13 06 2010

This Web site has moved! For everything that was once here, and everything that would have been here in the future, please visit



8 07 2009

As I transition to the fancy-ass BlueHost server, Upside Down Again is indefinitely under construction. I think this will probably take like a week or so.

sex sux

13 06 2009

When I started working as a teacher in the Recovery School District in the fall, there were a lot of things I wasn’t really prepared to see. Fights breaking out in the hallway, for instance, and graffiti on the walls of the hallway scrawling out prison release dates for assorted used-to-be students. And then, on my second day of teaching, I saw for the first time in my life a pregnant girl wearing a high school uniform.

At the time, predictably, I looked her as a symbol of tough times in a tough city; more of a visual phenomenon than a human being, with her stomach resembling a taut beach ball, and her definitive waddle in place of the usual sassy high school stride. “Wow, this must be a REALLY rough school,” I thought; but I didn’t think much more about it.

Fast forward three months. Round bellies had become a lot more commonplace among the female student body at my high school. “Summer accidents,” they were called under hushed voices, and sometimes out loud; testaments to the consequences of a long and boring season off. One day, the woman who came in once a week to help the mothers-to-be in the Family Center called all the names of the pregnant students over the loudspeaker. I counted the names as they came: 29. If there were 300 students in total at this high school, and 150 of those were female, that meant almost 20% of all the girls who went to my school were knocked up. In other words, statistically, one out of every five female students I’d teach that year would be pregnant.

We must ask, of course, if there is a possibility that these young women are INTENDING to get pregnant. According to a nationwide study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute in 2006, 86% of all teen pregnancies are unintended; so these girls probably didn’t jump for joy when the stick turned blue. That leads me to believe that these young women (and the young men who charm themselves into their lives) — who are not by any means, I promise you, inherently stupid — are woefully and embarrassingly uninformed about what happens when people have sex.

As NPR put it in an article way back in 2004,

The debate over whether to have sex education in American schools is over. A new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government finds that only 7 percent of Americans say sex education should not be taught in schools.

The article goes on to assert that there are only “pockets of controversy” surrounding what kind of sex education should be taught. In some states — Vermont, for instance, — students can expect to begin learning about sex in the fourth grade, and will continue learning about it until they graduate from high school, with a working knowledge of dozens of contraceptive methods and their success rates. In other states, though — Louisiana is one of many examples — not only is sexual education not required to be taught in public school, it may only be taught in a federally funded A-H definition of abstinence-only education.

A lot of states take advantage of the highly censored Title V abstinence-only funding, and it’s been going on for a long time (long enough for it to be officially be considered outdated, in my opinion). The federal government first began supporting these programs in 1982, and then stepped it up a notch in 1996, when President Clinton’s welfare reform law included a clause for $50 million a year to be spent on abstinence-only sex ed programs. This was a groundbreaking year for sex ed in America. The law amended Title V of the Social Security Act, and provided an unprecedented amount of money for sexual education (which pleased liberals), and also provided an anal-retentive definition (see above) of what abstinence-only means (which pleased social conservatives).  See? Everybody wins!

Except for public school students. Because the definition of abstinence-only is so conservative and narrow that it doesn’t let teachers do so much as admit that condoms exist, let alone explain how to use them. So now I have students who legitimately believe that they can achieve the same effect with a scrap of a Winn-Dixie bag wrapped around their penis as they would with a Trojan.

Since 1996, the funding provided for abstinence-only sexual education has swelled enormously. It is rarely re-examined. And as teen pregnancy rates among America’s low income and racial minority populations continues to grow, so do federally funded sex ed programs which teach them only a fraction of what they need to know.

To ask how this federal funding impacts the teen pregnancy rate in America at large is a complicated question. Of the states with the top five highest teen pregnancy rates (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Mississippi, and Texas), only Nevada requires that students at public school receive sex ed. Three of the five states receive Title V funding, and not a single state requires students to learn about safe sex or contraceptives.

On the other hand, of the states with the bottom five teen pregnancy rates (Maine, North Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Vermont) all but North Dakota requires sexual education in the classroom. Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire have extensively comprehensive sex ed programs, which combine the benefits of abstinence with various contraceptive methods. New Hampshire and North Dakota do, however, accept Title V funding.

So the bottom line is pretty clear here: States which require that students receive sexual education have a lower rate of teen pregnancy than states with no requirement. Shocker.

Now let’s take a leap from state statistics to statistics by race and ethnicity. According to the same study done by the Guttmacher Institute, the pregnancy rate among nonwhite American teens is more than twice the pregnancy rate among white American teens. And that particular statistic has remained unwavering since 1986. Now, Biology will tell us that in no way, shape, or form are nonwhite teenage girls more fertile than their white peers; however, Sociology will tell us that white Americans generally receive a better education than nonwhite Americans. It is not a far stretch to assume that white Americans are more likely to receive comprehensive sex ed than nonwhite Americans. I believe that this is the root cause of the education gap in America today.

