For some years now, this humble opinionista has found himself deeply alarmed about the increasing weightlessness of rock and roll. As Elvis Costello pleaded more than 30 years ago: Where are the strong? Who are the trusted? Where is the harmony?
The first flowering of my budding obsession with rock and roll came as July melted into August, 1971. From the back seat of my father’s new Cougar convertible, listening to the radio tuned to then-Top 40 station KRTH, I was suddenly overcome with quiet rage. My then all-time favorite song—the Raiders’ politically courageous (at least to my pre-adolescent ears) single “Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)”—had just been unceremoniously booted out of its #1 slot by the treacly “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?,” from those banal Australian schlockmeisters the Bee Gees.
Someday, someone would pay for this. I had had my first taste of bloodlust.
Flash forward eight years or so, and join my Music Critic Origin Story in situ:
Suffice it to say that from roughly 1979 through the band’s break-up, I was a huge Clash fan. Along with many other true believers, I recognized the band as riding the crest of rock and roll’s fourth (or maybe third) great wave (#1: Elvis; #2: Beatles; #3: Velvet Underground; #4: Pistols/Clash, etc.). Throughout my freshman year at UCLA (1979-80) I commuted from home to Westwood (about 35 miles one-way through L.A.’s worst traffic), playing over and over, on my baby-blue ‘65 VW’s car stereo, a homemade 8-track tape of London Calling.
I had been a passionate rock and roll fan since I was eight or nine, but London Calling revolutionized my sense of music, art and community and turned me into an evangelist. Two years later, the UCLA Daily Bruin ran a pseudo-hip, half-baked dismissal of Sandinista! that pissed me off. Knowing I could have done better, I strode into the Bruin offices and, on the strength of a test review (of the Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat), began, in Thelonious Monk’s words, dancing about architecture. Within a year, I was the paper’s Review editor; by graduation I was at the Bruin more often than I was in class.
After graduation, I shifted from one writing/editing job to another, generally having a fabulous time, and always on the prowl for that elusive fifth (or maybe fourth) wave. Since punk broke, the closest rock and roll has come to producing another true prophet is Kurt Cobain. His core vision, however, was of shared pain, which ultimately proved fatally introspective—an artistic and communal cul-de-sac. This is not to say that the mid-80s marked the death of rock and roll (as some critics fatuously claimed back in the day). The Replacements, Los Lobos, Husker Du, the Blasters, the Minutemen, Elvis Costello, XTC, the Meat Puppets, plus about 849 others (including several dozen women, and it was about damn time), brightened up my days and nights.
But unlike the Clash, none of them wanted to be bigger than the Beatles (who in their day, of course, wanted to be bigger than Elvis [who apparently wanted to be bigger than Dean Martin…]).
In 1991, I started up as the Staff Writer for the MCA Records publicity department and discovered why the phrase “music industry” is two words long. Fortuitously, at MCA (now Universal) I had landed at just the right vantage point to observe what I have come to believe is the single key moment in post-punk rock and roll history: the genesis of niche marketing.
For nearly 40 years, up until the early 90s, the music industry’s major labels had been famously inept at predicting or recognizing the unprecedented potential (artistic, social and monetary) inherent in rock and roll, the most democratic art form ever created. Examples of industry myopia are legion; the most damning is that nearly every major artist or band, from Elvis to Nirvana, was first signed by a small, independent label, only to be acquired later by a major (Dylan is the big exception).
So, one day in the early 90s (let’s say, just for kicks…August 27, 1992), some nervous junior executive at one of the majors held up his or her hand at a meeting and meekly suggested that maybe instead of slicing the promotional pie into just five or six pieces (pop, rock, R&B, country, jazz, maybe gospel), why not make 15, or 20, or 50 slices—each with its own mini-staff of publicists and promoters? Not just R&B, but Urban Contemporary, Dance, Hip-Hop and Quiet Storm. Not just Rock, but Alternative, Hard Rock, Adult Contemporary, Adult Alternative, AOR, DOR. Then, subdivide even further: Grunge, Thrash Metal, Sadcore, Dream Pop, Skate Punk, Electronica. I could go on and on and on.
