Quick hit: Vibe magazine is back…

with an 808 and it’s bossy.

Anyway, I digress.  Vibe, one of the premier (if not the premier) hip-hop magazines, officially folded about 6 weeks ago under a whole bunch of debt.  It’s being resurrected first as an online-only publication, and its new management hopes to subsequently put it back in print (albeit with a bit of a new spin on the business end).

I always feel that the more written about music (well, the more well-informed, insightful pieces written about music) the better–music is so important, and so useful for understanding other aspects of life and society, that it’s good to have lots of minds thinking and talking about it.

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?

Torture music

No, I’m not talking about the endless loop of Journey coming from the frat across the street again.  While music is usually a positive thing, unfortunately our military and intelligence agencies have decided to use it against “enemy combatants” in the war on terror.  The Society for Ethnomusicology, the professional association of ethnomusicologists, condemned this practice in 2007.  It took the American Musicological Society (the equivalent for musicologists) until 2008 to get around to taking a stand but hey, better late than never.

It’s been known for a while that American pop music has been projected into battlefields and used in torture chambers to get suspects to crack–both by offending their morals and/or aesthetic taste.  It’s usually part of a more sinister and well-honed torture method (laid out in chilling detail in Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, which I’m only now getting around to reading), in which our spooks (or, you know, other countries’ spooks that we subcontract) first deprive prisoners of any sensory input and then flood them with stimulus in the form of strobe lights, electroshocks and loud music.  This causes prisoners to regress to a childlike state, lose aspects of their memories and become extremely vulnerable to the power of suggestion–which is how torturers get confessions out of these guys.

That’s where this list from Mental Floss via the WSJ comes in.  The CIA’s top choices?

1) Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA.” I really don’t like Springsteen either–I think it’s the terrible drum machine.  I hope that doesn’t make me a suspected terrorist.

2) Christina Aguilera, “Dirrty.” Apparently the interrogators chose this one because its sexual content would offend the moral views of some of the stricter Muslim suspects.  I hadn’t seen this video in a while–I forgot about those horrendous assless chaps she used to wear.  Remember when she came on the scene in the late 90s and she was the classy one out of all the teen pop stars (which she kind of is again given the Britney trainwreck)?  Like, my grandma bought me the album with “Genie in a Bottle” on it.

3) Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” I mean, it’s not the greatest song ever, but I don’t think I’d crack after listening to it for a long time (except for maybe that part where the bass line sounds like the bassist is just slowly detuning the instrument…).

4) AC/DC, “Shoot to Thrill” and “Hells Bells.” I dislike AC/DC so much that I am refusing to embed the clips.  Take that, Gitmo.

5) Barry Manilow’s oeuvre (so to speak). I will let this quote from the article speak for itself:

The New Zealand town of Christchurch recently blasted the crooner’s tunes throughout their central mall district to drive away the local punks who had been littering the area with graffiti, drinking in public and doing drugs.

I wonder how it feels to be the entire world’s punchline.

6) Barney the Dinosaur, “I Love You.” Given that 90s nostalgia is apparently au courant right now, just watch this clip and party like it’s 1993 (and you’re at preschool).  Note the dramatic half-step modulation around 0:31.

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