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

 
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Wednesday, Jul 24, 2013
by Mike Noren
The 2002 release All Hail West Texas marked a turning point for the Mountain Goats, as John Darnielle went from underground home recording cult hero to wider acclaim. With this week's reissue of All Hail West Texas, we review essential tracks from the Mountain Goats' back catalog.

In a broad overview of John Darnielle’s 20-plus years heading the Mountain Goats, you might look at 2002’s All Hail West Texas as a pivotal halfway point. Darnielle began recording as the Mountain Goats in the early 1990s, putting poems to tape over a battered acoustic guitar. He had collaborators—from early bandmate Rachel Ware to the mysterious Bright Mountain Choir—but the Mountain Goats’ early work centered on Darnielle and his words. He sang about troubled characters and unhealthy relationships in settings across the globe and throughout history. He would belt out his stories, sometimes bitterly humorous, and linger on moments and details until it all overwhelmed him. The sparse instrumentation and rough home recording only added to the urgency. It’s difficult to imagine early Mountain Goats albums like Zopilote Machine (1994) and Sweden (1995) without the static and tape grind.


All Hail West Texas—reissued this week in expanded form by Merge—was one of the best albums of Darnielle’s “homemade” era, and also the last. Just months later in 2002, the Mountain Goats released the follow-up Tallahassee, on which they displayed a newly cleaned-up sound and a wider array of instruments. The band’s lineup expanded to include Peter Hughes on bass and, later, Jon Wurster (of Superchunk) on drums. Additional musicians chipped in frequently over the albums that followed. The shift from the homemade racket to a more conventional studio presentation may have caught longtime fans off guard, but it helped take Darnielle’s songs to different place and to a broader audience. Albums like The Sunset Tree (2005), The Life of the World to Come (2009), and Transcendental Youth (2012) have pianos, strings, and horn sections that would’ve been hard to imagine in 1994—but they also feature some of Darnielle’s finest songwriting.


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Thursday, Oct 27, 2011
Contemporary South African popular music reveals a myriad of artists searching for an identity in a country still recovering from racial hatred; and a youth looking to the past in order to make sense of the present.

Trouble has a habit of shaping the culture of nations. Slavery in the United States resulted in the birth of the blues, and with it, the rise of artists like Robert Johnson and Son House whose influence is still present in music today.


South Africa has had its own share of troubles. Apartheid lasted from 1948 all the way to 1994, drawing a solid line between white and black communities. Today, the country is a democratic rainbow nation of different cultures doing their best to coexist, and it’s this yearning for symbiosis that has resulted in a pop culture that is completely unique. Where else in the world would the choice of presidential candidate be dictated by whether he can do the kwasa-kwasa?


Music and dance is an essential part of the South African cultural identity. It’s this almost fervent need for self expression that has forged the youth identity and music trends of the present.


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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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