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Dirty Computer – Janelle Monáe’s Emotion Picture Shines

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It’s been 5 years since Janelle Monáe released her album “The Electric Lady.” The sequel to her sophomore classic, “The ArchAndroid,” it was met with positive but not overwhelming reviews. Since then, Monáe has been a fixture in the mainstream, appearing in a number of high profile films including “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.” It was a welcome surprise when “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane,” the singles from Monáe’s newly announced album “Dirty Computer,” were released in February of 2018. The two singles were sharp, catchy, and widely different, giving fans no real indication as to the sonic direction of the new project, which was now being dubbed an “Emotion Picture.” In the weeks that followed, Monáe released “PYNK (feat. Grimes)” and “I Like That” before the release of the album and accompanying 48-minute short film on April 27. Varied, fiery, and fun, the album’s strong vocals and eclectic production make it Monáe’s best album since “The ArchAndroid” and one of the best records of 2018.

“Dirty Computer” kicks off with the title song featuring Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Sweet and short, the song functions as more of an introduction, with the first true song being “Crazy, Classic, Life.” The tune here is strong enough, and the vocal performance and production are both full of personality. The real issue here is that Monáe sells herself short lyrically, leaving listeners with a song that has plenty of charm but is short on ambition. The album’s first hit is “Screwed (ft. Zȯė Kravitz),” which has an infectious hook and a bunch of playful uses of the word “screwed” in the context of desire and power. The vocal harmonies at the end of the song transition seamlessly into “Django Jane,” one of the album’s breakout singles. Here, Monáe shows off her rapping ability over a hefty, trap-inspired beat. Hugely confident and commanding, Monáe’s delivery really shines through on this track as she raps about being a black woman in the music industry. “PYNK (feat. Grimes)” takes the album in a stylistic180, replacing the swagger of “Django Jane” with delicate, indie pop. Grimes’ involvement seems to have been more with general songwriting and harmonies of the track, but the Monáe’s timid vocals in the verses definitely carry a strong Grimes influence. Monáe isn’t shy about emulating her influences, as “Make Me Feel” is reminiscent of Prince’s “Queen,” the late star being a known friend and collaborator of Monáe’s. “Make Me Feel” shines as the climax of the album, splitting the album in two with its powerful vocals and huge energy. The album doesn’t top the spectacle of “Make Me Feel,” but the back half has a number of great tracks including “I Like That,” “I Got the Juice (feat. Pharrell Williams),” and “Don’t Judge Me.” “I Like That” is a slick R&B track with a relatively plain instrumental, but the vocals and lyrical content more than make up for it with Monáe belting out an earworm chorus and rapping in the second half about embracing her identity and style. “I Got the Juice” continues in the vein of instrumental variety and features a percussive and oddball verse from Pharrell himself. While it’s definitely one of the quieter moments on the album, “Don’t Judge Me” is sensual and smooth, featuring restrained but emotive vocals.

While not all listeners will choose to consume “Dirty Computer” alongside the 48 minute short film or “emotion picture,” it’s worth noting the picture’s few additions and alterations to the standard listening experience. The short film does very little to alter the music, weaving narrative skits in between music videos. However, the emotion picture version of “PYNK” features an extra verse from Monáe which adds another dimension to the already fun song. Otherwise, the picture situates the themes of the album in a futuristic setting not too far removed from the narratives of Monáe’s previous work.

On “Dirty Computer” listeners can really hear Janelle Monáe hitting her stride. With songs spanning a myriad of genres and styles, there’s something for everyone on “Dirty Computer.” Dealing with themes of race and identity, female empowerment, and vulnerability, Monáe couples her strong vocals with a number of thoughtful lyrics. Ultimately, “Dirty Computer” is one of the most versatile and enjoyable pop records of the year, and definitely Monáe’s strongest project since “The ArchAndroid.”

Tradition and modernity at the A.A.P.I. Music Festival

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On a regular day, the high ceiling, elegant arches, and Gothic windows of Upper Tarble evoke images of western history and civilization. On Saturday however, Upper Tarble became a space for the Asian and Pacific Islander Music Festival. The music and dance performances took the audience on a journey through the traditional and modern aspects of Asian culture, drawing a A.A.P.I. Heritage Month to a satisfying close.

In the U.S., May is designated as A.A.P.I. Heritage Month. According to the Library of Congress, “The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7,1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.”

At Swarthmore, A.A.P.I. Heritage Month is held in April because May is finals season. The extensive month-long program includes cultural celebrations, such as the Thingyan Water Festival, as well as activities exploring salient issues in the A.A.P.I. community, such as panel discussions, poetry recitals, and documentary screenings. The Music Festival in Upper Tarble was the last event of the month.

The Swarthmore College Chinese Music Ensemble began the festival with a melodious piece titled “Osmanthus Flowers Bloom Everywhere in August.” Members in the Ensemble play a variety of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the dizi (flute), xiao (vertical end-blown flute), erhu (two-stringed fiddle), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), and guzheng (zither).

After the Ensemble’s opening piece, Jinjie Dong ̕18 performed a mellow dizi and xiao solo, followed by Lesia Liao ̕18 who performed a lively yangqin solo, accompanied by the Ensemble. The Ensemble finished with the upbeat “Flower Drum Song,” a Chinese folk song that describes a playful dancer performing with a small drum.

Personally, the “Flower Drum Song” is a nostalgic token from my childhood. Hearing the song brought back happy memories of my grandmother singing “Flower Drum Song” and teaching me to play with a little toy drum. I felt a unique fondness for the ensemble’s harmonious rendition as I seemed to relive my childhood again.

Lei Ouyang Bryant, associate professor of music at Swarthmore, described her involvement with the Ensemble’s activities. Bryant co-directs the Chinese Music Ensemble with Guowei Wang, artist in residence in Chinese music performance and director of the Chinese Ensemble at Williams College.

“I enjoy being in the ensemble because I can play music with my students. A lot of students join the ensemble out of their interest in the Chinese language and culture, either because they themselves are connected to the culture or because of what they study,” she said.

Bryant highlighted the students’ positive experiences in the Ensemble.

“Most people who join have a general interest in music, or maybe some musical background. I see people enjoying the opportunity to come together and play music. Many of the students who join are learning something new, and we are happy to join the A.A.P.I. Music Festival to be part of the different programs featured,” she added.

Besides the ensemble, Penn Enchord also brought some delightful music to the Music Festival. They are an a capella group at the University of Pennsylvania founded in 2013 by mainland Chinese students. They perform an eclectic mix of traditional and modern Chinese pieces that feature Western and Chinese singing techniques.

At the music festival, Penn Enchord performed three contemporary Chinese pop and rock songs—  “Highway”, “Purple,” and “Don’t Break My Heart.” I enjoyed all three songs, especially “Purple”, a soft and melancholic ballad about the memories that persist even after the end of a relationship. The singers’ voices blended harmoniously to create an emotional and magical experience for the audience.

Of course, the Music Festival would be incomplete without dance performances, since dance is such an integral part of Asian culture. Jie Gao ̕19 from Bryn Mawr College performed a beautiful dance solo in a long white dress that seemed like a sleek adaptation of the qipao. She incorporated the flowing movements of traditional Chinese dance into her piece, which was set to a more contemporary and up-tempo Chinese song.

Choom Boom, a dance troupe mainly focused on K-pop music and moves, also lit up the stage with an impressive nine dance pieces. Founded in 2008 by a few students at Bryn Mawr College, Choom Boom has grown to include several members from Haverford College as well as two members from Swarthmore.

Featuring high-energy K-Pop music, Choom Boom captivated the audience’s attention with their skilled dance moves and ever-changing group formations. The dancers expertly moved in sync with one another, often crossing the stage seamlessly to take their individual positions, and then moving out of their formation again.

Victoria Tamura ̕18 from Bryn Mawr College, current president of Choom Boom, described the amount of hard work that her fellow dancers put in.

“Most members of the executive board practice at least seven hours a week. Some people even do 12 hours,” she said.

Tamura expressed her passion for dancing in Choom Boom.

“I really love Choom Boom because once we perform on stage, and our dancers become confident in what they do, participating in Choom Boom is very fulfilling, even if it can be a little tiring,” she said.

Hana Yaacob ’20, a member of Choom Boom from Haverford College, also remembered devoting a lot of time to practice dance.

“I have been in three dance pieces this year and last year. I practice nine hours a week but still sleep at 10:30pm every night. It’s all thanks to time management!” Yaacob said.

Last but definitely not least, Swarthmore Taiko ended the festival with a literal bang. The drummers coordinated with one another, varying the rhythm of their drumming and their vocalization to create powerful and dynamic cadences. Although there were only three drummers, their rousing presence pervaded the entire room. Even as the drumming ended, I could still feel its resonance.  

The efforts of performers and organizers alike came to fruition at the Music Festival. Jessica Xu ̕19, co-organizer of A.A.P.I. Heritage Month with Jacob Clark ̕21, recalled how she invited the different groups to perform at the Music Festival.

“There are different programs for A.A.P.I. Heritage Month every year. This year we contacted groups at other colleges because I knew some people at Bryn Mawr and UPenn. I went to a concert by Penn Enchord before, and I know they’re pretty good. I’ve never seen Choom Boom perform so that was kind of a surprise for me,” Xu said.

Although the official A.A.P.I. Heritage Month program has ended at Swarthmore, an appreciation for A.A.P.I. culture, traditional and modern alike, lives on. For A.A.P.I. students, faculty, and staff, their identity persists throughout their daily routines, and this identity is given a chance to shine during special events, like the music festival.

“My mother is from China, and my father is from Australia. I grew up in Minnesota, was raised bilingual, and spoke Chinese and English. I participated in many Chinese community events, so my heritage has been a part of who I am, and it has always been around me. I’m happy to join the community here and create a space for it on campus,” Bryant said.

Thank you Cardi B

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She was born in the Bronx as Belcalis Almanzar and is Dominican and Trinidadian.

She is the first female rapper, since Lauryn Hill in 1998, to reach the number 1 spot on Billboard’s top 100 chart.

She was a stripper who first came to fame through her social media presence, especially her “A Hoe Never Gets Cold” video.

In 2015, she secured a spot on VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop: New York” during season 6.

She is – drumroll please – Cardi B.

If you have not listened to Cardi B’s new album that she dropped on Friday, April 6th, then you should definitely get on that. Her album “Invasion of Privacyconsists of 13 songs including 6 singles and 7 collaborations that feature Migos, Chance the Rapper, Bad Bunny and J Balvin, Kehlani (honestly blessed), 21 savage, YG, and SZA.

“Invasion of Privacy” is getting praise from many respected and loved artists such as 2 Chainz, Erykah Badu, 50 Cent, Rihanna, Janelle Monaé, and Logic. This album is beautifully and powerfully crafted, and is truly an invasion of privacy as Cardi seems to be holding nothing back. Her voice is harmonized through her pain, strength, humor, anger, bravery, and truth. Her voice is a weapon; her voice is a healer; her voice is her story, her outlet, and her truth.

Her song “Get up 10” sets the scene. Here she raps with fire and force about how she “went from rags to riches” and tells us about her life before she started making 6 figures. The transition within the song happens at minute 1:44 as it explodes into a take-no-prisoner, “If a girl have beef with me, she gon’ have beef with me forever” type of attitude. “Get up 10” displays Cardi’s wit and play on words with her line “I came here to ball, is you nuts?” and shows her unapologetic presence through the line, “Whole life been through some f***ed up shit/They say I’m too that, oh, I’m too this/When you seen what I’ve seen, you end up like this.”

Kehlani helped me understand why Invasion of Privacy left my heart feeling heavy after some songs and specific lines. In a Hot 97 radio show about one year ago, Kehlani talks about Cardi B and why her presence and voice are so important and powerful.

What I admire about you [Cardi B] so much is that you created everything yourself. Yeah, nobody can take any of that away from you because nobody can sell anybody nothing who literally did everything they ever said they wanted to do with all the odds against them. You know what I mean, like never stop ever.

Some of Cardi’s words and verses just leave me sitting here thinking “Wow, she really did that.” I have so much respect for her because of the determination and strength that she continued to have throughout her journey to get where she is now. After watching an enormous amount of interviews with Cardi B and listening to “Invasion of Privacy,” I have been thinking a lot about the politics of respectability and how exclusive and oppressive it really is because of the structural racism that is too prevalent and forceful within our society. Cardi B is brilliant exactly for who she is and how she portrays herself and no one should attack her for that.

Through “Invasion of Privacy,” we see Cardi and her many different sides. We see the pan-Latin-unifier Cardi through “I Like It” featuring Bad Bunny, a Puerto Rican Latin trap and reggaeton singer, and J Balvin, a Colombian reggaeton singer. Then there is I-know-I’m-the-shit-try-and-stop-me-I-dare-you Cardi through “Drip” featuring Migos, “Bickenhead,” “I Do” featuring SZA, “Money Bag,” and “She Bad” which features YG. Next up is the I’m-in-my-feels-leave-me-alone-but-you-better-be-listening Cardi with her song “Be Careful,” “Ring” featuring Kehlani, and “Thru Your Phone”.

