For better or worse, the first thing I thought upon reading Adria Richards’ blog post about the now-notorious PyCon incident was, “wait a second, I thought a tech conference was exactly the place for dongle and fork jokes!” The off-color comments that compelled Richards to speak out remind me of many comments that I have both heard and uttered at similar conferences. It does not immediately register as blatantly unacceptable behavior, if it registers that way at all. It implicates a lot of us.
To objectively debate whether or not fork and dongle jokes are “offensive” misses the point entirely. It is not for me to decide whether somebody else is empirically correct in being offended or upset by something. In Richards’ own words, the “fork” and “dongle” jokes were a Popeye-esque “couldn’t ‘stands it no more’” moment after months of being subjected to varying degrees of inappropriate behavior at tech conferences. The harder question is: how do we create an environment where people can safely express that they are upset and offended? How can we have that conversation without attacking, threatening, or scapegoating anybody?
So, right off the bat, let’s acknowledge that there is a wide spectrum of language and behavior that could leave certain people feeling unwelcome at an event such as PyCon. Making off-color jokes, no matter how innocuous-seeming, falls on this spectrum. Peppering a presentation with gratuitous images of bikini-clad women falls on that spectrum. Drunkenly slobbering on a female conference attendee, slipping her your company’s business card with your hotel room written on it, and slurring “my wife doesn’t know I’m here,” falls on that spectrum.
…. I actually witnessed that last one at the afterparty for a tech event in NYC a couple years ago. I got between the drunk guy and the young woman in question, chatted him up for a while, and made a note not to do business with the company he was there representing. BUT I didn’t do the one thing I obviously should have done, which is to tell him: “the way you are behaving is not okay.” In the best of all possible worlds, directly and honestly communicating with people is always the right thing to do. But it is not always easy. I couldn’t bring myself to do it from the excruciatingly safe and privileged position of a 6’4” dude at a conference where I had just spoken, so I certainly can’t get mad at Adria Richards for taking to Twitter to vent her frustrations. Putting all the responsibility on the offended party to always “do the right thing” only makes it harder for us to move forward.
By every account I’ve read, the staff at PyCon handled Richards’ complaint well — they spoke to both Richards and to the men in question, the men apologized, and everybody got on with their business. This could have been a much-needed blueprint for how to resolve issues like this respectfully. Instead, two people have been fired, and a woman who called out behavior that offended her is (once again) fielding grotesque threats from the usual suspects, and smug schadenfreude from a much wider swath of the Internet.
Acknowledging the horror and injustice of what Richards is currently experiencing does not mean we must agree with everything she’s ever said. I’ve never met Adria Richards, but some of the language in her post troubles me, especially her suggestion that the “future of programming” rested on her actions, and her broad assertions about what “women in technology need.” I don’t think it helps any of us to use Richards herself as a stand-in for ALL “women in tech.” The fact that other women might not have been offended, or might not have acted in the way that Richards did, does not render her individual experience less valid. Similarly, Richards’ actions do not make the experiences of other women with different perspectives any less valid.* No one person should have to stand in for anybody else, nor should any one person be able to speak for anybody else without their consent; Richards being offended and upset should be enough; enough for us to take it seriously, enough for us to reflect.
In the wake of this, some have pointed to past situations where Richards has publicly decried or boycotted things without directly addressing the offenders. If there is concern about Richards appropriating the experiences of others for her own personal gain, I would suggest that such appropriation is only possible if we create room for it, if we elide the gap between “things that upset Adria Richards” and “things that are always incontrovertibly sexist and offensive to women.” If we give Adria Richards unilateral authority to decide what is sexist, it is not because women are all-powerful and to be feared, but rather because it is easier for us to let someone else bear the burden of calling these things out than it is for us to discuss them together.
Looking at the way Richards has been treated in the wake of this, it’s not hard to see why we would be quick to defer that discussion, to let someone else speak to these issues and then criticize them for not doing it “the right way.” It is always easier to scapegoat individuals than to examine our own behavior. As many have pointed out, Richards herself did not get anybody fired; she publicly started a conversation that we don’t know how to have, and firing somebody is easier than wading into such rhetorically treacherous waters. Wringing your hands about how we’ll never be able to make funny jokes in public again is easier than acknowledging that, yes, when we talk within earshot of other humans, we run the risk of offending or upsetting those humans.
Nobody disagrees that there is misogyny in tech — the disgusting but all-too-familiar way in which Richards has been attacked in the wake of this is proof enough of that. But many articles and comments I’ve read in defense of Richards make a lot of assumptions about the men who made those jokes being “douchebags,” “neckbeards,” “sexists,” etc. I can’t help but feel that we’re saying some of these things to make ourselves feel better, to insist that we are NOT irredeemable tech bro douchelords, regardless of whatever crude jokes we may have made in earshot of other people.
