A Brief Look Back at the Oral History Association Weekend in the Twin Cities

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As predicted, I had a fantastic time in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Thanks to my friend and former colleague Liz for being a great host and accompanying me on a tour of Paisley Park, thanks to the Oral History Association for putting on a great little conference and bringing Staunton and Alice Lynd to speak, and thanks to the Twin Cities for just being so cool. I know I should have expected as much from the metropolis that somehow produced (among many, many others) Prince, Dillinger Fourand Mitch Hedberg.

It’s going to take me some time to go through all the photos, sift through all of the links to other great oral history projects in the pipeline, and write anything substantive about the conference and my time up there. But, I’m grateful I decided to go and present this year.  I learned valuable new interviewing techniques, as well as a diverse set of recently uncovered histories including that of the Anoka State Hospital, the cultural landscape of 20th Street in Saskatoon (short documentary here), Denver’s legendary Band Box Record label, the NoDak* press (documentary here), and an enticing program to help keep everything in order, the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS).

The best decision I made all weekend, however, was joining a guided tour of the American Indian cultural corridor on Franklin Avenue. Just in time for Indigenous People’s Day on October 9th, we walked through North America’s strongest urban concentration of native american (in this case, Ojibwe and Dakota/Lakota) life. Our guides, Alan Gross and Tom LaBlanc, did not mince words when it came to the States’ and cops’ perpetually horrid treatment of indigenous Americans, which was as refreshingly honest as it was cringe-inducing.

Also, bonus respect is due to Adrienne Cain’s meticulous use of Prince GIFs in the OHA twitter account and inspiring me to do the same above (but I’ll probably tone it down in the coming entries, though…maybe).

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this somewhat brief update, and if you’re from the OHA, feel free to pass this along via email, social media, or even word of mouth. Here are some extra pictures from around Minneapolis, St. Paul, and their outskirts this weekend. I can’t wait for my next excuse to go back. Next time, I’ll actually remember to bring some of the Ben Irving postcards, too.

LINER NOTES

* I’ve never been to North Dakota (outside of passing through it on a train trip in 2013), but I picked up this shortened term for it in 2011 from a MPLS friend who grew up there, and it stuck with me. NoDak/SoDak. You’re welcome.

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Recommended Reading: ‘Definitely Maybe’ by Alex Niven

17933884I just finished the 33 1/3 volume on Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe by Alex Niven, and I’m adequately floored. With all due respect to many talented authors in the series, including my buddy Mike Fournier (who wrote the volume on the actual best album ever made), this may have been the best installment I’ve read so far. Perhaps it was because I wasn’t expecting to agree so frequently with someone who took the time to write a book about Oasis, save for some occasional (admittedly understandable) remarks about Blur and an uncool dig at “Digsy’s Dinner.” Like many of the books in the series, it’s a breeze of a read, so I’m not going to withhold ‘spoilers.’ It really helped this Yank bloke understand just why Oasis shot to super-stardom in the time and place that they did, making their working-class sensibilities intelligible through analyses of their compositions coupled with appropriately scathing takes on the aftereffects of Thatcherism. I’ll share one of my favorite passages here, in which Niven contextualizes the socialist building blocks of Oasis’ music:

Oasis took the detritus that surrounded them in the dole culture of eighties’ and nineties’ Manchester and cemented it together to create one of the most accomplished works of archaeological summary in pop history, a work that ranged widely over rock influences in a way that seemed effortless.

… The socio-economic conditions of the period gave rise to a climate of scarcity, resourcefulness and heritage-mining in post-industrial Western urban areas. Without money and access to higher education and metropolitan taste-making culture, it is extremely difficult to make the leaps of innovation that are deemed to be progressive by the music industry establishment

… When society becomes hostile, when access to novel mainstream developments is difficult, it becomes practicable to draw on any resources that are to hand – classic records, borrowed riffs, recycled materials of all kinds. In periods of economic downturn, a kind of folk culture develops that values ingenuity with heritage over conspicuous innovation. This culture of grassroots classicism was very much Oasis’ home terrain in the early nineties.

Niven also shines a light on the overlooked (sloppy) genius of Tony McCarroll, the band’s original drummer who they sacked after recording “Some Might Say” (which just so happens to be the best song on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?). I vaguely remember Kurt Loder mentioning his name on one of those post-“Wonderwall” MTV News features on Oasis back in 1996 where they gave the Gallagher brothers subtitles for the US audience. The book ends on a somewhat sad yet incredibly educational note about success and class politics. I look forward to incorporating Niven’s lessons into my Britpop unit (yes, you read that correctly) this semester for GEOG 371: Exploring Europe.

Here’s a video of vintage Oasis (with McCarroll) on MTV in 1994 performing what’s probably my favorite song of theirs, the first four minutes of “Rock n’ Roll Star.” The way that Liam Gallagher sneers “I live my life in the city, and there’s no easy way out” as the opening line of Oasis’ debut-opening track makes me think about Paul Westerberg yelling “Raised in the city, runnin’ around” as the opening line of the Replacements’ first demo tape. There’s probably some connection there that I’ll wake up and draw out at 4 AM one of these nights. Anyway, enjoy.

 

My Hometown and McMansion Hell

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Not my town, but it could easily have been.

I grew up in a small town that, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, became a “small town.” If you grew up in one of these towns during that era, you probably know exactly what I mean. If not, allow me to explain.

My father grew up in this town when, nestled between the WWII and Vietnam eras, it was the quintessential New England community. People knew you based on your family name, you graduated with maybe 100 other kids, and you entertained yourself by going to the movies, hanging out at the nearest diner, or setting off fireworks inside an old TV in a local meadow (actually, that last part may have been drawn more from my adolescence…). Anyway, it retained a good deal of that character through the Vietnam era when my dad went to college and eventually met my mom. They were living in Boston when I was born, and then when my sister came along, we moved back to said small town where he had grown up and my grandparents still lived.

The year was 1986, and we moved into a house bigger than what we had lived in for the first few years of my life. It was by no means a mansion (it was completely modest compared to other houses in my town), but the street it sat on had not existed when my dad was a kid. The town had certainly grown, but the population (as of the 1990 census) was well under 10,000. Over the following decade, though, the population would balloon from roughly 8,500 to well over 18,000. It was no longer a genuine small town in the Mellencamp sense; it was transforming into a “small town”: a community that capitalized on widespread skepticism of all (or at least, most) things urban and clung to relevance as a bucolic simulacrum of its former self.

Even as a small child, I noticed various indicators of those gradually-forming quotation marks. No indicator shone more brightly than the new developments of these big, ugly, uniform houses that were popping up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I don’t remember when I first learned the term “McMansion;” it may have been from a friend later in high school. Either way, it made me laugh.

None of this is meant to disparage the experience I had growing up where I did; a lot of the reasons it grew so quickly during the Bush I and Clinton eras were what made living there nice for most of us. The public schools were really good, it wasn’t hard to get (or commute) to New York or Boston, and the crime rate was so low that (1) most anything violent that did happen was an isolated incident and (2) the highest-profile petty crime was often committed by the cops.

I never disrespected people for working hard for years to buy those big conforming houses and put roofs over their families’ heads, but even as a teenager, I failed to understand why anyone would consider these clunky and gaudy fake mansions a signpost of success. I suppose that real estate developers at the time had some pretty good PR campaigns, and the baby boomers really devoured what they were selling: Gaze upon my really, really big house! Look at how successful I am! Are you not jealous of my amazing riches!?

Though I’m sure Syracuse had its share of these kind of developments, my exposure to them was somewhat limited as a University student. When I moved to Washington after college, my roommate at the time was playing in a band slated to open for Rusted Root (yep) at the 9:30 Club. He asked if I wanted to help him out as a guitar tech, and I jumped at the chance. The day of the gig, we drove out to one of the planned communities on the city’s periphery for a rehearsal with a drummer the band had hired for that gig. The drummer was an incredibly good dude and, unlike the vast majority of people who lived in these McMansions, actually worked in this town (rather than contributing to the choking of the DC-area roadways). His wife had their first baby on the way, so I understood the need for space, but at least three of the rooms in this house were empty, save for maybe a piece of furniture or two. The ceilings rose a couple stories off the ground, which I can only imagine made the heating bills astronomical six months out of the year.

The other moment that really stuck with me, however, was how long it took us to find the correct house. We had the address. The houses were almost completely indistinguishable from one another, and the addresses were all about 5-digits long for some reason (there weren’t 10,000 houses on the road that circled through there, so it’s still a mystery to me). I remembered the old wives tale of the London drunk who kept wandering into the wrong house during the London fog, since he could not tell his own house apart from all the others the working class had been shuffled into during the age of industry.

This was yet another contradiction of McMansions: why would one still feel special in a giant house if everyone around them has the exact same house or at least something very, very close to it? Thankfully, building codes prevented people from building cheap, inflated houses in neighborhoods nestled together with more modest homes, as seen in Kate Wagner’s TEDx talk, embedded below.

Kate Wagner began McMansion Hell as a blog last year as a way to make fun of these quintessentially American excesses. What she probably did not expect was to generate an articulation of this frustration that so many of us have been feeling for decades. Last year, an acquaintance of mine posted on social media that “if you buy a record solely because you think it will go up in value, you deserve to die cold, alone, and penniless.” Buying houses, at least to me, is a similar venture when you are not wealthy. Buy a house because you look forward to being able to come home to it for decades. Buy a house because you want to leave your mark and imbue it with character, “turning space into place,” as the saying goes. Don’t buy a house just because you want to show it off and then flip it for a marginal profit, especially one that wastes resources and looks stupid. Every day, my deep respect grows for architects, graphic designers, and other people with professional grades of  taken-for-granted knowledge, and this is a quintessential example of why more geographers, sociologists, and economists should listen to them.

 

Recommended Reading on Music Streaming and Data Mining (Robert Prey)

‘Musica Analytica: The Datafication of Listening’
by Robert Prey

If you know me, you probably find it as no surprise that Knoxville has made me prouder in the last 72 hours than it has in the three years I’ve lived here. I would expect some form of solidarity in uncertain times, but I never imagined it would be quite like this. Not to minimize the efforts of the millions who marched around the country and world today, but I know you didn’t come to this site to read my thoughts on those issues (not directly, anyway… plus, if you are anywhere near a device capable of accessing the internet, you’re probably fairly caught up by this point). I just wanted to include that preface to acknowledge the gravity of the times before changing tracks to sharing a great recent chapter on… [ready?] streaming music.

On one of many great tracks from his latest album, Jeff Rosenstock (ex-Bomb the Music Industry!) sings

Born as a data mine for targeted marketing,
and no one will listen up
until you become a hashtag or a meme
but hate’s not a fad that dies with its virality.
They want you to be a ghost
when they rob you of your hope,
but you’ve got power when they’re not expecting anything.

Rosenstock is (finally) well-known (enough) for his iconoclastic approach to making, marketing and selling music, so him singing about frustration over the squandered potential of social media is nothing surprising. But that first line is particularly biting, especially since few people in the developed world exist outside of that matrix, and the ones who were too old to embrace social media have been dying out. Tell me the idea of being a “data mine” from birth doesn’t make you shiver at least a little bit. But, here we are.

Anyway, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and others have undergone heady analysis from social scientists and independent marketing firms. This chapter by Richard Prey in the new book Networked Music Cultures (link up above, citation down below) presents a new window into the data mining that’s become inextricable from streaming music listening. I’m not too familiar with Prey’s work, but he begins the chapter with an anecdote about Theodor Adorno, whose name you cannot have a single philosophical discussion about music, film, or television without mentioning at some point.

He goes onto pick apart how Spotify and Pandora manicure their profiles on users, which includes both individual listeners and businesses. So many shops, doctors’ offices, and eateries have actually dumped commercial radio in favor of Spotify and Pandora that it’s strange that Clearchannel and other corporate interests that have ruined consolidated radio haven’t mounted a more visible campaign against them (then again, I could be overlooking something).

If I had more time to flesh out my thoughts, I would provide a more comprehensive list of everything I dislike about streaming music. Aside from their tacit devaluing of music, their abject disregard for audio quality, and an even more insidious brainwashing of consumers into guilt-tripping other consumers for actually spending money on music (that sociological “Apple effect” is the worst one for me, honestly), Prey’s chapter provides a great overview of how Spotify, Pandora, and similar services integrate something as enjoyable as listening to (and discovering, on occasion) music into the data mining superstructure. How prescient Adorno’s rantings about “the culture industry” were. Enjoy the chapter and feel free to pass it along when someone looks at you funny and asks you why you don’t use Spotify.

Also, I’m aware of the irony of me posting this on various formats of social media in order to decry it, so don’t bother pointing that out.

Prey, R. (2016). Musica Analytica: The Datafication of Listening.In Nowak, R., & Whelan, A. (Eds.) Networked Music Cultures (pp. 31-48).Palgrave Macmillan UK.