Los Angeles is Red Hot

My research examines the relationship between the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the cultural trends of Los Angeles from the early 1980s to present day. The intent of this investigation of connection was, initially, to uncover the impact of the city’s social and political shifts on the style and genre of the band’s productions. As my work progressed, I began to focus in on the relevance of the Los Angeles soundscape, using what I had already gathered to interpret the correspondence between sound and place. It became apparent that the auditory backdrop of the city has changed in accordance with its various sociopolitical alterations. Knowing this, I argued that changes in the Los Angeles culture—effectively, change in place—prompted change in its accompanying soundscape, which was causatively related with the evolution of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwlogyj7nFE

During the 1990s, when the song Under the Bridge was written and recorded, Los Angeles was heavily ridden with crime and drug abuse. The soundscape was filled with the sounds of the urban bustle of life, but also the sounds of the struggling Los Angeles Police Department. Sirens, gunshots, and screeching tires were all far from uncommon, each contributing to the auditory interpretation of melancholy. Under the Bridge mirrors such despondency, with its downbeat tempo and tortured vocals, which contain lyrics referencing the desperate condition of substance addiction.

A Connection to Place: The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the City of Los Angeles

Los Angeles, California is a city unlike all others, its uniqueness established by a variety of constituent components: its large size and population, its location between coastline and mountain range, the immense ethnic diversity of its inhabitants, the complicated social and political strife of the past and present, and the multifaceted nature of the activities that take place on a daily basis within its bounds. In the past 50 years, Los Angeles has undergone many changes. After the end of World War II, its populace increased significantly, provoking the expansion of city limits into new geographic regions. Along with this growth came an explosion of artistic ingenuity, manifested especially within the realm of musical creation. Hollywood became a hotspot for the production and recording of new albums, attracting aspiring musicians of divergent styles and backgrounds from the around the city, and more broadly, the entire state and country. When punk rock became a staple of the Los Angeles music scene in the late 1970s, the genre gained rapid popularity across the nation. Despite groups originating in New York City, like The Ramones, or other large urban areas, L.A. was renowned as being at the forefront of the punk rock movement.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers entered the Los Angeles music scene in 1983. Their lineup consisted of vocalist Anthony Kiedis, guitarist Hillel Slovak, bassist Michael Balzary, and drummer Jack Irons. Heavily influenced by the punk epidemic in the city, they released a self-titled album 1984 that presented an unprecedented combination of punk rock and funk. Although the album was a radical release, the band was not satisfied with its overall vibe—the group sought to truly encapsulate the tumult of progressivism within the rapidly changing culture of Los Angeles, as reflected through their own experiences. While embracing the punk scene that surrounded them, the band members wanted to express their creativity through new forms of music by further modifying and perfecting their sound. In recent years, the music of the Chili Peppers no longer aligns with the genre of punk rock. The vibrant, upbeat, and smooth compositions found on albums like Californication and By the Way still have funk-driven undertones, but would be best categorized as light rock. Nonetheless, the group still writes music about the city of Los Angeles and its ever-changing cultural scene.

I intend to study the relationship between the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the cultural trends of Los Angeles from the early 1980s to present day, in order to find out more about the impact of the city’s social and political shifts on the style and genre of the bands productions. Through numerous replaced band members, a constantly changing and evolving sound, and great lyrical diversity, the group has been far from uniform over the years. Likewise, the city of Los Angeles, between the push and push back for civil rights and equality, shifts in governing forces, and variation in its racial diversity, has proven itself to be just as progressive and radical. I believe that the changing music of the Chili Peppers over the past 30 years will mirror the changing cultural dynamic of L.A. in many regards; furthermore, the band’s music may lend a uniquely subjective interpretation of the social turmoil of the city during said era, from the standpoint of a group of individuals experiencing the matter firsthand.

