KDHX listeners have a parochial stake in the revulsion noted by that eternally youthful rock critic, Lester Bangs, in his review of a 1971 performance by A&M recording artists, The Carpenters: “Something about the band and audience both at this just gave me the creeps. Mom and Dad come and learn to Dig the Kids’ Music.” Bangs’ shrill “something,” which might be the uncanniness of commercialism, seems to stand his hair on end. Those revulsed at predigested helpings of commercial music may have a hard time liking Eric Weisbard’s book on radio formats, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2014), and not just for its message. A scrupulously narrative presenter of research, Weisbard does not much weigh the importance of the loads and loads of reading he’s done. Just so, the book’s readers will mostly be scholars. That said, by turning his scholarship toward narrative, Weisbard makes an argument free-form radio listeners will find important, even if they are likely to be put off by the idea that there’s anything democratic about parents turning around and persuading “the Kids” to dig what’s on the pop charts.
To begin with the academicism Top 40 Democracy revises: the “rockist” assumption, represented by Bangs, holds that mainstream radio, because it homogenizes taste, is “undemocratic.” Nonsense, says Weisbard, no more so than a parent homogenizes their child’s tastes. Rockists may hold onto the idea of an “outside” to mainstream radio formatting, but for Weisbard, the marketing concept of an “alternative” or “independent” radio station overlooks how "the rockist rejection of established format categories accrued resale value because its putative anti-materialism asserted privilege.” In other words, Weisbard – former college radio DJ turned American Studies scholar – joins a number of recent “poptimist” intellectuals, including Carl Wilson, John Seabrook, Bob Stanley, by insisting on the social salience of "contemporary hit radio," a.k.a. CHR or pop radio. Weisbard’s argument, encompassing not just radio station programming, but record label marketing, as well as the actual careers of the Isley Brothers, Dolly Parton and Elton John, is that the rivalry among mainstream formats – Top 40, urban contemporary, country, oldies, classic rock, and so on – may come from an effort to understand, and market to, a listenership-edge rooted in the values of community radio. Of course, a simpler way to put this – and one poptimists like Weisbard are usually loathe to accept – is that rock discourse (the ideological apparatus of “rockist” assumptions) has influenced the music industry by re-orientating it to an anti-mainstream "outside," even if the purpose of that reorientation is commercialization. The poptimist conceit, by contrast, contends that mainstream radio programmers do actually speak on behalf of radio listeners, rather than perpetuate industry interests.
Bob Stanley, keyboardist-composer for the English synth-pop band, Saint Etienne, in his history of pop, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (2013), argues for a dialectical tilt back and forth between the aesthetic apotheosis of "the transatlantic number one” and all of the recordings done by all the other little fishes. Stanley’s idea is that the little fishes school themselves in genre while the actual chart-topper rises above a genre's inevitable decline. Given Top 40’s present dominance over its rival mainstreams (country, R&B, adult alternative, Latin, etc.) it will surprise no one that the rockist-turned-poptimist Weisbard assiduously evades genre in order to view the mainstream's outside as cultural history itself, rather than any counter-cultural resistance, rockist or otherwise. Freeform radio, Weisbard notes, usurped MOR, or "middle of the road" programming, at just that late '60s moment when MOR started getting marketed at stations emerging from easy listening formats in order to capture the ears of a new, affluent demographic tuned to the sounds of a cool exoticism.
Weisbard’s most impressively researched chapters (the book was his Berkeley dissertation) consist of a chapter on WMMS, a Cleveland classic rock station that emerged out of MOR – just as our own KSHE-95 did – and another devoted to A&M Records, a label whose profit derived from the MOR format's ability to capitalize on the popularization of otherwise genre-oriented music. A&M’s co-owner, none other than Herb Alpert, for example, took "Whipped Cream,” originally an Allen Toussaint jump piano boogie (released as a single by The Stokes in 1965 on the New Orleans label Alon), hooked it up with trumpet runs, Carol Kaye and Hal Blaine’s rhythm lines, and put a sombrero on it. Herb Alpert and His Tijuana Brass got “Whipped Cream” to #68 on Billboard's all-genre Hot 100 singles chart and #13 on the Middle-Road Singles chart (that very year rechristened “Pop-Standard
It was at some point after Monterey that St. Louis’ KSHE turned from easy listening to “freeform” radio, the format we now associate with KDHX. If we follow the history that Weisbard provides, the earliest use of the term is in a memo written by Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) to his staff sometime in 1970. Weisbard’s claim, not entirely persuasive to me, is that the MOR format that inspired Whipped Cream & Other Delights was never intended for Southern Illinois intellectuals working for McDonald-Douglass. MOR, what we now call adult contemporary or AC, was designed for the woman who, as one trade magazine editor told Weisbard, “graduates up from Glamour to More,” the now defunct magazine that proclaimed itself “for women of style and substance.” As the editor put it, “A female is expected to squeal for Top 40, recuperate from her first job listening to Hot AC, then turn to MOR/AC when kids and mortgage have left her only open to musical comfort food.” This sounds a little patronizing to Weisbard, but he develops its gist, “To listen as a working woman to music whose mood gets your head right: these strategic acts of empathy and self-regulation made pop’s impact nearly universal.” And that, in short, is Weisbard’s plea for a format’s democratic function. “After television,” Herb Alpert had predicted, “the medium had shifted to ‘format radio,’ meaning the continual sound targeting some listeners, rather than varied programming targeting all.” No one ever stroked Ozzy Osbourne for his strategic acts of self-regulation, so when Alpert describes the MOR marketing strategy of a “pop sound,” the poptimist revision requires that we give up our rockist conclusion that such middle-of-the-road taste indicates some kind of false consciousness on the listener's part.
For Weisbard, the Cleveland experience with WMMS shows that the freeform radio’s anti-format was just a transitional phase that emerged from counter-cultural anti-materialism, but as many even then were pointing out, “the anti-commercial insistence [of freeform] concealed far less progressive tendencies, including a severing of rock from contemporary black-music making and female audiences.” The album-oriented rock or AOR format (that’s what became of KSHE) rejected an A&M group like the Carpenters cynically – despite the counterculture bona fides of a song like “Superstar,” redeveloped by Delaney & Bonnie around the time Alpert would have been scouting both groups – and, in Weisbard's view, shortsightedly, given Karen Carpenter’s appeal among gay listenerships. Weisbard’s point is that format radio brings what’s going on in rival demographics to the ears of less intractably rockist listeners. Three years (1972-1975) marks the period separating the emergence, in all his camp flamboyance, of Elton John at the top of the U.S. charts, and rock institution-maker Jon Landau’s glib remark: “Is Elton John something more than a great entertainer? I’m not sure.” Weisbard retorts: “The singer threatened because to appeal across demographic lines he resisted strong signifiers of genre and counterculture.” CHR or Top 40 radio continues in its primary warrant of genre-resistance and “universal” reach. In the meantime, KDHX and stations like it persist in a genre-connoisseurship that may still mark the anti-materialism of the freeform's anti-commercial format. Could a music lover live without one or the other? I won't try to answer, but what I do know is this: the dominance of CHR means that many radio listeners may go a lifetime without having a chance to choose between them.
There is a haunting presence to Laura Gibson's music--something otherworldly that lurks in a too-near distance. A profound sense of the past inhabits her sound, but it finds a way to elude easy capture. Her sonic genealogy is one of ghosts playing at the margins of apprehension, as though they delight in luring would-be comparers down inconclusive paths. The dark, jazzy lilt of Gibson's voice and the rich instrumentation of her albums are not unfamiliar, and yet her music has a kind of atemporal quality. It is immediately and persistently subtle. It is also as close to beautiful as one can admit without blushing.
Gibson's most recent album, Empire Builder (Barsuk Records, 2016), articulates a deep sense of longing that is offset by ambiguity and uncertainty. The title track recounts a cross-country trip that conveyed her from her native Portland, Oregon, to New York, where she would begin an MFA program in Creative Writing at Hunter College. Liminal and irresolute, the song's sentiment oscillates as though the hills and valleys in the window: "Oh, forget I said love / but also don't forget I said love // We are not alone / and we are more alone than we've ever been / So hurry up and lose me / hurry up and find me again." Upon arriving in New York, the thrill of a new creative life was besieged by unexpected challenges, including a broken foot and a deadly gas explosion in her apartment building, which destroyed almost everything she owned. The resulting songs resonate with grace and force; Gibson was kind enough to share her insight into their evolution, as well as the influence of fiction on her songwriting, in advance of her upcoming performance in St. Louis on June 28.
David B. Olsen: As one learns more about how Empire Builder came to be, your move from Portland to New York is inescapably significant. There's an sense of displacement, of loss, of pain--whether it's emotional or physical--and even a kind of literal devastation, which was tragic given the loss of life involved, but also tragic in another way for you: the loss of your instruments, your lyrics. I think it's no surprise that the record feels at once vulnerable and resilient.
