Election Night 2016: A Playlist

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Fortunate Son

 

Jamila Woods – Blk Girl Soldier 

 

Muse – Uprising

 

Jidenna – Long Live the Chief

 

Jackson Browne – Which Side?

 

Anti-Flag – Underground Network

 

2Pac – Letter to the President

 

Ani DiFranco – Hello Birmingham

 

Sam Cooke – A Change is Gonna Come

 

Rage Against the Machine – Sleep Now in the Fire

 

John Lennon – Power to the People

 

John Lennon – Imagine

Inside Llewyn Davis: Think Twice (It’s Not All Right)

by Miller Francis

I sat in the theater as Inside Llewyn Davis began, feeling that familiar ecstasy of great film anticipation, assuming I would soon take my place among those singing the praises for Joel and Ethan Coen’s “love letter to the Greenwich Village folksong music scene”. As a contemporary of that era, I lived through those times, and like so many was inspired by those who began to break with 1950s Eisenhower-era conformity, its Mad Men values based on cut-throat competition, by the musicians and audiences who searched for authenticity, integrity and community in immortal songs drawn from the lives of the dispossessed.

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I had been transformed by the music, buying most of the major albums of the period, and seeking out documentaries that have kept that music alive right up to the present day. I had read many of the memoirs and autobiographies of key artists of that time, most especially Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Suzie Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time and David Hadju’s Positively Fourth Street. I made an effort to go back and pick up on artists and events I missed at the time, going far beyond nostalgia to discover another, darker dimension to the folk scene in Bob Coltman’s amazing bio, Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival. To my shock, I also found that the best, most compelling singer of all, next to Bob Dylan himself, had been completely unknown to me–the awesome and tragic Karen Dalton.

As for the Coen brothers’ body of work, I consider several of their films among my favorites (The Big Lebowski to name just one). I’ll never forget how my jaw dropped when those goofy fugitives in O Brother Where Art Thou entered a radio station and began to perform “Man of Constant Sorrow”, setting a new standard for a film’s use of, and respect for, what is often referred to as roots music or Americana. T-Bone Burnett had been unleashed to work all his magic, and O Brother –film, soundtrack and concerts–deserved all its accolades and popular success.

Oh, and I’m a lifelong cat person.

Little did I know that all my background, experience and love for cats would merely set me up for one colossal bummer when I finally saw Inside Llewyn Davis. Rather than a fond love letter, what I saw unfold on the screen was more like a cruel letter of foreclosure, written with a pen dipped in poison.

Generally, the film did look something like films and photographs I’d seen of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Bruno Delmonel’s cinematography was impressive, and the production design paid a lot of attention to key details. At first, it looked right, but something was off. All the color was drained out, leaving mainly somber grays and browns. I was familiar with the Coen brothers’ claim that the look of their film came from the iconic photograph of Bob Dylan and Suzie Rotolo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a photo that had been deeply embedded in my mind since the day a friend put Dylan’s newly released record on the turntable, eager to see my reaction. But what that photo expressed at the time was the spirit of hope, joy and human resilience, blooming out of the deepest winter.

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My friend Dave Zeiger, who was known to pick up a guitar and sing before he became a filmmaker, wrote me, “I personally have spent hours in my life gazing at that photo, drinking in the sense of youth, abandon, and the promise of adventure embodied in Dylan and Rotolo. Let New York be as cold and dank as it wants, WE’RE here, and the world had better watch out.” The only thing the Coen Brothers used was the frozen snow and bitter temperature. In a L.A. Times interview, Ethan was challenged about his use of the word “oppressive” re this photo. “There is something romantic about it,” he replied, “but it’s also hard New York. They’re not walking down the beach in Maui. They look cold.”

Same with the characters. Even those who demonstrated acts of kindness were mocked and ridiculed, particularly for their kindness. Most of the people who inhabited Llewyn Davis’ world seemed cold and mean-spirited, crude caricatures and composites of real people. As for Llewyn Davis, he was, to put it mildly, a total asshole, expressing contempt for every aspect of the very folk scene in which he aspired to achieve success.

First and most important, while Llewyn Davis was, you could say, having a bad week, I never felt that he was particularly “unlucky” or that his bad run of events were exclusive to him. I learned that his singing partner, with whom he had recorded an album, had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, but Davis’ reaction  to that event seemed curiously flat. I reacted strongly to the film’s misrepresentation that Davis was the only down-and-out musician in the scene who had to struggle to survive. I knew enough to know that life wasn’t a bed of roses even for those who managed to achieve some measure of success. Even musicians like Paul Clayton whose albums did sell fairly well, was pretty much on a level not that far above poverty, but they were part of a supportive community united by their love of their music. But in the film, it’s only Davis, the only non-phony, who is kicked out of this Garden of Eden of aspiring, comfortably well off “whitebread” folksingers. Despite how Davis treats those in his circle, they are amazingly tolerant and forgiving. They provide him with places to stay, food to eat, and gigs to play. He, on the other hand, treats each of them with contempt, and so does the film.

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Women in particular come in for major abuse. Jean (Carey Mulligan) is portrayed as adorable on stage but a foul-mouthed “bitch” to Davis, demanding that he pay for an abortion. She can’t stand the possibility that he may be the father of her child, rather than her official lover Jim (Justin Timberlake). Late in the film, when a club owner claims to have “fucked” Jean, we learn along with Llewyn Davis, that the odds of his paternity have just shrunk by a third. He has been used once again. I didn’t believe for one minute the epithet-laced diatribe that Jean throws at Davis. Like so much in this film, it came across as part of a manipulative set-up to demonize her and contribute to a false picture of Llewyn Davis’ victimization by others. Similar criticisms apply to Davis’ hypocritical interaction with his sister, and his reaction when the Gorfeins, folk music enthusiasts who have allowed him to crash in their apartment, ask him to sing for their friends. “I’m not a trained poodle,” he snarls. Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) replies, “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul.” The film wants us to see her and her sentiment as ridiculous. Later, he cruelly berates her for singing his dead partner’s harmony part.

Two scenes almost caused me to walk out of the theater. In the first, Davis sings a song for his senile father in a nursing home. Some have described this scene as “moving” and “emotional”. Did they ignore how it concludes? With a cruel joke at the father’s expense, reducing his invalid condition to yet another “unlucky” inconvenience for his son. It is only in the world of Inside Llewyn Davis that a jerk like Davis could be considered the “victim” in such a situation.

