Category Archives: Music

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A biography, a review.

Nothing momentous ever happens without conflict; no great accomplishment is ever achieved unopposed. Half of Paris hated both Eiffel and his Tower, many 18th century Americans thought British rule was just fine, and at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had to force his dancers on stage at pistol point, such was the fury of the rioters in the house. Look at any great institution and understand that it came into being because somebody was willing to fight for it, and had to. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir rose to its present prominence because smart, talented people believed that it could, and should grow in artistic excellence and stature. That’s what makes Michael Hicks’ new biography of the Choir so thrilling. For most of us–certainly for me–the Choir just was. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted. Oh, yeah; it’s General Conference this weekend. And that means, as usual, the Choir will be singing. Cool. I wonder what new Mack Wilberg arrangements they’ll feature this time.

But no. Choir building took a long time, and many decisions. One of the earliest had to do with the role of music in worship; did Church services require hymn singing? If so, by whom? Who would select the hymns, who would compose them, who would rehearse the singers? Hicks covered those crucial decisions in his Mormonism and Music: A History (2003), a book I devoured, and still go back to. See this book as the essential supplement to that earlier work. Who were the earliest conductors of the Choir, what were their backgrounds and personalities?

I am a choir nerd of the first order. I have been a choir-watcher and a choir fan for most of my adult life. I met my wife in a BYU choir; Ron Staheli sat us in sections, but I was the tallest bass and she was the tallest soprano, and we shared a riser at the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s The Redeemer. (Trying to impress her, I told her that the soloist playing Jesus was my father. This was actually true, but she didn’t believe me, and rebuffed my fumbling first advances). Years later, I landed a gig as a Tab Choir writer–I was one of several who wrote the Spoken Word segments for the Choir’s weekly broadcasts. I wrote eight Spoken Words a year for seven years before burning out. I have to this day an immense appreciation for Richard Evans, who managed to stay inspirational for forty years.

So I am, I suppose, an ideal reader for this book. And I found it immensely satisfying. A book like this requires the persistence of a first rate researcher, the patience and discretion of a great story-teller, as well as the musical chops to critically assess the choir’s musicality in each phase of its development. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finished, it was with that sense of regret we all experience when we’ve read something terrific. That feeling of ‘shoot, now I won’t get to read it anymore.’

Heroes emerge: George Careless, Evan Stephens, Tony Lund, Evans, Spencer Cornwall, Jerold Ottley. The word ‘heroes’ implies the existence of ‘villains,’ making it perhaps a bit misleading; there weren’t really powerful voices in the institutional Church wondering if we really needed a Choir, for example. But there were certainly disagreements, over the Choir’s purpose and direction, over financing, over age requirements, and, as might well be imagined, over repertoire. All those sorts of questions had to hashed out and clarified and decided and then, later, revisited.

And certain themes, specific areas of perpetual conflict, all emerged. Should the choir record and perform a classical repertoire of great oratorios or cantatas? What modern composers should they feature? What about the best work of Mormon composers? What should the relationship be between the Choir and music in the Church generally? How should the choir balance its obligations to its radio broadcast partners? With non-LDS musicians? With pop music? And probably the biggest question of all: was the primary responsibility of the Choir to the demands of great music? Or to the missionary efforts of the Church?

These weren’t matters about which there was universal agreement. They all had to be hashed out, argued over, and finally settled. The process by which all that happened is endlessly fascinating, mostly because they are important questions about which good men strenuously disagreed.

One of the things I most respect about Hicks’ book is the way he handles areas of controversy and possible scandal. One question, for example, has to do with Evan Stephens’ sexuality. Hicks mentions the dispute, gives it a paragraph or two, directs us to further reading. But the conclusions he reaches seem fair and evidence-driven. Where there is no definitive proof, Hicks refuses to speculate. The fact of a controversy and the extent to which that controversy has become part of the historical narrative does deserve some small attention, and that’s essentially what Hicks gives it. I think that’s fair. Likewise the mystery of Craig Jessop’s sudden and unexpected resignation as conductor is given, I think, sufficient but not excessive attention. I admire Hicks’ careful restraint on these issues, driven not by prudence or caution, but by a simple recognition that the evidence is insufficient and unclear.

Anyway, this is a terrific book, a book I recommend without reservation. The MoTab is one of the great cultural institutions in American history. That didn’t happen by accident, nor does it seems to have entirely by design. Each new actor changed the story; it’s fascinating to wonder what it will look like fifty years from now.

American Idol

My wife and I have been intermittent fans of American Idol for years now. I wouldn’t say we’re any kind of die-hards, but we do still watch, even now, when the show is clearly on its last legs. Back in the day, Idol was on two nights a week, often two hours a night. Remember the results show, where they stretched a simple, straightforward announcement–Contestant A has been eliminated!–to a full hour’s show full of tension and strife. That’s all gone. None of the original lineup of judges is around anymore, though actually, that’s kind of an improvement–Harry Connick is terrific, insightful and smart and helpful. He’s good enough, I’m willing to put up with Keith Urban and JLo. They have a new producer/mentor guy, the oleaginous Scott Borchetta, whose various ‘this week you have to really bring it!’ exhortations we generally just fast-forward past. Still, this week, something interesting happened, something kind of genuine and non-scripted and odd.