I know for a fact that the profanity I’ve use in some of my classes and talks has left people feeling upset and alienated. My initial reaction to hearing this is always a hot-faced combination of rage and embarrassment; “well, they should just lighten up! It was just, like, TWO f-words!” The truth is, we all do things that hurt or offend other people sometimes. I have participated in conversations a thousand times more heinous than those attributed to said tech bro douchelords. You probably have, too. You’ve also probably reached the end of your rope and vented about somebody or something that falls on the relatively tame side of an ongoing, systemic frustration of yours. There is no perfect solution here, no way to make sure that we can all say exactly what we want and never offend anybody. We can, however, examine our own behavior and think about what we can learn from other people’s perspectives.
… or we can keep not-really-having this conversation every couple months. We need a way to talk about this stuff that isn’t temporarily “resolved” by a few people getting fired, or by all of us agreeing that misogyny exists somewhere in the tech world but refusing to examine the ways in which we ourselves might be complicit, and what we can do to make things better.
*For more on the“some women are not offended by this so it cannot be offensive” trope, I’d recommend both Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done.
On being both a critic and a musician.
This is a thing I read at (and wrote specifically for) the Pitchfork Music Festival’s amazing Book Fort on Sunday. It is about being both a writer and a musician, and the overlapping attendant neuroses of both.
The funny thing is: the self-loathing runs the other way. I don’t hate myself because I critique other people’s music, I hate myself because I STILL NEED people to LOVE the music that I make. Writing criticism isn’t easy… but it is. The mere fact of a record review justifies the writer’s opinion. If there are grumblings about a review I wrote, I can easily dismiss them as jealousy, ankle-nipping, or misdirected anger at the publication as a whole. “I bet YOU think YOU could do SUCH A BETTER JOB writing for Pitchfork,” I tell myself. “Well, let me tell you something, bloggy mcbloggerson, writing criticism IS NOT EASY.” To the extent that criticism can feel useless, criticism *about* criticism can feel extra-special-useless, a perfect opportunity to amplify and repurpose bullshit stereotypes about music writers. If criticism is an outlet for frustrated or talentless creators, what the fuck does that say about people who actually take the time to *critique* criticism? It says that the Shins album I reviewed TOTALLY fucking deserved that 7.0, dumbass.
If anything, the fact that I’ve been writing criticism for this long should leave me relatively impervious to having my own work critiqued. I’ve written arbitrary and unfair reviews on deadline, I’ve been too lazy to write about albums I love, I’ve been gratuitously contrary AND yielded for expediency’s sake, often at the same time. I can converse for hours about the relative strengths and limitations of music criticism as an institution, but FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHY DON’T YOU LIKE MY MUSIC? I WORK SO HARD ON IT. I THINK IT’S SO GOOD, AND I’M A PROFESSIONAL MUSIC CRITIC OKAY, SO MAYBE I KNOW A THING OR TWO ABOUT WHAT MAKES MUSIC GOOD. WHY DO YOU TAKE MY OPINION SERIOUSLY WHEN I WRITE ABOUT SOMETHING I’VE ONLY LISTENED TO TEN TIMES, AND NOT JUST ASSUME THAT SOMETHING I *ACTUALLY MADE* IS LIKE A HUNDRED TIMES BETTER. It’s not that I *EXPECT* any degree of success or validation as a musician but, y’know… if something just HAPPENED to come through….
The problem is that, much like “joking” with your girlfriend that it would be “really funny” to have a threesome with her and her best friend, this is not a wish you can smuggle into the universe without some very real consequences. To feel entitled to any particular kind of success is to want SO MUCH from SO MANY PEOPLE. I can literally FEEL that wanting behind my eyes when I talk to friends and acquaintances about music I’m working on. It is intense, and weird. And, whenever I find myself on the OTHER end of that wanting, when somebody I know asks me if I can listen to their record, maybe see if there’s any way I can help, I immediately feel defensive and put upon. Being a critic means, for better or worse, that people DESPERATELY WANT you to FEEL VERY SPECIFIC WAYS ways about very specific things. It is intense, and weird.
At times, I’m amazed at how easily this obvious hypocrisy exists within myself. The truth is, I don’t *actually* hate myself for anything. But, this is a piece of writing and not a song, so I can easily explain away such blunt, sloppy exaggeration. There *are* days when I curse myself for making music that throws up that biggest, reddest of red flags, ”earnestness” — just one more white dude with a liberal arts degree singing about his pwecious feewings, hopelessly uncool, “rockist,” contrived, derivative. But, aside from the occasional “contrived” and “derivative,” none of these things have ever actually been written about my music. Any disappointment or anger I feel is entirely a result of the far-fetched prizes and trinkets I have sworn up and down I don’t expect or feel entitled to.
Though it is even more patently counterproductive, critics are just as likely to harbor such ridiculous expectations. I suspect I am not the only critic who has been certain — CERTAIN — that something I’m writing will actually make an artist like me. That, because I gave that Shins album a 7.0, the band is going to ask me to hang out with them, and maybe even produce their next record because, “wow, this one writer just GETS IT so hard!” ALL of us — writers, musicians, fans — have our own roles to play in this absurd, protracted dance. We try our best to get as close as we can to the things we love, constantly re-calibrating our actions and tastes and expectations. If you’ve ever met one of your favorite musicians and found them aloof and disappointing, it’s likely because they were too tired, nervous, and/or preoccupied, to give you the attention you CLEARLY deserve for being such a loyal and devoted fan. That same musician was likely just as disappointed by your overeager sense of entitlement, a subtle but palpable violation of the respect and consideration that they CLEARLY deserve after weeks of thankless touring. You may, years later, casually mention that you MET Musician X, and Musician X was an asshole. Musician X may talk about how the fans in your city are too intense… and weird. Everybody wants, everybody grasps, most of us usually miss. We are the same. We *can’t* be on both sides of the fence, because the boundaries are never so clear, and it’s all but impossible to know where exactly you stand. All you know for sure is that there is a big, shitty, fence.
I just released my second solo single via Bandcamp. This is the A-Side. I’m very, very happy with how it turned out. This is definitely the best guitar sound I’ve managed to capture, and the drum take is surprisingly confident considering that my back was totally thrown out when I recorded it. Enjoy!
Game Theory - “Come Home With Me”
SO, I’ll be releasing my next digital single via Bandcamp next week. The B-side is loosely inspired by this amazing Game Theory song, which was included as a bonus track on the CD version of The Big Shot Chronicles.
I could (and hopefully will) write a lot more about Scott Miller’s songwriting, but holy hell, this is so great. The way he sets the scene in the first verse, “I looked at my watch but didn’t check the time,” then brings this brutal emotional self-awareness into the second verse. “I want you throwing back your head in a swoon, and drive on over me, to where you want to be.”
… and then there’s the “whatever” at the very end of the song, which might be my favorite moment in any Game Theory song. We’ve all been there: that little, off-hand dismissive gesture you make when you’ve just said something that maybe reveals a little bit too much about yourself. Such a relatable, beautifully human moment.
I produced these songs by my friend Mike, formerly of Oxford Collapse. Also played some drums, bass and guitar. These were really, really fun to work on.
Both of these songs are deeply rooted in personal nostalgia, but willfully oblivious to cultural and/or aesthetic nostalgia. I don’t think this was a conscious “project” so much as a natural inclination.
If you like these songs, I hope you will share them with other people. I’m hoping to release more of them soon.
"Kitteh vs. Chikin: What We Share vs. What We Click"
Here’s my deck from this year’s most excellent Monktoberfest. It’s a look into the difference between what we SHARE (stuff that makes us look smart) and what we CLICK (stuff that makes us look dumb).
Major thanks, as always, to Hilary Mason for finding the awesome data around which I built this presentation.
Independent Record Labels Are Still Important
During one of many teenage after-school trips to the Tower Records near Lincoln Center, I made a pact with myself: "all I want from the rest of my life is to put out an album that people can buy at a record store like this. If that happens, I will be happy."
Five years later, I found myself at Jackpot Records in Portland, staring down a wall of my band Get Him Eat Him’s debut CD Geography Cones. It was pretty awesome.
… this NEVER, ever would have happened without Absolutely Kosher Records. Cory Brown took a chance on my band when we had nothing to our name except for a handful of demos I recorded in my dorm room. He gave us a budget to record our debut album straight to analog tape at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. He paid to have that album mastered and manufactured. (He even let us use the thick, waxy-smelling paper for the CD insert, which was a really big deal.) When that album failed to recoup the money Corey had invested in it… Cory gave us a budget to record our second album.
But Cory’s contributions went far beyond material support. I never, ever forgot that my band’s music would bear the same mark as truly fucking incredible albums like the Wrens’ The Meadowlands and The Mountain Goats’ The Coroner’s Gambit. That the label responsible for releasing those albums saw fit to release my music meant more to me than I could really express. It made me aspire to make truly great music. And it made us feel like a Real Band.
Look, I understand that the music business is changing. I understand that bands can bring music direct to market, that physical distribution is no longer as important as it used to be, that grassroots groundswell can be more powerful than a label-funded publicist. But independent record labels are still important. Independent record labels are still really important. The gap between how artists create and how audiences consume is only getting wider; bands spend years pouring themselves into a record, only to have it consumed as a negligible blip in a torrent (pun very much intended) of free, on-demand entertainment. Independent record labels still support artists, not content producers.
Last week, Cory announced that Absolutely Kosher would be going catalog-only. Cory stayed true to his taste and his vision until it was no longer tenable, and I can’t imagine I’m the only musician who has him to thank for a whole lot of things. So, thank you Cory. And thank you Maren, Richard, Ryan, Sikwaya, Naomi, Joe, Rosemary, and everybody else who I had the pleasure of meeting and working with through Absolutely Kosher.
So hey, head over to Absolutely Kosher’s website and buy some music. The label put out some incredible records that never really got their due, including but by no means limited to Okay’s High Road and Low Road, The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up’s Picks Us Apart, and Sparrow’s The Early Years.
The Loud Family - “Some Grand Vision of Motives and Irony”
This has been on repeat since I got to San Francisco on Tuesday. Everybody oughta have their own personal torch song.
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