Category Archives: Popular music

Black Sabbath and Nietzsche

Black Sabbath draws upon gods who are older than Satan. Dionysus and Apollo, pagan gods from ancient Greece, were there with Black Sabbath at the birth of heavy metal.

Nietzsche wrote about the importance of the satyr chorus in ancient Greek tragedies. Wild, horny goat men, satyrs became the Christian model for Satan. Heavy metal iconography invites us to see past those satanic images to the lustful satyrs of long ago.

If Nietzsche had been a Black Sabbath fan he would have written lines like “What good is heavy metal that does not carry us beyond all heavy metal?”

This according to “Gods, drugs, and ghosts: Finding Dionysus and Apollo in Black Sabbath and the birth of heavy metal” by Dennis Knepp, an essay included in Black Sabbath & philosophy: Mastering reality (Malden: Blackwell, 2013, pp. 96–109). Above and below, the group’s Grammy Award-winning God is dead?

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Afro-sonic feminist funk

Since it emerged as a distinct genre in the late 1960s and early 1970s funk has played an important role in American music and culture, in its foregrounding of polyrhythmic interplay, improvisation, and community formation, and in addressing issues of discrimination and marginalization.

Recent scholarship has examined funk from a feminist perspective, highlighting female musicians’ participation in the creation of black feminist thought and in rejecting externally defined roles and identities. An expansion on these feminist approaches focuses on the particular ways that sound organization helps to address the gendered nature of funk performance and discourse; the concept of Afro-sonic feminist funk demonstrates how female musicians use the sonic and performative tenets of funk to complicate the gendered politics and discourses surrounding funk music.

This according to “Janelle Monáe and Afro-sonic feminist funk” by Matthew Valnes (Journal of popular music studies XXIX/3 [September 2017]).

Today is International Women’s Day! Above, Janelle Monáe’s Q.U.E.E.N.; below, her Tightrope. Both songs provide case studies in the article.

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Filed under Black studies, Popular music, Women's studies

Fats Domino and New Orleans

Antoine “Fats” Domino, the rhythm-and-blues singer whose two-fisted boogie-woogie piano and nonchalant vocals made him one of the biggest stars of the early rock ’n’ roll era, stopped touring in the early 1980s when he decided that he did not want to leave New Orleans; he said it was the only place where he liked the food.

Reclusive and notoriously resistant to interview requests, Domino even refused to leave New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, remaining at his flooded home until he was rescued by helicopter. “I wasn’t too nervous” he said later, “I had my little wine and a couple of beers with me.”

He was often seen around New Orleans, emerging from his pink-roofed mansion driving a pink Cadillac. “I just drink my little beers, do some cookin’, anything I feel like,” he said in 2007.

This according to “Fats Domino, early rock ’n’ roller with a boogie-woogie piano, is dead at 89” by Jon Pareles and William Grimes (The New York times 26 October 2017).

Today would have been Domino’s 90th birthday! Above, in 2013; below, performing in 1955.

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The Goree All-Girl String Band

The members of the Goree All-Girl String Band, all inmates in the Texas state prison system, used country music’s gender iconography in their struggle for greater autonomy and ultimately freedom in the 1930s and 1940s.

Their incarceration and past violations of the norms of feminine passivity and virtuousness placed them beyond the pale of country music’s prevailing image of valued femininity: the sentimental mother, who embodied home, domesticity, and a lost rural past. But through the alternative roles of dutiful daughter and cowboy’s sweetheart they performed their way to rehabilitation, both symbolically (as women who had returned to their proper place) and literally (as convicts who had served their time or gained clemency).

Though largely forgotten today, the Goree Girls’ popularity during their broadcasting years demonstrates that while country audiences may have venerated the sentimental mother, they also identified with and embraced women whose relationship to dominant gender ideals was fraught with complications.

This according to “As if they were going places: Class and gender portrayals through country music in the Texas State Prison, 1938–1944” by Caroline Gnagy, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 126–45).

Below, a selection from a musical based on the Goree Girls’ story; information on the 2017 production is here (scroll down). A film produced by Jennifer Aniston is reportedly in the planning stages; information on that topic is here.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Extreme metal in Iraq and Syria

Heavy metal music can be a means of artistic expression; it can also be an accessory of war. Making its first appearance in Iraq and Syria in the 1980s, it has functioned as an agency of power, endurance, anger, and abuse. Artists, fans, and the military of al-Mašriq have found that metal can be used for catharsis, rebellion, or torture.

The extreme metal subgenres of thrash metal, death metal, and black metal have become important components of the Iraqi and Syrian civil conflicts. In these contexts, metal music can be a source of empowerment for both civilians and the military; it can be the only stability that some draw from during the continual devastation to their communities, and in exceptional circumstances it can provide passage out of the region.

This according to “Resistants, stimulants, and weaponization: Extreme metal music and empowerment in the Iraqi and Syrian civil conflicts” by Sam Grant (Metal music studies III/2 [2017] pp. 175–200).

Above and below, the Kirkuk-based Dark Phantom, one of the groups discussed in the article.

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Allen Toussaint’s legacy

Ranking among America’s most influential and versatile musical figures, Allen Toussaint excelled as a songwriter, arranger, session pianist, and producer. His influence extends across the popular music landscape; though he is most often associated with the music of his native New Orleans, he enjoyed success in R&B, jazz, country, blues, and pop. His piano playing blended the wealth of Crescent City styles, barrelhouse blues, marching band references, jazzy intervals, and sweeping octave leaps.

By the late 1950s Toussaint was already cranking out hits and frequently doubling as keyboard player and/or producer. In the 1960s two of his instrumentals became huge pop standards—Java for Al Hirt and Whipped cream for Herb Alpert. Glen Campbell’s version of his Southern nights was nominated for the Country Music Association Song of the Year award in 1977, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.

This according to “Toussaint, Allen” by Ron Wynn (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] pp. 1005–396); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Toussaint’s 80th birthday! Above, receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2013; below, his classic Yes we can can.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Ruth Brown’s legacy

Ruth Brown’s recordings—including, just for starters, 5-10-15 hours, (Mama) He treats your daughter mean, and Oh what a dream—have come to define for generations of music lovers the epitome of 1950s-era R&B: elegant and swinging, yet with a sassy sexiness that proclaimed the freedom-seeking spirit of a new generation.

Generations of vocalists, extending into the present day, have cited her as a major musical role model. And they weren’t all women: Little Richard patterned his squeal on his hit Lucille after Brown’s squeal on (Mama) He treats your daughter mean three years earlier.

This according to “Ruth Brown” by David Whiteis (Living blues XXXVII/1:188 [February 2007] pp. 69–71).

Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2005; below, Little Richard’s muse in 1955.

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Tweede Nuwe Jaar in Cape Town

Each January, Cape Town’s sixty-plus minstrel troupes take over the city center with a sweeping wave of sound and color in the annual carnival known as Tweede Nuwe Jaar (the Second of New Year). The celebration’s origins are often linked with the December 1st emancipation processions of the mid-to-late 1800s that celebrated the abolition of slavery in 1834, and also with the annual slave holiday, the one day a year slaves could take off work.

The parading troupes, called Kaapse Klopse (Clubs of the Cape), use their bodies to collectively lay claim to Cape Town and access urban space through sonic and embodied performances, re-appropriating city space in relation to the black community’s colonial and apartheid experiences of dispossession, forced removals, and social dislocation.

Despite the increased formal recognition that the event has received in recent years as an important heritage practice, participants’ embodied claims continue to be undermined, contested, and policed. Through their affective experiences, participants memorialize places of significance and occupy the city; far from a form of escapist revelry, these sonic and embodied acts are practiced and disciplined choreographic moves that pose a challenge to Cape Town’s contemporary spatial order.

This according to “Choreographing Cape Town through goema music and dance” by Francesca Inglese (African music IX/4 [2014] pp. 123–45). Below, Kaapse Klopse in 2013.

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Filed under Africa, Black studies, Dance, Popular music

Studies in the Grateful Dead

In 2017 the University of California Press launched Studies in the Grateful Dead to explore the achievement, impact, and significance of one of the most iconic American rock bands, the Grateful Dead. The series presents original monographs and edited anthologies by experts representing a range of disciplinary perspectives and fields that highlight the complexity, power, and enduring appeal of this protean, compelling musical and cultural phenomenon.

The inaugural volume, Listening for the secret: The Grateful Dead and the politics of improvisation by Ulf Olsson, is a critical assessment of the Grateful Dead and the distinct culture that grew out of the group’s music, politics, and performance. With roots in popular music traditions, improvisation, and the avant-garde, the group provides a unique lens through which we can better understand the meaning and creation of the counterculture community.

Below, a performance from 1974 that has been cited for its outstanding group improvisations (beginning just before the five-minute mark).

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Air guitar and Asian fury

Competitive air guitarists have long understood that their art form provides an ideal means for contesting the overwhelming whiteness of rock and the electric guitar, sometimes extending their critique to include gender as well.

Asian and Asian American competitors in particular have used their performances to comment ironically on the emasculation of Asian males and the infantilization of Asian females through the construct of Asian fury, helping audiences to reimagine the linkages between race and rock.

This according to “Asian fury: A tale of race, rock, and air guitar” by Sydney Hutchinson (Ethnomusicology LX/3 [fall 2016] pp. 411–33).

Above and below, David “C-Diddy” Jung, winner of the first U.S. national air guitar championship and perhaps the originator of the term Asian fury as it applies to air guitar; the video shows his award-winning performance in 2003.

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