Tag Archives: Critical Karaoke

Patti Smith’s “Till Victory” De/ReConstructed: A Critical Karaoke

Easter_coverAs promised, I’m finally posting the Critical Karaoke I performed to Patti Smith‘s song “Till Victory” at my presentations at Stanford and Studio Grand Oakland last month. I actually wrote this originally for the senior awards banquet for LMU’s graduating English majors and Journalism minors.  Critical Karaoke is a rhetorical exercise invented by UC Davis poet and professor Joshua Clover that I use frequently in my classes. The idea of Critical Karaoke is that for the length of a song, while that song plays, you speak. Probably, you talk about the song, but the way I use it in class, more often the song is a springboard for other reflections: aesthetic, personal, philosophical, whatever. Basically there’s a formal restriction within which you can do whatever you want. I pretty carefully timed this one to go with the song; I’ve put the lyrics at particular key moments in italics.

This song has been a constant companion for me since I first heard it as a teenager embarking on what the song’s author elsewhere called the “sea of possibilities.” It’s by a woman who has been called the godmother of punk, and embodies the music’s revolutionary inspiration and aspiration.

 “Till Victory”

Patti Smith changed my life. Maybe, she even saved it.

I was in high school when I discovered the Patti Smith Group’s 1978 album Easter, whose tremendous opening chords you just heard. The first song, Till Victory, is a call to arms literally.

(take arms, take aim)

The track, which Patti wrote with her bandmate Lenny Kaye, uses an extended military metaphor, “legions of light” coming to the rescue, airplanes “in V formation,” winged victory. The song always brings to mind that sculpture of the Greek goddess, Nike, descending to congratulate the troops, bust thrust forward, wings back, the muscled lunge of her long left leg stopping the Louvre throngs in their tracks.wingedvictory

But Till Victory is not a war cry. Smith summons our souls for a victory against war. In the album liner notes, the poet offers a prose companion to the song. In this piece, she wanders the streets of postwar Europe and pays homage to filmmakers Godard and Bertolucci. These notes’ last lines make clear that Till Victory is a bid for peace, a new round of sound: “The death of the machine gun. The birth and ascension of the electric guitar.”

“The nail the grail that’s all behind thee.” 35 years before she would play a concert at the Vatican, the first priestess of punk proclaimed a new era. Souls arise from the dead, on an album called Easter, written by a winged goddess who had just recovered from breaking her neck after falling off a stage. Smith declares victory over victories, or at least the ongoing struggle towards triumph.

Music like this, art like this, calls us forward. Its maker imagines a world that could be, a world that I, emerging woman with wings unfolding to carry my big dreams out of a small town, found myself in. Till Victory became an anthem for me, that I have used ever since to rally my spirits in times of weakness and defeat, a goal post, a call to action. May it guide you as you sail out in V formation, to raise the sky.

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“California Paradise” Critical Karaoke Online

The critical karaoke I performed to the Runaways’ “California Paradise” at the EMP Pop Conference in LA in 2013 has been posted online as part of a CK package from the Journal of Popular Music Studies — this is academia made fun party people! You can hear me speak it over the music or just read the text, your choice. There are some other great pieces here, such as Karen Tongson’s moving ode to Jose Esteban Munoz, Radiohead’s “Creep,” and queer utopian moments.


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“California Paradise” Critical Karaoke

The final event of EMPLA was Critical Karaoke, a clever exercise invented by Joshua Clover where participants have the length of a song to talk about a song, while the song plays. The dozen participants had very different styles and subjects, from the Mamas and the Papas to Lupe Fiasco. And it was a blast. I chose “California Paradise” by the Runaways. Below is what I said; you can see a picture of me saying it here:


The Runaways used to open their shows with “California Paradise.” The midtempo rocker established the mythology, the particular 1970s American dream of hedonistic freedom that the band of teenage girls repped and peddled: fast cars, fast women, salty winds. Kim Fowley calls the song the female response to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” “It’s a great album cut for rock critics and masturbating youth,” their ever quotable producer, etc., says.

The Runaways at once were those California girls, and they were not. The members all hailed from various pockets of the Los Angeles basin – the Valley, the OC, Long Beach. But they weren’t exactly the “cutest” objects of the brothers Wilson throbbing fantasy. By the time the Runaways recorded “California Paradise,” in the Beach Boys’ studio, Brothers, for their second album, Queens of Noise, they were firmly their own subjects, writing their own fantasies – or ironies. After all, by the mid ‘70s, beach blanket bingo had turned into Babylon bacchanal, more dystopic than utopian.  Cherie Currie missed a few days of the Queens sessions in order to abort the child with which she had been impregnated by the Runaways’ manager, Scott Anderson. Listen to the way she hisses “you’re so nice… paradise.” Those are the sibilants of a snake; they’re vaudevillian boos.

I spent the last few years immersed in the sometimes inspiring, sometimes horrific history of the Runaways. It was an intense personal journey in some ways: I was returning to my own California girl roots. I’m a relatively rare species, a third-generation Californian, though my parents fled the smog and Reagan when I was 4. Around the same time the Runaways were traveling the world, singing about busting out of jail, I was becoming a teenager trapped in the heartland. The Golden State represented my own romanticized roots and exotic other. We’d go back to visit, and at night, my cousin Cathy – two earth years and 100 light years ahead of me – and I would sneak out and walk the streets of Van Nuys, looking for adventure. Maybe I’m glad I never found the Sugar Shack, the infamous teen disco where the Runaways allegedly found Currie. Or maybe I’m jealous.

It took me four decades to come home — Back to the garden.  And I have to admit, in our beachside villa, we live a Californian paradisaical existence.  The sunshine never ends – except for the daily fog. Paradises are always fantasies. The Runaways were smart enough to know that at sweet 16 – and sing about it anyways.



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