Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

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Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

With the slight return of warmth to the East Coast of the U.S. and Tropics of Meta’s very recent release of Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis’s fantastic history“’The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Rock Scene” and its accompanying archival project (bring your old flyers and pics down to scan at Bridgetown DIY, 1421 N. Valinda Ave, La Puente, CA on May 3rd from 2-6 pm), we thought it was high time to bring Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s LA mixtape Off the 60 into the sunlight for everyone to bump with their windows down.

Off the 60 was initially commissioned as a sonic installation for the re:present L.A. Exhibition at East LA’s Vincent Price Museum from May 3 – July 27, 2012. re:present L.A. was curated by Museum Studies students at Claremont Graduate University (and coordinated by performance artist, scholar, and poet reina alejandra prado saldivar, who wrote about the experience for SO! in 2011). The exhibit sought “to explore, challenge, and depict the multiple representations of Los Angeles that responds to the present social landscapes of city” through both sight and sound.” Click these links for the exhibit’s virtual catalogue and list of participating artists. Both the liner notes and the track listing have been modified slightly from the original for publication here.

 

Off the 60: Liner Notes

When I began to make this mix-tape that somehow would re-present L.A. in a mere 80 minutes, my enabling fantasy was that I could make a playlist that would be my musical calling card, a sonic Rosetta Stone for “home” that would unravel the complex knot of feelings about L.A. I carry around with me, something I could share with my son, whom I am somewhat reluctantly raising as a New Yorker. You know, a musical study guide so the sounds that raised and shaped me could tell him all the things I just can’t put into words about Los Angeles, namely how much music and place are wrapped together in my memory’s DNA. Therefore, this mix deliberately dates and locates me, enabling, in the words of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock”, the intimate knowledge of “listening to the map.” And—there was more than a little magical thinking involved here—I thought that perhaps if I arranged these songs just so, then the barren Sleepy Hollow landscape of wintry upstate New York would transform itself into the desiccated foothills, dried river beds, and dense strip malls of Southern California. I’d turn a bend and, with a little help from the Go-Go’s and Union 13, 79 would suddenly become “the” 60.

60 freewayAnd thus the title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to J.Lo’s debut album On the 6 (1999), named after the subway line between Manhattan and the Bronx, where she grew up. Off the 60 references the freeway whose red brake lights stretch between Los Angeles and Riverside, my hometown, and the mix is just the right length for a one-way trip, provided there’s no traffic (I told you there was some magical thinking involved here!). The 60 is one of the most heavily trafficked commuter pathways in the country; I know people in the Riv who will make this 60-mile drive 5 days a week, 51 weeks a year, for decades (I have also met people in Los Angeles who had never made this trip east, and who used to look askance at my 951 cell number, in the same way that my current 323 area code causes looks of consternation to New Yorkers). For many people coming of age in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles exerts a tidal pull, and we make many trips there before hitting the commuter treadmill—in family cars, in our imaginations, in movies, in books, on school busses and tour busses, in broken-down band vans, in hoopties borrowed from our friend’s uncle that may not make the return trip—and some of us make that 60-mile move West and never really come back, like me. I ended up living on St. Andrews instead of only singing about it.

Riverside 60But you never know, The Riv has a deep hold on people. I closed Off the 60 with a band from Riverside, old friends of mine Chicano punk rockers the Voodoo Glow Skulls, because one second you are going to law school in Queens or Dap-Toning with Sharon Jones and the next you are back, public defending in San Bernardino or married with big fam filling a house by Mt. Rubidoux, respectively. True stories. But I am already taking a detour Off the 60, in the hopes that the music on this mix invites you to do that. Unlike J.Lo’s subway, you can’t stay on the 60 and really get to know Riverside, Los Angeles, or all the many places in between that are intertwined socially, historically, culturally and economically with both cities: Glen Avon. Corona. Chino. Diamond Bar. Rowland Heights. La Puente. Hacienda Heights. El Monte. Montebello. East L.A. Boyle Heights.

A sonic exit ramp of sorts, Off the 60 is a mix-tape in digital format, crafted in the old style: a painstaking arrangement of songs really familiar and much beloved to me, listened to obsessively throughout the process to create fresh transitions that are laden with significance—and of course, car tested L.A.-style until smooth like butter.   For Off the 60, I deliberately picked songs without the aid of Wikipedia or any of the copious L.A song lists, sitting down with just a blank page, my memory, and a sharp pencil (as I hope you can tell by many of the songs, I’m kinda old school) to come up with a set of songs that aren’t necessarily about L.A., but of it. This is a small, symbolic sample of the music that once scored my life in the Southland from the 1970s-the 2000s through the perspective of my current “home away from home” in New York. Now, in what my colleague and homegrrl Karen Tongson (another Riversidean, now turned proud Silver Lake home owner) has poignantly dubbed “remote intimacy” in Relocations(New York University Press, 2011). these sounds still make me feel L.A. even though I often feel like I live “a million miles away.” And I hope you feel it too.

9297628099_7ab788f0a8_bThe songs on Off the 60 are arranged to speak to each other, sometimes sonically, sometimes thematically, sometimes historically (and occasionally I pull off the trifecta! Listen carefully!). I designed the mix to flow along with the narrative rhythms of a timeless (yet intentionally dated) Saturday in L.A., from waking up with the sound of Friday night still in your ears to basking in the warm afternoon—which can feel so good you almost get knocked off your game—until the purplish-orange twilight descends, with its regret and uncertainty, on into the pulsing promises of the night. Sonically blending vulnerability with hardness—and revealing both where you least expect them—I hope the songs on this mix share an overall L.A. vibe that is more than merely the sum total of the musical parts, a feeling that’s ephemeral and hard to put your finger on, but—paradoxically—one whose resonance lasts.

And because I am a sound/music scholar in addition to a product of the 714 909 951, you’ll get plenty of L.A. music history through this this mix. All the bands featured are based in L.A. or Riverside, except for two artists whom I have awarded honorary Angeleno status: Smokey Robinson and Debbie Deb. Never mind the fact Motown had already moved to L.A. by the time Robinson’s “Crusin’” was released in 1982 and he used to host one of my favorite radio shows on 92.3 in the 2000s, but these two songs have bumped out of so many cars, clubs, backyard parties and Art Leboe sets that both Smoke and Deb own some symbolic real estate in Southern California, at least in my heart.

In putting the work of so many different L.A. artists together, I challenged myself to create a coherent musical feel without placing songs from similar genres, scenes, or time periods right next to each other. I worked hard to create a sense of the diversity of the Los Angeles area without being either gratuitously culture clash-y or post-multiculti Velveeta, but using sound to make palpable both the dissonant tensions and the productive energies of everyday encounters in the city in a way that “represents” without claiming to be representative. Think of Off the 60 as a flash-sample of what you might hear while whiling away a scorching Friday night in traffic, when everybody’s got their windows open, cooling off the outside with their tunes. As a result, you’ll hear classic L.A. musical sounds in conversation—mariachi horns, surf guitar, nasally Val-Speak, fat funky synth, staccato punk growls, metal licks, downtempo samples, polyrhythmic percussion, and that power pop tone that my Vox amp calls “Cali Clean”— calling and responding across genres and decades: re-mixing, recontextualized, distorting, hyperembodying those terribly glamorous L.A. sounds, across this town, our town. Por vida.

Off the 60 is dedicated,  Art Leboe-style,  to my SGV homegirl Melissa Contreras-McGavin for always (even though she lived off the pinche 10 for so long). Mwah.

Off the 60: Track Listing–Click to Jump to Track Description

1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s
2.
“Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones
3.
“La Bamba” by The Plugz
4.
“Chango” by Ozomatli
5.
“Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone
6.
“Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez
7.
“All Day Music” by WAR
8.
“Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5
9.
“Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson
10.
“It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
11.
“A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls
12.
“I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13
13.
“Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction
14.
“Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons
15.
“Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb
16.
“West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People
17.
“Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science
18.
“This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong
19.
“Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls

  1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s (Beauty and the Beat, I.R.S. Records, 1981): The Go-Go’s were formed in Hollywood in 1978 by members of the early L.A. punk scene and this song reflects their lives in that moment. The Go-Go’s initially consisted of Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, vocals), Margot Olavarria (bass), and Elissa Bello (drums). Members Charlotte Caffey (guitar), Gina Schock (drums) and Kathy Valentine (bass) were added by 1981, after founding members Margot Olvarria (bass) and Elisa Bello (drums) were fired. The Go-Go’s were the first female band writing and playing their own music to reach number one on the Billboard Charts.   This was the first record I purchased with my own money.

  1. “Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (The B-Side of “Let’s Go Trippin’,” Deltone Records, 1961): Dick Dale was born in Boston, Massachusetts and came to Southern California in 1954—Orange County, but we’ll let that slide—where he was one of the innovators in the “Surf Music” genre that many still associate with Los Angeles. “Del-Tone Rock” was the B-Side of the alleged first surf song ever, “Let’s Go Trippin.’” An avid surfer, Dale sought to imitate with his guitar the sounds that he heard while riding waves—and he pushed his equipment to the max while doing so (Fender guitars, another Southern California staple, designed several custom guitars and amps for Dale and still sell a “Dick Dale Custom Shop Stratocaster” model). My dad once got in trouble for sneaking out to see Dick Dale play a “stomp” at the Riverside Armory in 1963. I saw him play at the Dragonfly in 1996.

  1. “La Bamba” by The Plugz (Electrify Me, Plugz Records, 1979): The first rock and roll version of this Mexican folk song was of course recorded by Richie Valens of Pacoima in 1958—he was first known as “Little Richard of the Valley”—and his life and music inspired countless musicians after his untimely death at age 17 in a plane crash in Clearlake, Iowa. The Plugz’ punk-rock version both pays homage to Valens and signifies on the outsiderness of his music career—his manager insisted he whiten his surname by changing it from Valens to Valenzuela, for example. The Plugz formed in 1977 in East Los Angeles and their version of “La Bamba” was recorded with the original line-up: Tito Larriva (lead vocals/guitar), Charlie Quintana (drums), and Barry McBride (bass/backing vocals). The Plugz were staples in the early LA punk rock scene, but they challenged its Hollywood-centricity with a sound that also had firm roots in Chicano garage rock from bands like Thee Midnighters. I first heard The Plugz on the soundtrack to Repo Man, and I can’t tell you how many batteries I went through fastforwarding from “El Clavo y Cruz” to “Hombre Secreto” and back again.

  1. “Chango” by Ozomatli (Ozomatli, Almo Sounds, 1998): Ozomatli was formed in Los Angeles in 1995, after meeting through their affiliation with the Peace and Justice Center. A multiethnic, multiracial collective that, at the time “Chango” was recorded was comprised of Wil-Dog Abers (bassvocals), Ulises Bella (clarinet, guitar, tenor saxophone, vocals), Chali 2na (MC), Cut Chemist (DJ), Raúl Pacheco (guitar, vocals), Justin Porée (percussion), Asdru Sierra (trumpet, vocals) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla, cajón, other percussion, vocals), Ozomatli is unabashedly and proudly political through and through: in their lyrics, in their brilliantly miscegenated music—described by Bella and Yamaguchi as “that crazy blend that’s going on between that cacophony of sound” on the streets of L.A. (NPR, 2007)—and in the shows they choose to perform. Ozomatli famously played their cumbia-funk-hip hop-salsa-merengue jams in front of the 2000 Democratic Convention in Downtown Los Angeles and continued to record after the LAPD shut them down and began to shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray paint balls at the peacefully gathered crowd (the footage opens their second record Embrace the Chaos). I included this particular song to also give props to the way in which Ozo has politicized collective dancing—and dances their politics—I have seen them play in many diverse venues from the Cal Plaza to the Warped Tour and I have never seen them fail to move the crowd in more ways than one. Bravo, Ozo!

  1. “Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone (Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, 1993): One of the best (and most virtuostically versatile) bands from Southern California, hands down, Fishbone was formed by high school buddies John Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone, and theremin); “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II (vocals, trumpet); and Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone, vocals) in South Central Los Angeles in 1979. Their coming together is a very 1970s L.A. story; everyone but San Fernando Valley local Moore was bussed from Compton to the overwhelmingly white high school, an 100 mile round trip that you can hear in their music. If you have never heard of this wonderful fusion band—everything from heavy metal to ska to funk to soul to punk—but find that this song sounds teasingly familiar, consider even just the LA-area bands that have stood on these giant’s shoulders: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, No Doubt, the Skeletones, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hepcat. While it has always burned me up that Fishbone has never seen the level of fame that many of these acts have—too bad you can’t pay the rent with respect—I refuse to talk about them as a failure, especially not as an act who has unceasingly worked so hard to portray Los Angeles they live in story and sound. In a recent interview with the Japanese Metropolis, Norwood Fisher stated: “you know we came from gang-related neighborhoods, so for me the violence of punk made sense. There was a big cross-cultural surge, everybody was listening to everything—mod and ska and new wave—everybody could enjoy it, and for a moment it didn’t matter what color you were.” To create that “one moment,” Fishbone has never stopped telling the stories of the numerous moments where it does matter—the tensions embodied in “Unyielding Conditioning”—and that is why I will always love them. By the way, these veteranos still tour so please support Fishbone whenever they come to home to play.

  1. “Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez (Galleries, Up Above Records 1998). This virtuostic Los Angeles hip hop super group in the tradition of multicultural, multiracial Angeleno musical collectives like WAR and Ozomatli, blends the MC talents of Visionaries 2 Mex, LMNO, Lord Zen, Dannu, Key Kool, and DJ Rhettmatic with the legendary turntablist crew the World Famous Beat Junkies (who were formed in Orange County in 1992 by J-Rocc) and whose members over the years have included Rhettmatic, Curse, Melo-D, D-Styles, Red-Jay, Havik, Tommy Gun, & What?!, Symphony, DJ Babu (also of Dilated Peoples) and Mr. Choc. The cream of the backpack crop, this group was the sound of L.A. underground positivity for myself and so many artists, writers, and musicians I knew in the 2000s. Not to mention that this amazing downtempo beat also reminds me of dancing with my best girls at turn-of-the-millennium late night chill spots all over the city—after long days grinding hard, working toward our Ph.D.s in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC—life-affirming spots like the Little Temple, Carbon, Bounce Rock Skate, the Dub Club, the Root Down, and Nappy at the Roots at the Fais Do Do.

  1. “All Day Music” by WAR (All Day Music, United Artists, 1972) The title song from their first album after changing their name from “Eric Burdon and WAR,” “All Day Music” is a musical manifesto of sorts for the multiethnic 7-piece funk/soul band that came together in 1969 in Long Beach (although the core of the band had been together since 1962 as The Creators). The new line-up was comprised of Howard Scott (guitar, percussion, vocals), B.B. Dickerson (bass, percussion, vocals), Lonnie Jordan (organ, piano, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Papa Dee Allen (conga, bongos, percussion, vocals), Charles Miller (flute, sax, percussion, vocals), and Lee Oskar (harmonica, percussion, vocals). The gentle strains of this song always take me right back simultaneously to the parks I have loved and loved in in Los Angeles—Pan Pacific Park, Lincoln Park, MacArthur Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park.

  1. “Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5, TVT/Interscope, 1998) Jurassic 5 formed like Voltron back in 1994, from the wreckage of two earlier hip hop groups,Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, and was made up MCs Charles Stewart (Chali 2na), Dante Givens (Akil), Courtenay Henderson (Zaakir), Marc Stuart (Mark 7even), and disc jockeys Mark Potsic (DJ Nu-Mark) and Lucas Macfadden (Cut Chemist)—both Cut Chemist and Chali 2na were also in Ozomatli until 2000. J5 cut their teeth at L.A.’s legendary “Good Life,” a South Central health food store owned by B. Hall that became an influential hotbed of rhyme in the early 1990s, hosting a “no cursing” open-mic night that nurtured innovative acts like J5, Medusa, the Pharcyde, and the Freestyle Fellowship. While I didn’t make it to Leimert in time for The Good Life, I loved Thursdays at Project Blowed, the next incarnation of the hip hop workshop held at filmmaker Ben Caldwell’s community arts, multimedia, and performance space, KAOS Network, which he founded in 1990. It is still held every Thursday night at 43rd Place and Leimert Blvd., and will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on 12/29/14. Follow @Blowdians for the latest.

  1. “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke, Motown/Tamla 1979) Smokey Robinson was already quite famous as a Motown originator by the time he scored this throwback hit at the end of the disco era. Motown had been based in Los Angeles since 1972, and this song—an instant classic in the Lowrider Oldie genre co-written by Robinson and fellow Miracle Marv Taupin—shows just how much L.A. had impacted the label, especially Latino car culture. Now a staple on Art Laboe’s “Killer Oldies,” a long-running Los Angeles radio show famous for playing “Oldies but Goodies” by special request. Give your loved one a musical shout out by calling 800-681-2121 M-F between 7pm-Mid and Sun 6pm-Mid PST.

  1. “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube (The Predator, Priority Records, 1993) Born O’Shea Jackson in Compton, Ice Cube took on his famous moniker when he joined old school rap group CIA in the mid-1980s (the group sang backing vocals on “Cabbage Patch”—remember that?) and then became a member of legendary hip hop group NWA in 1986. He went solo upon NWA’s break up in 1989 and produced club bangers for a good many years. I almost picked “Bop Gun” for this compilation—I love the George Clinton reference and the way it so perfectly captures the best vibes of the 1990s—but there is a world of LA knowledge embedded in the way in which the minor key sample from the Isley Brothers’ beautiful 1977 hit “Footsteps in the Dark” subtly undercuts Ice Cube’s Southern California fantasy that it could only be this song. Not to mention the long afterlife of “Good Day”: while I usually shy away from gross generalizations, I think I am safe to say that everyone who grew up in the L.A. region in the 1990s has a special love for this song. It is the day by which many of our good days are judged. People have such enduring love for the song that someone at the blog Murk Avenue spent many many hours using context clues to determine once and for all that this legendary good day was in fact, January 20, 1992. While you may have missed its twentieth anniversary, it’s not too late to order up the blimp for the 25th in 2017.

  1. “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (Everywhere At Once, Geffen, 1983) Formed in Paramount, from the ashes of the power pop/punk trio The Nerves in 1978—who performed the killer original version of “Hanging On The Telephone,” covered more famously by New Yawk’s Blondie—the classic line up includes singer, guitarist and songwriter Peter Case, drummer Louie Ramírez, guitarist Eddie Munoz and bassist Dave Pahoa. Their first break came when Long Beach promoter Stephen Zepeda signed the group to his Beat Records label for a five-song EP called Zero Hour, whose title song received a lot of KROQ airplay. Their second crack at fame occurred when they were hired as the “club band” in the film Valley Girl (1983), which my little sister and I watched over and over again, thanks to ON Television and lax babysitters.As a result, this song was the soundtrack to some of my earliest LA dreamings, and it—plus a very young Nicolas Cage as the rough guy from “over the hill” in Hollywood—gave punk rock boys permanent real estate in my heart.

  1. “I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13 (East Los Presents. . ., Epitaph Records, 1997) Formed in Boyle Heights in 1992, and influenced by punk rock, hardcore, metal, and their shared Mexican—Central American upbringing, the original lineup on this recording consisted of Edward Escoto on vocals, José Mercado and Ben Sandoval on guitars, Jerry Navarro on bass, and Louie Villareal on drums. I eventually spent so much time with these guys, in vans and in clubs on both sides of the border, that even though I haven’t seen them in years, I still think of Union 13 like family—even more so after they played a show in my backyard in Riverside and they got into a friendly brawl in the front. Ah, brothers!

  1. “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction (Nothing’s Shocking, Triple XXX Records, 1988): This band came together in Venice in 1985 out of the remains of Psi-Com, the first LA-area band of Queens transplant Perry Farrell (government name Peretz Bernstein) and included Dave Navarro (guitarist), Eric Avery (bass), and Stephen Perkins (drums). Both this song and the band were named after the struggles of Farrell’s drug addicted roommate, Jane Bainter, whom he lived with on Wilton Street in Hollywood in the early days of the band’s history. My first history with this song begins with high school subjection coupled with a lustful yearning for the sound of the bohemian unknown; I remember my best friend was almost suspended for wearing a Nothing’s Shocking T-Shirt to school because it featured plaster casts of naked women with their hair on fire—“but the female body is beautiful” I remember her saying, as she reluctantly turned the shirt inside out. The second is of moving to Los Angeles and living in Koreatown, on the fabled St. Andrews street mentioned in the song, and though the intensity of my feeling sfor this band had long since faded, “Jane Says” would pop into my head at least once a day as I headed out to hit the red line, find a coffee shop, walk past the Wiltern on my way to the Sav-on, or grab some Pho 2000 in the middle of the night. And I would stop, look up at the gently waving palm fronds, and remember that no matter what was going on in my life—high drama, money struggles, the mundanity of getting older—“at least I live in Los Angeles.”

  1. “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons (Spring Session M, Capitol Records, 1982) Missing Persons, a new wave staple on the radio and MTV in its infancy, were founded in 1980 in Los Angeles by Warren Cuccurullo (guitar), Dale Bozzio (vocalist), Terry Bozzio (drummer) and later Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and Chuck Wild (keyboard). While this song is much lesser known that “Walking in L.A.”—which I still get asked about occasionally out here on the East Coast. . .”is it true?” . . .um, once and for all, “NO!”—I think it really captures a particular alternative New Wave sonic alterity that scholar, poet, and Highland Park native Wanda Alarcon describes in an SO! post entitled “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” as having told her “there were options out there. . .and that was all I needed to survive—to save my queer soul.” Sometimes not knowing your destination can be truly liberatory.

  1. “Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb (single on Jam Packed Records, 1984) While the bad ass Deborah Claire Wesoff-Kowalski (known of course as Debbie Deb) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, she is an honorary Angelena as far as I am concerned. Her music was the soundtrack to many an Aqua Net set as my friends and I teased our bangs to untold heights to hit Roller City 2001, or later to attempt to rule the dance floor (and work out our Riverside-ness) at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens—a basketball gym-sized dance floor replete with go-go dancers, a taco bar on the patio, a dress-to-impress crowd and a broad spectrum of ground effects in the parking lot. We loved it so much we claimed the sound of Miami freestyle as “L.A. Disco.” To this day, when I throw on Deb at a party, I can’t help but smell Drakkar Noir and the scent of burning eyeliner pencils—well, how do you soften it to make your Cleopatra-eyes?. Then, as now, I used Deb’s pounding beat, synth stabs, and tough girl vocals to armor myself for life’s increasing challenges—to transform “Oh, what now?” into that world-famous and oh-so-necessary L.A. challenge “So now what?” And I thank her profusely for that.

  1. “West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People (Single on HouseJam Records, 1982) In this multi-layered song by early Los Angeles B-Boys, Ronnie Hudson and the Street People, you can hear the echoes of earlier hits—lyrical shout outs to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Gang (1979) and Zapp and Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff” (1981) as well as a killer hook borrowed from Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Bootleg” (1965)—and some really excellent futureshocks of the many L.A. acts to later sample it in songs like Mixmaster Spade and the Compton Posse’s “Genius is Back” (1988), N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” (1992), and Tupac and Dr. Dre’s much beloved monster hit “California Love” (1994). But you can also listen for the way its soundscape takes you back to the days when pop-locking ruled the scene so hard that Ronnie Hudson made a special version called “East Coast Poplock” to take the moves created by Don Campbell, a commercial art student at L.A. Trade Tech, all the way to the other coast.

  1. “Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science (Undaground Crewed, Project Blowed, 2002). Another amazing fusion artist who should not be an LA-area secret,Medusa (also known as Baby NeNe, Triple Kahlua, Sister Monet, Medusa, Microfro, and that “cool-playa-pimp nigga Sean”)began her long Los Angeles reign as a 16 year old pop-locker with the Groove-Atrons and honed her rhyme talents at The Good Life Café (and later Project Blowed) in Leimert Park, along with Freestyle Fellowship,Yo Yo, J5 and the Pharcyde. Medusa, along with her live back-up band and hip hop crew Feline Science—which includes a DJ, drummer, bassist, keyboard, percussionist, guitar and background singers—has reigned supreme on the L.A. club circuit for many years, most famously transforming the Fais Do-Do on West Adams into her own personal queendom called “Nappy at the Roots”—a fecund female and queer-friendly performance space for innovative acts that fused musics from across the city like Quetzal, Wozani, and Burning Spear—where she always brought down the house. I can vouch—I was a devoted subject for all of the years I lived in L.A.

  1. “This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong (Veo La Marea, EMI, 2008). Ceci Bastida has been an integral part of the transborder music culture circulating between Tijuana and Los Angeles since age 15, when she joined what would become one of the most classic Rock en Español bands, Tijuana NO!, as a singer, keyboardist and songwriter. While with TN!, Ceci collaborated with bands like Fishbone and Manu Chao. After leaving the band in 2000, she played with Julieta Venegas’s band for seven years, whereupon she started her solo turn, from which this track is taken, a bi-lingual, multi-genre revisioning of the Go-Go’s 1980s Valley soundscape, one that reminds listeners that the founder of the Go-Go’s was actually Chicana punk rocker Margot Olvarria (who was eventually kicked out of the group for refusing to conform to the band’s shift from punk aggression to power pop harmonies). I’ll forgive her the guesting by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, because I love this song so much, especially its movements from English to Spanish to Spanglish, its deft juxtapositions of sounds and musical styles, and the way it manages to be celebratory and confrontational all at once. It’s might be our town, but it’s still “so ruff, so tuff out here, baby.”

  1. “Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls (Who Is This Is?, Dr. Strange Records, 1994) Founded in La Sierra (an unincorporated area in Riverside County), Inland Empire Chicano punk-ska-metal band the Voodoo Glow Skulls have been at it since 1989. The “classic” line-up has a trio of brothers at its heart: Frank Casillas (Vocals), Eddie Casillas (Guitar) and Jorge Casillas (bass), with a pulse provided by Jerry O’Neill (drums), and the unique warped mariachi-1950s rock bop horn sounds provided by Joe McNally (trumpet), Joey Hernandez (sax), and Brodie Johnson (trombone). Confession: I have known Joe since elementary school and Brodie since he was a high school metal head and, even though I have some personal rough water under the bridge where VGS is concerned—an ex, and that’s all I will say about that—I haven’t stopped loving this song, a speeded-up Beatles cover that embodies the tensions, excitement, danger, and hope in California’s eternal promise of new beginnings. It’s rapid-fire chant calls to me now to remind me that “Little Girlie, it’s been so long since you been here.”

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Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief  for Sounding Out! She teaches African American literature and sound studies at Binghamton University and was a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012). You can catch her full CV at stoeverackerman.com.

Featured image borrowed from Flickr user Daniel Orth.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #3: Awesome Sounds from a Future Boombox– The Sounding Out! Crew

A Brief History of Auto-Tune

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Sound and TechThis is the final article  in Sounding Out!‘s April  Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ve heard new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veteranos Aaron Trammell and Primus Luta along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall.  These fast-forward folks have shared their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. Today, Marshall helps us understand just why we want to shift pitch-time so darn bad. Wait, let me clean that up a little bit. . .so darn badly. . .no wait, run that back one more time. . .jjuuuuust a little bit more. . .so damn badly. Whew! There! Perfect!–JS, Editor-in-Chief

A recording engineer once told me a story about a time when he was tasked with “tuning” the lead vocals from a recording session (identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent). Polishing-up vocals is an increasingly common job in the recording business, with some dedicated vocal producers even making it their specialty. Being able to comp, tune, and repair the timing of a vocal take is now a standard skill set among engineers, but in this case things were not going smoothly. Whereas singers usually tend towards being either consistently sharp or flat (“men go flat, women go sharp” as another engineer explained), in this case the vocalist was all over the map, making it difficult to always know exactly what note they were even trying to hit. Complicating matters further was the fact that this band had a decidedly lo-fi, garage-y reputation, making your standard-issue, Glee-grade tuning job decidedly inappropriate.

Undaunted, our engineer pulled up the Auto-Tune plugin inside Pro-Tools and set to work tuning the vocal, to use his words, “artistically” – that is, not perfectly, but enough to keep it from being annoyingly off-key. When the band heard the result, however, they were incensed – “this sounds way too good! Do it again!” The engineer went back to work, this time tuning “even more artistically,” going so far as to pull the singer’s original performance out of tune here and there to compensate for necessary macro-level tuning changes elsewhere.

"Melodyne screencap" by Flickr user Ethan Hein, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Melodyne screencap” by Flickr user Ethan Hein, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The product of the tortuous process of tuning and re-tuning apparently satisfied the band, but the story left me puzzled… Why tune the track at all? If the band was so committed to not sounding overproduced, why go to such great lengths to make it sound like you didn’t mess with it? This, I was told, simply wasn’t an option. The engineer couldn’t in good conscience let the performance go un-tuned. Digital pitch correction, it seems, has become the rule, not the exception, so much so that the accepted solution for too much pitch correction is more pitch correction.

Since 1997, recording engineers have used Auto-Tune (or, more accurately, the growing pantheon of digital pitch correction plugins for which Auto-Tune, Kleenex-like, has become the household name) to fix pitchy vocal takes, lend T-Pain his signature vocal sound, and reveal the hidden vocal talents of political pundits. It’s the technology that can make the tone-deaf sing in key, make skilled singers perform more consistently, and make MLK sound like Akon. And at 17 years of age, “The Gerbil,” as some like to call Auto-Tune, is getting a little long in the tooth (certainly by meme standards.) The next U.S. presidential election will include a contingent of voters who have never drawn air that wasn’t once rippled by Cher’s electronically warbling voice in the pre-chorus of “Believe.” A couple of years after that, the Auto-Tune patent will expire and its proprietary status will dissolve into to the collective ownership of the public domain.

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Growing pains aside, digital vocal tuning doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it’s safe to say that the vast majority of commercial music produced in the last decade or so has most likely been digitally tuned. Future Music editor Daniel Griffiths has ballpark-estimated that, as early as 2010, pitch correction was used in about 99% of recorded music. Reports of its death are thus premature at best. If pitch correction is seems banal it doesn’t mean it’s on the decline; rather, it’s a sign that we are increasingly accepting its underlying assumptions and internalizing the habits of thought and listening that go along with them.

Headlines in tech journalism are typically reserved for the newest, most groundbreaking gadgets. Often, though, the really interesting stuff only happens once a technology begins to lose its novelty, recede into the background, and quietly incorporate itself into fundamental ways we think about, perceive, and act in the world. Think, for example, about all the ways your embodied perceptual being has been shaped by and tuned-in to, say, the very computer or mobile device you’re reading this on. Setting value judgments aside for a moment, then, it’s worth thinking about where pitch correction technology came from, what assumptions underlie the way it works and how we work with it, and what it means that it feels like “old news.”

"Anti-Tune symbol"

“Anti-Tune symbol”

As is often the case with new musical technologies, digital pitch correction has been the target for no small amount of controversy and even hate. The list of indictments typically includes the homogenization of music, the devaluation of “actual talent,” and the destruction of emotional authenticity. Suffice to say, the technological possibility of ostensibly producing technically “pitch-perfect” performances has wreaked a fair amount of havoc on conventional ways of performing and evaluating music. As Primus Luta reminded us in his SO! piece on the powerful-yet-untranscribable “blue notes” that emerged from the idiosyncrasies of early hardware samplers, musical creativity is at least as much about digging-into and interrogating the apparent limits of a technology as it is about the successful removal of all obstacles to total control of the end result.

Paradoxically, it’s exactly in this spirit that others have come to the technology’s defense: Brian Eno, ever open to the unexpected creative agency of perplexing objects, credits the quantized sound of an overtaxed pitch corrector with renewing his interest in vocal performances. SO!’s own Osvaldo Oyola, channeling Walter Benjamin, has similarly offered a defense of Auto-Tune as a democratizing technology, one that both destabilizes conventional ideas about musical ability and allows everyone to sing in-tune, free from the “tyranny of talent and its proscriptive aesthetics.”

"Audiodatenkompression: Manowar, The Power of Thy Sword" by Wikimedia user Moehre1992, CC BY-SA 3.0

“Audiodatenkompression: Manowar, The Power of Thy Sword” by Wikimedia user Moehre1992, CC BY-SA 3.0

Jonathan Sterne, in his book MP3, offers an alternative to normative accounts of media technology (in this case, narratives either of the decline or rise of expressive technological potential) in the form of “compression histories” – accounts of how media technologies and practices directed towards increasing their efficiency, economy, and mobility can take on unintended cultural lives that reshape the very realities they were supposed to capture in the first place. The algorithms behind the MP3 format, for example, were based in part on psychoacoustic research into the nature of human hearing, framed primarily around the question of how many human voices the telephone company could fit into a limited bandwidth electrical cable while preserving signal intelligibility. The way compressed music files sound to us today, along with the way in which we typically acquire (illegally) and listen to them (distractedly), is deeply conditioned by the practical problems of early telephony. The model listener extracted from psychoacoustic research was created in an effort to learn about the way people listen. Over time, however, through our use of media technologies that have a simulated psychoacoustic subject built-in, we’ve actually learned collectively to listen like a psychoacoustic subject.

Pitch-time manipulation runs largely in parallel to Sterne’s bandwidth compression story. The ability to change a recorded sound’s pitch independently of its playback rate had its origins not in the realm of music technology, but in efforts to time-compress signals for faster communication. Instead of reducing a signal’s bandwidth, pitch manipulation technologies were pioneered to reduce the time required to push the message through the listener’s ears and into their brain. As early as the 1920s, the mechanism of the rotating playback head was being used to manipulate pitch and time interchangeably. By spinning a continuous playback head relative to the motion of the magnetic tape, researchers in electrical engineering, educational psychology, and pedagogy of the blind found that they could increase playback rate of recorded voices without turning the speakers into chipmunks. Alternatively, they could rotate the head against a static piece of tape and allow a single moment of recorded sound to unfold continuously in time – a phenomenon that influenced the development of a quantum theory of information

In the early days of recorded sound some people had found a metaphor for human thought in the path of a phonograph’s needle. When the needle became a head and that head began to spin, ideas about how we think, listen, and communicate followed suit: In 1954 Grant Fairbanks, the director of the University of Illinois’ Speech Research Laboratory, put forth an influential model of the speech-hearing mechanism as a system where the speaker’s conscious intention of what to say next is analogized to a tape recorder full of instructions, its drive “alternately started and stopped, and when the tape is stationary a given unit of instruction is reproduced by a moving scanning head”(136). Pitch time changing was more a model for thinking than it was for singing, and its imagined applications were thus primarily non-musical.

Take for example the Eltro Information Rate Changer. The first commercially available dedicated pitch-time changer, the Eltro advertised its uses as including “pitch correction of helium speech as found in deep sea; Dictation speed testing for typing and steno; Transcribing of material directly to typewriter by adjusting speed of speech to typing ability; medical teaching of heart sounds, breathing sounds etc.by slow playback of these rapid occurrences.” (It was also, incidentally, used by Kubrick to produce the eerily deliberate vocal pacing of HAL 9000). In short, for the earliest “pitch-time correction” technologies, the pitch itself was largely a secondary concern, of interest primarily because it was desirable for the sake of intelligibility to pitch-change time-altered sounds into a more normal-sounding frequency range.

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This coupling of time compression with pitch changing continued well into the era of digital processing. The Eventide Harmonizer, one of the first digital hardware pitch shifters, was initially used to pitch-correct episodes of “I Love Lucy” which had been time-compressed to free-up broadcast time for advertising. Similar broadcast time compression techniques have proliferated and become common in radio and television (see, for example, Davis Foster Wallace’s account of the “cashbox” compressor in his essay on an LA talk radio station.) Speed listening technology initially developed for the visually impaired has similarly become a way of producing the audio “fine print” at the end of radio advertisements.

"H910 Harmonizer" by Wikimedia user Nalzatron, CC BY-SA 3.0

“H910 Harmonizer” by Wikimedia user Nalzatron, CC BY-SA 3.0

Though the popular conversation about Auto-Tune often leaves this part out, it’s hardly a secret that pitch-time correction is as much about saving time as it is about hitting the right note. As Auto-Tune inventor Andy Hildebrand put it,

[Auto-Tune’s] largest effect in the community is it’s changed the economics of sound studios…Before Auto-Tune, sound studios would spend a lot of time with singers, getting them on pitch and getting a good emotional performance. Now they just do the emotional performance, they don’t worry about the pitch, the singer goes home, and they fix it in the mix.

Whereas early pitch-shifters aimed to speed-up our consumption of recorded voices, the ones now used in recording are meant to reduce the actual time spent tracking musicians in studio. One of the implications of this framing is that emotion, pitch, and the performer take on a very particular relationship, one we can find sketched out in the Auto-Tune patent language:

Voices or instruments are out of tune when their pitch is not sufficiently close to standard pitches expected by the listener, given the harmonic fabric and genre of the ensemble. When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost. Correcting intonation, that is, measuring the actual pitch of a note and changing the measured pitch to a standard, solves this problem and restores the performance. (Emphasis mine. Similar passages can be found in Auto-Tune’s technical documentation.)

In the world according to Auto-Tune, the engineer is in the business of getting emotional signals from place to place. Emotion is the message, and pitch is the medium. Incorrect (i.e. unexpected) pitch therefore causes the emotion to be “lost.” While this formulation may strike some people as strange (for example, does it mean that we are unable to register the emotional qualities of a performance from singers who can’t hit notes reliably? Is there no emotionally expressive role for pitched performances that defy their genre’s expectations?), it makes perfect sense within the current affective economy and division of labor and affective economy of the recording studio. It’s a framing that makes it possible, intelligible, and at least somewhat compulsory to have singers “express emotion” as a quality distinct from the notes they hit and have vocal producers fix up the actual pitches after the fact. Both this emotional model of the voice and the model of the psychoacoustic subject are useful frameworks for the particular purposes they serve. The trick is to pay attention to the ways we might find ourselves bending to fit them.

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Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general. 

Featured image: “Epic iPhone Auto-Tune App” by Flickr user Photo Giddy, CC BY-NC 2.0

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SO! Amplifies: Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations

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As folks rightfully celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic album, I wanted to make sure space was made to equally celebrate and critically think about the stank that Outkast put on hip hop. I want to take the conversation outside of the academy into spaces where others could join the conversation. To do this, I set up a YouTube channel and sent out invitations to friends and colleagues I knew were vested in Outkast or whose work could be used to situate Outkast in creative and critical conversations. The response to the project thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. I have conversations scheduled to broadcast until the end of the year. Here’s episode #4, a teaser to bring the Sounding Out! crowd in on the conversation.

My Outkasted Conversations project started with a fleeting thought while speaking with a friend: “It’s the 20th anniversary of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik? Damn. It’s really been twenty years?!” I was ten years old when Southerplayalistic dropped and didn’t really understand or appreciate the brilliance of the album back in 1994. I was in the initial stages of becoming someone vested in music, let alone hip hop. My definition of music was still deeply attached to what I learned in my music class. I could play the hell out of a recorder. I did a recorder solo at my school’s spring concert and was applauded like a boss.

I flirted around with being a ‘Kast fan – I remember them on Martin and later wearing out the track “In Due Time” on the Soul Food soundtrack – but it wasn’t until 1998 that I really became “Outkasted.” I permanently moved to my grandparents’ house in Albany, GA. I was tall, lanky, and awkward. I was a black Keds white socks connoisseur because you never wear white shoes in red clay. I battled the teenaged pangs of wanting to be popular and visible. I wouldn’t consider myself ‘hip hop’ at the time but I knew the heavy hitters from days of listening to WKYS out of Washington, D.C. I could school anyone on the latest single from Busta Rhymes, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown and Go-Go-ed with the best of them. Down South, though, those artists were important but they weren’t folk. As I listened to the radio, the artists that I was familiar with got no play. I tried to wax (northern) hip hop philosophical at lunch and got some serious side-eyes. A classmate scolded, “those up north n— don’t matter down here. What you listening on from ‘round hea (here)?” Round hea? Nothing but a mix tape I made off of the radio before leaving Virginia, gospel cavalcade on Sunday morning rides to church, and Paw Paw’s juke joint blues on Saturday morning while cleaning up the house. If I wanted to survive, I needed to adapt. I recorded multiple radio mixtapes, meticulously blending the artists I heard kids at school talking about and my own musings after browsing the record store in the mall. Slowly, Wyclef Jean and Montell Jordan were replaced by Three Six Mafia, Goodie Mob, and Outkast. Aquemini and Still Standing held a chokehold on my playlist. I became a full-fledged member of the Dungeon Family Chuch of Modern Day (S)Aints.

The following episode of Outkasted Conversations is with Dr. Treva B. Lindsey, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. This conversation features discussion of how the sonic elements of women’s pleasure complicate gender and identity politics in Outkast’s body of work.

To subscribe to Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations via Youtube click here.

Featured Image: SO CLEAN PSP by Flicker User John Bracken

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!


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Sounding Out! Podcast #5: Song and Spirit on the Highway” -David Greenberg

DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past

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Sound and TechThis is article 3.0  in Sounding Out!‘s April  Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ll be hearing new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veteranos Aaron Trammell and Primus Luta along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall.  These fast-forward folks will share their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. Today, Salvati asks if DIY podcasts are allowing ordinary people to remix the historical record. Let’s subscribe and press play.  –JS, Editor-in-Chief

 

Was Alexander the Great as bad a person as Adolph Hitler? Will our modern civilization ever fall like civilizations from past eras?

According to Dan Carlin’s website, these are the kind of speculative “outside-the-box” perspectives one might expect from his long-running Hardcore History podcast. In Carlin’s hands, the podcast is a vehicle for presenting dramatic accounts of human history that are clearly meant to entertain, and are quite distinct from what we might recognize as academic history. Carlin, a radio commentator and former journalist, would likely agree with this assessment. As he frequently emphasizes, he is a “fan” of history and not a professional. But while there are particularities of training, perspective, and resources that may distinguish professional and popular historians, an oppositional binary between these kinds of historymakers risks overlooking the plurality of historical interpretation. Instead, we might notice how history podcasters like Carlin utilize this new sonic medium to continue a tradition of oral storytelling that in the West goes back to Herodotus, and has since been the primary means of marginalized and oppressed groups to preserve cultural memory. As a way for hobbyists and amateurs to create and share their own do-it-yourself (DIY) histories, I argue that audio podcasting suggests a democratization of historical inquiry that greatly expands the possibilities for everyone, as Carl Becker once said, to become his or her own historian.

"Modified Podcast Logo with My Headphones Photoshopped On" by Flickr user Colleen AF Venable, CC BY-SA 2.0

“Modified Podcast Logo with My Headphones Photoshopped On” by Flickr user Colleen AF Venable, CC BY-SA 2.0

Frequently listed among iTunes’ top society and culture podcasts, and cited by several history podcasters as the inspiration for their own creations, the popularity of Hardcore History stems from Carlin’s unconventional and dramatic recounting of notable (but sometimes obscure) historical topics, in which he will often elaborate historical-structural changes through contemporizing metaphors. Connecting the distant past to more immediate analogies of present life is the core of Carlin’s explanatory method. This form of explanation is quite distinct from the output of academic historians, who assiduously avoid this sort of “presentism.” But as the late Roy Rosenzweig (2000) has suggested, it is precisely this kind of conscious and practical engagement with the past – and not the litany of facts in dry-as-dust textbooks – that appeals to non-historians. Rosenzweig and David Thelen claim have found that most Americans perceive a close connection with the past, especially as it relates to the present, through their personal and family life. Using the medium of podcasting to talk about the past is a new way of making the past vital to the present needs and interests of most people. This is how podcasters make sense of history in their own terms. It is DIY insofar as it is distinct from professional discourse, and less encompassing (and expensive) than video methods.

Podcasts can present an alternative model for making sense of the past – one that underscores the historymaker’s interpretive imprints, and which cultivates a sense of liveness and interactivity. Admittedly, Dan Carlin’s own style can be rambling and melodramatic. But to the extent that he practices history as a kind of storytelling, and acknowledges his own interpretive interventions, Hardcore History, like other independently produced history podcasts (I am thinking about a few of my favorites – Revolutions, The History Chicks, and The British History Podcast) give their listeners the sense that history is not necessarily something that is “out there,” or distant from us in the present, but part of a living conversation in the present. Podcasters construct a dialogue about history which, when combined with the interactivity offered by website forums, draws the listener into a participatory engagement. Rosenzweig and Thelen’s explain, Americans interested in popular history are skeptical of “historical presentations that did not give them credit for their critical abilities – commercialized histories on television or textbook-driven high school classes.” Such analytic skills are precisely what we as historians and teachers aim to develop in our students. Podcasting, when it constructs a collaborative dialogue in which audience and producer explore history together, can both be a valuable supplement to traditional historiography, and a way for people to connect with the past that overcomes the abstraction of textbooks and video.

"The histomap - four thousand years of world history" by Flickr user 图表汇, CC BY-SA 2.0

“The histomap – four thousand years of world history” by Flickr user 图表汇, CC BY-SA 2.0

But is the podcast as intellectually freeing as it might seem? Jonathan Sterne (et. al., 2008) notes that podcasting encompasses a range of technologies and practices that do not necessarily determine the liberation of content production from the dominance of established institutions and economies of scale. Indeed, there are many professional historians and media producers who have utilized audio (and sometimes video) podcasting to reach a wider audience. While the History Channel has not (yet) entered the field, one can surely imagine the implications of corporate-produced history content that homogenizes local and cultural particularities, or which present globalized capitalism as a natural or inevitable historical trajectory.

The kind of podcasts I am concerned with, however, are created by independent producers taking a DIY approach to content production and historical inquiry. While their resources and motivations may differ, podcasts produced on personal computers in the podcaster’s spare time have an intimate, handcrafted feel that I find to be more appealing than, say, a podcasted lecture. Ideally, what results is an intimate and episodic performance in which podcasters can, to use Andreas Duus Pape’s phrasing from an earlier Sounding Out! post, “whisper in the ears” of listeners. This intimacy is heightened by the means of access – when I download a particular podcast, transfer it to my iPhone, and listen on my commute, I am inviting the podcaster into my personal sonic space.

Complimenting this sense of intimacy is a DIY approach to history practiced by podcasters who are neither professional historians nor professional media producers. Relatively cheap and easy to produce (assuming the necessary equipment and leisure time), podcasting presents a low barrier of entry for history fans inspired to use new media technologies to share their passion with other history fans and the general public. Though a few podcasters acknowledge that they have had some university training in history, they are usually proud of their amateur status. The History Chicks, for example, “don’t claim to know it all,” and that any pretense toward a comprehensive history “would be kinda boring.” Podcasting and historical inquiry are hobbies, and their DIY history projects allow the relative freedom to have fun exploring and talking about their favorite subject matter – without having to conform to fussy disciplinary constraints. For Jamie Jeffers, creator of the British History podcast, most people are alienated by the way history gets taught in school. However, “almost everyone loves stories,” he says, and podcasting “allows us to reconnect to that ancient tradition of oral histories.” Others justify the hobby in more bluntly. For the History Chicks, women in history is “a perfect topic to sit down and chat about.” Talking about history, arguing about it, is something that history fans (and I include myself here) enjoy. Podcasting can broaden this conversation.

Despite my optimistic tone in this post, however, I do not want to suggest uncritically that the democratizing, DIY aspects that I have noted (among just a handful of podcasts) comprises the entire potential of the format. Nuancing a common opposition between the bottom-up potential of podcasting with the prevalent top-down (commercial) model of broadcasting for example, Sterne and others have asserted that rather than constituting a disruptive technology – as Richard Berry has suggested – podcasting realizes “an alternate cultural model of broadcasting.” Referring to earlier models of broadcasting – such as those Susan Douglas (1992) described in her classic study of early amateur radio – Sterne and company assert that analyses of podcasting should focus not on the technology itself, but on practice; not on the challenge podcasting poses to corporate dominance in broadcasting, but rather how it might offer a pluralistic model that permits both commercial/elite and DIY/amateur productions.

"Podcast in Retro" by Flickr user David Shortle, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Podcast in Retro” by Flickr user David Shortle, CC BY-NC 2.0

Adapting these recommendations, I argue that podcasting can help us conceptualize an alternate cultural model of history – one that invites reconsideration of what counts as historical knowledge and interpretation, and about who is empowered to construct and access historical discourse. Rather that privileging the empirical or objective histories of academic/professional historians, such an expanded model would recognize the cultural legitimacy of diverse forms of historiographical expression. In other words, that history is never “just” history, or “just” facts, but is always a contingent and situated form of knowledge, and that, as Keith Jenkins writes, “interpretations at (say) the ‘centre’ of our culture are not there because they are true or methodologically correct … but because they are aligned to the dominant discursive practices: again power/knowledge” (1991/2003, p. 79). But to reiterate Sterne’s (et. al.) caution however, such an alternative model would not necessarily determine a role-reversal between professional and DIY histories. Rather through podcasting, we might discover alternative ways of performing history as a new oral tradition – of becoming each of us our own historian.

Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013), and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled The Play of History.”

Featured image: “Podcasts anywhere anytime” by Flickr user Francois, CC BY 2.0

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“Pushing Record: Labors of Love, and the iTunes Playlist”-Aaron Trammell

“Only the Sound Itself?: Early Radio, Education, and Archives of ‘No-Sound’”-Amanda Keeler

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