Out of the mouths of critics, this kind of musical name-dropping can, at its best, represent an enjoyable game of lexicographic one-upmanship. However, from the offices of the quickly consolidating majors (and then there were three…), genre ominously morphed into straitjacket. Thirty years ago, a label was judged by how many gold and platinum records they could hang in their lobby. Now, the labels figured that, rather than blow their annual budget on five or six potential platinums, they could squeeze an equal or greater amount of profit out of 50 or 60 tightly pigeonholed niche-marketing campaigns, each moving 50,000 to 200,000 units apiece.
What in God’s name, you ask, does all this have to do with the Clash, fercryinoutloud?
O.k., here’s where it gets ugly. Back before the Niche Marketing Era (as I’ve tried to identify it), an 11 or 12 year-old aspiring rock star still had the entire universe spread out before her. Thanks to the general haplessness of the music industry, rock and roll still begrudgingly reserved a chair for the uncategorizable dreamers, the obstinate optimists who just might explode into the Next Big Thing. In the mid-90s, however, the newly minted army of niche marketers began insisting to an entire generation of musicians that unless their music matched one of the specific sub-categories that the label was willing to market, the young-’uns might as well stick to driving trucks.
As a profit-making scheme, niche marketing worked smashingly well for the record companies (although, truth be told, the obscene profits of the 1990s were just as likely fueled by plunging CD manufacturing costs). But—-and here’s the truly evil part—after three or four generations of kids have been lectured by record-industry suits that the road to rock and roll immortality lies best within the carefully proscribed boundaries of their given marketing niche, that lie becomes the truth that the future generations of punks and punkettes believe, because it’s the only option they’re given. And if you can’t realize that there exists the possibility to dream beyond genre, to aim higher than you possibly can reach, to change the world for the better, well, you aim lower, dream smaller. And you don’t even know you’re shrinking.
To quote an unidentified picture caption from the Sandinista! press kit: “The Clash made promises they couldn’t keep, kept promises no-one else could have made, resolutely stuck themselves in the firing line with the singleminded courage of lunatics or children, got knocked down, got up, made fools of themselves, dusted themselves off and carried on.”
I’ve been searching for those qualities in a band, and not finding them, for 25 years.
And that’s the way it is. Or is it?
So here’s my challenge to you, dear reader: Whaddya think, punk? Agree? Disagree? Need more information? Am I a prophet or an old fart? (Or maybe a farty old prophet?)
Popular Slam Poet Taylor Mali Plagiarized by Country Songwriters
Editor’s Note: Following our reporting, Taylor Mali was credited as a co-writer on the song discussed in this story.
Poet, voiceover artist and school teacher Taylor Mali is no stranger to having his work used without permission. His most well-known poem, “What Teachers Make,” has been making the rounds as a chain email for the better part of a decade, almost always credited to “Anonymous.” The poem was transformed, without consent or compensation, into a children’s book. And it was cited, without attribution, by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman during a 2003 Yale commencement address.
Friedman eventually acknowledged his mistake, and the book’s author learned of the source material’s origin just in time to have a “based on the poem by…” message added prior to printing. But for Mali, it’s the emails — whose authors sometimes have the audacity to re-write poem — that bother him the most. Written in 1999, “What Teachers Make” has been credited to “Anonymous” despite the fact that there are many easily-accessible video of Mali performing it. There’s one from a 2003 appearance on the award-winning HBO special Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. There’s a YouTube clip with over a million views. There’s even a Ted Talk.
“Five minutes of searching for a phrase or two on Google would reveal I’m the author,” said Mali.
The plagiarism started when Mali published the poem on his website, TaylorMali.com, back in 1999. He said he didn’t include his name with the poem because he assumed the website address made it obvious.
