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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

One of the arguments in favor of affirmative action is that the pool of talented individuals is large enough to accommodate fairly wide variations in how one defines “the best” and still get a good leadership cadre, freshman class, etc. Put differently, if Harvard, instead of admitting the 5.9 percent that they do admit, admitted the next 5.9 percent — the ones who “just missed the cut,” they would still probably be fine.

With the release of the Pitchfork “People Power” list, Jody Rosen at Slate has skewered Pitchfork’s readership for its selection of mostly white, overwhelmingly male, indie rockers. At the very least, it’s boring and predictable. Unsurprisingly, all the albums on the Top Ten got good reviews in Pitchfork.

So, OK, what happened? One is that women didn’t make a lot of lists, but I think that may have to do with a distaste for the kind of listmaking mania that often captivates music nerds and snobs. (See, for example, High Fidelity‘s “Top Five” obsession.) Additionally, there may be less consensus on female artists than on male ones, and the nature of averaging out lists ends up yielding fewer women. (This may be giving Pitchforkers too much credit.) Similarly, there may simply be fewer female artists regularly making music; there are probably a variety of reasons for that, but if we were to take a random sample of rock bands, I bet we would find a low rate of female participation. This may be the result of choice, prejudice, or some combination thereof, but it probably exists nonetheless. This is purely a hypothesis, of course, so no evidence exists one way or the other.

Because all list-making is arbitrary by nature, I’m going to pick an alternate canon of Top Ten albums that could theoretically have been in Pitchfork’s Top Ten (that is to say, they fit within the Pitchfork ethos, got good Pitchfork reviews, and are listened to by mostly indie rock nerds), but that represent a more female list. Much like those next 5.9 percent of Harvard rejects, this is a set of albums that I think Pitchforkers could reasonably say are as good as any of the albums in the Top Ten. I am generally a fan of quotas, because I think people don’t embrace diversity in almost any setting unless they are forced to. So here goes:

  1. Lauryn Hill – Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
  2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (It’s Blitz could probably go here too)
  3. M.I.A. – Arular
  4. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
  5. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
  6. Aimee Mann – Bachelor No. 2 (or, the last remains of the dodo)
  7. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine
  8. Robyn – Body Talk
  9. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
  10. Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose

Other alternates: Any number of Sleater Kinney albums; I’m not a huge Bjork fan, but any number of Bjork albums could go too.

Because all lists are inherently arbitrary, without a requirement for some other characteristics than “what’s good,” a bunch of mostly white male rock nerds inevitably pick a bunch of mostly white male rock music to be “the best.” Take a look at any compendium of “best ever” albums lists and you’ll see the skew in effect.

But if that were my Top Ten list from the 1996-2011 time period, I’d be pretty happy.

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This is pretty glorious. Paul Ryan says that Rage Against the Machine is one of his favorite bands. Tom Morello, the guitarist for the band, responds by saying, “Paul Ryan Is the Embodiment of the Machine Our Music Rages Against.”

This is the closest I have ever come to feeling sorry for Paul Ryan. If Sufjan Stevens or Thom Yorke or Joanna Newsom were to announce to the world that they thought I sucked, my feelings would be pretty hurt! But then I remember that Paul Ryan wants to engineer one of the largest transfers of wealth from the middle class to the ultra-wealthy, and I stop feeling sorry at all.

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If you have been near a radio, in a store, or anywhere where one could hear Top 40 music, you have probably heard “Call Me Maybe,” the inexplicable Top 10 hit by Carly Rae Jepsen, a Canadian singer-songwriter whose other songs don’t really hint at the pop genius of this one.

At first glance, just another disposable pop song. But it’s worth gathering what that means these days. One glance at the top of the Billboard Charts suggests that after years of hearing Euro dance beats and the tyranny of LMFAO and Katy Perry, the Top 10 is getting weird. Gotye featuring Kimba? fun.? Goofy British boy bands? The other shocker here is the return of legitimate melody — songs with catchy tunes rather than catchy beats (contrast Kelly Clarkson with, say, Pitbull). Consider Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” a slow, undanceable song with a monster singable chorus:

OK, but back to Carly Rae. What’s so great about “Call Me Maybe”? Well, to sum it up in one word, it’s the “maybe.” Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Petula Clark, Blondie: they all asked us to call them in songs titled “Call Me,” but they either came from a place of desperation or solicitation. In Jepsen’s case, the solicitation, if it exists at all, is hesitant and non-committal:

Hey, I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe
It’s hard to look right
At you baby
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe

It’s a song about the queasy feeling of making the first move, of making yourself vulnerable. The inarticulate lyrics are exactly the point — who has not become tongue-tied when confronted by the object of their desire? Not everyone can sound like Debbie Harry, blithely asking people to “roll [her] in designer sheets.” For the Facebook generation, increasingly mediated in its human contact, there’s no imagery or directness, just staring at our shoes and asking the other person to call us, maybe.

