Confession: Last year I put on a Ravenclaw uniform — prim school girl blouse, skirt, and silver and blue tie, wool cardigan, navy-lined robe, wand pocket armed and ready — and waited 12 hours in line for the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. I couldn’t contain my excitement, the occasion demanded sartorial manifestation through an outfit that cost me a couple hundred to put together. Totally worth it, too: I was among my people in that theater. Until, two rows and 20 seats down, another group of costumed adults pulled out an acoustic guitar and started singing, full-throated, songs about key moments in the Harry Potter series. Other rows not only approved of this, they sang along and shouted out requests. These weren’t my people — they were something I hadn’t seen before.
Like Trekkies, Deadheads, and LARPers, hardcore Harry Potter followers inject their fantasy into as many facets of reality as possible not to escape from that reality, but to make it more closely resemble their fantasy. There are the books and movies and dressing up as characters from both; there’s a real-life sport, Quidditch, and an Harry Potter-based 501(c)3 charity. And then there is Wizard Rock (or Wrock, for short), a flourishing musical genre that gets its definition from its subject matter instead of its sound or style. Aside from ’70s-era Filk Music, a folk genre inspired by science fiction, there’s nothing quite like Wizard Rock. And certainly nothing quite as of the moment. But as the final Harry Potter film fades from theaters, and with no new installments to look forward to, can this genre survive outside of the phenomenon it’s attached to? And if you care about music but don’t care about Harry Potter, can you find anything enjoyable inside it?
“One of my favorite things that will happen is we’ll play a club and after the show we’ll have bartenders or something come up to us and say, ‘I don’t give a damn about Harry Potter, but your show was awesome,’’ says Paul DeGeorge, co-frontman (with his brother Joe) of Harry and the Potters. “And it’s just because they can see that we’re engaging people in a different way than most bands. I think they appreciate what we’re doing as a concept than the subject matter.” His band will end their two-month U.S. tour at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory July 31. Paul is both a participant and expert in Wizard Rock — his band, which started in 2002, was the first Wizard Rock group. They coined the genre name, as a joke. But hundreds of shows (and hundred of other Wizard Rock bands) later, they play conventions, libraries and legit rock clubs (though usually for an all ages audience).
First, some distinctions: There are three kinds of Wizard Rock songs, designed to attract fans of different ages and levels of fan engagement. At the most basic level, musicians sing directly to the narrative of Harry Potter. Bands like The Moaning Myrtles and the Hermoine Crookshanks Experience function almost as bards — telling and retelling the mini-stories throughout the novels, turning even minor characters into heroes. Another variety of Wizard Rock band (Draco and the Malfoys, The Remus Lupins) tell the stories in the novels but also travel outside this — concentrating on the hormonal atmosphere that permeates the books: unrequited love, loneliness, rejection. Sex often pops up, sometimes its graphic (girls naked under school robes comes up a bit), yet these songs usually stick to canon in a way that HP slash fiction does not. Wizard Rock bands at the third level pull back even further. These musicians — like French folk band Basilisk In Your Pasta — take the themes that J. K. Rowling instilled in the books and distill them in song. The anti-bureaucratic, anti-fascist, anti-racist messages contained inside a story about a boy wizard are the focus. There’s only a tacit agreement that we’re talking about Harry Potter — remove a few proper names and these bands could be Fugazi (coincidentally, the DeGeorge brothers’ personal heroes). Sometimes the songs are about the fan community itself. Harry and the Potters jump between all these levels, singing about events and emotions, but also releasing their own albums and booking their own tours while organizing human rights projects through the charity they co-founded, Harry Potter Alliance. This connection to human rights is common. I listened, for example, to an entire compilation of Wizard Rock bands like Roonil Wazlib and the Whomping Willows singing about independent media. Their Voldemort is Rupert Murdoch. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re just singing about Rupert Murdoch. Why, then, don’t they just sing about those things? Why marginalize yourself within a fan community? For one thing, marginalization isn’t a side effect, it’s the point. The Rupert Murdoch references aren’t just trading fictional evil for real evil: The books themselves contain a strong DIY message — when Harry is persecuted by a corrupt government, his friends turn to an independent zine and pirate radio to exonerate him. The community around Wizard Rock rewards the same spirit in their bands.
In terms of quality, Wizard Rock is not unlike other genres: There are a few genuinely good bands, a lot of maybe okay bands, and a few unlistenable bands. It’s probably no coincidence that a lot of them sound like Weezer — melodic, mid-tempo indie rock that fits the teenage yearning of the lyrics. But there’s also Dumbledork, a one-man laptop project whose songs twitch with Tigerbeat6-style micro slices, or are otherwise constructed of fluid, distant samples and beats. (I’m guessing the shift corresponds to when the artist started or stopped listening to DJ Shadow.) Voldemort is a Wizard Rock metal band who wrap their songs around the novels’ mystical and dark creatures — serpents, owls, wolves. In that way, they’re not much different from other metal bands. And then there are bands who play on one single element of the Potter series. Paul DeGeorge likes Mermaids Above Water. In the Harry Potter universe, mermaid language sounds like screeching when the speaker is out of water, so the music follows suit. “It’s these loungey piano songs, and then this white noise layered on top that’s really screechy,” Paul says. “That plays to a much, much more limited audience of me and like 10 other people who think that’s a funny joke.”
We’re too close to the pop culture phenomenon of Harry Potter to know if it’ll thrive the way Star Wars or Star Trek has. DeGeorge pointed out that his band’s gigs keep bringing in new audiences. “It’s so cool to see not just the books being passed down to the kids but our music as well. Because these parents are cool and they play loud music in the car,” DeGeorge says. It’s not a huge leap to envision a time — maybe a couple decades from now, when those kids are old enough to start bands — where musical references to the Harry Potter novels will be an accepted quirk of a band, rather than their defining characteristic, like Led Zeppelin sprinkling Lord of the Rings references into “Ramble On” and “Battle of Evermore.” Or perhaps Harry Potter itself could stand in for its themes, much as Alice In Wonderland became shorthand for jarring and unverifiable experiences in Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” I guess my hope is kinda big, then: for Harry Potter to die as a pop culture phenomenon and rise as part of the cultural lexicon.
Remember when Lil Wayne was the weird one? In 2006, when Weezy’s career started picking up its second wind with the release of still-astonishing Dedication 2 mixtape, he was the touchstone for avant-gardism in rap, the purped-out, bloodshot-eyed spitter whose magic in the booth could have been conjured by mysticism as easily as anything else (though you’d probably put some of your money on weed). His metaphors were creatively unparalleled in rap, his voice a smoked out croak. He leered like Peter Jackson’s Gollum, and when he started noodling on guitars, the effect was that of someone play-acting in a rock film, waiting for a soloing overdub that never came. Possibly one of the most accidentally performance-art concerts in rap music ever was his 2008 appearance at Summer Jam, in which Wayne, clearly inebriated on some unidentifiable concoction, brought a previously hyped 40,000 or so crowd to a halt by pounding a poorly-tuned axe with impunity, vaguely crooning syllables into a microphone. The crowd just wanted to hear “Lollipop.” It was awkward, much in the same way Marina Abramovic making eye contact while nude and weeping is awkward — there’s no roadmap for where to go, what to do.
