Like most of us, the second I wake up in the morning, I reorient to who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing here as my mind charges into a stream of problem-solving, anxiety-based strategizing, and hope-infused planning. Such is the human condition. But music, the wise ones say, offers a spiritual break from all that noise. The thinking goes that musical flow not only offers respite from the nagging narratives of daily consciousness, but a portal into the ineffable. In the words of jazz piano guru Kenny Werner, music has a spiritual purpose, and it is here on the planet to help “release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.” Countless books proclaim that we can develop mastery over not only an instrument, but also life itself, through music. But while all of this sounds beautiful, music-making actually requires a lot of concentrated, and even chaotic, mental activity; if anything, it might cause more “monkey mind” than cure it. After much consideration, I have come to wonder if the gurus are lying. Maybe music is in fact terrible for our mental health.
After years of holding the expectation over my practice that it be continually epiphanic, or at least, always deeply meaningful, I have come to wonder if the notion that music be relaxing and transcendent may actually cause more harm than good. Or if nothing else it may add a mental layer rather than burning one away.
If music is supposed to be transcendent, then any musical activity that wades into the pedestrian territory of ego-driven competition or mistakes or anxious rumination becomes “lesser.” And now we are a lowly tool of our lizard brain, our musical fumbling mere evidence we are straying from our evolution as enlightened beings. Down that cold road, the idea of music as spiritual transcendence becomes only a tool of judgment. Our artistic practice only another reason to flog ourselves. And I don’t think that’s what musical practice or spiritual practice wants from us.
Is music really a type of meditation?
So let’s look more closely at this idea that “music is meditation.”
Basically, the ancient gurus and the modern neuroscientists all agree that our brains work better if we train them on only one task at a time. Sans expert insight, though, this is really common sense. Any task you endeavor to do will be done better if you can manage to focus (and congrats to you, because that is no easy feat in the age of distraction and information overload). A less reactive, more receptive mind simply completes tasks more efficiently and with less aggravation. Whether those tasks are doing the dishes, driving cross-country, or doing a step workout in your living room.
Really, practicing scales, for example, is no more transcendent than mowing the lawn. It is simply a repetitive action done with concentration. It builds muscle memory and dexterity. It’s boring. That’s why no one wants to do scales.
But we like to elevate some boring activities in our lives by imbuing them with special qualities. So, to trick our mind into wanting to do scales, we tell ourselves that they are the ticket to enlightenment. The first step towards preparing ourselves for inspired states of musical “flow.” When really they just make us better at playing music, which sometimes flows, but often takes a lot of determined work.
Sure, music practice could be generalized to be a type of “meditative” practice – but no more than any activity. Music can be somewhat “meditative,” but it is not the same as meditation. Its essential “function” may be to “release” us from the tyranny of conscious thought, but no more than peeling an orange.
Is songwriting mystical, or compulsive?
Nick Cave talks about the enchantment of that moment when first catching the inspiration from a new song, when the song is in control. I, too, enjoy indulging in the romantic notion of the muses bequeathing us with an otherworldly, ego-smashing visit that humbles us to the mysteries of the Universe.
But I feel like the music always has control – whether I’ve intended to sit down and finish a song, or I’m just living my life. Sometimes, music is even kind of like the guy who crashed on the couch one night and doesn’t pick up on it that he’s worn out his welcome. But he knows that even if I try to create rules and structure around his visits, ultimately he gets a free pass, unlimited entry into my brain, at any hour of the day or night. He knows that my brain has no boundaries whatsoever, that the second my ears perk, all the stage lights go on, the curtains go up, and it’s showtime. In fact, when I’m lying in bed, mind reeling, sleep taunting but avoiding me, it is almost always because music is looping relentlessly in my mind. Sometimes the music is in the background, and the mundane worries and tedious storylines are in the foreground, but either way, the music is always there.
Just recently, in a familiar bout of insomnia, I had just finally gotten into a good, comfy nook in my ergonomic pillow that was supposed to change my life, I was starting to relax and about to fall back to sleep….and then BAM! The idea to cover a Kate Bush song popped into my head, and then my mind was in rehearsal mode; “I’ll do the verses an octave lower…or no, maybe I’ll change the key…how does the second verse go? I think I’ll just change the key and do the verses lower..” All of these sudden plans churned against the backdrop of endless scratching of out of order needle drops into whichever part of the song I was thinking about.
My psychiatrist doesn’t have a term for this condition. Pop culture says “earworms” happen when you’re trying to learn a song, so I suppose my worms are always working.
In any case, if “meditation” is about cultivating a quiet, inner spaciousness, I don’t quite buy it that music is the ticket.
The bro with the beer in his hand
Really, all music wants is for us to play it. It doesn’t matter if you’re rusty, self-conscious, you came in late on the bridge, or any of that. Music is a bro with a beer in its hand, a simple individual with simple goals. It just wants to be played. Also, it doesn’t care if your mind is focused or not. It will determinedly wind its way through torrents of distraction, nipping you in the ear with an unrelenting hook from a pop song you don’t even like, looping you into mental rehearsals of parts you are memorizing for an upcoming rehearsal, even when you’re trying to take a break. And especially if you’re trying to sleep.
My rest, my mental health – all of it is sacrificed for this music to have itself heard. (Turning finished into completed songs and recordings, however, is of course another tangled matter.) It’s not the pillow, it’s not the light from the full moon or the street lamp, it’s my damn brain, and the music in it. That’s where all the trouble comes from.
Lest I seem ungrateful for all the inspiration, let me assure you I am not. Often enough, it is those midnight sessions – when I am yanked from sleep, fumbling for the phone to make a voice memo or groping at the light switch and some paper to write something down – that yield most of my songs. And I’m always happy to offer gifts to the Goddess of music when she appears, even if I might have too much of a sleep hangover the subsequent days to function in daily life. I suppose I’ve just gotten less sentimental about all of it. It doesn’t often feel like a gift from the gods, but a job requirement.
And, yes, if you noticed that I just rejected the idea of music as transcendent while also positioning it as its own mystical being, almost a deity, then yes, I also see the contradiction. And I’m not going to resolve it for any of us. (Get it? Har.) Perhaps the question, really, is how to engage with what we do in a way that is light to the touch but deeply present. Sometimes we can bring that to music, but I disagree that it is necessarily music that brings that to us. Music just wants to play. You can view it as music playing through us if you want it to sound more mystical, I suppose. But just remember, music is somewhere between an ineffable cosmic force and a bro with a beer in its hand. More of a trickster deity than anything else.
Music just wants to play.
In my own ridiculous life, I don’t know which came first, an unquiet mind or music. Perhaps it was an overactive mind that needs to ‘work out’ in a particular way that lends itself well to music, which is why I lighted upon music as a preteen and never let go. Or, playing music from a young age begot an ongoing appetite for relentless mental activity, a type of inner restlessness that can only be satisfied by playing or writing music.
And lest you say, “Oh Kela, you’re just too in your head! You just need to dance more, get into your body!” I do dance, almost every damn day in fact, and that is no solution. My brain latches onto songs from the dance floor (or, the living room as dance floor, as it were) and has trouble letting its tentacles unhook from those songs, too. Long after my body has stopped moving, my inner DJ keeps the grooves going in my head. The hookier the jams, the harder it is for my brain to let go of them.
Music is simply a bone for the brain to chew on.
Either way, I don’t fully buy it anymore that music is unilaterally “good” for the mind or the brain. If nothing else, it is definitely a type of complex mental activity, which, if anything, should be complimented and counteracted by actual meditation practice. In the evening after deciding it is time to rest, when I can feel the next loop of a song I was just practicing coming around again, I will often force myself into the bathtub and press play on a chill meditation app. Because, whether I feel enlightened afterwards or not, an auditory background does seem to be necessary to make at least one or two of the cylinders stop moving.
Maybe even if my mom never started me on piano lessons when I was seven, and if my dad never started showing me the endless looping phrases of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on guitar when I was eleven, my brain would still have developed to be the Labrador puppy on meth that it is today. And I suppose if that’s the case, it is nice to have music around, to give my brain a bone to chew on.
