I love you more: MoPOP Pop Conference 2018

At the best MoPOP Pop Conference of the last eleven years of intermittent attendance, I learned about the centrality of Geto Boy Bushwick Bill’s shortness to his rapping, that Taylor Swift and Spandau Ballet stare at each other across the wastes of history in the hopes of building castles out of all the things we critics threw at them, and smoked spaghetti and butternut squash soup are available at underground karaoke bars so long as you can endure my version of “Modern Love.” Did you know Karen Carpenter recorded a shelved solo album? Are you aware of the extent of Harry Styles and Young Thug’s fascination with feminine high fashion? Of the aesthetic and sexual fluidity of Associates singer Billy MacKenzie? Of how Seattlelites have a fealty to Uncle Val’s Gin exceeded only for their contempt for Miamians bearing umbrellas?

A safe space for a critical community assaulted by the sordid but inevitable union of the internet’s democratizing ethos and capitalism’s appetite for turning what is least fungible into the most expendable, the Pop Conference has an exceptional knack for collapsing what used to be called high and low culture; it has a special interest in the ways in which communities shape popular musics, for, let’s not forget, we live in those communities. In these eleven years of my attendance, I’ve seen how critics with journalism background have given electrical shockers to academic publications, and how research methods have deepened the reporting of the journalists where once these phenomena existed as a binary.

I was delighted to moderate a panel called “Contested Masculinities Across Pop” with stellar papers by Jenny Gathright, Marissa Lorusso, and Maria Sherman. I drank well, ate better, talked best. Here is When I’m Bad, I’m Better,” the paper I wrote on Angela Winbush and the politics of R&B crossover. Thanks to Ned Ragged and Kate Izquierdo, I’ve got audio of my presentation.

“Friends are fables of our loneliness,” J.D. McClatchy wrote in his poem “An Essay on Friendship,” or, to quote an artist cited a few times this weekend, thank you to “all the ladies and gentlemen/Who made this all so probable.” Eric Weisbard and his programming panel should feel proud. Let’s get back to work.

Worst Songs Ever: Poison’s ‘Unskinny Bop

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Poison’s “Unskinny Bop”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #3 in September 1990

There are bad Aerosmith rips and there are bad Aerosmith rips. At the peak of hair metal’s dominance, which coincided with Poison’s, “Unskinny Bop” hopscotched into the American top five on a riff that C.C. DeVille recorded five minutes after warming up to “Walk This Way.” And that’s fine! But “Unskinny Bop” is not a bop. It isn’t unskinny — and what the hell is “unskinny” anyway, and what makes it a bop? Is it because singer Brett Michaels goes BOP BOP BOP in the chorus?

Like I wrote, hair metal conquered all during this period of the Poppy Bush Interzone. Nelson’s “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” is the number I remember most from this period; even INXS’ “Suicide Blonde,” which I hasten to say I like, couldn’t escape sounding like a stick of dynamite thrown into a bathroom with Marlins Stadium acoustics. Poison’s last album, 1988’s Open Up and Say… Ahh!, scored three top tens, including the #1 rhinestone cowboy palooka ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and a cover of Loggins & Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance” that out-wimped its predecessor, a talent for which Poison doesn’t get enough credit. In 1990 the quartet could’ve released a cover of The Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician” and it would’ve been gone top five.

What we get instead is “Ungainly Tread,” garnished by a lead singer who thinks he’s got Steven Tyler’s gift for polysyllabic love jive but whose idea of the vernacular is to drop his g’s: on 2000’s Crack a Smile…and More! Michaels sings “Caught you masturbatin’/You rather be fornicating” as if he were Tom Selleck tongue-ing his own Hawaiian shirt (I know “Sexy Thing” because Spotify played it randomly after “Unskinny Bop” — Glenn McDonald, you have explainin’ to do). As for “Unskinny Bop,” Tom Selleck is Grant McLennan next to a singer who prefers Gene Simmons’ poetry. “You got too many bees in your honey,” Michael rasps, as DeVille ‘s riffs keep igniting fires that could burn a tick off a dog’s coat. To their credit, as readers can see, Poison had a rare gift for the ellipses-exclamation point combination.