The connection between sound and place is a simplistic, yet revealing, notion that can be examined in an endless number of contexts. Music is a particularly interesting reflection of place in that it contributes the subjective aspect of human experience. Author Steven Feld argues in A Rainforest Acoustemology that the music of the Kaluli people mirrors the soundscape of the natural rainforest environment. He uses an understanding of the connection between sound and place to contend that the industrialization of rainforest areas will cause a shift in the tribe’s music, due to the introduction of a new, harsher, and more discordant soundscape. In Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the concept of music’s reflective nature is taken a step further. Attali makes the case that music has prophetic tendencies regarding the changes to come in a given place or environment. Bearing these examples in mind, the connection between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Los Angeles will be further analyzed with regard to the changing soundscape of Los Angeles, and examined for any possible prophetic relationship between musical composition and cultural shift.

Works Cited:

Feld, Steven. “A Rainforest Acoustemology.” Anthropologies of Sounds. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 223-39. Print.

Attali, Jacques. “Noise: The Political Economy of Music.” Sound Studies Reader. New York City: Routledge, 2012. 29-39. Print.

Annotated Bibliography:

Funky Monks. Dir. Gavin Bowden. Perf. Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, Michael Balzary, Chad

Smith, and Rick Rubin. Warner Bros., 1991. DVD.

The director—bassist Michael Balzary’s brother-in-law—was an amateur filmmaker who sought to document the creative processes involved in the production of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fifth studio album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The target audience primarily consisted of Chili Peppers fans who desired to learn more about the group, and also those with general interest regarding the creation of music. The film lends a perspective unlike other cited sources, in that it provides unique and candid insight into the interactions between band members during the processes of writing, collaboration, and recording. Analyzing the musical tendencies of the group during the creation of Blood Sugar Sex Magik from the film facilitates the understanding of the relationship between the sound of the album and the location of its recording, Los Angeles.

Kiedis, Anthony, and Larry Sloman. Scar Tissue. New York: Hyperion, 2004. Print.

Primary author and singer Anthony Kiedis wrote this autobiography as an intimate description of his life from birth to 2004 (the year of publication), including his experience with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The intended audience was comprised of fans of the band and those who wished to know the story behind such a talented and enigmatic vocalist. The book provides an interesting first-person perspective into the group dynamic of the four Chili Peppers, revealing many profound and previously undisclosed details that the other cited sources never touch on. Kiedis delves into the significance of the city of Los Angeles throughout his life, which can be used to understand the different stages of musical career with the band.

Modarres, Ali. “New York & Los Angeles: Politics, Society, and Culture—A Comparative View.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94.3 (2004): 678-80. Print.

Modarres is a professor of geosciences and environment and at California State University, Los Angeles, where he also serves as the chair of his department. His intended audience includes college students and adults interested in the sociological analysis and comparison of Los Angeles and New York City. His work provides a notably intellectual viewpoint of the cultural trends of L.A. in recent times, diverging from other cited sources due to the complexity of Modarres’ thought and insight. This article provides information regarding the unique societal qualities of Los Angeles, as contrasted with those of an eastern city like New York; this can be used to better understand its relationship to the unusual and distinct music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Herbert, Steve. “The Normative Ordering of Police Territoriality: Making and Marking Space with the Los Angeles Police Department.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 86.3 (1996): 567-82. Print.

Herbert is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Indiana University. His intended audience is comprised of young adults and adults seeking information regarding the cultural relationship between the city of Los Angeles and the L.A.P.D., or more broadly those who wish to examine the sociological impact of law enforcement. This work, unlike other cited pieces, delves specifically into the struggle between chaos and order within the city, and the resultant impact on the cultural trends of Los Angeles. His writing can be used to give light to the darker side of the city’s dynamic, which is relevant to many components of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music.

Splitter, Henry W. “Music in Los Angeles.” Ed. Gustave O. Arlt. The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 38.4 (1956): 307-44. Print.

Splitter, an author and journalist, wrote primarily about the topics of music and nature, and their relationship to one another. His target audience for Music in Los Angeles consisted of intellectuals intrigued by the historical progression of music in L.A. and its surrounding areas. Unlike other sources, Splitter’s writing examines the musical past of the city, and how its musical scene came to be what it was in the 1950s. This piece can be used to analyze the differences between Los Angeles music in the mid-twentieth century and late twentieth century, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers were most prevalent. Understanding the musical divergence of the two eras can facilitate an understanding of the concurrent cultural shift that occurred.

