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On Music

Revenge of the Nerds

June 22, 2015 | by

Taylor Swift’s passive-aggressive lyrics are “the realization of every writer’s narrowest dream.”

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From the “Bad Blood” promotional poster, 2015.

“I’ve never thought about songwriting as a weapon,” Taylor Swift said with a straight face to an interviewer from Vanity Fair while the magazine was profiling her in 2013.

No, not Taylor Swift. Not the author of songs like “Forever and Always,” written in the wake of her relationship with former boyfriend Joe Jonas, the better-looking Jonas brother, and featuring this lyric: “Did I say something way too honest, made you run and hide like a scared little boy?” Not her, who wrote/sang about her relationship with the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, Fighting with him was like trying to solve a crossword/and realizing there’s no right answer.”

Not Taylor, who leaves the impossible-to-crack clues in her liner notes for each song by capitalizing a variety of letters that spell out the subjects in a very essential way: “TAY” for a song about ex-boyfriend Taylor Lautner; “SAG” for the Gyllenhaal one (as in Swift And Gyllenhaal, or that they’re both Sagittarius. I don’t know).

For Taylor Swift to pretend that her entire music career is not a tool of passive aggression toward those who had wronged her is like me pretending I’m not carbon-based: too easy to disprove, laughable at its very suggestion.

Don’t get me wrong—I say all this with utter admiration. Taylor’s career is, in fact, the perfected realization of every writer’s narrowest dream: To get back at those who had wronged us, sharply and loudly, and then to be able to cry innocent that our intentions were anything other than poetic and pure. Most of us can only achieve this with small asides. Taylor not only publicly dates and publicly breaks up, but she then releases an achingly specific song about the relationship—and that song has an unforgettable hook—all the while swearing she won’t talk about relationships that are over. Yes, date Taylor Swift, and not only will she shit on you on her album, but the song will become a single, then a hit, and then you will hear yourself shat upon by an army of young women at Staples Center. And then she’ll deny that she was ever doing anything other than righteously manifesting her art. It’s diabolical, and for a lifelong passive-aggressive like me, it’s made her my hero. Read More »

Two Remembrances of Ornette Coleman

June 15, 2015 | by

Coleman died last week at eighty-five.

Coleman in 1971. Photo: JPRoche

For nearly fifty years, Ornette Coleman was the philosopher king, the trickster, the barbarian at the gate, the prodigal son. Despite advancing years, his ideas remained so young and so wild that they were always carded at the door. A powerful, emotional, seemingly tireless sax player, he took inordinate pleasure in performing and recording on violin, an instrument he played with the cheerful exuberance of a cocker spaniel.

Like most philosophers, Coleman was more interested in questions than in answers, and his gnomic sayings and musings are almost better known than his music, which could be impenetrable unless you gave in and let it wash over you with its pure mineral sound, allowing it to take you where it wanted to go—which was often not a destination but a way of getting there.

It sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody, he said. Read More »

Skyscrapers and Everything

June 5, 2015 | by

The trouble with gazing upward in New York.

Don’t look up, Stevie!

About four minutes into Stevie Wonder’s 1973 classic “Living for the City”—a surging, seven-plus minute thumper track about racial injustice, migration, and the failure of the latter to cure the former—the song emerges from its second chorus and breaks down to its sparest parts. We hear the quizzical staccato of the synthesizer flit in and out like lingering sunlight; the dry drums, which just seconds ago were rolling out an elaborate fill, tap quarter-note rimshots on the snare; all the other instruments stop playing. Welcome to New York.

This interlude, barely a minute long but seemingly much longer, is a marvel within an already marvelous song. It’s an early example in popular music of that moment when a song recognizes its limits and turns, momentarily, into something larger and stranger. After all, Stevie could’ve just tagged on another verse about New York, keeping the song’s structure intact, but wouldn’t there be something thin and dreamy about that? New York collects anthems like medals: “New York, New York,” “On Broadway,” and “Empire State of Mind” are all, in essence, odes to skylines, with outsized grandeur to match. Their scale grows out of proportion; aphorism replaces emotion; the music hits its mark and no one gets hurt. The lesson for songwriters tackling New York has always been this: if you’re going to sing to the city, sing big. The skyline, as more than few writers have reminded us, can even look like musical notation if you squint hard enough. Read More »

Behind the Music

May 6, 2015 | by

The lost art of hidden tracks.

Photo: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons

Nearly everyone who came of age in the nineties remembers hidden tracks, those Easter eggs of the CD era. Artists embedded secret songs or demos after a disc’s final track; listeners combed through the silence to find them. For me, growing up in a small town with plenty of time to kill, sitting in silence and waiting for music to appear was an ideal way to spend an afternoon. The less patient among us, I know, would fast forward through the quiet. I didn’t.

The hidden track was born of the LP age, with the Beatles’ “Her Majesty”—which appeared uncredited at the end of 1969’s Abbey Road, following fourteen seconds of silence—serving as a kind of urtext, though Paul McCartney has claimed its inclusion was an accident. In 1979, the Clash added “Train in Vain” to London Calling at the last minute, after the album’s packaging had been printed. When vinyl was music’s preeminent medium, though, there were analog clues to an album’s secrets: you could examine the surface of a record and watch the needle make its way through every groove. It was when the CD, that tesseract of a medium, flourished that hidden tracks did, too. Read More »

Alone Together

January 8, 2015 | by

On D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and the disappearance of R&B groups.

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From the cover of Black Messiah.

The last number-one R&B single from a group was “Independent Women,” by Destiny’s Child. Since it slipped from Billboard’s top slot in January 2001, only solo acts have held the position.* Groups have all but disappeared from the mainstream in every genre, but their absence is especially apparent in R&B, where, in 1994, for instance, four of the ten number-one singles were by groups, and in 1974, thirteen R&B groups made it to the top of the charts. Now, zero—for fifteen years, solo artists have dominated music. Who knew the thesis of Bowling Alone applied even to this, our most collaborative art form?

Anyone can rattle off the names of big R&B groups: Earth Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, TLC, Boyz II Men, the Supremes, the Pointer Sisters, the Force MDs, Jodeci, and on and on. What these groups foregrounded—and what’s noticeably lacking in present-day R&B—were vocal harmonies. Obviously the Top 40 is still loaded with backup singers; I don’t mean to say that vocal harmony has gone extinct. But a certain kind of performance has gone missing from the charts, a choral style for trios, quartets, or quintets, where the harmony was just as essential as the melody. In songs like these, you could hear the genre’s connection to jazz and especially to gospel.

Not that you have to be a music scholar to enjoy the sound of people singing together. At the risk of getting all Kumbaya about it, isn’t it just sort of nice to hear voices working in harmony? To me, the sound of a group has always been more approachable than that of a soloist—a collective is bound to be more welcoming than an individual, especially if they’re a collective of really pretty voices. I think pop music at the moment is as inventive as it’s ever been, but still: Where have our great R&B groups gone, and why have they ceased to capture the public imagination? Read More »

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Fania at Fifty

October 9, 2014 | by

The rise of a salsa empire and the decline of boogaloo.

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Photo: Courtesy of Codigo Group

Fania Records, the legendary Latin music label, has been celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a series of events in New York and Los Angeles, its opening salvo a Central Park show last June spotlighting salsero Roberto Roena. It felt, indeed, like a party. Hundreds of dancers flooded the area in front of the stage. Those present merely to spectate were forced backward. Scattered around the perimeter were those less enthused: numerous youths lolled against concession tents and information booths, occupied with handheld devices, presumably corralled into coming by parents either filled with missionary zeal or simply unable to get a babysitter. The sharp contours of the audience underscored the relationship between the label’s haloed status and the historical circumstances that enabled its ascent.

In its sixties and seventies heyday, Fania was the most powerful force in the Latin music industry, and salsa was the most powerful force in Latin music. The depth of the connection between label and genre is pronounced. Ask die-hard fans to list their favorite figures from salsa’s golden age, and nine out of ten answers will be artists whose résumés include Fania for at least a record or two (Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente), if not for significant stretches of their careers (Celia Cruz, Willie Colón). It is commonplace to liken Fania to Motown. The parallel fits, almost. Imagine if Motown, after a few years of competing with Atlantic and Stax/Volt, had decided to buy them out. That’s what Fania did, more or less, when it acquired its main rivals, Alegre and Tico.

Fania was an unprecedented financial engine, exporting Boricua and Nuyorican culture all over the world. The label held what musician and ethnomusicographer Christopher Washburne calls a “monopoly on all aspects of the salsa industry,” controlling “recording contracts, concert promotion, and radio airplay.” Labelmates from different bands performed and recorded as the Fania All-Stars. This was synergy before synergy, when it was still called monopoly, and it created salsa audiences in Colombia, Nigeria, Russia, Japan, et cetera.

But the familiar narrative of Fania as salsa, salsa as Fania—the narrative on display this June—is only half complete, eliding as it does another genre, the buried foundation on which Fania was built: Latin boogaloo. Read More »

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