Posts in: Music

Do White People Suck at Irony?

As we enter the third week of class, a pattern I’ve noticed in our discussions of white consumerism in hip hop is a consistent misconstruing of the racial navigation of white artists. I understand that’s a mouthful. To put this issue in context, let’s go back to 1986. It’s November. Artists such as the Sugar Hill Gang and RUN-D.M.C. have budded as early stars in the world of commercial hip hop. However, three white, upper middle class, Jewish kids are about to burst onto the scene and shatter any preexisting notions of what it meant to have a lucrative career in hip hop. Of course, I’m talking about the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill which would become the best selling of its decade. Boasting hyper-masculine frat boy personas and playing with their punk rock origins, the Beastie Boys rose to number one on the Billboard with their smash hit “Fight for Your Right.” Throughout its music video, the three emcees can be seen spiking drinks and inciting chaos at what was supposed to be a mellow party. The scene culminates when the entire apartment is destroyed with pies and sledgehammers. It’s hard to believe that Adam Yauch, known as MCA, would go on to become a devout Buddhist and protest U.S. foreign policy at the VMA’s after watching him set his meek party host’s issue of Popular Science on fire. Yet, after listening to more of the Beastie’s discography and listening to interviews I realized that these songs are more socially conscious than meets the eye. That’s not to say they’re not problematic for other reasons, but they become a jumping off point for my exploration of how white consumers often miss the forest for the trees when understanding how white artists grapple with their race in the historically African American art that is hip hop.

In order to understand this phenomenon, I need to first define what I like to call the cycle of post-ironic consumerism. Hip hop is a responsive artform. Songs such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s The Message use ghetto realism to speak out against the condition of the South Bronx. This is where the cycle begins: with an issue. For the Beastie Boys, the issue they spoke out against was the toxicity of what we might call “jock culture.” While they employed hip hop as a means to address this issue, their performance as larger than life characters used irony in a groundbreaking way to exaggerate the characterization of the group they sought to expose. These tropes include reckless violence and aggressive misogyny to name a few. 

And so we reach the next stage in the cycle, responsive performative irony. This is the exploitation of the issue’s own imagery to expose its shortcomings. It is my view that the song’s chorus is evidence of its own self awareness. Between each verse, the three shout “You gotta fight for your right to party.” The pause between “fight for your right” and “to party” echoes calls to action in protest anthems like Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up and then turns it on its head by narrowing the scope of that call to white male youth. The allusion to the structure of revolutionary music A) recognizes its existence and then B) sets up the issues of its audience as frivolous, i.g., “your mom threw away your best porno mag.” 

Where this issue comes full circle is a post ironic reception by consumers. Somewhere between the initial conception and final rhetoric, the message becomes more ambiguous and is interpreted in its literal connotation. The ironic tropes are effectively embraced with sincerity and therefore reinforce the original issue at hand. The climax of this can be seen during a 1987 concert in Liverpool the show was shut down within its first ten minutes due to a riot. MCA faced a subsequent assault charge which led the group to reevaluate their image. 

While I do not believe the group wrote this song with malice, I also don’t believe they were prepared to deal with the monster born out of the idiocy of their fans. On the other hand, without their use of convoluted satire they would have never been able to build a fandom that included not only those who understood their music, but also the listeners who took their image at face value. 

This may seem like an isolated happenstance, but around the turn of the century, we take another ride on the cycle of post-ironic consumerism. This time, the artist in question was none other than Slim Shady. In an article by Loren Kajikawa, she articulates that just as the Beastie Boys did on Licensed to Ill, Eminem navigates his racial identity through a critique of white middle class culture in order to not emulate, but show allegiance with the African-American community as well as brand himself as a working class underdog dissociated from his own white privilege. 

To be a white rapper is in and of itself a niche. As demonstrated by the Beastie Boys and the downfall of Vanilla Ice, the key to being successful within said niche is having a unique image, one that speaks parallel to African-American voices, but within the parameters of one’s own race. While the Beastie Boys took on upper class chauvinism, Eminem ducked the question of race by criticizing white societal archetypes perpetuated by conservative culture. This disconnect from suburban life was marketed towards straight white men who grappled with their identities in a society that fails to racialize white people. My Name Is is an attempt to break from the constraints of the Tipper Gores of the world and give oppressed positionality to young men rebelling against their own comfortable lives. 

While Em performs as the figures he loathes in the music video for My Name Is, he certainly was not appeasing them. His visual performance, perhaps better choreographed than the Beastie Boys’ struck a nerve with middle class white male youth who could laugh along with Em at images they’d grown up with like the Brady Bunch and a hypersexual President Clinton. 

