29 June 2006

An Open Letter Regarding Celebrity Retirement

Alt-rock goddesses Sleater-Kinney are saying so long. Or at least going on an "indefinite hiatus."

They'd better mean it. This had better be the end of Sleater-Kinney.

Because I respect them, and I want to keep doing so.

And nothing destroys credibility like announcing a phony retirment as a desperate grab for attention.

To explain why, let me address all celebrities in an open letter...

Dear Celebrities,

We're not fooled anymore. You can't use us this way. You can't traipse through the door saying, "I'm outta here," leaving us lonely and abandoned, only to stroll back a few days later with a bouquet of flowers and a new album under your arm cooing, "Psych! I'm back! Still love me?"

You can't do that, celebrities, because it's pathetic. When you drop us and then come back, that's not about us. It's about you and your need to manipulate people into giving you approval. It's emotionally abusive, and we deserve better treatement than that. Did the Rolling Stones ever jerk us around this way? No. They stayed with us night after night, and they even gained some kind of soul-selling immortality so that we can enjoy a constant stream of their songs, tours, and funny "falling out of the tree" stories for the rest of time. That's commitment.

Conversely, Greta Garbo said she was leaving, and she left. No more movies for her. And it was hard on us at first. But by sticking to her word, Garbo gave us room for closure. She respected our feelings, you know?

So listen up Sleater-Kinney and everyone else: Be like Greta Garbo. If you say you're leaving, just leave. Or at least be like Cat Stevens and have a very public reason for disappearing and returning. With Cat (or should I say Yusuf Islam?), we didn't feel rejected because we knew he was leaving us to pursue his faith. And when he came back, we actually felt better about ourselves because he realized he loved us too much to let us go!

If you can't follow these examples, then you're going to be Sinead O'Connor: constantly retiring and returning until it's obvious you don't give a damn about our feelings. Honestly, in 2003 when Sinead announced she was retiring for a second time, it took effort not to roll our eyes and write her off as a total flake (the momentary lesbianism didn't help either.) Sure, she's made some amazing music, but why can't she ever stop tarnishing her talent with her public persona? Why, after announcing it TWICE, couldn't she just stay retired? But no! This year she came back with an album of reggae covers. And it's cool that she recorded songs filled with political statements, but it's hard to believe she's committed to any ideology when she can't make up her damn mind about whether or not she's a singer.

But at least Sinead is insanely talented. If you're brilliant, celebrities, you always get a little leeway. If you're Garth Brooks, you get ridicule. Garth promised he was going away, claiming that he wanted to spend time with his kids.

Yet not only did he come back, he came back in a horrifying way.

When Garth ended retirement last year, he did so by announcing that his CDs would only be available in Wal-Mart. Which, okay, we know that many of his fans are also in the demographic who shop at Wal-Mart, meaning they are in rural areas in which the chain is the only shopping outlet available to them. (Or at leat the primary shopping outlet).

This is not a knock on Garth's fans, but a knock on the man's utter crassness in saying he wants to be more family oriented only to reenter the music scene in a marriage with a corporate institution that has destroyed more family businesses than anyone can count. There's hypocrisy there, celebrities, and arrogance.

And Garth's last few singles have totally failed at country radio. No matter who you are, you can't just appear and disappear at will, especially when your resurfacing basically makes you the human manifestation of empty-souled corporate greed.

Think about, celebrities.

The Record-Buying Public (or, possibly, just Mark)

Note: Many thanks to Laura for inspiring this letter


27 June 2006

Let Us Now Praise Famous Merchants

NOTE: Edits added to bottom of post...

Natalie Merchant should be just as revered as Michael Stipe.

Whoa! Are them fightin' words? I don't think so.

If Stipe is the unassailable king of the college-rock movement that hit its peak in the late 80s and early 90s--just before grunge turned the volume up on anguished sensitivity and transformed it into bitter angst--then Natalie Merchant is queen.

Consider these facts:

(1) 10,000 Maniacs made three brilliant records ("Our Time in Eden," "In My Tribe," and "MTV Unplugged") and one mostly-brilliant record ("Blind Man's Zoo.") That's more than most artists ever hope to accomplish. And when she went solo, Merchant released two risky projects ("Tigerlily" and "Ophelia") that though not as consistent as her work with the group, still offered a handful of great songs each (including the top 10 hit "Carnival.")

(2) Millions of people bought said records, even though the Maniacs never acheived the stratospheric sales of R.E.M. or U2 (the overrated, pompous dukes of the college music court). Still, the figures aren't shabby. "Unplugged" sold 3 million copies, while "Eden" and "Tribe" both sold 2. "Ophelia" and "Zoo" went platinum, and "Tigerlily" sold an amazing FOUR MILLION albums. That's as much as the most successful albums ("Automatic for the People," "Out of Time," and "Monster") R.E.M. ever released.

Now I'm not saying sales and quality always go together, yet Merchant's music has both.

To prove my point with a little more focus, let me draw your memories back to "Our Time in Eden," which is easily one of the best albums of the 90s and certainly Merchant's masterpiece:

Fourteen years after its 1992 release, this album still stands out as a rare and ambitious attempt in popular music to capture some of the most ineffable elements of living. If that sounds breathy and sentimental, it's only because the songs on this record refuse to be defined by anything but emotional language. There's an aching sincerity in the subject matters, the instrumentation, and certainly in Merchant's ragged teardrop of a voice. Always known as an intellectual singer, on this collection she uses her mind to plumb her heart.

And when she digs into feelings, Merchant never comes up with familiar odes to romantic love. This is true of all Maniacs records. Leave love songs to the rest of them. Natalie Merchant is going to write about illiteracy, contaminated water, and poverty, dammit!

Here, however, she's writing songs about longing. You know how bittersweet sadness can make it hard to breathe, leaving you with a dull ache in the chest that comes from not exhaling and also trying very, very hard to absorb every detail of an experience before life requires you to move forward and let this moment recede into memory? The entire album is about that pain in the chest.

Yet even though her theme is consistent, Merchant and bandmates examine it from 13 different angles. On "These Are Days," the sadness becomes joyous as she reminds us to celebrate these fleeting moments while we have them. The rollicking drums and electric guitar have a propulsion that matches the enthusiasm of the lyric. It's an anthem to appreciating your life, like what Emily would sing if she had learned her lessons in "Our Town" before she died.

Then there are devastated songs like "How You've Grown," a piano ballad in which the singer looks at her--or his, Merchant often sings across gender--child and laments how quickly the child has grown. The narrator was an absent parent, and now he/she is filled with a regret that is expressed in the chorus, which Merchant repeats to an agonized wail at the end of the track. The chorus goes:

"Every time
we say goodbye
you're frozen in my mind
as the child that you never will be

Importantly, that song follows directly after "Jezebel," in which a woman chastises herself for staying married to a man even though she doesn't love him. I've always thought that "How You've Grown" is about the same speaker, years after leaving her husband. Now she realizes that escaping an unwanted marriage cost her a relationship with her child.

Like "How You've Grown," "Jezebel" also builds to a climactic end, though it is much more intense. Drums and violins slash through the song's dirgeful opening pace, as though the woman's anguish over not loving her husband has become so strong that she cannot hold it back, and it finally consumes even the sound of her lament.

And, really, how many major label artists provide songs that invite that much thinking? How many artists have the sensitivity to think about such topics for their material?

Other regret-laden subjects on the album include murder ("I'm Not the Man"), media saturation ("Candy Everybody Wants"), and the solitude of life on the prairie for 19th century pioneer women ("Gold Rush Brides.") Track after track, Merchant offers surprising points of view and rich ways of exploring them.

Her bandmates match her every move by crafing music that surprises, too. This album could easily have been a downer in which every track sounded the same, but the musical vocabulary is broad. Brass, strings, drums, guitars... all meld to create a variety of tempos and emotions. Continuing from what I said about "These Are Days," joy follows melancholy follows anger follows peace.

And there's also majesty. The song "Stockton Gala Days"--in which the speaker reconnects with her childhood friend, only to realize that the friend reminds her of the idealistic person she has forgotten how to be-- is one of my favorite songs of all time. My God. There's an epic tale of inner tragedy being told here in less than 6 minutes. The lyrics are plaintive and simple ("How I've learned to please/To doubt myself in need/You'll never know"); the music is rich with piano and woodwinds; it's astonishing.

Surely the woman behind an album of this level deserve renown, particularly when it's the highpoint of an already amazing body of work.

But while all the attention is going to R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs seem to be getting lost.

For instance, Stipe and Co. always show up in those "Best Of All Time" lists, but Merchant almost never does. In the book "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die," R.E.M. are included four times. Radiohead shows up five. Even obscure elctronic act Orbital gets two entries. But 10,000 Maniacs and Merchant? Not included at all.

And Merchant has never won a damn Grammy. Or even been nominated in a major category. You'd think the industry that falls on itself to praise Bono's every jackass vocal could make room for her. (But I digress. Complaining about the inanity of award distribution is like noting that the McDonald's bathroom has a funny smell.)

There are plenty of reasons why attention seems to be fading from Merchant's work as time goes on. As my friend Rachel pointed out, her persona was always earth-mothery, which is hardly hip. Plus, she's never been controversial or freaky. Just bookish and a little odd. That doesn't draw as much attention as a heroine overdose.

But I think it's time to put Natalie Merchant back in the forefront of our minds. Do not let her become a footnote! She was responsible for some of the most engaging popular music of her era, and we should avail ourselves of it.

So let's add at least "Our Time in Eden" to the list and make it 1002 albums you must hear before you die.

EDITED TO ADD: Matt Cohen, a fellow blogger and the friend of a friend, was kind enough to reference this post on his blog Nervous Breakdown. One of his readers correctly pointed out that I should've mentioned early Maniacs albums like "Wishing Chair" and the collected retrospective of their burgeoning work called "Hope Chest." Those songs are trippy and sonically very experimental. They've always sounded a little dated to me--like Blondie chanelled through a vocoder--but they're undeniably interesting, and they point to great things to come. They're also offer another parallel to R.E.M., who sounded similarly out there on early albums like "Reckoning." Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant were pretty much on the same track until Stipe started hanging out with Courtney Love.


21 June 2006

No, He Does Not Make Me Proud


I had been hoping against hope that I would be able to write a sassy little post about how Taylor Hicks, latest American Idol, did not manage to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with the "song" titled "Do I Make You Proud." But he did. Look at him over there, all smug and phony and obnoxious. No, Taylor, you do not make me proud. You make me ashamed. For all of America.

