Tagged: Radiohead

For Kristen, a few weeks ago

A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?”  My reply was “That fucking guy.”

Bon Iver getting in touch with nature and, therefore, himself; image courtesy of stereogum.com

Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.

This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.

I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.

I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.

People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.

I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.

Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?

Miranda July, you are not the mother!; image courtesy of jonathanrosenbaum.com

A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.

Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.

Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.

As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.

It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.

I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.

Records That Made Me a Feminist: Björk’s Homogenic and Vespertine, by Alyx

homogenic

Cover of Björk's Homogenic (One Little Indian, 1997); image courtesy of slantmagazine.com

vespertine

Cover for Björk's Vespertine (One Little Indian, 2001); image courtesy of harmony-korine.com

When I began conceptualizing this blog in the ol’ brainspace, one of the first sections I came up with was “Records That Made Me a Feminist.” I knew Björk was going to get at least one entry. Homogenic and Vespertine each played a vital part of shaping my politics. So, I figured out I’d probably have to write about them together.

Pairing albums for this section of the blog is something I originally wanted to do this when covering Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, which I started listening to around the same time as PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. I liked the idea of dialoguing seemingly dissimilar work by female artists with one another, but I feared covering those two albums together would short-shrift the artists who made them. However, talking about two distinct pieces of work by one woman seemed easier. And essential. So here we go.

I must admit that covering Björk’s 1997 and 2000 full-length releases present its own political challenges that makes me think critically about how I understand and practice feminism. Both of these albums made me a feminist largely because of the boys I was preoccupied with at the time.

But while my initial reception and resulting connections to them were tied up with potentially normative feelings around romantic angst and heterosexual coupling, I feel the albums speak to my development at the time as well as transcend it. In other words, Homogenic and Vespertine may remind me of boys I used to date, but they speak to larger, more overtly feminist issues as well.

Of course, being a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t like boys or be hung up on them from time to time, so long as you don’t let them run your life. Which I don’t think Björk endorses in either of these records, even though she herself has an ambivalent relationship with feminism (though not with calling out the music industry’s sexist practices of attributing male engineers and instrumental songwriters).

Importantly, as both albums were prescient to my development, they also went over my head when I first listened to them. Debut and Post were more accessible and, as a result, I liked them almost immediately. It was hard for 10-year-old me not to fall for the girl dancing through New York City on a flatbed in the music video for “Big Time Sensuality.”

But Björk’s next two albums took more time to process. Both albums mark advances in the artist’s production sensibilities, approaches to music-making, and interest in electronic instrumentation. Thus, just as Björk had to evolve as a musician before creating these albums, I had to mature a bit as a person before liking them as a fan.

So, Homogenic came out just as I was starting high school. I don’t exactly remember when I bought it, but I think it was sometime toward the end of junior year. I completely ignored it at the time. Or rather, I listened to it once, went “ooh, so angry!” and put Post back on.

The particulars I’ll keep to myself for the sake of decorum. Suffice it to say that I dated someone for a little while, fell in love, we broke up, and I spent a little over a year trying to get us back together. It didn’t work out. Eventually I got over him and whatever I thought we were, but not without some pain and denial and then serious personal re-evaluation. The healing process involved some righteous anger, loud parties, several bottles of wine and other goodies, and burgeoning feminist development. After a rough start, 19 turned out to be a pretty okay year. Homogenic was its soundtrack.

Now, I have no problem acknowledging that this guy was a total jerk to me. But feminism isn’t only about recognizing and calling out chauvinistic bullshit. It’s also about self-empowerment, personal accountability, and un-learning heteronormativity and patriarchal co-dependence. It isn’t always just the guy’s fault, even when it is.

Thus, I also have to own up to being really needy and delusional at the time. I pinned my worth on whoever I was dating without questioning whether being with them was actually good for me. So I projected my own big feelings and insecurities on someone who clearly didn’t want to be with me. I was ignoring the reality of the situation and, as a result, my own well-being. I finally recognized what I was doing when confronted with the lyric “How could I be so immature to think he could replace the missing elements in me — how extremely lazy of me.” 

Kinda appropriate that a break-up record got me over mine, no? Apparently, Björk made the album after breaking up with drum’n’bass musician Goldie while they were working on their own project. Hence lines like “So you left me on my own to complete the mission, but now I’m leaving it all behind.” But it pretty much hit all the right notes of melancholy, indignation, rage, and feisty recovery for me. I’m a quarter Norwegian on my mother’s side, so even the line “I thought I could organize freedom — how Scandinavian of me” in “Hunter” applied.

