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City culture and cultural identity and its role in economic success June 7, 2013

Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques.
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On Monday I am speaking at one of the Birmingham Made Me seminars.  This one, entitled Back to the Future – Our Heritage Brands is on 10the  June 2013 8:30 am to 2:00 pm at Millennium Point. BCU, Faculty of Technology, Engineering and the Environment Room 388

My presentation is on city culture and cultural identity and its role in economic success.  Here’s a short flavour of what it’s about:

This You Tube video is an extract from a 1965 American television spectacular which features the Motown singing group Martha Reeves & The Vandellas miming to their single ‘Nowhere To Run’ as they weave in and out of Ford’s Mustang assembly line at the Dearborn plant in Detroit. It links together the two things Detroit is most famous for to outsiders: the enormous international success of the late-1960s Motown Records, and the city’s dominance in the American car industry. This is the point at which mo(tor)town meets motor city.

It’s common when people see this video for them to ask, “did Motown pay Ford, or did Ford pay Motown to make the film?”  Actually, it was made to promote something entirely different. It’s an extract from a CBS TV 90 minute spectacular made for the US Office for Economic Opportunity, and broadcast on June 28, 1965. You’ll immediately get a sense of the whole programme from the title: It’s What’s Happening, Baby. This was an attempt by the television producers to bring together President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ initiative with the idea of youth culture.

The sense of Birmingham, England as a motor city and producer of some great popular music may not have embedded itself so strongly in people’s consciousness, but it is, of course, part of our cultural and industrial heritage.

Many other cities summon up links in people’s minds between a place and a distinctive culture.  In music there’s New Orleans and jazz; Austin, Texas or Seattle and indie rock; and Chicago and Blues. But Venice, Paris and Bilbao make equally strong claims on culture as part of their identity. On a recent visit to China, I found that culture and the city are major preoccupations in discussions about the swift processes of industrialization and urbanization currently under way in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong

We have, though, to be careful about exactly what we mean by culture. Almost exactly 100 years before It’s What’s Happening, Baby Matthew Arnold was writing his proposition that culture is the “best that has been thought and known”.  And we keep that idea today in our museums and galleries, our conservatoires and concert halls, and our libraries and archives. In more modern times Raymond Williams offered a very different definition when he wrote in 1958, that “culture is ordinary”.  By that he meant that culture is our way of life, the bonds that tie us together as a people, the sense we have of ourselves in our everyday lives. We know what that means when we talk about Birmingham as a multicultural city, or when we discuss how we can promote a productive culture in our place of work.

I think that actually we need these two senses of culture: our traditions and our achievements, as well as our current senses of ourselves. And we need to understand how they play out in the city as sights, spaces and sounds. By that I mean we see our culture in the landmarks of our architecture, in the iconic buildings and in the skyline. We also see it in the spaces we inhabit, through which we walk as part of our working life or our leisure.  It is often neglected that we also experience it in the sound of the city. That includes the music soundtrack of the city, but also the sounds of everyday. In a recent series of radio programmes, David Hendy examined the way that sound structured our world, and made some interesting observations on the soundscapes of Amsterdam against, say, Los Angeles.

You may be asking what this has to do with the economic vitality of the city.  In fact there has tended to be an opposition between people interested in our economic well-being and those interested in our cultural life. The first can often see the latter as people out of touch with the realities of life, while the second dismiss the former for their philistine tendencies. In reality both are intimately linked. I trained first as an economist, and it is a core idea of the social sciences that culture is only possible once we have taken care of the basic requirements of life: shelter, clothing and food. We make culture out of the surplus of making things. And yet our built environment, our bodily adornments, and our celebrations and rituals are the place that culture starts. Culture is often the reason we work so hard, its what enriches our lives and makes us feel like us, and it is a major reason people give for wanting to live in a particular city.

So, in simple terms, if we want a prosperous city we must also want a culturally vibrant city. And we need a city which balances our traditions and our faith in the future, that matches the best that we have achieved and what we all have in common, and one that embraces our diversity as an engine of our vitality: an openness to new ideas, a sense that change is good, and a conviction that we are a city of the world.

