All-American Reading List

Nicki Minaj (photo from XXL)

I’ve been pretty busy this week getting some school work off the ground, but I did want to check in with a linkdump. It occured to me that all of these links are Americentric. And that I’m talking to myself again: believe me, I’ve read the blog’s stats. Anyway, here’s some brief notes on Major League Baseball, the New York School, Hip-Hop historiography, and Nicki Minaj:

-My brothers have decided to document the 2011 seasons of the Mets and Yankees over at Joba Joba Joba. They’re on a roll so far, so check out their musings on all things Cano and Isringhausen (well, maybe more Cano than Izzy). Still waiting for Kevin to do a retrospective on Benny Agbayani, but I guess they’re busy enough with the current season. I may force myself onto their site with Red Sox reportings, but as of right now there’s not much more to report outside of “They lost. Again.”

I was going to say that people around here are taking the slow start surprisingly well, but then I remembered that I promised not to lie too much during Lent this year.

-I just started reading Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. My initial response to Epstein’s book was to quietly curse him out of jealousy, but then I got over myself. Epstein talks about the role that friendship and community play in the creation of postwar poetry, giving particular attention to Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka. What I love so far about the book is its insistence on taking a closer look at “the vertigo, the shadow that so often lends American poetry its great pathos and power” (24). Epstein asks us to consider rather than ignore or explain away “the constant, dark undertow we feel whenever these writers write about friendship and community” (28).

I also love the focus on Baraka’s relationship with O’Hara and the New York poets, as well as Epstein’s desire to complicate the tendency to describe the mid-century American poetry scene as distinct and clearly-defined camps.  Smart, inspirational academic work that makes me remember why I’m getting wrapped up in this business.

-On the not-quite-academic-but-pretty-academically-rigorous front, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. My own negative experiences with mainstream treatises on pop culture — not to mention similarly unpleasant experiences with academic treatments of such matters (although I did just start David Haven Blake’s Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity, and that’s been great so far) — led me to cast a wary eye at Chang’s project, despite the fact that many smart friends had said great things about the book. But when I saw a remaindered copy at the Brookline Booksmith, I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. And man is Chang’s book terrific. While I initially picked it up for leisure-reading purposes, it’s made me think about how to talk smartly about subcultures and perceptions of avant-garde / countercultural movements in academic discourse as well. Take, for example, Chang’s description of Afrika Bambaataa:

Of the three kings, the trinity of hip-hop music — DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa — the most enigmatic is Bambaataa Kahim Aasim.

It is not because he is reclusive. In fact, unlike Herc and Flash, he has never retreated far from the public eye. Through his prolific recording career and his ongoing stewardship of the Universal Zulu Nation organization, Bambaataa has lived a very generous life. He regularly crisscrosses the world, graciously giving of himself to fans, journalists, Xulu members and hip-hop heads everywhere. And yet he also remains essentially a mystery. There are things that everyone seems to know about Bambaataa, and things that no one seems to know. The philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss might have called Bambaataa someone who lives twice simultaneously — once as a man in history, and separately as a myth above temporarilty. (90)

Boom. I love the way Chang manages a colloquial and conversational tone in the pursuit of serious intellectual weight-lifting.

-Speaking of hip-hop, celebrity, and weight-lifting (kind of), I watched Nicki Minaj: My Time Now at the gym yesterday. The MTV documentary is an above-average behind-the-curtain look at the construction of a contemporary pop star. The lines between “person” and “persona” are a little too neatly-delineated by the documentary crew (and the disembodied interlocutor seems obsessed at times with getting Minaj to cry and cry some more, which is sad), but it manages to capture moments where the lines are blurred: like, for example, when Minaj visits some relatives in Trinidad who ask her to “do Nicki.” I wonder if, unlike Lady Gaga — who seems to have embraced the fact that it is hard to differentiate between the performance of “Lady Gaga” and an “authentic” self — Minaj and her reliance on a myriad of personas (I almost wrote “Pessoas” there) presupposes an authentic “Minaj” persona underneath all the costumes and characters: though her songs frequently mix these warring voices and perspectives together to the extent that it’s difficult to see what that might be.  

In any case, if you’re a Minaj fan (and I am), the show is very much worth your time. Just be prepared to be disappointed in the presence of Eminem on “Roman’s Revenge” (which we see Minaj working on in the doc) should you download it after viewing the doc (thankfully, there is a remix of “Roman’s Revenge” where Lil Wayne takes Eminem’s place). In conclusion, Eminem ruins everything.

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