once i had a nightmare: bruce springsteen was appearing with u2. i woke to find it was real.
listen to them pound and bellow and extreme-emote through this tuneless yet operatic falderal. i'm looking and seriously wondering: can anybody want to listen to that? but i guess they do. myself, i'd rather be gnawed to death by pretentious gerbils, which is quite what that feels like. eventually, people will have a sudden awakening, like what am i listening to? geez, who am i, really? i could be listening to anything, and yet i chose to listen to that. perhaps i should strangle myself to death with my bare hands and abandon this veil of bilge. as i do so, i can take comfort in the fact that in this process my facial expressions and vocal stylings will come more and more to resemble the boss's in that performance. or perhaps someone who loves me will commit me involuntarity to a treatment facility for white tastelessness. at a minimum, if you can get through that video, you should engage in some withering aesthetic self-reflection.
American High Renaissance
By Crispin Sartwell
My Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael are Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, and Biggie Smalls.
Certain periods of art history seem unaccountably potent. For example, the Italian High Renaissance is represented as an almost momentary perfection, a sublime height of human aesthetic expression. Indeed, perhaps on certain accounts, art has been in decline ever since, or at least has rarely or never reached such heights again.
I think that we have lived and are living through a similar period, and I propose that American popular music of the twentieth century was an artistic high point comparable to the sixteenth century in Italy, or the classical age of Greece. No, I am not kidding.
Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Thomas Dorsey, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Public Enemy, the Ramones, Lucinda Williams, Eminem: these are artists as great, in my view, as the High Renaissance masters or classical Greek sculptors, and it would surprise me if there was a comparable set of musical achievements anywhere in the world at any time.
This tradition, it seems to me, has produced things as beautiful, as moving, as intense, as intelligent, and as challenging as the painting and sculpture of the Italian High Renaissance, and things with far more effect on far more people around the world.
If these claims appear absurd, it's probably partly because of the suspicion, at the high end of the art world, of popular or commercial art, art with a mass audience. None of the artists mentioned above were trained at Julliard or spent the summers of their youth at Tanglewood. The way people experience this music is to go out dancing or buy records or listen to the radio. But surely few people, on reflection, would assert that the greater the number of people who like something, the worse it is.
Indeed, American popular music is, more or less, the world's popular music. There is no corner of the planet it hasn't penetrated, no culture whose music is unaffected by it. This, I think, is because of its great power: its emotional immediacy, its relentless formal and technological development, the way it helps bodies move or demands that they move.
Now the fine/popular art distinction is problematic in a thousand ways, but as Pierre Bourdieu among others has asserted, one of its problems is class: fine art as the art of rich people and those who aspire to that status, as opposed to the popular arts of the commoners. One approaches high or fine art seriously, but one approaches popular music in order to be entertained. The idea that people take pleasure in it and so want to buy it, itself seems to undermine its aesthetic quality.
All this is irrelevant snobbery, and the notion that Bartok is more formally challenging than Ellington is unsustainable. And indeed, the art music of the twentieth century, even with its tiny audience of culture mavens, is inconceivable without jazz, which started to be incorporated into 'classical' music almost at the moment jazz recordings appeared.
The classical music tradition has been marked by people sitting politely and trying not cough while large groups of musicians read sheet music and play it as written. Louis Armstrong never played the same solo twice, and the formal innovations he instituted were made on the fly, in response to the audience and the other musicians. The risk of this approach is higher - you make mistakes. But the rewards are higher too: sudden flashes of unaccountable genius perfectly suited to their musical and social contexts.
Listen to the early cadenza on "West End Blues" or the cornet solo on "Chimes Blues": perfect compositions that can only emerge at the right instant. One might say the same of Jimi Hendrix on "Little Wing", for example. The entire high art musical tradition, I believe, can show nothing comparable, nothing as compelling, nothing as connected to human happiness or to the truth.
You might think the music of Alan Jackson or Kacey Musgraves is just hicks playing cornpone. But it has told and still tells real stories about real people. I am going to assume that even art snobs occasionally experience things like lost love or addiction. I don't think there's any reason that great art should avoid the human condition or fail to express emotion, and I don't think the fact that a piece of music is aimed at non-rich southern white people itself shows that it is not aesthetically excellent. If you think so, you need to re-think your attitudes toward art and human beings from the bottom up.
Of course, popular music is connected to capitalism, and this itself appears to disqualify it among art snobs, who strongly prefer their art to be funded by the state or approved by the Pew foundation. (Perhaps they should reflect on the relation of the sgovernment and the foundation themselves to capitalism, to begin with.) But the fact that Run DMC and Patsy Cline were trying to sell records meant that they were in constant dialogue with their people: they both tried to give the record-buyer or concert-goer what they wanted, and to show them what they might want next.
