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Whiplash

April 5, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Whiplash is a film from 2014 both written and directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows the life of Andrew (played by Miles Teller), a young, brilliant and ambitious drummer, through the trials and errors of college life. Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) is a strict, difficult music instructor who asks for as much as his students can give and more. Not only is Fletcher’s rehearsal routine physically demanding, but he often plays mental games with the students as well. Through these two characters, Whiplash deconstructs what it takes to achieve greatness and how ambition is portrayed socially.

This movie is unsettling because it is entirely without a hero. Both student and teacher vie for the heroic roles at times, but both are fantastically flawed, of course. The viewer may connect with Andrew, who wants to be a great musician, but his actions do not warrant our affection. He pushes himself to extremes both physically and mentally and sacrifices everything in order to achieve greatness. The pursuit of art for arts sake often appears noble or heroic, but this film demonstrates the ugly underbelly of ambition. Furthermore, I am not entirely sure that Andrew’s sacrifice was a necessary step in his education.

Early in the movie, Andrew is interested in a girl. After mustering the courage to ask her out, they go on a number of dates which seem successful. In the end, however, he tells her that his career is more important than she is, which upsets her and she stops seeing him. Later in the film, he calls her again only to find out that he has missed his chance. Andrew’s relationship with his own family is even more disturbing. When Andrew returns home for a family meal and tries to explain how well he is doing in school, they do not understand him, and he, likewise, does not understand them.

The dinner scene offers excellent analysis. During the meal, an aunt asks Andrew about school and when he tries to answer he is interrupted by the entrance of one of his cousins. His uncle loudly greets the newcomer by shouting, “Ahhh, Tom Brady!” which completely cuts off Andrew. Andrew tries again to voice his accomplishments, but the others at the table are clearly not familiar with the “best music school in the country” and have no common language with which to ask any questions. To me, this represents the way that art defies classification. Without understanding the history of the field, art can seem arbitrary and luck-driven. Sports, however, offer easy discussion. They are less intimidating and more casual, as demonstrated in this scene. The cousin notes, “Well, in the music competition, isn’t it subjective?” Andrew simply replies, “No,” because, of course, an art form (and therefore an artist) is not arbitrarily great. Rather, they have studied, practiced, performed and contemplated the history of their field. Andrew’s uncle then inquires about a job and Andrew must explain that currently his musical pursuit is unpaid which reinforces the family’s opinion of Andrew’s music.

The family then turns to celebrating his cousin’s football awards. At the end of this exchange, Andrew is clearly frustrated, so, he voices the irony of celebrating a football career which will not go beyond Division III college. While belittling everyone else at the table, Andrew proclaims that he would rather die as great musician at the age of thirty four rather than live a life like anyone else at the table. Throughout the movie, Andrew’s father walks the fine line of supporting him, but also trying to keep him from falling off the edge into madness. In this scene too, he begins by supporting Andrew, but when Andrew tells his cousin that he will “never hear from the NFL,” Andrew’s father replies, “Have you heard from Lincoln Center?” Of course, he has not, which pulls the wind from his sails, and, mid-dinner, Andrew gets up and leaves the table.


J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher and is the opposite of the nurturing father. Fletcher utilizes incredibly harsh techniques in order to inspire greatness from his musicians. The relationship that develops between Fletcher and Andrew is complicated. In this scene, Fletcher has just given Andrew a great compliment, only to belittle him, throw a chair at him, and humiliate him in front of the rest of the band. Andrew’s fall from grace is quick and extremely painful.

I struggle with this movie on so many levels, which is a great testament to the authenticity of emotions that the film presents. I wonder, why does Andrew really leave the dinner table, shame or disgust? Does a great artist always and necessarily feel superior to those around them, and therefore lonely? Does this superiority inform their work in a positive or negative way? What level of ambition strengthens achievement, and what amount spirals into misery or madness? On a side note, I wonder if the lack of women in the film reflects actual ratios of men to women in music schools. While I thoroughly enjoyed the minimalism of Whiplash and its adherence to only a handful of characters, but I would have also liked to see more women in the band or as additional characters.

Whiplash is compellingly carried by Fletcher and Andrew. It raises tough, uncomfortable questions that society has yet to answer.

