About Tyler

Geographer who likes comedy and records and probably you.

“13” Turns Twenty

13_28blur_album_-_cover_art29Happy Friday, everyone. I recently noticed that Blur’s everything-falls-apart masterpiece “13” came out twenty years ago today (March 30 in the States, to split hairs). I’d be remiss if I let that landmark slip by without mention here, because I completely missed the anniversary of their self-titled album (my entry point as a fan) two years ago.

Blur’s mid-90’s rivalry with Oasis (manufactured as it was to sell copies of NME), formulates one of my favorite lectures I include in my European Geography (GEOG 371) course. Popular culture reinforces geographic assumptions, especially the sense of place that permeates any discussion of “the North” and “the South” in England. Not since The Beatles vs. The Kinks had there been such a raw encapsulation of that dichotomy. For the record, I do prefer The Kinks, too (and not because of any predilection for Southern England; I just enjoy their music more than most bands in the first place).

Anyway, in 1997, Blur were shedding their Britpop skin and embracing Graham Coxon’s love of American indie rock, perhaps best manifested as the wonderful “You’re So Great.” As I said, Blur was my entry point as a fan, so I didn’t fall in love with the band’s foppish (in a self-aware way) era. Like many of my friends who were listening in this era, I remember being less enthused at 13 when it landed in 1999. “Coffee & TV” felt like the only marginally accessible song on the album, which didn’t matter much to critics, but to a teenage American, it felt like a bit of an affront. I recall putting the CD on at some friends’ house in Syracuse while we sat around as a party dwindled; by the time “1992” got to it’s third-level of noise, walked over to the boombox and turned to me and said “I’m, uh, gonna change it.” If you want to get a decent impression, feast your brain on this:

Knowing what we know now, though, makes the accomplishments of 13 all that more remarkable. Namely, the band had long since shed any sonic accouterments of what had ostensibly made them huge, defied every music writer in the UK, and more or less entered into the worst collective period of their lives. Again, I was too young and under-educated in life to recognize half of this album as a heady mix of cries for help and the other half as gleeful conflagration of their rental castle-mansions. I’ll never forget reading a story on Blur in SPIN in the wake of the trans-Atlantic success of “Song 2” that really harped on how much the members hated one another. It seemed pretty sensationalized (because it was), but I can only imagine how much resolve it took the four of them to remain a band. In 1997, Graham Coxon sang that “DT’s [delirium tremens] and coffee helps to start the day,” and in 1999 he sang “sociability is hard enough for me” to chronicle a years-long battle to overcome alcoholism. “Coffee & TV” sounded convincing enough, and one of the all-time great videos to dramatize his ‘coming home’ certainly helped this case. Stateside, it remains in contention against “Girls and Boys” for the vaunted title of ‘Blur’s most successful single that doesn’t go “WOO-HOO.”‘

Anyway, since it’s 2019, there are a multitude of ways to hear 13 in its entirety if you’re interested in doing that today. Twenty years ago, Blur played most of the album live at the Hippodrome Theater in London, and a fan named Claire Welles taped the gig off the radio. A little over a year ago, she digitized it on YouTube. Considering the teeming oceans of Blur material on the site, it’s only accrued 556 views so far. I’ll embed it here if you’d like to add to that count.

One dynamic that I can’t get out of my head while listening to this was how so many of those cheering fans, like so much of Britain on BBC1, were hearing songs like “Trailerpark” and “Battle” for the first time ever. I believe that Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa were all active by this point, which had fundamentally changed the lifespan of anticipated music’s release. Gone were the days of that hot new single arriving at the BBC on a CD encased in some briefcase with a combination lock.

Damon Albarn, right on brand, didn’t sound too enthused to be performing these songs, but again, the fact that the band still existed in 1999 was remarkable. Considering the worldwide success Albarn had waiting in the rafters with James Hewlett at this point, it’s even more understandable that it feels like he’s punching the clock here. Still, you can’t help but imagine he begrudgingly knew how insane and special this new album was. And no matter what your feelings are on Albarn, he headlined Glastonbury two years back-to-back (2009-2010) with two different bands.

Alright, I’ve said enough. Happy 20th anniversary to 13, hope you all have a great weekend, and if you’re anywhere near Oak Ridge tomorrow night (Saturday 3.16) come see me and Nina Fefferman (UTK Evolutionary Biology) talking science with comedians Shane Mauss and Dave Waite at the Grove Theater. It’s close to selling out, but there may be tickets for sale at the door!  More info in my previous entry or at Shane Mauss’ site here.

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Stand-Up Science with Shane Mauss: Saturday in Oak Ridge

standupscienceillustrationI’m excited to be giving a talk about my research this weekend as part of Shane Mauss’ Stand-Up Science show! Tickets are available here at Shane’s site.

For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of seeing Shane Mauss live, you’re in for a treat. Shane was one of the headliners of the 2015 Scruffy City Comedy Festival, which was (I believe) his last time in the Knoxville area. He has been on Conan several times, as well as Comedy Central Presents and a litany of other shows. Over the past few years, he has become increasingly preoccupied with the greater meanings of existence, the natural and supernatural ways through which we are all connected, and spinning tragedy into comedy. His latest album My Big Break featured funny stories written around breaking both of his feet on a hiking trip and the slow road to recovery. He also hosts and produces the successful podcast Here We Are, which brings comedians and scientists into the fold to answer those greater questions.

This Saturday’s show is going to be amazing. Dr. Nina Fefferman (also of UTK) and I will be your guest scientists, and Dave Waite, a great comedian out of Los Angeles, will also be appearing. See you there. Here’s a preview video that Shane posted to give you a better idea of what to look forward to:

 

 

 

 

Submit Your Photos to the CGSG Landscape Photography Exhibit at the AAG

cropped-0612181040a_hdr_film31.jpgHi, everyone. I’ve been swamped this past week, but I’ve got some great pieces of news coming soon that are all somehow connected to said swamping. For now, I need to get back to correcting a digital mountain of midterms and papers. Here’s a signal boost for one of my favorite AAG side-shows, run by a trio of the Cultural Geography Specialty Group’s grad student members (one of whom is named very similarly to one of the original Ghostbusters). Are you going to the AAG meeting in DC? Have some great landscape photos? Well, submit them here! – Ty

Greetings fellow geographers,

The upcoming AAG Annual Meeting will once again include the Cultural Geography Specialty Group’s Landscape Photography Exhibit. All registered attendees are invited to contribute a photograph of their own. We do not limit participation only to members of the CGSG.

The Landscape Photography Exhibit has been part of CGSG programming since the 2009 meeting in Las Vegas. The exhibit showcases photographs with short descriptive captions both from fieldwork and also more everyday encounters with cultural landscapes. Unique at the conference, the annual exhibit provides geographers with an opportunity to share images and stories that perhaps receive less attention in their paper presentations or panel comments.

To contribute to the CGSG Landscape Photography Exhibit, please email a high quality (at least 300 dpi) digital copy of your photograph (limit one, please) with a caption (limit of 250 words) for initial approval to Mark Rhodes (mrhode21@kent.edu) on or before March 25, 2019. Upon notification of approval, bring a printed, high-quality photograph (approximately 8×10 inches) to the conference by Thursday, April 4th. The organizers will bring copies of the captions, and you will place your photograph next to your caption on a bulletin board in a high-traffic area of the conference.

This year, as in previous years, the approved submissions will be displayed for the duration of the conference. The photographs may be in either color or black & white and must have been taken by the person submitting to the exhibition. It is the responsibility of participants to collect their photographs from the display boards before the end of the conference. (The CGSG is not responsible for lost or damaged photographs.) The winning photo will be given the opportunity to submit their work to Material Culture: The Journal of the International Society for Landscape, Place, & Material Culture.

Please circulate this call for participation among potentially interested colleagues, and feel free to contact the organizers with any questions.

With thanks,

Andrew Husa, Ian Spangler & Mark Rhodes

Mass Giorgini: Punk Rock Renaissance (literally) Man

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The state of my turntable last night.

I know I need to write a bit more about my upcoming book on Palgrave, Capitals of Punk, but one of the epiphanies I hit in the conclusion (spoiler alert sorta) is considering how much hardcore defined itself as antithetical to the mainstream, it’s a real testament to its universality how hard the mainstream has been working to catch up to hardcore four decades later. These are the things I think about while listening to Minor Threat playing on the stereo system at an indie coffee shop overcrowded with multiple generations of patrons on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Anyway, I braved the flooding roads and 908th consecutive night of rain here in Knoxville to check out a fantastic pop-punk show last night. A friend got his band back together for a night that felt like a family reunion I’d just been adopted into. In the spirit of the evening, I was listening to Squirtgun’s 2003 LP Fade to Bright beforehand. In case you haven’t heard their music, Side A Track 2, “Burn for You” [video] is one of my favorite songs in the whole subgenre (which is saying something).

This afternoon, I was looking for a YouTube video to prove to a friend that Mass Giorgini (Squirtgun bassist and producer extraordinaire) was a Spanish language sports reporter, and I happened upon this: Dr. Massimo Giorgini presenting a TEDx talk about “The Don Quixote Code.”

What a cool study. At the beginning, Mass discusses yet another in the litany of overlaps between punk and critical thought/research. It’s like Christmas morning whenever I find out another punk veteran is a PhD, especially in a topic I’m invested in academically. What a cool presentation, and it got me thinking about Don Quixote in a whole new light, which is the point of any research. Well done, Mass! And thanks for your hand in this Murderers’-row of records at Sonic Iguana.

Teaching Cultural Geography with the Kids in the Hall

girl_drink_drunkLast week, my Cultural Geography: Core Concepts class tackled the relationship between gender and space. Many of my students volunteered personal experiences when their movement through space reminded them (some harshly) of their gender performance. One student mentioned a male friend of hers who specially requested cocktail drinks in a brandy glass in order to mitigate any ridicule he may receive for having a “girl drink.” So, being me, I decided this would be a good excuse to show this classic 1991 sketch from Kids in the Hall.

For a quick overview, the Kids in the Hall were a Canadian sketch troupe with a hit TV series that ran between 1989 and 1995. They released their motion picture Brain Candy in 1996 and have reunited on multiple occasions. All five members – Scott Thompson, Mark McKinney, Bruce McCullough, Dave Foley, and Kevin McDonald (the latter two co-star in this sketch) – are still working regularly on television today.

I had the opportunity to interview Kevin McDonald at a live show last summer, and I asked him about the changes he’d observed in sketch comedy over his decades in the industry. Though the satire and humor holds up, this sketch is reflective of a major shift he had noticed in how comedy was written, produced, and presented since the KITH show was on the air.

“One thing we were lucky about was that there was no YouTube. We couldn’t film stuff, so we had to do it the old Vaudeville way. We had to get our stage legs, and we performed all the time… It forced us to strengthen muscles that aren’t strengthened [as much today]. People on YouTube – they strengthen different muscles. They know how to be filmic. They know how to write for film; they understand “cut-to:” right away.”

Watching this sketch on YouTube in 2019, it’s easy to notice how much space they gave this short film to breathe. The dialogue is just as important as the visual gags, and the story builds slowly over a handful of scenes. Though memes (in the internet sense) did not exist at the time, the characters and cinematography lend themselves surprisingly well to that medium today. When I asked McDonald about what he thinks has contributed to the characters’ cult longevity (even early-era spots like The Eradicator, a Bruce McCullough character with a recent punk band themed after him), his answer was pretty simple: “I think that we found a rhythm in the troupe that was halfway between absurdism and real…”

The concept of what is and isn’t a “girl drink” brings a focus to that interaction of gender and place via multiple dynamics: namely, bodily comportment and subconscious “gendering” of flavor and decoration as ‘feminine.’ As they did in their strongest moments, the Kids in the Hall blended the real/tragic (a guy falling off the wagon and losing his job) with the absurd (needing some fruit and a tiny parasol in his booze). The sketch could easily be distilled (heh) down to one joke at its core, but playing to their strengths, McDonald and Foley inject masterful character work and subtle jabs. Though Foley and McDonald are hardly the punching-down type of comedians, having Scott Thompson in the writing process certainly provided a valuable voice in modulating their humor about sexuality and masculinity to avoid reinforcing gay tropes (unlike some other sketch comedy of that era … Buddy Cole, martini at his side, always dominated that conversation, anyway).

In general, alcohol plays a crucial role in geography, and vice versa. Obviously, site characteristics inform how and why brewers decide to open up shop, and local tastes often determine how certain brands of alcohol are marketed and distributed. A number of geographers, including my mentor Tom Bell, have published studies about regional dynamics in alcohol marketing, and the latest issue of the Journal of Cultural Geography contains an overview of brewing in New England. My friends Dave and Steph spoke to me and Bret Hartt about the relationship between beer and place on Episode 6 of The Casual Geographer back in 2011. I also include a case study/focus on alcohol and localism in my American Popular Culture course, especially the imagined geographies of Eastern TN and the legalized moonshine trade.

This is just one of many classic comedy sketches I use to teach cultural geography. I’ve previously written about how I introduce my Popular Culture lecture on Minstrelsy with my favorite SNL sketch of all time. I’d love to hear any examples of sketches and scenes you’ve found useful in your classes.

Nick Huinker (Central Cinema) Pays a Visit to the Geography of Popular Culture

My friend Nick Huinker, a co-founder of Central Cinema, came by my American Popular Culture class (AMST/GEOG 423) yesterday. We had a great discussion about how independent theaters have been reintroducing a distinct local flavor and sense of ownership to the moviegoing experience. As you can tell from how companies like Regal have been adopting practices held for generations by locally owned theaters (alcohol, personalization, fundraising events, screenings by homegrown directors and producers, etc.), it’s a pretty great idea.

As I’ve often discussed in the class, art-house theaters have been purposefully resetting film to its classic context, in many respects: produced for a communal, interactive experience. For the first half-century of film, it was considered a low-brow art, something that true thespians would never touch. In other words, it was a wonderful cauldron of innovative, thought-provoking, and genre-transcending/defining art. Unfortunately, a lot of this has been lost to history. Central Cinema and theaters of their ilk are doing great work in bringing it all back to the nickelodeon era (as well as the Nickelodeon era, screening Good Burger soon).

Thanks again to Nick for taking the time to come through! Stay tuned to this blog for more updates on new projects in the Geography of American Popular Culture, and if you haven’t yet, take a dive into the wonderful rabbit hole that is Cinema Treasures. You’ll be glad you did.

Gamelan Returns to Tennessee

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The UTK Gamelan Ensemble (with electric guitar), in performance in Fall 2017, the semester prior to me joining.

Last Spring, I had the pleasure of joining the UTK Gamelan Ensemble, led by my friend, colleague, and erstwhile committee member Leslie C. Gay. The band (so to speak) was composed of an eclectic mix of students and community members ranging from the musically gifted (e.g. David Webb, Kali Altintasioti) to the less so (Tyler Sonnichsen). I was excited to continue with the ensemble this Fall semester when I received a disappointing email from Les saying that there would be no Gamelan until the Spring. This was nobody’s fault; our Gamelan had been borrowed from some institution in California, and the music school’s term of lease had expired. The good news was that an all-new Gamelan contracted for UTK was in the works somewhere in Bali. The bad news was that it wouldn’t be ready on time to ship and arrive in Knoxville anytime this Fall. As the saying goes: cheap, fast, or good… pick two (and even two is often pushing it).

I should have anticipated how much I would miss the Gamelan, considering how busy last semester was. Last Spring, it became a perfect break from my routine: two hours every week where I crossed campus, unplugged from the matrix, and played music that I never had to feel guilty for not practicing because I couldn’t practice it (unlike those childhood piano lessons for which my mom essentially set her money on fire…sorry, Mom). This semester, being back on the full teaching schedule, highlighted the Gamelan-shaped abyss in my life.

First, What is Gamelan?

I’m going to pretend we’re having a conversation, and you just asked me this question and that you’re not reading this on the internet with the ability to open up a new window, scroll through dozens of articles explaining it, hundreds of photos, and thousands of hours of streaming video of people performing it better than I ever could. But, since that’s the first question I get whenever I tell anyone in person that I was in a Gamelan ensemble, I’ll answer the question here as I would in person.

The Gamelan is a coordinated set of percussive instruments intended to be played (often, but not always) in syncopation. It’s associated with Southeast Asia, predominantly Indonesia, though different islands have differing styles and approaches to performance. I’d be loathe to call it a “performance,” too since the islanders willed it into existence as something more spiritual and communal.

Spiritual AND Communal? Tell Me More!

Gamelan

via FactsofIndonesia.com

This is my favorite thing about Gamelan. Everybody in front of a set of chimes or the gong (the one Indonesian word that sneaked its way into English) is equal. Almost any of the instruments can be foregrounded in performance. Anyone can sit down and play. Of course they would improve the more time they spend playing just as with anything, but it’s a percussion ensemble that encourages everyone to play, not just the handful of people who can shred. That being said, the Gamelan can integrate an electric guitar and nobody would complain. This Spring, Jorge Variego sat in on bass clarinet to debut what could only be described as an avant garde art piece (free-Gamelan, in other words, like free jazz), and the audience ate it up.

An epiphany I had at our first practice was that this was an approach that much Western popular music had forgotten. I know that trained musicians (or musicians in general) in countries like the States have been gradually disappearing in an age where STEM has conned its way into near-hegemony in our schools and funding for music programs is being slashed. Still, music cannot fully shed its promordial function as a group activity, not something reserved for a privileged few. Prior to the modern phenomenon of music publishing and copyrighting (less than 200 years old in the United States), music had enjoyed a long history of user-friendliness and root populism. Broadside ballads like “Barbara Allen” were meant to be sung by inclusive groups of revelers in parlors, as seen here in one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.

Arguments do exist that music predates language; humans are born with a variety of potential instruments on their person. Tuvan throat singing styles clearly mimic sounds of nature. Hamboning, an autopercussive song-and-dance style, worked its way into the Southern legend via slave traditions. Even some 80’s dream-pop songs with non-linguistic, non-lyrical vocals could be argued to be instrumentals.

So, Why Is It Important?

Obviously, in the handful of communities (mostly Universities) lucky to have one available, the novelty of Gamelan is one reason for its surging popularity in the United States as much as its accessibility. You know it’s novel enough for Fred Armisen and IFC to cart one in for a joke in the Documentary Now! series. But, novelty breeds fads, which gamelan clearly isn’t. The syncopation, timbre, and democracy all form a trusty foundation through which to expand the music’s appeal worldwide.  In so much Western music, percussion is relegated to the background of the band, and percussionists (well, rock drummers) become the butt of jokes.  Even in bands where the drummer is the best actual musician (e.g. Fugazi, Manic Street Preachers), fans tend to take them for granted. It’s always gratifying when percussionists get the respect they deserve, and even better when Gamelan foregrounds all the different ways, usually several within the course of one performance, someone can simply be a percussionist. To put it most bluntly, it sounds gorgeous, and most importantly, it’s just really, really cool.

For me, at least, being in a gamelan ensemble provided the grounding experience for which so many people turn to yoga, meditation, prayer, or some combination of the three. It was great to have in my life for a semester, and then it was difficult getting used to not having it. Today, however, I got a message from my old friend Konstantine, who will be stepping in for Les and leading the UTK Gamelan Ensemble this semester. Our first meeting/practice/jam session is next week, and I can’t wait. I’ll announce it again as it gets closer, but make your calendars for April 17th.

cengceng

Ceng Ceng (pronounced ching-ching): the single hardest instrument (for me) to play (well) in the Gamelan.