Monday, January 24, 2011

slice of life in lyrics

Back in July I attempted to start a whole new blog for music reviews. The link is still on my profile, but it's been a void since the original exuberant post. I guess I just wasn't quite ready to take on the project. Scattered inside my head are a million story ideas about songs that have changed my life, changed my mind, made me cry, made me leap for joy. And one day I know these will come spilling out of my soul unto pages.

For now, let me share a slice of life from my weekend.

"Love is the temple." It was this line, yesterday, Sunday, at about 3 in the afternoon. I was playing tickle fest with my one-year-old niece in a heap on my bed. She loves to play in Aunt Lesley's room because it's the girl chill zone. When she's with me, I don't necessarily treat her like a baby. We answer emails together. We listen to Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell, and she relaxes into this tiny dancing being. She'll sit on a pillow and smile for twenty minutes, milk cup in hand, and we talk. No, she can't talk back yet. But I know she hears me. I had a quickmix Pandora station on, and very randomly Warren Haynes' "One" cycled through. Unexpectedly and beautifully, joyful tears began to well up in the corners of my eyes. Eleanor smiled at me, innocently and with no abandon, and I kind of felt like my mother was in the room with us. Years after we all lost her, there is this perfect being who has her smile, who brightens up all of our days. Eleanor is my family's chance at redemption. She might not comprehend that, of course, certainly not now if ever. But within her happiness, her joy, the beginning of her life and decisions, we are all renewed.

I grabbed her up and took her outside into the gray afternoon. I just felt that moment called for excitement and adventure. She loves to explore. For her, our backyard deck is a forest with no end, within which she is a tiny creature. I brought my phone with me and relayed Haynes' song. Somewhere in the middle of the line "we'll carry each other, carry each other away," my heart filled up and I knew it would be a day I'd always remember.

This is the way music moves me. Rob Sheffield, my favorite music critic and one of my favorite writers, says we are all made of music. Songs are how we remember each other. Songs are what survive after we die. Yesterday I finally understood what he meant. In the most random of moments, there was my mother, memorialized. And it's too late, "tonight, to drag the past out into the light." Instead, in Eleanor's eyes, is all the forgiveness we have ever needed.

In the spirit of such an amazing, uplifting moment, I am compelled to re-post my review of Rob Sheffield's book, Love is a Mixtape. This is from February of last year:

I stumbled across Rob Sheffield's Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time via my friend Megan, who moved back to Georgia after a stint in Brooklyn. She recommended the book to me because she knows I adore making playlists and that I often speak in lyrics (to the chagrin of many).

But a story also accompanied the recommendation. Apparently she was at a gathering in Brooklyn one night and ended up in a booth with Sheffield--a writer for
Rolling Stone and a frequent commentator on MTV and VH1; they had some mutual friends, but she didn't know who the hell he was until he escaped to the bar and she had a minute to inquire. Megan said she was floored by Sheffield's good humor, kindness, and unassuming nature even when those around him lauded his work, made a big deal of him. A skinny, nerdy writer in Brooklyn sipping whiskey in a hole-in-the-wall bar on a Saturday night. But there's so much more going on there, and he's no cliche.

Sheffield's book is organized into short chapters, and each one opens with a
playlist--collections of songs, some very random, that date from the early nineties, when he met his wife Renee, to the early two-thousands, after he'd lost her. It's a memoir more than anything, a first-person narrative that uses his stream-of-consciousness and thousands of musical and pop culture references to place us in the center of his twenties. This is a book about love and music, but it's also a book about being young and confused.

I don't fear ruining the plot for anyone. Sheffield informs the reader by the tenth page that his wife died in his arms when she was 31. So for half the book, you know it's coming. This makes the joy of their meet-cute, their courtship, the comfort as they settle into a relationship in a sleepy college town all that much harder to bear. Take away the approaching grief in those first few chapters, though, and what you have also is this brilliant, expressive peek into the tunnel of Sheffield's twenties. I've got to be honest, I related to the lethargy and apathy he began to feel toward school, as he pursued a graduate degree at the University of Virginia and spent years teaching undergrads, all the while feeling painfully
underappreciated. We know, because of the career he'd jump into later as a pop culture commentator, that he abandoned the ambiguity and planted himself firmly in a world he was much more passionate about. You don't have to be a graduate student or live in a college town, though, to relate to Sheffield's themes. He describes the dichotomy common among twenty-somethings (at least from what I see)--impatience, constantly at odds with a compulsion to settle into a comfortable existence that asks the world to wait a while. He and his Renee hated their jobs in Charlottesville, for example, but he describes coming to peace with that every weekend--when the sun went down on a Friday night and their cadre of friends came over to listen to grunge music, drink Zima (remember that stuff?!) mixed with Chambourd, and grill burgers.

He was also okay with his tiny apartment, shitty car, and lousy job because he shared it all with this woman who, he tells us, filled the spaces with her beauty, her music, and her exuberance. They met at a bar, bonded over a Big Star tune, and the rest is the history he relays to us. The love in this story is not a fairytale; but it is a lesson in embracing those people who take the time and care to
understand you.

I could go on and on about the gloriously-worded anecdotes here. There's a four-page chapter that rolls back to Sheffield's childhood. He describes an afternoon in which his father lovingly sat with him and experimented with The Beatles' "Hey Jude," looping it on a mix tape to make one very long continuous track. A simple joy, and his love of music made clear early on. Once he reached the age his dad was when that happened, he tells us, he realized how important and how generous the moment was. Those of us lucky to have had parents like that, well we know the true meaning behind a memory like this--it gets us through tougher times as adults, recalling those days that our elders devoted to us to make us more nuanced people.

But I digress. The main point I want to make in this little review is that the very nature of Sheffield's memoir makes the argument that there should be no shame in living our lives through soundtracks. Music shuttled him through all the stages of his life--a time of isolation, a time of love, a time of loss. His love for Renee WAS a mix tape--perfect in its imperfections, better for its missteps, powerful for its authority because it always defines a moment in time. "When you put a song on a mix tape," Sheffield writes, "you set it free." The song is no longer confined to its album, or even to its artist. When you squeeze it in between other songs that mean just as much to you, evoke the same emotions, you make it your own. Or you make it for someone else. Or for an
occassion. No one over the age of twenty can read this book and NOT be thrown back in time to moments defined by their pre-IPOD playlists. I got a little weepy recalling the afternoons I sat on my mother's blue couch waiting for the radio to play a certain song--probably something I'd be embarrassed to admit to now--so that I could push "Record" and save it for (at least I thought at the time) forever. A boy broke my sixteen-year-old heart once, and I fixed myself by looping several Celine Dion ballads in with some Liz Phair, who my older and wiser sister Joan had just introduced me to. When I was an undergrad in Ruston, Louisiana (a very quiet, small place at night), I used to drive around listening to a CD I made of what I thought were Joni Mitchell's greatest hits. (Most people probably wouldn't agree with me about "Dancin' Clown," by the way.)

Sheffield also makes some important claims for a digital era. He has absolutely no problem with the itunes-i-zation of our shared music culture; in fact, he has faith that despite a click-of-the-button music world, people will always make mix tapes. Now they're playlists emailed late at night, or a CD you pop on in someone's car on a road trip. But it's the same concept, and it's an artform (particularly when the process is as meticulous as his and Renee's was).

This is a book about rock and roll greater than any biography you'll read, or any "Behind the Music" you'll find re-playing at 1am. The point of rock and roll wasn't just rebellion or youth or even artistry. It was a lot about setting music free, and in turn, setting the people who listen to it free. That's why it has changed so much since Elvis shimmied his first shimmy. Here Sheffield describes in detail the evolution of underground grunge rock, a phenomenon that climaxed when Kurt Cobain became a pop culture poster boy. Sheffield and his friends took pride is finding the most obscure of the obscure bands who played in dirty basements, but they also reveled in a shared
identiy and a sincere joy when those bands became accessible to mainstream listeners. And this book is about rock and roll because music is not really about who's singing what way on what album or where. It's about how each of us are affected by it--and with who, where, and when.

I couldn't stress a recommendation more.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Puking up the American Dream

I decided a few months ago that if I am ever lucky enough to have a daughter I will consider gracing her with the name "Marina." Where the hell did that come from, you may wonder. Let me start by reminding you all where my name came from. Most of my readers are good friends, I know this, so bear with me if you've heard this story ten times already.

Before "Lesley-Anne" finally made its way unto the first blank line of my birth certificate from 1984, my mom and dad apparently fought it out with some passion over what I might be called. My dad never imagined having a child at all, so the idea of naming held way more significance that he'd expected. As the story goes, my mom arrived home from work one day, unceremoniously threw her huge purse (yes, it's genetic) on the kitchen table, said "I think we're going to have a baby, let me take the test," and suddenly his world was going to look different forever. He wanted something classic and elegant like "Sarah" or "Laura." He got these from movies circa 1952. But my mother wanted to go funkier. She optioned for everything from "Colleen" to "Shelley" to various floral-themed monikers. Nothing stuck. I'm sure many tiffs ensued. Minutes before she went into labor, though, she saw the actress Lesley-Anne Warren's name appear on screen, white lettering on a black background, as she attempted to escape from life one afternoon in a movie theater by my childhood home. She said she liked the way it looked in print.

I had the same experience when I discovered a British pop singer who goes by, simply, "Marina." Well, when she tours, she's Marina backed by the "Diamonds." Her American cross-over album cover is a slightly-sultry shot of her leaning backward, brunette hair all wispy, face all flushed. And her named is scrolled in childlike font. A splash of color, forthright, confident. She has a great song called "Hollywood" in which she recounts a starlet's attempts to break into show business (to become an "American Queen"). Is she Shakira? No. Is she Catherine Zeta? "No, actually, my name's Marina." Is it crazy of me to want my metaphorical daughter to have a sassy moment in which she could throw this stellar line in someone's face? I'm not shallow, don't worry. The song has stuck in my head for other reasons.

Marina sings that she's been "living in a movie scene, puking American dreams," obsessed with the "mess that's America." I tend to write about things that boomerang back at me. This song comes back again and again, and every time I hear it I am reminded that I think it's message has everything to do with what I spend my life studying. I was driving down Mopac late the other night when it struck me. Windows down, cool air in my face, her voice screaming at me with that audible Brit-smirk.

We're all puking up American dreams right now. You don't have to be a historian to understand that since the 1950s, Americans have been on a crash course to pop-culture saturation. First came the strip mall and our unabashed love affair with shopping out of designed-obsolescence. Then came the alternative lifestyles--celebrated, with good reason, and decorated with niches in fashion, attitude, music, and artifacts like film and literature. Now we wholly see ourselves in the characters we create, the music we listen to, the blogs we write, the way we relate to one another through cultural reference points, even through the news. The generation Time magazine has deemed the "millenials," we feel it the most...this insatiable desire to be more involved in our cultural moment. Hipsters in Austin enamor me, for example, because of their appetite for taking this entire concept deeper. It's the deeper--more obscure, more random, grittier--constantly at odds with creating an underground culture which can't really be underground at all...because it requires way too much explanation. Let me make myself clearer. It's like a hipster posting a link on facebook. No matter how pretentious the music review they're sharing is, no matter how impressive it may be because of its sheer obscurity, they can't fight the urge to give it out, to publicly make it part of themselves. And in that moment of community, their web of personal, social, and cultural connections grows more complicated and, some would argue, more meaningful.

Recently I've engaged in some great conversations about how to best get students interested in topics they may have deemed rudimentary...or just boring. How do you make the War of 1812 sound interesting? FDR's first 30 days? Doesn't matter what it is, the most effective strategy is to offer them the candy of culture. Make the discussion about a movie or a current news item, and you've got their attention. Hell, that's why I started making a mix tape for my students each semester--a soundtrack for the course, if you will. Mostly it's a nerdy playlist of songs that best historicize the American South, but you'd be surprised how people will get giddily obsessed about the history of sharecropping or environmentalism who you break it down via Bob Dylan or Tina Turner. These days, it might take relating social history to an episode of Glee. But I concede to the hilarity and the pure abandonment of moments like that. Take Glee, anyway. The show recycles songs from our current and past cultural moments by making them happier, faster. I think the best moments of my life have been when every single person in room gets on the same page...jumps up from their seat to partake in a sing-a-long, for instance, that seems so urgent and perfect that you all might burst if the moment is ignored.

What does any of this have to do with the American Dream? A lot, actually. I study a period in American history--the early twentieth century through the 1970s--within which the American Dream was an incredibly tangible concept. It had a definition, iron clad. Go to college, get a good job that satisfies you, get married, have happy kids that will actually turn around and get more educated than you, make more money than you. Do this all in an upper-middle class bubble of mahogany furniture, meatloaf, and Saturdays at the park...and you'd have had it made.

It's not that way anymore. The millenials have stomped on all that on purpose. Sure, we've puked it up. We had to. Life didn't look the way it should have in a post-grad world. We're part of the first generation in America that's NOT on track to make more money or retire as comfortably as our parents. But part of that is self-induced, for sure. I say this with no irony at all: we live now in a cultural milieu that is never satiated, in a world where more of us understand what is beautiful in this life. Puking, yes. Because we finally find ourselves in an American culture that allows us to constantly remake ourselves. No twenty-something is worth their hipster salt these days unless they've messed up and re-started about five times. Judge or not, but we have teenagers coming into their own much earlier now. They'll live three lifetimes by the time they head to university. As long as those fits and starts are set to music, followed by life lessons, made into food for the soul...we're still on the right path.

There's a lot of talk these days about what's good for us. Does technology run our lives now? Kind of. It's how we communicate with one another...through youtube clips, itunes playlists, texts in the middle of the night. More and more we are using snippets to show others what we're thinking about. I think the map of the human brain is changing because of all of this. But I refuse to think it's a narrative of declension. Any great artist will tell you that to get to the rawest moments of creativity one must apprentice themselves first, drive themselves mad. Any great writer will tell you that the wrote 3,000 bad pages before they wrote the first good one. It's the scattered paint cans and coffee-stained pages. For me, it's long Word documents from which a dissertation is trying to peak through.

I'll leave you with a clip from Glee. I saw it the other night and felt like a teenager again myself for a brief moment. People who shun pop music don't impress me. Hooks in pop songs have always created the most memorable shared experiences, decade after decade. This song by Katy Perry might very well represent the adolescent tone of our current American culture, our current American dream. Who cares. If more people would let this kind of joy seep into their psyches every day...we'd all be a lot happier.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

new year's resolutions

Some people who drink coffee everyday are trying to drink green tea instead. Good luck with those caffeine-withdrawal headaches. I give you a week. Some people are trying to quit smoking cold-turkey. Good luck not whittling your own fingernails off. Some people are trying to suddenly lose a bunch of weight. So on and so on.

Where did this tradition come from? All year long we admit to procrastinating, being lazy, trying our best in a mixed-up world. And then come the first of January, we all believe we might suddenly be capable of some massive attitudinal shift. Nah. Don't all of life's little messes teach us, instead, that small changes make a really, really big difference? Sometimes I think we're all just a few tiny adjustments away from the life we'd be happier with. So in celebration of that, here are my new year's resolutions, in all their minute (but epic to me) glory...

1) I never, ever have been good at keeping my car organized and clean. Ask any of my friends. Hell, ask anyone that knows me. This past weekend I gutted it completely--all the books, all the random clothes never brought in from the drycleaners', all the paper, all the old pens, all the parking stubs....etc. And I'm on day 3 of a clean car. It's a whole new world.

2) Once on The Office Pam Beesly made a resolution to ask more directly for what she wanted, everyday. This was illustrated when she went to happy hour, was handed the wrong beer, and hesitated for only a second before confronting the bartender. "No. This was supposed to be a lite." I'm resolved to make my sentences more declarative. Sometimes I speak too abstractly. But that wastes time. And the thing is, stating exactly what you want is not always met with good vibes. It freaks some people out, which is understandable. But it's better that ambiguity. Always.

3) I refuse to make the blanket resolution of exercise. I know myself well enough to know that if I try to start running everyday again, or even three times a week, all of a sudden...I'll burn out as quickly as a cheap lighter. So instead, I'm aiming low in hopes of building up. Once a week, a good solid run again. I'll see what happens from there.

4) I must do a better job at returning phone calls. I suck at returning phone calls.

Good luck everyone...