Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011: A Musical Review

Within the first few weeks of 2011 it was abundantly clear that this was already a year of world-historic proportions, right up there with 1968 or 1848. The entire Arab world was in revolt, and here at the end of 2011, it still is. And the Arab Awakening has just been part of the global excitement.

I'm a bit slow when it comes to new technologies, so the beginning of 2011 also marked the first time I learned to record a video on my iPhone and hit the "upload to YouTube" button. For the first time (for me) I had started to do with my songwriting what I was already doing on occasion with my essay-writing -- commenting in real time on world events for a global audience on the internet. Musical blogging -- nothing like a studio recording with a band that most indy songwriters can't afford to do more than once a year or so, but it's in real time, and the quality of the iPhone recording is at least bearable.

Casey Neill commented that these home-made videos I was sending out of my latest compositions was a "modern broadside," which it is. Decades ago an essay or a new topical song might be printed, with sheet music, and circulated by hand. Now it's a bit different, a video on the internet, but it maintains the same qualities as the old broadsides and chapbooks -- it's cheap and simple, no frills, but it works. I've taken to calling them my "iPhone broadsides."

It's the immediacy of the broadside that is most appealing, I've noticed. It's the lower-quality iPhone recordings that get the most views. Radio programmers may have a bit more of an ear for sound quality, and may opt to play the high-quality studio version when it eventually exists, but for the average listener it's clearly the immediacy that counts the most -- this is made unforgivingly clear in the view statistics below each video. (As are other humbling bits of information, such as the fact that 68% of the people who view my videos are male.)

So there may be nothing too immediate about this musical essay, but this is the time of year we do such things, so for those of you who are interested, here is my year in review, in the form of selected songs I wrote about different events that have transpired over the past twelve months.

As the year began, the reverberations of the hundreds of thousands of documents Bradley Manning is alleged to have sent to Wikileaks were being felt throughout the world. Most exposes in the media worldwide in 2011 have been directly connected to these documents. For his heroism, Manning has spent all of 2011 and much of 2010 in deplorable conditions in an American prison.

The original iPhone broadside got a lot more views, but here is the music video using the studio version of the song which was finished last summer:

On January 15th, 2011, Tunisia's corrupt despot of many decades, Ben Ali, fled the country. Here's the music video for the song I wrote soon after this event:

With February came the uprising in Wisconsin against the governor's ongoing union-busting efforts. For weeks, large numbers of people occupied the state capitol building, with crowds often numbering in the tens of thousands (especially impressive given the bitterly cold weather, complete with copious amounts of wind and snow). The tactic of taking and holding a central space 24/7 was widely seen at the time as being directly inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. Here's one of the "musical buttons" I made for the occasion, using a solo acoustic studio version of the song I recorded many months after the original iPhone broadside. Just click "play":

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On March 11th, the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan killed tens of thousands of people, and destroyed the lives of many more. Some towns were completely demolished. One such town was called Minami Sanriku. I read an article about an orphaned boy there and wrote a song. This is the original iPhone broadside I sent out, recorded in someone's guest room in southern Germany. (A studio recording of it can also be found on my website.)

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster I was thinking about the other technologically advanced, rich countries that did not go the route of building lots of nuclear reactors. One such country is Denmark, which is where I was as the Fukushima disaster was unfolding last spring, where the original industrial-scale windmill was built in the mid-1970's. I wrote this song. Here's the button version:

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At the end of March people in Pennsylvania discovered that as a result of widespread hydraulic fracturing practices, the entire state's drinking water had become radioactive. I wrote this song:

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Among other things that were happening last April was another ridiculous budget debate in the US Congress, during which only a couple marginal leftwing members of the esteemed body even mentioned taking the sorts of measures that need to be taken, such as a massive increase in taxation on the top 1% and a massive gutting of the imperial military budget. So I wrote a musical response to the budget debate complete with a solid budget proposal:

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On May 1st Osama Bin Laden was executed by Navy Seals in Pakistan. Here's the original iPhone broadside I put out in response, two days later. (A better-quality recording can be found on my website.)

