Thursday, October 30, 2008

10/30/08 - In praise of the White Stripes

I'm wondering where the backlash stands on the White Stripes these days, as just in the last two weeks I've talked to people whose opinions on rocking I respect greatly that both possess an avowed dislike of Jack White and the White Stripes. One of these people is a drummer and I wonder if it is significant as another friend of mine that is also a drummer was the loudest anti-Stripes voice that I remember in college.

Both of them have not really given the Stripes more than a cursory listen, but both responded viscerally in the negative, which is interesting to me considering how much of breath of fresh air they were to me when White Blood Cells exploded out of the gate. But it's a strange band to write off sight unseen, as though they're just another Snow Patrol or Fall Out Boy, a mainstream act grabbing for the brass ring with an inescapable song or two and a blend of phoniness & ambition that marks the dregs of mainstream chart-dwellers.

In a lot of ways, the White Stripes seem to be victims of their own success, at least when it comes to perception, and the devil of it all is that they saw it coming. "Little Room" off of White Blood Cells is a simple metaphor for the plight of the artist rocketing toward success, and it clocks in at under a minute. After the release of that album, the Stripes were bound toward bona fide rock stardom, and figuring out how they got started sitting in their little room.

Aside: I remember seeing them at the Bowery Ballroom in NY with my friend Andrew right after White Blood Cells was released, and it was clear that the band was going on to bigger and better things. Probably the best concert I've ever seen. The amount of energy they poured into the place was nigh-destructive in nature; I've always wondered what it would be like to see some of the great high-energy rock acts at the go-for-broke club stage, your AC/DCs, your Nirvanas, your Rage Against the Machines, and this was what I imagine it felt like.

So, to me, the ways that the White Stripes are a great rock band, and why they don't deserve your hatred for their success:

1. Understanding of negative space. This was something that my friend Nate was talking about the other day (he is a drummer, he doesn't like Jack White and claims not to like the White Stripes either). The Stripes get a lot of shit for Meg not being a good drummer (especially from drummers), but I would argue that this criticism is a fundamental missing of the point of what they're trying to do. Meg is not a rhythmically challenged musical idiot - she keeps time just fine, thanks. What she doesn't do, ever, is play any fills. Her drumming is strictly patterned minimalism - when the band alters the sound of a section of a song, she'll switch from one symbol to the other, or hit the bass drum on the even beats, but she never plays a single drum fill. I think this is by design - the lack of drum fills makes the hits that are there much more powerful.
My friend Andrew observed that Elephant was a great name for a White Stripes album, because the band sounds like an elephant trampling through the jungle. This is due, in large part, to Meg's drums, which hit hard on the downbeats and nowhere else. The space created thus makes the downbeats hit twice as hard as they would otherwise. The difference between the way a Who song "rocks" and the way a Stripes song "rocks" is like the difference between being knocked out by a devastating series of technically impeccable jabs (Keith Moon style, a million hits on a million different drums/cymbals) and being KTFO with one solid Tyson uppercut (Meg). Technically, obviously, Keith Moon is a better drummer, and that's an understatement...but the style of each person's drumming fits each band's music equally. Jack White plays with a forceful blues primitivism, and Meg's downbeat heavy drumming brings it to life.

2. Jack's diverse songwriting talent - for all of their sonic limitations, the White Stripes hit a pretty wide range of moods, which is due mostly to Jack's facility with songwriting. He can write guitar ballads ("We Are Going To Be Friends"), country songs ("Little Ghost"), punk raveups ("Let's Build a Home"), Zeppelin-style blues stomps ("Why Can't You Be Nicer to Me?"), and piano ballads ("I'm Lonely But I Ain't That Lonely Yet"). So, even though the sonics are not diverse, the songs themselves are.

3. Jack's a skilled guitarist and singer. Bands these days rarely have talented singers and talented lead guitarists - Jack White is both. For evidence of White as talented singer, see "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground". He hits that Robert Plant quaver without the preening to illustrate the desperation of love gone wrong. For evidence of White as talented guitarist, refer to "Ball and Biscuit". Never has the digital whammy sounded so good.

4. A keen understanding of history/myth as they intersect in rock and roll. Unlike fellow 2000s breakout band the Strokes, who always seemed keenly uncomfortable with being cast as rich rock dilettantes instead of embracing the role of, well, rich rock dilettantes, White famously got in front of the star-making machinery, making up a story that he and his ex-wife were brother and sister, talking up his adventures in upholstery, and talking about his rabid love of the blues. A mix of truth and absolute, bald-faced lies, this gave White a persona and an escape route - he wouldn't have to answer Fleetwood Mac style questions about the fallout between his and Meg's relationship because he was lying from the start about the entire thing. Instead he could concentrate on his real loves, storytelling and the blues.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

10/22/08 - Devil Without A Cause (I'm Going Platinum!)

In Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman's excellent memoir of an '80s pop-metal drenched childhood in North Dakota, he spills a lot of ink defending the music that gets popular over music that gets the nod from the critical establishment. In his formulation (and I paraphrase), a lot of what's considered beneath contempt at the time due to its lowbrow/lowest common denominator appeal winds up being more culturally resonant than what's championed by the serious musical critics and thinkers at the time. So, for example, Led Zeppelin, famously critically reviled, has since been a beneficiary of revisionist history by dint of their hugely influential discography. And likewise, AC/DC has outlasted and out-endured anyone that originally held them to be unoriginal and repetitive (sure, they are, but so is a Mantra).

This divide between popular and critical opinion is fascinating to me; half of the time I agree with music critics that take terrible acts like Matchbox 20 down a peg, but the other half of the time I think that the position of cultural arbiter goes to the brain and it becomes difficult to identify those artists with a certain kind of visceral appeal of the kind that AC/DC and Led Zeppelin both exemplified.

Which brings me to Kid Rock. Now, I'm not going to argue that Kid Rock is someone whose artistic output is any kind of shining peak of musical accomplishment, but there's a a reason that Devil Without A Cause sold something like 8 bajillion copies. At heart, Kid Rock is musically inclusive, and did a better job than anyone this side of Rage Against the Machine of integrating the cadences of hip-hop with the enduring musical idioms of blues-rock. And Rage, I would argue, for all their hip-hop influences, fall on the stiff side of funky- musically, they seem more out of the hectoring KRS-One side of the hip-hop lineage than the G-Funk party music side of things.

Kid Rock, on the other hand, is all about the party. This doesn't necessarily diminish his output - so is AC/DC. So is Snoop Dogg. So is Chuck Berry. The linchpin of Kid Rock's inclusive musical spirit is right there in his first big hit: "Get in the pit and try to love someone". What this means musically is a shotgun wedding between Southern/Midwestern sleaze rock with the bombastic boasts of hip-hop. When it works, it's an inspired fusion that could be called a truly original hybrid. "Cowboy", one of the Kid's high-water marks, lays out Snoop's Cali fantasies over a loping, funky rock bed, expanding the gangster boasts sonically by setting them to the sounds of self-confident southern rock.

Current hit "All Summer Long" is a rock mashup of "Werewolves of London" and "Sweet Home Alabama", a remix for the rock idiom in which the Kid spins out a summer fantasy straight out of Grease (well, with a lot more booze and weed) over the recontextualized sounds of summers passed. "Picture" is an old-school country duet with Sheryl Crow that showcases Bob Ritchie's embrace of the occasional classicist move.

Now, on the downside, Kid Rock I think is ultimately going to serve as more of blueprint than the finished edifice, more Elvis than Beatles, because for the most part his lyrics are terrible. He brings in hip-hop, sure, but he employs the couplet structure of early Beastie Boys/Run-DMC with only the occasional witty touch. For the most part, it's empty bluster; read any interview with the Kid and one comes away with the impression that he shares some traits with our soon-to-be-departed POTUS - a love of self precluding introspection and a self-satisfaction that impedes forward progress.

Nonetheless, some of Kid Rock's best songs apply the kind of rock/hip-hop fusion that points the way towards the inclusive musical future that we're all heading toward. And he carries the torch for the forgotten Midwest, a self-proclaimed American bad-ass who is going to wave the flag, chug Jack straight from the bottle, and let a midget rock the guest verse while a black woman holds it down on drums. Don't write the man off.

Friday, October 17, 2008

10/17/08 - Where Awesome Happens

So, a plug; here we are deep in football season, with the Fall Classic about to kick off, and the NBA season approaches with great stealth. I'm not sure when exactly NBA basketball became such a niche sport, more on par with the NHL than the NFL, but my purely anecdotal experience suggests that NBA fandom is narrow. The diehards are just as enthusiastic as those found for any other sport, but the vast casual middle seems much smaller.

Take another look, I urge you. Why? Two lines of argument - athletic/aesthetic and metatextual.

1. Athletic/aesthetic - Basketball played at its highest level is most often compared to jazz, and though the cliche is hackneyed (I don't really like jazz personally), there is an element of truth to it; namely, collaborative improvisation holds sway in basketball like in none of the other major U.S. sports. Football, which I do love watching, is military and industrialized - success is so often dependent on the industrial virtues of parts working together in harmony; pistons cranking to turn out a chassis, etc. There are great improvisational moments in football, for sure - the acrobatic TD catches, the scrambles away from pressure, the cutback runs, but a great deal of football plays consist of many discrete parts operating in harmonic concert. Baseball is almost anti-collaborative; a series of discrete 1-on-1 battles (interesting that basketball is accused often of being just that, when no hitter in trouble can ever pass to the corner for an open three, or whatever the equivalent would be). Baseball is a game played in many individual steps, with many pauses, and units of the game measured to within an inch of its life - strikes become outs become innings.

Basketball is fluid, closer to soccer, another game that has caught on as something to play but not watch in the U.S. in large part. Plays are called, plans are laid, to be sure, but there is an element of improvisatory danger in every possession, for every team. Zach Randolph airballing a three pointer for the Knicks last year is so batshit insane that it could a) only have happened on the Isiah Thomas Knicks and b) in a game of basketball. It would be like the Raiders attempting a FG but instead of kicking it Janikowski decides "screw this, I'm throwing a long bomb to my long snapper". Crazy on a basketball court, but it ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Absolutely inconceivable to even consider the equivalent in other sports.

The game is beautiful, athletic, and compelling. A common complaint holds that you only need to watch the last 2 minutes, that the rest is irrelevant, but any watcher of basketball knows how much the preceding minutes inform those final 2. Often everything that happens toward the endgame is foreshadowed and hinted at during the beginning and middle. The All-Star game, sure, only the end matters, but contrast that with the steady viselike effect of the ticking clock from the first minute of any regular season or (especially) playoff game - the game builds to those final 2 minutes. Sure, you could just watch the climax of an action movie, but you are missing the texture that gives that climax such force and power.

2. Metatextual. More than any other sport, NBA basketball has prompted the absolute best sports writing in the form of blogging of any major sport, no holds barred. The work of the cream of the crop of the NBA bloggers is so well-written and well-researched that the games themselves are elevated. Seek out the following and be awed. - the worst of pro ball. Vicious, endearing comedy. - get your Ph.D in NBA studies here. This year they didn't preview NBA teams, they previewed EVERY SINGLE GAME OF THE SEASON, in pithy, haiku-like snippets of glory. - Just solid analysis, in-depth and smart. - a daily podcast on the NBA during the season. Don't miss it. - Edited by the incomparable J.E. Skeets, of the Basketball Jones. Unique in the blogosphere, Skeets is hilarious AND inclusive.

Start there, but it's merely the tip of the iceberg. Enjoy the series, enjoy fall football, but if you love sports try re-introducing yourself to the NBA.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

10/7/08 - Rick Ross Was A Prison Guard - Cracks in the Hip Hop Persona

"JULY 21--Apparently desperate to distance himself from any affiliation with law enforcement, the rapper Rick Ross has recently denounced as fake photos purporting to show him in a former career as a Florida prison guard. But Department of Corrections (DoC) records show that Ross, whose raps detail the Miami gangster lifestyle and his supposed days trafficking cocaine, did, in fact, work as a correctional officer for 18 months."

When I first read this, my first instinct was to smirk and move on - surely, this was just of a piece with Vanilla Ice claiming some kind of blatantly plagiaristic ghetto background in an effort to give himself some legitimacy. Cred-seeking is no new story in music; every epitaph written for the Smashing Pumpkins mentioned the way that they released Gish on an "independent" label to bolster their indie bonafides in the grunge era even though there was already an agreement in place that Siamese Dream would roll out countrywide on one of the majors. Robert Zimmerman cast himself as Bob Dylan, enigmatic Woody Guthrie heir, so as not be written off as a Twin Cities pretender.

So Rick Ross is not alone, then. But I think that this particular expose/downfall/what have you points up a vexing dilemma confronting contemporary hip-hop and those that wish to be successful practitioners of the art in particular. Namely, it limits the form.

The distinction between Dylan/the Pumpkins/the White Stripes and all of the rest of the rock artists that have lied about personal histories and personas and what Rick Ross did is that the lies did not seem to affect the actual musical/lyrical content. The rock artists in question conjured biographical spice to take charge of the narrative that has grown up around music with the legitimization of the music press and its attendant musical hagiographies. In essence, by making up personal or business histories, these artists were adding spice to the biography to get the storytellers/mythmakers/audience to feel more invested in the music and the process. By mythologizing themselves or their process, they made the creation of their music more compelling.

What this didn't seem to affect, though, was the music. Jack and Meg White hold to the lie that they're siblings even after it's been defunct, but most of the White Stripes songs don't have anything to do with siblinghood or divorce. Or, if they do, they seem to be written from a psychologically penetrating place. It may add an extra frisson to the listener when Jack tackles the subject of infidelity if said listener has read up on the Stripes biographical liberties taken, but the songs themselves tend to approach emotions and subjects without incorporating biography into the equation. The music is mostly untouched by the myth.

Similarly, no matter who originally signed the Pumpkins, one gets the sense that Billy Corgan was going to write widescreen guitar epics, no matter that guitar solos, 70s pomp, glam rock, and titanic ambition were seen as out of fashion in the cred-obsessed 90s grunge scene. The business arrangement was cover for what Corgan was trying to do with the music - the band may have released Gish on an independent label, but in no way were the sonics altered - Corgan didn't strip out the guitar solos and produce it to sound like it was recorded in a trash can.

And in the case of Dylan, one gets the sense that he pretty much wrote about whatever the hell he wanted to, and appended the false biography so that people would cut him slack or find him more interesting, whichever he preferred at the time.

So, then, Rick Ross. I'd argue that one of the stark limitations of mainstream rap as it exists is an extremely narrow focus on the tropes of gangsta rap as laid out in the '90s by Dr. Dre, Snoop, Biggie, etc. It's long been lamented in spaces other than these that before the gangsta hegemony hip-hop seemed to be about to branch into many different directions (Rawkus records, De La Soul, Pharcyde, Deltron 3030 are some examples of alternate paths not taken), but with the incredible popularity of gangsta rap a hegemony of subject thunderously took its place at the top of the rap charts.

Billboard top singles in rap for the week:
T.I. - Whatever You Like
Lil' Wayne - Ms. Officer
T.I. - Live Your Life
Lil' Wayne - Got Money
The Game - My Life
M.I.A - Paper Planes
Jay-Z - Swagga Like Us
Ludacris - What Girls Like
Young Jeezy - Put On
Nelly - Body on Me

Subject matter - Money, drug dealing, cheap sex, crime. I would never dream to argue that these topics are going to lose their mainstream appeal: from film noir to summer action movies to beach-bound spy novels, these are the currencies of popular appeal. But in hip-hop the lyrical subject matter seems almost exaggeratedly narrowcast. Everybody's drinking Patron tequila in between bouts of selling kilos of cocaine to finance their various 'hos in different area codes, apparently, such that you could swap out today's T.I. from tomorrow's Lil Computerface, or whoever.

Also: the club. Apparently that is where it is all jumping off.

(An aside here to point out that there is a universe of rap/hip-hop outside the mainstream purview that occasionally crosses over to have a hit that has plenty of artists working in different subject matter - your Mos Def's, your Little Brothers, your Kool Keiths, etc. etc. etc. So I don't mean to paint all of rap with one brush, but it's the mainstream rappers that are going to get the cream of the production crop, the bulk of the marketing push from the label, and stand in for a genre in mainstream American culture).

Into the breach comes Rick Ross, such that he felt compelled to position himself as the king of Miami coke-rap. I mean, Miami coke-rap?? What. The. Hell. Because there are only a limited set of subjects that serve as gates to mainstream rap success, Rick Ross, EX-PRISON GUARD, felt compelled to present himself as the complete polar opposite of what he actually was. Every day he was hustling, all right.

Easy to mock, sure, but the larger point is a sad one. Instead of another drop in the bucket of raps about cocaine, a more artistically interesting way to use the form might be to, oh, I don't know, talk about working in a correctional facility. Rap can be an extremely expressive, poetic form, so how about some poetic thoughts on the conflicts/thoughts/feelings expressions of serving the prison/industrial complex in a nation that incarcerates its black men disproportionately. That's subject matter to sink the teeth in; not ridiculous rehashed Scarface fantasies that the next flavor-of-the-month is going to take a go at.

Lupe Fiasco's "Kick, Push" was a great song, sure, made exponentially greater by being about skateboarding. Come on, mainstream rappers - you're using a firehose of an artform to get a drink of water.