Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Schlock is the new Romanticism

Jody Rosen published a fantastic piece today on Vulture about the topic of schlock in popular music and why we do love it ever so.  It was most certainly the most interesting consideration of pop music that I have read in a while, and it provides a comprehensive treatment of those songs that we love even though maybe we know we shouldn't but how can you resist the awesome that is 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'?  Rosen admits that the idea of schlock is a term that defies simple definition, but that's true in any discussion of aesthetics, and at its core, that is what this essay is seeking to do.

Historians and musicologists may hear the echoes of earlier music aesthetics in some of the concepts that Rosen introduces--Rosen does draw parallels between schlock and the Victorian parlor song, but these parallels are far more profound than this genre alone.  For example, Rosen's claim that 'Music is the most immediate, the most visceral and ineffable of human inventions, and its essential power, the trump card it holds over the other arts, is its bald appeal to the emotions, the way a rapturous tune, a stirring beat, a charismatic voice, can override everything, transporting us to a realm beyond concerns about tastefulness or “cool” or even coherence,' is essentially the exact same idea that drove musical Romanticism.  Crucial to this idea is the notion that music's 'trump card' is 'its bald appeal to the emotions,' a belief that nineteenth-century composers held dear whether they were setting texts (and setting them precisely to heighten their emotional content with music) or creating instrumental works that sought to push the listener to 'the realm of the infinite,' to quote nineteenth-century music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann writing about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  Rosen also defines schlock as unapologetically over-the-top, equally valid for Romantic music: 'Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures.'  After all, what is Wagner's Parsifal other than a five-hour rendition of 'Don't Stop Believing' with a slightly varied cast?  The 'boy' is from the country instead of the city, the girl is unquestionably 'living in a lonely world,' and with 'strangers waiting' and 'shadows searching,' he manages to overcome by maintaining his faith.

If schlock is the modern Romanticism, then perhaps it is not surprising to find that both movements have embraced similar themes in their works.  Rosen also provides a list of the 150 Best Schlock Songs Ever, although this appellation is not exactly true.  Surely many of the Romantic Lieder deserve a place here too.  What could be schlockier, in the sense meant here by Rosen, than Schubert's Erlkönig as a family drama writ large (and dramatically)?  All of Carmen?  Most of Aida ('O patria mia' in particular, with its plaintive oboe)?  Heck, most opera?  Everything Mahler ever wrote?  Perhaps even the category of music identified by Alexander Rehding as monumental deserves inclusion.  There is a tendency, I think, to assume that schlock is a category relegated to pop music, but there is no question in my mind that a great deal of what we have 'sanctified' as classical music is precisely what Rosen means here.

While Rosen is arguing for schlock existing within the work itself, I would argue that a work can be more/less schlocky based on its performance--whether that be its interpretation or, particularly with later pieces, its video, which can be viewed as an integral means of distribution from the 1970s onward.  For instance, one of the songs that Rosen lists is 'I Will Always Love You,' which I wholly endorse as an inclusion.  Yet at the same time, I'm not so convinced that Dolly Parton's rendition is as schlocky as the more famous Whitney Houston version.  Dolly's is more understated and closer to her country roots in her performance.  It also stays in tempo, which suggests to me that it is not venturing into the territory of the 'extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama.'  In fact, in Dolly's version, the melodrama seems to be at a minimum as she carries on through her emotional turmoil, with only the slightest vocal turn after 'you':

There can be no disagreement, however, over Dolly's hair.  That is nothing short of monumental.

I probably don't need to tell you that Whitney Houston's rendition does exactly the opposite in many ways, and that the melodrama is heavily emphasized when consider this song's role in the 1992 film The Bodyguard.  Note, though, that there is no steady tempo near the beginning.  This is a device as old as C.P.E. Bach, a proto-Romantic composer, who did the same in his fantasias (1753) that are considered to be in the 'sensitive' (i.e., emotional) style.  No steady tempo means that the music is being driven by the interpreter's personal understanding of the piece, and we have a tendency to understand this as a direct portrayal of emotion.  All of those added vocal turns are also understood as emotional, a trick that C.P.E. Bach drew on as well:

I want to finish with a consideration of one of the songs mentioned in Rosen's list of 150, Toto's 'Africa.'  Recently, I watched the video for this song, then I watched it again eight or nine times to try and process what I had just seen.  It's pretty spectacular, and now I would venture to say that it is also pretty schlocky/Romantic all at the same time.  I would recommend that you pay particular attention to the way that it dabbles with the exotic, a favorite locus also for Romantics:

Let me start by saying that the drummer here, with his absolute devotion to his playing, is about as Romantic as they get.

