Oklahoma Music and Arts: Why Should We Care, Honestly?

Helen Grant

I want to start off by saying I haven’t been real impressed with the state of arts coverage in Oklahoma. The same sorts of complex issues get glossed over again and again in favor of more outlandish things breaking into the conversation. It seems anymore when I read an article about music or art in this region, it’s “Hey, read this ridiculous thing about an artist and their very specific guacamole recipe.” Why anyone would choose to cover that angle instead of looking into the meaning of an artist’s album, as a standalone statement or in the context of his work with a fresh perspective, is entirely beyond me.

Why not use the opportunity of his impending concert date to get an update on him as a performer or just even how he’s doing as a human being? Doesn’t it feel like a bit of a missed connection? And if it bothers you that I’m being real general and not specific with names and links, I want you to know these are conscious editorial choices. And please, hold onto that frustration with my vagueness if you can make it through the next few paragraphs. I want you to see what I’m talking about, but to get there we’re going to need to cut through some bullshit first.

So what else would I have liked to know about this nameless artist I mention? I’d like to know more about the new publishing company this artist started just last year and what kinds books might be on the horizon, and if he’s read anything on tour that might be a great read for others to delve into as well. Maybe he’s been to some cool music and art shows in various cities. Keep in mind this article I refuse to link to did not even entertain those questions, even though it comes from a collegiate source. You’d think books would be big in that crowd, not trifling documents.

Who knows if anyone wrote about the opening act either? I’m not inspired to go look it up on their website now that I’ve been hit in the face with nothing but news of chips and dip. And it bothers me a bit, because it was clearly an intentional choice of the artist to ask that specific band to open for him. And they were good in their own way, if you dig that kind of sound. It wasn’t always smooth notes as there were some rough elements, but it was for sure a rock and roll aesthetic. I guess the opening act, which is Hispanic, isn’t as news worthy as a guacamole recipe. Really sucks to be Hispanic sometimes, doesn’t it? People just want to use elements of your culture and not really pay attention to you as a person from that culture who creates other things too.

So clearly my interests on the subject seem like the type that would strain their imaginations and perhaps challenge some editorial biases about what is newsworthy and what is not. It’s weird to say this because I’m talking about my Alma mater and I used to write for that publication. I cut my journalistic teeth there and it pains me to look at my own work from that early period as being juvenile. But I also know my coverage of things could have been better, so maybe I feel a little ashamed that I covered Rocklahoma from the perspective of a “nature” watcher going on safari instead of someone who was interested in the real people that comprise that genre. Do know that I’m trying to be less of hypocrite as I get older.

I also didn’t try for an interview with any of these guacamole artists because I’ll be honest: even though I manage this publication, I don’t know that I’m going to stay in Oklahoma come the end of 2015. I’m just tired of everything around me, folks.

I’m also tired of reading another “Hey, here’s vapid interview that gives me no additional information outside of what else is available to me on the Internet,” and, well, if you read as much as I do, it all starts to feel very superficial. Especially when it’s hard to find the articles and writers who do try to take thoughtful approaches. It’s like why am I wasting my time on this, because this shit I’m reading is lacking in soul sustenance, why do the people I know on Facebook and other platforms even link to it?

In turn, not seeing the kind coverage that speaks to me has made me reflective about this oversight, both of editorial boards and the interviewers they guide and by extension the readers who turn around and pimp links. This is to say, all I ever ask myself anymore is if my coverage is as vapid and shallow, or am I really doing the best I can to give the subjects I cover a humanizing perspective? I realize I’m an indulgent editor and writer because I let the word count blossom when most people just want to skim 500 words or less.

But when I’m talking to a local musician, like Cameron Neal of Horse Thief (they have another show coming up this weekend in OKC) — am I just another cog in the hype machine (a little bit perhaps) or am I real person who gives a shit for what he’s about as a musician, or rather lyricist. And the rest of the band? Do I care about their contributions too? Do I appreciate the direction each member is evolving upon as they contribute new material towards another album? Or am I only hoping to trade on the popularity of a local subject to elevate my own standing and potential income further down the line? Hmmm. Fame and money by association – yeah, that sounds like a mighty ideal to aspire to. I think Fellini had a whole film about this once. La Dolce Vita might ring some of your bells.

But how does OKC.NET operate? Given our only real ad revenue comes from a very lovely lady, who we genuinely admire (look for her Valentine’s day ads on our pages it should be obvious who she is), in combination with a scant paycheck here and there from Google ads, I’d say were indie-broke and maybe not always loving it, but we’re certainly appreciating our autonomy to pursue other things maybe not as mainstream as guacamole.

Really why would any writer waste their time chasing banality? Is it because they hope to up-rank themselves without contributing anything meaningful in the process? Yikes, if that’s the case. What a meaningless way to build a body of journalistic work.

It’s easy to pick low-hanging fruit, and I get that it is challenging to find an independent angle and come up with new questions on a deadline, especially when your subject is well-known already. But here’s the deal: I genuinely want to know what influences the art that influences me. Music and art that accompanies me on my own journeys, why do I give these things room in my life? Are they just pretty sounds that make the drive more bearable? Or are they the thoughts and feelings that sustain me on long trips or even just doing the dishes. I’m not saying everything is as grand as a trip across the country, but even our quieter more routine moments can have meaning, right? Or maybe that’s just me and I’m writing for the wrong audience. And perhaps I expect too much from the majority of writers in my area. After all, I’m sure the editorial choices that have been made which make “the news” are about click counts and ad revenue. And I can’t hate on that, because it pays the bills. That’s why I circle back to readers in this outlook on shitty cultural coverage too.

So while some writers and publications pursue these shallow things, a little tit-for-tat because that’s how we all play the media/pr game, lately I’m feeling isolated out here in OKIE land because I can only write about what feels genuine and with the exception of a handful of local writers, I’m not impressed with the kinds of coverage that “pop” into conversations.

If you’re unfamiliar, because you’re new to our platforms, OKC.NET has been a weird home to many writers over the years. They’ve ended up going off to places like This Land or have worked at the Gazette and OKC.NET.

I know as an editor and writer I have tried to look into not only the subjects I cover, but connect to the people I interview. As an editor, I’ve tried to suggest ideas to writers, videographers, and podcastors about events they might cover and angles they might adopt when looking at their subjects.

I don’t think I’ve been 100% successful, but I have tried to vary OKC.NET’s coverage to encompass ideas, art, and people who normally go under the radar because I believe in up-ranking good ideas, people, or spotlighting potentially interesting things in the metro or even in random parts of the region – given I am so fond of Austin Psych Fest, but even this year I can’t say I’m 100% thrilled with everyone on that line up. Sounds like I’m just being bitchy in addition to being vague, right? Perhaps I need to stop expecting everything to be 100% successful and thrilling. We’re only human after all.

It might be cliche to say, but then I find it tacky and cliched that big name bands would find it humorous and somehow artistic to use the symbols of one culture to sell records or weird ass shit in general by letting their front man generate meaningless controversy.  It seems counter intuitive they should allow this as a group and be rewarded with attention, however trivial, and yet it happens again and again. And it’s not new or limited to just them, nor is it real news. Call it a holdover ideal from a certain Journalism school of thought, with its repetitive drill that the Free Market of Ideas is still alive and well. What joke and yet I believe in it, even if I know it is perversely used at times and maybe its pulse isn’t so quick these days. Yet history bears it out time and time again that eventually most good ideas will be acted upon, while the unproductive ones slip away into the pages of textbooks, footnotes on historical trends in thought.

Really the only course of action I have as a writer and editor is to call out bullshit when I see it. Or consciously omit the names of people who are deliberately seeking controversy for self promotion (you’ll notice nowhere in my Norman Music Festival round up is the mention of a band that champions the meaningless use of feathered head dresses and capes mocking people). And I have to question if anything I’ve written has elevated the discussion or contributed to the mediocrity of what I see on a fairly regular basis: pretty, or worse bland, PR dressed up as “journalism” or some kind of  independent “criticism.”

And I guess in that messed up way, my Journalism school still motivates me even after the pursuit of my degree and despite the fact that I truly want to move out of Oklahoma.

I can’t really speak for other writers because I’m only in position to accept what they turn in and work with them on polishing their ideas, so they chose to pursue their subjects for their own reasons, but I know this way I’ve chosen will always force me to grow as a writer. No more accepting the fact that just because Womb Gallery exists that it is automatically awesome for just standing there and occasionally doing things. Or at least that was my reasoning at the time – “there’s no where else like it in Oklahoma, therefore it has to be awesome for just existing in a place that is otherwise hostile to its purpose.”

It’s a weird train of thought in a world that only wants to hear 100% positives or sensational shit in general, because that’s what seems to spread by proliferation through the public, but I have to acknowledge the good with the bad, and the bad is that the front man/proprietor of that band/art gallery is not a great dude and should probably be avoided in the future when he’s in the same crowds I’m in and as an editor I’m not going to give his band coverage when they play in OKC or at Austin Psych Fest. They probably don’t care anyway, and I’m a blip on their radar, but it matters to me as someone who recognizes that cultural symbols and food from feathered head dresses and chip dip shouldn’t take precedent over the people who gave those things meaning to begin with, the way symbols and other elements of a culture are used should matter.

But I still think it’s a little bit of a shame, because those in his band or in that collective who have their shit together have accomplished other great things for the arts and music community in Oklahoma and by extension the business and tax side of Oklahoma too. I do feel ACM@UCO is pretty darn nifty for what is being offered to all ages of music lovers and aspiring musicians alike. Take the series of free masters lectures from musicians and label owners – it is kind of a big deal in a city not otherwise known for being an indie music mecca like Brooklyn, let alone a music industry mecca like Austin.

What is OKC even playing at anymore, I wonder. So let’s now look at James Cooper, an OKC city council hopeful with eyes on Ward 2. Notice how I use his full name, because I promise it was intentional. Has the vagueness of my ramblings started to clear up for you now?

Don’t get used to such clarity because I’ve only been half-ass following his progress in OKC.

Why am I not compelled to champion him let alone do more research on him? Is it because I lost faith in Ed Shadid? Probably. (FYI, if you’re just tuning into politics in OKC, Shadid’s not the new mayor. Not only did it not end in the spectacular win they’d been banking on, some of it was ugly, and some of it was dumb. All of it made me cynical and I’m not upset by that, just increasingly wary of new political campaigns I encounter.)

Here’s the deal. If you’re going to feed me a line about “arts championing” Ward 2, at least have the forethought to name everyone in that video you are promoting on your “political” platforms. And tell me why I should know their names first before I should know yours while you’re at it. If I know yours without knowing theirs in full, you are not advancing the narrative for the greater good. But good on ya for positioning yourself as the dominant brand in this scenario. I’ll give you that James for OKC. Your name has stuck with me.

 

Who are these women or do we even care as a society to question.

Who are these women or do we even care as a society to question.

 

But what is the true intent of public art? To get some guy who likes it elected or to give people both beauty and provoke some kind of meaning in their minds. It doesn’t even have to be a deep meaning, but it should inspire maybe something a little more than “Oh hey look, the state bird or butterfly. A skull! Pretty feathers! Flowers! I like this.”

So I should know who these women are, and you should explain the elements of their art with more finesse, or perhaps I should direct that constructive criticism at your videographer. Not that I don’t appreciate his efforts, but to be honest, he didn’t get an interview with first muralist, he got one with her painter Lauren Miller. So where’s the name of the artist who composed the painting in your campaign lit? I only heard a first name, “Erin,” if I spelled her name correctly. How can I know if she goes uncredited in print. Couldn’t you just name drop her even once? Although I do know the name of her muse, Bella – another Hispanic American **correction: Native American**, so I’ll give you that.

To omit the mention of these women’s names in the printed portion of your “hey look at me again” social media campaign is to reinforce to society at large : “Just look at the pretty colors, but don’t question anything.” And if I haven’t made myself clear enough, as I was being deliberately vague up until this point: you James Cooper for OKC are consciously omitting the importance of not only the artist, but the reason she creates her art. It’s not your videographer Ben Felder who gets final say on the finished video. It’s you. When you’re the leader you set the standard with your choices.

And when you do it like this, people like me see you positioning yourself between the public and the artist. Is that really the angle you want to adopt? Because your support is pretty thin given how little you’ve presented.

I should know those women’s names before I know yours.