Okay, so the way they do it now, the contestants all sing, and we vote for them, and the next week, they all sit in these lighted chairs, and the highest vote-getter’s chair lights turn green, and that’s how they know they’ve advanced. So they then get up and sing, and we vote on their performance for next week. But the last two unlighted chairs are for the ‘bottom two,’ and at the end of the show, those two sing, and everyone in America votes on Twitter. And one poor schmuck is eliminated right there. Handed his/her choice of weapon and sent to a fiery pit to do battle with an Orc, to the death. (I may have made that last bit up).

Actually, no, they just get to go home and not be on American Idol anymore. Which is not to say they don’t get some subsequent success in the music biz. One of the fascinating things about Idol is that the exposure from being on the show is often more important than actually winning it. Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, several of them have all done really well after not winning the contest, while Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks haven’t been as successful. Not all of them get Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson-type careers.

Anyway, so, on Idol last week, they were down to the top seven. Clark Beckham and Tyanna Jones were the top two. They’re both really good singers, and I suspect one of the two of them will win. Then came Jax–she just goes by one name–she’s been uneven throughout. Nick Fradiani (Adam Levine wannabe) went next. That left three contestants; Joey Cook, Sayvon Owen, and Quentin Alexander.

Sayvon has been near the bottom the entire show. He’s crawled out of more coffins than Bela Lugosi. He keeps almost getting eliminated, and keeps barely surviving. Good looking kid with a big smile and a gorgeous voice, but not much of a performer. Seems like the nicest kid.

Joey, though, Joey’s interesting. She is a weirdo. I mean that in a good way; she has a weird voice, a weird look; she’s quirky and does really imaginative arrangements of the songs she’s assigned. Like she did Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love as a bluegrass song, and it worked.http://www.americanidol.com/american-idol/performances?pid=105301&vid=105246 She’s absolutely the most original contestant they’ve had, since Adam Lambert (who is still the greatest Idol ever).

Quentin Alexander is fascinating. He looks like he came straight to Idol from an off-Broadway revival of Hair. A whole 60’s Black Panther vibe, but with more piercings. He’s a tremendous performer, and seems like a serious and thoughtful and intense young man.

So: stage is set. Quentin, Joey and Sayvon, on the three unlighted chairs. Quentin’s chair lights up; we’re going to a Twitter vote between Joey and Sayvon to stay on the show. Quentin sings. Then he says, loudly, ‘this is wack.’ And Harry Connick called him out. Here’s what they said:

Quentin: This sucks. We have two of the best vocalists, my best friend is sitting over there. This whole thing is wack, but I’m going to shut up right now.

Harry: Quentin, if it’s that wack, then you can always go home because Idol is paying a lot of money to give you this experience and for you to say that to this hand that is feeding you right now, I think is highly disrespectful.

To his credit, Quentin came back on-stage, walked up to Harry, and explained. He didn’t mean that the whole competition was wack. He was reacting emotionally to two good friends having to duke it out to stay alive in the competition. Later, though, he doubled-down, saying that he felt Connick’s comments were ‘disrespectful.’

Quentin Alexander is 21 years old. He’s a highly emotional performer, and seems to be a very emotional young man. Over the course of the Idol experience, he apparently has grown very close to Joey Cook; not romantically (in fact, she just announced her engagement), but as friends. So maybe this is just a young man blowing off steam.

But isn’t he, at least in part, somewhat right? I mean, I know that Idol is a singing competition, with a very nice first prize; a recording contract. And it’s no more brutal a process than any audition would be, for any performing art. Still, it is a little bit wack. Interesting young artists competing to become, what? A music industry voice-for-hire?

Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, has been outspoken on this subject, saying recently, “imagine Bob Dylan standing there in front of those judges singing Blowin’ in the Wind, and them going ‘it’s a little nasally and flat. Sorry.” Grohl (who I think sometimes is on a campaign to save rock and roll in America, expanded on this:

When I think about kids watching TV shows like American Idol or The Voice, and they think, oh, okay, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight f-ing hours at a convention center with 800 other people, and you sing your heart out to someone and they tell you it’s not good enough? Can you imagine? It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old drum set and just get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in, and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll start playing, and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives, and maybe all the sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some s–ty instruments, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again!

Or, like Joey Cook, color her hair and wear weird outfits and sing with a wobbly odd sounding voice, and doing something remarkable every week, often not very good, but never once uninteresting. I hope she does well. And I hope we see Quentin again. American Idol is kind of wack, and I’m glad he pointed it out, though I probably will keep watching, for a little while at least.

 

 

Crooked Still

I have discovered an amazing new (to me), unique (to me) band, and I want to turn you on to them. They’re called Crooked Still, and I can’t get enough of them. Call ’em progressive bluegrass, folk/country, Americana roots, they’re just astonishing. As far as I can tell, they don’t compose; they don’t have any original music in their set. It’s all classic folk songs, or blues, or country, or even the Beatles.

So here’s their lineup: cello, stand-up string bass, violin, banjo and a vocalist. The first thing you probably notice is that they don’t seem to need a guitarist. The second thing you might notice is that they also don’t have drums, or percussion. The percussive element in their music is largely provided by the banjo. And the possibilities they discover in the cello are just remarkable.

So it’s Aoife O’Donovan (vocals), Dr. Gregory Liszt (banjo), Corey DiMario (bass), Tristan Clarridge (cello), and Brittany Haas (violin). O’Donovan and DiMario met at the New England Conservatory of Music in 2001, and then formed up with former cellist Rushad Eggleston and Liszt to form Crooked Still. While they were all finishing grad school, they did some gigs in and around Boston. Eggleston left in 2007, and they added Clarridge and Haas in 2008. They’ve put out five albums, the best of which is Some Strange Country in 2010, though I also love Friends of Fall (2011), and Shaken by a Low Sound (2006).

