Rage to Survive


“Her (Mitty Collier) voice fucking blows me away…and the fact that she was so young when she recorded that stuff…how many 20 something year olds can sing like they know what they are talking about. and people want to know why i hate beyonce and solange. fucking worthless bitches.”

So I introduced (otherwise felt guilty about not having enough money for Christmas gifts and gave a CD I already had and have in my iPod) Cheyenne to Mitty Collier. And It had me thinking when he said this, as I replied:

“But don’t you think, if we compare how many of our favorite singers grew up, and had to go through life that was, painfully harsh by the time they actually reached 18 or 21, compared to the Suburban Opulence and Middle class ease that Beyonce or a number of other pop tartlets these days go through. Altho “Rage to Survive” is the title of Etta’s book, you can come up with a list of 500 performances from different women from the past that show that “rage to survive.” To be loved, to be respected, to be honored, to be taken seriously, to be heard. “

And I thought about what I said a little more in response. Those Soul Singers (particularly the women from the gut bucket blues singers like Bessie Smith through the 1970s singers like Kim Tolliver) lived through an era where it was a lot “tougher” to be a minority female. A lot of them came from impoverished backgrounds. And even if they didn’t there were plenty of societal limitations about who they could be, how they could represent themselves, and how they could live.

Beyonce Knowles was born less than a year before me. She was born into an upper middle class Creole family in Houston, in an era that, as I interpret it from my view of being (lesser) middle class and Creole, growing up in the affluent Silicon Valley of the 1980s, there were fewer restrictions on who, as a minority female, you could be in the last 20 years of the 20th century. We didn’t suffer like the generation that birthed us. Or the generations before. We were the generation that was told we could have it all, there was no pain, and everything came as we asked for it.

We had maids (Black folks with maids?!?!?!) We had Ninetendos, We had our first cars at 16.

It’s a reality that Mitty Collier didn’t have. It’s a reality even Diana Ross didn’t have. If you look beyond the myth of The Supremes even, although Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, for points in their childhoods, had middle class existances, they didn’t have their first cars at 16, didn’t have new clothes to wear when school started, and, because of the size or politics of their family didn’t get attention, or material possessions to fill the voids of not getting affection and attention.

So often, in their late teens, or early twenties, when they won the chance to steal the spotlight for themselves, even if it were only for 5 minutes on stage, or 3 minutes on a 45rpm single, they put every breath of life into it. And they didn’t take the chance for an encore for granted.

Maybe if the lyrics handed to them didn’t relate to who they were, they found meaning in the words. Learned what those words meant. Expressed a knowledge of the power of statements. Dionne Warwick says she doesn’t understand why everyone thinks she was soo heartbroken, crying through songs like “Anyone Who Had a Heart” or “Walk On By” but, there’s no question she understood where the lyric was coming from. Followed the emotion in the words.

“If you see me walking down the street, and I start to Cry, each time we meet……..”

If one thinks about how devastated one would be, to utter those words. One might be able to make a pastiche of that heartbreak.

Whatever happened to lyrical content being actually a story that you can follow. A story that you could apply to your own life? Whether you were the singer on the stage or in the recording studio, or the listener on a radio, or buying the single that spoke to you in a way that’s beyond words?

That’s why I laugh, still, like 18 months later at Beyonce tripping down the stairs. Or the lack of passion in today’s popular music, and how that shows popular culture might be a bit rotten at its core right now. People who land record contracts and make it to iTunes, or on TV, feel that they are entitled to whatever attention is lavished on them. Not that they necessarily worked hard for it, or are filling a void about needing to be heard, recognized, acknowledged, cause this is the only way you know how.

Maybe we’ve forgotten how to get in touch with the words, how those words express emotion. I guess that’s why I sit on a bedroom floor, with CDs and old mixtapes and LPs and 45s, to make sure that, I, of all people, don’t forget.

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4 responses to “Rage to Survive

  1. great piece, and it’s why i’ve been getting into real old school blues lately. it’s so minimalist and raw, but it tells a story (unlike lots of more modern blues), but now i have to open up the debate: where does this leave artists like eminem, who did have a fucked up youth, mostly due to factors that were out of his control, and does inject that into his music? or what about someone like jack white, who grew up in a proud, poor, non-white environment, and couldn’t get respect as an artist until he added the schtick (he admits to meg white, and the whole candy stripe costumes being a ruse to make himself seem less threatening as a young white blues musician)? or johnny cash, who actually had a perfectly normal youth, but bought into his own image as the “working man’s” minstrel, and at that point actually began living a pretty fucked up life? or someone like ray charles, who had both the actual fucked up life, and the one he imposed on himself? i would definitely agree that most punk, blues, reggae, and hip hop artists these days are generic disconnected crap, but in a world (speaking of the USA) where there actually isn’t a large degree of suffering, poverty, or oppression (there is some, but compared to the lives of women, and african americans prior to the late 20th century, or scores of other populations around the world, and throughout history…) where does one find legitimate ammunition for something as powerful as what came out of the african american community in the early/mid 20th century? keeping in mind that major mainstream shifts in music mostly occur as white artists begin to successfully recreate “black” music (elvis, the brit rock invasion, eminem), is it possible for a paradigm shift to come from a demographic that feels a different kind of suffering? i think the musical world has had a pretty relevant progression through negative emotions (oppression, poverty, rebellion, anger, angst, disenfranchisement…), but we’ve come to a point, as we often do (see: disco) where opulence is somehow a topic to sing about, and while that does a great job of revealing the phonies, it also cuts the rug out from under many legit artists. it creates a disconnect between artist and audience. to quote outkast (sorry) “i don’t make music to get high, i make music to get by”, that emotional space is where real art comes from, but in a world where gangsta rap has made the rags to riches story very marketable, is it even a relevant ideal? when haiti gets destroyed and our best artistic idea is to make a shitty recreation of “we are the world” with “artists” like fergie and lil wayne and vince vaughn(?!), perhaps it’s time to forget everything we know about music and suffering and let the artistic connection between the two re-manifest itself on a blank slate.

  2. I think for music in the last 25-30 years that emotion/passion quotient would be the exception and not, I guess, the rule at this point. For instance with Eminem, I think a lot of his credibility comes from the fact that he did come from a harsh, fucked up life, and that same “rage to survive” (even in his delivery style is in your face and take no prisoners) is in existance, though it’s a sort of pain that is an interesting subgroup of society now: The Disenfranchised White guy, whether he grow up poor , a social outcast or both. It’s the morphing of the concept of soul away from a solely African American paradigm that allowed very few white artists to be accepted into in the past.

    The hard thing with me is that I can only think of a handful of other artists that fall into that category: Rufus Wainwright, possibly Amy Winehouse, I throw Wainwright into that pot because of the “queer” struggle he has as an artist, but I’m wary to include him and Winehouse due to the fact a lot of their artistic complexity comes from their drug use. Sure, a lot of soul music artists displayed more complexity due to their drug usage (Your notable mention of Ray Charles, Etta James) and the effects that had on their psychological state, but then you also have to wonder how much of their actual upbringing was filled with the strife that brings real tangible authentic feeling to their artistry when we, the listener, hear it and try to relate to it.

    It’s not to say that us, as a generation of 25 to 34 year olds haven’t had any emotional strife (but as a whole we’ve had economic comfort, and if we’re suffering now, you’d have no clue we were experiencing any emotional transformation and depth from it based on current pop culture), It’s really wondering why as a whole, when our generation expresses art, why do we have no real, sincere, emotion? Is it impossible for us, what and how much of it is environmental (lack of?) stimulation, and how much of it is just our general lack of character depth?

  3. The only spaces I can think of is that 1) Immigrant populations *might* be more influential in popular music culture. The problem here is that, since there is a major language barrier (the one blessing for Black music crossing over is that 99.9% of the time it was sung in english) I don’t think American pop culture will ever make the effort to listen to “world” music for the emotional coloring versus the lyric (I fell into this trap with my introduction to Cesaria Evora, but also, she being Martha Reeves’ age, makes her someone of another era in world music). I think as long as the US in particular is a single language society, it will never be able to “read” music in another language with any depth, something gets lost in the translation and becomes “novel” to us.

    The only other avenue for new possibilities would be my hinted at “Queer” identity in pop music, because it adds another twist to all of the topics (oppression, rebellion, anger, angst, disenfranchisement…) you mentioned through another lens of male/female/multi-ethnic paradigms.

    The main problem with this, is homosexual culture, nowadays, would rather be a part of mainstream culture, and has historically been dominated by middle class white male values (the whole point of the Gay Marriage movement for instance). Even from my prospective (and the weird underlying context of this post) is that historically Gay men appropriated female singers (more often black and “soulful”) emotions to better understand how to deal and understand our own homosexual relationships: the advice and the appropriate emotions, the standards for courtship, that we don’t really have our own historic spring of a variety of emotions that are our own. There’s a deeper history of Lesbian singers that go back more than one generation (Holly Near is of specific note) that celebrate Sapphic love, but for gay men, all we have is to go back to is hedonistic disco of the Sylvester variety to identify with on any level.

    And that music is legendarily about doing poppers and coke and taking it up the ass with 15 different guys…yeah…

    • 5 gay men come to mind when considering what being a gay man in popular music has meant to most of the consumer audience in america: freddie mercury, elton john, george michael, boy george, and (far less popular in the mainstream) mika. queen seemed to make this over the top heterosexual rock, perhaps to compensate. while rocket man could be read as a story of self discovery, john mostly made songs that seemed to appeal to adult contempo types, who liked their emotion heavy but fairly generic, and boy george and george michael were able to play off the acceptable androgyny that came with pseudo disco pop crap in the 80s, like, if prince can be straight then george michael must be god’s gift to vaginas. and i like mika’s music mostly because he takes a tongue in cheek approach to all of these other notably gay artists “non-gay” styles, but there isn’t much heart in it. so i guess there’s really no precedent for being a respected gay male musician, unless you get the respected musician part down first (all but mika were either closeted, or intentionally androgynous/ambiguous until later in their careers). one might imagine those kinds of already successful artists (eh, maybe not really artists, but…) could turn that need to hide who they are into something meaningful and worth listening to, once they were outed, but not a one has done so. no disrespect to the gay community, but it seems like most people these days who show up on the cultural radar (read: mtv, vh1, E!, etc) are far too interested in being “shockingly gay”, like the simple act of being something generally not accepted is itself an art form, and i wonder if that has any stifling effect on people who have genuine talent, and know what it really feels like to grow up gay in this society, and don’t feel like they are eccentric enough to get respect in the midst of your perez hiltons, your queer eyes, or your militantly gay rosie o’donnells. even to look at the lillith fair acts, did they really make “gay” music, or did they just make music that straight people didn’t like? it almost seems like the general consensus for the gay art scene is: you can be a gay artist, but you can’t make gay art. consequently, i think that true musical expression of what it means to be gay in the late 20th/early 21st century has yet to be adequately defined.

      and thus, you are free to paint the muse however you see fit, my friend.

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