Michael & Me (scapegoat yr idols)

Note: This is an old post from my old, now-defunct blog, written shortly after Michael Jackson died. Rerunning it in his honor and memory on this, the second anniversary of his death.

***

The day after Michael Jackson died I found myself waiting for hours and hours in the Secaucus NJ train station. There were mishaps going into the Catskills to see my grandparents. Amongst the time-killing activities of buying corn nuts, searching for soy milk and searching for Wifi, I read a piece in New York magazine about the Chew-Holdens; some hippie family in Prospect Heights who bought a brownstone and grows gardens and shops at the co-op and all sleep in the same bed. “Co-sleeping”, it’s called? I’d heard about parents and babies “co-sleeping” together, and I’ve obviously heard of various different family members sharing beds because of space and/or financial constrictions. I’d never heard of a park Slope co-op family choosing to push a twin against a king size mattress to make one enormous bed for the parents and two (six and ten year old) girls to “co-sleep” in together because it’s, like, wholesome and qualite´*. “If [husband] and I ever need privacy,” the mother explained “there are plenty of other places in the house.”

To be blunt (and probably bigoted) I have a lot of problems with this idea of “co-sleeping” with children that old, at least when it’s Park Slope hippies deciding to do it. It sounds like a nightmare of horrible boundaries and lack of privacy to me, for everyone involved. Are the parents freaks who want to make sure their kids don’t masturbate or something? Seriously. Do they really like having their kids in bed with them every night? Despite the fact that there are like one million rooms in the brownstone that could easily be different bedrooms? Why? Is their sex life that uncompelling?

I don’t think the Chew-Holdens are going to be tarred and feathered, and I don’t think they should be. I don’t think they should be investigated for possible child abuse based on their choice of sleeping arrangement, however much it grosses me out. But one big happy “family bed” when there are so many other options so readily available does raise a red flag, automatically. The possibility of sexual abuse does flash in my mind.

Over the weekend I watched a lot of coverage on Michael Jackson’s death, on both the news and music networks.

My sister and partner and I talked about how important Michael was and is, at least to anyone who cares about music, pop culture, or racial politics. His role in popular music can not be overstated. He was at the absolute top of his field in so many areas— a great, great singer, dancer, writer, music video visionary…we couldn’t think of anyone who was that amazing in that many different fields. Watching the video network specials really reminded me of how fucking good so much of his work was. I remembered how I felt when I was five and got Thriller. How much I loved–with my heartLOVED –that music, how I stared at the photo of him in the gatefold with the tiger cub and fell in love, how beautiful he was. How the hooks dug in and wouldn’t let go. How Billie Jean used to always give me chills. My 80s trinity was Michael, Cyndi, Madonna, but Michael was the first. First vinyl I ever owned. I remember when my dad brought it home for me and my older sister, and my mom put contact paper on a big piece of cardboard for us to “breakdance” on while we listened to it.

I stopped following Michael Jackson news after awhile. I didn’t buy any of his music post-Bad, though I enjoyed a lot of his videos and singles. I loved the “Scream” video. When it came out in the mid-90s I knew someday it would look dated, but couldn’t imagine it, it seemed so NEW. I have to admit, I still kind of like Michael and Janets’ wardrobes. Shiny vinyl pants with those black shirts with the…ridges? All over? I still kinda think that’s a hot look.

I was an alternateen then, so Michael was no longer a staple. I avoided most media coverage in those later years, which all seemed to come from the “what a freak” angle. I didn’t want to read that. I didn’t want to hear lurid speculation or offensive jokes or revel in diagnosing the man. I didn’t care that he dangled his baby out the window. Yeah, bad move, but why the obsessing? Based on the infamous Living with Michael Jackson interviews that I saw for the first time on MSNBC this weekend, it seems like he was in a bad way in those days. It was very sad. He seemed in ill health, and was not handling whatever Valley of the Dolls uppers/downers combination he was on very well; though for all I know, he wasn’t on any drugs and was having some other kind of issue that was making him act doped up then manic and twitchy and shaking. It’s possible, the fuck do I know other than that he really did not seem okay, and it made me really sad to see.

The thing that makes me saddest about Michel Jackson’s death is, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that he never seemed to find any peace, he never seemed to have healed.

I saw Deepak Chopra on Larry King, talking about his friendship with Michael. He said that once upon a time Michael called him up, wanting to learn how to meditate. Deepak went to Neverland one weekend and they became friends. Eventually, Micahael asked him for a prescription for Oxycontin (if you’re like me and didn’t know, that’s Dr. Deepak Md to you,) which Chopra refused. He didn’t give much detail, but said Michael was abusing prescription pills, which he got through crappy Hollywood doctors who get their kicks (and ka$h) enabling celebrities with drug problems. He rightly pointed out that more people are dangerously addicted to prescription drugs than illegal drugs (and yet—no drug war on the pharmaceutical companies!)

Anyway. Deepak Chopra also said his kids spent time with Jackson, had traveled with him, and that he felt completely comfortable leaving his kids with Jackson unsupervised.

