Friday, December 08, 2006

Todd's Top Ten Electric Guitarists Who Changed the World

(warning #1: 70s old-guy content)

A Guide for Electric Guitar Connoisseurs

1. Jimi Hendrix (Jimmy James and the Blue Flames): Insanely innovative sonic pioneer, and not a bad songwriter too. Made fantastic sounds using every part of the guitar and amp. Listen for all the cool sounds and melodies in, say, the psychedelic classic, 1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be), or anything on Electric Ladyland, for that matter--like All Along the Watchtower--a tour de force of rippling, gorgeous, overlaid guitar tracks.

2. Jimmy Page (of the Led Zeppelins): Another sonic iconoclast and pioneer. The songs are all multi-part and multi-textured and constructed to blow your mind (yeah man), such as in the fake endings in Stairway to Heaven that precede redoubled noise. The guitar sounds, both loud and soft, are varied, subtle, and expressive. Listen to Since I've Been Loving You for its mindblowing climaxes (yeah man), and Ramble On for the beautiful and mysterious guitar sounds, electric over acoustic. Nice bass lines too.

3. Billy Gibbons (from ZZ Top): Rarely mentioned virtuoso and creator of awesome, subtle Stratocaster tones, especially before their decadent MTV period (on his since-lost guitar, Pearly Gates). The classic stuff is on Tejas, side Two of Fandango (the studio stuff), and Tres Hombres. Unbelievable precision, phrasing, and power, and great taste in tones, by which I mean the ribbony thinness and bite (you ever see the way a motorcycle's shiny steel muffler takes on an opalescent blue flame look? That's Billy Gibbons' guitar tone on these albums). Main innovation: choking up on the pick (he uses a quarter or a peso) at high volume so that instead of the notes, these unpredictable harmonics and overtones come out, as in the famous solo in La Grange. This technique accounts for all the weird squawking sounds as the song fades out... Also: must-listen: Blue Jean Blues, a soulful minor key blues on Fandango.

4. David Gilmour (the Pink Floyds): Overshadowed by bandmate Roger Waters, Gilmour has crafted some of the most memorable guitar solos ever on radio. I bet you could sing the solo to Money or Comfortably Numb--just turn down the radio next time and try. And he did a lot of pretty acoustic stuff too, i.e. on Meddle, and on Wish You Were Here.

5. Paul McCartney: OK, he is a bassist (aka bass guitar), but next time you listen to a Beatles song, concentrate on the nifty, melodic bass lines. The guy is a little lightweight as a lyricist, but a major league pop melodist and an innovative, busy bassist. And to top it off he was innovative on the acoustic guitar as well, such as on Blackbird, which is just not fair.

6. Kurt Cobain: One of the most aggressive and downright ugly guitar players of all time. And thats a good thing. Also showed some touch on that Unplugged Album, which revealed him to be a great songwriter as least to me. Huge sound that is emulated everywhere today.

7. Lou Reed (Velvet Underground): This guy is barely a musician, but the chugging, dirty rhythm guitar powering White Light, White Heat or any classic VU song has been stolen and transformed by bands of just about every following generation. Example: you guys had me listen to Broken Social Scene. You know the song 7/4? That warm, dirty guitar sound that propels the song? Lou Reed invented means the amp is overloaded and starting to distort. Most would have thought that sound ugly, but the Velvets found beauty in it, and thus gave birth to shoegazing....

8. Chuck Berry: inventor of rock guitar, of the main licks and moves everyone learns, and especially the "motorvating" sound evoking cars and hotrod culture. Without Chuck Berry, all the guys above would have been parking lot attendants. Try Maybelline for the nasty dirty guitar intro and solo. Its not supposed to be pretty....burns, sort of.

9. Angus Young: when I was in high school I dismissed this band as "low class." And boy was I right. But this guy's guitar parts can fairly be called majestic. For example, on Hells Bells, and especially For Those About to Rock (We Salute You). Plus, judging by pictures (see above), the guy is barely bigger than the guitars he plays. Wears short pants too, which I admire in a man.

10. I shouldn't leave out the crunching power of Pete Townshend on rhythm guitar (who lost fingernails doing his famous windmill move--ouch!). This might be the loudest, most powerful band ever. So loud they were able to survive the death of the greatest drummer ever. Try Who's Next or Live at Leeds, for example.