Now, though, they’re figuring it out. Wayne’s obviously the godfather of today’s much-touted “weirdness movement” in rap music, though psychic progeny like Lil B and SpaceGhostPurrp are crafting odder (if not stonier) movements, and Death Grips and B L A C K I E are releasing harder (and much better) rap-metal. So it makes sense that now, after stumbling through a possible addiction, lyrical brilliance, a greatest rapper alive pedestal, and a stint in prison (following a gun charge the NYPD used DNA technology to connect him to, albeit tangentially) on his recent mixtape Sorry 4 the Wait, Lil Wayne sounds gleaming. Pure. Tangibly squeaky clean. He’s flipped a switch.
Wayne rarely releases weak commercial singles, and his recent run from his forthcoming album, the Carter IV, proves the point: The monsters “6’7”” and “John” are still interminable after half a year, and the more recent “How to Love” transposes the moment’s current Drake-worshiping emotionalism into Taylor Swift territory (which is, obviously, awesome). Anticipation is high for his commercial release, but Sorry 4 the Wait might prove a point another, more cynical point I’ve been reluctantly weighing since clean Wayne was released. Sans the crag that regular herbalism caught in his throat, a voice unrasped by regular smoke, the question begs: Was weeded Weezy better at mixtapes? More importantly, were Lil Wayne mixtapes better before Drake popularized the punchline rap? Sigh.
One of the glorious points of Lil Wayne’s previous tapes was listening to his sometimes nonsensical, non-rapped interludes — little conversation skits that were a precursor to Lil B’s stream of consciousness raps. 2008’s Da Drought 3 had some of the loopiest, with Wayne audibly taking puffs between thoughts, heavily flanged as though he was recorded in an anti-gravity chamber. That mixtape’s outro, set jovially to Robin Thicke’s “Lost Without You,” served as a kind of liner notes, thank yous and shout outs eked out between ice-mouth giggles. Comparatively, Sorry 4 The Wait’s outro, equally odd juxtaposed on Beyonce’s Major Lazer beat for “Girls Who Run The World,” expands with a helilum-like happiness, Wayne yelling Southern barks over unintelligible acknowledgements. The track comes right after his “Inkredible” freestyle, on which he delivers a verse with unparalleled enthusiasm — really, there aren’t many rappers right now with better delivery than this dude — but recycles ideas he’s already used to better effect. Or, with the onslaught of rap music flirting deeper and deeper into the avant-garde, it’s possible we’re just getting desensitized.
The answer may lie on “Grove Street Party,” Wayne’s collaboration with Lil B. The relationship between the two is stark: Wayne is the elder and — however popular B’s positive mental attitude-touting verses become with the under 25s — he’s clearly doing B a favor, and will forever be the better rapper. But remarkably, in a world where one-time teen sensation Soulja Boy has scored a hit encouraging people to enjoy the deadly combo of Xanax and Codeine syrup (“Zan with that Lean”), surely it means something that two self-professed clean rappers are on a track together trading off-kilter verses about their crews. One of Wayne’s most legendary lines is “I’m so motherfucking high I could eat a star”; maybe now he can just become one.
The Village Voice ran the Siren Music Festival — an annual, free, sweaty day of music on Coney Island — for 10 years. This year, they’ve renamed it the 4Knots Music Festival and moved it from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. It’s still free and, chances are, still sweaty. Black Angles and Titus Andronicus headline the show, with five other acts. Mr. Dream is a Brooklyn trio that plays the kind of music that will get you through the heat. Their songs are short, fast, and prickly, calling to mind Steve Albini’s lean and noisy production work of the ’90s. The band’s drummer, Nick Sylvester, is also the founding writer of this column. He often used the space to discuss the details of recording with musicians and producers, so I thought it would be appropriate to turn some of those questions back on him, singer/bassist Matt Morello and singer/guitarist Adam Moerder (also a writer who’s written for Pitchfork and the New Yorker). We discussed their use of space, their decision-making process, deciding what stays and what goes. Trash Hit, the debut album they released in March, provoked a lot of these questions because, at times, you almost forget there are decisions being made — the record has a naturalistic and spontaneous feel, as though it simply popped out fully-formed, recorded in real-time. It has the uncanny ability to sound both unsteady and completely self-assured.
Riff City: The first thing I hear on Trash Hit is space, but more like holding your breath space. It’s very tense space. How much of writing and recording for Mr. Dream is taking away or throwing away stuff?
Nick Sylvester: That’s awesome to hear you’re hearing that, the space. Part of it is we’re a three-piece and don’t do much more than broad strokes. We like the sound of “broad strokes,” which means space is a huge consideration — too much, too little, the difference between a chorus that “breathes” and one that, I don’t know, just sounds kinda thin. So a riff either works for us or it doesn’t. We rarely take anything away in our songs, or make it work. We usually just trash the whole idea and move onto the next.
As for recording, I really love the sound of space in records — headroom, I mean, really just when a mix isn’t super cooked. Something like PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me gets so much of its creep and energy from the dynamic range. The microphones are picking up more of the room at first, and the instruments sound different when the volume jumps. The aesthetic is more inhale-exhale than quiet-loud. A lot of Rare Book Room records have that same quality: Talk Normal’s Sugarland, Sightings’ Arrived In Gold. Anyway, we like records that sound like that.
Adam Moerder: As a three-piece, we were initially concerned with filling out space, so we played barreling punk songs that involved all three of us playing fortissimo during pretty much every beat of every measure. That gets old fast, so fortunately by the time we started working on Trash Hit we were getting a better handle on how to use space, i.e., understanding how it can become a secret weapon instead of this thing that’d expose us as an inadequate band.
RC: As far as using ideas or trashing them — you’ve got such a clear idea of what Mr. Dream is and isn’t. Does that make is easier or harder to be spontaneous?
NS: There are no hard fast rules about what Mr. Dream is or isn’t, at least musically. Nothing is preordained, as far as I know. I tend to trust the moments when all three of us really love an idea, as to whether or not it’s a good one. There’s no vote or anything. To Trash Or Not To Trash happens in a very spontaneous way when we’re playing something for the first time. We never know what we’re gonna like until we like it, if that makes sense. That said, my hope is we’ll be a microhouse revival band by album four.
AM: Ironically, some early versions of my personal favorites from Trash Hit were almost scrapped because we worried they were outside our wheelhouse. Then they became part of our wheelhouse. So I may sometimes feel like I have this idea of what Mr. Dream is and what it sounds like, but that archetype is constantly challenged, usually for the better.
RC: I wonder if any part of the above could be part of how long you all have thought and written about music. Everyone’s their own worst critic, right? It seems like that background would make it impossible to finish anything.
Matt Morello: It’s funny, despite being the non-former-critic in the band, I feel like I probably have the hardest time finishing stuff. Which to me makes sense, since Nick and Adam were only critics (as opposed to people with opinions about music, which is everyone) by virtue of having written, edited, finished, and published a lot of work, to say nothing of all the work they probably junked. So I think we actually benefit from their experience with craft and process, to say nothing of all the time spent listening to stuff and trying to tell other people how it made them feel and why.
I guess people get hung up on the idea that critics are always judging and ranking and, well, criticizing, in the negative sense of pointing out flaws. Leaving aside all the actual annoying bullshit many critics and critical publications engage in — and I mean, let’s not even get started — there’s also lots of insecurity about taste that leads to a “who the fuck does this guy think he is” attitude toward critics. They’re snobs, haters, whatever. And it’s the same question for any musician or artist, you know, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is? What is this weird ego adventure? Why does he think he has anything to say?” Though mostly you ask yourself that about yourself.
I’d guess the answer for most artists and critics is that, when it’s good, it’s really, really exciting. So while we throw stuff out pretty quickly if it doesn’t work, maybe even too quickly sometimes, we also get really, really excited when something does work, and that excitement kind of drives the whole thing forward.
RC: You guys talk a lot about being out of touch with new bands and not listening to new music as much as you used to. How do you think that’ll work now that you’re on festival bills? Doesn’t that make backstage conversation awkward?
MM: Guess we’ll see. We all spent some time in literature seminars in college, so I think we can hold our own when it comes to talking about things we’re not prepared to discuss.
AM: When in doubt, talk about gear. I’ve been in 20-minute conversations backstage that started with a simple “How do you get that distortion?” and spiraled out from there.
RC: You weren’t hearing the kind of music you wanted to hear, so you decided to make it yourself. Does the same apply to Brooklyn?
NS: All three of us have obsessive stan-like tendencies when it comes to bands we love, so recording and putting together bills have taken this to a new level. I recorded a 7” for Sleepies that came out this past April, and my friend Matt LeMay and I just did one with Matty Fasano, who is like a grittier James Blake. Playing bills with White Suns and Yvette, let alone being in a situation where they actually reply to your personal emails, is a big-time thrill.
RC: Nick, this is an interview for a column you started, which I’m guessing feels a little strange. I noticed you asked Escort about their equipment philosophy, and there were those interviews with Chris Zane, Jared Ellison. Were those interview questions part of teaching yourself recording?
NS: Not strange at all! I interviewed people like Chris Zane and Tom Krell (How To Dress Well) about process because I wanted to tell another side of their records. I knew from recording and playing in Mr. Dream that there are a billion decisions that go into a song, and I wanted to show people how some of that stuff worked. Some of my favorite interviews are the ones with Paul McCartney about process, like when he talks about what kinds of lyrics he uses in tonic chords versus what kinds of lyrics he uses on top of dominant chords, or how he came up with the bVI-bVII-I tag for “P.S. I Love You,” and so on. This is what musicians are thinking about when they work on songs, not “does this record adequately convey a sense of the suburbs?”
Of course I wish these interviews could have taught me how to record, or how to write songs, or really anything like that, but you only learn to record by recording, making a shitload of mistakes, A/B-ing your mixes with songs you admire — very hands-on and time-intensive and usually frustrating.
RC: You’re playing a festival put on by your former employer.
NS: I know this sounds flip, but the Voice has only ever been really good to me. At worst they were fair, during all the unpleasantness. I had a bonehead idea, I executed it badly, and for whatever reason they still tried to figure out a way to keep me on staff — the management and many of the editors at the time. Since then, the publication has only ever been supportive of Mr. Dream. Maybe at 4Knots they’re gonna put me in a dunk tank that I don’t know about, or thunderdome me, Mike Lacey, and a plate of sliders, but no, I didn’t have a Mike Jones moment or anything. We’re just thrilled to be playing such a huge festival with so many great bands.
RC: Did you all go to the pre-4Knots Siren Festivals? Have those memories worked into conversations about how you’ll shape your set?
MM: The only Siren Fest I ever went to was in 2003. I was living in New Haven that summer and I’d recently “taken a break” with a girl I’d been dating for two years, so it was kind of this proof-of-agency solo mission to New York. I think it was my first time ever in Brooklyn. It was hot and there were a ton of people, and I waited in line at Nathan’s for a really long time because that seemed to be an important thing to do. I don’t think I knew about the boardwalk, though I had a sense there was some kind of beach on the other side of the stages. The only bands I remember seeing were Ted Leo and Modest Mouse, though I must have seen a couple others. I think Ted’s voice was busted but I remember him putting on a really good, energetic show. Modest Mouse played for what felt like an eternity after a day standing in the sun with a backpack by myself, especially since I only knew Lonesome Crowded West and they were hardly playing anything from it. It didn’t occur to me to leave early, because who leaves a concert early?…
The only other big outdoor music festival I’ve been to was Pitchfork Fest a couple years ago, and it confirmed some of those old Siren feelings, namely that my favorite thing in that situation is a really loud rock band that plays the hell out of a set that doesn’t go on too long. Fortunately, this is how we play every show.
RC: And there’s the most important festival bill question: Will you be the kind of band that takes off their shirts for outdoor shows?
MM: I think any of us is prepared to play without a shirt if that’s what the show calls for, definitely. But you can’t know that kind of thing in advance, it has to happen in the moment. You don’t really want that to be a thing. Look at what happened to D’Angelo — that guy is still waiting to have a normal, non-godlike torso so that doesn’t have to be a thing anymore and he can just be one of the greatest geniuses in music. I would hate to see that happen to Adam.
Mr. Dream’s “Trash Hit” video:
About five years ago, I saw the New York bachata group Aventura headline Madison Square Garden. Riding high off their mega-hit “Un Beso,” a tender ballad with virtuoso guitar work, the sold-out crowd was collectively palpitating, not just at the R&B-informed smoothness of heartbreaker lead Anthony Santos (they nicknamed him “Romeo” for a reason), but at the profound pride of seeing hometown sons, first-generation Dominicans from the Bronx, ascend to perform in this hallowed hall. They were joined onstage by a procession of Latin pop royalty, including reggaeton stars Wisin y Yandel and Don Omar, and the audience waved Dominican and Puerto Rican flags, a show of musical unity. That specific show was later made into a well-received live recording, and in January 2010 Aventura performed once again at Madison Square Garden, for a series of farewell shows that sold out so quickly they had to keep adding more. In the end, they played four last-shows-ever in the arena. Four.
So why, when a group like Aventura attains deified status and tops Billboard, does it seem like sometimes the Latin music conversation is only happening within Latin music? Major New York newspapers covered the show, but it still felt like a self-contained event. Even when Latinos comprise the second-most populous ethic group in the city (or first, we’ll find out July 12 when they government drops our state census numbers — I personally wrote in “Chicana”) it feels like a marginal situation. If mainstream media is to be believed, Latin music consists exclusively of salsa, Shakira and J.Lo. Oh, and mariachis, but only in restaurants, amirite?!
And when it comes to parsing out music scenes within various Latino groups in the city, things only seem to get stranger. Latinos in New York come together for big box event concerts — a Marc Anthony show is like a Latin American UN convention. But outside of the huge-draw musicians, it can be hard to connect sounds, styles, people and boroughs — particularly when it comes to flourishing subcultural and/or newer genres like digital cumbia, tropical, ruidoson and the ever-nebulous “global bass” music.
“It’s really difficult challenging preconceived notions of what a Latin party should sound like,” says Geko Jones, a producer and DJ for celebrated New York tropical night Que Bajo?, held at Santos Party House. “In the Heights, you have a lot more Dominicans, so you have to know what they like. In Queens, there are more Mexicans, Central and South Americans so there, too, you have to know how to play to win. Uptown in the Bronx you have that whole boricua roots, bomba plena y salsa movement, and again you face challenges. The reason we’ve positioned ourselves in LES is to serve as a middle ground for all these sounds to come together along with other forms of Afro-Caribbean and globally enhanced club sounds.”
