Category Archives: Pop

American Idol: Miseducating the Masses

I don’t watch American Idol. I have, in the past, but these days I occasionally will just watch a YouTube clip of a finalist when it comes up. Truth is, they do sometimes manage to come across some good singers. But in the grand scheme of things, the producers, judges and anyone else involved in putting the show together are complicit in a large campaign of misinformation being disseminated to their millions of viewers.

As you may expect, my main anger arises at the complete disregard for the writers and original performers of some of the older songs performed on the program.

Due to its performance at Michael Jackson’s funeral, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” has become forever associated with the King of Pop. When I first heard it sung at his funeral, I was very surprised and extremely happy, because its a great and underappreciated song. Unfortunately, it has since been falsely attributed to MJ by aspiring, uneducated singers everywhere.

It has also been licensed by American Idol and added to their ‘stock’ list of songs to be performed at any time, and I can’t tell you how many times I have seen contestants pick it, and open by stating how much they were inspired by Michael Jackson and how they wanted to sing one of his songs. While looking for a particular instance of this that I remembered from a few seasons ago, low and behold I found a contestant from this season doing the exact same thing:

Now, i’m going to give a TINY bit of credit to the producers this time, because at least they show themselves trying to inform the contestant in question, but it just becomes even more infuriating when it becomes clear that she a) clearly doesn’t care and b) doesn’t even know who Charlie Chaplin is. They have let this and much worse slip many times before. Is it too much to ask that a program with such a huge reach across the country could at least help inform its viewers (and at the very least the singers themselves) about the music?

I was particularly angered just last week when I saw an article with links to the most recent episode’s tribute to Elton John. Not once on the program or in the video notes did anyone mention that 99% of Elton John’s lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin. To be honest, I am surprised that John himself would let this pass, because by all accounts he seems like a very gracious person. But with each clip you hear, the contestants talk about how moved they are by ‘Elton’s music’ and ‘Elton’s lyrics’ and it seems like such an injustice done to his partner.

And perhaps Taupin doesn’t like the spotlight, maybe he’s content without being recognized. But that isn’t the point: the viewers and the contestants need to know whose music they’re listening to and performing. By not giving credit where it’s due, American Idol disrespects the thousands of artists it licenses from and just promotes misinformation and laziness to a whole generation of aspiring music lovers. But perhaps thats what they want.

Rest in Peace, James Moody


A ~~ Z – Jim O’Rourke “Insignificance” (2001)

Most musicians desire to be labeled ‘original’ or ‘uncategorizable’, but few actually warrant such a characterization. Jim O’Rourke, however, would satisfy the qualifications for such a description. labels him as a “post-classical composer”, but depending on the context from which you know him, he could be considered a pop producer, an alternative-rock bassist, a jazz musician, an electronic artist, an avante-garde musician…the list goes on. But what is most fascinating among all of this multi-faceted artist’s output is his own. Alone, O’rourke really is a sum of all his parts. He has a natural songwriting ability, but he can’t help but push the boundaries of convential form. He has a knack for straight-forward alternative pop, but at the same time feels the need to express his more creative components. And he understands the importance of a cohesive, artistic statement, but that doesn’t prevent him from wandering from what is expected. Among his many solo albums, Jim O’Rourke’s “Insignifance” stands as his magnum opus. Not because it is overtly adventurous or groundbreaking, but rather because it is a seamlessly concocted combination of a seemingly incompatible variety of sources and influences, and because in the end it just sounds so good.

And again, think of what sum all of O’Rourke’s parts generates: Imagine Wilco meets Tortoise meets Sonic Youth meet Gastr del Sol with splashes of the Beatles and electronic surges straight out of Edgard Varese or Paul Lansky. That statement alone sounds overwhelming and seemingly impossible, but O’Rourke achieves it. It is easy, upon first listen, to discard this work as unambitious, considering what O’Rourke has strived for in the past, but that would be missing the point. O’Rourke might have expected such a reaction; after all, the title of the album seems to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own ‘backwards step’. But the beauty in this record actually lies in it’s ability to deceive. The music sounds so simple and familiar, but it is so rich in texture and individuality that the more one digs in, the more one realizes there isn’t anything else quite like it.

