Friday, November 30, 2007

Sound-System Bikes and the Modernities of Hauling Music

Cross-posted on Musicology/Matters.

When I first started my bicycle blog a few weeks ago, I thought it would be an excellent outlet for me to relay stories and observations of my car-less day-to-day life in Los Angeles. What I never expected, however, was how rapidly I would begin to make connections between my life as a musicologist and my life as a cyclist. And then I saw this photograph:

Yesterday, the nation’s “newspaper of record,” The New York Times, published a piece about bicycles in Queens equipped with sound systems. While I think it is wonderful that the Times is covering this alternative mode of blasting music into public spaces, I have to wonder why it has taken so long for this most esteemed newspaper to notice what has been apparent to me for a very long time: people will carry anything they can on a bicycle if the situation demands it, and they will even do it in ways that prevent efficient riding. From touring bicyclists who sleekly carry all their supplies for extended rides to homeless people who obsessively collect and stack their belongings on old bikes, the range of persons who improbably carry large quantities of material on a bicycle is huge and has been this way for a long time. In my area of LA, it is perfectly normal to see people riding to the laundry-mat with their bikes loaded with baskets. And I am describing a supposedly affluent area.

What bothers me about this sudden “discovery” of sound-system bikes is that there is nothing really new about it, whether you are describing the precarious stacking of equipment on a two or three wheeled self-propelled vehicle or the creative use of technologies to remake urban spaces. How many times have you seen someone riding by on a bike with a boom-box? Yes, it is interesting and even “strange” to see people improbably carry large amounts of cargo, but it isn’t a foreign concept to me. Go to any Critical Mass Ride, for example, and you are likely to hear music moving with the multitude of bicycles. Where is it coming from? Fully-loaded cargo-bikes.

But in our techno-savvy culture, people doing things on bikes is a signal of poverty and even development.* Or, in much more rough and inaccurate terms, bikes are orientalist while iPods, cars, and other narrow definitions of modernity are occidentalist.** From my perspective, modernities are apparent all throughout the world, especially in the ways that people use and experience music. Yes, you can see more large objects on bikes and scooters all throughout Rio de Janeiro. And when the city closes down roads on Sundays for beach-crowd use, you can sometimes hear music coming from self-propelled and disabled vehicles that coexist with pedestrians in car-free spaces. The same is true for carnival: the labor for distributing beer, ice, and other beverages throughout the multitude of dancing people does not fall on cars but rather the efforts of those people who work carnival by hauling their cargo on bikes and crates instead of partying to the music. In other places like “developing” and BRIC countries, cargo-carrying bicycles are even more prominent. In some places like the big cities in China, bike lanes get the same amount of space as those for cars. But other places that fall outside this apparent development/modernity binary also have many examples of such bicycles (i.e. the Netherlands, Portland OE, Seattle WA). It just doesn’t work as neatly as one would expect and yet it persists and is reinforced in our popular media.

Take for example the opening photograph of Time Magazine’s article on the iPhone as the Invention of the Year for 2007 (print version only). In this photograph you see a fully decked out self-propelled vehicle apparently doing the same things as a woman carrying an iPhone. Also notice how the racial and gendered messages of the person who uses “low” bike technology as opposed to “high” Apple technology is mixed: it’s a white man pushing the super-loaded bike and an asian woman who holds the iPhone. According to the development/modernity dichotomy, one would expect the opposit portrayal races of the persons in the photo. My friend and colleague billtron has already written about the political and cultural consequences of such messages on new technologies of the iPod (and it was he who first told me about the NYT article). He, along with many others, notes the role of increasingly mobile music in the changing formation of communities around the world. Clearly it isn’t entirely sweet and pretty nor ugly and dehumanizing. That would be too simple an answer. Superethnomusiblogger, wayne&wax, recently presented a stunning paper/presentation (on a Saturday morning SEM panel...) on the rise of global ghetto-tech in blogosphere representations of the global south, among other things. All of this points to a not-so-subtle fetishization of technology and poverty/"the ghetto" in recent uses of mobile music, fully-loaded bicycles included. (NYT reporter Corey Kilgannon does his part to reinforce this representation of ghetto-tech by emphasizing the racial difference of his interviewees in the above article.)

