music


My two-year-old son, Thing One, loves the music of Abd Al-Malik; we listen to his album Gibraltar in the car so frequently that I have almost all the words memorized to the first two songs (the average length of our drives). Thing One has recently taking to requesting “Al-Malik!” at bedtime, so I am forced to try to imitate French hip-hop in lieu of lullabies. Here’s a sample from my personal favorite, “12 Septembre 2001“:
Je fus choqué dans mon intime et je vous jure,
que si j’n’avais pas eu la foi j’aurais eu honte d’être mouslim.
Après ça fallait qu’on montre aux yeux du monde,
que nous aussi nous n’étions que des hommes,
que s’il y avait des fous, la majorité d’entre nous ne mélangeait pas, la politique avec la foi.

I wonder if Thing One realizes he’s steeping himself in a Franco-muslim response to the “war” on “terror”? Regardless, he loves Abd Al-Malik, and he requests him at every opportunity. Which is why this morning, I shouldn’t have been surprised when K. put on “Cars,” and Thing One started gyrating like a dervish, and he yelled,

“I’m dancing REALLY FAST!! This is Al-Malik!!”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There was precedent for this, like the time we got up and listened to Cat Stevens and he insisted that it was Cat Power. So I shouldn’t have been caught unawares. But I was.

Advertisements

I was listening to His Royal Princeliness the other day and reflecting upon the fact (anecdotal, it’s true, but borne out by years of experience and, as any of my girlfriends can tell you, I have made an exhaustive multi-decade study of white male culture and habits) that straight white boys almost universally don’t like Prince, or rather they display a kind of embarrassed squeamishness about his music, as if listening to it will magically paint them with the broad brush of Biracial Metrosexuality and Possible Gayness (despite His Purpleness’s having addressed the issue of sexuality in “Uptown,” and despite his legendary success with the ladies).

As I’ve already addressed in these pages, white males like, or pretend to like, Joni Mitchell, and if you can explain why, I’d be delighted to send you a lifetime supply of ear plugs. And white males like Elvis Costello, which is something I’ve also never understood, because to me Elvis Costello is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of music: the best thing about him is his titles. Seriously. This Side of Paradise, for example. The Beautiful and Damned. These titles have an evocative elegance that’s impossible to top, and Elvis Costello’s jauntily ironic Brutal Youth and My Aim is True do the same thing for pop music. Unfortunately, none of the works in question really lives up to the title (call me a Philistine, but I agree with Fitzgerald: “I’m sick of all this shoddy realism.” After all, who reads novels or listens to pop music for realism? Especially the realism of the overprivileged, disaffected, callow white male? Don’t we have enough of that in life?). But still, in my day there always seemed to be legions of straight white males who loved Elvis Costello in the same way that eighteen-year-old lesbians loved Ani Difranco. I think of Elvis Costello as the everyman for the American college male. Of course I’m dating myself, and maybe now James Blunt is the everyman.

But anyway, somehow it’s cool for your average twenty- to thirty-something straight white male (you know, those people who still get paid more than the rest of us) to like Elvis Costello, but it’s not cool for him to like The Artist. The Artist is somehow too swishy, too funky, too flirty, too damned good-looking, and what’s up with that falsetto, anyway? In fact, the only way to make Prince palatable to Joe Quarterback Punk is to cover his songs; when I met my husband, he owned only one album of Prince’s music, a covers album by Yo La Tengo’s bassist called That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?, which makes it OK to appreciate Prince’s songwriting, just not his eyeliner (it’s worthy of note that Dump, a.k.a. James McNew, is “pasty, overweight, and …not really unhandsome,” according to Flak Magazine, and it’s my theory that McNew’s dumpiness cancels out the frightening prettiness of Prince).

Of course, since he married me, K. has become the proud joint owner of many of Prince’s fine works, including the original motion picture soundtrack cassette (yeah, mofos!) of Purple Rain (recently named “Best Soundtrack Ever” by the editors of Vanity Fair) and the three cd-set Prince: The Hits/The B-Sides, which has kept me company on many a long drive. But he still displays a marked squeamishness when it comes to actually listening to them. He agrees with me when I claim that Prince is a musical genius, one of the few true polymaths to hit pop music in the last fifty years, a person of astonishing talent, skill, and inspiration. And yet when it comes time to press ‘play’ he hems and haws and usually mutters something like “can’t we listen to someone kind of scrubby and lopsided, like Thom Yorke, or paunchy and dumpy, like Mark Kozelek?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with the music of Red House Painters or Radiohead. It’s pleasant and pretty and really, really white: comfortingly undanceable and whinily eloquent on the subject of self-image and personal experience, those luxuries of the middle class. But even die-hard Radiohead fans (e.g. my husband) concede that Prince has the superior musicianship. And yet he remains conspicuously absent from their record collections. Why?

