Monday, December 16, 2013

Accidental Racism

Brad Paisley, the Irony of “Accidental Racist”, and the Danger of Thinking Outside Your Station.

I have enjoyed Brad Paisley’s music for a long time. My parents discovered country music when I was in middle school, so I was often exposed to it in the car, and his songs stuck out because of their genuine humor, their wit, and his guitar playing. He didn’t write anything that left the country wheelhouse, but he went about it with more creativity than most. My appreciation of his work increased with my interest in music, and codified when he released American Saturday Night in 2009. That was the album that launched him from successful country musician to a superstar, and deservedly so. Within the realm of popular music, it’s kind of a masterpiece.
Several different aspects of Paisley’s music, which had been hinted at here and there on previous albums, bloomed with American Saturday Night. His guitar playing was out in full, astonishing force, the songs were varied in subject and style, and he wasn’t limiting himself to the acceptable norms of a popular country artist at the time. From the standpoint of ethos, the most important song on the album was the title track, a song about multiculturalism that disguised itself as being about a night out on the town. Songs about multiculturalism, be they positive or negative, are not anything new. Gogol Bordello have been mining that vein for a long time. Doing it in the context of a mainstream country song, though, that was something else.
It’s genuinely not fair to say that all people who listen to country music are close-minded Republicans who think that the border with Mexico should look like a highway sound barrier with barbed wire on top. It’s really not. The fan base for country music is far too large, and far too diverse for that to be anything resembling a fair statement. However, there is a certain truth to the idea that country, on the whole, has a more conservative audience, and up until recently, its music and artists played to that. Within the last five years, and particularly this year, there has been a slow but steady shift in the ideology presented by mainstream country music, and a lot of that shift can be traced back to the song “American Saturday Night”. While the music itself never espoused ideas along the lines of “build a wall” or “they took our jobs!”, the music was always well ensconced in a world where those values were defacto. You had the odd “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue”[1], or “I’m Proud to Be an American”, but on the whole the ideals were accepted through ignorance of the alternatives. Now songs like Miranda Lambert’s “All Kinds of Kinds”, which makes explicit reference to the acceptance, even necessity, of cross-dressers, gay people, and immigrants, are not only entering the country charts, but dominating them[2].
American Saturday Night did not cause a massive, overnight shift in country music, and it seems Paisley felt this, because his next album, This Is Country Music, while still showcasing his craft, humor, and personality, seemed to be a retreat back into the inner sanctum. The title track is a song expounding the virtues of traditional country music, and what it does for people. “Old Alabama” is about driving with a girlfriend and listening to Alabama, the epitome of traditional popular country. The album had the same astonishing musicality, but it wasn’t trying to expand. It was comfortable sitting in the envelope, instead of pushing against the edges. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but after the promise of American Saturday Night, it was a let-down.
Based on the evidence of this year’s Wheelhouse, Paisley also found it unfulfilling. This is an incredibly ambitious album. While my opinions about its ultimate quality are mixed, it’s impossible to listen to it without being impressed by what he’s tried to do. In the end, your opinion may depend on how much you value the concept of a work over the execution. Musically, it reaches from Kinksian pop to stadium rock. There’s a guitar instrumental inspired, at least in part, by Ennio Morricone. “Southern Comfort Zone” welds the aforementioned stadium rock with a church choir.  The main hook to “Beat This Summer” has more than a little hip-hop to it. And, most importantly, Brad Paisley the progressive lyricist has come back. With a vengeance.
At times, Paisley’s considerable abilities are perfectly matched with his ideological ambitions. “Southern Comfort Zone” is “American Saturday Night”’s older, worldlier brother, a song about needing to travel the world and experience the unfamiliar. It is so cunningly disguised as a stock Southern Nostalgia song that I read a review faulting it for being an unremarkable one. “Karate” deals with domestic violence, in the form of funny, light revenge porn. Other times, however, his ambitions, be they musical or thematic, get a bit ahead of his pen, and, this time, he received a lot of flack for it.
“Accidental Racist” is Paisley’s attempt to deal with unintentional racism, or passive racism. It’s certainly a legitimate subject for a song, and it’s even a brave one, for country music or otherwise. How many mainstream artists can you think of who have written songs that deal directly with the idea of racism, and are not from the perspective of someone who’s a victim of it? I can’t think of any off the top of my head. It’s an issue fraught with complications, presuppositions, sensitivities, and god knows what else. Paisley was, if not openly criticized for the idea behind the song, at least derided for the quality of the execution, which, to be fair, is pretty terrible. The music is bland, the rapping section is well-intentioned but trite, and the lyrics are very poorly thought through. They are, themselves, racist. The man who walks into the Starbucks, with his cowboy hat and Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, is a caricature of the white south, and the black man behind the counter, with his pants sitting low, his doo rag, and his gold chains, is a caricature of inner city black people[3].
The lyrics make any number of mistakes outside of the cursory treatment of the individuals involved. This has all been covered before, by other people, and I don’t wish to spend much time on it, but lines like “If you forgive the gold chains,/ then I’ll forgive the iron chains” are so fundamentally misguided in their conception that it’s easy to dismiss the song in its entirety. I’m also not advocating its existence as a listening experience, but I do think Mr. Paisley deserves a substantial amount of credit for attempting to start what is a very difficult conversation, even while unintentionally fueling the very fire he is attempting to discuss.
It’s easy to dismiss Paisley as just another privileged white male, who doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about, but I would argue that the best reason to discuss something is because you don’t understand it and you want to. He also deserves more credit, yes, more, for joining that conversation as a wealthy white male living in the United States, and for doing it from his own perspective. We have a problem in this country where we immediately dismiss anyone who’s not on the disadvantaged end of an argument. I’m a white male, and often feel that others believe I couldn’t possibly have anything productive to say about racism, or sexism. If you are at all aware of the world around you, it is incredibly difficult to say to someone, “God, I’m sorry, I really never realized that the flag on this shirt would offend you.” That requires admitting you were, if not wrong, then at least oblivious, requires admitting that you have hurt somebody else, and requires you to reevaluate things about yourself! That’s huge! And, again, Brad Paisley deserves a lot of credit for even thinking about going out on that limb in the first place. That he did a poor job and fell is very unfortunate. That song could have been important if it had been done well. Its botched execution shouldn’t take away from the fact that the man is trying to have a difficult discussion a lot of people need to have, but aren’t. And the response to the song will only continue to prevent people from trying again in the future.

[1] Really a phenomenal piece of work if you ignore the wider implications of the lyric.
[2] Two interesting conversations, about whether or not the country audience was ever actually as close-minded as it was perceived to be, or if it was a mob mentality, and about the current, concurrent prevalence of songs about hanging out and drinking with the boys, which could be argued as an answer to the progressive songs, are for a different time.
[3] As well as being in clear violation of Starbuck’s dress policy.

Monday, October 29, 2012


I wonder what it's like to be in Muse. The success is undoubtedly thrilling; healthy album sales in an era where 200,000 copies in the first week can get you to number one, regularly playing to massive crowds in massive stadiums with an accordingly massive concert fee, the kind of loyal fanbase who only ever seems to materialize to support prog- and metal-tinged acts, the creative freedom to chase whatever half-crazed idea you want not only down the rabbit hole but back out through the other side; These must all be great things to experience first-hand.

Muse have made bombast a trademark, possibly more than any band before. Queen, the band most frequently sited as Muse's forefathers (this is a lazy comparison; Muse add Queen-like flourishes to their songs, but they are fundamentally very different bands), were known for being ridiculous, but seldom were they bombastic. Look at "Bohemian Rhapsody"; it is over-the-top, yes, but it does not seek to over-power you. It is clever. It wants you to come along willingly. Compare that to any cut on any Muse album since Absolution, not including the slow ones, and the differences in approach become readily apparent. All three members of this very-much-a-Power trio reach out of the speakers and beat you over the head with their instruments, taking you with them whether you like it or not.

This, oddly enough, is central to their appeal.