Attention must be paid to the album’s sound and how it marked a musical departure for Björk. Post was an eclectic mix that boasted songs like “Army of Me,” “Enjoy,” and “Headphones,” that opened up her sound to include state-of-the-art aggressive digital distortion and serene electronic minimalism.

While this was evident in the production work Tricky and 808 State’s Graham Massey did on Post, it wasn’t the focus. It would come to define the artistic work she began doing with producers like Mark Bell on Homogenic and would continue to do with Matmos on Vespertine. But I’d hedge that most casual listeners just remember Post‘s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which was produced by Björk’s then-mainstay, Nellee Hooper, the man responsible for all the production on her breakthrough Debut. He was also responsible for “Hyperballad,” which I’d argue suggests the artist’s shift, which is fully evident on her next album.

Man, I wish I could post the music video, but WMG has apparently disabled the audio. All the more reason to check out Michel Gondry’s Directors Label DVD, or any of the other myriad DVD titles that have documented her videography.

So Homogenic marks a transition from being a pop star to an artist who challenges her listeners’ ears and expectations with each release. By 1997, we also heard alternative pop stars like Beck and Radiohead establish themselves similarly with Odelay and OK Computer. We would hear Radiohead do it again in 2000 with the mind-blowing Kid A, where they really demonstrated their love for electronic instrumentation and experimental production techniques.

Björk was already on this path in 1997, but while Radiohead looked outward toward the fallabilities of modern life, Björk looked inward at the seductive pleasures and wobbly peculiarities of domestic life and partnership on her next record, rapturing at her voice’s clicks and finding percussive possibilities out of shuffled decks of cards. I don’t think these innovations went unnoticed when Radiohead went to work on In Rainbows. To me, Vespertine‘s influence is all over a song like “Nude,” which was originally an outtake from OK Computer. This is further confirmed by the band’s rendition of Homogenic‘s “Unravel” as a tip of the hat. As if lead singer Thom Yorke’s backing vocals on “Náttúra” aren’t enough.

Hmmm. Maybe at some point, I’ll consider Yorke’s duets with Björk and PJ Harvey. Yorke is one of my favorite vocalists, a fact confirmed by a recent revisit of Hail to the Thief. If one of my friends ran a blog on male masculinity and music culture, I’d pen a guest entry in a second.

But I was afflicted with a troubled mind when Vespertine first came out. In addition to boy heartache, I was going through some considerable familial strife. I was also starting my first semester of college, so a tackier person might blame 9/11.

After seeing the music video for “Hidden Place,” I dutifully bought the album, along with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, another at-the-time inscrutable release, at the Tower Records by campus. I listened to the album a few times, but my head was not in the right place for it. It was too contented and quiet. I couldn’t hear it. And then for a little while all I could hear was Homogenic at full volume.

Stills from the video that convinced me to buy "Vespertine"; image courtesy of unit.bjork.com

To be blunt, Vespertine didn’t really make sense to me until I started having sex. Critics like Ryan Dombal would seem to concur. I remember seeing her performance of “Cocoon” on Jay Leno and thinking that it was really quiet, but totally not getting how micro-embodied intimacy is the song’s entire purpose. While I had a good understanding of mechanics and had engaged in related activities before going into my first listen, I don’t think a song like “Cocoon” makes sense to a person unless they’ve experienced it, to speak euphemistically, in a corporeal sense.

BTW, yes that is Bill O’Reilly adjusting his tie. If he was actually listening to the song, I’m sure he’d be appalled by how delightfully, defiantly sexual this song is and that it was performed uncensored on network television. Watching it now, I can’t believe I wasn’t really listening. Maybe I should have been leaning into the television.  

Again, the particulars here aren’t really important. I was a week or so into being 20 and, frankly,  didn’t want to be a virgin anymore. The guy was someone willing, it was fun, and didn’t last very long.

In short, the romanticism and emotional connectedness that is often built into such an experience was not there, nor do I regret that it wasn’t. I would find that later, which would make my understanding of those aspects of Vespertine more profound and further develop my feminist principles.

I bring sex into the discussion because I, to borrow briefly from Arrested Development‘s George Michael Bluth, find Vespertine‘s complex eroticism one of its most key contributions to what made me a feminist. Though perhaps a stretch and certainly not without its own distinctions, I tend to think of this album in accord with Audre Lorde’s wonderful essay “Uses of the erotic: the erotic as power.”