A few days later in May the world's largest urban commune, the Free State Christiania, reached an agreement with the Danish government which would allow it to continue to exist, after many years of on and off persecution by the Danish state. Here's what iPhone broadside I put out when I heard these negotiations were taking place. I was in Copenhagen at the time.

On May 23rd Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to a jubilant US Congress, spouted lies and racist propaganda and got several dozen standing ovations for his efforts. I put out this musical response:

By June -- well over a year before the next Presidential elections in the US -- the race for president for the 2012 elections began. After his history of utter capitulation to Wall Street and the military industrial complex, Barack Obama began the campaign for his second term in the White House. Here's my musical response to this notion, as delivered at a gig for a small crowd in San Francisco:

One June 6th, Keith McHenry and three other folks were arrested in Eola Park in Orlando, Florida for serving food to the hungry. My response:

Also by June there were large-scale protests, strikes and riots in Greece. Bjorn-Magne Stuesdol took the occasion to make an animated video for my song about the most famous leftwing dog in Greece, Loukanikos:

On July 22 the worst thing ever to happen in Scandinavia since World War 2 occurred. Anders Brevik coldly executed an extensively-planned massacre that resulted in 77 people dead. He was inspired by many fanatics throughout history, from the Crusades to the present. He considered himself to be a member of a group called the Knights Templar, an organization which in its time was responsible for untold death and suffering for people in Europe and in various other parts of the world which had the misfortune to be invaded by the Crusaders.

Breivik's terrible deeds were committed in the context of 2011 Europe. While leftwing movements are taking power across Latin America and revolutions are sweeping the Arab world, in Europe all the major national leaders have in recent months vocally denounced multiculturalism. I ask you, how are people supposed to respond to this? When you live in what is obviously, clearly a multicultural society, and with the history of xenophobia Europe has in such abundance, how is that Cameron, Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi can say such things? How do they expect a historically racist, xenophobic population to react? This was my iPhone broadside at the time:

For several days during the beginning of August, cities across England were experiencing several days of sustained rioting. Many people were denouncing the rioters as mindless criminals. To others, such as myself, these riots were a perfectly predictable response to the rigid class society that is modern England, and to the widespread knowledge throughout British society that things are only going to get worse.

On August 11th, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney explained to the television audience at a debate, "corporations are people, too." The Supreme Court ruled this, as well. This was my musical response to Romney's statement:

On September 17th I went to Wall Street to protest the capitalist swine who got us into this mess. Within weeks this Occupy Wall Street movement grew exponentially. I spent much of the fall singing this song at Occupies throughout the US and Canada:

In October, long-time friends and comrades of my dear friend Marie Mason held a fundraiser for her expenses in prison, where she is serving an insanely draconian 22-year sentence.

My final iPhone broadside of 2011 was a reaction to being inundated by way too much Christmas music -- or the 25 songs repeated ad nauseum for two months of the year on half the radio stations that we today know as the Christmas music tradition.

If there's anybody out there who actually read all this and listened to all these songs in order of appearance I think you should be given an award of some kind. Let me know how you liked my musical review here. Maybe I'll do it again next year. May it be even more full of mass social upheaval than the last one!

For those of you who still haven't had enough, here's my favorite live video recorded of me singing in 2011. This is the last 36 minutes of my set at Occupy Portland the night before the camp was evicted:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Cultural One Percent

Note: This essay exists in audio form for free download as well.

Amy Goodman and many others have referred to the corporate media as an "echo chamber," which is a very accurate metaphor. Mostly privileged, overpaid white men who fall within a narrowly-constrained political spectrum pretend to have debates, while failing to even discuss most of the most pressing issues of the day. When they need something to back up an argument, they quote each other.

While those of us who know who pays the salaries of these talking heads can dismiss their nonsensical blather as what it is -- the things corporate stooges will say to stay on the payroll of Fox or CNN -- their influence on society at large cannot be dismissed so easily. Many well-meaning people believe and trust the opinions of these intellectual prostitutes, and then we inevitably have to listen to our friends, neighbors and relatives linking the crime rate to immigration, questioning the existence of climate change, or expressing unfounded fears about the Iranian nuclear program. In society, these conversations are all within norms established by the corporate media. Discussions about, say, a 99% reduction in military spending, multiplying education spending nationally by ten times or an absolutely massive increase in the tax rate of the rich -- moves that many progressive intellects would say are not only sensible but necessary national priorities -- are way outside the bounds of acceptable conversation.

There is also an echo chamber in the realm of culture. Of course there are forces that counter it to one degree or another -- such as, by nature, the internet, and to a certain extent community media and the inherent drive of humans to create new music and art. But when ignored -- when it's not consciously opposed -- the cultural echo chamber easily replicates itself within the internet, community media and society at large.

The Cultural Echo Chamber

In its simple form it goes like this. Community radio is sometimes really good, but it's usually staffed almost entirely by volunteers who often have a taste in music that is too eclectic for most listeners to handle. There used to be another alternative, before my time, which was the phenomenon of independently-owned, for-profit radio stations that, although in the business of selling advertising, had a lot of leeway to play a far wider variety of locally-flavored music than the powers-that-be today will allow. But that's in the past -- what remains today of the independent FM spectrum is a monolithic corporation called Clearchannel, and a tiny handful of massive record labels that provide them with 100% of their extremely limited content.

Listening to these radio stations, watching sitcoms on TV, or reading the major newspapers, you will rarely if ever come across a mention of recording artists who are not what they call "celebrities" -- people who have at some point had a chart-topping song, or at least a song in the charts. It would often seem that artists who have not sold at least a million records simply do not exist -- not only are they not played on the radio, they are not even part of the discourse.

A recent article in the New York Times is typical. James C. McKinley Jr. wrote an article that makes a point that has been made by many others in the big media in recent months, one that is patently ridiculous -- that the Occupy movement lacks a musical culture, that it lacks an "anthem." He mentions a couple major label artists who have written songs related to the movement, and then basically rests his case that the movement lacks cultural expression. What he is doing is typical, in that this sad excuse for a journalist is apparently unable to search the internet or to do any research that takes him beyond the Billboard charts. Because if it hasn't been in the charts, it doesn't exist, it's not worth mentioning, or maybe it's just too hard to find when you're a busy man working for such an important paper.

Now, once a musician manages to get into the echo chamber they might get bounced around a few times before getting ejected. I recently had this experience in a very small way, and there was nothing mysterious about it. The corporate media has been giving a lot of well-deserved attention to the Occupy movement in the past couple months. At a rally in Washington, DC in October that I sang at there was a lot of press. I've sung at a lot of far larger rallies where there was virtually no press present, but at this one there was a line of news vans two blocks' long running their generators all afternoon, and lots of big, fancy cameras pointed at the stage. My singing at the protest was featured on NPR, BBC, CBC and other networks around the world. As a direct result of these 15 seconds of fame I got a small flurry of calls from reporters from corporate, public and community media from around the world. Articles published in the Washington Post and on MTV's website then bounced around the internet for a few more weeks, resulting in more media interest. The echo chamber at work -- I was temporarily relevant as a musician by virtue of the fact that my existence had been acknowledged by someone who mattered. Only weeks after me, Emma's Revolution and Rebel Diaz were featured on the cover of the Style section of the Washington Post, James C. McKinley Jr. is once again asking in the pages of the New York Times, "where are the protest musicians?"

"Something Everybody Knows"

Like it or not, those of us who grew up in the US (and many other countries) have been pretty much swimming in corporate shit all our lives. The music of Michael Jackson, Toby Keith or Lady Gaga is as unavoidable as Santa Claus, car commercials or billboards advertising the latest Disney movie. Inevitably, though, we grow attached to the music we heard when we were teenagers, even if we were basically listening to it against our will. So while I was repulsed by the pop music that most of my schoolmates were listening to in high school in the early 1980's, now when I inadvertently have run-in with Madonna, Cyndi Lauper or Def Leppard, I am filled with warm feelings and positive associations -- warm summer days illegally swimming in the local reservoir, skipping school, my first kiss. That's how memory works.

Sometimes older people at my shows ask me why I don't write songs that are easy to sing along with. They tell me how fondly they remember singing songs together in the 60's, when everybody knew the words to "Fixin' to Die Rag," "The Times They Are A'Changin'," or "We Shall Overcome." The truth is, though, that perceptions aside, many of my songs are at least as easy to sing along with as any Bob Dylan song. The catch is, with any song you want to sing along with, you have to know it first. So whereas I might sing at a rally in Copenhagen and clearly hear hundreds of people singing along to one of my songs, I may sing at a rally in my home town of Portland, Oregon, and hear only a handful singing with me. Inevitably, someone from the crowd will ask if I can sing something everybody knows -- by which they mean, of course, something that sold millions of records and became part of popular culture as a result.

The desire for the familiar is perfectly understandable, human, and ain't going anywhere. But how music becomes familiar, what music becomes familiar, and how wide a variety of music becomes familiar, these are questions that will be determined by the cultural echo chamber -- as well as by whatever alternative efforts may or may not exist to disseminate culture, such as alternative media, unions and other progressive organizations. Within an organization that's somehow or other involved with disseminating culture, if a specific effort is not made to not take part in the cultural echo chamber, the echo chamber will often become the default.

The Example of Democracy Now!

Baltimore-based singer-songwriter Ryan Harvey wrote a response in Truthout to James C. McKinley Jr.'s New York Times article, in which he provided a good list of a couple dozen songwriters and bands from various musical genres who are working hard recording songs and making records about the times we're in, doing shows, tours, visiting and playing at Occupy encampments and other political and cultural venues around the country and the world. Here's some of what Ryan wrote:

"A quick glance at the shirts and patches of people at any of the Wall Street-inspired occupations around the country will surely turn up popular band logos that have inspired those participating in the protests, whether they are punk outfits like Rise Against, Propagandi, and Strike Anywhere, or hip-hop artists like Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, and Talib Kweli.

"If you asked any of these participants what music they are motivated or educated by, you will likely be exposed to a vibrant, hard-working underground of artists that have for years enjoyed much popularity within social movements in the US and around the world. This underground includes poets, MCs, folk-singers, DJs, electronic producers, Son Jarocho bands, drag troupes, choirs, punk and pop bands, and more.

"Artists like us at Riot-Folk and our musical allies like Rebel Diaz, Broadcast Live, Taina Asili, The Coup, Majesty, Son del Centro, David Rovics, Emma’s Revolution, Invincible, The Foundation, Born In A Cent, Son of Nun, Emcee Lynx, Las Krudas, Final Outlaw, The Wild, Climbing Poetry, Jim Page, The Readnex Poetry Squad, Blackfire, Intikana, Hot Mess, Mischief Brew, Olmeca, Head-Roc, Spiritchild, Defiance Ohio, Here’s To The Long Haul, From The Depths, and Riders Against the Storm -- just to name a few -- have all been influential forces in social circles that have participated in the recent occupations."

As I was reading Ryan's list of musicians I was thinking of how many other bands and other performers I could add to that, from the US and other countries. And I was thinking, wow, of all those artists Ryan listed I think I and maybe one other are the only ones to have ever been played during a music break on Democracy Now!, and the most recently-written song of mine that they've played was written in 2004. I've got a hundred other songs about current events since then, as do most of the folks he listed.

