"Dumb It Down" - A Reevaluation of A “Dead” Art - By Whitney Wilcher and Brittany Gonzalez

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

What began as an avenue of expression, hip-hop quickly became a commercialized product that fell victim to media-enticed stereotypes and materialism. As a means of capitalizing on the hottest trends in entertainment, record labels began to urge artists to reinforce images of black male hyper-masculinity and unruliness, marginalization and objectification of women’s sexuality, and the sub-par educational standards of the inner city within the confines of their music. This then ushered in a new phase of hip-hop that appeared to have lost sight of its historical roots as a mouthpiece for the community to the larger world. This has aided in the coining of the common saying/ belief that “hip-hop is dead”.

While many agree that in a larger sense, hip-hop has lost its way, there are many popular hip-hop artists including Common, Lupe Fiasco, Jay-Z, Nas, and Outkast who have successfully injected the original essence of hip hop into their music while maintaining their monetary longevity within the mainstream arena. In other words, they have been able to produce chart-topping hits that are embedded with commentaries on the issues facing their communities. However, in order to do so, these artists have created an illusion of adhering to the stereotypes of the industry but through their use of metaphors/ personification, manipulation of the beat and background aesthetics, and carefully crafted lyrics, they have been able to defy those stereotypes. This is due to the fact that artists have traditionally been forced to choose between success and protest as “cultural expressions of discontent are no longer protected by the insulated social sites historically encouraged the resistive transcript…particularly when it contradicts and subverts dominant ideological positions.” (Rose, 101)

Before a single word is uttered, the listener is being fed clues as to the “hidden transcript” embedded in the song. The beat is preceded by a series of dog barks that continue throughout the entire track. While, aesthetically, one might attribute that to the seemingly violent lyrics that are to follow, there appears to be more at stake here. Traditionally, dogs are symbols of violence and carry a notion of being unruly, which is one way of interpreting this feature of the song. Additionally, one might also consider the fact that the voice of the dog, the bark, is too considered to be untamable, much like the beast making the noise, as it resonates continuously and rather uncontrollably and sporadically. This can be seen as sending Nas’ way of sending a message to not only his listener but to the media that one can “attempt to contain the beast but not control his cry” (Saddick, 111). Other songs including Lupe Fiasco’s “Put You On Game” send similar messages with his use of repeated gun shots throughout the song and ending in a resounding single shot at the very end and appearing to cut off the last word of the song. Fiasco here appears to be sending a very strong message of violence but juxtaposes that with the “cutting off” of ones voice by the supposed violence he is portraying via the gunshots.

To help the audience decode the “hidden transcript”, artists have been forced to be creative with their delivery tactics as well in order to assist in the decoding process. Additional features of the coded protest embedded in “One Mic” include a very noticeable increase in volume around the middle of the first and second verses juxtaposed with a soft and mellow repetition of “all I need is one mic”. While this can easily be interpreted as a display of anger and a sense of hyper-masculinity that is said to be stereotypical of black males, it is critical to examine the moments of vocal elevation in each verse. A noticeable switch occurs when Nas begins to reference a need to acknowledge “hood politics” in the first verse, the fact that “bullets tear through the innocent” in the second verse, and when he begins the third verse he speaks of his ability to be that “one life… one man” to affect change and stand for something better. Consistently, Nas appears to raise his voice when speaking of issues concerning the issues in the “hood” and lowers his voice when is reflecting on his own life. Additionally, he ends each moment of “rage” with a famous quote from many activists of the Civil Rights Movement: “the time is now.” In doing so, Nas makes it clear that this song, while blatantly angry and upset, is calling on the oppressed to act now and encourages other artists to use their one mic for good. He furthers his message to his fellow artists when he concludes his final chorus with commentaries like “f*** the car, the jewelry/ all I need is one mic to spread my voice to the world.”

