Friday, December 07, 2018

From Otis R. to Lenny K.: My Top Tunes of '18

The Spotify music streaming service provides users with end-of-year data on their listening habits, including your top 100 songs based apparently on how many times you played them. Like everything else in our algorithmic Brave New World, Spotify's data sparks controversy. Apparently the listening profile for each individual user is not completely accurate. Imagine that--a corporate, profit driven behemoth like Spotify providing inaccurate data. Who would have thought?

Especially because I teach a course called "The Rhetoric of Rock and Roll" every other year, I tend to listen to a shit-ton of popular music. Spotify tells me that I listened to 23,389 minutes of tuneage in '18, a huge portion of which occurs during my walks from home to UWO and vice-versa. Below are short commentaries on 20 of my top-100 most listened to songs of 2018. In looking at my listening habits, I've noticed that I tend to be drawn to songs that meet one or more criteria:

1. The song is an especially good example of a pop music genre.
2. The song subtly or overtly makes a provocative sociopolitical comment in support of humanity.
3. The song is an excellent representation of a particular time period.
4. The song is performed by an artist making a sincere attempt to communicate meaningfully with his or her or their audience; the tune is not mere "product" to line the pockets of the artist or record label execs.
5. The song evokes positive, transformative emotions like love and compassion as opposed to toxic ones like hate and selfishness.

Against that backdrop, here's twenty of my top-100 most listened to songs of 2018 in chronological order:

Otis Redding (1966). Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song). From the classic and groundbreaking album "Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul." "Sad Song" and the entire album are probably the best example of "Memphis Soul," a brand of African-American music that was more edgy and Afrocentric than the popular Detroit Motown sound of the same time period.
The Hollies (1967). Stop Right There. Many if not most fans of the classic rock super group Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young don't realize that Graham Nash was prolific songwriter with The Hollies before joining CSNY. "Stop Right There" has got a kind of lyrical and musical maturity clearly inspired by the groundbreaking "Pet Sounds" album by the Beach Boys and "Rubber Soul" by the Beatles (both of which made it okay for rock lyrics to be reflective and for male rockers to express vulnerability.).
Eric Burdon and the Animals (1968). Closer to the Truth. Spotify tells me that I spent 15 hours listening to Eric Burdon in 2018. I've loved his music forever, but the enhanced hours in '18 were because of this review I wrote of his 1968 album "The Twain Shall Meet." It didn't occur to me at the time I wrote the review, but "Closer to the Truth" is arguably unique in the way it blends rhythm and blues instrumentation with a kind of Eastern consciousness. Others have done it, but probably not as well.

Taj Mahal (1968). She Caught the Katy (And Left Me A Mule To Ride). Lots of rockers in the 1960s were inspired by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and other old-time blues gods. But Taj Mahal was one of the few to compose a blues tune that became a standard inits own right. "She Caught the Katy" is from Taj's "The Natch'l Blues" album, a must listen for anyone who really wants to understand the roots of rock-and-roll.
The Kinks (1970). Powerman. The Kinks were railing against greedy music company executives, but "Powerman" could apply to certain contemporary politicians, in both Washington and Madison.
Little Richard (1970). Freedom Blues. "Freedom Blues" was somewhat of a comeback recording for Little Richard, one of the founding fathers of rock-and-roll. Stylistically the song mixes Rhythm and Blues with Nina Simone/James Brown type soul of the period. With all the activism going on this decade, it's a damn shame the rock radio stations can't find a way to revive songs like this.
Manu Dibango (1972). Soul Makossa. Anyone of a certain age will remember the excitement that the Cameroon born Dibango's "Soul Makossa" brought to music radio in the 1970s. Michael Jackson brought the song back into circulation in the 1980s when he stole the "Mama-say, mama-sa, ma-ma-ko-sa" hook for his song "Wanna be Startin' Somethin'." I'd forgotten about the song and then rediscovered it while doing some research for the rock music course on the use of saxophone in soul-rock fusion.
Focus (1974). Harem Scarem. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said that he could not define obscenity, but "I know it when I see it." I'm kind of like that when it comes to "progressive" rock: can't define it, but I know it when I hear it. "Harem Scarem" is IT.
Stevie Wonder (1976). Have a Talk With God. The album "Songs in the Key of Life" in 2005 was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, an honor reserved for recordings that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." "Have a Talk With God" for me is extraordinary in that it's sermonic and spiritual without the self-righteous posturing that is found in so much Christian and other religious rock.If sermons were more like this, more young people would probably think about going to church.
Tom Waits (1980). On the Nickel. Another tune that I had not listened to for many years. Early this year I just happened to read a social media post about homelessness in Oshkosh, and "On the Nickel" just popped into my head. I've always been a huge fan of wistful tunes that grab your heart, but I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it almost 40 years ago strictly because of the line "even Thomas Jefferson is on The Nickel over there." I just find that to be a remarkably creative and memorable use of language. May we all come up with at least one memorable line in our lives.