Yes, that was a big leap. So let me tell you about Raqueisha.

Raqueisha (not her real name) was a favorite student of mine. I know, I know: You’re not supposed to have favorites; but Raqueisha was really, really on top of everything. She always had her work done on time. She always did the extra credit. She aced all her Biology exams. She raised her hand. She made everyone laugh. She stayed after school. She was just one of those kids who gives you hope for the future, and that was that.

Raqueisha had been accepted to Xavier University of Louisiana — a prestigious historically Black Catholic school in New Orleans — and she was going to go in the fall. I remember thinking, “She’s getting out of this horrible cycle too many young New Orleanians fall into. She’s going places. She’s going to make it.” And of course, you know how the story ends.

Raqueisha told me she was pregnant two weeks before graduation. My jaw dropped. “Can’t you get an abortion?” I blurted out at her, completely unprofessionally, in a desperate attempt to go back. She started to cry — of course not. She would never do that. God gave her this baby for a reason, so college was just going to have to wait. I was speechless; aghast. I let her walk out of the room without offering so much as a word of moral support.

Later, Raqueisha left a poem she had written about the whole experience on my desk. An excerpt:

She don’t know what to do

She thinks her life is completely through

She never thought this day would come

So soon.

Now she wishes her problem was a balloon

Where it can go away and don’t come back

Just float to the moon

Something clicked for me with Raqueisha. Here was someone who could have truly made it on her own and achieved the kind of success she had always dreamed of. But now she’s going to have to raise a kid, and she has no idea how to do it. She doesn’t even know how to take care of herself.

I started thinking about the young mothers I met with all year about their problematic sons — hardworking women never older than 35 pulling multiple shifts at dead-end jobs to make ends meet. Single mother cliches, to put it bluntly. But what if they had had another five years before they had their first child? Or another ten? Is it possible they would have had the experience, humility and fundamental human tools necessary to give their children just a little bit more?

If we look at a school system which is failing the most at-risk youth in the country, we must examine all the components of the system. Yes, we must hold teachers and administrators accountable. Yes, we must raise the bar and hold students to the highest standards possible as well. So too, we must pay attention to the parental roles in the lives of our students. Too often, at-risk students are coming from families where their initial conception was not a welcome surprise to their parents. Becoming pregnant should be a choice.

I am not saying that my students’ parents do not love their children. They do. They love their children unconditionally, and they have made sacrifices for them that I would have otherwise considered unimaginable. But we live in a world in which all human beings should be able to live the lives they dream of living; should be able to reach the private goals they set for themselves. If our young people were more aware of the consequences of unprotected sex, they would finally be given that chance.

behind the music

10 03 2009

Brace yourself, because I’m about to bitch about hip-hop again.

I know, I know. I do this way too often. It’s time to just get over it an accept that hip-hop is FUN and people like to DANCE TO IT and can we JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THE POLITICS ALREADY?

But no. We can’t.

Tonight what got me thinking about hip-hop and the deleterious plunge it has recently taken was this: I was driving in my car, feeling a little subdued, and I decided that what I really needed in that moment was to turn on B97 — the “All The Hits” station of New Orleans. B97 was going to put me in a good mood, because all the hits are (with the notable exception of everything created by Nickelback and bands which are essentially also Nickelback [Daughtry, Creed, Good Charlotte, what have you]) feel-good-don’t-think-about-it kinds of songs. And I was lucky, because I tuned right into the Hot 8 at 8 — a veritable smorgasbord of the catchiest, feel-goodiest songs of the moment. And, indeed, it made me feel pretty good. For a while.

But then the ridiculousness started to set in. I mean, are these songs supposed to be satirical? Because they are SO BAD LYRICALLY that I can’t imagine there isn’t something in them that is meant to be self-depricating. I used to have this theory about LFO that the song “Summer Girls” was actually a brilliant satire on the meaninglessness of ubiquitous boy band ballads of the day. I hope I was right because otherwise that song is unacceptably nonsensical. And maybe that’s the point of the latest from the Great Music Makers of our time. Three particularly:

