Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Final Assignment Abstract: Indie is Not a Genre

This past week the New York Times and The Atlantic reported this has been the first time global music sales rose since the conception of Napster.

Therefore, with the advent of anti-piratacy legislation, improved technology (namely, smart phones), and the subscriptions to streaming sites/applications such as Spotify or Grooveshark, illegally downloading music is becoming obsolete.

Whether it is a Top 40 hit or some underground band from Austin, TX, it has never been so easy to find the music catered to a listener's taste.

This past week the band Fun. received a Grammy for Best New Artist, as the Los Angeles Times reported, the "indie trio" performed their hit "We Are Young." While Fun. releases their music through Fueled By Ramen records, which is a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, they also distribute through Atlantic Records. Both of these enterprises are major labels.

This assignment will be looking at groups dubbed "indie" while distributing music through major conglomerates such as Time Warner.

But what does "Indie" mean?

Indie is short for independent. It takes the "Do-It-Yourself" ethos in marketing and distributing one's own music, while remaining independent from the major record labels domineering an artist's direction. Yet, looking through the bands performing at the 2013 Grammys, when bands such as Fun. under Fueled By Ramen records or the Black Keys under V2 (of Universal Music Group), are dubbed indie but the word takes on a different meaning.

Thus, through the portrayal of indie music in mainstream media (Grammys, selected samples from major publications such as the LATimes) in tandem with the advent of streaming applications, smart technology, and anti-pirate legislation, the label "Indie" is has transformed from a category describing music independent from major record labels to a constructed consumerist genre in order attracts a particular market of young listeners.

This year 2013's "Indie" doesn't mean what it once meant in 2003.

Thank you for reading. And please, feedback, suggestions, and inquiries will be very much appreciated.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seth MacFarlane Hosts the Oscars with the Witlessness of a Family Guy Episode

Commenting on Daniel Day Lewis’ acting prowess in Lincoln, Oscars host Seth MacFarlane delivered with a smug smirk “the only person who got into Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.” And as silence filled the room, he quipped “What? 150 years later and it’s too soon, huh?”

This year’s Oscars was controversial not because of the nominees and of its winners, but because of the television show Family Guy creator MacFarlane spewing the crude jokes of a state school fraternity frat boy. While MacFarlane often pitched the easiest of jokes, it is comforting he could be so politically incorrect on live television; not only in front of the American masses, but also the Hollywood elite.

With the Oscar nominees of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Flight, and Inocente, the year 2012 gave the impression of awareness for racial inequalities. Macfarlane’s tastelessness (“if tonight’s show isn’t gay enough yet”) at least dismissed the illusion of an egalitarian society as America continues to struggle with social distinctions, as seen through the subject matter of these aforementioned films.

The night’s winners weren’t shocking, except when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall tied for Best Editing, as a tie has only happened twice before in 1932 and 1968. Anne Hathaway’s award for Best Supporting Actress was a given, though Christopher Waltz in Django Unchained was a pleasant surprise. Daniel Day Lewis gave a very humbling speech for Best Leading Actor, with giving his final thanks to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

And it was the humility in these select speeches that became the most refreshing moments of the night, in spite of the host’s self-indulgent humor and Quentin Tarantino’s narcissistic acceptance for Best Original Screenplay. The nominees for Best Picture were all great contenders, as director Ben Affleck of Argo sped through his speech in awe and gratitude. Likewise with Ang Lee for Best Directing in Life of Pi.

The live performances overwhelmed the awkward silences when Shirley Bassey sang “Goldfinger” for the 50th year anniversary of the James Bond franchise. Other acts included Adele bending her vocal range with “Skyfall,” and Dream Girls’ Jennifer Hudson stealing the show with “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

During a night of indecent humor, the Best Documentary acceptance speech for Inocente best reminded what the Oscars had forgotten when Sean Fine said “We need to start supporting the arts, because they're dying in our community.”

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Whether it's Dr. Seuss' anti-fascist cartoons, or '60s rock journalism, the most lively sources from the past are from the critics.

The critic's artistic medium takes form in written opinion. Given Oscar Wilde's platonic dialogue in The Critic As Artist, I thoroughly enjoyed the theory of a critic using another artist's work as raw materials in creating a new art; however, I disagree with Wilde when he claimed "It is very much more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it."

