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

 
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Friday, Nov 13, 2009
The task at hand: as accurately and with as much integrity as possible, identify the six songs that best define rock and roll. Pretty simple, huh? Simple and impossible.

Back in 2006, I recall reading many intriguing reviews of Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music. It’s been on my Amazon wish list ever since, and writing about music as much as I do, I occasionally have friends ask me if I’ve read it, or tell me I should read it. The latest reminder came from a friend who wrote the following email to me and a few of our mutual (music loving) friends:


In his brilliant book… Levitin relates the tale of how an elderly colleague and he used to dine every Wednesday and discuss music. During one of these dinners the colleague, an octogenarian, confessed that he did not understand rock music, but wanted to be able to. He asked Levitin to choose six songs that would capture “all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Levitin chose the following songs:


“Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Roll Over Beethoven” (The Beatles), “All Along The Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “Wonderful Tonight” (Eric Clapton), “Little Red Corvette” (Prince), “Anarchy in the UK” (Sex Pistols).


What would you guys choose, and why?



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Thursday, Nov 12, 2009
After getting tackled by biker chicks and shying away from the "emo-pop" label, Owl City mastermind Adam Young is still adjusting to his newfound fame, but is taking it all in with a level-head and even more ideas for future nighttime synth-pop creations ...

All these years later, Adam Young still can’t sleep—and that just might be a good thing.


When the then-20-year-old Adam Young suffered from intense insomnia while living in his parents basement, he used his non-sleeping hours to carefully construct his own brand of Postal Service-indebted synth-pop, eventually self-releasing two albums under his Owl City moniker (2007’s Of June EP and 2008’s Maybe I’m Dreaming) to decent acclaim but somewhat marginal sales. When he put his music on MySpace, however, a following gradually began to grow around Young’s abstract, optimistic tales of love, his whimsical song “Hello Seattle” gaining particular notoriety. It wasn’t long before he got signed to Universal Republic, began collaborating with Relient K vocalist Theissen, and began forming an near endless litany of side-projects (with animal-friendly names like Swimming With Dolphins and Insect Airport).


Yet a funny thing happened following the release of Ocean Eyes, Young’s major-label debut. The quirky single “Fireflies” began picking up steam, first via MySpace, and then through the video outlets like MTV and VH1. Next thing you know, the 23-year-old Young has a chart-topping hit on his hands, is touring the nation with a full band, and is still selling hundreds of thousands of downloads every week, making him one of the brightest pop stars to emerge out of 2009. In short, these past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind for the dark-haired pop maestro, but—as is revealed in this short yet illuminating interview via e-mail—Young hasn’t let success go to his head at all. Being tackled by biker chicks, discovering Taco Bell, and still (still!) suffering from bouts of insomnia—these are just some of the moments that have colored Adam Young’s life this year. If his success is any indication so far, Owl City’s ride is just beginning ...


Tagged as: owl city
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Wednesday, Nov 11, 2009

Facebook is a hell of a thing. Not only can it end marriages and get people fired, it brings folks back into your life after years or even decades. Many of these people have oooold pictures of you, and many of these people also have scanners. You will get to relive outfits and hairdos. Oh sure, you remember these things being atrocious, but you don’t get the full impact of how alarming they truly were until someone digs up photographic evidence.


Every once in a while, some clever little archivist takes it to a whole new level of humiliation… with VIDEO. Video of you in your puffy shirt, ripped fishnets, crimped Manic Panic pink hair, and braces, doing That Dance, the dance we all did circa 1987 when a 12” extended remix of Tones on Tail came on at ‘da club. In our case, ‘da club was called Stratus, and you probably had your version of it where you grew up, so I will share the glory:


Unfortunately, I am not actually in these videos, but I hereby declare that I looked just as ridiculous, and in fact aspired to the calibre of ridiculousness of some of these girls, with whom I attended high school.


This trip down Memory Lane was all worth it, however, for reminding me of one of my favorite songs of the ‘80s: “Dance with Me” by Lords of the New Church. This band doesn’t get many pages (or even paragraphs) in the history books, even though it was a punk supergroup fronted by the legendary Stiv Bators and included Brian James of the Damned, Dave Tregunna of Sham 69, and Nicky Turner of the Barracudas. Dead Boys is Bators’ primary legacy, and rightfully so, but when I was 13, I didn’t know from the Dead Boys. All I knew was this wierd-looking dude in this bizarre video had me at “ritual fertility”. I heard real longing and desperation in that voice, and it spoke to me.

Twenty-four years later, the clothes and hair don’t hold up very well, but the song does—remarkably so. I think I’m going to go find me some Lords of the New Church CDs. And possibly a crimping iron.


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Monday, Nov 9, 2009
Mad love for Mariah Carey's artistry, exhibited through her "Fly Like a Bird" performance on American Idol.

Damn! Mariah is just all that. When watching Mariah perform “Fly Like a Bird” before this audience of idols, notice how much stronger her voice becomes once the choir comes out and pumps her up; she raises that hand up high, high, and higher, as if to say Amen! I love how Mariah doesn’t compete with her back-up singers, and can hold her own with that massive choir. Only Phil Spector has created a more comprehensive ‘wall of sound’, and yet this diva does it with her own musicality.


One should also note that Mariah not only hits those whistle tones, but also manages a lyric or two in that soaring tone. Divas like her need not state it, they just do it. The richness, of course, of Mariah’s voice is the range—her coloring of each note as she descends from high to low, a fluttering Mimi mimics with her fingers and open palm.


Watching Mariah perform is like a dyslexic’s wet dream: We see and hear in 3D, and Mariah is giving us mega-mega stimulation to all our senses. We can see the world she describes, while at the same time picture the lyrics written on the page, as she writes them and works with her pianist—Mariah notoriously cannot read the 2D representation of her music. At the same time, many dyslexics respond to the audio stimulation, how they, too, are rendered in 2D, but also sees the band, their fingers strumming or snapping, horns blowing, sticks striking, toes tapping, and symbols calling. One can even smell the sweetness of the flowers near the butterflies in all the imagery Mariah surrounds herself with, and feel the crispness of the air as the dove Mariah uses for her background in this performance soars, flying to the sky, praying only, that we know peace.


Will we recover
Will the world ever be
A place of peace and harmony
With no war and with
And no brutality
If we loved each other
We would find victory
But in this harsh reality
Sometimes I’m so despondent
That I feel the need to
Fly like a bird, take to the sky


Mariah imagines this world, and the music comes out. To many it sounds like sheer fantasy, since the presence of war, for the 2D seeing world, implies that war should be. The persistence of war convinces many that war is normal. Yet, the dyslexic who has honed in on their skill in seeing in 3D uses each and every sense to comprise this comprehensive vision of what is being presented, and therefore we can more easily see how things can also just be different. In popular culture, we can see 3D perception in The Matrix during that famous scene in the trilogy’s first installation where the actors are frozen in space, and the perspective shifts around—we find out later that several cameras and digital tricks produced these seamless images, but this is basically how many dyslexics perceive the world around them. We also witnessed this same skill in A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash, portrayed by Russell Crowe, can look at social situations and ‘see’ patterns. In the movie these patterns were cinematically drawn over the screen, but this is how people see in 3D.  The same was shown in X-Men: The Last Stand. The character Jean Grey’s alter ego Phoenix threatens Magneto with a gun that she takes apart, disassembling it into several pieces; the audience sees this in 3D, but this is how we normally see.


We also see 3D perception in the popular TV show Heroes, in which the character Sylar can take things apart and put them back together. He knows how things work. And that’s just it, dyslexics are often portrayed as mad. Only the astute dyslexic would have caught the reference to dyslexia in how Sylar’s nemesis, Peter Petrelli, was able to access that same ability through identifying with other people, but it is his father, Arthur Petrelli, who clarified that the skill was really based on empathy—knowing how people work by genuinely seeing another person’s perspective. Unlike all these fictional characters, we do not have to destroy others—like Sylar—in order to embrace their power. That’s 3D vision, for it is not just a way of seeing, but also a way of looking at things. In the real world, a famous dyslexic once penned:


Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace


Religion or not, it’s bossy how these talented people keep pressing for peace. It’s all that to just witness Mariah’s pleas, and uplifting to bear witness to her testimonial, and praise for living. In that way, it’s blues at its best. She doesn’t shy away from despondency, nor does she ail in calling out the war and inhumanity that others let slip by in our daily lives. She witnesses and testifies, and on that account she embraces her own strength and realigns that with her convictions. It’s just something real for a change, and it’s nice to share it in 3D.


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Monday, Nov 9, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats... this time, right in his own backyard.

On his 2008 DIY solo album Obligatory Get Down, San Francisco Bay Area songwriter/indie artist Luke Franks strums guitars, gets squirrelly with the synth bass, rhymes “faded or jaded” with “love it or hate it”, contemplates the Almighty, shows big love for his beloved East Bay Area, makes like Prince at 1:44 into the track “Then Than”, and closes by tearing down the “fourth wall” and spitting some spoken-word which directly addresses the listener, over a busy electro-fried beat.


It’s an interesting alternative glimpse of Franks, who for the last four years has been buzzing in the Bay Area and beyond not as a maverick beat-heavy bedroom DIY artist, but as the leader and golden-voiced singer-songwriter of the Federalists, an indie/alt.country/classic-rock flavored outfit. Since 2005, the Federalists has been a powerful showcase for Franks’ staggering song smarts and spellbinding vocal style, which manages to be both completely original and warmly familiar at the same time.


The group’s newest release, The Way We Ran (Talking House) is their first album released in association with a label, and their first release under their new, semiotically-charged moniker Luke Franks Or the Federalists, or LFOTF for short. The new name came about as a result of the inevitable growing pains the group experienced while transitioning into a national-scene, road-ready project, and it fits. It is a koan of a name, a puzzle of sorts—a kind of linguistic doppelganger for the diverse, unexpected, and ever-evolving gifts Luke Franks possesses and coheres into a compelling, unified whole throughout all his projects.


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