Musically, the song understands that chorus is the key. The verses are kept to a minimum (15 seconds) with almost no backing, save for a generic drum beat and those repeated pizzicato strings, before we get to the pre-chorus when the song truly opens up. “Call Me Maybe” understands the fascistic nature of the pop song; it demands our allegiance and we will sing along, whether we like it or not. In come the cheesy strings, in comes the dance beat, in comes the middling keyboard figure: along with the lyrics of the song, the instrumentation suggests a sort of stasis, unwilling to commit one way or another. The vocals in the verse hover around the same note, and the chorus does the same flailing — climbing ever higher like a cracking voice before zeroing in on the tiny downward steps of “call me, maybe.” Consider the structure of the song, which features so many repeated parts that it’s not much more than window-dressing for the chorus.

  • Intro (pizzicato strings) (4 sec)
  • Verse 1 (“I threw a wish in a well…”) (16 sec)
  • Pre-chorus (“Your stare was holding…”) (8 sec) (in comes hint at the bigger beat and slow crescendo)
  • Chorus (“Hey I just met you…”) (15 sec) (the beat, the strings all come in)
  • Chorus (again!) (another 15 sec + 5 sec outro) (add noodly guitar line)
  • Verse 2 (“You took your time with the call…”) (16 sec)
  • Pre-chorus (8 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Bridge (kind of) (“‘Fore you came into my life…”) (15 sec)
  • Chorus reprise (5 sec intro + 7 sec)
  • Chorus (15 sec)
  • Bridge again (15 sec)

That is to say, in a full 3:20 pop song, only 30 seconds give or take are lines not repeated elsewhere in the song. Verses, who needs that? The song is essentially nothing but sing-along! Even the choruses themselves are half just “Here’s my number/so call me maybe.” Through sheer repetition and melodic dog whistles, “Call Me Maybe” worms its way effortlessly into your brain, with just enough generic dance beat to throw your hands up.

In the tradition of “A-B-C” and “MmmBop!”, Jepsen’s tune is a perfect pop song for its moment — disposable verses with a heavily-repeated middle section, capturing somehow the non-committal of modern relationships with the machinery of pop songs. It’s worth noting that the song’s popularity derived from a Youtube video shot by Justin Bieber and his friends in which they sing along to the tune while goofing around.

For its noncommittal and tentative attempts at initiating contact, “Call Me Maybe” outro seems oddly deflating: Rather than a fade-out, the song simply peters out, but this seems to encapsulate the moment perfectly. A queasiness, a tepid solicitation, then a fantasy of all that happens in a relationship in the space of a three-minute pop song, followed by ultimate deflation. The only way to bounce back from the deflation? Why, we must play the song again and relive the experience! And so we do.

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This WSJ piece about the “science” (such as it is) behind Adele’s “Someone Like You” has been floating around. The premise is interesting, of course: Why do certain songs make us cry? This is fine, as far as it goes, but I find the article to be deeply unsatisfying:

“Someone Like You” is a textbook example. “The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern,” said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.

When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

OK, let’s back this up. First of all, the article purports to identify certain traits that make a song particularly weep-worthy, or rather, universally weep-worthy. Yet, the emotional framework that prompts particular reactions has more roots than mere sonic stimuli. That is to say, context matters. Cross-cultural studies reveal differences in the kinds of stimuli that provoke crying and different social functions that it serves. Any attempt to build the “perfect crying pop song” is probably misguided, or at the very least, restricted by the local culture. Consider the findings of this study about the cathartic nature of crying across cultures:

Several contextual features of crying episodes were indeed predictive of crying-related catharsis. Specifically, the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis. Crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic. The data suggest that contextual factors may play an important role in shaping crying-related catharsis.

Although it’s interesting, of course, that appoggiaturas are present in many songs that people identify as causing them to cry, one wonder what made people cry prior to the invention of the appoggiatura, or to pianos, or to the modern musical instrument generally. I think the context matters much more than the piece of music itself (for example, in one study (JSTOR PDF registration needed for full article), women consistently experienced more chills when listening to music than men.). There seems to be more at play here than some inherent connection between appoggiaturas and crying; maybe it’s that we have ascribed certain emotional cues to certain types of music as a society, rather than anything essential to the construction/arrangement of the sounds themselves. I hypothesize that playing “Someone Like You” for a Maori tribesman 400 years ago would have led to a very different reaction.

That said, let’s assume that there is a manipulative way in which Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Schumann’s “Traumerei” have been constructed to make us cry. Let’s say that they are cynical ploys to engage our waterworks, in the same way that certain pop song earworms are designed to be stuck in your head until you die. Does that actually affect your enjoyment of the song? I know that there are dopamine releases when I eat fatty foods that make me feel good, but so what? I can still feel great when I eat it! I know that my favorite movies include manipulative tools to make me feel a certain way. That doesn’t stop me from feeling that way? Perhaps the sign of a work of art that has achieved greatness is its ability to move us even as we know we are being manipulated.

Or, as a friend of mine said, maybe “it makes us cry because it’s BEAUTIFUL.” I think I’m okay with that.

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The key changes when the guys start singing are really striking. This genre of video fascinates me, as it really highlights the combination of group participation and response to music, mass democracy, voyeurism, and exhibitionism that the Internet inhabits. That is to say, this is a piece of art that is entirely new and could not have ever existed previous to this moment in history.

People can complain about whether or not mashup is worthwhile, but it is at least novel.

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The idea of 5 people playing a song using only one guitar is the gimmick. But the more I listen the more it draws me in. Wait until the middle guy starts singing – his voice is amazing. And what’s with the guy on the right?

Also (unrelated), I was spoiled when I was able to attend to early Pitchfork music festivals in the mid 2000’s. Back then, I was able to see many amazing bands, and pay almost nothing (like $30 for a weekend pass). For that reason, I’ve balked at past opportunities to attend huge music festivals. Their lineups are frequently incredible, but the cost is literally 10X as much. That being said, this Coachella lineup will force me to consider it:

Let’s see… Radiohead (I’ve never seen), M83, Bon Iver, Girl Talk, Shins, Justice, and Jeff Mangum (NMH’s In the Aeroplane Under the Sea is the album I’ve most enjoyed over the past year). What do you think about it, Unpersons?

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“The Devil Inside,” a mockumentary exorcism movie that critics and viewers alike agree is total garbage, has been bizarrely successful.

This reminds me of the “My Humps” phenomenon, in which a song that was so terrible that no one in their right mind could possibly enjoy it defied the expectations of the band, label, and thinking human beings.

These phenomena go beyond mere “So Bad It’s Good.” No one walked out of “The Devil Inside” or listened to “My Humps” and thought even ironically that it was good. This is voluntary experiencing badness in mass quantities.

A few notes: scarcity is important here. January is typically the worst time for new movies, particularly mass-market movies. Thus, January has regularly produced a parade of box-office horribles, from the Big Momma’s franchise to Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Additionally, this is not a case of differing opinions between critics and viewers. Devil Inside scored abysmally (“F”) on Cinemascore, which surveys audience members with exit surveys to determine how they enjoyed the film. Viewers hated it; critics hated it; and yet, people went to go see it in swarms.

Was it a good marketing campaign? Maybe. But plenty of good marketing campaigns fail to build buzz that translates to eyeballs.

Rather than asking a question of marketing/box office success, I think this question gets at a central idea of movies: Why go in the first place? We go to see films (or listen to music, etc.) for a variety of minutes, and we’ll pick something based on our goal. Sometimes, we want to be scared, and in January, when pickings are slim, we’ll go see a terrible one. Sometimes, we want to listen to a dance single, and when one appears on the radio, we’ll keep listening, even if we don’t even enjoy it.

Tastemakers would hate to admit it, but our tastes are as much about availability bias and what’s right in front of you, rather than some careful selection. We watch whatever we can agree on (e.g. the success of “Pawn Stars”), not what is greatest (e.g. the ratings for “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” etc.).

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