Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part Two): “The Music Industry is Lying to You”

You might get the impression that a lot of music pissed me off in 2013 and while it is true that lots of music (and many other things) got my ire cranking during the last year, there was a lot of really great music this year and I’m happy that I got to listen to some of it.

This is not a countdown of my favorite albums of the year because I hate those. I don’t believe that nine or nineteen or 49 albums are measurable and precise intervals worse than my favorite album of the year and I think it’s silly to pretend they are. How the fuck do you calculate that, of all the albums released on the planet this year, How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is precisely the 72nd best? You don’t, because that would be silly.

Yes, the new Future of the Left album is my favorite album of 2013 and my other favorites are all albums that, like How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident, thrilled me to the point of distraction. So rather than some artificial countdown, think of this as “If you only had to hear six or seven albums from 2013, these are my recommendations.” But think of it with the following grain of salt – you might totally fucking despise the things I like and that is absolutely your right.

So what do I love so much about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident? First off, I love how it came into existence – Future of the Left announced a PledgeMusic campaign in the spring which, understandably, hit its goal in short order. I was able to send some money to the band so they could make this album and in return, I got a signed copy of the album, a T-shirt, and a digital copy of their Love Songs for Our Husbands EP. The band asked for help from their fans and then made an excellent and sincere show of gratitude. Oh yeah, and they made an album full of all the things I like from Future of the Left – sarcasm,  yelling, pounding drums, crunchy guitars, and kazoos. Okay, the kazoos are new but they really tie “Things to Say to Friendly Policemen” together:

The Pitchfork review of this album pointed out How to Stop Your Brain‘s implied critique of macho asshole behavior but then kind of chided the band for providing “no model for a better society” which I find a little bit odd. This is a website that chose the new Vampire Weekend album as the best album of 2013 and if there is a vision for a better society in that band’s music, I haven’t heard it. Forgive me, but I don’t see how a society where everyone endlessly plagiarizes Graceland is any better than the one we have now. Besides, Future of the Left has never been what you would call “solution-focused” (unless you count their suggestion that we “re-imagine god as just a mental illness” on Travels with Myself and Another). Andrew Falkous’s sarcasm, wielded with a skill and precision that cannot be taught, is probably indicative of a certain amount of hopelessness. Mind you, I don’t know the guy – maybe he’s a wide-eyed idealist like me but I doubt it. So why would a guy like me listen to such (on its surface, at least) negative music? There’s a certain catharsis inherent in the sharply barbed wit of Future of the Left’s music and what I love about How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident in particular is that the two minute bursts of catchy-yet-snide stuff (“There’s nothing like a military coup,” sings Falco on “Johnny Borrell Afterlife” before adding, “The clothes are great / and everybody loves a curfew”) are occasionally offset but things like the opening line to “I Don’t Know What You Ketamine (But I Think I Love You)” which goes like so: “One day/ Soon/ Let’s talk about love/ like we talk about food: Generously/ and then/ without irony.” Cheeky title notwithstanding, the song opens with an honest (and, to my mind anyway, laudable) sentiment. Plus, I’m just generally in favor of doing things without irony. 

Obviously, Future of the Left isn’t for everyone but you probably didn’t start reading a music blog called Bollocks! to hear about stuff that might be for everyone. That said, I’m pretty sure most people who like music and/or joy will find something to love about Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady. 

One of the great things about life now is that, if you have the privilege of access to the internet and leisure time, you can find the music of pretty much anyone that your friends recommend to you. I read about Monáe when her first full-length, The Arch-Android, came out in 2010 but didn’t get around to listening to her until this year. I tend not to describe a lot of music as being “a revelation” but that’s what The Electric Lady is – it’s a truly thrilling, surprising slice of science fiction-infused soul. All of Monáe’s recorded output of which I am aware takes place in this sort of alternate reality (maybe the future?) where androids are marginalized and abused by mainstream society. But they are led in resistance by Cindi Mayweather, the ostensible alter-ego of Janelle Monáe. In 2011, Monáe told the London Evening Standard“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman … What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am’.” 

I can’t, as a heterosexual white guy, connect with Monáe’s music from a standpoint of marginalization – just like I can’t connect with, say, Bikini Kill or Curtis Mayfield in the same way that women and people of color do. It would be dishonest, not to mention a bit foolish. Where I strongly connect to Monáe’s work is as 1) someone who loves a good R&B record (and The Electric Lady is a great R&B record) and 2) someone who can quite easily imagine a world where people aren’t chronically fucked over because they are viewed as “less-than” in the eyes of the dominant culture (indeed, I can quite easily imagine an end to “dominant culture” – I told you I’m a wide-eyed idealist). Like a lot of the music I love (Mayfield, Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, Bratmobile, Public Enemy – I could go on), The Electric Lady offers ironclad proof that we never have to choose between style and substance. We can have music that is aesthetically astounding and demands liberation at the same time. Isn’t that what all good art should do?

Writing about and thinking about Janelle Monáe and Future of the Left all morning (it takes me longer to write this stuff than it used to) has led me to a pretty happy conclusion – these are probably the two albums that I have listened to the most in 2013 (and they both came out in the last half of the year) and they both suit different sides of my personality. How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is loud, sarcastic and (somewhat) diagnostic while The Electric Lady is bombastic, stylistically diverse, and (somewhat) prescriptive. In terms of hopelessness and hopefulness, they kinda balance each other out in some way. It may not work for you, but it does for me.

Those are only two of my favorites from 2013 – I guess you’ll have to wait until 2014 to read about (if you want to, that is – we don’t force anyone to read blogs around here) some of the others, which include albums by Neko Case, Aye Nako, Hilly Eye, The Julie Ruin, and probably some others I’m forgetting.

In the meantime, here’s a link to “Dance Apocalyptic” from The Electric Lady: 

Happy New Year!

Thoughts on the Music I Heard This Year (Part One): The Year of Accidental Racists

The Paisley

Another year is coming to an end, which means I have spent a good part of the last month trying to convince various horrible readers’ polls on the internet that Future of the Left’s How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident is the best album of 2013 and “Singing of the Bonesaws” is the Very Best Single of the year. Although it wasn’t technically a single, I operate on the assumption that we live in an era where every song simultaneously is and isn’t a single.

There’s a lot we could talk about looking back at 2013 but for some reason, my mind keeps coming back to “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley (featuring L.L. Cool J). I thought about adding it to my ongoing list of The Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard but 1) I’m not even sure I can do that feature anymore and 2) it would just be too goddamn easy. To address the first point first, part of the reason Bollocks! has been so infrequently updated over the last two years is because I was finishing a master’s degree but another part is that I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at what I’ve written over the last few years and honestly, I don’t like much of it at all. There’s some stuff I’m kind of proud of  but there’s mostly a lot of jokes that seem too easy, not to mention enough ego to swallow a music industry awards show whole. A surprising amount of people (i.e., “any people at all”) dug a lot of that shit and that’s fine. But for me to keep doing Bollocks! it’s gonna have to be different. Better. More on that as it develops.

But as for “Accidental Racist” being too easy of a target for being one of the Worst Songs I’ve Ever Heard, here’s what I mean: it is most certainly one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. It’s lyrically embarrassing and musically banal but so is most modern country music these days. Like a lot of white guys, I find the reaction to this song kind of shocking. Unlike a lot of white guys, I mean I find it shocking that my fellow crackers were quick to give Paisley points for trying and thereby brush off accusations that “Accidental Racist” is (accidentally, of course!) racist. One writer suggested that this was the “first time ever” that a song had sparked a national dialogue about whether or not the Confederate flag is racist. Essentially, a lot of defense of “Accidental Racist” wants to give Paisley points for trying and shush up all the meanies who dare to suggest that being racist by accident is still being racist. 

This is the point that a lot of people – including Brad Paisley – seemed to miss. That whole “accidental” part doesn’t stop racism from being racism and to suggest that hey, I’m just an earnest white dude in a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt trying to do my best in this complicated world is to suggest that I’m not accountable for my acts of racism. And points for trying? I’m sorry, but fuck “trying” – it’s not good enough. When it comes to eradicating racism, the stakes are incredibly high. The disparities nonwhites experience at the hands of our so-called justice system, from our police, in housing and employment are literally matters of life and death. In the face of all that, for a white person to expect points for trying is, I would imagine, pretty goddamn insulting.

Similar defenses have been deployed to defend Miley Cyrus’s current nonsense and Katy Perry’s dressing up as a geisha for some goddamn awful performance (the American Music Awards, maybe?) – these white folks weren’t trying to be racist so it’s definitely not racist, according to (surprise!) a bunch of white people. My fellow white folks, we have to do better than that. Ask yourself: doesn’t it seem a little too goddamn easy to dehumanize an entire segment of humanity (by accident or design) and then, when they speak up about it, call them over-sensitive? Doesn’t that seem a little fucked up to you?

So I know I’m rambling a bit but I feel like it’s not just that “Accidental Racist” is awful music (please do remember though that it’s really awful music) – it’s that the rush to defend it based solely on the perceived intentions of the singer is a symptom of how pervasive white supremacy is in our culture. It’s so pervasive that a lot of white folks I know tend to misunderstand the definition of racism, often seeing it as a Southern stereotype with a Confederate flag on his shirt shouting the n-word. Let me take a stab at clarification: our just-mentioned Southern racist is being prejudiced by shouting the n-word at someone. But let’s say (just hypothetically, of course) that he’s from Florida and he doesn’t ever say the n-word, but he, absent of all evidence, makes the assumption that (just for instance, mind you) an unarmed African-American teenager in a hoodie is engaged in criminal activity. Now let’s say our Floridian gets away with murdering that (again, unarmed) kid by claiming that he was in fear for his life – that’s racism (if our Floridian’s jury is made up of mostly white folks, the entire defense is predicated on racism as it asks the white jurors to find it completely understandable to fear for your life from unarmed black teens). That’s prejudice with the power to enforce it broadly to the disadvantage of an entire group of people. It’s what makes it seem acceptable to certain reporters to talk about Renisha McBride’s blood-alcohol level when writing about how a white man shot her when she was seeking help after getting in a car accident, as if to suggest that the fact that she was drunk means she deserved to die.

Understand something, please: we all have prejudices, every single human does. But not all of us have the ability to institutionalize our prejudices – in the U.S. of A., that dubious privilege falls to white people.  Some of us may not like it, but guess what? Not liking it isn’t enough either. We have to stop seeing a level playing field where there isn’t one and we have to own it when we fuck up, which we’re gonna do.

You came here to read about 2013’s musical highs and lows and you got this. I’m not sorry. This is what’s on my mind when I think about picking up this blog again in any kind of regular capacity – I still want to write about music, but it has to connect to all the other shit that’s out there because everything happens in context. And my context has always been that Bollocks! has to matter to me in order for it to continue. And it matters to me to look at the context in which music is made.

Here’s a thing bell hooks wrote that I like: “One change in direction that would be real cool would be the production of a discourse on race that interrogates whiteness… Many scholars, critics and writers preface their work by stating that they are white as though mere acknowledgement of this fact were sufficient, as though it conveyed all we need to know of standpoint, motivation, direction.” I think about that a lot as something to bear in mind when I’m writing even something as seemingly frivolous (and certainly meaningless) as a music blog. Is Brad Paisley interested in interrogating whiteness through the prism of country music? Time will tell. If he is, he’s never gonna get there without learning how to be held accountable for fucking up, which is a really hard thing to do (I’m not, by the way, trying to claim that I’m an Enlightened White Person who never trespasses on folks – I fuck up as much or more than the next person).

Next time, we’ll talk more about music. Unless I wanna talk about something else.