Tuesday, November 28, 2006

this week in the n-word...

Jesse Jackson makes a fool of himself again (by the way, I'd originally come up with an individual link for every word in that sentence, but I ended up needing to split two of them in half to accommodate all the links, so I decided I should scrap it for being too hard to navigate).

Putting aside the bizarreness of the priorities here, and the general distastefulness of straining to politicize this issue, can Jesse Jackson et al truly be claiming the word "nigger" as "unprotected" by the First Amendment? Really, honestly? Even if you grant the existence of hate speech, and grant it an exception to the Constitution, and grant the word "nigger" a place in the hate speech lexicon, can there be any way to construe it as unprotected without context? Chaplinsky set the bar in this regard, outlining a First Amendment exemption for "fighting words," or words that could incite an immediate breach of the peace. Since then (1942) other cases (R.A.V., Doe v. Michigan) have expanded and qualified how the law ought to view these kinds of exemptions, but in every instance the context plays a fundamental, determining role. If Jesse Jackson actually attempted a legal argument for "nigger" -- the word alone, isolated from other words and its usage context -- as unprotected "hate speech," I imagine he would end up completely buried by the mountains of contradictory evidence. Hell, you could probably win the other side of that case using That Nigger's Crazy (Richar Pryor, 1974) alone.

One last thing on Jesse Jackson. Think about the last, say, 20 times you've heard the word "nigger" used in some sort of public context, or in some artifact intended for public consumption. I'd be shocked if it occurred in anything besides a) a hiphop song, b) a comedy routine (that includes Richards, despite him being profoundly unfunny), c) a journalistic piece on the topic (though you'd be hard pressed to find the word itself, unfortunately), or d) some form of white-pride bigotry on a short-range AM talkshow or a website. With the exception of the last one, which people in the "entertainment industry" have virtually no control over, can you think of a single instance that would meet any of the requirements of an exemption? Me neither. This is a waste of time, and each time Rev. Jackson does something like this, it makes me feel less honored by having marched with him various times.

If you really want to prevent a breach of the peace, take away
DR Period's MPC sampler. I've barely even been in a fight, and the "Ante Up" remix makes me want to yap fools.

There's another entry to go with this, on John Ridley's Esquire "Manifesto," but that'll have to wait till tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Rubber Soul (1965)

Sorry for the delay on this. It's due to the fact that I had a lot of trouble deciding about this album. Rubber Soul is comprised of songs that live up to their stature ("Drive My Car," "Nowhere Man," "Michelle," "Norwegian Wood," "In My Life"), great songs that get a little lost amongst the tall trees ("Girl," "I'm Looking Through You," "Run For Your Life"), good songs that a bunch of folks know but were still album filler ("You Won't See Me," "What Goes On," "Wait!"), and George's songs, which contribute to the feel of the album but remain forgettable to most people. I played "If I Needed Someone" about five hundred times, but that was mostly for the harmony and guitar line.

Rubber Soul, as a whole and song-by-song, has received about the right amount of adulation. So looking at over/under-ratings becomes more dependent on personal preference. As if it ever involves something more formal -- it's not like I do in-depth public opinion research. The methodology runs more along the lines of:

Overrated: When this song comes on, how guilty do I feel skipping to the next track?
Underrated: When this song comes on, how indignant do I feel about its shameful neglect by mainstream music audiences?


Most Overrated: I actually almost put "In My Life," because as great as it is, it has still been elevated by critics and fans beyond all hope of honest assessment. Mojo named it the greatest song of all time, when a better assessment would be "greatest song on Side 2 of Rubber Soul." Its slight plodding feeling in the bridge always bugged me a little, as does the vague schmaltzy-ness (and the obvious gestures at Smokey & the Miracles). But the organ solo, guitar lick, and above all the lyrics -- there's no way to describe those without using the word "timeless," so I couldn't in good conscience claim it to be overrated. Plus it's almost Thanksgiving and I'm going to have to spend about three days with my side of the family, and picking "In My Life" over basically anything else in the catalogue would create problems. So, "The Word" it is. Yeah, this song has never done much for me. As a "political statement" it's pretty bland, and Paul's lively bass playing doesn't redeem a kind of boring structure. Mainly it's overrated because it foreshadows later compositions by John; "All You Need is Love" in particular, but also stuff from his early solo years. Meh - I always skip it and don't feel the least bit bad about it. [(c) Butch]

Most Underrated: "I'm Looking Through You." Easy. This is one of those McCartney compositions that exhibit the highest degree of "form," in the sense used by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein referred to "form" as a "magic ingredient" that exhibits a "breathtaking rightness" and "inevitability." According to Bernstein, Beethoven possessed an "inexplicable ability to know what the next note has to be," and I think the same accurately applies to Paul McCartney. To paraphrase from Bernstein's essay: "When you get the feeling that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can rightly happen at that instant, in that context, then chances are you're listening to a mid-period Beatles song by Paul." "I'm Looking Through You" belongs on that list with "Yesterday," "Penny Lane," "Eleanor Rigby," etc. The leap and fall of the melody matches the lyric perfectly, as does the performance. But under the surface, the song's buoyancy grates against a gentle, resigned bitterness that I find hard to characterize. "You don't look different, but you have changed" cuts to the heart of, I'd guess, the vast majority of romantic problems. And to couple that with "You don't sound different, I've learned the game," allows the second verse to imply an emotional history of deteriorating communication. What kills me about that line is the narrator having already figured out that what he hears is different from what's being said, and the resignation apparent in that admission. The honesty and intimacy has simply disappeared overnight, and isn't going to return. This is true of every song, but it bears repeating that the effectiveness of "I'm Looking Through You" lies in the juxtaposition of the music and lyrics -- in this case, their wild difference in tone. Thanks to McCartney's writing, the band's performance, and Martin's production, it comes across as a complete package, and somewhat spontaneous, inconsequential one at that. Beware of those songs -- they're the ones that will burrow into your mind and replace all your emotional referrents. Fair warning for people who don't own Rubber Soul.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Classical music + Jeans = Badass

A lot of badass stuff has taken place since the last time I posted on this, but here's the thing. Those linky-linky blogs always disappoint me a little. It feels like you're a teacher in a college seminar where, instead of reading responses, the students brought in "cool rocks" they "found in the yard."

So even though this particularly badass thing happened a while ago, I haven't had time to settle down and think about it. I don't have time to do that now, either, but irregardless it's totally badass and not only that, but when you read about it you might even describe it as urgently badass. Probably that will not happen.

Eric Edberg is a member of the music faculty at DePauw University. Along with being a cellist, he also describes himself as a "Drum Circle Facilitator." I have no response to that, because it speaks for itself. I will say that, although many things about this story are badass, facilitating a drum circle is not.

But in August, he did something pretty badass. He put on a concert of "classical music in jeans," which he describes as an "'informal/interactive musical event' -- a recital with the usual rules of concert etiquette suspended." Okay, that description isn't likely grabbing you by the throat, but think about it:

1) Live music is something you have to go out of your way to see. Unlike TV, radio, internet, wireless media, digital storage, and most of the other things it competes with in the entertainment field (not to mention alcohol and parlor games), experiencing live music requires a relatively substantial investment of time and money in advance. What did they do to punish you in first grade? They made you sit quietly and do nothing -- sometimes in the dark. (Or at least, the time-out room was always less well-lit than the others. I spent some time there.) So why would you voluntarily submit to that, especially for an experience you're likely unfamiliar with, only to find yourself too embarassed to divulge it on Monday at the water cooler. With the rigorous etiquette suspended, classical music becomes a lot more like a visit to the museum, the theater, the movies, etc. Add a big red cup of beer and some fried appetizers and you'd see frat guys there in no time.

2) Classical music hasn't been "classical" for about 150 years. Even when it was, it had plenty of waltzing, stomping, balladry, and even some groove. All the elements that characterized popular music have become more and more a part of so-called "classical" music, to the point that the "classical" moniker, which meant nothing at first, means even less now. Unlike jazz, hiphop, punk, etc., the vast cosmos of music that falls into the "classical" category at this point has very little uniting it into a cohesive genre, and very little separating from its counterparts across the record store aisle. Longer format (although not really), different instruments (although not really), lower volume & lack of amplification (although not really), distinct separation from folk/popular music (although not really) -- well, you see where I'm going here. At this point, and actually for about the last 75 years, the only things really separating classical music from everything else were its conventions and its audience. No reason not to change the former in order to increase the latter.

3) Many of the pieces currently experienced in worshipful, darkness were originally greeted with cheers, boos, rioting, etc. They didn't give you cough drops outside the theater. They didn't patronize you by announcing the rules at the beginning. If you coughed during the slow movement, you didn't worry about having your car keyed after the performance. I'm not saying I don't find these things disruptive, and it actually is distracting for people to pay $50 to see a concert and then talk straight through it. But that is, and always has been, the price you pay for being alive and not a hermit farmer. The idea of doing everything you possibly can to replicate the original sound, including period instruments and deep score research, only to perform the piece in a context completely alien to its original life makes no sense whatsoever. We need to give it up.

4) Up above you might have been doubting my assertion that beer would be enough to lure frat guys to a classical music concert. First off, just re-check your math there. But also recognize that people's musical tastes are forever broadening, and audience divisions are disintegrating accordingly. We have the internet and progress in musical innovation to thank for that. Unfortunately, classical music audiences are behind the curve in this respect (no evidence for this, though I've read various things in the past). Even though the DePauw concert was certainly a novelty, and this attracted more attention than it otherwise would have received, the audience response demonstrates that the concept worked. People are not allergic to classical music, and if presented in a format which they can relate to, they'll listen. Amplifying the performance and looking at less traditional venues could probably do more to build the audience and shape the experience.

5) People who care deeply about classical music (me, yup) stand to lose little to nothing with these kinds of changes. None of my favorite performances (either as a participant or a listener) took place in a darkened concert hall -- and most involved no tuxedo at all. Anyone who has seen Radiohead or Public Enemy live knows that you don't need etiquette to be serious musicians and convey your music well. If it's a less of a sacred experience because the pianist's wearing sneakers, then you need to reexamine why you go to concerts in the first place. You don't need a classical concert to see solemn people in formalwear make pained expressions: just go to the junior prom.

Here's the video footage of the concert. See how, without all the pomp, it becomes obvious that Haydn (I think it's Haydn) wrote a piece for people to get up and dance to? Yeah, the dancers are awkward and maybe trying to get attention, but just the small etiquette changes (jeans, cheering, etc.) make it seem a lot less bizarre than it would.

Conclusion: Badass.

Update & URL change

NewPlasticWeblog has migrated fully to Blogger Beta now, which -- like many things in my life -- was a stupid thing to do, but, being done, isn't worth attempting to reverse.

If you're here you've already noted the new address, but on the offchance you use bookmarks, or link to this blog, please (take a look at yourself and) make that change.

Monday, November 13, 2006

no accident

There's a lot flying around regarding the role of organized labor in the recent election cycle, including Greenhouse's recent NYT piece. I worked professionally on this cycle, and I work professionally in organized labor, so there's a limit to what I'm willing to post for public consumption. That, for Ana and others out there, is why I haven't written anything about our political climate -- because, even given my extremely minor position in the grand scheme of things, anything I post makes me a spokesperson for our union and I prefer to leave that to the communications professionals. Plus I don't trust the blogosphere.

Anyway, three things to point out:

1) Despite all the objections and worries last year regarding organized labor's reduced political might after the split, labor played a larger role (nationwide) in this election than any in recent memory. So much for that Republican wet dream.

2) In splitting off from the AFL-CIO, Change to Win representatives cited a desire to spend more effort and resources organizing and less on political work. Yet the Change to Win unions played a huge role, not just through grassroots mobilization but through endorsements, contributions, etc. For people who care exclusively about organizing campaigns, that's not entirely good news. But I've only met a handful of people who fit that description, and almost none in the labor movement. The truth is, government plays a fundamental role in the workplace, and it becomes very difficult to win battles (organizing or otherwise) there without some modicum of government support. It's not impossible by any stretch, but as the labor movement tries to rejuvenate itself through industry-wide fights, operating without decent legislation and friendly electeds may prove not just difficult but prohibitively difficult. Also, even given CtW's heavy political focus in the last 6 months, there's still a significant difference in platform between the AFL and CtW. For example, the Employee Free Choice Act (which Change to Win pushed hard throughout this cycle) has a lot more to do with organizing than the various trade and outsourcing restrictions which the AFL-CIO will likely push in the new session.

3) Labor's critical role in this election did not arise by happy coincidence, nor did it come about because the AFL-CIO and Change to Win signed an agreement to cooperate on the 06 election. The grunt work of these campaigns took place at the local level -- usually in labor councils, federations, and other organized union coalitions. Last year these coalitions had to fight to remain united as our national movement fractured, and those that refused to be weakened by the split were able to mount effective mobilizations for Democrats. In other words, they (and not so much Anna Burger and John Sweeney) deserve the credit for labor's success this cycle.

That's all. Back to the Beatles.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Help (1965)

This is going to get harder as we go along. We’re moving into the period where the albums become so good that it’s impossible for anything to be overrated, and so beloved that it’s impossible for anything to be underrated. It might take a second to get your arms around that last sentence, but – even though I’m very, very tired – I ran it down the belt a few times and it seems right.


Most Overrated: “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” I know, I know. I promise I didn’t choose this for Pitchfork-style anti-cool shock value. I honestly believe that this song receives more reverent praise and attention than it deserves. Granted, Lennon wrote an incredible lyric that balances subtle emotions – he's imitating Dylan, but he gets beyond the wordiness to very Lennon-esque direct honesty. Unfortunately, the Dylan-imitation on the rest of the song succeeds far less well. The Beatles can do Brill Building, they can do Motown, they can do Gene Vincent and Sun Records, and (later on) they could do blues and soul. But they really weren’t folkies. At best, they made folk pastiche – kind of like Brahms writing gypsy songs into his string quartets. Anyway, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is just too obvious of a grasp towards the Dylan of a year or two before the record came out. And, though the song has some bite, it lacks the venom that it needs. It's a fairly bitter song about shame and isolation, and the Beatles delivery is a little tame. Blah blah blah. Bottom line is, it’s a good song transformed into a great song by fans, which makes it overrated.

Most Underrated: “I Need You.” This song is filler. It’s a completely non-grand statement from George, in the middle of huge contributions from John (“Help!”), Paul (“Yesterday”), and the two together (“Ticket to Ride”). The thing is, this is a perfect song. Perfect songs are very, very hard to write. Unfortunately for George, he was in a band with two other guys who knew how to do it, and who could even create new kinds of songs to perfect. So “I Need You” gets looked over all the time. But its elements work so, so well together. The quiet vulnerability of the lyrics, matched with the frail pedal-tone guitar motif and some judiciously placed dissonances. Alan Pollack points out (and man, do I wish that I’d come up with this insight) that the verses ending in dissonance feel a little like sentences you can’t finish. They need the guitar motif to (figuratively and literally) resolve them. Also noteworthy: the ending gives a prime example of George’s odd sense of harmony, and the small trick – switching around the rhythm of that pedal guitar motif to resolve things in the last second – just wraps it all up so flawlessly that you don’t even notice. That’s ultimately why “I Need You” is filler: 10 seconds into “Another Girl” you’ve forgotten all about it. But without this song, the emotional balance of the album would be all thrown off.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Beatles for Sale (1964)

Most Overrated: “Eight Days a Week.” This song is overrated not because it’s bad, or even mediocre, but because it doesn’t overall live up to its moments of brilliance. If the song was comprised solely of its title, its four-bar intro, and the parallel 5ths in the bridge, it would be accurately rated as a clever, harmonically revelatory gem from the period when the Beatles made better music than they got credit for. Unfortunately, the lyrics (apart from the title) are lame and repetitive, and not in the way that makes you want to sing them over and over – a la “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Its shortness does help disguise its lyrical and structural predictability, but it remains a disappointment – to me, at least. The rest of my family loves it, and Beatles musicologists regularly point to it as evidence of the group’s maturing sound. I dunno.

