Spring Break!

Hello fellow geeks, nerds, and awesomes!

I’m going to take a little hiatus this week, and maybe next, depending on a couple of projects. BUT, just so you know, the PCA conference was awesome, and you really should make a point to attend it (and maybe even present at it!) at some point in your future. Or any future, really. Or the past, if you know, time travel happens. Maybe you’ve already presented at PCA but don’t know it yet. Hmmmm. If my brain were less fried, I would likely tell you more about this year’s PCA, but my Metal panel was awesome, there’s a new Metal Studies Journal out (!!!!!), Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture was one of the first books purchased from our publisher’s table(!!!!!!!!), there were some really EXCELLENT panels on Fan Studies (and I particularly enjoyed my friend Tanya Cochran’s presentation on Arrow and #Ollicity and fan influence in narrative), Mark Volman is a fantastic and fascinating speaker, as always, and New Orleans is a delicious city. That’s the Campbell’s Soup version.

So I’m going to take a little time off and try to do a few luxuries like sleep (what?) and play video games (YEAH!), but I’ll be back to writing Guitars and Geeks very soon. Hopefully with some more awesome guest blog posts! If you’re interested in writing, let me know!

Happy Spring Break!

PCA/ACA, The Ship Who Sang, and Geek Academia

Next week is the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference, which is my most favorite academic conference, and one that I attend each year. I try to alternate my presentations between sci-fi and music, thus ensuring that my most favorite subjects get equal treatment in my own little academic universe. This year, as you may have read in a previous post, I’m presenting on Mastodon’s “The Motherload” video in a paper I’ve decided to call “The Dialectic of T/werk: Hegel, Marx, and Womanist Agency in Mastodon’s ‘The Motherload’ Video.” I’m excessively delighted with my title. My original intention today was to share a little bit of this paper with you, but I’ve recently had an inquiry from a publisher, so now I’m not sure that I can post it on a blog, because of possible future copyright, blah blah blah. So, I’m going to give you an excerpt from a previous paper, from a year that I presented on sci-fi, that still deals with music. This paper was entitled “Brainships and Dragonriders: Posthumanism and Gender in the Work of Anne McCaffrey.”

Before I give you some snippets, I want to add that the paper was inspired by the surprising amount of commentary after Anne McCaffrey’s death that argued that she wasn’t “really” a feminist writer. Many arguments stated that her feminism was out-dated (a rather odd argument, considering that she was writing in the 60s and 70s. Isn’t everything out-dated when we look back?). I contend, however, that her feminism is groundbreaking, and the she was the first post-humanist feminist writer in science fiction.

Also, I’m really hoping that I inspire you to read the works of Anne McCaffrey, if you haven’t already. Not only do many of her books deal with music in some form, but she also was a contributor to the collection Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three, a collection of sci-fi short stories that was based on a filk-song.

It just doesn’t get much geekier than that.

So, without futher ado, here’s part of my argument for why Anne McCaffrey’s feminism was radically ground-breaking (and, please forgive any citation problems–for conference presentations, I sometimes make notations, not formal citations):

Perhaps the best example, however, of McCaffrey’s gender subversion and radical post-feminisism is Helva, the protagonist of The Ship Who Sang. The Ship Who Sang, published in 1969, is the first book of the Ship Who series. The novel consists of five short stories, all featuring Helva, that were published between 1961 and 1969. One additional story, “Honeymoon,” was published in the short story collection Get Off the Unicorn in 1977. The rest of the Ship Who series was written with various collaborators from 1992-1994 and by separate authors in 1996 and 1997 to make a total of seven full novels. The premise shared in the Ship Who universe is that persons who are born grossly handicapped/disfigured, and without use of their bodies, can become “an encapsulated brain” (Ship Who Sang 1) by installing their bodies into a shell. Shell people, as they are called, are then hooked up to space ships to become the ship, or to cities to become the city. They are not just cyborgs, but cyborgs whose entire “original” body is encased to become the brain of a new, mechanical body. Helva is a shell person who is installed in a spaceship, indentured to the government (Federated Sentient Planets) who paid for her operations and transformation. Traditionally paired with a brawn, an unaltered mobile human, Helva, like all brainships, takes jobs and accomplishes missions for the FSP to work off her debt and become an independent contractor.

In The Ship Who Sang, Helva’s body, as well as her gender, are called into question in the first sentence: “She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph required of all newborn babies” (1). She, the gendered self, is a thing, not a girl or female, but an it. Gender is disembodied from the start. Helva retains use of her infant body for a few months before she is encapsulated, surgically altered, and given her shell. Within her shell, or rather, as her shell, she can manipulate attached tools to perform tasks; when she is installed into her ship and becomes the ship, she uses those same synaptic connections to control the ship. The ship becomes her body, and her body, in the shell, becomes the brain of the ship. For Helva, her mechanization helps her subvert her gender early on–as all shell people are encouraged to develop hobbies, Helva becomes interested in singing. What she doesn’t realize is that vocal ranges tend to be gender specific. As a cyborg, singing, for Helva, is a matter of physics–her range is not limited by her physical body. So she creates a singing range that includes male ranges: baritone, bass, and tenor, for example. During her first brawn courtship (where the brain chooses a partner), Jennan is the brawn who discovers her ability to sing male roles; later, after Helva chooses him as a partner, he literally fights anyone who mocks her singing until she is known, with admiration, as the ship who sang. Not only does Helva subvert gender, through her cyborgism, by choosing which ranges to sing, her brawn, Jennan, fights for her ability to do so. Gender is something Helva chooses, and her posthumanism, her literal cyborgness, is what gives her the ability to choose.

