Friday, December 31, 2010

Written In Blood - No, Really

So is it OK to laugh at Saddam Hussein yet? I may have been laughing already. Who can forget the indelible image of a cigar-smoking Saddam, standing on his balcony, firing a rifle into the air with one hand? Ah, but little did I know about the Koran written in blood. From Slate:
Saddam Hussein was never one for subtlety, so when it became politically expedient for him to be seen as pious, the dictator decided to show the world that he was willing to literally sacrifice his blood for the sake of his religion. The Guardian reports that over the course of two years in the 1990s, Hussein had regular sit-downs with a nurse who drew his blood and a calligrapher who used it as ink to transcribe a Quran. It took 27 liters of blood to reproduce the entire book, which is now locked away in a vault Baghdad. Having failed to dispose of it during the post-war looting, the Iraqi government now has to figure out what to do with it.
Yeah, you think you're devout? That's devout.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Madonna: Songwriter

OK, so Madonna is a "songwriter," but what does that really mean? Or rather, my first question is this: did Madonna actually write any songs by herself? Are there any tracks credited solely to Madonna and Madonna alone?

The answer is yes. And they are all on her first album: "Everybody," "Burning Up," "I Know It," "Think Of Me," and most impressively, "Lucky Star." Exactly how she "wrote" these songs is hard to say, but no one seems to dispute it. Her then-boyfriend has some entertaining things to say about the recording process, however:
"She was unhappy with the whole damn thing, so I went in and sweetened up a lot of music for her, adding some guitars to 'Lucky Star', some voices, some magic. [...] I just wanted to do the best job I could do for her. When we would play back 'Holiday' or 'Lucky Star', you could see that she was overwhelmed by how great it all sounded. You wanted to help her, you know? As much as she could be a bitch, when you were in groove with her, it was very cool, very creative."
I'm sure it was. But clearly it wasn't that creative, or otherwise Madonna wouldn't have sought out so many collaborators. Either she realized she worked better with a songwriting partner, or she realized she needed the help. Hard to say. But let's take a look at the songwriting credits of some her biggest hits and find out who these mystery men were (and yes, they mostly appear to have been men):

"Into The Groove" (Madonna/Stephen Bray)
"Papa Don't Preach" (Madonna/Brian Elliot)
"Open Your Heart" (Madonna/Gardner Cole/Peter Rafelson)
"True Blue" (Madonna/Stephen Bray)
"La Isla Bonita" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard/Bruce Gaitsch)
"Live To Tell" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Like A Prayer" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Express Yourself" (Madonna/Stephen Bray)
"Cherish" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Vogue" (Madonna/Shep Pettibone)
"Rain" (Madonna/Shep Pettibone)
"Deeper and Deeper" (Madonna/Shep Pettibone/Anthony Shimkin)
"Secret" (Madonna/Dallas Austin/Shep Pettibone)
"Human Nature" (Madonna/Dave Hall/Shawn McKenzie/Kevin McKenzie/Michael Deering)
"Take A Bow" (Madonna/Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds)
"Frozen" (Madonna/Patrick Leonard)
"Ray Of Light" (Madonna/William Orbit/Clive Maldoon/Dave Curtiss/Christine Ann Leach)
"Beautiful Stranger" (Madonna/William Orbit)

All right, so the first question you probably have is, "Who is Stephen Bray?" And "Who is Patrick Leonard?" And "Who is Shep Pettibone?" And "Who is William Orbit?" Great questions all.

Let's start with Stephen Bray. According to Wikipedia, he is "an American songwriter, drummer, and record producer from Detroit" who "began studying music through private instruction in Detroit, and continued his education at Berklee College of Music in Boston." He also "owns and operates Saturn Sound recording studios and the Soultone Records record label" and "is married to movie producer Stephanie Allain, who produced Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan." Interesting. He also appears to have been one of Madonna's many former boyfriends.

So, OK, when Madonna and Bray wrote songs, who did what? In the '80s Bray said, "I've always kind of made the rib cage and the skeleton of the song already—she's there for the last things like the eyebrows and the haircut. She writes in a stream of mood really." Madonna's recollections seem to differ. In the Wikipedia entry for "Into The Groove," Bray's contributions are not clarified. Here's what Madonna had to say:
"When I was writing it, I was sitting in a fourth-floor walk-up on Avenue-B, and there was this gorgeous Puerto Rican boy sitting across me that I wanted to go out on a date with, and I just wanted to get the song over with. I ultimately did go out with him and the song was finished just before my last date with him, which I'm kinda happy that it did not continue ... The dance floor was quite a magical place for me. I started off wanting to be a dancer, so that had a lot to do with the song. The freedom that I always feel when I'm dancing, that feeling of inhabiting your body, letting yourself go, expressing yourself through music. I always thought of it as a magical place – even if you're not taking ecstasy. Hence that came to me as the primary inspiration for 'Into the Groove'."[3]
Yes, dancing can be fun, even if you're not taking ecstacy. Wikipedia goes on:
"She had written the song for her friend Mark Kamins' protégée, Chyne. Kamins made Madonna record a demo of the song, which he wished to modify later for Chyne.[4] However, Madonna believed that the song would be more suitable for her film Desperately Seeking Susan, and re-recorded it with Bray, making it suitable for the soundtrack.[4] When Kamins came to know about it, he was furious that Madonna did not have the courtesy to tell him that she wanted the song for a different purpose. He felt walked over by Madonna, who retorted: "I'm tough, I'm ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, that's okay."
We'll leave the "bitch" question unresolved for the time being here. Wikipedia says that "True Blue" was "originally written by Steve Bray" although Madonna must have had a strong hand in the lyrics as " 'True Blue' takes its title from a favorite expression of her then husband Sean Penn and to his very pure vision of love[2] and was a direct tribute to him." So I think we're safe in assuming that Bray wrote the music to this one. And Wikipedia doesn't tell us much about "Express Yourself" other than that it was "written and produced by Madonna and Steve Bray."

Moving on. Who was Patrick Leonard? I mean, here's a guy who continued to collaborate with Madonna as late as "Frozen." Somebody give him a medal. It sounds like he isn't much of anybody, although in addition to his work with Madonna he has produced Roger Waters, Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Bryan Ferry, among others. So what did he do, and what did Madonna do?

According to the Wikipedia gods, " 'Live to Tell' was originally written by Patrick Leonard for the soundtrack of Paramount's romantic drama film Fire with Fire, but after the company declined it, Leonard presented the song to Madonna.[1] She decided to use it for At Close Range, the new film of her then-husband, actor Sean Penn." And yet Madonna carries a co-writing credit. Hmm. Call me crazy, but it sounds like she didn't do shit. Same here:
"La Isla Bonita" was written by Patrick Leonard and Bruce Gaitsch. The song was previously written as a lament for the mythical Spanish island called San Pedro and was offered to Michael Jackson for his Bad album, who, according to Gaitsch, turned it down.[1] While working with Leonard on the True Blue album, Madonna accepted it in Jackson's place and re-wrote the song's lyrics, thus earning herself a co-writing credit.
So, again, Madonna tinkered with the lyrics but didn't really "write" the song. And Wikipedia doesn't tell us much about the writing of "Like A Prayer," "Cherish," or "Frozen." Why do I have the strange feeling that Patrick Leonard did a lot?

How about Shep Pettibone? Pettibone is a much less obscure collaborator than either Bray or Leonard. According to Wikipedia, he is
...a record producer, remixer, songwriter and club DJ, one of the most prolific of the 1980s ... His prowess at production and mixing led him to work with such artists as Madonna and George Michael in the late '80s during the height of these artists' popularity ... He was instrumental in bringing the early underground sound of house music into the pop mainstream by way of a hybrid sound (much to the dismay of some purists who preferred standard disco/dance and R&B). Though he was contemporaneous to others (such as François Kevorkian and Arthur Baker), he is certainly the most prominent DJ/Remixer to bridge the high Disco and House eras in popular dance music.
Well, OK, but what kind of a songwriter was he? Wikipedia doesn't tell us much about "Vogue" other than that Madonna and Pettibone wrote it as a quick B-side, but "after presenting the song to Warner Bros. executives, all parties involved decided that the song was too good to be wasted on a B-side and that it should be released as a single." Smart decision. No details about "Deeper and Deeper," "Erotica," "Rain," or any of the other material from Erotica, which, it turns out, appears to have essentially been co-written by Pettibone.

Like Pettibone, William Orbit was already a significant dance/electronica producer before he teamed up with Madonna:
Madonna began working on Ray of Light in May 1997, meeting with Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, whom she had previously worked with on her 1994 album Bedtime Stories. The two wrote a couple of songs together before Madonna decided the collaborations were not going in the musical direction she wanted for the album. According to Edmonds, the songs "had a 'Take a Bow-ish' kind of vibe, and Madonna didn't want, or need, to repeat herself."[3] After abandoning the songs she had written with Edmonds, Madonna turned to musician Rick Nowels, who had previously co-written songs with Stevie Nicks and Celine Dion. The collaboration produced seven songs in three days, but did not display the album's future electronic musical direction.[4] Instead, Madonna took her collaborations with Nowels and Leonard to British electronic music musician William Orbit. Madonna had been a fan of Orbit's work, and loved the "sort of trancy, ambient quality" he gave to the songs he worked on.[5] She began working with Orbit after he had sent her tapes of musical snippets he was working on, which were usually eight or sixteen-bar phrases and stripped down versions of tracks that would later be heard on the album. Madonna would listen to the samples over and over again until she would be inspired to write lyrics. Once she had an idea about the lyrical direction of the song, she would take her ideas back to Orbit, and they would expand on the original music ideas. The album's title track "Ray of Light" was the only song on the album that Madonna did not have anything to do with creatively, and the last track, "Mer Girl", was the only other song where Madonna did not compose the music along with her collaborators, writing only the lyrics.[3]
So, she sort of wrote some of the music, some of the time, in sort of collaboration, with somebody. I give up.

Or do I? Maybe these one-off collaborations will shed some extra light on the topic:

"Papa Don't Preach":
[True Blue's] first track "Papa Don't Preach", was written by Brian Elliot, who described it as "a love song, maybe framed a little bit differently".[2] The song is based on teen gossip he heard outside his studio, which has a large front window that doubles as a mirror where schoolgirls from the North Hollywood High School in Los Angeles regularly stopped to fix their hair and chat.[3] The song was sent to Madonna by Michael Ostin, the same Warner Bros. executive that discovered "Like a Virgin".[4] Madonna only contributed with some minor lyrical revisions, making "Papa Don't Preach" the only song in the album that she did not have a strong hand in writing.[4]
"Open Your Heart":
"Open Your Heart" was originally a rock 'n roll song with the title "Follow Your Heart" and had been written for singer Cyndi Lauper by songwriters Gardner Cole and Peter Rafelson, although it was never played to her. The Temptations were also considered for the song. Their manager Benny Medina decided that they wanted to record the song after all, but upon hearing that Madonna had already recorded it, changed their mind.[1] The original title according to Cole, was from a local health food restaurant called Follow Your Heart in Canoga Park, California. In Fred Bronson's book The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, Cole explained,

"Peter and I usually write very quickly. It's usually a day or two a song, but for some reason this didn't really hit us as a hit song. We didn't give up on it. We just kept working on it over the course of a year. Thank God we did ... It was the first song that was cut on the True Blue album. It made me nervous as a writer, because a lot of times the very first song that gets cut doesn't make it in the long run. But the song ended up making the album, which really opened up a lot of doors for me."[1]

Cole's manager Bennett Freed was working with Madonna's management and they were looking for new material for her album. Three of Cole's songs were chosen for reviewing including "Open Your Heart". Despite the fact that it did not fit exactly with the choice and genre of songs Madonna was singing at that time, she nevertheless accepted it. Madonna recorded "Open Your Heart", altered the lyrics thus earning a co-writing credit, and along with Patrick Leonard added a bassline underneath the song which turned it into a rock-dance track rather than the original rock 'n roll genre.
So in conclusion: Madonna may have composed many of her own lyrics, but it appears that she almost exclusively relied on collaborators for her (very catchy) melodies. So she is not quite a songwriter in the sense that Paul Simon or Stevie Wonder are songwriters. Which is not to say that Madonna is somehow not talented, or that she rode on the coattails of other, more talented, musicians and took all the glory for herself. It takes a certain kind of talent to pull all those different elements together (music, lyrics, arrangement, vocals, production) and make a memorable hit song out of it all. If she didn't have that talent ... I don't care who she was working with. She wouldn't have lasted two albums.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Nixon, Stutterers, Projectionists, Lion Allergies, and More

Ah, the Nixon tapes: the gift that keeps on giving. Just when you're about to re-evaluate the guy and finally say to yourself "You know, that Nixon guy wasn't so bad," another batch of tapes comes out and you're back to where you started. Some anti-Semetic highlights:
Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. … All right. Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers?

The Jews are born spies. You notice how many of them are? They're just in it up to their necks. … Also, an arrogance, an arrogance that says—that's what makes a spy. He puts himself above the law.

I didn't notice many Jewish names coming back from Vietnam on any of those lists; I don't know how the hell they avoid it.
And this winner from Kissinger:
The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.
I'm always a sucker for Slate's year-end "Most Ridiculous Explainer Questions" column. My favorites:
Do passive-aggressive people know they are passive-aggressive? Also, how can you tell if you are passive-aggressive?

If the entire U.S. was put up for sale, including privately- and publicly-owned land, homes, structures, et al., what would be the total asking price on the open market? I know it's not a boom time to sell, but there may be a buyer lurking somewhere!

Are all languages equally lip-readable?

Do real life experts of martial arts really have the capability of take on a dozen armed thugs and beat them black and blue—as seen in films?

Why is hearing about other people's dreams so boring?

Avatar came out in 3-D at a lot of theaters. I saw an ad about the giant cats on TV with my cat on my lap and was wondering, do 3-D glasses work on cats?

Re: Will I die. Hi my name is [redacted] and I was sucking some helium today and I'm really nervous I did it at about 5:00 today and it's 12:00 I just prayed to god to keep me safe I felt my pulse on my wrist and it was normal I just was wondering if it will hurt my older life I am about 10 to 14 years of age.

Could mankind actually blow up the moon? Blast it with nuclear missiles until it was just rubble? What would happen to the Earth?

If a person is allergic to cats (common housecat allergies) would he also be allergic to a lion?
Also, movie projectionists are apparently becoming extinct (although one of our loyal readers may have something to say about that). Indeed, I have fond memories of climbing up to the projection booth to see Yoggoth hard at work at the Holiday Cinema in Davis, pushing a couple of buttons. There was an undeniable vibe in that darkened room filled with spinning discs, but even at the time, I couldn't help but wonder, "Does a person really need to be up here doing this?"

Finally, a history of stuttering in the movies. Sadly, Porky Pig is not included.

Friday, December 17, 2010

KMFDM's "Angst" (1993)

Next stop on my tour of re-discovery is KMFDM's sixth album Angst. It was the early 90s and industrial music was just about to hit its mainstream stride with Nine Inch Nails opening up the floodgates for a slew of me-too imitators. Lest you think that KMFDM were part of this ride, they had at this point actually been chugging along for nearly ten years.

KMFDM were originally founded on leap day 1984 as an art performance outfit. Over the course of several albums the band morphed into an industrial music outfit, but an industrial still very much rooted in the 80s - meaning their songs contained little emotion and had more of a socio-political bent, with a lot of synthesized blips and bloops and very little guitar. While this stuff was OK for the time, I do particularly like several of the songs off of their previous album Money, it wasn't necessarily memorable.

Angst changed all that by, well, basically adding more guitar (in today's internet fueled world someone would say needz moar guitar!). Not only that, but with this album I contend that KMFDM perfected the formula they had been working on for the past decade. They added stronger political messages, stronger female vocals, nearly perfected their sloganeering, and really just reveled in tounge-in-cheek humor.

