The Riff - August 2010

Bring Back the Blackface?

| Thu Aug. 12, 2010 7:49 AM PDT

Over at The Root, John McWhorter, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, makes the case for re-issuing a trove of 1930s and 40s-era cartoons that are rife with racial stereotypes and outright bigotry. Warner Home Video plans to release polished-up renderings of some classic Looney Tunes offerings—minus the so-called "Censored Eleven," which feature black characters bathed in full-on minstrelry. "Primly holding these 11 cartoons back in the vaults in 2010 makes black people look, frankly, weak," he writes. Shorts like Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs and Clean Pastures ("pieces of black performance history in their way"), he argues, remain products of their tasteless time. And McWhorter compares "the lingo, butts... violence [and] gold teeth" to what you see in Dre and Snoop videos. Thanks to more diverse representations of black people on television and film, he says —think The Cosby Show, In Living Color, Do The Right Thing, and The Wire most people have moved on from Amos n' Andy.

The shorts have been YouTube-able for some time. But for McWhorter, putting them out on DVD means symbolically coming to terms with an unfortunate (and inescapable) chapter of our history: 

Yes, there will be a flutter or two of protest from people who can't take a joke even at 70 years' remove. But the sky will not fall in, and the kerfuffle will only increase the profits on a DVD that will sell like hotcakes from minute one. And that will not be because the cartoons are racist— but because they are, in spite of themselves, one part history and one part just plain fierce.

Black people, he says, should be able to laugh away the decades-old ugliness that the cartoons represent. If something festers in the bowels of the zeitgeist long enough, McWhorter's argument seems to go, we can just accept it as part of our embarrassing past and move on. But while the ugliness of the Censored Eleven may be seventy years old, the attitudes and carelessness that produced them persist. (Witness some of the anti-Obama placards held aloft at conservative political rallies, or tea party leader Mark Williams' supposedly satirical screed against the NAACP.) To laugh all that away, you've got to have a healthy sense of irony.

No doubt, the cartoons are powerful and thought-provoking, challenging our own notions of acceptability and forcing us to relive an apsect of our past that many might prefer to forget. But let's face it: not everyone's ready for Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears. Especially racists.

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Girl-Friendly Pop Stars

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Lately I've envied the tweens. I covet their pop stars, who are clearly superior to the bland barbies that I grew up with. When I was 13—the age that I most cared about these things—it was all Brittany and Mandy and Jessica. Yes, there were a few bright spots, but now it seems there's actually a critical mass of talented, rebellious, gender-norm-defying women in pop. When you're 13, and don't yet know how to find music beyond what your parents listen to and what MTV says is cool (another point of envy, then: Pandora), a readily available stream of not-lame divas is pretty significant. So here's a list of the best girl-friendly pop stars out there today:

1) Robyn. The Swedish electropop singer's dancing is kinda bad. Stomping, fun, alone-in-your-room bad. With Robyn, that's the point: Whether it's her crooked set of pre-braces teeth, or her weirdo geometric clothes and clashing colors, she treads the line between sexy and ugly and just keeps treading that line. In short, she's the perfect pop star for an awkward adolescent.

2) Janelle Monáe. Does your favorite 12-year-old love EragonEnder's GameStar Wars fan fiction, LARPing? Monáe's an artist for her to geek out on. She's sci-fi put to soul, rock, and hip hop. In fact, it's hard to find her wearing anything but either a tux or robot gear. The Kansas City native's first album, Metropolis, was inspired by the 1927 German silent film. Since then, Monáe has developed an entire hip hopera based on the story of Cindi Mayweather, a messianic ArchAndriod sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the dystopian secret society oppressing them. Monáe, who co-founded her own art society before she made it big, seems to hold a similar mission in real life: "Creativity, imagination and beauty still matter," she wrote in her studio's blog. "People the world over have the same concerns: they love wonder. And they love a good story, a good melody, products that are put together with care and engineered to heal the soul." Did I mention her great dance moves?  

3) Miranda Lambert.  If a girl's gonna hear way too many heartache songs for her own good—and she's gonna—much better that they're Lambert's angry, set fire to the culprit variety. In Kerosene, the country star smiles prettily at the camera and drags a gas can away from some cheatin' bastard's tin-roof house. Another song has her crooning, "I'm gonna show him what little girls are made of/Gunpowder and lead." Lambert has also beenadmirably principled about her music: At 16, she recorded a demo in Nashville but hated its "cheesy" sound. She returned home to Texas and learned guitar so she could write her own stuff. Girls Rock camps would be proud. 

4) M.I.A. For the budding activist tween. M.I.A.'s politics are controversial. She moved to London with her mother and siblings as a refugee from Sri Lanka's civil war in the 1980s, and her songs don't let you forget it. Gunshots and bomb blasts pepper her refrains; her lyrics are militant. But at least they stray from that evergreen pop topic, love, a reminder to young girls that there is actually other important stuff out there. And yes, you can dance to songs about it, too. 

5) Beyoncé. Well, duh. Knowles has been around since the dark days of divadom, de-ditzifying the airwaves with Destiny's Child tunes like Survivor and Bootylicious. She's done the same as a solo artist. When the Jessicas and the Brittanies self imploded, Beyoncé kept her cool. Now, she's a veritable pop matriarch—the next Michael Jackson, some speculate. She's classy, innovative, not stick-skinny, and has an impressive work ethic. My fresh-of-out-middle-school cousin sums it up nicely: "Beyoncé's a fantastic role model," she writes in a text. "My mom agrees."  

6) Lady Gaga. Role model? Debatable. It's not entirely proper to flip off a stadium full of baseball fans, nor is it all that ladylike to talk about losing one's power through one’s lady-parts. But bubbles, armadillo shoes, monsters! Gaga has an imagination as mad as any middle school girl's, and an equally vibrant sense of play. For that matter, what pop star has ever, ever, incorporated sandwich-making into a dance? (Gonna be okay, body-conscious tweens, just dance!) At times, the machine-gun clad singer can sound positively girlish herself. "I'm just a girl from New York City who decided to do this, after all," she told New York Magazine earlier this year. "Rule the world! What's life worth living if you're not going to rule it?"

 

Musicians on Our Radar: Best Coast

| Mon Aug. 9, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

The female characters that populate the songs of Los Angeles-based Bethany Cosentino, A.K.A. Best Coast, are in a perpetual state of heartbreak. Boys just want to be friends. Boys squabble. Boys leave and don't return.

Her debut full length "Crazy For You", released July 27th on Mexican Summer, is a window into the soul of an angst-ridden teenager (though Cosentino is 23). But this teenager (at heart) has got soul. The music is sun-drenched California garage rock blended with girl group bravado. The melodies are catchy—the album's final track "When I'm With You," perhaps the most optimistic lyrically, transitions from a slow dirge to a poppy sing-a-long (check out the video featuring a Ronald McDonald look-a-like below).

Though these narrators may be heartbroken, Cosentino's affirmative voice gives them strength and resolve. "All the '50s and '60s girl group stuff is about heartache," she explained in an interview. "It's just me trying to do a little bit of an homage to the songs of that era." Or perhaps her heart was broken as a child commercial actor (she's the fifth in this Little Caesar's conga line).

No matter her source of inspiration, Cosentino is the latest addition to our list of Los Angeles artists to be watched, which, in case you were curious, includes Ariel Pink, No Age, HEALTH, and Abe Vigoda. Not to mention that she has the best album cover of 2010. (Kevin Drum, I'm looking at you.) She brings her love(lorn) songs on the road this September—tour dates and songs here.

 

 

"12th and Delaware" Shows Where Abortion War is Really Waged

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:30 PM PDT

The new documentary 12th and Delaware, which premiered last night on HBO, presents a fly-on-the wall view inside two organizations in Fort Pierce, Florida, that cater to pregnant women. Though across the street from one another, in political terms the offices might as well be on separate planets; the Woman's World clinic offers abortions, and the anti-abortion Pregnancy Care Center goes to great lengths to goad women out of them.

Directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, who also created Jesus Camp, plant their film right in the middle of an issue that may be on the minds of politicians everywhere, but is not always an easy topic to broach in conversation."It's just a headache," Grady admits, referring to the film's subject matter. Even though 12th and Delaware cozies up to controversy, "in our opinion it's been hard to get media coverage for the film," remarks Grady, who explains that they had trouble getting traction in the TV review world.

Gangstagrass, and Other Hip Hop Hybrids

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

You've heard songs from hip hop artists who sample other musical genres: From the unfortunate evolution of rap metal (think Papa Roach) to Danger Mouse's controversial and crafty mashup of Jay-Z and The Beatles, the practice of intertwining multiple musical roots is widespread in hip hop. You may have also heard bands who reappropriate rap tracks and perform them in their own genres, like The Gourds' popular country version of Snoop Dog's "Gin and Juice." Then there's the surprising collage of hip hop and bluegrass music: Gangstagrass, an experiment that proves, at least to me, that hillbillies and emcees can get along swimmingly.