I think the answer is simple: Prince fucks with Joe Quarterback’s idea of masculinity. For one thing, he knows who he is, and he doesn’t have to write songs about his self-image, which is unfathomable to your average white college boy in baggy jeans. Prince needs no baggy jeans. And it’s not just that he’s too pretty; he can also dance! His music is way too funky and way too flagrantly wanton. And not only that, he wears makeup and girly clothes, custom-tailored to his tiny frame, and the overall effect is a kind of feline sexiness reminiscent of a pin-up calendar. But Prince’s discomfiting habit of transcending stereotype doesn’t end there; he also happens to swear like a mofo (or he did, before Jehovah came on the scene), attract all the ladies like sugar water in an ant colony, and be the biracial product of a black father and a white mother (one of the deepest insecurities of white America), and if you think the average white American male is comfortable with the idea of a delicately fairylike mulatto in tights stealing all the women, well, you’re more of an optimist than I.

In fact, I’ve only had one white American male friend who was an avid Prince fan, and he finally came out of the closet.

So, for example, when Radiohead offers In Rainbows for download, these average white American males and the women they influence think this is a radical new idea, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Pete Doherty wears eyeliner and acts debauched, they think he’s rakish, charming, and inventive, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Britney address issues of her media image in overproduced, ghostwritten neo-hip-hop songs, everyone, even Ken Tucker, thinks she’s being trenchant and ironic, even though Prince did that years ago too (only without the “ghostwritten” and “overproduced” parts).

It’s like when my colleague asked me if I thought Barack Obama had a chance, and I said “that would be awfully nice; maybe in fifty years.” There’s a huge part of America that just isn’t ready for a biracial black man. But for the rest of us — everyone who’s not Joe Quarterback — Prince continues to reign.

Lately there’s been a lot of talk in our house about the proper status of television, most of it between me, myself, and I, because we have conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I find most television abhorrent, especially in light of the current eruption of reality TV (shows like the various bachelors, the various makeovers, and the various competitions) and slasher TV (shows like the miscellaneous forensic, judicial, and detective offerings); the former seems to be loosely themed around “Degrading The Human Condition Through Self-Humiliation and Appalling Discourtesy” and the latter around “Degrading the Human Condition Through Pornographic Gore.” On the other, I am not immune to the lure of TV as sedative, and I grew up watching all the eighties greats (Remington Steele, Knight Rider, The A-Team, Magnum P.I.) that not only offered forty-seven minutes of sweet oblivion, but also reinforced the idea that heroes exist, and they become great by flouting the rules, some of them in really stylish suits, others in cherried-out Pontiacs. To each his own. In my recollection there was no humiliation, no carnage, and very few casualties in these shows, which made them a relatively harmless indulgence, like smoking marijuana, whereas today’s TV is so utterly devoid of hope, heroism, and good-natured humor that it’s the psychological equivalent of smoking meth.

If that is indeed what you do with meth. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I don’t really read those meth articles in the paper, because they always have really gnarly pictures of snaggletoothed people with lesions. And I have enough of those in my daily life, you know?

So there’s some struggle with TV. We have a difficult relationship. I keep expecting a slim, roué Pierce Brosnan to saunter across the screen, or perhaps a dapper, yet rough-edged George Peppard, and I keep getting airbrushed and siliconed teenagers uttering insulting and poorly-scripted remarks while discovering bodies in trash compacters. Kind of a letdown. In the spirit of experimentation and open-mindedness, I turn it on every couple of months, only to be bitch-slapped by images of some poor man’s severed limbs being pulled out of the back of a Buick or of closeups of the postmortem abrasions on some murder victim’s skin, — or worse, a bunch of clinically obese people jumping up and down in matching sweatshirts — and then I turn it right back off.

When I became a parent, I of course decided that my kids weren’t going to watch TV, and that resolution lasted right up until the first time I had a deadline to meet and my seven month-old was bored, and then I decided that it would be OK if he just checked out a little PBS. So I plunked him down in front of our little 13-inch TV/VCR combo, inherited from my parents ten years ago, and began what could have become a lifetime of addiction except that he had absolutely no interest in it at all and crawled off to chew on a plant.

In the intervening months, I’ve tried again a few times, only to discover that the new Sesame Street’s director of photography clearly got his start at Mtv, with all the attendant crazy camera zooms and cut-ins that you just know are going to cause your kid to end up with ADD. And the wee people in our house still find it uninspiring, so we’re pretty much a TV-free household, unless you count the occasional Thursday evenings when K. and I drag out the 13-inch so we can watch the detritus of slutty medical residents’ social lives.

So just imagine my surprise when the two-year-old announced to me one morning, “I’m playing with television!”

You are most certainly not, I thought. But in true “good parent listening” mode, I said, “You are, honey?”

“Television is playing hide-and-seek. He’s upstairs. He’s hiding.” And then, leaning in confidentially, “He’s really funny. He’s really famous.”

