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

 
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Monday, Nov 2, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Dedicated Thespian Has Teeth Pulled to Play Newborn Baby in High School Play”


“Embarrassed Teen Accidentally Uses Valuable Rare Postage Stamp”


“Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese”


“High School Shop Class Constructs Bicycle Built for 26”


These waggish tabloid-headline song titles, and the whimsical lyrics that go along with them, can all be found on Strange But True, the 1998 collaboration between renegade songwriter/vocalist Jad Fair and alt-funsters Yo La Tengo. Each song consists of Fair singing and speaking mini-stories which expand on the title, backed by Yo La Tengo’s avant-indie-pop grooves and soundscapes.


Jad Fair has been a prolific artist and mischief-maker for over three decades now, starting in the ‘70s with Half-Japanese, a band he founded in Maryland with his brother, David Fair. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Fair brothers have been hailed as archetypal, out-there popsters/rock ultra-deconstructionists by critics and in-the-know fellow musicians (including Kurt Cobain, who was reportedly a big fan), while remaining relatively unknown by many mainstream music fans. Their sound is an intense, chordless (detractors would say tuneless) amalgamation of earnest singer-songwriterism and primal skronk, decorated with often-tortured lyrics about girls or monsters/imaginary creatures. The result is the kind of raw-nerve honesty (in both a sonic and lyrical sense) which compels some folks to listen more closely, other folks to run for the hills, and still others to wax hyperbolic over the genius inherent in such a nakedly unfeigned artistic emission.


Since in the past I’ve occasionally been faked-out by hipster-chic critic endorsements of various “underground geniuses”,  I should make myself clear: I believe Jad Fair deserves a respectful ear not because of some kind of cool-kid/quirkier-than-thou fetishization of his “unschooled” music. Rather, it’s his obvious love for creating and exploring, his prolific output, and his utter fearlessness in expression that is most striking, and quite undeniable.


The 1993 documentary, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King is a good place to begin for those who are intrigued. I also recommend the reasonably accessible, above-mentioned Strange But True as an introduction to Fair’s lyric and vocal style, though diving right into one of his solo albums, or any of the 25-plus Half Japanese releases, is a more completely immersive experience for those with a burning desire to go full-on Jad right away.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
I was a big fan of the Beatles when I was a kid, and really liked “I Saw Her Standing There”. Beatlemania was so huge. It all seemed so modern, and so cool.


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Hedy West is one of my favorite singers. She was a banjo player and released some great albums. It’s difficult to find much by her.


Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Vic and Sade was a radio show in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and is by far my favorite comedy show. It was a 15-minute show which had five shows a week. The show’s writer was Paul Rhymer. He was a comic genius. I have all of the shows I could find on my iPod and listen to the show almost every day. I’m not sure how it influences my music, but I’m sure it does, because it has such a strong hold on me.


Do you view songwriting as a vocation/calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I used to make my living off of music, and song writing is a good part of that. For the past seven years I’ve focused on my art. My main vocation now is paper cutting. I’ve had six books published and several exhibitions.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
Amy Allison‘s song “What’s the Deal?” is great. She’s one of the best songwriters around. There are many musicians that I like, but it’s hard to find a good songwriter. Amy gets my vote.


As Fair notes in his answers above, as of late he has been concentrating on his visual artwork. Visit jadfair.org for lots of information on Jad Fair’s art, music, and other activities.


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Saturday, Oct 31, 2009

August marked the 30th anniversary of the release of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, the first single by goth pioneers Bauhaus.  I knew in the back of my head that the song would hit the three-decade mark this year, but the exact date of release slipped my mind, otherwise I would’ve written a glowing tribute to the song two months ago.  My forgetfulness works out all right, given that there’s no better time to ruminate on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” than in the light of Halloween.


Listening to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” provides the rare opportunity to hear a style of music emerge fully-formed.  Sure, there were clear influences (David Bowie) and important predecessors (Joy Division).  But on that 1979 release, Bauhaus pulled all that had come before it together to present something unique: goth.  In this nine-and-a-half-minute requiem for the actor who played the title character in the classic 1931 film version of Dracula, Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins lay out all the tricks of the form for later practitioners to follow: the ominous bassline, the spectral guitar, the foreboding low-range vocals, and (of course) the horror-movie imagery.  Most importantly, Bauhaus constructs the perfect mood: sepulchral, gloomy, and with a hint of fear.  Will Hollywood’s most famous bloodsucker stay in his tomb?  When Peter Murphy switches his mannered intonations from commenting “Bela Lugosi’s dead” to repeating the word “undead”, it seems frighteningly unlikely.


Even if one is not a fan of gothic rock (and there are a lot of people who aren’t, finding it too pretentious, too introverted, too silly), Bauhaus’s importance as the author of the first goth single cannot be denied.  But there’s another honor owed to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that is largely unrecognized: it can be very well be called the first true alternative rock record.


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Thursday, Oct 29, 2009
While some rappers are terrified someone might think they're gay, many one hit wonders don't buy into that "no homo" crap.

The phrase “no homo” (signifying that the user isn’t gay) is used often in music now, especially in heavily auto-tuned rap cameos appearing in otherwise generic pop songs, but it still makes me laugh every time I hear it. Most of the time, the words are used after either the most innocuous of statements (“the light turned green, no homo”) or after the most unabashedly gay statements (“I enjoy having lots of sex with men, no homo”). Either way, the phrase makes no sense.


