Monthly Archives: September 2015

A Brief History of the “Freak” Song

My earliest memories of budding romantic-sexual awareness at grade school dances are punctuated again and again by one thing: the “Freak” song. Having been raised in its Golden Age, I’ve always been interested in its development. So here, from our occasional department of musical obsessions and listomania, is a brief history.

Le Freak (CHIC, 1978) This is sort of the prelude to freak songs, and also marks a vital pivot point in the musical use of the word. There’s still a sense here of the counterculture psychedelic trip sense of “I’m freaking out, man!”, but there’s also feeling the rhythm and checking the ride with a foxy lady at Studio 54.

Super Freak (Rick James, 1981) And now we come to the granddaddy of the whole movement. Here it’s still the scene that’s a little freaky (with the whole incense, wine and candles and what-not) but it’s mainly that she’s a freak through her sexual adventurousness. Also, this song makes me mourn the Rick James we might have had if crack hadn’t taken over.

Freak-A-Zoid (Midnight Star, 1983) We might have stopped with Rick James, and for two years we did. But then Midnight Star came along to tell us that they’d be our Freak-A-Zoid if we’d just wind them up. Thanks guys! And along the way they sparked a freak song revitalization. Thanks again!

Freakshow on the Dance Floor (The Bar Kays, 1984) Whereas the freakiness in the Midnight Star song was overtly sexual, we’re here back to getting freaky on the dance floor, kind of like in the CHIC days. However, there’s also a sense now that we’re the freaks, who are being called to get down as one big Freak Nation.

Freaks come out at Night (Whodini, 1984) Again, the freaks here are mostly dance freaks. When they come out at night, it’s to the dance floor. Although the song does allow that they’re breaking hearts, are real good lovers, and also always have at least one glove, which I don’t think means mittens in this case. This song is also significant in that it brings the freak song into the realm of hip-hop, which sets us up for…

Freaky Tales (Too $hort, 1987) And here we are, at the apotheosis of the freak song. No 60s freak-outs here, no dance floors, just pure NC-17. You shouldn’t listen to this if you’re at work. Or around small children. Or, probably, if you’re a woman. Maybe not even if you’re a man. When you do listen to it (c’mon, you know you will) you’ll see right away why the freak song couldn’t go any further.

These are the highlights, but I may have missed one or two. Let me know if you have anything to add to the list. And Freak Out! In whatever sense of the word suits your fancy…

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A Brief Documentary History of Punk Rock

clash

I’m a music geek. I’m a total geek for lists. I also love documentaries. And history. If only there was some way to combine all of these. Wait– THERE IS!

Without further ado, I present you here a brief history of punk rock through documentaries, suitable for the audiophile, cinephile, and home-schoolers doing a unit on popular music. Note that these are presented in order of where they fall in the history of punk’s development, rather than when the films came out.

End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003, Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia) Often lost in the mix of its subsequent history is the fact that Punk actually started in the U.S.. Here’s the story of one of the first punk bands, highlighting the long shadow they cast on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980, Julien Temple) It may have started here, but it was in the U.K.that punk burst into the public consciousness, and there wasn’t a louder source of the P.R. burst than the Sex Pistols. This documentary of their rise and fall is set apart by coming from the era, and being itself a punk pastiche of sound and vision. 

The Filth and the Fury (2000, Julien Temple) Twenty years later, Julien Temple came back to do a more conventional (and thorough) documentary on the Sex Pistols. It lacks the verve of his earlier film, but makes up for it in accuracy, and really puts the band and the Punk movement in a wider context. 

The Clash: Westway to the World (2000, Don Letts) This documentary does a similar kind of treatment for the Clash. If the Pistols were the brains of U.K. Punk, the Clash were the brawn. Or maybe exactly vice versa… Either way, Letts makes great use of performance footage, interviews and news clips to remind you why it wasn’t purely hubris to call the Clash “the only band that matters”.

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981, Penelope Spheris) The funny thing about influence is, it runs both ways. If the Ramones helped jump-start U.K. Punk, U.K. Punk equally fed back into the scene in the U.S.. Heavy on live performance and interviews with the bands themselves, Penelope Spheris’ powerhouse showcase vividly brings the LA Punk scene of the early 80s to life.

We Jam Econo (2005, Tim Irwin & Keith Scheiron) From the general to the specific, this film hones in on The Minutemen, one of the more unique bands to come out of that Southern California scene before their highly literate, political and musically eclectic mix was brought to an end by their front man’s premature death just as they were on the verge of wider success.

American Hardcore (2006, Paul Rachman) Who the hell needs wider success? In the course of the 80s, LA Punk became LA Hardcore, and similar scenes popped up around the nation. This film chronicles the development of the nationwide scene, and makes a persuasive argument that Hardcore Punk was the only functioning political opposition in Reagan’s America.

1991: The Year Punk Broke (1992, Dave Markey) One thing about American Hardcore is that it ends the 80s on a distinctively downbeat note- a la the scene is gone now, and the kids all suck. This 1992 documentary puts the lie to that kind of defeatism. It chronicles a tour by Sonic Youth and the bands they brought with them, including priceless footage of a fledgling Nirvana, and is a reminder that, even as Punk flamed out throughout the 80s, it was giving birth to an alternative music scene that still had a splash or two left to make.

This list will get you going, but there’s more to discover. And I’d love to hear some that you recommend!

A Few Thoughts on Literary Masquerade…

masquerade

This isn’t what I’d planned on writing about this week, but sometimes current events overtake us!

If you’re a submitting writer (especially if you’re a submitting poet) you’ve probably heard about the recent literary kerfluffle wherein the very white Michael Derrick Hudson got a poem published in Best American Poetry using his literary pseudonym, Yi-Fen Chou. Quote Mr. Hudson: “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful … The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”

The Atlantic has a thoughtful musing on this whole situation here, including the viewpoint of Sherman Alexie, the guest editor of the anthology who decided to leave it in even after discovering the subterfuge. Therein, he talks about his own bias. This has kicked off a lively online dialogue among the current and past poetry editors of The Mud Season Review. This has taken part in a series on online postings, but I wanted to collect a few of my thoughts from that dialogue here.

First off, a truly blind submission process obviously eliminates this, beyond what might be gleaned, correctly or not, from the content of the poems themselves. For MSR, I pointedly do not read the bio, or any of the other reviewer’s comments, before doing my first read, precisely because I don’t want to be swayed by anything beyond the poem itself. The one thing I can’t help but see in Submittable, though, is the poet’s name.

And honestly, if the name indicates that the writer is a woman, or a person of color, sometimes my “ears” do perk up. I am more sympathetic to/interested in seeing what may be coming from an underrepresented viewpoint, not to mention a viewpoint different than my own. When the push comes to the shove of final selection, I don’t think this interest overcomes quality standards. And I won’t ever say I think a poem is good that I don’t really think is good, no matter what outside consideration. But it definitely can make me a little more open on a first read.

Interestingly, as far as the “nepotism” theory goes, this makes me more of an anti-nespot. But that’s a bias in itself. Despite being a straightish middle-class culturally Christian white man, my whole life I’ve felt more comfortable around, and in sympathy with, people who are on the contra side of many of those identities. We could go into the psychology and personal history of that, but, like I said, it’s there, and it’s a bias.

Now for true confession: I also have some understanding for the poet who did this! In despairing moments, I have sometimes thought, “Getting publisher’s attention would be easier if I were telling these stories as____.” Different things pop in to the ____ depending on the moment: an immigrant, a woman, a gay person, etc. However, I recognize that as a “despairing moment” thought, and am rather suspicious of its accuracy, given all the many, many ways I benefit from my class, my race, my sexuality and my gender.

Despite my understanding of motive, I don’t care for this kind of personal misrepresentation when anybody does it. Think James Frey (passing off fiction as memoir), JT Leroy (not an actual person with an actual biography), Vanilla Ice (never heard shells dropping and got out of there fast), etc. On the other hand, it wasn’t unheard of for female authors to create male pseudonyms in the 20th century to break through the power structure. And I feel much more okay with that. I think this must have something to do with power relations between who’s doing it, and what structure they’re doing it in. Mr. Hudson is not on the side of the angels in this regard.

Meanwhile, in one of the better responses I’ve seen, my friend (and fantastic writer) Caille Millner Twitter-posted a link to the Poetry Foundation’s overview of actual Asian American poets. It’s a great list, which further delighted me by including one of my favorite contemporary poets, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She’s gotten in to the Twitter scrum on this story herself:

Aimee

That’s a fitting last word here. But I am interested in hearing your thoughts!