Saturday, April 30, 2016

Kanye contra Swift

Spotted in Boston, March 2015

Fans of SGS may remember that early in this blog's history, we posted about the parallels between two of our favorite megalomaniacs, Richard Wagner and Kanye West. But, as a conversation over beers tonight revealed, it is entirely possible that we missed a time when Wagner was Kanyed, by which I mean that once Wagner was told Imma Let You Finished. By Nietzsche. In print. Which was, perhaps, less immediately provoking than Kanye's comments directed at Taylor Swift, but is now indelibly entrenched in history--only time will tell if Kanye's act that launched a thousand memes has achieved the same notoriety.

Allow me to explain.

1) In 1888, Friedrich Nietzsche published The Case of Wagner, a book in which he criticized the master's operatic oeuvre. This stance contradicted the one that Nietzsche had posited in his earlier work, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), where he hailed Wagner as a figure of such importance that his works were in the process of ushering in a revival of classical Greek civilization--specifically its ability to blend the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses inherent in all societies (I'm not making this stuff up. It's really in there. Also something about the veil of Maya).

2) In The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche made an extensive argument that Wagner's stage works were deeply flawed because of their misunderstand of true culture. One of the most evocative phrases in his critique is 'Senta-sentimentality', by which Nietzsche means Wagner's tendency to imbue his plots with too much idealism in their reflection of society, an idealism molded by a dangerously nationalistic and chauvinistic lens. Nietzsche argued instead that Bizet's Carmen, to paraphrase, was 'one of the greatest operas of all time' because it was a love understood through natural impulses (feel free to disagree with this. I'm simply reporting on what happened). However, since Nietzsche was not appearing live at the MTV Video Awards, he could not be booed off, and instead he wrote an extensive essay about the ways that Carmen succeeded while Wagner failed.

Most people view Nietzsche's stance as one of provocation: he was reneging the support that he had lent to Wagner's works in the past by instead putting forward an opera that was, on the surface, far more salacious and sensuous than the works of Wagner, whose sensuality was underpinned by flawed beliefs. Did Nietzsche genuinely enjoy Bizet's most famous opera or was his choice more of a direct challenge to Wagner? The nuances of Nietzsche's argument remain a point of contention.

So it's time that we ask the many questions that arise from these unexpected parallels: did Kanye really believe that Beyoncé's video for 'Single Ladies' was the greatest of all time? Or was this simply a platform that Kanye took in order to criticize the overall aesthetic that Taylor Swift represented? Is this an example of Swifty-Sentimentality? Or was Kanye putting out a rallying cry for the importance of 'put[ting] a ring on it' as an artistic statement? Does this make Taylor Swift a Parsifal amongst 'Single Ladies', and Kanye both Wagner and Nietzsche? Tune in next time, when SGS finds more unlikely parallels between 19th-century aesthetic arguments and contemporary pop music figures.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Beauty of Musical Comedies, or Why The Lonely Island was so damn funny, Tenacious D's "Tribute" made us snort, and "Crazy-Ex Girlfriend" has us giggling

So I had the great pleasure of introducing to a colleague of mine this week several music videos from the comedy group, The Lonely Island.

And you know what I realized? I miss The Lonely Island. I miss good musical comedies. The Lonely Island was so funny. They were so damn funny. Why were they so funny? And in the middle of the night last night (because my brain works that way), I started thinking more seriously about that. And the answer to that question has to do with something really obvious but also unspoken: the music itself.

I remember reading a review of The Lonely Island's album, Incredibad, from Pitchfork back in the day and agreeing with pretty much everything they said.
It's clear that the group (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) knew what they were doing as musicians, not just as comedians.

Take our favorite song on the planet, "I'm On A Boat."

It's not a parody of a hip-hop song. It is a hip-hop song. It has the same braggadocio and swag as the music of DJ Khaled, Rick Ross, Kanye, and Lil' Wayne.

And it's musically good, it's aesthetically pleasing, it's well-written. That's what makes it hilarious at the end of the day. I have this theory anyway that the more aesthetically pleasing a creative work, the more convincing (and even manipulative) it is. I think the same thing applies here.

Other Lonely Island songs follow suit. "Three-way" uses classic 90s R&B riffs and lines like "Hop off the bus with the Alizé" that give it its distinct R&B sound.
Pick your favorite Lonely Island song and five bucks says there's something musically interesting going on that makes it work well with the lyrics and video. "Motherlover" and "Boombox" have really great choruses in the major key that temporarily shift the music away from the dominant minor key. "I Just Had Sex" has all of the makings of a 2010 pop song (including Akon as a vocalist). These songs work because they're musically clever and cheeky. Not just because the lyrics are funny. 

Years ago, my brother and I became temporarily obsessed with the song, "Tribute" by Tenacious D. And I think we both liked it so much because it was musically fun to jam to (with our air guitars).
My brother's favorite moment of the song arrives around the 2:40 mark. If you know the song, you know exactly what moment I'm talking about. And that's not an accident. The song is structured like other classic rock songs by groups like Led Zeppelin (Jack Black and Kyle Bass are huge Led Zeppelin fans, and Bass was inspired to write "Tribute" after hearing Metallica live in concert). Tenacious D musically prepared us for the moment when the devil asks, "Be ye angels?" and Tenacious D respond in the negative. They paid homage to other classic rock songs in form and style to make their ridiculous song sound epic and, thus, epically hilarious.

Although the show is hit and miss, the new tv show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" operates in the same way. What keeps people tuned in, I suspect, is the effectiveness of their musical comedy. The song, "Sexy Getting Ready Song" works so well as its own musical number:

Reminiscent of the music of Brandi or Toni Braxton circa 2000, it gives the listener classic R&B poppy hooks while slowly unraveling itself and becoming increasingly absurd. The interlude with the rapper is so perfect as well, as the rapper discovers how much work some women put into for a date and then becomes wracked with guilt over the pressures women face in a patriarchal society to look beautiful.

I had *just* been listening to some early 90s hip hop (Public Enemy and Advanced Chemistry in particular) when I heard the song, "Jap Rap Battle" from the show:
The flow of the rhymes, the musical line of the bass guitar, and the back-and-forth interplay between the two female characters and the call-and-response from the group all make it sound like a classic 90s rap song. And it's a good one.

It's all obvious once you say it out loud. Good music makes good musical comedy. It's deceptively simple. It's so deceptive in fact that people paused when The Lonely Island was nominated for a Grammy for best rap in 2010 for "I'm On A Boat." Shouldn't the group have been in the comedy section of the Grammy's? Was "I'm On A Boat" good rap or good comedy? The answer, of course, is both.

Monday, April 25, 2016

YEAR OF BOWIE: Hunky Dory (1971)

In the wake of David Bowie's recent passing, Schenkerian Gang Signs has declared 2016 to be the Year of Bowie. To commemorate, we will be exploring all twenty-seven of Bowie's studio albums at a rate of one every two weeks or so. Along the way, we will explore the gamut of Bowie's achievements, from granular musical analysis to broader notions of artistic trajectories. 

My original plan for the Year of Bowie was to tackle one album every second week or so to ensure that I made it through the whole discography before the year ended. Alas, then life intervened and now I find myself behind, despite the fact that I did start giving Hunky Dory some serious listenings to over a month ago. And part of why I think I found it tricky to write about was that this album felt like the songs I most associate with Bowie: 'Changes,' 'Life on Mars,' 'Oh! You Pretty Things', 'Queen Bitch' (my previous knowledge of Bowie was clearly influenced by the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic). And perhaps my prior knowledge of these songs led to my procrastination in writing about them. This is, in my view, peak Bowie. Vintage Bowie. Definitive Bowie. What more could you say about them? What more could I possibly say about them? How could my listening experience be enhanced by hearing them again?

(This isn't to detract from their power as songs. My most likely sing-along song in the car is 'Life on Mars.' I sometimes sing it to my dog. He doesn't seem to appreciate it. And let's just take a minute to acknowledge that Bowie's gesture at the word 'spit' is one of the great moments in music video. I also try to imitate this gesture when I sing this to my dog. He doesn't seem interested in it either.)

But what stuck with me from this album was less the songs I've heard so many times and instead the moments that were new to me, and perhaps for that reason, more insightful. Like the introductory instrumental section of 'Eight Line Poem,' which vaguely reminded me of the piano exit from 'Layla' and made me want to write about unexpected wistful piano moments in music ca. 1971, the year that both of these songs appeared. In fact, the way in which 'Oh! You Pretty Things' elides directly into 'Eight Line Poem' makes it feel as though it is a piano/guitar exit at first.

Or the part of 'Quicksand' that dissolves into wordless melody that doesn't quite harmonically resolve as it should. This section has been stuck in my head for the past couple of days, much as the guitar duet in 'All the Madmen' stayed with me when I was listening to The Man Who Sold the World.

Or the final song from the album, 'The Bewlay Brothers,' which Bowie claimed was comprised of nonsense lyrics, but is very melodic and beautiful and also wistful. Kind of like piano exit music from around this era, but with a folk-ish sound. In fact, it doesn't feel all that far removed from contemporary music that imitates folksong, à la Passenger; it's surprising that this song hasn't been covered recently by anyone (from what I can see), as I have a feeling it would continue to draw an audience today. 

Anyway, who needs lyrics? They're only really required when you are singing 'Life on Mars' to your dog.