Her performance of gender, and the destabilization of gender, becomes more pronounced when Helva is given a mission to take a troupe of actors to Beta Corvi. An alien species, the Beta Corviki, live in a lethal methane gas environment and have developed new ways of harnessing energy. In exchange for their technology, they want the plays of Shakespeare (as they have no dramatic arts). Helva is cast as the Nurse (after she demonstrates she could also play male parts, or, as one of the actors exclaims, she could be the whole play herself. Her shipbody does not preclude her from acting, because her consciousness, with the rest of the actors, will be transferred to a Beta-Corvikian body on the planet. Not only can Helva choose which gender to perform, she can perform that gender in a body completely different from her mechanical body–an alien body–which she thinks her “self” into (as do the rest of the actors). If that isn’t disembodiment enough, in “Honeymoon,” the one Helva story after The Ship Who Sang, Helva and her new brawn, Niall, return to Beta Corvi, have the Beta Corvikian version of sex, which is a literal merging of two physical bodies. In the middle of it, the automatic mind-transfer recall is triggered, and they are brought back into their human and mechanical bodies–mostly respectively. Helva and Niall now share physical sensations, like taste–Helva can taste the coffee Niall is drinking. This is beyond posthuman and radical disembodiment because it’s more than an extension of consciousness through technology; it’s a combination of consciousness in two shared bodies. Posthumanism, and radically extended consciousness, allows Helva and Niall not only to choose genders, but to choose to combine their very selves as well. Helva’s dis-embodied gender(s) demonstrates that McCaffrey’s feminism operates through a posthuman paradigm that subverts gender norms by exploring how disembodiment can be re-gendering.

There’s clearly more to this paper, but I hope you get the gist. And that you immediately go out and read The Ship Who Sang (which is soooo good!) and the entire Dragonriders of Pern series, and everything else she has ever written. And then, I hope you write papers on sci-fi and geek rock for academic conferences because hey, that’s what we do, right?

Guest Post: They Might Be Giants, They Might…ROCK? by Barry Hall

I’ve known my friend Patrick since 1990, and he is, without question, the most dedicated and loyal fan of They Might Be Giants that I’ve had the pleasure to know. In early 1996, Patrick made me a cassette tape of TMBG songs (titled “They Might Be Mixed”), and that spring, I attended my first TMBG show at Trax in Charlottesville, Va..

Now, a confession: I’ve been a card carrying member of The KISS Army for 37+ years, which at first glance appears to be the polar opposite of Geek Rock and TMBG. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, the instruments that stood out the most for me in TMBG’s music, particularly the first few records, were a keyboard, a drum machine and an accordion. Sure, there was guitar in there too, but I wasn’t expecting a “Rock Show” as I made my way into Trax.

I’ll use just two moments from the evening to illustrate my surprise:

“Why Does The Sun Shine,”  in its studio version, is a very quiet, unassuming song that features primarily xylophone and accordion. I believe this song opened the show. If it didn’t officially start the show, the song was featured early in the set and was the first moment where I (literally) sat up straight on my barstool and paid very close attention to what was happening onstage.

Instead of a quiet “science lesson” explaining all about the wonders of the sun, John & John (You’re  reading this blog, so you need no last names, right?) ripped into the number at breakneck, almost thrash-metal-like speed, playing loud and obnoxious guitar. I was shocked! Flansburgh literally screamed the lyrics at one point. It was wonderful. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting THAT! And, to his credit, Patrick never hinted at what the show would be like, so my surprise was genuine.

The other moment came about midway through the set, and it was from an album that had not even been released yet. The song was “Till My Head Falls Off” from the (then forthcoming) album “Factory Showroom.” No one in the audience had heard the song yet (unless of course they’d seen a previous show on this tour) and, for me at least, this track combined three elements that make it, almost twenty years later, still one of my all-time favorite TMBG songs:

1) Smart, laugh out loud lyrics (“There were eighty-seven Advil in the bottle, now there’s thirty left/I ate forty-seven so what happened to the other ten?”)
2) Great, bombastic drums. (They don’t do “BIG DRUMS” often, but when they do, they always deliver.)
3) A great guitar solo that sounds almost like it doesn’t belong, yet fits perfectly.

This “quiet” duo with their accordion and keyboard literally rocked that night, and thus made me a fan for life. I’ve seen TMBG so often that I’m not sure on the exact number of shows. It’s at least fifteen, but probably more.

I see them whenever I get the chance, and they never disappoint. I can say, because of They Might Be Giants, this card carrying member of The KISS Army is also a proud fan of Geek Rock!

Barry Hall has been a radio disc jockey, an executive producer, the manager of a rock band and drummer. Above all, he is a fan of all kinds of music, and believes that music is a necessary part of daily life. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longarm04.

