Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture," by Jon Savage

Reviewed by Camille Paglia (ugh!) in the New York Times.

Bobby-soxers, the female swing fans with their sporty outfits and dance-ready saddle shoes, screamed en masse for Frank Sinatra and laid the groundwork for gyrating rock ’n’ roll fandom. Swing helped end segregation: not only were swing crowds racially mixed, but large jazz orchestras “integrated a decade before sport or military organizations.”

Savage heralds the arrival, in 1944, of Seventeen, a fashion and pop magazine targeted to high school girls, as a landmark crystalization of teenage identity. Now “teenagers were neither adolescents nor juvenile delinquents,” who had been a social worry for decades. American consumerism, whose expansion Savage disapprovingly follows, had found its perfect partner in the protected, self-absorbed middle-class teenager.

Savage abruptly ends his book in the mid-1940s, alas, with no overview of the teenage fantasia to come...

"Japan cracking US pop culture hegemony"

To be read in conjunction with Ian Condry's book on Japanese hip-hop. From the Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 15, 2008, by Amelia Newcomb. Excerpts follow:

Today, Japan sets the trends in what's cool. Sarah Palin's famous glasses came from a Japanese designer. [Palin, cool???!!! T.S.] Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, with eight of them earning three stars. Even America's favorite food show, "Iron Chef," is a Japanese import. Japanese women are pushing the limits of literary pop culture with blogs and cellphone novels. Japanese comics occupy ever-greater shelf space in bookstores, and animé-influenced movies like the "The Dark Knight" and "Spider-Man 3" find huge audiences in the West.

What all these media share is a nuanced Japanese aesthetic that has infiltrated global sensibilities – a sort of new "soft power" for Japan. In the process, they're challenging delineations of good and evil from the world's main purveyor of pop culture, Hollywood, as well as American ideals of the lone action-hero."The American 20th-century ideal of the individual superhero is wearing thin," says Roland Kelts, professor at the University of Tokyo and author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ann Powers, "Authenticity takes a holiday"

The ever-incisive Ann Powers, writing in the Los Angeles Times. "Pop music notes on the decade: Authenticity takes a holiday."

Of all the aspects of pop that went into fatal mutation mode in recent years, the cult of authenticity was hit perhaps the hardest...

One major one has to do with what we think is most real, most able to embody sincere and powerful emotions...

The most fascinating personalities of this new era would never present themselves as unwashed or genuinely unplugged. They're show people who are able to dance, crack jokes and work all the knobs that power their multimedia extravaganzas. Eminem and Britney Spears, and Kanye West, M.I.A. and OutKast, Rihanna and Lil Wayne: In nearly every niche, millennial artists have shown a marked preference for artifice over raw expression, costume and theatrics over plain presentation and foregrounding the tools they use to make music over pretending that it all comes "naturally"...

As the decade ends, pop grows ever more bent on making inauthenticity ring true...
There are obvious reasons for this abandonment of solid-feeling values -- not just "authenticity" but also "purity" and "rawness." Novelty and sonic shine are primary values in a music business powered by catchy ringtones and downloads instead of albums. Technology also has profoundly changed the way music is made; kids are learning how to play synthesizers before they bother with guitars, and tools like Auto-Tune and Pro Tools have made "natural" sounds passé.

But even as the dire economics of music-making (and, by the way, music journalism) call for a lament,
I celebrate the return of glitter and weirdness and fakery in pop. It's opening up the doors to those who didn't fit more constrictive paradigms of authenticity: more women, more gay and lesbian faces, more multiracial and international voices. In general, it's making for a fuller reflection of life in our fragmented, hyper-accelerated time of struggle...

We've finally all learned the lesson of the disco prophet Sylvester: only by admitting that nothing is straightforward can we feel Mighty Real.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Disney targets boys, $50 billion at stake

"Disney Expert Uses Science to Draw Boy Viewers," by Brookes Barnes, New York Times, April 13, 2009, pp. A1, A 14. Some experts.

