Category Archives: Popular music

T-Pain and “Can’t believe it”

T-Pain’s Can’t believe it music video resonates with the ways that black bodies are represented as inhuman, superhuman, and subhuman in visual media, enacting strategic resistance to these discursive formations.

T-Pain’s transformation of Auto-Tune into a subversive technology represents the radical black imagination, and signifiers in the video deploy constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality as they relate to notions of blackness. The semiotics of T-Pain’s trademark sound raise questions about what is at stake in the music through the generative force of sonic propulsion and the simultaneously old and novel articulation of a freedom drive propelling black performance.

This according to “Crossing cinematic and sonic bar lines: T-Pain’s Can’t believe it”by James Gordon Williams (Ethnomusicology review XIX [fall 2004] pp. 49–76). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, the video in question.

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Leonard Chess takes over

Leonard Chess is widely known as the co-founder of Chess Records and as a producer who was tremendously influential in the development of popular music; fewer people know that for one recording session he took over the drum set.

When Muddy Waters and his sidemen were recording for him on 11 July 1951, Waters later recalled, “my drummer couldn’t get the beat on She moves me. The verse was too long.”

“You know, it says…‘She shook her finger in a blind man’s face, he say Once I was blind but now I see/She moves me, man…’ My drummer wanted to play a turnaround there; I had to go another six or eight bars to get it turned around…he couldn’t hold it there to save his damn life.”

With characteristic brusqueness, Chess dismissed the drummer and sat down at the set himself, providing a foursquare thump on the bass drum, two beats to the bar without any frills. In effect, he solved the problem of timing the turnaround by ignoring it.

This according to The story of Chess Records by John Colis (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 1999, pp. 56–57).

Today would have been Leonard Chess’s 100th birthday! Above, Chess around 1970; below, the recording in question.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Popular music

Harry Belafonte and social activism

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In a 2001 interview, Harry Belafonte discussed the relationships between his career choices and social activism.

“I wanted to use some cunning and find a way to introduce an art form into an environment that was extremely limited—to be able to make a social and political statement to listeners without them suspecting it.”

“There was a conscious awareness of how hostile the environment was, and how clever you’d have to be to outsmart the predator. So there was selection and choice. But there was never compromise in the content. The fact is that I didn’t sing a lot of protest songs back then because most of that material had been written or covered by others, and because I saw another way to move my image and my cause through the ranks of the human family.”

“I think that black culture commands a global audience because of the sheer power of it, the beauty of it—it is hard to dismiss. And because it brings so much delight, it can easily be embraced. The physical presence of black people, however, is something else: it reflects a history of oppression that white people don’t want to deal with, not because they wouldn’t like to see the oppression go away, but they don’t want to pay the price for it to be gone.”

“Black people are going to have to understand that the issue here is more than race. We are the souls, we are the people that must save the soul of this nation.”

Quoted in “Remains of the day-o: A conversation with Harry Belafonte” by Michael Eldridge (Transition XII/92 [2002] pp. 110–137; reprinted in Da Capo best music writing 2004 [Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004] pp. 68–92).

Today is Belafonte’s 90th birthday! Above, with Martin Luther King, Jr.; below, performing in 1997.

Related article: Mr. Belafonte and Dr. King

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Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

Mildred Bailey’s Native American roots

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Despite living in a racially stratified 1930s U.S., Mildred Bailey never sought to hide the fact that she was born into the Coeur d’Alene tribe of Idaho. Rather, it was a source of personal pride that she readily shared with her associates.

Cast within a jazz narrative that left no room for Native Americans, the public image of Bailey as a “white” jazz singer mattered for many reasons—not least, because she exerted considerable influence within the jazz and pop world, pioneering the vocal swing style that countless singers sought to emulate.

Bailey pointed to the Coeur d’Alene songs of her youth as a major factor in shaping her style:

“I don’t know whether this music compares with jazz or the classics, but I do know that it offers a young singer a remarkable background and training. It takes a squeaky soprano and straightens out the clinkers that made it squeak; it removes the boom from the contralto voice, this Indian singing does, because you have to sing a lot of notes to get by, and you’ve got to cover an awful range.”

This according to “American Indian jazz: Mildred Bailey and the origins of America’s most musical art form” by Chad Hamill, an essay included in Indigenous pop: Native American music from jazz to hip hop (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2016, pp. 33–46).

Today is Bailey’s 110th birthday! Below, Thanks for the memory from 1938.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Stan Getz and bossa nova

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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.

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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.

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