Country, soul and rap

Old Town Road is a funny song. I definitely wouldn’t call it country. It’s not even country rap. I’m a big fan of cross genre music having been raised on the original cross genre, rock ‘n roll, and having grown up with cowpunk, post-punk, grunge (a cross of metal and punk) and many other examples. Little Nas’ song is more like experimental rap. It’s got the word tractor, and the word cowboy and a midwestern sounding twang. And these are all country elements. But it’s missing a very essential ingredient that is found in any soul music, whether country, blues, or soul, and that is emotion. Rappers like Little Nas or Cardi B simply cannot produce it. Either they haven’t lived through enough, or else they have and have sublimated emotion and its associated pain with material wealth and consumption.

That is not meant to be a critique on rap. Rappers such as Little Nas or Cardi B possess many fine qualities – good technical ability, clever rhymes, and most importantly, the ability to portray an absolute disaffectedness which protects them from feeling hurt and appeals to young audiences. It is the latter that most clearly distinguishes rap and gives it it’s “toughness”. Indifference to feeling is also what drives consumer society forward because we replace desire for human relationships with things and that is important to branding and the creation of markets. While Little Nas writes:

Hat down, cross town, livin’ like a rockstar
Spent a lot of money on my brand new guitar
Baby’s got a habit: diamond rings and Fendi sports bras

Expressions of pain and vulnerability are more difficult. They are embarrassing, not “cool” snappy workplace conversations or marketing campaigns, but they draw people closer to one another and increase empathy/love between people. And this is important to musicians in the soul genres. In a country song, one doesn’t need to look very hard to find lyrics about how love is primary, For example Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”:

I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I’ll admit I’m a fool for you
Because you are mine, I walk the line

Or the pain caused by the loss of love. Sunny Sweeney is a master of this in many of her songs, “Unsaid” being but one example:

There’s so much left unsaid
Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone
Wish I could get it off my chest
Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time
Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Classic soul will always be the original, and always capable of making us feel the pain of lost love, for example Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine”:

Ain’t no sunshine when she gone
Only darkness everyday
Ain’t no sunshine when she gone
This house just ain’t no home
Anytime she goes away (ain’t no sunshine)

Or Macy Grey’s “Still” which has moved me to tears on many occasions:

I still
Light up like a candle burnin’ when he calls me up
I still
Melt down like a candle burnin’ every time we touch
Oh say what you will
He does me wrong and I should be gone
But I still
Be lovin’ you baby and it’s much too much

To borrow from Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse in his 1960’s classic “One Dimensional Man”, the rapper is alienated from love. He has desublimated his desire for human connection and substituted it with material objects, diamonds, designer sneakers, fendi sports bras. Perhaps that’s inverse indicator of how badly the rapper has been hurt and how capable he actually is of feeling, but this requires a lot of reading between the lines, and a simpler message could just as easily be made when we want to relate to a song. The country/soul singer delivers that, like Johnny Paycheck who will self-destructively “drink 15 beers” to get a woman off his mind. Soulful songs are primarily about acknowledging one’s feelings, and not substituting them with shopping (although admittedly, perhaps with whiskey).

Lastly, there is the word “nigga” which is not simply acceptable in country music. And that word is in plenty of Little Nas’s songs. Not “Old Town Road” but for example in “Rodeo” where Cardi Bi sings:

Now my heart, it feels like Brillo, I’m hard like armadillo
Can’t be no nigga ex, I could only be his widow

Although the word “nigga”, which by current standards is nothing more than a rap music convention, is considered to be harmless in pop music, and especially in rap, the majority of country music fans don’t want to hear these cynical divisive terms. Corny as it may sound, sensitivity is again at hand here, not to mention the fact that any skilled music writer can deliver meaningful content without resorting to hackneyed catch-words. So any song with the word “nigga” will automatically be excluded from the genre of country, which protects its standards.

Still, “Old Town Road” is an interesting rap song and it has a redeeming quality. My 19 year old son, who is into rap, played it for me recently, asking if it was a country song. So it gave me a chance to discuss what country songs are, and play Johnny Paycheck and Sunny Sweeney as examples, and present my critique of rap music’s insensitivity to my son. So I must thank Little Nas for giving me the opportunity to speak about music and culture with my kid. Keep trying Little Nas, keep it real, and remember, you can’t sing the blues unless you’ve had the blues!

The Ironic Article on grunge

Mudhoney, Superfuzz Big Muff EP, 1988

Revivals keep happening one after another. The neo-80s new wave, pop disco movements that started in the 2000s with bands like LCD Soundsystem, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand are still going strong . The rootsy thing that started with White Stripes and Black Keys has lead to a new appreciation for blues, classic soul, and country with acts like Sharon Jones (RIP), Sarah Shook, or Robbie Fulks. Hip-hop is more popular than ever, but is not a nostalgic genre as yet.

Seattle dominated music through the 90s, even when Nirvana came and went. Sub-Pop was the coolest low-budget label that everyone wanted to be on. Acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice in Chains were huge with their slow, melancholy hard-rock. There were smaller college radio bands like the amazing Mudhoney, who combined distorted punk guitars with a 60s garage sound, or the Melvins, who took it to the extreme, foraying into thick, sludgy heavy metal. Neil Young got in on it with his album “Sleeps with Angels”, but Neil has always been sort of grunge. Grunge had a presence on the east coast too, thanks to the amazing Dinosaur Jr, with the emotionally charged yet strangely reassuring vocals of J Mascis’s contrasting to the raw intensity of their guitar sound. New York’s art band Sonic Youth, whose raw vocals, distorted guitars, and hypnotic drumming paved the way for grunge. Sonic Youth’s music is worthy of its own article. They may seem like noise at first, but if you stick with them you will see that their chaos has structure and a lot of emotional beauty.

Seeing a grunge band live was a spiritual experience. Mudhoney was a force, Mark Arm’s wailing vocals and Iggy Pop-like demeanor, backed by a relentless guitar and distortion sound. You thought you were never going to come up for air and you did not care. Nirvana had the perfect combination of melody, touching vocals, and heaviness and if you can get past all the hype, were truly great live or in the studio. Soundgarden had the deep, satisfying world-weary vocals of Chris Cornell, (RIP).

I know I keep coming back to that word spiritual, but that’s the feeling I got from seeing a grunge show. When everything was in line, the heavy guitar sound, melancholy vocals, not growling like death metal, but torn open and vulnerable with themes like hating oneself, or feeling dirty or low or black., and the driving, primitive drum sound – it connected you to the primitive emotional heaviness, the nirvana of it all. It was absolutely pure.

After Kurt Cobain died, grunge was still going strong thanks to the big acts – Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and collaborations like Temple of the Dog or Audioslave. Then, eventually (unlike goth!), grunge actually died away to britpop, synthesizer music, rootsy music, and a million other things as ipads and mobile phones made everyone feel happier and shinier.

But what perplexes me is – why hasn’t grunge come back? Everything comes back. Maybe grunge still seems so “new” that it’s impossible to think of it as “coming back”. We thought it never left.

Or, perhaps grunge just doesn’t fit the mood we are in right now. It’s a lot like the 80s right now. We want momentary pleasures, a new iphone, a quick thing from Amazon, a quick post on Instagram to distract us. Grunge was deep and introspective. It was about being out in nature and smoking pot, not caring if your clothes stayed clean or if they got old and “grungy”, it was not about Met Gala or Camp or Lady Gaga or anything that would influence anyone on Instagram.

