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City Paper: “It’s (Not) Over”

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(photo by Josh Sisk)

For the City Paper’s “Big Music Issue” this year, I did a piece on Baltimore’s house music history and what I’m seeing as a slow but steady resurgence in Baltimore at the same time that the radio and mainstream pop grows increasingly obsessed with a derivative of the genre. I spoke to veterans The Basement Boys and Ultra Naté and also, hybrid electro/club/house producer King Tutt about this. Also in the issue is a really awesome “making of a beat” comic strip and a piece by the dude Al Shipley about Baltimore’s Round Robin hip-hop event, which includes Kane Mayfield, of Mania Music Group, one of my favorite Baltimore emcees and someone I’ve covered on the blog a couple of times.

“I think the Black Eyed Peas really started this whole shit,” Teddy Douglas jokes, as he ponders radio’s renewed interest in four-on-the-floor dance. Jay Steinhour, Douglas’ more reserved friend and collaborator of 25 years, wryly grins. It’s a sunny but not too sunny Thursday in late June at a Mount Vernon café and the Basement Boys are talking house music: what it was, what it is, and if what’s popping off on the radio right now even qualifies.

Will.i.Am, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and, well, everybody else’s anthemic dance pop, however you want to label it, does at least have its roots in European dance, and that stuff most certainly stems from the house that came out of Chicago, New York, and other dance-music hubs, including Baltimore…

Written by Brandon

July 12th, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Barack Obama: Presidential Ironist

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Ignore the way too loud guffaws. the turd-rate celebs in the audience, and the point that if a Republican made jokes that hover this close to actually being biting it’d be a national disaster, and the annual “President gets to act wacky” Correspondence Dinner is something of a tour de force of Presidential poise.

In this stand-up routine whatever whatever, Obama has the odd but ideal balance of doing a stupid thing all the Presidents have to do (“just one more problem that I’ve inherited from George Bush”) and hamming it up good and proper while maintaining a certain air of “I know this is stupid”. Not an air of dignity, although there’s some of that too, just in 2009, dignity isn’t much of a trait to grab for–irony however is, and Obama treats the whole thing with a smarmy but never snobby distance.

There are hints of this before, like when the big historical swearing-in stumbled for a second–the fault of Chief Justice Roberts–and Obama smirked, not out of frustration or concern for his image but more like “I just screwed-up the oath and that’s kind of funny and will be talked-about even though it doesn’t really matter.” Or when he’s circled by reporters as he walks the family’s dog and there’s this ineffable grin on his face and he answers reporters kindly and casually and seems to get-off on derailing the event by expounding on his answers beyond what they’re expecting–like a wizened suburbanite forced to make small-talk with a vaguely obnoxious neighbor but being cool with it.

While these little details hardly matter resting next to the big problems the United States and the world must confront, they’re a great way of unpacking why Obama’s fascinating in a positive way–not fascinating/baffling like Bush–and why/how Obama enlists hope for the country in a way that at least seems fresh.

It’s not because he’s conventionally “eloquent”, but because he’s comfortable not always being eloquent and so, he’s a quick on his feet speaker who’s embraced the wandering, qualifying nature of his thoughts instead of denying them. It isn’t that he’s this impossibly confident dude, it’s that he’s smart enough not fall apart or hyper-compensate when he isn’t confident. In short, his actions are dominated by irony, but not the irony of rooted in cynicism (like most Democrats) or nihilism (like many Republicans), but a healthy self-aware kind of irony that if you don’t possess in 2009, you’re kind of weird anyways.

And so, the joy of watching the Correspondents’ Dinner was not that Obama was hilarious or hip–he was relatively hilarious and hip–but that he found a way to make a really stupid tradition made so that the President looks “cool” into something where he actually looked cool and sort of made fun of the event at the same time. There’s a big mess of hacky jokes, weird kinda truths, actually funny jokes (“fresh young faces like Arlen Specter”) and it’s just plain old bizarre too watch in a good way.

The opening joke where he thanks all of the correspondents (“most of you voted for me”) is not only a quip, but an aggressive statement of fact (they did) and a parody of the Left-Wing conspiracy junk that’s building and building by Limbaugh types–who now has an official Dick Cheney co-sign by the way. The jokes were not only a mix of self-deprecation and cross-party jibes, but some like double-edged critiques that had a touch of actual anger to them which Obama sold by grinning like “I’m getting away with this” and then following it up with a corny joke about his kids taking Air Force One out for a joyride and the status quo’s back to being maintained. This is how things are accomplished or approach being accomplished: The balance between doing what you want and doing what you’re supposed to do, whether entertaining an audience or running a country.

Written by Brandon

May 12th, 2009 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Barack Obama

The House Next Door: "Music Video Round-Up" Young Jeezy’s "My President" & Relics of Cynicism

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I talk about the Young Jeezy videos “My President” and “Crazy World”, as well as Killer Mike’s “Pressure” video. I’d also like to note that very quietly–a surprise in the hype-everything world of rap–that “My President” director Gabriel Hart has tacked-on a terrible, terrible intro to the video. He’s also re-edited it, and so we get less Bun B about to cry with excitement and just a general fucking-with the rhythm. I wrote my review when the original only existed and rather than re-write or qualify it, I tossed-in a few lines about the re-edit and kept my initial reading:

“In light of Obama’s election and it’s positive implications for our country (made more than ideal by big moments like the impending closure of Guantanamo Bay and minor ones like not totally clowning McDonald’s worker “Julio”), politically-engaged protest art has the odd effect of feeling passe and cynical. Fully aware dissent don’t end when something good happens, the premiere of Young Jeezy’s “Crazy World” video a week or so after Obama won the presidency, felt decadent and irrelevant, a relic of knowing cynicism that we could now look beyond, right? Right? RIGHT?”

Written by Brandon

February 18th, 2009 at 8:30 am

On Bun B in the "My President" Video…

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More than a multi-racial sea of exuberant Obama supporters standing proud (or just as appropriately wilding out), more than John Lewis’ pensive cameo, more than just the existence of this epic victory lap rap from Young Jeezy, it’s the about-to-cry sincerity of Bun B’s face that makes the “My President” video.

Everybody but Bun’s acceptably sincere: Look pensive, nod your heard, jump up and down, cheer. Bun’s response is the one you’ll get a few moments later, the one that’s not cool, after the adrenaline stops, when the history-making, genuinely hopeful feeling for the first time in awhile sense of joy hits you and you tear up because it seems like maybe just maybe something really great’s really gonna happen.

He’s like, on the verge of tears, biting his lip a little, maintaining his cool, not on some “no homo” shit, but just because. That mix of keeping your cool and being totally okay with being a little bleary-eyed in a rap video’s basically what Bun’s been doing his whole career. It’s what he does when he raps on some much dopier Southern rapper’s “remix” and flips the song into some kinda complex political shit, or just plain raps harder, faster, whatever-er than the rest of the dudes. Whatever the rest of the group’s doing, Bun’s going to do that and then some and inject even more reality and honesty into the whole thing.

Neither a wizened “about damn time” stoic (although he’s probably in part, thinking that) or a treating it like a Super Bowl victory ball of enthusiasm, Bun’s modest and private, shooting the camera a few pensive glances with eyes that say more than Jeezy’s raps and simply raising his chain to Pimp C. It’s an insular kind of joy- the kind of joy you feel in those really glorious moments, where you step off to the side, away from everybody because somehow it’s all come together and you need to be alone. I think that’s what Bun B’s going through–or performing effectively enough–in this video: Tears of joy.

Written by Brandon

January 20th, 2009 at 6:44 am

The Difference Between Snark & Satire: Obama & ‘The New Yorker’


The slowly-becoming “infamous” ‘New Yorker’ image of the right wing’s insinuations about the Obamas reduced to absurdity, says more about the left than the right. The most reactionary side of the left bounces claims of racism–which are half-right–with incredibly condescending concerns about how a significant amount of the country isn’t going to “get it” and therefore, it will damage Obama’s reputation. This goes beyond issues of the image being problematic, or not funny, or offensive, and cuts to the core of the left’s on-going problem, one that Obama’s been fighting even as he’s used as its poster-boy: left-wing elitism.

The hypocrisy and endlessly frustrating aspects of the mainstream left become clearer with Obama’s campaign and so, even if the dude loses to McCain, wins and ends up being a total schlockmeister, simply wins, or even gets murked, Obama’s impact beyond making the borders of who can run for president a little more porous, are solidified. By simply running, Obama’s exposed the fundamental racism of the left, a racism they masquerade as tough-minded cultural “realism” about the world and how people just won’t vote for Obama–the same regional “realism” that’s got them up in arms about how the wrong people won’t get this ‘New Yorker’ cover–but is the exact same fear of veering from the status quo more honestly expressed by the right.

By simply running, Obama’s upset the long-standing belief–really, paranoia–that all black leaders and blacks in power will stick together no matter what. Those recent off-camera comments by Jesse Jackson shouldn’t have been a controversy at all because if you support or like Obama, it just makes sense that Jesse Jackson would be upset with the guy! There’s no place in Obama’s politics for Jesse Jackson types. If anybody was thinking hard, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama should’ve both come out of that mini-controversy looking pretty good. Both of them stood their ground. The same stands for this ‘New Yorker’ cover, where their sense of smug humor and over-the-top imagery simply don’t jibe with Obama’s campaign or message and for the first time in a couple of decades, the Democratic candidate doesn’t have a lot in common with the mainstream left (except for a terrible plan to get out of Iraq and a refusal to see how despite cooked-up Saddam/Al Qaeda links, Iraq and Afghanistan are inextricably connected).

‘The New Yorker’ and its cover typify this very rarified and relatively new brand of liberal elitism. While there’s plenty of talk about the right’s new-found, incredibly insular but pseudo-populist bastardization of Neo-Conservatism, or even recent talks of downright silly concepts like pro-life Libertarians, there’s less talk of left-wing equivalents. ‘The New Yorker’ as it currently stands, represents this left-wing hypocrisy. It’s a magazine read by plenty of people, all across the country, yet it tries to retain its former exclusivity. Pockets of smug assholes in big cities and small towns can take comfort in ‘The New Yorker’s attempt at cultural and political groupthink. It’s the same as the false right-wing reconcilliation of populism and elitism: The “I’m a regular, good ol’ boy but I’m also the father of a former president and a millionaire myself” argument put on by President Bush.

What’s disturbing about this cover is just how explicit it makes ‘The New Yorker’s percieved exclusivity, almost flaunting the “controversial” rather than controversial nature of it all. There’s little to no interest in this cover for anyone not in on the joke. That’s fine or it would’ve been fine if ‘The New Yorker’ was still as New York and hip as it once was, but as I said, you can stumble into any Borders or Barnes & Noble in any bumfuck town and find a copy. Additionally, there’s such a sense of purpose and grabbing for that iconic cover that’ll define this election, that the whole thing feels contrived and self-involved. Making this “controversial” cover is based on the assumption that anyone outside of its readers and political-types give a single shit about ‘The New Yorker’.

The cover wants to be iconic and lasting, but the magazine and the art make no attempt to appeal to anyone but the converted. It’s based on the assumption that you get and agree with cartoonist. It’s over-the-top portrayal isn’t a problem because people may not get it but because there’s no room for disagreement in the cartoon. That’s why it isn’t satire. It pokes fun of nothing in general or towards any human truths outside of “the right’s real dumb and they think or like to present the Obamas as this anti-American couple”. It’s snark rather than satire because it feeds off inclusivity, it doesn’t start there and spiral out, like the best satire does and even say, ‘The Colbert Report’ can do at times. It’s like the obvious ironic T-shirt sold at Urban Outfitters versus like finding the ‘Corona’ shirt from Wal-Mart with the two half-limes in the bottle and then the third bottle has an entire lime on it and it says “Greedy” and rocking it to the point where people may not realize you’re joking and just think you’re this Corona/party dude. Both are stupid, but at least one’s going all the way with it.Not that there should’ve been, but it is interesting that this image from ‘The Weekly Standard’ a few weeks ago didn’t generate any controversy because it’s the perfect analogue to the Obama ‘New Yorker’ cover. It’s a reduction to absurdity of the big, giant fears of the left: poor whites. Interestingly, ‘The Weekly Standard’s a Conservative magazine and so, its a similar weird, uncomfortable thing of them attempting satire by joshing something they think they understand or sympathize with but for the most part, don’t get and even if they do, take their comfort and humor too close for comfort. If anything ‘When Bubba Meets Obama is significantly more offensive than the ‘New Yorker’ cover. At least, ‘The New Yorker’ got the offensive stereotypes right, ‘The Weekly Standard’ uses your typical American “redneck” as a stand-in for the quite different Appalachian…

Written by Brandon

July 15th, 2008 at 5:51 pm

Posted in Barack Obama

Spin It Like A Helicopter South Cackalacka!

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This is why Youtube is great. While looking for the apparently-deleted ‘Mr. Big Dick’ video, I found this. The mosaic effect is NO JOKE.

CHOICES: The Election
-Why are the media ignoring Mike Huckabee’s remarks about the Confederate flag?
-There’s something pathetic and embarrassing about our obsession with Barack Obama’s race.
-Why Romney needs to talk about his faith
-Why on earth would we choose to put the Clinton family drama at the center of our politics again?

Written by Brandon

January 27th, 2008 at 7:17 pm

Obama’s Iowa Victory & The Infatigable Cynicism of the Left

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So…yeah! Obama won in Iowa which really sort of means he could be the Democratic candidate which means he really sort of could be the President. Fuck this “first black President” junk for a second because that’s exciting and all and represents this or that, but Obama is really just an genuinely exciting and smart candidate. I’ve used the quote below in a previous entry, but it’s worth repeating because it’s exactly why I am excited about Obama- like everything in life, we like people we agree with and I agree with enough of what dude has to say to be excited- and represents his clear-thinking, sincerity, and avoidance of some of the left-wing ideological traps that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but see as ultimately polarizing and therefore, a good idea to drop or stick in the background:

“I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised. I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally…Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”-from ‘The Audacity of Hope’ (10-11)

In short, Obama is saying without saying “I’m pretty much your classic pre-60s Social Democrat. If you like that, hop on-board, if you don’t, I’m very sorry to disappoint you”. It’s a testament to both the inherent hopefullness of liberalism and the current left’s total out-of-touchness with most people, that so many of my peers still won’t support Obama. I say this not on some “how can you not see how great he is” type shit (because he’s not great) but because he’s an actually viable Democratic candidate, simple as that. Watching the New Hampshire debates last night, I was shocked by his ability to not be totally full of shit and I’m genuinely engaged by his ability to think about a question, pause, and then respond in a way the highlights the results of promises more than the promise itself.

I understand my joy is a little premature and etc. etc. but I find it troubling that so many people I talk to or read are still a little “meh” about Obama. At my work, as the Iowa results were coming in, more discussions were about Huckabee being a creepy motherfucker and abortion rights than you know, the Democratic candidates. Another co-worker’s contrarian response was not to sway the discussion towards the candidates we’d all presumably be voting for, but to say that complaints should cease because any Republican would be better than Bush (Huckabee to me, is way scarier than Bush, but that’s besides the point). What was so depressing but gave me some secret glee was witnessing a group of twenty and thirty somethings that all lean to the left, confronted with something quite hopeful and not knowing what to do with it!

I stumbled into a similarly frustrating conversation with a declared “feminist” co-worker the night before. The topic was American Apparel, specifically their business model in regards to making quality American-made clothing and especially, CEO Dov Charney’s respectable stance on immigration. The “feminist” of course, mentioned sexual harassment suits brought against Charney and for her, this outweighed any “good” the guy might be doing…

If the flaw of the current right is a mind-bogglingly complacent attitude and fear of anything that isn’t the status-quo, the left’s flaw is a refusal not to be cynical. But like most of the left’s flaws, they somehow switch it around into a self-important positive. My co-workers’ inability to get their dicks even remotely hard for Obama is not because they are infatigable cynics but because they are “discerning”.

Similarly, two of the most engaging and entertaining hip-hop bloggers, Jay Smooth and Dallas Penn both posted apprehensive blogs on the topic of Obama. Neither of the guys support Obama and I think it’s awesome that they come out and say it, but it ultimately draws parallels to the single-issue voting of so many right-wing voters. Jay’s post is interesting but ultimately cynical in a way that most of his blogs are not. That probably says more about the current political climate than it does Jay’s attitude but I personally found it a little distressing that the focus was more on the racism of those Americans that haven’t yet voted, than those Iowa-ans that did. Dallas Penn’s reasons are equally honest- which I totally respect, this is not an attack- and boil down to Obama’s opposition to universal health care. Penn cites his mother’s multiple-sclerosis and this country’s- to steal a phrase from Dallas- “fucked the fuck up” health care system as reasons why Obama’s opposition means so much to him. That, I cannot and will not fault but I find it problematic that the assumption is that Obama’s opposition to universal health care must mean “the pharmaceutical industrial complex and the insurance rackets definitely have their wallets over Barack”. Maybe Obama just doesn’t support universal health care? I don’t support universal health care and no one’s paying me to say that. The only reason I even work at the aforementioned job (where I fucking shelve books from 8pm-5am, after a day of teaching, mind you) is so I can have some health insurance.

The logic that because Obama does not support this supposedly good thing of “universal healthcare”, it must mean he is being paid-off, is unfortunate and reduces a complex issue to comic-book hero/villain simplicity. I no longer perceive cynical, political idealists as highly-demanding voters but impediments to genuine political change, who bask in their own complacency even as they proudly proclaim their refusal to compromise; It’s a fun way to feel but it doesn’t do a lot of good.

The Democratic left has become but one more institution designed to maintain power and the status quo. A trip through history will show nothing but institutions that create an impossible “ideal” to gain power and reward the people not by you know, giving them what they want, but by giving them the illusion of progress. Christianity remains pervasive because it is based on “Goodness”- something no one can ever achieve. The return of Christ too, is an example of it; you hook a person forever if you have them believing in something impossible. The war on drugs, the war on terrorism, Islamic terrorism itself, the goals of Socialism, Communism, and all identity-based “isms” are all based on the impossibility of total equality or the total stamping-out of whatever “evil” a specific ideology has decided to label “evil”. Capitalism is the idea that you can continually move-up and make more money with no end in sight…even this concept that hip-hop was once this wonderful, perfect thing that is now dead, works as an example…you get the point. It’s fun to feel noble and discerning all the time, it’s scary to actually embrace something real and palpable, even if it isn’t exactly what you want.

“We decent, liberal, humanitarian types (representatives of the moral community to which both my reviewers and I belong) are just luckier, not more insightful, than the bullies with whom we struggle.”-Richard Rorty

Written by Brandon

January 7th, 2008 at 8:14 am

Posted in Barack Obama

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The Deadening Effects of Ironic Indie Culture.

“I believe in the free market, competition, and entrepreneurship, and think no small number of government programs don’t work as advertised. I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers. I think America has more often been a force for good than for ill in the world; I carry few illusions about our enemies, and revere the courage and competence of our military. I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood generally…Undoubtedly, some of these views will get me in trouble. I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”-from ‘The Audacity of Hope’ (10-11)

Yesterday, while browsing Perez Hilton (no homo), I noticed an advertisement in the right corner that immediately disturbed me. It was an ad for a website that sells numerous t-shirts that purport to be supporting the candidate. They are done in the style of the ever-present “vintage”, hipster T-shirt and say things like: I (heart) Obama, O8ama, Clinton/Obama 2008, Barack N’ Roll, Do You Smell What Barack is Cooking?, He’s a Barack Star!, Barack My World, Obama/Oprah 2008, Obama Baracks My World, Barack the Vote, Kiss Me I’m Voting for Obama, It’ll Take Obama to End the Drama, Barack the Casbah, and my personal favorite, ‘Barack Out with Your Cock Out’… Now, if you’re laughing at these, I forgive you but seriously, what the fuck is this? When the ironic T-shirt has extended to our political statements, I’m not sure what to do. If someone were wearing one of these shirts, I don’t know that I’d immediately know that they were in-support of Obama. The shirts certainly don’t lend themselves to suggesting that one takes the candidate seriously (and I won’t even go into how racist they are…).

These shirts highlight a more problematic aspect of the indie-rock culture, the “genre” so many ill-informed music fans, writers, and bloggers have been supporting since the “death” of hip-hop. Besides the obvious problems with most indie rock, there is the bigger and far more damaging aspect to indie-rock: It is so damned ironic. Whenever I see someone in an ironic t-shirt, I always imagine them in the worst situation possible. At some point, somewhere, some douche in a “Worst Kisser Ever” t-shirt was told that his mother died or something and he broke down in tears. How can you have real emotions wearing that? Now, I know these shirts are just fun and I’m just being humorless, but sometimes it’s important that we don’t laugh at everything. The point of humor is to bring people closer, to reflect some harsh reality we may not be able to confront without laughing…you know, that whole laughing to keep from crying thing…

For many, Indie rock is being used in contrast to rap music. Now, what the two genres have to do with one another or how one is the antidote to the other, I do not know, but this seems to be the case, according to everyone from ‘The New York Times’ to Byron Crawford. Rap music, particularly by those that are still such dinosaurs as to not listen to any rap music, will cite the music as too self-serious or too fake, but I can think of nothing more false than the world of indie rock. Their ironic dance parties, their ironic clothing, even their pseudo-ironic/pseudo-populist embrace of Lil Wayne or Clipse. Go to Facebook and choose a liberal arts college and count the number of indie kids throwing up “gangsta” signs or captioning their pictures with “Crunk!” The ironic T-shirt form of irony does nothing but create an impenetrable barrier of pseudo-coolness, taking nothing seriously. Compare this kind of irony to the dark truth-revealing irony of Notorious B.I.G or even something as willfully goofy as Polow Da Don’s verse on ‘Throw Some D’s. We laugh with these artists, we are not laughing at the world.

At the same time as being impenetrably ironic, most indie music, from the sad-bastard vocals to the uber-pretentious albums full of literary references, are employed to convince misinformed listeners that the music is sincere and yes, significant. The indie world loves to have their cake and eat it too and fuck them for doing so. Think of how many actually legendary rappers appeared on ‘The (White) Rapper Show’! Would their indie equivalents ever take their guard down long enough to show up on say, ‘The (Black) Indie Rocker Show’ if it were to exist? Stephen Malkmus or Sonic Youth would be too worried about an image to ever appear on something as “uncool” as a reality show…meanwhile, someone as self-serious as 50 Cent still shows up on Howard Stern and talks about eating asshole for thirty minutes.

Why must everything in the indie-rock world be pushed through some irony machine? Why must they pervert everything to fit their cause? Isn’t the fact that Barack Obama is the first truly viable, ethnic presidential candidate enough for you? He has to be turned into a bad pun by some art-school fuckface for you to visibly support him? Obama is not hip, he is not cool, this is what is so striking about him as a candidate. He is not a rock star, he expressed embarrassment when pictures like these were released. No matter which way you twist it, there’s nothing cool about a book called ‘The Audacity of Hope’ and that’s great! Do not treat him the way you treat that one black friend you have at college.

-Obama, Barack. ‘The Audacity of Hope.’ Crown Publishers: New York, 2006.

Written by Brandon

March 5th, 2007 at 9:38 pm

Posted in Barack Obama, Indie, Irony