Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.I have studied music since I was a child, but in my memory there is one singular moment in which more was revealed to me about the potential of the art form than in any other event in my life. I was an undergrad student at Webster University, where I was studying music history and piano, when this metamorphosis happened. It was very simple: I was working on an assignment in the music building’s computer lab, half listening to a conversation between my friend Shumpei, a Japanese composition student, and one of the composition professors. Shumpei, for his senior project, was writing a symphony, and he was describing the work to the professor, saying that he was fleshing out this or that part of it on that particular day. The professor was intrigued by this project, especially because in today’s composition programs, most students are working in electronic, atonal, or highly-specialized experimental composition. For Shumpei to be writing a symphony was very strange. Then the professor posed the question that was immediately and permanently seared into my mind. He asked, “What’s it about?”It had never occurred to me that classical music could be “about” something. Clearly operas were about something, and program music was about something. But instrumental works? It seemed insane to me. My first thought was that the professor was joking, being facetious, testing Shumpei with an obviously rigged question. But as the conversation unfolded, I started to become attuned to a new plane of meaning in music. I became aware of its essence.I share this anecdote not only because it continues to resonate with me today in my work as a historical musicologist, but also because it frames the way I associate music with contemporary historical events. Whether one likes it or not, Trump’s election is the most significant, unexpected, and potentially transformative political event that has occurred in the adult life of a person my age. I am not saying this in the affirmative or the negative—I am merely being dialectical about it. It is going to produce a new political terrain. Neoliberalism is under siege, the Democratic Party has fractured, the category of “president” is changing, and, most importantly and ideally, the Left has a new position from which to critique—and hopefully overcome—capitalism. From a Marxist standpoint this is truly an interesting situation.I have found myself listening to Beethoven for the past week. At first I did not question it, for this is typical of someone in my line of work. But as I started to realize that I was listening almost exclusively to Beethoven, I began to wonder why this was. As I have thought about it for the past few days, I find myself contemplating not only Beethoven, but the French Revolution, Hegel, and subjectivity. I don’t intend to descend too far into philosophy here, but I will point out that for Adorno, Beethoven’s music represented a particularly sensuous, philosophical image of society. He believed that in Beethoven’s music resided hope and transformation, that his music personified the emerging human quest for consciousness, becoming spirit. “Art is more real than philosophy,” Adorno wrote in his fragments on Beethoven, “in that it acknowledges identity to be appearance.” This means that, to put it reductively, art’s forms, like those of society, are subject to change, that the whole is mediated by the individual parts, that the totality can become something greater than itself, something non-identical, something other.What will Trump do? I don’t really know. I want to believe that he wont be that bad, and that, in opposition to him, we will witness the first revolutionary Left that has existed during any of our lifetimes. In my opinion, this possibility—as the sectarian, dead “left” has shown in the past decades—could not have existed if Clinton had become president. The code word here is “revolution,” and it always must emerge in opposition to something. Trump is the better opponent.My point with all this is that I look to Beethoven’s music for hope, because it was truly revolutionary in every sense of the word—its forms, its relationship to tonality, and, of course (!) its dialectical relationship to the French Revolution. His music is living proof that spirit cannot be extinguished. Beethoven during his lifetime (1770-1827) witnessed the rise and delay of the possibility of freedom, and this had a profound impact on his development as a composer. In no other body of music can one bear witness to such dizzying moments of hope and despair.The Eroica asked what it would mean if a particular interval resolved upward instead of downward, allowing the listener to observe as the status quo of form was broken apart before their very ears, melodies conversing and intertwining, down literally becoming up. The fugue of the op. 110 piano sonata contemplates, among other things, what would unfold if a theme was inverted, played as its own negative. The counterpoint and orchestration of the “Harp” quartet is sublime, especially in the last 90 seconds of its first movement, which contains gestures that continue to legitimately blow my mind. The late quartets investigated tonality to its full potential, so much so, in fact, that most music for the following 75 years was a form of sublimation, trying to catch up to what Beethoven did. This is distilled in Josef Danhauser’s 1840 painting Liszt at the Piano, which shows Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt playing at the keyboard under the consterned bust of his great predecessor, a symbol of Beethoven’s domination of all of his 19th century pupils.To invoke the opening to this essay: What is music about? It is about humanity and possibility. It is an image of ourselves in which the rules do not have to apply, allowing us to work through our desires, our fears, our fantasies, and our losses. I conceived of this playlist as covering a range of classical works that I consider to have significant moments of beauty and freedom, but due to the lengths of the movements I would have selected, as well as the fact that for me, Beethoven is *the* subjective composer, I decided to make this a Beethoven Essentials, of sorts. These are some of his most inspiring flourishes of autonomy. I have listened to Beethoven this week because, if we were living in a sonata form, we would be in the development. There has been a thesis and an anti-thesis, and there is hope. Things are changing, whether we like it or not. It is up to us to determine how we recapitulate.
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in this series, After the Election. The following text is a transcript of an e-mail to a friend that accompanied the playlist. Hey Jordan,Sorry that it has taken me so long to write this to you. Since I last saw you, things have been a bit crazy, for all of us, I guess. I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well. I was worried, at first, with you being in Texas, but I’m glad to hear that Austin remains a solid blue fortress. I know you mentioned that you were into Run the Jewels, but hadn’t dug into any of El-P’s solo work, so I’ve made you a playlist of his early work. You can find it here. As a note, I had to make a Youtube playlist since his earlier work is not on any streaming services. So, I’ve been listening to El-P’s music in various incarnations for nearly 20 years. At first, I lumped him in with the other abstract/heady/sci-fi emcees of that era — Del the Funky Homosapien, MF DOOM, Kool Keith, et al — but that doesn’t feel accurate now. Those guys were walking, rapping therasuses or science books, and tapped into a grimey-but-essentially-goofy thread of afrofuturism where robots and aliens are cool, and people talk in polysyllabic rhymes. For El-P, the idea of unseen universes didn’t carry so much a promise of escape (as it traditionally does for afrofuturism), as it represented an opaque, existential threat, and his lyrical density was more of a textural element.Impenetrability was the point. The occasional Marxist-tinged slogan or Philip Dick reference would surface, but you didn’t need to unpack all of El-P’s clustered alliteration to understand that things were fucked and scary. There’s a sense of vulnerability when he describes drones hovering over Brooklyn, or builds a narrative around the idea of a factory that manufactures abusive stepfathers, or describes a Nazi theme park. Like he raps on “Tuned Mass Damper,” "Motherfucker, does this sound abstract?/ I hope that it sounded more confusing than that."The first album that I ever professionally reviewed was El-P’s solo debut, Fantastic Damage. The album came out in May, 2002 — a few months after the attacks on the Twin Towers — and it’s hard to overstate how important it was to many of us. There are those who’ve pointed out the similarities between 9/11 and this election — the collective shock, a sense of unreality, the helplessness and fear we feel. But there are also differences. After 9/11, culture as we know it shut down. We were urged to pull together, irony was declared dead, dissent quashed, and, for the sake of our safety and our nation, monoculture reinstated. Neil Young tried to heal us during a marathon for dead firemen. My roommate foisted an American flag outside of our apartment. For months, things were like this: patriotic country songs and overwrought rock anthems. We’d all come together collectively, as a nation, and it was weird as fuck. Fantastic Damage — with its throughlines of static; lo-fi rumble; crusty, cacophonous boom bap; and jerky, noisey funk — was an anecdote to the sanguine. Every word that El-P rapped rang true, even the ones I couldn’t understand, which were a lot of them. It validated a lot of the confusion and darkness and paranoia we felt. It contained no answers, per se, but it was enough to know that there were others who felt like they were walking through the world with a gun held to our heads (see the video for “Deep Space 9mm”).I’ve returned to those early albums since the election. Honestly, Run the Jewels feels more appropriate now. It’s cleaner, clearer, and more focused in its dissent; its anger is cut through with liberal doses of humor and levity. Killer Mike is a moderating force for El-P. Fantastic Damage feels like an ugly artifact unearthed from a dark time capsule. Maybe we don’t need to open that, yet.Anyway, I hope you’re well. I finished that Emma Cline book. I was wrong and you were right: It’s good. The prose in the first 50 pages was really verbose and overworked. It felt like she had something to prove, as a young, first-time novelist. But once it settled in, it was pretty great. The Suzanne character felt well-developed and original. I liked that issues of gender and sexuality were present, but kept at arms length; it made them feel more powerful. Did you finish Savage Detectives? I’ve been thinking about rereading 2666. Last night, I read Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf. It’s only one sentence long, but that sentence lasts for 75 pages. So, yeah, I hope you’re doing well. Write me back and let know what’s up.Best,Sam
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.I don’t believe America was a fair and just nation before Donald Trump’s horrid ascendency to the presidency on November 8. White supremacy, economic inequality, and military imperialism are central traits of the American experience reaching back to the beginning of our country. But make no mistake: Trump is a historic figure, one invoking dark and ugly forces in ways that surely will create profound suffering and strife. As a citizen, father, and human being, I am terrified. I’m marching, calling politicians, and listening to the voices of those who will be most deeply affected by the Trump presidency to find out what the hell else I can do.At the same time, I’ve sought solace in uniquely vernacular music as a way to stay connected to the positive qualities of American culture. It seems to me that the history of American protest music can be split into two distinct (though oftentimes overlapping) categories. The first is rooted in the daily struggles of those who hit the pavement marching, strategizing, and rebelling. Phil Ochs singing for striking laborers and, more recently, Black Lives Matter activists singing Kendrick Lamar’s forceful and defiant “Alright” during a conference and protest in Cleveland in 2015 are prime examples. This is music whose timeliness and currency are its strengths. It is drawn into the moment and forever tethered to it. The second is less overtly topical, though equally vital. It is music, usually visionary in scope, that turns toward the spiritual, yearning for the better world that those on the streets are attempting to forge. In this sense it appeals to what philosopher Williams James in Varieties of Religious Experience calls our “religious emotion,” which in his profoundly democratic and transcendentalist worldview enables us to feel (as opposed to simply believe — critical difference) that a richer and far more just “kingdom of being” is fully within our grasps.With this playlist I’ve tried to pull together an eclectic range of songs that to my heart, soul, and ears channel America’s transcendentalist spark. Not surprisingly, a healthy dose of this sublime American music comes grounded in religious themes and symbolism — gospel pioneer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson for instance. I also focus on songs that are religious primarily in energy. Sam Cooke’s soul music brought the church to the pop charts. On his early acoustic sides, young and prophetic Bob Dylan sounds like the living embodiment of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” Even in the mournful, despondent cries of blues legends Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell (whose musics typically are framed as embodying the dark side of the American experience) one can sense glimmers of that other kingdom of being. It also can be felt in tunes that at first blush have nothing at all to do about politics or struggle, like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives sessions from the mid ’20s.Because transcendentalism believes in living life experimentally just as much as it does self-reliance, the divinity in all existence, and social justice, I’ve also included some fairly far out fare drawn from the wells of funk, free jazz, and minimalism. For me this just may be the most powerful stuff to listen to these days. John Coltrane’s cosmic “A Love Supreme,” Sonny and Linda Sharrock’s pleading “Black Woman,” Patty Waters’ haunted “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” Steve Reich’s mind-blurring tape epic “Come Out” — these pieces move beyond language and reason while at the same time affirming the inherent dignity and uniqueness of humanity. I don’t know if there is any tonic for what the hell is going on in America right now, nor do I think my playlist can ever fill that role, but hopefully for those who feel as alienated as I do it can bring some sense of togetherness.
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.Like the rest of my fellow dowsers, I spent the second half of election week in a fog; I had trouble functioning. What menial task could make a case for my attention when so much had just gone so wrong? Then the weekend arrived, and my wife and I found ourselves at what might have been the single best place to spend that particular Saturday and Sunday: at a lesbian wedding in Berkeley, bearing witness as our Iranian/Indian/Pakistani friend married her Jewish partner. That Sunday, we exclaimed “Mazel tov!” as the new couple stamped on a glass; we watched as they sat next to the Sofreh as friends rained sugar down on them. Later, we danced the hora, then we danced to Bollywood jams, then we danced to “Call Me Maybe.” And man, what a dancefloor: flamboyant gay men dressed like Stevie Nicks, Iranian aunts and mothers in their finery, white folks from so-called battleground states, all cuttin’ a rug together.Alas, this playlist is not a mix of tunes played that night. I do not have sufficient working knowledge of klezmer, Bollywood, or Carly Rae Jepsen to pull that off. But recalling that wedding did seem like the unavoidably right way to start this post. Because in between the anger, sadness, and pure dumbfounded shock of it all, I’ve found that the mental space I’ve been most drawn to of late is the one in which we’re all making our best good faith effort to connect and commune, to remember a lot of the original values that set us on our various paths in the first place, and what ultimately helped us all to find one another: love for the arts and the people responsible for them; respect for diversity and the myriad ways it enriches our lives; vigilant empathy for all participants. This election reminded us that not all our countrymen share those values (or at least they don’t prioritize them as we might like). And it reminded me that the first place to start when it comes to upholding and ultimately proliferating them is with oneself.And so I made a mixtape. I used to make mixtapes all the time — not curated playlists of ‘70s psych or ‘90s boom bap or nu-metal workout essentials, which have their place, surely — but personal mixes of radical tunes that I shared with friends who did likewise. This is that. In the event we just met, or you’re an old friend who I haven’t talked to in awhile, and you wanted to know the kind of music I listen to when I want to feel a little more at peace and connected with the universe of good and worthy things this election has momentarily obscured our view of — it hasn’t gone anywhere, by the way, it’s just over the next hill, and we will march on until it comes back into view — then this would be a good place to start. It begins with a lot of dance music, because no matter what happens we should always remember to dance. Then it winds through some singer-songwriter stuff and some ambient-instrumental music, then resolves with a relatively new Monkees song written by Ben Gibbard and some Ethiopian jazz. Protest music, it is not, unless your idea of a protest is turning off the news for an ideally long stretch and just dwelling in your happy place, which actually come to think of it was exactly what that weekend’s wedding was: an act of defiance, dressed in the technicolor dreamcoat of love.
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.It’s the wee small hours of November 9: I wake up around 3:30 and can’t get back to sleep. Just one of those nights, it seemed. Since I hadn’t watched any of the election night coverage because television news sucks, I have no idea who won. I reluctantly grab my phone, click on HuffPo (more lamestream journalism, folks), and see the ghastly headline: “Nightmare: President Trump.” What the fuck just happened? A thick and heavy feeling of anxiety and disgust rips through my gut as though I’m trying to crap out an Ex-Lax-dusted anvil. I pace; I weep. My heart races; my head turns feverish. Pure evil is here.I’ve since been able to gather myself — for the most part. Along with 2,000 other equally alarmed Americans (good people from all walks of life), I’ve marched here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a battleground state, and called a long list of representatives. As for my soundtrack during these days (record nerds would fret over what jams to spin for an asteroid bashing into the planet), I’ve been listening to a lot of classic American music (folk, gospel, blues, soul), and that helps me stay motivated and anchored. Still, I experience stretches of nihilistic dejection when reality feels like a cosmic scam. It’s during these phases that my belief in love, peace, and understanding is chucked out the window; all I want to do is curse American mainstream society to hell. Screw Trump’s army of pasty white racists, and screw the smug neo-libs who enjoy undermining good Americans who try to forge progressive reforms. Hell, screw this entire empty, meaningless universe.The soundtrack to these admittedly unhealthy states of mind is seething, eardrum-damaging noise-rock, industrial, electronic-tinged propulsion, and bummer metal: Sightings singer Mark Morgan’s choked screams, Scissor Girls’ manic and fidgety spazz-tantrums, Pissgrave’s stuttering blasts of pure decrepitude and down ‘n’ out vibes, God Bullies’ swirling eviscerations of small-minded yokels. What’s interesting to note about noise-rock (as well as its related movements) is its non-affiliation in terms of politics. I mean, sure, most of these bands save their most intense viciousness for Repugs and deranged Bible bangers (when they’re that explicit, of course), yet it has to be noted that the Clinton years witnessed an explosion of virulent badasses, including Six Finger Satellite and KARP. Some musicians are pissed off no matter who is in office. Mainstream normalcy in and of itself is to be rejected.The irony is that all this cacophony, like therapy, actually sets me straight (though this wasn’t always the case in my self-loathing, pre-dad years, when hard booze and other substances weren’t infrequent). These bands are so committed to loud, writhing, horrid music that they wind up creating beautifully ugly artwork, and that’s 1000% life affirming. Think about it: beauty from ugliness. Maybe that’s something those fighting the good fight in modern AmeriKKKa can achieve in the coming years?
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.In the early ‘80s, just as I was starting high school, starting to think for myself for the first time, and developing semi-informed opinions about the world around me, that world took a turn toward the troubling. With Maggie Thatcher in power in England and Ronald Reagan assuming the U.S. presidency, the Western world suddenly made a treacherous shift toward the right, and the neocon movement was on the rise.Fortunately for me, right around the same time, I discovered the joys of college radio, opening up the burgeoning world of post-punk and new wave to my eager, impressionable ears. As luck would have it, a number of artists from that realm in both the U.K. and U.S. were turning out tunes that expressed their frustration at the state of things. Naturally, punk was perfect for crafting urgent, aural agitprop fueled by righteous anger, and the likes of Black Flag, The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, and The Bad Brains were right on the money in that regard. But from the politically conscious synth funk of Heaven 17’s “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” to The Specials’ spooky reggae noir portrait of Thatcher’s England on “Ghost Town,” there were plenty of ways to turn sociopolitical angst into affecting music that could both inform and inspire.That remained true throughout the ‘80s, and history shows that the evil these songs decried was eventually unseated. Three decades later, both sides of the big pond are beset by even darker political demons, and music remains a natural place to turn for solace and motivation. Soon, we will undoubtedly see a whole new crop of songs that speak to this disturbing moment in our history, but in the meantime, the ones that worked for us back in the ‘80s can still do the trick. Some of them are directed specifically to Thatcher and/or Reagan, but their targets are nevertheless timeless, and others provide just the kind of sympathetic sigh or rallying cry we need right now.
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.In August, my sister gave birth to a little girl, a long, strange creature with wispy flames for hair and curiously loose skin. Like all babies, she was just a lump to begin with: a lump that stole my sisters sleep, ravaged her boobs, and generally caused rockslide levels of chaos all around her. She had no discernible personality, no idiosyncratic facial expressions, no likes or dislikes. She just was. Then, thanks to said boobs and my sisters superior ability to hold her shit together in the face of extreme sleep deprivation, she began to grow. Her eyelashes shot out of her face and, out of nowhere, she became sumo-wrestler fat. She grew multiple chins, each more beautiful than the last, and her hair—while still carrot-hued—began to form itself into an old-man-mullet: full at the back, scarce at the front. As the weeks passed, she began to make noises, to smile, and then—oy, my heart—to laugh. To be delighted by dancing and singing. To communicate with us doting, cooing idiots. To begin interacting with the world around her.My sister took the little fatty with her when she voted for Hillary. She posted a picture online, of her chubby beloved strapped to her chest, her head cosseted in a winter hat with an “I voted” sticker. “One of us lost a shoe in the melee but it was totally worth it. Job done. Cant wait to tell her she was there the day history was made. #formydaughter #forhumanity #imwithher.”For my daughter. For humanity.Because thats what a Hillary win symbolized: a future that befits humanity; a future where my niece can grow up unencumbered by the idea that she is somehow “less than”; a future where ability, skill, and moxie characterize your path to success; a future where old white men are forced to make space for everyone else; a future where we keep each other safe. We voted for hope.When I started putting together this playlist, I asked the members of Pantsuit Nation, the rogue feminist Facebook group Hillary mentioned in her concession speech, for the music that was getting them through the days since November 8. 5,000 responses later, Im still reading the recommendations. From Ani DiFranco to Janet Jackson, from David Bowie to Beyoncé, from Kimya Dawson to Leslie Gore: thousands of people championing anthems of hope, of strength, of power.Thousands of declarations of self, refusals to normalize hate, calls to action. Thousands of hands that will lift one another up, and thousands of hearts wholl keep all daughters safe.The music speaks for itself. For her.
Following the US election on Nov 8, 2016, we asked Dowsers contributors to discuss the moods and music the results inspired. We collected their responses in a series, After the Election.New York, June, 1969. After decades of harassment, brutalization, and homophobia at the hands of the NYPD, a group of queer folks who frequented the now infamous Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village spontaneously decided to fight back, meeting violence with violence. The Stonewall Riots, as they became known, lasted mere days but changed the course of history, carving out, as they did, a legitimized space in the American civil rights movement for the queer community.And, at least in the Western world, weve been on a fairly positive track since. Always moving forward (even it its at a snails pace), garnering small but significant legal victories along the way. Even though America is a bewilderingly divided place, where states that practice extreme prejudice (North Carolina, Im looking at you) butt up against liberal sanctuaries, the overwhelming ideology regarding LGBTQ rights has been one of momentum and progress.And then Trump was somehow elected president (lower-case by design), and along with his implicit approval of hate-speech and bigotry came the likelihood of an army of cronies who would turn this bigotry into policy and law. Theres already been a sharp increase in incidents of hate speech and violence since election day, and who knows how far that will go once the imposter officially takes office.I woke up on November 9 in absolute despair. As a queer woman, married to a queer, transgender, immigrant man, I felt the results of this election through every fiber of my body. As did every equality-seeking woman in the world; as did every person of color; every immigrant; every LGBTQ person. These results surely meant the undoing of decades of progress, a halting in our forward-moving momentum. And Im one of the lucky ones. Im white, university-educated, and just about considered economically middle-class (we own a house, we have two cars). My husband is also white, having emigrated from London, England. He has a green card, and hes married to me, a US citizen, so I guess hes one of the “good” kinds of immigrants. And sure, hes transgender, but hes also bald with a huge beard and a deep voice, so unless anyone has cause to root around in his pants, no one would ever guess that he wasnt born a dude.Because of this, were afforded a veil of invisibility, and Im ashamed to say that in the past fortnight, Ive been so grateful for it. When we lived in London, I fought with every part of my being to make myself visible and vocal, as a queer woman. I encouraged my husband to do the same. We lived in a liberal bubble, and notions of personal safety rarely crossed our minds. Theres so much power in visibility, so much grace, so much pride. And yet, now living in rural America (OK, upstate NY is hardly the boondocks: we live in a decidedly gay enclave in a very liberal neighborhood. But we have Trump-supporting, gun-toting neighbors, and that is more terrifying than I even know how to articulate), Ive suddenly felt the need to hide.And then Transgender Day of Remembrance rolled around. The beloved and I took ourselves along to a local candlelit service, and listened to the list of names, a heartbreaking tradition where the seemingly unending names of our trans brothers and sisters who have been brutally murdered this year are read aloud. In that room filled with untold amounts of love and support, of tears and sadness and joy and solidarity, the universe shifted slightly, and I quietly found my strength again.America didnt vote for hate: In fact, overwhelmingly, America voted for progress. If it were just a numbers game, Hillary would have trounced Trump. But antiquated electoral systems will do what antiquated electoral systems do best: reward the people whove figured out how best to manipulate them. And just because some old white dude managed to shout, insult, and bully his way into office, doesnt mean we owe him or his politics of hate anything.So, every day, Im going to put this playlist on, and Im going to remind myself why Im so proud to be part of the LGBTQ legacy. Because this mix is a celebration; of pride, of authenticity, of political integrity; of activism; of queerness; of frailty; of fallibility; of the innate nature of humanity. Im going to dance, laugh, cry, and shout, and then Im going to put as much love as I can muster out into the universe. Im going to reach my arms out to every person who doesnt have as much privilege and safety as I do, and do everything I can to take care of my people.Because thats we do in the face of hate: We love. And in that, we stay true to who we are, and we change the world, one step at a time.
According to one account, disco was born on Valentines Day, 1970, in New York City. It certainly couldnt have come at a better time. Nixon had been president for a little over a year; the Vietnam War was dragging on, and the unrest of the 60s had settled in like a hangovers dull throb. Some groups had it worse than others: In New York, it was still illegal for two men to dance together, and while the Stonewall Riots of the previous year had helped kick a nascent gay-rights movement into gear, undercover cops were still busting gays, lesbians, and transsexuals in dimly lit bars.So you can understand why a young, bearded bohemian named David Mancuso wrote "Love Saves the Day" on invitations announcing a private party at his home, a loft in a former warehouse in a deserted corner of lower Manhattan. A little positive energy was needed. A safe space was sorely needed—space to dance, space to socialize, and space simply to be oneself. ("Love Saves the Day" might also have been a way of hinting at the mystery ingredient in the punchbowl, but what world-changing musical event hasnt come with its own social lubricant?)Mancusos private party eventually became a regular shindig, known simply as the Loft. Its trappings became legendary: the scores of multicolored balloons hugging the ceiling and bobbing along the floor; the sumptuous fruit spread; the Klipschorn speakers, so clear that listeners heard details in records theyd never noticed before. Two elements above all were paramount: the mixed crowd—a joyfully nonhierarchical sampling of sexualities, genders, ethnicities, and social classes—and the music, chosen and sequenced according to Mancusos own impeccable instincts.And while it wasnt a club, by any stretch of the imagination—for one thing, the Loft remained a members-only event, and strictly BYOB—in its focus on the music and the crowd, its attempt to carve out a refuge from the pressures of the outside world, the Loft established the blueprint for the discotheque and the modern nightclub. Thats not to say that many modern clubs live up to the example set by the Loft; most dont. (As Mancuso himself told Red Bull Music Academy in 2013, "For me the core [idea behind the Loft] is about social progress. How much social progress can there be when youre in a situation that is repressive? You wont get much social progress in a nightclub"; for Mancuso, the non-profit motive was crucial to preserving a venues liberatory potential.)Mancuso didnt call himself a DJ; he preferred to be known as a "musical host," and somewhere along the line, he even stopped blending his transitions, simply letting each song play out in full before starting the next one. But the open-mindedness of his selections helped establish disco, at least before it codified into an oonce-oonce beat, as a zone of possibility rather than a narrowly defined genre, and that message continues to resonate with DJs today. This Spotify playlist gathers more than 100 songs that Mancuso played at the Loft: deep, ecstatic funk (Wars "Me and Baby Brother," The J.B.s "Gimme Some More"), African funk (Manu Dibangos "Soul Makossa," a song Mancuso popularized), classic soul (Al Greens "Love and Happiness"), house music (Fingers Inc.s "Mystery of Love"), even folk-rock (Van Morrisons "Astral Weeks"). No playlist can replicate the way he played the music, though, juxtaposing songs to play up their lyrical themes, or building intensity as the party crept toward dawn.In Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, Tim Lawrence asks various New York DJs who came in Mancusos wake if they had ever danced at the Loft. "Time and again," he writes, "they would describe Mancuso as their most important influence, a musical messiah who also happened to resemble Jesus Christ."That messiah died on November 14, 2016, after a protracted illness, at the age of 72. It seems a cruel irony that he should leave us now, precisely when safe spaces, both real and metaphorical, suddenly feel more necessary than ever, their survival even more precarious. His followers can only hope that love might save the day once more.
I’m not paralyzed with fear, but sometimes I wonder if I ought to be. Mostly, it’s the little things I obsess over: the worsening signs of global decline and potential extinction-level events already upon much of the world, but filtered through my bubble of North American privilege. It’s petty stuff, like wondering how much longer my five-year-old daughter will get to eat her favorite food of shrimp tempura, as she may be among the last people on Earth to enjoy seafood before warmer waters and climate change decimate the food chain. Or figuring out how realistic it is for my wife to keep pursuing her lifelong dream of visiting the Maldives, as the island nation may be underwater in our lifetimes, as well as Miami, New Orleans, and more than 400 other American cities and towns soon after.I know these preoccupations are silly and useless given the wretched circumstances and challenges already facing the overwhelming majority of humankind. I ought to see how good I’ve got it, what with my ready access to food, fresh water, fuel, and free Wi-Fi. Sure, every generation believes it’ll be the last, and millennial cults have yet to get the right date for the end times. But it feels like we’ll finally be the ones to make good on all those visions of apocalypse: whether it’s famines, fires, bee-population collapse, or other environmental crises; a viral plague or rampaging superbug; or a nuclear war sparked by rising tensions in North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan. My fears about the future are so huge and unwieldy that the only responses I can manage are pitifully small and solipsistic.But there’s another response, which is anger. How else to react to the Trump administration’s attempts to erase the already too-modest moves by its predecessor to address the climate crisis? Thankfully, it remains to be seen whether Trump can actually gut the Clean Power Plan or pull America out of its commitment to policy change in the Paris Agreement, given the resistance by many industries that have already adjusted to new realities and to the efforts of the Obama team to bulletproof changes in legal terms. It’s ironic how much the President is willing to sacrifice his nation’s economic supremacy and superpower status to the country he loves to bash so much: China is understandably eager to find clean-energy solutions now that so much of the country’s air is unbreathable.I know there are more positive and productive responses than my neurotic ones. Nevertheless, the road ahead is still filled with fear and despair, the same emotions that color the songs on this playlist, which ponder our distressing present and ever so uncertain future. The next Earth Day is April 22, and with Tom Waits in mind, I wonder if it would get more attention if we renamed it The Earth Dies Screaming Day. It couldn’t hurt.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.