Against my otherwise cautious nature, I was recently compelled to go to an indoor, Covid-era screening of 20,000 Days on Earth. I’m sure I could have found another way to watch this film, which came out in 2014, socially distanced and insulated from the rest of humanity. But I was willing to risk my life to truck it over to Zebulon to watch it amongst other humans, to treat it like a movie event.
Sure, I was mildly tense the whole night about the variety of loose interpretations of “keep your mask on and only remove it while eating and drinking.” But it felt great to celebrate a common music love, to chuckle with the other people at the same knowing moments, to clap together at the roll of the credits. As I watched the legacy of Cave in the making, I thought about my nearly lifelong relationship to his music. I also couldn’t help but wonder how the story of a classic musical legend fits in amongst the millennial cultural whiplash and carefully-curated personal branding of our current era.
Like a string trio about to fall off the edge of a cliff.
Without knowing it, I first discovered Nick Cave when I was about fifteen. A shy boy at school had been making me mixtapes. I told him I especially liked the ones with the Dirty Three. Their music made me think of a string trio about to fall off the edge of a cliff. The sad, soaring, endless jams were artfully matched to the gray, temperamental Portland skies under which my adolescence tumultuously unfolded. After years of piano lessons, the undulating phrasing and raw, plain feeling of their music my otherwise classical understanding of instrumental music began to crack open. Those tapes showed me the power of sound unto itself, a sound that didn’t even need lyrics.
The boy gave me more Dirty Three tapes. Some of the tracks featured a haunting, knowing voice, soaring in between the cracks of the washes of instrumental experimentation. These ones had more form to them, and lyrics (they were, in other words, “songs”). But I just assumed they were the same band. The names of the songs and the albums they came from were all scribbled in the same, scrunched, pensive teenage boy scrawl on the tiny lines on the back of the tape insert, and thus mostly illegible.
One of the joys of 20,000 Hours on Earthis seeing Warren Ellis and Cave still collaborating on new stuff all these years later. Ellis conducting a school choir for an upcoming session, Ellis in his kitchen retelling the story Cave had just told in an earlier scene, about Nina Simone’s frightening performance on a tour, her wad of gum hastily slapped onto the piano. (Ellis saved it in a napkin.)
Though the film is not exactly a biopic, like any music biopic it gives plenty of time to tasty behind-the-scenes band banter like this. And though 20,000 Hours doesn’t provide a linear narrative of Cave’s life, we gradually absorb the general arc of how his musicianship developed and his personal life.
By my twenties, a coworker had introduced me to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds proper. Again, his unmistakable voice came to me with carefully-curated mixtapes, again with names of songs spelled out on the inserts. Finally someone mentioned something about how they preferred the Bad Seeds versus the Dirty Three, and a conversation in which I felt like a hopelessly un-hip nincompoop ensued. Finally it all came together: that grisly voice gliding through the Dirty Three jams was THE SAME DUDE!
I had a tape deck in my 1991 Jeep Laredo. It had one of those little plastic molded compartments behind the emergency brake that was perfect for storing exactly four tapes, and there was always one with the Bad Seeds in regular rotation.
“That moment before a song is tamed and known, when the song is still in charge, before it becomes another song in the stable.”
Nick Cave, 20000 Days on Earth
Finally, I graduated to a car with a CD player, a 2002 Hyundai Elantra GT with which I racked up four speeding tickets in about 6 months. This shift to a new technology, tapes to CD’s, could have been a moment when I forgot about one of my favorite bands. But the Bad Seeds came with me again. Let Love In, No More Shall We Part. And even destruction and health risks did not dampen my fandom; after years of heavy usage, the canvas cover of Abatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus got covered with black mold after it had been stored in a basement for a while; I made sure to copy the CDs to my iTunes before throwing the cover out.
As a performer, sometimes I get the hankering to cover a Nick Cave song. But when I go listen to the album, to get a fresh feel for it, I usually just lose myself in listening to his version. I don’t know if anyone can hammer a simple chord progression that many times and make every phrasing sound like a new revelation: torture and redemption, communion and loss.
As a songwriter I loved hearing Cave talk about the silent agreement between him and his wife, Susie Bick: that he will forever cannibalize their innermost experiences together for the sake of rendering them into songs. Maybe the balance is to not let your penchant for gleaning songs from your life experience completely devour the relationships and experiences that define and give meaning to your life. But the part I liked most about his artistic musings was the part that also left me with a question.
When Cave describes the ferality of a new song, before it is tamed, known, practiced, domesticated, “when the song is still in charge, before it becomes another song in the stable.” That visceral feeling of a hunt, or having a wild horse on your hands. Who wants to feel like they’ve neutered the spirit out of something that is wild and free? Some people deal with this conundrum by veering towards improvisation, but the truth is, everyone has a bag of tricks, everyone works from memory to some extent.
In total, this film is a refreshing approach to traditional music films. But I couldn’t help but think there was something about the way in which it was so obsessed with telling us the narrative that it could put Cave’s own story, itself, in danger of becoming another “song in the stable.” I felt this in particular when Cave goes to visit his archive, pouring over his personal artifacts and discussing their significance with his archive keepers. Or, when his faux “psychologist,” Darian Leader, performs a combination of fame-lauding interview and psychoanalysis. Obviously, some of this is ironic, and the viewer is very much being winked at and in on the joke. But it was stillthere, the laying down of layer upon layer of artist story like shellac.
Whenever anyone is beset with the task of tackling their own narrative, the idea is to render it, to make it repeatable, to crystallize what their life, their performances, their songs, have all been about. And for better or worse (I reckon, for worse) that is also what all of us are expected to do these days. We are to put our “personal story,” our “personal brand,” out for consumption, coated in social media-curated plastic, its meaning prepackaged and easily digested.
It’s not that this conundrum renders any part of Cave’s music or legacy lesser. I just wonder if a story can get oversaturated if the artist is telling the story twice (both in the music, and in their narrative). In so much story-rendering, I wonder if that space between the listener and the story gets a little crowded. It’s often the sideways discoveries, the songs that sneak in through your car speakers, the unexpected brilliance of an entirely new act, the handing of tapes (er, playlists) from one person to another, that invites the listener to have their own winding pathway of meanings with an artist. I didn’t need to know Cave lives under the gloomy skies of Bristol to feel them in his music. While those skies mean something specific to him, to me, that feeling will always be the soundtrack to my tortured adolescence, my meandering twenties, a soundtrack that has now been with me for more of my life than not.
“We must decolonize our minds and re-name and re-define ourselves..in all respects: culturally, politically, socially. We must re-define ourselves and our lives, on our own terms.”
-Max Roach, jazz drummer
As quoted on Folukuke’s African Skies
The decolonization of music is a new series I am starting based on many conversations, brainstorms, and ideas that have been percolating as I have been working on a book about this subject for years. This is a topic that sits at the intersection of social justice, music theory, music history, and cultural studies.
For starters, let’s get some definitions under our belt. What is the decolonization of music? Further, when was music ever “colonized” in the first place, and why should it need to be decolonized?
Simply put, the decolonization of music is the broadening of what is considered “music,” beyond the ethnocentric ideas and values of a Western lens. (Another definition of “decolonization,” as it relates to music, is the imperative to “decolonize” the means of distribution–as in, prevent some stakeholders, like big tech or traditional labels, from having excessive control over music streaming and distribution. That is a completely valid topic that is of interest to most musicians, but that is not the way that I use “decolonization” here.)
While some groups have been more negatively affected by colonization than others, overly rigid Eurocentric ideas about music are limiting, if not damaging, for music as a whole, and all the musicians in it.
The easiest way to think about the colonization of music is to view it as a cultural phenomenon that runs parallel to the political colonization and globalization of European powers over the past several hundred years. As Western global powers conquered non-European territories (in a militaristic, political, religious, and economic sense), along with that colonization came Western musical values, Western instruments, tunings, and scales, and the exaltation of Western musicians and musical forms above others in many parts of the globe.