Kool Moe Dee (1989). Knowledge is King. Few musical genres are as powerful as hip-hop when it carries a socially conscious message delivered by a rapper who is credible in the social critic role. "Knowledge is King" got lots of plays from me in 2018 because I assigned it to a student to review and ended up being reminded of its power.
Primal Scream (1991). Movin' On Up. This one has another connection to the rock music class: there's a part of the class where we get into the issue of whether the late Bo Diddley should have been compensated for the scores of songs that use the "Bo Diddley beat" with no attribution to the original. "Movin' On Up" is one of the more creative and inspiring uses of the beat (though the band themselves apparently thought they were influenced by the Who's "Magic Bus," perhaps not realizing that THAT song borrows the Bo Diddley beat.).
The White Stripes (1999). Do. Jack White wrote "Do"long before social media, and it has nothing overtly to do with that, but when I found myself trolled online in 2018 I kept coming back to a line from it: "Can't take it when they hate me, but I know there's nothing I can do."
The Kills (2008). Cheap and Cheerful. I've never been a huge fan of punk, grunge, and much indie-rock that's punkish/grungeish, but one thing I find appealing about all those genres is the revulsion it expresses toward conformity, sucking up, and various other forms of human fakery. I always have a bunch of songs like that on my playlist--"Cheap and Cheerful" got the most plays this year.
Lorde (2013). Buzzcut Season. Lorde's 2013 album "Pure Heroine" for good reason made many "best of" lists the year it came out. The teen New Zealander defied all pop industry conventions and created a recording that featured mature lyrics and catchy melodies that could fit as comfortably on college radio as top-40. "Buzzcut Season" is a digital age anthem and one of the songs of the decade.
 Imelda May (2014). Tribal. In 2018 there was so much talk about American politics becoming "tribal" that I could not stop listening to "Tribal" by Irish rocker Imelda May.
The Hillbilly Moon Explosion (2015). My Love For Evermore. The rockabilly era of the 1950s is for me one of the greatest periods of rock-and-roll in terms of establishing the art form as rebellious and anti-establishment. The Swiss band Hillbilly Moon Explosion represent one of the best attempts to keep the genre alive in this century.
Jeff Beck and Bones (2016). Live in the Dark. Guitar god Jeff Beck has become a kind of elder statesman of rock, continuing to tour in his 70th decade while recording new music with a variety of younger artists. His 2016 collaboration with indie rockers Rosie Bones and Carmen Vandenberg went back to his hard rock roots to produce a socially conscious album of protest tunes. "Live in the Dark" mixes soaring guitar riffs, old-school guitar solos, and punk vocals with lyrics appropriate for a rally.
John Prine (2018). Lonesome Friends of Science. In 2018 folk singer John Prine released "The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album of all new songs since 2005. Hard core Prine fans will find it to be one of the best recordings he's ever made, as it includes his trademark brand of personal narrative, humor, and the unique raspy vocals. "Lonesome Friends of Science," a kind of satirical lament of Pluto's demotion from planet status, I think is one of the funniest tunes ever recorded.
Lenny Kravitz (2018). Raise Vibration. When Lenny Kravitz released "Let Love Rule" in 1989, I found it to be one of the most refreshing recordings of that year--a rock and soul masterpiece in fact. Almost 30 years later Lenny is at it again. If you like rock-and-roll with a kind of early 1970s Rolling Stones edge mixed with homages to the great soul artists of the past, Lenny is your guy. The song "Raise Vibration" deserves nominations for song of the year, as it captures the tense moment we are in and calls for us to love our way out of the madness. It even has a cool Native American chant at the end. Great stuff.