The second scene was even harder to take. After yet another misogynist joke about the club owner’s requirement of sexual favors by women who perform on his stage, Davis launches into a truly vicious, mid-performance tirade at Elizabeth Hobby (Nancy Blake) modeled apparently on Appalachian mountain singer Jean Ritchie, complete with autoharp. Davis disrupts her performance, loudly curses, calls Hobby “Betty”, declares “I hate fucking folk music!” and continues to verbally abuse Hobby (as well as an Irish singing group modeled on the Clancy Brothers) to a line of fans waiting to get inside the club. How do those who see Davis as an apostle of folk music authenticity, punished for his musical integrity and refusal to “compromise” tradition in the face of rampant commercialism, view this scene? The Elizabeth Hobby/Jean Ritchie character is the antithesis of other film targets like Peter, Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, etc. She is about as authentic and genuinely traditional as a folksinger can get. So why is her performance the event that finally unleashes the full venom of Llewyn Davis?

Throughout the film I looked in vain for some clue, some backstory to the Llewyn Davis character. What are his motivations? If, as the Coen brothers argue, Davis is incurably “self-destructive”, why is that? To put it simply, why is he such an asshole? He does what he does simply because that’s what’s written in the script. He’s not so much a complex, multi-dimensional character, just someone who appears in each of the film’s episodes. This is no Odyssey.

After I saw the film, I trolled through countless reviews, all of them expressing almost unlimited praise for Inside Llewyn Davis. Most saw it through the stereotypical filter of Authenticity/Integrity vs Commercialism, painting Llewyn Davis as a suffering, “uncompromising” proponent of genuine folk music crushed by a wave of commercialized whitebread Folk Lite represented by the other musicians depicted–Jim and Jean), along with a silly cartoon of Tom Paxton called Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), and an absurd parody of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Al Cody (Adam Driver). Most reviewers saw the somewhat bland, if technically well performed songs sung by Oscar Isaac as amazingly different from the equally well performed songs by other characters. They seemed to share the befuddled look on Llewyn Davis’ face as he checks out the audience in a folk club, astonished by the wave of affection unleashed by a frankly beautiful performance of “500  Miles” by his friends.

I soon had to conclude that the writers of these reviews had seen a completely different film, and began to wonder if they had possibly projected a film they wanted (needed?) to see onto actual images that in fact depicted the exact opposite. I read descriptions of scenes that were nowhere in the film, or interpretations of scenes and characters that had no basis whatsoever in the assembled images. One of the most desperate attempts to read some motivation into that script came from a few critics who swear up and down that Davis is suffering from prolonged mourning for his suicidal singing partner. I defy anyone to find one scene, or frame, in this film that supports that view. What’s actually on the screen rather suggests his partner’s suicide derived from being treated like shit by Llewyn Davis.

As Inside Llewyn Davis opened in more theaters, a slight awareness of the film’s problems began to surface. A Time magazine review used the provocative title “Folk You”. The New Yorker pointed out some obvious fault lines. Here and there questions were raised about the sour tone of the film, embodied mainly in its protagonist but also permeating the entire film. As more audiences began to take a closer look at the character of Llewyn Davis, the word “asshole” started popping up as the word of choice. Interestingly enough, new articles and promotion stressed how sympathetic the Davis character remains, despite his repellent behavior. This first wave of partially critical reviews focused mainly on the realization that Llewyn Davis was decidedly NOT Dave Van Ronk, noting the discrepancy between details from the world brought to life in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and the world depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis. Interestingly enough, the Coen Brothers were quoted as being amused, almost contemptuous at anyone who could possibly get the idea that their film was about Dave Van Ronk.

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Let’s get this straight. The filmmakers declare from the git that their inspiration was The Mayor of MacDougal Street. All the events in their main character’s life are drawn from Van Ronk’s life. Llewyn Davis’ album cover is a direct copy of Inside Dave Van Ronk, from which comes the very title of the film. They have Davis sing songs made famous by Van Ronk. Then, they ask smugly, how could anyone possibly think our film is about Dave Van Ronk?

The key discrepancy, which became clear when I finally sat down to read The Mayor of MacDougal Street for myself, was the fact that Llewyn Davis is in fact the anti-Dave Van Ronk, a bitter opponent of everything Van Ronk stood for throughout his artistic life–his values, the example he set for young musicians, his art as a singer/guitarist, his role in the real-life folk song revival in the 1960s. And it wasn’t just a contrast with the memoir edited and assembled by Elijah Wald. It was the other books and memoirs, most important, Bob Dylan’s own Chronicles, absolutely free of revenge, vitriol and gossip, and this from the man who wrote “Positively Fourth Street” (probably with good reason!). I should have smelled a rat from a frequent comment by the Coen brothers, different versions of which popped up in interviews: (Ethan) “Joel just suggested in the office one day. It was a long time ago, before the Van Ronk book came out. We were sitting around the office, and he just suggested, ‘OK, a movie starts with Dave Van Ronk getting beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City in 1961.’” (Dec. 6 interview with Steve Pond)

Van-Ronk

Still, the critical pedestal on which Inside Llewyn Davis had initially been placed remained solid. To put it mildly, critics seemed mesmerized by what the Cohen brothers had accomplished. A. O. Scott, who went on to declare Inside Llewyn Davis the best film of 2013, declined to speculate fully on what the film might mean, warning against “easy distinctions between sincerity and cynicism, the authentic and the artificial”. Then he shared with his readers this extraordinary conclusion: “But at least one of its lessons seems to me, after several viewings, as clear and bright as a G major chord. We are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self-deluding. But somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition — our songs and stories and moving pictures, old and new — manage to be beautiful, even sublime.” With this sleight of hand, the central contradiction of Inside Llewyn Davis–its misanthropic “cosmic joke” point of view vs. the life-affirming music and culture of its setting–was transformed from the film’s major flaw into its greatest achievement. And more than that, a “lesson” to be taught.

While up to this point Inside Llewyn Davis seemed like a sure thing, its brilliance unquestioned, with numerous awards to follow, a stubborn vein of discomfort with the film throbbed uncomfortably below the surface. One New York Times reader commenting on A. O. Scott’s review, expressed the dilemma faced by dissenters from the film’s acclaim: “Was I missing something? So, after taking a brief, unscientific poll of top critics, I noticed that, according to them, the brilliance of Inside Llewyn Davis is rooted in all the subtext, hidden meanings, metaphor and allegory that are sprinkled throughout the film—all you have to do is properly seek them out and intelligently interpret them. Well, there you go. I made the mistake of just watching the movie.”

Then something happened that changed everything. Terri Thal, Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife, put her reactions to the film into an article printed in The Village Voice. She was remarkably candid, while at the same time quite diplomatic and generous.

After making it clear that she was not involved in the film’s production and had had no contact with the filmmakers, she said what I and so many others were thinking: “I knew it wasn’t supposed to be about David but used some of his memoir as background and his music as a theme. But I didn’t expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s. . . the movie doesn’t show those days, those people, that world.” She finds a few things to praise, but is not shy in detailing numerous examples of the film’s misfires and outright fabrications, including the film’s cavalier treatment of abortion, which at the time of the film was illegal.

But it’s her criticism of the way the film depicts the folk scene of that era that hits the mark: “In the 1950s and ’60s, there were other folk-music scenes. The old-timey musicians; the bluegrass people; the people around Alan Block’s sandal shop; the people the real Jim and Jean hung out with. There was some interaction, but even if the people in those groups didn’t see each other daily or weekly, there was goodwill. No one would know that from Inside Llewyn Davis. . . In the movie, no one is nice. There are hints of friendliness in the Tom Paxton character and in Jim, who gets Davis some studio backup work (which didn’t exist for folk musicians at that time). Everyone is somewhat dumb and somewhat mean. There’s no suggestion that these people love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period. . . Musicians supported each other. David and I had hordes of people in our apartment several times a week, many of them folksingers, many of them uninvited drop-ins who always were welcomed. I cooked; we talked politics; the musicians played. They introduced new songs and arrangements and often jammed. We had fun.”

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Perhaps Thal’s sharpest criticism concerns the character of Llewyn Davis and his talent as a singer/guitarist: “The inept Llewyn Davis arranged some of those songs? Sang them as well as Oscar Isaacs does? I don’t believe it. That schmuck couldn’t make that music.” Reading this, I wondered if my own critique of the film had not gone far enough.

In words that now sound prophetic, Dave Van Ronk himself criticized recent depictions of the folksong revival that had begun to appear:

“Most of the books that have been written about this period do not really capture the feel of it, at least in part because many of the people who were involved are not able to talk about it honestly.  A lot of them are bitter because they have not done as well as they hoped to do, for one reason or another, and they they look back at the people who did better and think, ‘That should have been my success. I was robbed, I was cheated.’ So they talk about how much was stolen from them, how they were screwed, how all their friends fucked them and turned their backs on them. But all of that is after the fact. Nobody except a handful of real paranoids felt that way at the time.

“Back then, we weren’t all clawing over each other’s bodies, trying to fight our way to the top. Mostly we were having the time of our lives. We were hanging out with our friends, playing music, and sitting around at all-night poker sessions upstairs from the Gaslight. Win, lose or draw, there was something absolutely ridiculous happening, and we were laughing all the time–when we weren’t fighting or brooding drunkenly. It was very mercurial.”

With Thal’s reactions to the film out there in the mix, I felt certain that the genie was out of the bottle. Since Thal’s clear-minded dissent appeared, more viewers, including musicians who are concerned to one degree or another by Inside Llewyn Davis‘ dark vision, began to speak up. A New York Times article by Melena Ryzik quoted Suzanne Vega: “If the scene had been as brown and sad as all that, why would anybody be drawn to it? Dylan would have gone somewhere else. We all would have. Someplace with some energy.” Singer-songwriter Christine Lavin spoke for a growing minority when she eloquently declared “I HATE THIS FILM” (her caps).

Inside Llewyn Davis uses Bob Dylan as a mostly unseen presence who only appears at the very end of the film, singing inside the club while Davis gets his comeuppance from Elizabeth Hobby’s husband in the alley out back. This, we are to believe, is the ultimate “unlucky” coincidence for Llewyn Davis.

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But this reduces Dylan’s transformative impact on the music scene to the narrow aspect of “success”. In fact, Dylan would not only soak up everything he could from the musical traditions of the past but go on to transform all he had absorbed into the creation of new music for a new era. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of the scene he walked into and eventually bid farewell, most notably its purist insistence on acoustic instruments and topical songs. At some point, preservation must give way to creation and transformation. But just as the Coen brothers’ film doesn’t deal with the political context of the folksong scene, it doesn’t (can’t) deal with even part of its at times sharp musical contradictions.

I suspect that the original conception for the film was based on a character who sang in an unorthodox, less popular style, just as Dave Van Ronk did, with a voice more rough and challenging than some of the smoother instruments of the other young traditionalists. The music that T-Bone Burnett gave Oscar Isaac to listen to in preparation for his role was that of Tom Waits. But Isaac doesn’t have a Tom Waits/Dave Van Ronk-type voice. The Coen brothers apparently decided to go with what they had, without altering their script, a possible fatal undercutting of what they originally set out to do. It’s interesting that when you listen to the soundtrack curated by T-Bone Burnett and Mark Mumford, which has been central to the robust promotion of the film, most of what you hear, while beautifully performed, is still somewhat bland, especially to those expecting another O Brother Where Art Thou. What really jumps out at you, apart from Dylan’s rough hewn “Farewell”, is the single song included by the real Dave Van Ronk, “Green Green Rocky Road.” It positively leaps out of the speakers with its power.

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Some might argue that whatever the merits of the film, at least Inside Llewyn Davis will draw more people to the scene it depicts, spreading the music to a wider audience. That’s certainly true, especially where Dave Van Ronk is concerned. But it’s a mixed blessing. There are some pretty unfortunate strings attached. Terri Thal writes, “The Coens say they hope to create a revival of the music through the movie. A revival of traditional music is already under way. But I can’t see the depressing world shown in this movie attracting people to it.”

After a major publicity campaign for Inside Llewyn Davis centered on its music and beating a very loud drum for its widespread critical acclaim, judging from its surprising, almost complete shutout from awards by both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, it appears that the wheels might have come off this misbegotten project. When all is said and done, Joel and Ethan Cohen made the film they wanted to make, a nasty “cosmic joke” set in Greenwich Village in 1961. Clearly there is an audience that finds some kind of pleasure in their reverse Disneyland of misanthropy and random misfortune. But to many of its viewers, Inside Llewyn Davis is a tale told by “King Midas’ idiot brothers” (to borrow their own words), full of music, yes, but also cruelty and falsehood, signifying nothing.

 

Guest writer Miller Francis wrote music and film articles in the 1960s/70s for the Atlanta underground newspaper The Great Speckled Bird. From 1982-1996 he hosted a radio show, “Revolution Rock: By All Music Necessary” on WRFG Atlanta. His novel, If Heaven’s Not My Home, is now under consideration by a publisher. He can be reached via e-mail: millerfrancis44@gmail.com

Twerking for the Man: Fallout from the 2013 VMAs

During this year’s wild Video Music Awards on MTV, there was a brief interlude about a third of the way through the broadcast where comedian Kevin Hart talked about the show’s performances up to that point. His main contribution to the show was his surprise that Lady Gaga had such a big ass. He commented that he had been checking it out during Gaga’s show opening performance, which featured the performer going through multiple costume changes on stage, ultimately ending up in just a tiny thong and a seashell bra. As if that weren’t bad enough, Hart then went on to discuss the most controversial performance of the night: Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s rendition of Blurred Lines.

Though he was going for humorous effect, Hart stumbled onto a serious element of truth with his analysis of the duet. He said that Miley should probably get a pregnancy test after grinding on Thicke during the performance, and that other young girls should stay away from Thicke unless they want to end up on an Amber Alert. Given what had just transpired on stage, let alone the fact that women are still kidnapped, raped, and killed by men at a horrific rate, it definitely wasn’t funny.

But even though Hart’s critique of the performance was crude and inappropriate, at least he found the right target, Robin Thicke, unlike the mainstream media and social media universe. Following Cyrus’ performance, in which she brought “twerking” fully into the mainstream, Twitter exploded into a frenzy, setting a record for the most tweets per minute on a given subject at over 300,000, which is even more than the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, most of the Tweets and Facebook posts, as well as the reaction from the mainstream media focused almost exclusively on Cyrus. There was lots of “What was Miley thinking?” and “Should your daughter be watching Miley Cyrus?”, plus all sorts of extremely derogatory name-calling through social media.

Granted, while it is unfortunate that Miley Cyrus bought into this performance and allowed herself to be brought down to such a low level, the truly awful aspect of it was the way it illuminated the double standard women face under this system. Almost none of the negative reaction went toward Robin Thicke and the performance of his extremely misogynistic song “Blurred Lines,” a song that is all about pressuring women into sex. The chorus “you know you want it” (which is often the last thing a woman hears before she gets raped) repeats over and over. The song’s music video features topless women prancing around for men’s amusement, and during the VMAs Miley Cyrus essentially played that role. She stripped down into a skimpy two-piece outfit and twerked and grinded in front of Thicke.

It’s extremely telling that in our society a man can sing a song with lyrics that compare women to dogs and promotes a misinterpretation of “liberation” in order to pressure women into giving over their bodies for a man’s pleasure, and then when a woman actually does exactly what the man wants, strips down and dances and grinds for his pleasure, she’s instantly labeled a “bitch” or a “slut” or a “whore.” Meanwhile, the man who pressures women into a subservient, objectified role and benefits from the kind of behavior that Cyrus demonstrated doesn’t get criticized at all. It’s the male privilege under this system to exploit women sexually and skate away clean, while women must endure and defend themselves against the backlash that results from daring to be openly sexual. The Cyrus/Thicke performance has perfectly demonstrated the double-standard women face on a daily basis.

Again, it’s unfortunate that Cyrus participated in a performance that reduced her to nothing more than a sex object for a man’s pleasure, but to be clear, the villain here is the patriarchal system of male privilege that allows men to encourage the objectification and the exploitation of women, and then turns around and viciously attacks women who actually conform to those demands. “Don’t be such a prude,” followed by, “You’re such a filthy slut!” Under this system women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Miley Cyrus was damned because she did, taking all the backlash that should have been aimed at Robin Thicke.

However, while the 2013 VMAs will forever bare the black-eye of the Cyrus/Thicke performance which was controversial for all the wrong reasons, there were some positive moments from the broadcast.

Justin Timberlake cemented his status as the coolest human being alive with an epic greatest hits performance that featured a brief reunion with his boy-band N*Sync. Taylor Swift’s fantastic video for “I Knew You Were Trouble” won the award for Best Female Video, and Jason Collins, the first active athlete in a team sport to come out as gay, introduced a great performance of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s song “Same Love” which puts forward a powerful pro-gay message. And the show ended on a strong note with Katy Perry performing her hit “Roar” for the very first time.

It’s interesting to contrast Miley’s performance with Katy Perry’s. Cyrus is a huge star in her own right. She developed a massive following while performing as Disney’s Hannah Montana, and she successfully transitioned into a career under her own name. She is one of the wealthiest young people in the world with a media empire dwarfing that of her father’s, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. And yet, all that wealth, power, and industry clout was meaningless on stage during the VMAs. Instead of taking her career to even new heights and solidifying herself as a powerful female mega-star, she took a back seat to the up and coming misogynist Robin Thicke. It was a degrading performance that in one stroke showed how good it is to be a man under this system, and how difficult and complicated it is to be a women.

Perry’s performance on the other hand was much closer to what Miley’s should have been. She was sexy without objectifying herself, dressed up as a boxer, and in an extremely well choreographed performance lit up the night under the Brooklyn Bridge with a display of raw female athleticism, power, and talent. She didn’t take a back seat to any man or play the part of the slut, she sang a good pop song on her own terms and ended a controversial award show on a generally positive note.

Milton Friedman Baby! Empire State of Mind

Reprinted from CounterPunch
by ROBIN D.G. KELLEY | August 16, 2013 | CounterPunch

“half of y’all won’t make it”

–Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”

In the face of creeping disfranchisement, unbridled corporate power, growing poverty, an expanding police state, 2.3 million people in cages, vigilantes and cops taking our children’s lives, a presidential policy of assassination-by-drone, global environmental disaster, attacks on reproductive rights, a war on trade unions, a tidal wave of foreclosures, and entrenched racism camouflaged beneath a post-racial myth, why do we care if Harry Belafonte and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter have “beef”?  Do social movements need Mr. Carter’s money or power or influence?  Is justice a matter of charity or wealth?  So what if Carter believes—as he retorted in response to Belafonte’s skewering of navel-gazing black celebrities—“my presence is charity”?

Let me say at the outset that I am not interested in spats between celebrities or on expending precious energy on conflict-resolution for the Negro one-percent.   Anyone familiar with the dictionary definition of “charity” will find the statement ridiculous, just as anyone familiar with Jay-Z’s philanthropic work will wonder why he would say such a thing.  He has been a high-profile giver: he and his mother started the John Carter Foundation ten years ago to help fund college-bound at-risk youth; he tossed a million dollars into the Red Cross’s coffers after Hurricane Katrina; he is a partner in the Global Citizen Tickets Initiative—the brainchild of the Global Poverty Project meant to hip pop music fans to world poverty and compel them to act (via sharing on social media, writing elected officials, donating money) while dropping big bucks on concert tickets.  And there was “The Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life,” the 2006 MTV documentary that raised awareness of Africa’s water crisis.  Carter met with policy makers, advocates, and poor, water-starved families in Angola and South Africa, and committed to building 1,000 clean water pumps in Africa.  Two years later, the United Nations honored his work with a special humanitarian award.

Does this mean Belafonte was wrong?  Or Jay misspoke?  Or that we need to place ‘Hova’s’ philanthropy and activism on a ledger against Bruce Springsteen’s, the celebrity Belafonte deemed more socially responsible?  What does any of this do to advance a truly progressive agenda?

Focusing on the personal obscures what is really at stake: ideas, ideology, the nature of change, the realities of power, and the evisceration of our critical faculties under the veil of corporate celebrity culture.  I use corporate here not as an epithet but as an expression of the structural dimensions of how celebrity is made and its ideological function.  Celebrities endorse products; like any commodity, they have become “brands.”  They may say and do very nice, uplifting, philanthropic things, but rarely do celebrities stand against the policies and ideas of neoliberalism and U. S. Empire.   More often than not, they embody the ideology of neoliberalism (valuing wealth, free markets, privatization over human needs) and Empire (U.S. military and economic dominance over the world).

Words and deeds of high-profile individuals do matter, but too often we pay attention to the wrong words and the wrong deeds.  Returning to Mr. Carter’s reply, it is what he says immediately after his charity line that should concern us.  Applying his claim—that greatness alone is in-and-of itself a magnanimous gift—to the President, he adds: “Whether [Obama] does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough.  Just being who he is.  You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone.”

That Mr. Carter believes this is less important than the fact that his “brand” promotes it, and I’d venture to say that most African-Americans fundamentally accept its logic.  The mere fact that Obama is the first black president, so the argument goes, should grant him immunity from criticism.  The relentless attacks on Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, and others for their relentless critique of the Obama administration conform to this logic.  Rather than address their specific criticisms on their own terms, detractors dismiss West and Smiley by repeating the well-worn claim that they are motivated by personal slights or potential monetary gain, blame an intransigent right-wing Congress for Obama’s worst policies (foreign and domestic), respond to criticisms with a laundry list of accomplishments, or simply assert that critics of the president are “haters,” race traitors, who fail to appreciate the historic significance of a black man in the White House.

The idea that the President transcends all worldly criticism corresponds with a different sort of “Empire State of Mind.”   Empires dating back to Egypt, Rome, Ancient China and Japan have depended on an “imperial cult,” the notion that an emperor is to be worshipped as a messiah or a demigod.  Even modern empires, like the U.S., often fall back on hero worship, adoration of strength and might over the rule of law and justice.  This is why cops and soldiers are “heroes” and dissenters and the civil disobedient are troublemakers or enemies of the state. The cult of Obama has the added dimension of being the tale of a singular black man overcoming historic obstacles, breaking the color line and achieving the highest office in the land.  Such representation masks the fact that it wasn’t his achievements but our achievements, our tireless mobilization on his behalf, the work of nameless millions who elected him to office to serve the people.  We have an obligation in a democracy to hold government accountable to the rule of law (that includes international law) and to protect the interests of the whole of the people.

And what about deeds?  I find it remarkable that Jay-Z’s four little words could set off global outrage, but revelations that Rocawear, the Hip Hop apparel company he co-founded with producer Damon Dash, employed sweatshop labor barely registered a blip in the black blogosphere.  Ten years ago, anti-sweatshop activists revealed that Rocawear, along with Sean Combs’s “Sean John” label, contracted with Southeast Textiles International S. A. (SETISA) in Choloma, Honduras, to manufacture their very expensive clothing lines.  SETISA sewers earned between 75 and 98 cents an hour, worked 11 to 12 hour shifts with no overtime, and had excessive production goals (T-shirt makers, for example, had to complete a little over 18 shirts per hour, and they could not leave until they met their quota).  Talking was prohibited.  Permission from a supervisor was required for bathroom breaks.  Drinking water (found to be contaminated with fecal matter) was rationed.  All employees were subjected to body searches, and female employees were required to take pregnancy tests.  Those who attempted to unionize were fired.   After refuting reports, Combs was ultimately pressured into making some improvements in factory conditions, but Carter had little to say and never issued a public apology.  In 2007, Carter sold the rights to Rocawear to Iconix Brand Group for the princely sum of $204 million, while retaining his stake in the company and overseeing marketing, licensing, and product development.

If we praise celebrities for wealth accumulation, then Rocawear is an unmitigated success.  Jay-Z has done what most successful entrepreneurs do in the age of neoliberalism—seized upon the massively oppressive labor conditions produced by free trade policies, the creation of U.S.-backed free trade zones, deregulation, and the weakening of international labor standards.

And why not?   Capitalists want to “live life colossal.”  Milton Friedman Baby!  Then again, who wants to tweet that their favorite celebrity made millions off of sweated labor, thereby perpetuating global poverty?   Knowing fans tend to look the other way; the vast majority of acolytes are kept blissfully ignorant by the corporate image machine.

Enter MTV and the release of “The Diary of Jay-Z: Water For Life,” following on the heels of Rocawear’s sweatshop revelations.  I doubt it was a cynical ploy to defuse the controversy, mainly because for the Jay-Z consumer there was no controversy.  His brand escaped pretty much unscathed.  And yet, while Carter’s concern for the 1.2 billion people without access to clean water is genuine, the film’s explanation of the crisis is problematic.   “Water for Life” blames civil war and the disruptions of military violence, urbanization, and poverty, and suggests that philanthropy and visionary entrepreneurs can solve the problem by providing clean water pumps and digging wells.  How so many Africans became “poor” in the first place, the legacy of colonialism, not to mention water privatization, don’t really figure in the story.   When asked about privatization at a U.N. press conference upon the film’s release, Carter appeared oblivious: “that’s just bureaucracy, I don’t have any expertise in that.”  He didn’t know if water was being privatized, but he did notice that in the houses he visited, the families “paid fifty cents a bucket for [water].”  He then went on to praise his long-time sponsor Coca-Cola for providing money for play pumps in Southern Africa (small manual merry-go-rounds that pump water as children play).  At the time, Coke was targeted by protesters in India and Colombia for depleting scarce local water sources for its bottling plants, and releasing toxic waste water into the ground, damaging farm land and leaving residents with a variety of skin and stomach ailments.

To be clear, I am in no way criticizing Shawn Carter for lacking a sophisticated critique of the ravages of privatization.  To expect as much is unfair, unrealistic, and beside the point.  Most Americans share his view; neoliberal logic normalizing Empire and its exploitative practices is today’s common sense.  However, it is the use of his brand to sell this new common sense, to promote corporate interests and obscure the real sources of inequality, that matter.

Alicia Keys – Home Wrecker?

Ironically, it has been the Alicia Keys brand–the angelic half of the Empire State duo—that has shown a particularly egregious disregard for human rights.  On July 4th of this year, Keys performed in Tel Aviv, Israel, in spite of urgent pleas by Palestinian and Israeli activists, human rights advocates, and nearly 16,000 petitioners from around the world, to respect the global boycott of Israel for its illegal occupation of the West Bank and apartheid policies toward Palestinians.  Personal appeals from writer Alice Walker and Archbishop Desmond Tutu did nothing to dissuade Keys or her handlers from accepting the invitation.  In response, she issued the following statement: “I look forward to my first visit to Israel. Music is a universal language that is meant to unify audiences in peace and love, and that is the spirit of our show.”

The statement is as ridiculous and ingenuous as “My presence is charity.”  How can music unify an audience when policies of occupation and apartheid exclude the vast majority of Palestinians?  What good are homilies about love and peace in a land where Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are prohibited from even entering Israel, contained by a massive concrete wall, economically starved, and living under military occupation?  Where thousands of Palestinians are locked away in Israeli prisons—including hundreds of minors convicted of throwing rocks at tanks and well-armed soldiers and settlers?  Where Israel continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank, displacing Palestinians, demolishing their homes, uprooting their olive trees—all in violation of international law.  Where, on more than one occasion, Palestinian mothers were forced to give birth on the side of the road or watch their severely ill children die in their arms for want of emergency care because they were held up at an Israeli checkpoint.  Where the apartheid wall has turned a fifteen-minute walk to school into a two-hour ordeal for thousands of young children.   For young Palestinians living in Israel who are not incarcerated, few could afford the $62.00 ticket to hear Keys.  Nearly half of all Palestinians in Israel live in poverty.  Most are legally excluded from residing in non-Arab communities based on their “social unsuitability,” attend severely underfunded schools, and are denied government employment.

The point of the non-violent global boycott, of course, is to apply economic pressure on Israel to change these policies: to end the occupation, dismantle the “apartheid” wall which violates international law; recognize the fundamental rights of all Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel and other non-Jews for full equality, and grant the right to return, as stipulated by United Nations resolution 194.  The boycott is an act of tough love to achieve justice through peaceful means.  Alicia Keys’ concert, on the other hand, served to legitimize and normalize Israeli policies of violence, occupation, incarceration, segregation, and settlement.  Keys and her handlers knew this, as they were inundated with materials from organizations supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS)–including the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Boycott from Within.  Activists hoped that Keys’ role as lead supporter of “Keep a Child Alive,” an NGO dedicated to helping HIV-infected children in Africa and India, would make her more sensitive to the lives of Palestinian children.  The organization’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Twyman, and co-founder Leigh Blake received pages upon pages of material documenting the daily abuses of children at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers.

Rifat Kassis of Defence for Children International Palestine, and Shatha Odeh of the Health Work Committees, submitted a powerful letter appealing to Keys to cancel, outlining in devastating detail how the occupation and Israeli policies have affected Palestinian children.   They reveal that since 2003, some 8,000 Palestinian children as young as 12 have been arrested, interrogated (often without access to parents and legal counsel), and detained by the Israeli army and prosecuted in military courts—some held in solitary confinement.  (With a 98% conviction rate, it is no surprise that confessions obtained by coercion are rarely thrown out by military judges.)  They discuss how military checkpoints and the apartheid wall have become barriers to basic and emergency medical care.  And they point out that the blockade of Gaza “is the single greatest contributor to the endemic and long-lasting poverty, deterioration of health care, infant mortality, disease, chronic malnutrition and preventable deaths of children.  Palestinian children in Gaza lack access to clean water, health care and are scarred by repeated Israeli military offensives and the constant fear of impending attacks.”

Keys’s decision to perform was made not out of ignorance or an abiding love for Israel or a personal mission to jump-start the peace process.  It was about getting paid.  The Alicia Keys brand stood to lose financially and likely feared retaliation from pro-Zionist forces. Indeed, her decision to violate the boycott earned her kudos from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its allies, who in turn placed a flurry of publicity pieces praising her “courage” in the face of BDS “bullies.”  But as with Shawn Carter, I don’t blame Keys personally, nor do I question her humanitarian commitments.  Alicia Keys is a corporate entity driven by profits and propelled by shareholders (backers and fans).  Just as Jay-Z lovers ignored Rocawear’s callous use of sweated labor, Keys’s followers have quietly supported her Israel foray.  The sad truth is that 16,000 signatures is nothing against the Keys-AIPAC alliance, and most Americans see Palestine through the official lens of the Israeli government and U.S. policy.

Had Keys paid a visit to Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot by an Israeli soldier in Jalazoun refugee camp in the West Bank just six weeks prior to her concert, perhaps she might have changed her mind.  She would have met a small, bright-eyed boy paralyzed from the waist down with holes in his liver, lungs, pancreas and spleen, and angry parents resigned to the reality that their son will never see justice.  He was shot while attempting to retrieve his school bag.  What if she had driven to Southern Israel to the Naqab desert and met a few of the 40,000 Bedouin whom the government plans to forcibly remove from their ancestral homeland to make way for Jewish settlements?  And what if she decided to spend a few days in the West Bank after her Tel Aviv performance, meeting and playing for kids in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, touring the refugee camps, listening to their stories?  She might have been passing through Hebron on July 9th, the day Israeli soldiers detained five-year-old Wadi’ Maswadeh for allegedly throwing a stone at a settler’s car.  When Wadi’s father, Karam, complained about the arrest and treatment of his son, he was handcuffed and blindfolded and taken, along with his terrified, crying son, to the Palestinian Authority police.  They were both eventually released.

Keys never met Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah or Wadi’ Maswadeh or any of the Palestinian children growing up in a world of refugee camps, home demolitions, settler and military violence, displacement, economic deprivation, and educational policies designed to literally deny their existence.  The Keys brand could ill afford to expose their star to such “negativity,” lest she walk away from the machine.   But here is the real tragedy: the Keys machine was never compelled to apologize or even mildly acknowledge that something is rotten in the state of Israel.

The sad truth is that Keys’s romantic involvement with producer Swizz Beatz, apparently while he was still married, was considered infinitely more scandalous than playing Tel Aviv.  Twitter and Facebook and gossip columns were abuzz with accusations that Alicia Keys is a home wrecker.  By contrast, neither her fan base nor the Alicia Keys “haters” had much to say about the wrecking of Palestinian homes. (This year alone, Israel announced plans to build another 2,000+ settlement houses in the West Bank.)  Equally disheartening is the Black Entertainment Television (BET) poll that 59% of its on-line readers support Keys’s decision to violate the boycott.  Of course, it is likely that AIPAC operatives posing as BET on-line readers skewed the results, but not by much.  Most African-Americans simply don’t know a lot about Palestine, and many devout Christians among us tend to buy the argument that defending the State of Israel is tantamount to defending the Holy Land.  Few vocal critics of New York’s “stop and frisk” policy, for example, know that the Israeli military version of  “stop and frisk” in the West Bank means entering Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, forcing families out of bed, photographing all the boys and young men and taking their information.  These routine acts are not part of ongoing investigations or require probable cause, but an official policy of surveillance and intimidation.   Such outrageous policies should have generated some 1.6 million signatures rather than 16,000.

Let me repeat: I am not arguing that Jay-Z or Alicia Keys or any corporate mega-star is personally responsible for the kind of political and ethical blinders endemic to what has become a national corporate consciousness, an Empire State of Mind.  Corporate celebrities, or rather their brands, are merely the messengers.  The responsibility for shedding those blinders and developing an informed, global, ethical critique of materialism, militarism, exploitation and dispossession, rests with us.  The absence of a broad-based, progressive black movement has not only opened the floodgates for the spread of neoliberalism as the new common sense, but it has severely hampered the ability of too many African Americans to think critically and globally about oppression and inequality—though, to be sure, this problem is not unique to the black community.  Our romance with corporate celebrity culture merely fuels a persistent belief that the black one percent are our natural allies, our role models, our hope for the future.  Many of us embrace black millionaires and billionaires—the P-Diddy’s, Russell Simmons’s, Jay-Z’s, and Oprah’s of the world—as embodiments of “our” wealth, without ever questioning the source of their wealth, the limits of philanthropy, or the persistence of poverty among the remaining 99%.

In the end, the difference between, say, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, and Alice Walker and the Jay-Zs and Alicia Keys of the world is not generational.  It is not a simple-minded division between Old School Civil Rights and the Hip Hop Generation.  Before Belafonte, Glover, and Walker became “celebrities,” they were activists first.  They joined social movements and risked their bodies and futures before they even had careers.  And in this respect, they have more in common with Hip Hop artists/activists such as Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Rebel Diaz, Chuck D, Rosa Clemente, Immortal Technique, Twice Thou, Lupe Fiasco, Keny Arkana, and others. Their movement work was never about achieving wealth or success, but a commitment to fighting for a world where power rests with the people, not an oligarchy; a world where oppression, exploitation, dispossession, and caging of all people—irrespective of color, gender, nationality, sexual identity—is a thing of the past; a world where such corporate-backed philanthropy is unnecessary, and one need not buy high-priced concert tickets to fight oppression.

Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of  Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).

Kanye West Needs to Learn the Difference Between the Cry of Rebellion of the Slave (New or Old) and the Frustrated Rage of the Wannabe New Slave Master: OR WHY YOU CANNOT BREAK ALL THE CHAINS EXCEPT ONE

Reprinted from Revolution Newspaper

by Sunsara Taylor and Carl Dix | June 27, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us

In his new song, “New Slaves,” Kanye West evokes the seismic brutality and grinding oppression inflicted on Black people since they were first dragged to these shores in slave chains. He indicts the cradle-to-prison pipeline that steals the lives of Black youth and rails against the cold, hard reality that no matter what one accomplishes, if one is Black they will continue to face dehumanizing and even life-threatening racism. Through this song, he declares himself in open rebellion against a racist industry that seeks to neuter and profit off his artistic talents and a broader society which has, as an expression of this very racism, repeatedly written off or dismissed Kanye’s rants and anger as simply an outgrowth of “his oversized ego.”

But where does Kanye take this? Unfortunately, instead of the cry of rebellion of the slave (new or old) who wants to not only get out of this madness himself but fight for a world where no one is oppressed, exploited, and degraded in this way, Kanye rages at the ways this ongoing oppression keeps him from being able to fully integrate himself into, and assume his place at the top of, the modern-day slave system.

This is expressed not only in the way Kanye constantly boasts of obscene wealth and conspicuous consumption in a world where so many suffer so endlessly (including those whose modern-day slave labor has produced all that material wealth). Even more, this comes through in Kanye’s inability and/or unwillingness to envision a world that is not divided into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, those on top and those on bottom. Encased within these terms, Kanye ends up making a principle—even an anthem—of fighting to be on top. As he puts it crudely in the chorus of “New Slaves”: “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.”

Think about what this chorus is saying. That essentially this world is made up of two kinds of people. On the top are the “dicks,” i.e., “real men” who get off on fucking over others. On the bottom are the “swallowers,” i.e., women, as well as men who are being cast as women (the biggest insult that can be hurled at men today), who are viewed as nothing more than receptacles for some “dick’s” semen. Kanye doesn’t object to this dehumanizing division. Instead, he openly brags about and claims his place in it as a “dick.”

And look at what actually goes on in this world where the half of humanity that is born female are treated as “swallowers.”

Look at the way that women and girls are bombarded from a very young age—including by songs like this one—with the notion that their highest purpose in life is to be of sexual service to men. Look at the way men—trained in this same outlook from a very young age—routinely beat, rape, pimp, purchase, and otherwise insult and demean women on the street, in the homes, in the schools, in their relationships, and at workplaces. Look at the way women, if they actually have sex or even if they are sexually abused or raped, are considered “sluts” or “hos” and treated like soiled and unworthy garbage. Look at the millions of women and young girls throughout the world who are preyed upon and pimped out, drugged and beaten into submission, and sold as mere bodies to be violated and demeaned on the street or through the Internet. Look at the whole Christian fascist movement in this country that has assassinated abortion doctors and passed outrageous restrictions, all out of their desire to reduce women back to breeders of children and possessions of men. Look in the shelters and on the streets where poor and especially Black women have been evicted from public housing by the thousands, along with their children. Look at the desperate women who make up the bulk of the modern-day slave system of sweatshop exploitation all around the world.

Calling women “swallowers” accepts this enslavement and oppression. Bragging about being a “dick” celebrates being a wannabe slave master. Not only is this utterly unacceptable for how it views women, this kind of approach ultimately leads Kanye away from consistently challenging even the horrendous oppression of Black people he legitimately and powerfully indicts.

We see this very sharply in the closing verse of Kanye’s song. Kanye rails against the way corporations have tried to control him and draws parallels to the private prison contractors making enormous profits off stealing the lives of Black youth. He calls out those who are sitting back in the Hamptons (one of the most elite and wealthy vacation spots) bragging about the wealth they made through this exploitation of Black people. But then, he rhymes, “Fuck you and your Hampton house, I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse, Came on her Hampton blouse, And in her Hampton mouth.” Here Kanye reduces his “rebellion” against the oppression and exploitation of Black people to a vision of revenge against this racist elite that has denied him full entry by defiling and degrading this elite’s property, which is all that women in this view are deemed to be.

It is simply a fact that there is no fundamental difference between this view of women and the brutality and degradation and terror, imprisonment, and foreclosed futures of those who are born Black or Latino or other oppressed nationalities in this country. Indeed, the roots of both these forms of oppression are woven deep into the structures and culture of this capitalist-imperialist system and the struggle to end both these, and all other, forms of oppression are also bound together in the struggle to make real revolution to get rid of this system. How this is so is something that people need to get deeply into and a good place to start are the special issues of Revolutionnewspaper which deal in great depth with “The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of this System, and the Revolution We Need” and “A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity.”

Today’s modern-day slaves do NOT need the cry of revenge and degradation flowing from the frustrated aspirations of the new wannabe slave master. Humanity desperately and urgently needs the deepest cry and act of rebellion of the slaves who are determined to free not only themselves but all of humanity. This is the fight for real, all-the-way communist revolution as it has been re-envisioned by Bob Avakian (BA). And we need art and culture which celebrates this genuine rebellion and the strivings for really breaking free of all this enslavement, degradation, and self-degradation.

All this drives home the tremendous truth and significance of BAsics 3:22, a statement made by BA many years ago, which Kanye West, oppressed people everywhere, and all those who yearn to get free must learn from today:

“You cannot break all the chains, except one. You cannot say you want to be free of exploitation and oppression, except you want to keep the oppression of women by men. You can’t say you want to liberate humanity yet keep one half of the people enslaved to the other half. The oppression of women is completely bound up with the division of society into masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited, and the ending of all such conditions is impossible without the complete liberation of women. All this is why women have a tremendous role to play not only in making revolution but in making sure there is all-the-way revolution. The fury of women can and must be fully unleashed as a mighty force for proletarian revolution.”

Reprinted from Revolution Newspaper

Cool Things I’ve Found: “Daft Punk / The Collaborators: Panda Bear”

This is an interview with Panda Bear from the band Animal Collective. He speaks mainly about his collaboration with Daft Punk on their new album, but he also has a lot of cool things to say about his musical process. I’ve posted the track they worked on below the interview.

 

Here’s the final product: Daft Punk ft. Panda Bear – Doin’ It Right

Weekend of Culture Part 1: The Smashing Pumpkins

I had a fantastic weekend filled with several cultural events. Friday night I saw The Smashing Pumpkins at Chastain Park Amphitheater, on Saturday night I saw an improv performance of “Theater Sports” at Dad’s Garage, and on Sunday afternoon I caught the final day of the “Frida & Diego” exhibit at The High Museum of Art. This article is Part 1 of a trilogy about those events.

For people of a certain age, The Smashing Pumpkins are among a select few essential rock bands which define their generation. Billy Corgan has one of the most unique voices in Rock history, but putting that aside, they also created an instantly recognizable musical style, and they were one of the bands most responsible for bringing the “Alternative” genre into the mainstream. When Kurt Cobain died in 1994 and the Grunge wave started to recede, The Smashing Pumpkins emerged, blending the Grunge sensibility with a greater emphasis on composition and melody.

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But, sadly, that band no longer exists. Yes, a band led by Billy Corgan continues to use that name, but the list of former band members is now longer than the list of current ones, and Corgan is the only remaining original member. Actually, at this point, I prefer to refer to the band as “The Billy Corgans” because at this point the band is so far removed from its past glory, and that fact was obvious during the show on Friday night.

When they played their past hits it simply didn’t have the same chemistry, the same timing, and the same emotional impact. It actually seemed as though the band was playing the songs under protest, simply to appease the fans. Their collective heart just wasn’t in it, and the sound was flat and uninspired.

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The newer material sounded better, and the musicians seemed much more enthusiastic while playing these songs, but the problem is… the newer material simply isn’t as good as the classic songs written and arranged by the original line-up.

Which leads me to this… The Smashing Pumpkins should stop being a band. They should break up, or at the very least, they should stop using that name. It’s getting embarrassing. Actually, I would have no problem with Billy Corgan touring with this line-up under a different name, or as a solo artist with this band backing him up. But it’s just not The Smashing Pumpkins anymore and it seems like Corgan’s only real motivation to continue using that name is financial. I’m sure it’s a lot easier to attract a crowd under the Pumpkins banner than it would be as a solo act, but it would be much more admirable if he did that, rather than continuing to disrespect the legacy of a great band.

-For Part 2 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.

-For Part 3 of my Weekend of Culture series click here.