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Nerd time

3 Mar

I currently have THREE academic papers in the works. Well, the ideas are set, anyway. I like to start with a title and then allow that to guide my writing direction.

Here they are.

No Reason to Get Excited: Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as Myth, Leitmotif, and Metaphor

Free Man in Paris: Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” as Folk Music Watershed

This last one doesn’t have a title yet, but the gist is that it’s about gender roles in brass instrument development in 19th Century Paris (where all the brasses were refined, thanks to the trend towards orchestral expansion).

Sublime to the ridiculous, indeed.

I actually emailed composer Bear McCreary about the first one, hoping to get 15 minutes to pick his brain about it.


I don’t know how much original research has been done on AATW in recent years, but I’m hoping I’ll be the first to get a paper out on it that also addresses the BSG stuff, the Dave Matthews Band covers, etc.

The Joni Mitchell paper has been on my mind since my undergrad days. I realize it’s a bold statement I’m making, that this album helped kill folk music, but the title COULD be more inflammatory than it is. 🙂

For a decent piece of scholarship with an EXTREMELY inflammatory title, check out a book called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll by Elijah Wald. He argues his case. Not sure how much I agree with him, but it’s a fresh perspective.

Any thoughts? I know the first two are sort of mainstream, like rock journalism, and the last one more “New Musicology.”



9 Feb

I have so much to say, but have been avoiding getting into on here because people actually read this blog. No, seriously, I had 200 hits one day last month.

So all I will say for now is this…Living with depression when life is otherwise terrific is like being stuck in an airplane on the tarmac. You could be sky-high; the destination beckons, but you’re stuck waiting for departure clearance from air traffic control – only air traffic control is your warped mind and doesn’t think it’s safe to fly.

If I could get my head right, I’d be having the time of my life.

More later. Got a few cool music-making opportunities heading my way soon, hopefully. No research direction at the moment, which needs to change as the process begins this semester. I’m in one piece so far and loving school. I just can’t kick the fog.

Back to your regularly scheduled dissident philosophy

15 Jan

With all this stupid ex drama over, I can focus on the actual purpose of this blog, which is to get the CIA to follow me around. Not really. But I am committed to writing and thinking about stuff that cuts against the grain. I wouldn’t be a dangerous liberal intellectual if I didn’t, right?

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is tomorrow. In one of those weird serendipitous moments that brings momentary order to a completely random universe, I stumbled across this essay in a book that was among the stuff my ex brought back to me. I’ve decided to reproduce it here, since it’s timely and also relevant to issues that are still making headlines. Well, the mainstream media has all but forgotten about the Occupy movement, but the problems that it addressed are never going to go away. This essay is from 1995.


“The Martin Luther King You Don’t See on TV,” by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon, from You Are Being Lied To; Russ Kick, editor. Link:

It’s become a TV ritual. Every year in mid-January, around the time of Martin Luther King’s birthday, we get perfunctory network news reports about “the slain civil rights leader.” The remarkable thing about this annual review of King’s life is that several years – his last years – are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole.

What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963), reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963), marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965), and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).

An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn’t take a sabbatical near the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever. Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped. But they’re not shown today on TV.


It’s because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for during his final years.

In the early 1960s, when King focused his challenge on legalized racial discrimination in the South, most major media were his allies. Network TV and national publications graphically showed the police dogs and bullwhips and cattle prods used against Southern blacks who sought the right to vote or to eat at a public lunch counter.

But after passage of civil rights acts in 1964 and 1965, King began challenging the nation’s fundamental priorities. He maintained that civil rights laws were empty without “human rights” — including economic rights. For people too poor to eat at a restaurant or afford a decent home, King said, anti-discrimination laws were hollow.

Noting that a majority of Americans below the poverty line were white, King developed a class perspective. He decried the huge income gaps between rich and poor, and called for “radical changes in the structure of our society” to redistribute wealth and power.