Well there you have it. That's just some of what I have been listening to this year. What about you?

Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Media Missed The Youth Wave

Media pundits love to talk about so-called "wave" elections. The wave narrative dominates coverage of congressional races. Watch this typical example: CNN's John King in 2017 musing about the possibilities for a 2018 Blue Wave.
In 2010, the establishment narrative was that the Republicans rode a wave of TEA Party generated antagonism toward the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare) and thus gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives. This was allegedly a "Red Wave."

Eight years later the establishment narrative tells us of the alleged "Blue Wave": riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment and suspicion that the Republicans really have no plan to protect health care access, the Democrats gained 40 seats (and maybe 41) in the House of Representatives.

My problem with the establishment's partisan flavored "Wave Narrative" is its implication that the results of elections have anything to do with voter attitudes toward the Republican and Democratic parties. When the Republicans won those 63 seats in 2010, does anyone seriously think that it was because the GOP was perceived as willing and able to do the business of The People? As we approach 2019, does anyone outside of the most indoctrinated partisans think that the Democratic Party has now been cured of its addiction to corporate cash and will finally fight for a People-centered agenda? Sure, there will be individual Dems who will fight for such things, but they will find the establishment Democratic Party to be as much of a barrier as the Republicans. (Case in point: Rep. Barbara Lee, a tireless champion of progressive values for many years, was not able to break into the leadership ranks of the new Democratic majority because of what she called "institutional barriers.").

If not Red and Blue Waves, then What? 

By now it should be clear that Americans view the major political parties not as vehicles for change, but as impediments to it. Unfortunately those parties maintain such a tight grip on the electoral processes in each state that it is virtually impossible to gain legislative power via the route of third parties. Recognizing this pathetic state of affairs, change agents often come to the conclusion that the only real way to make new legislation is to participate in the major party structures.

Seen in that light, "waves" represent movements of people attempting to grab controls of the levers of power in what is presented to them as the most practical way to do so. Depending on the trajectory of the particular movement(s), the majority of the votes can go toward the R or D columns. As such, the midterm elections of 2010 were an "Anti-Establishment" wave rooted in the strong belief that an iron triangle of insurance company greed + pharmaceutical industry greed + government enabling of insurance and pharmaceutical greed (under the guise of "regulating" them) was a betrayal of the "hope and change" that brought Barack Obama to power in 2008. There's little evidence that the elections of 2010 were an endorsement of the Republican Party as much as a message to Barack Obama that Republican-lite endorsements of special interest lobby solutions to life-and-death issues like health care were not going to be met with enthusiasm. Many sent that message to the President simply by staying home and not voting. 

Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans--including 52 percent of those who call themselves Republicans--now support a "Medicare For All" solution to health care. That's where the trajectory has been headed all along. (I still firmly believe that if the Democrats had used their majority in 2009/2010 to create a Medicare for all system, they actually would have gained seats in subsequent elections, much as they controlled Congress for multiple generations after passing New Deal programs in the 1930s).