Mastodon, Geek Metal, and Geek Rock

I’m currently working on a paper for the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference on Mastodon’s video for “The Motherload.” The working title of this paper, by the way, is “The Dialectic of T/werk: Hegel, Marx, and Womanist Agency in Mastodon’s “The Motherload” Video.” (I’m very pleased with my title.) But the upshot of all this writing and planning for my paper  is that I’ve been thinking a lot about Mastodon recently. Their most recent album, Once More ‘Round the Sun (which features “The Motherload”), is excellent. One of the things I particularly enjoy is the exuberance running throughout this album. While Mastodon is always good, there’s an energy here, almost a frenetic, desperate joy, providing an undercurrent that lifts their artistry to another level. Always different, and always fresh, I appreciate the ways that Mastodon continually subverts their genre.

Which brings me to the question, are Mastodon geeky? Could they be considered geek metal? Geek metal falls into the same genre bending as geek rock and nerdcore, with the same result. Much like geek rock has fallen by the wayside of rock, geek metal remains mostly subsumed within metal. Even Urban Dictionary’s definition is poor, although if there was any doubt about the marginalization of homosexuals, the existence of hate speech, or the instability of hyper-masculinity, these definitions clear that up. Geek metal is metal by virtue of it’s subject matter, typically fantasy, and is somehow, as Urban Dictionary seems to imply, “lesser” than “normal” metal. This implication, I think, is because metal tends to be associated with a performance of hyper-masculinity, and any deviation from that is discouraged.

Which brings me back to Mastodon. These guys are not your (stereo)typical metal band. They innovate in unexpected ways. They keep it fresh. They have videos with clowns (or, in the case of “The Motherload,” a great deal of twerking). They subvert the genre of metal which is a subversive genre to begin with. But are they geeky? I say yes. Their acclaimed album Leviathan is about Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick. Crack the Skye is another example, addressing astral travel and Stephen Hawking’s theories of wormholes. They wrote the score for the movie Jonah Hex, based on the DC comic, and released on an EP titled Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly. From great literature, to great physics, to great comics, Mastodon knows their way around geekdom.

But is that all it takes to make geek metal geeky? User Zipzop 5565 lists lists the Top 5 Geek Metal bands on Sputnik Music, and Mastodon is not on the list. However, neither is DragonForce, who are perhaps the quintessential geek metal band. The list includes Dethklok, Anthrax, Swashbuckle, HORSE the band, and Wormed. I’m only familiar with Anthrax and Dethklok, and neither would have come to mind immediately as geek metal. However, this user provides justification for his choices, which not only make sense, but which would also include Mastodon in the category of geek metal. However, much like geek rock, the geekiness is the ear of the beholder as much as it’s in the music itself. Whether Mastodon consider themselves geeky is another question entirely. But this geek is happy to call them geek metal, as an accolade and tribute to their brainy metal sensibilities.

Geek Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree

Before Guitars and Geeks goes on a brief hiatus this holiday season, I wanted to leave you with one last post.

And it’s going to be reflective.

This year saw the publication of Geek Rock: An  Exploration of Music and Subculture, and, subsequently, the start of this column (yay!). Alex and I worked on Geek Rock for nearly two years before finally seeing it in print (which, by the way, is still one of the the coolest things ever). Geek Rock, as I’m sure you’ve already read in the introduction, began as a panel at the PCA/ACA conference. Despite our panel being scheduled across from George Takei’s keynote speech (really?! A geek rock panel across from George Takei?!), we received a great deal of fantastic feedback and participation. We pitched the idea of a book to Scarecrow (now Rowman and Littlefield), who had already heard about our panel by the time we got to the book exhibit. So we crafted a CFP, created an email address, and waited. And then the submissions came in. We were floored by the reception our CFP garnered, the quality of the submissions, the enthusiasm we received. We chose the widest scope, most representative selections, and highest quality essays to comprise Geek Rock. We edited with diligence. We went through several revisions. We dealt with lyric copyright issues. We met some truly awesome people (and I want to give another shout out to Brad Roberts here, for paying copyright fees for his own lyrics so that Paul Cantrell could include them in his chapter), read some truly awesome writing, and created a truly awesome book.

Geek Rock made my year.

It made my year before, too, really, but this year was the year we went to print. It was the year of turning in the final manuscript, submitting all the paperwork (and there’s a good deal of paper involved in publishing an edited collection), and reviewing the final proofs. It was the year that I came home to a box on my doorstep (which I nearly fell over in my enthusiasm), and I held our finished book in my hands. I probably would have kept the box, too, if my dog hadn’t ate it. Seriously. I geek-hoard things sometimes. And this year, it’s been hard not to.

It’s been a good year for geeks in general. Arrow and The Flash have been spectacular, there’s the new Star Wars trailer (eeeee!), the latest Borderlands game, and a whole bunch of stuff that I haven’t been able to keep up with because I’m busy working and writing and trying to read whenever I can. And there is so. much. music. I wish I had the money to buy everything, but I’ve been reduced to Spotify for now. And going to shows. (Support local, y’all.)

