Wednesday, May 31, 2006

My Favorite Gangstas: Natalie Maines and P!nk

Why are Natalie Maines and Pink my favorite gangstas? That’s the question, but not the way it sounds. The interesting thing is why them? Why now?

But I suppose we need to get past the qualifying round before going on. I’ve thought Natalie, Emily and Martie belonged in the company with Ice Cube and Scarface at least since their unrepentant murder fantasy, “Goodbye Earl,” which came out about 6 months before Pink began spittin’ tough guy lyrics like “Hell Wit You” and “There You Go.” And 6 years later, it’s not just Natalie who’s “Not Ready to Make Nice,” Pink starts her new album laying into virtually all of her peers with “Stupid Girls” before turning on “Dear Mr. President.”

Now, considering their penchant for blond Mohawks, you might think I’d wanna call these two singers punks. But punks just don’t cut it. Punks think too small. (I may make an exception for Joe Strummer here who, at his crucial taking-on-the-American-pop-charts moment, also sported a Mohawk.) Punks, with their nihilism at one end of the spectrum and anarchist utopianism at the other, never really grapple with reality on a grand scale.

That’s the job for gangstas. For me, an unrepentant gangsta fan since NWA changed the way I saw everything almost two decades ago, the best gangstas (why bother with the crappy in any genre?) are the ones asking the big questions in pop music. Sure, they may not have the politically correct answers, but they keep their eyes and ears on the material reality. Not ready to make nice, the gangsta asks, how do we take over? The whole genre is a critique of capitalism in some sense, and it’s often a call for class unity and peace by focusing on the everyday violence of the status quo.

That’s what’s in Maine’s voice when she declares, “I could never follow” or I “wouldn’t kiss all the asses that they told me to” or “I’m not ready to back down ‘cause I’m mad as hell.” And that’s what’s on Pink’s mind when she declares “we’re not dumb and we’re not blind.” A big part of both artists’ strength lies where some would see a weakness—in a sort of vulgar directness (Pink takes home the trophy here). That’s precisely what makes gangsta such an appropriate comparison. When those who don’t "get it" get over being polite about human slaughter, then we will have made some progress.

There are a number of intriguing connections between the Dixie Chicks’ and Pink’s new albums. They tackle similar themes with songs like the DC’s “The Long Way Around” and Pink’s “Long Way to Happy” and “Everybody Knows” and “Nobody Knows” (which both focus on the singers’ refusal to let the world see them cry) and, among other things, they both sing lullabies (of a sort) here and end their albums with something like prayers—not worshipful prayers but pleas to the universe.

But what started this whole line of thinking was the way they each confront this political moment with an unusual variation on a staple of women’s music in the rock and soul era. It’s a form I like to think of as the Sunday morning reckoning song. On one level, that image comes from the idea of, say, Aretha Franklin singing “Think” or “Respect” to her man while she’s trying to decide whether to finish frying breakfast eggs in that iron skillet or use the whole damn thing, sputtering eggs and all, to lay him out if he won’t do right. On another level, I imagine it like Aaliyah’s “4 Page Letter,” written to simply sort a relationship out, whether or not the addresse ever gets the chance to read it (a practice about half of my women writing students have testified to ever since I first started teaching).

What's unusual is not the political dimension of these songs. All Sunday morning reckoning songs have a political tenor that rises above the vehicle. The politics of the bedroom generally serve as a metaphor for the larger society, particularly in women's music. But what's unusual about these two songs is the futility of the plea, on one level, and its hopefulness on another.

With Maines the open letter is aimed at an industry (a society really) that propagandizes real world hatred and war without offering a critical thinker enough rationale to justify murder. The result? Well, one is people threatening to assassinate her for saying she’s ashamed of the President. With Pink, the letter is aimed directly at the President, reckoning with grieving mothers, imprisoned fathers and children as collateral damage both here and abroad. In neither case is there any hope that the villains will listen, but the swelling music declares a great hope for unity among a much larger group who could.

