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

 
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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

Michael Barthel has a great post over at Idolator about the anti-intellectualism of some music writers in particular and music criticism generally.  This is particularly ironic, as Barthel notes, when the critic in question slams him with a Borges reference.  (That would be Jorge Luis Borges for those of you not on a first name basis.)  It’s a great post for a number of reasons, including that Barthel calls out incoherence of someone trying to hide their philosophical depth for some sad approximation of street cred. 


Populism, in this context, is essentially the denial of expertise.  If it’s true that no one, given the instantaneous access, needs the contribution of critics, surely they need even less the dubious contributions of most music blogs, who act primarily as extensions of PR one sheets, without the objectivity. Music crticism has many unexplored tensions with the academy.  Some of them certainly come from the fact that many music writers, especially in their late 20s to mid-30s come to criticism from a University-era heavily steeped in postmodern theory.  Many of them, by choice, chance or deficiency have not continued on into academia.  Those anxious influences frequently crop up in either naïve rejection or equally naïve assimilation.


Music criticism also has a habit of writers competing with their subjects for having the most “rock and roll” values, something art historians probably don’t have hanging over their heads.  Consequently, Lester Bangs gets idolized for in part, getting fucked up all the time, because that’s way more hardcore than doing a systematic study of the evolution of brand mentions in hip hop lyricism.  That’s clearly not as cool.  Surely some people use philosophical jargon to obscure their insecurities, but just as many people deign to defend American Idol or Shania Twain based on some just as postured sense of contrarianism.  Barthel touches on some crucial issues that are worth arguing at length, but that wouldn’t cool, so I’ll keep it brief.  Foucault my ass.


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Friday, Jun 6, 2008

At Waxy.org, Andy Baio has a couple of excellent posts about the Whitburn Project, an effort to catalog and preserve every pop song released since the advent of recording. Baio downloaded the project’s spreadsheet, and performed some analyses of the data. Highlights of his findings:
1. A pop song’s average length is becoming longer, hovering at around 4:00. (This strikes me as way too long. I generally head for the exits at 2:30.)
2. The pop charts turn over much more quickly in recent years. Prior to the mid 1990s, few songs came and went from the charts in four weeks. Since then it has happened with increasing frequency.
3. Nevertheless, fewer songs chart then in previous decades.
4. There have been more one-hit wonders in the ‘90s and ‘00s than in the ‘60s and ‘70s.


Also interesting, if not surprising: This tag cloud of the words in pop song titles reveals that two of the most frequently used words are “love” and “baby.” I guess that makes the Supremes “Baby Love” the ultimate pop song.


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Thursday, Jun 5, 2008
Those Dancing Days - "Hitten"

Is this an Irish Spring commercial? When I first heard “Hitten”, I assumed that the singer was someone older for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s relatively stripped of symbolic artifice, something that seems odd for people so young.  It’s very straightforwardly about love, life, indecision, not even packed under the camoflauge of a narrative. I remember college writing workshops where writing something that required deciphering was far more important than writing something meaningful. “Hitten” sounds middle-aged and angsty especially in its complicated understandings that sometimes independence, self-control and freedom come with their own soul crushing unintended consequences. Maybe it just sounds middle aged because I relate to it, which could make this just another day in criticism as persuading other people that your projections are their projections. I am, you are, he is,  we are Sasha Frere Jones as they say.


But the video is practically the essence of youthful nevercare flair, albeit in a far more refreshing non-American context. Can anyone imagine their U.S. equivalent-in-age sporting such a lack of “style”. There is no sexualized persona, no tween tigress angel-whore dichotomy, just some young women in loose, fitting comfortable clothes and little make up jumping around in front of the camera. Of course this au natural nudity is itself something can be meticulously postured, but shot-for-shot, it seems like a fairly unstaged celebration of a certain kind of innocent play, too young for cynicism, too old not to be partially tongue-in-cheek “playing” the kid with hopscotch, jump ropes and silly dancing. This is almost wholesome, like an indie-cred ready Hannah Montana before Annie Liebowitz turned her into Southern Gothic object of incest and ephebophilia.  It certainly cracks a can of sunchine through my initial impression of the song, rendering its desolation obsolete in giddy brightness.


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Wednesday, Jun 4, 2008
Lykke Li - "I'm Good, I'm Gone"

It’s refreshing to see a deluge of female singers from JayMay to Anna Ternheim who scale back their own physical beauty in the presentation of their music. For Lykke Li, one can easily see why the presentation works to counteract both her youth and coy, cutesy vocals. Personally, I don’t mind the twee caste to her voice or even the toybox clatter of the song’s random percussion. If I were an artist worried about my image, I don’t think you could do much better than this video’s whimsy and menace. I included the Deborah Harry image, because, minus the Giger sadism, Lykke Li’s beauty has the same blown back, tight, restrained, almost hypoallergenic cleanliness. Her eye contact throughout the video is complicated; there’s a palpable caginess in the way she looks into the camera. At times, punching her shoulder forward, it can be downright aggressive (she’s sometimes throwing actual punches). But couched in her flowing clothes and kung fun pop and locking, she simply lights up the screen with confidence, something frequently done literally by framing her face as the peak point of light.


Honestly, the video is almost too packed with great images, as if directed by Tarsem Singh trying to beat a deadline. Director Mattias Montero manages to actually work joyfully and provocatively with surrealism, a video tack that is so overused as to make actual reality the only alienating image remaining. Populated by mental patients swimming on hospital (or maybe gymnasium) floors and old people standing open mouthed in some mix of the Pixies “Here Comes Your Man” video and the church zombies of 28 Days, it’s a rowdy and joyful ode the beat of one’s own drummer. The drummer, in this case, happens to be a frosted female bodybuilder with a Zorro mask on, reinforcing Li’s “don’t fuck with me just because I got a sweet set of pipes” mantra. Because of it’s density, it’s endlessly entertaining to replay; each time I watch the video I notice something about the life breathed into office casual wardrobe, some sexy gender bending or a flash of a scene that evokes The Shining. All in all, a great video that rises above many would-be comers in style and technical proficiency.


Tagged as: lykke li
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Wednesday, Jun 4, 2008

This clip taken from a 1981 documentary titled Imagine the Sound is a rare document of one of the avant-garde world’s greatest piano players, Cecil Taylor. Most footage that has been released of Taylor is of him with one of his illustrious bands - known for blowing the hats of and outraging any devout be-bop player and/or critic. But the reason this video needs to be revealed is because it gets down to the very core of Free Jazz in it’s essence.


With Free Jazz, many times people will claim is just a series of random notes or a giant wall of noise. But in fact, its anything but these absurd claims. As not only jazz music, but other genres of music have seem to have lost the true meaning of “improvisation” - Taylor reminds them that it is a reaction to feeling and emotion. This is something that can’t be taught within our school systems and only those that stretch to understand it, will be satisfied with its rewarding attributes.


Watching Taylor from the director’s point of view above the piano shows him nearly talking to the piano. He’s having a conversation with it rather than just playing it - sometimes there are moments of silence, at others its as if the room just crowded and the conversation picked up. Unfortunately, the representatives of the jazz world in 2008 (see Wynton Marsalis) are taking us so many steps back, that jazz in the mainstream world is becoming obsolete - its being talked about like classical music is talked about, as if its an art form that can be taught in schools.


There are remaining soldiers out there such as David Ware, 8 Bold Souls, Matthew Shipp, and even some of the veterans such as Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and even Cecil Taylor himself. We must place them outside of the realm of the term “jazz” and bring them in with our alternative world. They should be playing with the slew of avant-rock bands out there creating a buzz, to an audience that would actually give them a chance. Free Jazz is still as free as it ever was, it just needs to take that freedom down a different road.


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