Friday, February 27, 2009

Remember the Music


February 3rd marked fifty years since a small plane went down near Clear Lake, Iowa, taking with it three of rock 'n' roll's original rising stars: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles Perry "The Big Bopper" Richardson. Today, when we call this "The Day the Music Died," it's no empty phrase. Though it was twelve years before Don McLean's song gave that tragic day a name, at the time it was a loss that mere words simply couldn't express.

By today's standards, the music of these three sounds tame. It's easy to forget that Holly, Valens and Richardson had been part of a rebellious, hip-swinging musical movement in the midst of the stultifying, conservative 1950s. They set teenage minds on fire and gave suburban parents ulcers. It's worth remembering that these three were among the throngs of early rock artists whose records were denounced, banned and sometimes destroyed.

This month saw a flurry of collections and reissues to commemorate this sad anniversary, most of them focused on Holly's music. But to only remember the contribution of one of the three men is to sell the story short. Each of them embodied an insurgent new music’s most infectious qualities in very different ways. The Big Bopper had a deep, Texas-fried voice that made you laugh just as much as it made you dance. Valens not only knew how to captivate an audience with his amazing voice and guitar work, his Chicano heritage made him a symbol for rock’s ability to reach far across color lines. Holly’s shaking rhythms and sensitive ballads simply made listeners glad to be alive and young.

Fifty years later, it’s hard to convey the magnitude to which these three performers’ deaths shook the rock ‘n’ roll world. Though each of them had achieved a successful recording career no longer than two years, by early rock standards their rise was almost meteoric. The death of Holly, Valens and Richardson on the same day seemed to be—and indeed was—the death of something much bigger than the men themselves.

Conventional rock ‘n’ roll history tells us that the new music rose up and swiftly took over the world in a glorious, unstoppable ascension. In reality, February 3rd, 1959 represented the beginning of a very challenging and troubled time for the genre.

Later that year, Chuck Berry was sentenced to a five year jail term on a trumped up prostitution charge, revealing the contradiction of playing integrated music in a segregated country. Alan Freed's implication in the first payola scandal around the same time would only add to rock 'n' roll's mounting image problem.

The music that had shaken the 50s with stories of rebellious fun entered the next decade mired in controversy, scandal and tragedy. As the 60s progressed, the counter-culture would help revive rock ‘n’ roll, but the innocent fun that characterized its early years would be overshadowed by an increasingly combative edge. Rock 'n' roll quickly became a marker of which side you stood on: the oppressive establishment, or the just and righteous youth seeking to inherit the earth by any means necessary.

In 1971, at the end of that tumultuous, earth-shaking decade, McLean penned his now-legendary song dedicated to Holly, Valens and Richardson. Though the highly allegorical lyrics to "American Pie" verge on the indecipherable, it is certain that he is looking back at some version of the 60s, and sees "the day the music died" as a touchstone for that era's massive leap into history:

“And the three men I admire most,
The father, son and the holy ghost,
They took the last train for the coast,
The day the music died.”


McLean has been famously resistant to explain most of the song’s meaning, let alone his personal feelings on the 60s. But listening to the song, it’s clear that he is looking back at a decade where America has been irrevocably changed. That he saw that sad day in Iowa as the beginning of this new era is both telling and moving.

If Holly, Valens and Richardson were alive today, they would be in their sixties and seventies. Would music have looked the same if they had lived? It’s one of countless un-answerable questions in pop music history. But today, when the music and the world at large are changing so fast, as we all face our own volatile mixture of darkness and hope, there is one lesson that can be taken from this sad half-century anniversary: the darkest night always comes before the dawn of a new day.

This article originally appeared at SleptOn.com.

*****

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

I've said it before: We Need This In the States Now More Than Ever!


Below is a report from a joint workshop between Love Music Hate Racism and Music Against Fascism and Racism from the recent issue of Socialist Worker (UK).

Times like these are when scapegoating can gain even more of a hearing. Case in point: look at the way the mortgage crisis is being blamed on Blacks and Latinos by many in the far-right crank-o-sphere. These are similar circumstances to those that gave rise to Rock Against Racism, the predecessor to Love Music Hate Racism.

Anti-racist activists and musicians in Britain are damned lucky to have organizations like this, and 100% right to step it up right now. Here on the other side of the pond we are in urgent need of this kind of organization.

Acronyms have been explained in brackets.

---------------

Over 100 delegates at the UAF [Unite Against Fascism] conference attended a session on Music Against Racism and Fascism organised alongside Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR).

People from across the country spoke about how they had responded to BNP activity in their area by setting up LMHR gigs to spread the anti-fascist message, as well as holding protests and demonstrations against the BNP [British National Party, a far-right neo-fascist group that have made modest gains in recent elections].

Delegates from teaching unions stressed that anyone putting on an LMHR gig in their area should be approaching local branches of the NUT [National Union of Teachers] and NASUWT [National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers] for funds. Other LMHR activists noted that local councils and arts funds had given money to help put on gigs.

The session also heard initial details of this year’s LMHR carnival, which will take place in Stoke-on-Trent on Saturday 30 May – just five days before the Euro elections.

Anti-fascist activists were urged to start booking coaches and publicising the carnival in their local areas.


*****

Monday, February 23, 2009

"You Commie, Homo-loving Sons of Guns"


Those were the words of Sean Penn when he won the Academy Award for best lead actor playing slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk. It's often hard to find anything vaguely entertaining--let alone relevant--through all the typical awards-show schlock. Art, however, imitates the changing culture around us, and sometimes that's even to be seen during the most staged of big business Hollywood soirees.

Penn's award for Milk, as well as the Oscar given to the film's writer Dustin Lance Black, were signs of this now rapidly shifting culture. During his acceptance speech, Black was straightforward in expressing his film's importance today:

"[I]f Harvey had not been taken from us 30 years ago, I think he would want me to say to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches or by the government or by their families, that you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you God does love you and that very soon I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours."

Penn didn't just joke around for his part. He delivered a stinging rebuke to anti-gay protesters that stationed themselves outside the Kodak theatre, and also called the passage of Prop 8 "hateful."

Black said in an interview late last year that he wrote Milk to inspire people to become activists. That this film has become such a phenomenon, for it to gain such amazing and deserving praise at a moment in time when the LGBTQ community and its allies are coalescing into a real and palpable movement is a beautiful moment to behold.

Slumdog Millionaire's near-sweep last night is along the same lines. This film has dominated every awards show it has reached since its release, and it's not hard to see why. Danny Boyle's flawless, unapologetic and yet heart-filled directing style is perfect when attempting to bring out the humanity of slum-dwellers in modern Mumbai, but the film's success might be due to a different factor.

At a time when millions are facing job-loss across the globe, they are also for looking for something, anything, to remind them that they're human. Slumdog does that brilliantly. Its swooping Bollywood soundtrack--which, as mentioned before, includes collaborations with a phenom in her own right, M.I.A.--only solidifies the new, global way that this planet is starting to look at class and poverty.

When people become active the way we are seeing today--with a new flourishing of activism that, hopefully, will only be growing--then film, music, art and culture all become a lot more interesting. The connections aren't always drawn, but they're there. Last night was a solid example

*****

Saturday, February 21, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Invincible - Sledgehammer
Invincible's going to be big very soon. If not, she should be. This Detroit-based rapper is starting to become quite the underground favorite. Some MCs have great flow, some have important things to say, some say it in creative ways. It's pretty rare you find one that has all three. All this and her increasing relevance should definitely place her up there as one of the best artists in Hip-Hop today. No joke.

2. Gang of Four - Entertainment!
An album I keep coming back to. David Fricke called G4 "the best politically motivated dance dance band in rock 'n' roll." That's an important distinction to make, because past the politics, Gang of Four are eminently danceable! Their uber-angular guitar and stutter-step bass and drums, strangely, make it hard not to get down! And if radical politics can't get you to dance, then something's wrong.

3. Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson - Winter in America
This is the quintessential album of both phenomenal artists. Amazing jazz-funk compositions with searing, eloquent, forceful lyrics. "The Bottle" displays Gil at his best and perhaps most underrated as a singer as well as lyricist. Sadly, it also highlights that this album is being made at the beginning of a decline. If one listens closely enough they can hear the fear and dismay, despite the artists' ultimate sense of hope.

4. Ani DiFranco - Red Letter Year
Ani's newfound home in New Orleans plays a strong role on this album. So does that city's grief, pain, and struggle to not be forgotten. A very mature, contemplative Ani is playing on Red Letter Year, and her integration of NOLA's sound into her unique indie-folk is potent. In retrospect, it's also apparent that this is an Ani scratching to maintain hope at the end of a tough and scary era.

