Category Archives: Popular music

Kurt Cobain’s idealism

MTV Unplugged: Nirvana

While Kurt Cobain openly disdained certain elements of his audience, he liked the idea of bending their minds to his left-leaning convictions.

“I wanted to fool people at first” he said in an interview. “I wanted people to think that we were no different than Guns n’ Roses. Because that way they would listen to the music first, accept us, and then maybe start listening to a few things that we had to say.” When he began letting loose with carefully aimed condemnations of racism, sexism, and homophobia, he was pleased to discover that high schools had become divided between Nirvana kids and Guns n’ Roses kids.

This according to “Generation exit” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker 25 April 1994, pp. 102–06).

Today would have been Cobain’s 50th birthday! Below, performing in 1992.

Leave a comment

Filed under Popular music

The Rutles and rock mockumentaries

 

the-rutles

Rock mockumentaries like The Rutles: All you need is cash lampoon the notion of high art and satirize the image of the solitary, suffering genius in an attempt to recuperate the carnivalesque heart of the music.

All you need is cash offers a complex and subtle relationship to the documentary tradition and the history of rock and roll. Its target is not simply The Beatles themselves, but the mythology that surrounded them and that they alternately promoted and assaulted. The film also targets the solemn documentary and critical tradition that upholds the mythology.

While the mythology needs to be challenged and the kings dethroned, the parodic elements of the carnival also affirm and create. Rock and roll documentaries need their uncanny doubles: Mockumentaries remind us of the music’s power, and remind us that behind any domesticated narrative we find a potentially transgressive force—one that is, in this case, unleashed through laughter.

This according to “The circus is in town: Rock mockumentaries and the carnivalesque” by Jeffrey Roessner, an essay included in The music documentary: Acid rock to electropop (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 159–70).

Above and below, The Rutles in their heyday.

Leave a comment

Filed under Humor, Popular music

Eubie Blake’s second act

Eubie Blake F26

eubieblakeEubie Blake enjoyed a rewarding career in the 1910s and 1920s with his lifelong friend and lyricist Noble Sissle, both as the duo Sissle and Blake, the most successful black act of their time, and as songwriters for landmark musicals—most notably Shuffle along (1921), which included their most enduring number, I’m just wild about Harry.

Blake continued to compose songs for revues through the 1930s and 1940s, although none of his ventures reached the level of success that he experienced in the 1920s. But the ragtime revival of the 1950s kindled new interest in his talents, and he began playing and composing ragtime pieces.

In 1969 Columbia issued a two-LP set, The 86 years of Eubie Blake, featuring both his ragtime and his show music (along with a reunion with Sissle), which helped to renew interest in his work. During the last decades of his life Blake had his own record label, and his songs returned to Broadway in the anthology revue Eubie! (1978), which ran for 439 performances. The show’s namesake attended several times and performed a few songs on opening night.

This according to “Eubie Blake” by David A. Jasen, an article in Tin Pan Alley: An encyclopedia of the golden age of American song (New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 47–48); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Blake’s 130th birthday! Below, performing in 1972.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Osibisa and the British melting pot

osibisa

During the 1950s and early 1960s, as the British economy recovered from World War II, increasing numbers of people from the Caribbean came to work in Britain. At the same time, many West Africans came to Britain to study.

Musicians from both diasporas played with each other in predominantly white bands and in sessions for Melodisc, a recording company that released material appealing to West African and Afro-Caribbean audiences, and soon they began forming groups based on their own common musical features. By the early 1970s Osibisa, which included both West African and West Indian members, had become a mainstream success.

This according to “Melting pot: The making of black British music in the 1950s and 1960s” by Jon Stratton, an essay included in Black popular music in Britain since 1945 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014, pp. 27–45).

Below, performing in 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Black studies, Popular music

Stan Getz and bossa nova

stan_getz_joao_gilberto

Stan Getz was already a successful jazz saxophone player when, in 1962, Charlie Byrd’s search for a horn with a human voice prompted him to record Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Desafinado.

The recording was such a surprise hit that Getz decided to pursue Brazilian music further, particularly examples of the new bossa nova genre. His subsequent recording of Jobim’s Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) became his biggest success, spearheading a brief but notable enthusiasm for Brazilian styles among international audiences. Getz’s breathy, smooth sound and the delicate floating effect that he created proved widely popular beyond the jazz world.

This according to “Getz, Stan” by Jeff Kaliss (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 247); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Getz’s 90th birthday! Above, with João Gilberto in the early 1960s; below, his signature numbers in 1983.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Jobim’s legacy

jobim

No other Brazilian musician has had as profound an impact on popular music as Antônio Carlos Jobim. He was at the vanguard of the Música Popular Brasileira movement, a cultural and sociological revolution of artists who shared a proclivity for flouting musical convention, and his 1959 Chega de saudade was fundamental in establishing the genre that became known as bossa nova.

While Jobim’s compositions contained elements of traditional Brazilian samba as well as classical and traditional music, his sophisticated harmonic sensibilities, adventurous approach to voice leading, and passion for tinkering with the traditional syntax and imagery of pop lyrics made him one of the most original and innovative musicians of his time.

This according to “Jobim, Antonio Carlos” by Jim Allen (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 489); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Jobim’s 90th birthday! Below, singing his celebrated Águas de Março with Elis Regina, perhaps his greatest interpreter.

BONUS: Gal Costa sings Jobim’s Chega de saudade, often cited as the first bossa nova song.

1 Comment

Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Popular music

Haiti’s celebrity president

michael-martelly

With his country descending into its worst political crisis since the 2004 coup d’etat, and thousands of people demanding his resignation in the streets, in early 2016 Haiti’s outgoing president, Michel Martelly, went back to basics: He released a new song insulting and taunting in crude and sexualized terms a female journalist known to be critical of him.

Before becoming head of state in 2011, Martelly was a pop star known as Sweet Micky who performed Haitian compas (kompa direk). Micky was famous for saying or doing anything to get a reaction, and his genius was combining the image of the rock rebel with the anything-goes, upside-down spirit of kanaval, the Haitian equivalent of Mardi Gras—for example, one can find video footage of Haiti’s president performing in a halter top and miniskirt.

Bringing a similar strategy to his presidential run, he was the anti-politician who openly insulted competitors, critics, and the media. Before his election Martelly’s supporters argued that, because he was already so rich and famous, their candidate couldn’t be bribed or bought. The competition dismissed Martelly’s candidacy as a joke, at first, and the press did too, all the while giving him blanket coverage.

With support by foreign investors and the backing of the U.S., Martelly won a surprise victory. But after five years of stalled and canceled elections, rising insecurity and poverty, political violence, and accusations of corruption, Sweet Micky’s novelty wore off—and in his last weeks in power any vestiges of presidential restraint also wore off, as evidenced by the song referenced above. It may turn out that Haiti was, as it has been so many times, ahead of the historical curve, anticipating the rise of other populist celebrity political figures worldwide.

This according to “What happens when a celebrity becomes president” by Jonathan Katz (The Atlantic monthly 9 February 2016).

Above, Martelly dancing at a presentation ceremony; below, the song in question.

BONUS: Sweet Mickey performs in drag.

Leave a comment

Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Eartha Kitt and feline metaphors

eartha-kitt

From practically the beginning, critics gushed over Eartha Kitt with every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or was “like catnip”, she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws”, and her career was often said to have had “nine lives”.

eartha_kitt_catwoman_batman_1967
Appropriately, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series Batman, bringing feral, compact energy to the role (insert, click to enlarge).

Throughout her six-decade career Kitt remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit, maintaining her voice and figure through a vigorous fitness regimen. Even after learning that she had cancer, she triumphantly opened the newly renovated Café Carlyle in September 2007; The New York times reviewer wrote that Ms. Kitt’s voice was “in full growl”.

This according to “Eartha Kitt, a seducer of audiences, dies at 81” by Rob Hoerburger (The New York times CLVIII/54,536 [26 December 2008] p. 37).

Today would have been Kitt’s 90th birthday! Below, in one of her signature songs, purring in French (one of the seven languages that she sang in).

Leave a comment

Filed under Animals, Performers, Popular music

The Golden Shower Waltz

emile-waldteufel

Émile Waldteufel (1837–1915) served as pianist to Empress Eugénie and was renowned as a composer of elegant polkas, waltzes, and other occasional pieces. His Pluie d’or valse (Golden shower waltz, op. 160) is one of several of his works that won acclaim beyond the court of Napoleon III.

Further information on Waldteufel and his family can be found in Skaters’ waltz: The story of the Waldteufels by Andrew Lamb (Croydon: Fullers Wood Press, 1995).

Below, a vintage recording.

#GoldenShowers

Leave a comment

January 11, 2017 · 1:32 pm

David Bowie and Japanese style

david-bowie-1973

Japanese fashion, theater, and music played significant roles in David Bowie’s pioneering career.

The Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto devised some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, and in the 1960s the singer studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a UK performance artist who was influenced by kabuki theater with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes and makeup, and onnagata actors—men playing female roles.

This training with Kemp inspired Bowie as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism, and alienation. The inspiration extended to the musical realm as well: on Moss garden from Heroes (1977) Bowie plays a Japanese koto; It’s no game (no. 1) from Scary monsters (and super creeps) (1980) features Japanese vocals; and the instrumental B-side Crystal Japan (1980) was released as a single in Japan and featured in a sake commercial.

This according to “David Bowie’s love affair with Japanese style” by Tessa Wong, Anna Jones, and Yuko Kato (BBC news 12 January 2016).

Today would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday! Above, Bowie models a Yamamoto design in 1973; below, It’s no game (no. 1).

BONUS: That sake ad.

Leave a comment

Filed under Performers, Popular music