Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Our Top 10 Posts of 2014

Here at SGS headquarters we're wrapping up our 2014 year with a look back at our top 10 most popular posts. What's been the most surprising and fascinating to witness is how popular some of our posts truly became. Who knew that we'd get thousands and thousands of hits for posts about national anthems, drag queens singing, twerking to classical music, and ETA Hoffmann?

We're not entirely sure what these posts have in common with each other, but maybe that's a good thing. If anything, they show how eclectic our interests and tastes are. Here's to more musical explorations in 2015!

Friday, December 5, 2014

What to do in the wake of Ferguson and Staten Island



I am sure that I am not the only one who has found it hard to know what to say in response to the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island. It is not enough that two black men lost their lives at the hands of policemen; adding insult to the situation, the justice system does not seem to be capable of fulfilling its role as a blind arbitrator in the face of such crimes. Of course, we have seen this kind of thing before: the Trayvon Martin case is undoubtedly fresh in many minds (even if that crime was not committed by a vetted police officer, although George Zimmerman was a de facto one) and there is little reason to think that the situation will change any time soon. Like most people, I have been struck dumb not knowing what to say and paralyzed not knowing what to do.

The Eric Garner case in particular brought to mind Spike Lee's 1989 Do the Right Thing (in fact, Lee himself has made this connection--caution, disturbing footage). At the climax of this film, the character Radio Raheem is choked to death by NYPD as the police are attempting to quell a potential riot. This moment in the film was broadly based on cases where New York authorities had killed black people, although Lee was not referencing any one specific event. Perhaps that makes the parallels between what happens to Radio Raheem and Garner's death even more meaningful.

I realized today that in an ideal world, I would like for this film to no longer be viewed as an exploration of contemporary society (it is twenty-five years old), but instead as a historical document. This statement is meant with no disrespect to Spike Lee; the most persistent theme in the film is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of everyday life, and how complex it can be to determine what the right thing is, much less do it. But I would like us to look at Radio Raheem's death with a sense of disbelief because it should feel antiquated--much as I now look at the antisemitism of the Nazis as peculiar and entirely disconnected from my understanding of the world.

How do we achieve this goal? I don't have the solution, but I do have a suggestion. Follow what Spike Lee says and do the right thing. My response is not meant glibly, nor is it meant as a passive panacea--the imperative to 'do' is vital here. Just as in the film, I can't tell you what the right thing is, but I would like to encourage you to decide what that right thing can be. Draw on your skills and interests, find a way to direct them toward effecting change. Perhaps you can teach others why these issues remain important. Perhaps you can protest. Perhaps you can help change our understanding of how such crimes get reported (or not) and how the justice system operates (or not) in such cases. Perhaps you can be an advocate by making more people aware of why these situations matter. Perhaps you can fight the power. Perhaps you can help from the comfort of your own home by tracking data (this example is far removed from this specific issue, but shows the power that one person can have). Perhaps, as I am doing, you can write down your thoughts and reactions to these events.

Whatever you do, I would urge you to do the right thing for you. It's the only way that I know to make a difference.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

We're Not Here For Nicki Minaj's Nazi-Inspired New Music Video

Nicki Minaj's latest music video is an example of why people should consult with their local historian before making important decisions. Called "Only," the song sounds sinister, powerful, and dangerous even though the lyrics don't match in tone (she makes a punch line out of the phrase "duct tape" and is proud of it. I can't even). But that's not the problem:

Do you remember in my previous post about Gesamkuntswerk and music videos how I argued that the visual can become intimately intertwined with the aural? Yeah. Nicki and Co. succeeded in creating the same effect here. Unfortunately, they create this sinister aura by employing Nazi aesthetics.

Already there's some push back from viewers and enthusiasts who claim that the video captures more of a Soviet-era style aesthetic, or that it's simply a stand-in for any 20th century totalitarian dictatorship. I'm not sure I can agree with that.  To me at least, this video is straight-up Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will-level crazy.

First, a brief primer on Nazi aesthetics: they do, as other scholars have already written about, have a "terrible beauty" about them. The mass parades, rallies, banners, flags, and architecture were all designed to promote an ideology of cult-like power. As a spectator or a participant during the Third Reich, one was encouraged to see themselves as part of a uniformed mass of humanity ready to carry out the vision of national socialism.
As plenty of historians such as George Mosse, Saul Friedländer, and Jonathan Petropolous have already argued, many Nazi party members (including Hitler) had a strong and cultivated aesthetic sensibility. More importantly, they believed that art and aesthetics should serve their politics. Art, Goebbels believed, could be used to manipulate the masses. If you're familiar with this blog, you might have read my post on the aesthetics of hatred already. If so, perhaps some of the same themes from that post echo here: art can be employed for terrible purposes, and effectively so because it is beautiful.

Which is why it's, um, uncomfortable that Nicki Minaj uses Nazi aesthetics in her latest video. Let's check out a couple of stills so you can see how this works:

The above image is from the opening scene of the video. Yes, the video's in black, white, and red (which doesn't help) but I think it's the party banners on the side that sealed the deal for me. Banners were ubiquitous throughout the Third Reich and appeared at all kinds of functions and events. Here's a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic that features a swastika in the background, for example:

Second, the design of the main building where Nicki sits on her throne looks awfully similar to Nazi architecture:
And here's an example of Nazi architecture (minus the flags):

Lastly, of course, are the rows of soldiers wearing red arm bands.
Granted, plenty of paramilitary troops and 20th century dictatorships slapped arm bands on men. But since the postwar era, we have come to associate this particular sartorial choice with the Nazi party.
There might be two defenses a reader could use to "rescue" Nicki Minaj from this mess, one not at all believable, the other more believable but still not satisfactory:
1. Pitchfork argues that her music video is employing classic military iconography. She's building her army, metaphorically speaking, and preparing to launch her pop-musical attack on us all.
2. She wanted to portray evil, so who better to turn to for creating feelings of fear and terror than the Nazis?

At least the second way of interpreting the video would mean that the creators of the video acknowledge its reliance in part on Nazi aesthetics. It *has* to be. No offense, but the average American listener isn't going to be familiar enough with Soviet-era dictatorships to immediately recognize those kinds of militaristic references that some viewers think this video is making. I'm still left thinking, to which other dictatorships could this video possibly be alluding?

Yeesh, this video makes me uncomfortable. And it makes me uncomfortable that people still take art and aesthetics for granted. That we assume they don't have power. That's certainly not what the Nazis thought. They used these images and icons for terrible purposes, and as a result, these aesthetic remnants have left lasting psychological scars on millions of people.

Nicki Minaj has always been interested in displaying a masculine power (she's written songs declaring herself the "King," she calls her girlfriends in this song her "sons," etc.). Perhaps that's what this video speaks to with its militaristic setting. But there are better ways to portray power and might than by using these visual cues. It's a shame (if unsurprising) that Nicki couldn't do that here.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gesamtkunstwerking to OK Go: Pop Music Videos and Synesthesia

You're going to think I'm crazy. But I think Richard Wagner would have been fascinated by Lady Gaga. Wagner, as most of you already know, spilled much ink discussing the relationship between different artistic media (dance, theater, poetry, music). Just like "the ocean binds and separates the land," he states in his essay, "The Art-Work of the Future" (1849), "so does Music bind and separate the two opposite poles of human Art, the arts of Dance and Poetry." He hoped to unify all of the arts together through theater in particular, but at this point I think Gesamtkunstwerk has come to mean a sort of total art work encompassing a wide range of art forms. Whatever we think counts as an artistic media today (architecture, graphic design, music, dance, poetry, fashion, etc.) can be coupled together to create a greater and now truly transformed work of art. Maybe it helps to think of this process in Hegelian terms? The synthesis that results out of this dialectic is a new art form.

As much as it's fun to make fun of Wagner, he and other 19th century aesthetes asked some really great and fundamental questions about music and its relationship to the arts that still resonate today. 

Case in point: Gesamtkunstwerk exists today in pop culture, even if the people who are creating it don't know that or call it such. One of the best examples of Gesamtkunstwerk - where different artistic media have come together to create a new art form - is the music video. Comprising both the audio and the visual, bringing together poetry, music, dance, the visual arts, and drama, the music video has really become its own art form since the 1980s when MTV bust onto the scene.

True, not all music videos are amazing or illuminating, but occasionally a music video will be so powerful that it transforms how we hear a song. A great music video temporarily gives us synesthesia and brings our different senses together. It proves Wagner's claim that artistic media have the power to enhance each other. Which brings me back to Lady Gaga.

Although I think many of us are understandably over Lady Gaga and her antics, I still give her credit for conquering the pop music world in 2009 with such ferocity. And what helped her to seize power for a brief window of time was her song, "Bad Romance."
What made the song so enthralling wasn't just the music itself; it was the video that accompanied it. Numerous blogs and pop culture sites wrote post after post offering readers a frame-by-frame analysis of the video and what each shot might mean. The über-snobby indie site, Pitchfork even weighed in on "Bad Romance," which they called the best pop vide of 2009. They wrote, "And the video is part of the package: Like Madonna or Prince, it's impossible to separate the song from the performer."

When we hear "Bad Romance" on the radio, I think many of us instinctively also watch the video in our minds.

Gaga's "Bad Romance" is part of a long legacy of music videos that have truly transformed our listening experiences. There are a lot of really great songs out there with great music videos, but how many have actually altered the way we perceive or understand the song?

Here are some other music videos that I think embody this synesthestic effect/fulfill Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk ideal:
Michael Jackson - "Thriller"
Isn't this where it all began? The song's going to come on at a Halloween party on Friday, and you're going to form your hands into claws and move about like a zombie. Just admit it. We see the video and mimic its dances when we hear the song.
Madonna - "Material Girl"
Already a riff on Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Madonna's "Material Girl" video makes us see pink and glitter when we hear the song on the radio.
Madonna - Vogue
Girlfriend's clearly the expert at making music videos that are transformative aesthetic experiences.
D'Angelo - "Untitled"
D'Angelo isn't just Donna's cousin on the tv show, Parks and Rec. He's also the man behind this song that made countless people blush. It almost has a Pavlovian effect on us, no? The song floats into our ears and we blush, even though we're not watching the video.
Beyonce - "Single Ladies" 
Tell me to my face that you aren't picturing women in unitards and high heels prancing when you hear this song on the radio. TELL ME TO MY FACE. 
Sia - "Chandelier" 
Please. Everyone knows that wig and beige unitard now. And actors in this SNL skit perfectly imitated the awkward gyrations that captures the joie de vivre of the dancer in the video. 
Arcarde Fire, "The Suburbs"
This one's personal. It's hard not to think about the video now when I hear this song. If you haven't seen the video before, watch it in its entirety.

I wonder what Wagner might have to say about Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda," come to think of it. On its own, the song is rather forgettable, as plenty of critics have pointed out. But the video has had people talking for months now. 

Anyway. The point is that all of these music videos go beyond simply the music. When we hear the music alone, we automatically drudge up the visual.  

This brings me to the case of OK Go. Their music, frankly, isn't all that memorable on its own. Pitchfork constantly gives their albums a "2" out of 10.  I have no desire to listen to an OK Go album by myself in a dark room. But OK Go has become a successful music group through their clever videos. In fact, it's probably the only reason they've become popular at all. Like the other examples that I've looked at, OK Go's music is now inseparable from their videos. But OK Go also represents a departure from the norm here as well. I'd argue that OK Go would not have been able to achieve their pop music status as a musical ensemble without their visual accompaniment. 
Here's their most famous video, "Here It Goes Again"
And this song is catchy in its own post-punk knock-off Franz Ferdinand-y kind of way. But songs such as "The Writing's On The Wall"? Listen to it without watching the visually dazzling video that accompanies it:
To each her own, of course, but I'm not sure how well the music stands on its own.

OK Go's music videos raise all kinds of questions about the relationship between sound and image, between text and music: are these different art forms celebrating each other in these videos? Are they even related at all? Would OK Go be so commercially successful without their visually clever videos? Do these videos meet our definitions of Gesamtkunstwerk?

And maybe that last point is worth ruminating on a little bit. In spite of my obnoxious blog post title, and in spite of the praise they've garnered for their videos (they won the best music video Grammy in 2009 for "Here It Goes Again"), I'm not really sure if OK Go's music videos fit my definition of Gesamtskunstwerk in 2014. With the main pop songs I discussed earlier ("Thriller," "Single Ladies," etc.) we hear the song and summon up an image. But do the images and the songs have such a strong bond in OK Go's videos? At least for me they don't. It's hard to recall how some of their songs sound without being near my computer to google them.

Pop music videos are so much fun to think about because they encourage us to think about the various competing/reinforcing/mutually supportive/occasionally disruptive relationships between artistic media anew. The next time a pop music video explodes onto the scene and lights our world on fire (for approximately 15 minutes), I'll be asking myself WWWT (What Would Wagner Think) the first time I watch it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Authenticity and Pop Music: the cases of Britney Spears and Sia

Kira's most recent post on Florida Georgia Line sought to delineate some of the factors that earn a group near-universal disdain, taking as her examples such disdainful groups as Nickelback and Creed.  Several of the factors that Kira identified as crucial to earning this level of disdainfulness fall under the category of authenticity, or lack thereof.  The idea that artists should be 'authentic' is tied larger concepts in Western culture about the imperative of originality for the genius--in other words, we value those who come up with innovative, new ideas, and we tend to see these genii as working independently, often in opposition to what is popular.  In this paradigm, genius artists also tend to skew male, which is not necessarily within the theory, but was at one point linked to gender: since men could not create life without the help of women, their creative tendencies were channeled elsewhere.  Hideously archaic?  Yes, but this paradigm continues to govern how we talk about 'good' and 'bad' music today.  The genius paradigm helps explain why the sell-out is so reviled and why the canon of art music so heavily favors men--even when discussing contemporary art music.

I bring these notions up because I want to talk today about two artists who break this paradigm, but are still subject to its strictures.  One is frequently viewed as a sell-out with limited artistic value, yet her career has reshaped the world of pop music.  The other is an anomaly within pop music, since she fits the concept of genius in some respects, but adheres to few of the expectations that we have of pop artists.  I am talking, of course, about Britney Spears and Sia respectively.  Both of these artists simultaneously meet and thwart our expectations of what a 'genius' can do, while demonstrating how complex our understanding of pop music can (and should) be.

Britney Spears





Go ahead, hate on Britney.  She doesn't write her own songs.  She doesn't sing her own songs in concert.  She relies on auto-tune for her albums.  She can't act (okay, this one may be fair).  She is nothing more than a Disney star transformed into sexy, sultry pop star--so basic.  And yet, I defy you to name another pop star working today who has had as many iconic moments as Brit Brit.  I plan to pepper this post with random ones.




What Britney can do--and can do better than almost anyone else in the biz--is perform.  And that is what she does best.  She can do so in lives shows, as seen above, and she is famous for having done so at award shows:

I saw a documentary once where it was revealed that actually, Brit Brit is afraid of snakes.

I saw this when it aired.  And I remember where I was.  It was Notable.



She is also justly famous for iconic video moments.  Many, many video moments:



These first three are all from the same freaking video

Of all the songs above, perhaps 'Circus' best sums up what Britney does best.  All eyes do fall on her in the center of the ring and we keep watching for what she will do.  The lyrics 'Don't just stand there watching me, follow me,' with their slight syncopation, make clear that not only are we 'gazing' at her, but that she relishes the attention.  Her songs are heavily produced to be successful, but I think the 'it' factor that has kept Britney relevant is precisely her:


I don't care how many 'handlers' Britney needed around her to make these moments happen.  The end result is that she was the one who delivered (to make a football analogy here, this is like saying that Tom Brady is a 'system quarterback,' which is all well and good, but he is still Tom Freaking Brady, and he still has more Superbowl rings than any other active QB and LEAVE TOM BRADY ALONE).  She is a consummate performer.  Note that I did not say 'singer,' because I don't think that she is necessarily a consummate singer; of pop stars working today, there are better examples on a technical level, such as Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.  However, detracting from her artistry for not creating her own material has always struck me as odd.  There is no question in my mind that the 'creative genius' paradigm is afoot whenever that happens.  To say that Britney is an inferior artist because she doesn't perform her own material is bizarre.  It's like saying that Meryl Streep is somehow a bad actress because she reads other people's words.

Repeatedly bringing such striking performances to life, that is a skill. And it is one at which Britney reigns supreme.

A reminder to choose what you make iconic carefully.

Sia

Readers of SGS, I have a confession to make: in late 2012, I pretty much stopped listening to pop music.  Shocking, I know.   My primary mode of consumption was the radio, but I started noticing more and more that what was on was just....well.....bad.  Everything sounded either like Rihanna's 'Birthday Cake' (NOT GOOD) or like Lil Wayne rambling over some slow jam.  Mostly, it was a morass of sameness, badness, and channel-change-inducing ennui.  Instead, I went to podcasts, and I pretty much never went back.  Yes, I felt very old when this happened.

However, there were a few exceptions (I will admit to Drake's 'The Motto' being one of them.  Don't hate.  Canadian solidarity, man).  And a few others that I didn't absolutely hate:




These songs are not completely terrible, unlike Rihanna's 'Birthday Cake'

Connoisseurs of pop music have already noticed the common denominator here.  All three songs are, in some way, the work of Sia: she wrote the lyrics to 'Diamonds; and she both performed the vocals for and wrote the lyrics to 'Wild Ones' and 'Titanium.'  Those who are not connoisseurs may be asking who exactly Sia is.  That is a great question.  It is extremely notable that she does not feature in either video for which she provides vocals, which is highly unusual for a 'pop' artist.  In the video, many people lip synch along with the chorus in 'Wild Ones,' making it unclear who the actual singer might be, but quite clear that it is none of the people lip synching (also, can I take a moment here and point out how unintentionally funny 'Girl With Arms Up In Bandeau' is?).  Perhaps she should be better viewed as one of those background singers, like Dido to Eminem in 'Stan' or Ke$sha to Flo Rida in 'Right Round.'  But that view misrepresents Sia's contribution: she is not only a singer, she is also a songwriter and has contributed to a number of hits (in fact, Sia's version of 'Titanium' was originally meant for Katy Perry).  Furthermore, it is a bit hard to say that she is the 'background' singer in 'Titanium,' even though the primary song credit goes to David Guetta, who is a DJ.

Sia now has her first credited major hit with 'Chandelier.'  Even in this video, though, she is wholly absent.  Instead, dancer Maddie Ziegler dances in a frenetic manner, likely representing the inner torment felt by the singer while she is 'swinging from the chandelier' and barely hanging on while partying:


If you haven't seen the SNL parody yet, take a moment and do that.  Also, there is something to be said here about performance, especially at the end when the fact that this is a performance becomes clear when Ziegler bows, but I'll leave that for you to ponder.

Sia conforms in many ways to the genius paradigm (and I will argue that because I think that 'Chandelier' is a genius way of representing the tension that often exists between those who party it up and their motivations...it's a broader metaphor).  She creates her own art.  She performs her own art.  Yet she is not, in my view, a pop star.  One of the most preeminent requirements in pop--as Britney teaches us--is creating notable performances.  Maddie Zielger does this in the 'Chandelier' video, but Sia remains absent. In fact, when she performed on Dancing with the Stars, Sia was 'hidden' in favor of the dancers:



What the cases of Sia and Britney demonstrate is that an understanding of pop music through the lens of the genius paradigm is inherently flawed (arguably, evaluating any type of work through the genius paradigm is flawed).  There are too many other factors that contribute to a notable and noteworthy pop experience, perhaps most importantly performance.  To subject these stars to the same critical tropes makes no sense.  Instead, we should recognize that pop depends on a wider scope of people for its success.  We are accustomed to the idea that the performer should be equated with the artist, but I am suggesting that Sia and Britney demonstrate to us that these roles can be divided.  Both make great art, but in very different ways.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Florida Georgia Line and the "Nickelback" Effect in American Music

There are a lot of bands or musical groups out there that have been accused of being talentless hacks. Their soulless music, people cry, preys on an ignorant musical public and drags us all just a little bit further down into the pits of hell. You know who they are:
Pussycat Dolls. 
One Direction. 
Limp Bizkit. 
Black Eyed Peas.
 Smash Mouth.
Have I made your blood boil yet? Are you getting so outraged by the mentioning of these groups that you want to flip a coffee table over and roar like a lion with rage? 

For some reason, these musical groups drive us crazy (and I'd love to hear from you as to why that is!). But as much as we hate these groups, there's one more band out there who inspires such vitriol that their name has now become synonymous with "inhumanity": Nickelback.
It seems like we can tolerate a Jessie J hit every once in a while and we're willing to put up with whatever Gwen Stefani's trying to do these days (dancehall?), but Nickelback, you say? NICKELBACK? ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING? It happens rarely, but every so often, once in a blue moon, a band comes along that inspires such deep hatred that it leaves American listeners breathless. Before it was Nickelback, I'm pretty certain Creed was the band that caused people to shred their garments, rip out their hair, and gnash their teeth.

Why is this? I'm not entirely sure. I can give you my theory but I'd like to crowdsource for some more. As my friend and music listener extraordinaire Rich put it, it seems like people choose a band to embody all of their anxieties about modern American music. The more the fans feel the need to protect their musical world, the more, I suspect, they're likely to have a meltdown over a musician who they think represents a debasement of their music's values. To the true believers, a band like Nickelback represents a slap in the face to rock music, to rock's contributions to American culture, and to rock music's fans. They represent the ultimate betrayal to the listener: they have made their music kitsch when it could have been transformative, they settled for cheap, quick, and dirty satisfaction instead of bringing us joy. They are the musical equivalent of the lowest common denominator.

What made me think about this recently is a band called Florida Georgia Line, which I think is attracting the same kind of vitriol that Nickelback faced/faces. In fact, I'm ready to argue that not since Nickelback has such a commercially successful group attracted such loathing and disgust from critics and listeners.

If you're not familiar with Florida Georgia Line, here are a few of their songs for you to listen to. Listen at your own risk:
"Cruise"
"This Is How We Roll"
Here's the thing. I don't think their music is amazing. But I'm not convinced it's the worst thing to have happened to humanity, either. Am I uncomfortable with the weird "we're not going to acknowledge that this is rapping but this is basically rapping" aspect to "This Is How We Roll"? Of course. Maybe I should blame Kid Rock for this, come to think of it. And are most of these songs sexist/misogynistic in some way? You betcha. But so are a lot of other songs and a lot of other bands.

Yet critics have been practically tripping over themselves to find the cleverest and most eloquent ways possible to express their outrage over this band's existence. Going back to my blog post about the aesthetics of hate, I think there's something fascinating about the relationship between beauty and hatred that draws us in again and again. In this case, I've noticed that the more beautifully written the review, the more eloquent its turns of phrases, the more venomous and deadly the attack against its enemy.

Check out this review from the blog site, Saving Country Music:
"In a word, this album is bullshit. Never before has such a refined collection of strident clichés been concentrated in one insidious mass. Never before have the lyrics to an album evidenced such narrowcasted pseudo-mindless incoherent drivel. Never before have such disparate and diseased influences been married so haphazardly in a profound vacuum of taste, and never have all of these atrocities been platooned together to be proffered to the public without someone, anyone with any bit of conscience and in a position of power putting a stop to this poisoning of the listening public."

And here's how my friend, Douglas, put it: "They have essentially taken every form of popular music from the past 25 years and vomited a parody-like interpretation of them all into one bag and tossed it at us." Ouch.

The Dallas Observer not only excoriated Florida Georgia Line but also, in a virtually biblical sense, condemned its fans to hell for all eternity as well: "I approached Saturday night's show with an open mind, but one glance at the insanely packed parking lot and I realized maybe the stereotype of the modern country music fan (privileged, a little slow, boisterous and in love with terrible music and terrible beer) was completely dead on." At the concert, chaos reigns, the concert attendees are degenerates, and much like the biblical character Noah, the critic has to extricate himself out of this debauched land of sin and vice to save himself. The few, the brave, the musically literate, he warns: get on the boat and leave this terrible place, never to return!

Does Florida Georgia Line deserve such scorn? Such delightful, witty, acerbic scorn? Do they deserve to be held up as an example of humanity's downfall more so than any other country-pop band? I'm not sure. But watching the storm build up against them has been a fascinating experience, akin to documenting the formation of a trashy country-pop tornado fueled by Bud Light, $1 dollar tequila shots, and Axe body spray.

I honestly can't decide what to make of the band quite yet. But in the meantime, I'd like to suggest that we create our own warning system (complete with color coding?) to alert us all when a band is reaching near Nickelback levels of unpopularity. Again: I think such occurrences are actually quite rare. But nonetheless, they're worthy of study.

What would such a warning system look like? I have a couple of suggestions:
1. The ratio between commercial success and critics' dislike has to be just right. Because it's the bands who sell records in spite of critics' decries that seem to garner the most denunciations.
2. The more the band relies on musical editing and post-production fiddling (I'm looking at you, Black Eyed Peas), the more listeners are going to attack the group for its inauthenticity. I wonder if one of the reasons why people dislike Florida-Georgia Line so much is because of how auto-tuned the vocal arrangements sound.
3. The text, of course, has to be heavily weighed down by cliches and barely passable rhymes.
4. The members of the band have to strike us as insincere. They must appear as if they're in on this joke that producers came up with to hoodwink us and take our money.

I doubt I'll be listening to "This Is How We Roll" on the radio anytime soon. But I'll definitely be reading the song's reviews.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Why listening to classical music doesn't make you a better person

So this idiotic post has been going the rounds lately. The headline reads "Smart people listen to Radiohead and dumb people listen to Beyonce, according to study."

They charted students' SAT scores and found that "smart" students listen to Sufjan Stevens (j'adore!) and Radiohead while "dumb" students who don't perform as well on the SAT scores listen to Lil Wayne. There's absolutely no mention of race, class, and education in this study, no attempts to examine geography and its role in determining who gets into a place like Cal Tech vs. who gets in to Cleveland State University. This study doesn't "prove" anything; it just illuminates social stratification at work.

It did lead me to thinking how much we believe, though, that classical music makes us "smarter" and "better." Not musical education itself, which has shown to have all kinds of benefits on learning and the human mind. But classical music in particular. Why else has "Baby Einstein" been so popular, even though scientific study after scientific study debunks the myth that it makes your child a brilliant human being?

I think for the uninformed, putting on Baby Mozart or what have you is a form of exhibiting class aspiration, or that you want your child to succeed in life. Fine. But I also fear that it reinforces a social hierarchy of music and dismisses some forms of music as base.

I love western art music, I unashamedly love the Austro-German musical canon, I lose my mind over Mahler again and again and again. On my 30th birthday, I made the mistake of listening to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C Major first thing in the morning when I was feeling especially emotionally vulnerable. I couldn't handle it. I promptly burst into tears. I was home visiting my parents in Atlanta at the time, and my mother came rushing down to my bedroom freaking out and asking what was wrong. In true, 13-year-old emo fashion, I croaked out "It's so beautiful" in between hiccup-sobs.
I still have to work myself up to hear Brahms's "Im Herbst" for the same reason. I'll probably be a hot mess by the time it's over.
Mozart's famous Serenade for 13 Winds (3rd movement) also gets me worked up (that oboe coming in softly at the beginning like that? Are you kidding me?):
But do you know who else loved this piece? Nazi intellectual and propagandist Joseph Goebbels. In fact, for a lot of people who learn about music in the Third Reich for the first time, discovering that many members of the Nazi party valued classical music challenges and threatens our belief in the intellectually and morally edifying nature of this music. Thomas Mann, I'm convinced, loved to explore this relationship between music, creativity, and humanity's descent into moral poverty for exactly these reasons: beware of music's power, Mann warns. Its listeners might not all be angels, after all. And why else were books such as Doktor Faustus and Buddenbrooks so popular during the 1930s and 40s if his ideas hadn't somehow struck a nerve?

