Authenticity, Fiction, Truth, Lies, and Jenny Lewis
I’ve been a little obsessed with Jenny Lewis lately.
I should back up a bit. A while ago I was out for one of my morning runs, listening to one of the one of the “workout” stations on Spotify. Most of the songs that came on were fairly terrible, but the rhythms were all propulsive enough to keep me chugging along. Some awful pop nonsense faded out, leaving nothing but the sound of my footfalls and labored breathing for a moment. Then a few chiming guitar notes rang out of the silence, a quick tempo drum beat kicked in, and there was Jenny Lewis singing about how she’s bad news.
I don’t know if it’s a great song. But there’s something about the way she sings it that makes me believe. “C’mere!” she shouts to her lover, her voice forceful but wild, maybe desperate. The guitar growls in answer and the drums stutter in syncopation like someone tripping over their own feet. I’m drawn in, and I can’t help but wonder: did you do this? Did this happen?
A few months after that morning run, a Facebook friend recommended her solo album, The Voyager. “I can’t stop listening to it,” my friend said. I promptly added the album to my “To Investigate” playlist and forgot about it until last month, and now I can’t stop listening to it either. Throughout the ten songs, Lewis seems to be struggling with regret and disillusionment, the pain of seeing what your life is as you head into middle age, and how it’s different from what you might have thought.
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself, all I can see:
I’m just another lady without a baby.
I used to think you could save me,
I’ve been wandering lately
Heard she’s having your baby,
And everything’s so amazing
How could I resist her,
I had longed for a big sister
And I wanted to kiss her,
But I hadn’t done that
And, again, I want to know: When you wrote this, were you remembering or imagining? Are you singing in your voice, or someone else’s?
But why? Why do I care? Do the emotions mean more if they are drawn from her own life? And, if so, how does that work?
Almost all of my own work—and certainly the work that has resonated the most with viewers—is about myself. I try to reach for something other people can relate to, but I do this by showing things that are particular to me. And, thinking over my favorite work from other photographers, much of it is drawn from highly personal experiences. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Andi Schreiber’s Pretty, Please. Duane Michals’s The House I Once Called Home. Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota.
And yet, as much as I seem to value “honesty” and “authenticity” in music and photography, the same isn’t true for, say, books or movies. Of course there are autobiographical examples of each that I love, but I don’t love them more than my favorite works of fiction. Michael Ende never literally visited Fantastica, and yet that doesn’t diminish my feeling of wonder when I read The Neverending Story. Rick Blaine never had a club in Morocco, but the end of Casablanca still puts a lump in my throat. In fact, one of the things I have always said I most admire about novelists is their ability to bring things into being that never existed before, through the sheer force of their imaginations. If they can get me to feel something, that’s real, whether or not the events of their stories actually happened.
Why doesn’t this hold for songs or pictures, then? Mind you, there are fictions in lyrics and images that I enjoy, but the ones that stick with me the most, that I keep coming back to over and over, all of them come from life. Photographs need not be straight or documentary, and lyrics need not be literal, but the driving impulses behind my favorites of each are nearly always emotions and experiences that the artist really lived.
Is it a question of immediacy? A movie is populated with people you know are actors, and words on a page need you to interpret them, to picture them in your head. But when a singer says “I,” it’s hard to hear a persona in that, at least the first few times you hear it. And when you look at a photograph, it’s hard to get past the notion that what’s in the image was really in front of the camera, that the photographer was really there in the room. In either case, there’s room for fiction and lies, and interesting work can and has been made that plays on the audience’s ingenuousness, their expectation of honesty. But then the experience becomes intellectual instead of visceral. There’s value in that, too, but it’s never what I return to more than once or twice.
So then, where does that leave me with Jenny Lewis and her songs? I don’t know if she made them up or not. If I were to find out one way or another, would I care about them more or less? I’m not sure. Authenticity and honesty in art certainly don’t require literal truth. I’m reminded of a bit of advice that photographer James Luckett gave his students about writing an artist statement:
You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal.
If what you’ve felt is real and you’ve put that into your work, then the work is honest, whether or not it depicts actual events. I like that idea, and I certainly can’t argue against it as advice for an artist. As part of the audience, though, I still haven’t made up my mind. But I suppose if the beat is propulsive enough, I’ll keep running.
