Reflections on Feminism and Class

February 6, 2015 § 2 Comments

I watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, the other night.  Hanna was, essentially, the founder of the Riot Grrrl movement back in 1992; she wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto.  I’ve always been a fan, and I remember going to Bikini Kill shows back in the day.  Hanna would insist the boys move to the back of the crowd and the girls come down to the front.  And we listened to her.  She was an intimidating presence on a stage.  The girls came down front so they could dance and mosh and not get beaten to a pulp by the boys.  Early 90s mosh pits were violent places, and they got worse as they got invaded by the jocks after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a few other bands went mainstream.  Bikini Kill never did, but their shows, as well as those of L7 and Babes in Toyland, still attracted these wider audiences, at least the gigs I went to.  Hanna and Bikini Kill were unabashedly feminist.  If you didn’t like, you could just fuck off.

Yesterday in class, in a very gender-segregated room (women on the left, men on the right), we had an interesting discussion.  We were discussing Delores Hayden’s The Power of Place, about attempts to forge a public history on the landscape of Los Angeles that gives credence to the stories of women and minorities.  So.  I asked my students if women were a minority.  To a person, they all knew that women are not a minority, at least not in demographic terms.  Women are the majority; right now in the United States and Canada, around 51% of the population.  But.  Women are a minority in terms how they are treated in our culture, how they are second-class citizens, essentially.  The women in my class all knew this, they were all adamant about it.  The men stayed silent, though they nodded approvingly at what the women were saying.

Despite the fact that close to nothing has changed in the mainstream of our culture, that we still live in a rape culture that is designed to keep women de-centred and unbalanced, I was so happy that my students knew what was what in our world, and I was so happy that the men knew to keep their mouth shut.

In The Punk Singer, Lynn Breedlove, a queer feminist writer, singer, and punk, noted that feminism is about the struggle of the sub-altern, about the struggle of the oppressed.  And feminism should fight for the oppressed, no matter the fight, be it race, sexuality, or class.  And I had this lightning bolt moment.  This is why I have always been pro-feminist.  I had a prof in undergrad who argued that men cannot be feminists; feminism is a movement for and by women.  Men could be allies, in fact, they were welcomed, but it was a women’s movement.  Hanna reflects this, she has always worked to create a space and a voice for women, and men were welcome, but in a supporting role.  I like that.

I was raised by women, and my mother instilled this pro-feminism in me at a young age (thanks, Ma!).  But, feminism (along with punk) helped give me the tools I need to emancipate myself from the oppression of class.  From these two movements, I gained a language of emancipation.  To recover from being told by my high school guidance counsellor that “People like you don’t go to university,” because I was working-class and poor.  Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, in a 1993 book, talk about the ‘hidden injuries of class.”  Hidden, yes, but still very real.

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Malcolm Gladwell’s Stunning ‘Oops’ Moment

August 11, 2014 § 3 Comments

Malcolm Gladwell was on the BBC recently picking his Desert Island Discs.  For the most part, it’s hard to argue with Gladwell’s choices, given his age and his Canadianness.  I’m about a decade younger than him, and his choices look like the selections of someone’s cool older brother c. 1989, there’s BIlly Bragg, and Gillian Welch. Brian Eno’s there, so is Marvin Gaye.  Gaye actually appears twice, with Gladwell choosing the classic deep cut, ‘Piece of Clay.’  But he also picked Gaye’s rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, which was allegedly the reference point for Bleeding Gums Murphy’s 45-minute version on The Simpsons.  But, none of this really matters so much as Gladwell’s sheer, utter ignorance in introducing The Star Spangled Banner.

He claims that the American national anthem is an ‘insight into the heart of the American soul.’ Why?  Because ‘[t]hey’re blowing stuff up. This is their national anthem, it’s about rockets and bombs.’

Gladwell is referring to the first verse of the song:

Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

See?  There’s the red glare of the rockets, bombs bursting in the air?  All that nasty stuff, this deep insight into “the heart of the American soul.”  Except.  Gladwell is so wrong it’s embarrassing.  The Star Spangled Banner is about the British attempting to level Baltimore the night of 13-14 September 1814 during the War of 1812.  The author of this song was a lawyer named Frances Scott Key, who was stuck on a British frigate that night, watching the British attempt to reduce Baltimore’s defences to rubble.  He was there because he had negotiated a prisoner swap with the British.  The next morning, he was shocked to see Old Glory in the ‘dawn’s early light.’  Somehow, Fort McHenry survived the night and the flag still flew.

