CK 2013: JODY BETH ROSEN

The Song: The Mamas and The Papas: “Twelve Thirty”

Written by Jody Beth Rosen

We can probably trace the phenomenon of “white flight” back to the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934, which brought the Federal Housing Administration into fruition. The FHA was the first federal agency in American history to give that much of a governmental backing to the private housing enterprise, and with that support came the necessary infrastructure provision to build outside of major cities, where that infrastructure had already been well established.

After the Great Depression, the postwar housing boom of the 1940s and 1950s gave suburban shelter to returning GIs and their growing families. One advertisement of the time shows a young white couple looking off into one of these bright, clean, sprawling landscapes, with the text above them reading “After war can come total living.” The power of marketing cannot be understated – the people who fled the cities were no doubt influenced heavily by the wealth of such imagery – but urban policy, disinvestment, and institutional racism among housing lenders were heavily responsible as well. Cut to: the 1960s.

I look at the children of the Baby Boom, the so-called hippies and those otherwise caught up in the ‘60s cultural moment, as well-meaning but naïve. They embraced the automobile, for example, as a symbol of freedom and fantasy-fulfillment, all the while decrying the corporate culture and advertising mojo that built up the car’s iconic status in the first place.
Their views toward the city often mirrored those of their parents and older siblings, despite cities’ ostensibly left-wing implications. When they lived in Los Angeles, it was high above the urban center, in Laurel Canyon or Topanga or the Santa Monica Mountains. When they read publications such as The Whole Earth Catalog, they learned about pioneer-style self-sufficiency and going “back to the land.” Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” wanted to get us “back to the garden.” Incidentally, the town of Woodstock (not to be confused with the actual festival site) is close to the Catskills, famous for being the vacation community where New York City families of the earlier twentieth century would flock in order to flee their cramped urban apartments in the summertime. Baby boomers were doing the same fleeing, even following the same geographical pattern as their parents.

The Mamas and the Papas, residents of Laurel Canyon like Joni Mitchell, made a whole cottage industry out of songs that thumbed a nose at urban grit, “California Dreamin’” being the obvious one. “Safe in My Garden” prefers the calm of the Canyon to the “hassles with the heat” down in Hollywood, while “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” begins with a plaintive tale of leaving New York City (“everything there was dark and dirty”).

There were similar contributions from countrypolitan, country rock, and Christian rock – all of which occupied a comparative grey area when it came to ‘60s and ‘70s rebellion. Country music, historically, takes a certain pride in NOT sharing the values of the big city, but it was at this time that Nashville was becoming the industry powerhouse it is today, and we also saw country musicians hitting the coasts to try to make it, the way their peers in rock and pop and rhythm and blues had.

In “Hollywood Humpty Dumpty,” an industry-malaise sister song to Albert Hammond’s “It Never Rains in Southern California,” Mac Davis “believed in the fairytale … but the only fairy [he] found in town was the fairy in the Hollywood jail.” In the “city” where Henson Cargill lamented living in “City Boy, Country Born,” children skinny-dip in the Hudson River and mothers feed their kids instant coffee. John Ylvisaker, a rockin’ Christian hipster that Mojo magazine called “the Dylan of the bible scene,” sang that “the city ain’t nothin’ but a place to be shut in and hide from the eyes of the world.”

CK 2013: EVELYN MCDONNELL

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Song: The Runaways: “California Paradise”

Written and recorded by Evelyn McDonnell

The Runaways used to open their shows with “California Paradise.” The midtempo rocker established the mythology, the particular 1970s American dream of hedonistic freedom that the band of teenage girls repped and peddled: fast cars, fast women, salty winds. Kim Fowley calls the song the female response to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” “It’s a great album cut for rock critics and masturbating youth,” their ever quotable producer, etc., says.
The Runaways at once were those California girls, and they were not. The members all hailed from various pockets of the Los Angeles basin – the Valley, the OC, Long Beach. But they weren’t exactly the “cutest” objects of the brothers Wilson throbbing fantasy. By the time the Runaways recorded “California Paradise,” in the Beach Boys’ studio, Brothers, for their second album, Queens of Noise, they were firmly their own subjects, writing their own fantasies – or ironies. After all, by the mid ‘70s, beach blanket bingo had turned into Babylon bacchanal, more dystopic than utopian. Cherie Currie missed a few days of the Queens sessions in order to abort the child with which she had been impregnated by the Runaways’ manager, Scott Anderson. Listen to the way she hisses “paradise – it’s so nice.” Those are the sibilants of a snake; they’re vaudevillian boos.

I spent the last few years immersed in the sometimes inspiring, sometimes horrific history of the Runaways. It was an intense personal journey in some ways: I was returning to my own California girl roots. I’m a relatively rare species, a third-generation Californian, though my parents fled the smog and Reagan when I was 4. Around the same time the Runaways were traveling the world, singing about busting out of jail, I was becoming a teenager trapped in the heartland. The Golden State represented my own romanticized past and exotic other. We’d go back and visit relatives, and at night, my cousin Cathy – two earth years and 100 light years ahead of me – and I would sneak out and walk the streets of Van Nuys, looking for adventure. Maybe I’m glad I never found the Sugar Shack, the infamous teen disco where the Runaways allegedly found Currie. Or maybe I’m jealous.

It took me four decades to come home — Back to the garden. And I have to admit, in our beachside villa, we live a very Californian paradiscal existence. The sunshine never ends – except for the daily fog. Paradises are always fantasies. The Runaways were smart enough to know that at sweet 16 – and sing about it anyways.

CK 2013: EDWIN HILL

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Song: Casey and B James vs Zone Libre, “Aiguise moi ÇA.”

Written and recorded by Edwin Hill

Listeners and Listenesses. You’re about to hear the battle of the century. It opposes the whole freakin’ world against…Zone Libre, Casey, and B James. HA! That’s right. First blow, did you feel it? The French West Indian rapper Casey and her crew of rap artists and rock musicians are about to rip….your…face…off… Huh!

Listen to that voice…. That “Pah!” is the growl of Casey on “Aiguise-moi ÇA” (Sharpen me THIS), the last track of the 2011 album Les Contes du chaos [Tales of Chaos]. That cut throat is what the track is all about. It’s about “facing the dropping quality of discs and assholes with no talent who just sit and calculate the risks.” It’s about being ferocious and voracious, getting fed up and going off. It’s about caressing fools with a “foot to the thorax.” It’s about razors, flame-throwers, and nails; it’s about going medieval, animal, and monstrous; and it’s about you: you losing your face your body your throat your stuff, to her and her crew while they rip and shred “you” to pieces.

With these self-proclaimed musical hooligans, Paris isn’t a City of Lights, it’s a City of Fights, or better yet a Series of Fights, battles in the dark “zones” in France–the ones that like to set things off every now and again.

Et s’ils ont croisé dans le bordel leurs deux musiques entre elles
Gros batard de guitare et de cité dortoire
C’est qu’ils adorent bien s’occuper de leur clientèle,
So come, give your throat so they can sharpen their scalpels.

“Sharpen me THIS” calls for occasions like “you” to continue its gestures of critical cutting and invective intervening. Dig into the skin of this thick groove, or let it cut through you. Get scared, or just get pissed. It’s okay. It’s good to rage sometimes! It’s the only way you’re making it through the zone. Now, don’t get it twisted; the way these niggas in Paris go gorillas (huh?) and mark their path to the bottom ain’t like Jay-Z and Kanye’s ego trip to the top. Then again, in both cases, “the zone” is a space of masculine dominance where someone is “Liable to go Michael, take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordon…” Well you know the rest. But that’s just it; Casey’s vocal breakdown disrupts the same old script of generic dominance.

For Casey and the lot, it’s not about just getting off on you and your stuff and your city, it’s about them dragging you to their dark place where you can get your body and your face cut up and destroyed in a critical knife fight.

And if they crossed in a whore house two musical styles from hell
Fat guitars rockin rap right through the projects
It’s because they adore taking care of their clientèle
So come, donne ta gorge qu’ils aiguisent leur scalpels.

Listen. I know you’re scarred and scared. Me too. This is confusing. This isn’t sound of Parisian vacation you wanted. You’d always thought French was such a pretty language. You were thinking more “J’ai deux amours” and Paris Je t’aime. You wanted a little candle lit ratatouille with Amélie, oui oui? Mais non. Ah well, c’est la vie. That’s just the way it goes. That’s right. That’s not the trip to Paris you’re in for. But don’t worry about it. [French accent:] It’s okay! Like Michael said, “You are not alone. I am here with you.” But you and Michael are not the only ones gettin’ cut up in the mix. Casey, aka the Beast, aka the Creature of Failure, is in that dark place with you too!

For Casey, la musique c’est le Sweetest Tabou. “une haine saine que elle assène sur le papier” (a healthy hate she punches on the page). She spits a beastly rage as a refusal to submit to raced and gendered conditions of recognition that function within liberal discourses of civility and humanism. She’ll find her own conditions for embodiment (off you, thank you very much). The cover art for Libérez la bête gives an iconography of this monstrous performance strategy. The image is fragmented by a collage, but also by what looks like broken glass from the picture frame itself; the whole thing seems splattered with blood. Violence has been done to the form in the image and to the form of the image. The “scene of subjection” has had problems of containment and contamination. For Casey breaking down what it means to be black or woman or French are key. In other words, you can’t see this black female masculinity…

Well, here we are. The break. This is the zone. This is where you find yourself now, not just in the cut, you’re facing the cut, your face is the cut, the blind spot, the rupture, the breach. People are about to no longer recognize you. Unconventional practices of reading and writing are about to cut you up beyond all social recognition.

As Audre Lorde says, “The image is fire.” You can’t see Casey’s masculine voice, so let me break it down for you like she does. As she explains in an interview, now she knows how to se péter la voix, to blow up her voice. She uses the challenge of live performance with rock musicians as an occasion to break down the voice while simultaneously pushing her sound to new level of intensity. What I’m saying is this black beast rocks your ever-loving world.
And this is it. Shout out to Jose Muñoz, he said there’d be people “choreograph[ing] and execut[ing] their own metaphoric dances in front of the flaming black lagoon, stamping out fires with grace […] building worlds,” so we all knew it would end like this.

This is the part where you get tore up.
Ripped into.
Broken down like voilà.
Now, for “you,” listeners and listenesses, I’m afraid it’s game over.
Or is it game on…?

CK 2013: SARAH KESSLER

Song: Milli Vanilli: “Girl You Know It’s True”

Written by Sarah Kessler

I first heard “Girl You Know It’s True” when I was nine, in 1989, one year after the song’s European release. The friend who played it for me was the epitome of 1980s tween femininity; she had crimped blond hair and regularly wore stirrup pants. She also had her own cassette player. I had none of those things because my mother was German, and was therefore opposed to popular culture and all other things pleasurable in life. So I went next door to L____’s house to simulate sex between her Barbies while listening to Milli Vanilli. For me, these activities were failed attempts at synchronization: ever behind the times, I struggled to keep pace with contemporaneity.

At the time, contemporaneity was the new jack swing style of Milli Vanilli, whose own synchronization project would soon go painfully awry. But before the breaking of the so-called “lip-synch scandal,” Rob and Fab mouthed and danced their way in unison from the screens of boxy TV sets into hearts nationwide. They also hailed from Germany, though not from the same white peasant stock as my mother. Rob was half German and half African-American, raised in Munich, and Fab arrived in Deutschland as an adult, via France and Guadeloupe, where he was born. Frank Farian, the group’s sketchy white German producer, would later be painted as the Aryan Svengali who puppeteered Rob and Fab’s postcolonial bodies to world stardom. But while they were exploited, their framing as mere puppets presents an offensive misreading of their pivotal roles in the awesomely kitschy extravaganza that was Milli Vanilli.

When I finally glimpsed the video for “Girl You Know It’s True” (at L____’s house, owing to my mother’s cable ban), I entered the ranks of fandom. Sporting braided extensions whipped from side-to-side in time with the beat, and primary-colored, square-shouldered, oversized blazers above spandex manpris, the hunky yet undeniably fagacious duo enacted a hybridized pirate-chic to which I was drawn—as I was also drawn to Hammer pants—without knowing why. Replete with poorly executed breakdance moves, chest-bumping, and ample high-fives, Rob and Fab’s highly aestheticized, overdetermined performance inspired me. And impossible as it would have been for a mousy, diminutive white girl like me to pull it off, I wanted to be like them, to rock that hair and those manpris, with all of the problematic assumptions that that desire entailed.

When L____ told me that Rob and Fab had, in her words, “lied,” and that most of their singing had been performed by someone else, I was in a quandary. Lying was wrong, and yet the audiovisual experience of Milli Vanilli was undeniably pleasurable. Was I to stop listening and looking as a result of this unwelcome revelation? The consensus was yes, and Rob and Fab were undone. The unmasking of the Milli Vanilli “lip-synch scandal” was the moment when I learned to hide my own immorality—to fold certain pleasures into myself while condemning them on the outside. This proto-Nietzschean cycle of violence would define my relation to popular music for nearly two decades. Only within the last five years have I begun to listen, with a new ear, to the 80s music that I trained myself to reject as a teenager. In other words, “I sat back and thought about the things we used to” listen to, and I realized that they “really mean a lot to me,” truth be damned.