  1. GS Boyz – Stanky Legg / Sample Lyric: “When I hit da dance floor You know I’m doin’ da stanky leg! Sauce on my ring and then ya rub it across ya head!  You a ace boon coon chick, you can do it too; Snap ya fingers in the air and shake yo micros too!”/ This is probably the least disturbing of the bunch, because I think that it’s in the vein of “the dance song.” Soulja Boy and Sugar Hill Gang (“Jump On It”) had similar success with dance songs. So I get the point here. But THE STANKY LEG? Really? Why is that a dance? That does NOT need to be a dance. And the rap is dumbed down to the point of being hilarious. I have never heard anyone tell me to “do the [insert dance move here]” more times in my ENTIRE LIFE. Fail.
  2. Soulja Boy – Kiss Me Thru The Phone / Sample Lyric: “Baby, I know that you like me; You my future wifey; you could be my Bonnie; I could be your Clyde; You could be my wife; Text me, call me, I need you in my life.” Did anyone else just BARF ALL OVER THEIR COMPUTER? Is this supposed to be funny? Nothing about this is funny. “Like me” doesn’t even rhyme with “wifey.” That is only one of the levels on which this song is insulting to the intelligence of any self-respecting human being. I guess it’s a little bit funny. All together, if this song is meant to be a joke, it’s a little bit funny. If it’s not meant to be a joke, it signifies the deevolution of American thought.
  3. Asher Roth – I Love College / Sample Lyric: “I wanna go to college for the rest of my life; Sip Bankers Club and drink Miller Lite; On thirsty Thursday and Tuesday night ice; And I can get pizza a dollar a slice; So fill up my cup; Let’s get fucked up.” So this is the song that really pushed it over the edge for me. You need to listen to it, because the full effect doesn’t come across in writing. It’s Eminem-meets-Weezy-meets-Everlast (unusual, I know, but go with it)-style hip-hop, and it’s really fucking catchy and sometimes it’s kind of funny, even if it goes against everything you believe in. But in the end, I thought to myself, “this is disturbing. I hope this is supposed to be satire.”

Even if it IS supposed to be satire, it’s going out to an audience that is so immersed in satire that they don’t realize what satire means. And as much as I love catchy hip-hop music (I LOVE catchy hip-hop music), I wonder where the Public Enemy and Cause I initially fell in love with when I fell in love with hip-hop are. I always had a sense that that music was still out there, and still popular somewhere, and still making waves among some subset of people — but lately I wonder. At the very least, the group of people who arguably matter the most — the young people of America — are taking in the B97 version of hip-hop and they’re idolizing hustlers and dealers and gangsters because of it.

There, I said it.

I know how conservative that statement is coming off, and I recognize how narrow-minded and censorshippy it could be interpreted. But hear me out.

This is an actual conversation I had with two students today. I was sitting at my desk listening to The-Dream (damn good hip-hop, in the catchiest sense of the description) when M walks up to me and says…

M: You listenin’ to The-Dream, Ms. Johnson?

Me: Yep.

M: You have some fine taste in hip-hop. Don’t she, D? She be listenin’ to all ’em playas.

D: Yeah Ms. Johnson be sweatin’ on T.I., ya heard me?

Me: Yep, I’m definitely sweatin’ on T.I.

D: Ms. Johnson, you know that son is a straight-down hustla.

M: All ’em up in there is. Straight hustlas, all of ’em.

Me: What do you mean?

M: You know Juvy [in case you missed the New Orleanian reference, this is the name we give to the not-so-juvenile-anymore Juvenile]? He from the 3rd Ward.

D: Yeah Juvy be up in the Magnolia projects where my daddy got shot.

M: Yeah, and you know Soulja Slim be from 3rd Ward too. And Wayne he from the 17th; he from Hollygrove.

D: Yeah, but Wayne fake though.

M: What you mean?

D: You know Wayne ain’t never shot nobody. He smoke weed but don’t be hustlin’. He got all his money rappin’. He ain’t no real shit.

M: Oh, son.

Me: Is that a bad thing?

D: (confused and incensed) IS WHAT A BAD THING?

Me: Is it a bad thing that he isn’t a hustler? Don’t we want less hustlers?

D: Oh no. I’m gon’ be a hustla.

M: Me too.

D: I can’t wait ’til I turn 18; I’m going to buy me a gun and I be gettin’ started.

M: Me too, I start hustlin’ soon as I get the start-up.

Me: Why?


M: Man, that’s what ALL the rappers be doin’. That’s the only thing to be doin’, Ms. Johnson. That’s how Fiddy got shot 9 times you know. That’s all there is.

D: And besides Ms. J, there ain’t no work for no n*****’s out here. Ain’t nothin’ else you can do.

I could go on with this. I won’t. The points to get across here are, I hope, crystal clear:

  1. There is apparently no path for an African American student who grew up in the projects besides selling drugs.
  2. That’s okay, because rappers sell drugs.
  3. Rappers are AWESOME.

It’s amazing how much the culture surrounding the rap lifestyle influences my students. They worship these tattooed, gold-toothed, sometimes-cartoonish men like they are god. Wayne is by far the most all-encompassing of the pack, because he really made it. And for his part, Wayne has said some (small) things and recorded some (small) things and reached out in a few ways to the people of New Orleans that other have not.

David Ramsey wrote a beautiful piece for the New Orleans issue of the Oxford American on the importance of Lil’ Wayne in his Recovery School District elementary school. He puts Wayne quotes throughout to attempt to investigate what about Weezy speaks so deeply to the young people of the Big Easy. He writes,

On one of his best songs, the super-catchy “I Feel Like Dying,” Lil Wayne barely exists. He always sounds high, but on this song he sounds as though he has already passed out.