Next year, I predict,  will be stupendous. I’ll be presenting at PCA on the new Mastodon video for “The Motherload” (so let me know if you’re attending!), I’ll be reading and listening to music as much as humanly possible, not to mention starting some new podcasts (Dear Sugar!), and there’s the usual zazen, and geeking, and maybe even writing a new book proposal at some point. There will definitely be writing, and if I don’t see you elsewhere in the ‘verse, I hope to see you here, at Guitars and Geeks. Maybe I’ll even see you writing–I think it’s time to have some guest columnists and find out what some of YOU think about geek rock. Comment if you’re interested! And until then, I hope you have the happiest and geekiest of holidays!  See you next year!


The Soundtrack Awakens

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the new Star Wars teaser trailer was released this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, then it’s really strange that you read Guitars and Geeks, and you should probably see it immediately:

Having just finished most of Fringe (and by most, I mean I couldn’t make it through Season Five. I tried. I may try again. But wow. And not a good wow.), I was trepidatious about J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars. I still am, frankly, but the teaser trailer (not to mention his amazing Star Trek reboot), has alleviated my anxieties, far more than a teaser trailer really should. Why? I have no qualms about admitting this. It’s because of his use of the sound track. More specifically, it’s because of the exquisite partnering of John Williams’ score with each shot from the film. With each shot, we get a snippet of Williams’ score, offering anxiety, urgency, foreboding. The sounds of the action overlay most of the score, and the mysterious narrator teases us with information. And then, after another dark pause where the screen blanks, the Millennium Falcon sweeps across the sky with the sweep of music into the main theme, loud, prominent, triumphant, and promising.

I cheered and shouted the first time I saw it.

I cheer and shout each time I re-watch it, too. It’s hard not to. The Star Wars theme is iconic. It’s the triumph of good over evil, it’s the struggle of the underdog, it’s fighting the good fight, it’s the oppressed overcoming the oppressor. It’s the sonic embodiment of myth. It’s epically epic. And not just the Star Wars theme, but all of John Williams’ principal motifs (and many of his minor motifs). Star Wars is a modern mythos, and Williams’ music reveals how deeply our cultural consciousness has absorbed this epic. Nearly everyone knows the theme, the motif for the Darth Vader, the motifs for Leia and Han, for the Force. And many people know the motifs for the Jawas, the Ewoks, Yoda, C-3P0 and R2-D2, and the Sith. Some of the newer motifs, for Anakin, the Droid Invasion, and Anakin and Padme, for example, aren’t quite as deep in our cultural consciousness at this point, and I doubt anyone would be quite as familiar with them outside of the context of those movies. We will probably not hear any marching bands play them anytime soon. But the Star Wars theme, and the Imperial March, condense and evoke the original trilogy so well that only a few snippets of each are necessary to recognize them.

And the really awesome part is that even 15 years ago, that wasn’t always the case. If Episodes I, II, and III did anything for the Star Wars franchise, it was to make it more recognizable than ever before. I remember college marathons of the original trilogy, on VHS, no less, with the fabulous Catherine Harris (now Brown), an awesome friend and the only other person I knew who could reliably be counted on to marathon the original trilogy (at the time, the word “original” was unnecessary) on any given college night. There were people in my residence hall who had never seen any Star Wars movie and who were not able to recognize any snippets of music, much less any of the more minor motifs. And while people who have never seen a single Star Wars movie still exist today, they are much fewer in number (possibly because there are now six movies, instead of just three), and I imagine their existences to be wispy and unfulfilled.

Commercialism, of course, must account for some of this. Someone figured out that geeks and nerds tend also to be collectors, and began marketing accordingly.  But, what was once unpopular culture has now become popular culture, and comics and sci-fiction and fantasy are now part of mainstream media and mainstream culture. Even the Internet, and computers, once the staple of reclusive geekdom, are everyday and mundane. And while a new Star Wars movie isn’t mundane, it’s possibly even more enthusiastically awaited now than the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, which brought an abundance of Jedis to movie theatres across America. And part of that enthusiasm is due to the mundanity of things like the Internet, and Facebook, which let geekdoms flourish in their home medium, creating cultural staples and reinforcing the great American Epic. As memes spread, as the Imperial March and Star Wars theme proliferate and multiply, their significance deepens as the motifs to the light and the dark sides of the Force spread to any representation of good or evil. The Jedi Kittens are a perfect example. While the first relied on light saber sound effects (as recognizable as the music), the second, Jedi Kittens Strike Back, additionally created a score reminiscent of Williams (but without any actual copyright infringement), playing on the motif for the Sith.

Abrams’ trailer not only recognizes this, it accentuates it. The music sweeps as the Millennium Falcon sweeps, bursting into the theme at the apex of its flight. The music in the teaser trailer nods to the prequels, in the scene with the Sith, before it evokes the original trilogy with the Millennium Falcon. Each scene is matched with a perfect sonic moment. Because it’s sound that thrills us, that evokes, that lures, that inspires, just as much as the images. When The Phantom Menace was released, I went to theatre early that morning to buy tickets. At the 7pm showing, Jedis and Rebels and Imperial troops and civilians all filed into the seats. The air was electrified, as if by light sabers. We clenched our popcorns and sodas.  And we sat, expectantly, silently. It wasn’t the the words the moved us. It wasn’t the blue text reading “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .” that sent popcorn flying as everyone leapt to their feet, shouting, applauding, stomping, and cheering through the opening sequence.

