Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Boycott “The Sing-Off”

December 19th, 2013
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Recently I had the pleasure and horror of seeing the first episode of the TV show The Sing-Off. Anyone who knows me will confirm that I am a huge, huge music-lover. And hokey and fake as reality tv competitions may be, I am still totally willing to accept some discomfort along with fantastic singing or dancing. Eight or nine of the ten groups on this season of the Sing-Off sounded amazing to me; I believe they are all very talented. Listening to their music was a great joy, and one which I do not in the least want to pass up. Yet the misogyny of the show demands a response, demands that we let its creators know, in whatever way we can, that we do not accept it. I won’t give the show a single up-tick on hulu, youtube, or anywhere; I won’t give the ads being run on the show a single extra view. Allow me to point out the crimes, for those who missed them or did not watch.

First, a group performed Blurred Lines, which I’ve wanted to write about for some time, because it’s a tricky song, a much-listened to song, a great-sounding song, and an infuriating work of misogyny. I believe it is difficult to interpret; I had to read a bunch of different writings about it and ponder the lyrics before I could confidently call it a misogynistic song. The singer describes the female addressee as an animal with an uncontrollable sexual appetite that will force her to cheat on her boyfriend; who likes being treated roughly by male partners; who may try to resist or say no, but eventually is guaranteed to succumb; and who will never be able to maintain a monogamous relationship. I think there are a wide variety of women in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with some women out there having voracious sexual appetites or enjoying rough sex. There’s probably something wrong with cheating on your boyfriend without some prior understanding/agreement. But in any case, I think there are a couple things wrong with this guy singing these lyrics.

One, I think it’s distressing that again and again and again in pop music, women are sexualized. I’ve just acknowledged the variety among women, why don’t music executives acknowledge it? Presenting females the same way every time is bad for female audiences, because it actually shows them only one option for how they can be, rather than letting them know they can be anything. In fact, the song calls her “a good girl” in order to say that whether a girl acts prudish or lascivious, there is only one possible underlying reality. The second major problem is that the source of this description is a man who does not have a long-standing relationship with the girl. How does he claim to know so much about her? How can he be so sure that his advances are not sexual harassment? That her rejections are prevarications? Unfortunately, I can think of one scenario in which a guy would be so confident: if he believed that there was no variation among women, and every single one was like this. Even more than the description of the addressee in the song, it is the manner of the singer, so confident in his knowledge, so impervious to what the woman says about herself, that is deeply disturbing, and provides a perfect model for other men to be misogynists.

Is it the show’s fault that this all-male group of college students chose this song? Not necessarily. But did the shows writers know in advance what song they had chosen? Almost certainly. Could they have advised them to choose something else? Absolutely! That is what they clearly should have done. But let’s even imagine that the groups have prepared a song on their own, and then they come to the show and have to perform it. At this point, it’s the responsibility of the host or one of the three judges to tell the young men and the audience: “you sang beautifully, but you should be aware that this is a sick song, and put some more thought into your material selection in the future.” Without this, those kids will never learn; and without this, all the millions of viewers will assume the song is ok. Silence is tacit agreement. (Similarly, continuing to watch the show would be tacit agreement with it).

The next failure of the show was the focus on women’s looks. In welcoming the three judges to the show, Nick Lachey tells Jewel “it’s nice to have someone attractive on the panel to help balance out these two.” Here’s a woman who has been writing and performing music in multiple genres for 20+ years, coming to a show about music, and Nick calls out her looks as an asset to the show. By the way, in only about five minutes of interspersed “conversation” through the episode, he managed to score a kind of terrible trifecta of misogyny, racism, and anti-intellectualism, suggesting that what Jewel brings to the show is female good looks, what Shawn brings is being black, and what Ben brings is big words. I suppose, this is natural, since it’s probably what the producers had in mind when selecting the judges.

