“Groundbreaking Women in U. S. Music: A History in 150 [or so] Albums”: Greatest Hits from Two Essay Assignments

This year, I had the opportunity to design and teach a gen ed class in Stephens College’s arts array. Considering Stephens is a women’s college (it does have a conservatory program that enrolls a few men), and considering my inclinations, it should be no surprise that the class I designed I chose to call “Groundbreaking Women in U. S. Music: A History in 150 Albums.” Why just United States music? It’s a semester class, folks! How 150 albums?? Have you heard of streaming? It beats buying a bunch of books (though they did read them for this class), and, believe it or not, we at least touched on more than that many. Their homework was usually a Spotify playlist–we discussed the Joe Rogan affair, but the class unanimously decided to stick with that platform–crammed with important albums from a chronological time period, some I insisted they listen to in their entirety, others I advised them to sample.

One of the class’ (and my) favorites

I spent the first three days taking them on a speedy trip from the advent of pop music on record–

–to the rise of the 12″ long-playing album (here’s a sample), then we began the real journey. My plan was to get from the early 1950s to 2000, then assign them two projects that would leave it up to them to explore 2001 to the present (see some of the results–the greatest hits–below). Due to my cramming each class so full (plus some unexpected occurrences that called me away from home and forced me to teach virtually) (plus my insistence on screening four films: Anita O’Day–The Life of a Jazz Singer, What Happened, Miss Simone?, 20 Feet from Stardom, and Poly StyreneI Am a Cliche–no regrets on the choices), we only made it to about 1995, though we often talked about albums later than that, especially current ones. I was also fortunate enough to lasso in two terrific guest speakers, groundbreaking country music journalist Alanna Nash (a 1972 graduate of Stephens, which I actually learned after I’d thought to ask her) and the lead singer and songwriter of the band The Paranoid Style, an inspiring music journalist herself, Elizabeth Nelson. The students responded to them much more enthusiastically than to me, and I hope they’ll make a return visit if the class continues, as I’ve been informed it should next spring. As far as work was concerned, aside from listening to and annotating playlists for discussion, they took a couple tests (which including listening identification, the sections of which most students excelled on), provided discussion board commentary on the films and speakers, read and critiqued a music tome from a list I provided, and, for their final exam, wrote an in-class essay arguing for a woman and an album of hers post-2000 that were groundbreaking. Again, nice examples of both of those essays (free from my edits) are provided below. The class provided a three-hour credit in Stephens’ arts array and was open to all students–most of them were freshmen, but I had a few from the other three classes.

Our focuses were, first, defining what groundbreaking in this context means, then taking off on the roads provided by those definitions: making fresh innovations to pre-existing practices (sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally), busting through artistic, social, cultural, and economic roadblocks, acting as conduits for new (and old) currents in women’s and artists’ lives, and inventing new stuff (or seeming to) out of thin air–well, nothing’s invented out of thin air. I am very likely forgetting some side-roads onto which we detoured, because we did do that, or it wouldn’t be a class of mine.

Overall, I was pretty satisfied with the first run. As I said, I crammed the burrito too full and we couldn’t finish it; also, due to Covid restrictions at the beginning of the semester, we ended up in a cavernous space (an auditorium) that hindered our ability to get to know each other better and establish the kind of class chemistry I like; I wanted to feature a live performance by a local singer-songwriter who could have nicely represented and spoken to the world of women and music in Columbia, but I could not swing that (there’s always a next time, and I have a different performer in mind); I was frequently distracted and not always at my organizational best; and–an inevitable fault–I simply left out some essential figures for no good reason other than faulty memory and not bearing down on pre-class research (like just looking at my own stacks! How did I leave out DINAH WASHINGTON?). However, the results of the students’ tests, their in-class inquiries and arguments, their enthusiasm on discussion boards, and the generally high quality of their essays testify to me that the class worked–and, to at least some extent, in spite of me.

Here are some excellent examples of the essays. I am primarily a composition teacher, but in this class I only offered writing suggestions on an intermittent basis (the assignment sheets, on the other hand, were chock-full of those), didn’t require peer edits, and didn’t read, mark, and return drafts for revision like I would in my comp classes. What you’re reading is their untouched work; I feel no insecurity in showcasing it that way! (Plus, I’ll never forget the fellow teacher during my public school years who personally revised her students’ writing assignments before they were brought in for department double-blind assessment–that’s a lot of dang work to create an illusion!)

Please note: These writers have all granted me permission to publish their work on my blog. I have chosen to keep their identities anonymous; however, if, for professional reasons, you would like to know who they are, please contact me through this blog and I will contact them to attain consent. Also, regarding theft of the following writing, each essay has been data-based as protection against plagiarism.


Binary Absence: How Queer Music Exposed Societal Delusion
(The writer’s a freshman; her final exam essay leads off the next section!)

The majority of gender is perception. People want to be perceived as the gender they see themselves. It is a conscious effort of transness to be seen in a satisfactory way and speak their preferred dialect in a world where gender is the most surfaced language. In the past couple hundred years, the patriarchy has managed to intertwine gender into everything favorably to it, and deemed everything outside its strict parameters as queer. The word “queer” is a powerful reconstruction of a word historically used to snicker at us. Previously and currently, a word synonymous with strange, queer is now a common description used personally by individuals in the LGBTQ+. Not only is this fabulous, but it is also beautifully descriptive and inclusive in its use. Queerness is an encompassment of the shared emotional rollercoaster that is being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. In Glitter Up the Dark by Sasha Geffen, the presence of deviant identities like Prince, Klaus Nomi, David Bowie, Ma Rainey, and countless others are fiercely confirmed and tell a consolidated musical story of how queerness has come into power.

This text by Sasha Geffen dives into the specifics of queer music history. It details dozens of artists’ stories in order of genre; consistently proving the relevance genre has had in queer acceptance and reactions. Not only does Sasha talk about artists who self-identified as queer, but artists who left a queer impact despite their personal sexual orientation. The first mention of this type of impact was The Beatles, and it touched on their unconventional femininity that pivoted the public gaze from brawny, masculine men. This discussion tumbles into future displays of boy bands and the homoerotic nature that is often included. Arguably the real meat and potatoes is the talk of queer artists and the public’s relationship to them and their identity. The trailblazing done by early gay, genderqueer, and trans artists left a mark for their successors of the future in ways that were carefully articulated by the author of this book. Each queer story builds upon another to make a rainbow big enough to be seen by those who do not yet see. It’s always been freeing to see people mix and blend gender to their own expression. Prince was my first example of this as a kid. My favorite song of his, I Would Die 4 U, opens with the lyric “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I’m something that you can not understand” which spoke to me in great depths because of an extremely gendered ideology that never seemed worth following or protecting. It truly is something that most people cannot understand, mostly due to a fault that is not their own. Nearly every act, item, and color are associated with a supposed boyishness or girlishness, which is a hard cycle to break from when it engulfs everyday life. I’ve noticed that genderqueer people find freedom in more than just their gender. They seem to have a more complete understanding of the universal experience and things that make all of us similar and unique. They live life with a philosophy that it is a profound but finite experience that should be indulged. There is a rawness to their approach that relates to more people than anticipated considering their commercial success. Of course, with all these beautiful things that come with a queer way of being, there also comes a sea of misfortune and failure by the outside world. These same people that are filled to the brim with art and creativity are ostracized at any sign of eccentricity or “queerness;” apart from those who understand. The author of this book speaks from the point of view of someone who understands, and for that reason, they speak knowingly of the intricacies in queer life and music.

It can be really scary to reject a system that has implemented itself into things as simple as the fit of pants and a haircut, yet artists display such seemingly fearless acts of societal defiance. This book goes into the details of the artist’s personal identity and experience as well as the state of the world and its reaction. Because this book deals with so many artists, there are connections to be made between the art and its repercussions through time. Not only does queer music inter-connect, but queer artists can be found in just about every other area of history.

Toward the end of the book, Geffen delves into the age of the internet in its own chapter. Queer artists were at the forefront of the new-age technology because of their already forward-thinking perspectives- their desperate yearning for progression. It is no secret that the queer internet footprint is not slight, so the intertwining roles of queer people in the internet and music are particularly fascinating. Following this chapter is an epilogue in which Sasha explains bits of their own relationship with the book’s contents. They describe that relationship as being not necessarily hopeful, but “grateful for the optimism: the belief of transness as transformative within the body and outside it”. This compelling connection between the individual transition and the transformation of public perception is what fulfilled the purpose of the epilogue. It explains how this music is tapped into an intellectual transcendent wisdom that consistently sends waves into the public and awakens people to the idea of an absence of binary. Queer artists unfailingly make reference to the possibility of free-living despite the boundaries binary structures impose. “A happy ending is what we have to be hopeful for. If there is a meteor that is going to destroy the earth, at least there’s the most beautiful sunset the world has ever seen right before it crushes us. maybe my album is that sunset” says Yves Tumor, a genderqueer artist Sasha references in the epilogue. This is a charming illustration of the optimism in queer freedom that abjects the patriarchal agenda that cis men have been building for centuries. Similar to Tumor’s take on the subject, Geffen does a fantastic job at following queer history in an organized and thorough way.

Prince’s expression of gender and sexuality has been a personal fascination since early childhood. My dad, despite his conservative views, actually raised me on numerous of the artists mentioned in this book. Out of these, Prince is undoubtedly the queer artist that has most influenced my becoming. His androgynous yelps and falsetto got me just as excited as Michael Jackson’s voice, of whom I’ve always been a big fan. Even better than his voice, though, was his presentation. Seeing his music videos as an elementary student was an awakening to a whole other level of beauty that would only grow in importance. Everything about him was fabulous: his fashion, unapologetic demeanor, feminine elegance, mystery, and explosive talent just to name a few. His songs followed me to be included in queer experiences of my own. Now in my journey of gender queerness, he remains an affirming reference to my potential.

This book is for music fans who are either queer or interested in learning about groundbreaking artists, most of which happen to be queer. The itinerary of names in this piece had me seriously flabbergasted. These are artists that any non-queer person would know and love. I would say my experience as a queer person reading this elevated my perception of the artists’ impact considering the repercussions their actions have had on my current reality. Throughout my reading I was just in awe of queerness, seeing it in everything, understanding it in a deeper collective sense. It really is a facet of the creative, intellectual, eccentric way of being that is so commonly seen in artists. It has caused me to look at the queer people in my daily life as if they too are stars. There is clear solidarity in the universal queer experience that solidifies queerness with greatness in the language of art.

Blowing Up The Binary

(This writer is a junior whom I also was fortunate to teach when she was a freshman; she chose the same book as the above writer, which is a true testament to an excellent book, the author of which I hope to bring in as a guest speaker next round.)

A stage stands in darkness awaiting its performer as the audience grows more anxious with anticipation. Suddenly lights burst to life and a figure comes into view. They aren’t necessarily man or woman, feminine or masculine, one or the other. Rather they are everything. They are androgyne and they are here to Glitter Up the Dark. From Ma Rainey (early 1900s) to Lady Gaga (early 2000s) the world of music has always been a place to explore gender and sexuality through fashion, makeup, and music. And while the full title of the book is Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, writer Saha Geffen says themself the binary “has always limped along in pieces, easily cracked by a brief foray into the historical record” (Geffen 1). So how do they write an entire book based on breaking the binary if they don’t believe in it in the first place? It’s all about perception. Geffen is “illuminating common strategies as they pertain to music’s unique potential for defection from the status quo” (Geffen 10).

Starting off strong, Geffen recounts the influence that blues and Black singers had on upcoming artists at the turn of the century. Black women especially slid “barely coded lyrics” (Geffen 3) into their songs. For example, Geffen uses Ma Rainey’s song “Sissy Blues” as the bridge to talk about how Rainey and Bessie Smith “exposed the stereotypes and explored the contradictions of [Queer] relationships” (Geffen 3). This segways into the main questions Geffen prepares to investigate throughout their book; “Why is music so inherently Queer?” (Geffen 8). Does it have to do with the way we experience music? Or rather the fact that music itself is “inherently a sensual exchange” (Geffen 9). In whatever way it is framed, the heart of the matter is music is a space where audiences and artists alike can let go and traverse the multitude of ways to express themselves.

An example that comes to mind – that is still not fully convincing – is how The Beatles were “the first boy band to break the gender mold” (Geffen 13). Looking at the Beatles with a modern eye makes it hard to visualize how they can be a part of ‘breaking the binary.’ But once viewed through the lens of time, the band takes shape as “something more complex than an empty sexual template” (Geffen 15). Geffen argues that The Beatles’ manager – a gay man named Brian Epstein – is the reason for curating the aesthetic of the band. This is one of the most fascinating parts of the first half of the book and where Geffen’s knowledge is on full display. While the other parts of the novel are interesting – Prince, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, LaBelle, and countless others – their gender expression / presentation isn’t subtle. By looking at one picture of Prince or David Bowie or even Iggy Pop it’s easy to identify the Queer influences, but with The Beatles, it’s a whole different story. And yes, The Beatles have been talked about to death and they are cis, straight, white men, but the intrigue comes from the not knowing and not apparently obvious aspects.

Another gripe about the first half of the book is that Geffen focuses primarily on male / masculine artists. While there are women sprinkled in, it is not until the second half that they delve deeper into these artists. Primarily Maxine Feldman and the lesbian voice. From the first time, Feldman and the song “Angry Atthis” are mentioned it captures attention. Geffen uses the Stonewall riots to connect the thread of Feldman’s song leaving the reader wondering how the two connect (Geffen 174). Women’s Music was born from this sound and era of music. Starting with “Angry Atthis,” listeners can hear the explicitly lesbian lyrics – a far deviation from Ma Rainey’s “barely coded lyrics” – accompanied by the rough vocals from Feldman. The song takes on the frustrations of lesbians from every generation and reveals them in a slam poetry-
style recording. Where the song lacks backup vocals or arrangements, it makes up for in the tone, grit, and shock value. The song isn’t flowery in any way. But that is where it succeeds. By choosing not to have a flashy or loud background, Feldman forces listeners to focus on the lyrics, to truly feel what Feldman feels. “Angry Atthis” is exactly what its name implies: angry.

Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary definitely threw glitter on the stage. Geffen is an adept writer and music scholar, but is their book breaking any ground? There is no correct answer here. To readers well versed in Queer history / Queer music history, it might just be retelling them everything they knew, but to the casual reader, this all could be new and revolutionary to them. So who can actually make a case for either side? That, of course, is not a question to be answered now, but a question that did need answering was “Why is music so inherently Queer?” Again, there isn’t a concrete answer for this. But it’s apparent that music is an art form that welcomes expression and new ideas. Other art – particularly film – takes years, or even decades to catch up with popular culture while music spearheads the movement along with fashion. Glitter Up the Dark is deeply fascinating for countless reasons. Geffen appeals to niche audiences while still making sure casual audiences understand what they are trying to say. The music theory isn’t too daunting to figure out and the analysis helps where quotes fail. In all Geffen produced a book that is the start of the investigation of gender in music.

“You put them on a pedestal, but now, you recognise them as flawed people, and as individuals”:
A book analysis on Fangirls by Hannah Ewens

(This is a freshman all the way from Alberta, Canada! Last semester, all of my students read Hannah’s terrific book and tapped her wisdom when she Zoomed in to our classroom.)

Hannah Ewens wrote Fangirls all about fans and their experiences and stories. Ewens shared some of her own stories and thoughts on certain artists and situations, ranging from My Chemical Romance to Elvis Presley. The word Fan means something very different to everyone, something learned after reading Fangirls. Heartbreak, depression, obsession, and love are all things felt by fans; as crazed as that might sound it is more correct than would be imagined. There is a lot more to being a fan than just liking an artist’s music; there is a deep connection among other things. Fans are not crazy, just connected.

Ewens writes in the prologue “I’ve often thought the people around the spectacle as curious as the spectacle itself – and as worthy of proper investigation” (12). She felt that fans were worth learning more about, so she then wanted to know why they did what they did. Fangirls have a history and “Just telling the good side of things didn’t make the “cut”” (Ewens 17). The role of a fangirl entailed more than just making an artist sound and look good, it included calling them out when they do something that is not liked by the general public. In order to make the so-called cut of being a fangirl, fans have to tell the good and bad side of what is going on with an artist. Fans hold so much power that they are “just as important as the artists they love” (Ewens 21). The presence they hold on all platforms, whether it be social media or public, has become so strong that sometimes they become equally or more important than the artists themselves. They do, however, come with their fair share of stereotypical fan behavior. They are seen by others as psychotic, obsessed, and emotional. The way fans are perceived varies depending on where in the world they are from and which artist or group they are a fan of. For these fans, their love for an artist and their music is an escape from reality and a temporary “cure” for their mental health: “There are two ways to deal with mental illness or difficult life circumstances: to engage or to distract. Neither, she says, is correct or inherently good, but both are necessary for ideal mental health” (Ewens 69). No matter which of these two ways a fan chooses to deal with their mental health, the music itself and the lyrics within it is what helps these individuals overcome their internal battles. A great example of this is My Chemical Romance and the way they use their music to help their fans overcome mental health challenge’s. Ewens feels that “(t)he meaning was there – pain and drama – when I couldn’t verbalise anything. I thought to myself: anytime you need to come back here, you can” (68). Even as the author of this piece Hannah Ewens writes about how their music helped her get through pain of her own. What is seen on the outside is not what defines a fangirl, it is what is seen inside and out: everything that they are.

How Ewens goes about the normalcy of artists that does not seem to be realized by those in and outside the fangirl’s realm is interesting. She reminds that readers that “(t)his frailty serves as a reminder that these people that fans love so much are human beings, who get ill, hurt, are in pain, cry, and eventually will die just like the rest of us” (Ewens 91). In reference to the title of this paper, artists are raised to such a high standard by their fans that once they are noticed as individuals that make mistakes and feel, just like everyone else, it seems as though they are shocked. The fact that artists really are just normal, flawed individuals often gets overshadowed over by their fame and “power.” Although this seems like simple knowledge that artists are real people, it is often not recognized by fans, and Ewens addresses this so delicately that it really gets the point across.

Out of the numerous artists talked about in the book, Lady Gaga stuck out the most. The topic of mental health and Gaga’s experience with it was extremely interesting to read about. Through looking further into her music, I was able to gain new insights into what she went through and what the meaning behind some of her lyrics are. In her song “911” from the Chromatica album that was released in 2020, the lyrics “My biggest enemy is me/Ever since day one” gave so much insight in so little words. From the start Gaga struggled with her own thoughts and feelings of herself, the internal fight many struggle to overcome. Despite what she has been through, she chooses to share these thoughts and experiences through her music. She uses her music to communicate with those that relate to her and have been through the same trauma in knowing that they are not alone. Another song on this album called “Replay” talks about confusion with trauma triggers and how to deal with them. She sings, “The scars on my mind are on replay”; although she brings this sensitive topic into music, she inspires others to have hope using an upbeat track behind these painful lyrics. A personal insight that I gained was the trauma and immense pain that Lady Gaga went through and the fact that she wanted to use her own trauma and music to help others get through their own mental illnesses.

Ewens wrote this book to give others insights into why fans act the way they did and why they do the things they do. She aimed to give a deeper meaning behind what a fan is and show that they are more than what meets the eye. This was successfully achieved through Fangirls. Fans feel depression, heartbreak, obsession, and love, all through their favorite artists. This is not meant to seem nutty, but rather to show that fans are more than just their love for music. They are not crazy; they just share a deeper connection with artists than others. Fangirls is the perfect read for anyone that struggles with mental health, loves music, or wants to know more about fan behavior. A recommendation for potential readers is to go into this book with an open mind and be willing to learn more about fans and their connection with artists rather than just listening to the stereotypes.

Girls Go Groupies: I’m With the Band Critique

(This writer, also a freshman, was one of the most incisive and daring of class discussion leaders, and often seemed to be mind-melding with me by introducing important questions before I could blab them out. Better from her than from me!)

It is without a doubt that the 1960s and the 1970s were monumental for music. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll is the tagline for the raging music world in these decades. Glammed out men singing to stadiums full of screaming young girls known as “groupies.” 1960s – 70s groupies bring a specific image to mind; bra throwing, sweaty, doting, obsessive, nymphomaniac fangirls who would do anything and everything for the man of their dreams. Pamela Des Barres, a famous groupie for bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, shows that there is more to a groupie than what meets the eye. In her book, aptly titled “I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie”, Pamela looks back on her life and adventures in the music world through her connection to these idols. Pamela crafts a beautiful playlist of influential songs while showing the nitty gritty reality of the music world, the turbulent sixties, and the musicians the world was head over heels with.

Pamela Des Barres was born and raised in California. In the sixties, California was full of hustling and bustling hippies and musicians, spreading their free love and cheap records. During high school, Pam started listening to The Beatles. Beatlemania was well a part of Pamela’s teen life, writing in her journal how she would love to thank Paul McCartney for his beautiful music with fellatio, and passing Beatle love stories with her Beatle friends. This is just the beginning of her desire to give her love to musicians. While many of her friends stopped following musicians after the Beatles, Paul was just her first. Nicholas Saint Nicholas, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Waylon Jennings, Chris Hillman, Noel Redding, Michael Des Barres are among the list of musicians and celebrities she dated or have been with, and the list goes on. Throughout her journeys, she notes the struggle of being with musical sensations, how they treated her and others. The over the top, fervent, passionate musical numbers led to a lot of the musicians having similar fervent, passionate emotions. She struggles with, as she puts it, “often get[ting] crushes on the wrong people” (Des Barres 21). She indulged in the life of a young music fanatic, right in the middle of the music scene, getting caught up in the good music and the drugs that came along with it. Pamela gives the insight of a woman with a free spirit and free flowing sexuality; a woman who lived a full life by the age of 22 and is open with her mistakes by “liv[ing] my life smack dab in the moment, a place where there is no room for such a pallid thing as regret” (Des Barres 13). In her novel, it becomes apparent that she has lived a unconventional lifestyle that goes against what one is “supposed to do”, with no regret.

Pamela writes in a very cohesive style. She tells her tales of being a groupie through the lens of her love stories. She weaves in her life story in such an effortless way, tied in with her emotional state and journal entries, that get you to know the person behind the groupie. She’s not just one of Jimmy Page’s ex girlfriends, she’s a creative individual. She’s open and vulnerable, aware and youthful, and lives with no regrets but still is able to critique herself. She can laugh at her teen self being emotionally destroyed by a boy, while still validating her past feelings. For instance, after being grounded by her mom and told she couldn’t be alone with a boy again, Pamela ran to her room and had “ a historical piece of typical teen torment” (Des Barres 22). Pamela brings you along her life journey effortlessly, focusing on how influential music was for her.

While Pamela was influential and an avid listener of many musicians, she also was a part of a small women’s music group called the GTO’s. The group stood officially for “Girls Together Only” but as Pamela writes “we adored the idea and expanded on it, deciding that the O could stand for anything we wanted it to: Outrageously, Overtly, Outlandishly, Openly, Organically” (Des Barres 91). They were a small band of groupies run by Frank Zappa. The GTOs only released one album Permanent Damage, before the group slowly fell apart. The album was experimental and had instrumentals and backup done by celebrities, like actor Rodney Bingenheimer. Their music is reminiscent of girl groups of the past; the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, all with a funky, campy, rock twist.

Pamela Des Barres to this day is a groundbreaking woman. She was a part of all the controversial parts of the sixties and seventies: free love, experimental music, female independence, and the overall challenging of “norms.” She continually redefines what society thinks of a groupie. Through her writing, you can tell that the groupies are sometimes the musicians’ only place for solace. These men trusted and loved Pamela in their own ways. Pamela loved them back. She had a deep insight on how unforgiving the life of a traveling musician was from a firsthand account. She rejected modern monogamy and the nuclear family, and allowed herself to be herself. She constantly searched for meaning and understanding of the world, showcasing how deep and intellectual she really was. She continues to live a groovy lifestyle to this day, sticking to her morals and ideals. She finishes her book by saying:

All those high ideals I had as a flower child, the Bob Dylan lyrics imprinted on my soul, the freefreefree feeling of spinning in the sunlight at the Human-Be-In, the United oneness sitting cross legged on the Sunset Strip, the spiritual torture I put myself through in Kentucky, have made me what I am today: one happy chick. Every morning I wake up and say “Yay!” (Des Barres 298).

Queen of Noise Book Report

(Another freshman who, while needing some technical polish, wrote and spoke with one of the most distinctive voices in class, and whose intellect was unsurpassed among her peers.)

The Runaways had so many hit songs, there not a one-hit-wonder but the band didn’t last long in the spotlight. Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways by Evelyn McDonnell is a book that, as the title suggests, shares the events leading up to the band splitting up and going their own ways. The author writes about childhood experiences and what happened between 1975 and 1979 to lead the band to said splitting but allows the reader to think for themselves when it come to the true cause.

