Archives for the month of: December, 2014

Aesthetic relativism is known by its “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” mentality, in which art is reduced to ‘personal expression’. “With each new generation, standards declined… until there were no standards,” notes artist Robert Florczak. “Without aesthetic standards, we have no way to determine quality or inferiority. Here’s a test I give my graduate students, all talented and well-educated. Please analyze this Jackson Pollack painting, and explain why it is good…”

Watch the video to see the results of the test.

Florczak continues (excerpted remarks included below):

“Not only has the quality of art diminished, but also the subject matter has gone from the transcendent to the trashy. Where once artists supplied their talents to scenes of substance and integrity, from history, literature, religion, mythology, et cetera, many of today’s artists merely use their art to make ‘statements’, often for nothing more than shock value.

Artists of the past also made statements at times. But never at the expense of the visual excellence of their work.

It’s not only artists who are at fault. It is equally the fault of the so-called ‘art community’: the museum heads, gallery owners, and the critics… It is they who champion graffiti and call it ‘genius’; promote the scatological and call it ‘meaningful’. It is they who, in reality, are the naked emperors of art. For who else would spend ten million dollars on a rock, and think it is art?

An art gallery, after all, is a business… if the product doesn’t sell, it won’t be made.

Let’s celebrate what we know is good, and ignore what we know is not.”

In the previous entry, a connection was drawn that might benefit from a more direct approach.

The depiction of musician Jimi Hendrix as “wild” and “violent” in the biopic “All Is By My Side” was compared to Iggy Azalea’s recent comments in the entertainment media.

For clarity, I’ll refer to Iggy Azalea by her real name, Amethyst Kelly (since her stage name is oddly similar to Azealia Banks, a musician with whom Kelly is having a nasty row — a “feud” in silly entertainment lingo).

Specifically, Kelly (Iggy Azalea) accused her rival (Banks) of being lazy, entitled, irresponsible, self-destructively impulsive, and inherently stupid.

In other comments, Kelly characterized her own ex-boyfriend as being frighteningly violent, to the extent that she has avoided the entire state of Texas where he lives. Is he actually violent? It doesn’t really matter, any more than the accusations against Bill Cosby are enough to convict him of crimes that lacked enough evidence to go to trial over fifteen years ago.

Audience Versus Artist: A Guilty Confession

First, a guilty admission: I have no interest in the utterly trivial publicity-seeking “feuds” or gossip-ready “intimate details” of anyone’s life, celebrity or otherwise. The fact that I know this much about the Azaleas (and Azealias) of the world honestly surprises me.

So why does this matter enough to write about more than once?

It matters because there are at least two distinct influences at work from the inside — from an artist’s point of view. For anyone who craves fame for their art, this entry can be seen as either instructive or cautionary.

The two influences are race and commercialization.

There is also one influence evident from outside — that influence is the audience’s perspective.

In modern pop culture, the word “audience” is synonymous with “consumer”. To the extent that an artist is stripped of privacy, he or she is elevated (or dragged down) to “celebrity” status. The celebrity is then marketed and sold as a “brand”.

This story matters at the point where mass consumption meets artistry, and the inevitable consequences that follow.

Race, Credibility and Commercialization

Race has long been blamed for many of the divisions that vivisect modern society. Especially in the history of popular music, race is an obvious issue to rattle sabres about. Anyone who is even peripherally aware could easily be sold the idea that hip-hop is about black Americans’ struggle.

The influence of commercialization changes that equation instantly. If hip-hop is for black people, by black people, why are the majority of personalities in the hip-hop universe essentially cartoon characters? Most rappers, for example, appear as degenerate criminals who celebrate the denigration of women and flaunt flashily violent lifestyles.

Mainstream hip-hop is this way because the masses demand it. Intelligent, socially conscious artists don’t make headlines as often or sell as well as ones who seem psychologically unstable and ready for a meltdown at any time.

An example of this is Chris Brown, who grew up middle-class and isn’t even a rapper. He’s a singer who had to buy the allegiance of Bloods gang members in order to pose “as if” he were one of them. Without the gang affiliation, he would essentially be a younger, taller version of Sisqo.

If the music were all that mattered, then being Sisqo 2.0 wouldn’t be all that bad a label. But of course, in the land of celebrity-as-brand-name, music is almost an afterthought compared to “street cred”. So now we have the Ominous (and sometimes platinum blonde) Chris Brown who flashes gang signs and does time in prison (after beating up his abusive girlfriend Rihanna, who herself apparently was in the habit of pettily violent behavior, but never mind).

Stereotypes and “Selling Out”

The masses demand stereotypes; the more popular a person becomes, the more their image has to conform to simplistic soundbytes and sensationalistic news stories. White female celebrities become Feminist Icons (because they’re women, see). Black and Latina females become desperately whorish fetish objects (hello Nicki and J.Lo!). White men become White Knights or desirable Bad Boys. Black Men become Irredeemable Thugs one step above rampaging apes. And, somewhat incongruously, Asian people still seem mostly not to exist — how many major-label Asian rappers have there been since M.C. Jin?

Selling out isn’t undesirable for a mainstream artist. At some point, it’s inevitable. Upon reaching the apex of fame, even James Brown moved to the affluent (read: white) side of town. Good on him, I’d say, but in the fake racial politics of Celebrityland, even the Godfather of Soul saw his black fanbase desert him for equally spurious reasons.

Herds are inherently stupid, regardless of their predominant skin color. Mass marketing thrives on creating a mindless “viral” frenzy of unthinking zombies clutching credit cards and slathering at the mouth for whatever is on offer from the brains of their favored celebrities du jour.

It was only a matter of time, then, before the Conformity Machine turned hip hop into a reality-show cartoon. Or perhaps a live-action video game exchanging plotlines, scripts, soundtracks and dialogue with the next iteration of Grand Theft Auto.

Amethyst “Iggy Azalea” Kelly may clothe her celebrity persona in stereotypes — even to the extent of faking a “ghetto” American-accented rap style, despite having been born and raised in Australia. She also clearly hasn’t a clue about the history of black-originated music in the United States (hint: using the words “slave” and “master” in reference to yourself might not be as amazingly clever as it seemed while brushing your teeth to a Kendrick Lamar song this morning). Despite her thinly coded sniping at Azealia Banks and public villanizing of ex-boyfriends, Amethyst Amelia Kelly may not be a racist, after all. At the end of the day, Iggy is just another new celebrity doing what pop stars inevitably do, following a focus-grouped, market-tested, tried-and-true formula for mainstream American commercial success.

This story begins with the drug-overdose death of a twenty-seven year-old American ex-paratrooper. The date was September 18, 1970. His first name was James, middle name Marshall, last name Hendrix.

In the present day, a young woman born across the planet lands in the U.S. at the age of sixteen. Amethyst Amelia Kelly is her birth name, better known onstage eight years later as Iggy Azalea.

All Is By My Side

Jimi Hendrix seemed to be a peaceful person, despite a difficult upbringing marked by neglect from two parents struggling in post-WWII America.

The new film about Hendrix’s life, “Jimi: All Is By My Side” starring Andre Benjamin, portrays Hendrix as violently abusive. In the film, Hendrix’s “wild” image as a performer is extended into a distorted portrait of the man’s personal life. The end result is a poorly crafted conflation of Jimi Hendrix’s real personality (introverted, perhaps even shy) and his persona as a performer (which was a Little Richard-inspired flamboyance updated for the 1960s London rock crowd).

No one can tell who Hendrix “really” was, except for people who knew him personally. On that note, Hendrix’s real-life ex-love Kathy Etchingham has publicly denounced the portrayal of her as some kind of abuse victim in the film.

Not only was she not consulted about the film — which has her played by Hayley Atwell from the Captain America movies, with Andre Benjamin from hip-hop group Outkast as Hendrix — she is upset about a scene that depicts their relationship as so turbulent that he beats her up badly.

“It’s just completely made up,” Etchingham said of the incident.

[…]

Etchingham insists their relationship was “a completely fun time”, with Hendrix dedicated to his musical career well before the drug problems that contributed to his death at 27.

“He was a gentle person — funny, entertaining, articulate, and knew exactly which direction he was going in,” she said.

