My Year in Lists: Volume II
"It's always night, or we wouldn't need light."-Thelonious Monk
"I get tipsy, but never in your life try to diss me, "˜cause I don't battle with rhymes, I battle with guns, knowledge reigns supreme over nearly every one."-KRS-One, "Elementary"
"If I could again be a little girl, then I wouldn't be lonesome, and I wouldn't be hurting, and I wouldn't be crying over a big boy like you."-Tammy Wynette, "If I Were A Little Girl"
There are many things that tie jazz, hip hop, and country together as genres, but I think one of the most important is how imposing they can be. Unlike pop music, which is designed to appeal to the widest possible swath of people, each of these genres is designed for a narrower audience, and each has its attendant barriers to access. For country, its strictly geographic: though at its best, country is relatable to anyone who has ever had their heart broken or had a bit too much to drink, country has also become inextricably tied to the culture of the South, and that means it carries with it a lot of baggage. We can, and will, discuss the implications of the genre's ties to southern culture, but for now, its important to point out that there is a strong cultural bedrock underlying country music, and that it can keep people who do not feel those bonds reticent to engage. For hip hop, the largest barrier to access is a cultural one: most rap is deeply personal, and thus describes a somewhat insular culture from which many hip hop artists arise. This isn't to say that all hip hop comes from an "urban experience," nor that it is or should be restrictive on any racial or socioeconomic grounds, just that the world from which early hip hop artists majorly rose is one with its own cultural signifiers, ideas of success, and even day-to-day experience, and that can make it difficult for someone outside of that world to feel at home with hip hop music. For jazz, I think the problem is just how far it diverges from mainstream music. It has an uphill battle with many people strictly because it is instrumental; it becomes even more problematic when its improvisations, variance in instrumental tendencies, and myriad subgenres and offshoots are taken into account.
All three of these "barriers of access" are, ultimately, bullshit. Yes, country has its ties to southern culture, hip hop to urban culture, and jazz to complex instrumentation, but none of these things should, in and of itself, preclude people from enjoying the genre. I suspect, and hope to confirm over the life of this feature, that the true barrier of access to each genre has more to do with stereotyping than with facts. Country gets written off as "hick music," hip hop as "black music," and jazz as "boring music." None of these is true in a larger sense, or at least is horribly reductive of what the genre has to offer, but these labels (or their rough equivalents) tend to float over the genres. This week, we will look at three albums that relate, in some way, to the "barriers of access" I often hear people reference when discussing their distaste for each genre.
When conversation turns to women in country music, Tammy Wynette is almost assuredly going to be one of the first names mentioned. Widely considered "The First Lady of Country Music," Wynette had 23 #1 songs in the 1960s and 1970s, and along with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton (both of whom we will discuss in a few weeks' time), she defined the role of women in country music. This means that, to a wide swath of people, Wynette is country music, or at least a vital portion of its early development.
Wynette released Stand By Your Man in 1968, at the height of the women's rights movement in the United States, conveying a message that was simultaneously reductive and regressive from a woman who was anything but. Wynette married her first husband a month before she graduated high school, and worked as a waitress, a receptionist, and a barmaid to support him when he continuously found himself without work. She eventually obtained her cosmetology license in 1963"”a license she renewed every year for the rest of her life, in case she ever needed to go back to her day job. She left her husband a month before the birth of their third daughter, in part because he failed to support her dream of becoming a country singer. As she drove away, she once remarked, he told her, "Dream on, Baby." Years later, he appeared as she was signing autographs for her droves of fans and requested one. She signed it, "Dream on, Baby."
By 1967, she had won a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, and was at the beginning of a stretch if Top Ten hits that would run, with only three interruptions, straight through to the end of the 1970's. By any estimation, Wynette was a woman to be admired: strong, smart, and incredibly successful. But Stand By Your Man is a troubling album at best, and a flat out betrayal of much of Wynette's greatest successes at worst.
The album opens with "Stand By Your Man," which Wynette wrote with Billy Sherrill in the studio in supposedly 15 minutes. The song is one of the most iconic songs in the country lexicon, a vocal power house that pays homage to the loyalty of women. Taken by itself, its an endearing testament to the quiet strength of women who stick with their husbands regardless of their flaws, reminding ladies that "after all, he's just a man" which sounds like a tongue in cheek reflection of some decently progressive views. Sure, "Stand By Your Man" is telling women they should never leave their husbands, pretty much no matter what, but it is giving women agency in a way that a lot of country songs of the period did not. It is the woman's choice to stay, and even if it's the wrong one, at least she is making it of her own volition.