Laura Gibson: The decision to study fiction in New York was really hard to make. I'm so comfortable in Portland, but I felt I needed to stretch beyond my comfort zone and achieve some space. I kind of rediscovered songwriting as a way to process that moment. I was so raw, personally, when I wrote these songs and a lot of the vocals were recorded just a week or two after the fire. I'd originally planned to go to the studio but then tried to cancel the time. John Askew, who engineered the record, encouraged me to come in and just hang out with the songs, with no pressure to make anything. I ended up recording vocals for six of the songs, and I can hear in my voice how raw I was. I had no ability to perform at all, so the vocal takes feel very plainspoken in a way. Lyrically, I was also a bit braver on this record--partially due to maturity, perhaps, but also because of the circumstances that required it.
DBO: Independently of the events that the album recounts, or which led to its creation, Empire Builder also feels very much within the trajectory of your music over the course of several albums. I wonder how you see this record as a part of something to which you'd already been building.
LG: The best way to approach any project is as one from which you can learn. I approached my previous record, La Grande, with no bounds going into it; I just started with everything that I could, so that I could discover what worked. This time around, I had my ideas more in place and more confidence in my arrangements. I wanted to work with a smaller palette for Empire Builder. I wanted no other chamber instruments except strings, and particularly high strings--violin and viola. I wanted more electric guitar. Even if it sounds varied, there are actually not that many instruments. There's a point when there are twenty violin tracks, for example, but they're all the same violin.
DBO: You mentioned the rawness of the vocal takes, occurring so recently after, or within, such a challenging and uncertain moment in your life. Have the songs grown or developed over time as you've performed them live?
LG: I'm kind of always changing songs, actually. I'll forever be fidgeting with words after the song has been recorded. I feel like they are still kind of living in a way; I can change them--sometimes intentionally, sometimes by mistake. I can forget what I sang on the record, because I've sang it so many different ways since then. When I recorded a lot of Empire Builder, it was so raw and I really hadn't practiced singing them; it just kind of came out. Now I can be a little more controlled and grow into my voice as I tour with the songs. It's nice to be able to learn different ways to sing them.
DBO: I imagine with fiction it's somewhat different, too, in that the words become fixed in place upon their publication, or at least one imagines fewer opportunities to alter them after the fact. Has your formal attention to writing fiction inflected your songwriting in any way, given the different means by which the words reach their audience?
LG: There is definitely some crossover between my songwriting and my fiction. Already as a result of the fiction program, I've tended to be more specific in the objects and scenes that I use in my lyrics. When I first started writing fiction, I often wanted to be abstract in ways that would pay off in songwriting but don't necessarily pay off on the page. On this record, I also really wanted to ground the abstract ideas that I was wrestling with in very solid things--the peeling of a clementine or mistaking the singing of birds for a cell phone ringing.
DBO: That moment in Empire Builder when you hear a birdsong as a ringtone is particularly evocative, I think, because it attests to the ways in which we unwittingly refashion the world according to our own immediate needs. Or how perception bends to the wills of desire, loss, or longing.
LG: When you're waiting for a call, when you're waiting for confirmation from a person, almost anything can sound like a cell phone. It's such a new kind of anxiety, which I was happy to incorporate into a song. Ten years ago, even, that may not have made sense in the same way.
DBO: Does your music reflect contemporaneity in any other ways? Or, how do you imagine your music in a very real now?
LG: This time around, I felt more aware of being in the moment, particularly my moment. When I look back to my first record, it is very much about imagining myself in another time, era, or place--both lyrically and sonically. I love all sorts of old sounds and all sorts of futuristic sounds, but I am also very interested in the world right now--interacting with that world and writing about those interactions. Empire Builder feels like my most present record; there is less dreaming up worlds in order to explore the things that I'm going through and instead more observation of my own world in which those things really exist.
DBO: At the end of the song "Louis," you admit that "The only song I know to write is 'Look at Me, Look at Me, Look at Me.'" This seems like a truly honest and humble moment--being present, but asserting a very fundamental need to be seen. And yet it is framed as though that impulse somehow inflects the work of creative expression more generally.
LG: The first time I ever played that song, the audience laughed at that line. I think they were surprised by it, and not sure what to do with that sort of statement. I like the surprise of this line, because I have moments when it all comes down to the question: is this all just to be seen, or to have attention paid to me? And if so, is that okay? Is that valid? Does every song just kind of come down to me shouting "I'm a person!"? A lot of the record explores what it means to be an artist, and in so many ways, one of the best ways that I am able to love is to make songs or make writing. But at the same time, the making of those things often conflicts with spending time with the people whom I love. And then there's not knowing whether writing these songs actually, like, "counts" toward that love.