Many people's first question is "What does KMFDM stand for?" While you can find nearly endless speculation, anything from Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode to Keep Madonna From Doing Music, the real words are Kein Mitleid fuer die Mehrheit, or, No Pity for the Majority. While this sounds like a strong, nearly fascist, viewpoint, especially considering that the phrase is in German, KMFDM really walk a fine line between the political and outright humor, often jumping back and forth in the same song.

The other thing I really dig about KMFDM is that it's essentially a constantly shifting group of collaborators. At it's heart is Sascha Konietzko and, until recently, En Esch. While Sascha is sort of the heart of the band, there are countless other contributors, changing with each album, almost like some artists collective. They're like the Wu-Tang clan of industrial. Everybody's there, from members of former rival industrial groups to Italian female lounge singers. If you want to be in KMFDM it would seem that all you need to do is pretty much call up Sascha and ask.

The band also has a knack for formula and meme-inducing repetition. The most noticeable are the album covers. All of the band's album covers (except one) are done by the same artist, Brute, with a simple square cartoon featuring overly stylized people, with the bold KMFDM printed at the top and the five-letter album name at the bottom. Yes, KMFDM loves their five letter titles, something they carried through until only recently when I think Sascha just got tired of or ran out of remaining five-letter words.

The band also likes to mention their name a lot in songs, something some reviewers find annoying, though these reviewers are completely missing the humor. Another formulaic element of their albums include the aforementioned sloganeering, with particular lines from older songs being reused and re-chanted in later albums, to the point where a fan would almost be disappointed if an album didn't include somewhere the Jamaican voiced sample "Black man/white man/rip the system". It's like expecting to see Hogwarts in a Harry Potter movie.

I also enjoy how KMFDM utilizes female vocals, something I don't think I've ever heard any other industrial band do, or at least do effectively. I love the contrast between the industrial rhythms and the female voiced melodies.

Okay, so what about the music? Like I said, Angst relies heavily on guitars, so it can come across a little 'metal' at times (though no metalhead would probably ever consider the group metal). The album begins with the song Light (five letters!), a perfect example of everything I've been talking about so far. KMFDM self name check? Tounge-in-cheek humor? Female vocals? References to previous songs? En Esch saying mysterious sounding things in German? They're all there! The song is basically a pun on the idea that what you are getting is KMFDM lite (We keep simple/tough and outright/easy to swallow/KMFDM light!).

Arriving instantly on the heels of Light (remember what I said in my last post about album flow?) is A Drug Against War. One of the only two songs by KMFDM to ever get any airplay, A Drug Against War is an insanely fast paced shout-along. Listening to it you're bombarded with a barrage of sound clips dealing with war and violence, taken from god knows where (the best one is 'bomb the living bejeepers out of those forces').

Blood (evil mix) is a mid-tempo guitar grind that fans appreciate, but isn't terribly remarkable. And don't ask me why it's the evil mix because I have no idea.

Lust is a strange little number that's a slice of dancy-disco infused with German lyrics I've never quite understood, but it's kind of fun and funky.

Glory (five letters zomg!) is a great example of KMFDM's strong yet strangely ill-defined political leanings. It's a rant against fat-cat politicians, fair enough. But it's always hard to read KMFDM. Are they advocating collectivism, or are they Tea Party get-off-my-property individualists? I've never really been too sure.

The album moves along from there with the tracks Move On, No Peace (featuring an organ!), and A Hole in the Wall, all good songs if you're a fan of KMFDM, though I wouldn't recommend them as introductions to the band.

Near the end of the album we get KMFDM's ultimate self-referential and self-deprecating masterpiece, Sucks. Essentially a three and a half minute song covering all the reasons KMFDM sucks, it's not high brow or necessarily witty, but it's the perfect example of the band at their sarcastic finest. Sample lyrics:

"Our music is sampled, totally fake/it's done by machines 'cause they don't mistakes"

"We don't like Michael Jackson, we hate Depeche Mode/We don't care for Madonna or Kylie Minogue" (strange that nearly 20 years later those artists still have relevance)

"You might think we're stupid but we're way above it/We don't give a shit and the kids just love it!" (the 'kids just love it' part would go on to become another KMFDM slogan, most notably on the song Beast)

"KMFDM forward the ultimate sound with a message from Satan if you turn it around" followed by the sound of Satan leaving a nonchalant message on an answering machine (get it?). I just always got a kick out of this one.

So yeah, Sucks could be seen as KFMDM's love letter to the fans, a sort of 'thanks for sticking with us' ode to themselves. Or their just assholes looking for money. Whatever.

The final song on the album The Problem is perhaps the most interesting song on the album. I, and many of my fellow high school KMFDM listeners, thought it was the worst song on the album. Some still do. Increasingly I think the opposite. Sung by Dorona Alberti (who now is apparently a jazz lounge singer) the song is a definite departure from KMFDM's usual sound, and it's utterly amazing to think that it shares the same album with A Drug Against War. It's a poppy song about how a kid's problems aren't really his, but a problem with the system (so that makes KMFDM advocating collectivism, right?). I used to hate this song cause I thought it sounded like some sort of Mariah Carey pop song. Now I see it as a song where KMFDM get to show off a different side of themselves (or really Sascha does), and it acts as a nice cool down from the rest of what preceded it. Anyways, it's definitely worth taking a listen to.

Overall Angst is still my favorite KMFDM album. A total departure from the emotionally wrought albums of Nine Inch Nails, I listened to Angst a lot in college at a time when I was forming my political views. After college I turned to yet another acronym infused band (I do seem to have a thing for them) with VNV Nation, but that's not part of this re-discovery.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Madonna: Interpreter

She may have sang "Holiday," but as an interpretive singer, Madonna was probably no Billie Holiday. And yet, particularly early in her career, an interpretive singer is precisely what she was. Here are some of the major Madonna hits that Madonna did not write:

"Holiday" (Curtis Hudson/Lisa Stevens)
"Borderline" (Reggie Lucas)
"Like A Virgin" (Billy Steinberg/Tom Kelly)
"Material Girl" (Peter Brown/Robert Rans)
"Crazy For You" (John Bettis/Jon Lind)
"Dress You Up" (Andrea LaRusso/Peggy Stanziale)

Those are some pretty big hits right there. Indeed, who are these people? Let's start at the start.

"Holiday":
In 1983, Madonna was recording her eponymous debut album with Warner Bros producer Reggie Lucas, after Sire Records green signaled it when her first single "Everybody" became a club hit.[2] However, she did not have enough material for the album.[3] Lucas brought two new songs to the project and John "Jellybean" Benitez, a DJ at Funhouse disco was called to remix the available tracks ... It was Benitez who discovered a new song written by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens of the pop group Pure Energy.[4] The song, titled "Holiday", had been turned down by Phyllis Hyman and Mary Wilson, formerly of The Supremes.[5] After the vocals were added by Madonna, Benitez spent four days and tried to enhance the commercial appeal of the track before the April 1983 deadline.[3][5] Just before it was completed, Madonna and Benitez took the tape over to their friend Fred Zarr's apartment in Brooklyn.[5] Zarr added a piano solo in the intermediate section of the track.[4]
So let's hear it for John "Jellybean" Benitez and Fred Zarr. Unfortunately, there is no Wikipedia hyperlink for Curtis Hudson, Lisa Stevens, or even Pure Energy as a group. It turns out that one of the greatest pop songs of all time was apparently written by a bunch of nobodies. Albeit nobodies with royalty checks that are probably larger than my yearly salary.

"Borderline":

Wikipedia doesn't tell us much other than that it was "written and composed by producer Reggie Lucas" - the producer of Madonna's debut album. Maybe it does sound a little too harmonically complex for a young Madonna. By comparison, to learn that she wrote "Everybody" is not especially shocking.