While the product of Eminem’s music was a generation of vindictive white men, the post-ironic consumption of his music comes not from the youth who understood his message, but the parents of said youth who only intensified their own allegiance to conservative values. This manifested particularly in censorship which Eminem was on the receiving end of and addresses in The Real Slim Shady. While the song stands by further unnerving of the same audience by calling on them to be “proud to be out of your mind and out of control,” it also objects to his critics through lines such as “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records (Nope) Well, I do, so fuck him and fuck you too!” and the chorus “I’m Slim Shady, yes I’m Slim Shady. All you other Slim Shadys are just imitating.” The former is taking aim at the same demographic he took on in My Name Is and the latter is an acknowledgement of the movement he’d created through his work. Regardless, just as with Fight for Your Right, the ironic representation of a targeted issue only served to antagonize and exaggerate it in a more roundabout way. 

So why does this matter? The aim of this article is not to make accusations about ineffective delivery or to claim that consumers are stupid. On the contrary, it is to question the model which white rappers use to enter hip hop. I would argue that while self deprecating humor and ironic depictions of one’s own culture have proven to be valuable in the longevity of one’s career, they can also be limiting artistically and do more to perpetuate than correct faults the artist sees in society. The Beastie Boys struggled to escape the boombastic characatures they’d made themselves into as their sophomore album Paul’s Boutique flopped financially despite its critical acclaim. The following they had built wasn’t necessarily interested in pop culture references and the Dust Brothers’ use of funk samples. The group also spent the rest of their career rebranding as socially conscious, especially through the activism and lyrics of MCA who famously said on sure shot:

 

“I want to say a little something that’s long overdue

The disrespect to women has got to be through

To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends

I want to offer my love and respect to the end”

 

It was through their more direct verses that the Beastie Boys were able to not only speak on issues with clear intent, but also maintain relevance until the passing of MCA. Simultaneously, Eminem struggled in his own career when his album Relapse suffered from poor reception due to the dragging out of the same identity that he used to rise to fame. It wasn’t until Recovery that he was able to open up about issues with substances and his own emotions that rebounded his career. What’s evident through both the music of Eminem and the Beastie Boys is that while irony sells, it’s not existentially or artistically fulfilling.

 

Recapping Week One: Flow, Layering and Rupture

It’s 8:44 PM on a Sunday. The night has shaped up like most other Sundays past; I’m tackling a weekend’s load of homework while flipping through my liked songs on shuffle. My usual rotation of Action Bronson, Flatbush Zombies, and Mos Def is suddenly interrupted by something different. A steady four count and then…“Hey girls, B-boys, Superstar DJs- Here we go!” It’s Rock Master Scott & the Dynamic Three’s The Roof is on Fire. While the straightforward flow and simple beat are a universe away from the sounds I’ve heard during the last hour, there’s something compelling about the three MC’s rocking the crowd and gassing up their DJ. When I close my eyes, the sugaring houses and spruce tree farms of Walden, Vermont disappear and I’m within the sonic universe of the South Bronx forty years ago. After four minutes of steady head bobbing, Charlie Prince calls out to the crowd “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire” and I can’t help but respond with the recorded crowd: “WE DON’T NEED NO WATER, LET THE MOTHERFUCKER BURN” My sister looks up across the living room 

dumbfounded, both eyebrows raised. I’m back in quarantine, now awkwardly fidgeting with a stack of papers and trying to avoid eye contact. This contrast between the rhythmic breaks manipulated by early DJs and the dull tranquility of remote learning has been definitive of the last week of class. 

The week began with greetings as well as a short lecture from Dr. Carson about Lil Nas X’s old town road and the politics of genre and charts dating back to the conception of the Billboard Hot 100 (then called the Hit Parade) in 1936. This investigation into the politics of popular music got our collective wheels turning and predicated Wednesday’s discussion of an article by Tricia Rose entitled “Flow, Layering, and Rupture in Post Industrial New York.” This article identified the three elements listed in the title to be the three fundamental elements of Hip-Hop in its core four manifestations (DJing, emceeing, graffiti, and break dancing). In each form, the artists’ abilities to establish rhythm (flow), compound or trump the work of their peers and predecessors (layering), and then breaking from said established rhythm (rupture) worked in harmony to shape the heart of Hip-Hop. 