And I should know the backgrounds behind these murals in full, not just “half-ass”, as the interview on the symbolism of Juuri’s piece is incomplete. That I found out on my own as a woman who looked upon this other woman’s art and said to herself, “Wow, not only is that an impressively beautiful piece, but it means something, tell me why does the blue line run through the composition as a subtly dominant theme?” This is of course a rhetorical question I pose, because I looked it up on my own a long time ago and even talked about it on 365 Things to do in OKC, but in this promotional video, alas, nothing. Nor is there any encouragement nor links for people to look up more information about these artists. Yet you support art, so we should vote for you. Or at least, you want me to tell people they should consider you as a serious candidate.

SO what is art in Oklahoma? A fad that grows in fits and spurts depending on the availability of funds and general public support? A thing people play at to pass the time and work through some childhood issues? I don’t know why people do what they do and I don’t really want to judge them, there is some value to working through your childhood issues in a state where children are often under served in their basic needs like public education and having routine access to health care.

But I know when I come across artists I admire and I know when I come across others with which I’m not so enamored. Perhaps it’s an authenticity thing. The same holds true for politicians and candidates. And if you want to instigate the changes you want to see, perhaps your message needs to reflect that other than to say if you want more “color” and “beauty” than “I’m your guy.”

Honestly, you’re not my guy when I look your attempt to support art without really understanding it or promoting it in a meaningful way, outside of pretty standard soundbites. I only see more of the same shallow thought processes I truly dislike about Oklahoma arts coverage. And I see the marginalization of women as artists and the down ranking of their ideas and inspirations. I start only seeing guacamole. Isn’t that absurd?

Why should I, or anyone, care about art and music with such agendas in mind.

11 Comments
  1. There is still so much rock goodness going on here and good stories that you’re allowing to go unnoticed. Get our there and find it, embrace it and stop over-worrying.

  2. I’m not over worrying. I’m tired. And overworking myself with this rinky-dink indie pub is not going to improve my situation. So here’s my friendly advice to you: start a publication and get out there and do your part to get those “good” stories noticed. This place needs more indie publications with mindful editors and writers than it does articles on bands and shallowly presented political campaigns.

    FTR, I chose not to write a review of his concert even tho I went nor did I care to contact White’s reps for three reasons: time and money, I didn’t like his last album despite everything I know about him and it (I am a fan, but as woman editor White’s lyrics regarding the female sex have never been all that great), and I’m real tired of men acting as if they’re uplifting women when in actuality some of the dumb shit they say and do keeps them back in life.

  3. It really needs to be OK for people to realize: that they’re not happy and should move on if they place they live in is continually shitty towards them AND saying it should wake up others to the fact that they’re going to keep losing their friends and losing out on meeting other kinds of people if they don’t do their part to engage their critical thinking skills and then apply some integrity to their lives. So readers should bear responsibility in what gets spread around here too.

  4. i only read this entire article because the link showed the mural of Bella. It wasn’t what I expected. But I get what you are saying. There is a lack of realness in a lot of writing today. I don’t know that it matters where you are or go.
    I do however feel I need to correct your information on Bella. She is a beautiful Choctaw Indian teenager. And her and her little sister just returned from an amazing trip to Washington DC to speak on matters of what it’s like to be a member, education, culture, etc. That would be something worth reporting.

    • I agree, but I’m done with this publication and Oklahoma. My plans are to move back where I have family and drop journalism in favor of other types of writing. SO I would recommend suggesting that lead to colin@okc.net. This is his publication. He started it and now he’s the only one left with the responsibility to generate new stories for it or let it flounder until it finally dies. But maybe he would probably be down to write about her and her trip in full or find someone else to.

  5. I believe your reporters need to do their homework. The inspiration for Erin Cooper ‘s prize winning mural “Oklahoma Aiukli” is a young Chahta lady from OKC. She is my cousin and if I could find information about Oklahoma City ‘s arts scene even here in the frozen plains of MA, I am sure they should be able to as well. There is no excuse for sloppy reporting.

    • It’s nice that you took the time to respond. And while I’ll go back and correct that mistake, I want to be clear: the reason I did not look the mural up is because no links or full names were presented in the lit. or in the video. Why should I care when art is presented so shallowly? Honestly. That was the point of the way this was written. But it got you, random lady I know nothing about, to speak up, so there is that.

    • It’s nice that you took the time to respond. And while I’ll go back and correct that mistake, I want to be clear. The reason I did not look the mural up is because no links or full names were presented in the lit. or in the video. Why should I care when art is presented so shallowly? Honestly. That was the point.

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