NIN: Defining Post-Industrial Youth in America

The focus of this discussion is on the band Nine Inch Nails, led by singer-songwriter Trent Reznor. Reznor had an ability to combine the elements of industrial music (experimentation with electronic sounds) with the structure of popular music to create a unique sound that was successful in the public sphere, while maintaining a dark, heavy aesthetic that was oftentimes horrifying and difficult to listen to. His artistry defined a period of economic instability in the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s, when middle-class American youth were aware of this turmoil and therefore angry at the world.

The foundations of Industrial music started in the 1970s with the band Throbbing Gristle, whose lead vocalist was a woman named Genesis P-Orridge. The members of TG lived in a time when the physical world around them was changing: human-run factories were closing, and anarchy was springing up against the political scene in England. P-Orridge and her bandmates, living in post-industrial Europe, had this philosophy: any object that makes noise is an instrument, any person who can create the sounds is a musician, and there are no rules about how to make music.  They had no formal musical training, no frame of reference for how to create sounds, they just did what came to them organically, from their environment. Their sound was weird, to say the least: it did not have any of the patterns or chord progressions that were used in music up to that point; it was more ambiance, noises that they layered together to convey their feelings.

Throbbing Gristle – Maggot Death (youtube):

The movie “Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising,” posted on YouTube in a seven-part series, goes into a lot of background and influencers of the industrial sound, of which there is no one specific style. Brent D. Woods, in his thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, also discusses  bands and sounds that contributed to this genre, among them Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, and styles like electronic body music (EBM) and the avant-garde. He defines industrial music as having four key components: synthesizers, anti-music, extra-musical elements, and shock tactics (Woods 41). These components developed through experimentation and the use of electronics to turn sounds into music, which is industrial music at its core.

When industrial music reached North America, the artists combined its electronic sound with elements of rock and roll, metal, and thrash. Examples of these bands are Skinny Puppy, from Canada and Ministry, from Chicago, Illinois. They took synthesizers, which had already been around in music, but used for structured pop music, and created deep, scary sounds to add to their metal elements of guitars, bass, and drums.

Skinny Puppy – The Choke (youtube):

These early industrial acts influenced Trent Reznor directly, when he moved from Philadelphia, where he was receiving formal education and apprenticeship in music, to Ohio, along America’s so-called “rust belt.” The environment there during the 1980s was similar to that of England in the 1970s: industry changing, steel mills closing, people losing jobs. All of this, combined with miserable weather, contributed to a general feeling of pessimism and meaninglessness, especially among the youth, as described by NIN member Chris Vrenna and scholars in the documentary (part 2, 2:40-4:30).

What ended up happening is that artists began to create music that was more and more abrasive, never being satisfied with the sound that they were producing, and always seeking more thrill and shock value. This phenomenon was described by Luigi Russolo in his “Futurist Manifesto” (1983), as cited by Woods:

“The ear of the Eighteenth Century man would not have been able to withstand the inharmonious intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestra (with three times as many performers as that of the orchestra of his time). But our ear takes pleasure in it, since it is already educated to modern life, so prodigal in different noises. Nevertheless, our ear is not satisfied and calls for even greater acoustical emotions” (Industrial Music, 38).

So you have bands taking typically pop-oriented instruments, synthesizers, and using them in their thrash metal, reflecting the angst that they felt toward the political and economic system.

Reznor was able to market the industrial sound by being relatable to a large audience, having a hook, telling a story. When NIN’s first single “Down In It” came out, people were a little confused because the production was polished, making it sound like pop, unlike the stereotypical, rampaging, chaotic industrial music of the time, but it was also experimental, as industrial should be. He brought production value to industrial music. Other pop bands, like depeche mode, were not afraid of a hook, could make industrial “noises” into structured “songs,” but Reznor kept that unsettling element of industrial as a key component of his music while making it just pop enough to be well-received.

NIN – Down In It (youtube):

Compare that with the following work by NIN, the EP Broken, and the song “Happiness in Slavery.” The video for this song was grotesque and gut-wrenching (literally). Reznor had some fascination with morbidity, and though it is extremely disturbing, he definitely had fans who supported his art, otherwise he would not have achieved the level of fame that he did. A very important aspect of his popularity is the fast beats at low frequencies and catchy bass-lines that have a heart-pumping quality about them, making people want to move and dance, even if that dancing was rather violent. This theme persisted throughout the band’s career.

Violence is another aspect of the industrial music scene that Rich Patrick of NIN describes in the film. The youth at the time had all this pent-up anger, and it came out as violence at live shows, which is a typically masculine behavior. Not only were fans in the audience moshing and slam-dancing, the performers themselves incorporated violence into their shows, and that was a very masculine depiction of them. The physical violence went hand-in-hand with the destructive noise.

