2018: Frail Voices, Herds of Sheep SoundCloud, synagogues, and coping

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

“The fact that the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ can be posed at all gives me an uncanny feeling […] [In] what world, in what environment, in what relationship to the problems of our time? This is how, I feel, one should pose the question if one poses it at all.”
– Isaac Deutscher, “Who is a Jew?,” 1966

Jewish congregations, in my experience, often chant prayers in a beautiful, dense, enharmonic chorus. This confounding density seems almost mandated by the loosely gestural and contour-based nature of our melodies. It’s often unclear which pitches are even supposed to be hit, so we tend to hit them all, together. Every time I hear this mass of voices — many of which seeming that its owner can hardly be bothered to sing — I am taken back to childhood and to my earliest experiences with music: in the synagogue, reciting syllables in a language I did not know, bowing and raising to my toes to melodies I did not understand with words I knew by heart.

Because of these early experiences, I presume, I find my own singing voice inescapably bound to the shaky sprechstimme croaks and moans of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan (not to mention the campy yowls of Tuli Kupferberg, Randy Newman, Barry Manilow). I’ve met the mold. This wavering, impressionistic delivery seems to be an apt tone of voice for what I will identify as a secular Jewish struggle to find a coherent self. In this, it is worth noting that Reed, Cohen, and Dylan showed a much greater fascination with Christian themes than many of their gentile contemporaries. Their idiosyncratic voices entered a secular canon of balladeers carrying valuable torches to light the way for remnants of a certain broken-apart, lost and rambling, disempowered generation. Like the congregation at the temple: so many trembling voices that won’t find the pitch. Brought together, I find its denseness wonderful, a murky shallow body in which one can swim.

Maybe this is why I can’t escape the religious, ritualistic aspect of the concert gathering. There’s a sense of this on Phil Elverum’s (after) as Mount Eerie. This live album comes on the heels of Now Only, which itself was a follow-up to last year’s career-defining mourner’s album A Crow Looked At Me. Elverum, who has crafted a distinctive voice and presence over the better part of two decades, delivered the tragic details of his recent personal life — the passing of Geneviève Castrée Elverum — with such candor and humility that — for many, as for myself — it spoke acutely to the painful uncertainty that surrounds death and healing. Posed as an underground auteur of intimate, introspective themes, he capably provided an outpouring that bound so many.

His newest songs — the ones featured on Now Only — reflect on the very experience of sharing so intimately the details of his tragedy with audiences. “I made these songs/ And the next thing I knew I was standing in the dirt/ Under the desert sky at night outside Phoenix/ At a music festival that had paid to fly me in/ To play these death songs to a bunch of young people on drugs/ Standing in the dust next to an idling bus/ With Skrillex inside and the sound of subwoofers in the distance” (“Now Only”). It’s a check-in, another direct line to the auteur who has become, tragically, inescapably, and importantly ever-present, forced to a constant mode of self-analysis and reassurance — all of it for his fans and all of it for himself. Elverum: a buoy, fixed in place but nonetheless adrift. We turn to him to try to get a sense of our own position.

Phil Elverum (photo: Nick Rennis)

With (after), our listening, our gaze is caught on tape. Live albums have a certain effect. As Adam Rothbarth notes in his review, “the public and the private become intertwined in unique ways, almost as if the private experiences that comprise public concerts — which number exactly as many as the number of tickets sold — become distilled to their most essential form.” The audience’s love and appreciation is clear. Applause: how it rushes to fill the void that these songs open up, how it softens their blow, swoops in to quell our own desperate isolation. The set ends. They wander off with chatter, coughs, and footsteps, a gradient, slow fade, presumably into the minutia of their individual lives. Back into tragedy.

In the aftermath of the October shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, PA, I felt what was, for me, a strange urge. I had the mind to purchase a Star of David necklace.

I had hardly expressed my secularized Reform Jewish identity since I was about 16. This was the time when a Confirmation ceremony was held: a confirmation of my journey into Jewish adulthood. At the ceremony, I gave a speech wherein I insisted that I was in fact “Jew-ish” rather than “Jewish.” Did I believe in a God? At the time, I said I did not know. (I did in fact know: I did not.) But somehow I knew that the question itself was well understood to be in the Jewish tradition. Something in the way I had received those many years of Hebrew School — how the lessons of the Torah had been delivered, how my teachers had imparted me with what was perhaps their own unknowing — had lent me the conviction that when I volunteered myself to provide such a speech, I truly was confirming myself to be a Jew.