DBO: Do you ever feel that you have to reconcile the desire to read with need to write? Or reconcile the desire to listen to music with the compulsion to perform or to play something yourself? I often find myself choosing to consume rather than produce or to catch up on something rather than bring something new into the world. Given that your own creative output now extends into both music and fiction, I guess I wonder how you find the time.
LG: I go back and forth between feeling the pure enjoyment of things and feeling like they are somehow connected to what I'm doing. The best thing, though, is to read or to listen to something and be completely lost in it, forgetting that you ever intend to do that yourself. It is such a gift when you can read something and it takes you out. When it is pure pleasure or pure beauty, or delight. When I'm reading, I want to forget that I want to be a writer, and when I'm listening, to forget that I have any intentions of making my own music.
Though he has been gone for over a month, I have been unable to mourn until now, writing this piece as we approach what would have been his 58th birthday, June 7. Last fall, I had begun a drawing series of him as a way back into portraiture. Of course, there was no way to anticipate the sudden grief around that project. But I feel like this has been the best way, with words rather than perfect pictures, though I will probably try to do that too, as both were important in everything he did.
I am guessing that my initial lack of emotion is a consequence of celebrity death in the internet age, especially as a citizen of social media. Online, I witness every permutation of post-mortem praise that makes it all too apparent that there is no private joy. Like collective fandom--which, sadly has made me reluctant to attend many live shows in recent years--collective mourning is an uncomfortable, disturbing phenomenon. It reminds me that the artist I cherish is not mine alone. And while I knowingly appreciate and hope that everyone in the world recognizes how special the artist is, the snob in me doesn't want to see it. Doesn't want it rubbed in my face. And definitely doesn't want to hear about all the popular shit. It's selfishly possessive to feel that I can tell people why they are right, but with reasons only I can bring to their attention. Of course what I mostly want is for them to know and appreciate that my fandom is sincere. That it is not a trend or agreeable groupthink but a longstanding, investigative relationship, just as reverent as it is critical.
I know that Prince is not mine, nor are the depths of my affection for his work unique to me. Yet my reaction was at first a classic emotional progression through disbelief, anger, and despair: Is this true? This is bullshit! What am I going to do? This resolved finally in an anxious self-reflection about expressing those emotions: How can I let everyone know I am hurting...without looking competitive? Because that's what this is ultimately. The warped desire attached to celebrity always involves a kind of egocentric loop. Of course it's about the celebrity figure themselves, but it's really about our love for them. The most I have been affected by a celebrity death was when Jay Dee (J Dilla) passed away. I say significant because until then I have never understood the mourning of someone you do not actually know. I didn't know Prince. And there are much more intense fans of his than myself. It is through these fans that I became the fan I am. The one closest to me is my cousin EJ, who gifted me with the literary, audio, and visual material that provided a deep and complex understanding of Prince's process, relationships, personality, and exhaustive productivity. EJ was the first person I thought of when I heard the news:
April 21, 12:37: "Cuzzin..." my message read. I waited almost an hour for his reply: "Man." "What now?" I asked. April 21, 13:29: "Open the Vault." April 21, 13:31, I texted back: "I don't think we're ready."
My parents had me at 19 and from what I can assume about their youth, in holding on to their coolness, I was experiencing things as they were. There wasn't this rift between their music and mine (that came much later). The popular music I heard through them was actually on point. It wasn't a matter of rediscovering something my generation didn't understand but appreciating culturally influential material in real time. Prince was a large part of this. I was often reminded of an incident that took place few years before I was born. A story of my father, his own legend inspired by the legendary, his lip syncing the song "Do It All Night" (Dirty Mind, 1980) at his high school talent show. He and two of his friends, posing at Dez Dickerson and Andre Cymone, appeared with mock instruments that my father had crafted from plywood. At the start of the first verse, to show that he had completed Prince's look from the album cover, he dropped his trench coat to reveal nothing but underwear and stockings and a handkerchief around his neck. The administration was so outraged they attempted to call the group off of the stage, but the crowd was rocking so hard that all protest was drowned out and the boys were able to finish the set. This was New Orleans in 1980.