Let me play you some of their music. Here’s my favorite of their songs, a weird, fascinating, creepy classic American folk song, Wind and Rain. I love the haunting refrain, love how it ends up tying the whole narrative together:

Next song is exactly the kind of song they shouldn’t be able to do without a guitarist; this cover of Robert Johnson’s Come on in my Kitchen. It’s classic Southern blues, and it’s been covered by everyone from Eric Clapton to Keb Mo to the Allmen Brothers. Listen to how perfectly the cello handles the coke bottle slide of Johnson’s.

The next song is the one you might have heard of: they used it in True Blood. It’s the great gospel song Ain’t No Grave. Listen to Liszt’s banjo picking in this, probably the most exuberant song about the resurrection of the dead perhaps ever recorded:

Okay, just one more. To give you some idea of their versatility, here’s Crooked Still doing the Beatles.

It does look like the band’s creative energy may have waned. They’ve all been busy on other solo projects since 2012. But they gave us 5 great albums, and may reunite this summer, according to their website. So we’ll see.

 

 

The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

Begin Again, and ‘authenticity’

I loved John Carney’s brilliant indie film Once. Loved the music, loved the sort-of-yes-sort-of-no love story, loved Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Of course, I especially liked Hansard’s music. “Falling Slowly” remains one of the great love songs ever.

It’s a movie musical about a busker, and so the music has a raw, unpolished quality that’s very appealing. It feels ‘authentic,’ whatever that might mean. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies ever, and when I saw that the director, John Carney, had made another movie, another love story, again about musicians that were struggling to break through, I couldn’t wait to see it. And so, thanks be to Netflix, I finally watched Begin Again.

Carney’s a bigger deal this time (that’s what happens when you make a movie for $60,000 and it grosses ten million). This time, he had a budget; this time, the movie has movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. And it’s got some great songs again, by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals. Like Once, it’s about a male-female relationship that isn’t quite a love story, but in which the two characters really do come to care about each other. Complicated and dimensional and human, rather than just boy-meets-girl. I liked it, I liked the music, I recommend it.

But. How real is the music, how raw and unpolished, how–that word again–authentic. Because in Once, Hansard’s music really does feel, you know, all those things, genuine. Musical authenticity isn’t an issue in the film, it’s just what the film is. But Begin Again is directly and specifically about that issue, the issue about staying true to your art, keepin’ it real, selling-out vs. not-selling-out. Artistic integrity. It’s a movie about musical authenticity.

Okay, so Knightley plays a singer-songwriter, and her boyfriend, Dave, has just signed with a record label, and she’s in New York to support him in a girlfriendly sort of way, and so she even lies about the fact that most of the songs on his album were co-written by him with her. She doesn’t want the songwriting credit, she’s too thrilled for his success to care. And the label sends him to LA to re-record some tracks, and while there, he cheats on her. He’s a creep in other words. And we realize that the label is going to turn all his (and her) songs into conventional pop tracks, and spoil the, you know, passion, truth, real-ness of the work. And Dave, the cheatin’ creep is played by Adam Levine. Lead singer for Maroon Five. The definition of inauthentic bubble gum pop.

But so anyway she’s ready to take her broken heart and blow New York and go back to London. But her pal Steve (James Corden, the Baker in Into the Woods) takes her to a nightclub, and makes her get up on stage and perform, and she does, rather badly, sing one of her songs. But Mark Ruffalo (a newly fired record exec/drunk named Dan) hears her song, and knows, instantly, in his soul, that she’s got It, that she’s the real thing, that she’s the artist he’s been waiting for. Or rather, he hears the song as he would produce it; he hears, not her song, but what he could make of it. It’s a lovely scene: enjoy.

This leads to a conversation about musical authenticity, and he challenges her to name a genuinely authentic artist. ‘Bob Dylan,’ she says, and Ruffalo points out all the ways in which Dylan, with the sunglasses and the carefully tousled hair, is pose and artifice. Then she says ‘Randy Newman,’ and Ruffalo concedes that Randy Newman is indeed, in his own way, authentic.

It’s an issue that recurs throughout the movie. She hears creepo Dave’s album, and it seems overproduced. She and Dan decide to make her album, and record it on the streets of New York, with ambient noise in the background. See: more authentic. (Except we see how carefully Mark Ruffalo controls the street sounds, bribing street kids and asking for quiet). She downloads her album onto the internet instead of allowing the label to release it, and it sells like crazy. (Because she knows Cee Lo and he tweets about it).

The first rule of artistic representation is that portrayal does not equal advocacy. I don’t know the extent to which Carney intends his film to deconstruct the pose of artistic and musical authenticity and the extent to which he’s relying on it. I mean, the epitome of ‘integrity’ in this film is supposed to be Keira Knightley’s character. And she can sing, some; a smallish voice, but okay for this kind of music. But at least in Once, Glen Hansard was singing songs he, Glen Hansard, wrote and performed as a busker. In this movie, ‘authenticity’ is represented by songs performed by a movie star, written for her by someone else.

