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

 
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Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009
Pontificating on the words behind the meaning behind such words as: "Now that it’s raining more than ever / Know that we’ll still have each other / You can stand under my umbrella, ella-ella-ay-ay-ay".

What happened to unconditional love? Or is it just regulated to Grandma, and her wonderful hands.  “Grandma’s Hands” was penned by Bill Withers in a ‘70s soul beat. And just like Prince singing “Adore”, or a million other balladeers crooning in their best falsetto, it’s catchy and captivating when men wear this sort of vulnerability. Yet, societies have even contended to cut off boys’ balls in order to maintain that pre-pubescent, innocent, unthreatening sound—the emasculated male is somehow so alluring.


Nonetheless, it’s all fantasy: We prefer our men so-called ‘real’. So we give all our stars a damn hard time for the ways in which they effeminate themselves just to maintain our titillation: the make-up, the feather-light hair, the hairless face, the fitted clothes, the glitter, the glam, and, of course, those high voices. We might call them “faggot” in public, then swoon and swing alongside their beats in private. Even as fans, we love conditionally.


Until the end of time
I’ll be there for you.
You are my heart and mind
I truly adore you.
If God one day struck me blind,
Your beauty I’d still see.
Love’s too weak to define
Just what you mean to me. 



“You gotta stand by your brother”, Erykah Badu croons in a soft, lofty voice in the live version of “Other Side of the Game”. “Work ain’t honest, but it pays the bills”, her talented back-up singers say. “Through whatever, whatever, whatever”, she says, and again members of the crowd slap their palms together while others shout and cheer.


An expectant Jennifer Hudson bouts out

An expectant Jennifer Hudson belts out “Will You Be
There” before a mourning crowd at Michael Jackson’s
Memorial in July 2009


“Carry me, like you were my brother / Love me like a mother”, Michael Jackson opens his song “Will You Be There”. And since his childhood, fans around the globe have watched this artist dance and sing on stage with his brothers, envisioning the unconditional love of family while singing about how unconditional his love was in songs like “I’ll Be There”.


“Just call my name…”. That’s the most that we could ask of anyone. Sadly, today’s divas and divos would rather just watch us pack, treating each other as if we’re simply replaceable. And despite all that we have, love cannot be bought at Ikea, nor is love found in the aisles of Walmart. In spite of their lifetime warranties, retailers LL Bean and Lands’ End don’t sell unconditional love.


I wanna be
More than your mother,
More than your brother;
I wanna be like no other
If you need me,
I’ll never leave.
I know that you know….
Be with me darlin’ till the end of time



Just like his own androgyny, Prince is notorious for exploring the fine division between the erotic and the platonic, the parental and the lustful. Furthermore, given his backdrop of gender-bending and unadulterated sexuality, Prince’s force is intense and unconditional. Again, it’s this unconditional love that makes His Royal Badness so fascinating to fans spanning a range of musical genres. “I wanna be your lover / I wanna turn you on, turn you out”, he chants over an earlier, funkier beat that he thankfully extends well beyond the dope lyrics and pop radio strip.


Then, of course, there’s Purple Rain. On screen, fans witness that the madness and fervor with which the artist approached love—the willingness to abandon all reason in tunes like “Darlin’ Nikki”—clearly stemming from the dysfunction at home.


His lack of fraternal love—fraternal disapproval and the maternal abandonment in tolerating the abuse—all lead the character portrayed in the film to supplant the erotic over and above all that he lacked. He was a man who would do anything for love, and it’s this illusion and allusion of success that draws women and men, the premise and promise of unconditional love. Yet, in spite of the fantasy, we’d all rather settle for so much less, like sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.


“Drugs / Rock-n-Roll / Bad-ass Vegas hoes / Shiny disco balls”. Ecstasy. Illusion and fantasy. The fantasy of unconditional love is all that it’s about, and any amount of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll can lead us there. Yet, like any cheap high, it’s unsustainable.


If I was your one and only friend,
Would you run to me if somebody hurt you,
Even if that somebody was me?
Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be


It is a trip. It’s a vacation from life to believe in unconditional love, yet abandon that promise as soon as anything real occurs. “Baby, baby, baby: What’s it gonna be”, Prince begs Apollonia (or wasn’t it Vanity?) on bended knee as she sits and sips with the next man. Just as soon as we promise love, we withdraw these pleas and lament over loss, which we seem to do as easily as we do the falling in love. It’s unrealistic and juvenile to believe in infallibility, for that is what makes us human. So, “let’s just pretend we’re married—tonight”.


And Michael McDonald bridged:


I know you’re not mine
Anymore
Anyway
Anytime.
Tell me how come I
Keep forgetin’



People lie, cheat, and steal. And all this stems from the abandonment we’ve felt at home, often in spaces were there is lovelessness, even with an abundance of care. Indeed, few heal from those scars, yet pretty much all are involved. Like “Thriller”, where each and everyone crawled out of tombs and graves, mortified and decrepit—we are all perishable. Yet, even in Michael’s fantasies, we don’t all remain that way. “Heal the World”, the Jackson family has inevitably advocated in their music, from the Jacksons and “Can You Feel It” to Janet’s “Rhythm Nation” among several other tunes, to most of what Michael Jackson had to say in his music.


Hold me
Like the River Jordan
And I will then say to thee:
You are my friend. 



You are my friend? “I’ve been looking around / And you were here all the time”. So the message seems to be, “through whatever, whatever, whatever”, if we genuinely know how to cherish those around us, we’ve probably known unconditional love all the time. “You are my friend / I never knew it till then, my friend / You hold my hand / You might not say a word / But I see your tears when I show my pain”, Patti drones in that other-side-of-the-‘80s soul beat. Now, there’s the unconditional love that recognizes friendship through each other’s humanity and occasional fallibility.


But they told me:
‘A Man should be faithful,
And walk when not able,
And fight to the end’
But I’m only human



Love, it seems, is only as conditional as our wiliness to heal. Recognizing that, as REM says, “Everybody Hurts”, then will we be there when our lovers, friends, parents, neighbors show out? Will we be there, as Michael suggests, in our darkest hours? Or are we just fair-weather friends? The weatherman can’t predict those conditions with any real accuracy. And Rhianna said: “You can stand under my umbrella, ella-ella-ay-ay-ay / Under my umbrella, ella-ella-ay-ay-ay. (BTW, that’s just the catchy part of the chorus, the song’s actual verses are significantly more instructive).


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Wednesday, Sep 2, 2009

Let us put aside for a moment, the media hoopla that has surrounded Courtney Love over the last 15 or so years, hard as that may be, and let us consider some of the bold musical splendour on display in her band, Hole’s, first label outing, Pretty on the Inside.


From the very first song, Love who leads the band with her lacerating tongue yelps, that “when she was a teenage whore”, how her mother confronted her, to which, she responded that she “wanted it” because “she was so alone”—in turn, forcing riot grrls everywhere, to question the relationship between youth, abuse, and sexual practice. Especially unique here is how Love and her cohorts managed to capture a sense of unapologetic, alienated female angst. When Love screeches, “I’ve seen your repulsion, and it looks good on you”, and confronts her mother, about “what she put [her] through”—one cannot help but feel compelled by the lead singer’s character. From the outset, it is obvious that Love is yearning for public attention, craving it at whatever expense, in a sense, to erase the deep-set wounds that have marred her upbringing.


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Tuesday, Sep 1, 2009

This past week saw the public debut of material by Bad Lieutenant, as the band uploaded the track “Sink or Swim” on its MySpace page.  Bad Lieutenant is the new group formed by singer/guitarist Bernard Sumner, after the dissolution of his previous band New Order by bassist Peter Hook in 2007.  The breakup is an interesting story in of itself, as Hook went around telling interviewers that the group was over while his bandmates expressed surprise and bafflement over his remarks for months on end.


While the group features latter-day New Order guitarist Phil Cunningham and contributions from stalwart Joy Division/New Order drummer Stephen Morris, the impression is that Bad Lieutenant is very much Sumner’s band.  “Sink or Swim” is a decent start, if not a particularly striking one, not sounding out of place among material by British indie bands more than half Sumner’s age.  The song takes advantage of the fact that a bassist of Hook’s caliber is not laying down the central melody, instead letting guitarist Jake Evans weave winding leads throughout.  While Sumner has never been the greatest singer in the world, there’s a certain charm to his soft, average-guy-singing-in-the-elevator voice, and it suits the song perfectly.  Despite the song’s downer lyrics, Sumner sounds quite pleased to be surrounded by so many guitar parts.


The song gets a physical release on September 21, with the group’s debut album Never Cry Another Tear due in October.  Meanwhile, Hook has remarked to The Quietus recently that material by his long-gestating Freebass project (featuring fellow Manchester, England bass legends Andy Rourke of The Smiths and Mani of The Stone Roses) is due for release around the same time as Bad Lieutenant’s record.  He’s even gone as far as to refer to his potential showdown with his former bandmate as “a bit like a fat version of Blur and Oasis”, referencing the epic UK chart showdown between the Britpop titans for the number one single slot in 1995.  Will either of these releases chart that high?  Not likely, but at least Bad Lieutenant has so far given the public a glimpse of something promising coming out of the unfortunate end of New Order.


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Monday, Aug 31, 2009
Pop Heroism, Two Songs at a Time

“Heartbreak Hotel” - The Jacksons
Written by Michael Jackson
from Triumph (CBS/Epic, 1980)



“Bless His Soul” - The Jacksons
Written by Tito Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Marlon Jackson, Michael Jackson, and Randy Jackson
from Destiny (CBS/Epic, 1979)



This entry was originally written in the spring of ‘09. It has been slightly edited since Michael Jackson’s untimely passing.


The first arena concert I ever attended was the Jacksons’ concert in support of their 1980 album, Triumph. The concert began with a film/music video for their hit “Can You Feel It?” which showed the brothers, in superhuman/angelic form, spreading goodwill and brotherhood through the power of song and light. Especially to the eyes and ears of a young musician, it was a stunning opening to an unforgettable experience.


“Heartbreak Hotel” was a highlight of the Triumph tour, and like many of Michael Jackson’s songs which explore the terror of high anxiety, it is kind of like an aural horror film, with fear, paranoia, and emotional claustrophobia replacing blood and gore as the central affrighting components. The song opens with a lonely string section which ably sets the foreboding tone, then, with an eerie scream, it kicks into an archetypal Jackson groove, with wicked rhythm guitar and funky-bump marauding bass. The lyrics describe a hotel occupied by evil, vengeful women who murmur imprecations and hurl accusations at the men who visit.The second half of the first verse delves into the devilish details of the nightmarish scene Jackson wishes to show us: “As we walked into the room /  There were faces staring, glaring, tearing through me / Someone said welcome to your doom / Then they smiled with eyes that looked as if they knew me / This is scaring me!”


“Heartbreak Hotel” is peppered with classic Jackson yelps, squawks, and screams, a countermelody voiced on a theremin-like instrument, and a myriad of strange and scary sound effects, all of which add to the “scary-movie” vibe. The bridge is literally out of this world, with a chugging electro-beat, an insistent high-pitched tone taking the place of the snare hit, and weird multilayered vocals. Of course, MJ being the future “King of Pop”,  the chorus breaks wide open into a sky-high catchy hook after all that weirdness.


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Saturday, Aug 29, 2009

Guitarist and chief songwriter Noel Gallagher has quit Britpop survivors Oasis, reportedly due to an “altercation” just before the group was set to take the stage at the Rock en Seine festival in Paris, France, on Friday night. According to a statement he posted on the band’s website, Gallagher said he “could not go on” working with vocalist/younger brother Liam Gallagher a single day longer. Despite the suddenness of the split, the news would carry a far greater impact if Gallagher hadn’t done the same thing several times before, only to rejoin soon thereafter.


Gallagher has exited Oasis over disagreements with his brother so often it has become a running joke. The first such incident occurred following a September 1994 concert in Los Angeles, California, where Noel took exception to Liam’s drug-fueled stage antics and subsequently fought his kin backstage.  The siblings made up shortly thereafter; meanwhile Noel was inspired by his post-breakup exodus to Las Vegas to write the strong Oasis b-side “Talk Tonight”. Noel left the group again in May 1995 during the production of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?; this incident involved an in-studio showdown between cricket bat-wielding Noel and a furniture-tossing Liam.  The elder Gallagher’s next exit came in 1996 at the height of his band’s popularity, when he opted to return home to the UK in the midst of an increasingly disappointing American tour. Despite brief talk of continuing the tour without their leader, Liam and the rest of the band shortly returned to Britain, where the Gallaghers duly patched things up amid a media panic.  In the new millennium, Noel made another mid-tour exit in 2000, allegedly precipitated by his brother’s rude comments about his wife.


It is possible that Noel Gallagher has finally had it with his brothers behavior and could not longer carry on in Oasis In interviews in recent years, Noel has painted a picture of Liam as a stubborn, inconsiderate loudmouth who calls at four in the morning just to berate him (in contrast, Liam is not above chastising his brother in the press as well). Still, given the elder Gallagher’s past behavior, post-mortems on the life of Oasis are premature. If Noel Gallagher has not returned to the group in six months’ time, then readers can surely expect an Oasis career retrospective by this author here at Sound Affects. Until then, wait and see if he cools off a bit.


Tagged as: oasis
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