What strikes me as most exotic here is that the distant, unfamiliar land is being used (it would seem) as a place to find new knowledge and perhaps even pushing our protagonist to somewhere near what E.T.A. Hoffmann might call 'the realm of the infinite.'  This is not the same exotic as we might expect from, say, the Enlightenment, where it would be a means for critiquing Western society.  Here, it is a place of mystery and even danger--the world's most exotic library, with zebra skins and taxidermied lions on the wall, can burn down in the video, thanks to some tribal guy wielding a spear (and yes, that did really happen).  Our protagonist is seeking something that he could not find in the West, in the song's lyrics, stopping an old man in the hopes of 'find[ing] some old forgotten words or ancient melodies.'  In the video, this unattainable knowledge is represented by the book (cleverly titled 'Africa'), which then burns in the fire.  As a subtle homage to this moment, at the end of the video, our lead singer is sitting on a giant copy of this book.  While our protagonist, here, has sought to decode 'the realm of the infinite,' he is ultimately unsuccessful and must continue on blindly, as though without glasses (cleverly conveyed by the glasses sitting on the ground).

Is Toto's 'Africa' schlock?  I would say yes.  Is this Romantic?  I would also say yes.  I am not sure that these two impulses are one and the same, but I think that they are rooted in similar notions and goals.  If artists/composers/interpreters/audiences believe music is the best means of delivering emotion, then both schlock and Romanticism will remain essential in many styles and genres.  Now, let's take the time to do the things we never had, which doesn't make any sense either.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Does the opera world have a problem fat-shaming women? Is the pope Catholic?

NPR has an article right now that points out five different reviews from London critics that all criticize Irish mezzo-soprano Terra Erraught's weight. Author Anastasia Tsioulcas writes, "What is stunningly apparent is just how much a woman's body matters onstage — way more, if these five critics are to be believed, than her voice, her technique, her musicality or any other quality."

Horrible, fat-shaming, gendered comments include:
"Tara Erraught's Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat." - Financial Times

"It's hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy woman's plausible lover." - The Guardian

"Unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing." - The Times of London

These reviews were all written by men.

"Isn't this shocking?" Tsioulcas's article seems to ask us. Ummmmm.... no? Honestly, I'm surprised that the author's surprised right now. There's nothing "stunning" about these reviews.

But seriously, people. Why are we surprised? Have we all experienced collective amnesia or something? And forgotten all of the other female singers who've been targeted for their weight in the past several decades? Does the name Debbie Voigt ring a bell? Jessye Norman? Anyone? Anyone?

Just a reminder, peeps:
Debbie Voigt, before and after her lapband surgery. Thanks, opera producers and viewers for reminding her all of the time about her weight! And not letting it go after her surgery, either!

And here's Jessye Norman:
Let's take the case of Jessye Norman in particular here. Also called "Just Enormous" behind her back, Jessye Norman's size and girth have been big points of conversation for listeners and reviewers alike since the 1970s.  it), and have found countless mentions of her size and girth dating back to the 1970s. Here are some lovely tidbits, just for your enjoyment:

"[Norman is a] large, opulent, dark-hued soprano” - New Grove Dictionary of Music, circa 1991. THE NEW GROVE DICTIONARY OF MUSIC, Y'ALL.

- The Independent (London) in 1991 mentioned "her ample figure" and called her, "big, tall, majestic."

Norman's a really interesting example of how race and gender intersect here in critics' comments. Her size, much a point of fixation for critics and listeners alike, furthered fantasized notions of a big black woman (and all of the stereotypes that this image entails) on stage. Let us consider all of the ways in which listeners have marveled at Norman’s size. The New York Times, January 22, 1977 She has been called “a woman of generous proportions with voice to match,” and Der Spiegel called her a “giant cello made of flesh and blood,” and “an entire orchestra in person. In another review, the NYT wrote, “Miss Norman makes an impressive presence on stage, no doubt about that. She sends out a blinding laser-beam of a smile, she wears an Afro and she is scaled along the lines of Callas in her monumental early years.”

What's fascinating about Norman is that, unlike in the case of Tarra Erraught, it's her girth and size that have somehow contributed to her reputation, aura, whathaveyou as a Wagnerian singer and a Lieder singer. It's just become part of the spectacle that people want to see when they see Jessye Norman sing. And notice how I used the word "see" there. Performance isn't just an aural experience. Obviously. It's a visual one, too.

So I've been asking myself the following lately: have listeners been flocking to hear Norman sing because of her gift for interpreting German Lieder or because she offers an exotic display to viewers? Or both? Is Norman a fascinating Lieder singer because of her blackness, because her performances offer the listener an atypical visual experience in addition to an excellent aural one? The answer to the last question appears to be “yes.” “It is always a pleasure not merely to hear Jessye Norman, but also to see her, because she is so visually dazzling.” (Globe and Mail).“She wouldn't have to sing; she's a spectacle,” gushed one fan of Norman right before a Liederabend she offered on an international tour in 1990. The body of Norman, in addition to the Lieder she sang, seemed to provide listeners with a reason to attend her performances.

It feels kind of like we're in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation for women's bodies in opera right now. It can be the reason why people come to hear a performer sing, but it can also be the reason why a singer earns such nasty comments from critics as well.

When will things change, you ask? Well, when opera producers AND fans stop being so weird about a performer's appearance on stage. When they become more aware, perhaps, of the politics of gender and race in performance. When opera companies stop using blackface and brownface in their productions. Because guys, if we haven't even gotten *that* down - I'm looking at you, Hans Neunfels - then I don't know how prepared we're going to be for other kinds of conversations on bodies and performance right now.

So yeah. Be outraged, opera fans. Be angry. But don't act surprised. Don't act like you didn't know there were body politics involved in the opera world. Don't act like merit alone, beautiful technique, and soulful singing are the only things that count in 2014. They're not. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Oh, Macklemore: anti-Semetic [sic] edition

I feel like we here at SGS may have to start a feature called, 'Oh, Macklemore.'  Because he certainly seems to get himself into controversial situations on a regular basis.  For example, we could have done an 'Oh, Macklemore: Grammys edition,' for that time when Macklemore won a Grammy for Best Rap Album, then sent an email to Kendrick Lamar apologizing for his victory. This might not be such a big deal, except that Macklemore is white and creates music that has been described as closer to pop than hip hop and Kendrick Lamar is black and creates what people more traditionally view as hip hop.  Or there was also 'Oh, Macklemore: gay edition,' when Macklemore declared himself to be a supporter of gay marriage in a song ('Same Love') that was mostly about how he thought he might have been gay, but as it turns out, he wasn't.  If I had to sum up what people take issue with regarding Macklemore, it is that he has these ideas, and they are sort of okay, nice ideas, but they don't really have very much substance, yet his work remains popular regardless.  He is kind of like a Nancy Drew to your Agatha Christie novels, an Oliver! to your Oliver Twist, a 10 Things I Hate About You to your Taming of the Shrew.  A lighter, less substantial hip hop to your hard core, if you will.  Hip hop Lite.

That being said, neither of these 'Oh, Macklemore' situations was directly his fault, unless you count 'writing a relatively trite song in favor of gay marriage' as his fault.  It's not like he decided the Grammy voting or he contributed to the popularity of 'Same Love' with listeners.  But this most recent 'Oh, Macklemore' is, arguably, his fault.  Last week, during a performance at Seattle's EMP Museum, he showed up looking like this:

Oh, Macklemore
What the ensuing online debate suggests is that some people viewed this as possibly a Jewish caricature, while others didn't, and some of the people who didn't are even Jewish, so that should end all debates right there.  Because obviously if some Jews are not offended, then no one has a right to feel offended.  We are getting into some problematic territory here.  According to a post he made to his blog, he most certainly did not, under any circumstances, intend to be anti-Semetic (his spelling) and has even found out about this cool organization called the Anti-Defamation League that is, like, totally against Anti-Semetism (variant on his spelling) and we should all check it out and stuff.  I am harkening back to last week when Kim Kardashian revealed to the world in an online thought piece that racism is a thing, you guys, and while it has not been an important cause to her in the past (even though it was to Kanye), she is totally becoming aware of it still being, like, a thing, you guys.  Quick, someone tell her about the NAACP or something and really blow her mind.

[BTW, you may have noticed that Kim's essay had no typos, unlike Macklemore's.  This leads me to believe that Kim has an editor, particularly since there are so many 'it's' vs. 'its' potential pitfalls.  I truly want to see this person's business card--'Editor to the Kardashians!'--although I'm sure that all of his/her noble work is done secretly]

I don't think that Macklemore did this on purpose--I find it hard to believe that anyone would think that Macklemore was that sophisticated a performer to draw on racist caricatures during a performance of a song that talks about finding bargains as a way of confronting stereotypes about Jews or mocking Jews or whatever he was trying to do.  He's the kind of artist who encourages gay couples to get gay married during his anthem for gay marriage, as he did during the Grammys.  You're giving him too much credit, people.  I am on board with anyone who wants to find what he did offensive.  He may not have noticed what he was doing, but as a performer he is making a statement when he appears on stage.  If that statement is 'Nazi-Era Depiction of a Jew,' then he is responsible for that. 

There is a much larger, and much more significant, question here of the mutability of racism.  What struck me in reading comments about this story is that there is a generation of people (perhaps 'kids today') for whom this costume did not reflect an ethnic stereotype.  In a way, this is a good thing.  I was going to try and quote Kim on this but her writing was too convoluted (editor to the Kardashians evidently does not change run-on sentences); however, I will take the spirit of what she wanted to say and state that being unaware of previously damaging stereotypes is a positive development overall.  If kids today don't interpret potentially racist imagery as racist, then this has to be a good thing.  At the same time, though, how unaware should we be?  Whose responsibility is it to be aware?  Which ethnic slurs are okay, which ones are okay to forget, which ones are okay to appropriate?

This whole incident reminds me of a piece that Rembert Browne posted on Grantland a few months ago about the use of what continues to be the most damning of racial slurs in the US and attempts by the NFL to ban that particular word.  Browne came out in favor of this word, seeing it instead as a term that has been appropriated by the black community to describe (primarily) positive relationships between close friends and family.  For Browne, 'There’s no one answer, but what does seem clear is that the future of dealing with this word isn’t in its history. If using tales and images from the Jim Crow South hasn’t worked yet, it’s never going to work. I promise.'  Here I totally disagree.  You can feel free to use whatever word you want, but to forget the history of this particular term--which has not even fallen into history yet since it continues to be used in a derogatory fashion--is to forget part of a vital struggle that has forged so much of contemporary American society.  And if 'historical' tales and image had no effect, might I suggest that you were shown the wrong tales and images.  Try this one instead, taken from a 1963 interview on PBS entitled 'The Negro and the American Promise.'  This excerpt is from James Baldwin's lengthier interview; Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were also included as part of this show:

This might seem far removed from Macklemore, but I'm not sure that it is.  Macklemore's costume and apology suggests that he did not recognize the problem because he was unaware of its history.  The online reaction might suggest that for many people such imagery is now obsolete to the point where this costume is not associated with Jewish caricature.  Browne's piece, on the other hand, suggests mitigating a problem by ignoring its history.  The key word in both examples, of course, is history, and I think that without being aware of the implications that such performances entail, it is too easy to perpetuate the stereotypes associated with them--even if the agents here are unaware of/unmoved to change their behavior.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Boney M's 'Rasputin': Exotic and Historic?

'Someday, I will inspire a great disco hit,' contemplates Rasputin

My previous post on exotic and historic disco led some readers to suggest that Boney M's 'Rasputin' should be placed in both categories, and not simply the historic one.  I wanted to explore this issue some more, mostly because the question of what signifiers indicate 'exotic' is an important and interesting one.  Exoticism is not a neatly defined category, but one that is tricky and can be interpreted in varied ways.  To me, 'Rasputin' does not sound exotic in the same way as some other songs.  However, I can certainly understand why others would disagree with me, and I would like to take this opportunity to further explore why categories like 'exotic' as so complex.

Russia's engagements with Europe have long been complicated by the idea that the country may or may not belong to the 'West.'  Part of this ambiguity stems from Russia's vast geography since its boundaries extend across much of the Asia to the east while remaining on the eastern edge of Europe to the west.  In terms of historiography, the question is also complicated.  The first chroniclers of Russia lived in Kiev from the 9th-13th centuries and descended from Scandinavian raiders--as a reminder of how complex Russia's history becomes, Kiev is now in the Ukraine, but holds the same esteemed position as a seminal part of Russia's history.  However, Mongolian tribes conquered much of Russia (including Kiev) and surrounding territories, occupying this land from the 13th to the 15th century, imposing a more 'Eastern' culture.  While later monarchs worked hard to foster Westernized ideas and structures (such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great), unifying all of Russia in terms of culture never worked.  Even during the Soviet years, when Russian became the only official language for the entire country, problems continued in what would become the breakaway republics--breakaway republics that identified themselves more closely with the culture of the Middle East and Asia in terms of religion, language, and traditions.