Bob Dylan expressed his feelings and thoughts on criticism in a recent Rolling Stone interview,
"I try to get past all that. I have to. When you ask me if I find criticism of my work irrelevant or silly, no, not if it's constructive. If someone could point out here or there where my work could be improved upon, I guess I'd be willing to listen. The people who are obsessed with criticism – it's not honest criticism. They are not the people who I play to anyway."
And then he continued,
"Everything people say about you or me, they are saying about themselves. They're telling about themselves. Ever notice that?"
As a history major I immerse myself within primary texts, and regardless of the time period, I enjoy reading the journalistic articles the most.

I like feeling the bite of words.

So with my breadth of popular press from an expanse of history, here's how I see it: there's an ongoing negotiation between the consumers (readers) and the producers (writers). Let's take the aforementioned Rolling Stone magazine as it emerged out of the haze that was the San Francisco countercultural movement in 1967. These writers held their fingers on the pulse of underground rock 'n' roll. Perhaps best illustrated in a scathing review a Cream concert, Rolling Stone critic Jon Landau dubbed the guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton as "a master of blues cliche." After reading the article, Clapton realized it was the end of this power trio.

Thus the critic must be a trust worthy source for opinion and coverage. If not (according to Gramsci's notion of "compromise equilibrium") the consumers reject a producer's work.

As an aspiring musician and journalist I will embrace criticism because I want to improve. I'll set aside my ego, and I'll take risks because this is the time to grow. Echoing Bob Dylan, I will take careful note of constructive criticism, but I'll be skeptical of peers projecting their anxieties. Playing guitar on a stage can be simultaneously the most liberating and most nerve-wracking experience. Try it sometime. Do at a cabaret, open-mic night. There's nothing to lose.

From my perspective in writing original music and writing criticism, creating art in the moment is much more difficult than to talk about it.

Sure, music critics might end an musician's career with a particular band or coin terms like "sheets of sound" in jazz. They may make an artist's work last longer, seen by Gilbert's example of da Vinci's work in The Critic As Artist. Readers, scholars, and fellow history nerds can look back and say "for these reasons, this is why the Velvet Underground was great."

We covered in class that art is communication. I'll take it further: it is expression when words fail. Can words really capture the sheets of sounds in John Coltrane's solos, or express how a teenager suddenly wants to learn how to play guitar after watching Jimmy Page on TV?

Maybe I, as a critic, am merely projecting. In fact, I'm certain I am. But let's see you shred the guitar, critic. I'll be listening.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Presumptuous Reviewer, Noble Critic

“I was often accused of writing about everything but the movie,” film critic Pauline Kael answered in Afterglow. Although stubbornly opinionated, even presumptuous in her writing, Kael as a critic revealed greater truths of American culture through film reviews.
Popular film was her medium of criticism when she began writing for the sophisticated New Yorker in 1967. She embraced the pop appeal of movies, how energy flows out of them. She noted good directors, such as Altman with Nashville, use pop as a vehicle for art.

The magazine’s editor, William Shawn, noticed the average age of readers significantly lowering after Kael joined. It was her receptiveness that lead to her popularity her as a critic. Kael enjoyed big box office hits such as Jawsthe Matrix, and E.T, yet she dubbed The Sound of Music as “The Sound of Money.”

She criticized Hiroshima Mon Amour, and its reception, that the intellectual audience found “wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism.” Juxtaposed to E.T.,she described the viewing experience with a “lightness of soul.”

Yet her writings has not been met without criticisms. Renata Adler in House Critic denounced Kael’s writing as overbearing, and her mannerisms as overused. Despite attacking Kael for losing vitality after the ‘60s, even Adler emphasized “Whatever else you may think about her work, [...] she certainly does know about movies.”

Kael aimed to write film reviews as accessible and reliable. Kael consciously tried to write the way people talked about a movie when leaving the theater. Ken Tucker’s article on cited Kael saying “the reader is in on my thought processes.”

She did not automatically praise art films because of its moral appeal, and she did not immediately oppose Hollywood films as a commercial product. Likewise, she wrote “I didn’t want to write academic English in an attempt to elevate movies, because I think that actually lowers them.”

Ken Tucker noted Kael asserted her opinion in spite of her editors, “the sort of critical independence Kael maintains is increasingly rare.” Kael wrote acerbic lines of talented actors, such as Paul Schrader in Taxi Driver  liking “the idea of prostituting himself better than he likes making movies.”