For me one of the best examples here is Chicago, where I have looked at these questions of culture in some detail, and where the city council has developed sophisticated plans and invested heavily to realize the ideas I have been talking about so far. As I noted, Chicago and blues are intimately linked. It’s Chicago’s heritage, developed in the everyday life of Chicago’s black population in the South Side, and then shared across the world. This identity has played a part in Chicago establishing itself as one of the main conference and event centres in the US. If you have to go and talk business, you also want to involve yourself in culture. And so the city invested in bringing its culture up to date, to increase its diversity, and to add to its greatness. In just one example, they covered up the railway, built a world-class outdoor performance venue designed by Frank Gehry [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Gehry], a garden by the internationally-renowned designer Piet Oudolf [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piet_Oudolf], and sculpture that includes Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_Gate] that together attracts hundreds of thousands of people a year. The whole thing then steals the skyline of some of the best buildings in the world as its very own. There’s no better example of how the sights, spaces and sounds come together for a cultural experience that’s become a cultural attraction.

Hong Kong is showing even greater ambition in the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District.  The ambition here is just mind-boggling: the 40 hectares site is created out of land reclaimed from the sea, above the new high speed train to Shanghai and Beijing, and the district will include 17 large and prestigious arts and cultural venues.

What should this mean for Birmingham? Well it is pleasing to see that culture has played a role in the development of the city over the last twenty years. The Birmingham Made Me event takes place in one of the products of that aspiration, the new library and railways station development is just part of a remodeling of space, and the university I work in is making its own contribution at Parkside next to Millennium Point. I would like to add three of my own observations to our thinking about our cultural future as a city.

One of the most neglected parts of our heritage is the intellectual tradition that used to characterise the city. It gave birth to both the University of Birmingham, and many of the institutions which formed the basis of my own university, along with the ideas of the municipality which in the late nineteen century made us a model for the rest of the world. I note that all these strands put an equal weight on both industry and commerce, and culture and identity. We desperately need a re-birth of this culture in a model for the twenty-first century. We will all need to play our part in doing so, but I would like to challenge my colleagues from the city’s five universities and its other institutions of learning to take some leadership in such a project.

Secondly, we need to find ways in which we could make better use of the great things we have made in the past in order to help rethink our future. I very much welcome these series of Birmingham Made Me events because they both celebrate this past and ask what is there for designing the future. At the same time we should look at ways in which we can all participate in using examples from across the world that could enrich the signs and spaces of our city centre and its suburbs.

Finally – and I would say this as Professor of Radio and Popular Music Studies, wouldn’t I – but we need to pay more attention to the sounds of our city.  How can we design our spaces so that they bring forth both tradition and future, greatness and everyday living, and help make sense of our diversity. The way we communicate and express our sense of localness and our place in the global world need media to reflect that. There are good new examples of more local media, but too often our radio is becoming part of a world in which our localness is less important than our global-ness. We need media that represent us as twenty-first century Brummies. And finally we need to re-engage with our musical past and ensure that we have a musical future. The best popular music has always arisen in cities characterised by diversity and change, innovation and adaptability. There are lots of recent examples of trying to represent our past, but there needs to be equal weight on how we best support the sounds of the future. Again, there is a major role for institutions like the Birmingham Conservatoire, as well as our entertainment districts and media quarters.

Culture may well be only possible once we have paid attention to the basics of economic life, but it is more than simply the creation of a surplus of industrial and commercial activity; it is part of a cycle of economic regeneration. If we want a vibrant economy in Birmingham and the West Midlands we need culture that will attract the brightest to stay, or even move here, and we need culture to consolidate the bonds between us, because we need culture as the engine of change and innovation.


Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum March 12, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques.
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The idea of a Hall of Fame, and later a museum, for a style of popular music builds upon late nineteenth century idea of celebrating the achievements of great people in a space set aside to memorialise them. It is interesting that country music was one of the first genres of music, in 1961, to be championed in this way. Based in Nashville, and housed in a dedicated museum since 1967, the institution is an important landmark and visitor attraction in the city’s music district. Building from an initial trio of inductees – Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams – the Hall of Fame has been expanded usually by two or three artists a year over five decades.