And I wonder, as gadget lust spreads throughout the world, what that means for those people who see no problem with strapping some speakers or a boom-box to their bicycles? Or better yet, what would it mean to the U.S.’s persistent posturing as a fully developed country if it were to consistently show signs of poverty through public displays of creative consumption of old technologies, like bicycles and analog stereo systems, mostly known in places of the global south? Such very large questions.

Which brings me to the larger theme of this blog. Fundamentally, every aspect and connection I make about music, modernities, and their connection to improbable uses of technology draws from a plurality of identities. I am a musicologist who specializes in Latin America with a serious affinity for sound culture studies and urban spaces. I also ride a bike. Sociologists and linguists sometimes call these modes of identities and idioms "codes"; in this instance, I am code-switching more than I normally do. Very rarely do I get to flex so many different critical muscles at the same time, but in such cases of recent portrayals of bicycles, technology, and "the ghetto," it is entirely necessary that I do so. In a recent invited music lecture at my home university, a professor in the audience likened finding one's theory/methodology to cooking from what's available in your refrigerator. I love that metaphor. My response today is shaped by so many aspects of who I consider myself to be in this very moment: it just so happens that I am currently engaged in an extended visit in Rio de Janeiro which undoubtedly influences my reactions. Everything counts and eventually contributes to how we shape ourselves as scholars, especially those of us engaged in inter-disciplinary musicology.

*Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

**Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategis for Entering and Leaving Modernity, translated by Christopher L. Chiappari and Silvia L. Lopez (Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1995); Néstor García Canclini, Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts, translated and with an introduction by George Yúdice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bikes & Sound Systems

From today's NYT: Bicycles That Carry Powerful Beats, and Even A Rider or Two. Seeing that I am currently on a long research visit to a country where bicycles carry all sorts of improbable things (i.e. matresses, ice, boxes of groceries, supplies, clothinng on hangers, etc.), I don't really know how to respond to such coverage by the NYT. Now that I think about it, this probably deserves a more lengthy exegesis after I've had some time to consider it as a cyclist/musicologist studying in a BRIC country whose economy is experiencing a huge growth spurt. (Don't even get me started on a recent demeaning picture of cargo-carrying bicycles from Time that announced the iPhone as the "Best Invention of 2007" –– I'll just start throwing things at you.)


In other news I discovered that there is a church for Brazil's infamous Igreja Universal near my apartment tonight when I heard a huge crowd singing their praises. Aside from being involved in controversies like money laundering and fraud, the Igreja Universal is known for being staunchly against all spiritual elements from Africa (which, by the way, are a strong but unofficial part of Catholic practice here). For whatever reason, their music is both overwhelming and boring. It isn't surprising that I much prefered my previous situation where I was living next to a Catholic school.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sounds of Living and Moving Around in Rio

I haven't been using an alarm clock. I live next to a morro (hill) called "Cantagalo" or "rooster crows" because of the omnipresence of roosters in that favela. However, one of my neighbors has "saudades" of the countryside and keeps parrots and roosters as pets. Every morning the local roosters start to crow at 7:30AM. That combined with the other roosters on the morro makes an alarm completely unnecessary. Even if I'm exhausted and only get 5 hours or less of sleep, I still wake with the roosters.


On my third day in the city I heard the sound of guns firing from one street away. The police were invading the favela on Cantagalo from the "Boca de Fumo," or drug-dealing point, in search of a man who had accidentally caused the death of an Italian tourist a few weeks back. The family who owns the apartment where I live instructed me to close the window and to not let the traficantes (drug dealers) see that I see them. It took me a good 4 hours to recover from that incident.


As I was running along the beach in Ipanema yesterday, a I heard a loud siren coming from behind me. I turned my head to see what was coming at me in the same moment that I was trying to avoid a pot hole in the running/bike path. A bicyclist travelling along at top speed skidded as he expected me to move out of the path completely. I apologized after I figured out what was going on and lept up to the barrier. The cyclist yelled at me, "Você é campinha," or "You are from the country!" I know that it was my mistake but in my defense, I am much more used to hear yells of any sort or even bike bells rather than an ambulance siren in a bike lane. Note to all cyclists: if you choose to cycle in an area also frequented by runners and pedestrians like a beachside path, do not use a siren that could be mistaken for something else. Not effective!

I never use bike bells and siren mostly because I don't want to crowd my handle-bars. Yells work just fine for me, but I generally avoid riding through areas frequented by runners. It's too bad that cyclists and runners here share the same narrow paths all around the city. It can't be safe.


I went to my first concert/show of the trip last night. Soft-rock hit-maker from the 80s, Marina Lima, perforned a free show at the Lagoa to commemorate the day to denounce violence against women. She is one of a few "out" singers in the MPB scene and the audience clearly reflected her popularity with lesbians. Nearly forty percent of the crowd were gay women, a group in Rio that is normally invisible in comparrison with the men of Rua Farme de Amoedo (the gay street of Ipanema).

I was pleased that Lima played some of her most recent recordings that reflect a sensibility more akin to performance artist Laurie Anderson. There was minimal techno and plenty of monologues with musical accompaniment. In general those songs were much more effective than her old hits from the 80s. She has recently reinvented herself in much that same way that Everything But the Girl did in the mid-1990s: techno programming is apparent and tasteful but not overwhelming. One of my contacts in the music industry informed me that this transformation is the result of damaged vocal chords that can no longer sustain the aggressive, full-throated style of ballads. Since she couldn't rely on her old vocal style, she had to find other creative outlets for her music. It was an incredibly satisfying evening.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Honk for Louder Horns

From today's opinion section in the LA Times, Honk for Louder Honks, or yet another reason why we need more sound/aural culture studies in daily life. I've never read such an efficient argument for the place of sound in the Los Angeles commute. If I were to stretch the writer's argument to its most practical applications, all users of two-wheeled transportation are in the most need of some serious sound-making strength. But of course, Swati Pandey fails to even consider us. So sad.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Single-Serving Public Relations

Cross-posted at Musicology/Matters

Here's a fly-by-night post from the road:

I love that scene in Fight Club where Edward Norton explains the concept of a single-serving friend in reference to travelling on airplanes. From the perspective of his character (Bob, is it?), every experience on airplanes comes in single-servings including one's social relationships. And he's right. I'm currently stuck in an airport Santiago, Chile on a (::gasp::) 7-hour layover (don't ask) on my way to Rio de Janeiro and I've just finished with 10 hours of non-stop single-serving friendship-building that I liken more to public relations.

This friend was no less than an eager undergraduate off to South America for his first extended stay. He only spoke English (which was a little disappointing since I couldn't practice my Spanish or Portuguese) so free-flowing conversation was inevitable. But the moment when I was forced to pause was when he asked me what exactly it is that I do. For this student, nothing I said made any sense and I found myself faced with a completely different side of the doing-what-you-love / guilty-pleasures discussion that we've been having over here. That is, are we in trouble if we can't explain the merits of what we do to a college-educated citizen?

Giving the simple, "I study music" answer simply does not suffice for a 10-hour plane ride of mostly undivided attention. Nor does a mini-lecture rapidly culled from all of my first-day experiences in front of a room full of undergraduates. The big difference in this situation is that this single-serving audience doesn't start the conversation expecting to hear about musicology. Even more to the point, this person doesn't necessarily care about the humanities or social science perspective (or my feelings, for that matter). For this moment of single-serving public relations, I found myself without the crutches of GE requirements that normally force otherwise passive consumers of culture to listen and participate.

So what do we do when we basically have to defend our field(s) of study to people with very little patience for the academy, especially those non-applied "ologies" that have a very difficult time seeming relevant? Oh, you know you have faced this same quandary. This debate has been raging for years. Most of the time I ignore the starkness of this reality; I continue to study what I love without guilt and pick my methodologies with care all in the pursuit of doing good work and contributing to the academic conversation. I also teach with enthusiasm and hope that I engage as many students as possible. I try my best to forget those uncomfortable conversations with family or old friends who really don't understand how studying what I love could be a career. But these discussions are very much about about public relations and sometimes I wonder if we, as a group, couldn't be doing a better job at it. For example, maybe we should insist that those conversation openers not end with "I study music," but rather begin there. Such brief explanations rarely help.

I don't know. I am trying to not to read too much into one of many similar conversations I've had in the last few months (make that years). Maybe I'm just tired from not sleeping on a long, bumpy flight. Maybe I will take over that couch on the other side of the lounge...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Three-Mile Hill

I've been telling myself for years that someday I will ride through Topanga Canyon. Well, today was the day. I had no really good reason to think that I could take a three-mile hill after not doing any serious training in months, but seeing as I'm leaving tomorrow for one full month away from Los Angeles and my preferred modes of transportation, I thought I'd go out with a bang.

I didn't pick Topanga Canyon arbitrarily. My partner and I had a big brunch date with my family (niece included!). The idea behing the brunch was to substitute for the big-meal bonding which normally occurs during Thanksgiving. I won't be in the U.S. for that holiday, so today was the day. For our brunch location, I selected Inn of the Seventh Ray, an awesome natural foods restaurant in the heart of Topanga Canyon. Forgetting about the intense elevation climb into Topanga, I proposed the idea of a bike trip to my partner. Her response was an enthusiastic yes. (For the record, she thought the ride up Topanga was only a few blocks.)

So we braved the cars of Santa Monica and PCH to make it to one of the most challenging climbs I've done in LA County. It was awesome and beautiful, but am I ever out of shape! Plus, I managed to get a flat rear tire. My partner commented that I am accident prone since the last time I rode up PCH I blew a tube. Whatever. This time I changed the tube all on my own (awesome!) and thoroughly enjoyed the sights of riding at full speed down the three-mile hill. It's always much rewarding to do the majority of the climbing effort during the first half of any ride longer than 10 miles.

Total distance: 27 miles
Total elevation gain: 750 feet
Sharpest elevation increase: 500 feet in one mile
Total calories burned: 1100

For the sake of keeping this blog consistent, I'll try to blog about the city life in Rio (where public transportation is much more widely used) while I am there. Otherwise, have a wonderful holiday!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Time Away from Cars Will Do That

Today my partner and I used her truck to take our new cat to the vet. Unfortunately, our vet's office is a good 7 miles away and requires driving through some serious cross-town traffic. Since I rarely travel by car, I noticed a few things that I normally have the privilege of ignoring.

1) Many people in LA do very stupid, high-risk things when they drive around town. Bicyclists normally complain about drivers paying more attention to their cell-phone conversations than to their surroundings. That and raw aggression are the things that scare cyclists the most. Today's stupidity on the road was illuminating on a completely different level: cars running red lights just to make it ahead by two car-lengths or expensive sports cars cutting off large trucks. I wonder if they think they are bulletproof.

2) The WGA strike is bad. We drove by Fox Studios on Pico and just seeing all of these people who are out of work because of a contract dispute was so sad. There's a big difference between reading about a strike and seeing the people involved. I hope it ends soon.

Needless to say, I've never felt so alien in a vehicle. Time away will do that.


In unrelated news, something fundamental has changed in the last 24 hours. Yesterday, I was a musicology student working in Schoenberg Music Building. Today, I get to add another famous musician when I talk about the fundamentals of doing my research: I am a musicology student in Herb Alpert School of Music working in Schoenberg Music Building. I'm still not sure what all of this means, but damn!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

Safest Bicycle Cities

Here's yet another reason why I wish I lived in Seattle: Bicycle Master Plan Approved. The Seattle City Council just passed the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan in order to, "increase bicycling and improve bicyclists' safety in the city." I only wish LA were so progressive.