But Nick was not the only one. When Elements finished their performance, Shawn told them “first of all you guys all look beautiful, first and foremost you all look great,” to which they smiled broadly. What?? That’s the most important thing about them, on a show about music, when they just sang? A big to-do is made about how “without a male to sing low notes for them, they are at this big disadvantage,” which I also consider a misogynistic way of framing things (“what would women do without men?”– get oppressed and abused less). Did anyone express any concern that any of the all-male groups would be lacking something without female voices? That’s our clue that the storyline about the all-female group is ridiculous. Elements present themselves as strong and independent women who are going to prove they can do well without men. That’s a very weak fake-feminist stance (setting out to disprove their inferiority gives wrong respect to a preposterous notion), which in their defense was probably forced on them by the show’s writers. I certainly pity the plight they are in, up there in the public eye, surrounded by misogyny. But until they have the independence and strength to interrupt– “Excuse me?? What did you just say? How are our looks first and foremost?”– they will certainly not be role models for my daughter. At least Jewel may have been calling out the “judge women by their looks, judge men by their substance” double-standard when she told Nick that his “dimples are working hard for a living too.”

This show is sick, with its simplistic take on every person involved, the painfully clueless unfunny and oppression-laden banter of Nick Lachey, and its stupid fake monolithic pre-written reality storylines. It’s going to hurt to pass up on such good music, but opposing oppression is an overriding necessity.

PS- Anywhere you hear the song Blurred Lines being played, express your dissatisfaction with the musical choice of the DJ, radio station, restaurant, whatever.

Rev The Beat: Nightcore

July 12th, 2013
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Hi! This is only my second post on this site, my first being our Hello World, but it won’t be my last—this is the first installment of what I hope will be a regular column, if only because I came up with an extra-punny title.

In November 2011, someone[1] declared that dubstep was the ‘music of the revolution.’ I liked that declaration, despite not knowing (nor liking) much dubstep. Its energy is kind of contagious, and dubstep is a sort of musical revolution. Today, we see it seeping further and further into other music forms. The anime Free, for instance, is accompanied by a typial jpop score—until The Drop. Dubstep is working its way into pop, rock, country; it’s upsetting traditional music structures, and it’s doing it memetically. Literally overthrowing other musical memes, supplanting them: a revolution. In 2011, I couldn’t have known that this would happen, but I would have hoped.

But is dubstep the only music of the revolution?

Nightcore is two dudes from Norway who hit the French trance scene with a fresh style that became its own genre, distinct from trance in the eyes of its fans. They take music—usually a popular pop or dance track—and speed it up, coaxing out rhythmic beats in order to produce a totally new piece of music: almost strident, very danceable—closer to happy hardcore than to trance. Amateur trance enthusiasts on YouTube take it upon themselves to expand on Nightcore’s work: “nightcored” songs on the tubes outnumber Nightcore’s actual work by so many magnitudes I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything actually by Nightcore.

Not all of these fan creations are top-notch music, but they’re almost all passable. Maybe this speaks to the formulaic nature of nightcore, and to the lack of artistry involved; maybe it signals one of the ways in which the internet is not only democratic but also democratizes other things (in this case, music). You don’t have to be a composer, nor even a mash-up artist, to make a nightcore song that will accrue nonzero accolades. You use someone else’s contribution to culture (e.g. “Telephone” by Lady Gaga) and you use it as the foundation for another equally valuable contribution to culture (e.g. “Nightcore – Telephone” by Anonymous[2]). Nightcore, to me, is a testament to the beauty of derivative art. Like the mash-up scene, it makes a strong case against copyright, against the legal strictures of our ownership-based society.

If he who built the first fence committed the first evil act, then the folks making nightcore remixes are the ones trying to tear that fence down.

Here’s a playlist of nightcore I’ve put together on YouTube.
Quality varies, but I’m sure you can find something to at least tap your fingers to!

I don’t know what I’ll be covering in future columns, but I am open to suggestions :)

I’ll probably do dubstep at some point!

And maybe I’ll do posts on Rebecca Black and Taylor Swift (separately), investigating the ways in which these controversial characters subvert our culture and produce immense value as icons.


  1. random internet commenter ofc. []
  2. technically, by YouTube user “NightcoreAndTrance,” whose only public biographical information is “I am a boy” []

Country Rock from Concord Carolina

June 3rd, 2013
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San Francisco, 10/31/10

A couple weeks ago, I went to the “hardly strictly bluegrass” festival in SF. It’s a yearly outdoor musical extravaganza, with five stages sheltered from each other in little neighboring valleys in Golden Gate Park, such that you can quickly hop between performances, but don’t hear one act while at the next stage. Quick warning of potential negatives for some: you have to stand a lot as it’s crowded, and there’s also a lot of drinking and smoking. There’s also a lot of really excellent music. We heard several nice acts, but I wanted to share our favorite with you.

The Avett Brothers really brought it. They had beautiful music, great energy, and terrific stage presence. The whole crowd loved it, and we danced within the space we had.

The Avett Brothers are from Concord, North Carolina. The nucleus is Seth and Scott Avett, actual brothers. They are joined by Bob Crawford (bass and vocals) and Joe Kwon (cello). Seth and Scott trade off between guitars, banjos, piano, drums, and lead vocals… maybe more. So basically, they’ve spent a lot of time practicing a lot of music.

Family Above All

I have not done all that much research, but I know they are from a musical family: their dad has two albums released, and their sister sings on one of them. I saw one anecdote that a reporter went over to interview their dad about them and parenting, as they were starting to make it big. And he found the brothers over helping out around the house, chasing down the chickens: what he drew from that is that they genuinely like their parents and family, to be choosing to hang around with them. I love hanging around my parents too!

So, here’s the first song of theirs I’ll share with you, it appears to me to be about the primacy of family:


And here are the lyrics:

Murder in the City

If I get murdered in the city

Don’t go revengin’ in my name

One person dead from such is plenty

No need to go get locked away

When I leave your arms

The things that I think of

No need to get over alarmed

I’m comin’ home

I wonder which brother is better

Which one our parents love the most

I sure did get in lots of trouble

They seemed to let the other go

A tear fell from my father’s eyes

I wondered what my dad would say

He said I love you

And I’m proud of you both, in so many different ways

If I get murdered in the city

Go read the letter in my desk

Don’t worry with all my belongings

But pay attention to the list

Make sure my sister knows I loved her

Make sure my mother knows the same

Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing

Like the love that let us share our name

Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing

Like the love that let us share our name

/end lyrics

I think it’s a pretty simple song, just emphasizing the power of familial love. The singing is really beautiful. The lyrics have a couple little nice details to them: “dont worry with all my belongings” emphasizing what in particular is less important than love (things). I get a kick out of the part in the music video where he says “I sure did get in lots of trouble, they seemed to let the other go” and in the background his brother is going nonono and they’re kind of chuckling a little. Reminiscent of a strain from a discussion in our living room a couple weeks ago, between Michael and I about how parents are stricter with the eldest sibling and are often “broken” when the younger ones come through the same ages.

Finally, the backdrop of the whole song is “murder in the city–” why does the speaker choose that as the cause for expressing their feelings to their family? It’s just a reference to what cities have been in human history– not just a meeting place, but also an engine that has churned up the people coming to it. I’m pretty sure the Avett Brothers grew up in the countryside, and that when they started going to cities to spread their music, it was somewhat scary. Cities are scary, and the rural–>urban migration has had incredible casualties. Also note the lack of anger towards whoever does the murdering.

Popularity and Art

The Avetts actually started out in a rock band, then became interested in acoustic music, started a side project, then their rock band broke up, they were already investing more and more time and effort into their acoustic music. And then they met and teamed up with Crawford and Kwon. Their music to me is a blend of folk and rock, though you could add on lots of extra little genres: country, bluegrass, ragtime… and pop. Though these extra descriptors to me don’t seem to add that much meaning. It’s natural that at this point in human interconnectedness, they would have access to music from all genres and draw on many things. The band started to get relatively big in 2007-2008, making their first TV appearances, and moving to larger venues when they tour. As their music becomes more popular the question of whether it is “pop” looms.