I’m not knocking Keira Knightley. I like her as an actress, I think she does a nice job in this film, and she can sing enough to pull off the role. I just loathe that entire issue of musical authenticity. We all know the drill: Neil Young good, Neil Diamond not good. Janis Joplin real, Karen Carpenter not real. Thumbs up: REM, thumbs down: Hootie and the Blowfish. Punk: good. Disco: not so much. (Wasn’t Sid Vicious essentially a sociopathic poseur? Does Donna Summer’s pain not count?)  What bothers me about it is that we’re imputing a moral stance to what is essentially an aesthetic judgment. As it happens, I like Neil Young and I like REM; I love Dylan too. But sell-out is too harsh a term to apply to anyone. I genuinely believe that most artists really are trying to use their art to say something cogent about the world they inhabit. Just that some folks have muses that are more commercially appealing. Luck, not sin.

And yet and yet. This scene, this song, is lovely. And yes, it’s inauthentic. Knightley singing a song someone wrote for her (like that’s a crime), Ruffalo pretending to play bass (acting, in other words), Hailee Steinfeld pretending to rock out on guitar (again, acting). I don’t care. I think it’s a terrific moment in a movie I liked a lot.

And that’s what we actually care about, isn’t it? Whether we like the music.

Charlie’s marriage

I wouldn’t say that the news ‘broke’ the internet, but it certainly put a nasty dent in it: Charles Manson has applied for a marriage license. Charlie Manson, age 80. Announcing his ‘engagement’ to one Afton Elaine Burton, age 26, who now goes by the name ‘Star,’ considers herself already married to him, and maintains a website insisting on his innocence. (Which I will NOT link to–I’m not driving traffic to Charlie freaking Manson’s site). Burton’s Mom, by the way, is fine with it. Says the couple shares a commitment to environmentalism. Grantland’s Molly Lambert’s story about it can’t really be improved on; see the link for details.

What’s interesting to me about this is the way in which Charlie Manson still does have the capacity to capture our attention. This was big news. And, as always with Manson, we read it with a little frisson of oh-so-delicious fear. Charles Manson, the most mesmeric, the most charismatic, the most Satanic human being on earth, was up to his old tricks once again. Fascinating young people (mostly young women); bending them to his will.

Remember the watch thing? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away, wrote a best-selling book about it, Helter Skelter. In the book, he describes a time when Manson stopped his watch by just staring at it. In the first Helter Skelter made-for-TV-movie, the 1976 one with Steve Railsback as Manson, George DiCenzo (as Bugliosi) notices his watch has stopped, looks over at Manson, and we see Railsback give him a creepy grin. So that’s part of the lore; Charlie Manson can make a watch stop.

Of course, he couldn’t. Bugliosi’s book is very compelling, but its hero is Bugliosi; the courageous prosecutor who put Charlie Manson away, and the more evil and Satanic Manson was, the greater Bugliosi’s triumph over him. I don’t much trust it. I rather suspect that if Charlie Manson had the ability to stop watches, he would also have had the ability to open prison doors. But what he did have was a kind of crazed charisma. He persuaded a group of lost runaway hippie kids (most of them girls) to form a ‘Family’ and commit horrible atrocities, and he persuaded Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to fund ‘Family’ activities for months. He’s regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history, and he never actually personally killed anyone. Not for lack of trying; the Family’s first victim, Bernard Crowe, was shot by Manson in Crowe’s apartment in June of ’69, two months before the Sharon Tate killings. But Crowe survived.

And then, on August 9th, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered Sharon Tate and four other guests in her home, and also a delivery guy, on Manson’s orders. The next night, joined by Manson himself, and with two other Family members, Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan, the same four murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home. Manson directed the killings, but did not kill himself. Several subsequent killings have been linked to Manson’s Family members. And in 1975, Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to murder Gerald Ford, the President of the United States.

Fromme’s attempt took place in Sacramento. She and Sandra Good had moved there to be closer to Manson while he served out his sentence at Folsom Prison. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in West Virginia. She was apprehended within a few days, as she headed west, towards California. She wanted to be close to Charlie, who she heard was suffering from cancer. This is also typical of Manson Family members; even while incarcerated, they seem to crave physical closeness to their prophet/guru. Afton “Star” Burton has also moved, to Corcoran California, out in the desert, so she can be ‘closer to Charlie.’  Sandra Good maintains a pro-Charlie website, which competes with Burton’s.

And we’ve never lost our fascination with this guy, this career criminal, failed musician, this man who seems to have had one great gift in life, the ability to attract young women to believe in him, and at times, to kill for him. Two made-for-TV movies. Several documentaries. Several major TV interviews, with Diane Sawyer, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Ron Reagan Jr.

The myth of the sixties’ counter-culture was a myth of innocence, a myth of invincible virtue, opposing Establishment Evil. Hippies were peaceful idealists, devoted to non-violent protest and positive world-change. Hippies stopped the war in Vietnam, ended racism, fought the good fight against ‘the man.’ It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,” Coven sang, describing, see, the Establishment’s hypocrisy, embellishing the irony with achingly pure intentions and ferocious self-righteousness–“one tin soldier rides away”; the song punctuated the message of peace-lovin’ martial artist Billy Jack.  Nick Lowe asked, with aching sincerity, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. Punk answered back, always more honest; Lowe’s song was bitterly deconstructed by Elvis Costello.  (Elvis: the King of Rock and Roll. Costello: half of the comedy duo who asked Who’s On First. Even his name functioned as satire).

Charlie Manson did us this one great favor: he showed us the lie at the heart of hippie idealism and blissed out mellow. Teenage runaways, escaping the dreariness of square middle-class hypocrisy, crowding the streets of Haight-Ashbury, could easily fall for predators. Hippies could, turns out, kill. So could drugs. So could casual sex. And so could rock and roll, as Dennis Wilson bankrolled The Family, and Charlie grotesquely misread the Beatles.