A lot of the alarmism about pop music sending the wrong message to impressionable youth seems mostly overwrought to me, but I’ll cop to feeling taken aback at ten-year-olds singing, “Only once the drugs are done, do I feel like dying, I feel like dying.”

First time I heard a fifth grader singing this in falsetto, I said: “What did you say?”

He said: “Mr. Ramsey, you know you be listening to that song. Why you tripping?”

My students always ask me why I’m tripping at precisely the moments when the answer seems incredibly obvious to me.

I know the sentiment. But there’s something here — and Mr. Ramsey’s amazing article points it out more eloquently than I could possibly hope to — in students’ love for this music. Something about hip-hop is reaching kids — at least, kids in New Orleans — on a more acute level than anything else. A lot of that, I think, has to do with these rappers growing up in rough neighborhoods and sharing these kinds of experiences and going on to say “Fuck you” to the rest of the world by being unabashedly successful and rapping about sex and drugs and fast cars and driving in fast cars with women while on drugs as if no one is going to tell them what to do.

And hey, young people are going to listen to that. Because when I told D, “But you could grow up to go to college and be a rich and famous doctor,” he gave me a look that was a cross between “Oh, that’s sweet, the white girl is trying to help” and “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

I’m impressed with some of what’s out there. I’m impressed when Wayne interviews: he loves his city and he’s faithful to his people and he refuses to wallow in their tragedy but he also refuses to ignore it completely. I’m impressed with the infectious “Dead and Gone,” which may rhyme a little too much for my personal taste, but which addresses a lot of the Big Issues in a very dark and real way. But it’s all too little and too far between.

I kind of know how pretentious I’m coming off. And I have to hand it to the B97 All Stars: those songs definitely succeed at crossing race lines, class lines, age lines, gender lines. I mean, who wasn’t listening to “Whatever You Like?” last year? Am I right or am I right?

Still, I push towards the potential of this genre of music to become something it once was: a forum and soapbox for times which are still bad, for conditions which are still unacceptable, and for racial realities which are still inhuman.

And for God’s sake: Tell my students to go to college so they can GET A FUCKING EDUCATION. They don’t have to spend $40,000 a year to get wasted and fuck women. They can do that in high school.

Top 10 Books of 2008

4 01 2009

This was a big year for me. I baked my first Shrinky Dink, had my first SnoBall, made my first vegan cashew cheese, AND graduated from college with a Bachelor’s in English. That last one makes me feel pretty smug. Really, though, having a fresh new Bachelor’s in English means just two things: 1. I like to read; and 2. I have spent four years reading exclusively “classics” and “literature” and books which come with eight or more Cambridge or Norton or Otherwise Companions.

So with my graduation came a veritable deluge of reading-for-fun, which was a little like a doughnut-pizza-Doritos binge after ten years of following a vegan diet (I actually know what that feels like, too, so maybe my next list should be “Top 10 Most Indulgent Foods To Eat If You Have Been a Vegan For A Decade And Are Taking A Day Off”). It’s been all guilty pleasure lit., too: graphic novels, short stories, poetry, McSweeney’s releases, etc. I usually picked up tips from The New York Review of Books or the round-up section of The Week, so all my reads were, for the first time in my life, brand-spanking-new publications. And so, also for the first time in my life, I feel qualified to write a Top 10 Books list.

A brief note: There are no non-fiction works on this list. That’s not for lack of good publications this year (Michael Pollan wrote another stunner, and Barton Gellman’s portrait of Dick Chaney in the form of Angler is impossible to put down), but for the simple fact that I tend to read non-fiction books with a decidedly liberal slant, and I have difficulty deciding whether I like them because they’re brilliant or because they brilliantly propagandize. So instead of really thinking that through, I omitted nonfiction from my list (almost) completely (see Number 6).

All the titles link to an Amazon.com page where you can buy the books. And you absolutely should. Reading for fun is the most wonderful getaway in the world. Even if it does make you appear slightly anti-social.

10. Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball: This book follows the popular scrapbook style of novel-writing that appeals to the twentysomething New York writing set. The idea in this emerging genre is that you’re supposed to figure out the “plot” of the book about three quarters of the way through, after navigating yourself through all kinds of literary flotsam and jetsam, like you’re reading some kind of modern epistolary-fiction-poetry-hybrid genre. But “Dear Everybody” succeeds because Kimball doesn’t take too long, and leaves enticing clues throughout his work that push you to read emphatically. This book is not a particularly rewarding read (the end is sad and doesn’t live up to the rest of the novel), but it’s the most addictive one I read all year. And yes, I did read “Twilight.”

9. The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich: This is a complicated, full, and imperfect book, and it is not Erdrich’s best work, but it’s one of the most stunning pieces to emerge from 2008. The story spans three generations, and unravels a century-old mystery, which plays itself out through rich and diverse characters on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in the late sixties. Eve, the main character, is believably introspective and tough; beautifully obsessed with stories. The novel plays out a gorgeous if unsurprising symmetry, and leaves you feeling like you’ve gone on a journey — a quality I search for while reading.

8. The Umbrella Academy: Volume I by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba: It wasn’t the best year for graphic novels. Although I read every “Scott Pilgrim” volume this year, 2008 lacked a new release. “Y: The Last Man” had a new volume, but I was unimpressed. So maybe it’s sad that the lead singer of My Chemical Romance is an author who actually made my year-end list. But this book was fun and refreshing — it reminded me of “Cassanova Quinn” and at times “Fables.” The premise — that 47 babies were spontaneously born with magical gifts that would help them to one day save the world — seems to be borrowed from Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” but the art and occasionally-breathtaking wit saves the book from being boring or redundant. Honestly, I think Way missed his calling by ever joining a band. He is obviously graphic novelist material, and I’m sold.

7. Free-Range Chickens by Simon Rich: This collection of short stories and vignettes by former Harvard Lampoon editor Simon Rich is simultaneously delightful and frustrating. They’re short but somehow perfect; honest and funny for their youthfulness and simplicity. I bought this book and read it on one sitting — on the bus, no less (yes, it’s that short). I then promptly mailed it to my improv actor and sometimes-playwright best friend with a note that said something like, “Can you believe this guy makes thousands of dollars writing shit like this? You could have easily written this!” But that’s what’s so intoxicating about Rich’s work (and his debut novel from last year, “Ant Farm,” is no exception): he makes you feel like you’re in on his jokes; like he’s your best friend and he wrote the book just for you and your unique sense of humor. I guess that’s how you get a job writing for The New Yorker and Saturday Night Live.

6. State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: You have to give these guys credit: “State by State” was a really, really good idea. Weiland and Wilsey corralled a bunch of up-and-coming and full-fledged-famous writers and asked them to each write a piece on a United State. Indie Rennaissance man and Chicago native Dave Eggars penned a vignette for Illinois, the hilarious “Hey-Aren’t-You-The-PC-Guy-In-The-Mac-Commercials?” humor writer John Hodgmen crafted an unconventional piece for Massachussetts, and of course they got Jonathan Franzen to write for New York. But most exciting here are new writers who have fresh, understated voices and new things to say like Jacki Byden and Daphne Beal. And the portrait painted here is almost as diverse and interesting as the country which inspired it.

5. 2666 by Roberto Belano: Not putting this book on a year-end list of books would be like putting together a Best Albums of 2008 list without including TV on the Radio or Deerhunter. It’s an all-out masterpiece. It’s erratic and frustrating and makes you feel sometimes like you’re reading “Ulysses,” sometimes like you’re reading Proust, and always like you’re reading something so good and bound-to-be-classic that will be on college reading lists in a matter of semesters. Before you dive into this uncategorizable book (arguably centering around a horrific series of unsolved murders in Mexico), you should know this: It’s long. It’s almost 1000 pages. And some have argued that it’s not finished, as Belano died in 2003 before this book would ever see the light of the press room. But all of that brings out the brilliance of the diamonds in its rough, with breathtaking pictures of death which may defy anything that has come before them.

4. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: I want to be Sloane Crosley. She’s written a book that all post-collegiate female writers vainly wish they could write — a book of short memoirs which SHOULD be masturbatory and uninteresting by nature of the genre, but is instead completely funny, compelling and readable. Crosley tickles in a David Sedaris vein, but with her dry wit and unapologetic familial anecdotes comes a humanness and strength which really drives the series. She’s unflinching in ways we’ve all seen before, but her uniqueness comes from an honesty in her writing which is deeper than a mere desire to entertain.

3. Vacation by Deb Olin UnFerth: A triumph in the new-school hodgepodge genre of fiction described above, “Vacation” is a delightfully raw mystery which unravels quietly and neatly, and resolves itself with heartbreaking finality. The characters in this novel are quirkier than ought to be believable, and yet you sympathize with them and share their longings and impulses. The landscapes are sculpted from parts of the world we know must exist, but they still feel dreamlike and atmospheric. And there’s something comical in it too, although you can’t put your finger on it, as if the unending tragedy of life is inherently funny — if only because it is inevitable and humor makes it all less terrifying.

2. In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld: I can’t recommend this book to everyone. It’s not a trendy book. It’s lovingly crafted around the field notebooks of eccentric birders, and builds familiar but distant relationships between husband and wife, mother and daughter, humans and nature. In the end, the triumph here is the intricate details woven between the field notebooks and the underlying implications about human relationships, understated with themes of family, love, and death. I recommend it to those who were disappointed by Mary Oliver’s latest book, or to anyone who finds herself happiest reading essays by Emerson.

1. Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly: When I picked this graphic novel up at Excalibur, I wasn’t really expecting all that much. I find many releases by Oni press hit-or-miss, but this looked beautiful and new, so I gave it a look. I was so pleasantly surprised by its understatedness; its return to the simplicity and artistic intricacy of the indie graphic novels I first fell in love with. It’s the story of a girl, Megan, who sets out from Portland to explore the country (and, presumably, find herself). She’s a good character for a graphic novel like this — a misfit, but decidedly likable and adaptable; adorably flawed and desperately searching. The series (because “Local” is, at its heart,  a series) is well-researched (I think the back of the book describes it as being “painstakingly” researched), with stories which gently rub up against their landscapes in American cities created with scientific accuracy. And I must say: the art is breathtaking. Really. It really is a must-read for the graphic novel connissuer, or anyone who is feeling a little lost in life.

Top 10 Albums of 2008

28 12 2008

After a WHOLE YEAR of deliberation, I bring you my decisive Top Ten Albums of 2008. I think. Maybe I shouldn’t be so decisive, because I’ve revised this about 15,000 times in the last two weeks. Let me just say this: It was a GOOD year for music. Things started to get really interesting in my two current favorite genres of music: hip-hop and Swedish pop.

Two notes:

1. Spin had a really interesting article (I know, I know: I shouldn’t admit that I read Spin. But I do. I read Spin and I love reading Spin. So whatever, I’m embracing it, let’s move on) about the current state of hip-hop in a world where buying a sample can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — on in other words, the entire budget of most (even many mainstream) hip-hop albums. So as a result, hip-hop takes less from its hey-day of adeptly mixing samples and rapping over them, and has evolved into a more “street” version of pop music. The result, I think, is really interesting, and I’m crazy about it: Ne-Yo, Beyonce, Ludicris, Jennifer Hudson and T-Pain all released great records this year, none of which fit the customary hip-hop model. On the flip-side, sample-happy Greg Gillis also put out another fucking awesome record this year, in the form of pay-what-you-will, so-infectious-its-masturbatory “Feed The Animals,” which alternately reinvents the genre. But none of those records made my list.

2. I think I might be a lesbian. I have such a freaking hard-on for female vocalists that it’s out of control. And I know it’s not really healthy and that I don’t really look at albums objectively because when a chick is singing I just like it infinitely better. I give you this caveat because my list is composed of 50 percent female vocalists, but the year-end list in my HEART would probably be more like 90 percent. So honorable mentions to Santogold’s self-titled (I listened to this on repeat for months while making bird collages), Kid Sister’s in-fucking-credible “Dream Date,” Love Is All’s “A Hundred Things Keep Me Up At Night” (for the Swedish angsty teenager inside of me), Estelle’s “Shine” (shameless Britpop), and Hello Saferide’s imperfectly beautiful “More Modern Short Stories From…” Cheers, ladies.


10. Kanye West – “808’s and Heartbreak”: Deeply wonderful for everything it is. I have been listening to this exclusively for the last few weeks… it’s the perfect break-up album (well, no. Kelly Clarkson’s Great Hits is the perfect break-up album. But this is the perfect break-up album for people who have pride). It’s weirdly upbeat and catchy; it’s meticulous and experimental and it works. Better than “Graduation,” which topped my list last year. I love that Kanye has eschewed this idea that he needs street cred in favor of the reality that he is the best fucking producer out there.

MP3: Kanye West – Paranoid

9. Ladyhawke – “Ladyhawke”: My friend Kim and I used to make these amazing dance mixes to dance to for an entire hour on Friday nights. The music — mostly Blondie, CSS, and Ladytron — was good enough that we didn’t need company or to be drunk; we just danced our brains out. If this album had existed when we used to do that, we wouldn’t have to make mixes; we could just dance to this all the way through. Every single track is fucking hit.

Mp3: Ladyhawke – Paris Is Burning

8. She & Him – “Volume 1”: It is not fair to the world that I love Zoey Deschanel as much as I do, because I know that my love for her and her little drippy outfits and her big deer eyes skews my judgement on her musical ability. Still, listening to this album makes me feel like it’s summer and I’m in high school and I’m reading Virginia Woolf for the first time and eating slow-churned ice cream. The cover of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” is hypnotic, and a handful of the other ballads are impossibly heart-breaking in all the right ways. I listened to this too much last year for it to not make my list.

MP3: She & Him – Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?

7. T.I. – “Paper Trail”: I am ready to say it: “Whatever You Like” is my favorite track of 2008. I just couldn’t overplay it. I drove around SEARCHING for it on the radio. If it came on just as I was pulling up to my house, I would sit in front of my house until it ended. Now, really, this is just a song about a glorified hooker. And to me, that makes it all the more endearing. Add to that the productive feat that is “Swagga Like Us,” the underrated “On Top of The World,” and the this-song-is-stuck-in-my-head-FOREVER song of the year that is “Live Ya Life,” and you have an album that competes pretty seriously with “Tha Carter III” for album with the most awesome and awesomely overplayed singles of the year.

