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