Monday, December 03, 2007

Facebook & Papua New Guinea?

New York Times, December 2, 2007
Friending, Ancient or Otherwise


THE growing popularity of social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and Second Life has thrust many of us into a new world where we make “friends” with people we barely know, scrawl messages on each other’s walls and project our identities using totem-like visual symbols.

We’re making up the rules as we go. But is this world as new as it seems?

Academic researchers are starting to examine that question by taking an unusual tack: exploring the parallels between online social networks and tribal societies. In the collective patter of profile-surfing, messaging and “friending,” they see the resurgence of ancient patterns of oral communication.

“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”

The growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like “talking” than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that “literature is not remarks”).

“If you examine the Web through the lens of orality, you can’t help but see it everywhere,” says Irwin Chen, a design instructor at Parsons who is developing a new course to explore the emergence of oral culture online. “Orality is participatory, interactive, communal and focused on the present. The Web is all of these things.”

An early student of electronic orality was the Rev. Walter J. Ong, a professor at St. Louis University and student of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term “secondary orality” in 1982 to describe the tendency of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures. The work of Father Ong, who died in 2003, seems especially prescient in light of the social-networking phenomenon. “Oral communication,” as he put it, “unites people in groups.”

In other words, oral culture means more than just talking. There are subtler —and perhaps more important — social dynamics at work.

Michael Wesch, who teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, spent two years living with a tribe in Papua New Guinea, studying how people forge social relationships in a purely oral culture. Now he applies the same ethnographic research methods to the rites and rituals of Facebook users.

“In tribal cultures, your identity is completely wrapped up in the question of how people know you,” he says. “When you look at Facebook, you can see the same pattern at work: people projecting their identities by demonstrating their relationships to each other. You define yourself in terms of who your friends are.”

In tribal societies, people routinely give each other jewelry, weapons and ritual objects to cement their social ties. On Facebook, people accomplish the same thing by trading symbolic sock monkeys, disco balls and hula girls.

“It’s reminiscent of how people exchange gifts in tribal cultures,” says Dr. Strate, whose MySpace page lists his 1,335 “friends” along with his academic credentials and his predilection for “Battlestar Galactica.”

As intriguing as these parallels may be, they only stretch so far. There are big differences between real oral cultures and the virtual kind. In tribal societies, forging social bonds is a matter of survival; on the Internet, far less so. There is presumably no tribal antecedent for popular Facebook rituals like “poking,” virtual sheep-tossing or drunk-dialing your friends.

Then there’s the question of who really counts as a “friend.” In tribal societies, people develop bonds through direct, ongoing face-to-face contact. The Web eliminates that need for physical proximity, enabling people to declare friendships on the basis of otherwise flimsy connections.

“With social networks, there’s a fascination with intimacy because it simulates face-to-face communication,” Dr. Wesch says. “But there’s also this fundamental distance. That distance makes it safe for people to connect through weak ties where they can have the appearance of a connection because it’s safe.”

And while tribal cultures typically engage in highly formalized rituals, social networks seem to encourage a level of casualness and familiarity that would be unthinkable in traditional oral cultures. “Secondary orality has a leveling effect,” Dr. Strate says. “In a primary oral culture, you would probably refer to me as ‘Dr. Strate,’ but on MySpace, everyone calls me ‘Lance.’ ”

As more of us shepherd our social relationships online, will this leveling effect begin to shape the way we relate to each other in the offline world as well? Dr. Wesch, for one, says he worries that the rise of secondary orality may have a paradoxical consequence: “It may be gobbling up what’s left of our real oral culture.”

The more time we spend “talking” online, the less time we spend, well, talking. And as we stretch the definition of a friend to encompass people we may never actually meet, will the strength of our real-world friendships grow diluted as we immerse ourselves in a lattice of hyperlinked “friends”?

Still, the sheer popularity of social networking seems to suggest that for many, these environments strike a deep, perhaps even primal chord. “They fulfill our need to be recognized as human beings, and as members of a community,” Dr. Strate says. “We all want to be told: You exist.”

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Jeff Chang on hip-hop activism

The man always comes correct. From Mother Jones...