So we didn’t. Do any of that; we didn’t. We weren’t significant; we weren’t important. I mean, we really didn’t: in the national election of 1972, 18-21 year olds could vote for the first time. George McGovern, whose entire campaign was built on ending the war in Vietnam, was on the ballot. He got crunched, and the Youth Vote went heavily to Richard Nixon. Nixon was right about that silent majority thing. Sixties and Seventies, we youthful idealists, we didn’t end Vietnam or racism or sexism. I wasn’t a hippie–too young for the movement–but I loved the music and was attracted to the ideals, and I wish earnestness and sincerity really could change the world. It can’t. What does change the world is hard work, compromise, working daily at the endlessly boring and crucially important details of legislation.Line upon line, idea upon idea. A hard grind.

Good music is good music, and then the song is over. And that sort-of-interestingly-dangerous, compelling hippie man is saying lovely attractive things about revolutions and race riots and the White Album, and he wrote this nice song about me, and I even got to meet one of the Beach Boys! And then he’s handing me a knife and telling me to kill total strangers. And hey, why not, they’re just establishment pigs, right? Viva la whatever.

That’s who Manson was, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the ugly violence at the heart of ideology. The sad game, played by naive fools. Now he’s got another one, another follower, another ‘wife’ for his ‘Family.’ So happy for them both.

 

The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs: Book review

Greil Marcus is an historian, a rock critic and a cultural commentator, known for books that tie together rock and roll music and recent American and world history. His most recent book is The History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs, which it is my pleasure to review and to recommend. The ten songs of the title are not, of course, the only songs discussed in the book, but they’re carefully, if somewhat idiosyncratically chosen; not the songs most folks, or most rock historians would recommend. Many of them, I had never heard of. But the free-wheeling discussions of those songs, and of the artists who covered them, is lucid, thoughtful, tough-minded, intelligent. I loved this book.

May I also recommend that, if at all possible, you purchase and read this book on Kindle, or some other kind of tablet device. The reason is simple: you’re going to want to listen to the songs, and in many cases, you’re going to want to watch videos of the songs in live performance.  If you’re like me, you’re not going to know at least some of them, or recall them to memory. This is less a book than a book experience, and to fully appreciate Marcus’ discussions of these songs, you’re going to need to have them immediately accessible.

He begins the book by quoting this provocative conversation between journalist Bill Flanagan and Neil Young, in 1986:

“The one thing that rock and roll did not get from country and blues was a sense of consequence. The country and blues, if you raised hell on Saturday night, you were gonna feel real bad on Sunday morning when you dragged yourself to church. Or when you didn’t drag yourself to church.”

“That’s right,” Young said, “Rock and roll is reckless abandon. Rock and roll is the cause of country and blues. Country and blues came first, but somehow rock and roll’s place in the course of events is dispersed.”

And those quotations set the stage for the rest of Marcus’ discussion. It’s a book about how rock and roll inverts time, reverses cause and effect. It’s about rediscovery and re-imagining. It’s about how brilliantly some artists make an old song their own, and use it to comment on their own time and place. It’s about odd psychic connections between performers and eras.  It’s not so much about timelessness as it is about the ubiquity of time-specificity. It’s quite specifically about Cyndi Lauper turning a mid-seventies Brains’ song Money Changes Everything, and turning into a theatrical punk anthem, all rage and fury and hard-earned truth. And Amy Winehouse finding truth and meaning in a sentimental standard. And it’s about a superb conceptual artist finding a way to memorialize tragedy.

Marcus begins with a discussion of The Flamin’ Groovies and their 1976 hit, Shake Some Action. I’d never heard of this band or song–I was on a mission in 1976–but it’s remarkable, an “argument about life, captured in sound.” It’s a song full of reckless abandon, an unstable song, in which the constituent elements, drums, bass, guitars, vocals, are in constant and exquisite tension with each other. A nice way to begin a book about exactly that tension driving an entire art form.

Next comes Transmission, by the Manchester punk band Joy Division, featured in the 2007 film Control. It’s a song that deconstructs the power of radio, built again on instability and danger. Said Joy Division co-founder Bernard Sumner, “I saw the Sex Pistols (in Manchester, in 1976, in a hall that barely held a hundred people). They were terrible. I wanted to get up and be terrible too.”

In the Still of the Nite was a doo-wap classic, originally recorded by the Five Satins in 1956. Sung by the nineteen year old Fred Parris with some high school buddies, on leave while in the army. It made every oldies album ever. It was featured in American Graffiti and in Dirty Dancing. And then David Cronenberg used it in Dead Ringers, and it took on a whole new meaning. This is also part of Marcus’ project in this book; to show how relatively innocuous songs become darker and more violent as they’re used by great film directors.

Marcus uses the Etta James classic All I Could Do is Cry to explore the kaleidoscope of meanings surrounding the Barack Obama inauguration in 2013, the selection of Beyonce and not Etta James–still alive, and furious at the omission– to sing At Last, the exquisite, and exquisitely inauthentic perfection of Beyonce, and how, playing Etta James in the film Cadillac Records, Beyonce still somehow transcended her own status as media creation and idol, and found the profound and ugly truth of the pre-civil rights era music scene.

Marcus does include one Buddy Holly song, not That’ll be the Day or Peggy Sue, but Crying, Waiting, Hoping, and segues into a brilliant discussion of the Rolling Stones’ cover of Not Fade Away, and the Beatles’ earlier cover of Crying, Waiting, Hoping.  So, yes, his history of rock music does include terrific discussions of, you know, the usual suspects, the Beatles and Stones and Dylan.

He then takes a chapter off, so to speak, to write a lengthy alternative history of rock, imagining that Robert Johnson had never died, but had lived to see his music memorialized.

But in the next chapter, after this little Delta blues interlude, Marcus gets to the heart of his thesis. He ties together Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), as later covered by the Beatles, and The Brains’ Money Changes Everything, as finally covered by Cyndi Lauper. Music is truth and truth is beauty, but behind it all is poverty and despair and the desperate truth that money is actually what makes a difference. John Lennon, born in Liverpool into abject poverty, and Cyndi Lauper, haunting the New York music scene for eight years, raped twice, hospitalized for malnutrition, later found a solid core of pure truth in songs about money, the power of it, the necessity of it, but also the way it warps humanity. Watch Lauper’s live performance of Money Changes Everything, kicking a garbage can around the stage, then climbing into the garbage can and soaring over the audience, triumphant and wiser and sadder than ever.  It’s on Youtube. I don’t seem to be able to link to it right now, but watch it. Marcus is never better than in that chapter.

And then, three wistful codas. First, he writes about This Magic Moment, first recorded by the Drifters, but then, cold-blooded as a rattler, covered by Lou Reed, and used by David Lynch in The Lost Highway. Next, Guitar Drag, less a rock song than a piece of avant-garde multi-media art, by Christian Marclay. A guitar is dragged behind a pickup truck. Just as James Byrd was murdered, in 1998, dragged behind a truck. An unforgettable moment.

And finally, To Know Him is to Love Him. The most treacly and sentimental of all songs, first recorded by the Teddy Bears, in 1958. And later covered, in a revelatory performance, by Amy Winehouse. Revealing, finally, everything we lost when that brilliant young woman’s life ended so tragically. Because that’s rock and roll too. Brilliance cut short, far too frequently.

I spent one day devoted to this book, looking up the songs and listening to them (sometimes repeatedly), and then devouring (and at times arguing mentally with) Marcus’ discussions of them. What an exhilarating read. Really, if this subject at all resonates with you, read this book.  You’ll be thrilled at how much you have to think about afterwards.

 

 

Popular music and Mormonism, or, a mistake religion teachers make

I see on the intertubes that BYU’s religion department is revising its curriculum. For once, this is a subject I know something about. I used to teach religion classes at BYU. I was what they call an adjunct professor, which is to say, a professor of something else, who taught the occasional religion class as part of his load.

Let me quickly add that I loved it. I loved everything about it. I assigned a paper, on the theory that college classes should always require a paper, and I even loved reading (and grading) all those papers. I taught the Book of Mormon a couple of times, but mostly I taught the Doctrine and Covenants. What I loved most of all was teaching kids from all over campus. I loved my theatre students, but it was a nice change of pace to occasionally teach, you know, people majoring in something else; biology, history, statistics, whatever.  When I was in grad school, I also taught early morning seminary, and loved that too. I also graduated from BYU many moons ago.  So I come from an informed perspective.  I’ve taught religion classes, and I’ve taken them. So free of charge, I offer this advice for BYU and anyone else teaching seminary or institute or anything like that.

Do not diss the music kids like. In fact, leave pop culture alone.

There’s always that temptation. You want to get into it. Rock and roll will destroy your soul. Disco=Inferno.  Hip hop’s from the devil. Dubstep will lead you astray. Solemn books are published, with titles like Pop Music and Morality or Arm the Children, warning us of the dangers of letting our children listen to the soul-destroying music their friends all like. There are even well-intentioned talks by General Authorities about ‘worldly art’ or ‘worldly values’ or just general worldliness, which means ‘music that’s bad for you.’

Baloney. There’s no such thing as music that’s bad for you.

The simple fact is that old people never like the music young people like, and that’s been true since Ogg and the Logpounders discovered what could be done with bone flutes. Or since Brahms first heard the music of Franz Liszt. Or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring outraged (and delighted) Paris audiences. Or Elvis debuted on Ed Sullivan. And in every case, that infernal new music wasn’t just unpleasing to the ear, it was constructed as dangerous, morally questionable, leading young people astray.

When I was in high school, I remember our seminary teacher giving a lesson on The Dangers of Popular Music, and he specified Jethro Tull’s album Aqualung as particularly dangerous, especially soul-destroying. I loved that album. I had listened to it many times. Listening to Teacher go on and on about it, my reaction was not ‘gosh, maybe I’d better rethink how much I like this music.’ No, my reaction was ‘this guy’s an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’  Later this same teacher, to set an example, brought his record collection to class, and told us he was going to get rid of all these ‘questionable’ albums. I remember asking him if, instead of throwing it all away, he’d just give it to us, so we could make up our own minds.  He said that seemed fair (a major Seminary Teacher concession, and tactically questionable). I scored some great albums from his pile, including, I remember, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes.  Great album.

One of the biggies was Jesus Christ Superstar. This was the very definition of Music We Shouldn’t Listen To, which meant it was an album I had to own and which I listened to many many many times. I didn’t think it was sacrilegious or blasphemous at all. I thought it was redemptive. I thought it helped me feel The Spirit. I thought that because it did help me feel the Spirit.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that I didn’t make exactly the same error when I became a Seminary teacher. The exact same spirit of anti-art fanaticism swept over me too, and I found myself condemning the music of Aerosmith. I made just as big an idiot of myself, and I know I alienated one of the kids in the class, who loved Aerosmith and decided, on the spot, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was wrong. He was right. Aerosmith rocks.

Isn’t it true that some music does invite the Spirit and other kinds of music repel the Spirit? Maybe, to some degree, that’s true. Maybe Bach is more inherently spiritual than Berlioz (though to me it’s easier to feel close to God listening to the Symphonie Fantastique than the Well-tempered Clavier, for example). But . . . here’s one of the most ‘spiritual’ pieces of music I know. Mark Abernathy singing Come Come Ye Saints, playing guitar. i love this rendition. It feels, I don’t know, authentic, like William Clayton singing it around a buffalo chip campfire somewhere in Nebraska. I compare it to the Tabernacle Choir version. I love choral music, and it’s great too. Given a choice, though, if I need a spiritual boost, I’ll go straight to the guy with the guitar.

Or here. The Stones, singing Gimme Shelter. Or this song, Dylan singing Shelter From the Storm. (Isn’t that what we crave from religion? Shelter?) Or maybe this? (What’s prayer, but a jam session with God? Think rap can’t be spiritual? Try this.

Art is subjective. Art that speaks to my soul may not speak to yours. The Spirit is also subjective. I respond to spiritual stimuli that you may not perceive. There’s no such thing as ‘spiritual music,’ except to me, except to you.

Recently, directing a play, we needed a dance number. I’m no choreographer, so I hired one, and a cast member recommended that we use a Katy Perry dubstep remix. I don’t like dubstep music. I’m old. I think it’s just a lot of noise. But watching our cast learn the dubstep dance music, I was transformed. It was terrific, so sassy, so much attitude, so joyful. Young people celebrating how great it is to be here, on Earth, to have bodies, to move. I realized how wrong I’d been. It’s now my favorite thing in the show. And theologically expressive.

Art speaks to the soul. Art bears testimony. God works with all of us, as we are, where we are. And if one of my brothers or sisters is inspired by art that I don’t get, and I make a big deal of it, that’s my bad.

 

 

2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced its fifteen nominees for 2015 induction, and invited the public to vote on our favorites. Here’s the link, in case you want to.

If you love rock music–and I do–and you care about it, past, present and future, then, like me, you’ve wasted an inordinate amount of time on Facebook and Reddit and at parties arguing about stuff like this; what bands are great, which ones suck and why, and why people with different tastes than yours are so grievously wrong-headed. Eared. Whatever.  Halls of fame are generally built on such (let’s face it) artificial controversies. Heck, I spent most of high school litigating the case of Zep v. Who, and which Beatles album was the greatest ever, and how could anyone ever, ever listen to Bread.

Did the same thing with baseball. To this day, I think Alan Trammell deserves HOF induction, and I think I can make a case for Lou Whitaker. Jack Morris, though? Borderline, but no.

At the same time, let’s admit this too: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s continuing, bizarre, and incomprehensible hostility to progressive rock fundamentally taints all their selections. A ‘Rock and Roll’ Hall of Fame that can’t find space for Jethro Tull is an institution unworthy anyone’s support, and grudgingly letting Yes and Rush in the last couple of years doesn’t make up for it.

Having said that, I do follow the R&R HOF, and will watch HBO’s coverage of the induction ceremonies.  And there are some interesting nominees this year, and for me, some tough calls. Here’s how I voted:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  The resume’s just too thin. “Born in Chicago’s a great song, and they put out two great albums in the mid-sixties. And they were at Woodstock.  Not enough. NO.

Chic. Not uninteresting disco pioneers. The R&R HOF keeps putting ’em on the ballot, and they did record “Le Freak.” But they’re from an era that’s hardly under-represented. NO.

Green Day. Just because a band sells 75 million records, or was beloved in every dorm room in America fifteen years ago doesn’t necessarily suggest greatness, much as I love the album Dookie. But American Idiot, the album and rock opera, seal the deal for me.  YES.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Very tough call for me. I pretty much love everything about Joan Jett, from her riot grrl snarl, punk attitude, badass feminism, and underrated song writing. I just think her earlier band, the Runaways, was more significant historically. And Cherie Currie was that band’s lead singer. (Lita Ford was also a Runaway. Feminist punk pioneers: What a band!) So with great reluctance: NO.

Kraftwerk: I know, I know, they’re historically really important, not just to the worlds of electronic dance music, but even to early rap. I just don’t like their music. My vote, my rules. NO.

The Marvelettes: The world of Motown girl groups is perhaps the single most overrepresented in the entire R&R HOF. “Please Mr. Postman” is not enough to get anyone my vote.  NO.

Nine Inch Nails: Tremendously important and influential band. Trent Reznor is an amazing musician, not just as the principal song-writer for a band as important as NIN, but now as David Fincher’s favorite movie composer.  YES.

N.W.A.: The Beatles of hip-hop. Historically essential. Savage, powerful, socially essential grandfathers of gangsta rap.  I still can’t believe they didn’t make it in last year.  Easiest YES on the list.

Lou Reed: He’s already in, as the co-founder of The Velvet Underground. This nomination is for his post-TVU solo work, and while I admire his uncompromising I-don’t-care-if-you-like-me aggressiveness, I’m pretty much on the fence. The HOF’s bio page mentions his ‘daring, experimental’ projects. Too often, that’s code for ‘albums that sucked.’ A reluctant and admiring NO.