Scott was so overcome with emotion, he wrote The Star Spangled Banner almost on the spot.  He set the lyrics to a common British drinking song that every American knew.  Understand the irony: The Star Spangled Banner arose from the War of 1812, when the enemy was the British.  It also had three more verses that, thankfully, have long since been forgotten.

There are many problems with The Star Spangled Banner.  The major one is that anthem singers in the United States think that they must stretch their vocal chords to the breaking point (or quite often beyond) in singing the song.  Interestingly, when the campaign to make the song the official American national anthem picked up steam in the era around the First World War (it finally happened in 1931), newspaper editors complained the song was ‘unsingable.’

But this is all beside the point of Gladwell’s stunning mis-step here, as he descends down into stupid, knee-jerk anti-Americanness.  He should know better.

Why We Need Feminism. Still.

June 23, 2014 § 5 Comments

I am blessed with three insanely wonderful, talented, beautiful nieces, they are really amazing, and I don’t get to spend enough time with them.  The oldest of the three, Haley, is in a rock band in Norway, Slutface.  The band just released a new single, “Angst,” which, aside from being catchy as all get out, struck me for its lyrical content.  Haley sings about female objectification, dumb boys, and misogyny.  It kind of took me by surprise, because you don’t really hear lyrical content of this sort in pop music today.  Listening to the song, I thought back to a recent exchange I had on Twitter.  I posted something hashtagged #yesallwomen, and a troll responded that it was campaigns and hashtags like this that led to women being sexually assaulted and raped. Yes, seriously. In his delusional little world, rape and sexual assault didn’t happen until social media appeared on the scene.  He was, as you would imagine, hyper-aggressive about making his point, too.

When this current trend of feminist hashtags and campaigns on Twitter and social media exploded last year, I was kind of surprised.  I came across the account @everydaysexism and was gobsmacked. Women were documenting their experiences of being catcalled and harassed walking down the street.  I was shocked.  I though this kind of shit ended thirty years ago.  I asked the women in my life, and they confirmed that this was indeed their daily experience.  It angered me.

Back in the day, every woman I knew had been raped or sexually assaulted, so perhaps I should not have been surprised.  “The day” was the early 1990s.  But I seriously thought things had got better since then.  I’m not sure why I thought this.  I am a professor, everyday in the hallways, across campus, and even in my classroom, I see examples of sexism and outright misogyny.  Almost all advertising is based on the objectification of women to sell everything from cars to beer to razor blades to men.  In the post-Britney Spears, “post-feminist” world, this kind of objectification has become part of the day-to-day.  And for many of my female students, the very word “feminism” is a bad one.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student say, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then go on to make a very basic feminist point.

That depresses me.  As does this picture. 542999_200584493411003_2052673512_n  We ALL need feminism, for the reasons outlined above, and for the reasons this woman points out in the picture.

Sexism and misogyny isn’t funny.  Women don’t need to learn how to “take a joke” when men say stupid shit to them.  Men need to stop being pigs.  It’s that simple.

The Suburbanisation of Punk and Hip Hop

April 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

Questlove, the drummer and musical director of the hip hop band, The Roots (and frankly, if you don’t know just who in the hell The Roots are by now, I’m not sure there’s any hope for you), is writing a six-part series of essays on hip hop, its past, present, and future at Vulture.  Not surprisingly, Questlove makes an eloquent argument in part one about the ubiquity of hip hop culture and the dangers that poses to Black America in the sense that if the powers that be wish to quash it, the ubiquity of it is all-encompassing and a quashing would be similarly so.  But he also points out the dangers of the all-encompassing nature of hip hop culture.

I like Questlove’s point about the ubiquity of hip hop culture, which means that it’s no longer visible, it’s just everywhere.  He also notes that it’s really the only music form that is seen to have this massive cultural phenomenon attached to it: food, fashion, etc.  He says that this applies to pretty much anything black people in America do (he also wonders what the hell “hip hop architecture” is, as do I).  But I think this goes beyond black America, such is the power of hip hop and the culture that follows it.

