A few interesting links

Here are a few articles I’ve been interested in over the last few days:

  • The delightfully scathing Guy Trebay analyzes Lady Gaga’s fashion choices.  I like the comparison to mashups.
  • JDub and Nextbook announce a new partnership.  Interesting for young Jews who like Jewish things that aren’t kitschy, and for me given that both of the artists that I’m using as case studies for my thesis have been nurtured by JDub (note, I promise to discuss this at some point–I’ve been spending so much time on the research itself that I don’t ever feel like writing a blog post about it.  But blog I must.)
  • Check out this NYT lookback at how the rules of the music business have changed over the last 10 years (including an amusing story about the author’s first MP3 player, in 1998).  It’s a bit strange for me to read things like this, as my (and my peers’, of course) musical coming-of-age has coincided with all these crazy and unprecedented changes.  My preschool had a record player, which I used a lot, mostly to listen to Mahalia Jackson and Chubby Checker (!); after that I just rocked out in Suzuki violin training for a while until I developed musical tastes of my own in late elementary school or so.  In between, I was at the mercy of adults’ musical picks (from my 4th-grade teacher’s Concrete Blonde albums to my 5th grade teacher’s inexplicable love of 98 Degrees to my parents’ Paul Simon and Motown) and technological knowhow.  By the time I figured things out a little bit, iPods were ubiquitous (though I did have a well-loved Discman for quite a while).

Tuesday links: L’shanah tovah!

This week, more from the Times–an uplifting story for Rosh Hashanah and another article about World War Two music.

Damning with faint praise

I’m surprised that Jon Caramanica even bothered to review Colbie Caillat and Ingrid Michaelson in today’s New York Times. His ornery review is, however, a refreshing change from most of the hyperbole that’s written about pop.

What Caramanica dislikes most about these artists–that their work is bland and seems destined for a TV show soundtrack–is a telling exposure of a choice that they and/or their labels have likely made deliberately.  Music with that economic power is bland on purpose to make it attractive to a particular market, one that desires unobtrusiveness for one reason or another.

It seems to me to be a waste of a soundtrack to play music that has no effect on the visual drama.  The best soundtracks either heighten an aspect of the scene, bring out a detail that viewers might not otherwise notice, or ironically subvert what we’re seeing in some way.  We might not always be consciously noticing the music, but it should certainly have an effect on our experience of the show or film!

Why I was hoping Paula Abdul would stay on American Idol

The point of American Idol isn’t the music.  If viewers just wanted to hear good singers, they have any number of options that waste less time and brain cells than watching Idol once a week: that is, albums, YouTube videos, concert footage, etc.

Why do people watch it, then?  For the bad music.  That’s why it’s amusing: we can watch people like Alexis Cohen (RIP), William Hung, or Sanjaya.  Yeah, we love Jennifer Hudson (speaking of Motown style) and Adam Lambert because they can actually sing.  But we buy their albums and see their films regardless of American Idol–that is to say, they have appeal that can carry them beyond their 15 minutes of novelty fame.  But the other ones would never come to public attention without the show.

Better entertainment than some of the truly horrific performances, though, are the judges.  I’m not talking about Randy and Kara.  I mean Simon Cowell’s snark and Paula Abdul’s absurdity.  This last is what Salon writers hated on a few weeks ago:

…Paula Abdul is a disaster in slow motion.  Every time the camera turns its focus to her, she smiles weakly and looks embarrassed, then searches wildly for something to say.  She stumbles on her words, giggles nervously, and trails off halfway mid-sentence, or is interrupted by an impatient Cowell.  It’s like handing a 2-year-old a Mr. Microphone.

From the few times I’ve seen the show (and from my little brother Donovan’s testimony, who loves it so much that he once told me to call him back in an hour when I called him inadvertently during Idol to say happy birthday), this is more or less an accurate description.

Americans by and large don’t watch TV for competence (with the notable exception of successful shows like Mad Men, et al.).  We watch the talking heads spewing what we know to be inaccuracies (i.e. Lou Dobbs and the Obama birther conspiracy), reality shows that make a point of sleep-depriving and inebriating their contestants for maximum argument potential, etc.  I’m not judging; I’m just telling it like it is.

And we don’t watch American Idol to see good music.  We watch it to see Paula make a train wreck of herself, hope at least a few contestants do the same, listen to Simon tear both apart, and when all that’s over with, perhaps hear a decent singer or two.

That’s why I’m actually sad that Paula’s leaving, unlike Salon’s TV staff.  The pop-music phenomenon that is American Idol is, in the end, much more dependent on Americans’ taste for spectacular failure and the rare burst of success against steep odds: that is, more dependent on our ideas about the music business than on our ideas about the aesthetics of music itself.  Without the quirks of the many personalities involved in making it, Idol producers won’t have a show, even if they keep sifting through the chaff of the American quest for fame and finding decent performers.

UPDATE: Speaking of Obama birthers…Salon thinks Orly Taitz should be the next Paula Abdul.  Orly Taitz is indeed an amusing nutjob, but I’m more partial to their suggestion of Sarah Palin.  It’s perfect for all involved: America loves to watch Palin self-immolate (the fake America, that is–the real America loves her non-ironically); Palin loves America’s attention; Palin will need a job once she realizes that she has no chance in the next election cycle.  Courtney Love is potentially also a good choice, but she seems less pugilistic than Sarah Palin, which means she wouldn’t be as funny.

Like MySpace, but not tacky

My partner Matt (who runs a great transit blog that you should check out) and I were having a discussion just last night about Napster, iTunes, file sharing and the fact that old-school major labels are generally dinosaurs.  We came to the conclusion that artists would start using the internet almost exclusively to distribute their product directly to consumers and that the failure of the big labels to understand this–as evidenced by their quixotic crusade against file sharing–is going to kill them sooner rather than later.

Imagine my surprise when I was clicking through the NYT this morning and found this article (admittedly a couple days old, whoops) about how Radiohead’s manager is setting up ways to do just that.  If this works, I think it’ll be fantastic–a way for artists to retain artistic AND financial control over their own work.

I think it will also eventually weed out a lot of the terrible artists we see that are created and promoted by the major players in the entertainment business (cough, Disney child stars) as they won’t have the drive and hustle to make it work without a significant amount of talent and artistic merit backing them up.

From the article, it seems like EMI is the only major label with the foresight to diversify their business plan enough (by creating a music services division) to adapt to what artists want, so perhaps they’ll survive.  With the high quality of home-studio-type technology and a website, most artists won’t need a label or outside company to do much more than promotion and merchandising (or pressing things like vinyl limited editions), so I think EMI’s move is really smart.

The best thing about all this is that it places the control back in the artists’ hands and will give consumers a lot of access to innovative good music at reasonable prices.  One small step for the music business, one giant leap for listening-kind.

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