"Can rap sell activism as well as it has $150 sneakers, bottle service, and grill work? Can the very people who've made vast fortunes off selling stupid help reform the industry?"

Jeff Chang on M.I.A.

from The Nation...

"If rootlessness is the defining condition of the planet of slums, then what does it mean for art to come home? Kala's answers--like all great "political" art--cannot be any more than provisional. But now, at least, no longer running to or from someone else's utopia, M.I.A. is behind the wheel, switching the lost youth of the Fourth World into the network society, her radio on."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

In Defence of Fashion

I'm starting to feel a bit shallow and ill-read and it's showing--do I only read the New York Times?? Perhaps. In any case, I found this article by the inimitable Guy Trebay quite invaluable.

Some of the main points:

Intellectuals, feminists, "thinking people" love to deride fashion.

The academic uniform "is intended to make you look like you’re not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it." (Anti-fashion fashion.)

"Clothes are ideas...costume serves to billboard the self." (Identity would be impossible to convey without fashion.)

"[T]he appetite for change so essential to fashion is a more culturally dynamic force than is generally imagined."

Fashion is essential to the New York City economy--reason enough not to deride it so cavalierly.

Here's the article in full:

New York Times, September 2, 2007
Admit It. You Love It. It Matters.

DEPENDING on who is doing the talking, fashion is bourgeois, girly, unfeminist, conformist, elitist, frivolous, anti-intellectual and a cultural stepchild barely worth the attention paid to even the most minor arts.

With Fashion Week beginning in New York on Tuesday — the start of a twice-yearly, monthlong cycle of designer presentations on two continents and in four cities that will showcase hundreds of individual designers — it is worth asking why fashion remains the most culturally potent force that everyone loves to deride.

“Everyone” is not here intended to imply the deeply initiated, those pixie-dust people for whom the shape of a dress or the cut of a sleeve is a major event. There is certainly a place for those types, whether they are cuckoos like the late fashion editor Diana Vreeland (who once wrote, “I’m told it’s not in good taste to wear blackamoors anymore, but I think I’ll revive them”), or extravagant mythomaniacs like John Galliano, the Dior designer — who plays a pirate one season, a gypsy the next — or even the young celebrity brand pimps who would probably be offering paparazzi a lot more gratuitous crotch shots if designers didn’t provide them with free clothes.

No, everyone means the rest of us, those who scorn fashion outright and those who don’t but who nevertheless have the uneasy sense that this compelling world of surfaces and self-presentation is unworthy of regard.

“There is this suggestion that fashion is not an art form or a cultural form, but a form of vanity and consumerism,” said Elaine Showalter, the feminist literary critic and a professor emeritus at Princeton. And those, Ms. Showalter added, are dimensions of culture that “intelligent and serious” people are expected to scorn.

Particularly in academia, where bodies are just carts for hauling around brains, the thrill and social play and complex masquerade of fashion is “very much denigrated,” Ms. Showalter said. “The academic uniform has some variations,” she said, “but basically is intended to make you look like you’re not paying attention to fashion, and not vain, and not interested in it, God forbid.”

When Valerie Steele, the director of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, declared an interest at Yale graduate school in pursuing the history of fashion, colleagues were horror-struck. “I was amazed at how much hostility was directed at me,” Ms. Steele said. “The intellectuals thought it was unspeakable, despicable, everything but vain and sinful,” she added. She might as well have joined a satanic cult.

And that, substantially, is how a person still is looked at who happens to mention in serious company an interest in reading, say, Vogue.

“I hate it,” Miuccia Prada once remarked to me about fashion, in a conversation during which we mutually confessed to unease at being compelled by a subject so patently superficial.

“Of course, I love it also,” Ms. Prada added, and her reason said a lot about why fashion is a subject no one should be ashamed to take seriously. “Even when people don’t have anything,” Ms. Prada said, “they have their bodies and their clothes.”

They have their identities, that is, assembled during the profound daily ritual of clothing oneself; they have, as Colette once remarked, their civilizing masks. And yet, despite its potential as a tool for analyzing culture, history, politics and creative expression; as a form of descriptive shorthand used through all of written history (including the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran); as a social delight, fashion is just as often used as a weapon, a club wielded by those who forget that we are saying something about ourselves every time we get dressed — not infrequently things that fail to convey the whole truth.

