Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Why not Classic Rap?

Amy and I were getting our exercise in the park yesterday evening, and a band was set up on one of the football fields. It’s part of a yearly program set up by one of the banks, and locals were out in force to see them–lawn chairs, coolers, umbrellas, portable gazebos. The ones we could see were my age or older, so early-middle age to boomer, and mostly white, and they were there to hear a classic rock cover band.

Amy noted that the band plays the same songs year after year–“Brown Eyed Girl,” “Your Momma Don’t Dance,” “Pink Houses”–and I was struck by the way those songs had transformed over the decades they’d been around. These are family-friendly songs now, not because they are any less suggestive than their contemporary counterparts, but because they’re old, and because the people who listened to them when they were young (and who scandalized their parents with them) are old too. These songs comfort middle-aged white people, which is who makes up most of the classic rock demographic.

I’m not writing this with a sneer either–I’ve got a lot of that music on my computer, and I’ve got the tabs to more than one of the songs they played in the binder that sits next to my rarely-strummed acoustic. I get where these people are coming from.

But it also got me wondering why the “classic” label doesn’t seem to have jumped genres. Mainstream rap has been around for 25 years now–Run-D.M.C.’s “King of Rock” dropped in 1985, and they were just the first to get airplay on MTV–and yet I don’t see classic rap radio stations or classic rap cover bands. I think there’s some version of this for country music, but I don’t know what the label is, and I also wonder if that has something to do with the slower evolution of the country sound over the last 60 years.

There’s not even much in the way of classic rap for the radio. I did a google search for “classic rap radio” and got links to Pandora and a bunch of internet radio stations, but nothing broadcast. “Old school radio” got me one radio station about halfway down the first page, but even that was for a hybrid station, old school paired with R&B. Shouldn’t there be a market for people who want to hear Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Salt-n-Pepa, Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Marley Marl? Or are we resigned to making Pandora playlists or plugging our heads with earbuds?

I think, if I saw a band playing locally that advertised itself as an old school hip-hop cover band, I’d go. I’d go in a heartbeat, just to hear live some different songs from my youth. Hell, I get excited when I hear a cover band stretch itself by playing something as simple as “How Soon Is Now.” What would I do if someone busted out with “I was a fiend before I became a teen. I melted microphones instead of cones of ice cream”? Crap my pants in delight, that’s what I’d do.

And that has to be the case for the people who are slightly younger than I am. I’ll be 42 in November, which means I was in my mid-to-late teens when rap started to blow up. By the early nineties, rap and hip-hop were a real force in contemporary music, right up there with grunge (which is already being folded into the “classic rock” genre). If we really do form the bulk of our musical tastes in our teenage years, then there has to be a group of early-middle-aged adults who were forever affected by that music. Who’s catering to them?

So if there are any middle-aged former MCs out there who are looking to put the band back together, even if the band is just you and a buddy with a couple of turntables, let me know. I’ll come see your show, and I’ll drag along as many of my friends as I can find.


July 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Rumpus Is a Place for Poets

Isaac Fitzgerald, the awesome managing editor of The Rumpus, just posted this little blurb promoting our Supersized Combo with Neil de la Flor, and I want to return some love.

About a year and a half ago, Stephen Elliott invited me to write a weekly column on poetry–a weekly linkfest, if you will–to be published on The Rumpus every weekend. I’d written for Stephen before, on his website, and had read with him years before at the Stanford Bookstore (which was filmed by BookTV, my one moment of fame), so I took him up on it. And then I wrote a piece on Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, and a review of Dan Albergotti’s The Boatloads. And after a little more flirting, Stephen proposed–would I like to be the poetry editor.

So to the extent that I’ve been able to make The Rumpus a place for poets, it’s due Stephen’s conscious effort to make it so. Stephen’s given me a great deal of latitude to publish what I want, in the manner I want, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. Most weeks now we publish at least one, and often two reviews of new collections of poetry, along with original poems I’ve solicited, and occasionally, interviews with younger poets.

It’s been really good for me as well. I’ve broadened my horizons as to the kinds of poetry I read and write. And even on those days when I feel a little overwhelmed by the job (like last night when I was furiously formatting that combo), I still love the job. I plan to keep doing it for a while.

And in case you haven’t heard, this is our next big deal for poetry. A Rumpus Poetry Book Club. How awesome is that? (I could use a hand choosing the book for my month–something dropping in either October or November.)

July 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A cynical July 4th to all, and to all…

Every year, Amy’s sister and brother-in-law throw a huge 4th of July/family reunion/birthday-party-for-everyone-born-in-July party. It’s a great time–they cater it, buy an ice cream cake, and Rob spends insane amounts of money on fireworks, which he and his brother and whatever kid is the biggest pain in the ass that day help light. We did it last night.

While we were watching the fireworks display last night, I started thinking about holidays, and the myths that surround them, especially the ones that we tell children, and it occured to me that we don’t really have much of that for the 4th. There’s no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, no Pilgrims making nice with the natives and having dinner. There’s no symbol, other than the flag, which serves as the centerpiece for the holiday.

So I have a modest proposal: let’s do it with The Framers.

I’ve felt for a long time that this country over-reveres the Framers of the Constitution. I don’t even like the term Founding Fathers, because I think it ascribes too much power to them. Don’t get me wrong–I esteem what they did, respect it, am even in awe at the hugeness of what they helped usher in–but they weren’t perfect, they weren’t all-seeing, and they weren’t seers who could anticipate every future development in the nation and account for it. And yet there are respected legal scholars, and members of the Supreme Court, who give varying degrees of respect to the notion that the original intent of the Framers should be paramount in interpreting the Constitution. It might be–and I mean this in the most insulting way possible–the dumbest possible way to interpret the Constitution.

But politicians love to invoke the Framers, or the Founding Fathers, when they’re in patriot-mode almost as much as they like to invoke generic Americans. I have questions as to how many members of the House and Senate could actually name the most prominent members of the Constitutional Convention–more than a few would look like Lynn Westmoreland on Steven Colbert’s show when he was asked to name the 10 Commandments, I’m betting. So in a way, the Framers are already well on their way to becoming caricatures. Santa Claus was based on a real person; so were the Pilgrims. Why not turn the Framers into the cartoonish symbol of the 4th of July?

Think about the opportunities for new traditions. After the sun goes down, the family gathers the kids around the smoking hulk of the gas grill and we tell them stories about how if they’re good kids and they learn all the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” or who the US declared independence from, then the Framers will descend at midnight and impart wisdom to them. Also, maybe leave a couple of bucks under their pillows for every Amendment to the Constitution they can name, or for knowing that Puerto Ricans are US citizens even though Puerto Rico isn’t a state. I’m in the early stages here.

Kids could pick their favorite Framer, and RockStar could make a video game where the Framers debate the intricacies of the early Constitution and Bill of Rights while driving through DC stealing cars and running over bystanders. Magnetic ribbons which say “Madison Rules, Jefferson Drools,” mylar balloons of their faces, a Mount Rushmore app where you get to replace its faces with your own–mash it all up into one nonsensical ball and see what comes out of it.

In other words, I’d like to turn July 4th into Christmas, and not in an electronics store blowout sale kind of way. I’d like the origins of the holiday to become, not shrouded in mystery, but exploded into myth. I want the 4th commercialized to the point where everyone feels included in this celebration, as they should be. It’s a way of moving forward with our society, I think–we need to fully mythologize our past.

July 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Poetic Lives Online

Have you heard about The Rumpus Poetry Book Club? Just making sure.

I’ve bookmarked this article on how to format poetry online, since I’ve had some problems along these lines in the past myself.

This year, Wimbledon’s official poet laureate, Matt Harvey, had the chance to write about the longest tennis match ever played. How did he mark it? With a haiku, of course.

We have a new Poet Laureate in W. S. Merwin, and Ron Silliman has some nice words for Kay Ryan, who is leaving the post. He also has some suggestions for future Poets Laureate, including one of my Rumpus Poetry Book Club co-chairs, Camille Dungy.

Artifice Mag is having a subscription drive. HTMLGIANT is talking smack about how much they can help, but I want The Rumpus to steal some of the glory of putting Artifice over the top. So, umm, go subscribe.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

First word not always the best word

or, even the greats revise.

WASHINGTON — Preservation scientists at the Library of Congress have discovered that Thomas Jefferson, even in the act of declaring independence from England, had trouble breaking free from monarchial rule.

In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote the word “subjects,” when he referred to the American public. He then erased that word and replaced it with “citizens,” a term he used frequently throughout the final draft.