“Therefore I Am”

“Therefore I Am” hits you early on in the album. Much of the song is a repetitive guitar riff that sounds like the best of an amateur garage band, but it is exactly this repetition, and what comes out of it, that makes the song so entrancing. When O’Rourke finally gets to the end of the chorus, what seemed to begin with one drummer and one guitarist has evolved into an orchestra of multiple drum sets, hand claps, layers upon layers of interlocking guitar parts, all complete with the obligatory “ooohs” and “aahhs”, only to resolve right back to where it started from.

“Memory Lame”

The layering of instruments continues into the beginning of “Memory Lame”, whose first minute is built out of a very Steve Reich-esque tapestry of guitars, eukeles, mandolins and god knows what else, before falling into an all too familiar pop sequence. O’Rourke uses the opposite approach with the final track, “Life Goes Off”, which begins with familiar movements but evolves into an extremely rich amalgam of instruments and harmonies before fluttering out in an electronic buzz.

“Life Goes Off”

What the album as a whole communicates after even a single listen is that O’Rourke has an innate talent, respect, and love for pop music, enough so that he can leave it at its heart unchanged but also put in so much of his own effort and individual touches as to make it unique, special, and his own.

On the Beatles and Counterweights

This week’s long-awaited wedding between iTunes and the Beatles may have been overhyped, but amid all the deflated and angry responses are some impressive figures: Within 24 hours of the announcement that the Beatles were finally available on iTunes, all 17 albums were in the top 50 most downloaded, and 3 were in the top 10. 5 songs were in the top 50 most downloaded as well. But what is most interesting, I think, about the top selling Beatles songs in particular is that of the top 3, one was written by George, one by Paul, and one by John.

People love to argue about who was the ‘greatest’ or ‘most important’ Beatle, but I think this helps show that what was so special about them is that they complemented each other so well. Harrison famously felt under appreciated in the band, something that helped lead to their polarization towards the end, and the posthumous vindication of “Here Comes the Sun” being the best selling Beatles song on iTunes helps put to rest the question of the magnitude of his contribution.

But because the vast majority of the Beatles catalog is under the Lennon/McCartney name, the battle between who was the more influential member continues to this day. What I think these iTunes stats help show is that without one or the other, the Beatles wouldn’t have been what they are today. Yes, Lennon and McCartney are called the greatest songwriting duo of all time and such, but most people know that by the time Revolver came around, Lennon and McCartney were for the most part writing separately. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t influence each other, however. John and Paul were each other’s perfect counterweights, they helped tweak each others writing to push it to the next level, and they prevented each other from straying too far from a common sound (yes yes I know there are exceptions, like “Revolution 9”, but lets just say Yoko tipped a balanced scale).

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how rare it is for a single artist with a single vision to reach huge success. It seems that in the vast majority of cases, widespread popular and critical acclaim of a band or artist can only come with a significant collaborator or counterweight. Jagger and Richards, John and Taupin, Ellington and Strayhorn, Becker and Fagen, Rogers and Hammerstein/Hart, Tyler and Perry, Page and Plant, Hall and Oates, Henley and Frey, Hayes and Porter, Goffin and King, Gilmour and Waters…the list goes on. And not all of these were ‘songwriting duos’, some were producers and writers, some were guitarists and singers, some were lyricists and songwriters. Some were even just stubborn and strong personalities (The Police? Talking Heads?) that forced compromise.

There are very few examples of artists who have risen to huge success without ANY counterweight whatsoever. Prince comes to mind, as does Joni Mitchell (Blue, in particular), and Bob Dylan, but even these are very idiosyncratic acquired tastes. To reach the level of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elton John, the legendary status where even the biggest haters can’t deny your place (example: I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan) there needs to be someone pushing or pulling you in a different direction. Only then, it seems, can a catalog worthy of such inflated hype as Tuesday’s Beatles announcement be developed.

Now, the question is whether all their genius is worth 256 kbps…

Philly soul…

It’s interesting to hear Brian McKnight cover this Hall & Oates classic. You begin to forget it was written by two skinny white guys from Philadelphia…

Influence ~~

Another bizarre one. I wouldn’t call this influence so much as daylight robbery, but it’s not actually that simple. Alan Silvestri is a seasoned film scorer, having been in the business for about 40 years. His score for “Forrest Gump” is one his most memorable and lauded works, even though he didn’t come away with an Oscar or a Golden Globe. But what is most interesting about the main theme from this score is that it bears an extremely strong resemblance to a very specific rendition of a classic pop song. And who recorded the rendition? An unquestionably major influence on Silvestri. A few notes:

– This specific rendition is from a 1969 album

– The song’s most famous version was sung by Richard Harris in the 1960’s.

– The melody as played by the “renditioner” is actually slightly different than how it was written, but clearly connects the original song to the theme from “Forrest Gump”.

– Very ironically (and this is a dead giveaway), Silvestri won a very prestigious award recently that bears the name of the “renditioner”.

Alan Silvestri’s:

And the 1969 rendition of ____? (performed by _____?):

Perhaps if someone brings this to light I will post the most famous recording of the original song.

Places in Time…

As we approach the new year, lists of the best music of the decade are spilling out from all angles. Many of these lists attempt to include albums that aren’t just ‘good’, but that are ‘significant’ and ‘important‘. But ‘significant’ and ‘important‘ to what exactly? As NPR explains:

These are the game-changers: records that

signaled some sort of shift in the way music

is made or sounds, or ones that were especially

influential or historically significant.

This is an arbitrary qualifier, because how can we really know if a record created a change or shift in music without placing it among the music around it? This got me thinking: Is it necessary to contextualize music? Surely, how music develops is important, but when the average listener sits down, aren’t they just looking to hear something pleasing to the ear? Thus, when a song or album is contextualized, it becomes less about the music itself.

Many comments I recently viewed in the discussion section of NPR’s “The Decade in Music: ’00’s” revolved around why Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising (2002) wasn’t included. This, however, has more to do with why an album that focused on 9/11 wasn’t included because surely 9/11 was the most or one of the most important events of the decade. But music with lyrics have the advantage of conveying a period of time or event with much greater ease than instrumental music does. So why should The Rising be important just because it talks about 9/11 right after 9/11 happened? If I released an album next year chronicling the Panic of 1819, I doubt it would be deemed culturally significant. And if Bruce Springsteen had released The Rising tomorrow, I am sure it would be considered less significant. So does its place in time make the music more important?

Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-95 (1992) is universally considered ‘important‘ because of the bridge it built between Ambient and Techno music, but today it sounds rather timid. So is it still worth listening to? Perhaps only if we consider its place in musical history. Ambient isn’t exactly supposed to be ‘exciting’ music, but I find much of Brian Eno’s work to be equally significant and to have aged and weathered much better than Aphex Twin’s work.

Someone attempting to check out Billie Holiday for the first time might unknowingly pick up Lady In Satin (1958), which features the singer a year before her death when her voice was significantly withered and she had lost much of her pitch. This album is almost guaranteed to disappoint someone who is not aware Holiday’s physical state at the time of recording, or of her attempt to reminisce about and communicate her extremely troubled past more through emotion than pitch. Only after the story behind this recording is understood does the its beauty emerge.

So considering all this, is it necessary to contextualize music? I’m still not quite sure. I certainly think Lady In Satin is a good album, and at the same time I am kind of frustrated that people think The Rising should be considered musically important just because of the issues it covers. And how about this for contextualization: The Rising ended an almost two-decade long dry spell for Springsteen and led to him becoming one of the most commercially successful artists of the 2000’s, which essentially means he profited from 9/11. And Selected Ambient Works 85-95 is actually technically a compilation of songs, and as soon as it brought Aphex Twin into the spotlight he completely changed the type of music he made (“Flim” is not ambient).

But maybe I am just biased.

Some of the albums that were commonly mentioned on “Best of the 2000’s” lists weren’t necessarily important so much as they were just good, somewhat different, and executed with serious, artistic intentions. In reality, none of us can know how important many of these albums really are because they haven’t had enough time to significantly effect the development of music. Yet we try to form these lists with this disclaimer anyhow, so maybe ‘important‘ music isn’t ‘important‘ anyway…