Why else was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign moved to attack the fashion critic of The Washington Post for attempting to read the candidate’s clothes? The editorial blitz that followed Senator Clinton’s outraged response to some blameless observations about a slight show of cleavage on the Senate floor was instructive, as was Mrs. Clinton’s summoning up of feminist cant about the sexism of focusing on what a woman wears to the exclusion of her ideas.

But clothes are ideas; to use a fashionism — Hello! Scholars like the art historian Anne Hollander have spent decades laying out the way that costume serves to billboard the self. One would have thought that few people understand this truth as well as the woman occasionally known as Hairband Hillary, who, after all, assiduously recast her image from that of demure and wifely second-banana to power-suited policy wonk, dressed to go forth and lead the free world.

Politicians are far from the only people who act as though the concerns of fashion are beneath consideration. When the Italian film legend Michelangelo Antonioni died recently, film critics and obituary writers went into raptures about his classic “L’Avventura,” a movie few people outside of cinema studies classes are likely, at this point, to have seen. Some remarked that the Antonioni of that early film had already begun losing his edge by the time he detoured into films like “Blowup,” whose plot revolves around the fashion world.

Never mind that “L’Avventura” is a sharply stylish movie and that in Antonioni’s hands wardrobe does the work dialogue would for more talk-prone directors. Absent plot, clothes are used by Antonioni to frame the mood of upper-class anomie and to make graphically his distaste for the Italian neorealists, who all seemed to have costumed their movies using the same set of Anna Magnani’s hand-me-downs.

Like most Italians then and now, Antonioni had a sympathy for the role clothes play in human theater. And while “Blowup” is set in a fashion (or “mod”) milieu, it is less about fashion, really, than about an accidentally photographed murder and the instability of what is seen and known. Even 40 years on, the film’s surfaces remain so stylishly assured and so cool they automatically arouse intellectual suspicion. Trusting in appearances, Antonioni always seemed to suggest, may be a losing proposition.

But investing in them, as Ms. Steele said, can be far worse.

“In our deeply Puritan culture, to care about appearance is like trying to be better than you really are, morally wrong,” she said.

It is to be driven by the dictates of desires and not needs. And yet the appetite for change so essential to fashion is a more culturally dynamic force than is generally imagined. Luxury, and not necessity, may be the true mother of invention, as the writer Henry Petroski observed. This proposition is an easier sell when the luxury in question is an iPhone, and not a Balenciaga handbag, but the same principles hold.

In places like Silicon Valley the quest for newer and better stuff results in technology patents, a clear measure of economic robustness. Fashion innovations may be harder to patent or track, but it seems obvious that huge sectors of the New York City economy would churn to a halt if all the Project Runway types suddenly stopped migrating here in the belief that the world could be changed by the sort of innovation inherent in how a garment is cut.

“Fashion is so easy to hate,” said Elizabeth Currid, a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development and the author of “The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City” (Princeton University Press).

“Cultural industries like fashion are sometimes seen as something only the skinny girls in high school think about,” said Ms. Currid — and less often as a fascinating field for cultural study and also the bill-payers keeping thousands of seamstresses, cutters, pattern makers, truckers, real estate brokers and publicity hacks employed.

Analyzing Bureau of Labor statistics, Ms. Currid arrived at the not-altogether-startling conclusion that the densest concentration of fashion designers in the United States is in New York. A glance at the roster of foreign designers showing at New York Fashion Week, Sept. 4 through 12 — Russia, Turkey, India and Brazil are represented — suggests a good reason for that.

“Even if, on some level, fashion is fantasy, the concentration of events that go into producing it and the resulting social spillover,” as Ms. Currid said, can result in a huge cumulative economic advantage for a city. While the seasonal shows in the tents in Bryant Park, with their enforced passivity and aura of feminine spectatorship, lend themselves to derision, enforcing the sense that all those fops and dandies and flibbertigibbets, all the socialite geishas and second-rate celebrities and editorial priestesses are little more than idlers and dupes, big business goes on. Odds are that the same journals whose critics score easy points off fashion are economically propped up by the life-support provided by advertising for dresses and bags and shoes.