The colonization of music is one aspect of the infiltration and cultural “takeover” that happens when one culture dominates another. Cultural colonization is often a subtle process of gradual absorption, a shift from one cultural value system to another. In shifting to Western cultural values and practices, along with that shift comes the implied or overtly stated rejection and denigration of indigenous, African, Asian, or non-Western cultural practices.
A practical example of Western musical colonization is when a piano shows up in an African village. As musicians begin to incorporate the piano into their singing and playing, the scales and intonation of how people sing adapts from traditional African scales to the scales that fit the tempered tuning of the piano.
A more current example is jazz. As a music tradition that was deeply influenced by complex African rhythms and scales (“blue” notes), jazz was initially rejected by the American music academy in the mid-20th century as not being “real” music worthy of study—in much the same way that hip hop was not thought of as “real” music only a few short decades ago. Considering the enormous influence of all kinds of black music on American culture, the resistance to acknowledging African American contributions to music culture is in many ways akin to the significant role unpaid black labor played in building America’s economy, a contribution which continues to go uncompensated. These two forms of economic oppression and cultural colonization are intertwined in ways I probably cannot speak to as a white musician, but I’m not the only white musician who knows they owe a lot to black music and would like to see African American musical geniuses repositioned in the canon alongside all the “dead white guys” we all are trained to know and revere.
The good news, however, is that due to a variety of factors, music is now decolonizing.
Notice I don’t say music is “being decolonized.” Decolonization is not an act that one institution or person or group can enforce onto others; it is the movement of culture in new directions and the evolution of a greater respect and awareness of different systems of value.
Decolonization in the arts is the democratization of culture and the upturning of older value systems that denigrated some for the benefit and exaltation of others.
Part of undoing the practice of one cultural dominating another is also the undoing of the manner in which domination occurs; as Audre Lorde famously said, “The master’s tool cannot undo the master’s house.” So, while colonization happened by force, decolonization sees the culture shifting not by forceful top-down changes, but in the redirecting and reassessment of value and meaning in multiple currents running alongside one another.
The decolonization of music is part of a “natural” cultural evolution, if you will, whereby values are broadened to reflect the diverse and varied expressions that are valuable to a larger populace with evolving value systems.
The factors contributing to this decolonizing shift are many:
Due to a decline in audiences, Western classical music is far less of a cultural hegemony than in previous generations.
Hip-hop has single-handedly saved the modern popular music industry.
The democratization of music-making equipment (DAW’s, affordable yet powerful gear, etc.) and distribution channels, including social media, has splintered music into so many genres, sub-genres, and tiny niches that there is no one dominant type of music. (See Every Noise‘s wonderful genre map to illustrate just how many genres there really are.)
To expound on point 3 which might seem to contradict point 2: Even the biggest pop singers today enjoy a far smaller audience and level of renown than in the record industry’s hey-day; even K-pop phenom BTS’s 20 million physical albums or Taylor Swift’s 28 million, which sounds like a lot, pales compared to Michael Jackson’s 750 million, Madonna’s 330 million or Whitney Houston’s 200 million. Sure, these numbers are the 80’s-90’s pop acts’ total career-spanning totals, while the younger acts are still mid-career. (Beyoncé’s mid-career total around 200 million, counting her time in Destiny’s Child, and Rihanna’s mid-career 250 million, are notable, however.) Hip hop sales numbers are also more in the 100-200 million units area; as is routinely the case, tremendous cultural influence does not necessarily equate with sales.
Ultimately, the digitalization of the music industry and the evolution of so many taste-driven smaller genres today makes it so a given act’s audience exposure is significantly less than it used to be. There is no one dominant superstar, no single performer known all over the globe like Michael Jackson–and no real infrastructure to make someone like M.J. happen again.
There are other major contributing factors to the decolonization of music that relate to larger cultural influences, like the Black Lives Matter movement and indigenous rights awareness. While people might assume those movements and their significance are only relevant to people of color, white people have an equal role in dismantling any system of oppression which we benefit from. While we may be limited in our perspective and understanding by our socialization with “the master’s tools,” at the same time we are often in positions of power and have influence in cultural value systems (agencies, educational institutions, etc.). Thus, part of our role is questioning and unhooking the places where white supremacy has long had a hold and perpetuates itself.
It is relevant for musicians of any race or ethnic background to look at how white supremacy has shaped our musical values and how we value music and musicians (and ourselves), and to question and undo those inherited cultural presumptions that are harmful or outdated. This is also a topic that strongly relates to the centuries-old invisibility of women in music, as colonization and Eurocentricism go hand in hand with the patriarchal denigration of women.
To me, this conversation is not so much about saying “Here is the problem and here’s what should be done about it.” The decolonization of music is perhaps a natural co-evolution with the larger movement of culture towards greater liberation for everyone. But at the same time, it is a process we can help facilitate and deepen by participating in it actively, questioning our presumptions, attitudes, mores, and values from within colonized value systems, and actively reshaping them towards the more democratized places we are moving into.
Decolonization in music culture is the asking of questions about what we can learn, and unlearn, within ourselves, and reshaping the culture from a more democratic value system that better aligns with how and who we are already anyway.
The decolonization of music is about evolving with music, as it evolves with us.
 Johanson, Bryan. Direct quote. Portland State University. Lecture, 2010.
 Wikipedia. Whitney Houston Albums, Discography. Last updated October 28, 2020.
 Tsadwa, Zander. “Rihanna Has Sold 150 million more albums Than Beyoné (As of 2019).” Across the culture. September 26, 2016; updated 2019. https://www.acrosstheculture.com/media/music/rihanna-sold-100-million-records-beyonce/
free from its female tethers. Maybe it would be like
riding a horse. The rider’s the human one,
but everyone looks at the horse.
-“Horse,” by Chase Twichell*
It was around 2015 that I began to notice stirrings of a familiar cultural tide coming in: women-in-music. The topic of sexism and gender politics in the music industry continued to pop up in music mags and social media. There were interviews with women musicians detailing the sexism they endure in the industry, and even entire websites and magazines exclusively devoted to female artists (She Shreds, for women bassists and guitarists, Tom Tom Magazine for female drummers).
The most whiplash-inducing moment of dejá vu, though, was when I heard an excited and determined young feminist declaring, “This isn’t just a music trend, this is a movement!” Though I agree with the general sentiment of articles like “It’s Time for the Music Industry to Have a Feminist Revolution” (Oct. 2019), the problem is, we already have.
From the mid-90’s music media’s obsession with “She Rock” (the mainstream nod to the underground, zine-fueled Riot Grrl movement), to the female singer-songwriter industry buzz of the 70’s (whose grassroots inspiration was the second wave of feminism in general, and the lesbian-separatist Womyn’s Music Movement, more specifically), there have always been spurts of attention on the perennial issue of gender in the music industry. Too, all the way back to blues mamas Ma Rainey and Big Mama Thornton shaking their hips long before Elvis ever appropriated R&B for white teenage girls, women have always been an integral, but sidelined and under-recognized, part of popular music.
And so, wherever there have been women, there have been patronizing inquiries about what it’s like to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry. This pattern often reaches its cultural zenith during moments of “women in music” trends, when female artists are suddenly considered commercially viable in the industry, and feminist ideas are, however briefly, normalized in the mainstream.
In fact, in her 1992 book “She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock n’ Roll,” music historian Gillian G. Gaar recognized a startling regularity to this women-in-music pattern, which seems to occur once per generation, moving in predictable 15-20 year cycles. A key feature of this cycle is that the notion of ‘female empowerment’ and a ‘women’s movement in music’ is applied with abandon to all female artists, regardless of whether they identify as feminist and want to be included or not. (Chrissie Hynde and Joni Mitchell are two artists who notoriously resist the feminist label, and their reasonings are as idiosyncratic, complicated, and personal as any good feminist conversation should be–just don’t call them “feminist.”)
But this generalized appliqué of feminist brand politics onto artists who happen to be female is always a clue that the notion of “female empowerment” has probably become more useful to the industry than it is for actual, like, women. To be sure, despite each surge of supposed progress, the industry as a whole is still 83.2% men and 16.8% women. And that means men inclined to creepily abuse power, like Dr. Luke, still by and large hold the position of cultural gatekeepers, which allows them to manipulate or intimidate talented aspiring female artists, creating circles of control and abuse that limit how far women can move in the industry.
