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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Media scholar Jonathan Burston has been doing some fascinating work on Broadway mega-musicals—you know the kind: Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast. His focus is not merely the Disneyfication of Broadway theater (which is its own rich, wicked topic—get it? Wicked?). Burston is also interested in the transformation of the actor’s experience of  work—from the act of, say, making acting choices, to, for example, doing it just like they did in London, or singing a song just like the first Phantom did it. Check out his latest at

http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a910302817~db=all~jumptype=rss

The actor’s craft has been reduced, compressed, turned into a quasi-creative factory labor under the logics of not only late capitalism but of what Burston calls “recombinant Broadway”—shows that started out as (animated) films become Broadway shows then turn back into films, version after version proliferating like a reflection of a mirror caught in another mirror. Think Hairspray. Waters’ film made its way to Broadway then made its way back into a cinematic form—complete with a cross-dressing John Travolta doing a tremendous Baltimore accent. We come to the theater with a sense of what we’ve already seen; we head to the movies already familiar with the songs.

Burston writes about some of the creative frustrations of theatrical performers as a result of these new forms with particular force. I’m hooked on such insights. If you’re like me, then you too dig Inside the Actor’s Studio, have felt a giddy curiosity when, say, Natalie Portman describes her craft in one breath and her favorite foreign-language curse-word in the next. The boundary between audience and actor, fan and celebrity has always seemed porous—and electrified.

But several shows of late have explicitly played with that boundary. Take the revival of Hair. Happily breaking the 4th wall since its original production in 1967, the current revival ramps up the impact of that seemingly radical theatrical gesture. The whole way through the new Broadway production its players (members of The Tribe) gallop up stairs, stand on chairs, dance in the aisles— all of which culminates in an extraordinary Technicolor theatrical freakout where the audience is invited, cajoled, corralled on stage as the entire theater erupts into the plays anthem: let the sun shine. And in an age of Broadway mega-musicals and movie-to-stage transfers, there’s something radical about audiences singing like they’re at church.

Plus, I saw Slava’s Snow Show and watched clowns literally sit on some grumpy audience member’s head (this before they blew snow into the crowd to the tune of Carmina Burana). Or take Spring Awakening with its staggering narrative and imaginative staging: you can get seats on stage if you so desire. And as you sit there watching the drama unfold, watching the audience in the theater proper watching you on stage as you watch the play, you’ll be thrilled and surprised when one of the other audience members on stage turns out to be a member of the chorus, but you won’t know this until the cute little Asian girl in 7-jeans and a t-shirt stands up on her chair and starts to wail.

But actors have always been running through the aisles. And even Ayn Rand knew that an audience seated on stage heightened the tension of a show (recall her play The Night of January 16th). And if you dig this line of inquiry, check out Peter Greenaway’s uber bizarre-o masterpiece The Baby of Macon (1993). If actors are frustrated by the logics of a system demanding the near-exact reproduction of performances because producers believe that that’s what audiences have come to expect—the pleasures of consistency and familiarity, the reproduction of a performance rather than the reinterpretation of a text– then what to make of this secondary pattern? Some audiences relish the pleasures of boundary play. If audiences are on stage, if actors are in the audience, then are we not all somehow implicated in the broader transformations Burston describes?

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Frank Sinatra

Every Friday night my brother is at Joe Pop’s in Ship Bottom putting his own spin on Frank Sinatra. When he’s not there, he’s at the Quarter Deck and at 11, after all the other karaoke stints are over, he’s at Kubel’s where the clients are as old as the paneling on the walls but the applause is just as loud as anywhere.

And it’s the same thing. He never progresses past “Fly Me to the Moon,” or “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart.” But each time he goes up, the crowd cheers. With his smooth mix of originality and Sinatra-isms, like the snapping of his fingers, Eric is pure entertainment.

Hollywood, of course, would never think so. 

Unlike the perfection and polish we, as an audience, are accustomed to viewing in sitcoms and dramas on TV or the big screen, my brother does not offer the same Hollywood standard of refinement and honing. He’s not a pro. He never went to Julliard or trained on Broadway. He never went to acting or entertaining school. He was never lucky enough to know someone who knows someone who knows someone else who could get him in to meet Martin Scorsese or the head of EMI. He could care less about becoming the next Harry Conick Jr. And when he hits the wrong note up on Kubel’s 5×5 ft. stage, there’s no editing out the mistakes. Pure. Raw. Unadulterated. And that’s OK. He doesn’t seem to mind, and despite moderate flinching from the audience, neither do we. What’s more, even though he’s just as influenced socially and culturally by the industry’s ideal of what is “standard” entertainment, it has no bearing on his courage or ability to perform anyway.

I, on the other hand, cannot claim the same amount of courage, regardless of having a fairly decent voice. When we make our rounds of the karaoke bars, it takes me five Yuenglings and a shot of tequila before I get up to do Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Is it stage fright? Not exactly. I’ve been teaching in front of classrooms and speaking publicly on and off for 15 years. Maybe it’s disinterest. Again, this is far from true after a sober realization of wishing I pursued a career as a singer. No. My lack of courage comes instead from having watched too many Turner Classic movies. It comes instead from falling prey to the idea that the media define what is acceptable or unacceptable. It comes instead from being tricked by the smoke and mirrors of perfection Hollywood has created. And it comes instead from a belief that if I can’t sing just like Patsy, I shouldn’t sing at all.

It’s pretty safe to say that while Eric is the exception, I am the rule. There are hundreds of thousands of people who do not possess an ounce of stage fright and are born with sufficient amounts of ambition for this kind of life. But something holds them back.

That “something” might be that their definition of talent isn’t really theirs at all. It belongs to corporate America, to the 10 o’clock news, to Hollywood and the music industry. It’s an extremely narrow, corporate point of view that dictates how we appreciate art, music, film, theater, even the clown at a neighborhood children’s party. And it skews our thinking of what normal is as far as the concept of performance is concerned.

Take Britney Spears for example. For more than ten years she seems to have set the standard by which all other female entertainers follow. Sony/BMG Label Group (Spears’ record label), thus, defined a good performer on youth, looks, sexiness and blond hair. And after which, America was inundated with Britney look-alikes: Christina Aguilera, Hillary Duff, Hanna Montana, Jessica Simpson and so on. They literally stopped taking a chance on any other entertainers that did not fit this description. “Pink” somehow squeezed through, but only after ditching her edginess for a more conforming look.

Another example: When it comes down to what is aired on radio stations, the repeat time for a “top ten” hit outweighs and out-buys what any local, new artist could ever squeeze through the turnstile of opportunity. One song, in fact, must earn the amount of money required to pay royalties on mechanical rights, performance rights and now, movie rights. And so air-time is essentially monopolized by a few hundred hit songs all trying to earn their keep. There is no room for anything else. When I think of how many times they still play Rod Stewart when there are so many new and noteworthy bands out there, I want to vomit. 

Statistically speaking, it’s sad when you learn how limited our choice of entertainment is.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is an umbrella trade organization that represents a little over 1600 record labels and claims that it “creates, manufactures and/or distributes approximately 90% of all legitimate sound recordings produced and sold in the United States.” But of those 1,600 or so labels there are only four major ones: EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, which control 70% of the industry. In March of 2006 Myspace had 1.4 million registered, unsigned bands. How many of them will ever see the likes of a Warner Brothers contract? Answer: less than one percent.

Of all the potential talent that exists in this country alone, there are only one or two albums each week that will sell a million copies—only a pathetic few actors (about ten) will be handed a check for 20 million for one film. And with big Hollywood corporations like Disney and Viacom buying up independent radio stations, TV channels, movie production studios, newspapers, book publishing companies and even cell phone provider companies we are left with less and less diversity and a more corporate, Disney-esque view of the world. It’s no wonder I find it hard to get up on stage and sing my heart out. One wobbly note tosses me into the slush pile of performers who weren’t schooled in the Mickey Mouse Club.

Here’s an embarrassing fact. I was in my late 20’s when I found XPN. For those of you who still don’t know exactly what XPN is, it’s an independent, member-supported radio station from the University of Pennsylvania, that (get this) still includes contact information where you can send your own, original music if you’d like it to be considered for air-play. When I came across this station, purely by coincidence, it was during a phase of instinctual curiosity and a basic need to find folk music, a genre of music I grew up with but truly believed died out with bell-bottoms and hip-huggers. My parents, both musicians, played their Martin acoustic guitars almost every where they went, singing songs from Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, Peter, Paul & Mary, Emmy Lou Harris and others. As I grew older, I found it hard to believe that there wasn’t a new generation of people who might produce music like that, but I never, ever, ever, ever heard any folk on the big stations. So, for the longest time, I figured it didn’t exist. Until one day, I began a search. When I hit 88.5, there it was: a whole new world of music revealed to me.

Josh Ritter, Wilco, Clem Snide, Martha Wainwright, Joe Purdy. Ray LaMontagne, Damien Rice, The Damnwells, Bon Iver, Glen Hansard. And on and on. I wondered why big labels never picked up half these musicians. I wondered why radio stations never played them. Though I was grateful to find this genre of music, I was eerily disturbed by the fact that it’s been kept such a secret; that “variety,” “diversity” and “talent” don’t earn as much money as over-produced bleach blondes with belly rings and double-D’s.

There are several arguments of which I will not get into: 1.) that Hollywood caters to popular demand and gives us what we want; 2.) that Hollywood defines popular culture and tells us what we want; or 3.) a combo of both. Anyway you look at it, there is a huge gaping disconnect between the popular entertainment that we’re spoon fed and the reality of a more natural, flawed, human entertainment. For a change, listen to one of XPNs live studio sessions compared to one produced by a Clear Channel-owned station. This difference is enormous. When Regina Spektor was invited to XPN for a live session, you could hear pages turned, throat clearing, notes that were improperly hit. She sounded magnificent. She sounded real. And it made all the difference in the world when it came to appreciating the human quality of her performance and believing I too should be able to sing and make a few mistakes.

Gladly, Hollywood has no authority at Kubel’s where there’s no TV hovering over the bar and the crowd of shots drinkers mostly, has much lower expectations of a good performance. It’s Friday, and that means karaoke, which ultimately means my brother. 

This week he’s doing one of Sinatra’s best, “The Lady is a Tramp.” He promised a few regulars the week before that he’d do it. And he always keeps his promises. I’m there for support. Though he doesn’t need it. When he grabs the mic from behind the bar, he tests it once or twice for feedback. He nervously laughs and then says, “hit it Johnny,” despite knowing that the DJ’s name is Rob. As the music starts, he begins keeping time with a finger snap and a foot tap. There’s a twinkle in his eye. His voice is a little off. He doesn’t hit every note. But he’s charming. He really draws you in. I think what makes him so good is that he really believes he’s Frank, if just for the time it takes him to hit that last, sustained C note.

I sometimes laugh at guys like Eric who will never amount to all the hype I’m used to seeing on the big screen, but I shouldn’t. He deserves credit for maintaining individuality in a world where expectations are at the mercy of a very small, narrow-minded clique of people who pick and choose entertainment for us. I give credit to the audience too, for sacrificing their more rigid and illusory vision of what entertainment “should be.” It’s very hard to overcome socially determined notions of fashion and behavior, and simply enjoy entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It’s hard to accept other interpretations of performance without feeling ashamed or embarrassed for the one performing. 

Of course, a little bit of Hollywood mixed with a lot of reality makes the best performance. And that’s possibly why Eric is so worth watching. He gives us both. And even though he’s not getting paid for his rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema,” he’s happy. Occasionally one of the “dames” at Kubel’s will buy him a drink after the show. That’s pay enough—and it’s usually always the same: “two fingers of Jack Daniels over the right amount of ice.” Just like Frank.

Resources: stopbigmedia.com, musicthinktank.com

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WFMU

I quite fancy this radio station and would like to share their likes with you.  The chef’s recommendations this evening come from the “Most Recent Archives,” a veritable buffet of choice musical meat for your commercial-free enjoyment.

http://wfmu.org/

Freshness abounds.

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A Short Thought

 

This is my on-stage dress.

This is my on-stage dress.

 

 

I just got back from two and a half weeks on the road with Hermit Thrushes.

We went to Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, etc.  The best part about traveling is seeing great music communities and meeting interesting, thoughtful people from all over the place.  There were moments when I’d be sitting in the bus thinking, “Wow, this country really is beautiful.”  Actually I had a lot of those moments.  I saw cows and fields, things that I don’t usually get around Philly.

 

This is the band

This is the band

 

 

On stage, we each wear a color of the rainbow and we have cloud and rainbow amp covers.  Nick and I wear dresses.  I say this because in Dallas, Texas someone came up to me and asked if we were radical fairies.  I said, “Is that a queer thing?”  She said yes.  I replied, “Well, not really, but yes.”  The next night, the sound guy asked if we were a pride thing.  A few nights later, in Asheville, North Carolina, a guy said our music was “fairytale punk.”  

