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Posts Tagged ‘pop music’

The Fade-out Fades Out, and Other News

September 15, 2014 | by

Photo: Holger Ellgaard

  • “When John Ashbery, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, first learned that the digital editions of his poetry looked nothing like the print version, he was stunned. There were no line breaks, and the stanzas had been jammed together into a block of text that looked like prose. The careful architecture of his poems had been leveled … That was three years ago, and digital publishing has evolved a lot since then. Publishers can now create e-books that better preserve a poet’s meticulous formatting.”
  • Today in academic tiffs: One professor tried to publish a controversial essay avowing that Shakespeare’s works were written by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Another professor offered a stern rebuke: “I simply find your reasoning, and your evidence, as unconvincing as those of Holocaust deniers, and other conspiracy theorists.” Finger pointing and harrumphing ensued.
  • Stop-and-frisk is more than just a widely reviled NYPD policy: it’s an opera!
  • Has pop music bid adieu to the fade-out? “The fade-out—the technique of ending a song with a slow decrease in volume over its last few seconds—became common in the 1950s and ruled for three decades. Among the year-end top ten songs for 1985, there’s not one cold ending. But it’s been on the downturn since the nineties, and the past few years have been particularly unkind. The year-end top ten lists for 2011, 2012, and 2013 yield a total of one fade-out.”
  • On the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Charles James retrospective: “The Met seems to be telling us—showing us—that we should view [dress and fashion] as high art. This is not a new argument, of course, but in spite of past scholarly and curatorial efforts, it has never decisively taken hold … James would seem the perfect antidote, and in many ways he is: a great designer who was never a celebrity (few outside the field of fashion have ever heard of him), an inveterate craftsman who was also a genuinely imaginative artist—a sculptor of satin and silk willing to sacrifice everything including profits for the perfect seam … ”

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The Lean, Mean, Star-Making K-Pop Machine

August 6, 2014 | by

How Korea mints its pop stars.

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From the cover of The Birth of Korean Cool.

Korean pop’s star-making process has suffered slings and arrows from the Western press—some allege that it amounts to modern-day slavery. It’s true that K-pop labels recruit budding stars and bind them to contracts that can last as long as thirteen years. But Korea had no other way of building a pop industry. It had to create it from the ground up.

Most famous rock bands formed independently, without the help of a producer or record label. This was never going to happen in Korea. Kids didn’t have the time to jam with friends. They were studying—all the time—or helping with the family business. Organically formed bands could experiment with new sounds or improvise or goof off, but Koreans had no such luxury. In the unforgiving Confucian culture, a young person who screws up has a hard time getting back on track. Until recently, when K-pop proved profitable, no Korean would have staked his future on music.

Lee Moon-won, a culture critic, said, “Koreans spend the same effort on everything, whether it’s college entrance exams or an office job. Korea stands for hard work.” Accordingly, a conventional K-pop contract lasts seven to thirteen years; half that time is spent training the stars. Shin Hyung-kwan, the general manager of MNET, Korea’s version of MTV, explained, “It takes time to see who has hidden talents. It’s one thing to pick some person and say you’re going to make them a star, but you have to see if they get along with each other and in society at large. If you are not careful, the whole thing can be spoiled. Westerners do not understand. The performers could get into an accident, some kind of trouble.” Read More »

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Islands in the Stream

July 14, 2014 | by

The elephant in the discotheque: the Bee Gees.

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A 1977 publicity photo of the Bee Gees for a television special, “Billboard #1 Music Awards.” From top: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.

The Bee Gees’ dominance of the charts in the disco era was above and beyond Chic, Giorgio Moroder, even Donna Summer. Their sound track to Saturday Night Fever sold thirty million copies. They were responsible for writing and producing eight of 1978’s number ones, something only Lennon and McCartney in 1963/64 could rival—and John and Paul hadn’t been the producers, only the writers. Even given the task of writing a song called “Grease” (“Grease is the word, it’s got groove, it’s got a meaning,” they claimed, hoping no one would ask, “Come again?”), they came up with a classic. At one point in March they were behind five singles in the American Top 10. In 1978 they accounted for 2 percent of the entire record industry’s profits. The Bee Gees were a cultural phenomenon.

Three siblings from an isolated, slightly sinister island off the coast of northwest England, already in their late twenties by the time the Fever struck—how the hell did they manage this? Pinups in the late sixties, makers of the occasional keening ballad hit in the early seventies, the Bee Gees had no real contact with the zeitgeist until, inexplicably, they had hits like “Nights on Broadway,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and the zeitgeist suddenly seemed to emanate from them. This happened because they were blending white soul, R&B, and dance music in a way that suited pretty much every club, every radio station, every American citizen in 1978. They melded black and white influences into a more satisfying whole than anyone since Elvis. Simply, they were defining pop culture in 1978.

Like ABBA, there is a well of melancholic emotion, even paranoia, in the Bee Gees’ music. Take “How Deep Is Your Love” (no. 1, ’77), with its warm bath of Fender Rhodes keyboards and echoed harmonies that camouflage the cries of the lyric: “We’re living in a world of fools, breaking us down, when they all should let us be … How deep is your love? I really need to learn.” Or “Words,” with its romantic but strangely seclusionist “This world has lost its glory. Let’s start a brand-new story now, my love.” Or “Night Fever,” their ’78 number one, with its super-mellow groove and air-pumped strings masking the high anxiety of Barry Gibb’s vocal; the second verse is indecipherable, nothing but a piercing wail with the odd phrase—“I can’t hide!”—peeking through the cracks. It is an extraordinary record.

Total pop domination can have fierce consequences. Elvis had been packed off to the army; the Beatles had received Ku Klux Klan death threats—the Bee Gees received the mother of all backlashes, taking the full brunt of the anti-disco movement. Radio stations announced “Bee Gee–free weekends”; a comedy record called “Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices” by the HeeBeeGeeBees became a UK radio hit. Their 1979 album Spirits Having Flown had sold sixteen million copies and spawned three number-one singles (“Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out”); the singles from 1981’s Living Eyes—“He’s a Liar” and the title track—reached thirty and forty-five on the chart respectively, and didn’t chart in Britain at all. Almost overnight, nobody played Bee Gees records on the radio, and pretty much nobody bought them. The biggest group in the world at the end of 1978 went into enforced retirement three years later. Could they rise again? Of course they could. Read More »

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Highs in the Mideighties

June 25, 2014 | by

Recalling the heyday of Prince and Madonna on the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain.

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Twenty-four-hour music television, the brainchild of a TV-spawned pop star, the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, began broadcasting in August 1981 with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” MTV was everywhere within eighteen months. If new pop and postpunk had gleefully and rapidly rewritten rules, taking music forward in a constant revolution of purpose and invention, their aftermath was an era of momentum for its own sake. Things got ever shinier, greed and need replaced innovation: conservatism was a force and a problem both outside and within eighties pop.

Two new names appeared in this froth of newness. Both stood out from the crowd, both clearly demanded attention, worship, devotion: Prince and Madonna. These were names that couldn’t have existed at the dawn of modern pop, names that baited royalty and religion.

Both based their sound on electronically processed dance music, allowing them the opportunity to change style from record to record in a way that seemed innovative, one step ahead of the pack, like Dylan or Bowie before them. Both had egos the size of mansions. Both had a new hunger for success, for money. Both used MTV to become stars, and both used movies (Desperately Seeking Susan, Purple Rain) to make the jump from stardom to superstardom. Sex! Religion! Gigolo! Whore! Purple! Cone bra! No one could accuse Prince or Madonna of underplaying their hands. And, eventually, both challenged Michael Jackson’s place at the very top of the pop empire; by the eighties’ end Madonna had (arguably) toppled him in the popularity stakes, and Prince had (certainly) creatively eased past Jackson with the most streamlined, silver-finned R&B of the decade. These were their similarities. In other respects they were quite different.

Prince had first appeared with the itchy falsetto disco of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (no. 11, ’79) and was presented—not least by himself—as a teenage prodigy. He grew up in the largely white city of Minneapolis: “The radio was dead, the discos was dead, the ladies was kind of dead. If I wanted to make some noise, if I wanted to turn anything out, I was gonna have to get something together. Which was what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown.”

He wanted to be everybody’s lover and—unlike most disco acts—was quite at home with lyrics about oral sex, incest, and Dorothy Parker. This set him apart. By 1983 he was channeling Sly Stone and the Beach Boys on “Little Red Corvette,” and a year later Newsweek was calling him “the Prince of Hollywood” as Purple Rain—starring Prince as the Kid—grossed $80 million. Read More »

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Eugene Goostman Is Not What He Seems, and Other News

June 9, 2014 | by

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This boy is a machine. A screenshot from a test conducted by the Royal Society of London.

  • “In 1919 John Middleton Murry was appointed editor of the London literary magazine The Athenaeum. Shortly afterward, in a rare case of felicitous nepotism, he hired his wife Katherine Mansfield to be its fiction reviewer … from her very first column she’s frank about the terrible ephemerality of most fiction, and the trap both reviewers and readers can fall into by hitching themselves to a brand new novel’s rapidly dying star … Mansfield openly wonders why anyone should bother with new novels at all.”
  • Eugene Goostman, a computer program masquerading as a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian boy, has become the first artificial intelligence to pass the Turing Test: in five-minute text conversations, it fooled more than 30 percent of humans into thinking it was a person.
  • Why did a beluga whale named Noc try to emulate human speech? “He sounds, on first hearing, at least, less like a person talking than a delirious drunk humming an atonal tune through a tissue-covered comb … But the science behind Noc’s mimicry and its apparent motives reveals something far more urgent and haunting: the spectral outpourings of a young white whale calling to us across both time and the vast linguistic divide between humans and the other animals.”
  • And while we’re discussing animals, “What kind of a person looks upon the world’s largest land animal—a beast that mourns its dead and lives to retirement age and can distinguish the voice of its enemies—and instead of saying ‘Wow!’ says something like ‘Where's my gun?’” Wells Tower reports from one of the last elephant hunts in Botswana.
  • The most transgressive song of 1909: “If we listen closely to ‘I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife—But Oh! You Kid!’ we may hear a surprising lesson: that the culture-quaking shocks, the salaciousness and transgression we associate with blues and jazz and rock and hip-hop, first arrived in American pop many years earlier.”

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You’re Saying It Wrong

June 6, 2013 | by

This series of infographics, illustrating how different parts of the country say different things, is fascinating. Below: mayonnaise.

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