Unplugged & finally understood?

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Grunge is a fascinating genre that creates a specific mood and feel like no other type of music does that I’ve heard. Much like the industrial sounds of the late 80’s, I think that the core of grunge and it’s rise in popularity can be found in the general attitudes of young people during that time. As the economy was slowing down and outlooks didn’t look so bright for the newly graduated students that grew up viewing the wealth and prosperity of the 80’s, I think grunge was an expression of that feeling of frustration in the most gloomy part of the country – the Northwest. In combination with the dissatisfaction over the economy, I think other forms of anger and annoyance found themselves being expressed through grunge. Most notably, annoyance with sounds of the 80’s which many began to feel were over-edited and staged, as well as other more general dissatisfactions with society, such as Kurt Cobain’s irritation with the traditional male figure in America. I agree with the argument in the video, and was surprised to learn of Cobain’s blatant critiques of established masculine roles in his music. After watching Nirvana’s Unplugged, I found myself relating it to the argument about Cobain’s feminism because I thought that the Unplugged setting was a more feminine version of Nirvana’s music. Without the screaming electric guitar, or the booming speakers and massive crowds, Nirvana’s music took on a softer, more intimate feel. Despite Cobain’s messaging and artwork expressing his standpoints on feminism rather directly, the sound of Nirvana in concert or on their records comes of to me as rather masculine, which may have blurred the message. I thought if there was one setting where some of Cobain’s critiques could be understood and absorbed in a more commoditized setting, it was the Unplugged concert. I think this was important for Cobain and Nirvana at the time, and was an interesting example of how altering a setting for an artistic or musical performance can change so much about it.

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Poor Economic Outlook & Aggressive Sound

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In The Industrial Uprising it is clear that economic outlook for youth throughout the late 1980’s and early 90’s impacted the sound and overall aesthetic of bands such as the Nine Inch Nails. Whether it was their aggressive sound or physical violence during live shows, it was clear that a general feeling of frustration was central to their approach. I see Trent’s personal struggles with his record company and the shift in the band’s music following that conflict as a great representation of the general feeling of the youth during this time. I think his incorporation of more hard core punk and heavy metal sounds into “Broken” reflects the anger he felt as he faced a negative outlook in his own personal economy. Finding himself in a situation with little opportunity to earn money (while creating the art he wanted to) beyond playing ball with record executives, he outwardly expresses his frustration through making his music even more aggressive. This general feeling was present in the band, and their shows, as they gained popularity, but I find this personal struggle and narrative by Trent to be particularly interesting because it came after some of his initial success.

In the 80’s and 90’s, the feelings of economic angst among the youth were displayed through bands such as the Nine Inch Nails – bands that incorporated the sounds of the economy with elements of rage and punk. Today, as I read research journals and articles that forecast that our generation will actually be the first to face a worse economic outlook than our parents, I wonder what music genre will begin to evolve their sound to reflect Millennial and Generation Z feelings of anxiety or frustration around this uncertainty. Or, perhaps this has already been done (I’m thinking aggressive dubstep). What sounds reflect the economy of today? And how does that translate into music?

NWA’s insight into South Central LA

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The various black rap groups that emerged in the 80’s and 90’s had a markedly different sound than many of the black political musicians before them. NWA, perhaps one of the most notable gangster rap groups ever, is an example of the shift in black popular music during this time period. Unlike many of the influential black artists before them, I feel that that they gave deeper insight into life as a young black man in the ghetto – in this case south central Los Angeles.

One of the ways NWA was able to do this was through expressing the full scope of their lives in the ghetto. The group included political messaging in their music, but also gave a candid view into their life as boys in the hood. As Bryan McCann notes in his dissertation, NWA’s music “exemplified the troubling themes of leisure that came to typify popular gangsta rap.” This was a key way they were differentiated from the black musicians before them, and an important factor of their music when considering how they changed the rap game. Songs like “boyz in the hood” included a kind of shock-factor that drew an entirely different audience to African American music. This authenticity behind the sound and in-your-face style brought a new focus and discussion around life as an African American. The way NWA stylishly explained – and even glorified – the violence and somewhat troubling habits than many members of the black youth were burdened with during this time was innovative and unique, and I think it changed the course of this genre of music for good.

HACK #5: Cash rules-

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“Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M.

Get the money, dollar dollar bill, y’all”

The Wu-Tang Clan’s classic song, C.R.E.A.M., explores the each of the group’s members struggles with earning money and finding pathways to escape their impoverished communities. Although often cited as an ode to money and the lusts behind accumulating wealth, it is actually an expression of frustration around what the members of the Wu-Tang, and their counterparts in poor black neighborhoods in NYC, had to do to earn any sort of significant amount of money.

“I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side” (A member of the Wu-Tang, Raekwon, grew up in the Park Hill projects in Staten Island, an area so violent that it was frequently covered by the New York Times)

Much like Tupac’s messaging around economic inequality, the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic hit communicates their “refusal to accept economic inequality and inadequate employment opportunities.” (Stanford, Keepin’ it Real in Hip-Hop Politics: A Political Perspective of Tupac Shakur). Despite the smooth beat and legendary hook, the Wu-Tang wasn’t attempting to glorify the ways in which they chose to earn money. They reference their rise in the community of drug dealers within NYC, however, also explore all the negatives that come with this path to wealth – from a lack of fulfillment to addiction to the same drugs they are selling. For example, Inspectah Deck explains that although he could taste success through the world of selling and planned to grow rich from it, he ended up in jail:

“A man with a dream with plans to make cream.

Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen”

Ultimately, the Wu-Tang’s message behind the famous track isn’t one of excess and money, but rather, an exploration of all the frustrations young black men and women were feeling in these communities as they attempted to earn a living.

Emotional drivers behind a not so Real World

 

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“It’s really limited, like you were saying on the first season. They had to deal with all these different issues. Now it’s less and less about like, “Oh, let’s discuss race or let’s discuss whatever our different races are,” to this really narrow view of sex.”

I find this quote from Stern’s primary research interesting because it reflects how The Real World and other reality shows not only commodify female sexuality, but downplay the actual complications and relationship challenges that any group of people, even white, middle class Americans, go through. The day-to-day issues that wealthier individuals and families in society deal with certainly do not compare to the hardships that poverty-stricken communities face, however, relationships and personal struggles exist within any realm of human life. College life and an individual’s early 20’s can be an extremely transformative and stress-filled period. Throughout these years, an individual is discovering who he or she is – social groups, family relationships, and professional direction are constantly changing. Even in a major public university filled with predominantly white students, there are issues to explore within this sample size beyond hookup culture and partying.
I think part of the appeal of shows such as the real life, for both this group of students and young people, as well as those far removed from these groups, is the idea that this sort of lifestyle is attainable as a coping mechanism. Having been exposed to (and many times a part of) this segment of American society for four years now, I can say that many of my peers find comfort in attempting to live some sort of “real” life as it is depicted on MTV. The narrow view of sex depicted in the show is appealing because it blocks out many of the emotions (such as caring for your sexual partner beyond a physical level, or missing your family) that every young person feels, regardless of socioeconomic status, but may feel awkward or intimidated to express. In different segments of society, there are different ways to combat these feelings, and I think “The Real World” represents this groups way of doing so. 

Clash of Punks

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Punks fighting outside CBGB

The punk scene in New York captured the frustration and attitude of the 70’s present in the city, and ultimately that’s why it fell apart. As Kvaran notes throughout Gendered Underground, the music was a reflection of how 20-something baby boomers were feeling after the 60’s. Following the decade of counter culture that preceded, perhaps many were feeling unsatisfied with the results, unhappy that it was winding down, or just cynical about the future. Punk captured all of those feelings, and I think that it was the unique blend of attitudes and the setting of NY that caused it to gain traction, but also have a limited lifespan in terms of popularity. I don’t think the scene could have been “saved” per se, because it was so specific to that setting and the perspectives of young people at the time.

In a subculture that embodied sex, drugs, and rock and roll, without the peace and love message that the punks often resented, I think disputes and tensions were bound to arise. But that’s what it made it punk culture in the first place. The punks attitude of making money and getting drunks, which differed drastically from the hippies, is what made the scene compelling at the time. Ironically, it’s also what made it unsustainable. 

Theosophy & Educational Culture

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Today, education and the development of youth in the United States is facing a host of challenging issues. Despite outspending a majority of the advanced nations throughout the world on a per-student basis, we lag behind significantly in many key metrics such as math and science literacy, graduation rates, and diversity within school systems.1 That being said, I believe one of the most crucial areas our system is falling behind in is a difficult one to measure: self awareness of our global impact. The US education system stifles our students ability to understand the larger environmental picture through it’s country-first mentality and overemphasis on traditional economic growth. Looking to educational systems throughout US history that have challenged this status quo in some way, such as the theosophical community’s system of education in San Diego, may offer some guidance and insight as we look for ways to address this issue in future generations. Katherine Tingley, the leader of this community, came to Point Loma to establish a cultural center based on the principles of theosophy – a religious philosophy grounded in Christianity, Eastern religions, modern science, spiritualism, and an ethical existence. The theosophists of this time rejected materialism and promoted oneness, the divinity of nature, and the principles of karma. Much of this had to do with the fact that they believed in a system of re-incarnation where each soul is continually evolving towards a higher state of existence and a greater understanding of eternal truths. Because of this belief, theosophists held a unique view on how their actions towards the environment would affect their own lives and the lives of others, and it was reflected in their teaching methods and overall approach towards learning. From the lense of modern educational theory, their Raja Yoga school subverted the role and purpose of educational institutions in American culture through valuing and demonstrating ideals of self-sufficiency. The visual artifacts and primary accounts of this community held in the special collections archive has given me deep insight into their philosophies, while my discussion with Robert Ray, the head of the archive, has provided an additional layer of understanding around their educational impact at a regional and national level.2

 

The Raja yoga school was the educational arm of Tingley’s community, a boarding school created for the intellectual and moral development of young people. Similar to the many western religious educational institutions that came before it, however, unique in its approach to the development of its land and policies relating to sustainability. From a modern perspective, our educational system has always placed tremendous value on the development of specific skills, and how those skills will translate into economic gains – either for the individual or broader US economy. Following the industrial revolution, the primary function of schools and universities was to meet the needs of the expanding industrial machine.3 Consequently, this has led to a rise of individualism and a lack of understanding on how our actions affect our peer communities around the world as well the health of the planet. Western economies flourished under this model of education for decades, however, it has fostered an educational culture that disregards the accelerated depletion of our natural resources in pursuit of economic expansion. The curriculum, subject matter, and conversations taking place on US campuses does not reflect a sustainable approach to economic advancement. The intellectual development of young people is geared towards propelling the economy forward, but it does not inform – or in many cases even discuss – sustainable ways of doing so.

 

Tingley and her university differed substantially from this model in that they sought to be self-sustainable in all aspects. This was reflected in the infrastructural and agricultural layout of the community, as well as the curriculum. Core subjects, such as the humanities and sciences, were taught to students from a perspective of oneness with the environment. For example, in the first and second visual artifacts attached, students are being taught a lesson on biology while simultaneously seeing how the plant life cycle is physically taking place. In the third artifact, we can see the integration of the environment and nature into the communities imagery and messaging. This model of informing students of their environment and the importance of maintaining it throughout the educational process was a departure from the cultural attitudes and practices in the US up to this point.

 

Along with promoting intellectual growth, the school aimed to develop students from a moral and spiritual perspective. This wasn’t a practice that differed much from other universities and schools throughout US history, however, is an important aspect of how the cultural subversion came about. The ethical decision-making component of the curriculum at the Raja yoga school had been present in educational environments in US since the very first universities and public schools were developed – even as these institutions shifted away from being dominated by some form of Protestantism.3 What made the Raja school unique and impactful in terms of American educational culture wasn’t its push for moral righteousness, it was its philosophies around environmentalism. The beliefs that guide the majority of western faiths contain valuable lessons about moral decision making in one’s life, but lack empathy towards our environment and the future generations that will inhabit it. From a modern lense, the Raja yoga school was distinct in that it shared this perspective with young people while also preparing them intellectually and economically.

 

Despite the rise of globalization and increasing interaction among cultures, it appears that educational programs in the US continue to attach little importance to the balance of economic growth and sustainable strategies as students are groomed to shape tomorrow’s economy. Tingley and her school represented a significant subversion of this American cultural philosophy. As shown in the visual artifacts, young people were taught the value of a healthy ecosystem while simultaneously learning the core subjects and hard-skills that would allow them to produce for their community. Schools and universities have long served as a microcosm of society, and our nation’s lack of consideration towards the environment is reflected in the coursework and culture on US campuses. From a modern perspective, the Raja yoga school serves as a valuable example of an interruption of this cultural practice. The philosophical driving forces behind this subversion of culture, such as the belief in reincarnation, can clearly not be diffused into school systems and university campuses in the US, nor should it. However, the community’s approach towards education, and deviation from traditional US educational culture, provides a valuable perspective for today’s students and educators.

 

References:

    1. Desilver, Drew. “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries” Pew Research Center, (February 2017)
    2. Ray, Robert. “Katherine Tingley and the Theosophical society of Lomaland” SDSU Library Special Collections and University Archives, (March 2017)
    3. Rosenblith, Suzanne. “Religion in Schools in the United States” Clemson University, (June 2017)