The Smiths: Thin resume, with just four albums. Influenced everyone from Radiohead to Oasis. While I can admire their music, I never much liked it, and finally voted NO.

The Spinners: ’70s R&B vocal groups are seriously over-represented in the HOF. NO.

Sting: He’s also already in, along with the rest of the Police. This is for his later solo career, which can be criticized as being almost more about social activism than music. But the same restless energy that has led to his crusades with Amnesty International has also led him to the worlds of reggae, African music and jazz. I finally voted YES.

Stevie Ray Vaughan: His was a short career, due to his untimely demise in 1990. I saw him in concert in 1981, and it was tremendous. My son found his blues guitar playing overly technical and redundant. I don’t agree. I think it’s time to put SRV in.  YES.

War: Good West Coast R&B band, but never special, never great.  NO.

Bill Withers: “Ain’t No Sunshine” is one of the great recordings, one of the great vocals ever. The rest of the resume’s too thin.  NO.

I’d love to hear how you voted!  And repeat after me: Jethro Tull! King Crimson! Emerson Lake & Palmer!  2016 is the year for prog!

 

The ‘decadent party girl’ pop song

I’m an old guy. I like rock music; grew up with it. I don’t listen to the radio much and don’t follow the pop charts. When I become aware of a trend in popular music, it sort of dawns on me slowly: ‘oh, that song’s a bit like that song.’  And my insights, such as they are, are probably way way passé.  And above all, I want to avoid moralizing. When I was a kid, I detested the ‘rock music’s going to destroy society’ sermons, and I’m not about to start preaching them myself.  Besides, harrumphing old guys pontificating about the life styles of the young have been a staple of comedy ever since Polonius sent Laertes off to college. I am not that guy. Having made all those disclaimers, though, there is a genre that’s interesting right now, and I thought I’d offer some examples and analysis.

The genre I have in mind is the ‘decadent party girl’ pop song. It’s a song in which a girl sings about how fun it is to party all the time. And, again, this is nothing new. Madonna’s Material Girl and Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun are classics of the genre, which really dates back to Marilyn Monroe singing about how diamonds are a girl’s best friend. (Marilyn’s song, of course, is way creepier than the songs today; girls today are arguably celebrating their own empowerment, while Marilyn is essentially (tragically) promoting prostitution, or at the very least her own subjectification).

Anyway, the recent song that caught my attention is, as I write this, still in constant top forty rotation; Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. (The video is particularly interesting, borrowing its look from Clueless). And, again, the lyrics celebrate what Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption': “Cup of Ace, cup of Goose, cup of Cris, high heels, something worth half a ticket on my wrist.” It’s all carefully encoded, and also the kind of thing male rappers have celebrated for two decades. ‘This is where I am, this is what I’ve risen to, this is me, owning my own Veblenian economic empowerment.’ The kind of lifestyle depicted in Sophia Coppola’s movie Bling Ring.  Wow, it’s awesome to have tons of money, and awesomer to spend it on bling and drugs and cars and clothes. It’s all pose, of course, all surface and image. But those images are a potent enough combination of temptations, to which I have no doubt it would be sort of fun to occasionally succumb. But the song doesn’t dig deeper than that fairly obvious insight.

Example two: Ke$ha and We R Who We R. Ke$ha’s particularly interesting in this regard. She carefully cultivated her ‘dirty party girl’ image in song after song and in video after video.  But she’s also brilliant: scored over 1500 on her SATs, was accepted into Barnard College, but dropped out to pursue a pop career. I can’t help but think that her ‘dirty party girl’ image has been very carefully crafted, both by her management and by her.  She writes her own songs, negotiates her own contracts, and apparently invests her money intelligently.  She wouldn’t be the first singer to cynically cultivate an image and cash in by creating pop songs that fit the zeitgeist.

But what’s really interesting is to see the deconstruction of the ‘decadent partier’ song. That’s where the amazing British songstress Lily Allen fits in. She’s hardly new–nor is this genre–but after just three albums, she combines an eclectic pop sensibility with wickedly spot-on lyrics, as with this song, The Fear.  When she sings “I’ll take my clothes off, and I will be shameless, ’cause everyone knows, that’s how you get famous,” it’s clearly satire.  But when she sings “I don’t know what’s right, I don’t what’s real, anymore,” she’s reflecting on the emptiness of the very ambition the rest of the song so cheekily expresses.  “It doesn’t matter, ’cause I’m packing plastic, and that’s what makes my life so f-ing fantastic.” Word.

Lily Allen is sharp, smart and funny. Lorde’s Royals is sad, powerfully plaintive, tragic. It’s a poor girl’s reflection on celebrity worship, on the world of pop star worship that she can only view from the outside. And, as brilliant as Lorde’s own performance of her song is, somehow Postmodern Jukebox exceed it, in a version sung by a seven-foot tall white-suited clown.  Trust me, it’s great.

Of course, any trend needs a final brilliant parody to cement it in our consciousness, and nobody is better at this than Garfunkel and Oates.  Content alert; there’s some language here (there’s actually quite a lot of bad language here), but my gosh, it’s funny: This Party Just Took a Turn for the Douche.

As for the trend itself, it’s interesting to me, the way it both embraces and rejects celebrity culture. As usual, the smartest performers have figured that culture out, and find it both amusing and insubstantial. And the least sensitive and sensible song-writers  will have made (and spent) their money, and then faded away soon enough.