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

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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009
Watching A Place to Bury Strangers play in Los Angeles, thinking about Lou Reed and the proper way to hold a funeral for twee.

You know when you get so tense and anxiety-ridden that all the nerves at the back of your neck snarl up into one burning ball? Well, if that gland could make music, it would sound like this album.
—Lester Bangs, from “Monolith or Monotone? Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music


It took me a while, but finally, after dipping my toes in the water by attending a mash-up party, I gathered the courage to go to a rock show. I have been semi-avoiding rock shows literally for years, and the blame falls primarily on an indie rock group called Mates of State. If you don’t know them, they’re a married twosome who make pretty songs using keyboard instruments and slightly off-key harmonized singing. They are so incredibly twee that they sound like the hired band at a leprechaun wake. I saw them at the Coachella Music Festival, which happens every year in a scorched earth corner of California, and before a huge assembled audience they were singing in their jaunty, charmingly tuneless way, dressed like clerks in a yarn store.


The set generated good buzz for them, at least among the people I know, but for me it epitomized a senseless optimism grounded in what we might call the music of being yourself. It’s about sounding awkward, dressing down for your shows, and then building songs out of small tribulations and the irrepressible, myopic hope that today will be even better than yesterday. It’s the furthest a performer can run from performance art without actually hopping off the stage. It’s the sung version of being over at their house for a cup of tea, bantering about the day’s gossip.


But you are not at their house, of course: that is a fairly expensive illusion you pay for, and the casualness of the performance belies the fact that the wall between audience and performer stays as high as ever. Arguably, in fact, the wall is even higher because they’re so offhanded, like it’s some kind of weird luck that they’re up there performing everyday life, and now that they are, casual everydayness has been stolen from you, and you have to pour your adulation on them in order to vicariously get it back.


Worst of all, in the midst of all this brightness, something is terribly wrong. It’s like the moment right at the beginning of Mulholland Drive, where the kindly old people stare and wave for just a second too long at eager young Naomi Watts. Call it what you will: guilt over the war, anxiety over the economy, the whole repressed mass of social ills and personal disasters that just can’t be sung away so easily. The same evenings spent hanging out and worrying about running into an ex-lover. The same suburbs you grew up in, or the Manhattan apartment that is so small you have to walk sideways past the mattress. The job that means doing tons of unpaid overtime. It’s the little things and the big, universal crises, both: the two feed into each other. Let a city—hell, a whole country—segregated by income build up enough places you shouldn’t go, or wouldn’t go, or can’t afford, and what’s left will turn into dreary sameness.


Out of all this comes the music of that imaginary gland Bangs invented, the burning ball of muscles, nerves and stress. You can hear that sound a little bit on the album by A Place to Bury Strangers. On each song the band creates harsh, sinewy distortion, propped up with great old industrial bass and Cure guitars, and sounding distantly like the Jesus and Mary Chain. This everyone knows, but not enough is said about how incomplete the JAMC project really was. On their earliest albums, they gift-wrapped most of their songs in noise, having already built complete (if wickedly cynical) pop tunes. The two things don’t quite integrate, except on the occasional miracle, such as “Just Like Honey”. Later on they wrote other songs that did meld sounds and tunes together perfectly, but the purity of the noise was gone: “Head On” isn’t going to make your ears bleed. Instead it’s a very poppy, measured take on hard rock.


The album that actually was terribly, completely, endlessly noisy was Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, from all the way back in the mid-seventies. It was as grand a statement as Reed was capable of making. Using a bunch of synthesizers set to warble, stutter, choke and sputter out, he layered one computerized feedback squall on top of another until he had just over an hour of “music,” all of which sounds like the triumphant ending to a blistering, uncompromising rock song, or like the sharp peal of sound when a hand-adjusted radio goes from station to station. Reed left, like some coded message to all future musicians, this furious electrical storm wherein culture empties itself into one great ocean of noise. His own elliptical way of putting this was to imagine that the head of RCA’s “Read Seal” classical label had become obsessed with Metal Machine Music and had praised him for quoting Vivaldi and Bach and Beethoven’s 3rd and 6th symphonies. None of that is actually true, but as far as lies go, the Beethoven is particularly significant because those are the “Eroica” and “Pastoral” symphonies, and that’s what Reed wanted to create. He wanted to be the heroic author of a sound wherein the most primal modern desire, that of a pastoral return to brotherhood and sisterhood, was finally articulated and satisfied.


