Monday, July 17, 2017

College/University/Quarterlife Crisis Playlist

Hey friends! I feel like I haven't written about music in a while.

Since I am halfway through college, it only feels right that I curate playlist for you based on All The College Feels. I might revisit this when I graduate in 2019 (zoinks), but here are tunes for all the various college moods I have encountered so far. Feel to apply these songs to yourself if you are not in college, and are merely a young person in a time of extreme emotional upheaval.

Enjoy!

1. night before I left home: "What Would I Do Without You" // Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors

2. first day / night in the dorm: "This House Is A Hotel" // The Wind and the Wave

3. first party: "No More Parties in LA" // Kanye West

4. first college crush: "ILYSB - STRIPPED" // LANY

5. missing an old high school flame (not really relevant to me but maybe you guys had social lives prior to the age of 18): "Miss You" // Alabama Shakes

6. REALLY FEELING YOURSELF: "Got Body" // Lion Babe

7. experiencing fall in a new city, or in the same city in a new way: "Rylynn" // Andy McKee

8. when it's late and you're walking home from a confusing romantic encounter: "If I'm Unworthy" // Blake Mills

9. going back to school after summer vacation for sophomore/junior/senior year: "Old Friends" // Pinegrove

10. self doubt: "Family Happiness" // The Mountain Goats

11. skipping to class when the weather's good: "OctaHate" // Ryn Weaver

12. General Sadness: "Woods" // Bon Iver

13. General Joy: "Biggest Fan" // Will Joseph Cook

14. realizing that you're better off without them: "Girls Like Me" // Will Joseph Cook

15. realizing you're not: "Hourglass" // Catfish and the Bottlemen

16. realizing you have to cut someone out of your life if you're ever gonna get over them: "Petrolia" // Donovan Woods

17. regretting that time you didn't speak up: "Something" // Julien Baker

18. for when you survive something you didn't think you could: "Loudspeaker" // MUNA

19. for when you haven't survived it yet but you want to: "I Wanna Get Better" // Bleachers

20. late afternoon done-with-classes feeling: "Love on the Weekend" // John Mayer

21. last day of classes before summer: "Emotions and Math" // Margaret Glaspy

22. the end of a good friendship: "High And Dry" // Radiohead

23. long-distance relationship feels (again, not for me, but for people I know): "Bless The Telephone" - Labi Siffre

24. weird being back home again: "Hometown Hero" // Andy Shauf

25. college movie montage, dancing with your friends in a well-lit backyard: "When Did Your Heart Go Missing?" // Rooney

If you can think of emotions I missed, songs that fit these moods, or some combination of both, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Till next time!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Turtles All The Way Down, Four Months Out

DFTBA.

If you are not subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, and if you never have been, you might not know what that stands for. It's an initialism (because acronyms are pronounceable, fact c/o of a vlogbrothers video) that stands for Don't Forget To Be Awesome. It is the official (or perhaps unofficial) motto of the nerdfighter community. (Nerdfighters are people who are fans of vlogbrothers, the content creators therein, or the community therein. I think that's enough definitions for now).

When I was 14 years old, this book called The Fault in Our Stars came out. A good friend of mine was kind of obsessed with the author, this slightly sub-middle-aged white guy named John Green, and she insisted that I read both The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, this John Green guy's first book. I was a reader in childhood, having developed nearsightedness due to my predilection for reading in the dark after my bedtime by flashlight (at least that's the explanation my mother gave me). However, recently I'd found myself frustrated by books. I would tear through middle-grade chick lit (that's the best way I can describe these terribly formulaic books with dull characters and contrived plots that always involved two straight/white/able-bodied/middle-class best friends falling in love) when I found it, but other than that, I wasn't reading as much as I used to. I can't really remember what I did with my free time. I guess I was writing songs? I think I was mostly playing The Sims 3.

I digress.

In any case, I was in ninth grade and on the precipice of Maybe Being Cool, and this friend was one of the cooler girls in class, so I bought TFiOS (hip shorthand) about two months after its publication and read it over spring break in ninth grade.

I read it in one three or four hour sitting, and I cried. Like a lot.

It was the first time since early childhood that I could remember a book moving me in such a poignant way. I was attached to the characters, I was absorbed by the plot, and the language! The LANGUAGE in that story was so compelling. I was picking up on subtext and metaphors in a way that I'd only ever done when I was forced to in English class. The book had reinvigorated my love for words in stories that no other book could have.