“True compassion,” King declared, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

By 1967, King had also become the country’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was murdered — King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

From Vietnam to South Africa to Latin America, King said, the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” King questioned “our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America,” and asked why the U.S. was suppressing revolutions “of the shirtless and barefoot people” in the Third World, instead of supporting them.

In foreign policy, King also offered an economic critique, complaining about “capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries.”

You haven’t heard the “Beyond Vietnam” speech on network news retrospectives, but national media heard it loud and clear back in 1967 — and loudly denounced it. Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post patronized that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

In his last months, King was organizing the most militant project of his life: the Poor People’s Campaign. He crisscrossed the country to assemble “a multiracial army of the poor” that would descend on Washington — engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol, if need be — until Congress enacted a poor people’s bill of rights. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

King’s economic bill of rights called for massive government jobs programs to rebuild America’s cities. He saw a crying need to confront a Congress that had demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” — appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.”

How familiar that sounds today, more than a quarter-century after King’s efforts on behalf of the poor people’s mobilization were cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

As 1995 gets underway, in this nation of immense wealth, the White House and Congress continue to accept the perpetuation of poverty. And so do most mass media. Perhaps it’s no surprise that they tell us little about the last years of Martin Luther King’s life.

Off to save the world, BRB

20 Dec

This post has been a long time coming. It’s pretty personal, but what the hell. That’s what the internet is for, right? Also, this post is rated R. If you don’t want to know about my love life, don’t read it.

This is intended to be a focused discussion of certain attributes of the opposite sex, but apologies up front if it devolves into something else. I swear I’m not bitter. Maybe just a little bit.

My relations with men have been sort of bizarre as long as I can remember. By that I mean, I have almost exclusively cultivated a friendship base of men and have gagged at the idea of having “girl’s night.” It’s a character flaw – I just don’t get along with a lot of women. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed to believe that most women are the caricatures depicted in romantic comedies (*cough* Sex And the City *cough*) and therefore the notion of having to pretend to be interested in designer shoes and coveting wedding dresses before you’re even in a relationship sort of makes me ill.

(My rant on marriage as an antiquated notion is more appropriate for another time; however, it is possible to take that sort of relationship nihilism to an extreme.)

This being the case, I’ve yet to enter a relationship with a man who wasn’t a really close buddy first. I mean like drinking beers and watching football kind of buddy, not some neutered watered-down “nice guy” friendship where the chick strings the guy along and acts completely equivocal, and he stays on a short leash because he thinks she might eventually view him in a sexual light. Don’t tell me you don’t know the type. This one’s not completely a cliche, I’m afraid.

What this brings to mind is yet another form of cultural conditioning where we sort of fall into these prefabricated marketing categories of male-female relationships.  I blame Meg Ryan. Who made that bitch the be-all end-all of female idealism? Alas, I digress. This isn’t about chick flicks; it’s about the damage they inflict. Even people that claim to be totally immune to these sort of mores often wind up floundering in them.

I went through a pretty brutal breakup about 7 months ago – one that terminated a 4-year relationship that had admittedly been struggling with the distance between us. Still, it was so out of left field that I got whiplash. I think my back is still tweaked from getting the rug yanked out like that. In the same week, I received my Master’s degree and arrived home to a man who had decided to cultivate his “side project.”

By that I mean, it’s pretty shitty to cheat on your girlfriend while she’s living 2000 miles away and then wait until she moves back in with you to do the dumping so you can jump right in with the new flame. If karma is real, I have to hope that it acts quickly. But of course, it’s out of my hands. I have noticed, however, that actions like that have a way of coming back to haunt the actor.

It should not come as a surprise that I am a difficult human being to love. I am way too intellectual for my own good, often moody, incredibly passionate to a fault, and I’ve struggled with some health problems that have made me pretty unpredictable. It’s easy to lay excuses on the health issues, but the fact remains that I am now living a single life.