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Beyoncé Makes Lemonade

February 15, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Beyoncé doesn’t release albums; she creates cultural events.” - Daphne A. Brooks

According to Wikipedia, Beyoncé is the most nominated female singer in the history of the Grammy Awards (and she has also won 22 of them). Furthermore, Wikipedia cites: “In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history and was listed among Time's 100 most influential people in the world for a second year in a row. Forbes ranked her as the most powerful female in entertainment on their 2015 and 2017 lists, and in 2016, she occupied the sixth place for Time's Person of the Year." In 2016 she made an album entitled Lemonade. It is known as a concept album and accompanied a one hour film by the same name. In it she narrates, dances, includes clips of family, and has many guest artists. She slips between genres such as reggae, hip hop, country, gospel, and blues.

Very few of us will ever have the chance to touch the whole world at once. I use dialogue for a living, but I do so in small groups and small venues. This allows for nice, intimate discussions which ensures that everyone can participate. Musicians, on the other hand, broadcast a message to the world instantly, quickly, and passionately. They embrace technological change in a way that questions how we use language effectively, potently, masterfully. Music is certainly not new, but music has begun to embrace a number of ways to increase its potential.

Lemonade is an ambitious project which addresses race, gender, and love. In it, Beyoncé unapologetically defends herself, her experience, and her right to be a strong, proud African American woman. By extension, her work inspires other women in tough situations. More than inspiration, though, she reminds us that we can (and should) aim higher. Beyoncé sends the message through lyrics like those found in “Freedom” where she says she breaks chains all by herself.

The album is not meant to show her perfections or even to tell the world that her experience trumps anyone else’s. It seems more closely aligned with owning the full complexity of experience. Life is full of decisions, and she tells all women to make their own decisions but also to own the past, not disregard it. Daphne A. Brooks, critic and scholar, writes, “The album encourages black women, in particular, to examine the wholeness of their beings and the complexities of their identities.”

While some dismiss her work as diva-like behavior, journalist Arwa Mahdawi reminds us that that would be a mistake. Beyoncé runs a business and knows it. Mahdawi suggests that we cannot ignore Beyoncé’s intentional branding. In fact, branding yourself is often expected of male artists, but dismissed in women. Mahdawi writes: “It’s a mistake to call Beyoncé’s notorious attention to her image ‘diva’ behaviour; it’s businesswoman behaviour. Beyoncé understood that she couldn’t let Beyoncé-the-person encroach on Beyoncé-the-brand. So she stopped saying much, and rarely gave interviews. In 2013, she made waves by appearing on the cover of the September issue of Vogue without deigning to give the customary interview that went with it. Her silence made her voice even more powerful, and reinforced the mythology she was creating.” She also surrounds herself with strong women. In music videos, she often dances among a group of women in step, herself at the front but always in step. The group dynamic is important, as is realizing that Beyoncé is a tour de force.

Lemonade begins with her grandmother’s 90th birthday in which her grandmother says, “Life gave me lemons, and I made lemonade.” Throughout the rest of the film, Beyoncé gives us the literal and figurative recipe of lemonade. I love to see an album that poses tough questions. This project made me wonder in what ways I interact with or participate in the world onscreen. What are the right questions to be asking? What does it mean to be female, powerful, and ambitious? How do we reconcile not just the past and the present, but the future? How can we address race relations in a healthy, powerful, and positive way? And, am I living up to my potential?

While not all critics think highly of Beyoncé (see bel hooks on the subject), so many people identify with her or her music that it would be impossible to dismiss her work. While she is talented, people often do not succeed based upon talent alone. Beyoncé has something extra that many people want to access. Taking a deeper look at her work has been a very worthwhile endeavor. She is sending a message and I, for one, am curious as to whether we are all receiving the same message, or if her work resonates for many reasons.

Contemporary success must attach to some objective desire whose impulse stems from the past. Success combines past reality with future visions in a way that seems visionary, but also still locates us in the present. Beyoncé participates in the past as much as she does in the present and future. In a way, progress always involves a stasis - the transcendent moment arrives only from an understanding of the forces which give rise to it. Beyoncé participates in the present by giving us a sense of opportunity which she has collated from history, experience, emotion, and public response. And for a few moments, the world moves in rhythm with her vision, her words, and her ideas, which are also our own.

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Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

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When Tomorrow Never Comes: Brief Thoughts on Elvis Presley

July 6, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

This April, HBO premiered a new, two-part documentary about Elvis Presley. Directed by Thom Zimny and produced by John Landau and Priscilla Presley, Elvis Presley: The Searcher offers an intimate portrait of the man behind the universal icon. While the film provides new insight into Elvis and his life (and presents previously unseen footage, photographs, and recordings), it somehow leaves the attentive viewer with a striking sense of wonder.

The temptation with icons is to dismiss their artistry, to see them as symbols or relics rather than as artists or masters of craft. The icon’s cultural image, whatever it is, supersedes his/her practice. Image, sadly, often eclipses craft. Call this a symptom of the mass media barrage or the shortsighted collective memory of the masses.

Call it unfair, if you like.

Take, for instance, the image that is Elvis Presley.

We know him as “The King of Rock and Roll.” We know him as the teenager who made a million girls swoon. Think about Elvis Presley for one moment. See his pearly white teeth, those eyes dashed in dark wonder, those hips moving back and forth. Those lips. And see him in his later years, an irreducible showman slowly expanding into his white, bedazzled jumpsuit.

And that’s the problem—we only see him.

Think, too, that Elvis must have known he was being seen and that, inevitably, he would continue to be seen. I find it hard to believe that Elvis was unaware of his own power as image. According to the documentary, after his initial touring years and TV appearances through the 1960s (until the ’68 Comeback Special, in fact) Elvis primarily acted in films, most of which were vehicles for his sex appeal and—if Colonel Tom Parker had anything to say about it—selling ‘merchandise.’

Whatever that means.

Roland Barthes says in Camera Lucida that, “[V]ery often (too often, to my taste) I have been photographed and knew it. Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image” (10). When I ‘see’ Elvis, I can’t help but imagine how conscious he was of the lenses pointed at him. How much of Elvis—as great an entertainer as he was—is a separate body from the real Elvis, a kind of corpus-facade assembled by the psyche, fear, and (un)willingness of the artist? I do not claim that our collective image of Elvis reveals less than we think it does (or should?), but rather that this image reveals something different from the real—it is a question of different, but not more or less.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Elvis Presley. I spent the majority of my twenties burning through Springsteen, The Doors, all the classic rock that sprang from Elvis’s early recordings at Sun Studio in Memphis. Later, into my thirties, it was the bluesmen and obscure rock—now, I’m a folk and country lover. I never understood how large Elvis Presley stood in relation to my own tastes. Above and beyond them all, in fact.

His first recorded album—Elvis Presley, released in 1956—is a stripped down and skeletal work. It feels like a simple capture of sound. That is to say it doesn’t sound (or feel) over-produced. The musicians and producer avoid the trap of chasing perfection. And that, I argue, is what makes it authentic. In these songs we have an Elvis who has yet to experience the pressures and necessary compromises of fame. In short, the album was made without expectations—this freedom may have made room for Elvis’s creation of a new music: rockabilly. Contrary to popular belief, the documentary makes it clear that Elvis sought out Sam Phillips and his recording studio. Phillips, in fact, claims that Elvis drove his truck—he was working as an apprentice electrician—back and forth in front of the studio before finally getting up the guts to walk in and ask to record. Elvis’s immensely famous rendition of “That’s Alright” was impromptu, a recorded jam session instigated by the singer. My favorite song on the album is “Trying to Get to You,” a slow plodding showcase for Elvis’s soulful voice. The brief guitar interlude is just that—an interlude to serve the song rather than a grandstand to steal the spotlight. I like to think this song is a microcosm for how Elvis existed both within the universe of a song and the physical universe. His voice is so dynamic that it seems—for a minute or two—as if he’s the only man in the world who dares or knows how to sing.

Twelve years after this recording, after a stint in the army and a largely disappointing sojourn into show business, Elvis Presley did a music special for network television (otherwise known as the ’68 Comeback Special). The circumstances of how this show was arranged are detailed fully in the documentary, but one result was an informal, backstage jam session with Elvis and the original members of his band. The entire set is energetic and passionate—it shows Elvis at his best. He’s stepped back into the role of a singer in a band, and he’s singing the songs he loves in the most simple, powerful way. The rendition of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” features a sweaty Elvis Presley clad in black leather banging out rhythm guitar and singing at the top of his lungs. But in this particular performance it’s not the sound that matters. Here, we see a young rock and roller free to do what he’s always wanted to do. He’s singing a great song for a few folks in a small room—and he’s doing that with all the passion he can muster.

But given all this artistry, I feel the most accurate image I have of Elvis Presley comes from his country album, Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old). Cut in 1970, the album is a comprehensive journey through country music and its many nuances. In the original Rolling Stone review from March 1971, the critic Peter Guralnick says of the album, “[I]t’s the singing, the passion and engagement most of all which mark this album as something truly exceptional, not just an exercise in nostalgia but an ongoing chapter in a history which Elvis' music set in motion.” No song displays Elvis Presley’s skill and artistry more than “Tomorrow Never Comes.” The song begins with the tender touch of a ballad, but within the first minute, the skilled balladeer seizes the song, the lyrics, the music, the tempo, and takes them for his own. As the song climaxes with a frantic plea of “Yeah, you tell me, you tell me you love me, yeah, baby,” it’s as if Elvis is singing into the abyss. This is a performance of genius, desperation, kindness.

But given all this, I ask myself: Is sound always more authentic than image? I tell myself it is, that sound doesn’t lie because it’s so difficult to create (and recreate), but we can’t forget that the recording studio itself—all the wires and mixing boards and padded rooms—likely encourages a certain performance. Is this self, the willingly recorded self, more authentic than the self that is willingly made into an image? I’m not so sure. But I am sure that the willingly recorded self is far more authentic than the images of a self made without permission. Perhaps Elvis is implicated, along with the audience, in the creation of himself as an icon (or is his image a false idol?). After all, it is Elvis acting in those films, smiling boyishly in those early television appearances, and using his body—how obscene!—to hold our ears hostage. And it is we, the audience, who worship the body of the man, who reach out with an unquenchable desire to touch, touch, touch. When, in contemporary popular culture, has there been a single body more desired, more leveraged for profit and gain? Certainly Elvis contributed to his own iconography; this is true even if his contribution was consent. But I wonder, does the icon give perpetual license to his image, to the making of his image, or to the interpretation of his image?

To all? To neither?

Thinking deeply about the combined sounds and images of Elvis leads me to the concept of duende. In Edward Hirsch’s book on the subject, The Demon and the Angel, he writes, “The duende, then, is a vehicle for surpassing the ego, the rational or day mind. It gives us access to another force within us, the deep or night mind” (94). Hirsch is attempting to describe how an artist (in this case, a poet) can transcend their ego to reach a heightened state of creation, a kind of demonism. His assertion is that the rising of the duende kills the ego. In other words, the greatest artists reach a state of death when they are at the height of their powers. If we reduce the scope of excellence to a simple number, I’d wager that Elvis Presley reached a state of duende, or touched the duende, more times than any other musician I’ve ever heard. What I’m saying then is that Elvis Presley—before his death—may have died a thousand deaths. Or ten thousand. And all this in the service of artistry.

Elvis Presley: The Searcher also discusses the complicated relationship Elvis had with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Of all the interpretations possible, the film leads me to think that Elvis’s image, his sounds, and his artistry were co-opted—for a time, at least—by a snide purveyor of ‘merchandise.’ It’s true, though, that Elvis may not have reached the level of icon without this man’s business sense and help (if we can call it that). What is that saying? One hand washes the other, I think it is. Still, part of me wishes Elvis Presley had said something uncouth to the Colonel now and again: I wish Elvis had grabbed his crotch, squeezed, and said, “I got your merchandise right here, buddy.” But then again, someone might have captured that on film.

And then where would we be?

 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. The Demon and the Angel. New York, San Diego, London: Harcourt, 2002. Print.

“Elvis Presley: Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old).” Rolling Stone, 4 March 1971, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/elvis-country-im-10-000-years-old-19710304

Elvis Presley: The Searcher. Directed by Thom Zimny, Home Box Office (HBO), 2018.

Elvis: ’68 Comeback (Special Edition). Directed by Steve Binder, NBC, 1968.

Presley, Elvis. Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), RCA, 1971. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/5nFIESxbIeBxoREzNMzzbN

Presley, Elvis. Elvis Presley, RCA Victor, 1956. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/7GXP5OhYyPVLmcVfO9Iqin