Monthly Archives: April 2018

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, 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 crowd. 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.


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.