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

 
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Tuesday, May 19, 2009
The way that the films Notorious, 8 Mile, Walk The Line, and Ray lead up to scenes of performances shows the remarkable and subtle endurance of troubling racial stereotypes and ideals.

I’ve done a bad bad thing
Cut my brother in half

—Little Dewey Cox in Walk Hard


The new millenium has been kind to biopics of musicians. We have, most of us, seen the blockbusters, including Walk the Line, Ray, and Notorious, and these have been accompanied by more minor films like Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, Cadillac Records, and Jenna Maroney’s unforgettable Sing Them Blues, White Girl: The Jackie Jomp-Jomp Story. Some of the recurrent themes of these films, such as drug abuse, became so predictable that they were easily satirized in Walk Hard.


But in thinking about how these films diverge, after finally reaching the (somewhat confused) end of Notorious, I realized that in both the earlier film 8 Mile, the semi-fictional story of Eminem’s life, and in Walk the Line, the white performer comes to a moment of emotional overload that threatens his very ability to get on stage. In Cash’s case, this is because he is re-living his brother’s death; in Eminem’s case, it is because he has to face a hostile, mostly African-American crowd as a white rapper.


By contrast, in their respective films, neither Ray Charles nor Biggie experience this kind of stage fright. Instead, particularly in Notorious, there is an utterly natural transition from the private work of practicing and writing to the public arena of performance. This is even the case despite Ray’s having undergone, like Cash, the death of a brother while very young.


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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
The second installment in my look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.


For five unfortunate years I worked in a factory making parts for airbags. After one particularly slow, grueling day I was driving home listening to the radio when a song came on that I didn’t know but was exactly what I wanted to hear at that moment. It was so mellow and relaxed, yet had a definite groove. I took note of the title and found out it was by someone named Al Stewart. The song was “Year of the Cat” and this performance on Whistle Test from 1978 is a great version of the song. From the wonderful piano intro on, the song takes it’s time as every instrument and every note gets room to breathe. I still know very little about Stewart, but I do know that “Year of the Cat” still has that calming effect on me every time I hear it.


The Only Ones are best known for the punk classic “Another Girl, Another Planet”, but that wasn’t their only great song. “No Peace for the Wicked” is a wonderful, shambling ode to pain and heartache with Peter Perrett’s distinctive voice asking “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas?” before answering his own question… “I’m in love with extreme mental torture…”. Perfect.


Obviously with someone like Thomas Dolby, I knew “She Blinded Me With Science”, but it was through his performance of “Hyperactive”, included on volume two of the Whistle Test DVDs, that I realized he was more than a one-hit wonder. There could not be a more fitting song title for this frenzied funk jam. Shakers, trombone, synths, and a vocoder are all employed throughout along with the vocals of Adele Bertei who provides the track with an almost childlike innocence amidst all the frantic instrumentation. A joy to watch.


The third volume of the Whistle Test DVDs was my introduction to the underappreciated and often overlooked Prefab Sprout. Intricate guitar lines weave over top warm synths and tight, occasionally jazzy drumming with the male lead vocals/female backing vocals dynamic that may draw comparisons to the Dream Academy. Prefab Sprout are much more than that though and you only have to watch this magnificent performance of “When Loves Break Down” to see that. There’s a real gentleness here, like they’re trying to play as soft as they can without losing the sound completely, until, at the end, they do; fading out like someone is slowly turning the volume dial.



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Monday, Mar 9, 2009
The '90s R&B video went to some weird places and Jodeci embody both the weirdness, both on the sensitive and the thug sides.

In the early ‘90s, music videos had come into their own, and were big-budget marketing tools to solidify a band’s image and to help sell albums.  Jodeci have always been a mystery to me.  I’ve never been a big fan, but one night when watching all of their videos in a row, I realized that there’s a lot going on in ‘90s R&B other than the Boyz II Men syruppy slop. 


Jodeci were of the late-new jack swing era, which meant that they were producing more hard R&B songs as well as the sappy and slow softies. The videos that are representative of these two types of songs are the super-sensitive sounds of “Forever My Lady” and the weirdo, tougher but still sensitive sounds of “Feenin’”. This write-up is less to figure out what was going on with Jodeci at the time, or to figure out something about ‘90s culture, and is instead just to draw attention to the art of the ‘90s R&B video. 


“Forever My Lady” begins with soft lighting and contains the two main settings for the video: the sea side and some sort of cathedral or bath house.  It’s a great mix and what makes things even better are the costumes. It happens a lot with videos from past decades, when you wonder about the appeal of the fashion. In this first part of the video, the Jodeci boys are all wearing: white hats, white button-up sports jackets, white shorts, and black combat boots with white socks poking out above them. There’s nary a shirt to be seen.


The song focuses around typical sensitive ‘90s R&B themes of love, family and total devotion. Serious stand-outs for the video involve K-Ci skipping a rock into the ocean, K-Ci’s hand movements that mime the lyrics he’s singing, and Devante’s (I think that’s Devante) air-keytar solo at the end. He continues the keytar solo from ocean to cathedral, and back.


“Feenin” is way different and though it also hits with some muscular R&B, there are darker elements. The song focuses around how love can be so strong and addictive that you essentially become a drug fiend.  The drug fiend depicted in the video though is more like someone with serious mental problems that has been committed, and now lives in a padded room - there’s even a shot of one of the members, or an extra, wearing a diaper.


This video makes the mistake of trying to become some sort of narrative video, as shown during the star-studded poker game which attempts to explain the concept of “Feenin”.  Snoop Dog provides some very unnecessary advice (though Snoop is just making a cameo, Jodeci had other star affiliations with Missy Elliott and Timbaland both involved with the group before the song kicks into a heavy rock intro.


The song then gets into its proper form, strong drums with a really amazing sounding snare, and K-Ci’s singing providing a narrative while the video switches between scenes of him in what is possibly hell (or blacksmith forge), and in an insane asylum.


The video is half-horror movie and half-mistaken ideas about what an insane asylum might be.


Some real highlights are Suge Knight as an orderly bringing in food, the aforementioned man in a diaper, the group sing-along around the piano in the padded music room, and the topless escape scene at the end where they rip all of the padding from the walls.


Overall, I’m not really sure what these videos say about anything, or whether they do say anything, they more show the music video at one of its most confused and weird times.  The budget was there to make a big video, but people didn’t quite seem know how to do it.  A big budget just meant a couple of more costume changes and renting expensive sets.  Jodeci really took it to a weird level, and these two videos are entertaining examples.  Though for the most part it’s a good thing that the big-business music industry is failing, the one thing I’ll miss most is absurd and large scale music videos.  Animal Collective and Chairlift have shown how you can make amazing videos with a small budget, but the excessive nature of major label music videos in the ‘90s was something special.


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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
A look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.


In 1972, two days before starting the Ziggy Stardust tour, David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars stopped by the Old Grey Whistle Test to tape what would become a historic performance. When it was broadcast on February 8, 1972, no one had ever seen or heard anything like him. With his androgynous look and lyrics like “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that”, Bowie really was an alien as far as the British public was concerned. Kids in 1972 though, were starving for something unique and exciting and this legendary performance of “Five Years” is both of those things.


Magazine’s appearance on Whistle Test is nothing short of spectacular. Starting with a drum beat and bass hook that quickly gets enveloped in a mess of synthesizer noise, the song suddenly explodes with soaring guitar and keyboards. It’s somehow both dark and upbeat, angry and happy, pop and avant garde. Music that doesn’t tell you how to feel but rather lets the listeners make their own interpretation. Post-punk at it’s best.


The first thing that struck me when I first saw King Crimson’s 1982 performance of “Frame By Frame” was how much singer Adrian Belew sounded like Chris Cornell. Or rather how much Cornell sounds like Belew. The second thing I noticed was Robert Fripp’s guitar playing blowing my mind. Bassist Tony Levin, looking like Doctor Mindbender, plays an incredible instrument called the Chapmin Stick. Besides Cornell, you can hear where Thom Yorke, Tool, Primus, and countless other bands drew inspiration from.


Perhaps my favorite Whistle Test performance I’ve seen is Orange Juice doing “Rip It Up” in 1982. Edwyn Collins seems so full of nervous energy and youthful exuberance. The band sounds great and this song is a classic, somehow mixing motown, punk, ska and soul with Collins quoting the Buzzcocks and immediately acknowledging “my favorite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’”. Towards the end he’s bouncing around so much his guitar falls off. He simply puts it down and continues dancing.



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Wednesday, Feb 25, 2009

The great Smokey Robinson joins Elvis Costello for the final episode of the first season of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…, airing tonight at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel. Costello, wowed by the Motown singer-songwriter’s presence, remarks that if Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Groucho Marx all walked onto the stage, he wouldn’t be more thrilled. For his part, Robinson doesn’t disappoint. He holds court with great stories about meeting Berry Gordy for the first time, writing and recording songs for the original Motown roster, and watching on, dumbfounded, as Ray Charles wrote spontaneous arrangements for “Bad Girl” during his first performance at the Apollo Theater. In fact, Robinson keeps Costello silent for extended periods of time, which, if you’ve been watching this series from the beginning, ain’t no easy task.


Speaking of the Apollo Theater, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the entire season of Spectacle has been filmed at the legendary Harlem venue—the very place where, as Robinson notes, Ella Fitzgerald won an amateur singing competition as a teenager. Having Robinson as a guest on Spectacle, in a room that has historic significance for 20th century American R&B, is especially notable; his presence and desire to bring the conversation back to where they’re sitting makes the Apollo a more integral piece of the program.


There are performances here, as usual: Costello and his band play a few off-beat Robinson compositions, like “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”, while Robinson sings a snippet of “The Tracks of My Tears” and duets with Costello on “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”. But it’s the conversation here that really turns up the heat. The two get talking about love as the championing emotion in Robinson’s body of work, and Robinson, noting that the greatest hate is created by equally devout love, gets into an impassioned discussion about how prejudice is the most “absurd” of human emotions. It’s hard to watch this exchange, Robinson staring intensely into Costello’s eyes while Costello silently takes it all in, and not think about Costello’s infamous 1979 near-career-ending incident at a Holiday Inn in Ohio. I don’t mean to suggest that Robinson is confronting Costello here, nor do I think that Costello needs to be confronted, but the combined history of the venue with personal histories makes for some fascinating subtext.


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