Saturday, August 28, 2010

Katy Perry: Multi-Hit Wonder

Katy Perry has done pretty well for herself. She’s had five top ten singles in the past three years. Just this summer, she’s had two hit songs, one of which joins the remarkably long list of musical tributes to California. In short, she’s a pop music force to be reckoned with. It’s a familiar story, this rise to pop stardom. But back in 2008, it seemed to me that Katy Perry was destined to follow another all-too-familiar path, that of the one hit wonder.

One hit wonders come in a few different types. There are the indie bands and singer/songwriters that break into the mainstream for a song before falling back under the radar, often carrying with them a couple hundred new fans. Then there are the “buzzworthy” new artists that turn out to be not-so-worthy of buzz: their first single charts, their second single flops, and no one cares when they release their sophomore album a decade later. Then there are the people who never had any business being musicians to begin with, people with money or connections who can pay a producer to let them lay down a cheesy pop song and have their voices auto-tuned — you know the type, socialites who want to be famous for something other than being famous and young television actresses who want it all.

But the most conspicuous one-hit-wonder personality is the artist who comes out with some silly, outrageously literal song that is so catchy and ridiculous that the world has no choice but to love it — and play it over and over again for all eternity. I hardly went to a bat mitzvah in middle school where they didn’t play Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back” even though the song came out a cool decade before my tween years. When I heard Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for the first time, I thought, this is the new “Baby Got Back,” this is the new “Because I Got High,” this is the new “I’m Too Sexy,” this is the new “The Thong Song” or the new “Stacy’s Mom.” What made these songs hits was the cultural poignancy they achieved from comically and candidly dealing with socially taboo (or at least musically taboo) issues. And what made the artists behind them one hit wonders was the impossibility of matching the iconic status achieved by their original hits.

But I was wrong about Katy Perry. I thought, how could she possibly follow a song that forever changed the way people think of cherry chapstick? But she did. Her second single “Hot n’ Cold” was still silly and catchy and ridiculous, inspiring covers like this one, and it could have left its own legacy had it belonged to a different artist. (After all, not all the one-hits are socially monumental — they also include your “Who Let The Dogs Out,” your “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” and your “Ice Ice Baby.”) This summer’s “California Gurls” was equally fun and ridiculous and inescapable. In fact, Katy Perry has turned the traits that one usually associates with one hit wonders into a consistent style that permeates all her music. She embodies the silliness and ridiculousness and candidness that all those other artists could achieve in one moment of clarity and honesty but could never repeat. She’s a new brand of musician, a “multi-hit wonder.” That doesn’t mean she’ll ever escape the interview questions about kissing girls, but that's not so bad, is it?

—Mary Ibrahim

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In a Similar Vein

You may or may not have heard of a band called The Young Veins. They’re very well-backed by the media and have garnered attention because they have two emo expats on their side: Ryan Ross and Jon Walker, formerly of Panic! at the Disco fame. The Young Veins push a reasonably psychedelic brand of shoegaze. Nothing to complain about but also nothing revolutionary. A recent press picture released by Spin Magazine supports this aura nicely.

Contrast that, then, with this: a stock photo of Panic! at the Disco. You may not be able to spot the similarity between these two pictures, but I assure you that somewhere hiding behind all that guyliner and sadness are two of the men from the first picture.

Whereas any self-respecting Spin reader would obediently vomit upon hearing or reading any suggestion that Panic! at the Disco had even the most remote amount of talent, the Young Veins were releasing what Spin considered one of the Top 25 Albums of the summer. Personally, I’m a bit irked by the idea that you can garner musical respect simply by shedding mascara, creepy 1890s garb, and morose facial expressions and then wrapping yourself up in offbeat fabrics and a more uplifting worldview. (That being said, it is completely reasonable for a man to gain respect just by abandoning mascara.)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Review: The Suburbs

Arcade Fire took a different approach to recording their third album compared to their first two. While Funeral and Neon Bible were fairly contiguous works—particularly Neon Bible, which was conceived in a church that the band converted to a recording studio—The Suburbs was recorded in Montreal, Quebec (their church-to-studio), and New York City. This gives the album a sprawling sound that is not present on their previous works, and it shows just how far the band has come in the six years since Funeral.

