Taking back freedom one uke at a time


Every summer the guitars and ukuleles appear in the garage of the cabin by the lake. She calls a tune, he asks for a brush-up on the chords, a new arrival joins the circle, and we sing. Somebody makes up a new verse. Another takes a uke solo. Yet another pulls out a harmonica and draws excited exclamations. Everyone’s involved; we even gave the young’un an egg shaker.

Down the road a teenager listens to music in his room. It makes him want to dance. It’s background for homework. It lets him tune out from his problems. He’s not musical; his descriptions might contain the words ‘catchy’ and ‘beat.’ He’s just as likely to refer to a song as an electronic file. But he can appreciate the skill and creativity it took to compose, arrange, and perform. Listening to other musicians, appreciating their contributions to the world of art, can be valuable, right?

Not entirely. When entertainment becomes a commodity it becomes oppressive. Music becomes just another consumer good, something to be bought and sold. That guy in his room is being oppressed by his own earbuds; a ‘culture industry’ is forcing sameness and passivity down his ears with every piece of entertainment it mass-produces.1 Adorno argues that any choice we think we have in popular culture is really the choice between two similar molds; the choice between two top-40 songs is as meaningless as the choice between two different parking spaces at the mall. The German word for entertainment is Unterhaltung: ‘holding under.’ The culture industry, by providing such entertainment, can take away freedom, suspend thought, and block happiness, because there are a thousand other ways to be and we don’t know what we’re missing.

Does the guy in his room get any leeway with Adorno? One might argue that some music doesn’t suspend thought and render us passive; we are actively involved, part of the music. Singer-songwriters make it easy for us to insert ourselves right into their music because they sing directly to an individual: “Baby, we found love right where we are,” “I’m yours,” “Don’t let me be lonely tonight,” “You are the only one,” “You are my only one.” The list goes on. It’s easy to feel like Ed Sheeran and James Taylor are singing only to you, and the intimacy of the genre makes you important, makes them vulnerable, makes you believe you’re seeing the real them. We are made to feel individual, but everyone is hearing the same “You are the only one;” everyone is the same individual. This is the paradox, the trick of the culture industry: they are making us feel like individuals while perpetuating uniformity. Consuming this type of music isn’t actually any better than others, singer-songwriters just try to hide it.

If there isn’t a genre that escapes the industry, then what about live performance? If passivity is to be avoided, interactive and improvisatory performances could be the alternative. They’re unique, fleeting, and full of spontaneous energy. Performances can’t be recreated, which someone could argue removes it from the culture industry’s sameness. However, we’re still passive at a live performance. The fundamental problem with performances that make them little better than recordings is the divide between—the existence of—the producer and the consumer. Performances sell us the illusion that we’re a part of the music that’s being made; we applaud every solo, we sing along, we touch hands with the singer. But really, that divide is clear as can be at a live performance. It’s a show. There’s an audience, a stage, spectators, applause; these things separate us from the music as consumers. We are just observing, being entertained, being held as a servant to the culture industry.

I am concerned with culture that cannot be industrialized; culture of which there is absolutely no way to corner it into becoming a commodity. Performances, shows, hit singles, iTunes, stages, applause—only when those are absent have we reached a free and independent culture. Such a culture erodes to the point of destruction the line between the artist and the spectator, the producer and the consumer. Music is at its most valuable when it is not a commodity, and can’t be made one. The way to achieve this is not by focusing on the ‘what’ of music, but the ‘how.’ Adorno1, and even Adorno’s critics3 concern themselves with the structure of the music itself, and seem to assume that only particular people can produce it.

On the contrary, more important is our interactions with the music and with each other. Yes, the singer-songwriters and jazz musicians sell us an illusion, but it’s the illusions of something that we can indeed have. If the industry makes us passive, then the most thoughtful and interactive music will be the most conducive to opposing it. Of course, I mean the best music is the music we make. Music is meant to be made and shared, not consumed. Active, participatory, communicative, and interactive music is impossible to commoditize and as such is outside the culture industry’s clutches. It’s not just an alternative to the industry, several qualities make it the industry’s opposite.

