Tagged: Karen O

My thoughts on Chloe Angyal’s Miley Cyrus post for Tiger Beatdown, or why I fight

Betty Friedan; image courtesy of windycitymediagroup.com

Five days ago, Chloe Angyal wrote a piece for Tiger Beatdown entitled “Miley Cyrus < Betty Friedan: On the Search for a Feminist Pop Star.” Springboarding off The Frisky’s Jessica Wakeman’s assessment that Miley Cyrus’s new single and accompanying music video for “Can’t Me Tamed” is empowering for girls, Angyal chided some critics’ need to claim female celebrities who project even the slightest sense of self-empowerment as feminist. She also called into question whether or not feminism and pop culture can ever really go together. As a fan of the site (it’s on my blogroll), I of course read it and RTed (follow me @ms_vz).

I’m right with Angyal on most of this. I had just read Rachel Fudge’s essay “Girl, Unreconstructed: Why Girl Power is Bad for Feminism” that a Girls Rock Camp Austin volunteer forwarded, so I was certainly in the right headspace. The line “It’s tempting, but ultimately misguided, to try to make feminist mountains out of girl power molehills” particularly spoke to me. Also, I was also frustrated by Wakeman’s piece, as it assumed that pop music and MTV were the portals through which all girls take their cues, thus absenting girls who don’t have access, reject these offerings, or perhaps find some middle ground. Also, I thought the clip was a blatant attempt to reinvent a girl pop star into an “adult” artist who equates edge with wearing lingerie and smudged eyeliner.

However, I took issue with some of Angyal’s argument. Kristen at Act Your Age left a great comment outlining the lack of actual girls’ perspectives in feminist criticism. She also pointed out that pop music is still often assumed as the bad object against which punk and riot grrrl fought and superceded, a bias we confront in our work with GRCA by trying to dialog musical genres with one another in our music history workshops. But I thought I’d add a few additional concerns. Originally, I was going to post them as a comment to the article. However, it’s been nearly a week since the article was published — a lifetime in the blogosphere. Plus, I figured I could work through some of these issues here and reassert this blog as a communal space for feminist exchanges about music culture.

1. Angyal’s major critique seems to be less about who gets labeled a feminist role model and more toward who does the labeling. To me, she was lobbing her complaint at writers who want to argue the progressive powers of pop music with minimal consideration for enlightened sexism, capitalism, division of labor, corporate enterprising, branding, media saturation, and taste engineering cultivation. I say “here here.” But then I also do this sort of analysis myself. What’s more, I’d like to think I do it on both sides of the mainstream/underground divide, where the lines continue to blur. I know I don’t have the clout or name recognition of more prominent feminist bloggers, and perhaps I’ll cultivate it with time. But I’m here, and so is this blog.

I think Angyal might also be frustrated with how quick writers are to jump on Tweeting trends and topics that guarantee high SEOs. I may be projecting, as this is something that bothers me and I rebel against. Often, I find myself recalling and revisiting bygone or obscure texts to argue their historical merit or dialog them with the present. If I do write about current popular texts, I don’t have much interest in covering them quickly at the expense of evaluation time. I’m not sold on the idea that trends = cultural relevance any more than I am that Sleater-Kinney is inherently better than Nicki Minaj. While I have upon occasion covered a person or topic that was popular and got me some hits, I only did it when I felt I had critical insights to lend. Thus, it can be frustrating when I get traffic because a bunch of people were Googling Megan Fox, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Taylor Momsen, or Miley Cyrus, as has happened to Kristen. On the one hand, hits are great. But those figures are bloated and misleading and may misrepresent my work, because this blog has only sporadic concern with what’s of the moment. But when it does, I hope I treat it with a consistent critical rigor. After all, there truly is no perfect text.

2. Since there is contention between mainstream and indie culture, I’d like to point out that the matter of identifying as a feminist is just as much a concern in the underground and on the fringes of music culture as it is under the mainstream’s spotlight. As a feminist music geek who tends to root for the underdog, I’m often faced with the reality that many of the artists I love — indeed, many of the artists who pointed me toward feminism — don’t identify as feminists. Björk and PJ Harvey don’t, nor does Patti Smith. Rappers like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and many others don’t either, though for reasons that perhaps speak more to racial exclusion, as feminism tends to be a white women’s domain. There are many artists I like whose feminist politics I don’t have a grasp on, including forward-thinking women like Kate Bush, M.I.A., Joanna Newsom, and Janelle Monáe.

There are also artists who do identify as feminist who give me pause. Courtney Love has used feminism to validate her outspoken persona and rail against industry sexism. She has also used it to justify getting plastic surgery, an argument that I take issue with because it obscures class privilege, ingrained beauty standards, and weakens the political potential of choice. Lily Allen has employed the term at times, though her actions and behavior at times suggest that she extols the supposedly feminist virtues of being a brat. Lady Gaga is only starting to claim any identification with feminism. Even confirmed feminists like Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Le Tigre, Gossip, and Yoko Ono — who I admire a great deal for their musical contributions and political convictions — should be subject to scrutiny and considered as individual feminists rather than as a monolithic representation of who a “good” feminist is.

Also, rather than considering pop music as an endpoint or part of a binary, it should be dialoged with other genres and mediums. Recently, Anna at Girls Rock Camp Houston dropped me a line asking about my thoughts on new criticism against Lady Gaga from Mark Dery and Joanna Newsom. As their criticisms questioned her supposed edginess, called out her obvious indebtedness to Madonna, and argued over a lack of musical songcraft, it immediately recalled recent sound bites from Michel Gondry, M.I.A., and Grace Jones deflating the pop star’s artistic inclinations.