This ambiguity between East and West was one that Russians themselves acknowledged, and this exoticism was frequently used as a means of making Russia seem more intriguing.  Take the case of Vaslav Nijinsky, for example, who was one of the central dancers in Diaghilev's Ballets russes, the company that performed to phenomenal success in pre-WW1 Paris.  Nijinsky's talents at ballet were prodigious, but part of the way in which was presented to audiences emphasized his potentially exotic qualities, both in terms of the roles he danced (such as a 'golden boy' in Scheherazade) and his actual appearance--even though Nijinsky himself was of Polish descent, his features were thought to be Tatar or even Japanese

The idea that Russia could be either East or West (or both), then, has long been a part of discourse on the country.  In this sense, 'Rasputin' can be understood as an exotic work based on subject alone.  The way in which he is portrayed from the song emphasizes potentially exotic qualities: he is 'Russia's greatest love machine,' and he does not die easily (I am reminded of Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, in which an ambiguously 'Chinese' character proves challenging to kill).  I certainly see how the depiction of Rasputin here appropriates some of the same discourse often found in exotic characters, and there is a much longer tradition of viewing Russia as a nexus of East and West; at the same time, perhaps this is too much analysis for a song that also proclaims that its titular character '...was a cat that really was gone.'

Musically, though, I do not hear this particular song as exotic.  In fact, it is very much in the tradition of funk/disco that preceded it, even though some of these musical features overlap with what are often considered to be exotic musical tropes.  Main examples of these tropes include features such as unusual instruments (such as the the sitar in the Rolling Stones 'Paint it Black', which Mick Jagger declared at various points sounded either 'Turkish,' 'Indian' or some other exotic culture chosen at random), unorthodox scale systems for Western music, and particularly chromaticism (which fits with the 'unorthodox scale system' idea).  These tropes are not necessarily specific to regions of music; instead, as the Mick Jagger example reminds us, they serve more broadly to indicate something from 'outside' of the typical Western system.

While many of these tropes were established in art music during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they continue to have a long reach.  Going back to Carl Douglas' 'Kung Fu Fighting,' for instance, the vocal line uses one of those unorthodox scale systems.  It is pentatonic, which means it has only five pitches (Western music, whether it is major or minor, typically has seven pitches).  Pentatonic scales are very common in East Asian musical traditions, such as those found in China and Japan:

Every-body was kung fu fight-ing
1        2        3    5      4  4      5

Those kids were fast as light-ning.
1        2      3      4    3   3      2

Now go back and listen to the opening 'Oh's.  Same thing.

'Rasputin' is pretty clearly in a minor key, although there are some parts that incorporate major elements.  This might seem like an unorthodox scale system at first glance, but it is a very common system in such styles as jazz and funk, where flipping modes or incorporating unexpected moments within a standard scale is common.  The term 'blues' note is exactly describing this phenomenon, for example.  Jazz and funk were working to undermine aspects of Western classical music, but they did so by incorporating unexpected features, not replacing the system entirely.  If this explanation feels convoluted, let's turn to Shaft for a clearer version.  Listen to the opening, which seems to start very clearly in G major, particularly with that guitar playing the series of repeated Gs:

But then suddenly at 0:10, the bass shifts to an F natural, suggested that perhaps instead this opening is in C major.  Is this exotic?  I would say not, since it relies on a comprehensive knowledge of Western classical harmony to make it work.  Is it a holdover from jazz, where major and minor become interchangeable?  I would certainly say yes.  This song also bridges between funk and disco, so it serves as a template for what would happen next.

There are some other elements that could be understood as musically exotic here, particularly the emphasis on repetition.  However, repetitive lines are another feature commonly found in funk, as numerous examples show:

If you follow pretty much any one musical line here, you will find a great deal of repetition (I would recommend the brass).


'Rasputin' has several of these qualities that are attributable to disco/funk, including repetition and major/minor mode shifting (the verses are minor, the chorus is major).  Yet there are some exotic qualities too, like what sounds like a balalaika (traditional Russian instrument) and even performances that seemingly emphasize the exotic qualities of the song through the costumes:

For me, it isn't enough to proclaim this song as exotic.  I am happy to proclaim it descending from its funk ancestry.  At the same time, though, I don't feel that my opinion is definitive.  Concepts such as 'exotic' or 'Western' are dependent on often ambiguous signifiers, and as such, what I might hear could differ from what another person hears.  I don't deny that there is an exotic factor in this song--made even more complicated by the fact that the performers are part of a German band comprised of black people performing in English.  While I am not quite ready to put 'Rasputin' in the same category as 'Kung Fu Fighting' exotic-wise, the complexity of this example shows how seemingly simple pop music can mask clashing and conflicting sophistication under the surface.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Singing Drag with Conchita Wurst and Courtney Act

 I would like to dedicate this post to a long-time friend, Alistair Smith, who recently 'engaged' quite directly in gender issues himself.  Best wishes, Alistair, and I hope that you are feeling all better soon!

This past weekend, Austrian contestant Conchita Wurst won the Eurovision Song Contest.  Her victory was noteworthy, in part, because Conchita was born a he.  Thomas Neuwirth developed the character of Conchita in response to the challenges that he encountered growing up gay in a conservative community.  Her victory has sparked discussion across the internets that this win is significant because it defies the kind of anti-gay policy that has been surfacing in places such as Russia (Russia denounced Conchita's performance, although the popularity of her single seems to indicate that Russians themselves take no issue with gender bending).  Yet Conchita was not the first contestant to win Eurovision in drag; Dana International, representing Israel, took the 1998 competition:

Conchita's win is significant because her success suggests that a clearly transgender performer can be accepted by a wide audience--the fact that Conchita has a beard makes it impossible to forget that underneath the dress is a man (in contrast to Dana International, whose performance is much more feminized). Paris Lees, writing for The Guardian, called Conchita 'a sort of bearded Beyonce; adoring her is now compulsory, and rightly so.'

Conchita's song, 'Rise Like A Phoenix,' points, of course, to her transformation and rebirth, engaging directly with this new identity that she has chosen.  The performance itself blurred her gender by keeping Conchita's face in shadow until the audience has already seen her body, juxtaposing the female and male appearance more effectively than if she had simply appeared on stage:

While Conchita's win is significant as a testament to the level of acceptance that now exists for performers who explicitly question the binary of gender, I also want to suggest that the fact that these performers are singing is of equal significance.  Typically, drag performances have relied more heavily on lip-synching, which helps to mitigate the obvious challenge of men playing women but still sounding like men.  The 1994 Australian film Priscilla: Queen of the Desert features numerous performances of this type:

Anyone who is a fan of RuPaul's Drag Race is already aware of how essential lip-synching is to drag: the elimination round hinges exactly on this skill.

Having men sing like women and vice versa is not necessarily new, although I believe that what Conchita and her contemporaries are doing is new.  For example, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and even into the nineteenth), opera seria was performed by castrati: men whose voices never changed because they were castrated at a young age, and who could perform in the range of a soprano with the gusto of a tenor.  Historical evidence suggests that audiences viewed these men as men, not as men singing as women.  Castrati typically performed the role of the male hero, so there were few questions about how their gender was to be understood in these works.  These parts continue to pose challenges today in terms of performance: in some versions, women will play men and sing the roles.  Alternatively, men can sing the roles as contratenors, meaning that they perform using a falsetto voice.  Either way, the actual effect differs greatly from the expectations of a Baroque audience.

Another way that opera engages with gender is through trouser roles, where women will play male characters.  These characters are typically younger men, with the implication being that the voice has not yet fully changed.  Trouser roles are found in repertoire works such as Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (Cherubino) and Strauss's Rosenkavalier (Octavian, who then confuses things even further by dressing as a woman in some scenes).  In such cases, the gender switching is often considered to be a form of titillation for the audience.  The opening scene for Rosenkavalier, for instance, features Octavian in bed with an older woman.  Trouser roles are conventionally reserved for women playing men, a gender switch that is viewed today as relatively harmless.  Even popular family films such as the 2006 She's the Man show that it is okay for girls to pretend to be boys.  I can't think of too many popular family films that show the reverse.

Conchita, on the other hand, is playing a woman, even though she retains aspects of being a man.  She also is singing, not lip-synching.  In this, she is joined by two of the three finalists from this season of RuPaul's Drag Race: Courtney Act and Adore Delano.  All three of these individuals competed on their country's version of Idol as men; in Courtney's case, she came back the next day, after being eliminated, and performed instead as a woman, then went on to compete in drag:

Much of this clip is engineered for television, of course, just as any reality show.  But the performance is noteworthy.  There is nothing here that indicates a man is performing, particularly in the voice.  I suspect that part of why these male performers can sing female parts is specifically related to the fact that contemporary pop music is frequently sung in a lower register for women, so, for the most part, it is possible for a man to perform this same repertoire without changing the music significantly (I doubt we will see any of these performers tackling Mariah or Donna Summer anytime soon, since that range would be too much of a challenge).  Courtney Act lowers the vocal range from the Lesley Gore original, but it still sounds like it could be a woman performing.

Drag queens singing is a tradition that also goes back a while, as this 1993 track from RuPaul reminds us:

While some moments sound like a woman, for the most part, the voice sounds more masculine.  This is in contrast to Conchita or Courtney, whose voices also remain 'in character' throughout their performances.  Conchita's victory, then, may be of greater significance than demonstrating growing tolerance toward gender ambiguity.  These performers are not simply mimicking others' words, they can now convey their own.  With this generation of artists, drag is not only a visual art: now drag also has a voice.

PS - If you are curious, #teamBiancadelRio

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Disco, Exotic and Historic (and sometimes both)

This blog is about to get all Eurovision, all of the time (well, at least for a few posts), so we have decided to begin with a trip to Eurovision Past.  Specifically, Kira unearthed this 1979 classic, 'Genghis Khan':

You may be saddened to learn that this song, which was Germany's entry, ranked only fourth in its year.  How did disco come to this, you might ask?  Why did Germany present a song that had a leaping Genghis Khan flying around the stage like he belonged there, you might ask?  There are historical precedents for this song and I would like to suggest that two impulses fused here: exotic disco and historic disco.  Both were chart-topping approaches to this style and left their mark in numerous ways, not only in this Eurovision entry.

Exotic disco

The sound in 'Genghis Khan,' to me, borrows heavily from the 1974 one-hit wonder by Carl Douglas, 'Kung Fu Fighting,' particularly with the gutteral 'huhs' and such:

This video makes even clearer how weird the whole premise of this song is.  First, you have Carl Douglas who is dressed is some kind of vaguely East Asian outfit, performing a song about an 'ancient Chinese Art.'  Of course, this song is in no way accurate of any individual culture or tradition (or martial art), it is simply mixing them all together into possibly the single most Orientalist disco hit.  And this song was a hit: it was number one in countries around the world, which is really hard to believe.  It is hard to believe to me.  Number 1?  Really?

However, in this particular performance (which is taken from a 1974 Dutch show), it is clear that Douglas is little more than mere entertainment.  The hosts of the show are the ones who have the 'real' conversation, even blocking out the music at points.  Similarly, the song distances the potentially 'exotic' performer by having him (literally) put on an exotic costume.  Thus, the exotic is now at an even further remove, mitigated through two cultures.

Why make disco exotic?  I suspect that such 'distanced' performances helped in lessening the bold--and explicitly black--songs that initiated the shift from funk to disco.  Compare this to Shaft, a man who defies the potential limitations of his environment.  As his 1971 theme song and opening title sequence demonstrates, Shaft is more than willing to upset the status quo, walking around Times Square like he owns the place.  He goes even further in his defiance through his occupation (he is serving as a branch of the law, but he appropriates the law for his own causes as a private eye) and in his ability to stop cabs when they deign to get in his way:

Carl Douglas with his kung fu fighting is nowhere near the same potential disruption that Shaft could be.

There are other examples of this type of exotic disco, such as this 1976 Kool and the Gang hit later featured on the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever:

I like how everyone gets lost around 2:22 when the beat almost disappears.  This is a great track: the band plays super tight and the harmony is very much 'exotic' in its unexpected dissonance.  I hear more of old jazz tracks like Caravan here than I do 'Kung Fu Fighting.'

Nonetheless, the exotic had its entree into disco and remained.  Then along came...

Historic disco

This category might seem like an oxymoron, but I assure you that it played a vital role in disco's global success.  To whit, the single most successful Eurovision song to date:

A few things that ABBA got right here:

1) Very catchy tune
2) We may not remember the intricacies of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo.  But we get the gist (you win, I lose, I am facing my imminent defeat and it doesn't seem so bad)
3) It's in English.  Crucial to win.  If you're curious, there is a version in Swedish.
Benny and Björn, being no fools, knew that the English version would win over more of the crowd (and possibly audiences worldwide), so they opted to perform that one.
4) The hats.  Although this had little/no lasting impression.

The year was 1974, 'Waterloo' became a huge hit, and ABBA's international stardom began its rise.  Also, this song launched historic disco, which I am broadly defining as 'disco that features something to do with history, although honestly it is usually pretty vague and we are just gleaning the general gist of stuff.'

The next major hit to follow 'Waterloo,' I would suggest, is Boney M.'s 1978 'Rapustin.'  Because why else would you decide to write a disco song about a figure from history?  I'm still not entirely sure, to be honest, but I do think that 'Waterloo' had something to do with it.  Also noteworthy: Boney M. was another European group (Belgian/German/something) looking to break big.  They also recorded in English.  However, this was not a Eurovision song:

...which is kind of a crime.

It was, however, a huge hit, reaching #1 in Germany, Austria, and Australia (it was #2 in the UK and Switzerland).  If you are wondering how, you aren't the only one.

The logical extension to all of this, then, is to take exotic disco and historic disco, fuse it together, and create The Ultimate 1979 Eurovision Song.  Sadly, 'Genghis Khan' didn't quite make it.  It had the exotic, but perhaps it had too much exotic--or perhaps it had no need to 'Other' its performer in the first place.  It had the historic, but lacked a certain je ne sais quoi in its depiction of its biographical figure.  It has lived on, though, thanks to YouTube, because now all Eurovision entries can live on there forever.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Yeezus Walks, Fishes Swim: The Kanye Restaurant Experience

So Zoe's hometown has a new sushi restaurant that's called Ye's Sushi.
I bet it's delicious and wonderful. But we couldn't get over the name of that place. What would happen, we began to wonder, if Kanye really *did* have his own sushi restaurant? Most likely located in LA/NYC/London?

We've decided to take a page from the most douchetastic restaurateur we know - Guy Fieri - and write an absurd, surrealistic word painting of a sushi menu to honor Ye himself. Enjoy!


Margiela roll: black caviar, bluefin tuna, and fois gras rolled in koshihikari rice and dusted with edible gold flecks. (10 ¥eezus)

College dropout roll: Doritos crumbs, sliced apples, communion wine-braised beef, diamonds. (8 ¥eezus)

The Amber roll: amberjack fish, golden beets, rose petals, bitters, bottled Yeezy tears of anger, wasabi hot sauce. (23 ¥eezus)

Beyonce roll: Ye's not convinced you're ready for this jelly - lightly braised jellyfish, red onion jam, wasabi, and cucumber served on a bed of toasted rice. (30 ¥eezus)

Imma let you finish roll: tuna tartare, blanched kale, parboiled rice. (8 ¥eezus)

All of the Lights roll: different whitefish wrapped in mild seaweed and tied with Christmas lights. (12 ¥eezus)

Blood on the Leaves roll: self explanatory (5 ¥eezus)

Watch the Throne roll: iron-rich spinach, king salmon, queen fish, a minced and lightly sautéed page from George R.R. Martin's Songs of Ice and Fire, poison. (12 ¥eezus)

The Yeezus in the North roll: the above, frozen. (14 ¥eezus)

Paris roll: coq du vin, shallot, rice, fleur de sel, deep fried in croissant batter. Best served in a french-ass restaurant. (13 ¥eezus)

Heartless roll: beef heart, artichoke hearts, palm hearts, jealousy, lightly steamed brown rice. (5 ¥eezus)

Roll from Sierra Leone: yucca, whitefish, wrapped in a palm leaf and crusted with sugar crystal 'diamonds'. Only for the guilty. (6 ¥eezus)

Heartless roll II: empty sushi roll. Your server will deposit your roll carelessly and contemptuously. (8 ¥eezus)

Mercy roll: poisonous blowfish, ghost chili pepper, scotch bonnet pepper, basmati rice, served with a thai chili dipping sauce. (18 ¥eezus)

I Am A God roll: seven fishes, communion wafers, manna from heaven soaked in wine made from water. Served to you by a gospel choir. (20 ¥eezus)

Otis roll: collard greens, oats, catfish, rolled in rice and smothered in Louisiana hot sauce. (8 ¥eezus)

*We unfortunately are unable to accept any currency except ¥eezus dollars at this time. We thank you for your understanding.*