Saturday, October 1, 2011

Follow me on Tumblr

I recently opened a Tumblr account, and am now regularly blogging there, albeit with briefer posts and commentary. So please follow me if you wish. I’m also on Facebook, of course, and I have a Twitter account. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Doris Lessing tells it like it is

This is from the remarks at the beginning of Doris Lessing's collected Canopus in Argos: Archives:

"I was in the States, giving a talk, and the professor who was acting as chairwoman, and whose only fault was that perhaps she had fed too long on the pieties of academia, interrupted me with: 'If I had you in my class you'd never get away with that!' (Of course it is not everyone who finds this funny.) I had been saying that space fiction, with science fiction, makes up the most original branch of literature now; it is inventive and witty; it has already enlivened all kinds of writing; and that literary academics and pundits are much to blame for patronizing or ignoring it—while of course by their nature they can be expected to do no other. This view shows signs of becoming the stuff of orthodoxy."

In my life, space fiction equals popular music. Discuss.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Afternoon with Robert Christgau

As many of you know, I met music critic Robert Christgau last Wednesday at his home in NYC. I interviewed him for about 3 hours, after which we sat with his wife, spoke more casually, and drank whiskey for another 30-60 minutes. Swoon! Again, as many of you know, this man’s work means the world to me, and I’m writing my PhD dissertation about his work and its applications to academia and other kinds of life on earth. Heavy. Anyway, the entire experience was some kind of adventure. Here’s what happened:

A snowstorm happened. Monday night. Maryland was not hit too hard, but everywhere to the north and south of us was buried in snow. We had reservations on a Greyhound bus, but apparently they are a first come, first served operation, which isn’t a problem unless other forms of transportation are canceled due to snow. The bus arrived and they had seats for only 4 passengers. Thirty to forty of us were in line, of course. After a mild panic, my in-laws offered to drive us up to NYC. Unfortunately, by the time we would have driven back home, prepared for the trip, and gotten back on the road, we probably wouldn’t have made it in time for my interview with Mr. Christgau. So I called to cancel or postpone.

I hate phones. (Ring.) I have trouble understanding just about everyone on a cell phone, and I always notice those uncomfortable pauses and delays that seem to be inherent in this otherwise convenient technology. (Ring.) What if I misunderstand him, or it’s awkward? (Click.)


“Hello, is this Mr. Christgau?”


“This is Bradley Sroka, I’m interviewing you this afternoon. But I don’t think I can make it. Can we postpone, or do the interview over the phone?”

(Pause.) (Longer pause.)

“No, I don’t think so…” (My world is ending…) “We can’t do it over the phone…” (Okay, maybe only crumbling…) “This kind of thing needs to be done in person.” (Plane tickets are expensive, but I can do this…) “How about tomorrow at 3?” (Oh, sweet Jesus, thank you!)

We talked about the blizzard in New York. He gave me directions from my sister-in-law’s apartment to his apartment so that I could stick to the sidewalks that are plowed. He relieved all of my fears, because he came across as a nice and helpful man. We hung up, the family jumped in the car, and we made it to NYC by Tuesday evening.

When I arrived at Christgau’s apartment on Wednesday afternoon, he was listening to Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot one more time, and we talked about Eminem’s Recovery for a few minutes, which I’d figured for a dud, but he graded A- after waking up with “Love the Way You Lie” in his head (both reviews were posted at his Expert Witness blog Friday morning). He asked if I wanted coffee, I said yes because I never turn down coffee, and he sat me down in his dining room for the interview, much of the content of which will end up in my dissertation.

So, what was he like? I expected him to be… I don’t know, hard to impress? And perhaps he can be. But in our interview he was charming, forthcoming, kind, candid, and thoughtful, just like his writing. When he answered my questions, he was far more animated than I expected, and throughout our conversation he was enthusiastic, attentive, and serious yet always playful. He was unpretentious. I’m also pleased to report that based on this interview my theories concerning his work are correct, or at least on the right track.

After the bulk of the interview, he let me poke around his office, and check out his running lists of as-yet-unpublished raves and pans. I pulled out my new CD of Louis Armstrong’s first recording sessions (in 1923 with King Oliver), and he eagerly put it on the stereo. We talked a little, ate crackers, olives and cheese, and he asked me questions about myself. His wonderful wife Carola and I spoke a little about favorite TV shows, which was great except my mind was burned out given the last three hours, so I owe her a better, more extensive list of faves.

After a while, I decided not to overstay my welcome, though both hosts were gracious. I said my goodbyes, and met Becky across the street where she waited for me drinking ginger ale with free refills at an empty bar. I waited until now to write this little travelogue, because from that moment until this morning, it was all too much to compute. Christgau’s writing made me who I am—he provided me a way to see the world that is smart and critical, yet fun and pleasurable. That’s big, and it’s made me a much better and happier person. I hope to explain this in my dissertation. In the meantime, I feel satisfied, and I’m eager to get to work. This essay was a nice first step. Thanks for reading!

Bradley Sroka

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Priori Panic

I wrote a poem! WTF?! First of many? We'll see.

A Priori Panic

We heard an alarming sound in the attic
What is it?
It sounds like a raccoon
No, the sound was very loud
I think it’s a fallen branch
Or it could be a downed power line! I said
What do we do?
Let’s theorize

It could be catastrophic
What if there’s a fire?
I’m worried about that power line
Maybe I should find gloves to insulate my hands
A fire extinguisher
Something to protect my face

If lightning struck the house
It would electrocute us all!
The alarm may not sound
And the neighbors are away for the weekend
We could be trapped in here!


We should just look in the attic, empirically.

It was a raccoon.
We called pest control

Bradley Sroka

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mad Max Marathon!

Today is the day. I've been in love with Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)" for weeks now, so, to celebrate the end of my exam week, we are watching all three Mad Max films starting at 11 am. This will require discipline, perseverance, and, perhaps, a bucket. But we will succeed. Do we "live under the fear, until nothing else remains"? Perhaps. Maybe "all we want is life beyond the Thunderdome." If so, thankfully it only takes about 6 hours, given that each movie is around 90 minutes. However, we could also read the line as a metaphor for the dream of a life outside of the influence of the military-industrial complex, or beyond our post-9/11 surveillance culture. But that may drag our task out a lot longer. Who wants popcorn?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

M.I.A.'s Paper Planes Revealed

I gave a presentation about M.I.A.'s song "Paper Planes" today for Mina Yang's "Theorizing Popular Music" class. Students are giving presentations over the next few weeks where they need to use their new tools of analysis to pick apart a pop song. As the T.A., I volunteered to give an example presentation to help them out. I think it turned out really well, so I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy!

M.I.A. ends her hit “Paper Planes” with two brief but significant statements: “M.I.A. Third World democracy. I got more records than the KGB. So no funny business!” and “Some some some I murder, Some some I let go.” Catchy, right? Let’s see: “Third World democracy.” In the hook we get gunshots and cash registers. In the third verse, “Skulls and bones/Sticks and stones and weed and bongs.” We get images of an underground meritocracy driven by violence, drugs, and money. In the first verse, the narrator sells counterfeit Visas:

I’ll fly like paper, get high like planes
If you catch me at the border I got Visas in my name
If you come around here I’ll make ‘em all day
I’ll get one done in a second if you wait

In the second verse, “every step [she] gets to [she’s] clocking that game”; a “bonafide hustler making [her] name.”

From the lyrics, “Paper Planes” could either be sad and grim realism or a hard glorification of the street, either of which would be familiar. Except we also get the novelty sound effects of gun shots and cash registers, set up by a quote from Wrecks-n-Effects’ “Rump Shaker,” which goes “All I wanna do is room a zoom a zoom zoom and a boom boom/Just shake your rump,” or, for M.I.A., “take your money.” Does she mean to tell us that stealing money at gunpoint is some kind of party? Later she says “we pack and deliver like UPS trucks.” So is it okay to be clever when boasting about shipping stolen goods and/or drugs? Is it really boasting? If this is grim realism, why is the song so much fun? Does that sense of fun add meaning to the grim realism, or confuse that meaning? Why is it charming and funny rather than chilling when she says “no funny business”? Especially preceding the chant “Some I murder, some I let go.” What codes and meanings are taking place here?

These are not easy questions to answer. I’ll begin with some context. Like the children in Slumdog Millionaire, which featured this song after it was a hit in the summer of 2008, M.I.A. grew up in a violent country. She is a refugee of Sri Lanka, which is governed by the majority Sinhalese Buddhists, though her family is of the oppressed minority Tamil Hindus. The civil war in Sri Lanka began in 1983, when the Tamil Tigers began a series of terrorists’ acts against the Sinhalese, including early examples of terrorist suicide bombings. In fact, these Tamil Tigers invented the “jacket” worn by suicide bombers, which we may be more familiar with from conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. M.I.A.’s father is a Tamil Tiger, though she does not communicate with him and does not condone terrorist actions. Her mother left Sri Lanka with M.I.A. and her sister when M.I.A. was ten, and M.I.A. was raised and educated in London, England, with her mother and away from her father. Much of her music takes place in Third World communities like the one she grew up in where violence and terrorism are a continuous threat to everyday life.

Now, listen to “Paper Planes” with this in mind. Also listen to the beautiful sample that opens the piece, and the novelty sound effects in the chorus or hook. Then we’ll talk.

The music underneath most of “Paper Planes” comes from a passage in “Straight to Hell” by the Clash, a song from their 1982 album Combat Rock.

I believe the Clash’s song is about Third World people whose economies and cultures are displaced by war and imperialism, but it’s hard to say. I do know that Americans and Brits are the ones telling the victims that they are going Straight to Hell, like salt in an already painful wound. And it’s precisely this mentality that I believe our criminals in M.I.A.’s song are reacting against.

I believe this is the concept behind one of two major components to this song: both M.I.A.’s lyrics and the meaning attached to the Clash sample tell us that M.I.A.’s song is about the underprivileged getting there’s in a world that does not want them. Or, as critic Robert Christgau puts it, “Paper Planes” “imagine[s] and recreate[s] an unbowed international underclass that proves how smart it is just by stating its business, which includes taking your money.” All of which is interesting and meaningful, but may not actually capture what is truly magical and transcendent about “Paper Planes,” or M.I.A. as an artist. Our responses to beautiful art are rarely that rational.

Consider the gunshot and cash register sound effects in the refrain of this song. They do share a meaning with the lyrics, but they also share coding with the sound effects used in novelty songs. I’m thinking of “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las, with the motorcycle sounds that punctuate the hook “that when I fell for/the Leader of the Pack.” Or the seagulls in the refrain of their “Remember (Walking in the Sand).”

However, these sound effects are more dramatic than musical. Consider instead something like Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” where the sounds of the hammers and grunts of a prison work crew contribute to the texture and rhythm of an otherwise conventional R&B song.

Though this is topical, more contemporary examples are less so. Missy Elliott inspired M.I.A. to rap, and she originally wanted to write her second album, Kala, which features “Paper Planes,” with Elliott’s former songwriting partner, Timbaland. (Unfortunately, M.I.A. was not allowed to stay in America at the time due to her father’s activities with the Tamil Tigers.) In Elliott’s “Work It,” sound effects stand in for words, though the content is more sexual than political. And other sound effects, like her backwards rhyming, are meaningful as music more than as text.

I believe “Paper Planes” also signifies with this kind of musical coding, so that, even though the lyrics depict a rather grim social crisis, the music contradicts that crisis with novelty sound effects, so that the greater meaning presented by the music and the lyrics together is more complex. Though the Clash lyric is similar to M.I.A’s lyric, I’m not sure we are expected to know the Clash sample independent of “Paper Planes.” And yet, if the music contradicts the lyrics, why do they seem to go together so well? Why is “more records than the KGB” funny rather than terrifying?

This is going way out of the parameters of this class, but I can’t help myself. I believe this is an example of Theodor Adorno’s theory of Negative Dialectics. In his writing concerning Negative Dialectics, Adorno was trying to make sense of why very dissonant, ugly music was so meaningful, and why consonant, beautiful music seemed to ring so false. He postulated that, after the tragedies of WWI and WWII, “beauty” could no longer be trusted; that beauty was easily corruptible, and could be used to manipulate people by provoking them to react with canned emotions. However, dissonant music, especially atonal music, did not produce canned emotions or reactions, and was therefore less corruptible, and more truthful.

Taken a step further, I believe that meaning in music in the late twentieth century is only possible when something expressive is cut with something inexpressive, or dissonant, or contradictory. So that something like “Paper Planes” would be less meaningful if it only expressed a grim reality—if it didn’t include novelty sounds and humor. Think about it: M.I.A.’s street hustlers aren’t selling counterfeit Visas, then crying about their lost childhoods. They’re boasting about their swagger. And this is truthful, too. It’s easy to set tales of whoa to sad music, and then to wallow in pity. But it’s not always entirely truthful. I’m glad M.I.A. writes about street life in “Third World democracies,” which in itself is funny and contradictory because these democracies are not about every citizen having a vote so much as every citizen fighting to get what’s there’s. I’m glad that reality has a voice. But I’m also glad M.I.A. is a musician as well as a storyteller, so that the messy, complex, contradictory, irrational, disturbing, and exhilarating reality of life can be expressed in all of its beauty. The world may be sad, but it’s also happy, often in the same instant. It’s something to think about. And in art, it’s something to treasure.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Looking for the Crest of a New Wave

Over the last week of my hectic semester I found that I had three listening trends that I’m trying to make some sense of now that the semester is over. First, I can credit an interest in period instrument performances to Dr. Bruce Brown at USC; as I was studying for my final exam, I fell in love with the Beethoven and Mozart performances required as listening. Several of these recordings feature a pianoforte, which brings attention to each composers’ considerations of the range and texture of this new (at the time) instrument. What a difference! Subsequently, I borrowed the Trevor Pinnock collection of Mozart symphonies, and the John Eliot Gardiner collection of Mozart piano concertos, both on Archiv, from the library. Recommended.

Second, I can’t stop buying metal albums off of Decibel’s Best Metal of the Decade list. If you remember from a previous post, my metal phase started with Ian Christe’s book this summer, which led me to several albums I’ve come to like, but albums from the Decibel list that I’d never ever heard of are really stretching my personal aesthetic. I listen to a lot of metal out of interest, but now I’m listening because I’m sincerely addicted to it. Opeth’s Blackwater Park, which I bought a year or so ago, is now at the top of my personal playlist, despite serious reservations about Mikael Akerfeldt’s occasional crooning (I prefer it when he sounds like the cookie monster). Two things keep bringing me back:

1. Typically the songs will alternate between soft and loud passages, without referring to conventional song form. This is done so poorly so often that I’m enjoying how successfully this band can pull it off. The album comes across like a Romantic nineteenth-century symphony, as problematic as that can be for my personal aesthetic. The New Grove encyclopedia defines Romanticism as wild and unruly compared to classicism, which is a challenge for me because, as a Christgau-ian pop music scholar, I’m a classicist. But Opeth create rewarding peaks with these waves of action and emotion tempered by somber moments that still remain consistent within a larger metal aesthetic (which, I theorize, is essential for the genre). So rather than soak in each moment as a moment, I find the album gains power when you can hear each part within the larger composition, which happens as the album becomes more familiar.

2. Also, though I’m not a big fan of metal’s obsession with suspended chords and the lot, Akerfeldt finds some sweet notes within the harmony when he writes melodies, and the lead guitar parts pick up on them as well. I haven’t completed any kind of analysis, but to my ears it’s like when a jazz performer nails a flat 7th or another non-diatonic note within a chord—it’s unexpected and yet so perfect. And this happens on Blackwater Park quite often. Yummy.

Other than Blackwater Park, I’m listening to Cave In’s Jupiter, Isis’s Oceanic, and Mastodon’s Remission, and a few others, though I like these four the best so far.

The third listening trend is my addiction to Against Me!’s New Wave three years late. I finally picked it up at Rockaway records a couple weeks ago, and this week I’ve had it in steady rotation. For the record, 2007 is my favorite year for music. I get all tingly inside when I think about the first time I heard M.I.A.’s Kala, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Lily Allen’s Alright, Still, and Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight. I listened to Burial’s Untrue when I walked around Los Angeles at night during my first trip to California to interview with USC in January 2008. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend made me a huge Miranda Lambert fan. And 2007 was the year I taught my first music classes, so all of the music of this time is special to me. Anyway, that said, it took me a while to figure out New Wave.

In his Consumer Guide review, Robert Christgau writes that New Wave is produced by “Butch Vig (of Garbage, not Nirvana).” This doesn’t make a lot of sense after only a couple listens to the album; the compositions are terse and the production abrasive, which is unlike both Vig’s production for Garbage and Nirvana. But, again, with familiarity, the sound of each song opens up: you hear the layers of guitar overdubs, the backwards tape effect on “Borne on the FM Waves of the Heart,” and the background vocals on “Up the Cuts,” all of which are more typical of Garbage than Nirvana. And then you also hear the sublime moves outside of punk harmony in just about every song, and you hear the lyrics.

Ah, those lyrics! “Thrash Unreal” and “Borne on the FM Waves” have so much clear-eyed, unsentimental empathy, and so much love. And the calls for change in “New Wave” and “Up the Cuts” are so universal and full of hope. I just love it. In fact, I love it so much that I still haven’t absorbed the album past “Borne on the FM Waves”; after that song, I can’t help but go back to the beginning and listen to all six songs again.

Okay, that’s all for now. Below are links to Blackwater Park and New Wave over at Grooveshark. Thanks for reading!