(WARNING: Brief history of everything to follow). Grunge came about at the end of the 80s. The 80s had been really bright and colorful, with lots of money. It started out with punk and new wavers rebelling against “dinosaur” stadium bands like the Eagles or Led Zeppelin. But then by the late 80s new wave was bloated and nobody wanted to hear “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or “True” again. Even punk was wearing thin. It was immature with no subtlety. Then the glam rock Guns ‘N Roses thing came about, but didn’t stay long, although Axl Rose is an amazing musician who is thankfully touring again. I was working in a record store in Hollywood and I remember the end of the 80s when bands like Mudhoney or Soundgarden, wearing old jeans, boots and no makeup, but still with a more soulful, sexy sound than punk, started to appear on the shelves.

Then the recession hit and we Gen x’ers were all overeducated and underemployed like Winona Ryder in Reality Bites. I remember that moment where it felt like the party had ended, the mall was closing and now it was just dull people not getting dolled up anymore. Like the hobgoblin’s mirror in HC Anderson’s The Snow Queen or Frozen, grunge settled in everyone’s eyes and replaced the 80s mask, showing us how ugly we were, but and how real we were too. The new fairy tale would not be a Cinderella story starring Molly Ringwald becoming perfect through fashion, but one of introverted depression and transformation, and playing pool in old flannels and beat up doc martins. Truly one of the greatest accomplishments of the grunge era was that our common lack of money forced us to stop consuming and be creative. There was a flowering of indie fanzines, small bands, independent labels, and later on in the 90s, websites.

Although grunge removed the glam from both men and women, grunge had a touch of glamour too. You didn’t have to be Janis Joplin with no makeup. You could be more like Drew Barrymore, who put on some red lipstick and a flowery dress. It was a natural, hippie look. We stopped dying our hair funny colors and grew it out long. The term “hair farmer” was not uncommon. Between the grunge kids and the deadheads, the early 90s must have looked like a big 60s party to our parents. Now girls want funny colored hair again, and boys want weird beards.

Creativity wasn’t grunge’s only good side. Grunge could be really deep and poetic. Influenced the spiritual side of the pacific northwest, hippies, and even the California singer-songwriter tradition of CSN or Neil Young, it brought us back to the garden. That made it profound, solemn, but it was not just peaceful hippies. Grunge was also born from punk, fast distorted guitars, mosh pits, feedback, desolation. Grunge was spiritual but chaotic. Just listen to “I am One” by Smashing Pumpkins, it represents the intense spirituality of leaving it all behind and becoming “one”. Then there was the dark side – death. Many of the musicians were on heroin. We lost many of our grunge heroes – Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Stanley, and now Chris Cornell, RIP.

I am one as you are three
Try to find messiah in your trinity
Your city to burn
Your city to burn

Then there was the middle, the mediocre side. That side could be cynical, snarky, overly precious. “flower petting, baby kissing” reads the classic Sub Pop t-shirt, insinuating that the stoned guy with long hair and ripped jeans had a soft side, which he probably did, but it wasn’t apparent in the mosh pit. I wrote about 90s irony before, so I won’t labor it here. But I think the irony was caused by the fact that grunge stars were not innocent like CSN or even Sex Pistols had been. They knew they would sell out to lots of money, so all they could do was laugh and point out the absurdity of it.

But still, for all the heroin and cynicism, grunge had as many gleaming moments as the sun breaking through a rainy forest in Seattle. It got people to see past their trivial concerns and money for a rare moment. And maybe new bands don’t need to come along and create new bands that “sound like” older bands. That always falls short anyway. After you’ve heard John Foxx, how can you listen to TV Eyes? If you love the Fairport convention, the Owl Service is a pale substitute. And Interpol should just be banned, such a terrible substitute they are for Joy Division. Influences, on the other had, are often good. Nick Cave was influenced by Jim Morrison. Conor Oberst was influenced by Robert Smith crossed with country. And Franz Ferdinand was pretty good at reconstructing that 80s Gang of Four or Wire sound, without all the heavy Marxism.

I’ll leave you with some good grunge songs. In true grunge fashion I won’t capitalize the words. Find them in your own way.

