Friday, October 31, 2014

All Saints Day Thoughts on My Halloween Mix

Seven days ago, I wrote a piece on Halloween records for Cuepoint at All week long, while I waited for it to run, I thought about what's wrong with it (of course), but more importantly, I found myself thinking about what more there was to say. In many cases, these things are interrelated.

One tactical thing that's wrong with the piece is that I set Halloween records up in opposition to Christmas records, as if either were taken very seriously in our culture. Novelty records (holiday records of any kind) define one pole of our pop culture, which, on the whole, is not taken seriously even by many of its fans. The two are interrelated, the Christmas ghost story being a very old tradition (Dickens' A Christmas Carol only the most famous example).

More generally, what's wrong with the piece and what's right about it reflect who I am. I'm all unmoored intuition (until I'm not). I speak in contradictions. If I can at once point out that rap and metal are the most gothic of genres and then find only one example from either genre I want to put in my Halloween mix, well, that says something about how I regard the gothic differently than others. My Halloween aesthetic has to do with a certain kind of fear and thrill that involves brushing up against the unknown. While I love rap and metal as genres, most of the more gothic pieces are simply too strong to capture a kind of quiet, primal fear I'm after.

(Similarly, I could have used a bunch of murder ballads, but I instead went for more overt examples of the country music ghost story.)

What I'm find myself thinking about most is why I made the mix I made. I built the article around a playlist, and I made it the way we used to make mixtapes--sitting immersed in all of this music and going from the gut.

So I wound up with interesting demographics that were more accidental than thought out--

On a 20 record mix, I have 5 records from the 50s, 5 records from the early 60s, 1 record from the 70s, 3 records from the 80s, 1 from the 90s and 5 from the past decade, and that was by design, half being what "I" think of as older records....before my time. 15 of the records are from a time before the experience of millenials, and I suppose that impulse comes from the same place my preference for old horror movies comes from--ghost stories are all the more ghostly when they speak from another time. The experience is, in and of itself, interacting with another world.

More important, most of the older music is doowop, and I do speculate about that in the piece. It is also interesting, though, how (well into the fifties) the roles of black characters in fright films was typically racist comic relief, and on these records, black's buddy up to Frakenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, zombies and various other kinds of undead. On the Duponts' great "Screamin' Ball" there's a prototype for the Bootsy Collins' vocal, prefiguring where funk might take all of this a short time in the future.

Finally, I think what's most interesting is how much of this haunting occurs in the presence of deindustrialization and economic collapse. This is true of the Thatcher-era British records, of course, but it's also true of the Los Angeles punk bands after almost a full decade of decline of Southern California manufacturing. Cleveland rappers' Bone Thugs N Harmony's track is two decades into the Rust Belt's economic decline, and shows it with the angriest, most offensive piece to make the mix. The Low Anthem's record is actually recorded in an abandoned Rhode Island factory. Al Spx and Ariana Gillis may be harder to pin down on this issue, but that makes them the only two exceptions, and Gillis confronts the economy pretty directly with both the opening cut and the closing cut of the same 2010 album. Janelle Monae grew up in perhaps the most economically devastated (and crack ravaged) neighborhood in Kansas, and Bruce Springsteen's song closes Wrecking Ball, his response to our most recent recession.

I have no doubt there's more to say, but these are some of the things crossing my mind, and, on some level, the reasons behind the reasons are why I think writing is worth it. All caveats aside, I think the Cuepoint piece reads well and looks nice, and I hope others get plenty out of it. I always want to start a conversation, and the conversation isn't ever really just about the specifics--it's about why we need to talk to each other in the first place, where we might go together.

So, if you haven't read this yet, I hope you take a look and see what it says to you. If you want to let me know, it will only help clarify things. Thanks for reading this far, really.

Happy El Dia de los Muertos!

My Halloween piece for Cuepoint--


Steve Pick said...

Fascinating piece, but I think you could have, with very few changes, published it in March and just said it was about the Gothic in pop music. Not that that isn't an interesting subject, as honestly, I'd never really thought about its consistent approach in the way you've done here.

Halloween records just don't get marketed the way Christmas records do - I think the meaning of the holiday has been much more fluid, and probably much more about letting go of inhibitions than it is about being scared. From foregoing the prohibition against sugar gluttony we have as children to the blatant sexuality of so many "adult" costume parties, Halloween is much more about desire than it is about fear. Not that there isn't some sort of crossover there.

I find Christmas music more fascinating because it is almost a genre unto itself (or possibly a pair of them, if you divide sacred and secular, though I like to think of the Santa and Jesus myths as intertwined in some ways). And one of the most fascinating things about Christmas music is the way the same relatively small body of songs get refigured over and over again. Give me a nice fat grant, and I'll write the book that's been germinating in my head for 23 years on that subject.

Danny Alexander said...

Thank you, Steve.

Your point about the Gothic in pop music is very useful to me. I think the definitions we have for concepts such as horror or the gothic or the macabre are problematic; they mean objectively different things to different people. I suspect that has to do with the fact that we are both attracted to and repulsed by the subject matter and different aspects of the subject matter. Those contradictions have to block the Halloween record proper from developing into anything more than a goof of a genre.

But Halloween does have the distinctive quality of being the one time of year we celebrate mystery and fear (even as, yes, many of us unleash our desires, which is certainly a very rock and roll concept worth keeping on the table if I do more with this, or if anyone does). Either way, the holiday serves as a useful hook.

Going forward, I will certainly be more inclined to emphasize the the connections between the two, including the fact that Christmas records have many dark emotions, including a sense of mystery,and of course sadness and fear.

I would love to read your Christmas music book!