Songs of Nuclear Horror
March 18, 2011
Sprinkling some vinegar to counteract the oily Graham Nash, David Crosby provided a bracing moment of skepticism toward the generally sanctimonious pop-star posturing documented in No Nukes, the movie centered on a series of concerts and rallies staged to protest nuclear power and nuclear arms in 1979. Pop musicians are not particularly well-equipped to speak with authority on issues such as nuclear policy, Crosby said at a press conference captured in the film; but they have a public forum, he said, and can’t help themselves.
Lykke Li and the Rise of Porn Pop
March 12, 2011
There’s always a strain of porn in pop music—not just sexiness or sensuality, which are different things, of course, but an industrially strategic manipulation of words, music, and images to manufacture desire. Clever performers have exploited this, sometimes upending it to comment upon or to subvert that desire, since Josephine Baker petitioned for African American equity in a snake dance. I grew up with disco and “Push, Push in the Bush” on top-40 radio.
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.