In July, underground Latino music is having a banner month in the city, with the return of the Latin Alternative Music Conference (LAMC) and the debut of The Spot, a monthlong warehouse jam curated by Latin events and culture website Remezcla.com. Both are showcasing some of the best in modern underground/lesser-known-than-Marc Anthony Latino music, and both promise to bring together various factions of hip young Latinos — maybe first generation, maybe third or fifth, but who have a tie to their family’s country of origin and stay clued into American underground pop culture, too. Que Bajo? has become one of the best dance parties in the city, no matter the genre, while the Web sites Remezcla and Mex and the City throw great events and keep New Yorkers up on Latin music happenings.
What’s changing, says LAMC’s Tomas Cookman, who started the festival 12 years ago, is that like the rest of the music industry, Latin music has become increasingly DIY — and those people, are in turn, getting younger. “In Latino music, the gatekeepers were historically an older demographic,” says Cookman, who grew up on the Lower East Side but now lives in Los Angeles. “They didn’t live rock and roll in the early ’60s. Whereas when we get guys from say, Venezuela, saying rock music is still something foreign and still music you keep away from your daughter, the daughter wants to listen to it. So it’s opened up opportunities.”
One of the musicians perverting traditional styles into music your daughters want to jam is the phenomenal Rita Indiana, a mystical Dominicana whose digital take on indigeneous gaga music and streetwise merengue culminated in one of last year’s best albums, El Juidero. An iconoclast who started her career as a novelist (she wrote a celebrated novel as a teen that’s still part of the school curriculum in the DR), the former model’s music, presence and spirit is that of a singular ingenue, an innovative vocalist with a miles-deep mean mug and a tendency towards genderbending. She’ll be both at Central Park SummerStage for LAMC and at The Spot, a kind of liaison between the ideologies that drive each.
Meanwhile, the world turns. Nacional Records, the alt-Latin label Cookman runs, will begin airing La Hora de Nacional, a new show on MTV Tres, beginning July 17. Two days later, Dutty Artz, the record label Geko Jones co-runs, will release the new album by the performance artist Kalup Linzy and the super-achiever James Franco.
“There’s a lot out there,” says Cookman. “We’re not all painting bullfighters all day.”
Since Stephanie Nicks became “Stevie” in 1973, the ethereal songstress has recorded 18 albums, been nominated for 17 Grammys, and had one of the music industry’s most notorious love affairs — with fellow Fleetwood Mac member, Lindsey Buckingham. Yet Nicks’ latest album, In Your Dreams, released in May, marks the first time the singer/songwriter has worked with a collaborator in the songwriting process (even in Fleetwood Mac, Nicks and Buckingham wrote separately). Working closely with Dave Stewart of The Eurhythmics, Nicks has produced some of her most compelling work since Bella Donna; she seldom sings as vulnerably, and her voice still has the haunting rasp that’s classic Stevie. So I was disappointed when her tour was cancelled, due to pneumonia, just several days before her live show in New York. Still, Nicks spoke to Riff City from her Los Angeles home, where she recorded In Your Dreams. Her smoky contralto was instantly recognizable — and in no need of auto-tune — as she offered her thoughts on the creative process, the new LP, and why she doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon.
Riff City: Congratulations on your album. It’s beautiful.
Stevie Nicks : Thank you.
RC: I was disappointed that you cancelled your East Coast tour. Tell me, Do you still enjoy touring?
SN: If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I would be insane if I was stuck in Las Vegas for two and a half years, doing a show in a hotel. That would be my nightmare. You go [on tour] and sometimes you end up two days and sometimes three days, in an out-of-the-way city you’d never imagine you’d be in, and then you come back! I’ve been touring since 1975. We do the show, we change, we take our makeup off, I get my purse, and we go to the airport and get on a plane and fly to the next city, and then we wake up in that next city. I like to just get there because I stay up late anyway. I don’t go to bed until three or four. Now, is it tiresome? Is it tiring? Yes. If I stopped touring would I be totally bored? Probably.
RC: What was the longest period of time you spent not touring?
SN: This year. We got off the road from 83 shows with Fleetwood Mac. The last show was December 21st in New Zealand. I started my record in February 2010 and finished in December. So I was home in my house for almost a year, but we were working almost seven days a week. It was really exciting; we turned the whole two-story house into a recording studio, which is a room within a room with bad air and no windows. I don’t really lie around very much because I never have. And when I have nothing to do, I feel creepy. I’m happy to be working. I think when you don’t work, when you retire, you just get small.
RC: Can you tell me about your process, when writing new music and when you were working on this album?
SN: You can be walking down the street, and see someone that catches your eye, and say, “Gosh! That was a gorgeous man,” and something touches you, and you might go home and write a poem about that, you know?
RC: I do now.
SN: Or you go to Italy, which I did on the Fleetwood Mac tour. I was there for four weeks, and I wrote the song “Italian Summer,” and it sounds like I wrote it about a big love affair, but I didn’t. I wrote it about Italy, walking around on the cobblestone streets and feeling free and feeling safe. So you can be inspired by anything. If you happen to be in a crummy hotel room, which I actually never am… I’m usually in beautiful hotel rooms! So you go back to your beautiful hotel room and write a great poem, and maybe there’s a piano and you can put it to music. Or, you can be in your house, or in a car, driving to San Diego for two hours and think of something and get paper and pencil. People who schedule writing dates and say, ”Okay I’m going to sit down and write with this person from 2 to 3 and then 4 to 6, and then I’ll have dinner and work from 9 until…” Well, I just could never do that.
JP: Why is that?
SN: I probably wouldn’t be inspired under pressure. I would just sit there and stare at people and say, “This isn’t really working for me.”
RC: But what about when you were working on this album? Weren’t you collaborating?
SN: I started working from the very beginning with Dave Stewart. He and I sat down and wrote songs together, which is something I have never done. Not with Lindsey, not with anybody. I think it’s because Dave is the kind of guy that has no ego and could read a face. So when we would start working on something and if I didn’t like something, he could see it in my eyes, before I even realized it. And we would say “Okay, lets start again!” So the first day, he came up here, and we wrote a song and my world changed. I really understood why Lennon and McCartney wrote together when they really didn’t have to or why Roger and Hammerstein wrote together… You bring something to the table, they bring something to the table. You can spend a year and a half or two years trying to write a song. You can sit at the piano and suffer away and cry and you know, go through your booklets of poetry for days and never come up with anything. With Dave, we were on a roll and the album came very fast. Dave has lots of chords, I have lots and lots of poetry. However, Lindsey has lots and lots of chords, and I have lots of poetry, but we never wrote songs together! Dave has chords, I have poetry, and we wrote seven songs in not quite three months which is major.
RC: Has Lindsey been supportive?
Lindsey came and played at the end of the record and totally helped me do one song… We were just stumped on how to make it sound like my demo and I said, “Dave, I think we should call Lindsey.” And Lindsay came up for two days and it came out amazing. It was a very good moment, and it took us back to Buckingham-Nicks and 1973, and what we did as the two of us and how we got this whole ball rolling.
RC: What do you think about newer musicians and digital tools like autotune?
SN: You’re not going to be able to take it on stage. If you’re going to be a touring band, you have to be very careful you know. If you can really sing on your record and then you go out and play live and can’t sing, then you’re in a lot of trouble. The way you used to make it, you get paid nothing and you’re starving and you play little tiny gigs and learn your craft. And now people don’t really sing and they don’t really tour. I think it’s sad and it’s unfortunate for the music industry. In 20 years, there’s not going to be another Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin because they don’t have time to develop.
Photo by Kristin Burns.
A glance at Justin Bieber’s stacked trophy shelf will tell you music awards shows generally reward sales over all other criteria. When they deviate from this rubric, there’s a price to pay, as when the enormously talented jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding nabbed last year’s “Best New Artist” Grammy from the Biebz and his fans hijacked her Wikipedia page in anger and retaliation. Smaller musicians are rarely rewarded if even recognized, and with the exception of shows geared towards niche audiences — MTVu’s Woody Awards, for instance — the shows generally serve to reinforce the machinations of the corporate music industry, so the masterminds can pat themselves on the back.
Which is partly why the nominees for next week’s BET Awards 2011 caused such an outrage — the “Best Female Hip-Hop Artist” category, in particular. Headed up by last year’s winner Nicki Minaj — a clear shoo-in — the rap chops (and broad appeal) of the nominees dropped precipitously thereafter. Atlanta diva Diamond, the former Crime Mob rapper who’s shined on a series of mixtapes since that group split, was a respectable runner-up. But the last two nominees seemed to dip into absurdity. There was Lola Monroe, who rap fans knew first as video girl and frequent King magazine model Angel Lola Luv, but who has made efforts to shed the “eye candy” trope and refashion herself as a rapper with a high-pitched, mafia moll flow. And then there was Cymphonique, a 14-year-old singer with a Nickelodeon contract and the honor of being Master P’s youngest show-biz progeny. To many rap fans, the line-up looked like a joke. Upon the announcement, Twitter lit up with “#Fail” hashtags. Blogger The Hip-Hop Diva suggested that “Every female hip hop artist should submit every video they ever release to BET.” And XXL summed it up succinctly with a headline bearing the unprintable acronym “FOH.”
The line-up was thin, but there was also a noticeable snub: longtime Miami rapper Trina, who’d not only released the independent chart-topping album Amazin, but had been featured in several videos in heavy BET rotation — including Lola Monroe’s “Overtime,” on which the veteran handily bested the newcomer. Trina took to Twitter to protest her exclusion — as did Nicki Minaj and Diamond — which resulted in a long, soul-searching phone conversation with BET head Stephen Hill in which he explained that she’d submitted her video outside of the qualifying dates, blah blah blah. And yet, barring Trina, maybe there really were no other viable contenders for the Best Female Hip-Hop Artist category — for one, it takes big budgets and industry clockwork to place a video in BET rotation, and what labels are pulling that kind of weight for lady rappers today?
Mini-controversies go down practically every minute on the rap internet, beef and battles inherent to the genre, so this one blew over within a matter of weeks. But it illustrated a deeper problem within the music industry. BET felt like it had to stretch for nominees because there is a constant dearth of space for female rappers. Since the heyday of strong, powerful, positive and feminist MCs piqued in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s — with Queen Latifah, Salt n Pepa, MC Lyte and YoYo at the helm — at any given time there have only been three or so female rappers topping the industry.
Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill remain the gold standards, and Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and Eve had their day. But before Nicki Minaj stomped and snarled her way into mass consciousness, arguably the last female rapper to gain as much industry respect and recognition as her male counterparts was Remy Ma — who’s been incarcerated since 2008 after shooting her best friend in a Manhattan parking lot.
“Since ‘97 it’s really just been Kim, Foxy and Missy, and then a rotating feature of crazy ladies,” says Judnick Mayard, rap and R&B columnist at Fader’s Suite903. “But they were never included or even paid attention to unless they could at least stand a bit on the level of those top three. If you’re a female rapper, you have to prove yourself on so many levels and be so many different things.”
This is not to say there is a paucity of female rappers, nor do any of them have to fit in a sexed-up Kim/Foxy mold — though some do. The Georgia rapper Lady became a web meme in February for her song and video “Yankin,” which described in detail her particular anatomical talents. A personal favorite, Atlanta’s Rasheeda, flips explicit sex rhymes into calls for female liberation — it’s not exaggeration to say every other track she cuts includes a line advocating cunnilingus.
But in the wilds of the internet, there’s infinitely more space for varied personalities and styles. There’s been a small flurry over Kreayshawn, an off-kilter, diminuitive white girl from Oakland, who parlayed her infectious summer hit “Gucci Gucci” into a million-dollar contract with Columbia Records. (The race issues — and the Ke$ha vibes — around that deal are a whole other column entirely.) The slow but steady rise of Kid Sister and Amanda Blank — not to mention the acceptance of MIA, more of a chatter than a rapper, into mainstream hip-hop — has ensured those with less conventional styles have a place. Chipper Florida teen Dominique Young Unique raps like confetti over electro beats, UK grime divas like Lady Leshurr are gaining wider acceptance in America, and more traditional hip-hop modes live on in Brooklyn through inveterate spitter Jean Grae and rising star Nitty Scott. Another favorite of mine, Azealia Banks, barely 20, has transformed her biting, Harlem-cut style into multiple flavors, spanning double-dutch battles and pounding, ravey rap anthems complete with diva vocals.
Meanwhile, Cymphonique’s newest song is undeniably, 100% R&B (BET Awards have a whole separate category for that). It’s also quite good, the type of hip hop-informed love jam that dominated the mid-’90s and made Keyshia Cole’s first album a classic. (Cole, in another dramatic turn, was also snubbed.)
I’ve just barely touched on the lady rappers I’m into (for a daily dose of old and new, femalerappers.tumblr.com is a good source). So why does it seem like the music industry has no room for more than two or three at a time? Partly, it seems, it won’t let them be great. Meaning: industry executives seem to bet on the idea that men won’t want to listen to talented female rappers, and they’re given less opportunities in general. In some cases, they might be right — even with a history of skilled lady rappers, hip-hop still sometimes seems like a man’s game, with a glass ceiling just as impenetrable as the corporate one. Trina, who’s completing her sixth album this year, is the only female rapper outside of Missy Elliott to release so many albums. Longevity in hip-hop is tough to attain, but even so, that fact seems insane. Surely my friends and I aren’t the only rap fans dying to see a multiplicity of voices in one of our favorite genres, dying for an alternative to the dense hypermasculinity that rules it. Nicki Minaj has been a godsend and possibly a lifesaver, but how much more interesting would things be if she had formidable opponents? (Sorry, 2011 Lil Kim doesn’t count.)
Like so many lady CEOs before her, Azealia Banks’ solution is to come at the game like a man. “It’s kinda like, if you punch a dude in the face, don’t expect him not to hit you back just because you are a girl,” she says. “If you’re gonna fight a man, be prepared to fight a man, right? Sounds crazy, but it’s the same deal. I definitely think the novelty of being a female rapper has worn off completely, so you’re not getting any points for being cute anymore. As a hip-hop artist who just so happens to be female, I definitely have to step my shit up and keep stepping my shit up. Not only because of male pressure, but just because of musical pressure. I want my music to be able to stand up against everyone’s music, not just other rappers.”
It’s a reasonable response — and certainly the right attitude for an artist who’s trying to win on every level. Still, to me it doesn’t seem like the problem is that female rappers can’t go toe to toe with their male counterparts — it’s a matter of who’s willing to listen in an industry where gender bias is still entrenched at every level.
So I’ll watch the BET Awards this Sunday, psyched to see Lil Wayne and Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige and Rick Ross. But when no female rappers perform — not even Dear Old Nicki — I’ll be stewing and salty on the couch, wondering when, or if, we’ll stop being seen as second string.
Late last year, Fleet Foxes, a band that already feels like they belong to another time, compared the $3.99 Amazon digital sale price of their new album, Helplessness Blues, to the cost of a whoopee cushion. Earlier label Asthmatic Kitty urged fans pre-ordering Sufjan Stevens’ The Age Of Adz to buy it somewhere besides Amazon, who alerted the label that they’d be selling his album for $3.99 as well. The label compared it to the “cost of a latte.”
There’s no lack of metaphors for the way music makes us feel, but whoopee cushions and latte’s? These are striking if only for what they point to — something wholly trivial or ephemeral, good for one use and then discarded. For Fleet Foxes and Asthmatic Kitty, the prices weren’t a question of money or even compensation. Amazon underwrites these deals, making up the difference between the lower price and the regular $7 or $8 tag for a newly released digital album. And, in turn, it probably didn’t affect the bottom line for the labels. It’s more a question of value.
The obvious incentive for underwriting album prices is volume: lower prices equal more downloads, and the bump in sales gives the artist a shot at a number one record. (Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and Vampire Weekend’s Contra both debuted at Billboard’s top spot; both received underwriting deals from Amazon deals.) But even without the number one ranking, the additional numbers can have a big impact. Jagjaguwar has had some high profile releases from Bon Iver and Okkervil River, though no number one albums yet. Label co-owner Darius Van Arman says that he could see a Billboard number one conferring a sense of legitimacy and cultural relevance to the label and its staff. And there are other benefits: “I also imagine with a high chart position, moms and dads stop giving their artist or label-owning children shit for dropping out of college,” he says. “Which is definitely good for morale.”
I asked Owen Pallet, an artist with an interesting relationship to the money that comes with music — he gave away the $20,000 he received when he won the Polaris Prize in 2006 — to play devil’s advocate: Why would an artist agree to sell a year’s worth of studio work for $3.99? “It’s a fast track to massive exposure for the artist, which equals more last.fm plays, more VEVO views, which equals appearances on Letterman, which equals high placement on festival bills, which equals bigger guarantees for the artist’s live show. You see? Devaluing one’s product might be a tough thing for an artist to deal with, psychologically, but it makes sense from a business perspective,” he says.
But if prices for music have fallen so sharply, doesn’t the value of the music diminish, too? Aram Sennreich, a music industry analyst and media professor at Rutgers, says no: “Music as a recorded product has already been devalued over a decade, so there’s not much devaluation that can happen.” He says nobody should be asking if the prices are too low, because price is irrelevant anyway. “If you want to get technical, price and value are actually two different things. And measured in other ways, music fans value music now more than they ever have.” His examples: the growing number of music players and digital retailers, how much fans share music. He presented a different metaphor — iOS applications. They take programmers months to create and they retail for 99 cents, yet their creators are satisfied by the large volume they’re able to sell, and their sense of value is satisfied. “The artists who actually do feel as though their value as an artist or worker is somehow tied to the virtually arbitrary asking price of music in the store are those who have been successfully brainwashed by the labels themselves into believing that their merit is reflected in something meaningless,” he says. The list of metaphors gets longer: an album is not unlike buying an iPhone app, one choice for consumers swimming in an ocean of content (videos, applications, and music).
The ocean comparison stuck with me because it’s similar to “the cloud,” the music metaphor that’s dominated the last few weeks since Apple announced the iCloud, a competitor for Google and Amazon Music’s own storage services. At a recent panel at SXSW titled “Digital Music Pricing Strategies: What Works?,” David Hyman, CEO for streaming service MOG, said he saw all music consumption moving to “the cloud.” But his idea is different. If Google, Amazon, and Apple conceive of the cloud as a storage device, sucking up your MP3s and raining them back down on you at your request, Hyman’s version comes to you, music already intact. Kind of like how your basic cable pays for Mad Men but you get Keeping Up With the Kardashians as well. You don’t pay for pieces of content (in this case, songs and albums) but a whole package, not unlike the 500 cable channels you get with a subscription to Time-Warner. In this model, music value becomes even further removed from price. And if music is piped to you in a continuous multi-stream, there’s no way to couple value to any one song or album.
But what about value as it relates to ownership, which also finds itself in decline? Again, I found that I might be asking the wrong question. “Ownership is passe” John Beeler, publicist for Asthmatic Kitty, told me. It’s a sentiment he hinted at in an email newsletter he sent out last year upon the release of Sufjan Steven’s Age of Adz. “We have mixed feelings about discounted pricing.” he wrote. “Like we said, we love getting good music into the hands of good people, and when a price is low, more people buy. A low price will introduce a lot of people to Sufjan’s music and to [The Age of Adz]. For that, we’re grateful. But we also feel like the work that our artists produce is worth more than a cost of a latte. We value the skill, love, and time they’ve put into making their records. And we feel that our work, too, in promotion and distribution, is also valuable and worthwhile.”
The email raised hackles on the internet, and, Beeler says, Stevens got questions about it during the promotional cycle of the album. A year later, Beeler is a little more comfortable with the low price tag. But not 99-cents comfortable. “I feel like the artists I work for — Sufjan just one of them — are incredibly creative and hard-working, and it’s difficult not to see a $0.99 price point as symbolic,” he says. “But what’s the difference between $1 and $8? Not much really.”
Seven dollars may not make much difference in the grand scheme of things, but Rutgers’ Senneich points to the genius of Steve Jobs’ idea of pricing songs at 99 cents. “If it’s less than one of those flimsy dollar bills in your pocket, it’s almost not worth thinking about,” he says. He said it was “below the threshold of consideration.” It’s an impulse purchase. (In my experience, the threshold is around $5 for an album, and I think my experience is pretty common.)
Is there a significant difference between paying $5 for 10 songs and 99 cents for one? Perhaps not, except that at 99 cents you are below that threshold. Marnie Stern, an excellent guitarist and giver of opinions, thinks the danger is that “below the threshold of consideration” might also mean below the threshold of giving a crap. I asked her how much she’d like to charge for her album: “It all seems pretty moot because even if I lowered the price to five bucks, people are still going to download it for free anyway.” Since “free is better than any price you could list… that’s what the majority of people listening to music are gonna be looking for,” she told Riff City. But price isn’t entirely meaningless: “I do think that if people had to buy it, they would appreciate it more, spend some time with it, and value it a bit more.”
That may be the most interesting thing about price, value, and music — that the threshold of free may upend the whole value equation in artists’ minds. There is no object-metaphor for “free,” and without that, there’s nothing of low value to compare it to. $3.99 bothered Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, but free was different in his mind. “I’ve downloaded hundreds and hundreds of records — why would I care if somebody downloads ours? That’s such a petty thing to care about. I mean, how much money does one person need? I think it’s disgusting when people complain about that, personally,” he told the BBC. Free feels good, cheap doesn’t. I haven’t heard metaphors for this, so let me offer one of my own: Music may be like sex. If you give it to someone for free, it’s yours to give. If someone leaves you two bucks on the nightstand in the morning, to them you’re just a cheap trick.
A long long time ago, in a year that shall not be disclosed (2003), I attended Love Parade, the debauched festival of raving that clomped and trucked down Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. A million dance music lovers strong, it reimagined the Millennium City into something more resembling “Fraggle Rock,” as the generously sized garb of the traditional gabber was eschewed for bare behinds, neon-plushy chaps and copious facepaint. Somewhere, a photo exists of me in a hue-neutral miniskirt and Adidas trainers giving a gleeful hug to a six-and-a-half-foot man in a full-body patent leather gimp suit. Before its cancellation in 2010, Love Parade was legend, a spectacle unparalleled. That year, though, there was one huge drawback: the music. Paul Van Dyk was the headliner. As a whole, Europe loves trance better than we do.
Just last weekend, I attended Distortion, a citywide music, dance and art festival held in the gorgeous and homey city of Copenhagen. Just as I found myself involuntarily fist-pumping along with thousands of Danish revelers as we watched a group of bright-eyed ravers scale a delivery truck in order to dance above us, my friend and cohort T. Cole Rachel turned to me and said, “This is just like Love Parade.” And it was, insofar that the fabled rave festival shared a similar energy with Distortion: in short, lust for life. But there was one major difference: the music.
For a festival of Distortion’s scale — five full days, with happenings from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. — it is remarkably well-curated for dance music lovers, possibly the best dance festival in the world. (Dubstep lovers might argue.) With a focus on up-and-coming DJs and bands, it is quite diverse and characteristically fealty to the spirited underground, even in its 13th year of existence. Bigger-draw names smattered the line-ups — Detroit techno god Kenny Larkin, German minimal linchpin Michael Mayer, Milano rave-makers Crookers were among them, drawing huge crowds of angular-clothed fans wielding Tuborgs. But unlike most huge festivals, Distortion is the kind of spot where you can discover new music. Perhaps because of the city’s central/neutral location, it attracts musicians that rarely play in the States — particularly now courtesy our country’s increasingly cantankerous work-visa gatekeepers — and the lineup included dancefloor-blasting sets by Brazilian baile funk legend Sany Pitbull, German tropical bass scions Schlachthofbronx, and Japanese art-punk band Nisennenmondai. The latter, a Tokyo-based trio with a feverish cult pull in the US who’ve only hit our shores once ever — CMJ, 2005 — proved why after 12 years fans still speak of them with the reverence of the last pope. Hinging their riffs on repetition and a bulldozer of a high-hat, they let their devotion to minimalism do the mesmerizing, letting up on their tightly zig-zagging structure only to make room for crescendos. There was Kraftwerk in it, Neu! too, but unlike other bands I’ve seen that milk those oft-reissued teats, Nisennenmondai’s careful note meditation seemed neither recycled nor boring. Stage presence helped — bassist Yuri Zaikawa was a rumbling tectonic plate, concentrated and tethered to the volcano drumming of Sayaka Himeno — but their no-chord, no-dissonance style was also just a source of clean energy. Their latest album is called Nisennenmondai Live!!!, and the experience warrants both the posterity and the exclamation points.
Interestingly, much of the pre-fest enthusiasm centered on Copenhagen-based punks Iceage, who’ve stamped their kewpie teen faces all over the internet through a few indomintable singles and some particularly impactful live footage of a wee DIY mosh pit. Their showcase was held in what looked like a graffiti’d trailerpark and the bill, titled “NEW DANISH PUNK FUCK YOU,” was comprised of all their scene friends. I skipped it because I am still wary of the testosterone-clusterbomb that is the mosh pit and also they’ll be in Brooklyn on June 17. Besides, the digital cumbia showcase was down the block at Global, a non-profit club subsidized by grants and the Danish government. (Bloomberg, are you reading?) New York’s proud son Uproot Andy, co-purveyor of Que Bajo, was on the bill, but I’ve seen his great underground Latin sets quite a lot; my main motivation was the excellent DJ UMB, whose tireless Soundcloud scouring for his enthusiastic blog Generation Bass has introduced me to countless new producers, bands, and genres. Many of those have been in the dubstep/tropical bass/moombahton categories, and thanks to the ravenous appetite of many Euro dance fans for rave-crescendos, he kept it quite solidly in the dubstep zone (which made everyone go bananas). But it was telling that Distortion staged not one but two nights focusing on tropical bass — a very loose, broad, shortcut term for mostly Latin American, African and Caribbean-rooted music that melds localized sounds with detonating low-end.
The second of these tropical bass nights featured a band I first heard about on the aforementioned Generation Bass blog — Copia Doble Systema, a Copenhagen-based, five-person collective playing digital cumbia on computers and electronic percussion, fronted by the adventurous DJ/producers Copyflex and Jens Fokking, plus a compelling Venezuelan-born vocalist named Pepita. If “tropical bass” is about the mushing together of sounds to create a singular reflection of how localism goes local in the information age, this crew is part of the blueprint. They sometimes call their sound “Viking cumbia” and let Fokking’s past in jungle music bleed ever-so-slightly into the low-end. I recognized their matching, Latino-psychedelic ensembles as made by Mexico’s Metereo label — they were a vision in post-Jodorowsky neons — and their loose-going counter-rhythms, so carefully snaking around South American pan-flute sounds, wafted into Danish booties and compelled some to get down with Cuban motion. This whole world is a nation of immigrants.
At Distortion, each day a different neighborhood plays host to a party, which includes several stages on different streets with local DJs playing various types of dance music, tens of thousands of attractive, natty young Danes with their game switches in overdrive. But huge festivals, whether of the Love Parade or Coachella oeuvre, rarely provide opportunities to see and discover new music with the same enthusiasm as this one. On the final day alone, cordoned off in a huge hotel compound that housed 12 different venues, I saw: a “Party Bus” pumping out salsa music, drag queens synchronized swimming in the hotel pool, UK DJ prodigy Ben UFO, a giant Galaga video game installation operable with your body, Hot Chip’s Felix DJing under a rain of mist upon which visuals were projected, and maybe the best mini-rave I’ve ever been to, which was in a small clearing outside and hosted by an assortment of European drum n bass DJs. Distortion is the Maximum Overdrive of festivals, and I’m still googling acts I didn’t get a chance to see. So, has anyone googled Copenhagen lately, is it still intact?
Magazines and websites celebrated Bob Dylan’s recent 70th birthday by writing 700 tributes — there were so many, in fact, that the Guardian followed their coverage of his 70th birthday with a column asking “Was There Too Much Coverage of Bob Dylan’s 70th Birthday?” Maybe there was just too much of the same — most tributes asked music writers to pick their favorite Dylan song or Dylan lyrics (or Dylan haircut). But is there really any difference? (Between the first two, that is — I know my favorite Dylan haircut is Justin Bieber’s current haircut.) I’m asking about his lyrics as someone who’s not a Dylan fan. For me he falls into that category of things — like dishes made with rabbit and Michael Haneke movies and daggering — that I appreciate and respect without enjoying. Years ago I listened to as many Dylan albums as I could, mostly out a sense of duty. Now I only listen to them by accident. So last week’s tributes confused me, because most people quoted lines to songs as evidence of the quality of the music. These were songs I never cared for, yet I found myself enjoying the quotes writers picked: “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him,” or “I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest / Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty / Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters” (from “Visions of Joanna” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” respectively). Dylan got me thinking about the difference between lyrics that made good reading and lyrics that worked only in context of the music.
