“keep on knocking” – death (2009)

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This year marks a whole decade since the release of …For the Whole World to See by Death, a protopunk band out of Detroit made up of African American musicians.  The album blew me away the first time I heard it.  It was the most exciting thing I had heard in a long time.  Everything about Death was just so fascinating.  From the band’s own journey to the story of the album’s delay and eventual release, it was so mindboggling how such an amazing band never got their due for the longest time. Though the actual anniversary of the album’s release was two months ago, I had some other things going on and knew I would get to it soon.  I knew I would eventually cover it.

I had first heard of Death and their album while working for a National Public Radio affiliate in Bowling Green, KY.  I did board operations every Wednesday and Saturday night, and I would hear shows like various news and arts show during that time.  I cannot remember what show was playing at the time, but it was this environment where I first heard of Death.  It was during a feature on this program that they covered the story behind Death and played cuts from the album.

So, why is their story so important?  These were three black guys from Detroit (Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan) who started off as a funk band, but changed to rock after seeing The Who perform.  They eventually developed a harder edge and performed music that was a precursor to punk.  In 1975, they started working on their first studio album.  However, Columbia Records didn’t like the name of their band and requested they change it.  The members of Death wouldn’t do it and that is when their studio sessions ended.  The album would eventually be released, with only seven of the original twelve songs planned, in 2009 to critical praise and providing a document to a missing piece of Detroit’s music history.

I was stunned when I first hear Death, and I was shocked that I was hearing about it from NPR.  Before being hired to do board operations, I had never listened to NPR.  At that time, most of my personal life was dedicated to college radio and everything that revolves around a culture of kids on ego trips trying to force their music on everyone else.

I told everyone at my college radio station about Death, but not one seemed to care.  First, if I heard it on NPR, then it must’ve not been cool at all. Second, our station was going through a transition.  The station had been run in a way that many felt was stagnant and didn’t reflect a “progressive sound” culture that we championed.  At that time, the station’s direction reflected the taste and preferences of the student who was hired to be the station manager that year.  The decrease in the station’s quality was even noticed by the university newspaper who ran an article noting the criticisms the station was facing.

As much as the station manager tried to course correct after the article was published, it was the second semester already.  The manager was on his way out since he was graduating that spring, and the younger staff were eager to get new leadership and get back on target towards providing the community with a truly progressive alternative to commercial radio.

I was in my junior year and applied to be the station manager for my senior year.  I knew our station’s vision was off track and I developed plans to get everything back in alignment.  However, I was unable to do carry out my plans.  Due to internal station politics, I was declined for the position.  Plus, I was talking about music I was hearing on NPR and that was just decidedly uncool.  So, Death didn’t make it on the college radio station airwaves when …For the Whole World to See was released in 2009.  My plans to feature interesting music with interesting stories was scrapped and the station adopted the late-aughts hipster sound that was popular with the younger members.  Out with the old, in with the new. I didn’t do much with the station during my senior year.

However, Death did just fine on their own after …For the Whole World to See was released.  A few years after I moved to Chicago, I saw the documentary A Band Called Death at the Music Box Theatre and it was cool to see this incredible band get the attention they deserved after all these years.

The first song I had heard on that NPR feature was the album’s opening track “Keep on Knocking.”  The track open with these guitar power chords and then goes into high gear with pure punk passion.  Raw and angsty, but still tight and controlled, Death comes across as a cohesive entity right out of the gate.  Truly impressive.

If Death was allowed to finish the record, who knows what other great music they could make.  And their story is one of many where a talented, creative band is denied a chance to shine because of some stuff suit in an office.  Gatekeepers, whether they are a record executive or students in a college radio station, can often be blinded by their own interests and prejudices.  It is a lesson everyone needs to learn, one where we consider things outside of ourselves and expose yourself to something new and raw even if unproven.  You just might be surprised.

 

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“communication” – the power station (1985)

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I have been feeling rather introspective lately about a lot of aspects in my life.  I’m sure I’ll cover each of those in the coming weeks but, for this blog entry, I wanted to share some recent insights I have gained about the widening divisions within our society.  Namely, the perpetuation of an Us versus Them culture.

Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, and subsequently was elected president the following year, it seems that the divisions between people, no matter how small, are exaggerated and exacerbated to the point that we cannot communicate with eachother, recede within our own biases and likeminded groups, and react in ways that can foster extremism.  Basically, a sense of tribalism.

