Archive forSeptember, 2002

‘IGBY’ AND “MOVIES THAT ROCK”

As “Smily” mentioned, we saw Igby Goes Down on Saturday night. I found the film tremendously entertaining but still wanting in some respects – it is a heartfelt, witty movie but a fundamentally empty one. You’re not given anything in which to get too emotionally invested. It’s not that the characters are unsympathetic – many are, but that’s not the problem – or that you’re not cued to know who the “good” and “bad” people are. It’s that the movie jerks you around a bit in wanting any particular outcome – should we want Igby to escape? do we want him to get the girl back? if none of the characters are all good or all bad, should we want any of them to experience comeuppance/redemption?

As I tried to articulate to Emily and friends at a bar after the movie, I feel like Igby Goes Down has the same problem as The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s brilliant but maddening third film. But it ends up there by the exact opposite route. Tenenbaums has an extremely tender story that it doesn’t actually want you to feel too deeply about – its snarky approach is always undermining its sentiment; whereas Igby is sentimental and seductively grandiose about not much at all. The former lacks passion, the latter lacks a point. Both make you feel like you’ve just seen a filmic exercise rather than a film. But as with Tenenbaums, getting to the end of Igby is loads of fun, and I would urge anyone to see it. It’s a clever, brilliantly acted movie with an excellent soundtrack.

About that soundtrack: Igby’s collection of songs is one of the best I’ve heard all year, which is saying a lot, considering that my three other favorite flicks of the year so far – Y Tu Mama Tambien, About a Boy and 24 Hour Party People – have amazing soundtracks.

Like Boy, Igby makes ample use of British singer-songwriter Badly Drawn Boy. But the Hugh Grant film had major studio money backing it up, which meant the filmmakers were able to get BDB, aka Damon Gough, to write and record an entirely new collection of songs specifically for the film. The lower-budget Igby, a debut feature for writer-director Burr Steers, makes do with selections from BDB’s acclaimed album The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Actually, since Bewilderbeast was my favorite album of 2000, I ended up enjoying the BDB songs in Igby more than those commissioned for Boy. But then, I’m predisposed to like the earlier songs.

Basically, the whole movie featured songs that felt warmly familiar – a cheap way to make your movie seem more emotional, but in this case it worked. The moment when Steers’s camera sweeps along the floor of a loft where Kieran Culkin’s and Claire Danes’s characters are making love to BDB’s “Everybody’s Stalking” (”Strap your hands across my engines/I’m not broke so please don’t mend me…Maybe all I need, you need too/Don’t wait for me, I’ll wait for you”) is utterly captivating – a life moment in Cinemascope.

I hate to admit it, but this is a tactic that always works on me. I’ve long tried to figure out what makes me want to watch a movie over and over, as my tastes are not easily categorizable – I love dramas, but I tend to rewatch comedies; I don’t like most action movies, but those I love I will return to constantly; etc. But I’ve finally, recently found a common thread – and, surprise, it’s music. I’ve discovered that a prominent, well-chosen, well-placed soundtrack is the bait that will hook me every time.

A perusal through my DVD collection turns up a lot of plainly rock-oriented films, of course: This Is Spinal Tap, Almost Famous, A Hard Day’s Night, The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter. But the movies I rewatch that aren’t about rock per sé are often infused by rock, thanks to a driving soundtrack or just a rock attitude: Boogie Nights, Do the Right Thing, Easy Rider, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ghost World, Goodfellas, The Graduate, Harold and Maude, High Fidelity, Pulp Fiction, Rushmore, Say Anything. Sometimes the soundtrack can make all the difference: I love both of the great teen films by director Amy Heckerling, Fast Times at Ridgmont High (1982) and Clueless (1995); but I own Fast Times, which has an interesting early ’80s soundtrack (a bunch of propulsive new wave songs offsetting some cheesy songs by Jackson Browne and the former Eagles) , and I haven’t bothered to buy Clueless, which is a more clever film but features an utterly unremarkable soundtrack. (Anyway, Clueless is probably Emily’s favorite comedy of the past decade, so I see it plenty.)

There’s a long-running film series on VH1 called “Movies That Rock.” Usually it’s a rerun of a bowdlerized-for-television rock flick like Purple Rain or Grease; sometimes they’ll stretch the definition enough to encompass teen-oriented fare like The Breakfast Club. But last night, as I flipped past VH1, the evening’s Movie That Rocked was The Godfather. Yes, that Godfather – I had to hit the “Info” button on my remote to make sure this was VH1 and not a movie channel. I left it on but sort of threw up my hands. I love watching The Godfather as much as the next guy, but how, exactly, could this fit into VH1’s programming mission, flimsy though it is? As if realizing the movie didn’t make sense for them, when they went to commercial, VH1 interspersed the film breaks with short clips of rock and rap stars (Alice Cooper, Moby, the Goo Goo Dolls, Darius Rucker, Snoop Dogg) imitating their favorite Don Corleone-ism. Okay, so rock stars love The Godfather – that’s like TNN doing a special cooking show about eggs because Nascar drivers like to eat eggs; I mean, doesn’t most everybody?

Then I thought some more about it, as I puttered around my apartment with Coppola’s masterpiece playing in the background. The Godfather has sweeping camera work and scenes dark enough for a DMX or Tool music video. Its dialogue has the rhythm of music – not just the Nina Rota orchestrations on the soundtrack, but the propulsive cadence of rock. It has more bad-ass characters than a year’s worth of MTV Jams. And, well, I own it. If that isn’t a Movie That Rocks, what is?

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WHO’LL BE ROCK’S DE HAVILAND? NOT COURTNEY

The big behind-the-scenes music story earlier this week was the hearing held by a California Senate committee on the labels’ draconian business practices. (Billboard.com had a good summary article.) The two big issues on the table are contracts and accounting. You may have heard about the former issue, which has been in the media for more than a year now: a coalition of artists, led by Don Henley, is trying to change a law that allows record labels to hold them to a contract for more than seven years – the music business is the only industry exempted from California’s law against long “personal service” contracts.

But the second issue, accounting, is what made headlines this week. At the California hearing, artist after artist told devastating tales of contracts in which, after tens of millions in record sales, they not only weren’t getting much in royalties from their labels; the labels claimed that the artists owed them money. Billboard’s coverage of testimony by recent country music star Clint Black was one of my favorite bits:

    Black testified that since releasing his first album in 1989, he has sold more than 20 million albums, yet in 1998 – about a year after he initiated an audit – RCA Records claimed he still owed them money. “I’m not an accountant, [but I made] $150 million for the record company,” Black said. “I could not find anyone in my organization to explain to me how that could be possible [that I owed them money].”

Notably absent from the California hearings was one ex-Mrs. Kurt Cobain. Though Courtney Love is in the middle of an enormous contract dispute with her label, Universal (and a separate but related dispute with her late husband’s Nirvana bandmates), and she was until recently a very loud advocate for artists’ rights, she skipped the hearings, because she and her label are reportedly close to a large monetary settlement. This from the woman who once claimed that her dispute with Universal was about principle, not just money, and made some grand pronouncements about the goals of her suits and countersuits against the label. Courtney once claimed that by her actions, she would expose the labels’ systematic underpaying of artists and single-handedly bring down the legal and accounting structure by which they keep artists down. “I’m [the labels’] worst nightmare,” she once proclaimed, saying she had the willingness to stick it out. Like a pro wrestler, Courtney The Giant was pointing at the camera, threatening to body-slam the labels into submission – anytime, anyplace.

And for the first time ever, I came to appreciate Courtney Love. For once, I said to myself, this musically questionable, shamelessly self-promoting head case has found a use for her real talent, headline-grabbing. She will do what no musician before her has been willing to do – be rock’s own Olivia de Haviland. In the 1940s, de Haviland brought down the old Hollywood “studio system,” the indentured servitude that forced actors and directors into lifelong contracts with studios and kept their wages absurdly low. She did it through pure tenacity, enduring years of court appearances and appeals and setting legal precedent for all actors. After de Haviland won her case, actors were finally permitted to act for any studio, for whatever the market would bear; it was like the beginning of free agency in baseball. Of course, as it always goes, the end of one bad system ushers in one that’s nearly as bad: superstar actors are now paid absurd amounts per movie, just as superstar free-agent ballplayers pull down disgusting salaries. But at least in movies, the old system was just plain wrong and needed to be amended; studios made millions while actors, famous and obscure, never saw anything but pitiful scale wages for their labors.

In music, few would argue that the artists don’t deserve a better share of the profits their recordings bring. It’s a well-known fact that for most acts, only touring brings them money commensurate with their labors, while even multiplatinum albums that sell for decades rarely earn much in royalties. The music business – easily the slimiest of all the major entertainment industries – is long overdue for a change.

The problem is ending the labels’ long-entrenched contract system. Who would be willing to put their career on hold long enough to take on the system? The Dixie Chicks, the biggest group in country music, fought Sony Music for three years after their last chart-topping album but finally caved, settling with the label and returning with a new album this year. The Chicks are too young, and their career is on too much of an upswing, to put everything on hold for the probable half-decade it would take to set a legal precedent and overturn California law.

But there’s a better question to ask in all this, and it’s not just about holding up a career. Leave it to The Wall Street Journal, in its recent article on the artist-label battle, to ask it: What artist will be willing to walk away from all the money a label will pay to settle a case and keep the old system intact?

As the Journal pointed out last Friday in its otherwise pretty standard article, as yet, no artist has gone all the way to a judgment in a court case against a label. Sooner or later, the label throws enough money on the table to get the act to settle. This is exasperating for the musicians’ lobbyists. You can almost hear the frustration in Henley’s voice when he says to the Journal, “Everybody settles eventually. That doesn’t mean anything in terms of the big picture. [But] some day, somebody will take this all the way.” He implies here that it’s meaningless, because he hopes California’s Senate, rather than its courts, will solve the problem. But if an artist had gone “all the way” by now, Henley might not have to be involving senators at all.

Courtney Love not only declared herself to be that artist; she also looked like the ideal candidate: outspoken, with the willingness to be a long-term pain in the ass. And with the ’90s over, Hole’s last album a flop, and the band on indefinite hiatus, she clearly had time on her hands. But more important than all that, thanks to Cobain’s Nirvana-related royalties, Love is wealthy enough to not only endure the years of court fights but also resist the temptation of Universal’s no doubt massive settlement offers.

Well, money Courtney has, but as usual, we overestimated her patience. This is not someone who would sit serenely through trial after trial, the way the long-suffering de Haviland did in the ’40s. While I’m sure the money Universal offered was too tasty for many people to walk away from, I firmly believe it’s Courtney’s restlessness – her need to always be in the spotlight – that made her eschew the years of boredom brought about by legislative wrangling. And the money didn’t hurt.

The only good upshot of the settlement is that reportedly, a long-delayed Nirvana retrospective will be out within months; and we’ll finally hear the storied Nirvana track, “You Know You’re Right,” recorded by Cobain close to his death, unreleased until now, and supposedly amazing. But it’s hard to be grateful to Courtney for holding up the song’s release for years when all that was accomplished was a big payday for her, rather than a precedent for the industry.

It’s not entirely fair for me to point fingers: The forces these artists are taking on are powerful and too deeply intertwined in their careers – doing the thing they love – to make keeping up the fight tolerable. But I haven’t been this disappointed in an artist caving to industry forces since Pearl Jam finally waffled in the mid-’90s in their principled battle against TicketMaster. The difference between Courtney and Pearl Jam is that when the band caved and used RipOffMaster for their tours, they priced tickets low enough (under $30) to make it up to fans who were stuck paying TM’s high fees. Courtney is giving fans what they want, too – hearing her late husband’s unreleased work – but no one is profiting from her cave-in more than her.

“Miss World” strikes again.

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THE NEW FACE OF THE ONE-HIT WONDER

This morning I responded to a post on an e-mail list to which I belong, in which someone was having trouble identifying a pesky radio hit.

(This is one of the “rockcrit-run listservs” I mentioned in my Monday post. I would name it, but it’s private and invitation-only, and I wouldn’t want to violate the trust of the friend of mine who runs it. It’s pretty small, anyway – under 100 subscribers, maybe even under 50.)

Anyway, I thought the Q&A was sort of interesting, and in the interest of being brief today – I’m sort of on the run – I thought I’d just share it. The e-mailer’s question – a followup to someone else’s earlier query – was as follows:

    does that song go more precisely “ev-uh-REE-thing’s gonna be all right/rockabye-ee”?

    with, like, a weird modulation up on the REE off the word generally pronounced “everything”?

    …does anyone else know? this song has been the bane of my car radio for a very long time.

    very early on in my Punk Rock Career, I would get outraged at any song espousing any version of the sentiment “everything’s gonna be all right,” because, you know, it was a total lie, things were NOT gonna be all right, etc., esp. if the sentiment backed by anything resembling reggae.

    but I digress.

I answered him thusly:

    That’s a four-year-old song by a One Hit Wonder (OHW) artist named Shawn Mullins, and the poor sap’s song is named “Lullaby.” The song was a massive airplay burn-out record in 1998, and I guess some stations haven’t wrung it dry yet. I’ve only recently stopped hearing fellow OHW act Duncan Sheik’s inescapable “Barely Breathing” on the radio on a daily basis.

    Mr. Mullins is one of the parade of late-’90s OHW acts whose lone hit was overpromoted on the radio but withheld from single release just long enough to get the act’s CD to platinum before he/she/they reentered obscurity. He joins Eagle-Eye Cherry (”Save Tonight”), OMC (”How Bizarre”), Seven Mary Three (”Cumbersome”), Sister Hazel (”All for You”), Lou Bega (”Mambo No. 5″), Eiffel 65 (”Blue (Da Ba de)”), Natalie Imbruglia (”Torn”), Marcy Playground (”Sex and Candy”), Baha Men (”Who Let the Dogs Out”) and of course, everyone’s favorite one-hit anarchist collective, Chumbawamba (”Tubthumping”).

    OHWs have been with us since time immemorial, of course, but in the old days the most a label could hope for from such an act was some singles sales and maybe a gold record; in the case of Bega, Marcy, Imbruglia, Baha and ‘wamba, the label was able to wring a multiplatinum, full-retail-price smash album out of the One Hit.

    This, in case you’re wondering, is probably the biggest reason why Napster came along.

Coming soon: Chris’s long manifesto on the death of the retail single, which to me is the crux of the Great Unified Theory explaining why the music industry is so screwed right now.

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NEW RECORDS: GETTING PAST THE HYPE

If you’re a music fan, today’s one day you’ll want to get thee hence to a record store – it’s one of those good release dates that makes music obsession fun. Some weeks you just get lucky – the last week of August, three killer CDs came out at the same time: the latest by Coldplay, Dixie Chicks and Queens of the Stone Age. Rarely have I purchased three records I enjoyed that much all on the same day.

Hoping to repeat my good fortune, I actually stopped by my favorite shop, J&R Music World, before going into work today. Here’s what I bought – I am writing about these CDs totally unheard:

  • Beck, Sea Change – You always have to be wary of the kind of hype this record has been getting: Spin has called it “one of two candidates for album of the year,” and Rolling Stone gave it a five-star review, dubbing it Beck’s career-best. Usually this effusiveness comes from magazines that missed the boat on an artist the last time and are making up for it by overrating the new album. (RS will never live down their three-star Nevermind review in 1991; everything Nirvana released afterward, even compilations like Incesticide, got four or five stars from them, as if the reviews were acts of contrition.) The thing is, Beck is following up the worst-selling and most poorly received album of his career, 1999’s criminally underrated Midnite Vultures. So Sea Change might actually be that good. True to its title, Sea Change is Mr. Hansen’s return to form – i.e., a return to folk. It’s a smart move after the over-the-top electro vibe of Vultures. But the new album also attempts to replicate the glossy melancholia of 1998’s Mutations. Um…but without the irony. That’s a tough one – expecting Beck to be unironic is like asking Michael Jackson to be normal. We’ll see if he pulls it off.
  • Ryan Adams, Demolition – This is an odds-and-sods collection, a way for the prolific Adams to offload a dozen-plus songs without calling it an album. As if acknowledging the provisional nature of the record, his label released it at a mini-album price, even though it’s the length of a full album. (I picked it up at J&R for $8.99.) The country-rocker is probably trying to dial down expectations after the boatload of hype – and furious backlash – he endured last year. Adams’s 2001 release, the superb but scattershot Gold, made my top 10 for the year, and in my mini-review I griped about how long and meandering the album was – much as I enjoyed it, I felt like Gold would have been a killer record if it had been at least a third shorter. I guess I’ve gotten my wish, assuming the songs on Demolition are comparable to Gold’s. Adams says that next year’s release will be the “official follow-up” to Gold – but he’d better be careful about that setup. The last guy who said his new record was provisional and the next one was official was Beck; the provisional record, Mutations, ended up outselling the “official” record, Midnite Vultures, by a factor of three.
  • Peter Gabriel, Up – The only guy who could make Axl Rose look prolific, Gabriel finally releases a new studio album, merely a decade after his last one, Us. He’s taken so long to produce Up that two other albums with that title, by R.E.M. and Ani DiFranco, have come and gone in the intervening time. I guess we can expect the next album – We or As or Id or whatever he’s going to call it – to come out around 2025 or so, by which point he will look even more like Dr. Evil. No, the years have not been kind to Peter’s hairline – or his music, according to a few early reviews that make the CD sound like a well-intentioned drag, all worldbeat guest stars and somber lyrics. But other, more recent reviews have been more positive, and I am nothing if not a Gabriel true-believer. Fans like me have been waiting patiently for this record (I have one friend whose only music question to me, for all of the 1990s, was whether Peter Gabriel would ever release another album), and his 1994 concert at New York’s Beacon Theater remains one of the most thrilling live music experiences I’ve ever had. Not sure if Pete’s going to tour this time. Maybe he should do a package tour with American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini – he could play Dr. Evil to Justin’s Sideshow Bob.

I also purchased Wiretap Scars by Sparta, one of the two bands that have spun off from the late, lamented aggro-punk band At the Drive-In; but that CD has been out for a month already. I should have also picked up the new one by Underworld, the men who gave you Trainspotting’s “Born Slippy,” and whose Boucoup Fish was one of the few beginning-to-end excellent albums of the ’90s electronica mini-boom. But having already plunked down nearly $80 for CDs this morning, I felt the new Underworld could wait.

Also out today, for those who are interested, is ELV1S 30 #1 Hits, the long-hyped Elvis Presley collection that hopes to make The King relevant to kids who think he was that guy who jumped out of Las Vegas airplanes in jumpsuits; the second album by Grammy-nominated rhythm-n-folkster Indie.Arie, on which we will hopefully find out what that period between her names is for; and Nas’s The Lost Tapes, a collection of previously unreleased tracks, on which you can find out just how long the Queens rapper has been fueding with Jay-Z. (Personally, I’ve had little use for Nas since 1994’s Illmatic, but his single earlier this year, “One Mic,” was very cool.)

I also bought one other CD while I was at J&R, but it actually came out last week, and besides, I want to give it to Emily. After she’s had a chance to enjoy its goofiness, I’ll let her post her thoughts about it here. Anyway, I’ve certainly got enough to listen to for the rest of this week.

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MUSIC DOWNLOADS: MEET THE NEW ENEMY

Today’s New York Times features a report on music downloading that confirms a suspicion I’ve had for a while now: that those record companies we music fans have been demonizing aren’t the only obstacle to us getting downloadable songs. In fact, this Times article says, the labels aren’t even the worst obstacle anymore.

It’s those pesky artists we love who are keeping us from downloading our favorite songs now.

With the labels grudgingly coming around to the idea that downloading is the future, they’ve been building their own MP3 websites – slowly, fitfully. As pathetic as their efforts have been so far – the MP3 offerings are limited, expensive, and place absurd restrictions on what you can do with the songs – I am encouraged that the labels are trying. In effect, they’re challenging music fans to put up or shut up: “Okay, you said you wouldn’t steal our music if we made it affordable and put all our stuff online – prove it.” But the only way MusicNet and Pressplay, the labels’ official MP3 sites, are ever going to “compete with free,” as they say, is if those sites contain everything Napster offered: practically the complete catalog of every song any music fan ever wanted. It’s easy to do that on Kazaa or Limewire, in the realm of unauthorized downloads, where no one asks anyone’s permission – from the labels, to the publishers, to the artists on down.

Ah, but now the irony: As the labels prepare to offer their enormous catalogs online, hundreds of musicians and songwriters are refusing to sign off on digital permissions, keeping thousands of songs off the web. And it’s not always for enlightened reasons, like making sure the labels credit artists appropriately. Quoth the Times, “Concerns over piracy, money or unrelated contract disputes have prompted artists like Madonna and Radiohead to insist that their music not be distributed digitally.”

Madonna – okay, she’s always been a businesswoman first, artist second. But Radiohead? So much for that band’s anticorporate ethos.

Remember the summer of 2000, when Metallica (along with Dr. Dre) waged a pissy battle against Napster that instantly eliminated their fan-friendly credibility? Remember how we pilloried the metal band’s drummer/spokesman Lars Ulrich, saying he was a tool for siding with the music industry and its antediluvian business model? Well, Ulrich is actually starting to look brave – at least he had the courage of his convictions and spoke out, loudly. Some of Metallica’s quieter rock-star peers are bigger heel-draggers when it comes to releasing their songs online. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the day you’ll be able to download a Beatles song legally.

Since Metallica fired their shot two years ago, digital downloading is the one issue that has made strange bedfellows of the major labels and the artists, who are usually at loggerheads over everything else. (They’re waging a bitter battle right now over the rapaciousness of recording contracts, for example.) What’s depressing about their unanimity over music downloads is the way the argument always comes back to demonizing the fan – whether it’s recording academy president Michael Greene making a speech at the Grammys calling music downloaders “thieves” or Dr. Dre making snide remarks about the people who download his single before buying his CD. Never, in the contentious history of the music business, has there been an issue that so publicly unites the musicians and the businesspeople against the people that enjoy their creations. It would be naïve to think that all our favorite rock stars have really been as anti-business as they claimed to be; as Fred Goodman’s incisive book Mansion on the Hill uncovered, even in the free-love ’60s, some of those “hippie” musicians were sowing the seeds for decades of financial gain. But we’re so used to artists sticking up for their fans and battling for creative freedom, that it comes as a bit jarring when they show no restraint in holding us in the same disdain as their conglomerate chieftains.

As a proponent of digital downloading, secure in my belief that the record industry has to come to terms with this phenomenon, I’ve been shocked to find that my bitterest debates have come not from industry people I know but from artists. I don’t hobnob with rock stars, but I do belong to a couple of rockcrit-run listservs (e-mailing lists) that also include a few indie or self-releasing artists. And boy, are they pissed about this MP3 thing. I understand and sympathize with the struggling artist who needs to recoup every dime their creations produce, just to make their brave career choice viable. But very quickly, when you begin discussing the issues with artists – why didn’t the labels try to make digital downloads work in the late ’90s? why is it so strange that people would download singles when one-hit CDs sell for $20 retail? – the artists veer into control-freakdom very quickly: I’ve been told I “have no right” to take something before it’s been released, or “how dare” I download a pop song I like on the radio even though I can’t buy a single in stores. For a group of people who, thanks to recording industry practices, have had depressingly little control over how their music is distributed for decades, artists seem crazily paranoid of the more innocent loss of control brought about by the lowly fan – the guy who can’t wait to get hold of their music, even if it’s at a schedule they haven’t dictated.

Of course, as today’s Times article implies, artists are like victims of child abuse, unwilling to trust after years of mistreatment. I don’t doubt that the central reason for the artists’ holdup in granting digital rights is their belief that the labels will stack the deck against them again – find a way to make post-Napster downloading absurdly lucrative for the corporation and leave the artist out in the cold again, with a pitiful royalty rate. (Some other day I’ll talk about the cruel trick the labels played on artists to get them to agree on lower royalty rates for record clubs and, in its early days, the CD.)

In short, there’s no doubt in my mind that when the history of music downloading is written, the labels will still come off as Enemy Number 1. But like blindly siding with players over owners in those perennial baseball strikes, it would be foolish for the music fan to think that her favorite musician always has her best interests at heart.

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WELL, ROLLING STONE THINKS I’M “COOL”

As I was cleaning out my e-mail yesterday, I received a message from something called the Rolling Stone Sounding Board. (Sorry, I know this is twice in one week I’m writing about that godforsaken magazine. Coincidence, I swear.) I get one of these messages every two or three months. I don’t know how they got my e-mail – I am an RS subscriber, but I don’t recall ever giving them my e-mail address. But this is spam I actually don’t mind receiving. For one, they only have my Yahoo address (the spam-magnet), so who cares; but more important, I don’t mind getting this e-mail because the thing it links to is weirdly fascinating.

The Sounding Board (go ahead, check it out) is basically an online focus group that the magazine conducts to figure out what they should advertise, what music coverage will best support advertising, and how much their advertisers’ messages are sinking in. Here’s how the website itself describes its mission:

    Become a member of the Board:
    Rolling Stone
    wants to know what you think!

    Each month we’ll be asking questions on topics such as fashion, music, entertainment, cars, anything and everything. Your p.o.v. is essential to us.

They incentivize this activity by promising that you’ll be entered in a free drawing for prizes and whatnot, but for me the incentive is getting a window into how (and how crassly) a major newsstand music magazine such as Rolling Stone runs its business. Just how much pandering to advertisers do they have to do?

Actually, what’s creepy about the Sounding Board site is the way it panders to you if you take part in their latest survey. If you have been chosen, you’re clearly cool and a “tastemaker,” and you can provide a window for the magazine to determine what bands, celebrities, car makers, clothing labels and soft drinks are “hot” right now.

One survey I actually enjoyed a few months ago asked me a lot of questions about who’s been appearing on the cover of the magazine lately (not all the questions are directly about advertisers and their products; they want to know what makes you buy the rag, too). The questions seemed to suggest that the editors were worried about their “brand” being diluted by putting so many random people on the magazine’s cover. I appreciated being asked this question, because lately RS has been veering even farther than usual in its mix of cover subjects. “The cover of the Rolling Stone,” as Dr. Hook sang in a ’70s pop hit, has long been a major goal for up-and-coming bands, but lately the editors have seemed more interested in up-and-coming TV stars (Alias’s Jennifer Garner, that pouty-lipped Superman guy from Smallville) and movie ingénues (XXX’s Asia Argento, and…the cast of The Sweetest Thing?!!) than in musicians. Call me biased, but I feel the magazine should be putting rock stars on its cover 80% of the time and throwing in other pop-culture figures only when they’re too big to ignore.

Anyway, spam is spam, and some months, I feel like Rolling Stone may as well be printed on luncheon meat. But focus groups usually research things the average person doesn’t give a second thought about on a regular basis. (e.g., “What do you mean, ‘How does this brand of mayonnaise reflect my lifestyle’?!”) – it’s nice for once to be asked my opinion about a product with which I have spent a considerable amount of my time.

And hey, it’s nice to feel like a tastemaker. Even if I’m one of thousands. Maybe flattery will get you everywhere.

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SMELLS LIKE POSTADOLESCENT SPIRIT

Since it’s getting late, I couldn’t think of anything to write about today, and I don’t want to let a whole day go by without a post, I’ll be super-lazy and just share this fairly hilarious list someone forwarded me today.

The sequel to “Pass the Dutchie” made me choke with laughter.

* * * * * * * * * *

From McSweeney’s:

P O S S I B L E F O L L O W - U P S O N G S
F O R O N E - H I T W O N D E R S .

BY JOHN MOE

- - - -

How Are We Going to Get These Dogs Back In?

Bust an Additional Move

Seriously, Eileen, Come On

(Won’t You Give Me A Ride Home From) Funkytown?

Remember When You Lit up My Life? That Was Great

I Will Now Pass the Dutchie Back to You and Thank You for Passing It to Me Originally Because I Really Enjoyed the Dutchie

The Morning That the Lights Came Back on in Georgia

Everybody Was Kung Fu Making Up

Achier Breakier Heart

Whoomp! There It Continues to Be

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We Never Took It and Persist in Our Refusal to Take It

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WAITING FOR THAT FALL SAVIOR

On MTV2 this morning, I caught the video for the latest single by hip-hop collective Nappy Roots, “Po’ Folks,” and it’s now completely stuck in my head. It’s a terrific song, and it’s making me want to go back and reevaluate their album Watermelon, Chicken and Grits, to which I only gave a cursory listen earlier this year. (I’ll offer my impressions on this album later — I have a theory that Nappy Roots are the long awaited filler of the melodic, down-home, white-friendly hip-hop gap vacated by Arrested Development a decade ago — but more to come on that.)

I wanted to listen to Nappy Roots this afternoon on my iPod at work, but then I realized that I hadn’t even ripped the CD to my iPod yet. So I sated myself instead with an album I had ripped to the iPod, Blackalicious’s Blazing Arrow – a fine hip-hop record, one that grows on you gradually. And I started thinking about whether this (or the Nappy Roots) might be worthy of my year-end top 10.

Then I started panicking (mildly) about my top 10 in general, or the lack thereof. I’ve been here before, usually around September — it’s been another lame year, I haven’t fallen in love with enough albums yet, etc. In the movie business, critics fret like this every September, too, but they know that Hollywood has saved all its prestige pictures for the last three months of the year. But the record industry doesn’t work like that, exactly — the fourth quarter is huge for business, but that means safe superstar product, not quality product. Last fall that meant the new Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson albums, and…well, we know how those turned out. This year, be prepared to get burned out on the hype behind those Elvis and Rolling Stones compilations looking to repeat the success of the Beatles’ 1.

Being a guy who tends to prefer non-superstar or indie rock (though I do listen to a lot of major-label product), there’s no point waiting for a fourth quarter album to “save” the year for me. And yet, each year I do start feeling better about the year around now. Occasionally it’s because a couple of good albums do come out late in the year — my favorite album of 2001, the Avalanches’ Since I Left You, came out in December. More often, though, it’s because albums I’ve lived with all year start to sink in. My favorite story about that concerns Moby’s Play. I bought it fairly soon after it came out in the summer of 1999 – long before it began its slow, two-year climb to megaplatinum status – but it ended up gathering dust on my shelf for six months. My first listen of the CD, at mid-summer, had really rubbed me the wrong way for some reason (I seem to recall I played it too early in the morning). Then I heard it played in the background at a local Brooklyn shop in December or so, and it sounded great. I went home, threw the CD back on my stereo and realized, “Oh, wait…this is brilliant.” Of course, it turned out to be the critics’ winner of the year (#1 on Pazz and Jop, etc.).

So back to my mild annual panic. I was feeling uneasy today, because I feel like I’ve been living with a bunch of good records all year, but few of them are sinking in – like I’ve heard too many records I admire but not (yet) love: …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s Source Tags and Codes, Ben Kweller’s Sha Sha, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By the Way and Sonic Youth’s Murray Street, to name a few.

Then I flipped around my iPod and realized that there were some records I truly adored: N*E*R*D, Wilco, Kasey Chambers, DJ Shadow, Coldplay and the Flaming Lips will easily make my top 10 (if I had to pick right now, my top six) come January. And I realized that there were still promising records coming out this fall: Beck’s much-praised new album next week, a new Badly Drawn Boy record in October (yes, his second in one year, after the About a Boy soundtrack), that long-awaited Chris Cornell-RATM collaboration (I know, I was dubious too, but the early word from friends and online is that it’s awesome) plus a variety of new compilations and other flotsam (e.g., Ben Folds’s live album – don’t laugh, live is where this guy shines).

Of course, the real fall savior will be the record that, like the Avalanches last year, comes completely out of nowhere and rocks my world, just as I least expect it. Those are always the best ones.

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I, WENNER

Last night Emily continued her weekly communal viewing of the classic BBC series I, Claudius. We started watching the DVD set last week and plan to continue through the end of October. As Emily put it when she started this little project, I, Claudius was sort of the Sopranos of its day – when it made its American premiere on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater in the late ’70s, our parents (both Emily’s Mom and mine have stories about this) watched every pulpy episode and were sorry to see it end. Thanks to endless PBS reruns and DVD, the series still has its fans, who discuss I, Claudius with the devotion of soap opera fanatics. And why not? With its murders, affairs and power struggles, I, Claudius is the best melodrama ever to appear on public television.

I also had the pleasure last night of becoming acquainted with Emily’s friend and book-club cohort Kate, who joined our Claudius crew for the first time and, sadly, probably the last – she is moving to Washington, D.C. in two weeks. Kate and I had met in July, at the only meeting of Emily’s Young Ivy Book Club I ever attended (the book we read: Michael Chabon’s stellar The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). But last night was the first time we got to really chat. Kate is a journalist who writes for The New York Times’s City desk (she’s done some 9/11-themed stories for them). She’s also – most interesting to me, natch – a former writer for Rolling Stone.

We didn’t get to talk too much about RS – like all rockcrit types, I can talk about the magazine ad nauseum – but we did chat about founder/editor Jann Wenner a bit. Kate didn’t have too many direct dealings with Wenner during her RS years, but she confirmed my impression of Wenner as a mercurial capo, even when she wasn’t seeing him in the office – killing stories of hers with little notice, etc. We had a laugh over the embarrassment, which all savvy RS readers noticed last fall, of the five-star review Jann himself wrote of Mick Jagger’s latest middling solo album; apparently, Wenner had finally run out of writers willing to prostitute themselves with a foamingly exuberant Stones-related review, so he had to overrate the record himself.

The other thing we talked about super-briefly was the overhaul that Rolling Stone is undergoing under new managing editor Ed Needham, whom Wenner poached from Maxim-esque lad mag FHM. Brought in to make the magazine more profitable and, therefore, a quicker read, Needham is cutting back on long articles (like Kate’s – she generally wrote non-music features) and packing the magazine with sidebars. Needham’s arrival at RS came after Kate’s departure last fall, and so she wasn’t directly affected but knows some former colleagues who have been.

I am generally not a fan of the dumbing-down of in-depth periodicals, but I am a fan of succinct writing, and so I have to say that I am reserving judgment on the “new” Rolling Stone for now. The first few issues under Needham – one with a requisite Springsteen cover and another with a somewhat surprising Vines cover story – have actually succeeded in their mission, however crude: making Rolling Stone less of a chore to read. There has been a wealth of complaint from rockcrit and journalist in-circles about how Needham’s arrival represents the final nail in RS’s coffin, but the key word in that metaphor is final – the magazine has been absorbing coffin nails for so long now that calling Wenner’s latest moves a bastardization is like saying a new David Bowie album is a betrayal of his brilliant early work. I mean, hasn’t it been dog’s age since Rolling Stone truly mattered? Wouldn’t a fresh coat of paint do the magazine some good? (And Bowie, for that matter)

Unfortunately, Kate and I didn’t get to talk about all this, so I have no idea about how she feels about the post-Needham issues so far. Soon Emily was pressing “play” on the I, Claudius disc, and we were all immersed in a world even more histrionic than Rolling Stone, where people more wily than even Jann Wenner plied their trade.

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PICKING WEDDING SONGS, FOR TOWN AND COUNTRY

I just returned this afternoon from Northampton, Mass., where I attended the wedding of a friend and former coworker. I have been to numerous weddings over the last decade – having survived “The Wave” in my late twenties in which I was attending up to a half-dozen a year – and I feel like I’ve seen it all, in terms of ceremony and reception variations. I have to credit my friend Heather, a Smith College alumna (hence the Northampton service), who managed to throw a few curveballs into her special day: Scottish bagpipes up the aisle, a Native American call-and-response prayer, a French cake-cutting ceremony in which the cake is barely cut. But in many ways the event felt comfortably familiar.

The music, in particular, followed well-worn trajectories. Like many a careful bride, Heather had gone to great lengths to tell the deejay what not to play; hence, I did not suffer through the tedium of “YMCA,” the goofiness of “Macarena” or the horror of The Worst Song Of All Time (now enjoying its 12th year with the title!), “The Electric Slide.” (No, it’s not just because I don’t like the accompanying dance; it is a horrible song. I firmly believe that it’s set to auto-repeat in the ninth circle of hell.) But some standbys made their umpteenth appearances, mostly tunes I can tolerate or even enjoy despite their ubiquity: “My Girl,” “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” Ricky Martin’s “Maria” (you know it: “Uno! Dos! Tres!”) and the irresistible, how-come-I’m-still-not-tired-of-it “Dancing Queen.” Heather, a big ’80s music fan, had also requested a lot of Reagan-era music.

I enjoy studying deejays and bands at weddings to see how they navigate the music of the ’80s and ’90s. There are a handful of songs from those diffuse decades that have become easy wedding standards – “Always and Forever” (1980), “Love Shack” (1989), “Because You Loved Me” (1996) – songs the wedding entertainers feel comfortable will not alienate anyone too badly. After all, mass appeal is critical. For example, despite its enormous ’90s popularity, “I Will Always Love You” has never been played at any wedding I’ve attended; my theory is that deejays know it’s a love-it-or-hate-it prospect for everyone and just not worth the hassle. Also, wedding singers probably can’t sustain a Whitney Houston high note.

Some songs from the last two decades are still, I feel, in a testing phase, and thanks to Heather’s ’80s request, last night’s reception was chockablock with them. “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1983), everyone’s favorite ’80s one-hit-wonder song, is a fairly randy little ditty – a deejay has to hope grandma won’t be paying too much attention to the lyrics (”You in that dress/My thoughts, I confess/Verge on dirty”); still, anyone under 40 will crowd the dancefloor and chant along. Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” (1985) is getting more mainstream, thanks to Adam Sandler’s inimitable rendition in The Wedding Singer, but again there’s the grandma factor – it’s basically a hard-pumping queer new wave song. And Toni Basil’s “Mickey” (1981) is clean enough for kids and grandmas, but if people aren’t into it – it’s a cheerleader chant, after all – it can just sound like so much yelling.

Of course, mass-appeal is in the ear of the beholder. Last night a few of Heather’s mischievous relatives decided to play a practical joke, knowing how particular she is about music. They made a request sure to piss her off: Billy Ray Cyrus’s mulletheaded line-dance standard, “Achy Breaky Heart.” Heather, as predicted, had a (reasonably controlled) fit, and the cousins had a gentle laugh at her expense. The only person in the room as annoyed as Heather was the deejay, who kept talking over the song in an attempt to maintain his dignity. At the beginning: “Okay, this is a request, going out to Heather’s Dad…” (part of the ruse, apparently). After half a verse, as the dancefloor emptied: “Who requested this?!” And after just one chorus, as he flipped to another song: “Okay, we’re gonna move on – apparently no one really wanted to hear that…” Poor guy. There’s nothing a deejay hates more than a song that clears the entire floor in under 30 seconds.

The thing is, “Achy Breaky Heart” isn’t necessarily a joke, and I don’t just mean in Little Rock or Paducah. I think part of the reason the deejay was so frustrated was that he has no idea whether “Achy Breaky Heart” would be popular with a suburban Massachusetts crowd – whether the song would be an obvious joke to them. It’s not like the cousins requested Chuck Berry’s lewd “My Ding-a-Ling” or Clarence Carter’s lewder “Strokin’,” which are goof songs to begin with. And how could the deejay have known how many country fans there were at that wedding? For what it’s worth, the TV in my Northampton hotel room had more country music video channels than MTV and VH1 combined. A whole lot of people – not critics or rock snobs, of course – genuinely loved “Achy Breaky” in its heyday; the song topped the country and pop singles charts, and Cyrus’s album spent four months (no joke) atop the Billboard album chart in 1992, outselling even Garth Brooks’s album that year.

Pat Quigley, the man who ran EMI’s country division in the ’90s and made Brooks a megastar, used to explain country’s latter-day popularity by appropriating on old cliché to describe the music: he called it “town-and-country.” His point was that country was no longer just the music of the sticks; it was becoming, in the early ’90s, the music of suburbia, as aging baby boomers and conservative radio listeners fleeing rap-leaning top 40 stations moved in droves toward the comforts of modern country music. Though country slumped in the late ’90s, it’s come back again in the early ’00s (recessions seem to be good for business in Nashville) – five country albums have topped the album chart this year, including Alan Jackson’s latest and the still-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. The current chart-topper, the Dixie Chicks’ Home, had bigger first-week sales than any album all year, except Eminem’s latest.

As for me, I’m not a big fan of “Achy Breaky Heart,” but it’s pretty harmless – Cyrus’s mullet offended me more than his song did. I guess it’s typical of me that at the moment the song came on last night and cleared the dancefloor, my heart went out most not to Heather, but to that deejay. I wanted to stand by his side, take the mike and explain to those misguided cousins that country music was not inherently a joke, and that even that dated tune was hardly the dumbest song they’d heard that night. But then I would have offended the deejay and the cousins all at once.

Besides, pretty soon Dead or Alive was on, and I was ready to dance myself.

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