And while we're on the subject of cool cities, the Wired blog recently published Where Are The Most Bicycle-Friendly Cities in the World. It's odd how bicycle-friendliness tends to go along with other great civic features like good public transportation and a good helping of hippies. And just to give some cheers to the left coast: 3 of the 4 U.S. cities to make the list were on the west coast. It's too bad I'd have to travel a good 380 miles to be in such a city... There's always hope for the post-doc.

Update: What's even better? The comments on the Wired article indicate that the study reeks of ::gasp!:: Eurocentrism. On a related note: today I discovered that the only remaining copy of the above book in the UCLA Research Library was damaged with pages torn out. Who does that anyway?

Another Update: For a city that made the Bicycle-Friendly list, Portland sure has a lot of Ghost Bikes... Maybe the criteria that Wired used needs to take cyclist deaths into account.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bicycles and Academia

At the beginning of the fall term, I was asked a funny question by a motorist during my morning commute to campus:
"Are you north campus or south campus?" (The UCLA campus is somewhat arbitrarily divided into north and south campus with most of the humanities/social science/arts departments in the north, and the science and engineering departments in the south. The music building was constructed during the height of post-WWII serialism and is positioned right at the intersection of the two, while the old physics building, renamed "Humanities" in the last year is in the north.)
I answered, "Technically, my building is right between the two."
The motorist yelled, "What's your major?!"
I answered, and he said, "You are north!"
I doubt that this motorist was taking a survey, but he did bring underscore something that has been on my mind recently: is there a relationship between field of study and likelihood to prefer bicycles?

The number of cyclists at UCLA is growing with bicycle parking in central campus literally becoming congested for the first time since I've been here. It has gotten to the point where I no longer use my bike to get around campus and rather park it for the entire day as I would a car. The one population that has been consistent about bicycle use are the graduate students, post doctoral scholars and researchers, and a few professors. Of the people I know who commute by bicycle, I would say that the number of scientists who go car-free is slightly higher than north campus types. But I think the proportion is changing as more people lose their patience with driving a car in Los Angeles. Just the other night I met a philosophy grad student who proudly rides a LeMonde road bike. And I know of two colleagues in my department who want to buy bikes, and another who is trying to familiarize herself with the treacherous ride through Beverly Hills (one of the most dangerous neighborhoods for bicycles) from West Hollywood.

Is there something iconic about the cycling academic? A recent promotional spot for MTVU (MTV networks station dedicated to the university set) intended to make fun of professors showed a middle-aged man in tweed parking his bicycle. On my ride home, I often see professors with their briefcases strapped to their bikes and many grad students riding home. My brother-in-law tells me that every academic he knows prefers bicycles. I've been pondering that comment for years. This is a topic that I will have to continue on a later date. Now, about that dissertation of mine...

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Being Sick on the Bus

The worst thing about being sick is not being able to ride my bike. Thank goodness west LA has two wonderful bus lines in addition to the standard Metro system. When forced, I use the Santa Monica line that runs right in front of my house. It's an interesting bus line, and I often feel guilty that the only reason I take the bus is because my other options just won't work. I get exposed to all kinds of people, not just my neighbors, but also a wide variety of people who regularly go car-less in Los Angeles. This is an extremely diverse group and I get to engage with people and the city in such a different way than riding my bike.