“One of the central reasons that hip hop artists, music, and culture as a whole have been criticized as “dangerous” lies in the power of the performing body to subvert traditional, hence safe, modes of representation in America, even as it embraces the commodity capitalism of the American Dream.” (Saddick, 113) In other words, hip-hop has been kept on a tight leash by the music industry in an effort to curtail any notions of disrupting social order, even as it relates to this notion of the American Dream. The Saddick article goes on to speak of the ways in which a double standard exists as it relates to hip-hop and the rest of the world. According to Ice Cube, “To be American is to flaunt what you got [...] and to try to have a little more than the next man” (Saddick, 110). If this is true, then it becomes difficult to justify society’s criticism of hip-hop as being egotistical.

Songs like Lupe Fiasco’s “Superstar” and Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High” are littered with the personal pronouns and references to monetary success; however, they provide various lyrical clues that their intent is to either mock those in “power” in the industry or to personify an issue facing the community. Fiasco’s “Superstar” presents metaphorically speaks about the industry as being like a party with a guestlist, only the “more famous people… and the sexy lady next to you” can get in. He goes on repeat “If you are…a superstar, then have no fear, the camera’s here/ [the crowd is here] and they want a show…” as if to mock those artists who make egotistical claims, put present nothing on stage. He later says, “the audience ain’t phased and they ain’t gone clap and they ain't get gone praise” as if to suggest that consumers and listeners are not impressed with these claims. Additionally, the last verse frames a scenario where the artist that waited in line for “tickets” to the industry, got to the front, and they had ran out of tickets. He then begs to be taken back to him home. This can be read to correlate with a need for artists to “come back home” much like in West’s “Homecoming” representing a return to their foundations.

An issue that has recently received significant amount of attention from scholars is hip-hop’s blatant objectification of women’s sexuality. Rooted in the statistically proven notion that “sex sells”, plenty of artists have jumped at the opportunity to sell more records at the expense of the image of minority women at large. Some artists, however, have creatively found ways to embed a larger message underneath lyrics that appear to objectify women. A famous example of such a metaphor can be seen in Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and in Kanye West’s “Homecoming”. Common, specifically personifies the development of hip-hop as a woman he met when he was young that he has watched grow into a commercialized “tragedy”. He metaphorically speaks of hip-hop’s selling out as being like this girl he loved in his youth that has been “turned out” by people that took advantage of “her” and enticed her with promises of money and diamonds.

Similarly, Kanye West’s “Homecoming” speaks of how his hometown too became plagued with issues facing other urban communities in America. He speaks of how he left and didn’t look back until now when things have changed. In his second verse he even states, “if you really cared for her then you would never hit the airport to follow your dream… I guess you never know what you got till it’s gone/ I guess this is why I’m here…”. On the one hand one might interpret this to be Kanye simply reminiscing on a childhood crush, but he sets the record straight, as does Common, by explicitly stating “I’m talkin’ bout Chi town” or Hip-hop for Common. While mapping their journey to discovery or destruction for the “women” in their songs, they are sending their respective communities a strong message/ warning about the direction in which they are moving and thus taking their communities with them.

While there appears to be an number of artists that fail to recognize any aspect of the historic culture of hip hop in their music, there is also a commendable number of artists that do. Concerning the population of artists that do attempt to speak on behalf of their communities, they are forced to code their message of protest behind the “public transcript” that packages hip-hop into boxes of stereotypes. In order for hip-hop to sell, the industry executives have set the precedent that sex, money, and violence will control this industry. Therefore, in order for artists to get signed and even get their voice heard, they are forced to give the impression that their music is “boxable” (fits a category of the stereotypes). This technique makes it difficult for a reader to reinterpret, but the artists provide various clues to aid in that process. The listener has to not only be open to alternative interpretations, but it often requires them to pay close attention to various artistic aesthetics that are often overshadowed by a need for a catchy beat and chorus.

Works Cited

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Saddik. Annette J. "Rap's Unruly Body: The Postmodern Performance of Black Male Identity on the American Stage." The Drama Review, Winter 2003, Vol. 47, No. 4, 110-27.


