Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship IV: Pop Stars and Politics

Q: Should pop stars express their political opinions and take political action? A: Only if they’re informed, concerned citizens…

 

Bono of U2, pop star and political activist (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, herehere, and here.)

For the period covered by the book of essays I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Protest, the “post-Classic Rock Era” we might call it, the political/protest activities of pop stars have not had the same resonance or gravitas as they did during that era of protests against segregation, the Vietnam War, and environmental pollution/destruction (the role of classic rock era stars in the women’s movement is, at best, questionable – unless those stars were women, of course).

This week, in the next to last essay in this series, we look at four essays, all in one way or another related to the idea that, to contradict one of the major singers of that classic rock era, sometimes it’s about  the singer, the song – and something else entirely .

The essay titles themselves reveal much about what their authors think of the last 35 years or so. Deena Weinstein’s “Rock protest songs: so many and so few”; Jerry Rodnitsky’s “The decline and rebirth of folk protest music”; Mark Willhardt’s “Available rebels and folk authenticities: Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg”; and, finally, John Street’s “The pop star as politician: from Belafonte to Bono, from creativity to conscience” offer us a range of explanations for why pop or rock or folk singers have/have not gotten involved in protests against social or political injustice. Some, like Weinstein, take the long view, others, like Willhardt, look closely at a couple of artists. In all of these essays, however, much the same conclusions are reached: in one way or another protest has, too often, been subsumed or marginalized by the co-option of the protester – especially if that protester is a musical celebrity. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Anti-” by Shae Krispinsky

Strength of will got me to Brooklyn on a drizzling Saturday afternoon. Dreadlocked kids in torn, paint-spattered jeans lugged crates of art supplies, rolls of butcher paper and large blank canvases  through the oilslicked puddles on the sidewalks between their dorm buildings and their parents’ SUVs. Dutifully following behind, parents carried more practical items: lamps, bundles of shiny plastic hangers, extra long sheet sets and grocery sacks full of enough snack crackers and cereal to last several weeks. Traveling light, I had only a large duffel bursting with clothes, some books, my journal and my laptop. Anything to get away from home as quickly as possible.

When my mom called the following Monday, I told her I had found my people, my place, which wasn’t entirely a lie. I felt more at home amongst these tattooed, tortured artists than I ever did in the cultural wasteland of cow-country western Pennsylvania where I grew up, but still, I knew I didn’t belong here. As a writer at an art school, just like at home, I was an outcast. Continue reading

Two perfect indie pop songs by Veronica Falls: Saturday Video Roundup

Many of us quest for the perfect pop song. There are any number of candidates for the title, too – I could probably spend the day rummaging through my iTunes and come up with dozens of worthies.

What’s amazing is that I have discovered two more, and they’re back to back – tracks #2 and 3 on the new Veronica Falls CD, Waiting for Something to Happen. Check out “Teenager.”

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Goodbye, Facebook. Supporting anti-gay marriage, anti-human rights candidate was finally too much.

After all Facebook has done, there’s only so much a person can take.

And kittehs. Can’t forget about the kittehs.

By now, anyone who has been paying attention is well aware of Facebook’s general user-unfriendly shenanigans, with the possible exception of Facebook’s support for net neutrality, to say nothing of all the minor aggravations users put up with on a daily basis…continually refreshing advertisements, live video popping up in the news feed, a news feed that doesn’t show you everything you mean to see, a newsfeed that occasionally reverts to Top Stories in spite of your every wish and command. Oh, but hey, there’s kittehs!

What kind of user-unfriendly shenanigans, one might wonder?

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Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Music as a Function of Place

Music serves as a comment on culture – and, interestingly, that commentary can be both culture specific and universal at once…

Bob Marley in concert, 1980 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, here, and here.)

This week’s look at the excellent scholarly discussion of popular music and protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, addresses the importance of place in the emergence of specific types of music. This section of the editor Ian Peddie’s book consists of three essays on places and music as diverse as one could ever want them to be: Jamaica and reggae, the Australian Outback and aboriginal rock, and England’s “Black Country” (the heavy industry and mining country) and the emergence of “escapist” music represented by artists as diverse (at first glance) as Led Zeppelin and drum and bass pioneer Goldie.

