Saturday, July 29, 2017

NPR's 150 Best Albums by Women - My Takes

NPR just put out a list of the 150 best albums made by women.  Compiled by over 50 NPR women, more precisely as put by Ann Powers:
"It features albums by artists who identify as female — including some by mixed-gender bands, like Fleetwood Mac and X, that, in our view, relied on women's creativity for their spark.... It stands for music history, touching upon every significant trend, social issue, set of sonic innovations, and new avenue for self-expression that popular music has intersected in the past fifty years...."

Powers lays out some of the pitfalls of list-making, even bringing up one obscure feminist notion that list-making itself is hierarchical, and as such might be anti-feminist.  OK, so there's that.  But we're taking about art here.  Perspective and feeling, are defined by subjectivity, and to pretend that we shouldn't have personal hierarchies - to enjoy some thing more than others is just, well... too sad.  And not fun.  And uninteresting.

So, with that in mind, I present my own, entirely subjective response based on how I have experienced these artists, according to my own repertoire of response.

First, I must say that the list was very political, in that it tried to please a lot of people.  It's multicultural, high and low.  That's fine.  But it is a "list" after all, and that implies a trajectory.  Compiling a list by committee is going to be filled with contradictions.  Famous critics' lists tend to be from institutions that represent more narrow perspectives, which smooths this out.  But that's also the point.  Music (especially rock) is generally written, performed, produced, released and written about by men.  Enough said.

OK, then.  My taste runs heavily towards rock, with smatterings of reggae, hip hop, country, jazz thrown in.  I also like a lot of music that is fundamentally Not Great.  It is derivative, cheesy, overproduced, and at some level simply soul-less.  I would place most popular music in this category.  Your Foreigners, your Everly Brothers, your (I'm so going to get a kick out of this... your Beach Boys).  Then you have music that is well-crafted, earnest, and yet just not interesting enough.  It doesn't move me.  I'm talking here about your Paul Simons, your Carpenters, your Didos, Adeles and Sara McLaughlins.  To get on any Best Of list of mine your art has to be singular, brave, raw, and at some level have really made an impact on me.

Going through the NPR list, many of the artists I simply haven't heard of.  Some, like maybe Aretha Franklin or Roberta Flack, I would agree are great - but just have never been moving enough to me personally. (As for Flack, Killing Me Softly is a classic, but I would be able to name much else from her).  So, the following stand out to me:

Breeders (Pod was a better album.  And le me just say that the fact that this came in at #144 while Britney Spears was at #92 sort of sums up everything that one might despise in the particular NPR overeducated, safe, milktoast, dumbly arch set.  It's just this sort of thing that makes me want to vomit on a pair of Tevas and huck them over the fence into their DMB concert.)  Ahem...
Joanna Newsom (milk-eyed mender was better)
Cocteau Twins (Heaven or LV is spot-on)
Sonic Youth (my fave is thousand leaves)
X (Los Angeles hard to beat)
Sleater Kinney (weirdly, can’t really deal with them, but the Woods is a fucking epic)
Portishead (Dummy is excellent)
Hole (Live through This), Kate Bush (really hard to choose), Bjork (never really made a good album, but taken individually, has a handful of brilliant songs)  
PJ Harvey (Rid of me was really a lesser album, I’d place Dry as tops, followed by Stories and White Chalk)
Fleetwood Mac (Rumors is correct)
Lauryn Hill (I haven’t listened t it in years, but it was amazing when it came out - has it aged well?)... and, that's all.

From this list, I'd place Kate Bush and Breeders (Kim Deal) as tied for my tops.

A lot there that I haven't heard of.  I'm also wondering who I would add.  Plenty of bands with women as driving forces that aren't mentioned: Beach House, Camera Obscura, Cat Power, The Dirty Projectors, My Bloody Valentine, Dum Dum Girls, The Fiery Furnaces, Frankie Rose, The Joy Formidable, Laura Veirs, Low, Mitski, Kristen Hersh, Patsy Cline, Quasi, St. Vincent, Stina Nordenstam, Nico, White Lung.

The Man in the Truck

"The Carousel of Progress" - Walt Disney World
In my previous post, I argued that a large conflict had developed (or at least had boiled over in recent years) between the rural and cosmopolitan classes.  The two had very different repertoires of knowledge.  The rural valued the concrete and immediate, while the cosmopolitan valued the abstract and global.  When these views led to political and ideological positions, the conflict can deepen.  Anger over real policy disagreements can tempt ad hominem attacks based not on policy or ideology, but rather the mundane cultural repertoires of food, leisure and folkways.

"The country is more divided as it has been in a long time."

We've grown used to hearing this a lot.  It is true culturally.   It is true geographically. It is true in terms of our acceptance of previously-thought-to-be objective institutions such as universities, journalism, and published science.

A look at voting maps shows this in stark relief as vast oceans of sparsely populated rural red surround small, densely populated islands of blue.
The patterns can be seen in other countries as well.
(pink = RW populist, LW pluralist)
(blue = RW Populist, green = LW pluralist)
(blue = RW populist, red = LW pluralist)
(blue = RW populist, red = LW pluralist)

The geographic pattern is clear.  "Elite" punditry was quick after Brexit and Trump's surprise victory to look around and decry the bubble: they had been too self-involved with people like them to see clearly the upswell of populist sentiment.  Much was made of the fact that journalists (and the academic they likely relied on for expert opinion) were located primarily in the big cities, usually on the coasts.  Maybe there was, after all, something to what right-wing pundits had been decrying all along.  Maybe the "pointy-headed" "coastal elites" were "out of touch" with the "real Americans".  Alright everyone, back to Wasila, ASAP!

In 1993, when I was first out of high school I took a job with a friend of mine who worked in Masonry.  The fact that I knew him was due to a funny quirk of skateboarding - a sport that, through emphasis on outsider individualism, daring and physical prowess, often crossed class boundaries.  As Taylor Hall writes in a fascinating post on the blog Broken Clipboard, 
Members of the lower class typically choose sports characterized by violence and uncertainty based on physical strength and daring; partaking in prole sports such as boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting. These sports are often available at low cost and in urban areas and are accessible to all. These sports serve as a legitimate way of establishing self-respect and a sense of masculinity – traits necessary for survival in a modest background.

My friend had no plans on attending college.  He was kind of ripped and had a tattoo of batman on his right pectoral.  He found me a job assisting him as a "hogger", a position basically defined by the sloppy, dirty, laborious, low-skill tasks of hauling materials, mixing cement and fetching items.  The work was dirty, sometimes dangerous or painful, and rewarded a sort of fearless, can-do physicality.  It was also my first exposure to a highly masculinized work environment.  My sensitive, gender-deconstructed, feminist upbringing made me stick out.  I wasn't quite "one of the guys".   It wasn't completely Republican.  When a grumpy roofer kept blaring Rush Limbaugh, an older Carpenter hollered at him to, "turn that right wing shit down!"  He liked me and told me how one of his dreams was to drop LSD on the top of one of the great pyramids in Egypt.  

Aside from the back-breaking laboriousness of the job (I used to get home so tired I'd sometimes fall right to sleep), I think back on the experience as really turning me off from blue collar work in general.  I had nursed the idea of becoming a firefighter for a time.  But I realized that the hyper-masculinized atmosphere would make me uncomfortable; I would never be "one of them".

This was all by design, of course.  Both of my parents were college educated.  I was listening to post-rock, writing poetry and deconstructing the world around me - rebelling against any local culture I could find.  I was trying my best to be abstract and global.  I continued to work blue collar jobs.  Actually, "pink collar" really, as I found myself interested in social services - a field that tends female.  I delivered meals to the sick, handed out pills to the mentally ill and brain injured, all the while taking college courses at night, eventually becoming an elementary school teacher, and now behavior analyst.  

I could make a good case that my intellectual interests, my ideological assumptions, have led me to embrace a left-wing politics.  But what led me to those assumptions?  Surely, I was raised in a left-wing home.  And I have lived in left-leaning, cosmopolitan cities - Santa Cruz, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco.  Culture and geography has had a lot to do with it.  I have indeed come to live in a bubble of sorts.  None of my friends are really Republicans.  My facebook feed is bright blue.  I read mainstream (liberal) news sources.


Looking at the maps above, one would think that I would have to leave town to encounter "real America", to understand the white, Christian America.

But in reality, he lives next door.  Anywhere a building is being constructed you'll find scores of working class men who will reliably and overwhelmingly be voting Republican in the next election.  The carpenters, masons, electricians, fork-lift drivers, roofers, plumbers, truck drivers.  They are men who get dirty, work with their hands, drink beer after work, barbecue on the weekend and watch the game.  They drive big trucks with big tires because being manly feels good.  Like most people, they probably aren't political junkies, and so would much rather listen to country or butt-rock on the radio than Michael Savage or Sean Hannity.  But there's likely someone on the jobsite who's plugged in politically, and he is likely influential in reinforcing their worldview.  When they go to church it's probably a mega church, which reinforces their traditional values.  

The messages from rightwing media and megachurches is one of paranoia and incessant tribalism.  Over and over, the message is that a way of life is under siege.  Men can no longer be "men".  Christians can no longer be "Christians".  And who is to blame - the names are legion and all mean the same thing: liberal, elitist, pointy-headed, egghead, atheist, commie, pinko, feminazi, PC, SJW, globalist, snowflake.  By its nature, the populist position has an easy target: anyone who is different than them.  Often, simply their request for inclusion, if not their very right to exist, is viewed as an offensive attack.  

One can see how attractive this message might be - that their identity is threatened - to a group whose occupations have indeed been losing status for decades.  In this amazing infographic, in which occupations are charted by political ideology, there is an overwhelming tendency for blue collar, non-college educated work to swing right.  Click the link to see the whole page, but just take a look at this portion:

People's occupation is often core to who they are, how they view the world.   If not the actual work itself, then the culture of the profession, what kind of people work there and what kind of people are then expected to work there.  If I describe the lovely foreign film I just watched while sitting around the dirty igloo cooler with my fellow pipe-fitters, they are going to look at me funny.  Just as if, while eating Chipotle with my fellow graphic designers, I describe in detail the 3-point buck I took down last Saturday.  

Much has contributed to get us to where we are today.  Remember Revenge of the Nerds?  Remember nerds?  If you work in construction, you probably do.  The rest of us, maybe less so.  Feminism allowed men to be more sensitive and not be defined merely by a stoic, physicality.  The Information Age introduced forms of labor that required abstract knowledge than required no daring, strength or toughness.  Gay rights redefined masculinity even further.  Transgender acceptance upended it entirely.  Global commerce and media have upended tradition at breakneck speed.

Much has been said about the loss of manufacturing, economic insecurity and the rust belt swing from Blue to Red.  But while those are a significant factor, certainly with respect to electoral politics.  What is more important is the redefining of the American Male and his place of work.  There is nothing about working with your hands that requires a traditionalist view of masculinity.  However, work is to a large degree identity.  It becomes family identity, it gets passed down through generations.  These generations develop different repertoires of knowledge, emphasize different values.  If a child grows up in a home that doesn't watch foreign films, debate global religion, critically deconstruct modern art, he is going to view the world differently.  

But do these worlds have to be in tension?  Do they have to collide with such dangerous friction?  What can we do, as a society, to be more inclusive?  This is the question for our time.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

I Don't Hate You

This post is for the rural man, or at least the man rural-at-heart.  It is for the working class, high-school educated, plainspoken and plain-minded man.  He's a man of common sense.  He's a man of modest means and traditional values.

And similar women, who like a man's man.

These women are stay-at-home moms, or if they work they stick to traditional professions that don't require a college degree, such as clerking, waitressing, or dental hygiene.   The men tend to work in trades, or operate small businesses.  They build stuff, fix stuff, make stuff with their hands.

They know how to change the oil and they'll be damned if they're going to pay someone to do it for them.

They speak their mind.  What you see is what you get.  (What else could it be?)

Adherence to gender roles.  Common, popular pastimes such as hunting, fishing, and quilting.  Popular music such as country, rock, and pop.  But mostly country.

They believe in God.  Or at least assume they do - maybe they don't really need to give it much thought.  That's just what you do.

You just do what you do.  There's a reason you do it: because everyone does it.  And so do you.  Because once you start questioning things, well, then you might as well start questioning everything.  You begin to sound "fancy", think a little high of yourself.  What, do you think you're better than us?

Well, that's the point of this post.

Much has been said after the election of Trump about the "forgotten man", the "silent majority".  One of the things that has been said is that liberal, cosmopolitan, coastal "elites" such as myself look down on, and feel superior to these people.

Kevin Drum outright assumed it to be the case.

"is there really any question that liberal city folks tend to sneer at rural working-class folks? I’m not even talking about stuff like abortion and guns and gay marriage, where we disagree over major points of policy. I’m talking about lifestyle. Krugman talks about fast food, and that’s a decent example. Working-class folks like fast food, which explains why Donald Trump liked to show pictures of himself eating McDonald’s or KFC. It’s a sign that he’s one of them."
He was responding to  Krugman column that dismissed the idea.  Krugman said his inbox was flooded with people accusing people like him of sneering at them.
Do the liberals sneer at the Joe Sixpacks? Actually, I’ve never heard it — the people I hang out with do understand that living the way they do takes a lot more money and time than hard-pressed Americans have, and aren’t especially judgmental about lifestyles.
But conservatives weren't having it, and published Drum's piece as a stunning admission.

It kind of makes you wonder, what is it to sneer?  When I play complex music, go to an art museum, follow a niche fashion trend, see a foreign film, eat an interesting type of food.... am I sneering?

It's hard to say.  I've tried Coors beer and it is terrible.  So many of those pop songs are written by committee, and don't do anything interesting.  I don't like hunting because it seems mean.  I stopped believing in God when I was a teenager because my questions very quickly overtook their answers.  Why can't guys cry?  Have you seen the scene in Latcho Drom where everyone in Romania comes out of their houses at once, their gypsy music synchronized - it's incredible!

So, am I sneering?  I suppose more info would be required.  Let's assume I'm not merely being a jerk.  Jerks can "sneer" at anything they don't like.  That tells us very little about the rural/cosmopolitan, white collar (WC)/ blue collar (BC) divide.  Let's focus on the element of "sophistication" in our interests.

But what is "sophistication"?  It is difficult to define.  From Wikipedia:

Modern definitions include quality of refinement — displaying good tastewisdom and subtlety rather than crudeness, stupidity and vulgarity. In the perception of social class, sophistication can link with concepts such as statusprivilege and superiority.
Quality of refinement.  OK, so something labored over, come to after much thought, maybe an evolution of iteration.  But not necessarily the product of enjoyment itself.  An ancient text is the exact opposite of this.  However, how we come to appreciate the text definitely requires a cultural refinement.  One does not get up one day and arbitrarily set out to find and read ancient texts.

So, we're onto something here.  An appreciation that has been refined, delicately labored over - maybe for hours, months, years.  The refinement can be a repertoire of understanding of a class of things (music, food).  But it can also be an attitude or response to certain things (religion, culture).

Yet is this type of appreciation the province only of the educated, cosmopolitan class?  I can think of many ways in which a rural BC type has refined tastes.  His interests and abilities will be greatly refined.  How to weld, how to ride a horse, how to tie down a load, bow hunting versus bow fishing, the difference between Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Sr.  Note: I'm shooting in the dark here because it ain't my culture.  But let's just assume that every culture has its own tangled history of refinement.

But these types of refinement have different value in society.  They come from different places and mean different things.  Sure, tying down a load is an important skill when you're hauling lumber, but it doesn't help you understand modern art.  And understanding a Pollack surely won't tie down a load.   But they each have different significance in different groups.  In the country, knowing the Allegory of the Cave won't help you by the barbecue.  In the city, changing your own oil isn't so useful if everyone is riding the subway.

One way to think about types of refinement might be in the degree to which they are defined locally, either geographically speaking or by concrete utility.  A narrow cultural group identifies what it refines, the utility of a type of knowledge guides its refinement.  For example, a traditional recipe for mashed potatoes.  The best way to fish for trout.  By contrast, other forms of refinement are defined globally, and by abstract utility.  For example, coffee from different continent.  The difference between liberal and illiberal democracy.

But beyond being useful in conversation or daily living, what about the value of these types of knowledge in larger society?  What does it mean for a society to value a type of knowledge?

You could get at the question empirically, once you decide what determines value.  How useful is the knowledge in one's life, and then how will people treat you when you demonstrate that knowledge?  When high status people demonstrate certain types of knowledge, or an appreciation for them, the knowledge is being "valued" by larger society.  It is a reciprocal process, as high status both reflects the knowledge - the knowledge plays a role in their attainment of status, as well as amplifies the knowledge - the knowledge becomes more valuable as it is displayed by those with high status.

When the president endorses gay marriage knowledge, it gains status (at least among some segment of society).  But his endorsement as well shows us that that gay marriage knowledge has become valuable enough to have been a part of the president's rise to his current position.  In the case of Obama, he never campaigned on it, but when he came out in support, it fell in line perfectly with his progressive values.

So, I think we've arrived at a couple of things here.  First, the more certain forms of knowledge are identified with status, the more valuable they become.  Likewise, the less other knowledge is identified with status, the less valuable they become.  Secondly, some forms of knowledge are political, which inherently implies conflict.

Our political moment, occurring across the globe, in the West and East, between the rural and the cities, is very much about a clash of status.  The march of globalism is aligned with a march of liberal, progressive values.  The modern world has given enormous status to global, complex knowledge, in terms both of utility in personal achievement, but as well in terms of what the "elites" are seen as valuing.  The world leaders, the TV pundits, the movie stars, the professors, the scientists - are all giving status to the refinement of global, complex knowledge.

One can imagine how someone who has not spent their time refining their global, abstract knowledge, but instead has spent their life refining the local, concrete knowledge, and sees their knowledge losing status, might feel resentment creep in.  It must not feel good to be in the possession of low-status knowledge.

And here's the kicker: what if your knowledge is now not only seen as uninteresting, but harmful?  What if your views on civil rights, feminism, homosexuality, religion, regulation, government, science, etc. are seen by those with global, abstract knowledge as damaging to people and the planet?  It must be tempting to take this personally, and see them as hating you.  Even when they say, "we don't hate you, just your ideas", would they believed?  After all, when the fundamentalist Christian says, "We don't hate gays, we just don't believe homosexuality is a sin", are they to be believed?

Well, maybe that is a good question.  If they act to limit the rights of gays, treat them unequally, or in any other way insult their character, then they are acting in a way that has historically been synonymous with hatred.  The bible is followed by interpretation, and that is an interpretation that aligns with hate.

So, the question has become: when I drink my microbrew, when I watch my foreign films, am I acting in a way that resembles hate?  Surely not.  But what about my thoughts on political issues?  Here I acknowledge that many of my views can be considered hateful.  I hate discrimination against women, gays or people of color, the treating of them in any way as less worthy.  I hate the dismantling of regulations that would protect people or the environment.  I hate the ignoring or dismissal of science, especially when it impacts our world.  I hate the callousness with which some would rather see less government even if it results in more misery and less opportunity for others.

I might even sneer at those who would act in such a way as to support such actions.

But do I sneer at you simply because you have spent your life refining a different type of knowledge?  Do I hate you?

I really don't.