Month: August 2014

Beyonce and the meaning of not wearing pants

I was kind of laughing about this:

Beyonce’s feminist VMA message prompts some eye rolls

What does it really mean to be a feminist in Hollywood these days?

Others chimed in with opinions such as “an excellent night for women not wearing pants,”

(my emphasis)

OK, so Beyonce did a pretty epic performance at the VMA’s- 15 minutes, most of her album.  And she did so without pants and flashed FEMINIST across the screen at one point.

I didn’t really see a problem.  Feminism includes the idea that women should be allowed to wear what they want and not get judged on it.  But then I remembered this Kathleen Hanna interview from a while back:

CNN: What do you make of singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Ke$ha who are seemingly touching on themes of gay empowerment in their music, but for some reason it doesn’t quite resonate?

Hanna: I mean, is it really that different when it’s a skinny white woman in a bathing suit singing these things? None of these women ever wear pants, first of all. Second of all, just because you’re wearing a goofy hat doesn’t make it performance art.

(again, my emphasis)


I don’t know.  I think this pants thing is silly, and Kathleen Hanna came off as an angry old person in that interview.

On the subject of pants, I will firmly state that I do not consider pants (or lack thereof) to be a reason to discriminate against someone or not listen to their opinion.  Provided they wear something that covers their genitals.

Some awesome people not wearing pants:

Embed from Getty Images Embed from Getty Images

Wait, who was that last one?  Kathleen Hanna.  With no pants on.  In her defense, I’m sure I can find photos of her wearing pants back then.

For the record, I have never appeared at a show in anything that looked like underwear or a swimsuit, and the world is probably a better place for it.  But I don’t want to rule it out either.  Keeping my options open.  Just in case.


White Flight

So this isn’t really a political blog but I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been watching what’s going on in Ferguson.  And as usual, I get into arguments in comment sections about various facts of the case.  It’s pretty stupid actually, but sometimes I get bored.  Oh well, we all have hobbies we’re not proud of.  I’m not going to drag those arguments over to my own blog, but I did want to talk about one subject I keep seeing mentioned, in a mostly incorrect way, because it’s interesting to me- white flight.

My mom tells a story of moving into a part of Los Angeles that was predominately white.  My grandfather was an engineer and could afford an upper-middle class life.  He bought a house and they moved in.  I forget what part of LA it was.  I also don’t know if they were the first Mexicans in their neighborhood.  But whites saw Mexicans and Cubans moving in and quickly moved out of that neighborhood.

Well, apparently some black Angelenos got word that it was a safe neighborhood to move into (because moving into all white neighborhoods back then was a dangerous proposition).  So they started moving in.  AND THEN THE LATINOS STARTED MOVING OUT.  They were like “oh no, black people moving in.”

It’s a story about how silly people are, and how even people who are victims of bigotry can turn around and victimize others.  According to my mom, my grandmother didn’t care, and they stayed, at least for a while.

My mom also went to a school that the LA district bused black kids into.  According to my mom, the district wanted to make a good impression, so they bused in only the best students- star scholars and athletes.

I bring this up because it illustrates something that people trying to defend white flight as not racist but instead as a pragmatic decision tend to ignore.  The people moving into a white neighborhood are literally the most capable people moving out of ghetto neighborhoods.  If a white neighborhood can’t accept those people, it cannot accept anyone of color, because at the beginning of white flight, black and brown people were almost universally confined to areas of the city that were ghettos.  There was no where else they would have been coming from, except maybe from out of state.

I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do.  It’s a beautiful but tremendously sad book.  But one of the points it makes is that the people emigrating from the south were the most capable, the most educated and some of the hardest working.  How would it be otherwise?  Getting up and moving cross country to get a job isn’t easy, especially if you’re poor.  And there were few opportunities for them to make something of themselves in the South at that time.  The north was getting the best of the best.

And the same applies to people moving into white neighborhoods.  They saved up the money to buy that house, clearly they’re responsible people.

The other thing I see is people claiming that white people were moving out of the ghetto.  This is nonsense.  White people had their own ghettos in the 50s and 60s, and black people weren’t trying to move into them.  Why would they be?  That makes no sense.

The shocking thing to me about white flight was how fast it would happen sometimes.  Real estate agents had a method they’d call blockbusting.  First the agent would convince a seller on a block to sell to a black family, usually in secret so other neighbors wouldn’t have a chance to weigh in.  Then when the neighbors find out and sell off their houses en masse, the agent would buy up the devalued properties at a huge discount, then sell them back to black families, who had few other options for housing, at a huge markup.  It was quite a racket they had going.

White people mostly weren’t escaping bad neighborhoods.  They were escaping good neighborhoods that they didn’t want to share with blacks.  Only those few who didn’t have the means to move out in the initial rush could properly be said to be fleeing ghettos. The majority moved out long before cities hit bottom in the 70s and 80s.

Of course, collapse in property values helps no one, especially the city and schools that rely on them for tax revenues.  I’m not super knowledgeable about this, so I’m going to leave it right here.

What is Kanye West trying to say? George Bush doesn’t care about black people

Sometimes the universe is perfect.  It does exactly what we think it will.  As possibly the two of this century’s most struggled to be understood public figures, George W Bush and Kanye West had to come into conflict with each other.  It just had to happen.

The definitive take on the whole issue, for me, was Amanda Marcotte‘s:

His accusation was that Bush’s animus wasn’t active, but passive. He “doesn’t care”. West wasn’t suggesting that Bush pushed the levies down or anything. And not caring about black people, I will restate, doesn’t preclude not caring about others. There’s a lot of not caring in Bush. Singling out black people was perhaps a little off the mark, since Bush does care about a handful of black people. But he was wound up. I’m not going to stomp him on a technicality.

I mean, was it really such a bad thing to say?  Do we really believe that Bush cared a lot about people?  That was part of his charm!  His not-caringness!

It’s pretty obvious from the video that Kanye was really upset and it just kind of came out, but again, oh well.

Bush apparently called the statement the worse thing about his presidency.  Err, OK.

But enough about Bush and Kanye.  I want to close out this defense of Kanye West with some parting thoughts:

Kanye West has written a ton of great tunes, and I don’t get why people expect him to be humble about that.  I know we like our stars that way, but I don’t get why.  It’s stupid.  Hugely talented musicians are not normal people.

He’s also a cautionary tale about why fame is probably a curse.  It seems like at this point, very people even have a concrete reason for disliking Kanye- they just remember they’re not supposed to like him.  And then it becomes a big deal that he’s rude to Jimmy Kimmel or something.

When did people start caring about talk show hosts?  Those people are media.  Media people are lame.

This song is awesome

As is this one

And I have nothing more I want to say on the subject.

What is Jay Z trying to say? Takeover

Taking a brief break from Kanye West hagiography- I’ve got one more left, it’s coming- to talk about a song that Kanye produced.

Takeover is my favorite diss song, not because it’s the harshest or the best, but because it’s a perfect example of how to argue.  This isn’t a style that guarantees a win, but if you want to argue and walk away with your dignity intact, this is how it’s done.

Takeover was on of the high points in a long-running feud between Nas and Jay Z and since I’m not sure about all the reasons for it, I’m just going to make note that one of the sticking points was Jay Z’s use of a line from Nas’ classic album Illmatic.

Mobb Deep was also apparently feuding with Jay Z, because Mobb Deep seemed to be involved in every major feud back then.

Four rules on how to argue and guarantee you won’t look like a fool:

Don’t argue with fools

Give your opponent credit

Stick to the facts

Don’t get angry

Don’t argue with fools

Jay Z says exactly this in the song, with a line probably borrowed from Mark Twain

A wise man told me, don’t with fools, cause people from a distance can’t tell who is who

This was a hard lesson to learn, and I still sometimes ignore it, especially on the internet.  You know who looks stupid in an argument with trolls?  EVERYONE.

Give your opponent credit

This actually dovetails nicely with the previous one.  Jay says “don’t argue with fools” almost at the end of the song.  We can look at that two ways- either he’s not taking his own advice or he doesn’t think Nas and Mobb Deep are fools.  I lean toward the latter.  Because regardless of their personal histories, Jay has some respect for at least some of their work.

Had a spark when you started but now you’re just garbage
Fell from top ten to not mentioned at all

You made it a hot line, I made it a hot song

You said you been in this ten
I’ve been in it five – smarten up Nas
Four albums in ten years nigga? I could divide
That’s one every let’s say two, two of them shits was due
One was – NAHHH, the other was “Illmatic”
That’s a one hot album every ten year average

Jay isn’t trying to deny that Nas was a good rapper at the start of his career.  How could he?  Pretty much everyone agrees that Illmatic was a landmark album, easily one of the best of the 90s.  He’s just pointing out that by the time Takeover came out, Nas had fallen off.  None of which was particularly controversial.

But it’s important to give your opponent credit, not only because it may just diffuse some tension, but because it’s just petty not to.  I don’t want to look petty, I just want to be right.

Stick to the facts

This is what I like about Jay Z.  He’s got the facts, he’s going to lay them out, fairly dispassionately.  Some of the highlights:

And you ain’t get a corn nigga you was gettin fucked and
I know who I paid God, Serchlite Publishing

Ouch.  Nas didn’t even get a check for the line that Jay used.  He didn’t have control of his own publishing rights for Illmatic.  That to me is the harshest line in the song.

No, you’re not on my level get your brakes tweaked
I sold what ya whole album sold in my first week

I showed you your first tec on tour with Large Professor
(Me, that’s who!) Then I heard your album bout your tec on your dresser

Nas isn’t selling records.  Nas is a fake gangster who hadn’t handled a gun before Jay showed him one.

When I was pushin weight, back in eighty-eight
you was a ballerina I got your pictures I seen ya

This is out of the Eazy E “Dr Dre wore makeup!” playbook.  It’s kind of a lame diss, but this is hip hop.

At any rate, sticking to what you know and to the facts is pretty key.  One, getting caught in a lie is pretty much an automatic loss of an argument.  Two, name-calling is just petty.  Jay Z does a lot of that on here too- calling Prodigy a “little fuck” (Prodigy of Mobb Deep isn’t a big dude)- I suppose some degree of that is unavoidable.

Don’t get angry

This is maybe the most important point.  When you get angry and start yelling, you look like a fool.  This is why I can kind of enjoy diss songs like Ether, Nas response to Takeover, or Tupac’s over-the-top Biggie Smalls diss Hit Em Up.  They’re OK.  But you can tell that the person they’re responding to really got under their skin.  That’s not a good place to be.  In Biggie and Tupac’s case, that led to tragedy.  Nas and Jay, on the other hand, were able to put it behind them.

Which is good.  One benefit of keeping your dignity after an argument is that you won’t want to shoot someone later.

What is Kanye West trying to say? Diamonds from Sierra Leone

Just like superheroes, every rapper needs an origin story.  It’s got to involve some hardship or another- usually some combination of being poor, being a drug dealer and/or gang-banger, being black, having a crazy drug addicted mother and an absent father or just starting from the bottom, wherever that may be.  For the record, I’m not trying to make a joke about these things- a lot of rappers probably had some terrible experiences growing up.  But making the origin story a virtual requirement for rappers, has occasionally meant that some people would experience a different, albeit less sympathetic, form of hardship- having to wrack their brains coming up with an origin story, with sometimes comical results.

I don’t know Kanye personally, so I’m just going off of Wikipedia, but Kanye had none of the classic challenges, other than being a young black man, to overcome.  He had a middle-class upbringing, with both parents at home.  So far as I know he never had to deal drugs.  He did drop out of college to pursue music full time in around 1997.  Within a couple of years he was a successful producer, who was also writing rhymes in his spare time.

While producing some huge hits for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella records- including a good deal of Jay Z’s The Blueprint- Kanye was shopping around for a record deal.  Finally he was able to convince Roc-A-Fella to release his first album, which they did in 2004.  Not bad right?  It only took him seven years, and by the time his first album was out he was already a very wealthy man.

But that’s Kanye’s origin story.  He had a hard time getting signed.  I know, it’s not much to go on, but every rapper must have an origin story.

I love this song and its subsequent remix.  It’s an old James Bond movie sample and Kanye telling his origin story and trying to explain the reasons behind the first of his awards show freakouts.

Award shows- everyone remembers how he grabbed the mic from Taylor Swift, but apparently he walked out of the 2004 AMAs after not getting the new artist award

I was sick about awards
Couldn’t nobody cure me
Only playa that got robbed but kept all his jewelry
Alicia Keys tried to talk some sense to them
30 minutes later seems there’s no convincing them

So Kanye didn’t get the award he wanted.  Oh well, right?  These are some of my favorite bars from him ever

What more can you ask for?
The international asshole
Who complain about what he is owed?
And throw a tantrum like he is 3 years old
You gotta love it though somebody still speaks from his soul

I love it because Kanye is doing two things at once- owning up to being a big baby and then taking pride in being a big baby.  I do admit, I love it that someone does speak from his soul.  Famous people are fucking boring.  You know with Kanye that he’s going to speak his mind.  Do I think I he is owed an award?  Not really.  I’m not even sure he thinks so.

