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by Diepiriye Kuku

12 May 2009


I love Michael Jackson.  I would like to say that I appreciate his artistry, his mad song writing skills or his fantastic musical arrangements, all of which is certainly true. I would rather just say that I respect the sacrifices he and his family made for fame or fulfillingness’ first finale. For whatever reasons Joe and Katharine—sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson—did it, they discovered magic and/or cultivated it (most likely the latter with Tito!).  If you have ever been to Gary, Indiana you can imagine that it takes a surreal level of blood, sweat and tears for anyone, let alone a black family, to rise up out of that place. Mind you, I have never visited Gary, yet have passed by that old industrial city several times. My folks would regularly drive that route up I-65 between Louisville and Kenosha, Wisconsin to visit family. On the bypass around Gary, all my aunt would ever say is “Oh, that’s not on our way”, in response to my pleas to at least drive by the Jackson’s home, or at least see how the city has acknowledged its undoubtedly most famous offspring—or at least the ones most relevant to me. 

It was only years later that I understood that my folks just got in the habit of not stopping in any odd town along American highways, as a result of conditioning from segregation in the Jim and Jane Crow South—like so many of us, my folks hail from ‘Bama, hence real-life experiences with that chapter in American history are plentiful. It was forbidden and dangerous when they were younger to stop in unknown places. By my early teens, however, they had replaced aluminum-foil-wrapped fried chicken—no, not from that fast food chain, we fried our own and Colonel Sanders’, too—with a pit stop at Cracker Barrel. From the highway, Gary, Indiana looked mighty industrial, grey, dismal and virtually deserted. To me, Gary looked like one of those places that black people should avoid; it was clear that the Jackson family had more than a side order of We gotta get up out this place, behind some of those high “hee, hees”, snaps and slides across the floor.

by Diepiriye Kuku

3 Mar 2009


I was 31 before the lyrics to the 1987 chart-topper Pleasure Principle meant anything to me. When the song debuted, I was already a staunch Janet Jackson fan. I was the first in my seventh grade class to be able to do Janet’s famous head-bop from the song’s video- moving her neck left and right, framing her head with her right hand under the chin then the profile. Janet wore plain black pants and a T-shirt, and full kneepads for the shoot. There is even a website dedicated to the cryptic markings on JJ’s tee, and calls this clip “a perfect blend of music and motion designed to ensnare its target in a very specific way.” Alone, she danced on an equally stripped down set to showcase the most baadasssss moves since, well, her brother.  In stark contrast to the highly ornate, narrative big-budget videos that would characterize successive albums and especially the Rhythm Nation 1814 Film, Pleasure Principle- the sixth single off her 1986 album Control- was all about the dance.

Janet’s success followed her elder brother’s chart-dominating, pop precedent-setting albums Off the Wall and Thriller by only few years. Moreover, when her turn came, she took over the scene just as quickly as Michael had done as a solo artist. Stretching decades from 1982’s Thriller, every kid in any dance school around the country learned sequences from Joe and Elizabeth Jackson’s kids. By the end of 1987, even drag queens abandoned dresses for tights and jeans in order to do Janet’s now infamous run, jump, balance and leap, landing from a chair.

Janet was neither the queen nor the princess, and certainly not a dominatrix of pop music (read Madonna’s Erotica, circa 1990). By the mid- to late ‘80s, grounded in Paula Abdul’s choreography, Janet had moved beyond trendsetter to ‘norm establisher’ in popular culture; she was in control. Little Ms. Penny from Goodtimes was more than just a starlet shaking her tits-n-ass for some coins. Nevertheless, she would play that card years later at the Superbowl, absorbing all the oxygen from the short list of other high profile celebrities set to perform that day in the Superdome. As comedienne Sommore says, “does anyone even remember who sang the national anthem that year?” Rather, Ms. Jackson (‘cause I’m nasty) genuinely remains true to her heritage as entertainers- a virtual clan of griots.