I realize that a season of American Idol stops being interesting approximately twenty seconds after the final episode goes off the air. But I didn't start this blog until after my fellow Americans had voted this doofus as their champion, and I was certainly wrapped up in the drama while it was going down. So please bear with me as I reiterate a few things that I screamed at my television on a weekly basis.

For one thing, in a competition filled with the phoniest of balonies (Kellie "I'm Stoopid!" Pickler, Chris "I'm Deep and Angsty" Daughtry, Randy "Mariah's My Best Gal Pal!" Jackson), Taylor was the phony-baloniest. You could see the man--and I do mean "man," since he's older than me--calculating the exact moment to unleash one of his affected spasms, jerks, or utterances. Remember the week he just sang "Trouble" by Ray LaMontagne without adding any of that twitching shock-therapy nonsense? Everyone was really upset. Next week, back to the artful epilepsy.

Andrew--who has a big heart, God love him--didn't immediately loathe Taylor Hicks the way I did. In the early episodes, I would be hurling air-popped popcorn (seasoned with olive oil and sea salt) at the screen while Taylor defiled my eyes, and Andrew would say things like, "Hey, now. Give him a chance. Even freaks deserve that." But eventually Andrew came over to my side. I'd say he even surpassed me, given that by season's end he was doing a pretty great impression of Taylor's "dancing."

Andrew said it always looked like Taylor was trying to go to the bathroom. I give you the image above as evidence.

And do we really want some faux-pooper as our American Idol? I mean, some people obviously did, but I still don't know why.

"But he's got a great voice!" you might argue. Does he? I'd say his singing is just as affected as his movements. You could set an armful of watches by the intervals in which he adds a sultry growl or superfluous whoop to his strained vocals. There's not a thing about him that seems natural. He's a bad copy of natural. He's your parents trying to sound awesome by saying, "Oh no she didn't!" right after you mention that Taylor Hicks debuted at number one.

I also know that you could level similar arguments about the plasticity of Katherine McPhee, but I love her anyway. I love her voice. I love her look. I love her weird mix of giggly fun and polished stage presence. (I also loved this about Paris Bennett.) Let's take that argument to the comments box, shall we?

But I don't love Katherine's upcoming single--"My Destiny"--any more that I love "Do I Make You Proud?" There are plenty of websites that give the proper lashing to the ass-tastic songs foisted upon Idol finalists and, ultimately, the public. I won't carry on with that.

Anyway, for all my disasppointment in the success of Taylor Hicks, I do take solace in the fact that Katherine McPhee might be just as successful.

Even more gratifying? "Do I Make You Proud" has already slipped out of the iTunes top ten. Where's the staying power? Oh, right. With Kelly Clarkson.

Unfortunately, lhe latter point becomes slightly less satisfying when you consider what song replaced "Do I Make You Proud" near the top of the iTunes chart.

"Stars Are Blind." By Paris Hilton.

Paris Hilton.

Oh no she didn't!


18 June 2006

Debunking the Octave Myth

Hello all... first, some housekeeping notes as I keep learning about the blog-o-sphere.

(1) I will update my blog at least three times a week (Sunday-Saturday) and possibly more. I'm feeling a smidge guilty about having taken several days since my last post, but that's the critic's life. Always at the theater, rarely at my computer! But have no fear... there will be bloggy goodness every week.

(2) And soon I will finally start putting audio clips up here. I've just got to sit down and teach myself to do it. Listen out for it!

(As opposed to "look out for it." The wit comes free around this blog, y'all).

And now... on with the show:

For those of you who don't know him, my boyfriend Andrew teaches singing to many talented performers, and he teaches me many things about music. Through him, I've learned that declarations about a singer's vocal range are often... innacurate.

Take Mariah Carey, who no doubt wishes there were no photographic records of the humidity-perm she rocked in the 90s.

It was once widely reported that she has a seven-octave vocal range. That notion even surfaced in respected publications like Salon.com (just check the ninth line of the last paragraph of this review).

But as Andrew has pointed out, it is impossible for a person to have a range so broad. "That would mean her highest note was something only dogs could hear!" he recently exclaimed, and then he tried to make a dog-whistle sound. He scrunched up his face and let out a whispery, screechy noise that did not attract local animals but did make him look goofy and cute.

Anyway, his statement is backed up by this report on Snopes, a website dedicated to debunking urban legends.

And yet the idea persists. In fact, Andrew is dubious that Carey has even a five octave range. Honestly, I don't know, and when I looked up "octave" on Wikipedia, the entry didn't clear things up for me. (Damn you, free-for-all publishing! Why don't you have exacting scholarly standards?)

But the point is that "octave" is one of those terms that gets tossed around glibly by lots of people--myself included, I'll admit--because we know just enough about it to use it incorrectly.

Another example is in some of the press given to Felicity Huffman for her Oscar-worthy turn in "Transamerica" (Sorry, Reese. Huffster got robbed.)

Articles like this one from London's Observer casually reference how the actress changed the octave of her voice. Really? Now I'm dubious.

It seems to me that the press (and a great swath of the public) has adopted the word "octave" because it sounds schooled and therefore gives an argument the false appearance of scholarship.

I'm sure, for instance, that I said the following at some college party:

"Well, Mariah Carey's music may sound a little processed, but you can't deny she's got an amazing voice. It's seven octaves!"

And see... bam. I've made my point with some wicked-fancy terminology. Point, set, match.