In some ways the most interesting, if most esoteric of these essays is “‘We have survived': popular music as a representation of Australian Aboriginal cultural loss and reclamation.” This essay explores the emergence of Aboriginal rock bands, in particular the work of a group called the Wirrinyga Band. The essayist, Peter Dunbar-Hall, notes two important things about the Aboriginals bands in Australia: first, the bands serve an important cultural function in keeping alive aboriginal languages – in fact, music from Wirrinyga Band and other Aboriginal groups is used in schools to help Aboriginal students learn their native languages and cultural history; second, the Australian government actively supports its artists and offers grants and other financial supports to artists such as the Wirrinyga Band so that they can develop, and more importantly, record their work to make both the subject matter of their songs (they sing of traditional Aboriginal subjects such as spiritual and philosophical beliefs – the “Dreamtime” (a central concept in Aboriginal Animism) and the relationship of Aboriginal groups (the Wirrinyga Band are members of the Yolngu) to mainstream Australian culture.  Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Mixed Tapes – The Use of Technology as Social Protest…

Mix tape culture had to start somewhere, right? Is it possible it started as protest?

Remember these? (image courtesy Wikimedia)

One of the elements in current discussion of how technology is shaping society that is currently damned near worn out and pretty regularly debunked is the idea that the Internet gives artists some significant weapon that they can use against the hegemony of cultural gatekeepers who prevent deserving (in this case one should probably think of “deserving” as a weasel word) artists from receiving their due accolades as the geniuses they clearly are. While it’s true that the occasional genius like Psy or Grumpy Cat rises from the deluge of dreck to show us the way forward, the Internet has mostly been unkind to “content creators” – as artists are known in tech jargon. The people who control the technology have been those who have profited – often wildly – from the frenzy of artistic activity littering the Web.

Hegemony strikes again, it seems. As Mr. Townshend observed: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss….

The protest against cultural hegemony, in the case of this week’s essay from The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, dates to before the rise of the Internet. In a different take on the idea of protest, author Kathleen McConnell explores the rise and evolution of DIY music culture in the Pacific Northwest in her article “The handmade tale: cassette-tapes, authorship, and the privatization of the Pacific Northwest music scene.” While previous discussion in this series have focused on specific musical genres (metal and Goth)and their elements of protest (which both use technologies as tools of protest), this week’s essay looks directly at how a particular technology (cassette recording and reproduction devices) affected the rise of a music scene. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship II: Goths are protesting – or maybe they just like black a lot….

Decadence, weltschmerz, vampirism – Goth’s got something for everyone….

Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, one of – if not THE – archetypal Goth band… (image courtesy http://www.joydivision.homestead.com)

For this week’s look at the scholarly essay collection on popular music, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, we’re going to look at the rise of Goth music – and, tangentially, the rise (and maintenance) of Goth “lifestyle”: at least the  superficial elements (dress, dancing, etc.). Kimberly Jackson’s interesting essay, “Gothic music and the decadent individual” explores the origins of Goth as a musical movement and, as the authors in this collection are wont to do, looks for ties between Goth and its antecedent musical forms that seem to suggest how Goth is a form of protest music.

One of the things that makes this particular discussion interesting is that Jackson sets the context by positioning the Goth movement as a decadent art form. This allows her to discuss Nietzsche and his opposition to decadence in art – and, more importantly (at least for her discussion), this allows her introduce Richard Wagner as an archetype of “decadent art” – and  to suggest that Nietzsche’s reasons for his opposition to the music of Richard Wagner are the same reasons for critical opposition to both seminal Goth rock bands such as Joy Division, Bauhaus, and The Cure and their inheritors. In both cases the opposition comes from those (who then are implicated as Nietzscheans – I’m trying to avoid violating Godwin’s Law here, but I’m not sure I can) who want to “resist” (which might involve “cleaning up” – i.e., eliminating – um, yeah, now you’re thinking about those ultimate Nietzscheans) decadence in its various forms. The problem, of course, as Jackson notes, is that, like Wagner’s music, Goth rock has attractions that make it more likely to survive than its critics. Continue reading

CATEGORY: TunesDay

Popular Music Scholarship I: Metal is protest music?

Is metal music really the musical outgrowth of sixties’ protest?

The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, ed. Ian Peddie (image courtesy Ashgate Publishing)

The latest book I’ve just completed from my 2014 reading list is an anthology of scholarly essays edited by Ian Peddie called The  Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest. It’s been a longish read, mainly because I’ve read each essay carefully (like the good scholarly reader I am) all the while trying to think of a way to write about such an olio of pieces. It finally occurred to me that the best way to write about such an interesting group of scholarly essays about rock, reggae, and hip hop would be for S&R’s weekly feature, Tuesday TunesDay. So over the next several weeks I’ll be posting essays on most if not all of the essays from this interesting book.

To begin, a couple of general comments about this volume. In the late 1980’s-early 1990’s colleague Sam Smith and I did a number of scholarly presentations at conferences and elsewhere that took scholarly approaches to rock music. One of the frustrations we encountered was the poverty of insightful scholarly writing about rock music by authors who actually understood rock music. Of course there were a couple of exceptions – one in particular that I appreciated was Simon Frith’s Art Into Pop, an excellent exploration of how the English “art college” system proved an incubator for many of the major figures of ’60s rock music such as John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend. This volume is at least on a par with Frith’s now-classic monograph. The writers here “get” rock, reggae, punk, hip hop – and so their scholarly approaches have, to use a well-loved term in pop music discussions, authenticity.

A second important element about The Resisting Muse is that it takes a “big tent” approach – i.e., it covers a wide range of popular music in relation to its elements of protest. It does this in an era where the music business has been siloed to the advantage of, well, no one except perhaps hard core fans of specific sub-genres.

So to the discussion of this week’s article: “Communities of resistance: heavy metal as a reinvention of social technology.” Continue reading

CATEGORY: TunesDay

Born to be Wild: Steppenwolf’s first album still fresh, 46 years on

Amazingly, Steppenwolf’s classic, bluesy debut still holds up.

by Patrick Vecchio

I’ve got my iTunes on shuffle, and a couple of minutes ago the song “The Pusher,” from the first Steppenwolf album, came up. It’s a Hoyt Axton song, but nonetheless, it’s a reminder that Steppenwolf’s debut album is a rock classic.

I might be partial because the album’s single, the still-rockin’ “Born to be Wild,” was the song that turned me on to rock ‘n’ roll—1968, it was, when I was 14. Before then, I spent my LP money on Bill Cosby comedy discs. My idea of good music was albums by Mason Williams—blame it on “Classical Gas.” And because I’m obsessive-compulsive, I had to have every Cosby disc and every Williams disc. I haven’t listened to Cosby since Steppenwolf grabbed my ears and launched me into the rock galaxy, but the Williams music I’ve revisited—once—is cringeworthy. The Steppenwolf album, though: That’s another story. Continue reading

CATEGORY: MusicPopularCulture

Dave Davies’ Kink: rock star same as he ever was…

“There is part of that little boy that has remained with me…. He’s always there to remind me of the endless possibilities that exist in the world, all that life has to offer….” – Dave Davies

Kink by Dave Davies (image courtesy Goodreads)

I bought Dave Davies’ “autobiography,” (it’s really a highly discursive memoir with plenty of digressions) Kink, about a year ago at my favorite used book store. I’d just read a couple of rock books, including a lovely memoir about meeting John and Yoko at the height of their “bed-in for peace” period and earlier I’d waded through a typical “rock bio” book about the Rolling Stones: you know the type, lots of pictures, very little reported that a serious fan wouldn’t already know – or know more about than the author.

Prior to taking up this yearly quest to write essays about all the books I read in a particular year (and, in the process, getting myself lots of recommendations from friends and pleas from fellow writers for book inclusions), I’d read a number of rock biographies and autobiographies, including biographies of The Beatles, Elvis, and Bob Dylan and the recent autobiographies of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. In the queue for this year I have Dylan’s memoir, Pattie Boyd’s book about her marriages to George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend’s autobiography.

I dig rock and roll music, as the song says…. Continue reading

Doco: Joshua Booth, Trevor Booth, Dave Burkart

Doco’s Freeway Camping Life: political, personal, progressive

Trevor and Joshua Booth’s music has always been political. On their most recent CD they make clear that progressive values begin at home.

 

Doco: Joshua Booth, Trevor Booth, Dave Burkart

Doco: Joshua Booth, Trevor Booth, Dave Burkart

We have a long, proud tradition of politically active, strongly progressive musicians in the US. Woody Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary. Dylan. The Beatles. Punk in general. Green Day’s American Idiot was an iconic classic straight out of the box. And that’s barely a start. Once upon a time, if you were a serious artist, anti-establishment values were more or less a prerequisite. Then came the Reagan years, which laid the groundwork for the corporate takeover of music with the neutering of the FCC and the Public Interest standard. The assimilation was completed during the Bush II years, when all of a sudden you had Clear Channel staging pro-war rallies. Continue reading

Dir En Grey: Japanese Metal from Hell (Saturday Video Roundup)

Godzilla ain’t the only hardcore badass from Japan.

I’m not the Japan expert around here – that distinction falls to blogger, poet, photographer and Japanophile extraordinare Dan Ryan – so I won’t pretend that I know anything about J-Pop. It just felt like a nice day to do something a little different for SVR, and I’ve been thinking about Dir En Grey for the past couple of days.

They’ve been around for a number of years and seem to have evolved through some changes (both musical and visual), so you can surf YouTube and find a range of styles – everything from a sort of melodic Metal that we might associate with, say, Queensryche, to moments that, more than anything, remind me of Tool, to hell on Earth horror Metal that would scare the piss out of Lordi, to straight-up Nu Metal. I’m not so much into the weasels-ripped-my-throat-out brand of singing, but hey, you might like it.

So let’s get our J-Metal on, shall we? We’ll start with “The Final.”

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The best CDs of 2013 that I didn’t get around to until 2014, part 3

Hot Nun, Veronica Falls and Fish released wonderful CDs last year that belong on my top albums of the year list.

As noted some time back, there are always CDs I don’t get around to during the year in which they’re released, and with the great ones I accordingly fail to include them in my year-end mentions. I’ve already done a couple of rounds of catch-up/mea culpas, and it’s time now for part 3.

First off, I actually had the Hot Nun disc in hand and just never got to it. Bad Sammy. Hot Nun is the latest project from Jeff Shelton of The Well Wishers, and I have long admired his no-nonsense brand of straight-on, guitar-driven Power Pop. Well, Hot Nun is like that, only moreso.

Apologies for my slackness, and I’ll be adding this to the ever-updating best of 2013 page and playlist. Continue reading

Popular Music

The many lives of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”: a great song lives forever

Some songs take on a life of their own.

It’s not clear to me—perhaps not to anyone—what turns a tune into a standard. I was reminded of this recently when I finally bought a CD of Jeff’s Beck’s Wired, which includes a remarkable version of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Mingus wrote this as an elegy to saxophonist Lester Young, who died two months prior to the release of the seminal Mingus album, Mingus Ah Um. The album is a deserved classic, with any number of strong pieces—the opening track, Better Get It in Your Soul, alone would make the album a classic. Continue reading

Music: Bands Sam Loves

What’s your favorite song by [band name here]?

Oh, I love that song.

Music: Bands Sam LovesHow many times have you been talking about music and somebody says hey, what’s your favorite tune by [fill in the blank]? I have no idea how many times I’ve asked or tried to answer that one, but many. Many many.

I thought it might be fun to do a little post where I confront the question head-on … about a lot of bands. And then I’d invite you to play along and tell us what your faves are. So I pulled together a long list of artists. Some are famous, some less famous, some contemporary and some from back in the day. Continue reading

Liveblogging Eurovision 2014

Ah, Eurovision. Or more properly, The Eurovision Song Contest. If you’re a lover of serious music, look away now. On the other hand, if you’re devoted to crass, cheesy, over-wrought and overproduced pop, often in some indecipherable language, occasionally played with accordions and zithers, in frequently bizarre and often distracting costumes, this is the show for you. It’s all part of the grand plan to unify Europe, which more or less works in the middle, although not necessarily on the periphery, as events of the past couple of years have shown. Still, points for trying. And it works here–everyone sings the same crap, but it’s fine.

Britain has never done well here. Which means they usually come in towards the bottom in terms of points. Continue reading

Michele-Obama-Nigerian-Girls

Understanding Nigeria: Boko Haram, joy, corruption, Egusi soup and the racism of #BringBackOurGirls

When Kim Kardashian takes up your cause, you know  you’ve hit rock bottom.

“Hmmm, the website is, excuse me, my Oga at the top knows the website.”

Mr Shem Obafaye, by the grace of political favour, Lagos State Commandant of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps — the paramilitary NSCDC — was on the spot on Channels Television’s live breakfast show, Sunrise.

The probing, penetrating, unforgiving investigative journalism continued in the full light of the public gaze. “What is the official website of the NSCDC?”

“My Oga at the top is working on the website and I don’t have them.” Continue reading

Beat the Meetles: Beatles mashup mania (Saturday Video Roundup)

The Beatles have collaborated with some of the world’s most popular artists through the years.

Mashups have become their own art form, and perhaps nobody has been more important to perfecting the genre than The Beatles. Take their famous collaboration with Motley Crue.

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