The culture industry suspends thought and perpetuates sameness. Folk and jazz music done right encourage thought and dialogue. When the guitars come out in the summer we listen to each other, use each other’s ideas, twist them and make them our own. Our minds are alive, anticipating and responding, interacting with the music and the circle.

Music is language;2 we must speak it and understand it in order to have any use for it. The best jazz music is a conversation:2 from Kind of Blue to Boss Tenors it’s wonderful to hear the rhythm section players communicating with each other and with the horn players. Bill Evans takes a rhythm Miles played, Jimmy Cobb latches on, they hold it for a few bars then let it go. (If someone doesn’t speak the language, they can be taught. People who ‘can’t sing’ usually just mean they forgot. Sing to an eighteen-month-old and they will more than likely sing back in the same key.)

You might think me contradictory for praising mass-produced recordings. But the purpose of listening to recordings is to observe. The tracks on Kind of Blue are all first takes; the spontaneity and creativity are palpable right from the opening bass riff of “So What.” But that’s the players. For them, the music is worthwhile because they aren’t under the hand of the industry. For us, it’s not enough to just listen, because the tracks are set in stone, able to be repeated. For us, it becomes the same as the rest unless we learn from the masters and then do it ourselves.

The essence of ‘circle music,’ including folk and jazz, can’t be captured and mass-produced. Sure, you can record people playing such music, but then it can become just as oppressive as any other music. That’s why everyone interested in music needs to play and sing and experience it themselves. The opposite of the culture industry is the campfire. If we do it ourselves we might find thought and freedom and connection in the art that is music.




1Adorno, T. & Max Horkheimer. The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1944.


2Monson, I. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago, 2009.


3Witkin, W. W. Why Did Adorno Hate Jazz? Sociological Theory 18:1. Washington: 2000.

Rihanna: Defying Cultural Norms?

In 2011 Rihanna released a music video for her song “S&M” that was subsequently banned in eleven countries and restricted on YouTube, and some radio stations listed the song under the alternate title “Come On.” The video provoked general shock and outrage for its suggestive content about sexual sadomasochism. This reaction is understandable, at first. People are shocked by Rihanna’s vulgarity, and our society is uncomfortable with the concept of nonstandard sex existing in the mainstream. However, we should look past the shock novelty of her “chains and whips,” and consider her message, which isn’t bad. It might even be liberating.

Popular culture has often been a kind of carnival, like the medieval romps Bakhtin describes in Rabelais and His World:

“Carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.”

Ordinary people set aside the usual rules and hierarchies and, in fits of liberating bad taste, rebel against (or temporarily take the place of) their kings and bosses and masters. There is no distinction between performers and audience members. Semi-lawlessness and debauchery rein. Social norms—beauty standards, etc.—are disposed of. In two words, Mardi Gras.

Oftentimes, popular culture is not a depiction of carnival. Sometimes it is a depiction of an anti-carnival where even in 2016 artists can make millions perpetuating social hierarchies through racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Just take Selena Gomez’ “Good For You.” Gomez sings “I just wanna look good for you, good for you” and A$AP Rocky then raps “You look good, girl, you know you did good, don’t you?,” unabashedly marginalizing women as objects men can show off by suggesting a woman’s purpose is to look good for her man.

Or take “Work From Home” by Fifth Harmony. Each of the five girls is singing to persuade a guy to stay home from work to have sex with her. “I know you gotta/Put in them hours, I’mma make it harder/I’m sending pic after picture, I’mma get you fired.” In addition to enforcing the stereotypes of men working and women staying home, the song dives further into the traditional gender roles, saying, “baby you’re the boss at home,” indicating that men are the heads of households. And if that isn’t enough, watch the video. It goes so far it’s a parody of itself. Both the men’s and women’s outfits would not be out of place in a costume shop under the label “sexy construction worker.” It’s actually funny. Men work a construction scene, with plenty of slow-motion shots that show off their oiled-up abs. The women of Fifth Harmony sing the melody, moving their hips provocatively, presumably there to distract the men. Innuendos abound: one of the girls unwinds a tape measure several inches and looks suggestively at one of the workers.

