Life Lessons From Prince: Four Things I learned After Four Days at Paisley Park. Part 3

(photo credit

3. Embrace your weird. It’s what changes the world for the better.

Prince was certainly not a human you would describe as “ordinary” or “mainstream” or the N word – “normal”. I think we all agree he was eccentric to put it midldly. Some might call it “weird” – for lack of a better word.

But weird is the perfect word. And as Demaris – one of Prince’s friends and dancers, who was master of Ceremonies for the main events at Celebration 2017, said – “If somebody tells you you’re weird, you should say thank you.” Because if someone thinks you’re weird it means you look, sound or act different than the mainstream. You challenge people’s perceptions of the world. You encourage those around you to think about their comfort zones and give them the opportunity to grow and create new comfort zones.

Prince is the ultimate example of how weird create’s change.

He transcended social boundaries of gender yet was “someone” exceedingly attractive to the opposite sex. He found ways to express himself through music and fashion that somehow transcended while at the same time being held to iconoclast status by the general pop culture appreciating public. He also had several pet doves, only ever wore platform shoes, would routinely steal his (ex) wife Mayte’s clothes and tailor them for himself. Because that’s how he rolled and we all loved it.

At one point during our weekend in Metro Minneapolis, I had a conversation with an Uber driver who said he wishes Prince’s music hadn’t been so mainstream. My sentiment is exactly opposite. How wonderful that someone so very different was embraced by mainstream culture. It speaks to the need we all have inside ourselves to express our own “weird”.

I always advise young ones who are different to keep on doing what their doing and embrace their “weird” – because I know that their peers (whether openly or not) admire their courage. Let’s face it. It takes guts to be different. And if none of us had the guts we’d be stuck in a debilitating, boring sea of sameness.

So thank you, Prince , for your changing the world with your weirdness and encouraging us all to be the love that is inside of us, no matter if it might look strange to others. Because there will always be someone else who thinks it’s beautiful and will be inspired to change even just a little bit for the better because of it.

Categories: Art and culture, Consumer Culture, Music, pop culture, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Office Acculturation – Rewind – Art Immitates Life?

As put by one of my “Cultural Creative” respondents in this week in  a research project I am working on:

“This video about sums up that cubicle world we all too are familiar with at times”…

Avicii vs Nicky Romero – I Could Be The One (Official Music Video)

Categories: Anthropology, Art, Art and culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Corporate Culture, Culture, Music | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Composer Or Ethnomusicologist? Maria Schneider: An Example of the Human Experience Captured Through Music

As I sat at the kitchen table reading the article below aloud to my wife, over last night’s leftover guava pastries and a couple of  home-made cafe con leches, it struck me that I wasn’t just reading an article about music.  The way the story takes us through prominent contemporary Jazz composer Maria Schneider’s trip home to her farm-town and how she sought to capture the experiences of existence in that space – with all of its natural and human inhabitants – it reads as almost ethnographic.

I often gravitate towards more experimental Jazz and music in general – and I think it’s because there is something about setting our psychological and sociocultural context to instrumentation that strikes a deep chord in this culture-nerd’s heart.  And I think Schnieders newest piece, “Thompson Field” sounds unique in that it captures a distinctly rural, middle America experience that is atypical in Jazz music, where you are more likely to be listening to a distinctly urban or , in the case of Bluegrass or New Orlean’s style Jazz, distinctly southern sound that is rooted in the experience of a different kind of struggle and celebration.

I look forward to listening to it.  If it’s anything like the description, it sounds challenging and picturesque.  Both of which sooth the soul of the savage narcissistic anthropologist.

Prairie Jazz Companion

This article can also be found at the New York Times website by clicking here

A few years ago the jazz composer Maria Schneider traveled back to her hometown, Windom, Minn. She climbed a ladder with a childhood friend named Tony Thompson and found herself at the top of a silo. She looked out over the fields: acres of Thompson’s bean plants moving over and past one another in the breeze. Windom, population 4,646, is the seat of Cottonwood County, near the state’s southwest corner. The Des Moines River flows leisurely through it. The land is smooth prairie, in all directions. “The mistake people make,” Schneider told me about this flat place she came from, “is thinking that it’s flat.”

When Schneider looks at Windom, she sees not endless plains but an infinity of barely noticeable hills and tiny ponds, slight inclines in the topography, little nuances in the landscape. She sees layers. “I thought about the stories, the intersecting stories, and the lives, the generations,” she recalled about that moment gazing over Tony Thompson’s bean plants. “I think I was having feelings about our parents.”

The melody of what eventually became “The Thompson Fields” rises through six notes in a gentle zigzag and then lands, safe and warm, on the solid emotional ground of an F-sharp chord. It’s a heartland lullaby, as simple and lovely as Pachelbel’s Canon. But then things get more complex. Schneider didn’t just want to make the soundtrack to an idyllic country vista. She wanted to hear the movement of the plants and the darker, stronger feelings underneath: the beans overlapping in the wind, the generations of Schneiders and Thompsons on the land.

So she asked her longtime pianist, Frank Kimbrough, to improvise not in relation to the rest of the band, as jazz instrumentalists are trained to do, but completely independently of it. The band plays a series of low B chords, and then Kimbrough enters in a mood that has nothing to do with the key of B. He keeps playing over the others: the band as one layer and the piano as another, with no relationship other than their presence in the same space and time.

On a freezing night in February, Schneider and her band played “The Thompson Fields” in Elmhurst, Ill., a sleepy Chicago suburb. Though Schneider has won two Grammys and may be the most prominent woman in jazz — even, as the writer Devin Leonard has called her, “the most important composer in the jazz world” of any sex — she often ends up in out-of-the-way places. She plays small towns like Elmhurst and small, jazz-hungry European cities like Tromso, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, or Bielsko-Biala in Poland, where she discovered a young pianist she says is one of the most remarkable she’s ever heard. She and her band, which has remained remarkably close to intact over its two decades, had come to Illinois as the prime-time Saturday-night attraction at Elmhurst College’s annual jazz festival, which brings hundreds of high-school and college students together for a long weekend of competitions and showcases. The school’s modest chapel was full and boisterous for Schneider’s set.

Schneider, one of the few big-band leaders who only conducts and doesn’t play, led with gentle motions and slight, dancing bends at the knee. When solos began, she backed modestly to the side of the stage. The band eventually got to the strange, bitonal part of “The Thompson Fields.” The result was sumptuous cacophony, like two records playing at once.

After the performance, a long line of students waited to greet the musicians and pose for photos. A girl with a nose piercing stood in front of Schneider, crying so hard she could barely speak.

“I grew up on a farm,” she finally choked out, “and with every note I could see my farm.”

For a long time, big-band jazz relied on a swinging but implacable wall of brass: the sound of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Schneider absorbed what she calls that “frontal load of decibels and power and energy,” and she has never abandoned it completely. But the music she began composing when she moved to New York in the late 1980s took on a different character.

“I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors: the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,” she said. Schneider wanted the muscle and precision you get with 15 or 20 loud instruments, and she wanted the backbone of improvisation that is fundamental to jazz. But she was also drawn to the colors of the orchestra: shifting, ethereal prisms out of Ravel and Debussy. “The Thompson Fields” was composed in a broad arc, rather than in the choppier style of big-band jazz.

“My pieces, many of them, at least the newer things, are through-composed like classical music,” she said. “They go through different sections, so the soloist has to bring the piece from here to there. It’s not ‘This is my solo, I’m going to show you everything I know about the instrument,’ which most big-band music is: kind of an ego show for each soloist. In mine they have to carry the piece and tell the story.”

In a way, Schneider has been trying to reconcile invention and rigor since childhood. Her first piano teacher happened to be a raucous stride pianist who exposed Schneider to the virtuosity of Art Tatum, along with the expected Chopin études. Though Schneider studied classical composition at the University of Minnesota, she turned increasingly back to jazz.

After graduate work at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, she moved to New York and began working as a copyist, churning out instrumental parts from orchestral scores. It was through a copying gig that she met and started working as an assistant to Gil Evans, who was Miles Davis’s arranger of choice in the glory days of “Birth of the Cool” and “Sketches of Spain.” Evans was a revelation. He would regularly bring in instruments that weren’t part of the big-band palette — French horns, flutes, oboes — and his writing willfully stretched the abilities of his players.

“Gil wanted me to reorchestrate one of his pieces for big band,” Schneider recalled. “I was in my 20s and feeling completely out of my league. And one day I came in with what I wrote, and he was horrified. He said: ‘No, no, no. I want these low instruments at the top of their range so they’re uncomfortable. And these high instruments at the bottom of their range.’ He wanted people playing completely at their opposite range at struggling points in the music. And then it was just, Oh, my God, that’s the stuff you can’t learn. That’s the stuff that comes from a personality searching for his own inner world.”

At night, she composed her own music for a band she started with the trombonist John Fedchock, a classmate at Eastman. (She married Fedchock too, but both the marriage and that first band dissolved after a few years.) Following the lead of Evans, she tweaked her band to include various winds. She also played with orchestration, so that a fluegelhorn might share a melody line with a trombone and a bass flute, making an alluring blend of brassy and smooth. “I started mixing people, mixing the colors,” she said, “so when you listen to it, it might sound like a French horn — and there’s no French horn in the band.”

Back in the early 1990s, Schneider’s band played a weekly residency at a club in Greenwich Village. Every Monday for five years, she loaded all the music stands and the scores into a cab and packed them up again at the end of the night for the ride back to her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. The members of the band each got $25; she would pay herself $15. “Every week it was a logistical hell,” she said. “I don’t know how I had the energy for that. You’re different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.”

She worked for years to flesh out the orchestral elements in her style of jazz, through her debut, “Evanescence” (1994), a combination of brassiness and lightness; “Allegresse” (2000), with its Brazilian accents; and her 2004 masterpiece, “Concert in the Garden,” whose pieces have the sweep and drama of tone poems. But what she had not done until recently was write for an actual orchestra, with its full complement of strings and its lack of improvisation. It was not long after “Concert in the Garden” that she met the soprano Dawn Upshaw, who came to prominence singing Mozart at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s and emerged as a bold advocate for contemporary music. Upshaw had gotten in the habit of attending Schneider’s band’s annual Thanksgiving-week performances at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan.

“It was about the third year that I was there when I thought to myself, Wow, I wonder if she would ever consider writing anything for me.” Upshaw said. “I know that our worlds don’t collide typically, but what would happen if we tried to do something together?” Schneider had never incorporated lyrics before, and Upshaw sensed she was anxious. “But she was game,” she added. “And it’s one of the best musical experiences that I’ve ever had.”

The relaxed, seductive “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” which Upshaw sang with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008, was the first product of the collaboration. Three years later there was “Winter Morning Walks,” settings of the poetry of Ted Kooser. This was a more daring combination, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the score as written, as members of her band improvised.

Schneider’s new album combines the two song cycles. If it seems like an unusual bet for a record label to take — even with renowned figures like Schneider and Upshaw, this is, after all, an idiosyncratic amalgam of jazz, contemporary classical music and poetry, requiring studio time for two separate orchestras — that’s because the album, like her previous two, was never released by a record company. “Concert in the Garden,” “Sky Blue” (2007) and now “Winter Morning Walks” were financed entirely by her fans.

A little more than a decade ago, after Schneider released “Allegresse,” she realized that her arrangement with the boutique German label Enja Records, which had taken a chance on “Evanescence” when no one else would, was actually costing her money. Making albums the way Schneider wanted was expensive. She found herself paying a third of the recording budget and getting nothing back. “Allegresse” got great reviews, but Schneider didn’t have the money to even consider another project.

Around the same time, a musician friend named Brian Camelio (who did work as a computer programmer) was coming up with the idea for ArtistShare, a crowdfunding scheme that predated Kickstarter by years. Camelio’s idea was to offer fans something that couldn’t be pirated: an intimate perspective on an artist’s creative proc­ess in exchange for financial support. He lived down the street from Schneider on the Upper West Side and went over to her apartment one day in the spring of 2003 to show her the math. “I put pencil to paper,” he recalled. “If we get X amount of people to contribute X amount of money, we could do it.” Camelio would take a 15 percent cut of the gross revenue; Schneider would get the rest. Even if an album released through ArtistShare sold fewer copies than one released by a prestigious label like Blue Note, her take-home would be substantially greater.

It has worked remarkably well for Schneider, paying for her past three records and earning her, for “Concert in the Garden,” the first Grammy ever awarded to an album available only over the Internet. But the cost of making “Winter Morning Walks” is still not entirely recouped; recording two orchestras is an expensive proposition. “By the time I pay the publicist and everything, this new one is around $200,000,” Schneider said. “It’s a lot of money. It’s just really expensive. I’ve got a ways to go on this.”

And the ArtistShare model cuts two ways. Schneider’s fans, for the first time, have a say in her music at an early stage, and some have disapproved of her recent orchestral collaborations. “I got a couple of e-mails from people that said, ‘Don’t write to me again unless you did something with your big band,’ ” she said. “I guess there are some people who just don’t want to see me do something they’re not used to.”

ArtistShare has also made communicating with her backers a new obligation. Over the past 10 years, Schneider has become a tireless producer of behind-the-scenes content to share; in one video clip she scrubs her toilet to demonstrate how appealing domestic tasks become when you’re procrastinating. At first she resisted publicly exposing her highs and, especially, lows. “I said, ‘Maria, that’s part of the story,’ ” Camelio said. “From very early on, she’s been willing to be honest with her fans, to be honest about her struggles.”

But it hasn’t always been pretty. Schneider is prone to insecurity and can get deeply unhappy when she’s working. It’s not unusual for her to break down in tears in the studio or in front of the band when she’s frustrated with herself. “It’s not easy to share your creative process when you’re having four weeks of writer’s block,” she said. When she was working on the title piece for “Concert in the Garden,” she posted a video in which she was particularly morose about her progress. Her father watched it and berated her: “Who’s gonna want to buy this album if you’re telling them it’s crap?”

Schneider still lives in the same cozy one-bedroom on the Upper West Side that she hauled music stands to and from all those years ago. The place just barely fits an old upright piano, which for a long time was the only major purchase she ever made. The walls are decorated with her sister Kate’s paintings of vampiric rabbits and melting globes, factories and fields that recall the flax-processing plant next door to her childhood home and the open spaces of Windom. The sinister, almost apocalyptic images fit her current situation: for months workers have been jackhammering in the garden of the building facing her windows. The noise from the construction is surreal, and the project shows no sign of ending. It is hard to imagine how Schneider will be able to compose there once the long process of releasing and promoting “Winter Morning Walks” is over and she turns her attention back to writing new music for the band. Most weekends she escapes with her boyfriend, Mark Righter, a lawyer for New York University and a jazz aficionado who knew Schneider’s music long before he knew her, to a house in the Catskills, where she can finally compose on a grand piano looking out at the trees.

It’s a bucolic scene up in the mountains, seemingly an even better fit for Schneider than the city. She is preoccupied with the destruction of the environment, and birds are her passion. She sits on the advisory board of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and claims, half-jokingly, to care more about it than music. “I mean, the planet is so amazing,” she said as we watched a video clip of herons hatching. “You see some of this stuff and you think, It doesn’t even matter if the humans survive, as long as this does.”

Though Schneider’s ArtistShare fans have seen her frustrated, this pessimism seems not to have entered her music. Much of her appeal is the joy and exhilaration in her records, which is presumed to be a direct reflection of a joyful, exhilarating life. “Hang Gliding,” after all, is about hang-gliding in Brazil. “The Thompson Fields” is about the Thompson fields. “The ‘Pretty’ Road” was inspired by childhood drives home from the Driftwood Steakhouse near Windom with her dad. “Like dreams are a way to process your psyche,” she said, “music is a way to preserve and share memory.”

The energy of Schneider’s music comes from the tension between this impulse to turn things beautiful and the more disturbing stuff, even the pain, that remains. “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba,” perhaps her finest piece, was a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center that she managed to write just after being given a diagnosis of breast cancer. (That was in early 2003; the cancer was caught early, and she reports that it is in remission.)

The suave opening leads to an ecstatic and melancholy sax solo that eventually yields, exhausted, to wordless vocalizing and a serene rumba beat that vanishes into the same quiet rhythm with which the piece began. In 18 minutes, it sums up a life of anxieties and frustrations that nevertheless ends with a final impression of peace.