I’m of two minds about these detractors’ comments. On the one hand, I still agree. In the year since I first posted about Gaga, I’ve essentially gathered greater nuance for the pop star while still arriving to the same conclusions. Save for a few hits (“Beautiful, Dirty, Rich,” “Bad Romance,” “Monster”), I still think her music is fairly boring and could have much more political bite than it actually does. I thought her American Idol performance of “Alejandro” was overblown. It’s also a fair point to bring up how Gaga lifts from other cultural texts, just as Madonna has throughout her career. And like Amanda Marcotte, I think there are lots of other interesting female musicians doing work we should be following. I mean, is it really a crime not to find Gaga interesting? Does Gaga have to be the female savior of pop music? Can we not look elsewhere? Also, in the cases of Newsom, M.I.A., and Jones, do we have to assume that their criticisms are just examples of female cattiness?

Yet something about these comments smacks of the idealized notion of art vs. commerce, with Gaga imitating one while supposedly embodying the latter. So, I call bullshit, because it’s not like these musicians and this video director don’t also dabble with both. Also, how would they speak of, say, Karen O, another female musician who makes femininity Marilyn Manson grotesque. Would they simply sniff that she did it before Gaga? Would they give her the point because she’s mocked art stars while also being one?

In short, feminism is tricky from all sides. It’s not one thing and it’s never perfect.

3. Finally, I follow commenter Tasha Fierce and take issue with Angyal’s supposition that Betty Friedan is an exemplar of feminism. She penned The Feminine Mystique and founded NOW. She also helped position feminism as a middle-class, college-education, white ladies’ game. She also referred to lesbian separatists as “the lavender menace,” though later recanted. Thus, just as I don’t want Miley Cyrus to be the ambassador for girl power, I don’t believe we should have one (straight, white, middle-class, adult, cisgender, able-bodied) female represent feminism. Let’s encourage discourse, even at the expense of comfort. Consider me a willing participant.

Notes on Maria Raha’s “Cinderella’s Big Score”

Today’s entry focuses on author Maria Raha’s book Cinderella’s Big Score which focuses on female contributions to American and British punk, alternative, and independent music from the mid-1970s to, at its 2005 release, the present. It is to be the first title read by the rock n’ roll book club some Girls Rock Camp Austin peeps have put together. As we haven’t yet met to discuss the book, I’m using my blog to formulate my thoughts on it.

Cover of Maria Raha's "Cinderella's Big Score" (Seal Press, 2005); image courtesy of flickr.com

I picked up Raha’s book back in early 2006 (local business plug: I bought it at MonkeyWrench Books). I read it in between getting my wisdom teeth pulled and taking time off work to engage in a battle with my sinuses. In short, I devoured it while bed-ridden and pissy. This didn’t bode well for the reading process, as I did not like the book. But I wanted to give it another chance, so this was an opportunity to re-read it.

At the time, my problems were two-fold.

1. The scope is too broad. 30-plus years of rock history, broken down into tiny chapters about 38 different female artists? Yikes! It felt like I was reading overviews with little more insight than All Music Guide entries. Either narrow it down or write a bigger book! And I already knew most of these artists before I picked up the book, so I didn’t feel like I was getting any new information.

2. Raha is very much of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” persuasion and does little to challenge her biases or problematize the book’s subjects. As many of the rock artists she holds in high esteem are white women and many of the pop artists she dislikes are women of color, this creates an unintentional yet unfortunate gendered racial tension.

I think about this a lot. When I co-teach music history workshops with Kristen at Act Your Age, we notice that the reception of certain musical subgenres is divided along racial lines. Participants of color tend to get excited about hip hop, R&B, and pop and check out during discussions of punk and riot grrrl. It might be that riot grrrl means a great deal to white girls and white women, but doesn’t speak to many girls and women of color.

(Note: This isn’t to say girls and women of color can’t relate to or be inspired by riot grrrl; I just wonder how many do.)

In addition to the dicey racial implications of the “indie rock, good; pop, bad” binary, I found — and still find — Raha’s reading of pop music to be shallow and essentializing. While I too find The Spice Girls’ (soda) watered-down brand of girl power feminism troubling, along with the advent of millennial teen-pop jailbait like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, I think there’s much more going on here than Raha does. For one, there’s no discussion of fans’ complex relationships with their teen idols (for a closer reading on the subject, I’d recommend scholar Dafna Lemish’s article “Spice Girls’ talk: A case study in the development of gendered identity”). There’s also scant consideration of how image-making is a complex process for female stars — save for Madonna, a person Raha seems to approve of save for her headline grabbing VMA kiss with Spears — and how this is true for both underground and mainstream female artists.

As people forget that Aguilera was in on “the kiss” or that her vocals were live, Raha puts little value in mainstream vocalists’ singing ability, which can involve considerable musical technique and craft. This also absents girl groups like En Vogue and Destiny’s Child or solo artists like Beyoncé from discussion. I also find it insulting that she assumes all of these women are pop dollies Svengalied by men.

This doesn’t even get into how hip hop, both mainstream and independent, is all but ignored in this book.

Oh, and please don’t hate on Janet Jackson.

It may be easy to configure her as a dancer who let Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis create her career for her, or crack wise about plastic surgery, weight fluctuations, and wardrobe malfunctions. But let’s not forget that her songs tackle complex issues like racial injustice, AIDS, homophobia, domestic violence, masturbation, sexual agency, and female autonomy. She’s the woman behind “The Pleasure Principle,” “Nasty,” “Control,” “Together Again,” “What About?,” “Free Zone,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately?,” “Rhythm Nation,” and the black feminist anthem “New Agenda.” She may be the artist responsible for many fans’ entrance into feminism.

These feelings still spike up, though I liked this book more the second time. I took for granted that Raha contextualizes each section of her book with an overview of what was going on in popular music at the time. I do bristle at her open, unchecked animosity for pop’s artificiality (as if indie rock is an exemplar of authenticity; it’s a myth that still gets perpetuated and results in many backlashes against bands like Vampire Weekend, a band I’d be happy to argue on behalf of elsewhere). But I also appreciate how Raha takes hardcore, grunge, nu metal, and the male output of much punk and indie rock to task for practicing misogyny and abiding by patriarchy. And I like that she does champion some female pop stars, particularly Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner. I also like her efforts to discuss female musicians like Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in mixed-gender bands, and bring up issues women had working with one another.

Bassist Tina Weymouth; image courtesy of washingtoncitypaper.com

Raha also discusses bands and artists I didn’t know much about. Thanks for shining a light on Lunachicks, Crass’ Joy De Vivre and Eve Libertine, Avengers’ Penelope Houston, Fastbacks’ Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick. Thanks for bringing Germs’ manager Nicole Panter, Tsunami’s Jenny Toomey and queercore legends Tribe 8 and Team Dretsch into the discussion, as they often get overlooked.

There are of course some artists I wish were discussed, but know Raha had limited space to cover the artists she did, which was already a considerable aggregate. Because this is my blog, I’ll list some ladies, most of whom I’ve discussed here: Delta 5, Au Pairs, Bush Tetras, Y Pants, Pylon, Cibo Matto, Jean Grae, Joanna Newsom, Ponytail, Explode Into Colors, M.I.A., Karen O, Santigold, Yo Majesty, St. Vincent, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Bat for Lashes, Fever Ray, Finally Punk, and Follow That Bird. As some of the artists she discusses are or were on major labels, I will also include Kate Bush, Björk, Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Erykah Badu.

As Raha’s book came out just as indie and mainstream were melding in ways similar yet far more pervasive than the alternative rock boom of a pre-bust American music industry, I wonder what she makes of Solange covering Dirty Projectors or joining Of Montreal on stage. What does she make of M.I.A. or Santigold, two indie artists who court mainstream success? She wrote her book just as download culture forever altered listeners’ exposure to music and their resulting consumer habits.

Isn't Santigold a pop star too?; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

When I first read this book, I questioned the usefulness of it. A noble effort, to be sure. But how valuable is an overview on obscure or underground female artists when the majority of its potential readers can probably follow blogs and download tracks? While I know the book is geared toward younger women — and I certainly would have valued the book at this age — most of the girls I’ve met or worked with at Girls Rock Camp Austin already knew just about everyone mentioned here.

That said, I do think the book is a good primer for young girls and women just starting to navigate the indie rock’s craggy terrain. But if you’re gifting it, make sure to include a mix CD and a set of discussion questions. Maybe it’ll start a book club.

Where the wild sounds are

Max screams; image courtesy of cherryhill.injersey.com

Max screams; image courtesy of cherryhill.injersey.com

I saw Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are this past Saturday. At the Imax, dudes. With actual children, no less. And then I had a lovely dinner for four that two friends cooked. Austin is a town full of hospitable folk doing their part to drive the long-anticipated feature to the number one draw at the box office. Y’all come.

Now, I’ve been waiting for Jonze’s third feature, based on the classic Maurice Sendak children’s book, to come out for years (I guess on the heels of his video for Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights,” the duo have released We Were Once a Fairytale — thanks for the update, Annie). And while the $600 playsuit threatened to put a damper on the proceedings, dammit if I didn’t choke up every time I saw the trailer. In short, my expectations were susceptible to being dashed.

So I was pleasantly surprised that they pretty much weren’t. My only real complaint is that I actually think the script Jonze and Dave Eggers put together could have been less conventional. That said, the movie does a commendable job bridging a fantastical island of wild things from the protagonist Max’s imagination into some place at once real and unreal — the wild things are faithfully rendered from the book, yet have names like Carol and Alexander. It also does a good job capturing the loose pacing and the seemingly nonsensical ideas that come to life from creative processes. Carol, the leader of the wild things, builds a miniature world that contains all his friends and idealized notions of life with them in a manner at once so precise and makeshift that I couldn’t help but wonder if the diarama was Jonze’s tip of the hat to buddy Michel Gondry. Max orders the wild things to build a fortress that seems impossible to build, until it materializes before our eyes. 

Oh, and I can’t believe I saw a big-budget mainstream motion picture where all of the studio logos were defaced by children’s doodlings.

There are startling moments of realism in Max’s fantasy world, as when a real raccoon appears in a wild thing’s belly named Richard or when another wild thing rescues a housecat. There’s also shocking moments of aural and physical violence, both in Max’s real and imagined worlds. A wild thing rips a limb off another, teenage boys dive into the igloo Max lovingly built out of snow in his front yard, Max tells his mother (played by the superlative Catherine Keener) a story about a vampire who loses his fangs while trying to bite through a castle’s walls. Nothing is more violent than our emotions, however, especially when they materialize as shouts of joy and squishy snot pools of angst.  