Back to Rihanna—specifically, her new single “Work” (which, as I write this, is sitting at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100). Almost nothing she sings is discernible but Drake, her feature, auto-tunes these gems: “You need to get done, done, done, done at work, come over/…/Now you need to forward and give me all the/work.” It’s possible different listeners will have different interpretations of the word work here, but I think it’s reasonable to assume it’s not work like work it, and there’s no escaping the fact that a man telling a woman to give him all the work is currently at Billboard #1. And how about “Take a Bow”? At first listen it’s a female empowerment anthem; she’s asserting herself and standing up to a guy who cheated on her. In the meantime, though, she manages to further drill into our heads traditional male stereotypes, this time about how men should not express emotion: “You look so dumb right now/Standin’ outside my house/Tryin’ to apologize/You’re so ugly when you cry/(Please)/Just cut it out.” We hear a strong, independent woman, but we hear her telling us men look dumb when they cry and apologize.

Rihanna is baffling because many of her numbers are indeed carnivalesque, and some of the songs even contradict themselves! I’ll take a step back. What counts as carnivalesque? If the central qualification is the concept of the ‘king fool,’ of the dissolution of the usual hierarchical boundaries and social norms, then who are the kings who become fools and the fools who become kings? In Rihanna’s case, it’s usually a matter of race and gender. So white people, and men, and white men, are her oppressors.

“Hard” is one of these contradictory songs. The carnivalesque messages are more involved: the hook, “I’m so hard,” is unique in itself because a woman wouldn’t normally sing that line. The video (set at a military base) portrays Rihanna as a drill sergeant with the infantrymen snapping to attention, doing her bidding. She sings, “They can say whatever, I’ma do whatever” as men submit and snap to attention. The rest of the video includes scenes of Rihanna participating in activities stereotypically masculine, like playing poker with the guys in the barracks. She also sings about being at an “all white party wearing all black,” a metaphor for race. The song/video combo is not perfect—Rihanna’s expected sexualization, and the possibility exists that a sexy woman taking control could be viewed as a fantasy—but it’s a step forward.

“Bitch Better Have My Money” takes another step toward blurring social boundaries. Margaret Corvid of New Statesman writes, “Rihanna’s BBHMM video has horrified many feminists—but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy.”1 Before Corvid gets into the sexual aspects of the video, she describes how this song intimately depicts Rihanna’s anger, set off by the accountancy firm that cheated her out of millions, at the patriarchy’s “financial violation” of women, and the fact that critics were disgusted because society does not take well to female revenge. The video is based around the kidnapping and submission of an elite white woman by a diverse trio. There’s Rihanna, there’s another white woman, and there’s another who could possibly be described as a biker chick, but she isn’t sexualized, she’s overweight, and her outfit includes many piercings, tight black clothes under a trench coat, and a spiked choker. All three look like thugs. They tie up the elite white woman, strip her, and take her to a barn, a yacht, and then a house and force her to binge drink, smoke marijuana, and participate in a variety of degrading acts. But Corvid’s (and my) point is that she seems to like it. She never fights back. She hides from the police when they show up. So in “BBHMM” Rihanna advocates lawless deviant sex between four women, and the placement of that high-class white woman below (the case could be made for equal to) the thugs. The king (queen?) is willingly made a fool.

