Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Little Bit of Herstory: the Click Moment

Something I rarely discuss -- or even really think about -- is that I come from a family of musicians, singers, dancers, and music lovers. Music and dancing were a part of my childhood, but not in a Mary Poppins sort of way, not in a family-time, all-smiles and love, homeschooling kind of way. It was more like we soundtracked everything, even the bad times. Music was an escape, something we did even when my mother and my grandparents were fighting, unhappy, or dealing with financial problems.

And so it is unsurprising that even my 'click moment' was musical. A second wave feminist term, the 'click moment' refers to the awakening of a woman's consciousness, to that moment when it all 'clicks' into place, and you realize that feminism is necessary, and that you need to advocate for it in some way or another.

Example: Elizabeth Cady Stanton has a dramatic click moment story, according to historian Vivian Gornick, Cady Stanton and her husband traveled from New York to London to participate in the World's Anti Slavery Convention in 1840. The Stantons were respected abolitionists, and Cady Stanton was a vocal critic of slavery. But she -- and the well-known Lucretia Mott -- were refused entrance to the convention for being women. Gornick writes that at that moment, Cady Stanton realized that the rest of the world, outside her doting father and loving husband, saw her as "just a woman".

A little less than 160 years after this, I had my moment. In the spring of 1998, I was 14 years old, and fairly obnoxious about my taste in music. I knew that I was different from the other wimpy, prissy girls around me because I listened to classic rock, 'alternative', and bands like The Clash and The Ramones. Underneath the obnoxiousness was a genuine love of music, of playing guitar and singing, and of how listening to and talking about music brought me closer to my parents and my friends.

That year I had made friends with a girl who listened to 'alternative' music, but who also listened to a lot of bands that I had never heard of. (Turns out, I was nowhere near as cool and cutting edge as I'd thought I was when I was 14.) One of this girl's favorite albums happened to be Dig Me Out by Sleater-Kinney.

I went out and bought the album at my local Border's, and I'll be honest: I bought it because I wanted that girl to like me. But as soon as I plucked the cd from the rack in the bookstore, it stopped being about her, and it became something else entirely. I remember looking at the front of the cd, my eye drawn to the black and white of the guitar and the bright red of a girl's hair. I turned the cd over, glanced at the photo of the three girls in the band on the back. I turned it over again, held it in both hands, and felt this funny feeling in my fingers. It traveled up my arms and spread to my chest, my face, and my stomach. The hairs on my arms stood up, and I ran to the register to go buy that feeling.

I put the record on as soon as I got home. The opening chords of the title track, "Dig Me Out", brought back that feeling, that apprehensive excitement I'd gotten at the store. Corin Tucker's keening vocals and Janet Weiss's low, aggressive drumming came in a few seconds later, and I thought to myself: why doesn't all music sound like this? Sleater-Kinney made every girl I'd ever listened to, Fiona Apple, Gwen Stefani, Shirley Manson, etc, sound wishy-washy and boring, and made almost every classic rock band sound archaic.

And that was when it all clicked: the arguments with my father's super traditional Italian family, the machista ideas of my mother's Puerto Rican relatives, the way my mom and I had rejected the Catholic church, my mom and grandmother's struggle to support us, and my constant resentment of how much better boys were treated at school...somehow, all of it made sense. It all fit together. And nothing made more sense than how upset I was, how annoyed I was that I hadn't heard music like this before, and how excited I was to have finally found it.

It would be years before I really understood feminism, or even the many layers of meaning located within Sleater-Kinney's songs. It would be years before I really proclaimed my advocacy of feminism, and committed myself to supporting women in music. But it started with that one click moment in my bedroom. Click moments are inherently bittersweet, and they are paradoxical: you have a painful realization of how powerless you are in society, but the knowledge then somehow empowers you. My consciousness was brought to life by "Dig Me Out", and I can't think of a more appropriate band or song for that rite of passage.

this post is dedicated to every woman and girl who has ever inspired anyone, and to every woman and girl who someday will; Rock and the Single Girl has faith in you.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hump Day Treat, New Old School

Here's a mellow, steady beat to get you through this Wednesday, whether you're hung over or just tired. This week, we present the M.I.A. hit "Paper Planes".

I know what you're saying: M.I.A. is neither rock nor a single girl, what's going on!? It's true that she is neither rock nor a single girl, but M.I.A. is a luminary, and one of very few women in mainstream music that one might consider looking up to. A refugee and descendant of a wanted political dissident, M.I.A. writes songs about her experience with the complex and unequal relationship between 'First' and 'Third' World nations. She is not just some vacuous pop star. Kanye West has pronounced her the 'future' of music, and while I am loathe to admit this, I agree with him.

And besides, luminary or not, hip hop, punk, post-hardcore: they all come from the same place, if you think about it. They're kind of cousins, in a way. Far be it for me to exclude any family members based on genre distinctions. No matter how she might characterize her music, I feel like M.I.A. epitomizes punk. Seriously, is there anything more punk rock than taking on stereotypes about immigrants in a hip hop song that uses a sample from The Clash?

So fight off those Wednesday blues and The Man with a little bit of the unlikely, but loveable "Paper Planes"!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Making it Work.

Make it Work: as seen in the video above, it's the mantra of hit reality competition show Project Runway, but it's also my mantra. And it is presumably the mantra of all aspiring artists, no matter what medium they use.

Being an aspiring artist, whether you're broke and unemployed or working a comfortable but non-fulfilling job, or somewhere in between, means taking limited means and turning them into something you can use. It means stealing away a few minutes here and there to do something you love, and letting those few minutes sustain you through subsequent hours of drudgery. It means creating opportunities out of what consistently feels like nothing. It means doing a lot of really hard work so you can do that one thing that makes you happy.

This is how it is whether you're male or female, but let's face it: in reality, this is different, and generally much more difficult for women. I'm still not entirely sure why it's harder for women. Women seem to do a lot more work than men, and women, in general, are saddled with a lot of responsibilities we didn't necessarily ask for. We are expected to take care of everyone around us without complaint, and make one sacrifice after another. And this isn't the case only with married women or mothers. None of my girlfriends are married, and none of them have kids, but they all feel pressured to be good, giving daughters, granddaughters, sisters, and girlfriends.

Also, women typically have less money than men, because we're still paid less in almost every single field. So we have the trifecta of disadvantages: less time, less money, and less energy to devote to creating. It's no wonder that there seem to be fewer recognized women artists -- there are fewer women's works in the literary cannon, fewer women in music, fewer works by women hung in the halls of museums, right? It's not just me?

I've been thinking about this lately because I haven't had the time or energy to so much as look at my guitar for the past couple weeks, forget practicing or writing music. Right now I'm a graduate student, and I'm working on my dissertation and teaching as well. As a teacher, I of course make very little money; the work has become 'feminized' and therefore undervalued, as is all work that can be construed as carework, or work that is done mostly by women. And like my friends, I also have responsibilities to my family. I have very little time for anything personal, whether it's hanging out with friends or listening to new music. It is horribly frustrating. And I feel even further frustrated by the fact that I'm not alone -- right now things are scary, most of us are worried about money, and my artist friends are on the verge of panic. It's not great times for artistic creation.

But we have to get through these un-great times. Here are some tips and tricks for getting through the day-to-day that work for me.

1. Maintain a space of one's own. In her book A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf argued that women artists need just that: their own room where they can work. Some of us have to share rooms though, and we face other space limitations. But find a way to make a little bit of space for your work, even if it's portable and has to be dismantled and reassembled. The physical work of preparing space, an kind of artistic nesting, if you will, helps get you grounded. I know it calms me down and helps me to think.

2. Try to stay healthy. In these hard times, it's easy to make sacrifices, especially if you're responsible for other people. But it's so important to get the rest, food, and self-grooming we need. We need to be strong for the people who depend on us and, and we need to be strong if we're going to be creative, so try not to cut corners when it comes to eating and sleeping. No matter what medium you work in, your body is ultimately your instrument. So take care of it.

3. Work in bits and pieces. A viola teacher once told me of a great violinist who only practiced during the five and ten-minute breaks he had between giving lessons. "It adds up," she explained. I didn't try this until I was absolutely forced to, and found that she was right. It's not ideal to work in little bits in pieces here and there; it is definitely preferable, for me at least, to have a lot of time to concentrate on what I'm doing when I write or practice an instrument. But I've found that a few minutes a day is a lot better than not playing at all. It's difficult, but if you can learn to work this way, the daily boost of doing at least a little creative work can make all the difference in how you feel.

4. Stay in touch with other artists. I find that when feeling drained and demoralized, as so many of us probably are at this time, it's easy to withdraw. Don't let this happen to you! We all human contact, and we all need some kind of support, no matter what we do. A short phone or AIM conversation with a friend, especially one who is also struggling to create, can make you feel so much better. It can make you feel less alone, it can make you laugh, and it can be an opportunity to talk about the work you're trying to do. And being able to talk about your work and how you feel about it is indispensable for an artist, especially if you're still developing your skills and ideas.

5. Readjust your expectations. This is another one that's hard for me. I have a tendency to berate myself for not squeezing enough school work, personal time, and music or writing into my days. Beating yourself up like this is absolutely counterproductive; instead, we women in all professions need to be realistic with our expectations for ourselves. We need to accept that things are going to be more difficult, and that our work is going to come more slowly. And then we need to learn to be good to ourselves, and to appreciate the progress, however small, we make with each day. It's not about how quickly you get something done, or how much you can produce in one day -- it's about the experience of making something, of being an artist. That feeling is something you can't quantify. Why quantify your work?

6. Finally: Enjoy! With all these adjustments, and with how frightful things are these days, it might be hard, but at the very least, try to enjoy the time you do get for yourself and for your work! Making the time for art typically requires you to do a lot of other hard work. So make the most of that time that you've worked for, and let it make you feel better about life, about the economy, about whatever other catastrophes might come our way, about everything.

Got any other tips for starving aspiring artists? Hit me up: soundoftheatlantic@gmail.com

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hump Day Treat, Late Edition

I don't know about you, reader, but I feel the mid-day slump that much more on Wednesdays. Something about being at your mid point of the week makes you look back, take stock, and truly feel the amount of energy it's taken to get you to where you are right now. Sometimes just thinking about it is exhausting.

So for everyone else out there who's at the office, watching the clock and trying to get their second wind, for everyone who's sick of office politics, for everyone who just wants to go home, I present: "Listen Up", by the Gossip. It's almost quittin' time here in the states, so check to make sure your boss isn't coming, plug your headphones into your computer, and bop your head to the disco punk sound of the future being created by one of the finest bands in the business!

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Challenge to the Entire Genre.

Something major happened to me yesterday, readers. Brace yourselves. Are you ready? Okay, yesterday, I read an entry on Monitor Mix, the NPR blog written by Carrie Brownstein, and wound up hating it. This has absolutely never happened before. Carrie Brownstein is one of my idols, and my favorite guitarist of all time. She's one of my favorite musicians, but she's so much more than that: I would go so far as to say that Carrie Brownstein is a philosopher of music and pop culture. Her observations about how we listen to and relate to music are always sharp and funny, and I love them not so much because they're her observations, but because she always asks questions about people and music that I've thought about at some point.

Not this time. In this blog, Carrie asked us to consider who we think are 'quintessential' singers in various genres; she focused on rock and punk, nominating John Lennon and Pete Shelley, respectively. Honorable mentions went to Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Joey Ramone, and Paul Weller.

I have never once considered who might be the quintessential rock or punk singer of all time. And I certainly have never considered bestowing such an honor on Mick Jagger, a man I can hardly tolerate, or on Robert Plant, whom I used to enjoy before I found singers I simply liked better. Joey Ramone and Paul Weller are cool in my book, but quintessential? I've never thought of any of these people that way.

There is, of course, a pattern: all of these singers are men. I couldn't help but find this devastating, and I felt a knee-jerk reactionary rage towards Carrie Brownstein after reading this blog. Why is it always men? Why are men always the standard bearers, the typical examples, the perfect embodiment of everything? Perhaps my rage was related to the fact that yes, the majority of known rock and punk musicians are men, and that masculinity seems to be an integral and inescapable aspect of both genres.

Upon re-reading Carrie's blog today, I feel that I overreacted yesterday. My anger has since abated but I still find myself disagreeing with Carrie, and that in itself feels strange. If Carrie Brownstein jumped off a bridge I wouldn't automatically follow her. But when it comes to music, I take her opinions seriously, and consider her ideas and what their implications might be. (Note: this is what happens when you admire a person.) In this case, I actually didn't want to think about quintessential singers; the very notion seems to go against what rock and punk stand for. If these genres are supposed to be populist, individualist, and revolutionary, if they promise some kind of social liberation, and encourage all of us to DIY and to participate, why choose one voice out of so many as the embodiment of rock/punk practices and ideas?

Maybe I'm taking this too seriously. (Friends have told me on more than one occasion that I make too much of music debates, and that I judge fans of Interpol, Phish, Dave Matthews, and many others much too harshly.) Carrie herself clearly has a great sense of humor (um, have you seen "The Perfect Song"?), and she acknowledges in her blog that arguments over essentialness are "reductive". I would add that they're kind of pointless. I know I've never been swayed during one of these arguments, and I've never been able to convince anyone else that their musical opinion is wrong or off.

But these arguments can definitely be a lot of fun. I would like to think that we all have our High Fidelity type moments, where we hash out top fives and tens of record names and opening tracks and greatest concerts. I would like to think that we watch Vh1's top 100 programs, and read Rolling Stone's top 100 and 500 lists, and that we laugh at them, get annoyed at them, bitch about them to other people, and have amazing conversations with each other about music because of them. Carrie rightly points out that these sorts of conversations indicate more about ourselves than the music being discussed. She writes: "Whoever is at the nexus of our musical tastes becomes a litmus test; he or she helps categorize and map our own relationship to music." She goes on to say that the people we recognize as heavyweights in a genre help us form our conceptions of each genre, and helps us to figure out our own preferences. Talking about our favorites is a useful way to try to understand our tastes, and it's enjoyable, too. (Well, unless it's the Beatles v. Stones debate. That one is always serious.)

While I'm no longer opposed to choosing 'quintessentials', I do think I would have to go about it differently. Carrie ends her article by saying, "This notion of essence isn't meant to leave anyone out; it's more about who opened the door to let everyone else in." This doesn't make sense to me. If quintessential indicates the perfect embodiment of some thing, doesn't that mean the best of that thing? The first or earliest isn't usually the best, so why choose pioneers, even if they are pioneers like John Lennon, who are more than deserving of our respect? No, for me the perfect embodiment of punk and rock voices would have to be someone who embodies the revolutionary, sensual, antagonistic, aggressive, transgressive development of punk up until this time, someone different, someone provocative, someone whose entire being is a challenge to the entire genre.

And for me, that person would have to be Carrie Brownstein's old bandmate, the inimitable Corin Tucker.

No argument necessary. Just listen to any Sleater-Kinney album.

This blog is dedicated to my bff, Ashleigh, who is always willing to talk shit about music with me: to five years of bitching and bickering about music, and many more!