My Rabbi had read this speech and approved it, and I now cherish that support. I also cherish the support of my mother, who attended the ceremony, who sat through my speech, turning red because she didn’t know what I’d planned. My mother, whose Catholic upbringing was enough to discredit my Jewish belonging in the eyes of many Jews more orthodox than I (who do not acknowledge a non-matrilineal descent), couldn’t know what to make of the sacrilege that I didn’t even think I was committing.

I’ve since grown into my Jew-ish-ness. I’m often made aware of our major holidays when a gentile friend wishes me a happy one. Besides my name and my family (and that weird unexpected and unspoken resonance I find — and the few in jokes that often follow — any time I meet another), it has often been easy for me to forget that I am a Jew. Nonetheless, in the aftermath of that shooting, I was convinced perhaps more than ever: I am a Jew.

Maybe this is because one of the few times in memory that my Jewish blood was brought to the fore was almost a year ago today in the same town of the shooting. My grandmother — Mimi, Miriam, the piano teacher of Warren, PA, the one whose headstone now reads “She meant well” — had passed. We congregated at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Indiana, PA and warmed ourselves before our ascent to the cemetery hill. At her funeral, we celebrated her life with a Mimi-themed round of Family Feud trivia, which was hosted by my father.

A Reconstructionist Shiva service was held at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. It was one of the few services I attended in the past few years, and it struck me greatly. The space of that house that I had known for so long, in the green and quietly industrial neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, the tone of the community speaking and singing together, my introduction to the forward-thinking of the Reconstructionist denomination, it all felt like a home I had forgotten.

For these reasons, and for so many others, that assault was a potent reminder.

Works like Elverum’s help me confront the brutality. They help me gracefully incorporate the painful acts of memory and reconciliation in my day-to-day. But I hesitate to rely solely on such introspective individuals. If I trust those like Elverum to conquer the biggest themes and provide a stronghold in the tumult, I should also give space to those who let me work it out for myself.

I’d like to consider Low. A similarly veteran band, they made the startling choice on Double Negative — their 12th album across 25 years — to turn over the major production decisions to producer BJ Burton, allotting him great liberties in the process. “We were looking for sounds that were beyond the realm of what we normally play,” Low founding member Alan Sparhawk tells The Wire, “we listen to a lot of reggae, [we’re] fans of dub … The studio as a tool for creating new things, that putting something on tape is only the beginning. And yeah, the idea of breaking up a pop song into something that’s fragmented and incomplete.”

Low (photo: Paul Husband)

The result was an abstract, impressionistic, breathtaking blow to form. Heavy-handed production, if handled by a second party, can divert the direct autonomy that an artist has over their message. Nonetheless, Burton managed to maintain and emphasize the impressions and affects within the source that Low provided him. It positions the band in a role that is powerful insomuch as they provide the impetus for the work and from there reserve the right of approval. Importantly, with Burton, his was a right earned and granted out of mutual trust (this being their second album working together). By moving Low’s songs to the brink of coherence, Burton helped make Double Negative a malleable object that leaves vast room for meaning-making on the listener’s end. It moves toward you, not you to it.

In another light, Charli XCX hit the ground running last year with her seminal pop statement Number 1 Angel. It was a declaration of personality and form that proved to be everything Taylor Swift’s Reputation aspired to but couldn’t reach: a bold redefinition, a portrait from all sides. If Number 1 Angel crafted the form of the idol, her late-year release Pop 2 burst that form open.

A chaotic assemblage, Pop 2 rotates between a cast of features and producers as though the collaborative process were part of a closed cybernetic system monitoring regulation and exchange. Each figure extends from a new locale of the body and almost instantly refigures their own body as the dominant form until the spotlight gleans off their surface and moves toward the next. It’s a visceral experience of a collective that is messy and whole and bold. It’s fractured, but somehow that’s the appeal. This collective apartness, I found, met refrains with Brockhampton’s ambitious if somewhat lackluster Iridescence; Travis Scott’s super slick, professionalized, and star-studded ASTROWORLD; and Fucked Up’s stoically assertive, amorphous punk-pop elegy/awakening Dose Your Dreams. These representations of collectives provide a glance at the ways we are starting to organize socially. We band together and flail as we search for a course.