The best example of Rihanna’s carnival side is S&M. If “BBHMM” is an implicit BDSM fantasy, “S&M” is an explicit one. The first lines of the song are:

“Feels so good being bad

There’s no way I’m turning back

Now the pain is for pleasure

‘Cause nothing can measure”


And if the lyrics aren’t overtly carnivalesque (BDSM is not inherently so), the video sure is. There are three alternate settings, the first being Press v. Rihanna: men in suits drag her through a door into a pressroom. The journalists are ball-gagged and Rihanna is wrapped in latex, and it’s not too far of a stretch to see the separation between them (she’s standing on a stage, they’re sitting facing her) as that divide between the performers and audience that’s so anti-carnival, and the subsequent participation of the press in Rihanna’s fantasy as the wiping away of that divide. The journalists aren’t attractive, either. There’s a fat balding white guy, a fat black woman, and less overweight people of all flavors. The second scene includes as good of a ‘king fool’ representation as I’ve seen: Rihanna dressed as an aristocrat walking a dog, except the dog isn’t a dog, he’s a tied up white guy (Perez Hilton, a celebrity), and he likes it. The third scene is a costume room, and again, there are people of all shapes, sizes, and colors dressing up in weird clothes doing sexual things. In a particularly illuminating split-second, Rihanna is dancing on the lap of a fat white man with tape all over his body, and he has an excited grin on his face. All three scenes present fantasies of bridged divides and blurred lines.

Are society’s values carnivalesque, though? Sure, culture sometimes portrays that scenario, but why, then, are so many of the best-selling, top-rated, and most listened-to songs out there so abhorrently misogynistic or racist? S&M was restricted and even banned in some areas.2 Also, so many of these songs are so catchy that catchiness alone isn’t a good enough excuse for liking one. If someone is offended by lyrics, they have hundreds of other catchy songs to choose from. We listen to the marginalizing stuff, so in some sense we must hold those values, but we also listen to songs like S&M—it’s one of Rihanna’s top hits of all time. We as a society are undecided as to whether we support the concept of the carnival.

Don’t think for a second that this stuff doesn’t matter. Music is central to society and culture. The average teenager listens to music for almost four hours per day. 84% of American adults use the internet. Running through poor, rural Vermont, I passed two guys sitting on the porch of their trailer listening to Flo Rida. Song lyrics and YouTube views matter: the small amount of research that’s been done on the effects of these media has suggested that the media do affect behavior,3 and we are being desensitized to concepts like white male supremacy.

Rihanna is in a position of wide influence, and she’s giving us the hint of a message that destroying hierarchical boundaries is the way to go. If she really believed and cared about our supposed deep-down desires to break those boundaries, I doubt she’d let Drake tell her to give him all the work. She’s giving us both sides of the coin, and she represents our society’s indecision about whether to break down our hierarchies. Yes, much of her output is decidedly anti-carnival, but so is everyone else’s. As morally questionable it is, anti-carnival messages are the norm, the baseline, just as marginalization has been central to society for as long as it has existed. Rihanna’s attempts to go against that trend are breaths of fresh air. Bluntly, they’re worth the other garbage.



1 Corvid, Margaret, 2015. Rihanna’s BBHMM video has horrified many feminists—but I saw an empowering BDSM fantasy. New Statesman.


2 Niemiec, Charlsie, 2011 for CollegeCandy.com. What’s the Big Deal About Rihanna’s S&M? Huffington Post.


3 Inappropriate Content in Music. Media Smarts.



The Hunger Games: Let’s Kill the Popular Kids


Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is one of the most widely read dystopian novels in recent years, and its film adaptation was one of the most successful movies of 2012. Its concept: out of the ruins of North America rose Panem, a country separated into thirteen districts and an oppressive Capitol. The districts eventually revolted, and the Capitol lashed back, in the process destroying District 13 and doubling down on their oppression. The Treaty of Treason decreed that every year after the rebellion, each of the twelve remaining districts send one boy and one girl, known as tributes, to fight to the death on national TV. It’s the most hyped-up show of the year: the Hunger Games.

