Archive for the ‘music’ Category

So, a friend approached me a few weeks ago and asked if I would accompany him on a project. He is listening his way through this book called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. He asked me to blog the project with him.

But I can’t do it.

There are three main problems with the book.

1. It’s too big. 1001 albums to hear before you die is too long of a list — it’s a long enough list that it could include just about anything and requites precious little editing. “Which Mudhoney album should I include? I’ll just go ahead an include both.” Britney or Christina? Bring them both along. A list this expansive fails to do what a good list does, and that’s provide some guidance by making some editorial decisions about what makes the list and what does not.

2. It’s not big enough. It’s selective in a really painful way: It’s too rock-ish. For those of you keeping score at home:

Oasis 2. John Coltrane 1.
Arrested Development and Charles Mingus tie at one apiece.
Kings of Leon (2) outlast Nina Simone (1)
Billie Holiday (1) manages a draw with Slipknot (1).
John Cage (0) & Phillip Glass (0) get shut out entirely.

According to this book, there are almost no jazz albums worth hearing since Miles Davis‘ (4) Bitches Brew. and there is no album resembling “classical” music that’s you need to hear before you die. Period. In choosing the 1001 albums, the contributors demonstrate little beyond their own limited taste, or else they demonstrate what passes for the contemporary moment’s self-satisfied “ecclectic” listening which means that you have both Tupac (1) and Steely Dan (4) on your ipod. Come on.

3. But really, my issue with the book is how they define the “album.” The authors credit Frank Sinatra (3) with “inadvertently ushering the album era” with his 1950 release, In the Wee Small Hours.” Albums, in fact had been around for about a decade, but they were not the now coveted (and fetishized) 33 1/3 rpm records. They were albums of records that were modeled on photo albums and were packaged and sold as collections — often of Broadway soundtracks, but also of the work of a single musician. By opening the “album era” in 1955, the authors commit a more egregious sin than what they did to Herbie Hancock (0). By conflating the LP with the album, they omit albums that preceded In the Wee Small Hours (like Charlie Parker’s 1950 release Bird With Strings).

But worse yet, in the age of single-song downloads and declining sales of record albums, they nostalgically enshrine the LP with a kind of rock-centric power, as if American music can be best understood by 45-minute collections of songs — as if that format is somehow both natural and superior to all others. By enshrining the album, the contributors suggest that our aural days ought not be measured in music, but in format. And in that way, the book, in its inclusions and omissions, implies that anything beyond this capacious and capricious list isn’t worth hearing, anyhow.


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The conversation about “selling out” in popular music has been dead for some time. And I’m not interested in reviving that conversation now. The last time it really flared up was around 1989, when Nike featured the Beatles’ “Revolution” in a commercial. Since then, it’s basically been a done deal.

So, today’s New York Times‘ story about Converse opening a recording studio did not come as that big a surprise. It’s a pretty interesting story, actually, that points out the real deadness of the “selling out” debate. Given the state of the music industry — the rise of digital downloading, the bloatedness of the major labels, the constriction of radio outlets through consolidation (and companies like Clear Channel), the so-called “360 deals,” rampant product placement in pop music and so on — why shouldn’t Converse enter the industry? Why shouldn’t Whole Foods? Barnes and Noble? You or I?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course, but it raises three important issues that we ought to be clear about, if we’re thinking about the current state of popular music.

1. Converse will make music to sell shoes. The music is “successful” if it results in shoe sales. The Converse record label is the idea of Geoff Cottrill, Converse’s chief marketing officer. Cottrill is pretty plain about his intentions:

“Let’s say over the next five years we put 1,000 artists through here, and one becomes the next Radiohead,” he said. “They’re going to have all the big brands chasing them to sponsor their tour. But the 999 artists who don’t make it, the ones who tend to get forgotten about, they’ll never forget us.”

In other words, if the company has a .01% success rate in terms of music sales, but it builds brand loyalty for its shoes, then the music is a worthwhile investment. It’s a strange approach to “arts patronage,” in which it has none of the trappings of the Rennaissance or human expression — it’s about creating art to sell shoes. And I know (thanks, Warhol), that this, too, is old, self-referential, post-modern news. Nevertheless, I think we ought to be clear about these new arrangements and what is serving and what is being served.

2. Because it is in the business of selling shoes, Converse is actually being far more generous to its artists than the labels (at least it appears to be so). The article reported that Converse has little to no interest in owning the recordings that it makes. This is something new, and it does give more power to the artists than they typically have under contract with major labels — but good luck selling your song to Nike or Starbucks or VW if you’ve already sold it to Converse. And if you’re a musician, you’re probably not making money selling records, so where are you going to sell your music?

3. The entrance of Converse into this marketplace seems like evidence of the breaking-apart of the music industry as we knew it in the 20th century. Indeed, one of the great things about music these days is that anyone with a laptop and an internet connection can become a label. This is radically liberating for many artists. But what’s the real difference between Columbia and Converse? Amidst the sweeping changes in the music industry, it still seems to be about artists serving larger corporate interests. Converse, like Columbia or EMI or Decca or whomever, has the broadcast outlets; it has the power in the marketplace that independent musicians don’t have.