I can't say which were the first songs I heard. I remember hearing the Sign o' the Times cassette on road trips and being haunted by the content. It was a shift in being affected by music on a level beyond entertainment or the expected quiet-storm soul singles that were commonly associated with artists of color at the time. Hearing about "dying of a big disease with a little name" and being told what "horse" was code for freaked me out. Hearing a man speak of being a girlfriend as a means to express unyielding devotion was revelatory. And that's only two songs into the album. I suppose you could say that at four-years old, Prince's writing was my first lasting lesson in metaphor; he raised my suspicion that there could always be something lurking behind what was most immediately given. He had a way of embracing the dark and light, or rather, an understanding of bringing the dark into light.
Admittedly, I am not completely exempt from rediscovery. I hadn't realized how watermarked on my brain every song on Dirty Mind was (obviously), or how the complexity of Controversy (1982) and the second half of 1999 (1983) faded from memory. I had to teach myself that there was so much more to Around the World in a Day (1985), than the circus organs in "Paisley Park" that I loved so much. And despite what anyone tells you, Batman (1989) is a really good album. Aside from the literal surreality of hearing Prince in a comic book film, the concept of the soundtrack--shifting from character to character for each song--is just brilliant, and "Electric Chair" has one of the best written chorus I can think of. Clearly, Sign o' the Times isn't the only sentimental album for me, but it is among his releases that garner the fuzziest feelings and through which I can most clearly recall a particular time. It is also perfect. When I decided to give a deep listen to the entire Warner catalog during my first year of college, my appreciation moved from sentimental to more objective. Sign o' the Times isn't perfect in the sense that it's the album of all albums, just that its internal logic is so damn resolved. There is not a song that is out of step or extraneous in its contribution to the pace or sequence of the ride. It is an album where each song successfully plays a role and seems to have a sonic or narrative purpose within the overall dynamic. It is not my favorite Prince album, but it is perfect. Explaining why these two things don't line up for me would require more space than I have been given.
I write this in conjunction with gorging on the wealth of material that has been trickling out of the Vault since his passing. What I am enjoying most is the concert footage from the early 80s. In fact, I find that I am focusing more on live performances than studio stuff, probably as some sort of desperate resuscitation to keep him alive. I am still realizing how technically mature he was even then. Perhaps the true consideration of him as a great guitarist was delayed amidst the wardrobe and all the other wild shit he had going on. I can't help but think of how wild it would have been to be there. What it meant to see a young man of color thriving, seemingly without care. Seeming to be completely free. With Dirty Mind, he took a punk-inspired departure from disco, and while the album consists of short and neat pop songs, the stage allowed him to let loose with this instrument. Like Eddie Hazel before him and contemporaries like Jesse Johnson, he reminded everyone that the rock genre does not own the gesture of shameless guitar solos. He did however, stage a kind of black reclamation of musical virtuosity in the context of post-Hendrix rock, while subverting the genre altogether.
I can speak similarly about the early 20th century visual artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), who dealt with religious painting in a socially constructive manner. Recognizing his adeptness as a figurative painter, he also challenged audiences with an entanglement of faith-based and secular realism, representing Biblical figures of Middle Eastern likeness instead of the Eurocentric standard. That relationship between spirituality and (sexual) secularity occupied much of Prince's writing, seemingly paradoxically so, surely just as absurdly as the presence of brown folks in Tanner's religious compositions at the time.
In watching an early performance from the Dirty Mind tour, I find myself wondering what genre of music would I suppose I were listening to. What would I think I was looking at? How are these blues chords performed in a manner outside of themselves? How long would it take to realize that it is not so much about the displacement of a sound as much as it is a disregard for distinct definitions of sound. It's as if he dresses genre in drag, showing both identities at once. Not a complete transformation, but hovering sweetly somewhere in between, like a cronut. He tore through stereotype, disrupting every expectation of how race corresponds to sound, how sound corresponds to action, or how each of these things are unsutured to a gendered body.
Given that I share his affinity for narrative imagery, my testimony would be quite incomplete without some mention of film. And the significance of Prince in the cinematic context is complex in a way that has expanded my understanding of the person and the music. He has been the star of three feature-length studio productions (a trilogy, I will soon argue), and has produced a series of concept albums that double as soundtracks (deepening the ficto-factual narrative that is his life). Recognizing Prince's relationship to narrative is super important, as it was applied to his life, the content of his writing, and ways in which the two swirl together. Which leads me to a perhaps not so radical, potentially absurd, but undoubtedly fun proposition: a theory that Under The Cherry Moon (1986) can be viewed as an unconscious sequel to Purple Rain (1984), positioning it as The Kid's feature-length cinematic dream sequence that follows the climactic resolve of the "Purple Rain" performance, and precedes the mature sage he embodies in Graffiti Bridge (1992).