Then I took a brief reading hiatus.

The second half of my ninth grade year was me continuing to ascend the social ladder, however slowly. I still joked that I was a dork, but the truth of the matter was, I had friends from every rung. I was sociable with tech geeks, theater nerds, football players, and cheerleaders alike. I felt like people had stopped looking through me like I was invisible. It was largely due to my presence on the school newspaper, which drew both the ambitious popular kids and the ambitious nerdy kids to its ranks. Also, I had a boyfriend. We never kissed or held hands or even went on dates, but we hung out every day at school and told people we were dating. This was enough to get me at least a bit of social buying power.

(I promise this is all relevant to the story).

Then, at the end of freshman year, I realized that I was sick of having a boyfriend who did not kiss me or hold my hand or go on dates with me, and also didn't answer my texts or calls once school let out. So I called his house and dumped him over the phone. I spent the summer feeling sorry for myself, turning to the Internet and its thriving subculture of fame and infamy. Whenever I get heartbroken in real life, I fall deeply and inconsolably in love with fictional characters and/or celebrities who are too old for me. That summer, it was Jack and Finn Harries, Dan Howell, and any other British 20-year-old who made funny sketches and made me feel like I was loved, even though they were thousands of miles away, several years older, and had no idea who I was.

It was during this summer that I discovered a channel featuring two much older men named Hank Green and John Green (yes relation, they're brothers). Their videos were all at least somewhat informational, whether they be about politics, science, literature, or just about the personal lives of the men who made the videos. About five videos in, I realized that John Green of the vlogbrothers was John Green of TFiOS fame. I was elated! There were hundreds of videos on the channel going back to 2007. In between reading self-insert fanfic about the Harries twins, I would watch vlogbrothers videos, reminding myself to read John's other books when I got the chance.

When I returned to school, all the work that I'd done to become popular seemed to dissolve before my very eyes. Sophomore year was when we switched campuses, to the Upper School, and all the actual popular kids were going to parties with upperclassmen and trying alcohol and getting into real relationships. I was stuck in the past, pining over boys who only hung out with me so I would help them write their essays and obsessing over Tumblr and YouTube. I was also experiencing turbulence in my personal life unlike any I'd ever had before. It's so clear to me now that I was afraid of the social rejection and emotional darkness in the real world, so I holed myself up online, laughing while handsome young Brits wore wigs on camera and rewatching John Green speed-talk his way through a fake television show he titled "Hitler and Sex."

In the midst of this Internet-ing, I read that other John Green book my old friend had mentioned, even though she'd already begun the slow and painful process of outgrowing me (the death knell of our friendship was when she told me about having sex with her boyfriend in her car and my response was some combination of a prudish, judgmental face and an exclamation of "Ew!"). Looking for Alaska leveled me just as profoundly as TFiOS had, and with no social life to worry about, I was hungry for more. I read the other books that John Green had talked about on his channel--Fahrenheit 451 and The Great Gatsby, plus other works that his recommendations had led me to, like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Taming of the Shrew, and one of my all-time favorites to this day, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I was reading a book almost every week, downloading them to my iPad and going back to my old habits, reading by dim light long after I should have already gone to sleep. My schoolwork wasn't where it needed to be, but I was thriving. Awakened, even.

Though my junior year marked another ascent into minor popularity, I crash-landed my senior year, coming off a painful rejection from a summer romance and a position in student government that should have won me acceptance but largely isolated me from everyone but my fellow council mates and steady friends. College applications were stressing me out, I felt alienated from even my immediate circle, and I was worried about my social future. Though I was accepted to the only two universities I applied to, I felt inert and emotionally itchy. I descended back into what I knew best: books. I read more Vonnegut, bizarre stories by delightful authors like Graeme Cameron and Douglas Coupland, and of course, my current #1 all-time, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. After my brain literally exploded from reading Oscar Wao in all its sprawling, multilingual, multigenerational, magical realistic/science fictional glory, I devoured Díaz's two books of short stories, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. I vividly remember those days in the spring of 2015, using my seemingly endless multitude of free periods to sit in the sweaty, iron-hot bleachers, nose burrowed in a book, ignoring the festivities of senior year around me. I was happier alone, laughing at Kurt's crude drawings and Díaz's matter-of-factness about love and sex, experiences I'd still yet to have at 17.

I graduated, and I went to USC, where within a month of starting school I met Junot Díaz and got him to sign my copy of Oscar Wao. I dealt with the Usual College Stuff, like homesickness (from half an hour away...I'm weak) and social anxiety and academic adjustments and figuring out what the hell it actually means to major in popular music. I stopped judging people for drinking alcohol and having sex, I stopped being afraid of parties (though I'm still terrified of boys...and rightly so), I stopped being disappointed in my real life because it doesn't follow a neat narrative (or at least I do it less now). However, I never stopped reading, and I never stopped watching vlogbrothers videos. I am a faithful nerdfighter, because that online community and John's books have seen me through some dark times.

Somewhere in the last five years, I read An Abundance of Katherines (not my favorite), Paper Towns (used to be my favorite but TFiOS ranks supreme at the moment), and Will Grayson Will Grayson (absolutely ACES but technically cowritten with David Levithan so to me it is in a separate category). I've watched thousands of videos from vlogbrothers and Crash Course. I went to Vidcon in 2014 and met John in person for about five seconds, handing him my business card and a #JustinCarrWantsWorldPeace luggage tag before he was escorted to his next event by security. My love of language has blossomed into three young adult manuscripts, two feature films, a handful of short films, and hundreds of poems, songs, and essays. Though my inner and outer lives have changed substantially since I first wept onto the pages of TFiOS, I'm still anxious, and often. I'm still terrified of romantic rejection and I still put myself out there frequently and embarrassingly. I'm still a bookworm and I'm still a writer and I'm still a nerdfighter. And I think I always will be.

John Green and his books have a special place in my heart. So when he announced that his first new book in almost six years is coming out this fall, I was overcome with emotion. Turtles All The Way Down isn't just a book. It's a historical artifact from the future, a piece of my past hurtling towards me from the opposite direction. When I think of John Green's work, I think of my cringey adolescence, my weirdly small glasses and then my weirdly big glasses, my difficulty with my weight and my stunted social development. I think of the hours I spent reblogging fan art and GIF sets of real people that I'd mythologized into characters by watching their YouTube videos for so long. I think of my transition from Cute Little Girl to Awkward Bookish Teen to Real Human Woman. I was 14 when I read my first John Green book. I will be 20 when I read Turtles All The Way Down. The chasm between who I was and who I will be then is huge. Un-crossable by anyone but me.

Right now, we're a little less than four months out from the release of Turtles All The Way Down. Not much is known about the book, and I'd like to keep it that way. I'm feeling those tingly "no spoilers!" feelings I felt when I was in high school and enamored with the purity of an untouched literary experience. But as much as this book's impending release is inspiring a unique kind of nostalgia in me, it's also reminding me that I cannot go back. I cannot return to the innocent girl of 14 I was when I first heard John Green's name, and I can't get back the years I spent/lost/lived in between then and now. I can only move forward. I can only grow up.

This book, in all likelihood, will not live up to my expectations. It will not change my life. It can't, because though it will be my first time reading this particular book, it won't be my first time becoming infatuated with literature. I've done that already. I may love this book, but there is a difference between falling in love with someone new and falling in love for the very first time. Before I met books with sweaty palms, dress askew, tongue heavy in my mouth. So...come here often? Now, each story is met with a knowing smile, legs crossed at the ankles like they're supposed to be, no lipstick on the wine glass. Your place or mine?

Before this book comes out, and I form any opinions about the content or the style, I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to John Green. If not for his careful handiwork, if not for the immense trust that he puts in his young readers, if not for his heart-wrenching stories, I might never have been drawn to great books the way I am now. Thank you for caring. Thank you for writing even when your illness handcuffed you, tried to make you stop. Thank you for making videos about hard topics and silly ones. I may grow up, but I will never outgrow you and your words, John. Keep publishing books, and I'll keep reading them, no matter how old we both get.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Quiet Genius of SNL's 'Girlfriends Talk Show'

In a Saturday Night Live season populated by A-list guest stars and political comedy ranging from brilliant jabs to the harvesting of comically ripe but low-hanging fruit, most thinkpieces about the show are bound to be about how the show did or did not rise to the challenge of its endowed cultural relevance. In fact, I've got a blog post about one of those in the works, so keep an eye out for it. But one of my favorite recurring SNL sketches in recent memory is "Girlfriends Talk Show."

If you're not familiar with "Girlfriends Talk Show," it features Cecily Strong as Kira, a socially fluid girl-next-door type, and her best friend, Morgan, an irreparably awkward nerd played to perfection by Aidy Bryant. What begins as a fairly basic premise -- teenage girls having a talk show where they talk about the banalities of their middle-class suburban lives -- unfolds to delightfully nuanced effect in every return of the sketch.

If asked why a gender-balanced (or at least near-gender-balanced) writing staff/cast on a comedy show is important, look no further than the brilliant scripts behind "Girlfriends Talk Show," as well as the sharp comedic timing of its two stars. Kira and Morgan are rendered subtly and skillfully; though the too-cool guests that Strong's Kira brings on at the last minute to ambush Morgan drive a wedge between the two vastly different friends, the recurrence of the sketch provides the only evidence we need that their bond is impenetrable. There's nothing quite like the irrational, unconditional love of tween and teen female friendship. I can attest to this, and I'm sure the writers behind the sketch-- whether just Bryant and Strong or some other unseen collaborative partners--can attest to it, too.

While SNL thrives on political commentary, fake game shows and commercials, and original sketches that blossom into the ridiculous, "Girlfriends Talk Show" never veers too far into the implausible. While Kira's recurrent descriptions of her "older boyfriend" are deliriously specific and absurd, they do a remarkable job of coloring Kira's character in unexpected ways. Kira is the bridge between the painfully nerdy Morgan and the cool (or attempting-to-be-cool) guest of the week, not just because of her history with Morgan, but because her attachment to this clearly disturbed, age-inappropriate boyfriend with bizarre fetishes indicates deeper psychological wounds than her chipper personality will let on. When Morgan "brags" about being the shoulder to cry on for her mom's divorced friend, we get the impression that she is the support system for Kira, as well. Morgan is a fish out of water, and almost takes solace in her geekiness. Kira is just as lost in the world as her best friend, perhaps even more so, but she's better at faking poise.

"Girlfriends Talk Show" further establishes its credibility with its constant references to "best" friendship, an ever-shifting teen lexicon, and the air of desperation surrounding even the coolest of guests--Scarlett Johansson's character obsessively mentions her Mercedes, Jennifer Lawrence's refers to her visits to New York City at every possible opportunity, and Amy Adams' turn involves humiliating Morgan, though Adams' character has nothing to gain and Bryant's has everything to lose. The highlight of every iteration, in my opinion, is when Morgan completely loses her cool with the guest, so embarrassed and frustrated that she bombards them with nonsensical insults. (One of my favorites involves the phrase "bitch sandwich;" another is "roach warehouse"). Even when the awkward old soul wants to come to bat with snide commentary of her own, she is utterly incapable--which, of course, is why Kira secretly loves her in the first place.

I can't speak to authorial intent in this sketch--I don't know if the writers know exactly why these characters so hilarious, or just why the gimmick works even after multiple revivals--and I certainly don't think anyone would consider this sketch the height of cinema, or the height of comedy. But the layers to this female friendship are what make it work, and what make it so damn funny every time it comes back.

(Also, in case you haven't noticed, I was a Morgan. Let's be honest. I'm STILL a Morgan. Love to all my Kiras.)

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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

This Whole Swastika Thing Is Getting Out of Control

If you don't go to USC, or you do, but you spend very little time on the Internet, you might not know that there was a firestorm today about a vendor on campus who was selling shirts that had swastikas on them.

I've seen pictures of the shirt. I don't know the vendor personally, but based on the images, it seems like the vendor was attempting to shed some light on the history of the symbol, and to condemn those who have used it to spread hate. Which is, like, nice, I guess? But ultimately irrelevant.

A USC student who posted about an emotional response to the shirt was immediately assaulted with an onslaught of comments from people calling her an oversensitive snowflake, mocking her for being triggered, and making a lot of anti-Semitic remarks in general. There were even more people who jumped in to play devil's advocate, to explain that the symbol is *supposed* to be peaceful, to denounce Nazism but to defend free speech and the right of the individual to sell the shirt.

Here's my thing.

I'm a black Jew who has never felt particularly welcomed by the Jewish community. So it goes--I'm not really religious anyway, so it was always more of an inconvenience to have my heritage questioned than a real point of offense. Nonetheless, I have ancestors that were persecuted in the Holocaust, and my white, Jewish mother is just as integral to my identity as my black, non-Jewish father. So seeing swastikas for me is always kind of painful. Even if other Jews don't usually recognize me as one of their own, some part of me still feels tied to that community. The experience is sort of like (though not identical to) when I hear people say the n-word. Even though it's not (usually) directed at me, and even though its usage does not directly subjugate me, I can feel the weight of its historical significance. I know that I'm only a couple generations removed from people whose lives were made absolutely unlivable by that word, and that symbol. (Also, black people were murdered during the Holocaust. As were gays, and the disabled, and a whole bunch of other marginalized groups. I digress).

But even if you AREN'T descended from people who were historically persecuted, you should have a problem with the swastika. It's not what it used to be. I know the "swastikas have seen better days" argument sounds silly when I phrase it that way, but they have. The only reason that any words or symbols have meaning is because we have assigned meaning to them. And when a meaning--particularly a violent one--becomes widely accepted and installed into the historical canon, it is imperative that we keep that in mind as time passes. I don't know if humanity will ever be able to "reclaim" the swastika, or the Confederate flag, or any other symbol that has once stood for hate, without facing repercussions.

Also--why are people (specifically straight/cisgender/white/Christian/male people) so obsessed with playing devil's advocate? Do you hear yourself? The devil doesn't need any more advocates! (And yes, I did order a shirt from Customink that has that very saying emblazoned across the chest). I get that you have been brought up to look at controversial issues from all sides, and to look at the facts. But I read a great quote somewhere about politics that essentially says: don't bring facts to a feelings party, and don't bring feelings to a facts party. When it comes to the swastika, you're in feelings territory. Climate change? Facts party. It exists. Economics? Facts party. Unemployment is a quantifiable statistic. Hate speech? Big ol' feelings party. It doesn't REALLY matter, in my opinion, that the swastika has peaceful origins, because those origins were perverted by the Nazi party. And that symbol has brought a lot of people a lot of pain. Your facts will crumble in the face of the trauma that millions of people experienced during the Holocaust, and that even more people experienced in the subsequent decades as a result of the genocide.

My final point, I suppose, is that you have to really think about what you're getting worked up about. If your Big Cause that you're fighting for is some person's right to sell shirts with swastikas on them, maybe you should reprioritize a bit. Free speech is a great thing to fight for. Hate speech? Notsomuch. No matter what that vendor thought they were accomplishing, they were acting with ignorance and privilege. And when those shortcomings were called out, they chose to continue doing what they were doing. And that's a big problem.

If you are part of any privileged group, and someone from a marginalized group says that they have been hurt by your words or actions, you don't just get to ~decide~ that you didn't do anything wrong. You need to take a step back and learn why what you did might be problematic. And if it doesn't affect your way of life, you should stop. Use a different word. Call someone by the correct pronouns.

Sell almost any other *#!&$@*! shirt.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Chance's Life Matters | Pop Lives Matter

Chance the Rapper's "Best New Artist" win was one of a few bright spots in an almost ominous 59th Grammy Awards.

He nailed performance as well. Bruno Mars was another highlight, both in his performance of his own material and his breathtaking, spot-on salute to the late, great, Prince (the purple suit, the outrageous guitar solo, the DANCING). Lady Gaga was also one of my favorites--she was so unbelievably badass and she owned that stage. I didn't catch Beyoncé's performance but heard rave reviews.

The Bee Gees tribute was, to me, underwhelming. Maren Morris and Alicia Keys felt like two simultaneous performances that were at odds with each other, and in my opinion, sharing the stage with Keys is a move that few artists should endeavor to make. I was stoked to hear Morris mention GRAMMY Camp in her acceptance speech for Best Country Solo Performance, but her lack of enthusiasm, both at her win and at her performance opportunity with Keys, turned me off.

And Adele. Her rendition of her own song, "Hello," felt half-hearted, and while her flub during the George Michael tribute was endearing, the performance wound up feeling out-of-touch and almost selfish when compared to Mars' pitch-perfect Prince homage.  Then there's her sweep of awards. Adele is a talented artist. Her first two albums, 19 and 21, are triumphs--they are sonically cohesive, vocally bold, and emotionally raw. She's charming and authentic in interviews and has built up a reputation for consummate professionalism in her live performances. But 25 isn't even the best Adele album, let alone the best album of this past eligibility season. I appreciated her comments about how Lemonade was HER album of the year, but she still walked away with the Big Three at the end of the night.

Adele was the safe, predictable (W-H-I-T-E) choice. The Academy would rather hand Beyoncé a nod for Best Urban Contemporary Album than admit that an album by a black woman--with themes that refuse to ignore the realities of blackness and womanhood and the intersection therein--defined a calendar year for everyone, including the whitewashed mainstream. While I'm not a Beyoncé apologist, and I think that Beyoncé herself has done better work (at least musically and lyrically speaking) than the content on her most recent release, I think Lemonade beats 25 across the board. Without even addressing the work that was overlooked in this category and others (looking at you, RiRi), it becomes clear that there is a systemic problem with the infrastructure of the Grammy Awards.

So what of Chance? What of the indie artist who had to petition the Academy to be nominated, the black hip-hop wunderkind (he's only 4 years older than me, which I'm trying not to think about) who triumphed in a way that reassures us, despite all the times that Kanye and Kendrick and Frank were snubbed?

There's hope for the future.

In all likelihood, me and my classmates in the pop program will be shaping the Grammys in a few years' time. Many of us will be the instrumentalists that tour, play award shows, and do session work tirelessly. Some of us will be writing the music that gets honored with tributes and shiny hardware. A few of us may even clinch nominations. And Chance the Rapper, however elevated his current status, is part of our generation. We're all just '90s babies with a love of the craft and the talent to communicate our stories. My classmates are some of the most diverse and gifted musicians I've ever heard. Some of us are ethnic or religious minorities. Some of us are queer. Some of us are immigrants or first-generation college students. We come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. And we represent an even wider range of musical identities. Adele is great. But the future of music not a homogeneous landscape peopled with white balladeers. Based on just the few dozen pop majors currently enrolled at Thornton, the future of music is a loud, bright, proud outburst of color and sound.

We are all Chance the Rapper, the unsigned underdog who is so good that they can't be ignored for long.

Chance's life matters.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

FOOTBALL IS A METAPHOR (Or Is It?)

Hi there. I don't normally do posts like this. This blog has sort of devolved into me posting whenever I feel like it with whatever's on my mind, with a few posts about the pop program thrown in for good measure, but I thought I would whip this one up real quick, post Super Bowl.

I'm already seeing a lot of people online talking about how this game felt like a metaphor for the 2016 election. The diverse metropolis in the South that's being lovingly sent up by Donald Glover in a hit show about music and race and humanity is battling it out against a controversial but widely loved team from the cold, white North. I don't know a lot about football, but I've heard the word "deflategate" a lot, and I know that the Pats have won a lot of Bowls. Also, Gaga is a metaphor for Bernie. Somehow. I think.

I have never once in my life cared about football. But as I watched the game wind to a close with Atlanta in the lead, I got excited. It felt like if the Falcons won, then maybe there was hope for this fractured, deeply wounded nation in 2017. And then somehow it got tied up. And then somehow the Patriots won. And it was over, and I don't know any of the players' names besides Tom Brady, and life continues as normal, I guess.

It's not a perfect metaphor. The Patriots are a talented team, a proven winner with the experience and the skill to take the ring. I don't actually know anything about the Falcons. But I couldn't help but feel like overtime was the brief, final window of hope. The minutes before they called Pennsylvania and I went home from my friends' would-be celebration party, crying in my Uber.

In the wake of this particularly nail-biting Super Bowl and an even more nail-biting presidency, I'd like to give everyone some Sunday night, crunch time motivation to get through this week, and the next one, and the next one.

1. Work out. I hate me, too. But I started working out on New Year's Day, at least 5 days a week every week, and it has helped me a lot. Exercise is by no means a cure for your afflictions, but it is an effective treatment that can lessen whatever symptoms ail you. Would recommend giving it a go, even if it's just walking around your neighborhood (or on a treadmill) for 20 minutes a day.

2. Sit by a window if you can't go inside. I know in most of the country, the weather is too abysmal to contemplate going outside more than is necessary. Even LA is going to be hit by some more rain this week. So, if going outside and soaking up the fresh air and sunlight isn't an option, sit by windows. It sounds crazy, but while you're going about your daily tasks, if you can move closer to a window and stare out at nature, it might just lift your spirits a bit. Especially if it's raining or snowing--ya can't beat the view of Mother Nature giving it all she's got while you're inside, hopefully a bit warmer and drier.

3. Stop procrastinating that thing you've been procrastinating. If possible, do it right now. If it's not possible, do it first thing tomorrow. Seriously. Just do the thing. Do it fast and then if you didn't do a good job, set it down and go back and fix it later. Just make a really strong first attempt so you can feel less like a human pile of garbage.

4. Go to bed before midnight tonight. Regardless of when you need to be up tomorrow, try to get in bed by 11 or 11:30pm at the latest. Burning the midnight oil isn't always the most effective strategy, especially if you've made a habit of it recently.

5. Drink some tea. Your favorite kind. Maybe add a little lemon and/or honey if you're feeling particularly adventurous. Hell, it's still the weekend, have a cookie with your warm drink! NOW you're getting it!

6. Write in a journal. Even if you're not a big diarist, find a notebook, journal, or even some blank copy paper and write down your thoughts. Write for 20-30 minutes about whatever comes to mind. If possible, work through some of the personal and/or professional problems that have been nagging at you for a while. Don't worry about grammar or spelling or cohesion of thought, just write stream-of-consciousness about what's bothering you. If, afterward, you'd like to throw it out or set it on fire, go for it (but be safe!). Or, better yet, pick it up as a hobby that you return to every week, or even every day.

7. Watch one (1) funny YouTube video. Don't fall down the rabbit hole. But watch one video clip that you know is gonna make you laugh--might I recommend the official SNL channel, perhaps with the clip of Melissa McCarthy as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer--and then tackle your next challenge.

8. Clean something. Even if it's just washing a couple of dishes or taking out the trash, the sense of accomplishment you'll feel will motivate you to do something a bit bigger (or maybe stopping for the day because hey, you got something done).

9. Text/call someone you miss right now. Let 'em know you're thinking of them. You'll both be glad you did.

10. Get excited for this week. Go over your schedule, look at what you have to do, what you get to do, and just get amped! Yeah, you've got work, deadlines to meet, emails to send, papers to write, but every day you're getting closer to the life you want to lead. And yes, our country is more politically and socially turbulent than it's been in years, but it's also more politically and socially engaged than it's been in years. When was the last time you had this many conversations about politics--thoughtful or otherwise--with friends, family, AND strangers? I can't recall it. Yes, we're coming together to work through hard topics because we have an unpopular and possibly dangerous leader, but hey. We're coming together.

To real, diehard Atlanta fans: I'm sorry. To the Patriots: you won. But we don't have to like it.

#BernieGaga2020

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Love The People Who Love You & Don't Worry About The Rest

Recently, I've been feeling a bit alone.

A friend I've had since childhood has all but disappeared from my life. Neither of us did anything wrong, he just stopped answering my messages and I stopped trying to salvage a relationship he didn't want to keep. He's not a bad person. Nobody knows how to gracefully end a friendship. I'm sure he just couldn't see a way out of what he thought what was a dead end without hurting me.

(I was hurt anyway. So it goes.)

A friend I made last year that I thought was going to be one of the most important people in my life never wants to hang out anymore. I haven't fully let go of it yet, but I'm less adamant about us hanging out. I text less, come around less. He never texts or comes around at all. I suppose he, too, saw that the friendship had run its course before I did. Not once did he speak badly of me or try to hurt me.

(I was hurt anyway. So it goes.)

A boy I briefly and painfully liked sent me perhaps the most brief and painful of all mixed signals, then abruptly dropped off the face of my earth. He gave me a lot of reasons why we wouldn't work. He stopped acting like my friend and treated me like a jilted lover though we never even really got close. He got back together with his ex. He stopped answering my messages. He never spread rumors about me, never said anything cruel to my face, went about excising me from his life in the kindest way possible.

(I was hurt anyway. So it...you get the point.)

These kinds of personal inconveniences are, I'm sure, the kinds of things that every human being goes through on a regular basis. Especially in college, where relationships are forged and forgotten quicker than any other time in our lives, it's normal for love or companionship to flare out just as suddenly as it first sparked. But to be honest, it's not just personal rejection that I've been experiencing.

Professionally speaking, while I've been having some really cool opportunities lately as a writer, I've not been having the same luck as a performer. I'm coming to terms with the fact that making money as a performer may not be in the cards for me. Hell, I don't even know if I'll make money as a writer, but as of right now it seems possible. I know I'm only 19, and that I can't close the book on myself yet, but symbols and signs from the universe seem to be coming out of the woodwork to tell me to get offstage. And while performing gives me anxiety, it's more than a little disheartening to feel like I'm not good at something I always thought I was good at. To feel like I am surrounded by people who are better than me, to feel like I don't have the intangible "it" factor that my friends and classmates seem to have in spades. It's probably for the best--I'm more comfortable in the studio cowriting songs, at my desk drafting blog posts and poetry and scripts and novels, sending my work out into the world from the comfort of my bedroom and not having to face anyone in the immediate aftermath. But it still hurts to feel shut out, to feel like I'm not good enough, to feel like people would rather Irish goodbye out of my life than to stay or at least give me a reason why they're going.

This all paints a grim picture. But I have experienced great comfort almost simultaneously with these grievances. A few close friends have pulled me in closer, held me tighter, made me feel like a real girl. They've let me be myself wholeheartedly. They've let me cry and they've let me make awful jokes and they've started the conversation and they've invited me over. They answer my texts. They keep coming around.

The transitions I've experienced have been rough. I don't bond with a lot of people, so to lose someone I have a genuine connection with is painful. It's humiliating to feel unwanted, to feel shunned, to see the doors of another person's mouth closing as they speak. But it happens. People move on from you. Jobs pass you over. You find out that those dreams you had as a kid aren't going to pan out, or they're going to take a different shape. But then you meet different people. And you find another job. And you get a new dream. And you stop panicking that you're not on the path you expected to be on and look out the window for a second and realize that it's raining, it's raining in Los Angeles and we've been in a drought, and your umbrella keeps turning outside out and you can't get a ride and your socks are soaked through but there is a river of floodwater running through campus and you just know if you had a block or board long enough you could sail that thing all the way home.

Love the people who love you. Don't force it but don't you dare stop it. Love is nothing to be ashamed of. If something lets you in, stay awhile. And if it gets quiet and checks its phone and looks anxiously at the door every few minutes, take the hint and leave. Love the people who love you and don't worry about the rest. Put out all the huge, embarrassing, childish love you've got into the universe and reel in everything that bites. Keep getting hurt and keep accepting it. Kiss frogs and frat boys and French horn players. Don't take it too personally when they go back to the swamp.

What I'm trying to say is that it's going to be okay. That it already kind of is.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Thank You, Barack Obama.

Thank you for being the first black president.

Thank you for serving two consecutive terms, from when I was 11 to now, when I'm 19 -- arguably the most formative years of my life.

Thank you for a presidency free of personal scandal, an almost unheard-of notion in America's political climate, both past and present.

Thank you for showing me what it means to be a good husband and father, reminding me so much of my own father.

Thank you for being funny when we needed it, for being serious when we needed it, for always, always, ALWAYS being articulate and compassionate.

Thank you for proving to the world that wisdom does not preclude sincerity, that kindness does not preclude pragmatism, that blackness does not preclude greatness.

Thank you for teaching us that it is often more important to be good than to be right.

Thank you for Obamacare.

Thank you for all you have done to slow climate change.

Thank you for all you have done to close the wage gap.

Thank you for openly identifying as a feminist.

Thank you for all you did to make gay marriage a right at the federal level.

Thank you for going on so many late-night talk shows and reminding us that you are a real, flesh-and-blood human being and not some collective hallucination of the Democratic Party.

Thank you for loving your family.

Thank you for letting us glimpse your friendship with Joe Biden, the greatest executive bromance in all of human history.

Thank you for weeping through mass shootings, through police brutality, through hate -- for showing us that it is okay to cry.

Thank you for taking the vitriol that our current President-elect spewed at you for so many years in stride.

Thank you for campaigning so tirelessly for Hillary.

Thank you for peacefully handing off power despite the knowledge that your successor is unfit to rule.

Thank you for having an imperfect presidency and proving imperfection does not preclude progress.

Thank you for making it seem like we had finally made it to the right side of history.

Thank you for standing by us when we realized we had not.

Thank you for loving us.

Thank you for being the role model to every black child in this nation, and quite possibly in the world.

Thank you for being everyone's president.

Thank you for being my president.