I see. You people who let your kids suck up hours of Sponge Bob and Dora every day, your kids have imaginary friends named Krusty or Boots. My kid, who reads high-quality literature, recites poems, and watches nothing but an occasional viewing of The Red Balloon, has an imaginary friend named Television. It would be funny, if it weren’t so tragically bleak and sad. Meanwhile, I was racking my brains to figure out how he had even heard the word “television,” when it finally hit me: the answer was in our stereo. Specifically, CD 5 in the changer, which for lo these many weeks has been Robyn Hitchcock‘s album “Spooked.” The first track on the album is called “Television,” and it begins:

Television, say you love me
Television, say you care
Loneliness is my profession
Show me those who are not there 

Television, murmur to me
Deep inside my room tonight
You're the devil's fishbowl, honey
I undress before your lies
Your lies...

         (complete lyrics here)

At first I was relieved. My son has excellent taste in music and frequently requests this album, and what could be better than a young person well-versed in irony and quirky, elegantly abstruse pop music? Mr. Hitchcock has been one of my great musical loves since I was fifteen, and my son went to see him in utero, so I shouldn’t be surprised. Except that there is no irony in a two-year-old talking about Television as if he were a confidant, because a two-year-old has no idea of the complex relationship America has with the medium, no understanding of why it’s called “boob tube” (I only recently fully came to appreciate the mammary metaphor: America sucking at the poisonous teat of Rupert Murdoch et al.) or “idiot box,” and no context for anything resembling double entendre. The two-year-old has forged his own relationship with Television, and it has nothing to do with obese folk having group weigh-ins or young men in fast cars saving the innocent and bringing the guilty to justice. Robyn Hitchcock’s sardonic verbal caresses become, for this child, totally ingenuous. Say you love me, indeed. We don’t watch TV, and yet the iconography of the television reigns in our household: just yesterday I drew at least twelve cartoon TVs, and this morning, pointing at the drawer pull on the coffee table, my son informed me, “That’s Television’s knob.”

Television has become a member of the family. Just listen to what he exclaimed when, while reading a bedtime story, we came across a drawing of a television:

“Oh! He has daddy’s eyes!”

This morning I got up and my living room was filled with the noise of Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” album. Prima facie, I have no particular objection to Joni Mitchell, but nor do I have particular affection for her. (None of the women I know do. We’re much too hard, in the bourgeois gangster sense of hard, too busy listening to NWA while competing in triathlons to benefit childhood cancer research or humming along to The Chronic on our iPods while doing our taxes. That sort of thing.) Joni Mitchell is so ethereal. I mean, last I checked there is nothing — no mention at all — of the fact that the police might very well choose to fuck with her for being a teenager with a little bit of gold and a pager. Of course, she’s a middle-aged white woman with long blonde hair, and therefore has probably never used a pager; in her demographic, they went straight to cell phones. But anyway, I don’t have a ton of feeling about Joni Mitchell. To me, Joni Mitchell is like blancmange, except that I can get enthusiastic about vanilla cornstarch pudding in a way that “Big Yellow Taxi” just can’t replicate.

But I do have is a bizarre little factoid for you: every guy I’ve ever dated (and, as we know, I’ve dated a pretty much representative sample of every guy in America, including football players, effete poets, artists, artistes, stockbrokers, Young Republicans, hippie treehuggers, survivalist voyagers, Sensitive New-Age Guys, nonprofit employees, small-town blue-collar types, big city Brahmins, illegal immigrant rock guitarists, refugee advocates, mama’s boys, mother-hating wastrel hipsters, academics, failed academics, wannabe academics, unskilled workers, confused race traitors hoping to ‘pass,’ etc. etc. — in short, every possible manifestation of the Infinite Variation of Neuroses Possible in the Great White [or almost-White] American male) plays Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” album. At least in mixed company. In private, I’m sure a lot of them secretly listen to Slayer.

So I guess I’d have to say I didn’t have a ton of feeling about Joni Mitchell, that she struck me as a mildly disappointing sort of pudding, until I began seeing the Eternal Return of Joni Mitchell in every relationship I ever had, usually when it had hit the kind of rough patch where the sex is perfunctory and the dinner conversation thin. Joni Mitchell would start popping up with a glass of wine after dinner, or Joni Mitchell would make a rainyday afternoon appearance over tea, or — and this is the worst — Joni Mitchell would crawl into the bedroom and attempt to make earnest and utterly bathetic love to me.

I had no deep-seated feeling about Joni Mitchell until Joni Mitchell became for me like a hydra, menacing the little boat of my sanity as I tried to navigate it past her craggy rock, her appearance so consistent and so predictably terrifying that I began to question the origin of the menace.

Originally, I concluded that:

1)The Great White American Male likes weepy folk warbled loopily against a lazy guitar. Except that this would be too simple. What are the odds? Greater talents than Ms. Mitchell (Leo Kottke, for one; Leonard Cohen, for another) go unrecognized by the breadth of audience she commands. There must be an ulterior motive, some great psychic unifying factor that makes everything between the ages of fifteen and fifty with a penis feel compelled to own at least a copy of “Clouds,” if not Mitchell’s entire oeuvre.

Which brings me to:

2)The Great White American Male thinks weepy, warbled folk impresses chicks, probably because it hints at a secretly sensitive side in lieu of his ever having to display anything remotely resembling “emotional intelligence.”

It’s worth noting that the male currently in question has only resorted to Joni after three years of marriage. I wonder what he’s up to.