"Like A Virgin":
"Like a Virgin" was written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Steinberg explained that the song was not only not written for Madonna, it was not even written for a female singer but was inspired by his personal experiences.[1]

"I wasn't just trying to get that racy word virgin in a lyric. I was saying ... that I may not really be a virgin — I've been battered romantically and emotionally like many people — but I'm starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it's healing all the wounds and making me feel like I've never done this before, because it's so much deeper and more profound than anything I've ever felt.[1]"
Or it could mean you feel like you're being fucked for the first time. Either way it works.
In mid-1984, Madonna met up with producer Nile Rodgers at the then Power Station studios in New York.[3] Rodgers initially did not want Madonna to record "Like a Virgin", as he felt that the lyric 'like a virgin' was not a terrific hook, according to him it was not an all-time catch phrase.[1] Madonna did not care about the song either, after hearing the demo, she thought that it sounded "really stupid and retarded". Later, Madonna had second thoughts, "It's weird because I couldn't get it out of my head after I played it, even though I didn't really like it. It sounded really bubble-gummy to me, but it grew on me. I really started to like it, [...] But, my first reaction to it was, 'This is really queer.'"[4] Rodgers credits Madonna with recognizing the song's potential, he later said: "I handed my apology to Madonna and said, 'you know... if it's so catchy that it stayed in my head for four days, it must be something. So let's do it.'" Hence the song was finally recorded.[1][4]

Steinberg reflected on the recording process and commented that: "When Madonna recorded it, even as our demo faded out, on the fade you could hear Tom saying, "When your heart beats, and you hold me, and you love me..." That was the last thing you heard as our demo faded. Madonna must have listened to it very, very carefully because her record ends with the exact same little ad-libs that our demo did. That rarely happens that someone studies your demo so carefully that they use all that stuff. We were sort of flattered how carefully she followed our demo on that. It was the perfect union, I knew it from the first day in the studio. The thing between us, man, it was passionate, it was creative. [...] Madonna was sometimes temperamental during the recording, everyone told me she was a terrible ogre, but I thought she was great.[5]"
Well, she's got one vote in her corner at least.

"Material Girl":

According to Wikipedia, Peter Brown is an artist, songwriter, and record producer who popularized the ARP Synthesizer and helped found House Music in the '70s. His song "Do You Want To Get Funky" became "the first gold 12" single in history." I guess a lot of people wanted to get funky. Here's what Brown had to say about a slightly more famous creation:
"We were trying to write a song for her and we were brainstorming for some musical direction that seemed to suit her. I was driving home when I started humming the chorus to a song. I could hear the whole thing in my head as if it were a finished record. It was all there in a flash, music and lyrics. Living in a material world, living in a material world. It is the one and only time a song has come to me like that - like a gift from heaven. I remember forcing myself to sing it over and over while I made my way home so as not to become distracted by something else and forget it completely. When I got home I quickly played and sang it into a recorder to lock it in. There was her song."
And there was your songwriting career.

"Crazy For You":

John Bettis bears the noble distinction of having written the lyrics to both a major Madonna song and a major Michael Jackson song ("Human Nature"). Jon Lind is responsible for Earth, Wind and Fire's "Boogie Wonderland" and Vanessa Williams' "Save The Best for Last," a song that will forever give me the depressing junior high school dance creeps. But who could have predicted that behind the seemingly banal surface of "Crazy For You" there lurked an epic artistic struggle?:

The ballad was released as the first single from the soundtrack of the 1985 film Vision Quest, a coming of age drama about a wrestler played by Matthew Modine.[1] Producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber, and music director Phil Ramone was aware of the then unknown Madonna, who was just signed to Sire Records. Ramone took her for dinner at his house in Carolwood Records, where she played some of her music videos. Ramone and the other Warner executives present there, were impressed by Madonna's self-possession and fishnet-crucifix style.[2] So they decided to test her voice in a New York studio. Peters was impressed with Madonna and assigned Joel Sill, an executive in charge of music at Warner Bros. Pictures, to handle the recording of the two songs for the film.[2] Sill sent the script of the film to Bettis and Lind.[1] After going through the script, Bettis wanted to write a song about the situation, where the main characters – a young boy and a girl boarding at a house – dance together at a nightclub.[1]

He elaborated,"We were noodling around and 'Crazy for You' was something that Jon was singing over that section of the song. It was really descriptive of the scene in the film. [...] After that, I was out on vacation out in the desert and [Sill] called and said Phil Ramone was in love with the song and wanted to cut it on Madonna. [Laughing] 'Borderline' was out at that time and I said, 'Excuse me? This is for Madonna? Really? Can she sing a song like this?' Jon and I were surprised at the choice of artist at the time, if you want to know the truth."[1]

After Sill let Bettis and Lind know that Madonna was singing the song, some time elapsed before either of them heard anything from Warner Bros. Records. In between, they went to one of the recording sessions and were not impressed with the process of recording the song.[1] Bettis commented, "We went to one of the sessions, and to be honest, that particular session did not go all that well. [...] Jon and I were depressed about the way the song had come out. We heard nothing else about it and we were a little nervous that the song was going to be dropped from the picture."[1] Bettis went to England to work on the 1985 fantasy film Legend with music producer Jerry Goldsmith. It was there he received a call from Lind, who informed Bettis that a new version of "Crazy for You" was recorded and was made ready for a single release.[1] Bettis was surprised and went over to Lind's house, where he warmly received the new recorded version of the song. It had a different arrangement from the demo version, and the arrangement was done by composer Rob Mounsey who rearranged the original track and added the background vocals. Bettis said: "We owe a big debt of gratitude to [Mounsey]. He really made a hit record out of [the song]."[1]
Yes, Rob Mounsey, without your tireless sacrifice, where would we be? In a world without "Crazy For You"? No, I can't even think of it.

"Dress You Up":
"Dress You Up" was the last song to be included on the Like a Virgin album. Producer Nile Rodgers had initially asked songwriters Andrea LaRusso and Peggy Stanziale to write a chic-styled song for Madonna.[1] However, the writing took time, since both LaRusso and Stanziale were busy with other projects.[2] When the lyrics of the song was submitted, Rodgers rejected it as there was no time to compose a melody and record it for the album. However, Madonna liked the lyrics of the song, and persuaded Rodgers to include it on Like a Virgin.[2]
And when Madonna likes a song, it goes on the album.

So what's the verdict?

1) Some of the most famous pop songs of the '80s were written by some very obscure people.

2) Even though she did not write these songs, Madonna certainly made them her own. So much so that no one would even dare to think of the possibility of their having originated from the talents of anyone else. No one ... other than Little Earl, that is.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Zrbo's Pick of the Week


This recipe calls for Placebo covering Kate Bush mixed with some Pet Shop Boys, with a dash of the original Kate Bush thrown in for good measure. Bake for 3:51 and serve. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Madonna And Michael Jackson: Songwriters?

A little while ago, Yoggoth and I were talking about Madonna and Michael Jackson (as we are occasionally wont to do), and he asked me if they wrote any of their own songs, and if so, which ones. In a moment of crippling ignorance, I had to admit that ... I ... didn't quite know.

What do any of us know? Well, we all know that Madonna and Michael Jackson were singers. We all know that Madonna and Michael Jackson were dancers. We all presume that Madonna and Michael Jackson didn't play any musical instruments; they certainly didn't appear to do so in concert. But what about Madonna and Michael Jackson as songwriters? The public perception is quite muddy. When people talk about Madonna and Michael Jackson songs, the question of songwriting doesn't really come into it. They sang their songs; they're their songs.

And yet every now and then I have taken a look at the songwriting credits on the backs of Madonna and Michael Jackson albums. What I've seen has raised more questions than answers. I thought I would consult the Wikipedia gods once and for all to finally settle this burning issue.

So what did I find? Well, it turns out that Madonna and Michael Jackson, as I suspected, did not write many of their biggest hits, particularly early on in their careers, although they did indeed write the majority of them. Michael Jackson appears to have written, or at least co-written, most of his material from Bad onwards, and Madonna appears to have co-written almost all of her material from True Blue onwards.

Well, what does "co-write" mean? Ringo Starr supposedly "co-wrote" "Photograph" with George Harrison. Come on, we know who really did the writing there. Did Madonna and Michael Jackson write the lyrics, with someone else writing the melody? Or did Madonna and Michael Jackson write some of the music and some of the lyrics? Did they ever solely write the music? And how do you write the music for a song if you don't play a musical instrument? Do you just sing it, and someone else writes down the notes for you? How the hell did this work?

