Saturday, January 20, 2018

Failure to critique hyper-masculinity in the Killers’ “The Man”

One of the top-selling albums of 2017 was The Killers’ Wonderful Wonderful, which debuted no. 1 on the billboard charts in late September. The lead single on the album was “The Man”, released back in June 2017. “The Man” is a great song, with a catchy rhythm section and melody, certainly one of the best songs The Killers have produced. There is lots of room to breathe in the melody, and they have fun playing with all of that space. The form is interesting: the chorus doesn’t come in until 1:25 into the song, after two verses and some stalling, and this delayed entrance (the first time out of the tonic key) comes with a big payoff. The 2nd time around, the chorus (B) has this pretty awesome vocal-heavy extension (B2) that only comes back after the 3rd chorus and bridge (B–C–B2). Just a few more small touches that make the song: try just following the bass on a listen—it is just spare enough during the verse, and gets increasingly complex as the song progresses, raising the tension. And I think my favorite thing in the song is this rhythm guitar 16th note figure that only comes in during the 3rd chorus.


The video is pretty great, too—it presents several versions of lead singer Brandon Flowers (or perhaps one version in different timelines) in different hyper-masculine poses: as a sequined cowboy gambler, a Las Vegas show performer, a playboy, a wannabe motorcycle stunt artist, and a guy in a wife-beater grilling steak and shooting guns outside his trailer. By the end of the video, though, all of the versions of himself have been abandoned, thrown out, shown to be a facade, or failed in some other way. Through the video, “The Man” can be read as a self-deceptive ego-trip, a satire and critique of hyper-masculinity.

The problem with the song is, however, that separated from the video, the music and lyrics do not actually convey any critique of the masculine caricature it depicts. There is no lyrical content from the song that ever signals that the hyper-masculine is something to avoid—instead, the character claims that they’ve got nothing to learn, don’t need any help, and don’t care about anyone else. The lyrics never venture quite far enough into absurdity, or at least far enough that someone taking the song at celebratory face value would notice. The lyrics never show that “the man” does need help or is not at the top of the game. This is especially problematic given our cultural moment—for example, the #MeToo movement, who criticize the very type of entitled men described in “The Man”, a movement that gained steam just a few weeks after Wonderful Wonderful came out. 

The music doesn’t convey any satire, either. Music can provide irony (see my post from 2014 about BNL’s Shopping), but in “The Man”, while the rhythm section and falsetto background vocals borrow from disco (a historically un-masculine genre), the song swaggers throughout with fist-pumping facility. There is no attempt to take down “the man” musically. Sure, this type of swagger is what rock music is good at—one could argue that is the original point of the genre. But while the video suggests an attempt that the song is something other than a celebration of toxic masculinity, the source material doesn’t give any hint of that. For a song that is supposed to critique, it is entirely too easy to take it at face value.

By contrast, Sting’s best song on his latest album 57th and 9th was “Petrol Head”, a song also depicting hyper-masculinity, but instead with an automotive angle. It is a much more lyrically clever song and, while still not critiquing its masculine caricature much (there is a somewhat deprecating verse), the song is cheeky and inventive enough that its lack of critique is more forgivable—hyper-masculine people usually don't make lengthy allusions to Moses. Well, maybe Charlton Heston.


I’ll be listing to “The Man” for a while to come—after many repeated listens, I still haven’t gotten tired of it—but always with a grain of salt, and trying not to sing along with the toxic masculinity.

What do you think?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Best pop songs of 2017 mix

Last post, I presented my top six albums of 2017. But there were plenty of new songs this year not on those albums that I would recommend checking out. I made a Spotify playlist and some brief comments about each track (in no particular order):

Spotify playlist link:
https://open.spotify.com/user/22ja4zectgsaxjr4azetwviqi/playlist/5pbw4aPmmpKa9uxRZHGbE5
  1. Jonathan Coulton: “All This Time” from Solid StateSolid State may not have really worked as a concept album or graphic novel, but it had some good tracks, including this one, which is every bit as good as classic JoCo. Also check out the awesome video.
  2. Kesha: “Spaceship” from Rainbow – Kesha shows both her Nashville roots and her millennial sensibilities in this banjo-lead track, which could have been co-written by Sufjan. I didn’t know I needed a Country-SciFi track in my life, but apparently I did! This is for all those people who feel like they don’t belong here.
  3. Beck: “Dear Life” from Colors – I prefer the more upbeat Beck, and this track delivers, with its jaunty piano and unexpected chord progressions. Add some depressing lyrics for some cognitive dissonance for an excellent recipe. And of course, there is a quirky lyric video.
  4. Aimee Mann: “Patient Zero” from Mental Illness – My favorite track from Aimee Mann’s latest album. As always, she excels in clever wordplay—I really enjoy the musical layering at the end of the track. Listen closely to hear Jonathan Coulton singing backup.
  5. Sylvan Esso: “Radio” from What Now – A catchy, almost radio-friendly track that also critiques pop music and the industry, culture, and fame machine behind it. The quick detuning right at the beginning of the track warns that this isn’t a typical pop hit. I dare you to try *not* to dance. You can watch a live, completely re-imagined acoustic version of the track here. Warning: there is an explicit phrase in the 2nd verse.
  6. Somi: “Gentry" from Petite Afrique – Not many songs about gentrification, but this jazzy track about New York from an African immigrant hits home. The chorus features a masterful word trick switching between “I want it back” and “I want it black”, and also having the music devolve into African drumming. Somi has a great voice with a large range and color. 
  7. Halsey: “Now or Never” from Hopeless Fountain Kingdom – Just a nice, tight, present pop song with a log of space.
  8. Chris Thile: “Falsetto” from Thanks for Listening – Thile puts the “false” in “falsetto” in this ode to the age of “fake news” from his album of collected Songs of the Week, originally heard on Prairie Home Companion, which is now called Live from Here. Extra credit for note placement of the word “falsetto” while Thile sings into his falsetto. And as always, good mandolin work. Is “Froggy” a symbol of the alt-right or Trump…?
  9. Lorde: “Supercut” from Melodrama – I really like the concept of this song—looking back on a relationship and seeing only the good things in a relationship, like a highlight reel, but then remembering that there were some bad parts, too; but maybe those the good parts were worth the bad parts? The pre-chorus is the best part of the song, a welcome interruption leading to a simple but effective chorus.
  10. I’m With Her: “Little Lies” from Little Lies —This is the title track from the first EP of this acoustic newgrass supergroup of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan. I was able to see them perform this summer, and their music is all about the magic of the three voices working together. This song is delightfully quirky, starting and ending in an expected place. I’m excited about their first full album coming out next year. Note: I’m With Her as a band name was coined before the Hilary Clinton campaign adopted the motto. Here's a link to the YouTube video.
  11. U2: “The Blackout” from Songs of Experience – U2 keeping it simple doing what they are good at, with a rocking, sing-along song about our political moment, both in the US and the UK. Check out the video, too.
  12. Taylor Swift: “New Year’s Day" from Reputation – If you can get past the sex and myth-making on Reputation (can Taylor write a song not about her “Taylor Swift” character on a Taylor Swift album?), the music is actually pretty good, overall better than her last album, 1989, though perhaps without the stand-out hits. This statement from my review of 2012's Red is still true: “most of Taylor Swift's songs are invitations to ride on her emotions. What I think she's best at is bringing out (or bringing back) strong emotions from the past or present." I think this is still true on Reputation—it is just that a few of the emotions petty and/or shallow or otherwise hard to relate to. This song is one of the exceptions, with Swift back to her country-esque confessional mode instead of her trying-to-be-R&B-catty-mode. On a somewhat unrelated note: Swift really should have actually written a chorus for "Look What You Made Me Do".
Enjoy the playlist! And happy New Year! I’m hoping for more blog posts in 2018. Which shouldn’t be hard, considering how little I wrote this year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

My favorite new pop music albums of 2017

It's been a while since I last posted, but now is a good time to catch up and review music from this past year. I’m going to stick with popular music for this post, mostly because that is what I’ve been listening to the most, and thanks to a trial of Amazon’s music streaming service, I was able to listen to a lot more new music than normal—this year, I listened to 33 albums of music that came out in 2017. Here were my 6 favorite albums, in no particular order. Strangely, I don’t think many of them made it on other year-end lists I’ve seen:

https://www.amazon.com/Binary-Explicit-Ani-Difranco/dp/B071V6CJXV/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1513636846&sr=8-1&keywords=binary+difranco

Binary by
Ani DiFranco – It is rare for an established artist like DiFranco to come out with an album that is consistently good throughout. Experienced and successful artists often have to walk the thin line between sounding like their most old, successful, loved material, and still sounding new and not completely covering the same thematic ground. This is hard and not always successful (I’m looking at you, U2). But for this album, DiFranco was able to take inspiration from her past jazz-flavored material while delving into current topical themes. Standout tracks include “Play God” (first featured in the anti-Trump 30 Days 30 Songs website) and “Spider”. These are not vapid love songs; instead, you get to rock out while you rethink your place in the world; even the slow songs have music that keeps pace with the lyrical content, with unexpected instrument combinations.

https://www.amazon.com/Something-Tell-You-HAIM/dp/B072F9C8QL/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1513636991&sr=8-1&keywords=haim+something+to+tell+you


Something to Tell You by Haim – I liked it a lot; you can read my review here. Six months after the review, the album still holds up.

https://www.amazon.com/Search-Everything-John-Mayer/dp/B06Y3HV2N3/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1513637067&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Search+for+Everything+by+John+Mayer

The Search for Everything by
John Mayer – Originally released as two back-to-back EPs in January and February, this version was released as a combined album in April. I was a big fan of practically everything in Mayer’s first 3 albums, and every album release after that point, I checked in to see if his music has come back to form (besides  developing some skepticism about Mayer as a decent person). Finally, for album 7, I feel like he is producing music every bit as good as those early years. While the whole album is good, moving between blues- and country-inflected songs that still feel fresh after repeated listens, standout tracks include the catchy “Still Feel Like Your Man” and “Moving On and Getting Over”, each with especially solid guitar and bass work combined with unpredictable nuggets of musical form and timbre.

https://www.amazon.com/OU%C3%8F-Camille/dp/B074FRJ1BX/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1513637432&sr=8-1&keywords=oui+camille

Ouï by
Camille – Speaking of artists that started strong and later disappointed, French singer Camille’s first two albums were really exciting and novel works of art. But her third album, produced entirely in English, felt like an album specifically designed to break into the US market and as such spectacularly failed, lacking the authenticity of the earlier albums. I lost track of Camille after that, but this year I caught wind of her latest, Ouï, a play on French for “yes” and the verb “to hear.” It is every bit as good as those first albums. While she has thankfully abandoned body percussion in favor of drum machines, her supreme, layered vocal delivery (sometimes looped, but not noticeably boringly looped) is still the focus. This album has a lot of variety from medieval to electronic; the album works well as a whole, but if I was forced to pick standouts, I’d say “Lasso” and “Twix”. Even the few songs in English don’t seem to pander.

https://www.amazon.com/Evolve-Imagine-Dragons/dp/B071VFNW2H/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1513637520&sr=8-1&keywords=Evolve+by+Imagine+Dragons

Evolve by Imagine Dragons – Beside the big hits from Imagine Dragons’ previous albums, I really haven’t followed the band, despite them coming out of the music scene in my hometown, Provo, Utah. But I heard the lead single “Believer” and was impressed not only at the depth and vulnerability of the lyrics, but at the originality of the music (to start, how many pop hits are in compound meter?). I took one listen, and then many more listens, to the whole album and was impressed by how varied the album was. Despite being the typical 4-person rock band, each track sounded totally different and none were throwaway or forgettable. From the memorable sing-along chorus in “Walking the Wire” to the mostly-vocal drinking song “Yesterday” to the 80s throwback “Start Over”, this album felt like a classic from the first listen.


Princess Leia’s Stolen Death Star Plans by Palette-Swap Ninja – Maybe this is not technically new, being a re-working of old material, but I don’t care. I’m including it anyway as one of the best artistic creations of the last year. Having written a few parody songs, I know how hard it can be to write meaningful lyrics to extant music. And this is not simply a parody song but a parody album, completely rewriting all songs of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And not only is it an album, each song in order follows chronologically the plot of Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope. And they made a *video* of the whole thing. Also amazingly, neither Disney nor Sony ATV has issued a take-down order. The first time I watched the video, I thought I was just going to dip in, but then could not stop watching. Every time I have listened or watched, I have marveled at the sheer creatively genius and basked in the ingenuity, besides being entertained. If you haven’t seen it, and especially if you need some Star Wars cool-off after The Last Jedi, give yourself a treat and watch the whole thing. And prepare to be amazed. You can also download the audio album for free. So why not? Here is the first track:


Later this week, I will be posting my Best of 2017 Mix, featuring a bunch of new songs this year from albums other than the ones featured here. So stay tuned! Not that a blog is a radio! So maybe stay Facebooked!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Album Review: HAIM, Something to Tell You

When I listened to HAIM’s 2013 first album Days Are Gone for the first time, I was enjoying myself too much to examine what the music was actually doing. 3.5 years later, Days Are Gone still sounds as fresh as it did when I first heard it—it still is in my album rotation and I keep hearing new things when I listen to it. I didn’t really understand the backlash against the album—for instance when Jim DeRogatis from Sound Opinions said that the album had "too many hooks,” to which I responded “Complaining that an album has too many hooks is like complaining that a novel has too many well-written sentences.” 


Now, HAIM has a brand new album, Something to Tell You, with plenty of new well-written musical sentences, along with some stellar and varied production. Many reviews have been placing this new album squarely in the past, the basic premise being: the music itself doesn't have much new to say, but it is good music. I think that is not quite right—Tom Breiham, in his Stereogum review, put it better, suggesting that "HAIM’s music doesn’t even belong to a genre" because it draws from so many influences and it constructs from these blocks meticulously and seamlessly. And what is new music, but reconfiguring things from the past? But like many music other reviewers, Breihan did not offer up many specific musical elements that were borrowed (though he did point out some little production gems). It's the comparative trap that so many music critics fall back to—using a band name comparison as a shorthand without explaining the connection, as if bands weren't multi-faceted.

Instead of taking time to point out the borrowings (which I'm sure are not easy to explain, anyway, and is why critics are avoiding doing it), I want to highlights a few great moments in the album that to me seem innovative:
  • After maybe the twelfth time I listened to “I Want Back,” I was trying to figure out why the song didn’t get boring since there is so much repetition of the short chorus phrase. Besides a lot of the accompanying parts shifting around the melody, I finally noticed that in the 2nd half of the song, the bass line hardly ever comes back to tonic. Besides keeping us wanting more repetition to get back to tonic, it also musically underlines that this person the song is addressing has not, in fact, come back yet. When the final move to tonic happens, it’s with a very thin acoustic strum with some sped-up melody lines (perhaps the melody backwards?) that are just kind of thrown out. The video for this track is pretty good too—catchy, difficult to film, and understated:
  • In “Little of Your Love,” there’s a great guitar line that is hinted at, but really only fully realized during the fade-out—leaving us feeling like they are conveying the message: “hey, this song is just as rocking as a we wanted it to be” and leading us to want more.
  • In “Ready for You,” probably the catchiest song on the album, there are kind of two choruses (which forgives a somewhat uninspired 1st chorus that turns out to be a pre-chorus). In the “2nd” chorus, the vocal harmony parts are so well written, first staying high and then filling out the middle part for the title phrase “I wasn’t ready for you.” At the end of the bridge, there is a weird chromatic descending vocal part leading to a pretty trippy breakdown of the “2nd” chorus. Throughout the song, there is an amazing amount of space in the beat (especially in the verse) that allows for lots of playing—maybe this is what can happen when drummers write songs.
  • “Right Now” starts out with what seems like a spare 4-beat, but when the harmony voices come in, you aren’t quite so sure—maybe the bass drum is hitting on beat 3, instead? Or maybe the song is in 3 instead of 4? The whole song keeps the listener guessing where the bottom of the beat is. According to an NPR interview, this song was actually designed to have all three HAIM sisters playing drums, which was their first instrument—the fluidity of the beat certainly lends itself to that. It is not often you hear that a pop song was developed to solve a musical or performance puzzle, instead of to express an emotion or thought.

Finally, a general comment about the album: a close listen reveals a lot of vocal manipulation and sampling—pushing voices high, or low, autotuned, sped up, thrown into low-fi, made to sound like a guitar or extra reverb added for just one note (this alone should place the album squarely in the present). There is so much variation, I can’t help but think that every decision was purposeful. The instrumental decision are similar—several times in the album thick textures will fall away for a dramatic effect, leaving an instrumental texture we haven’t heard before.

I don’t think this album has as many memorable moments or a well-written songs as Days Are Gone (and perhaps too many sudden endings), but Something to Tell You has musical as well as relationship message to convey and is still a great listen all the way through that keeps on giving. I recommend a listen.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Parody and copyright, pt. 2: When the copyright owner holds all the chips

Last March, I wrote about my experience posting a parody music video on YouTube. I got some encouragement from my readers to dispute EMI’s copyright claim to the music video, and so I went ahead and submitted my dispute. When I entered the dispute process, YouTube presented me with a list of pre-selected possible arguments for the dispute. I selected the option “this video uses copyrighted material in a manner that does not require approval of the copyright holder. It is fair use under copyright law,” then wrote a very brief explanation that this music video was a parody and protected under Fair Use. Here's a screenshot of my dispute submission:


At the top of the screenshot, you see the tail end of the 20(!) organizations that have a copyright claim on “Dynamite.” Also, note the threatening language of terms and conditions.

I got a response from YouTube only a few days later in an email: “After reviewing your dispute, Sony ATV Publishing has decided that their copyright claim is still valid.” They are keeping my video up and continuing to monetize it—exactly what they were doing before. I wasn’t given an exact reason, but instead a list of two possible reasons:

    •    The copyright owner might disagree with your dispute.
    •    The reason you gave for disputing the claim may have been insufficient or invalid.

In other words, the publisher itself (notice the official copyright claimant has changed from EMI to Sony ATV—Sony ATV owns EMI publishing, but I'm not sure why the initial claim when through as EMI and then changed during the dispute) made the sole legal judgement about the Fair Use of their own intellectual property. There is no outside or impartial judge making these decisions—the publisher has all the power. So unless the publisher decides that the music used is a completely different composition (and maybe not even then), they have no incentive to grant the appeal. Further, though I needed to give a reason for the dispute, they didn’t even need to give a reason why the dispute was turned down. I think it is very possible Sony ATV didn’t actually watch the video—instead, they probably researched the person who filed a dispute (me) to see if they had a lawyer. The whole process is fishy, but YouTube probably agreed to the process for two reasons: 1) it is two expensive to hire their own lawyers to handle the appeals, and 2) the publishers have the financial power to slap YouTube with a very expensive lawsuit, whether right or wrong, and YouTube would rather be making money on the videos.


Now, there is a process to appeal the dispute decision, but from what I understand, the stakes are higher:


If I appeal, there is no option of keeping the video up—either I win and the video stays up without monetization, or it gets taken down. But for the publisher, the decision is exactly the same the second time around—and since I don’t have a lawyer, there is still no incentive for the publisher to do anything but deny my claim again. As I would prefer to have my video up, making a very small amount of money for Sony ATV, I’m not planning on doing filing a second appeal.