Teen-Beat – Dischord. Arlington, VA

This is so cool.

Hometown Sounds

This video [Teen-Beat catalog #535] is a little unusual, so let us explain. Record labels are the glue that binds musical creativity together into a product that can stand the test of time. The DC area in general, and Arlington in particular, greatly benefited from two independent labels that did amazing work documenting and organizing their scenes. Teen-Beat is a record label founded by Mark Robinson of the band Unrest in 1984. It has since moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but in its DC heyday featured indie rock bands such as Tuscadero, Phil Krauth and Jonny Cohen’s Love Machine. This video was shot and scored by Robinson at Dischord House, the Arlington home of Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s label documenting the punk, post-hardcore and rock output of DC for decades. It’s a brief and intense glimpse into the creative space that’s shaped our city’s musical legacy, and it moves…

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What You Swattin’ At!? (GEOG423 Returning this Spring)

I’m excited to announce that I will officially be teaching GEOG 423: American Popular Culture again this Spring. Now let’s celebrate with some shots of Uncle Jemima’s Pure Mash Liquor!

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Not only is this brief sketch one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television, it provides a perfect encapsulation of (1) what a national treasure Tracy Morgan is, and (2) how baked-in racism and racist caricatures are in American popular culture. When I first did my lecture on the thick undercurrent of the Minstrel Show in pop culture, I realized how little context I had to understand how brilliant this sketch was when it first aired in 2000 (or so).

I was only vaguely aware of Song of the South, as much as Disney was still largely capable of keeping it under-rug-swept at the time, a few years before streaming video and user-side online reference became the norm. I don’t remember if I had yet connected the dots between Splash Mountain, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” other relics of the post-War/pre-Civil Rights era with the beautifully modulated satire here.  Then and now, it was an exceptional use of television as a medium for sketch comedy and one of my favorite moments in SNL’s decades-long, peaks-and-valleys history.

I had an absolute blast teaching 423 (cross-listed with American Studies) for the first time this past Spring, and my department has rewarded me by adding a section during what would otherwise have been an off-year. A colleague has invited me to present this as a guest-lecture in a course on race and racism next month. I also hope to incorporate this into my discussion on symbolic gentrification at Relix Mic Nite on November 8th. It’s all coming together…slowly.

‘The Last Scene’ Trailer & Campaign

I’m appearing in a new documentary called The Last Scene, which covers pop-punk’s millennial epoch and surprising transition. The director, Kyle Kilday, approached me with questions about scene dynamics and the social role of rock music, and I show up (briefly) in his sizzle reel, embedded here:

It’s always weird seeing myself on camera – particularly as a talking-head “expert” in a documentary. As someone whose love of bands like The Get Up Kids and Hot Rod Circuit helped him endure the end of high school, I can’t wait to see where the project goes. I’ve already been invited to (production pending) re-film an extended interview in LA this Fall.

Kilday has set up this IndieGoGo page for those interested in contributing!

Black Lives: Struggle (St. Louis)

 

Thanks to my friend Ben for bringing this to my attention. The Russian news network RT recently released the first episode of a brutally honest and thought-provoking look into America’s black communities. This episode focuses on St. Louis, a city with a deep catalog of problematic (to say the least) policies in the areas of population retention, law enforcement, and of course, urban planning:

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It was a real privilege to teach a summer course on human rights and genocide. I’m always grateful to provide a forum for people to flesh out their understandings of how and why people’s relationships with the state become contentious, who benefits (if anyone does), and what we as individuals can do in our communities to help spread hope. Genocide and ethnic cleansing aren’t one-dimensional processes or isolated events, and we cannot build anything while people remain active proponents of either (and self-identify as such, very openly, in comments sections).

The Pancreatic Philosophy of Oswald Bates

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Growing up watching In Living Color spoiled me. For one thing, it made it impossible for me to enjoy MAD TV  when it hit the air in 1995, one year after ILC ended. From what I recall, Saturday Night Live was at its nadir (it had yet to be resurrected by Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon, the latter having appeared in ILC). Like Saturday Night Live before it, the writers of In Living Color leveraged recurring characters to keep viewers invested in the show and to keep writers able to fill weekly half-hour time blocks with limited ideas. Some early-90’s sketch comedy, like The State, lampooned this top-down pressure to use and overuse characters. When FOX first aired MAD TV in 1995, it enjoyed the typical “Wild West” phase of wierdness while it was getting its feet under it (Kato Kaelin featured prominently on the first two episodes), then quickly reverted unapologetically into character-based humor. The problem for me was that, even Will Sasso’s hilarious (though increasingly plot-shredding) Kenny Rogers send-up, none of these recurring characters said anything. They were shameless gimmicks, and their audience devoured it.

To say that I owe most of my pre-college knowledge of African-American culture to the writers and producers of In Living Color (many of whom, I acknowledge, were white) is probably the finest critique of the education I received growing up. I don’t recall any of my teachers discussing the 1992 riots in Los Angeles with my classmates and I, most likely because (1) bringing any kind of radical politics into white suburban classrooms was taboo, (2) they were successfully convinced to sympathize with the LAPD, or (3) they didn’t think it really affected us. We were on the other side of the country and the riots were framed as a “black” issue. To any of my teachers who did mention it in a current events discussion, I apologize, but the longest-lasting allegorical lessons about the riots came via David Alan Grier, Jim Carrey, and their cast-mates.

The greatest strengths of In Living Color, other than the obvious re-elevation of African-American culture within the overwhelmingly white medium of sketch comedy, were the socio-political statements that their recurring characters made. Some, like Lil’ Magic (Kim Wayans), an overzealous little girl from the projects pining for her big break, no matter how humiliating, were sold so well they became sad. Only one or two of the show’s recurring characters (Fire Marshall Bill and Vera DeMilo, both played by Jim Carrey and, like most of the recurring characters, excruciatingly quotable) skirted sociopolitical statements in honor of flat-out absurdist humor. This was important, though, tilling each half-hour episode with eclectic writing and themes. It worked, too, since I’ve seen almost every episode of the show, and I could count on one hand the number of episodes that didn’t have at least one good sketch.

One of the show’s most impressive feats is, considering how long ago it ended and how admittedly-dated some of the humor can come across in 2018, just how prolifically In Living Color has been a gift that’s kept on giving. Throughout my time as a teaching assistant in introductory Geography courses at Long Beach State, I would routinely share particular sketches that remained relevant well into the 2010’s as companions to the lecture topics. “Using sketch comedy to teach cultural geography” could easily become the title of a future journal article, considering how long I’ve been doing it and how much I’ve thought about the idea. I managed to bookend a lecture on minstrelsy in popular culture with two different Tracy Morgan sketches, both of which fit the themes like a glove.

Yesterday, I led a discussion on mass incarceration for my Geography of Human Rights class, and my favorite of the ILC recurring character stable, Oswald Bates (Damon Wayans), came to mind. I didn’t plunge my class down that rabbit hole too far, but I couldn’t shake one particular sketch from my mind. Barbara Bush (Kelly Coffield) pays a visit to some prisoners who have learned to read thanks to her ambitious literacy program. You can watch it below:

The Bates character had already been well established by this season (as evidenced by the crowd cheering at his appearance – a FOX TV hallmark). I’m unsure as to how much freedom Wayans had to ad-lib, but he sold this character beautifully from Season One. Despite how his mouth has gotten him in understandable trouble in recent years, seeing these sketches is a reminder of what a talented performer Wayans was at the time. Only once or twice in my memory did he ever crack, despite spewing increasingly profane (yet still air-able) psychobabble that would put even the most obscurantist academic in stitches. Although I’m sure the show got criticized for taking potshots at erstwhile illiterate prisoners, Oswald always appeared fully in control of his position, and even more remarkably, he was actually understandable. Here is one of my favorite Oswald Bates moments, where he applies for parole and the incongruity of his reading comprehension forms a graceful punchline in the middle:

Oswald Bates spoke to one great contradiction within our prison system: the liberal appeal to humanitarian treatment (which is good) without addressing the factors that put him in prison. They addressed a few facets of his past, including that he has a son who is just as confused as him. He is also clearly the product of a sub-par literacy program; he reads at a post-graduate level (albeit, sex-ed pamphlets and such) but has no context for what any of it means.

Did I immediately recognize all of the layers as to why this was so funny when I first saw it over twenty years ago?  Of course not. I did, however, understand the message almost immediately, and even more impressive on the part of Wayans and the writers, they still make me laugh today and continuously pop into my head when discussing topics as serious and bleak as mass incarceration. Considering how often American film and television go to lengths to romanticize (and in doing so, trivialize) prison and prisoners, Oswald Bates and the In Living Color producers contributed to the conversation about their underlying humanity and ambition. Most of their recurring characters did.

Condition: Jawbreaker

41o2-subljl-_sx364_bo1204203200_I recently read Ronen Givony’s book on Jawbreaker’s 1994 album 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (Bloomsbury 33 1/3 series), which I highly recommend to anybody interested in the pre-internet circulation of underground music. While it’s so easy to wax poetic and nostalgic about 20th century pop culture, Givony illuminates the dark side of that era. The backlash that Jawbreaker faced for signing to a major label was downright savage. As many of their friends and colleagues have implied, it would likely not have mattered if it had happened five years earlier or later; the conditions in 1995 were just right for righteous indignation among their fans.  The Dismemberment Plan, who I’ve focused a lot of my music writing on, followed a similar early-to-the-party/first-to-leave timeline (though it took Jawbreaker 21 years to reunite, whereas the Plan reunited in earnest within 8).

Givony’s Jawbreaker story made my jaw drop exactly twice.

1979970_700682193307329_4809697842692758554_oFirst, I was genuinely amazed to discover that their bassist Chris Bauermeister went to high school in my hometown. He grew up in a German-speaking household in Connecticut and attended a prep school in Madison that closed down in 1991. I only have vague memories of the school; my mom recently told me she voted in the town’s referendum on whether to purchase the property (with the school building on it). I didn’t have any real overlap with Chris, who graduated and moved away to New York in 1985, the year before my family moved to town. Still, it’s a remarkable coincidence considering how (1) I always considered Jawbreaker to be a quintessential San Francisco band, and (2) I tended to assume nothing cool ever came out of my hometown. It’s taken half a lifetime away, a PhD dissertation, and some sprinkled-in hindsight to realize how wrong I was about that. Also, the youngest person to graduate from Hammonasset is in their mid-forties now.

Second, in the middle of a “get off my lawn” screed about the contemporary state of the music industry, Givony drops an incisive observation that I think bears block-quoting here (emphasis mine):

In the music and media industries today, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a band in possession of a good single must be in want of a fortune. In a time when almost no one still buys albums, and tens of thousands of streams will earn a band pennies, the reasoning goes, artists deserve to get paid any way they can manage, and rightly so. Who are we to blame them if the only people still paying musicians their true worth are corporate advertising and branding companies? It’s a difficult claim with which to argue, which is why almost no one ever still does.

As much as I balked at the assertion that “almost no one still buys albums” (pressing plants wouldn’t be backed up to hell if that were true), this bold statement hit me like a ton of bricks. The idea that musicians can only make a healthy living through licensing (title idea: Better Living through Licensing) has been analyzed comprehensively at this point. Todd in the Shadows broke it down beautifully in this video late last year. However, the specific angle that corporations were the only ones either capable of (or willing to) pay musicians their true worth has been banging around in my head for days. I am steadfast that Google and Spotify have both been instrumental in institutionally and purposefully devaluing music to create a paradox in which artists would be beholden to them. I’m aware that music piracy on the internet long pre-dates either of those companies, and label heads were freaking out over cassette tapes much more in 1987 than they were over MP3.com in 1997 (Thanks, Telecom Act!). Regardless, whether people want to pay for music is not the issue. That so many people feel entitled to not pay for music, or even own it, is noteworthy. Then again, this is nothing new, and people have still not slowed at creating art. Artists, as Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964, always have the advantage since they are sitting at the point of creation:

In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the puny and peripheral efforts of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs.

We can’t travel back to the point in time when 24 Hour Revenge Therapy was created, but fortunately the internet has enabled the next best thing: virtual flânerie! Here is some Super-8 footage that Adam Pfahler found of the trio driving around their adopted neighborhood in 1992. Just like Jawbreaker encapsulated the pre-internet era of underground America in their music, this video does well to provide a peek into pre-Google, pre-Facebook San Francisco, when the Mission was cheap and bursting with potential. Also, it gives “Boxcar” the long-overdue music video it deserves.

The Flaming Lips, Mick Cornett, and the Selling of Oklahoma City

[I wrote this a few months ago upon hearing about my former colleague’s passing. Due to travel and teaching commitments, I unfortunately never completed it. In the interest of getting this out of my drafts folder, I’ve decided to publish it and give you all some reading material for this Monday morning. This may become a paper about the US Mayors’ Conference and “the selling of” cities on day. We’ll see. – Tyler]


I received some very sad news recently from some colleagues from my DC life. John, our longtime Managing Director at the PR firm where I worked passed away from cancer at age 70. As tragic as the news was to hear, it was nice for us to share some memories of perhaps the best person I  ever have been so fortunate to work under. I went through old files to see if I had any mementos of John, with no luck. However, it did lead me down a rabbit hole of memories from my twenties, some stories which would find a good home on this site now. I don’t think I’ve shared this story anywhere online, either, so here we go.

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A good way to get a photo op with Mayor Steve Benjamin was to show up in the same suit. I had no idea that Columbia, SC would eventually become one of my favorite southern cities, and this photo would become a running joke between me and friends I would make there. Strange.

The best assignment I had for that job sent me to Oklahoma City in 2010 for the US Conference of Mayors. Twice a year (once in DC and once in a roving location), leaders of towns and cities from across the country meet to trade tips on civic programs, navigating political minefields, image curation, and other tacit knowledge. Despite the number of big-name politicians in attendance (some of whom are currently countenancing Presidential campaign rumors), I don’t remember the meeting getting much national media coverage outside of our radio campaigns. Since few of these mayors are real celebrities, it didn’t get the slathered attention of an election-year Democratic or Republican National Convention. That being said, CNN was on hand, going live with then-LA-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who deflected rumors that his city was considering bankruptcy. What was going on in LA in 2010 that would have generated such rumors is beyond my immediate knowledge.

As one might expect, the host mayor is keen to show their city off to visiting dignitaries quite enthusiastically. Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett was that host, and show the city off he did. In 2010, he was in the midst of a banner era in his mayoral tenure. He appeared on Ellen in 2008 on the success of his anti-obesity campaign, giving Ellen Degeneres her own holiday in the city. The next year, the Thunder rocketed into playoff contention, bringing the city and state onto the national basketball stage and facing the Lakers in a contentious playoff series. What Cornett had going for his spectacle, though, was something intangible that his fellow Mayors would have killed for: the cool.

Most Mayors, especially for non-Major cities, are very down to earth. Their governance does not span an insurmountable area, so it’s easier for them to be on the street, interacting with their constituents and actually functioning like the citizens they need to impress. Though there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with corruption, the instances seem fewer and farther between; they are still beholden to their neighbors. It also follows that Mayors are predominantly Democrats, people of color, and in some cases LGBT.

CIMG7463Cornett was none of those things, but coming from within Red-State political hegemony didn’t prevent him from charming everyone by propping up his city’s greatest counter-cultural export: The Flaming Lips. His committee arranged for the band to play a private concert for the conference attendees and their families. All of the conference contractors got passes, too. As a music nerd who came of age when the Lips were at their creative and critical peak (1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots mobilize something of a consensus here), imagine my excitement when I read that they were in the program for the third night.

I’ll get to the concert shortly. On the first night, the coordinating committee set up a private tent near the Sonic headquarters in Bricktown, the finely redeveloped, expertly walk-able downtown area. The party’s location came at the hands of some meticulous planning. It gave them an excuse to show off the relatively flashy downtown district (which, according to members of Red City Radio, the city paid for with a 1-cent sales tax hike).

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On the river-walk next to the Sonic headquarters. I don’t remember what this band sounded like, but judging by the cargo shorts, I’d say Jimmy Buffett got covered at some point.

On the second night, the conference piled everyone onto chartered buses and, with an roving wall of police escorts, led us out to a big warehouse in the city’s hinterland. Before we got a taste of Cool Oklahoma, we were to indulge in every Cowboy stereotype imaginable. A country string band played on a stage built on the opposite end from the entrance. A electronic Buckin’ Bronco ride sat immediately to the right, and a set of lanes for tossing Horseshoes sat between bales of imported hay to our left. In all fairness, “played Horseshoe against my boss in Oklahoma” is a claim few DC yuppies ever got to make. The well-orchestrated hoedown was fun, between the two-stepping lessons, barbecue, and open bars that surrounded us. I vaguely remember having a wonderful conversation with Mitch Ward, a retired actor and then the mayor of Manhattan Beach, CA, while standing in line at one of them.

 

On the third night, everyone headed over to the Ford Center (then in its final year with that name; it’s now named Chesapeake Energy Arena). We waited in the concourse, where they set up snack and drink tables, along with (from what I recall) showcases of local students’ artwork. I snapped a photo of a big mural they had painted that said, in airbrush-novelty font, “Rock and Roll with the Flaming Lips.” At the time, it seemed somewhat tacky and off-putting, but in retrospect they probably employed a local artist and some printers for a few days in order to make it, so who was I to hurl judgment? It was eye-catching.

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After an incongruously formal dinner program, a succession of mayors took the stage to make a succession of presentations. By this point, many of us were excited for the musical program to begin, so it started to feel as if it was dragging. Granted, it was entertaining to see public officials let loose and make speeches at varying levels of intoxication. Once the dinner program ended and the staff cleared the tables up front, Cornett got back onstage to introduce the band. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic filed into their seats. My coworkers and I migrated towards the stage, hearing a commotion coming from the bleachers a couple stories above our heads. We looked up to our left to see the 300 level filling up with hundreds of people who had just been unleashed from the concourse.

It had somehow eluded me that so many of the volunteers we had met in the course of the three activity-filled days, the local welcoming committee and the cogs who made it possible for Cornett’s machine to operate through the conference, were paid with free passes to this show. “Huh,” I thought, “That’s actually kind of brilliant.” I felt guilty being on the floor while the volunteers were sequestered up in the nosebleeds, but at least they all had a clear sight line down to the stage for what would be a 20-minute set. Also, the band (Coyne and Drozd, at least) came down to hang out and take photos with conference attendees for a long while after their set, so it would have been chaos if they’d allowed all of the volunteers onto the floor, too.  There were already enough indie dorks telling Wayne Coyne about how long they had been fans, how cool it was that the band did this gig, and other niceties. The best part was that Coyne and a couple of his band mates were so nice to everyone, no matter how monopolizing particular fans attempted to be.

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Just a couple of similarly dressed guys with ambiguously pronounced last names.

My boss and I got to chat with Steve Drozd, and we both took photos with him and his baton. He had just conducted an orchestra for the first time, and the excitement that he radiated was hilarious. My favorite moment of that whole week came when he looked at my name tag and asked me how to pronounce my last name. “Sonic-sun,” I replied, “How do you pronounce your last name?” “Draw-zid” he replied, answering a question I’d had wandering in my head ever since I first read his name in the pages of SPIN a decade earlier. Drozd’s prior decade, given his recovery from a somewhat well-documented heroin addiction, represents one of indie rock’s great redemption stories.

I witnessed an even greater fan-moment nearby a minute later. My friend/coworker Rebecca got Coyne to pose for a picture where they were both running a hand through their big, curly manes. There was nothing of deeper significance to this, but it was satisfying how Rebecca saved the rock star from a trio of bro’s who were monopolizing his time, prattling on about their cultural capital as Lips fans.

Whenever I’ve recounted this weekend to friends, I often pinpoint a few specific moments of epiphany, and Mick Cornett featured in all of them. After the concert ended, they arranged for a private after-party on the roof of a highly-regarded Italian restaurant in Bricktown whose roof patio overlooked Flaming Lips Alley. Later in the night, I wound up chatting with Cornett’s son (around my age), and Mick came over to join us. Within a few minutes, Cornett was proudly telling me how he pushed to help both name that alley after the Flaming Lips as well as help name “Do You Realize!?” Oklahoma’s State Rock song, both in the face of adversity from some real squares.

This made perfect sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if his kids left for college in the late 90’s and reported back to him about this band from OKC that everyone loved.  Additionally, The Flaming Lips are nothing if not prolific collaborators. Wayne Coyne has been vocal about his dedication to Oklahoma City, too, fighting to make the it less of a flyover and more of a destination. Conference attendees walked away with a free copy of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on CD, left in our hotel rooms by the local welcoming committee. The committee also left us limited edition copies of No Fences. I never imagined that I would own a Garth Brooks CD, but here we are. It’s good; I understand why it sold over 10 million copies.

Anyway, here is the video I discovered in the course of my archival search that sent me down this detour of memory lane. Wayne Coyne thanks Mayor Cornett, has the crowd congratulate Steven Drozd on his orchestra conducting debut, and introduces the Yo La Tengo cover. Enjoy everything coming together in a strange way.