In groups, we then were sent off to investigate each of these four forms and analyze the way each piece incorporated the three elements of hip hop. I found this exercise to be especially eye opening in the way that I view visual art. When looking at a piece by Fab Five Freddy, I was able to see the way in which he transformed a subway car into a mural expressing dissent towards the canonization of protest art movements. What was more enlightening were the parallels drawn between my own analysis of graffiti and my classmate’s respective art forms. The project as a whole painted a holistic picture of Hip-Hop during its genesis.

Thursday was an opportunity for unwinding and expanding our personal playlists as we listened to and discussed our collective class playlist, which you can follow on Spotify! The listening party was demonstrative of our diversity in taste and what allured us all towards one genre. Sharing music allowed us to make connections and even bond over a shared love of artists.

As we transition next week from the Old Skool to the New Skool, I’m excited to learn more about the musicians I grew up listening to and further understanding their cultural implications.

Week 3: Recollections of a Band Nerd or is it Band Geek?

As sixth block draws close, so does my time as a blogger for this course. The past few weeks and especially this previous week has been a comforting notion to my past as a band nerd/geek. The correct terminology has long been debated, with band geek having been notoriously prominent. Nonetheless, this week our class learned about the Romantic era, an intellectual and artistic movement that began in the late 18th century. As its name suggests, the Romantic era emphasized the emotions of the heart thus highlighting the individual, heroism, and imagination. These themes characterized numerous works of literature, painting, and music during this time. Artists and composers of this era include Richard Wagner, Franz Schubert, and Giuseppe Verdi just to name a few. Their compositions are often perceived as criticism and rejection of the ideas of order and to some extent, ideals of the Enlightenment.

This week we also watched Rigoletto by Verdi. Within its three acts, we watched and listened to several beautiful arias and recitatives. By the end of the opera, I was both moved and astonished by Gilda’s compassionate sacrifice for her father Rigoletto and lover the Duke. In contrast to Don Giovanni, Rigoletto was comparably more tragic, perhaps because of the reverence for the expression of emotions and the goodness of humanity. These ideals are representative of the Romantic era.

In addition, much of the music from the romantic period reminded me of my time in concert band as a flutist. It is a warm and welcoming embrace because I started performing in 5th grade and throughout high school. Hence, the compositions that we listen to in class evoke memories of the rigor and passion of being part of a band. The nostalgia presses me to visit my band directors, to read music and play the flute again. It is then when I recall that I am listening to Romantic music which is branded by human sentiments. It is no wonder why the music of this era is called Romantic and I am grateful for this class. With this, I must say my farewell as this will be my last blog post. I enjoyed writing for this course. Thanks for reading.

Week 2: Don Giovanni: A comical and serious opera

This week we watched Don Giovanni, an opera buffa collaboration arranged by the well-known Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Venetian poet Lorenzo Da Ponte. Although Don Giovanni is categorized as an opera buffa because of its copious amounts of comedy, it is also accompanied by several somber and serious themes. The elements of humor integrated throughout the opera include the jests made by Don Giovanni’s servant, but the serious aspects pertain to the larger scheme of the characters. For example, the persona of Don Giovanni is portrayed as the ultimate womanizer who seeks to impart his love to all women as it would be a crime for those who do not receive it. He can be easily viewed as the charming villain. Another perspective, however, could consider him a man ahead of his time. Unlike the other characters present in the opera, the Don is not veered by religious dogma or the confines of society. In fact, he challenges others to abandon their life dictated by religion and convention.

The serious elements of the opera are also noted in Mozart’s novel use of different melodies to depict the various emotional states of the characters. In this way, he captured the character’s essence and state of emotion.

For instance, the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina reveals the masterful techniques developed by Mozart. In this scene, the Don attempts to woo Zerlina although she is to be wedded to Masetto. The music accompanying her part of the duet reveals Zerlina’s state of mind while the text suggests otherwise. Zerlina’s melody follows a melodic contour inflected with chromatic accents and non-harmonic tones that disrupt the emotional direction of her melody. In other words, the music exposes her indecision and covet for Don Giovanni. She is, therefore, not the innocent peasant girl but rather, a cunning woman who is willing to violate social rules for the Don. Accordingly, this is a theme that may be viewed as serious because it represents the surreptitious desires to stray away from the traditional conventions during Mozart’s time.

In summary, I believe that Mozart blurred the distinction between an opera buffa and seria. It was his inclusion of comedy, drama, and tragedy made Don Giovanni a success that continues to secure audiences even today.

