Prince and The Revolution – Parade

Parade

Prince and The RevolutionParade Paisley Park 9 25395-1 (1986)


Lots of excellent commentary has already been written about Parade, the soundtrack to a second film starring Prince, Under the Cherry Moon.  The film is terrible in case you are wondering.  The soundtrack came along after Prince’s big breakthrough with Purple Rain.  He followed that big success with the cathartic (in a self-indulgent way) neo-psychedelic meanderings of Around the World in a Day.  Parade was a more concerted effort.  And Prince goes big most of the time, with grandiose production concepts mixing together contributions from large sets of musicians.  Yet, as my friend Patrick said, “it’s at once too much and not enough.”  He piles on the production gimmicks just because he can, and well into the album those efforts hardly ever seem to come to fruition.  Side one is all over the place, dragged down by the incongruous marriage of lightweight compositions and jarring recording experiments.  It doesn’t offer much except for “Girls & Boys,” and the somewhat mediocre “Under the Cherry Moon.”  But side two turns things around completely.  There is the big hit “Kiss,” which remains one of Prince’s best.  But “Kiss” is part of the great closing sequence of “Kiss” (an insanely infectious and tight dance funk jam), “Anotherloverholenyohead” (a loose yet funky workout) and “Sometimes It Snows in April” (a slow-burning epic ballad).  The second side is Prince in his prime and that more than makes up for the meanderings of the first.  And the great news is that Prince turned around and took all the best parts and added even more great sings and ideas for his next effort, the magnificent Sign ‘O the Times.

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan – How to Write About Music

 How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan, EditorsHow to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers (Bloomsbury 2015)


The implicit premise of the book is really “how to get paid to write about popular music in a journalistic setting“.  This is not a book that talks about how to publish a book about music (biography, academic text, etc.).  It does not deal with getting a job writing the text for programs to euro-classical orchestral concerts, as just one more example.  While much of the book admirably tries to offer tips on the mechanics of writing for newspapers, magazines and large web sites, readers should bear in mind the underlying assumptions of the editors who put this together.

It is inevitable that all critics write from a certain cultural perspective.  Readers either share (or aspire to) that cultural perspective, or they don’t.  But more than that, professional critics for newspapers and magazines tend to get caught up in the economics of a popular music industry that, as a whole, makes money hyping one fad after another, covering the release of new recordings in order to generate demand for live performances.  The biggest problem this cultivates in critics is a tendency to foster a kind of privileged clique of insiders who are “up to date” on the latest fads.  Their writing accordingly spends as much — or more — effort developing and maintaining that sense of insider elitism as it does explaining and contextualizing the music that is ostensibly the focus of their written pieces.  A few contributors here acknowledge this and describe it as reasonable and inevitable.  But of course, it is neither of those things.  Yet writers do need to either choose the path of “professional” writing laid out in this book, or reject it, and only by rejecting the underlying assumptions and dictates of “capital”, that is, the large media businesses that pay professional music writers, can writers actively reject such dictates.  Of course, some writers are just shills who will say just about anything for a sufficiently large paycheck, or too dim-witted to comprehend what is going on.  But more insidious are those who simply internalize the dictates of their industry, constrained by dependence on their salary to not say anything against industry interests.  That can fairly be called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  On the other hand, it is worth remembering that most critics who eschew remuneration do what they do to advocate for certain music against the commercial marketplace.  Critics often want to praise was has yet to or may never will garner commercial success, which doesn’t necessarily reject elitism but merely shifts focus from an economic sphere toward a cultural/symbolic sphere.  So they don’t get off the hook so easily either.

Another aspect of this book is its liberalism.  Liberalism describes the political outlook of nearly all the contributors, and especially the editors.  There is a pervasive belief that the post-WWII golden years of the working class — the time when pop/rock journalism was first created — represents the norm.  Such an outlook is the embodiment of liberalism.  People on both the political left and right see the post-WWII years in the global West as a historical anomaly — but with different subjective reactions.  On the Right, the post-WWII welfare state was a tragedy, and they make attempts to return to a new gilded age, or even to outright feudalism.  On the Left, there is a desire to re-attempt a Paris Commune or other egalitarian utopia, which the welfare state was an attempt to stave off.  While in places some contributors acknowledge that popular music criticism of the type the book emphasizes is a uniquely post-WWII creation, it definitely stops short of acknowledging any sort of coherent theory of why that is.  So questions like the following are outside its scope: is popular music largely a creation of the working class and, if so, wouldn’t bourgeois capital therefore want to suppress or undermine working class aspirations in the long-run by under-funding and co-opting musical criticism?  Before WWII, there was something known as the “Cultural Front” and the theories of “Cultural Hegemony” or a “Culture Industry,” or even of a “Leisure Class” that drew connections like this on the political left.  On the flip side, around WWII and the dawn of the welfare state, you have people on the political right like Ayn Rand writing The Fountainhead to advocate for toppling an existing aristocracy to (de facto) install another, with a firm insistence that the reasons for doing this cannot be questioned (because “A is A” and this is “objectivism”, among other nonsense retorts), followed after the war by the open attacks of the McCarthy witchhunts that eliminated almost all viewpoints to the left of centrist liberalism.  With the ascendancy of conservatism during the neoliberal “austerity” age, the working class base for music criticism has shrunk along with the sort of journalistic outlets that went along with it.  In short, the economy as a whole has shifted away from the one that for a brief window of time supported a robust middle and working class base interested in “legitimate” popular music criticism (i.e., from a working/middle class perspective), and critics and readers seeking to bolster it during its decline necessarily see the conservative shift as a negative, while still retaining the elements of professional elitism that largely keeps them at a distance from the political left whose militancy once arguably brought about the conditions for it in the first place.

Anyway, the contributors to How to Write About Music surely have the editor’s implicit assumptions in mind.  Numerous contributors, for instance, mention writing on an amateur basis for free on a web site of your own creation.  Some even go so far as to praise the “democratization” that web sites provide in that respect (other contributors are clearly threatened by it).  They mention these things as they chafe against the narrowness of the questions posed to them by the editors of this book.

A number of contributors here make the same joke: in order to survive as a music writer, you should have a trust fund.  In other words, the means for making a living doing professional music criticism are limited at best.  Give up hoping against the odds!  But those jokes kind of avoid the larger implications.  Mostly, this book is about the mechanics of the current music industry: how to submit a successful proposal to an editor, how to take notes for a concert review, examples of the most common formats for the most common things editors publish.  And much of that discussion is pretty shallow.  Most writers will intuitively understand that you can prepare to write a concert review by bringing a notepad to the concert and scrawling some notes, expanding upon them later.  The more interesting of these discussions of industry mechanics describe the editorial process and the various defenses of the status quo offered by editors who retain a large degree of control in that arena.  The short take home message, once summarized obliquely by David Graeber, is that you only get to do what you want (write about music!) if before and above that you are a salesperson.  If you can’t “sell” (pitch) to editors effectively, you will be denied access to the largest mass-media publishing platforms.  End of story.  Those parts of the book resemble Chad Harbach‘s MFA Vs NYC The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, which detailed the two leading commercial hubs in the United States for fiction publishing (see also the companion e-book, Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen).  The editorial pitch process is driven by emotional “gut” reactions, not rational decision-making, and there is absolutely nothing like a meritocracy in play.  The editors of How to Write About Music do not intend to make that topic the focus of this book, and certainly never question editors who go along with that regime, but at the edges this emerges and the occasional statements long these lines provide some of the most valuable information documented here.  But implicit in much of the book is a crude and tentative attempt to disabuse readers of the myth of a meritocracy in the world of published music writing.

The writing samples, culled from books, magazines, etc. are generally underwhelming. This reviewer has been largely unimpressed with the 33 1/3 book series, which seems to range from tedious drivel to the mediocre, with few exceptions.  It is therefore unsurprising that a book by and about music writers this reviewer finds to be mostly bad or mediocre would have limited appeal.  Even excerpts drawn from places beyond the 33 1/3 book series are no better, and tend to be from the likes of Alex Ross and other writers working for urban liberal publications, especially a few web sites like The Quietus (which this reviewer has largely dismissed as uninteresting liberal multiculturalist blather).

So, on the one hand, readers who accept the basic premises of this book may actually find a lot they like.  On the other hand, readers should very much question the basic premise of the book and what it represents.

Lana Del Rey – Paradise

Paradise

Lana Del ReyParadise Interscope B0017667-02 (2012)


The Paradise EP, released following Del Rey’s breakthrough album Born to Die (and appended as bonus tracks to it on reissues), eschews the trashy dance pop that padded put most of the debut and instead dabbles in romanticized pop with dramatic vocals akin to Jeff Buckley‘s cult classic Grace.  (If that seems like an odd comparison, know that Del Rey has expressed admiration for Buckley and one of the songs here shares the name of his former band).  But Del Rey is also following the Madonna playbook.  Just like Madonna’s second album, Like A Virgin, took the most scandalous elements of her music (as judged by mainstream tastes) and ran with them, Del Rey similarly tries to capitalize on the sensational.  Lyrically, Paradise dwells on the ribald and lascivious.  It is an awkward approach, leaning too hard on shock value.  Throughout, there is a lot of emphasis on traveling and getting away — just the sorts of Americana mythology that has driven so many other musical recordings.  She is clearly trying to make music with some amount of substance.  But she only partly succeeds.  Best tracks: “Gods and Monsters” and “Body Electric.”

Paul Kivel – Social Service or Social Change?

Link to an article by Paul Kivel:

“Social Service or Social Change?”

 

Bonus links:  “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” and “Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad” and “Foundations and Cultural Imperialism An Interview with Robert Arnove” and “The Ford Foundation in the Inner City: Forging an Alliance with Neighborhood Activists” and “Science of Science and Reflexivity”

The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

The mithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz

Various ArtistsThe Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz Smithsonian A5 19477 (1997)


A fantastic overview of jazz from its birth through the early 1960s .  There is probably no better introduction to the genre than this set (this remastered CD version tracks the “revised” edition that came out in 1987).  Granted, at only five CDs (the original, unrevised edition was 6 LPs), it can still only briefly touch on many major periods, and so, for instance, things cut out at the appearance of “free jazz” and only a handful of tracks are from later than 1962.  But there is not a single track on here that is less than fantastic.  Probably one of the best box sets ever assembled, right up there alongside Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  As authoritative as a good dictionary.

Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man

American III: Solitary Man

Johnny CashAmerican III: Solitary Man American Recordings CK 69691 (2000)


Gets really good in the second half.  The first half reveals a bit of pandering in selecting songs by popular rock acts, and Cash’s voice starts to show signs of frailty that doesn’t really suit some of the songs.  Still a great listen in spite of all that.  Probably the second best of the American Recordings series.  If I had just one wish here, it would be that Cash had done a new version of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” (which he previously recorded on Rainbow) with just his voice and an organ/electric piano — the imagined version playing in my head is amazing.

Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon

Honeymoon

Lana Del ReyHoneymoon Interscope B0023750-02 (2015)


Calling Honeymoon “bubblegum nihilism” hits pretty close to the mark.  It calls up a dark, dispirited mood — not far off from old, melodramatic movies like Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? or twisted latter-day recreations from the likes of David Lynch — set against sparse electronic beats dressed with occasional strings and chamber pop instrumentation.  Del Rey’s vocal tone, timbre and range are not especially memorable, and the lyrics are so often raw.  But those qualities actually suit the music.  The tempos are all slow, much slower than the songs seem to call for.  The backing as a whole drifts off, a kind of indistinct mass of the vaguely familiar.  Her vocals pierce through the music, but in a disinterested way.  She conveys a kind of apathetic disgust with everything around her, especially when her surroundings are at their most glamorous.  The quality of stepping back from it all is perhaps the most admirable one she advances.  There is also hedonism and a kind of electronic new ageism lurking behind much of this.  Yet aside from that there is also a clear admiration for certain refined strands of bohemian culture.

“Freak” is one of the best songs.  A slow recurring guitar riff recalls a film noir rather than goth/rockabilly version of The Birthday Party‘s “Say a Spell” (from Mutiny!).  Playing a guitar chord that way turns the harmonic elements into melodic ones as each note stands almost alone.

“The Blackest Day” is another good one.  It characterizes the lyrical approach of the album, with emphasis on cataloging surrounding artifacts and discrete, quantifiable experiences to allow Del Rey to convey melodramatic feeling in her vocals.  Thematically, this and other songs still fit what one critic called Del Rey’s penchant for “exploring the internal worlds of numbed female characters posing as arm candy[.]”  Though on Honeymoon that is toned down a bit, and more generalized.

The single “High on the Beach” probably epitomizes the entire album’s sound the best.  There is a deadpan melancholy that just seeks to withdraw.  It practically suggests going catatonic, in a trendy and visible way.  Del Rey sings with a breathiness that seems slightly disaffected — a comparison to “Cat Power-does-Chris Isaak” is fair (as is calling herself a “gangster” Nancy Sinatra, for that matter).  She seems to do that not to appear as a stereotypical weak and submissive woman but rather more like the way punk singers sang off key on purpose.  The lyrics refer to independence and self-sufficiency, though without much in the way of specifics.  Her vocal phrasing is informed by what is old and classy, but her vocals are juxtaposed against what is current and disreputable.  This conveys a sense of power to handle, in whatever limited way, those disparate, incongruous elements, against the odds.  It is an approach employed in similar ways in photographer Robert Mapplethorpe‘s works that mashed up art deco with gay subculture.

In terms of purely musical technique, she seems to draw some obvious inspiration from singers before her.  The closer, a cover of Nina Simone‘s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” positions itself somewhere in the realm of Simone’s occasional forays into twisted, orchestrated rock like the title track from I Put a Spell on You.  It also orients the listener, placing Del Rey in her desired continuum of pop music history.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in the backing instrumentals.  All the songs adhere to the structure of conventional pop songs.  Even the specifics seem familiar.  Take “Religion,” a poppier echo of The Raveonettes‘ hazy, beat-heavy retro rock.

But, frankly, the gloomy noir elements elsewhere, like on the title track, vaguely recall a (much) more mainstream/commercially palatable “Hollywood sadcore” take on the style of Lydia Lunch‘s Queen of Siam (“Gloomy Sunday,” “Spooky,” “Knives in the Drain,” “Lady Scarface,” “A Cruise to the Moon,” etc.), with electronic dance/hip-hop beats and filmic orchestration in place of no-wave punk rock and cabaret jazz.  And Del Rey has that bubblegum aspect that Lydia Lunch has, well, none of, just as Del Rey has none of Lunch’s menacing sarcasm.  Honeymoon‘s dark electronics with dramatic singing is also close to, say, Carla Bozulich without the pretension and more emphasis on camp, or even a more dejected and straightforward version of some of David Sylvian‘s (ex-Japan) art pop.

So is Del Rey just appropriating and co-opting elements of creative and independent music of prior decades, like a cultural pirate, or is she turning mainstream culture against itself, like a “culture jammer”?  Is it even possible to introduce elements of underground music into mainstream commercial culture without betraying those building blocks?  Is she a feminist or just an individualist?  Is her sincerity merely being sensationalized by the media industry for mass consumption, or is is her public image entirely just a fake persona?  Is she really just a full-bore part of the establishment media, and not really a critic of it at all?  These are central questions an album like Honeymoon presents.

Of course, it is obligatory to mention the highly stylized persona that Del Rey has used to put across her music.  This persona — part femme fatale ingénue, part stoner washout, part vulnerable introvert, part insecure hipster, part deluded mallrat, and part ambitious artiste — is an odd thing.  She broke into international recognition largely through an online music video that she directed, edited and partly filmed herself.  Whatever one thinks about her persona, good or bad (or some of both), it is one she largely crafted herself.  It is wrong to castigate her for creating a persona in the first place.  Even the painter Georgia O’Keefe can be said to have done the same in becoming an artistic celebrity.  Every personality, public or private, is to a degree a mask over the void of being.  Such masks allow for and mediate a social conception of the self.  To the extent that Del Rey puts forward a musical vision in which every person is worthy of consideration, even one as flawed as her persona, maybe that is a good thing.  There also is a curious aspect of this persona that suggests ordinary people can follow suit in order to take charge of their own lives in some way, at least by taking responsibility for establishing their own desires and giving no ground to acting in conformity with those desires.  In this way it might even be said she is merely trying “to be just extreme enough to be an ‘effective extremist.'”  In any event it is a far cry from the stance of “mogul” pop.

This album is not entirely successful.  The cynicism of Honeymoon ties it to precisely that which it claims to break away from.  Is her position against and outside those things — like Céline Dion’s music but for younger, hipper audiences — just a coping mechanism under late capitalism, and therefore a reinforcement of it?  And yet, the pleas to be a “freak like me” and Del Rey’s rejection of some typical major label promotional activities (combined with a continuation of others) do suggest an ambiguous relationship with mainstream success.  It is an old dilemma.  While she has already stepped back, musically, from the element of “having it both ways” (as a victimized yet manipulative femme fatale) evident in her breakthrough hit “Video Games,” Del Rey will have to go further to really be a countercultural force that undermines — or at least minimally overcomes — the media industry from the inside (what the somewhat similarly mall/Hollywood-inspired filmmaker Michel Gondry has largely failed to do since his early music videos gained him notoriety).  That especially goes for her music videos.  But Honeymoon shows that she might well have both the inclination and talent to do so.  This certainly stands above what she has done before at album length.  The best songs are the best generally because they introduce a larger stylistic gap between the vocals and the backing, forging ahead in spite of that gap, while the lesser songs tend to come across more like straight genre exercises.  There are not any obvious missteps — though the T.S. Eliot recitation “Burnt Norton (Interlude)” is jarring, and some of this just treads water (“24”).  And there is much less reliance on guilty pleasure trash pop than on her breakthrough Born to Die.  The best songs (“High on the Beach,” “Freak,” “Honeymoon,” “The Blackest Day,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) are really quite good, maybe even great.  But the album could have used a few more great songs to be a great album as such.  As it stands, Honeymoon still suffers somewhat from the problem of being a really good EP padded out to album length.  Still, even just looking at the singles from the album, it is certainly an achievement to place music this depressing into the pop charts at all, which hasn’t happened much since the “grunge rock” era.  On the whole, this might just be a personal turning point when the price of fame has sunk in enough for Del Rey to feel the sting, but also while she still holds enough widespread appeal to become a sort of anti-hero for a disaffected age.  Or not.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Born to Die

Lana Del ReyBorn to Die Interscope B0016425-02 (2012)


Upon her breakthrough to international audiences, Del Rey elicited a polarizing reaction.  After hearing buzz about her, my first exposure to her music was her terrible appearance on the TV show “Saturday Night Live.”  I wrote her off as another pop music bimbo.  Born to Die, her breaththrough album, is really in the classic pop tradition of having one or so great singles and a lot of filler.

“Video Games” is indeed a pathbreaking pop song — amazing in that it has no syncopated beat and a glacial tempo.  It is great precisely because of the sympathy it elicits for for the song’s protagonist, who debases herself in desperate and self-defeating attempts to achieve her ends against and within seemingly hopeless structural social constraints only to (eventually) realize the power to claim her own identity.  Contrary to a literal, “Stand By Your Man” reading of the lyrics, which should be discarded, it is an identity of numb isolation and doubt, but it is her own, and a product of her own free will.  When she sings, “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” the listener should think of the scene in the horror film The Omen in which the nanny, under the influence of demonic forces, climbs on a ledge of a mansion during a gala party and declares, “Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you,” then jumps off the ledge and publicly hangs herself.  The song deftly implies a whole lifetime spent absorbing a gender role and the learned helplessness that goes with it.  The protagonist’s assigned role requires external validation because “they say that the world was built for two / only worth living if somebody is loving you.”  Every soaring crescendo of the orchestral backing is an anti-climax.  It ironically presents a kind of sorrowful self-realization that breaks free of the imposition of meaning enough to look back in from outside, from another perspective.  By the end of the song, reflecting on how others say it is “only worth living if somebody — is loving you,” Del Rey sings, “Baby now you do — now you do.”  The repetition of “now you do” is flat.  There is no joy in Del Rey’s vocals.  She hums a line, but sounds puzzled and almost baffled.  The strings disappear.  There is a background vocal of “now, now you do / now you do,” which plays the role of society reinforcing the “proper” perspective.  She sings “now you do” again in a flat way.  A harp plays a glissando and a piano plays a brief repeating melody as her voice has dropped away.  Del Rey is absent as the song concludes.  The conditions imposed by society have been satisfied, but the song subverts that supposed achievement.  Instead, the protagonist, in her socially imposed role, effectively commits suicide like the Omen nanny, opening herself to new possibilities.  That realization points toward a neutralization of those structural constrains.  She can now find her own meaning.  She can be miserable if she wants.  No longer does she have to feel pressured to enjoy debasing herself to please someone else.  This reading comes through listening to the song itself, because the ironic and sarcastic tone of the vocals contradict the literal text of the lyrics.  Del Rey did make a music video for the song herself.  It features webcam recordings of her leaning against a wall doing some come-hither posturing interspersed with various clips of guys doing tricks on skateboards and paparazzi footage of a drunken celebrity falling down.  Just like the skateboarders do tricks for attention and celebrities make a spectacle of themselves, this emphasizes the performative role the song’s protagonist plays.  And if she dons her persona just to take power however she can, then maybe she is just adding a twist on what Madonna did decades before (the so-called “Madonna question”), in a time when sexual provocativeness no longer has much effect or shock value.

Some of the songs have Del Rey singing with husky vocal histrionics in the mold of Amy Winehouse.  Lots of the filler has her peddling guilty pleasure trash only marginally more sophisticated than what Britney Spears built her career on.  “National Anthem” and “Diet Mountain Dew” are the kind of ghetto fabulous novelty pop that fueled Gwen Stefani‘s “Hollaback Girl.”  The songs are produced in a way that is mostly predictable and uncomplicated.  There is an emphasis on accessible hooks for an era in which hip-hop dominates pop sensibilities.

Born to Die skews towards fun, throwaway pop, while, in spite of that, the album is carried by the success of a couple/few songs — “Video Games,” “Born to Die” — that are something else (more) entirely.  The entire second half of the album is instantly forgettable.  Amazingly, Del Rey would shift the emphasis to the deeper aspects of this album in her later work.  The bimbo act may really have been a means to other ends after all, even if there are many reasons to question that on this particular album.

John Frusciante – Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt

Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt

John FruscianteNiandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-Shirt American Recordings 9 45757-2 (1994)


Frusciante’s solo debut is too self-consciously weird for its own good.  But that doesn’t stop it from being interesting and having a few memorable tracks (“Untitled #2” and “Untitled #6”).  Bear in mind that this came before Frusciante learned how to sing and that is a nagging problem.  Editing back the run time and editing out the vocals might turn this into something better.  As it stands, head for the man’s excellent batch of albums from a decade later, and only return to this if you want lo-fi bedroom recordings that sit on the weirder end of the continuum that includes Todd Rundgren, Jandek, Cody ChesnuTT and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.