It kind of surprised me how much I enjoy the single thing. Women really get a shit deal when it comes to cultural conditioning regarding relationships. We’re nothing without a man to validate our existence, right? That’s really something of a non sequitur. This is why a lot of us turn into sluts. If we can’t get the emotional intimacy we’re supposed to desire, we may as well fuck our way to something resembling wholeness. Some of us don’t care how the hole gets filled, just that it does. (I’ll be here all week.)

After I came to embrace single life, I had an epiphany of sorts about this. I was in a committed relationship with a man who tenaciously encouraged me to sleep around. That was his kink. He didn’t get jealous – he got a kick out of the idea of me slutting it up.

Understandably (perhaps), this made me pretty uncomfortable. I don’t think I’m really wired for promiscuity. I like to have a good time as much as the next person, but I was having all of my physical and emotional needs met. Why was he so insistent that I sleep with other men? There is actually an entire subculture of men for whom this kink is a way of life. It got to the point where this encouragement had nothing to do with my personal satisfaction and had everything to do with me being his “property” that he was shopping around. He had always passed it off as the kink being about me, and about my personal pleasure. Nope.

When I had that lightbulb moment, it really made me think about how sadistic our society can be. Take porn and its addicts. Most mainstream porn isn’t about sex. It’s a graphic depiction of men wielding power over willing women in a pretty disturbing manner. There are some pretty shocking exposes of the porn industry that I’ve thumbed through in the past, and the stories those women tell will make your blood curdle. Because – at no time is there any meaningful physical intimacy taking place in porn. It’s psychological torture. It’s debased. It asks women how low they’re willing to stoop, and then demands that they go even lower. It reaches a point where it fails to be empowering to women, stops allowing women to take charge of their sexuality, and becomes instead patriarchy in sadistic action, forcing obedience and personal degradation from the women who participate.

Porn culture produces men who become enamored with the cult of the slut. It short-circuits the part of their brain that wants them to treat a woman as an equal (you know, as a human being and not an object) and instead turns her into a vector for his pleasure and dominance. It assigns value to sluts for their body parts and ability to shop said parts around.

I realize how man-hating this probably sounds. There’s probably not much I could do to convince the gentle reader that I am not, in fact, a man-hater. I would never generalize the entire species based on the actions of one. There is a bigger issue at work here. That issue is the reality that society itself has become completely devoid of compassion. You’d think this would be obvious the way American society has worked really hard to develop its “blame the victim” ethos, but a lot of people seem to think that this is a logical conclusion. Blame yourself for being poor! Clearly it’s something you did! Yep, because it’s my fault my $100,000 worth of degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

This attitude has really taken root, I believe, in part because of the sadism of porn culture. Shit, we can’t even have healthy sexual relationships because the prevailing imagery depicts women getting their asses ripped open by hordes of men. I’ve sort of begun to think there’s something a bit wrong with someone who gets a rise out of that stuff.

My point with all this is how impactful these images that hit the mainstream can be. I really used to think porn was harmless; I did. I’ve begun to rethink that position a bit. Not that I’m ardently against it, but then again, this goes back to my ability to separate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality, glossy porn shoots from the actual awkward sweatiness of sex. As I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of people who lack the ability to discern what is fantasy from how they should behave. I can see the fun in some of it; I’m a highly visual person, so I get that. But I also recognize it’s not the norm. We’ve effectively brainwashed our culture into believing this is real life.

Porn has contributed to this patriarchal idealism in the sense that men begin to think this is okay. I mean, there is nothing healthy about only getting it up if your girlfriend is off sacrificing her dignity to random strangers. Obviously a distinctly modern problem – a product of the imagery that we are incessantly bombarded with in the name of getting a few rocks off. We’ve come full-circle as a culture: so sexually repressed that sexual deviance is out in the open.

The only thing that is going to solve this is if people can learn to discern reality from the barrage of garbage that saturates their days. But the longer I take in the zeitgeist, the more depressed I get about the situation. I wish that we were free to openly acknowledge one another’s humanness. I wish that healthy sexual relationships were normal. I wish this freaking dialectical nightmare of a country would just realize there’s always more to the story, and not to just swallow everything you see wholesale.