Mother-son fighting; image courtesy of daemonsmovies.com

Mother-son fighting; image courtesy of daemonsmovies.com

For Max, almost all of these emotions and flights of fancy are the result of his parents’ recent divorce, clearly Jonze’s attempt to process his childhood and his dissolved marriage to Sofia Coppola. Some people may really hate this narrative decision, which is no where addressed in the skeletal source material. I note that Sendak intentionally left the story elliptical and thus would be heartened to see multiple adaptations of this book from a variety of directors, each with their own sense of character motivation and plot. Also, as a product of a broken home who in all likelihood was sitting in a theater with other children and adults who dealt with divorce, I found a tremendous amount of catharsis in watching this lonely boy try — and sometimes fail — to work through his feelings about what once was but can never be again. Speaking for myself, I got through this by drawing murals of mermaids that talked to me, having eight imaginary sisters named Jessica, and running in my backyard alone pretending to be a fairy. So I felt for Max.

Thinking about kids, let me give it up for the crowd with whom I saw this movie. Possibly the only screening I’ve been to where the sound of babies crying actually added to the ambiance, I’m happy to report that the theater I saw this movie in was teeming with kids. And not all white, liberal, hipster kids whose parents like movies that do well in Brooklyn. “Regular” kids, some with bowl haircuts and homemade crowns and Nike running shoes. “Normal” kids who seemed energized by the movie afterwards (as someone who was scared of monsters, I would not have been one of those kids). And most of them seemed to be pretty on-the-ball, problematizing some of the speculations that kids won’t “get” this movie. I’d gladly point out the boy behind us who instantly figured out that two squawking owls were telling a knock-knock joke. 

And speaking of on-the-ball kids, I can’t believe lead actor Max Records has only been in a few other things. With that too-cool-for-school name, I do believe that Lance Bangs (aka Lester Bangs’s son, aka Mr. Corin Tucker) discovered him. That said, there isn’t a false moment in his multi-faceted performance. Also, I feel a little weird about this, but he’s a total hottie-to-be, not unlike Emma Watson when she starred in the first few Harry Potter movies.

Hipster pre-teen idol; image courtesy of weloveyouso.com

Hipster pre-teen idol; image courtesy of weloveyouso.com

As for the sounds, two things struck me about this movie that I haven’t fully processed but stay with me long after the initial viewing. One is the score. I’ve been thinking about Karen O and Carter Burwell’s work here for some time. I listened to the soundtrack after Stereogum posted it. On its own, it was pleasant and at times interesting, but seemingly not of a piece. With the visuals, however, the songs Karen O put together with Burwell and as one of the Kids take on new resonance. Her vocals also seem to help us orient and empathize with Max. Using a woman’s voice to identify with a boy protagonist is interesting, and certainly plays with notions of queerness, androgyny, and between-ness. This ambiguity was something that seemed possible in some of the M.I.A. songs used in portions of Slumdog Millionaire that focused on protagonist Jamal’s childhood. It is certainly evident in the construction of Max’s pre-pubescent, slightly degendered, soft boy identity here.

A final thing that interested me that I hadn’t anticipated was the use of voice actors for the wild things. Forrest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini lent their voices and considerable acting ability to create a whole different sense of aural corporeality and heightened realness to these otherwise fantastical monsters. When Ambrose’s KW tells Max “I’ll eat you up, I love you so” as she bids him goodbye as he returns home from his imaginary travels, I believe it and don’t forget the sound of her words.

“You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars”: My like-hate relationship with Almost Famous

William Miller, Stillwater, and the Band-Aids, on the road; image courtesy of redriverautographs.wordpress.com

William Miller, Stillwater, and the Band-Aids, on the road; image courtesy of redriverautographs.wordpress.com

All right, folks. I’m home with the sniffles, so let’s roll up our sleeves for this one. I recently re-watched my VHS copy and am ready to get into it. At length. Double-album style. Watching the movie on video means I didn’t listen to any DVD commentaries to formulate my thoughts. And while I have seen the Untitled version, my opinions will mostly be generated from the theatrical release version. Keep this in mind reading on, but feel free to mix it up in the comments section.

Now, this is a movie that pushes and pulls me like few other. As I’ve grown older, depending on how I felt when I watched it, I waft somewhere between charitable introspection and vitriolic rejection, one time even going so far as drunkenly telling a friend who likes this movie to shut up (sorry, Leigh!).

I wasn’t always this way. When it first came out during my senior year of high school, I looooooooved it. I saw it with my best friend Jamie and a boy I would later regret dating. Jamie was the editor of the school newspaper. I made my extracurricular committment to choir, but wished I had room in my class schedule to write for The Clarion. I wanted to be William Miller, the fifteen-year-old journalist protagonist who fills in for director Cameron Crowe and his own (idealized?) experiences as a writer. Figuring I could catch up in college, I set my sights on UT’s journalism school. By graduation, I assumed I’d be working as a rock critic in New York City, perhaps following bands like Stillwater, the fictitious classic rock band based on The Allman Brothers Band that breaks (then promises to make) Miller’s career.

My hope of being a rock journalist was officially dashed the second time I was not hired as a writer for The Daily Texan‘s entertainment section. After this rejection, 19-year-old me reasoned that these fat cats were shills for the man with terrible taste in music. I might have even phrased it that way at the time. From here, I officially cast my lot with college radio.

It’s important to bring up music journalism, not only to burn on it out of bitter feelings of rejection. When this movie originally came out, it was a dangerous time for print publications like Rolling Stone and Spin, much like the early 70s was a dangerous time for rock music. 1973, the year this movie takes place, was a harbinger of the bloated, corporate, cool-hunting enterprise the mainstream music industry would become. By 2000, it had completely transformed into a deregulated, conglomerate behemoth, peddling a handful of marketable, palatable, and safe talent that could sell ancillary products and jack up the retail prices on those ancillary products, which the compact disc had become. Music listeners, irritated by ever-higher CD prices, began downloading illegally in earnest. Sometimes they were met with arrests and lawsuits. Sometimes those lawsuits were filed by the popular musicians they idolized. As a result of these actions, and some truly stupid strategies the music industry has used to push units, people are more incredulous of the music industry than ever.