That’s what the album means. The echo chamber of culture, folded back on itself until it is pure “feedback”, is also the scream buried in the desperate relation between performer and audience, both of whom are trying to escape, through art, from the madness of their real existence. So all this real, necessary hope gets multiplied into an uncountable number of records, and movies, and books, and paintings—Mates of State and the rest included—until the individual grain of each work disappears into the simplicity of that desire to be somewhere else, to be something else. But Reed lacked the ability to put his vision into a single moment, so it stretches over an hour like a bad joke.


A Place to Bury Strangers discovered that moment last Saturday night. The concert was designed as a terrific and increasingly intense alternation between recognizable melody and drenching noise. The album sides definitively with pop: for the romantic ballad “Don’t Think Lover”, the band actually brought up some vocalist who otherwise didn’t perform, and he crooned it like a young Dave Gahan still working hard on being the loverman. It felt nice but too soft, even with the sarcastic refrain “Love lasts forever”. The bridge piece to where the concert ended up is also the best song on the album lyrically, the single “To Fix the Gash in Your Head”. Above the instrumental roar, you could just make out Oliver Ackermann singing


I’ll just wait till you turn around
And kick your face in—
To fix the gash in your head
To fix the gash in your head


It reminded me of a very honest song from the other camp, the Regressive Utopians Who Like The Beach Boys, called “The Gash”:


Is that gash in your leg
Really why you have stopped?
Because I’ve noticed, all the others
Though they’re gashed, they’re still going
Because I feel like the real reason
That you’re quitting and admitting that
You’ve lost all the will to battle on
Will the fight for sanity be the fight of our lives?
Now that we’ve lost all the reasons
That we thought that we had


Wayne Coyne sees a friend who’s stopped fighting, who is slowly bleeding to death along with everyone else, and all he can do is scold him or her for being a quitter. Other people have it just as bad, friend; when the current of love is running this shallow, no wonder “Utopia” has be mere sleight-of-hand, getting the audience to sing along to a kid’s book wherein brave Yoshimi battles the pink robots.


Ackermann, on the other hand, explicitly acknowledges the sadism of what he’s doing. He’s going to wait until you stop battling your way forward, until you turn around to see how your fellows are getting on, and then he’s going to kick your face in. In that moment you realize that he’s also doing this to himself, that he is also the subject of this willingness to push the noise too far, to drown in it, to deny absolutely nothing of the horror in order to fix, not ignore, the gash in your head. After that song things reached the point where you knew, from hearing the album and following the general outlines of the melody, what words he must be singing, but they were buried so low in the mix that they became indistinguishable. Finally, on “Ocean”, they brought out some fancy guitars in order to play the complex verse melody, and they did, everything starting out clean and beautiful.


Then, by fiddling with some of his homemade Death by Audio machines, Ackermann summoned the wall of sound, and it kept growing and surging until the bass player stopped playing, then the drummer, and then Ackermann, and finally the sound was going by itself, but Ackermann couldn’t let go of the guitar. He bent low to the ground, whirling the instrument around, watching the cord snake and twist, lost in wonder. He played with it like a kid will with a flame, as though he was poking at the spark that started a bonfire. With nobody manning the machines, what was keeping the sound going, exploding out of the big Marshall stacks until everything else was silent? No longer one person, particularly not Ackermann, now almost ridiculously hunchbacked over his guitar with his Costco boxers showing, moving to an unheard rhythm. The momentum came from everyone in that room, standing on tiptoe, together in an agony of hope.


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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009

The great Smokey Robinson joins Elvis Costello for the final episode of the first season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, airing tonight at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel. Costello, wowed by the Motown singer-songwriter’s presence, remarks that if Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Groucho Marx all walked onto the stage, he wouldn’t be more thrilled. For his part, Robinson doesn’t disappoint. He holds court with great stories about meeting Berry Gordy for the first time, writing and recording songs for the original Motown roster, and watching on, dumbfounded, as Ray Charles wrote spontaneous arrangements for “Bad Girl” during his first performance at the Apollo Theater. In fact, Robinson keeps Costello silent for extended periods of time, which, if you’ve been watching this series from the beginning, ain’t no easy task.


Speaking of the Apollo Theater, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the entire season of Spectacle has been filmed at the legendary Harlem venue—the very place where, as Robinson notes, Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur singing competition as a teenager. Having Robinson as a guest on Spectacle, in a room that has historic significance for 20th century American R&B, is especially notable; his presence and desire to bring the conversation back to where they’re sitting makes the Apollo a more integral piece of the program.


There are performances here, as usual: Costello and his band play a few off-beat Robinson compositions, like “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, while Robinson sings a snippet of “The Tracks of My Tears” and duets with Costello on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”. But it’s the conversation here that really turns up the heat. The two get talking about love as the championing emotion in Robinson’s body of work, and Robinson, noting that the greatest hate is created by equally devout love, gets into an impassioned discussion about how prejudice is the most “absurd” of human emotions. It’s hard to watch this exchange, Robinson staring intensely into Costello’s eyes while Costello silently takes it all in, and not think about Costello’s infamous 1979 near-career-ending incident at a Holiday Inn in Ohio. I don’t mean to suggest that Robinson is confronting Costello here, nor do I think that Costello needs to be confronted, but the combined history of the venue with personal histories makes for some fascinating subtext.


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Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009
The Hold Steady frontman illuminates the importance of this '80s MOR Midwestern hardcore band.

When I first head Secretly Canadian’s re-release of the second Zero Boys album, History Of I was not blown away.  I thought it was OK, but I’m no ‘80s hardcore completist, and for me it sounded like a mix of early Black Flag, DOA, and a less playful Descendents. That’s the problem with ‘80s hardcore and punk releases; a lot of the time they don’t stand up musically to the more popular bands of the time. 


For every Minor Threat there were a thousand lesser hardcore groups that have been forgotten, and for most of them it’s probably best that they’re not remembered. Though there’s the mind frame with record collectors and DIY historians that the forgotten are the most important, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is most important, but as historical artifacts there’s a lot to learn from these forgotten bands.


Craig Finn of the Hold Steady illustrates this point amazingly well in his article for the Guardian—where he talks about the importance that the Zero Boys held for him as a Midwestern hardcore fan in the ‘80s.


Taken from newsday.com

Taken from newsday.com


Finn really paints a picture of what it’s like to be an ‘80s Midwestern punk fan, and all the excitement that went along with the burgeoning hardcore scene.  Finn also clearly illustrates the necessary progression of punk fans and how it’s inevitably detrimental to the scene.


After reading Finn’s article, one can understand the cultural importance of the forgotten, even if it seems they’re a copy of the more popular bands of the time. Not to say Zero Boys fall into this category—they’re competent at what they do and the lyrics and intensity really shine a light on ‘80s Midwestern malaise. Though they’re not the best hardcore band of the time, they stand out as Midwestern trailblazers and Finn’s article will make you understand their importance. This article is a must read for all hardcore/punk fans, all that were raised in the middle of nowhere, all the punk fans that grew up and got disillusioned, and everyone that considered punk rock the only music as a teen but felt alienated by it as a young adult.


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Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009
In Grant park on the night of America’s victory in November 2008, Barack opened with: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America." It is my sincere hope that readers don’t miss that. Barack has a deep and personal understanding of this unique and complex American history. A cool, smooth, blues man has come to lead the nation.

Otis Redding, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, the O’Jays, the more contemporary Maxwell and Eric Benet, or even Michael Jackson—the black one, not the white one, you know, the little Black boy from the Gary ghetto. Or, imagine President Barack Obama as Bill Withers, alone on a broad stage, or leading a carefully orchestrated band, slapping a guitar, crooning about “Grandma’s hands”. This kind of leadership rarely leads to crusades. Can you see Keith Sweat begging on bended knees, his falsetto prostrating himself, drowned in his willingness to show his vulnerability and therefore his strength?


By sharing his iPod playlists, by breaking it down on Ellen the way he did, grooving but holding back to match the host and let her shine, all makes clear to those sensitized, that he is the (first) blues president. If Bill Clinton, with his jazz sax on late night talk shows was the jazz president, then Clinton was Kenny G or Herb Alpert—awesome, but something wholly different than the blues. So What, one might ask? The difference is that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, even Duke Ellington and especially Louis Armstrong, all had the blues. They refused defeat that taints the souls of the assimilated into believing the hype. They perceived a world ridden with conflict and injustice, filthy with the greed, anger and stupidity of riot, war and hunger. Yet, they were fierce enough to look and create beauty.


Can’t you imagine one or both of the Obamas in the shower singing “People don’t let money / Don’t let money change you—almighty dollar” into a loufah in the shower? Or Barack with foam on face and razor in had in front of the bathroom mirror shouting along with Nina: “They keep on sayin’ ‘Too SLOW!’ But that’s just the trouble, too slow!” Or Barack doing the shackles-on-my-feet dance, sliding back and forth across the floor, bending his arms next to his waist, snapping his fingers, raising his shoulders with his lips puckered out, “I don’t care about your past, I just our love to last!” With the way the first couple kisses and embraces, you know that Barry White and Luther Vandross are not far away in spirit.


The blues, describes Cornel West, is “a philosophical disposition towards the world… a tragic comic hope, a way of looking unflinchingly at despair and still enduring!” I cannot speak for masses of whites. However, without fail, African-Americans I have spoken to see Obama’s swagger when he walks into the room. That brother is as smooth as Guinness stout under the sweet Southern delta sun. Smooth, we add, is wholly different from slick. George Bush was as slick as Elvis Presley’s imitative lyrics and beats. Naturally, Elvis has left the building.


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Monday, Feb 23, 2009

During an odd afternoon as a part time DJ at a community college radio station which I finally heard what a strained, angry woman sounds like.  The radio station received its measly weekly mailings from our distributor and near the bottom of the small box was a copy of P.J. Harvey’s first album Dry. The disengaging cover grabbed my attention first: the smear of red lipstick across the bottom of a nose to the top of the chin. A vertical line, cutting through P.J.’s sneer. Sure, I had heard Pattie Smith and was a closet Pretender fan. I dug Sinead and thought other women rock stars were cool, but this was different. The inset informed us that this was the brightest sound of rock (NOTE: not women’s rock) coming from Britain in years. The insert also commanded us to play the new single “Sheela Na Gig” and check out her video on MTV’s “120 Minutes” in the coming weeks.


In pure community college fashion, I took the ad’s advice and cued “Sheela Na Gig”; without a preview; just a quick “What the hell?!” The quick light of the initial guitar riff and this rhythmic, hardened guitar and then:


I’ve been trying to show you over and over
    Look at these my child-bearing hips
    Look at these my ruby red ruby lips
    Look at these my work strong arms and
    You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm
    I lay it all at your feet
    You turn around and say back to me
    He said
    Sheela-na-gig, sheela-na-gig


After playing the song, quickly pawning the CD into my school bag and “borrowing” it for the night, I found a woman who screamed from a level of womanhood that only a few ever tried, but were, at best, given the “exhibitionist” label and quickly dismissed. P.J. Harvey demanded our utmost respect; not because she’s a woman, but because she sang and played on Dry at a level that very few at the beginning of the ‘90s even challenged. Only 22 at the release of the album, PJ challenged her listener at every turn of the record. The simplicity of PJ’s guitar riffs, basic rhythmic section, and mixed with Harvey’s voice created an album that I consider possibly the best album of the early 1990s.



Dry is an album that is unapologetic to the pains of prior generations of women. Dry is an up front accusation of men and women who propagate and survive because of a Patriarchy that Harvey deals with richly developed bombastic accusations that challenge not only men, but the women who gain from playing in the system. By the time the final track “Water” buzzes through the speakers, we’ve been indoctrinated into a world that very few artists have ever been successful at describing and criticizing. P.J. Harvey is a magnificent songwriter that borrows from the greats, but all the while creating a sound that has influenced all sorts of albums. Let’s face it Radiohead fans, Thom Yorke needed P.J. to be great and when you hear the desperation of Dry I believe you hear the sighs and moans and screams that are constant reminders that so much is borrowed from this woman’s musical career. Ironically, P.J. is the loudest and sharpest woman voice of her generation, but she never had to bust out a chorus of “Closer to Fine” on “Lilith Fair” for her credibility to ring as hard and determined as any in rock.


Dry begins with a sinister blend of bass riff and P.J.’s pleading line “O My Lover/Don’t you know it’s alright/You can love her/You can love me at the same time?” At once Harvey takes full command of the relationship she will have with her listener and her lover. A pardon for listening or loving anything beforehand because, quite frankly, it’s okay; all the while the collected session musicians plays a devilish and desperate number in the background. “Oh My Lover” introduces the listener to a world hell bent to avoid the apology and desperate for you to understand that P.J. Harvey is in complete control. By the time track 2 “O Stella” finishes, a tightly packaged band is in full form and P.J. Harvey has mastered a vocal range that demonstrates the raw power she will use as a foundation for her early career.


Highlights on Dry are endless and, quite frankly, there isn’t a weak track on the entire album. However, what P.J. will be known for in her career is her flexibility as a songwriter. P.J. demonstrates this in four numbers track 5 “Happy & Bleeding”, Plants & Rags”, “Fountain”, and the final track “Water”. The starkness of Harvey’s efforts are on display in these four tracks. However, a nod must be made to the track “Plants & Rags”; a mashing of Harvey’s acoustic guitar with the layered textures of string patterns that sound like a precursor to Billy Corgin’s future work with The Smashing Pumpkins; “Plants & Rags” shows a thoughtful and playful songwriter. If P.J. stuck to the hard edges of “Oh My Lover” and “Sheela Na Gig” there is little doubt that she would have succumbed to the death of many woman songwriters who play loud bombastic rock. Truth is, when P.J. appeared for the first time she was immediately paired with that songstress Liz Phair, but it’s the flexibility of Harvey’s work that separates her from the pack of ordinary rockers.


The last two tracks on Dry “Fountain” and “Water” play off the Feminist messages Harvey delivers with expertise, but it’s with playfulness that she calls upon the biblical allusions of “Hand in hand/He’s my big man/ Stays with me/ Some forty days/ No words/ Then goes away/ I cry again.” However, P.J.’s final shot is across the bow of manhood. She challenges the adventurous, hubris men of Christ and Icarus with the notion that these characters toy with a woman’s emotional stability, in this case Mary, with pleads that will eventually drawn her in water. When P.J. challenges her man to “Prove it to me”, she calls out from that same voice that led her listener off the album’s cliff; I can hear this as P.J.’s final strike. “Water” finishes with her request of Mary to hold on tight because P.J. isn’t a sucker; she’s walking on water.


Now the water to my ankles
    Now the water to my knees
    Think of him all waxy wings
    Melted down into the sea
    Mary Mary what your man said
    Washing it all over my head
    Mary Mary hold on tightly
    Over water
    Under the sea
    Water
    Water
    I’m walking
    Walking on
    Water


P.J. Harvey calls upon her past to challenge their position in history and not to be satisfied with the bit parts in the script. Dry functions on these ironic placements. From the ironic conception of the cover and the misplaced lipstick to the lyrical and musical output within, the album excels on a level few have reached. It is with this irony that P.J. Harvey’s Dry is successful and will live on as a great masterpiece in rock and roll history. The great thing is that this was the beginning of a career leading Harvey to great musical experiments. What was promised on an album like Dry has been furthered throughout P.J. Harvey’s career.


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