It was the music.

The Troubling Allegations Against Jian Ghomeshi

I am a long time fan of Moxy Früvous.

I first heard Bargainville when it came out in 1993. At the time, I hung out at my favorite local record store, called Soundhole, on a near-daily basis. The store specialized in punk rock, but my predilection for geek rock, and my TMBG fandom, were well known by the store’s proprietor, Greg, who received a great deal of my hard earned fast food money. One evening, I walked in and Greg played Bargainville over the store’s loudspeakers. “I got this earlier this week,” he told me, “I thought of you right off.”

I bought the album before the second track finished playing.

And I bought every album after that. I saw them live several times, my favorite being at a dive bar in Virginia Beach called the Abyss (and it really was), where the audience was so small, the venue so tiny, it was like a private performance. The audience stood nearly eye to eye with the band. It was the farthest south I think they ever played.

I even travelled to FrüCon (yes, there was a Moxy Früvous convention) one year, making the trek to Toronto (from Virginia) with a dear friend from college, and attending a show at Lee’s Palace where the band got their start.

If you’ve never heard of Moxy Früvous, I’m sorry that you’re learning about them now. They were a brilliant, fantastic, quirky, delightful band. They put out four excellent albums (Bargainville, 1993; Wood, 1995; The ‘b’ Album, 1996; You Will Go To The Moon, 1997) one excellent live album (Live Noise, 1998), one pretty good album (Thornhill, 1999), and one less good album (The ‘c’ Album, 2000) before going on “hiatus” in 2000. The hiatus, as it turns out, was really more of a break-up, but was termed “hiatus” instead because it allowed the members of the band to remain current members, not former members, thus capitalizing on their star power indefinitely. The hiatus-not-break-up idea was proposed by Jian Ghomeshi.

If you are just now hearing about Moxy Früvous, it’s probably because of Jian Ghomeshi. Recently fired from the radio talk show Q, on Canada’s CBC, Jian Ghomeshi is the center of allegations accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct. At least nine women have accused him of non-consensual violent sex, and a police investigation formally began on Halloween. The other former members of Moxy Früvous have stated they were “sickened and saddened” by the allegations, and they were not aware of these behaviors.

Neither was I. Why would I be? I’ve never met him, I’ve never interacted with him. I’m just a fan of his former band. I was made aware when an old friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall about the allegations last week, when the story first broke. We had the same reaction: shock and sadness. The stories of the women coming forward are chilling. And my heart breaks for them all.

What I find particularly troubling is how long this appears to have been going on, in some form or another, as women are now coming forward who claim to have been mistreated while Jian was still a member of Moxy Früvous–nearly 20 years ago.

While I’m glad that CBC took immediate action, I’m also dismayed that women are coming forward from 20 years ago. How is it possible for someone to continue abusing and assaulting women for so long? I think part of the answer comes from the story of Miles Davis, where a man’s contributions to society “outweigh” his flaws, his “mistakes.” But the problem is that mistreating women, beating women, sexually assaulting women–this is not a character flaw. It’s not a quirk. It’s not a mistake that should be overlooked, most especially in contemporary society. There is no possible way to rationalize that violence towards women is anything but wrong.

The allegations against Jian Ghomeshi are heartbreaking because I don’t know how to reconcile this new information with the love I have for one of my favorite bands. I struggle with Miles Davis, too, and how to reconcile his music and his personal life. It’s hard to listen to the music of a man who abuses women. But the thing is, too, that we CAN listen to the music of a man who abuses women. We can still drool over Miles Davis. But Hitler’s paintings are inaccessible, held by the U.S. government and prevented from being displayed. Maybe that’s why women from 20 years ago are still coming forward–assaulting women is a “lesser” crime against humanity.

It may seem strange to compare Hitler and Miles Davis, particularly during a discussion of Jian Ghomeshi. Hitler’s agenda, after all,  was to exterminate all non-white, non-straight, non-Aryan persons. The end result of genocide and wife beating are decidedly different. But both stem from the idea that another being is somehow inherently inferior and that it is acceptable to use violence against beings that are perceived as inherently inferior. Hitler’s genocide is certainly more heinous, but at the same time, it’s important to see that Nazi perpetrated murders were sanctioned by institutionalized constructions of inferiority. And violence against women is also sanctioned by institutionalized constructions of inferiority. I’m not saying that genocide and violence against women are comparable, I’m saying the ideologies behind them, that ideologies that say violence against perceived inferiors is okay, is comparable. After all, America didn’t exactly jump into WWII to prevent and end the Holocaust. And Jian Ghomeshi was allegedly able to assault women for an indeterminate amount of time, and Miles Davis’s wife beating gets swept under the rug. We appear to live in a society where we’ve made a gradient of evil, and some evil is condemned, while other evil is admissible. Particularly if it’s against women.

The more I think about Jian Ghomeshi, the more I think about the status of women, the arguments for and against feminisms, the violence perpetrated against women, and also against men, the more I see disturbing questions and comparisons. But I guess the thing I’m left with is that geek rock, overall, as a genre, still isn’t a safe space for women. Much like GamerGate has shown that geekdom still has enormous strides to make in terms of equality, so has geek rock. So has mainstream society. The most upsetting part about the lack of equality, for me,  is where can woman be equal if not in geekdom, if not in the land of geeks and nerds and fandom and enthusiasm and braininess and sci-fi and fantasy?

