Straight Outta Respectability Politics: The Wonder and Weirdness of NWA’s Biopic

NWA

For once, the bluster of a movie tagline is actually on-point. The trailer for Straight Outta Compton pegs it as “the movie of our time,” and it’s easy to forget one is watching a film and not the news as director F. Gary Gray unspools a panoply of poverty, racism, and police violence on the big screen. The names Trayvon, Mike, Renisha, and Eric are never far from the viewer’s mind as we see Dr. Dre and Eazy-E face down racist cops in late 1980s LA. This is coming from a viewer who hates biopics—music biopics in particular. Biopics tend to be like sports films and romantic comedies, where the film’s narrative is straightjacketed to a hackneyed sequence of successes and failures that … [Read more...]

Dog Days Classics: Rethinking Wowee Zowee

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Back in 1997, Stephen Malkmus was asked in an interview when it was that Pavement sold out or tried to make their sound more accessible. To the interviewer's surprise, the indie hero said Slanted and Enchanted, the band's celebrated 1992 debut. “We made a bunch of singles before that,” Malkmus recalled. Slanted might seem dissonant and avant-garde in retrospect, he said, “but then I felt it was such a pop album.” Indeed, songs like "Summer Babe" and "Zurich Is Stained" were actually lovely pop nuggets in comparison to the crazy, caustic noise rock that Pavement offered in the very earliest years of their career. To Malkmus, if not to many critics and fans, Slanted was just the first step … [Read more...]

Star Wars: The Han Solo of Wilco Albums?

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The advantage of surprise can overcome a multitude of sins; poor planning, mediocre workmanship, sloppy execution, they can all be forgiven when one is presented with a gift of unexpectedness. Other times a pleasant surprise can be just that: pleasant, enjoyable, and well crafted. Though obviously not the world-altering shot in the dark that was Beyonce’s self-titled 2013 release, Wilco delivered an album that feels as natural as the hot summer breeze it floated in on but remains as memorable as that first music festival you attended in high school. For sure, some observers will scoff. Star Wars is the musical manna of a band in its twilight, they will suggest; the Grateful Dead for aging … [Read more...]

Ghostface Killah: A Critique of Patriarchal Masculinity

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After watching the new documentary Amy, I’ve found myself revisiting the catalog of an artist whose creative work was cut tragically short. Sadly, there’s not a lot there beyond her two albums and a few odds and ends. Perhaps my favorite of her songs is actually the remix of “You Know I’m No Good” featuring Ghostface Killah. To Winehouse’s lyrics about the romantic travails of a bad girl who drinks Tanqueray and luxuriates in “Jamaica and Spain,” Ghostface adds a predictably testosterone-laden counterpoint. He’s the guy whose girl is telling him that he better watch out, because she’s no good. And he has something to say in return. What could have been a lot of macho posturing, though, … [Read more...]

1996: The Year R.E.M. and Pearl Jam Committed Suicide

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The year was 1996—almost 20 years ago, kids—and the alternative revolution was in its dead-ender stage. Kurt Cobain was gone, the Smashing Pumpkins ruled with a cross-breed of Rush and Journey (before it was cool), and the ska and swing revivals were just around the corner. That year, two of the biggest bands of the early 1990s came out with albums that basically killed their careers: R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Pearl Jam’s No Code. Both albums met with mixed reviews from critics. Each earned an unenthusiastic 6 out of 10 rating from SPIN magazine, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi topped both best-of and worst-of lists for the year. Two bands who were at the height of fame—both of … [Read more...]

Musical Fugazi: Politics, Post Punk, and Reevaluating D.C.’s Most Famous Rock Band 25 Years Later

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Last December, amidst one of D.C.’s colder and more snow-filled winters, a symbol of the city’s musical past appeared above one of its most travelled corridors. Over the I-495 Beltway on the CSX railroad bridge between Georgia and Connecticut Avenues, someone had spray painted six glorious uneven letters: “Fugazi.” The band had not played a note in over a decade yet here it stood a rough-hewn testament to their one-time presence. “I find it odd that someone painted ‘Fugazi’ on a railroad bridge in 2014,” wrote John Kelly in the Washington Post, “It’s like painting ‘Clapton is God’ on a London brick wall today. The moment has passed.”[1] To Kelly’s credit, he quickly pointed out that a … [Read more...]

Revolutionary Eruption: The Violent Sound of Magma and Musical Fusion in 1970s France

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What follows is an excerpt from Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities and Pop Music, 1958-1980, the new book by Indiana University Northwest professor (and ToM contributor) Jonathyne Briggs.  It examines the history of popular music in France between the arrival of rock and roll in 1958 and the collapse of the first wave of punk in 1980, as well as the connections between musical genres and concepts of community in French society. During this period, scholars have tended to view the social upheavals associated with postwar reconstruction as part of debates concerning national identity in French culture and politics, a tendency that developed from political figures’ and … [Read more...]

Taylor Swift, 1989, and the Magic of Nostalgic NYC

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In October 2014, Taylor Swift dropped her fifth album, 1989. Less than a month later in November, she performed the first track off 1989, “Welcome to New York.” Letterman guffawed, the crowd gasped, and Swift looked like the seasoned artist she is, confidently belting out the song’s chorus with hand claps and poise galore. Without a doubt, “Welcome to New York,” like many of the songs off the album, nails all the peaks and valleys one would expect from an earworm by Ms. Swift, and it opens with the kind of universal experience that any Midwesterner new to the city can understand. That first trip to the “village,” the crowds of fellow young people all jostling to see and hear what movies and … [Read more...]

The Gonzo Vision of Lana Del Rey

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I do not know for a fact that Lizzy Grant, the canny songwriter behind Lana Del Rey, secretly earned an American Studies degree at SUNY-Geneseo, but all the evidence points in that direction. Lana Del Rey is, of course, the pop ventriloquist act who burst onto the scene in 2012—a ginger-haired gun moll with big hoop earrings, a moody disposition, and a lavish taste for 1960s torch-song atmospherics. Del Rey is a character invented by Grant: a full package of image, attitude, and sound that results in a familiar yet singular image. Indeed, her brand is that of the femme fatale in its most frankly Platonic form. Grant’s bio reads like an uptown-downtown hipster inversion of Jack … [Read more...]

ToM “Besties” of 2014

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Hello there. You are now witnesses to a kind of confrontation between me and these three men. And it ain’t so simple, treasonous crime. No it ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why When Detroit’s Protomartyr released their 2014 album Under Color of Official Right (itself eerily descriptive of public discourse from all sides this year), how could they have known their mix of Wire-like punk dirges would be emblematic of the last 12 months? The year seemed punctuated by rough arguments, sometimes violent confrontations, and the kind of disagreements that as Protomartyr sings, “Ain’t so simple and there’s reasons why.” Yet, our little blog dedicated to engaging these sorts of “conflicts” … [Read more...]

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