One could contend that Collins writes to caution us all, as civilization might well be heading toward such chaos. Another could stake a more present-day argument, that the Hunger Games is a dark satire against ruthless capitalism. But teenagers flocked to the theaters to experience The Hunger Games—do young people really want so badly to watch a movie about politics, or economy? Maybe, but there’s an explanation even closer to home.

Before I get there, though, I have to bring in a philosophy of ideology presented by Louis Althusser. Ideology runs far deeper than a set of values, a worldview, or a bias. Ideologies are ubiquitous and can operate subconsciously, feeding us ideas. Stories hold particularly strong ideologies; in order to enjoy a story, we have to buy whatever it is selling. To that end, effective stories tend to do two things. First, they present some real social crisis, and then provide a fantasy answer. They offer fictional solutions to real problems. This process doesn’t work unless the problems and solutions resonate with the audience—in the case of The Hunger Games, all of us. So if teens are flocking to the theaters, adults of all ages close behind, the real, everyday social crisis illuminated in the Hunger Games has to be one that resonates with most everyone. Which it is: it’s a crisis straight out of high school.

The story focuses on Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old tribute from District 12. All the participants are between twelve and eighteen (fine, middle school should be included, but most of the tributes are in their mid to late teens). At their most basic level, the Games are like high school because they ‘aren’t real.’ In school everyone seems to talk about the real world, whatever that means, and the fact that school is not the real world. Navigating the ever changing, brutal, and cutthroat teenage social scene is indeed often a game. The Hunger Games are the same, except instead of gossip, a roaring forest fire shooting cannonballs of flame could sneak up on you at any minute. Rule changes are expected, and the stakes are life and death.

But, you say, life and death seems quite intense for high school, an extreme exaggeration. Really? Over fourteen percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost seven percent have attempted it. That’s not counting the many more who suffer from depression or other mental health issues due to social interactions—high school is quite the serious game. Life-and-death stakes work for this over-glorified version of high school because while it seems like a game, a show, on the surface, the most raw and real of emotions are right behind the façade. Teens and children experience primal fear as residents of the Capitol watch with amusement, judging them (literally—they’re objectified before the Games on a scale of 1-12) and betting on who will win.

Status and appearance are everything. The first piece of advice that Haymitch Abernathy, former Games winner and District 12 mentor, gives Katniss and Peeta is, “Wanna know how to stay alive? You get people to like you.” He wasn’t directly talking about high school, though he might as well have been. High school is a whole different game if you don’t have friends. The tributes’ first impression in the Capitol before the games is in a parade, of which the importance “cannot be overstated.” Like at the beginning of a new school year or on the first day at a new school, the only things that matter are your background and your looks. Let me address looks first: Katniss and Peeta make an excellent first impression because of their fiery outfits and confident stance. Quite literally, people like these new guys because they’re hot. Case in point: all the tributes have to be publicly interviewed, and in hers, Katniss is sort of awkward and not very funny, but because the crowd already likes her they laugh at everything she says.

The interviews touch on high school’s blunt, non-subtle, brutal labeling of others; each tribute is reduced to one trait that is then enhanced and outrageously played up. There’s the sexy girl (named Glimmer, no less), the funny guy, the strong, silent, brooding type, and the buff, aggressive fighter. Peeta casts himself as the boy madly in love…with Katniss, who is understandably furious. But Haymitch tells Katniss she got a leg up: Peeta made her “look desirable.” Oh yeah, and Katniss got the most oohs and ahhs for twirling in her dress (more fire) than for anything she said. I can’t decide if the story is satirizing the placement of women below men or unintentionally—maybe even intentionally!—perpetuating it.

A big reason why first impressions are important is because a good one can secure a tribute sponsors. Sponsors are usually wealthy Capitol residents who want to see their favorites live a little longer, and as such they can pay to deliver supplies to the arena. Katniss is worried about how she’ll do because she’s “not very good at making friends.” By the true definition of friend that’s a false equivalency; by a more cynical high school definition of friend it’s fairly accurate. Sponsors aren’t real friends, just followers.

Tributes from different districts follow the same conventions as the different types of high schoolers, like in the interviews but slightly less exaggerated. There’s the nerd, the jock, the artsy girl. In school there might be a few cliques that form from these categories, but in The Hunger Games it’s just one. You’re in or you’re out, and from the beginning, Katniss and Peeta are out. The clique surrounds the Careers, tributes from Districts 1 and 2 who have grown up training and volunteer for the Games. The Careers are high school’s ‘popular kids.’

The Careers—the popular kids—are made out to be enemies, people to hate, from first sight. The first time we see one is while Haymitch is congratulating Katniss and Peeta on their parade performance. He pauses, and the camera angle switches behind the two of them to show Cato, a tall, blond young man, wearing gold, sleeveless armor engraved on the shoulders with a feather pattern. He looks condescendingly over at the District 12 cohort. He and the rest of the Careers are characterized as arrogant, condescending, possessive, and territorial assholes who revel in the hunt and the kill. They taunt (Clove, the classic mean girl, torments Katniss with filthy sarcasm as she’s ready to kill her), and bully (Cato snaps the neck of a no-name supply pile guard).

And they’re all beautiful white people. Most members of the Career clique are sexualized or gender-typed—white, buff, pretty, fair. Everything about them is reduced to a blunt, unsubtle extreme. Flirting, too: Cato heats his sword in a fire until the tip glows red-orange only to spit on it, prompting Glimmer to scoff “please,” with a giggle. He might as well just say, “Look, I have a big dick.” Further, almost all of the interactions between the tributes would be normal in a high school—passive-aggression, clique drama, and crushes.

If the popular-kids-as-enemies concept is true, Katniss becomes more interesting as a protagonist. For the conflict to work, she would have to be unpopular, or have qualities the popular kids didn’t, and still be relatable to the vast majority of teenagers. Those qualifications seem contradictory, but there is a solution. The short version of her entrance to the Capitol and the Games goes like this: she bursts in on the scene with her stunning appearance, the Careers see her as a definite threat, and they go after her almost immediately. She’s the hot new girl. It’s a sad truth that if new students are quiet, unassuming, and physically average, they won’t really be noticed. But if they are confident, if they stand out, and yeah, if they’re hot, they won’t be immediately written off.

Still, even the hot new girl is no match for the popular kids. Katniss is immediately targeted and never has the upper hand. She’s just trying to avoid direct conflict with the tribute clique. The girls and boys alike in the clique argue repeatedly “she’s mine!” When the movie reaches its climax, in the form of a Gamemaker-sponsored “picnic,” the lunchroom, Clove is straddling Katniss, hands around her neck, choking her out, wielding several knives, bullying, taunting, teasing her about Peeta (“Where’s lover boy?”), and she can’t do anything but try to turn away, struggling, to no avail.

The social crisis The Hunger Games makes vivid comes to a head in that scene: the mean girl is holding the hot new girl down at knifepoint in the lunchroom, taunting her to pure hatred, and the new girl is helpless. But if we are to like the movie’s end, the mean girl must be vanquished. The solution comes in the form of a classic rescue. Thresh comes barreling out of the woods and tears Clove off of Katniss. Livid, he violently slams Clove twice into the wall of the Cornucopia, and she collapses, dead. And we like it. The whole audience feels a vindictive pleasure—to put it crudely, we’re all thinking FUCK yeah!

Thresh v Clove 2

So teens are flocking to the theaters to watch the mean girl get beaten to death. That’s much more plausible a reason, to me, than to watch anti-capitalist propaganda or a warning that our civilization is heading for a Lord of the Flies-esque brawl. It’s not a particularly original fantasy, but we lap it up every time because the fantasy solution really isn’t good enough. It doesn’t actually solve anything, it just holds the problem off for two hours. Bullying is a real, rampant horror. One out of twelve teens still attempt suicide. Most of the time, there is no Thresh—the real-life Clove is still there. And somehow high school still seems like a game.