“My world is about making things nice,” Schneider told me. “It’s just who I am.” But if her heartland jazz is a pastoral, it’s as complicated as growing up in Windom was. She told me with an earnest smile about how her mother took to treating injured birds when Schneider and her sisters were little. She once healed a baby goose with a broken wing, and it became almost a member of the family. There was no fairy-tale ending, though. The family took in a gander as a mate for the goose, but it pecked the goose to death.

“Walking by Flashlight,” from the album “Winter Morning Walks,” composed by Maria Schneider, poem by Ted Kooser, with Dawn Upshaw (singer), Jay Anderson (bass), Frank Kimbrough (piano), Scott Robinson (alto clarinet and bass clarinet) and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Zachary Woolfe writes frequently about music for The New York Times.

Editor: Wm. Ferguson

Categories: Anthropology, Art and culture, Ethnography, Ethnomusicology, Music, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surrounding Ourselves With Sound and Other Modern Household Survival Requirements

6a00d8341c630a53ef0168e8d8e04c970c-600wiFlash back to before we established a “civilized” industrial-to-knowledge-to-conceptual economy such as we have been used to in modern times.  Survival was a matter of basics and most humans resided firmly in the very bottom layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid:


In absence of safeguards, systems and conveniences like government-supervised municipal programs, a regulated economy and electricity, humans basically focused on, well, the basics.  Survival of the fittest and the potential of not arriving too early at death’s door.

As society evolved, we became more “civilized” and began prioritizing things like fitting into society and finding love.  Once our class systems and social order were well established, self esteem became a priority:  assuring ourselves that each one of us is valuable and leads a meaningful , worthwhile life.

All the tick-boxes been ticked, the penultimate spot on the pyramid has us jamming our flags into the not-so-solid ground of self actualization.  From an anthropological perspective, I believe a good amount of that  is signified in the construction of our modern homes and the requirements we have for our twenty first century nests.

If we are to truly live life as our self-actualized selves:  awash in creativity and authentic experience and meaning and playfulness and all those things that make us feel like well-rounded humans, we absolutely need a number of things that no solid middle-class home can do without:

1. Centralized temperature control:  at no point should we allow our bodies to feel too cold or too warm, lest we be uncomfortable in our space and unable to enjoy all of the other creature comforts that fuel our affirmation of self

2.  A flat screen TV with as much cable as we can afford: multimedia exposure that takes the place of art: usually in a space of honor centrally located in our primary living area.  Likely above the fireplace but always located up on the wall or encased / atop a surface in front of a wall directly across from a comfy seating area.  Our window to the world allows us to choose the programming that represents our interests from a seemingly infinite set of niche-oriented choices, affirming our membership in the tribes we lay claim to peripherally assume membership of

3.  Surround sound / a curated sound system: whether it be through an ability to create immersive experiences with our multimedia entertainment or to optimize our experience with music.  Music, in particular, tends to cover a lot of self actualization bases so optimizing the way we experience it is a top priority for many modern humans in their households and in general.  It’s why we also tend to prioritize taking musical experiences with us:  in our cars or on the go with portable devices

4.  A desktop / laptop computer or tablet with Internet access:  see item 2 – a lot of similar reasons for this need overlap.  In addition, it allows us to perform functions such as interpersonal communication, paying bills and creating things with speed and agility, which makes us feel important, productive and ultimately gives us a sense of personal freedom.

5.  Refrigeration:  so we can keep an abundance of food options available and preserved and enjoy the tastes we crave at whim. Food has “evolved” beyond a fueling-up function to a substance that contributes to identity formation, nostalgic comfort and creative exploration.  What seems like something so rudimentary to us (like having a refrigerator) is actually a product of a very modern high-maintenance lifestyle rooted in this self-actualization portion of our needs.

There are many others to add to this list, but my presence is currently required to help prepare for the installation of our new sound system(by a third party who will not break all the expensive equipment we just purchased or drill a hole in the wall that’s too big).  Feel free to add your comments and educate me on what I missed.

I suppose, however, that there is one more modern self actualization requirement I can add to this list (albeit outside the “household” niche) –

A blog.


Categories: Anthropology, Blogging, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Culture, Ethnography, Music, Narcissists, Participant Observation, pop culture, Rituals, sociology, Suburban Living, Technology, Television and Media, Uncategorized, urban culture | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Reluctant Fan: The Myth Of Commonality By Way Of Music Affinity

1348253362756_1500824When it comes to music, I am a reluctant fan. Mind you, it’s not because I don’t enjoy music. Quite the contrary. Music is an essential part of my human experience, as it is for many.

However, while I had hoped to hang on to the conception that those who share an affinity towards a certain music or band do so with their respect for the music being at least connected in a shared life-context or appreciation of the musical context, I am letting that naiveté slip away. Further, as much as I have tried to will this hypothesis into fact I am hereby admitting that the empirical evidence points to this theory being bunk.

I enjoy music because I gravitate towards the energy and the context. It typically has a message that I relate to either emotionally, intellectually or socially. I prefer singer-songwriters, neo-soul, jazz, jam bands and symphonic music. I enjoy the thoughtful lyricism and in some cases the seemingly erratic orchestration that ends up truly allowing you to transcend your terrestrial experience and appreciate human existence on another level for a space in time.

But I am a reluctant fan of any artist. A fan is defined (cheating with as “an ardent devotee; an enthusiast” and I never knew why I always got a knot in my stomach if someone tried to refer to me as such, even for the artists to whom I relate on a spiritual level. However, looking to, some other definitions resonate more subjectively with what I have now arrived at as my conclusion, including: “someone considered to be a bit silly or crazy” or “Short for fake ass nigga. Used to describe all the people who actually believe they are hardcore despite their retarded appearance and antics.” Admitting the obvious political incorrectness, I stand by the meaning in the message of the urban dictionary choices in order to illustrate my narcissistic point.

The fact is, as I have continued to observe from one live music show to another, that not everybody has the same respect for or experience with the music as the rest of the room. Most likely, a venue full of music fans will have some very disparate context….unless of course you are at a concert that is very niche oriented (like an Insane Clown Posse show, for example). So, I feel like as much as I want to say I am a fan of my favorite bands I am loath to do so lest I unintentionally associate myself with the ridiculousness of some of the stereotypical “fringe” of that fan base. This makes me sad.

Let me also point out that, as an anthropologist, I do see some of the holes in my argument. For example: there are a lot of Jam Band Fans (Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic ) that strongly associate with the music by way of a lifestyle centered on pot-smoking and earth-bound counterculture. And per the example that set me off, female fans of bands like The Indigo Girls who follow religiously because they themselves are lesbians – but not inherently because of the music. Then there are the big band fans who appreciate the nostalgia more than the music and come to shows to wear their vintage 40’s attire and wink at musicians. There are also the punk rock fans who are really just wayward teenagers that like to dress aggressively, get in mosh pits and beat people up / get beat up to release their angst.

All I am saying is that by virtue of the ethnographic experiences I have had with live music, my conclusions might be skewed. The above examples represent areas where my live music show experiences over-index and the environments where one would properly observe a collection of said designation of fanatic music followers.

The experience my wife and I had last night was also the one that broke this narcissistic camel’s back. We attended a rare event for one of our favorite bands: The Indigo Girls – playing with the symphony orchestra here in the town we all share as home. It was here that we were smacked in the face with the reality that not all fans are created equal. While the vast majority of the audience was of the Lesbian persuasion – the guilt by association consequence began to make us cringe when confronted with the row of “fans” in front of us who spent the entire show jumping up and down out of there seats during the rare (but still somber or contemplative in tone – if they would ever actually listen) “up-tempo” songs, screaming “whoo hoo” and making drunken toasts with their double-fisted cans of beer and constantly yelling out requests despite the fact that the band was playing with a rehearsed symphony orchestra.

I came to realize that the context of Indigo Girls appreciation for these fully grown women who were acting like ten-year-old boys was one rooted in their lesbian identity and need to be accepted by a group. Because they were locals and had mostly experienced Indigo Girls concerts in bars or similar venues, they associate the band with a party and while they can enthusiastically sing along with every song, the boisterous merriment with which they engage suggests that they don’t actually understand the lyrics. Other evidence included being taken aback at the request to sit down so we could see the orchestra and the performance. One member of this group insisted that you should “stand up for an Indigo Girl’s concert” – completely missing the point of this very special engagement – even though they were the only ones in our section (and most of this theatre that also typically houses the Opera) not appreciating the show with their butts in their seats.

So, even though I would like to think that by going to a live music show I am going to have some collective religious experience with like-minded humans, I now realize I have to be more diligent about scrutinizing those choices lest I become disappointed by the “fans”. But I will rest easy knowing that modern technology can allow me to appreciate great sound quality and that ultimately, because I am blessed with a community of friends who also over-index on musical talent – we can always (and frequently do) create that experience at will in the privacy of our own back yards.

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, Lesbians, Music, Narcissists, Participant Observation, Rituals, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Take Five” To Remember Dave Brubeck: Setting The Context For Modern Jazz Music

Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck (Photo credit: Pedro Netto)

I’ve always been a huge fan of Jazz.  Most of my fondest childhood memories was spending Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the den of our seventies-chic (in the 80’s, mind you) townhouse coloring in Buggs Bunny or putting together puzzles while listening to  the simultaneously melodic and harmonic music notes slither and shout from my Dad’s stereo speakers.  I wasn’t allowed to even think about touching any dials or evening going near it – and I wouldn’t have wanted to.

Listening to greats like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and of course, Dave Brubeck, gave me an appreciation for music that I am eternally grateful for as it brings me so much joy, peace and affirmation in this kinetic world that can sometimes shock us into submission or tempt us to forget our human sides.

So, I would like to express my appreciation today by saying a fond farewell to Mr. Dave Brubeck and saying thank you for the music that helps me and many stay human.  He left this world today at the age of 91

Thanks to The Associated Press for putting together a fantastic article exploring the context of Mr. Brubeck’s contribution to music:

You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to recognize “Take Five,” the smoky instrumental by the Dave Brubeck Quartet that instantly evokes swinging bachelor pads, hi-fi systems and cool nightclubs of the 1950s and ’60s.

“Take Five” was a musical milestone — a deceptively complex jazz composition that managed to crack the Billboard singles chart and introduce a new, adventurous sound to millions of listeners.

In a career that spanned almost all of American jazz since World War II, Brubeck’s celebrated quartet combined exotic, challenging tempos with classical influences to create lasting standards such as “Take Five” and “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”

Brubeck, the pianist and composer behind the quartet, died Wednesday of heart failure a day shy of his 92nd birthday. He believed that jazz presented the best face of America to the world.

“Jazz is about freedom within discipline,” Brubeck said in a 2005 interview with AP. “Usually a dictatorship like in Russia and Germany will prevent jazz from being played because it just seemed to represent freedom, democracy and the United States.

“Many people don’t understand how disciplined you have to be to play jazz. … And that is really the idea of democracy — freedom within the Constitution or discipline. You don’t just get out there and do anything you want.”

The common thread that ran through Brubeck’s work was breaking down the barriers between musical genres — particularly jazz and classical music. He was inspired by his mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a classical pianist, and later by his composition teacher, the French composer Darius Mihaud, who encouraged his interest in jazz and advised him to “keep your ears open” as he traveled the world.

“When you hear Bach or Mozart, you hear perfection,” Brubeck said in 2005. “Remember that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were great improvisers. I can hear that in their music.”

Brubeck was always fascinated by the rhythms of everyday life. In a discussion with biographer Doug Ramsey, he recalled the rhythms he heard while working as a boy on cattle drives at the northern California ranch managed by his father.

The first time he heard polyrhythms — the use of two rhythms at the same time — was on horseback.

“The gait was usually a fast walk, maybe a trot,” he said. “And I would sing against that constant gait of the horse. … There was nothing to do but think, and I’d improvise melodies and rhythms.”

Brubeck combined classical influences and his own innovations on the seminal album “Time Out,” released by his classic quartet with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, drummer Joe Morello and bassist Eugene Wright in 1959.

It was the first jazz album to deliberately explore time signatures outside of the standard 4/4 beat or 3/4 waltz time. It was also the first million-selling jazz LP and is still among the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

Columbia executives blocked its release for nearly a year — until label President Goddard Lieberson intervened.

“They said, ‘We never put out music that people can’t dance to, and they can’t dance to these rhythms that you’re playing,'” Brubeck recalled in 2010. He also wanted a painting by Joan Miro on the cover, something else the record company had never done.

“I insisted that we go with something new,” he said. “And to their surprise, it became the biggest jazz recording they ever made.”

The album opens with “Blue Rondo a la Turk” in 9/8 time — nine beats to the measure instead of the customary two, three or four beats — blending these folk rhythms with jazz and a Mozart piece. The piece was inspired by Turkish street musicians Brubeck heard on a 1958 State Department tour that also took his quartet to Poland, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, among other countries.

The album also features “Take Five,” the cool and catchy odd-metered tune that became the Brubeck quartet’s signature and even made the Billboard singles chart. The tune was derived from a pattern that the quartet’s drummer Joe Morello liked to play backstage. Brubeck asked alto saxophonist Paul Desmond to write a two-part melody over the rhythm, and Brubeck patched the pieces together.

“It was a song that people could relate to, and it influenced the future of the music,” said George Wein, a jazz pianist and founder of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Brubeck always felt that his successful jazz career led fans to overlook the second career he launched as a jazz-inspired classical orchestral and choral composer in 1967 after disbanding his classic quartet.

Brubeck’s experience in World War II led him to look beyond jazz to compose oratorios, cantatas and other extended works touching on themes involving the church, civil rights and peace.

“I knew I wanted to write on religious themes when I was a GI in World War II,” said Brubeck in 2005, recalling how he was trapped behind German lines in the Battle of the Bulge and nearly killed. “I saw and experienced so much violence that I thought I could express my outrage best with music.”

Obit Brubeck.JPEG
FILE – This Aug. 23, 1981 file photo shows… View Full Caption

Brubeck interest in classical music was inspired by his mother, Elizabeth Ivey Brubeck, a classical pianist, who was initially disappointed by her youngest son’s interest in jazz. She later came to appreciate his music.

Born in Concord, Calif., on Dec. 6. 1920, Brubeck began piano lessons with his mother at age four, but those ended when he was 12 and his father moved the family to a cattle ranch in the foothills of the Sierras. As a teenager, he played in local dance bands on the weekends.

When he enrolled at the College of the Pacific in 1938, Brubeck had intended to major in veterinary medicine and return to ranching. But while working his way through college by playing piano in local nightclubs, he became smitten with jazz and changed his major to music. In 1942, he married Iola Whitlock, a fellow student who became his lifelong partner, librettist, and sometime manager.

Brubeck joined the Army as an infantry man, but ended up leading the semi-official Wolf Pack band attached to Gen. George S. Patton’s army. They played popular standards as well as some of his first original jazz tunes, including “We Crossed the Rhine,” based on the rhythm of trucks hitting the metal pontoon bridges as the entered Germany. His band, which was one of the first integrated units in the then-segregated Army, reopened the Opera House in Nuremberg, the site of mass rallies organized by the Nazis, who had also banned jazz.

After his discharge, he enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. That’s where he formed an octet, including Desmond on alto sax, Dave van Kreidt on tenor sax, Cal Tjader on drums and Bill Smith on clarinet. The group played Brubeck originals and standards by other composers. Their ground breaking album “Dave Brubeck Octet” was recorded in 1946.

In 1949, Brubeck with Tjader and bassist Ron Crotty, both fellow octet members, formed a more commercially viable trio and cut their first records, which gained a national audience. After surviving a near-fatal diving accident in 1951, Brubeck formed a quartet by adding Desmond.

“No one else played like Dave Brubeck,” said Wein, who had known Brubeck since he first worked in Wein’s club in Boston in 1952. “No one had the approach to the music that he did. That approach communicated.”

Categories: Anthropology, Art and culture, Consumer Anthropology, Ethnomusicology, Music, pop culture, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

30 Years Later: The King of Pop In Context And How “Thriller” Changed Everything


The legendary best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was released 30 years ago today.  It was a groundbreaking album that marked a defining achievement worthy of”King of Pop” status.  But do you know why?

Well, It’s a good thing you have a Narcissistic Anthropologist to find some context and share it with you.  😉

A one-gloved high-five goes out to ABC news for this great piece on how this album came to be and why it was such an influential work of musical genius that changed the face of pop culture forever.

Perhaps my favorite bit of context is the following snippet: about how Michael Jackson and MTV bridged the racial divide:

Thriller’ Broke Racial and Other Barriers

Mitchell said the video for “Beat It” helped break the color barrier on a nascent MTV. “At the time, Rick James and other black artists were trying to get on there and that’s when the racist tag got affixed to MTV because R&B videos just weren’t being played,” Mitchell said. ‘Beat It’ was something that MTV just couldn’t deny and certainly opened the door for Prince and others to be on MTV.”

“Thriller” also transcended musical boundaries, incorporating elements of pop, rock, R&B and more. “A key legacy of this album is that music is universal and can speak to people, whether you’re white, black, Asian or whatever,” Mitchell said. “Rock stations were playing ‘Beat It.’ Michael showed that music can be universal and incorporate all these elements, that you can be a mainstream artist and be creative.”

But definitely check out the full article / slide show.  I bet you learn something you didn’t know and will impress your friends and family with your Friday night cocktail conversation knowledge!  Just don’t try and moonwalk.  Trust me, you’re not as good at it as you think you are.


Categories: Art and culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Culturematic, Music, pop culture, Racism, Trends, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gangnam Style In Context: A Global Phenomenon In Appreciation of Irony?

If you are among the youtube watching masses, music enthusiasts or otherwise avid followers of popular culture, then you are likely among the close to 900 million viewers and counting who have seen this video by prolific South Korean superstar hip hop artist Psy:
What kind of content could possibly overtake Justin Bieber (who held the previous YouTube record) in global popularity?  At first glance, this journey through ridiculousness:  a  mixture of late 90’s and early 2000’s “bling”-oriented, sexist hip hop with a bit of Napoleon dynamite sprinkled in, might seem a bit behind the times, albeit entertaining.

But on closer look at the context, it gets more interesting.
Lets start with what the heck “Gangnam Style” means.  It refers to a subculture  lifestyle associated with the Gangnam district in Seoul, Korea.  Think Beverly Hills 90210.  However, this part of town has really only recently “come up”.  Up until about the 1980’s it was actually one of Seoul’s least developed districts, but due to intensely rapid development over the past 30-ish years has become the most populated district in Seoul and is now one of the most affluent and influiential areas in South Korea.

It is a city very popular with the U.S. military and global financial and  diplomatic community:  having hosted hundreds of U.S. military personnel events as well as the 2010 G 20 Summit and 2012 Nuclear security summit.  It also boasts local headquarter representation for global corporations like Google, IBM and Toyota among other bustling domestic and international businesses.  The bustling economy has made real estate a bit ridiculous (an average apartment costs over $5,500 a month in rent) drawing a largely affluent population.

The prosperity and trendiness of Gangnam are the central focus of the song and Psy’s video: featuring him dancing “horsey style”on top of landmarks like Seoul’s world trade center and even in horsey stables, the subway and high-end nightclubs complete with pin lights through haze!  🙂  And lets not forget all the well dressed “sexy ladies”.

But if you ask this anthropologist what’s really happening here, I will tee it up to the popularity of Irony.  If you look at all the global youth, young adult and lifestyle trends, they all point to an appreciation and prioritization of balance:  with regard to finances as well as lifestyle.  People are decidedly more well-rounded, wellness-minded, pragmatic and appreciative of the simple things and traditions that both bring us happiness and remind us of our humanity.

The tone of this music video, while seeming to “glorify” an affluent, shallow lifestyle, does more to poke fun at excess than anything.  The cartoon-like nature of the characters and mocking dance moves (horsey ride?) can only logically be assumed to be tongue in cheek – and very “hipster chic”.

I encourage you to have a look at the international pop sensation and form an opinion of your own.  I will promise you, however, that even if you don’t see the irony you will at bare minimum be entertained – like if you were watching a bullfight or a train wreck.  In either case, you might be horrified but generally speaking unable to turn away.

Ironic indeed.

Categories: Art and culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Fashion, hipster culture, Marketing, middle class, Music, pop culture, Trends, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Music To My Wallet: A Sociology Of Style Perspective On The Soundtrack Of Shopping


As I always say, context is everything.  Some of that context is obvious:  what you see around you and the deeply held beliefs or cultural values that you carry with you.  These things ultimately have an impact on your day-to-day actions and ultimately your behavior as a consumer – one who purchases things.  The kinder, gentler word is “customer”.  But what most customers aren’t always necessarily consciously aware of is their audio context:  the degree to which sounds create a mood / vibe that influences their behavior.  Sure, many of us intentionally seek out certain types of auditory context:  like going to see a show or listening to your favorite Pandora station:  to socialize, to help you concentrate, to get your mind off of bad news or to get you ready to party.  But when you go shopping, for instance, those choices are made for you.  And it’s a strategic choice that perhaps you might be unaware of.

Once again, I bring you the sociological stylings of Anna Akbari, who has shared an enlightening analysis of how the soundtrack of shopping impacts your spending.  You can link to the site below for even more fun content or see the article details right here:


I’m Too Sexy For This Store

The lighting is perfect, the stage is set, and the soundtrack plays in the background. You need not be on a movie set to be part of this scene — every time you set foot in a store, you’re offered a theatrical experience in which you play the protagonist. As the New Yorker article, “The Soundtrack of Your Life,” put it, retail theater is about selling emotion. And the number one way that emotion is sold — and purchased by you — is via music.

Retail stores hire “audio architects” to design a soundscape that reinforces the brand’s values and sets a climate and tone ripe for purchasing. The particular playlist you hear is selected in an attempt to complement the given environment and brand, appeal to the brand’s target demographic, and alter their mood in a way that encourages them to purchase whatever the brand is selling. It’s not about appealing to personal taste — it’s about creating an immersive experience.

Which in-store music elements affect your mind, body, and purchasing habits? Here are 5 tricks you should be aware of next time you walk into a store (and before you make your next purchase):

1. Tempo: Studies have shown that we have a physiological response to music tempos. Our heart rates increase with the beat, and slows when the tempo decreases. An upbeat tempo in a major key has been shown to positively alter a shopper’s mood — and encourage spending. Slower tempos, however, can also benefit certain types of retail environments, like bookstores, where the music is slow and mellow, encouraging shoppers to spend more time browsing and reading, and ultimately purchase more.

2. Volume: Loud music decreases the average time a consumer spends in a store, however, research indicates that per minute sales go up when the music is cranked, as in stores like Armani Exchange and Topshop. Like discount shopping, intense, pulsating music is another way that consumers may make emotionally-charged impulse purchases, only to experience buyers’ remorse once they’re home. Armani Exchange and Topshop have also taken the in-store concert experience one step further by enlisting a regular line-up of DJs to play in their stores — making the setting more of a concert, where the purchases made double as a sort of souvenir from the “show.”

3. Classical: Classical music has been proven to trigger increased spending, especially in customer service-driven stores, like Victoria’s Secret. In addition to the ways in which it affects the consumers physically, it also communicates a subliminal message of affluence — leading the shopper to believe the products are more upscale, and preparing them to spend more money. Department stores like Nordstrom and Von Maur have even gone so far as to hire a classical pianist to play in stores, transforming the retail space into an environment of civilized refinement and expensive taste.

4. Zoning: The concept of ‘zoning’ music (usually in department stores or other large retail spaces, like Toys “R” Us) involves playing different music in different areas of the store, relative to the area-specific product offerings. This strategic variation in the shopping soundtrack entertains and surprises you while you shop, keeping you uniquely engaged in each aisle.

5. Soundtracks for sale: In addition to playing carefully curated playlists in-store, one of the latest trends in retail theater and branding offers a “take it home” tactic: many stores sell CDs of their store soundtracks. Nike and Victoria’s Secret sell their branded CDs, and Starbucks has gone so far as to create an entire Starbucks-themed music subculture, and launch their own record label, Hear Music. These songs create a full-sensory brand experience while the consumer is in-store, but once the CD is purchased, the brand permeates the consumer’s domestic space and personal listening devices, like iPods. And, given the emotional connection we feel with music, this is an ideally intimate brand/consumer experience.

Want to bring the retail theater experience into your home? Check out these tips and try the DIY sociological experiment:

  • HABU is an app that organizes your music library into moods, so you can be the audio architect of your own life.
  • Like what you heard in a store, but didn’t buy the CD? Check out these store music blogs:
  • Urban Outfitters features their recent playlists and makes them free to listen and download
  • Forever 21 does a ‘spotlight’ feature on their favorite artists
  • Hollister allows you to play their featured tracks through its integrated media player

DIY Sociological Experiment: Enter a retail store (perhaps one listed above) and browse for a few minutes. Then put on headphones and tune into music that is the opposite of what’s playing in the store. Do you feel a difference?

Categories: Anthropology, Branding, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Fashion, Marketing, Music, Participant Observation, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

“R Kelly Is Today’s Marvin Gaye” And Other Questionable Music Comparisons

Gaye's relationship with Janis Hunter inspired...

Gaye’s relationship with Janis Hunter inspired him during recording. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last Sunday we were hosting a couple of friends for dinner: the type of friends who like to drink Manhattans, talk about philosophy and pose random questions for us all to get silly about before eating, drinking more and hopping on the piano for singalongs that range from Broadway to Elton John to Journey.  We love these friends of ours.

At some point while the salmon was still smoking on the cedar plank, this question was posed to me out of indignance as the female half of our favorite heterosexual couple (yes, we have some “eclectic” friends) asked “do YOU think R Kelley is today’s Marvin Gaye?!”.  Apparently she had engaged in a lively debate on this a few days earlier with another friend of hers.  Her issue:  she LOVES Marvin Gaye but thinks R Kelley is a perv and hates the thought of the comparison.  But when I asked her to elaborate on her conception of the personal and musical context that shapes each artist’s offering, she described both much the same:  dysfunctional personal and social lives that lead to passionate music.  And as I compared the two, each in their era basically wrote music to “get it on” by…so I said “I can see how the comparison is valid”.

Then I saw another post this morning on LinkedIn asking “can Duke Ellington be compared to Bach?”.  Also a good one and more appropriate for the “intellectual” crowd in the American Anthropological Association LinkedIn Group (
So, now the anthropologist in me wants to connect some “ethnomusicology” dots.  Because different musical forms definitely had significance when compared across eras.  But then there are artists who, in essence, represent the same genre from different points in time…or genres that had a similar influence on music.  For example:  Classical and Jazz?  Rock N Roll (from its introduction to American culture) and Pop music of today? R&B from the 60’s to 90’s?

Talk to me about the role of each of these pairs of artists and how they compare to one another based on the influence their music had in their day:
R Kelly and Marvin Gaye

Duke Ellington and Bach

Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson

And what about some others to think about?

I know my readers love their music AND love to wax philosophical…so let’s have it….

Categories: Anthropology, Art and culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnomusicology, Music, pop culture, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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