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

 
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Friday, Jul 17, 2009
Years before Milli Vanilli, Baltimora featured an actor playing the part of a singer.

More than 70 years after Edgar Rice Burroughs first saw his Tarzan of the Apes novel published, Baltimora had one of the biggest hits of the ‘80s with “Tarzan Boy”. A perfect dance pop confection incorporating playful lyrics about “monkey business on a sunny afternoon” with Tarzan’s iconic yell, the song spent an incredible six months on the Billboard Hot 100 beginning in October of 1985, eventually peaking at #13. A few years later, “Tarzan Boy” returned to the chart for three more months after being featured on the soundtrack of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III and on a popular commercial for Listerine mouthwash.


Jimmy McShane, the flamboyant Irish front man for Baltimora, died in 1995 from complications resulting from AIDS. Six years later, Tom Hooker, a successful Italo Disco performer and producer in the ‘80s, revealed that while McShane appeared in the Baltimora videos and on their record covers, he wasn’t the vocalist of the group. Instead, McShane was lip-synching to the voice of Maurizio Bassi, the man who produced Baltimora.


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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009
With his brown skin, button nose, and chemically straightened hair, it significantly matter that Michael Jackson was black not white, male not female, from a poor family, not rich one. Unsurprisingly, he sought to re-map the globe.

Please play more Michael Jackson. He is an original humanitarian. Michael Jackson was more than a pop star; he defined modern popular music. It’s basic ignorance that leads anyone to continue to discredit the way this artist lived. Fans, and anyone else listening to the words written, composed and performed by Michael Jackson would not be so greedy, angry and stupid of the sort that leads us to destroy the planet and divide people.


Earth Song, Heal the World, and of course, We are the World. This man clearly propagated ‘love’ as the way forward. This nation desperately needs to reconcile with Michael Jackson and come to terms with the fact that we created a monster. In spite of the self-mutilation, abuse of credit and addiction to “consumerism,”—you know, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll—we cannot deny that he was an apt mirror of this society. As a pop star, Michael Jackson mirrored the iconic status the United States enjoys in the world- and embodies the unreconciled contradictions as well.


I’m startin’ with the man in the mirror.
I’m asking him to change his ways.
And no message could have been any clearer:
If you wanna make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself, and
Make that change.



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Wednesday, Jul 15, 2009

At a recent exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Scotland, I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse at Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Jim and Tom, Sausalito”. This, Mapplethorpe’s most notorious image, depicts a man urinating into the mouth of another (with his subject accepting graciously). The photograph was displayed as part of an exhibition entitled, “Sh(OUT): Contemporary Art and Human Rights”, a collection of installations and art pieces that are as much about acceptance, as they are about activism.


By the time I returned home from this trip, I felt compelled to revisit the music of Mapplethorpe’s esteemed collaborator and friend, Patti Smith. Of all her works, my strongest inclination was to reach for her 1997 album, Peace and Noise. Released a year after her memorial compilation Gone Again, Peace and Noise possesses the same lingering heartbreak of her previous album, albeit with a vitriolic edge.


Instead of sitting back and watching her dearly departed ghosts swirl about, Smith adopts a rabble-rousing persona, virtuously professing to her specters that she is ready to start a riot. OK, she may not have been perpetuating the same anarchistic angst of the 1970s, but Smith (who had notoriously retired from the musical world for years), was now fuming with a more concise anger.


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Monday, Jul 13, 2009
In praise of disco on the anniversary of the notorious disco demolition day.

July 12th, was the 30th anniversary of disco Demolition Day, a day when radio host Steve Dahl declared a cultural war on the aforementioned music by blowing up stacks of records in Comiskey Park in Chicago. It’s now generally accepted that the seething crowds were at least partially motivated by the subcultural and multicultural context of disco’s reign, seeing the gay, black, latino, and women-friendly movement as an affront to the ordained thrown of rock, which was at this point mainly a chauvinist enterprise. That this came at the height of radio’s racial re-segregation formatting certainly encouraged the backlash. In the aftermath, disco was declared dead, which was widely accepted as a historical platitude for years, and even still is today. “I think it was a fad and it was probably on its way out. This probably hastened its demise,” Steve Dahl said in 2004, reflecting on the incident on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown


While disco may have become a dirty word in mainstream culture after scores of alpha males began parading around in “Disco Sucks” and “Death Before Disco” T-shirts and the clubs began collapsing from the white lines snorted across broken mirror tables, disco continued to expand exponentially. Indeed, years later, the explosion in Comsikey Park seems to have scattered disco’s ashes across the globe, where it has manifested in myriad different vital forms. Ironically enough, the two teams playing that night, Detroit and Chicago, became the epicenters of disco’s revitalization in both house and techno music.


Below is a smattering of disco from its heyday through the present. It is by no means a complete representation, but hopefully you will agree that this is dynamic and exciting music, whose shelf-life has already far surpassed many of the rock dinosaurs being defended at the time of the disco demolition. 

First Choice—The Player (Philly Groove, 1974)



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Thursday, Jul 9, 2009

Before the international frenzy that Barack Obama commanded following his historic presidential campaign and win, Michael Jackson was the global face of black exceptionalism and achievement. His death at the age of 50 on June 25, 2009, almost succeeded in crashing the Internet and suspended social media mechanisms such as Twitter. In excess of 1.6 million people logged into a random lottery system in hopes to garner one of the 20,000 tickets needed to gain access into Jackson’s memorial service this past Tuesday. His face has graced the cover of virtually every major (and minor) international periodical, newspaper, and news program since his untimely death. Much has been written and reported about Michael Jackson from his impact on an impressively diverse and large demographic to his transformation from a beautiful, cherubic child to a grotesqueness unknown or unseen before him to his massive debts and legal troubles stemming from allegations of pedophilia. As a child of the ‘80s, Michael Jackson was the model for many of my own personal interpretations of Thriller, but for me it’s his role as the seminal figure in the integration of African American musicality into the global pop culture stratosphere that bears the seismic weight of his significance.


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