Bury the Muse: Let's Stop Denying Women Full Credit For Their Music

Categories: The Upsetter

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Phil Spector and Veronica Bennett
If I had to pick one story in all the history of music to illustrate everything I love and hate about pop, I would choose the one about Veronica Bennett and her one-time partner, Phil Spector.

What's great about Bennett and Spector is the music they made together: "Walking in the Rain," "Why Don't They Let Us Fall in Love?," "(The Best Part of) Breaking Up" -- essentially, every minute of the Ronettes' discography, after the group left its first label and signed to Spector's Philles Records in 1962.

What's awful about Bennett and Spector is everything else: His possessiveness toward her; his threats of violence; his will to dominate her very identity, to an extent where, soon after the Ronettes jumped labels, Bennett took the name "Ronnie Spector," which she is known as today -- almost 40 years after their divorce, and 50 years after their first record together, "Be My Baby."

But from a music journalist's perspective, the worst thing about the Spectors is how the ex-husband's Pygmalion complex has been rewarded by writers. To this day, their creative partnership is commonly characterized as one of artist and muse. Even though, on a Ronettes record, it's her voice and all the emotional intelligence resounding within it that hits us most squarely.

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How Pop Upholds America's Last Taboo

Categories: The Upsetter

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There is the fact of money. And there is the fantasy. In America, we're so steeped in our wish for wealth at all costs that we've made it a virtue to live want-by-want. We've coined a shorthand for it, too. We call it "the American dream." Every pillar of our public life in one way or another upholds the dream. And cracks in the structure are daubed over. Quickly. Sometimes pop music is the plaster; sometimes it's the haste.

The first two singles from Justin Timberlake's album, The 20/20 Experience, show how this is done. "Suit & Tie" seduces us with unadulterated fantasy. We are at a club; we are dressed luxuriously; we are the envy of the crowd: according to the song's lyrics, this panorama is the picture of love.


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When Pop Music Makes Us Feel Less, Not More

Categories: The Upsetter

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Long before it was even possible, people dreamed of listening to records. My favorite figure in this side history of the imagination is Cyrano de Bergerac, who, in 1657, wrote a story where he described a spring-loaded device that faithfully recorded sound. Exactly 200 years later, the first patent for such an invention was issued, to a Parisian named Leon Scott. Though in order for it to work, the "phonoautograph," as Scott called his device, required no raw material that would have been unavailable in de Bergerac's time.

This raises the question: What took us so long? Why did de Bergerac's "talking book" stall in the annals of his daydreams before we let it loose in our world? Why does the history of recorded music go back only 150 years, instead of 350? Why isn't Bach known today as the world's first pop star?

The answers might be tucked into the middle of a long story Bloomberg Businessweek published last week, in which Sam Grobart described a Samsung factory in Gumi, South Korea.


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What Is Pop Music's Value Today?

Categories: The Upsetter

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We are conditioned to think the music business sells music. But this is not true. Or, at least, it's less true than it once was, as recently as 15 years ago, when the industry enjoyed its last year of worldwide growth, thanks in large part to the strength of CD sales and the rarity of file-sharing.

Something happened between 1998 and today. According to a recent report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 2012 saw the first growth for the global music industry in the 21st century. Granted, the bump came at a not-quite robust .3 percent. But the gains were hard-won, all the same. Between the decade-and-a-half separating the last two growth years -- so, throughout the period in pop music history book-ended by Britney Spears and Mumford and Sons; "Hard Knock Life" and "Gangnam Style;" FanMail and Red -- music executives were charged with the task of remaking their business model. And re-model, they did.

What drove last year's relative boom wasn't sales of "Call Me Maybe" or 21. Nor was it the artists themselves so much as the aura that surrounded them. Today, it's this aura the music industry sells.


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When the Goal of Pop Stardom Isn't Fame, But Basic Security

Categories: The Upsetter

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Last Thursday afternoon in Nigeria, a hotly-tipped local hip-hop artist named Olaniyan Damilola was shot at the gates of Lagos State University. His body lay dead well into evening, just off-campus, before police arrived and took it to the morgue. At LASU, Damilola was a finance student. But, as is not uncommon among Nigerian collegians, he was also rumored to be a member of a large gang-like fraternity called Eiye. Eyewitnesses strongly believe Damilola's murder was an act of retaliation by a rival confraternity.