And I’m not just angry that geekdom isn’t a safe space for women. I’m angry that women aren’t equal in society overall, and I’m even angrier that I’m still put in positions where I have to struggle with reconciling how a member of one of my favorite bands is also allegedly an abuser of women. This is a no brainer. Don’t hit women. Don’t hit anyone, actually. Don’t abuse living creatures. For geekdom, the bastion of braininess, to fail at what is essentially a no-brainer, is a problem.

My hope is that GamerGate and the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi are flushing out the system, rinsing it clean and showing all the places where misogyny still(!) exists in order to eradicate it and continue the work of creating equality. My hope is that we learn that the abuse of women is not a quirk or flaw, but a crime against humanity and human decency. My hope is that we learn that women are not less important, but equally important, and that abusing women, that abusing anyone is clearly wrong, not only in geek culture, but in any culture. There is no excuse for not knowing that it’s wrong to hurt another, and geeks, of all people, with their claim to excessive knowledge, should know that.

Fangirling The Bad Plus

Last night I totally fangirled the best jazz trio in the world at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta.

And it was awesome.

Jazz isn’t a genre that typically has fangirls. I’m not sure, however, that it would be correct to say that jazz has fanboys, either. Maybe fangentlemen.

But for me, admitting that you have no idea who The Bad Plus are is like admitting that you have never heard of Doctor Who. And with very similar consequences, because I will immediately do everything in my power to save you from the abyss of deprivation that surrounds you. And I will do this because I am a fangirl.

Fangirling gets a bad rap. Urban Dictionary defines fangirl/fanboy as having a “compulsive dedication” and gives an example of a fan who can only talk about their fandom. Fangirldom is associated with youth and immaturity, hence fangirl, not fanwoman (and, I must point out, that “fangirl” is a newer term then “fanboy,” which left women out completely when it was coined). Fandom is not something adults do. Fandom isn’t a real appreciation for something, but a blind following of something, usually related to comics or sci-fi or gaming. Being a fangirl, in other words, makes me a less legitimate fan, and that is due, in part, to the associations of “girlishness” with “fan.”

Although I can understand where some of these concerns are coming from, I have to admit that I think  the pejorative connotations associated with fangirls and fanboys are a load of smeg. For me, fandom is about enthusiasm, passion, and, on more than one occasion, feminism. I like the term “fangirl” because I like being a fan, and many of the things I am a fan of have not always been female friendly. I like how “fangirl,” as a term, is a reminder that women can be fans (and even participants! Gasp!) in popular culture.  Jazz, for example, is notoriously male. I once asked a tenor saxophonist (whom I had seen play locally several times) to name his favorite musicians. He sized me up, taking particular note of my femaleness, and said, “Well, you’ve probably never heard of him, but I really like a guy named Sonny Rollins.”

In jazz, this is rather like saying “You’ve probably never heard of him, but I like a guy named Paul McCartney.” While I certainly won’t claim to be an expert on jazz (I have a PhD in books), I  know who Sonny Rollins is. In fact, I know who Vi Burnside is, and I think her tenor sax mastery is delicious and frenetic. And the reason I know who Vi Burnside is because I’m a woman, and I woke up one morning tired of male tenor sax players who thought I didn’t know anything, and I sought out women in jazz. And I wrote about them.

In other words, I  know who Vi Burnside is because I’m a fangirl.

After all, this is what fangirls do. I get giddy over music, just like I get giddy over books. The reason I have a PhD in English is really just because I’m a fangirl of hundreds of writers. I get giddy over great films and television and comics, too. Listening to a great band or reading a great book is like dissolving into the sun. It’s the best way of being set on fire. And being a fangirl is about fanning those flames. Removing the enthusiasm, the passions, the respect, the learning, the sharing from fandom leaves us as plain old girls and boys. Fans are, after all, fanatics. We need more fans, more people that are so excited and passionate about books and music and films that they can’t shut up. That they babble. And squee. And transcend.

And we need fangirls in particular because more women need to be involved in music and books and art; we need more women involved in writing and composing and painting. So much of the canon of great art, great books, great music, great film is male. And that’s the canon we need to join. Not the offshoot canons, not the women’s lit. and the women’s music, but the primary, main canon of GREAT works. Women need to be there, visibly, speaking and writing and painting and playing. Shakespeare courses, Shakespeare studies, the great canon of literature–this was all made by fanboys, because really, is there a Shakespeare scholar that isn’t a fan of Shakespeare? We need to own our fandoms, and women particularly need to own our fangirldom, because Canonical Greatness? It isn’t just for white men anymore.

I want to see the same kinds of fangirldom that is generally associated with sci-fi and comics and gaming within the Canons of Great Works. For me, there is no difference in my fandom for Doctor Who and my fandom for The Bad Plus. I love the devotion and exuberance of the Doctor Who fandom, the Buffy fandom, Whedon fandom, Arrow fandom, Nerf Herder fandom, TMBG fandom, and I bring that to my jazz fandom. I am, at heart, a geek. I geek out. I freak out. I squee with delight. And I am female. White, straight, and fairly cis-gendered. And I belong here, in the Canon, among jazz and classical and rock and geek rock. I belong here with all the other genders and colors and orientations and ways of being. And so do you.

So if you’ve never heard of The Bad Plus, I will remedy that for you here. Go give them a listen.

And squee.

Me and The Bad Plus. SQUEE!!
Me and The Bad Plus. SQUEE!!

Lists, Maps, Narratives: The Top 11 All-Time Influential Albums of My Entire Life

Every so often on Facebook, a tagging Top 10 cycle begins. From listing the 12th word on the 12th sentence on the 12th page of a book that you are currently reading, to a listing of top 10 albums, books, or artists, these tagging cycles are fascinating to me (and I always get new things to read or listen to). I don’t know how many times that I’ve been tagged in a post and then created my Top 10 albums or books. Most recently, I was tagged in a Top 11 All-Time Influential Albums of My Entire Life. I’m including the list below:

At the tagging behest of Julian Cook, here are the 11 most influential albums of my entire life. In no particular order:

They Might Be Giants: Flood

XTC: Oranges and Lemons

Peter, Paul, and Mary: The Best of Peter, Paul, and Mary

Cyndi Lauper: She’s So Unusual

Propagandhi: How to Clean Everything

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground

Sarah Vaughan: Live at Mister Kelly’s

Nick Drake: Way to Blue

Camper Van Beethoven: Key Lime Pie

Boris: Noise

The Cure: Disintegration

Bonus extra: Avail: Dixie

I took the prompt literally, and although I didn’t write this list in any particular order, I’m going to elaborate on it in chronological order. Because there is most definitely a chronological order.

Peter, Paul, and Mary were my childhood obsession, and my first favorite. I carried their Best Of tape everywhere I went. I listened to it everywhere I could. I drove my parents crazy by playing that tape over and over and over again. It was my introduction to music, to melody, and to storytelling through song. I can still sing most songs on that album. Dragons, racehorses, lemon trees, and jet planes continue to have vivid connotations for me. While Tchaikovsky and Joan Baez were also childhood favorites, Peter, Paul, and Mary were the first.

Then I discovered Cyndi Lauper. Holy shit. Cyndi Lauper and Boy George were my heroes in elementary school. I cannot stress enough how much I adored these people who did what they wanted because it was artistic. Because it was beautiful. They embraced being different, they flaunted their own sense of style. I loved it. I was already a geekling, what with reading The Hobbit in fifth grade. And Cyndi Lauper made it clear that you should embrace who you are, that girls were really cool, and that fun was far better than True Womanhood. And I believed her.

Eighth grade brought XTC and They Might Be Giants. Prior to this, sixth and seventh grades had also brought New Kids on the Block, who I adored throughout the first part of middle school. I wouldn’t call this influential, however,  as much as tweenal. I’m not sure how girls now deal with growing up, but fetishsizing a boy band (or girl band) is not a bad way to deal with the sudden onset of puberty. After the initial slump into becoming a teenager, my ears reasserted themselves, but with the profound new knowledge that sex was very much linked to music. I listened to the radio avidly, but found myself drawn to bands that seemed to get less, if any, rotation. People made me tapes. Along with XTC and TMBG, I was introduced to Depeche Mode and Morrissey and REM. I wish I could list all of them as most influential. But XTC showed me a new way of looking at the world and finding meaning in it, and TMBG became my favorite band for similar reasons–and have stayed my favorite band for the last 24 years (for more on TMBG, read the intro to Geek Rock and my chapter “They Might Be Lacanian: They Might Be Giants, Jacques Lacan, and the Rhetoric of Geek Rock”).

High school. 9th/10th grade. The Cure and Camper Van Beethoven. More tapes from more people. Again, storytelling through song redefined, rebellion embraced, sonic impact re-assessed. 11th/12th grade: The Velvet Underground and Propagandhi (and Avail fits here as well). The discovery of punk was the culmination of much musical searching, the expression of my anger at society, my thwarted idealism, my discontent. It was a revelation, hence the juxtaposition with VU, who define revelation. There were weeks when all I would listen to was Propagandhi and VU. And other weeks when all I would listen to was CVB and The Cure. I went to local shows (here’s my nod to Avail, but also Inquisition (now Strike Anywhere), Uphilll Down, Four Walls Falling, Action Patrol, and Fun Size, to name a few) at least every weekend. Music was life.

And music was survival. My high school years were particularly messy because my home life was particularly messy. Not to get too into that here, but music, represented by these four bands (and my local scene), gave me hope, anger, optimism, and faith. And I really needed it.

In college, I discovered Nick Drake. Way to Blue was sitting unobtrusively in a CD rack at a record store called Plan 9, and I bought it. This album was the place where all that hope and anger and optimism and faith was leading. This was a different world, a Narnia of music. I jumped into the wardrobe.

About a year or so after I graduated from college, I discovered jazz, which was yet another door that I didn’t just walk through, I swam through (because, as ee cummings taught me, “a poet is a penguin, his wings are to swim with”). I summarized my discovery of jazz with Sarah Vaughan’s Live at Mister Kelly’s because it reminds me of scotch, summer nights, and listening to music with my entire consciousness.

And most recently Boris, whose music is an out of body experience. After seeing Boris live on their tour for Noise, I felt my perception of sound shift ever so slightly, my perception of possible, my perception of perception. The sonic shift is, for me, also a visceral shift, a paradigm shift, into new modes of being and sensing. All of these albums, in some way, shifted me, my world, my selfhood.

The element that all of these albums have in common is that they are all lyres. Robertson Davies wrote that “the lyre of Orpheus opened the door to the underworld of feeling.” For me, music is a door. Music is growth. Music takes me places beyond myself and teaches me who I am.

And that is why I love these top 10, top 11, top 15 lists on Facebook, because who am I is always changing, and each list I make is a different retrospective map of the path I took to become. Today, I look back from where I am, and see these 12 places I have been that have made me. Tomorrow, or next week, or next month, I’ll remember different moments, memories, albums, and those will be the ones that I list, that I use to map my selfness. It’s the act of mapping that is important, the tallying and creating, the shifting of lines and charts, of writing each list out. With each list, each map, we create a narrative of becoming, of being, of defining. We create a moment of who we are in this moment.

And then we move on to the next.

Not That Scruffy Looking: Nerf Herder

At Dragon*Con, I saw Nerf Herder play. Twice, in fact: a half hour acoustic set in the afternoon, and then an hour long set later than night. And I learned that I have been terribly remiss in exploring their oeuvre.

You see, I’d heard Nerf Herder before I knew they played the Buffy theme song (if you were not aware, yes, that’s Nerf Herder. And now that you know, go back and watch Season 7 again, because in the episode “Empty Places,” that’s Nerf Herder playing “Rock City News” at the Bronze. It’s funny, because Dawn says, “I think this band might actually be one of the signs [of the apocalypse].” Nerf Herder is, of course, literally one of the signs of the apocalypse in the Buffyverse, as their music heralds each episode. Fittingly, they are the last band we see play at the Bronze.). I had an ex who got into Nerf Herder with the release of How to Meet Girls in 2000, and he played that album, along with their eponymous 1996 release, quite a bit. I liked them. But shortly thereafter, the ex became ex, and that was that.

But sometimes bands follow you around until you pay attention (that would be a great music video.). I say “follow” because when I first saw Buffy (I need to point out here that I was late to Buffy, and started with Season 1 sometime while Season 4 was airing), I thought “Oh cool! Nerf Herder!” and my impression of the show immediately rose (which was good, because Season 1). I listened to Nerf Herder quite a bit, just the one song, over and over and over as I fell into Whedon fandom watching Buffy. And then, in Season 7, I added a snippet from another song to my Nerf Herder a la Buffy repertoire. Time passed. I still liked them. I re-watched Buffy. I wrote in Buffy Studies. I became a member of the WSA (that’s Whedon Studies Association. It’s awesome. They publish an online journal called Slayage and have a conference every two years.). I published a chapter in a book called Reading Joss Whedon. And I still didn’t explore Nerf Herder.

So when I discovered that Nerf Herder was playing at Dragon*Con, I went. And now, I keep asking myself, for the love of God, why didn’t I explore Nerf Herder? These guys are BRILLIANT. Not even remotely half-witted, nor scruffy looking, Nerf Herder is the most under-rated geek rock band that has ever geeked or rocked. American Cheese, their 2002 release, is playing rather obsessively on my Spotify (sorry guys, I’ll buy everything, too, I promise! I needed immediate gratification). Genius happens on this album. Several times. Nerf Herder (1996) and How to Meet Girls (2000) are the solid pop punk albums that I remember, and as soon as I can stop playing these I’ll move on to Nerf Herder IV (2008), My E.P. (2001) and High Voltage Christmas Rock (2002) (which I’ll clearly be saving until December). Plus, I’m looking forward to the new album they’re working on, that you can pre-order right here (yeah, I did that already).

So, I’m left with two questions from this long-deferred exploration: Why now? And what is it about Nerf Herder that makes them so great? I’ll start with the second one. Nerf Herder is a pop punk geek rock band. And they do pop punk well. Very, very well. Solid, tight, short songs. Guitar that drives and bass that bounces and drums that carry and vocals that pull it all together. The best of pop punk is a bag of Skittles: bright, infectious morsels. You can’t ignore a bag of Skittles. You can’t resist a bag of Skittles. And you can’t resist Nerf Herder. Even more alluring is their overt geekery, playing in Star Trek t-shirts and singing about Spock. Nerf Herder’s geek pop punk is like Skittles for breakfast: a little subversive, and exactly what you want in the depths of your heart.

Which brings me to the first question, secondly: Why now? I have a theory. (And no, I don’t think it’s bunnies). Music finds us when we need it to. Right now, Nerf Herder is my perfect sonic expression. All I want is Nerf Herder, Boris, and Melt Banana on repeat. I want sweetness and depth and melodic chaos. I can regret not exploring Nerf Herder sooner while at the same time being grateful to explore them now. I always liked them. I always liked Skittles. But I guess that now, the difference is that I want to eat Skittles for breakfast.

And possibly lunch and dinner as well.