And wasn’t changed by the change, or the game, or the fame,
When he came, in the game, he made his own lane

This is maybe the most important thing to take from his origin story- Kanye really did do something different.  By he made his own lane, he’s claiming to have carved out a new spot in hip-hop- something that was different than what Jay Z called “thug rappin’ & gimmicks”, the party rap that was coming out of the South or even the conscious rap of the 90s.  He did make his own lane.  That’s true.  Guys like Drake, Kendrick Lamar or J Cole owe it to Kanye for creating a space in hip-hop for them.

Speaking of conscious rap, Kanye went back after the original was released and recorded a remix of this song

This is part of why I like Kanye.  The original comes off as just another ode to being rich, Kanye brings that into context of what was going on in Sierra Leone at the time

The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless
‘Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless

What other big famous rapper would go out of his way to worry about where his jewels came from?  At that point I don’t think there was anyone who would have.  Part of why I like the guy.

What is Kanye West trying to say? Gold Digger

So I had this lengthy, epic post in my head for the last couple weeks- A Defense of Kanye West.  Because I like Kanye West.  He’s one of the most fascinating and interesting people in public life right now.  But frankly I couldn’t make it happen.  I started and stopped a couple of times and in the end the whole idea was just too daunting.  So I thought I’d break it down into more manageable posts and see what I could do.

A few things- Kanye West is an interesting man.  That’s not to say I always agree with him or that I can always make sense of what he’s trying to say.  Often you can tell he’s working out ideas in real time, when he’s giving interviews or even in his songs.  He’s a flexible thinker, incorporating different viewpoints into the thinks he says.  He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even when he knows he’ll take shit for it.  And few people take more shit for just having an opinion than Kanye West.

And in the end, why are people upset with him?  Unless you’re George Bush or Taylor Swift, he’s probably never insulted you personally.  I don’t get it.

I’m starting with Gold Digger, not just because it’s a great song, but because it’s an interesting one.

The basic synopsis of the song is this:

Verse 1: he meets a pretty girl at a beauty salon, she’s interested in him for his money and makes him take all her kids and their friends to dinner.

Verse 2: he talks about how young men should be careful with this type of woman.

Verse 3: he gives young women advice on how they should behave.

So starting off with the premise of the song- some women are just after men for their money.  It’s probably the case that some women are, but this plays into a fairly nasty stereotype about women.  Especially with verse two:

Eighteen years, eighteen years, she got one of your kids, got you for eighteen years

Holla we want prenup, we want prenup, yeah

It’s something that you need to have, cause if she leave your ass she gonna leave with half

This is basically the Eddie Murphy Raw act from the 80s.  I don’t think it’s a very positive view on women.

Verse 3 is the turnaround.  Kanye advises a young women who is “mopping floors” to :

Stick by his side, I know there’s dude’s ballin’ and yeah that’s nice

They gonna keep callin’ but you stay right girl

Annnnd the turnaround:

and when he get on he leave your ass for a white girl 

Ouch.  So there are no winners.  Men are terrible because they’ll drop women whenever they get money.  Women are bad gold diggers who will try to trap you by getting pregnant.  Or so it seems.

This is my favorite set of lines in the song

From what I heard she got a baby by Busta
My best friend says she use to fuck with Usher
I don’t care what none of y’all say I still love her

Busta= Busta Rhymes, the rapper, and Usher is the singer.  I’m sure he just used those names because they rhymed, but the point is that, this girl has been with other famous men.  Which is kind of a big deal, right?  Men with “traditional values”, which many rappers are, don’t like the idea of their girlfriend being publicly tied to other well-known men, especially if they’ve produced children with them.  Because it means someone else got there first.   “I had her before you” is one of the oldest insults in the book of rap insults.

But Kanye doesn’t care.  “I don’t care what none of y’all say, I still love her.”

What really makes this song though, is how Kanye’s life has played out since it was released in 2005.  Kanye got married this year.  To this lady:

Embed from Getty Images

I don’t know much about the Kardashians.  But to paraphrase- we all know the kind of dudes Kim’s messin’ with.  We also know that she’s been with other dudes before.  Anyone with an internet connection can find definitive proof.  But Kanye’s never hid from this:

Break records at Louis
Ate breakfast at Gucci
My girl a superstar all from a home movie
Bow on our arrival the unamerican idols

When I first heard that line, I was blown away.  What? Did he just say that?  I guess the idea of getting money by any means possible goes for everyone- Gold Digger reads like a condemnation, but it doesn’t always sound like one.  But I never thought anyone would proudly call attention to his own girlfriend’s sex tape.