And, though Converse seems to be more generous with their artists, they appear to care less about their music.

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Just in case you thought that all the talk about the changing media landscape was only threatening the future of newspapers, sit-coms, and books, MTV’s recent decision to drop its “music television” tagline indicates that change is afoot in all quarters. MTV, the upstart cable network that killed the radio star when it launched in 1981, seems, in 2009, to have killed the music star, too.

(For an inside history of the logos, see Rolling Stone’s coverage here)

Tina Exarhos, executive vice president of marketing and multiplatform creative projects, told The NY Daily News, “Music is still at the heart of everything we do, but it’s about a lot more now.” It’s a strange statement, really, affirming the centrality of music while also exiling it to MTV’s marginal siblings (MTV2, MTVU, and so on).

More than just an indication of the shift in the network’s focus (a shift that has been well underway for some time), it confirms the centrality of music as a signifier, but the marginality of music as something one might actually listen to, play, hum, see performed live, or otherwise participate in. “Music,” in Exharos’ formulation doesn’t pertain to music made of notes, but rather music made of ideas, symbols, and suggestions of what’s cool, cutting edge, hip, or maybe even interesting. But it’s not about strings of notes or revolutions of turntables.

What is the world of media coming to when even music television isn’t about music anymore? I guess the change in MTV’s logo means that my television will return to being a television, and I can return to my stereo (or ipod, headphones, or even my own guitar) with a newly recovered sense of where music rather belongs.

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All Idiot, no America

Last week I went to see Berkeley Rep‘s much-hyped staging of a rock opera set to Green Day‘s 2003 concept album American Idiot. This seemed like a sure-fire winner of an evening. I am a huge fan of the album, I grew up in Berkeley, Green Day famously got their “start” at 924 Gilman, a local punk club, and I know that Berkeley Rep also helped launch Stew‘s brilliant musical Passing Strange — so I figured this couldn’t go wrong.

But I was wrong and so was the show.American_Idiot-Green_Day_480

The play took the record and managed to reduce all of the punky post-9/11 angst, all of the clever insights and all of the whip-smart political commentary to a thinly woven narrative about three friends and the choices they make (one gets his girlfriend pregnant; one leaves town for fortune, fame and drugs; one joins the army). Green Day’s smarts were reduced to smugness while the actors retained the band’s famous brattiness but none of their brains.

The show seems to have forgotten the ways in which the album conjures up a very difficult 21st century American landscape in which individual choices are always in conversation with larger political and cultural structures. Despite nods to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to George Bush, the play fails to make them speak to its characters, and vice versa.

All of the things that made this album so good were crushed beneath an overblown cast and an under-inflated story. The story of this record lies not in the play’s moralizing tale about drugs, family, salvation, and relationships, but in what it means to not have the choice to live elsewhere when your country is waging wars you don’t support. It articulates frustration and confusion and the knowledge that one might hold on to the American Dream despite the fact that it is so patently a lie. None of the tension that is woven throughout the album managed to make the jump to the stage. The notes sounded right and the postures looked familiar, but the sense of the sound simply wasn’t there.

There were a few nice moments, such as the staging of “When September Ends” as an allegory for an endless autumn, that began on September 11. But following such a moving evocation of that day’s losses, the story somehow fell back into its tritely packaged narrative about individual choices and their consequences. But the record isn’t fueled by petty choices, but by the sense that one can’t choose everything, and that we are somehow, regularly, caught by political and cultural forces beyond our own control. Thus: life in post-9/11 America, where we are all in danger of being American idiots.

On an airplane the following day, I dialed in the album on my iPod, to figure out if what I thought I heard in earlier listenings was still there. It was. The tensions it captures still ring true, the guitars still resonate and the lyrics still stand as one of the strongest expressions of the politics of the last decade. It is still a great album — sometimes the fury ought to remain sound.

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There’s a gorgeous book cover from days gone byTin Pan Alley (1930)

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Ships, pirates and bootleggers

I went to the movies the other night, and while the movie was good, if forgettable (thanks, Julie and Julia), one of the previews stuck in my mind and my craw. It was a preview for a film called “Pirate Radio,” about a wacky band of renegade music fans/radio station operators who broadcast from a boat stationed just outside of British waters during the late 1960s. Based on the true story of Radio Caroline, the film follows the story of the crew (and their fans) as they circumvent the state-owned radio of the BBC to carry rock and roll to awaiting audiences.

Apart from simply being the latest installment of the “how great are the 60s” psychedelic sideshow, the trailer got me thinking about the correlation between those, now celebrated “pirates” and their contemporary counterparts, those youngsters bucking “the system” by up-and-downloading music outside the rule of law. It seems, if not an interesting parallel, then at least a thoughtful comparison of the ways in which folks can celebrate a particular kind of law-evasion while condemning another that seems, on the surface at least, so similar.

I have about as little sympathy for the major record labels as I do for the BBC, and I do believe that artists ought to be paid for their work. And while I love the idea of “pirate radio,” something tells me that those folks on the boat weren’t paying ASCAP or BMI royalties to the artists whose songs they played.

So, I’m just wondering: even with talks of a facebook movie in the works: are we gonna see a napster movie next? And what will those pirates look like?

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