Tag Archives: Popular music

Jason Mraz, avocado farmer

When Jason Mraz bought a 5½-acre ranch northeast of San Diego in 2004, he thought it would be “a place to be isolated when you have a crazy life.” The densely packed property is planted mostly with avocados, along with Meyer lemons, pomegranates, guavas, and mangoes.

In his early performing days Mraz had regularly subsisted on fast food, soda, and cigarettes, but as he began to tour he realized that a better regimen was essential to maintaining his health, and in 2008 “we decided to bring a chef out on tour with us for 30 days and go vegetarian and raw to see what would happen. And I mean, a dramatic transformation. Not just in weight loss, but in overall health and energy.”

Mraz became a dedicated locavore, and an avid cultivator and consumer of his avocados and other crops. “The first time I was served a big chunk of avocado on my salad, I didn’t know what to do with it. Now I’m among them all the time, experimenting with them, making meals and adding spices and whatnot. You know, your palate evolves.”

This according to “The accidental avocado farmer” by Jim Romanoff (Eating well XIV/1 [January–February 2015] pp. 88–94).

Today is Mraz’s 40th birthday! Below, performing Back to the earth at his avocado ranch.

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Filed under Food, Performers, Popular music

Why ladies love country boys

The emergence of a strikingly cohesive set of gender narratives on country radio in the late 2000s and early 2010s can be linked to the impact of globalization and economic crisis during those years.

In redneck-blueblood anthems, the country boy wins over the wealthy, cosmopolitan woman despite her material success and his limited economic and social prospects. This popular narrative extends the long-standing tradition in which down-home country masculinity is defined partly through its relationship to the character of the upwardly mobile woman who has moved from working-class to middle- or upper-class status.

Whereas some critics view country culture as articulating a form of working-class male abjection or degradation, the redneck-blueblood songs provide a narrative of success that directly reclaims the value of working-class masculinity. This narrative resonates with audiences confronting intensely threatening economic and social dislocation in the global economy.

This according to “Why ladies love country boys: Gender, class, and economics in contemporary country music” by Jocelyn R. Neal, an essay included in Country boys and redneck women: New essays in gender and country music (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016, pp. 3–25).

Above, a screen shot from Trace Adkins’s Ladies love country boys; below, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood’s Remind me. Both songs serve as case studies in the article.

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Kanye West’s influential departure

808s & heartbreak was a jarring departure from Kanye West’s previous work, and, although its initial reception was mixed at best, it has proven to be the most influential album of his career both as a performer and a producer.

Written and recorded in haste on the heels of his mother’s death and a breakup with his fiancée, 808s features chilly synth textures, brittle drum machines, and West’s blatantly auto-tuned singing throughout. With the help of T-Pain, who, ironically, had come to be mocked for his extensive use of auto-tune, the album made the pitch-correction technology relevant again.

Another unexpected source of inspiration was found in Phil Collins—both in terms of his vocal style and the gated reverb drum sound that he invented in the 1980s. Trapping and snuffing out overtones with a signal processor, the noise gate made the programmed beats of the iconic Roland TR-808 drum machine sound both vivid and lifeless.

The album’s distinctive sound has since filtered into contemporary hip hop and R&B, and the only thing more influential than its sound is its tone: bitter, confused, self-pitying, defensive, and accusatory. 808s & heartbreak made sullen solitude fashionable, with many a male R&B star now presenting himself as a misunderstood antihero, reenacting the public breakdown that West staged without a net.

This according to “The coldest story ever told: The influence of Kanye West’s 808s & heartbreak” by Jayson Greene (Pitchfork 22 September 2015).

Today is West’s 40th birthday! Above, performing Love lockdown, the album’s lead single; below, the full album.

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The Hormel Girls

In 1946 the Hormel company created a unique organization to employ World War II veterans as musicians to market food products.

Over a seven-year period the Hormel Girls, a drum-and-bugle corps, conducted door-to-door sales, worked with local retailers in cities and towns across America, formed a professional orchestra and a choir to enhance their stage shows, and produced a weekly national radio broadcast.

This was possibly the most successful musical-marketing strategy in the history of partnerships between music and industry. The women received outstanding pay and benefits, the company doubled its profits during the group’s existence, and the performers were professional-level musicians on a par with members of other professional ensembles of the era.

This according to “The Hormel Girls” by ­Jill M. Sullivan and Danielle D. Keck (American music XXV/3 [fall 2007] pp. 282–311). Top, the group ca. 1947; center, in 1952. Below, Elisa Korenne’s Hormel Girls, illustrated with vintage photographs.

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

HipHop Academy Hamburg

HipHop Academy Hamburg’s rappers, dancers, and beatboxers use hip hop as a platform of integration, shaping feelings of belonging and perceptions of dual identities.

The Academy’s 2013 production DISTORTION examined migrant descendants’ places in Germany and provoked audiences to contemplate the new faces of the nation. This symbiosis of hip-hop and contemporary dance performed macro- and micro-political integration, illuminating how the boundaries of German national identity are disrupted by the presence of interculturality.

This according to “Ich fühle mich Deutsche: Migrant descendants’ performance of integration through the Hamburg HipHop Academy” by Emily Joy Rothchild, an essay included in Transglobal sounds: Music, youth and migration (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, pp. 155–76).

Above and below, excerpts from DISTORTION.

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Filed under Black studies, Curiosities, Dance, Pedagogy, Popular music

Helen May Butler, American bandleader

Helen May Butler’s career provides a welcome counternarrative to the men’s professional bands—such as John Philip Sousa’s—that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Butler had the professional and musical clout to attract the top female talent needed to form a first-rate professional ensemble. Her Ladies’ Military Band rose to prominence during a time when being a professional woman required sacrifice, in terms of both family life and customary female identity. Butler’s perseverance and tenacity in creating an accomplished ensemble of women in a male-dominated field is an important and inspirational addition to the history of both U.S. concert bands and the women’s movement of her time.

This according to “Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band: Being professional during the golden age of bands” by Brian D. Meyers, an essay included in Women’s bands in America: Performing music and gender (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, pp. 15–49).

Today is Butler’s 150th birthday! Below, an undated photograph of her Ladies’ Brass Band, which toured between 1901 and 1912 (click to enlarge).

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Benga and Luo traditions

Benga, a Kenyan dance music, first emerged within the Luo community during the late 1960s. The genre has provided many Kenyans with a malleable platform that connects with the traditional ethnic poetic and musical sensibilities that have been resilient in both rural and urban Luo life.

Despite criticism that it was unpolished and parochial, benga’s development shows a clear movement towards sophistication and compositional experimentation. Ultimately benga musicians succeeded in creating a style distinct from its regional counterparts using traditional Luo melodic rhythmic structures and accompaniment cycles.

This according to “Continuities and innovation in Luo song style: Creating the benga beat in Kenya 1960 to 1995” by Ian Eagleson (African music IX/4 [2014] pp. 91–122).

Above and below, Okatch Biggy, a pioneer of 1990s benga.

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Filed under Africa, Performers, Popular music

Iggy Pop and John Coltrane

In an interview, Iggy Pop described the influence of John Coltrane’s music on his career.

“The first time I heard Coltrane the cut was A love supreme, and that’s an extremely simple three-note bass line that repeats without variance throughout the duration of a very long piece.”

“I was a novice unfamiliar with that sort of jazz, and I heard him run through the gamut of emotions on his horn, from tender to angry to bluesy to just…insane, to where it actually sounded offensive to me—until later.”

“I liked the way he was dancing over, above, under, within, and without this rock solid motif that didn’t change, and that three-note motif established a trance world where he could do all those things. It seemed timely, spiritual, and earthy all at the same time.”

“What I heard John Coltrane do with his horn I tried to do physically.”

Quoted in “Iggy Pop” by Kristine McKenna, in Talk to her: Interviews (Seattle, Fantagraphics, 2004, pp. 174–82).

Today is Iggy Pop’s 70th birthday! Below, live in 1986.

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Liz Phair and “Exile in Guyville”

Although Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was celebrated as one of 1993’s top records by Spin and the New York times, to some it was an abomination: a mockery of The Rolling Stones’s most revered album, Exile on Main Street, and a rare glimpse into the psyche of a shrewd, independent, strong young woman. For these crimes she was run out of her hometown of Chicago, enduring a flame war perpetrated by writers who accused her of being boring, inauthentic, and even a poor musician.

With Exile in Guyville, Phair spoke for all the young women who loved the world of indie rock but felt deeply unwelcome there. Like all great works of art, Exile was a harbinger of the shape of things to come: Phair may have undermined the male ego, but she also unleashed a new female one.

This according to Exile in Guyville by Gina Arnold (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Today is Liz Phair’s 50th birthday! Above, a screenshot from the official video for Never said, the album’s major airplay hit; below, the full video.

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Merle Haggard lived it

Merle Haggard’s best songs are powerful vignettes portraying damaged souls who manage to summon the inner strength to resist life’s worst onslaughts. That Haggard himself lived through many of the traumas he sang about is evident from his music, giving it a rare emotional quality.

Born near Bakersfield, California, to a family of Oklahomans who had just made the westward trek, Haggard’s early childhood home was a converted boxcar. His father died of a stroke when Merle was 9. Many of his songs recall the troubles of those early years.

Haggard quit school in the eighth grade and hopped on a freight train when he was 14, roaming the Southwest for several years and filling the void left by his father’s death with a life of petty crime and time in reform schools. This was also when he began dabbling in music. At 20, Haggard—now an alcoholic, married, and a father—attempted to break into a restaurant. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in San Quentin.

Paroled in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield and, while digging ditches for his brother, began performing country music on the side. He scored a regional hit in 1963, landing him his first major record contract. In 1966 he topped the country charts for the first of what would be many times.

This according to “Merle Haggard” by Greg Bower (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 269); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Haggard’s 80th birthday! Above, the singer-songwriter in 1967; below, performing the semi-autobiographical Mama tried.

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