What seems fairly harmless, and even possibly satirical on that stellar opening track quickly reveals itself to be a dangerous and ultimately depressing tendency towards infantilization. Stand By Your Man then becomes an album-long transformation of Tammy Wynette from strong, successful woman to doormat. The album becomes a portrayal of an increasingly desperate (and, unfortunately, childish) woman prostrating herself before a man in hopes of keeping his love. What at first plays like the tale of a woman taking a stand quickly becomes the story of a girl in need of a back bone.
The title of "It's My Way" inspires hope that perhaps the track will show some Sinatra-esque bravado and feature Wynette displaying some of the strength and the courage it must have taken her in real life to leave her husband behind. But by the time the first lines are sung, its clear things are going in a much more disconcerting direction. "I live every day for you," Wynette mourns, "and I breathe every breath for you"¦" The song is ostensibly about a woman clarifying that her criticisms are a way of showing love, but it plays like a cowed submissive apologizing for questioning her man. The following track "Forever Yours" basically defeats the purpose of "Stand By Your Man," reducing Wynette to little more than a possession continuing to beg for the devotion of her lover.
Things just get worse from there. By the back half of the album, Wynette is singing from the perspective of children repeatedly, begging for fathers and father figures to come back into her life. "Cry Cry Again" is about a woman comforting her crying child after her father leaves, a theme which in and of itself isn't troubling. What becomes problematic is the persistent implication that Wynette is using the metaphorical children to voice her own desires. Even if she is in fact speaking only of the wounds absent fathers can inflict on their children (a perfectly valid subject for songs, and one that crops up throughout music, including over in hip hop), the album continues to hit the same note again and again as it nears its end. "Joey," "If I Were a Little Girl," and "Don't Make Me Go Back to School" are all essentially the same song, only slightly reworked.
Wynette is a legend of country music, and listening again to "Stand By Your Man," its not hard to see why. At her best, she's a powerful, charismatic singer with heavy blues influences, a storyteller who can speak from experience about how hard it was to be a woman in the 1960's, especially in the south. And no amount of listens to the slow-moving train wreck of the album that follows can fully remove the power of that opening track, though damn if it doesn't do its best. I don't know enough about Wynette's politics to engage with the way she actually believed, but if nothing else, her five marriages indicate that, ultimately, she was willing to get out of bad situations. However, Stand By Your Man is basically a half-hour long confession where the First Lady of Country and one of the most powerful women in the genre relinquishes all of her power, pride, and agency just for the shot at keeping her guy. If her lyrics, and her life experience, are any indication, he isn't worth it, and it's a shame to see such a strong, talented woman begging for devotion when she should be setting the terms herself.
If Wynette is a giant of country music, she can't hold a candle to the stature of Thelonious Monk within jazz (though, if her album is any indication, she might just blow the candle out and sob until her man took her back). Monk had a heavily improvisational style and is the second most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that Ellington composed over 1,000 songs in his career to Monk's modest 70. Monk is a master of the dissonant harmony, a genius at melodic twists, and a poet with percussion, combining a highly percussive piano playing style with dramatic silences, hesitations, and alterations. In short, Monk is exactly the type of figure we're talking about when we discuss barriers of access to jazz music, a willfully difficult, idiosyncratic personality more interested in creation and experimentation than accessibility. He recorded Brilliant Corners with Sonny Rollins in 1956. It was his third album for the Riverside label, and his first for them to include his own compositions.
The title track is a complex web of melodies, developing themes only to twist and alter them until they sound completely new. It required over a dozen takes in the studio, and is widely considered one of Monk's more difficult pieces. The song is brilliantly propulsive, fascinatingly intricate, and boldly inventive. It's the sort of thing you'd expect from a song daring to call itself "Brilliant Corners," and it doesn't disappoint.
"Pannonica," named after bebop legend and personal friend of Monk's Pannonica de Koenigswarter, is a quieter, more traditional piece. Though it still packs several examples of Monk's tendency to attack his piano in percussive bursts, even those seem slower, quieter, and perhaps even more deliberate than usual. The song quickly settles into a smooth, sax heavy number that wouldn't feel out of place at any dim lounge, becoming a subtly romantic piece that feels traditional by Monk's standards, but no less stellar as a result.
"Bemsha Swing," which Monk co-wrote with Denzil Best, builds its catchy central theme throughout, changing chords in characteristic Monk fashion but never losing its central hook. The song has become a jazz standard, even transcending the genre to be covered by Red Hot Chili Peppers during their 1989-1990 Mother's Milk tour (Flea being a huge fan of Monk's).
Thelonious Monk is nothing short of a visionary, a man who transcended an ultimately tragic existence, and on Brilliant Corners he consistently achieves the loftiness he became known for. At once emblematic of the barriers of access to jazz we discussed and a force powerful enough to burst through them, Thelonious Monk is a titan of the genre and enough to widen the sonic horizons of even the most dedicated jazz traditionalists.
Boogie Down Productions, aka (for our purposes, anyway) KRS-One and Scott La Rock (as well as the only nominally credited Ced-Gee, who was in fact instrumental to the album's sound) released Criminal Minded in 1987, and arguably single-handedly created hardcore rap. The violent content of rap music would only increase in the years following the album until it became representative of a large subgenre of hip hop, becoming a barrier of access in the minds of a generation of parents who feared their children would listen to gangster rap and become mass murderers (spoiler alert: we didn't). The cover features KRS-One and Scott La Rock posing with weapons, an image that symbolized the shifting attitude of hip hop. Rap music was born as a way for kids to goof around, and the largely silly (and pretty awesome) early efforts of acts like The Sugarhill Gang and
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (who are referenced in "South Bronx") were emblematic of this tendency. Boogie Down Productions have several elements in common with these acts, but thematically, they are a huge departure.
Boogie Down Productions weren't the first group to rap about inner-city violence and drug use, but they went grittier than any group before, and greatly expanded the range of topics that could be discussed in the genre in the process. The aforementioned "South Bronx" and "The Bridge is Over" take the dis track to a whole new level, turning something that was formerly mostly about empty bravado and silliness into cutting tracks that can be downright ominous at their darkest moments. Perhaps the most important song in the development of hardcore rap, "9mm Goes Bang" is a shockingly violent song delivered so casually it becomes all the more unsettling as a result. Yes, all of the killings in the song are in self-defense, but compared to LL Cool J's raps about his radio, its clear things have been taken to the next level.
"Word from Our Sponsor" is a throw-back in its opening moments (taking the form of a test of an emergency system for prevention against "suck-MCs"), but it heralds "a new era" in rap, and while this could easily be chalked up to the ego of the genre, it feels more like an accurate declaration of the state of things. The following track "Elementary" alerts us "that stuff's gotta go," and, as the quote that opens this installment points out, ups the ante. KRS-One doesn't battle with rhymes like his predecessors, he battles with guns. Things are getting darker in hip hop, and that's how Boogie Down Productions likes it.
"Remix P is for Free" features an encounter with a crack whore, which sounds shocking by comparison to the rest of hip hop at the time, and fairly common place by today's standards. All of the violent posturing on Criminal Minded heralded the arrival of hardcore rap, but chances are, it would not have propagated if not for the raw talent and rhyming skill on display throughout. Look no further than the album's opening track, "Poetry," or its title track for evidence of KRS-One's pure skill, which carried a dangerous idea to a widening audience and changed the hip hop landscape inexorably.
Tammy Wynette, Thelonious Monk, and Boogie Down Productions have all taken on a legendary status within their genres, though each also indicates some of the problems these genres have at reaching a larger action. Wynette's innate skill is hindered by a political message that will make any progressive shake with anger, delivered so benignly that it becomes terrifying in its subtle insistence on the state of women in the world. Thelonious Monk transcends his purposefully complex instrumentation with sheer talent, turning something dissonant, even occasionally atonal into a beautiful cacophony of sound and invention. And Boogie Down Productions changed the face of rap, using the sheer force of their talent to take the previously frivolous genre into darker, more dangerous territory. Each of these artists symbolizes what is potentially great, and also potentially alienating, about their respective genres. When they can transcend the latter and emphasize the former, what they create smashes through poorly formed stereotypes and can create something that any listener can recognize greatness within.
Next Week on My Year in Lists:
Johnny Cash turns in two live albums and helps to launch Outlaw Country with the seminal classics At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin, Eric B and Rakim are Paid in Full, and we check in with some of the highlights in the career of jazz legend Bix Biederbecke with his Gold Collection.
Read more My Year in Lists here