And the fact that popular music has had a huge audience has also made it an incomparable cultural index. There are few clearer windows, for example, onto race, gender, class, and sexuality. If Tammy Wynette sang "Stand By Your Man" and Loretta Lynn "The Pill" almost simultaneously, they showed the lives and values of women in transition. You could take Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" or Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" as ways into the American racial situation, and as among the most powerful statements by black people of what this has been like. And remarkably, precisely because these are works of mass art, the songs communicate the experiences across the lines that divide us.
The music that helps create cohesion among sub-cultures also communicates these cultures, potentially, to anyone. And the whole thing leads to a thousand problematic and liberating personal and artistic crossings: white folks slumming in Harlem to see Fletcher Henderson; hip hop's production of wiggers; Benny Goodman's work with Charlie Christian or Billie Holiday; Elvis Presley's synthesis of hillbilly and jump blues; Mahalia Jackson performing at a peace rally; Eminem's long collaboration with Dr. Dre.
Popular music has been central to liberation movements, and all over the world, musicians from oppressed groups are still taking Public Enemy as a model. Probably the greatest achievement of the century in this dimension is the music Bob Marley, and in general one of the few rivals to American music in the late twentieth century was the music of Jamaica. But Marley would be the first to tell you that there's no Jamaican pop without American rhythm and blues. And the Jamaican ska, rock steady, and reggae styles have been feeding back into American pop since perhaps 1970.
The British had a pretty good pop run, but if you think you could get anything like the Beatles or the Stones without American rhythm and blues, you might talk to the surviving members of those groups. Both started out as blues and soul buffs and cover bands. The Beatles would not have existed at all without people like Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers.
But there's no need to get captured by musical nationalism, and we should recognize everyone's achievements as far as we can. What I will insist on is that art history has produced few objects in any medium as moving in every sense, or as true, or as transformational in as many dimensions as "I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow", "Hellhound on My Trail", "Folsom Prison Blues", Biggie's "Suicidal Thoughts", "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", "Body and Soul", "Great Balls of Fire", "Sweet Old World".
In short, American popular music has been central to social identities, connected to real people's real lives, an agent of personal and societal transformation, and an incomparable source of collective and individual expression and pleasure. The world had never seen its like before, and I'm not sure it ever will again.
Perhaps the American High Renaissance is over, or has transitioned into a new Mannerism or an international, postmodern Baroque. On the other hand, the Baroque was pretty impressive as well, and popular music continues to be our most vital art.
[piece i couldn't sell]
Besides being a frustrated card counter hanging out in Atlantic city on weekends -- he counts the cards ok, but the cheating makes him break out in hives -- Mr. Sartwell put himself through various levels of education by alternately stealing hubcaps and vandalizing heavy construction equipment or writing rock and roll criticism.
Having an actual philosopher who actually knows something about the subject teaching American popular music to a college class is pretty amazing; usually this is done by musicologists who are tired of not getting the difference between a rondo and a fugue across to a composition class; or, someone who majored in "American Studies" and is just scavenging around the edge. So it's cool...good for him, and good for his students.
Of course, all is not well. Crispy responds to a comment below indicating that the students seem alienated and bored. Well shit, man, they expected that you'd just have them listen to the Clash for a semester. Anarchist philosophy prof who lives in an old schoolhouse -- what the hell else would they expect?
Here's another example:
The original by some teenagers from Detroit in prom dresses:
And then about 15 years later, there was this, recorded in Cobo Hall, Detroit:
Compare, contrast and evaluate listing influences and examples...
you know i have loved lucinda williams a lot for a long time. but not every single time out, and i guess i am just not feeling the new one, down where the spirit meets the bone. her virtues are related to her vices, as with so many of us. so first of all, sometimes she just tells you very flatly. this has worked great. here it often flops.
You got the power to make this mean ole world a better place.
You got the power to make this mean ole world a better place.
People say they hate you, try to kill you, while they're grinning in your face.
You got the power to make this mean ole world a better place.
Before you can have a friend, you gotta be one.
Before you can have a friend, you gotta be one.
You gotta do the right things, gotta jump on in and see that it gets done.
Before you can have a friend, you gotta be one,
she sings on 'everything but the truth'. um. 'have compassion for everyone you meet. for those you encounter, have compassion'. sometimes specifically when she's not on, lyrically or melodically, she seems to compensate with length, as on the unfortunate 'something wicked this way comes'.
but here's my specific complaint, and it applies also to her album little honey (2008): she sounds depressed and bitter, almost throughout, which is one reason all the inspirational-style lyrics ring false. she almost tries to reproduce 'sweet old world' in 'i look at the world', but the amazing affirmation that stopped the heart the first time is just gone.
judging from her lyrics, lucinda williams has devoted her life to romantic love. nothing is greater or truer according to her songs, even as she suffers again and again. maybe now she's suffered too damn much from romantic love, and anyway, it is hard to know how to deal with these things, quite, in your sixties. not like a princess twirling around in a new dress, that's for sure. she seems to have followed this thing down the road to despair. i can understand how that happens to someone around our phase of life, but i don't necessarily like to listen to its incessant product. for example: "burning bridges" (one of the better songs); "east side of town" ("you wanna see what it means to suffer, you wanna see what it means to be down, then why don't you come over..."; well, when you put it like that... it's about a whining contest; she's literally arguing with her ex about who is more miserable); or the desperate slog through "cold day in hell"; etc.
