Category Archives: Music commentary

Vanderbilt Needs To Embrace Music City

*Note: This piece originally appeared in the Vanderbilt Hustler on April 15, 2015.  It has been republished here so that all my work can be found in one place.

I was thrilled to see The Hustler put the spotlight on our student musicians in its feature “Making it in Music City.” As the former head of RVU Records and a WRVU DJ who has interviewed Vanderbilt’s musicians for the past three years, I know most of the people they highlighted and can’t think of any more deserving stories to be shared with the student body. From Two Friends’ meteoric rise in the EDM world to Nate Banks’ promising solo career and everyone in between, this campus is bursting with musical talent.

But you may not have known this if The Hustler hadn’t taken interest. Whether it’s our school’s self-centered culture of studying toward financial success, Blair’s focus on classical music or the presence of Belmont just down the street, some factor suppresses the vibrancy and visibility of a homegrown Vanderbilt popular music scene. And it’s a shame, because over my WRVU career I’ve met several talented artists whose musical aspirations have been limited by academic pressure and a lack of avenues to exposure.

To be fair, opportunities for aspiring musicians and music businesspeople have increased noticeably since I arrived here in 2011. The Business Careers in Entertainment Club provides wonderful connections and opportunities for interested students. Both RVU Records and Studio CRB allow musicians to record on the cheap, with the former offering audio engineering training as well. McGill Coffeehouse open mics are always jovial and at times feature spellbinding performances. Even VSG’s first-year CommonDores Leadership Council pleasantly surprised me by hosting an open mic in February, although in its naivete it alienated the performers from our campus culture by calling the event “Belmont.”

Nevertheless, despite these growing on-campus opportunities and mainstays such as Deanna Walker’s songwriting class, Vanderbilt students who hope to make it in the music industry must pursue their dreams on their own. The university’s alumni network and recruiting profile, so strong in areas like consulting and finance and engineering, are negligible in the business that gives this city its nickname. Many students drawn here by Nashville’s appeal find themselves trapped in the Vandy Bubble, unsupported by a campus culture that rewards individual drive and academic success above all.  Even as the Melodores have become national darlings and a cappella as a whole has flourished here, that growth has yet to translate into real investment in a college music scene by the Vanderbilt administration or student body. Instead of fostering a robust pipeline into Music City that would differentiate us from other top-20 schools and beautify our campus culture, our general reaction to musical ambition ranges from lukewarm appreciation to total apathy.

I’m aware that my reaction to this issue is probably stronger than most other students’, that my disappointment is likely not shared by everyone reading this and that most of you probably don’t have the time or desire to rectify the situation.  That’s why all I ask of you, the general student body, is to keep your ears open to the amazing musical talent we have here and try to attend at least one Vanderbilt student artist’s performance before you graduate. Unlike most of us, these classmates of ours will rely exclusively on peer support to make their living, so even liking their Facebook pages or sharing their songs online means more than you can imagine — and it takes almost no effort on your part.

To those of you who are moved by the paucity of a Vanderbilt music scene and want to do something about it, I have a couple of suggestions that would immediately increase visibility of and institutional support for popular musicians on campus.  The first of these is a campaign to build resources at the Career Center or Blair for those students who want to make or deal in music for a living. I’ve met Vanderbilt alumni in the industry, and I am astounded that the university hasn’t built them into a network to help its aspiring songwriters, artists and music business people. In a world where interpersonal connections dwarf academic success in importance, such a network would be a tremendous boon in helping students land that coveted internship at Sony Music or meet the producer who will turn their rough demo into a smash hit.

The second is to increase the number of musical opportunities on campus. Putting a few drum kits on Commons would be a great way to encourage first-years to form bands. In terms of performances, I don’t think it’s out of the question for VPB, Music Group and the BCEC to pool their resources to found a monthly Songwriters’ Night on campus, featuring some combination of professional and amateur musicians.  Certainly within the realm of possibility would be a weekly open mic at the Pub. A veteran Vanderbilt audio engineer once told me that John Mayer played there in the early 2000s (sadly I could not confirm it). Even if that isn’t true, how cool would it be if something like it happened in the future?

We can build a thriving music scene on this campus. The interest is there, as is the talent. All that’s missing is the cultural and institutional shift. If effective steps are taken to make it happen, Vanderbilt will have made it in Music City.

Gentrification Is Taking The Music Out Of Music City

12th and Porter is the latest victim of gentrification in the Gulch.

12th and Porter is the latest victim of gentrification in the Gulch.

Nashville calls itself Music City; it’s the moniker that supposedly separates our home from Charlotte, Minneapolis, and every other up-and-coming metropolis, and it’s a huge part of the reason I chose to come to Vanderbilt. So the news that the locally beloved venue 12th and Porter will be closing its doors at the end of February disturbs me greatly—and if you care about preserving the cultural integrity of Nashville, it should disturb you too.

According to The Tennessean, the property will be redeveloped to “enhance the North Gulch.” If the South Gulch is any indication, that means we’ll see 12th and Porter replaced by luxury condos, a couple boutique clothing stores, and another Bar Louie or an Irish pub. Instead of seeing a great local band or marginally more to check out an established act like Kings of Leon or Neil Young (both have played 12th and Porter), you’ll get to overpay for dinner and drinks at a generic nightspot devoid of personality. This is gentrification at its finest: the conversion of a “run-down” area into an upscale neighborhood through the replacement of its businesses and residents and raising of rent.

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Rapchat: Now YOU Can Join Vanderbilt’s Underground Rap Scene

Here at WRVU, we’re all about the underground music scene, whether we’re introducing you to fresh new songs or interviewing artists who may not even be college graduates yet (in fact, my show is entirely the latter). Recently, though, I discovered an app that is destined turn the entire Vanderbilt campus into amateur rappers. It’s called Rapchat, and it’s the long-awaited messiah of the Vanderbilt rap scene.

Drake consults with his ego before sending a diss Rapchat to Kendrick Lamar, Diddy, and Big Sean.

Drake consults with his ego before sending a diss Rapchat to Kendrick Lamar, Diddy, and Big Sean.

The app is simple and very easy to use. All you have to do is pick one of the pre-packaged beats (there are a few dozen from which to choose), hold the phone to your ear, press record, and spit some dope lines into the mic. Then you send your killer freestyle to your friends, who are connected to you via Facebook. The beats are actually not a total joke–it seems the developers crowdsourced them from Soundcloud beatmakers, and indeed you can check out the Soundcloud page of each of the beats’ creators. It’s a brilliant symbiotic relationship that provides Rapchat with its production and the beatmakers with an audience for their material.

Deep down inside, everyone wants to be a rapper, and I’m no exception. I started from the bottom of Rapchat over winter break and the rhymes have been flowing ever since. I make them everywhere; honestly, it’s hardly more obnoxious to rap into your phone than it is to take a shameless Snapchat in public, and will become less so as Rapchat inevitably takes over, following in the mythical footsteps of Yik Yak, Tinder, and Instagram. Of course, however, the most creative juices come out in the bathroom, where Rapchat becomes Crapchat.

Much of my fraternity now uses the app, and I’m proud to say that our brotherhood has never been tighter. The ability to instantly compose a diss track and send it to the entire chapter means that no one can really rise above the rest. We will come up as a crew or not at all, and if anyone breaks the code, they will certainly be cut down to size by some of our more caustic tongues: C-Flow, Blumin’ Onion, etc. Today you might not know these names, but tomorrow they will be the next A$AP collective, busting out thirty second nuggets of lyrical gold and shooting up the universal musical consciousness of the country.

The future of the Vanderbilt music scene--and college rap game everywhere.

The future of the Vanderbilt music scene–and college rap game everywhere.

The real beauty of Rapchat, though, is that none of your rapt listeners can tell if you’ve freestyled your lines or if they were meticulously prepared. I find that leaving this particular mystery unsolved builds up my intimidating aura more effectively; it leaves my audience with the force of my words ringing in their ears, bouncing around their brains, bamboozled by my dope rhymes with no choice but to assume that I invented them on the spot. Of course, I am sure to maintain a healthy distance between myself and any haters for the time being; I don’t yet feel as though I could take down Supa Hot Fire in verbal combat, and he is naturally the standard to which any good rapper must hold him or herself.

Anyways, the moral of the story is that I’ve been fighting to expand the Vanderbilt music scene since the fall of 2012, and now the tool by which this will happen finally exists. I want everyone reading this to download Rapchat and tell their friends to do the same. With any luck, Vanderbilt will soon be not only the happiest campus in the country, but also the dopest.

Nine Years Later, System of a Down Still “Mezmerizes” Me

System of a Down managed to capture the zeitgeist of American anti-war sentiment in 2005 with their shocking hit album Mezmerize.

System of a Down managed to capture the zeitgeist of American anti-war sentiment in 2005 with their shocking hit album Mezmerize.

It may be surprising to see a retrospective of a nine-year-old nu metal album on this blog, particularly from a writer who has vented at length about the overall lack of quality of mid-2000s popular music.  Then again, everything about System of a Down’s music, from the band’s ability to mash together disparate and seemingly irreconcilable influences to their shocking success on the mainstream airwaves, is a bit surprising.  System’s landmark 2005 album Mezmerize happened to be on my mind as I put together a discussion for my psychology class, and revisiting it as I worked resulted in three dominant trains of thought, none of which dealt with my homework: 1) nostalgia for the days when my biggest concern was whose backyard trampoline the neighborhood kids would be hitting up after school, 2) amazement at how irresistibly fun the eleven songs are, and 3) wonder at System’s ability to somehow maintain this fun amidst livid, highly caustic lyrics and guitar riffs.  In conjunction, these concurrent streams of consciousness brought me to the crucial question: how the hell did a band like System of a Down hijack the popular music consciousness?

I think the answer boils down to two factors: perfect timing and the group’s ability to infuse its thrashing songs with elements that made them palatable to mainstream listeners.

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Shake It Off or Take It Off (of Spotify): Interpreting Taylor Swift’s Bold Move

Taylor may have swiftly changed the game when it comes to the future of streaming music.

Taylor may have swiftly changed the game when it comes to the future of streaming music.

I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the news: Taylor Swift has removed all of her music from Spotify.  As in, everything.  Not just 1989.  The only track you can find that even features Swift is “Safe and Sound,” her collaboration with The Civil Wars.  Go now and listen while you still can, before we have all been forsaken by the great blond goddess of our musical age.

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Remembering Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon

On October 21, 1995, Shannon Hoon (second from left) died of a cocaine overdose.  He was 28.

On October 21, 1995, Shannon Hoon (second from left) died of a cocaine overdose. He was 28.

On this day nineteen years ago, four of Blind Melon’s five members woke up expecting to play a show that night at Tipitina’s in New Orleans.  The fifth, lead vocalist and chief songwriter Shannon Hoon, never awoke.  He had died of a cocaine overdose at age 28.  Today, to honor Hoon’s memory, I’d like to take a look at Blind Melon, a terribly under-appreciated member of the grunge pantheon.

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The Evolution of Matisyahu

Matisyahu, mid-2000s (top) and 2014 (bottom).

Today, Vanderbilt will host its most esteemed musical visitor, excluding Rites and Quake, since Billy Joel (and Michael Pollack) captivated a sold-out Langford Auditorium almost two years ago.  Matisyahu burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s, delivering a powerful reggae sound laced with traces of rock, hip-hop, and his trademark Judaism-inspired lyrics.  It was a wonder to behold him commanding the stage in traditional Hasidic dress, complete with yarmulke and full beard, while performing in a style that broke the mold of Jewish orthodoxy and tradition.  We listened in awe as “King Without a Crown” leapt to #28 on the Billboard Top 100, easily the highest a song with explicitly Jewish lyrics has ever charted.  We sang along to the powerful “One Day,” which was remixed with new verses by Akon.  And then those of us outside the reggae community allowed Matisyahu to slip from our consciousness.

The Matisyahu who will be walking around West End today looks far different from the Matisyahu of ten years ago.  Gone is the beard, as is the yarmulke–he wears a clean-shaven look topped by a mop of graying hair.  The music, while it still contains Judaism at its heart, has become more secular and more diverse in style, reflecting the man’s continuing spiritual journey.  But Matisyahu is as active as ever, having released his fifth studio album Akeda in June and touring extensively in support of the LP.  In light of this metamorphosis, let’s take a closer look at some of the highlights of Matisyahu’s decade-long career.

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