But let's make "I Totally Hear That" a place of truth. I still don't really know what I'm talking about. I just know I have more to learn. Can anyone else help clarify this "octave" business?

Andrew? Bueller? Mariah?


15 June 2006

Popism #120 : Why Change the Lock When You Can Change the Key?

POPISM (N) : A musical or lyrical element used in so many pop songs that it becomes a cliche. Often known to evoke joy every time it is employed.

It's usually right after the bridge. You've been enjoying the song, bobbing your head to a verse and a few choruses, thinking you know what's up. And then, just to keep you on your toes, the song changes keys! Whoa! It's exciting because a singer shows off his or her range, and the same old lyrics and chord progressions feel revitalized. They do, you guys. They are in a different key.

I like to think of the key change as the moment in a song when, if the singer were standing outside, it would start raining really hard. Or lightning would strike three times in quick succession. The point is that something really dramatic would accompany the musical shift.

There are two major varities of key change. The first I'll call the "pause and jump," in which a song features a brief moment of silence before the singer leaps up to a new place in her register. Take Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This." Right after the bridge, she sings the familiar chorus line, "Some people wait a lifetime / For a moment..."

But then she pauses.

You can feel the particles charging in the ground. "Some people wait a lifetime/ For a moment... LIKE THIIIIS!" Key change! Lightning crashes! A new mother cries! Her placenta falls to the floor!

The other (and more sophisticated) key change is an "easy glide." One of my favorite examples is in Faith Hill's "This Kiss." She sings two choruses back to back, and she changes keys in the second without even stopping to take a breath. The music goes right up with her, and nobody breaks a sweat.

It's not as obviously dramatic, but this version of the key change is just as fun. And if you're singing along to a song with an "easy glide" that your friends haven't heard, you can impress them by working that right into your performance. They'll think you're clairvoyant, because who could have seen such a subtle change coming?

So what are your favorite key changes? Why do they always happen in ths chorus? Are there styles of this popism that I've overlooked? Do you wait for big moment in Robbie Williams' "Angels" as anxiously as I do?


14 June 2006

One more thing about Sandi Thom...

Yes, yes, I did already write about Sandi Thom, but as I was walking to the subway today, I realized I hadn't quite said what I meant. In my regular life, I never get to go back and add to things I've written. But you know what? This is a blog! Woo-hah!

(If Rachel's reading this... remember when I re-submitted that crit paper? It's like that.)

Anyway. A little bit more about Sandi Thom's "I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)." (You can hear it here. Click on the link in the upper right corner.) :

This song is about the singer's desperate wish for a community, and it is structured to let her find one.

For the first twenty-seven seconds, all we hear is Sandi Thom's voice. She is a lone, lonely soul in an otherwise silent void. When she sings, "I was born too late/To a world that doesn't care," you can believe her.

But then extra sounds start emerging, starting softly and then increasing in volume. First shakers and tambourines, then hand claps and stomps. Finally, we hear the arrival of additional voices, as though other people have walked in to join her.

As I said in the previous post, it's crucial to note that all these sounds are made by the human body. We're not hearing digital keyboards or computerized drums. The impression given is that Thom's voice calls other people from the darkness. She starts alone, but she ends surrounded.

I don't know how this song was created. Thom may have been alone in a room making all the sounds herself. But as a finished work of art, the track suggests that the yearning for connection can ultimately provide it. By its very design, the song is a demonstration of hope.

And how many pop singles can suggest things like that?

Labels: ,

Sandi Thom : A British Folkie You Should Hear

Those of you who read the comments around here may have noticed a few from Sophie, a British radio programmer. Now I don't know Sophie, but I do know this...

(1) British radio is often much more interesting than American

(2) If I had two lives, I would spend one of them hosting a radio show.

With regard to my first point, I'm not saying "interesting" is always the same as "good." I mean, there are presently three songs in the British top twenty about World Cup Soccer, and U.K. audiences frequently send "songs" by annoying cartoons (See: Crazy Frog, Bob the Builder, and Flat Eric) all the way to number one.

But amidst the rubble, there are also plenty of gems. The Brits jumped on Gnarls Barkley first, and they've also figured out that artists like Wheatus, Gabrielle, and Sugababes deserve love.

Right now, however, our brothers and sisters across the pond (please note how many synonyms I'm using in this post) are really striking gold. With any luck, Americans will soon be embracing Sandi Thom.

(Before we go any further, you should really go to her webiste (here) and click on the link in the upper-right hand corner to play the song "I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)." The rest of this post is useless unless you know the song.)

In just two and half a minutes, Thom makes one of the clearest, most arresting musical statements I've heard in years. Like Tracy Chapman did on her first album, she's using her remarkable singing voice and gift for rhythm to make earnest folk whose idealism is not cut by cynicism.

"I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker" hanuts me because it sounds so alive. There are no guitars on the track. No drums, no piano. All the sounds are initmately connected to the human body. Along wtih Thom's mournful voice, we hear stomping feet and clapping hands, increasing in volume and speed as the song progresses. Even the few instruments--egg shakers and tambourines--require agressive physical movement. Without even listening to the words, I can hear this song's fervent commitment to human connection.

And that idea only deepens with the lyrics. Granted, every generation has its hippie anthems, and Thom isn't straying too far from Chapman or, say, Joni Mitchell.

