Recently, rumors have been circulating that the popular rapper Drake is gay. Drake has denied vehemently that this allegation is true. People might be spreading this rumor because 1) Drake’s lyrics are often about “sensitive” and “romantic” topics, and this vulnerability clashes with the norm in the hip hop world or 2) when a guy gets almost inexplicably too popular with the ladies, people get jealous and spread lies. This second speculation is what happened to Rod Stewart – see the myth debunked in Spin magazine – back in the day. A similar rumor was spread about Jordan Knight of NKOTB. “What is it about these sweet, cute tenors that attracts women?” Other men wonder, and then conclude, “they can’t be straight…”
Yet another possibility in the Drake scenario is that he is in fact homosexual, and is too ashamed to come out. This wouldn’t be surprising, as the hip hop world is a realm in which homosexuality is not accepted. In his fascinating documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Byron Hurt explored this issue (along with others, such as sexism and violence in the music). A great scene is an interview with rapper Busta Rhymes, which I will excerpt here (from an article in Washington Post):
But when filmmaker Byron Hurt asks Busta about homophobia in hip-hop, the rapper goes quiet.
“I can’t partake in that conversation,” he demurs. “With all due respect, I ain’t trying to offend nobody. . . . What I represent culturally doesn’t condone [homosexuality] whatsoever.” When asked if a gay rapper could ever be accepted in hip-hop culture, Busta walks out of the room.
Byron goes on to wonder why this homophobia exists, especially given that there is so much homoeroticism in rap music; songs such as “Ain’t No Fun (if the Homies Can’t Have None)” by Snoop Dogg hint at sexual experiences with women and with other men. The filmmaker imagines that there might be some denial going on. I don’t know if I would go as far as to claim that most rappers are suppressing homosexual tendencies, but the fact remains that much of modern rap music is homophobic, misogynistic and violent. And it wasn’t always this way. Public Enemy, Tupac, and other earlier rappers – including rapper-progenitor Gil Scott-Heron – used their rhyme-spitting to promote a social & political agenda. According to Chuck D of Public Enemy, and other interviewees in the documentary, rappers changed their lyrical content in order to sell records. The music became more commodified, and therefore more homogeneous (and well, offensive).
So, who’s to blame? Rappers, record companies, listeners? Probably everyone who is a part of this culture, a little bit. My hope is that we’ll move forward, and the next wave of rap will have a different tinge to it. What would help with the homophobia issue, I think, would be if a popular homosexual rapper were to be open about his sexual orientation. Maybe this couldn’t have happened without consequence 10 years ago, but maybe the public is ready. Maybe we can embrace rap that embraces us, rather than shoots us down.
I end with a Kanye quote, from “Jesus Walks”:
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies & video tape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played,
Today, I was reading about My Morning Jacket in Rolling Stone. My Morning Jacket – led by singer/songwriter and guitarist Jim James – has released six studio albums since 1999, but are only lately becoming well-known (their latest release is Circuital – check it out).
MMJ’s approach to music is “always pure exploration.” James is dedicated to the idea of starting anew with every project, every song. Because of this mentality, the band does not fit easily into any genre. Their earlier music sounded a lot like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses – folky, roots rock. But then they experimented with R & B, funk, the electronic and the psychedelic. James worries a little that the variability within their discography might be interfering with their commercial success, but he would much rather stay true to his own creativity, and keep experimenting, than go against his urges just to have more fame.
The band’s journey reminded me of an article I read in the New Yorker back in 2008. It was by Malcolm Gladwell, and it was about the emergence of creative talent; in this piece, he discussed why some artists peak when they are young (in their early 20s; for example, Picasso and Mozart), while others don’t hit their creative stride until they are in middle-age or older (e.g., Cezanne, Hitchcock). A man named Galenson researched this thoroughly, and determined that part of the reason for this dichotomy is that late bloomers take a more experimental approach to their art, while young “geniuses” take a more conceptual approach. That is, the young artists know exactly what their goal is, and they set out to achieve it, while those who peak later make their art about a search for a goal. The latter group sees the learning process as being more important than the finished product. They end up making incremental progress as they build their skills and narrow their goals. “Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on ‘Huckleberry Finn’ so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete,” Gladwell writes. “The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.”
If this theory holds some truth, and the experimental approach to art is responsible for late blooming, then perhaps My Morning Jacket is releasing their best music ever now, or that they will be soon. And if you’re an artist given to experimentation and trial-and-error, don’t despair – you may hit it big…eventually.
This week, Bon Iver’s new, eponymous album was released to rave reviews. Bon Iver – the project of singer/songwriter/guitarist Justin Vernon – first rose to indie prominence in 2007, with the sparse and beautiful debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. Many of the reactions to the new LP have focused on the differences between it and the previous one. Indeed, Bon Iver sounds fuller and more sophisticated than its predecessor, with much more eclectic influences. Bon Iver’s strong, interesting and spidery voice still carries every track, but the album as a whole is far less predictable than For Emma was.
But there was something about the debut that enraptured us, and that was the fact that it was recorded by Justin when he was by himself in a cabin in Wisconsin. He had escaped there following a heartbreaking split from his girlfriend, and the songs do all center around the theme of loss. The record reflects the environment of that cabin. It feels lonely, raw, and yet harmonious. The setting is an essential part of the music. Now, on Bon Iver, we imagine Vernon surrounded by other musicians in a recording studio, and it’s not the same – but there is a reason why each track is named after a location, either fictional (“Minchicant”) or real (“Wash.”). Bon Iver still wanted to evoke the atmosphere of place through his music, only now, he’s not in a cabin. He’s in every place, and between one place and another. There is no feeling of being stuck – no “cabin fever”, if you will – but rather, a feeling of momentum, and of peacefully floating through.
It seems that environment can have a very strong influence on the composition of music, and I’ll offer you two other examples.
of Montreal’s Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is one of Kevin Barnes’s most emotional and conceptually unitary albums to date. It was written as he was suffering with mental health issues while living in Norway for a year. Here is a quote from an interview:
“I was living in Norway, with nothing really to do and no friends really,” says Kevin, “it was a bit of a culture shock going through all that. I think that, because of the dramatic lifestyle change, I went through this really intense depression…It was such a crazy experience, all these anxiety attacks and paranoia and obsessive-compulsiveness…It was really difficult to navigate through and even keep my head above water…”
“It’s interesting,” he says, “because the first half of the record is very poppy. That’s the thing, I was trying to make music to help myself get out of this dark period, so instead of writing dark and melancholy stuff, which I knew wouldn’t help me at all, I tried to sort of uplift my life with sound.” (Note: see my entry on mood and music)
Kevin’s environment not only unconsciously set the tone for Hissing Fauna; it also had a very real effect on his mental state, and consequently, the way that he approached writing songs.
Finally, one can’t write about ties between physical environment and music without mentioning Sigur Ros. Sigur Ros is from Iceland, and when you listen to their epic, swelling and moving tracks, you can’t help but imagine the majesty of the countryside from which they hail. Of course, it helps that they sing in Icelandic (and sometimes in an unintelligible tongue affectionately known as Hopelandic). It seems as if the homeland is very important to Sigur Ros – so much so, that they gave a free tour to their fellow countrymen, performing everywhere from fish factories to community halls. They recorded this tour in their first ever concert DVD, Heima. I have not seen it yet, but I hear that it’s a fascinating visual counterpart to their music.
As long as our physical environment has an emotional effect on us, it will affect how we write music and how we listen to music. Even we mere music enthusiasts can relate to the feeling of setting that a song can evoke; have you ever listened to a song and been transported back to the last time you heard it? Or to the first time you heard it? That vision of a place – whether it is your dorm room, a crowded train, or a concert hall – becomes an inextricable part of your interpretation of the song. Enjoy that image in the same way that you enjoy that guitar solo at 2:33 (or whatever).
I was happy to see that Sashe Frere-Jones wrote about the Beyonce/Lady Gaga rivalry in the New Yorker this week.
I agree with him on most counts – mainly, that Gaga is the subversive advocate while Beyonce is the quiet, competent one (I enjoyed this line: “Beyoncé Knowles is America’s Sweetheart, and she does transgressive about as well as Matthew McConaughey does lawyerly”). And as much as I like to give Beyonce a hard time, I do really respect her, especially as a singer, and as a role model for young girls (recently, she was part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to battle childhood obesity).
I was surprised that Sasha’s praise of Gaga seemed much subdued relative to that which can be found in his initial write-up about her in 2009. He describes her latest album as “loud loud loud”, and while he admires her as a musician (she can sing and play the piano very well), he thinks that she still hasn’t perfected the pop single – at least not the way that Madonna did. Gaga seems to be grasping for that Madonna magic on every track. He brings up a great point about pop music, and that is the following:
“Pop isn’t classical or jazz, and as a primarily recorded form it doesn’t reward the most gifted players. The song is the thing.”
This brings to mind another, more age-old rivalry: Prince vs. Michael Jackson. I was recently asked whom I preferred. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a fan of both, and that for me, the 1980s were the golden age of pop music. But, of course, I was more familiar with Michael Jackson’s hits before I knew Prince’s. Michael Jackson’s music is probably the most universally-liked music in at least the last century. Nearly everyone knows his big hits (“Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, “Thriller”), and I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t enjoy moving to them. He perfected the pop hit, but Prince was the better musician. Michael could dance and sing, and he had a good ear for what made a good song. Prince was a multi-instrumentalist who was a better song craftsman, and he could play the guitar as well as any of the greats could (check out the solo on “Let’s Go Crazy”). And, since his repertoire is so expansive, he may in fact have a greater number of “good” tracks.
So, who is king? If our goal is to crown the better pop artist, I’d have to give it to Michael. The song is in fact the thing, and those few universal hits tip the scale.
Whom do I prefer? That’s a different, and much more difficult question.
A new study in the journal Emotion by Hunter and colleagues helps to explain why we gravitate toward music that is congruent with our mood.
In experiment 1, participants rated musical excerpts as being either “happy” or “sad” and indicated their preference for each. When the melodies were unambiguously happy and sad, participants showed a preference for the happy music. However, this preference was eliminated when the participants were put into a sad mood (Note: I haven’t seen the full article yet, but mood induction in a lab setting is usually done by providing the subject with some sad material, such as a tragic story or movie clip). This is why, when we feel depressed, we tend to seek out depressing music. When we’re in a happier or more neutral mood, we may select songs that are more optimistic and that lack a sense of melancholy.
In experiment 2, participants also rated musical excerpts as “happy” or “sad”, but this time, the clips were ambiguous in valence. Participants who had undergone a sad mood induction were more likely to perceive sadness in these pieces. To me, this is an even more intriguing finding, but I totally understand it. I have definitely disagreed with people on whether a song was “happy” or “sad”, and this might be due to mood differences between us. Also, some of my favorite songs are those that are superficially upbeat, but that carry an undercurrent of sadness. Here are some examples: “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie, “Last Christmas” by Wham, “Hi de Hi, Hi de Ho” by Kool & the Gang, “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order…I can go on. The great thing about songs like this is that you can listen to them at any time – when you’re in any mood – because different aspects of them will strike you at different times.
The lesson of this post is that music and mood are heavily intertwined, and it’s good to be aware of that. In experiment 1, participants preferred listening to sad music when they were sad, but sad music itself can make you sad. So, yes, there will be times in your life when all you want to do is listen to “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Venus in Furs”, but if you can stand it, throw some cheerful music on your playlist. It may prove quite therapeutic, and may keep you from a depressing downward spiral.
If an alien spaceship had landed on Earth last night, and it had just happened to do so at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, NJ, the aliens would have been appalled at the sight of nearly 20,000 young women screaming and crying at the mere sight of nine aging baby-faced pop stars. The aliens would be surprised that these men seemed to offer very little – occasional well-choreographed and synchronized dances, some drowned-out nasally singing, and a smidgen of shirt-stripping – but they brought so much pleasure to the crowd nonetheless.
The NKOTBSB (New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys) reunion concert that I attended last night was at once extremely fun and totally absurd. I am actually a bit too young to know the music of the New Kids very well, but I know most of the Backstreet Boys hits by heart. I spent much of middle school and early high school listening to their albums “Millennium” and “Black and Blue” over and over again – while doing homework, commuting and falling asleep. The experience of listening to catchy (and painfully homogenously-structured) pop music was greatly enhanced by my fantasy that these attractive young men might be singing to me (I was especially obsessed with Brian Littrell, whose dulcet voice can only be matched by his delightful smile).
So when these familiar songs came on at the concert, the screams that issued from my mouth felt natural. Being transported to the past through music is such an emotional and exciting experience, and it is only compounded when you can actually be in the presence of the people you once idolized. Nostalgia is powerful; for one thing, it sells out arenas. If you get a chance to see a band that you used to like in concert, don’t be put off by the thought that they might not dance or sing as well as they used to, or that you might not enjoy the songs as much as you did in the past. The nostalgic roller coaster ride is worth it by itself. And if you don’t have the opportunity to go to a live show, scan your iPod for an album you haven’t heard in years and press play. You won’t regret it.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the modern composer John Cage, well, he basically defines avant-garde. His music was innovative, but weird. One of his most famous pieces is entitled, “4’33″”. It is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of dead silence.
Alex Ross wrote about the controversy that John Cage’s music caused in the classical music community in the New Yorker last year. Cage said, “There’s no such thing as silence.” The purpose of “4’33″,” in his opinion, is to capture audiences when they are in a state of focused attention, and have them start to interpret random environmental sounds – a cough, the wind outside – as music. I think it’s a wonderful concept, but many people dismiss this piece as “absolutely ridiculous” and “stupid.” I think that Morton Feldman, another avant-garde musician, described this dissonance best – “John Cage was the first composer in the history of music who raised the question by implication that maybe music could be an art form rather than a music form.”
You see, context matters to us. When we are walking through a museum, we expect to see splashes of paint and pieces of trash presented as art. And we are free to turn away if something bothers us. When we are sitting in a concert hall, however, it’s uncomfortable to be in silence, because we feel trapped. Also, as humans, we are especially sensitive to unfamiliar sounds. If we hear a creak or a branch breaking nearby, we tense up. This reaction is all part of an ancient instinct that associates unpredictable sound with danger. Music is pleasant because it’s patterned.
I salute John Cage for playing with our preconceptions of what music should be. Do I want to listen to his music, though? Nah.
I recently signed up to be a member at 8tracks, a really neat website where people can upload and post mixes that they create, so that anyone can listen to them. It’s an awesome way to discover new music, or to express yourself (if you are like me and you LOVE creating mixes). By the way, my username is jaggedlilstar, if you’d like to check out what I’ve posted so far.
Many artists strive to create albums that are coherent units. They find it appealing to think that the experience of listening to an album from beginning to end somehow transcends the experience of listening to it on shuffle. Some successfully reach this goal – mostly by creating great transitions between songs, sometimes by putting in a story – but, for the most part, we like mixing up our songs. Why is that? When asked, most of us will cite the welcome surprise that hearing a favored, familiar song at an unexpected time brings. And there is a neural reason for this burst of pleasure: a phasic burst of dopamine in our ventral striatums that is termed the prediction error.
The positive prediction error is what happens in our brains when something is “better than expected.” In the classic first studies on this phenomenon, Wolfram Schultz and colleagues recorded from midbrain dopamine neurons in monkeys, and saw that there was this huge spike in activity whenever the monkeys were given juice. Schultz was intrigued, but not quite satisfied; after all, couldn’t this just be a pleasure signal in response to the delicious sugary drink? So, he decided to condition the monkeys to expect the juice by first flashing a light, and then giving them juice every time the light was flashed. Once the monkeys learned this association, the dopamine burst happened when the monkeys saw the flashing light, but there was no burst when the juice was given. Now that the juice was expected, the prediction error did not happen. And what happened in the well-trained monkeys when a light was flashed and no juice was given? This also defied expectation – it was “worse than expected” – so there was a sharp dip in dopamine activity (negative prediction error).
This finding has been replicated many, many times, and it shows that expectations are key when it comes to reward processing. The more surprising a positive stimulus is, the more rewarding it is overall. And prediction error serves as a learning signal, too. The bigger the spike, the more likely we are to remember the reward and to want to repeat the action that led to that reward.
When it comes to our music mixes, we are just like the monkeys. Defy our expectations, increase our pleasure. Enjoy listening on 8tracks!
I’m currently reading David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which presents an interesting look at how our social networks determine who we are. Here is an excerpt that I found interesting:
In 1997 Gary McPherson studied 157 randomly selected children as they picked out and learned a musical instrument. Some went on to become fine musicians and some faltered. McPherson searched for the traits that separated those who progressed from those who did not. IQ was not a good predictor. Neither were aural sensitivity, math skills, income, or a sense of rhythm. The best single predictor was a question McPherson had asked the students before they had even selected their instruments: How long do you think you will play? The students who planned to play for a short time did not become very proficient. The children who planned to play for a few years had modest success. But there were some children who said, in effect: “I want to be a musician. I’m going to play my whole life.” Those children soared. The sense of identity that children brought to the first lesson was the spark that would set off all the improvement that would subsequently happen. It was a vision of their future self.
This finding definitely makes sense. Goals – and prospections of ourselves achieving them – are key to proficiency in any arena. And it’s not enough for these visions to be about gaining recognition or awards; they need to be visions of achievement (e.g., imagining going up to the stage to retrieve your Grammy won’t be as effective as imagining yourself writing that Grammy-award winning hit). If you don’t aim for excellence, don’t worry: you will succeed.
The one piece of information that I would have liked to know about this study, however, is how old these kids were. Very young children don’t have a very sophisticated idea about the future, so I doubt that it would occur to them to say, “I want to play my whole life.” And parents often encourage kids to start playing instruments even before they show any interest in wanting to learn. I used to play the piano, and I regret now that I stopped playing. Even if my plan was never to become a musician, it would be a wonderful skill to have, especially given my overwhelming enthusiasm about music. The reason I quit (and it’s shady to piece together my reasoning retrospectively, I know, so bear with me) is probably that I had to whittle down the number of activities that I took part in, and piano-playing was not an activity that offered many short-term rewards. And at that young age, of course I was only thinking about short-term rewards in my activities. Academics were the important thing; extra-curricular experiences just took up my free time and stimulated my mind. But if you grow up in a household/culture in which music is considered important, and being a good musician is an identity that one must strive to have, then you may end up practicing more and becoming more proficient. And having the identity of “musician” does not preclude ownership of other identities, such as “student”, “lawyer”, “mother” and “wife”.
So, if you want to learn music, then tell yourself that you’re going to be a musician. If you want to dabble in writing, tell yourself that you’re going to be a journalist or a novelist. I wouldn’t be surprised if that strategy – making a hobby into part of who you are – helped you to excel.