean Grae; I love you, Psalm One). My challenge to hip hop fans in the next decade is to try to create online resources as influential as Pitchfork to get the message out. You’ve got guaranteed spots on my blogroll. 

Also, as you may have noticed if you combed through the entire list, only the top 200 songs are accompanied by blurbs from the writing staff. While I understand that writing 300 more blurbs presents its own challenges, I also think it suggests that tracks 500-301 weren’t good enough for a write-up. And this makes me especially sad when many of the women I loved in this decade — Vivian Girls, St. Vincent, Goldfrapp, Sleater-Kinney, Bat for Lashes, Björk, and The Gossip — are thrown at the end and not given any qualifying statements. This especially seems necessary for a song like The Gossip’s “Standing In the Way of Control,” which became an LGBTQI anthem this decade. That would be especially useful to read alongside #18, Hercules and Love Affair’s “Blind.” This is a great dance song that I’ve always interpreted as an anthem for coming out and living life queer. But you wouldn’t know that from Tim Finney’s write-up.

And while I’m heartened by the women who did make it to the top 200, especially women like M.I.A., Beyoncé, Missy Elliott, Annie, and Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who made the top 20, I can’t help but notice that many of these women are pop artists who work extensively with predominantly male producers. I don’t want to suggest that cutting a track with Timbaland or Diplo or Pharell from The Neptunes means that women are robbed of artistic autonomy, as I wouldn’t say that for Justin Timberlake. However, I do take issue with what female artists and what songs get praise. Or even what versions of songs. While the Diplo remix of the version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that features UGK is great, I wonder why her version isn’t enough.

That said, the 2000s were both a hell of an education and a hell of a time. Pitchfork knows it. I know it. Hopefully, you know it too. It was a great time to be alive. I hope the next decade is even better.

“What about a tuba?”: Little Boots and the Tenori-On

My friend Susan gets the credit for turning me on (Christ, another pun!) to the Tenori-On. It’s a neat, little hand-held electronic instrument that’s easy to use and lets you create entire soundscapes with just a few inspired clicks of the right switches. And if you add the LED light system at the bottom, it’s kinda like you’re playing a Lite Brite.

Little Boots and the Tenori-On, live in concert; photo taken by Paul Gregory for Lense Eye

Little Boots and the Tenori-On, live in concert; photo taken by Paul Gregory for Lense Eye

This brings me to Victoria Hesketh, who performs under the name Little Boots, a British electronic-based singer-songwriter, whose primary instrument is the Tenori-On. Maybe you also know that Joe Goddard of Hot Chip and Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee serve as her producers. Maybe you heard her single “Stuck on Repeat” (it was one Pitchfork’s Top 100 Singles of 2008).

But I don’t wanna suggest that Little Boots needs the guidance and approval of primarily male producers and music press to get ahead. Like many electro female recording artists at the moment (yes, including Lady Gaga), Little Boots is reconfiguring 80s synth pop. And this new little gadget is helping her do just that. Here she is covering Hot Chip’s “Ready for the Floor.”

For one, I like how immediate playing the Tenori-On seems. I don’t wanna be condescending and suggest that it’s simple and thus only dummy amateurs can pick it up, but to me there’s something sorta punk about how anybody could poke around on it to create songs and that it isn’t available only to trained instrumentalists and virtuosos.

(As an aside, the Tenori-On, which made its debut at SIGGRAPH in 2005, is still pretty expensive — a new one’ll set you back a grand, a used one’s starting price averages at $500 — so perhaps only art-school, trust-fund punks can afford it for now. Maybe as the instrument becomes more popular and widely-used, the asking price will decrease.)

For another, unlike punk, which tends to rely on three chords, I like how limitless the compositional possibilities are to the Tenori-On. It seems like you could start in one musical direction and then, with a few clicks and pushes, go through several musical tangents and end up somewhere completely unexpected.

I also like that the Tenori-On makes music composition seem accessible and efficient for the user, which is great for female instrumentalists like Little Boots who can be their own backing band, as well as a tremendous opportunity for women and girls to become more comfortable and savvy with technology. Add to that its compact, lightweight design and it seems like easy to transport from bedroom to backpack to bus stop to backseat to gig.

Incidentally, I have an Omnichord. If any ladies wanna jam, let me know.