What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and the Power of Music?

As editor for Left of the Dial magazine, I proudly published a few selections from music historian, journalist, and exquisite fan Denise Sullivan, whose work mixes the vibe of antsy-fingered collectors, insider fan scoops, and old-fashioned thought-burrowing criticism. She pushes readers to think broadly about how music hoists culture on its shoulders, how it becomes accurate antennae for our social consciousness, and how it supplies a common humanity that melts borders, even when it doesn’t try. Over a few email exchanges with her, I probed her previous books, asked about the uncertain future of new media, and wanted to know what music still makes her heart shudder.

Book: Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hop Hop

Author: Denise Sullivan

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Publication date: 2011-07

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/book-keeppushing-cvr.jpgOne thing that struck me in Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hop Hop is the outright sincerity of the performers — the honest belief in the possibility of change. Now that we are deep in the age of irony and cynicism, did you find their perspectives both refreshing and challenging to our own age?

I understand the irony and cynicism of our age, but I do not subscribe to it. I chose the artists I did because I dig where they’re coming from and the positive light they shine; also, they aren’t afraid to speak the truth. They aren’t afraid of anything. My investigation was partly in the name of finding out how these performers keep their courage and faith in change and in their fellows, even in the face of extreme disappointment, obstacles and as you say cynicism. I went in search of their secrets.

How do you keep up courage and faith in both the sense of political process and music as a venue for political discussion and insight?

I’m essentially an optimist. I try to stay open-minded and engaged in my own search for beauty, truth and meaning in life. As I seek, I often gather faith, from people doing good works. Some of those people are artists and musicians, some of them are activists and journalists, some are scholars, philosophers and theologians, and some of them are my friends, my neighbors and simply members of the human family.

I have faith in today’s students on the move and in the millennial generation — they seem to see things pretty clearly. The Occupy movement brings light not only to income disparity but the whole complex of economic injustice; it’s an extraordinary leap of faith, given the forces it’s up against. Musicians like Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Tom Morello, Michael Franti, Jeff Mangum participating in OWS, as well as the previous generation of freedom singers, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne and Joan Baez, among others, bring their insights and sensibilities to the discussion.

Music has historically been a part of every political and social movement, and I believe we’ll begin hearing more songs and musicians advocating for human rights now. Music will certainly be playing a role in keeping my faith this election year. Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” is one that comes to mind.

Some critics of pop culture deride political music as a kind of spectacle, or perhaps no more than a conceit or rhetorical stance. Do you believe that pop music can propel real participation and engagement?

The pop culture and the critics who bother to defend it are the spectacle. But yes, I do believe that pop music can propel real participation and engagement—if it’s substantive.

Exposure to the arts and humanities is an important component to education of all people — it serves to help them think and feel. The music of the ‘60s and ‘70s changed people’s minds and hearts, while punk rock and hip hop, in their conscious forms crossed over into shaping ethical lifestyles. Certainly there are jazz lives and blues people—music for all concerns and everyday people–who are carried by songs, like prayers, throughout the day. But when music of conscience crosses over into pop, it can truly make a difference, no matter how fluffy it might sound.

Book: Rip it Up!: Rock ‘n’ Roll Rulebreakers

Author: Denise Sullivan

Publisher: Hal Leonard

Publication date: 2001-06

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/e/ensminger-ripitup-cvr.jpg

“Born This Way” is an example of a song like that, and so are “We Are the World” and “That’s What Friends Are For”. Underground anthems like “Kick Out the Jams”, “God Save the Queen” and “Straight Outta Compton” also did what they were meant to do, inasmuch as they created a stir, maybe even moved people, and stand today as part of the pop lore and culture tied to movement.

When I think of tunes like “Strange Fruit”, “War,” or songs by Marvin Gaye, they appeal to diverse, multicultural crowds and remain, I suppose, ever-potent. I agree that both early punk, hardcore, hip-hop, and gangster rap produced a bevy too — but have you discovered more recent songs that achieve a similar kind of status?

The status enjoyed by “Strange Fruit” as popularized by Billie Holiday, Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield’s “War” for Edwin Starr, and Marvin Gaye’s political records took years to achieve and they remain potent precisely because the problems remain: racial violence and injustice persist, urban and environmental devastation are continuous, as is war.