 

Taken in Dallas, Texas before Gater (red hair) said goodbye to us forever

Taken in Austin, Texas before Gater (red hair) said goodbye to us forever

 

 

So cheers to getting out of the city for a bit and realizing this country is great.  Until next week!

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Battlestar Galactica Series Finale: great the first time it ended, then fairly disappointing.

The Walking Dead, Issues 13-59: so much better than what you’re reading right now.

Dawn Of The Dead (The Old One): worth your two hours of staring, if only because you would want to get away with that kind of stuff in a mall too.

Night Of The Living Dead (Obviously The Old One As Well):
one of those movies you (I) regret not seeing earlier; also, because of a f**k up by the distributor, in the public domain!

My Now Unignorable Obsession With Zombies: I could totally survive.

Bite Me Best Penne Vodka And Greek Salad: still the best comfort food for a hungov—ahem, overworked man who lives gratefully in delivery distance.

Paul Krugman Vs. Tim Geithner: makes me miss Rocky IV and its 60% montage content… Can we speed this thing up please?  I’m ready for all-celebrity news again.

Newark Shuttle To Port Authority: all the fun of living through a 35 minute earthquake, plus the rich, musky odor of migraine-inducing diesel.


The Diesel Jeans Website:
horribly offensive?  Surely.

Stringer Bell On The Office: what a strange waste.

Sad Cypress By Agatha Christie: quite nearly, but not entirely, a complete waste of time. Not particularly strange though.

My Student’s Papers: vampires, red ink-sucking vampires.

2666: almost as much as Sebald’s Austerlitz, a kind of perpetual motion machine for causing mind to wander hither and yon.

New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden: waaaaaaaay creepier than anything in The Walking Dead.

My Brother’s New Song, “pretty things happen to me,”: meant, I know, as a joke, but – I can’t help it – just want I need to calm down.

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I’m writing this blog from Dallas, Texas.  I’ve been on the road touring with Hermit Thrushes (I play guitar) since Friday, March 13th.  So far so good.  We had shows all the way down to Austin from Philadelphia, plus an in-studio radio set with KXUA and a newspaper interview in the Fayetteville Flyer, both in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Also, a highlight for me:  a shout-out in Magnet, one of my favorite music magazines.

We’ve been traveling in a big retired retirement home bus that runs on diesel (we’re working on using veggie oil).  To offset some of the costs, we took four extra people on the way down — Elizabeth Devlin, an autoharp player; Cheryl Nguyen, a violinist/violist who is doubling as our merchandise seller; Greg Sandler, who is possibly making a video documentary about this trip; and Gater, a guy from West Virginia who was moving to Austin.  Elizabeth, Greg, and Cheryl are still with us on the way back.  We also just picked up Danielle, on her way to Fayetteville.

The man who made mostly all of this happen is Sam Tremble, a PBQ editor from Philadelphia.  He has a gift of finding people who are making things happen and convincing them to let the band do something, anything.  He’s also been blogging about this trip in Philadelphia’s Citypaper.

Two bands worth checking out that we’ve played with so far:  Invisible Hand and Quiet Hooves.  Quiet Hooves, from Athens, Georgia is what I think of when I think of Athens music — bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Beulah, Circulatory System (who I’ve just been told is coming out with another album August 4th), Olivia Tremor Control, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, and Major Organ and the Adding Machine.  Oh, I could go on for a while about Athens bands.  Circulatory System is one of my favorite albums.

We still have about one week left in the tour.  We’re playing in the same places we hit on the way down.  Hopefully the bus will get back to Philadelphia in one piece.  I’ll have more hyperlinks next week, I promise.

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Just back from a deliciously “molto bene” week in Italy (“We make pizza of evening!”) and now I’m off to the University of Pittsburgh. Haven’t been back since I graduated, Spring 2000, but my first poetry teacher, Jeff Oaks, completely hooked me up and holy moly assigned my book to his Intro to Poetry class. Tomorrow’s my day to come in, do the Q&A, roll around the How. Never done this before so I’m kinda buggin’ out, but if I rock 1/10th as hard as this kid I should be alright. (((Any advice?))) I’ll let you know how it went next week.

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