With someone like Elvis Presley, for example, it's easy. Elvis was not a songwriter. He did not write songs in any way, shape, or form. He relied on other people for songs his entire career (he could, however, play the guitar and the piano quite proficiently). Indeed, there once was a time when popular singers rarely, if ever, composed their own material. Look at Frank Sinatra. Not a songwriter. Then came The Beatles. Suddenly it became de rigeur for singers to also be songwriters. Otherwise you were Joe Cocker.

And yet, dance-pop is one genre of popular music where a premium is not exactly placed on songwriting ability. Whitney Houston and Paula Abdul, for example, did not write their own material. I know, you're crushed. But how many casual '80s pop fans have ever realized that George Michael wrote all of his own material? No one thinks of George Michael as a "songwriter," but there you go. At least no one thinks of him as any more of a songwriter than they do Madonna or Michael Jackson. He was a multi-instrumentalist as well. I've heard he was quite proficient on the penis.

Indeed, what about the "instrument" question? Under the "Background Information" section of Madonna's Wikipedia entry, there is a category called "Instruments" which are listed as "Vocals, guitar, percussion, drums." So Madonna can play guitar? Really? Or can she play guitar in the same sense that I can play guitar? In the section called "Musical Style," there is discussion of her as a "musician" and a "songwriter" with a "gift for hooks," but no mention of any instrumental ability whatsoever.

On his own Wikipedia page, Michael Jackson's "Instruments" are listed as "Vocals, piano, guitar, drums, keyboards." But in the "Musical themes and genres" section, we finally get a decent answer to the songwriting question:
Unlike many artists, Jackson did not write his songs on paper. Instead he would dictate into a sound recorder, and when recording he would sing the lyrics from memory. In most of his songs, such as "Billie Jean", "Who Is It", and "Tabloid Junkie", he would beatbox and imitate the instruments using his voice instead of playing the actual instruments, along with other sounds.
Hmm. So there you have it. I can imitate instruments using my voice as well. Maybe I should be a songwriter too?

Part of the process of becoming an obsessive Beatles fan is studying the ancient lore of "who really wrote what." Sure, any idiot can tell you that all the songs are officially credited to "Lennon/McCartney." But only the true nutjob can tell you that McCartney wrote "I've got to admit it's getting better" and Lennon wrote "It can't get much worse." Ever since my indoctrination into hardcore Beatle fandom, I've been fascinated by the creative process behind the seemingly self-generated hit songs of our time. At some point, somebody had to actually sit down and think, "Gee, can 'holiday' really rhyme with 'celebrate'?" Therefore, in this brief series I will attempt to take a look at Madonna and Michael Jackson as both songwriters and interpreters.

This may ultimately end up being the most informative blog series of all time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nine Inch Nails' "Pretty Hate Machine" (1989)

My first entry in Discography Rediscovered is the album that inspired me to write this series. To begin with, Pretty Hate Machine was pretty much my favorite album growing up as a teenager. It's electronic beats fueled my teenage "no-one-understands-me" years. This album had all a teenager could ask for, anti-establishment messages, angst-ridden rants, longing-for-love ballads, and plenty of pent-up sexual frustration.

Nine Inch Nails (NIN) is basically the stage name for Trent Reznor. The All Music Guide says that Nine Inch Nails (or the lower case 'nine inch nails' as most fans prefer) was the most successful industrial group of all time. Pretty Hate Machine was Reznor's first album. The story goes that Reznor was working as a janitor at a recording studio and would use the space to record the album in his free time. According to Wikipedia Reznor was inspired by Prince, deciding to play almost all the instruments himself (coincidentally Reznor has a brief cameo as one of the bands in the film Purple Rain). After shopping around his creation he signed with TVT Records and went on to release the album.

And boy oh boy, as a (former) long time fan of NIN I will argue with anyone that Pretty Hate Machine is their best album. For a first album it's an amazing bit of work. All of the songs work, their order is impeccable, and the whole thing is short enough that it's easily listened to all the way through and doesn't bore the listener.

Ok, so listening to it now I realize how much the content of the lyrics don't really resonate with me anymore. Trent Reznor has always played the moody, misunderstood, love-scorned teenager to perfection. It's weird to think he was in his early twenties when he wrote this thing because by the time I was that age I was definitely out of my teenage angst phase, but Reznor continued with this shtick at least through 1999's The Fragile, which is the last album of NIN that I gave a real listen to.

That the songs are little angst-ridden pieces for lonely teenagers does not at all however prevent my continued enjoyment of this album. Like I said, every song is crafted so well. Reznor has a remarkable ear for production, each note, each beat, each industrial blast of noise, even the delivery of the lyrics, are all so pitch perfect. This attention to detail would later catch up with Reznor, holding back the release of The Fragile for several years as Reznor was reportedly a utmost perfectionist who would spend hours working just to get one little sound right.

Let's get into the actual music, shall we? Pretty Hate Machine starts off with one of NIN's most enduringly popular songs, Head Like a Hole. This is the song that pretty much gave NIN a following. I'll just quote AMG's review of the song:
Although the song was a ranting diatribe against corporate and commercial greed, "Head Like a Hole" wasn't really a political critique; the song didn't revolve around carefully considered ideas as much as the force and drama with which Reznor expressed himself. His frothing invective against "god money" was delivered with a barely articulate rage -- growling, wailing, snarling, gnashing his teeth -- that made the song into grand theater. Plus, his backing music was immaculately crafted and produced, driven by a deliberate synthesizer bass riff and overlaid with various sound effects and treated guitars.
Yeah, that's basically it. It's an energetic piece that sets the tone for Reznor's style, showing how he takes the sound of industrial and fits it into the familiar verse-chorus song structure of popular music. Though this song is great, I find that I rarely listen to it, instead opting for some of the other, lesser known tracks on the album.

The second track is Terrible Lie, a mid-tempo accusation against a former lover for her 'terrible lie'. I want to stop here for a moment and mention that one thing I've always enjoyed in an album is when it creates a good flow. I especially love when songs flow from one into the other (one reason I love The Wall so much). Reznor is quite good at this - Head Like a Hole basically bleeds into Terrible Lie. This happens several times on this album, and is present even more in his later works. I'm not sure what about it that makes me enjoy it so much, maybe it's the feeling that the album was meant as a deliberate journey, not just a set of unassociated songs. Anyways, Reznor employs this effect well here and it's one of the reasons I enjoy the album as much as I do.

The third track is Down In It, perhaps the most ambitious song on the album. Looking for a late 80's industrial-pop song that utilizes elements of rap? Look no further! I'm not sure what Reznor was thinking, but it's a great little song that somehow uses a rap/rant structure that references nursery rhymes and children's sayings. And I think it's about drug use.

After this the album begins it's gloomy descent into Reznor's (supposedly) tortured psyche. Sanctified is a slow, moody piece with Reznor basically talking about how he feels that he will be, ahem, sanctified when he, uh, gets inside a woman. It works well in the album. After the energy of the first three songs it brings the energy down, setting up the mood for the album's gloomiest piece (which it deftly flows into without a pause).

Something I Can Never Have was the ballad for my teenage self. A slow piano plays as Reznor sings of some love he can never have. Oh man, it's dripping in full-on teenage "no-one-feels-like-me" depression. His delivery is spot on too. And to top it off it his use of the word "fucking" in the final verse made the song so that we couldn't play it in front of our parents or in public, giving the song a certain mystique that required us to be alone when listening to it, further adding to the drama and the depression (back to his delivery: I love how his voice is nearly cracking as he sings the final chorus, brilliant).

Kinda I Want To is one of the album's only weak points, but it works to bring the energy back, which is quite a feat after the previous song.

This is followed by Sin. It's an interesting enough song, but what I like about it is how it demonstrates Reznor's ear for production. I love the placement of all the sounds, especially with the opening and closing 'whooshes'. Plus the single for this song utilized one of the most interesting fonts I've ever seen (it reads 'sin').

I personally enjoy That's What I Get but it's again not the most necessary song and could be excised from the album without too much change.

After all this angsty depression and scorn can Reznor do something with some humor? Yes, yes he can. The Only Time is the album's only piece with a smidgen of humor. I love the opening lines:
I'm drunk and right now I'm so in love with you
And I don't want to think to much about what we should or shouldn't do
Lay my hands on heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars
while the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car
Nothing quite like the feel of something new
I love the lyrics, the little bass guitar, and just the whole vibe of this song.

Finally, the album ends with Ringfinger. As a teenage this was my least favorite song, mainly because we all thought it sounded like disco. As an adult now I have a very different feeling, I really enjoy it and don't think at all that it sounds like disco. I also like how it devolves into a bunch of industrial noise which closes out the album.

I also want to stop and mention another album here. I recently got my hands on a digital copy of Purest Feeling. This is an unofficial NIN album that counts as a bootleg more than anything else. It's a demo version of Pretty Hate Machine and for any fan of NIN I highly recommend it. Not only is it a rough cut of PHM but it contains lyrics and even a pair of songs that never made it on to PHM. It's like discovering that there's an alternate version of your favorite album, complete with new songs, plus it's arguably a bit happier in tone. There's a different order to the songs, some of the staples don't make it (Head Like a Hole), and the audio quality of it sounds like Trent is performing live in front of you in the studio. It also relies heavily on sound samples, most notably from American Graffiti. The song Ringfinger here is called 'Twist' and instead of a song about commitment it's now about S&M bondage. Take a listen to Twist here, and the never released song Maybe Just Once here.

So what I have I rediscovered? Obviously I think the album is still fantastic. It doesn't sound dated and is still easily listenable. My only problem with it is that the lyrics don't speak to me anymore, they're just too dramatic and full of some sort of angst I just don't have anymore. It's a great album for a teenager, better than that Linkin Park those kids nowadays listen to (though if I were a teenager now I'd probably be listening to Linkin Park too). That's it for me this time, I'll (hopefully) be back later. After all, there's a whole closet of albums waiting to be rediscovered.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Discography Rediscovered

Now that my final semester of school is wrapping up and I've got some more time I thought I'd inaugurate my return of leave with a new series. In "Discography Rediscovered" I'll be dipping into my music catalog and highlighting select albums that I used to listen to much more. Some of these albums may have stood the test of time, others might be silly or just plain bad. And be forewarned: Most of my teenage years were spent listening to 90's industrial and alternative rock.

I was taking a listen lately to some albums I used to listen to in high school and was contemplating my teenage-self's musical tastes. One thing I've noticed is that I find most of these albums are still damn good. I'm not sure if that's due to me having liked them previously or if these albums are actually good. Regardless, I'll point out some of my old favorites and see how they fly. First post in the series coming soon!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Social Network (Fincher)

I am not on Facebook. I still have yet to be convinced I ought to join Facebook. But I really liked watching a movie about Facebook. And if anything, The Social Network reaffirmed my opinion of Facebook. Just because David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin decided to make a movie about Facebook doesn't mean that they think Facebook is some amazing internet invention either. In fact, I would wager that they share the same opinion of Facebook as I do. They've made a movie about Facebook that's more interesting than Facebook itself.

I mean what's the big deal? So some guy created a website, and everybody started using it, and he made a ton of money, but what did he do really? Did he really make a difference in this world? Did he make people happier? Did he make himself happier?

Good question. I think he was trying. A lot of people might watch this movie and think, "Wow, that Mark Zuckerberg guy's an asshole; I'm glad I'm not as much of an asshole as he is." Does it make me an asshole if I say I kind of related to him? I mean, I could understand why he thought it was OK to be such an asshole. He wasn't an asshole because he enjoyed it. He was an asshole because he was a talented guy trying to do big things, and he didn't really have the patience to deal with all these not-as-talented people getting in his way. Of course, you can do big things and deal with not-as-talented people and still not be an asshole. But that sort of takes all the fun out of it.

Indeed, I'm not sure who came off well and who came off poorly here. Sure, Zuckerberg was an asshole, but at least he wasn't an elitist, snobby asshole like the Winklevoss twins, or a fast-talking sleazeball asshole like Sean Parker. The character who came off least like an asshole was probably Eduardo Saverin, but aside from putting up some early cash, I'm not exactly sure what he did. In fact, I'm not exactly sure what Mark Zuckerberg did. How was Facebook any more impressive than MySpace, or Hot Or Not? Now Napster I can understand: that was impressive. But maybe a movie about Napster wouldn't have been as interesting. Maybe it would have only starred one guy.

Anyways. What a relief to watch a movie where the characters are all incredibly intelligent and ambitious and the filmmakers aren't expecting John Q. Public to understand every single word they say. As Dana Stevens wrote in her Slate review, "Please stop throwing flaming robot cars at me, then asking for an Oscar. Just give some money to some smart people with something to say and let them make a movie." The Social Network was a box office hit. See, Hollywood? It can be done.

Film critic rating: ****
Little Earl rating: ****

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!

Yes, a baseball post. Although I would like to point out that for the last couple years or so, I've successfully refrained from writing long and involved posts about baseball - and lord knows I've been tempted. But allow me this one indulgence. Actually, this post isn't really going to be very long. Mainly I just wanted to say:

THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!

If you honestly care to read more, I would recommend a terrific Giants blog called McCovey Chronicles. Their main writer, a fellow named Grant, has produced some of the sharpest, funniest writing I've seen anywhere on the internet, sports or otherwise. The fans who post comments all share the same goofy, sarcastic attitude, and I must have spent at least several eons of my life simply reading those long, crazy threads and smiling (their skill with Photoshop alone never ceases to amaze me). It also helps when your local baseball team features players with nicknames such as The Freak, B-Wheezy, Kung-Fu Panda, Huff Daddy, Jazz Hands, and Dirty Sanchez. And no Barry Bonds. I didn't think I could like a team more than I liked the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers. I was wrong.

Rangers in 4.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Rock Formations That Resemble Human Beings

I was reading about New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain (an anthropomorphic rock formation that crumbled several years ago and no longer exists) on Wikipedia when my eye wandered toward a link titled "List of rock formations that resemble human beings." "Well," I said to myself, "clearly I must click on this." It was thus how I discovered Hong Kong's Amah Rock, Scotland's Old Man of Hoy, and Israel's Lot's Wife. The article lists a number of mountains in the United States which are said to "resemble a reclining man." Resemble a reclining man? Can you say "Lame"? At least Massachusetts' Mother Ann is said to "resemble a reclining woman." Much better is Thailand's Ko Samui, "a rock pillar and a nearby cleft that resemble male and female human genitalia." Along those same lines, Oregon's Rooster Rock "resembles erect human male genitalia." Sadly it has not retained its original name of Cock Rock, a term now more commonly used to refer to musical artists such as AC/DC or Guns 'N' Roses. And finally, who can forget The Grand Tetons?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dear God, Not China-Norway Relations!

From Slate:
The Nobel committee has awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer and dissident who's currently serving an 11-year jail term for "inciting the subversion of state power." Liu has spent the past two decades in and out of jail for his opposition to China's authoritarian government, negotiating the peaceful withdrawal of students during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and helping pen a reformist manifesto that most recently landed him behind bars in 2008 ... As of Friday, the prize earned only a brief mention on the English version of Xinhua, China's state news agency: "Awarding Liu Xiaobo Nobel peace prize may harm China-Norway relations, says FM spokesman."
My God! Not China-Norway relations! How will we be able to solve the most pressing issues of our time without a harmonious Chinese-Norwegian alliance? Where is Norway going to get its toys? Where is China going to get its ... Norwegian wood?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I Know Who "Anonymous" Was!

So remember how I was talking about reading that article in Rolling Stone (about Roger Waters' upcoming tour of The Wall) in a store for free? And apparently that makes me a useless prick? Well guess what. I did read that article for free, but not in a store. Oh no. I read it in a library. You ever heard of a library? That's right, I read an article in a library for free, and I'm destroying culture as we know it.

Anyway. In that very same issue of Rolling Stone, there was an article by U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, called "How To Save The Music Industry" (Here's the slightly expanded version from GQ magazine). Ladies and gentlemen, I think I know who "Anonymous" was: U2's manager! He was searching the web, looking for comments about his article, and BOOM!, he stumbled upon Cosmic American Blog and thought he'd give me a piece of his mind.

Well, I don't know what to tell you Mr. McGuinness. You're frustrated. I understand. But I think you're barking up the wrong tree. I'm just a random insignificant blogger.

At any rate, your comments got me thinking. You ask me, "Do you expect to get paid for whatever it is you do for a living?" The irony of this statement may not have been intended. In order to make a living, I need to get paid. It's not actually possible to do something 'for a living' and not receive monetary compensation for it, essentially by definition. But I'm just being a smart-ass here. The question is: do people deserve to 'make a living' as artists?

I'm not sure. In our society we essentially pay people to do the things they would not otherwise want to do. People don't want to ride around in a garbage truck and collect everybody's garbage for fun. So we pay people to do that. People don't want to prepare dead corpses for burial. So we pay people to do that. Creating art is a very fun thing to do. Should we be paying people to do that?

Let's use this blog as an example. Would I like to get paid for writing a blog? Sure. Do I deserve to get paid for writing a blog? Probably not. It depends on what kind of blog. If it was a really good and really popular blog, maybe so. But for me, writing is not a question of money so much as it is a question of time. If I were able to make a living doing something other than writing, and I still had time to do all the writing I wanted to do, and I was able to find a large audience for that writing, then I'm not sure I would have a problem with that. But if society as a whole deemed my writing interesting, but because I had to make my living in another fashion I was not able to find the time to write, then that might be a problem. The question is: how badly would people want to read my writing? If society would suffer as a result of me not being able to write, then somebody with money would have to come along and say, "Hey, Little Earl, here's some money so you can write." Otherwise, who cares?

The title of your article "How To Save The Music Industry" raises an interesting question in itself: does the music industry need "saving"? To ask "how to save the music industry" might be a bit like someone in 1900 asking "how to save the telegraph industry."

Once upon a time, there was no music industry. Then there developed a need for a music industry, because there was a certain amount of technology that was needed in order to make a record, and ordinary people could not afford such equipment on their own. You needed money for a studio, for a recording console, for microphones, and ultimately for the physical pressing of the records themselves. All this is cheap now. Any college kid in his dorm room can record a song onto his computer and turn it into a music file. Should he make money doing it?

See, you've got me all wrong Mr McGuinness. Not that I really care what you think of me, but I definitely take the moral quandaries of downloading seriously. For example, see here, here, and here. Allow me to describe some further examples to you.

I wanted to download a copy of The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, but I realized that if I did so, Stephen Merritt would not receive any of my money and would not receive any of my support, which I felt he deserved. I went to Amoeba and, although there were actually several used copies of 69 Love Songs in the store, I purchased a brand new copy, because I knew that even if I bought a used copy, Merritt would not receive any of the proceeds. The Magnetic Fields were a currently active band that wasn't about to hit platinum status - exactly the kind of band that stands to suffer from free downloading. I paid more than I had to pay in order to make sure they received some monetary compensation. But apparently, I'm a prick.

When the White Stripes released Icky Thump in 2007, I wanted to hear it, but I didn't feel right about simply downloading it for free. Instead, I didn't listen to it at all, and now it's three years later and I still haven't listened to it. Do you see a problem here? Either I listen to the album for free, or I feel so awkward about it that I don't even listen to the album at all. Sure, if you're the White Stripes, you'd rather I listen to the album and pay for it. But if the choice was between your audience listening to the album for free, or your audience not listening to it at all, which would you prefer?

You tell me I'm "stealing." I'll tell you what stealing is. Stealing is walking into a store which sells merchandise and has a cash register. You grab a CD from the store, you stuff it into your jacket and you run past the cash register and out the door. That's stealing. When I download music files from the internet, what am I stealing? Not an actual "thing" like a CD. I'm downloading a low-quality copy of a file from someone else's computer. I'm not saying it's ideal. I would agree that it's similar enough to an actual commercial CD to prevent me from buying the CD copy. But it's not stealing. It's something in between. I don't think I'm "cool" because I do it. My intention is not to "brag." But I do it. I do it because it's over.

It's over people. If you want to make a living by releasing recorded music, it's over. Am I "destroying culture as we know it"? Maybe culture just ebbs and flows and no one is really to blame. Maybe the period of creation is over, but the period of appreciation has begun.

I was chatting with Yoggoth on this topic. We were talking about the original purpose of copyright law. Copyright law was designed to give artists the incentive to create, so that their work would benefit society. Copyright law was not designed for 60-year-old rock stars so that they could continue making money off their 40-year-old recordings. Ultimately copyright law was meant to serve society. He said, "I really don't see how it serves society and encourages creativity to have Bob Dylan making money off recordings that are 40 years old."

Besides, is downloading genuinely preventing musicians from making a living? Yoggoth was skeptical. "If you want to make a living as a musician, you can still tour and you'll be fine. You won't be able to afford a limo and a mansion, but you'll be able to pay the bills." The day a talented musician writes a post on his blog that says, "I'm glad you guys like my music, but I can't afford my instruments, so I'm going to be a substitute teacher now and I'm not going to be able to make music anymore," is the day I might actually be concerned.

Maybe rich rock stars are not something we really need anymore - or even semi-rich rock stars. My point is that we shouldn't try to create a system where a certain group of people make lots of money just because they "used to." It's got to make sense in the here and now. Sure, the internet has destroyed the music industry. It's also destroyed newspapers, the postal service, and a million other industries I can't even name. But it's also created a million other brand new industries. If you're smart and entrepreneurial, you'll figure out a way to make money by providing something that people can't otherwise find for free. The world changes.

Sorry.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

It's About Time, Germany


Germany To Settle Outstanding WWI Debt
- San Francisco Chronicle

Outstanding, Germany. Simply Outstanding.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Interesting Interview with French Writer Michel Houellebecq

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6040/the-art-of-fiction-no-206-michel-houellebecq

Perfect name for a French writer, eh? He's well known in France for his anti-Muslim comments and graphic sex scenes. The interview made me want to read his stuff.

"INTERVIEWER

So what made you write your first novel, Whatever, about a computer
programmer and his sexually frustrated friend?

HOUELLEBECQ

I hadn’t seen any novel make the statement that entering the workforce was like entering the grave. That from then on, nothing happens and you have to pretend to be interested in your work. And, furthermore, that some people have a sex life and others don’t just because some are more attractive than others. I wanted to acknowledge that if people don’t have a sex life, it’s not for some moral reason, it’s just because they’re ugly. Once you’ve said it,
it sounds obvious, but I wanted to say it."

Hippo Licks Croc

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fun With Rolling Stone


Back To The Wall


Sadly, we are only given an excerpt on the website, but soon, in a store near you, I will be reading the rest of this, and not giving Rolling Stone my money:
The former Pink Floyd leader has just ducked his still-gangly six-foot-three-inch frame into a town car for a ride to a midtown Manhattan restaurant, and it is immediately clear that the driver is way too excited to see him. Waters braces himself. "Been a fan all my life, man," says the driver, a baseball-capped, middle-aged dude named Fred, with a broad New York accent. " 'Wish You Were Here' — I was backpacking in Europe when I got turned on to it. I was like, 'This is the best album evvuh!' It must be an unbelievable feeling to know what an impact you made on my generation."