5. Moby - Moby
This is Moby's first album, circa early '90s. In fact, it's possibly the oldest widely-available album by Moby. Stark, sometimes primitive, it's still evident you can hear a master at work here. The pre-remix version of "Go," slightly slower and less urgent and pulsing, is still intricate and fascinating to listen to. As is the whole album.

*****

Friday, February 20, 2009

He ain't televised, but he's definitely still around...


Gil Scott-Heron's poetry and music have gone through something of a renaissance over the past decade or so, as a new generation of radicals and activists have been turned on to his material. This is despite that the artist himself has spent the better part of the past three decades completely off the radar.

The '80s were hard times for countless radical artists, and the legendary performer of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" wasn't an exception. He was arrested and convicted of possession, did time inside, and a few years ago he announced publicly that he was HIV positive. Anyone else need a reason to hate Reagan?

But this doesn't mean he hasn't been active. On the contrary, as Vibe's Jaylah Burrell reveals in this interview with him, he's possibly more active than ever. He continues to record and release material, and frequently performs at New York City's SOB's. He is also chipping away at a non-fiction book called Last Holiday, which chronicles Stevie Wonder's role in the fight to get Martin Luther King Day legally recognized.

Perhaps the best section of the interview is where Heron speaks on which of today's artists he would like to work with. He has already shared the stage with Mos Def, and has shown interest in doing the same with Talib Kweli. Mos isn't the only MC with deep reverence for the man. Heron is rightly recognized as one of the godfathers of Hip-Hop, a genre that finds itself poised to lead a political and cultural upheaval in this country that could make the '60s look like a tea party. And as the wise man says, "you gotta know where you've been to know where you're going."

*****

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Mighty Renegades

Now's the time when a lot of songs made over the past several years are suddenly gain a new relevance. Considering that this came out right at the dawn of the Bush years (at at the edge of RATM's demise), this one's damn near prophetic. Of course, the lion's share of credit goes to a certain Mr. Bambaataa, but this video puts it all together.



*****

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gettin' Down with La Migra


Insane. Disgusting. Jaw-droppingly appalling.

BBC Mundo ran this story last weekend, which reported on the latest incarnation of "corridos," popular Mexican folk songs that have recently been appropriated for a less-than-admirable cause.

Corridos normally focus on everyday struggles of poor working people. So it's only natural that so many of them feature lyrics looking at the dangers of crossing the border, which can often involve "coyotes," human traffickers who rarely have the immigrant worker's best interests at heart.

Now, a CD of these songs have fallen into the hands of US Border Patrol, who have compiled several of the songs into a CD targeted at Mexican radio stations for the purpose of deterring immigration.

"Given the popularity of corridos, the US government is now using the same kind of music to get its message across. The CD is called 'Migracorridos' - which suggests the US Border Patrol is happy to use 'la migra,' the Spanish term used to describe, almost always in a derogatory way, US immigration agents."

Let's be clear: the Customs and Border Control are not releasing this CD because they are "concerned" by the plight of immigrant workers. If that were really the US government's primary concern, it would grant immigration amnesty and simply open up the border, doing away with the need for coyotes. It would revoke NAFTA and pay reparations to the Mexican people for the past eighteen years of economic destruction that this disastrous trade deal has wrought on them.

It's not the first time a government has used popular culture for its own draconian agenda, not is it the most atrocious example. But if you ask me, it's pretty close.

*****

Sunday, February 15, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Hot Chip - The Warning
Between the buzz-and-rattle of the backyard partier "Over and Over" and the soulful artsiness of "Boy From School," it would be pretty easy to think of Hot Chip as an unassuming, if somewhat novel, group of post-dance club electro-heads. There's a lot more to this album than what their two lead singles bring to the ear, though. There is a supremely effortless sincerity here that makes this whole album worthy of repeated listens. Catchy and honest rarely coincide in modern pop, but The Warning manages.

2. The RZA - Afro Samurai OST
The Pitchfork review of this album compares it unfavorably to RZA's soundtrack for the movie Ghost Dog. And though P-Fork is right that the Afro Samurai soundtrack doesn't as effectively recreate the show's universal themes like that of Ghost Dog, Afro Samurai is preferable on a certain level: it feels more like an album. Sure, it's mostly guest MCs rhyming on their razor-like skills over sick beats, and really doesn't delve into the deeper themes of the show. Do you have a point?