Why no women on this list? I don't know! Maybe because the electric guitar has always been extremely phallic and associated with cars, aggression and social transgression? Maybe because the guitar solo is so well suited to macho preening and narcissistic self-indulgence? Nancy Wilson of Heart was a brilliant guitar player, especially on the acoustic guitar (listen to the acoustic stuff on Little Queen and Dog and Butterfly), but even Heart hired on male lead guitarists who they later had to fire for drug use.....there are many distinguished female rockers, and no one will ever duplicate all the innovative things Joni Mitchell did on acoustic guitar in her career, but there are just too few women playing electric guitar (but for what our book would call cultural, not genetic reasons...)

Note: my favorite guitarist is probably Keith Richards. I have no idea why I didn't include him...but I don't want my top ten to go to eleven...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Extra Credit Blogging Opp:
Do You Feel Pretty?

Watch this commercial about Maria Sharapova, tennis' new sex symbol, who has replaced Anna Kournikova as an object of huge numbers of internet searches. The thing about Sharapova, however, is she has game--she is a hyper-intense competitor and athlete who has now won both Wimbledon AND this summer's US Open. This commercial plays her image as sex symbol (a traditionally "feminine" role people seem to impose on her in the ad) against her screaming competitiveness (un-"lady"-like?) on the court. But HOW, exactly, does it work? What's the message, and what roles do the various people (the little girl, the hotel maid, etc.) who sing the stereotyping song play in creating the contrast? Is it a feminist message? If so, how?

You might also consider the "other," more sexualized Maria Sharapova, however. Doing lots of modeling gigs (and even, like Kournikova, and the high-achieving Williams sisters before her, a Sports Illustrated bikini shoot!), Sharapova herself seems to play both roles comfortably, and seems to think her sexual public persona is ALSO a powerful one--certainly it brings her economic power in the short term. But does she do a dis-service to her hard earned athletic success, and to women and young girls who admire her, by serving herself up for male enjoyment in this way? Which Maria would you want your daughter to emulate? Is the female sexual power of such successful women (think, for example, Madonna) a real form of women's cultural power, or does it reinforce male dominance by reducing powerful women to sexual objects, just like their other, less successful sisters?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Gender Norms and Gender Transgression

You have 30 minutes to get started on this blogging assignment. Then we will share, and you can develop and complete your posts over the weekend. Choose some public figure (musician, athlete, actor, artist, politician, fictional character, etc) who you admire (or admired growing up), and describe and analyze the “messages” they send about gender, especially the way they present themselves as men and woman in comparison to “the norm,” or various gender norms. Do they transgress (violate) gender norms for the various groups to which they belong, or do they reinforce them, or do they do both? Are they “manly men,” “girly girls” or do they mix or reject such expectations? If you choose gay or lesbian figures, be aware that sexuality (in the sense of who one is attracted to) will complicate your analysis.

There are many cultural "norms" for men and women in general, but there are also norms specific to smaller groups, like one's particular profession, one's generation, or various subcultures. Thus you might find that mixed messages are extremely common (and interesting). For example, if you chose Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, you might describe how Cobain was both hyper-aggressive in his music (fitting norms for young men, for male punk musicians, and for 90's rock stars), while also expressing an extremely un-macho sensitivity and vulnerability in his lyrics. One might argue that an artist who compared his libido to a mosquito did not share the same macho ideals of hard rock contemporaries like, say, Guns and Roses’ Axl Rose, who Cobain criticized for sexism, among other things:

"His role has been played for years. Ever since the beginning of rock and roll, there's been an Axl Rose. And it's just boring. It's totally boring to me. Why it's such a fresh and new thing in his eyes is obviously because it's happening to him personally and he's such an egotistical person that he thinks that the whole world owes him something."

Be sure and think about the context and history of your public figure, and what factors may have influenced the kind or “flavor” of gender they project. The more details you can think of to support your analysis the better—for example, hairstyle, clothes, make-up, or the messages in their art or professional field. Pictures would be especially helpful, or perhaps links to or embedded youtube clips....?