There is a relatively long tradition of white rappers, from 3rd Bass and the Beastie Boys up to Eminem and others, and the vast majority of white rappers have deeply respected the culture.  More than that, as a white kid growing up in the suburbs in the late 80s, I was totally into hip hop, as were all my friends.  This could get stupid, as when guys I knew pretended that life in Port Moody was akin to Compton, but, still.  My point is that hip hop music, fashion, and culture has permeated the wider culture of North America entirely (something I don’t think Questlove would disagree with, but it’s irrelevant to his argument).

The only other form of music that has an ethos and culture that follows it, really, is punk.  Punk and hip hop are spiritual brother movements, both arise from dispossessed working class cultures.  Both originally emerged in anger (think of the spitting anger of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in “The Message” or the Sex Pistols in “Anarchy in the UK”) and were heavily political and/or documented life on the downside.  But, both also went viral, both exploded out of their original confines and went suburban and affluent.

Punk and hip hop are the two musical forms that informed me as a young man, they continue to do so as I hit middle age.  But punk and hip hop are both deeply compromised by sinking into the affluent culture of middle class suburbia.  The anger is blunted, the social message is reduced, and it becomes about “bitches and bling,” whether in hip hop (pretty much any song by Jay-Z) or punk (pretty much any song by The Offspring, Avril Lavigne, Blink-182, or any pop-punk band you hear on the radio).  And then these counter-culture voices become the culture, and, as Questlove notes, they become invisible in their ubiquity.  But more than that, the ethos they bring is divorced from their origins.

Questlove talks about the social contract we all subscribe to. He references three quotes that guide his series (and, I would guess, his life in general).  The first comes from 16th century English religious reformer, John Bradford, who upon seeing another prisoner led to the gallows, commented, “There but for the graces of God goes John Bradford.”  The second comes from Albert Einstein, “who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance.'”  Finally, Ice Cube, the main lyricist of N.W.A. (yes, there was once a time, kids, when Cube wasn’t a cartoon character), who, in the 1988 track “Gangsta Gangsta,” delivered this gem, “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.”  Questlove also notes that Cube is talking about a world in which the social contract is frayed, “where everyone aspires to improve themselves and only themselves, thoughts of others be damned. What kind of world does that create?”

And herein lies the rub for me, at least insofar as the wider culture of hip hop and punk and their suburbanisation.  If you take the politics and intelligence out of punk and hip hop, you’re left with the anger, and a dangerous form of nihilism.  We’re left with Eminem fantasising about killing his wife and his mother.  Charming stuff, really.

This is not to say there is no place for bangers in hip hop culture, nor is to say there’s no place for the Buzzcocks (the progenitors of pop-punk in the late 1970s), it just means that this is a many-edged sword.

Hip Hop as Public History?

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) asked on Facebook if the Facebook movies, celebrations of FB’s 10th anniversary, was public history.  Um, no.  They are no more public history than those wordle things were a few years back, images and video clips chosen by an algorithm programme designed to grab what in people’s timelines was most liked, most viewed, etc.  In other words, it was rather random.

But, this got me thinking about curation, narrative, and how it is we decide what is and what is not public history.  And this went on as I listened to Young Fathers, an Edinburgh, Scotland hop hop band comprised of three men of Nigerian, Liberian, and Scots heritage.  Their music is a complex mixture of trip-hop, hip hop, with hints of indie rock.  But the music is also full of African and American beats and melodies.

Hip hop, as everyone knows, is a music form that developed in the Bronx in New York City in the late 70s, it is an African American music form that has been globalised.  It has also been adapted wherever it has gone; at its core, hip hop is poetry, set to a beat.  Echoes of hip hop can be heard soundtracking everything from suburban teenagers’ lives to the Arab Spring to the struggle for equality on the part of Canadian aboriginals.

I’m a big fan of UK hip hop, I like the Caribbean and African influences on the music.  Artists such as Roots Manuva, Speech Debelle, and cLOUDDEAD have long incorporated these influences into their music.

So, as I was listening to Young Fathers whilst pondering public history, I was rather struck by the idea of hip hop, at least in this particular case, as public history.  Young Fathers have appropriated an American music form (one member lived in the US as a child), and then remixed it with a UK-based urban sound, and added African beats and melodies, to go with the occasional American gospel vocal.  In short, these artists have curated their roots into their music, and presented it back to their audience.  It’s the same thing Roots Manuva has been doing for the past decade-and-a-half with his Jamaican roots.

What, of course, makes Young Fathers and Roots Manuva different than the Facebook algorithms is that the music of these artists is carefully constructed and curated, they are drawing on their roots and background to present a narrative of their experiences in urban subcultures (whether by dint of music, skin colour, or ethnic heritage).  So, in that sense, I would submit that this is a form of public history.

Bono Vox, Corporate Stooge

June 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

In today’s Guardian, Terry Eagleton gets his hatchet out on Ireland’s most famous son, Paul Hewson, better known as Bono, the ubiquitous frontman of Irish megastars/corporate behemoth, U2.  Eagleton is ostensibly reviewing a book, Harry Browne’s, Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power), which sounds like a good read.  Eagleton’s review, though, is a surprisingly daft read by a very intelligent man, one of my intellectual heroes.

He takes Bono to task for being a stooge of the neo-cons.  For Bono sucking up to every neo-con politician from Paul Wolfowitz to Tony Blair and every dirty, smelly corporate board in the world in the line of his charity work.  Eagleton even takes a particularly stupid quote from Ali Hewson, Bono’s wife, about her fashion line, to make his case.  Now, just to be clear, I think Bono is a wanker.  I love U2, they were once my favourite band, and The Joshua Tree is in my top 3 albums of all-time.  But Bono is a tosser.  He can’t help it, though, he’s like Jessica Rabbit, he was just made that way.  Eagleton, for his part, essentialises the Irish in a rather stupid manner as an internationalist, messianic people, and says, basically, Bono and his predecessor as Irish celebrity charity worker, Bob Geldof, were destined to be such.  Whatever.

I’m more interested in Eagleton’s critique of Bono as a corporate/neo-con stooge.  It’s a valid argument. Bono has coozied up to some dangerous and scary men and women in his crusades to raise consciousness and money for African poverty and health crises.  But, I see something else at work.  A couple of years ago, there was news of a charity organisation seeking to use Coca-Cola’s distribution network in the developing world to get medicine out there.  I thought it a brilliant idea, but, perhaps predictably, there was blowback.  Critics complained that this would then give Coca-Cola Ltd. positive publicity and that it did nothing to stunt Coca-Cola’s distribution, blah blah blah.  Sure, that’s all true, but perhaps it would be a good thing if needed medicines were distributed through Coke’s network, especially since Coca-Cola Ltd. was more than willing to help out?  Maybe the end result justified the means?

And so, reading Eagleton on Bono today, I thought of Cola Life (the charity working with Coke).  And I thought, it’s certainly true that Bono has worked with some skeezy folk.  But, if the end result is worth it, what’s the problem? If working with the likes of Tony Blair (hey, remember when everyone loved Tony Blair?!?) and Paul Wolfowitz and Jeffery Sachs actually can lead to positive developments for Africa and other parts of the developing world, is it not worth giving it a try?  Or is it better to sit on our moral high grounds in the developed world and frown and shake our heads at the likes of Cola Life and Bono for actually trying to work at the system from within for positive change?

I’ve always been struck by a Leonard Cohen lyric, the first line of “First We Take Manhattan”: “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/For trying to change the system from within.”  Cohen there summed it up, working within the system for change and revolution is boring, it’s not glamorous, it’s not glorious.  But my experience has taught me that it works, and more positive change can be affected through pushing from within the system than from without it.  It doesn’t mean it’s always all that ethically clean, either, sometimes you have to get dirty to do a wider good, and I think that’s what Cola Life and Bono are doing on a much bigger, grander, and more impressive scale.  And I think the Terry Eagleton’s of the world are living in the past, with their moralistic tut-tutting, all the whilst sitting on their hands and doing little to actually do something to bring about positive change.

Boston Strong?

June 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Boston Bruins lost the Stanley Cup last night in glorious fashion.  Up 2-1 with 89 seconds to go in Game 6, they were that close to a Game 7 back in Chicago tomorrow night.  Then disaster (or, from my perspective, glory) struck, and the Black Hawks scored twice in 17.7 seconds to win the game 3-2 and capture the Cup in 6 games.  All throughout the playoffs, the Bruins and their fans have rallied behind the slogan “Boston Strong!”  Before every home game, the Bruins brought out victims of the 15 April Boston Marathon Bombings as a sign of solidarity with the city, with the city’s recovery and, of course, to rally the Garden faithful.

On the whole, Boston has rallied behind the “Boston Strong” cry.  Every time I step out the front door, I see it on t-shirts, ball caps, bumper stickers.  It’s in the windows of businesses.  And the Boston sports teams, most notably the Bruins, but also the Celtics and Red Sox (the Patriots aren’t playing now, of course, and no one cares about the Revolution) have harnessed this as well.  The Celtics, during their brief playoff appearance, were selling t-shirts that declared “Boston Stands As One.”  A woman behind the counter at the pro shop in the Garden swore the Celtics were donating to the One Boston Fund with proceeds from the shirts.  The Bruins did the same thing.  And all throughout the Bruins’ run to the Cup final, “Boston Strong!” meant cheering for the Bruins as much as a declaration of strength in the face of terrorism.  This, of course, made it kind of difficult for me, as anyone who knows me knows that the only thing on God’s Green Earth I hate is the fucking Boston Bruins (sorry, Auntie (my great Aunt got mad at me for using foul language in an earlier blog post)).

BJnpdP2CAAEIXhBAnd then in the NHL playoffs, all holy hell broke lose.  Some guy in Toronto, during the first round series, held up a sign that said “Toronto Stronger.”  People in Boston were furious, and within minutes #TorontoStronger was the top trend on Twitter here.  People not in Boston were furious, people in Toronto were furious.

It got worse in the Finals, a t-shirt company in Chicago began selling “Chicago Stronger” shirts.  The response was predictable and it makes you wonder just what the guys at Cubby Tees (the company behind the t-shirts) were thinking? The t-shirts were quickly pulled from sale in response to the firestorm of protest, much of it, to be fair, from Boston. ht_Chicago_Strong_Blackhawks_Stanley_Cup_thg_130614_wgThen the guys at Cubby Tees responded, offering some kind of apology that wasn’t really an apology, just a self-serving attempt to make themselves as the victims of the entire affair.  But they kind of had a point, they argued that this is sports, and in sports, there are rivalries.  And when there are rivalries, there is a competition of wit, idiocy (ok, I said that, they didn’t) and so on.

And yet, the kind of furor that erupted after the sign in Toronto and the t-shirt in Chicago was predictable.  The guy in Toronto should’ve seen it coming, so, too, should have Cubby Tees.  Both were in incredibly bad taste.  The Boston Globe published an editorial comment a week ago decrying the co-opting of the “Boston Strong” slogan by sports fans (amongst others), claiming that it diminished from the slogan’s original point, which was “the victims of the bombing, now rebuilding their lives; the law enforcement efforts during the manhunt; the decision, by athletes and organizers, to run the Marathon in 2014.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, but it’s also bad logic.  The Boston Strong rallying cry has obviously spread to sports, and it’ll spread to music and festivals all summer long.  And when the Dropkick Murphys play, whether in Boston or anywhere else, there’ll be people in the crowd chanting the slogan or they’ll have it on posters.  Why? Because the Bruins and the Dropkicks are ambassadors of Boston.  Both the punk band and the hockey team market a brand that makes Boston a tough, intimidating place (in reality, it’s nothing of the sort), and that’s an image that Bostonians like, and are proud to project around North America and beyond.  The Bruins represent the city and the fans of the Bruins put their hopes, their energy, their money into supporting the team in cheering them on to victory.  When the Bruins lost last night, Claude Julien, the coach, told reporters that he was disappointed in part because it would’ve been nice to bring the Cup back to Boston to help in the healing from the bombings.

It was always going to be the case that “Boston Strong” would become a rallying cry for Bruins’ fans.  They’re Bostonians, and the Bruins are their team, their representatives.  The Globe missed the point of professional sports; sports are meant as a distraction, as a means of turning our attention from reality.  It’s worth noting that back in September 2001, the NFL season was meant to start the weekend after 9/11.  Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner of the NFL at the time, immediately cancelled the games that weekend out of respect.  It was the obviously correct choice to make.  But then-president George W. Bush inveighed upon Tagliabue to reinstate the games, Americans needed the distraction.

Sports are more about identity as much as anything else for spectators and fans.  And thus, it should be no surprise to anyone, lest of all the Globe that “Boston Strong” became a rallying cry for the Bruins, just as it was for the Celtics, as it is for the Red Sox, and will be for the Patriots when their season starts up in the fall.

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