And that’s the thing.  Kanye seems genuinely happy with his wife and child.  He proudly talks about them in interviews.  He even made this:

I don’t know him personally.  Maybe that video is a sign that’s he’s really in love or maybe it’s an act.  I tend to lean towards the former, because… well just watch it.  Who knows.

What does all this mean?  I don’t know.  Was Gold Digger prophetic?  Was it a mean song making fun of women?  Was it a cynical take on men?  Again, who knows.  I like questions with no answers, and Kanye gives me those.

Man I ain’t tryin’ to be nobody, just want a chance to be myself

Apologies to John Cougar Mellencamp, but this has always been the perfect small town song for me

Man I ain’t tryin to be nobody

I grew up in a town of around 5,000 people, in the poorest corner of the state.  Tryin’ to be nobody is the definition of ridiculous.  You are born the child of a rich farmer and you’re somebody.  Or you aren’t, and you’re not anybody.  And nothing you do will change that.

I’m not saying anyone is going to actively prevent you from “being nobody”- opportunities are just limited.

Reconciling my limited ambition with having possibilities open to me since I’ve moved to the city is something I’ve always struggled with.  When I arrived at college I met people from big cities- they had all kinds of ideas of things they might do.  Growing up everyone I knew was in farming or public service.  There was one dentist in my town, no doctors, no lawyers, no accountant’s office (though I did have a friend whose dad was an occasionally employed accountant), no insurance salespeople, none of the regular careers people from the city take for granted.   I mean, some of the people in the neighboring town must have done this things, but in my town, not that I knew of.

Going back to where I grew up recently, I met not one, but two dudes at the club who told me about how they really wanted to make a career in music.  They’re currently doing menial jobs, but they’re working on music in their spare time.  They’ve got dreams.

I didn’t want to poop on their dreams, and be like “give up now, it’s waaaay harder than you think,” because that’s just mean.  But this is the thing about growing up in a small town- any career outside of cop, teacher or tractor driver seems kind of outlandish, so you might as well aim high.

For me, I just didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew I was too smart to be a tractor driver.  So I was lost.  I still kind of am.  I’ve never been driven to do anything like some of the people I know.  Maybe it would have been the same if I’d grown up in the city, maybe it wouldn’t.  Who knows.

just want a chance to be myself

I love Dwight’s version of this song.  It’s a pretty sweet mix of southern California culture.  Where I grew up the town was, at the time, pretty split down the middle of white and Mexican people.

I may have told this story before, so skip this paragraph if you’ve heard it, but there was a family in my town that would sometimes hold parties at their house.  They were, by our standards, poor but they had bought a house on some very marginal property along on of the handful of very un-scenic rivers that ran through the valley.  In the backyard they had salvaged some steel and concrete and built a large dancefloor, complete with stage and barbeque area.  They’d have local Mexican bands play music and party into the night.

This is the kind of thing you just can’t do in the city.  There’d be noise complaints, complaints about unpermitted building, complaints about their front yard, which they used as a parking lot.  Country life, in that regard, was pretty awesome.

I hear about rural life being “live and let live” and I suspect that’s true for lots of people, and it’s definitely true that there are no HOAs to make you miserable and when you’re on your own property you can get drunk and blast away with your shotgun just cause you feel like it.

But there’s also life in the fishbowl.  Everyone knows what you’re up to.  At the same time I was never really a part of life there.  My parents were both solidly middle-class workers in an area that had a very tiny middle class.  We had no roots there- having arrived when I was two years old from Orange County.  We didn’t own a farm, I never played football.  I was the oddball whose family lived in Europe for a year and who went off to private school for a couple years in high school.  I did have a chance to be myself there because no one had any expectations for my behavior.  If I’d been from a rich farm family, I don’t think that would have been true.

Who knows?  In the end, you can be yourself wherever you want to.  You just might end up lonely, depending on how “yourself” is.  So I’ve always taken the line

just want a chance to be myself

as a sort of resignation.  I don’t know anything about the songwriter, Mr Homer Joy, beyond what he tells us in the song.  What the song says to me isn’t that he’s an oddball looking for acceptance, but that he’s weary of the pressures of big city life, weary from “a thousand of miles of thumbing.”

I don’t miss my hometown.  My family moved out a long time ago and I’d never move back there.  I don’t even really think of it as my hometown anymore.  It was just somewhere I lived until I was 18.   But sometimes I’m weary from living in the city.  Sometimes I feel like I should have made something more of myself and that growing up in a small town held me back.   Most of the time I don’t want to be nobody.