It seems that, despite the appealing gloss of the idea of female empowerment, in the music industry, true gender equity just doesn’t seem to stick. A problem that seems to necessitate the perennial need for women-in-music “movements.”
But could it actually be that the branding of female artists into a gender-specific sidebar, one that is relentlessly (and perhaps disingenuously) focused on the cause of ’empowerment,’ is partly to blame for the lack of permanent change? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that feminists or feminism are at fault for holding women back, but that the commercialization of supposedly-feminist values, for the sake of marketing music to women, might be. Even further, is there a corollary of this industry pattern to the larger pattern of feminist backlash in society in general, with its stop-and-start cycles of progress and endless two-steps-forward-one-step-back do-si-do on gender equality?
Does branding our politics actually have the unfortunate result of neutering (or rather, spaying) them into complacency?
“When we’re sold the idea of power as a purely individual force rooted in buying stuff rather than a collective one with the potential to drive forward change,” Emma Hope Allwood writes, “all that results is a kind of tokenistic personal brand politics that doesn’t go much further than the square crops of our IG feeds” (“The word ’empowerment’ has literally lost all meaning”, Dazed, 2018). Just as corporate brands from Amazon to Nike instantaneously and vigorously jumped on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon en masse after the killing of George Floyd, corporations are all too eager to align themselves with political movements–when it is en vogue to do so. These brand politics are, regardless of the (assumed) progressive personal feelings and politics of board members and CEOs, still ultimately a move made for the sake of of company’s bottom line. In the shuffle, a force that is supposed to be an agent of cultural change can easily become subsumed into the larger capitalist status quo.
Just as a corporation’s targeted hashtags mean nothing unless their talk is backed up by actual progressive change–like equal pay and diversity in hiring initiatives–individual consumption of empowerment-branded goods and services amounts to nothing more than social media “slactivism” if it is disconnected from community-led and grassroots organization that builds and sustains real political momentum. And in a way, women-in-music is one of the cultural patterns that laid the groundwork for this kind of identity-fueled but often directionless political foment.
“It’s difficult to see how feminist advertising is committed to structural change, since the appeal is to individual women rather than a collective movement,” observes Sarah Banet-Weiser, author of Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny.
Unlike other types of femvertising(the selling of products to women by associating them with empowerment, be it deodorant, Lululemon leggings, or girl power anthems), the music industry’s take on ‘female empowerment’ can feel “authentic” because it does not seem, at least on the surface, to remove the collective from the revolution. Whereas sports bras and lipstick sold with empowering messaging, for example, have an individualist, consumerist endgame that is rather grotesquely obvious (the purchase of a product), the “goal” of women-in-music is more diffuse and inherently focused on a ‘collective’ of sorts: a paying audience. Yet still, if thousands of young women in an auditorium cheering about the idea of empowerment does not result in more women making better pay and more fair treatment as performers, engineers, producers, and label executives, then the music industry’s appeal to audience’s ideas of women’s “progress” is more a recurring theme in branding language than about real industry change.
Allwood mused that back in 2012 she never could have imagined this strange new future where feminism would be so popular that ’empowerment’ could even be a marketing slogan. But the truth is that the co-opting of feminism (and all grassroots political movements, in fact) has a long history, one that operates in predictable patterns. As Sut Jhally has been saying for decades, advertising has completely permeated every aspect of our lives; our politics being fed back to us as products shouldn’t really surprise us. And part of what is so insidious about this women-in-music pattern is that we need public spaces to discuss issues of gender equality so that attention is adequately paid to them and change can be enacted.
On one hand, no one wants to have to deal with the eye-roller, “What is it like to be a woman in the music industry?”
On the other, there is no denying patriarchy is real and everywhere, so there are ample experiences of sexism, harassment, and disadvantage to discuss and analyze. Thus, the double-edged sword of the media coverage of these women-in-music “trends” is that it always feels alternately insulting and, well, tentatively, empowering. It is a win, one tends to feel, whenever even a teensy bit of consciousness of shared experience is raised.
After any given mainstream feminist “uprising” of women-in-music, the established pattern continues, with feminists and feminist dialogue inevitably branching off again into separate subcultural quarters, and the once-fashionable industry attention to issues like sexism, sexual harassment, pay equity, and diversity in hiring never forcing any real industry change. While prevailing sexist attitudes might incline people to take this as evidence of women’s inherent lack of talent and ability, it is probably more indicative of how far from “fair and equitable” an industry like the music industry really is, with its history of payola, ties to the mafia, and so on. From a certain lens, it is somewhat naive to ever really expect an industry that is so blatantly unethical to suddenly clean up its act and be fair to women, of all people.
The factor that ultimately did force real industry change (though not of the feminist sort) was a wild card — the digital streaming revolution. Whether anyone could make money at music at all was now in question, which presumably only encouraged existing good old boys’ networks to tighten their grip on whatever power they still had. Sexism, a wise friend of mine once observed, is ultimately only a handy tool for edging out more than half the competition; we tend to complicate it a lot with all of our theories and analyses, but it’s really only about sheer, elbow-them-outta-the-way capitalism.
While the plight of women in the industry stopped garnering attention around the millennium, I’d like to pause for a moment to acknowledge that the transition from the old to the new music industry was, in fact, most poignantly eulogized by Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free Now” (an artist who also just so happens to be female). There is no other song that summarizes the existential angst of the modern musician, or the music industry as a whole, so earnestly or eloquently:
Moving forward in cultural time and space to the political maturation of the next generation, by the time Trump was about to be hoisted into office in populist fervor in 2016, the stirrings of the next women’s music movement had already been in motion for a few years in indie music culture. This time fueled by blogs and social media rather than 90’s zine culture, in appreciation for Gaar’s math, this up-and-coming “women’s movement in music” was breaking surface precisely twenty years after the mid-90’s “she rock” wave. In addition to the feminist consciousness at various shows and story headlines, the phrase ‘female empowerment’ was appearing in my inbox with music listings with all too much frequency. Seemingly dozens of advertising houses and labels with pop divas were now looking for new song material, on a regular hunt for ‘the next girl power anthem.’
On one hand, I still agree that it is thought-provoking and healthy to do revisionist histories of forgotten women artists alongside profiles of under-recognized women artists. (Take, for example, She Shreds’ feminist reprise of mariachi culture, or their dressing-down of male-focused guitar lore with an important and long-overdue nod to black women guitarists. These are topics that should not only be of interest to women or female musicians, but to anyone who wants to know the underground and under-sung influences in musi. After all, there is no shortage of supposedly earth-shattering new retrospectives on Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the “gods of guitar” greeting us every year at the newsstand.
A bit of intelligent, feminist counterbalance is necessary, by Goddess.
But my concern with the patterns and tendencies of women-in-music moments is more about when grassroots impulses cross into the mainstream and we repeat the cultural ritual of the whole quasi-feminist circus again, with nothing gained. Everyone gets excited about the new ‘movement’ to topple the music industry patriarchy, and it all winds down without yielding any real progress within the industry itself. My weariness is perhaps also the guarded matriarchal protectiveness one generation of feminists always feels for another; “Please don’t break their visionary hearts, cruel world.”
On the other hand, women-in-music and ‘female empowerment’ is now so baked into the industry, I wonder if it even means anything anymore at all; maybe there isn’t really enough momentum to make a viable ‘mainstream’ trend out of it–because what’s the “mainstream” anymore, anyway? Maybe by now, the female empowerment/women-in-music novelty coin has been tossed back and forth so many times it has lost its patina and no longer has much cultural currency.
True, thanks to the concurrent forces of social media and the streaming revolution, music culture has changed dramatically since our last spin of the she-rock theme song. Today, everyone is their own “brand”—and no one stands out as a triumph of feminism on one hand and identity politic branding so much as Queen Bey, whose deft blending of marketing and empowerment could easily leave most people feeling there isn’t much difference between the two after all. Pause for a moment and consider how far of a cry her empowerment-branded messaging is from the mid-90’s ambivalent Difranco singing, “I am a poster girl with no poster.” To review, Difranco’s hesitation was with the weight that came with representing the feminist politics of her entire fanbase, alongside the manner with which those politics were increasingly reduced into a commercialized, novelized tagline, as she tentatively began to “cross over” from the DIY indie scene to the mainstream. And the conversations we used to have about these topics were, as a feminist friend of mine said once, “good and complicated.”
I’m not questioning the legitimacy of Beyoncé’s reign (I mean, never). And I don’t doubt that her presence and message is genuinely inspiring and, yes, empowering, to many women and girls. I’m only interested in what it looks like when we have sustained and diverse representation of all types of feminist perspective–including the ones that question and challenge, umm…the prerogatives of capitalism.
Despite the undisputed reign of certain pop divas, there is still a need for feminism in music, both in terms of abysmal gender representation across the industry and in instances of sexual abuse. (Aside from R. Kelly, the industry has yet to be fully Me Too’d; I’ve heard people say it’s coming but it has yet to.) And, if music culture is still a reflection of the general culture, it reflects that there is still as profound a need as ever for feminism in society overall.
When the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford debacle revived with horrific precision the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, reminding us that our revolutionary feminist feelings post-2016 are really only a repeat of the early 90’s, I felt this same weariness again. And now, with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the potential gutting of so many gains made around civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental protections with a conservative-swinging Supreme Court, it really does feel like progress has been all too shallow. If progress is so dependent on the life of one justice to hold it in place, we’ve allowed it to remain far too fragile. The shallow branding of our politics feels like a symptom in a larger pattern of the status quo patronizing us with plastic tokens that say “Grrrl power!” when what we really need is profound, indelible structural change.
When Brandi Carlile swept the Grammys in 2019, in one of her after-show interviews she reframed the women-in-music question, positing that the 90’s were an era where women dominated, and she saw no reason that couldn’t happen again. This was a pointed counterpunch to the pile of political poo created by Grammy president Neil Portow’s defense of the almost exclusively male winners of the 2018 ceremony with his “Women artists have to step it up” line.
But to me, it almost feels like the music industry has leaned back in its leather swivel chair, put its feet on the executive’s desk and clasped its hands behind its head and retorted, “Well, we have the female empowerment brand, isn’t that enough for these women?”
With a pussy-grabber in the White House (for now) and amidst the initial gains of the Times Up and Me Too movements against a backdrop of encroaching authoritarianism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, this is a cultural and political moment when we simply cannot afford to have our rallying cries get watered down into ad slogans. We need feminism to be strong, robust, and capable of calling bullshit, now more than ever.
Feminism, when done right, is one of the best cross-cultural modes of communication, inquiry, and activism available to us. Despite how the machinery of the marketplace tries to allocate our interests into pink or blue gender-specific sales categories, and despite how social media tries to convince us that our racial and other identity politics are irreversible lines drawn between us, there is actually more vision, more energy, and more momentum in progressive politics, now more than ever. Which means the advertising campaigns will also grow all the more sophisticated, and it is all the more important to prevent our political vision and will from being boiled down into a commercialized reduction of itself into aesthetically-pleasing fonts and packaging.
When our empathetic impulses to create a more just world are numbed into individualistic consumerism, it is a direct, precise hit to the political nervous system–if we buy it. That this phenomenon has such consistent precedent, whether in music culture or elsewhere, tells us how swiftly and reliably any stirrings of radical feminist action bubbling to the surface can be rendered mute and ineffective through commercial co-optation.
Yet at the same time, there is also never a commercial ‘women in music’ trend without a true grassroots uprising somewhere on the cultural periphery that originally inspired it. Music reflects the energy and heart of the culture, after all. The persistence of this pattern, both culturally and commercially, demonstrates that music has the potential to do more than merely reinforce and challenge gender norms, and then reinforce them again. But it’s up to the collective to take care that we are not pacified by having our radical impulses sold back to us as ad slogans.
And that collective intelligence is our most critical inoculation against the slithering maneuvers of brand politicking: the fact that modern progressive and radical movements possess, in the words of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, a “leader-full”philosophy–a decentralized, democratized political consciousness supported and defined by the efforts and messages of a multitude of leaders contributing diverse perspectives and abilities. The same is true of modern intersectional feminism; there is not one central leader to be found, and its goals are not represented on a solitary podium where one (previously white) woman would stand and supposedly represent the concerns of all womanhood. In a leader-full context, we’re smart enough to know that the purchase of an “empowering” product is not going to magically bring about some kind of ready-made revolution; instead, critical dialogue, engaging with different perspectives, and organizing for actual political, economic, and structural change, is understood to be a responsibility shared by a multitude of thinkers, teachers, activists, and creators.
Ultimately, what we have to remember is that if capitalism specifically organizes around gender as a central tenet, we cannot transform gender and its norms through the coy seductions of the capitalist system. And, we cannot expect the marketplace to transform or empower us. That is a job we can only do within our own minds and hearts, and with one another.
In addition to writing songs I also secretly write poetry (which you can find on my Patreon page if you have a hankering). But I also appreciate when folks regard song lyrics as their own type of poetry.
Lyrics as Poetry puts together print-only collections contributed to by songwriters on a given theme. I was so honored to have my song, “Not as Lovers” featured in Volume 3, “Love.”
In this all-digital world it is especially satisfying to see your work printed lovingly on nice paper with beautiful printing and nestled in amongst other carefully-selected pieces from other artists. You can buy the volume on their site and stream the song here: Not as Lovers (Take this Armor) .
Now that I live in Los Angeles, again I find myself in a situation where I have a big grand piano and I don’t know what to do with it. I am putting the word out, through this post and conversations with friends and with piano people, that it is time to find a new situation for me and my piano.
In my rather desperate post from August 2016, “Other People’s Pianos,” written during a transient period, I maintained my practice on friends’ pianos, and cried to my counselor about how not having my piano was like having my musical/emotional safety blanket ripped away from me (I’m a Cancer). Looking back over the post, I realized that I also decreed exactly what would end up happening there in my writing: “I’m hoping to find a school, venue, church, or private residence where a piano would be welcome, and where I could also come practice. A mutually-beneficial piano-sharing scenario. Better that than having it wrapped in blankets and going unused in a warehouse.”
And that is PRECISELY what happened. I put feelers out with my musician friends in New York, and one of them very promptly connected me with a church that needed a piano for their music program. They just happened to be in Sheepshead Bay, only a few miles south of my apartment Brooklyn.
For the brief time I lived in New York, I enjoyed a lovely piano-sharing arrangement. I would hop on the Q train and ride down to Sheepshead Bay, and walk through the (extraordinarily) long blocks until I got to the church, where I had specific hours for practice. On dry days, I could just hop on my bike and ride all the way down Avenue R. I recorded some songs for The Dreamer & The Dream at the church, and the church has benefited greatly from having a nice piano for their services and music concerts.
But then I was seized by a wild impulse to abruptly move to Los Angeles. I had realized that, after spending most of my life in Puddletown, and then living in New York, I had lost my patience for crappy weather. I wanted to live in a big city again, and so, the natural math of my various requirements of place suddenly became obvious: Big City + Needs to be a Music Town = Los Angeles. Also, having my parents a tad closer (they’re both still on the West Coast) made much more sense than going south to somewhere like Nashville or Austin. (Although recently I’ve been hearing Denver has a great music scene, and dry sunny weather, and maybe a tad less traffic…)
So, I cast my fate to the wind and landed in a fantastic little bungalow apartment in Mid City L.A. I love it, and I have a nice little music studio set up in the dining room (which is, as far as I am concerned, the best use for formal dining rooms).
But now my piano is all the way on the other side of the country.
One of my first side jobs when I landed in L.A. was working for a piano store, where I tried all the possible avenues available for trying to figure out how to bring my grand piano back from New York. In fact, while working at the piano store, I happened upon a donated piano that is a distant cousin of my Baldwin grand, a mid-60’s Acrosonic. For a free piano that hadn’t been tuned in forty years, it ain’t so bad, and it satisfied the need for having an acoustic piano in my space. However, I play it far less than I used to play my Baldwin; once you drive a Mercedes, it’s hard to go back to a Hyundai.
I have determined that, if I could get it out here, there is room for the Baldwin here at my place. (Being that I am a person who has moved grand pianos so, so many times, I am in possession of a piano cutout, which is a large piece of butcher paper with renderings of various piano sizes, drawn to scale, that you can arrange amongst your furniture for assessment. Based on my calculations with this tool, I could technically fit my piano in my current place provided I am okay with blocking access to the kitchen when the piano bench is out. I think, all things considered, that I’m okay with that.)
And so, considering that a piano’s purpose in life is to be loved, maintained, and played, I am temporarily okay with things as they are but also constantly brainstorming in the back of my mind trying to figure this situation out. Considering that it worked the last time I made this declaration through my blog, I figured I should again put the word and the feelers out for a new piano situation: The ideal scenario is a music studio, either a recording or teaching studio, where a grand piano of this style and sound is appreciated (no, adored) and where I have a similar timeshare arrangement where the house gets to use the piano for their purposes and I get to come in and use it for mine. This place is close enough to Mid City Los Angeles that it does not lower my quality of life by increasing my time in traffic too significantly, so I can get to play it fairly regularly (and I could even BIKE there!) This piano timeshare is be a mutually beneficial arrangement for everyone involved.
OR: I drum up the $2,000 or so needed to move the Baldwin back across the country and relocate her here to my place in Mid City, where I will selfishly keep her acoustic charms all to myself.
Here’s to manifesting what we need through speaking it and putting it into the Universe. That’s how this magical piano first came to me–by searching desperately for the right sound until I had pretty much given up, deflated and certain all beautiful pianos would be hopelessly and forever beyond my price reach, when my then-boyfriend happened across an ad for the Baldwin, which was patiently awaiting discovery at a small town piano shop that I never would have gone to in person.
As part of the notoriously laborious process of moving to New York–which I brought upon myself voluntarily, with no job or major life reason other than to “try the New York thing,” as one of my NY veteran friends put it–I had to change my mailing address. This sounds like a fairly commonplace moving chore, but in NY, it becomes a colossal ordeal.
One day I had to visit the post office to try to track down a very important piece of mail that I had overnighted from Portland, Oregon, to my new address in Brooklyn. My new roommate on the New York end hadn’t seen it yet, and offered to go to the Flatbush post office — but if at all possible, asked if I could check on the Portland side before she did that. (I would later find out the reason for her hesitation, as the Flatbush Post Office is so comically awful I can’t believe there hasn’t been a tragi-comic horror film based on the premise of waiting in that Never Ending Line and trying to track down packages that Never Were Delivered. It is a situation so unrelentingly bad that citizens actually write their senators about it– including me, eventually. I ended up receiving a cordial, boilerplate response via email from Chuck Schumer’s office well after I had left NY to return to the West Coast–“the NY boomerang,” as another NY veteran friend put it.)
But back to that envelope. The envelope in question contained my rental application and lease for my new New York landlord, and therefore, every single possible documentation of my Important Personal and Financial Information (New York landlords stop just short of requiring you to sign away the life of your firstborn before they will even process your application). Now, all my Personal Financial Shit was apparently just floating out there in the world, somewhere between the post office in Portland, Oregon, and a mailbox in Brooklyn, New York.
I was tense, maybe even verging on frantic.
I pulled into the USPS parking lot—or tried to, but I was blocked by an idling car. A mother and daughter were piling out and fussing with an inordinate number of layers of bags and coats and personal items, delaying the process of them getting out of the car as their friend idled and waited. And as I idled, and waited.
Be patient, I thought to myself. Breathe for a second.
The mother and daughter finally shut the car door, but just as I put my foot on the gas to pull in, I saw a wallet and another persona litem lying on the pavement.
I honked, but they didn’t hear as they were making their way towards the post office entryway. I honked again, and waved. The mother looked back, confused, before tentatively coming back towards the lot to see what I was pointing towards.
Finally she saw, ran forward to scoop up her things and shot me a huge, beautiful, gracious smile, and called out, “Thank you so much! Thank you!!”
In my short but meaningful time in New York, these types of interactions became one my favorite things about that big, sensory-overwhelming metropolis (although this incident was in Portland, that little aggravation-turned-humans-helping-one-another felt like a primer for both the logistical complexity of my upcoming new city and the way in which leaning on my surrounding humanity would continually help counterbalance my stress tipping point). In a densely-packed city like New York, you are constantly called to remember the humanity and the immediacy of other people’s existence. On the subway when someone cuts their finger and ten people reach into their bags to fish around for a band-aid; in the extraordinary lines at Trader Joe’s or, of course, the post office, we are reminded how we can each influence each other in such profound but seemingly tiny ways.
Back at the post office in Portland, in my isolation chamber also known as a car, I pulled in to my long-sought for parking space, feeling a smidge better about life and humanity in general. I went inside, and claimed my spot in the long-ish line (a post office line I would come to appreciate as small town and friendly in comparison to what awaited me at the Flatbush post office in my new neighborhood, every time a package or piece of mail went missing–which was frequent.)
When I got to the Portland post office counter, I explained my situation: “I sent something overnight on Wednesday and it didn’t get there on Thursday. Is there any way to track it?”
“Do you have the receipt or the tracking number?”
“No.” I had completely forgotten everything about everything and thrown all my receipts away on Wednesday afternoon. “I lost it,” I lied, trying to recover some sense of being a grown adult.
“There’s no way to find it if we don’t have that tracking number.”
My chest started getting tight. “Well, what happens to overnight mail if it doesn’t get where it was sent to?”
The post office lady, seeming to relish the opportunity to unleash the terror of terrible hypothetical disasters on a fellow citizen, proceeded to list off Every Single Possible Worst Case Scenario: “There are just so many hands it passes through. It could have been stolen. It could have fallen off a cart and gotten kicked in a gutter without anyone even noticing. It could have gone to the wrong address….”
She gave me the number for Consumer Affairs, an office which was right down the hall but which was only available for telephone service, not walk-ins. I could see through the frosted glass window on the door that there was someone in there, but I wasn’t allowed to approach the door and knock. It would have been more natural for me to take this all as an opportunity to make a stink and get indignant about this as an example of all the bureaucratic bullshit the post office does that doesn’t make any sense.
But instead, I breathed. I noticed the very slightest relaxation of my shoulders and neck. Thanks to meditation and yoga practice, this tiny rerouting of a stress response meant I didn’t get tense at a moment when I normally would.
I sat down and called Consumer Affairs (the office I was standing right in front of and not allowed to speak to in person). After several rings–I could see the shadow behind the frosted glass sitting there immobile as the phone rang nearby–I explained my situation to the next clerk. Very quickly, we determined the cause of the mix up: I had bought a first class envelope, not a prepaid overnight envelope.
“Overnight is like twenty dollars,” she explained. I had paid about $1.50.
Feeling just barely like an adult now, and one who knows nothing about anything, I nonetheless breathed a sigh of relief. I still didn’t have the assurance that my mail was where it needed to be (I would have had to pay twenty dollars for that assurance). But at least I knew it was all just a goof (my goof). Now I knew that most likely that my envelope was just on its way, and would arrive in about three days.
Again, at any one of those points in my little post office adventure, I could have gotten fussy, desperate, impatient, and mean. I could have defaulted to the entitled, crabby, and supremely self-interested manner of conducting ourselves that we learn, by default, in a highly individualist, gratification-oriented society.
And believe me, it is not in my nature to be patient and wise in these situations. I have burst into tears at the car mechanic and boiled over in frustration as telephone clerks at the bank transfer me from one office to another like a raging hot potato. In fact, regardless of how many service jobs I’ve done and the presumed empathy for their plight that I should have developed, dealing with crappy customer service, or ineffective channels of communication in the face of bureaucratic nonsense, is an area of Adult Life that a part of me will always object to and struggle with.