3. Tom Waits - Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards
This three disc set is a collection of rarities, unreleased material and selections from soundtracks. It's also classic Waits all the way. Songs like "Bottom of the World," a slow, dirge-like, quasi surreal anthem of the down and out is a definite highlight that captures the artists' hobo-poet-troubadour side. And the wounded optimism of "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" (which was featured in Roberto Benigni's The Tiger and the Snow) is a sure remedy in the midst of the cold Chicago winter.

4. Dr. John - City That Care Forgot
Jack Trudell's review from Socialist Worker had me checking out this album this week, and it is absolutely just as brilliant as the reviewer makes it out to be. The good Doctor is still making great music that is a touchstone for blues, R&B, rock 'n' roll and boogie woogie, and he's pushing seventy! The urgency, vitality and relevancy of this album is something that a lot of younger artists simply can't pull off. They all could learn something from this man.

5. The Roots - Rising Down
Rising Down was among a handful of albums that were written off by so many writers as "too dark" when they first came out. And sure enough, less than a year later, many of the reviewers who were saying "oh, it's not that bad, things aren't that dark" are eating their words. The Roots created a deep and unrelenting record that is probably reaching a lot more folks as capitalism rots from the inside. It's very possible that this will be remembered as a classic one day.

*****

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Good, The Bad and The Clueless


This year's Grammy awards show made it impossible to ignore how utterly clueless today's music industry is. The past year has seen a marked shift in popular music, with a crop of artists both old and new figuring out innovative ways to relate their work to the world at large. On the whole, with a few notable exceptions, it's obvious that National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences didn't get the memo.

The night started off strong enough, with Lil Wayne winning dominating the Rap categories. In fact, Wayne's performance was perhaps the best of the night--a stirring reminder of New Orleans' ongoing battle with neglect and racism, complete with NoLa piano legend Alan Toussaint and one of the city's iconic jazz marching bands.

Weezy wasn't the only MC who stole the show that night. TI's collaboration with Justin Timberlake was an impressive performance. And the presence of M.I.A. and the incorporation of "Paper Planes" into the performance of "Swagga Like Us" brought this already solid single a whole new, mind-bending dynamism.

Watching arguably the five biggest artists in Rap absolutely dominate on that stage was truly a thing to behold. It was like watching the present and future of Hip-Hop all at once, and it gives you a pretty good idea why after years of abuse, this whole genre is far from "dead." In fact, it's only getting started.

The same can be said for Radiohead. The group who created a blueprint for indie music has been notoriously elusive of award shows. When they finally did show up at the Grammys to rep In Rainbows, it was with all the originality one would expect from them. Though this wasn't their first nomination, their full-marching-band version of "15 Step" was further confirmation that risky choices make for good art.

But here is where the innovation and creativity ended. The rest of the night's performances were anywhere between textbook mediocrity and flat out reactionary. I wish I could say the limits of this writer's disgust were with Stevie Wonder's collaboration with the Jonas Brothers (why Stevie? Why?), but the truth is that was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Katy Perry's performance of "I Kissed a Girl" was just like the single itself--soft-core porn masquerading as bad pop. For the Grammys to lend credence to the idea that lesbianism only really exists as a straight man's fantasy, even as a new movement is sweeping major cities to demand basic rights for this country's LGBTQ communities, is simply perverse.

Kid Rock's onstage medley was even worse. How does this neanderthal still have a career? His single "Amen" is little more than a string of cliches and stereotypes mouthed by a dispossessed conservative, where his major gripe with racism is that it has him "feelin' guilty for bein' white." Kid has long been an outspoken Republican, but in today's context he sounds like he's about to go start a militia in mountains of Montana.

Then there was the matter of who the actual awards went to. This is the real display of where the Grammys' loyalties lie. For the most part, they played it intensely safe. In other words, boring and predictable. With so many fascinating, groundbreaking music being made today lion's share of statuettes went to... Coldplay? John Mayer? Robert Plant and Allison Krauss?

Just about the only acknowledgment from the Grammys of these new and volatile times came when NARAS president Neil Portnow took the stage to sing the praises of the new President of the United States (and Grammy winner) Barack Obama. Portnow asserted that the change in administration means that NARAS' charitable mission to build up music and arts programs in public schools was as good as accomplished. One might wonder what Portnow thinks of Obama's Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who systematically oversaw the closing of schools and slashing of programs in Chicago for almost a decade.

This is far from the first time that the Grammys have been accused of being out of touch. This year's show made the disparity seemed ten-fold. It was a manic, touch-and-go display of two musical worlds irrevocably at odds with one another. At times it seemed obvious that we were witnessing a rapid shift in music, with an insurgent, dangerous crop of young upstarts chomping at the bit to take over the world itself. Throughout the night, though, we couldn't help but be reminded that it was all brought to us by a music industry completely oblivious to the shifting ground under their very feet.

Originally appeared at ZNet

*****

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Nothing got did"


The following is from Jack Trudell's review of Dr. John's new album The City That Care Forgot that appeared on today's Socialist Worker. Dr. John is a legend of New Orleans' rich blues and boogie woogie scenes. It's no surprise that he be among the throngs of musicians still horrified by the continued neglect of the city more than three years after the hurricane hit. Trudell quotes the Doctor frequently, and it gets the point across:

"In the song 'City That Care Forgot,' co-written by New Orleans legend Bobby Charles, whose own house was destroyed by the flood, he sings:

Uptown everything looks fine...
(but) When you get down to the lower 9
The smell of death still hangs on the honeysuckle vine
Magnolias lie on the streets in the city that care forgot
Everything been strung up and shot in the city that care forgot...

But the racism during and after Katrina isn't just about the official neglect of a mostly Black and poor population abandoned during the flood. In one of the album's darkest and angriest songs, 'Say Whut?' he refers to stories which have surfaced of a series of killings of Black evacuees in the city's mostly white Algiers Point neighborhood by racist white vigilantes (and as yet virtually uninvestigated by the New Orleans Police Department):

They tell me forgive, they tell me forget
Ain't nobody charged for the murders yet
Half of the story ain't never been told
All these "drowning victims" full of bullet holes...


And 'My People Need a Second Line' is both a call for solidarity (the 'second line' in a New Orleans street parade is the dancers, who line up behind the band and the friends and relatives of the person who's died), and a defense of traditional funeral parades. It was written after the police broke up a funeral procession in October 2007 for Kermit James--a New Orleans tuba player--in the Treme, one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the country and home to many of the city's neighborhood-based social and pleasure clubs.

This harassment of the traditional parade culture, which continues today, is particularly ironic since executives and conventioneers, Hurricanes in hand and slung with Mardi Gras beads, regularly parade in mock "second lines" throughout the French Quarter, often with police protection.

City That Care Forgot is both haunting and unforgettable, and the message is clear--the floodwaters may be gone, but the battle for New Orleans continues. Like the good Doctor says,

Crime after crime, lie after lie
So many people go crazy when you leave 'em to die
This thing ain't over, don't close that door
There's a whole lot of shit to be answered for."


*****

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Maybe not, but it would come close...



From the good people at Pundit Kitchen. Any reader of this blog will know that I (and anyone with self respect) loathe the Jonas Brothers. I could go on about how appropriate it is that the darlings of fake rock music and the president of fake credibility were on the same balcony, but really the caption speaks for itself.

*****

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

All the better to scam you with


Billboard reported today that Ticketmaster and Live Nation are merging. The deal will reportedly save the two ticket-retail behemoths $40 million annuually. Both companies' inflated prices and shady practices have long come under fire from both consumers and musicians, most recently Bruce Springsteen, who decried the latest development in a public statement:

"The one thing that would make the current ticket situation even worse for the fan than it is now would be Ticketmaster and Live Nation coming up with a single system, thereby returning us to a near monopoly situation in music ticketing."

If Ticketmaster was able to simply re-route prospective buyers of Springsteen tickets to an online ticket auction site with relative ease, will there be anything stopping them from doing so if they are a monopoly? If not, then it seems that live music will be yet another privilege afforded only to the relatively well off.

The consolidation of key industries into monopolies in the late 1800s is what directly lead to the deep recessions of that era, and one of the reasons that antitrust laws were eventually enacted. Now, with those laws weakened by 30 years of neoliberalism, the ticket industry seems unconcerned with the role deals like these might play in the current crisis.

But then, Ticketmaster has never been known for their scruples.