Week 1: The Class of Three Making Mistakes

Have you ever had a class fewer than five students? Well, our Music in Western Culture course (MU150) this block consists of only two students including myself! At the beginning of the first week, I was a little intimidated by the class size. A class this small means that class discussions are fueled by only three of us. Now, this isn’t a terrible thing at all but a dollop of shyness can make daily class conservations petrifying. What if I say something wrong? What if I offend them? What do I do if they look me in the eye? Hence, on the first day, I was hesitant to even offer a modern pop song for the beginning of class. How hard was that? Difficult.

“Make mistakes!” as our professor, Dr. Rakefet Bar-Sadeh, would exclaim for the first few days. She urges that we can only grow and discover ourselves -our limits and potentials- if we are brave enough to make mistakes. It is a fierce reminder that few things should get in the way of our education and self-discovery. The rest of the week demanded even more dialogue and by Friday, I was speaking out at least twice a day as I grew comfortable with my classmate and teacher. My gradual confidence to speak every day may seem small, but it’s a huge step for me and a rewarding one. I encourage every student to speak up at least once in the classroom and build your confidence from there.

In addition, Dr. Rakefet Bar-Sadeh strives in creating an interdisciplinary education. With a B.A. in Mathematics and Physics and her Ph.D. in Musicology, she believes that learning should draw knowledge from all academic disciplines to consider new ideas and reason across boundaries. For instance, she insisted that I write my final paper relating to Western music and the biological sciences since I intend to be a molecular biology major. Thus, the notion of my paper discusses the anatomy of the birds’ respiratory-vocal system and the use of bird vocalization in Western music! Dr. Rakefet Bar-Sadeh uses the advantages of a small class setting to create a more personalized and interdisciplinary education for her students.

Dr. Rakefet Bar-Sadeh is a visiting professor from Israel who is teaching two blocks for Spring 2019. She has contributed to academic works regarding Israeli composers born before the declaration of the state of Israel and educated in Europe and their impact on new movements of contemporary music in Israel. Dr. Rakefet Bar-Sadeh is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also works as a consultant for the Canada Royal Conservatory. She is married and a proud mother of two children. Her next block is Jewish Music (MU224) so be sure to take the class with her!

Overall, I am excited for what the next few weeks have to offer. Here’s a selfie of our class!

Barong in Bali

This week in Bali, our class had the pleasure to witness a traditional performance of the Barong–a mythic creature of major importance in Balinese theatre and religiosity. This lion-esque beast contains two people controlling the costume, with one in the front and one in the back. Though seemingly a stage prop at first blush, the Barong’s mask is the product of rigorous ritual purification, and often is housed at the local temple when it isn’t being used in performances. In this show, the class reveled as the mighty Barong played with his monkey companion and later faced off against the evil witch Rangda. Interestingly, this classic fight always ends in a draw, thus representing the good and the evil within all of us. Filled to the brim with colors, action, and a gamelan music accompaniment to boot, this was definitely a night to remember. Curious what gamelan means? Tune in next time to find out!

The Final Performance

After weeks of rehearsal and preparation, the class finished this music class about as fittingly as one can–with a gamelan and dance performance for the whole community. Surprisingly, despite the atmosphere of excitement behind the performance itself, I found the costume and make-up preparation to be one of the most memorable parts of the day. As someone with no experience in the performing arts, dressing up to the extent we did (seen to the right) was completely new territory for me. However, after being able to perform in costume, the appeal completely makes sense to me. On one level, one take-away from class was how performers would hang masks by their beds before shows to absorb their power. Covered in make-up, warrior garb, and later a demon mask, it’s easy to see why so much emphasis is put on costume’s transformative powers in Bali. For me, putting on all the layers of costume seemed to project responsibility away from me and onto the character. Thus, while it feels a little silly for Normal Mark to perform a baris dance in cargo shorts and a Nike T-shirt, a Warrior Mark outfitted with armor, weapons, and a mustache to boot couldn’t be more in his element. In a similar vein, an old college adage states that the best way to stay awake in class is to wear a suit to the classroom; in theory, it’s the sense of maturity and professionalism that’s so closely related to the suit that has the power to overcome the exhaustion that would otherwise de-rail one’s participation in class. It is this transformative power that I was able to feel when performing in front of the community, and made executing the dances feel so much more natural.

