During most nights of the year, Woolsey Hall’s 2,650 seats remain unoccupied. But the Yale Symphony Orchestra will likely be playing to a full house Monday night for its annual Halloween Show.
As in past years, the Halloween Show will feature a student-directed silent film with the orchestra accompanying with both classical and pop music. But while in past years the event has been a largely YSO-organized affair, this year marks the first time that the orchestra has invited non-YSO students to write the film’s plot and script. After soliciting student ideas, the YSO chose the concept — kept a secret until the performance — of Film and Media Studies major Connor Szostak ’17.
This year’s film will be a comedic parody of a recent popular movie, with some romance sprinkled in, said YSO French horn player Morgan Jackson ’18. Jackson directed this year’s Halloween Show film and compiled the accompanying orchestral music.
“This is the first year in which we’ve had a separate editor and director of photography,” Jackson said. “This let us spend much more time on each scene to make it better, and means that we don’t have a frantic rush job at the end as in past years.”
Because Halloween 2016 falls on a Monday, rather than on a Friday or Saturday as in the past two years, ticket demand for the show was lower this year. Tickets sold out this year in 10 minutes, which Jackson described as a “slowdown” compared to previous years. A policy limiting one ticket per person also slowed demand, Jackson said. In previous years, people were able to purchase more than one ticket per order.
Ticket sales went live at 10:31 p.m. this fall, a shift from midnight in past years, in an effort to make tickets more accessible for students who did not want to stay up late.
The show will consist of 28 musical pieces, three-fourths of which will come from the classical tradition and one-fourth from contemporary pop music, all adapted by YSO students. Jackson said the pop segments will play important roles at key moments in the film.
“I think it’s so ironic and funny for a full orchestra to be playing pop music,” said YSO bassist Arvind Venkataraman ’19. “Especially for us bassists, we usually have really subdued lines in classical music, but in these pop pieces, we have lines that are usually for the electric bass guitar and are really driving and almost like rock music.”
For members of the orchestra, the idea of performing in front of a full Woolsey Hall never loses its appeal, no matter how many times they have done it before.
“The Halloween Show is so awesome, because when else are you going to have thousands of people screaming at you as a classical musician?” said principal percussionist Adrian Lin ’18. “We as an orchestra definitely feed off of the energy of the audience — in our minds it gives us a glimpse of what it is like to be a rock star for a few moments.”
For students who were unable to purchase Halloween Show tickets this year, the show will be streamed live online with a link on the YSO website.
Student musicians said the Halloween Show attests to the value that the whole undergraduate body places on performing arts.
“I don’t think you can find any other college where people want to go to a concert on a Halloween night,” assistant concertmistress Annabel Chyung ’19 said.
The orchestra will rehearse three times before the final show — on Friday, the orchestra will learn their music for the first time, and then on Sunday and Monday they will practice matching the musical performance to the screenplay.
This year’s Halloween show was produced with a budget of roughly $500 over eight weeks.
Sam Tsui ’11 is living the dream: After graduating from Yale, the YouTube sensation moved to Los Angeles and started a career in music that has already led him on a tour across Asia and spawned two full-length albums. It turns out he was perfect while he was at Yale, too, juggling roles as a campus tour guide, member of the Duke’s Men, classics major and all-around dreamboat. He picks up the phone while stuck in L.A. traffic on his way out of a session at the recording studio and talks to WKND about Yale, stardom and life on the West Coast.
Q: So you were a classics major here at Yale. If you hadn’t gone into music, what would you have done with that?
A: Classical Greek, actually — I didn’t think just classics was specific and useless enough. The plan was always to go into music. It was what I loved and why I came to Yale: so that I could pursue my weird academic interests and also take part in the great music scene. The plan was always music. If I hadn’t done it, I guess I might have gone on, gotten my Ph.D. in classics or something, taught and gone into academia. I still do love it.
Q: When did you know you wanted to go into music full-time? Was it scary?
A: I had always planned to, in a general and vague sense. From when I was very young, that was the assumption, even though initially I thought maybe I’d do musical theater or be a music writer or something like that. But there was a moment when I actually came to realize that that big, general dream was actually, in the practical world, coming true. I guess the pivotal point was graduating from Yale and deciding where I was going to move, and the fact that I chose to move to LA, where I’d officially be an independent musician out here — that was the moment of choice. I was super lucky that by that point I’d already built up this following online and had a support system of managers and people who knew what they were doing. Graduating from school and coming out here was the “Holy shit, this is real” [moment].
Q: How has your vision for yourself and your music changed since you started out?
A: One of the most exciting things about being in music, especially right now, is that the entire industry is in such a state of flux … Everyone’s vision of what form this whole world is taking has changed a lot in just the past couple years. Obviously when I first moved out here, in the back of my head I thought, “I’m gonna move out here, I’m gonna get signed to a big record label and I’m gonna tour and put out albums.” One of the coolest realizations I’ve been able to make is that right now really is an age for independent musicians. The tables are turning, and it’s in a lot of artists’ best interests to be independent. I’m very lucky that I get to go into that with this incredible fan base and awesome social media presence. I have a lot more agency personally, which is very cool.
Q: How was the experience of getting famous different because it was via YouTube, and you were still a student?
A: It definitely changed my day-to-day experience of it. It was so different. New Haven is not LA, and YouTube and the digital space already kind of allow someone to connect with people around the world, even though your day-to-day is not necessarily anything like that. You’re going to school, you’re in this bubble, and yet all of your content is being viewed by millions of people all around the world. Initially, it was very jarring to be a student and be going to classes and a cappella rehearsals and going out to Toad’s and whatever, and meanwhile there was this whole world of content online that I was putting out and at the same time concurrently building this whole brand. So at first it was very strange. It’s still weird just because a lot of what I do, and what a lot of us in this space do, is we’re with our team making our videos and doing our stuff at home, and yet to be stopped on the street or to go on tour — it’s like, oh yeah, this stuff we’re doing that feels like it’s on a very microcosmic scale actually has a life of its own.
Q: How did other Yalies react to your newfound fame?
A: As stuff started happening, as we got to be on Ellen and all these things, I think the reaction from most of the people who just knew me as Sam from the Duke’s Men or from classics was a lot of loving teasing, like, “Oh, you’re doing your videos again,” and all that stuff. But then it was funny that there was one newer class who didn’t know me before [I got famous], and they came my senior year. I was a tour guide, and on the tour they would be like, “Oh my god, I’m such a big fan,” and there was no irony in it — they just kind of appreciated what I was doing. Whereas everyone else was like, “That’s just Sam, doing his YouTube thing.” But always in a loving way, of course.
Q: What is the most surreal moment you’ve had since becoming famous?
A: This summer I did a tour in Asia, and we had a show in Hong Kong. My dad is from Hong Kong, and I still have a ton of family members over there. Obviously with college it becomes harder to visit Hong Kong, because it’s on the other side of the world, so I hadn’t been for a handful of years. There were a bunch of cousins, aunts and other people that I just hadn’t seen for a long time. So to get to come back and see them in the context of, “Oh, I’m a touring musician, here, come to my show,” and to have them show up and [see] thousands of screaming fangirls — it was super surreal to get to invite my family to that. Especially being the half-Asian kid, there’s that element of bringing honor to my family that was awesome. I got to be like, “This is what I do.” My dad and mom and brother flew out to Hong Kong for the show as well, so it was like a family reunion.
Q: What was it like getting to do the YSO Halloween show cameo last year? You’re up there with the likes of John McCain and Woody Allen.
A: Oh my gosh — yeah, that was super cool. Likewise, it was one of those surreal moments where [the Halloween show] is just something that I have so much love for; it was such a part of my college experience. So to get to be considered by my peers and colleagues as someone that would be worthy of making that kind of cameo is awesome.
Q: If you could go on tour with anyone, who would it be?
I’m a huge fan of Jessie J. She’s, like, my favorite ever, so I would say her. To get to go on tour with her would be awesome. [Editor’s note: this interview was held before this year’s Spring Fling lineup, including Jessie J as the headliner, was announced. WKND is crossing its fingers for a guest appearance.]