And that appeal should be well-served by their new album, The 2nd Law. It is certainly big. The opening track, "Supremacy", is so overblown that I briefly found myself wondering if Muse had actually developed a sense of humor (another key trait that differentiates them from Queen, who always knew well enough to giggle along with the rest of the world). Once again, they have delivered an album of massive sing-along stadium anthems, this time with some dance music thrown in. But there is a problem with this album, much as there was with The Resistance, and I think it signals a change that deserves to be examined.

With Origins of Symmetry, on the whole a pretty poor album, Muse at least started to create their own sound. Absolution was that sound brought to full-throated life. The arrangements were almost always left to bass, guitar, and drums, but they made a hell of a lot of noise for just three guys. Black Holes & Revelations sought to flesh that sound out. They added mariachi horns, more strings, more pianos, more hooks. And there was an intangible, ineffable sense of it being bigger. "Knights of Cydonia" summed up the new direction Muse would be taking better than any other track on the album. And part of me thinks they know that's what happened, because since then, it hasn't quite been the same.

Before, when you listened to a Muse album, there was a palpable sense of ambition. They were striving for something. Whether you liked them or not, you had to concede at least that much. But in the subsequent albums, The Resistance and The 2nd Law, ambition has been replaced with scale. These are not the same thing, and should not be confused, though they often are. While The 2nd Law incorporates elements of dance music the band have only flirted with once before, they have not gone as all-out in their attempts to wrestle with the genre as they did with "Supermassive Black Hole". The attempt seems perfunctory, more commercially driven than artistically inspired.

There has been a bright spot in each release. The Resistance had the Exogenesis Cycle. The 2nd Law has "Supremacy", "Survival", and "Madness". "Supremacy" and "Survival" manage to encapsulate both scale and ambition, which is what Muse, until now, have done best. "Survival" is perhaps the most ridiculous, overblown, and silly song they've ever recorded. By definition, that makes it the most successful as well. But "Madness" is the key track here. The slow tracks on Muse albums have traditionally been the weakest, having neither enough musical beauty nor anything resembling lyrical coherence to maintain them, but here they've finally done something quietly stunning. Chaining the sounds of dubstep to an r&b slow jam in disguise, they've created the first truly moving song in their canon. It boarders on subtle, which, by Muse's standards, is astonishing. The most impressive thing is that they pull it off.

With The 2nd Law, Muse have mostly cemented a transition from exciting to reliable. The majority of the songs here are entertaining while you listen, only to fade as soon as they're over. But there is a glimmer of hope in "Madness". Muse would have to change how they seem to be defining themselves to embrace the new directions it proposes. The question they have to ask themselves, taking into consideration their album sales, concert audiences, and staunch fanbase, is whether or not they'd be mad to.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Gee, but It's Great to Be Back Home

It was announced this week that Chick-Fil-A will no longer donate money to groups that oppose same-sex marriage, a decision that in all likelihood grew out of a desire to expand into the lucrative Chicago market. I don't eat much in the way of fast food, and I don't live in the United States anymore, so this part is of no real interest to me.

What I find fascinating is the reaction of those who so vehemently supported Chick-Fil-A on Customer Appreciation Day, back when it first came to light that Chick-Fil-A was against gay marriage. A quick look at the Chick-Fil-A page on Facebook shows a lengthy trail of comments from people who are hurt, betrayed, and angered. "Goodbye, Chick-Fil-A," they say. "We thought you had principles."

Now, having principles is all well and good, but let's be realistic about this; when the CEO of Chick-Fil-A announced on radio that Chick-Fil-A supported traditional marriages and opposed non-traditional marriages, can anyone honestly tell me he wasn't going fishing? The amount of free publicity Chick-Fil-A got out of that one radio interview was easily two or three times their annual marketing budget. Customer Appreciation Day was the reward. Yes, all these hundreds of thousands of people were standing up as one, eating at Chick-Fil-A, and saying, with one voice, "We support your beliefs." For those people, the most important part of that sentence might be the bit about supporting beliefs, but for the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, the most important part is "eating at Chick-Fil-A." And, frankly, it should be

Chick-Fil-A reaped the benefits of its practices in a glorious, month-long frenzy of activity. And now, because no one's business ever closed because they stopped supporting something, they are doing the sensible thing, dropping their association with traditional marriage, and opening up branches in Chicago. And if a few of their southern branches do close? Rest assured that the profits from a Chicagoland Chick-Fil-A will far outstrip the lost earnings of a restaurant in rural Tennessee.