Now of course at this point one might legitimately say who cares what they play during their little music breaks? But I decided to do a little study of the music breaks during the show, evidence I'm sure of an unhealthy obsession on my part, and after a month of keeping track of all the music breaks I determined that a majority of the artists featured were major label artists, most of whom had at some point had a hit and sold a million records. To put this in perspective, fewer than 1% of CDs produced in a given year even sell a thousand records. So most working musicians are already within the 1% of CD-selling musicians. The ones among them who produce a chart-topping hit on a major label represent a tiny fraction of that 1%.

To be sure, many of the song selections were somehow thematically related to the story before or to the one coming up, and the music represented some of the best stuff ever in my opinion, as well as a rich ethnic and stylistic diversity. To be sure, some of the best artists ever are and have been on major labels, and they should certainly not be punished for their success (don't worry, they won't be). But it is nonetheless sobering to add up the songs and realize that, along with playing me and some other independent artists, the majority of the songs played were recorded by very famous people. I also noticed that many of the very famous artists were dead.

Now there's nothing wrong with dead artists -- their art is still great, if it was when they were alive. But while part of the reason to have an author of a new book on a show is to feature the subject matter of the book, the other objective is to help the author sell those books and get audiences along the way on their book tour. Music breaks on a show as popular as that can very effectively work that way for musicians, and I know from experience with national radio broadcasts in several countries, including DN. So it seems a shame if too many of the music breaks feature artists that are too famous to need the publicity, and often also too dead to have a tour or a new CD to promote.

Here's another quote from Ryan's response to the Times:

"McKinley does correctly mention artists like Tom Morello and Anti-Flag, who have been among a crew of dedicated, mostly mainstream artists that have also spent time within movements for social justice. That crew also includes people like Dead Prez, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Immortal Technique, Eddie Vedder, The Flobots, State Radio, and others."

Now this is a shorter list, but in it we have three recent live musical guests on DN -- Tom Morello, Billy Bragg and Steve Earle. To the short list of live musical guests DN has had in recent years you can add Buffy Sainte Marie and Pete Seeger. I love all these artists, but it is nonetheless the case that all of them have at some point in their careers had chart-topping hits and had record sales in the millions. (The only non-chart-topping musician to appear as a guest on the show in recent years as far as I recall is Boots Riley, and he was there with Tom Morello.)

This is just an example, and of course we're talking about a news show here, a fantastic one at that, and I don't want to blow this example out of proportion. When a producer or whoever is under pressure to quickly pick a music break and they want to find one on a certain theme, they are likely going to include songs that they are familiar with, ones that are easier to find. In order to break that pattern it has to be a priority thrown into the mix. Something like this is done by radio stations around the world who are required by law to have a certain percentage of local music content included in each broadcast, it can't all be familiar stuff from LA. When this kind of thing is not required (by law or by applying the principle voluntarily) the default can easily end up being mostly bigger-name artists.

The Fallacy of the Open Mike

The internet has been the best thing for independent musicians -- that is, the 99% of working musicians, who make a living touring and selling maybe a few thousand CDs in a year, doing shows for crowds in the dozens or maybe in the hundreds, more at festivals if they're lucky. For decades now we've had no hope of large-scale airplay on radio stations long ago corporatized and pre-programmed by computer across the country. The internet, along with community media and live concerts, is the way our music gets out there.

But those who pronounce the music industry dead or big media irrelevant do so very prematurely. True, the internet is an amazing way to reach your fans and find new ones. But if you take a quick look at some of the music that gets viewed the most on YouTube, it's generally artists that have benefitted from lots of commercial press attention over the years. You can comment all you want on Facebook pages and post all the music videos you want on YouTube, and that's great and maybe some of that stuff will go viral, for sure, but it's generally no replacement for what happens when you get consistent airplay on popular radio shows or featured in a popular newspaper. People still want editors -- probably now more than ever. Whether it's information or music, we are inundated, and we value those who are willing to analyze what's out there and give us some of the best bits.

Part of the Solution: Being Aware of the Problem

Within the realm of very famous artists there exists a wide spectrum of politics, and it is certainly possible to find eloquent voices representing various political perspectives in song and in prose, along with everything else. But if you're writing for a newspaper or choosing music for a radio show, whether a big national outfit or a little community station with a 10 watt signal, you are in a position to choose whether to recreate the cultural echo chamber or strike out beyond it. You choose whether to stick with the familiar or introduce yourself and your constituents to new things. You choose whether to explore only the first ten results on Google or look at the next ten as well.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

John Timoney's Journey from Miami to Manama

John Timoney, until recently chief of police of Miami and before that Philadelphia, formerly of New York City, where he also was a high-ranking cop, is heading to Bahrain to train the cops there, according to the Associated Press. If you happen to know anybody from Bahrain who might be thinking that hiring this New Yorker could be a step in the direction of less massacre-oriented policing policies, this might be a good time to relieve them of any such illusions.

John Timoney is a deceitful thug. Here's the background in a nutshell, for all who might be interested. In 1999 tens of thousands of peaceful protesters shut down the streets of Seattle and more or less shut down the big meeting of the World Trade Organization. Because they were peacefully blocking roads they were violently attacked by thousands of cops with massive amounts of tear gas and other weapons. In another part of town (Nike Town) a couple hundred people destroyed corporate property, were declared to be violent anarchists, and got massive amounts of media attention. The police chased them around but could never seem to catch them. Nobody got hurt in Nike Town other than the violent anarchists.

At every protest against corporate rule after that one, the corporate media went into high gear terrorizing everybody about how violent anarchists from Seattle were coming to destroy the city. Many people started believing this mythology, and it became a good enough pretext for future violent attacks on peaceful protesters after Seattle. It became a good enough pretext for cities like Philadelphia and Miami to hire police chiefs like John Timoney. They hired Timoney because of his reputation as a brutal man willing to get the job done, no matter how many heads had to be cracked open to do it.

In Philadelphia in 2000 the job was to keep the Republican National Convention flowing smoothly, with the protesters kept at bay. In 2003 the job was to keep the Free Trade Area of the Americas talks going along unimpeded. By all accounts the RNC protests in Philadelphia were especially notable because of widespread police brutality -- both in the streets and in the jails. In 2003 I was in Miami for the FTAA talks, and what I saw from the time I got there to the time I left was a city under martial law.

John Timoney was the man in charge, and he was telling the people of Miami and his police force that the violent anarchists from Seattle were coming to destroy the city. He took it further, showing his troops artfully-edited video footage that was supposedly of the Seattle protests, where it appeared there were injured or dead police on the ground at the protests (this never happened). These Miami police were scared, and for no reason. Timoney presumably knew they had no reason to be scared, but there was no doubt that many of these cops believed the media lies which Timoney had been exaggerating even more for their benefit.

Every downtown exit was shut down for days, and almost all the stores and restaurants were shuttered, shop owners made to fear riots that would never happen. Massives fences were erected everywhere, and thousands of police everywhere you looked were wearing the most sinister-looking riot gear, many of them weighted down with an array of "non-lethal" weapons of all kinds, along with the lethal ones there for backup.

In one arbitrary moment the protests were declared illegal and within moments thousands of mostly young people were being drenched with tear gas and attacked, many of them in their backs, with bean bag bullets, rubber-coated steel bullets, tazers, and clubs. As people ran into the poor, mostly Black neighborhood near where the conference was taking place, people were helpful, and were also informing them that certain people in their neighborhood had been told by Miami police that they should be encouraged to rob the protesters coming in from out of town -- any potential criminals were apparently given free reign to mug for the duration.

Make no mistake, unfortunate people of Bahrain -- this man is coming to make everything even worse. But he'll smile at the cameras glowingly, and tell them how his police are all acting with the utmost restraint and respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. It won't be true, though.

JT inspired me to verse twice. Here are the songs I wrote in his honor:

"Butcher for Hire"