Here’s what I’ve learned since yesterday: over his career, Prince helped the counterculture become mainstream. The artist who offended Tipper Gore in 1984 received a tribute from President Obama in 2016.
Young people everywhere began discovering his music around 1979, thinking: at last, someone understands me. And more and more people felt that way, until they looked around and realized that they—the rebels, the wild ones—were in the majority.
For years, the establishment had told them that they and their wild music did not belong. Now, they were the establishment, and the newly empowered rebels could tell anyone left at the station by the train of progress that it was they—the misfits, the nerds, the classical violinists who wore a suit every day to first grade—who did not belong.
Time to show those close-minded losers a taste of the alienation they used to make us feel, the rebels told themselves. We can call them “smug” or “pretentious.” Their hearts are stone, so they cannot understand us. The train of progress will continue, and no one will remember a time when the rebellion embodied by Prince was not the establishment, or when there were a few squares left who politely declined to rebel in the officially sanctioned mode of rebellion.
Last night, I was criticized here on Facebook for a sincere effort to understand the greatness of an artist who had been hitherto unknown to me. Classical musicians who had long admired him were quick to lecture me on the need to be open-minded, but would probably never tell the tens of millions of Americans who don’t care about classical music that they should open their minds.
If those masses feel empowered to tell me that Prince would add something of value to my life, may I suggest to them that Mahler would add something of value to theirs? No, of course not: that would be elitist, say the rebels, now comfortably ensconced in their role as cultural arbiters. And if I fail to make the same emotional connection to music that today stirs the souls of millions? “You must like the music we tell you to like,” they will say. “All people must be open-minded, but you must be more open-minded than others.” Do they hear how closely they resemble the establishment they deposed and claim to despise?
I edited the video for the Massachusetts week of the American culture project today, juxtaposing shots of a baseball game attended by thousands with folk music events attended by a few dozen. In the early 1800s, baseball was countercultural, and English country dancing was done by the establishment. Now, the reverse is true. Which represents American culture today?
Can we allow the answer to be: both? Is the misfit’s heart-joy as worthy of respect as that of the masses? I believe Prince would have said yes, and so, although it doesn’t contain a note of his music, the Massachusetts video is my tribute to Prince.
I’ll finish this American culture project, since I finish what I start. I’m excited about showing more how culture is lived at the grassroots level, and how different people define culture in different ways.
But I can’t escape the conclusion that, birth certificate aside, this is not my country, and I will never find a home here. In Afghanistan, if I felt alienated, at least I could remember that I was a guest in someone else’s home.
In the US, what can I do? Prince helped you belong. Who will help me belong?
As a total contrast, I attended the Red Sox game at Fenway Park on April 17.
A baseball game attended by tens of thousands and seen on TV by millions more, or an English country dance in Amherst, attended by a couple dozen folks over 50: which represents American culture in Massachusetts? Could it be that both do?
Watch the video, above or on YouTube, and draw your own conclusions.
Rhode Island is America's "smallest state with the biggest heart," to quote historian Roberta Mudge Humble. For the Rhode Island week (April 3 to 10) of Cultures in Harmony's "What is American culture?" project, I traveled the state to interview people about how the culture of Rhode Island contributes to American culture. The film, available above and on YouTube, is by CJ Baird of Gigahertz Productions.
My main musical activity was a workshop-performance discussing the malleable nature of American culture with students of the daily orchestra program at Community Music Works, one of America's most admired community programs teaching classical music (its founder, Sebastian Ruth, won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010). Here is a report about my workshop written by one of the daily orchestra program's regular teachers, Lisa Barksdale. I attended Jonathan Biss' piano recital benefiting CMW at the beautiful RISD Museum, which is definitely worth a visit.
My time in Rhode Island overlapped with the controversy over Rhode Island's new marketing campaign. After seeing how much Rhode Island has to offer, I agree that it's shameful that the campaign featured footage from Iceland (there are plenty of visually compelling sights in the state) and recommended restaurants in Massachusetts (if you know where to go, Rhode Island has better restaurants than its larger neighbor). However, the new RI slogan—Cooler and Warmer—made more sense to me as the week went on. Few places have seemed as effortlessly cool, and few peoples have welcomed me as warmly.
Thank you to Mike Ritz, the Executive Director of Leadership Rhode Island, for suggesting so many wonderful people and institutions to visit, including:
The Steelyard has managed to keep the design and construction of many public industrial art projects (like trash cans and bike racks) in-state. Neophytes are welcome to come volunteer and will be trained to do tasks commensurate with their skill.
At Bristol Marine, we learned about changes in the boating industry over the years.
At the HP Lovecraft store, Niels Hobbs taught us about Rhode Island's famous author of horror stories and creator of the monster Cthulhu.
John McNiff, a park ranger, taught us about the legacy of freedom of speech Roger Williams created in Rhode Island, a legacy for which both the US and the international community still celebrate him.
Rhode Island is something of a mecca for foodies. It's pretty ridiculous that the marketing campaign thought visitors to RI would need out-of-state restaurant recommendations!
New York System Hot Wieners (profiled in the video above) are the best hot wieners you'll ever taste. I told owner Greg Stevens that, since they're better than any hot dog I ever had in New York, maybe he can retire the "New York" part of the name and call them "Rhode Island System." He smiled, but I don't think he'll do it.
Los Andes is more than just a world-class Peruvian and Bolivian restaurant. Its owners have committed to the economic revitalization of an entire neighborhood of Providence. It's worth a detour.
Seven Stars makes a chocolate croissant so good, all your problems will vanish when you take a bit.
It is pointless to attempt to slot the stunningly innovative cuisine at North into a category. Come expecting to be enchanted and surprised.
At the Dorrance, enjoy creative cocktails in a timeless, classy ambience that evokes the early 1900s.
Thank you also to my host and advisor, Donovan Wilcox, and to my friend Adrienne Taylor.
Since my own approach to the topic of "culture" is as a musician, the focus for the Connecticut week of our American culture project was Charles Ives, America's greatest composer, who was from Connecticut. I was pleased to partner with the world-renowned pianist Frederic Chiu and artist/innovator Jeanine Esposito to present a concert and discussion at Beechwood Arts & Innovation. Frederic and I performed a program of American classical music highlighting Ives, followed by a discussion. The entire program was broadcast live on Periscope, receiving 57 unique viewers.
I also gave a workshop-performance at Fairfield University, performing for and discussing with students the vagaries of labeling any particular music as "classical music" or "American," as well as the challenges in defining American culture.
I joined the former Connecticut State troubadour, Kristen Graves, to perform one of her songs at a benefit event for Simply Smiles in Newtown.
Finally, I gave a masterclass and performance for students of INTAKE, a program that provides Latin American folk and Western classical music lessons to Stamford-area students, 97% of whom are Latino in origin.
At Pumpkin Delight Elementary School in Milford, I observed a Boogie Chillun performance, sponsored by Arts for Learning, of American popular and folk music. Sadly, many of the young students thought they did not know any "folk music," but the energetic musicians were able to prove them wrong. By the end, nearly all members of the racially diverse student body were flailing their feet and arms every which way to "Uptown Funk," embodying a realization of the American ideal.
In food culture, I recommend New Haven's Frank Pepe, whose clam pizza was named the best in the United States. It was truly outstanding.
Cultures in Harmony’s “What is American culture?” project aims to catalyze a national conversation around the variety of possible responses to that question. The performance of music from Indiana during the project is underwritten by the Lilly Endowment.
Thank you to Jeanine Esposito for her invaluable help, support, and advice.
Please note that today’s event is live streamed via Periscope @cih2005.