John Cage, Game Show Contestant
April 23, 2010
Until my last post, on Julia Wolfe—the undervalued also-ran for this year's Pulitzer Prize in music composition—I had never done much to remind myself of Garry Moore. I was describing an anonymous, home-made YouTube video set to Wolfe's richly textured short piece, "Lick," and I pointed out how easy it is to pigeonhole Wolfe as Cagean. Then I made a wiseass crack: "Whatever. I like the music." Apart from the lame use of "whatever," which no one in real life has used sacrastically since 1994, I should have done better than to use the subject of John Cage and his music to make a snarky joke.
The Composer Who Should Have Won the Pulitzer Prize
April 15, 2010
As a serial finalist for nice awards I've never won, I believe in the secondary value in prizes—the value in not only honoring achievement but also in stimulating debate over who wins those honors. Among the major American prizes in arts and letters, the Pulitzers have an exemplary record at stirring that worthy debate.
The Conservatism of Lady Gaga
April 09, 2010
I liked "Radio Gaga," the bombastic Queen single from the Eighties that provided Stefani Germanotta with a name to match the pop-star image she concocted; it was a fun tune. I liked "Lady Marmalade," the Labelle funk hit; it was sexy and fun, too. I like marmalade itself; it's a fun food. And I like Lady Gaga; she's delicious and nothing but fun, if not my idea of sexy. (Her jokey ridiculousness is fine to watch, but not inviting to me.) To fail to get some pleasure from Lady Gaga songs is to fail to appreciate American pop.
The Madness of Bud Powell
April 02, 2010
Every artist has a story, or so we in the audience for art like to believe. In music, certainly—particularly in styles of music rich in abstraction, such as the avant-garde and jazz—it’s easier for us to make something of challenging work if we can conceive of the composer or performer in easy-to-grasp narrative terms. If we imagine John Coltrane as a sojourning mystic, we can process his difficult late work as mystical sojourning.
The Singer's Singer's Singer
March 26, 2010
I don't mean to imply that we're friends or anything, because I know him far less well than he knows a zillion other people, but I happened to be at the same jazz club that Tony Bennett went to a few nights ago, and we ended up talking for a little while. Bennett and I and our wives (who are about the same age, I think) had all gone to Dizzy's, one of the three glorious performance venues in the otherwise cheesy Jazz at Lincoln Center building, to see the pianist and singer Barbara Carroll.
It Was a Not-So-Wonderful Life
March 12, 2010
It's always dangerous to infer artists' intentions from the effect of their art, and it's especially treacherous to imagine ill-intentions. I bring up this axiom of criticism with contrition, because I've been considering this week—and, more to the point, re-considering—what led Mark Linkous to make the bleak, grim music that seems now to have foreshadowed his suicide last Friday. I had never been kind to Linkous as a listener or a critic. I found his music depressing, and I arrogantly dismissed what he did as an exploitation of the adolescent impulse to glamorize isolation and despair.
They Aren't the World
March 05, 2010
Having survived the past 25 years without ever having written the words "we," "are," "the," and "world" in that sequence in a sentence, I am bringing up the oppressively overhyped Haiti-earthquake version of that anthem of superstar piety only because it connects to some of the issues I've started to discuss here over the past few weeks. There is not much to say that's worth saying about the recent video, which brings Quincy Jones together with a digitally generated avatar of Michael Jackson and a surgically generated facsimile of Lionel Richie.
Abbey Lincoln on the Axis of the Civil Rights Movement
February 26, 2010
I'd like to stay on the subject of music and Civil Rights for one more post. The ongoing talk about Joan Baez's performance of "We Shall Overcome" at the White House has reminded me how readily we embrace the idea of music as an instrument of political change when, often, music is more a reflection of changes in the political realm—an effect, rather than a cause. Not that songs have no power to influence the way people think or feel; to say that would be to deny the very value of music as a form of art.
Dylan at the White House
February 18, 2010
There was hardly time to shake the image of a gnomish Pete Townshend whirling his game old right arm around on the Super Bowl stage when another batch of tottery Boomer music stars showed up on YouTube, this time in clips from the fifth concert in the Obamas' White House Music Series.
The Who on ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’
February 12, 2010
Of all the complaints hurled since Super Bowl Sunday at Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry for calling themselves The Who, doing a scary-uncle karaoke act to the music of their youth, and walking away with a hefty contribution to their overdue retirements, the one that baffles me most is the charge that they didn't belong there, that they are too old and irrelevant to deserve the most coveted slot on the most popular entertainment show in America.