In itself this shows how important tradition and the role of individual artists are within country music, as well indicating the acumen of staff at radio station WSM who initiated the notion of a country hall of fame. The station is the home of the long-running country music programme, The Grand Ole Opry. The Hall of fame is, then, an excellent example of the way that country music has distilled the value of folk authenticity into a commercial popular music.  The museum website uses a quotation from Garrison Keillor, an American humourist, radio presenter and author, to make the point very clearly:

Country music is still devoted to the lyric and to the telling of stories, which people love and people need. Country music artists took what they heard around them, material that was in the air and that was common currency, and they made something entirely new. This is a museum that preserves their memory so that they can continue to inspire creators in the future. It’s also a museum that honors the people who their music was made for. Those people are all of us, people who’ve ever been lost or confused or sad or felt excluded. This museum helps to preserve these tributes to our condition. (http://countrymusichalloffame.org/mission/)

Certainly, Keillor’s words capture the way American forms of popular music, and country music in particular are seen to have distilled the traditional ballad story form with the idea of populism to celebrate ordinary people. He also tries to resolve the paradox that these collective values are seen to be carried by strong individuals, by suggesting the museum honours both artists and audiences. Although country music is sometimes thought of as highly commercialised to those outside, for fans it is the epitome of American vernacular values.  The museum building is modelled so that its widows look like piano keys, and a tower is shaped to represent CD and vinyl records and the transmitting antenna of WSM. Although it does not usually articulate the sorts of radical politics associated with other folk movements in North America, Europe and beyond, country music is nevertheless perhaps the most influential contemporary music rooted in ideas of European vernacular culture.




Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center March 7, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques, Jazz.
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As a black American jazz musician Marsalis obviously owes a strong debt to the African American tradition, but he has become a somewhat controversial figure within American jazz because of his commitment to presenting jazz as America’s classical music. In doing so he is aliening his own music, and of jazz as a whole, with traditions of the European art discourse. This position is further emphasised by the role that he takes at the prestigious New York Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a vast complex of theatres for symphonic, operatic and theatrical arts in Manhattan. Jazz performance spaces within the center rival those for art music, and this physically asserts the cultural significance given to jazz. As Artistic Director and leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Marsalis has a strong influence over the performances, educational and broadcast work undertaken there.

A technically impressive trumpet player, Marsalis has tended to play forms of jazz that were associated with a period from the 1930s through to the late 1950s. He has been particularly critical of jazz that took influences from rock and later R&B or hip hop, using ideas from European art theory to argue that jazz reached its classic zenith during the period he champions. Like those of classical musicians, his performances are highly skilful interpretations of older music, and he performs in concert halls rather than clubs. The trumpeters is also associated with some important US cultural critics like Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray who argue that jazz is a uniquely American music created by black Americans and should be celebrated and nurtured as the equivalent of great European composers. Marsalis played a central role in the influential Ken Burns music documentary, Jazz, which was based upon exactly this idea.

The key ideas of the European art tradition are clearly apparent in this approach to jazz. Commercial use of jazz is criticised, and Marsalis sees himself as an artist, rather than an entertainer. The Lincoln Center has a strong commitment to excellence in performance technicalities, a cannon of great music has been developed, and there is an emphasis on educating audiences as well as musicians. From this position jazz is definitely not a popular music. There is little room for the idea that art can be a disruptive influence, or that artists should be breaking rules in the Marsalis/Lincoln Center discourse, and both musician and institution have been heavily criticised by contemporary jazz players who see their music as progressive or avant guarde.

MOBOs March 7, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques, Soul.
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The MOBOs are UK-based music industry awards. It is easy to see that the awards are set firmly within the African American tradition when you know that the acronym stands for Music of Black Origin. The fact that the awards are organised in the UK, and are not presented to artists on the basis of their ethnicity or nationality, but for their performances within black or urban music forms is indicative of how influential the African American tradition has become in popular music across the world.

As well as being a remarkable entrepreneurial achievement for MOBOs’ founder, Kanya King, the awards have come to stand for the importance of black music within the UK. Each year there are awards for the best hip hop/grime, African, reggae, jazz, gospel, UK R&B / soul, and international artist, best video, song, and album, and a lifetime achievement award for industry stalwarts. The awards usually go to a very diverse group who represent something of the multicultural and multinational group of people who produce black and urban music. In 2011 they included the US black vocal group Boyz II Men, the white English R&B singers Jessie J and Adele, the Caribbean-born, US based black R&B singer Rihanna, the black British rapper Tinie Tempah, and white Italian-born, Jamaican-based reggae artist Alborosie.

Some of these artists clearly draw on the Tin Pan Alley tradition of songs and spectacular performance, and have been successful in the BRIT pop awards as well as the MOBOs. However, all these artists, whatever their family origins, would certainly situate themselves within the important relationship between music and black identity on which the African American tradition is founded. The MOBO artists represent a continuation of the commitment of white, as well as black, Britons to music originated in the US and the Caribbean, and on occasions to the devotion of the white negros and wiggers. Although the MOBOs use the term urban music when describing the area of music culture in which the awards are based, they are strongly tied to R&B as an associated music genre, and the discourse of music of black origin leaves no doubt to the importance of both the present and the tradition. Given that ‘urban’ was a term developed within US radio to distance a music commercially successful across a range of young people with stereotypes of black culture, this is an important connection.

The approach of all these artists demonstrate the importance of performance, immediate emotional impact, and expression in their work, and the impulses of independence, community and connectedness that are apparent in their clothes, verbal and body language as much as in their music. At one level the music and artists of the MOBOs seem a long way from Ellington, Brown, Marley and Jackson and yet on another they are clearly exactly in that tradition.

Reading Don’t Flop Rap Battles February 4, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Cultural critiques.
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Rap has come a long way since it emerged in the street music of the Bronx in 1970s New York. If that moment was an implosion of cultural lines compressed into the birth of Hip Hop culture, it was also the trigger for a further cultural explosion that made rap an international activity, as this linguistic rhythmic agility test morphed into myriad hybrids wherever it touched down.

One of its trajectory struck UK land in the Don’t Flop rap battles, and one of its most fascinating incarnations is the battle between 17 year-old Mancunian, Blizzard and English teacher and poet, Mark Grist. Rap battles may seem to be the worst excesses of macho Hip Hop culture in which (mainly) men recreate a boxing match using words as their weapons. Don’t Flop even seems to signify the sexualised fear of masculine impotence that lies at the heart of these ritualised shouting matches. However, there is more going on here than just that.

While the battles act out the ceremony of boxing with their umpire, judges, rounds and scoring winner, they owe their origins to African American dozens; one of those cultural lines that created rap in the first place. The dozens are in themselves a ritualised signifying practice, working on language as insult, trading and remaking it to achieve supremacy over an opponent through dexterity, invention and put down. The raps in Don’t Flop contests are textbook reproductions of the dozens; opponents focus in on social status, intelligence, and appearance.

At one level everything is wrong about the Blizzard-Grist battle. These guys are white Britons, and not African Americans. A Mancunian doing an imitation of a Londoner being an east-coast rapper and a middleclass fenman British accent are to the fore, Grist even wears a suit, and in mainstream society they represent (and represent themselves as) the powerful teacher and powerless student. As John Dollard pointed out in his classic 1939 study of the dozens, the battles empower their black participants in a racist world that denied them any sense of status or even adulthood. Hardly the cultural positioning that’s at play in Don’t Flop battles, which claim style over substance and parade cultural theft as a marketing exercise for ‘street clothing’ brands.

The Blizzard-Grist battle is, though, a brilliant remaking of the dozens for British society. While Blizzard takes on most of the mannerisms of black rap culture, he twists them with a proud Mancunian irony, Grist takes the form full on, but articulates its performance in the language and metaphor of the English middleclass English teacher in the pub (he even appears with pint in glass hand to begin with). Blizzards’ repertoire is the hardcore ghetto rapper mixed with cheeky-chappieness of George Formby without the ukulele. Grist digs deep into Chaucer and Shakespeare and the evocation of two thousand years of dead poets.

Blizzard opens his first 90 seconds with Yo! (signifying the black street language he is to act out as a linguistic transvestite), then rhymes ditch with bitch, a putdown couplet that immediately flops. He recues it with a Formby-esque appeal to the camera, and a physical leap into the face of his opponent as he takes on the role of the challenging student: “Fuck You, Mr Grist”, moving from classic rap to grime speed-talk acted out with mock physical slap, he then attacks the basis of Grist’s power and social standing: his qualifications in “dick-related studies”, his teacher’s income and holidays as markers of status but claims these are undermined by the need to mark students work. Attacking Grist’s young rap poetry partner Mixy, punning dead poets (the name of the duo’s poetry performance act), bottle attacks with status glass ceilings, undermining Grist’s central power: the ability to control a class. Some final sexually-explicit insults and threats of violence and a reference to Ofsted as an impotent source of power. The audience (aka cipher) love the ending.

Grist attacks Blizzard for his age (claiming viewers will confuse the battle with “extreme babysitting” [which floors Blizzard]) noting he is not able to legally drink, and displacing “infantile” with “getting riled”, he lists breast feeding and defecating, disses his earlier battle wins, his home town for its poverty, his rapping skills, and then claims he’ll look like a 50 something female Dragon’s Den judge when he’s older [a knock out punch]. He finishes with insults about his height, facial features, auto-eroticism, an the fact that he gets his name from the makers of World of Warcraft. Clearly Grist’s round, with even Blizzard applauding.

Blizzard opens the second round more aggressively, but turns his attention to the video audience, and the attacks he received for his earlier battle victories. Clever wordplay; poor strategy. Some puns on Eng Lit, allusions to films about assassinated US presidents, and a final stroppy student playlet.

None of this quite prepares you for Grist’s next 90 seconds. Now calling Blizzard Bradley (his given name), citing his opponent’s earlier anti-woman statements, he turns to the camera to present his own pornographic version of “Your mama…” “Mrs Green” presents itself as the teacher’s talk at parent’s evening, with clever but misogynistic insinuations, and then graphic hard-core porn fantasies against women. Even the experienced umpire can’t believe the allusions. He contrasts Blizzard’s childhood games with fantasy mother insults, and graphic, highly-sexualised, physical descriptions which go beyond even the most macho ghetto rapper. The cipher and Blizzard shift uneasily on their feet. Grist attacks Blizzard for fantasising about his mother, calling on (of course) Oedipus, to demonstrate his formal knowledge of the mythical Greek king of Thebes and of Freud’s psychological theory, and his ability to attack his opponent’s own sexual status and his mother at the same time. He then links it to East Enders and Formula One racing (rhyming alacrity with battery), ending up mashing up rapper, English teacher and street smarts with: “I’m so sorry about you Mrs Green, and I’m so sorry about Bradley. He keeps on trying to attack me, I’d be pretty pissed off but he’s doing it really fucking badly”. The cipher gives a big cheer.

Blizzard, uses the education meme again in his final round. Performing the role of the student speaking back, Blizzard first attacks Grist as the teacher figure before showing his own learning – citing Samuel Pepys, Martin Luther (though I think he meant Martin Luther King as refers to speeches), Oscar Wilde and Confucius as a reference point for his own verbal skills and his assertion that Mr Grist is inadequate as a rapper as well as a teacher. Asserting his own superiority at the same time that he denies the claim to power of formal education, the school system and teachers.

Grist replies in incongruous terms: “I suggest you fuck-off” (to big laughs) before reintroducing the age-inferiority theme bringing in computer games, the sexualisation of vampires, the Sooty hand-puppet, flat-pack furniture, with attacks on Bradley’s sexual prowess running through. He casts doubt of the authorship of Blizzard’s earlier raps, cites Socrates, suggests his opponent has repressed homosexual feelings, returns to his relative youth by claiming his iPhone apps are older, and finally finishing him off by taking the role of teacher writing Blizzard’s school report. The audience erupts in laughter and applause.

In some sense this is an ironic take; a knowing exploration of the clichés of rap battles; a performance art stylisation of a performance artifice. The audience seem genuinely impressed by Grist’s understanding of the form and rules of rap battles and the unconventional form in which he fights. At times Blizzard struggles, often knowing he is beaten on every front, but he actively involves himself in the idea that this is a teacher-student competition, even initiating the idea in his first rap. One comment on You Tube suggests people thought they were actually teacher and student in the same school.

If African American men engaged in the dozens to reclaim their manhood from the racist society that took it from them, how should we understand the reuse of its form in a commercialised copy-cat, wannabe-ghetto-rapper, mediated show? And how should we understand one little play about the power of teachers and their students’ ability to rebel, that performs misogyny with articulate irony?