Q: What advice would you give to Yale-student you?
A: It’s going to sound super cliché, but seriously just taking advantage of all the talented people around you and all of the resources. One of the reasons I was able to do what I was able to do is because I had access to Yale’s recording equipment. So there were resources on a practical level. But it’s also the one time in your life where you’re just surrounded by a critical mass of insanely awesome people. And I think going into the real world, and coming to LA, as much as I love it — that is definitely something that is not quite the same. There isn’t this constant energy or creativity and being surrounded by amazing people who are making you do your best work. So just doing as much as you can. That being said, I look back at myself and all the nights where I’d just chill and watch Netflix at my apartment and think, I should have been doing more things. But I guess that’s always the case. You can always do more.
Q: What is the best New Haven pizza spot?
A: Everyone likes Sally’s and Pepe’s, but they’re so far from campus that I went to each of them, like, once. Yorkside was my go-to. I think it was just a sentimental thing. I can’t tell you how many nights after Duke’s Men rehearsals, we went to Yorkside and just got buffalo chicken tenders or whatever. I guess I’m biased. I guess if we’re talking pizza I’d take my family to, [I’d say] Bar. Yeah, let’s say Bar. Maybe I’ll sound cooler if you say Bar.
Q: Why did YOU choose Yale? [Tsui, along with Allison Williams ’10, appeared in the notorious “That’s Why I Chose Yale” admissions video.]
A: I did a summer program at Yale when I was in high school — I took ancient Greek at Yale the summer after my junior year. I was that kid. I was such a nerd. But I just fell in love with it. [And] I really do believe that Yale has the best undergraduate arts program of all the Ivy League schools. The fact that I could be part of this old, historic classics program, and also be part of this vibrant a cappella scene and do the Dramat shows — there was just such a culture of creativity that I found to be way better than anywhere else.
Q: The newest Whiff class was tapped this week. What advice would you give them?
A: Believe it or not, I didn’t do the Whiffs. I was in the Duke’s Men for three years, and then I technically graduated a semester early. Since I had done summer session, I had enough credits. I was totally torn at that moment, because doing the a cappella thing as a guy, you’re like, “Of course, the Whiffs — that’s why everyone’s doing all these a cappella groups.” But at that point I had momentum with all the other stuff I was doing, and I couldn’t afford to take an extra year off. That was definitely the hardest decision I had to make at Yale. I definitely am glad I moved to LA, but I was super bummed I couldn’t do it. So my advice is definitely do it if you can.
Q: Would you ever come play Toad’s?
A: Oh my God, I would absolutely love to. That is one thing I’ve talked to my agent about — definitely on my next U.S. tour I want to come and play Toad’s. That would be so awesome. I did a tour two summers ago and we played [a smaller venue] in New Haven that was a little ways from campus, and it was the summer so no students were around. So my mission since then has been to make a show at Toad’s happen.
On Tuesday, we descended into the seedy depths of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to interview the pair of Yale College graduates who, in 2009, founded the company formerly known as Rap Genius. (It was recently rebranded as simply Genius.) Their office space is a simple suite of apartments in a condominium building overlooking the East River.
We caught them in the midst of a big transitional moment: This spring they’ll move into a new 44,000-square foot headquarters, putting to use the $40 million investment they received in July. They’ve also announced a new technology that will go on the website, allowing users to wield their annotation toolkit anywhere on the Internet. It’s all part of their goal: to make Genius an essential part of the Internet’s fabric. Tom and Ilan greeted us in slippers, offered us Pellegrino, and invited us to take a seat on their couch.
Ilan, the president, majored in religious studies at Yale, and worked at Google and HBO before devoting himself to Rap Genius. He’s also a certified hypnotherapist. Tom, who double-majored in Ethics, Politics and Economics and mathematics and philosophy, is currently CEO.
We’re Yale freshmen, and since being at Yale — since being in our position, you have gone on to —
Tom Lehman: Well I wasn’t quite in your position. I was in Pierson, which is a worse version of Davenport, and so even though I had that disadvantage —
You still made it?
TL: Well, I don’t know if I made it. But things are going okay.
What college were you in, Ilan?
Ilan Zechory: I was in Trumbull. Trumbull was the most run-down, it was like the art stoner vibe. I don’t know if it’s still that way.
What are your thoughts on the fact that you can kind of tell what college someone’s in? Why is that?
TL: If you’re in Grand Strategy, you’re maybe in Davenport. Does that answer your question? No offense. I had friends who were in Grand Strategy. Whatever.
IZ: In Trumbull, there was maybe one token strapping Christian kid. But it seemed like other colleges had a ton of them, and we just had a bunch of, you know, like pseudo-intellectuals, basically.
TL: It was the cool kids. Pierson didn’t have a lot of cool kids. Sorry, Pierson in heaven. Noah and Dave were good.
Shoutout to Noah and Dave.
TL: And others. I’m kidding! This is insane for me to say this.
You’ve gone on to start a multi-million dollar company, you know rap stars, you’ve traveled the world. Have any of the those experiences topped your Yale experiences in terms of craziness level? What are the most memorable Yale times?
TL: There’s a meme called the Yale Bubble, or whatever — you know, it’s not a literal bubble. But what it means is that you’re sort of insulated from the world. And I think that is very true in the sense that I thought, “Whoa, big time, I’m in college, I’m doing real work.” Yale was way more tame and chill. It’s nice, because if you’re a potted plant, and you want to transplant it, you’ve got to have it be nurtured in its original home.
IZ: And you’ve got at least four years or whatever to have that protection from society, and despite having homework or whatever it’s not that crazy or that hard, ultimately. Ultimately. You do hard work for sure.
TL: Anything that you’re doing that seems hard, but — oh wait, it costs a ton of money to do — that’s not hard. You’re paying a ton of money for it. When you’re trying to get paid …
IZ: … things can get hard.
TL: Yale is definitely a time when you can chill out compared to what life feels like now.
When you were at Yale, did you have any sense of where you wanted to go after that?
TL: I thought guaranteed: going to go to law school, hopefully a prestigious law school,because I was into that kind of stuff back then. There was actually a major at Yale during my time where you had to apply to get into it. So I was like, “That’s the major for me!” I was an idiot. Anyway, I thought I was definitely going to go to law school, be a legal academic. I was very taken with constitutional law, particularly John Hart Ely, very taken also with law and economics. Word to Susan Rose Ackerman, word to Henry Smith. I thought that was going to be my thing. I thought “Okay, I’ll take a year in New York, I got this interesting weird opportunity at his hedge fund, it seems kinda weird and chic, but you also don’t have to dress up or whatever, and do something-something with computers, and a bunch of people are moving to New York. That seems like the thing — I’ll do that.” And then everything got all twisted and turned, so, yeah, I did [work at the hedge fund], but it was all wrong.
IZ: I came in freshman year, I was takin’ a bunch of different stuff. I didn’t know what I was gonna major in, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life or whatever — I wasn’t too worried about it. But then around sophomore, junior year — that was 2004, 2005, so that was the birth of blogs, basically. So, I got a blog, and I had a lot of fun with it. And … perfect! Then I started taking writing workshops, and fiction writing and screenwriting, and writing on the side myself and thinking: okay, great, I’ve found my calling — I’m going to be a young, white, Jewish writer, in the mold of Woody Allen or Philip Roth! I set my sights on that kind of thing, and then I realized, or as time went on the world told me, and I told myself: that’s not interesting anymore. So, I still like writing. I still think writing is interesting. But that mold is over, I think — the white Jew. No one wants to hear what a white guy has to say anymore, which is good. I think that’s good.
TL: Also, college is a very individualistic thing. It’s like, okay, what are you going to major in, what’s your GPA … and so that encourages you in college to think about yourself as: I’m special, and I’m a rugged individualist. I’m going to be a professor! I’m going to be a writer! The reality is, in life, hard things — very difficult to do alone, and most important things or desirable things to do are very hard. And so, big difference between college and the real world is that — sorry to use that phrase — there are groups of people involved. There are group projects, and relationships, and so forth, and —
IZ: I think a lot of people learn about that through extracurriculars. But not me and Tom!
You’ve always had this – in interviews, and also as a company – this irreverent, playful tone, to some extent. I can see that its part of your personalities, but going into a corporate world, how much of that have you had to rein in? Or have you just completely said, “That’s the character of the company and we’re gonna keep it”? What’s the push and pull of that?
TL: The real answer is threefold. Part of it is that we are constantly trying stuff. I’ve got this whole philosophy: worse is better. Basically it’s this notion that you’ve gotta get out there in the world and try to do stuff. You have to try things. There’s this great book called “Art and Fear,” which I’ve never read — I’m ordering from Amazon now, but I read an excerpt from it — okay, this is how honest I am — and the excerpt talked about how an artist is setting up a ceramics class and runs an experiment. (Actually, I’m very into ceramics and wheel-turned pottery so this is particularly salient for me.) But the basic idea: A teacher tried this experiment. He said, “Okay, two groups. The quantity group — I’m going to take all the pieces you make, put them on a scale, and if it’s past a certain weight, you get the A. The quality group – you just have to make one great piece.” What they found was that the quantity group actually ended up with the best quality, because the quality group was just stressed out, and the quantity group was trying and refining and trying and trying and produced a lot of crap but ultimately ended up producing something good.
So whether it’s the literal annotations on your website or the way your website works, or the way you interact with the world, you’ve gotta be trying new things. You can’t be afraid. You can’t be thinking: “Ah, how do I project to the world in a way that’s absolutely perfect, in a way that is kinda lighthearted but also underscores my seriousness?” We’re complicated people in the sense that we like jokes, but we’re also very serious about the work. And I think we’ve projected something that perfectly encapsulates who we are.
You’ve said that Genius is a 10-year project. What is the bulk of that? Because it seems like you have the basic technology in place. I guess you just came out with the embedding technology, last July. What are you trying to put in place over that timespan?
IZ: Last year we did the ability to embed. This year we’re doing the ability to literally annotate any website on the internet without embedding anything. Just going to any website and annotating using our special sauce — like, that’s an incredibly hard technical problem. So what are we doing for the next five years, or maybe the next 10, 15 years? Just building more and more technology, and building more and more of a movement.
TL: I agree with that. The scary thing is: You have to have new ideas. In other words, like, it’s so hard to have a good idea, and by good idea I mean something that anyone actually cares about, let alone a lot of people. It’s so hard to have good ideas that, whenever you have one, what you wanna do is just keep pouring gas on that fire, keep extending it. And you have to do that — keep pushing. But you have to have brand-new ideas. And ideally the ideas have a common theme, and they connect and whatever, but you have to have new ideas, and that is an extremely scary prospect, because, I put all the good thoughts I had in my first book! There’s an old saying. I got it from the Rawls character from “The Wire.” He says everybody has one book in them, almost no one has two. And I think there is a lot of truth to that. So you have to have new ideas, and the way to have new ideas is not to sit in a room and start thinking about it. We have this saying here at Genius: “Hi, modernism!” Good. High modernism, bad.
Some would say that Yeezy season is approaching right now. That’s the feeling right now. This is kind of a two-part question. One: How involved are you in the Yeezy circle? Have you been in contact with him? Is he on board with Genius?
IZ: Yeah, we have met and hung out with Kanye. He is just a truly great guy. Like, he’s a truly, truly great guy in the sense that a) just a nice guy, and b) super interesting. Like, a super fascinating person to be around. He says great, interesting stuff, also has a way of being in the world, that is, you know, related to what makes him a good artist. He’s just a deep and fucking interesting guy to be around. I have a ton of love for Kanye, not only as an artist, but in the times we’ve hung out, briefly or whatever, like — just really really cool guy, and he’s down with Rap Genius. He’s sent us an idea for how the site should look. He’s engaged. He’s got this new music coming out.
Have you heard it? Are we ready?
IZ: I have heard, I’ve heard all the songs. I heard “All day,” I heard “FourFiveSeconds,” I heard “Only One,” all a long-ass time ago. They were all different when they came out. Heard a real work in progress. I think I heard “FourFiveSeconds,” and Rihanna wasn’t on it yet. But it was a long-ass time ago, but he was just playing stuff, and it was amazing. He was so excited to share it. He played these 12 songs he had ready, like, five times in a row, and everyone was loving it. I think the album will be coming out, it seems like, very soon.
TL: The thing about Kanye is — if you think about the iPhone — what is special, truly special about the iPhone? What’s special about the iPhone is that the iPhone is the product that makes it so that the richest billionaire in the world and you know, a normal college or high school kid who’s got a little money, can still use the same phone. Like its not obvious this is the way it would work out. There was the ver2 phone, right, this $5,000 phone. Kanye is the embodiment of that notion — the richest billionaire in the world, Ben Horowitz, is still listening to “The College Dropout,” just like a college kid.
Part of his whole ethos when he’s talking about his new clothes or shoes — he doesn’t want it to be a limited edition, special sellout, $400 thing. He wants it be for the masses, the iPhone. That is very deeply woven into the Genius philosophy, that if you wanna understand something, you don’t have to be the billionaire of knowledge, the insider who went to Yale or whatever, who knows the guy who knows the guys who know the backstory. Everyone can know that. You don’t have to feel bad that you’re pretending to know who your friends are talking about. You just go on the thing and look it up. Likewise, when you’re annotating, you could be a billionaire who owns a newspaper and gets to control the words on the newspaper, but then anyone can go right in those words and annotate right on top of them and have the same stature as that billionaire. And so that philosophy — that Apple embodied, Kanye embodies — is also what we try to take some cues from. So Kanye is a major inspiration for us.
Note: This interview has been updated from the version that appeared in print on Friday, March 6.
Rock ’n’ roll hasn’t had a great twenty years. The genre itself barely exists anymore, and what we might have called rock in the 1990s now gets shoehorned into “indie” or “Americana” or the great condescension of “pop-punk.” But some bands have held out, proudly clinging to a fading genre. The Killers are one of those bands. They broke out of Las Vegas with an album of quasi-dance music in 2004, then developed a Springsteen fixation three years later and never really shook it. Despite all their inconsistency and their many failures — or precisely because of them — The Killers remain a singularly fascinating group, maybe the best purveyors of rock ’n’ roll we have today.
The Killers thrive on drama. Each of their songs carries an overwhelming sense of immediacy and doom, a fate from which their glitzy rock seems the only deliverance. Their songs tell the same stories Americans have always told — of savage borderlands, empty dreams, shattered promises. They have a flair for the visual, too, impressing vivid images into the minds of listeners. “I saw the devil wrapping up his hands / He’s getting ready for the showdown,” Brandon Flowers sings in “A Dustland Fairytale,” and that knife fight instantly appears to the listener, terrible and stark in its clarity. Lyrics that shouldn’t work succeed anyway: “We’re burning down the highway skyline / On the back of a hurricane,” goes one particularly opaque lyric from “When You Were Young.” The best line in The Killers’ discography is the prayer-like refrain from the biblical “All These Things That I’ve Done.” “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier,” frontman Brandon Flowers intones, backed by a gospel choir. I have no idea what it means, but he sings it with such faithful conviction that it simply must be some great truth. Such is the power of rock ’n’ roll.
The Killers have faith in a certain version of America that shouldn’t, or perhaps even can’t, exist anymore — a world of muscle cars and roadside bars, county fairs and antiquated romances. It’s nothing new, of course: just the American archetypes that this country refuses to leave behind, the well-trodden territory of Jackson Browne and Tom Petty. The Killers refuse to believe that America has lost its thunder, and somehow, in their own heavy-handed, overdone style they’re still singing those great American epics: “Silverado” duked out on the dusty streets of Las Vegas, stories of starry-eyed young men rushing towards some distant glory while red-lipped girls lean on their shoulders as the nighttime desert wind blows through their hair and the Cadillac speeds down the interstate.
Brandon Flowers looks the part, too: in his black leather jacket and crew cut, with that wry smile and flashing eyes, he’s the slick chrome American prince he once sang about. He’s Springsteen at Passaic in the 1978 Indian summer; in an instant he’s both Jesse James and Brigham Young, an outlaw and a prophet; he’s Jack Kerouac riding a flatbed across Nebraska. He sings like a man defeated, who knows he has nothing left to sacrifice. Only the Now matters — there’s no future imaginable and the past contains only ghosts. Brandon Flowers plays the character of a man who understands the meaninglessness of life but looks past it: he’s got rock ’n’ roll, and what else really matters? The Killers’ brand of music offers that tantalizing promise of total salvation, holds it right before your eyes and demands that you come snatch it. Just as the quest for the Holy Grail consumed Arthur and his knights, so the search for that American redemption wholly preoccupies The Killers.
Do they find it? I venture to say No. Some artists have, of course — “Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin’s magnum opus, found salvation out on the turnpikes, where with just a dream and a Chevrolet you can reach the elusive Zion. Tom Petty probably found it, too, in “American Girl,” where all the hopes and failures of this broken land lie within the heart of a girl. And so did the Irish transplant Van Morrison, who in “Saint Dominic’s Preview” looked into the Rapture and glimpsed the American soul. But The Killers fail. Their music pulsates with a magnetic flashy exuberance, but it rings hollow and insincere. It aspires to greatness but only makes it halfway there. It clashes with American modernity, a world that so palpably detests the Killers, rejecting their vision as too white, too masculine, too romanticized.
Or maybe it’s not so much a clash as an uncomfortable reflection. The endless suburbs and developments of the American West, just humans playing at civilization in a vast wilderness, seem as tinselly as the Killers. I remember my father driving east from the Great Salt Lake, through Syracuse, Utah, while I sat in the passenger seat and looked up at the Wasatch Mountains and thought: People really live here? Brandon Flowers sings about Jesus in “When You Were Young,” but can anyone really imagine Satan standing with Christ on Route 66, tempting the Son of God with the petrified glories of Monument Valley? Or John the Baptist baptizing converts in the Great Salt Lake? Or Saint Paul evangelizing along the Union Pacific line? No: as a land America defies the gods of the Continent. We create our own images here.
And so The Killers make music with their own particular vision of a higher power. In their music there is no God, only rock ’n’ roll and its burning intensity, which gives men the will to keep on. The Killers inspire faith like few other groups do: I can only venture to say that My Chemical Romance and LCD Soundsystem have had such fanatical fanbases, for whom this music becomes a matter of decay and survival. The Killers do the same for me. They inculcate in me a hope for America, for the promise this country once offered but might never hold again. It’s a fake hope, yes, the product of a stylized recycling, but it’s hope nonetheless.
Two days after the class-canceling blizzard last week, the pristine layers of snow had been trampled away. What had been white blankets turned into piles of brown slush like left-out apple slices. I walked to the University Art Gallery that Thursday to hear a concert paired with their new exhibit, “Whistler in Paris, London and Venice.” I added my own footprints to the gradual stampede.
Inside, an undergraduate string quartet sat in front of a small audience. The musicians performed selections from three works connected to the locations and time period of the exhibit. James Abbott McNeill Whistler is the artist in question, an American-born figure from the Gilded Age. Whistler etched (and sketched) like the snow fell that week, his tiny strokes barely converging into powerful masses. The important difference, of course, is that his art—and the pieces performed by the quartet—can’t be stomped on by rubber boots.
The performance gently placed the audience in mid-19th century Europe. The rivers Whistler often captured with spare strokes felt close, if frozen. Curator Heather Nolin opened the concert by talking about Whistler as if he were a starry-eyed student: at 21, he moved to Paris, got a French girlfriend named Héloise (thanks, Wikipedia), and obsessed over the connections between art and music. Alexander Dubovoy ’16, a student liaison for the YUAG, introduced Camille Saint-Saëns’s String Quartet No. 2 to accompany Whistler’s work from Paris. Saint-Saëns used the piece to “stake a claim” in the French Romantic tradition as young gun composers like Debussy and Stravinsky emerged, and you could hear the stubbornness as the four parts danced in a structured choreography. The performers (violinists Jennifer Gersten ’16 and Emily Switzer ’17, violist Abby Elder ’17, and cellist Benji Fleischacker ’17) knew how to fit the intricate sounds together, especially when the cello’s pizzicato grounded the lilting upper register.
When I visited the exhibit later, the piece’s echoes bounced around my head as I passed through Whistler’s “French Set,” a series of etchings he did in Paris. They didn’t match the sassy joy of the quartet, but they reminded me of what Dubovoy said about the composer. As an old man watching new musical movements tower over him, Saint-Saëns wrote the piece as an outsider. Whistler’s works in the “French Set” have a similar feeling. Their decaying houses, women working in their homes, and other eavesdropped-upon scenes speak in gritty, shadowed detail. The subjects’ faces are hidden, as if entering their lives would shatter something.
As Whistler moved to London to find success, his eyes turned water-ward. His “Thames Set” focuses on the changing waterfronts of the city in the same way current neighborhoods quickly gentrify. His pieces are like paused action, the quick strokes of the angular boats suggesting the direction of their paths. At the concert, String Quartet No. 1 by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams too depicted reinvention, this time with folk songs from Britain. The piece’s chugging, foot-stomping rhythms were smoothed out, peaking out from the veil of the string quartet tradition.
The final section of the exhibit focuses on Whistler’s time in Venice. The aging Whistler left London after suing art critic John Ruskin for libel. Ruskin had criticized the artist’s painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket,” calling him out for “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The Venice etchings resultantly look like a string of exhalations — from tension, politics, words. If you go to the exhibit, go for them. The ink grips the paper’s fibers themselves, and the delicate dashes merely guide the colors towards the ships and horizons they represent. There’s even a pastel work so fragile it lives behind a pink curtain, waiting to be revealed by the viewer.
Dubovoy introduced the Venice-accompanying pieces, by Giacomo Puccini and Hugo Wolf, with Whistler’s artistic departure in mind. Puccini’s “Crisantemi” was written in 1890 for the death of the King of Spain, and its melancholy, unified cries make a grave of layered sound. Elder’s evolving viola solo particularly stuck in my mind. The “Italian Serenade” by Wolf mimicked Whistler’s perspective as yet another outsider, trying to understand the Italian culture as authentically as possible. The performers flew athletically through the intricate piece, and the audience noticed. A man with 90’s bleached hair and his female friend looked at each other multiple times, impressed and raising their eyebrows.
I understood that man during the concert and, days later, as I sifted through Whistler’s etched waterfronts and anonymous faces. When the Wolf ended, I looked out the lobby windows towards the YUAG Sculpture Garden. A smooth, rounded layer of snow rested on the concrete steps leading to a higher level, but a path of footprints cut sharply through the middle. The storm was over. The footprints, though, were there to stay, just like the memories of Whistler, his influences and the composers featured at the performance. That’s more beautiful than untouched snow.
I don’t really understand folk rock. It’s one of those quixotically modern flourishings, like the reappearance of full well-groomed beards and the curious renaissance of the veldskoen shoe, now known colloquially as the “desert boot.” And folk rock carries with it an aesthetic so closely associated with the genre that the two can’t possibly be separated. This aesthetic is, essentially, hipsterish, and lends itself to endless parody. But regardless, I do quite like folk rock when I hear it — which isn’t often, and is typically in concert — and the release show for Tommy Bazarian’s ’15 new EP “Four Horses” last Friday at St. Anthony’s Hall showcased both the heights and the shortcomings of the genre.
After a brief opening from four members of Tangled Up In Blue — who played a raucous version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues,” falling somewhere between Eric Clapton’s loose hard-rock interpretation and Johnson’s own apocalyptic vision — Bazarian played through the entirety of the six-song “Four Horses.” A five-person band backed him: standing bass, fiddle, guitar, trumpet and trombone. Like most folk rock, the word “pretty” best describes Bazarian’s works: he sings his evocative lyrics, poetic and literary, over a soundscape of acoustic chords and gentle strings. But, thanks to the trumpet of Eli Brown ’16, Bazarian’s music went beyond the confines of typical folk rock. Where “Four Horses” might have languished in the placidity of, say, early Mumford & Sons, Brown’s trumpet helped it rise above such somnolence. The brass contingent added a mournful element to the songs, creating a deeper emotional resonance and conjuring the atmosphere of a bygone era. Coupled with the occasional vocal harmony, the brass made these songs properly ethereal.
The best of Bazarian’s tracks was “John Henry Song,” which begins with the line “If I had a hammer/I’d hammer in the morning” a reference to the Pete Seeger song “If I Had a Hammer.” (This was the most obvious of Bazarian’s allusions to the Greats: the track also includes a line about “Spanish leather,” likely a Dylan homage, and the song “Lonesome Organ Grinder” is named after a character in Dylan’s “I Want You.”) The studio version of “John Henry Song,” like most of the tracks, feels calm and tranquil, but it doesn’t quite do the song justice. Bazarian’s live performance of the track was loud, reaching for a brashness seldom heard in folk rock, ringing with an urgent immediacy and an effervescent joy. And that’s typically when the genre is at its best — when it embraces its own self-stylization and becomes a loose, communal festival.
Bazarian played a wonderful performance indeed, but, inevitably, some shortcomings pierced the sedate soundscape. Bazarian is a talented singer, with a rich, velvety tone and a clear, though sometimes strained, upper register, and his voice works well with the instrumentation. But still, something’s missing. John McCormack, an Irish folk singer, once said that the Greats have what he called the “yarragh” in their voices. You can’t really describe the yarragh, but, to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you hear it. Amy Winehouse had the yarragh, as did Joe Cocker and Dock Boggs, and Van Morrison probably has more of the yarragh than any other singer. I can’t say that Bazarian has it, though — his voice is beautiful, but incomplete. It’s missing a certain complexity. A voice with the yarragh works on the aesthetic as well as the emotional levels. If anything, Bazarian sounds too pretty, too focused on beauty at the expense of depth. Most of the folk rock genre tends to suffer from this paucity: its singers are often too timid to explore the possibilities that can occur once vocal conventions begin to disintegrate.
There’s another, less troubling, critique here: I’m not sure that Bazarian really knows how to end his songs. The show’s songs would rush along at full energy until suddenly the chords ceased and the singing stuttered and stopped. I felt that I hadn’t experienced the full potential of each piece, that he’d cut them off right in their prime. Again, this criticism isn’t specific to Bazarian’s work — many Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan folk songs, and even many early British Invasion songs, sound like their composers knew how to write and sing gorgeous melodies but not what to do once they reached the three-minute mark. While Bazarian has the same problem, it’s not crippling, and the solution often becomes evident through experience and increased maturity.
I can’t say that I typically listen to modern folk rock: my tastes veer more towards folk and rock, not their confluence. But Tommy Bazarian may have introduced me to a particular quality of the genre. His music made me appreciate the light, almost transcendent calm of a non-electric band — a calm that, though pleasant, carries the power and emotional weight of a Vermont winter. Bazarian’s songs are short and oftentimes simple, but they deserve some careful contemplation. Hidden in an aura of placidity, their quiet force imbues them with a strange permanence.
On an evening in February of 2012, Chris Cappello ’17 had his very first gig.
He was 15 years old, billed as the second performer in a four-act lineup. The show was scheduled to start at 9 p.m., but, wanting to give himself enough time to “load in,” he showed up to the venue at six.
The “venue” was a college student’s two-room apartment on Chapel Street, and his “equipment” was just an acoustic guitar, which he stashed in a bedroom that doubled for the night as a performance space. He and his friends decided to leave for a while, and when he came back, people had started to arrive. José Oyola, the college-age resident of the apartment, greeted them. The pair had met two years before at a concert in an antique shop.
Forgetting the singer-songwriter’s age, Oyola offered him a beer, which he accepted. He needed it, he says, to calm his nerves before playing his “teenage-boy-feelings songs”: heartbroken and very simple, because of his still-crude guitar playing skill.
“In retrospect, it was very clear that this was not really the atmosphere for that kind of music,” he says of the crowd of twenty-somethings, who were drinking beer and hanging out at a friend’s apartment. “But I’m glad it was allowed to happen.”
Raised in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood, Cappello is now a sophomore at Yale, where he works as programming director for the University’s undergraduate radio station and edits their zine. But he keeps up friendships with the fellow Connecticut natives with whom he performed for three years as a solo artist, and with whom he toured as part of the band Loner Chic. He has released two albums and his next full-length release will come out this spring.
But “it” has not been allowed to happen to everybody: his success sets him apart. Few Yale students have found such visibility and variety in their effort to perform their music.
Musicians David Toppelberg ’18 and Tommy Bazarian ’15 are two cases in point.
Toppelberg, a freshman, is new to Yale, but an experienced performer, having played drums since the fifth grade. During his first semester, he joined the band Young Republicans and played two shows — one at Yale, one at Harvard. But Toppelberg expresses frustration with the attention he says is paid almost exclusively to classical and a cappella music, which, in his opinion, do not capture the range of musical diversity. He wonders whether Yale has failed in encouraging a broader cross-section of musical art and activity.
“There are few student bands that are well known across campus,” Toppelberg said. “There are few, if any, small jazz trios or rock groups performing regularly.”
Bazarian, who led the band The Teaspoons and now does solo work, also feels that some types of music are marginalized. His band almost always practiced at his house, occasionally using the Morse-Stiles recording studio when their drummer needed to use a full drum set.
But while they were not desperate for better practice space, Bazarian does see one major need: more venues for undergraduate bands to play in, apart from college theaters.
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Will Bazarian get his wish? Perhaps. Last week, the reopening of a historic music venue was announced — one that borders on Yale’s campus and looks to put New Haven on the touring map. Formerly the Palace, the rebranded, renovated College Street Music Hall will open this spring. However, its capacity to give Yale musicians their much-needed space is no sure thing.
The building’s new life is the fruit of a decade-long negotiation between the New Haven Center for Performing Arts, the nonprofit that has owned the building since its closing in 2002, and Keith Mahler, the biggest independent concert promoter in Connecticut and the financial backer of the project.
Mahler says he was approached with the project in 2005, but was tight-lipped about the 10-year delay in opening the hall. “Good things sometimes take a long time to gel,” is all he said. But a deal was reached in the fall of 2014, and now, his company Premier Concerts is taking on responsibility for the venue’s operation. The most exciting bit of news for many Elm City residents is the new face at Mahler’s offices: Mark Nussbaum of Manic Productions, a New Haven booking and promotions business whose self-described mission is to “bring the finest underground music talent to Connecticut.”
“This is going to be the music room in town,” Mahler said. “Number one in New Haven, number two in the state.”
College Street will emphasize indie, folk, classic rock, country, Americana and bluegrass music. Mahler expects the hall’s target demographic to be the 17–45-year-old set, with occasional classic rock performances extending the age range upward.
For now, the building is getting surface renovations: it needs paint, floor treatments, bathroom tiles, fixtures, and sound and light systems.
Nussbaum and Mahler are clear on the point that the new venue will not crowd out beloved New Haven institutions. They say they will continue to book their regular shows, and that College Street will attract acts that formerly would have skipped over New Haven.
“We’re still going to do everything we’ve always done,” Nussbaum says.
For Nussbaum’s firm, that means booking touring bands for venues like Cafe 9 or Bar, and pairing them with like-minded local acts. If sales are strong, he arranges for them to play larger venues, such as The Space. He describes College Street, with its flexible capacity, as another, higher platform for developing acts.
“This is the next level,” Nussbaum said. “There’s a lot of room for growth.”
After it closed, the music hall’s floor seating was removed: when it opens, the standing area’s capacity will be close to 1,000, and balcony seating will expand possible crowd numbers to 2,000. The facility’s production manager is working to fulfill staffing requirements before the anticipated early May opening.
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Cappello worries there aren’t enough visible bridges between the worlds of New Haven and Yale.
“In terms of actually getting involved in the creative process, it often just doesn’t get off the ground,” Cappello said. “And I would put some of the blame for that on Yale for not providing the kinds of facilities that they could be providing.”
Cappello suggests “actual practice rooms,” with drums and amplifiers, as a feasible addition to campus. He described his own band’s struggle to get access to the Silliman recording studio, because it was the only site on their area of campus with a drum kit. They ended up relying on a friend who worked in the studio, but now that the friend is gone, their options are limited.
Many members of the radio station are in bands, according to Cappello, but are stymied by the lack of places to practice, and their projects fail to result in serious work, despite their best efforts.
“If I didn’t have a friend who lived nearby, who had a house that I could practice at, I just wouldn’t be in a band,” Cappello said. “There’s no way that I could be doing that.”
Beyond questions of infrastructure, though, Cappello sees a deeper divide.
“It’s weird having this dichotomous experience,” Cappello said. “When I’m in New Haven, I view it totally differently depending on who I’m with, or what time of year it is.”
In response to the town-gown split, Cappello tries to stage events that bring both halves together. As he sees it, Yale and New Haven people are not of a different mentality. Instead, they do not have the chance to interact productively.
Last semester, Cappello organized a show at an off-campus house with his band, as well as a local band called Ten Thousand Blades. Out of about 100 people, 40 percent were New Haven residents and the rest were Yale students. No one could tell the difference, except for him, and he was happy with the mix.
The merging of Manic Productions with Premier Concerts signals an important success for Nussbaum, the Guilford native who, over 13 years, has turned a passion for music into a rebirth of New Haven as a touring stop for indie artists.
Before the spread of social media, Nussbaum relied on fliers. He and friends spent years constantly attending local shows and distributing fliers advertising their upcoming bookings. (Having spent hundreds of nights at Toad’s, he has in some ways lived out every Yalie’s dream.)
After one high-profile booking of Dinosaur Jr. — at the time, the biggest show he had ever done — sold out in advance, he recalls having a realization.
“Once you can start making money and booking acts you genuinely enjoy, consistently, then that’s kind of the turning point,” Nussbaum said. He spent the entire day unloading equipment and helping to prepare for the show.
“After that point,” Nussbaum says, “I could see it as being a career.”
Both Mahler and Nussbaum have been promoting rock shows since adolescence — Nussbaum since 16, and Mahler since 15 and a half, when he helped inaugurate another Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn. In the decade that followed, he promoted artists such as The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, and Bruce Springsteen. Even after a career in real estate and finance, he makes time for music.
Manic has worked with WYBC to co-present events, and WYBC has sponsored Manic events. But Yalies hoping that College Street will provide new chances for Yale bands to shine, may soon discover reasons to temper their optimism.
Gideon Broshy ’17, who plays in the band Black is the Color, was skeptical of College Street’s potential impact.
“There probably won’t be much direct interaction between Yale students and the acts coming to play there,” Broshy said. “I don’t see it influencing Yale’s ‘music scene’ much.”
“It doesn’t necessarily make sense for a promoter who, at this point, is as big as Manic Productions to take a risk on a student band,” Cappello says. “Manic Productions’ prerogative ultimately is to make their shows successful.”
While local bands can attract crowds, he guesses Manic Productions will continue to target local residents, most of whom have cars and are better able to come out to shows.
But students won’t need cars to visit College Street. Adjacent to Old Campus, the venture will make the top echelon of touring acts available to Yale, even if their music dreams stay unfulfilled.
Correction: an earlier version of this article, which appeared in print, incorrectly stated that Mark Nussbaum is a Hamden native. He is from Guilford. The article has also been revised to reflect the projected standing capacity of the College Street Music Hall.
I don’t remember the first time I heard “Tangled Up In Blue.” Bob Dylan was one of those artists I grew up with, like Woody Guthrie and Paul Simon, and it was my mother’s favorite song of his. “Tangled Up In Blue” begins “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan’s greatest album, which turns 40 this week. As a work of musical genius, the song shines especially bright today, having gone untarnished by the decades. It is a work of singular wonder and beauty, and although Dylan wrote great songs before and after “Tangled Up in Blue,” it remains perhaps the closest to perfection he has ever come.
Although the instrumentals themselves are nothing technically notable, they do their job: the guitar’s small circular pattern pulls in the listener, and once the drums and bass kick in a second later, there’s no chance of escape. There’s a certain calm to this song, partly a result of the laid-back groove and partly from Dylan’s voice, which sounds smooth and refined in a way that it never had before, echoing with a sort of omniscience. He sings with the weariness of a man who knows he has seen all there is to see; he carries supreme confidence in his own awareness. This might be Dylan’s finest vocal: He abandons both the rough-hewn folk-singer persona of his early career and the electric rockstar he played in the mid-’60s, when his voice, full of scorn and spite, crashed and broke in cresting waves upon the protests of viciously hostile crowds. No — this is Dylan in total, quiet command, and his voice rings with an indelible permanence through the song and the entire album.
Despite the song’s sublime sound, its greatest strengths lie in its lyrics. Dylan is the modern Bard, and this is his masterpiece. His lyrics ramble from a tumultuous Brooklyn Heights to a seedy Midwestern strip club, from the Great North Woods all the way down the Mississippi to Delacroix, from the past to the present and back again, switching at whim between the first person and the third. Each verse is a vignette of incredible power and vividness, and the unforgettable details jump out like embers shining in the dark. “I just kept looking at the side of her face/In the spotlight so clear,” he sings, carrying the pain of loss and the joy of rediscovery in two short lines. Or maybe the grim resignation of departure weighs heaviest: “We drove that car as far as we could/Abandoned it out West/Split up on the docks that night/Both agreeing it was best.” These lyrics create images far greater than the words themselves. They evoke an entire era — the glorious, glamorous 1960s, full of revolution and madness and aspirations to utopia, quickly fading from view in the cultural chaos of the mid-1970s. It is a hesitant lament to a time most of us never knew, whose legacy remains uncomfortably uncertain.
But in some sense, it’s wrong to talk about “Tangled Up In Blue” as a single song. Dylan has officially released at least four versions of the track, and bootlegs of other live performances abound. And each time he performs it, something different emerges — maybe he’s tweaked the lyrics a bit, or changed the melody around, or decided to add one instrument and remove another. The album version of “Tangled Up In Blue” has a certain hope to it: Even though his relationships have fallen apart over the years at the mercy of cultural shifts, there’s still some unreached promised land out there. On his European tour in 1984, he changed around most of the lyrics, and while the essential message remained unchanged, the images are richer and darker. He and his lover still encounter each other at a strip club, but this time the experience is uncomfortably visceral: “I could feel the heat and the pulse of her/As she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe,” he sings. In this version, sailors come close to drowning, and widows go penniless.Dylan claims he likes this version best, and maybe that’s because the visions are eerier. They’re starkly uncompromising; they carry more of the ages with them.
But Dylan’s greatest reinterpretation of his own song came before he decided to alter the lyrics. On June 7, 1978, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, he played a version of “Tangled Up In Blue” so profoundly haunting as to be an entirely different work altogether. Gone is the powerful strumming; absent is the gleaming twinkle of hope. Instead, a soft guitar slowly marks the beat behind a mournful, beautiful interplay between the organ and tenor saxophone. No light seeps into this version of the song, no chance of reunion or redemption. The lyrics, now, are in the third-person, as Dylan distances himself from the events, a conscious attempt to put it all behind him. Perhaps, in the middle of the national tumult of the Carter presidency, Dylan just couldn’t bear the heavy burden of the memories of previous years. Perhaps he needed to move on, reinvent his music and persona, change his clothes, his hair, his face. Whatever happened, happened, this version says — it is irretrievably past.