The Best things in Life are Free

One of my mother’s best friends took me to see the Rhythm Nation 1814 Tour, and it was all that! Naturally, I had purchased the cassette months earlier, and had memorized every word to every song, including the B-side non-hits, and knew the moves from those classic videos. I could croon every twist and turn of Janet’s Soul ballads like Someday is Tonight, which, upon a close listen, tone for tone approximates the heart wrenching melismatic orgasm of her brother’s Lady in My Life. At that tender pre-pubescent age, my vocal range could match that of any Jackson’s. Rhythm Nation 1814’s rich album notes included lyrics to every song, which is of great importance when confronting head-on topics that the news chooses to ignore like racism, sexism, war, oppression and the legacy we bequeath to our youth. In State of the World, Janet wrote/performed:

To feed the baby before he starts to cry/No rest, no time to play/15, the mother is a runaway/No time for dreams or goals/Pressure is so strong/Her body she has sold so her child can eat/What is happening to this world we live in/In our home and other lands

Of the myriad of pop artists that talk about sex, few regard the topic from this, frank and not so uncommon perspective. Many artists simply will never go there.

That rock on your finger’s like a tumor

Janet so neatly does Black music, infusing the old with the new into a finely crafted message of active contemplation and hope for the future. I always appreciate when artists come clean about their influences and tastes; as a people we pay so little attention to our history. Michael Jackson regularly thanked James Brown, publicly testifying to copying his moves while watching him as a child entertainer.

As a budding young dancer, I scoured through every available resource to learn about big band leader Cab Calloway and acrobatic dancers The Nicholas Brothers- all truly wicked entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance who made cameo appearances in Janet’s video Alright. The popularized remix of this hit paired Janet with Heavy D, fashioning the R&B/Hip-Hop duo that others still follow. One only need witness LL Cool J and Total, Ja Rule and J-Lo, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Mariah and well, just about every other thug. Control paved the way for New Jack Swing, of which Mary J. Blige would later become its queen.

It was Control that would lay the foundation for all danceable pop music to follow. Beyond just stealing and sampling funk and disco beats, Janet’s lyrics and image covered much, much more than fanatical love and hardcore sex. Janet’s next project, Rhythm Nation 1814, was an action-packed album that not only gives ample treatise to social ills, but also incorporates entertainers that influenced Janet, on top of contemporary dope beats. Most certainly, this left little room to brag about wealth, though I suppose growing up at 2300 Jackson Street, one grows accustomed to such riches.

Like Beyoncé, Janet can pay her own fare, “It’s not the first time I’ve paid the fare,” she says, “Thank you for the ride.” She’s an Independent Woman. Yet, unlike savoring the ability to ‘buy your own’, eschewing, as she says in Pleasure Principle, “part-time bliss” for “happiness,” Janet asserts: “I’m not here to feed your insecurities. I wanted you to love me … My meter’s running I’ve really have to go!” She is interested in more than just goods. Despite the Jackson trail-blazers, so much of today’s pop encourages independent women and girls to leave love aside, opting for a cheap, material upgrades, or be Bossy, turning the tables and becoming somebody’s Suga Mamma. Today’s divas simply wallow in their own insecurities, victims of the perpetual lust for pleasure in material bliss.

by Michael Edler

28 Jan 2009


Brutal. Even for a die hard Midwesterner like myself, January weather in Chicago has been brutal this year. So brutal that I find myself wrestling with the winds and bitters of Chicago sidewalks to make my weekly treks to local record stores. Falling over sheets of ice, dirty salty air, and a need to walk hunched to avoid all but the sidewalk just in front of my next fearless step. Yep. It’s been this bad.

I have found myself dodging some current releases in order to refresh my record collection of some lost, classic American songwriting. Today’s picks were a pair of purely American originals. Tom Waits and The Band tell stories we’ve all heard before, but each give us perspective and point of view demonstrating a rich palette of Americana. I speak to albums from each artist/group: Tom Waits Franks Wild Years (sic) and The Band The Band.

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Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years

Tom Waits’ 1987 release is the music he co-wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennan. The songs became the basis for the play of the same name; performed in1986 by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The album is pure Tom Waits and I’m shocked I have never spent the time listening to the entirety of the album. It is a record that demonstrates Waits’ flexibility as a songwriter. A song like “Hang on St. Christopher” is a staple in the Waits’ catalogue, but experiments on the two versions of “Straight to the Top” demonstrate musical moxie that harkens back to Leonard Cohen and Irving Berlin more than anything contemporary to Waits. Typical of Waits’ albums, he borrows from his previous albums in songs like the previously named “Hang on St. Christopher” and “Telephone Call from Istanbul” that fit in line with some of his previous experiments in 1986’s album Rain Dogs (incidentally, the title of the album is a nod to an early song of the same name on his 1983 release Swordfishtrombones), but gently massaging his listener in different experimental directions in the songs “I’ll Take New York” and “Blow Wind Blow”. Franks Wild Years is a masterful touch from one of America’s greatest songwriters to ever grace us with his presence. Truly, a man who can write a song like “Straight to Vegas” and then three songs later (and on the same side of the record) share a song like “Cold Cold Ground” where Tom laments “Take the weathervane rooster / Throw rocks at his head / Stop talking to the neighbors / Til we all go dead / Beware of my temper / And the dog I’ve found / Break all the windows in the cold, cold ground.” shows dexterity that is pure talent, shockingly beautiful in its execution.

 

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The Band, The Band

I always have found it interesting that The Band’s second, self-titled album was a more commercially and financially accepted album on its release date than compared to their previous album, 1968’s Music From the Big Pink. The Band is a little more evenly arranged. There is a definite sense that Robbie Robertson (that’s J.R. Robertson to you and me) had a vision to the development of the track’s order and subsequent arrangement. However, I have always been more emotionally drawn to Music From the Big Pink because of exactly why The Band’s second album is so credited; because Big Pink is so uneven and spontaneous. With this being said, The Band is a beautiful collection of songs that paints a visionary tale of Americana. The first track “Across the Great Divide” sets the album in motion. Robertson’s invitation to “Grab your hat, and take that ride” calls out the listener to sit back and ride through the backroads of Americana.  The pace is continued through Reconstruction Dixie in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, continued in the songs “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Look Out Cleveland”. Each demonstrates narratives about the people and events that shaped the complicated history of America. As I listen to the album for the first time in a long while, I am reminded in how well The Band told the Oral History of an America forgotten at the end of the commercially successful “Summer of Love”.

 

So that was my weekly venture to the record stacks of Dave Records on Clark and Wellington in Chicago. Without a doubt, bitterly cold days are not the norm around Chicago, but I’ll remind those who regret setting up their shacks in the Midwest that the cold days do not prevent us from heading out, grabbing some records, and returning home to some nice beers, a bump of the volume, and hockey on the TV to remind us Januarys are a state of mind around these parts.

by Erik Gundel

21 Jun 2008


Electronica can be a cold beast. The sputters and clicks of a hard drive at work (think Autechre) certainly stimulate the brain, but personally, I rarely get the pure rush of endorphins that a perfect pop song generates. That is what makes Max Tundra’s (born Ben Jacobs) work all the more miraculous: he works in the idiom of electronic music (he has released two albums on Warp), yet his music sounds like that of a child discovering every sound and genre known to man. Mastered By Guy at the Exchange is Aphex Twin waking up on the sunny side of the bed, and “Lysine” is the afternoon trip to the beach. Over skipping percussion and a catchy analog synth line, Ben’s sister Becky Jacobs intones:

I isolate amino acids sometimes
I bottle them and sell them when the sun shines
Cold sores erupt if you don’t keep lysine levels healthy
A tingle on your lip, should come and see me

A helpful and humorous warning, no? Then the Steely Dan bridge comes in and all hell breaks loose [I’m glad Popmatters has given me the opportunity to write sentences like that]. The percussion explodes into so many pieces that I’ve spent the last six years trying to piece it together, and I enjoy it every single time. So much work must have gone into every second of the song, yet it is transcendentally fun. The wait for the next Tundra album has been long, but it is promised some time later this year. My musical blood sugar level is getting low.

by Terry Sawyer

11 Jun 2008


Okay, so the title is both an exaggeration and a reversal of proper chronology.  Wanda Jackson is a huge Elvis fan, as evidenced by her one of her most recent releases, I Remember Elvis, but I couldn’t resist the quip since nearly all writing about Wanda Jackson contains the diminishing compliment, “the female Elvis”. 

Personally, I listen to her more and get much more enjoyment from her sound than I do Elvis’ oeuvre. (Also, please note that she could really play the guitar from the very beginning of her career.) The comparison also misses the deeper country and western influence, nowhere more evident than on the song, “I Gotta Know” which almost comically accents the twang on “thang” and “rang” (ring). 

She’s still touring; I guess that’s one of the benefits of being a hard working musician over a worldwide icon.  Try to sit still through the song’s bounce and her tight little jig around the stage.  Granted, she doesn’t have the smoldering sexy that pre-Rx bloat Elvis had, but her pin-up beauty and spitfire confidence go a long way in cultivating a wholly different brand of star presence.  She should have garnered bigger fame in her time, but has to instead settle for a devoted following and a belated critical resurrection.

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