Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Culture Vulture, Pt. 2

Every year, there is a sort of unofficial competition to find the "song of the summer".  That would be the one that crosses over all genres and radio formats, the one you can't help hearing even if you wanted, the one that plays in the water parks, the beach parties, the CYO high school dances.  The battle is for those in the age 12-17 demographic; in this field of entertainment they are the ones who move the commercial drivers:  downloads, social media, mp3, the free and paid online music services.

As I say, it's an unofficial competition, but I should note a couple of self-appointed official designations.  One was the Video Music Awards' Song of the Summer, which went to "She's Kinda Hot".  Kinda Not!  Well, at least the band's extended the term of its celebrity from five seconds to 15 minutes. As for Entertainment Weekly  ('ew") and Billboard, they went with "Cheerleader", a somewhat reggae dance number by Jamaican artist OMI.   I'm no devotee of the pop music circuit--I hear its stuff mostly in the big room/locker room of my gym--but I did catch "Cheerleader" a couple of times.  The song is pretty ordinary courting material, but the video does have show some attractive dancing (not by the singer).

Spotify, and Billboard, for that matter, acknowledged that the dominance of any single song was not so clear, and both mentioned songs by supreme crossover artist Taylor Swift ("Bad Blood") and Wiz Khalifa ("See You Again", with a falsetto crooner alternating with Wiz' raps). I agree with a web-mag called "Chicagoist" which, dismissed the OMI tune as "forgettable fluff", and noted the lack of a single clear winner.  They reviewed the candidates, adding  "Shut Up and Dance" (by Walk the Moon), which is quite catchy, a crossover tune to be sure, but was already tired by summertime, before opting for a danceable tune called "Can't Feel My Face"(...when I'm with you) by the Weeknd. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean--cocaine? They also invited their staff writers to come up with some alternatives, none of which I had ever heard, either the song or the performer.

I think the point is that the world of popular music is so fragmented that across-the-board success is mostly out of reach; a big success is to score in two or three of the various formats. Still, working off my daughter's observation that the "alternative" and "mix" formats seem to be converging, I have suggestions of my own:
--EW has a trend watch list of 10 hot things from any medium, or some such, each week.  ("The Must List", a name I find way too dank, but anyway--) The same week they announced OMI's "triumph", they mentioned in their list "Dreams", a single by Beck.  A bit late in the summer, maybe, but that song is a refreshing return by Hansen to the post-modern genre blend which brought him success in the '90's (a switch after the downer album which somehow won him the Best Album Grammy last year).
--"Ex's and O's" by Elle King, a saucy number about how her ex-boyfriends won't leave her alone after she's schooled them and left them.  I've heard it a lot on several different types of radio.
-- My nominee for the true song of the moment, though, is "The Long Way Down", by Robert DeLong.  It has an early Pet Shop Boys kind of sound--beats, synthesizer, multi-track vocals--and a similar kind of conflation of the political and romantic.  It's highly cynical, essentially saying to his romantic interest to stop trying to save the world and enjoy the slow ruination with him.  Not the message I would prefer, but at least he's saying something about something outside his immediate interests, even if only his disregard of them.
Finally, let's stipulate that "Hello", by Adele, would blow away any of these for universal popularity, but it just doesn't qualify on a chronological basis.  Adele's re-emergence with a new age-titled album, jumping from "21" to "25" (released this past weekend), with her current age actually 27, tells me that, while she's working very hard, it's getting hard to generate the same emotions out of her now more-settled lifestyle.  Like most everyone else, I admire her throwback talents, her highly-polished delivery, and I hope that she will eventually use, for a good purpose, the trust she has built up by dealing with her public with sincerity.

Books: Rock Memoirs
And then, on the other hand, there's Elvis Costello.  "Costello" (his assumed name) actually once released an album  called "Trust" (his fifth, a "transitional" album from his angry pop toward more thoughtful composition).  I now realize the title was a verb--in command form--rather than a noun, and the belief he commanded, and received, often obsessively, from his fans, was hardly reciprocated with sincerity on his part.   This seems to have been revealed, unabridged, in his new 700-page memoir (and accompanying 2-CD set, naturally), "Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink".

I haven't read it, won't buy it, but I've gotten the gist from his interview tour to help sell the product which is "this year's model" (another album, early, quite good).  From the reviews, it is extremely well-written, literate, self-deprecating, honest. It seems that all those popstar nasty young man hits produced in his early career were just a pose for commercial success, when what he really always wanted to be was a romantic lounge lizard, like Burt Bachrach (a longtime buddy and recent collaborator).  Or something similar, more like his old man, who was a successful singer in England's postwar period, or his wife Diana Krall, who sings moderately jazzy torch songs. One thing I've noted from his comments, with which I totally agree, is his fervent dissociation from the label "punk"--he was strong on musical skills, lyrical talent, high production value, and obfuscation, while, with a couple of exceptions, punk was the opposite of all that.

I am much more motivated to read, and especially to purchase, the memoirs of two different rock heroes of mine, Chrissie Hynde ("Reckless: My Life as a Pretender") and Carrie Brownstein of Slater-Kinney and the "Portlandia" TV show fame ("Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl").*

Lin-Manuel Miranda is already the toast of the town in New York for the show he created, "Hamilton", a rap musical about the life of our relatively unsung founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Miranda's talent and his show are now becoming too huge for even the Big Apple to contain; he has been featured in the past couple of weeks on "60 Minutes" and the "Tonight Show". His talent, which is musical theater, is remarkable and unique in its realization; his personality is generous, warm, and enthusiastic.  His show's concept is audacious, incredibly ambitious, and most amazingly, he has pulled it off with a success that has blitzed the city.

I don't know how long he will be willing to do it all:  direct and perform the show which he wrote and scored.  I hope I will have a chance to see it while it is still in its world-class form.  It's not impossible; at the current time, one just has to plan ahead a few months to get tickets from the box office.

Historically, even the greatest of societies are defined by a few magnificent creations, ones which express something essential of the time and place, and at the same time provide value for the generations, or centuries, that follow.  As we look at what the US has provided for human civilization during this period of its peak influence in the past century or so, clearly the marvels of science and technology stand out: things like electricity, electronics, the Internet, spaceflight, nuclear physics. These are things that will never be forgotten, as long as civilization as we know it continues.

Culturally and artistically, it is a tougher call.  I have a few films in mind, but will that entertainment mode survive in any form, or are today's film masterpieces the equivalent of the gramophone discs of 100 years past?  "Our" music (jazz/blues/rock) has been a gift to the world, one that the world has picked up and interpreted back to us.  That's a a thing of beauty but possibly only of the moment. We've had a few great books, but the Great American Novel remains an elusive target, maybe not even a real one.

The American theater is perhaps a limited artistic form in terms of size of audience, but it has retained its prestige, even if its relevance has sometimes waned (a surfeit of crowd-pleasing light musical entertainment, in my opinion).  There are a few American theater productions which have had outsized cultural significance--dramas like "Death of a Salesman", "A Streetcar Named Desire", and "Angels in America"; and, among all the musicals, I'd name "West Side Story".  And now, "Hamilton" has made a bid for this kind of immortality.

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