Her wit emerges through lines such as “Leave his texts on read, leave his balls on blue” and her vulnerability and pain can be seen, heard, and felt through lines such as:

“I said I never had a problem showin’ y’all the real me

Hair when it’s fucked up, crib when it’s filthy

Way-before-the-deal me, strip-to-pay-the-bills me

‘Fore I fixed my teeth, man, those comments used to kill me

But never did I change, never been ashamed

Never did I switch, story stayed the same

I did this on my own, I made this a lane”

The background beat/tune to Cardi B’s song “Be Careful” reminds me of the Wii theme song with it’s light, upbeat, staccato melody. This is so interesting to me because the lyrics to this song are not light and upbeat. I feel heartbreak and longing in her words along with strength and resistance in her tone. Cardi, in this song, says that she put her heart on the line and gave everything she had, but got nothing in return. In an interview with Beats, Cardi says:

“When I hear this song, I be really crying. It really means so much. It gets me angry, it

gets me sad and I know that women are going to be able to relate, somebody who

doesn’t like me is going to relate, I know your mom is going to be able to relate”

This song isn’t just for Cardi. It’s for those whose capacity to love is so great that it hurts. Sometimes the love you have to give is not always returned but rather is a weapon that can be used against you. A few lines in the song that embody this idea is:

“You even got me trippin’, you got me lookin’ in the mirror different

Think I’m flawed because you inconsistent

Between a rock and a hard place, the mud and the dirt

It’s gon’ hurt me to hate you, but lovin’ you’s worse”

Love is a powerful force that consumes the heart, body, mind, and soul. It is a force that taints reality in such a way that can be both beautiful and scary. Cardi’s song “Be Careful” is not a threat, but rather a warning because she will love and she will be vulnerable. She is telling her partner that they need to be careful. If Cardi’s partner isn’t careful, she will get hurt and make sure that the whole world knows what you did.

Cardi B is not new to the world of music. We all may think that she came out of no where, but it has taken her years to get to where she is now. In an interview with Beats, Cardi stated:

“Yeah just flowing better, learning better. It’s just like I feel myself getting better. I also

needed a little bit of help mm-hmm so I got my ferberizing. Yeah I needed a little bit of help from breaking out of my box. Like I feel like my music was very trappy and it’s really almost like drill because it’s just like I be feeling will never get out of that style. I’m so stuck on rapping and I need a break and I need to learn how to flow a little bit easier and cleaner and I don’t feel like I perfected it yet but I feel like I’m getting better and better”.

I am so excited to see what Cardi B has coming up next and you should be too.

My Dear Melancholy

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It’s been almost a year and a half since Toronto pop R&B star Abel Tesfaye, also known as the Weeknd, released his 2016 project “Starboy.” Tesfaye’s newest album, “My Dear Melancholy,” was teased on Twitter only a few days before its surprise Thursday night release. The project’s short 21-minute runtime, the allusions to darkness in the title and ominous cover art of Tesfaye’s face in shadow, as well as its release following Tesfaye’s separation from popstar Selena Gomez excited fans and seemed to hint at a moodier, tormented direction. Before discussing the content of the project, however, we should consider the context of “My Dear Melancholy” in relation to Tesfaye’s other work.

The Weeknd’s first work was a series of three mixtapes which have since been packaged together and referred to simply as “The Trilogy.” Dark, hedonistic, and erotic, much of Tesfaye’s work on “The Trilogy” built him a core following and helped to develop and distill the contemporary alternative R&B sound into a formula used by a host of imitators over the years. The Weeknd’s follow-up, “Kissland,” appeared to be more of the same, although core fans certainly had plenty to like in the album’s continuation and slight clean-up of the dark and atmospheric vibe found in “The Trilogy.” For many listeners, their first exposure to the Weeknd was his commercial juggernaut “Beauty Behind the Madness,” which saw Tesfaye experimenting a bit more with his sound and moving towards a more immediate, pop-friendly style. While some of Tesfaye’s core fans lamented the change in direction, “Beauty Behind the Madness” and “Starboy” showed that the Weeknd was capable of crafting a variety of hits in different styles (e.g. “I Feel it Coming,” “Starboy,” “I Can’t Feel My Face.”) Now, with “My Dear Melancholy,” listeners have been presented with the long-awaited revisiting of his “Trilogy” and “Kissland” era sound. While it is sure to be lauded by diehard fans, the Weeknd’s newest project is a bite-sized retreading of old material repackaged with expensive, atmospheric production. At its best, “My Dear Melancholy” is merely interesting. At its worst, it is an unengaging rehashing of the R&B tropes made popular by Tesfaye himself.

The album begins with the track “Call Out My Name,” which is potentially the worst song in the tracklist. Sounding like a less compelling version of the Weeknd’s “Worth It,” featured in “Fifty Shades of Gray”, “Call Out My Name” is standard Weeknd fare. Lyrically, Tesfaye seems to contemplate the end of his relationship with Selena Gomez. However, nothing about the song or the performance does much to make the listener care. “Try Me” is boring sonic wallpaper which fails to engage the listener past the spacey instrumental, the Weeknd’s boyish vocals, and a host of played-out, hedonistic lyrics. “Wasted Times” doesn’t deliver any lyrical revelations but features excellent production from Frank Dukes (“Pick Up the Phone,” “Havana”) and Skrillex, giving the track a sense of motion and urgency which the previous two plodding songs failed to generate. About two-thirds of the way through the song, the Weeknd’s voice is modulated and warped in a way which, when paired with the driving percussion, is exciting and certainly shows the growth of Tesfaye’s production budget since his “Trilogy” days. “I Was Never There,” produced by Gesaffelstein, starts strong with a series of cascading sirens and also features an interesting beat switch and change in inflection in Tesfaye’s singing halfway through. However, the rest of the song falls victim to the same tired aesthetic and vocal delivery which plagues the entire project. The beginning of “Hurt You” sounds like a store-brand version of “Pray For Me” from the “Black Panther” soundtrack,” and plods along until the decent closer “Privilege.” Ending the album on a better note, “Privilege” features an understated but compelling vocal performance and a hypnotic, ethereal instrumental.

Despite some interesting moments, “My Dear Melancholy” struggles to hold the listener’s attention for the duration of a track, much less the entire project. While it runs a mere 21 minutes, the Weeknd’s latest effort will most likely not make listeners want to jump back into its white-powdered, erotic, nocturnal, and yet ultimately boring experience. Despite this, those who are long time fans of Tesfaye’s work, especially “The Trilogy” and “Kissland,” will find plenty to like here. In many ways, “My Dear Melancholy” plays like a higher budget realization of some of the concepts on those albums. Also, those who are looking for a project they can listen to without thinking too much may genuinely enjoy it. All the songs cohere to each other quite well, making it easy to listen front to back without realizing that the album the listener just consumed was composed of six different songs. Unfortunately, “My Dear Melancholy” sees Tesfaye selling himself short, suggesting that the Toronto singer isn’t comfortable pushing himself outside his familiar aesthetic just yet. Or maybe he’s just out of ideas?

The Longer the Better? Albums and Music in the Age of Streaming

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On Jan. 26, Migos released “Culture II,” the sequel to their 2017 hit “Culture.” In many ways, “Culture II” sounded exactly like its predecessor, with its palette of moody trap beats, A-list features, triplet flows, and a healthy collection of Audemars Piguet watches. However, the two projects had one major difference: their length. Running an arduous 106 minutes over 24 tracks, “Culture II” was a long, bloated step down from “Culture” and its relatively compact tracklisting. Migos’ most recent effort, with an additional 11 tracks, was 50 minutes longer than their 2017 release. Long albums certainly aren’t an anomaly within the music industry; however, artists are increasingly releasing longer and longer albums. Ultimately, artists are trying to inflate their album sales by racking up streams on arduously long albums and exploiting the Billboard charts. While previously uncommon, more and more artists are putting out enormous, bloated albums to the detriment of their artistry.

To fully understand why long albums are financially beneficial to artists, the Billboard ranking criteria must be closely examined. According to Billboard, for an album to generate one “sale” on a streaming service, such as Spotify or Apple Music, songs must be played 1,500 times. The listener can choose to listen to the whole project or just one song. As long they generate 1,500 streams, a sale is added to the album’s Billboard ranking. So, if someone were to listen to “Culture,” they would have to play it around 115 times front to back before a sale was registered. “Culture II” in contrast would only have to be played 63 times to yield the same statistical boost to the Billboard count. In this way, people who simply play a long album and let it run its course end up being drastically more beneficial, allowing the album to stay on the charts longer and maintain its popularity and buzz.

Migos aren’t the only artists opting to put out longer projects. The trend appears to be concentrated in hip hop and R&B; artists such as Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, Jhene Aiko, and Drake have been releasing longer and longer material. Lil Yachty’s most recent project was 30 minutes longer than his debut. Lil Uzi Vert’s “Luv is Rage 2” was 20 minutes longer than the original “Luv is Rage,” and a half hour longer than “Lil Uzi Vert vs. the World” and “The Perfect Luv Tape.” Drake is an interesting case in that he has been exploiting the streaming loophole since 2016. His album “Views” was an arduous 90 minutes, ending with his ubiquitous hit “Hotline Bling.” The addition of “Hotline Bling” to the tracklisting is especially important, as Drake would have known that the song (which was nearly a year old when “Views” released) would continue to see heavy streaming. By adding “Hotline Bling” to the tracklisting Drake boosted his Billboard charting significantly, capitalizing on the population of listeners who just wanted to play “Hotline Bling.” The most egregious example of stream farming, however, is the most recent Chris Brown album, which boasted 45 tracks  running for 3 hours and 19 minutes, and a note from the artist to “leave the album on repeat.” If it wasn’t clear before, Chris Brown certainly signalled that artists are well aware of how to game the Billboard system.

It’s evident that artists are catching on to the trend of boosting their Billboard stats with longer albums, but the question of whether listeners should be concerned is another matter entirely. While artists certainly generate more revenue with these projects,  the decision to lengthen albums is hurtful to the artform. Artists are tacking songs onto their albums to rack up streams, creating a relatively disposable listening experience. Granted, not every artist is interested in producing a concise and cohesive album, but one would be hard-pressed to find a Lil Yachty or Migos fan who prefers their recent output to the more engaging (if shorter) “Culture” and “Lil Boat.” Ultimately, reform is necessary on the part of the Billboard charts. An artist shouldn’t have to be three times as popular as another artist in order for them to chart higher with a shorter album. This is not to say that artists should be forced to produce short bodies of work, only that those who choose to do so should not see charting as an unattainable goal. Streaming has undeniably changed the face of music today. However, listeners may not be doomed to sit through 100 minute projects until the end of their days. The new Lil Yachty release “Lil Boat 2,” expected soon, is 17 tracks long. While not a brief album by any means, “Lil Boat 2” will be six tracks shorter than “Teenage Emotions” after the latter was almost universally panned by critics and fans. It’s too early to say, but perhaps things are moving in the right direction.

 

Profiles in Art: Gene Witkowski

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Art can be a powerful tool for reaching many goals, including empowerment and personal growth. Gene Witkowski ̕ 21, a prospective music and math major, finds these and other qualities of art in his music. When I interviewed Witkowski to showcase his talent, he was genuine and candid, providing a beautiful look into the arts at Swarthmore.

 

When I talked to Witkowski about what it means to be a musician, I got to see the complexities behind the art he creates. What it means be an artist or creator varies from person to person, and his definition acknowledges the difficulties of authentically telling stories and being a voice for others.

 

“I think there’s an enormous sense of responsibility that comes with any form of creation. Through music I’m able to tell stories, and it’s important to recognize that even though those stories are yours, other people that you may not even know have experienced similar situations that allow them to see pieces of themselves in something you’ve created,” Witkowski said.  “For that reason, I’d like to think that with each song I write, I have the potential to change, or maybe even save, someone’s life by allowing them to live vicariously through me. And as a gay man and a member of the larger queer community, that sense of responsibility is even more potent.”

 

In Witkowski’s view, his love of creating music does not make him an artist, despite the fact that many would call him just that.

 

“I know other people might call me an artist, but I’d be hesitant to call myself that,” Witkowski said. “When people use the word “artist,” I think there’s an element of commercialism there, as if their art is simply a hobby or a profession, and in that sense I don’t think that I create art.”

 

For him, music is an essential outlet for processing emotions. Witkowski explained that he is not so much an artist as just a human who feels pain, love, loss, and any other other emotion. The only difference is that he chooses to express those emotions through his music.

 

Witkowski’s passion for music was in many ways established in his childhood. He began singing in church as a child and started piano lessons at the age of five, which his mother made him continue.

 

“My mom sang in church and gospel choirs when she was younger, and my dad toured as a roadie with a number of prominent bands in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so I’d say I inherited my musicality from both of them,” Witkowski explained.

 

Witkowski explained how his musiciality was not simply an inheritance, but also something that they helped to facilitate.

 

“I remember wanting to be able to play a ‘boy’s instrument’, and my dad suggested the guitar, as well as promising to give me his old electric from his touring days once I learned to play. And it fit well with the dream I already had by that point of wanting to be a famous musician, so I had my mom sign me up for guitar lessons. It came pretty slow to me, but I loved it then and continue to now.

 

“I actually do remember the first song I wrote; it was this really innocent two-minute-long song called ‘Place For You in Me’ that I told everyone I’d written for my grandmother, but was actually about a girl I had a crush on when I was six or seven years old. The lyrics essentially talked about how much she meant to me, how she had embraced me unconditionally, and how I would be willing to do the same for her.”

 

“I remember a few years ago, I went back and tried to add some more to it, but I couldn’t bring myself to make any changes. It was so cheesy and obviously written by a little kid. But it felt perfect just the way it was. Which is a little ironic when you think about it, given all of the songs I write now are about boys,” Witkowski reflected.

 

Witkowski’s musicality was also an essential part to understanding his own sexual orientation and its impact on his relationship with his father. In many ways this came from one of his favorite singers, Troye Sivan.

