Archive by Author | bentausig

This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom

5932653121_793c88a977_b

Can you imagine what would happen if young people were free to create whatever they wanted? Can you imagine what that would sound like?–Prince, in a 2015 interview by Smokey D. Fontaine

Prince leaves an invitingly “messy” catalog—a musical cosmos, really—just as rich for those who knew it well as for those encountering it with fresh ears. He avoided interviews like he avoided conventions. He made few claims. Read him as you will.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Yes, art is open, and perhaps Prince’s art especially. And yet many eulogies have described him as indescribable, as if he were untethered by the politics of his world; he wasn’t. Some remembrances assume (or imagine) that Prince was so inventive that he could escape stultifying codes and achieve liberation, both as musician and human being.  For example, Prince has often been called “transcendent”—of race, of musical genre, even of humanity itself.  This is overstated; he was rooted in all of these. Better to say, maybe, that he was a laureate of many poetics, some musical and some not. He responded to race, genre, and humanity, all things that he and we are stuck with. He was a living artwork, and these, by way of sound, were his media.

Prince was not transcendent. He was just too much for some to assimilate.

little prince

Since Prince’s passing last month, I’ve been struck by the idea that his career might have been, deliberately or not, an elaborate quotation of the career of Little Richard, who anachronistically has outlived him. Or, a sonic version of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “signifyin(g)” in the African American artistic tradition in The Signifying Monkey: repetition with a difference, a re-vision—and, especially appropriate here—a riffing (66). Both Prince and Richard in their way defined rock music, even as rock—as a canonized form—held them at a distance. They were simultaneously rock’s inventive engine and its outer margins, but never, seemingly, its core—at least from the perspective of its self-appointed gatekeepers.

Love-Symbol-2

Rock and race have, to put it mildly, an awkward history. African-American rock artists rarely get their due from labels and taste-making outlets, in money or posterity, a phenomenon not at all limited to the well-known pinching of Elvis and Pat Boone. One might consider, for example, Maureen Mahon’s anthropology of the Black Rock Coalition, a group home to Greg Tate, Living Colour, and others dwelling on rock’s periphery. Canons are one way to understand how this denial works.

To be sure, some black artists have been canonized in rock, but always with a handicap, as Jack Hamilton has explained lucidly. In, for example, best-of lists (which I have browsed obsessively since Prince died, as if enshrinement there might confirm something about him; he is usually #40 or #50), there are only so many slots of color: Hendrix is the black guitar god; Little Richard the sexual sentinel rising in a repressed era; James Brown the lifeline to funk; Big Mama Thornton the grandmaternal footnote. Best-of lists published by major magazines and websites such as Rolling Stone and VH1, tend to name about 70% white artists, as well as 90-95% male ones. These lists have become just a smidgen more inclusive in the past decade or so. Still, only the Beatles and Rolling Stones are regular contenders to be named history’s greatest rock band.

We are free to interpret greatness, but not too free.

For those who care about lists enough to comment on them, much of the point is in the arguing, the freedom to declare an opinion that cannot be challenged on logical grounds. I certainly wouldn’t argue for more “correct” best-of lists, either for aesthetics or inclusivity. Lists have every right to be subjective. But they are also fascinatingly unmoored by any explicit standard for judgment. As a result, the debates that surround their ordering are full of unvarnished pronouncements of truth (and falsity), even for those who acknowledge the subjectivity of lists, which I observed first hand as I joined and posted on a Beatles forum and an Eagles forum to research this article (“…putting the Police and the Doors ahead of the Eagles is absurd, IMHO”). But why would anyone declare certainty about a question such as the best rock artist of all time, when it is so plainly open to personal interpretation?

Yes, lists are subjective. But who are the subjects that invest in them?

Love-Symbol-2

Prince’s career began in the late 1970s, a musical moment deeply reflective of what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”  The Beatles were gone after the 1960s and guitar music stood under their long shadow. Led Zeppelin were bloated and breaking up. Disco was in ascent. Rock had somehow convinced itself that it was neither rooted in nor anchored by queer, female, and racially marked bodies, as it indeed was and in fact had always been. White male rock critics and fans were busily constructing the “rock canon” as a citadel—impenetrable to “four on the floor beats” and diva-styled vocals—and there was nothing in its blueprint to suggest that there would be a door for someone like Prince.

Just one month after Prince finished recording his breakthrough, self-titled album in July 1979—the record gave us “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You,” which Chaka Khan would take to chart topping heights in 1984—Chicago “shock jock” Steve Dahl staged an infamous event at Comiskey Park called Disco Demolition Night. The fascistic spectacle, which took place between games of a White Sox doubleheader, asked fans to bring disco records, which would be demolished in an explosion and ensuing bonfire on the field.

It was a release of pent-up frustration and a wild-eyed effort to rid the world of the scourge of disco, which many listeners felt had displaced rock with plastic rhythms, as Osvaldo Oyola discussed in a 2010 SO! post “Ain’t Got the Same Soul,” a discussion of Bob Seger, who famously sang in 1979, “Don’t try to take me to a disco/you’ll never even get me out on the floor.” Excited, drunk defenders of the “rock canon” rioted around the fire. The nightcap was cancelled.

These are the subjects who invest in lists.

Many who witnessed the event, both in person and on television, experienced its personal, racially charged, and violent implications. Aspiring DJ Vince Lawrence, who worked as an usher at the Disco Demolition Night game, was later interviewed for a BBC documentary entitled Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music: [see 9:00-10:15 of the clip below]:

It was more about blowing up all this ‘nigger music’ than, um, you know, destroying disco. Strangely enough, I was an usher, working his way towards his first synthesizer at the time, what I noticed at the gates was people were bringing records and some of those were disco records and I thought those records were kinda good, but some of them were just black records, they weren’t disco, they were just black records, R&B records. I should have taken that as a tone for what the attitudes of these people were. I know that nobody was bringing Metallica records by mistake. They might have brought a Marvin Gaye record which wasn’t a disco record, and that got accepted and blown up along with Donna Summer and Anita Ward, so it felt very racial to me.

Lawrence notes that blackness was, for rock’s canonizers, part of a mostly inseparable bundle of otherness that also included queer people, among others. Although the disco backlash is often regarded as mainly homophobic, in fact it points to even deeper reservoirs of resentment and privilege.

When music companies decided to mass-market the black, queer sound of disco, they first called it “disco-rock”; two words that American audiences eventually ripped apart, or demolished, perhaps. Black and queer people—and women too, of all races and sexualities—represented the hordes outside of rock’s new citadel, whose walls were made from the Beatles’ cheeky jokes, Mick’s rooster-strut, Robert Plant’s cucumber cock, and Elvis’s hayseed hubris.

Little Richard, for example, was black and queer like disco; what to do with him? His drummer invented the straight eight rhythm, perhaps the genre’s most enduring motif. Here’s Little Richard was rock incarnate, total frenetic energy; Richard’s brilliant, singular approach to the piano  would launch a thousand rock tropes in imitation. But in canonization he could only be the nutrient-rich soil of rock—say, #36 on a best-of list—never its epitome, somehow.

I don’t know if Prince—a lifelong resident of Minneapolis, who came of age in the volatile Midwestern American milieu of white disco demolitions AND underground black electronic music culture—cared to consider this history, but he floated in it. He effectively signified on Little Richard not so much by quoting his music (though he owed a debt to him just like everyone who played rock), but by reproducing his position in the music industry. He was a queer noncomformist, never in the business of explaining himself, obsessed with control, whose blackness became a way of not flinching in the face of an industry that would never embrace him, anyway.

prince2

Love-Symbol-2

I interpret Prince’s musical personae as queer, not in the sense of inversion, as the anti-disco folks had it, but as a forever-exploration of sexual life. Prince’s queerness was not, strictly speaking, like Little Richard’s, but Prince took it on as an artistic possibility nonetheless. If Richard dwelled on this particular fringe as a consequence of his body, his desires, and the limits of social acceptance and religious conviction, Prince chose it as his identity. But Prince also lived and worked within limits of morality and, also like Little Richard, religion.

379999703_00f021d6a8_b

Image by Flickr User Ann Althouse, 2007

Touré writes in a New York Times obit of Prince’s “holy lust,” the “commingling” of sexuality and spirituality. Jack Hamilton writes of the doubt and moral uncertainty that coursed through songs like “Little Red Corvette.” Holy lust is arguably the central pursuit of rock; the term “rock and roll” is etymologically linked either to intercourse or worship, appropriately, emerging in both cases from African-American vernacular. Prince’s queer play with sex, sexuality identity, and religion is as rock and roll as it gets.

Love-Symbol-2

As punk sputtered, Simon Reynolds writes in Rip it Up and Start Again, funk appeared to rock fans as a racially tinged, politically and sexually charged savior. Bass, the heart of funk, was key to punk becoming post-punk around 1980. The instrument was suddenly charged with new symbolic and structural importance. During the same period, it is remarkable how many of Prince’s songs either have no bass, or rework bass’s role entirely. “When Doves Cry,” from Purple Rain (1984), Prince’s 6th studio album, is the best-known example of an ultra-funky track that withholds bass entirely, but “Kiss” lacks it, too, as well as “Darling Nikki.”

Earlier on Purple Rain, the bass on “Take Me with U” plays almost as a drone, buzzing like a minimalist’s organ.“Kiss,”from 1986’s Parade and Prince’s second-biggest hit yet only #464 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Timeis so tight, so locked in, so populated by alluring timbres that suggest an alien plane of instrumentation, that you forget it’s even supposed to have bass by rock top 40 convention. On much of 1980’s Dirty Mind, it is difficult to know which carefully tweaked synthesizer tone is supposed to index the bass, if any. Prince’s funk was even funkier for being counterintuitive, as Questlove notes. This gesture wasn’t rejection, of course, it didn’t “transcend” funk. Prince was still playing inarguably funky music, and the lack of bass is so unusual that it’s almost even more apparent in its absence. Free, but not too free.

Love-Symbol-2

Prince approached rock iconicity much as he approached bass, which is to say that he embraced clichés, but performed them inside-out, calling attention to them as both limits and possibilities, as constraint and freedom. “Raspberry Beret,” from 1985’s Around the World in a Day, is a boppy “girl group” song with sly allusions to anal sex, that uses exotic instruments and is written in an obscure mode. The virtuosic riff on “When Doves Cry,” instead of going where guitar solos go, comes right at the beginning of the track, before the drums, both seemingly isolated from the rest of the song and yet heralding it, too.

All of this worked very well, of course. His songs are just idiomatic enough to give listeners a foothold, but brave enough to evoke a world well beyond idiom. In retrospect, this is precisely what Little Richard had done. This is also what Hendrix and George Clinton and Tina Turner and OutKast have done, from where they rock out—way beyond the citadel, mastering many idioms, then extending them, at once codifying and floating away from genre.

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Prince’s career calls back to the personal and artistic concerns, as well as the innovations, of Little Richard and other artists’ sonic expressions of blackness that both built rock’s house and sounded out the tall, white walls of the citadel that would exclude them. All of these artists, I suspect, find little point to hanging out near the citadel’s gates; there are other, funkier places to live. Prince himself was perfectly comfortable working athwart Warner Brothers, the press, stardom. He did more than fine.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Creative as he was, he lived in his time; he was no alien. The greatest testament to his genius is not that he escaped the world, nor that he rendered a new musical landscape from scratch, but rather that he worked in part with rock’s sclerotic structural materials to create such beautiful and fluid work.

Featured Image by Peter Tea, July 12, 2011, under Creative Commons license No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs–Maria Chaves

Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs-Tim Anderson

Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic-Imani Kai Johnson

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka–Kristin Moriah

Twitchy Ears: A Document of Protest Sound at a Distance

Picture of #FreeThe14 protest in New York City is past July. From Thai Students Center for Democracy tweet.

“Royal Thai consulate 351 E52 St jeh” on Wikimedia Commons, CC-1.0

“I compare New York to Bangkok all the time,” a young activist told me, just moments before he joined a small, media-ready protest at the Thai consulate in midtown Manhattan. On a pleasant day this past July, along a quiet side street lined with the gold plaques of consulates general, his comparison felt strained—Thailand is currently governed by a free speech-averse military junta that seized power last year, and mourning a deadly terror attack. In Thailand, the tension and fear are acute; in New York, the local delivery driver was whistling.

The young activist, an ocean removed from Bangkok, sought ways of speaking politically, knowing well that he could and would be heard across that ocean When he returns, if he returns, he may be imprisoned, intimidated, or injured. In front of the consulate in New York, those problems were imperceptible to the uninitiated. But they weighed heavily on all of us. Whenever the group chanted or sang, their voices rose through the low ambience like heavy weights, and stopping they fell away without receiving a response. There was a perverse aural disjuncture between the easy rhythms of the day and the harrowing risk that we knew was present in every utterance.

I had come to participate in the event, to speak against the military junta’s recent arrest of fourteen university students for protesting peacefully. I had also come to make a sound recording, and as usual to consider the odd phenomenon of protests staged to create media artifacts rather than to influence people in the flesh. The purpose of the protest was not to negotiate risk but to invite it. It barely mattered that New York City didn’t hear the protest as it occurred. Where it needed to sound potent, it would. Recorded sound surely renders all protest multi-sited; protest sound is a speech-act spatially and temporally deferred.

Picture of #FreeThe14 protest in New York City this past July. From Thai Students Center for Democracy (@TSCD_EN) tweet on July 7, 2015.

Picture of #FreeThe14 protest in New York City this past July. From Thai Students Center for Democracy (@TSCD_EN) tweet on July 7, 2015.

However, for protests staged at great physical distance from what’s being protested, the specter of comparison and difference between sites and movements can be profound. New York is in certain ways friendly to protest; the city is liberal with permits, and even unpopular opinions are expressible. Relative to most of Thailand, this is a welcome distinction. Of course, such freedom can blunt the acuity of dissenting speech — protests limited to a specific place and time, accompanied by two polite cops indifferent to the issue at hand, are easy to tune out. The United States has its own instruments of containing dissenting speech.

“Protests around Si Lom, Bangkok” by Flickr user
Anton Strogonoff, CC-BY-2.0

Furthermore, as responses to both Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown, organizational structure and subjectivity make some actions more vulnerable to state violence than others. There are moments when a single word can provoke repression here in no less crude a fashion than the Thai junta prefers. But the game has wholly different rules, and these rules engender different strategic responses. Protesting at a distance is both a way of threading multiple sites together and of reflecting on how protesters in different places and movements choose to speak. In the mind of a young activist accustomed to Thailand’s particular labyrinth of political expression, the contrast with his own country can become a source of ideas.

“When I first came here,” the activist continued with a note of awe in his voice, “Occupy Wall Street just started, so it’s like, there is this obvious difference that really intrigued me in how people organize or react to causes. In Thailand we still kind of are using older ways to organize, kind of like really centralized, some figures pretty much

To develop a political movement in the United States is a different challenge than doing the same in Thailand, to put it mildly. In the United States the left risks triviality; in Thailand, it literally risks death. Thai communists were hunted by soldiers in the jungle in the twentieth century, and left-wing political parties are still forbidden today. Republicanism is treason. And with the ascent of the military junta, many trials are now held in secret, and intimidation of political critics is routine. A movement cannot attempt to run headlong toward whatever it wants to topple; circuitous end-runs are necessary. This explains the increased appeal of decentralized protest tactics to Thai activists. The young man I met was far from the first in his country who has espoused such an approach.

***

“Protest Music” by Flickr user killerturnip, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The protest began with one woman playing an acoustic guitar, leading the twenty of us assembled in a folk-style singalong. The sincere, uneven rendition of “Song of the Common Man,” currently popular among anti-junta protesters in Thailand, was followed by nervous laughter, and the honk of a nearby taxi. The lyrics are mild and the structure formulaic, but the song has caught on among the junta’s most outspoken critics – notably, one recording available online was made by a band whose songs are strident enough that they were pursued by the military, and forced to flee to Laos. The song lasted less than two minutes, and an American, who worked for a freedom-of-speech NGO in Southeast Asia, ensured that the group moved on to the next part of the tight half-hour schedule. Every moment was brief but assiduously documented.

mmm

Picture of #FreeThe14 protest in New York City this past July. From Thai Students Center for Democracy (@TSCD_EN) tweet on July 7, 2015.

We took selfies wearing masks shaped like the faces of the fourteen students who were set to appear before a military court that day. The Thai consulate employees watched with bemusement, and briefly chatted with us in the low, serious hush filled with polite participles that characterizes formal conversation in Thailand. The event ended, and the quiet side street remained undisturbed.

One moment was particularly chilling. The American was leading the group in a series of “what-do-we-want-when-do-we-want-it” chants, which though adapted to concerns of the anti-junta movement felt pro forma and out of place. That cadence and call-and-response pattern is almost never heard at protests in Thailand, and the protesters were not accustomed to it. When someone suggested chanting in Thai rather than English, the group naturally fell into a different rhythm. The repetition of Prayuth aawk bpai, an insulting demand that coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha go away, was much sharper. The chant hearkened to protests of recent years against illegitimate Thai governments. A recording of it would, without doubt, be very risky once heard by the wrong ears in Thailand. Its potency was not only in its direct semantics, but in the connection it formed between the current protest and protests of the recent past. Protest in an age of ubiquitous media tends to form such links across boundaries of time and space.

But a curious thing happens when protest movements can readily observe one another. Comparisons are made all the time, but so are convergences. Rhetoric and strategy become cosmopolitan, not native to any place, and protests increasingly echo other protests. Contemporary Thai dissidents have been influenced by Argentinian horizontalism, and they swap documentaries about the Arab Spring online, for example. The watertight conditions of a geopolitical place have more leaks than was thought. And as ideas travel, the places themselves can become fertile grounds for the growth of those ideas in practice.

“Thailand” by Flickr user Marko Mikkonen, CC BY 2.0

Sound is vital to this process. Perhaps because it is often regarded as the most visceral expression of the body, sound has a special relationship to protest. Sound and self need not be romanticized as coterminous in order to appreciate that speech acts feel very close to the body. But listen again. Sound can both feel immediate and be radically disembodied. It can be a material for experimentation, for feeling out how to speak in the immediate present, and be by the same stroke a final product to be audited by the twitchy ears of the junta. The July protest was and will be both.

Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral

Featured image: Picture of #FreeThe14 protest in New York City this past July. From Thai Students Center for Democracy(@TSCD_EN) tweet on July 7, 2015.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Yellow Rain and The Sound of the Matter: Kalia Yang’s Sonorous Objection to Radiolab– Justin Eckstein

SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory-Stuart Fowkes

Toward A Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton–Jennifer Stoever

%d bloggers like this: