Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Wednesday, Mar 4, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
Blues singer Shemekia Copeland has opened for the Rolling Stones and played festivals around the world, including a headlining spot at the Chicago Blues Festival. Her new album Never Going Back released via Telarc Records on February 24th.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
A book called A New Awakening by Eckhart Tolle.


2. The fictional character most like you?
I’m a character myself.


3. The greatest album, ever?
There’s 50 great albums . I listen to something one day and it’s the greatest I ever heard. Then the next day I hear something different I love just as much.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
The Twilight Zone.


5. Your ideal brain food?
Emotionally touching events which these days could be just about everything.


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Wednesday, Mar 4, 2009

As you probably already know, SNL alum Jimmy Fallon made his debut Monday night as a late-night talk show host in an attempt to fill departed comic royalty Conan O’Brien’s (figuratively and literally) enormous shoes. The poor dear was clearly dysfunctionally nervous, as evidenced by (figuratively) robotic delivery of the opening monologue and asking his guests (literally) point-blank to do impressions without any semblance of a contextual setup. (Yes, Conan and the random-ass non sequitur were the dearest of friends, but that’s not what was going on in this case.)


Let’s focus instead, then, on the introduction of hip-hop dynamos the Roots to the bandstand in the Max Weinberg Seven role, a bizarre career move which initially left me wondering if instrumental prowess was once again on the way out in hip-hop. No, Weezy’s guitar fetish doesn’t count.


The good news: they nailed it right off the bat, and the opening sequence clearly raised the bar on Conan’s. An apparently-late-for-work Fallon scrambled through the streets of New York trying to outrun a deliciously filthy funk-rock guitar riff that culminated in synchronized yelps from the band members and a wiggle of ?uestlove’s wig. That’s the kind of late night I wanna have; sorry, Pender.


The bad news: Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter still has to sell me on his importance in this context. Granted, he wasn’t half bad as a comic foil, singing Fallon’s Slow-Jam The News bit to a remarkable, er, climax—specifically, with the line “she added an amendment.” (One hopes the genre will change each night, but I guess we have to wait a few more hours to find out.)  But despite his front-and-center role with the band for the past 15 years, the fact remains that they’re doing transitional music and intro/outros now—they reportedly worked up 200 microcompositions in preparation for the debut. Unfortunately, a seven second canvas doesn’t give Tariq enough time to drop any coherent grammar, let alone the usual profound lyrical insights. Vicki Randle from the Tonight Show Band might sing Leno out frequently enough, but when guitarist Kevin Eubanks takes the spotlight—that is, most of the time—she plays percussion instead. Black Thought, on the other hand, just stands there looking slick. Can we at least get him some castanets?


Of course, I’m down with any excuse to hear these guys play Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” (or, as I knew it for years, “Regulate”), and although Fallon still needs to defrost a bit, he does deserve a little more time to ease into the role even if his band outpaces him from the get-go. It’s going to be hard to switch back and forth with Craig Ferguson and still catch Late Night’s ad bumpers, but I’m going to give it a shot.


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Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009

I was 31 before the lyrics to the 1987 chart-topper Pleasure Principle meant anything to me. When the song debuted, I was already a staunch Janet Jackson fan. I was the first in my seventh grade class to be able to do Janet’s famous head-bop from the song’s video- moving her neck left and right, framing her head with her right hand under the chin then the profile. Janet wore plain black pants and a T-shirt, and full kneepads for the shoot. There is even a website dedicated to the cryptic markings on JJ’s tee, and calls this clip “a perfect blend of music and motion designed to ensnare its target in a very specific way.” Alone, she danced on an equally stripped down set to showcase the most baadasssss moves since, well, her brother.  In stark contrast to the highly ornate, narrative big-budget videos that would characterize successive albums and especially the Rhythm Nation 1814 Film, Pleasure Principle- the sixth single off her 1986 album Control- was all about the dance.


Janet’s success followed her elder brother’s chart-dominating, pop precedent-setting albums Off the Wall and Thriller by only few years. Moreover, when her turn came, she took over the scene just as quickly as Michael had done as a solo artist. Stretching decades from 1982’s Thriller, every kid in any dance school around the country learned sequences from Joe and Elizabeth Jackson’s kids. By the end of 1987, even drag queens abandoned dresses for tights and jeans in order to do Janet’s now infamous run, jump, balance and leap, landing from a chair.


Janet was neither the queen nor the princess, and certainly not a dominatrix of pop music (read Madonna’s Erotica, circa 1990). By the mid- to late ‘80s, grounded in Paula Abdul’s choreography, Janet had moved beyond trendsetter to ‘norm establisher’ in popular culture; she was in control. Little Ms. Penny from Goodtimes was more than just a starlet shaking her tits-n-ass for some coins. Nevertheless, she would play that card years later at the Superbowl, absorbing all the oxygen from the short list of other high profile celebrities set to perform that day in the Superdome. As comedienne Sommore says, “does anyone even remember who sang the national anthem that year?” Rather, Ms. Jackson (‘cause I’m nasty) genuinely remains true to her heritage as entertainers- a virtual clan of griots.


The Best things in Life are Free


One of my mother’s best friends took me to see the Rhythm Nation 1814 Tour, and it was all that! Naturally, I had purchased the cassette months earlier, and had memorized every word to every song, including the B-side non-hits, and knew the moves from those classic videos. I could croon every twist and turn of Janet’s Soul ballads like Someday is Tonight, which, upon a close listen, tone for tone approximates the heart wrenching melismatic orgasm of her brother’s Lady in My Life. At that tender pre-pubescent age, my vocal range could match that of any Jackson’s. Rhythm Nation 1814’s rich album notes included lyrics to every song, which is of great importance when confronting head-on topics that the news chooses to ignore like racism, sexism, war, oppression and the legacy we bequeath to our youth. In State of the World, Janet wrote/performed:


To feed the baby before he starts to cry/No rest, no time to play/15, the mother is a runaway/No time for dreams or goals/Pressure is so strong/Her body she has sold so her child can eat/What is happening to this world we live in/In our home and other lands


Of the myriad of pop artists that talk about sex, few regard the topic from this, frank and not so uncommon perspective. Many artists simply will never go there.


That rock on your finger’s like a tumor


Janet so neatly does Black music, infusing the old with the new into a finely crafted message of active contemplation and hope for the future. I always appreciate when artists come clean about their influences and tastes; as a people we pay so little attention to our history. Michael Jackson regularly thanked James Brown, publicly testifying to copying his moves while watching him as a child entertainer.


As a budding young dancer, I scoured through every available resource to learn about big band leader Cab Calloway and acrobatic dancers The Nicholas Brothers- all truly wicked entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance who made cameo appearances in Janet’s video Alright. The popularized remix of this hit paired Janet with Heavy D, fashioning the R&B/Hip-Hop duo that others still follow. One only need witness LL Cool J and Total, Ja Rule and J-Lo, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Mariah and well, just about every other thug. Control paved the way for New Jack Swing, of which Mary J. Blige would later become its queen.


It was Control that would lay the foundation for all danceable pop music to follow. Beyond just stealing and sampling funk and disco beats, Janet’s lyrics and image covered much, much more than fanatical love and hardcore sex. Janet’s next project, Rhythm Nation 1814, was an action-packed album that not only gives ample treatise to social ills, but also incorporates entertainers that influenced Janet, on top of contemporary dope beats. Most certainly, this left little room to brag about wealth, though I suppose growing up at 2300 Jackson Street, one grows accustomed to such riches.


Like Beyoncé, Janet can pay her own fare, “It’s not the first time I’ve paid the fare,” she says, “Thank you for the ride.” She’s an Independent Woman. Yet, unlike savoring the ability to ‘buy your own’, eschewing, as she says in Pleasure Principle, “part-time bliss” for “happiness,” Janet asserts: “I’m not here to feed your insecurities. I wanted you to love me … My meter’s running I’ve really have to go!” She is interested in more than just goods. Despite the Jackson trail-blazers, so much of today’s pop encourages independent women and girls to leave love aside, opting for a cheap, material upgrades, or be Bossy, turning the tables and becoming somebody’s Suga Mamma. Today’s divas simply wallow in their own insecurities, victims of the perpetual lust for pleasure in material bliss.


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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
Tim McIlrath of Rise Against answers our 20 Questions before heading out on the road with Rancid later this year (tour dates below).

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Turtles Can Fly. That’s a sad fucking movie.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Tyler Durden from Fight Club.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Fugazi’s 13 Songs. Nobody has ever done anything like this record, or like this band.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars, I mean, have you seen Trekkies?


5. Your ideal brain food?
A good book in a small mom and pop cafe sipping on a hot chocolate…


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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
A look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.


In 1972, two days before starting the Ziggy Stardust tour, David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars stopped by the Old Grey Whistle Test to tape what would become a historic performance. When it was broadcast on February 8, 1972, no one had ever seen or heard anything like him. With his androgynous look and lyrics like “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that”, Bowie really was an alien as far as the British public was concerned. Kids in 1972 though, were starving for something unique and exciting and this legendary performance of “Five Years” is both of those things.


Magazine’s appearance on Whistle Test is nothing short of spectacular. Starting with a drum beat and bass hook that quickly gets enveloped in a mess of synthesizer noise, the song suddenly explodes with soaring guitar and keyboards. It’s somehow both dark and upbeat, angry and happy, pop and avant garde. Music that doesn’t tell you how to feel but rather lets the listeners make their own interpretation. Post-punk at it’s best.


The first thing that struck me when I first saw King Crimson’s 1982 performance of “Frame By Frame” was how much singer Adrian Belew sounded like Chris Cornell. Or rather how much Cornell sounds like Belew. The second thing I noticed was Robert Fripp’s guitar playing blowing my mind. Bassist Tony Levin, looking like Doctor Mindbender, plays an incredible instrument called the Chapmin Stick. Besides Cornell, you can hear where Thom Yorke, Tool, Primus, and countless other bands drew inspiration from.


Perhaps my favorite Whistle Test performance I’ve seen is Orange Juice doing “Rip It Up” in 1982. Edwyn Collins seems so full of nervous energy and youthful exuberance. The band sounds great and this song is a classic, somehow mixing motown, punk, ska and soul with Collins quoting the Buzzcocks and immediately acknowledging “my favorite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’”. Towards the end he’s bouncing around so much his guitar falls off. He simply puts it down and continues dancing.



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