Anyway, this one was long and opinionated. Thoughts?

Lining up at the trough

17 Dec

A few weeks ago, I walked into my class engaged in conversation with a colleague. We were discussing potential doctoral schools for him; places he could go to study early music. The conversation naturally (in our field, at least) turned to the Ivy League as not only the pinnacle of academic achievement but also a terrific place for that specialty.

Our professor overheard the tail end of our conversation, right as I was saying, “I thought about going to Yale, but sold myself short and never applied. Not that I lack the intellect.” She looked at me and said, “Be grateful you didn’t wind up in the Ivy League. They tell you how to think.”

At the time that seemed like an unusual statement. I mean, it’s the Ivy League. Aren’t we all indoctrinated to believe that achieving Ivy League admission is the pinnacle of academic achievement? That’s what teachers ram down our throats from the time we’re 6 years old – you have to get good grades so you get into a “good” school. “Good” schools are always implied to be places that carry serious weight on the piece of paper – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.

I was toiling under the impression that these schools were some sort of intellectual haven where the big thinking happens. But, puzzled by my professor’s comment, I did some research. Turns out the Ivy League is a great place to be – if you’re already on the inside. There’s an academic caste system in play here, and if you’re born into the wrong caste, tough shit.

I’ve been reading a book lately by a guy named Chris Hedges called “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” This is the Amazon summary: We now live in two Americas. One—now the minority—functions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other—the majority—is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority—which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected—presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this “other America,” serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society.

Hedges lays much of the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of the Ivy League machine, which produces elitists of mediocre academic caliber that work extremely hard to maintain the status quo. It is the illusion of an Ivy League education as accessible to anyone with the smarts that really incenses Hedges, and their ongoing effort to keep America complacent and stupid so they can keep walking all over the rest of us.

I mean, this seems somewhat shocking at first take. Really? The Ivy League schools stifle creativity and intellectual initiative? Yes, they do. They rig the system to box out common plebes, because they don’t want you and I knowing what goes on in their inner circles.

Because my professor was right: they tell you what to think, after they carefully cultivate their idea of who and who is not worthy of their prestige. It’s a self-sustaining system. They don’t want serious intellectual inquiry, because serious intellectual inquiry is usually subversive and tries to enlighten the populace about the shenanigans perpetrated by the upper classes. The Ivy League schools are almost entirely populated by people who are already members of these classes. So, shit, why think if you’re already on top?

These schools, writes Hedges, “do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers (89).”

Damn, true that. Harvard MBAs run straight to Wall Street and make up fancy words for ponzi schemes to steal people’s money and gamble with the national economy. Their education is carefully crafted to produce this outcome every time. These universities, according to Hedges, “organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers.” Wow, this sounds exactly like public school!

That’s because it is like public school. I’ve been there. You line up at the trough for your information, and when you’ve had your fill, you just cough it all back up and everyone’s happy. Don’t interpret it – for the love of god don’t do that! Just tell em what they want to hear. And if you can’t do that well, then perhaps you aren’t “college material.” I need several sets of hands to count how many times I was told that. I spent most of high school figuring I was too dumb for college. They’d indoctrinated me to develop a self-conception that was specifically designed to keep me from asking too many questions.

Keep the common rabble from asking questions by keeping them stupid; carefully parcel out the knowledge that they should have and control access to the rest. Teach them that asking questions is bad – just spit back the answer, damn it! Henry Giroux, a longtime critic of the American capitalist culture and the concurrent obliteration of public education, referred to the sad state of academic affairs after 9/11:

“Corporate and Pentagon money was now funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere.”

This is “moral nihilism,” in the words of Chris Hedges. It relegates voices of common sense and reason to the fringe, making extremism in the service of fat profit the norm. This extremism is the black-and-white version of events that is packaged and sold to the vast majority of Americans. Leave no gray area, no room for questions, and the stupid masses will never question the actions of the people at the top. The education system makes their trade in this approach, particularly in the wake of the disaster that is No Child Left Behind. To take government money, public schools have to tell their students what to think.

