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

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Wednesday, Feb 29, 2012
The late Johnny Cash (who would've turned 80 this month) was a combination of Keith Richards, Elvis Presley, and Public Enemy. Only he did it first, and no one before or since ever did it quite like him.

Two questions: 1. Is that the most bad-ass picture ever taken of a pop icon? 2. Is there a more bad-ass pop icon who’s ever walked the planet?


(Those questions are rhetorical in case you didn’t already know.)


Sex, drugs and rock and roll? The late Johnny Cash (who would’ve turned 80 on February 26th) was a combination of Keith Richards, Elvis Presley, and Public Enemy, only he did it first and no one before, or since, ever did it quite like him.


Quite literally too big (or complicated, or cool) to be contained by labels, he dabbled in rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, gospel, and folk. And while he can—and should—be considered an obvious lock for the Mt. Rushmore of Country Music, Cash was an American who wrote and sang about the country that made him. Even though at various times Kris Kristofferson attributed multiple sources of inspiration for his song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33”, it is hardly a stretch to imagine who he had in mind for these lyrics (“He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home”). Is there a better description out there for the icon who came to be known as The Man in Black?


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Thursday, Feb 16, 2012
Pop diva Whitney Houston's death this past weekend was sad, yet not wholly unexpected -- nor were the efforts to instantly beatify the singer, a response common in regards to celebrities who die prematurely and as a result of their own appetite for destruction.

Sadly, only the most optimistic or naive observers did not see this coming. Indeed, it is fair, if harsh, to wonder how it took so long. I make it a habit to avoid any and all “reality TV” shows, but it did not demand sustained viewing of Houston and then-husband Bobby Brown’s public spectacle to see that all was far from well in her world.


On the other hand, who felt comfortable making a prediction? For every Amy Winehouse there is a Keith Richards. For every Jimi Hendrix there is an Eddie Van Halen. Some of our rock stars have the combination of good genes, dumb luck, and, perhaps, destiny keeping them from snuffing themselves out.


It’s a shame: so much talent, so much unrealized potential. Same old song and dance, really. Except for two things.


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Friday, Feb 3, 2012
Soul Train creator/host Don Cornelius will be remembered--and should hereafter be celebrated--for giving a voice to Black America, and he should also be acknowledged—and praised—for making White America less white.

A genuine American icon has left the planet.  People born during or after the ‘80s might know Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius mostly from name-checks in interviews, songs, and clips on YouTube. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for us older folks, we knew the man. Some of us grew up with him.


If a picture can sometimes speak more eloquently than words, a video can function as a truth bomb that tells you all you need to know. Check it out:




I only have a handful of comments. The Hair. The Glasses. The Shirt. The Pants (did you see those Liberty Bell Bottoms flowing when he moved up that line?). And The VOICE.


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Wednesday, Jan 25, 2012
Etta James was memorialized before she died, and it illustrates a new and common plight among older artists.

Etta James died last Friday, and the outpouring of praise and tributes came as usual. That’s not to say she wasn’t deserving of the various titles that came up, like Jerry Wexler’s famous coronation “the greatest of all modern blues singers”. But for James, she’d been hearing it for a while, and for someone like her, it was quite a thing to be memorialized before she felt she was done.


Despite recording some of the most indelible, iconic R&B tracks of the 1950s and ‘60s, James never achieved the same level of fame or recognition that some of her peers did. She consistently charted on the R&B charts and remained a top concert draw, but crossover success eluded her; she never became an Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross. Not that her disposition and habits would have let her—James lost good portions of her career to her drug habit, and her forceful personality would prove as much a drawback as an asset.


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Monday, Jan 23, 2012
Across decades and genres, you always know Etta James when you hear her; it would be difficult to think of anyone who sang so well for so long. While we embrace the body of work she left behind after passing away on January 20, it’s hard not to imagine how much more we might have gotten from her, if she’d managed to hook up with a label that knew how to handle a peerless voice.

Etta James famously remarked, “When I’m singing blues, I’m singing life.” And her life was blue in many ways—she had troubles with drugs and men; she never knew her dad.  But the greatest tragedy of James’ life was probably her interactions with the music industry, which rarely gave her the outlet she deserved.  James came up with the help of Johnny Otis, who also died last week.  He gave the woman born Jamesetta Hawkins her stage name and helped her get her first recording contract with Modern Records.  But it was her second contract, with Chicago’s famous Chess Records, that catapulted her to fame.  Her debut album at Chess, At Last!, contained a number of hits: the famous title track, of course, but even better were the smooth, mournful rendition of “Stormy Weather” and the yearning “A Sunday Kind of Love”.


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