There’s something wrong with the way the three women of Pussy Riot have been portrayed in much of the coverage of their arrest and sentencing last week, and the same thing is wrong with the way Marvin Hamlisch, the pop composer, was conceived for decades prior to his death this month. The issue is the tyranny of profiling by physical appearance—by simplistic presumptions about sex and ethnicity. Pussy Riot and Marvin Hamlisch have nothing to do with each other, except for the fact that some of what we think we know about them is a product of how their appearances have been perceived.
Classification is practically a divine endowment. As Genesis says, the Lord breathed existence into being, divided the day into two categories, and called them night and day. Why complicate things with intermediacies such as dawn and twilight? Fortunately for the musical arts, the current era is not Biblical. The dominant theme of twentieth-century music in all categories is the collapse of categories, as genres, styles, and cultural associations mingle and blur.
Nicki Minaj wants to be the Marilyn Monroe of hip-hop. So let’s just say she is. After all, being a member of Minaj’s audience is all about submitting to her will, just as inducing submission was one of the main objectives of Marilyn’s art. This Sunday was the fiftieth anniversary of Monroe’s death, and the occasion brings to mind how much Monroe and Minaj have in common as musical performers, and how different they are in important ways. Like Marilyn Monroe, Nicki Minaj is a sex symbol for her time and a magnificently theatrical self-construction, and she has no singing voice to speak of.
There was something fitting and something discomfiting in the climactic moment of the nutty pastiche of a spectacle that Danny Boyle concocted to open the 2012 Olympic Games. Music has always played a role in the grand theater of the Olympiad, with original works typically commissioned from brand-name composers such as Philip Glass and John Williams.
The monster was the man behind the curtain in the case of Kitty Wells, the country singer who died on July 16 at age 92. As the fittingly reverential tributes to Wells have reminded us this week, she has a place of immutable high standing in pop-culture history for recasting the role of women in country music.
The path of social progress can take loopy turns. In the week since the R&B singer Frank Ocean announced the not-such-big-news that his first love was a man, influential figures in contemporary black music have portrayed the not-so-big event as a major test of character in the world of hip-hop and R&B.
I’m not blaming Andy Griffith—not the actor, who died this week in his home state of North Carolina at 86, the age he has always seemed to me. It’s not his fault that the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show had the impact that it had on me—and, I presume, on others who found themselves watching the series at some point during in its eight-year network run in the 1960s or in its perpetual cycle of cable reruns. The tune is, without question, one of the catchiest trifles ever composed for commercial consumption. It’s bouncy and swinging, with an angular, syncopated melody.