My Latest at Life As A Human: The Popculturist Falls to Pieces
"The Popculturist Falls to Pieces":
Ever since my son was born, I’ve been increasingly drawn to the cultural elements of my own childhood. I find myself renting old Disney movies or picking up books I haven’t read in decades. I’m sure that same impulse, whatever it is, is what’s driving my latest obsession: Patsy Cline.
My Latest at Life As A Human: The Popculturist's Top Ten Christmas Tunes
"The Popculturist's Top Ten Christmas Tunes":
The beginning of the Christmas season is an eventful time in the Popculturist household. We decorate our Christmas tree. I drag the ladder out from the garage to hang the lights up on the eaves. And, of course, the radio dial moves over to the local soft rock station for the 24-hour holiday music. Whereupon I start grumbling and Mrs. Popculturist starts commenting on my Grinchiness.
My Latest at Life As A Human: The Popculturist Looks Back at Jackson Browne's The Pretender
"The Popculturist Looks Back at Jackson Browne's The Pretender":
When I was a young child, my mom had to work several jobs in order to make ends meet, and what with affordable childcare being hard to find, a lot of my memories from that time are of the back seat of her car as she drove from one workplace to the next. What I especially remember is the music. My mom always had a kind of weirdly eclectic taste in music — riding around with her back then you be just as likely to hear Ángel Parra as Lionel Richie. But one staple album that she listened to over and over, and which I’ve repeatedly returned to as I’ve grown older, is Jackson Browne’s The Pretender.
This morning on my way to work, I listened to Friday's episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, in which the hosts talked about some of their personal pop-culture firsts. I recommend this podcast, by the way, for anyone who likes light-hearted discussion of pop culture and entertainment, especially if you're looking for a podcast with clean language.
In any case, the episode was a lot of fun, and I was inspired to do a short series of posts sharing my own firsts, using the same list they used on the show. Over the next few days I'll cover my first grown-up book, my first favorite movie, my first collection, and my first celebrity crush, but today I'll be kicking things off with my first album.
Now, the first thing that occurred to me when I decided to do this series was that I'm going to have a really hard time remembering the actual firsts for any of them. Music, for example, has always been a big part of my life, but it's difficult for me to find the exact point when my collection branched off from my mom's. I have vivid memories of my brother and I singing along in the back of my mom's car to Jackson Browne, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Cliff, and Eddy Grant when we were very young. Later, the B-52's and Paula Abdul made an appearance, but all of those tapes were my mom's, not mine.
Of course, my current music tastes and album collection largely started in the early 90's and then, as now it was a real hodgepodge. I think my initial set of CDs consisted of They Might Be Giants' Flood, and Metallica's Ride the Lightning, and two greatest hits collections: Glen Miller and Henry Mancini. But even at that point I already had a bunch of tapes lying around--I know I had two other Metallica tapes (Master of Puppets and Kill 'Em All) and Green Day's Dookie.
My first LP I remember pretty clearly: a copy of M.C. Hammer's 2 Legit 2 Quit that I picked up from a secondhand store when my stepdad took me on a trip up to San Francisco. But that would have been middle school, and I'm nearly positive I had a few tapes of my own in elementary school.
I'd like to be able to say that my first album was Weird Al's Even Worse. Certainly that tape was in heavy rotation when I got my first Walkman. Unfortunately, if I'm being honest with myself, I have to admit that that tape almost certainly belonged to my brother. No, my real first album is way, way more embarrassing.
I've been contorting my brain to try to recollect any other tape that might have come first, to no avail. I have to admit it: my first album, the one I picked to be the very first I owned myself, was almost certainly Michael Bolton's Time, Love & Tenderness. I remember listening to it on my headphones in the back seat of my grandpa's truck as we headed out on family vacations, and being mystified at my mom's insistence that Bolton's version of "When a Man Loves a Woman" wasn't as soulful as Percy Sledge's rendition.
I'm pretty sure that in the building of my first music library, Time, Love & Tenderness was followed relatively quickly by M.C. Hammer's Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse.
OK, now here's my challenge to you: I've opened up and shown you the embarrassing depths of my ten-year-old music tastes. I bet none of you can do worse, and I dare you to prove me wrong.
The Heart of Rock and Roll Is Still Beating
I'm just going to come right out and say it: I freakin' love the album Sports. That's right, I'm talking about Huey Lewis and the News. I love it. I always have.
I can't honestly remember when I first heard it. The album came out in 1983, at which point I was four years old. My dad had it on vinyl, though at that point tapes still hadn't surpassed LPs as the dominant portion of the music market so having an album on vinyl wasn't unusual. I don't remember when he bought it, but my memories of that record are intimately tied to the house he lived in until I was in college, and I think he moved into that house when I was six or eight.
My dad had a rack stereo in his front living room, right in front of the big window that looked out onto the street (which nearly always had the shade down) and next to the pool table that took up nearly the entire room. My brother and I would put the record onto the turntable and then proceed to rock out for the entire 40 or so minutes of the album. The pool cues became our guitars and we would jump around the room, filled with the bar-room rhythms of the songs. My personal favorite part was the harmonica solo during "The Heart of Rock & Roll," during which I would cup my hands in front of my face and pretend to play along. Later, when I taught myself to play harmonica for real in high school, I told people that it was because of the influence of my American history teacher and my blossoming love of the blues, but truthfully the seeds were laid much earlier by Mr. Lewis and his compatriots.
I imagine that people who know me may be surprised by my affection for this album, since many of them have accused me of being a music snob. Funny enough, though, I'm pretty sure that both my dad's record and his stereo are now in the hands of my younger brother, who's an even bigger snob than I am when it comes to music. (I might even go so far as to say that he's the reason I became a music snob; much of what I now know and appreciate about contemporary music I learned from him.) And neither of us is even remotely apologetic about how much pleasure we get from the sound of that heartbeat drumline that kicks off this album.
And our love for cheesy 70s and 80s pop doesn't stop there. Some day, if you're lucky and happen to catch us together and in the right state of mind, you might be treated to a rousing rendition of The Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes." But that's a whole 'nother story.
Nobody Leaves This Place Without Singing the Blues
This afternoon, I found myself listening to last weekend's episode of Sound Opinions. The episode was all about the history of the famous Chicago blues record label, Chess Records--the label which made blues men like Muddy Waters and Little Walter into the legends that they became. (And which was, in turn, made into the legendary studio it became by guys like Muddy and Little Walter.) It was a real trip down memory lane for me, because I listened to a lot of blues in high school.
A lot of my musical taste back then was deliberately anti-mainstream, so something offbeat and historic like blues was right up my alley. The first blues album I owned was The Blues Brothers' Briefcase Full of Blues--not the most authentic of beginnings, to be sure, but it hit the right notes for me. And, actually, thinking back on it, not only is Dan Aykroyd a surprisingly good blues harmonica player, but their backing band had the likes of Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn, two key figures in the lineup of Booker T. and the M.G.'s.
It didn't take long after that first album for my blues library to expand. My listening habits and my interest in learning to play blues harmonic caught the attention of my 10th-grade history teacher and my stepdad, both big blues buffs. Within a few months I had added B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Big Joe Turner, and the Butterfield Blues Band to my collection. I learned about the differences between the different regions and periods in blues history, enjoying both the electric Chicago style and the earthier sound of Delta blues. I even started sitting in on some jam sessions with that teacher and some other students, me on the harmonica, others on guitar, bass, or piano. It was great fun.
You'd think that, given how dominant the blues were in my musical life at the time, I'd still be listening now, but somewhere along the way I fell out of the habit. I started listening to more esoteric forms of rock, electronic music, jazz, classical--I guess blues just fell by the wayside.
Listening to that podcast today, I realized that I miss those old albums of mine. It's such a vibrant, expressive genre of music, with so much life in it. It's exactly the kind of thing that I'm always complaining about being absent from so much contemporary music--a lot of which is either materialistic and shallow or lost in ironic distance. With the blues, you can't help but feel the energy and passion behind the simple chord progressions and raw vocals.
I've lost most of the blues CDs I used to listen to and I no longer have a tapedeck or record player, so if I'm going to pick up the blues again, I'll have to make almost an entirely new start. That means a not-insignificant expense of both time and money, but I think it'd be worth it.
Time Enough for Rock Band 3?
I have three guitars. There's the crappy classical that I picked up for $21 at a dorm auction when I was a freshman in college. Then there's my Danelectro U2. And last year my family gave me a Washburn steel-stringed acoustic for my 30th birthday. That's kind of a lot of guitars for someone with my level of skill at playing the guitar. Which is to say, not much.
It's not that I'm uninterested in playing guitar. On the contrary, I would love to be able to play. Actually, I'd love to be able to play just about any instrument. The problem is time--I just don't have enough of it. This is always my problem: I have way more interests than time to pursue them. Heck, even if I didn't have a wife, child, dog, and full-time job, I still wouldn't have time for all the the writing, learning, music playing, listening, games, movies, TV, books, photography and all the other nonsense that intrigues me.
