In junior high school my uncle bought me a subscription to Rolling Stone for my birthday, and I read its bimonthly pages like they were the gospel of popular music. Rolling Stone was the end-all authority on music, the paper of record for music journalism: it didn’t seem to decide so much as know what was good. There’s a reason I felt this way at the time. Rolling Stone has lost most of its cultural significance, but it somehow remains a powerful brand. Even Pitchfork, which is much more influential among millennials, doesn’t hold the kind of brand-cache that Rolling Stone does.
In general, I try not to learn too much about new movies before I see them; I like to protect the unpredictability and promise one feels in the dark theater just before the movie begins. The only thing I knew about Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight coming in, besides that it had been widely acclaimed, was that it had a chopped and screwed version of Jidenna’s 2015 club hit “Classic Man” in it, which had been showcased in a trailer I hadn’t actually seen but had heard about. This song provided a barometer of the age and perspective of the people I saw the movie with. I saw Moonlight first with my parents, and tried to talk to them about why the inclusion of an altered version of the song was an interesting choice; they didn’t know the original song and didn’t have much interest in why a remix of it was in the movie. When I saw the film again a few weeks later with two high school friends, about three seconds into the scene in which the song comes blaring out of the car speakers, my friend leaned over and whispered, “Ayyy, chopped and screwed!”
The “chopped and screwed” style of remixing hip-hop originated in Houston in the ‘90s, although it’s found a second life in online file-sharing sites like DatPiff, where amateur DJs can upload their own mixes of hit songs and albums. The sound comes from two processes: “chopping” — cutting up sections of the song or vocals and making them repeat as if a DJ scratch – and “screwing,” slowing the tempo down so that the pitch of the instruments and vocals falls as well (the name for this comes from DJ Screw, who is credited with the creation of the style).
I hardly ever watch Saturday Night Live, or even single skits from it. From what I’ve seen, its sense of humor isn’t really my style: too broad and too topical without offering real criticism. Nonetheless, I watched the post-election episode, and thought that the show was exhibiting a new side. Kate McKinnon’s opening performance of “Hallelujah,” in character as Hillary Clinton, paid simultaneous tribute to the deaths of Leonard Cohen and Clinton’s presidential prospects (and the hopes of millions). This double-sided swan song was surprisingly powerful, especially when McKinnon ended by turning to the camera and saying sincerely, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
Following just after, Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue was a reminder of his talent, a rumination on Trump and America’s progress that was by turns cutting, glum and hopeful.
Last night I saw The Decline of Western Civilization at Cornell Cinema (everybody, go support your campus movie theater). Decline is a documentary directed by Penelope Spheeris (weirdly also the director of Wayne’s World) about the Los Angeles punk scene, and was filmed between 1979 and 1980, just as thrash-hungry scuzzballs were beginning to coalesce into a “scene” of sorts. I went to see the film because I’m taking a class about punk culture (ENGL 2906) this semester, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the music or punk’s almost unfathomable effect on American/western/global culture. For me, this class has largely meant returning to artists that were heroes and obsessions of mine in junior high, and finding that today I’m pretty much repulsed by a whole lot about them. Decline, which is fascinating in the way that watching a dog eat its own vomit is fascinating, really brought my new and possibly curmudgeonly distaste for punk and particularly for its audiences to a head.
In the summer of 2010, my dad and I took a road trip from my hometown of Petaluma, California to Bend, Oregon. I was fresh off of a harrowing 8th-grade breakup, and was at the peak of my addiction to the acquisition of music. I simply had to have a constant inflow of new music or I started to crave a fix. A few weeks before our trip, my parents had confiscated my 160GB iPod Classic after they caught me downloading music illegally, which explained the rash of viruses the family computer had been experiencing. Sans iPod on this trip (a living nightmare for me at this developmental stage), I sat in the shotgun seat of the car with a duffel bag under my legs stuffed to bursting with the family CD collection.
Sometimes, the story behind an album eats up the album itself. The legend is that 25-year-old Justin Vernon, graduate of the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire with a degree in religious studies, had hit a rough patch. Tortured by the unfulfilled yearning of his hungry, wild heart, he retreated to a cabin in Wisconsin to commune with the gods of young white male pain. Alone in the snow, he crafted out of the forge of his soul a collection of songs of such tender, fragile beauty that they didn’t even need discernible lyrics to make you cry. The resulting album, For Emma, Forever Ago, quickly helped define a growing scene of bearded, flannel-wearing, woodsy/folksy/strumming singer-songwriter hipsters, a movement that vaguely championed a return to nature and natural instruments.
Note: The reviewer arrived too late to see the opening act, What Nerve. The Chanticleer’s top floor is the perfect setting for shows that bridge the divide between performer and audience. The room has no stage and is too small for there to be much distance between the two, making it feel more like a space of shared experience than a performance with separate performers and viewers. Both Sammus and Show Me the Body made excellent use of the room’s potential; both, although in remarkably different ways, managed to make the audience feel like part of the act. Sammus, a rapper and Ithaca native who is also a graduate student at Cornell, is without a doubt one of the most exciting acts that can be seen in Ithaca.
I bought Skyrim for PC in the summer of 2013. The first thing I remember doing in the game, after the opening-scene dragon attack, is trying to kill a blacksmith who was hosting me in his home, and then frantically running away from the town, across a huge plain and into snowy mountains as the sun set. Many fans of “open-world” games probably have similar experiences the first time they play. Open-world games purport to give the player total freedom; the premise is that any decision that the player makes can be supported by the game, and make sense within its world. You can play as a hero, an anti-hero, a villain or simply commit random acts of violence and kindness as you see fit, and in a perfectly-executed game any of these decisions would have ramifications on the progress of the narrative.
PWR BTTM is a pretty unilateral band. A great and unashamedly unilateral band, but one-sided all the same. Frankly, there are only so many types of sounds a guitar-drum rock duo can concoct, and it’s not like PWR BTTM, even at their best, have been bounding through any boundaries, sonically. Ugly Cherries was remarkable more for what it was (a thrashing, vulnerable paean to queerness and what it can mean in all its iterations) than for how it sounded (pwr chords and pwr vocals that both, in turn, skidded from blared to whimpered with the click of a distortion pedal). As I heard it, their last album’s noises were auxiliary, secondary to and supporting the inescapable choruses, bleeding confessionals and brash, almost gaudy humor that stood at the top of the soundpile.
“This is Jack Jones. He’s one of our Arts writers and he only writes about Bob Dylan and Kanye.”
This is how a certain previous Arts editor and close friend generally introduces me to new people. Before I go ahead and give support to this claim, I’d like to point out that I’ve only written one review of each artist’s work: my first piece for the Daily Sun was a review of Bob Dylan’s mediocre album of Sinatra covers Shadows in the Night, and my longest piece ever was a review of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. I’ve never used my column to focus on either of these figures, their music or what they mean to me. Doesn’t matter.