Monday, March 31, 2008

A New Era?

Driving home from Trader Joe's (oh, white people..) our local public radio station (being good white people, we are members), was playing the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine. Although I've heard it about a million times, I'm not embarrassed to say that I was laughing out loud all the way home.

I'm a bit of a covert baseball fan. I don't exactly watch games much, nor do I really follow the minutia. Come September I start paying attention, which I know drives real baseball fans nut. But to my credit, I am not a fair weather fan when it comes to teams. I have been a staunch supporter of the San Francisco Giants basically my entire life. I was a Giants fan even back in the 1980s, when I was growing up in a Bay Area overwhelmed by the unbeatable LaRussa/McGwire/Conseco A's. I stood by my beloved Giants. I am, after all, a third-generation San Franciscan. (Actually, am I? When do you start measuring generations? Do you start with the first generation to move somewhere, or the first born somewhere? My grandparents moved to SF, and my mother and I were born there. Does that make me second- or third-generation?) I've only been to PacBell park once; for me, the Giants were all about gale force winds blowing pitchers off the mound at Candlestick. My Giants, suffice it to say, are not the Giants of garlic fries and tech millionaires.

Although he is for me intimately identified with this new era of the Giants, I've nevertheless been something of a defender of Barry Bonds for the past decade. Loyal though I am, you can't argue with the success Bonds bought to the team. Even without any national championships, we've been automatic contenders nearly every single year, and that is a wonderful thing. Good enough for me. Yes, he was not a very nice man. But yes, race mattered in the media's representation of that unpleasantness.

Plus, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the steroids thing doesn't really bother me. I find it slightly strange how venomous people get. Let's face it: professional athletes are anything but natural, untainted bodies. The body of Barry Bonds taking steroids might have been a gigantic creature, but the body of Barry Bonds before steroids was no less mediated by a lifetime of corporeal modifications.

I just don't think there is any intrinsic problem with rational adults modifying their bodies as they choose. I have plenty of friends who take hormones and have had invasive surgeries performed so that their gendered bodies are more to their liking. Cattle veterinarians whose hands are freakishly strong after twenty years of prying into big animals. Musicians whose bodies become scarred and asymmetrical from a lifetime of holding a violin under their chin or pedaling a piano. Millions of people who diet and exercise their poor bodies into skinny oblivion. I myself am tattooed and pierced, not in any kind of radical way, but enough that I feel like I have left my own stamp on my body. How different is any of this from using a chemical to change your body to be better at sports? Sure, it's bad for you, but nothing in this list is particularly good for you.

I do think that steroids should be banned in sports, for the simple reason that there is so much money involved in sports that I'm not sure professional athletes could legitimately be called "consenting." Ban them, I say, and enforce that ban for real. But let's not pretend that it is some revolutionary act.

Anyways. Barry is gone, and that is a good thing. These past few years, the team spent way too much money and energy catering to his presence, much to the detriment of the other eight players, let alone the farm system. The home run chase became a distraction, and yes, so did the steroids. This year's team is bizarrely young, and by all accounts not very good. We just miserably lost our opening game to the Dodgers, 5-0. But it is a new beginning, and I for one am excited.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Not So Secret Loves

Speaking of white people...

My friend Marcie found this amazing sheet music for the big 1953 Doris Day hit "Secret Love," from Calamity Jane. (One of the greatest and more underappreciated western musicals, IMHO.) She bought it for me, and I scan it here for your pleasure.

How fabulous is this! One thing I find amusing is that "Secret Love" is of course the romantic number from the movie, encapsulating the moment when Doris realizes that she is: 1) femme, 2) heterosexual, 3) white, and 4) in love with the dour-faced Howard Keel. (I don't get the last one myself, but we all have our own tastes.) In other words, if you are looking at the cover above, "Secret Love" is all about the little inset photo to the right. It is most definitely not about Doris-the-butch-cowgirl shooting her way out of a red sunburst!

Here's some clips of the song:

You have to picture Doris singing this while wearing a very sensible beige pantsuit. And largely looking at a horse while she does so. It's a pretty song, one of the first times she does those trademark octave leaps I'm always talking about, where she throws herself headlong into the chorus, and then more gracefully cups the sound into her lower register. (We all know and love this gesture from "Que Sera, Sera.")

To show you how the disparate chapters of my dissertation actually do end up connecting to one another, I now give you a clip of the Orioles singing "Secret Love," also in 1953. Incidentally, this is the only Orioles song I can think of in which they use the nonsense phonemes "doo" and "wop" to articulate the backing harmonies.

You'll have to read my dissertation to find out how John Cage and Leonard Bernstein connect to all of this.

Monday, March 24, 2008

White People

How White Are You?

1. Go to Stuff White People Like. (Or here for a more conveniently formatted list.)

2. Count how many items apply to you.

3. Divide by total number of items (91 currently.) This is your whiteness percentage.

My whiteness percentage is 49.4. If you know me in real life, you will find the lowness of that number highly amusing.

Monday, March 17, 2008


So, you know how Interstate 95 is a really major freeway? Like, it goes from Maine to Florida, and if you live anywhere on the east coast, you spend a lot of time dealing with it. In my four years living in Connecticut, I would do anything possible to avoid it en route to New York. In my year in Boston, it was how you got to either New Hampshire or Providence. In Washington, where I lived for many summers, it forms half of the beltway. If one drives between DC and New York or Connecticut a lot, as I did, it's how you do it. Here in Philadelphia, 95 cuts right through the city, and is how I get to the airport.

Okay. So, there's another freeway here, Interstate 76. Not quite as big deal as 95, but it is probably the most important freeway for people living in Philadelphia and to the west. The "blue route" they call it for some stupid historical reason. It goes along the Schuykill River that divides Center City and West Philly, and is a horrible, traffic-laden misbegotten mess. But it's important, you know? Goes all the way to Ohio ultimately.

So my complaint: this major north-south freeway, and this major east-west freeway, they connect in Philadelphia, right near where I live. The problem? They don't actually connect! You have to exit 95, go over a weird bridge, wait at a light to turn left, go on a surface street for a bit, and then finally you merge onto 76.*

Why doesn't it properly connect like real grown-up freeways do?!! ARGHHHH!

Next in our series: how New Jersey conspires to make it impossible to drive from Philly to NYC.

*I suppose I should admit that they do kind of connect on the other side of the city, but in a ridiculous and completely useless way.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

And So It Begins

Attention Pennsylvania residents: are you registered to vote? As a Democrat? You need to be so, by March 24, in order to vote for Barack Obama in the April 22 primary. This is not an open primary, so you cannot be registered as an independent. Visit here to register! And if you want to do more, there are voter registration drives happening all over the state this weekend. Mary and I will be out there with a clipboard ourselves.

Speaking of primaries, my father, who teaches economics and has a blog on the subject, has an interesting post about prediction markets. These are markets--online I guess?--where people bet on things happening. So it's similar to opinion polls, except that people actually have money riding on predicting the right outcome. He claims not to be an expert on the subject, and I am even less of an expert, but one interesting factoid is that right now, in the prediction markets, Obama is the 70 percent favorite to be the nominee, versus Clinton at 30. Not exactly scientific, but not bad news either!

The Wire Is Over

What did we think of the ending of The Wire? I have to say I was a little disappointed. For me, the show was best when it had a very light directorial touch--no fancy shots, just lots of great dialogue and gritty street scenes. Sure, every season would have a sappy end-of-season musical montage, and there was the occasional weird intrusion of surveillance footage for no reason, but part of the performance of "authenticity" that Simon and Co. worked so hard on depended, for me at least, on a very carefully controlled cinematographic hand. And then...the last episode is full of annoyingly obvious allusions to previous seasons, a musical montage to end all musical montages (based on the first season's theme song, no less), and a general sense of "aren't we so clever." Honestly, the self-satisfaction of the show's creators is the one thing that has always bothered me. I mistakenly watched some episodes with directors commentary once, and was totally put-off by Simon's smugness. That smugness was particularly a problem in this last season, I thought, when Simon's own former employer, the Baltimore Sun, got put put under the microscope.

And don't even get me started on the ridiculous serial killer story line...

All that said, what an amazing show. I was introduced to it during Season Three, by my friend Steph. Thanks to his tutelage I got hooked, and later we watched Season One and Two together one magical summer. Mary then got on board, and we watched Season Four as it came out each week, and just kept on getting blown away. I even have a (slight) academic connection to the show: one of my dissertation chapters was on the early R&B vocal group the Orioles, who grew up in West Baltimore--I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure that the actual street corner they formed on has been shown occasionally on The Wire.

I've blogged about this before, but one of the most beautiful moments on the The Wire was when Bunk, the detective, and Omar, the thug, have a conversation about their shared history in the city, and what the town used to be like before being decimated by drugs and urban renewal. When I wrote about the Orioles, I did so knowing that I was writing about that exact moment, when the affluence of the post-war economy seemed finally to be trickling down to a new African American urban middle-class. It was a brief moment of hope, but a beautiful one.

On that note, I leave you with the classic opener to Season Four:

Via Train of Thought.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Guadalajara Bound

Since we clearly have not been doing enough traveling, Mary and I decided to head off for Mexico this weekend. Such is our busy life that we actually flew in separately from opposite sides of the country; she's been in Oregon for more corporate veterinary brainwashing, and I was back in Philadelphia. (although only a day after getting back from Texas, having visited a friend in Austin after SAM.)

The occasion is that Mary's identical twin sister Anne lives in Guadalajara, where she works and teaches at a campus of the Tecnológico de Monterrey. She lives with her boyfriend Roi (a native tapitio, or Guadalajaran) in a huge shambling building in the center of the city, shared with like ten other housemates and a constant stream of late-night parties. We've been having a fabulous time. Yesterday she and Roi bought us tickets for the "Tequila Express," a tourist train that takes you to a historic hacienda that still makes Herradura Tequila, and where you have lunch and watch a carefully constructed stream of mariachi, traditional dancing, and charreria. And, of course, all the tequila you can drink, as had been true on the train, the tour, and again on the train home. By the time the train was coming back to Guadalajara, our well-lubricated car was having a fine time harassing the musicians who kept tromping up and down the aisles, and forcing unwary bathroom-searching gringos into impromptu dance-offs. Good times.

Actually, it really was fun. I'd love to know more about how the spectacle we saw was put together. Mariachi is the supposed national music of Mexico, and legitimately so--all of the Mexican tourists, who came from all over the country (they did a kind of state-by-state roll call at lunch) knew the words to every song. But one of the points of the Tequila express is an attempt by the Jalisco tourism folks to kind of re-regionalize this music, which originated in Guadalajara and is a local pride sort of thing. Similarly, a video we all had to watch at the tequila factory made much of the fact that Mexico's national drink comes from Jalisco ("God's gift to the world!"), and there is a lot of rhetoric involving Guadalajara being the most Mexican part of Mexico. Part of this is that Guadalajara is a famously conservative city, very wealthy and long strongly influenced by the church. So I guess it is the same project that has been going on for a long time in Mexico, that is common to any kind of nationalist project: trying to control what cultural traditions, and therefore which people, get to become the national image. It was interesting to see this show just a week after being at the Society for American Music conference, where there was a big showcase of norteño, or conjunto, music at the banquet. Two weeks ago I could not have differentiated it from mariachi, of course, but norteño openly embraces the stylistic diversity and rapid changes that happen in any border area, and the result is a far grittier music that didn't seem aligned with a nationalist project of any kind. (Said authoritatively by someone who knows nothing about this. Side note: how sad is it that anytime we academics talk about something only a tiny bit outside of our expertise, we get all nervous and cautious about saying anything?)

The next day, after a breakfast of chilequiles at Lullio, their local hangout, Anne and Roi plopped Mary and I on a tandem bicycle they own. We spent a cheerful hour pedaling up and down Avenida Vallarta, which the city closes down for cycling on Sundays. I suspect we were quite a sight.

Back to the dissertation now!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

SAM Roundup

San Antonio? Funny town. Feels a bit like Disneyland, complete with an alcoholic version of the Jungle Cruise. And then there is that "Alamo" thing in the middle of town. Everyone says it is smaller in real life, and so I was expecting it to be small. But really, it is tiny. But as they say, it's not how big your metaphor for Texan liberty is, it's how you use it.

My paper went very well, the panel even better. Our two papers went together very nicely, I thought, giving a glimpse of the beginning and the end of identity politics. We were missing our third panelist, but it did mean that we had actual time for discussion afterwards, which was nice.

SAM is, as I said earlier, a lovely group of people, and the conferences are a ton of fun. I wonder sometimes what will happen to it in the future. It used to be that to research American music made you something of a dissident in musicology. That's no longer true, now that (most of) the big programs are turning out Americanists in droves. If one of the best places to study American music is Harvard...well, it means being an Americanist is something very different.

Similarly, going to SAM always reminds me that it's not exactly ideologically neutral to study the music of the most powerful country in the world, and I wish more of us would acknowledge that fact. And perhaps also acknowledge that our work has often been sustained by the state itself. Oscar Sonneck, after all, worked for the Library of Congress. And many of the pioneering scholars of American music had explicit ties to the government. A few conferences back there was a big tribute to the pioneering Americanist Gilbert Chase. At one point, almost in passing, someone mentioned that just as he was writing America's Music from the Pilgrims to the Present, he was also a longtime employee of the State Department in the 1950s. People working in the discipline of American Studies have been much more successful than we have, I think, in acknowledging what it means to be an "Americanist" in a time where that is a rather fraught political identity in the world. I know SAM as an organization has been trying to promote more transnational work, and to expand our scope to include all of the Americas. But so far, I don't think it's quite caught on. And even beyond expanding scope, there's a lot more self-reflexivity that could be occurring. Just my two cents, and not original cents at that. I fully admit I'm still trying to figure it out in my own work.