It was Kael’s receptiveness paired with her stubbornness that led to her everlasting influence. When a critic takes his or her medium seriously is when the critic is taken seriously.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

New York Times Defense: Afghani Ensemble Visits "Bolero"

On Wednesday Mara and Colin will be covering Anthony Tommasini’s review of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music rendition“Bolero” by Maurice Ravel.
Tommasini is the chief music critic at the New York Times as of 2000, first joining the staff in 1996.
This music critic actually began as a professor at Emerson College in Boston, but after being denied of tenure he pursued music criticism.
We’re going to analyze how Tommasini targets his audience, and how he introduces new vocabulary of traditional Afghani music and its instruments without alienating his readers.
One of the reasons why we’re defending this piece is because of the word choice used to describe the feelings evoked from the foreign instrumentation.
Tommasini describes the unfamiliar sounds of these instruments with familiar comparisons (“Or the sarod, another plucked Afghan instrument [...] could bend the blue-notes of the melody with the yearning of a Billie Holiday”).
We’re also going to explore the use of diction, assonance and consonance, as well as meter (“plucked like a lute to produce a sound both tender and tart”).
Lastly, we’re going to appraise the cultural context Tommasini adds to the review; he draws awareness to social climate of Afghanistan with quotes from Mohammad Asif Nang.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Lambeth Walk: First Video of "Trolling."

While reviewing my notes for my history midterm I distracted myself by glancing over The Atlantic, NYtimes, and Slate. Besides for catching live footage of the State of the Union address, I also checked out the arts section of each publication. Coincidentally a post off of Slate's history blog highlighted the Universal Newsreel edits of Triumph of the Will I was reviewing for my mid-term.

In 1941 this team of British film editors spliced Triumph of the Wil to sync Hitler, his legions of Nazis, and his mass of supporters with the Lambeth Walk. The song featured in the edited clip is from the musical Me and My Girl, and the dance originated from the Cockney subculture.

The Lambeth Walk adapted the American dances such as the foxtrot and the charleston after the popularization of the music genres ragtime, dixie, and then swing. With its "high kicks and broad gestures," as Slate Writer Rebecca Onion wrote, the Lambeth Walk became so widely accepted over other dances in Britain due to its domestic origins.

The greater historical significance of the dance demonstrated that people of all backgrounds and of all regions in England performed the dance, in spite of sectional and class differences. While the Walk originated from working class Londoners, the popularization of it was exemplified when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth performing the dance.

which spoke volumes after the Nazi party denounced the dance in 1939.

The Lambeth Walk was in direct contrast to the Nazi, highly regimented and unified marches, thus the dance is seen by historian Allison Abra as a democratic dance. Unlike the fascist march, no one was forced to dance, yet the Walk became so widespread through England.

Above all, the Universal Newsreel's splicing portrayed the Germans as not an unstoppable force, but a very laughable bunch during the height of the London bombings.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Valuable Insights in a Free Tour: KIA Places New Pieces in an Old Gallery

Colin Smith

Valuable Insights in a Free Tour

After sporting a sticker that read “I’m Stoked,” the tour began with a large lump of clay that resembled the kiln that furnaced it. Featuring works from Goya to Warhol, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) recently updated their downstairs gallery with new pieces. Despite lacking breadth with only covering four pieces the tour made up in depth.

A placard asked “masterpiece or lump of clay?” next to the earthy structure by Peter Voulkos. This artist decided to leave the piece unnamed, but the previous art gallery decided to call it “Yellow Stone Saga.” Echoing abstract expressionism, guide Mike Keenan reminded art can be as much of the process as the product.

The product can also be two blue colored men, looking stiff from rigor mortis, lying down on a heap of gravel. Richard Wilt, a former professor University of Michigan, painted “Sleeping Man & Excavation” in 1950. The characters looked like they were digging their own grave. The work felt three dimensional despite its restrictive medium as Wilt played upon perspective. The left side of the brick floor looked like a wall, and the men didn’t appear to be sleeping. The tour did not explain the piece, only speculated. "It's weird as hell," Keenan heaved.

A black and white photo with marks and numbers of a canvas fence resembled a blue print more than an art piece. Above the pictured hung a topical map outlining where a 24.5 mile long, 18-feet high fence stretched just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The KIA’s relic of Christo’s “Running Fence” did not do justice to portray the size and scope of this project; however, the guide did take the time to amplify the costs and organization of this feat.

The fabric fence held together by steel posts and cables lead from the Pacific ocean across the private property of valley cattle ranchers. This great wall stayed up for 14 days until they took it down without visible trace, assembled and disassembled by volunteers.

While only covering four works, the tour was flexible, informative, and entertaining. A wooden horse constructed out of drift juniper branches shyly looked at the ground as if about to gnaw on grass. No, "that isn’t wood," guide said, and the placard read bronze. Cold metal would be felt if one could touch Deborah Butterfield’s “Hoku.”

When asked if the kiln-shaped sculptor was a masterpiece, Keenan concluded “it’s weird as hell.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Big Trouble in Little Bohemia

Amateur theater productions are best for amateur theater goers.

And I don't mean that pejoratively.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Kalamazoo Civic Theater's adaptation of Sherlock Holmes last Wednesday. Whenever I leave the "K Bubble" I almost always see a band, rarely a film, but never a play.

Thus, if I were to review the Civic's Sherlock Holmes, I would have to do my research. Besides reading up on Sherlock Holmes, as it is one of the missing pieces of my knowledge in Imperial Britain's culture, I would have to read more than just McLeese (including, but not limited to, the NYTimes A&E reviews). As I am an amateur theater goer, if you can even call me that, I would not compare this adaption to other adaptions of Sherlock. I would have to familiarize myself with the Civic Theater--and mention that the productions are primarily powered by volunteers.

I would have to review a theater review differently from a film review, though, as I learned from McLeese, I would still go with my gut.

Yet, despite my lacking theater background I would be extremely perceptive in my analysis of the set design, costumes, dialogue, and acting. As the emphasis in theater is placed on the actor, rather than director, I would pay more attention to whether or not the actors felt convincing.

For one, the off-stage sound should have been much louder. The lighting, on the other hand, mesmerized me, especially in the instances where Sherlock and Dr. Watson would be in the foreground and another character up the stairs, placed in the background. The light was on cue with the dialogue, such as in a scene involving smoke (no spoilers here).

The blocking of Irene was fantastic--and I'm not just trying to get an "A." Her motions were as bold as the character's personality. The actor playing Dr. Watson, Craig Sloan, felt natural. Though his narrative and delivery was slow at times, he linked the audience with the plot while the stage crew adapted the scene. The costumes were convincing, though the accents were not. With that said, I found the actor portraying the henchman with the Cockney accent to be one of the most convincing actors in the production.

Keep in mind: these actors are volunteers, and it's amazing they're putting themselves up on stage just because they want to. Avid fan of Sherlock or a ripe theater goer, the Kalamazoo Civic produced a very entertaining performance.

If I were really reviewing a play I would make sure I've done research, I become familiar with theater vocabulary, I would read more (and pay more attention to) theater reviews in the Times, and I would have expectations.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Letting Out Those Bad Spirits with the 7th Son Blues Band

A large bearded, jovial man picks up a silver cornet and says “so you guys can swing” as he lets out a hefty laugh. The blues band just finished a few numbers, and a guitarist joins the stage with his blonde Stratocaster. Kalamazoo’s oldest blues band, 7th Son, kept Old Dog Tavern’s stage open this past Sunday night to let out any worries or woes. While 7th Son lacked variety, they played the blues with such precision that they sounded fresh with each song.
All six musicians knew the venue and the audience so well that the show felt like a conversation between the performers and the patrons. The singer wore a harmonica-holding belt, and when he wasn’t wailing out solos on the jaw harp he sang from the country-blues image of Willie Nelson. He sustains high note singing “I’m somebody else,” for eight bars.
The guitarist comped by picking close to the neck of his crimson semi-hollow Gibson. One moment he played choppy, Keith Richards chord-riffs, then as he transitioned into a different key he played a visceral solo that echoed the works of Clapton in Derek & the Dominoes. The guitarist and tenor saxophonist drove the band forward, but the bass and keys held them together.
An blue clad man sporting a pork pie hat holds a trumpet from 1905, he says his name is Jiovanni Di Vitto and he wants more jazz. He leaned out letting out a few deliberately timed toots, then he moseyed over beside the upright piano. When the singer hands him the next solo during Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Di Vitto wails out a string of notes like Dizzy Gillespie.
7th Son only played the blues, but they played it with the provocative, soulful delivery of Ray Charles. Their keyboardist and guitarist executed each note with precision. The rhythm section regularly looked at each other, listening to each others’ solos to feel out when the band goes back to the head. While lacking variety, stand-in musicians coming and going between jams made the set more dynamic.
Trumpeter Di Vito talked to the crowed while he cleaned his horn, he said playing music “channels out the bad spirits.” Indeed, the individual musicians played with conviction without compromising common cause of the band. Whether they were playing Ray Charles, a reggae beat, or a funky, rhythmic “Hey, Bo Diddley,” 7th Son kept the blues far from being boring.