On Recognition and Neglect

It is with great arrogance that I tell you that I made it ten months in a pandemic without TikTok, until the new year, when my silly little hobbies ran dry and I downloaded yet another hell app on my phone. I was expecting mindless stimulation and consensual rabbit hole-ing, and I do get a good amount of that, but I didn’t foresee the strange sense of comfort TikTok would give me; I watch videos of people exactly like me, my age, in a pandemic, waking up and living the same exact day over and over again, and it reminds me that even though we’re physically isolated, we’re all still here, a whole year later, just as scared and confused and angry and sad as we’ve always been.

However, there’s a lot about this app that is really unsettling. The extreme meme-ing on TikTok doesn’t sit right with me; conformity in synchronized dance routines and “challenges” seem to tinker with a different, dystopian world. But what’s most upsetting about this app is the way it has inserted itself as a major disruptor to the music industry. Last month, music critic Craig Jenkins explored the way in which this app recognizes (and furthermore, rewards) certain musicians and the effect this selection has on the wider culture; in TikTok land, meme-able songs are recognized en mass, and therefore, rewarded. It’s changing our relationship with music, assuming that a song is only as good as its ability to complement a ten second video.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the responsibility we have as consumers of music and the way in which a lack of recognition can neglect and, potentially, betray. (Most recently, like how Framing Britney Spears has resurfaced our societal neglect and failure of the Princess of Pop.) I hope that, if anything, the pandemic has taught us about the importance of support—checking in on strangers, tipping the takeout person however much you’re able to and giving more than just $0.0018 per stream to your favorite musicians.

When I think about neglect, one of the first people that comes to mind is Tina Bell, the lost Goddess of Grunge. Now, I don’t listen to grunge or metal or any sludge-y stuff too too often. I was most hardcore when I was 13, blowing my ears out to Bring Me the Horizon on the walk to school (at seven in the morning). So when I came across something about Tina from WFMU, it was no surprise that I’d never heard the name. But I was spooked when she hardly popped up on Google at all. Tina Bell is nearly absent from the internet, not even a Wikipedia page to affirm her legacy, let alone her existence.

Tina was a founding member and lead vocalist of Bam Bam, formed in Seattle in 1983. The original line up consisted of Bell, lead guitarist Tommy Martin, drummer Matt Cameron (who would later go on to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) and Scotty Buttocks on guitar and vocals. One of the only (if not, the only) black women fronting a punk band at the time, Tina’s legacy is buried amidst the success of other Pacific Northwest musicians. But in everything I managed to scrape up about these ghosts, Bam Bam is regarded as one of the first bands to experiment with the kinds of distortion, riffs and the sludge-y sounds that would later be called “grunge.”

Free Fall from Space” showcases Tina’s powerful and melodic voice and the way she could dip into a dreamy trance, only to pull right back out into a stunning, chaotic wail. Her talent is unquestionable, but her lack of modern recognition is troubling. Tina was a black woman, exuding remarkable power and grace, front and center stage, in the overwhelmingly white, male-dominated punk scene. There was one night when and two men in the crowd called her the n-word while she was performing, so Tina picked up the mic stand, swung it around, and bashed them both in the head. Scotty Buttocks (her bandmate) is quoted in interviews explaining that Tina never wanted to believe that her skin color and gender put her at a disadvantage, let alone in danger. It’s heartbreaking to think of the heavy layers of both overt and covert racism, coupled with the historical misogyny of punk rock that made it impossible for Tina Bell to exercise her full potential. Tina passed away in 2012, never given the recognition she earned as an early pioneer of grunge. Scotty does what he can to keep her legacy alive, but the neglect and erasure of Tina Bell leaves a gaping hole in the the grunge genre.

I also think about somebody like Vini Reilly who formed The Durutti Column in ’78. Their discography is massive—a new record every couple of years from 1979-2016—but they never really gained the traction of their English, post-punk peers (The Smiths, The The, The Cure, et cetera et cetera). I first heard of them a little over a year ago when Jessica Pratt shared a playlist featuring the beautifully distorted “Guitar Woman,” and I’ve been knee deep in their discography since. Vini Reilly is an incredibly talented guitarist (near masterful on “Sketch for Summer”) who has produced a plethora of impressive work, and yet, has been given very little recognition. Even in interviews, he’s asked to speak on other musicians, never on his own work.

Vini was always content with The Durutti Column’s level of success and is said to never care much for fame. He never cashed in on putting his music in advertisements or did any significant marketing for new releases. But in 2013, in a time of desperation, Vini’s nephew posted on the band’s Facebook page: “My uncle – the Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly – has hit a bit of a rough patch money-wise, and is currently struggling to cover basic outgoings such as food, rent and electricity.” Vini suffered three strokes and was struggling to get any sort of disability allowance. He was embarrassed to share his health problems with fans, and even more embarrassed to ask for donations. But when fans came through and contributions began to pour in, he pledged to record new music, once recovered enough from the strokes, and gift it to the donors as a way of thanks.

Nobody should need to rely on donations to cover basic needs or healthcare, regardless of their occupation or health condition. But it cuts a little deeper knowing that someone who has given us so much beautiful music was left with nothing. I think about this, the neglect of Vini Reilly, and I listen to “Otis,” and I look at this photo of him, and I want to cry:

In the beginning of quarantine, one of my favorite musicians, Jessica Pratt (the one who introduced me to The Durutti Column), found a bunch of old postcards in her home. She posted about it on Instagram, saying she’d mail them out to the the first handful of people to respond with a little bit about themselves and how they’ve been passing time in quarantine, so she’d be able to pick one best suited for you. I responded in enough time, and a few months later, I received this sweet little card in the mail:

As listeners, it’s all too easy to fall into a default, disconnected relationship with a musician, regardless of their level of fame. And with the absence of live shows, musicians can feel even more distant right now, more like an untouchable artistic figure than someone who could be your next door neighbor. But the recognition and appreciation of musicians is grounded in our relationship with them. Although I’ve never met Jessica Pratt, or seen her perform live, since getting her postcard, I find myself following her updates more closely and adding more and more of her records to my Bandcamp wishlist.

When we engage with musicians beyond listening to their music—reading about them, following them on social media, maybe even sending a dm in a moment of desperation—they won’t feel so far away. Support comes from a stronger, more intimate relationship, and if we’re more intentional about the way we engage with artists, recognition and proper reward will follow suit.

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