Finding a Way

          The process of becoming a college student is more than just a straightforward transition; it necessitates an entirely new definition of time management, while concurrently introducing a novel realm of extraordinary freedom. Finding a way—an obligation with an end resolve that is neither simplistic nor readily apparent—is critical in determining the quality of one’s college experience. Moreover, the development of a routine is undeniably effective in establishing a sense of order from the chaos of university life; it gives students the opportunity to make the best out of the undesirable, and to further improve upon the already favorable. Routines help to string together each individual day, providing a sense of holistic purpose to the seemingly menial busywork and tedious notetaking associated with many classes. Such convergence allows students to view their experiences at school from a broader, more comprehensive standpoint, bringing into consideration the real purpose of attending. I have found that my driving motive is the underlying fulfillment that comes from intellectual enlightenment, and an understanding that said satisfaction is well worth the everyday input of time and focus. My audiography lends, to the ear of the listener, an acoustic representation of my daily routine—my found way. In developing “a terrain in which ‘understanding’ and resonance, hearing and the ‘meaning of being,’ physics and philosophy, enter into complex and intimate relationships with each other,”[1] the compilation demonstrates the concept of intrinsic interrelatedness amongst the seemingly divergent tones, and the similarities shared amongst their implied themes.
          I chose to organize my sound bites in chronological order, creating the sensation of having small windows of auditory insight into the progression of an average day. The list begins with a familiar morning sound to many: the sip of a tall, hot coffee, followed by the unavoidable “ah” of contentment. The sound of coughing could be heard afterward, as my throat was apparently not so contented. The next clip features the zipping of a winter jacket and the rustling of adjustment. This is succeeded by a bite that begins with the sounds of shuffling feet, quickly interrupted by a primal noise of sorts let out by my roommate. Together, these recordings represent the thematic significance of mornings: the juxtaposition of push and pull. Caffeine facilitates the rise out of bed, while a nasty cough tempts one back toward the comfort of a soft blanket; a warm coat promotes that first step outside, while the biting cold makes one immediately reconsider the decision; the morning banter and general absurdities drag one away from a dull, slumberous state, while the frigid walk works to evoke the contrary.
          The sounds of midday begin with a recording from my macroeconomics lecture, with the din of incessant coughing overpowering the professor’s words. The noises of pills being taken are included in the next clip, occurring during the afternoon due to my lack of remembrance in the morning. The final midday clip is a short guitar sample, centered around a minor key and played in an aggressive style. Together, these recordings foster a somewhat darker theme than that of the morning selections: the decline of hope in accordance with exposure to unfortunate circumstances. The disappointment felt in not being able to interpret an instructor over a cacophony of sickness, the complications of forgetting medication and the implied negative impact of illness, and the process of channeling frustration through music all contribute to an unenthusiastic and downcast tone.

          The night portion of my audiography starts off with the sounds of an order being placed at Boloco, ensued by the running of a shower with music playing in the background. Next featured is a recording of an upbeat, slinky guitar riff, and after, the soft bubbling of a hookah with a bass-heavy musical number providing backdrop. Here, the theme of decompression after a long day is contrasted with the stress and exertion of the morning and midday. Anxiety and tension fade away with the sunlight, and the dusky cover of evening masks the imperfections of the day.

          From an auditory perspective, daily life has the tendency to meld together. Creating an audiography breaks down the miscellany into individual audial components, enabling the analysis of separate events as well as the thematic significance of groupings of sound. “The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention;”[2] the effort of compiling recordings elicits such attention and focus, and listening temporarily assumes a dominant position over subconscious aural absorption. One can hear the keynote sounds of murmuring voices, the ever-running window fan, and dull murmur of music throughout many of the recordings if listening is truly employed; these noises create a backdrop that becomes the overall hum and whir—the bustle and movement—of the perpetual cycle that is modern human existence. Through the back and forth of the morning, the melancholy of midday, and the repose of night, the sounds of college life are unified in the collaborative construction of a routine developed to assist the acquisition of academic insight. Throughout the observable ups and downs portrayed within the audiography, having an attemptedly holistic and inclusive view of the purpose of the college experience is key to maintaining my motivation.

