Tag Archives: pop music

Why the “Black Grateful Dead” Thrives Outside of Top 40 Radio

Frankie Beverly from Maze performs in Chicago in 1986. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

For the Undefeated, music writer and essayist Bruce Britt offers a compelling history of soul band Maze, featuring Frankie Beverly, whose ebullient hits like “Before I Let Go,” “Joy and Pain,” and “Happy Feelin’s” have been mainstays of black American social gatherings for nearly half a century. Deeply entrenched racial divisions in the music industry have allowed Maze to become one of American music’s best kept secrets.

Betty Shaw experienced Maze’s engrossing stagecraft firsthand. She was 25 when she first saw the band in 1978. At the time, Shaw was a recently separated mother of three with dim employment prospects and a deeply troubled mind. One day, she took her sister up on an invitation to attend the Kool Jazz Festival in Milwaukee. There, during Maze’s performance of “Happy Feelin’s,” Shaw had an epiphany. “It was such an experience,” she recalled. “I had never even heard ‘Happy Feelin’s’ … but the way Frankie presented the song, it was giving you the feeling like everything is going to be all right. The song says, ‘I’ve got myself to remind me of love,’ and since I have this love in me, I’m not going to give up on life. It was like a turning point in my mind.”

With Maze winning converts on the road and Arnold converting the nation’s programming directors, the stage was set for Maze to become a crossover breakthrough. Yet, despite all the hard work, debut album sales stalled at around 600,000 copies. It was an impressive showing by ’70s industry standards but far from the million-plus units that Arnold had envisioned. He believes Capitol didn’t try hard enough to help the album realize its tremendous sales potential.

“I had a lot of fights with my pop promotion department because they would never expose the album to white FM,” Arnold said. “That first time I saw Maze at the Fillmore West, the whole audience was white. I know if white people were exposed to Maze, they’d like it, but the belief at the time was, ‘Well, white people really don’t want to listen to black music.’ And I’m saying, ‘Look — it’s not just ‘black’ music!’ ”

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The Broken Pop of James Bond Songs

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Adrian Daub & Charles Kronengold | Longreads | October 2015 | 12 minutes (3049 words)

Our latest Exclusive is by Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold, who recently co-authored The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism (Oxford University Press), a cultural history of the Bond-song canon.

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James Bond fans will remember Madonna’s 2002 “Die Another Day” as the only Bond song to embrace the sound of techno. And they recall it with little fondness. For them, and most critics, the song was insufficiently “pop”: it sounded flat, too synthetic, repetitious, not hooky enough. And lovers of dance music felt it was too pop, too commercial, too voice-heavy. None of these parties thought Madonna was the right person for the job.
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Chuck Klosterman on the Success of Taylor Swift, and the Word ‘Calculating’

If you don’t take Swift seriously, you don’t take contemporary music seriously. With the (arguable) exceptions of Kanye West and Beyoncé Knowles, she is the most significant pop artist of the modern age. The scale of her commercial supremacy defies parallel—she’s sold 1 million albums in a week three times, during an era when most major artists are thrilled to move 500,000 albums in a year. If a record as comparatively dominant as 1989 had actually existed in the year 1989, it would have surpassed the sales of Thriller. There is no demographic she does not tap into, which is obviously rare. But what’s even more atypical is how that ubiquity is critically received. Swift gets excellent reviews, particularly from the most significant arbiters of taste. (A 2011 New Yorker piece conceded that Swift’s reviews are “almost uniformly positive.”) She has never gratuitously sexualized her image and seems pathologically averse to controversy. There’s simply no antecedent for this kind of career: a cross-genre, youth-oriented, critically acclaimed colossus based entirely on the intuitive songwriting merits of a single female artist. It’s as if mid-period Garth Brooks was also early Liz Phair, minus the hat and the swearing. As a phenomenon, it’s absolutely new.

-In GQ, Chuck Klosterman interviews Taylor Swift on self-awareness while deducing whether or not she’s as shrewd and “calculating” (a word she hates) as her reputation suggests.

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Grimes and the Changing Face of the Music Industry

In the newest issue of The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh wrote about Grimes, real name Claire Boucher, whose history in underground experimental music led her to making homemade electronic bedroom pop. Last year, Pitchfork named her song “Oblivion” the best song of the decade to date, and as she’s preparing to release her second proper album, she and artists like Lana Del Rey are redefining what pop music and independent musicians are.

Boucher has a hard time censoring herself in interviews, or on social media, which means that she provides a steady stream of content for music Web sites, whose readers love to express their sharply differing opinions of her. “I feel like if I read about myself from the media I would hate me,” she says. “I’d be, like, ‘Fuck that bitch!’ ” Online, she has shared not only her enthusiasms but also her frustration with the music industry, where “women feel pressured to act like strippers and its ok to make rape threats but its not ok to say your a feminist.” Her outspokenness has helped to make her something of a role model. Musicians are now expected to advertise their political beliefs, but Boucher is unusually thoughtful and passionate about social injustice and environmental degradation. (She travels with a canteen, and has essentially banned plastic water bottles from her tour bus.) One particularly trenchant Tumblr post, from 2013, earned a vigorous endorsement from Spin, under the headline “GRIMES’ ANTI-SEXISM MANIFESTO IS REQUIRED READING (EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT A FAN).” That last phrase hints at what is, for Boucher, a disquieting possibility: that her online presence might be even more popular, and more influential, than her music.

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Meet the Woman Who Protects Drake’s Voice

Photo by nrk-p3

The first three years, everyone thought I was his mom. Sandy is a cute Jewish woman who looks nothing like me, but you’ve been in the club, you know—if I’m older than everybody, and I’m in the VIP, I must be Drake’s mom!

So he’s standing there, his hand wrapped around the neck of this thousand-dollar champagne bottle. I pull it to me. I’m not a big drinker, I’m a total lightweight—I’m a daiquiri drinker, or margaritas, but champagne just knocks me out. So I don’t know anything about it, don’t know this one’s so expensive. I’m like, “You don’t think you’re gonna drink this whole thing, do you honey? You can have a GLASS.” He looks at me like I’m crazy! So I call over the management and tell them Drake needs water, and they bring me a whole case! There are more and more people crowding in here, I’m getting crowded to the back, so I start passing a bottle of water through the crowd. His bodyguards are all looking back at each other, like, “What is this?” And I’m just mouthing, “GIVE IT TO DRAKE.”

Finally it gets to Drake, and the bodyguard just points right at me. Literally, Drake’s shoulders go down six inches. Totally resigned. But, he drank the water. He got it!

What a dude.

I’ve never had anyone trust me implicitly like he did. He really opened up his heart and his brain. Even after all this time, he rarely doubts me. He wants to get better and he did from the very beginning. I’m very proud to say that even when I’m not there, he’s drinking water. He says “Goodnight, God bless, I’m Drake, take care,” and he gets offstage and starts cooling down his voice. He takes a chef with him, he works out. He’s doing it on his own now.

Jia Tolentino, at Jezebel, in a long conversation with Dionne Osborne, the vocal coach who helped train Drake.

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Reminder: The Bee Gees Were Enormous

The Bee Gees’ dominance of the charts in the disco era was above and beyond Chic, Giorgio Moroder, even Donna Summer. Their sound track to Saturday Night Fever sold thirty million copies. They were responsible for writing and producing eight of 1978’s number ones, something only Lennon and McCartney in 1963/64 could rival—and John and Paul hadn’t been the producers, only the writers. Even given the task of writing a song called “Grease” (“Grease is the word, it’s got groove, it’s got a meaning,” they claimed, hoping no one would ask, “Come again?”), they came up with a classic. At one point in March they were behind five singles in the American Top 10. In 1978 they accounted for 2 percent of the entire record industry’s profits. The Bee Gees were a cultural phenomenon.

Three siblings from an isolated, slightly sinister island off the coast of northwest England, already in their late twenties by the time the Fever struck—how the hell did they manage this? Pinups in the late sixties, makers of the occasional keening ballad hit in the early seventies, the Bee Gees had no real contact with the zeitgeist until, inexplicably, they had hits like “Nights on Broadway,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and the zeitgeist suddenly seemed to emanate from them. This happened because they were blending white soul, R&B, and dance music in a way that suited pretty much every club, every radio station, every American citizen in 1978. They melded black and white influences into a more satisfying whole than anyone since Elvis. Simply, they were defining pop culture in 1978.

-Bob Stanley, in the Paris Review, on the pop-music genius of the Gibb brothers—siblings who were always unappreciated, and also capable of some big creative mistakes.

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Photo: YouTube

This Is Not Really the Worst Song of All Time

I’m not here to defend “We Built This City,” though I hardly think it’s the worst song of all time. Instead, I’m here to urge every music fan to dig deeper and interrogate his or her own definition of what makes a song terrible. I feel like we pile on “We Built This City” because it’s too feeble to fight back; because we as a community of music-lovers accept that it’s the worst song ever the way we accept that Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper or A Love Supreme or Blue or Blood on the Tracks is the best album ever. That is to say, we accept these opinions as truth because they’ve been accepted that way before most of us even got here.

NPR’s Stephen Thompson, in a short essay on All Songs Considered, questioning our society’s collective decision to hate Starship. Read more on pop music from the Longreads Archive.

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