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How a J-Pop Sex Scandal Reflects Our Own Music Culture

Categories: The Upsetter


Late last month, Minami Minegishi, a 20-year-old singer with the Tokyo-based supergroup AKB48, uploaded a video to YouTube. On its surface, Minegishi's video was strikingly different from the hundreds of other videos already published to AKB48's official channel. Rather than depict Minegishi in a stations-of-the-cross variety of upskirt shots, what we see is a stark close-up of her freshly shaved head. She is not wearing make-up. Nor is she flashing the come-hither-and-help-me-with-my-biology-homework look that pervades the other videos.

The optics of Minegishi's video lay things bare, even as her words dance around the issue: Harsh lighting; eyes rubbed raw with tears; legible anguish; shorn hair. This is a very public and painful act of contrition. Minegishi has wronged somebody. But who? And how?


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The Knife Raise Big Questions About Gender, Sexuality, and the Power of Pop Music

Categories: The Upsetter

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In high school, I had a friend, another "Andy," who came out to me and, soon afterwards, came out to our classmates. It was a big deal. And Andy quickly resigned himself to the predictable abuse familiar to gays and lesbians around the world and across time.

The bullying and taunting he endured always struck me as the worst sort of irony. Here was an awful clash. It was his courage versus their fear; it was Andy's strength of nerve against their failure of imagination.

I was reminded of those times last week by an unlikely source: a press release issued to me on behalf of a pop group. I must have received 50 such emails that day. They push concerts, records, late night TV appearances, and the like. But when Swedish duo the Knife teased their upcoming album, Shaking the Habitual, with a song and video called "Full of Fire, " they did so with these words from the video's director, Marit Östberg:


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The New Gangsta Rap's Real Problem

Categories: The Upsetter

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Last week, a 17-year-old Chicagoan named Keith Cozart was sentenced to 60 days in juvenile detention after violating parole. Both his offenses were gun crimes: the first came in 2011, when Cozart pointed a firearm at a police officer; the second came with a video posted online that showed Cozart handling a gun at a firing range.

Cozart is better known to many reading this column as the rapper Chief Keef. Last month, his debut album Finally Rich was issued by Interscope Records. It was an instant hit, selling close to 100,000 copies in its first month. The album is the most widely celebrated example to date of drill, a rap subgenre whose name and mood is taken from the retaliatory culture of Chicago's innercity gang wars.


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What Will Music Be Like in 100 Years? Much the Same As It Is Now

Categories: The Upsetter

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Who's your tip for the top in 2013?

You know what? Nevermind.

Let's you and me help each other out. This is an uncertain time of year for many of us -- the new year. A new start, a new end: a new frame within which to plot and imagine our future. It's a fucking drag, if you ask me -- made no better by prognostications of the coming year in music in every nook and cranny of the music press. So let's try to make the best of it; let's have some fun. Let's learn something a little more useful than who the most hotly tipped bands are for the next twelve months.

Let's leave 2013 to others to play parlor games with. Instead, let's you and me imagine what it will be like to hear music in the year 2113.


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My Three Favorite Sounds of 2012

Categories: The Upsetter

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'Tis the season for year-end lists -- best and worst albums, movies, and political gaffes. You name it, there's a curated list for it. Somewhere online you'll even find a list of the year's most annoying memes, which is a little like the pot calling the kettle desperate for pageviews.

Me? I've always been of three minds about lists. For starters, they're a joy to compile. Though it may be even more fun to adamantly (and often quietly) disagree with another person's tastes.

Then again, as Umberto Eco points out in his 2009 book The Infinity of Lists, our tendency to catalog the things we like is maybe, just maybe, a feeble power play, an attempt to impose order onto chaos.

Then again, so what? Lists are still fun.

So, in line with all the other year-end retreads that publish around this time, I'm naming my three favorite sounds from the past 12 months.


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