Artistic citizenship in the age of Trump

Public-facing note taking for Philosophy of Music Education with David Elliott

This week I’m reading about the social and ethical responsibilities of artists generally, and musicians and music educators in particular. That topic is especially relevant at the moment.  

Before we get to the moral philosophy aspect, let’s talk about this performance. Why is it so good? Movies and TV have run “Hallelujah” into the ground, but for good reason. The song blends joy and pain together as well as any song ever has.It’s right there in the first verse: “the minor fall, and the major lift.” It’s the same reason we love “Amazing Grace,” and the blues.

You can hear Kate McKinnon’s Leonard Cohen tribute as the concession speech Hillary Clinton would have made in a perfect world. This verse in particular gave me chills:

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

You can also hear it as an expression of Kate McKinnon herself, a queer woman mourning the world of growing inclusiveness that she thought she was moving into, the one we all thought we were moving into. And you can hear Leonard Cohen’s bitter irony, too. SNL had Trump as its host just last year, and they’re as much to blame for normalizing him as anyone.

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Émile Durkheim – Elementary Forms of the Religious Life

Note-taking for Learning of Culture with Lisa Stulberg

This week, we read another cornerstone of the sociology canon: Émile Durkheim on where religion comes from.

Émile Durkheim

The book is very much a product of its time, with continual and annoying references to “primitive” religions and peoples. No question that Durkheim’s methodology doesn’t pass contemporary muster. But his theoretical insights are on point.

[R]eligion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of the assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain or recreate certain mental states in these groups (10).

You could substitute the word “music” for “religion” and this paragraph would still be true. This is food for future thought.

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John Dewey on music education as experience

If I’m going to understand progressive philosophies of education, then I need to understand John Dewey. So here we go.

John Dewey

Dewey is a progressive hero. He was a supporter of women’s suffrage, a founding member of the NAACP, and was ahead of his time on the importance of multiculturalism. Contrary to what I had always assumed, he did not invent the Dewey Decimal System. Given that I’m reading about him in the context of music education, it was amusing to learn that he had congenital amusia. Finally, a fun autobiographical fact: I attended a very fancy school modeled on Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.

Before we get to Dewey’s thoughts on art and education, here are some of his key political stances, as explained by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Classical liberals think of the individual as an independent entity in competition with other individuals. Social and political life are the arena in which individuals engage in the competitive pursuit of self-interest, preferably with minimal interference from the government. Dewey preferred to think of individuals as parts of a bigger organism, dependent on our relationships with each other  for our survival and well-being. In Dewey’s model, freedom isn’t just the absence of constraints, but rather the positive fact of participation in an ethical social order.

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Rockism

As a kid, I liked everything: rock, hip-hop, classical, jazz, pop, dance, country, whatever. In my teenage years, however, I succumbed to the pressures of a racist society and turned into a devout rockist. I dutifully renounced pop, disco, techno, even hip-hop, anything that was “inauthentic.” I swallowed the rockist dogma that grants legitimacy to Delta blues and classic Motown but not contemporary R&B; to bluegrass but not commercial country; to acoustic jazz but not fusion. I felt earnestly moved by the rockist national anthem:

It took me until my twenties to shake this atavistic silliness and re-embrace the whole universe of Afrocentric music not made by white guys with guitars. Wherever I go, however, I continue to encounter resistance to such musical practices as sampling, synths, rapping, dancing and fun. This resistance is epidemic among my friends, fellow musicians and students, and the music world at large. Consider this post my contribution to the fight against rockism.

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Toward a better music curriculum

I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.

Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.

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Graceland

I recently saw Under African Skies, the documentary about Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it was spellbinding. The music is so beautiful, the politics are so agonizing.

I watched it with my mom and sister, which is appropriate since Graceland was in heavy rotation through my childhood. Mom isn’t a big pop scholar and knew next to nothing about the album beyond the fact that she likes it. My sister had some dim awareness of the politics, but not much more. I’ve studied the music closely but only had a vague grasp of the human story. So the film was quite a revelation for all of us, a whole new dimension to an artifact that’s both utterly familiar and mysterious. I think it hits the art houses in a few weeks. Do not miss it.

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Sampling and semiotic democracy

Thomas Wuil Joo. A Contrarian View of Copyright: Hip-Hop, Sampling, and Semiotic Democracy. 44 CONN. L. REV. — (2012)

As both a fan and a producer of sample-based music, I’m naturally sympathetic to Lawrence Lessig and the free-culture movement, a group of legal scholars advocating reforms to copyright law that would make it easier to sample, remix and mash up the works of others. The free-culture adherents believe that copyright law exceeded its original purpose to “foster the Useful Arts and Sciences,” and that now it mostly stifles less-powerful creators while benefiting more-powerful entities. A narrative has emerged in this movement implicating the high-profile sampling lawsuits of the 1990s like Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records and Bridgeport Music Inc. v. Dimension Films in suppressing sample-based hip-hop and related collage-like popular music.

Lessig and company think that sampling and remixing of popular culture can empower us, enabling us to take ownership over the products of the dominant culture industry and enhancing “semiotic democracy.” Copyright law inhibits recoding and is grossly overbalanced in favor of large corporate entities and other powerful actors. In particular, so the narrative goes, marginalized hip-hop artists have suffered under the heavy hand of lawsuits and exorbitant licensing fees.

Is the free-culture movement right?

Thomas Joo challenges the free-culture movement’s assertions both theoretically and empirically. He analyzes the infamous lawsuits and finds only reinforcement of a longstanding status quo. He provides extensive evidence that commercial hip-hop artists of the “golden age” (the 1980s and early 1990s) were perfectly aware of the requirement that they license their samples, and that they were able to produce and profit from their music nonetheless.

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