It’s important to bring in the Internet and the ubiquity of digital technology too, as online communication affected print journalism. Throughout the 2000s, publications scrambled to keep up circulation and readership. Some were bought and sold to other conglomerates. Some turned from monthlies to quarterlies. Some drastically changed their content and marketing campaigns (the saddest one for me was Spin, a high school favorite that was Rolling Stone‘s cool, younger sibling; by the time I entered graduate school, it packaged itself as the hipster version of Us and lagged behind e-zines like Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes in its coverage of new music). Some shilled out to reality TV (looking at you, Rolling Stone). Some simply folded.

Along with publications, staffs shrunk due to budget cuts. Some folks survived the fall-out. Rob Sheffield came into the field from the academy and penned a touching memoir. Eric Weisbard became part of the academy, currently an American Studies professor at the University of Alabama. Some folks, like Sarah Lewitinn and Chuck Klosterman, became cults of personality. But others didn’t fare as well. Sia Michel lost her position as Spin‘s editor-and-chief, though was hired on to be The New York Times‘ pop music editor. At some places, an entertainment staff was whittled down to one person, if there was a department at all.

Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl; image courtesy of daylife.com

Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl; image courtesy of daylife.com

With the implosion of print-based music journalism came the advent of e-zines like Pitchfork and, of course, blogs. These folks, for good or for bad, may shape what criticism will look like in this century. I, for one, do see some good to blog culture (barring, you know, my recent public involvement with it). The principle assets I have found with it are its immediacy and DIY ethic. I couldn’t get a staff position at the Texan. I wasn’t financially able to take an internship. In short, traditional modes of ascension in the field weren’t available to me or many others. But blogging allows (some) writers to continue researching, hone their craft, and figure out just why they’re so interested in their subject of analysis.

Of course, there are hazards to blogging. Our collective attention span for new sounds has diminished. Furthermore, a considerable amount of misinformation gets reported. However, while I’m tempted to attribute this to a lack of fluency with journalistic principles of investigating, reporting, and fact-checking, I don’t know if it’s that simple. I’d hasten to point out that blogging and traditional journalism are both vulnerable to errors, unfair coverage, unequal time, and other ethical issues in the wake of the 24-hour news cycle.

In short, I watch this movie and think three things: 1) I don’t know if William Miller would be a journalist today, as the publications he would want to work at might not be able to hire him, 2) I do think he’d be a blogger, as the fan-critic and musician-journalist binaries in media culture have been considerably blurred since the early 70s, and 3) while this movie seems quaint in its depiction of a just-booming American music industry, it still seems completely relevant, maybe even more so than when the movie was originally released.

So, you would think based on all of this fodder, I’d love this movie. But it’s not so simple and the movie itself is only partly at fault. A major issue I have with the movie isn’t so much to do with its gender politics as it is with the gender politics of its fanboys. I have heard too many fanboys talk about this movie with fervor, as if God touched Cameron Crowe’s camera. They’ll regale folks with abstruse bits of commentary from the Untitled version and quiz people on what songs like Stillwater’s “Love Thing” and “Fever Dog” are really about (I think love and kicking addiction, respectively). They are often humorless, especially if you point out any similarities they might have to Vic Munoz, the movie’s Led Zeppelin devotee. Oh, and they always love Led Zeppelin. Always.

But Alyx. Smelly zealot fanboys shouldn’t keep you from liking a movie, you say. The movie has a lot of good things going for it, you add. There’s even a lot of interesting female characters walking around, being smart and human and brave, you note. You might even say they’re more interesting than altruistic protagonist William Miller, you whisper emphatically. Fair points all. So, let’s do what Mary Kearney did when I watched this movie in her gender and rock undergrad class and run through the women and girls we meet in Miller’s coming-of-age story. Note that many of them are autonomous beings, free agents on the road:

1. The Band-Aids, especially one Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson in what many argue is her only credible screen performance). They are not groupies and consider themselves fans who are autonomous, exercise sexual agency, and are not disposable, though some musicians have trouble seeing them the way they see themselves.

1A. While Penny Lane is clearly the Band-Aid leader, I’ve always loved Sapphire (played by Fairuza Balk). Label it blonde antipathy or brunette solidarity, but it’s hard not to love this rough, mischievous, funny, and wise lady. Can you imagine the stories she could tell? She intimates with William’s mother about his travels on the road and how she should be proud of her son from a hotel phone. She’s responsible for orchestrating the orgy that takes William’s (who she calls “Opie“) virginity. She’s also the one who delivers the hard truth about Penny and William to guitarist Russell Hammond. And she’s the one who insists that younger groupies take birth control, appreciate the music, and quit eating all the steak at crafts’ services.

2. Alice Wisdom, a deejay whose playlist Lester Bangs rudely rejects. Now I don’t like The Doors either, Lester, but that doesn’t mean you should shout over her opinions and discredit her taste in music. Unless you’re actually discrediting the radio station’s taste in music, in which case the deejay’s role becomes even more compromised. And this woman is already compromised by having the regulatory whiskey-throated voice that all female deejays seem required to have or emulate.
3. High school girls running for gym class. Stillwater bassist Larry Fellows perks up at the view from the tour bus; Penny Lane gives them the finger, glad that she’s playing hooky. That she’s not them.
4. Fans. Some of whom are Band-Aids or groupies, most of whom are regular girls and women with jobs and parents.
5. Band wives and girlfriends. They were there before the band got signed, are not often there for the shenanigans on the road, and probably won’t be there after the break-ups and divorces.
6. A particularly shrill feminist stereotype of a Rolling Stone journalist billed as Alison the Fact Checker. Sadly, she probably has to be in order to be heard in staff meetings. Plus, wouldn’t you be pissy if you were trying to forge a career, were all-too-cognizant of sexism and misogyny, but also loved writing about popular music? This is a question I’ve always wanted to ask Ann Powers, Dream Hampton, and Lorraine Ali.

How do you do it, dream hampton?; image courtesy of thestartingfive.net

"How do you do it, Dream Hampton?"; image courtesy of thestartingfive.net

7. A singer-songwriter jamming with another singer-songwriter who appear to be modeled after Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. William sees them playing in a hotel room during his first visit at the Riot House.
8. William’s big sister, Anita. She has a turbulent relationship with her mother and leaves home to become a flight attendant, leaving her kid brother a haul of amazing records, including Joni Mitchell’s Blue. She even gives him some good advice about how to listen to The Who’s Tommy that seems to have a lasting impression.
9. And, of course, William’s awesome, anti-establishment, overprotective mother Elaine, who is a college professor in San Diego. She is also the family matriarch, and probably was even before her husband died. Besides Lester, Ms. Miller is one of the few rebels. They both hold the distinction of being the only people who recognizes that rock culture, and its attendant cheap thrills and promises, is just another corporate enterprise.

Now, now. The dudes are interesting too, you might say. And masculinity is a discursive minefield here. So let’s walk through it. Let’s make like the movie and use William Miller to do this.
1. Miller himself is a soft-eyed, feminine boy played by then-unknown Patrick Fugit. He is hopelessly in love with Penny, a girl who may be his age but is out of his depth and hopelessly in love with someone else.

William Miller and his quest for truth; image courtesy of blog.lib.umn.edu

William Miller and his quest for truth; image courtesy of blog.lib.umn.edu

2. Billy Crudup’s Russell Hammond is the talented, aloof, and cowardly lead guitarist for Stillwater. He’s technically better than his bandmates, and is quick to hover it over them. He takes William under his wing because he’s a fan, only to dismiss him when Bob Dylan makes an appearance at Max’s Kansas City. He also nearly ruins William’s journalistic integrity when his own credibility is on the line. He’s also in love with Penny, but more in love with becoming a rock star. He’s not so in love with his wife, Leslie. He loves himself more than anyone, and hates himself for it.
3. Stillwater lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) feels differently toward Leslie. He also has considerable animosity toward Hammond, whose emergent fame and skill is threatening to eclipse him and the rest of the band.
4. Bassist Larry Fellows and drummer Ed Vallencourt round out the band. Fellows (played by singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, who I named my cat after) seems only interested in barbeque and high school girls. Vallencourt (played by John Fedevich) is silent through most of the movie, until he announces that he’s gay during a traumatic airplane ride.
5. Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) and Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) manage the band. Fellows has been with them for most of their career. Hope convinces the band to cash in and sell out, most symbolically by trading their bus for a jet. They will regret this decision.
6. Jann Wenner and Ben Fong-Torres, Rolling Stone‘s respective editor-and-chief and senior editor, who serve as William’s bosses. Note the Wenner is gay, though at this time in his career, he was married to a woman named Jane. They would go on to have three children before divorcing in 1995. I haven’t read anything on Wenner, but am fascinated to learn how he negotiated all of this. Note also that Fong-Torres is Chinese American and one of the few people of color in both the movie and perhaps the emerging mainstream rock music industry. Note also the “Torres” surname, which his father adopted, dropping “Fong,” in order to pose as a Mexican in order to be granted U.S. citizenship while Chester Arthur’s Chinese Exclusion Act was still on the books. The family later kept both surnames.

Stillwater, on the cover of Rolling Stone; image courtesy of jeffdurling.com

Stillwater, on the cover of Rolling Stone; image courtesy of jeffdurling.com

But William doesn’t really have much in common with Stillwater. He wants to be them, but is in actual fact a music geek. Two like-minded male characters empathize, and share a relationship that is at once classically masculine in its indexical organization of rock’s ephemera and, at the same time, feminine in their romantic, homoerotic obsessive fandom.
1. Lester Bangs, William’s mentor, played by the formidable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is one of the main reasons I’ll be seeing Pirate Radio. Reportedly, his scenes were filmed while he had the flu. Bangs hates what rock journalism has become.

Lester Bangs imparting life lessons to William Miller; image courtesy of playground.chronicleblogs.com

Lester Bangs imparting life lessons to William Miller; image courtesy of playground.chronicleblogs.com

2. Vic Munoz, played by longtime Apatow mainstay Jay Baruchel. He’s the Zeppelin fan who follows the band everywhere, clutches a marker frontman Robert Plant once held, and wears his “Have you seen the bridge?” t-shirt at all times.

I should point out, however, that the girls index too. Penny Lane may not want William to take notes during Stillwater concerts, but that doesn’t mean that she, her peers, or William’s sister Anita, can’t rattle off band line-ups, industry players, and song lyrics.

And lest we forget that William actually forges strong relationships with his sister, his mother, and the Band-Aids. While Sapphire, Polexia, and the gang seduce William, they also believe in him, intimate secrets with him, and provide him support, though they sometimes treat him as a minion and less as an equal.