Iconic Minority Women in Music - By Nikia Crawford and Jonathan Lesko

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

Media link: http://pocwomeninmusic.livejournal.com/

Throughout popular music history, minority women have predominantly fulfilled the role of the “center stage” singer, the object of desire and the “passive” receptacle of cultural projections of femininity. This phenomenon is largely the result of commercial constructions of conventional representations, set in stage by the popular music industry, emphasizing physical appearance, sexuality, public relations and non- or minimally musical aspects of performance and production. This has caused a racial and gender bias that refuses to acknowledge the creative “ownership” of minority female artists, and places an extraordinary burden on those that aspire to break the mold. Our paper then, seeks to deconstruct the representations of a survey of contemporary, iconic minority female singers in order to compare and contrast images of transgression and empowerment with the expectations of the commercial status quo.

Mathangi Arulpragasam, a British-born music artist of Sri Lankan descent known by her stage name M.I.A., has risen to mainstream stardom in recent years, particularly with her latest record, Kala. She has received much critical acclaim for her atypical vocal stylings, blending of diverse genres, fashion sense and lyrical and public political commentary. In breaking with the industry conventions for female minority singers, she has been intimately involved in the writing and production process of her music, represents a “global” image that refuses simplistic associations between ethnicity, geography and musical genre, and has confidently asserted a female perspective in her music.

In cooperation with UK producer Switch, she wrote and produced the single, “Boyz.” She also was involved in directing the video, effectively conceptualizing the flashy, vibrant, boisterous style that has since become emblematic of her commercial and artistic image. Instead of linking herself with a single geographical locale, such as Hip-hop’s celebratory use of New York City as its birthplace or cultural hub, M.I.A. transcends national boundaries, ushering in an era of musical and aesthetic “transnationalism.”

“Boyz” was filmed in Kingston, Jamaica, and its musical components recorded in multiple locales, including Chennai, India, Trinidad and Brooklyn. The video features the colors of the Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Trinidadian flag, as well as the Islamic crescent and star, used on various flags throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It stars an all-male crew of Jamaican dancers, and some of the choreography specifically speaks to contemporary dancehall trends. The lyrics incorporate Jamaican dance slang and Patois language. “Boyz” also brings to the fore striking female commentary about masculinity, exposing the aggressive, insecure, promiscuous and abusive nature that can be likened to what Kim Hester-Williams has described as the “possessive individualism” of masculinity within Hip-hop culture. She points out the foolishness of masculine rituals of binge drinking, “hustling,” and fighting, singing, “How many no money boyz are rowdy? How many start a war?” In doing so, a female voice decries the alpha male personality at the core of war-like political strife.

Karen Lee Orzolek, popularly known as Karen O, is the Korean-American lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a rock group based out of New York City. They have achieved reputable fame as a major label band, releasing several singles from two LPs, Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones. While they have made it “big,” they continue to cater to music fans with interest in “indie” rock and its anti-mainstream aesthetics.

The controversial video for their single, “Y Control,” directed by Spike Jonze, contains vivid, grotesque imagery depicting Karen O as a kind of perverse maternal figure among “orphan” street children. It is shot predominantly in a damp, dingy underground garage, suggested as the children’s home. The children commit criminal acts of vandalism and property destruction, wielding axes, golf clubs and hammers and bashing cars and pianos with bats. One scene flippantly depicts child mutilation. Another shows a child writing “We Are All Going to Hell” in graffiti. A motif of macabre is sustained in the video with a scene of a child vampire who bites Karen O’s neck, and children carrying and wrestling a dead dog.

What these characteristics amount to is a transgression of society’s conception of motherhood. Karen O explicitly betrays the social sensibility that a mother figure must create a healthy, safe and moral household, and discipline her children. Karen O’s indiscretion is thus a feminist social commentary challenging conventional “family” values, rejecting the singular and “natural” notion that a female must raise a family and fulfill the role of caretaker within the domestic sphere. Notably, the song’s title refers to the male “Y” chromosome and the oppressive “control” of patriarchy. Karen sings, “Well, I’m just a poor little baby, ‘cause well, I believe them all.” She seems to be emulating the personality of a female caught under the paternalistic arm of a patriarchic society, speaking to the way in which ideologies of male-dominance and heteronormativity become internalized, and even practiced by the oppressed.

African American hip-hop artist Missy Elliot is popularly known for her fashion sensibilities while refusing to conform to the demands of the music industry on the physical appearance of black female performers. Historically, African American females have been burdened by the expectation to sexualize the black female body, to “downplay” “blackness” (with the presupposition that it would alienate white listeners) and to obey the imposition of conventional “Hollywood” looks. Aside from developing her own independent sense of style, she has also openly declared her intention to present the “black” “roots” of Hip-hop, such as in the conceptualization of the record, The Cookbook. She says, “Whether they [African Americans] was on railroad tracks or cooking in somebody's kitchen, they was always singing.”

Elliot’s video for a single from the same record, “Lose Control,” celebrates black musical heritage and alludes to historical racial injustice. In one choreographed scene, Elliot, along with fellow performer, Ciara, recreate a setting fairly reminiscent of the video for “St. Louis Blues” by the eminent blues “queen,” Bessie Smith. It is shot in black and white and stars solely black performers. Females wear white dresses and males black pants with suspenders. However, instead of being filmed at the bar, like Smith’s video, it is filmed in the “back of the house,” seemingly in a storage area of a kitchen. This speaks to the nature of segregation and job discrimination against African Americans, who were often relegated to the aspects of service jobs that were “out of the sight” of white patrons and owners.

This survey of minority female singers provides a lens by which to view the status quo of popular music and the attempts to transgress it. These artists have broken with some of the impositions of physical appearance on minority females in the public eye. They have also actively participated in the creation and production of their music, music videos and artistic image. Furthermore, they show the way in which artistic vision and consciousness of racial and gender identity can be used to loosen the strictures of social inequality that in many ways are reflected in, fabricated and perpetuated by popular music.

Works cited

  1. Pytlik, Mark. “M.I.A.:Kala.” Pitchfork Media. http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/ record_review/44983-kala (accessed December 2, 2008).
  2. Wikipedia contributors, “Boyz,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boyz_(song) (accessed December 2, 2008).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Hester-Williams, Kim. “Eminem, Masculine Striving, and the Dangers of Possessive Individualism.” Genders 46 (2007): 1-39.
  5. M.I.A. “Boyz.” Kala. XL! Recordings, 2007.
  6. Wikipedia contributors, “Karen O.”
  7. Ibid., “Y Control.”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “Y Control.” Fever to Tell. Interscope Records, 2003.
  10. Reid, Shaheem. “Missy Elliot’s Greatest Challenge on The Cookbook: Getting Ciara to Rap.” MTV. http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1505732/20050714/elliott_missy.jhtml (accessed December 2, 2008).
  11. Ibid


"Digital Credibility" in Field Research

I’m an ethnographer/blogger.

My dissertation research investigates the social and musical lives of American rock musicians of Asian descent. On the one hand, I follow the conventional methods of participant observation as I travel to ‘field sites’ such as nightclubs, bars, and coffee shops to witness live performances and hang out with musicians. On the other hand, I participate in the indie music scene by blogging on YellowBuzz.org about my field research experiences. My online participation, however disembodied and virtual, is significant due to the centrality of user-produced or independent media in the indie rock music scenes. For the most part, these research methods take on two distinct lives. Sometimes they intersect and yield interesting results.


Ethnographic work on performing arts can sometimes be logistically challenging in our intensely mediated worlds. Typically I carry a number of recording devices including a digital SLR camera, a mini-DV recorder, a handheld digital audio recorder, a laptop computer, and a notebook. This list can be extended or shortened depending on the nature of activities (interviews vs. live performances). Sometimes it is contingent upon whether I expect to make music during my visits.

Early this fall, I took a series of field research trips to New York City. On one of these trips, I doubled (well, actually tripled) my identity: field researcher, musician, and scholar. I was invited to perform and speak with students at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. I took the chance to double-dip this visit by scheduling some interviews and making plans to attend shows in New York. So I had a four-bag system: a backpack (my laptop, notebook, show flyers, The Village Voice, other paper products), a carry-on suitcase (audio-visual recording devices and clothes), an electric guitar case, and a guitar pedalboard (assorted guitar effect pedals).

After the mini-residency at Wheaton College, I took the Amtrak to New York City. Long story short, my case of guitar effect pedals (worth $1500!) got stolen on the train a few stops north of New York Penn Station. I frantically filed a report with the Amtrak Police. No recovery prevailed. Bummed out as I was, I dragged myself to a midtown bar for an interview with Johnnie Wang of the band A Black China. After I told Johnnie about my misfortunes, he offered to buy me a bear. That was the beginning of our friendship. We bonded over being musicians first, then being Americans of Taiwanese/Asian heritage.

My meeting with Johnnie invigorated me and reminded me of the purpose of my dissertation research. I went to a show the following night in New Jersey and had an interview meeting with Joe Kim of Kite Operations right before my flight back to Charlottesville, with one bag short.


It took me a while to figure out the educational values and perhaps the theoretical fruitfulness of this experience. This experience can be seen in light of a few issues: methodological approaches to technology, empathy (and relationship) with informants, and researcher’s ‘field identity.’ So, does technology enhance or hinder field research? Frankly, I didn’t end up using most of my recording devices on this trip. During interviews and other exchanges, my informants and I chatted away while I took mental notes. My field-note-taking took place only after the meetings ended.

But oddly, (the loss of) technology brought me closer to my informants. The story of losing my guitar gear generated a sense of empathy from my informants. I share with them an intimate engagement with music-making technology. They too often travel with gear for both music-making and recording purposes and some have encountered experiences, personally or vicariously, with gear problems. In many ways, it’s not strange at all that I carry so much gear with me. The physical and social attachment to technology is a central part of being and moving around in this media-blasted world. In this case, technological gear adorns me as a tech-media savvy researcher and blogger. This kind of ‘digital credibility’ has helped me earn not only access to, but also empathy and respect from my field informants.

Excess technological devices can weigh down users. But this is not only an academic concern specific to field research methods, as it is a more pervasive issue in the digital age. My responsibility is to figure out the best logistical and theoretical approaches to both online and offline interactions in my field research. I’m still working on it.


This entry was originally posted on UVa's Scholars' Lab Blog.


Book Reviews: Sensational Knowledge and Queering the Popular Pitch

Academic publications take a long time. I wrote a couple of book reviews last year. They just came out this fall.

My review of Tomie Hahn's award-winning book Sensational Knowledge finally got published in the November issue of Women and Music. Download the pdf here.

My review of Queering the Popular Pitch edited by Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga came out in Journal of Popular Music Studies. Download the pdf here.


Press on YellowBuzz!

A few weeks ago I was approached by Miyu Kataoka from Pacific Citizen Newspaper interested in writing about Asian American bloggers. The article just came out:


Thanks for your ongoing support!


Labels: Love Them or Hate Them - By Nancy Graves and Mia Stephens

Student Mixtape Project Series: No. 1, No. 2, No.3

Robin Thicke and Cowboy Troy are two examples of contemporary artists seeking to redefine American music genres. Robin Thicke is a white American who refuses to accept musical labels based on race -- such as “blue-eyed soul.” He declares himself an R&B artist, not a white man composing and singing black music. Cowboy Troy, on the other hand, is a black American, playing country music, a traditionally white form of music. He has elected to create his own sub-genre of “Hick Hop” in country music in an effort to avoid criticism and discomfort, working as a black man in a white genre.

Robin Thicke's most popular hit entitled, “Lost Without U” has a signature R&B sound. It uses a low base backbeat and low piano riff in contrast to Thicke’s falsetto vocals. Falsetto is an artificial voice that allows singers, particularly men, to sing in an octave higher than he or she’s normal range. This vocal style is extremely popular in R&B music and is used by many other artists such as Prince, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and the Bee Gees. The song is written in 4/4 key signature what all western and popular music is based on and also contains a sample from Hip-Hop group Gangstarr’s song “Mass Appeal" (Thicke). The direct sampling of an R&B song and its 4/4 signature makes it hard to ignore the R&B sound in “Lost Without U.” The lyrics of the song refer to his relationship with a woman, both physically and emotionally. He expresses his love for her and dependency on her because he is “lost without” her. He surrenders himself to her powers presenting himself as a sweet, vulnerable man instead of a dominant macho figure. This softer side goes along with the tone and sound of R&B that offers another sensual and sensitive image of men.