Reminded of the millions sold by “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” Poison released the Sensitive Ballad “Something to Believe In Next.” It hit #4, and although MTV watchers would be fooled into thinking “Ride the Wind” was massive it sputtered at #38, their worst performance since 1987. They would find nuthin’ but a hard time after The Nirvana Effect gave radio programmers and A&R man a convenient reason to stop playing music that had long since stopped getting them laid. Give Poison this: if Candlebox had released their own “Unskinny Bop” we might’ve laughed with them.

Singles 4/27

From Korean group Twice to Janelle Monae, the artists below could hide neither their ebullience nor a determination to explain themselves, garishly, intensely, or sketchily, as the case requires.

Click on links for full reviews.

Twice – What Is Love? (8)
Blue October – I Hope You’re Happy (7)
Janelle Monáe ft. Grimes – Pynk (7)
Nicki Minaj – Barbie Tingz (6)
Florence + The Machine – Sky Full of Song (6)
lovelytheband – Broken (5)
The Weeknd – Call Out My Name (5)
Kenny Chesney – Get Along (4)
Famous Dex – Japan (4)
Dennis Lloyd – Nevermind (3)
Migos ft. Drake – Walk It Talk It (3)
Zayn – Let Me (3)

My favorite debut albums

I realize country is woefully underrepresented, in part thanks to the singles-plus-filler that dominate the genre.

1. Pretenders – Pretenders
2. Guns ‘N Roses – Appetite for Destruction
3. Change – The Glow of Love
4. Saint Etienne – Foxbase Alpha
5. The Beatles – Please Please Me
6. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die
7. Television – Marquee Moon
8. Dwight Yoakam – Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.
9. Miranda Lambert – Kerosene
10. Kehlani – SweetSexySavage
11. Steely Dan – Can’t Buy a Thrill
12. Madonna – Madonna
14. Missy Elliott – Supa Dupa Fly
15. Wu-Tang – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
16. Elastica – Elastica
17. Erykah Badu – Baduizm
18. D’Angelo – Brown Sugar
19. Bill Withers – Just As I Am
20. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…
21. Velvet Underground & Nico – Velvet Underground & Nico
22. New York Dolls – New York Dolls
23. Luther Vandross – Never Too Much
24. Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted
25. Nas – Illmatic
26. Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt
27. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
28. Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner
29. M.I.A. – Arular
30. ABC – The Lexicon of Love
31. The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms
32. R.E.M. – Murmur
33. The Clash – The Clash
34. Wire – Pink Flag
35. Roxy Music – Roxy Music
36. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
37. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
38. Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets
39. Big & Rich – Horse of a Different Color
40. Funkadelic – Funkadelic

‘Zama’ takes cool approach to obsession

Whether John Boorman, Terrence Malick, or Werner Herzog is behind the camera, films about European contact with indigenous peoples tend to abjure a hard narrative line in favor of a imagistic collage that often gets “hallucinatory” slapped on it like a sell-by sticker. It’s as if the concatenation of history, myth, and the director’s personal obsessions demand nothing else. Zama is more imagistic and narrative-wary than the competition, but it’s not obsessive. Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl, La Ciénaga), returning to film nine years after the extraordinary The Headless Woman, depicts the frustrations of a mid-level administrator in a colonial backwater in modern-day Paraguay, awaiting the royal letter approving a transfer. Zama will be a tough sell: a fictional film about frustration whose rhythm is circuitous, its developments oblique.

When the film opens, our helpless functionary Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) fills the frame as he stares out to sea; in the background native children play. By the time Zama ends the scene will play as irony, for it’s the natives who loom in the imagination of Don Diego and who exact a price for the banal humiliations of Spanish rule. Martel makes this clear in the next sequence: the interrogation of a prisoner for unspoken crimes. But will he be tortured into confessing? Don Diego says no. The absence of soul-searching — Don Diego could’ve been asked if he wanted sugar in his cafe — and the obliqueness with which Martel and editors Miguel Schverdfinger and Karen Harley shape the sequence smudge the question of responsibility. Instead, the prisoner offers a proverb of sorts about a fish “fighting water that seeks to cast it upon dry land.” Appropriate — Don Diego’s impasse is sexual too. Although he flirts with the married Luciana (Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas), her response is akin to a member of the royal court patronizing a bureaucrat. Certainly Luciana lives in the grand manner: Martel’s camera coolly notes the black servants unceasingly fanning the thick humid air.

I looked to Martel’s coolness as one might for the sight of a familiar face in a multitude. With each scene Zama‘s narrative becomes more fractured, a series of fascinating dead ends that are the cinematic correlative of Don Diego’s plight. The fresh, docile expression of a llama, which shares frame space with our protagonist when he pleads his case with the indifferent governor, is a witty touch; The music — a bewitching miscellany of Los Indios Tabajaros’s surf music and electronic whooshes, the latter used during Don Diego’s moments of highest stress — complements the impeccable period decor and costume, itself a complement to a present of cholera and spider wasps,.

Based on the 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama gathers momentum in its final act. Don Diego, as if willing himself to do something, joins a posse in search of a mystery man, accused of many crimes. The journey ends as it must when the men confront a tribe; violence ensues; blood is shed. The tones and colors with which cinematographer Rui Poças has played become lurid, best seen in a scene where Don Diego’s mate sleeps on a dead horse. Don Diego learns his fate; to quote Thomas Hardy, “Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Don Diego.

GRADE: A-

I don’t wanna have to pay for this: The best adult contemporary #1s of the 2000 and 2010s

Notice I smushed two decades together as the reigns at #1 get longer. From Faith Hill and Savage Garden and anthems by Lee Ann Womack and Martina McBride to Adele and Justin Timberlake. It was the era of Daniel Powter and James Blunt‘s skin-crawlingly sincere retrenches of ’70s soft rock.

An awful lot of Christmas tunes topped the lists too.

1. Taylor Swift – You Belong With Me
2. Lee Ann Womack – I Hope You Dance
3. Matchbox 20 – Unwell
4. Martina McBride – This One’s For the Girls
5. Lady Antebellum – Need You Now
6. Adele – Rolling in the Deep
7. Pink – Try
8. John Mayer – Waiting on the World to Change
9. Coldplay – Viva La Vida
10. Justin Timberlake – Can’t Stop the Feeling!
11. Rob Thomas – Lonely No More
12. Kelly Clarkson – Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)
14. OneRepublic – Counting Stars
15. Rob Thomas – Lonely No More
16. Miley Cyrus – The Climb
17. Enya – Only Time
18. Santana featuring Michelle Branch – The Game of Love
19. Nico & Vinz – Am I Wrong
20. Savage Garden – I Knew I Loved You

Bill Cosby’s sickest joke

Wesley Morris ponders the verdict in the Bill Cosby case:

This is the heavy thing about this verdict. The sorting of the ironies has been left to us. Mr. Cosby made blackness palatable to a country historically conditioned to think the worst of black people. And to pull that off, he had to find a morally impeccable presentation of himself and his race. This is what Sidney Poitier, his friend and movie partner, was always up against: inhabiting the superhumanly unimpeachable. But Mr. Cosby might have managed to pull a fast one, using his power and wealth to become the predator that white America mythologized in a campaign to terrorize, torture and kill black people for centuries. Mr. Cosby told lots of jokes. This was his sickest one.

This, and the president of the United States praising Kanye and Chance the Rapper (I will not link). Show your rage, but also remember Andrea Constand and the women, for whom justice has long been delayed.

A show of self: Ashley Monroe, Cardi B, John Prine

Ashley Monroe – Sparrow

For listeners who love strings, Dave Cobb can arrange them. Whether lending a baby-I’m-burnin’ urgency to “Hard on a Heart” or buttressing the I-love-my-baby ardor of “She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me),” they’re apposite and pleasurable in themselves. This goes double for Ashley Monroe’s velvet-covered croon, earthbound by design despite a sun-kissed ethereality (the Mellotron in “I’m Trying To” is heaven sent too). But even if the strings were schlock and the singing mediocre Sparrow would still work because the songwriting is strong. Two songs about parents (“Daddy I Told You,” “Mother’s Daughter”) allude to private disappointments for which Monroe shows sympathy. In the album’s most effective mating of form and content, “Rita,” co-written with Nicolle Galyon and Paul Moak, coaxes Monroe into straining her voice ever higher with each question posed by the chorus. If Sparrow has a weakness, it’s a loss of lightness. Even the coiled wonder “Hands on You,” in which she fantasizes about shoving him against the bathroom stall and getting high in a motel room, breathes an air of solemnity. Lee Ann Womack’s equally adult The Lonely, The Lonesome & the Gone , also calibrated to the performer’s strengths, has some thematic variety. To hear the Ashley Monroe who belted 2013’s “You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter),” I guess I’ll have to wait until the rumored third Pistol Annies album.

