Ke$ha, naked ladies in France and the 1893 World’s Fair

Matt recently told me about Ke$ha’s new video, “Take It Off,” with the caveat that it is, if possible, worse than “TiK ToK.”  At first I wasn’t going to watch it, but it exerted a pull upon me not unlike that of a horrible accident on the side of the highway.  And then I was glad I had, because it’s intellectually interesting, if aurally assaulting:

If you have spent any time in an American elementary school, you will immediately recognize the tune: it’s “The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid,” aka the “Hootchy Cootchy Song,” aka “There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance/There’s a hole in the wall where the boys can see it all…”

But rather than naked ladies in France, there is apparently a place downtown where the freaks all come around–it’s a hole in the wall, it’s a dirty free-for-all where the preferred accessory is a water bottle full of whiskey in one’s purse.  There is also glitter on the floor.

Wikipedia has a pretty good rundown of the history of the melody: originally written for, or at least best known for its early appearance at, the 1893 World’s Fair (which took place just a few blocks from me!), it served as the music for two belly dancers (I don’t love this term, but I don’t know a better one) who appeared at said fair.  An alternate theory about the origins of the tune posits that it is related to one of several Algerian melodies that perhaps migrated to France in the context of the colonial encounter in Maghrebi Africa.

The ethnographic excursions at this fair were bound up in all the colonialist/Orientalist nonsense that was in full swing at the time, and long story short, this tune has since been frequently used to depict salacious “exotic”/Arab/North African female behavior of the kind that frequently shows up in Orientalist film, music, opera, literature, visual art, and so forth.  Think “Sheherazade,” harems, a dirtier version of Disney’s Aladdin, etc.  You’ve probably heard it in any form of media that wants to quickly depict deserts, sexy dancing girls, “the Orient,” snake charmers, and all the usual stereotypes.

Interestingly, Ke-dollar sign-ha positions herself in a highly sexualized, somewhat “exotic” role in this video (and in her public self-representations more generally).  She “goes hardcore,” wears clothes that fall on the unconventional end of the normal spectrum, frequently acts like a wild animal (that hair!  crawling around on the desert floor!  ripped clothes! that eye makeup!  think of the children!) and portrays herself as an out-of-control, trashy-as-all-get-out partier (this is now her second song where she’s referenced doing things with whiskey–using it as toothpaste and carrying bottles around in her purse–that fall firmly in the realm of “alcoholism”).

I also find her evocation (intentional or not) of the Hindu holiday of Holi really fascinating (and problematic), especially in the context of the “Hootchy Cootchy Song.”  One of the primary customs observed for Holi is the throwing of colored powders and water, just as Ke$ha, et al do in this video.  Somewhat like Purim and Carnival, Holi is festive and the world is a bit topsy-turvy for a set period of time as the forces of good/order and evil/chaos battle it out (good and order, of course, eventually win out).  This is, of course, a massive oversimplification, and you should go read about it if you’re interested, but it gets the job done for the point I’m making.

So, what are the implications of linking this exoticizing, Orientalist, sort of salacious song with Hindu religious customs and bratty female-rock-star behavior that tries to be convention-defying but (at least to my mind) ends up being trashy and boring?  I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think I’m down with it.

Data sonification: more fun than you ever had in high school statistics

Here are two things that I think are really cool:

  • Thermonuclear Testing, Made Into Music, 1945-1998 (h/t Wayne Marshall): an aural/visual representation of all the thermonuclear tests that were done in the world in the given time period.  The staggering number of tests, juxtaposed with the almost delicate beauty of the colorful dots and sounds, took me a while to process emotionally.
  • Dodgers Musical History (h/t Matt Meltzer): Here, the creator assigned a musical note to each outcome of each season the Dodgers have been in existence, layered over a beat.  Pretty nice way to condense a lot of data, and it doesn’t sound half-bad.

Brian Eno on recorded vs. live experiences

The Walrus recently highlighted an interview with Brian Eno about his latest multimedia work, “77 Million Paintings.”  Here’s a clip of Eno speaking about the difference between experiencing a performance live and experiencing a recording of it.  He’s got a lot of interesting things to say about the pros and cons of each, and about how each observer/audience member processes any given performance in his or her own way.  It’s interesting to think about this as a commentary on how our cultural and communal experiences of listening to and thinking about music have changed since the invention of recording, and the popularization of the phonograph.

Reincarnating the Beatles–and redefining musicianship in the process?

I know I’m late on this, but I had better things to do (such as make money!)…anyway, last weekend’s New York Times Magazine had a long article on the forthcoming game The Beatles: Rock Band which I think is worth looking at.

If you are an American between the ages of 15 and 30 and participate in any kind of social life with your peer group, you have almost certainly heard of Rock Band, even if you haven’t played it.  The standard version of the game allows you to select an avatar (usually wearing some ridiculous/awesome leopard-print outfit) and form a “band” with your real-life buddies’ avatars, and then you select various classic/hit songs to play using plastic instruments following color-coded music notation on the screen.  (Say that three times fast.)

The classic version of Rock Band allows you to pick any variety of songs–any artist, any style, any era offered in the game–to make a set list or to play one at a time.  While it attempts to recreate aspects of the performing experience, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: the point is to have a good time with your friends, not to earnestly make-believe that you’re a rock star.

