Linksomania: Elections, Grammys and a crackdown on local art

February 22, 2011

While Chicago awaits the results of the biggest news happening today, what say we distract ourselves by catching up on some music-related reading via some links I’ve been meaning to share?

1. As noted yesterday, the local media have been shamefully remiss in grilling Rahm Emanuel on his ties to Ticketmaster/Live Nation and Lollapalooza. But one commentator who did pick up on one angle of the story is Steve Rhodes of the Beachwood Reporter, who excoriated Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy for playing a benefit for Emanuel, using the singer-songwriter’s own words, from Greg Kot’s biography and elsewhere, to hoist him on his own petard and expose him as painfully naïve about politics, if not maliciously duplicitous.

2. Last week, my WBEZ colleague Jonathan Abarbanel updated in part the question of “who’s running the show” at the newly merged Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in the post-Lois Weisberg era, and he made some interesting observations. But the important position of head of that department still is vacant, and it now seems obvious that it will remain so until the new administration takes office. Will former Mayor’s Office of Special Events chief Megan McDonald get the job running the new super-department? Will someone else with more clout than qualifications take her place? Whatever happens, the job is one to watch, because it will say a lot about what the new mayor does—and doesn’t—value in this city’s approach to the arts, and to music in particular.

3. Reason number 7,893 why it’s nice not to be a daily music critic anymore: I no longer have to watch or pretend to care about what happens at the Grammys, unless of course they’re of particular interest to me. They certainly weren’t this year, though it was amusing to see so many of my colleagues predict big wins for Eminem, only to face the surprise upset of the Arcade Fire claiming album of the year. Few attempts to explain or justify that win hit home in the aftermath—with this commentary from the BBC being the most spectacularly wrong-headed of them all (this was a rare example of the Grammys actually following their stated mission of honoring “artistic excellence” instead of pandering to popularity and chart positions)—so here in a nutshell is what I think happened:

For all the talk of a safer, more sanitized Eminem being honored for being one of the few bonafide old-school album-sales successes of last year, a large segment of the notoriously staid, conservative, and industry-beholden bulk of Grammy voters just couldn’t get past the rapper’s homophobia and misogyny (and no, the Grammys’ earlier attempt to cleanse him of those sins by pairing him with Elton John didn’t do it). So these voters, still eager to honor the sales numbers, split between the also respectably-selling Lady Gaga and Katy Perry on the pop tip and Lady Antebellum on the slick Nashville pop end of the spectrum, leaving just enough of a hole for indie-rockers Arcade Fire to win with what I’d bet was one of the smallest tallies ever to claim album of the year. (Not that it wasn’t a good record; it just wasn’t record of the year, and it really only is the third best Arcade Fire album.)

4. The city’s small music clubs aren’t the only artistic businesses endlessly hassled for failing to comply with arcane and inscrutable licensing hurdles that even city officials have a hard time keeping straight: Last summer, I spent some time tracking down a story about the Department of Business Affairs dropping in at weekend art fairs in different neighborhoods; writing down the artists’ names; ringing their doorbells on Monday morning, ostensibly to buy a piece of art, but in fact issuing a summons for the artist not having a business license to sell his or her artwork out of their home. I grew frustrated in my reporting because the artists who’d been fined were reluctant to talk and artists' activist groups were trying to work with the city, not declare war on it. But this ugly or at least unjust crackdown still is going strong, and Northwestern’s Liz M. Kobak recently wrote a short but solid piece about it for the Medill Reports Chicago blog.

5. A few months ago, in a post entitled “The Return of Chris Holmes and Ashtar Command,” this blog updated the doings of the wayward North Shore musician, University of Chicago graduate, and former auteur behind Sabalon Glitz and Yum-Yum in a gently mocking tone that left him a little bit chaffed. Well, we can poke well-meaning fun at Holmes for many things, but a lack of big ideas never has been one of them. “I've been trying to think of ways to save the music business,” he recently wrote me. “It’s probably too late, but it’s worth a shot.” I present this link to Holmes’ “The Privateer Manifesto: Can It Save Music?” sans comment, ironic or otherwise, aside from noting that hey, they do know their economics down at the U. of C.

6. Finally, my friend A.L. recently wrote to share a link to this Billboard story about Portland Mayor Sam Adams, a true fan of the Decemberists and a chief executive willing enough to laugh at himself that he recently appeared in “Portlandia” (brought to us of course by another wayward Chicagoan, Fred Armisen). Though the whole interview is worth reading, A.L.’s comment—“We need a mayor like this, not one who pushes privatization or just slashes away at support for music and culture”—was inspired by this particular Q&A exchange, which makes for a remarkable contrast to the statements that any of Chicago’s mayoral contenders made when they were questioned about the arts.

In addition to the art and music, Portland also has high unemployment [10.7% in November 2010, according to the Portland Business Journal] and teacher layoffs. In the face of this issue, how do you justify spending money on the arts?

If you want to live in a one-dimensional city, I respect anyone's right to do so. I don't. I want to live in a city that has many dimensions to it . . . the more arts education we offer, the lower our dropout rate will be. The more arts and culture we have in the city, the more innovative we'll be in all other endeavors. It can't be an innovative city and be bereft of arts and culture, or have a weak arts and culture scene. My goal is to allow for more full-time, living-wage arts and culture jobs.