Blood Orange and Cultural Appropriation

I enjoy pop music that has a subversive quality to it, especially when there is still an accessible melodicism to it.  The music that Blood Orange makes reminds me of the melodic genre bending soul of someone like Prince, but with the cold beauty of modern indie acts like Chromatics.

There is no doubt that there are a lot of homoerotic undertones in shots in this video.  I was reading with  Dev Hynes, the man behind Blood Orange, and he said this in an Interview article:

I find New York, early 80s gay culture so amazing—the ball culture, what they created, how they expressed themselves. I admire them endlessly for their bravery. I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to be young, black, and gay 30 years ago. When I was younger growing up in Essex—a small town in England—I dressed pretty weird, and a lot of my friends were gay, so I essentially grew up as a gay kid even though I was straight. I had all the abuse—was spat on daily, called a fag, was pushed around. The whole aesthetic of Blood Orange is basically a celebration of gay culture. I want to celebrate people who I feel represent freedom, for example Octavia St. Laurent, who I’ve done a little tribute to on the Myspace.

There are lots of talks in the media about culture appropriation concerning different artists.  As long as an artist admits who they are taking, and politically stands up for those that they are taking from, I think it is not only OK to take things from different cultures, but essential to art.  They only way that new genres are created is when two (or more) things are combined that were never combined before. Also, it can expose elements of different cultures to people that may not have been accepting to them otherwise.  There is no doubt, for instance, that the Rolling Stones helped lead people back to many black blues artists.  Morrissey steals lines from different writers, while putting them in a new context, and through him I have discovered and read those artists.

There are only three times when this becomes problematic:  When an artist steals without adding anything new (This would be, if not plagiarism, than unimaginative art.), when an artist steals without credit (straights up plagiarism), when an artist steals something from a culture without supporting that culture politically (hypocrisy).

A Strange Goodbye to David Bowie

Let me tell you a story.  During Christmas break I made an album with my brother, drummer Alex Moralez, and Dave and Christine from Marah.  (They produced, engineered, and played some of the instruments.)  It was recorded in their farmhouse in rural PA.  This isn’t really a story of that record, which is yet to come.  One of the songs I demoed was called Hand Coming Down.  (The title, as the song, was changed at the last minute.)  On the demo it has a bluesy feel, sounding somewhat like some of the work Paul Westerberg has done in the last 10 yrs, but slightly spookier.  It is a one chord song, which Dave had encouraged me to write some months earlier, long before there were any plans to work together.  The thing about a one chord song is that, due to its simplicity, you can take it almost anywhere.

Through the collective will of everyone, we decided to take it in more of a European direction.  Bands like The Cure, Joy Division, and Bauhaus were mentioned.  The musical track, recorded live, but without vocals, turned infinitely more spooky and menacing.

I sang the demo version, but when it came time to cut the vocal for it, I knew my brother was the only one that could do the vibe of the song justice.  We talked, before he cut it, about going in more of a David Bowie/Iggy Pop route vocally, as all of us love the work the two of them did together in the 70’s.  My brother knocked it out of the park.

The point of this story is not to talk about the record, but to point out that here in 2016, there is still music being made that is still directly influenced by the work that Bowie did many moons back.  We all know that, and we know it will continue.  Just last year I became fully reimbursed in the recordings of Bowie’s Berlin period.  This year, I started to also reinvestigate the albums that he made with Iggy Pop.  My brother has long been a torch bearer for Bowie’s work.

And although I see the world as random, last night, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was watching a movie about Marlene Dietrich.  The documentary was called Marlene.  In it she sings a slow melancholy version of Just a Gigolo.  Bowie is in the cafe with her, dressed stylishly, sitting at a table slightly removed from the main action.  It had a dreamy resigned quality to it.  And even though I don’t believe in such things, when I heard the news today, it seemed like last night the universe was speaking to me.  It was a goodbye to someone who’s work I have loved very much over the years.  It was one of those moments that makes you question things, if only for a moment, before you realize that you should know better…

One Day the Poor Will Have Nothing Left to Eat but the Rich


The Pop Group Vacations at Dismaland

In the past week real life has overcome my ability to get much writing done.  What is a better way to jump back into the fray than with some subversive art, directed by Banksy no less, as viewed through the eyes of the Pop Group.  Photos from Dismaland, a darkly satirical take on Disneyland and critique of modern consumer culture, have been out there for some time, but if you haven’t seen them check it out.  There is a quote that stuck with me from one of installations:  “One day the poor will having nothing left to eat but the rich.”

