contrl

I’ve had two conversations about authenticity in music today, one of which will likely end up on the radio in the future. Since the other took place in an email exchange, and it addresses topics that might be of general interest, I decided to post it here. The questions came from a former student working on a project; the answers are mine.

1) How do you view the idea that “celebrity” no longer refers to talent but instead to the ability to be a sustained topic of discourse, to attract attention?

There was never a time in recorded history when audiences didn’t dispute the talent of famous performers. [Just quickly, I found this example of unsourced quotations from classical composers, and this lovely comment on Wagner:

Wagner’s art is diseased. The problems which he brings to the stage – all of them, problems of hysterics – the convulsiveness of his emotions, his overwrought sensibility, his taste that always demands sharper spices, his instability, and, not the least, the choice of his heroes and heroines, considered as psychological types (a clinical exhibit), all this presents a picture of disease that leaves no doubt.

In other words: Wagner doesn’t have talent, he’s just famous.

That we began to use the word “celebrity” to describe “the condition of being famous” (or that’s what my etymological dictionary says), and then later had disputes about what should rightfully make someone famous means the word acts exactly like a lot of other words: what “should” a woman act like? what traits “are” African-American, what “is” authentic jazz? Over time, these things are disputed, and the content of those disputes helps you to understand the state of the society. Our society has been stuck–since 1800 or so–in a period of preoccupation with authenticity, legitimacy, and genius.

So, the sustained public conversations we have about the difference between celebrity and talent, and between control and manipulation (see: Miley, Wrecking Ball), are not surprising to me, and are an expression of a society that is preoccupied with moral evaluations of authenticity.

2) Why do you think the media and general public are so fascinated with Miley Cyrus right now?  How can Cyrus extend the longevity of her position as the object of the public’s fascination?

I think I answered the first question above, if obliquely. Young girls who are popular entertainers are solid market entities. (Young boys too–see Michael Jackson, the young Stevie Wonder, Bieber, Chris Brown, etc.) Ours is a society that loves youth, fetishizes it, and delights in its destruction. That’s why Britney shaving her head, or Cyrus naked, are show-stoppers. I think Mary Douglas’s essay on “Dirt” is helpful in this regard–it helps us to see the ways in which we invent what is “dirty” and what is “clean” and illuminates how much collective effervescence happens when we witness a transformation from clean -> dirty (Bieber seen in the South American brothels this week) or from dirty -> clean (see: Celebrity Rehab).

If I knew how Cyrus could extend her position in the public eye, I’d be working for a record company, making 5x as much money as I do now.

Also: SEE THIS EXCELLENT PIECE.

3) How do you view the idea that “any publicity is good publicity”?

It strikes me as a pat observation. It leaves unanswered the most important question: what counts as “good?” Or better yet, “good for whom?”

4) Music videos have been traditionally used as a means to promote songs.  What do you think distinguishes a music video that successfully sells records from one that does not?

Traditionally? Not really. In some genres, this has been true for maybe 30 years at most. In other genres, it never was true. I think you meant something different than what you wrote.

A music video that sells records? You know, there’s an answer to this, but to get it you’d have to actually collect some data. I don’t have that, so I don’t know. There are probably mythologies that industry people hold–e.g., a video that spreads through word-of-mouth sells more records, or one that has a famous model in it, or whatever…but those are probably pretty feeble explanations.

5) In her MTV documentary Miley: The Movement, Miley Cyrus states that people expect a “shocking video” and that the shock is “why people want to watch it over and over again.” How do you view shock in relation to the popularity of popular music videos? What do you think creates shock?

By “shocking,” I think she means “transgressive.” It used to be that the censors would remove suggestions of sex from TV shows. Then you could show kissing, then we finally got to the point where you could show just about everything except genitals. Then the first “lesbian kiss” on TV made national news. Now it’s a naked ex-Disney kid, suggesting that she’s giving a blow job to a hammer. It’s a pretty simple process, really.