The headline writer got it wrong when he/she said that Jefferson “made slip in Declaration.” That suggests that there was only ever one option for the word Jefferson used, and that Jefferson should have had that hammered out before putting anything down to paper. The truth is that “subjects” is accurate–we are subjects to the federal government, after all. We are subject to its laws, even though we nominally have some say in their creation. And Jefferson probably had that in mind when he began drafting the Declaration.

But like all good writers, he realized that “subjects” had a connotation which made him uncomfortable, especially given the circumstances surrounding the piece he was writing. “Citizens” is more independent-sounding than “subjects,” and so is more appropriate. Jefferson didn’t make an error in starting with “subjects;” he just found a better word later and made the change.

There are two ways I can go with the rest of this post, and as I am not Robert Frost, I’m going to go down both of them.

Road One: Barack Obama knows how to deliver a speech. He’s terrific at it. And yes, he has speech writers, but they don’t just drop a speech on him and let him read the words. (Side note: for an interesting take on this subject, read Overthinking It’s discussion of the end of the movie The American President.) Obama is an integral part of the speech creation process. How do I know this? Take a look.

I showed this to my Comp and Lit students last year as an example of why revision matters. Most of the notes involve changes in word order or usage, points of emphasis, that sort of thing, not grammatical matters. But my point to my students was still the same–good writing doesn’t just spring from your fingertips the morning before the paper is due. Good enough writing can come that way, passable writing can come that way, but not good writing. That’s one of the reasons why I often cringe when I look back at some of the things I’ve written on my blogs in the past–not so much because of what I’ve written (though there’s some of that as well), but more because of the way it’s written. All this is first draft kind of stuff, for the most part, and it shows.

Road Two: Which brings me to poetry. I hate revising my own work. Hate. Drives me up the wall. And yet I feel like poets who don’t revise their poems do not only themselves, but their readers a disservice, because no one is brilliant the first time around. Lots of people are capable of flashes of brilliance the first time around, but no one pulls it off completely, not consistently. First thought is not always best thought.

Which is not to say that revision is the answer to every poem’s problems. Indeed, sometimes you can revise the life right out of a poem (which is why you should always keep copies of earlier drafts, so you can retrace your steps if you get lost). Revision is particularly important in poetry, I think, because each word carries much more weight than they do in prose. Poetic language is dense, or at least it ought to be (in my opinion) and so each word matters more, even down to one’s use (or not) of articles and conjunctions, for example. Query every word. Examine its implications. Make sure it’s the best one. And if it turns out that you got it right the first time, then congratulations. But remember, even the greats revise.

July 2, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Need for Distance

Siena polled 238 historians and compiled a list of best to worst Presidents in history, based on a pretty wide range of criteria. To no one’s surprise, George W. Bush is low on the list–fifth from the bottom, as a matter of fact, ahead of only Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, and is the lowest ranking 2-termer on the list by a long shot. Nixon comes in 9 spaces ahead of him, and he had to resign from office, to give you a sense of where he stands.

Barack Obama is on this list as well, and comes in at number 14, between Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson. That’s some heady company for a man who hasn’t even faced his first midterm election, much less a re-election campaign, and whose results have been, to say the least, mixed–and I say that as someone who will no doubt support his re-election and thinks he’s done okay given the media landscape, the opposition party, and the circumstances.

I’m not a historian, but I’d find it difficult to rank any president more recent than Carter, maybe Reagan, possibly Poppy Bush if I stretch it, mostly because it’s hard to tell just where a President is going to fit in without some time to reflect on his policies and their effects. For instance, it’s only now, almost 30 years since his election, that I’ve started to really recognize the damage to the social contract and race relations that Reagan’s rhetoric and policy decisions have wrought.

A President’s policy choices can have incredible effects that do good or cause damage well after they leave office, and very often those effects aren’t seen right away. For example, had Reagan not undercut and undone many of Carter’s energy policies, it’s possible we’d be further down the road to energy independence. Reagan’s anti-labor union policies still resonate today, and one of the most damaging things he ever did was push the image of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen, a racist and classist metaphor which infects public discourse even now.

So if I’m only starting to get a grasp on how what Reagan did affects this culture and this nation, how on earth could I make a judgment about the job George W Bush did, or the job Barack Obama is doing right now? It may be true that Dubya deserves to be fifth from the bottom of that list–I don’t see him making much of a climb in the coming decades–and it’s possible that Obama will deserve his elevated spot, but there’s no way of knowing that right now.

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment