Friday, May 12, 2017

Why "Malibu" Is The Whitest Thing Miley Has Ever Done

So Miley is back on the scene, and she's whiter than ever.

I'm talking less about the visual and sonic content of the video and accompanying track, and more about the 180-degree transformation she just completed, the one that critics of cultural appropriation have been sounding alarms about since 2013.

In case you forgot, here's a brief history: we met Miley Cyrus as Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana, who then dropped the Disney show and the fictional double life to Become An Adult. Slowly but surely, she progressed through the "Party in the USA" / "Can't Be Tamed" era, in which conservative parents began to vocally protest her newfound sexual liberation, and dove headfirst into "We Can't Stop," a party rock anthem replete with outright sexual imagery and drug use. I would've been 100% in favor of this progression--live your truth, Miley--if not for the disconcerting fetishization and commoditization of black bodies in her video, as well as the starkness of the cultural appropriation in her 2013 VMA performance and subsequent public appearances. In addition to flouting her affinity for weed--a drug that disproportionately lands black users behind bars while white users walk away with less than a slap on the wrist--Miley co-opted black dance, hair, and fashion in a way that seemed less like homage and more like theft. Like so many white artists, she put on black culture like a costume, a gag, a point of shock value, without acknowledging the very real struggles that black individuals face for doing and wearing the same things.

And now, with "Malibu," she's casting it all aside.

Defenders of Miley's image, the one that emerged circa 2012-2013, claimed that she was just finding herself, that it wasn't a race thing, that in the creative marketplace we are all entitled to craft aesthetics from existing institutions. That's a great idea, but it's a common, naive (and white) fallacy. She wasn't "finding herself"--she was profiting off cultural paradigms that subjugate the black people who create them but are seen as innovative when projected onto white bodies. And to say that something "isn't a race thing" ignores the larger cultural context that when black and brown people so ANYTHING, it is seen as racial. As political. It is a distinctly white luxury to say that something isn't about race. When I so much as straighten my hair, it is seen as a political statement, an indictment of my view of myself and my heritage. If I don't get to escape the politicization of personal aesthetics, then neither does Miley. Furthermore, the difference between black and brown artists "borrowing" from white culture--whatever that's deemed to be, as most cultural anthropologists find that term to be nebulous at best--and the inverse is that the oppression of black and brown communities inhibits them from profiting off that exchange in the same way that white communities do. No cultural exchanges take place in a vacuum. You must consider the power dynamics at play. Miley is a wealthy white woman. While being a white woman in America is still to be part of a disdvantaged community, the disadvantages are distinctly different from those of black and brown men, woman, and trans and gender non-confirming individuals. Miley will never fully understand those experiences, no matter how many times she twerks on TV.

So what's the issue at hand, really? Namely, that with the release of "Malibu," Miley has confirmed what black and brown women have been saying for years--that her "radical" posturing as a fraudulent member of the PoC communities was nothing more than elaborate costuming. She gets to shed her corn rows and put on a white dress and dance on a beach and sing about Malibu. Meanwhile, no matter how many delicate dresses or white sand beaches I frolic on, I never get to stop being black. I never get to stop hearing the condescending comments about how I "talk white" or the questions about whether or not my hair is real. I never get to stop being afraid of police, both for myself and for my brothers and father. I never get to stop worrying about how not only my gender will affect my future salaries, but my race, too (black and brown women make even less to a white man's dollar than a white woman or black man does).

With a single music video, Miley is back to being a delicate flower. Sure, white womanhood is a cage of objectification, but at least as a white woman, you're on object that society wants to protect.

Black and brown women don't have that luxury.

I don't hate Miley Cyrus. She's not a bad person. She's just white. And to be white in this country without checking your privilege is a dangerous thing.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What I Learned in Boating School Is

(Just kidding. I go to music school, ya loons! But if you know what I'm referencing, please find me at Thornton for a high-five and maybe some loose candy in my backpack if I'm feeling generous.)

So. Another year under my belt. It feels insane that this is true, that I'm halfway done with college, that two of my four years in the popular music program are over and done with.

This year punched me in the stomach. It knocked the wind all the way out of me -- I got my heart broken, I doubted my ability, I doubted my love of the art, I fell back in love with music, I fell in love with some more people (who also broke my heart), I strengthened my friendships into the most meaningful connections I've ever made, I wept with my friends on election night, I closed the fall semester out with a song by The Who and finished the year with a Katy Perry tune, I started my own funny little record label, I met John Mayer, I ushered a new generation of pop kids into the madness of our program, I did it, I did it, I did it.

And so did you. Whether you just finished your last year in pop or your first, whether you're majoring in something else entirely, whether you don't go to USC or you don't go to college, you did it. Regardless of the things that have happened to you before this moment, they delivered you here, and you did it, and I'm proud of you, and you don't hear that enough. But especially you, the pop kids of the Class of 2020, I'm so proud. You took my advice and you passed the trials of this year with flying colors. You opened your hearts to each other. You opened your hearts to me. At a party towards the end of the semester, I remarked to one of my closest freshman pals that I'm glad he is my friend, and he thanked me for making his year so special. It warmed my heart in the best way. I always wondered if I was welcome in their circles or just this weird old crony looming above them and spouting Pearls of Wisdom. Turns out they like having me around.

So it goes.

To the popular music Class of 2021: get $@&$#! ready. But fret not: I love to give advice. ;)

When I wrote my open letter to the Class of 2020, I didn't know anyone was going to read it. But they did, and it gave me a platform to speak to a lot more people about what it means to be a popular music major at USC's Thornton School of Music. It's crazy and it's heartbreaking and it's the worst thing I've ever done and it's the best thing I've ever done and when I told my songwriting and performance professor that I cry three times a day I wasn't kidding because I just. Feel. So. Much.

You don't have to cry thrice daily in order to get something out of this program. But you have to keep your head up and your eyes open. You have to let the tears fall when they come. You have to let people in and you have to be willing to learn.

In keeping with the first post I wrote, here are things I learned after completing my second year in the program.

1. This is a logistical thing more than anything, but you guys know the women's bathroom in The Music Complex? As of this writing, the only stall other than the handicapped ones that is guaranteed to lock is the fourth stall from the door. Surviving sophomore year means paying attention to the little things.

2. Make friends with kids who can write horn charts. You're better off shelling out for a "thank you" cup of coffee than muddling your way through a chart you have no business writing. Ask your classmates. Heck, ask the older kids, there are more of us that know what we're doing (though, regretfully, I am not one of them). You're here to learn, and you should take full advantage, but you should recognize when you're out of your depth and need to ask for help.

3. You can play that second keyboard part, I promise.

4. Pop theory is easier than classical theory, but you still have to do the work. Capital wins the title of "professor who most wants you to pass his class," but you still have to show up, and you still have to do what he asks of you. Here's the deal, though: all the things that didn't make sense to you this year will suddenly click. I have no idea why or how. It just happens.

5. You have to try a lot harder in performance class this year. Look, I trust you. I believe in you. But with few exceptions, you probably didn't push yourself to your absolute limit this year. You might THINK you did, but you didn't. You didn't practice every day. You didn't listen to the songs on the treadmill, in the shower, on your walk to every class, for hours before you went to sleep. You didn't ask your individual instructor for help every week on your part. You did the work well. Sophomore year, you have to be better. Ya just gotta. This isn't going to make sense until it does.

6. Sometimes the only way to save your voice is to not use it for a while. Read into this as you will, but on a literal level (at least for singers), take a few days of vocal rest scattered throughout the year. Also, drink water, get 8 hours of sleep on nights when you don't have to stay up, warm (but not hot!) tea is your friend. Thank me later.

