Monday, September 29, 2014

Britney Spears, "Baby One More Time"

This is completely unrelated to my "40 for 40" btw ...

This is a tremendous writeup of Britney's debut single from the UK #1's blog, Popular. 

Tom really nails it here -- he sets the scene for the album sales-inflated late 90's, defends Spears against derogatory "manufactured pop" charges, and describes why the song was practically destined to dominate the charts.

His only stumble is in his take on Britney's voice and it's well-known limitations.  On "Baby One More Time", they covered up her deficiencies well, but without Autotuning her out of existence or drowning her out with background singers or other production tricks.  Ewing goes on to write that "it’s not until the breakthrough into full-on R&B and club pop that she (and the producers) can really start playing with it [her voice], and with her role in the song".

I think he's giving short thrift to Britney and to the superstar producers that would become household names in the next decade.  This is definitely a case where US/North American and UK/European experiences diverge.  In the US, before Britney, R&B oriented chart pop by female artists was dominated by the big voiced Diva.  You aspired to be Whitney Houston or else.  Toni Braxton, TLC, Mariah Carey, and Whitney herself all took turns barricading themselves at the top of the Hot 100 for years.  Just a few months before Whitney's breakthrough, diva worship reached its apex with the extraordinary success of Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine", which was #1 for the entire summer of 1998 (13 weeks).  The popularity of this music showed no signs of waning whatsoever.

But seemingly out of nowhere, Britney changed the narrative completely.  Suddenly, the focus was on the song rather than the quality of the voice behind the song.  Manufacturing songs and stars, rather than seeking out the most god-given singing talent and accelerating its rise to the top, became acceptable again.  This meant that producers were free to create rather than accentuate the same Boyz II Men-inspired vocal melodies again and again.

The Spice Girls owed their success to many of the same ideas, but Christina Aguilera and a million other teen pop idols weren't swarming the charts within months of their debut.

The idea of a manufactured star backed by a producer/svengali figure responsible for the studio magic was hardly new, it was just long overdue by '99.  Ewing even mentioned the Shangri-La's, who are a perfect comparison to Britney.  They weren't much better than passable singers either, but to analyze their vocal intonations would also be missing the point.

Within a few years, every teen idol and tabloid semi-celeb this side of Hillary Duff and Paris Hilton would be making albums -- hit albums even -- with the best producers money could buy, and nobody would blink an eye.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Inner City, "Big Fun"

I've decided to cut this song from my "40 for 40" list.

My serious dance/club music fandom began in earnest in '89-'90.  At the time (as it is now), my interest in the music was mainly fueled via outlets that didn't involve going out to the actual clubs.  You had to be of drinking age (19+) to get into most of the good club nights anyhow, so at least I had a convenient excuse.  I'd tune into CFNY's live radio simulcasts from RPM, and browse through vinyl and dance club charts at the shops on Yonge Street on the weekends.  RPM closed in the mid-90's and was reopened as part of the expanded Guvernment complex that occupies the same site on Queens Quay East in Toronto.  Unfortunately, it is slated to close its doors for good in January 2015.  With Sunrise Records announcing the closure of their Yonge Street shops this November, the flagship HMV store and Play de Record are now the last music stores on a strip that was packed with them for decades.  The 90's in Toronto already seem like another era.

In many ways it was a golden age for dance music.  I've lost count of the number of times that dance, or EDM, or whatever you want to call it, was about to cross over into the mainstream and blow up all over the world, according to rock critics supposedly in the know.  The top dance producers of the time were too busy counting their money to care about such trivial labels.  Black Box's "Ride on Time" was the biggest selling single in the UK in 1989.  C + C Music Factory's first album went 5x platinum in the US, and "Gonna Make You Sweat" was #1 on the Hot 100.  Dee-Lite went from having a buzz in the underground to being played at your cousin's wedding seemingly overnight.

The most unexpected mainstream crossover was from Kevin Saunderson and his Inner City project.  At the time, it seemed like an organic and natural transition from the clubs to the radio.  They had catchy songs, hedonistic summer-ready lyrics, female vocalists who could belt out a tune with the best of them, so what's not to get?  As the years have passed though, I'm increasingly blown away by what Saunderson managed to accomplish.  Derrick May and Juan Atkins seem to get more respect from the uber-devoted techno heads for laying down the blueprint of what Detroit techno was and what for the most part, it still continues to be.  "Detroit" is an adjective mostly thanks to May and Atkins.  Saunderson, in comparison, was a populist who had his songs briefly played on the radio.  I felt the same way for a long time.  Derrick May's "Innovator" compilation was the Rosetta Stone of techno, no less than required listening for anyone who planned to carry on a serious conversation about the music.  On the other hand, Saunderson's success was something of a fluke.  He was an oppurtunist who happened to be in the right place at the right time and managed to get his album recorded first.

