Superior Scribing

by Jason Gross

8 January 2009

Silver medal: excellent pieces of writing.

Susan Antilla: “Juilliard Dropout Plays Skid Row, Battles Schizophrenia
(Bloomberg, May 27, 2008)
The title pretty much tells you the incredible story of a down-and-out gifted musician. Not only was it compelling enough to become a book, but it’ll soon be a movie as well. Antilla is as sympathetic as the book’s author to the plight of the musician and other unfortunate street dwellers.

Tim Blanning: “Facing the Music
(New Statesman, December 11, 2008)
The idea of copyright and royalties is actually a relatively new one, which left the old European masters reliant on patronage to pay the bills. And now that gobs of music is about to revert to the public domain, musicians may have to go after patronage once again. Come to think of it, with all the commercial placement nowadays, they already have!

Mark Brown: “The Legend of Caribou
(Rocky Mountain News, January 25, 2008)
Stevie Wonder driving?  Elton John ordering fast food with his diamond glasses on? Lennon in the middle of his 14-week “lost weekend”?  Rod Stewart hauled onto a mountain top to sing high-pitched?  Yep, it all happened there at Caribou, though they need some forgiving for perpetrating Chicago hits. Also, in an excellent use of the web, Laressa Bachelor provides videos and Javier Manzano provides a photo album to bolster the story.

GJ Buckell: “Is Music Policed and Controlled?
(Independent, September 18, 2008)
More importantly, are there actually advantages to doing this? The ancient Greeks thought so, as did a Brighton council that banned a show by a reggae star who featured homophobic lyrics.

Ryan Catbird: “Catbird Mitxape”
(Muxtape, April 1, 2008)
From one of the most hilarious music bloggers around comes this bogus compilation, featuring all of your favorites? Who can resist “Some Shitty 2008 Disco Band” and their song “I Wish I Was in Vice Magazine”? And who can forget “Some Random Thing Pitchfork Gave an 8.4 To” doing “Whatever”? But then there’s the all-time classic “Band Liked by Very Well-Off, Super-Educated Urban White People” and their “Live Performance (Green Benefit for NPR Sponsored by McSweeney’s).” Ah, memories…

Jim DeRogatis: “Lollapalooza’s Promoters Address the Sponsorships, the Radius Clauses and Their Plans to Expand in Chicago
(Chicago Sun-Times, July 25, 2008)
Newspaper pioneer Alfred Northcliffe once said “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”  Such is the case when DeRogatis interrogates the Lollapalooza promoters whose radius ban on groups playing their festival effects local clubs who can’t book the same bands. They deny the problem, of course, but give DeRogatis credit for making the issue public and making them have to squirm around to answer for it.

Jeremy Eichler: “Can’t Get It Out of My Head
(Boston Globe, July 13, 2008)
Most articles about ‘home experiments’ with kids are pretty silly and uninformative. This one was very thoughtful and entertaining, including not just trying out Schoenberg on a toddler, but also getting feedback from researchers who debunk the myth of Mozart for babies, yet who also admit that although we’re a lot closer to understanding how we absorb music as tots, we still have a way to go. And as they admit, peers will have a much bigger influence on them later with musical taste, which falls in line with the thinking that online social networks are all-important here.

Marc Fisher: “Weakening Signals
(Washington Post, June 1, 2008)
RIP radio—and not just because the terrestrial kind is being replaced by satellite radio or Last.FM or iPods, but because we’re losing another great American tradition: the wacko DJ who wouldn’t just insert their outlandish personality into their show, but also their weird tastes in music. That’s not something you can easily program.

Jim Fusilli: “Older Singers Should Give the Young a Hand
(Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2008)
Speaking about some recent cover albums by Dion, James Taylor, and Seal, Fusilli reckons that unless these artists give props to a younger generation of songwriters, how are we ever gonna have newer standards?  Surely Stephin Merritt’s penned a few songs worthy of cover versions and immortality.

Mark Guarino: “In Just 13 Songs, the Many Phases of Alex Chilton
(Chicago Sun-Times, December 8, 2008)
LX has been an odd duck since the late ‘60s, but rarely has his out-of-step character been summed up so nicely and succinctly as the intro here: “He has no Web site, no album, no tour, no band, and on one spot atop his head, no hair.”  Of course, as Guarino points out, that’s part of his charm and appeal.

Diane Haithman: “The Ageless Audience
(Los Angeles Times, October 5th, 2008)
Is the audience for classical really dying off, or does the music just naturally attract converts who reach AARP status? Haithman confronts the myth and finds that the classical audience is always ‘dying off’ (literally and figuratively), but there’s also a crop taking its place each generation. Must have to do with sitting quietly for hours without a fuss…

Melik Kaylan: “Baghdad Music and Ballet School Soldiers On
(Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2008)
Though ABC News covered the same story in 2005, they didn’t include the detail that Kaylan has here, bringing you right into the lives of these brave artists who are struggling not just to make it in their field, but also to stay alive despite the ‘success’ of the US troop surge.

Daniel J. Levitan: “Do You Hear What I Hear?
(Wall Street Journal, December 12, 2008)
An author who’s already got us thinking long and hard about how we’re attracted to music dives into the holiday season to look at those yuletide songs that we hear again and again, and which drive us nuts when we hear them repeated in every store. It turns out that the communal experience is good for us, especially in this age of personalized music.

John Nova Lomax: “Houston Has a Bad Reputation with Touring Indie Bands
(Houston Press, July 10, 2008)
The sad, depressing story of a city of four million people minus an indie scene. An insane incident of police over-reacting in ‘06 to a club show didn’t help, but Lomax’s well-documented research points to more problems: “mediocre bands, terrible radio, second-rate venues, poor public transportation, killer sprawl, and a diverse populace of mildly paranoid, cynical souls.”  Not to mention some eye-opening info about how diversity may not always be what it’s cracked up to be.

Mike Masnick: “Why a Music Tax Is a Bad Idea
(TechDirt, December 9th, 2008)
A nice explanation of why a universal tax to pay off the labels (evenly distributed, right?) ain’t gonna solve the problems of the rest of the industry (i.e. musicians). Plus, Masnick has other ideas about what musicians can do to survive.

Charlie Moran: “Ad Songs of the Year
(Advertising Age, December 15, 2008)
Maybe you’re still resistant to your favorite songs being used in ads, but Moran picks up some great match-ups, many of which you might not have heard about before, including Saul Williams for Nike, Ennio Morricone for Nike, Liars for Timex, and Vashti Bunyan for Reebok. Some of them are good enough to make you actually enjoy the commercials too, which means that they’ve done their job well indeed.

Simon Napier-Bell: “The Life and Crimes of the Music Biz
(Guardian, January 20, 2008)
Not that his own hands are clean, or that he’s got all his facts right, but Simon Napier-Bell (who managed the Yardbirds and Wham! among others) has some amusing stories about the last few decades of the biz. A handful of clueless major labels whose primary interests were other industries?  That’s not just the post-millennium music biz, it’s also the way it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Napier-Bell paints the era as not much of a golden age, unless you think good business practices include choking out a hit songwriter/producer, or signing one bad contract after another for a band, or a label head telling Dylan to drop the religious act since “you were born Jewish, which makes your religion money.”  The bad news is that little has changed in the biz overall: “Imagine the outcry if people working in a factory were told that the cost of the products they were making would be deducted from their wages, which anyway would only be paid if the company managed to sell the products. Or that they would have to work for the company for a minimum of 10 years and, at the company’s discretion, could be transferred to any other company at any time.”

Tor Nørretranders: “Permanent Reincarnation
(The Edge, January 2008)
In their annual big question to “the most complex and sophisticated minds” (including more PhD’s than the entire Ivy League faculty, along with Alan Alda and Brian Eno), this publication wanted the eggheads to explain what they changed their minds about. This writer/consultant/lecturer/author came up with a fascinating revelation: we’re all in a state of constant reincarnation, as our cells continually die and get replaced throughout most of our body. How does he turn this into plain-speak?  “... digital media now makes it possible to think of all this in a simple way. The music I danced to as a teenager has been moved from vinyl-LPs to magnetic audio tapes to CDs to Pods and whatnot. The physical representation can change and is not important—as long as it is there. The music can jump from medium to medium, but it is lost if it does not have a representation.”

Alex Petridis: “Things Really Must Be Bad- AC/DC Are No 1 Again
(Guardian, October 27, 2008)
Petridis isn’t a noted economist, but his financial theories that connect economic calamity and AC/DC’s rises and falls are compelling enough that Paul Krugman should consider them. Rather than a $750 million bailout of banks and investment houses, maybe the US government should instead force a downturn of Angus and friends to help the worldwide crisis. And they still put on a helluva show…

Joe Queenan: “Admit It, You’re as Bored as I Am
(Guardian, July 9, 2008)
The humorist is well versed in classical, even if he’s not a fan of the 20th century canon. Still, he provides some good insights about why this music doesn’t reach a larger audience in the classical world. “Even when the public embraces the new, what it is really looking for is the old” is pretty sharp, and this bit is truer than a lot of avant types would like to admit: “The central problem in writing music targeting hipsters is that even hipsters one day stop being hip, and get replaced by hipsters who want their own brand of annoying music.”

Tony Sclafani: “Invasion of the Grammy Girls
(MSNBC, February 4, 2008)
Isn’t it great that the latest crop of new-comers is mostly women?  The Beatles and Elvis once set the pace for pop stardom, but now it’s the girls who rule. Too bad that many of them now follow the same road to excess that their male counterparts once travelled as part of the template, too… But why does Idolator need to pick on this story?  Granted that women in rock stories are a cliché by now, but that doesn’t mean there there’s no longer some wisdom to gather from it from time to time.

Daniel Scheide: “Tzadik Ka-Tamar Yifrah: Radical Jewish Culture & the Future of Jewish Music
(Association of Jewish Libraries, June 23, 2008)
Or more specifically, John Zorn’s take on Radical Jewish Culture, including how being a Jewish musician may not (or may) make the end result part of Jewish culture.

Douglas Wilson: “Opinion: Grand Pianola Game Music
(Game Set Watch, October 7, 2008)
An area that definitely deserves more exploration—how does music fit (or not fit) into video games?  In the case of Civilization IV, it’s a great match because composer John Adams’s music not only makes a good soundtrack, Wilson also argues that it was custom-made (if not composed) for the game and makes a perfect fit. He’s also got a good bead on Adams’s work: “Channeling the folksy spirit of Aaron Copland and the minimalist grooves of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Adams captures the ambiguity and cautious optimism of the times. His music, oscillating between the pastoral and the industrious, evokes the unstoppable onslaught of progress, and includes just enough whimsy to be comfortably placed into a game setting.”  Alex Ross definitely wouldn’t argue with that.

Unknown Writer: “R. Kelly: Dickipedia entry
(May 2008?)
Unlike its more popular namesake, Dickipedia (which tracks the careers of assholes and what makes them suck) doesn’t have a system to track edits to entries, though some of this was written in 2008, according to the links on the page and the updates from Kelly’s then-recent trial. One thing’s for sure, though—the Osama section is a keeper: “R. Kelly also once suggested in an interview that ‘the only one’ who knew exactly what he was ‘going through’ was Osama bin Laden. This comparison is not entirely off-base, considering that bin Laden is another inflammatory amateur filmmaker currently facing multiple criminal charges, who also has a fondness for virgins.”

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