7. If you want to gig, expect to play for single-digit audiences. I have a blog post about this from a few months back, but I reiterate: this is the time to gig, and you will have to play for literally two people. It's okay and it's still fun and if you like performing, this is the only way. You will get performance opportunities for crowds of hundreds or even thousands, but if you're playing Genghis Cohen on a Thursday in the midst of pop rehearsing szn, don't count on more than a handful of extra-supportive friends in the audience.

8. Only go to parties where you personally know the host and the house. Okay, this is not a catch-all rule--if you're an extroverted person who loves going out, it doesn't really matter who's hosting it or where the party is. But if you lean towards the introverted side, or find yourself wondering what the point in all this Turning Up really is, then follow this rule. I go to my friend's apartments and kickbacks (or even, dare I say it, ragers) at Su Casa because it's fun to party at a place when you know where the bathrooms are. Literally and figuratively.

9. You might--read, will--have to miss Fun College Times for your career. This year, I started writing pop music professionally, and because the god of scheduling does not have time for my requests, my sessions have almost ~all~ been on Friday nights. Because of this, I have missed many a party, a hang, a jaunt to the roller disco. Most of those Fridays, I really didn't care, because I love being in the studio. A couple of times, I got out early enough to catch the second half or tail end of whatever activity was going on. But a couple times, I was seriously bummed that I was missing out on Typical Teen Experiences to advance my professional well-being. My advice to you is: go to the session. Play the gig. There will be more parties, more opportunities to talk to cuties of the preferred sex(es), and more late-night runs to McDonald's. I promise.

10. Shame is a social construct and you should not be ashamed of yourself. If you're not hurting anyone, you shouldn't feel ashamed of yourself. Whether it's what you eat, what career opportunities you're taking or not, or who you love, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Eat cake with your friends on the lawn in the back of the cinema school. Don't say "yes" to that house party show you know will be a disaster. Tell your crush how you feel regardless of how horribly it might go. As a person who struggles with anxiety, this mantra helps me a lot--shame is not mandatory.

11. You should have a meeting with Sean Holt. Maybe you're taking lessons with him, maybe you're in songwriting with him, maybe you only have him for performance, but--you should really sit down with him and have a meeting about your life/career. He knows what the $*@&#! he's talking about, and he cares about you already, even if you've never spoken to him. This goes for people outside this niche little program, too: talk to the Sean Holt in your life. And hell, talk to the Patrice Rushen, too.

12. Sometimes you won't be able to hear your part until you listen through different speakers. Take from that what you will.

13. Don't say "yes" to everything. This might run counter to the advice that some of our professors give--sorry!--but as a person who is both highly ambitious and highly anxious, I have a tendency to agree to things before I think about whether or not I actually want to do them. We're told we have to hustle, to grind, and it seems like the only way we're gonna make it in this industry is to say "yes" to every single offer we get. You might be the kind of person who can do this, but I am of the camp that you should wait an hour before responding so you can think about it. Do you want to sing background vocals for your friend on the night you were supposed to catch up on all your other work? Do you want to drive for three hours to a session so you can play a guitar solo that might not get used? Do you want to put together a band and find rehearsal times for a last minute gig at Parkside? There are no right answers to those questions, because it really depends on your personality. But for me, there are definitely times when the right answer to a job offer, however cool it may sound, might still be "no."

14. I think I gave some variation on this advice last year, but: go to sleep. I have a lengthy blog post about staying up late and what it means symbolically, but really what I mean to say is: skip the party. Leave the party early. Leave the party and keep hanging out with your friends but go to sleep before 2am. I know what you're doing. You're chasing some ideal night you had long ago that probably wasn't even as good as you remember it. Let go of the idyll. Get some rest, champ.

