Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wicker Park Fest: WTF?!?!

It's hot. For one of the mildest summers in Chicago history, very hot. Especially when standing in the middle of an asphalt street with no shade. But it's all worth it, despite the heat and the yuppies and the Miller Lite logos plastered every which way.

I'm with my friend the Weeble (the future washboard-dueling champion of the world--more on that later) at the Wicker Park Fest. Everyone knows that Chi-town plays host to some of the most well known music festivals like Lollapalooza and Pitchfork. Few outside the Midwest are aware that there are countless others during the summer--almost every weekend. The best part? Most of them are dirt-cheap or downright free!

Back in the '90s Wicker Park was an artists' hub, a dirty, inexpensive place to live that incubated acts on the leading edge of alternative rock like Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins. Now, as often happens with these areas, the neighborhood has become one of the trendiest places in north Chicago. There is a Starbucks (actually two or three), an Urban Outfitters, an American Apparel. Sure, it still houses funky, offbeat establishments like Earwax Cafe and Myopic Books, and is still a cool place to hang out, but the expense and the sight of middle-class hipsters trying way too hard make it a little too much to handle in large doses.

Like a lot of community-based gatherings, the two-day Wicker Park Fest (WPF) brings acts that are on a lot of different levels--local acts, new bands rising up, and old classics soldiering on. Naturally, this attracts a wide array of fans. Me? I'm there to see Smoking Popes.

You remember the Smoking Popes, right? A poppy punk band from the early '90s? They had a song called "I Need You Around" on the Clueless soundtrack? Jogging your memory yet? Anyway, that's who I'm there to see, to tap into my early days as a young, bright-eyed grunge kid looking for some respite from the Clintonian cynicism that surrounded me in those years.

The Popes go on at 8pm, so the Weeble and I have all day to clunk around and hopefully check out some new music. It's a pretty relaxed atmosphere among the stalls hawking henna tattoos and fried Wisconsin cheddar curds, the shops to pop into, even the high amount of yuppies with their kids aren't managing to stress us out.


On the center stage at 2pm, Silverghost play. They're a post-new wave act from Detroit who use their bare-bones aesthetic to their full advantage: Herky-jerky guitar and lo-fi synths that bounce off each other between the proudly minimalist lyrics and robo-rhythm drums. They're the kind of group that won't piss off your parents so much as confuse them, and sometimes, that's even better.

This is the kind of act I showed up to see. New, fresh, original--even if it's not entirely groundbreaking. My hopes are high for what the rest of the day has in store.

As the afternoon progresses, though, these hopes prove to be a bit misguided. Empires play on the north stage, and sound like they've been listening to way too much early Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. They're moderately enjoyable, but ultimately derivative and underwhelming. Back on the south stage, Glossary are a rootsy rock band who seem stuck in mid-slow tempo. Between acts, the center stage is featuring a DJ who, the Weeble and I both agree, is spinning beats more suited for a dark club than a sunny afternoon.

The Weeble, for his part, doesn't seem quite as annoyed as I am, and he certainly keeps me entertained by looking at the schedule and playing the "guess their genre based on their name" game. "This one is indie, this one is straightforward rock, these guys might be alt-country, and I'm willing to bet this will be hip-hop" and so on. We also chat it up about everything from the deteriorating economy to his ideas for pirating music without getting caught to his plans to become the future washboard-dueling champion of the world.

Apparently, the Weeble had been to see a small bluegrass band a couple nights before and was extremely unimpressed by the washboard player. He has seen some really amazing washboard playing (the relative obscurity of washboard-as-instrument notwithstanding), and was so bugged by this guy's lack of versatility that the Weeble has now been inspired to not only take up washboard, but become the greatest washboard player in the world! His plan is to become so amazing at the washboard that, in his own words "anytime I see a band that sucks, I'll be able to go 'you suck. I challenge you to a washboard duel!' I'll go up and I'll win, and they'll be forced to sit down, 'cuz that's what you do." By this point, I'm laughing myself silly.

But based on the way the afternoon is taking shape, I kind of wish some of these bands would be forced offstage by a washboard virtuoso right now. The Modern Skirts are on the north stage now, and though they're enjoyable background noise, their Athens, Georgia origins are showing through (there's a distinct R.E.M. tinge to them that's impossible to ignore).

We go to the south stage to see Backyard Tire Fire, and it turns out that the Weeble had them pegged. They are indeed a country-rock band, which wouldn't have been all bad if they had been good!

"I want my country-rock sloppier than this," he says to me.

"Yeah, like more drunk trucker" I say back. I don't mean that I want them falling all over the stage. I suppose that I mean something a bit more sneering and swaggering, heartfelt. I understand that Drive-By Truckers and Son Volt aren't the end-all-be-all of country-rock, but to me this type of music is about bearing your contradictions for all the world to see, not relying on the same old crap.


By this point, I'm pretty disappointed. I'm already a little miffed from having missed Mickey Factz the day before (to my knowledge the only hip-hop artist on the bill for the whole weekend), but am still expecting a nice array of rock and indie. Most of the acts aren't as bad as Backyard Tire Fire, but this is Chicago for crying out loud! There is no scarcity of good and daring rock bands of all varietals who would probably be chomping at the bit to play any of the countless music festivals held in the city every summer.

So where are they? The Weeble, as always, had some good insight. The WPF is, after all, held in one of the trendiest areas in the city, and as such, probably isn't willing to put on anything too outrageous. It makes sense. There is, after all, a "kids' corner" at the fest, and it comes as little surprise that the sponsors don't want to scare off the families with anything that really reflects where Chicago's scene or music in general are at.

It all makes sense, and I remember that this isn't the place to come to hear the creme de la creme. It's also worth remembering that I came here to see Smoking Popes, who I hadn't even thought of in years! I remind myself I am standing on the leading edge of gentrified Chicago, and that makes for more than a few grains of salt. With my expectations reasonably adjusted, I grab a beer and settle back for some good conversation on a nice afternoon with a friend. If I hear some good music, all the better.

It's at around this time that we go to the center stage to hear the last song from the Elms--a cover of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." These cats can play! Their lead guitarist captures the uncontrolled wail of Young's soloing, but it's clear this isn't just a rip-off. This is just unpretentious rock 'n' roll. It's enough to make us wish we had seen the rest of the Elms' set.

We had now surmised that the best acts were grouped onto the center stage, despite the north and south being much bigger setups. So we decide to hover around there until the next act comes on: Ebony Bones. Apart from seeing her name on the SXSW lineup, I know nothing about her. I was about to be shocked.


As luck would have it, the center stage is also the one running way behind schedule, so we have a half hour or so to duck into a few shops and kill time. When we reemerge, the heat has dissipated, the kids have largely been taken home, and the feeling in the crowd is one markedly more chaotic. Half-drunk fans lolly-gag out of bar windows to the DJ's beats. Indie kids are rifling through their backpack looking for the cans of Old Style they snuck in (one of which I manage to snag).

It's finally starting to feel like a real music festival, but there's still no telling whether we are going to see something promising. Then the band begins to take the stage. Two Moog synthesizers, a vintage guitar, drumkit, sax. Two backup singers, dressed in bright African dresses, purple wigs and bright blue lipstick, take their places.

Then Ebony Bones herself takes the center. A native Londoner of Caribbean descent, she is decked in foam bangles from head to toe, puffy spikes jutting out from her shoulders. Under her uncontrollable blonde afro, her face is covered in neon makeup. The Weeble and I look at each other. This is going to be good.

When the music starts, it sends a shockwave through the crowd. It's an unrelenting, electric thump that doesn't please the senses so much as grab them by the spine and refuse to let go. How can I describe their sound? Neo-mutant-disco? Tribal dance-punk? Who cares! The point is that it's incredible! It's beyond fresh, beyond new. It's groundbreaking!

There are so many things happening in Miss Bones' music that it's hard to keep track. Synths and drums swirl together in an orgiastic uproar, punctuated by the tight, jangly guitar and blurping saxophone. Her lyrics--which are surprisingly understandable through the sound system--possess an iconoclastic cockiness. "We know all about you, yes we do" she declares from the front. It's never stated exactly who these words are directed at, but it's a safe bet that it's everyone who turn their noses up to such brash displays of independence.

To be sure, there is a great amount of women's lib taking place on this stage, played out in audacious melodrama. Miss Bones struts the stage with a dangerous, overstated confidence as she delivers powerful mini-manifestos: "don't throw me none, I don't want your bread-crumbs, don't throw me none, I'm not desperate for your baby." It's as if to say "that's right, I'm a brash black woman and that's enough to mow your chauvinistic ass to the ground."

As for the crowd, Miss Bones has them in the palm of her hand. We willingly comply as she insists us to the right, left, back and front. The Weeble and I can't stop dancing. Not like we just really want to dance--we literally can't stop ourselves!


Ebony Bones is among a growing number of artists consciously pushing the boundaries of several genres at the same time. Her balance of funk, African polyrhythms, punk, synth-pop and electroclash is somewhere in the same grouping as artists like !!! and Santigold (insofar as these artists have anything in common). But the styles she toys with are a lot more than the sum of their parts. There's a large degree to which she is taking all the crap of the past and making it new, interesting and dynamic again. The cheap novelty items that make up her costume serve to only highlight the point: everything is disposable, and that's precisely what makes it ours.

Here, in this glossy oasis surrounded by a decaying industrial city, that's a kind of catharsis words can't express, and certainly a lot more than one would expect from an event like WPF. I could try to describe it, but the best way to experience it is simply to hear the music.

Forty-five minutes is simply not enough. When Miss Bones announces that this is her last song, the Weeble and I look at each other with disappointment. But before departing, she mentions another shocking fact: her first album, Bone of My Bones, which was scheduled to be released in the States this summer, has been delayed indefinitely. She has gained quite the notoriety in her native Britain, in France, even Japan. And despite undoubtedly winning a whole new layer of fans in her first appearance in Chicago, these converts are being deprived her debut record.

"I mortgaged my house to buy it back from the record company, so hopefully it will be out by the end of the year. If not, just go to MySpace and you can listen to the whole thing yourself." Please do.

The feeling I have as Bones and company leave the stage is one of the rarest and most sought after for any music journalist: release mixed with excitement and hope. If an artist like Ebony Bones can infiltrate an event that tries hard not to step over the line, make it dangerous and exhilarating for a few moments, then it's worth wondering what else is bubbling beneath the surface in this tense era. There's a certain irony that the very same forces that turned Wicker Park into a near-playground brought Miss Bones right to its heart, and in turn have cut thousands of fans off from further delving into her work. But the contradiction is part of what makes it work so well. This must be what Marx's "gravediggers of capital" listen to.

The Weeble and I agreed: Ebony Bones made it all worth it. After they finished, we both went home. There was now no need to see the Smoking Popes. When you've caught a glint of the future, no matter how fleeting it might be, then nostalgia simply doesn't cut it.

This article originally appeared at


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Upcoming Scholarly Works

The press release was sent out yesterday: Seattle's advance guard of hip-hop, Blue Scholars, are returning in August with the release of a new EP entitled OOF! The duo have teamed up with Duck Down Entaprizez in a rare relationship--meaning that they actually have power and creative control. Duck Down will also be releasing a redux of Blue Scholars' excellent 2007 full-length Bayani, which will include two tracks previously available only online and a new, never-before released song. And, of course, there is a new album in the works too!

There seems to be no better time for Blue Scholars to step up their game. Dru Ha, CEO of Duck Down is right on the money when he says "Blue Scholars is positioned to be one of the next important groups, not just in hip-hop, but in music worldwide..." and while it certainly helps to have a relationship with a label that will actually promote your music without seeking to control and clamp down on it, what it really comes down to is the content. Massive strikes in South Africa, factory occupations in Britain, the flames of discontent are without a doubt licking at the US' door, and it appears only a matter of time until... well, I'll spare you the rhetoric because you know it already.

It's no surprise that folks will want more groups like Blue Scholars, and hopefully this new venture will help launch them to greater prominence. Stay tuned to Rebel Frequencies for an article on what the future holds for them.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

"My Grind is My Stimulus Plan"

By now we've all heard ad nauseam that President Obama is a "fan" of hip-hop. He has Jay-Z on his iPod, he loved its "entrepreneurial spirit," and, is still famously being referred to as "the first hip-hop president."

But if anything can be taken from Obama's recent address to the NAACP, it's that his understanding of hip-hop is, shall we say, a bit different from most people's. Rehashing the tired rhetoric from his post-nomination campaign, he claimed that there were now "no excuses" for blacks not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

And though he said nary a word about the Supreme Court decision ruling against affirmative action for black fire fighters in Connecticut, he went out of his way to say "our kids can't all aspire to be LeBron or Lil Wayne... I want them aspiring to be President of the United States of America."

It's safe to say that Obama doesn't have Dead Prez on his iPod. If he did, he might hear this:

"He go to school just to battle MCs in the cafeteria
Fellas sleep in third period to the theory that
The president is black
So he should try to be that
Better yet put a gat on your back
And go to Iraq"

The Brooklyn-based duo's new mixtape Pulse of the People is a surprisingly catchy slab of hip-hop militancy, a slap in the face to the laughable equation of "black president equals the end of racism," and a fine addition to the increasingly political turn that popular music is taking in these troubled times.

Indeed, M1 and's fifteen-year career has served as one of many influences in hip-hop's current state (despite dismissive treatment from most of the big music press). Their "Revolutionary But Gangsta" stance has served as refreshing proof that there is no iron wall between "mainstream" and "conscious" rap music--even if their method wasn't always effective.

It needs to be said: for every, let's say, five or six hot tracks in Dead Prez's catalogue--walking that fine line between the politically righteous and aesthetically satisfying--they've also put out ham-handed flops like "Be Healthy" or "Mind Sex." One is certainly willing to forgive these songs because other like "Hip-Hop" and "I'm a African" are just so damn inspiring, but the tendency to drift into preachiness often had this writer wondering when DP were going to stop singing and start swinging.

After hearing some embarrassing attempts at solo material from and M1, I was almost ready to throw in the towel on Dead Prez. Then I heard Pulse of the People. Artists are always evolving, and with things going the system failing more and more people every day, Dead Prez seem to be hitting a stride.

Good thing too, because if there were ever a time that cried out for an uncompromisingly radical narrative of urban life, this is it. "Tired of watchin' all these companies get bailed out/And the only thing that poor people get is another jail-house," they declare in "Don't Hate My Grind," a firm rebuke to the bootstraps BS delivered over a dark, organ-driven beat--courtesy of the near-omnipresent "evil genius" DJ Green Lantern.

Green Lantern's presence aids DP greatly on this mixtape. His tracks have always had an edge of defiant swagger, and go a long way in making the sounds of the gritty city appeal well beyond their confines. It's no wonder that MCs from NaS to Immortal Technique are scrambling to work with him.

The process of working with Green was "fast and fun" according to "We did the whole thing in four days. We didn't try to edit it too much, man. We just wanted to do [something] in the tradition of the original mixtape, where you come in the booth, you spit, and it hits the streets."

Green's mixtapes have always thrived on the bottom-up immediacy that's inherent in the format. And at a time when economic crisis is devastating poor communities, the missive that he and DP have produced (along with a list of guest MCs that ranges from Ratfink to Chuck D) ties together this daily street-level reality with an urgent vision of a people's planet.

The core of "Don't Hate My Grind" is a theme revisited throughout Pulse. While Obama and company seem convinced that the current state of Black America is the result of some kind of pathology, tracks like "Gangsta, Gangster" and "Life Goes On" place the blame where it belongs, and make the novel assertion that the so-called undesirables of society might be the very people who can permanently shake it up.

Moments like these not only do a lot to dispel a few myths, but serve as springboard to more openly revolutionary tracks. "Warpath," possibly the best song on Pulse, rides on funk-metal guitar and pumping bass. It's almost shocking in its brash call to arms against the NYPD, highlighted by the memorable (and somewhat cathartic) line "so I rolled into the precinct, and I shot the sheriff."

To be sure, Pulse of the People has its flaws. "Summertime" confirms the suspicion that Dead Prez should stop writing romantic lyrics. Combined with its uncharacteristically disappointing beats, this track makes the listener glad that it's a rarity.

However, if there is any one song that sums up the timeliness of this mixtape, it would have to be "$timulus Plan." Peppered with "ka-ching" audio-clips and sound-bites of outraged citizens, M and stic put damn-near everything in their sites, from the recent bank bailouts to the war on terror to the American dream itself:

"It's a cold game
And it's the same from the top of the food chain
All the way down to the little homie in the street-gangs
Slangin' cocaine, it's how they do thangs
It's the American way
Imperialism, have it your way
Whatever it takes
Whoever gets fucked in the process, that's okay
That's how they play
So you can't blame us
Them dead white men on that paper ain't us
We still gotta hustle for the benefits, man
My grind is my stimulus plan..."

There are plenty of artists who miss the mark when trying to make relevant music. Some pile on the rhetoric but forget the craft. Others slave away for years on end, struggling to find an audience for their message.

And while Dead Prez have been keeping their head up for a decade and a half now, Pulse collides with a certain point in time that makes it all the more urgent and listenable. While their calls for revolution might not yet be on the lips of every member of the oppressed and exploited, the volatile mixture of hope and anger in American society have given us a glimpse of what is possible when people fight. With any luck, these glimpses can grow, and the "pulse of the people" might end up being a lot more than just a cool album title.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bloated Egos, Bloated Wallets

This article, from Irish journalist Eamonn McCann, appeared on Socialist Worker's website today, and is just too good to not post in its entirety. -AB


SHUFFLING OUT from U2's Popmart tour--the one with the McDonalds-style Golden Arch--at Lansdowne Road 10 years ago, I chanced on Philip King, singer, songwriter, television producer and music adviser to the Irish Arts Council.

"Whaddya think?"

"Whatever it is," pronounced the elfin Kerry sage, "it's a fucking big one of them."

Which has always been the way with the emperors of bombast. Now they, or at least their stage sets, are bigger than ever. Biggest ever seen, the PR propaganda assures me. As if that were a measure of musical stature.

The tour kicked off in Barcelona on June 30 to gasps of ecstatic approval, most breathlessly from Irish commentators flown out for the occasion, many of whom apparently believe that saying a bad word about Bono might render them liable for prosecution under the Republic's new Blasphemy Law.

The Belfast Telegraph reported that, according to the environmental monitoring group, the 18-month, 100-gig tour will involve the band traveling 70,000 miles in their private jet, the 390-tonne set following on cargo planes.

The volume of CO2 spewed out in the process would be enough to transport U2 34,125 million miles to Mars and back. (Of course, the damage would be cut by half if they were just flown to Mars and left there.)

This odyssey of environmental obliteration--how many endangered species will have been rendered extinct by the time Bono croons a final chorus? I despair for the panda--follows Bono's dreamy pronouncement last year that: "My prayer is that we become better in looking after our planet."

We should be used by now to the clanging contradictions of U2. It's been noted here before that Bono's castigation of the Irish government for directing too small a proportion of its tax receipts to aid for the developing world was swiftly followed by the band transferring its business operation to the Netherlands to avoid paying tax to the Irish government.

Now U2 drummer Larry Mullen has noticed "a new resentment of rich people in this country...We have experienced [a situation] where coming in and out of the country at certain times is made more difficult than it should be--not only for us, but for a lot of wealthy people...The better-off (are) being sort of humiliated."

So it isn't the people writhing on trolleys in hospital corridors because wards have been closed on account of the economy or children learning arithmetic from the relative speed of rats scuttling across the classroom as a result of the education budget being slashed to bail out the bankers who are being humiliated in Ireland but...the better off.

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

THE LITTLE drummer boy's distress at the rich being reduced to tears by hard-faced officialdom was aroused by seeing billionaire tax-exile property developer Dermot Desmond being dissed at Dublin airport. "If this is what (the rich) experience, how can I fly the Irish flag and tell people 'come to Ireland because it's great?'...All those rich guys with all those balls [?], all those women that you see organizing this and organizing that, without them we'd be in a very, very different state."

Perhaps Larry was angry that peasants arriving on no-frills airlines hadn't formed a human carpet on the tarmac for people like himself and Dermot Desmond to walk over.

Larry has been particularly saddened by the plight of his pal Ronan Ryan, whose Dublin nosherie, the Town Bar and Grill, has hit hard times on account of fewer people being able to afford the prices. "He got eaten alive," mourned Larry. By ravenous hordes of enraged proletarians, possibly.

Another cook, a Jay Bourk, is threatening to shut up shop if the government doesn't use tax-payers' money to subsidize the rent of his Temple Bar eaterie. "It's my favorite restaurant," laments Larry. "I'll be broken-hearted if that goes down."

Broken-hearted? That's what you feel when somebody you love leaves you, Larry. Or dies. But I suppose when your bubble-brained tendency towards emotional incontinence is daily indulged by the crass acolytes who surround you, you lose perspective on such matters.

And anyway, if the diner means so much to you, why not give Mr. Bourk the money yourself.

U2? Pat Boone (ask your granny) was more rock and roll.

In a special treat for Irish fans, the band's Croke Park stint at the end of this month will open with a minute's hushed silence followed by an inspirational incantation from Bono: "Blessed are the rich, for they shall enter the kingdom of heaven."

Followed by, I can exclusively reveal, a guest appearance by Sir Bob Geldof with his new raggle-taggle novelty number: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a poor man to enter the kingdom of God."

Yep. More than ever, it's all arsy-versy with the musical wing of global capitalism these days.

U2 now have their heads inserted so far up their anterior orifices it's doubtful they'll ever succeed in uncorking themselves. Does it not occur to them that the reason there might be a new resentment of the rich on this island is that we have just seen the mass of the people ripped off, homes lost, jobs destroyed, wages slashed, to save the sin-crinkled skin of the hoodlums who have run the economy into ruin? I suppose not.

Then there's Geldof. Kruger Crowe Celebrity Management is currently marketing his services as an "inspirational speaker" on poverty in Africa and other topics at $80,000 a gig. This may be a special offer: the south Dublin ego-warrior last year charged $100,000 for a talk on alleviating poverty to an organization called Diversity@Work in Melbourne. Would it not have been better if he'd sent them a postcard suggesting the money be spent instead on, say, alleviating poverty?

Not better for Bob Geldof, I suppose.

The fee included payment for a bodyguard, luxury hotel suite and first-class travel.

Can anyone think of a single individual on the planet who has benefited more than Sir Geldof from Live Aid?

Come the revolution into rationality, U2 and Geldof will be recognized as national embarrassments.

Not yet, sadly. Many thousands, it seems, fully intend to congregate with trusting innocence at Croke Park later this month. And good luck to them. Each to her own, say I.

But what's this? Who are these folk assembled outside Cool Discs in Foyle Street where the buses for Croke Park leave, shouldering pitchforks and scythes, muttering? Whatever can it mean?


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Your daily two minutes hate start... now!

As if the return of Creed wasn't bad enough, Sugar Ray have also decided to crawl out of the woodwork. Was there ever a more saccharine, derivative, low-balled band to ever come out of the cultural wasteland that is Orange County, California?

Few have heard Sugar Ray's first album, Lemonade and Brownies, which actually had a good amount of promise--a high-octane collision of funk, rock and metal. Back in 1995, before the resurgence of the SoCal scene had been completely consolidated, their sound was hardly revolutionary. But it was better than the arrogant compromise of "Fly."

Sugar Ray are a perfect example of what it means to "sell out." Many of the more elitist elements of the left insist that any band on a major label deserves this handle. However, it goes much further than that. To this writer, a band has only "sold out" when they willingly go along, hook, line and sinker, with the empty-headed industry concept of "what sells" for the sake of selling albums alone.

This, in essence, is Sugar Ray. After the success of "Fly," they switched their sound around completely, pandering to the soft, safe "tastes" of label execs. They were repaid by being marketed to an insane degree.

The world was a better place during the six years when these guys weren't making music. Why they chose now as a good time to come back, I don't know. Maybe the fallout of "yes we can" isn't all good after all. And what's their new album called? Music for Cougars.

It's almost Peter Pan-esque. A band in their forties doing everything they can to keep maturity at arms length. And look! They've even appropriated a nouveau-slang term to reach the young folk! The sexism of this album title has, of course, gone well under the radar of anyone in the mainstream press. But then, so did the low quality of this group's music.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Remember... record company people are shady

On top of Q-Tip's long-unreleased Kamaal The Abstract hitting stores this fall, the Tribe man is also reported to be working on a book where, among other things, he will share this thoughts on the music industry.

The book, to be called Industry Rules, is reportedly based on a concept explored in A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhime."

"It was important to me to write a book because on the whole, I feel we could all be more literate, and as an artist, I’m always looking for ways to do something cool, different, and both light and introspective at the same time,” said Q.

Q-Tip has spent close to twenty years in the music industry. As a key part of one of the most influential groups in the past thirty years of pop music, he has undoubtedly seen first-hand some of the back-room maneuvering required to keep the biz running. It will certainly be interesting to see what he has to say.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Can You Feel The Vibe?