And I’d point out that there are plenty of shocking or transgressive things that “people” (or, large numbers of them) totally ignore. E.g., the videos of Die Antwoord, or Yoko Ono’s (see her recent attempt to buck this trend by getting the remaining Beastie Boys + ?uestlove etc. to dance in it).

6) What do you think the relationship is between music videos and artist promotion? Why do you think music videos are considered sites for authoring an artist’s public image and identity?

Because they give us the illusion of access to the performer? Because they’re visual and audible?

7) How much control do you think a recording artist has over their public image versus how much is decided for them by their record labels and managers? Do you think there is a different level of control given to established artists than emerging artists?

This is another empirical question for which I don’t have data. Artist’s contracts are hard to see, as you know. But it’s pretty routine for managers and lawyers to leverage prior sales success into contracts that afford more creative freedom to artists.

I think it’s a strange, if totally reasonable, question for you to ask. What counts as “control” is totally subjective, and it’s an illusion to think that any artist, at any time, works without collaborating with others. When does collaboration turn into control? There are some famous disputes about this–Brian Wilson’s struggle to make “Smile” precisely as he wants it, or Axl Rose’s decade long struggle to make “Chinese Democracy”–both often-cited examples of when an artist who is *seen to have* control struggles to actually produce a product. Is this “good” control? Or what about poor Lana del Rey,* who was excoriated by the press for having an image-maker because she was “supposed” to be some kind of auteur? If she decided that having a manager change her clothes and singing style was in her best interest, do we have a right to conclude she “gave up control?”

There’s no right answer to this question, because the answers all depend on a constellation of expectations the answer-giver has about what counts as “control,” “decision,” etc.

* I notice that Pacific Standard Magazine changed the title of my article without asking me. That’s awesomely collegial.

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fall out

A quick station announcement: I’m posting somewhat regularly on my tumblr, which you can find here: http://whatitwhat.tumblr.com/. I haven’t had much time for composing my own thoughts, but I try to keep up with cat videos, etc.

A few things on my radar today:

1. The Times published an interview with Sree Sreenivasan, the new Chief Digital Officer at the MET. This should particularly interest my Arts Administration students, although the general interest reader may be curious about the ways in which old brick-and-mortar (arts) organizations are trying to incorporate online/digital material. Two tensions in the piece: the first concerns Sreenivasan’s qualifications and the other concerns how well “the art experience” works as digital media. The introduction proposes Sreenivasan’s qualifications lie in his work as a journalist, professor and CDO at Columbia, while his own answer emphasized his outsider’s role (as “fan”). Later in the interview, we do get some sense that he’s a frustrated fan: it was a “one-way love affair.” Presumably, the standard museum experience left him wanting, under-stimulated, less engaged than he would find ideal. So, can digital media, used well, turn one-way love affairs with benchmark arts organizations into sites of mutual affection? The interview suggests: as long as some people don’t get railroaded into an intrinsically, intellectually corrupt way of engaging art, to wit:

One of the worries in museums is all the people looking down at devices instead of looking up at the art.

The silly idea that pre-digital museum-goers were wildly, totally, and intellectually absorbed by the art but digital audiences are (because they are weak-spined? silly? less smart? less ‘cultured?’) under threat of losing that quality experience because they’re taking pictures of the art is…well, worth arguing about, I guess. But I wish those arguments didn’t so often (always?) relay on ancedata instead of actually working to develop measures of engagement that aren’t wickedly classist.

2. Lou Reed has died, and is bitching about something in rock and roll heaven. I’m tempted–particularly after a rout of “remember when New York was creative, energetic, not-so-rich” conversations to follow with some trite pronouncement: MY NEW YORK IS DYING. But my New York, whatever that is, would be resolutely determined not to fall into rosy nostalgia. Fuck the past.

