Archive for the 'Music' Category

Taking you there

Americans have decided to be stupid and shallow since 1980. Madonna is like Nero; she marks the turning point.

Joni Mitchell

I think Joni’s probably right about some stuff here; that’s why I’m starting my discussion of Glee’s Madonna episode with a quote from a totally amazing interview that ran two days after it aired. I don’t know that it’s really popular or interesting to say, but something did change around 1980. I wasn’t there, so I don’t exactly know how people felt at Woodstock, but you get the sense that people still really felt like things could change. Things were changing, and there was nowhere to go but up: our institutions would all be remade. Then what really happened is basically every progressive movement and piece of culture either got forgotten or it got co-opted.

I’m not trying to be all boo-hoo death of the 60s here. I can’t really imagine what endless potential could have felt like because I grew up in a world where it was already foreclosed.

Madonna’s a good avatar of a lot of this stuff because of what she’s stood for. She’s a master appropriator, the face of “post-feminism,” and she’s kind of the perfect postmodern pop star in that no one really talks about her talent at singing: it’s all about her persona. (Not to say that she hasn’t produced some amazing music, but that tends to get submerged in the Madonna narrative. She reinvents herself, she makes smart choices, she positions herself.) More importantly, Madonna was one of the first people to basically say that she was going to work the system. She couldn’t sell out, because she’d already bought in. When the Beatles were in a Nike commercial, it was controversial, it was Yoko tarnishing their legacy. When Madonna was a in Pepsi commercial, it was cross-promotion. (Pepsi wound up pulling her ad after two airings because the video for the same song included burning crucifixes, but Madonna was cool with it. She did what she wanted and she got paid.)

That’s why — more than the gay icon thing, which is admittedly a huge part of all of the above, since camp is one of the most powerful weapons we have against the corporate monoculture when it’s deployed right, though you have to be careful, because it’s not immune from being packaged and sold to us — Glee devoted a whole episode to “the power of Madonna” this week. The way they frame Madonna — as an unproblematic feminist icon and force for equality — puts Glee pretty firmly in the pop as liberation camp. Not that there aren’t political positives to the whole hour. A group of seven dudes harmonizing on “What It Feels Like For A Girl” — and realizing that they are kind of responsible in little ways for making the women in their lives feel a bit smaller — is a pretty inspiring and progressive scene to have on TV. Plus the part where America was all really psyched to watch a 50-year-old lesbian reenact the “Vogue” video. Even having a real conversation about how disempowered girls feel seems crazy-progressive these days. Hearing Quinn tell Mr. Schue that women make 70 cents on the dollar, and the implied sense that there’s nothing we can do is heartbreaking.

I want to point out that I really do love Glee since I will be saying some pretty cynical things about it. I think it’s really well done. It’s a musical about high school. And feelings. Its title is even a feeling. It’s also awfully dark and cynical. At its best you get the sense that living in a small town in Middle America is really shitty and singing pop music in glee club is all these people have.

The fact that they sing already-existing pop music is the best part of the show. For me, this makes it really so much about how much we shape our emotional lives to the prepackaged content made available by “the music industry.” It feels more “real” than something like “Fame” where they mostly sang originals because we’ve all probably done the exact same thing. What teenage girl hasn’t sung something like “Take a Bow” into a hairbrush after a breakup?

They do manage to wrench some strongly felt emotion out of stuff like this:

Avril Lavigne has never been so poignant.

But, some people complain, the musical numbers don’t always feel right. Even the New York Times, on what’s maybe Glee’s most awkward scene.

With that, he tears into “(You’re) Having My Baby,” the maudlin 1974 Paul Anka love dollop, saying the words he wasn’t able to without a melody.

In the “Glee” universe, which revolves around the show choir from William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio, music is a curative, a perfect problem solver. It’s not a job or an obligation or a drag in any way, even when the subject matter is heavy, music is only joy. Finn’s plan ultimately backfires — Quinn’s father, infuriated, throws her out of the house — but by the end of the episode his outburst of song has paid dividends. The couple is together, in love and, for the moment, healed.

But still, that song: lumpy, unsteady, cringe-worthy. “Glee” may love music, but often it abuses it, with performances wholly lacking grit. In each episode a handful of songs receive similar treatment: antiseptically elated, heavily doctored recordings, with no line between the truly affecting and the genuinely off-putting.

It’s not just that the songs are pre-recorded and lipsynched, unless you want to raise that complaint at virtually every movie musical shot in the last 80 years. It’s not just the autotune, though that probably doesn’t help. It’s the subtle disconnect between the “feelings” expressed in “You’re Having My Baby,” and the complex emotions of the actual situation.