The first thing I noticed about The Suburbs was its length. While Funeral and Neon Bible were not especially short records—10 and 11 songs, respectively, both around 47 minutes—they pale in comparison to the grand length of The Suburbs. With 16 tracks, clocking in at over an hour, it appears, before even listening, to be their most ambitious work yet.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Does Travie McCoy Want to Be a Billionaire?

In a nationally publicized affair earlier in the summer, Elena Kagan called the Supreme Court confirmation hearings “a vapid and hollow charade”; unknown to the newest member of the Supreme Court, however, was that fact that her words offered an excellent critique of contemporary rap music, a genre too reliant on two things—you guessed them: sex and money—and too afraid to explore new themes, for fear of tinkering with its tried, tested—but trite—formula.

So, after hearing the title of Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire”—a single from his new album Lazarus, which debuts June 8—a sigh or two would not be out of order.

Indeed, at first, the lyrics don’t seem to deviate from the norm. McCoy, like his fellow rappers, only wants fame and fortune:

I wanna be a billionaire so fuckin’ bad

Buy all of the things I never had

I wanna be on the cover of Forbes Magazine

Smiling next to Oprah and the Queen

But “Billionaire,” surprisingly, isn’t merely another glossily superficial litany of wealth or women (ahem, Lil Wayne); rather, it eschews the money-women-sex banalities in an unlikely meditation on munificence. What? Generosity? But that’s anathema to rappers!

It’s true. McCoy himself tells MTV that the song, which has a laid-back slowness reminiscent of anything by Jack Johnson, endeavors to “open up the question: if you were in a position to do something with a decent chunk of money, what would you do?"

As for the singer himself?

I’d probably pull an Angelina and Brad Pitt

and adopt a bunch of babies that ain’t never had shit

Give away a few Mercedes like here lady have this

And last but not least grant somebody their last wish

And get this:

I’d probably visit where Katrina hit

And damn sure do a lot more than FEMA did

A philanthropist and humanitarian? Have we met the Nick Kristof of the rap industry?

Well, kind of. The whole song is a proposition—notice that “I would…” and “I probably” qualify each of his brazenly idealistic dreams. And, sure, it’s also a self-serving magnanimity—a wave of satisfaction comes over him as he says, You can call me Travie Claus minus the ho-ho—but McCoy’s message is still a massive improvement over Lil Wayne’s lame sexual innuendos.

The song’s music video, according to McCoy, comprises “vignettes where unfortunate things happen to people and I happen to have the anecdotes for their particular misfortune. If you listen to the lyrics…a lot of it has to do with helping people out, a lot of selfless things. Overall the vibe is real summertime, but there’s also a positive message.”

On the track, McCoy is joined by Bruno Mars, who departs from the traditional rap fare exemplified on his recent hit “Nothing on You” to provide an sonorous melody for this uplifting beach ballad. It’s a song with a simple guitar chord and drum beat—which favorably compares to the auto-tuned-to-death nature of an increasing number of pop and rap songs. It’s a perky song of human imperfection, even in the best of us—he avariciously wants to “buy everything” despite his philanthropic motivation. And, set in an economy barely dragging itself out a recession, it’s a song of creating dreams, outlandish dreams we will never realize, dreams to keep us going, the Aston Martin picture on my teacher’s wall.

Mars delivers the last lines, I wanna be a billionaire/so fuckin' bad, with a delightful resignation, ones suffused with a lush languor and an uncanny genuineness—so much so that the clean version (sans f-word) seems bowdlerized, seems false. Even budding rap stars will never have billions, but McCoy and Mars know this. As the song ends, the singers smile wide in acknowledgment of the blissful impossibility of their supposed goal—but every time I close my eyes…

-Shaj Mathew, Guest Contributor, incoming freshman at Penn

Friday, August 13, 2010

Review: Perfume Genius on Learning

With each technological innovation, there seems to be a downside to match every advantage. This trend may be especially true when it comes to the music industry: though new methods of production and distribution give a greater number of people access to a greater number of artists, there is real concern that with more quantity comes less quality. But while the path has been paved for the mediocre artist, it has also been made easier for the unassuming yet wonderfully talented craftsman, the kind of musician who answers to an internal compulsion to create, rather than any desire to make it big. Seattle-bred Mike Hadreas, alias Perfume Genius, is definitely among the latter.

His debut album, Learning, released this past June, is exquisite and intimate, with sparse, spectral piano arrangements and echo-laden vocals that prove to be hauntingly compelling. Hadreas' delicate handle of piano keys is reminiscent of Sam Beam's loving hold on his guitar; and the softness of his voice shares some of Sufjan Stevens' magic. And just like these two accomplished musicians, Perfume Genius crafts incantatory, poetic lyrics that are sure to stay with you long after the speakers have fallen silent.

The record is deeply melancholic, and lingers on moments of great sadness or solitude. "Mr. Petersen" artfully draws listeners in on the details of a teacher-student relationship before unexpectedly veering toward the tragic: "He made me a tape of Joy Division/ he told me there was a part of him missing / When I was sixteen / He jumped off a building." The suddenness of the eruption of tragedy is brutal, granted. But it is honest, and it is true.

That taste for content that is real and raw finds its formal reflection in Mike Hadreas' choice of recording locales - his mother's house, on her piano. According to him, you can hear her dogs running around on some of the songs. It is this earnestness, this lo-fi intimacy, that makes Learning so captivating. Of the set of songs, Hadreas writes: "I truly intended to show them to my friends and leave it at that. But I didn't - and left all the music the same even though it's sort of a tricky feeling. I am just a hippie, that's all. I have faith that I really fucking meant it, that if I go back and mess with them I'll lose that."

So here's to Perfume Genius and his willingness to let us in on an album that is somewhat naked, despite any "tricky feelings" he might have had. Learning is marked with a sense of open-heartedness that is truly exceptional. This genuineness, coupled with the acute beauty present in every crevice of every song, transcends the melancholy, ultimately offering a cathartic, uplifting musical experience. Learning makes for an extraordinary listen, shimmering with authenticity and hinting to the enduring good health of the music industry.

Melany's grade: A

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Remember the Underground? Last Tracks

It's no secret that mainstream hip hop has taken a new direction during the past decade, drifting so far into the realm of catchy club music that it may no longer even fit under the name "hip hop." Many of the veterans of hip hop's golden age in the 90s have decried this development. As we all know, Nas, whose 1996 debut album Illmatic marked the height of that age and has since become the definitive hip hop album, declared with his album title in 2006 what many had already been saying: "Hip Hop is Dead." Putting aside the longer debate about the validity of this statement, which requires a careful definition of terms and a thorough comparison of the hip hop of the 90s to that of the 2000s, it is worth noting the impact this statement has had on the underground hip hop community.

During the past decade, underground hip hop artists have been among the best that hip hop has to offer. While many of the celebrated artists wallow in their wealth, the underground artists have continued to rap about their struggles, both in their efforts to be successful and in facing the challenges to live a safe, happy life. They have been the ones speaking the truth, rhyming about things that matter and carrying on the torch of hip hop. It is the fault of the mainstream audiences and artists that they have not been more commercially successful. Or so many of them would have you believe.

While there is definitely plenty of truth to these ideas, too many underground hip hop artists have taken full advantage of the "hip hop is dead" buzz to blame others for their own subpar music. I cannot remember how many songs included at least a verse or two along these lines: "Yeah Hip Hop is Dead/ Like Nasty Nas Said/ My Music is Real Hip Hop/ Not Wack Radio Pop/ I'm the Greatest/ Because I Never Made It....Byah!!"

For someone who loves good underground hip hop and cannot stand most of the mainstream "hip hop", I cringe whenever I hear this repetitive, misplaced self-righteousness that comes across as truly pathetic. Many of these artists are far too good to fall to the self-aggrandizing depths of their counterparts.

So, to remind us all why hip hop and underground hip hop in particular is worth listening to, I have created a playlist of classic tracks that evaded the generic, contrived, superficial lyrics of those posing as hip hop artists. The playlist is themed: all of the songs are last tracks on albums. As it happens, MCs are often inclined to be most intimate, most honest and most truthful in their last track, when they describe the struggles they are facing. Hope you enjoy and feel free to add your own favorites. (Also, a couple words of note: it is really pretty difficult to make a playlist of last tracks because each one feels like, well, a last track and if you only listen to one song, listen to the last one).

1. No Rest for the Weary - Blue Scholars, Blue Scholars (2004)

2. Nothing Less (feat. Slug) - Living Legends, Almost Famous (2001)

3. Walk the Walk - Gatsby the Great, Falling Up (2007)

4. Clear Blue Skies - Juggaknots, Clear Blue Skies (1996)

5. "B.I.B.L.E" - GZA, Liquid Swords (1995)

6-7. "You Never Know (feat. Jean Grae)"/ "One (Remix) feat. Akir" - Immortal Technique, Revolutionary Vol. 2 (2003)

8. "Revelations" - Masta Ace, A Long Hot Summer (2004)

9. "Epilogue" - J-Live, The Best Part (2001)



Thursday, August 5, 2010

My Top 10 Soundtrack Moments Since 1989

There are some songs, whenever or wherever I hear them, which always bring me back to a particular movie scene. It doesn’t even matter whether I liked the movie or not, and I'm not sure why certain pairings stick more than others (ideas, anyone?), but so it is. And after it happens, the song no longer exists without the scene, nor the scene without the song. Enjoy this mini mental archive, which I’ve limited to movies that came out when I was alive, and feel free to share your own as well.

1. Teen Witch - Top That by The Michael Terry Rappers; Polly flirts with Rhet in a freestyle battle

2. Empire Records - Snakeface by Throwing Muses; Corey seduces Rex Manning

3. Dangerous Minds - Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio; Ms. Johnson pays a home visit to two former students

4. Good Will Hunting - Miss Misery by Elliott Smith; Will finally leaves town

5. Can't Hardly Wait - Paradise City by Guns N' Roses; William rocks the house party and then crowd-surfs

6. Cruel Intentions - Colorblind by Counting Crows; Annette finds Sebastian waiting at the top of the escalator

7. 40 Days and 40 Nights - The One You Have Not Seen by Sophie B. Hawkins; Matt blows flower petals across Erica's body

8. The Girl Next Door - This Year's Love by David Gray; Matthew runs back into the party and kisses Danielle

9. Once - If You Want Me by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová; busker and flower seller sing an intimate duet

10. Armaggedon - Leaving (On A Jetplane) by the cast; A.J. says goodbye to Grace before his big expedition

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

"Without music, life would be a mistake”: Nietzsche’s particular formula for a generally accepted truth—music occupies an important place in our lives. We are constantly exposed to it, whether the melodies are of our own choosing, or selected by others. We listen to it while shopping, riding elevators, driving our cars. We hum it to ourselves, we tap our feet to its beat. So the importance of music is plainly observable; the nature of that importance, however, remains a mystery. Why is it that we are so keen to fill our lives with melodies and rhythms? What part of us responds to music in such a way as to create some sort of dependence on it? These kinds of questions can seem a little daunting, as they beg for a whole host of different approaches, from the biological to the philosophical. There are a few evolutionary theories that form a good place to begin such a discussion. So I have a few hypotheses as to the emergence of music to offer you, gleaned from various readings over the years.

Many such hypotheses involve the idea that music evolved for a functional reason, that is, to suit a specific need within human evolution. What that need might be is of course the object of much debate. But one fairly widely accepted theory is the Darwin’s idea that musical ability is like a peacock’s tail, a distinctive feature of a good mate. This idea does offer an explanation for the groupie mentality, and the ruthlessness of fans clawing at each other for a guitar pick tossed into a crowd. Advocates of the Darwinian theory support their claim by pointing to the close ties between music and romantic interest; after all, most lyrics circle around love, lost or found, requited, unrequited, and any other qualifiers you can come up with. But if love is a recurring theme in lyrics across all genres, isn’t it simply because it’s a recurring theme in our lives? Just because music turns to love for inspiration, does not necessarily mean it evolved to enable it. So this first theory can seem a little shaky.

A second hypothesis is that music evolved as a means to bind groups of early humans together, to give them an advantage over those less musical, and therefore less cohesive. This theory offers a strong explanation for our attachment to national anthems, as well as for bonds existing between people with similar musical interests. The counterculture movement of the 1960’s, for example, was largely unified by folk music; so much so, that Bob Dylan’s movement from traditional acoustics to decidedly non-folksy electrics was perceived by some as a complete betrayal of their cause. So there’s definitely something to be said for this theory, which emphasizes the relational, social aspect of music; and can serve to remind us that music is more thoroughly enjoyed when shared.

While both these hypotheses can be compelling, there is something unsatisfactory about the idea that music surfaced simply to as a functional response to an evolutionary need, like a knee-jerk reflex. So this brings me to one last, nonfunctional theory: that music emerged as an accident, and was then taken up and transformed by our creative abilities. According to this theory, as I understand it, music came about as a consequence of auditory capabilities developed for language and communication, the spoken word leading to the song. Metaphorically speaking, if all these things were a house, then language proper would be the roof over your head, the walls put up to provide shelter from the elements—the functional reason for the house’s existence. But music and literature, the means of expression rather than strict communication, are what we fill the walls with; the accidental consequence of blank space created just to keep out wind and rain.

I like this last idea because it emphasizes the close ties between music and literature, as well as the role of human creativity in the emergence of both forms. It stipulates that we used what we accidentally inherited to invent something wonderful and elevating. But that’s all that can be said for any of these theories, really—that one is more liked than the others. What we are left with is what we can gather from the common ground between the conjectures: the simple (and satisfactory) truth that music is buried deeply within us and those who came before us, and that it is something that enriches and enlivens, soothes and inspires. So though the cause may remain a mystery, the effects are coming in loud and clear.

(And for those wondering about the post title—a great album by the Low Anthem. Give it a listen)


Monday, August 2, 2010

Sparkly Night Of The Soul

Like a typical suburban family’s home, Dark Night of the Soul is a collaboration on multiple levels. First off, (the late) indie ubermensch Mark Linkous lays down track after track of expertly chiseled musicianship for pro producer Danger Mouse (of Gnarls Barkley fame) to nail home with his ultra-sensitive microphones. Then, a star-studded cast of frontmen and -women that makes indie palms worldwide palpitate provides vocals and some degree of artistic vision. Like Mexican food, the result is that each variation of the above has its own flavor even though the fundamental ingredients are eerily similar.

Despite cameos from stars ranging from the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas to Iggy Pop, the album’s focal point remains the canvas laid down and smoothed out by Linkous and Mouse. Fashioning a standalone instrument out of the art of production, Mouse is at his finest. And Linkous’s expert craftsmanship is brilliant – that is to say, nothing short of his status quo.

A complete dissection of this album and its creation process may seem dated to fans, however, seeing as the album was unofficially released more than a year ago – unofficially, that is, because of copyright violation. In an eff-the-system act in the name of free artistry, Linkous and Mouse marketed and sold an intricate, David Lynch-illustrated book along with a blank CD-R, coyly and not-so-subtly suggesting that listeners torrent it themselves. Problem solved. Well, now that the copywrongs have been righted, the album can see the Official Light of Day (even though anyone interested in this album has already heard it).

Linkous was best known for his band Sparklehorse. His band’s discography is defined by the delicate boundary between (and sometimes blurring of) gloom and beauty. Linkous’s music had a fragile magnificence that was unparalleled. In light of his suicide in March, the fragility has become all too apparent. But Dark Night of the Soul remains a beautiful piece of artwork that elicits all the right emotions at all the right times.

-Joe Pinsker

Joe's Grade: A-