To the people who supported Chick-Fil-A on Customer Appreciation Day, who find themselves so hurt and betrayed now: Can you honestly tell me that before this became a national fad, you had any idea about what Chick-Fil-A did with its money? And can you honestly tell me you ate there because the company had the same values as you? No. You can't.

There's a good chance that Customer Appreciation Day was, and will remain, the only time any of you have actually done something to express your support of traditional marriage, and to voice your opposition to gay marriage. Which is fine. When I go to zoos, I put a quarter in the spinning drum to save the rainforest. We, as a people, like a convenient way to express our support. That's why the "Like" button is so successful as a cultural meme. One click lets me express my support in as generic and unthinking a way as possible. Just like ordering the #1 combo with slaw and a coke zero.

Many of you are complaining on Facebook, a company which has been very consistent in its support of Gay rights and equality. But that hasn't made the news yet. So I suppose, until it does, you can carry on with your new-found feelings of superiority towards Chick-Fil-A. You were in this together, you and those cows on the billboards, you and every person who works at a Chick-Fil-A. And now they all turned their backs on you. How dare they stop believing in something they originally believed in for the sake of a dollar just for the sake of a dollar?

The nerve of some people. Honestly.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The China Diaries: Who's Your Caterer?

Coming home from work one night, my roommate and I noticed a tent being set up on the sidewalk opposite our house. This, in and of itself, was not unusual. The Chinese approach to zoning laws and permits is noticeably lax in comparison with any Western country, and I get the impression you can put whatever you want up wherever and whenever you'd like.

The next morning, I could hear celebratory music coming up from around the tent. Mitchell and I looked out, and it was full of people. I've lived in China for a year, and, despite having bought a camera explicitly for the purposes of taking pictures in China, I haven't taken all that many. I don't find that much to photograph in Xi'an, which is equal parts failing on my part and on the part of the city. This seemed to provide the perfect opportunity to take some. I threw on an undershirt and some shorts, popped on my flip-flops, and went with Mitchell to look around.

It looked like a wonderful party. There were around 35 people sitting at tables, eating some lovely food (Photos of said food can be found at the bottom of the post). Everyone was chatting and having a good time. Being so obviously foreign in a country is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you have the occasional xenophobe, but on the other, much more full hand, you do get granted a sort of celebrity status. We often get stares when we go places, and we're always offered drinks by Chinese people, held in sway by our pale brilliance.

And this was *before* we got close enough to be in their way.
It gives you liberties, is the thing. We walked into a celebration we didn't know anything about, were allowed to walk around taking pictures of the people and their food, and generally be in the way, without raising much more than an "Oh, those crazy foreigners, at it again." And since this festival looked pretty open, we decided to order some food. There was a dish with green peppers and chicken that looked particularly good. To the left, you can see it in mid-wok.

They didn't blink an eye, and within a few moments they had scrounged up three stools for us to use, one as a table and two for the typical use, and served us. The good was delicious. They tried to give us beer, but it was a work day, so we bought some sodas from the convenience store.

About two minutes after we started eating, a young man came up to us and asked, in English, if there was anything he could help us with. We smiled and said that everything was wonderful, but he didn't walk away. After a few seconds, he said, "You are eating our lunch."

"Oh, is this your lunch?"

"Um, yes," he said. "This is my grandfather's funeral."

Well, then. This all seems... chipper.

We apologized, telling him we had no idea it was a funeral. "We heard this wonderful, happy music and saw all these people, and decided to come check it out. Then all the food looked so good and everyone was having such a good time, and when we ordered they didn't act like it was a problem or anything." It's very difficult, trying to apologize profusely while simultaneously continuing to eat the food. I addressed this by letting Mitchell do the apologising while I did the eating.

