The Dream Music of a Nightmare Time
May 13, 2011
Few things of meaning come across as more meaningless than another person’s dreams. Everything that makes a dream fascinating to the dreamer—the confusion, the illogic, the mercurialness of time, place, and identity—seems like little more than random weirdness when the Id involved is not our own. As a means for making art, moreover, dream-telling is treacherous for all but the most artful of tellers. I recall myself having written short stories that ended with the cheat of an explanation that all that I had described was really just a dream. I learned to do better at the advice of Mrs.
The Beauty of Unrecorded Music
May 06, 2011
The machinery of contemporary culture is programmed to treat occasions as events—to freeze moments in digital permanence, to spread the local and the intimate to everyone everywhere. Much has been made of the instantaneousness of communication in the wireless age. But the documentation of every instant does not simply privilege the moment of experience; it also denies the power of experience itself. Not every occasion is an event, and the fleeting, ephemeral nature of some kinds of experience—including certain kinds of musical experience—is the source of their power.
Whatever Happened to Phoebe Snow?
April 29, 2011
The fact that there was a good answer has nothing to do with the fact that the standard question about Phoebe Snow is a bad one. Snow, who died this week (at age 58, she would have said, or 60, as The New York Times reported), made eleven studio albums, as well as live records and compilations, from the time she started recording, in 1975, until 2010, when she had a devastating stroke and fell into a coma. Eleven albums is a solid body of work, exactly the same number of studio records Randy Newman has made.
Why Are There No Great Easter Songs?
April 22, 2011
Although I don’t have time to count them, since life expectancy in the United States is only 78.2 years, I suspect that the number of winter holiday songs—and I refer ecumenically not only to Christmas music but to tunes broadly celebrating the wintery season—must be around a zillion kazillion. From the morning after Halloween until New Year’s Day, they are inescapable, and singers in innumerable styles (and of varying religious and cultural backgrounds) keep making CDs of songs still widely thought of as Christmas music.
Grammys: 31 Gone, 78 to Go
April 15, 2011
In the music business, as in government finance, partial fixes are not fixes at all, but, more often, appeasements and, sometimes, impairments. Last week, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the industry body that runs the Grammys, responded to pleas from its appropriately panicked membership and announced a plan to improve the awards through consolidation. NARAS eliminated 31 award categories—nearly one third of the 109 categories honored in past years.
Phil Ochs, There But for Fortune
April 08, 2011
Thirty-five years ago this Saturday, Phil Ochs, the earnest singing polemicist of the 1960s, hanged himself. He suffered from depression and other emotional problems, as his father had, and he drank too much. I was thinking of Ochs earlier this week, when I was with a group of legal scholars at a conference on “Bob Dylan and the Law” at the Fordham University Law School.
Remembering the Forgettable Nick Hathaway
April 01, 2011
Jameson “Nick” Hathaway, the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who died this week at age 96, is most memorable for his forgetability. Among song composers of the pre-rock era, Hathaway was such a marginal figure, even in his time, that his name long ago drifted off the margins, off the desktop, out of the room, and took a drive to a place populated only by minor academics, nostalgaists, and other people like me.
Sending Out the Unmusical Elizabeth Taylor
March 25, 2011
Elizabeth Taylor had nothing to do with music—or, more accurately, nothing to do with the formal standards of technique that traditionalists still conflate with musicality—and that fact has led me to realize something about Frank Sinatra. In all the encomia to Taylor in all the media this week, one of the few aspects of her career spared inflation was her brief and tenuous but illuminating dalliance with theatrical song in the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, produced in 1977.
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.