The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘pop music’

Revenge of the Nerds

June 22, 2015 | by

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


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 »

“26 Anos de Vida Normal”

June 5, 2015 | by

I hate the summer. I hate the heat, I hate the humidity, I hate the pressure to have fun, I hate the sand-in-an-hourglass frenzy of it all. I hate summer movies and the crowds of people at outdoor events. I do like the tomatoes. But ever since it dawned on me that grown-ups don’t get summer vacation, I have not seen the reason for the season.

Apparently there’s a sort of SAD that affects some people in the sun. Something about the sun flips a switch in their brains so that, just as everyone else is at their happiest, they’re miserable. I don’t know about me—although the heat is a migraine trigger. But I do go strange in the heat. I’m not just cranky but furious and spiky, able at any moment to erupt in scornful rage. It is exciting, but tiring, too, like a summer film overlarded with special effects. Read More »

When the New Wave Was New, and Other News

May 4, 2015 | by


Nadja Tesich in Nadja à Paris, 1964.

  • About a decade ago, Jonathan Gottschall pioneered “literary Darwinism,” a school of thought that interprets literature through the prism of evolutionary desires. By bringing biological concerns to English departments, he hoped to rescue the humanities from triviality: “the alternative is to let literature study keep spinning off into a corner of irrelevance to die.” Today, perhaps unsurprisingly, his career “is in a precarious place,” but hey, at least he’s writing trade books …
  • Hardly anyone is writing love songs anymore—can we assume, from this, that hardly anyone is in love? “The traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song.”
  • Lynne Tillman on David Wojnarowicz, whose photo-book Brush Fires in the Social Landscape was published twenty years ago: “In the 1980s, being infected by HIV and developing AIDS was an unchosen, horrific fate, fatal. People were very frightened, and felt hopeless. Not every artist or writer responded as Wojnarowicz did. His responses were unique, thoroughly felt, and driven by an urgent necessity. In his time, his work was extraordinarily moving—it stunned. It will never be experienced again as it was then, in that very dark moment.
  • “Occasionally, unintentionally, triggered by a smell or an old tune, my mind drifts to that time when Paris didn’t resemble the USA at all ... ” Nadja Tesich, the star of Eric Rohmer’s 1964 short film Nadja à Paris, on the French New Wave and filmmaking in the Paris of yore.
  • As a boy, Julian Barnes experienced an artistic awakening—and it was Gustave Moreau who made the scales fall from his eyes. “I was uncertain what to make of such work: exotic, bejeweled, and darkly glittering, with an odd mixture of private and public symbolism, little of which I could unscramble. Perhaps it was this mysteriousness that attracted me; and perhaps I admired Moreau the more because nobody told me to do so. But it was certainly here that I remember myself for the first time consciously looking at pictures, rather than being passively and obediently in their presence.”

A Sincere Mustache, and Other News

March 6, 2015 | by


From a 1902 newspaper advertisement.

  • John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
  • Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
  • On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
  • The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
  • “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”

Islands in the Stream

December 25, 2014 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!


The elephant in the discotheque: the Bee Gees.


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 >>

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 … ”