3. An online, ungated piece from the New Yorker on Iron Mountain, a huge bunker of archived materials including the Sony master recordings (Or, some of them. Hard to tell from the article.). The profile is rosy and celebratory, and I can’t figure out why.  First, Iron Mountain managers haven’t managed to make the place fireproof (major fires in 1997 and 2005). What would be more important about a valuables storage space (after the security) than climate control and fire-safeness? Second, Iron Mountain keeps losing the things they’re saving. They lost a bunch of IBM data in 2012, and they lost a bunch of Louisiana college applicant data in 2007, to name just two incidents of many. So, they accomplish neither climate control nor security. The final concern I have is really with the federal government’s failure to realize that these Sony master recordings (and those of other entertainment companies) are a part of our cultural heritage and should be protected as such. We shouldn’t be relying on private companies to archive these materials because the need to cut costs could result in ineffective preservation and we’d lose part of our history. The best comment I’ve read on this topic is Bill Ivey’s book Arts, Inc. Instead of a puff piece, we need a serious, engaged, and critical piece about the preservation of our entertainment heritage. I work pretty cheap, all things considered. Holla!

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equity

PL drew my attention to this post which details how Carnegie Mellon increased the proportion of women in their computer science major from 7 to 42%. The recipe is pretty simple:

  • Reach out to high school students and educate their teachers about gender equity
  • Focus on potential and not just achievement during the admissions process
  • Broaden the focus of entry-level courses in the major
  • Provide social support, mentoring, and programming to and for female majors

Presumably, much of this could be translated into programs to recruit and train members of other groups (e.g., Native Americans, the blind). What would not work in programs for these other groups, do you think?

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banding together, later

My colleague Eric Weisbard was kind enough to review my first book, Banding Together, at the Journal for Popular Music Studies. [Behind a paywall, I’m afraid.] This made me extremely happy, not only because of the respect I have for Eric and his knowledge of American popular music, but also because this brings the book into a conversation with music specialists, an extremely smart and important audience for my ideas.

I have, thus far, not responded to reviews of the book, and for several reasons. Primary among them is my belief that readers are entitled to their opinions and if I feel they have the wrong opinion about my work, my time is better spent improving my arguments (and prose?) to ensure that my future pieces are more clear and less open to mis-interpretation.

I was moved to respond to Eric’s review on social media because there’s a sort of ‘tradition’ (if you can call it that) of lively intellectual discussion among music experts on these status threads. And once I had written a thank you and a comment I thought: why not post it on WITW?

I apologize to those of you who don’t have access to the [gated] review; I can’t repost it here or I’ll violate the intellectual property rights of at least the journal, if not also Eric. If I can clarify anything to help this make sense, just pop into the comments.

Here’s my response (omitting the totally sincere thanks that open my comment on the thread):

Just to clarify my position: musical styles (and the borders between them) are not ‘out there’ in the world, as objective entities, but are rather produced by music communities which include fans, music journalists and academics, Billboard chart makers, record industry professionals, club owners and so forth. The book is based on a careful analysis of how they (musical communities) carve up the world of sound, and how that changes over time. Musicological genres are neither natural nor inevitable, and I hope the book demonstrates how a messy and wonderfully complex world of sound ends up being presented to us (by so many otherwise smart people) as if it were always neatly bundled into these things called ‘genres.’ The fact that musicological boundaries are subject to dispute, and are mutable, is one of the reasons I propose a substitution of those (mutable, musicological) categories with a sociological definition of genre–one that the AgSIT trajectory illustrates in the U.S. case. [And I’m eager to note that I devote a substantial amount of text to non-U.S. cases.] So I was surprised and disappointed to read that you felt I “offer little historical periodization of the development of popular music genres across stylistic categories.” Were I to describe the book’s primary purpose, I couldn’t find a better sentence. I would have instead expected non-sociologists to complain that my substitution of the sociological definition for genre places it “beyond music” and looses something as a result. And my response to that, of course, is that thinking orthogonally about such things is often generative, as I’m glad you’ve found in the case of Pete’s work. And while I am very much in debt, personally and intellectually, to Pete, I’d like readers to understand that my book–whatever it’s merits–are the result of my own labor (a content analysis of over 300 books [ed: I should have said ‘books and articles’] on 64 styles of 20th century music) and not derivative of the work of some (forgive me Pete) smart white guy.