My only way around this stuff is meditation practice. I didn’t start to sit with the intention to be more kind—I started practice to get a handle on depression/anxiety/insomnia issues, all of which sitting practice has helped with.
But after you fill up your own tank for a while I guess you start to have some to spill over with. Your practice becomes the benefit of those around you (at least in the sense that there is now an absence of ickiness being inflicted on them that they don’t even know about), and you get the added bonus of others reflecting that benefit back to you. Meditation doesn’t make life all flowers and unicorns; it takes away your latent expectation that life should be all flowers and unicorns.
You can not always get your way, experience things that are bullshit and don’t make sense, and still feel basically okay. Even good. Like an adult!
Practicing patience, non-attachment, and the ethic of kindness that arises out of that means that instead of feeling like an entitled individualist constantly at war with circumstance, you feel peacefully—or at least slightly less aggressively—yoked to the world around you. Each of those moments where we find space instead of falling into a negative reactive pattern is a tiny yield in the cosmic bank account. All of those old patterns of reaction, and defense, and armament, can change—if you leave room for space.
I wrote “Song To My City” in the summer of 2015. Portland had been changing for a while, but 2015 was the year I felt like I no longer recognized it. Being both a long-time Portlander and originally a transplant from California, I had a lot of mixed feelings about the rapidity of Portland’s growth.
On one hand, I’m saddened that the Rose City’s sudden popularity has led to the displacement of so many people. But on the other hand, the venomous attitude often hissed towards newcomers (especially, as always, towards Californians) feels not only small-hearted, but dangerously teetering towards the same xenophobia and Othering that has led many people to want to “Make America Great Again.” The term for this is Portland Provencialism, the cute small-town attitude that the only people who belong in Portland are “native Oregonians” (which is of course not a thing unless you descend from an indigenous tribe).
At a show that summer, in 2015, I noticed some drunk guy in the crowd was shouting his views on Portland’s changing demographic:
“Anyone who wasn’t here before 1980 needs to get the fuck out!”
Well, that counts me out; I had arrived in 1990 with my mom, from, of course, the Bay Area. But I had spent the better part of my life in Portland, to the point where a friend from Connecticut couldn’t accept the idea of me leaving, arguing that I was “the most Portland person ever,” (a comment which might have pushed me to leave all the sooner, just to be contrarian–which is, of course, so Portland.) I had been rooted in the Pacific Northwest, the backdrop of my life grey skies, lush temperate forests, the landscape decorated by so, so many dudes drinking craft beers in flannel shirts, for a long time.
I needed other places.
Unrealistic though it may be, Drunk Dude was expressing an attitude that lurks not too far down in the depths of many a longtime Portlander’s psyche: That some people “deserve” Portland more than others, and, of course, have a special claim on the city’s iconic “weirdness.” I’ve even heard the not-so-longtime residents, with only about a year or so under their belt, wax sentimental about how much the city has changed.
“It’s not how it used to be,” is a good catch-phrase to help you blend in better amongst the locals.
Talking shit about Portland’s gentrification with friends who also used to live there has become a new past-time. My friend José who visited from New Orleans couldn’t get over that there is actually such a thing as “personal isolation flotation chambers.”
“Personal isolation flotation chambers,” he restated the words carefully, in amused disbelief. This, to him, felt like the ultimate symbol of how strongly Portland has become “Liberal Disneyland.” And he was right. That cushy indie Portland of yore, now infused with a fat wad of developmental cash, had been rendered into a kitschy Port of Portlandia consumable version of itself.
My friend Kirsten recently observed, on a trip back to the city from Idaho, that “Portland about a decade ago was like a 10 year old, playing in a sandbox, just trying things out. Now it’s like a teenager, it’s changing and going through that awkward, cranky period.” If Portland is a teenager right now, it’s her party and she can cry and be snotty if she wants to.
My friend Lydia who now lives in Oakland wanted to make sure I remembered, after living in Portland so long, that, “Portland isn’t a Real City. You know that, right?”
But if the results of gentrification–skyrocketing real estate prices and the constant mushrooming of traffic in places it never used to be–are qualifiers of city-hood, then Portland has now definitely become a real city (I mean, right? Kind of?) And as convenient as it would be to blame this all on Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the “sudden” growth is not Portlandia’s fault and not really so sudden; it was apparently always the city’s vision to build up the central core and maintain the urban growth boundary as best as possible–in other words, for the city to get more dense, and with greater population, more commercial. A worthy goal, to prevent suburban sprawl and protect natural spaces. The less forgivable glitch is that this plan seems to require moving all the poor and brown and black people out–what many people of color experience as part of a longer history of displacement at the whim of white Portland and its evolving vision of the city (see Here’s What Four Decades of Gentrification in North and Northeast Portland Looks Like).
Though Portland likes to think of itself as uniquely progressive, the truth is of course that we do not have much to be proud of in terms of how redlining and other exclusionary practices shaped the racial history and overly-white modern demographic of this city. In this sense, the “Portland provincialism” of today is really only a short hop from the anti-black, anti-outsider attitudes of the past.
Portland’s increased housing crunch mirrors the larger nationwide crisis in housing and homelessness; we have to remember this is an issue across the country—not one that Portland is being uniquely struck with because it is just so damn special.
What has happened in Portland, and San Francisco, and Oakland, and Seattle, and Cincinnati, and Denver, and what continues to happen in New York City, and what is driving residents inland in Miami, is still often defined by issues of class and racism. It is no mistake that it is usually poorer residents who are of color who are driven out of “up and coming” neighborhoods by extreme rent spikes; “up and coming” is of course code for white people moving in and finding a previously-undesirable neighborhood newly appealing.
I lived in one such neighborhood in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn (where I learned the difference between a typical, aggravating post office and a truly underfunded, neglected one). When I lived there, Ditmas Park hadn’t yet “tipped” to trendy, without the name recognition and unreasonable rents of other parts of Brooklyn. I often found myself wishing the process of gentrification could be frozen in place where it was, because many of the longtime residents actually welcomed the area getting cleaned up a bit, and were tired of feeling unsafe and ignored by the city government. I often found myself wishing that the elderly black people who had lived in the building for thirty years, and the younger families with kids and teenagers, could feel safe and not have to worry about drug deals going on in the lobby–without having to then worry about tons more young white people (like me, of course) moving in to enjoy the newly safe neighborhood. I mean, since our rent was low, perhaps it’s true that my roommate and I weren’t contributing as directly or aggressively to gentrification; it’s not like we were opening a posh art gallery in the building or something. In fact, we were doing what musicians in New York City have done for generations–making a one-bedroom into a two-bedroom, hauling instruments and gear up the six flight walk-up stairs when the elevator broke down, alternating our practice times across our variegated schedules, making it work. But still, I know that in the shifting sands of time, the arrival of someone who is “so Portland” like myself in the 6-story-brick landscape of Ditmas Park is a flag marking the likely-inevitable shift towards gentrification. I hoped that during my time there I made the smallest negative footprint possible, by paying a low rent and supporting as many small businesses as possible (Jamaican jerk chicken from the Caribbean deli and fruit smoothies from the Korean juice shop outside my subway station being some of my most consistent methods).
Before anyone gets too high and mighty about being the O.G. in their particular neck of the woods, it’s good to remember that, since most people move somewhere new at some point in our lives, we all have or will contribute to gentrification somewhere, in one way or another. In fact you might move because gentrification itself causes you to find someplace more affordable, to a place where other people have lived a long time, who see you as a newcomer or outsider.
In Brooklyn I had some good conversations with people who had lived in Flatbush or BedStuy their whole lives. Their feelings about gentrification ranged from anger and resentment on one hand, to a detached weariness, on the other.
“That’s just change. You can’t stop change,” one man said. Some might say that’s apathy, others might say it’s realistic.
Regardless of the political lens one takes on gentrification, perhaps it is everyone’s job to be open-minded, curious, and accepting towards new people. If we’re going to create solutions to the problems raised by increased density, we have to at least start with a basic attitude of common ground, an assumption of humanity. If we can’t do that, we’re buying into the Trump vision of America, one where people cause problems for each other more often than they generate solutions, where it is acceptable to simply reject others up front, branding them a socioeconomic problem that is taking jobs or housing or resources of one kind or another–rather than getting to know them over time, come to understand what their life is about, who they are, where they’re going.