And then Gil Scott-Heron passed away. I wanted to hear “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” again, but first I reached (Googled) for Scott-Heron’s lyrics. You can read the anger and arrogance just as well on the page as you can hear it on the track. The bongos in the background of the recorded version mark time and pace — they’re scaffolding for his words, but those words are just as potent without instrumentation: “If there was any individual initiative that I was responsible for, it might have been that there was music in certain poems of mine, with complete progression and repeating ‘hooks,’ which made them more like songs than just recitations with percussion,” Scott-Heron wrote in the introduction to “Now And Then: The Poems Of Gil Scott-Heron.” You can hear the sneer in that definition, can’t you? I once got a more Canadian version of this from Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown songwriter Spencer Krug. I asked him for the lyrics to an upcoming album for a story I was writing; he politely refused: “They’re for hearing, they’re not for reading. Dan Bejar’s lyrics, they read off the page fine because he’s very gifted with words. He wouldn’t call himself a poet either, probably, or maybe he would, but his stuff reads fine. Most of the time, with pretty much everyone, except a couple key people, I think lyrics look terrible. They read off the page terrible,” he explained. Krug was asserting his role as a writer of songs, not poetry, a different way of stating Scott-Heron’s position. Is that what separates a genuinely good lyric from a bad one, that you can read it apart from the music without cringing? Dan Bejar just released Kaputt under his Destroyer moniker (his ninth full-length), as did two other songwriters with beloved lyrics, Okkervil River and Bon Iver. I’ve hung out with these records a little, but not enough to link words to melodies, which made them perfect for this exercise.
On Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Justin Vernon writes lyrics that read like a couple’s in-jokes and pet names repeated in front of friends. They’re romantic in context, but embarrassing and vaguely gross in the wrong setting. “Love” appears frequently: “Our love is a star” (“Beth/Rest”), or “love can hardly leave the room with your heart” (“Michicant”). Don’t get me wrong: Vernon is a craftsman. Stanzas refer back to earlier lines in syntax and rhyme. “Calgary” in particular, locks into a pattern, each first line using a stilted noun-to-adjective construction that feels like Vernon is recalling a dream’s objects before describing them (“hair, old, long along / your neck onto your shoulder blades”). Once they’re set to music, Vernon’s words flow thick and sweet, like they were squeezed from a pastry bag. But they’re not good reading.
That’s also true of Will Sheff’s lyrics for Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far. He’s a mean writer, and there’s little romance on the album, unless you find threats romantic. Sheff’s vocabulary is full of violence, and drama, and big words. He prefers long, swinging lines whose impact relies on Okkervil River’s persistent musical build. In some ways he reminds me of Bejar’s lyrics — coils of words that resist straightening, analogies that keep unfolding and qualifying themselves: “A slicked back bloody black gunshot to the head, he has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead.” But Bejar’s lyrics to me are more tangled, their ends hidden. There’s no build. “You leave her. You try to achieve a breadth of vision that she has from the start.” “Nicole — she, blasted on ecstasy in some East Pender hovel circa 1993.” These are highlights from a novel that doesn’t exist.
You can be a Dylan fan and dislike Dylan’s music and Dylan’s voice because of this: Aside from his mythical persona, he reads well on the page. He was a folk singer even when he didn’t want to be a folk singer because he was setting verses to song, just as Scott-Heron was, though in more explicit terms. The song is not the only context for their lyrics. Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron wrote lyrics that refer to something larger than chords or melodies — they’re political writers with a particular talent for molding hope and outrage into language. With that talent, they made politics meaningful in the way poetry is meaningful. Trade hope and outrage for humor and resignation and you’ve got Bejar, and the one thing that he’s kept across his nine albums of MIDI rock, soft rock, folk rock, and rock rock. What makes the lyrics of Dylan, Scott-Heron, and Destroyer read well on the page is their separateness from the linear nature of songs. Songwriters take their best lines and repeat them, but for these writers, every line begs to be repeated. The page is good for that.
If you want to get philosophical about it, Friendly Fires are reaching for the rocky euphoria-point between total joy and the unknown. In 2008, the band — three studious, reserved but jovial boys from St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England, two called Ed (one with two Ds) — dropped a debut that espoused a loose, dreamy type of discopunk that also paid homage to house music in style and spirit. The track packing the most bliss was “Ex Lover,” which swooned in its own twinkly synths, and paid less homage to discarded partners than to two people who were clearly about to bone up on old valentines. More than their other songs, whose offbeat hooks still harbored a bit of restraint within their enthusiastic sparkle, “Ex Lover” proved that they were not afraid to get caught up in the moment. Another track, “Jump in the Pool,” had its head in the clouds, too; hinged on vocalist Ed (one D) MacFarlane’s breathless spin, it documented the split second before you fall into your own courage (or love). They bet heavy on impulsiveness, but at times cemented in their steady disco-indebted drum patterns. I loved the record quite a lot — and they’re bananas live — but after a while I realized I was skipping through every song but the aforementioned two, plus “Paris” and “Strobe.” Eventually, the other tracks struck me as too tethered to convention (and, perhaps, a Gang of Four) for a band that seemed to aspire to astral projection.
But they’ve found their salvation on an island. Literally, their new record, Pala, is named after the island in Aldous Huxley’s Island — a literary utopia with a shelf-life — but they’ve also maybe been ingesting a little Trinidad and Tobago with an undertone of soca beats, give or take a few BPMs. “Hawaiian Air” hovers over a cascade of drums, counter-rhythms invoking salt air; “Chimes” and “Blue Cassette” are pop songs that also seem to beg for Carnival DJs to mix them in their sets. And with their syncopation came freedom, it seems, because this album is wide open. Perhaps their vigorous touring schedule over the past two years upped their venue ambitions, because the album is Grand Canyon-lush. Or maybe, after it all, they just all found love.
Interestingly, several tracks on Pala sound like companion pieces to one of the latest songs from Machel Montano, soca superstar and the most widely recognized musician from Trini. “Reach On Out for Love,” with Beta One, funnels soca’s super-fast clang through a more widely recognizable pop sound with an acoustic guitar hook. (Plus, it’s got an Ibiza remix.) It’s an example of a longtime artist gunning for global reach by polishing his relatively localized genre into a slightly glossier sound universally recognized as pop — something another island star, dancehall godhead Vybz Kartel, is doing with his forthcoming album, too.
It’s probably lunkheaded to point out at this juncture how the internet is opening doors and making borders porous for musicians all over the world, but it still amazes and excites me. And maybe the starkest example of this can be found in Beyonce’s new video for “Who Run the World (Girls).” Sans context, at first I thought a lot of the choreography looked angular and awkward, its 45-degree shuffle-kicks reminiscent of clogging and Riverdance. Barring blissful moments like her queenlike shoulder shimmy (Eritrean, I’m told) and her indefatigable butterfly-booty ground-scrubbers, she seemed to be at uncharacteristic odds with her body. As I learned a couple days later, Ms. Knowles-Carter was not paying homage to ancient Celtic dance contests, but to three Mozambican dancers who perform under the name of Tofo Tofo. She and her main choreographer Frank Gatson Jr. had seen a YouTube video in which the group had done a Pantsula – a form of South African township dance popularized in the 1980s — and had spent months tracking them down through the embassy so that they could teach her their steps. And here was a perfect, hard-evidence example of how the internet has made music’s invisible global boundaries more porous — a mid-fi clip captured on a video camera in a remote spot in Southeast Africa made its way to the of the world’s biggest pop star.
Certainly Friendly Fires, in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic England, didn’t discover soca (or house, or disco) on the internet, but it may have made it easier to make videos like the one for Kiss of Life, in which the band and 12 Brazilian drummers dance around on the island of Ibiza. For what it’s worth, Montano’s “Reach On Out for Love” has an official Ibiza remix. Collabo?