Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I'd like to thank the Academy...

In a first for my long but undistinguished career of Oscar pools, I actually won this year. I got 19 out of 24, handily beating my nearest competitor at 14 out of 20. Fifteen dollars was mine! It was all thanks to hitching myself to the Pan's Labyrinth and The Departed trains, and also some lucky guesses in the shorts--I figured a flick about Israel and Palestine was a sure bet, as was something about blood and China.

Picture is courtesy of Violet Vixen, and the statuette courtesy of the party host, whose father actually won an Oscar once. They are much heavier than they look.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Seen at a Coffee Shop on Sunset Boulevard

1. An elderly man looking at the profiles of young women on MySpace. From what I can see, they were all in his friends list. Questions: Are they his actual friends? Does he pretend to be younger online? Do they like (much) older men? Is he famous? Is he sketchy?
2. Donald Faison, who plays Turk on Scrubs.
3. A big SUV pulled into the left-hand turning lane at an intersection, as if waiting to turn left. Then the blinkers came on, and a guy got out and walked off, leaving the car blinking away in the middle of Sunset Boulevard.
4. A young couple wearing University of South Carolina t-shirts, looking disoriented.
5. Several rock musicians with lots of tattoos--I recognized them, but couldn't tell you what band.
6. Helen Mirren's face plastered on a gigantic "for your consideration" billboard.
7. Ratio of 1 double cappuccino per 5 midterms graded.
8. Two elderly Russian men smoking cigars and playing chess.
9. A pretty woman who was totally a famous actress, but I can't remember her name. Except she had a crazy mole next to her eye that they must airbrush out when she is filmed.
10. An Alan Arkin lookalike. But it wasn't him, I decided.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Poetry Friday

I am pleased to announce the return of Poetry Fridays. I have not been avoiding them on purpose, it's just that I keep forgetting. So in keeping with my earlier post on those darned Anglicans, I give you some T.S. Eliot. I read this poem in high school, and really loved it for some reason. My copy is all marked up with little high school scribbles, where I pointed out to myself with awe that the three trees symbolize the three crucifixes. (You know, Jesus and the Two Thieves. Sounds like a doo-wop group.) I think it is the intense foreshadowing that really impressed my seventeen-year-old self; I have always really loved anticipating something that you know is coming. Even if it's, you know, a crucifixtion.

The Journey of the Magi (1927)

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Pursuant to my primary pondering, I went today to the Barack Obama rally in Los Angeles. I have to say, it was pretty impressive. He was a charismatic speaker, but in an unusual way. He speaks surprisingly slow, with a deep but precise tone. It takes a moment to get used to the slow pace, and the pauses, but by the end of the speech it does a great job of convincing you that he is both thoughtful and passionate. Those are unusual qualities to hear in a politician's speech.

Also, he is a very good looking man. And he is, I believe, the first presidential candidate ever not to have politician's hair.

But the most impressive thing about the rally for me was the crowd. It was a big crowd, first of all; the papers are saying "in the thousands." That's pretty neat considering the primary is over a year away. But more importantly, it was one of the most diverse political events I have ever been too. Truly multi-racial, a wide range of ages, lots of different causes, and a ton of enthusiasm and energy. And as Kelsey pointed out, you don't get the feeling that it was stage-managed by his staff. There wasn't even a lot of publicity for the event, I just happened to notice on his web site that LA was the next stop on his tour. I've been to a lot of political rallies over the years, and there was a new energy at this one.

So I guess I can officially say...Go Obama!

Update: The SF Chronicle just posted an article about the rally. It's a nice positive article, but it just goes to show what most reporting is like:
1) It claims 7,000 people were there. That's not even close to true--the local news is saying 3k, which sounds about right.
2) Hordes of uniformed school children? I must have somehow missed these hordes.