McDonnell doesn’t write about the band’s experiences in chronological order, but rather tries to recount the events following the band’s fallout but stops with back stories of where each member came from or where they got their motives from. For example, Kim Fowley, the Runaways’ producer, has a history in a broken home. His mother and father – divorced, B-list actors — had no time for him without proper cause such as using him as what he can be quoted saying, a “cock-block” (47). Another example is Joan Jett wanting to learn more boyish things, at the time this includes playing the electric guitar and playing rock and roll like they did because “Holding a solid piece of wood at crotch level while running your hands up and down its neck wasn’t proper, ladylike, feminine, ‘good’” (20). Following these childhood moments, the author talks about issues the band had while they were still active, or them carrying on making songs or doing concerts. One thing for sure is that the author lets the reader read the history so they can at least try to understand where the members of the Runaways came from and why they made their decisions or did certain actions. Perhaps that is why the book is so groundbreaking, not just for the fact that these young teenagers were making sensual music like men, but for the fact that this author, Evelyn McDonnell, writes covering all the sides, not just one. There is not just one single monster or negative force that made the band fall but many such as drugs, fighting, lies, and the lack of supervision of these women who weren’t trained or ready to survive and work as adults.

Normally, biography is in chronological order, but the author didn’t do this. As stated previously, this is still an interesting concept the author does and is effective. It allows the reader to come to their own conclusion on what the real problem is and yet the author still gets her point across on what she thinks is the problem. However, as the reader you must pay extra close attention when things move from the past to the present or else the book becomes difficult to read. While there are sub-headings in each chapter it still hard to read at times. The author uses a variety of sources for support like Kathleen Hannah, lead singer of Bikini Kills, and quotes from Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway by Cherie Ann Currie, a former member of The Runaways. All these sources are effective because having people with personal experiences and people who just know the members’ personalities shows readers an inside look at the band’s history. For example, a lot of people accuse Kim Fowley, manager of the Runaways, of sexually abusing all of them but the author quoted a friend of the band as saying that he doesn’t think Fowley could be possible of raping those girls. However, Fowley is quoted later as saying, “I’m a horrible human being with a heart of gold, or a piece of shit in a bag of diamonds” (46). He was also known to call himself a pimp of the Runaways but denied any sexual allegations he was accused of. This contrast works so well in McDonnell’s convincing the reader of her main argument of having no one direct reason of why the Runaways spilt or the controversy around it.

The Runaways have four albums and one live album for the whole time they were a band from 1975 to 1979. Joan Jett and Sandy West wrote most of their own songs and normally about their personal history, like in “Born to Be Bad” the song lyrics state, “I called my mother from Hollywood the other day / and I said, ‘Mom, I just called to tell ya I joined a rock and roll band / And, uh, I won’t be coming home no more’ / You know what she did? / She started crying and weeping and whimpering like all mothers do. / She woke up my father and told him about it and he said / ‘there ain’t a damn thing we can do, that’s the way she is’” (Runaways). These lyrics could be a reference to Joan Jett catching the last bus to California in the middle of the night to start a band with Sandy West and the other members. However, this is just speculative, the book stated that they did write their songs from personal experience but never gave an example of this but this is the strongest example of this due to the fact that the book goes into detail about Joan Jett past.

In conclusion, Evelyn McDonnell wrote Queens of Noise to showcase the true stories of the Runaways and show that it wasn’t just one single cause that made them fall apart, but multiple like drugs, sex, and lack of supervision. The ideal reader for McDonnell’s book is someone who enjoys learning more about women empowerment, 70s era in the sunset strip area, and mental health/trauma from this time as well but most anyone will enjoy this due to the author letting the reader come to these conclusions stated previously but overall, this is a book about a couple of broken teenage kids trying to live the dream that seemed so impossible to achieve at the time due to their gender which sometimes is still a struggle today.


(Students had two hours to brainstorm and knock these out.)

Dolls With Expensive Taste

(Reminder: this student led off the above section, too.)

A lot of my media consumption is keeping up with drag queens and watching drag shows. With the art of drag comes fabulous music that holds the power to set the tone, evoke emotion, and get people dancing. The performances are filled with an array of pop, rock, hip-hop, techno, etc. that is often meant to get the audience excited and dancing. In 2014 absolute pop sensation hit the market: none other than Broke with Expensive Taste by Azealia Banks. This dance pop, hip-hop album exudes boldness, self-assurance, and the spirit of movement that has broke ground in the homes of queers, dolls, and bimbos around the world. I mean this literally for Azealia staunchly channels my ravenous upstairs neighbor energy. This has been my go-to party music since middle school and will remain essential to my peers and I forever.

Unsurprisingly, the music in drag is consumed widely by the queer community, so Azealia became a staple in queer people’s lives and the American club scene. When the debut album came out in 2014, the queer edm scene was the first to get its hands on it. I heard “212” for the first time in middle school because of people dancing and vogueing to it on Instagram and Vine. This album is the kind that you can not stop yourself from moving to. Infectious beats permeate uninterruptedly through the entire album. She switches between busy effects and isolated beats, letting her voice and beat be simultaneous as a motif. She is extremely talented at maintaining a style throughout her discography with each song having effects and melodies that make them distinct. Despite her consistency, she is experimental by nature, and she just sort of happens to pump out glamorous, campy dance pop.

Azealia was born and raised by a physically and emotionally abusive mother in Harlem, New York. She was the youngest child and opted to live with one of her two older siblings by the age of 14. Her forced independence is made clear in her music by her defensive and offensive. Like many other female rappers, she had to hold her own and make ends meet from a very young age. She always knew she had a love for performance, so she danced at a strip joint for fast cash and starred in musicals for fun. She displays her skillful theatrics in the way emotion pours from her voice, but in a way that likely no one would ever hear in theater. Technically, she is a talented and wide-ranged singer but her self-expression comes through in slurred, dragged out, sing-songy melodies. My personal favorite is when she swings into a low whiney voice keenly heard in “Luxury”. The synth, bass, and her rolling vocals create the perfect concoction for me to feel like the most glamorous person to exist. My other favorites from the album include “212”, “Miss Camaraderie”, “Desperado”, and “Yung Repunxel”. Her vocabulary shares a distinctness likened to that of Nicki Minaj and Meghan Thee Stallion because of their rap flow incorporating how they speak in everyday life. She sometimes has these juvenile plug-ins that describe and work perfectly with her unfiltered takes and otherwise hood-esque vocabulary. In “212”, for example, she belittles a man saying, “Wit your doo-doo crew son – Fuck are you into, huh”. She has surely brought descriptive lyricism into a new light: one of unhinged play and certitude. A motif of hers is her use of the word cunt, which is super draggy whether she realizes it or not. My favorite use of this is in her song “Count Contessa” (2019) and it is as follows: “One, two, I styles the besta until I’m kunt perfecta”. Her lyrics revolve around her boundless confident persona and she is constantly declaring her mark, allowing the listener to channel the same energy.

It is ironic because her relationship with the queer community is not a pretty one. She is known for her controversial tweets and transphobic comments. This is perhaps the most fascinating dynamic between an artist and their audience I have ever seen. Her concerts are FILLED with queer people, drag queens, bimbos, and myself, yet she continuous to pump out timeless queer classics without seeming to be conscious about it. I have yet to meet a queer person who hasn’t heard of her or one of her songs. I could see her becoming somewhat of a success likened to Lady Gaga, in terms of music gay and young people have in their dance playlists. It may be clear that my thoughts on this album tie my recent reading of Glitter Up the Dark by Sasha Geffen, but Sasha’s mentioning of the major queer icons that are not queer definitely had me thinking about Azealia and this album. A group that comes to mind is t.A.T.u, a Russian girl duo that released the 2002 hit, “All the Things She Said”, which remains a queer staple despite the queer-baiting and homophobic remarks made by one of the band members in 2003.

People still listen to their song because it means something to them and invokes emotion that feels good for them to indulge. Like t.A.T.u, Azealia provides a feeling that is fresh and raw for listeners. People identify with her aggression and find enthusiasm in her confidence. Something I will forever be invested in is uniqueness, which can be particularly difficult to find in pop. It is easy to get lost in the regurgitation of particular chord progressions and overused lyrics and themes. This is something that rapper and singer, Azealia Banks, visibly has no struggle with. She is one of those artists that you can just sense is disconnected to any expectations, opinions, or judgement by the public. She has an unhinged way of existing that certainly does not sit well with everyone. There are people who are rightfully uncomfortable with her anti-queer stances and choose to not consume her art, but the majority of people have given this album too much of a purpose to be overlooked by the artist’s affairs. A whole community has essentially branded Azealia as a gay icon and her music as anthems for all our coked-out dance offs. Comprehensively, the album is undeniably unique and prompts irresistible movement and joy with a voice that is like no one else.

Penelope Scott: Screaming into the Void

(This student, too, is a repeat from above; she’s the second-displayed writer in this section, as well.)

Let’s go back to March 2020. Remember the uncertainty, the uneasiness of the future. Students being forced out of their dorms, “essential workers” thrown into the dangerous environment that the world has become, and the frustrations of everyone’s lives being turned upside down. In those early days of the pandemic the younger generation – mainly Gen Z – sought out distraction in the form of TikTok. Funny mindless videos, short storytimes, or even helpful hints took over the internet and brought a sense of community during a time the world was so disconnected. The other side of TikTok were the videos about current issues, news reports, or satirical shorts to help make light of a dark time. Penelope Scott or @worsethanithot on TikTok caught attention for her singing a version of what would later become “Sweet Hibiscus Tea.” She captioned the video saying “a tune by, for, and about people having to leave.” Scott’s music cuts straight to the bone with her satirical lyrics while her honey-sweet voice mends the wound. Scott is a product of her generation and the world around her making her the perfect voice of Gen Z.

From the early age of eight, Scott was learning, listening, and developing her musical style. Although it wasn’t until early 2020 that she released music, Junkyard and The Junkyard 2 featured hits such as “Sweet Hibiscus Tea” and “American Healthcare.” The latter being rereleased in Scott’s debut album Public Void. Public Void while short – only consisting of seven songs – is packed full of glitz, gore, and contrasting gentle melodies. The style of Scott’s music isn’t an easy one to define. She has said herself she’s “been waiting for anyone to come up with an accurate description” (Chelosky) of her sound. From indie-folk to hyperpop, Scott’s style has been heavily discussed and debated about. But pinpointing a specific genre defeats the purpose of Scott’s ever-evolving music. She bases her music and sound on the trends of the world, so how could it ever take on one style?

Let’s look at some of the most popular songs from her debut album. Starting the album off with “Cigarette Ahegao,” the sound is reminiscent of an old video game soundtrack. The chiptune – or 8-bit music – is a beloved style of Scott, but then it develops into slow melodies and scratchy guitar riffs. The mix of ‘trashy’ lyrics such as “Get thin on smoke and coffee/ Get fat on pie and biscuits/ God bless this perfect shitstorm.” comments on an idyllic ‘mean girl’ that is romanticized on the internet. And the internet is where Scott picks up a lot of her ideas for songs. She incorporated meme culture with scathing commentary to make her songs feel like they need to be analyzed.

For example, “Lotta True Crime” is a song about the current true-crime phenomenon. Scott has said that for this song she put on a “very high, feminine affect” to emulate these women who have become obsessed with true crime. There have been many theories as to why this has become a phenomenon ranging from demystifying serial killers and making them not as glorified to educating women on how to defend themselves against these killers. Whatever the reason, Scott flips the narrative by singing “Well she’ll fuckin’ kill you, she wins every fight/ She’s gonna rock your shit by the end of the night.” She then continues on to the actual serial killers in question. Scott becomes spiteful in her tone while she sings “But Ted Bundy was just never that fuckin’ bright/ He was just sorta charismatic and white, alright?/ And he was so fuckin’ sure he had the right.” Essentially she is berating the system that is supposed to protect people from these killers. If he wasn’t white then he wouldn’t have gone under the radar for so long and committed as many murders as he did.

In her short time as an artist, Penelope Scott has proven her knowledge not only for music production but for her self-awareness. She captures emotions of an entire generation and puts them into catchy, stuck-in-your-head-for-days tunes. Some might ask how this is achieving anything or how her music is making any kind of difference. While sometimes music is just something to listen to and enjoy, other times it is about representation. Being able to see and hear thoughts expressed by people who are just beginning to find their voice changes their outlook on the world forever. Scott’s music isn’t for everyone. It’s harsh, gritty, and sometimes hard to listen to, but it is talking about problems more than a breakup or a lost love. Scott pours her heart and soul into these songs and it’s often frustrating to listen to, but “sometimes when things are really upsetting it’s nice to scream into the void.”