Finally, I wanted to mention the song “Closer,” which is by far their most popular song, off the album The Downward Spiral. I remember hearing this song on LA radio station 106.7 KROQ in middle school, and having the uncensored version on my iPod. There is no way my parents would have let me listen to it if they heard the actual lyrics, yet it achieved such fame. This is the perfect example of how Reznor was able to penetrate the music industry with his perfectly-imperfect formulated sound, brutal as it may be. He borrowed from many styles of music that existed in different times and spaces and was successful in bringing industrial music to the masses during a time of economic disparity in the United States.

NIN – Closer (youtube):

Advertisements

NWA & The Representation of Black Youth

In this argument I want to assess wether or not the movie Straight Out of Compton (SOC) helped the representation of black youth in America. When discussing gangsta rap’s commentary on racial politics there are two main arguments. The first being that the violence and demeaning of societal morals in the lyrics furthers the monstorization of African American men. On the other hand, it is a very effective and popular way of broadcasting the message of discrimination that is felt. In my opinion the movie was able to support the second argument.

While the album SOC undeniably perpetuates the stereotype of the dangerous black male I believe that the movie was able to humanize the stereotype. As you watch the story of these young men whom you know are violent criminals the viewer becomes connected to them. While they are a perfect representation of what America is supposed to hate you can’t help but love these young men, even Easy E a known drug dealer. You get to experience the discrimination first hand in this movie and it allows the audiences who have never seen this before to understand the issue of police brutality. For viewers  who had little contact with this type of brutality it is eye opening. Viewers sympathize with these violent young men in a way the media has never allowed before and this is how the SOC was able to positively comment on black youths.

The movies highlights the political and racial facets of crime. Law is not necessarily moral clear but it is black and white. Here I want to use McCann’s explanation,

“crime is political. By this, I do not mean simply that politics inform public policies related to crime and punishment… I am arguing that crime is in itself an act of political agency. As historian Peter Linebaugh states plainly in his study of political economy and crime in eighteenth century England, “In short, people became so poor that they stole to live, and their misappropriating led to manifold innovations in civil society.” If political struggle is at its very core about survival (and I believe it to be), then crime is no doubt political. Although the practices of a criminal will not be as politically conscious or beneficial as those of a street protestoror community organizer, they nonetheless partake in the social antagonisms that giveform and shape to political and rhetorical subjectivity. While crime from a punitive standpoint enables myriad discourses of racial, gender, and class scapegoating, it similarly enables alternative discourses of criminal behavior from the perspective of, or on behalf of, the incarcerated and their communities.” (McCann 14-15).

In essence, crime is subjective and determined by the politics of our country. SOC shows that the subject of our nation is to constantly mark black men as criminals.

This movie also released at a critical political moment with the popularity of movement like Black Lives Matter and was able to show the younger generations the parallel issues from previous generations. If kids today weren’t versed in the lyrics of NWA before they are now and NWA is a huge icon in pop culture right now. (Just look at all the “straight out of____” T-shirt’s ). This recycling of political music and pop culture fueled activism today.

Some important scenes from the movie I want to include,

The first scene included is one of the many examples in SOC of police brutality and profiling but I believe this one makes this most powerful statement because of the powerful dialogue of the black police officer. The scene ends with him saying “listen to your master” which is a stunning slave comment coming from a black man. The scene embodies the Fuck the Police lyric “black police showin out for the white cop”. The second scene I have included shows a perfect encapsulation of the two arguments for rap as a representation of black youth I previously spoke about.

On the subject of the music I think that NWA sells authenticity. McCann speaks a lot about this idea that in order for rap musicians to be successful they have to be gangster and this means their music gets progressively more violent as validation. While their music is full of political commentary because crime is political I believe the majority of NWA’s songs center around violence and degradation of society, women, and homosexuals.

The political music from decades ago is much mellower in comparison to NWA. This is due to many reasons. Rap music didn’t have the traction in the 60’s and 70’s,  and by the 80’s the civil rights movement was so long ago I think music became more frustrated. Musical artists grew impatient with the lack of change where as artist in the 60’s had just seen some success and sang with less anger.

The power of this music is due to its popularity. People far and wide listen to these albums with little personal connection to the issues. I think this is due to the clean and unique musical style of Dr. Dre and the taboo subject of the music. By now we know that people in American society love to watch a good societal deviation.

Finally, this may be outside the lenses of race and politics in this weeks discussion but I want to bring up HIV. When Eric is diagnosed with HIV his response is, “but I ain’t no faggot.” I think showing the death and diagnosis of Eric gave viewers another disdained group to sympathize. By this time you’re invested in they character and rather than feel that media perpetuated distaste for and HIV patient, you just feel bad for Eric. I appreciated the tone of this subplot and thought it was a positive contribution to the dialogue on HIV today. This commentary in the 80’s brought attention to a strongly misunderstood issue.

Public Enemy – Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)

youtube.com

“Mind over matter, mouth in motion
Can’t defy it cause I’ll never be quiet
Let’s start this right”

This is the refrain of Public Enemy’s song Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man), from their first album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, released in 1987. The general message of the song is that African Americans need to learn about their history, and use their minds and words to protect and better each other. Although the song never mentions race specifically, it is implied by the parenthetical phrase of the song title; Public Enemy is speaking to the community of African Americans who grow up without knowledge or concern about the slavery which brought Africans to the United States. The following lyrics speak to this point:

“Many have forgotten what we came here for
Never knew or had a clue, so you’re on the floor
Just growin not knowin about your past
Now you’re lookin’ pretty stupid while you’re shakin’ your ass”

Here, Chuck D is referencing the people who choose to party and be ignorant to the fact that African people were kidnapped from their home countries and forced into slavery, and because of this history, Blacks in America are oppressed. Public Enemy was a group that falls under the category of what Gwendolyn Pough calls “message rap,” a 1980s movement that focused on “political themes of unity, racial uplift, self-definition, self-determination, and Black diasporas connections…Each of these efforts used rap music as a vehicle to stop Black youth from killing one another and brought together a variety of rappers to get that point across” (285-286). This kind of message is reflected in the lyrics:

“Another brother with the same woes that you face
But you shot with the same hands, you fall from grace
Every brother should be every brother’s keeper
But you shot with your left while your right was on your beeper”

These lyrics also reference drug use and sale, pointing to the violence that comes out of these practices. Drug dealers were known to carry pagers before cell phones were available, and gun violence is also a huge part of drug and gang life. Public Enemy wants Blacks in America to wake up, realize that they are destroying their own race by contributing to the negativity, and educate themselves on their history so that they can understand and want to support each other rather than breaking each other down.

Source: Pough, G.D. Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential in Hip-Hop. In M. Forman, & M.A. Neal (Eds.), That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (pp. 283-289). New York: Routledge.

Punk Rock Misogyny and Gender Roles

The article states that “Punk could, and did, free women from the more restrictively gendered roles available to them in past subcultures” Can this be true even if there was still a lot of misogyny in the Punk subculture?

While punk is not the pinnacle of gender equality in a subculture it is undeniable that it gave women in the scene a lot more opportunity than they had received in the past. For this reason I believe it gave women more freedom. It gave them a chance to explore their passions and actually be accepted or even successful. Women were given a chance to make money on their own as individuals without a man or a female group. This was a liberating move in the right direction and got the ball rolling for big female artists like Janis Joplin and Patti Smith. Once a few solo female artists gained traction it was a chain reaction to stars like Madonna or Joan Jett and today female musical stars are as common as male. Though the punk scene was vastly male, it was pretty gender fluid. Men looked like women and vise versa. This blurred the gender lines and equalized the two genders even if it was only physical. The author really sums up the impact of the punk movement on gender roles.

“Even if the gender dynamic of the New York City punk scene did not deviate dramatically from that of mainstream America or traditional rock and roll, it allowed for more flexible interpretations of traditional portrays of both masculinity and femininity. Misogynistic displays of overt masculinity coexisted alongside transgender individuals in a musical subculture which allowed women unprecedented access and agency” (Kvaran, 71)

In essence, while it wasn’t equal it was an unprecedented amount of freedom that started a revolution.

 

3474.jpg

Dark Humor and the Subversion of PC Culture

Primary Source: Figures 1-5 above: Taken from James N. Tidwell’s American Folklore archive at San Diego State University; transcripts of different styles of insult, morbid, and dark jokes used around the nation.

Secondary Source: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/455713.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ab18dabb438077c747f5b9ccae2110aa9

(Refer to pages 397-401) Journal: Taken from Professor Edna Andrews’ ” CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: THE LINGUISTIC PROBLEM OF NAMING” (1996)

 

American comedic culture, more than anything, is a free-flowing counterculture that subverts every single aspect of American society; from race relations to gender issues, comedic culture openly criticizes the subjects that people do not normally discuss or bring about. More specifically, situational relevant “black humor,” otherwise known as dark or hate jokes, have a specific niche in progressive social relations among American citizens throughout history. Rather than a debilitating tool used to humiliate various groups of people, black humor, “skewers convention, looks beyond and through racial and gender identity, and mocks sexuality and death…not [being] concerned with the moral quality of society and instead aims to deconstruct moral certitude” (Standfest). In other words, dark humor has been historically used as a cross-cultural medium, discussing otherwise unwelcome subjects regardless of background or historical period. According to professor Jerry Zolten of Pennsylvania State University, American dark humor is heavily laced with satire, which was mostly about race and ethnicity in the early 1800s, and became more popular in mainstream comedy and media in the mid to late 1950’s (Zimmerman). Around the latter time, literature and language professor James N. Tidwell archived many of these commonly tabooed jokes during his travels throughout the country, and stored them in the American Folklore collection in the Special Collections and University Archives. Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 consist of examples of such archived jokes, ranging from morbid, cannibalistic, violent topics to that of cross-dressing children; such archives epitomize the very nature of this style of humor. Dark humor strays from the politically correct environment that American culture emanates, subverting common racial, ethnic, gender, and customary stereotypes in order to deconstruct the peculiarities of overt and covert discrimination and taboos present in society.

Regarding gender and sexuality stereotypes, dark humor often attacks the constructs of what makes men and women look like and act like their established social identities of the time. Tidwell’s travels throughout 1950’s America allowed him to experience different levels of typical American gender roles and nuclear family households: a stay-at-home mother who cooks and cleans, a daughter playing with dolls, a son with toy soldiers, the bread-winning father, etc. A direct antithesis to this lifestyle would include anything that is not heterosexual and patriarchal. One such example of patriarchal gender stereotyping is the gentleness of a mother, to which Tidwell presents the aggressive joke, “‘Mother, why does Daddy lie so still?’ / ‘Shut up and keep digging!’” (Tidwell), implying the fact that the mother may or may not have killed her husband.

In taking a dark turn, black humor has the cynical tendency to subvert normal behaviors to “address dire social circumstances, but with a specificity of intent that adhered to topicality in a way that [‘correct’] humor does not” (Standfest). At face value, this joke is highly immoral, but carries many social implications: Are mothers always good or can they ever be bad? Do BOTH men and women have violent tendencies? Can the man actually become a victim? With the difference in established power, it was actually atypical in the past to see a man being the helpless victim and the mother acting in a tough or dangerous way, especially when the lens is given through an innocent child’s eye. Moreover, when it came to the difference in male and female interaction, there has even been a submissive expectation regarding intellect.  The following video satirizes the female ability to engage in a “man’s” conversation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS37SNYjg8w

Black humoristics purposefully exaggerate common social constructs and stereotypes for the sake of exposing the peculiar behaviours that result from such harsh societal judgement. The skits and jokes spur conversation, and introduce uncomfortable topics with light-hearted an shocking ease. Figure 1 includes the joke, “Mommy, can I wear a bra?” to which the mother refuses, yelling, “NO! Thomas!” (Tidwell) to her son after much persistence. Homosexuality and cross-dressing during the 1950’s to 1960’s remained a huge taboo in society, often being viewed as an anti-establishment ideal for American men and women; as a result, the government often shut down or did not, until recently, pass laws that would be in the favor of the LGBTQ community (Cohen and Richards). In other words, these topics of conversation were controversial. Comedy Central’s show Saturday Night Live frequently presented skits that included situations of homosexual advances and cross-dressing, to both provide laughable material as well as show the ridiculous extent to which American society taboos the gay community. “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” in season 24 of SNL is a prime example of exaggerating the stereotypes of the gay community that made people question how absurd it was to worry about couples who may or may not be gay, by introducing characters who cross-dressed, overplayed gender stereotypes, and mined for humor in “gay panic,” but were heros (Pierce). Of course, like Tidwell’s cross-dressing joke, the material was accepted with shocking surprise, eventually leading to the question: What is there to really worry about with the LGBTQ community? Dark, satirical humor in American society subverted the common misconceptions of how badly one should actually worry about such issues.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/tv-funhouse-ambiguously-gay-duo/n11043?snl=1 

The goal of a dark humorist is to be painfully honest, and observational humor provides just that. As time progressed closer to the 1960’s, around which the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements came about, dark humor became a particular form of “American outrage” that exploded from the social unrest of the time. According to curator Ryan Standfest, “The postwar desire to aggressively shape a singular middle class ‘American Dream’ eventually rested in a brand of comic subversion in the mid to late 1950’s” as a “literary conceit with the occasional nod to stand-up comedy” (Standfest). This American Dream was to be more inclusive, leading to a common pattern in the growing popularity of stand-up comedy in the late 1960’s. Rosenfield from the American Comedy Institute claims that “it starts with certain groups or minorities–immigrants, blacks, women, old people, Jews, Muslims, gays, Arabs, Asians–being the target of stereotypical jokes” (Cohen and Richards). Racial and ethnic stereotypes have a precedence in stand-up and observational comedy, both of which utilize dark humor as a way to advance minority significance when it comes to having a “voice.” This form of dark humor actually deconstructs mainstream American political correctness by confronting the racial stereotypes that political and social groups try to avoid or “sugarcoat” in order to make American society look better than it really is. On the Greg Giraldo show, Giraldo himself admits that “A lot of racially charged shit happens here in New York City…Yet mainstream culture likes to pretend that race issues don’t exist…Unfiltered honest talking on race is rare, but comics are comfortable with race…comics are honest” (Cohen and Richards).

By exaggerating or even accepting stereotypes onstage in front of millions of people, stand-up comics present a more dimensional character to audiences who may know very little of the stereotyped group. Talking about these issues with humor effectively presents awareness while also humanizing a seeming representative of that racial or ethnic group, creating human connections to that person/those people and breaking down any original stereotypes, making them “harder to perpetuate” (Richards and Cohen). Comedian Dave Chappelle is one such comic who takes stereotypes toward the African American community and plays along the uncomfortable line of using racially charged language to prove a point:

http://www.cc.com/video-playlists/s7d301/where-to-start-with-chappelle—s-show/mlg0y7

Another example of this would be the typical “smart Asian” joke, with strict parents who “live and breathe education and good grades.” Thanks to the advent of Vine and other video-based social medias, slapstick humor with original content by multitudes of minority groups presented similar situations among all racial/ethnic groups. Minority comics eventually destabilize the stereotype, taking away the power of prejudices to actually hurt and offend (Richards and Cohen). Hate jokes, no matter how shocking, create a direct counter-culture to the recognized establishment of mainstream media. They directly criticize and expose discriminatory actions as well as debunk prejudicial thoughts. And rather than being ignored, dark humor allows these criticisms to society to be heard and actually listened to.

Morbid and wrong jokes–albeit, can become the most offensive in certain situations if not timed right–play a vital role in the normalization of tragic events. As comedian and British writer of The Office Rickey Gervais states, “Not everyone will like what I say or find it funny…There are enough comedians who try to please everyone as it is” (Gervais). American society has a tendency to only allow, on media, what is optimistic and comfortable, often staying away from material that can either offend or hurt masses of people (Gervais). This political and social correctness, although comfortable, never addresses a trauma or tragedy at hand. Tidwell’s inclusion of the joke, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln–how was the play?” is an example of pure American satire. After the death of the president, it is almost certain that news about losinga leader would not bode well with American citizens. However, making an ironic joke to laugh at a traumatic situation is a step toward acknowledging that it happened in order to heal rather than pretending it never happened and acting “stronger” as a nation because of it. While it can be very critical of an event and its details, jokes like such are meant to calm the tensions that arise that would otherwise cause mass hysteria or communal anxiety. On a largely recent account, the contribution of comedy that Comedy Central’s Saturday Night Live show shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 is a prime example of comedy’s power to unite over taboo humor.  In fact, SNL was one of the first television shows to air directly after the tragedy of 9/11 and help retain American sanity.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/cold-opening—homeland-security/n11645?snl=1 (2002)

In the video above, Robert de Niro on SNL is a newscaster being pranked by college and highschool students on national television while reporting alleged terrorist members. This is a direct play on the widespread racial fear that ensued toward the Middle-Eastern community by other Americans. Other skits that SNL produced after the incident included “‘American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie’, Washington hubris ‘U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With’, citizen helplessness in ‘Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,’ and presenting reactive xenophobia in ‘Arab-American Third-Grader Returns From Recess Crying, Saying He Didn’t Kill Anyone’” (Sneed). Each and every skit provided specific insight into American behavior and made it laughable, so as to show the American public that it is aware of how people are reacting to the situation. Rather than giving into hysteria, SNL was trying to give the Americas public a reason to analyze itself; by pointing out these weird hypothetical or ironic situations that are almost ridiculous, people were able to feel as though they could relate to the shock or watch someone else act worse than they ever would. It is a laughable way to gain acceptance for the fact that it happened, and a way to acknowledge that it is not a large enough reason to break down the American morale. Dark humor purposefully subverted the atypical news message of “We will rise again” by providing America the comfort to actually recover.
Dark humor/comedic culture allows for American society to have an outlet to speak about the tabooed topics and issues that need discussion as well as an introspective medium in tough situations. By subverting American political correctness, truth is allowed to be spread and discussed, progressing society through racial, ethnic, gender, customary, and traumatic issues in a light-hearted setting. Comedy not only provides comfort, but insight. As for American culture, it enhances the opportunities for groups of all types to have a voice in a culture that DOES have problems by merely not adhering to the “orthodox” behaviors expected of them.

Works Cited

“American humor.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_humor.

“Understanding American Jokes.” Columbia West College, 17 Aug. 2015, www.columbiawestcollege.edu/2015/04/01/understanding-american-jokes/.

Cohen, Rogers and Richards, Ryan. “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians.” Humanity In Action, www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/174-when-the-truth-hurts-tell-a-joke-why-america-needs-its-comedians.

Gervais, Ricky. “Ricky Gervais: The Difference Between American and British Humour.” Time, Time, time.com/3720218/difference-between-american-british-humour/.

Khazan, Olga. “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 27 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/the-dark-psychology-of-being-a-good-comedian/284104/.

Love, Matthew. “50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.” Rolling Stone, 14 Feb. 2017, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/lists/50-best-stand-up-comics-of-all-time-w464199.

Sneed, Tierney. “”After 9/11, How we Learned to Laugh Again.” USA Today. 11 Sept. 2013, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/09/11/after-911-how-we-learned-to-laugh-again.

Standfest, Ryan. “Black Humor and the American Comic.” RYAN STANDFEST, Rotland Press, 2010, www.ryanstandfest.com/writings-/black-humor-and-the-american-comic.

Zimmerman, Bill. “Professor explores American culture through comedy’s history.” Penn State University, news.psu.edu/story/143653/2012/12/18/academics/professor-explores-american-culture-through-comedys-history.

 

Visual Artifacts Cited

Andrews, Edna. “Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming .” Duke University Press, 1996, doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

Tidwell, James N. “Hate Jokes.” American Folklore Collection. (Primary Source)

Let It Rock?: The Decline of Easy Access Concerts for SDSU Students and the Rise of Commercialized Elitism [Lens: Class]

 

project1

Figure 1: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

As we approach the 121st birthday of San Diego State University, tomorrow March 13th, 2018, it is essential to look back at the important aspects of American culture that has greatly influenced the campus culture.  One major theme that has been prominent throughout the last seventy years of the university, are the various concerts on campus for students, as well as the general public to enjoy.  Particularly, the 1960’s to 1980’s saw a tremendous amount of inexpensive, featuring big name and upcoming artists, on campus which increased students’ exposure to various counter culture and mainstream genres.  Unfortunately, this era of open concerts to students has come to an end and is overshadowed by the commercialization and elitism of mainstream concert producers and artists which exclude a vast majority of students from taking part in this important area of American culture.   I argue this major decline in inexpensive on campus concerts for students stems from the extreme commercialization and elitist culture within the music industry, as well as a lack of support from the University, which has a major negative deconstructive impact on the social and political development of SDSU students.

According to research conducted by Dr. Seth Mallios of the Anthropology department at SDSU and published in his book, Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State, he discovers a major downward trend in on campus live shows from 1970 (Mallios, 9).  In Figure 2 below, one can easily see the stark contrast from 1970 having 926 live shows on campus, to the current decade only having 114 is a major decline in easy access to musical events (Figure 2).

project99

Figure 2: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

The 1970’s witnesses an explosion in live popular music at SDSU, which hosted hundreds of acts in rock, jazz, blues, folk, reggae, and more.  Dr. Mallios asserts that SDSU, “Quickly became a premiere venue for many popular music genres and was the epicenter of Southern California’s soft-rock and country-rock movements, as well as hosting punk-rockers” (Mallios, 2).  Big name acts such as, The Ramones, Bob Marley, Tom Petty, Blondie, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and many more all performed on campus for inexpensive prices for students (Figure 3).

project10.JPG

Figure 3: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

Associated Students and various Greek organizations on campus insured that these concerts were inexpensive for students to promote the social atmosphere on campus.  However, these student-friendly concerts did more than just provide a fun social setting, but were also the centers of various counter culture protests/movements (Dowd, 11).  Many of these concerts during the 1960s and 1970s allowed students to congregate for various anti-war demonstrations, as well as meet other like-minded students to form student organizations, including the Aztec Free Speech Area (Mallios 5). Ticket prices in the 1970s for students for these major shows ranged from $2.00 to $5.00, which equates to $9.52 to $23.79 in 2018 dollars (CPI Government Inflation Calculator).  This allowed students back then a cheap way to experience new counter culture music, meet other students, and engage in an era of American Culture music that was extremely influential.  Many members of the community often fought the students-first mentality, especially for the more popular concerts, but during this decade Associated Students and the University held strong to this belief and continued to ensure students came first by pricing tickets fairly for students (Figure 5, 6, 7, 8).  In Figure 4, Mallios states the University ground rules for max tickets per members of the general public as well as ensuring the students had a plentiful amount of tickets to purchase (Figure 4).

project12

Figure 4: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

ramones.JPG

Figure 5: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

tom

Figure 6: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

Capture

Figure 7: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

 

project11

Figure 8: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

Music is a very powerful medium and is an essential part of American Culture, therefore it should be available to the student population and those trying to find their place in society (Dowd, 31).  At the level of the social group music facilitates communication which goes beyond words, enables meanings to be shared, and promotes the development and maintenance of individual, group, cultural and national identities (Brant, 24).  Clearly, these earlier decades were a time of important socialization and counter culture movements for students who were given the opportunity to engage with these concerts, however this is simply not true for today’s Aztecs.  Within the past decade, SDSU students have been subjugated to an overall decline in concerts, price gouging by ticket companies, and a growing class divide between elitist culture in regards to the music industry.  First off, SDSU has not done its part to book lower to middle tier musicians for cheap musical performances for students at smaller campus venues.  In the past these were escapes for students to unwind and engage in new subcultures of lesser know musical genres, however the University has ceased booking these acts as they are not major money makers (Mallios, 310).

project4

Figure 9: Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015.

The 2000’s have been dominated by headline acts at Viejas Arena, which can seat over 12,000 people, without giving special pricing for SDSU students.  I believe this negatively affects students who are left without a crucial piece of American Culture and are forced out of these now “exclusive” events which were once open to all.  Individuals and companies now engage in ticket scalping (when single buyers buy up dozens of tickets and immediately sell them off at rates too expensive for most), again perpetuating this class division (Leavitt, 129).  This commercialization of concerts has led to businesses coming in to make extreme profits off the music industry leading to elitist culture.  For example, almost all shows on campus now have VIP access tickets which allow those with money to enjoy special perks, and even basic access tickets are inflated in price due to the emphasis on profit.  In the earlier decades, money was still exchanged and artists were paid, but now these events are less about counter culture and music, but rather how much companies can make off the individuals.  Any show at Viejas Arena will showcase many vendors selling overpriced merchandise, refreshments, and VIP experiences.  It has turned into a major business venture for these concert companies, the University, and the artists, which unfortunately has excluded SDSU students.  Currently, SDSU students only have one subsidized concert on campus, Greenfest, which sells $15 tickets to SDSU students for a fairly popular artist.  However, these concerts are few and far between and still center on commercialization rather than enjoyment of true American Culture.  Based off the analysis from Dr. Mallios it is clear the the kind of acts at SDSU have changed, going from various counter culture movements to commercialized mainstream acts, as well as a decline in the amount of acts (Mallios 7).  This increases revenue for the University, but greatly limits exposure to new types of music and excludes these performances from students who cannot afford the inflated prices.

Overall, SDSU was once a thriving hub for artists of varying levels of fame, a variety of genres, and always put students first in regards to ticket sales and concert experiences (Mallios 11).  This has drastically changed for the worse, as the commercialized nature of music has limited the majority of on campus concerts to mainstream massive concerts, with no protections for students.  Price gouging and elitist culture has limited the important aspects of music in American Culture for current SDSU students and stunted their chance to be individuals within the music culture. Therefore, if students are to once again receive a constructive aspect of American Culture, the University needs to take a stand against the recent phenomenon of commercialization in music, in order to allow SDSU students importance social experiences within the concert scene.

Works Cited:

Brant, Marley. Join together: Forty years of the rock music festival. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2008.

“CPI Inflation Calculator.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=4&year1=197001&year2=201801.

Dowd, Timothy J., Kathleen Liddle, and Jenna Nelson. “Music Festivals as scenes: examples from serious music, women’s music, and skatepunk.” Music scenes: Local, translocal and virtual (2004): 149-67.

Leavitt, Alex, Tara Knight, and Alex Yoshiba. “Producing Hatsune Miku: Concerts, Commercialization, and the Politics of Peer Production.” Media Convergence in Japan (2016): 200-29.

Mallios, Seth, and Jaime Lennox. Let it Rock!: Live from San Diego State. Seth Malios, 2015. [Primary Source]

The Beastie Boys: Subverting African American Hip Hop Culture Through White Punk Roots

The Beastie Boys, a New York hip hop group started in the 1980s under the name The Young Aborigines, were actually a punk band. Of the three members many know the Beastie Boys to be today, Michael “Mike D” Diamond is the only one who was an original Young Aborigine. The other two, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, were brought on later and the Beastie Boys as we know them were formed. Having started out as a punk band of white, middle class teenagers being influenced by others on the scene such as Bad Brains, and moving into hip hop where they became internationally known, the Beastie Boys appropriated aspects of both cultures and bridged the gap between punk and hip hop with their uses of sampling, humor, and teenage angst. Because of their background in punk, and their combining of musical genres, the Beasties changed hip hop to become a genre that reached a wider audience and expanded the culture.

beasties collage

The band is discussed in the book American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush, images of which are included above, because of their start in the punk/hardcore scene. The introductory blurb (top center) reads, “the original brat pack was a second-rate hardcore group no one took seriously. Only later — applying [Hard Core] attitude to Hip Hop — did they make a splash” (Blush, 183). After the addition of Ad-Rock to the group, coming from a different punk band called The Young and Useless (who were apparently truly useless, according to an interviewee, left image) the Beasties recorded a punk EP, Polly Wog Stew in 1982 on Rat Cage records (full EP audio posted below). While Polly Wog Stew was not well-received, they tried again to make a second record, Cooky Puss (bottom video), which, according to Blush was “the first White attempt at Uptown Hip Hop” (184). On this 12″ tape, they recorded a prank call to an ice cream shop and used that on top of some simple beats and record scratches  to make a new track. Using similar techniques to those that created the beginnings of hip hop, taking  drum breakdowns, later called “breaks,” of rock songs and putting them on repeating loops, the Beasties were now appropriating a completely different culture from punk — but were the two really so different?

Interestingly enough, considering that punk started out as a mostly white-dominated genre of music, one of the Beasties’ main influences was a black punk group, Bad Brains (which is actually who they chose their initials, B.B., after, left image). MCA eventually made a demo tape called Brooklyn with his idol, Darryl Jenifer of Bad Brains, but that project did not go any further, as the Beasties were already famous for making hip hop by that time (top right image). So, back to hip hop.

Hip hop and punk, as I will show, are not so different in their basic attitudes. In an interview for the HBO series Sonic Highways, season 1, episode 8, Mike D tells the audience, “We were punk rock kids, and the second we heard hip hop — ‘that’s for us!'[…]punk rock had Doc Martens, spiky hair. Hip hop had sneakers and sheepskin coats. Different uniform, but the attitude was exactly the same” (00:29:33-00:30:06). The only big difference was that hip hop was dominated by African Americans in lower socioeconomic areas of New York, who had figured out how to loop the breaks on vinyl records and were doing the spoken verses that became rapping. The Beasties, as a group of white boys, were, with the exception of MCA, “complete spoiled bastards…effete little shits — a very snotty, elitist bunch,” according to artist Sean Taggart, who made flyers for the punk scene at the time (left image), and the boys were definitely not impoverished, but they were funny. Once they learned to create the beats, which they often did by cutting physical tapes and recreating them as loops over which to add other (punk) elements, they had the foundations of creating hip hop music.

Much of the early hip hop, like punk, dealt with the personal and social struggles of those making the music. Iain Ellis, in his book Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists, discusses the use of dark humor by rap artists in an effort to make serious, often political points relating to the hardships and social disadvantages of growing up as African Americans in post-Civil Rights America. In addition to these political rap groups, others used juxtaposition of humor alongside their serious lyrics, and:

“The resulting incongruity humor offers an engaging comic relief in tandem with the subversive main content […] The pervasive locker room humor of gangsta and dirty rap served to perpetuate the half-truth that rap music was the sole preserve and representative voice of young, urban, black, male America. However, the full truth was that rap had included female voices since its early years […] and, though rare, white acts, too, joined the rap game during the 1980s” (Ellis 194-5).

These styles of lyrics having heavy political messages were unique to the African American experience in the US, and shaped the belief that hip hop was only for, and could only be produced by, African Americans. But punk too was a movement created out of anger and the Beastie Boys, being the first white hip hop band, began to appropriate the culture and put their own punk, angsty spin on it.

When the Beastie Boys came on the scene, they were introduced to Rick Rubin, a white NYU punk who had equipment to produce music in his dorm room, and out of that, the Beasties’ first album, Licensed to Ill, a hip hop album, was born in 1986. Rubin had partnered with Russell Simmons to co-found Def Jam Recordings in 1984, and on their label, the Beastie Boys’ album was the first hip hop LP to take the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, quite a feat for some white kids appropriating music (billboard.com). Why was their music so immediately popular?

Ellis argues that “Their long-standing credibility within this largely black genre has been subversive in itself, suggesting that space is available for any artist with the requisite quotients of hip and humor” (196). It was this humor and creative wit that made their music so widely relatable and fun for an American, and even global, audience. They played with lyrics about being a kid living at home, rebelling against their parents by wearing long hair, smoking cigarettes, and owning pornographic magazines, while being sharp enough to break into the mainstream. “This capacity to bridge the hip and the wholesome via humor has been a marker of the band’s subversive strategies throughout their career” (Ellis 202). Not to mention, they poked fun at the machismo and seriousness of the political and gangster rappers, making them even more marketable to a wide audience.

The Beastie Boys were a group of affluent white kids from New York City who found their niche in making hip hop music, but not without elements of their original genre of punk. They discovered hip hop in the context of an emerging culture with space to expand, and combined the hardcore sounds of punk with the satire and beat-making of hip hop to create something new and popular in the mainstream. By appropriating a classically African American style of music, they subverted a culture and mixed it with another to create a new era and style of hip hop, one that still holds up today. The topic of sampling was considered to be given more weight in the discussion of the Beastie Boys’ rise to fame, but that brings up questions of their Jewish religious identities as well as their race, as there is much to be said about the tradition of sampling in Jewish history. However, taking the lenses of race and class fit better when discussing hip hop versus punk, and the punk identity of the Beastie Boys seemed to contribute more to the style of their music than their Jewishness. For more discussion on sampling and Jewish tradition, one may refer to the article by Jon Stratton which is listed in the bibliography of this essay.

 

Works Cited

Primary artifact: Blush, Steven. American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Feral House, 2001. pp. 183-185. Images digitally scanned, cut and pasted together in collage format by Arielle Gerrish, 12 March 2018.

Caulfield, Keith. “Beastie Boys Blazed Billboard Chart History.” Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/489107/beastie-boys-blazed-billboard-chart-history. 12 March 2018.

Ellis, Iain. Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists. Soft Skull Press, 2008. pp. 195-203. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sdsu/reader.action?docID=478547&ppg=178#, 12 March 2018.

“Beastie Boys – Pollywog Stew EP (1982).” Youtube, uploaded by NewWorldPictures, 24 April 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lu5VkypHzoI.

“Beastie Boys – Cooky Puss EP (1983).” Youtube, uploaded by In Between, 9 June 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lp7Fu-ng83E&feature=youtu.be.

Stratton, Jon. “Sampling and Jewishness: A Short History of Jewish Sampling and its Relationship with Hip-Hop.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, 2016, http://muse.jhu.edu.libproxy.sdsu.edu/article/627196. Accessed 12 March 2018.