A Few Words in Defense of Randy Newman
March 04, 2011
In the era of the last presidential administration, Randy Newman, the distinguished elder of pop-song irony, wrote a tune called “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” in which he gave George W. Bush credit for doing no more harm than the Caesars, Hitler, or Stalin. “Now, the leaders we have,” he sang, “while they’re the worst that we’ve had, are hardly the worst that this poor world has seen.” In the same spirit, I’d like to offer a defense of “We Belong Together,” the Newman song from Toy Story 3 that just won the Academy Award for Best Song.
Dance of the Eggheads
February 25, 2011
In Manhattan after the Second World War, I’ve been told, a group of African American dancers, musicians, painters, and writers gathered regularly for martinis and mutual support at the home of the dancers Dorcas and Frank Neal, in Chelsea. The core membership included James Baldwin, Billy Strayhorn, and Talley Beatty, the choreographer, who told me about the group when I was researching my biography of Strayhorn in the early ’90s.
We Need a Revolution in Songs About Egypt
February 18, 2011
The revolution will always be harmonized. If no song in itself can change the world, revolutionary change usually happens to music, as it is today in the Middle East. News feeds from Tahrir Square and now from Tehran have been capturing streets full of young people singing anthems of uprising, just as eighteenth-century revolutionaries sang in Paris and Philadelphia. In Cairo, the song that emerged quickly as the semi-official anthem of the revolution is “Long Live Egypt,” a buoyant, gently hip-hoppish pop tune by the Egyptian group Scarabeuz and Omima.
Lady Gaga: Born What Way?
February 11, 2011
Like everything Lady Gaga does, the hype campaign for her new single, “Born This Way,” has been so grandiosely theatrical that it seems, simultaneously, like genius and a joke. Ever since the summer, she has been teasing concert audiences and interviewers about the record with the subtlety of a grindhouse mare, establishing the title as a catch phrase months before she revealed the song.
Milton Babbitt: So What If He's Intellectual?
February 04, 2011
Milton Babbitt, who died on January 29 at 94, produced some of his best-known music electronically, using the gargantuan, rudimentary computers of punch-card antiquity. Since there is no action footage of the work being created or performed, the clips of this music on Youtube are generally accompanied by still photographs of Babbitt, and these pictures point as well as the music to the Milton Babbitt problem. There he is: bald, middle-aged, and white, in his horn-rim glasses and tie, posing with his instrument, the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer, at the David Sarnoff Laboratory in Princeton.
Jack White Rescues Wanda Jackson
January 28, 2011
The corniest trope of theatrical heroism is the last-second rescue, in which the good guy swoops out of nowhere to save the girl from a hair-raising threat, and its outrageous Victorian theatricality may be the reason it appeals to Jack White.
Happy Birthday, Sam Cooke
January 21, 2011
Rock stars of the 1960s have begun turning 70, and the aging of a generation that defined its culture by its youth has prompted the sucking of veiny thumbs. I did mine last October, right here, on the seventieth anniversary of John Lennon’s birth. Earlier this month, Joan Baez turned 70; Neil Diamond will do the same on January 24; Bob Dylan will have his seventieth birthday in May, followed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, along with the likes of David Crosby, George Clinton, and Paul Anka.
Margaret Whiting: Image vs. Art
January 14, 2011
The difference between an artist’s image and an artist’s art is sometimes great, and that was certainly the case with Margaret Whiting, who died this week at the age of 86. Until just a few years ago, when late-life illness kept her largely homebound, Whiting was a fixture in the Manhattan nightclubs where singers carry on the vocal tradition she took up in 1940s. From time to time, Whiting would perform, usually a song or two in a group concert. More often, she would go to see other performers do her kind of music, and to be seen.
What’s Really Disturbing in Kanye West’s ‘Monster’ Video? Kanye.
January 07, 2011
Of course it’s offensive. To recognize that about the video that Kanye West released last week for his self-portrait in song, “Monster,” is to acknowledge its intent without seeing the fullness of its effect. The video was directed by Jake Nava, who is celebrated for making commercials that market glamour brands (Armani, L’Oreal) with sexy celebrities (Jessica Alba, Maria Sharapova), as well as music videos that market sexy female musicians (Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Shakira) like the glamour brands they are.
My Ten Favorite Albums of 2010
December 24, 2010
It’s that time of year, and I’m as susceptible to cornball ideas as the next music lover—and as susceptible to delusions of taste-making value as the next music critic. So, here it is: a list of my ten favorite albums of 2010. I welcome dissent, since I will get it anyway. 1. Jeremy Denk: Jeremy Denk Plays Ives Piano Sonatas no. 1 and 2 (Concord) played with stunning originality, ferocity, and humor. 2. Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) Loopy utopian Afro-futurist nonsense made sexy and irresistibly danceable. 3.