A Unique Thinking Individual Strongly Matters: Cupcakke’s Groundbreaking Album

(This student wrote the critique of I’m With the Band in the section above.)

Elizabeth Eden Harris; a native to Chicago, raised by a single mother, a seven year old in a homeless shelter. This woman became the controversial pop hit known as Cupcakke. Cupcakke started in music in 2012 and gained popularity in 2016 for her “hyper” sexual song “Deepthroat.” Throughout her career, she’s made advocacy and awareness her main goal through hyper pop rap.

Cupcakke has released six albums since her start in 2012, but didn’t make a splash until the infamous song “Deepthroat.” This song became controversial over its detailed lyrics of a woman enjoying giving fellatio and having intercourse. Critics tore her music apart, calling Elizabeth vulgar and disgusting. She responded to the criticism with more music. Her newest album, Eden, was released three years after her first album. Six albums in three years with a variety of heavy hitting topics is intense and dedicated work. The creation of Eden shows Cupcakke breaking ground. Every song she’s released has been harshly criticized, unlike her male counterparts who consistently rap about sex but are largely ignored, like Future with his song “P Power.”

Throughout this album she is open with many difficult topics. In “Petsmart”, she disses the critics and the negativity surrounding her career. She states “I don’t know, can I breathe or not?” in the song showcasing the extreme criticism surrounding her career. In the song “Garfield” she sings “He say what’s better than this dick? Let me know know know. I looked him dead in the eye, said Wendy’s Four for Four.” This song is about having sex, and in it she slides in her ironic humor. Cupcakke is using stereotypes and flipping them on their head. She’s an openly sexual woman who talks about being dissatisfied during intercourse and being a millionaire who would rather eat at a fast food restaurant. In “Cereal and Water”, she talks about societal issues. In the second verse she raps:

Don’t be a puppet, don’t be corrupted
Don’t be a motherfuckin’ outcast
I don’t say shit ’cause words get switched
Like was it cash cow or cow cash?
Ones worried ’bout doin’ numbers
Is the main numbers I’ma dial last
Same man say he don’t fear shit
Be scared to wipe the shit from his child ass

Cupcakke, in just eight lines. brings up capitalization, the effect of social media, and negligence. Her most influential song on this album is “A.U.T.I.S.M” which stands for “A Unique Thinking Individual Strongly Matters.” In this song, Cupcakke talks about the mistreatment and misunderstanding surrounding people with autism. Throughout all of these lyrics, she is bringing awareness to important topics that aren’t generally brought up, and advocates for the marginalized communities she supports.

Eden is a monumental album for Cupcakke. She has been open with her mental health struggles as a plus size black woman in music. She took a break from music and came back just as strong and influential. She wanted to be truthful about her life and her struggle. Her personal life directly influences her music, giving an authenticity that washes over you as you listen.

Billie Eilish: The World’s Pop/Rock Queen

(A fine submission by one of our two seniors!)

As someone with her lyrics tattooed on my skin, I think I’m more than qualified to talk about how influential, iconic, and groundbreaking Billie Eilish is. 18 year old Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell released her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in co-production with her brother Finneas Baird O’Connell on March 29th, 2019. On the album, she candidly covers topics like love, sexuality, toxic relationships, etc. And through the public eye, she is always her most authentic, most true self. She confidently writes about topics that most artists might stray away from, even more so in her second album, Happier Than Ever (2021).

Eilish first started gaining traction with her SoundCloud release of Ocean Eyes in 2015 when she was just 14 years old. Her and her brother, Finneas, wrote and recorded the track in his bedroom at their California family home. The song grew in popularity when artists like Blackbear and Astronomyy remixed it and added their own flare. Eilish then quickly started collaborating with other big artists, like Vince Staples and Khalid on her debut EP Don’t Smile At Me. She even shifted to creating songs for hit TV shows and movies like 13 Reasons Why and Roma. In 2020, she became the youngest artist ever to record a track for the infamous James Bond franchise, at just 19 years old.

Billie and Finneas have always been a team. They grew up in an utterly supportive household with their parents, surrounded by music. Her music documentary “Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry” (2021) helps shed light on her creative writing process at her home studio. They don’t need all of the fancy bells and whistles that may come with a huge studio. Eilish just needs the comfort of her bed, her notebook, and her brother and BOOM, out comes a hit album. The team also uses unconventional tactics to achieve some of the sounds that make the music so unique and catchy. For example, the bass Bad Guy was so powerful, it started “clipping” while they produced it (audio tech lingo for too much information in a file, or “too loud”). They played into that effect, and continued layering to give the listener that addictive bass riff. Music aside, Eilish also directs her own music videos. In her documentary she talks about how she made short videos as a child, and her passion for editing specifically. The Bury A Friend music video came out on January 30th, 2019 and I remember exactly where I was. I sat at my desk in Pillsbury Hall on Stephens’ campus and watched it for the first time. Then proceeded to spend the rest of my night with it on repeat. It was like no music video I had ever seen, so experimental and even scary at times. Definitely a core memory.

One of the coolest things about Eilish being so involved in the music video production process is that she does her own stunts. Just to name a few, in When The Party’s Over, that’s not a CGI waterfall of black tears, that’s really Billie Eilish with two disguised tubes running through her hair and the sides of her face pumping out black goo directly through her eyes. How about in You Should See Me In A Crown? Yes, those are really real spiders crawling all over her clothes and out of her mouth. Talk about badass.

Regardless of her 39 music-related awards and catchy songs, Billie Eilish is groundbreaking because she is one of the most real artists out there. She’s not apologetic about who she is either. She’s developing as an artist as she gets older, now singing about different topics like body image and public perception, but always themes that are close to home. She’s still the same artist she was in 2015 with her first release. She’s always been frank with her fans and the public eye, whether it be about her mental health or her political views. Eilish uses her platform to spread awareness to topics that are dear to her, and that need more recognition. And that is why she is the most groundbreaking artist from the year 2000 and forward.

Taylor Swift and the Impact of 1989

(Here’s a sophomore who started quietly, whose enthusiasm and confidence gradually grew, and by midterm was one of the main engines of the class.)

“Say you’ll remember me, standin’ in a nice dress, starin’ at the sunset babe. Red lips and rosie cheeks, say you’ll see me again, even if it’s just in your wildest dreams…”

That statement there already gives you the perfect image of who Taylor Swift is, but how you still have much to uncover from the inside. Swift is one of the greatest female artists of her time, from being country, to country-pop, pop, and even “indie”, it seems she can do it all. Her lyrics are always meaningful and helps tell a story that might just relate close to home. Swift has made sure not to listen to the critics when it came down to: her song writing, what she wore, and even her political views. When it came down to her music not even “belonging” to her anymore, she said f-it and re-recorded all her albums to make them hers again. 1989 was a ground breaking album because it was her final move away from country and she made amazing hits and music videos as well.

First off, 1989 is not Taylor Swifts first album. 1989 is her 5th studio album in which she did have many other successful albums preceding and post 1989. However, I feel that 1989 has made the most impactful of them all for its time. 1989 came out in 2014, a few years after Red, and this put the music industry in quite a shock that Swift was officially out of the genre of “country”. They knew it was coming, they didn’t want it to come, but Swift knew she wanted to expand and go towards something she loved the sound of. This album gave a new insight into Swifts life and how passionate she still is with her song writing. Even with her father being apart of the business, Swift still takes most of the credit with her beautiful vocals and lyrics that transform the listener into another place. I would say not many people can pull of the transition of country music to pop and sound different, but in a good way. Swift has the ability to transition gracefully into another genre and provide a better take on her music.

“Welcome to New York” is the first song on this album that is a great-upbeat song to listen to that has different perspectives embedded. She uses amazing descriptive metaphors like “kaleidoscope of loud heartbeats under coats.” I don’t think many people would use that to describe the diverse people around you that aren’t afraid to be there in the moment. There even is the possible “backlash” she might get from a conservative crowd when she says “and you can want who you want, boys and boys and girls and girls” to which she vocalizes her support for the LGBTQIA+ with this snippet. Fun fact: this song was even featured in the movie “The Secret Life of Pets” at the very beginning of the film! Another song off the album that is worthy to analyze is “Style”. That song also contributes to her view again of her, “…red lip, classic, thing that you like”. It makes sense she brings up her red lipstick look with it also being featured on the cover of 1989. This song highlights a couple that keeps going back-and-forth to each other but she can’t resist being together. When Swift sings this song, she almost sounds seductive, which I felt was a new type of singing for her in this album. She’s able to describe every single thing that the person “sees” in the song and makes you picture it. The rest of the album is AMAZING but I wanted to touch on those more since the lyrics are too beautiful to forget.

Now it is time for music videos. Who could forget any of her iconic music videos pertaining to 1989? Let’s first start off with “Bad Blood” that won her best music video. I will admit, I was shocked that “Blank Space” wasn’t for best music video until I rewatched it again. Amazing women were featured in this music video with explosions and futuristic vibes, which you would not expect Swift to have as a music video theme but was able to pull it off with this song. Normal people would probably associate this song to an ex, but in the music video it shows off badass women fighting! It’s a very eyecatching and interesting video. The next video that I mentioned is “Blank Space”. Swift did AMAZING on this satire music video of how the press likes to portray her as a crazy woman that dates too many people. How it first leads you to a peaceful, nice looking Taylor to a crazy, deranged, car damaging Taylor can tickle your fancy. Even though she still has some other great music videos, I had to choose “Shake It Off” as the last one to touch on. Just like “Bad Blood”, Taylor took a whole other perceptive on this music video. She had multiple different looks and areas where she could do some sort of dancing. She included diverse people throughout the song that seemed to enjoyed it as much as her. I know conservatives had to be fuming with the twerking ladies that she crawls under! The music video catches your eye and makes you want to see what else she has in store while you tap your foot to the beat.

To conclude, 1989 was a ground breaking album of Taylor Swift’s because it was her final move away from country. This album released amazing hits and music videos, as well as earning her multiple grammies. She has always been apart of the song process and writes to her hearts content. No wonder she got Best Pop Vocal Album and Album of the Year because of how strong the entire album is, from start to finish. Swift is an icon that many people look up to and I feel 1989 made a huge impact for numerous people from the lyrics and music videos. Even with many people not liking her writing about her past relationships, you can tell she has been deeply hurt or loved in some ways that people can relate to. The “fans” who only liked Swift when she was a country singer are truly missing out on the change in times that Swift is able to accommodate to. 1989 is the perfect album to sit down and listen to, but be advised, I would wait until 1989 (Taylor’s Version) comes out so you can fully support her.

Mothica’s Blue Hour: Addiction, Trauma, and a Journey to Sobriety and Healing

(As with the junior whose work you’ve read twice, I was privileged to also teach this freshman in a previous class–my usual assignment is freshman composition, which I teach with a pop music emphasis. She is one of the most thoughtful and precise writers I’ve ever taught, and she takes risks.)

“Said I’m fine but we both know I’m faking/ I’m not feeling numb/ I’m just feeling
everything at once.”

Depression is something 1 in 3 U.S residents report facing. The quote above is from Mothica’s track “everything at once” on her album Blue Hour and is one of many hard- hitting and lyrically gorgeous tracks on the album that follows the artist’s journey to sobriety and healing. Mothica is completely self-produced with no record label, manager, or publicists. This separates her from many artists of the day and gives her full artistic license. Despite the financial challenges this presents, Mothica is thriving with a loyal and proud fanbase. The material of her music is groundbreaking and brutally honest as she lays herself out with brutal vulnerability to her fans. Few artists can be as authentically real, vulnerable, and relatable to their fans, though the practice is growing more popular in recent years, Mothica has been a trailblazer and an advocate for mental health awareness, sexual assault survivors, and the conversation around addiction. She’s touched her fans with her own story, gave them hope, worked as an inspiration, and kept many alive in their darkest moments.

Mothica was born McKenzie Ellis on March 12, 1995, in Oklahoma City, where she would spend much of her childhood. She struggled with her mental health from a very early age and found that the topic was not one that was well received by those immediately around her. As a result, she turned to online communities for support and found a much more supportive and understanding community. This fostered in her a love for creating digital art, which she would later pursue with a scholarship in visual web programming at Pratt Institute. When she was thirteen, she was sexually assaulted by her youth pastor. This led to a spiraling downfall in her mental health, and she began drinking and self-harming to cope. The next two years of her life were not easy and led to her attempting suicide in January of 2011 at the age of fifteen. She spent the months following her attempt in physical therapy relearning the use of her legs. It wasn’t an immediate turnaround, she still struggled with addiction and severe depression, but she began to get the help she needed and worked towards healing. In 2013 she moved to Brooklyn for school. It was there that her first song was released on SoundCloud. “Starchild” had over 100,000 listens in 24 hours and led her to release her first EP, Mythic, in 2015 at the age of twenty. Her next release wouldn’t happen for five years and came in the form of “VICES”, a single that preceded her debut album, Blue Hour. “VICES”, a track about her relationship with addiction, “If it’s not drugs, it’s drinks/ If it’s not drinks, it’s things/ If it’s not things, it’s people”, and struggling to leave behind her various unhealthy coping mechanism and vices. The track was an instant hit and surpassed Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” on iTunes’ music charts. Blue Hour would follow the single’s release quickly on August 27, 2020, to resounding support from her preexisting fans as well as new. The album is a thematic autobiographical retelling of her struggles with addiction, trauma, and her fight for sobriety and marked the start of her successful independent career.

Blue Hour is, as previously mentioned, a themed album that follows the theme of dusk versus daylight, moody blue lighting intermixed with bright, hopeful moments. For Mothica it was a therapeutic exploration of her trauma and her fight with addiction. For her fans, it provides an example of success and strength and gives them hope that maybe they, too, could one day heal from their own hurts. In addition to “VICES”, the song “Blackout” is about her fight to stay sober. The track personifies the addiction and gives it the feeling of being in a toxic relationship with a lover. The video, her most ambitious to date at its release, was fan-funded and she worked closely with her fans on the theme of the video. It resulted in a campy, 50s-esque video where she is tempted over and over by a blue demon with a flask. “NOW”, the first track on the album, is a slow, electronic tune that goes hard on the bass riffs and is softened and made vulnerable by its strategic placement of piano. The lyrics tell the story of Mothica as she put up walls and hid from true vulnerability, warning off anyone who tries to get to close “Don’t get too close to me/You won’t like what you see”.

In keeping with her theme, “Hands Off” and the title track “Blue Hour” are as self- examining and raw as the rest, but these tracks take on a much slower, gentler tone, “Blue Hour” in particular. The first looks at the reality of wanting to love and be loved but having trauma and issues that keep getting in the way. “Blue Hour” is a stripped-down track with references to being “Forever fifteen/Oklahoma City/You wouldn’t believe all the trouble I’ve seen”. This is a direct reference to her suicide attempt and how she felt stuck in time afterward and is further examined in her EP “forever fifteen” which is more about her assault than her recovery from addiction. Finally, “everything at once” is a critical commentary on what it’s really like to live with severe depression, “I can’t cry, I’m too anxious/Said I’m fine, we both know I’m faking/I’m not feeling numb, I’m just feeling everything at once/blame it on the chemistry.” The track is
delivered with minimalistic drums and guitar riffs and feels very stripped down without missing a beat. Blue Hour is a critical look at Mothica’s own story and the subjects of addiction, depression, and assault, all of which tend to get a bad rep or are viewed as taboo in today’s society. It’s important that individuals like Mothica exist and are brave enough to tell their stories so that we all feel a little less alone in our own invisible battles.

Mothica has changed and saved lives by being as vulnerable, outspoken, and honest about her story as she has been. Her work is on par with the likes of Linkin Park and MCR in relation to touching or relating to her fans. Her second album, Nocturnal, is currently in the works. As it is in its earlier stages, not much is known yet. Based on the singles she’s recently released, “Sensitive” and “Casualty”, that will be on the album, it is going to be taking on a much more aggressive, rock sound. As for her preexisting work, Blue Hour has helped those that have been made to feel like the dregs of society simply for having trauma or addiction, or even just baggage, to feel a little less alone, a little less hopeless in their fight to be happy. Her “forever fifteen” EP opened up a conversation about abuse and CSA and the correlation to suicide and depression with a beautiful, heart-wrenching video starring the images and brief flashes of text from her fans that have sent her their own stories. The image of her standing before a wall made up of thousands of images is a truly impactful one that stays with the viewer. Mothica has changed so many lives and she’s only released one complete album. She’s headed for big things, and the longer she releases music and advocates for survivors, the more lives she’s going to save.

Not too bad, eh? These are the youth I immediately think of when I hear folks say, “If these are our young people, we’re in big trouble.” Au contraire.

Kicking My Legs (Dylan Style)

The other day, I found myself in a disconsolate mood.

This is not usual. I am temperamentally optimistic, which I used to think was my Midwestern heritage but now realize is primarily a function of my white male privilege (why shouldn’t I be expecting the day to go well for me when I wake up every morning?) and secondarily the by-product of my obsession with art and learning (I can be reasonably assured that every conscious day I live will bring me at least one moment of aesthetic or gnostic thrill, and I can live on one for hours).

But on this day I was down. For one–though I can usually keep the relentless ugliness of these times at bay by reminding myself that they are nothing new, it’s just that the mask is all the way down (so why should I start moping now?)–the sordid litany of the Cohen hearings had so penetrated my defenses I had come to feel like Washizu Taketoki at the end of Throne of Blood. For another, I had just had a miserable experience with my Stephens class, and having a miserable experiences when I am teaching–it is an action I love, no matter how difficult it may be–is foreign to me. I happen to be teaching a second-semester composition class that is mostly made up of freshmen who failed composition first semester–several of them who failed my class. This in itself is no problem; with three decades of high school experience with struggling learners, I am probably the best person on campus for this job. Things is, with this particular group, simple attendance and work completion is a struggle (remember: we’re talking college here), and it’s an 8 a.m. class, so enthusiasm for the education process is occasionally wispy in nature. In this case, I had prepared a lesson that I felt was very high-interest, exceptionally stimulating, and inarguably relevant to my class’ concern–and, out of 16 students registered at that point, five showed up. Five. I know what you teachers out there are thinking: Perfect! Small group–a more intimate, direct, and collaborative experience!  Yeah, well, cool and all, but I prepared the lesson for sixteen, and there’s the matter of the role it was not going to play in the success of 69% of my students’ upcoming papers. Not to mention that I like larger classes; I thrive off the gathered energy, and the possibilities of accidental inspiration and enlightenment are far greater. Thus, I scrapped the lesson and held writing conferences for the hardy humans who showed up. Useful, yes, but nothing fresh, fun, challenging, and interactive. (I know you’re wanting the deets, but they are too painful to recall; suffice it to say that it involved Dusty Springfield.)

I’d dismissed the class and was pouting at the computer (recording attendance, as it happened). I was literally shaking my head and contemplating harikari, and decided, of course, to take one last look at Facebook (when the bombs start falling on the first day of World War III, we will all be recording our statuses). I’d almost forgotten that, as one of the two songs I share every morning and have shared every morning for close to a decade for no discernible reason, with the hearings immediately swirling in my head upon having awakened, I’d posted the above video clip from the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. “Even the President of the Yew-Nited States / One day must have to stand naked!”: really? That’s too easy, Phil.  Be that as it may, I absently clicked on the link, dimly aware that I still had the data projector on, its volume turned about halfway up.

As Uncle Bob’s screed rolled out–it’s damn near long as the Gettysburg Address!–I twisted out a grimace at the phrase “There is no sense in trying!” and reminded myself of my old-time idol’s cynicism. I am not really a cynic, but that line actually sounded pretty good to me and made me feel even worse. However, the song (I hope you do not need me to tell you this) is not only an astoundingly detailed catalogue of American failings imaginatively and skillfully written (though “propaganda all is phony” is a wince-inducing glitch), it’s not even completely cynical. “…[H]e not busy being born / is busy dying!”? “…[I]t is not he or she or them or it / That you belong to!”? “Although the masters make the rules / For the wise men and the fools / I got nothing, Ma, to live up to!”? And does he stick the landing!

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only!

Yep, those lines are anything but cynical. They’re motivating, liberating, life-affirming, and definitively sans bullshit. As I listened to them for the umpteenth time, my short hairs rose to attention, my heart leapt, my blood warmed, my grimace warped into a defiant smile. I was still shaking my head, but in amazement. And it was cool to hear it in the open air of the classroom…

Another teacher was holding court in my room after my class, and, in my hypnotic state, I hadn’t noticed that some of her students had rolled in, seated themselves, and were apparently remaining silent out of respect for my meditation. The vibration of those final words–“it’s life and life only”–deteriorated into our space, followed by about 15 seconds of silence, and one of the students said, “Did you like that?”

I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant; these days, you can’t be. But I blurted out instantly in response, “Oh yes. For me, that is the rock. If I’m barely treading water, that’s what I’m reaching for, and what I’m gonna stand on. It’s worked for me for years, since I was 17–still does 40 years later. So…did you like it?”

I inhaled sharply, awaiting potential injury.

She answered, “Yeah. That was amazing.”

“Truth,” I smiled–and bolted out of there, knowing that, if I lingered, the resulting conversation would overlap into my department head’s allotted time. But I’d crashed the cuffs off, and skipped out of the building full ready to be shown more.

Tierra Whack / Sophie: Socratic Seminar College Girls Gone Critically Wild (October 11th, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, MO)

The assignment:


The on-site guidelines (with some context for the reader):

I’ve been leading these discussions and choosing the records, but a student asked if they could pick, and–why the hell not? The moderators in this case are the ones who chose the respective albums. A gender-bending anti-capitalist charter school advocate from St. Louis chose the Sophie album (which, in preparing myself for the activity, I’ve come to really like!) and a rural SW Missouri kid with a hearing disability who’s also the first college student in her family chose Ms. Whack. I will not participate verbally; I’m documenting the discussion, and their scores will be based on participation (they can gain some points simply by being attentive) and preparation (I’ve required annotated notes on their listening, reading, and viewing experience). This is a stepping stone to their writing reviews of their own, which Austin is also going to assist with.

Here’s the assignment:

Tips for Today’s Discussion of Tierra Whack’s Whack World

…and Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides:

Moderators (Emmalee and Emil):
Initiate, guide, and enhance the discussion—in other words, make your participation about inspiring conversation, involving as many folks as possible, and keeping it on track. You should mostly ask questions, not make statements.

General Participants:
• Have your notes out and mentally prepare for how you would like to enter the conversation, and use your notes to support your comments.
• Self-monitor: realize everyone needs to participate, so be specific and concise. Think twice about entering more than once.
• No hand-raising: wait for space and enter it with politeness.
• Do not interrupt speakers—but, again, speakers? Self-monitor.
• You are welcome to ask other speakers to clarify their opinions; moderators are expected to do this, but it is not exclusively their job. By the same token, you may invite students who seem to be struggling to get involved to enter.
This conversation is about exploring how best to review these albums, since that is your next task. Keep your commentary confined to what you’d write about these albums if you were required to.

My notes on the proceedings:

Re: Tierra Whack:

“…she’s pretty brave because she avoids rap stereotypes for women–she’s odd and that’s GOOD…”

“…if were white, this’d be more popular…”

“…the silliness provides a neat contrast, or subtlety, or something for her serious thoughts…”

“…how does the short format impact her hopes for sales…?

“I found the abruptness, or lack of transitions, to be hard to deal with first listen, but the videos smoothed those out…”

“there is a sadness undercurrent she doesn’t need a piano to communicate…”

“She’s so inventive musically and visually–you really need to watch the videos too–but she’s so fast it’s hard to process!”

“She’s a female Chance the Rapper…”

“Do you think she defies genre…?”

Re: Sophie:

The moderator surprised me and went around the room asking each fellow student to offer an adjective to describe Sophie, which she listed on the board as a menu for her Socratic. At first, I was annoyed with her asserting that much authority over the rest of the group (she is a strong personality, and I’d asked her to temper that a bit for this activity), but she then receded back to her seat and the menu worked great!

“Is discomfort in reacting to an art a band thing…?”

“I didn’t know she was trans…! (?)”

“I love this album but it disturbs me… the music doesn’t fit into a genre, but she doesn’t, either…!”

“How do you…or CAN you…evaluate the album separate from the times…”

“I was listening to this in the car by myself, and just had to turn it off and ask myself, ‘Is everything ok?’…”

“I was shook!”

“Now that I know she’s trans I LOVE THIS ALBUM!”

“She’s basically saying ‘Fuck you, I can change myself anyway I want to….”

“…it sounds like, with her music, she’s making the audience feel what it feels like to BE trans in public in this country…shook, yeah, but also beautiful and multi-dimensional.”


My last comment was, “Well, from now on I am just going to assign you material and have you teach each other–I do not appear all that necessary, and Socrates would agree!” Kind of joking—but kind of not.

Socratic Seminar: Wash My Face / In Ice-Cold Water (September 18-24, 2018, Columbia, MO)

Thursday was my freshman comp/pop music class’ second stab at a kind of data-based Socratic seminar. Last time, as documented here, the youth mostly took Mitski to task–if a tad unfairly, without the preferable amount of supporting evidence–but, in retrospect, I can understand their chagrin. On the pop music spectrum, from the vantage point of young fans, this seems more a time for authenticity and sincerity (for all the traps built into those terms) than ambition and pretension (and I’m not really using those terms pejoratively)–thus the majority of my class having raised their eyebrows at Mistki’s work. I still admire it, as do a handful of women on my roster.

Our discussion of Blood Orange’s Negro Swan seemed to bear this out. The minute I finished blabbing about intro shit (otherwise known as “set induction”), hands shot up in the air: “Can I talk first?” “I’ve got something to say about this one!” “Ooooooh, this is my album?” As I scanned the room, I could see that almost every one of them had taken voluminous notes, and as I called on folks to talk, it was obvious that both the album’s music and content had energized them. Music: “It’s a new kind of r&b for these times–music evolves in its society and this album seems to  show that!” “It’s new but it’s old–it’s funky, but it’s also chill, and it’s soul music but it has the r&b thing.” “It has a depressive vibe that I just love–it’s how I’m feeling!” (Think about that one.) “This album’s just got a great flow–” (most of them thought the opposite of Be the Cowboy, though I don’t think musical flow was its point) “–that I could really get into!” “The music made me feel so good I couldn’t concentrate on the lyrics–”

On that last exaltation, I responded. “So, is the music so seductive that it obscures its content? And is that a mark of success or failure?”

Much furrowing of brows. I had to ask it, because I’d experienced it myself. I even told ’em, “Someone [I think it was Zappa…or his boy Varese?] once said that pure pleasure was counterrevolutionary!” So then the boosters became more specific: “No, the spoken parts, the ones by Janet Mock, that’s the content, so it’s so much a big deal that you don’t notice the lyrics.” Most of the students in that camp also made it very clear that they identified with Mock’s commentary, especially when she addresses the idea of building a chosen family, finding a space among others to be yourself and cease performing, and doing as much stuff as you can (as opposed to doing little). I have to admit: I dug that stuff, too. Others pointed to the way the videos dramatized the songs, though they still didn’t quote many actual lyrics.

Finally, a student posited the following: “I found that the spoken stuff distracted me from the music, which I thought was the thing. It kept me from having some continuity thinking about the music, then, after I reflected, it occurred to me that without the spoken stuff, the music isn’t really all that powerful–it isn’t really that dynamic.” Woah. This idea was seized upon; we even came to the conclusion that inserting “spoken stuff” by important humans might well have become a trend (think Solange, Beyonce, SZA), and hit the end of the hour puzzling over if it were a trend, why was it one, and was it a good one?

This ritual is working. The point has been to get them used to talking about music specifically, force them to examine artistic problems, and start them thinking about transferring the discussion to their writing. They have an expository essay on deck (they have to choose from among 10 expository modes the one that best enables them to say what they want about a pet musical concern), with an actual record review in the hole. We’re already past where we were with these issues last year, and on top of that, the students seem less reluctant to criticize model writings I’ve given them: they’ve already pointed out music writing trends such as hive mind, precious little constructive criticism, and celebrity hypnosis.

Also, I’ve turned the artist choice over to students: Tierra Whack’s Whack World is next up, followed by Sophie’s Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-insides. I’m having fun–can you tell? (One thing is, they’re working harder than I am–an objective classroom teachers should always be shooting for.)

On fronts with lower stakes, I simply hunkered down and enjoyed some old records. One was Ray Charles’ Sweet and Sour Tears, an ABC label concept album of sorts (it’s songs about tears!) packed with all the devices that can make this Charles period a challenge for listeners with high aesthetic standards: soupy choral arrangements, blasting brass, and material of very erratic quality. When I was younger, I assumed that these “offenses” had been forced on Ray by the company, but once I learned the music was exactly as the man wanted it, I was forced to re-evaluate them. I’m not adding anything that new to the debate, but with surprising frequency Charles engages in soulful call-and-response with the choirs (who are decisively not the Raelettes), devises arrangements that push that brass to KICK, and invests crap songs with vocal guts, often of a rascally nature, and that resonant gospel-tinged piano, which is mixed up higher than one has come to expect with the ABC output. The reissue of Sweet and Sour Tears includes Atlantic “tear-songs” as bonus tracks, but honestly I don’t hear them sounding any better than the official album. If you’ve somehow skipped this one, give it a spin.

I also took an old standby out to the truck; it’s now on its third repetition, and I’ve probably played it 200 times since I saw the band live. It’s on the long-gone Joaquin Records (named after the great steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy), it’s by a bunch of crazy Canucks called Ray Condo and The Richochets, and it’s called Swing, Brother, Swing. The record just hits my sweet spot with serious juice: call it what you want–Western swing, rockabilly, hillbilly boogie, jazz, blues, rock and roll, hardcore honky tonk–the band just loves all that stuff and mixes it into a stunning elixir. If that isn’t enough to tempt you, they were crate-diggers at least as good as Lux and Ivy, and–as much as I love those two–without the schtick. Billie Holiday, Rudy Toombs, Lew Williams, Hank Penny, Carl Perkins, and–especially, on the above song–Glenn Barber come in for revved-up treatment here, and the next two records they released before Condo’s untimely death were almost as surprising. The band was hot, sharp, and tightly loose (if that makes sense), Condo’s goosed-up “regular guy” vocals, in the grand tradition of Western swing, are sly and engaged, and the man plays the kind of saxophone fans of Don Markham (of Hag’s Strangers) will appreciate. Just great stuff that I can yell myself hoarse to just driving around the block.


And what about the new Prince album?

Let me quote Nicole: “He’s doodling. That’s a genius doodling.” She’d just asked me if she’d heard him sing the word “omelets”–and yes, he does. But that quote is a compliment–you’re hearing a master musician and songwriter in the midst of his process, rolling out some stuff he’s been thinking about for awhile, some bits he thinks (rightly) might have some potential, some O.P.s that he digs the most that he plays around with. Latter case in point (listen for the omelet line):

Also, I should point out that he works a piano, he stomps a bit, and he didn’t just save those eye-popping vocal dynamics for official recording sessions. We’re happy we bought it.




Tweaking the Classroom, With The Dogg, and Between the Pages (September 3-10, 2018, Columbia, Mo)

I am constantly tweaking my teaching strategies for my freshman comp/pop music class at Stephens College. Thinking about data-based questions, I stumbled upon what I thought would be a stimulating lesson plan:

1) zero them in on an artist with fresh work out, and ask them to sample the entire album;

2) ask the kids to read some new and quality reviews and/or features on the artist;

3) funnel them to some good and recent performance and video clips of the artist;

4) ask them to annotate as they explore, listen, think, and reflect;

5) convene for a kind of Socratic seminar, with the above serving as the data.

Actually, the lesson was pretty successful. Since we’re a women’s college, I thought Mitski and her new album Be the Cowboy would be an ideal subject. The young woman’s an intense singer, a talented writer and musician, and loves to mine her (justifiably, I feel) turbulent emotional life for material. Myself, I like her and her new album very much, but, honestly, that had nothing to do with my choice: I simply thought it would be reliably stimulating for my class of 18.

It was. But. A few students responded very positively and strongly to her work; a few (not necessarily the same few) skillfully used evidence and analysis to back up their opinions; most, however, found her a little much. What did that mean? All over the place musically (I was thinking that range was more a tour de force, if not more simply the artist matching setting with material, as were a couple kids; most wanted a groove). Providing too much information (for example, there is a masturbation line) and relying too much on lyrics. Not being chill enough. And–this was probably the most interesting thread of the conversation–cannily packaging herself as having a foot in pop and a foot in avant garde in order to be easily commodified, for the convenience of consumers, with Urban Outfitters. As you might be suspecting, we have a passionate anti-capitalist in the house, which I am enjoying immensely, but, while she accused the writers of the three articles I’d assigned them of “fellating” Mitski with no real supporting arguments (unfair in some ways, though none of the writers did supply any caveats or constructive criticism about her work), the student herself had a little trouble supplying specific support for her own attack. Since one of my ulterior motives was getting them to effectively substantiate their contentions–or at least start practicing same–perhaps the ensuing provided an obvious model of what to avoid. I don’t know, but I’m always surprised to find in this course that, often, women hold female artists to a very (too?) high standard. I’ll have to continue letting that phenomenon marinate.

I was very encouraged by a very quiet student’s lone contribution, though, which followed the above barrage: “You know, she’s a very young artist. Shouldn’t the fact that she’s still developing earn her some room to be messy?” (Yes.)


HOT TAKE: Swamp Dogg’s superbly titled Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune is one of the best–and the strangest–r&b records of the year. Only The Dogg could take Auto-Tune and make something deep out of it–except that it really appears to have been Justin Vernon’s idea (why, Lord, why?), so that hurts, but I have to admit it works, and Swamp’s the show. His songs, lyrically speaking, aren’t as eccentric as usual (“Sex with Your Ex” the exception)–in fact, the covers are among the brightest highlights–but the shot of loneliness and alienation with which the much-maligned effect injects them is…a word I never thought I’d use in connection with Bon Iver…POWERFUL. Great cover art and liner notes, as one would expect.


Otherwise this week, I indulged in some very, very good music-related reading. Sam Anderson’s wild and wonderful Boom Town focuses on Mr. Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips as one exemplar of the spirit of his subject, Oklahoma City. I’m not a huge fan of Coyne or his group (though seeing them when they were just kids was a trip), but Anderson makes a convincing case that to understand the city and its travails and aspirations, you have to consider them. Elsewhere, a star weatherman, the OKC Thunder, and several “city visionaries” flesh out his analysis. This is one of the very best books I’ve read this year, and it’s as much about us as it is about Oklahoma City, looked at a certain way.

Playing Changes

More exclusively about music is Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century. A test any music book must pass with me is, “Does it hurt my wallet by sending me to stuff I never knew about or unfairly dismissed?” Well, technically, with Apple Music, I don’t have to fork over any green, though that’s a sad fact I’ve addressed elsewhere and don’t feel like going into here. Chinen’s book easily passes the test; as I read, I constructed a playlist from the chapters’ subjects and his extensive discography that will take me until the middle of the next decade to fully absorb. The main thing it did for me is pry me out of my stubbornly resistant attitude toward jazz that’s flavored by new-millennium r&b and hip hop. Examples: Robert Glasper, Snarky Puppy (shitty band names can hurt a group!), and Lalah Hathaway, all of whom Chinen induced me to like). He’s also great in chapters on jazz education and international influence, innovation and practice, but I pouted when I realized he would not be including Scandinavia or Portugal in the latter discussion. I am biased, but how he could skip over Joe McPhee in looking at the role of “the new mentors” in the transfer of methods and ideas to the new generation leaves me nonplussed.


An article about Jelly Roll Morton showed up in my feed, courtesy of (hmmm) The Wall Street Journal: “Plotting His Way Into Jazz History.” John Edward Hasse, a writer previously unknown to me, presents Morton as “jazz’s first theorist,” which I’d heard argued before, but he hooked me with this paragraph–I don’t play an instrument, so I can’t initially hear this stuff when I listen to jazz:

“…Morton took on several problems. In just over three minutes, how do you create interest and drama? In a musical style taking shape, how do you prove the full potential of jazz to integrate the planned with the spontaneous, the notated with the improvised?”

Even better is how Hasse succinctly explains Morton’s solutions (exemplified in the classic “Black Bottom Stomp”)…but read the article yourself for that. Suffice it to say that I went straight from reading the article to JSP’s great Morton box set and Wynton Marsalis’ Morton tribute, Mr. Jelly Lord, my favorite record by my favorite musical tight-ass. Why? Well, the band is effin’ cream: Don Vappie on banjo and guitar, Dr. Michael White on clarinet, Herlin Riley on drum kit, Wycliffe Gordon on ‘bone, tuba, and trumpet, and Marsalis himself as loose and playful (and masterful) as you’re gonna hear him. Did you ever wonder if Harry Connick, Jr., ever really applied on record anything he learned from James Booker? He does here, and does justice to his mentor. The selections are perfect and often surprising (“Big Lip Blues,” for example), and the arrangements, execution, and production do not embalm them. And you get lagniappe in the true NOLA fashion, with Wynton and pianist Eric Reed nailing “Tomcat Blues” via wax cylinder from the Edison Museum:


I swear, right now books are like heroin to me (yes, I listened to the Gun Club this week). I should count myself lucky. I also picked up John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth, which sets out to vaunt the former and puncture the latter. It’s note-perfect in doing so thus far, and has convinced me that I do too need to to read Lady Sings the Blues. I didn’t know Billie made it to film at 19, singing an Ellington song with Duke backing her and already exhibiting the mastery that would make her legendary. She begins singing at about the 4:40 mark:

Szwed also wrote the best book yet on Sun Ra. Check him out.

Short-shrift Division:

David Virelles: Mboko (WOW!!!!!!)

The Gun Club: The Fire of Love

Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (expanded edition)

George Coleman: Live at Yoshi’s

Robert Glasper: Black Radio

Lalah Hathaway (feat. Snarky Puppy), “Something” (ZOINKS!!!)



The Academy of Rock, David H. Hickman High School, Columbia, MO, February 4, 2004 – present (in case the Wikipedia page ever goes bye-bye…)

One day, I hope to produce an oral history of this after-school venture that ended up being, if not the accomplishment I’m most proud of in my public school career, the most fun I’ve ever had as a club sponsor (and I sponsored several). The first five years of the club’s existence seemed to produce something new and exciting each season–and not due to anything special I did other than seldom saying “No.”

A thumbnail history of the club, in need of some updating, currently appears on Hickman High School’s Wikipedia page. I am not confident it will last forever, so I am going to back it up right here.

Hickman High School boasts one of the most innovative music appreciation societies in United States public education. The Academy of Rock was founded in late January 2004 by students David Kemper, Dylan Raithel, James Saracini and teacher Phil Overeem. The general purpose of the club was initially to plan and execute a “Battle of the Bands” between Hickman and its Columbia rival, Rock Bridge, but soon grew to encompass several other enterprises.[citation needed]

Since its inception, the Academy of Rock has hosted nine Battles of the Bands, three at Hickman High School and two at a local rock-and-roll venue, The Blue Note.[20] These four events raised a total of nearly $7,000 to support what sponsor Overeem calls “demotic music” (in other words, music created by and for the masses). Each Battle has pitted four Hickman bands against four Rock Bridge bands, the winners being as follows: J Murda and the Musicians (Hickman, 2004), The Tipper Gores (Hickman, 2005), Wayfare (Rock Bridge, 2006), Graffiti Out Loud (Hickman, 2007), and Molly Trull and Anodyne (Hickman, 2008),[21] the Dorians (Hickman, 2010), the RPs[22] (Hickman, 2011),[23] Table for Five (Hickman/Rock Bridge, 2012), and The IRA (Hickman, 2013). The winning band not only has the privilege of hosting a summer benefit concert at the Blue Note but being staked to recording time in a local studio owned and operated by local Columbia musician Barry Hibdon, Red Boots. The four summer benefits have raised a total of over $3,000 for VH1‘s Save the Music Foundation,[24] Columbia’s community radio station KOPN,[25] the Muscular Dystrophy Association,[26] the Voluntary Action Center of Columbia,[27] the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism and Other Neurodevelopmental Disorders [1], and the effort to rebuild Joplin, Missouri, after the 2011 tornado. In addition, Academy of Rock-sponsored bands have also raised over $2,000 to assist in rebuilding after both the Sri Lanka and New Orleans disasters, and the group co-sponsored a fund-raiser for Hurricane Katrina survivors that netted nearly $27,000.[28] In 2013, The IRA, the winning band in that year’s Battle, opted to donate its recording proceeds to the Central Missouri Humane Society.

Besides the Battle of the Bands, the Academy of Rock also sponsors, mans, and programs KWPE 98.3 FM,[29] the school radio station (home to Rock Therapy[30]); curates the American Roots Music Listening Library in the school media center,[31] which has been funded largely by the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri;[32] partners with Columbia art theater Ragtag Cinemacafe[33] for “The Academy of Rock Showcase,” which gives high school bands the opportunity to hone their chops in front of audiences and make money; partners with University of Missouri radio station KCOU in a “Take-over Program”, during which eight pairs of Hickman DJs operate the college station for 12 to 16 hours in one- to two-hour shifts; sponsors a monthly music documentary series in the school’s Little Theatre; and coordinates a live performance series that has featured free unplugged concerts by artists ranging from nationally known acts like The Drive-By Truckers[34] (March 2005) and The Hold Steady (December 2006) to cult artists like former X co-lead singer-songwriter Exene Cervenka[35] (see video),[36] and Baby Gramps[37] to local Missouri musicians like Witch’s Hat, The F-Bombs, Bockman, and Cary Hudson.[38]

On February 19, 2009, the Academy staged an electrifying free performance by a contemporary of Muddy Waters and the inventor of folk-funk, Bobby Rush. The Academy of Rock has even made headlines in the national music press, thanks to a feature article by Lisa Groshong in the July/August 2005 issue (#68) of Punk Planet, and received a $500 “Music is Revolution” Foundation grant from Michael and Angela Davis, the former the original bass player for Detroit punk rock legends the MC5. Other recent developments in the club’s activities are to arrange performances for budding Hickman musicians at lunch on Fridays and coordinate after-school jam sessions, at which student musicians arrive, write their names on slips of paper, and drop them into buckets labeled according to their instruments. A supervisor then randomly draws a slip a piece from each bucket, and the four to five musicians whose names are on the slips must come to the stage and improvise a performance. In September 2007, in conjunction with Hickman’s student government, the Academy provided over 100 volunteers for the city’s first annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.[39] and in October 2008, served as an artist-relations crew for one of the three featured stages at the second festival.

In 2008, University of Missouri student Chad LaRoche shot a brief documentary about the club to help those who are interested understand the club more clearly: Part 1[40] and Part 2[41] of the documentary are available on YouTube. A further technological aspect of the club spawned during that year was the “Rock Therapy” podcast [2], which featured Battle of the Band recordings, raw tracks from the concert series showcases, and the sponsor’s eccentric, lo-fi forays into the world of pop music.[citation needed]

April 2009 brought further recognition for the club: the national-award-winning regional magazine Missouri Life [3] featured the club in an article by John Hendel [4]. As soon as the 2009–2010 school year was under way, the Academy of Rock brought Pacific Northwestern punk-garage legends The Pierced Arrows (formerly Dead Moon) to the Little Theater stage for an October 13 concert-and-Q&A. In the spring of the same school year, in collaboration with the Missouri Arts Council, Theater NXS, and MO Blues Society, the club presented northern Mississippi bluesman and Fat Possum recording artist Robert Belfour in two workshops involving over 100 students. Also, again aided by a grant from the Assistance League of Mid-America, the club augmented its existing media center CD collection with a selection of American classical music.

The Academy of Rock initiated a new program during the 2011-2012 school year: the “Local Music Showcase”. This program was designed to expose Hickman students to musicians in their own community and facilitate conversations through performances and question-and-answer sessions that could serve to inspire students to pursue their own futures in music. The opening performance in the series, on November 10, 2011, featured Moonrunner [5]; on February 9, 2012, Columbia “indyground” rapper Dallas held court [6]. 2012-2013 was a very quiet year for the Academy of Rock, though, true to its mission, it initiated some new programs: a Sunday Night Showcase series at Columbia’s The Bridge [7], which featured concerts by Volatile, Space, Time, and Beauty, Ross Menefee, and The Pound Game, and a music-lesson scholarship [8], in partnership with The Columbia Academy of Music [9]. The scholarship offers $250 worth of lessons to one underclassman boy and one underclassman girl per year. The club also procured two grants, one each from the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri and the Hickman PTSA, to expand the school’s CD library [10]. Co-founder Phil Overeem retired from teaching at the end of the school year, turning the club reins over to Mr. Brock Boland.

Currently, Mr. Boland and his fellow English teacher Mr. Jonathan McFarland sponsor the Academy at Hickman; another English teacher, Mr. Jordan Smith (a former Academy of Rock member beginning in his ninth grade year) has overseen the establishing a branch at Columbia’s Battle High School. Yay, English teachers!

Progress Report (March 26th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)p

This was a slow music day–music isn’t the end-all be-all (he sez to himself)–but in honor of the piquant writer Luc Sante’s great essay on the subject for Pitchfork, I thought a lot about Something Else by The Kinks. That album was the centerpiece for a mini-unit series that was a regular part of my practice as a teacher of British literature at Hickman High School. As a way to ease reluctant students into the process of literary analysis, I would guide them through a quick study of the work of notable songwriters from or associated with the British Isles. I’d give them some brief background and guiding questions, provide them a packet with selected lyrics, play each song, then solicit their observations, gradually pulling my own back. The Kinks’ Ray Davies couldn’t have been a more perfect writer for such a lesson: his command of voice, tone, characterization, ambiguity, irony, and droll humor ensured students would walk out knowing more than they did coming in, and that many would leave big fans–especially after “Waterloo Sunset,” which closed the class. That’s a classic example of a song that means far more than its author and most critics have claimed for it–or so my students would annually prove to me.

Please sample the album, linked above, and check out Mr. Sante’s reconsideration of its quality import.

As far as the post title’s concerned, since things are slow, it’s a good time to reflect on how this blog, which I resolved to rejuvenate on New Year’s Day, is faring.

A) I was largely trying to break out of writer’s lethargy, and I’ve posted 86 straight days. Check.

B) My concept was to simply keep a diary of my listening, which I mostly have unless I’ve repeat-played something over several days, which I occasionally do. This was a way to triumph over a fear of having nothing of worth to say, which is largely true, but I’ve surprised myself at least four times, mostly because the unpredictability of daily circumstances has interceded. Still, though, most of the entries are just gussied-up shares of links. Check-minus.

C) It’s become clear to me that embarking upon this undertaking is a way to replace something that’s been missing in my life. I am honestly pissed and sad that the evolution of technology has rendered my making mixtapes pretty superfluous. For probably 25 years, I was often the only person many folks knew who had access to a ton, and a wide range, of music. From party-people pals to students, enough humans sought me out for musical grab bags and commissioned projects that I started taking great pride in fulfilling their needs. I invested many hours and much cogitation, crate-diggin’, taping and erasing, and creative labeling during that quarter-century–then poof! All gone. Should have seen it coming! I mean, it’s not like I couldn’t occasionally find a way to spend a couple hours in my old favorite way–like, recently, providing filmgoers a specially selected Rahsaan Roland Kirk CD to accompany their viewing of the great Adam Kahan Kirk doc The Case of the Three-Sided Dream–but even then, hell, they could’ve Spotified it for themselves. And now I only have 15-25 students a year, as opposed to 125, to whom to preach the gospel. SO–writing these posts at the very least creates the delusion that I’m still playing that old role, which I deeply savored. Check-minus?

D) It’s nothing profound, but as I approach 60, I think about being gone more frequently than I ever have, and, well…these posts proved I walked the turf, and a cornucopia of sounds lightened my step. Check-plus.

E) I was in New Orleans at the beginning of the year, and thus was frequently annoyed at having to knock the early entries out on my smartphone. Would it be easier on my ol’ desktop! Surprise surprise, but I’ve gotten so used to single-finger tapping, I prefer writing them on my phone, though my editing isn’t as careful. Check? Hmmm…

F) I did hope a few friends and other humans might read it. And I am thankful they have. Big check.

G) I have enjoyed this. At least five times, I almost decided to take a day off, usually for a seeming lack of real subject matter; each time, an idea formed that I had to seize upon. Whether it’s teaching, being married, sitting in solitude, or writing into a yawning digital chasm, I have always been driven to embue my activities with…FUN. For me, at the very least. So, a final check.

See you tomorrow, and thanks to Scott Woods, Rex Harris, Kevin Bozelka, Alfred Soto, and Hardin Smith, Expert Witnesses who each gave me a spark to get this going, and to my wife Nicole, who has been living with me and listening for 28 years. It’s not like I won a damned award, but it feels like it, just writing every day.

Classroom Clatter, Part 2 (March 22nd, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

Today was the second and final day of my pop music / comp students’ informal research presentations. From what I already knew about the subjects of the research, I was uncertain if my personal enjoyment level would match Tuesday’s class, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Kathleen Hanna

I assigned Ms. Hanna to one of my very best writers, who’d asked for one rather than chosen her own. Kathleen “does a lot of yelling and uses vulgar language,” she told us, “but after you let it sink in, it’s very interesting.” The kid’s a Joan Jett fan, and she chose a perfect song for us to think upon:

Guiding Question: Where do you think feminism has gone since this song was released in the early Nineties?

Answer: It didn’t really get answered, but some of the other students were able to connect it to personal styles that “are more accepted today.” Yeah–I think so. Plus the presenter enlightened us a bit on fourth-wave feminism!

Whitney Houston

I will admit freely I have never been a fan of the late Ms. Houston, but the student who’d chosen to research her (who earlier in the semester had turned me on to a great metal band) did an amazingly thorough and passionate job of arguing for her. She chose to have us consider two performances, and damned if I didn’t actively enjoy both:

The sweat, soul, grit, and green outfit caused me to yell “Uncle!”

Guiding Question: Actually, the presenter, who will be a great teacher one day if she chooses to try it, asked us a pretty full stylistic analysis that I can’t express as a simple question.

Answer: Well, she answered for us, quite accurately–in general, arguing that her vocal power and dynamics, as well as her facial expressions and gestures, sold the songs. Yep!


Guiding Question: How would you describe her vocal style?

Answer: “Mellow.” Alluding to a comment made by a student during Tuesday’s class, I added, “That song isn’t about a boat, is it?” I hadn’t heard it since it was forced on me by my middle school students back at the time of its release, and I’d not ever paid attention to the lyrics. The more you know. Please tell me R. Kelly didn’t produce and direct the video…

Pat Benatar

Here is one research subject I was hesitant to approve, because I wasn’t sure how far the student could get, but she was sure she could make a feminist / personal fulfillment argument so I surrendered. The following was difficult to watch stoically after the passage of three decades:

Guiding Question (not my favorite): So how is love a battlefield?

Answer: It’s hard. Well, yes. I wanted to offer that it’s hard to tell if the love referred to is parental or romantic or both, but I chose to remain mute.

Stevie Nicks

The student who’s researching La Nicks can take her study several different interesting directions, and I can’t wait to see which way she decides to go. The young lady presented sans PowerPoint, which won her some minor brownie points with me as she delivered the goods. Her song choice?

Guiding Question: How does “landslide” function as a metaphor?

Answer: like an avalanche, love can overwhelm you. As can research…

Classroom Clatter, Part 1 (March 20th, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)

The students of my freshman comp / pop music class formally opened up their final unit with informal presentations on their research subjects. Not that this will thrill any readers, but here’s the research project they’re undertaking:

English 107 Pop Music Research Project: Specification


  1. Form a clear and specific argument about a performer’s or group’s musical work after sampling it broadly and deeply.
  2. Support the argument with both specific evidence (lyrics, descriptions of musical passages, etc.) and expert commentary gathered through research.
  3. Reflect on the connections you made with the performer’s or group’s work, referring specifically to your past thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
  4. Execute a cleanly-formatted MLA research paper that elaborates your argument, presents your evidence in organized fashion, and shares your reflections.
  5. For your final exam, present (through audio only) two of your performer’s songs that demonstrate your research and reflections, setting up each song with guided questions for the class, commenting knowledgeably after each song, and taking two questions (15 minutes minimum).


  1. The performer must identify / have identified as a woman; if a group is chosen, it must be led (or artistically dominated) by a performer who identifies (or performers who identify) as a woman. The performer needs not be currently living, nor does the group need to be active.
  2. The bulk of the performer’s or group’s work must have been produced prior to January 2001.
  3. All genres of work are allowed, as well as any nationality from which the performer or group might have sprung. It is suggested that you select a performer or group from a genre of which you have some working knowledge.
  4. Your argument must be about the work, not about the performer or group as human beings.
  5. You are required to use your preferred streaming/listening methods to listen to at least three non-compilation albums, and at least one compilation. Each album must contribute a work that is MLA-cited in the text of your paper; each album should be listed among your paper’s Works Cited.
  6. Sources must qualify as expert commentary. You will have to research the writers who provide it to determine that. Also, this project requires that you look into at least one book—and you may need to look into more than one.

Suggestions for Arguments

  1. Arguments may focus on themes or preoccupations that are explored by the artist or group in their songs.
  2. Arguments may focus on the artist’s or performer’s style, as it is represented through writing, singing, playing, or arranging. Be conscious of the fact that writing about singing, playing, or arranging may well require specific musical vocabulary and a heightened attempt at description.
  3. Arguments may focus on artists’ or performers’ achievements in the context of their field. Be conscious of the fact that, to make such an argument, one must know the context.
  4. Arguments may focus on constructed personae that artists or groups create through their work.
  5. Arguments may focus on the artistic growth of an artist or group over time.
  6. Arguments may focus on a combination of any of the above, though it is essential that there be a common thread that runs through the entirety of the combination.
  7. No argument may focus on anything not represented by Numbers 1-6.

Additional Specifications for Essays and Final Exam Presentations

  1. Minimum 1,700 words / maximum 2,500 words.
  2. Suggested structure: intro + argument –> background (only essentials) –> presentation of evidence (multiple paragraphs) –> personal reflection –> conclusion (reiteration of argument + statement of performer’s / group’s importance) –> works cited.
  3. Sources: four articles (via databases, trustworthy Internet sources, and periodicals), one book, three regular-issue albums, one compilation album (MINIMUM). Each source should be cited in the text and listed appropriately among the works cited.
  4. Point distribution for essays (detailed scoring guide to follow): grammar and mechanics (10 points); structure (10); argument and evidence (25); personal reflection (20); formatting (10) = 75 total points.
  5. Point distribution for final exam presentation (must be accompanied by a PowerPoint or visual aide): clarity (argument, pre-song guided questions, post-song debrief, evidence) (25 points); speaking attributes (volume, modulation, diction) (12 points); Q & A (3 points).

Scored Components for Entire Project:

  1. Proposal (subject + working thesis)                                                   10
  2. Introductory presentation                                                                    25
  3. Sentence-form outline                                                                            15
  4. Essay rough draft (must be submitted through Canvas)             20
  5. Essay final draft (must be submitted through Canvas)                75
  6. Presentation (final exam)                                                                      40

Total                                                                                                                      185

NOTE: The instructor reserves the right to refuse any request to explore certain performers or groups, but will provide a reason for such refusals. The instructor will also happily provide suggestions regarding performers or groups, or simply assign one to a student upon request (the advantage of the latter option is that you will be assigned a subject that provides a bounty of writing and thinking opportunities).

Now even you hate me, right? Seriously, though, I have been striving to find the right research project to both fit my course design and more easefully transition them into higher-level research demands they’re sure to encounter during their remaining years at Stephens. If I can admit to being excited about a research project, I have high hopes for the reflective aspect of the essay. My aim is that the integration of a section composed of personal insights and a slightly less formal voice with cause the construction and grading of the projects to be less grueling. We shall see. I need to, but don’t want to, write a model.

So: to the presentations. The purposes of these were to introduce the class to the range of subjects under review and give me an idea of not only how much preliminary research students had already done but also how committed and enthusiastic they were about the work. In ten minutes or less, students were required to introduce us to their artists through three important facts and their own initial responses to the artists’ work, focus us with a guiding question about, then play an official video (if available) of, one of the artist’s best works, then lead us in a quick discussion of possible answers to the guiding questions. As usual, I started with a model presentation on Yugen Blackrok (big surprise if you’ve been keeping score) that fell a bit flat (“She doesn’t have beats!”), but at least I snuck in some learning on apartheid and Afro-Futurism. Half the class then presented, as follows:

Guiding Question: “Can you figure out the metaphors used in this song?”

Answer: “That verse isn’t really about deep-sea diving, is it?”

Guiding Question (not a good one): “So, what’s good about the song and what’s not?”

Answer: “Ewwwwwwwwwww. I can’t stand the way she sings. I had to plug my ears.” Another student rushing to the rescue: “I LOVE HER SINGING! She’s so exciting and rebellious!” (Yay.)

Guiding Question (a stellar one): Does Ms. Blige sing with a chest voice or a head voice?

Answer: A little of both–mostly chest, but her head’s in there, too.

Guiding Question (again, good!): Pay close attention to the childhood images in the video, contrasted with Dolly’s adult self, and be ready to talk about that.

Answer: None given to that question, but several new questions posed (“Is she dead?”)

Guiding Question: How would you describe her singing style?

Answer: “Her voice sounds messed up!” Teacher counters with: I hear a core of yearning and loneliness to her singing that fits nicely with the video content.”

We’ll see how Thursday goes, but I must admit, their choice of research topics should make for interesting research and enjoyable reading. Should

Anyone know when Yugen Blakrok was born?


K-Pop Skype-Strike (March 6-7, 2018, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri)


Since I began integrating pop music discussions and writing assignments into the freshman comp class I teach at Stephens College, a private women’s liberal arts school here in Columbia, I have tried to convince working music critics to visit the classroom, dollop out their wisdom, and talk about their philosophy, process, struggles, victories, and obsessions. Wednesday, Hyperallergic and SPIN reviewer Lucas Fagen valiantly Skyped into class (it was 6 a.m. his time) and, after some annoying technical delays, engaged us in a very interesting and wide-ranging discussion.

Only seven of my already small class of 11 appeared (it’s midterm week), of those who did, only two had read any of the selected Fagen essays I’d assigned–and only one of those read all the essays I’d assigned. In addition, I was flustered from the tech delays and slightly off-balance when Lucas wasn’t sure what I wanted him to tell them about his life. I switched quickly into moderator mode, and posed the first couple of questions while prompting the class to think of some of their own (we’d spent 20 class minutes last week brainstorming a long list of those, which were apparently bound away in the ether). They owe me a record review rough draft Tuesday, and the whole point of Lucas’ visit was for him to share tips.

Fortunately, by the time Lucas had clicked away back to Portland, we’d discussed preparation, record review non-negotiables, writer’s block, negative reviews, ideal writing environments, audience relations, striving to suggest (rather than state) judgments, the relevance of private lives, a bad Randy Newman record (I’d wanted to discuss Lucas’ Lil’ Uzi Vert review, but my students’ abstention from homework rendered that direction null and void), cultural context, other young writers we should read, and the impossibility of objectivity (on the part of the reviewer, but also where songwriters are concerned). I judged that be evidence of fair success, and students affirmed to me they had gained some confidence in their upcoming task. I really wish, though, that one of them hadn’t asked if Lucas were single.

Once question I was hoping some student would ask was, “Hey, what reviews are you currently working on?” As time was winding down, I wedged it in myself, and Lucas responded quickly, in a burst of enthusiasm: “I’m reviewing Jonghyun’s new album! The title isn’t great–Poet / Artist–but it’s my album of the year so far for 2018.” I expected to see uncontrollable twitching overcome the class, as K-Pop has been a frequent topic of very animated student discussion since 2015, but apparently this lot is immune to its charms.

As had I been; students having subjected me to several K-Pop videos in past classes, the genre seemed a frenetic blur of hyper-ramped, blindingly colorful, rap-n-r&b-influenced tween-tunes…ummm, do you remember that scene in High Anxiety?

That has been K-Pop’s effect on me. However, Mr. Fagen’s impassioned defense of the artist’s and the record’s merits, plus my ever-creeping suspicion that I have become a calcified old fart, forced me to promise him I would listen to the album carefully once I could cloister myself properly. I must admit, too, that the artist’s suicide late last year, apparently simultaneous with his having reached a creative pinnacle, saddened and intrigued me.


If you’d like to take some time, you can simulate listening to the album with me:


Now. If this is where K-Pop might be going, I’ll hitch a ride there. I found the young man’s singing marvelously flexible; he shifts effortlessly in and out of a wide range of moods: jubilant (“Shinin'”),  desperate (“Only One You Need”), chilled-out (“#Hashtag,” tinged with Steely Dan cool),  seductive (“Take the Dive”), and desolated (“Before Our Spring,” the deeply poignant closer). Admittedly, I’m guessing at some of these since I hear in English only, but it’s further proof of the young man’s skill that his singing’s consistently affecting beyond vocabulary’s reach. Also commendable is that the young man doesn’t over-sing. He’s in full control, floating, dropping in and out, modulating, easefully riding the album’s varied tempos and rhythms.

Poet / Artist‘s musical settings, pop/r&b-flavored, are clean, percolating, and unobtrusive, staying out of Jonghyun’s way and providing him just the right walls off of which to bounce. I’m a bit of a gestaltist–as much as I love classic singles, I’m rather helplessly an album guy, a listener after a vaster artistic whole–and, by those lights, Poet / Artist is stellar. Only what I hear as a holding-pattern filler cut (“Rewind”) would keep it from my own early-2018 Top Three; it’s certainly a Top Five for me now. At 27–not again! have they started up yet?–Jonghyun left us far too soon, but nonetheless I’m eager to explore his back catalogue, and maybe hunt down some translations (YouTube seems a good resource).

Now…if each of my seven students who were present had at least one similar breakthrough moment as a result of Mr. Fagen’s talk, I’ll forgive them that unprofessional proposition (after all, what if the parties’ genders had been reversed?).

There will, of course, be a quiz over it.