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Mar 142013

John Roderick recently lamented that “Punk Rock is Bullshit” at Seattle Weekly, writing,

For those of us who grew up in the shadow of the baby boom, force-fed the misremembered vainglory of Woodstock long after most hippies had become coked-out, craven yuppies on their way to becoming paranoid neo-cons, punk rock provided a corrective dose of hard truth. Punk was ugly and ugly was true, no matter how many new choruses the boomers added to their song of self-praise. It was this perceived honesty that we, the nascent Generation X, feared and worshipped. But over time punk swelled into a Stalinistic doctrine of self-denial that stunted us. The yuppies kept sucking, but by clinging to punk we started to suck too.

At SF Weekly, Manjula Martin responded with “The Jazz Age Is Bullshit,” a nice bit of satire on Roderick’s piece and an enjoyable skewering of generational nostalgia (to my mind). Martin writes,

We took this music, which was different and new and hated by our parents, and developed it into a vibrant youth subculture based on one core principle: to rebel against the prevailing social and political standards, and to do it by partying hard on the dance floor and wearing clothing with a new aesthetic. But man, it turned out that once I got a little bit older, the Jazz Age totally disappointed me. And now jazz means something different than it did almost a century ago when I discovered it. Now, young kids get into jazz who don’t even know what jazz really stood for. Jazz has failed us. So can we finally admit to ourselves that the Jazz Age was bullshit? Because it was. Here’s why:

It seems like something our students might be engaged by, as part of discussions of countering and/or taking an approach in WR101, or in WR121 sections in which music and pop culture are the foci.

Willow, Neil, and Bruce

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Nov 302012

Yesterday was one of my favorite days in 101, when the students and I discuss what “taking an approach” might possibly mean, and I get to share this video, in which Jimmy Fallon does a dead-on impression of Neil Young singing Willow Smith’s fluffy pop song “Whip My Hair”:

Awesome, right? 

By my count, there are at least half a dozen “approaches” in this video. First, there’s Fallon’s Young impression (which may not be an approach so much as a channeling) which sets the whole thing up. Second, while it’s a little ridiculous to hear “Young” sing “Get up out the bed, turn my swag on” the “Harvest Moon”-era arrangement makes it believable.

At first, I thought the instrumentation and Fallon’s plaintive vocalization served to point up the shallowness of the lyrics. But now I think that the instrumentation and the earnest singing invest the exuberant lyrics with a sort of solemn determination, to wit:

Don’t let the haters keep me off my grind/

Keep my head up, I know I’ll be fine/

Keep on fighting until I get there

When, Willow Smith, the callow teenage daughter of millionaire celebrity parents sings this, it barely registers — we know she’ll be fine, too. When Fallon’s Young sings it — also a millionaire, but one who carries the weight of a half-century’s worth of life experience — there’s an “Invictus”-like dignity. His head is bloody but unbowed.

OK, I’m overstating the case, and I’m quite certain that Fallon’s intent was not to drive anyone to a reassessment of the song. It’s just a funny joke. But I also think that the weird plausibility of Neil Young’s covering “Whip My Hair” is what makes the joke so good. 

Then, of course, there’s Bruce, who’s taking an approach on himself: specifically his “Greetings From Asbury Park”/”Darkness on the Edge of Town” persona. (I think I’m right about the era, but also sure that Susannah Clark can set us straight). He’s not lampooning himself so much as he is referencing an earlier time, when he was closer to Willow Smith’s age and might have been caught at The Stone Pony (or wherever) whipping his hair. And also, his late arrival in the duet, along with that Boss-patented “Whoooa-oh-oh-ohh!” borrowed from “Thunder Road” save this version from what might have been a too-maudlin rendering of this pop fluff. 

The final thing that makes this song work: it kind of rocks.


May 192012

Ken Burns has become a genre unto himself by this point, and I look forward to sharing this video with my WR101 students next fall as an example of taking an approach (the introduction of which continues to be an area of confusion and/or concern among instructors). And as you’re planning your own syllabus, don’t forget there are a number of classroom examples tagged on Delicious — and please feel free to ask how they’ve been useful, if it isn’t clear from looking at them; I think some of them were pretty situation-specific.

Feb 042012

The album w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs was just named record of the year by voters in the 2011 Pazz & Jop poll.

I’m guessing this doesn’t mean much to more than (maybe) 10,000 people in the entire country. In fact, if you effortlessly understood 100 percent of this article’s opening sentence, you can probably skip the rest of the piece. But there’s something about this situation that I find pretty fascinating, even though it’s speculative and only partially related to music. When (and if) you listen to w h o k i l l by tUnE-yArDs, you are listening to two things: a record that’s very good, and/or a record that will someday seem way worse than it actually is. And logic suggests the latter is more likely than the former, even though that’s no reflection on the value of the artist.

@ Grantland

I won’t pretend to have heard of tUnE-yArDs before reading this Chuck Klosterman piece, but fortunately I’m not posting it to demonstrate how au courant my musical taste is. (Did I redeem my lack of cool with the always cool insertion of French? Phew.) What’s more interesting to me is the relationship between Klosterman’s review at Grantland and this review of Klosterman’s book Fargo Rock City. Clearly Malcolm Harris is riffing on Klosterman’s review, yet the conceit of the New Inquiry piece turns it around, jesting that Klosterman is the derivative one. It all adds up to an engaging example of taking an approach, one our WR101 students might respond to, because it shows taking an approach as both critically powerful and (gasp!) funny at once. Plus, they probably know who tUnE-yArDs are.

Student Debt and Indentured Servitude

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Jan 262012

In my view, the growth in [student] debt has ushered in a system of bondage similar in practical terms, as well as in principle, to indentured servitude. The analogy to indenture might seem exaggerated but actually has a great deal of resonance. Student debt binds individuals for a significant part of their future work lives. It encumbers job and life choices, and it permeates everyday experience with concern over the monthly chit. It also takes a page from indenture in the extensive brokerage system it has bred, from which more than four thousand banks take profit (even when the loans originate with the federal government, they are still serviced by banks, and banks service an escalating number of private loans). At its core, student debt is a labor issue, just as colonial indenture was, subsisting off the desire of those less privileged to gain better opportunities in exchange for their future labor.

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