Tag Archives: Popular music

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and “I put a spell on you”

 

Selected as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, “I put a spell on you”—written, composed, and performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—proved to make him one of the early pioneers of both goth rock and shock rock.

Hawkins originally intended the song to be a relatively innocuous love ballad, but, as he recalled in an interview, the recording producer “brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk, and we came out with this weird version…Before, I was just a normal blues singer; I was just Jay Hawkins. It all sort of just fell in place. I found out I could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death.”

Quoted in Contemporary musicians. VIII: Profiles of the people in music (Detroit: Gale, 1993, p. 117).

Today would have been Hawkins’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 1979; below, the original 1956 recording.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music

Martyrdom and Mapuche metal

 

Seventeen-year-old Alex Lemún was shot and killed in 2002 while retaking ancestral lands for his people, the Mapuche, on the western side of the Andes in the Southern Cone. The song Weichafe Alex Lemún by the band Pewmayén memorialized Lemún as a weichafe (warrior) and helped spark a new musical movement.

Pewmayén’s fusion of ritual sounds with heavy metal both valorized traditional expressions and opened sociocultural boundaries that historically isolated those expressions from non-Mapuche society. Mapuche music is mapping new territories of sound and meaning, with serious implications for indigenous empowerment and cultural continuity.

This according to “Martyrdom and Mapuche metal: Defying cultural and territorial reductions in twenty–first-century Wallmapu” by Jacob Rekedal (Ethnomusicology LXIII/1 [winter 2019] pp. 78–104).

Above, the cover of Mapuche en la historia y en la lucha (Mapuche in history and in struggle), the album containing Weichafe Alex Lemún; below, the music video.

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Filed under Politics, Popular music, South America

Forró and St. John’s Day

 

The date on the Catholic calendar commemorating the birth of St. John the Baptist, 24 June, is widely celebrated in northeastern Brazil. Festas juninas (June festivities, or St. John’s Day festivities) take place from early June to mid-July and are characterized by the presentation and representation of diverse cultural traditions of the region.

Forró, the typical music of this period, brings together diverse musical genres, dances, and a strong festive connotation. Although forró musicians born before the mid-1970s acquired their musical competence outside of formal educational institutions, large segments of the younger generation attend schools of music (though not necessary in lieu of other learning strategies). Meanwhile, changes in the organization of professional forró activities are linked to the larger transformations of northeastern festas juninas since the late 20th century.

This according to “Musicians in street festivals of northeastern Brazil: Recent changes in forró music and St. John’s Day festivities” by Carlos Sandroni, et al. (The world of music V/1 [2016] pp. 159–79).

Happy St. John’s Day! Above and below, forró as festa junina street dance.

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Filed under Dance, Popular music, South America

The refugee as epic hero

 

K’naan’s 2005 debut album, The dusty foot philosopher, can be viewed as a modern-day epic poem that draws on his experiences in Canada’s Somali refugee community.

The album employs many classic epic tropes—including the sea voyage, the exile, the battle with adversaries, the mystical qualities of the heroic figure—and adapts them to the conventions of hip hop culture. Just as the epic poem embodies the core values of the society from which it originates, so The dusty foot philosopher functions as a paradigm of the experiences and challenges of the refugee, one of globalization’s defining figures.

This according to “The survivor’s odyssey: K’naan’s The dusty foot philosopher as a modern epic” by Ana Sobral (African American review XLVI/1 [spring 2013] pp. 21–36).

Today is World Refugee Day! Above and below, the video for Strugglin’, a song from the album.

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Filed under Literature, Politics, Popular music

Captain Beefheart’s “Trout mask replica”

 

The release on 16 June 1969 of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Trout mask replica, a double album comprising 28 stream-of-consciousness songs filled with abstract rhythms and guttural bellows, dramatically altered the pop landscape.

Yet even if the album cast its radical vision over the future of music, much of its artistic strength is actually drawn from the past. Beefheart’s incomparable opus, an album that divided (rather than united) a pop audience, is informed by a variety of diverse sources. Trout mask replica is a hybrid of poetic declarations inspired by both Walt Whitman and the beat poets, the field hollers of the Delta Blues, the urban blues of Howlin’ Wolf, the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman.

The album was not so much an arcane specimen of the avant-garde, but rather a defiantly original declaration of the American imagination.

This according to Trout mask replica by Kevin Courrier (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Today is the 50th anniversary of Trout mask replica’s release! Below, a lively and informative introduction to the album.

BONUS: A detailed analysis of Frownland, the album’s first track:

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Popular music

Kwaito’s promise

 

In the mid-1990s South African apartheid ended, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of dance music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. Kwaito developed alongside the democratization of South Africa, a powerful cultural phenomenon that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.

Politicians and cultural critics criticize kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction, but these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Artists and fans aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito, but are using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that music is always political, kwaito thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.

This according to Kwaito’s promise: Music and the aesthetics of freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Above and below, Boom Shaka, whose It’s about time (1993) is widely regarded as the first kwaito hit.

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Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music

Riot grrrl and feminism

 

Notoriously difficult to categorize as both a genre of music and as a social movement, riot grrrl has come to be acknowledged as one of the most significant crossovers between politics and sound: feminism as music, music as feminism.

Riot grrrl embraced and propagated feminism through its music, lyrics, performances, zines, and everyday activities. It complicated the notion of gender-based aesthetics in both music and in fashion, demanding attention and pointing out the hypocrisies present in our social norms. In addition, the music and movement worked to expose the social and personal concerns of girls that were habitually excluded from the mainstream,  including sexual abuse, anorexia, and body image.

Through its incorporation of feminism, riot grrrl attempted to give a voice to girls, allowing for a self-representation that had never been accessible before. Yet their efforts at reappropriation also led to some alarming contradictions in their feminism. Riot grrrl’s use of irony and reworking of traditional gender roles and mores in some cases actually acted to reinforce those culturally sexist ideas of women. These complications deepened the political and social implications of a group of women trying to re-size control over how gender played out in our cultural landscape.

This according to “I predict a riot: Riot grrrls and the contradictions of feminism” by Shayna Maskell, an essay included in The Routledge history of social protest in popular music (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 184–97).

Above and below, the pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill in the early 1990s.

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Filed under Curiosities, Popular music, Women's studies

Drink, song, and disorder

 

“For a simple urban boy like me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell.”

Thus declared the government minister Kim Howells during a debate in the British Parliament, as he responded to arguments predicting a decrease in musicians’ employment opportunities as a result of his plan to make all performances of music on premises where alcohol was sold subject to licensing by agencies of the State.

The plan that Howells introduced came to fruition in the form of the Licensing Act 2003. While this Act was presented by its proponents as a modernizing piece of legislation, it can be placed in a long history of British attempts to rein in the unruly side of music making, alcohol consumption, and the conjunction of the two—a history that has been marked by regulation in the name of public order and moral improvement.

This according to “Drink, song and disorder: The sorry saga of the Licensing Act 2003” by Dave Laing (Popular music XXXV/2 [May 2016] pp. 265–69).

Above and below, The Wurzels—three Somerset folk singers whose song I am a cider drinker was a number three hit in Britain in 1976.

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Filed under Humor, Politics, Popular music

Maldita Vecindad and activism

 

La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (usually referred to as Maldita Vecindad, or La Maldita, for short) produces music that is frequently categorized as fusion, due to its blending of rock, ska, reggae, and punk with traditional Mexican styles like danzón and bolero.

Deeply rooted in the working class, Maldita Vecindad is a pioneer of the rock en español movement, and its easily recognizable fusion rock—as well as the pachuco fashions favored by the members—have helped it to become one of the most influential groups of contemporary Mexican rock music.

From the group’s beginnings in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, Maldita Vecindad’s members have drawn on their fame to make their fans more aware of leftist ideas and social causes, including the need for actively participating in relief efforts following the 1985 quake, political campaigns, and raising consciousness about HIV and AIDS. The group’s motto is paz y baile (peace and dance), a perfect combination of social message with ritual.

This according to “Maldita Vecindad, ritual, and memory: Paz y baile” by Lori Oxford, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 355–72).

Below, Maldita Vecindad performs in 2014.

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Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

Pete Seeger’s legacy

 

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Pete Seeger essentially created the folk revival movement in the United States—carrying on the work of Woody Guthrie and helping to spawn the careers of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others—while also linking this movement to political protest and iconoclasm.

As a result of his anti-war crusading and open Communist leanings, Seeger was a central target of the infamous HUAC witch hunts, and was widely blacklisted and condemned. In the process, however, he ended up inventing the college circuit and becoming the cornerstone of the 1960s folk revolution.

Galvanized by the 1998 tribute album Where have all the flowers gone?, the late 1990s and 2000s saw a reawakening of interest in Seeger’s music and cultural legacy, which included Bruce Springsteen’s album-length We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions.

This according to “Voice of America” by Phil Sutcliffe (Mojo February 2007).

Today would have been Seeger’s 100th birthday! Below, his iconic 1968 broadcast of Waist deep in the Big Muddy; the antiwar song was censored by CBS when he taped it for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, but the following year the network caved to pressure from the show’s hosts and allowed it to be aired.

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Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music