While now it seems like this communication breakdown is so prevalent in 2019, I had been feeling some inkling of dissatisfaction with public discourse for a while now.  Coincidentally, right around the time social media became an increasingly pervasive factor in all our lives.

Facebook was still rather exclusive when I started college in 2006, only allowing college students at the time, but it soon evolved to include everyone thus making it easy to collect and monetize data.  My use of social media is so much different now than how I used it then.  Throughout my collegiate years, it was commonplace to argue and debate with people writing whole dissertations that would get ignored.  All of it felt supremely unnatural and ineffective to me.  I couldn’t eloquently at the time explain why, but those kind of exchanges just felt empty.

Now, it is very rare that I’ll respond to a heated thread with an opinion.  It isn’t that I’m afraid of the reaction, but I do consider what could be misinterpreted or lost in translation, whether intentionally or not, and I just decide that it isn’t worth my time.  I no longer view social media as a soapbox as I had used It in college.  Now, it is a means for me to share with family and friends vacation photos, see how they are doing, and post book reviews.  All of this was a conscious decision to shape how I used various social media platforms as a member of the first generation to come of age with social media as a communal space.

The criticism to that viewpoint is that, as a white cisgender heterosexual male, I do not recognize the equalizing power that social media platforms offer.  To the more marginalized members of our society, it is said that social media has given a voice to the voiceless.  And with that, a sense of justice and a fair shot of contributing to and redirecting social dialogue.  It is one of the reasons why proponents of social media, oftentimes people who generate income through their interaction with it, say that social media offers more good than it does bad.  That everything can be utilized in both positive and negative ways.

All of that is true, in theory.  Social media is still a relatively new phenomenon and we have yet to understand the long-term impacts social media has on our society.  Though, that isn’t to say we have not seen immediate effects.  Ones that we are just now becoming aware of and taking time to truly understand.

During President Obama’s second term, I began to understand exactly the issue I had with social media.  I was reading articles about people who made off color or racist remarks and then would be publicly shamed online.  I don’t disagree with someone facing consequences for hate speech, but social media allowed even innocuous, or misunderstood comments, to be blown up resulting in these people’s lives being ruined.  I had read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and he explained that social media was creating “virtual stockades,” environments where people could be shamed in ways unseen by civilization since actual stockades.  This seemed wrong to me to punish people for comments, while maybe inappropriate, that didn’t actually qualify as hate speech or directly communicated a call to action for violence.  I was trying to understand this changing landscape of activism and free speech and my questioning, or even criticism, of overreactions were deemed by my fellow liberals as me being an apologist for racists.

As Donald Trump was gaining momentum during the campaign, I would even get lambasted by my fellow liberals for engaging the situation that was more nuanced than just spewing vitriolic bile online or in crowds.  I remember telling a friend in December 2015 that the only way to defeat Trump was to ignore him.  I was told I was being complicit.  Complicit about what?  I don’t know.  However, the attitude at the time reflected this liberal bubble mindset that “if we cover everything he says and put it all over the news and social media, people will see how awful Trump is.”  That did not happen and since Trump’s election, media executives like Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves have said publicly that covering Trump meant more ratings and money.  And that’s when I realized the issue I had with social media.  I realized social media was a business that commoditized our outrage and profited off the proliferation of identity politics.

As part of my journey to understand why Donald Trump won the presidency, I had to understand how every side contributed.  I did not feel analyses blaming white people or racists or Russians were satisfactory at explaining his victory.  I began to think about how democrats and the left, my groups, contributed.  This led me to the realization that the left suffers from the narcissism of small differences, the idea that likeminded individuals are more likely to engage in feuds of minutiae. I found all of this so frustrating.  I kept thinking that since we are all on the same side, we should be more unified.  Instead, there were moments I received vitriolic feedback for have an opinion that was generally in the same ballpark, but still didn’t exactly align with the militancy that has been driving social activism.

I’ve been reading two books lately that have really opened my eyes on this subject.  Irshad Manji, a Muslim lesbian, wrote a book called Don’t Label Me, an analysis on how labels are weaponized in ways that dehumanize us and further the divide between Us and Them. She tackles modern social justice philosophies concerning privilege, power dynamics, multiculturism, and cultural appropriation and exposes the flaws inherent in each of those to showcase how people become isolated and gravitate towards extremes; places they can go and be reaffirmed for their beliefs by people who won’t berate and belittle them.

In the book, Manji is quite tough on leftist social activists for commoditizing marginalized people and using them as props to fulfill specific goals. She also stresses that people are more than their perceived labels, that we are plurals with unique backstories that defy the expectations or stereotypes of our labels.  I’m sure my fellow liberals have heard, or even conveyed, that people who voted for Trump are racists.  I have never believed that, though sometimes I found myself wavering when pressured or when Trump said something that really boiled my blood.  Yes, there are some truly vile people in his camp.  However, I have challenged this by telling people that all Trump voters are not bad.  The usual response is that they are complicit with Trump’s actions, or that I am.

Manji’s point is that in order to change hearts and minds, you must listen with the intent to understand as opposed with the intent to win.  As a result, you build a personal connection and are taken more seriously.  This potentially allows them to think on their own values and work on compromise that enforces a more unified outcome.  Telling someone they are wrong and stupid is only going to make them retreat which can develop into extremism.

The other book I have been reading is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown.  The concept of emergent strategy comes from Octavia Butler, an African-American science fiction writer, and essentially means that large systemic changes can be made through simple interactions.  By developing personal relationships and, as Manji stated, listening with the intent to understand, we can bridge the gap between Us and Them.  It all boils down to building relationships with people with different views in order to achieve a mutually beneficial result.  We gain nothing from isolating people when we assume so much of them based on labels that restrict them and their individuality.

I am vocal about this because I do not Trump to win again in 2020.  And, the way I understand things as they are now, the left is doubling down on failed practices from 2016.  In essence, many of the left are acting exactly like Trump.  Trump claims he is a victim and mobilizes his base to attack the other.  The left, a lot of the times, victimizes themselves and acts in a way that is not proactive in achieving actual results.  In essence, we have look inward to facilitate change if we expect change within our problematic systems.  We cannot ask to be heard if we are not willing to hear.  Achieving honest diversity is about communication and dialogue.

The third single from the Power Station’s debut album, “Communication” is a fun pop rock song from 1985 about, obviously, the need to communicate.  In the song, Robert Palmer is asking someone to stay in touch though things are crazy hectic, and we are all on the move.  He’s urging this person to keep their lines open and exchanges facts through contact, but he just cannot get through.

I know it is a bit of a stretch to connect this song with the main thesis of this blog, but it adds to my point.  Remember when I was talking social media? Our interactions with people online are commoditized, and it shapes how we behave in the offline world. We’re being programmed to not have honest dialogue, but instead focus on whatever is quick and easy to consume because we’re always on the move looking for the next thing, the next click. We have to slow down and put emphasis on listening to each other and not become subjects to corporate mechanisms that generate revenue from our conflicts and anxiety.  Reach out.  I am here.  I will listen.

“shove this jay-oh-bee” – canibus feat. biz markie (1999)

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I’ve been at my current job for about four years.  It is administrative assistant position within a corporate tech environment. It is a fairly laid-back environment, surrounded by introverted engineers and statisticians, and allows me to have a work-life balance which had been unavailable to me before at my previous jobs.  So, that’s nice.  However, I’ve been unhappy with it for a long time.  It is a rather simple job with low responsibility, but presents little opportunity for someone like me with my background to grow and advance.  I’m far too ambitious for that and I know I can accomplish a lot more.  So, for a while now, I’ve been casually looking for another job while pursuing freelancing opportunities in the evenings and weekends that can potentially allow me to advance my career.  It is slow, and a total grind, but that is the nature of the game.

There are times where I am able to practice mindfulness regarding the grind and find some comfort that I’m healthy, gainfully employed, and that all the energy I’m putting into finding another job advances my career will pay off.  However, it can be hard sometimes to maintain that mindfulness.  It becomes too easy to focus on the negatives and become dismayed by the lack of progress I am making.  And this causes me to feel stuck, and uncertain about my future.  I know something will change for better or for worse, but not knowing when and in what form can be hard.  I begin to question my ability and my worth, which makes me feel somewhat hopeless.  This is not a healthy mindset, but I’m trying to avoid it.

Lately, I’ve been feeling more pressure from this grind because my company is going through massive changes.  Every team is reorganizing and moving resources or people to other parts of the company.  This also potentially means layoffs.  Everyone in the company is on edge because of lack of certainty about their jobs, and my team is no different.  People are concerned and worried, two feelings that can negatively impact an office environment.

It also doesn’t help that, among the team, my boss, the director of the team, seems to be the most frustrated and is expressing that accordingly.  He was hired in January, with these major company changes announced three weeks later.  So, I understand why he is frustrated.  The job became something completely different than what he applied for, plus he is at the center of planning for all these changes.  I just wish he carried it better because his interactions with me have caused me to feel increased anxiety.

So, I’ve felt some pressure to change jobs.  Either I’ll be laid off, or I won’t be.  And if I’m not, I’ll be continuing the same job with no growth.  The plus side is that I’ll still be gainfully employed, though I still feel unfulfilled and need a change.

I apply to jobs directly.  Though, I face challenges in the process. Competition is tough, my background is unique and not concrete, and very few opportunities make sense to take because they would result is very significant pay decreases (not ideal for someone who is financially dependent on themselves).

Where I’ve needed some help, I have contacted recruiters and I hate working with recruiters. I have had very few positive experiences with recruiters.  I find most of the ones I’ve worked with to be aggressive and uncaring.  I have specific needs for a job regarding pay and location, and I find that I’m still pushed to take the shitty opportunities that come by their desk.  And when I express something I’m interested in and qualified enough to do, I’m mainly brushed aside and told generically “this client is looking for someone with more experience.”  Nothing makes me feel more like a cog in the capitalist machine than working with recruiters.  And I get worried that if I am laid off, then they’ll really be aggressive with me about taking the shitty opportunities just so they can fill it with a warm body and get their commission.  All because I absolutely need to get a paycheck.

There has only been one job a recruiter has sent my way that I have been excited about pursuing.  It was an admin role, something I don’t want to do anymore, but it was with a very reputable foundation where there was a lot of opportunity for growth and the most amazing benefits package I’ve ever seen.  I had never worked harder on an interview in my life before.  I did so much research, developed concrete examples to illustrate my experience, deeply believed in their mission and found ways to convey that, put together my smartest looking attire, and consulted with friends working in other foundations.

I went into the interview and absolutely nailed it.  It was the greatest interview I had ever done.  My recruiter was even contacted a few hours later by the hiring manager expressing that I was an amazing candidate.  I was flying high and absolutely confident I had the job.

I waited a week before the answer.  All the while, I was at work and really enjoying the thought that I could be leaving soon. I was also mindful that is was possible I still didn’t get the jobs, but I was confident about my performance and overly excited about leaving the sinking ship that is my job.

I did not get the job.  My recruiter had asked for feedback from my interview because I don’t have direct access to their clients.  Since I didn’t get the job, the feedback would help me improve for my next interview.  Or so I thought.  The foundation said I was an amazing candidate who did an excellent job interviewing and they had no critical feedback.  The decision came down to me and someone else, and they went with that other person due to whatever internal metric I’ll never know.

I was disappointed.  It was Friday afternoon when I got the news.  Then, I went to the gym and then got dinner with a friend before the movie.  I thought coming back to the office would be hard, but it was fine.  I’m disappointed, but I’m still driven.  I’ll persevere.  A change will come and it will come when it needs to.  I know that I’ll still feel down sometimes, but that is fine because it is part of the process.  I hope I don’t get laid off, and I hope I can get a new job I like soon.  I just gotta keep grinding away and being patient, living in the now and not allow my job to distract me from the good things in my life.

Office Space is Mike Judge’s cult comedy classic from 1999 about a group of people who are fed up with their jobs at a software company.  The satire is effective and on point, accurately depicting the inane mundaneness of the corporate environment.  The soundtrack is also pretty legit.  While some songs from the film are more iconic because of the scene (i.e. the use of Scarface’s “Still” when the main characters break a printer with a baseball bat), I’m really partial to the film opening with “Shove This Jay-Oh-Bee” by Canibus and featuring Biz Markie.  Containing portions of “Take This Job and Shove It” by Johnny Paycheck, “Show This Jay-Oh-Bee” features Canibus singing about what it is like to face the grind until you reach the point where you just cannot take it anymore.  Then it becomes a glorious celebration of the freedom one feels when they shed the shackles of their capitalist oppressors.  I won’t be quitting anytime soon, but I think about it so much.  Until then, I can watch Office Space and just dream.

“30 century man” – the jigsaw seen (2002)

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Futurama celebrated its 20th anniversary last week.  As one of the smartest, funniest, and most well-written series, and not just within animation ever produced, Matt Groening’s follow-up to The SImpsons had a major impact on my life as well as many others.  The episodes could vary in tone, often transitioning from absurdism to heartfelt stories, but they all had heart and made you emotionally invested in the characters and their world.  Futurama is an example on how to elevate animation, at once considered just for children, on the same level as dramatic programs that are considered high television art.

For those not in the know about Futurama, it follows the misadventures of a delivery boy name Phillip Fry, often joined by his close friend Bender the robot and his girlfriend Leela, a one-eyed mutant.  On New Years Eve in 1999, Fry’s girlfriend leaves him for a richer, more handsome guy and he is left to continue his lame pizza delivery job alone as the world celebrated the coming of the new millennium.  When Fry delivers a pizza to a cryogenic lab called in by a prankster, he accidentally finds himself frozen for a thousand years.  On New Years Eve in 2999, Fry adjusts to this new world filled with robots, aliens, and all kinds of crazy stuff.  Eventually, he is hired a very distant nephew, the elderly scientist Dr. Farnsworth, and the series then progresses chronicling Fry’s adventures in future and struggles that come with leaving everything you once knew behind.

Despite being a stellar program, Futurama did not receive adequate support from the executives at Fox.  Initially, the show ran at 8:30 PM on Sunday after The Simpsons.  The show would then shift in the programming block before ultimately residing at 7 PM where it was often delayed because of football games.  This led to an erratic schedule that impacted viewership.  Fox never officially cancelled the show, but ceased production of it prior to the 2003 fall primetime schedule.

In 2008, four straight-to-DVD films were released.  Eventually, the films were edited into four episodes each, resulting in a 16-episode fifth season for the show’s later syndication.  These DVDs were designed to continue the story of Futurama as it navigated the changing television landscape, at a time when streaming media was in its infancy but would soon disrupt traditional television viewership.

However, there was also an unintended result of the success of these DVDs.  It proved that Futurama still had a fanbase that could translate into profitable viewership.  And, in 2009, Comedy Central picked the series up.  From 2010 through 2010, Comedy Central produced and aired the sixth and, ultimately final, seventh season of the series as well as syndicated episodes from the days when Fox owned it.

Comedy Central would ultimately cancel the show and with enough time to create an official series ending, after three previous false series finales.  However, the series ended with the possibility that it could return in the future.  And since the airing of that final episode in 2013, Futurama has existed in other forms including comic books, video games, and even a podcast serial.  However, none of those match the tone, humor, and personal appeal of the television series.

There is so much to love about Futurama.  Its brilliance comes from its heart, emotion, and relatability.  Even though this a bizarre world set a thousand years in the future, the audience sees themselves in the stories alongside the characters.  Very few shows have allowed me to experience a whole range of emotions.  I laughed, and I have cried.  And to allow you to feel a range of complex feelings and leave you feeling better as a result, that is something so precious and difficult to achieve.

One of the cooler aspects of Futurama is the show’s use of music.  It is a really smart, pop culture savvy show.  Often, famous songs are parodied to reflect a particular situation, or even a musician will guest star and perform something new for the show.  However, some of the best moments come from using existing songs to drive the narrative of a particular scene.

Scott Walker passed away a few weeks ago. A brilliant singer-songwriter, Walker’s “30th Century Man” was covered by The Jigsaw Seen for “Bender’s Big Score,” the first of the four DVDs released after Fox ceased production of the show.  The plot involves aliens stealing precious artifacts in Earth’s past and ultimately results in a somewhat chaotic and hectic time-travelling story.  While Walker’s original is far superior, it is the cover from The Jigsaw Seen’s 2002 studio album Songs Mama Used to Sing that made it in the episode and heightened the emotional heft of the story.  Because Fry, though unwittingly, is a 30 century man.

I don’t watch much television, but I feel compelled to pick up Futurama again this year and really take my time with the series.  Catch the entire series a little bit here and there.  I know I’ll be just as amazed as I was when I saw it the first time 20 years ago.