Ms. [Kelly] Peña and her team of anthropologists have spent 18 months peering inside the heads of incommunicative boys in search of just that kind of psychological nugget. Disney is relying on her insights to create new entertainment for boys 6 to 14, a group that Disney used to own way back in the days of “Davy Crockett” but that has wandered in the age of more girl-friendly Disney fare like “Hannah Montana”...

Fearful of coming off as too manipulative, youth-centric media companies rarely discuss this kind of field research. Disney is so proud of its new “headquarters for boys,” however, that it has made an exception, offering a rare window onto the emotional hooks that are carefully embedded in children’s entertainment. The effort is as outsize as the potential payoff: boys 6 to 14 account for $50 billion in spending worldwide, according to market researchers...

media companies over all have struggled to figure out the boys’ entertainment market...The guys are trickier to pin down for a host of reasons. They hop more quickly than their female counterparts from sporting activities to television to video games during leisure time. They can also be harder to understand: the cliché that girls are more willing to chitchat about their feelings is often true...

In Ms. Peña’s research boys across markets and cultures described the television aimed at them as “purposeless fun” but expressed a strong desire for a new channel that was “fun with a purpose...

Creating a need or bringing a real need into public view? The Bodygroom

"Buzz Marketing" by Rob Walker, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, August 5, 2007. Excerpts follow:

About a year ago, Philips Norelco began the push to sell a device called the Bodygroom as a product to help men shave areas of the body other than the face. At the time, according to Jim Olstrom, director of the home division of the retail-data collection firm NPD Group, the idea of a product specifically made for below-the-neck shaving barely existed. Today, the Bodygroom is one of at least four products in what’s seen as a distinct and fast-growing category; nearly 250,000 body-hair trimmers have been bought in the United States in the last year...

All of this suggests a problem that no one was aware of before its solution went on sale. But Michelle Schwartz, a Philips Norelco brand manager, maintains that this is not so. She says the company, in the course of research into what was missing from the “grooming portfolio” of the typical male consumer, concluded that “over half the guys we were talking to between the ages of 20 and 50 were doing some body-hair maintenance.” Moreover, they were not happy with their options...

How to puncture this conspiracy of silence? Marketing. Specifically, Philips Norelco’s online campaign involving a video at a Web site called his site, started in May of last year, features a young man in a bathrobe who explains the benefits of using the Bodygroom on the back, underarms and other body parts that are bleeped’s extremely hard to imagine a staid public company like Philips putting a message like this on television. On the Internet, however, it was a huge hit...

Philips Norelco claims that 60 percent of Bodygroom buyers say they learned about the product via and boundary-pushing aside, the strategy has done one of marketing’s traditional jobs, clearly linking a product to a particular use.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Excerpts from, "Who's a Nerd, Anyway?" by Benjamin Nugent, New York Times Sunday Magazine, July 29, 2007.

Nerdiness, [Mary Bucholz] has concluded, is largely a matter of racially tinged behavior...Bucholtz notes that the “hegemonic” “cool white” kids use a limited amount of African-American vernacular English; they may say “blood” in lieu of “friend,” or drop the “g” in “playing.” But the nerds she has interviewed, mostly white kids, punctiliously adhere to Standard English...“hyperwhite” works as a description for nearly everything we intuitively associate with nerds, which is why Hollywood has long traded in jokes that try to capitalize on the emotional dissonance of nerds acting black...Bucholtz sees something to admire here. In declining to appropriate African-American youth culture, thereby “refusing to exercise the racial privilege upon which white youth cultures are founded,” she writes, nerds may even be viewed as “traitors to whiteness.”...On the other hand, the code of conspicuous intellectualism in the nerd cliques Bucholtz observed may shut out “black students who chose not to openly display their abilities.” This is especially disturbing at a time when African-American students can be stigmatized by other African-American students if they’re too obviously diligent about school. Even more problematic, “Nerds’ dismissal of black cultural practices often led them to discount the possibility of friendship with black students”.... If nerdiness, as Bucholtz suggests, can be a rebellion against the cool white kids and their use of black culture, it’s a rebellion with a limited membership.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Brooklyn's MLK concert series

A friend of popculcha sent in this review of the MLK concert series in Brooklyn, Monday, July 27. BK!

