Power & Control

One of my favorite things about attending a Marina and the Diamonds concert is seeing kids in the audience wearing versions of Marina’s video looks. Marina Diamandis has adopted a distinct visual style for each one of her three albums, and fans show up to shows dressed to echo their favorites. That shows real connection between the artist and her fans. Clearly her message and her style are hitting home. That’s fantastic news for everyone, because she is one of the smartest singer-songwriters around, and what she has to say is enormously empowering. Electra Heart is a concept album exploring female archetypes and the way they affect our real life identities and our ability to function as human beings. Unsurprising conclusion; they’re mostly harmful. That may sound heavily cerebral, but it’s big ideas delivered in bubblegum packaging. It’s a master class in how consciousness raising can be fun, and pop music has the power to deliver lessons and inspiration. In the right hands.

Pow Pow

Welcome to the musical sensation of the year, circa 2010. You can stop and say “wow, it’s been a long time!” LCD Soundsystem made three albums in five years and then did that whole ‘quit while you’re ahead’ thing. I think James Murphy is doing something with microbreweries in Brooklyn now, which is so hipster it’s, like, meta-hipster. Of course, very few people actually do quit while they’re ahead, and they usually get sucked right back into it when they try. So, seven years later, the time is ripe for an LCD comeback. Seven years is an eternity in our sped-up world of instant returns, and seven years of silence is like 40 years in the wilderness. The good news is there’s a new LCD album promised, with all details still TBA. But it’s definitely coming this year, so leave a slot preemptively open on your record of the year list.

Pour It Up

Are you ready for some very NSFW stripper exploits with your girl Rihanna? After you fap to the video, we can have a debate about the delicate intersection of sexual exploitation, body politics, and artistic liberty. In a word, Rihanna has produced a strip club anthem for the ages, and she doesn’t hold back on the imagery. People of delicate sensibilities may find this offensive. Some may want to slut-shame the singer for exposing herself in this way. Some may hold it up as a gross example of the overall pornificiation of popular culture and its seemingly unbreakable habit of dehumanizing women. Those are all valid arguments; we have indeed reached a saturation point where the aesthetics of pornography permeate the mainstream, and it’s mostly geared to the gratification of the male gaze, at the expense of female performers; and some of the worst examples of exploitation and objectification occur at the upper echelons of pop music. All of which, I’m sure Rihanna is well aware of. She’s a performer whose success allows her control over her image, and it’s unlikely that anyone tells her how to present herself. That she’s chosen to show herself as, in the words of pearl-clutchers, ‘little better than a common pole dancer’ is a self aware move, and a show of solidarity. Being a pop star isn’t all that different from being a stripper; it may be degrading or empowering, depending on what you make of it, but all it comes down to people throwing money at you in return for a fantasy. Another point, too often ignored in these debates, is that for women of color, there are not that many avenues towards the good life, and they often find themselves making choices that white women don’t have to. Strip club culture is in many ways black culture, just as criminal culture is intertwined with black culture, as a necessity and a result of outsider status. For many dancers, a few hours of getting naked is worth going home with a few thousand dollars cash, and separating yuppie douchebags from money earned sitting down is its own kind of empowerment. It’s merely turning to your advantage all of the forces that are supposed to be working against you, it’s rising up when you’re supposed to be kept down.

The lesson of Rihanna’s song may be that though critics have often dismissed her and shamed her for being provocative, she is not ashamed. No, when you compare her to a stripper, she is proud.

Pots and Pans

The Kills are probably the last band that need the soft focus acoustic treatment. As feral as they are on stage and on record, they’re not meant to play sitting down. Still, you can enjoy their acoustic sitting and find that the songs hold up even stripped of most of their thunder. Also, a great partnership with a great rapport is always a joy to watch. The Kills have gone from unknown to indie sensation to the toast of Fashion Week, and will probably fall back into obscurity with their partnership intact. Jamie Hince and Alison Mosshart are just a great team, and hopefully will carry on being, past every magazine cover, fancy dress party and divorce.

Post World War Two Blues

 

Call this the thinking person’s answer to Don McLean’s American Pie. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a great song, and quite a bit darker than people give it credit for. But. I think we can all agree that there’s nothing more grating than people who lived in the 60’s’ nostalgia for the 60’s, and there’s nothing that defines knee-jerk nostalgia for the 60’s more than American Pie. I’m sure that coming of age in the 60’s was really *wonderful* for everybody who experienced it and I’m right jealous, ok? But also let’s acknowledge the glaringly obvious; it was a very, very different, considerably less rosy coming of age time for everyone literally anyplace else besides the United States. For people coming of age in the UK, the golden age of the Youthquake, the Sexual Revolution, the Age of Aquarius and all of those other neat things was marred by memories of the trauma and deprivation of the war years, in ways that Americans, flush on the fat of the land, couldn’t begin to imagine. (Never even mind what people growing up a little bit further east had to go through.) So when noted songwriter and history buff Al Stewart took a look back on his postwar upbringing and early 60’s young manhood, he wasn’t waxing nostalgic for the old juke joint and Chevy; he was recalling years of rations, shortages, cold and hunger. Though Buddy Holly may have been a shared point of interest, the worlds and viewpoints couldn’t be more different. For the generation of Americans who are still patting themselves on the back for how cool the 60’s were, there’s a generation of Europeans whose lens has considerably less vaseline smeared on it.

Positively 4th Street

My first thought was, wow, I haven’t listened to this gem in so long. Second thought; wow, nobody writes a put-down like Bob Dylan. I know Dylan has a reputation for being grumpy, or catty, or whatever you wanna call it, and his diss tracks are notorious, but what really makes it brilliant is that he never stoops to just putting someone down. He rolls out an entire thesis of what’s wrong with that person and why. And even on his most famous ‘insult songs’ he’s not without sympathy. Some of those songs are obviously romantic goodbyes, but I don’t think that’s what this one is. I think it’s just about one of those situations where you used to be friends with someone but you’re not friends anymore, for whatever reason. Obviously, we have no way of knowing that for sure, or who the target may actually be, if there even is one. That only makes it more interesting and more relevant, though.

Pose

A little while back, I took us on a trip down memory lane to Rihanna’s very first single. It was a catchy, fun, fairly generic pop song, set apart only by the burgeoning charisma of its singer. Flash forward a decade. The singer is now one of the biggest pop stars in the world. The music is no longer generic pop. Up until recently the idea of loving a Rihanna album was hard to imagine; one loved Rihanna songs, yes, but there wasn’t really such a thing as a Rihanna album. A Rihanna album was a collection of Rihanna singles. However, Rihanna’s last album, Anti, is an album in the classic sense of the word – a unified statement not powered by hit singles. It still has elements of pop, but now there’s more interesting things at play; trip-hop, house, R’n’B, d’n’b, edm, etc. Rihanna executive produced the record and cowrote most of the songs, and all that creative control clearly shows that dancing in the sunshine was never her vision of herself.