Superior Scribing

by Jason Gross

14 January 2008

Silver medal: excellent pieces of writing.

Andy Borowitz: “U.S. Bombards Iraq with Arcade Fire Hype
(Borowitz Report, March 8, 2007)
“... even as American cargo planes blanketed insurgent positions with reprints of Arcade Fire puff pieces from The New Yorker and The New York Times, Iraqi insurgents fiercely fought off the waves of relentless indie band hype… ‘I know the Americans’ game, and I won’t fall for it,’ (insurgent leader Hassan) El-Medfaii said. ‘They tried this a couple of years ago with The Strokes.’”

David Byrne: “David Byrne’s Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists—and Megastars
(Wired, December 18, 2007)
Who better than this tech-savvy bon vivant to explain the in’s and out’s of doing business in the Net age? This should be required reading not just for newbie musicians, but for old hands too. Maybe even the major labels could learn something from him.

Chris Cadelego “Forget MTV: Apple’s iPod ads are the next music-star makers
(San Francisco Chronicle, November 24, 2007)
Once considered an anathema and the destroyer of anything authentic in rock, it turns out that commercials may be its savior with less and less options through the old outlets. One Apple ad can mean the difference between obscurity and a splash. What does that mean for the whole concept of “selling out” now?

Chet Flippo: “WSM-AM is Part of Country Music History
(CMT News, November 29, 2007)
A toast to the station that launched the Grand Ole Opry, this is a poignant observation of how the station was dragged into talk radio and why this trend is prevalent and unfortunately part of the present-day American landscape. “This is the same sort of corporate mind-think that has led to such profitable ventures as wholesale strip mining, clear-cutting entire forests, over-fishing the oceans, outsourcing jobs, pimping sub-prime mortgages, using cheap lead paint in toys, eliminating pillows and blankets and food on airline flights and cutting one-pound bags of coffee down to 12 ounces without cutting the price. These all carry different degrees of severity of offense to the world and its inhabitants, but all are done with the same intent: making as much money as possible as quickly as possible by any means possible.”

Patrick Goldstein: “The Big Picture: A House Subcommittee Calls All Foul Mouths”
(Los Angeles Times, September 25, 2007)
As the government looks to scapegoat entertainment as the cause of society’s ills again, Goldstein takes the proposition seriously, wondering out loud what we should legitimately protect as “art” or “free speech”. “...As entertainment has become edgier and less refined, it has been increasingly difficult to draw a firm line between unsettling art and vulgar trash.” And then comes the big question that no one has an answer to yet: “It’s one thing to nod your head in agreement when a silver-tongued talk-show host advocates getting rid of all that insulting language until you start to wonder: Who’s in charge of defining what’s degrading and how far are they going to take it?”

Ivan Hewett: “Karlheinz Stockhausen
(The Guardian, December 7, 2007)
You’d think that with publications stocking obits in advance (what, you didn’t know?) that they could have come up with something better than the usual factoids when one of the most noted (albeit cantankerous) composers of the 20th century dies. But just like James Brown, another 20th century icon, Stocky got his true props in few places. Hewett’s piece not only plotted out his place in history, but also the importance of his work. Maybe it’s because the Stock-man didn’t garner good press like Reich or Glass, who’ll surely get much better posthumous treatment.

Hannah Higham: “To Criticise the Critics
(Guardian blog, June 21, 2007)
A fine pithy argument that scribes’ ultimate loyalty is to readers (tipping them off at least and at best, getting them to think hard) and not their subjects (musicians). Higham is also wise enough to realize that critics don’t have total control over what breaks into mass audience consciousness and what doesn’t, which is why the charts rarely reflect critic polls.

Valerie Michele Hoskins: “CD Sales Based on Album Artwork, Cover Design
(Associated Content,January 9, 2007)
It would have been nice to see some historical perspective, maybe a survey and not such a quick shift into marketing territory, but Hoskins does cover the nuts-and-bolts of the subject well enough to make you think about your own purchases based on eye candy.

Maura Johnston: “Overheated World of Music Blogging Results in a Few Cases of Exhaustion
(Idolator, October 9, 2007)
A plea for better standards in music blogs? A complaint about how they’re empty-headed PR machines now? A demand to promote “great, not just good” music? All of the above is somewhere in here and also warranted.

Marty Kaplan: “Tell Me What You Watch (And Listen To, and Read), And I’ll Tell You How You Vote
(Huffington Post, November 11, 2007)
Well, not exactly… I’m a country fan, but I don’t consider myself “red state” material, for instance and even as a bleeding heart, I can’t believe that every conservative is closed-minded about music. Still, the demographics that he comes up with are interesting and at the very least entertaining. They also point to how divided we Americans are not just in our politics, but also our tastes.

Jonathan Lethem: “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism
(Harpers, February 2007)
The title already ruins the punchline, which is that the great author (no sarcasm here) appropriated almost all of his material from elsewhere to make a point about the over-copyrighted nature of the entertainment industry. If some of the prose wasn’t so stilted to begin with, he might have gotten away with it easier, but his point is well-taken.

Tony Long: “RIAA Hits a Sour Note With Its File-Sharing Witch Hunt
(Wired, October 11, 2007)
After they’re beat up on defendant Jammie Thomas and tried to make her the poster child for the evils of downloading, the RIAA now faces the prospect of looking like a bunch of mean-spirited jerks who beat up on little people. Of course, they’ve had their rep since they’ve started their lawsuits against downloaders, but now the mass of music fans cheering their inevitable downfall is going to keep growing. A ‘pyrrhic victory’ for sure, as Long notes.

Dave Margolick: “The Day Louis Armstrong Made Noise
(New York Times, September 23,2007)
Putting the lie to the myth of Satchmo’s Uncle Tom persona, the great entertainer didn’t stay quiet about civil rights in its early days (specifically 1957), including some profane knocks not just at a racist governor, but also the president. Even more remarkable, his outrage got results, as Eisenhower sent troops to back up African-American students who wanted to attend school in Little Rock.

Seth Mnookin: “Universal’s CEO Once Called iPod Users Thieves. Now He’s Giving Songs Away
(Wired,November 27, 2007)
The title is the good news. The bad news is that a major label exec insists that not only is he clueless about technology (i.e. the Net), but he doesn’t think that he or the other majors could have understood the online revolution when Napster first appeared. Also, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t take the advice of the author: “Ultimately, it’s convenience and ease of use that drive new media formats. That’s why cassettes made inroads against records, why CDs killed them both, and why MP3s are well on their way to burying CDs. Morris is right when he says music is more popular than ever, but he’s wrong to assume that will automatically lead to higher profits for the major labels.”

Paul Morley: “Northern Lights
(The Observer, September 16, 2007)
Through 28 snippets, Morley recreates the atmosphere of a Joy Division bio-pic, telling the story not just of the previously unknown leading man, but also a world famous photographer becoming a film-maker and Ian Curtis’ former bandmates having to painfully relive his breakdown and suicide again and again in celluloid form.

Andrew Adam Newman: “Things Turn Ugly in the Hack Vs. Flacks War
(New York Times, November5, 2007)
Chris Anderson, Wired editor, The Long Tail author, had it up to here with PR people so he created a huge public blacklist and controversy with the PR people who he says have to personalize their correspondence instead of bulk mailing it. Some wrote to Anderson, begging to get off his shit list afterwards, while others actually tried to start a class action lawsuit in his comments section of his site. And he left us to wonder what the right mix of promo and annoyance is in our little writer/publicist dance that goes on in this business.

Sean O’Hagan: “Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve
(The Guardian, January 28, 2007)
True that he flails all over the place about the loss of not just cassettes, but also album covers and liner notes, but it’s still a worthy, heart-felt piece on what we lose when we digitize our music. And as a bonus, some words of wisdom from Green Gertside: “I don’t think the passing of any medium is going to change the urge people have to inflict their music collection on others.” Amen!

Robert J. Oxoby: “On the Efficiency of AC/DC: Bon Scott versus Brian Johnson
(University of Calgary, May 7, 2007)
Sadly, it turned out that this wasn’t a real academic paper, but even as an accidental hoax, it turned out tobe a hoot. The subjects did listen to AC/DC, but they were accidentally asked to differentiate between the same songs. Needless to say, they couldn’t tell the difference. That doesn’t necessarily mean they could have told the difference between different AC/DC songs anyway. As Angus Young himself once said “Our albums aren’t the same, they have different covers!”

Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich: “Lohan, Hilton, Spears: The Media’s Insatiable Appetite for Celebrity Addicts
(Women’s eNews, September 17, 2007)
With all of the blunt, painful assessments of these fallen celebrities, here’s a grim, brutal look at the unglamorous side of addiction and depravation that we don’t hear about in the tabloids. Makes you wonder why anyone makes headlines out of this or wants to read about it just because a celebrity is involved. Are we all just rubber-neckers at heart or do we just like to see the famous and powerful fail?

Patti Smith: “Ain’t It Strange
(New York Times, March 12, 2007)
As humble and polite as her late mother and late husband requested she would be when she would receive the honor of being a Hall of Fame inductee. It’s an honor she herself never thought she’d achieve. And as poetic and cosmic as she’s always been in her best songs.

Various Writers: “James Brown
(1st of the Month, February 2007)
Finally! A James Brown tribute for real, including bookend poems by Amiri Baraka as well as thoughts and memories from Chuck D. and John Leland and also great and detailed essays from Charles O’Brien (about “Sex Machine”), Mel Watkins (about the show that became Live at the Apollo Volume II) and W.T. Lhamon Jr. (on a mid-‘80s obscurity). Also there’s this moving, spot-on observation from Watkins: “Like Aretha, Sam Cooke, and, later, Marvin Gaye, he was a both a symbol and personification of the grassroots black musical heritage that wielded such tremendous influence on America’s popular culture during the latter part of the 20th century.” By comparison, most of the obits about Brown covered the same routine ground about his life, never really capturing the magnitude of his achievements and accomplishments.

Matthew Westwood: “Sound Theory Helps Unlock Mind’s Intricacies
(The Australian,November 15, 2007)
Along with Oliver Sacks, Clive Robbins and his decades-long work is proof positive of the power of music to move our minds and soul, having advanced the field of music therapy forward like few others. In a better world, every medical facility would make use of his work.

Saul Williams: “An Open Letter to Oprah
(The Industry Cosign, April 20, 2007)
Too bad that someone didn’t spell check this a little better and you wish he could shorten his bio, but Williams gets at the heart of sexism and violence in rap that’s taken a rap. How different is the former in religious studies or the later in our current foreign policy? Wish he also said that one doesn’t excuse the other, but his points are well-taken.

Jimi Yamagishi: “McCartney album review
(Music Thoughts mailing list, July 12, 2007)
“More trite rhymes, redundant structures, cliches elementary melodic structures than some of the worst demos I’ve gotten all year. I’d have been embarrased (sic) to put my name on it (though I’d be glad to take home the royalty checks). It only works because the artist fairly well-known and respected.” A little harsh, but much more honest than most of the puffy reviews Macca got. Yamagishi should know something: he works with the L.A. Songwriters Network.

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