The Beatles: Rock Band aims at a much more “realistic” experience (whatever that means within the context of a video game…).  The creators (along with Ringo, Paul, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono) are trying to re-create specific concerts, specific recording sessions, etc.  Yet at the same time they gloss over many of the difficulties the Beatles had toward the end of their career together, because they’re attempting to keep the real purpose of the game in mind:

“This isn’t an archival project, it’s a game,” [producer Giles Martin] said.  “It’s entertainment.  That’s what they [the Beatles] were doing here in the first place.  Later, people attached all sorts of significance to it, but they’d be the first to tell you that what they wanted most was to entertain people.”

The point Martin makes–that the purpose of Rock Band in any of its iterations is entertainment–is precisely why I, unlike a few musicians I know, don’t think it will hurt “real” music-making in the slightest, and might even advance the cause.  (The Times reporter more or less agrees with me here.)

One thing I’ve noticed is that people who don’t play instruments (I’m including voice here) often have unrealistic ideas about what it takes to be a competent musician: depending on the instrument and style, they either think it’s really easy (guitar, pop vocals) or really really difficult beyond any average person’s ability (orchestral instruments, opera singing).

The truth is somewhere in the middle: most of the aspects of technique that go into learning any instrument are not that difficult.  The hard part is doing them over and over again until they become second nature.  Anecdotally, it seems to me that most people quit making music not because they’re “bad,” but because they can’t or won’t put in the time.  According to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (which I haven’t read, but this trope has been making the rounds) expertise is achieved after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice of a certain skill, whether in athletics, chess, music, or what have you.  As a Suzuki teacher, this makes sense: according to the method’s founder, Shinichi Suzuki, the key to being a great musician is “practicing only on the days that you eat”–a tongue-in-cheek way of approximating this 10,000-hour rule.

Rock Band is like learning an instrument (albeit simplified): each of the individual techniques, such as pressing a guitar button, hitting a drum pad, etc., is not at all hard.  But getting them in the right order and at the right time takes practice.  In my experience, people who play real instruments aren’t inspired to quit because of Rock Band, and most Rock Band players who didn’t play an instrument to begin with aren’t going to be inspired to start because of their favorite video game.

The real benefit is twofold: musicians get a chance to unwind and play music for fun, instead of for a grade, a gig or an audition; and non-musicians get a chance a) to understand, in a small way, what it takes to be a good musician and b) to get a small taste of the satisfaction of rehearsing and the thrill of performing–why musicians do what we do.

Soviet kitsch (not the Regina Spektor kind)

So this isn’t strictly music…but this line of thinking can certainly apply to musical analysis as well.  Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has an interesting examination of dictatorial kitsch (thanks to my partner Matt for bringing it to my attention).  Check out the picture behind Clinton and Kim Jong Il in the article–I’m sure this is not the first time you’ve seen or heard some form of dictatorial art and thought, “My G-d, this is TERRIBLE.”

What’s interesting to me about this take on Soviet kitsch is its implicit assertion that only art from totalitarian regimes (or from similar circumstances) is “ideological.”  It’s clearly more blatantly ideological than, say, Thomas Kinkade’s work.  But scratch the surface of any cultural product and you’ll find ideology or politics of some kind.  Let’s scratch Thomas Kinkade real quick for argument’s sake.

Take a look at some of his work and try to answer these questions: What lifestyle does he normatize by his portrayal of what is “all-American”?  In his blandness, what settings does he expect will be familiar and unfamiliar to his viewers?  How do you think Kinkade feels about cities?  What kind of people do you think live in his “regular all-American” cottages and on his Main Streets?  He’s not trying to push a creepy cult of personality in the same way as Kim or Saddam, but he’s pushing something, for sure.  (Note–I don’t mean that Kinkade is trying to control his audience in any way, for good or bad.  I’m just saying that artists are shaped by, and shape, their ideological milieux, and that it’s important to think about how and why this is happening.)

Within the musical realm, we always turn to Shostakovich as the classic example of audio art influenced (or constrained) by totalitarianism, and programmatic readings of his work are quite popular among armchair conductors and critics.  What ideological message might be implicit in, say, Philip Glass’s work?  In Beyoncé’s work?  In American Idol?

“Poker Face” ad nauseam

An email that my good friend David sent yesterday:


Yeah, what.  Why on earth would this be considered a suitable orchestral piece?  It’s DANCE MUSIC for heaven’s sake–I don’t really see orchestra subscribers getting nasty in the aisles of the Kimmel to this soundtrack (or any other soundtrack, really).

When I first heard “Poker Face,” it really grated on me as I usually don’t like music that is quite so electronically processed (and it was being played EVERYWHERE too).  Also, I thought the latex leggings and Dalmatians were creepy.  At the time I was more aware of the fact that Lady Gaga wears pants as infrequently as possible, and figured that if that was her main claim to fame, she couldn’t put out very good music.

Then I read the Rolling Stone profile (to which unfortunately I can’t find a good link) of her in May, which portrayed her as an interesting person trying to be the next Madonna by revolutionizing how sex is discussed/used/portrayed in pop music.  I don’t know if I buy that she’s on that path yet–the rhetoric around her sexuality and that of her music seems to be “OMG wear pants”/”Wait, she’s bi?” as opposed to anything really fresh–but it’s nice to see someone with a grander project in mind.

But I did run across this acoustic version of “Poker Face,” which shows that Lady Gaga actually has quite a good voice and a command of phrasing that’s better than many people’s.

Interesting what different versions of the same song can reveal.

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