It's hard to say if he was offended, ultimately. He told us about some aspects of Chinese culture, that funerals in China are a happy affair when the person has lived a long life, and he told us about the black band he was wearing. To be fair to us, most of the people weren't wearing black bands; I would have noticed that and worked out that we were funeral crashing. I did an excellent job, while he talked about the band, of not saying "Oh! Yes! That's how the Pandas got their black spots! I learned about that in grade school!" I was proud of my discretion.

I compared the crowd of people at this celebration to the people at my own grandfather's funeral. The West is known for having a particularly dour relationship with death. We don't go into mourning for forty days, or anything so extreme as that, but we certainly do tend to focus on the negative aspects. Instead of celebrating what has been achieved, we tend to be sad just to be sad. And that's normal enough. It's even healthy. I love a good cry as much as the next girl. But I think the Chinese might be on to something here. I may not ask that my funeral be held in a tent, but, God damnit, there's going to be some good food.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Os Diários de China: Ah. Entendi. Me Desculpe.

To my English-language readers: This story will be posted tomorrow in English, but as I went through the trouble of writing it up in Portuguese for practice, and I do have some readers from Brazil, I wanted to post it here.

Ontem, eu e meu companheiro do quarto vimos uma tenda fora de nosso prédio. Na tenda, já com muitas pessoas, e nós ouvimos uma musica muita animada. Ey morei na China por um ano, mas eu não tirei muitas fotos. Minha maquina é muito cara, boa, então não a levo em todos lugares. A ironia é que eu comprei a maquina para tirar fotos na China...

De qualquer maneira, como não tenho muitas fotos da minha vida na China, e como a tenda parecia novela, eu decidi ir à tenda. As pessoas eram alegres, e todos comiam bem! Os peixes, frangos, e legumes de todos os tipos, não consigo nomear todos. Nós pensamos, isso é uma festa!

Meu companheiro perguntou a um chef, "Nós podemos comer? Queremos comer frango com as pimentas." O chef nos deu dois bancos, uma bandeija, e dois pares de pauzinhos. Sentamos e comemos.

Após cinco minutos, um homem da tenda falou para nós em inglês; "Eu posso te-ajudar?" Ficamos confusos. Eu respndi, "Não, tudo bem!"

Ele não deixou. "Vocês estão comendo o nósso almoço."


"Isso é o funeral do meu avô."



E agora? Nós continuamos comer? Pedimos desculpas? Não sei. A boa notícia? O homem estudou no meu estado, e ele falava inglês muito bem. Eu não acho que ele ficou ofendido. Bem, espero eu que ele tenha ficado. Alguns homems nos deu doses do "Baijiu", um alcoól muito forte (Que? A beber é educado...), e nós voltamos para casa. A comida estava muito, muito deliciosa, e todos, assim como eu disse, estavam felizes. Quando minha familia têm meu funeral, eu quero que seja igual.

E, sim, agora, eu tenho algumas fotos muito boas. Eu vou postá-los amanhã.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The China Diaries: #firstworldproblems

The best cities have always looked beautiful from an airplane. Modern cities gleam in a way that's positively mesmerizing. Rio isn't aesthetically modern, but you're greeted by a uniquely delicate sprawl of lights, not as overwhelming as New York or Chicago, as far as the eye can see, coming up from the houses of the favelas and the residential neighborhoods. But on my first flight to China, last September, I noticed that towns, places still large enough to have a "center" without actually being cities, look like scars opening in the Earth. Cities have a preamble in their suburbs, a gradual build-up that results in a stunning climax of civilization. Small towns are surrounded by pastures and forests, and the juxtaposition of these sudden black gashes of human life against the verdant green of nature isn't flattering. Xi'an is, technically, a decent-sized city, yet I have a hard time believing it would look at all attractive from a plane. Provided, of course, that the sky was clear enough on any given day for you to actually see it. For what wonderful qualities it possesses, and I'll grant you I'm not sure there are many, Xi'an is not a beautiful place. In some ways I feel it is the place nature will one day come to die.

For a boy who grew up in the backwoods of Connecticut, the complete and utter lack of foliage is overwhelming at times. You have to go fairly far out of your way to reach life around here, and I usually don't have the energy. Last week, however, I had a good excuse to get out to the country-side, and so it was with no small amount of glee that I joined my roommate and a friend of his to 丰裕口 (fengyukou), a mountain about an hour outside the city. Xi'an is surrounded, on all sides, by massive, gorgeous mountains, but the smog here is so bad that not only can you not make out any details of the mountains from within Xi'an proper, you cannot even see them. Until a freak day where there was no smog last October, I had no idea there were mountains at all. I've seen them four times in a year.

We took a taxi for an hour, paying about 15 U.S. dollars for the privilege. Sometimes, exchange rates are amazing things. It was my first time to the mountains, and they really were lovely. A fellow classmate during my CELTA course ended up with a job in Vietnam, and when I see his pictures, filled with the slightly-alien vegetation and mountainous terrain most of us think of when we imagine the Far East, I think "It must be nice to live in Asia." Turns out I've been living there the whole time. When we climbed out of the taxi, I turned to Mitchell and said, "My God, we're in China."

We strolled along the busy mountain road for ten minutes before coming to a spot that looked good. We hopped over the rail, under some barbed wire, and scaled down the side of the bank to the river. It was beautiful, isolated, quiet, and relaxing. Until about fifty minutes after we got there, when a Chinese man with a bullhorn started yelling at us, telling us we weren't supposed to be there. Apparently barbed wire means the same thing in Chinese as it does in English. He broke the spell of the mountain, and we started to head back down. All three of us were hungry, so we stopped in the first place we found that had refreshments.

Let me take a moment to describe, if I may, the place where we ate: I do not know what to call it. It had tables and a roof, but to call it a restaurant would have been charitable to say the least. The only food on hand was watermelon, which was agreeable enough. But what struck out, to me, was the bed. There are many businesses in China that function as the owner's home. You will often walk into a store and find a sleeping area in the back. But here, on the side of this secluded mountain, I caught a glimpse inside their open bedroom, and saw that this couple, both likely in their sixties, were sleeping on a board on four pillars of bricks. There was a single blanket on the board, and that was the whole of it. And these people had just sold us half a watermelon for what would buy you a Snickers bar in the U.S.

Mitchell and I sat down at the table and proceeded to eat as much of the watermelon as we could. We only wanted a quarter of a melon, but the two of us were made so uncomfortable by the poverty we were sitting in that we felt compelled to eat it all, to leave no bit wasted. Then we scurried away, our heads down, afraid to make eye contact with these people who have so much less than I've ever considered having, but probably aren't all that bothered by it. We grabbed a van back to Xi'an, returned to our flat, and sat there for an hour, not really moving or speaking.

It is a fact of life that you will be surrounded by people worse off and better off than you, unless you happen to be at the absolute extreme of either end of the spectrum. I, like most people reading this, was born towards the high end of the spectrum when it comes to living conditions. That I have a computer on which to write this, and that you have a computer and are able to read tells you that we are already ahead of 75% of the world's population, not counting then the rest of the material comforts. We are, truly, all privileged people for the way we've always lived our lives. And I'm not looking down on them. Both of them seemed perfectly content with life, sitting on the side of a mountain selling drinks and watermelon to travelers. This isn't about pity, this isn't about solving a problem. I'm not about to change my life violently. I'm not throwing away my earthly possessions, joining a monestary, and chanting for the rest of my life. I'm keeping on exactly as I have and will. But I will occasionally feel a little uneasy about it. For a few days, at any rate.

And I bet that mountain looks stunning from the air.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The China Diaries: Dingers! Dingers!

Last night, I was watching "The Simpsons" with some other teachers. It was the episode "Big Brother's Little Helper", and there were Chinese subtitles, as will happen sometimes.

The moment I want to share with you happened during this scene (You should watch it, this whole thing will make way more sense)

When Mark McGwire asks "Do you want to see me knock off a couple of dingers?", the crowd responds with a hearty "Dingers! Dingers!" The subtitles show them exclaiming "黑人!" That's Chinese for "Black people".

I will leave it to you to enjoy that. It's funny on a few levels. Particularly when you consider that McGwire just asked the crowd if they wanted to see him knock off a few. And they were very enthusiastic about it.