"Normally, we don't know until we get in your car," Waters replies in his crisply British tones, buckling his seat belt. As usual, it's hard to read his chilly blue-gray eyes — color-coordinated these days with his longish, silvery hair and professorial beard — but it seems he's decided to be amused. It helps that Waters just shared an excellent bottle of Montrachet, in celebration of the end of a long workday: After driving into Manhattan this morning from his house in the Hamptons, he endured a biceps, triceps and abdominal core workout ("It nearly kills me, but I need to get a little stronger"), sang scales with the vocal coach who's been helping him reclaim the high notes of his youth, met with a stylist to select stage clothes in various shades of black (rejecting one pair of leather boots as "very Bruce" and another as "too Pete Townshend") and spent hours in a downtown production studio, making minute tweaks to lighting and digital animation.
"The high notes of his youth"? What, you mean "If you don't eat yer meat, you can't have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat"? It must be interesting to wake up in the morning and be Roger Waters. You've made your contribution to the human race and there are no expectations of you contributing any more. You can just sit around and bask in your impact - and money. I'm glad he's doing these Wall shows, but I don't think I'll be attending. However, I would have liked to have been in the audience to see Waters and Gilmour's impromptu appearance at an English fundraiser for Palestinian refugees:
Gilmour and Waters were originally planning to play three songs. But one attendee, British financier Arpad Busson, was so taken with the performance, he donated £50,000 to get them to play "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2." "Some other people were also saying they'd give £200,000 for them to play one more song," Freud adds. "People were crying — really! I know it sounds corny, but it was magic. David and Roger — they looked so happy up there and they made something so beautiful happen."
So, are they like charity whores or something? "Here's another 100,000 pounds - play 'Careful With That Axe, Eugene" - immediately!"

Julian Lennon On His New Photos Of U2, Kate Hudson

Speaking of touchy British rock reconciliations, How about Julian Lennon and Yoko Ono:

Midway through the evening, Yoko Ono, Sean and Julian Lennon themselves emerged into the room for a tour, laughing together and pausing to look at intimate shots of U2...Julian's mother Cynthia Lennon, Patti Boyd, George Harrison’s first wife, and Sid Bernstein, 92, the promoter who first brought the Beatles to the U.S., also came to see the exhibit, Lennon’s first. May Pang, Lennon's girlfriend during his eighteen-month “Lost Weekend” between 1973 to 1975, also attended — making it the first time she, Cynthia Lennon, Yoko Ono, Sean and Julian have all been in the same room together.
Anyone have a knife? Because the tension in this room is so thick, I could cut it with one. All in all, Julian seems like a pretty cool guy, especially considering that the first thing anyone automatically thinks of when they see him is probably, "You're John Lennon's son!" and Julian barely knew his father and didn't really feel that close to him anyway. Recently I listened to some of Julian's music, and it's actually quite good, if you like well-crafted but somewhat lyrically generic Beatlesque pop. Let's say this: he's a better songwriter than Ringo. Here's a really interesting, but non-Rolling Stone interview from last year:
“If Dad was to walk through the door now, we’d hug and cry, and get rid of all that pent-up emotion and anger. I have nothing but love for him now.”

Over the past two decades Julian has himself bought John Lennon memorabilia, much of it to be displayed in the exhibition in Liverpool, which will run until the end of the year. It has been, as he accepts, his way of “re-connecting” with his father. Yet he has had to spend more than £1m of his own money to gain possession. “It is, in a way, horrendous and very sad that this is what I have needed to do. Yet I’m blessed too that I have had the money to be able to do this.”

Julian ‘lost’ his father when he was five at the time of the divorce though he did get back on reasonable terms with him in the mid 1970s when John split from Yoko Ono for a couple of years after meeting May Pang. It was she who encouraged a rapprochment. “Dad and I got on a great deal better than,” recalls Julian. “We had a lot of fun, laughed a lot and had a great time in general when he was with May Pang.” This relationship was initially known as ‘the lost weekend’ though it lasted a good deal longer - 18 months in fact - before John and Yoko Ono were reconciled in 1975. “My memories of that time with Dad and May are very clear - they were the happiest time I can remember with them.”

His relationship with his step-mother is well documented. There has not been a lot of love lost on either side. But now, again with the passing of time, Julian and Yoko Ono are on better terms. He saw her earlier this year in New York for dinner while she was recording her latest album. “But it was no more than a brief dinner with her and Sean.” Sean, of course, is his half-brother, and, like Julian, has carved out a musical career. “The fault with Yoko is as much mine. I unleashed Hell on her. Now I’ve made my peace with her and put the past on the backburner. We talked over things at that dinner. There is no point in further animosity as I’ve had enough of anger. It is a waste of time and energy.” Julian makes it very clear though that his relationship with Sean could not be better even if he was clearly John’s favourite while he was alive. “We’ve got a fabulous friendship. The issue was never with him; it was with Yoko.”

Sacha Baron Cohen To Play Queen's Freddie Mercury


What do you think?

Springsteen Talks Darkness With Ed Norton

Although I may have outgrown my Springsteen phase, I always did like Darkness On The Edge Of Town and for the nice price of nothing, I might actually want to hear this upcoming box set, which includes "21 unused songs from the sessions" and a documentary with concert footage. Although I have to say, the following lyrical samples give me pause:
On the light, rollicking “Gotta Get That Feeling,” Springsteen sings, “Hey girl, won’t you come out tonight?” There’s also “Ain’t Good Enough For You” (“you criticize about me endlessly/Logic defies how you got stuck with me”); “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” which is a romantic ballad with a bit of a ‘50s feel; and “Talk To Me,” about a guy pining for a girl whose “dad won’t ever let me in.”
Oh my God! That girl's dad won't ever let him in! What's a poor working-class Jersey boy to do? This is the future of rock and roll!

The Best Record Stores In The U.S.A.

You guessed it: Amoeba is listed first. But that's probably because the list is in alphabetical order.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The 2010 Midterm Elections - What Were You Expecting?

According to the pundits and the prognosticators and the magical soothsayers, Americans are disappointed with Barack Obama's presidency and want to elect Republicans to Congress again. To which I say, go ahead. And to which I also say, to all sides: what were you expecting?

First of all, to liberals: Did you really think Republicans were going to disappear? I don't know about everybody else, but personally I did not get the sense that Obama's victory in 2008 represented any sort of substantial "shift" in American politics, or in the political preferences of John Q. American. I suspect that "swing voters" were fed up with eight years of Bush and associated the economically prosperous 1990s with Bill Clinton and, by further association, the Democratic party. I've got news for you people. The 1990s are not coming back. There is nothing Barack Obama or Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or Meg Whitman can do to bring them back. I've heard it said that voters are in "an anti-incumbent mood." If voters won't be satisfied until the 1990s return, then I hope they enjoy being in that "anti-incumbent mood," because they're probably going to be in that anti-incumbent mood for the rest of their lives.

Also, to liberals: Did you think Obama was going to magically create a budget surplus, end every armed conflict everywhere in the world, redistribute Wall Street bonuses to orphaned children, and generally pass every single law Democrats have felt like passing for forty years?

Finally, to conservatives: Do you think that massive tax cuts, the implementation of pure laissez-faire capitalism, and the elimination of all government stimulus programs is going to improve the economy and erase the national debt? I have news for you: the national debt will exist the day you die. The national debt will exist as long as the United States of America functions as a sovereign entity. Get used to it. It is not going anywhere. Electing Republicans to Congress is not going to erase the national debt. But if it makes you feel better, you can vote for Republicans if you want to. And yet, didn't we just do that? What makes you think a 2012 government led by Republicans will be any different from the 2000-2006 government led by Republicans?

Republicans often accuse Democrats of being "pie-in-the-sky liberals," but honestly I find conservative ideals more unrealistic. They seem to expect the world to be perfect in some patently shallow sort of way. They expect a world with no debt, no waste, no welfare, no terrorist attacks, no thriving autocratic Middle East dictators - no problems at all. And anything short of such a world is a disgrace and a travesty and an insult to the Founding Fathers. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but such a world will never exist. People have to let go of some superficial notion of the way the world is "supposed to be." And yet woe to the politician who fails to pretend such a world is only a couple of years away. I get the feeling that conservatives would rather live in a world where everybody's miserable but, look! The national debt has finally been eradicated!

On the whole, I must admit that Obama has lived up to my extremely low expectations. Here are some of the things Barack Obama has not done:

1) Been caught in a sleazy sex scandal
2) Started a war of choice with a Middle-Eastern country
3) Made the recession noticeably worse
4) Actively supported racism and homophobia
5) Appointed WASP-y assholes to the Supreme Court

I have no complaints.