Overall, looking back on the block as a whole from playing music to exploring Balinese culture, one of the most valuable parts I found as a student that’s never done a semester abroad was how powerful of a teacher experience can be. Especially in a political climate where the sources behind facts are under such scrutiny, it was refreshing to learn about a subject with my own senses, rather than solely through a textbook. Though scholarly literature certainly did serve to ground the class, there’s something about the visceral reaction of seeing something for yourself that takes the textbook to a level that no textbook can. In short, it personalizes the process of learning, and makes it about people and senses rather than words in a book. Whether what I see ends up confirming or even nuancing what I learned beforehand, it’s an experience that I can’t recommend enough for CC students thinking about the abroad experience. It’s taught me not to simply be satisfied with the words of others, but to go and engage with the world and find out its workings for myself.

Spirituality in Bali

Arguably the most difficult part of blogging about this trip (as I’m sure would be the case in any abroad experience) has been to capture the sea of subtlety that naturally comes when thrust into a world outside of your own. However, I feel that I would not be doing my religion major proud if I didn’t talk about the spiritual landscape of Bali. I knew coming in that it hosted a unique blend of Hinduism, but what ultimately struck me the most was its practice. I first felt its power in the offerings. Composed of little straw saucers filled with food, flowers, and often small amounts money; for what these humble offerings lacked in fanfare, they made up in sheer numbers. In fact, it was difficult to go anywhere without finding one on a doorstep, sidewalk, or street corner. Temples also had a similar prominence in Bali, as communities often hosted more communal temples as well as household shrines (seen above). Thus, while in the West it’s often easy to section off our Sacred and our secular, the world of spirit is infused into everyday life in Bali. All you have to do is walk around.

Another striking feature of Balinese religiosity was its emphasis on heritage, and how that would present itself in daily life. One one level, one need look no further than the prayers at our professor’s local temple; in the listing of prayers, one could always count on one including their ancestors. However, even beyond the setting of the temple, ancestry plays a major factor in the daily lives of the Balinese. It is believed that when a person dies and is cremated, their spirit arises from the fire and–with the help of the family and community–ultimately comes to reside in the family’s communal temple. These souls either will remain in the family’s life in spirit, or will reincarnate into a new person in the community. Such is the case for one of the little girls on the compound, who was found by the priest to be the reincarnation of our professor’s mother. In this way, one’s heritage isn’t only felt in services, but becomes a lived reality for individuals and their loved ones.

Tourism Revisited

To continue our journey through Bali with a a trip to one of the holiest temples on the island–Tanah Lot. Located on an island twenty yards off the coast of the mainland, at first blush this quiet sea temple (seen below) has an unperturbed atmosphere deserving of its sacred status. However, look anywhere around this island and you’ll find that it’s surrounded by tourists, shops, and even an 18-hole golf course. So many of Bali’s holy sites fall into this trap, in which the cultural (and specifically religious) tourism that served as the original appeal for the island become a hub for a hoard of tourist-centered businesses hoping to capitalize on their allure. As this push to expand on the tourism market that already drives Bali’s economy continues, many Balinese people have voiced their discontent towards this degradation of both Bali’s physical and cultural landscape. Our class’s position is particularly precarious, because as we have learned about tourism’s effect on the Balinese people, so too are we participating in this tourist culture not only in our purchases, but also in our being outsiders looking into another culture. After talking to the class ironically during a lunch at a beachside resort, the consensus seems to be that best thing we can do as students is to constantly seek to educate ourselves about Bali while also realizing the limits of how much we can truly understand this new culture, especially in such a short time. It is this very humility that allows spaces like Tanah Lot to not be merely a plot of potential real estate, but a temple with a significance that can only be understood from the inside.

Tourism and Kecak

So far in our virtual journey through Bali, we’ve covered forms of Balinese music and theater that predated globalization and the advent of mass tourism. However, as emphasized through Liz’s repeated questioning of “well what IS traditionally/properly Balinese?” a main point in this class has been about the fluidity of culture. Just as the indisputably Balinese Hinduism we see today was ultimately an import from India, so too has Bali needed to re-adjust its cultural mindset to accommodate its booming tourist economy. In terms of the arts, one such product is the modern kecak chant, which creates a soundscape for theatrical scenes using various patterns of the sound “cha.” Our class has been repeatedly practicing this popular tourist performance, and it’s honestly not hard to see where the appeal lies! As the chant excitedly continues, a tale from the famous Ramayana epic unfolds as the brave monkey general Hanoman (pictured above) sets out to save Sita and kill the evil rakshasa (played by yours truly). Even if I do meet my untimely demise by the end of the performance, chanting along to the kecak is an incredibly catchy way to explore Balinese tourist culture.