On internet bulletin boards I have found many comments such as

[I went and tracked down some actual comments, rather than paraphrasing]

“they are kick a*s! especially in concert. but since they have gotten more famous it sucks.”

To which you can also find replies such as: [this is the very next in that thread]

“I hate it when people say it sucks when a band gets famous. First, I’m pretty sure the band wants to get famous or they wouldn’t be working so hard at it. Plus, I would never have heard of them if they had stayed a small, local band. Why should only a small group of people, who consider themselves special, be the only ones to enjoy the band? I’m thrilled they’re famous as I’m sure they are, too.”

Those who mourn the success of this or other bands are probably in fact snobby. Personally, I tend to prefer “underground social rap” over “mainstream clubbing rap.” But I certainly don’t hope that people will continue listening to “let’s get retarded” and “bounce, bounce, bounce” so that I can feel superior for listening to “Golpe de Estado.” (choice of a song in Spanish deliberate to make the point about feeling superior) I really, really hope that all the music I listen to would be mainstream and get listened to more. So just because the Avett Brothers have started to become known, I don’t like their music any less. I’m sure they do want to spread it, and I hope they do. This next song is about exactly that topic:

(note: yes, this is a music video, and yes it has 2 minutes before the song starts, but it’s well worth watching!)


A Slight Figure of Speech

They say “you’ve got to lose a couple fights to win”

It’s hard to tell from where I’m sitting

They say that “this is where the fun begins”

I guess it’s time that I was quitting

A slight figure of speech

I cut my chest wide open

They come and watch us bleed

Is it art like I was hoping now?

They said “I hope that you will never change”

I went and cut my hair

They say “Don’t take your business to the big time”

I bought us tickets there

A slight figure of speech

I cut my chest wide open

They come and watch us bleed

Is it art like I was hoping now?

What did you expect

And what did you forget

That to live you let go of me with each step

It becomes a progression I won’t let regret manifest

To aggression

Are you to assess what I’ve been? What I am? Or become?

Did you stop to accept how pathetically dumb

It can be to

Attack those around ’cause you’re

True to color, a town, a time, or a place?

It’s not yours, it’s not mine

And besides it is gone

And you never will find it again

But I don’t want to fight

I just ask let me be

I won’t give the chance to be my enemy

So go home

Think it through

A jet plane and a big idea

I jump over the sea

“What if”s hot on my trail

But that can’t catch me, no-o

A slight figure of speech

I cut my chest wide open

They come and watch us bleed

Is it art like I was hoping now?

/end lyrics

A really upbeat-sounding song! But dealing with some real issues. I think one thing they are clearly challenging is conventional wisdom, by offering up these figures of speech and directly rejecting them in the next line. One of the main concerns is the potential to be criticized by their own fans for 1) getting big 2) developing as musicians. The whole concept of the music video for this song is an over-the-top parody of selling out and commodification of art. They look so unhappy, as if they have been completely disconnected from their art. But I think they are claiming that they are aware of that issue, and are going to continue on developing anyway.

In the quickly spoken part, they directly address fans, challenging them on the question of what ability they have to judge others “Are you to assess what I’ve been? What I am? Or become?” I think they are suggesting that you may not know their true essence better than they do, that’s why it says “what i’ve been,” “what i am” and “become.” i think also “true to color, a town, a time or a place” is also talking about authenticity. Because the claim will be they have gone from being the “authentic them–” the version of themselves faithful to their color, town, time, place, to a new sold-out them, a version true to a cynical analysis of what the masses will consume. Then I think the lines “it’s not yours, it’s not mine, and besides it is gone, and you never will find it again” is the concept that you can never step in the same river twice. In other words, that the “authentic” is not a monolithic, unchanging quantity that can be pinned down with a simple definition. Developing *is* authentic.

Most of these points of theirs are a little bit on the philosophical side, open-ended questions designed to increase the awareness of the imagined audience, rather than provide a direct logical refutation. And so they ask at the end (“so go home think it through”) that you give what they’ve said some thought– rather than that you just admit they are right.