“Giving You the Best…”

The Martin Luther King Jr. concert series in Brooklyn’s Wingate Field has taken place every summer for the past 27 years and showcases the biggest names in gospel, soul, R&B, ska and calypso, but as New Yorkers and aficionados across the tri-state area know, these Monday evening concerts are best known for bringing R&B legends and pioneers to this corner of “the BK.” Last night was no exception. Some 12,000 people, many wielding portable chairs and small battery-powered fans, packed the concert field, to see Charlie Wilson of the legendary Gap Band, and Anita Baker, the eight–time Grammy-winning songstress. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Senator Charles Schumer welcomed the crowd (with the latter reminding everyone “I live in Brooklyn, shop in Brooklyn - I breathe Brooklyn! I’m the first senator from Brooklyn in a 140 years!), and then, arms linked with Anita Baker, Mayor Bloomberg came on stage and introduced Charlie Wilson.

The heat and humidity did not slow down or distract from the 56-year old Wilson’s intense performance, as he belted out Gap Band classics (“Early in the Morning” “Outstanding”) and his most recent hits, including “Beautiful” recorded with Pharell, and “There Goes My Lady.” Wilson, who had all but vanished from the music scene since the 1980s, made a dramatic comeback this decade with two solo albums, including Bridging the Gap which produced the hit “Without You” and the more recent “Charlie, Last Name: Wilson.” “Uncle Charlie,” as his friend Snoop Dogg calls him, regaled the crowd: one moment he was doing the “running man” and other lively routines, with his four scantily-clad background dancers (who also doubled as violin players), and then he’d shift into slow jam mode, crooning, writhing, unbuttoning his shirt, drying himself with a towel, in creative renditions of tracks like “Yearning for Your Love” and “Let’s Chill” – a number originally done by the Guy. Midway through the show, Wilson pointed at the sky, and in gratitude for his successful comeback, and his recovery from prostate cancer, gave a stirring, hooping-style tribute to Jesus.

By the time Anita Baker came on the stage, the humidity had lifted, and dusk had settled over the field. As the multi-platinum chanteuse sang her classics (“Sweet Love” “Caught Up in the Rapture”) her voice felt as balmy as the breeze that had now stirred over Brooklyn. She sang “Angel,” in honor of all the children in the audience, some of the youngsters had by now dozed off in their mothers arms. “Mommies, thank you for your bringing your babies. Entire families can come to my shows – aunts, uncles, mothers and kids can come to my concerts. No one will be offended, everyone will be enriched with something lovely.” (Her own teenage son was playing guitar.) Baker concluded the evening with her 1988 single “Giving You the Best,” but cries and cheers brought her back out to perform “Fairy Tale” and another encore – before the elegant songstress bid everyone good night and exited the stage.

It was close to midnight as attendees began filing out of the Wingate field. Donna White, a kindergarden teacher from East New York, looked exhilarated, “I come to these concerts every year, and this show is the greatest. Charlie Wilson is a phenomenal person. I was so moved when he talked about his struggle, his spirituality, where he was and where he is now – that was so inspiring for our youth.” Fati Tanriverde, an exchange student from France, appeared awed, “It’s extraordinary, a free concert of this level of talent – the grande dame of R&B comes to Brooklyn, and I get to see her. What an honor!”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

“How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll”: Elijah Wald

Book review from today's New York Times. Sounds intriguing. Here are some pithy excerpts:

if you’re looking, as Wald’s subtitle has it, for “an alternative history of American popular music” — specifically from the turn of the 20th century to roughly the mid-1970s — you’ve found it...

While Wald never says in so many words that the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll, he does take a stance several degrees removed from standard-issue Beatles worship. He suggests that their ambitious later work, widely hailed as a step forward for rock, instead helped turn it from a triumphantly mongrel dance music that smashed racial barriers into a rhythmically inert art music made mostly by and for white people...