My ambivalence about seeing my own “home” cities–Portland and the East Bay Area–change so rapidly, is why I originally wrote “Song to my City.” Moving to other cities and being the newcomer on other people’s home turf added a new layer to the song’s meaning for me. On the track, that’s me on guitar, keys and vocals, and that’s my friend Max Johnson on upright bass. Victor Nash at Destination: Universe! helped me with mixing, and then I added some more parts at Virtue & Vice Studios with Rocky Gallo in Williamsburg. The song is available through my new album, The Dreamer & The Dream, streaming now on Spotify and available on iTunes and all other places music is sold.
And here is some more food for thought on gentrification:
Piano practice has always been the back bone of my life structure. It is foundational and usually comes before all other types of practice, and sometimes before breakfast. But of late, with my living situation in continual flux, my practice has shifted from luxurious focused solitude with the instrument to:
Where can I find a piano, and for how long?
In April I moved out of my studio in the SE industrial district of Portland, an idyllic situation where I shared zero walls with neighbors, where I could more or less play whenever I felt like it. That building used to house La Luna, a venue of the Portland of old, where I saw Fiona Apple (among others) play in the 90s. The building has that sort of spooky, Old Portland energy, despite the increasing presence of condos and New Portland everywhere. (A few years back the space was included in a piece on Portland practice spaces in 1859 magazine).
But the really amazing thing about that studio was that I was able to fit my 7′ grand piano in there. If you have visited my blog before you may recall that a while back I was fortunate enough to acquire a totally killer 100+ year old Baldwin vintage grand piano. I went into mighty debt to obtain it (recently paid that off and it felt great). That piano really has my heart–like instant, love-at-first-sound, magic-of-music, to-be-wed-forever, heart. The Baldwin was part of many house shows and piano-focused soirees. Two piano technicians sang its praises as one of their top 10 pianos–EVER.
Having a high quality instrument you really, really love is like having a therapeutic biofeedback machine in your living room; you input your thoughts and emotions and experiences into sound shapes, and they get fed back to you as highly-refined musical energy. It’s like taking high quality vitamins. Or getting lots of hugs.
And now I am living without.
I literally spent an entire 60-minute therapy session processing and crying about living without that piano.
A wonderful old upright dame at my friends’ Bear and Anthony’s in the Columbia River Gorge. This is the piano Anthony’s grandmother taught lessons on for many decades.
After leaving the studio I moved through various temporary arrangements, one for a month, one for a week, and the current one for four months, with the final goal of moving to NYC at the end of the summer.
During my last slow goodbye to Portland, friends have been generous with their pianos. I’ve played an old upright out in the Gorge at the Hobbit House, and friends at the Pink Palace shared their tired old gal donated by Piano Push Play. My new routine has helped me realize that while it is good to create a private, focused environment for music practice, there is also something good about learning to adapt, musically and otherwise, to different situations. Like a band tracking drum parts downstairs; a toddler running back and forth and seeming to stomp very deliberately directly above me from the upstairs apartment; an electric bassist practicing in another room while I make do with a piano with no music desk and a broken key cover; and an alarmed cat staring directly at me from another room for the entire two hours that I was playing. (It was highly distracting).
All of this auditory distraction is especially important to learn to deal with considering that I’m moving to NYC!
As much as any technical skill, adaptability is paramount as a pianist. When you’re locked away in your apartment with a dream piano all the time, your playing is more easily thrown off by a nice-but-quirky piano at a venue or rehearsal (and pretty much every piano at any venue is nice-but-quirky). As my classical pianist aunt Julie always says, regularly playing different pianos is “part of the tradition.” As an example of extreme adaptability, my friend Thollem McDonas does not “live” anywhere, as he’s literally always on the road, and he maintains a regular piano practice nonetheless. “Everywhere becomes home,” he said, and every piano is just part of adapting your overall self to each situation. The mobile Zen pianist.
For me, the borrow-a-piano routine is a bit too irregular for getting much real work done, so the type of practice I’ve been doing on Other People’s Pianos is more maintenance mode–just keeping alive what I have already written, and making sure to fit in some sight-reading. On a day when I have extra time, I do some improvising, and maybe gather some ideas for composing.
Also, when you have to go without, you make do with alternatives. When I was such a junkie for the loud, emotionally intense feedback of my acoustic piano, I didn’t have much reason to spend time with my Nord 73. But over the past few months I’ve come to appreciate all the fun things I can do with pedals and effects; I went in a new direction with a song I would have otherwise recorded as an acoustic piano tune, because the keyboard was the only thing available to me.
At the Pink Palace in NE Portland, a baby grand donated by Piano. Push. Play.
I don’t know what the future holds for my Baldwin piano. Space is of course ridiculously limited in New York City, and a 7’x5′ grand definitely won’t be fitting in the one bedroom apartment I’ll be sharing with another musician.
But there is a chance that through a piano technician friend I can luck out on a cheap shipping deal. If I do, I’m hoping to find a school, venue, church, or private residence where a piano would be welcome, and where I could also come practice. A mutually-beneficial piano-sharing scenario. Better that than having it wrapped in blankets and going unused in a warehouse.
But for now, I’ve got a keyboard, and Other People’s Pianos, to keep me going.
If you have any leads on available pianos in the NYC area, please message me in the comments or through the contact form!
It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan of Joni Mitchell. More like devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning. I even had a dream once where Joni, my mom, and my grandmother and I were all sitting in a circle talking, and Joni turned and looked at me, like, “What are you up to in your life?”; though I’ve never even been in a room with her, she is family to me, connected through that silver cord of sound that can link the heart and thoughts of one person to another across time and space.
I still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, which for the most part had the real tunings she used for each song. I never looked back.
Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”
Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilitiesfor a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.
Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums Clouds,For the Roses, Court & Spark, and Miles of Aisles: each album an entire world to get lost within. In addition to the distinct musical sound, there was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics: her frank account of multiple love affairs, her independence, her politics, her commentary on the various pop culture movements and the cultural revolutions of the times. None of this is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, whether in the 70’s or today.
Of course, I didn’t understand all of it as a preteen, and today when I hear any of it, but when I hear any of those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses,” “Blue, “A Case of You,” (it’s too long a list)–I can’t hear any of them without crying at some point. The video of that brilliant “Clouds” performance from her 2000 tribute concert is for some reason not playing from YouTube, but you can watch it on her website: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/video.cfm?id=7; if you’re built like me, it’ll be waterworks within about four seconds as she walks onstage, before she even starts singing.
This is music that stays with you and grows with you over a lifetime, and it points us to the whole point of music in the first place: connecting with something beyond the mundane, materialistic, ego-driven goals of the everyday world (and, definitely, beyond the falsified world of social media stats, most of which are just another form of advertising these days as they’re all paid and have long since stopped representing anything “organic” or “authentic” about people’s relationship to their audience, anyway). Music is about plugging into our souls, and for any generation who wants to listen, Joni has the cord and the outlet.
Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.
Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had. As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday back to standard and then back into my slack tunings too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities. This is the offbeat but enriching musical path that Joni pointed to, like the Hermit holding the lamp on the darkened woods: it may not buy you much purchase with the masses, but it takes you to a real place in your own spirit.
Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant. First, Joni never had the slew of pop tart radio hits of the bigger rock bands — but music aficionados aren’t supposed to be charmed too much by popularity stats, so to me it has always felt like there are other cultural reasons she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. Some people have argued her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then), which led people to exclude her as a pariah amongst women in some generally sexist way; her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture.
As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni also suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality (which is part of why she’s great).
Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.
Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved.
Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that worships profitable carbon copies. Though there is an entire generation of musicians today who have never heard of her, amidst the glut of navel-gazing self-promotion, obsession with metrics, and surface-level swim on offer in today’s music world, Joni represents everything that we need right now: heart, mind, musical chops, poetry, an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what’s-popular mindset, and most importantly, something to say.