And now, as Monty Python says, for something completely different. Today witnesses the inauguration of a new series on One Thing after Another. It’s called The History Professor Shuffle. We accost a professor from the department and ask that lucky person to put his or her iPod (or Spotify account or whatever else he or she has) in shuffle mode. Then the professor writes a little something about the first five songs that come up. This idea is not terribly original: One Thing after Another has a faint recollection that The Boston Globe used to run a series like this—except the newspaper used celebrities.
We have no celebrities; all we have right now is Professor Masur. Let’s see what he came up with in the shuffle lottery.
The original plan was to open my iPod, put it on shuffle, and see what came up. Unfortunately, I left my iPod on the airplane when we took a family vacation, so now it’s criss-crossing the U.S. on a Southwest plane. But I still have my iPad, which was synched to my iPod. So here we go!
1) Silentó, “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” (2015)
Ummm, let’s just skip ahead and pretend this one never came up.
1b) John Mark Nelson, “Reminisce” (2012)
I guess the title of this song calls to mind the past, though “reminiscing” is far different from the study of history. I don’t know a whole lot about this song. I started hearing it a few years ago on the Minneapolis Public Radio station (“The Current”) that I sometimes stream at work. Nelson is a young musician from outside of Minneapolis, and I think he wrote and recorded this when he was eighteen. It’s a really pleasant song—it has moments when it seems like an entire orchestra is playing, and then moments when it is just the singer and a guitar. I really like the xylophone hook.
Historical connection: Nothing I can think of.
2) The Beastie Boys, “High Plains Drifter” (1989)
This is a good one. It’s from Paul’s Boutique, which I think I owned on cassette or CD when I was younger. (I know I had License to Ill on cassette—I got it for my thirteenth birthday.) At this point, the trajectory of Paul’s Boutique is pretty well-known. When it was first released a lot of people panned it and sales were lackluster. Over time, though, it earned a reputation as one of the great albums of the eighties (Pitchfork.com placed it at #3). “High Plains Drifter” is a fun song about an outlaw, his misdeeds, and his brushes with the law. It’s a good enough song that I can forgive the Beasties for using a sample from the Eagles (which I think they did quite a bit on this album). Plus the Eagles sample is balanced out by references to the Band and the Ramones.
Historical connection: It does sound a bit like it could be a true story, but that’s about it. Maybe it has something to do with the Clint Eastwood movie, High Plains Drifter (1973).
3) Michael Jackson, “Break of Dawn” (2001)
This is interesting. When I was younger my older brother had Thriller on record, but I don’t remember ever being interested in Michael Jackson after that. Then at some point a few years ago I got a bunch of music from my younger brother’s computer. One of those songs was Michael Jackson’s “Break of Dawn.” I wouldn’t say I was immediately enamored of it, but it did remind me of another song that I liked—De La Soul’s “Breakadawn,” from their 1993 album Buhloone Mindstate. De La Soul’s song has a hook that sounds like Michael Jackson singing “break of dawn,” which I always assumed they had sampled from his song of the same name. But now that I look at it I realize that Michael Jackson’s song didn’t come out until 2001—eight years after Buhloone Mindstate. It appears that the sample of the words “break of dawn” actually comes from a Smokey Robinson song, which Michael Jackson was presumably imitating in 2001. If that’s not confusing enough, De La Soul’s “Breakadawn” does sample a different Michael Jackson song—“I Can’t Help It” from the album Off the Wall.
Historical connection: Other than my brief history of the sampling, nothing.
4) The Clash, “Spanish Bombs” (1979)
This is a great one. I mean, everyone loves The Clash, right? At some point when I was in college (ca. early-1990s) I was in Madison, Wisconsin and I picked up The Story of the Clash, a double CD “best of” collection. I still have the CDs in a box in my basement, but at some point I transferred the songs onto my computer and then onto my iPad. I’m not going to pretend I was a big Clash fan when I was younger. I knew “Rock the Casbah” because it was their big crossover pop hit when I was about eight, so I heard it on the radio and saw the video on MTV (when I visited friends—my parents refused to get cable, and they still don’t have it to this day). But I probably only knew a few Clash songs when I purchased the double CD. Even now I only know the songs in this collection, plus a hanfdul of others. I’m pretty sure if I had to play “Name that Clash tune” with Professor Dubrulle I’d get smoked.
Historical connection: The Spanish Civil War, right? Well, sort of. According to this unassailable Wikipedia page, the song juxtaposes the Spanish Civil War with British tourism to Spain in the 1970s. It also includes allusions to Basque separatist terrorists. I’m not sure I understand all of this, but that’s okay—I just like the song.
5) The Clash, “Washington Bullets” (1980)
Two Clash songs in a row? I guess that’s okay—they are sometimes referred to as “the only band that matters.” This song is not on the double CD I purchased back in Madison. I actually purchased it a couple of years ago on iTunes. I don’t think this is considered to be one of the great Clash songs (which probably explains why it isn’t on the double CD. But that doesn’t explain why “Rudi Can’t Fail” was also left off.). It’s from the album Sandinista!, which I think gets mixed reviews (partly because it is so long—thirty-six tracks). I happen to like “Washington Bullets,” in part because it’s another song that features the xylophone (or I guess the marimba, but I’m not an expert on percussion instruments). I also like the organ at the very end of the song. Like “Spanish Bombs,” the song includes what sounds like an attempt to sing in Spanish (in this case, a yelling interlude at the end). I don’t think the members of the Clash actually knew Spanish.
I actually purchased “Washington Bullets” specifically so I could play it in my class on U.S. foreign relations. The song is a nice artifact from the late Cold War. At first listen it sounds like an indictment of American neo-imperialism in the late 20th century. The refrain of “Sandinista” (also the title of the album) refers to the left-wing party that overthrew the American-backed Somoza government in Nicaragua. The song also mentions the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Chilean coup against Salvador Allende, both of which involved the CIA. But I like the song because its message is actually a little more complicated. The last verse suggests the British, the Soviets, and the Chinese also kill and subjugate other people to preserve or expand their own power. In other words, the song is not so much about American crimes as it is about the crimes that great powers perpetrate on the weak.
Historical connection: see above.