Cam’ron, Lil’ Wayne, and Kanye can protest all they want, but in my experience, most men don’t worry whether something they say might be misconstrued as sounding gay. And if a man actually said something “gay” inadvertently, most of them would laugh it off and promptly forget about it within two minutes. It’s just not something your average guy, regardless of orientation, worries about.


Let’s be brutally honest, shall we? When someone says “no homo”, it usually translates as “Omigod, did that sound gay? ‘Cause I’m not gay! I have never placed ads on craigslist looking for hot man-to-man loving, those magazines hidden underneath my sweaters in the bottom dresser drawer actually belong to my sister, and I have a girlfriend in Canada that I have major sexual intercourse with all the time!”


My suggestion? If you’re worried something you’re about to say (or rap on a record that will be heard by millions and last forever) could be taken as homosexual in nature, find a different way to say it that doesn’t require you to explain your sexual orientation in a suspiciously defensive manner. And if you ever decide to peek out from behind the door and take baby steps into the open, here are a few one-hit wonders that are, in fact, homo and aren’t obsessed with staying in that narrow closet you prefer.


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Thursday, Oct 29, 2009
"The feeling is gone / Only you and I / It means nothing to me / This means nothing to me / Oh, Vienna"

It begins with a drumbeat that pulses like a human heart but sounds more like shutters flapping in an empty manor.  A synthesizer whines as a voice wafts in like a cold wind over the sparse backdrop.  It smolders for a while; then, as keyboards enter like rays of sunlight, the voice bursts out into full force in a cry verging on the operatic, punctuated by delicate piano keys.  The song is nothing less than poised grandeur, mourning a deep loss in a somber, moving fashion.


The single “Vienna” was an affirmation for struggling synthpop pioneers Ultravox.  At the dawn of the 1980s, the group was in a precarious situation. Not long before the song was recorded, original frontman John Foxx had departed the group, and his replacement, Midge Ure, arrived in the middle of a group whose chance at stardom was widely considered to be long past.  “Vienna” proved Ultravox was ready for another shot.  In fact, the song was so strong that Ultravox’s record label, Chrysalis, changed the band’s fourth album title name to Vienna from the less straightforward Torque Point.  Released in January 1981, “Vienna” hovered at number two on the UK Singles Chart in the early part of the year.  Oddly enough, it was kept from the top slot first by a pair of singles by then-recently slain ex-Beatle John Lennon, then by Joe Dolce’s novelty hit “Shaddup You Face”.


Although it never reached the top of the charts, “Vienna” is nonetheless Ultravox’s greatest triumph.  “Vienna” excels at creating a mood suggestive of reflection, despair, and longing.  The song’s restraint of composition is its strength, keeping its more sensational moments from coming off as overblown melodrama. This does not just apply to execution of the music.  The beautifully-realized atmosphere of “Vienna” is crafted in part by lyrics that suggest emotions instead of outlining hard details.  The words do not explicitly state what the song is about, for the lyrics are concerned with conveying the feeling through word choice and phrasing rather than explaining what exactly the narrator is ruminating about.


Tagged as: ultravox
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Wednesday, Oct 28, 2009
Why I can't tell you why this band rules.

Driving home from a really tremendous rock show is an adrenaline-fueled bummer for me.  I am so hopped up on the rocky goodness that I can fairly stay strapped into my Honda, buzzing with all of the things I want to pour out into this blog—and knowing damn well that I won’t, because I can’t.  Because the saddest truism for a writer like me is that I cannot find the words to say why I love the music that I love.  The emotion does not easily translate to the written word, nor does the giddiness, the sore glutes that come from rocking out as violently as is possible on a barstool, the can’t-hardly-wait anticipation of “OH MY GOD THAT SONG IS AMAZING WHEN ARE THEY GOING TO RELEASE IT?!”  Punctuation is so cumbersome to the 14-year-old I become in the wake of a show like the one Apes of Wrath played on October 9th at Tin Can Alehouse in San Diego.


The venue, bless it’s heart, was as nondescript and tiny as one could imagine, and my companion assured me the sound was atrocious.  I myself do not really care about stuff like bass levels or other minutiae of audio amplification, as those things have never stopped me from getting my face rocked off.  Going to the women’s restroom necessitates stepping almost right onto the stage, or at least the invisible border that delineates the stage from the regular old floor.  Opening acts the Sunday Times and the Howls put on energetic and entertaining sets, especially the latter, who handed out burned copies of their homemade CD with their website name written in Marks-a-Lot.  The music reminded me of early Wilco, and the singer was sort of like Whiskeytown era-Ryan Adams (but without the crazy).  I especially dug the song “Dead Men Tell No Lies”. The adorable factor went through the roof when the singer announced that this was their first show since their drummer turned 21.  (Adorable to me, anyway, since 99% of the crowd wasn’t far ahead of him.)


Apes of Wrath are a San Diego band who put out a wee gem of an EP in 2007 called Plastic, Fake & Frozen that really blew my hair back after I bought it at one of their Casbah shows.  It was this really manic pop that reminded me of early Oingo Boingo and had great lyrics like “I wear purple in the sun now / Cos it doesn’t retain too much heat”.  Months later, I still haven’t removed it from my car stereo, and after the Tin Can Alehouse show, I officially declared Apes my New Favorite Band.  They didn’t play even one song off that EP, and therefore not one song that I knew, which usually bums me out to no end.  That’s the mark of true musical love for me—if the words “This is a new one off our upcoming CD” don’t send me running for a bathroom break.  I can’t wait to see them again.  For all those reasons that I can’t describe, and all those feelings that I can’t put into words.


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