One of the most startling findings of her research, Ms. Currid said, was how powerful something as superficial, girly, bourgeois, unfeminist, conformist, elitist and frivolous as fashion can be in creating the intangible allure that attracts money, talent, beauty and enterprise to cities.

“How does one place make itself different from another in a world where there’s a Starbucks on every corner?” she asked. “People have to believe that this is the place to be.” Fashion has that effect.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

‘Originals’ today are yesterday’s same old songs

This article, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on August 23, is a quite original take on the question of "originality" in today's pop songs. Is cyberspace threatening to destroy musical creativity, due to rampant sampling, recycling, versioning and cut'n'mixing?

‘Originals’ today are yesterday’s same old songs


Elton John’s outburst about the Internet’s effect on pop — he suggested that a five-year cyberspace shutdown might be the only way to renew the music’s creativity — was greeted with eye rolling and the general consensus that he should splurge on an iPod. But his consternation is understandable.

The music industry is in tatters; the noise that amateurs once kept to themselves emanates from every corner of cyberspace, and between the money-obsessed mainstream and the hype-addled underground, there’s no agreement on what will endure. For a traditionalist like John, it’s a scary time — old standards are dying fast.

Consider one of the enduring myths of pop: that originality is paramount. This idea always has been pretty much a lie, given the history of music-making as a borrower’s art.

In an essay on the merits of playing copycat published in the February Harper’s, Jonathan Lethem traced the origins of American pop to the “open source” culture of blues and jazz and noted that recording techniques, which allowed for literal duplication of sounds, have steadily enhanced the artful cribbing pop’s innovators employ.

“As examples accumulate,” Lethem writes, “it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production.” (Lethem later reveals that he “stole, warped and cobbled together” his essay, including this idea, which came from the book Owning Culture by Kembrew McLeod. )

Lethem’s point might seem obvious to any sample-chasing hip-hop fan or Dylanologist who has traced the master’s loving thefts over the decades. Yet the idea that a song or a sound can be unique remains potent, especially for musicians.

The financial structure of the music industry, which rewards creativity when it’s copyrighted, has upheld the idea that one person can “own” a song.

ACCUSED Avril Lavigne has been accused of a host of rip-offs, including the chorus of her hit “Girlfriend,” which so closely resembles a 1979 song by the power-pop band the Rubinoos that it has spurred a lawsuit. [You decide!] Lavigne’s former collaborator, Chantal Kreviazuk, subsequently accused her of pilfering ideas (Kreviazuk recanted her accusation after Lavigne threatened to sue her ). And then it surfaced that another new Lavigne song might not be so fresh: The beats and vocal cadence of “I Don’t Have to Try” mirror those Peaches employed in 2003’s “I’m the Kinda.” [Note: check this video and decide for yourself.] One would think a striver such as Lavigne would crumble under this scrutiny, but the very fans who have been tracing her transgressions are beginning to make a case for forgiving her. On YouTube, some videos make the argument that Lavigne is just part of a chain: A new single from High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens sounds uncannily like an older Lavigne hit, and the Rubinoos borrowed their barking chorus from The Rolling Stones in the first place.

The written word is never as convincing as hearing the musical connections themselves, and the huge archive of recordings available online allows for instant comparison. Where once an old blues tune that Bob Dylan borrowed from would be known by only the obsessive few, now anyone can argue about it in voluminous posts on the Expecting Rain (expectingrain. com ) message board.

Hip-hop already had made the patchwork nature of pop obvious years before through the collage technique of sampling. Cyberspace has made everyone a participant in the disc jockey culture of “digging in the crates.” Artists still might want to make music no one has heard before, but they’re forced to admit that even their most creative moments are just part of a long chain.

Even artists who do burst forth with a startling take on pop eventually will find themselves accused of being derivative. Maybe that’s why M.I.A., the British-Sri Lankan polymath who’s as fresh as artists come these days, shouted “This is my song!” as she began “Jimmy,” from her new album, Kala, during a July show in Los Angeles. “Jimmy” is not technically M.I.A.’s song; it’s a cover of a song from a 1983 Bollywood movie Disco Dancer. [check it out on youtube.) M.I.A. can’t pretend she never knew that source — she grew up loving Bollywood music. But her statement of ownership also held an opposite meaning: Past versions be damned; the vigorous new beats and vocals she applies make her “Jimmy’s” rightful owner now.

DISTINCTION MATTERS With the very idea of originality in flux, another trait defines today’s most interesting stars. Distinctiveness is what matters, the ability not to separate from the crowd but to stand out within it. The occasional lawsuit aside, pop stars are now much more willing to wear their influences proudly and make clear how they’re building their music from them.

Pop that aims for distinctiveness acknowledges its influences, tries to do them one better and, at its best, works real transformation. The White Stripes are distinctive because they’re high-concept, putting the blues through an art-school wringer and coming up with a sound that’s so far from “authentic” it finds a different road into truth. Brad Paisley is distinctive because he combines a neo-traditionalist Nashville sound with lyrics that poke gentle fun at contemporary mores. Beyonce is distinctive because her rhythmconscious vocal style updates the approach of the soul divas she emulates.

Some artists seem more beholden to their sources than others; this is where self-awareness comes in. Imitation becomes creative only when it’s acknowledged and truly examined. Amy Winehouse, the young English singer whose work with producer Mark Ronson painstakingly re-creates the feel of 1960 s girl-group soul, offers the most obvious example of how bold imitation can become personal expression.

Sometimes the thrill of the caper gives music that borrows heavily a distinctive ring. Sean Kingston’s debut album is a case in point. The young singer, who was born in Miami and reared in Jamaica, has one of the year’s biggest hits, “Beautiful Girls” — a song that sounds just like a chart-topper by ubiquitous R&B crooner Akon.

In a hip-hop-dominated scene full of mercenary lovers and ghetto businessmen, Kingston projects sweetness. In the end, “Beautiful Girls” isn’t an Akon song, as Kingston is slightly in awe of women. Akon never would sound this vulnerable.

Kingston and producer J. R. Rotem didn’t stop at seizing that Top 40 moment. Like much bubble gum, the CD Sean Kingston has more going on beneath the shiny surface. Mining the rich connections between Caribbean music and hip-hop — and incorporating elements of classic rock, gangsta rap, jazz and vaudeville — the album presents Kingston as a kid roaming through the candy store of popular music.

Best of all is “Got No Shorty,” the song owing the most unexpected debt. Over a hand-clap beat, Kingston sings the melody penned by pioneering black composer Spencer Williams in 1916. It’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” one of the 20th century’s most enduring little ditties.

It would have been easy for Kingston and Rotem to reference David Lee Roth’s post-Van Halen version, which brought it to the attention of rock-era listeners. Instead, they reach back to Bing Crosby, pulling out the horns from his 1941 version with the Woody Herman Band. That move makes another connection: “Hey Ya!,” OutKast’s genre-redefining hip-hop hit, used a similar horn sample.

To music fans who still believe that heroic individualism is the essence of great music, the clever juxtapositions within Kingston’s hits will seem shallow. But they are the ones pop is leaving behind. Originality is dead. Long may creativity flower as it rises from the earth of a million songs and sounds that have come before.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Gossip in NYT, on the True Colors Tour

A nice plug for The Gossip (Beth and Brace are from Searcy, Arkansas) in today's New York Times, in a review of The True Colors Tour concert in NYC. The True Colors Tour features The Dresden Dolls, Erasure, Debby Harry, and Cyndi Lauper as the headliner. It's in support of the Human Rights campaign, a GLBT advocate, and to raise awareness about the Matthew Shepard Foundation and PFLAG.

"For vocal incandescence, though, she couldn’t top Beth Ditto, whose band the Gossip delivered the night’s most unpolished and gripping performance. Backed by the guitarist Brace Paine and the drummer Hannah Billie, Ms. Ditto unleashed a bluesy yowl that sounded even bigger than the room. Their better tunes — like a heat-blasted disco-punk closer, “Standing in the Way of Control” — felt stranded between styles, and better for it."

(The print version, but not the online version, features a photo of Beth.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Women's pop revenge

This syndicated article appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on June 14.

Women singing a vengeful tune


Thursday, June 14, 2007

LITTLE ROCK — Watch out, boys. The new women of pop, rock and country don’t bother with getting mad. They skip to getting even.

Years ago, when female vocalists across genres tapped into lost love or unfaithful men, they usually crooned over broken hearts and the inability to move on. Billie Holiday. Dolly Parton. Trisha Yearwood. Mariah Carey. Even Britney Spears confessed that the loneliness was killing her.

Sure, there were beacons of strength. Nancy Sinatra showed us the purpose of those boots. And Aretha Franklin taught us how to spell “respect.” But, when it came to breakups, there was no lack of women singing about wonderful men who walked out the door, and how they’d never be the same again.

Until now. Music’s new seven-letter word is “revenge.”

Country star and Grammy-winner Carrie Underwood calculates hers in her recent single, “Before He Cheats.” In the video, Underwood digs a key into her unfaithful boyfriend’s truck, slashes the tires, smashes the headlights with a Louisville Slugger and carves her name into the leather seats before declaring: “Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats.”

Think that’s painful? In “Smile,” Britain’s doe-eyed 21-year-old popster Lily Allen sics her friends on her cheating ex. They rough him up in an alley and trash his apartment. When he begs for her back, she spikes his coffee with a substance that - ahem - disrupts his bowels. “At worst I feel bad for a while,” Allen sings, “but then I just smile, I go ahead and smile.”

And then there’s Beyoncé. In “Irreplaceable,” she owns the house. She owns the Jag. And she’s throwing her man out for running around with another woman. She’s not falling apart; rather, she’s self-possessed and rejoicing: “You must not know about me,” Beyonce proclaims. “I could have another you in a minute. Matter of fact he’ll be here in a minute.”

These current chart-toppers are not the first of their kind, says Danyel Smith, editor of Vibe magazine.

The genre, which Smith defines as varying degrees of “revenge fantasy,” started about a decade ago, shortly after the release of Toni Braxton’s hit “Breathe Again.” In the video, a gorgeous Braxton crumbles in a hallway, warning “If you walk right out of my life, God knows I’d surely die.”

In 1995, the year of Braxton’s downer, Alanis Morissette unleashed her fury at a two-timer in “You Oughta Know.” The Dixie Chicks, Erykah Badu and Kelly Clarkson later followed with songs about leaving him behind.

“Now, girls are interested in saying, ‘Hey I love you, but if you hurt me, cheat on me, or break up with me, I’m gonna be all right,’” Smith says. “There’s sadness in breaking up, yes, but I don’t think women are feeling as bad about that anymore. They’re more comfortable showing their anger.”

And the mainstream music industry is more comfortable letting them. It would’ve been a huge risk for a woman, at least in pop music, to sing songs like these 25 years ago, Smith says.

Nancy Einhart, editor of the entertainment Web site, believes that similar female breakup songs have always existed in punk rock and underground circles. They are simply bigger pop hits now, Einhart says, and they tend to focus on relishing freedom.

Nearly a decade after Braxton was losing her breath, Clarkson found hers in 2004’s runaway hit: “Since you been gone, I can breathe for the first time, I’m so moving on, thanks to you, now Iget what I want.”

Einhart believes the songs are a reflection of pop culture and celebrity gossip trends.

“We have a lot of examples of famous women who have ended relationships - Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Mary LouiseParker,” she says. “And the treatment of them in the media hasn’t been negative, but rather, their careers seem to be taking off and they look better than ever.”

It’s also how society - and the songwriters - are viewing women, Einhart says.

While Morissette, Allen and Badu (the anthemic “Tyrone”) write their own songs, a majority of breakup and revenge-fantasy songs are penned by men.

A new wave of young male writers, such as R&B star Ne-Yo, are tapping into the modern, independent woman’s psyche.

“A lot of their mothers were strong and they saw them get left by men, work and raise their kids on their own,” Smith says.