[1] Veit Erlmann, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 12.
[2] Seth Horowitz, The Science and Art of Listening (New York: The New York Times, 2012), 1.
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Douglass: An EPIC Historical Epic Drama

From birth into slavery as an innocent child to enlistment in the abolitionist movement as a freethinking, established young man, Frederick Douglass’ life experience was far from uniform. His tumultuous childhood and adolescence left him in a perpetual state of transition between masters of varying levels of cruelty; adulthood went on to reveal evils so great as to strip away his desire for freedom and intellectual enlightenment, while also eventually exposing that such desires were necessary and vital to his living. Despite the frequent and considerable variance in his circumstances, Douglass’ character can be defined by certain underlying themes in his personality: courage, righteousness, and confidence. In constructing the soundtrack for a historical epic drama based on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, one set of tonal frequencies would be selected to support these themes, and contrasted with another set reflecting the dark, forlorn, and desperate times Douglass was subjected to. Each set would be broken into two primary categories: keynote sounds and musical selections.

Keynote sounds are those that “are overheard but cannot be overlooked;”[1] they give auditory identity to a given location, collaboratively forming a unique soundmark. Thus, divergent soundmarks would have great purpose in establishing an audial perception of the changes in setting throughout the film. The keynote sounds of a plantation would be significantly different from those of a city like Baltimore. Douglass was often “awakened at the dawn of the day by the most heart-rending shrieks of [his own aunt];”[2] he refers to the experience as horrifying and unforgettable, but acknowledges that it became somewhat of a normative occurrence. Over time, in combination with the whipping of other slaves and the procession of various plantation activities, Douglass became desensitized: the shrill screaming, the fiery crack of the whip, the harsh yelling and cursing, the woeful singing, the obediently stifled whimpering—these sounds became the auditory backdrop of daily life. In the city, Douglass was exposed to an entirely different soundscape. The streets bustled with the sounds of clacking shoes and noisy banter; the airspace in the shipyard was ever consumed by shouted orders and violent threats; relative quiet and stillness existed within the Auld household, until punishment was being given. Upon escaping the bounds of slavery and joining forces with the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass was exposed to yet another set of keynote sounds—this time in New Bedford, Massachusetts. These ranged from the well-mannered voices of his peers to the soothing, calm tones of his home living with Anna Murray. By contrasting these three sets of keynote sounds, the differences between plantation, city, and suburban life would be dramatized, as well as the disparity between enslavement and tentative freedom. Specifically, the sorrowful, harsh, and jarring tones of plantation and city life would be alleviated by the softer, kinder, and more comfortable sounds of suburban life, mirroring Douglass’ transition from confinement to liberation.

Musical selections would be used to reinforce a negative emotional reaction to the immorality of slavery, and the opposite regarding emancipation. The portrayal of Douglass upon realizing that “Mr. Covey had succeeded in breaking [him],”[3] and that “[his] natural elasticity was crushed, [his] intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about his eye [dead]; the dark night of slavery closed in upon him”[4] would be supplemented by the song It’s All Understood, by Jack Johnson. The composition utilizes a minor key, slow and lackluster tempo, and a melancholy beat; these factors naturally foster a sense of sadness and solemnity, and would effectively give rise to emotional discomfort when combined with the imagery of a defeated Douglass. In another scene, with people cheering and showing support for Douglass after a speech, the musical selection Rox in the Box, by The Decemberists, would lend an overall joyful and celebratory vibe with its upbeat tempo and pleasant swing beat. In combination with the visual image of such a liberated and optimistic man, the scene would encourage an emotional state of contentment and the sensation of happiness. All musical selections in the film would be from recent years, in order to make its historical setting more relatable to a modern audience; familiarity with the music would enhance the connection between viewer life experience and on-screen content. The holistic effect of music within such a historical epic drama would be to strengthen the audience’s emotional response, and additionally contrast the exceptional and the abysmal in the life of Frederick Douglass.


[1] Jonathan Sterne, The Sound Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2012), Chapter 10.

[2] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Massachusetts: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1845), Chapter 1.

[3] Ibid., Chapter 10.

[4] Ibid., Chapter 10.

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