But time must go on, as it does, and the present never ends. For me, one of the later lyrics in the original version hits hardest: “The only thing I knew how to do/Was keep on keeping on/Like a bird that flew/Tangled up in blue.” Is there any better expression of solidity and endurance? Dylan’s world has collapsed around him, the friends he once loved have moved on, he can no longer recognize this placed called America. Never mind, though — he’ll keep on keeping on.
And that’s all you can do when you hear this song. At first listen, “Tangled Up In Blue” might not sound so remarkable, but as you listen to it more and more, as the lyrics light their slow-burning fuse in your heart, as Dylan’s voice etches his words into your soul, and as the characters appear increasingly alive, this song becomes real like few others are. Its inescapable story lives on in the mind or somewhere deeper, as integral to human experience as anything Shakespeare or Yeats ever wrote, and the many reinterpretations only expand its reach. Eventually we all get tangled up in blue.
The first album I listened to properly, and I mean from cover to cover, was Eminem’s “Marshall Mathers” LP. It was released in 2001; I was nine and my older brother had been given a copy by his best friend. The album had a canary-yellow sticker on it, warning young buyers that they needed parental permission to purchase it. Nothing could have made it more appealing; I took the album, put the disk into my Walkman and listened to Eminem for three days straight.
From that moment on, rap became my favorite genre, an obsession I was vaguely ashamed of but needed in my life. Initially, its attraction lay in the cursing I could discern amongst the rapid-fire rhymes – words I’d hear my mother hiss when she smashed a plate, words a kid called Evan at my school used bountifully, usually before being sent out of the classroom.
But as I went through high school and college, rap came to mean way more than just alluring obscenity. I became picky, developing on the one hand an interest in the worlds being rapped about and on the other a keener ear for poetic and witty lyrics — even if they were sometimes sexist. Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” came out in 2004, when I was midway through my second year of boarding school in England. Once the lights went out in our nine-girl dormitory, I would listen to the album under my duvet, reflecting sagely that however huge my homework pile, I at least was not being afflicted by “bitch problems.” And now I’m a feminist. You probably know the deal – I believe that women should be treated equally to men, that they should be able to climb career ladders despite their ovaries and retain jobs in TV when they get wrinkles. I’d like girls not to feel outsexed by Barbie; I’d like to live in a time when ladies who, to use today’s parlance, “sleep around” aren’t condescended or shunned but are treated as normally functioning people whose sexual appetites are as by-the-by as their tastes in upholstery.
These views didn’t suddenly walk into my head on my 18th birthday; they were there all along. But the older I get, the crankier gender inequality makes me feel.
Recognizing that I’m a feminist has not provoked some astronomical life change. Feminism is, after all, a cartoonishly broad church; I still wear make-up and I still like rom-coms. But it has made me examine my music tastes with a shrewder eye. Is my rap habit – which has only increased in intensity since “Marshall Mathers” – incompatible with my views on gender?
Listening to the past month’s biggest hits, it’s hard to deny that misogyny is still alive and well in the rap industry. In Meek Mill’s latest track, he says to a female addressee, “It’s two words, ‘bitch fuck,’” and then, more charitably to a male adversary, “You can have my old bitch cause I don’t do the same hoes.” In Big Sean’s single “I Don’t Fuck With You,” he says as much to his ex, calling her “you lil stupid ass bitch” before adding for good measure, “fuck how you feel.”
This stuff is pretty inarguably misogynistic. Not all rap and hip hop is as bad, obviously—in “Dear Mama,” Tupac thanks his mom for being “always committed.” But derogatory images of women remain dominant in rap music. Women are rarely presented as smart or superior; they “ain’t shit,” as Dr. Dre observes, “but hoes and tricks [to] lick on these nuts and suck the dick.” Some artists even underline that they specifically enjoy having sex with independent women so as to put them in their place – B.I.G. likes his ladies “educated” so that he can “bust off on they glasses,” a lyric which, as a spectacle-wearer myself, has always made me chuckle.
Of course, I’m not the only white, privileged female to enjoy this sort of music. But instead of squirming at my ability to stomach the woman-hating I hear, it seems useful to examine why rap is sexist. The misogyny didn’t pop up ex nihilo: As rap became increasingly produced by major record labels, artists had to offer more hardcore content. Research has shown a direct correlation between a rap album’s explicitness and its success.
Too $hort addresses this connection head on, replying in “Thangs Change” to the charge that rappers are “always disrepectin’ ladies.” He basically shrugs it off, saying, “I get paid to talk bad about a bitch.” Rappers shouldn’t be let off the hook entirely – denigrating women is, after all, a cowardly way of squandering poetic talent. But the issue of misogyny in rap is not quite the black and white ethical field it is often framed as.
No musicians create in a vacuum; rap lyrics reflect the realities their writers deal with on the day-to-day. That’s not to say that the songs’ extravagant tales of pussies and gangbangs are legit – they’re often exaggerated, intent on gratifying demands for stereotypical representations of ghetto life. But the need these young, usually black, usually male artists feel to trumpet their own virility via the denigration of the female reflects a sociocultural situation that is absolutely real and, on the whole, horrific. For some of these artists, the opportunities for proving their masculinity in more palatable fields – professional frameworks, for instance – have been sparse, denied by a society that incarcerates over 12 percent of its African-American population.
Yet even if rappers are exhorted to churn out misogynistic content by industry fat-cats, and even if rappers’ creativity can only unfurl within the boundaries of a warped sociocultural context, misogyny in rap remains problematic for feminist listeners. How can someone who wants women to be respected listen to, much less pay for, content that perpetuates harmful gender norms?
It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with a lot – I’ll feel outraged by a lyric that I feel goes “too far”, before forgiving a song that is just as offensive, but which I like for its solid boardwork.
At this point, I’m reminded of Sarah Koenig in the “Serial” podcast, who also swings from one point of view to another. I don’t have the answer, essentially – all I know is that I believe in gender equality, and yet I like rap music, including songs that are insulting to my sex. I also like Flaubert, the 19th century French novelist whose female characters were also almost all one-dimensional. The reasons why we respond positively to certain art forms over others are complex, and while I would like my political stances to dovetail with my tastes in art, music and literature, they just don’t. Figuring that out is one of the hardest tasks of being a modern feminist, because it involves a constant evaluation of where lines can be drawn and where they cannot.
At the risk of sounding sappy, there’s no denying that music has an inexplicable influence over people. Often, when normally spoken words can’t reach us, a tune easily can. Music is an international language. These words may sound clichéd, but they still have truth to them. Such thoughts must have been on the mind of Turkish musician Latif Bolat during “The Healing Sounds of Ancient Turkey,” his performance of Sufi music this Tuesday at a public event in the Whitney Humanities Center.
When I began listening to Bolat’s singing and strumming of the baglama — a commonly used Turkish folk instrument — I was uncertain whether the appeal of his music would be truly universal. Sufi music, about which I knew little before the concert, is the devotional music of Sufism. Also known as Islamic mysticism, Sufism is characterized by asceticism and dhikr (a prayer containing the repetition of Allah’s names). Sufi lyrics often draw upon Sufi poetry inspired by the poets’ close relationships with Allah. So, I was puzzled to hear Bolat present these uplifting lyrics through subdued singing and the baglama’s melancholy sounds.
But what I assumed to be melancholy was actually pensiveness. I realized this when he first asked for audience participation; he wanted us to chant “There is no god, but God” in Turkish in order to provide a chorus for one of the devotionals he would perform. Traditionally, such chants can go on for ten hours, but Bolat played the piece for a little less that ten minutes. I prefer not to chant phrases from religions other than my own, so I just watched. Once he ended, though, the mellow strumming and singing placed me into an partial trance. While I was glad that the singer decided to move to another, more varied song, the Turkish lyrics continued to echo through my mind. I didn’t think about anything religious, but I felt relaxed. The million things that I had to do after the concert melted away, at least for a moment. If the piece had been as energetic as other worship music, I’m not sure I would have felt so focused.
Bolat soon switched gears entirely, asking someone from the audience to read from “Quarelling with God,” a compilation of famous Turkish poetry that he had translated. This reading led to the concert-lecture’s most unorthodox part: Bolat played the baglama while a man read “Hiroshima,” by socialist Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. This famous poem, translated into English and set to music by such artists as Pete Seeger, the Byrds and Paul Robeson, conveys a powerful anti-war message by speaking from the point of view of a girl who perished when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Why would Bolat feature this poem?Bolat described “Hiroshima” as a “poem of all times” because of its potent plea for mankind to abandon war. And why wouldn’t a cry for peace fit into a book of poetry concerning the love from and for a higher being? Although initially surprising, Bolat’s use of “Hiroshima” made his concert more accessible by adding a secular element to a largely spiritual show.
For the final act, Bolat played and sang over a slideshow of pictures of modern Turkey: images of sunsets, flowers, city night lights, mosques and rundown houses. The final part of the performance provided an excellent closure for Bolat’s concert-lecture, connecting Turkey’s musical past to its history, its role in globalization, its problems with poverty and its natural beauty. With that, Bolat finished his concert while lamenting that he couldn’t perform longer. Apparently, Sufi devotionals can last from sunrise until sunset. There was little hope for that happening here and now; before the concert-lecture ended, several people quietly packed their things and tiptoed out. But I found it a presentation worth sitting through.
Latif Bolat’s visit to Yale makes up part of his final concert tour, which also includes visits to the west coast, the United Kingdom and India. Despite acting as a musical ambassador, he sees his music as a force for national music genres and against globalism. His website reads, “Latif Bolat’s cultural mission can be summarized as ‘preserving the cultural traditions in this rampant wave of commercialism.’” His performance resisted the idea of music as immediately universal; indeed, all foreign music, especially that in a different language and with religious content, can be difficult to grasp. By challenging American listeners to expand their ideas of what music should be, Bolat’s performance aimed to preserve his unique musical culture rather than conform to globalized tastes.
Yet how does one reconcile the universality of music with the individuality of different kinds of music? When you move beyond the difference in language, culture and religion, there remains an emotional core that everyone can relate to. For Bolat, that core is the desire to reach a higher plane of understanding, some sort of transcendental realization as we go through our everyday life. And while Bolat’s music was strange and new, this sentiment resonated deeply with me.
The music industry has produced very few seminal albums in the last 20 years. I do not wish to join the ranks of those who decry the very foundations of modern music — I’m looking at you, Gene Simmons — and proclaim that because rock is dead we will never again see a Great Album. But the modern age still can produce such albums, as rare as they might be, and Arcade Fire’s “Funeral,” which just celebrated its tenth anniversary, is one of those. “Funeral” is a perfect album, one that retains its luster a decade after its creation and which has no flawed song.
In their music, Arcade Fire was a revelation. “Funeral” arrived as pop-punk was treading along on its last tired legs; rock music seemed in desperate need of revitalization, and Arcade Fire provided exactly that. “Funeral” is an album full of huge sound — of swelling choruses, of seven instruments playing as one, of an oceanic grandeur rare in any album, let alone debuts. The obvious antecedent was Neutral Milk Hotel, with “In the Aeroplane Under The Sea” and its anthemic folk-rock sound. But Arcade Fire, surely, looked even further back: Not since “Born To Run” had an album sounded this big. “Funeral” blended early Springsteen, Joshua Tree-U2, and even some Phil Spector all into one, and the result was glorious.
Perhaps more than any other record, “Funeral” is communal. The name “Neighborhood” graces four of its tracks, and the wordless chorus to “Wake Up” only meets its full realization live, as the full symphonic ensemble yells its way through, and a sense of catharsis grips the crowd. “Funeral” is specifically about the community of youth in the face of pervasive death, where kids swing from power lines in blizzards and walk out into the snowbanks to imagine a greater future than that which has come before. Of course there’s a romantic idealism to this, but it never feels insincere or hollow. Partly this stems from the latent sense that this record is the end of childhood. “Funeral” is full of sadness, of mourning for the dead so recently lost and the rapidly ending era of childhood. Fewer songs have ever carried such a feeling of despair as does “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” and “Haiti” plays like a heartfelt funeral dirge for singer Régine Chassagne’s cousins, killed by Papa Doc Duvalier. The brilliance of “Funeral” is in transcending the individual plane of mourning and bringing us into a communal one, where pain seems lost in the mélange of emotions of the crowd, where the joy of togetherness cancels out all despair.
But amid all of this community, individuality still shines. “Funeral” contains two occasions — one on “Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels)” and one on “Wake Up” — when I feel like Win Butler is singing directly to me. These are the moments when Butler’s cracking, crusty voice pierces through the tumult of instrumentation, the neo–Wall of Sound, and reaches out only to me. Maybe those two lines have some sort of lyrical poignancy to me, maybe it was intentional, or maybe I’m just hearing things. But there I find the greatness of “Funeral” — that it merges the individual and the community into one great coherent whole.
Arcade Fire in 2004 was a vastly different group from what they are today. Then, they were a motley group of musicians from Montreal wreaking havoc on the indie scene. They played hurdy-gurdies, shouted choruses from megaphones, hit drumsticks on each other’s helmeted heads. Their chaotic performances always seemed on the edge of total collapse. Today they are quieter, more controlled; they make Kierkegaard-referencing dance music with James Murphy and play arena tours. They have, in essence, learned how to be rock stars. On “Neon Bible,” they ostensibly brought Springsteen to the fore, but nothing on that album sounded quite as big or as grand as “Funeral.” Springsteen is in fact more evident on “Funeral,” with its conception of music as a form of communal release. Arcade Fire have now lost much of their early influences, but in their live shows they still display the Springsteenian notion of concerts as a sort of religious revival, where, like Jonathan Edwards’ parishioners, we should experience all the pleasure and pain not as individuals but as one entity.
“The Suburbs” and “Reflektor,” Arcade Fire’s two most recent albums, bear little resemblance to the maelstrom of sadness and fury and longing that was “Funeral.” Arcade Fire won Album of the Year with “The Suburbs,” a record that addressed many of the themes of Funeral — childhood, lost relationships, the unfortunate inevitability of growing up — but whereas “Funeral” flirted with teetering out of control, “The Suburbs” was buttoned-up, perfectly-produced rock at its finest, not a single sound out of place. It was a great album, not as great as “Funeral,” but rarely have albums captured the feel of a geographic place as well as “The Suburbs” did. “Reflektor,” meanwhile, is still well produced but messier, a record of a band in transition, trying to reinvent itself for a wider audience. The album incorporates Haitian rara music with considerable success, and in that stylistic choice we again see the lingering of the past, for Régine Chassagne’s parents fled Haiti in the 1970s. “Reflektor” is a good album but again, not a great one — the relevant comparison is to the Clash’s “Sandinista!” — and contains many poignant, provoking songs and then some that just make you want to dance.
The enduring legacy of “Funeral” in the decade since its release has been one of wordlessness. That surging chorus to “Wake Up” made us realize that words are no requisite for evoking emotion in rock music. It’s one of those observations for which more examples come to light once you remark on it. Would the extended, Autotune-garbled outro to Kanye West’s “Runaway” have been possible without “Wake Up”? What about the chanted refrain in Titus Andronicus’ “No Future Part III?” Or the instrumental explosion at the end of Mumford and Sons’ “The Cave?” Yes, Pink Floyd did it first on the powerful opening to “The Wall,” but all these modern artists must surely count “Wake Up” among their influences. That is the path “Funeral” has charted for modern music, and it would do us good to continue to follow it. Rock may be dead, but the spirit of “Funeral” still burns strong; I pray it may light our way for the decades to come.
Contact Noah Daponte-Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org