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

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Wednesday, Sep 22, 2010
The author is expected to not only justify the album’s existence, but to justify the need to write about it in the first place. Is it any wonder then that such an intensely personal (and often defensive) writing tends to veer towards positivism?

Is there a more loathed creature out there than the music critic? Despite ranking somewhere between politician and lawyer in the public consciousness, the conflation of the Internet’s girth has seen the sheer volume of critics expand seismically. This, in and of itself, does not implicitly suggest a growth in demand, but the correlating rise in the layman’s musical knowledge (thanks to the bottomless resource of the Internet) suggests that music criticism is a desirable vice, like celebrity tabloids, gambling, or drugs. We dislike the idea of it, but we simply cannot tear ourselves away from the bottomless pit of consumption (in this instance, information and media consumption). 


The critics themselves share a portion of the fault in their poor public opinion, of course. The traditional music press in its heyday so seamlessly transformed itself into a placard for record labels and big box stores—churning out consumer reviews rather than focusing on relevant conversations about art in the age of access—that it hardly seems surprising that a new journal folds every couple of weeks. Nose-elevating cultural analysts have been quick to point out, with more than a hint of schadenfreude, that consumer reviews make little sense in an era when you can just stream or download the album yourself before purchasing (if the actual buying of music is even considered at all).  The conversation, they say, needs to go further than a friendly recommendation.


Tagged as: music criticism
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Wednesday, Sep 1, 2010
A long string of cribbed beats and run together pop references, "Alejandro" is a song truly made up of nothing, not even bothering to revel in its vacuity.

Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” is an artistic tailspin from the recent heights of singles like “Bad Romance” and “Telephone”. Pop artifacts that borrow heavily from their forbears must contain some framework of originality; a difference must coincide with the sameness so as not come off as plain stealing. Lady Gaga has not even attempted this with “Alejandro”. She not so much stands as stomps on the shoulders of giants like Madonna, ABBA, and lesser wits like Ace of Base. A long string of cribbed beats and run-together pop references, “Alejandro” is a song truly made up of nothing, not even bothering to revel in its vacuity. Sure, the song is catchy and danceable, but considering the level of work that came before it, a simple pop song is a letdown. A stolen one is a tragedy.


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Thursday, Aug 26, 2010
Throughout 'The Suburbs', Arcade Fire seems completely ill-equipped to understand both where it came from and, more pressingly, where it is now. That kind of tunnel vision is what leads the band to articulate such an uncritical urban bias.

Despite what the current consensus indicates, the members of Arcade Fire do not know a heck of a lot about urban planning. If they did, they’d realize that the suburbs they so bemoan emerged out of the various neighborhoods they constructed back in 2004. And that’s usually what occurs when any locale draws enough hype/praise/critical attention that legions of people migrate to it. Growth happens. It’s just as inevitable as finding a Starbucks in Manhattan.



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The question of whether or not that growth is a good thing—for the band, for “society”—is really a separate consideration. The more pressing matter, now that “universal acclaim” has been bestowed upon the band’s latest album The Suburbs, is simply recognizing the irony inherent in the album’s core lament: Arcade Fire have sprawled outward, musically and conceptually, like so many strip malls. Also, Bruce Springsteen grew up in Freehold, NJ, which is suburban at best.


If Funeral was close to home, and Neon Bible gestured toward grand universality, then The Suburbs occupies that middle space—a space between close-knit familial relationships and the wide world outside of them, where your own private prison feels big enough to incarcerate everyone.


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Thursday, Aug 19, 2010
When it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. And yet...

You may have heard: Gibson (the fine folks who bring us some of our best guitars) has recently announced its selections of what it deems the Top 50 Guitar Albums.


Now, as someone who writes about music, I am acutely aware that one person’s list is another person’s purgatory. Put simply, when it comes to matters of taste and ranking (a particularly combustible combination), there is no pleasing everyone. In fact, there is no pleasing anyone, since the list makers themselves are invariably disappointed or frustrated. When you are talking about the best of the best, it is like boiling the Pacific Ocean to get a handful of salt.


So, it is in the spirit of augmenting and not critiquing (though there are many items on their list I find a bit objectionable) that I offer up an alternative Top 10 with some (very) honorable mentions. To avoid redundancy, my list will not duplicate any of the ones already selected by Gibson. Fortunately, there are more than enough to go ‘round, and despite some genuine head-scratchers (there are many items on the company’s list I find offensive, aesthetically speaking), it’s silly to quibble too much with a list that features most (but certainly not all) of the usual suspects.


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Wednesday, Aug 18, 2010
Call it "mach schau", soul, or the “swing” without which Duke Ellington warns us “it don’t mean a thing”, the physically felt component of live performance is perhaps easiest defined, if not in its absence, then in its failed attempt.

In the Beatles Anthology documentary, Paul McCartney tells of club dates during the band’s first international tour in Hamburg, where crowds booed and cried “Mach schau, mach schau!” up to the stage. When the nascent Fab Four learned that mach schau translates to “make show”, they did not have to be told twice. From then on they adopted the lively, hair-flopping stage antics that would later take the world by storm.


The emotional resonance to which McCartney refers seems distinct from visual accompaniment explicitly designed to correspond with musical performance. Acts that rely on light and video installations or Broadway-ready dancers aren’t really attempting mach schau in the same way the Beatles did or, say, the notoriously raucous shows of Bruce Springsteen. One performs, where the other exudes sheer enthusiasm. Perhaps most definitively emotive of all pop performances in this sense would be those of Little Richard, whose “whooo!” McCartney co-opted in the same way the Rolling Stones did the blues moan of Muddy Waters.


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