No matter what you thought of Vibe magazine--whether you found their coverage insightful or passe, tantalizing or unbearably boring--there is one thing all sides can agree on: as the American economy continues to flounder, Vibe's June 30th demise won't be the last in the world of music press.

It's rather amazing to think that all the commentators who were raving over "green shoots" a few weeks ago are now wearing a sheepish look as they painfully admit that we may be headed "back into the abyss." Actually, it's not that amazing. Ever since last September's great financial panic, these troglodytic talking heads have repeatedly insisted that our "rock bottom" has come, only to be left scratching their heads as the unemployment rate climbs. Won't someone please stop giving these idiots a microphone?

The stock of folks who grabbed the mic at Vibe were definitely a cut above. Writers like Jeff Chang, Dream Hampton, Alan Light. Photographers like Ellen von Unwerth and David LaChapelle. These contributors brought an insight into hip-hop commentary that no publication had ever applied to the genre. What can you expect from a publication founded by the great Quincy Jones?

From its first issue in 1993, Vibe took its milieux seriously. While Rolling Stone and Spin played hip-hop and R&B on the second tier to rock and pop, Vibe placed it at the forefront. It also built on the coverage of other "urban" publications like The Source and XXL, promoting a world-view where hip-hop and rap were a legit part of the world around us.

It was good timing. Hip-hop had struggled with many a journalist unwilling to believe that the music was little more than a flash in the pan during the '80s. By the '90s, it was clear that it was here to stay. More than that, it was becoming the dominant trend in youth culture. Vibe not only covered but rooted the music. Boomshots, the regular column by Rob Kenner covered reggae and Caribbean music, and drew the connections between them and rap.

There was one problem, however. That problem was, simply enough, the market. Like any publication seeking to reach a wide audience, Vibe had to reckon with the reality of investors, advertising, and the shallow notions of "what sells" that dominate the music industry. Ultimately, these are the contradictions that brought the publication down.

One would be right to call out Vibe for the garish Dolce & Gabbana spreads, and the sexism that often graced the covers (including the semi-notorious incident when Ciara's clothes were airbrushed out)--as long as one also notes that these are the same clap-traps that any music rag is liable to fall into.

When Vibe was sold to the Wicks Group in 2006, it was at a time when print media was starting to acknowledge a real crisis. The rise of internet journalism was often crudely grafted to the dip in print's popularity. When it came to the music presses, however, it wasn't just the fact that people could get it for free, it was that they felt they could get better music journalism online.

Surprisingly, Vibe managed to keep pace with its own website. Chang's commentary of the '08 elections was among some of the best anywhere. Jaylah Burrell's column, Hello Babar, went out of its way to find musicians well off the beaten path, further extending Vibe's scope and breadth.

Despite everything it had going for it, the depth of the economic crisis that gained speed late last year is leaving nothing safe. Housing and jobs are on the chopping block, so why should we expect any protection for a hip-hop magazine, even if it is one of the more insightful within the mainstream?

At its height, Vibe had a circulation of over 800,000. By the spring, it had cut its print run down by a quarter, and its staff down to four days a week. When it abruptly and unceremoniously closed its doors two weeks ago, it had many questioning whether print music journalism still had a future.

Fears like this aren't misplaced. While Vibe's coverage may have been exceptional, it's all-too-likely that its end won't be. The Source is currently negotiating bankruptcy. XXL is rumored to be going through financial troubles. Blender shut down last year. The pundits talking about these "green shoots" might want to take a closer look. After all, the fewer magazines are out there, the fewer places these nimrods have to pay them.

And yet, the fall of these publications is proof that music, writing and culture don't exist in a vacuum. The pressure to reduce content to its lowest possible form is great indeed, and it's one that every publication is susceptible to. In the end, that's a pressure firmly rooted in a system that views all culture as disposable.

Was there ever a better reason for a new generation of artists and journalists to break the chains that hold them back?

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

MJ and Media Spectacle

Some readers have taken issue with my coverage of the death of Michael Jackson. One anonymous commenter has asserted, as has Jay Smooth over at Ill Doctrine, that Jackson was one of the biggest spectacles of our age. Keep in mind that he means spectacle in the sense that the Situationists meant it (Situationism being a school of radical thought that came to prominence in the late '60s that has had a great influence in my own work--look them up if you don't know them because I don't have the space to digress).

The first thing to say is that yes, of course Michael Jackson was marketed ad nauseam by an industry whose job it is to take erstwhile rebellious art and shrink-wrap it to make it "safe for consumption." One might even argue, because of the immense influence he wielded in that industry, that he was a part of it. But there needs to be an understanding of his art, how it affected the course of music, and how it was interpreted by ordinary folks.

That is why I posted the video I did. Jackson himself might have been a walking contradiction, but it's undeniable that there was always a part of him that wrestled with the racism that runs through US society. He might have been many-times removed from the daily machinations of such racism, but even the form of his music can't be separated from the trajectory of black culture in the US.

While this needs to be understood on its own terms, it also cannot be quite separated from his role as a media icon. And therein, dear readers, is the contradiction--or one of many, rather. The spectacle of Jackson is undeniably confirmed in his death. In the past three weeks, coverage of MJ in the American mainstream media has trumped the protests in Iran and the coup in Honduras. Though it has dropped off a bit in recent days, it hasn't by much.

A more thorough piece to read on this would definitely be this article by Anthony DiMaggio that recently appeared at the site of our good friends at


Monday, July 13, 2009

Download it... please!

As many have probably heard, the RIAA is back on the warpath. Jammie Thomas, a single mother from Minnesota whose original music piracy case became a symbol of the industry's depraved campaign, was recently ruled against in her second court-case. Only this time, they didn't find her liable for a measly 220 grand. Oh, no, they ruled that she should pay $1.9 million!

Rest assured, I will be writing plenty about this. But in the meantime, let this entertain you.

(I originally was planning to post the official, Bill Plympton-animated music video, but, ironically, it was "embedding disabled by request." Go figure.)


Sunday, July 12, 2009

A rethinking of "Disco Sucks!"

A few folks have responded to my post from Friday (viewable here) disagreeing with the overall thrust of it. I think it's actually an interesting debate worth having here. In particular, Krisna from the Democracy & Hip-Hop Project responded in a comment that makes some worthy points. Also, Jesse from General Your Tank... emailed me an article that was also sent out via Rock & Rap Confidential making a similar argument.

First of all, I will admit that Friday's post was way too glib. After all, it's my blog, and I reserve the right to make mistakes (including typoos and spelling errorrors). The overall thrust I was trying to get at was that the volatility witnessed that night was a result of the embryotic neoliberal economic scheme taking hold in the US (job flight, chipping away at the social safety net, etc). That is, the underlying outrage was based on class, not race or sexual/gender orientation.

On the assertion that Disco Demolition Night was sheerly a white thing, I beg to disagree. As a Cubs fan, I am often derided by my Chicago-based comrades and friends that while the Cubs' fan-base is typically middle class and white, Sox fans are much more of a blue-collar and multiracial, by virtue of the fact that the Sox are located on the South Side (though I withstand the slings and arrows with humor, and still love my Cubbies dammit!). Looking at wide shots of the riot that night in July will show it wasn't just white kids rushing the field.

I think there was a perception of disco that was somewhat valid back then. This was a perception that the music was an exclusive domain of the elite Studio 54 crowd. The shimmery sound and flashy look communicated to a great amount of people (and not just white, straight folks) that the virtues of a decaying middle-class lifestyle were worth celebrating. This was precisely why Kool Lady Blue's "Wheels of Steel" night--which was hosted at a roller-rink called the Roxy in New York's Chelsea neighborhood and brought together all the avant-gardes of punk, hip-hop and pop cultures--was seen as a breath of fresh air when it opened its doors in 1981.

Disco also needs to be viewed in its specific context within how the music business was using it at the time. American industry in general was reorganizing itself during this era: specifically seeking to restabilize itself in the wake of the recessions of the early and mid '70s and, in doing so, chipping away at the gains of the previous decade hand in hand with working-class living standards. In the case of the music industry, disco used very consciously and concertedly as a way for them to regain control from the musical upheavals of rock, soul and R&B, and after 1977, punk. In short, disco became the musico-ideological counterpart to the onslaught against working people.

Is this the whole story of disco? No. Krisna rightly points out that there were a great amount of working-class people of color and LGBT working-class people that appropriated disco culture for themselves as a forum for breaking down boundaries. My musical point, however, was that the aesthetics of the genre were leading to a dead-end. Its upscale aesthetics and increasing orientation toward exclusivity and '70s club culture meant a disconnect from reality and struggle.

There is no doubt that there would be no hip-hop without disco, whose recordings were prominently sampled by DJs in the former's early years. This, in and of itself, however, does not lend credence to disco. Music--especially music under capitalism--is in a constant state of innovation and revolution; as Simon Reynolds puts it "rip it up and start again." The musical vanguard of any era is likely to appropriate not just the creative high-points of eras past, but also the artistic chum floating at the bottom of the record industry cesspool to make something new and innovative.

Though hip-hop was the most obvious genre to do just this with disco, there were other alternate musical avenues that took disco's sound and made it more vital and subversive, most notably the short-lived "mutant disco" subgenre within the post-punk movement in early '80s New York. Mutant disco managed to both pay homage to disco and skewer it at the same time.

There is, however, an element of disco-hatred that I considered mentioning on Friday, but didn't for sake of brevity. This was a gross mis-step on my part. That was the homophobia that was peppered into it. This article in The Guardian quotes Steve Knopper, a participant in the riot, as saying "to make it with a lady a guy had to learn how to dance. And wear a fancy suit!"

I feel the piece doesn't lend enough attention to the class dynamic that was part of the anti-disco sentiment. However, I did not pay enough attention to the heterosexism of it. In other words, while the Guardian focuses on the "learn to dance" part, I focus mostly on the "wear a fancy suit" part.

This kind of adherence to repressive gender roles (I would love to know how to dance, and don't see anything effeminate about it--this is thirty years later) is not to be discounted. After all, Disco Demolition Night took place less than a year after the assassination of Harvey Milk in San Francisco and the movement for LGBT rights had been reignited across the country, finding itself in opposition to anti-gay initiatives like Proposition 6 in California, which would have made it illegal for anyone of non-straight orientation to teach in public schools.

Prop 6 was defeated in 1978, but there was no doubt that views on gays, lesbians, bisexual and trans folk was volatile indeed. (On a tangent, I wonder what kind of music Milk and Cleve Jones listened to. Milk was a well-known opera fan, but he had to listen to more than just that. And sure, there were probably disco fans among the vast LGBT movement, but in the heavily working-class Castro district, there were probably myriad musical tastes.)

There were a lot of different, mixed emotions running high when thousands of kids rushed the diamond at Comiskey Park, some of them progressive, some of them not. What I asserted in my post was that the biggest ingredient was the feeling of dispossession and frustration rooted in the new assault on a working-class whose memories were still under the sway of a short-lived militancy that had taken hold in the early '70s.

On a personal level, I find disco to be turgid. However, I have also been known to get down in cringe-worthy white boy fashion to "The Hustle" and "I Will Survive" and have respect for the artists who undeniably influenced the path of music well past the genre's hey-day; perhaps this is the kind of subtlety I should have brought to my post a couple days ago.


Friday, July 10, 2009

And stay dead!

This week's Chicago Reader has a great cover story on a little piece of Chi-town history not widely known: "The day disco died." Sweet!

"It's July 12th, 1979, and the White Sox, ten games behind the California Angels in the American League West, are playing the Detroit Tigers in a twilight doubleheader. It's not just Teen Night at Comiskey Park--it's also Disco Demolition Night."

Disco Demolition Night was the kind of idea that emanates from the brain of sports more--how shall we say?--"colorful" owners, and the Sox's Bill Veeck was certainly that. Done in conjunction with WLUP "the Loop," the local rock station, the concept originated from Veeck's son Mike, a former musician, and was intended to be little more than your typical ballgame gimmick--you know, like "free bat night," or "whiskey and revolver night," or "Flag Day."

The thousands of working-class teens who flocked to Comiskey that night were allowed in for the bargain price of 98 cents and a disco record, which was to be placed in a giant box on the field in between the two games. After Loop DJ Steve Dahl--who had been sacked from another local station after they switched formats to disco--lead his "anti-disco army" in a chant of "disco sucks," the box containing the thousands of records was to be ceremonially blown up.

Comiskey got a lot more than they bargained for, though. Photographer Diane Alexander White, who was present that evening (and has an exhibit this weekend of photos she snapped there), says "I didn't think it would be quite like what happened. It sounded like it was going to be a great time."

So what actually happened? Well, after the four by six by five box is blown up, sending vinyl rocketing 200 feet up into the air, the young crowd went absolutely ballistic:

"Burning vinyl litters the outfield, and over the chants of Disco Sucks! kids begin trickling onto the field. No--they're coming by the hundreds... the thousands. They're running the bases, literally stealing the bases, stealing bats, toppling batting cages, and dancing in circles around the flaming vinyl shards."

In short, it was a full-on riot on the baseball diamond--one that would last for almost an hour, result in 39 arrests and 6 injuries, and prevent the Sox from taking the field for the second game.

No legitimate history of disco can be told without mentioning the Demolition Night Riot. What happened took many a sports commentator by surprise. But the youthful chaos that unexpectedly took hold of the stadium that night was about a lot more than just a hatred of sequins.

White alludes to it in the Reader article, "To me, it wasn't about the disco records being blown up... [it was] blue collar kids, kids whose parents were Sox fans. We were still churning out products in this town. You could still get a job at the steel mill."

By '79, those were just the types of jobs that were starting to dwindle. The end of the post-war boom had provoked most employers to chip away at wages, benefits, pensions, unions, and ultimately the industries themselves. And though this shift was still in its infancy, working kids had already started to feel the pinch.

Disco's decadent sound and glitzy clothes were the antithesis to the hard edge of rock 'n' roll--an affirmation of affluence, and a soundtrack to the full-on assault on the gains of the '60s. When those records went up in smoke, it was like a starter pistol had been fired, a primal invitation for these kids to take the night for their own--if only temporarily.

This little bit of (mostly) forgotten history serves as a humorous reminder of a few things. First, that in times when our livelihoods are under attack, you can never quite tell how the youth are going to express themselves. Second, that while music itself is little more than sounds, it ends up being an art-form that millions take very seriously and even hang their hopes on. And third, that disco does indeed suck.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Revolutionary Party Jams

If this bad-ass photo didn't clue you in, Street Sweeper Social Club are the shit! Principally comprised of Tom Morello and Boots Riley, SSSC's sound has these two revolutionary artists' fingerprints all over it, but the collision of the two creates something that is definitely its own. Though Morello's searing guitar work and Boots' trademark humor are both still intact, the funk is much more prominent here, lending itself to the description of "revolutionary party jams."

Their first album (self-titled) was released last month, and the group have been touring with Nine Inch Nails since (I swear, Reznor's becoming more of a red as time goes on). Given the current economic crisis that is pushing folks toward all sorts of new ideas, and the draw that Riley and Morello bring, there is reason to believe that SSSC could definitely become a big act (though it also bears mentioning that neither the Coup nor Rage Against the Machine should plan on going anywhere).

A recent interview with, Riley dives into some of the reasons behind the formation of the group and the role of music in politics, as well as what struggles may be on the horizon. It's a pretty good interview, well worth checking out.

And if you are still a bit skeptical that this group are the shit--and I mean the shit--then bathe your eyes and ears in this:

(and yes, that is Breckin Meyer playing the rich prick)


Monday, July 6, 2009

With Arms Closed: Why We Should Hate Creed

WARNING: the following sentence may cause you to vomit a little bit in your mouth.

Creed have reunited and are releasing a new album.

When these four "good Christian lads" rocketed to the top in the late '90s, it was because there was damn little happening in rock 'n' roll. Grunge, which had shaken the very foundations of popular music earlier in the decade, had receded. Rock returned remarkably fast to a plain, unassuming status quo.

Nickelback. Three Doors Down. Limp Bizkit. This was the company Creed was in (and I apologize if I just made you upchuck for the second time in this article). All of a sudden it seemed as if making it in rock required little more than meat-headed guitars, a vague machismo, and a garbled, throaty singing voice that sounded like you had a dead ferret stuck in your throat.

These were strange years--the transition between Clintonian pseudo-liberalism and Dubya-style conservatism. And even before Bush geared up to steal the 2000 election, Slick Willy managed to find a place at the table for the Christian Right.

And Creed were the kind of group that could only find such a wide audience in a country where these knuckle-draggers still held social and political sway. Sure, Creed were never officially a "Christian rock" band; they were never signed to an Evangelical label or played at Christian venues. But singer Scott Stapp, the son of a Florida preacher, has been open about the band's message of "faith," and their own brand of fundamentalism was barely veiled within their lyrics.

If you haven't noticed this Bible tapping (it's not quite overt enough to call "thumping"), then go back and listen again. It's there. The imagery invoked in songs like "Torn" and "Higher" is taken directly from the rhetoric of the "born again" crew. The lyrics of "My Own Prison" directly "cry out to God, seeking only his decision."

All of this might be harmless enough. Atheist though I might be, I hold nothing against anyone's personal faith. Their songs take on a more insidious form, however, especially when viewed in a bigger context.

The band's 1997 hit "One," went out of its way to lambast affirmative action, calling it "discrimination now on both sides." This kind of reverse racism rhetoric dominated political debate on both sides of the aisle during that year, opening the door for Bush and company to come out on the side of white applicants to the University of Michigan who felt "discriminated against" in 2003.

Then, of course, there was Creed's most recognized single: "With Arms Wide Open." Far be it from any family-hating lefty to begrudge Stapp's elation at his impending fatherhood, but "Arms" is once again laced with Christian references. Not a problem, until one thinks about how those images are applied to the topic of pregnancy:

"I close my eyes, begin to pray
Then tears of joy stream down my face...

"I'll take a breath, take her by my side
We stand in awe, we've created life."


Aside from the sickeningly sappy-sweet words, there is something seriously alarming about this song being so popular. Stapp is free to write the songs he wants to, but it's worth noting that not once does he mention what his wife thinks about being pregnant (she is, after all, the one actually having the baby--maybe this is why she divorced him a few years later?).

In the visual sense, "Arms" was a bit more overt. The cover art for the single--a baby's hand reaching for an adult's--looks like it was taken straight from a billboard for one of those fake "pregnancy counseling centers" that the anti-choice crowd use as a front for their cause.

That this song didn't cause outrage--or at least a few raised eyebrows--from the pro-choice movement speaks to how much ground they had given to the right in recent years. Nobody seemed offended that the music industry was cramming a man's take on pregnancy down countless teenage throats several times a day on the radio.

By the time Bush was to take office (about eighteen months after the release of "Arms"), almost 90 percent of counties in America would have no abortion provider. Even nominally pro-choice politicians would talk about decreasing the number of abortions each year. It's certainly impossible to measure the effect that songs like this had on teenage opinions on a woman's right to choose, but in this climate, to say there wasn't one would be simply naive.

It might have been hard for the industry to market this kind of otherwise controversial material if Creed's music hadn't been what it was: safe, slick, bereft of any kind of jagged edge or artistic risk. In short, it was the perfect formula for marketing to privileged frat-boys (you know, the kind that are everywhere at modern music festivals), sheltered high school students and suburban parents looking for ways to bond with their kids. And like a test patient who's had the placebo switched with the real meds, these demographics swallowed the pill without any argument.

Never underestimate the ability for good frames to save bad paintings. After all, the music industry has made an art-form out of it.

When Creed announced their break-up five years ago, thousands of real music fans most likely shrugged and then went to the kitchen to make themselves a sandwich. Now, they have inexplicably decided that 2009 is the perfect time to make a comeback. And any notion that this new Creed might be any better was dashed from the get-go. Stapp couldn't wait to lay the Christianity on as thick as possible, calling the reunion "a rebirth."

Stapp and company may not find today's audience as "reborn" as they are, however. The political and musical landscape have shifted drastically over the past few years. Falwell is dead. The Christian Right, whose "morality platform" has held a stranglehold over politics for the past thirty years, was dealt a powerful blow in the 2008 elections, and ordinary Americans' views have swung to the left.

Hand in hand with this is the way in which popular music has changed. By now, Creed's "post-grunge" sound is yesterday's news, thankfully dethroned by the sounds of indie and garage rock. Hip-hop is also the most influential it has ever been. And in all genres, a spirit of experimentation and pushing the boundaries is beginning to take form, from the unexpected popularity of of acts like M.I.A. to the ever-presence of the White Stripes.

Whether Creed manages to sell out stadiums and go platinum with their next release isn't really the issue--because they very well may. The point, though, is that the times, they do a-change, and the ones that have taken place in recent years have not only re-focused the way folks look at music, but have made the possibility of substantial, even fundamental change very real.

When that change comes, it will make our music a lot more rewarding--and our gag reflexes can finally relax.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Just a reminder...

Okay, this is the last Jackson post, I promise. There have been a few readers who have contacted me wondering why I've been drawn in by the "hype." One commenter has said the while "he wrote some catchy tunes," but his contribution wasn't really that great.

Yeah, right. Tell me, dear reader, how do you manage to breathe if you live in a vacuum?

First of all, saying that Jackson wrote some catchy tunes is like saying Einstein solved a few math problems. This man changed popular music's entire trajectory. It's easy to think of him in broad strokes strongly colored by the almost constant controversy that surrounded him. But looking at his work, piece by piece, in context, reveals a contribution of real substance.

Case in point:

This is the video for the 1996 single "They Don't Care About Us." The song was surrounded by its own controversy, when the lyrics "Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don't you black or white me" came to public attention. Jackson insisted that the lyrics were meant to criticize any kind of discrimination, but the fact that they backfired may speak to how out of touch he had become, no matter how much he might have cared.

Still, the song and video are quite stunning in their relevancy. Jackson references police brutality, hate crimes, and myriad other injustices suffered by young Americans, especially those of color. Though it's debatable whether Jackson's own personal barometer of these crimes, that he took them up is admirable and poignant. The clip was directed by none other than Spike Lee, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro's shantytowns.

There's an almost militant simplicity to this song. It's a straightforward hip-hop beat, driven by the up front, pounding drums. Little else is included instrumentally other than piano and guitar. Jackson's voice is at its most snarly and grunting. Despite the disconnect he may have had a result of his position as part of the pop aristocracy, there is a shocking degree of outrage in this song. That's impressive.

This wasn't the first Michael Jackson video that attempted to take up an anti-racist message. The video for "Black or White" was originally slated to include Black Panther imagery, as well as footage of hate crimes. Jackson knew his role well, but it was a multi-faceted role. Though years of being lavished by the music industry no doubt cut him off from the real world, he was also aware that, as one of the most famous African-Americans ever, there were countless like him who had never really gotten that chance.

Hype? Watch the video again. Then say that with a straight face.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

A few thoughts one week on...

Michael Jackson's death has overtaken every news story in the world right now. It speaks to the vast contradictions and inequities in our society that the passing of a pop star (great though he may have been) is more "news-worthy" than a democratic uprising in Iran or a coup in Honduras.

And so, it bears saying that though three our of this blog's last four posts have been related to the King of Pop, I recognize the irony and inequity at play here.

That being said, the way in which the mainstream media have dedicated themselves to the story of MJ's death have done something truly rare: they have turned a mirror on American society. The slick talking heads of corporate news normally thrive on a cool separation in American society. Criminals, terrorists and drug addicts are presented as "others," those who have eschewed the normalities of society and should be viewed as anomalies--in short, less than human.

But the story of Jackson's death has forced the media to present his own demons not as perversions but as human contradictions profoundly rooted in the world around him. Stories on MSN have speculated that the abuse at the hands of his father may explain his own reclusiveness and eccentricities--something that was never done when Michael was called into court for sexual abuse. His addiction to pain killers has become the subject of debate on nightly talk shows.

It would be naive to think that the investigation of Jackson's life and death might lead to more widespread public debates over addiction, abuse, and alienation. That surely won't be happening. The circumstances and point in time of Jackson's demise, however, may make him more of a symbol--maybe even a martyr--than he would have been otherwise.

During the '80s, Jackson became the music industry's demi-godhead. While the singer blazed trails that had never been before, he without a doubt got caught up in all of that. He was, and I've said before, a contradiction. He brought a legitimacy to pop music the way few had before, but he also provided a cool, flashy cover for the industry big-wigs looking to restabilize their position in the wake of punk.

This was the decade where, as Gordon Gekko quipped, greed became good. More than that, it became cool. And so, the man who changed pop music did so by embodying the decadence and money worship that dominated in his act.

Jackson dies in debt at a time when most Americans are strapped themselves. The notion that getting ahead means earning as much money as possible has been exposed as hollow. Jackson hadn't known the kind of strife that most Americans deal with for almost four decades, but the current state of his finances proves that even the biggest pop star isn't immune to the ups and downs of big money (and at least he didn't bring down thousands of people's livelihoods with his irresponsibility).

Ultimately, though, the real legacy he is leaving behind is illustrated by the fact that nine out of the top ten Billboard spots are taken by Jackson's albums--some of which are more than twenty years old. That is influence that simply can't be bought, no matter how much money surrounds it.