Given how frequently he’s been plagiarized, Mali wasn’t shocked to receive our call about an unattributed use of his work. He was surprised, however, when he learned that the poem had been appropriated and transformed into a song currently being marketed to mainstream country radio — a process that requires the involvement and oversight of many people, from musicians and engineers to publishers and record label executives.
“I Make A Difference,” which is being offered to radio stations by an Atlanta-based company called Evergreen Records, can be streamed on the radio industry website AllAccess.com. A search of the database of Broadcast Music Inc. (a performance rights organization that tracks and collects royalties owed to songwriters and music publishers) lists the song’s writers as Brad Wolf (the artist) and Donald Goodman, who wrote hits such as Alabama’s “Angels Among Us” and Blake Shelton’s “Ol’ Red.”
In general, it’s a violation of U.S. copyright law to adapt an author’s work without their permission. While there are slight differences between the poem and the song, the chorus and second verse of “I Make a Difference” are almost identical to Mali’s “What Teachers Make.”
Wolf, Goodman and Evergreen Records did not respond to requests for comment. However, Robert “Buddy” Resnik, whose Resnik Music Group controls the publishing rights to “I Make A Difference,” said that he was unaware of any similarities between the song and poem.
“You kind of caught me off guard,” he said.
When asked what steps he planned to take since being made aware of the issue, Resnik said that his company is “very honest and open, and committed to doing the right thing.”
In addition to Wolf’s version of “I Make a Difference,” a streaming audio player on Resnik Music Group’s website features versions of the song performed by Linda Davis (known for “Does He Love You,” her Grammy-winning 1993 duet with Reba McEntire) and a duo named Burns & Poe. Neither Davis nor representatives from Burns & Poe responded to our requests to comment for this story.
Resnik said that he doesn’t believe the song has been recorded by any other artists.
While the song has failed to garner any significant radio airplay, it’s available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and elsewhere. Mali is likely entitled to some or all of the royalties generated when people listen to the song on those services.
Mali said that he’s surprised by the lack of research conducted by Wolf and Goodman, and that he will likely issue a “cease and desist” letter to the appropriate parties.
“A part of me is honored that my poem moved someone to set it to music,” he said. “But the rest of me is disappointed that someone claimed my words as their own. I mean, the poem is a tribute to teachers. But you can’t claim to stand for that if you are also plagiarizing the words of a teacher.”
Mali said that if Wolf and Goodman had asked him first, he would have given them permission to adapt the poem — presuming they gave him appropriate credit in return.
Now, he hopes that any attention generated by this story will help him reattach his name to a poem that many people assume was written by no one in particular.
Music Genres 101: Ambient, Chillwave, Witch House and Ambient Folk
Modern music seems so complicated, doesn’t it? There’s a seemingly endless number of names for an endless number of subgenres, and keeping track of them is usually more tiresome than the act of actually listening to the music itself.
But never fear, American Noise readers, because that’s why I’m here. Each week, we’ll examine a different style of music and discuss some of the classifications associated with that style. The goal, of course, is not to memorize every music label ever, but rather to sort through the jargon and appreciate the qualities these genres share and build upon. Whether you’re at a party and need to impress someone with your knowledge of contemporary musical movements, or you’re simply trying to read a music review that seems to be written in its own language, we’ll make sure you’ve got your labeling bases covered.
This week, we’ll focus on ambient music. As a genre, it has the annoying tendency to produce fantastic music with terrible nomenclature. Everything is “post-” something else or has a “-house” or “-wave” tacked on the end. And what does something like “noise-pop” even mean, anyway? Isn’t all pop music a sort of noise?
Categorizing ambient music is like trying to write a novella using refrigerator magnet poetry; you’ve got a limited vocabulary and a never-ending barrage of genre-bending artists releasing new material each week on their Bandcamp pages. How do you categorize music that defies limitations and expectations?
You hyphenate it, that’s how. It’s a known fact that the more hyphens your chosen genre contains, the better your music will be. With that in mind, let’s begin!
Witch House is characterized by unintelligible lyrics, the lowest of lo-fi production values, and thick, plodding tempos that borrow hip-hop beats and slow them down to appropriately melancholy speed. And that’s the problem—there’s a lot of great witch house music being made right now, but it sounds absolutely terrible when you try to describe it. I guess it’s called “witch house” because the music sounds kind of spooky, and witches are spooky, and since the songs were probably recorded in someone’s bedroom, you can call it house.
Frankly, that name sounds more like a Super Mario Brothers level than a musical genre—it’s a-me, Mario, and I’ve got to a-borrow from a-Brian Eno!
Mr. Eno provides a good starting point for examining witch house music; like today’s witchiest house-dwellers, he sought to make music that was more about atmosphere than melody (as found on his seminal 1978 work Music For Airports).
Unfortunately, unlike Brian Eno, today’s witch house artists seem to enjoy being impossible to talk about. I mean that literally—how the heck do you pronounce “oOoOO,” which is the moniker of a popular witch house artist from San Francisco? And try Googling “†‡†,” who recently released a song titled “>>>>▲<<<<.”
Yes, that’s the name of the song. When I play it on iTunes, it looks my computer has been infected with a gibberish virus.
While not all witch house artists have indecipherable names—Zola Jesus, White Ring, and Terminal Twilight, for instance, are straightforwardly named—a good many do. Between the aforementioned artists and other acts like LEEP ∞ OVER and xix, it seems as though the unknowability of human emotion with which witch house music concerns itself translates over to the names these artists give themselves as well.
And this is totally harmless, of course, except for the fact that it runs the risk of coming across as a bit too silly for its own good, a plight that plagued…
…Chillwave. Remember this? Last year saw a host of chillwave artists (Washed Out, Memoryhouse, Neon Indian, Memory Tapes) arrive on the scene, and guys like MillionYoung Toro Y Moi have taken up the genre’s mantle in 2010. Despite the fact that much of this music is very good, however, the term itself, chillwave, has acquired the same unfortunate cachet that now accompanies other genre signifiers like “blog house” and even more general terms like “hipster.” What gives?
Well, for one thing, it comes across as a bit disingenuous to deem yourself “chill.” It’s like bragging about modesty; there’s something a bit disingenuous and maybe even smug about identifying yourself as such. The popular hypothesis states that chillwave grew popular out of the apathy and introversion of the nation’s youth in the face of several wars, a seemingly disappointing Obama presidency, and the economic shitshow that’s marked the past couple of years. In the wake of the tea party’s proliferation and such attempts at counter-programming as Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, however, it’s not quite as “cool” to be “chill.”
Such resignation is now seen as passive. Indeed, the chillwave has crested—and thanks to market saturation, it’s no longer enough to drape one’s pop melodies in drowsy synths and down-by-the-shore sound effects. I’m not saying that chillwave as a genre is necessarily played out, but if you call yourself a “chillwave artist” now, in October of 2010, you’ll face as much derision as you will admiration. I’d like to think that in a way, witch house is a cynical response to chillwave, turning the latter’s quiet rhythmic nostalgia on its head and crucifying it on an upside-down cross.
Plus, you know, the neologism itself is kind of lame. “Chillwave” sounds like something your stoner older cousin might talk about as he pecks at his Casio keyboard and rips bong hits on yet another unemployed Tuesday afternoon. No matter; the music deserves better classification than the current designations can offer, and artists like Washed Out can only benefit from an abandonment of the nomenclature.
Ambient folk music is tricky to determine, because it seems to mean one thing in America and another in Europe. See, across the pond, Norse and/or Slavic mythology—the kind of stuff you’d expect heavy metal bands to scream about—has informed a quietly intense subgenre that’s been deemed “folk.”
Here in the States, however, “ambient folk” has a more countrified connotation. We Yankees consider Finnish artist Islaja, who specializes in folk music of the avant-garde variety, California’s Jesca Hoop and even Devendra Banhart to be the bearers of this particular cross. Think acoustic guitars and wandering, challenging melodies.
Many critics refer to this kind of music as “inaccessible,” but try listening to Islaja’s 2004 debut Meritie. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself immediately engrossed by her Bjork-y meditations and inviting voice. Also, her lyrics are in Finnish, so you may not know what the hell she’s talking about, but it sure is pretty. If you want something a little more English-speaking to enjoy from this genre, might I suggest Grizzly Bear’s 2006 album Yellow House, which is the musical equivalent of antique shopping in Hyrule.
I’ll end this installment of genre tourism with a quick visit to the unclassifiable appendages of this genre. Floridian duo Viernes, Animal Collective member Avey Tare (whose solo debut, Down There, comes out next week), San Diego native Gonjasufi, Flying Lotus, and Aphex Twin occupy different spaces underneath the ambient umbrella. They’re all experimental, to varying degrees—what makes something “ambient” as opposed to simply “electronic” is hard to pin down, but might include an absence of melody and lyrics, nonsensical song and album titles, heavy musical repetition, a near exclusive use of synth instrumentation, and an avoidance of the typical verse/chorus/verse pop song structure.
Basically, music that’s meant to be listened to—as opposed to, say, sung along to in your car or in the shower—may be “ambient.” The genre is more about enveloping the listener in a mood or atmosphere than producing music with memorable hooks and catchy lyrics (though someone like Avey Tare does all of these things).
I won’t pretend that this was anything more than a rudimentary introduction to an intimidatingly broad and ambiguous genre. My hope is to not to shoehorn artists into simple genre categories, but rather to highlight a few of the common ways in which ambient artists operate.
Of course, the best ambient music challenges the listener while at the same inviting him or her to a bizarre yet fulfilling musical landscape culled straight from the artist’s wacky imagination. In other words, your favorite ambient artist may break all these rules and defy categorization. That’s cool. There’s a certain visceral connection one has to ambient music; it’s stuff you feel as much as listen to.
As Zola Jesus assures us on “Night,” “In the end of the night I can feel you breathe. Don’t be afraid, don’t be alarmed; in the end of the night, you’re in my arms.”
Ambient artists won’t lead you too far astray, I promise.
Retro Radio: Revisiting Guns n’ Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident?
I’m an eighties kid. Not as in I was born in the eighties, but as in I was living in the eighties. Madonna was Queen. Michael was King. And the great controversy of our time? The mullet versus the mohawk.
I worked for the now defunct 97 KROY Radio. DJs spun discs, and the long haired rocker boys sold out stadiums. And then the CD came along and changed the world.
I belonged to the school of thought that prophesied the CD as a passing phase. Turns out that I was right—it took years, but Beck released an album on vinyl and the Renaissance began in earnest. Still, even now, nothing sounds better than records that were made to be records; that scratchy, raw quality that is somehow to the ear.
Enter 2010. A typical winter evening in New York City. I didn’t really know what ‘typical winter in New York’ meant, as I’d only been here for two months, but New York proved to be an orgiastic feast for the senses—all of the senses; even ones you didn’t know existed.
One of my first New York purchases was the unlimited Metro Pass. I’d catch random trains, and go to random parts of the city. On this particular evening, I found myself in The Village, a place I had an instant love affair with; a place where the ghosts of Bohemians past still wandered the cobblestone streets, where hand painted storefronts graced the walkways and where Mom & Pops shops still ruled.
It was here I discovered what I believe may be the best vintage vinyl shop in New York—Generation Records on Thompson Street. From the weird to the obscure, the bins runneth over.
And then I spied it—a forgotten treasure, buried deep in the used and abused bin. I fished it out, tattered corners, worn face and fading paint. The first time I bought this album, I paid nearly $15.00. A small fortune for me in 1993.
Seventeen years later, I paid $1.99 plus tax for the same record. I could smell the vintage-ness of the Frisbee-like disc. I handed over $2.08, and The Spaghetti Incident?, was mine again.
The mid-’80s Los Angeles rock scene that gave birth to Guns n’ Roses was a curious thing, neither quite punk scruffy nor given to glam excess and largely populated by hip kids who were too young to remember that Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith had long been completely passé. In retrospect, the original Guns n’ Roses formula seems obvious enough, but no one had ever before successfully crossed the grungy street attitude of the underground Hollywood bands with the polished, riffy sound of the pouf-haired Sunset Strip pop metal bands, and the result was a giant paradigm shift in rock and roll.
But although the tremendous success of G n’ R may have all but erased the few vestiges of the underground rock scene that still existed in Hollywood, a legacy of punk rock continued to thrive, at least as a hip influence: Punk rock codified the underground anti-establishment groove that was now mandatory for any artist harder-edged than Whitney Houston, and rock groups as mainstream as Skid Row and Mötley Crüe now considered it more or less obligatory to include Sex Pistols songs in their sets.
On The Spaghetti Incident?—an album of mostly punky cover versions of drunk rock classics—Guns n’ Roses reasserts its roots in hard-edged Rock & Roll—some punk rock, some not—the way that U2 tried to with Rattle and Hum when the band’s “authenticity” had become suspect.
But in recording half an album’s worth of punk songs, Guns n’ Roses revealed themselves as a glam-rock band, and a good one—as if T. Rex and the Dolls had come out of early punk rather than the other way around.
“Black Leather,” a post-mortem Sex Pistols song written by Steve Jones, sounds better than the original, thanks to more bounce and heartier groove. The tough swagger of Guns n’ Roses on this track may be what the original Pistols aspired to before Malcom McLaren pushed Johnny Rotten on them.
There are quick, goofy versions of the Damned’s “New Rose” and U.K. Subs’ “Down on the Farm,” which Axl delivers with an English accent as contrived as that of any Orange County hardcore singer; there is a loose, sloppy version of Iggy’s “Raw Power” that would be a hit at any Whisky Jam Night.
Punk rock is sometimes best read as a vigorous howl of complaint against one’s own powerlessness, but Axl doesn’t quite connect to the punk-rock material on Spaghetti as anything but a conduit for pure aggression. He can’t even seem to curse right. In his version of Fear’s punk rock chestnut “I Don’t Care About You,” his is not the “fuck you” of Fear’s Lee Ving (the epithet of the misfit yelling at the cop car after it has safely rounded the corner) but the “fuck you!” the tavern bully grunts as he shoves you hard in the chest.
When Chris Cornell sings, “I want to fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you,” in the Sound Garden anthem “Big Dumb Sex,” his voice is filled with longing and desire; Axl, reprising that Sound Garden chorus as a tag to the T. Rex song “Buick Makane,” sounds like a guy reading cue cards on the set of a porno movie.
But the Nazareth anthem “Hair of the Dog” is almost a primo Guns n’ Roses song to begin with, muscular riffing, forged-iron arpeggios, enraged lyrics just built for Axl’s manly scream, exactly the sort of thing Guns n’ Roses is best at—hip wiggle music, ’70s sounding without being explicitly retro—powered by the sort of glam-groove Slash guitar and oddly baroque Matt Sorum drumming that seem merely overwrought elsewhere on the album. “Buick Makane” works the complex riff until it screams.
Punk-rock virtues are most apparent in the Duff-sung version of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” which features irregular arrangements, wavery vocals, even a splash of vulnerability.
It’s also the one song on the album you will probably fast-forward through in the car or skip on the record.
Still, I love The Spaghetti Incident? It takes me back to a simpler time—when gas was still a buck, Beavis and Butthead were controversial and it was only the parking lot of the World Trade Center that got bombed.
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