Charli XCX (photo: Facebook)

Perhaps we can find a precedent. In “Authorship Meets Downpression,” Jason Toynbee explores “the issues raised by the launching of The Wailers on the international rock market.” He contrasts the social forms of authorship in early-60s Jamaica to the more Romantic conception of the “autonomous author-performer” that permeated rock culture at the time. The story he tells is the story of sound systems and dance halls, of DJs and instrumentalists who exerted an influence on the music from their point in assembly, who stand in stark contrast to the Lennons, the Hendrixes, and the Dylans (and, yes, the Reeds and Cohens too), who were built up to be giants on their own. Importantly, Toynbee emphasizes that all music is socially conceived (including that of the latter sphere) and that the concept of the auteur-songwriter-performer-genius as a unique and gifted visionary is a myth. His interest is in the culture and circulation of music in Jamaica at the dawn of ska (a stylistic precursor to reggae). This moment of rapid creation and development thrived upon, and highlighted, the social aspect of music. As Toynbee tells it:

Jamaican popular music making was inaugurated through copying and adapting music that came from outside. Sound systems playing U.S. rhythm and blues records at dance halls and on open-air “lawns” had been the chief form of musical entertainment since the late 1940s. […] However, by the end of the ’50s the supply of the shuffle-rhythm records popular with Jamaican dancers was drying up. In effect, the advent of Sam Cooke and the gospel sound spelled the demise of R&B boogie. So sound system operators like Duke Reid and Sir Coxone turned to local musicians to record the older style. What now seems extraordinary is that almost immediately the sound began to change as more and more emphasis was placed on the offbeats in the 4/4 rhythm. In fact, it took just from 1961 to 1963 for ska to emerge as a fully formed and intensely idiomatic style[.]

Toynbee goes on to demonstrate that The Wailers were at the heart of this development as a studio band. Many of The Wailers were a part of Roland Alphonso’s 1961 recording “Blackberry Brandy,” which sounds like “an orthodox swinging blues.” (So much so that it could have been made “more than a decade earlier in the United States.”) By the time of The Wailers’ 1963 hit “Simmer Down,” the sound and feel of ska is in full swing. “[Not] at all the work of imagination of a few great men,” ska came to prominence so quickly because of factors within the “specifically Jamaican mode of popular music production” and consumption. Toynbee describes these factors as such:

1. It is entrepreneur coordinated, initially by the sound system operators and DJs, and then by the record producers, who are often sound system operators as well. […]
2. There is intense audience feedback. The aesthetic intervention of the entrepreneurs is based on their closeness to audiences, and their ability to judge which music works and which does not. The model here is the sound system itself where audience and DJ or operator are co-present. In this situation entrepreneurs are able to select or reject trends very quickly. […]
3. A strong division of labor exists between musicians, singers, engineers, and producers. […] For two decades or more, a small and periodically changing pool of Jamaican musicians constitutes a sort of collaborative research and development unit. It depends on an unusual mix of collectivity and competition.

By looking at Bob Marley, who had the tact and opportunity to move from the sphere of social authorship to the market of the auteur, Toynbee illustrates the ways in which authorial genius is a myth that must be learned. It is fulfilled aesthetically rather than through the content or brilliance that is imparted. Marley and The Wailers did not make their music “better” so that they would finally be accepted by the British rock critics of the time, nor did they dissolve the myth of the auteur that guided their judgement. Instead, Marley and Co. made themselves legible.

This myth of the auteur can be a helpful fiction to hold on to. We want to find the brilliant individual who can provide us peace and repose. But it has its expense, as it obscures truths about our networks of belonging. Toynbee poses it as such, “did the Wailers’ translation into rock repress Jamaican musical creativity, a form of ‘speaking’ almost diametrically opposed to the sort of expressive authorship practiced in the metropolis?” I have a sense that it did.

