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

 
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Tuesday, Nov 24, 2009
The first in a 14-part series analyzing and showcasing the entirety of Green Day's 1994 pop-punk masterpiece Dookie.
dookie


All the recent name-checking of classic albums from 1994 on this blog got me thinking: wow, wasn’t that a great year for rock music?  Thinking about the Sound Affects posts on Blur and “Soundgarden” as I chowed down at a fast food joint, I instinctively rattled album titles off the top of my head: Definitely Maybe, The Downward Spiral, MTV Unplugged in New York, Vitalogy, and so on. After several titles ran through my brain, I couldn’t help but think I’d missed something blindingly obvious.


And then I remembered: well, of course Green Day’s Dookie was the best rock album of 1994.


Fifteen years ago, scores of critics admitted that yes, this 14-track album full of speedy pop punk tunes about panic attacks, boredom, and masturbation was quite catchy, but no one would’ve held it against them if they doubted that Dookie would have had staying power. It’s too unassuming, too fidgety, and too juvenile to fit the standard mold of a “Classic Rock Album”. But then again, rock started simply as good-time music for teenagers to lose themselves in, not to incite pop culture critics to stroke their beards in contemplation. Dookie was such a massive success (with ten million copies shipped in the United States alone since its release) because not only was it an unpretentious, remarkably consistent hit package with tons of great hooks, it was also fun as hell.


Which is not to sell Dookie short as an artistic achievement. In addition to being the Californian punk trio’s best album, it may also be its most culturally relevant. Sure, American Idiot (2004) captured the zeitgeist of discontent and uncertainty of those who felt weighed down by the Bush Jr. era and conveyed that sentiment through all the rock opera trappings listeners love to dissect for years on end, but Green Day’s major label debut is more universal and far more profound. It’s a record that speaks of the frustrations, anxieties, and apathy of young people (be they Generations X or Y) with an artistry and empathy few would have credited Green Day with possessing before it yielded its “Big Important Album” with American Idiot. At its core, Dookie is an album about coming to terms with one’s self and one’s failings in a manner that is not often triumphant or celebratory, but is nonetheless reaffirming to the underachievers of the world. Dookie is an album that says “Yeah, I’m a fuck-up” in a way that millions of people wish they could express themselves in, and that’s why it’s so great.


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Monday, Nov 23, 2009

On the TV show Project Runway, hopeful designers are given challenges to make fabulous fashions on a shoestring budget. Their faces invariably crinkle in dismay when they find they’ve only got $150 and 24 hours to make a gown worthy of the red carpet. When the results are evaluated, one of the most coveted comments from the judges is that a piece “looks expensive” even though it was created with very little money. The ultimate compliment is when Heidi Klum says something like, “I could walk right out of here and wear that to a party tonight.”


Being an unsigned band is kind of like being a contestant on Project Runway. You might have more time to produce a CD, but not a whole lot more financial resources. Most of the time, the results are a bit rough-hewn, raggedy around the hem, with an exposed zipper or puckered fabric here and there. But every once in a while, a little nobody band manages to produce a CD so good, so cohesive, and so professional that it could sit right beside the cream of popular music, today, as is. San Diego’s own Transfer has submitted just such an album, Future Selves, and if enough people heard it, I have no doubt it could walk right out of here and go to a party with Kings of Leon, Weezer, Muse, and everyone else on Billboard’s rock charts for November 2009.


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Monday, Nov 23, 2009
Pandora's Kevin Seal takes over this week's column, and reveals a gem in sonic collage artist Dave Fischoff.

Dave Fischoff is a sonic successor to the painter Georges Seurat. He thinks in colors, paints in pixels and eyelash brushes, and connects millions of dots to create his gestalt. Fischoff’s 2006 masterpiece on Secretly Canadian Records, The Crawl, is his A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (or, for that matter, his take on Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”):  an epic landscape of skin, populated with a set of characters who are all reflections of the same hive-mind consciousness.


In Fischoff’s parallel reality, acid rain turns to gasoline, Cinderella becomes Ray Charles, Chicago snowstorms are merely tiny ripples in the ocean, and marriage is either a case of sour grapes or a brilliant vineyard waiting to bloom. In this evolutionary crawl, Adam and Eve are just another middle-class Ward and June, and all of the past negatives evolve into future hopes and dreams.


Fischoff has recently re-christened himself in Brooklyn as a DJ named Spoolwork, but in his past life, he worked at the Chicago Public Library, crate-digging thousands of LPs to find the micro-samples that would populate his pointillistic masterpiece. He built The Crawl entirely within Reason (a step-sequencing software tool), but you would never guess that within the first ten listens. Like all finely detailed paintings, this one requires multiple views. And like all great albums, the cover art is central and inexorably linked to the sound, courtesy of Emme Stone.


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Friday, Nov 20, 2009
Forget all about equality: this is one of the greatest productions of the 1980s.

I mentioned in my review for Nouvelle Vague’s 3 that I found the French pop group’s cover of the 1984 Depeche Mode single “Master and Servant” lacking. Now, I don’t really want to rag on Nouvelle Vague (I do like the group’s music), but there’s simply no way that anemic faux-blues version could ever stand up to the source material. The original “Master and Servant” features the members of Depeche Mode in their musical prime, partway between their awkward early teen idols years and on the road to fulfilling their destiny as gloomy stadium gods. It’s also a song that shouldn’t be toned down into some easy listening version. After all, this is a tune explicitly about BDSM, a topic the group addresses both lyrically and sonically with full gusto. It’s no wonder that when Depeche Mode was creating this record, its chief inspiration was “Relax”, the innuendo-laced smash hit by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.


Ah, “Relax”: quite possibly the greatest dance track of the 1980s. The result of the occasionally inconsiderate creative drive of producer Trevor Horn (who was so intent on crafting a megahit for his label ZTT he didn’t even let the band play its instruments on the record), it’s a dancefloor masterpiece built upon an urgent, pounding bassline in the key of E and hooks that hit the listener with the force of a cinderblock. Oh, and its suggestive delivery (not to mention its promo material, the record sleeve, the original music video...) contained more than a few winks to the subject of hardcore homosexual sex. Despite a belated BBC Radio ban due to its content, “Relax” became a trans-Atlantic blockbuster and an inescapable pop culture phenomenon, exemplified by those legendary “Frankie Say Relax” T-shirts. To this day few dance songs can match its sheer power. Obviously somebody had to try and top it at some point. Enter the boys from Basildon, England.


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Thursday, Nov 19, 2009

As a kid I listened to my favorite high-voiced divas croon and trill through lyrics of love and loss and recovery as if I had known that same experience. Not only could I match their range with my pre-pubescent voice, but there is certainly a quality of strength and simultaneously vulnerability in these high pitches, which also explains our love for the male falsetto, or even the castrato in the—circa 1650-1750—castration of boys to preserve that ‘classic’ boyhood soprano. Perhaps this high pitch also allows us to channel castration anxieties, as Freud might have said. Whatever the case, I certainly faced a world that threatened to castrate me, lest I act straight.


Through my family, I was exposed to Patti LaBelle whispering, hollering, then shouting and wailing on “You Are My Friend”. Yet, speaking directly to the video-mesmerized XY generation, as a kid of 11 years old when “All Cried Out” hit Billboard’s #8 position in October 1986, my heart was already all cried out. I listened to these divas shout about how they had invested all of themselves, yell about a betrayal of trust, and holler about the pain of abandonment, neatly pressing the beat and rhythm forward. Indeed, this unique mix of power and vulnerability is shown through the quality of Lisa Lisa’s voice, or even Full Force’s (not to leave Force MD’s out of a mention powerful voices) skirting across the butch and the femme.


This mirrored my process of coming to terms with my sexuality in a time and space were such things were not annunciated, let alone discussed, so I had learned to bury my feelings. This only intensified the anguish of middle school crushes lived out in teen mags, and through heartthrobs like Marvin Gaye, the Gap Band, New Edition, Prince, WHAM!, and those sweet DeBarge boys. Outside of the music, I was silent.


“There you are, holding her hand / I am lost / Dying to understand”, Mariah quailed, gently explaining a similar anguish I felt years later over loosing my first love. I was the first man he had loved, and he was my first love; once we split, he dated a mutual friend.  I did not know how to explain the layers of pain I felt, watching him walk around campus holding her hand. And there was no script for all this tenderness.


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