A few things have led me to this line of thinking. The film is shot in black and white, which when done deliberately, usually signals a kind of alternate reality that is out of time. It is set abroad, though still in proximity to the sea, transporting our protagonist (and us) from Lake Minnetonka to the French Riviera. It is as if The Kid's unconscious is envisioning an existence outside of his hometown, othered, and severed from the familiar expectations of him as an eccentric artist. Much like dreams in which you are confusingly intimate with those you detest, Jerome resurfaces as his brother Tricky. After all, would there be any other context in which his ally would be his nemesis's sidekick? Finally, Christopher Tracy is an amalgamation of the Kid and Morris, embracing both the sly, coy, manipulative romanticism of The Kid, and the cool, overtly masculine bravado of Morris.
The actual Prince and Morris were good friends, and judging from recorded outtakes of jam sessions, they had similar approaches to humor and a similar way of putting-it-on when it came to character. Though Prince's position allowed him to cast Morris as the less ambiguous, fixed identity that he couldn't be. In turn, Prince and the Revolution exercised a kind of boundlessness not found in Morris Day & the Time, which allowed the former to access an open and roaming sensibility of sound versus clear categorization. Cinematically, it would seem that the Kid/Morris binary was a bit too limiting for Prince's projection of self. With the care placed in his image, the rarity of interviews, and the already confusing signals he exhibited, the public understanding of Prince was primarily through his music, videos, and live performances. With the close alignment of the film to what we were given in real life, Purple Rain had the effect of a true biopic, and I would imagine that the comedic trickster in him felt stifled by the reserved cool of The Kid.
Christopher Tracy becomes a strident example of American black plurality--able to exhibit a queer masculinity while at the same time carrying the conditions of urban American blackness that results in a very rare, yet desirably nuanced representation. He is everything that Prince (and an unconscious Kid) hoped to embody--a charming and talented outsider navigating a world that neither understands nor expects much of him. A black man with a fluid sense of dress, equally capable of classical piano serenades as he is misogynist hood antics.
Ironically, in light of this proposition, Purple Rain and, by proxy, Graffiti Bridge are the fantasy narratives, as they are primarily films about artists working through their creativity. There is not much questioning of class, race, or gender in the gloriously progressive Minneapolis we see on screen. Exceptions to these rules are the norm. The freaks run the show. The self-titled characters are mostly dramatizations of the artists themselves with a Gaussian blur between fact and fiction, underlined by the unmentioned visualization of Prince's biracial myth. The infamous White Cloud guitar is a virtual Excalibur, cutting through the time and space of the film, breaking the fourth wall into our lived reality.
Flanked on either side by musicals--one that doesn't feel like a musical and another that very much does--Under the Cherry Moon is ultimately a love story in which all of these issues of social and cultural hierarchy get addressed head on. Regardless of how much fun Christopher and Tricky have, no matter how much agency they exercise on foreign soil, they (and we) are frequently reminded of their race, complexion, nationality, class, and weird clothes. Now, you could be saying, "Nahhh Lyn, Prince was just doing his Bela Lugosi-slapstick-Casablanca-French New Wave thing only with black folks. . . " (which it is) but I would argue that in these meta-representations of himself, in two very different narrative contexts, Prince offers two sides of utopian coin that his whole program operates on: both a state of being that is free in spite of opposition and the construction of a world in which opposition to freedom does not exist.
It is worth mentioning that his Camille recording persona emerges around the time between Parade (1986) and Sign o' the Times. Prince himself credited Camille with the production of the initially unreleased Black Album (1987), which makes sense given the snarky lyrical content of songs featuring this voice. Singing some of the more complex commentaries on romance and relationships, the helium-pitched alter-ego of Camille can be heard in many iconic hits and peripheral classics ("Housequake," "If I Was Your Girlfriend," "Crystal Ball," "Rock Hard in a Funky Place," and many others) and is meant to be a vocal register embodying yet another androgynous symbolic representation. It adds to his ideology of radical inclusivity, eventually summed up in the inaudible symbol, not just as the marriage of male and female in the traditional sense, but the existence of a hybrid unit that creates space for identity to be assumed in a myriad of ways.