At the same time as they provide a pretty inspired/deep defense of their choice to popularize their music, they are also considering the other side of the argument in the refrain. Again and again they ask themselves “is it art like I was hoping now?” which I take to be questioning themselves as to whether they are making the art they intended to make out. The inclusion of “now” in this line indicates that it is in response to changing times. Also “i cut my chest wide open, they come and watch us bleed” could imply that they are partly doing something for the sake of those who will come watch. The tight link between cutting themselves and others watching indicates that they may have a conscious link between what they produce, and what people will show up for. So I think they also have some concern that the above-argued accusations could have some grounding in the truth.

All in all, however, they seem to be successful: for one this is a song which tackles some interesting issues of art, and is a success as a piece of art itself. The music video is also artful, enjoyable and successful, with the classic tv marketing slime (whose low quality skills make him kind of likable rather than revilable). So they should continue asking themselves about authenticity, but they should also not hermetically seal their music in a small country town to preserve it.

Serious and Energetic

The Avett Brothers have some nice soft songs, with a delicate beauty to the music. If you liked Murder in the City, you’d probably like this one the title track from their latest release. For me personally, I think I prefer their lively music. Maybe it’s because I saw them in a live show, and their infectious energy was one of the upsides. And when you’re standing in the SF mist/fog/rain at night, a song that makes you dance is preferred. But I like that they can tackle serious and emotional topics with upbeat songs like A Slight Figure of Speech and Tin Man (next up). In fact, the first draft of Tin Man was a very soft folk song that one of the two brothers came up with with one acoustic guitar on a drive. But when he shared it with the rest of the band, they worked on it and it evolved into a pretty energetic song, despite maintaining the same lyrics and emotional content. It’s an interesting finished product– meditating on a loss of energy in a piece which itself has a lot of energy. Is it a contradiction?


Tin Man

You can’t be like me

But be happy that you can’t

I see pain but I don’t feel it I am like the old tin man

I’m as worn as a stone

I keep it steady as I can

I see pain but I don’t feel it I am like the old tin man

I miss it

I miss it

Oh, I miss that feeling of feeling

I used to fill the sky around with happiness and joy

I had news to give the wind to keep myself and heart employed

I felt people move around me

I felt loneliness and shame

Back then every day was different now each moment is the same

I miss it

I miss it

Oh, I miss that feeling of feeling (X2)

The feeling of feeling

The wind upon my face

And caring what it brings this way

The feeling of feeling

The minutes pass away

And caring what I do with them

Maybe bring me love or something else

And so it goes a man grows cold

Some would say a man grows strong

They tell me life grows short

I say the road only grows long

But as long as there’s a road

My feet will never touch the ground

And if you won’t give my heart back I’ve no need to stick around

I miss it

I miss it

Oh, I miss that feeling of feeling (X2)

/end lyrics

Well, the concept is pretty simple, I’m pretty sure, it’s about becoming jaded and numb. But i think it’s really nicely expressed, succinct and poignant. to me, this song has a mix of: interesting topic, beauty, and upbeat. A lot of songs only have two of those three things.


One more song from among my favorites for you to check out. This song brought the house down at the live show. During the kick drum part the crowd clapped in unison. Everyone was *SO* pumped up; and even listening to the recording quietly in your own room, you probably will be too.


One short note about it: a lot of people will conclude that it’s about the thrill of young love. They’ve included some lyrics that definitely open that interpretation, and I can’t see how that is not deliberate on their parts. However, I heard them say in an interview that actually the inspiration for the song is the feeling they get at the moment when a piece of music suddenly comes together. That’s what really gets their hearts racing. There’s a common trope in song-writing where love and music are used as parallels; and I think this is a song that can fall into that category, and be given a double-interpretation.

This is an extremely positive song, that should make you want to live and want to dance!

I trust you’ll enjoy the Avett Brothers. I’ve only just begun to discover them, so if you find any other great songs, please let me know.