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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Make a new year's post

In 2011, I, Joshua D. Friedberg:

  • Graduated from college.
  • Performed and wrote some original music.
  • Was a first-time camp counselor and gained new confidence in the process.
  • Finished a major paper after over 2 years of intense research, writing, and revision, and got it accepted at PopMatters for forthcoming publication in 2012.
  • Moved out of my hometown... at least temporarily.
  • Continued to re-think and problematize various ideas, including about music and race.
  • Read at least 5 complete books and a whole bunch of essays and critical articles.
  • Walked dogs for money.
  • Applied to graduate school for 2012-13.
  • At least partially moved on from some tough stuff from the past.
  • Started saying "it's all good" and "wonderful" a lot.
  • Strengthened some important friendships.
  • Cut caffeine out of my system, hopefully for good.
  • Started this blog.
  • Stayed strong.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Examine the intersections of race and disability in listening to music

Because of Asperger's, I'm literal--I don't know how else to put it. I have trouble understanding figures of speech and sometimes detecting sarcasm and reading social cues generally. So when I listen to a piece of music that I love, it takes a while to understand what it "means"--I have written about how I used to not pay attention to lyrics, which could prove problematic when enjoying some music with heavily violent and sexist language (like some gangsta rap, for example).

Still, to this day when I first hear a piece of music, I listen to it passively, taking in the overall "sound": the arrangement, the way a singer or instrumentalist phrases words, sometimes words that I don't "get." A great example of how I listen to music is seen in my favorite record, Otis Redding's 1966 soul classic, "Try a Little Tenderness." It's not exactly the subtlest or most nuanced rendering of a song ever made, but certainly an incredible arrangement that augments Otis's intensity (think of the "Got-ta, got-ta" phrases) and underscores what I remember a guest years ago on VH1 calling the "orgasmic" tendencies of Otis's phrasing.

So perhaps my idea of greatness in music has little to do with subtlety, though Otis could affect me with minor breaks in his voice (in "These Arms of Mine," for example). I must confess, it took me a while to connect my reaction to Otis's music with Asperger's--I recently read a small part of music historian Brian Ward's book Just My Soul Responding, which points out that Otis was not the most nuanced of singers or interpreters, which fed into 1960s-era whites' love of his music--they sometimes romanticized what they viewed as black musicians' hyper-sexuality, glorifying particularly Otis's music for perhaps fitting the stereotypical images they projected onto blacks in general.

Now, I think the way I listen to music has more to do with having Asperger's than being white, but perhaps they overlap here: I wonder how blacks, for example, with Asperger's hear the music they love, if they also have trouble with subtlety. I sometimes need the analysis of critics or historians to help me understand what a song is "about." Hopefully, over time I'll be able to figure out on my own to not respond to a figurative lyric like Michael Jackson's "Beat It" with a literal interpretation like, "Beat what?"

Monday, October 10, 2011

Change his views about the importance of context and lyrics in music

Back before college, I called a lot of music "overrated," often without listening to lyrics. This proved really problematic when trying to articulate why I didn't like the music I'd heard, given that I'd often listened to albums with lots of amazing lyrics... as background music. No wonder I didn't like Nas's hip hop masterpiece Illmatic until years later when I paid attention to the words.

I used to also dismiss the importance of context--that is, the social, historical, personal, cultural experiences from which music emerges, as well as the lenses and perspectives I took for granted in how I viewed music. In my dismissal of albums like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, I really believed that because I didn't hear as many "great songs" as on other soul albums, that album's socially conscious lyrical (as well as instrumental) content was seriously overrated without a particular idea of what I thought was "catchy," which often had a lot to do with what I found familiar in music. I even went so far as to call in to the show Sound Opinions (when it was a local Chicago radio show) and ask whether the album's significance to blacks mattered compared to if the music was good (in my view, of course).

In retrospect, that was messed up.

I've been reading Ronald Radano's book Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music again, which argues, among other insights, that music never exists as "the music itself," without attached contexts or series of meanings that music producers and consumers make within and outside of "just the sound." Radano also points to how even the idea of "music" is primarily a Western cultural construction, and how ideas of the "essence" of black music have been formed often within white colonial contexts. (Despite the book's heavily jargonistic, academic language, it is worth reading for serious students of music and race.)

Readings like this have seriously made me question the importance of the conditions of how and why I listen to music at all. To put it lightly, today I learn a lot about the context from which music emerges. I can now name a recording from every year from 1922 to 2011. I hope I can do more than name the song recorded or released that year; hopefully I can say what the significance of some of the recordings are, historically, commercially, and otherwise. Seriously, name a year, and we'll see what I can do.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Graduate from college!

So, after five years--nine full semesters and then one semester retaking one Gen Ed course elsewhere--I am FINALLY graduating from Earlham College with a BA in English. So I thought I'd share some feats and experiences from my time at Earlham that I, and others, have found particularly meaningful:

During my college career, I...
  • Came out in front of my freshman class at New Student Orientation
  • Got a standing ovation walking at graduation
  • Expanded my thinking about race
  • Spoke the truth
  • Acted with kindness and dignity to just about everyone.
  • Stayed sober
  • Made more friends than I ever had for the first 18 years of my life
  • Impressed people with my knowledge of music
  • Earned the respect of professors with Ph.D.s
  • Spoke out on issues I care about
  • Started important conversations
  • Gained confidence and social skills I'd never had
  • Earned two standing ovations for original songs
  • Learned that things can and do get better
  • Spoke out about seeking help for depression
  • Completed a really difficult major after changing majors 5 times
  • Got told, "I love you" by people I didn't know well
  • Got called "an encyclopedia"
  • Stood up for myself when I was hurt
  • Learned to reach out to others effectively
Comment if you want elaboration on any of these.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Generalize/essentialize before reading critiques of such generalizations

I've sometimes accepted writings of various authors uncritically, without really problematizing the authors' arguments. For example, I wrote two papers asking what makes a particular novel (Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon) and the work of a particular musician (Ella Fitzgerald) "African American." I basically chose between various critics' frameworks for African American music and literature to examine how Ella Fitzgerald and Song of Solomon fit within these frameworks or do not. The music-related paper is below:

Part of why I'm writing about these generalizations is related to a book chapter I read recently by musicologist Ronald Radano, in his book Lying Up a Nation. The book's first chapter, while perhaps too dense and theoretical for some, was useful for me in its attempt to destabilize essentialized judgments about what "black music" is. In particular, I was struck by Radano's argument that ideas and definitions of "black music" have been produced in a white-dominated world and discourse on music. This has huge implications for some of the theorists I've read, including Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., and Portia K. Maultsby (see Ella Fitzgerald paper link), because some of their more Afrocentric ideas of black musical difference were produced within white frameworks (later in the book, from what I remember the chapter saying, Radano writes about how even the idea of propulsive rhythm as a key trait of black music in the U.S. and elsewhere was produced in white Modernist contexts).

This book chapter got me thinking about several ideas about which I've read varying perspectives, including the idea of blackness being produced by, and in opposition to, whiteness and vice versa. I suspect that in a white supremacist world, every group of color's histories are intertwined with whiteness, as whites' histories are intertwined with theirs. This breaks down the myth of cultural purity or autonomy, whether spoken about by neo-Nazis talking of a "pure Aryan race" (which doesn't exist) or by Amiri Baraka in his book Blues People, which often uses the adjective "autonomous" to describe the history of African American music. Now, of course, white and black nationalism have very different goals and results for different groups of people, so I want to be clear that I do not believe Baraka's ideas have the same uses and consequences as those of neo-Nazis. But the idea of supposed cultural purity as problematic is something that really sparked something in my imagination, so that I hope to read more about it in the future.

Another idea I thought of was the idea of "the music itself." Years ago I thought that music could be judged without any social context in mind. I realize now that even that is a position with a particular social context of privilege. Radano challenges the idea that constant characteristics of music can exist over centuries, as timeless, separate from social contexts.

A final idea: one could think from reading this blog post that Radano thinks black music and studies of it are only derived from European and Eurocentric origins; far from it. Radano acknowledges that American society has privileged whites and that in such white supremacist contexts, black musicians could bring their own ideas to the table, but even those were produced within, and against, an artificially separated white set of assumptions, ideas, theories, and so forth. I think Radano is right in arguing that Afrocentric discussions of music have still produced within a white-dominated world; for example, a seminal text arguing for African retentions in African American culture was written by a white scholar, Melville Herskovits.

So perhaps this book will cause me to rethink how I consider race to operate in various cultural forms, like literature and music. We shall see.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ponder how race and class intersect

I've studied a lot about race, specifically in African American Studies readings and classes. However, I realize I have sometimes given other categories of identity, especially class, proverbial short shrift. And at this point, I can't say which I believe is more important; I've read thinkers who say race is the operative category of difference dividing societies, including in the U.S., while others who say, "It's all about money." And there are merits to both sides: for example, one could point to the history of political movements in this country and say Americans have organized along lines of race far more than lines of class, and at the same time, one could reduce a lot of power in this society to who has capital.

The most reasonable conclusion I have come up with regarding these issues is that race and class overlap and intersect to the point where you arguably can't talk about one without talking about the other. For example, racial slavery as it operated for the first few centuries of U.S. history was at its base an economic system that certainly had a lot to do with both race and class. At the same time, today wealth has been racially divided as a result of a long history of denying people of color opportunities for accumulating familial assets (including through enslavement and other means); today a white family with a level of income comparable to, for example, an black family can sometimes have 11 times (!) the level of total wealth of the black family due to assets that the white family has been able to accumulate over generations.

So perhaps, through all of this thinking about the intersections of identities, I am wondering how to challenge oppression when it can coexist with privilege. White families with racial privilege can be oppressed by class, and black families who are rich can still face racism. Given this co-existence of oppressions, I wonder how to challenge both racism and classism, without prioritizing one form of oppression over another. I don't think the answer is in overthrowing a particular oppressive system, but perhaps there is some way to advance dialogue without saying one form of oppression matters more than another.

What do you think?