Category Archives: Performers

Bhad Bhabie arrives

 

In 2017 a Florida teenager went from a notorious segment on the Dr. Phil show to signing a major-label record deal as a rapper.

A September 2016 episode of the daytime talk show featured a segment called “I want to give up my car-stealing, knife-wielding, twerking 13-year-old daughter who tried to frame me for a crime!” with Danielle Bregoli and her exasperated mother. Soon after airing, a clip from the episode went viral on social media. In it Bregoli dared audience members to “cash me outside, howbowdah?” (catch me outside, how about that?) The phrase—part Florida, part Brooklyn, part misconceived black vernacular English—entered the pop culture lexicon.

Having achieved her 15 minutes of fame, Bregoli was written off by most as yet another fly-by-night social media star, but music executive Adam Kluger saw something more. A pioneer in dealmaking between artists and brands, he was known for negotiating deals where pop stars were paid for endorsing clothing, dating apps, porn sites, and psychic hotlines, through product placements and other sponsored content in song lyrics and music videos.

After a string of high-profile successes, Kluger became estranged from the music industry after a deal gone bad. Following an extended vacation, he plotted his return and his revenge: “I’m going to find something that’s just so obscure, and I’m going to make it popular…I’m going to pull every trick I’ve ever pulled with brands and make someone into a walking, talking brand to prove my worth.”

Setting his sights on Danielle Bregoli, a rap music career was chosen as the best avenue for a more lasting and more remunerative form of celebrity. With her proven talent for turning a memorable phrase and her passion for rap music, the Bhad Bhabie persona (pronounced “bad baby”) was born.

This according to “The big business of becoming Bhad Bhabie” by Jamie Lauren Keiles (The New York times magazine 8 July 2018, pp. 38 ff.).

Above and below, These heaux, Bregoli’s first single, which made her the youngest rapper to have a single debut on the Billboard Hot 100.

BONUS: The clip from Dr. Phil.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music

Meshell Ndegeocello, pushing boundaries

 

The complexity and range of Meshell Ndegeocello’s hip-hop works extend largely from her willingness to push boundaries—but in pushing sexual and gender boundaries, Ndegeocello declines to traffic in singular dimensions. Danyel Smith has described her as “an African American, woman, lesbian, musician, and mother” who thrives on “pondering the riddles that accompany all her selves.”

In Berry farms Ndegeocello addresses a female lover: “Can you love me without shame?” Giving way to the bass groove, she aggressively concludes: “Yeah, you like to mess around!” She goes on to suggest that her girlfriend prohibits them from sharing honest, enduring love for fear of public scorn because they are lesbians and because she desires the material things her “boy” can give her.

“You know how we like material things,” she observes, reminding us of the dominant perception that most black women effortlessly and willingly sacrifice substantive self-fulfillment for social approval and material gratification. The discursive modes of many of the tracks on Cookie: The anthropological mixtape strike an unambiguously combative chord with this perception by elaborating the tensions of same-sex female desire, fulfillment, and repression.

This according to “‘You sell your soul like you sell a piece of ass’: Rhythms of black female sexuality and subjectvity in Meshell Ndegeocello’s Cookie: The anthropological mixtape” by Nghana Lewis (Black music research journal XXVI/1 [spring 2006] pp. 111–30).

Today is Ndegeocello’s 50th birthday! Below, the song in question.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, film star

 

The legendary nāgasvaram player T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai performed in two films—once just in a cameo as himself, but once as the star!

In 1940 Rajarathnam Pillai appeared in Kalamegam, portraying the 15th-century Tamil poet Kavi Kalamegam. The film’s director, Ellis R. Dungan, recalled working with him:

“When Rajarathnam was sober, he was fine and took direction well with interest. But when he was lit, he could not be controlled and proved a nuisance and a pest on the set. Of course, when he became sober, he would apologize for his unruly conduct. People treated him like some kind of god because he was a big gun…I also found that he was very fond of women! But then who is not?”

The role required Rajarathnam Pillai to sing, which he did beautifully—but unfortunately his many fans only wanted to hear him play the nāgasvaram, and the film failed at the box office. No prints remain; only a handful of stills and recordings attest to Rajarathnam’s single appearance as a film star.

This according to “Foray into films” by Randor Guy (Sruti CLXXI [December 1998] pp. 39–42).

Today is Rajarathnam Pillai’s 120th birthday! Above and below, rare artefacts of the film.

BONUS: Rajarathnam Pillai plays the nāgasvaram!

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Filed under Asia, Performers

Carmontelle and Mozart

 

A resurgence of scholarly interest in Louis Carogis de Carmontelle has drawn attention to the diverse accomplishments of a neglected playwright, critic, inventor, and artist.

While serving as lecteur to Louis-Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, Carmontelle was responsible for the education of the Duke’s son; organized performances and other entertainments at the Duke’s château; wrote over 100 plays; designed landscape gardens; and created, among other drawings and watercolors, over 700 portraits of musicians.

These portraits offer a unique historical and cultural record of French society, musical practice, and taste in the 1760s and 1770s—including a portrait of the young Mozart performing at the harpsichord with his father and sister during their visit to Paris and Versailles from late 1763 to early 1764 (above; click to enlarge).

This according to “Carmontelle’s portraits of 18th-century musicians” by Mary Cyr (The musical times CLVIII/1941 [winter 2017] pp. 39–54).

Today is Carmontelle’s 301st birthday! Below, a silent film of his rouleau transparent depicting figures walking in a park, one of the many diversions he created for Louis-Philippe’s court.

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Filed under Iconography, Performers

Kathleen Battle and spirituals

 

One of Kathleen Battle’s signature achievements has been live and recorded performances of American spirituals. Her recital at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016—Underground railroad: A spiritual journey—was her first performance at the house in more than twenty years.

One of Battle’s best spiritual performances is her 1983 version of His eye is on the sparrow. She seems to be the songbird herself: sparrows really do seem to sing for no other reason than because they’re happy, and they turn their heads upward at the very last millisecond of a long bubbling trill. The rendition is a vivid display of her connection with the words of faith, certainty, and hope.

This according to “Dazzlingby Jennifer Melick (Opera news LXXXI/5 [November 2016] pp. 20–21).

Today is Battle’s 70th birthday! Above, the 2016 performance; below, the 1983 performance.

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Filed under Performers

The Marx Brothers at the opera

 

The Marx Brothers’ film A night at the opera is best known for its travesty of the high-society manners of the opera house and its sendup of Verdi’s Il trovatore. Underneath this farce, however, the film suggests deep affection for opera—a stance prompted, ironically, by the demands of the studio system.

The Hollywood movie is the heir and rival of opera as an entertainment medium, and both its follies and splendors are rooted in the immigrant experience of early–20th-century America.

This according to “The singing salami: Unsystematic reflections on the Marx Brothers” by Lawrence Kramer, an essay included in A night at the opera (London: Libbey, 1994 pp. 253–65).

Above and below, classic Marxian mayhem.

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Filed under Humor, Opera, Performers

The Rebirth Brass Band

In a city where music traditions are held sacred, the Rebirth Brass Band, anchored by leader Philip “Tuba Phil” Frazier alongside his brother, Keith “Bass Drum Shorty” Frazier, occupies a unique place in New Orleans culture.

Over the course of three decades, the group’s R&B and funk motifs have redefined the standard for brass band music without losing sight of the music’s heritage. Rebirth’s profound influence on brass band musicians endures during second line parades and jazz funerals, and in classrooms and rehearsal spaces citywide.

This according to “Rebirth Brass Band: Keep it goin’ like a heartbeat” by Jennifer Odell (DownBeat LXXXI/9 [September 2014] pp. 44–47).

Above and below, Rebirth in action.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Kate Bush arrives

 

Kate Bush appeared at a moment in the history of British rock in which a great deal of space for a singer like her had just opened up.

One of the victories won by female singers in the mid-1970s punk era was the opportunity to experiment with a wider range of vocal sounds. Bush, who gained popularity in post-punk England with a repertoire of unearthly shrieks and guttural whispers, took advantage of this space to convey a disturbing breadth of emotion. Yet her music was also a reaction against the one-dimensional angst and discord of punk, using melody and often frail vocals to create a surreal world of affect.

To Bush, the visual presentation of music cannot be divorced from the music itself, so it is not surprising that she was the first female pop star to combine her music with her classical and modern dance training. Her idea that the combination of music and movement allows the artist to express a more complex range of emotion has proved highly influential, having been translated—though in simplified form—into the work of current music video superstars.

This according to “Kate Bush: Enigmatic chanteuse as pop pioneer” by Holly Kruse (Soundscapes III [November 2000]).

Today is Kate Bush’s 60th birthday! Above, Bush with friends in 1985; below, Running up that hill, the most successful of her 1980s releases.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Leon Fleisher’s second act

In 1964, while preparing for a tour of the USSR, Leon Fleisher experienced the first signs of a problem. Two of the fingers of his right hand began to curl uncontrollably; within 10 months they were clenched in a fist. He was not in pain, and medical experts were baffled.

“I guess my fantasy was that with the same mystery with which it had appeared, it would disappear,” he said in a 2007 interview. His attempts to regain control of his fingers ran the gamut from A to Z, he said, “from aromatherapy to Zen Buddhism.” Meanwhile, he redirected his musical energies to performing the left-hand repertory, teaching, and conducting.

Finally, some 30 years later, a diagnosis of focal dystonia, a neurological disorder linked to repetitive tasks, led to an experimental treatment involving Botox injections.

His comeback catapulted him as a symbol of the human spirit and an inspiration to a broader public. Egon Petri’s transcription of Bach’s Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze) has become something of a signature piece, a staple of Fleisher’s solo programs. It is to his mind “the antiterror piece of our time.”

This according to “The pianist Leon Fleisher: A life-altering debility, reconsidered” by Holly Brubach (The New York times, 12 June 2007).

Today is Fleisher’s 90th birthday! Above, a photo by Eli Turner; below, the sublime Bach work.

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Filed under Performers, Science

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream

The critical reception of John Coltrane’s saxophonic scream—an incredibly high-pitched, raw, and intense explosion of timbre—demonstrates how our precognitive reaction to sonic timbres can invoke tropes of masculinity and race.

A perceptual/cognitive approach that focuses on the degree to which the listener identifies with the sound, citing recent research on the neurophysiology of audition, locates a biological reason for the phenomenon of musical empathy—the perception that in listening to a sound we also participate in it. Our participation, however, is culturally conditioned.

Coltrane’s saxophonic scream was variously interpreted by music critics as the sound of black masculine violence and rage or as a sign of the jazz icon’s spirituality, a transcendent sound. Music critics’ visceral, embodied interpretations of Coltrane’s saxophonic scream turned on their reactions to the birth of free jazz in the context of the U.S. civil rights movement.

This according to “Theorizing the saxophonic scream in free jazz improvisation” by Zachary Wallmark, an essay included in Negotiated moments: Improvisation, sound, and subjectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, pp. 233–44).

Below, Coltrane’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966.

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Filed under Curiosities, Jazz and blues, Performers, Reception