I attended a wonderful presentation by Dr. Daphne A. Brooks, author of Liner Notes for the Revolution. The book explores the influence of Black women in music – a contribution that’s overlooked all too often. It’s a deep dive throughout history, touching on Aretha and Beyoncé, Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston. Dr. Brooks articulates so clearly the power of music, and how its cultural impact is negotiated. In the presentation, Dr. Brooks expanded on this concept: her work is about discovering how to assign a framework for “how music matters,” especially in communities on the fringes.
What I also enjoyed about the presentation was Dr. Brooks’s discussion about her own relationship to music. She described how music criticism came to her from an early age. It was a way of making sense of, in her words, the “foreign” music of rock n’ roll. (Evidently it wasn’t really played at her house.) Growing up in the Bay Area was a natural environment to foster this burgeoning skill: a lot of influential rock music criticism came out of UC Berkeley, Dr. Brooks’s alma mater.
Obviously, this entire presentation was exactly relevant to my interests. It got me thinking about my own life as a music critic and what that title even means. Being a music critic isn’t just album reviews or gushing about the latest single (ahem), though, to be sure, that’s often a big part of it. I think at its core music criticism is a lot like the labor of love that meant Dr. Brooks spent 12 years (!) writing Liner Notes. You’re making sense of the sound and your relationship to it. Then you widen the scope to put both those things in context: perhaps historical, perhaps cultural, or perhaps personal. For example, I often ask myself the following questions: Have I heard this song before? Does it sound like other songs I’ve heard? When did I hear them? What memories did they evoke? (The latter two questions have been especially key for my Throwback Thursday series.)
It is a joy to hear other women talk about music, especially from such an academic standpoint. I haven’t heard that perspective nearly as often. Definitely food for thought and inspiration for my own criticism going forward.
This post is written in response to this article about Kelefa Sanneh and his new book, Major Labels, because it really sparked my creativity. I love reading about other music critics and the way that they approach the craft. It’s as educational and important for me as discovering a new band.
Sanneh has an intriguing observation about music genres, arguing that they’re more important than we might (want to) think. Sanneh says that communities are defined by “inclusion and exclusion.” Having clear boundaries about what, say, constitutes disco, or the infamous East Coast-West Coast rap divide, created cultural moments. The same can be said about having clear boundaries regarding our own music tastes. They define who we are.
He goes on to describe his music background and how he became immersed in different fandoms. His comment that you can make up your own mind about the music you like resonated with me. I’ve written before about “guilty pleasure” songs and fandom gatekeeping. And recently, I made a post about a “music friend” I had how our falling out made me aware of the way I’d begun to define my music obsession by our relationship.
It’s interesting that we often allow ourselves to be influenced by the cultural milieu. (“If everyone else likes it, I have to.”) When you take a step back and reconsider that no, I decide what I like, it’s remarkably freeing. Sanneh notes that these interrogations are important.
Easier said than done, of course: many people become set in their ways, especially as they get older. Allowing yourself to open up and explore a different style of music is revitalizing. You’ll learn something about yourself, and maybe encourage a more expansive way of thinking – even beyond music – as well.
I’m looking forward to reading Major Labels and seeing what else I get out of Sanneh’s music commentary.
A few years back, I met someone with whom I had an almost immediate connection. We had fairly similar tastes in music, and what was more, they were one of the few people who understood, as I do, that music can be a mechanism for accessing memories. Our friendship quickly developed as we started trading song recommendations back and forth.
It was amazing to me because I had never had something like this before. I called this person my “music friend,” because that was really the foundation of the whole thing. I had thought that I would never find a friendship like this, so it was especially devastating when the connection went sour.
Time and distance, of course, work their own wonders. I look back on that experience now and marvel that I allowed a single person to encroach on my relationship to music – something that’s so intrinsic to who I am that, moments after introducing myself to someone new, I’ll often say “…and I’m obsessed with music.”
I haven’t yet found another person who “gets” music on that same level as my former friend did, but these days I’m more and more okay with that. It could be a sign of maturity, and I’m sure there’s some truth to that aspect, but I think that more to the point, I’m allowing music itself to be my anchor, rather than a person. As I said, it’s a part of me. And no fizzled friendship can ever take that away.
Happy Monday! It’s a quick one today but I wanted to jot something down. In Meet Me in the Bathroom, an excellent oral history exploration of early-’00s indie, bands like !!!, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Strokes talk about what got them started. What stood out to me was the recurring observation of how 9/11 changed the landscape of music. It forced America to look inwards and reevaluate its priorities.
In a grim way, it created a new opportunity for musicians. Old standards were ripped apart or forgotten. In the first few months after what happened, clubs were shut down so people had to get together in their apartments; these informal jam sessions led to bands being formed. The sound got rougher, too: “Heads Will Roll” has a screechy distortion that both masks and somehow enhances Karen O’s powerhouse vocals. Last Nite is an experimentation in the tight, clear electronic sound that would become prevalent in later ’00s bands. When clubs reopened, DJs remixed it all into the next generation of house music.
I’m reading another book right now that touches on a similar topic regarding the symbiotic relationship between culture and music. Music takes what’s happening around us and compresses it into lyrical and/or danceable form. It evolves as we do and bloggers like me are just along for the ride.
I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about this song yet given that I literally wrote an entire essay on it in college. I heard it playing tinnily out of a car’s radio as it drove past the other day so that’s what’s got me thinking about it again.
No, the song isn’t called “Teenage Wasteland”. The title refers to guitarist Pete Townshend’s musical and philosophical influences. You can almost hear that mysticism in the high, wavering organ in the background of the song. The beat starts out confident in mono then becomes unsteady, shifting, adjusting itself into Keith Moon’s iconic drum lines.
But what about the song makes it “shimmer”? I think that organ, to be sure, but also the rawness of Roger Daltrey’s vocals. “Out here in the fields,” he declares, “I fight for my meals/I get my back into my living.” I shiver every time the song starts because his voice immediately transports you into that rough and slightly desperate world. Moon’s drumming continues and almost sounds like a heartbeat.
Daltrey’s high wail is mixed with power as he describes how he doesn’t need to be forgiven. That assertion is emphasized by Moon’s drumming. This song gives me a confidence boost whenever I listen to it for that very reason.
Another thing that stands out to me about the song is how ageless it feels. Not just because it’s iconic, although of course it is, but those teenagers could be the subjects of the song (Sally?) or those the narrator decries.
I had the privilege of seeing The Who perform this song live last year. Fittingly, it came at the very end of their set. And just as I predicted I started crying. There is something so spiritual, so transportive about music, and this song in particular, that to experience it in its full force was beautifully overwhelming.
I watched an excellent mini-documentary on the New York Times website about The Liverbirds. They were essentially the female version of the Beatles: a four-piece group that came up in Liverpool in the 1960s. The documentary featured interviews with the two surviving members of the band.
One of them shared an anecdote that really stuck with me. They were at a club and met the Beatles. John Lennon scoffed and said, “Girls can’t play guitars.”
Obviously this is musical gatekeeping. And it extends beyond the players themselves into the audience. My blog attempts to get to the heart of the music and why we react a certain way to it. So with that in mind, if we go beyond the sexism and flame wars, what is it about the music itself that reads as masculine?
Ok, I promised myself that I would never write about Current Affairs because we hear about them enough and lord knows I’m tired of it too. But this perspective is something that has been on my mind for awhile so…why not write it out?
There is a quote that says, “Take your broken heart and turn it into art.” Some life-altering event happens and you need to process it somehow. What could be more life-altering than society going to ground? It isn’t just about having more time on our hands to create, it is the event itself.
I was in the car with my dad maybe a week or so ago when he commented, “You know so much about music.”
On the one hand that could be read as a general observation. However, it was so much more meaningful to me than that. Music is an intrinsic part of my identity and has been since high school. I’ve cultivated that intentionally: I seek out artists that are similar to each other and see where that leads, what comparisons I can make or analyze. I read biographies and commentary obsessively; I watch documentaries (20 Feet From Stardom is a recent favorite); I get ecstatic when someone recommends a new band or makes a reference (perhaps obscure?) to a song lyric I love.
I know so much about music because of what music has done for me and will continue to do. And that’s what this blog is for.
I recently posted about musical backgrounds and why we make the music we do – or listen to the music we choose to listen to.
I’ve talked about who my favorite bands are before. But why are they my favorites? When I examine bands like Translator (a new discovery – post forthcoming), the Replacements, the Chain, even the Who, a few themes emerge:
*80s sound. I seem to like synthesizers and the atmospheric noise of this decade. (This is also why I like bands like The Limousines, who’ve adopted this sound with a modern twist.)
*Introspective lyrics. I’m an introvert so I like bands that think this way, too. Of course, the Chain are the kings of this (and started the shoegaze genre itself, which is all about introspection), but Translator gets in on the action as well: “My heart has a mind of its own.” That lyric gets me every time.
*With introspective lyrics also comes a darker sound. Again, the Chain, but I also listen to Placebo from time to time, and I do like grunge as well. I think the whole “darker sound” of my favorite bands feeds into my, ahem, tendency for self-indulgent angst. Whoops!
What themes do you notice from bands you like to listen to?
Music will always be a product of where you come from. For example, JAMC yells about “dying by the river of disease,” and Bruce Springsteen sings about “trouble in the heartland.”
So just as the Chain’s music will always be influenced by living in a crappy suburb in Scotland, and Bruce Springsteen’s music will always be influenced by….living in a crappy suburb in New Jersey, our individual backgrounds inform what we listen to. For instance, a lot of straight white nerdy guys listen to Elvis Costello, because that’s who Elvis Costello is. That’s also who tends to listen to the Smiths – those guys, and the women who love them.
And then there are musicians who transcend demographics: your Michael Jacksons, your Aretha Franklins, your Adeles. (Interestingly, Michael Jackson was singing white pop, and Adele is singing “blue-eyed soul.” When does cross-demographic appeal become appropriation, and when is it just good music?)
I don’t have a good answer for that. What I’m thinking about right now is why we listen to the music we choose to listen to. Surely it’s a combination of emotion and marketing, but I think that there may be something deeper at work. Identification, perhaps. We choose music because it resonates with us. Either it describes what we’re feeling, better than we ever could, or we use music to set the tone for our world.
So that’s why I put on “Pure Morning” when I’m feeling angsty, or “Roar” when I’m feeling stereotypically girly and on top of things. Listening to those songs, I think, yeah, that’s exactly right.