[she's recycling her melodies here too, as elsewhere.]
it was predictable, because lucinda always devoted herself to love on the dark side: the guy was always ecstasy, then agony: a junkie, a suicide, a faithless but beautiful poet. it just could not end well. so the question is, now that it hasn't: watcha gonna do, sweetie? because you need to really reconcile yourself to your life now, or really learn its joys, if you are going to do your best work, and i really want you to do your best work, because your best work is the best there is.
"i need protection from the enemy of rock and roll", she sings. right. find your joy again, the joy "he took". and i would suggest that this joy is not going to be a young man anymore. maybe it never was. if you try that approach again, you will be even more embittered by the next album in 2016, if that's possible. the great stuff always came from you, lucy, not from your male muses. on the other hand, love could still be possible, and a question is: what can it be now, for your veteran's heart and ageing body? you're not alone in that dilemma; maybe you could speak for us. you are not going to fix the lucinda of 1980.
taylor swift turned out to be just as divisive at the art institute of chicago as she is on instagram, where you have to choose up sides between taytay and katy. so here's a great video for an excellent song. one thing is that it kind of elaborately updates and complexifies the fairy-tale romeo-juliet situations she used to write about in high school. like i say, i think the project all along has been autobiographical, and in its own way i read this as both a mythologization of herself and a sincere and pretty self-reflective and self-critical memoir. it's also a cultural commentary, about the blank space of american privilege and its aesthetics and what love can possibly mean in that context, about the diva figure and what it's like to live in a britney/lindsaylohan bubble, and so on. just introducing cell phones to the fairy-tale wasp mansion works well in this regard, and the man is just, as it were, a blank space filler. his face is great, his personality meaningless; he could be any dude that sort of looks like a kennedy. is she becoming a blank space too? she is asking herself, and the only way she avoids just mutating into a mannequin, the only way she holds onto something human, is by going mad. her memoir and the cultural commentary can coincide perfectly, because right at this moment she is the culture.
i'm teaching a first-year seminar on 'american popular musics'. it is a great time to teach a course like this because everygoddamthing is on youtube. it's amazing the footage you can have instant access to through a casual search. so anyway, i guess i've been building a sketch of the history through playlists.
more to come in rock and hip hop.
alright taylor. first let me drop my little tears. as someone who is very identified with country, i regret the loss. on the other hand, the genre should have nothing but gratitude for her songs, her persona, and her demographic effect. also, the extent to which country song forms are actually distinct from other pop songforms is not all that dramatic. really she's often writing in the same vein as ever, and a mandolin ring would transform it into a country song. also one misgiving overall: i do feel that vocal effects are used excessively. that is one way you signal 'pop' now. i think the emphasis on vocal effects in pop has gone on too long and has run its course. it's not interesting anymore. i think it will make the pop music of 2005-2015 sound pretty dated and kitschy pretty soon. also, taylor just does not need this, or not on so many songs; she's a beautiful singer, often on multiple soaring simultaneous tracks. it does work on some of these songs very well, however; but if i were mixing the album i would de-process vocals throughout.
certain of her very great strengths as a songwriter are well-suited to a country frame; she often wants to tell stories. she still does that on some cuts here. she has also had astonishing moments of writing in personae - an abused boy on 'mean', for example, a 'barbie on the boardwalk, summer of '45' on 'starlight'. i think there's less scope for moves like that on the sort of pop anthems that dominate 1989. and i'm just going to say it: from multiple points of view including dad, i liked the relatively innocent romantic persona that taylor constructed as a country star. i'm not that into what katy and miley portray themselves as getting up to on a given friday.
but if taylor were to continue to sort of portray the small-town high school sweetheart or something, it'd be straight fake at this point. and i do think that her basic project is an autobiography; she really has, i think, sung quite thoughtfully and honestly about her own life at every stage, though of course she is also mythologizing her own life or dramatizing it shamelessly, yet with evident sincerity. this is very much what touches young women and also other people about her music. (like say you've been watching your daughters grow up, move to new york, and stuff.) and she seemingly effortlessly treats her own story as emblematic; you know she wrote '15' when she was 15 (well, maybe 16), '22' when she was 22, and the stories she told in those songs really did take on a funky universality in their specificity, like a good memoir should. (listen back to '15' and realize it really is about her best friend, who has told her own story, and loves that taylor told it.)
[take in the audience response. each girl in that crowd is her.]
so look she's on the cover of every magazine, dating hot pop stars or whatever, jetting around the world. i am going to say that might be a hard story to tell honestly. but i really think that within the parameters of pop music she has done so. the album represents a move to new york (already in process on red) and that represents a stage of life - hers, and others'.
it's in the lyrics, but it's in the music on multiple levels; everything gathers around this transition. taylor's writing is remarkably sophisticated, and here the styles of music - often leaning on a version of the '80s-revival synths currently in fashion - themselves have an autobiographical force; her music now corresponds to how she lives now. within this frame, many of the greatest strengths come through just fine on 1989. for example, as i've said before, the transitional elements of a taylor swift song - intro, bridge, ending, and so one - are always frigging perfect. also her lyric turns of phrase are consistently better than they need to be, which is especially evident with the pop frame. 'i'm a nightmare dressed like a daydream'. 'boys only want love if it's torture'. 'the monsters turned out to be just trees.' "i can read you like a magazine". "band-aids can't fix bullet holes." often the phrase and thought is almost familiar, but has some element of displacement or reversal. taylor was never a cliche; she has always been a cliche with a twist.
in other words, she writes a perfect pop song, and she does that here over and over. within these parameters there is a wide range of moods. also, even more than usual - and again appropriately to the genre shift - there are earworms galore; it's very head-infesting. 'how you get the girl' has a kind of perfect ethereal lightweight synth-pop thing going that works beautifully with that lighter-than-air soprano. maybe a little echo of ed sheeran, here and elsewhere.
'bad blood' would be another example of the earworm effect, and the basic form is an arena-full of fist-waving taylors chanting the hook. maybe it's partly about katy perry and partly in the style of katy perry, and in general i would say taylor's friendships and musical fanships are inscribed throughout, again as part of the memoir. (something tells me that even with all the love stuff, there's nothing taylor swift cares about more than music.) so apparently she's very close to lorde (what a great witchy yinyang), and lorde's infuence appears again and again, either directly (as on 'i know places') or passed through several stages. it doesn't feel derivative; it feels like taylor has really incorporated the whole thing into her own life and hence style. 'wildest dream' sure owes a lot to lana del rey, but obviously it is taylor not lana (not least on the bridge), and the mood is wistful, not suicidal.
right now i think the strongest songs are, first, "out of the woods", which is a good capsule of the album and just an outstanding piece of song-building.
and i do gravitate to the slowest and most meditative moments. few people can write a pure love song as well as she can ('sad, beautiful, tragic', e.g.). and i give you 'this love', flirting with valentine's-day cliches, but such a beautiful and subtle and also simple melody, and such a beautiful vocal arrangement, with an underlying melancholy. my favorite song is the one that ends the album: 'clean'. you wouldn't think someone could do a compellingly fresh version of 'i'm addicted to your love', but there it is, and it also marks the transition of taylor into someone who, perhaps, has been exposed to things like drugs and drug problems. quietly, it is a masterpiece: "the drought was the very worst, when the flowers that we'd grown together died of thirst...'
they've kept the album off youtube so far pretty effectively. but maybe this is better anyway. all over america, girls are up in their bedrooms working up these songs. this one really gives an intense and beautiful rendition; it's a good representation of the spirit of the song, and of what taylor means.
yes, i will be assessing sailor twift's 1989 after a day or two to absorb it (i'll give you something on the new lucinda too). i think when i first hopped on (with my daughter, circa speak now), people were all like "i hate that poppy auto-tuned bullshit!" to which i responded: i can hardly imagine a critic listening attentitively to this album and not coming away impressed. that has been borne out: she is a critical darling, and even brats who hate everything but indie dirge-pop can't frigging help themselves.
i do have some concerns about the decline of rock criticism, however, perhaps encapsulated by the lead of marlow stern's review in the daily beast. of the best pop songs, stern writes, "Ever present, they absorb the viscous lava of contempo culture through their pores, let it course through their veins ‘til a diffuse plexus of melodies and rhythms form, and then release the bubbly potion onto an unsuspecting audience." dave marsh and greil marcus might have been kind of boring and predictable in their opinions - they might still be - but they didn't write sentences like that, and if they (or we) did, their editors didn't wave them through. maybe it's supposed to be lesterbangsy? lord.
i guess the people i read most in the msm these days are the folks on the guardian: alex petridis (who loved the taylor album) and kitty empire, for example. i do think sasha frere-jones in the new yorker is good, so i'll give the old monocled one that.
alright, so, i started writing rock criticism at the washington star in 1980. i was a copy boy; our critic was on vacation when i started but i got to do records and shows by people like the ramones, clash, bb king. then the star croaked and i went to grad school in baltimore. i wrote for the city paper through the early 80s: hundreds of shows and records. it's funny to think the free-circ urban weekly should be shrouded in nostalgia now; really we did generate a lot of content. i was watching the wire recently, and noticing that rafael alvarez was all over the writing credits; he was all over the cp then. jd considine, who i started reading when he dominated the old baltimore news-american, was in the sun and then the rolling stone publications, so that was a a kind of model, though i'd have to say the actual critical approach was a counter-model.
so in the usual fashion i sent out clips, and soon i was reviewing for a number of mags. record magazine was probably the main outlet; it was a sub-rolling stone put out by the rolling stone dedicated entirely to music. but i guess i sort of knew the rs-type critics and editors of that era (anthony decurtis, for example), mostly at a distance. i reviewed many amazing shows and many turkeys, from donna summer and pat benatar to flipper and the dead boys, run dmc and the fat boys to tammy wynette and chaka khan. i kept almost but not quite reviewing records for rolling stone, but i did have the lead review in record sometimes. prince's purple rain, e.g.. they killed my review of born in the usa for the reasons i came to hate the whole operation: they were always trying to manufacture a consensus or pretend there was one, and soon the critics just didn't have very individual tastes or voices, which is how they wanted it.
my wife at the time, rachael, had a certain wanderlust, and we were always driving across the country or settling temporarily for the summer here and there. i would always pitch the local paper, so for example i wrote up roger miller and barbara mandrell for the albuquerque journal, or did stuff for the weekly out in seattle.
then she managed to drag me to london, which was the height of my little career. there has never been more rock criticism anywhere at any time than london in the '80s, and they had three tabloids the size of the new york daily news of that time every week, entirely devoted to music: sounds, new music express, and melody maker. i took my clips around; just walked into the newsrooms and pitched the editors. i caught on at melody maker, and soon was reviewing a couple of gigs a week, a variety of lps, etc, and doing features and interviews too. i met the nicest person in the world, cyndi lauper,
and the nastiest people, the members of x, for example. i got to see like everyone who played london in '83 and '84, which looking back on it had a lot to recommend it, even though i was pretty ambivalent about the 'synth-pop' then dominant. (god i hated depeche mode, live or on record, but culture club was excellent, for example.) chrissie hynde slammed a door in my face. i got knocked unconscious in the mosh pit at a killing joke concert by heavily booted mohawk punk thug, or thunk, as i think of them.
(everyone else was very nurturing, and i found myself under solicitous care propped up against a wall at the...hammersmith palais?)
[that represents the dominant pop sound of that moment in the uk; i must have seen twenty or thirty groups in this mode, swaying around and playing synthesizers. all the vocalists somehow sounded the same.]
i lost a night in paris where they flew people over to see inxs; me the nme guy ended up in a coke-and-groupie limo discohopping paris adventure with hutchence &co that i basically don't remember. the band rolled us into our hotel at 5 and we both missed our plane back to london.
so then i started turning pretty seriously toward the academic career and writing in that mode, but i did work through the late '80s. i interviewed lemmy for creem, etc. then around 2000, marion winik, disconcerted by my monthly country cd budget, suggested i pitch someone a country column so people would send me free cds. the guys from the balt city paper - russ smith and john strausbaugh - were doing the super-odd rollicking nypress, and i wrote the farm report in the persona of a 300-pound ultra-rightist farmer named crispin sartwell. then blogging...
come to think on it, i might could scan in some clips.
making music with whales, making music to fight climate change, chattering with the squirrels, etc: these are very bad ideas. and the amazing thing is that even as you are frolicking grimly among the whales as they bellow like bono, you are doing less than nothing to save the planet. at least the music is irrelevant, though. but the new york times cannot run even a piece about singing with the whales without going brainbrainbrain. possibly, the idea is to compensate for not having a brain by saying 'brainbrainbrain' all the time. it's like getting hungry and feeding yourself the word 'sticky bun.'
Music expresses emotions, and that’s why we love it so. Whales and humans may share a capacity to express complex emotions. You see, both our brains contain a mysterious kind of cell called the spindle neuron, that until recently was known only in the brains of primates. We don’t know exactly what it is for, but scientists believe it has something to do with the ability to experience complex, layered emotions. And whales have three times the number of these cells in their brains than we do.
as per usual the spindle neurons are doing nothing for anyone, just stuck in there for the sound or something. the pseudo-science is completely out of keeping with the tone or point of the piece, but you can't write anything for the nytimes without putting that paragraph in it. scientists speculate that it is possible that mystical mystery neurons may be involved. astounding? yes. but that is what science shows.
and not to rag on y'all too bad, but i do want to point out that the times just published this sentence: 'Music expresses emotions, and that’s why we love it so.' scientists speculate that the 'blank' neuron is responsible for the production of such sentences, and though whales have blank neurons too, they are so amazing because they never yap the boilerplate like that. climate change, though, may induce a human-like neurological erasure even in humpback whales. it is the tragedy of the commons.
sometimes i seem awfully negative as a blogger. anyway, i think the thing below is one of the best pop songs of the last few years, by one of the best artists.
