Julie Dawn (1981)
“The classic albums course that I teach with Harry [Weinger] at NYU, we wanted to study the idea of a canon. The kind of notion that something is automatically classic because it’s told to you that it’s classic. Picasso paintings are in that canon. Basquiat’s in that canon. The Beatles are in that canon. Miles Davis is in that canon. Like, this is great because we were told at three years old by our parents that this is great. So I wanted to study seven records outside—not outside of the canon, but that really aren’t discussed.
The obvious thing would have been to do, like, Blood on the Tracks by Dylan, you do Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones, you do Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles, you do Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols. That’s the obvious canon that everybody studies. So I figured I’d use my resources and knowledge to study the records that don’t get that treatment. So we chose, week one we chose all three volumes of Live at the Apollo by James Brown. Studying how the live album revolutionized and gave birth to a career.
And then the lesson that I learned while teaching this was that the common denominator that all these records had —
Week two was Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin, tied with My Life by Mary J. Blige.
Week three was Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear. The only class that I had to miss because of an emergency. I had to take off that week.
Week four was Off The Wall by Michael Jackson.
Week five was Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Week six was There’s a Riot Going On, Sly and the Family Stone
Week seven was Dirty Mind by Prince.
And the final week was Three Feet High and Rising by De La Soul, tied with Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys.
And the common denominator, that I didn’t put in the syllabus at the top of the semester, was that all of these records were departure albums in a sense. Aretha Franklin, having spent 10 years at Columbia records, being primerd to be the black, female Sinatra, trying to figure out how to perform at the Copa, a place that black entertainers longed to perform to sort of catch, or reap the rewards of the white dollar that Sammy Davis Jr. was able to get. And then having to move to Atlantic records and being told by her Turkish producer that, no, we want your gospel, soul sister side to come out. The side that you keep trying to suppress.
With Marvin, not being Motown’s poster boy anymore. His marriage and life falling before his eyes, he makes, in theory, what was supposed to be like a revenge album to his ex-wife, Anna, but then turns in probably the most beautiful, vulnerable piece of work that he’s ever created.
And Michael Jackson is an artist fighting for independence from his father and his brothers. Using his 21st birthday to fire his father and break away from his brothers in one fell swoop.
Dirty Mind is Prince turning his back on being typecast as a Stevie Wonder rip-off, or knockoff, with these marginal hits that he used to release, and really push the envelope with his music, sexuality, and image.
Sly and the Family Stone having great expectations after their triumphant Woodstock performance, absolutely turns their back on a very obvious slam-dunk that they could have taken, and been the poster child for post-Civil Rights America. Instead, turning in what is essentially the first reality show. The beauty of There’s a Riot Going On is really the idea of a car accident that you stop and stare and look at as you pass by and there’s a lot of traffic. It’s great-sounding, but it’s also the sound of a man whose life is out of control, and he’s never recovered since.
And A Nation of Millions, Three Feet High, and Paul’s Boutique, sonically, the first trifecta in hip-hop that’s seen as a—the first albums which the critics started to acknowledge that hip-hop is an art.
With each of these albums, I got mild resistance. Well, I got equal elation and resistance from the students. We’d start the class with a discussion, and a show of hands, you know, ‘Who here liked Off The Wall?’ And you’d think that, OK, this is a canon record. People say that this is Michael’s greatest artistic achievement. And half the class liked Off The Wall, and the other half was just thought, eh, it’s whatever. And I figured in my head, these are kids born in 1991, 1992, and the Michael Jackson that they’re informed about is the one they encountered in 1998 and 1999 and 2000. And it’s really hard for them to have an emotional connection with the 21-year-old on the cover of this record. Because they don’t know who this person is. They know the guy of the last 10 years. It was kind of a hard sell, because they still saw it as their parents’ disco album that mom likes to dance to. And I thought, I’m gonna lose this battle.
Because, again, my whole thing was never to present this argument, like I was Johnnie Cochran at the O.J. trial. It’s not like, you must see this my way. I want them to form their own opinions. But I knew that if they just gave me like 10 minutes—I was like, I just need 10 minutes to knock this out of the park and I think I can make them see what is so beautiful about this record.
So then I put “She’s Out of My Life” on. It just so happens that Bruce Swedien kept all seven takes of Michael’s vocals. And of course the version we all know and love is take six, where he’s not crying as hard. But obviously, you know, the song hit a mark in his soul, because each take—and I took all the music away, all the strings away, and you just heard his voice and his breathing. And we’re in a studio, so it’s loud. You can hear the snot, you can hear the tears well up in his eyes.
And by the time that I got to take seven, if I would have played all of it—my back was turned to them and it was taking everything in me not to start breaking down on the spot.
They finally saw Michael as a human being. And that was the whole three-hour argument of Off The Wall. You have to peel the layers. You have to know what turned this person, that I know, into the person that you know. There’s a bridge here. And you’ve got to figure out what led there.
There’s just a vulnerability there that no black artist is really ever allowed to have. Because most black artists are seen as caricatures. Someone to make you dance. Someone to entertain you. Someone that you really don’t see as a human being.
So at the end of the class I was like, ‘One more time, show of hands’ and whoosh. Everyone’s hands was up.”
“The highest form of wisdom is kindness”
Day 32. Raf Simons long sleeve “accept your purity”