I’m told that one of the big scandalous revelations in this interview was that MJ admitted to having sleepovers with kids, including sometimes sleeping in the same bed with them. He didn’t apologize for it, and lashed out at those who found such behavior problematic, for turning something loving and innocent into horror.

Now. People talk about juggling your appreciation for Jackson’s music with your reservations about his personal life. I don’t give a fuck how “weird” he is. When I was young and watched the Muppets, I most identified with Gonzo–the “weirdo”. I think I identified a bit with the MJ under tabloid attack–why are we supposed to condemn him, exactly, even if he did sleep in an oxygen chamber and try to buy the elephant man’s bones? Fuck, if I were Michael Jackson I’d probably want the Elephant Man’s bones too, if they’re not buried, if they’re being gawked at in some exhibit somewhere. The plastic surgery makes me sad, makes me angry at white supremacy, but it doesn’t make me hate him–who the fuck am I, as some white girl, to hate on or ridicule him for that?

The only thing that really makes me uncomfortable being a fan is the possibility that he molested kids. That’s fucking horrible. I’m not going to defend the behavior of a fucking child molester.

Some people seem to accept that Michael Jackson was a child molester. Why?

I can empathize with the visceral horror one feels when it seems like sexual abuse of any kind is being swept under the rug, that victims are slandered while perpetrators walk away. I understand if someone can’t deal with Michael Jackson because of the abuse allegations. But most mentions of it seem to lump it together with his plastic surgery, just another freaky scandal, another handful of mud to throw.

My basic, political, position is that I believe people when they say they have been abused. If a kid says they were molested, they were molested. But. Shit happens. There are situations where parents decide a kid was molested for purposes of getting money, and/or some other whacked-out reason. Maybe Michael Jackson was a child molester, but at least as plausible to me is that some greedy or disgruntled parents decided to call Michael Jackson a child molester. I didn’t follow either molestation scandal much, I found them upsetting. Based on my limited knowledge of both cases, after reading up a little now to try to better understand, I don’t really have any reason to believe that he’s guilty, and tell me if you’re more educated than I am and feel differently.

The sleepover admission was apparently near-tantamount to an admission of criminal guilt in the public imagination. I don’t think Michael’s sleepovers make him any more guilty of child abuse than the co-sleeping habits of the Chew-Holdens do. I see both as potentially problematic, but neither as necessarily sexual. Yet “he got away with it” is an accepted sentiment in many circles.

Why is Michael Jackson a pervert and the Chew-Holdens qualite? Well, the Chew-Holdens are wholesome white liberals in park slope. Amongst their peers, they are probably admired or jealously scorned out of insecurity, hated with the kind of misplaced anxious energy that often manifests in peer-pressured CSA memberships where the vegetables never get eaten and the parents feel resentful of their produce burden. If fellow liberals took issue with the co-sleeping, it’d likely be out of a fear of their own inferior, less dedicated parenting.

Michael Jackson wasn’t a qualite white liberal, he was a Black man whose presentation stirred race and gender panic. His ambiguity triggered anger, bigotry, hatred. The way he talked, moved, transformed physically, pushed buttons and freaked people out, especially, if the post-death fallout is any indication, white men who felt threatened. He couldn’t be easily boxed into race/gender/sexuality categories except for the all-encompassing “freak”, within which all is possible except recognition of humanity.

The racism in the “he got away with it!” vitriol is hard to deny. There’s a special place in pop cultural hell for black men accused of harming whites. An obvious point of comparison to Michael’s not guilty verdict is OJ Simpson’s–white America is still not over that miscarriage of justice despite the many many more wrongful convictions and acquittals that have piled up (and could be organized around) since. If we want to stick with The Fame, before the recent turn-about Phil Spector had a long time as a legally not-guilty man after murdering his wife. I don’t recall the same critical mass of (white) outrage.

There’s another reason the Chew-Holdens are role models and Michael’s sick. My partner said, “Well, I guess if it’s an adult that’s not in the family, people find it more suspect”. But WHY? A child is far more likely to be sexually abused by someone in their family than by Michael freakin’ Jackson. Isn’t that the unfortunate, less politician-friendly reality of child sexual abuse? Kids are usually abused by those closest to them, and often the abusers are respectable members of the community. Scandals involving such are meant to reaffirm the status quo misconception of sexual abuse—OMG, this respectable businessman raped his daughter! That’s a story because it’s seen as an exception. Our culture displaces this epidemic, which cuts across demographic lines and effects a horrifying number of people, onto pervs and trash and freaks. MJ was a freak par excellence.

The sleepovers are the smoking gun? It’s Michael Jackson, for god’s sake, who everyone knows had a traumatizing non-childhood and thus was obsessed with an idealized version of the state, with saving the children from what he needed saving from. He wanted physical affection rather than abuse, he wanted to feel loved and cared for, so he recreated this such relationships in his adult life. Many of us work through these dynamics in our romantic relationships, he didn’t seem to have that option. It’s unusual and eccentric, and, beyond that, it absolutely raises red flags. But: I can conceive of such strangeness without molestation. His sleepovers don’t make him guilty. And there’s something wrong with a media that congratulates the Chew-Holdens for being closeknit, loving, and GREEN, while blasting MJ as a sick freak. Especially as the Chew-Holdens all sleep together every night, not as some special occasional fun thing. The thought of sleeping in the same bed with my parents every night at age ten causes me to hyperventilate with privacy deprivation, instant panic attack!

Jackson is a scapegoat that allows us to ignore and misrepresent the reality of sexual abuse. It usually doesn’t involve satanic rituals or complicated “games” involving whole pre-schools of kids and adult accomplices, or fanciful sleepovers with the king of pop. The reality of most child sexual abuse is much more banal and quiet and private and devastating. I haven’t seen the MJ scandals raise public interest is stopping child abuse, developing resources for victims, figuring out how to viably treat perpetrators, changing our culture to build respect for children and listen to them…no, as is so tragically often the case in instances where child sexual abuse becomes part of a media spectacle, actually helping abused kids and preventing future abuse has nothing to do with the story. That story would be hegemony-threatening rather than reifying. It wouldn’t be a good old times Coney Island freakshow.

The fact that Michael was one of the artistic geniuses of my lifetime and one of the most commercially successful, and still got treated so disrespectfully saddens me greatly. The fact that anyone is complaining about all the coverage his death is getting angers me. Ok, yeah, I’m disgusted that the news networks were all MJ all the time all weekend, even as no new information came in, even as there was a whole rest of the world where things were happening that should be news, but this kind of news media spectacle isn’t new or unique. I’m a bit less offended by the constant coverage of the sudden-seeming and untimely death of one of the biggest public figures of our time than I am when it’s “breaking update: young white lady still missing”. He certainly earned the non-stop coverage on music or entertainment-oriented channels, and should have been a top story elsewhere as well. I don’t remember much outrage when the media obsessively re-chronicled all the details of Princess Diana’s death. She wasn’t even our Princess, whereas Michael was certainly our King.

Let’s remember why:

*Qualite (adj.)
Definition:
Of or pertaining to wholesome goodness with marked bourgeois connotations, inherently alienating to me, often w/ marked liberal connotations.

e.g.: Terra Blues, off-white, activists who are always happy, yoga pants, anything that could be described as tastefully messy, The Park Slope Food Co-Op, anyone in good standing at the Park Slope Food Co-Op, Angelica Kitchen, NOW, being anti-makeup, being anti-porn [i just realized this would make an incredible category in $25,000 pyramid!], muted colors, obsessive cleanliness, no worse yet – people who just smell like shampoo ALL THE TIME, people who academically/anthropologically “take an interest in” social movements though have no interest in taking part in them, etc. (from here.)

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A post about Sara Quin’s post about Tyler the Creator

Well, thanks to Sara Quin’s blog post/open letter to the music industry, I’m finally listening to Tyler the Creator’s recently released and much-hyped Goblin. I’d been procrastinating for over a week, ever since a leaked copy found its way into my iTunes. I just wasn’t very excited to hear it. Fair to Tyler or not, the excess of hype–particularly among indie rock types who don’t seem to have much enthusiasm for any non-Odd Future emcees–turned me off. Also, I really haven’t felt like hearing some kid rap about raping women. It’s just this mood I’ve been in.

I’ve only listened to about a fourth of the album, so I’m not going to attempt an assessment of its merits, but I don’t think I actually need to plow through the whole thing (it’s long, Jesus) before writing a reaction to Quin’s post. I have to go to work in a couple hours, so in the interest of timeliness, I’m just going to go ahead and share. If you haven’t read Quin’s post, please go read that first.

First, I’m absolutely with Sara Quin so far as the necessity of critiquing the misogynist and homophobic content of Goblin. Like Quin, I am also disturbed by many critics’ and listeners’ thoroughly uncritical and enthusiastic reception of every smart ass lyric this kid spits. I am glad that she and other cultural critics are voicing alternate analyses. Based on the bit I’ve heard, I have mixed feeling about this record and Tyler’s strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter, lyricist, and rapper, but that’s really neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.

I am largely empathetic to Quin’s frustrations with Tyler’s uncritical popularity amongst people who fancy themselves progressives, despite his violent misogynistic lyrical fantasies and frequent use of homophobic slurs. I am glad that she is speaking out against the acceptance of misogyny and homophobia in the music industry. However, I am quite troubled by some of the theoretical devices she employs in order to do so.

Quin opens her post with a pair of questions:

When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry? When will they be treated with the same seriousness as racist and anti-Semitic offenses?

Whoa, there. Does Quin really believe racism is treated more seriously in the entertainment industry than homophobia and misogyny? Just, like, in general? I can’t even begin to fathom how one could viably make such as assessment of even the music industry as a whole (let alone the entire entertainment industry), as I see a whole lot of racism that isn’t taken very seriously. Just off the top of my head, upon reading these sentences, I immediately thought of cuddly indie duo Ching Chong Song, a white band who named themselves after a racist slur. While some of their shows have been met with protests organized by Asian-American student groups, who made it quite-clear to the band that their name was, if somewhat anachronistic, still plenty offensive. The band responded by calling their critics “stupid petty retards”, retaining their racist moniker, and going on about their career without further public incident. For a couple years now, I’ve been pretty dismayed by how unseriously this momentary controversy has been treated. But this anecdote doesn’t even scratch the surface of the systemic racism around which the US popular music industry has been built, from day one. The fact that Quin doesn’t see this as clearly or often as misogyny and homophobia doesn’t mean its not there. It’s often easier to recognize oppression that negatively affects us directly than that which doesn’t.