I should also point out, since I opined that Miller doesn’t have much in common with Stillwater, that he does have an interesting relationship with Hammond nonetheless. Miller, a kid brother with an older sister, doesn’t seem to have any male friends or role models before he takes Bangs’s assignment to cover Black Sabbath for Creem, a band for whom Stillwater is opening and launches Miller’s almost-too-good-to-be-true feature assignment for Rolling Stone.

I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Hammond as a friend or role model. Perhaps he’s better suited for an older brother position. At first, Miller looks up to Hammond, calling his guitar-playing “incendiary” and trying (largely in vain) to emulate his slingin’, ‘stached bravado. But, despite a Band-Aid orgy (controlled by the women who believe that “Opie must die”), Miller clearly doesn’t have that kind of swagger. He also doesn’t seem to want it, seeing Hammond’s cowardice beneath it. He also recognizes the irony of such inauthentic displays of machismo and ego in a form supposedly as authentic, romantic, and pure as rock is supposed to be, and is quickly unbecoming. Perhaps he also notices the rigid gender roles and chauvinism that inform the supposed gains of free love and the sexual revolution. This hypocrisy, along with the band’s quick rejection of real fans for industry success and the promise of rock mythology, make Miller able to put Hammond and his band mates in their place during the climactic plane scene. His honesty and integrity also earns him their trust, especially Hammond’s, who finally grants him a real interview at the end of the movie.

As an aside, if Hammond is Miller’s imperfect older brother, he steps right into the role by sassing Ms. Miller when he first talks to her on the phone, immediately snapping into a “yes ma’am, no ma’am” routine when she admonishes his behavior and values.

Miller’s character also wins the respect of Penny Lane, even when she’s ignoring the icky realities of seeing yourself as a fan but being treated as a groupie, as disposable as a real Band-Aid.

Note that it doesn’t win Lane’s affections, at least not physically. She may be too hard for or scared of Miller’s feelings (which are announced, unfortunately, in a scene where Miller kisses Lane, who just overdosed on Quaaludes). She may not be ready for rejecting her own rock star mythology in order to be truly intimate with someone (though she suggests she might when she tells Miller that she came into this world as one Lady Goodman). Maybe doing so would make her the typical teen she (and William’s mother) see little value in becoming. Maybe not consummating this relationship suggests they have no interest in typical interactions with one another.

Yet Miller’s and Lane’s relationship, which seems built on male fantasy, is an issue I have with this movie. I don’t get what the fuss is about, frankly. I understand that Lane is pretty, savvy, and well-traveled, but don’t understand why Miller has such a crush on her, primarily because I don’t understand how loving a band’s music leads you toward doing their ironing backstage while the boy you love in the band can’t be bothered to love you back. More importantly, I don’t know who she really is. Maybe the self-mythology is part of what prevents me (and certainly Miller) from getting close. Maybe the challenge of trying to find out who the real Penny Lane is warrants enough of a fascinating exercise for Miller. And maybe it isn’t any of our business who Lane really is. But I sort of wonder if she’s perfectly matched with Hammond, a man who wants desperately to be the myth he’s created for himself. Maybe this suggests that both of them have something in common with Don Draper. Here’s one scene where I think Lane, alone after a concert, drops the masquerade (note that the scene follows Stillwater’s treacherous meeting with super-manager Hope).

Admittedly, perhaps my problem resides in Kate Hudson’s performance. Perhaps I want her not to channel her mother, herself a manic pixie dream girl of this era, so much. Perhaps I’m projecting Goldie Hawn’s presence and ignoring how Hudson is making this role her own. I do think Hudson does a good job balancing Lane’s contrasts and contradictions, perhaps a better job than Kirsten Dunst (who almost got this role, but was cast in Crowe’s Elizabethtown instead) would.

And I do think I’m being unfair in my dismissal of Kate Hudson and Penny Lane. Because I think my real problem, as it usually is with Crowe’s movies, is the director’s unfortunate habit of crutching on the magic of pop music. Admittedly, this might be a hard habit for a music geek director to break, but it has kept me from enjoying his other movies (including, yes, Say Anything). And it’s probably contradictory for a music fan not to like pop music playing such a pronounced role in Crowe’s work. To me, however, Crowe’s use of pop music suggests the necessity of delicate application. Because I hate how he uses Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in one of the movie’s big reconciliatory moments, as its obvious that he is making the case for how pop music’s universality heals all psychic wounds. When Lane tells Miller that he is home, all I can think is “fucking duh.”

While I feel like the movie’s score adds to the treacle (especially during the scene when Miller runs with Lane’s departing plane), I do admire Cameron Crowe’s ongoing collaborations with wife and Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson. We’d do well to remember Wilson’s rock legend status, score work, and Crowe’s relationship with Wilson when making sexist assumptions about Sofia Coppola’s relationship with Phoenix’s Thomas Mars, who is working on her next movie, Somewhere. We might also like to keep it in mind when thinking about Karen O’s involvement in ex-boyfriend Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Going back to Crowe’s unfortunate flirtations with the obvious for my closing remarks, he does make a few other points in this movie in highlighter yellow that I love anyway. So much so that I’ve shaped my life around them. In the interest of full disclosure, I will share them now, suggesting that sometimes flirtations with the obvious are essential and humane.

1) The introductory scene between Bangs and Miller, when Bangs talks about staying up all night, writing about music. Whether or not he was high on cough syrup and speed or the tomes he devoted to The Faces or John Coltrane were dribble didn’t matter. The objective, as William knows well, is “just to fuckin’ write.” It’s an objective I know well too. It’s a key reason why I put this blog together in the first place, and I’m certainly not alone.
2) Lane has a great line as well, one that has stayed with me as I age. I’m a firm believer in the advice she gives Miller when she drives them to the Riot House: “if you ever get lonely, you just go to the record store and visit your friends.” The comfort I have found in record stores cannot be overstated, and I only hope that, as I get older, at least a few of them don’t get completely mowed down to make way for more lucrative businesses. I might have to stay in a city that shares kinship with Austin to assure this, but I think it’s worth it. I’d rather live in a city that appreciates the cultural and communal value of record stores over a city that only sees value in their market returns.

After all this, I believe Almost Famous to be an interesting and challenging movie at times marred by its idealism, sentimentality, and emphasis on one very lucky boy’s experience following around a band and writing down what happened. Thus, it’s a movie I keep coming back to, even if I don’t feel the need to replace the tape.

Post-Cinemakids Monday rad list

So, I’m still a little brain-drained from working on Cinemakids this weekend. I helped a group of nine-year-olds make a short movie about skatin’ dudes and pie fights (or, more accurately, walked them through the basics of making their own movie, tried to keep them positive and focused, sometimes mediated arguments, and sometimes provided them with Oreos). It was fun and if you want to see the movie “Team I Want Some Pie” made, along with the other participants, the screening is on November 7th.

And sometimes being a little brain-drained is good. It’s inspiring. And because today is Monday and we might all be a little slow getting back into our weekly routine, I thought I’d make a quick list of rad stuff I’m stoked about or inspired by. Feel free to share your rad lists as well.

Sadie Benning. Thanks to grad school and Kill Rock Stars, I know who this is. Benning is my go-to “girl filmmaker,” however essentializing that term may be. But I kept thinking about her work all weekend and how, if you have a vision and a Fisher-Price camera, you can start making movies at any age (an experimental filmmaker parent may also help, but not necessarily guarantee inspiration). If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend looking at some of her shorts. You can also watch her work in Julie Ruin’s “Aerobicide” music video.

On that tip, Molly Schiot has made some great videos too. Might I point you in the direction of Mika Miko’s “Business Cats” and Sleater-Kinney’s “Entertain”? Also watch the interview footage Schiot put together of Pat Place and Cynthia Sley of Bush Tetras talking about being tuff feminists on the lower East Side in the early 80s. This interview plus a recent screening of Downtown ’81 convinces me that I’m not tough enough to have lived in New York and the early 80s, and neither are most people of my generation. These women lived “Too Many Creeps.”

Oh hai Jane Campion. I’m looking forward to seeing Bright Star. Additional points of interest for apparently configuring Fanny Brawne as a proto-punk fashion icon.

Haters be damned, I still wanna see Jennifer’s Body. The reviews aren’t in, but I think we can assume I’m still going to see Whip It! next month as well.

Karen O, music supervisor of Where The Wild Things Are. How is Spike Jonze’s new movie not going to be awesome? Regardless, I know the Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman’s musical contributions to the movie will necessitate its own post. Can’t wait for it to come out!

Dolly Parton box set – We’re getting closer to its October 27th release date! This release comes out mere months after Archeophone released their Sophie Tucker anthology.

The Gossip are coming to ATX next month, two days after Parton’s box set is released. Yet another reason why October is for winners. We can only hope that Beth will pull out the wig and cover some Dolly.

I missed Mad Men last night because I was cheering on the KOOP Kilowatts. I suspect others may have missed last night’s episode too due to the Emmys (or at least had to back-and-forth it). Regardless, apparently Betty and Don’s angsty eldest daughter Sally discards a Barbie doll her mom gives her in last night’s episode. Ugh, you totally don’t get my ten-year-old girl needs, mom. Season three has been Sally’s season, in my mind.

Oh, just wait for my teenage rebellion, mom and dad -- Sally Draper makes cocktails; image courtesy of flickr.com

"Oh, just wait for my teenage rebellion, mom and dad" -- Sally Draper makes cocktails; image courtesy of flickr.com

Oh, on that tack, I need to rewatch season two and see the documentary on women’s liberation that was included in the DVD set. For more on the subject, Mary Kearney just wrote a great Flow column on it. I wonder how Sally will be impacted by these changes.

I recently bought Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love at Cheapo. Yes, that does mean that I listened to “The Big Sky” on my drive to work.

I have been pairing this with Julie Ruin’s “Valley Girl Intelligensia,” bringing us back full circle to grrrl germs.

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.

Can PJ Harvey please score a movie?

PJ Harvey and John Parish

PJ Harvey and John Parish

She really wants to, as she shared with Pitchfork recently, but no one has asked her.

Seriously, wouldn’t that be awesome? Her music is so cinematic anyway. I’ve been an avid listener for many years and have always thought that the person behind “I’m Just Working for the Man,” “The River,” and “A Place Called Home” (among others) could put together a score that triggers all the right buzz words — haunting, moody, atmospheric, elusive. For further evidence, let’s listen to “Leaving California,” off A Woman a Man Walked By, her new album with longtime collaborator (and film scorer), John Parish.

In my head, I’d like to see her score a western, like her erstwhile companion (and musical counterpart) Nick Cave. If we’re going for the movie of my dreams, let’s say it’s a Campion-esque costume piece that will eroticize boots, chaps, and fringe the way that The Piano did with crinoline, corsets, and ankle boots. If it were directed by Campion and was a lesbian romance starring Tilda Swinton and Susan Sarandon, so much the better.

For now, I guess I’ll have to wait for Spike Jonze’s highly-anticipated Where The Wild Things Are. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs served as composer for it. Expect a future post.