15. Keep a journal. If you know me in person, I've probably already given you this advice, but: PLEASE start keeping a journal. In 5, 10, 20, 50 years, you are going to want to look back at this time when you were young and beautiful and living the #college #life. But really, keeping a journal is an asset for so many reasons. Read entries from the previous months, weeks, and even days to find patterns you need help breaking. Cull unusual soundbites and concepts to write music, poetry, fiction. Transcribe stimulating conversations. Scribble over a whole page in dark ink until it bleeds through when you're pissed. Draw a big ol' pink heart with your crush's name in the middle. Worry and pour out all your circular thinking when you're having a panic attack (this works so well, trust me). I'm about to fill up my third journal, and my only regret is not starting sooner.

16. What you're feeling might not be love. Listen, I'm first in line to call every single infatuation "love at first sight." I write songs about people I see for three seconds in elevators. I have cried over boys I pass at crowded parties. I tell my friends excitedly that this new, sparkly person might be "the one." But so far, I've (almost) always been wrong. The elevator doors open, and they get off on their floor. The boy I was too scared to talk to leaves the party before I do. "The one" kisses somebody else. You, too, will get off the elevator, and leave the party early, and kiss somebody else. I can promise you that.

17. You have to forgive. You're going to make so many mistakes this year, over these next few years, throughout your godforsaken 20s. And your friends are going to make mistakes, too. Please don't hold a grudge. Please don't miss out on what could be a lifelong friendship because of a misstep, a single breach of trust, one drunk night. Protect your heart. Redefine the relationship. But don't cut people out of your life too quickly. Forgive other people. Maybe, when you screw up--and I promise that you will--they'll forgive you, too.

18. You can do this. No, really, you can. Sophomore year is hard. They don't call it the slump for nothing. If you had a great freshman year, this might be the time when things you thought you knew are called into question. If you had a bad freshman year, this is your next big shot to change the narrative, to make good on the as-of-yet-unfulfilled promise of college. But you have to keep reminding yourself that you're here for a reason. Your admission was not a fluke; you were chosen. You are not getting worse; you're just realizing that you were never the best to begin with (also, you're getting better, I promise). Hold onto your friends, your significant other, your family, however geographically distant they may be. Hold onto your mentors and your professors and your RA, for God's sake, if you've got one. You are gonna make it. This is your moment.

That's all I've got for you this time around. I learned a lot my first year, but I learned way more my second year. I can't wait for a long and restful summer, because after that, I'm a junior in pop...and I've heard season 3 is where things really heat up. ;)

Friday, April 28, 2017

#Lighter

https://soundcloud.com/jensenmcrae/sets/lighter

My EP is out. Go listen and then come back to this (or better yet, listen while you read).

I really wanted to write a post about all the songs on this EP, because I really love all of them for different reasons. I just want to get out of some of the thoughts and feelings I have about the songs, many months after writing them, a few months after recording them, and only a couple hours after their release into the world.

1. I Don't Date Smokers Anymore
Written: June 2016
I had just finished my freshman year and I was in a writing slump. I only wrote 3 songs in May that I could call legitimately finished, which for me is an abysmal count, and I was feeling uninspired. The piano was dull and the guitar was limiting. But then one day when I sat down again to write, determined to churn something out, regardless of quality, this song came out of me. I didn't realize it was a feeling I had to get out -- the reclamation of self, the declaration that I would no longer fall for people who were better at self-destruction than anything else -- but the metaphor came out so tidily and the guitar part sounded so cool that it felt like fate. Don't worry, I've still crushed on a smoker or two since writing it...;)

2. Night
Written: October 2016
In the middle of October, my songwriting professor brought a guest speaker in to teach us about alternate guitar tunings. I was inspired by the sound, and went home that night to change the tuning on my own guitar. I didn't write anything, as the next night was the first sophomore pop final and I wanted to rest my voice, but I hoped that something interesting would happen to me in the next few days so I could return to the guitar and write something I was proud of. Literally the next day I got my wish...and the day afterward, that Saturday morning, I journaled frantically for half an hour straight, then sat at my guitar, and wrote this song in one fell swoop.

3. I Came Home
Written: November 2016
The 2016 election broke my heart, as you know if you read previous blog posts of mine. My professors consoled us with the knowledge that now, more than ever, our art is important. Our voices matter, especially those of us who are marginalized in some way. The Friday after the election, during my music history discussion section, I wrote the lyrics to this song without humming a note, though I envisioned the chords and melody in my head. The next day, I sat down with my guitar and recorded it in one take.

4. Light Goes Out
Written: April 2016
I didn't write this song envisioning an EP, let alone knowing that this would function as a title track of sorts. But man, did I enjoy writing this song. I was three months into learning the guitar and still figuring out how to trick people into thinking I knew how to play it. I had been playing some version of this chord progression for weeks, but all at once, on one of my last Tuesday nights in my freshman dorm, the lyrics and melody started coming out of me. I've said before that every time I sit down to write, I think I'm trying to write "In Your Atmosphere." This is the closest I've ever come, I think. The day before I wrote it, I heard "Mama You Been On My Mind" by Bob Dylan for the first time, and I quote the title in the bridge. I think this is my version of that song, too. Really, though, it's a love letter to a person who cannot love themselves. A theme, I suppose...

So those are the four songs on this EP. I have written dozens of songs I'm very proud of that I've never shared, and hundreds of songs I'm not that proud that maybe will find a home someday, anyway. I'm excited about this new chapter, about putting all the things I make in my room out into the world. The people who helped produce and play on this are stellar people and stellar musicians. The people who have been sharing it are wonderful friends.

I feel lucky and happy and whole.

#TheLighterEP

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Time and Starting Fresh

I'm not gonna lie to you, I had a weird night last night.

Honestly, it was a weird day that dovetailed into a weird evening that didn't end until 4 in the morning. Ted Mosby's mom was right: nothing good happens after 2 a.m. (although shoutout Mackin Carroll for always bringing his conversational A-game no matter the hour. And his Crazy 8s A-game. We will finish sometime, and I will trounce you.)

Whenever I go to a party, I have a small existential crisis. If you see me looking up to the sky, I assure you that nothing interesting is happening up there, I'm just looking for stars. I started doing this at the beginning of freshman year, when I was so consumed with social anxiety that I needed something to ground me. I chose constellations, however few and far between they may be in smoggy LA skies. If I can find just one star to look at, somehow my brain is satisfied and convinced that Everything Will Be Okay.

These existential crises progress into stranger and deeper spirals the later I stay up. By 4am, the last hour where people could conceivably still be awake without intersecting with those damn early birds who are starting their days, I am Full Philosophical Jensen. Even though I am her, I do not like being around her. She is so pretentious and she talks so much and she writes poems that do not make a lot of sense in the morning.

When I first woke up today, I felt embarrassed. I didn't get drunk or make any materially bad choices, but I had let my night be guided by unrealistic expectations. I thought if I just stayed up late enough, if I just saw the night's events through to their logical ends, then I would receive a reward from the universe. All my insecurities would disappear, all my anxieties would be soothed, all my behavior justified. But the truth is that we mythologize the lateness of the hour because we think time can absolve us of our weaker selves. "It was late" is almost as good an excuse as "I was drunk." Time is relative. At 4am in Los Angeles, it was noon in London, and I had the audacity to believe that I was special. I talked about that at length last night, as I so often do, asking my friends if everyone thinks they're special. Mackin quoted Fleet Foxes lyrics.

So it goes.

I guess I am writing this to tell you that it is not too late to give yourself a fresh start. You can make choices based not only on what feels good, but also on what feels right. You can be radically honest with yourself and the people around you and you don't need a broken clock to do it. You can choose to fix what you did last night, or forget it, or follow it home. You can wash your face and take some Emergen-C and drink a warm mug of tea. I know it's the end of the semester and the end of the month and, unless you are a baby or very old, some strange middle point in the long and confusing continuum of your life, but listen:

You get to pick when your fresh starts happen. And a Sunday in late April seems as good a time as any.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Forums and Fangirling

Last night I saw John Mayer at the Forum.

It was a great show.

The first time I saw John, it was a really different experience, to say the least. I finagled my way into the Hotel Café despite being 19 and lacking identification that said otherwise. I sat in the very front of an already small room. I arrived at 7pm to see my good friend Madison Douglas play a beautiful acoustic set, then watched five and a half hours of increasingly intense and awesome music, until at 12:30 a.m., John emerged to no introduction, no announcement, no fanfare. The room released a collective gasp, even those of us who knew he was the secret closer. He played some of my favorites--"Slow Dancing in a Burning Room," an acoustic cut of "Love on the Weekend," "Dear Marie," an underrated track from his less-than-popular album Paradise Valley--and he played some songs I don't get that hyped on--"Who Says," "Waiting on the World to Change," etc. His voice was even more transcendently beautiful live than I could have interpolated from all the live videos I've watched online. His guitar playing was legendary. He was what I wanted him to be and more. I tore a page out of my journal and scribbled a note that said something to the effect of:

Dear John --
You are my greatest musical influence and inspiration. I'm currently studying popular music at USC's Thornton School of Music with an emphasis in songwriting. Every time I sit down to write, I'm trying to write "In Your Atmosphere." I hope one day I figure out a way to do it, and that I make you proud. Here is my email address [redacted] and my phone number [redacted] -- contact me if you are so moved. You are my hero.

Love,
Jensen


When he finished his set, after multiple jam sessions over Bill Withers tunes and a series of encores, I leapt up from my table.
"John!" I yelped. He turned around. Hands shaking, I handed him the folded note--when did I get so bashful?--and he smiled.
"You're my hero!" I blurted.
"Thank you," he said, holding the note up, kissing it (!) and sticking it into his pocket.

I think part of me knew he was never gonna read it, but there it was, attached to his person.

What happened next can be summed up as: I went in the green room to hang out with Madison and Theo Katzman and hopefully get a chance to have a real conversation with John, but dehydration and overstimulation contributed to me fainting--not once, but TWICE. No, that is not a euphemism. I quite literally fainted, mere feet away from my greatest songwriting hero. No word on whether or not he saw or not, because the first time I came to, he was still taking selfies with fans, and the second time I came to, he was gone. I got in the back of an ambulance, they prescribed me food from the 24-hour diner across the street and to Locate My Chill, and Madison and I ate four hundred orders of sweet potato fries and laughed hysterically at what our lives had become.

This second time was more calm. I split an Uber five ways with some other super fans in my program, and while they went up to their seats in the nosebleeds, I sat by myself on the floor. I was next to a very sweet couple who loved John as much as I do. As soon as he came out, we were all losing it. And he really did slay a long and demanding show. His voice rarely wavered, his lock with the drums and bass was the dream of every performance professor in my program, and he seemed genuinely elated to be onstage for us.

But there were parts where he looked tired, and he seemed like he was mailing it in.

I've watched the "In Your Atmosphere" video--conservative estimates only--four hundred million times. I know every vocal inflection and every guitar lick and could probably sing the lyrics and instrumentation a cappella note for note. So when he played it last night and he changed things up, or perhaps forgot his original version...that hurt a bit. And I'm gonna be honest, that video from "Where The Light Is" is one of the most heartbreaking solo performances I've ever watched. Last night at the Forum, 9 years or so later, he wasn't emoting the same way. His raspy voice has this naturally evocative quality, but it wasn't the same. Maybe he doesn't love the song as much as I do. Maybe he was eager to get to his trio set. Maybe he was just genuinely tired from being on the road, knowing he's got many months of touring ahead.

After the show, we rehashed every song in the Uber back to campus, and continued to dissect his showmanship over McDonald's fries. A woman wandered into the restaurant and screamed at the patrons through a hoarse voice that none of us were innocent of sin. We were all college students. Of course we weren't. I digress.

It was 12:30 or so at this point, the same time four months ago when I first saw John Mayer take the stage, and like the previous time, I was more worn out than I thought I'd be. The thing about late nights is that they're not nights at all, that by technical measures it is already the next morning. I got an extra order of fries by accident, and I graciously handed them off. We were all starving, burning through our food at a breakneck pace and having the conversations that all music students have--here's what you need to be listening to, here's who I want to play for one day, here's what John should have played in the acoustic, no, the trio, no, the full band set, here's the best concert I've ever been to. There were lulls borne of exhaustion but never of boredom, because when you go see your favorite artist on earth with other people who love him as much as you do, it is impossible to be bored. But here you thought it was impossible to be tired, impossible to feel weary when you are watching your hero play, when you're someone else's hero and you're playing to a sold-out crowd in one of the greatest cities on earth.

But you can get tired, whether you're awestruck in the audience or up on the elevated stage, looming larger than life above the rest of us. John Mayer is a goddamn human being and I am sorry for ever pretending he was something else. He makes mistakes. His gear doesn't work (and didn't last night, on what one of my buds later told me was supposed to be "Heartbreak Warfare"--DAMN it!). His voice breaks--he had to get surgery in order to get it back, and he thanked his doctor, who was in the audience with us. He has songs he likes, songs he's tolerates, songs he truly hates but knows he has to play anyway. And more than anything--how could I miss this?--he gets hurt. The songs on "The Search For Everything" are about a loss of love that leveled him so profoundly he had to make an album about it. John Mayer is not only breakable, but broken. He gets sick and he gets rejected and he has to pay taxes and this is a job for him, for all of us, last night was a two-hour escape from the drudgery and stress of our lives, but for him, for all the magic and dreams coming true on that stage, he was getting paid for it, and it was work, and there is something about getting paid to make magic that sucks a little bit of the life out of it.

I still love John Mayer. He is still one of my biggest influences. But I don't think I'll ever faint at the sight of him again. And I think I'll cut him some slack if he plays "In Your Atmosphere," and he skips the real ending.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"I'm Just Not Into Your Voice That Much. I Don't Like It."

The title of this article is a glowing review I just received from the music blog A Little Bit Louder!

When I read it, my first instinct was to chuckle.

Then to cry.

Then to chuckle again.

It's funny. Since the beginning of my sophomore year, I have doubted my ability as a singer and performer. I have felt increasing confidence in my strengths as a writer across all media--songwriting, screenwriting, fiction, poetry, blogging--and dwindling belief in myself as The Artist. I thought it was natural, that very few people make it as artists and that 19 might be the age where I gracefully bow out of the race. I still had big dreams, you know, still wanted to write for big artists, have my music placed in film and television, still wanted to sell a movie (and actually get it made), still wanted to have a book published, etc. These are not the dreams of a small heart or mind. But my biggest dream, the dream that used to keep me up nights, the one that still makes my heart pound when I think about it coming true--that was relegated to the ranks of "astronaut," "brain surgeon," and "President" (although now that I think about it, that last one might make a comeback...)

But reading blogger ChrisDylan's review of my song "Super Moon," a song I'm incredibly passionate about, a song I've believed in since I wrote it when I was 17, a song that is one of my most vulnerable musical expressions I've ever made public, a song that a Grammy-award winning producer thought was good enough to put his name on...well, it changes my tune. (Sorry.)

A lot of my friends have been releasing music to great success. They've got thousands of plays on SoundCloud, performance opportunities I envy, and yes, lovely reviews on music blogs. By those metrics, I'm falling way behind.

But this comment, above all the other negative ones I've gotten since I started using the godforsaken devil's chamber pots known as submission engines, has made me want to bring my old dream out of retirement.

I know I'm going to keep losing faith in myself, because for the foreseeable future, rejection is all I'm going to get. But the next time a guest in pop forum asks who in the room is an artist, I won't sit on my hands. I'll promote the heck out of my new EP (#TheLighterEP, coming to you April 28) and I'll play gigs without worrying about crowd size or applause.

Because nothing is more satisfying than accomplishing your biggest goals, then telling the stories of all the people who said you weren't good enough.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Remembering Chuck Berry and Where We Go From Here

I highly recommend you read John Mayer's piece on Jimi Hendrix for Rolling Stone.

I'm not just gonna recommend it, I'm gonna link it right here for ya: https://web.archive.org/web/20081129180351/http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/5939209/the_immortals__the_greatest_artists_of_all_time_6_jimi_hendrix

I'm not going to lie to you, I don't know a lot about Hendrix. I know he influenced a lot of artists I admire, but I don't know much of his music. So as I write this, I'm listening to Axis: Bold As Love -- partly because John mentions it in the write-up, partially because John has a really killin' cover of the title song on Continuum, one of my favorite albums of all time.

I digress.

You read an essay like that, you meditate on the heartbreaking loss of Chuck Berry, one of the all-time greats in every sense of the word, and you start to wonder what kind of history you're living in. Chuck is the father of rock and roll. James was the godfather of soul (and Aretha is the queen thereof). Whitney was the queen of pop, with Michael as her king and Prince as her...well, you get the rest. I'm missing a lot of huge names, but I guess what I'm getting it as that I sometimes wonder if we're ever going to change the game like those cats did ever again.

I adore John Mayer, as every person within a ten mile radius of me at any given time is painfully aware. I model my songwriting after him and Sara Bareilles and Corinne Bailey Rae to a crazy degree. Everything I do with my voice is an attempt to do what Adele does. I've done my research, tracing back their artistic lineages, just as my freshman songwriting professor would want -- Carole King, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder (and Ray Vaughn), Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Fiona Apple, just to provide a few names that I haven't already -- and tried to pull teeth from the jaws of their artistries as well. And personally? I don't mind that I may never break any new ground. It doesn't have to be me. I just want it to be somebody.

Contemporary music seems rooted in bucking genre conventions, in a "come as you are" approach to identity politics, in combining elements from multiple traditions and not being too concerned with hard and fast labels. I love this approach, but it also makes me wonder what's going to last from this epoch of artistic creation. Part of breaking ground is about Macgyvering your own aesthetic from existing institutions, but what of building new institutions entirely? Is that era gone? We are masters of deconstructing and reassembling working parts. But are we ever going to forage for new parts? Are there any new parts left for us to find?

Maybe this seems a bit grim, but I find it exhilarating. I look forward to seeing what emerges from our generation's imminent antiquity, what is remembered forever as Great and what is remembered for a few decades as Pretty Good. And maybe this is corny of me to say, but I think that I am currently attending school with people who will spin the fabric of the Great (or at least, I don't know, help turn on the sewing machine. This metaphor is getting unwieldy).

Some creatives believe that going to school squashes imagination, that it makes binary code of the heart and sucks the magic out of the whimsical by making it theoretical. I'm not going to lie to you -- that's true at first, or at least it feels true. The first semester and even the first year of music school can feel stifling and exhausting. You're overanalyzing every song you hear, you can never purely enjoy a great lyric or a cool guitar line because you're too busy mentally calculating its rhythm in "e-and-as" and searching your brain for its musical genealogy. But just like learning a new language, you turn a corner and you come out the other side.

You're no longer performing mental calisthenics when you're listening to music, because you can freely absorb it through the structures you've set up in your brain. You can retain more from it and use what you know better than you ever have before. And instead of resenting music, this thing you used to love, you come back around to it and get those butterflies like you did the first time your dad put on The Temptations in the car.

The point of all this is to say that I don't know what the future of music holds, and that yes, at times I worry that we're not living in a musical age as golden as the mid-20th century. But I also know that we're all too close to the damn thing to know for sure what, of the art we're all making, is gonna be Great. And I know that my classmates and I are among the best-prepared soldiers in the march towards innovation.

Rest in peace, Chuck. Thanks for making rock and roll for us.