A few years ago, a colleague and friend of mine (on a recently-abandoned blog) discussed how easy it is to escape racial diversity in Los Angeles as compared to cities on the east coast. Clearly much of this has to do with class issues and public transportation here. But it isn't just an LA issue. Many people all over the U.S. are afraid of public transportation, not just because there is a certain amount of loss when a person must share space in public, especially during one's commute, with people that are from very different walks of life. For example, whenever I go to Atlanta to visit family, I take the MARTA train from the airport. The people who ride that train are either travelers who only use the train when the airport is concerned, or they are daily commuters going to work. The differences between these two types of people is visibly evident not just in their dress, but by race, age, and social class. The tension on MARTA is clear and like other public transportation systems, people rarely talk to each other. Another friend, billtron, is actually spending a good portion of his dissertation discussing individual and group listening practices in the New York City subway system. In this system, iPods (and soon, mobile phones) are integral to the lived aural experience on the subway. People don't look at each other, and unnecessary talking to strangers is rarely an acceptable thing to do. But subways in New York have a very different character than public transportation in other places. Simply, you can't read Los Angeles through the MTA,* the way you could other cities where the transport system cuts across more sectors of society.

I like buses, but the buses in LA are a mixed blessing. They are really the only public transportation currently available on the West-side (well, the entire city). They are the only affordable way to get to LAX (even though it is painfully slow), while other parts of LA like Pasadena have light-rails.
In the last year, there's been a lot of buzz that the city is going to develop more trains to offer some well-needed traffic relief going from downtown to the beaches. As recently as last week, the LA Times ran two stories about the challenges the city is facing as it plans to expand rail service to the west side. Not surprisingly the two biggest challenges come from neighborhood resistance in the form of NIMBY-ism, and higher expenses having to do with waiting so long to engage in a project of this type. (Remarkably, the resistance isn't coming from Beverly Hills, but Hancock Park and Miracle Mile.) It's sad. And I could go into the history of why this happened, but that's already been well-rehearsed.

In the end, my complaints about public transportation would really be half-hearted. Fundamentally, I want to be able to take my bike on a train to visit my parents, as opposed to enduring a 50-mile bike ride that is excessive for a weekend visit. But really, I generally only ride the bus when I am otherwise immobilized. By the time these new trains are finally implemented, I probably won't be living here anymore. Rails would be nice, but the bus system here is functional.

Today, I actually broke a major rule of bus patronage: I talked to my neighbor. It wasn't more than a sentence or two, but it happened. It was the kind of conversation that would never have fit in any other social situation, and it made me happy.

*Although you could certainly come to some fascinating conclusions through such an analysis (as many already have). See, for example, George Lipsitz, "Learning from Los Angeles: Another One Rides the Bus," American Quarterly 2004: 511-529.


Is going car-less in Los Angeles a sign of rebellion? I am not sure. But it is definitely disruptive to some people. Nearly every time I ride my bike or scooter to a social event, be it drinks at a bar or a party in Hollywood, my friends look on with concern and often ask if I want a ride home. At first I didn't care. Also, my mother and friends often offer to let me borrow their cars when they leave town for long periods. (To be fair, I have said "yes" a few times, but often the car just sits in front of my apartment unused.) The frequency and consistency of such offers has me wondering if my car-less status disrupts the status quo of happily existing in the Los Angeles area.*

I am sure that some of these generous gestures stem from concern from my friends and family about the danger of riding a bicycle in the single largest car-culture in the country. (Just to settle this right away, I was injured repeatedly during my first year of riding in Los Angeles. One accident involving a metro rapid bus, and most other mishaps had to do with clip-less pedal problems or flat-out stupidity on my part.) And I also gather that many people don't want to "put me out" and "force me to ride," as though it were a burden for me to exercise to get around town. Yes, riding a bike is exercise, and sometimes it is even dirty. I try to take care of this minor problem by carrying an extra clean shirt or by cleaning up before officially engaging in social activities.

I don't need to spend an entire post telling you, my currently non-existent readers, why I love living car-less in Los Angeles. Nor do I feel compelled to discuss the reasons why I think more people should ride bikes in this town. That isn't my point, rather, I just wanted to officially say "hello."

*Full disclosure: I was a car owner in Southern California for 8 years. Six of those years were spent living in the LA area.