  • mudhoney – this gift, good enough, running loaded
  • melvins – lizzy
  • alice in chains – don’t follow, damn that river, rooster, them bones
  • nirvana – about a girl, heart-shaped box
  • soundgarden – somewhere,
  • mother love bone – stardog champion, words of gold
  • smashing pumpkins – I am One, Perfect
  • hole – Mrs Jones, Good Sister/Bad Sister
  • babes in toyland – Handsome and Gretel, Right Now
  • pearl jam – black
  • dinosaur Jr – blowing It, I Don’t Wanna Go There, over it
  • sonic youth – titanium expose, i love her all the time, poison arrow, eric’s trip, walking blue, wish fulfillment, calming the snake
  • meat puppets – plateau, oh me, backwater, whistling song

All the country music I learned about

I did not grow up listening to country, like many people have. I grew up with punk, new wave, reggae, metal, glam, blues, classical, jazz, indian raga, yacht rock, post rock. Literally I was raised listening to everything but country.

Why not country? I don’t know. I grew up in LA. We are always taught that it was bad somehow. People were always talking about rednecks, especially in the 80s, during the Reagan years. We hated cowboys. The punk music of the time reinforced this, with songs like “urban struggle” by the Vandals being cool. Anyone who was around L.A. in the 80s might also remember the Hickoids, whose mocking lyrics were sung to a country sound, but were also the first band I heard to sing about Austin Tx, and kind of fun to dance to at live shows.

Or X, who sang in a more serious country style, especially X’s side project the Knitters, whose married leads John Doe and Exene Cervenka could belt out as soulfully and heartfelt as the Cash’s:

John Doe made it OK for us to start listening to some “cool” country, such as Johnny Cash,  or Patsy Cline (but not Dwight Yoakum, not yet).  But, after the cowpunk era was over we fickle Southern Californians went back to mostly ignoring country, especially the emerging “new” country of “Achy Breaky Heart”, (which was pretty bad). I went back to listening to British music, indie rock, and electronic club music like NIN instead, forgetting that Johnny Cash covered one of their songs in the 90s.

Now, in my sunset years, I find that I really do genuinely like country music. At first, I felt like I should cringe or make fun of it, with all its conventional simple roles and the un-mistakeable sounds of steel guitars and fiddles. There was some reflex that kept making me feel guilty – this is NOT ok to like. But I eventually suppressed it and now find myself enjoying not only Johnny Cash, but Johnny Paycheck, and Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakum and newer artists like Sunny Sweeney.

Now, a short disclaimer. Before you all label me as just another privileged white person who is into country and ignoring the rest of the world, think again! I still love all the genres I was originally into. I love reggae, blues, post-punk, synth pop, grunge, and Radiohead. Country music is just another style for me to express my emotions and add to t he beautiful palette of music that I already know. In fact, country music has made me like all the other music better. Finding something you like that is so different only heightens your appreciation of what you already know.

But what do I like about country music?

Country music fans are supposed to be really christian, right? Small town morality and rigid social rules. They are really uptight, right? Maybe not. With Willie Nelson smoking joints and Sunny Sweeney sounding perfectly sexually independent, singing about having a “better bad idea” (for a hookup), while among educated liberals, women get offended and publicly accuse men of being rapists. So who is moralistic? It’s all turned upside down. What’s right is left and what’s left is right

Country music is not backwards. In many cases it is sexy. The country itself is sexy. It’s nature, earth, birth, death, love. Johnny Cash knew this and so did DH Lawrence, (though he was an English poet, he probably would have liked country too!). And the songs are true to human emotions, showing vulnerability. Country singers admit to actually falling in love and being affected by feelings, drinking to hide the pain or worse. OK, there are some newer country singers, who show a more calloused approach, but for the most part it’s nice to hear men and women not just trying to hide feelings and play the game.

Finally, I don’t like all country music. I’m not a big fan of Kenny Chesey. On the other hand, since I’m from the city, I’m just a passing tourist to the genret. However,  I prefer the return to roots music styles that you read about on savingcountrymusic.com. And I do like Emmylou Harris, Alison Moorer, and Roseanne Cash, and anyone else good that you care to introduce me to, so bring it on!