Which brings me to the subject of Rock Band 3.
One of the things about music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero that always seemed a little odd to me is how disdainful some musicians and music critics were of them. You'd see stories in the gaming (and music) press with people saying things like "It's nothing like playing a real instrument." But that really misses the point, since what matters is whether or not the games are fun--and they are. Moreover, I think it's obvious that some people who might never have picked up an instrument are now taking lessons and rocking out for real because of games like these. Aside from which, any opportunity to appreciate music seems good to me, whether or not you're able to play it.
Interestingly, the folks at Harmonix seem to have taken that criticism to heart, because one of the big changes coming in Rock Band 3--along with the addition of keyboards and harmonizing vocals--is the new "Pro" mode. Unlike previous games, which reduce the song-playing to following a simplified rhythm, Pro mode is designed to much more accurately emulate the real activity of playing the drums, bass, guitar, or keyboard. By the time you work your way up to the Expert level playing as a Pro, you will be expected to play every single note, just as you hear in the real song.
In order to enable the new mode, they're adding more new controllers. If you already own Rock Band, then you're familiar with the amount of space that the drum kit and guitars take up. To play as a Pro, you'll now be adding a two-octave mini keyboard; three add-on cymbals to the drum kit; and a six-string, 102-button guitar. That's right, 102 buttons--the new guitar controller has one button for each of 17 frets along six strings down the neck. And if that isn't real enough for you, Fender is actually making a real guitar that can be used with either the game or a normal amp. There's also a converter box that can be used to connect MIDI keyboards and drum pads.
What's appealing to me is the idea that I might actually be able to kill two birds with one stone. I often find myself bemoaning the sad state of disuse that my game consoles have fallen into--almost as often as I think to myself "I should really sign up for some guitar lessons." The idea that I could conceivably become a better guitarist (or keyboardist or drummer) by playing a video game is wildly exciting to me.
There are certain impediments to this dream, though. To begin with, there's the price tag: even though I already have the original guitar, drum kit, and microphone, the full set of new game plus add-on peripherals will run $320. That's not exactly chump change in the Sakasegawa household.
Then there's the issue of space and hassle--setting up the first game already involved moving furniture and a mess of cables. This one will only be worse.
And over everything else, there's still the question of time. Mastering an instrument takes daily practice, and between work, writing, photography, and wanting to spend time with my family, the only thing left to give up is sleep. I'm probably giving up too much of that already.
The solution, I guess, is finding a way to combine even further. Maybe some day when Jason is older, we'll be able to pick up this game (or its successor) and play together. Hopefully there will be enough time in the gap between him being too young to handle the controls and being too old to want to play with his dad. (To say nothing of actually being in a band with your parents. The memory of my teenaged self shudders at the thought of such staggering lameness.)
Maybe it's all just a dream, but as dreams go it's pretty nice.
Children's Music That Doesn't Suck
Since I last wrote about music a few weeks ago, Juliette and I have been exploring the world of children's music and what we've found--or, at least, what I've found--is that there is a whole lot of really bad kid's music out there. For example, about three-quarters of what Time Warner plays on their kid's music cable channel is awful. I feel like there is this horde of would-be musicians out there who couldn't hack it with adult audiences and figured that kids can't tell the difference between good music and half-assed music. Like some guy is out there thinking, "Well, I'm not a very good singer and I can't play any instruments and I don't really know how to write a song, but if I just throw together some dumb lyrics and put some synthesized harp and bells behind it, kids should like that, right?"
As is probably unsurprising, I have, at times, become somewhat enraged by this sort of sloppiness.
Really, I don't know what people are thinking when they make crappy music, and maybe it's overly cynical for me to be seeing dollar signs in their eyes. Maybe they really are producing this stuff out of a genuine love of music and children. It's still not something I want to listen to, though.
But! I am delighted to report that the genre of children's music is not a wasteland. There is actually a fair amount that's tolerable, and here and there you will find some real gems. Music that's obviously been made with love and passion, by people who understand that "simple" is not the same as "stupid." Here are a few that we've come to know.
First off, I should probably eat a little bit of crow regarding Raffi. I'm not really sure what informed my previous opinion, but Juliette's purchase of two of his albums has led me to discover that there's more to his music than just silliness. Songs like "Like Me and You" have a nice message of tolerance, and I love the imagery in "Morningtown Ride." Of course, that one is a cover, but the simplicity of his arrangement and vocal style complements the lyrics really well. He even managed to make me smile at a pun--no mean feat--in "Joshua Giraffe."
Another singer I've come to really enjoy is Elizabeth Mitchell. (Same name as the actress on Lost, but not the same person.) One of Juliette's cousins sent us her album You Are My Little Bird when Jason was born, which for some reason I didn't really listen to at the time. But Juliette and I turned out to like it so much that we went out and got another of her albums, You Are My Sunshine. Mitchell tends to favor simple, sparse arrangements with one or two singers and a single guitar, which works great with the purity of her voice. Her music is very folk-influenced and a number of the songs on both albums are traditional, but she has a very distinctive style that makes the music very much her own.
Finally, there's Dan Zanes and Friends, whose album Catch That Train has been in high rotation for us in the past few weeks.. I think that this album may have come to us from the same cousin that sent us the Elizabeth Mitchell album, in which case I have to compliment her taste. I remember the first time we put the CD in Juliette's car stereo, I turned to her in the middle of the title track and said, "You know, I would listen to this song for myself. This is a good song." If I hadn't already known that it was a children's album, I very well might not have been able to tell, and I love that. It's music for children rather than children's music--real, organic music that hasn't had the soul squeezed out of it by making it too squeaky clean. Zanes, like a lot of children's singers, leans strongly toward folk, but he also brings roots rock and blues into the mix, and even a little reggae here and there.
So that's where we are with kid's music right now. If you happen to have any recommendations, feel free to let me know. In the mean time, I'll keep digging for those hidden gems.
Raffi or No Raffi, That Is the Question
The other day, a friend of mine commented on Facebook that he hoped his baby daughter liked Raffi's music enough to compensate for his own feelings about it. It's something I could have said myself--in fact, I very well may have.
Music has always been an important part of my life. Indeed, when I think back over my life, so much of it is connected to the music I was listening to at the time. I can barely think of my childhood without thinking about how my brother and I used to rock out in the back seat of our mom's car as she played the New Wave mix tape her friend had given her. Middle school makes me think of the Glen Miller my 6th-grade science teacher played when he was teaching me how to ballroom dance. High school, it's listening to U2's Joshua Tree on the bus ride back from the Desert Trip. I bonded with my grandfather through big band music before he died, indie rock was a big part of what brought my brother and I together after I moved out, and jazz was something I connected with my stepdad over. And, of course, Juliette and I met when we were in a musical together.
I've always wanted my children to be exposed to lots of kinds of music, and especially good music. It's something that Juliette and I have argued about from time to time, what's appropriate for children of different ages to listen to. I do believe that some music isn't right for kids, and that it's the parent's job to figure out what's OK and what's not. But there's so much good music out there that I feel it's stifling to limit your kids to classical and children's music. When I was five years old, I was listening to children's music and bubblegum pop, true, but I was also hearing rock, reggae, New Wave, and even Chilean folk music, and I think I'm the better for it.
I used to think that with so much to choose from, you'd be doing your kid a disservice to play them sugary kid's music. Having had firsthand experience with my own child now, though, I've had to rethink things a bit. Oh, I do still play a variety of music for Jason, but the reality is that he likes children's music. It's simple for a good reason: that's what one-year-olds can follow. Mind you, I still think that a lot of children's music is done by hacks who couldn't cut it singing for adults--and, for some reason, that stuff seems to account for about three-quarters of what's on the cable kid's music channel--but there's good stuff, too. Moreover, the simple tunes that Jason can follow not only get more smiles out of him and hold his attention better, but they really seem to be doing a lot to help his mental development along.
The music snob in me used to fret now and again that my kids might end up not having good taste in music. I'd hear what was playing on the Top 40 radio stations and groan in anticipation of having to listen to the 2020 equivalent of Daughtry or post-Fergie Black-Eyed Peas. And every time, Juliette would tell me to just relax and that I had to let them listen to what they wanted to, that shoving my music down their throats would just end up making them resentful. They'd figure it out on their own, and if they didn't, it wouldn't be the end of the world. And, the thing is, she's right. Because, if I'm being honest, I have to admit that when I was ten, I thought Michael Bolton's Soul Provider was pretty awesome. Looking back, I can remember the pained look my mom would get when I'd ask to pop that tape into her car stereo, but she let me and I seem to have come out OK, so I guess when the time comes, I'll be able to do the same.
(By the way, Mom, I never said thanks for that. So, thanks.)