MILEY CYRUS: THE SOCIO-POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF HER VMA PERFORMANCE

miley-cyrus-robin-thicke

Originally published on www.yuppee.com on 28/08/13

By now, the images from Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (hey, remember when MTV used to play music videos?) have been seared into the retinas of just about every living soul with access to the internet and an hour or two to kill since Sunday. Stripping down to her undies, rubbing her ass on Robin Thicke, and “twerking”, all with an improbably large, wildly flailing tongue protruding from her face, Cyrus’ performance has somehow managed to spark discussions of real socio-political importance.

Designed (I’m assuming) to court controversy and sell records, the contentious performance has been successful in its intent, at least with regards to that first part. For the past few days, it’s been virtually impossible to browse social media websites; alleged news sites; legitimate news sites; forums and/or blogs without being exposed to myriad reminders of the performance’s existence. Given what’s going on in Syria right now, the attention being lavished upon the latest pop-star-publicity-stunt-gone-viral might initially seem churlish and inappropriate, but confoundingly enough, something of some worth might yet come of this mess.

If nothing else, a dialogue has been kicked wide open, between people of all sexes, races and backgrounds with opinions on matters that warrant discussion. The discussion so far has revolved around three key issues: cultural appropriation and implied racism; the over-reliance on public figures as positive role models for children; and the phenomena of “slut-shaming” and how it pertains to female sexuality and society’s far-too-often misogynist views on womenfolk.

One would think and hope that by now, society would be hip to the idea that allowing and actively participating in a form of social control designed specifically to shame women into hiding their sexuality behind closed doors 24/7 is a bad thing. A quick trawl through social media sites on Monday morning however, would have quickly confirmed that such optimism is at best misguided, and at worst crazy and delusional.

Twitter is currently ablaze with poorly worded tweets espousing the belief that Cyrus stripping down to her underwear and shaking her ass is something to be derided and condemned. One such tweet read: “Hear that #SlaneGirl is challenging #Miley Cyrus to a #whore off… Come on Ireland”. It would be nigh on impossible to find a more perfect, concise encapsulation of 21st century misogynist attitudes towards female sexuality and the resultant need for far-reaching discussion on the subject than the above comment. The tweet refers to a recent Eminem gig at Slane Castle in Ireland, at which a seventeen year old girl was photographed administering head to a fellow concert-goer. The images quickly circulated around the internet, with the female blowjobber being widely mocked and shamed for publicly engaging in a sexual act while the male blowjobee was rewarded with scores of virtual bro-fives for publicly engaging in the very same sexual act. These wrong-headed societal attitudes need to be addressed and if a by-product of the VMA fallout is discussions along those lines, then that has to be seen as a good thing.

“But Miley Cyrus is a role model to young people. She should be held to a higher standard than people not in the public eye”. Or so sayeth a lot of people on the internet. And not just on the internet either. While wacky sentiments such as this one are commonplace on the world wide web, they’re now pervading (allegedly) serious morning talk shows like Morning Joe. Show host, Mika Brzezinski said of Miley’s VMA performance: “I think that was really, really disturbing…That was disgusting and embarrassing … That was not attractive… That was really, really bad for anybody who’s younger and impressionable and she’s really messed up”.

The implication here is that an adult woman who used to star in a television show aimed at young girls shouldn’t now be allowed to express her sexuality on television, just in case any “young and impressionable” children are watching (that and the fact that it’s “really messed up“). This line of thinking assumes two things: firstly, that sex and sexuality are fundamentally bad things and that young people are better served by not being exposed to them at all than they are by being educated about them in a fashion that instils in them a realistic and healthy understanding of what sex actually is. And secondly, it assumes that parents of children too young or not yet mature enough to be able to process the implications of a performance such as Miley’s are incapable of distracting their child from the television set long enough to prevent them from being exposed to all that evil sex stuff. And to be fair, if the Parent’s Television Council’s reaction following Sunday’s broadcast is anything to go by, that latter assumption might not be too far wide of the mark.

But if there are any lesson to be learnt by parents of impressionable children after this year’s Video Music Awards and the ensuing discussions, it’s that celebrities can not and should not be relied upon to act as de facto role models to somebody else’s kids. To quote the late, great George Carlin: “If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both fucked”.

The trickiest issues to navigate though (at least to my mind) – and therefore the issues that society can benefit the most from talking about – are those of cultural appropriation and implied racism. More so the former than the latter. It’s relatively easy to see why Cyrus’ performance might be deemed racist. Women, and especially black women, haven’t always and don’t always have the agency over their bodies that they should. By choosing to make use of exclusively black, female dancers, and bring them out on stage for the sole purpose of having their asses slapped by a white person – essentially objectifying them and reducing them to mere props in the process – Cyrus (or whoever made the call to use only black lady dancers and fixate purely on their “black lady behinds”) has (perhaps unwittingly, likely unwittingly, hopefully unwittingly) contributed to that lack of agency, as well as the notion that a butt-load of black people pale in significance to one white person (two, if we count Thicke in all of this).

The cultural appropriation angle is a little harder to get a handle on if you’re not directly effected by it. Being a white male, it’s only been through reading the words and opinions of those who are effected by cultural appropriation (and who are much smarter and more articulate than I am) that I’ve started to look at things from a vantage point that isn’t my own. Had I been writing this article two days ago, this would have likely been the paragraph where I argued that honing in on Cyrus’ “ratchet” persona – in particular her fondness of twerking (or at least attempting to twerk) – and presenting it as an example of cultural appropriation, exposes a reductive idea of black culture and only serves to reinforce the notion that black people and white people are to be treated differently.

While I still believe some of that to be at least partially true, I’ve also come to realise that Miley’s twerking is symptomatic of a far larger issue. The issue is not one of white people using a dance that “belongs” to a black culture; it’s one of a wealthy, white woman exploiting carefully selected facets of black culture for monetary gain, and crucially being able to do so in light of the mainstream’s reluctance to embrace black culture until it’s been filtered through a white performer. There are countless examples of this throughout the history of music, from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones to Vanilla Ice to Miley Cyrus. It’s not difficult to see why this might become disheartening for minorities whose culture is routinely and cynically mined for profit.

None of this is intended to serve as a critique of Miley Cyrus’ performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards; nor is it a defence or a condemnation of said performance. It’s merely intended to highlight the surprising socio-political discussions it has inspired. As bad, misguided, and plain awkward as the performance may have been (and it really was all of those things), it has at least opened a dialogue that needed to be opened.

Bob Russell

VALERIE JUNE – PUSHIN’ AGAINST A STONE (BEST OF 2013)

ImageValerie June describes her debut full-length album, Pushin’ Against a Stone as “organic moonshine roots music”. And that’s a fair assessment. Filtered through Dan Auerbach’s pristine modern production, June’s songs form a potent cocktail of Appalachian folk, gutbucket blues, country, bluegrass, soul, Afro-beat and Americana. Pushin’ Against a Stone is the culmination of a decade-long trial of touring and recording for the Tennessean singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (the album is preceded by three low-key EPs) and announces its author as an artist worthy of any and all hype thrust upon her in the coming year.

The album opens with “Workin’ Woman Blues”, June’s stab at blues-tinged West African pop. A hurriedly picked and strummed acoustic guitar figure provides the song with its centre, around which an impossibly funky bassline, a skittering drumbeat, excitable trumpet, and June’s insistent vocal gradually gather. June’s voice is one of esteemed lineage, falling somewhere between Erykah Badu and Nina Simone, at times recalling Billie Holliday, and on more than one occasion, Dolly Parton. World-weary and full-bodied, it’s a voice that sends shivers down your spine the first time you hear it, instantly grabbing the spotlight and pushing everything around it into the periphery. While the album is steeped in the varied musical traditions June has immersed herself in for the past decade, and likely long before that — blues, gospel, soul, folk, country — it’s that voice that pulls everything together, providing Pushin’ Against a Stone with a much-needed through line.

The gorgeous “Somebody To Love” is sparse and enchanting, with ukulele and fiddle forming the backdrop for June’s vocal, while the distant warmth of organ swells (recorded by none other than Booker T. Jones himself) and added vocal harmonies fill out the soundscape. Jones’ unmistakeable Hammond B-3 crops up again on the ‘60s girl-group soul-pop of “The Hour”, and on the title track, which also features a trippy, psychadelic guitar solo from Jimbo Mathis. Nowhere on the album is co-producer Dan Auerbach’s influence more apparent than on the Black Keys-esque “You Can’t Be Told”, with its swampy blues groove and infectious hand-clap percussion. Auerbach also duets with June on the bare, acoustic guitar-and-vocal cover of Estil C. Balls’ “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations”.

Elsewhere, “Shotgun” is a haunting, austere murder ballad, with June’s slide guitar and tempered, bitter vocal conspiring to chilling effect; “Twined and Twisted” is Southern folk; “Wanna Be On Your Mind” is a jazz-blues earworm, replete with funk guitar, atmospheric strings, glockenspiel ripped straight from the pages of the Phil Spector playbook, and an irresistible call-and-response vocal; and “Tennessee Time” is a nuanced country waltz.

Pushin’ Against a Stone is the stunning amalgamation of June’s influences – from Memphis and the Deep South to the plains of West Africa – impeccably showcased on an album fused with the young artist’s natural musical instincts and her unique voice pushing to the forefront. On Pushin’ Against a Stone, Valerie June emerges as a major talent with unlimited potential.

Bob Russell

TOP TEN SPRINGSTEEN NON-ALBUM TRACKS / RARITIES

 Most great artists have at least one great “lost song” – that unused album cut that was somehow dismissed upon its creation, only to find itself coveted and revered by bootleggers and die-hard music fans for generations to come. Bruce Springsteen has about a hundred of these songs (I shit you not). Here are ten of the best…

Honourable Mentions: “Bishop Danced”, “Zero And Blind Terry”, “Winter Song”, “Give The Girl A Kiss”, “Cynthia”, “Trapped“, “Held Up Without A Gun“, “Jersey Girl”, “Chain Lightning”, “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart”.

10.

“High Hopes”

Amongst the small batch of songs recorded with the temporarily reunited E Street Band in 1996, “High Hopes” (originally recorded by the Havalinas) marks the high point of the Blood Brothers EP that was briefly bundled with the VHS release of the documentary of the same name.

9.

“Crazy Rocker”

“Crazy Rocker” is an unfinished Darkness On The Edge Of Town outtake, recorded in 1977. The song trades that album’s grounded and insular aesthetic for the more care-free odes to rock and roll and rockabilly that would eventually crop up on The River. The lyrics are far from being completed (with indecipherable mumblings occasionally standing in for actual words) and the song structure was clearly still in the process of being worked out (as evidenced by Springsteen audibly calling chord changes on the fly) but despite that – or maybe even because of it – the song still stands as one of the better Darkness outtakes yet to be officially released in any capacity.

8.

“Roulette”

“Roulette” marks Springsteen’s first foray into the political protest song. Written in the wake of the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979, “Roulette” tells the tale of a family being forced from their home after a nuclear catastrophe. Despite being written in 1979, the song wouldn’t see the light of day until 1988, appearing as the B-side to Tunnel Of Love‘s “One Step Up”.

7.

“My Love Will Not Let You Down”

An outtake from the Born In The USA recording sessions, “My Love Will Not Let You Down” might easily have found its way on to that album and sat comfortably alongside songs such as “Bobby Jean” and “No Surrender”. That it didn’t could perhaps be attributed to the notion that it maybe sounded a little too much like those songs to warrant inclusion. Taken on its own though, a case could be made for “My Love Will Not Let You Down” being one of Springsteen’s finest moments of the 80s.

6.

“The Fever”

Recorded in 1973 during sessions for The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, “The Fever” (despite somehow missing the cut for that album) saw an extremely limited release on 7” single and was sent to radio stations to play in anticipation of the release of Born To Run. Why it was never released on a studio album (it would have been perfectly suited to either E Street Shuffle or The River) is anyone’s guess.

5.

“Santa Ana”

Another outtake from The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, “Santa Ana” sees Springsteen falling back on the Bob Dylan and Van Morrison influences that informed so much of Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey to great effect.

4.

“The Promise”

The story behind the recording of Darkness On The Edge Of Town is well documented. Unable to step foot in a recording studio as a result of a contract dispute with then-manager, Mike Appel, an angry, coming-of-age Springsteen spent three years writing songs he was unable to record. By 1978 – and with the lawsuit behind him – Bruce and the E Street Band set about recording three year’s worth of songs and narrowing them down to only the ten which would eventually comprise Darkness On The Edge Of Town. This meant dozens of songs recorded in those Darkness sessions – oftentimes songs that most songwriters would be proud to call their best work – being unceremoniously discarded. “The Promise” is perhaps the most famous of these songs, and not without cause.

3.

“Frankie”

Written in 1976 and recorded in 1982, “Frankie” is maybe the finest song recorded-for-but-not-used-on Springsteen’s 1984 radio-baiting, stadium-sized, Born In The USA album.

2.

“Janey Needs A Shooter”

That this song never saw an official release on either the rarities collection, Tracks, or on the Darkness outtakes collection, The Promise is a crime, and a heinous one at that. “Janey Needs A Shooter” is by far the most glaring omission from the aforementioned Promise album, and a song that compares favourably with the likes of “Thunder Road” and “Racing In The Street”. Originally recorded in 1972 – then a stripped down composition featuring only piano and vocals – the song was revisited and re-recorded with the E Street Band in 1978. Never making it past the demo stage, “Janey Needs A Shooter” was never mastered (let alone remastered) and the imperfect, muffled recording presented here is the only known recording of this version of the song.

1.

“Thundercrack”

For my money, “Thundercrack” is the greatest Springsteen song to never find its way onto any of The Boss’ main albums. Recorded during the Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle sessions, the song is driven by “Mad Dog” Vini Lopez’s hyperactive drumming (a stark contrast to Max Weinberg’s machine-like thud), features a sax solo, an elongated guitar solo, about three different false finishes, and maybe the best intro of any Springsteen song ever written. That it didn’t feature on E Street Shuffle is an absurdity (“Thundercrack”, “Santa Ana” and “The Fever” being included on that album would have surely pushed it into contention for ‘best album ever’).

Bob Russell

2012 REVISITED

There were some great albums to come out of 2012. Bruce Springsteen recorded his best record in years, Frank Ocean announced his arrival with the brilliant Channel Orange, and Jessie Ware emerged as a future star. But there was plenty of music that flew under the radar, failing to make a dent in the charts; much of which is well worth going back to. Here are three albums you may have missed in 2012 that are absolutely worth your time:

Chairlift
Something

something album cover

Chairlift’s second full-length album, Something, mines the decidedly uncool corners of 80s pop for inspiration while fashioning bold, joyful melodies that juxtapose Caroline Polacheck’s deadpan vocal style and crude, emotionally potent lyrics. Chairlift revel in the same crisp, elegant, electronic pop that the band Haim are set to make popular in the back half of 2013. This is modern indie music that reeks of Fleetwood Mac and Duran Duran.

Something’s success is at least partly owing to the heart-on-sleeve emphasis it places on relationships and their emotional spillage. Whereas their debut album felt self-conscious with its songs too often filtered through ironic detachment and awkward conceit; Something benefits from a directness that imbues its songs with charm and grace. Nowhere is this more evident than on album highlight, “I Belong In Your Arms”.

Chromatics
Kill For Love

kill for love album cover

Chromatic’s Kill For Love came five years after their Night Drive album and a year after the Drive soundtrack that was so heavily informed by that album‘s aesthetic. The collection of songs that appeared in the Nicolas Winding Refn film served for many as an introduction to the Italo-disco sub-genre for which Chromatics have been anointed ambassadors. Despite the Drive soundtrack’s success, it’s not analogue-fetishising, dreamy dance-pop that kicks off Kill For Love, but a hauntingly beautiful, bare-bones cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My (Into The Black).

From there, the 90-minute album moves into more familiar territory with the sophisticated, post-punk-as-dance-pop earworm, “Back From The Grave”, while “These Streets Will Never Look The Same” takes the palm-muted chug of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen” and stretches it out into eight minutes of torpid build and release. Title track, “Kill For Love” finds the band at their peak, with Ruth Radelet’s mournful vocals coursing through the smoky ambience of Johnny Jewel’s decadent production.

Wild Nothing
Nocturne

nocturne album cover

Nocturne builds on the off-kilter, home-made charm of 2010’s Gemini, taking Jack Tatum’s shimmering, synth-draped dream-pop out of the bedroom and into the studio. The result is an album that sounds fuller and more richly textured than its predecessor, with live drums and meticulous, subtle production greatly benefiting Tatum’s lovelorn atmospherics and new-wave romanticism.

Album-opener “Shadow” is melodic indie-pop with swooning strings and insistently strummed guitar; title track “Nocturne” weaves shimmying guitar lines in and out of its synth-laden tapestry; and “Paradise” seduces with its jangly guitars, velvet-smooth bass line, and watery-blue glimmer. The album is brimming with slick, catchy pop songs and is a definite highlight of 2012.

Bob Russell

KURT VILE – WAKIN ON A PRETTY DAZE

wakin on a pretty daze

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is the fifth full-length album from Philadelphia singer/songwriter, Kurt Vile, and might just be his finest yet. The album is full of warm, spacious soundscapes, occupied by songs that take their sweet time to unwind and explore the space afforded them. In Vile’s world, there’s no need for things to be hurried along or cut short; patience is a mantra . As he puts it on “Too Hard”: “Take your time, so they say / And that’s probably the best way to be”.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is book-ended by a brace of songs that comfortably scrape the ten-minute mark. Beginning with the almost-but-not-quite title track, “Wakin On A Pretty Day”, the album quickly takes the mantle from its predecessor (2011’s excellent Smoke Rings For My Halo) as serene, wistful guitars labouredly intertwine with one another, and Vile’s laconic, half-sung-half-mumbled vocals exude his stoner-Yoda wisdom. The album concludes with “Goldtone”, a blissed-out dream of a song with billowing guitar figures, celestial finger-picking, and hushed melodies. It’s not just a strong album cut; it’s also a career highlight.

Sandwiched between those two songs are the bar room stomp of “KV Crimes”, the breezy, synth-streaked “Was All Talk”, and the “woo”-filled “Shame Chamber”. “Girl Called Alex” trundles along slowly, gathering organs, synths, and anguished guitar solos in its wake; while “Pure Pain” layers acoustic guitars that hang in the air as Vile muses on windows and highways.

With the spaced-out jams of Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile captures the dark wistfulness of Where You Been-era Dinosaur Jr, the guitar histrionics of Crazy Horse-fueled Neil Young, and the blue-collar rock sentiments of Bruce Springsteen; and does so without ever sounding like anyone other than himself. Pretty Daze is Vile’s most accessible album to date, and the strongest so far in a succession of records that hint at even better things to come.

Bob Russell