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crossing brooklyn wary

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!

The VMAs of the past, and those of the future; The gory sights like beads on my smallest blog posts–on the walk in Jay Z’s house, and the passage over the river (the B, D, A, or C to the L, which isn’t in service so I switch back to an F); The trains rushing swiftly in richer neighborhoods, and none in the Rockaways; The others that are to follow me, their glances at my blog; The certainty of Tumblr–the life, love, sight, hearing of Brooklyn.

IMG_0782Welcome to the 2013 VMA live-blogging experienco. We’re in Brooklyn this year, which is a place you might have heard of, since that’s where funny mustaches, “mixologists” with suspenders, and Jay Z are from. It’s also apparently where David and Victoria Beckham conceived one of their children, and the first name of Andy Roddick’s wife. I’m sure there’s going to be a fuzzy mid-show package that will remind you that Brooklyn is also home to Coney Island and the Rockaways and they’re still recovering from Sandy, and I strongly encourage you to support the efforts of Occupy Sandy.

One of the things to say straight off is that State Farm Insurance sponsored the pre-show “new faces of pop music” (or whatever) and that tells you some important information about what’s happening here. But I’m not doing the pre-show, so I’ll see you in 15.

Act 1 (pre show): Keeping with the Walt Whitman theme, my colleague’s joke about “Leaves of Chronic” is brought to you by whomever runs the Gaga green room. That’s what wicked faded looks like, kids!

Act 2 (opener): Gaga close-up in what is possibly one of those full-body rubber suits in the shape of a tooth. Smart fans floss! There’s pretty intense booing, possibly because it turns out she’s in a nun’s habit with a square face-framing hat until WHOAH she’s dressed in the black leotard show outfit from A Star Is Born. And then a sparkly blue suit of an Upper East Side accountant out at dinner. That’s off and on with a neon yellow wig and it slowly dawns on us that this is a very silly Martha Graham tribute. Until the moment she comes out in a clamshell bikini which is just as unsexy as you’d imagine it would be after seeing her dressed as a nun, an accountant, and Martha Graham. SCENE.

One Direction in so much black presenting Best Pop Video: Selena Gomez’s first hug is to Taylor Swift who immediately commences the most awkward snake-like dancing I’ve seen outside the Bulgarian Disco.

This commercial break goes out to Time Warner cable who is incapable of providing me with a cable signal that doesn’t skip out the audio for four seconds about once a minute.

Fosse, dammit. The Gaga reference was Fosse, not Graham. (#vmaregrets #likebooking2Chainz)

Someone and someone: Miley Cyrus twerking song starts with a closeup on a big teddy bear which she’s also wearing on her body suit. And the backup dancers are either dressed in bear suits or holding huge bears on their backs. One of whom is throwing candy into the crowd. I bother with the description because a whole group of human beings interested in making money got together and green-lighted this, from the writing of the song all the way down to this pederast’s fantasy. And she got the gig of singing Robin Thicke’s SONG OF THE SUMMER with him, so she chose to strip off the fancy bear corset, and is now grinding into him, tongue out, in a nude leather bikini with one of those rubber sports hand/finger gloves shooting out from between her legs. And now we get 2Chainz rapping up the hallway while Thicke’s dancers are holding up craft (glitter, tinsel) versions of a Picasso and a watch and then a mini yacht paper mache float rolls across the stage and it occurs to me that there might be LSD in my Glenfiddich. Unless you’re seeing this disaster, too.

I’m just going to get this out of the way: I love me some Lil’ Kim. She’s co-presenting Best Hip Hop Video: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Let’s hope they opine on race relations in America, or possibly Drake’s eyes and/or relationship with Amanda Bynes. “They let some independent hip hop artists up here at the VMAs.” Which, as you can imagine, is the preface to one of those acceptance speeches that one hit wonders often make, e.g., “I. Am. An. ARTIST.”

I don’t know what we can do to repair the damage that Miley Cyrus has done. I don’t even know how you’d begin a conversation with your kids about that, let alone how you’d know when you were done.

Kevin Hart: in which we get a joke about Gaga’s ass and “gams” and then a joke about Miley Cyrus getting a pregnancy test, and then Robin Thicke gets just a regular, not misogynistic compliment. Keep it classy, MTV.

Jared Leto introducing Kanye West. “Strange Fruit” is what he went with? Nothing says “party in Brooklyn!” like lynching? And OHMYGERD they’re bleeping out all the “nigga” variants in the verse, which eliminates all sound.

There’s really nothing to say about that, is there? I mean, that’s not even “stripped down”–one skrim with a photo of a garden, most of the song he’s in shadow writhing around, and the song’s like a neat 3 minutes. Meh.

Oh, dispatch from email: Cee Lo Green is joining the New Power Generation folks at the City Winery show tonight. Doors at 1145.

Pharrell, Nile Rogers, Daft Punk commercial precedes actual appearance on stage in confusing WHICH ONE IS THE COMMERCIAL moment. They’re presenting Best Female Video to Taylor Swift. And she doesn’t miss the opportunity to point out that winning a VMA is her revenge against “you know who you are” who inspired the song.

Ed Sheeran presenting Best Video with a Social Message, WHICH IS A THING? I can’t believe that Miley Cyrus isn’t in the running.

Okay, the Macklemore song about same sex love wins, and that seems exactly right, if “social message” means, “articulating the widely held values in our society.” But “gay rights are human rights” my man. I agree. Hear us roar, Russia. We’re coming for you.

Time to re-up. Tepid performances still enough to melt the drink out of my glass.

On second thought, I’m more happy with the Kanye performance. And super creeped out by Miley.

When did MTV shows turn into an all day Jerry Springer marathon?

Jimmy Fallon brought his black suit to introduce Justin Timberlake, who won the Michael Jackson lifetime award thingie. Calls him “The President of Pop,” which I can’t believe hasn’t already been given out or maybe calls for re-election?

I’m a minute into the performance and the most important question is: is he wearing a dickie? He should really be making more of the fact that those Brooklyn mixologists really stole everything but the mustache from  JT’s wardrobe.

I have the sound up so loud that the synth sounds are pilling up like an old sweater, by the way. And there’s the ‘Nsync reunion you read about on twitter. Complete with the “cock the shotgun” move. BYE BYE BYE.

I totally loved this, but I’d have loved it more with fewer shots of Taylor Swift dancing, One Direction drinking a beer, Gaga’s clamshell bikini, and Rihanna nodding off. But I’d keep Jimmy Fallon as my hype man.

It looks like we’re at the 1.5 hour mark and the VMAs will apparently remain, for the whateverith consecutive year, a visual word salad of empty signifiers, a contemptuous treatment of sexuality, and awkward transitions.

My video froze for some reason, but Kevin Hart is yet again talking about Lady Gaga’s ass because nothing says humor like repeating the bad joke, twice.

So they’ve invented “Song of the Summer” because it only look them whateverinth times to realize that was a real thing and would allow them to book an artist and a song that people might actually still be listening to (hear me, Macklemore?).  And we get to vote! And somehow One Direction wins for a song that I, as a music effing expert, have heard exactly once. Even though Daft Punk obviously had the song of the summer. This is what happens when you let teenagers vote which is a lesson to you. Keep sending them to war though, ’cause that also really makes sense. They know exactly what they’re doing.

A$AP Rocky and Jason Collins (he’s basketball?) so that the latter can use an anecdote from his grams to talk about bigotry as A$AP Rocky hams it up and prepares to MENTION HIS ALBUM. Jesus.