Twenty some years ago, Public Enemy conceptualized an album around social and political issues facing black America: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is a perennial because the same problems Chuck D was talking then remain today—prison and housing conditions are in fact worse. So, until things improve for all the Earth’s people, there is reason to sing freedom songs, anthems that are known and handy, whether by Woody Guthrie, Lady Gaga or Public Enemy.

But in answer to your question, I think “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. is a terribly important song about forgotten people, though it’s frequently misunderstood because there’s no meaningful dialogue in the contemporary culture about the songs, and there’s no real media platform for them to be heard or sung together which fosters the confusion. Where are you going to hear or see Talib Kweli’s “Distractions” for example?

I try to create a dialogue about songs in my Origin of Song column, but what I’m trying to say is, you have to seek out this stuff (and in the case of Kweli, I recommend that you do) because the songs are out there, though sometimes it takes work to find them because of the fracturing and fragmentation of our listening styles. Where, for example, am I going to hear something like MEN?

I’m not an indie rock person, and these aren’t the days when you can turn on MTV and an all-star cast is singing about “Sun City”, raising awareness and increasing momentum toward dismantling apartheid. Not that I’m a fan of MTV — it became a part of the problem — but at one time it had a relationship to the solution and to music; for about a minute, it seemed like it was a force for good and played a role in connecting people.

Listen to NPR and you won’t hear it delivering message music to the people, though you will find it on college radio and Pacifica Radio. You have to be tuned in to the right sources to get the message, and mostly, I get my leads from people; I certainly don’t pay any mind to what websites tell me I’ll like; I know what I like, and usually, that ain’t it!

New Media and the Art of the Interview

Two of your books highlighted the roles of people who were both outsiders and yet found a tremendous niche and success — R.E.M., R.E.M.: Talk About the Passion and White Stripes, White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues Did writing those books demystify the bands for you, and do you feel you would write from a different slant, if you tackled them today?

My experience in writing books is that you never really know where it’s going to go until you get there. I started those projects loving both bands because their music moved me; as artists, I perceived them to have depth and integrity. What I largely found out is that musical artists are complex people and humans like the rest of us. And yet, the music remains, like a character or a force in itself, and generally, the music the bands made and their messages were positive and worth carrying forward.

Book: R.E.M.: Talk about the Passion–An Oral History

Author: Denise Sullivan

Publisher: Da Capo

Publication date: 1998-08

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/e/ensminger-remtalkabout-cvr2.jpg

So no, I don’t think I would take a different slant if I wrote about those subjects today and when I update both books soon, I look forward to chronicling the ends of both bands, as well as what their continuous legacies mean. But if you are asking when I listen to either band, do I hear them the same way I used to, the answer is, no.

But I will tell you this: The White Stripes were the single best band to came out of the first ten years of the decade, period. They drew from a deep well so perhaps people perceive they don’t have “time” to get into their whole trip. That’s OK. They’re here to stay and will be here when you’re ready. Plus, in my experience, kids who really know music love the band.

Make no mistake, they are rock ’n’ roll giants, which is why I bothered to write a book about them. Most new bands don’t merit that kind of study, and they certainly don’t enjoy the kind of devotion the Whites Stripes did from their fans. They were drawn into the fire the way Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop, the Cramps were. They are the real deal: rock ‘n’ roll.

Both of us began in the print medium, which has been profoundly altered this last decade. Looking back, how would you compare the age of Creem to Pitchfork, or Trouser Press to Buddyhead?

Well for one thing, I don’t read Pitchfork or Buddyhead, whereas I would read Creem and Trouser Press, as if they were my job, like studying sacred texts or breathing. They were required reading, as were Rolling Stone and the NME, if you were preparing yourself to be a rock journalist (and from the age of nine, I was), or a serious fan. Online reading is more like glancing, and I’m not sure how much information is actually contained in the stories; I can pretty much live without it.