Who cares, though, if she's a trailblazer? It's appropriate right now for someone to be looking back to seventies punk rockers and sixties hippies (with flowers in their hair) with a sense of longing. We are still in an incredibly ironic age, and Thom's lyrics express a longing for a time when real feeling was celebrated, rather than obfuscated, by the media and the arts.

I can even accept her sentiment more readily because her words don't always make sense. What does it mean, for instance, to wish for a time "when the head of state didn't play guitar?" Against the driving urgency of the music, those strange bits just make Thom sound like a woman who is so consumed by her desire to overcome disconnection that the words are spilling out faster than her thoughts. The song is like a spontaneous emotional utterance. Imagine all the stomping and clapping coming from people who just happened to hear her and then decided to sing along. The track becomes the sound of a community being born.

Yes, I'm a total idealist who rarely gets burdened with cynicism. But few songs bring it out in me this much.

And apparently, Thom's connecting with other people, given that both her single and album have recently topped the British charts.

The biggest irony? She developed a following by broadcasting her music of love, peace, and human interaction over the impersonal wires of the internet. She owes her career to the webcasts of concerts she gave out of her tiny apartment, which eventually attracted over 70,000 web surfers at a time.

I guess that's the state of community in current popular music. If we want to feel like hippies or punk rockers--a group of listeners united by an ideal, however naive or unfocused--then we have to sit alone at our computers.

But maybe, if we realize we're not alone in thinking songs can have meaning or believing that art can have power, we can get outside and meet each other.

Labels: ,

09 June 2006

An R. Kelly Video That Won't Be on MTV

According to this article from Billboard.com, a Chicago judge has said the public will be allowed to see a video in which R. Kelly allegedly has sex with (and, ahem, pees on) a fourteen year-old girl.

Do you think the video will slow down Kelly's career? The accusations that he repeatedly abused underage girls certainly didn't. Since being charged with multiple counts pf soliciting a minor and child pornography in 2002, Kelly has released four albums that hit the top two (three of which went to number one.)

He's also unleashed that multi-chapter non-song "In The Closet," in which he narrates a tale of infidelity that ends with the public shaming of a gay black man. Meanwhile, other hit singles like "Ignition" and "Snake" have continued his tradition of praising freaky sex as often as possible.

Two things about this situation confuse me.

One: why has a man accused of committing sexual crimes continued to make music in which he promotes his own sexuality? Wouldn't it be better for his case--or at the very least more tasteful--to tone that stuff down?

Also, while I know that homophobia is hardly unusual in our society, does a man on trial for sex crimes have the standing to demean the legal sexual practices of others?

Two: How has R. Kelly avoided a backlash from the record buying public? I mean, The Dixie Chicks say one little thing about the president, and country audience turns on them. In the fifties, Jerry Lee Lewis marries his cousin, and his career is over. Michael Jackson gets accused of molesting boys--and just generally goes insane--and America drops him like he's hot (though Europe loves him still).

The Michael Jackson siutation isn't exactly analagous, I know, but I'm wondering what the reaction would have been if Kelly had been charged with peeing on young men. I imagine "Chocolate Factory" might have sold fewer copies. But why is it apparently no problem at all for him to face these charges with regard to young women?

And I'm not saying that Kelly is guilty. I don't know him or the purported victim, and all my information has come from mass media news.

However, that's what everyone else read, too, and it shocks me that, as a country that rejects people for being accused of less, we seem to have let Kelly slide.

Why is that?


08 June 2006

No One's Cooler than Gnarls Barkley (I Checked)

When I've had too much to drink--which means I've had, like, half a glass of champagne--I sometimes go off on how much I hate the "shelf/self" rhyme in song lyrics. Countless songwriters use the couplet. Take this sample from "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" by Georgia Satellites:

My honey, my baby, don't put my love up on no shelf
She said, "Don't hand me no lines and keep your hands to yourself."

That's usually how we hear it. Some singer doesn't want his or her love to be put up on a shelf. Or they don't wan't to be on a shelf themselves. Or they're sorry they put their lover on a shelf. You get the picture. The idea of love on a shelf appears in so many songs that you'd think the general public considers the notion all the time.

But really? No one ever does. When in daily speech have you overheard a colleague saying, "Seriously, Dan, I love Margie, but she keeps putting my love on a shelf?" Never.

This cliche exists only within the bubble of songwriting, which makes it extremely phony and unconvincing.

The reason it's used, of course, is that "shelf" is about the only word that rhymes with "self," so songwriters have little other choice. (Except "pelf," but how often do you get to say that?) The clunky, unnatural phrase is built out of necessity. I still hate it, though.

But sometimes songwriters will use the couplet in a surprising way, and I fall in artistic love with them. Well, that can't be the only reason, but it helps.

Take Gnarls Barkley (awesomely aping Napoleon Dynamite to your left), the hip-hop/ rock/ funk/ just-plain-weird musical duo comprised of DJ Dangermouse (left) and rapper-singer Cee-Lo Green. Their debut album "St. Elsewhere" is one of the most exciting I've heard in years. It's just so... hard to describe. The music is dance-able, but it's not dance music. It rocks, but there's too much soul singing to make it rock.

But Gnarls Barkley's music doesn't need a category. It's obvious from the first song--"Go-Go Gadget Gospel"--that these men know exactly what they're doing, so we should trust them.

And unlike, say, Fall Out Boy, their weirdness doesn't seem like an act. (Come on Fall Out Boy... aren't your song titles just a little too cheeky?) I know for a fact that Cee-Lo has been mashing up rock and hip-hop for years on his solo records, and DJ Dangermouse famously smushed The Beatles' "White Album" and Jay-Z's "Black Album" into "The Grey Album." Gnarls Barkley is the fascinating outcome of two unique artists pushing each other to new places.

We get to savor rewards like the song "Crazy," a soul jam which was number one in England for nine weeks. Or "The Boogie Monster," which takes a sample of "The Monster Mash" and turns it into a creepy, funky jam.

Along with the excellent songs, we also get to enjoy the rare hip-hop act who seems to have a sense of humor about themselves.
Take a look at the photos! Granted, some of their songs deal with serious subjects like suicide--and quite well--but most of the music is simple, loopy fun. They just want to talk about how awesome they are. Or they want to talk about how they're Transformers. Like the cartoon. I'm not kidding, and I'm so happy I'm not.

And sometimes they want to talk about feng shui. At less than two minutes, the song "Feng Shui" distillates why they are so cool. Over a slinky beat, Cee-Lo raps about how he is so balanced that everything in his life has to adhere to the Chinese philosophy of interior design. "You're welcome to stay," he tell us, "but even your company must compliment the feng shui." That's some serious shit.

Cool beat, cool subject. But best of all? The following lyrics. Describing his house, Cee-Lo says he has

a plant, a pet, books on a shelf
and a frame on the wall where you can picture yourself

Which makes perfect sense! The trite rhyme is revitalized!

Just one more reason that no one is cooler than Gnarls Barkley.

(p.s.--They're definitely cooler than me. It took me over a week to figure out that their name is a play on basketball star Charles Barkley.)


07 June 2006

One plug and one apology

Hello everyone!

You should all go check out the latest issue of the The Advocate (that's a picture of the cover of the issue) because it contains two music-related stories by yours truly. My first story--"A God-Des Among Us"--is about God-Des and She, an amazing hip-hop act. (This is their website.)

The other story--"Dykes With Rhymes"--rounds up some of the best queer women in hip-hop and rap. And you know your life is not on target until you've heard some of that mess.

And now for an apology to "Jenn," who very kindly tried to post a comment here. I don't know what happened, but some technological glitch her post from going through.

Here's what Jenn tried to say about the "The Ladies Are Treating Us Right" entry:

"ok, so consider me shocked. only because of my love for adam over at amateur gourmet did i click the link. if adam says, i will click. but i did not expect to enjoy! to see karma chameleon, "the bomb", and the word trepidatious all appear in a blog about pop music... sigh. it brings glee to my secretly shakira-adoring heart. nice work! consider yourself bookmarked."

I had to put that up here. I got props, y'all!

Also, I've reconfigured things to make it easier for anyone to post. So tell me what's got your iPod ablaze.



Popism #44 : Bring the Beat Back!

POPISM (N) : A musical or lyrical element used in so many pop songs that it becomes a cliche. Often known to evoke joy every time it is employed.

"Karma Chameleon" is one of the 80's greatest singles, and if you disagree with that, then you are welcome to rent this movie. You may be in it. There are plenty of reasons why "KC" still towers as a perfect pop anthem. Here are just three:

(1) We all wish our dreams were red, gold, and green

(2) It's fun to harmonize with the bridge ("Every-daaay is like survival (survival)")

(3) The song brings the beat back

And number three, of course, brings me to today's popism. Remember how at the end of "Karma Chameleon" Boy George sings a chorus backed by nothing but drums and handclapping? All the instruments disappear, and we're left singing the song in a near-vacuum.

Then the chorus finishes, and there's a brief pause. Is the song over? Will the darkness envelop us?

No! The silence is destroyed by the glorious resurgence of all the instruments that vanished! Including that wicked harmonica! The beat comes back! Red! Gold! Green!

The full-on return of istrumentation that, for a moment, disappeared is one of the most satisfying elements of pop. Singers' voices hang out there in space, and then the music rises up to catch them. For a moment, the structure of the universe goes wild, and the song's a little dangerous in its a cappella way. But then that sound we've grown so used to in the last three minutes helps everything makes sense again.

Either that, or the beat disappears and we go crazy with anticipation. We know it's coming back, and we want it. Sometimes, songs tease us for ages before giving us our reward, and when we get it, it's a high. Cher's "Believe" pulls that one. Right after the bridge, those naughty producers wait two whole choruses before letting the synth drums swell up again. That's how most dance songs use this popism, actually. You're supposed to make up your own slo-mo dance moves while you're waiting for the faster rhythm to reemerge. I recommend lots of swirling arm movements and a pouty, serious face.

So what are your favorite examples of songs that bring the beat back?

And what kind of dances are you doing while it's gone?


06 June 2006

The Ladies Are Treating Us Right

See that picture of Shakira up there? The one where she's basically shooting fire out of her body? Well, that's about right. Is anyone hotter right now? I don't mean hot in the "smokin' curves" sense, though I'm sure many people do. (A female friend even said Shakira is the one woman who could send her over the rainbow. Sorry, Angelina Jolie! Having all those babies is pushing you to the back of the girl-crush line!)

Anyway, what I mean by "hot" is that Shakira's current single "Hips Don't Lie" is scorchingly awesome. To paraphrase Wyclef--her duet partner on this song--she makes us all want to speak Spanish. I dare anyone to keep their pelvis immobile when this comes on. Even if you're in CVS or Whole Foods or church. Don't fight it. Just shake it. This is the kind of universally pleasurable single that only comes once a year...

...except when it comes four times in one month.

That's right, y'all. We are in the middle of a bumper crop of incredible pop singles. The kind of songs that will *always* make your party guests happy. And I'm not even talking about "Ridin'" by Chamillionaire, even though that's a pretty catchy song, too. (I mean, why do the police always try to catch me ridin' dirty?)

"Ridin'" falls short of pop genius because it's merely an excellent spin on a song that we've already heard this year. (Couldn't itjust be a sequel to "Grillz?" by Nelly--in sound, if not in subject?) "Hips Don't Lie," meanwhile, sounds distinctive. You know exactly what time it is when you hear that weird little horn blast. It's Shakira time.

And then, right after that, it's probably Rihanna time. Because "SOS" is just as awesome as "Hips Don't Lie." Honestly, people. That sample from "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell? Awesome. And the lyrics are really outstanding for a pop record. "I'm a question/And you're of course the answer/So hold me close boy/'Cuz I'm your tiny dancer." Oh, no! Did she just drop an Elton reference?

Really, those songs are the two champions of this moment, and I've already had lengthy arguments about which one is superior. Personally, I vote for "SOS," since its sound is so much richer, but I can see how the sheer personality of Shakira could prevail in the hearts of many. Rihanna happens to have her name attached to some good songs, but (like Ashanti) she doesn't seem to have a personality. Shakira is a star. A shimmying, sexy, articulate star who writes her own lyrics (even if her grasp of English syntax can be shaky.)

Somewhere in between those two lies Nelly Furtado. "Promiscuous," her new single, is nearly as memorable as "SOS" and "Hips Don't Lie," what with Nelly's "Don't You Want Me"-style debate with Timbaland over who's a bigger ho and the Latin-meets-LA beat. And Nelly Furtado has always had a personality. "Whoa, Nelly!" and "Folklore," her excellent previous albums, sounded like nothing else around because they carried the influence of her Portuguese heritage. Also, there was a fun-loving sassiness in songs like "I'm Like a Bird" or the (unjustly overlooked) "Powerless (Say What You Want") that made her seem like a woman you could hang out with. She was talented, approachable, original, and awesome.

Which is why I'm a little trepidatious about "Promiscuous," because even though it's a great song--really, the kind of song that would tower above the rest if the rest didn't include the aforementioned hits--it certainly makes it sound like Nelly Furtado is turning into a standard issue hip-hop sexpot. Will she lose her personality on her new record? After all, "Folklore" was a superlative album, but it flopped. "Promiscuous" is already top 3. It would be a shame if she became generic in the pursuit of hit records, but I'm holding out hope that the fun-loving, musically diverse Nelly Furtado still exists.

But if not, there's always the return of Christina Aguilera to make up for it. Released just today on iTunes (6-6-6... the evilest date ever!), her new song "Ain't No Other Man" is the bomb. (What? People do still say that!) It comes in adavance of "Back To Basics," the album that's supposed to mark her de-sluttification. The picture to the right is what she looks like now. There's just a lot more clothing there, you know? But more importantly, this first track implies that she's getting away from the generic R&B that Nelly Furtado seems to be heading toward.

On her last album, "Stripped," Aguilera managed to deliver the tasty balladry of "Beautiful" and the joyous sleaze of "Dirrty," but otherwise that record sounded pretty disposable. ("Can't Hold Us Down" was not a social revolution, people. It was Spice Girls-style girl power with better singing. )

However, "Ain't No Other Man" is riffing on the 40s-era jazz/blues sound that this new album will apparently emulate. The horn and drum samples are just so funky! And her voice sounds raw. In a good way. Meaning fierce and unaffected. Rather than running up and down the scales like they were her basement stairs, she just sings, belting out notes without frills. The sparse production highlights her voice and reminds us why we should listen to her in the first place. (Shouldn't there have been more of this unvarnished work on Mariah Carey's supposed "return to the voice?" But I digress...)

Anyway, I think "Ain't No Other Man" is going to be as a big a hit as the other songs mentioned above. At least, it deserves to be. And then we'll have four great singles in one year. Something to remember when we bow our heads before Thanksgiving dinner.


03 June 2006

Popism #455 : What's my name? What's my name?

POPISM (N) : A musical or lyrical element used in so many pop songs that it becomes a cliche. Often known to evoke joy every time it is employed.

My best friend--for anonymity's sake, we'll call her Starfanie--and I realized we would be BFF when we were driving around listening to Roxette. (I know. SO many stories involve them.) The song was "Joyride," a #1 single in 1991 that was already nostalgia in 1995, when our story takes place. (It's the song that goes "Hello! You fool! I love you! C'mon join the joyriiiiiide...)

We had both been sub-singing along. You know, when both people in the car are kind of whispering under their breath, but no one's really busting out. Then, however, comes the point at the end of the instrumental break when Per Gessele and Marie Fredriksson (the group's two singers) both shout the following:


And Steph... um... Starfanie and I shouted it, too. "ROX-ETTE!" Hitch pause between the two syllables included. It was magical.