We are a generation whose self-image rests greatly upon a debilitating notion of productivity and personal success. What was once the tale of kids who dream big and succeed has now become a principle shared by many but that can never be achieved by all. It can’t bind us. On Positions of Power, the debut album by English hardcore band Runt, we receive a telling track, “DWP.” It opens with a rhetorical holler: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T WORK?” What follows is an enunciation of the implicit lesson that millennials have received since day one: that our existence must be earned by tireless un-forfeiting work. This lesson is the water we breathe.

As Malcolm Harris has it in Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials,

Where you end up on the job distribution map after all that time in school really is more important than it used to be. It’s harder to compete for a good job, the bad jobs you can hope to fall back on are worse than they used to be, and both good and bad jobs are less secure. The intense anxiety that has overcome American childhood flows from a reasonable fear of un-, under-, and just plain lousy employment. … For young people entering or preparing to enter the labor market, these extraordinary developments have always been the way things are.

Or, in other words:


Millennials like myself are terribly bound to this orientation that we can’t dispose of. It hangs on us until we either (a) succeed under its rubric or (b) fall out from its realm. The latter often feels impossible, terrifying, or insufficient, so many of us struggle for success.

Born in 1998, Chef Courage hovers around the SoundCloud scene. In some ways, he might be seen as one of many who are emblematic of this new plight. He is a rapper and beat maker, referred to as G in a profile by my friend Emma Kemp. G states,

Making money has always been important to me. […] If I didn’t sell drugs I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college. Most of my fashion portfolio was cut & sew clothing paid for with drug money. […] [My] dad went to jail because my mom and my stepdad had him put there. My mom had a restraining order against him, and supposedly my dad violated it, I don’t know exactly what happened. Her arm got broke.

G’s skin is white, but like the most palatable of white participants in hip-hop before him, his details articulate a class experience unfamiliar to that of which we consider to be the white bourgeoisie. G, who was introduced to Tyler, the Creator by his mother, recollects upon the freedom that the once-decried, now-reinvented youth culture icon granted him as a self-described “weird kid.”

G often received ridicule for painting his nails, but he found solace in Tyler’s approach. Tyler allotted a certain freedom of expression within his individual identity, even as Tyler was so commonly associated with aggressive homophobia and violent misogyny in his early years. What follows is a telling return to the music: “It made it OK to record at home. […] Tyler made it OK to be weird.” Punk aesthetics, the liberation of the individual, the freely expressed self. We are somehow unbelievably in the process of breaking so many boundaries that boxed in our identities that we are now finding ourselves in the experiment that lies on the other side. It’s beautiful, and it’s frightening. We find ourselves alone together, and it could go so well or it could all fall apart. Until then, we can at least take stock of our metamorphosis. Here is producer Fifty Grand speaking to The FADER:

After years of sporadic depression and anger, I began to chip away at the artificial exterior society helped me build: a false appearance, a false gender identity, a false sense of self. The deeper I went, the worse I felt, until I stopped being able to look in the mirror. But the more I chipped away, the more my path became obvious. I knew I had two choices: I could die, or I could start taking hormones, aligning my body and my mind for the first time.

If I were on that beat, I could illustrate for you the ways in which SoundCloud has transformed rap by providing a platform that has expedited and amplified aspects of social authorship. I can see it almost analogous to the technology of sound systems during ska’s formative years. A sensation took youth culture by storm and didn’t stop there. It continued splintering and evolving, continually restating its form. Trap, mumble rap, emo hip hop, and cloud rap have made paces in sound and reason. The democratized (now monetized) space of SoundCloud allowed an accelerationist’s fantasy of what sound system culture could be: everyone a curator, instantaneous sharing and feedback, the literal production of surprise charters on your iPhone. This thing has outpaced definition, and it is showing no bounds.

As far as I can tell, there is a sort of multi-racial class solidarity at play in the rap underground that is remarkable in its inclination against race-based identity formation. It lacks the revolutionary impetus and potential that drove unity between, for instance, the multi-racial working-class agents of second-wave ska in England, who showed solidarity in an attempt to rise against the conservative political tide of Thatcher in the late 70s. However, it provides what is perhaps a more radical conception of identity than the black-and-white checkerboard that crudely emblematized unification for English rude boys.

Young Thug (photo: Facebook)

SoundCloud rappers are bound together by a particularly late millennial brand of disillusion and apathy in which a collective will to power is without hope. They therefore seek power at the level of the individual: chasing bills and pouring them into designer brands and luxury goods, getting highs and lows via syrup and pharmaceuticals of choice, and often adopting a sleek new model of revenge-thirsty, violent misogyny that could only be found from the fusion of late-aughts emo and early 2010s hype-rap à la Odd Future. This last realm is most striking when it is held alongside the for-granted Gen Z ambivalence toward gender expression that accompanies their racial ambivalence. As told by Young Thug (a pioneer of much of this), “When I was 12, my feet were so small I wore my sisters’ glitter shoes. My dad would whoop me: ‘You’re not going to school now, you’ll embarrass us!’ But I never gave a fuck what people think.” “White” aesthetics and “feminine” articles are now unabashedly and unironically absorbed into the culture. Identities have never been so loud and so foggy.

Even Kanye — hip-hop’s auteur par excellence — had his fun with social production and consumption this year. By surprise-releasing the cheap and quirky “Lift Yourself” on a whim and later crowdsourcing edits for the still yet-to-be-released YANDHI during a visit to The FADER’s offices (a visit that was two days prior to the album’s initially announced release date), he formally disrupted the unbreachable distance of his celebrity (in a way akin to our president’s unorthodox use of the presidential Twitter account).

Beyond this, however, Kanye’s 2018 collaborations amount to a perversion of what Burton accomplished with Low: his producerial voice and larger-than-life celebrity subsumed the particulars of Pusha T, Teyana Taylor, Kid Cudi, and Nas such that their summer output also represented the many masks of Kanye. Admittedly, this seems to have worked out for the best in each instance, but on the whole, the effect and its reinforcement of Kanye’s auteur-affirming mythos is disheartening to say the least.

Amidst all this, I return to the question of a small Star of David necklace. I’m still contending whether or not the purchase of it would prove to be a meaningful gesture (for an audience of myself alone, I think). I have to reconcile from whence this urge arose.

It arose from my own sudden recognition that, although I did not practice it, although I did not express it, although I did not think of myself in terms of it, my Jewish lineage had now been forcibly asserted as a quality that one could violently construe as the whole of my identity. What I felt was some allure toward the reclamation of this latent identity that I perhaps wished to own for myself before it was placed upon me.

I felt this in tandem with the burden of guilt and shame that culminated for this white-skinned boy amidst the state of American politics and the events of #MeToo. These events led me perversely to the condition of so many non-white non-boys before me: the hope to leave my body behind me. To claim that I could leave my body would be absurd, willfully ignoring material truths, privileges my body affords me whether I wish to accept them or not. But the question is whether or not I could cling to the Star of David without inadvertently signaling a false, hyperbolized sense of oppression and victimhood given what I still feel to be a relatively safe personal context: I don’t regularly congregate with other Jews, and I don’t particularly stand out amidst my typical Los Angeles cultural landscape. Perhaps I felt that such a necklace would remind me of what I apparently was and was not: a Jew. That any such attachment to an Identity as such could never quite feel apt. The star could serve as a totem for the way my identity was not. I return lastly to Isaac Deutscher, an anti-Zionist Jewish intellectual who arrived at these conclusions in 1966 in an article titled “Who Is A Jew?” as collected in The Non-Jewish Jew (2017):

When one raises the question of the Jewish identity, one starts from the assumption of the existence of a positive identity. But are we entitled to make such an assumption? In this period of the history of the world is not Jewish consciousness a reflex, in the main, of anti-semitic pressures? […] What has been permanently recreating Jewry and imparting ever new vitality to it, has been a hostile gentile environment. […] That is why I think that the role of the intellectuals — Jews and non-Jews alike — of those who are aware of the depth of the Jewish tragedy and the menace of its recurrence, is to remain eternal protesters: to maintain the opposition to the powers that be, to militate against the taboos and conventions, to struggle for a society in which nationalism and racialism will at last lose their hold on the human mind.

This is the work of the many, the techniques and gestures of which we will find, and are finding, together.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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