Victim in Pain, the debut album by New York’s Agnostic Front, turns 30 this year. At just over 15 minutes, it’s the perfect product of a fraught time and perilous place—an essential document of a Lower East Side that is, for better or worse, unrecognizable today.
At this Sunday’s Academy Awards, Pharrell could become the first musician to win an Oscar for Best Original Song while atop the Billboard charts. The Academy and the People tend to diverge on greatness in music—whose taste is superior? We investigate.
During my first visit to New York City, I emerged from the subway near Lincoln Center—it was staging a John Adams opera—to find the intersection stilled. “Show’s over, folks, nothing to see here,” a police officer barked, waving his arms at dozens of people who disagreed; beyond him, somebody lay unmoving beneath an overturned van.
A block or so farther north, I walked past the musician St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, who’d played up here only days before. I wanted to say “you were great in Toronto last week, Annie!” but a heat wave had begun since then: while she looked chic in a sundress and shades, I was a jorts-impaired apparition, shambling sweaty. So I let her and her friend move on towards another glancing encounter with death. Listening to the new St. Vincent album last week, also called St. Vincent, that afternoon seemed like a fluke example of her taste for jarring dissonance—stylish allure, in this music, being the weapon of choice as often as brute force.
The most dismal charts I’ve seen lately do not represent rising sea levels or multiplying extinctions. Responding to a lazy BuzzFeed post that dismissed the absence of any black artists from the Billboard Hot 100’s summit during 2013—the first time that’s happened in the 55-year history of the singles chart—as a statistical “aberration,” the blogger David Lee looked up data displaying a clear trend. His graphs show that the demographics of a given year’s biggest 20 hits have become ever whiter since 2008, with the share of crossovers from Billboard’s separate Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart (what is primly called “urban radio”) cratering similarly.
Blame the EDM-driven pop dominating this decade: “Radio say ‘speed it up,’ I just go slower,” as Beyoncé taunted. Blame the flawed Billboard methodology itself, which gives entire music videos and viral-meme snippets the same weight in its streaming songs tally. Blame a hundred other unmappable glitches and vagaries of the precarious music industry. Maybe most of all, blame the parallel economic marginalization of African Americans, who have less income to spend on those crucial iTunes sales. Four black women have reached the Top 10 this decade, and that’s counting Whitney Houston, who seems symbolic in the grimmest possible way.
If there had been any doubt about The Beatles’ place in the pantheon—that a too-large portion of the population considers them the greatest band ever—it was dispelled Sunday night. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds became real-time paeans to the televised 50th anniversary celebration of the band’s first Ed Sullivan broadcast, during which artists from several succeeding generations paid obeisance to those four men to whose page in cultural history they can only aspire to be footnotes.
There is, of course, no such thing as the greatest band ever. But to get a glimpse of why so many people think there is, and that The Beatles are it, or that they at least occupy a similarly lofty place alongside other musicians from the same decade or so—a Rushmore on which there’s no more room to carve—let’s take a look at Tom Junod’s latest, in the February issue of Esquire: “Seven Questions for Bob Dylan.” Lord.
In the Oxford American’s most recent Southern Music Issue, Rosanne Cash writes about her father Johnny’s long-time bassist Marshall Grant and his wife Etta:
“The drama, love, schisms, and reconciliations of Dad and Marshall’s relationship were played out for the most part in public, but no one saw the heartbreak of Mom and Etta’s inevitable separation after my parents’ divorce … Etta put a stool in the hall outside her kitchen next to the wall phone so that she could sit and have long conversations with my mother every day. In one conversation Etta recalled my mother saying, in reference to the Carter Family traveling with my dad’s show, ‘Etta, I’m a little concerned about Anita.’ Etta said, ‘Vivian, you ought to be a little more concerned about June.’ Prescient, to say the least.”
A continuous transition between distinct modes of history—the grand narratives that guide traditional rock biography (a singer’s feuds with his sideman; the archetypal romantic duet) and the ones (such as intimate conversation between two women at one remove) that usually don’t—is what gives Cash’s new album The River & The Thread its sense of anti-nostalgia.
Slowdive, a band I’m sure is very good but that I care not a whit about because I am one of those lost and lonely few in 2014 who gives zero damns about shoegaze, is reuniting. You won’t see too much complaining about this online, because a) music writers love shoegaze like it was the dove of Christ newly sprung from their chests, and b) Slowdive might come to your town! And that’s fine: kneejerk dismissal is always a drag, especially when applied in the wholly arbitrary fashion typical of critical groupthink. This quiet acceptance is rare, though. Whether it’s The Eagles or The Police or Blink-182 or even some band that was good at some point, the overarching belief remains: reunions are the product of a morally corrupt nostalgia machine that crushes and gnashes our innocence like the cud of a dystopian mechanized bull. Or something like that.