 

“I publicly came out as gay for the first time on my sophomore retreat when I was fifteen; when I returned as a junior to lead the same retreat the next year, I spoke to the retreatants on my troubled relationship with my father and the process of coming to terms with my sexuality, and used Sivan’s ‘HEAVEN’ as a preface to my talk. I remember watching his coming out video on YouTube when I was fourteen, one of many I found online while grappling with the realization that I liked boys, and as a result was the exact opposite of the son my father wanted,” Witkowski said.

These stories of Witkowski’s youth were deeply personal and provided a lot of insight into his music. Witkowski also explained that Sivan was important to him in a plethora of ways and is a source of inspiration.

 

“So I dealt in terms of repression, all the while wishing I could be as free and unashamed as Sivan was, whether it was as momentous as coming out to my family or even something as seemingly inconsequential as saying ‘he’ or ‘him,’ instead of ‘she’ or ‘her,’ in a song.” Witkowski said. “He was the representation I desperately needed, and so when the time came for me to stand in his shoes, it felt only fair to me to pay him homage. I see so much of myself in him, and I continue to be inspired by the good he does, not just in his music, but in his activism. And a smile comes to my face every time someone tells me that my voice or my lyrics remind them of him.”

 

Witkowski’s openness about his music and where it comes from for him can serve as an inspiration for all those who are struggling to find a way to cope with whatever they may be going through.

 

“Don’t evaluate your successes by the successes of other people, don’t be afraid of making something you don’t like, and wherever possible don’t put any limits on your artistic ability. I’m constantly guilty of comparing myself to others, but you should never think of making music or painting or whatever medium it may be as a competition between you and somebody else; your job is to create something you’re proud of, not something that you think someone else will be proud of,” Witkowski explained.

 

Witkowski shared some powerful advice to conclude.

“Some things may be perfect the first time around, but sometimes they’ll be shitty, and that’s okay. It might take some time and several attempts, but your hard work will undoubtedly pay off in the end. And be as flexible as you can at all times. Don’t try to put your art into boxes or police the content you create, even if it’s different from anything you’ve done before. Don’t give yourself deadlines to meet. And don’t stop yourself from doing anything just because you tell yourself, or someone else tells you, it won’t be good enough.”

 

MGMT Leave Their “Little Dark Age” Behind

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A year ago, a new album from MGMT wouldn’t have been particularly highly anticipated, and it especially wouldn’t have been expected to be any good. When “Little Dark Age,” the lead single from the band’s 2018 album of the same name, was released in October 2017, it seemed as if the band had found a new creative gear. Synth pop with a dash of goth, “Little Dark Age” was a fresh, exciting sound for the  00s indie darlings. MGMT have evolved their sound with each release⸺not always for the better, as their self titled LP was a relatively uninspired, lo-fi psychedelic album. “Congratulations,” the group’s 2010 follow up to “Oracular Spectacular,” saw the band experiment further with psych rock and pop to critical acclaim, but failed to generate enthusiasm with fans of their previous record and its hits such as “Kids” and “Time to Pretend.” Now, no longer haunted by the spectre of their past hits, MGMT are back with a well-executed and catchy synth and psych pop album.

 

“Little Dark Age” kicks off with the zany, infectious song “She Works Out Too Much.” Cascading synths and the driving bassline make this track exciting and danceable. The main draw, however, are the sarcastic lyrics which describe a failed relationship due to a lack (or excess) of exercise: “The only reason we never worked out was / He didn’t work out enough.” Voiceovers color the song with a variety of workout commands and exercises. In its last third, the song builds triumphantly with a section of saxophones, giving the song a climactic finish. These odd song topics continue with the song “TSLAMP,” or “Time Spent Looking At My Phone.” This track features the widest array of different sounds on the album, with synth passages and classical guitar interrupted by humming vocoder vocals which function more as instruments than as a way to deliver lyrics. “TSLAMP” sees the band musing about phone obsession: “Find me when the lights go down / Signing in and signing out / Gods descend to take me home / Find me staring at my phone.” The album’s lead single remains one of the strongest songs, as its haunted synthpop aesthetic is catchy and fun while remaining spooky. “Little Dark Age” exemplifies the strength of the albums hooks. While the instrumentation and quirky lyrics are certainly a huge draw, the sticky grooves and choruses are what will keep listeners coming back. “When You Die” contrasts its light, groovy instrumentation with aggressive declarations of hatred: “I’m not that nice / I’m mean and I’m evil / Don’t call me twice.” This track benefits from guitar work reminiscent of George Harrison which keeps the song plucky and light while the reverb-drenched vocals tell the listener off.

 

Unfortunately, the album takes a slight dip in the second half with the songs “James,” “One Thing Left to Try,” and “When You’re Small.” While these songs still have their interesting moments, they aren’t quite as engaging from start to finish as the tracks from the first half. Songs such as “When You’re Small” and “Days That Got Away” are meandering and low-key, relegating them to a pleasant if relatively inoffensive position in the tracklisting. The album closes with the song “Hand it Over,” which sounds as if the band is performing in an underwater dream sequence. While “Hand it Over” may not shake the listener like “She Works Out Too Much” or “Me and Michael,” the choir-like voices in the chorus play nicely off of Andrew VanWyngarden’s vocals in a way which soothingly brings the project to a close.

 

“Little Dark Age” is a welcome return to form for the indie darlings behind “Electric Feel,” “Kids,” and “Time to Pretend”. While the project lags slightly in its second act, there are plenty of memorable, infectious hooks paired with great synth pop instrumentals. With their most recent release, MGMT have left their self-proclaimed “Little Dark Age” behind.

 

“F*** You,”Brockhampton at the Theatre of Living Arts

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Brockhampton, a Los Angeles collective of artists and designers, performed two shows for their Love Your Parents Tour at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia on Jan 30 and 31. The crowd was made up of mostly teens and twenty-somethings, sporting colorful Brockhampton sweatshirts and T-shirts. Toward the front, fans waved face cutouts of Brockhampton’s performing artists: Kevin Abstract, Ameer Vann, Merlyn Wood, Dom McLennon, Matt Champion, and Joba. As the lights dimmed, a man wearing a blue hospital mask and headlamp walked through heavy smoke to the middle of the stage. Standing in the middle of the stage, the man knelt and, standing up, pulled on an orange jumpsuit, Brockhampton’s choice costume. As the crowd exploded into whoops and cheers, he pulled off his mask and headlamp, revealing himself to be Brockhampton’s cover boy, Ameer Vann, whose face is featured on each album cover of Brockhampton’s 2017 “Saturation Trilogy”. At the same time, the rest of the group rushed on stage to open the show with “Boogie,” the explosive first track off their latest record.

The group, led by Kevin Abstract, met through an online Kanye West forum and then moved into a house, which served as their creative space, in a neighborhood in South Central L.A. Not one member of Brockhampton is older than twenty-four, the group have not signed with a label, everything is produced in-house, and they haven’t done much press or social media marketing. Despite this, within a period of one year, Brockhampton has released three critically-acclaimed albums and garnered an impressive fan base of self-identified weird, young people who want to be heard. Brockhampton resist the established music industry through genuine artistry. The boy band “saturated” the scene with their music, letting their art speak for itself. Their success sets the stage for a different music industry which will be less capitalistic and more artistic, focused on creative integrity, innovation, and authenticity.

The group, diverse in sexual-orientation and race, imagine themselves as a modern boyband, the “best boyband since One Direction.” Consequently, their audience has accepting perspectives and willful opinions.

“It’s really cool to be surrounded by people who enthusiastically sing along as Kevin raps, ‘Why you always rap about bein’ gay? /  ́Cause not enough n***** rap and be gay.’ Those people are trying to change things,” said Matt Becker ’21, a friend who attended the concert.

In a question and an answer, Kevin Abstract addresses the lack of openly gay and bisexual rappers. He wants to use Brockhampton as a voice for the voiceless, to speak for those who can’t, and the audience feels his anger and frustration below the bouncing music.

Brockhampton fill their music, fashion, and performance with societal commentary. The group of six performers stand in a straight line across the front of the stage, taking turns rapping and singing.

“Brockhampton did a really good job performing together, which you don’t really see a lot in solo rap. They feed off each other’s energy. When you’re in a group setting, you feel that when you are rapping, and that fuels you. Even if only one person is rapping, they are all still performing together,” said Charlie Cole ̕21, another friend who attended the concert.

The group’s chemistry is apparent: members sing-along with each other’s verses, bouncing around the stage as a cohesive, chaotic unit. Furthermore, the group express their opinions through words and images. They appear as a group of prisoners, dressed in orange jumpsuits, through which the group comment on racial and class biases. Brockhampton, a group of misfits, may feel as though they are imprisoned in a world where they are not accepted, trapped by forces beyond their control, prisoners to a society which oppresses the very diversity and love that Brockhampton stands for.

Throughout the performance, Kevin often interrupted the set to comment on his belief of human love. The group has attempted to rebrand the middle finger as an act of love instead of hate. The phrase “f*** you” and the accompanying gesticulation are hateful, but also sexual. Brockhampton wants the phallic middle finger to symbolize the latter. Sexual love is human; it transcends gender, race, and class.

“When we flip you off, we really mean we love you,” said Kevin Abstract. In replacing love with hate, Brockhampton disrupt the system of anger and hatred in which they themselves are prisoners.

 

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