Then, over the weekend, finish your posts, and reflect on each other’s analyses in the comments, both of which will be due by midnight on Sunday night. I will be grading blog posts this time, and no one will get a check plus without a presence in the comments on each other's blogs.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Columbus Day Blogging

T-Bone Burnett, (better known as the guy who taught the non-singing actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, to sing for the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line), wrote a song in 1992 called "Humans From Earth," that suggests that to "rape and pillage" is a universal human trait:

We come from a blue planet light-years away
Where everything multiplies at an amazing rate
We're out here in the universe buying real estate
Hope we haven't gotten here too late


We're humans from earth
We're humans from earth
You have nothing at all to fear
I think we're gonna like it here

We're looking for a planet with atmosphere
Where the air is fresh and the water clear
With lots of sun like you have here
Three or four hundred days a year


Bought Manhatten for a string of beads
Brought along some gadgets for you to see
Heres a crazy little thing we call TV
Do you have electricity?


I know we may seem pretty strange to you
But we got know-how and a golden rule
We're here to see manifest destiny through
Ain't nothing we can't get used to

We're humans from earth
We're humans from earth
[Note: I will only leave the song up only for a couple of days to respect T-Bone's intellectual property--we need to be discussing more thinkers named "T-Bone" in this class!]

There are a couple of clues in the song that Burnett includes the USA in this condemnation of imperialism, for example, in the reference to manifest destiny, the 19th century doctrine used to claim America's right to expand "from sea to shining sea." But the song also seems to conclude that all of "us" here on earth have this tendency (we will leave aside any questions of gender til the next chapter). This idea harshly critiques American and European imperialists specifically, and the human race in general, but it also suggests that oppressed peoples have themselves oppressed, or would oppress, given half a chance. (Let's spread that blame around!)

Interestingly, in your reading for Wednesday, Christopher Columbus is mentioned in a paragraph about, well, genocide (p. 59). The book does not blame Columbus personally for this (though one can read accounts of his tyrannical 7-year rule as governor of Jamaica), but connects his arrival in the already inhabited "new world" to the Europeans who came after him, and who practiced genocide, defined as "the deliberate, systematic killing of an entire people or nation." That is quite strongly put, isn't it? And we just celebrated Columbus day yesterday, in case you wondered why there was no mail or traffic jams.

So your assignment for your weekend's blogging is to reflect on the contradictions between these two symbolic Columbus's, the one that we were all taught about as kids, and whom we officially revere as a nation, and the oppressive Columbus of our textbook, symbolizing the history of violence perpetrated by white Europeans on the "hundreds of thousands of Native Americans [who] died during this period." What role does race play in understanding each of these opposed figures? Should the US even celebrate Columbus day? Is it good in some way to do so? Should we celebrate an "anti-Columbus day" as well? You need not, of course, take the book's position, but you should take it seriously. What values (for example, the values of liberalism and conservatism) do these symbolic Columbus's represent, and are these values shared, or do some groups emphasize one more than the other? Do the Columbuses represent what our book calls "positive" and "negative" ethnocentrism? Which one appeals to your value system, and why?

Please ponder a few of these questions in your post by midnight on Sunday (Oct. 15), and then comment around on other blogs before class on Monday.

Update: for a taste of what critics are talking about, here is an excerpt from an account of Columbus' actions by one member of his crew, Miguel Cuneo:

"When our caravels… where to leave for Spain, we gathered…one thousand six hundred male and female persons of those Indians, and these we embarked in our caravels on February 17, 1495…For those who remained, we let it be known (to the Spaniards who manned the island's fort) in the vicinity that anyone who wanted to take some of them could do so, to the amount desired, which was done."

Cuneo further notes that he himself took a beautiful teenage Carib girl as his personal slave, a gift from Columbus himself, but that when he attempted to have sex with her, she "resisted with all her strength." So, in his own words, he "thrashed her mercilessly and raped her."

Apparently, sex slavery was as common as that of labor:

As Columbus wrote to a friend in 1500: "A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten (years old) are now in demand."

However, the Taino turned out not to be particularly good workers in the plantations that the Spaniards and later the French established on Hispaniola: they resented their lands and children being taken, and attempted to fight back against the invaders. Since the Taino where obviously standing in the way of Spain's progress, Columbus sought to impose discipline on them. For even a minor offense, an Indian's nose or ear was cut off, se he could go back to his village to impress the people with the brutality the Spanish were capable of. Columbus attacked them with dogs, skewered them with pikes, and shot them.

