And Learn to Wear My Skin
318 · 1 March 01
Chelseaonfire: Middlesex County
February was Black History Month. I might not have noticed, but one of my co-workers took the time to forward around a series of topical emails during the month. And while I can't read a list of unheralded African-American historical figures without hearing Eddie Murphy in my head saying "A white man invented Latex paint!", diversity issues are prominent enough in my environment that it doesn't take more than a nudge, if that, to remind me of them. I work for a company with a fairly good ethnic and gender balance for the software industry, but that's not saying very much. We have a lot of women, but only a handful of female programmers, and even fewer female VPs. We have some employees with dark skin, but not nearly as many as we would need to match the national proportion. I haven't tried to count how many people there are of Latin American origin, but I'm pretty sure that population is even more heavily underrepresented. All of these things were true at my two previous employers, including Lotus, who took an extremely active approach towards minority recruiting, so I'm going to assume that my experiences are more or less typical. I'm also going to assume that this situation will gradually be corrected. People are aware of it, the causes aren't especially mysterious (educational lag, mostly), and I see nothing about the way in which the software industry operates that actively militates against the trend towards a demographic equilibrium with the outside world.
Cultural homogeneity outside of work seems like a much less tractable problem, and one which I was unexpectedly reminded of this week. I play volleyball on Monday nights at the YMCA. It's nominally a league, with formal teams, but in practice it usually amounts to two or three hours of congenial pick-up games with whoever happens to be around. Most of us have been playing for a few months, at this stage, but new people show up periodically. This week, a whole group of new players arrived together, five women and, I think, one of their brothers. They spoke Spanish to each other, and looked Mexican to me, but I wouldn't claim to be able to tell Mexicans from Hondurans or Guatemalans by sight, and the subject of national origin did not arise during play. We played a game, five of them intermixed with five of us regulars, and at the end I switched sides of the court for the next game and was surprised to see three of the regulars go sit down on the bench and watch the game being played on the other court instead of staying to play on ours. Normally, nobody ever voluntarily sits down while there are open spots on a court. Ethnic prejudice, of course, is hardly the most plausible explanation. The one game with the newcomers had not been well-played. There's a wide range of skill levels among the regulars, but we do, by this point, all generally know how the game should be played, in a competitive pass-set-spike style as opposed to a company-picnic style, whether we're able to act on that knowledge effectively or not. A couple of the new players just tried to hit the ball over the net any time it came near them. But pass-set-spike isn't that hard a concept, they all seemed receptive when this goal was pointed out to them, and as far as I could tell there were no language barriers, so I figured after a couple games to get them acclimated we'd be back up to speed. Maybe those three players who sat down just didn't have my faith. But as we tried to start a new game, me and one of my coworkers and five maybe-Mexicans, it was hard not to feel like the gym had suddenly been polarized into the front of the bus and the back. After a little while, a couple late-arriving regulars joined our game, and then a couple of the players who'd sat down came back in, and by the end of the night both courts were back in normal operation, new players included and starting to hold their own, but it was an unfamiliar uncomfortable moment, and it stuck with me. I thought about it on the short drive home through my very-diverse end of Cambridge. I thought about it some more as I contemplated the pile of CDs vying for attention on my desk, and thus came back, as I frequently do, to the single most worrisome hole in my tentative understanding of how humanity is expressed in music, and thus my understanding of society and its future. Music, in this country, divides along ethnic lines much more sharply than towns, or software companies, or volleyball leagues, or anything else I'm aware of. It's 2001 and there is still "black music" and "white music", and everybody knows it. If, as I've frequently contended, music is what people are best at, and if ethnic separatism is one of the most pressing problems we still face, and if the most powerful tool at our disposal should be applied to the most pressing problem, then how come there's so little music that makes any concerted attempt to bridge cultural divides? How come I can tell the ethnicity of a musician, with near certainty, just from the type of music they're playing, even without hearing a voice, seeing a face or reading a name? How can my own genre preferences, for that matter, align themselves so monochromatically?
These are difficult questions, bordering on rhetorical, but we can approach answers elliptically, at least, by elimination and analogy. For example, one easy explanation for why most of the music I like is made by white people, and most of the styles I dislike on general principles are practiced by black people, would be that I'm a diligent racist. This theory fails the two simplest tests, however: 1) I don't like the "black" styles I dislike any better when they're done by white people, nor do I like the "white" styles I like any less in the rare cases where they're essayed by black people; and 2) if I were actually a racist, presumably the effects of my racism would be evident in other areas of my tastes and life, and they don't seem to be. I don't notice any difference in how I behave around individual people based on their ethnicity, my reactions to movies and books and stand-up comedy all reveal no detectable color biases, and my tastes in food are nearly catholic. Food, in fact, might offer the analogy that explains why this entire thread of angst is misguided. There may be implicitly "black" music and implicitly "white" music, but restaurants declare their ethnic affiliations explicitly, and I've never heard anybody seriously argue that falafel maki or gefilte fish burritos would constitute cultural progress. Quite the contrary, I think it's pretty clear that social diversity is best served by ethnic cuisines being more true to their own heritages and constraints. Taco Bell is doing nobody any good. So maybe, "Bring the Noise" notwithstanding, music isn't supposed to bridge our cultural gaps by morphing into hybrids, either. If nobody is especially alarmed by the observation that Chinese-food chefs are disproportionately Chinese, then why should we fret about the dearth of white reggae groups or black progressive metal bands? It would be wrong if white boys weren't allowed to play reggae, but I don't think it's a bad sign if most of them choose not to. So perhaps there's nothing wrong with music, after all.
Which isn't quite the same as saying that there's nothing wrong with me. If I met somebody whose tastes in food were as patchily distributed across the globe as my tastes in music, I would at least pity them what they're missing, and maybe even wonder about their decision processes and motives. Confronted with an unfamiliar cuisine, I will go out of my way to experience it at both its most ordinary and its most peculiar. I love Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodian, Tibetan, Indian, Syrian, Moroccan, Afghan, French, Belgian, German, Polish, Swiss, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Swedish, Mexican, Salvadoran, Jamaican, Cuban, Argentine and Brazilian food, plus every regional American cuisine I know of, and plenty of goofy, made-up fusions. I do provisionally dislike Ethiopian food, but it's only because I can't abide that damp, spongy "bread" that the one Ethiopian restaurant I've been to serves everything with. I don't really know what Icelandic, Zairian or Paraguayan food is like, but I bet I'd like it. And yet, when it comes to music, I like folk, pop, rock, punk, metal, progressive, classical and noise, and I dislike rap, hip-hop, soul, r&b, house, reggae, ska, blues, jazz and gospel. Polka and marches are about the whitest styles I don't like, Afro-pop about the blackest I do. Ethnicity isn't the only factor here (I tend to prefer melody to rhythm when I have to chose one, which could explain much of the division all by itself), but even if I can identify bases for my tastes, there remains the undeniable truth that I resist music the way I would not resist food. I spend essentially no time or energy trying to find out, for example, if there is some hip-hop I'd like. I don't like what I encounter in the general environment (the last rap record I was tempted to buy was Fear of a Black Planet, and after hearing "911 Is a Joke" and "Can't Do Nuttin' for Ya Man" I opted to get "Welcome to the Terrordome" and "Fight the Power" on compilations instead), but I'd probably hate pop and rock if I judged them from TRL, too, and maybe there's an entire innovative alternative hip-hop underground as massive as the ones for indiepop and metal, and I just don't know about it. Intellectually, I think I should try harder. I could easily forego one or two twee Euro-pop bands I'm 85% sure I'm going to be ambivalent about, each week, and spend that money and listening time on working my way through even the most obvious masterpieces of my blind-spot genres. I don't have anything by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Bob Marley or the Wu Tang Clan. I didn't buy Lauryn Hill's album, or Macy Gray's, or Jill Scott's, or OutKast's. I may not know where my ignorance ends, but I'm well aware where it begins. I could start pushing its boundaries tomorrow.
But I'm not going to, not tomorrow and not any time soon. Do I feel bad about all the styles of music I'm missing the chance to enjoy? Sure. I also feel bad about not learning Danish and Sanskrit, not reading Finnegan's Wake and Gravity's Rainbow, forgetting how to do derivatives, never having played professional soccer and never having had sex with this girl named Rachel I went to high school with who had the most incredible ankles I've ever seen. These are dumb things to fixate on. You can't do everything, and if you could you'd do it all poorly. Breadth and depth are each other's prices. If the only thing I liked was 207bpm Belgian techno, I'd worry, but I like Amy Grant and Slayer, which I think is a broad enough range to exempt me from criticisms of single-mindedness, especially since I don't hear anybody suggesting that hip-hop DJs need to spend more time listening to Tim McGraw or Dawn Upshaw. That's an impressive list of cuisines I claim to like, but how many of them do I know enough about to tell excellent execution from good? Mexican, a couple American styles, maybe Italian. I eat a fair amount of Indian food, yet people assure me that my favorite Indian restaurant is totally mediocre, and they're probably right. In food, that doesn't bother me. I don't insist that chicken tikka masala mean anything, and with the exception of burritos, I don't eat any single dish frequently enough to systematically pursue its perfection. Music, however, is exponentially more important to me. I eat as a tourist; I listen as a pilgrim. I know more about certain kinds of music than most human beings know about anything. Should I have become a cancer researcher instead? Maybe, but what good would it be to cure cancer if we forgot why survival was desirable? There a hundred roads to anywhere, and for the time being this is the one I've chosen to travel.
And this is all, in its roundabout way, how I come to commemorate the end of Black History Month, and apologize to half-a-dozen maybe-Mexicans for some people who maybe initially didn't want to play volleyball with them, with three of the whitest, least ethnically diverse albums you're likely to find, and submit, in doing so, that this is in fact the most appropriate response. Black History Month is sort of about Black History, naturally, but its meta-message is about recognizing cultural legacies. Black History is a proxy for any thread you can disentangle from the warp of General History, for any method of filtering the universes of the transpired, and by extension the possible, in such a way that you can find in them the contours and hues of your own shape and aura.
Chelseaonfire, then, represent Boston Women's Rock History, which is very definitely a part of me, despite the fact that biology restricts my participation to listening. Two of the pivotal events in this history, for me, were Curve of the Earth's 1994 compilation Girl and its 1998 follow-up Girls! Girls! Girls!, which between them introduced me to at least a dozen bands and women I expected to follow for the rest of their careers. "The rest of their careers", however, has amounted to disappointingly little. Jen Trynin had a bad label experience and hasn't put out anything but one Christmas song for years. Malachite broke up, partially reformed as Swank, and then broke up again. Chainsuck is still making records, but I didn't enjoy the last one. Tracy Bonham never did write another song I liked as much as "The One". I'm not sure what ever became of the Sextiles, the Long Goodbye, Planet Queen or Gel. The American Measles became Helicopter Helicopter, who don't excite me as much. Betwixt broke up. I haven't seen anything new from Sara Mann or January in a while. Mistle Thrush is supposedly working on a new album, as I presume is Curious Ritual. Half Cocked moved to LA. I don't know why Chelseaonfire deleted the spaces that used to appear in their name, nor why nobody thought to badger them into thinking of a better title for this album than Middlesex County, but I am encouraged to discover that it rekindles in one band's idiom precisely the thrill the compilations inspired, for me, in composite. At the simplest extreme, there are several moments of streamlined, sprinting punk catharsis, new drummer Rachel Fuhrer blasting ahead with Pixies-ish bassist Amy DiSciullo and frenetic guitarist/vocalist Josey Packard careeningly in tow, "Short Sighted" in particular casting back past Malachite to what SSD might have sounded like with a female singer, "First Floor" strident and vaguely Germanic, "Steering Off" like surf music possessed by a grim fascination for the imminent wipeout. The Curve of the Earth compilations weren't primarily punk records, though, and the songs that jolt me awake here all move in other directions. "Sticky"'s spare, Breeders-ish verses give way to dark, textural choruses through which Packard's operatic voice slices like a blacklit shield-fissure. Guitar lines spark and spin through the surging "Just to Prove It", Packard and DiSciullo's duet sung in weird, quasi-backwards swells. With a little more reverb both the terrified love-song "All I Can Do" and the haunted betrayal revelation "The Wool" could pretty easily pass for incendiary goth à la Curious Ritual, Mistle Thrush or Rose Chronicles. The lurching "Tease (My Lolita)" reminds me structurally of Voivod's jazz-metal. "One Short, Too Long" is clipped and menacing in exactly the way I wanted the fugitive band in Bandits to be. "Detail" is an unexpected lullaby, and the unlisted bonus-track a dream fragment from just the other side of sleep. If Tracy Bonham turned into the Boston Women's Rock aesthetic stripped of everything but a desperate desire to come up with the cheap angry anthem to follow Meredith Brooks' "Bitch", and Aimee Mann demonstrated what happens to Boston Women's Rock when you scour the Rock grime off, then Chelseaonfire explore the mostly abandoned domain between them, less abstruse than Betwixt and less ethereal than Curious Ritual, Riot Grrl intensity and Girl Power glee shot through with a thin streak of Boston traditionalism, like a Kenickie raised on Aerosmith, or a Joan Jett on Mission of Burma. I don't know what to call it. I didn't know what to call it back when I thought there would be more of it, either. Maybe now I'll have time to decide.
Fonda: The Strange and the Familiar
For every band I resolve to follow and get let down by, it seems, there's at least one I forget I meant to give up on, and discover transformed. On their first EP and album, the LA quartet Fonda struck me as a band laboring under the misapprehension that once they had acquired a Farfisa organ the bulk of their creative work was done. To be fair, part of the social power and importance of rock and roll is that in its simplest form getting the necessary gear is at least half the work you have to do. Guitars are somewhat more effective than Farfisas for this approach, however, and Fonda played their Farfisa, I thought, with the awkward reticence of an eBay zealot guiltily testing an old Speak & Spell he intends to reseal and sell as "Mint in Box".
For their second album, The Strange and the Familiar, Fonda opt to shift from a micro-fetish to a macro-fetish, and make what amounts to an ersatz great lost Three O'Clock record. Well, for all I know they meant this to sound like Cannibal Corpse, but what it comes out sounding like to me is a great lost Three O'Clock record, sparkling and spiraling, right down to an uncanny imitation of Michael Quercio's girlish, quasi-English-accented falsetto, here supplied, ingeniously, by an actual girl who is actually English. In the loudest moments I'm reminded of Echobelly, in the quietest of Marine Research, but in both cases this seems less like a break in the Three O'Clockness than a demonstration of the immanent shoegazing or indiepop elements that we didn't notice in the Three O'Clock at the time. And maybe there's nothing to quite supplant "Jetfighter", "A Day in Erotica", "Her Head's Revolving" or "Songs and Gentle Words" in my affections, but there's a great Spector-ish drum rumble on "The Sun Keeps Shining on Me", the Farfisa learning its proper supporting role in the sunny "Close to Home", a near-perfect wistful chorus on "When You're So Young", an archingly Game Theory-esque melody over a roiling MBV blur on "The Lesson to Unlearn", and even some elegiac "Girl With the Guitar" melancholy on "Summer Land (Be My Love)". What the pro forma accusation that rock and roll is something whites stole from blacks glosses over is that a lot of rock has been reconstructed so many times by now that the stolen elements are long gone. James Brown and Chuck Berry weren't ever going to write pastel, shimmery songs like these. There's no White History Month, and the obvious rejoinder is that the other eleven months are effectively White History Months. But they aren't. As Black History Month vividly points out, the other eleven months, left to their own devices, are Oblivious History Months. Segmenting history by skin color is hardly the only way to understand it, but that doesn't mean segmenting is a useless strategy. I don't want to argue with the compensatory logic of having a Black History Month that is officially just that, whatever other purposes it serves, but maybe March, while our minds are on the subject, ought to be Lineage Month, a month we dedicate to everybody rediscovering the components of their personal histories, and thus beginning to grasp how their legacies might be shaped, and so too with what they can be filled.
Jane Wiedlin: Kissproof World
There's nothing mysterious about the components of Jane Wiedlin's personal history: LA, the Go-Go's, three underrated and underpurchased EMI solo albums, one zippy punk-pop-band album for Geffen under the name Frosted, then this new album, released on her own new label, Painful Discs. Guitarist Brian Waters is the only returning player here from the Frosted line-up, but the idiom is largely the same, which is fine with me, since I liked it the first time. The Go-Go's were cute, Jane's solo albums were cute, Frosted was angry in a cute way, and Kissproof World seems every bit as cute as the rest, to me, at least as long as I'm not paying much attention to the booklet, which is filled with pictures of Jane trying assiduously to be something, I'm not sure what, but not cute. She's in her forties now, so I'm not unsympathetic to her evident desire not be cute any more, but she still sings in that adorably squeaky little voice, and she writes irrepressibly bubbly pop songs, whether the guitars are distorted or not. If anything, she's gotten better at it over the years, and for me at least half of these songs are as enchanting as "Blue Kiss", "Rush Hour" or "Tangled". "Icicle", with Petra Haden contributing a decent multi-tracked Bulgarian Women's Choir backing-vocal imitation, could be a wiser sequel to "Big Rock Candy Mountain". "Feeling Like Flying" flirts with guitar drone and a drum loop for a few bars at the beginning, but then settles into an amiable mid-tempo trot. "Die Now! Pay Later!" is spiky and fast, an evolution of Frosted's "Dis-Integrated". "Kissproof World" itself is set up like a rock song, but Jane sings it too sweetly, and the gang harmonies are more Christmas carol than terrace taunt. "The Good Wife" is unnervingly self-loathing ("Now I know I won't be a mother, / Now I see I make a bad wife"), but if you gloss over the verses you could easily mistake it for Amy Rigby's buoyant domesticity. The uncluttered "Sooner or Later" could have been a Go-Go's song. "My Lovely Revenge" reminds me of Letters to Cleo, although it's not the song with Hanley credited as co-writer, and the Hanley in question isn't ex-Letters to Cleo singer Kay Hanley, anyway. "Muse" has chirpy Petra Haden harmonies, artlessly jubilant handclaps and a thoroughly silly guitar solo.
And then, just when I think Jane is going to once again escape without having taken on any significant gravity, the album ends with a slow, heartbreaking ballad that paralyzes me in mid-movement towards the player to put in something else. It's called "He's Not Talking", co-written with Irish singer Mick Hanley, sung here as an exquisite duet with Matthew Sweet, backed with bass hum, synth pads and some extremely muted electric-guitar squall. It reminds me powerfully of Cyndi Lauper's "Fearless", and for the first time I think Jane might have a life after cute after all. Cyndi transcended cute on her second album, and the thought that perhaps I haven't heard Jane's answers to True Colors, A Night to Remember and Hat Full of Stars yet shoots a chill through me. Is that enough? Is a momentary hallucination of analogical potential enough to justify another week in the company of obscure and/or frivolous albums that say things I readily admit I've heard before, that I cherish because they reiterate things I've heard before, when I might otherwise have been contemplating any of a hundred seminal or aspiring evocations of forms I know only by reputation? Maybe not. Maybe I can't justify my listening patterns. Maybe I hit the point of diminishing returns on jagged Boston rock and sugary, elfin pop songs long ago, and I should have used these hours on De La Soul or Ornette Coleman. Too late. It's almost dawn again, and I've spent another night simultaneously alone and in love, suspended between pasts and futures. What have I learned? Well, what do you learn from a kiss? What do you learn from sleep, or from sleeplessness? Nothing about diversity, directly, but maybe a glimmer of how, when somebody says "diversity" and looks at you, you might start to tell them what they mean.