Music Matters Launches!

Music MattersMusic Matters, a new series of short books on single acts, publishes its first two titles today, October 3: Why the Ramones Matter by Donna Gaines and Why the Beach Boys Matter by Tom Smucker. As series editor, I am so honored to have helped bring these books into fruition, and look forward to many more volumes in the future. Music Matters is published by the University of Texas press, which means I’m labelmates with some of the smartest people thinking about music right now, including Oliver Wang, Vivien Goldman, and Jessica Hopper. The series would not exist without Stephen Hull, who originally conceived it for University Press of New England; when UNPE announced they were shuttering, we moved to UT. Thanks also to Robert Christgau for bringing me to Stephen; I have to admit, he truly is the dean of rock critics.

For more information, check out the press release.

If you are interested in submitting to the series, send a one-page query explaining why the subject matters, why you are qualified to write about that subject, and what would your writing approach be to myself at Evelyn.McDonnell@LMU.edu and ckittrell@utpress.utexas.edu. Please write MUSIC MATTERS in the subject line, and give us at least a month to respond.

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A Festival Where the Future Is Fem

Festivals have a bad reputation for not showing a lot of r-e-s-p-e-c-t to women. (See what I did there?) Numerous articles over the last several years have pointed out how few female artists are booked at some of the major music gatherings, and how low they are often kicked down the billing. Drunken bacchanals can be mine fields for audience goers as well, who at best have to push aside guys who insist on dancing close, and at worst, are gang raped; see, Woodstock 1999.

Hopefully the triumph of Beychella proves once and for all that women can very successfully headline music festivals that aren’t named after biblical heroines or take place in the woods of Michigyn. It’s an idea that the Music Tastes Good festival has been testing for a few years, and last weekend, the two-day gathering in Long Beach demonstrated loudly and joyously, as Ann Magnuson would say, the power of pussy.

Both days of the sun-blessed soiree featured a variety of female-led acts. Saturday’s lineup included the psych-punk ¾-female Silver Lake band Feels, one of my favorite local groups, although I missed their MTG set. I did get there just in time to catch Quintron and Miss Pussycat, the adorably kitschy New Orleans duo who blend punk, polka and puppets. They played the classic alcoholic anthem “In Heaven There Is No Beer” as the lazy-susan stage rotated them out and away from the crowd, the perfect fadeout.

I was there for the ladies so when the four lads from shame (they lowercase their name; bell hooks appropriation?) came on, I went to check out the food-tasting tent. As its name indicates, MTG pairs food from all over the left coast with sounds from, well, all over. So you can enjoy some super-foodie treats instead of the turkey legs or butter-soaked corn cobs of your usual outdoor concert. The tastiest tasting I tried was the pork-belly rice bowl by Wesley Young of Pidgin restaurant in Vancouver.

I finished noshing just in time for Cherry Glazerr, another fave LA band, led by the young Clementine Creevy. Creevy has a great, brittle throb of a voice and suicide-blonde looks, but what impressed me most was the way she pulled off sneering guitar licks while singing completely contrapuntal melodies – all with the support of just two bandmates. Lead singers who are also the lead, and only, guitarist are few and far between; Creevy’s the shit.

She rotated off, and on came a four-piece guitar band with three dudes and one player whose sex I wasn’t sure of, until Adrianne Lenker opened her mouth and this alto vibrato flew out. I didn’t know anything about Big Thief, but I was converted. Their take on Flying Burrito Bros. country-rock is so studious it’s almost pretentious, but Lenker’s words are poetic and felt.

Princess Nokia’s political rap-rock made for a bit of a jarring transition – it’s great that the rotating stage makes the segue between acts timeless and seamless, but sometimes you need a few minutes to, er, digest. Still, she and her DJ won me over immediately with her rap about brujas, Arawaks, and Black-a-Ricans. She pulled a classic riot grrrl move, asking for not just girls to the front, but people of color, queers, nonbinaries, etc. Then she sang about her little titties and big stomach, a tomboy retort to the typical festie cry of “show us your titties!”(I also saw a girl with a bag that said, “Show us your kitties!”)

Then, it was Santigold. Oh my goddess. Her show was so smart, so creative, so thoughtfully put together and so unlike any other concert I have seen (and you know, I’ve seen thousands, and I’ve seen Santi before), that it is hard to describe. She wore a scarlet cape with plastic water bottles, dollar bills, and green pompoms sewn on it, and was flanked by two dancers: black women clad in white tennis outfits whose bodies moved impeccably throughout the show and who never betrayed any emotion. They pulled off a James Brown routine: pretend fainting, then getting revived. Rock rubs against reggae, funk, new wave and hip-hop in Santibrown’s songs, shooting off sparks, getting hot. As DJ Lynnee Denise writes in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, “Santigold is one of those artists who is vulnerable to the belief that hers is not black music, but from my gatekeeping position, my work here is to place her where she belongs,  squarely  between the tradition and the future of black music.”

Some bands named “Broken Social Scene” and “New Order” played afterwards. I saw the latter about 35 years ago, when they actually sort of mattered (and I personally played “Temptation” live every day), and they were the worst live band ever – they were so bad, they made fans in Boston riot. Why would I go see them now, with Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” ringing in my ears?

Hollie Cook started my Sunday off on a beatific reggae groove. She’s punk-rock legacy, daughter of a Sex Pistol, member of the Slits version 2, friend/collaborator of my friend/collaborator Vivien Goldman. In her vivid pant suit basking in the Southland sun, she was a bit of a flower child, bless her.

Next, I made my way over to the Gold Stage for Lizzo, a dance diva with a big, beautiful voice and body, both of which she flaunts unashamedly. She and her dancers, the Big Grrrls, and DJ dressed in black pleather dominatrix corsets and sang about body positivity. Lizzo was the poster child for Music Tastes good: After asking the audience if they had eaten as well as she had, she stated, “I’m sexy when I’m bloaty.” She urged people to dance to burn off all the calories they had just consumed. She had a practical message for this week’s stupidity/evil in Washington: “I deleted every fuck boy in my social media.”

It was time for the main event. Janelle Monae has for years been weaving a sci-fi song cycle as intricate as the Earthsea trilogy or the Matrix movies, as funky as a Prince groove, and as crazy sexy cool as a TLC hit. She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get personal. Rewind: She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get political. Because these days, as ever, the personal is political.

“Woman must write her self,” Helene Cixous wrote more than 40 years ago in Laugh of the Medusa. I think of Dirty Computer, particularly the track “Pynk,” with its accompanying bootylicious video, as embodying Cixous’s call for ecriture feminine, women’s writing. It’s a glorious celebration of pussy power, with a spelling that harks directly to 1970s womyn’s culture. Monae kicked off the album’s release by coming out as “pansexual,” which may seem a bit ambiguous, but “Pynk” leaves little to the imagination. With her Fem the Future organization and her speeches at the Women’s March and the Grammys, Monae has been at the forefront of the current liberation movement, black and pynk and proud. Plus, she kicks out the jams. Dirty Computer is my album of the year.

As the crowd made its way back to the Franklin stage, Lizzo’s admonishments to be their own inspirations echoing in their heads, I had that special feeling that I was part of a movement, that in the female, nonbinary, multihued bodies around me, I had found my tribe. We waited with bated breath for our screen siren to appear in flesh before us. And then, there she was, dressed like an Afrofuturistic queen with an elaborate stage setup.

Monae certainly tapped into the mood of this moment; on the double-entendre track “Screwed,” she put special emphasis on the lyric “wanna get screwed at a festival.” And yet, the show was tightly scripted, the moves highly choreographed, her body, from head to toe, firmly encased in costumes. On album and in interviews, she may be revealing her self, but on stage, she doesn’t seem to have fully made the transition from android to human. Tellingly, the song that seemed most real was the sweet confessional “I Like That,” from Computer, in which she celebrates her idiosyncrasy, claiming not badassness but being “the minor note you hear in major songs.” Monae is my major note, but that’s a lot to ask anyone to live up to, android or not.

Some Blake bloke followed Monae, but again, he was an afterthought that I didn’t think. I wish Music Tastes Good had put a woman in one of the weekend’s two top slots, but Janelle was billed as a headliner. Overall, the festival almost alternated male and female-led acts of an impressive range, from punk to funk to reggae to rap to rock. Plus, they worked with the #HereForTheMusic anti-harassment campaign of Calling All Crows, who trained staff and security in how to make Marina Green Park a safe space for everyone. An anti-assault statement was printed prominently on the back cover of the program. Last time I felt like I had a tribe like this at shows, in the mid-‘90s, we had to carve out our own territory in mosh pits. Here’s to a future of getting screwed at festivals, in a good way.

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Why Journalism Now?

Yesterday I had one of the great honors of my professional life: I got to introduce the launch of a Journalism major at Loyola Marymount University. It was a momentous day to be talking about the newsgathering profession, as I acknowledged in my opening remarks before Los Angeles Times columnist Steven Lopez took the stage and inspired the approximately 200 audience members — most of them students — with his stories and advice. Afterward, he and HLN anchor/CNN writer Carol Costello discussed the state of the news industry, sometimes heatedly. A day later, when CNN’s reporting of a confrontation between two women and Senator Jeff Flake apparently marked another turn in this dramatic story, my comments about the convergence of journalism and feminism seem more appropriate than ever.

This is an extraordinary day. I have to acknowledge the pedagogical irony that we journalism professors constantly tell our students they must stay on top of the news, and then we have asked you to be here in this room instead of glued to your screens or radios. We didn’t know, obviously, when we picked this day what would happen. I promise we will only keep you for an hour, and then we can all get back to events in Washington. I also want us all to keep in mind how emotionally difficult today’s hearings can be for many of us. We talk a lot about trigger warnings in academia. Today was explosive for many of us, not because we are snowflakes, but because we are human beings. So please treat each other with especial kindness and empathy this difficult week.

I was going to start my introduction with the question, Why journalism now? But today’s hearing answers that question for me. Two of the most important forces in my life — journalism and feminism — have come together to challenge the citadels of power. From Gretchen Carlson to The New York Times, Times Up to the Washington Post, and MeToo to The New Yorker, citizens and journalists have exposed abuses of power. The fruits of that labor — and it is labor, hard, harrowing, exhausting work — are playing out in the senate as we speak. And the attacks on the media — attacks that have become deadly in our own country — are also being renewed right now, in DC. Let me assure you: LMU Journalism is not training the enemies of the people. We are teaching the reporters, editors, videographers, photographers, reviewers, anchors, columnists and podcasters of tomorrow how to inform the people.

LMU decided to launch a journalism major because young people asked for it. Students enrolled here asked for it and students applying here asked for it. Indeed, though we officially became a major only this fall, we have almost 50 students enrolled already. They asked not because they are looking for a sure way to make a living. I’m here to tell you right now that you don’t get rich being a reporter. They asked because they care about the world that they are inheriting, and they know that journalism is a way to make that world a better place. They understand that a free and open press is fundamental to the functioning of our democratic republic, and they want to make sure that press presents and represents them. We are a Journalism program, housed in a department with a tradition of rhetorical analysis, in a college dedicated to understanding humanity, at a university committed to personal and cultural transformation: Telling people’s stories is our mission.

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My Aretha piece

In the sad, crazy tumult of the passing of the Queen of Soul, coinciding with the start of classes, I forgot to post my tribute to Aretha Franklin, which I was honored to write as the cover story for Billboard‘s tribute issue. Here it is: https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/magazine-feature/8471733/aretha-franklin-path-to-greatness-obituary

 

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Village Voice Memories

There’s been a lot of reminiscing about The Village Voice. I contributed to two pieces: The New York Times Popcast podcast, and Billboard‘s roundup of writers remembering their first Voice pieces.

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And “The Feminine Critique”!

In my list of articles I was blessed to write for the late, great Village Voice, I forgot to include perhaps the most significant: “The Feminine Critique”: the not-so-secret history of women rock critics that reclaimed the legacies of Ellen Willis, Karen Durbin, Jaan Uhelszki, Carola Dibbell, Donna Gaines, and many others and that became the basis of my first book, Rock She Wrote, coedited by Ann Powers. That article also obliquely pointed out one of the failures of the Voice as well, which at that point in its already long career, had not had a female music editor. I now teach a class called The Feminist Critique.

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How I Found My Voice

I first became aware of The Village Voice in high school, when my older brother, Brett, used to go the Beloit, Wisconsin, public library to peruse its political investigations and music coverage. We were both discovering punk rock, watching Patti Smith on Saturday Night Live, and we could read about the newest bands from CBGB’s in the Voice. Later, in college, I got assigned to write about it in my one and only journalism class. Within a few years, I was copy editing and writing there, ultimately becoming a senior editor in charge of music. It was a crazy, difficult, exciting place, and the work I did for them — “discovering” Paul Beatty and the rest of the ’90s NYC lit scene bubbling around the incredible Nuyorican Poets Cafe, traveling to New Zealand to write about music, covering Rent as it moved from Downtown to Broadway and beyond, interviewing John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, the creators of a new musical called Hedwig and the Angry Inch; writing about punk drag artists such as Justin Bond and Miss Guy — still defines me. And then there was my one and only cover story, the first major interview with Patti Smith after her husband Fred died and she returned to the stage — an incredible encounter with the woman who made me want to be a rock’n’roll critic, and move to New York, and dive into the sea of possibilities. RIP Voice. Say hi to Aretha.

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