Of Ne-Yo, who wrote Beyoncé’s No. 1 “Irreplaceable,” Smith gushes: “He’s a young, passionate guy who gets it. He grew up in a house full of women. He heard the dirt.” Even superdivas Celine Dion and Whitney Houston have tapped the 24-year-old for songs.

Still, for every breakup song written by a man, there’s one written by a woman, says Andi Zeisler, editor of Bitch magazine, a pop culture ’zine with a feminist twist.

“I don’t even think the amount of songs has changed as much as the tenor has changed,” Zeisler says. “Songs like ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ and ‘You’re So Vain’ were angry songs, but because the form was so pretty and melodic, it didn’t come across [that way].”

In the world of music videos, where images come across loud and clear, tenor’s no longer much of an issue. Especially when it comes to more serious issues, such as spousal abuse. Zeisler recalls the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” the ultimate revenge fantasy, in which Mary Ann helps Wanda kill her abusive husband out of self-defense.

“At least women today aren’t growing up listening to songs like ‘He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),’ and the ’50s idea of standing by the bad boy because that’s who he is,’” Zeisler says.

“They’re definitely growing up with a more empowered sense.”

Style, Pages 35, 37 on 06/14/2007

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Plunge in CD sales: rap down almost 21%

Interesting article by Jeff Archer that appeared today in my paper, originally published in the New York Times on May 28 (available in full here). More info on the decline of the music industry, particularly the big music industry--what used to be the big seven now down to the big four, with Universal Music Group recently purchasing BMG, formerly in the big seven. How can so much concentration be healthy?? What really caught my eye was this, that rap music sale, "which had provided the industry with a lifeboat in recent years, fell far more than the overall market last year with a drop of almost 21 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan." Has the creative juice begun to run out? Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Guitar Heroines

Is rock male-dominated? Are there only guitar heroes and no heroines? Is the guitar phallic?

A recent article, "Guitar Heroes, Make That Heroines, In Indie Rock" by Will Hermes in the New York Times (March 11) makes some interesting observations regarding these points, by way of a discussion of female guitarists Marnie Stern and Kaki King. Here are the most compelling bits:

That [Marnie Stern's] now a woman who ''shreds'' -- the verb for super-fast, heavy metal-esque guitar playing -- doesn't strike her as unusual, even though many still see rock guitar playing as an expression of male sexuality, and the guitar itself as phallic prop (as illustrated recently by the brouhaha over Prince's Super Bowl halftime performance, which involved a guitar solo performed in silhouette behind a sheet some thought suggested the act of masturbation -- more so than usual, anyway). ''I'm conscious that I'm a woman playing the electric guitar relatively well, and that it's not that common,'' Ms. Stern said. ''But -- and this maybe sounds really cheesy -- there's the personal relationship I have with the guitar which doesn't have to do with gender or anything like that. It's the thing that produces a creative side in me. I just see it in a totally separate way.''

Kaki King, 27 -- the sole woman featured in last month's Rolling Stone cover story on the ''New Guitar Gods'' -- sees the question somewhat differently. ''I've always thought of the curves of a guitar as so feminine,'' she said in a telephone interview from her apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. ''Yeah, it's always been a phallic symbol. But if you look at any classic-shaped guitar -- a Les Paul, a Spanish classical guitar -- they all have these womanly curves. So maybe the guitar is more androgynous than we think.''

My favorite guitar heroines are PJ Harvey and Carrie Brownstein & Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Peaches & Yoko Ono: "Kiss Kiss Kiss"

Peaches and Yoko Ono: a dream team! Listen to the single here. This track is from Yoko's new album, Yes I'm A Witch, which includes remixes of Yoko songs by the likes ofjavascript:void(0) Le Tigre, Hank Shocklee, The Flaming Lips and Cat Power.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lakshmi Chaudhry on "Micro-Celebrity"

From The Nation, on how, increasingly, "everyone wants to be a star"--how, "thanks to MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, LiveJournal and other bastions of the retooled Web 2.0, every Jane, Joe or Jamila can indeed be a star."