Most Underrated: “Words of Love.” Again, an easy guess for my friends, because of my enduring obsession with Buddy Holly and (in particular) this song. I even recorded a version of it for Camille, with me on all three harmony lines and a charmingly bad facsimile of the solo. You will never hear this version, ever, ever. My original picks for most underrated were actually “I Don’t Want To Spoil the Party” and "Baby's in Black," which I’ve always felt (and still feel) have been unfairly ignored. But I realized that I mostly love those songs for their bizarre feel (“Baby’s in Black” = malformed hillbilly waltz) and their unexpected, open-interval bridges. Plus neither of those songs are really underrated, they’re just unknown by most and liked by a few people for whom the overwhelming feel of “Beatles-ness” is enough. I’m included in that crowd, by the way.

“Words of Love” is too often dismissed as a faithful tribute with a few quirks (e.g. Ringo playing a packing case). Like I sort of got around to arguing before with “Please Mr. Postman,” the early Beatles reveal a lot of their energy and personality through covers, however stiff or approximate. This Buddy Holly cover replicates the original closely, but somehow the Beatles stamp remains all over it. Could be the faux-Holly vocalizations, like “tell me love is real-ah," or the ingenious piecemeal switch from humming to singing during the coda. Wait, I want to explain that last thing because though I normally just throw out musicological tidbits, this one deserves an explanation. Throughout the song they’ve been humming the between-verse refrain (with more care and finicky attention to the harmony than Holly, as you’d expect), but at the end of the last verse, in preparation to ride out on the refrain, they gradually change from humming to singing “Ah.” It would be physically impossible to produce a sound between a hum and a note sung open-mouthed, so instead they switch one by one from humming to singing, so that by the end of the third refrain they’re all singing. Coupled with the precise fadeout, this technique ends up building momentum into the final moments of the song in an odd, uplifting way that bears no relation to Buddy Holly’s sensibility. It’s pure Revolver, a little preview for the outro to “Good Day Sunshine.” I hope that made sense, because “Words of Love” earns its Most Underrated status for those 15 seconds alone.

Of course, the rest of the thing deserves close attention too. In particular, I enjoy how the Beatles' predictably stiffer version reins in the Buddy Holly shamble to show off the beauty of the melody and the simple joys of the structure. Which isn’t to say I prefer the Beatles version – Buddy Holly and the Crickets cannot be outperformed, as was indisputably proven by the Rolling Stones’ version of “Not Fade Away” – just that if the songwriting is as good as it is on “Words of Love,” talented people will find new wrinkles to exploit. All of which goes to show that along with being an underrated Beatles song, “Words of Love” is also an underrated Buddy Holly song and an underrated song overall. Go find it.

Friday, November 03, 2006


It occured to me that I'm always noting things to post about, but they never seem substantive enough to merit the time it takes to even log into the Blogger website and think of something to say about them.

Yeah, I know, most of the things I do post fit that description pretty well, too.

These are usually items of interest which would, for one reason or another, cause me to say: "oh, that's badass." In fact, if I was using a different blogging program I could just tag them "badass" and be done with it.

Instead, I'm going to use them as filler to keep fresh posts up here. So, without further ado, here's two things that struck me as badass in the last 24 hours or so:

1) Last night Camille told her students that if they needed to vote in the evening on Tuesday, they could come to class late...provided they bring their voting stub. Badass because a) she's letting students out of class to make sure they have no excuse not to vote, and b) she's making them bring their stub. I'm surprised she's not having them defend how they voted on Prop 85.

2) The Why? song "Dumb Hummer" has a line about "walking right out of the bike gate at the MacArthur BART," which is badass enough, but the song actually argues that this activity should be regarded as cool. Even better, when I heard the line I realized that their description is accurate. I've never taken a bike on BART, but the people who do have an unmissable aura of cool, and when they blast through that bike gate I always think to myself "God, I'm such a lazy bastard." Also badass: the video for "Dumb Hummer" is no more than a cute, slightly nerdy chick doing a completely shameless mirror-dance in front of her garage.