Eventually, life for the Taino became so unbearable that, as Pedro de Cordoba wrote to King Ferdinand in a 1517 letter, "As a result of the sufferings and hard labor they endured, the Indians choose and have chosen suicide. Occasionally a hundred have committed mass suicide. The women, exhausted by labor, have shunned conception and childbirth… Many, when pregnant, have taken something to abort and have aborted. Others after delivery have killed their children with their own hands, so as not to leave them in such oppressive slavery."

Friday, September 29, 2006

Friday Catblogging

For those who do not hate on kitties, here is our cat Simon, on his third home because of his little "bungling bombardier" problem around the litter box, and his insistence on sleeping in the bedroom with his people. Lucky for him the first problem was solved with a litter box top; the second was solved after he basically outlasted us--he did his clawless scratching on the door thing til we realized he was going to win eventually. So now he gets to sleep with us (and takes up a third of the bed).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

AP Programs (and Class and Race)

This guy suggested in USA Today last week that AP programs create a kind of class division among students, who are divided by their potential to go to college, and thus need AP classes:

All parents want their children to be with the nice kids, the bright and well-behaved types who will pull classes up, rather than with kids who will drag them down. In big, economically and ethnically diverse high schools such as mine, T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., where there is enormous variation in academic abilities, average kids run the risk of ending up in one of two tracks: in classes full of students with weak skills and lousy attitudes or in so-called advanced courses where they find themselves in over their heads.

All this AP stuff came about after my time (when I was growing up we all wore propellor beanies and kneesocks to school and said "Gee!" and "Golly" a lot, and then hurried home to churn butter and milk the cows) so I am wondering: do AP classes result in a kind of de facto (unintended) segregation of the kids by race or economic level because parents who expect their kids to go to college tend to themselves be of a certain class or race? What is your experience? Were AP classes exclusive or elitist, or were they diverse in those ways? Or what?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Bad Guys Wanted?

We just watched Russell Crowe in Ron Howard's Cinderella Man, a movie that leadenly tries to be what critics calls "Capra-esque," as in Frank Capra, director of It Happened One Night and It's a Wonderful Life, and thirties Hollywood's sentimental champion of democracy and the "little guy" against the excesses of capitalism. Sure enough the movie had a cigar-chewing, suspendered "fat cat" capitalist (played by the explosive character actor, Bruce McGill, awesome in another Crowe movie, The Insider, where he out Pacino-ed Al Pacino). He looked a lot like the cartoon capitalists our book included in the last chapter!

Anyhoo: the movie was not content to make their "good guy" metaphysically Good in contrast to the Evil Capitalist, but also gratuitously made a villain of thirties heavyweight champ Max Baer, making of Baer a monstrous killer in the ring, and an insatiable, misogynist womanizer outside of it. Well, as it turns out, Baer, a Nebraskan butcher's son who famously killed two of his opponents in the ring, was a warm, clowning guy who was wracked with remorse for the accidental deaths (for one of which he was prosecuted, but acquitted). Baer was proud of the fact he never had a fight outside the ring: he once rather heartbreakingly said, "I never harmed anyone outside the ring. I loved people." His son, Max Baer Jr. (yes, Jethro!), said his father put the children of one of the dead opponents through school:

My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. "In reality, my father was one of the kindest, gentlest men you would ever hope to meet. He treated boxing the way today's professional wrestlers do wrestling: part sport, mostly showmanship. If I were to make a comparison, he was more like Muhammad Ali than the Sonny Liston of his day. He never deliberately hurt anyone."
Now I am not saying that "fat cat" capitalists weep at night over the poor and excluded. But it may be that such black and white versions of reality as Ron Howard tends to dispense in his films are confusing and unhelpful: is capitalism really a deliberate and sadistic assault on the hated poor by greedy old men like Mr. Potter in Its A Wonderful Life? Or is it something more complex? In fact, to personalize it in that way seems to be the reverse of what our book calls "blaming the victim," emphasizing personal failings of individuals over the systematic obstacles presented by class inequities. Doesn't representing capitalist abuse as similarly "personal" and malevolent also obscure more complex realities at work? Is there really a bad guy to blame? This is not to minimize the class inequities of capitalism, but to notice how Hollywood, even when it professes "good" intentions, tends to simplify problems in ways that make it difficult to think clearly about the complex and systematic forces at work in the American class system...

I mean I hate your evil fat cat as much as the next person, but does he really exist?