I was wrong, and it wasn't even the "Faces and Phases" compilation that convinced me of how wrong I was (great as it is, it doesn't even contain any of the big Inner City hits).  Twenty five years later, in a genre where records often sound dated before the year is over, Inner City's parade of hits still stand out as some of the finest mainstream techno ever recorded.  The most amazing thing is that Saunderson took a then-regional micro genre and found a way to fast track this music into the charts, creating a market that almost nobody knew existed.  This wasn't like Madonna collaborating with a hot producer with a 5-10 year track record of success, he took his cues from virtually nobody.

My list needed a song that would symbolize that era when dance music streams were crossing over with each other and into the mainstream at a breakneck pace.  I was profoundly influences by the era and the styles of music, which set the stage for all my future forays into techno. So who better to represent it than the iconic "Big Fun" by Inner City, my favourite techno hitmakers of the late 80's?

The problem is that as integral as Inner City might be for contextualizing the music I listened to in '89 and throughout my life, this list is first and foremost a songs list.  Representing eras is important (this is certainly the case with other songs on the list) but I couldn't justify including "Big Fun" instead of other songs that I couldn't live and breathe without hearing.  There are plenty of songs that were representative of my taste in music and defined who I was at the time to the point that my interest in those songs became a calculated obsession.

I couldn't even decide on a standout Inner City song.  I think I've tended to prefer "Good Life" over the years but "Big Fun" sounds more like a classic -- a proper introduction to the band and what they were doing -- mainly thanks to that killer opening riff.  But "Ain't Nobody Better" is great too, and if we're looking at Saunderson's career apart from Inner City, I was (and still am) crazy over Reese's "Rock To the Beat", and the deliriously fine  Detroit mix of New Order's "Round and Round".  Was Saunderson on fire in those days or what?

In short, the "40 for 40" list is about telling stories, but first and foremost it's about standout songs.  Sometimes it will favour the the artist with one song that drove me crazy over the artist with a consistently strong output.  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

U2 and Apple

The release of a new U2 album for free to 500 million iTunes users has become arguably the biggest music story of the year.  I'm surprised that a) they managed to keep it (relatively) secret up to the moment it was announced, and b) nobody has tried to spin "Songs of Innocence"  into the "biggest" or "fastest" "selling" album of all time.

A multi-billion dollar corporation has joined with a band of megamultimillionaires to pull an end around the music industry and force their product onto consumers who may not even want it.  It certainly sounds bad to have it phrased it like that.  Is this kind of practice bad for music fans, as virtually every music critic has been claiming?  I don't see how one could argue otherwise.  But it is really all that different than what has already been going on?  Has a significant line been crossed here?  I'm not convinced of that.
In my post about Lady Gaga at SXSW, I wrote that mainstream music seems to be heading toward a model where a small number of wealthy patrons (or companies) will support the work of an equally small number of artists.  The arts thrived with this type of funding structure for centuries.  Did it provide work opportunities to anyone other than a select few?  Did it give consumers (i.e. extremely wealthy people in the proper social circles) much choice about what to listen to?  No.  But a small number of excellent artists were able to thrive and produce meaningful work.

We're going to be left with a very small number of obscenely funded artists at the top of the food chain, and a huge number of talented people barely able to make a living in music.  The music of the rich will be well preserved and easily tracked down by future generations, and the music of the folkspeople will be fractured into so many mini-scenes that it'll remain difficult to collect and process, with or without the internet.

In fact, this is more or less the setup we already have, except that the wealthy patrons are the major labels, who for the time being can fund a relatively large number of artists each (but a much smaller number of artists than they did a generation ago).  The majors seem destined to die out within another generation, which will separate the wheat from the chaff even further.  Music will be distributed in increasingly creative ways, but seeing bands live on tour may be more difficult unless they're funded by the right sponsors looking to leech off their cred.  Rock and pop might have to start taking cues from EDM -- the selling point is the DJ and the party atmosphere first, and the music they actually play comes second.  

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Pitchfork 500 and my own 40 for 40

Earlier this year, I read the Pitchfork 500 book from cover to cover.  The format is a bit exhausting -- five hundred blurbs of 100-150 words each -- and if you don't already know most of the songs I'm not sure how much you can really get out of the book.  There were maybe thirty truly excellent write-ups that either really made me want to hear the song (if it was one I didn't know) or forced me to think differently about something I thought I already understood quite well.  I would classify another one hundred or so as "good" or "very good", and the rest were just kind of there.  The forced editorial style of constantly quoting from the lyrics of the songs and trying to connect those few lines to the criticism of the song simply didn't do it for me most of the time.  Ninety nine percent of music lyrics lose their power to captivate when removed from the context of the music.  

However, the essays at the start of each chapter/time-period were nearly all outstanding, and the sidebars that looked at specific genres or microgenres, often with a healthy dose of cynicism, were also consistently entertaining and a welcome break from the super-seriousness of the rest of the book.  

It was disappointing to see such a varied mix of songs from the 70's up until the late 90's (i.e. until the early years of Pitchfork), only to have the book suddenly dive deep into an indie rock hell with only token nods to hip-hop and techno.  In the introductory essays to each chapter, hip-hop and techno were highlighted as being so vitally important to the evolution of music, but they were mostly ignored once they hit the mid-90's and had passed through the established canon of those genres.  Still, for a coffee table book about music that I (mostly) love, it was a worthwhile and often thought-provoking read.

But my main problem with the book was that it claims to be representing the best music of the previous 30 years by songs, rather than albums, or as the back cover explains, "[reflecting] the way listeners are increasingly processing music -- by song rather than by album".  However, the actual song selections don't reflect that philosophy, especially once they hit the mid-90's and beyond.  A good portion of the book reads like they made a list of the best (PF-approved) albums from the time period and simply picked a song from each of those albums.  You could go through the top albums of the year lists for PF from 1999-2008 and pick out many of the artists that appear in the book for yourself.


A lifelong friend turned 40 last year and "celebrated" by carefully compiling a "40 songs for my first 40 years" list.  She told me about working on the list and I knew right away that I had at least one thing to look forward to about turning 40.

That time is quickly approaching.  She roughly defined the criteria for the list as "whether or not I could listen to the song repeatedly without being sick of it and whether it invokes a strong emotional connection for me."  Simple and to the point, and the eventual list was unranked.  I want my criteria to be a bit different, and I struggled to define exactly what kind of list I want to make.  However, after reading the Pitchfork book, I certainly knew what kind of list I didn't want to make.   You will not be seeing 40 tracks from my favourite 40 albums, that's for sure.

First and foremost, it will be a songs list.  Some of them will be the songs that "changed everything" and profoundly affected my listening habits going forward.

The list should tell a story, so roughly speaking, it should summarize how my tastes in music changed throughout my life.  Songs that captured certain periods or important moments in my life will be on there.  In the past I've made fun of publications that bestow a magical influence on a song or album, writing that such-and-such an album summed up the year or who's impact would resonate through its legions of soon-to-be copycats.  I make fun of this because it doesn't make sense to generalize about a huge community of music listeners in this way.  But for an individual, a song absolutely can summarize a summer or a year.

Because the songs tell a story, it shouldn't be necessary to like all of them as much now as I did then.  In most cases, they will be songs that have been close to me for years or decades, but in some cases, a song may be necessary to tell the story even if I don't care for it much anymore.

Not all of them will be songs from great albums.  In some cases, I will not have even heard the albums they came from.

A few bands will make the list on account of being in my pantheon of favourite bands ever.  If there's not a particular song of theirs which stands out in a way that I've described, I'll probably have to pick a song that defines the essence of that band for me.  I will not reflexively pick a great song from what I think is their best album.  The song is always the key, it would have to be the song that first drew me in, or the song that I heard and knew I'd be a fan of the band for life.

Not every year needs to be represented, it's not a "40 songs for 40 years" list.  Some years may have a few songs represented and many others will have none, because life just isn't neatly ordered that way.

It will be a biography told in the space of 40 songs, attempting to summarize what I am and what I once was as completely as possible.

Even at this late stage of the game, I'm not sure in what format to present the list.  It will be unranked and the songs will be presented in the order that they impacted my life (regardless of which year they were originally released).  Blurbs in the style of yearly top ten lists seem bland and inappropriate for a project like this.  I'm trying to get it all figured out.