Although the sound may vary slightly, a similar image is presented in all of Thicke’s songs. His hit “Magic” is more upbeat than “Lost Without U” using piano, violin, and horn in contrast to the emphasis on an acoustic guitar in “Lost Without U.” While the musical sound changes, his lyrics still present a similar image as he openly declares his love for this person. What he and his lover share he calls the “magic”, but makes a point to say that it is not just his magic or hers but that they share the magic. Again, this is an image of a man not afraid to openly express his feelings and emotions. Based solely on the titles in his list discography this theme is extremely apparent. This list includes titles such as: “I Need Love”, “Loverman”, “Wanna Love u Girl”, “The Sweetest Love”, “You’re my Baby”. Each title is extremely suggestive and alludes to sex and love, but in a soft, sensual way not in a forceful or crude manner. Many R&B artists use this style, but Thicke seems to have mastered it in his own unique way only furthering his individualism and success through his racial persona.

He grew up in a musical family with his father who composed the themes for hit shows “Different Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” and his mom as an actress. His dad was a Bruce Springsteen fan and his mother more of a Whitney Houston, soul fan giving him equal exposure to different types of music. As a teen he was immediately drawn to black music, began reading Ebony magazine and writing songs for an array of artists by 16 years old. . He knew that soul was traditionally black music, but did not limit his influences to only the artists of this genre. “I’m (Thicke) inspired by Jodeci. I’m inspired by Stevie Wonder. I’m inspired by Miles Davis. I’m inspired by John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and the Beatles also.” (Allen) He clearly does not limit himself and his list of influences, but rather embraces them all and acknowledges their excellence. These influences are evident in his attitude, style and song and are all incorporated to his overall image, but ultimately he is a white guy who looks like a white guy but sings black music (Allen). But while, many try to categorize his music as “Blue- eyed soul,” he would argue that he is just creating his own R&B music.

While charts and many fans and music scholars alike call Thicke’s music R&B, others need more labeling. They need to categorize him further, placing him into the sub- genre of “Blue-eyed soul.” Blue-eyed soul developed in the Southern United States during the 1960’s when white males began performing typically black male music because segregation laws prohibiting blacks to perform in white venues (Amorosi). This appropriation began even before in the 1950’s with artists like Elvis Presley who recreated blues singer, Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train”. In the 60’s it was no longer just the appropriation of the songs, but it was the appropriation of the lyrics of soul and rhythm and blues. This is what is considered “blue eyed soul today”, soul or R & B music played by white musicians. The “blue” is a racial reference to white people and the Arian race because the majority have blue eyes. Robin Thicke’s music is often labeled as “blue-eyed soul,” but he repeatedly tells press that he does not want to be labeled. In the recent Washington Post article “Robin Thicke: Pretty Fly for a White Guy,” Thicke states, "I'm not a white guy who sells endless amounts of records to white people," he says. "Eighty or 90 percent of my fans are African Americans, mostly grown black women. That's who's at my shows, who's buying my music, who's listening to me on the radio. I think that's pretty interesting…I still haven't really been played on pop radio, not like R&B. " As he talks about the status of "Magic" the first single from his new album "Something Else" as it is in the Top 10 of Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart but, has barely registered on the Billboard Hot 100 (Freedom du Lac).

Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Troy Coleman, a.k.a. Cowboy Troy attended many rodeos and stock shows with his dad as a young boy. He was exposed to his dad’s musical favorites including Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, Jerry Reed and Kenny Rogers. In his teen years he found new influences in the rap and hip hop artist he through MTV. "That's where Run-DMC came in," he said. In college at University of Texas, Austin, artist like George Strait influenced him. "I was blown away…I remember telling myself that this is what I need to be listening to." So he listened to everything and assimilated it into his own style that he performed at Country dance clubs before he was signed (Fabian).

Each of Cowboy Troy’s songs includes these two elements of rap and country and combines them both lyrically and musically. The titles of his songs include the words like “chickens”, “trains”, “buffaloes” referring to farm and rural country life and typical country lingo like “yee-haw”, “ain’t” and “Mama”. His titles make his music seem one dimensional, but his lyrics open up another world that mix many political and racial references. In “I Play Chicken with the Train”, Cowboy Troy acknowledges that he is a black man in the country world and also explains how he has overcome such doubts from the industry. “Uh huh that’s what they said/ People said it’s impossible, / Not probable, too radical/ But I already been on the CMA’s/ Hell Tim McGraw said he like the change/ And he likes the way my hick-hop sounds (Lyrics.com).

What is most important to note about his music is that while his songs such as “I play Chicken With the Train” and “My Last Yee-haw,” include traditional country instrumentation like the banjo, dobro, fiddle, acoustic guitar and pedal steel, as well as, rock guitar riffs, his rap delivery makes the music different from traditional country. In traditional country lyrics are extraordinarily economical, using 150 or fewer words, and the compact result is often poetic and evocative. (Lomax) In Cowboy Troy’s Hick Hop songs, he uses upwards of 400 words. “I Play Chicken with the Train, there are 424 words and in “My Last Yee-Haw” there are 463 words. (lyrics.com) The number of words is doubled or tripled due to the fast paced nature of his rap delivery. While many think that hick hop is a way of merging the black artist into traditionally white music, it is not his race that defines the genre, but the vocals that make the genre what it is.

The origins of Hick Hop are still debated but many sources claim that it originated in Appalachia prisons as a way to cut tension between the white officials and black inmates. They used the combination of country music and hip-hop music to bring them together, finding common ground between the two cultures. Hick Hop is a country/rock sound with rap vocals. The first collaboration was between fiddler Dirk Powell and hip-hop artist Danjamowf in 1990s. Their creation was “ magical—an oil-and-water mystery that held together in spite of the perceived difference” (Berkes). Cowboy Troy has had similar success working with country superstars such as Big & Rich. His album Loco Motive debuted at #2 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. The first single, "I Play Chicken with the Train," featuring Big & Rich peaked at #48 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart on April 9, 2005 and was a #1 country download at the iTunes Music Store on April 15, 2005. (CowboyTroy.com). His audience consists of mostly country music fans: southern white, middle class. He tells the Washington Times his fan base is unique because “the majority of my fans are the people that gravitate towards pro wrestling. They like heavy metal. People say I think outside the box” (Corey).

Both of these artists cross genres both musically and racially and are forced to either associate with one or forced into one: Blue-eyed soul for Robin Thicke and Hick Hop for Cowboy Troy. Each is unable to create their music without criticism, but Thicke and Troy manage to look past this criticism to something greater. Thicke and Troy both acknowledge their positions as racial outsiders among certain genres, but manage to establish themselves through sub-genres or major genres. They provide a glimpse of what will happen in the music industry as race and genre continue to be categorized. As music evolves and different genres and artist crossover, more labels will be implemented to make up for our necessity to find order.



Teaching @ UVa: Student Mixtape Project

This semester I taught a 100-level self-designed course titled Gender and Race in Popular Music in the Department of Studies in Women and Gender at University of Virginia. This course explores the relationship between popular music, gender, and race, with a focus on, but not excluded to, popular music emerged in 20th and 21st century in the United States. We spent the first half of the semester discussing historical (pre-1960s) musical genres and practices starting with blackface minstrelsy, pre-WWII racially segregated genres such as hillbilly music and race music. Then we spent some time talking about rhythm and blues of the 1940s and the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s. We then spent about a month talking about the discursively rich genres of rock music and hip hop and ended with music subcultures such as punk (hardcore, Riot Grrrrl, and homocore), dance music in the South Asian diaspora, and queer musical representations like the rock musical film Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Throughout the semester, we read scholarly articles that explore issues of gender and race through examining popular musical material. In class, we discussed how notions of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity shape the American experience of pop music, and vice versa. We had a blast examining mainstream and below-visible media in class exhausting our YouTube playback capability.

I designed a “mixtape project” as the final project of the course. Working in pairs, the students came up with a theme and a list of songs related to the theme. The assignment asked the students to critically engage with primary sources (they had the option of choosing to focus on either music recordings or music videos) while considering how these audio-visual materials resonate with course concepts. The final product of the project consists of an in-class presentation, a “mixtape” in the form of a CD-R or a list of video links, and an essay that comments on the historical and social aspects of the project theme and selected media material.