You Float like a Web Monkey

The 80s had been one big exuberant party. So wealthy, stylish, and brand-conscious were we that we felt it would go on endlessly like one big mall shopping trip and all we had to do was follow the smell of cinnamon buns. But then it didn’t. At the end of the 80s the financial luck ran out and we ended up in recession. Real grown ups knew how to handle it, and probably cut back a little. But for us 20 year-olds who had just graduated and didn’t understand about financial cycles, it was devastating.

We were convinced we would never get jobs, would never get health insurance, and would always be “losers” and possibly homeless. So we traded in shiny spandex pants and pink pumps and big bright earrings for ripped baggy jeans and doc martens and long flowered depression-era dresses, and some of us got into worse stuff like heroin. But most just drank a lot of beer and smoked cigarettes. We read Douglas Copeland who put a name on us, Generation X, over-educated and underemployed. We were martyrs to the corporate phonies and sell-outs who caused this mess. We were angry and disenfranchised and irony dripped from our mouths.

We were angry, but not angry enough to go and protest. We had our MTV, CD’s and cable. Just angry enough to start writing. So we perfected this great new form called irony. Everything was ironic from Reality Bites (1997)  when Winona Ryder is asked to “define irony” and can’t:

to Juno (2007) where irony is teen mother Ellen Page’s primary form of communication. And the most popular music was totally ironic too:

I’m a loser baby/so why don’t you kill me

to

Hate me
Do it and do it again
Waste me
Rape me, my friend

or

You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
And I wish I was special
You’re so fuckin’ special

Hard to believe in this post-millennial era of hyper-productive foodies who never stop working, but the 90s  was an era, not too long ago, when the “loser” was glorified. It was ok to be depressed, jobless, damaged. But the cycles of productivity come and go. Take the 60s hippie vs 80s yuppie; both have their pros and cons. And the despair of the 90s did have a payoff. After we finally broke through the high expectations of 80s consumerism, we got off our asses and developed a culture of our own. We started record labels (Sub-Pop), local bands in rock and hip-hop flavors, clothing labels, coffee companies (Starbucks), fanzines such as URB or Ben is Dead, and finally, when the technology got even better, websites and startups. I remember having my first great job as an HTML programmer in San Rafael and us all calling ourselves “web monkeys” as if we were blue collar auto-mechanics – just imagine the smugness of our irony!

Thanks to the 90s, now there are as many “indie” and “micro” brands as there are people. Why even have brands anymore? We should just put things into categories of stuff like “eyeliner” or “coffee” or “pads” and sell them without branding, like 80s style generic items. Nobody has time to read package labels anymore.. We are all looking down at our phones. I wonder if anyone would even notice or mind?

I will leave you to ponder the meaning of life with this song by punk band Flipper, who were from the 80s but sounded like they could have been 90s

 

The Dog that Jumped out of the Map

Today I was traveling virtually on google maps, looking for coordinates to simulate a truck route between Aberdeen, SD and Newark, NJ, when I realized there are some VERY small towns in South Dakota. There is Chelsea (population 27), and Columbia (population 136). Columbia has a total of 6 avenues. They started with 1st ave and ran out of steam at 6th. Wanting to see what a town of 136 looked like, I turned to satellite view.

Google satellite view is crazy to someone like me, who has a lot of pre-internet life experience in their background. I think of it as a map or graph, an abstraction of the world that is meant to instruct, but not contain anything from the real world. You definitely don’t expect the real world to seep in there.

And yet, it sometimes does. And sometimes it’s a dog that seeps in.

 

Here he is, the dog of Columbia, South Dakota. Just staring at me from approx @45.3829806,-99.7626551. If I go past him and turn around, he’s gone. Where did he come from? Does he realize he’s tampering with Google’s state-of-the-art geolocation technology? I’m not sure. But now I know that this dog exists. And who knows? Maybe he always wanted to be famous.