I think this remains ever the challenge for us supporters and dedicated listeners and performers of art music in 2014. How can we get people to love this music and listen to it as much as we do without falling into the usual rhetorical traps and cliches when we talk about it? Cliches that Theodor Adorno, Thomas Mann, and the lives of Goebbels and other Nazi officials have exposed to be a falsehood? Because I suspect that a lot of people no longer believe in the civilizing mission of western art music anymore.

I don't think we can talk about art music in moralistic and edifying tones anymore, or not nearly as much as we used to before. I fear that describing art music as superior quickly leads others to judge us as snobby elitists, even (or perhaps especially) when we claim to be bringing this music to the masses for uplifting reasons (see: Anton Webern and his worker's symphony orchestra in Vienna).

So if classical music doesn't make us better people, why listen to it? Is it enough to say, "because it makes my heart soar"? When asked why we should read books, author Anne Lamott explained,
"Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life - wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may not notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean."

My gratitude for beautiful musical compositions is also unbounded. I want others to love these pieces, too. I think the challenge remains for me to champion art music in ways that don't alienate new listeners (even the Beyonce-loving kind! Gasp!), especially those who, like me, are wary of its advocates.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Night At The Opera (Klinghoffer edition)

It's not every day that a headline referencing opera graces the front page of the New York Post:


And perhaps that's a good thing.  Because what this cover does, in one hyperbolic headline, is remind us all of how misinformed the general public is about opera while simultaneously misleading the reader into thinking that murder happened over the Klinghoffer protests (that's inaccurate...but this is the NY Post here people.  Just a Buck!).  Murder is a relatively common phenomenon in opera, of course--in fact, when I taught music history survey, my students and I would track sopranocide over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries based on the works that we studied.  If you're curious, it increases markedly.

This headline reminded me of a time when I attended a Met Opera broadcast of Salome, which my local movie theater had rated G for general audiences.  In case you are unfamiliar with the work, it features a beheading, a strip tease integral to the plot, and a woman singing to a decapitated head for an extended amount of time.  She also kisses the decapitated head.  A couple of theaters over, High School Musical 3 was playing, which was rated PG, indicating that parental discretion was advised.  In case you are unfamiliar with this work, it features high school seniors confronting the fact that they will be heading off to different places once high school is over.  To the best of my knowledge, it involves no beheadings, strip teases, or characters singing to/kissing decapitated heads.  What I see here is a perception that opera, as high art, does not deign to discuss subjects in sordid ways, and so can be consumed by all.  The recent controversy over Carmen by the West Australia Opera seems to suggest the same; the company decided that because smoking is depicted on stage, it was inappropriate to show (this decision also came in tandem with a partnership between the opera company and a healthcare company).  Certainly, if Carmen continued to smoke during her lifetime, she could suffer from devastating side effects, such as  cancer and heart disease.  But since she is choked to death by Don José in Act 4, I'm not sure that smoking is the most dangerous factor in this opera.

Controversies surrounding high art wane over time and, one could argue, are often less about the art itself.  A century ago, The Rite of Spring was sufficiently avant garde to warrant boos at its premiere (although likely this had more to do with the ballet than the music); twenty-seven years later, it served as background music for dinosaurs in a Disney film.  Prior to its debut in 1905, Salome was banned from several theaters because of its sordid subject matter.  There is little question that art should be controversial and should promote new and more complex understandings of the world.  There is also little question than when it does, it fuels protest.  Perhaps, then, Klinghoffer is one of the more successful modern works solely on its ability to confront contemporary issues--unlike the rated-G Salome.

It's worth acnkowledging that the furor surrounding Klinghoffer delves into the subject of the opera rather than the opera itself--few people seemed to be upset by Adams' compositional approach.  Protestors included people in wheelchairs wearing signs that said 'I am Leon Klinghoffer,' which seems like all kinds of wrong:


Klinghoffer was an American Jew who was shot by Palestinian terrorists while aboard the Achille Lauro in 1985.  This somewhat-ripped-from-the-headlines opera (it premiered in 1991) considers the position of Klinghoffer and the Palestinians, professing to offer viewpoints from each side.  Undoubtedly, much of the controversy over the Met's staging has to do with timing: the conflicts that took place in Israel this summer between factions of Palestinians and Israelis brought these same issues to the fore and do not have easy answers.  But the answer is not to simply ban the work.

I don't want to argue that the fact that Klinghoffer engenders controversy means that it is good, relevant art.  That is overly simplistic.  Bad art can also engender controversy.  What does argue in its favor is the fact that directors and artists continue to find value in it beyond the controversial subject matter.   The ultimate jurisdiction should be the work itself, which appears to have been successful in the pages of less incendiary publications.  Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times was impressed with the opera, libretto, and performance, addressing the concerns often leveled at the work in his review.  I'm sure that many of us could only hope that the work itself, and not merely the subject matter that it addresses, would be treated in the same way.  It's okay for an individual to dislike Klinghoffer for whatever reason: whether it is because the opera is viewed as elevating terrorists to heroes or because of the portrayal of Klinghoffer in stereotypical ways or because Adams' music isn't your thing.  What is less okay, to me, is limiting the ability of the public to make this decision.  The Met has taken only a tepid step in this direction by staging the work, but not broadcasting it in theaters.  But at least the show did go on.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Re-creating the operatic repertoire from an 1884 London costume guide