I also found it curious that Quin would stipulate that anti-semitism is verboten in the music industry, or at least taken seriously across the boards, in a piece attacking the acceptance of a rapper known for celebrating Hitler and calling himself a Nazi. Just sayin’.

I’m going to ramble a bit, but this is the takeaway: we do not have to compete in the Oppression Olympics in order to argue that misogyny and homophobia are unacceptable and must be taken seriously. What’s more we should not, if our goal is to combat oppression in general, not just the kinds that hurt us most personally. Doing so is actually counter productive, as it both needlessly divides people who could be allies (it divides many people right into little bits–I wonder how Quin would feel if asked to chose which is worse, homophobia or sexism) and obscures the intertwined, intersecting workings of oppression.

So I’m a little worried when I see people I follow on twitter eagerly spreading this link around as a tonic in the midst of Tyler-mania.

Quin goes on to write:


No genre is without its controversial and offensive characters- I’m not naive. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why this is pushing me over the edge.

Honestly, reading this, I asked myself the same question. While I definitely think Tyler and Odd Future’s pseudo-shocking misogynistic and homophobic (and pro-Nazi) content is worthy of discussion and critique, I also don’t find it particularly notable in a broader musical-historical context. Unless something that actually surprises me pops up later in the album, this is absolutely nothing new or unusual for pop music. It’s the same old same old, which is part of what’s so depressing about it. It’s notable this spring, at least on the Internet, for sure, but I actually can’t relate to Quin’s selective horror. Especially when her self-reflection leads her here:

Maybe it’s because in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.

Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Really? I’m not exactly sure what all Quin is trying to say here. Let’s take the first part first: “… in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message…” Whose race and class? Tyler’s? Is Quin explaining that she’s not suggesting Tyler is homophobic and misogynistic because he is black and comes from whatever class background he comes from? Why is she preemptively defending herself? I guess because race and class supposedly have “EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.” Aside from the fact that Tyler has been admonished, so not everyone refuses to do it, this is also bit cryptic (again: whose race and class? And how exactly do race and class have “EVERYTHING” to do with Tyler’s presumed free pass?), but I think I know what Quin is getting at. Earlier in the post she explained:

…is Tyler exempt because people are afraid of the backlash? The inevitable claim that detractors are being racist..?

So I guess she believes that Tyler is gets a free pass on misogynistic and homophobic lyrics because he’s black? Since when is that how this works? Since when has being black given artists a universal force field of protection against being criticized for being misogynistic and homophobic, or anything else? Did Quin miss the congressional hearings on “gangsta rap” back in the ’90s? How about when congress did it again in 2007? I can believe that there may be a few misguided souls out there whose confusion about how to best be PC in this situation leads them into silence, despite being troubled by Tyler’s lyrical content, but just how widespread can this phenomenon be? How central is it to Tyler’s popularity with critics and audiences? I would guess its quite peripheral, if existent at all.

More insightful is the end of the quoted sentence above, which I truncated. In addition to being afraid of being called racist, Quin posits that people may withhold negative judgement of Tyler because:

…the brush-off that not “getting it” would indicate that you’re “old” (or a faggot)

Well, sure. Everyone wants to be hip, tough, and on the winning team. But is it that critics and audiences are scared of being among the unhip masses of gay oldsters who don’t “get” Tyler, or is it that they actively enjoy the feeling of inclusion that comes from being on his side? You can be old and on his side, as many critics are, or gay and on his side, as plenty of gays (including Syd the Kid of Odd Future fame) are, you just have to tolerate his homophobia, misogyny, and adolescent self-absorption. I understand that wanting to be cool and being scared of being uncool may be two sides of the same coin, but I find it strange that Quin repeatedly focuses on the fear. I think people who like Tyler’s music largely do so because they actively enjoy Tyler’s music, not primarily because they’re scared to say otherwise.

Which leads to another question I have about this aspect of Quin’s thesis: Since when does the music industry need the fear of being called racist in order to fail to stand up against misogyny and homophobia? Maybe people aren’t giving Tyler a pass because he’s black, but because we live in a homophobic patriarchy. I can’t help but think of Julian Assange here, how quickly so many righteous defenders of Wikileaks (notably including famous career feminist Naomi Wolf) turned into rape apologists when an ugly portrait of their hero’s sexual politics began to emerge. Those on the left who refused to toe the Lying Sluts line were raked over the coals. Scratch a progressive, and you’re frighteningly likely to find misogynist.

Or, to bring it back squarely into the music industry, look at famously white rapper and best selling recording artist of the aughts, Eminem. Almost exactly two years before the release of Goblin, Mr. Mather’s released his really crappy comeback album, Relapse. Its general crappiness (and it was really crappy, I mean, even Eminem himself admitted as much on his follow up, Recovery) was partly due to its boring, repetitive, stupid lyrics that frequently described graphic fantasies of stalking, raping, and murdering women. Over and over again. Including real women who actually exist in the real world who Eminem mentions by name. It is a truly juvenile and vile piece of work, sprinkled with plenty of homophobia as well, which is made all the more appalling by the fact that Eminem isn’t a kid toying with shock value tactics he’s too young to know are already played out, he’s an adult who played out these themes himself on superior albums at the beginning of his career. While Tyler is still a kid playing Johnny Rotten, Eminem is one of the biggest stars on the planet, an archetype unto himself, and twice Tyler’s age.

So how did critics and audiences react to Relapse? They ate it up. It was one of the biggest records of the year, selling many many many times over what Goblin ever will. Rolling Stone gave it 4 stars. The generally more scrupulous Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. It was nominated for three Grammys and won two–GRAMMYS, people. You know, the awards given out by the old, respectable, out-of-it fogeys of the RIAA? They lapped it up. They gave rap album of the year to a collection of songs celebrating jerking off to Hannah Montana, raping and murdering Britney Spears, and making fun of Samantha Ronson for being an ugly lesbian.

I was utterly dismayed by this reaction, as someone who enjoys a lot of Eminem’s music and respects his talent, despite his often very problematic lyrical content, I knew the album blew, even though I’d hoped it would be good. Yet all these fans and critics were too invested in the myth that it was the great comeback the world had been waiting for to see that it wasn’t, let alone criticize it for being one of the most over the top pieces of misogynist music to ever hit the Billboard charts. It seemed that these gross retreads didn’t bother anyone else as much as they bothered me, it seemed like they didn’t bother anyone at all. I’ve actually come across a lot more critical discussion of Tyler for promoting homophobia and misogyny around the release of Goblin than of Relapse-era Em (Marshall Mathers LP-era Em is another matter. The Marshall Mathers LP is also a less offensive and much better album than Relapse.)

My point in writing all this is not to nit-pick away Quin’s arguments about why Tyler’s lyrics and cool-kid status are problematic, I agree that they are. But I also think that it is extremely problematic to assert that 1-misogyny and homophobia are bigger problems than racism (at least in the music industry) and 2-Tyler gets away with metaphorical murder in large part because he is black. These assertions are not only problematic, they are not true. They serve to bolster systemic racism by hiding it, while at the same time pretending there’s some variation of “reverse racism” at play where there is none. I highly doubt this was Quin’s intention in writing the post, but inten is not the be all end all (I don’t necessarily think Tyler is consciously trying to perpetuate homophobia or promote rape, either.)

There is no need to do this in order to critique and fight against misogyny and homophobia. I am glad Quin has spoken out despite her fears. I sincerely hope that both she and those her piece spoke to and for will open up their analysis to make room for opposition to all forms of oppression, without privileging one over another or obscuring the actual power dynamics in play.

In Loving Memory of Poly Styrene

Poly (far right) performing with The X-Ray Spex

The X-Ray Spex not only expanded punk rock’s palette sonically, but stylistically and demographically. They presented a cogent, creative anti-Capitalist critique that was miles ahead of the adolescent anger of many of their peers, to say nothing of the intelligent radicalism of their race and gender politics. And they were fun. Poly was plenty pissed off, but she sure knew how to have a good time singing about what was fucked up in her world. The X-Ray Spex personified what I, as a highschooler, thought of as Real Punk Rock when such a phrase actually meant something to me. They were daring, rebellious, and spat in the face of convention, including punk rock convention. Poly was an ideal punk front person–bold and unique and passionate, with truth after truth she insisted on telling through The Spex’s series of indelible singles. She dressed as oddly as she pleased, as any good punk should, and her excellent style pushed the boundaries of punk’s commentary-through-fashion. Her plastic dresses and braces were a revelation. She virtually remade punk rock into the big umbrella of intelligent misfits its true believers like pretend it can be. According to my memory of what Poly’s said, The Spex ultimately disbanded because their post-Germ Free Adolescents sound refused to stagnate. They got musically weirder, and more experimental, and a chunk of their base turned on the band, heckling and pelting them at shows. I can’t for the life of me find the interview where she says this right now, and I don’t want to perpetuate a convenient myth of a narrative, but it’s sadly unsurprising if Poly and the Spex, ultimately were too challenging to the emerging genre they helped define.

I haven’t even talked about her voice. Poly’s vocals were both immense and relateably human. She could employ a ‘luded out sing-song, then turn on a dime and let loose an earthquaking bellow that shook you deliciously to your core. Large swaths of Bikini Kill-era Kathleen Hanna’s extremely effective vocal qualities and techniques are directly reminiscent of Poly’s pioneering style, a comparison Hanna herself acknowledges as legitimate. When I was in high school, I was able to take for granted that women could not only scream into a mic in front of loud guitars (and sax!), but fuck with their delivery in all sorts of interesting and exciting ways. Poly had an amazing voice, but the way she utilized it was revolutionary. Most of the riot grrrl and other feminist-ish punk/influenced singers I listened to in high school owed much to Poly’s brave and experimental approach (as they do to kindred spirit and rabble rouser Ari Up, who also recently died tragically young of cancer.)

This is probably my favorite X-Ray Spex song:

Today, all the songs on Germ Free Adolescents, the band’s classic 1978 album, feel both timely and timeless. The band still manages to sound ahead of the curve of what passes for punk music today, and the lyrics…well, the lyrics, despite being very much of their moment, hold up impeccably. “1977 and we are going mad/1977 and we’ve seen too many ads/1977 and we’re gonna show them all/Ah-pah-thy’s a draaaaaag!” Poly thrillingly railed on the chorus of “Plastic Bag”, and you could just as easily substitute 2011 to make the song work, if you had a singer with even half as much talent, charisma, and conviction. On the ironically subdued chorus, in between the narrator’s moments of white hot clarity, she muses “My mind is like a plastic bag/that corresponds to all those ads/it sucks up all the rubbish that is fed into my ears/I ate Kleenex for breakfast/and used soft, hygenic Weetabix to dry my tears” and “My mind is like a switchboard/with crossed and tangled lines/contented with confusion/that is plugged into my head/ I don’t know what’s going on/It’s the operator’s job, not mine”

This resonates with me as much today as it did in the ’90s, when I wore out my CD copy of the blessedly, finally reissued album. The reissue had a different song order than the original, supposedly, and I’d often program my CD player to the original pressing’s sequence (I felt the album worked better with “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” as a thrilling bonus track coda rather than up front, and generally enjoyed being a bit obsessive in my fandom of a band this awesome). The Sex Pistols were fun, at least when they weren’t whining about some lady having an abortion, but The X-Ray Spex were a real blast. They were not only entertaining as hell, but convinced me that older punk must have a lot to offer (the first time I heard the Pistols I was pretty underwhelmed–this angsty pop was what caused all that fuss?) leading me to some highlights of the golden age (loosely defined)–The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Slits, the stuff I still listen to today.

Poly Styrene
Why was there a painting of this iconic photo hanging in the Facebook office in The Social Network?

Sadly, Germ Free would be the Spex’s last album until (most of them) reunited in the ’90s for the disappointing (to me) Conscious Consumer. Poly released a difficult to find solo album called Translucence in 1980, and a couple other unrock-y works over the decades, but generally slipped off the musical radar. She found solace with a Hare Krishna temple for some time, until they, like the punk rock, proved too screwed up and stifling. According to an interview published just last month, she left over reports of pedophilia in the community, as well as her fatigue over pressure to get married. “I did get engaged once, but couldn’t go through with it. Some of them were misogynistic, too crazy,” she said. This interview was part of Poly’s tragically truncated promotion of her recently released solo album, Generation Indigo. I want to post this asap, so I’m not going to wait til I can include a proper reaction to the record, but you better believe it’s in my iTunes and I’ll be listening carefully.

This blog post could go on for days. Memories and anecdotes have been flooding my brain since I heard the terrible news earlier this week. The Spex remain one of my all time favorite bands to this day, and Germ Free Adolescents one of my absolute favorite albums. Poly Styrene is the #1 reason why. I’m so grateful for what she’s given me, and hope those of you who haven’t had the good fortune of listening will do so, now.

Poly Styrene 1957-2011

Whither the van?

The Shondes‘ van was the closest thing I have ever had to my own vehicle. It has moved furniture, bounty from exuberant grocery shoppings, and all manner of large, heavy, unwieldy objects to my home. It has moved me all kinds of places, from The Movies to Coney Island to a funeral.

Now the Shondes’ van has been really, truly, finally stolen. In addition to the sad fact that it will never take me or my stuff anywhere again, there’s also the truly awful fact that the band now can’t go anywhere. They can’t get to crucial destinations. These include the remote, out of town recording studio where they have sessions booked to work on their new album. Or Austin, TX, where they are supposed to play SXSW. This is a problem.

Anyone who has been in a band or is close to those who are or have been can likely muster up a vicarious sense of panic and doom. The prospect of being suddenly van-less when set to go somewhere important, somewhere with all your huge gear, somewhere requiring a van for transport is something no band ever wants to contemplate, I’d wager. It’s a devastating blow.

If you have a dollar or more to spare, please donate to the Kickstarter account they’ve started to fund The Shondes’ van 2.0. They’ve already reached over 60% of their goal, through the kind and generous donations of people who recognize how bad this sucks. Most of this was raised through smaller donations–$3, $5, $10 bucks. Every bit really does help.

You can watch the video below, in which the band explains more about their crisis:

Here’s the music video I made for them a million years ago, back in The Van’s heyday:

Come to think of it, I have a bunch of footage of The Van, with which nothing has ever been done. Pity both my video HDs ‘asploded. Hmm.

These are a few of my favorite things today

This amazing animated short about Courtney Love dekookifying her fashion that wordpress won’t let me embed.

Labyrinth > Inception, see below:

Soup. Here is a thing I wrote about where I like to get soup. Please comment if you have opinions on this matter. Also, here is a really amazing soup recipe, maybe my absolute favorite soup recipe of all time.

Princess Fancypants jewelery. New website up and running, just in time for Valentine’s Day gifting. There are handmade metal postcards appropriate for every one of those special someones, with messages ranging from “I would give you a kidney” to “I only want to be friends on the internet” to “I hate Valentine’s Day”. More ambiguous jewelery (ghost necklaces, shark teeth earrings, etc) available as well.

Also seasonally appropriate, this is probably my favorite music video from last year:

It kind of outdoes “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Remember back when we had real videos? Nice that we occasionally still do.

Invincible

I am appalled that Shapeshifters, Invincible’s wonderful LP, came out two and a half years ago, and I had no idea. It’s almost all I’ve listened to for the past few weeks, and is destined to stay in heavy rotation for a long time to come.

I think I first came across Invincible through activist-y means. I feel like I saw her name on some CD I was looking at in Wooden Shoe once upon a time, though my brain may have manufactured that kinda-memory. I’m surer that I saw her MySpace profile in conjunction with internet stuff I did for pro-Palestinian campaigns. I never listened to her stuff, though. In all honesty, the fact that I came across her through internet activism did not peak my interest, because most well-intended political music is not anything I want to listen to. Great political music is like my holy grail, and most of my favorite music is, at least sometimes, explicitly, consciously political. However: so much self-consciously political music I come across, especially that which I first come across in activist scenes (rather than through music fans–activist or not), tends to be heavy handed, uninspiredly amateurish, and artistically lazy. I won’t name names.

Invincible’s name came up now and again, but I was never that curious because, frankly, what were the odds that a white activist rapper was worth listening to? I mean, most white people who rap, shouldn’t. I’ve heard some awful stuff in my time by white people claiming to making hip hop of some political significance. I didn’t know anything else about Invincible, I had no context other than what I just outlined. I didn’t know about her deep roots in the Detroit hip hop scene. I didn’t know that she was a serious rapper, not an activist who decided to try rap cuz she couldn’t sing, or fetishistically thought it’d be more hardcore than starting a crappy punk band. I didn’t know who made her beats or how hot they are. If one person I respected had told me to listen to her, I happily would have, but I come across a lot of names of artists over the course of the day. Don’t check most of them out. No matter how hard I’m kicking myself now for not buying that fucking CD at Wooden Shoe.

Then, this past summer, Invincible was interviewed on Democracy Now as part of their coverage of Detroit Summer. She did a song a capella, and the show used clips from her songs as bumpers. One of the bumpers was from “Sledgehammer”, including the part where Invincible shouts out Fannie Lou Hamer, Fred Hampton, Nina Simone, and, one of my favorite film makers, Marlon Riggs. I was walking to work when I heard it and was just like, WHAT. If you’ve heard the song, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, here it is:

Around this time Jean Grae (who is maybe my favorite, favorite emcee) started (or I started noticing that she was) mentioning Invincible occasionally and I was like, ok, that bit of a song I died over is probably not at all a fluke. I kept making mental notes to check her out, and kept forgetting, ’til two days ago when I suddenly remembered and decided to see what was available through iTunes. Shapeshifters was available, so I got it, and HOLY GOD.

There’s not a skip-able cut on this thing, from the Toni Cade Bambara-quoting “State of Emergency (Intro)” to the closing cut, “Locusts”, which spawned a docu-music video.

There’s a lot going on in between. Besides the aforementioned killer “Sledgehammer”, some of my favorite songs are the brilliantly “Lovecats” sampling “No Easy Answers”, the Ann Arbor/Ypsilenti-centric “Deuce/Ypsi” (which resonates with my own disillusioning childhood in a liberal college town), and “People not Places”. Ah, “People Not Places”, how long have I been waiting for this song? It makes a nice diptych with The Shondes‘ anti-Zionist anthem “I Watched the Temple Fall” (lyrics). In it, Invisible lyrically returns to her home from ages 1-7, Israel, via Birthright and goes through the visited hotspots, revealing the Palestinian history obscured by the new Israeli villages, institutions, and language. Her portrait of a land where Hebrew has been foisted upon all and those speaking Arabic can expect police harassment is nuanced and affecting.

First stop: museum of the Holocaust
Walkin outside–in the distance–saw a ghost throwing a Molotov
Houses burnt with kerosene
Mass graves
Couldn’t bare the scene
It wasn’t a pogrom–it was the ruins of Deir Yassin

It speaks to Invincible’s superlative artistry that a song that serves as a history lesson backed by a very intentional agenda doesn’t come off as didactic (even if I’d still like it if it did). This song is a great example of why I’m so smitten with her–great delivery, great beats, and those rhymes! Intricately constructed rhymes that never sacrifice personal truth for cleverness, though there’s ample amounts of the latter to go ’round. The politics emerge organically and always carry the weight of emotional truth. This is political music at it’s absolute finest (also just music in general at it’s finest.)

The song also features Abeer, who was so memorable in one of my favorite documentaries ever, Slingshot Hip Hop.

Then there’s “Ropes”, as honest and moving an addressal of suicidal tendencies as Elliott Smith’s best (or “Take Me”, by Jean Grae, for that matter). Apparently its excellent video was accepted to MTVU, only to have the standards department ultimately reject it for it’s “problematic suicidal undertones”. I don’t know that I’d call the suicide-related contents “undertones”, the lyrics are pretty clear, but the more obvious issue here is the flagrant hypocrisy here–this is MTV. MTV, which you may remember from such videos as “Jeremy” in which the titular character artfully blows himself away in front of his rather young class. There’s nothing nearly as graphic here, just a sober, genuinely life-and-struggle-affirming story:

I heard the barrels cry wishing they could spare ya lives
Was feeling paralyzed but no I wasn’t scared to die
Feared not livin to the fullest so i pulled it
All or nothing
Now somebody wanna call my bluff when
I tried to flinch
Told them that the suicide attempt was cause I’d rather die
Than live and ride the bench
For every victory there’s like 50 times the set backs
For every revolution there’s a death trap
And everytime I see police attackin with a tazer gun
A protester that’s down already on the ground my face is stunned
I see people that’s unaffected like “that’s just for safety hun”
Turn around and tell myself: “You’re not the crazy one”
To all the unfazed and numb, hope that you hear
What I’ve spoken is clear
So you stop repressing choking the tears
We all walk the line between insanity and sanity
And hope and despair

But you really can’t get this by reading the words on your screen, so here’s the fabulous, Coney-based video:

I’m so excited about this album. You must hear it. I am paying rapt attention to Invincible, and can’t wait to see what she does next.

(See also: Rap Genius exegeses of “Sledgehammer” and “People Not Places”. Invincible herself explains “People Not Places”. You can follow Invincible on Twitter. Also, that MySpace page is here.)

RIP Ari Up

Where to begin. It’s been a few days and I’m still sad, still a bit shocked, still listening to The Slits a lot, but the latter is nothing new. I always listen to The Slits a lot because they continue to be a reliable source for joy and inspiration. And they’re always just a lot of fun.

Ari Up

I’m sorry I didn’t see Ari Up live more, I took her constant stream of New York shows for granted. I did see a reincarnation of The Slits open for Sonic Youth’s live presentation of Daydream Nation a few years ago. I was delighted by Ari’s undying punk spirit, spitting in the eye of confused, misogynist hipster who were horrified to see a woman in her 40s unapologetically jumping around the stage in a flippy little skirt while singing odes to shoplifting. Ari Up exuded boundless love for her audience and herself, at the same time as flipping off all the bullshit surrounding us and within us.

A friend recently asked why I single out Vampire Weekend for criticism for cultural appropriation when the entire history of pop music is of the same. It would be an injustice to the question if I tried to fold a real response into this post, but a short answer is: compare Vampire Weekend and The Slits. The difference (besides one being boring and the other revolutionary) is a matter of sincerity and respect. With the encouragement and mentorship of Don Letts, the Slits began incorporating reggae into their punk rock, creating a mind blowing new sound with all kinds of interesting and complicated implications. While one could critique The Slits and Ari Up on grounds of cultural appropriation, their orientation towards the music that influenced them was more one of sincere engagement and exchange than opportunism, gimmicks, and entitlement.

You can hear the difference in the music. The music still moves me so much. The funny thing is, when I first started listening to The Slits as a high school Riot Grrrl, I liked their earlier, dirtier, straight-forward Punk Rawk more than the reggae stuff. At that point I really connected to loud messy guitars and cared less about rhythm than the energy with which one hit the drums. I loved the first half of In The Beginning and tended to skip the second. Everything reasonable I read about punk history was like “Cut, Cut, Omg Cut is the classic of classics” but when I first heard it, it was like the premiere performance of Rites of Spring. My brain just couldn’t make sense of it–how was this punk rock? That delightful puzzle is what has kept me listening for more than a decade, new gifts unearthed each time I hear these songs.

Apart from the Slits contribution to The Punk Rock, where would pop music be without them? The lineage runs directly into so many vital artists–Bjork, M.I.A., Madonna…

Almost everything I love about Ari Up can be heard on The Slits cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, a song that by all means should be a gimmicky train wreck. Instead it’s transcendent.

“New Town” is one of my favorite songs on Cut. Budgie (better known for Siouxie and the Banshees) is drumming here, and while he was only briefly a Slit, I wanna give him his due because I fucking love his work on this:

“New Town” is a great example of Ari Up’s imaginative and emotionally resonant lyrics.

Since we’re on it, here’s another of my favorite Slits songs, “Shoplifting”. This is a beloved Peel Sessions version, more up my high school alley. Ari was just a young teenager herself:

Here’s the song as performed by a recent incarnation of the group less than a year ago:

“Ten quid for the lot? We pay fuck all!”

A good in-depth look at The Slits can be found in Zoe Street Howe’s Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits.