Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reviewing the Review: O'Hara and Logan

There is an interesting review in the Sunday Times of the new Selected Poems of Frank O' Hara, written by William Logan. Typical of Logan, the overall tone is snide, and, I would also say, a bit homophobic. Take his final summary of the poems chosen for inclusion in the volume:
In his best poems...O’Hara found something beyond that terrible vacancy he was trying so hard to fill. (His best poems are rarely his most characteristic or frenzied.) The style, though at times foolish and self-parodic, remains fresh 50 years later. However much these poems live in the world of Lowell’s “tranquilized ’50s,” their giddiness in the face of despair, their animal pleasure in gossip, their false bravado, their frantic posturing and guilelessness and petty snobberies — and these were O’Hara’s virtues — give us as much of a life as poetry can.
There is a long tradition of criticizing the work of queer artists along these exact lines. The common accusations are of being insufficiently serious, and of not working hard enough. O'Hara, Logan tells us, was "preoccupied with the trivial." His "physical world is curiously impoverished." O'Hara "refused to apologize for his narcissism, his comic pretensions, his sometimes insufferable archness." And of course, my favorite line: "What O’Hara most objected to about poetry, however, was the hard work." Not to belabor the point, so to speak, but this approaches cliché. There is a way in which the central aspect of homophobic critique is a revulsion at any absence of procreation, or at least metaphors of procreation, in the artwork of a queer artist. Heaven forbid that an artist should step outside the framework of bourgeois domesticity. Rather than interpreting or even just simply noting O'Hara's approach--which these quotes describe accurately enough--Logan has to pass negative judgment in moral terms.

I wish I could say that Logan was himself being flip or attempting to reproduce some sort of camp humor. But I don't have that sense; I think rather that he really does object to O'Hara's breezy manner. Perhaps he's jealous, which you will understand if you ever read Logan's own ultra-laborious poetry. I'm just not sure how useful a review is that points out that a prolific poet wrote some poems that aren't good. He does, after all, praise quite a bit of his work, and considering that O'Hara died at the age of forty, I'm not sure what the big problem is.

Anyways, I just want to leave you with one of O'Hara's greatest poems. This is the "Salute to the French Negro Poets," from 1958, where he famously links together the common struggle of colonialized people at home and abroad in what is an essentially anti-identitarian politics. Texts like these are why I love working on the 1950s. Read it aloud, and I dare you not to be moved by the last line.

Ode: Salute to the French Negro Poets

from near the sea, like Whitman my great predecessor, I call
To the spirits of other lands to make fecund my existence

do not spare your wrath upon our shores, that trees may grow
upon the sea, mirror of our total mankind in the weather

one who no longer remembers dancing in the heat of the moon may call
across the shifting sands, trying to live in the terrible western world

here where to love at all’s to be a politician, as to love a poem
is pretentious, this may tendentious but it’s lyrical

which shows what lyricism has been brought to by our fables times
where cowards are shibboleths and one specific love’s traduced

by shame for what you love more generally and never would avoid
where reticence is paid for by a poet in his blood or ceasing to be

blood! Blood that we have mountains in our veins to stand off jackals
in the pillaging of our desires and allegiances, Aimé Césaire

for if there is fortuity it’s in the love we bear each other’s differences
in race which is the poetic ground on which we rear our smiles

standing in the sun of marshes as we wade slowly toward the culmination
of a gift which is categorically the most difficult relationship

and should be sought as such because it is our nature, nothing
inspires us but the love we want upon the frozen face of earth

and utter disparagement turns into praise as generations read the message
of our hearts in adolescent closets who once shot at us in doorways

or kept us from living freely because they were too young then to know what they would ultimately need from a barren and heart-sore life

the beauty of America, neither cool jazz nor devoured Egyptian heroes, lies in
lives in the darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions

the only truth is face to face, the poem whose words become your mouth
and dying in black and white we fight for what we love, not are.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Blogging by Bullet Points