Thanks to a post from Mental Floss, I was recently introduced to the 1884 book Male Character Costumes for Fancy Dress Balls and Private Theatricals, a guide to appropriate costume-wear for the trendy 1884 man, both in the ballroom and for the stage.  Naturally this book is plenty of fun in and of itself, but what struck me in particular was the number of costumes that were influenced by opera.  One of my scholarly pursuits is trying to figure out what works were known by general audiences; our view of what was known historically is heavily skewed by what scholars later took as their points of study, and therefore there are often significant gaps in our knowledge of what the average audience member was attending throughout Europe.  Joseph Kerman and many other scholars have written about our short-comings due to the primacy that the canon of musical works has occupied with scholars.  I mention Kerman in particular because he makes a distinction between the canon and repertoire, suggesting that repertoire has more to do with works that are played/heard.  These may not be part of the imaginary museum of musical works that have traditionally provided the fodder for scholarly inquiry.  This guide turns out to be an ideal means of evaluating which works were part of the popular repertoire--and therefore presumably known by the audience for which this book was intended.  As the list shows, there are many works that might not be expected, along with a dearth of works that might be expected (spoiler alert: Wagner only has one entry).

A few caveats.  First, this collection is not a universal guide, but seems pretty clearly tied to London.  There are numerous advertisements included in the book and the guide itself makes reference to costume shops where outfits can be purchased.  That being said, I suspect--for reasons outlined below--that this guide may have originated in France.  Second, I am not providing very much historical context for this guide (this is SGS, not a scholarly article).  I don't have a very good knowledge of what was happening in London theater at this time, but if anyone does, I hope that this kind of information can help with other research.  Third, it is entirely possible that there are more operas in the guide which I was unable to identify.  For instance, there is a reference to some work called Heloise and Abeilard, but I did not find anything for the stage on this subject. 

Not all of the costumes are for/from operas, of course.  There are--not surprisingly--numerous ethnic costumes, ranging from the unusual (Norwegian?) to the highly politically incorrect (I'll leave that to your imagination) to the huh (both Algerian costumes are Jews) to the strangely specific ('Fisher Boy of Nice').  There is the occasional creature, such as the Bear, which is 'simply a dress made out of a bear skin' and can be rented from your local (London) costume store.  Many of the costumes are historic in nature, including a slew from 18th-century France--for one of them, a 'conical hat of beaver' is mandatory.  Because this is also a guide for stage productions, there are several Shakespearean plays.  One of the most puzzling suggestions that I found is for Macbeth, who should be wearing sandals.  Scotland and sandals do not go together in my mind.  In case you are curious, a Tourist needs a straw hat and alpine staff

Of the almost 120 costumes though, at least 48 are from operas or operettas, which means that around 40% of them are tied to specific works.  In part, this high percentage might be expected since these costumes are also appropriate for amateur theatrics--it is not hard to imagine, for instance, that the costume suggestion for The Pirates of Penzance would have been seen on the contemporary stage.  But in some cases the prevalence of opera characters for specific categories suggests that what was seen on stage affected the general public's understanding of eras or places.  Many of the entries for Spain are directly associated with operas such as Carmen (Don Jose and Escamillo) or The Barber of Seville/Marriage of Figaro/Don Giovanni (Figaro, Don Juan, Leporello).  In terms of historical characters, Pollione from Norma is presented as an example of 'ancient Roman.'  While many of the operas are listed in brackets with the entry, in some cases, the characters were presumably recognizable without this additional information--Figaro, Leporello, and William Tell all fit into this category.  In the case of Don Juan (Don Giovanni), a description of the specific costume of baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure is provided: 'Doublet of plum-colored velvet, with trunks to match.  Sleeves of striped silk.  Sleeveless overcoat of velvet, lined silk.  Lavender silk tights.  High leather boots reaching nearly to the hips.  Large hat with a plume.  Leather belt and sword belt.  White gauntlets.'  I have some questions about the combination of lavender and plum.  I also have some questions about whether a London audience would recognize this costume, since I'm not sure that Faure performed there.  The preponderance of French costumes, particularly historical French costumes, makes me wonder if there is an earlier French version of this guide which was then translated and modified for London.  However, since this is SGS and not a scholarly article, I am leaving that right there.

I also made some assumptions about the references to Faust.  As a literary and stage figure, Faust was, of course, a nineteenth-century favorite, so it is entirely possible that references to him are not tied directly to Gounod's 1859 opera.  However, the opera was immensely popular, so I included these characters as connected to the stage work.  Also, Valentin is a character in the opera, so that assumption seems reasonable.

It should come as little surprise that the single work with the largest number of costumes (six in total) is Giacomo Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, a phenomenally popular opera that started dropping out of the repertoire in the early twentieth century and rarely appears on stage now.  The question of why Huguenots is rarely seen today is a complicated one: Wagner's disdain for the opera (and its composer) seemed to have little effect on its popularity during the nineteenth century, although it may have had a disproportionate effect on scholars interested in studying the opera during the twentieth.  The costume guide has specific outfits for Marcel, Saint Bris, Conte de Nevers, Raoul, Valentin and Page.  If you're curious, 'Page' costumes are quite popular and likely provided a generic look for historic stage works.  There are ten entries for various pages, primarily for both British and French courts.

What might come as a greater surprise is the number of works by Offenbach included in the guide.  Seven are mentioned, ranging from Les contes d'Hoffmann to his operettas.  In fact, no composer is more heavily represented.  The runner-up is Charles Lecocq, a composer virtually forgotten today, but one who had four different works featured in the guide.  Verdi comes in at only two (Rigoletto and Manrico from Trovatore).  The preponderance of French works reinforces my theory about the possible French origins of this guide, but also suggests that London audiences were familiar with them as well.

One of my favorite costume notes from the opera characters is for Jean de Nivelle, the titular character from Léo Delibes' 1880 work.  He requires a 'cap of maintenance,' which, as it turns out, is an actual thing and pretty fancy besides:







Here is his costume:






Some, but not all, of the costumes do have illustrations ('Norwegian' has one, for example).  I am a bit skeptical about that qualifying as a Cap of Maintenance.

I would like to invite other scholars interested in questions of repertories to seek these types of unorthodox sources to help fill in the many blind spots that continue to exist in our disciplines.  While this post is nothing more than a superficial skimming of a source, I hope that it shows the wide variety of primary documents that can be used for research.  Also, if you need inspiration for Halloween, this costume guide should provide you with a great start (particularly if you know where to rent a dress of bear skin).

The Costume List, organized by composer [a slash indicates that a character is listed as ideal for depicting an ethnic/historic type.  For example, Scindia from Le roi de Lahore is a prototype for 'Hindoo prince'] :


Auber, Daniel: Italian Brigand from Fra Diavolo
Audran, Edmond: Fratellini and Page from La Mascotte
Bellini, Vincenzo: Pollione/Roman, ancient from Norma
Bizet, Georges: Escamillo/Spanish Bullfighter and Don Jose/Spanish Brigand from Carmen
Cœdès , August: Abbe from La belle Bourbonnaise
Delibes, Léo: Compte de Charolaise, Isolin and Jean de Nivelle from Jean de Nivelle
Flotow, Friedrich von: Fabrice from L'Ombre
Gounod, Charles: Faust, Mephistopheles and Valentine from Faust
Halévy, Fromental: Eleazar and Leopold from La Juive
Lecocq, Charles: Trenitz from La fille de Madame Angot
Lecocq, Charles: Moor (Spanish) and Marasquin from Giroflé-Girofla
Lecocq, Charles: Annabal from La Marjolaine
Lecocq, Charles: Podestat from La petite mariée
Massenet, Jules: Alim and Scindia/Hindoo Prince from Le roi de Lahore
Meyerbeer, Giacomo: Marcel, Saint Bris, Conte de Nevers, Raoul, Valentin and Page from Les Huguenots
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: Don Juan and Leporello from Don Giovanni
Offenbach, Jacques: Capamstrel from La belle Lurette
Offenbach, Jacques: Bernadille, Coquebert, Delicat and Flameche from La boulangère a des écus 
Offenbach, Jacques: Bibletto and Huntsman (Grotesque) from Les Braconniers
Offenbach, Jacques: First Empire [costume] from Les contes d'Hoffmann
Offenbach, Jacques: Drogan and Gendarmes from Geneviève de Brabant
Offenbach, Jacques: Jupiter and Pluton from Orphée aux enfers
Offenbach, Jacques: Fridolin/Hungarian from Le roi carotte
Rossini, Giacomo: Figaro/Spanish Troubadour from The Barber of Seville [Obvi, Figaro could also be from Mozart]
Sullivan, Arthur: Smuggler from The Pirates of Penzance
Verdi, Giuseppe: Rigoletto from Rigoletto
Verdi, Giuseppe: Manrico from Il Trovatore
Wagner, Richard: Lohengrin from The Swan Knight

Monday, October 13, 2014

Replaceface and the Mutability of Historical Figures in Film

A few days ago, I discovered Steven Payne's fantastic Tumblr Replaceface, which takes portraits of Russian generals from the Napoleonic Wars made by George Dawe (1781-1829) and updates them with contemporary figures:









And at first I thought, 'ZOMG, these are totally plausible.  I can totally see Sean Connery as a Napoleonic-era Russian general' (and mad props to the creator of this Tumblr for his mad skills in making these portraits appear authentic).  Then I realized part of why I was thinking this is because these are actors, and I am used to seeing them in various roles.  For example, I have totally seen Sean Connery as a Cold War Russian submarine captain:

Dat hat




We are accustomed to these actors transforming themselves into various fictionalized (and sometimes historical) characters.  But this point raises an interesting issue about how popular history has become thanks to movies, and how movies affect the ways in which we see history.  As I started to think this issue over, I realized how vastly our understanding of the past has changed over the last century or so thanks to film.  I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing, simply that major changes have taken place.  For example, if I ask the average person on the street (who has seen the movie Gladiator) what Emperor Commodus looks like, the average person might respond thusly:





A film buff might remember Christopher Plummer in the role of Commodus from the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire:

A most subtle statue in the background

 However, if I were to ask the average person in a 19th-century street what Emperor Commodus looked like, that person would likely look at me askance.  That is because the only way that a person might know what Commodus looked like would be if that person had had the privilege of visiting a museum that had unearthed one of the remaining statues of Commodus--or possibly if that person had read a book on the history of Rome that included plates or illustrations.  I am going to assume that the number of people who had seen one of these pales significantly with the number of people who saw Gladiator (although perhaps on a par with the number of people who saw The Fall of the Roman Empire).  In case you are curious, here is a contemporary statue of Commodus.  He liked to imagine himself as Hercules:


This notion of actors filling in our sense of history through film is one that I now find particularly fascinating.  For example, how integral were Westerns to the popular understanding of frontier America?



I chose this one on purpose in part because this music has become synonymous with the Old West, but also because it features Clint Eastwood.  However, Clint Eastwood could just as plausibly be a Russian general from the Napoleonic era:

Идем дальше, сделать мой день
Or an unnamed extra from the 1955 film Lady Godiva of Coventry:


We live in an age, I suspect, when history is taken more from film than from the classroom, books, or any other single source.  This leads into the topic of how and why history gets transmitted through popular means, a subject that I have talked about in my scholarly work and one that raises many fascinating questions (perhaps more blog posts?).  At any rate, what is clear is that if you have ever wanted to own a shower curtain with Bill Murray as a Napoleonic-era Russian general, then you are very fortunate to live in the right age: