Sunday, March 04, 2007

Things I Like Vol. 35

Wow it's been since August--before the move--that I have written one of these. And that's far too long, So without further ado....

Ten People/Places/Things That Rock My World:

1) Minor Characters - Joyce Johnson. Like looking in the mirror.
2) Get Steady - Jonny Lives! - You don't have to be deep as long as you rock.
3) In Search of Lost Time - Marcel Proust - I don't know why it took so long for me to read this.
4) HiFi (bar) - New York, NY - pretty cool jukebox, I would say...
5) "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is" - Jet
6) 7A (restaurant) - New York, NY
7) The Queen - dir. by Stephen Frears - a thoughtful take on the price of fame and royalty
8) The Lives of Others - dir. by Florian Henckel-Donnersmarck - While American filmmakers disappear into mediocrity, those furriners just keep doing great work.
9) Mr. USA - is it possible to be both hot and cool at the same time?
10) "The Office" - proof that while American television is out of ideas, the Brits can keep it we can steal it.

Hero of the Week: Dana Priest and Anne Hull of the Washington Post, who finally pulled the wool off the eyes of the American public about the deplorable situation at Walter Reed, and about the true cost of the war. It's about time.
Villain of the Week: Dick Cheney. Fitzpatrick's waiting for you, pal...

Friday, March 02, 2007

I Want You Back

I was eight years old when I first started listening to the radio. It was the late ‘60s, and Top 40 was king. I lived in Washington DC, and as it was in most places, you could turn on the radio and hear almost anything without having to change stations. From British Invasion stalwarts to novelty tunes, from bubblegum pop to country ballads, from one-hit wonders to stone cold soul, it was all on your AM radio dial. I fell in love with The Beatles and Donny Osmond. And I practiced the dance moves I learned from the Jackson Five in front of the mirror in my bedroom.

Michael Jackson was six or seven years old at the time—just about my age—and his joyous smile and undeniable talent were irresistible, especially to a sheltered, shy kid like me. He and his brothers had a weekly cartoon show on Saturday mornings, and I was enthralled. The music of the Jackson Five wasn’t serious and cerebral like John Lennon or simplistic throwaway pop like The Archies. Here was a bright, rhythmic sound that seemed to encapsulate joy itself, that made you want to get up and just move. To a kid raised on Joan Baez and The Kingston Trio, it was truly exotic and just a little scary. I wasn’t sure what this music was called, but knew I wanted more. My grandparents gave me a little transistor radio when I was nine or ten, and I carried it with me everywhere. It was like a secret world had opened up to me that my parents weren’t a part of; my friends and I would discuss our favorite songs, endlessly debating the meaning of song lyrics. Just what was Patti LaBelle talking about in “Lady Marmalade?” I made a friend of mine go ask her French-speaking mother. Of course, the answer to our question wasn’t really a secret, but we were more than a little scandalized nonetheless. And in truth, the sociological ramifications of the song eluded us. We just liked it because it annoyed our parents, and because we could dance to it.

By the time I entered high school, though, something had changed. There was this new radio trend called “Album Rock.” Geared toward an increasingly suburban audience, it had located itself on the far right end of the FM dial, a forbidding place I had never been before. Formerly a no-man’s land, FM was now where the “cool kids” tuned their radios to listen to rock’n’roll, a change that seemed to me to have happened almost overnight. But something else had happened; the breathtaking diversity of Top 40 had been replaced by a curious sort of radio apartheid. R&B and soul music, dance music and funk—all had been exiled to another new FM format called “Urban Contemporary,” a moniker that confused me when I first heard it. After all, I lived in a city—wasn’t I an “urban” radio listener? Why did the purveyors of “Album Rock” think I didn’t want to hear Marvin Gaye and James Brown? And why were these artificial walls being built around musical genres—R&B and rock’n’roll—whose roots were so inextricably linked? What was it they didn’t want us to hear?

In the first half of the 20th century, the powers that be in the radio business had tried once before to keep blues and R&B—what they called “race music”—hidden. It was very simple, really—they just didn’t play it. If you wanted to hear Howlin’ Wolf or Big Mama Thornton, you had to listen to stations that programmed this outlaw music, obscure AM stations that were far from the bright sunny world of commercial pop radio—stations that most of white America considered taboo. But hiding it didn’t work; kids would stay up late and tune in these forbidden sounds after their parents had gone to bed. They connected with this music; R&B took them outside their realm of experience into an adult world of deep passion and profound despair and joyful transcendence. It was hypnotic and mysterious and exciting. It was the sound of oppressed people expressing themselves, and listening to its infectious rhythms, you wanted to dance and sing and shout, to announce your presence to the world. These kids who listened to R&B bought records, too, and when music industry people realized there was money to be made from “race music,” it began to show up on mainstream radio, to creep into the public consciousness. By the 1950’s, artists like Fats Domino and Ike Turner were household names. R&B was the authentic voice of people who had been silenced for too long and who would no longer be denied, and its visceral power forever changed the cultural landscape of America.

But something went wrong in the mid-‘70s. In the transition from AM to FM, popular music was re-segregated. Instead of reaching for the masses, radio programmers targeted their stations to very specific audiences, eliminating entire genres from their playlists. The message seemed to be that you weren’t supposed to like R&B if you were a white kid, weren’t supposed to like rock’n’roll if you were black, weren’t supposed to like country music at all. Advertisers on these stations picked up on this trend, and so radio ads, too, began to be targeted to one market or the other. We were all urban kids in DC, but we lived in different worlds. This music that had once brought people together—kids from Harlem and Detroit and Birmingham and Philadelphia—was being used to divide us in ways we were very slow to recognize.


There is no instruction manual for being a teenager; most of the time you just show up and do the best you can. I remember the unique hell of high school dances, of being 15 or 16 years old and standing awkwardly in a corner of the school cafeteria with a couple girlfriends and feeling small and insignificant. We would each be dropped off at eight o’clock and told to have fun, but were never quite sure how we were supposed to accomplish this task. After all, the same kids would still not speak to you, that cute boy you had a crush on would still have no idea you even existed. Why did anyone think things would be different just because it was dark outside and there was music playing? The cafeteria’s dingy fluorescent lights would be dimmed, lending the room the somewhat stodgy air of one of those museum exhibits in which there are precious documents on display that can’t be exposed to the light. The dining tables would be stacked on top of each other and pushed haphazardly against a far wall as though they were trying to hide. The room usually smelled of floor wax and disinfectant and yesterday’s meat loaf. I would spend most of the night standing around whispering to my friends just like we did in class when we were supposed to be paying attention. Dances were like school with bad lighting and no desks.

I went to a few of these tortuous evenings, and each time I walked through the industrial metal doors leading to the cafeteria, I would wonder why I had bothered to show up. I would sigh and look at my watch and wish I were anywhere else. Until the music started. The atmosphere of the room instantly changed when people started dancing. There was terror and anticipation in those songs—anything could happen. (Would that cute guy finally ask me to dance?) There was despair. (Probably he wouldn’t.) But there was also salvation: I could close my eyes and dance with anyone I wanted. “Every man has a place/in his mind there’s a space/ and the world can’t erase his fantasy.” The mellifluous voice of Philip Bailey would wash over me telling me that it wouldn’t always be this way, that there was a world outside this sheltered, unforgiving place, a place in which I belonged. “All your dreams will come true right away…” The lyrics of Earth Wind & Fire songs were not exactly deep, but it didn’t matter. They lifted you out of yourself, called you out onto the dance floor and compelled you to move. With their irresistible brand of R&B music, they created a rhythm that let you dance all over your blues. I never did get asked to dance much, so I danced by myself and I didn’t care who saw me.

Some anonymous social committee always seemed to control the music at these dances. They would hire a DJ who would play pretty much what I heard on the radio. But one night, standing off to the side as usual, I was assaulted by the sound of pounding, thumping bass and drums. It was like nothing I had ever heard before, a thick stew of noise that made the room vibrate. I looked up and was startled to see a group of older boys dancing together in the middle of the crowded floor, shouting along to the song at the top of their lungs: “Flash- light! Spot-light! Day-light!” They were wearing black jeans and white t-shirts and black masks that covered their eyes, and they each held a household flashlight. They were inciting the crowd by pointing the flashlights at people and turning them on and off. Each boy had an odd nickname sewn onto the back of his t-shirt as though it were a sports jersey: one was “Dr. Funk-enstein”, another “Capt. Cou-Cou.” They danced and shouted, parading through the dance floor and shining their flashlights at the surprised teenagers around them, who laughed and joined in the chant. “Flash-light!” Soon the whole room was caught up in the frenzy. I watched, awestruck. Clearly the perpetrators had requested that this particular song be played, and had planned this flashlight outburst for weeks. But how did they know about this wild, energizing music? And what was this song that had entranced them so?

I later learned that it this music was called “funk,” and that the song was called “Flashlight” and was performed by a band called, of all things, Parliament/Funkadelic, led by one George Clinton. George was a huge, burly, flamboyant character who wore his long hair in multicolored braids that fell to his waist and a large feathered headdress on his large head. He had quite a cult following—an audience that came in all colors and sizes. P-Funk didn’t care who you were—they just wanted you to join in the party. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about him or his music at the time—he was a still little “out there” for my teenage taste—but like the Jackson Five, he had shown me a world quite apart from the one in which I lived, and I begin to see things a little differently. I was intrigued.

As the ‘70s progressed, popular music became increasingly fractured. By the time I was 16, I, like most of my friends, was listening to “Album Rock” and thinking that the world of “Urban Contemporary” stations was a scary, unfamiliar place. Though I liked a lot of the R&B music that was played on such stations, the programming and advertising—for hair relaxers and skin tone cream—clearly wasn’t directed at me. To find the music that I loved I had to listen to stations that didn’t acknowledge my existence (and I suppose it was that way for African-Americans wanting to hear rock’n’roll, too). It was divisive and depressing. Why was I being forced to choose? Wasn’t it all just music?

This troubling trend came to a head during the punk rock vs. disco “controversy” of the late ‘70s. Somewhere out there in America, the cultural divide had escalated into full-blown war, and it seemed like every kid had to choose sides: did you like “punk rock” or disco? There was no middle ground. Far away from the epicenter of this controversy, New York City, I knew little about either genre—it was all still music to me. But when the powers that be at my high school followed the national trend and scheduled a “punk rock vs. disco” dance, I was confronted with the question at last. The format of the dance was designed to create tension: the DJ would alternate playing “punk” and disco, and we kids would “vote” by dancing to the songs representing whichever genre we preferred. I remember some of my friends danced to punk and some to disco, and how conflicted I felt. I wanted to dance to all of it and wondered why it was that I was being forced to choose. The atmosphere at the dance began to get ugly—people booed and harassed each other on the dance floor—so the organizers ended the evening early. I left the dance with a terrible sense of foreboding—what was happening to American music, and to America itself?

It wasn’t until I was in college that I really delved into the world of R&B, began to understand its history and cultural significance. I became a true junkie, devouring every book on the history of American music I could find, buying countless records and immersing myself in the glorious shouting of Aretha Franklin, the sad entrancing croon of Sam Cooke, the dynamic vocal interplay of Sam & Dave. I listened, and I began to understand things about my country’s history that I had never learned in schoolbooks—how jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B had been born out of the suffering of African-American slaves, and how it had been a tremendous force for social change. I had felt for myself how powerful it made me feel, and so I began to understand that perhaps people had tried to keep it hidden away precisely for this reason. This music was life-affirming; it told you that you mattered, that you were somebody—and then it made you dance all over anyone who dared to question it. In a country that had spent so much energy and lost so much blood trying to keep people apart from each other, trying to keep things just as they were politically, economically and socially, it was a potent instrument of change. And if you were wealthy and powerful, change was a dangerous thing.