[Wald] has set himself a deceptively simple task: to write about the popular music of the last century by concentrating on what was actually popular, and to figure out why people — not critics or historians but the people who bought the sheet music and the records, listened to the songs on the radio and went to the ­dances — liked it.In doing so he ends up taking aim, for example, at the notion that mainstream pop music in the early 1950s was mired in white-bread mediocrity, as embodied by the likes of Perry Como, until Elvis Presley and company came along to rescue it...

He also makes a case for the importance, and the lasting influence, of artists like Paul Whiteman, a bandleader who was phenomenally successful in the 1920s and ’30s but has rarely received anything more than grudging respect from music historians, and has more often been either attacked or ignored.

In his heyday the appropriately named Whiteman was billed as the King of Jazz, which in artistic terms he clearly wasn’t; Wald acknowledges that his often syrupy music is less interesting than Fletcher Henderson’s or Duke Ellington’s. But he also says that no matter how corny it may sound to contemporary ears, it deserves to be taken seriously — not least because Whiteman’s admirers included, among many others, Henderson and Ellington. (While white musicians have long drawn inspiration from black musicians, he points out, the inspiration has sometimes flowed in the other direction as well.)

And he finds parallels between Whiteman — who commissioned “Rhapsody in Blue” and whose quasi-­symphonic approach was said, in the unfortunate terminology of the time, to have made an honest woman out of jazz — and the Beatles. Whiteman, he explains, took a music that had been seen as rough and uncouth and made it respectable to a wide audience; the Beatles did the same thing with the string-quartet elegance of “Yesterday” and the operatic grandiosity of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Walkman: 30 Years

(Douglas Kirkland/Corbis)

From Dan Barry, in the Sunday New York Times "Week in Review" section, a meditation on the 30th anniversary of the Walkman:

Thirty years ago this month, the Sony Corporation made a huge contribution to human interaction by ensuring there was less of it. No longer would people who did not want to engage the world have to stick fingers in both ears and say, over and over, “La, la, la, I’m not listening!”

Wrong! Or just simplistic, and banal. As the book, Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman (du Gay et al) suggests, the Walkman connected one to the social world, the world of pop music, of youth culture, of mass media.

And just look at the image that accompanies the article (reproduced above). Is this Walkman user really just thumbing her nose at the world?

(Useful classroom exercises for the du Gay volume here.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

How Calypso Made Bermuda a Tourist Destination

Informative obituary of Ray Talbot, calypso musician who performed with the Talbot Brothers.

"In their heyday, the late 1940s and ’50s, the Talbot Brothers were a major attraction at Bermuda’s hotels and clubs and at the private homes of wealthy Americans who were discovering the island. Their popularity is often credited with playing an important role in putting Bermuda on the tourist map. Songs like “Bermuda Buggy Ride” and “Bermuda’s Still Paradise,” with their smooth harmonies and easy, swinging beat, helped establish the islands’ image as a carefree, no-worries leisure destination."

Read on.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wayne Marshall on Kool Herc

A must-read: Wayne Marshall's essay on hip-pioneer Kool Herc.

Here's the full bibliographical information:

Marshall, Wayne. “Kool Herc.” In Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, ed. Mickey Hess, 1-26. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2007).

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"You Just Can't Kill It": The New York Times on Goth Style

Check out this very extensive treatment of the history, and longevity, of Goth style, from the New York Times Thursday Styles section (Nov. 18, '08).

Be sure to check out the slide shows.

Siouxsie Sioux and Diamanda Galas, of course, get their props. But why no mention of Gothic Bellydancers?

A word to those who seek to express their inner gothdom:

“Gothic style should be as opulent, decadent and individual as possible,” Danielle Willis wrote. “If you’re not up to making the effort necessary to carry off this most high maintenance of affectations, try wearing plaid shirts and listening to Nirvana instead.”

(Photo: Daniel Levitt)