On Butter and Protests
I’m going to start this article off by telling you a story about a man who single handedly redefined what music was to an entire generation: pianist Herbie Hancock (AAAAAAAAAA. Oh my god. If it wasn’t clear, I’ve been waiting for a long time to write about him). Once you’re done fangirling or fanboying over him as I have many a time, let’s get back to the story.
It was the 1970s, and music was booming. Herbie, however, was in a musical trench. Like many others, he struggled to come up with anything new and influential, and he felt like he’d hit a dead end. He kept playing the same phrases, and what he was doing started to feel like a caricature of what he used to be doing. That’s when second jazz legend Miles Davis came up to him and told him, “Don’t play the butter notes.” Whatever ‘butter notes’ meant, Herbie took it to heart because it’s Miles freakin’ Davis saying it. That advice somehow changed his life, and the trajectory of jazz music forever.
It’s thought that Miles Davis didn’t say ‘butter’ that day, but rather, ‘bottom’ - he was telling Herbie not to play the root notes of chords as they were too repetitive and clichéd. Herbie, having possibly misheard, was confused for a while. He eventually gathered that Miles might have meant that he shouldn’t play notes that were commonly played, the metaphorical butter being a common ingredient in recipes. So, he ignored conventional ways - he played more unique and inventive solos that weren’t theoretically “right” using a smaller choice of notes. And that was fresh. It was a little odd, but it worked, and it got Herbie out of his rut.
I think about this story a lot. Hidden in its irony is an idea that’s so often misunderstood - sometimes, to get things right, to make a difference, to escape mundanity, we need to shift our perceptions, push our limits, and break free of the rules we impose on ourselves.
One example of that philosophy that immediately comes to mind is this lovely column at Riot itself. OG Between the Notes™ readers may remember that this column was meant to be entirely about the arts and their impact on society. Ananya and I originally wrote about that, but we slowly digressed. We felt like our theme turned into a restriction. We found ourselves, just as Herbie Hancock did, in a rut.
So, around the New Year, we changed things. We got on a Google Meet call, and we decided that we didn’t want to just write about art; we wanted to really express ourselves. And as 2022 began, so did a new era for Between the Notes - we began writing about our passions, our opinions, and our takes on so much more than just art. And now, I can confidently say that we feel freer and can write in a way that’s more authentic to our real selves.
That lesson, however, has applications far beyond the decisions we make for ourselves.
As I write this article, the Supreme Court of the United States has revoked the judgement made in Roe versus Wade, now blocking many American women from access to safe abortions. In India, the police, supported by the BJP, have arrested a prominent Muslim combatant of fake news and Hindu supremacy without reason. Ukrainian civilians and soldiers have continued to die everyday fighting off the Russian invasion. The world is a breeding ground for injustice.
The way our generation fights that injustice has, for a while now, been nonviolent and peaceful. We focus on awareness; on making sure people know what problems exist. We focus on ideology; on trying to help people think a certain way. As the world has become more dependent on social media, we’ve acquired a new, softer method of peaceful protest that focuses on awareness and ideology. But just like playing the same things was tiring Herbie Hancock, just like writing about the same thing was restricting me and Ananya, the repeated cycle of peaceful protest is harming activism.
By turning protest into something we can put up on Instagram stories, type out on Carrds, and upload to Change.org, we’re drawing passion away from topics we’re meant to care about. We’re drawing the “act” away from activism, and we’re not making a change. So, like Herbie and Between the Notes did, our society needs to change things. We need to stop protesting in ways that are counterproductive - we need to start rioting (yes, that was intended) and graffitiing, screaming and shouting.
Activism is meant to make people uncomfortable, to make people reevaluate their opinions, and to make people see the consequences of unfair and discriminatory practices. It’s meant to make two US Supreme Court justices who have sexual assault allegations against them see firsthand what the material consequences of endangering women are. It’s meant to confront Hindu politicians with the consequences of unfairly arresting Mohammed Zubair. It’s meant to make Russian politicians and military strategists stand face-to-face with the hate that they create in ignoring a neighbour country’s sovereignty.
Strength comes in numbers, and as the people, we have the numbers. We’re the majority. We have the ability to create real consequences for the decisions that people in positions of power make. And we can’t call ourselves activists unless we do that.
Let’s shake things up. Let’s push our limits. Let’s fight fire with fire.
Let’s not play the butter notes.
Last time, I talked about Glass Animals’ Dreamland, and the positive connotations I attribute to some of the songs on it. And while it’s good to have some unadulterated optimism on your side, it’s always best to step back and take a holistic look at it all. Beyond the uptempo and catchy rhythm lies something darker, reminiscent of all that we suppress. Nothing is utopian, perfect, or blemish-free. Every dream is just that - a dream; it isn’t real. From this, a vortex of fear, anxiety, and downward mental spirals emerges.
In your dreams, you might feel safe in make-believe, but what happens when what you imagine isn’t something that leaves you with a smile on your face?
And of course, Dreamland manages to capture that side of relentless hope. The one that comes with such difficulty, but is felt with such ease. Beyond the veil of hot sugar and heat waves is something that’s a little more bitter than sweet. A little more melancholic, a little slower; lines like ‘it’s a blood diamond, flawless but for that one thing’ sting and ache like a bruise on a bad day.
Dreamland, with its inviting name and seeming promise of comfort, gives you something a little more twisted. There is no such thing as a direct emotion that can be felt in this world. There is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dream. And that’s exactly what Dreamland tries to say.
In my previous article, I told you that ‘Your Love’ by Glass Animals makes me feel happy. But what is happiness, when brought to life only through beat? When I examined the lyrics and tried to unravel them, what I found wasn’t necessarily what I heard. Hidden behind the melody is a song that is not about the love and hope I wrote about last time; it’s about fear, abandonment, and clinging on to something that you know is bad for you, because you hope that it can be for the better.
No matter how much you dream, there will always be nightmares. It’s important to remember that your dreams can transform and contort into something far more sinister than you’d ever expect. No matter how much you believe in the power of hope and positivity, there are some things beyond human control.
But in these nightmares, there are always flashes of some future possible truth. If you believe in Murphy’s law, like me, you might often be fearing that the worst will always be waiting for you, somewhere in the dark. And that’s absolutely possible. Your dreams will never be as good as you may think they are when you’re awake. But there’s always shadows of truths that will linger, glimmering with hope, or as haunting as they come.
Either way, Dreamland isn’t a refuge or haven; it’s a place that’ll tell you things you may never want to hear. To suppress this all, it plays on the B-side, away from the catchy pop, into a cave of mellow magnetism that’s so hard to stay away from. But with Glass Animals, it’s a little better feeling all this, with music that never fails to complement any and every emotion, whether it leaves you with a smile on your face, or sweat emanata floating by your head.
What the Dreamland album tells you wholly is that life is… not as simple as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There is so much grey area to feel, express, and revel in. Follow the light and the music. Listen to what they have to tell you. Dream a little dream, with hope on its seams, that’ll take you into a world unseen that lies inside you.
Dumb Ways to Die
Formal warning: reading further than this might lead to long-lasting existential crises.
Welcome back folks, and it’s that time of the month again where we attempt to answer another one of our age-old questions that have absolutely zero impact on us - how are we going to die?
Quite the nihilistic conundrum isn’t it?
I’m not talking about you and me here, I’m talking about this universe as the whole - where and how will it end?
Proponents of scientific theory propose three major ways in which the universe could end - The Heat Death, The Big Crunch, or The Big Rip. While I am aware that these terms might just sound like the superpowers of your favourite Marvel or DC superheroes, I assure you, none of these ways to die are as pretty.
Just to base some context of the universe, I’d like to show you this infographic.
This picture basically shows us the knowledge about the universe and everything it contains. Trying to even venture into the unknown unknowns is nonsensical, so let’s have a look at the blue region for now. In recent years, scientists discovered this thing called dark energy. But we don’t know what it is. All we know about it is that it exists. That’s all. And it is the sole reason the Big Bang happened and life as we know it was created nearly 14 billion years ago. It is also the sole reason life as we know it is going to end.
Let’s start off slow with the most depressing way to die amongst the three. The one thing we know about dark energy is that it causes the expansion of the universe to either accelerate outwards or inwards. However, if there is a balance, the expansion will continue, but at a uniform rate. Stars and galaxies will begin to move further and further apart, and the universe will reach its maximum entropy - absolute randomness with particles all over the place, but yet unable to form new stars. Matter will become so diffuse that stars won’t be able to reproduce, and after aeons of agonising stillness, the universe will simply fade away into nothingness - The Heat Death occurs.
The Heat Death
A second way for the universe to end gruesomely is the Big Rip. Hypotheses are floating around that if dark energy is too concentrated, then the universe’s expansion will begin to accelerate further than it is now. Soon, stars will begin to get further and further away and eventually reach a point where new stars aren’t able to form due to the lack of concentrated matter in an area. No new stars will form once the old ones are dead. Galaxies and solar systems will be ripped apart from each other, almost down to every last atom. But this process is far more accelerated than the Heat Death - the universe will be physically ripped apart into tiny shreds. It’s like when you try to pull apart Play-Doh to make your dream sand castle, but never put the separated pieces together; they just stay apart. Forever.
The Big Rip
And finally, coming to my favourite. The Big Crunch is when the matter in the universe will dominate the ambient energy present, and instead of pulling it apart, matter will try to force it inward. Distant galaxies, like the Andromeda and the Milky Way, will start to come together and clash, over and over again. At the end, the universe will become something like a hot furnace where you cook your pizza in, except there won’t be any escape hole to take the pizza out. The universe will become a singular point, just like how it started off. The reason I am rooting for this is 1) poetic justice of things returning to the way they used to be and 2) I imagine that since we’ll all technically just be a singular point at the end, it’ll feel like we’re all in a big, universe-wide hug.
The Big Crunch
Various deaths of the universe
While I am aware of the fact that I might have clickbaited some of you guys into reading this with the title since it advertises this to be about one of the greatest video games ever created, I am writing this article with something else in mind.
I just want to remind you that this end is not going to come for at least a couple billion years from now, and considering the way we’re treating our planet right now, it doesn’t seem like the human race would last that long. If you worry about what’s to come in our future and how it’ll all end, what will happen to the here and now?
If we’re so stuck up about the fear we have for what the future holds for us, we’ll forget about what we do have in the present. While worrying about the future will make us work towards making it a better future, worrying so much that it makes us numb is not going to accomplish anything. If worrying about your college admissions makes you work towards improving your grades and your profile, then please go ahead and do that. But if excessive stress about whether you will get into the college of your dreams or not puts you knee-deep in anxiety, it’s probably not the best option to pick.
Live in the moment. Who knows, you could be happier.
Also, if you haven’t played Dumb Ways to Die, I highly recommend you to. Not a sponsored article by the way.
I wonder how nature documentaries of humans would go
would we record the slow movement of pinky fingers close to another’s hand,
would we record loud, embarrassing laughter,
would we record hired mourners at funerals?
would they watch predators approaching prey?
would we have cameras approaching rows of students in classrooms,
zooming in on the sweat on their brows and their trembling hands during
the inventions we’ve made to question ourselves?
Will they write research papers of how neurons fire in our brain and how
the only thing we cannot for the life of us figure out is ourselves?
will they be puzzled by the fact that the thing everyone is afraid of is being seen, completely
not only by the federal bureau of investigation or multinational corporations but by the people in our homes and those in our lives?
will they be puzzled by the lines around our eyes, when we smile and when we sob?
will these documentaries be narrated by an old british voice too?
I want soundtracks with dramatic violin for when I get on a moving bus,
slow piano for days I spend waiting in the rain
I want high-range shots of concrete jungles and people who think I don’t know they’re there
I want them to try and capture the human essence, because you can never fully know a human’s story, even if they’re always right next to you.
I want them to see how hearts feel after soul crushing crises-
like sunlit shots of the forest floor after the fires have destroyed the thick canopy
You can always study the forests and the folds and valleys of their moss covered lands, but you can never study souls
I watched my first documentary quite some time ago. As is with the most mainstream of them, it was narrated by David Attenborough. It was on poisonous plants - ones that could kill you, to ones that would give you an itch.
Some time later, one of my favourite YouTubers had a sponsorship from BBC, and she talked about how much she loved bingeing the episodes of The Mating Game. Slightly curious, I clicked on to Our Planet - a Netflix series whose episodes had been put up on YouTube for public viewing. I watched Attenborough’s slow, old, incredibly British voice talk about flamingos for about 45 minutes, and I didn’t realise how absorbed I was. I’ve since developed an affinity for flamingos - they are, indeed, beautiful and unique birds. I know that I wouldn’t have gotten so absorbed if not for the way they were presented.
Something that’s vital with shooting nature documentaries is that humans are not supposed to interrupt the natural course of life for the beings they study. This poem was written after bingeing the entirety of Our Planet, Home, and Chasing Coral. I love all of them dearly. I hope you will too.
IS THAT WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL?
I have been thinking, lately, of what it means to be pretty.
Not in the poetic sense (though that thought is on my mind always), I’m referring to the objective aesthetic appeal that some people seem to radiate - and how the world rewards them for it.
Growing up, being pretty was never high on my priority list - at least not consciously. My head was always stuck in a book, my mind in a faraway land, perpetually attempting to escape from the pre-algebra books at the dining table. But in the books I read, I noticed how the boys were smart and brave and witty and charming, but the girls were always pretty. Lovely, or alluring, or ‘beautiful, but she didn’t know it’. They were smart too, strong and fierce, but the first I saw of them was their rod-straight blonde hair, their kind smile, and their bright eyes that put the stars to shame. And though I couldn’t tell at the time, I had internalised the idea that someone who was all those things - smart, brave and kind - had to be pretty; and vice versa.
But before we begin to explore the intricacies of pretty privilege, I would like to explore what exactly ‘pretty’ constitutes. The textbook definition is ‘pleasing or attractive in a dainty, delicate, or graceful way’. But the idea of prettiness becomes more subjective when it is applied to humans. Conventional attractiveness has been, historically, rooted around Eurocentric ideologies. Fair skin, long hair, slim waist, small nose, high cheekbones - you already have a picture in your mind, and I’m willing to bet good money that it’s a flattering one. Any features that deviate from these norms are usually shunned.
But the arrival of the internet has marked a clear shift in our beauty standards. Suddenly, tokens of POC culture have been co-opted by white and european communities, and they are rewarded for the very same behaviour others are punished for. ‘Fox eye’ eyeliner to the recent ‘clean girl aesthetic’ is an example of this. It is almost comical to see the hypocrisy at play.
Though I grew up in India, I felt the weight of these standards - All the media I consumed seemed to surround me with people I knew I could never be. In a way, the media you consume holds up a mirror to the life you live, and it is strange to never see your reflection.
Pretty privilege, simply put, is the idea that the more attractive you are, the easier your life gets, the more you’re allowed to do. Suddenly your outlandish interests - that could have been ridiculed - become endearing, like character quirks. There’s been many studies done that explore how much of a role attractiveness plays in interpersonal relationships. There are some that theorise that pretty privilege goes hand in hand with The Halo Effect (no, this is not the video game).
The Halo Effect is a type of cognitive bias in which our judgement of a person is positively influenced by one of their characteristics - in this case, physical appearance. Think about all the Disney Princesses and what they had in common (aside from their lack of autonomy) - the beauty standards they upheld. Contrast this to the villains in those very same films - they too have common physical traits. Annie Edison from Community (one of my favourite shows) is a perfect example of subverting these ideas - that pretty means pious, pliable, perfect.
We tend to assign morality to physical appearance, and are more likely to be more empathetic towards objectively attractive people. And people that put effort into their appearances need not simply be superficial; because after a point it is less about vanity and more about self-preservation. The Halo Effect can shape our thoughts on intelligence, competence and behaviour too. It’s something I witnessed growing up as well - but never in first person. It was always my best friend that had love letters delivered to her at lunch, my cousin sister that got discounts at every restaurant we went to. I never understood it, but I stood there, watching from the sidelines.
When I was only knee-high, I would fantasise about being liked by everyone around me a little bit more, simply because I was nice to look at. Like the main character in every 2000s teen rom-com that gets a stark makeover and looks (and feels) like a new person. I want to tell her, my past self that is, that I found a way to achieve those picture-perfect moments; through cheap eyeliner and overpriced clothes; hair straighteners and the wonders of mascara. I wonder if she would recognise me. I am on the other side of the spectrum now, being rewarded for my appearance, and it is something I’m still getting used to.
Pretty privilege is hard to unlearn. The whole idea of there being a clear-cut definition of what beauty has to mean, is archaic. But these values are so entrenched in our cultures, in our media, in our make-up advertisements posing as empowerment, that they are nearly impossible to escape. But I have faith that with enough awareness, we can rid these angels of their halos, and see each other for what we truly are.
Same hearts pumping tirelessly, same blood flowing through our veins: We’re all human.
- AIMAN SHAH
You’ve convinced yourself these past thirty-something years
Thinking that the blood jumping in your veins is royal
And that this is the only thing that makes everything else you do okay
Because you’re special somehow,
Maybe even rare.
But now, raising your kid in the same backyard where your parents once raised you,
Teaching her to spell the same things that you once spelled,
You’re getting scared.
Because what if your child continues on believing that?
What if she deludes herself the way you do?
And it’s so scary for you to think that children can grow up
The way the hands that clap for them do,
Cold and utterly hard enough to hold.
So full of life but dead enough to tell you
When you’re old.
But maybe that is what it takes
For all of us to grow.
WISHING THROUGH THE NIGHT
- CARINA SOLIS
i’ve fallen in love with the bones
poking through your ribcage;
and your back, the way
your scars unravel you
like a secret;
and your shoulders
weighted with the sky,
how they slope
from darkness to dawn.
an airplane swoons
into the left chamber
of my peeling heart;
below, a boy walks
in a song of lanterns.
i watch him
gleam in the glow
and then, melt away.
the night is almost
gone now; i
count my wishes.