I continue to descend down the rabbit hole, courtesy of a purple pill. Delving into the side projects, outtakes, rehearsals, in attempts to get closer. It is during these moments of depth and exclusivity of all things Prince that I begin to feel a part of it. Like I could wear heels with my chest out and a chain around my waist. I forget for very brief moments that this is unlicensed behavior in the spaces I navigate. I am reminded that I contend with self-consciousness and, ultimately, fear. Prince contributed so much in the way of a liberated yet constructed (and inherited) black identity that I fail to understand why so many oppressive stereotypes have held firm. Why there is a cognitive dissonance in certain communities of thought, where collective praise for Prince from hardcore rappers (Tupac Shakur among them) rubs shoulders with a homophobia and a rampant fear of black male "feminization."
Nina Simone described freedom as having no fear. Does such a condition actually exist? Is the possibility within sight? And how much does it cost? As a child, I played with the plywood Telecaster that my father made for that three minutes of freedom on stage that day. When I look at photos of Prince, his bandmates, the sets they created, and when I watch them work, it appears that they have accessed this space. When in his world, they lived in it. A kind of utopic isolation that has to either ruin you or prepare you for anything. Prince has gone from being free in life to being free of life. Showing us that if we are willing, we can be free in the world until we are free of the world. Free to change our minds. Free to go almost anywhere, anytime. I am glad to have all that we got from him. I am glad that he is free.
To see more images of Prince altered by Mr. Barrois using the CMYK printing techniques similar to those he uses in his current CAM exhibit 'On Color,' click the image below. To read a recent interview with Lyndon by Seth Lewis, click here.
If you're looking to take part in Pride festival this weekend, you'll find many options to choose from in the St. Louis area, including the Tower Grove Pride 2016. This free, low-key, block-party event in celebration of LGBT culture will be held from 12pm to 8pm Saturday, June 25 at Ritz Park, 3147 South Grand, between Juniata and Hartford.
Located along the St. Louis Pride Parade's former route down South Grand, the fourth annual Tower Grove Pride festival will feature a number of performances throughout the day by local artists from across the St. Louis music scene. There will be plenty of eats and drinks and a number of vendor booths, many of which will feature locally-made handcrafted gifts, including jewelry and candles.
Local performers this year include Celia Shackattack (guitarist/vocalist host of the Sing-A-Long Dance Party), Duck Brown (ska), C-sharp (rap), Jamie Axton (rock), DJ sets from I Went To A Show, and a number of bands from St. Louis' thriving punk scene. Expect to hear sets by grrl garage-rockers Mirror Mirror, lo-fi jammers Sunday Candy, the elusive duo known as My Bloody Underwear, as well as kitchen-sink punks Tiger Rider and the ever-heavy Skin Tags, both of which performed in last weeks' RFT Music Showcase. RFT Award nominees, the one-of-a-kind, electro-pop outfit Superfun Yeah Yeah Rocketship is also scheduled (and sure to bring some kind of cardboard cutout of Fabio).
As opposed to the arena-name headliners downtown, the all St. Louis line-up shows the appeal of Tower Grove Pride, rooted in its local focus, as championed by Autumn Wiggins and Michael Powers, the event's organizers along with Melinda Cooper, tireless front-woman for the Town Cars who put together the line-up and will also be performing at the event, hot off their Atomic Cowboy performance last weekend, also as part of the RFT showcase. Though perhaps not as flashy as some of the other celebrations around the city, Tower Grove Pride is sure to fill Ritz Park the with warmth and welcome of a neighborhood that's become a thriving mix of cultures and personalities, the perfect location for a festival that has intentionally aspired to remain a community-focused, homegrown celebration.
Past years' festivals have also included a number of activities intended to raise awareness while encouraging active participation and open conversation. This year, the festival includes an art installation "Letters to Orlando" that organizers and members of the community have set up to encourage notes of love and support for victims of the Orlando attack and the area's LGBT community. Everyone is invited to help complete the piece at art-making tables set up around the installation. After Pride weekend, the letters will be sent to Orlando, enabling St. Louisans to contribute to the growing memorial and outpouring of care from around the world. As the festival organizers note in their Facebook post on the installation:
There is no right or wrong way to personally process national tragedies, and this time has been especially difficult for the LGBT community and it's allies. We can post and share in grief on social media, but sometimes you can't find the words without a pen. For some, it helps to make art. Here is a meaningful space to do just that.
If a relaxing, art and music-filled party is how you see yourself celebrating St. Louis Pride weekend, Tower Grove Pride in Ritz Park is where you'll want to be this Saturday.
