Kids Listen to the Darndest Things

Photo by Gary Simmons (via Flickr)

Like these kids, my enjoyment level has never been as high as it was for the crap I loved when I was 13.

On Valentine's Day, I gave my girlfriend one of those cards that plays music when you open it up. The song of choice? "Can't Fight This Feeling" by REO Speedwagon. Obviously, she loved it. How could she not?

But as the voice of Kevin Cronin (the Barry White of '80s rock) streamed from the pink cardboard, I admit that my thoughts weren't totally centered on romance. I was also thinking about how a certain seventh-grader I'd just met would probably love the song.

Randy was one of several middle-schoolers I taught recently in a workshop class at 826CHI, the Chicago branch of the writing organization founded by author Dave Eggers in San Francisco. Through school visits, tutoring sessions, and volunteer-led workshops, 826 helps students to develop a love for reading, writing, and, of course, moustaches (the Chicago location has a spy theme, while others revolve around things like pirates and superheroes).

The goal of the "Sound Stories" workshop I created with my co-teacher, Emily (another occasional music writer), was simple: to use various songs as writing prompts for students' short stories. We decided to play the kids a mix of popular songs -- Kanye West's "Love Lockdown" and Paramore's "Decode" (a/k/a that song from Twilight) -- and stuff that we, the snobs in charge, liked a lot more (selections included Radiohead's "Reckoner" and an El-P instrumental track).

As we sat and listened to each song, we asked the students to consider what thoughts or images the music inspired. What we got, at first, was more akin to critique. Apparently, to a seventh-grader's ears, Thom Yorke sounds like a whale, or at the very least, a whiny girl; Orchestra Baobab's "Utrus Horas", meanwhile, would make great background music for a taco feast where something goes dreadfully wrong (upon finding out that the music was African, and not Mexican, one girl claimed to like it much more).

The students also initially claimed that music needed lyrics to truly have meaning; it was hard to tell what a song could be about, they said, unless given some explicit clues. Yet they were soon filling sheets of paper with random ideas. Ulrich Schnauss' electronic meanderings inspired many visions of water; El-P's sonic barrage brought to mind things as diverse as "war" and "Michael Jackson".

All these responses were enlightening, and definitely entertaining -- which is why we ended up spending far too much time on the listening portion and less on the actual writing -- but the more interesting part, for me, came in the second session of the class. After getting the "lame" vote on most of the stuff we'd provided, we asked students to bring in some of their own music for our mutual listening pleasure. Based on their stated preferences, I thought I knew what to expect: a healthy dose of Beyoncé, Coldplay, and, strangely, Smash Mouth.

I was wrong. Well, sort of. Randy did bring in his treasured copy of Viva La Vida. But after that had run its course, he jumped onto YouTube to unleash a soundtrack full of surprises. It included Seal's "Kiss from a Rose", AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" (yes, he played air guitar), and, just to thoroughly confuse us, the Living Legends' underground hip-hop single, "Night Prowler".

If middle school is as I remember it, these off-the-beaten-path listening habits probably don't bring Randy a lot of love among his peers. But I also didn't get the sense that he chose his music purely to stand out in the crowd, or to be ironic. The kid just liked what he liked. And while his choices were not necessarily to my tastes, I have to envy that relative lack of a musical conscience. He wasn't alone, either; another of our students pranced into the second session having changed her favorite song ever from Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" to the Watson Twins' "How Am I to Be" in the span of a week.

These kids can't be ignorant of the ways that they'll be labeled based on their affinities. At their age, it's all about labels. But it's also about pure enjoyment -- something that becomes more and more elusive as the years pass. In the time since seventh grade, I've gotten increasingly serious about music; my appreciation of the stuff has risen steadily, but I'd argue that my enjoyment level has never been as high as it was for the crap I loved when I was 13.

It's tempting to end this column with a cliché: that I left the class having learned more from the students than I taught them. But really, I already knew this stuff. Everyone does. One of the biggest reasons we throw ourselves into music is to try and recapture some small part of our adolescent selves -- it's why Girl Talk has a career. And it's probably why I wanted to teach the workshop in the first place; writing-prompt exercises were one of my favorite activities in middle-school English class. But as I read the students' stories at the end of class (topics ranged from homicidal, wheelchair-ridden substitute teachers who couldn't pronounce their Ws to a tale of mystery involving a time-traveling house), I realized that my creativity level, too, had dropped a bit since those days. I couldn’t come up with anything half as interesting as a seventh-grader. It's no wonder I spend my time listening to whiny whale songs.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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