Because how awesome is it when singers remind you DURING THEIR OWN SONG who they are? It's so... silly, really. And a little arrogant. And it's the kind of lunacy you can't get away with in daily life. If I finish a review that I think is particularly good, I can't call my editor and, while discussing the piece, say, "Oh, David, did you notice how I used the word 'existential' while descrbing Godot? BLANKEN-SHIP!"

But that's how I might feel. Pop stars (and athletes, to a lesser extent) get to act out that rampant egotism for us all. It's like Per was so pleased with his guitar lick that he just had to remind who made that song his bitch. ROX-ETTE!

Rappers are particularly good at dropping themselves into a verse or two. Snoop Dogg has made a career out of it. Many of us remember his first solo single, "Who Am I (What's My Name)?," and several years later he also unleashed the lesser known classic "Snoop Dogg." The chorus? A sultry-voiced woman breathes, "S-N-Double Oh-P! D-Oh-Double Jizzee!" Not only are we being reminded it's Snoop, we're also getting lessons in spelling and how to speak "izzo." That song sould be offered for college credit.

What are some of your favorite instances of this popism? When do you wish you could use it yourself? Which acts need to lighten up and give themselves a shout out already?

I'd like to nominate Enya.


02 June 2006

Just Who Is This Beyoncé?

Think back to the year 2000, that far away time when, as it turned out, we didn't have flying cars like we were promised but did have Destiny's Child. And for a moment, it seemed like an even trade because surely with these four ladies, the future had arrived.

Or three ladies, eventually. Or eleven. Or whatever, really, because it didn't matter how many roster changes the group endured. Destiny's Child was really about one woman: Beyoncé (pronounced with an "on-say") Knowles. She was the next generation. The future of diva.

In 2000
Beyoncé was making herself known as a formidable and unusual artist. If reports are to be believed, she was writing her own material, and it was about what a fiercely unattached woman she was. Unlike many women in pop, Beyoncé released single after single about how she was independent, intelligent, and (most uniquely) self-defined without a man's approval.

(Before we go any further, let me acknowledge that I know a lot of Destiny's Child's music was created by men, just like their image. But sometimes that music and those images do escape the clutches of the people who create them and manage to have an honest resonance all their own. For the purposes of this investigation, I'm accepting that there is a cultural validity to the personas crafted for music stars, even if we can see some of the puppet strings on their wrists.)

TLC had laid the ground work for
Beyoncé's brand of stuttering-beat liberation with hits like "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" (a backhanded embrace of female sexuality), "What About Your Friends" (a reminder that your own best friend is probably yourself), and "No Scrubs" (a reminder that.... well, I'll get to that.) Salt 'n Pepa, En Vogue, and earlier acts like Aretha Franklin had also helped get things started, too.

And like the truly legendary among her predecessors,
Beyoncé had the charisma and savvy to become a force of pop nature. People cared about her in that way that makes someone a star instead of just a popular recording artist. This is why we're not discussing Kelly Rowland or Michelle Williams: AKA, the Other Two. This is why they made a Beyoncé Barbie.

At first, Ms. Knowles seemed to be using her power to assert feminine authority. Take "Bills, Bills, Bills," which often gets lumped in with "No Scrubs" as a greed anthem of 1999. But in "No Scrubs" men are dropped for having no money, while in "Bills, Bills, Bills"
Beyoncé cans them for not being able to pay the charges they run up on her credit card (listen to the lyrics, y'all!) She certainly doesn't need a leech like that in her life. Or a co-dependent bug-a-boo, as we'd learn later.

And then came the one-two punch of "Independent Women, Part 1" and "Survivor," in which the record company made a bigger deal of Ms. Knowles' songwriting contributions and how her message was that she didn't need some chump's money (the former) or fale friends (the latter).

And it was kind of awesome for a woman in pop to be so agressively self-sufficient. It was--dare I say it--awesome like how Madonna's awesome.

Beyoncé transformed into a man's plaything. I'm not saying I know how it happened--may she changed for real; mayber her handlers decided she was losing too many fans by not seeming sexually docile--but it happened all the same. Consider these lyrics from "Cater 2 U," the last official single from Destiny's Child, released in 2005 :

If you want it
Say the word
I know whatever I 'm not fulfilling
Another woman is willing
I'm going to fulfill your mind, body, and spirit

I promise
I'll keep myself up
Remain the same chick
You fell in love with
I'll keep it tight,
I'll keep my figure right.
I'll keep my hair fixed,
Keep rocking the hottest outfits.
When you come home late,
tap me on my shoulder, I'll roll over.
Baby I heard you; I'm here to serve you.
If it's love you need, to give it is my joy.
I'm here to cater to you boy.

Hardly an independent woman now, is she? Granted, that's the most blatantly passive verse in the song, and Kelly sings it. But
Beyoncé's implicated in the message by singing back up. And that's only her singing on "Check On It," her number one single from earlier this year. There's a bit more confidence in the sexuality of the lyric, but she is still priding herself for being able to control men with her sexual allure instead of celebrating her free-thinking independence or insistence that she be "fifty-fity in relationships" (to quote "Independent Women, Part 1.")

Now her message is one of reliance on men and and/her power to make them want her.

So where did this
Beyoncé come from? Why did she make such a shift in her public persona? Or was I just overlooking something that was always there? Did Beyoncé finally capitulate to to the pressure to be a sex toy, or was she presenting herself as one all along?

You tell me.