Mackelmore now gets to sing “Same Love.”  And the big reveal is Jennifer Hudson who comes in to sing the final verses. Which is lovely in a sentimental way that I have no tolerance for after the hell I’ve been subjected to, see: commercials, Miley.

Can we discuss these really strange Kia commercials with the skeevy bar/gym rat hampsters (mice?)?

This is the time in every year’s VMA that I realize my life is speeding by and I have nothing to show for it. Not because I should be on stage, but because I shouldn’t be watching.

Artist to watch, aka artists with good PR firms: Austin Mahone? I suppose the award has served it’s purpose since my reaction is a massive who?

T-Boz and Chilli from TLC: possibly another reality show? Introducing Drake. Who starts with a close up shot of his ugly face, amirite Amanda? ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

I do want to know what Rihanna’s friend’s got in that popcorn bucket tho.

Jayden Smith was FREAKING THE F*CK out at Drake, which is exactly what I’d expect from the Karate Kid. Or Xenu.

Prepare for your snoozy overlord.

And because the people I know are wicked, there’s already a funny/smart post on the 7 Things Kanye West might have worn tonight, if we could have seen what he was wearing.

Oh wait, there IS A NEW REALITY SHOW WITH TLC. (I do this for a living folks. Habitus at play.)

Taylor Swift presenting Best Male Video. She’s a great spokesperson to represent respect for men, since she’s involved in a multi-album harassment campaign of every man she’s ever dated. Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven.” And who’s the Roy Orbison meets Porn Producer friend he just man hugged? Birds want to know who to call.

Eminem is selling Dre’s headphones?

The Challenge Rivals II seems like it gives a really compelling insight into

And there’s a Jackass film.

This is the end of civilization.

Selena Gomez introducing Bruno Mars. I’ve never dug a single song of his partly because he always strikes me as someone prone to temper tantrums. The stamping-foot-on-the-floor type.

Or is he just short?

No amount of lasers and fire bursts are going to make me pretend this song has soul.

If Prince and Phil Collins had a baby, would it be Bruno Mars?

Katy Perry with a boxing robe labeled “Lioness” feels pure Brooklyn, amirite? Like, “32 year old woman gets iPhone stolen in 78th precinct” Brooklyn?

Is there enough of this to go that I need another re-up? I can’t actually send this to a vote because then I’ll be drinking a big glass of One Direction.

By the way, here’s the Smith family watching Miley Cyrus. It is everything.

BSkBoETCEAEvqiA

Video of the year: Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” He’s now wearing a reverse dickey. I hope this dickey issue is in the news tomorrow.

Also, Drake’s 5 Gum edge:

BSj-xIeIcAABtSZOh yes.

Here we go: Katy Perry on the Brooklyn bridge. ROAR. Other than making money, what exactly is she the champion of? Has she ever stood for anything? Or maybe this is just another chapter in the Neverending Search for An Anthem To Replace Franklin’s “Respect” and/or Parton’s “9-to-5?” GIRLZ NEEDZ ANTHEMS.

Perry just totally did the Bush “Mission Accomplished” thing!

So, that’s it. The war on pop rages, but Perry declares victory.

Maybe we’ll manage some kind of wrap up post tomorrow, or just keep posting screen shots. Thanks to the four of you who chatted, and the hundreds more who sat silently, marveling that an otherwise completely sane and interesting person would live blog this nonsense. See you in 2014.

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remindah

Just a friendly reminder that I’m going to live-blog the drop-crotch pants off tonight’s MTV VMAs. Show starts at 9 EST. There is some threat of guests, and of Glenfiddich.

feel-trapped-relationship-with-myself-cry-for-help-ecards-someecards

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county

Who wants to do the due diligence to find out why this map is so wonky? [A Google Maps visualization of every protest on the globe since 1979.] Why so few protests in the same cities throughout the 70s? And why the throbbing wall of lights these recent years with no up-tick in media awareness of the extent of mobilization? What is being counted here, and why is it wrong?

 

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