Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #71 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back

I had mixed feelings going into Christopher R. Weingarten's volume on Public Enemy's classic album, It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold us Back. On the one hand, I wanted to be blown away by the book because it is about one of my favorite hip hop albums ever. On the other, I was kind of dreading reading an entire book written by Weingarten, known around Twitter as a bit of a reactionary curmudgeon. While I am certainly entertained by Weingarten's antics on Twitter and the constant arguments he provokes through his, ahem, strong opinions (latest: complaining about the state of interviewing), I wasn't sure I wanted to read an entire book by the man. If you haven't read his tweets, you might have encountered the video of Weingarten's stunning rant about the state of music criticism in the age of the internet, given at a conference a few years back. Or maybe you've heard about his successful attempt to review 1,000 records via Twitter (which was later released as this odd artifact). But alright--so that's Chris R. Weingarten, and this review is about a book he wrote, not the man himself. Still, while I was excited to read about It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, I was also worried that Weingarten might fuck it up with his weird, angsty, reactionary music critic persona.

Well, Weingarten didn't fuck it up. In fact, It Takes a Nation of Millions... turned out to be one of the best entries in the 33 1/3 series. It gets off to a bit of a slow start as the author provides context that doesn't quite fit (yet, it makes sense soon), but once the book gets rolling, Weingarten's explorations of the various samples that make up Public Enemy's classic record are engaging--revelatory even. Perhaps the single most important factor in making Weingarten's book a success is his ability to combine narrative and analysis in conveying the history of the album's key samples. He doesn't simply identify a sample's source and move on, he recreates the historical moment of each sample and, in the process, shows us that It Takes a Nation of Millions... is a daring and political record through and through, not just because of Chuck D's lyrics and Public Enemy's persona, but also because many of the key samples were pulled from historically loaded cultural moments. In the process, we learn a little bit about James Brown, his bands, and his contributions to African American culture. We also learn about Funkadelic, Stax records, the Wattstax festival, early hip hop--the list goes on and on. What I find most surprising about Weingarten's discussion of this source material is, while I've always been aware of many of the sample's sources (though I was unaware of just as many), I've never considered their import so thoroughly until reading this book.

Eventually, Weingarten's volume runs out of steam a bit. The final chapter turns toward a discussion of how It Takes a Nation of Millions... has, itself been sampled and how it continues to remain a vital cultural artifact. Unfortunately, this last chapter feels more like an epilogue than chapter eight, or like the 80's movie that gives a brief summary of what happened to each character after the movie. After being immersed in Weingarten's fascinating historical narratives and analysis, I found the last chapter's rapid-fire rundown a bit unnecessary. Granted, the record's influence isn't really the book's focus, but why not put some time into telling more of the stories behind PE's influence on culture instead of just mentioning some times they were sampled.

Of course, that's just a quibble, and the lesser ending doesn't really detract much from the book as a whole. In writing this review, it occurs to me that Weingarten's volume can be a very useful book. In my comp/rhet studies, I've read a glut of material about "remix" culture, or the "rip, mix, burn" mindset. But in their discussions of sampling and digital culture, few of these scholars ever really address the potential for the intertextual methods they are describing. If I had a bit more money, I'd probably carry a dozen copies of Weingarten's book with me at all times so that, when someone uses sampling in the context of comp/rhet, I could give them a copy and tell them how much more exciting their ideas are than they even know.

So there--while I don't always agree with his reactionary woke-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed tweets, I have to admit that Christopher R. Weingarten has written one of the finest books in the 33 1/3 series.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance"

Societies demand safety. That's a fact. Why do you think prisons exist? Long before Michel Foucault examined the prison as a metaphor and tool for authoritarian control of the populace in his highly influential study Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish) in 1975, America's first goth kid, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was making similar observations. In his cheery piece of fiction, The Scarlet Letter (1850), his narrator makes the following statement: "The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison." While this is unmistakably true, because Hawthorne was NEVER wrong, one thing Utopias have long overlooked, for some unknown reason, is dancing kids. According to our society's elders, these spastic little jerks have been wreaking havoc on the world since they first decided to swivel their hips and gyrate in sexually-suggestive ways. History is filled with examples of dancing kids messing things up. William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet is fully based on the notion of these fools and their disruptive, lascivious ways. Years later, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise brought this tale to the big screen in the form of West Side Story (1961), which filled with racist, finger-snapping kids with social diseases. In 1978's blockbuster Saturday Night Fever, dancing kids who are into disco get into more gang fights, have unprotected sex, rape a woman, do more racist stuff, commit suicide, and wear horrible shoes. Fortunately, the geniuses in Men Without Hats provided an alternative, a social salve, if you will, when they unleashed "The Safety Dance" on the great unwashed dancing masses in 1982. Because it championed safety in the art of the dance, it instantly became the greatest song of the 1980s, even better than Joe "Bean" Esposito's "You're the Best."

With its throbbing, minimal bassline and infectious hook, Men Without Hats, led by the great Ivan Doroschuk, found a simple way for kids to dance without unleashing their homicidal, herpes-infected ribaldry upon the poor proles who just want to go to their jobs in peace, drink the weekend away, and continually ruin their credit scores. Doroschuk's solution: an enclave for dancing kids away from the rest of society. He sings, "We can go where we want to / A place where they'll never find / And we can act like we come from out of this world / Leave the real one far behind." Furthermore, if you don't dance, then "you're no friend of mine." Soon, the powers that be took notice of Men Without Hats' brilliant scheme. By establishing dancing "zones," or what the Reagan administration would soon name "dance clubs," these "imbecile(s)" who are always "out of control," according to Doroschuk, could fraternize with each other, frolic, and basically do their thang all over each other. The most brilliant thing about Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance" is that comes across as pure anarchy in dance, giving it an edge for all those would-be nonconformist dancing kids. Really, though, the dance is all about safety, as the title suggests, because the main move in the dance involves "look(ing) at your hands." Clean hands help reduce sickness and The Safety Dance, with its insistence upon hand-looking, reduced instances of the common cold by one million percent, according to the Wikipedia entry on hyperbole. Because of "The Safety Dance," the tyrannical terrorism of dancing kids has been blotted out completely ... Well, unless you count Footloose, or the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #78 Pretty Hate Machine

I don't know if this accurate and, if it is, what the circumstances behind it might be, but I feel like we've been waiting on Daphne Carr's 33 1/3 volume on Pretty Hate Machine forever. It wasn't a title I was particularly excited about as I haven't listened to much NIN since I stopped being seventeen, but I was curious to see what a writer as accomplished as Carr might do with the album. Turns out, this book was well worth the wait. Instead of setting out to "read" or "explain" Reznor's seminal album, Carr's project centers on locating Pretty Hate Machine in time, space, and memory. In pursuing this project, Carr provides important bits of Reznor's (and his family's) history, brief narratives of important cities in NIN's history, namely Mercer, PA, and Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio, fan oral histories, and explorations of the sub(and mall)cultures to which Reznor's music was instrumental. That may sound like a lot of disparate material to cover in a 150 page (plus notes) book, but Carr's overarching focus on culture and her discretion in limiting each section to essential components keeps the book moving and developing in a number of interesting ways.

In a move that seems both bold and necessarily obvious, Carr begins her volume on Pretty Hate Machine with a discussion of the trench coat mafia, the tragedy at columbine, and the resulting media frenzy surrounding NIN and like artists. Why begin there, of all places? Because it was the point at which the culture that grew out of NIN's music was in the media spotlight, the moment when all of the kids in corners were suddenly dragged into the light in a flurry of paranoia and fear. In other words, it makes perfect sense to begin a book about culture with the moment when that culture was the most seen.

But Carr's book goes so much further than simply exploring that gothic/industrial culture. In her own words, by telling the story of NIN and Pretty Hate Machine, Carr was able "to tell the story of lower-middle-class white men in the Rust Belt through a narrative beginning with Trent's birth and leading to the album's birth, as a mirror of American transition from Industrial to Information Age labor" (10). This is where Carr's take on Pretty Hate Machine excels, and what sets it apart from other books in the 33 1/3 series. The story Carr is exploring is so much bigger than just an album--she's taking on class, race, economics, urban decay, privilege, etc...So thorough is Carr's exploration of NIN's impact on culture, and culture's reliance on NIN, that the books final chapter includes a brief history of Hot Topic and its intertwining with Reznor and his music.

Of course, what stands out most about Carr's book is her willingness to let her subjects speak for themselves. In the process, they say some insightful things, some intelligent things, some horrifying things, some tragic things, and some disturbingly unintelligent things, but Carr never really judges them. She let's them tell their stories and, through the context she provides, let's her readers come to their own conclusions (with only one or two fleeting exceptions). This, more than anything, is what makes Carr's book such a compelling read--it's not just about the culture of NIN fans, it is in part by them. Any author who trusts her subjects and her audience that much deserves some serious respect. So thanks, Daphne Carr, for adding a new highlight to the 33 1/3 series. My only regret is that I didn't read this book sooner so I could assign it for the class I'm teaching this fall.