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

Hearing “Be Careful” on the radio helped. So did streaming “Bickenhead,” the best example of the kind of sounds this product of a Trinidadian mom and Dominican dad (the J Balvin-Bad Bunny collab “I Like It” sounds like one of their noche buena parties). Film stars don’t “act” in a conventional sense in the same way that Cardi’s rapping constitutes the expression of a personality instead of a demonstration of prowess. Beside her Chance the Rapper is Chance the Chatterbox and YG is OD. The charts need Cardi, and it’s more than enough that Invasion of Privacy zips by in forty-eight minutes.  Will she be on the upcoming Nas album? Hope so.

John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness

A nine-mile cigarette, vodka and ginger ale, seeing his mom and dad — when the best of living American singer-songwriters gets to heaven, he wants these things pronto. Don’t be fooled by the sleeve for his seventeenth studio album: if he’s seen death and death chilled him, he wants it on the rocks. A wise ass to his bones, an ironist with a twinkle in his eye, Prine could have offered these modest tunes the last time he recorded original material in 2006 or 1984, their sensibilities no different whether he’s co-writing them or writing them himself. But pros Roger Cook and Pat McLaughlin couldn’t have come up with “Lonesome Friends of Science” – the year’s most wonderful, evocative title – if they’d spent a year in meditation. Ditto for “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone).” Over acoustic plucks, a wistful organ peel, and piano, the former “I live down deep inside my head/Well, long ago I made my bed.” Another pure product of America who didn’t go crazy offered a similar insight a century ago: “They would not find me changed from him they knew –/Only more sure of all I thought was true.”

I’m pouring Chandon: The best #1 R&B singles of the 2000s

The chart, renamed to the Top R&B/Hip-Hop songs in 2008, saw bewildering gyrations: Elliott-Timbaland productions, crunk&B, 50 Cent, Stargate (now make a Billy Joel rhyme out of’em). And a guy named Lil Wayne poked his head into the mix, looked around, and bided his time.

1. Destiny’s Child – Say My Name
2. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – Work It
3. Aaliyah – Miss You
4. Mystikal – Danger (Been So Long)
5. Usher – U Got It Bad
6. Erykah Badu – Bag Lady
7. Ciara ft. Petey Paul – Goodies
8. T.I. – What You Know
9. Mary J. Blige – Be Without You
10. Cassie – Me & U
11. Mariah Carey – We Belong Together
12. Alicia Keys – You Don’t Know My Name
13. Tweet ft. Missy Elliott – Oops (Oh My)
14. Outkast – Ms. Jackson
15. Mario – Let Me Love You
16. Ne-Yo – Miss Independent
17. The Game ft. 50 Cent – Hate It Or Love
18. Ginuwine – Differences
19. Twista featuring Kanye West and Jamie Foxx – Slow Jamz
20. Keyshia Cole – Let It Go
21. Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell – Drop It Like It’s Hot
22. R. Kelly – Step in the Name of Love
23. Amerie – 1 Thing
24. Ciara – Promise
25. Maxwell – Pretty Wings
26. 50 Cent – In da Club
27. Monica – So Gone
28. Jazmine Sullivan – Need U Bad
29. Lil Wayne – Lollipop
30. Jeremih – Birthday Sex

‘Opuntia’ studies the attraction of land and the pull of myth

An explorer with an unusual run of bad luck, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was in April 1528 among the first Spaniards to land in Florida, near to what is now Tampa Bay. Tocobagas regaled him with stories about cities of gold. Splitting his party, he set sail again, hugging the Florida coastline. A hurricane destroyed their ships. When the bedraggled party landed in Galveston, Texas on a makeshift raft, they settled among the indigenous tribes or were enslaved, depending on the historical account. Cabeza de Vaca and a small party, including a Spanish Moor named Estevanico, managed to escape, setting off on foot to Mexico City, living off horse flesh. During those wanderings he gained respect for the healing traditions of these indigenous peoples.

Opuntia, which debuts Miami this weekend on its national tour, uses these facts to tell a story about the attraction of land and the pull of myth. Along the way director David Fenster (Pincus, Trona) also presents a fictionalized rendering of Cabeza de Vaca himself, reincarnated as the prickly pear cactus after which his documentary is named. A mix of Errol Morris’ po-faced depictions of bizarre local customs, autobiography, and New Age travelogue, Opuntia is effective as far as it goes, which at just under an hour is far enough. He teases viewers with the possibility that Cabeza de Vaca “went native,” enough so that the spirits rewarded him after death; Cabeza de Vaca’s acceptance of Estevanico as companion is shown as evidence of the explorer’s unusual ecumenicism (he may deserve his own movie). Fenster traces the Spaniard’s journey from Florida to small towns like Marfa, Texas, using actor David Verdaguer’s voice-over for twice-told (if not more) tales. When Fenster moves among Americans who experience “healing energy” from “the peoples who live there,” he betrays no amusement, even when they play instruments and chant. Too facile, though, is the juxtaposition of Cabeza de Vaca’s ruminations on his dying father and the bedside confessions of Fenster’s own father, although he’s a lovely camera subject.

Funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, Opuntia is worth watching for its novelty; there aren’t many films, documentary or otherwise, about Spanish conquistadores made this century. This weekend you’ll have two opportunities. At Miami Beach Cinematheque, Argentine filmmaker Lucretia Martel’s Zama, about the travails of an eighteenth-century colonial administrator in what is now Paraguay, will also make its South Florida debut.

Opuntia will play at MDC’s Tower Theater Miami on Thursday, April 26.

The best of the #1 R&B hits of the ’70s

Ah, the seventies. As white liberals turned on the Great Society, black America responded, in part by reminding these white liberals that the Great Society hadn’t been nearly enough. These songs show deluxe and delightful fantasy lives, allow cries from disillusioned souls, celebrate a salvation in agape and eros or an eros that feels an awful lot like agape. I avoided disco chart overlap but still faced hard choices: “The Pride (Part 1)” or “Fight the Power”? Rufus’ “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up” or “Sweet Thing”? At least I could cheat with George Clinton’s bands.

1. The Isley Brothers – The Pride (Part 1)
2. The Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
3. James Brown – Super Bad
4. The Chi-Lites – Have You Seen Her
5. Stevie Wonder – Higher Ground
6. Aretha Franklin – Don’t Play That Song
7. Funkadelic – (Not Just) Knee Deep (Part 1)
8. Gladys Knight & the Pips – If I Were Your Woman
9. Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman
10. Earth, Wind & Fire – Shining Star
11. The Temptations Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)
12. Parliament – Flash Light
13. Con Funk Shun – Ffun
14.The Brothers Johnson – I’ll Be Good to You
15. The Ohio Players – Fire
16. B.T. Express – Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)
17. Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
18. Roberta Flack – Feel Like Makin’ Love
19. Rick James – You and I
20. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – The Tears of a Clown
21. K.C. and the Sunshine Band – Keep It Comin’ Love
22. Marvin Gaye – Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
23. Billy Paul – Me and Mrs Jones
24. L.T.D. – (Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again
25. Prince – I Wanna Be Your Lover
26. Sister Sledge – He’s the Greatest Dancer
27. Al Green – Full of Fire
28. McFadden & Whitehead – Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now
29. The Spinners – I’ll Be Around
30. Rufus featuring Chaka Khan – Sweet Thing
31. Eddie Kendricks – Boogie Down
32. Peaches & Herb – Reunited
33. Lou Rawls – You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine
34. Rose Royce – Car Wash
35. Sly & the Family Stone – Thank You/Everybody Is a Star
36. The Floaters – Float On

Worst Songs Ever: Stone Temple Pilots’s ‘Plush’

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.

Stone Temple Pilots’s “Plush”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 on Billboard Album Rock Tracks; #39 on Hot 100 Airplay

“Oh, that’s the song about feeling it when the dogs begin to smell her,” a friend said the other night when I suggested I was going to write about Stone Temple Pilots’ breakthrough hit. Almost two years after Nirvana topped the Billboard album chart, American college radio listeners were finally seeing the ripples returning to shore. In January 1993, the modern rock chart looked like this; six months later it looked like this. Although token non-American acts like Tears for Fears, OMD, Catherine Wheel, U2, and Midnight Oil still got reported (and Bjork’s first solo entry), the chart looks like a Triassic Period archosaur: you can spot traces of what will soon rule the earth. Way down are the Mighty Mighty Bosstones; up to are Red Hot Chili Peppers, the modern rock/alternative chart champs; in the middle Lenny Kravitz and Pearl Jam. The last song at #30? Stone Temple Pilots’ “Wicked Garden.” Continue reading