I Will Not Cease From Mental Fight

Given that I'm not a regular churchgoer, and that most of my appreciation for the Episcopal Church has Anglophilic rather than theological origins, I'm surprised how upset the ongoing saga of the Anglican Communion has made me. I find the whole thing heartbreaking, almost irrationally so. The process has been so blatantly unfair, so unbelievably hypocritical. I'm angry at the various conservative African primates, I'm angry at the crazy Virginia evangelicals, but to be honest, most of my anger is directed at the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, our supposed leader. I have no doubt he is a good man, but his lack of leadership is the real problem at the heart of this. Of course, one of the reasons liberals still cling to him sometimes is that if he leaves, he could be replaced by someone worse.

I don't feel like recapping the whole thing here. Today's Guardian sums up the recent developments fairly, and you'll see what I mean by Williams's failure of leadership. For exhaustive but addicting commentary from a liberal perspective, see The Daily Episcopalian.

Things that make me particularly angry:

*Newspaper articles that refer to the two sides as the "traditionalist" and "liberal" positions. I'm sorry, but the sector of the Episcopal Church that is most opposed to gay ordination and same-sex blessings is not traditional in the least, it's an offshoot of right-wing fundamentalism that grew out of the Moral Majority 1980s. For better or for worse, the white northeastern urban elite that has been traditionally identified with the Episcopal Church for so long is actually the pro-gay element. It's the more recently additions to the Communion that are anti-gay. That obviously reveals some of the more problematic elements of what the Anglican Church is like today, but nevertheless, stop calling them traditionalists!

*So, the crazy wingnut former Episcopalians in Virgina have voted to put themselves under the authority of the Nigerian church. The Nigerian Anglicans support, among other things, the criminalization of sodomy (punishable by death in some cases), the complete subordination of women, and--get this--limited acceptance of polygamy! So desperate are the Virginia evangelicals to escape the terror of co-existing in the same organization with congregations that have gay pastors that they are okay with this!

*Archbishop Williams has not once made any gesture of compromise towards the Americans. No matter how many decidedly un-Christian humiliations and power plays the anti-gay contingent has suffered upon the American church, it is always our fault. The Episcopal Church has bent over backwards to reach reconciliation, and the Virginian-Nigerian axis always responds with pettiness. This, for me, is the heart of the frustration. The Episcopal Church has moved slowly on the gay issue, much slower than its membership would actually have liked. And the energy for these various liberal moves was very much a grassroots, congregational impulse, that only finally caught up to the national church a few years ago. There has been no haste in these decisions, and the fact that a miniscule number of congregations have left over the issue--many fewer than left over the ordination of women--shows how widespread the acceptance is for gay rights in the American church. And then, on the other side, you have people who think that homosexuality should be punished by death. No compromise.

Sometimes I wish we had a pope.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

To Everyone Elsewhere

It was about this time of year, four years ago, when I visited my current academic home as a prospective student. I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time, and you can imagine what the weather was like. I promise the blooming flowers on campus weren't the only reason I came here. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't dream about flowers and sunshine when I got back to New England.

Don't ever change, LA.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


I'm the same age as Macaulay Culkin? That kind of weirds me out, for some reason.

In 1980 (the year you were born)

Jimmy Carter is president of the US

President Carter announces punitive measures and embargos against the USSR in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupts in a violent blast estimated to be 500 times as powerful as the Hiroshima atomic bomb

Ronald Reagan is elected the 40th US president in a sweeping victory

US Representative Michael O. Myers is expelled from the House for his role in the Abscam scandal

Hewlett-Packard announces release of its first personal computer

Microsoft announces their version of UNIX, Xenix

Christina Ricci, Chelsea Clinton, Venus Williams, Jessica Simpson, Macaulay Culkin, and Jake Gyllenhaal are born

Philadelphia Phllies win the World Series

Pittsburgh Steelers win Superbowl XIV

New York Islanders win the Stanley Cup

The Empire Strikes Back is the top grossing film

"Lady" by Kenny Rogers spends the most time at the top of the US charts

U.S. viewers get caught up in the "Who Shot J.R.?" cliff hanger on the soap opera series, Dallas, which is solved on a November 21 episode, drawing a record numbers of viewers

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Like a Candle in the Wind

In all the hubub over Anna Nicole Smith's death, I forgot that I actually had a close personal connection to her. In 2005, at the West Hollywood Pride Parade, she blew a kiss in my direction. I felt pretty special. I even managed to take this picture. (That's Stravinsky's IHOP behind her.)
The best thing? See the shirtless guy to her left, who looks like he is sniffing something off his thumb? You can click the picture for a larger version. According to TMZ and Defamer, that's a certain Dr. Sandeep Kapoor. He is the doctor who supposedly prescribed poor Anna methadone, two weeks before she was due to give birth. That methadone, of course, probably killed Anna's son, and possibly Anna herself.

See, it's the brushes with fame like this that make living in Los Angeles worth it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

1, 2, 3, 4

Have you ever wanted to see a stop-motion animation version of Einstein on the Beach, done with legos? I have.

Sometimes, YouTube makes my day. I wish, of course, that they had used the vastly superior 1979 recording, but the 1993 will do.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Choices, Choices

Will somebody please tell me who to support in the Democratic primary? I'm not usually this far behind. In December of 1998 I was already a member of the Connecicut Committee for Wellstone. I still have my green "Wellstone for President" t-shirt. The silk-screening is fraying a bit, so now it's only for special occasions. And I still remember my first primary, 1988. I was in...third grade, I think? I was a Jesse Jackson supporter, and then reluctanctly campaigned for Dukakis when my elementary school had a mock election. Since I grew up in the Easy Bay, I think Dukakis won by like 80%. I distinctly remember that there was only person in my classroom who dared vote for Bush Sr.

But when you are writing a dissertation, it is hard to remember the outside world. So somebody tell me what to do:

1. Hillary Clinton.
Ick. Nope nope nope. I've never been a fan of the Clintons--remember DOMA, don't ask don't tell, the end of welfare as we know it, and several spurious bombings of random countries?--and that distrust overrides my mild desire for a woman candidate. I don't like her peddling to the right, I don't like her consistent support of the war. And I don't think she is electable, so what's the point of compromising what I believe in? That sure got us all somewhere last time. And the time before. And the time before.

2. John Edwards.
I don't know, he's just so boring! And short.

3. Barack Obama.
I'm surprised to find myself leaning towards him. I'm really not a fan of senators running for President--only the ego of a U.S. Senator could believe that he or she is going to be the first Senator since JFK to be elected--but I find myself getting a little misty-eyed about him sometimes.

4. Bill Richardson
I have an odd affection for him, considering that I suspect he is rather corrupt. But I like that he is governor of a western state, and Latino.

5. Tom Vilsack
Don't know anything, and he hasn't done anything to make me want to.

6. Dennis Kucinich
The thing is, I just really hate Kucinich supporters, on a social level.

7. Joe Biden
I'd rather vote for my box of kleenex.

8. Christopher Dodd
Thanks to my former involvement in Connecticut Democratic party politics, I've been on this guy's mailing list for years. Despite the weekly informational emails from "Chris," I am not impressed.

9. Al Gore
Al Gore did once try to run over one of my friends with a car. And I would not put it past him to mess up another presidential campaign as badly as he did the first time. But it's been a long time since the ugliness of the 2000 Democratic primary, so maybe I could forgive and forget.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The First Punk Rock

No matter how many times I listen to it, no matter how much I analyze it, the Danse des adolescents will always surprise me.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

History and Sonny Til

Here’s how my dissertation is going: I am currently up to my neck writing the chapter that is on African-American vocal harmony groups. This is the music that will later turn into what we now call doo-wop. It originated from religious sources, like the jubilee quartet tradition, as well as secular groups like the Mills Brothers. Since the period of my dissertation ends in 1954, I am mostly concerned with the early wave of this post-war music, groups like the Orioles and the Clovers. I highly recommend, by the way, Stanley Goosman’s fascinating ethnography of vocal harmony’s roots in urban Baltimore and Washington, DC.

I am running into one philosophical problem, however. That problem is history. History is very important to me. Musicologists have problems with historicizing their research subjects. I can understand this, in many respects. Music of the classical canon is, after all, a living performance tradition. Almost all of us grew up playing and listening to classical music, and when we analyze it, our corporeal interaction with classical music as a living art invariably comes into play. Our own pleasures and entanglements guide our analyses. We talk about “wanting resolution,” as if our own desire for a cadence is a transhistorical desire. We listen quietly, we objectify, we conduct in our heads, we make charts, we label chords. None of it is historicized. I often joke that the closest analogy to musicology in some ways is theology. Many interpret historical texts not to know more about history, but to know how to perform in their current lives.

That’s perfectly fine, as far as it goes. But since I consider myself first and foremost a historian, it doesn’t quite cut it for me. Sure, history is useful for the present. I also consider myself an activist, and I chose my dissertation topic, McCarthyism, for its current political relevance in addition to its historical and musical interest. But it is an important part of my intellectual politics that you take history, and historical people, as seriously as you can, and on their own terms. Many of my colleagues have responded to this issue by analyzing the body transhistorically, assuming that if their own body performs a work a certain way, we can safely presume that an earlier body did as well--a friend of mine likes to write about the heaving bosoms of women playing the piano in Regency England, and one imagines that today bosoms still more or less heave the same way. Other friends of mine have responded by attempting to shape their own physical engagement by using various historical techniques to re-shape their bodily engagement, as for instance taking a historical dance class does, or using historically-informed instruments. All of these techniques sound good to me.

With recorded pop music, however, there is much less corporeal engagement to draw upon. And although you would think that the existence of sound reproduction would make doing history easier, it actually serves to heighten historical difference. To whit: one of the centerpieces of the chapter is a long analysis of the Orioles 1953 hit “Crying in the Chapel.” It was this song that drew me to the repertoire in the first place, it’s a really fabulous track. I bought the Orioles greatest hits last spring, liked a few songs, and cheerfully assumed that they were a great group. Now that I have known their career and music more thoroughly, I still think that.

But I have a problem. Sonny Til, the lead singer, was by all accounts a sexy man. He drove the crowd wild. He supposedly had an amazingly expressive voice, and he knew how to work the stage like nobody else. Panties were flung. Unfortunately, I just can’t hear it. I listen to their tracks over and over again. And I just can’t find him sexy. “Crying in the Chapel,” yes, that is sexy. But that is a late number, when pop music is going through the great cataclysmic shift towards the condition it still lives in today. The Orioles first huge hit was “It’s Too Soon to Know,” from 1948. And man, it is boring. I just cannot hear the sex appeal at all. I try to listen to the song while staring at pictures of the Orioles, and I don't see it. Same with almost all of their music. Turns out that those few tracks I liked idly last spring were the exception, not the rule.

So obviously I am running into the problem of doing history. People are different. Historical people were especially different. It is impossible to accurately feel the same response that those crowds in West Baltimore felt upon hearing this song. This historical difference is always present, but sometimes it is less pronounced. My chapter on John Cage, for instance, was quite easy to historicize. I share many attributes with Cage: we’re both white men, from California, less than heterosexual, and have a taste for avant-garde pretensions. These similarities, plus the fact that I have been engaged with his music and his biography for almost a decade, created a situation where I felt like I could accurately predict Cage’s emotional response to issues—and archival research almost always proved me right.

Sonny Till has neither of these conveniences. I share very little biographical affinity with a black guy from a poor neighborhood of Baltimore—and I have not been engaged with his music for nearly as long. Taking another step back, I guess this is part of the problem of doing a dissertation that looks at a number of disparate genres. Although my tight chronological focus means that I know a tremendous amount of cultural and historical context that I can apply to all of this music, I can’t get to know every single historical subject in my dissertation as well as I would like. Maybe for the book.

The solution? Guess I'll find out. Keep listening to the music, I suppose, and trust all those sources that say Sonny Til was a sexy man. Try to figure out what exactly made him sexy. I need to look at fashion magazines from the period, and the archives of Baltimore's old black newspaper The Afro-American, and old hairstyles, and publicity photos. Listen to as many obscure Baltimore groups as possible to see how the Orioles were different. Dig up accounts of their performances--at what exact point in the song were the panties flung? And then use this all to try and listen to his music differently. We’ll see how it goes.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Saturday Cat Blogging

I just wanted remind my friends, family, and the blogosphere, that our cat Pablo has the cutest panda bear paws in the world.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Shuffle Shuffle Shuffle

Phil Ford over at Dial M for Musicology challenged music bloggers to post a list of songs randomly produced by their iPod shuffle, accompanied by explanation and/or apology. Sounds like a fun way to spend the evening, instead of trying to figure out how to teach Webern Op.11 to my students.

I should note, since at the moment the AMS listserv is roiled by a discussion of whether or not popular music scholars are smart enough to teach classical music too, that future employers should be assured that I do own classical music, I just don't put it on my iPod unless I am studying a particular piece and want to make it portable. Otherwise, the clumsy interface for classical music in iTunes drives me nuts, so I don't bother importing them. Hence, this is all pop.

1. Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You"

Clearly Dolly does it better.

2. Ella Fitzgerald, "Lush Life"

Again, I much prefer Billy Strayhorn singing this himself, especially when he says he used to "visit all the very gay places." He wasn't kidding. Ella is so innocent.

3. David Garza, "Discoball World"

Ah, David. Pronounced "Dah-veed," I think because he rediscovered his Latino heritage late in life. A little-known singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, who is an object of simultaneous adoration and ridicule amongst my friends. He frequently plays at Largo, a little club near me, and we went through a phase of going to see him whenever he is in town, which is often. After a few weeks, it dissolved into a two-way battle, wherein we would shriek requests from the bar, and he would insult our taste from the stage. Good times.

4. Rancid, "Lock, Step, & Gone"

Okay, I was fourteen years old and living in the East Bay when Let's Go was released, so it is perfectly appropriate for me to own this song, and to have pretended at the time that I remembered the good old days of Operation Ivy. I didn't of course; I was nine when they broke up.

5. 'NSYNC, "It's Gonna Be Me"

To be honest, I was always a Backstreet Boys partisan. I mean, they were real, not like those "NSYNC pretty boys. I only have two or three random 'NSYNC tracks on my iPod, but several entire BB albums. Don't get me started on my Britney fascination.

6. Marvin Gaye, "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)"

No need to apologize for this one! Nothing is cooler than Marvin.

7. The Strokes, "The End Has No End"

God, the Strokes really annoy me, with their Drew Barrymore-dating ironic little synth riffs. But I do like this song.

8. The Barbarians, "Moulty"

This is a track from the famous Nuggets compilation that pre-punk Lenny Kaye put together. It's a collection of relatively obscure sixties garage rock, and is highly recommended. When I gave a paper at EMP a few years ago, Lenny Kaye was there, also giving a paper. It was on Bing Crosby and crooning, and it quoted Jeffery Kallberg. That is rock and roll.

9. Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Wow, it is too perfect that this song ended up on my shuffle. I first heard this song when I bought Nevermind at about age twelve, on cassette tape. At the time, I was a metal head. So when I put in the tape, I liked the first bit, the intro where the guitar is really loud and distorted. Then it goes into the verse and gets kind of quiet. Being a metal head who had never heard of the Pixies, I thought that was wimpy, pushed stop, threw the tape somewhere, and didn't listen to it again for several months. Then it became my favorite song of all time.

10. The Foundations, "Build Me Up Buttercup"

I often use this song in teaching, just because it kind of plays with your expectations of what it means to sound "black." First, the students think it is a Motown song, or a Motown-style song by a black group. Then I tell them that the Foundations are actually British. They all go "whoa." And then I remind them that not all British people are white, and the Foundations were an interracial group made up of white and Afro-Caribbean Brits. They all go "whoa" again. And that's education.

Bad Musicologist

Menotti was still alive? Who knew?!