MP3: T.I. – “Whatever You Like”

6. Los Campesinos! – “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”: It must be cool to be as prolific as Los Campesinos!. I was still spinning “Hold On Now, Youngsters” (which came out in February) when I was literally blown away by the British band’s November effort. It’s raw and bratty and upbeat but totally depressing at the same time. The haste with which this album was released translates into a beautiful, messy urgency, fueling many late-night painting sessions and cigarettes out on the roof. Also, there is a glockenspiel in this band. And it is played BEAUTIFULLY.

MP3: Los Campesinos! – Miserabilia

5. Why? – “Alopecia”: In many ways, “Alopecia” is a perfect album. The only thing is, Why? has this tendency to make perfect albums, so the surprise element is lacking here. See, I didn’t sit down and listen to this album and think, “HOLY SHIT! This album is FUCKING TIGHT!” I sat down and listened to it and thought, “Surprise, surprise: Why?’s latest is fucking tight.” It’s a lyrical masterpiece (as usual), it’s eclectic as ever, it transitions flawlessly between my I-hate-being-single lonely car rides and my I-am-so-happy-to-be-alive morning runs. More than anything, this album is always going to remind me of the happiest time of life — last spring in Walla Walla, perched on the end and the beginning of everything. The first half of the album stands out to me as everything a record could possibly hope to be. I just don’t understand why Why? lacks the kind of international fanaticism it ultimately deserves.

MP3: Why? – These Few Presidents

4. Lykke Li – Youth Novels: This is one of those records that is more like a painting to me than a collection of songs. I prefer to listen to it all the way through, maybe while on the plane or driving to Baton Rouge in my car. It has the ebb and flow of a meticulously-crafted mix CD, setting you up to feel AWESOME and then ten seconds later fall apart in a fit of tears. Gorgeous reinterpretations of jazz and synth and pop… it’s really just a fucking masterpiece. When I first heard this I thought to myself, “This could lend itself to some BOMB-ASS remixes.” Lo and behold…

MP3: Lykke Li – Dance Dance Dance

3. TV on the Radio – Dear Science: Here is the truth about me and TV on the Radio: I don’t really like TV on the Radio. Or rather, I didn’t used to much care for them. It was one of those things where I respected the band (err, I respected people who loved the band), but like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, I’d just put on their records when someone really hip was over in order to earn some cool points. And then “Dear Science” came out and I didn’t listen to it. I read good review after good review and I didn’t listen to it and I didn’t listen to it. Until finally, on a total whim, I bought it from a record store in New Orleans that wasn’t selling anything else I particularly wanted to listen to. I put it in my DiscMan (yes, I still have a DiscMan) AND MY HEAD EXPLODED. I have no idea what kind of deal TV on the Radio had to make with devil in order to create a record that catered to every possible musical impulse a human being might have, but THANK GOD THEY DID. The best surprise on the album is “Family Tree” — the most perfect rainy day song ever written. “Stork & Owl” is likewise beautiful and sad, while “Halfway Home” can only be described as a fusion of awesome and awesomer.

MP3: TV on the Radio – Crying

2. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – We Brave Bee Stings and All: I picked up a copy of this haphazardly at the recommendation of Andrew Hall (a musical guru of sorts), and was instantly in love. I excommunicated every music crush I was currently juggling and gave all my heart to Thao Ngyuen, the talented frontwoman of this deeply underrated group. My favorite track on the album is the little-played “Travel” (I actually made a thrown-together YouTube project around it), for its perfect simplicity and succinctness. But the whole thing is wonderful, fun, and leagues ahead of Thao’s (also underrated) solo effort from x years ago.

MP3: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down – Bag of Hammers

1. Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter III: For me, it’s personal. I am personally pretty in debt to Lil’ Wayne. He has earned me a lot of points with my New Orleans students, who love him the way I loved the Spice Girls in the 7th grade. Only they love him MORE. They have him tattooed on their bodies. And it’s every single student — male, female, uptown, downtown, fat, thin, whatever. And they can all sing every single song from this album. I have played this more times than probably any other single record in my personal history. For me, none of it has ever lost its luster. What I really realized about this record when I moved to New Orleans was how perfectly it reflects the Dirty Coast culture. It’s very real. Really breathes new life into a record that could have gone stale in August.

MP3: Lil’ Wayne – Mr. Carter

race race

22 11 2008

A national poll taken last week showed that 69 percent of Americans believe that race relations will improve with Obama in office. And I don’t blame this majority for their optimism: after all, didn’t you see all those people — black and white alike — crying their eyes out in Grant Park on November 4th? Didn’t you read all those heartening quotes from the little old ladies who never thought they would see the day? At last, the Constitution has been ratified, more than a century after the fact. At last, we are learning the true meaning of equal rights.