And while I don’t know if this entry’s subject has read the essay, something tells me that the same woman who identifies as bisexual and recognizes the erotic potential in mundane activities would concur with much of the theorist’s thesis.

Of course, feminists must also have the wherewithal to recognize that eroticism, even ephemeral evidence like orgasms, are luxuries to some women and girls. Not everyone is given a space, a country, or a political system that allows them the safety and freedom to enjoy and explore these possibilities.

But eroticism isn’t about cataloging who did what to whom for Björk. As David Fricke gestured toward in his review of the album for Rolling Stone, it might be everywhere, at once tangible and theoretical.

This is where I think it’s important to consider the album’s production sensibilities and Björk’s particular uses of her voice. In addition to non-conventional practices like sampling and turning seemingly non-musical domestic items into instruments, the singer’s voice is the album’s real focus. Because of how closely she’s miked, you can hear every tic, breath, whispered turn of phrase, and any other sound coming out of her mouth. As a result, her voice becomes a varied and vital instrument, an idea she has continued to develop and that has continued to stay with me.

Check out The Girls’ Guide to Rocking

Cover of The Girls Guide to Rocking by Jessica Hopper (Workman, 2009); image courtesy of timeoutchicago.com

Cover of The Girl's Guide to Rocking by Jessica Hopper (Workman, 2009); image courtesy of timeoutchicago.com

My friend Evan reminded me to give this book a read a few months ago and I finally got around to it. If you’re starting to put a band together, regardless of age, I highly recommend it.

This is an encouraging, user-friendly read written by a woman who has worked as both a critic, blogger, and musician (with some controversial riot grrrl cred — she was featured in a Newsweek article that ultimately resulted in the movement’s media shut-out). Hopper shares her experience the way a big sister or her cool friend would. She is helpful, practical, and candid, She offers personal anecdotes for how she learned the lessons she’s teaching and throws in necessary jargon while always explaining things clearly, sometimes with pretty pictures.

Hopper walks the reader through the entire process of being in a band, from picking out your instrument to getting lessons to starting a band to the song-writing process to the recording process to putting together promotional materials to booking gigs to touring to navigating legalese and accounting. In doing so, she gives really useful, concise advice on issues like how to pick out an instrument, draft a rehearsal schedule, muffle the sound of your instruments so you can practice at home, check in with your bandmates to insure high morale, determine whether or not you need a manager or producer, how to set up a band Web site, and how to put a flyer or a band bio together.

Though in essence a how-to book, I also appreciate that she recommends books about songwriting, music history, herstory, and musical movements, as well as movies and other supplemental material that will give readers a larger, more comprehensive understanding of how their efforts fit into the popular music’s historical context.

I also like that Hopper makes room for alternate routes to being a musician. While the focus of this book is pretty rock-centric, Hopper is also encouraging of musicians who experiment with line-ups and instrumentation, choose to go solo, and look into performing in non-traditional venue spaces. In short, if you wanna be in a three-person Moog, turntable, and floor tomb ensemble that plays at your local laundromat, she believes in you. In fact, as she says in her book, if you’re a harmonica player who covers Radiohead songs, she’d definitely go to your gig.

One thing I would’ve liked a bit more consideration for (and am interested in reading about more thoroughly) is how to be a vocalist. There is discussion about voice through songwriting, gear, and recording, but I would’ve liked to know more about, say, how to play an instrument while singing at the same time (something neither me nor B.B. King knows how to do). I also would’ve liked more discussion on how a vocalist fits into a band. As they are providing instrumentation as well, it would’ve been nice to talk about how they need to hear the other instruments and if they need to tune with them.

That said, I still found this book helpful, pragmatic, and, above all, supportive. From your inaugural visit to the local guitar shop to completing your first tour and beyond, Hopper believes in you. With the holiday season coming up, this is an ideal gift to show that you believe in the emerging musician(s) in your life, whether they are your seven-year-old neighbor, your GRCA-going tweenage sister, or your 80-year-old grandmother.

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.

“Classic!”: Reflections on Clueless

Album cover to the Clueless soundtrack

Album cover to the Clueless soundtrack

Recently, I got in a fight with my partner over a minor bit of dialogue from Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Please don’t question who was right on this. I was a pre-teen girl in 1995. At one point, I could recite the entire thing. I’m sure, if given a cue here and there, I could do it again at 25.

Not suggesting, of course, that if you were a pre-teen girl in 1995, you have to hold Clueless close to your heart. As a matter of fact, I resisted seeing it until it was out on video for almost a year. We had cable at home when the movie came out, and MTV advertised it all the time. I also remember reading Seventeen and other teen magazines, and it ran stuff on it a lot (though I seem to remember Seventeen actually giving a less-than-laudatory review, criticizing its unrealistic use of hyperbolic slang and schoolgirl chic).

Adding to this, when I originally saw promotional stuff for Clueless, I didn’t see me in it. Cher and Dionne were ultra-feminine and super-rich (if also good-intentioned). Several of the popular girls in my seventh grade class would emulate their look and attitude (some, perhaps instinctively, bringing in a bit of Heathers-style bitchiness). I remember this one girl actually tried to give my friend Jerusha, a Pentecostal who had to wear ankle-length dresses and skirts, a makeover because she had “total Tai potential.” Ugh. I just checked out.

BTW, my seventh grade style was Tai pre-makeover. Minus the drugs, of course. One time a girl in P.E. offered to snort Lucas Limon with me and I ran away in fear.

For readers of the blog, perhaps you can guess my entrance into the movie. Yes, you got it. The soundtrack (which, for those who are curious, was released on Capitol — the movie was a Paramount picture). I couldn’t find a lot of scenes online, but for a sense of sound and image, check out this fan-made video, underscored by The Muffs’ cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America,” which opens the movie.

I actually never owned the soundtrack. My friend Brandi had it, so I borrowed it from her. The closest I got was my VHS copy of the movie, which contained the music video for Supergrass’s “Alright.”

Maybe I can snag a copy at Cheapo Discs. Because man oh man, is the soundtrack ever a treasure trove of the era. With plenty of alternative musical artists — Radiohead, The Beastie Boys, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Coolio, General Public, Smoking Popes — it’s at once a document to a small period just after Cobain left us and virtually anything could get a pass on MTV or mainstream radio (Beck, for example), as well as evidence for just how important a soundtrack is in selling a movie. Remember how Cher doesn’t want Tai to burn the cassette to Coolio’s “Rollin’ With My Homies” — I always read this as sly product placement.

And lest we forget, the soundtrack is teeming with female artists. Jill Sobule, Salt-N-Pepa, Luscious Jackson, The Cranberries, The Muffs, and a just-about-to-break No Doubt (with a song about girlhood oppression from a woman who does not consider herself to be a feminist). They’re all here.

That the movie is underscored by music by female artists who are, if not all feminist, certainly embrace a pro-woman agenda should not be overlooked, especially in popular music’s larger sociohistorical context. Riot grrrl broke, the kinderwhore look had been made runway-ready, and The Spice Girls happened the following year. But Jill Sobule was singing about kissing girls and MTV played the single’s very post-modern, post-structural, super-campy music video all the time. Beavis and Butthead were also completely dumb about it (intentionally? as a commentary?).

Of course, working within the mainstream is tricky. Just look at the music video for Luscious Jackson’s “Here,” made specifically for the movie. It’s an exercise in compromise. On the one hand, we’ve got a tough group of Noo Yawk broads (one of whom is a lesbian) playing their gig in the middle of a skating rink during a roller derby meet. On the other hand, the derby girls are super-femme and the rink projects images from the movie. Sigh. Perhaps it begs the question “alternative to what?”

The inclusion of artists like No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani may suggest a post-feminist agenda, and the Luscious Jackson music video may hint at age-old tensions between underground and mainstream. However, I think that, in the context of the movie, a song like Jill Sobule’s “Supermodel” being used during Tai’s make-over scene (which I wish I could pull up, but can’t — cue the movie!) is winking at the performative and learned aspects of becoming feminine, which I think at least suggests that the movie’s politics may lean toward its writer-director and actually align with more of a third-wave feminist perspective on gender politics.

Unfortunately, despite the movie’s success, it hasn’t always been easy for Amy Heckerling. Sadly, 2007’s I Could Never Be Your Woman, a May-December romance starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd that some argued was more explicitly feminist, went straight to DVD. In the “Whatever!” DVD edition of Clueless, Heckerling even discusses how hard it was to get the movie greenlit because there were three female leads and no leading male character. It wasn’t until producer Scott Rudin became interested in the picture that the studios got into a bidding war and Paramount picked it up (after having originally turned it down).

It makes cultural moments like Clueless, as compromised as some may think it to be, a proud declaration of girl. With its soundtrack, it at least suggests the possibility of turning “girl” into “grrrl.”