This happens to Finn a lot, actually. Possibly because he’s so dumb. Just last week, Mr. Schue gets him to buck up by singing the Doors. It wasn’t really that the song expressed his feelings — it’s more that his feelings get changed by the song. The song is like a magical incantation that changes his feelings at least temporarily. I will at some point quote someone other than Adorno on my blog, but I think he has a totally germane point here, which is essentially that rather than expressing some thing we inherently feel, pop culture introduces us to things that we should be feeling: “The dream industry does not so much fabricate the dreams of the consumers as introduce the dreams of the suppliers among the people.”1

The short version of my point is that Glee is a postmodern musical. Instead of having original songs meant to be perfectly integrated expressions of the characters’ innermost feelings, the characters try (and often fail) to express their feelings using the packaged emotions available to them in pop music. Pop music even drives what they should be feeling, like with Finn, or with the way Madonna’s strong take-charge sexual ethos convinced Rachel and Emma both that they should be ready. Madonna has a positive effect too: Sue learns to love herself by reeanacting the “Vogue” video, and Kurt and Mercedes decide to step outside glee club and be the stars they are in probably the most joyous performance of the night, “Four Minutes.” So, I don’t want to be all-negative about how pop music makes us feel, because it’s really not. As much as it sells us stuff, including itself, pop music also brings us together and it can and does speak to real things we’re feeling.

Ending with “Like a Prayer” makes perfect sense. Though I’ve always maintained that it’s a song about blow jobs (“When you call my name it’s like a little prayer/ down on my knees, I wanna take you there/ In the midnight hour, I can feel your power”), I am willing to consider that it probably has other meanings. The “there” where she wants to take you, where your voice can take her: it’s wherever you want it to be. There is an obvious sexual meaning, but the juxtaposition of the sex with the gospel choir gives the whole thing a sense of a kind of religious ecstasy. On Glee, where religion when it’s mentioned at all is just another form of hypocrisy (the celibacy club, Quinn’s parents who throw her pregnant ass out in a very un-Christ-like manner), letting the choir sing is as close as we get to the sense of community and of touching the numinous that everyone can get. It’s kind of an invocation to pop. For a few minutes, it really seems like we can get there. Does it really matter that the song was first heard in a Pepsi commercial?

I really don’t have an answer to that question. If I did, I would have culture pretty much solved. At its best, like it was this week, Glee makes a strong case that pop’s ability to shape our feelings is full of positive potential: potential to make us more empathetic, stronger, more beautiful, more free. But it also ultimately limits what we can feel: as much as Madonna’s message is equality and strength, it really still does emphasize a certain kind of sexualized “strong woman” who’s okay with the system as long as she gets paid. (Like she did. This week.) This wouldn’t be a problem if there were non-commercial versions of female strength and sexuality available to us — or even if the market allowed for more alternative versions of what that could look like — but that’s not the world we live in. So celebrating the times when something progressive or even subversive breaks through the net is often the best we can do.

  1. Page 93, “The Schema of Mass Culture,” in The Culture Industry

Cherry Bombs

Besides both being movies I saw this weekend, Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, 2010) have in common that they both open with scenes of a teen girl getting her first period. Carrie is from 1976. That first scene in The Runaways — which actually opens with a shot of blood falling on pavement — is set in 1975. Both of them are about different ways the power of womanhood runs away with the main characters. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sigismondi chose to start The Runaways with that image, also.

In Carrie, and this has I’m sure been discussed ad nauseum by all the people who’ve seen it in the past 35 years, Carrie’s telekinetic powers first start to manifest when she gets her period. In the beginning, this seems like a good thing. Carrie asserts her own power, telling her mom it’s not the devil, it’s her, and decides to make a cute dress and go to the prom and be happy for a minute without worrying about sin. But of course — this totally backfires. When Carrie gets upset by a cruel high school prank, she loses control and burns down her school gym with everyone in it. Then she kills John Travolta by crashing his car and crucifies her own mom. (Granted, her mom had already stabbed her, but Carrie’s “fling every pointed object in the kitchen into her mom’s torso” method seems excessive.) The takeaway is that menstruation and therefore the female body are scary and monstrous.

Things are different in The Runaways: it’s not a horror movie, it’s a rock n’ roll biopic. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it starts with De Palma’s image of female grotesque-ness. In the hands of a lady filmmaker making a movie about lady culture, the period is no longer a source of supernatural horror. It’s just a pain in the ass. But it sets the scene for the story that follows, which is about Cherie Currie having her own form of power – the ability to make herself, to perform, to be fierce, to be Bardot and Bowie – packaged and sold as something she can’t really control. It’s not a coincidence that Cherie’s song is “Cherry Bomb”: “Hello Daddy, hello mom/ I’m your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb/ Hello world, I’m your wild girl/ I’m your ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb.” She’s offering herself up to you in all her jailbait sexiness, but it is clear that she will blow right up in your face. In the movie, a lot is made of the way Kim Fowley tries to commodify her self-made image and claim it as his own. This is the main source of conflict between her and the other heroine, Joan Jett. Selling yourself like Cherie does is (as countless contemporary female celebrities can tell you) a hard road to walk: it doesn’t take much for things to blow up in Cherie’s face, and she’s left alone, working a menial job in a store.

Cherie’s story is not that much of a different message about teen female sexuality from Carrie’s. But the difference is that The Runaways has two girls in it. Joan Jett’s going through the ups and downs of fame right along with Cherie — but for her it’s never about anything but the music. It’s not a simple good girl/bad girl story: Joan’s complicity in turning Cherie into a Cherry Bomb is pretty clear. She’s seen contributing to the song (and the narrative); her relationship with Cherie is also complicated by lust. Where Cherie (at least in the movie, I know things were different in real life) gets lost, Joan’s able to symbolically cleanse herself through songwriting and emerge with a badass solo album (that she released herself after every label ever turned her down, though we don’t learn that until the end credits). I didn’t love everything about the movie — the bathtub scene where New Joan emerges cleansed of her corporate past was lame, and I wish the rest of the band got more to do since they also seemed interesting — but the core story about Joan and Cherie was really well-done and kind of amazing for a mainstream film.

That said, I’ve been reading Adorno lately, and I think it’s worth pointing out that the “power” that Cherie and even Joan have are limited to their abilities to enter into a male-dominated and corporate-owned milieu. This isn’t women’s lib, it’s selling some records. It’s women being powerful, but they are getting power by imitating culturally provided ways of being powerful and masculine.

That’s a pretty standard “pop culture makes us all zombies” argument — which doesn’t make it not kind of true — but at the same time, what else are girls supposed to do? If we’re stuck in the system, the least we can do is win on its own terms. And maybe blow things up a little.

So press record, I’ll let you film me

I have a post in my head about how amazing Gossip Girl was tonight, and a Glee post I have been trying and failing to write for months now, but I am not in a position to write anything coherent right now for reasons that should stay off the internet.

I am basically just watching this video on repeat to comfort myself:

I tumblr’d this already with a different YouTube embed, but I am pretty much dying of awesome over here. I love almost everything Beyonce does, but this is maybe my favourite video of hers. It is basically her shooting dayglo guns at men with cameras for heads and adjusting her gold bra/breastplate, with Lady Gaga. It’s so amazing because on the one hand all this stuff makes it seem like this really straightforward commentary on Beyonce’s role as subject of the male gaze and her aggressive response to same – -again, she shoots bullets and arrows at dudes with giant video cameras for heads — but she still is not wearing pants. Lady Gaga always does self-aware, but it’s usually like “Look, I’m being self-aware, enjoy me!” (which I do). When B does self-aware, it’s this weird complex thing where she’s self-aware, and she’s badass, but she’s also still somehow presenting herself very carefully as a brand, and she still brings this incredible sense of passion and abandon to everything she does. But in a way that seems calculated. It’s like a faucet of abandon she turns on and off. Look at her and Gaga dancing side by side. Gaga does all the steps, but Beyonce does them with fervor. She hits it harder, she pushes it further, she snaps back faster. That’s what I’ll always love about Beyonce, no matter who else comes along; she lives in this weird dichotomy of, like, crazy passionate fire and total self-control and self-packaging.

Teardrops on my guitar

I am just having a…bad day. Nothing actually bad, just like annoying first world problems. A Taylor Swift bad day, not a Bob Dylan bad day. Plans falling through, misunderstandings, going to like 4th choice restaurant for dinner and having it be kind of overpriced and slow, and the whole day being generally less awesome than I’d hoped when I woke up this morning.

I tried to write a post about Glee, but I wasn’t really in the right mood. I think I will just sit next to my amp and smudge my mascara for awhile.

Taylor Swift – White Horse
Uploaded by UniversalMusicGroup. – See the latest featured music videos.

Big boy rides, big boy ice


If I was going to have a threesome with a movie star, I would probably want to do it to this white girl cover of this hip hop song.

Whatever You Like – Anya Marina

Pop Fashion Robot

So Lady Gaga is my favourite, I don’t care what anybody says. I love how she tries to sum up her whole persona in every video: this one’s weird and creepy and kind of sexy and also pretty funny all at once. She even wears my favourite outfit from the last Alexander McQueen show, with the crazy gold studs everywhere.

Dressed smart like a London bloke, before he speak his suit bespoke

So today is one of my days where I have Things To Do, that I’m not even really focusing on. Last night I had a dream that I was in London walking around taking pictures, so in honour, I am posting some of my favourite British lady music videos.

Lily Allen:


M.I.A. – Boyz
Uploaded by OXYMORON. – Explore more music videos.


Amy Winehouse:

My friend showed me pictures of kids, all I could show him was pictures of my cribs

I am in love with this new Kanye West video.

Kanye West – Welcome To Heartbreak
by UniversalMusicGroup

Kanye always has the best videos, since his art is as much about his self-conscious creation of himself as a celebrity as it is anything, and music videos are the ultimate star art. No one sings as much about designer clothes as Kanye (“There’s no YSL they can sell/ to get my heart of this hell” is completely the funniest lyric of the year). So the whole thing of him breaking up in compression errors and static and colorbars is so arresting — the whole image of him is clearly just electronic signal — and it makes you think your cable is going out. Plus the imagery goes well with the beepy electronic sound and autotuning that Kanye’s using to distance us from his real feelings.

Musical Interlude

It’s 1990s R&B day!



Aaliyah – Are You That Somebody
by bobbypulanu
  • The Gossip cover:

Beyoncé’s reversal

I’ve read a ton of very intelligent blog posts about how not-feminist Beyoncé actually is since the release of I Am…Sasha Fierce, with the regressive gender roles imagined in the two lead singles “If I Were a Boy” and “Single Ladies.” Best? Emily Gould’s:

It’s a feminist anthem! Well, sort of. If you want it to be. It’s a classic post-breakup eff you about being “up in the club” and dancing with another guy to make your ex jealous — “I could care less what you think,” ‘Sasha’ sings, which is always a funny kind of line because, hello, you are making it clear that you’re just acting this way for the dude’s benefit. (cf: “You probably think this song is about you” or “Thanks to you, now I get what I want.”)

(Also, I would add: “I could have another you in a minute”.)

I read them all, and I thought, meh. I mean, they’re right, but since when was Beyoncé supposed to be an uncomplicated feminist icon? She’s always been contradictory. This is the woman who gave us “Independent Woman” but she also gave us “Cater To You” and “Upgrade U.” (The latter is a great song that is offensive in at least 2 or 3 different ways, none of which is really negated by B’s adorable Jay-Z impression.)

Anyway, Bitch Magazine pointed me to the video for the track that I thought of every time someone raised the whole issue. I’m not saying it obviates the problems with her other songs, but “Diva” certainly complicates them.

Beyonce – Diva (New)
by Le-Tour-2Lor

Also, I kind of love it. That white dress with the crazy paint stains running down the front is reminiscent of the stuff Gaultier made for Victoria Abril in Kika, which is a pretty hearty fuck-you to notions of woman as nothing but objects of visual pleasure.

As Ehren Gresehover points out, it pretty much visualizes Beyoncé’s claim that “a diva is a female version of a hustla.”

In the video (which dropped just before Christmas), she borrows more than just the figurative swagger of male hip-hop stars for her dance moves, and ends it by literally exploding a metaphor for the way women are usually treated in rap music: a beat up pimpmobile full of female mannequin parts is set ablaze by Beyonce’s cigarette as she turns her back and walks away. It’s not a pretty image, but Beyonce seems to be saying that being a successful woman in the music biz isn’t always about being pretty, either.

But that closing image isn’t just exploding a metaphor, it’s taking back the power Jay-Z had in “Crazy In Love,” the song which launched her solo career.

Beyonce feat. Jay-Z – Crazy In Love
by hushhush112

The visual metaphor here is that Beyoncé’s so crazy in love that Jay-Z lights her car on fire, basically blowing her up. Of course, since music videos don’t have to have narrative logic (thank goodness!) she’s still there to dance in a fur coat and body suit while he raps about how much money he has, so it’s okay.

Who’s blowing up cars and walking away without looking back now? In real life, B married Jay-Z, but Sasha Fierce is doing it all on her own now.

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