Theodor Adorno, ardent cultural critic, wrote in 1967:

“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again. This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”

Adorno, the Prussian son of a Jew who converted to Protestantism, knew of what he spoke.

By Adorno’s reasoning, we are always one step away from another Auschwitz if we do not make the effort to allow everyone to have an understanding of the forces that move the world. Because institutions like the Ivy League are committed to locking out all but those individuals deemed worthy of being a part of the elite.

They really do teach you how to think and what to think. They really do run the world, from the “ivory tower” that only truly exists in their minds. True academic inquiry goes on at levels considered well “below” that of the vaunted Harvard and Yale addresses, but the dialectical nature of American culture has conditioned people to feel like failures if they wind up a state school. Make ’em feel worthless, knock their intellectual teeth out, and they’ll stay soft and complacent.

As a proud graduate of a low-tier state school, I’m going to try to preach Adorno’s truth to as many open minds as I can.

Vernacular and Tricksters

29 Nov

Hello, gentle readers. Before I get to the meat of this entry, please read this:

I think that little missive could be a great starting point for some of my upcoming research. Nicholas Payton is a terrific player and a searing intellectual mind (he’d probably smack me for calling him intellectual).

Jazz and hip-hop have two major things in common: they rely on the vernacular of a people, and both put stock in trickster characters – the unreliable, disingenuous narrators or principal players.

Vernacular, in fact, means “slave.” Its Latin root is a word that the Romans used to refer to people in bondage. So some scholar thought they were being really clever when they labeled the cultural milieu and language of African Americans as “vernacular.” These days the term is used to refer to the inner cultural workings of any distinguished group, from WASPs to goths to what scholar Adam Bradley eloquently terms “the NPR demographic.”

(As an aside, I don’t look down on NPR listeners; I do, however, feel that NPR is pseudo-intellectualism at its finest, and is very good at conveying talking points to an audience of white liberals who then regurgitate what they hear/read to seem tolerant and educated. I am a white liberal, but I also question everything I am told – especially if I agree with it. The NPR demographic seems blissfully unaware of institutionalized racism – white privilege. Ever heard a white liberal brag about how some of their best friends are black? You see my point. If you aren’t a racist, you don’t have to define your friends by their color.)

I participated in a Skype interview (seriously, that is the coolest thing for scholars – you can interact with people and have real-time, face to face discussions! I love it) with author/scholar Adam Bradley. Dr. Bradley holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and was a student of Cornel West. That fact alone is reason for me to worship the ground he walks on, as Cornel West is a personal hero of mine and a man with the brilliance to change the world. Dr. Bradley teaches English literature at the University of Colorado – Boulder, and is a Ralph Ellison scholar.  He’s also a hip-hop scholar and just completed work on a memoir with rapper Common.

Bradley told a very funny story about Jay-Z appearing on NPR to promote his memoir, Decoded.  It was quite surreal, Bradley said, to hear Jay-Z being interviewed by a white woman with perfect diction about what it was like “growing up in the ghetto.” And to emphasize his point, he over-articulated every syllable in “ghetto” in the style of the interviewer.

Bradley’s point was this – it was a bit of a rude question. And an obvious one.  Asking Jay-Z this question was like tripping an alarm – HEY! HE’S A RAPPER! AND A BLACK GUY! It’s as if the ghetto is this mythical place that people can visit, like on a vacation. Not a way of life for millions of people in our country. It just seems like a bit of a stretch – like NPR is trying to appear fascinated by how the “other half” lives. This sort of pseudo-intellectualism just reinforces cultural boundaries and perpetuates the myth of the Other. That, and anyone who has every listened to ONE Jay-Z album knows exactly how he feels about living in the ghetto.

I really liked Dr. Bradley. I might email him and pick his brain, since I am a budding young scholar of black music.

Read Payton’s essay, and you’ll understand what I do a bit better.