the lightness of touch should be a lesson to all bludgeoners, from bono to bruce. it refers to all sorts of moments in the history of soul, funk, hip hop, pop, but ed at his best is also inimitable and extremely contemporary. and he can extremely rap and play guitar and write.
oh and of course there this one - showing all them skills and then some - which conquered the world awhile ago.
as i may have mentioned, i'm teaching a course on american popular music. it occurs to me that the twentieth century in american music was comparable to, say, the sixteenth century in italy in visual arts. i am quite serious about that. so, you know, botticelli, leonardo, michelangelo, girgione, titian, up to correggio and caravaggio. or: louis armstrong, charlie parker, bessie smith, blind willie mctell, robert johnson, jimmie rodgers, hank williams, tammy wynette, waylon jennings, billie holiday, duke ellington, sam cooke, otis redding, thomas dorsey, aretha, janis and jimi, run dmc, public enemy, biggie, eminem, bill monroe, early scruggs, muddy waters, little walter, b.b. king, duane allman, professor longhair, oh there is no need ever to stop.
stephanie convery in the the guardian on iggy azalea: "actually, she is the inevitable product of neoliberal capitalism, and in some ways she is much a victim of it as a culprit." really, you have just got to, got to, got to stop this bullshit (rap that line). 'neoliberal capitalism', i assert, is a non-referring phrase, and the fact that people are still picking non-stop at the rotting scraps of marxism is just pathetic. you've got an intellectual structure, but no contact with reality whatsoever. and also that intellectual structure is stupid and useless and extremely over and extremely disastrous. just grapple with this assertion: iggy azalea is the inevitable outcome of economic forces. seriously, the dialectically material process of history was always going to culminate in 'new bitch'. you are talking about iggy azalea. shut up and enjoy the damn album, will you?
the idea that iggy is a victim of whatever economic structures are around her encapsulates much of what is wrong with this whole obsolete line of thought. she may appear to be a powerful and creative person who is expressing herself boldly in public space and who gives pretty damn good flow, but really it's all false consciousness, and if she knew her real interests, she'd agree with me, stephanie convery, and go work at a non-profit. actually, i think neoliberal capitalism is being victimized by iggy azalea. one might focus instead on the ways she is playing with race and gender, using the signifiers in her own project. the deafness and joylessness with which this post-critical-theory leftism approaches music is a good sign of the world that it wants to induce.
and let me instruct bono & co. as to the nature of the miracle of joey ramone: it had to do with economy, directness, hilarity. joey ramone never took himself too seriously; bono never for a moment has not. joey warbled of lobotomies; bono delivers one, every time out. he is the very voice of my headache, a voice thatmight be described as migrainous, which, thankfully, turns out to be a word. great sunglasses, though.
i'm teaching a first-year seminar on american popular musics. we're going blues, jazz, country, rock, punk, hip hop. (there are several whole genres i would have liked to add, believe me.) i am pretty deep in the standard histories. the first day, one of the students asked a pretty basic question: which came first, blues or jazz? i have been contemplating, but actually it would take a pretty long spelling out.
the short answer is that the history of these forms before publishing and, in particular, recording, is swathed in myth and will never be fully recovered. and in particular, i say the origin of the blues is up for grabs. early sources seem to hear something like it here, something else like it there: in the mississippi delta, around new orleans, in east texas, in georgia, in missouri, in arkansas. so the first thing you should do is divest yourself of the idea that any of these coud be in any way insular cultures; musicians and styles are traveling throughout the black south.
the idea that the blues originates in the mississippi delta makes it a 'folk' or peasant form, migrating to cities. this origin is far less agreed-on in the scholarship than it once was. and here is my theory, ok? it radiates from new orleans, the hub of the semi-circular blues region. in the 1890s or 1900s in nola, there may have been a sprawling group of musics known indifferently or at different moments or in different neighborhoods as 'blues' and 'jazz': i do not think these are distinct forms early on. one things the books say is that ma rainey, for example, 'hired top jazz musicians' like armstrong or oliver, but i wonder whether she or they heard themselves as playing two different genres. not, i should think.
if you were listening to the legendary originator of jazz buddy bolden, i bet it'd rest on the twelve-bar. most every jelly roll morton or king oliver recording is either a straight blues or rests on blues elements. most of them are called blues. they would be, in the early 20s, because the blues was something of a commercial fad (later superseded by 'jazz'/'swing').
no one knows what blues sounded like in the delta before performers from new orleans could have passed through, or even before people could have heard recordings of the new orleans 'jazz' bands playing the blues. obviously, we are flowing up and down america's first super-highway, and instantly it's in memphis and helena and st. louis and chicago.
really where i, like a lot of people, hear jazz exploding in my head is in the louis solos on "chimes blues" and "west end blues". one thing that makes them jazz is the virtuosity of the soloist, which is shown specifically by his ability to improvise on, play with, and potentially rip apart, the blues form. it is obvious he has known this form from the womb. this is true of that jelly roll thing too: it takes a 32-bar ragtime break in the middle of a series of blues verses. and yet the improvisation or break-out is precisely an improvisation on or from the blues: i am telling you they are not primordially distinct. but jelly roll always adds the syncretic element: the latin thing or the rag, and that eclecticism is characteristic of the unfolding history of jazz as it is not in the later history of the blues.
there is no less reason the blues should be a commercial form that went folk than that it should be a folk form that went commercial. and by 'commercial' i mean everything from storyville and parade crews to medicine and tent and riverboat shows to publishing and recording to people picking up gigs at parties or jukes, or even busking from town to town.
i cannot tell you how past beyonce and jay-z i am. it's inexpressible how too much of them there has been. also, i await eagerly the as it were end of the era of the butt, in which butts such as be's, nicki's, and iggy's were celebrated in art and song and in which specific butts were feared and worshipped the world over. one of my life goals - my telos - is not to die of auto-erotic asphyxiation; another is not to leave behind me any encomia to my own ass.
one of the most conspicuous features of country music now is the influence of bruce springsteen. in fact 'springsteen' was a hit for eric church last year, though perhaps that song is more an imitation of taylor swift's 'tim mcgraw' than of the bruce. and indeed, bruce has been an influence - or has been thought to be an influence - for decades, and the first steve earle album was greeted as springsteeny (at the time the greatest compliment available to the sort of critic who is always feeling for the consensus), with the small-town south replacing the urban north. but now it's everywhere. and it may not surprise you - since as you may know there are few things in the world i hate more than springsteen's music - that i think the influence is entirely pernicious. here's an example on the current charts.
why do i think springsteen lies behind this? well, the pounding, basically tuneless 4/4; the hysterical bellowing, unmotivated by the material (he's really feeling these feelings incredibly deeply - they are seizing his whole person and making him bray and bawl in pain or ecstasy, but why or about what is mysterious); the anthemic/bludgeoning lyric that on inspection dissolves into emptiness. (admittedly, currington isn't being as extreme as bruce in these dimensions.) to experience all of these features at their maximum, spin 'bored in the u.s.a'. then work out the trauma in music therapy. never has something that sucks so bad been greeted with such incomprehensible ecstasy. ok, ok, there is david bowie.
i don't hear that song as very bossy, though it is extremely excellent.
when he first came out, i heard bruce as playing in the mode of van morrison. "the girls walk by dressed up for each other, and the boys do the boogie-woogie on the corner of the street": bruce pretty much derived his lyrics from those lines, if i mistake not. but i say that anything he's done compares very unfavorably to, say, the song below. they really used basically the same band set-up, the same soul influences, the same performance style. but van played with real soul, real subtlety, real variety, real melody. plus van was doing this long before bruce.
who were the most important artists of the 20th century, and what were the most important art forms? oh you can advocate for, maybe, james joyce, or picasso, or pollock, or henry moore, or mies van der rohe, or something. here are my candidates: louis armstrong, muddy waters, hank williams, grandmaster flash, bill monroe, bob marley, fela kuti, thomas dorsey, eminem, aretha. popular music was the dominant art form of the century: the one with the biggest audiences and the actual effects. also, it was the source of century's greatest beauties and most pointed challenges to various conceptions of beauty. you can pretend that novels re-articulate lives, but i bet you and your friends could almost tell the story of your lives in songs. maybe it's hard to compare hank williams to schoenberg, much less picasso, but hank's music was so very much better, so very much more important to so many more people, so comparatively human, so democratic, so vastly more beautiful, moving, and challenging. so more true.
if you want to get the origin of hip hop, lee perry and the upsetters' 'jungle lion' of 1969 is a good window.
kind of an unimaginably radical pomo production. alright here's why it's proto-hip hop: samples galore (this is early for that); it's a sonic collage, achieved by hook or by crook. vocals are chanted or interjected rather than sung. there's even that early kind of beatboxing, invented by prince buster in the ska era. and the artist is the dj/producer, ok? on turntables and mixing board.
the biggest difference in what herc and flash brought to new york almost a decade later is the beat: perry works with layers of rock steady recordings, and they work with disco and funk: a much more foursquare beat as opposed to the rock steady-reggae lilt. but even here, perry starts the song on the square soul sample, then drops in the rock steady beat. i have to say that the jamaicans at their best created a richer sonic landscape than early hip hop.
then of course, the traditions just waver into each other again as hip hop comes to infuse jamaican music in turn by the 80s. it's a good example of how real popular music genres occur. later black nationalist themes emerge in hip hop, but that's there in perry too, of course.
i'm re-obsessed with chrissie hynde. sasha frere-jones's piece in the new yorker about her and the new album is excellent, and i feel that chrissie is finally being appreciated at the rate she deserves. the one thing i'd quibble with frere-jones about for a second is portraying her as some kind of pure classic rocker. that is there, no doubt. but it is always bent. she definitely sounds nothing like the kinks, who aren't twisted enough.
i've been listening back through to try to generate a more definitive best of. in my own 2008 entry (linked second above) i was realy wrong about viva el amor! i think, a mistake rectified in the list below. like i say, one of great catalogues in pop music since 1980. in some ways one might compare her to her contemporary lucinda williams .
i go to sleep
message of love
i hurt you
i'm a mother
how do i miss you?
stop your sobbing
middle of the road
birds of paradise
back on the chain gang
never do that
night in my veins
sense of purpose
brass in pocket
you're the one
boots of chinese plastic
can't help falling in love
the last ride
nails in the road
one more time
speaking of brassy, i am definitely feeling miranda lambert's album platinum. she is a very distinctive and more or less wholly admirable artist. she is not one of the great voices in country history, but she can really sing in her very own way. not to be too negative, but replacing faith hill with miranda as the queen of country music is an extreme upgrade. oh man she radiates attitude like a girlish sun. and i feel the material is very worthwhile. actually, she's about as bluesy as it is possible to be in pop music today: basically the accompaniment is blues rock as only them nashville cats can kill it. also i think she's building up a whole account of what it is to be a youngish american woman now, with both good humor and genuine emotion. on the title cut she re-works nietzsche: "what doesn't kill you only makes you blonder", which is far more plausible than the original ("what doesn't kill you puts you an asylum, signing your letters 'god'").
one of my favorite handful of pop artists, chrissie hynde, is very back. (i tried to say in the linked entry why i love the music, insofar as one can say such a thing, so i won't repeat it all.) this is her "first solo album" (well, the last was attributed to "chrissie and the fairground boys"), but though i'm sure that collaboration has been important to her, chrissie hynde has always been a solo act.
the fairground boys album (fidelity) was interesting in various ways, more rootsrock than her usual mode. actually, that's true of break up the concrete (the last album attributed to the pretenders) as well. but i guess after living with it for awhile i kind of let it go with a bit of diappointment; i wasn't necessarily completely feeling her man of that moment, 'jp', with whom she dueted on fidelity, the only real non-solo moment in the recording career). the new one, stockholm, is extremely good. "you're the one", e.g., started running chronically through my head after i previewed it for 30 seconds on itunes. the album has all the strengths of her best work, i think, and several songs that stand up well within her repertoire, which is one of the great collections of songs and recordings in the pop music of the last several decades.
oooh that one is good. nice tribute to austin, too, including mw's old gym.
janie is always puzzled by the way i use 'pop', which she uses to mean hyper-commercial teen-oriented dancy stuff, "pure pop", like katy perry, say. in other words 'pop' is a particular genre, as opposed to hip hop or country, for example (though there can be 'pop country' or 'pop hip hop' in this sense of 'pop'.) i basically mean 'popular' or all non-high-art music, so more or less everything but "classical" and maybe post-bop jazz. art music should be repressed, with mortar shells or napalm if that's what it takes.
there have been some conspicuous absences in the history of hip hop, such as out gay artists and also white women. now white men have been extremely present in hip hop since the beasties/rick rubin in the early '80s, and black women have mc'ed from close to the get-go (get ahold of mc lyte, e.g.: i'm not going to do the whole history, starting with the real roxanne etc). and there have been occasional rapping white girls (oh, princess superstar, for example). but iggy azalea is the breakthrough. she's everywhere. she's good. she makes her own whitegirlness a theme, even as she sounds blacker than chuck d. it's like we elected a black president, only without the severe let-down.
ok i say the one below will be an extremely #1 pop hit.
(it helps to have a 13-year-old daughter!) ok a couple of slices of the early history of the female mc.
the main difference between black women and white women is that black women are sassy, whereas white women are brassy.
continuing lp excavations: one of my favorite acts of the 80s was the bellamy brothers. if you are me, you hesitate on that a bit: you want to say you were listening to george jones or whatever it may be. the bellamy brothers are no hardass country act, but represent one of the basic pop modes of the era. there are many gimmicks, jokes, etc. ("if i said you had a beautiful body", "lovers live longer".) it's a sort of guilty pleasure.
and yet i'm not guilty at all. they had a bunch of great songs. the arrangements and vocals are extremely straightforward and have aged well. some of these songs have been running through my head intermittently since 1985; these are some of the songs i find myself humming, whistling, etc. most often. one move they made was to try to integrate reggae into country, sometimes rather primitively ("get into reggae, cowboy"). still they actually play it well for good ole boys.
it's not always the case that greatest hits packages are the best representations of their artists, of course, but i do think that's the case here. if i'm recalling correctly, "greatest hits, volume 2" was one of the last lp's i bought before switching to cd's. or maybe it was among the last lp's that record labels sent me in my capacity as a critic, before they all switched to cd's.
that is a very beautiful song, i think.