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Friday, Jul 31, 2009
"In World War II, the average age of the combat soldier was 26. In Vietnam, he was 19."

In 1985, Paul Hardcastle, a talented jazz musician, released a single that topped the dance chart, reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, and spent five weeks as the number one song in the United Kingdom. And his inspiration was an ABC television documentary on the Vietnam War.


It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely hit. Hardcastle combined an instrumental track with Peter Thomas discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, added a disco beat and a group of women singing, “All those who remember the war, they won’t forget what they’ve seen,” and had a massive hit. More amazingly, he took what could have been a cheesy or disrespectful disaster and ended up with a compelling recording that reminded a younger generation that war comes at an incredibly high price.


Although Paul Hardcastle never had another track chart on the Billboard Hot 100, he recently won the Billboard Smooth Jazz “Artist of the Year” award for 2008 and continues to be a well-respected artist. Hardcastle’s producer back in 1985, Simon Fuller (creator of American Idol), named his management company 19 Entertainment after the song.


And 24 years later, teenagers are still fighting in wars and dying thousands of miles from home.



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Wednesday, Jul 29, 2009
Part 2 of our video venture through lost musical geniuses discovers an unhappier tradition in The UK, where comebacks are not de rigeur! Exemplars include Joe Meek, Brian Jones, Syd Barrett, and Ian Curtis.

Like the US, the UK has its own such lists of musical geniuses, though their fates are far less hopeful in general. This affect is caused perhaps by the UK’s post-war culture seemingly backward turning from Macmillan’s “white heat of technology” towards Thomas’s “damp smoky coal fire”. This confusedly anti-progressive nature is wonderfully elucidated in Pete Shelley’s “Nostalgia”:


I always used to dream of the past
But like they say yesterday never comes
Sometimes there’s a song in my brain
And I feel that my heart knows the refrain
I guess its just the music that brings on nostalgia for an age yet to come


First up in our run through the early musical geniuses of UK popdom is uniquely someone who is not a star performer but rather a producer first and foremost. What Preston Sturges was to ‘30s Hollywood, Joe Meek was to the late ‘50s/early ‘60s UK music scene: a prolific, wildly successful sui generis auteur, who burned bright but flamed out soon thereafter. Meek’s brightest flame was his first, the hit single of 1962: The Tornados, “Telstar”:



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Tuesday, Jul 28, 2009

Recently dubbed the new “princess of Pop”, Rolling Stone has said that Lady Gaga is on the verge of being the “defining Pop Star of the year”, and earlier offered her the cover of the coveted annual Hot List Edition. The honour is arguably a well-deserved one, considering that the singer’s ‘80s flavoured dance songs have been smash hits across both sides of the pond—helping secure the former cocaine-addict a devoted fan base.


Personally, it isn’t Gaga’s music that I find most intriguing. Rather, it is her dramatic rise, and her unabashed obsession with fame and her penchant for discussing it. Surely, the title of her first album, The Fame professes this explicitly, while Brian Hiatt’s report in RS reveals that the young starlet is a workaholic, who is devoted to the continued rise of her stardom. These musings were interspersed with quips by Gaga who regaled readers with stories about “kissing girls” and how she “doesn’t look like the other perfect pop singers”, i.e. she aims to surprise with her lack of convention.


Pop music aficionados will note that there is nothing particularly fresh about Gaga’s approach. We all know how Madonna exploited the minds of the MTV generation, and that her sole intent at the time was (arguably) to usurp convention, through reinvention.


Tagged as: lady gaga, madonna, mtv
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Monday, Jul 27, 2009
The author grapples with his adolescent obsession with Fiona Apple's Tidal

Why was a 12-year-old boy captured by an album that seemed almost wholly obsessed with female sexual confession? Did it have something to do with my isolated childhood, or did it have more to do with the confusion surrounding my own impending sexual awakening? Perhaps these questions are futile. To generalize about why any one piece of music would appeal to any one person, is a difficult task to reconcile retrospectively.

Still, there is something deeply moving about Apple’s first release – an album fused with intricate rhythms, and righteous piano playing.  Though only 18 years old at the time of production, Fiona Apple’s Tidal is a stark, brutal, and often beautiful portrait about a young girl’s physical and emotional growth. The opening track, “Sleep to Dream”, professes this clearly. “Don’t even show me your face, don’t bother to explain”, “go back to the rock from under which you came”, “I’ve got my feet on the ground”, and “my own hell to raise”, barks the frustrated teenager. Time and again, throughout the album, and sometimes, within the very same song, Apple reaches the brink of personal resolution, only to do a complete 180-degree turn on herself – encapsulating the fickle nature of adolescent decision making.


At other times, she replaces her contradictory outlook with conflicted helplessness. In “Sullen Girl’ for example, the artist relays the traumatic experience of being raped at the young age of 12. She wrestles with the burden of her despair and isolation, quietly hoping to be saved. Anchored by its smooth sonic landscape, and her restrained voice, it is very easy for one to grow engrossed in Apple’s intimate narrative. With its opaque and painterly lyrics, “it’s calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion” – “Sullen Girl” is able to elevate itself from a simple retelling of sexual abuse (i.e. Tori Amos’ “Me and A Gun”), and instead opens itself up to a variety of interpretations. For me, the song was about grappling with the weight of my desires, for my mother it might have been a song that captured the loneliness of depression, and I am sure that for many other listeners, it was about finding the courage to accept their silent anguish.


Elsewhere, Apple tackles female exploitation, as is evidenced by “Criminal”, a lavish track that is ambivalent about the tension between exploiting one’s self sexually, and protecting what is sacred. And despite her young age (and innocence), her breathy Nina Simone-style vocals echo a maturity and understanding of a woman twice her age.


By the end of the record, Apple is still teeming with unresolved questions. She wants to “walk away” from her “decaying” relationship, but she equally finds herself wanting to “save” the person that she has grown to love. It was this sort of confusion, this inability to let go that had me so engrossed with Tidal. At 18, Apple was staring back at me from the other end of childhood, warning me of the pitfalls that were yet to come. Nevertheless, her delivery assured me that I would survive, even if it meant the journey ahead would be wrought with puzzles, and perhaps even a sense of bewilderment. Yet, for all of the difficulties, there was also a feeling throughout Tidal that echoed the excitement and discovery that the future would bring.


Looking back now as an adult, I realize that the album played a vital role in my development. It was a continuous source of comfort, for which I will be forever grateful.


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Friday, Jul 24, 2009

In the beginning, there was Britney Spears, dressed as a Catholic school girl with a bare midriff, short skirt and pouty lips, selling sex and CDs to the tune of “Baby One More Time”. It was easy to predict Britney Spears would become a major force in pop from the moment the school bell rang in her first video and the iconic notes of “One More Time” began to play.


In the music industry, imitation is the sincerest form of profit, so a legion of young girls began flooding radio stations and MTV countdowns.


Although most would argue that Christina Aguilera is far more talented vocally than Britney Spears, it hasn’t helped her much. Even with twice as many number one hits and four Grammy Awards to Britney’s one, Christina seems forever destined to be overshadowed by her former Mickey Mouse Club co-star.


Jessica Simpson had a beautiful voice, but her affected vocal style and lazy annunciation hurt her chances of ever being a major star, so she found success by making ignorance look charming on reality television.


And then there was Mandy.


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