That said, I wrote for Crawdaddy! online from 2007-2011, and we tried to deliver a daily with some heft to it, within the blog format. I also loved being part of a team and contributing to our identity, though too much new media is faceless—I want to get to know the writers—and I see too many inaccuracies and too many reposted press releases passing as journalism. Of course there are always exceptions and I like being surprised so if you tell me of a good destination site, I’ll check it out.

When we talk about skimming the Internet and faceless new media, I also think about the endless immediacy and banter of social networks, like a fanzine maker potentially in every home. Yet, I was never very compelled by columns and profiles nearly as much as interviews, which seem lost on the web. In the onslaught of blogging and Tweets, has the art of the interview, ala old Rolling Stone, suffered?

I think it has, though occasionally, you’ll catch one that really rises and delivers. Rarely do I read interviews with people I want to read about, which address the questions I’d like to ask so I take it upon myself to do that. As a close listener and a close reader, I take in the whole catalog, the whole person into account before I interview. But anyone who edits or writes about new releases and new artists for a living, and has to do it in short form for new media (and even old media, like dailies and weeklies) will tell you there’s little time for that when you’re trying to make your deadline and mesh with the market concerns of your publisher.

In terms of new digital media, have you ever find yourself wanting to interview a subject recently, and the editor balked, or wanted you to cut, reframe, or edit a piece, even though the web is supposedly more free and open?

I’ve been lucky in that my profile ideas have rarely been censored or vetoed by the editors I work for regularly, but my cold queries are rejected all the time! At ,Crawdaddy! I was fortunate to be able to interview legends simply because they were legends and not necessarily selling anything. But recently I wanted to interview LaLa Brooks; she sang “Da Do Ron Ron” and “And Then He Kissed Me” on the Crystals records produced by Phil Spector and has led an interesting life since then and she still performs. I figured it was time for her to have her say, but I had no takers on that idea. That’s a story that I would’ve wanted to read and I truly believe there are people that would’ve wanted to read it, too. I’m not sure what the problem was other than she wasn’t being marketed by a happening label or remade by a fancy producer: She’s just a singer who gave her life to rock ’n’ roll, and as it’s been said, rock ’n’ roll always forgets…

Book: Rip it Up!: Rock ‘n’ Roll Rulebreakers

Author: Denise Sullivan

Publisher: Hal Leonard

Publication date: 2001-06

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/e/ensminger-ripitup-cvr.jpg

Your book Rip it Up!: Rock ‘n’ Roll Rulebreakers ran the gamut from Ramblin Jack Elliot and Shonen Knife to Julian Cope, a real gumbo. If you compiled a similar book covering the last decade, who would you argue deserves to be included, and why?

Rip It Up! took in 20 artists, from the ‘50s to the ‘90s, that I previously interviewed, largely as a reporter at the Contra Costa Times in Northern California. But if I were to do an updated version for the 21st Century and could make a list of musicians to speak with, I’d definitely want to talk to M.I.A., and maybe Santigold, two artists that I don’t read about nearly as much as I’d like to, which as I say, is often a starting point for me.

As successful as they might seem, I’d probably also want to dig into the recent uprising of the Roots who’ve become like stewards of 50 years of rock music, and learn more personal details about innovators like Danger Mouse and TV on the Radio and what makes them go. All the artists I’ve mentioned so far have something in common: They’ve had a taste of the mainstream, and yet they still reside on the fringes—which isn’t easy to pull off.

I also like the story of Charlotte Gainsbourg–the family history, the multi-disciplinary talent and that acting is her primary medium—but I think she’s a real rocker, coming into her own. I love Mariam and Amadou, the blind singing duo from Mali, and I also always root for unsung singer-songwriters, so I’d include Hanni El Khatib from California and Ron Franklin, also known as Gasoline Silver, who works largely out of New York and Memphis.

So there’s your mix–another group of artists breaking rules and inspiring others to shake things up while striving to create a strong, unbreakable identity of their own. I admire the courage and risks taken by artists who are seeking something larger than commercial gain or celebrity, those who are committed to their own journey of self-discovery and to making the world a better place. I’ve picked up some essential information about living from these artists; their wisdom is in my toolkit, now.

Note to readers, see excerpt of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-Hop published here on PopMatters.