I’m among those pessimistic liberals who sees Obama’s election as symbolic more than anything else. This is an unpopular camp to be in these days, at least in my circle. My friends, students, and family members alike have told me to give the man a chance. He really might be the change we can believe in. Well, I’m certainly glad about the victory — elated, even. And I don’t think there’s anything all that WRONG with electing a symbol. He’s qualified, he’s articulate, he evokes the kind of hero-worship celebrity that the American people hunger for. And more than anything, I hope he will inspire people. I hope he will drive people to commit acts of sacrifice and goodness that stretch beyond their own lives. In that way, I think he could significantly change the world.

But will Obama improve race relations? That’s an interesting question.

I remember the worry that surrounded certain black activists during the election season. They were scared that if Obama was elected, white people would say, “Well, we’ve done it. We’ve evolved to be a truly colorblind society.” And no one is saying that outright, but you can tell that people are feeling it. People are letting their guard down a little bit.

It’s not just white people. My (all African-American) students have been spending the last three weeks saying, “I don’t have to do what you say anymore; I’ve got a black man as my president.” They don’t get it. They don’t understand that the racism in the education system is about the fact that they are often 20 years old and for some reason cannot read on a first grade level. Is Obama’s presidency magically going to fix that? Of course not.

And it’s interesting. We hear all these stories about grown black men moved to tears over the election, and they make us feel good, we understand them, they give us hope. But we seem to pass over the deep red items that seem like they should have come from a newspaper in the early 1900s: The second graders on a school bus in Boise, Idaho who were heard chanting “Assassinate Obama” over and over again; or the African-American church in Massachusetts that was burned down hours after Obama’s election.

In fact, worldwide, race-based threats and incidents have skyrocketed since the United States’ 44th president was announced. As reported in an article in the Times of London U.K.:

The phenomenon appears to be at its most intense in the Southern states, where opposition to Obama is at its highest and where reports of hate crimes were emerging even before the election. Incidents involving adults, college students and even schoolchildren have dampened the early post-election glow of racial progress and harmony, with some African American residents reporting an atmosphere of fear and inter-community tension.

But for me, the most frustrating story I’ve read was in the Times Picayune. It was nothing all that sensational or outwardly terrible. There are always going to be the ratty, nasty few who burn churches or hit people with bats; luckily, they are everywhere within the minority. I mean, the people who reported the story about the children chanting “Assassinate Obama” voted for McCain. Generally, we can tell right from wrong.

But in St. Tammany Parish, a small, mostly-white parish outside New Orleans (76 percent of the population here voted for McCain, and 13 percent of the demographic is African-American), frustrated teachers banned student from talking about the election. As the story reports:

In some cases, students said they were threatened with punishment if they talked about the election.

“She said that if we did talk about (the election) she’d write us up,” 14 year-old Briana Seals, who is black, said of a teacher at Slidell Junior High School.

In Covington, parent Dominique Elzy, who is black, said she complained to the principal at E.E. Lyon Elementary School after her 7-year-old son told her that he was made to stand along the playground wall after he shouted, “Obama won!” during recess.

I know it’s a small thing. But this is the kind of small thing that bothers me the most. Public school should be a place where students begin to understand the world around them. The students at my school should start to understand what it is that a president does, and the students in St. Tammany should be allowed to talk freely about what is going on in the world. I don’t care if discussions like these might make some people upset. That’s what this country is all about, after all: we talk about our differences, we discuss our options, we give each other the freedom to believe what we believe.

Places in this country that are stubbornly conservative have stayed stubbornly conservative, despite the overwhelming shift to the left sparked by this election. I think we ought to be wary of celebrating too soon. It is desperately important that we continue discussions on race, class, politics, what is going on in the world. This country is still so young, and it is going to take a long time to get to reach some kind of nationwide understanding as to what it all means.

I was pleased to hear Cornel West on Democracy Now last week talking on this issue in particular. On a the new presidential elect he had this to say:

Barack Obama is a symbol, but we’ve got to move from symbol to substance. We’ve got to move from what he represents in a broad sense—and it’s a beautiful thing to have a black man in the White House, we know that, and black slaves and laborers and other white immigrants built the White House. …But can we revitalize democratic possibilities on the ground with Barack in the White House? I think we can. We can put some serious pressure on him, and we can actually continue the democratic awakening among working people and poor people and push Barack in a progressive direction.

Seconded. I am interested in the forward motion of this country. I want the newspaper to make me happy. I want to see our school systems truly integrated, I want to see our laws fairly enforced, I want to see children whose opinions have stretched to outgrow the opinions of their parents. That’s the future of America. That’s what I have faith in.