Jimi Hendrix’s ex Kathy Etchingham: ‘Scuse me while I defend my guy”

How terribly inconvenient it must be when the real person is still alive to debunk a fictional character conjured in her image. You can read the rest of what she had to say about the film and the Jimi she knew by clicking here for the interview.

To say that Hendrix was prone to violence is about as sensible as claiming that Sir Richard Branson is somehow a homophobe. The evidence points in the exact opposite direction in both cases. Sadly in regard to the Hendrix biopic, Andre Benjamin’s apparently extensive preparation to play the role of Hendrix was wasted by a mawkishly sensationalized story that wasn’t worthy of its subject.

The Origins of Azalea

The history of rock music, as told through the life of Jimi Hendrix (among so many others), becomes relevant again in the example of its modern manifestation, rap and hip hop. Yes, hip hop and rap are the children of rock and roll, mainly derived from the rhythms, dance and style of James Brown. Hendrix, however, is the more visibly imitated prototype “rock star” whose influence has proved itself to be as timeless as the blues-based brilliance of his guitar. Both Brown and Hendrix drew from the same nucleus of inspiration that infuses practically all of pop music today.

Who do you think of when you consider the origins of rock?

Guns’n’Roses, Nirvana, maybe Elvis if you want to stretch back a bit. Probably not Fats Domino, Jackie Wilson or Ruth Brown.

“Rhythm and blues. Really Blue? Really Brave? Really Black. […] One of these, you can use it. But R and B stands, for Ruth Brown.” – Ruth Brown

(See also: Ruth Brown performing “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean“)

For the average “pop culture junkie”, the roots of modern music are buried under childish hypermasculine bragging set over repetitively programmed beats, almost completely lacking melody or compositional complexity. Our mistakes are what make us human, and the autotuned voices we hear today possess a small fraction of the personality conveyed by artists in prior decades. The production values are stunningly addictive, but the resonant human core is often empty.

This began as the original rhythm-and-blues artists of the 1950s were replaced by others. The original artists often saw their songs performed for throngs of adoring fans who had no idea that their new favorite music had actually been appropriated. Rhythm-and-blues was re-christened as “rock-and-roll”. The songs were re-recorded at a faster tempo, re-used in a bid to “gentrify” a genre that was once considered “jungle music”, mainly because of the outcast status of the artists who gave birth to it.

The soul of hip hop was first brought to life by the “freaky” experimentations of Little Richard, channeled through James Brown and electrified by Jimi Hendrix. It has since been washed “clean” of all its colorful — or as Ray Charles put it, “dirty” — origin story. Now what we have is the inevitable endpoint of consumerism: a blandly attractive product whitewashed of all context and devoid of anything more resonant than the sound of ringing cash registers. In our digital age, you’re more likely to hear the “cha-ching!” sound as a sample in a song than the mechanical chime in a physical store.

Exotic, Authentic, and Unassailably Fake?

Hold on, I hear somebody coming. She’s right outside the door. Should I let her in? Too late, here she is…

In barges Iggy Azalea, with her sort-of-sultry (but mostly average) looks and amazingly “ethnic” body type (code for: unusually wide hips, narrow-ish waist and large bum). As some African-Americans dubiously claim “Native American” origins, she claims to be part Aussie Aborigine (so exotic! Darling, do be careful not to try too hard).

Unsurprisingly, Azalea seems near-universally disliked by American rap musicians from Snoop Dogg, Rah Digga, Eminem, Nicki Minaj and Q-Tip to newer faces like Azealia Banks and J.Cole (although J.Cole was “just making an observation about ‘capitalism'”, or so he says).

Why do so many rappers hold such particular disdain for Iggy Azalea?

One reason seems to be the illusion of “authenticity” that most pop stars so desperately cultivate. The idea of being “real” generally refers to the inexhaustible rags-to-riches archetype:

– Most mainstream American (and English) rappers claim to be from somewhere in the council estates or “the ghetto”.

– Iggy Azalea claims to have been a poor girl in Australia for whom high school “made her sad”, so she dropped out.

– Most rappers have stories of fighting their way up through fierce neighborhood competition, where music was an alternative to the gangster lifestyle. Their stories rise from a history of struggle that extends back far before January 1, 1863.

– Azalea was made fun at school and decided to chase her solo dream as a rapper when her two bandmates didn’t take it “serious” enough.

Can you detect a difference in the two types of backstory on offer here?

Now you also know the target audiences for the two types of artist.

A Feud Between… Whom?

Now we have the “feuds” between the Australian Azalea and almost everyone in the land where hip-hop began.

Skipping to the interesting part, we see her response to Azealia Banks (why must their names be so improbably similar?!).

Iggy Azalea tweets to Azealia Banks: “The reason you haven’t (succeeded) is because of your piss poor attitude… your inability to be responsible for your own mistakes […] the inability to be humble or have self control. You created your own unfortunate situation […] and don’t have the mental capacity to realize yet. Probably never will.”

(Decoded: you’re lazy, entitled and irresponsible; you’re self-destructively impulsive and unable to control yourself; your situation is completely your fault; you’re too inherently stupid to realize that I’m obviously right, mainly because I say I am.)

She then played the ultimate Ignorant Self-Righteous Dummy card by trying to predict Banks’ response and discount it pre-emptively: “Now! rant, Make it racial! make it political! Make it whatever but I guarantee it won’t make you likable & THATS why ur crying on the radio.”

Notice the tinge of “I’m more popular, therefore I’m right” in the Australian’s words.

“Enjoy continuing to bang your head against that metaphoric brick wall & Savor this attention. I’m the only way you get ANY.” The poor little girl who everybody used to make fun of? No longer. Iggy Azalea is now the Winner who takes all and gets to talk trash. She’s the bully who wins by assuming the victim’s identity, ending with this tweet:

“You’re poisonous and I feel genuinely sorry for you because it’s obvious at this point you are a MISERABLE, angry human being. Regards!”

What’s most fascinating here is how obviously oblivious the Australian is to a simple fact — one that’s all too clear to many who read her words. The fact is that her “defense” against Banks is almost exactly the same as the trusty talking points of those who believe that modern corporate capitalism is somehow a “meritocracy” where the “best” win and the other 99% should shuffle off and die. In her retread of the “authenticity” myth, Azalea keeps such staunch faith in her mind-blowing artistry that her success could only be due to pure hard work and skill. Luck and marketability (and a certain physical kinship with Jennifer Lopez) had nothing to do with it.

Her cynically superficial “positive thinking” ignorance has darker undertones as well.

Gleeful Ignorance Patronized By First-Hand Experience

Now we have context for the series of Tweets by rapper Q-Tip, which have been archived in the previous post (click here). What was Azalea’s response? Dismissal, of course. A living legend offers his store of first-hand knowledge, and the best response is to whine about how “patronizing” it feels? Something is definitely not right.

And the story comes full circle as Iggy Azalea claims that her ex-boyfriend (you’ll undoubtedly be surprised that he’s a Much Older, Scary-Looking Black Guy) is ‘violent’ and ‘aggressive’. The Poor Victim is so afraid of him that she avoids the entire state of Texas where he lives.

Have we heard this type of story before? In this entry perhaps? About a certain great musician whose musical lineage is the basis for Iggy Azalea’s artistic sustenance and success?

Misappropriation All Over Again

Yes. You’re so right: the misappropriation of Jimi Hendrix’s life story for a “biographical” film. It may not have been intended as a documentary, but the film ended up as an unintentional farce that insultingly caricatured the man. Now Iggy Azalea barely stops short of claiming that her Scary Black Ex-Boyfriend raped her (that may have seemed to be a bit much after the recent Eminem controversy, and it may have confused her fans since Eminem is white).

The “violent black man” stereotype has been evoked several times in the media during 2014 alone, most strikingly in justification for police murdering teenagers and young men in the United States. We saw the stereotype in a film about Jimi Hendrix, who may have been one of the most peaceful (if troubled) rockstars in the history of music. And now, perhaps unintentionally, Iggy Azalea again panders the narrative of stereotypes to her mostly-unsuspecting fans.

The problem isn’t that she’s Australian, or that she’s a marketably curvaceous rapper (who somehow doesn’t write her own lyrics?), or even that she’s a woman.

There is a reason why the history of popular music matters enough to learn more about it. Along the way, you may fall in love with “new” old artists, be touched by influences that open and re-shape your sound, and gain dimensions of cultural awareness (dare I say “sensitivity”?) that can only elude those who are trapped in the disposable consumerism of the eternal present.