*****

Monday, February 9, 2009

Last week's Weekly Playlist

Definitely got a little behind with my Weekly Playlist last week. This past weekend I was focused mostly on activism and the Grammys. This week's article will be a roundup of the award show. You'll have to read it, of course, but the short answer of my take is: boring and behind the times.

What I've Been Listening to This Week (2/1-2/8)

1. Nina Simone - Protest Anthology
This album was released as a download-only last year, and it couldn't come at a better time. With more and more folks looking for new ideas, this album delivers through both songs like "Mississippi Goddamn," "Four Women," and "Revolution" (her decidedly pro-revolution response to the Beatles), and through snippits of interviews that display how incredibly radical this iconic singer was. A brilliant profile of an artist whose work is even more relevant today.

2. Zion I - The Takeover
The new album from Zion I definitely puts them on the cutting edge. AmpLive's beats are yet another step in the increasingly electronicized direction Hip-Hop is taking. Zumbi's rhymes walk that line between rough and smooth with a rare precision. There's also a dynamic that Zion I have always pulled off well--the collision between the best aspects of Old School and New School. A lot of rising Hip-Hop artists have been exploring this kind of balancing act recently, but few do it like this duo.

3. M.I.A. - Kala
Sure enough, the buzz around M.I.A. right now has me obsessively listening to this album. Mainstream media are attempting to simply lump her into Hip-Hop. Though her rhymes are no doubt sick, she is so much more than that. The wide array of music from all over the world that feature here make Kala a touchstone for the massive changes taking place in music and the world at large. Some talk of "a global society." M.I.A. has a different approach: a global society from the bottom up.

4. Boards of Canada - Trans Canada Highway
This EP is a spot-on cross-section of BoC, who have become masters of combining the ethereal, the abstract, and the dusty sonic underbelly of dance music that you can't dance to. Call it an electronic approach to musique concrete. Rhythm is almost a passing concern for Marcus and Michael Sandison. When they use it, it's done with dark outlaw method, like "Dayvan Cowboy." Other times, they eschew any kind of class musical approach altogether, as in the mysterious "Under the Coke Sign."

5. Mott the Hoople - All the Young Dudes
The title track is one you can listen to over and over without growing tired. This is one of the few "glam rock" bands out there that this writer can stomach due to their strong R&B roots. They are one of that select group of acts whose musical ethic can trace the years in between the heyday of the hippie movement and the beginnings of punk. Mott's rootsiness and unapologetic youth are what set them apart from other glam acts. You can see why so many punks were influenced by them.

*****

Friday, February 6, 2009

All I want to do is... you know the rest

Any fan of real rebel music is no doubt a follower of M.I.A. The past couple years have seen her go from an underground favorite to one of the biggest names in music. "Paper Planes" has become a staple on commercial radio, and is up for record of the year at this year's Grammys. Thankfully, this hasn't meant the typical watering-down of her music or her politics.

It's pretty clear from the segment below that CNN has no idea how to handle an artist like M.I.A., let alone the Tamil humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka. As per usual, the mealy-mouthed mainstream attempt at "objectivity" almost succeeds in labeling her as just another thuggish rapper. But, as Maya herself points our, reality sometimes stings, and that's no reason for any artist to hold back.



At the same time, CNN's attempt--fumbled though it may be--to profile her represents a definite, ongoing shift in music and popular culture. For M.I.A. to become one of the most recognizable musicians and rappers in the world carries with it an undeniable significance. Her outspoken, eclectic and uncompromising music is the kind that even a few years ago the Grammys attempted to relegate to the sidelines. Now, they simply have to deal with her. It it's any sign of things to come, they'll have a lot more to deal with than just her in the very near future.

*****

A change in schedule for articles

Due to several large writing and activist projects, the Friday articles will be now coming out every two weeks as opposed to weekly.

The goal is to start posting articles on a weekly basis again in the late spring/early summer.

Posts at Rebel Frequencies will continue at their regular pace. Stay tuned!

*****

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rotten Sales Figures

Readers may remember the post in this blog back in October taking John Lydon to task for his role in a Country Life Butter ad campaign (included below) even while its parent company, Dairy Crest, was laying off 200 workers.



According to the Guardian, Lydon's commercial has helped lift sales for Country Life by a whopping 85 percent! It's a turn of events that only further cements the former punk's (yes, that's right, former punk) status as completely and totally co-opted. No longer is he sending chills up the spine of the establishment. Now, he's lent his image to the very people he once railed against. It is truly turning rebellion into money.

*****

Monday, February 2, 2009

Super Disappointment

As my friend last night pointed out: the Superbowl is everything awful in the world with football interspersed. From the stupidly sexist commercials to the craven patriotism (they had Petraeus do the coin toss!), the message the networks love to convey is that football is somehow only for some fictional "Middle America" that clings to antiquated conservative values.

For some reason, I remained hopeful last night that Bruce Springsteen's half-time show would represent something genuine. Call me naive, but it seemed a distinct possibility. With working people taking it on the chin right now, a great performance from rock 'n' roll's long-time working-class ally might have been a bit of a respite in the midst of the corporate carnival that is the Superbowl.

Alas, the Boss' set was typical spectacle substituting for substance. Though one has to start by admitting it's a relief that the half-time show no longer relies on lip-synching, and it was clear that Bruce was having a lot of fun up on that stage, ultimately the show left this writer wanting.

The usual "medley" format is truly tiresome. The E Street Band simply cannot shine through when they're limited to playing two-minute versions of their songs mashed together into one long string. When "Born to Run" sounds flat, you know you're doing something wrong. Even Bruce's rousing trademark testimonial "is there anybody alive out there?" was hollow this time around.

And will someone please tell me why "Glory Days," whose first verse is about a washed-up athlete, seemed appropriate for the Superbowl?

Maybe Springsteen felt a bit off his game because of the recent controversy surrounding his deal with anti-union Wal-Mart. Or maybe the overblown blitz of America's biggest money-making bonanza was simply too powerful for even the Boss to overcome.

In the end, the Superbowl can succeed in turning even the most genuine events into schlock. We have to grin and bear through tedious and often offensive commercials before get to enjoy the actual football. If they can manage to file all the edginess off of Springsteen, it's clear that the networks and corporate sponsors have their claws sunk in way too deep.

One final note: Will.I.Am is not the heir apparent to Bob Dylan.

*****

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What I've been listening to this week

1. Mogwai - Happy Songs for Happy People
This music is exacting and patient in creating its vast atmospheres. Sound and quiet aren't so much states of being as they are tools framed against each other. Vocalist Suart Braithwaite doesn't sing at all on this album, and even when other members of the band do, it's often manipulated into just another instrumental sound. In the end, tension, sorrow, forgiveness, menace and the rest of the emotional gamut are communicated with such effectiveness that vocals would end up superfluous here. Truly a masterpiece.

2. Erik B. and Rakim - Don't Sweat the Technique
What ended up being the duo's last record is arguably their best. Erik's beats reached a precise balance between sparse dynamism and sonic density just this side of wall-of-sound. Rakim's rhymes are at the top of their game too. They are straightforward, insanely blunt while still being smooth as silk. Listening to albums like this fifteen years on, you can easily see how these tracks became a template for the future of Rap.

3. Blood Red Shoes - Box of Secrets
Jagged, rough, straightforward rock 'n' roll that most full bands can't pull off with a full group. Laura-Mary Carter's guitars and vocals have that dangerous edge to them. Though the lyrics are abstract (Carter has said she composes in a quasi-stream of consciousness method), there is still that hint behind all of them that you just don't want to fuck with this group. All-in-all, the Brighton duo show that very little is needed to really create rock music the way it's meant to be heard.

4. Royksopp - The Understanding
No doubt everyone has heard Royksopp's "Remind Me" in a recent Geico commercial. Hearing the whole track, however, it's evident that this Norwegian duo is able to accomplish a lot more than penning advertising soundtracks. "Remind Me" is minimal, sparse, quirky, but it manages to sound right at home even among tracks that tackle vast sonic complexity like "Poor Leno" and "What Else Is There?" What unites them is that, well, all of them sound brilliant!

5. The Coup - Pick a Bigger Weapon
Sometimes it takes a couple of years to hear how relevant a record will be. Case in point: when Pick a Bigger Weapon dropped, it was a solid album--uncompromising, intelligent and militant as ever. But something about it just didn't quite reach the universality one craves in outwardly political music. Now, hearing songs like "My Favorite Mutiny" and "We Are the Ones" is like listening to a seminar on How To Solve The Recession. Much like radical ideas have gained a traction they haven't had in quite some time, the urgency of this music is so much more palpable.

*****