In 2018 the lines of a Buffalo Springfield song might be the best descriptor of where we are: "There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear."  Given the record numbers of women elected, we could could easily see 2018 as a Women's Wave. Large numbers of women who ran for office this year were Generation X or Millennials. I believe we are in the early stages of a "Youth Wave," with the midterms of 2018 representing especially the Millennial generation's political coming out party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's stunning victory over Nancy Pelosi favorite Joe Crowley in a New York city congressional primary might have been the most visible symbol of something new happening: young people are no longer going to "wait their turn" or just continue to "hope" that the elders to the right thing. Some clear signs of the youth wave:
*In Rhode Island, young people are literally suing the state in an effort to get better civics education. If their suit is successful it could have dramatic and positive consequences for political engagement across the nation.

*According to the Atlantic, early voting among youth in 2018 saw a 188 percent increase compared to 2014.

*When the new House of Representatives convenes in January, 26 members will be Millennials, up from 5 at the start of departing House in 2017.

*According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 31 percent of youth turned out to vote in the 2018 midterms compared to 21 percent in 2014. CIRCLE's research suggests youth are pumped up for change; 72 percent of people 18-24 agree that "dramatic change could occur in this country if people banded together." And 73 percent agree that "we can work together to promote important political goals even if we face difficulties."

*Where I teach (the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh), students who interned for the campus American Democracy Project chapter engaged in a number of positive activities including voter registration, organizing a student activist forum, and organizing a forum for third party candidates. Voter turnout on the campus increased by 4 percent over 2014. When all the votes were counted in Wisconsin, Democrat for governor Tony Evers had a 23 point edge over Republican Scott Walker among voters under 30 (compared to only a 4-point advantage for Democrat Mary Burke four years ago.).

*Across the country a number youth led organizations are leading the way for change. One that I am familiar with is the Green Bay based Intellegere Project, an effort to raise the bar for social media discourse so as to promote civility and progressive change. The organization recently raised enough funds to support undergraduate research on the issue of why youth vote or do not vote.

*No discussion of the Youth Wave would be complete with giving major kudos to all of the survivors of the horrible massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Emma Gonzalez's now iconic "We Call BS" speech will forever be a wake-up call not only to people who want to see sane gun legislation, but for advocates on all issues who know they could and should be doing more to make change. The March For Our Lives movement shows no signs of slowing down, much to the chagrin of the NRA. Writing in the Madison Badger Herald, student Tatiana Dennis argues that "the results of recent elections in Wisconsin and across the nation show the NRA is losing its grip on the GOP and the American electorate." We have mostly high school students to thank for that.

What's special about this new generation of youth activists is that they do not seem at all interested in exploiting any kind of "generation gap" in order to motivate youth. Rather, they appear eager to work with their elders for a People centered agenda. In that regard they are very much like the American Youth Congress of the 1930s. In the 1936 Declaration of the Rights of American Youth, the AYC said:

We declare that our generation is rightfully entitled to a useful, creative, and happy life, the guarantees of which are: full educational opportunities, steady employment at adequate wages, security in time of need, civil rights, religious freedom, and peace . . . 

We recognize that we young people do not constitute a separate social group, but that our problems and aspirations are intimately bound up with those of all the people.

Declaration of the Rights of American Youth
The mainstream media in the United States so far doesn't appear to grasp breadth and depth of the Youth Wave. Today's  youth have about as much regard for the mainstream media as they do for the mainstream political parties, perhaps even less. If I am correct that we are in the early stages of a Youth Wave that's on the brink of producing some dramatic changes in our society, such changes will unquestionably upset mainstream media business models. Who knows, maybe the days of seeing readers and viewers as mere "demographics" whose only value is in being "sold" to advertisers could be coming to an end. The Correspondent, a Dutch news platform that is on the verge of becoming a journalistic force in the United States (I'll write about it in a future rant), is rooted in a unique model of interaction with readers. If the elections of 2018 taught us anything, it is that youth are demanding genuine interaction with institutions of power, not just in politics but in the press.