Pertinent quotes:
A 2000 Interprise poll revealed that 50 percent of kids under 12 believe that becoming famous is part of the American Dream. It's a dream increasingly shared by the rest of the world, as revealed in a recent survey of British children between 5 and 10, who most frequently picked being famous as the "very best thing in the world." The views of these young children are no different from American college freshmen, who, according to a 2004 survey, most want to be an "actor or entertainer."

In the 1950s, only 12 percent of teenagers between 12 and 14 agreed with the statement, "I am an important person." By the late 1980s, the number had reached an astounding 80 percent, an upward trajectory that shows no sign of reversing. Preliminary findings from a joint study conducted by Jean Twenge, Keith Campbell and three other researchers revealed that an average college student in 2006 scored higher than 65 percent of the students in 1987 on the standard Narcissism Personality Inventory test, which includes statements such as "I am a special person," "I find it easy to manipulate people" and "If I were on the Titanic, I would deserve to be on the first lifeboat."

A Harris poll conducted in 2000 found that 44 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 believed it was at least somewhat likely that they would be famous for a short period. Those in their late twenties were even more optimistic: Six in ten expected that they would be well-known, if only briefly, sometime in their lives.

Jeff Chang on Jay-Z in The Nation

A very incisive piece by Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the zentronix blog, on the career trajectory of Jay-Z, Jay-Hova--"his transformation from street hustler to high-end brand name" and how he helped found "what advertisers now call the 'urban aspirational' market." At its origins, Chang notes, it appeared to many that rap was the new counterculture--although rappers were pretty clear about it being also, or maybe mostly, business. By now, it's big, big bizness. Now, he observes,
"Corporate media's massive economies of scale favor a drastically limited scope of rap archetypes that, not coincidentally, traffic primarily in stereotypes of black sexuality and criminality. Labels make fewer signings, so there are fewer "types" to represent. Furthermore, those signings tend to fill old boxes: the party girl in furs and stiletto heels, the gunslinger at odds with rivals and cops, the crack dealer on the corner."

Within these constraints, says Chang, maybe the "crack rappers" like the Clipse, T.I., and Young Jeezy are the new counterculture:
"This music, which is being pushed by global corporate conglomerates, sells a myth of street life that makes crack production a metaphor for the new economy.

Amid war, post-Katrina unrest and, especially, expanding joblessness, the small-time hustlers of crack rap provide a strange kind of comfort. In a "free-agent nation" where fortysomethings routinely find themselves pink-slip obsolescent and twentysomethings are encouraged to prepare themselves for an insecure occupational future by becoming their own brands, perhaps crack rappers--whose desire for the good life is matched by the insecure certainty of the kitchen-and-corner struggle--have become the new countercultural heroes. Of course, this counterculture too comes with its illusions...The tragedies of crack rap are the stories never told, the fallen bodies never counted."

On the other side of the new economy, Jay-Z's partner Beyoncé shills for Walmart.

The Gossip diss Scissor Sisters; chart in UK

This item is copyrighted by Jonty Scruff, 19 January 2007 Skrufff-E #293

The Gossip's Malicious Gossip

Fast rising electro-rock star Beth Ditto tore into US popsters the Scissor Sisters this week, telling Mixmag touring with the band was 'a really soul-sucking experience.'

"It wasn't gigs, it was 'concerts', you know like when you're nine and New Kids On The Block come to town and you camp outside the mall all day to get your ticket," she complained. "The audience were moms wanting chart hits. They've never seen a John Waters movie or heard the Ramones."

Her comments appeared as The Gossip's UK label Back Yard announced that they're re-releasing Standing In The Way of Control in March, after the (excellent) Soulwax mix was broadcast relentlessly on Channel 4, when it was used on a trailer for new TV series Skins. The track previously reached the Top 40 in November though is now expected to chart highly, almost certainly selling to the same 'moms wanting chart hits' who like the Scissor Sisters.

It's also worth checking out The Gossip on myspace, where they describe themselves as punk/soul/experimental, and write, among other things, "We are interested in art, crime, politics, food, change, the underground, dancing, fashion, subversive individuals and movements. We will nvr die + we will nvr diet...we are still not interested in credit in the straight world."

But if they place high in the UK top 40?