The Pop Group were a post-punk band that, much like Public Image Limited, which Pop Group member Bruce Smith went on to join many years later, made music that was inspired by the attitude of the punk scene, but broke with the conventions of that music.  It’s strange and abrasive stuff, but unique and sonically inventive:

What is the Point of Creating Art?

In the van reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  I read the following paragraphs and found they mirrored thoughts I often have myself:

In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art.  For whom?  Are we animating God?  Are we talking to ourselves?  And what is the ultimate goal?  To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?  

I craved honesty,  yet found dishonesty in myself.  Why commit to art?  For self-realization, or for itself?  It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination. 

I don’t have any answers.  But my very next thought was with a good book, film, or record I never feel alone.  Surely that must count for something.


Why Do We Change Our Mind About What We Find Beautiful?

One of the books I am reading right now is Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness.  I found the following passage interesting, where he tries to come to grips with why we find certain things beautiful:

Why do we change our minds about what we find beautiful?

In 1907 a young German art historian named Wihelm Worringer published an essay entitled ‘Abstraction and Empathy’, in which he attempted to explain our shifts from a psychological perspective.

He began by suggesting that during the span of human history there  had only been two basic types of art, ‘abstract’ and ‘realistic’, either one of which might, at any given time in a particular society, be favored over the other.  Through millennia, the abstract had enjoyed popularity in Byzantium, Persia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Congo, Mali and Zaire, and it was just then, at the opening of the twentieth century, returning to prominence in the West.  This was an art governed by a spirit of symmetry, order, regularity and geometry.  Whether in the form of sculpture or carpets, mosaics or pottery, whether in the work of a basket weaver from Weak or that of a painter from New York, abstract art aspired to create a tranquil atmosphere marked by flat, repetitive visual planes, the whole being free of any allusion to the living world.  

By contrast, Worringer noted, realistic art, which had dominated aesthetics in the Ancient Greek and Roman eras and held sway in Europe from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, sought to evoke the vibrancy and color of tangible experience.  Artists of this stripe strove to capture the atmosphere  of a threatening pine forest, the texture of human blood, the swelling of a teardrop or the ferocity of a lion.  

The most compelling aspect of Worringer’s theory – a point as readily applicable to architecture as it is to painting – was his explanation of why a society might transfer its loyalty from one aesthetic mode to the other.  The determinant lay, he believed, in those values which the society in question was lacking, for it would love in art whatever it did not possess in sufficient supply within itself.  Abstract art, infused as it was with harmony, stillness and rhythm, would appeal chiefly to societies yearning for calm – societies in which law and order were fraying, ideologies were shifting, and a sense of physical danger was compounded by moral and spiritual confusion.  Against such turbulent background (the sort of atmosphere to be found in many of the metropolises of twentieth century-America or in New Guinean villages enervated by generations of internecine strife), inhabitants would experience what Worringer termed ‘an immense need for tranquillity’, and so would turn to the abstract, to patterned baskets or the minimalist galleries of Lower Manhattan.  

But in societies which had achieved high standards of internal and external order, so that life therein had come to seem predictable and overly secure, an opposing hunger would emerge: citizens would long to escape from the suffocating grasp of routine and predictability – and would turn to realistic art to quench their psychic thirst and reacquaint themselves with an elusive intensity of feeling.  

He goes on to talk about how different people even in the same country, people in different classes, might find different things beautiful based on their psychological needs.

Now there are obviously arguments that can be made against this.  (Though he is talking specifically about architecture and visual art in his book.)  One could make cases that certain kinds of religion influenced art in different ways.  Technology and materials allow for different art to be created.  Also the history of design and art, how one artist influences another as an example, comes into play.

However, the main point that de Botton is trying to get at is that, while we still may prefer one kind of design over another, we at least might be able to get a glimpse at why people we disagree with might prefer something based on who they are and where they come from.  He talks bout a factory owner that had sleek modern dwellings built for his factory workers to inhabit.  However, they spent their whole day working in a modern factory.  They wanted their houses to have a more traditional look, to feel like the places that they did not to get to spend enough time in, to look more like where they were from.  They added wooden shutters, picket fences and garden gnomes.  He also talks about how different people, depending on where they live and how they live, might want to spend their leisure time in a different environment, depending on what they are lacking in their everyday life.

I think you can still make value judgments on aesthetics.  The point is not to say that everything is as good as everything else.  A big part of the reason I write is because I believe there are things that are worth championing over others.  However, I think understanding where someone else is coming from is obviously a good thing.  It can at least maybe take something that would be filled with animosity to a level of friendly disagreement.  And one never knows, maybe something new will reveal itself and become beautiful for the first time.

More Posts On Alain de Botton Include:  Why Writing Should Often Be Simple

The Replacements ‘Portland’ Vs. Lifestyle Music

On tour in Sisters, Oregon.  Monday night I’ll be in Portland.  This is a song about the city which I have liked since I was a kid.  It’s Portland by the Replacements.  It’s melancholy, but with just the right amount of defiance to give it an emotional complexity.  (That complexity is what many of those that have been influenced by the Mats have failed to achieve.  There is always a wit that comes through in Westerberg’s songs.  Even if he sounded down he saw the humor.  Even if he was having fun he sounded slightly guilty about it.)  Word has it that this song was an apology to the city for something they did when they were there.  Westerberg even says, “sorry”, at the end during the fadeout.  But who knows such things.  They are certainly a band with many myths at this point.

When I travel I like to spend part of the time listening to music that has some connection to the scenery and landscape.  It usually brings out new things in both the scenery and music, both gaining added dimensions in the imagination.  (At least until I’m so fucking exhausted that only the sounds of the insane seem to make any sense.  Hence me putting on Samhain all day!)

Though this is quite different when I live somewhere.  Often I’ll get regional music overkill.  I quite often need to take a break from Texas music when I’m at home in Austin.  The same can be said of anywhere I have lived.  (Although an exception might be music from the past, which is its own unique destination.  There is another exception, which I’ll get to.)  Music is also a way to be transported far away from your current physical existence.  It’s a way to get a feel for places you have never been, to experience emotions more deeply than you might be at the time, or to relate to people with different experiences.   I want to go to new lands or have a new insight into a land I’ve already been.  I don’t get people that want to hear their own mundane everyday lives sung back at them, unless a writer has the power to infuse the everyday with a sense of mystery, therefore making it new.  (Current songwriters like James McMurtry and Ramsay Midwood can do this in Texas.)  I have no use for lifestyle music, music that is trying to appeal directly to the biases and prejudices of a certain culture.  I like a little bit of mystery in my art, a little poetry.  Just writing a list of things that exist in a certain place is, to use a term that Werner Herzog uses for cinema verite, “the truth of accountants.”  I don’t need to hear a song about so and so that I did last weekend.  I was already there and it wasn’t that fucking great…

Why it is the Best of Times and the Worst of Times On TV

Why it is the Best of Times and the Worst of Times On TV

The above article at Salon is an interesting look at the economics of modern television.  Obviously, when they are looking at the future of anything, it is somewhat of a guessing game, if here at least one that seems to have some statistics to back it.  However, I think one thing that everyone needs to understand is that we get the kind of culture that we support.  We can either view culture as a public good and support at least part of it as a community, or we can view it as something that should live or die by the market.  Right now it is economically viable for a lot of great television to be made, and a lot of bad television.  I think that other art forms, for a number of reasons, are suffering compared to other times in our history.

Music as Visual Art

Hammer Dracula

Lately my musical listening has drifted to bands that would be considered by many to be heavy, loud, by some to even be called discordant or non-melodic.  These would be some of the hardcore, punk, and heavy metal bands that I love, many since I was a kid.  Fugazi, Anthrax, Black Flag, The Misfits and many others have been on constant rotation through my headphones.  (These bands are all wildly different, but share crashing drums and loud guitars.)

I know there are many people that love a lot of the same music that I do that have no time for this kind of stuff.  But again I want to try and get you to view music the same way that I do, as something more akin to film or painting or any other kind of visual art.  There aren’t many people that have time for comedies, but rule out horror films completely.  There aren’t many people that like oil paintings, but who don’t have the time of day for sculptures.

There are good and bad oil paintings, sculptures, horror films, and comedies.  There are good and bad recordings in any genre, but I cannot think of any genre, in the most basic sense, that is all good or bad.  Much like there are different ways of putting together colors or images, there is different ways of putting together sound.  Sound is a visual thing.  My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is like an ever shifting psychedelic kaleidoscope, as colors swirl and melt into each other.  Whenever I hear Marianne Faithfull’s version of Trouble in Mind I think of Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.

Meanwhile different kinds of heavy metal, punk, and hardcore sound like other films or artwork.  The Misfits, sonically and by design, remind me of something like the old Hammer Horror Films.  Some heavy metal, though of course this genre, like any, can be ridiculously varied, reminds me of the kind of imagery associated with German paintings that came out of World War I.

Even if a certain kind of music don’t bring up specific visual associations, different kinds of music are awash in different colors.  Even if you don’t see music as being “colorful” most people would know that certain kinds of music sound better at day or night, on a beach or in a city.

Try to get past your immediate emotional reaction to any piece of music and think about the image that would go with it.  The only kind of music that I don’t like is music that only communicates, with terms that Werner Herzog would use to describe bad filmmaking, “vanilla emotions” or the, “truth of accountants.”  You just might find whole new worlds opening up.

More Posts On This Subject Include: Music as Paintings

More Posts On Music Include: Heart of the Congos and Great Music Criticism

More Posts On Hardcore Music Include:  Rites of Spring and the Political Without Politics

Samhain, Mystery, Imagination

I’m a big fan of the early 80’s punk/post punk/hardcore scene.  The Misfits were always one of my favorite punk bands.  Samhain, the band that Glenn Danzig formed between The Misfits and Danzig (Which I also like), is a really interesting band.  They are neither quite punk, nor metal.  The playing is much more primitive than what would come, but is more experimental and strange than the horror punk of The Misfits.  It has a gothic ambience to it, despite the underlying aggression which has always been a part of Danzig’s sound.

I have been listening to the first Samhain album Initium.  I love it, especially the closing track Archangel.  I think what is interesting about it, even if you aren’t into this band or even particular style of music, is how well it has aged, especially the fact that the recording is very lo-fi and primitive even for its time.  In fact I would argue that the lack of fidelity ads to this records appeal.  It creates a sense of mystery, like you are hearing something that you weren’t supposed to.  It allows the imagination to fill in the missing gaps.  Nothing is more important to a piece of work than the imagination of the listener, viewer, observer, or whatever, depending on the form of art that is being taken in.  When you read a book the imagination is creating the images, which are just words on a page, and that is very powerful.  One of the reason old recordings form the 50’s and 60’s have stayed relevant, and not just because they feature great musicianship and performance, is because the technology of the time made a certain amount of mystery inherent in the work.  When you listen to a Phil Spector produced record, there are so many instruments being recorded, that it is hard to tell exactly what is in the room.  So you have the musicians and what they are performing, but then you have an added element of mystery, of there being something other present, when those recordings play.  Whether the mystery inherent in the above Samhain recording was intentional or the result of having no budget, I would bet on a little of both, it has that unexplainable quality to it, where it is a puzzle that can never be completely deciphered.  The fact that Glenn Danzig was trying to create a horror vibe in his music is enhanced by this mysteriousness.  Think about when you watch a horror movie; Often you are more creeped out before you see the monster, when you are still imagining how horrible it could be.  Sometimes modern horror movies will use grainy footage of something to add to their terror.  I think this is for the same purpose.  As all things more and more towards high definition and sonic clarity, realize that perfection of image and sound can also cause something to be lost along the way.  The best filmmakers, musicians, artists, will find ways to adapt, to use new technology to get the same emotional quality as the old, but I think realizing that mystery is an important quality in art is an important step.

Bass Lines, Bootstraps, and The Myth of the Individual

Last night I cut a baseline in a studio that I felt was really great.  I almost thought about bragging about it, in fact I totally did to a couple close friends!  However, I started thinking about how that bass line was the result of listening to lots of other bass players and that, whether it is good or not, I only had a little hand in its creation.  Also, on top of that, I have had friends, teachers, mentors, and parents, that have in some way shaped how I played, whether directly or in allowing me to learn my craft.  Not only that, but every musician on any record has a similar story of people that helped them to learn what they do.  You get four, five, six, ten people on an album, plus those doing the technical work, and all of sudden you have links to hundreds if not thousands of other people.  How many records did they listen to?  Who taught them?  Who paid for their first lesson?  If they were writing lyrics did they read a lot of different writers, who in turn have their own groups of people?

In America we like to tell ourselves that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  But doing something completely by yourself isn’t really possible.  We love the individual, and certainly some people are more unique than others, but the individual never accomplishes anything completely on their own.  The most you can hope to do is to combine things in a way that others have not done, and that is original enough for me, but to do something that has no ties to any other person is something that only exists in myth.

I also was thinking how we devalue music in our current cultural atmosphere.  Some people scoff at paying for songs.  But think about it, really think about it, and you will realize that it takes a staggering amount of hours and people to give birth to even the simplest of songs.  The same can be true of any art form.

I also reflected again on the ending of Mad Men.  (Spoiler alert)  A friend talked to me about the end of Mad Men, where Don Draper’s whole journey led him to create a Coke commercial.  His view was that one way to interpret it was that nothing created comes out of a vacuum.  In another way, and I would be one that can see it this way, this is a sad ending as a man’s life long struggle ended up as nothing more than a piece of advertising.  However, at the same time it is a great way to view anything that has been created.  Nothing comes from out of nowhere.