It is a piece of Pink’s reckoning song, the bridge, that I see most clearly as a duet with Maines. Together, they could declare--cast iron skillet or gun drawn and ready—

“Let me tell you ‘bout hard work
Minimum wage with a baby on the way

“Let me tell you ‘bout hard work
Rebuilding your house after the bombs took them away

“Let me tell you ‘bout hard work
Building a bed out of a cardboard box

“Let me tell you ‘bout hard work—
You don’t know nothing ‘bout hard work!!!!!!!”

Fear of this sort of rallying cry is one reason Democrat and Republican politicians who have been hawkish on this war (almost all of them, but for the sake of clarity let’s single out Hillary Clinton, Rick Santorum, Joe Lieberman, for instance) have joined hands against youth culture. The only way you blame music and videos for kids thinking of violence (when your job as Senator is to propagandize violence) as a solution to problems is to ignore such ideas and their implications altogether.

Whether politicians aim at gangsta rap or gangsta video games is really immaterial. The gangstas raise their voices in crude, unrepentant ways because the stakes are too high to fret over manners or political correctness, and perhaps manners are being revealed for what they really are, a systematic tool for ignoring the “outcasts” Pink says she wants to hear.

She literally cries out for these outcasts every day (just about every hour) on Top 40 radio right now because, like all of the great gangstas, she thinks big. That’s what polite society—be it conservative or progressive—hates most of all, those who listen to and engage with the unwashed masses. Fortunately, the best gangstas like the Dixie Chicks and Pink dream of a world, as Maines sings in “I Hope,” where we “can all live more fearlessly.”

Monday, May 29, 2006


(Dave Marsh on Bruce Springsteen in New Orleans, from the May Rock & Rap Confidential)

In a time of warfare against a phantom enemy abroad and a war against the poor creating phantom citizens at home, up pops Bruce Springsteen with an album titled We Shall Overcome. He didn't have New Orleans in mind when he started making it in 1997, but both the music and the ways he's using it speak directly to the situation there today.

Deciding to start his current tour with the Seeger Sessions Band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 30 reflected Springsteen's sensitivity to the issues of poverty and racism and his ability to pick up on a catalytic opportunity. What Vietnam veterans were twenty years ago--a powerful symbol of the people the system tries to erase from view--New Orleans is today.

Discussion of Bruce's new album has focused on its subtitle, The Seeger Sessions, probably because people are puzzled by what it all means. The song selections don't seem nearly as political as their source, Pete Seeger. Yet four of the thirteen--"O Mary Don't You Weep," "Jacob's Ladder," "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Overcome"--have at one time or another been used as "freedom songs." "Pay Me My Money Down" is that rare thing, a song that truly protests the situation it describes. "John Henry," "My Oklahoma Home," and "Mrs. McGrath" are explicitly about oppressed folk. That's almost two thirds of the thirteen song album.

One reason the album seems to avoid politics is "We Shall Overcome" itself. Springsteen's version downplays its spirit-rousing aspect; instead he sings it as one of his desperate love songs, even changing the chorus from "Deep in my heart" to "Darling, here in my heart." The result is a lovely ballad of two people against a hard world, and a violation of the collective spirit that the song stands for. He sings "Eyes on the Prize" in the same emotional mode, but it works a lot better.

The difference between the two is that on "Eyes on the Prize," Springsteen uses his band to build an arrangement that brings in voices and instruments to illustrate a community spirit taking shape out of the dark shadows inhabited by lonely isolated souls.

The music Springsteen makes with his biggest-ever band (thirteen members on the record, seventeen to twenty on stage) abandons much of what has defined his sound. In particular, the stiff rock beat has given way to syncopation. The instrumental focus is on the drums, with the melodic contributions emerging from fiddles and horns, rather than guitars and keyboards. The vocals, both his own and the multipart harmonies, are freer than anything he's recorded. After three albums of tragedy, the mood here swings toward joy. The album's tone is sometimes silly and once in a while fearful but it's never doomed.

Bruce wrote none of these songs yet We Shall Overcome is as personal as any of his records. For once on a studio recording, you can feel the unaffected pleasure he takes from making music, from working with other players and singers.

New Orleans right now is an eerie place, but not just because of the devastation. Abandoned cars and strewn rubble, even the scent of rot, are all over the place in Detroit and, for that matter, Asbury Park. What makes New Orleans different is that despite all the hype about reconstruction, nothing is being done. The housing projects are empty, looking more than ever like prisons. The upper Ninth Ward's population is decimated; the lower Ninth Ward's population is gone. But it's not just people that are missing. So are cranes, building equipment and construction site supplies, even as the courageous volunteers of Common Ground are hard at work in the Ninth, with a blue-roofed house in each part of the ward serving as a center for returning residents, for clean-up, and for visitors.

Musicians in particular are struggling right now, and one reason is that tourism--40 per cent of the pre-hurricane economy--has dwindled so badly. New Orleans does have a great indigenous music community, but the gigs that pay have long been played for outsiders.

The Jazz and Heritage Festival offers a lot of jobs for musicians but the most prominent and best-paying main stages, even the themed tents for jazz and gospel, mainly feature stars from far away. The splendid group of New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint appeared on the main stage right before Springsteen, but with Elvis Costello stepping in to sing several numbers.

Tourists will come to see, hear and eat the music and culture of New Orleans and the Louisiana swamplands. But to get enough of them to fill the huge Fairgrounds racetrack and gain national attention, not to mention lucrative corporate sponsorship, the promoters of Jazzfest need artists like Bob Dylan, Dave Matthews and Springsteen. (The festival is run by a nonprofit corporation, which doesn't mean a lot of money isn't being made.) This aspect of New Orleans may thrive--but it's hard to see how it will do much to change conditions there. It's equally hard to see how presenting a festival with a more local focus would help rebuild the city, either.

Music can do a lot of other things though. Above all, it can provide inspiration and foster connection. Springsteen's always been a man on a mission when it came to those to jobs, and changing bands and singing traditional songs didn't affect that. If anything, this is the strongest outreach he's made in years, stronger than The Rising because he's playing a species of dance music, designed to activate the ass and the mind. And in New Orleans, as noted, "Bruce wasn't preaching to the choir for the first time in a long time."

Springsteen was not only starting a new tour with a new band and new material, but he's Bruce Springsteen, the rock star who is supposed to rise to occasions. He needed a set that lived up to the drama of closing the first big event in New Orleans since the flood.

His big brass section added Crescent City flavor, and drummer Larry Eagle's fat, syncopated beats kept the cadence right. And Springsteen kept things focused. "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," the opening song, ends with: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time." "Eyes on the Prize" with its recurrent "Hold on" also invoked an embattled spirit: "The only thing that we did right was the day we started to fight." But the show found its legs and definition with a sequence that began with the refugee anthem, "My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away," and ran through the Irish antiwar ballad "Mrs. McGrath" before peaking with the Depression-era anthem, "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live."

Springsteen introduced it with a statement about how shocked, furious and ashamed he felt about what he'd seen since hitting town, then dedicated his rewritten version--"Them that's got, got out of town / And them that's not got left to drown"--to "President Bystander." After that, he had the crowd. With his somber "We Shall Overcome," he gripped them tighter. By the end of that one, even violinist Soozie Tyrell turned to wipe back a tear. That wasn't the climax though. For the first encore Springsteen came out and began to sing "My City of Ruins." As he described that "blood red circle," then pleaded for us to "rise up," tens of thousands of fists raised in the air. Thousands of tears formed a new salty flood.

The concluding "When the Saints Go Marching In," also slowed down considerably, should have been anticlimactic. But Springsteen unearthed verses rarely sung, beginning the song with "We are traveling in the footsteps of those who've gone before." In the ruins of America's oldest big city, those words resonated like a midnight echo in an abandoned housing project.

But I left contemplating the last verse, sung by this tour's Bruce sidekick, Marc Anthony Johnson of Chocolate Genius. "Some say this world of trouble is the only one we need / But I'm waiting for that moment when the new world is revealed."

Those lines took my understanding of one of Springsteen's best lines--"Don't waste your time waiting" from "Badlands"--and turned it around. And that made me consider what it would mean to reveal a new world in this life. We need patience to wait for the new world to reveal itself, that's true. But we mustn't waste that time merely waiting, because only struggle and refusal to surrender can bring that new world forth.

Music can't change the world. But sometimes, it delivers some pretty great marching orders.-D.M.