Seek Out Real Artists: You’ll Know It When You Hear (Or See) It

If you want to learn more about the real story of a real artist, you might be delighted to begin with this program rather than more of the usual MTV/TMZ Hollywood-style melodrama:

Jimi Hendrix, The Uncut Story

Thankfully, there will always be artists who learn from the past while creating the future. I hope that this applies to you, too, regardless of your chosen expressive modality.

I first stumbled upon this story by reading Iggy Azalea’s inspid response to rapper Q-Tip’s attempt to teach her about the history of rap music (Azalea is a rapper from Australia who quite clearly isn’t terribly knowledgeable about the roots of her artform).

But what did Q-Tip actually say in his series of educational Tweets to Azalea?

I decided to reproduce it here, and will soon post an entry that shows why such questions matter — far more than Iggy Azalea recognizes (at least, not publicly).

Quoted verbatim:

HipHop is a creative artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 1970’s.

Coming off the heels of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT and approaching the end of the Vietnam war it was a crossroads 4 America

specially for blacks in the US our neighborhoods were PROLIFERATED w/a rush of HEROINE

our school systems here in NY dungeon traps with light for learning

blk men some of whom didn’t return from tours of duty n the ones who did came w/war baggage (agent orange, addiction, ect..)

these men had families but due to these events and throw into the mix the public emasculation…

they proved to be handicapped parents. The surrogate parents? The STREETS

the streets of gangs, crimes, and the hustlers coddled us and swept us up

but! Being a spirited, rhythmic & expressive people music art dance outlined our existence

it proved a way for us to exhault to scream to dance to laugh and find OUR VOICE

we weren’t at the time skilled musicians as kids. We had records, turntables, ideas and INGENUITY

being natural chemist we took from whatever was availed to us and we created something mighty and special

we cut breakbeats back n forth we took a hybrid of Jamaican toasting along w/ radio jock rap( hank Spann, Gary Byrd, ect. ) and

we put our rap down..

it was a neighborhood thing really. Black and Latino Kids were carving out their space and it became infectious

eventually Keith Cowboy coined the phrase hiphop . Yrs later the first rap record was recorded and now we r moving

but during these strides this country still had the monster of racism and racial insensitivity breathing and ruling

believe it or not young black n Latino lives specifically weren’t acknowledged in mainstream American culture unless Ofcourse..

the convo was abt gangs , being criminals or uneducated. And hey! Like I stated early our families were rushed our schools

sucked and we were left to put devices to survive

but HIPHOP showed that we had DEPTH, fire, and BRILLANCE

the music was undeniable! It moved from NY N became national and even GLOBAL

hiphop now was FOR EVERYBODY!! All of those who cld relate to the roots, the spirit, the history, the energy.. It reached YOU

it touched your spirit n took u up. We magnetized you! That’s what BRILLANCE does

now u are fulfilling your dreams … BUT!

you have to take into account the HISTORY as you move underneath the banner of hiphop. As I said before

hiphop is fun it’s vile it’s dance it’s traditional it’s light hearted but 1 thing it can never detach itself from

is being a SOCIO-Political movement. U may ask why … Well

once you are born black your existence I believe is joined with socio-political epitaph and philos

based on the tangled and treacherous history SLAVERY alone this is the case

it never leaves our conversation… Ever. WeAther in our universities our dinner tables our studios or jail cells

the effects still resononates with us. It hurts… We get emotional and angry and melancholy

did u know president Clinton was the ONLY PRESIDENT to apologize for it?

did u know that remnants of slavery exist today thru white privilege? When certain “niceties” r extended your way because of

how u look? Isn’t that crazy? I say this 2 say u are a hiphop artist who has the right 2 express herself however she wishes

this is not a chastisement this is not admonishment at ALL this is just one artist reaching to another hoping to spark insight

into the field you r in. I say this in the spirit of a hopeful healthy dialogue that maybe one day we can continue

I’ve been on twitter a long time and this will probably be my last series of tweets pretty much but

I’m Kool with it as long as I got to share this w u. Zzzzzzz’s up! Peace!