Still Missing New Orleans

(Photo: AP/Gerald Herbert)
(Photo: AP/Gerald Herbert) A decade ago, Hurricane Katrina flooded this now-abandoned strip mall in New Orleans. T he first time I saw New Orleans, I entered an empty city. The streets were marked with chalky streaks of salt and toxins left behind by the waters that had filled them; the stench of rotten things filled the air. It was September 19, 2005, three weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans when the levees were breached by the sea and the canals, whose contents rushed into the roads and the yards and the living rooms of the city’s poorest residents. By the time I arrived, the only vehicles on the streets were the camouflage-painted Jeeps of the National Guard . After abetting mayhem with shoot-to-kill orders against the city’s most desperate citizens, many on the New Orleans police force simply fled the city. With colleagues from the labor union I worked for at the time, I visited the Greyhound bus depot, which was housing the inmates of the infamous Angola...

The Many Ways the University of Oklahoma Fraternity Scandal Reveals America's Racism Denial

Bill Kristol blames rap music. And the fraternity's lawyer says the racist chanters were "tarred and feathered." (Yes, he did.)

(Photo: MSNBC Morning Joe screenshot)
W hat does a white person have to say or do to be considered racist? If you think a little ditty about lynching makes the cut—you’re wrong. On March 8, video surfaced online of the Greek organization Sigma Alpha Epsilon at University of Oklahoma singing a rousing rendition of a song about lynching. Yes, in 2015—not 1815. “You can hang him from a tree, but he will never sign with me! There will never be a n****r in SAE,” sang the fraternity brothers while they rode a charter bus either to or from an event, wearing tuxedos. Captured on video, Parker Rice and Levi Pettit —the students leading the chant—sang as if they were at a pep rally and their school was headed to a big championship game. They were joined by an ad hoc group of background singers that formed among the party-goers. When news of the video broke, students protested and University of Oklahoma president David Boren responded swiftly and rapidly, as did the national president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The chapter was shut...

America's Only Black Piano-Maker Soldiers on Through Slights and Triumphs

When musician Warren Shadd decided to manufacture a line of high-tech pianos based on his own designs but with little capital, everyone thought he was crazy.

(Photo: Amanda Teuscher)
(Photo: Amanda Teuscher) Warren Shadd, the world's only African-American piano manufacturer, shows off the harp he designed for his line of grand pianos. “ No one gave me a million dollars,” Warren Shadd says from behind the nine-foot-three-inch concert grand piano he designed. “How do you do this with no money?” A million dollars is certainly helpful when starting any business. But if you want to be the first African American to manufacture products as capital- and labor-intensive as a line of pianos and don’t have that kind of money, it helps to have the mind of both an engineer and an artist, creative talent, an indelible work ethic, and a musical pedigree inherited from a family that was an integral part of Washington, D.C.’s mid-century jazz culture. Not to mention connections in the music business and a great ability to generate buzz. American popular music owes a lot—in some respects, nearly everything—to African Americans. So it may be surprising to learn that there are no...

Beyoncé Misses the Point of What Gospel Music Means to Black Americans

The selection of Queen Bey to deliver a song identified with Mahalia Jackson ignored the importance of spiritual conveyance in the music that moved a people to action. 

(Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)
(Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP) Beyoncé performs "Take My Hand Precious Lord" at the 2015 Grammy Awards ceremony. This essay is published by The American Prospect in partnership with The OpEd Project's University of Texas at Austin Public Voices Fellowship. A ny recognition of black history and culture in this month or the next must acknowledge the central role spirituality and religiosity have played in the lives of African Americans. In the face of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and countless other black men and women who have needlessly lost their lives, if we ever needed faith before, we sure do need it now. So it was with great interest I watched the Grammys and reveled in the power and resonance of John Legend and Common performing “Glory” the song they wrote for the movie Selma . Then my heart sank instantly when a rendition of the gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord” was performed by Beyoncé. Historically, spirituals and gospel music played...

Gaga and Bennett: Making a Great American Art Form Hip Again

Jazz singers don’t usually rise to the top of the charts, but Cheek to Cheek topped Billboard’s list of best-sellers in the week after its release.

T ony Bennett has long been as much a jazz singer as a pop singer, though I readily acknowledge that the distinction between the two has always been fuzzy. This has been particularly true throughout the second coming of his career—his rise again to popular and critical acclaim over the past two decades. The onetime crooner and belter of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” can’t quite hold those long notes like he used to or glissando up and down the scale without an occasional unintended bump. The marvel is, he’s still a great singer at age 88, in no small part by jazzing his singing even more than he used to. Bennett’s new album with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek , is an exhilarating textbook, if such a thing may be, of jazz singing, in which Gaga, prodded by Bennett’s foxy grandpa, discovers her inner Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz singers don’t usually rise to the top of the charts, but Cheek to Cheek topped Billboard ’s list of best-sellers in the week after its release, and a concert version...

A Hard Days Night and Beatlemania: The West's Last Outbreak of Optimism Disease

How much the Beatles helped create the '60s and how much the '60s helped create the Beatles is one of the great chicken-and-egg questions.

Janus Films/Criterion Collection
Janus Films/Criterion Collection A still from the 1964 Beatles film, A Hard Days Night , reissued July 2014 in a digitally remastered form. H ow did an opportunistic flick featuring Britain's fad-of-the-moment band turn into the best pop movie anyone had seen up to then? Let alone "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals," in critic Andrew Sarris's—and no pushover, he—oft-quoted rave at the time? It helped that the fad was Beatlemania, the director was 32-year-old Richard Lester, and the movie was A Hard Day's Night. Coinciding with the July 4 release of a digitally remastered Hard Days in U.S. theaters, the Criterion Collection has just put out a lavish 50th-anniversary joint Blu-Ray/DVD edition of the film with a whole second disc's worth of extras—multiple docs and interviews, plus Lester's Oscar-nominated 1960 short The Running, Jumping And Standing Still Film— and wow, does it ever suck. Nah, kidding. While the carousing imagination and headlong fervor of both entities involved...

Sondheim Looks Back

The composer reflects on his storied Broadway career in a new HBO documentary. 

AP Images/Henny Ray Abrams
S tephen Sondheim is such an engaging and peppery talker about his own work that any run-of-the-mill documentarian—one unafflicted by genuinely terrible bad breath, anyway—could probably get gold just by turning on the camera. But Six by Sondheim, which airs on HBO on Monday, isn’t run-of-the-mill at all. Directed by the composer’s longtime stage collaborator, James Lapine, this openly celebratory doc is elaborately built around a half dozen capstone songs in Sondheim’s career, from Company’ s “Being Alive” to (duh) “Send in The Clowns” to Sunday in The Park With George ’s climactic ode. Several of the numbers get full-on restaging—Todd Haynes guest-directs a stone-brilliant version of Follies’ “I’m Still Here”—and the interview segments are stitched together from TV Q&A’s stretching over five decades along with Lapine’s own. This kind of homage can easily turn precious and/or smug, of course. To tell the truth, that’s what I was betting on. Luckily for viewers, Sondheim himself...

12 Years a Female Slave—Not Coming to a Theatre Near You

We can't fully understand American slavery and its legacy without mining the diversity of enslaved experience in scholarship as well as film.

AP Images/Fox Searchlight
AP Images/Fox Searchlight O nce again, America is reckoning with its original sin of slavery—this time with the critically-acclaimed movie, Twelve Years a Slave, which had its nationwide release last week. The movie has been lauded for its uniquely unflinching look at the brutality and inhumanity of slavery. What is not so unique about the unquestionably affecting film is that it tells the story of an enslaved man . When will we see a mainstream, big screen film that explores American slavery from an enslaved black woman’s perspective? The few cinematic glimpses into the black, female slave experience have been rendered mostly through independent films and television or as a part of stories more broadly focused than slavery. The 1974 TV movie, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman , based on the Ernest Gaines book, begins with the eponymous Jane being freed post-Civil War. Cicely Tyson, the actress who portrayed Pittman, also played escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman in...

Lou Reed's Incorrigible Genius

AP Images/ Peter Brooker/REX
AP Images/ Peter Brooker/REX A fter Bob Dylan, and notwithstanding Brian Wilson and the Motown team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Lou Reed was arguably the greatest and most influential American songwriter of the 1960s. Though his growing cult would attain mainstream recognition in the early ‘70s, and though in the 1980s he would eventually become a household name—in some stranger households, anyway—the foundation of his work was laid early, on which was built not only everything he did later but the sensibility of first glam, then punk, then the “alternative” ethos that dominates rock and roll to this day. With his original band the Velvet Underground, Reed’s stardom was as incorrigible as the songs themselves, proceeding directly from the reviled to the legendary and bypassing mere popularity; upon the release of the Velvets’ debut, Reed was psychedelia’s East Coast antichrist unimpressed by the West Coast utopianism of peace and love when bondage and smack were the alternatives. Like...

A Twerk Too Far

AP Images/Charles Sykes
AP Images/Charles Sykes A t last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, Miley Cyrus continued her journey to adulthood, aided by proximity to popping black female asses. The former Hannah Montana star sparked a national dialogue about rich white girls borrowing empowerment from "low" black culture. The conversation we need to have about cultural appropriation is thorny and complicated—and necessary. But in the heat of a pop-culture moment, the significance is trivialized, reduced to the mere shock of a wiggling, latex-clad derriere pressed against Robin Thicke’s manhood. And ideas that support useful dialogue get lost in the scrum. It is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about cultural appropriation without first understanding the difference between inspiration and minstrelsy, the diversity of American racial experiences, and what we have a right to expect from white artists influenced by other cultures. One thing glaringly absent from last week’s breast-beating was recognition of...

Sentimental for the Stones Ages

George Nikitin/Invision/AP
AP Photo/Schroer T he Rolling Stones aren't playing anywhere within 900 miles of New Orleans on their "50 And Counting" tour, so it's not exactly as if I have an anguished decision to make now that the Feds have confiscated my Lear jet. But unless offered a free ticket, I doubt I'd have felt any qualms about staying home with Philip Larkin's Collected Poems and my toenail clippers even if the boys had taken it into their heads to headline JazzFest in NOLA last week. (This year's crowd had to settle for lesser dinosaurs: Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, Fleetwood Mac. Word is that Billy—now inching his way back into critical respectability, since you can't deny Mr. Glibmeister's songcraft—knocked it right out of the park.) Not that I ever saw them in their prime. My one and only Stones concert was in 1994, by which time I was being paid to go and wouldn't have considered attending otherwise. As intense as it was—defining my high-school and college years from the moment a 15-year-old me...

When Rock Criticism Found Its Voice

A new book charts the intellectual history of the Village Voice's towering rock critics, as well as the community that sprung up around them.

flickr/Doctor Noe
AP Photo N ewly out from University of Massachusetts Press, Devon Powers's Writing The Record: The Village Voice and The Birth of Rock Criticism— which'll cost you a whopping $80 for its 160 pages in hardcover, making the paperback's $22.95 price tag seem almost reasonable—is the first work of intellectual history I know of whose heroes are a couple of guys I used to see around the office during my own tenderfoot days at the paper in question. Don't blame me for both being uncommonly interested and feeling time's icy fingers do the Charleston on the nape of my neck. Reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland was weird enough; that Perlstein was too young to have any first-hand memories of the Nixon era demanded a certain, how you say, adjustment. Still, it's not as if I used to run into Tricky Dick at the soda machine. So let's get my personal acquaintance with Powers's two protagonists out of the way. Richard Goldstein, author of the Voice 's seminal "Pop Eye" column from 1966 to 1969, is...

Politicians Awkwardly Dropping Pop Culture References

Wiz Khalifa, who recorded a song that Marco Rubio knows the title of. (Flickr/Sebastien Barre)
Can a United States senator be cool? As it happens, the current Senate has a number of members in their early 40s, and for at least some of them, that youth is a big part of what defines them. There was a time when as a 40-year-old in the Senate you'd worry about establishing your gravitas, but this group seems to be just as interested, if not more, in playing up their youth. That may be particularly true for the Republicans, since their party not only worries about its appeal to young people but wants to make sure it stays relevant in the future. But this can be tricky, especially since, with a few exceptions, the kind of person who becomes a professional politician probably wasn't the coolest person to begin with. After all, part of being cool is not looking like you're trying to be cool, and politicians usually look like they're trying too hard (because they usually are). You may be asking, "Are you talking about Marco Rubio?" The answer is yes, but before we get to him, Rebecca...

Why Liberals Make Better Political Pop Culture than Conservatives

An image from the libertarian animated film "Silver Circle"
In my ongoing quest to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisanship, I come to praise Jonah Goldberg—yes, that Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism and innumerable appalling columns, for what he writes in the Los Angeles Times , in which he recoils at the suggestion by some of his brethren that they need to buy a movie studio and start churning out conservative films: There's a difference between art and propaganda. Outside the art house crowd, liberal agitprop doesn't sell. Art must work with the expectations and beliefs of the audience. Even though pregnancies are commonplace on TV, you'll probably never see a hilarious episode of a sitcom in which a character has an abortion — because abortion isn't funny. The conservative desire to create a right-wing movie industry is an attempt to mimic a caricature of Hollywood. Any such effort would be a waste of money that would make the Romney campaign seem like a great investment. There's something Goldberg doesn't mention,...

You Can't Lip-Synch a Hip Shake

Beyoncé's new documentary Life Is But a Dream marks a brief pit stop during her rise to world domination.

AP Photo/ David Drapkin
AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn If you're as stubbornly naive as I used to be, you probably think that following up a performance of the National Anthem at Barack Obama's second inaugural with one sizzler of a Super Bowl halftime show would be exposure enough for anyone. A pop-cult twofer that unprecedented might tempt even the most driven of superstars to rest on her laurels until, say, early March. So it's a relief to learn that Beyoncé Knowles—known throughout the Milky Way, of course, as plain and simple Beyoncé—has her head screwed on right: "I don't want to never be satisfied. I don't think that's a healthy way to live." Honest, that's how she feels. If you're so minded, you can see and hear her say so in Beyoncé: Life Is But A Dream, airing on HBO on Saturday. She's credited as both "director" and executive producer, and adding "star" would be redundant at a level to invite the gods' mirth. Her 90-minute self-portrait hits cable under a month after she serenaded Obama's swearing-in, and...