Jessica Lea Mayfield has been enduring hard times on the road from the age of eight, when she lived out of a tour bus helping her parents busk bluegrass for a living. Even as a teen--when she found success as a solo artist opening for The Avett Brothers, The Black Keys, and Cake--hardship followed her in the forms of domestic violence, depression and suicidal thoughts. She survived, in part by capturing those demons in dark, glamorous music filled with fuzzed-out guitars and sinister-sweet vocals. Kyle Kapper checked in with Ms. Mayfield, who talked about the need to speak out against domestic violence, Hank Williams' influence on her songwriting, and how she knows what you say about her.
KK: You earned your stripes as a punky rebel, but now you have your own fan base and play venues like the Roxy and Bonnaroo. In the immortal words of Neil Young, "Is it the same when so many love you?"
JLM: It's easier for me to play at shows when there's an audience full of people that like me. It's a lot harder when I have to win over a room full of drunk assholes, and I get that a lot. When I walk into a room, I get misread by people immediately. They harass me or heckle me or screw with me. I think a lot of my hard-ass stage exterior came with being a little bit shy and angry and just wanting to do my thing without there being presumptions about who I am based on what I look like.
KK: Is that why you seem to play with audiences like a cat playing with a mouse?
JLM: Definitely. It's easy for me to read the vibe of a room. I think that's part of why I'm a writer. It's funny. People think you can't hear them, so one of my favorite things to do is when someone thinks I can't hear them talking to someone about me, I'll repeat what they said over the microphone: "Do you see her shoes?...She's got interesting eye makeup." I used to be more naïve of how much people were mocking me and now that I'm older, I see it and I hear it.
KK: You must enjoy some aspect of performing to have stayed at it for so long.
JLM: I've been touring since I was eight years old, and my solo career started when I was 15, so most of my career took place during my childhood. I'm not even qualified to do anything else. I was partially home-schooled, half street-schooled. People will come up and ask, "What's your major?" I don't know. Knife-throwing? Self-defense in an alley?
KK: Your music does tend to have a knife-throwing quality to it, but you did sneak an upbeat song, "Standing in the Sun," onto your latest solo album [Make My Head Sing].
JLM: It's interesting that you point out that song. It's actually written from the perspective of a friend of mine, so I wrote it as if this friend was talking to me. It comes across as someone else telling me to get out of the house: Don't be a vampire. Take care of yourself. Don't be depressed. So it's a light-hearted song about a friend who doesn't want me to kill myself.
KK: Your visual art appears to exude similar themes, especially the "Bruise Selfie" and "Brain Xplosion" paintings you have available on your website.
JLM: The two paintings you're referencing are domestic violence-related paintings. It's that thing of when people hurt women, it has to be kept a secret for some reason because it makes everyone uncomfortable. It makes me want to make these violent portrayals because it's so common -- so super-common -- but it's still something that everyone ignores. It's therapy for me. I want to make something pretty and bright and fun, but I'm sitting there with glitter-blood. It makes it more noticeable, makes something glamorous for people who try to pretend it doesn't even exist.
KK: I'm sorry you've been through those types of experiences but admire you for speaking out.
JLM: Thanks. It's been hard for me to talk about it. It's a really vulnerable thing, but it's important for me to talk about these things now. I'm almost 30 and I've had an entire life around horrible and great people, but I've experienced a lot of bullshit. I feel like I'm finally at a place where I can say, Hey, that isn't normal -- that wasn't cool. And now I get to have this normal happy, healthy life. My husband and I moved into the middle of the woods, like on a mountain in the woods, and it's been nice to kind of have my own nature, my own spot where I can do what I want.
KK: Has your newfound peace inspired any new music?
JLM: I've got all the songs written for the next album. I'm still working on when and where I'm going to record it, but I'm playing quite a few unreleased songs live on this upcoming run. I've been writing a lot of folk-inspired songs, structurally, but they've been coming across still heavier. I'm a huge Hank Williams fan. I think however much I don't realize it -- especially when I don't realize it -- I'm being inspired by him, the way that I put a song together, the form of it. I'll have some weird folk song structure where it's 30 verses and no chorus, but then it sounds really heavy.
KK: A big part of the folk tradition is reflecting on hard lessons learned. If you could give any advice to your younger self, what might you say?
JLM: Don't expect other people to do things for you. I'd tell her that especially when you're young, you trust people to help you with things. I was even thinking about this today: don't let other people's advice confuse you. Listen to the voice within. Tell everyone else to go screw themselves and stick to who you are and what you want to do.