In lieu of actual blogging...
  • Proposal To Re-Name SF Sewage Plant after George Bush. Utter brilliance. And it looks like they collected enough signatures to get it on the ballot.
  • What's Obscene? Google Could Have the Answer. A lawyer defending a porn site in court is using Google Trends to show that the local "community" (Pensacola, Florida, in this case) is actually an avid consumer of pornography. The notion of "community standards" to define obscenity has always been intellectually bankrupt. How exactly do you define a "community," and how can you objectively know what its standards are? Well, the answer is, most communities, no matter how you define them, love their porn.
  • The First Amendment [pdf]. Neely Bruce, a former undergrad professor of mine, set the Bill of Rights to music, in the style of Sacred Harp singing. You can download and perform the First Amendment for free. Anybody here in Philly want to give it a go?
  • Cody's, Landmark Berkeley Bookstore, Closes. I cannot tell you how tragic this is.
  • I agree pretty much entirely with GayProf's review of Sex and the City. I do think one strength of the movie was its honest depiction of the psychic damage of betrayal, a subject which features so prominently in mass culture but is always either too sugar-coated or too black-and-white in representation. But beyond that, I didn't find much redeeming value. Remember back when women talking and socializing without men was considered threatening? We used to have lesbian separatism; now we have women coming together for the purpose of talking about men. or buying things with imaginary money.
  • I recommend reading Dean Dad's two recent posts about the salary disparity between the tenure track and the adjunct class, and also Dr. Crazy's two rejoinders, and especially the often brutal comment threads associated with all of these posts. As a non-anonymous current adjunct, I'm not going to comment myself. But I think this discussion is one of the most important ones in academia right now. The issues are of course different in musicology--unlike English or History, there is not very much part-time employment in our field. Some, but not tons, and therefore I would hazard a guess that a much greater percentage of actual Ph.D.-holding musicologists (rather than moonlighting performers) are in tenure-track positions compared to other disciplines. That's a good thing in many respects, but it does present challenges to those who are, like myself, currently in a rather liminal state. Okay, maybe I will actually do a real post on this subject; stay tuned.
And finally, something to whet your appetite for a future post:

Friday, June 20, 2008

June 20

Today is the 61st wedding anniversary of my maternal grandparents.

They sure don't make 'em like that anymore.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

That Ol' Time Black Music

According to the proclamation of our much beloved president, the month of June in the year 2008 is Black Music Month:
For generations, African-American artists have created music that communicates across racial boundaries and expresses both joy and sorrow. When facing the cruelty of slavery and injustice, African Americans lifted spirituals to the heavens, bringing comfort to troubled souls. These timeless declarations of hope and faith evolved into the more modern genres of gospel, blues, ragtime, and jazz, and they are given voice in the musical genius of Scott Joplin, Marian Anderson, Eubie Blake, and Mahalia Jackson. During the Civil Rights era, African-American musicians such as Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, and Ruth Brown conveyed the struggles of their communities while bringing people of all backgrounds together. Today, this music continues to inspire America's citizens and advance its creative spirit.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2008 as Black Music Month. I encourage all Americans to learn more about the history of black music and to enjoy the great contributions of African-American singers, musicians, and composers.

Who knew that Georgie was such a musicologist? Of course, like many musicologists, he seems more interested in dead musicians than living ones; not a single person named in the proclamation is still alive. And while I don't want to disrespect the late-career work of some of those named--who can forget Ruth Brown's cameo in Hairspray--I think it's fair to say that George Bush hasn't liked Black Music since about 1970 or so.

But in honor of George Bush's Black Music Month™, I'd like to relate an anecdote from this past weekend. We were driving down to DC, and stopped at a Maryland rest stop for bathrooms and coffee. I went into the Starbucks to order myself a grande non-fat dry cappuccino, and Mary a grande non-fat triple latte. A song, no doubt carefully chosen by a corporate puppetmaster back in Seattle, came over the in-store stereo:

I watched as one of the baristas began nodding her head and mouthing the words. I glanced to my left, and saw that the soccer-mom type was unconsciously bobbing her head a bit. A glance to my right, and a big beefy guy waiting for his drink was ever so gently twisting his hips in time to the music. Then I realized that literally the entire store was dancing to this song.

Jazz might be America's Classical Music, but Motown is What We Listen To. Is there any other single repertoire of music so universally popular? Sure, there are exceptions, but I can't think of any other tunes that retain hipster cachet across racial lines while still managing to assuage baby boomer nostalgia in a non-threatening manner. I can read about Motown in a hipper-than-thou hip hop magazine like Wax Poetics, but I know all of the tunes from listening to my parents' oldies radio stations growing up.

As a grad student, I spent one spring immersed in this music as a teaching assistant for our department's course on "Motown and Soul," taught by my esteemed adviser. The music only gets better the more you listen to and study it. And if very few of my students knew, coming into the class, that the Supremes were actually black, well, that's more testament to Berry Gordy's genius for creating music that anyone could project themselves onto.

So one wonders why Motown isn't part of the George Bush's Black Music Month™. I have no doubt that he himself listens to it, since everyone does. Perhaps, he is intimidated with Barack Obama's Motown-heavy playlist. Maybe there is still a frisson of oppositionality at work in what was, after all, the largest black-owned business created at the height of the civil rights movement. Maybe not. Because I also remember that scene in The Big Chill, where the friends hear this song and begin to dance, just like the crowd at Starbucks. And then I read the excellent Wikipedia entry on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and learn that it was similarly used in the movie Remember the Titans as example of racial healing. And since both of these examples make me roll my eyes, I begin to wonder: everyone loves Motown, but why, exactly? Maybe a white guy like me loving Motown is sort of like the George Bush Black Music Month™ theory--black music is great, as long as it is history.

This sort of back-and-forth agonizing probably isn't fun to read, but it's something I think all scholars (should) go through. It is always fraught to analyze people who are different than yourself, and of course anyone who looks at music in the past is necessarily looking at music by people different than themselves. But that difference is especially fraught when it happens to encompass one of the most anxious binarisms in American history, Dubois's black-white color line. A year and a half ago, I blogged elsewhere about how it was difficult for me to understand the attraction of Sonny Til, the handsome lead singer of the Orioles. (I've since figured it out, thank you very much; read my diss for the answer.) Just recently, some anonymous commenter happened upon that old post. After some interesting points, he concluded, "If you can't dig what I'm telling you - maybe you just ain't tan my man!" And you know, he's right. Not in some biologically essentialist way, but in that Sonny Til's attraction was so rooted in its context--race is one, but others as well--that it was really hard for me to appreciate it.

Now, I'm a neurotic musicologist, so these are the sorts of things I think about. But to get back to Motown, I really do wonder what attracts people to it. Great tunes, of course. But as I tell my students: tell me more!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Few Presidential Thoughts

  • Now, I love me some Barack Obama. But if he is finding that his position on gay marriage (opposed, but willing to leave it up to the states) is essentially the same as John McCain's, then...well, I am disappointed.
  • John McCain is 72 years old. All four of my grandparents are older than John McCain. And unlike John McCain, all of my grandparents retired in the 1980s, when knowledge of computers for work was not yet obligatory. And yet, somehow, not only do all four of my grandparents know how to use computers, all four of them read my blog. One of my grandmothers is even on Facebook. So what's the problem, Johnny Boy?
  • Apparently Cindy McCain has trouble not plagiarizing recipes. While annoying, it does make me realize that one of the few positive effects of a Hilary Clinton nomination might have been that Parents magazine could have realized that presidential spouses have skills besides baking cookies.
  • A six percentage point difference is not "a small lead." 51-48, now that was a small lead. 50,456,169 to 50,996,116, now that was a small lead. But 48% to 42% is just...a lead.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My New Calling


As a 1930s wife, I am

Take the test!

When the questionnaire touched on matters of child-rearing, I just mentally substituted our dog. For example, for "Saves punishment of children for father at night," I put yes, because my wife is the Mabel disciplinarian. I just can't say no to my precious baby.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cage Returns

It's been interesting to read Kyle Gann and Brent Reidy on their past experiences studying John Cage. I've often thought that Cage is something of a gateway drug for musicologists, at least those studying the recent twentieth-century. I know so many other scholars my age who began their careers studying Cage before moving on to other things.

My first encounter came in high school, in the summer between my first and second years. I was spending four weeks on the campus of Cal Arts, down in Southern California, at a state-run summer program for artistically minded high school students. I was there for creative writing, actually, but on the first night I went to a concert that was billed as "A Tribute to John Cage." I'd never heard of him, but was interested enough in anything self-consciously avant-garde to attend. It was organized by the pianist Gaylord Mowery, and on the second half of the program he announced that he was going to play one of the most beautiful pieces of music written in the twentieth-century.

It was, of course, 4'33", and the audience of precocious little would-be artists was entranced. The canonical interpretation of the work is that you are supposed to be listening to the sounds of the environment, but that has never been my own experience of 4'33". Rather, for me it has always been about the people around you. It's a chance to notice those sitting next to you, to listen to their breathing, and, for me, without getting too misty-eyed, it's a rare chance to enjoy silent companionship with strangers.

Since then, Cage has always been an important part of my life. My first tentative efforts at musicology as an undergraduate were on Cage, and I wrote more than a few seminar papers on him in graduate school. Finally, last year I wrote a sixty-page long dissertation chapter on the historical premiere of 4'33" in 1952. Since then, I've been busy with other chapters and projects, but no doubt I will return again.

But as both Gann and Reidy hint at, a longterm relationship with Cage can be problematic. In the first blush of romance, the attraction is all about the purity of his aesthetic. If you grew up in a world of classical music, he seems so utterly radical and right. I don't think it is a coincidence that Gann and I both discovered Cage as teenagers, a time in your life when it is particularly important to be 100% correct, and self-righteous about that fact. A lot of scholarship out there, particularly the early stuff, more or less takes this approach. In fact, up until James Pritchett's book, almost all "scholarship" on Cage was actually just interviews with the man, or collections of his writing.

Since his death, and since Pritchett's important book, there has been a fair amount of actual musicology on him. I don't want to name names in a laid back forum like this, but unfortunately much of it is pretty bad. In all the worry over whether or not he was a composer or a philosopher, scholars seem to have forgotten that focusing "just on the music" doesn't mean you should leave all of your critical faculties at home. The great thing about working on Cage is that his career intersects all of the big issues in twentieth-century music, and yet most seem content to leave him safely ensconced his own little musical bubble. George Lewis's influential essay is a positive example of what can be done if one does not buy into the mythmaking: Lewis asked the simple question, "hey, does race have anything to do with why Cage hated jazz so much?" Of course it does! Lewis might not have the perfect answers as to as why it does, but man, you should see how angry Cage people get when such things are suggested. Similar flareups always happen when you bring up the fact that Cage was gay, or had control issues, or liked flannel pajamas. Any suggestion that Cage was a human being has tended to be rebuffed.

Ultimately, these sorts of political issues are why many people, as I say, started out working on Cage and then move somewhere else. This is true for me as well; after all of my time working on him (eight years, yikes!), he's only one chapter of my dissertation. It would have been very easy for me to do an entire dissertation on him, but I found the discourse of Cage scholarship to be an unproductive world for a young scholar. I still want to contribute, of course, but it's not a place I want to call home.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Jury Duty in a New City

There's been a spate of jurisprudential duties in my circle; a friend in LA a few weeks ago, my wife last month, a friend here in Philly just last week. Like celebrity deaths, jury duty seems to come in clusters, and today it was my time to go.

Living in Philadelphia, you come to assume that anything related to municipal governance is going to be a complete and utter disaster. This is the city that barely has recycling, where most neighborhoods don't have street cleaning. A city that tried to become the first WiFi city in the country only to fail to the point where the private company contracted to provide the service is pulling out its routers and going home. A city where a steady string of leaders have been the target of FBI corruption probes, and where most intersections need to have a sign instructing "Wait for Green" in a futile attempt to corral some of the world's most incompetent drivers. It's a ridiculous excuse for a city, lovable in its constant failures.

But apparently, one thing this city does well is jury selection. My friend Ray, who recently served as well, put it well when he pointed out that if you spend your life waiting for Septa trolleys, it is a major surprise to show up for jury duty and be served free cinnamon cake by friendly clerks. I kid you not, the room was spacious, with plenty of comfortable seats, clean restrooms, vending machines, free coffee, and a table full of snacks. Directions were given clearly, and one of the judges came down to give us an inspirational speech in a thick South Philly Italian accent.

Ironically, I did jury duty in Los Angeles, just before moving, and that was a miserable experience. In Los Angeles, I showed up at 7:30 am to a courthouse, waited until lunch, and then was moved to a courthouse twelve miles away in Inglewood. No transportation provided, they just assumed everyone had a car. There, we waited for five hours before being told to come back again the next day. Then, we waited all day long with absolutely no information, and in an miserably hot cramped room, before being told in severe tones that that because we had complained amongst ourselves about the situation, we had irrevocably tainted our pool and they would have to impanel a new jury.

So yeah, Philadelphia jury duty rocks. And as Ray pointed out, it's one of the few times you have a group of people made up of genuine Philadelphians without suburban interlopers. It was a congenial group, with lots of discussion of the primary results and a bit of flirting. When the clerk called out a funny name, people would give a good-natured chuckle. When the clerk announced "Barbara Bush," everyone burst out laughing. When she called "Cornelius Cardew, Jr.," I think I was the only one to snicker.

And best of all, I was impaneled for a civil trial that settled before we were even called in, and I was done by noon. Philly rocks.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

How To Lose Gracefully

I like to think that I have backed more losing candidates than most. My own personal genealogy of support in the 2000 presidential campaign went something like this:

November 1999: I enthusiastically join the board of the nascent Connecticut for Paul Wellstone committee.
January 2000: Wellstone drops out, I cheerfully switch to Bill Bradley. Much campaigning ensues.
March 2000: Bradley loses badly on Super Tuesday, and the writing is on the wall. I begin migration to Al Gore, although I am privately bitter at some of Gore's dirty tricks.
Fall 2000: Somewhat reluctant, but sincere, campaigning for Al Gore. Wrote self-righteous op-eds in student paper about subject. Directed my energies towards a congressional candidate (who then lost, of course), since Connecticut was firmly Democratic for the presidential line.
November 2000: Voted happily for Al Gore. Bush won.

My pattern was most obvious in 2000, but just about every presidential election for which I was a sentient human being went down more or less like that. Jesse Jackson in 1988. Tsongas in 92. Nader in 96. Dean (with qualms) in 04. So, to summarize, I know a thing or two about how to back a losing candidate.

It sucks. No doubt about it. Most of us who worked on the Bradley campaign are still bitter about Al Gore eight years later; he can win as many Nobel prizes as he likes, but I'll always think of him as something of a jerk. There is a generation of Bradley supporters, largely people my age who were in college at the time, who checked out of active Party politics after that election. I did. So I can sympathize with Clinton's supporters, many of whom feel bitter and disempowered. I don't blame them if their heart isn't in the fall election. Losing sucks; it makes you feel both stupid and unappreciated.

But if you, dear abstract Clinton supporter, even THINK about voting for John McCain this fall....well, I'm not sure such people exist outside of the Clinton's politicking machine and the fantasies of a bloodthirsty mainstream media. But if you do exist, dear sir or madam, please ask yourself if you are supporting McCain because you like him better than Obama, or fundamentally distrust Obama, or whatever it is--or if you voting for McCain just out of spite, to make yourself feel better. If the latter is the case, well, from one loser to another, stop being so goddamn selfish.

As for me, I can say that it feels absolutely fantastic to be winning for once.