Some students focused their research on the career of particular artists: Jay-Z, Ani DiFranco, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliot were among their favorites. Some other student groups concentrated on musical genres such as gangster rap, protest songs, cover songs, indie music, girl groups, and boy bands, etc., and local music scenes in Seattle and Austin. Finally, a few groups based their project theme on identity categories such as women rock musicians and minority female musicians, or organized their music using concepts such as crossover and “hidden transcript” (James C. Scott cited by Tricia Rose). The breadth of these projects was impressive, and the depth of some was astounding.

For the next few posts on YellowBuzz, I will feature a series of student “mixtape projects.” I will select some of the best passages out of their papers while including related media whenever possible.

I'm very proud of my SWAG 144 class. Great work, everyone!


Pictures!!! Hsu-nami @ Don Hills Club, NYC

I received an invitation from Irene Chen to attend the Taiwanese Welcome Party at Don Hills Club in downtown Manhattan. This event was organized by Federation Taiwanese Student Association in New York (FTSANY). The event served as a mixer for all the overseas Taiwanese students of the New York metropolitan area.

Hsu-nami was the headliner of the evening. Here are some highlights captured by my new camera, given by my father and brother for my birthday.

Jack Hsu & Brent Bergholm



Tony Aichele and Jack.

Check out the rest of the album for the Hsu-nami set.


Prabir and the Substitutes Revinent Rock Music

Richmond-based Indie pop-rock band Prabir and the Substitutes showered us with a truckload of fun at Norfolk’s Taphouse on Saturday after Thanksgiving. They tricked the clock by performing with extreme energy. They danced unabashedly and knocked the Thanksgiving food lethargy out of some of us in the audience. Most impressively, Prabir and the Substitutes transformed familiar and vintage rock music tropes.

Prabir and the Substitutes aren’t really about the dark, somber aspects of the blues. Marked by a postmodernist split personality, their blues comfortably drifts among the transient references of American popular music. Most striking to my ear is their leaning toward the 1950s Rock n Roll reinventions of the blues, a kind of party blues that appealed to the mass market of white middle class youth in the United States. Their blues-on-speed comes and goes in a hurry. No preponderance and reverence, just sheer exhilaration. Prabir, the band’s lead singer, moves his hips while doing the “Twist”, part Elvis Presley, part James Brown.

Some critical sources have associated Prabir and the Substitutes with the Beatles. (And they have toured with some Beatles cover bands.) With great songwriting skills, Prabir and the Substitutes whip out songs of distinct characters. The band uses a Wilco-esque humor and boldness presenting the 12-bar structure of the blues into little discreet packages, readily identifiable yet refreshing. They jumble up these packages with other memorable moments in rock history by covering one of Talkings Heads' dance rock songs and doing 3 or 4-part harmony. During the set, they even abandoned their loud, amplified rock instruments and formed a circle to sing a capella in a four-part style of barbershop quartet for an entire number. Prabir and the Substitutes seemed secure of their stage identity that they let in silence and unamplified sounds with confidence.

Interesting reinventions of the blues are hard to come by these days. Using vintage rock instruments and some “roots” sounds like banjo picking, the Black Keys hit plentiful blue notes in their songs and exhibit a general inebriated aesthetic as imagined of the 1920s and 30s country blues guitarists of the Mississippi Delta. Unlike the Black Keys, Prabir and the Substitutes are not quite as concerned with the various notions of “authenticity” when it comes to the blues. Blatantly or self-consciously, they seem to peel away the centrality of country blues men of the American south in the rock music canon as constructed by the blues-rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, and Jimmy Page of the 60s and 70s.

I am a sucker for well-studied and well-composed music. The only thing I could ask for more is a similar kind of attention to the lyrics. I have to say, I felt some RVA pride at this show. This is not because I went to school with Prabir. It was because Prabir and the Substitutes reminded me how many Richmond-based musicians strive on maximizing the use of their cultural, intellectual, and financial resources, regardless of the meagerness of environment, while being innovative.