But what are the specific arguments against bands reuniting, really? The most immediate one is that, except in very rare instances (see: The Pixes … at first, anyway), the band reuniting will not be, objectively speaking, as good as they were during the original run. It’s rock and roll, theoretically a young person’s game, and the reunited band will be much closer to the ends of their lives than when they started. Plus, unless they’re writing new material that somehow encompasses the wisdom that comes with the nagging terror of looming death, they’ll be performing the same callow bullshit they started with, pantomiming youth while looking like soil erosion. This phenomenon is—and I say this in the interest of maintaining the all-important sense of objectivity necessary for discussing arrested developed halfwits hopping around on stage wearing hip-slung basses—pretty bad.
Unlike certain colleagues, I never hated football. The only sport I spent time resenting as a kid was hockey, with its cultural omnipresence that obliged me to strap twenty pounds of plastic and metal onto my body and slide around a rink best known for frequent coyote sightings. The NFL was an American curio, so tactical and protracted that it still seems more fun as a video-game simulation of itself. It didn’t even have a goalkeeper equivalent—so existential, the natural position for us bookish types, since it only requires intermittent effort.
But it doesn’t take much inducement to make me watch a game anyway, whether chicken wings or pop stars. After the embarrassing and career-derailing controversy over Janet Jackson’s infinitesimally visible breast ten years ago, the NFL developed a Grammys-like devotion to middle-aged white rockers. Recently, though, Super Bowl halftime shows have gotten more adventurous again, booking the likes of Beyoncé and Madonna (out-trolled, despite the mass gay panic, by her guest M.I.A.). Bruno Mars was a risky choice for last night’s gig in the sense of simple recognition—he’s only released two albums—but this particular pompadour makes pop hits like an exacting technician.
If the Grammys are good for anything—and this remains an open question—it’s the sociological pleasure of watching today’s pop stars fake-smile, cheer, and side-eye their way through a three-hour ceremony in a room full of their closest frenemies. Thanks to its long-running habit of matching incongruous artists—flamboyant Elton John with noted homophobe Eminem!—the show creates a particularly rich stew of faux-friendliness seasoned with animosity. Macklemore wins best rap album and, in an amazingly self-aggrandizing act of public humility, publishes the apology text he wrote his bud Kendrick Lamar telling him that he was robbed. Taylor Swift dances in her chair, snaps a photo with Lorde, and tweets the results to cement their new BFF-itude: “And you know… We’re on each other’s team. #LORDE #CLEANINGUP #GRAMMYs.”
The feeling at the Grammys was that affability was the way to get ahead, that the best way to rise in the ranks in pop music—as in a newsroom or government bureaucracy or high school—is to make as many friends as possible, network like crazy, then reap the rewards. Acting aggressive, meanwhile, is seen as antisocial, irrational behaviour. Kanye refuses to let Taylor Swift finish and is immediately castigated. Aggressive parties lash out at someone in reaction to a perceived slight, then watch their social standing plummet.
But, in “Aggression, Exclusivity, and Status Attainment in Interpersonal Networks,” a study published in the journal Social Forces, sociologist Robert Faris argues that, contrary to popular opinion, acting like an asshole isn’t a problem in need of a solution—it’s a strategy that can help you clamber into the elite.
Last night’s Grammy Awards ran more than 200 minutes long, and not nearly enough of them involved Beyoncé. After a slinking, dewy performance of “Drunk in Love,” where Jay-Z showed up to clarify “hello, I inspired this song” and saw his dubious guest verse end up as an admiring irrelevance, she retired to front row centre, content to bask in the Internet’s adoration. Imagine being obliged to follow Beyoncé while she regally sips wine several feet away, ignoring your dumb presenter banter about her intricately translucent dress (everybody on Twitter was thirsting like a cartoon skeleton). I don’t wish that fate even on Katy Perry. In the spirit of charity, maybe she should’ve rigged up the music videos with PowerPoint and sung the entire Beyoncé tracklist. We at least needed a few dozen more “surfborts.”
“Drunk in Love” is a song about the evidently considerable joys of a mature relationship, which made it unusual at this ceremony. The Grammys’ predilection for musicians who last tried anything new around 1988 remains unshakeable, but lately, as pop came to dominate the music industry, they’ve been randomly swinging to the other end of the actuarial tables. Because no actually existing human shares the jury members’ collective tastes and sense of history, this shift yielded both Taylor Swift’s Album of the Year trophy and A Tribute to Dubstep Featuring Dave Grohl.
On behalf of, I guess, cultural criticism, I spent last night reviewing old Grammy Awards footage, just like Sontag used to. Although the history of this particular industry spectacle (happening for the 56th time on Sunday) suggests that world events are secretly guided by some dads who’ve really gotten into the Mumfords lately, it’s still an illustrative archive, however skewed. The 1979 ceremony I watched was enlivened by some of the usual surreal juxtapositions: Ragtime pianist Eubie Blake (born in 1887) presented Best New Artist, and, as the official site puts it, “the Grammys managed to do what it always does best—highlight all kinds of music, including Chuck Mangione’s flugelhorn hit ‘Feels So Good.’”
What dominated the night, however, was disco, drawing awards for Donna Summer, A Taste of Honey, Earth, Wind & Fire, and the Bee Gees, whose Album of the Year Saturday Night Fever sat atop the album charts for half of the previous calendar year. Commerce has always been one way to impress unadventurous Grammy voters: a year later, whether to recognize or quarantine, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences introduced a dedicated Best Disco Recording category. Then it never handed out the award again, the sea of potential winners supposedly drying up into hard rock. What happened to American dance music in between two trophies?
With vocalist Shirley Ma’am, every question led to more questions. Where did she come from? And what was that device strapped to her neck?
Chances are, if you’ve heard of Cocksucker Blues, you’ve probably heard about the scenes in which the Rolling Stones and/or their entourage snort cocaine. Or the ones that show people having sex on screen. Or shooting heroin. Or maybe the one where one man aggressively forces women to strip in front of a group of people.
If Robert Frank’s documentary about the band’s 1972 U.S. tour has a reputation, it’s for documenting and exposing the Stones’ debauchery. The film is arguably just as remarkable, however, for how little action actually occurs in many of its scenes.
Last December, as Beyoncé snuck her new album-cum-anthology-film-cum-oracular-monolith into public view with the kind of uniform secrecy that characterizes amphibious invasions, the 22-year-old rapper Angel Haze handed compilers of year-end lists a more spontaneous dilemma. Three months before the scheduled release date of her debut album Dirty Gold, she leaked it all on Soundcloud: “Sorry to Island/Republic Records, but fuck you.” The MC blamed typical label evasions—she’d recorded an LP, they’d promised to release it by the end of the year, but now her fans were unable to hear it for no good reason Island and/or Republic Records could provide. They relented and indifferently shoved Dirty Gold towards stores on December 30. Although managing to finish an album gave Haze another way to torment the poignant revenant that is Azealia Banks’s career, I suspect she’ll come to value rushing it out for other reasons, because I haven’t heard such an unsatisfying record that I basically like in some time.
Last week, Pitbull’s “Timber” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The song, which features Ke$ha singing “It’s going down, I’m yelling timber” over a faux-country harmonica hook, also topped the digital charts, downloaded by 301,000 people. The video of Ke$ha line dancing in a country bar and Pitbull petting sharks, swimming while wearing a suit, standing on a beach near a beautiful woman, and generally just having a good time being Pitbull has been seen over 57 million times on YouTube. “We about to clown. Why?” the Miami rapper asks rhetorically to a crowd of people convinced and utterly delighted by the answer: “‘Cause it’s about to go down!”
The track’s success brings up an important question: why do people listen to this?
I would like to take this opportunity to give young writers some advice in this, the New Year, because I am a great guy. What are my qualifications to give writing advice? Well, I’ve worked Monday happy hour at a number of bars that are no longer open; I have an associate degree that I received from a fake college after flunking out of high school; I have been paid to write about bands for, like, months now, and have a semi-regular column for VICE’s YouTube music channel’s blog, where I started my tenure by getting death threats from punks via Facebook; and at 38, I decided it was time to grow a mustache. Basically, as my tombstone will read, at least I’m not Chuck Klosterman.
Some of this advice will be serious as a heart attack, and some of it will be funny, like Thatcher dying. Which is which shall be determined later, depending on how many Facebook comments I get saying “funny.” Or, stars in my favor, “Funny!” Anything I say that upsets anyone in any way, however, is entirely a joke. That’s my first piece of advice to young writers in 2014: do not, under any circumstances, commit to anything.
We here at Hazlitt take our year-end list-making very seriously. In the interest of showing you just how the consensus-sausage is made, we present our contributors’ complete, unedited ballots.
Dave Van Ronk, the inspiration behind the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, was the king of the Greenwich Village folk scene. That may be why no one’s heard of him.
In April 1974, a left-wing group of Portuguese military officers eased the country’s decrepit Estado Novo dictatorship from power. The coded signal to begin the coup was a radio broadcast of Portugal’s entry in the latest Eurovision Song Contest, “E Depois do Adeus”; as people spontaneously united in the streets of Lisbon, handing carnations to insurgents, their unheard anthem was a flowery ballad about “your empty place, your absence in me.”
This was the most audacious meeting between pop music and political secrecy I could think of until midnight last Thursday, until Beyoncé smuggled out the fourteen songs and seventeen videos also known as Beyoncé.