Thursday, December 31, 2009

Three kings for Christmas 2009

The three that I am talking about are, of course, Elvis, Michael... and Orson. Elvis is enjoying his usual festive attention, with an upcoming night of television shows and celebrations on January 8th of what would have been his 75th birthday. Michael Jackson's name has been prominent on TV schedules too, with retrospectives and concert re-runs. Finally, BBC 4 have been having an Orson Welles season.

So what do the Kings of rock'n'roll, pop and film have in common? I will start with Welles, the portly genius whose kingly presence both fascinated and scared Hollywood. It is clear from the documentaries that his downfall was his obsession with control. Perhaps because he began his career as an actor who got into directing, his interests extended into over-seeing the whole process of film making. The studio system, with its ornate division of labour, was not in tune with someone who took so long to edit his own movies.

Welles is always painted as an artist, his hefty weight reflecting his huge appetite for life. In that respect his his vehicle was his own build; something that his personality and screen image always played upon. Whether he was acting as a media mogul, hustler or corrupt police officer, his larger-than-life presence authenticated the role in question. (He wanted to play in 'The Godfather' - can you imagine how great that would have been?)... Welles was therefore a kind of opera singer who happened to be working in the movies, a king-pin.

What is interesting here is to compare Welles' obesity to that of Elvis', because Elvis's portly physique was always seen as a stumbling block - in part because of his nimble youth and in part because he was never quite seen as a genius. Elvis was seen as a phenomenon, sure, but not an artist. What the two kings had in common (apart from their success with younger women) was that they were both reduced to playing cameos of themselves, disappearing into their own weighty parodies.

Michael Jackson, meanwhile, was a king without the weight, as he too was a phenomenon. One commentator on a retropective by BBC2's Culture Show noted that the journey of black identity was always from object (of white fears and desires) to subject, and that Michael made everyone else - black or white - into pawns in his world. He was like Welles in that sense - a king-pin - but one could also see him as a dandy, a flaneur, perhaps the ultimate American consumer, isolating himself in his own selfish kingdom, disregarding the norms and mores of his own society. He had certainly been taking notes off Elvis about how to grow your legend.

When Michael died, it was only about six months after Barak Ombama had been inauguared. The striking thing about coverage of Jackson's death was the extent to which the black community claimed him as their own. Back in his 1980s heyday, in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, disappointment with the lack of change sometimes meant that those with separatist agendas questioned any cultural icon that seemed to represent assimilation. Elvis had a (posthumous) tough time, and so did Michael. He was lightening his skin (if verbally claiming an Afro-American identity) and selling out black music, turning it into acceptable white-bread pop. Yet years later, the grounds for debate have shifted. Musically, Michael Jackson inaugurated an era of urban music which featured the message that it was a black-led party anybody could join. This played into an agenda of black embourgeoisment (which had begun as far back as disco, if not before). With the election of a distinctly non-separatist black president (and a sufficient time-lapse since any mention of child abuse), Michael Jackson was distinctly "in"... Ironically, so now is Elvis: The Guardian have just published confirmation from his childhood friend, Sam Bell, that they would go and see movies at the Lyric theatre. The mixed race pair would ignore the rope that separated the races and sit on the black side of the room: a point taken as evidence of Elvis's proto-typical race mixing.

With this as the preview, 2010, one hopes, will be a year of cultural assimilation endorsed by people of both races.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The end of the noughties

The BBC recently published its portrait of the decade. As the first segment of the new millennium draws to a close, what is interesting about such retrospective bouts of listmania is how little individual music performers or acts figure in the discussions. It is as if the likes of the Kaiser Cheifs never existed. They have disappeared because the notion of popular music being homogenized "content" to be squeezed down the cyber-pipeline is truely with us. Sure, rock acts still have their magic, but much more praise in the noughties has gone to the consumer technologies that deliver them: iPods, YouTube, Facebook, Spotify.

The means to digitally replay and manipulate music have now been 'democratized' more than ever. These means help us feel that popular music is almost all the same, available at will, easily mixed and matched, no longer groundbreaking or unique. Arguments about the talent of contemporary artists seem to be redundant. Musicians are no more or less talented than before; it is rather that their talent inevitably means much less. The engine of commerce has switched focus from the phantasmagoria of music performance to end platforms that now deliver it. In association with that, popular music - though popular as ever - is somewhat sidelined in the public imagination.

If the noughties was a decade in which geeks were the new rock stars, it was because they were the gate-keepers of the technology that defined social relations. Witness the rise and rise of nerdy film characters; a phenomena listed by Empire film magazine as the second biggest movie trend of the decade. In an era where big advertising made gadgets cool and U2 hustled iPods, no Puff Daddy or Jay-Z could hope to be a mogul like, say, Steve Jobs.

It is as if the death of popular music has been a bloodless coup, different from the more obvious horror facing television. Consider some media history. In the 1950s, cinema was usurped by television, so it found ways to reinvent itself. In the noughties, television, too, has been usurped (by the net), and has already reinvigorated itself with things like reality TV, 'The Wire' and a revamped 'Dr Who' (making David Tennant into an unfeasibly successful UK celebrity). Popular music, on the other hand, is content: a maleable cultural form, rather than a specific media technology. It is not in need of rescue, but is now spread across the mediascape like a ghost in the machine, an absentee crew member rattling round a ship being steered from elsewhere. Piracy has become endemic and shrewd synergists like Simon Cowell have taken over what's left of the asylum... If I was starting a band right now, I would call it Facebook.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Public Image Limited - Manchester Academy, 19th December 2009

Well, I guess it all began in '78 when Johnny Rotten morphed back into John Lydon and decided that he would stick true to the artistic values of romanticism: pushing the musical envelope and staying true to your spirit. The result was Public Image Limited, and the music became a challenging brew of post-punk influences. Johnny, however, could never be post-punk like, say, The Pop Group, or even like Howard Devoto; Johnny would forever be Johnny Rotten. That was his albatross. As for PIL: how could they be anything more than an indulgence?? Would an unknown act have been allowed to release what they did? If Johnny was using his name to float something edgy and different then that was great, but how useful was the difference that PIL made? Albums in metal boxes? Okay. Chugging guitars? Passable. Attacks on religion? Hmmm, more Pistols-style than anything else...

That was the thing: in Rotten, Johnny had created a persona that was more a more powerful an English archetype than he ever imagined. He has doomed to live in its shadow. At best he could inflect it, like he did for the cover of PIL's initial album First Issue. This is, I think, Johnny at his finest. The combination of his famous "thousand mile stare", suit and combed down hair makes him seem like an insane, repressed member of the Warhol family - holding it all in (for a change), ready to detonate... He also used what he learned from the Pistols in this excellent early interview with a surprizingly patient Tom Snyder:

Don't you just love how Johnny an a faint, bohemian Keith Levine play good-cop/bad-cop there? Doo-dah! After the Pistols, John was still a Pistol precisely because he still inhabited that most English of archetypes: the rebellious teenager. In a Western democracy deferentialism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Having a dysfunctional teen about the place is as English as eating a cooked breakfast, drinking tea and saluting the Queen.

Some thirty years on, Johnny is no longer a teen. He may have lapsed into pantomime mode as the English squire - a poster boy for Country Life butter - yet here he still is, coming on like a carrot-topped demon, telling us that Guy Fawkes should be our national hero. The audience knows that it is, ironically, now watching history make a stand. And when we ask ourselves how much we should endure from PIL in the name of art - Johnny's art - the answer comes at the end of the set, with 'Rise': the band showing that despite their angry meanderings, they still managed a perfect, melodic, sing-a-long pop song... For 'Rise', we will forgive all the abrasive guitar marathons. We will forgive the guy who played his banjo with a cello bow. We will forgive the bass player's kilt. And we will even forgive the embarrassment of Johnny never leaving his awkward teenaged years. It is his nature, and ours.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mark's posts on Geography

The Tragically Hip (Canada's house band link fandom and nationhood)

Don Cherry: Canadian Patriot (The hockey commentator who has become a national icon)

New York Dolls - Liverool Academy, 9th December 2009

The New York Dolls are living (off their) legends as the most depraved specimens to terrorize early 1970s New York. Somewhere in the evolutionary chart between Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler, there was their lead singer, David Johansen. Johansen had an inauspicious beginning as the son of an insurance salesman and a librarian, but that doesn't matter here. For He was a creature of the Grand Guignol, a phantom of the rock opera who piloted his ill-fated Dolls into a welter of drugs and lipstick. The Dolls main crime was that they had the bottle to slap on make-up. Their white trash performance aesthetic and r'n'b protopunk legacy lived on in everything from Iggy to Morrissey to Michael Stipe, to long forgotten 1980s metal glamsters like Hanio Rocks, Poison and the Quireboys. Yet the Dolls faded away, at least until the 2004 Download Festival. Perhaps it was better that way. Now they are back, touring everywhere from Southampton to Leamington Spa to Prestatyn, or to put that another way, the UK's secondary markets.

Dressed like someone acting the role of a Bowery pawnbroker, the diminutive Sylvanian Sylvain still weilds his axe with phallic aplomb, while Johansen himself comes across as an unlikely elder stateman of trash, a specimen of spectacle with a large mouth but somewhat more mature ego. The rest of the band are probably young replacements, stalked by the ill-fated spectres of bassist Arthur Kane and guitarist Johnny Thunders. Unfortunately, the sound in the Academy, which is tucked behind Limestreet Station, is poor and muddy. The Dolls soldier on through various hits and a contrived attemp at 'Ferry Across the Mersey' (presumably so they don't seem to imperialist). Does rock'n'roll age that well? In my experience it depends on the performers and the genre, not on their sheer will to continue. Living legends are one thing, aging rebels are another. As Johansen says, "If we don't come back, you can contact us on the ouija board."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The The Tragically Hip - Manchester Academy 3, 2nd December 2009

You've got to love the Canadians. They say, "aboot" instead of "about", love ice hockey, have names like "Gord" and drink Molson's beer, so that we don't have to, but - as I found out from doing my masters degree at UBC in 1991 - they get a bum deal from their cousins south of the border. In the music industry that translates into a lack of international recognition. Delighted I was, then, that Canadian rock veterans, The Tragically Hip, got squeezed into the tiny Academy 3 last night and bought the house down. Every ex-pat in the North must have been there, knowing that they would have to have had lined up for days just to get the chance of a ticket to see these guys back home.

I'd first seen the Hip play Vancouver as part of my studies in the early 1990s, a decade after they had formed (check my article on the cultural politics of sponsorship at their Canada Day performance here). Lead singer Gordon Downie echoed that episode when he explained yesterday that beer and nationalism don't mix. What was really amazing about his performance last night, though, was how well he was holding up.

In his younger years, Downie, a film studies graduate of Queen's University in Kingston (home of Canada's finest scholars), came on like a tranced-out hippie, spiritually lost in his own music. Perhaps he was channeling something. Now in his mid-forties, he affects a neater appearance, the hair gone but the look no less demented. He kept was mugging, aping around like a gorilla and playing with an endless supply of hankies thrown at him by his roadies. His glowing eyes belied a strange combination of distance and intensity, like Kevin Spacey meets Michael Stipe doing a mime act, all the while backed by the Eagles gone a bit punk! Yes, the mad genius of Gordon Downie has not gone; it has just changed. His band have matured and mellowed to include material like the magnificent, rapturous country-folk of 'Fiddlers Green' alongside classic rockers like the snakey, bluesy 'New Orleans is Sinking' and the tense 'Cordelia'... Like so many good bands, the Hip seem able to soak up rock influences from across the board. What they give back is uniquely their and subtly Canadian.

Ever the outsider, from a nation of outsiders, Downie summed up global culture by saying, "We didn't invent the gift shop, but we live next to the people that did." By the end of the first half, his shirt was saturated with sweat and I realized what a rare treat it was to catch the Hip so intimate and so unbound. Unfortunately my injudicious combination of cider and fast food left me feeling just rough enough to forego the end of the set. Now I feel a little cheated that I didn't catched their grand finale... I guess there is always Youtube.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Michael Jackson's swansong: 'This is It' (2009)

Last night I got to see 'This is It', the film of rehearsals for Michael Jackson's abandoned O2 Arena stage spectacular. The film was interesting but went on for too long and lacked much of a narrative. Jackson came on as a kind of body-popping android / phantom of the opera figure who spoke in such a whimper that he frequently needed to be subtitled. At 50, he struck me as the kind of oldest adolescent on the block. 'This is It' was all about the show and not much about its creator. The film reminded me of how he sat so much at odds with the rest of his life, but how he used his perfectionism to transmute that angst - and various pop culture genres - into some fine music.

The somber starting and somewhat contrived first interviews seemed odd, and general lack of audience was strange, but there was also something glorious about seeing it all so half finished. I think the 'Thriller' segment began to show what might have been and it was nice to see a great female guitarist in action too. For me, though, while the film had its moments, it was neither a great insight into the man nor the best summation of his gifts.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Literacy in the the hood!

Recently I heard that 50 Cent has made a come back, not just with a new album but with a "business bible" (self-help book) on how to make things happen by conquering your fear and embracing the dog-eat-dog world of the hood... It all makes sense now: drug dealing, like rap artistry, is about entrepreneurialism, and Fiddy is the new Ophra... Of course, as its title and co-author suggest, this is not entirely Curtis Jackson's baby - it is actually Robert Green's, with Fiddy as the fall guy. Green's famous The 48 Laws of Power has been reworked with a touch of bling by adding hip-hop to the mix. The result is an interracial buddy book about how to be a man in the shark infested world of the street or the boardroom - an existential treatise on self-fashioning that pursues masculinity as something of an authentic masquerade, about being yourself and about impersonating others.

Whether this will spawn a legion of imitations is yet to be seen, though that might happen, given that rap is about extending one's brand into new lines of commodities. If so, we might get more dope advice from DMX, Eminem, Ice T and P Diddy, or better yet Jay-Z, Dr Dre or KRS-One. Such rappers may well have something more interesting - but perhaps less useful - to say about changing your life than Paul McKenna.

Certainly, Fiddy's book marks a new incursion in popular music history, because this is a music star explicitly asking you in writing to role model yourself on him, rather than just asking you do something he would like you to do ("Share my pain", "Vote green", "Buy my record", etc).

Strangely, its hard to decide whether 'The 50th Law' is a love song to black embourgeoisement or the kind of distillation of ghetto attitude that commentators like the BBC's Mark Easton might detest. When its author talks about "black gang culture" and "shiny-faced young children", Easton's blog echoes the stereotypes long ago forwarded by blackface. It reminds me of the old times when concerned Salvation Army founder William Booth made forays into the squalid hovels of London and wrote them up as his 1890 bestseller 'In Darkest England and the Way Out'. Over a century later, the same questions may just have a different answer: forget welfare and get an education, then transfer your hustling skills from the street to the office.

Of course the book's achillese heel is its Neo-Manichean, even Neitzschean view of life: smack 'em first, before they have a chance to fight back; tough it out, keep fronting; grab what you desire, because nobody will offer it you on a plate... Is this riding on the entrails of the Thatcherite project to destroy society and leave capitalism in its wake? If so, just where is the love? Can't masculinity be about altruism, seeing the bigger picture, acting responsibly and making bonds of love with your fellow travelers on this planet?

What seems clear is that there is a very interesting study to be conducted here about popular music, Foucaultian care of the self, explicit role modeling and 'The 50th Law' - both as an exposition of the dictum "Get rich or die trying" and as a treatise on being (and becoming) a man in an age where celebrities represent icons of social success: artistic spectacles and entrepreneurs, heavenly bodies and commodities.

So what is 'The 50th Law' ultimately about: celebrity endorsement, masculine therapy, business advice or existentialism? All of them and more. Its really a legal discourse with Fiddy in his role as judge and jury, rebranding himself in executive chic, and taking on the likes of rapper Alan Sugar in da bookstore. Now I bet you're fired!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Florence + the Machine at the Academy, Manchester, 25th September 2009

Last night I saw Florence + the Machine play a sell-out show at the Academy and was not disappointed. With her ample vocal talent, Florence Welch has single-handedly made the name "Florence" cool to a new generation. Perhaps because the gig was timed to coincide with the end of Freshers Week, the Manchester crowd absolutely loved her. She has a tender, soaring voice reminiscent of Souixie Souix meeting Kate Bush on some pagan ritual site, with dashes of Chrissy Hynde and Dido thrown in for good measure. As you might gather, I'm a fan; I like the way she has arrived on the UK music scene with a strong voice and an aesthetic identity that combines 1970s vintage with slight undertones of the gothic macabre. Some of Florence's more tormented lyrics remind one of the sort of things Gordon Downie of the Tragically hip used to write. Lines like "There's a ghost in my mouth in it talks in my sleep" and "A kiss from a fist is better than none."

This time she was dressed in a black, wizard sleeve creation which looked like something out of a Hammer horror film - the garb of a high preistess - and she made it work, raising her arms and trailing them like a charred butterfly, even twirling on stage. She seemed to sing as if a trance, and when she stepped out of it for a moment, a different person could be glimpsed; a shy and jaunty young woman dressing up to explore the meanings of this new identity, gleefully stepping into a theatre of ritual just for the sake of art. Her band even have a classical harpist to give their sound an ethereal dimension.

It's great to see someone like that at the peak of their powers and appreciated for it by a live audience. Perhaps educated by Spotify, the crowd seemed to know all her songs and was behind her all the way. In some senses, Florence is of course conforming to traditional standards of feminity, but she is doing it with an aesthetic that runs so counter to the whole direction of contemporary plastic pop that you can't help supporting her for it... Maybe her sound marks a return to the kind of dreamy songwriting of the 1980s? If the major labels continue to find and promote artists like this, they may have more longevity than we might think.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mark's posts on the music industry

Magazine, fandom and the music industry (how to avoid the mistakes of an artistic genius)

The end of the noughties (a decade where attention to consumer technologies overtook content)

Magazine, fandom and the music industry

I've just finished reading Helen Chase's biography of my favourite band, Magazine. My experience as a fan began in the mid-1980s, when my younger brother introduced me to their music. It was, to say the least, an acquired taste, after my diet of early 1980s pop. Yet soon it had a hold of me: lead singer Howard Devoto's towering lyrics and cold cerebral voice seemed scary, surreal, knowing, too private and personal, out of time - intellectually triumphant but emotionally struggling. Like sexuality, music has a power to transform early trauma and unhappiness into something pleasurable.

Devoto used his music to show us who he was and what art could be. It connected with me and I soon found myself on a mission to collect all the band's vinyl. There were times when I would walk into a record shop and not want to listen to anything else. (I still put Magazine and Devoto in their own genre on my ipod, as there's nothing else like it; they made it their own way.) I can remember pouring over Record Collector and going what seemed like half way across the country to find Adrian's Record Shop in Wickford, Essex and procure some rare Magazine 12 inch singles, like I was on the trail of something fascinating.

My encounter with Magazine was therefore as alienated as they sounded, and a bit fetistishic too. In 1988, after Devoto had re-entered the music industry and formed Luxuria, we - my two brothers and I - went to see them play in Colchester. Although his music never lost its grip and I remained a fan for years, Devoto went AWOL again until he reunited with the band last year for some dates. Needless to say I was at the front in the Forum to greet them on their return. As a side note here, I was a bit shocked by the audience of boozed-up fifty-something skinheads who made up the bulk of the crowd, aside from a few intellectuals of various ages. Nevertheless, they were still great, and I even met Howard and keyboardist Dave Formula momentarily backstage at their Aftershow party in Manchester.

I mention all this because Chase's biography presents a portrait of a band that I only ever really knew through their music, so it filled in some blanks for me. What is clear is that while Devoto was great for music, he was often bad for business, trying to prove his ego and refusing to play the game. One is never sure whether Devoto missed his mark or never really wanted the big time, but either way he made a few mistake that I want to explore, in hope that budding musicians out there might not make them too:

1) Insisting on doing everything differently, meant that Devoto screwed things up with his record company. The band had bad timing, purposely missing its first invitation to Top of The Pops. Devoto also made everyone pay to get in one showcase gig, a move hardly likely to endear him to the press or record company. To add to that, Magazine released one single without any promotion at all, and others within a very short space of time of each other, competing against themselves in effect. The only advice I can offer here is: by all means do it differently once you are very famous and selling heaps of records. In the meantime, like the art stay in the music and let the business operate around it as per usual.

2) Devoto's intellectual games with the press eventually backfired on him. Reporters started referring to him as "Howie" (urgh) and describing him and his music as pretentious. I give Magazine props for never maximizing their market like the more anthemic Simple Minds did, even though it cost them commercially. Nevertheless, Devoto used his Buzzcocks ticket to the spotlight to begin biting the writing hand that fed him, and when it bit back he shrunk from publicity altogether.

3) Ignoring the trend and being too clever never really worked in Magazine's favour. While their second album, 'Secondhand Daylight,' might just be my favourite record ever, it must have landed like an alien object in its day, as it completely ignored the plot. Of course, I don't believe in plots either, but doing so made no commercial sense. Critics panned the album as "prog rock" and attempted to bury the group. It was way too bleak, up-close and intense to be prog, but that was an easy label to hand. The moral is that you have to check which way the wind is blowing if you don't want it to blow you over.

4) Magazine's gift was that they had a range of players, styles and personalities to temper and bring the best out of Devoto. They made edgy music for an edgy lead singer - compare some of the more mellow material on Luxuria's second LP Beastbox, which killed Devoto's art in my opinion (though not in his). There was a penduluos dynamic in the band between keyboards and guitar on each album, which meant that their genius guitarist John McGeogh - the man who put the avant-jazz into post-punk - felt creatively suppressed, so he left for the more popular Soiuxie and the Banshees, ripping the heart out of Magazine's sound.

It's interesting to compare the careers of Devoto and the German musician Blixa Bargeld, as I think Bargeld had the career that Devoto should have had, straddingly rock and the avant-garde with surprizing ease. With his interest in border crossings and feeding the enemy, maybe Howard was just born in the wrong country.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Binks Building, University of Chester
Friday 25th June 2010

Click here to see how the day went.

Keynote speaker: Matt Hills


Start time: 9.30am, room 013/2, Binks Building, main Parkgate Road campus.

While a range of researchers in cultural studies - notably Henry Jenkins, Matt Hills and Cornell Sandvoss - have moved the discussion about media fandom forward, much less work has been done specifically on popular music fandom. Confirmed speakers...

Tonya Anderson, University of Sunderland:

Still Kissing their Posters Goodnight: The Shift from Individual to Communal ‘Bedroom Culture’ as Pop Idol Fandom goes Online

Dr Lucy Bennett, Cardiff University:

Triskaidekaphobics: R.E.M. Fans in Pursuit of the Ultimate First Listen

Nancy Bruseker, University of Liverpool:

With(in) the Band: the Queering of the Female Fan Experience

Dr Mark Duffett, University of Chester:

Fan Words: Towards a New Vocabulary of Fan Theory

Dr Karen Fournier, University of Michigan:

From Fandom to Stardom in Punk: The Female Experience

John Harries, Recording Artist:

David Bowie: A Case Study of the Established Artist as Fan and ‘Musical Conscience’ for the Mainstream

Jack Harrison, Georgetown University, USA:

Critiquing the Lyrics, Critiquing the Music: Inverting the Critical Work of Fanvids

Dr Nedim Hassan, University of Liverpool:

Hidden Fans? Fandom and Domestic Musical Activity

Dr Matt Hills, Cardiff University:

Keynote speech: Post-popular music, mnemic communities, and intermediary fandoms: Challenging general approaches to fan culture?

Martin King, Principal lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University:

Beatlemania: In the Beginning there was the Scream

Alexei Michailowsky, UNIRIO, Brazil:

When the Researcher is a Fan: Methodological Points on Carrying Out Research into Your Favourite Artist

Dr Beate Peter, University of Salford:

Metalheadz, Punks, Ravers: Genre, Fandom and the Non-musical Expression of Belonging

Janne Poikolainen, University of Helsinki, Finland:

‘I Love You Paul!’: Adolescent Sexuality and Finnish Female Fandom at the Turn of the 1950s and 1960s

Dr Nicola Smith, University of Wales Institute Cardiff:

Constructing Northern Soul Fandom in the Absence of an Artist: Issues of Identity, Originality, Ownership and Locality

Simone Varriale, University of Bologna, Italy:

Politicizing Fandom: Music Listeners as Imagined Subjectivities in the 1970s Italian Music Press

Rebecca Williams, Lecturer, University of Glamorgan:

‘Anyone who calls Muse a Twilight band will be shot on sight’: Music, Fandom, and Distinction in the Twilight Franchise

Nancy Young, Lesley University, USA:

Highlighting Theory and Research Relevant to the Identity Development of GLBTQ Dusty Springfield Fans

... Speakers - click for FAQs.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Some 2009 pop research books

From a review list for the journal Popular Music, these recent offerings are mainly published by Ashgate and American university presses:

Baraka, Amiri (2009) Digging The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music.
UCLA Press.

Bayer, Gerd ed. (2009) Heavy Metal Music in Britain. Ashgate.

Bicknell, Jeanette (2009) Why Music Moves Us. Palgrave Macmillan.

Cooper, David (2009) The Musical Traditions of Northern Ireland and its Diaspora.
Community and Conflict
. Ashgate.

Charters, Samuel (2009) A Language of Song, Journeys in the Musical World of the
African Diaspora.
Duke University Press.

Dibben, Nicola (2009) Björk. Equinox/Indiana University Press.

Ferris, William (2009) Give My Poor Heart Ease Voices of the Mississippi Blues.
University of Northern Carolina Press.

Hawkins, Stan (2009) The British Pop Dandy: Masculinity, Popular Music and Culture.

Kallimopoulou, Eleni (2009) Paradisiaká: Music, Meaning and Identity in Modern

Macías, Anthony (2008) Mexican American Mojo, Popular Music, Dance and Urban
Culture in Los Angeles 1935-1968
. Duke University Press.

Morgan, Marcyliena (2009) The Real Hip Hop, Battling for Knowledge , Power and
Respect in the LA Underground
. Duke University Press.

Perone, James. (2009) Mods, Rockers and the Music of the British Invasion.

Plasketes, George (2009) B-Sides, Undercurrents and Overtones: Peripheries to
Popular in Music, 1960 to the Present
. Ashgate.

Ragland, Cathy (2009) Música Norteña, Mexican Migrants Creating a Nation between
. Temple University Press.

Seniors, Paula Marie (2009) Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing, The Cultural of
Uplift, Identity and Politics in Black Musical Theatre
. Ohio State University Press.

Sheehy, Colleen and Swiss, Thomas eds (2009) Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan's
Road from Minnesota to the World.
University of Minnesota Press.

Smith, Graeme (2009) Singing Australian, A History of Folk and Country Music. Pluto

Smith, Chris (2009) 101 Albums that Changed Popular Music. OUP.

Tirro, Frank (2009) The Birth of the Cool of Miles Davis and His Associates.
Pendragon Press.

Elijah Wald (2009) How The Beatles Destroyed Rock'N'Roll, An Alternative History
of American Popular Music
. Oxford University Press.

Wallach, Jeremy (2008) Modern Noise, Fluid Genres Popular Music in Indonesia
. University of Wisconsin Press.

Welberry, Karen and Dalziell, Tanya (2009) Cultural Seeds, Essays on the Work
of Nick Cave
. Ashgate.

Friday, July 31, 2009

'Gangsta Rap': Louis Theroux's Weird Weekend, BBC2

I've just been watching a re-run of the Gangsta Rap episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekend. Louis is infamous for craftily highlighting the abnormality of his subjects - usually religious fundamentalists, sex cults or celebrity eccentrics - by acting so unassumingly "normal" himself (read: white, middle class) that they appear to tell their own story. Here he is out to spear a bigger fish, the way in which the rap industry sells social dysfunction to America's black community.

What the show makes clear, first, is that gangsta rap is promoted by a legitimate industry - a constellation of associated cottage operations (marketing, lyrics, recording, radio, etc). These craft units steer emerging artists towards a market place that demands extreme masculinity, rebellion and violence. They recruit raw material based on a dream of "making it", a dream which in this case - and this is what makes gangsta rap problematic - is associated with "keeping it real": dabbling in illegitimate industries like drug dealing and pimping.

In this murky world exploitation seems to be the watch word, as every element symbiotically feeds off each other. Sometimes the exploitation is mutual and sometimes it is not. Aside from his fumblings as a budding, white boy rapper who rhymes "Fiat" with "biatch", Louis' main point is that there are black victims here, as the gangsta industry revels in the glamour of the outlaw. Thus there is the black rapper who decides that he needs to keep pimping in order to stay real and avoid the tag of "studio gangster"; his prostitute, who is herself lured with the offer of making an album; and even the college-educated New Orleans black kids who are making porn while playing at the rap game.

In the weirdness of Louisville, rap becomes a hall of mirrors in which rappers pose as gangsters and real drug dealers also pose as drug dealers. Beneath the romanticist affirmations ("keep it real... you gotta have heart") that Louis encounters, everyone has a financial game plan and publicity agenda (including Theroux), and nobody is quite as they seem.

I am reminded of James Clifford who in Writing Culture described how anthropological explorers conceptually constructed the tribes they claimed simply to report. As a construction, Louis's Weird Weekend is a white report from the ghetto - still understood as a bitter-sweet gangsta's paradise. If the elements of tragedy are what keep us watching, what we forget is that gangsta is a variant on two much wider-spread ideologies of western life: the American dream and consumerism. While a select few like Master P make it, as Louis shows, the others can only live in poverty and in hope.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Discussions about academic writing

I recently found this article in which Lindsay Waters (commissioning editor for Harvard University Press) bemoans the focus on books and gimmicks in academia. Instead he celebrates the essay and journal articles as part of the solid groundwork of academic research. (Also see this piece by him.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

IASPM International Conference 2009 - Some readings

I've just returned from the 2009 IASPM International conference in Liverpool and want to list a few sources mentioned by the many speakers. I will also categorize them...

Salgado-Correia, J. (2008) 'Do Performer and Listener Share the Same Musical Meaning?,' Estudios de Psicología 29, 1, 49-69.

Kun, J. (2005) Audiotopia: Music, Race and America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Major, K. (1989) Dear Bruce Springsteen. New York: Vikings Children Books.

Mulvey, L. (2005) Death 24 x a Second. London: Reaktion Books.

Regev, M. (2007) 'Cultural Uniqueness and Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism,' European Journal of Social Theory 10, 123-138.

Staiger, J. (1992) Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historic Reception of American Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

St John, G. (2009) Technomad: Global Raving Countercultures. London: Equinox.

Bode, L. (2008) '"Casting From Forest Lawn Cemetary": Re-animating Dead Stars,' Conference Paper, 14th International Symposium on Electronic Art, Singapore.

Clarke, D. (2007) 'Elvis and Darmstadt, or: Twentieth-Century Music and the Politics of Cultural Pluralism,' Twentieth Century Music 4, 3-45.

Cowan, S. (2009) 'The Elvis We Deserve: The Social Regulation of Sex/Gender and Sexuality Through Cultural Representations of "the King",' Law, Culture and the Humanities, 2010; U. of Edinburgh School of Law Working Paper No. 2009/05.

Davis, S. (2009) Lionel Richie: Hello. London: Equinox.

Dibben, N. (2009) Bjork. London: Polity Press.

Griffiths, D. (2007) Elvis Costello. London: Polity Press.

Laing, D. (2009) Buddy Holly. London: Polity Press.

Marshall, L. (2007) Bob Dylan: The Neverending Star. Cambrdige: Polity Press.

Negus, K. (2008) Bob Dylan. London: Polity Press.

Whitesell, L. (2008) The Music of Joni Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Witts, R. (2006) The Velvet Underground. London: Polity Press.

Bredbeck, G. (1996) 'Troping the Light Fantastic,' GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3, 1, 71-107.

Clarke, E. (1993) 'Generativity, Mimesis and the Human Body in Music Performance,' Contemporary Music Review 9, 1-2, 207-219.

Dibben, N. (2002) 'Constructions of Femininity in 1990s Girl Group Music,' Feminism & Psychology 12, 2, 168-75.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, B. (2005) 'The Corporeal Turn,' The New Jewish Quarterly Review 95, 3, 447-461.

Maus, M. (2005) 'Techniques of the Body,' in Fraser, M. and Greco, M. eds The Body: A Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 73-77. (Listening can be seen as a "technique".)

Middleton, R. (2006) ‘Last Night a DJ Saved My Life’: Avians, Cyborgs and Siren Bodies in the Era of Phonographic Technology,' Radical Musicology 1, available online:

O'Neill, J. (2004) Five Bodies: Refiguring Social Relationships. London: Sage.

Potter, J. (2008) Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, N. (2008) 'God Hates Us All: Kant, Radical Evil and the Diabolical Monstrous Human in Heavy Metal,' in Scott, N. ed Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. New York: Editions-Rudopi, 13-240.

Toth, K. (2002) 'Looking for Hip Hop: Seeing the Body Communicate in Everyday Social Encounters and Visual Commodity Culture,' Yale Journal of Sociology 2, 25-64

Anderson, B. (2004) 'Recorded Music and Practices of Remembering,' Social & Cultural Geography 5, 1, 3-20

Frith, S. (1984) 'Rock and the Politics of Remembering,' Social Text 9, 10, 59-69.

Moore, P. (2009) 'Practical Nostalgia and the Critique of Commodicification: The "Death of Hockey" and the National Hockey League,' Australian Journal of Anthropology 13, 3, 309-322.

Van Dijck, J. (2007) Mediated Memories in a Digital Age. Stanford. (Also see his article

Belk, R. (2001) Collecting in a Consumer Society. London: Routledge.

Regev, M. (2006) 'Introduction: Special Issue on Canonization,' Popular Music 25, 1, 1-2. (Plus other pieces in the same issue.)

Shuker, R. (2010) Wax Trash and Vinyl Treasures. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Wheeler, L. (2006) 'Collectormania! I am a Woman... Record Collector,' Goldmine 673, 28.

Burnett, R. and Wikstrom, P. (2009) The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud. London: Wiley.

Buxton, D. (1990) 'Rock Music, The Star System and the Rise of Consumerism,' in Frith, S. and Goodwin, A. eds On Record: Rock, Pop & the Written Word. London: Routledge, 366-377.
Huhn, T. ed (2004) The Cambridge Companion to Adorno. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robertson, R. (1995) 'Glocalization,' in Featherstone, M. and Lash, S. et al eds Global Modernities. London: Sage, 23-44.

Stahl, M. (2008) 'Recording Artists, Works for Hire, Employment, and Appropriation,' Social Science Research Network, working paper.

Stratton, J. (1983) 'Capitalism and Romantic ideology in the record business,' Popular Music 3, 143-156.

Bernstein, D. ed (2008) The San Francisco Tape Music Centre: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brown, S. (2006) The Perpetual Music Track: The Phenomenon of Constant Musical Imagery,' Journal of Consciousness Studies 13, 6, 25-44.

Bailey, P. (2004) 'Breaking the Sound Barrier,' in Smith, M. ed Hearing History. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 23-35.

Born. G. (2005) 'On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity,' Twentieth Century Music 2, 1, 7-36.

Chow, R. (1993) 'Listening Otherwise, Music Miniaturized: A Different Type of Question About Revolution,' in During, S. ed The Cultural Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 382-402.

Cooper, B. (1990) Popular Music Perspectives. Chapel Hill: Bowling Green University Press. (Explores lyrical themes and includes chapters on trains, death, etc.)

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986) Nomadology: The War Machine. Semiotext(e).

Deleuze, G. (1990) The Logic of Sense. Columbia: Columbia University Press.

Katz, M. (2004) Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Keightley, K. (1996) 'Turn It Down! She Shrieked: Gender, Domestic. Space, and High Fidelity, 1948–59,' Popular Music 15, 2, 149–77.

Keightley, K. (2007) Long Play: Adult-Oriented Popular Music and the Temporal Logics of the Post-War Sound Recording Industry in the USA,' Media, Culture & Society 26, 3, 375-391.
Lebefvre, H. (2004) Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Continuum.

Murray, C. and Sixsmith, J. (1999) 'The Corporeal Body in Virtual Reality,' Ethos 27, 3, 315-343.

Nardi, C. (2004) 'Zen in the Art of Sound Engineering,' Playing by Eye, University of Berlin - Humboldt, PhD thesis.

Sterne, J. (2003) The Audible Past. Durham: Duke.

Straw, W. (2009) 'The Music CD and Its Ends,' Design and Culture 1, 1, 79-91.

La Chapelle, P. (2007) Proud to be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music and Migration to Southern California. Berkeley: University of California.

Mazor, B. (2009) Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ramesy, G. (2003) Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-hop. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schloss, J. (2009) Foundation: B-boys, B-girls and Hip-hop Culture in New York. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brackett, D. (2000) Interpreting Popular Music. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Everett, W. (2009) The Foundations of Rock. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Garrett, C. (2008) Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hayward, P. ed (2009) Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema. London: Equinox.

Moore, A. ed (2003) Analysing Popular Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Partridge, C. and Christianson, E. eds (2009) The Lure of the Dark Side: Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture. London: Equinox.

Thompson, G. (2008) Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waksman, S. (2009) This Ain't No Summer of Love: Conflic and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wald, E. (2009) How the Beatles Destroyed Rock'n'Roll. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Walter Benjamin's 'Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century' (1939)

I've just been reading Benjamin's classic essay and wish to summarize and comment on it here as a piece of critical historical research. The Paris essay is a summary of a vast collection of quotes called 'The Arcades Project' which itself a blueprint for a different history of Paris. In this history Benjamin ignores the grand narratives and collects the detritus and refuse of the past instead, piecing it together to let it tell a story that subverts the recieved version. If the recieved story talks of great men, grand inventions and teleologiocal progress, Benjamin wants to talk about it as an apology for capitalist society. He does this by creating a different history that corrodes capitalism's centre piece: the exchange value of the commodity form. The Frankfurt scholar starts off with a quote from Maxime Du Camp: "History is like Janus; it has two faces. Whether it looks at the past or the present, it sees the same things." This sets up a resonance between the past and present that Benjamin will further exploit. I will now summarize Benjamin's work (in bold) with commentary.

The grand version of history forgets the effort that society makes to create its new inventions and forms of behaviour within a universe of illusory distraction. We can see this illusion by looking at its ideological work and separate details. Here the flaneur (wandering consumer) abandons himself to the illusory distractions of the marketplace. City dwellers need to stamp their individuality on their rooms. Commodity-producing society surrounded itself with pomp and glamour, but the Paris Commune showed it was nevertheless vulnerable. This is because newness cannot really save society so long as its inhabitants are still distracted.

The Paris arcades were built 1822-1837 by the textile trade as forerunners of the department stores. They sold luxury items and represented art put in service of commerce in microcosms of the city where construction was like the subconscious (a blueprint of what was to come). Their frames were developed of iron girders, themselves facilitated by the prefabrication technology used for rails. The utopian philosopher Fourier wanted society and its individuals to operate smoothly like a machine (not guided by moraility or virtue). His ideas were crystallized in the new shops and the apartments inhabited by flaneurs.

Preceeded by exhibitions of industry, world exhibitions were entertaining and educative place of pilgrimage for commodity fetishism. They taught the workers to believe in exchange value by the display of luxury goods from a world marketplace. Fashion was the ritual by which commodity fetishism demanded to be worshipped, as it made unnatural material sexy. With the emergence of the individual person (as opposed to group or class member), places of dwelling became important as private spaces. In a city lacking privacy it was here that people could sustain some illusion of it. In charge of this space, each individual collected and used art to represent their ideal universe, assembled from traces of far off places and distant memories. Their interiors became their cockpits. Yet by the end of the nineteenth century there is nowhere left to hide, so people started personalizing their offices instead.

The poet Charles Baudelaire used allegory to talk about his alienation on the streets of Paris. He was a flaneur - an intellectual grappling with the marketplace - a bohemian. Yet he couldn't rebel as he was too asocial to be anything more than an individual; in cities, individuals were now just representatives of their types. Allegory is like exchange value in its ability to compare everything, so Baudelaire added novelty to his work, but by now that too was a strategy of the commodity form.

Meanwhile Baron Haussman's despotic urban planning no longer made poor Parisians feel at home. Financial speculation drove them into the suburbs and Haussman demolished part of the city to prevent civil unrest. He was unsuccessful. As the Commune raised the barricades it broke an illusion by reminding workers that they had yet to succeed in collaboration with their masters. Finally, in 'Eternity via the Stars' the bohemian Auguste Blanqui traced out a version of society which was to be its next illusion - Paris as hell! - because "progress" really meant novelty parading as antiquity in diguise. Novelty and distraction are the hallmark of modernity, but for Blanqui they could be seen as attributes of everything sentenced to damnation.

... Benjamin's work is exemplary in some ways for the way it combines criticism with explanation and moves so smoothly between real place and events, ideas and sociological phenomena. The Frankfurt scholar goes after some big fish here (the ideological function of history, premised of the commodity form), but does so in a way that keeps things literary, fresh and interesting. There are a lot of lessons in that.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Great bifurcations: Michael Jackson's posthumous roles and remainders

Already a motion in the US Senate to declare Michael Jackson “an American legend and musical icon (and) a world humanitarian” has been blocked by Republican Peter King who said on Fox News and CNN that Jackson was an alleged pervert, child molester and paedophile. Beyond its interesting racial and party political context (Texan Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee represented Congress and the U.S. Black Caucus at the Jackson memorial on Tuesday) this moment of cultural politics says something important about memory and celebrity in a wider sense. Jackson is not the first hero in popular music to be disputed: on a smaller scale memorials for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were both challenged by their home towns. How then should we see this debate?

Writing about Elvis in 1990, Lynn Spigel opposed official and popular memory, arguing that official memory seeks to close down the meaning of a life, but popular memory (such as tabloid gossip) continually opens it up, creating a welter of stories in which elements of the star's life become founding myths. Any moments of ambiguity about the star facilitate an endless stream of speculation and gossip. Here one example would be the genetic origin of Michael Jackson's children: Were they really his? Was Debbie Rowe their biological mother or was she impregnated invitro? Who was the real father - his skin doctor? etc. Equally, Jackson's sexuality and activities with children have always been in doubt.

It is important to realize that official and unofficial memory are both the vehicles for and results of different commodity markets. State institutions see Michael as a hegemonic figure as much as the tabloids that print revelations about him.

So was Michael a pervert or great entertainer? Maybe he was both. However, popular memory seems to have a hard time accepting the duality. Instead we are beginning to see a bifurcation: the emergence of two Michaels, each with its own shadow (or, in Lacanian terms, remainder). A good example of this was ITV's recent decision to rebroadcast Martin Bashir's extended interview documentary Living with Michael Jackson next week without the segment in which the singer argues for the appropriateness of 'non-sexually' sharing your bed with under-age boys. Is the channel appropriately celebrating a music hero or capitulating in the face of mass emotion supports that seeks to whitewash a celebrity criminal?

The media has such dilemmas because we increasingly unable as a society to separate cultural workers out from the contents of their work. While peers in the music industry can understand that, say, a songwriter can invent dramatic material which is totally unrelated to their private lives, audiences raised on the romantic myth of the artist have a tendency look for links between the two things. As the private lives of stars become commodities (commodities that they too manipulate), audiences are left to investigate a new distinction: the difference between the image and "the real man" (another phantom). Industry figures like Stevie Wonder and Quincey Jones could therefore happily separate the entertainer from the person, but the rest of the world could not.

This, then, is the irony: when a star dies their private life reaches rock bottom (at least in how we interpret it), yet their career reaches its peak. The renewed exposure of both their life-as-tragedy and their monumental work opens the floodgates for all manner of ambiguous readings, but it gradually extends the process of bifurcation too, as the "both / and" Michael - entertainer and potential child abuser - restlessly disappears under a growing need to simplify his legend. One wonders how the Neverland tour guides will cope!

On a ghoulish note, one way that cultural critics decided to close down the "both / and" reading of Michael was to see him as a ghost before he died, a reading which also fits in with the metaphysics of tabloid culture. On one hand Paul Morley said on BBC2's Newsnight Review that Jackson was already gone: his finest musical work behind him and over by the 1990s, as the tabloid freaky took over to recycle remnants of the giant that once existed. Equally, Paul Burger of Sony said in Music Week that they had already lost Michael ten years ago. In parallel, press coverage of Jackson's last days as paint him as a "frail" old man. Taking it to extremes, The National Enquirer this week discussed "The Shocking State of Michael's Body", anatomically breaking it into elements marking both his bodily abnormality (skeletal bodyweight, etc) and artificiality: wig, fake nose, pills in his stomach, surgical scars.

Pale as a corpse, in his last days Jackson was more than ever a ghost, fading from his musical achievements and public interactions, continually ghost-busted by the paparazzi. Despite the public's interest in his live musical comeback, in tabloid culture it was still as if, by popular demand, the man in the mirror had swapped places with his monstrous role in Thriller, and now he was post-natural and - in Deleuzian terms - a body (of work) without organs.

Check this blog on the cultural myth of Michael Jackson.

Mark's posts on Celebrity

Great bifuractions: Michael Jackson's posthumous roles and remainders

The "Mention Elvis" rule

Ronnie James Dio - laid to rest (a heavy metal funeral)

Fiske Matters Conference (11th - 12th June 2010, with audios)

Faking it (some useful questions to ask about imposters)

I Have Admired You for Many Years (Star-fan encounters and the performance of identity)

All Watched Over By Machines (Adam Curtiz' BBC2: our emotions as commodities online)

Making Things Whole Again - Take That Reunion Events (Anja Lobert and Tim Wise's conference and exhibition on the living culture of 1990s Take That fandom)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Michael Jackson bibliography

Anthony Neale, M. (2009) ‘Conjuring Michael,’ Blog post - available online: (retrieved 6/7/09)

Awkward, M. (1995) ‘“A Slave to the Rhythm”: Essential(ist) Transmutations; Or, the Curious Case of Michael Jackson,’ in Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender and the Politics of Positionality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 175-192.

Baudrillard, J. (1993) The Transparency of Evil. London: Verso.

Brackett, D. (2002) ‘(In Search of) Musical Meanings: Genres, Categories and Crossover,’ in Hesmondhalgh, D. and Negus, K. eds Popular Music Studies. London: Arnold, pp. 65-84.

Dyson, M. (1993) ‘Michael Jackson’s Postmodern Spirituality,’ Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 35-63.

Epstein, D. and Steinberg, D. (2007) ‘The Face of Ruin: Evidentiary Spectacle and the Trial of Michael Jackson,’ Social Semiotics 17, 4, 441-458.

Erni, J. (1998) ‘Queer Figurations in the Media: Critical Reflections on the Michael Jackson Sex Scandal,’ Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15, 2, 158-180.

Frith, S. (2002) Performing Rites. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fuchs, C. (1995) ‘Michael Jackson’s Penis,’ in Brett, P. et al Cruising the Performative: Interventions into Representing of Ethnicity, Nationality and Sexuality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 13-33.

Gilroy, P. (1996) The Black Atlantic: Modernity and the Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Gray, H. (2006) ‘Michael Jackson, Television, and Post-Op Distasters,’ Television & New Media 7, 1, 41-50.

Haraway, D. (2004) The Haraway Reader. New York: Routledge.

Hills, M. (2007) ‘Michael Jackson Fans on Trial? “Documenting” Emotivism and Fandom in Wacko About Jacko,’ Social Semiotics 17, 4, 459-477.

Johnson, V. (1993) ‘The Politics of Morphing: Michael Jackson as Scientific Border Text,’ Velvet Light Trap 32, 58-65.

King, J. (1999) ‘Form and Function: Superstardom and Aesthetics in the Music Videos of Michael and Janet Jackson,’ Velvet Light Trap 44, 80-96.

Kitzinger, J. and Moorti, S. (2007) ‘Introduction to “Framing Michael Jackson: Celebrity on Trial”,’ Social Semiotics 17, 4, 413-415.

Martin, G. (1995) ‘Slayed in Fame,’ in Kureishi, H. and Savage, J. eds The Faber Book of Pop. London: Faber and Faber, 775-785.

Mercer, K. (1993) ‘Monster Metaphors: Notes on Michael Jackson’s Thriller,’ in Frith, S. et al eds Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 93-108.

Silberman, S. (2007) ‘Presenting Michael JacksonTM,’ Social Semiotics 17, 4, 417-440.

Tate, G. (1992) ‘I’m White! What’s Wrong with Michael Jackson?’ in Flyboy in the Buttermilk. New York: Simon and Schuster, 95-99.

Wallace, M. (1990) ‘Michael Jackson, Black Modernisms, and “the Ecstacy of Communication,”’ in Invisibility Blues. New York: Verso, pp.77-90.

Whiteley, S. (2005) Too Much, Too Young: Popular Music, Age and Gender. London: Routledge, 36-44.

Williams, P. (2009) ‘Viewpoint: Michael Jackson – Nothing Left to Prove,’ Music Week 4th July, p.2-3.

Williams, P. (2009) ‘Michael Jackson 1958-2009,’ Music Week 4th July, p.1.

Willis, S. (1990) ‘I Want the Black One: Is There a Place for Afro-American culture in commodity Culture?,’ New Formations 10, 77-97.

Yuan, D. (1996) ‘The Celebrity Freak: Michael Jackson’s Grotesque Glory’ in Thomson, R. ed Freakery. New York: NYU Press, pp. 368-400.

Zuberi, N. (2002) ‘India Song: Popular Music Genres Since Economic Liberalization,’ in Hesmondhalgh, D. and Negus, K. eds Popular Music Studies. London: Arnold, pp. 238-250.

Special bibliographies

Some 2009 pop research books

Global Culture (link to a USC course with a valuable reading list)

IASPM book reviews

Michael Jackson

IASPM-US & Canada 2006

IASPM-US & Canada 2007

World Music Days (Hong Kong, 2007: canons, covers, glitch)

Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction (Oslo, 2007)

IASPM International Conference 2009 (fractions of most topics)

Kraftwerk - men and machines

On Thursday 2nd July my colleague David Pattie, my friend Jon and I descended on the Manchester Velodrome to see a set by the electro-pop legends, Kraftwerk. With only Ralf Hutter left from the original line-up, they still managed to put on an amazing "performance" - I put the term in speechmarks because with Kraftwerk, you just see four men standing at lecturns clicking away on their laptops. They look like they might be aboard the Starship Enterprize as they call up samples and create their pioneering brand of electronic dance music.

Kraftwerk have always faced a dilemma when playing "live": how can such calculated, pre-programmed music also seem spontaneous? They managed to keep the show successfully afloat with several integral gimmicks, the first being the British Olympic team who zipped round the track for 'Tour de France' and added a physicality to the portrayal of gender. Then they wheeled out the dummies (dummies were more performative than they were!). Finally the audience donned 3D glasses for a grand finale.

The group wore dull or "networked" suits for the whole show and - along with some computer animation behind them - audience members were asked in effect to focus squarely on their heads. This, after all, is head-led music. I therefore found myself wondering what I was seeing. As Ralf Hutter gestured to speak out his vocals, was it worth getting a closer look? It was as if the smallest traces of their bodily performance - the tap of a foot here, the shifting of an elbow there - revealed that they were feeling and thus humanly making them music. Their slightly moving bodies gave away clues that they were feeling their form of music into being, and that notion humanized the event. Meanwhile it was clear that artists like Daft Punk and Squarepusher have now taken the thrillride into digital futurism much further than the German four piece, and yet nobody cared. As Ralf Hutter anonymously shuffled back on the shuttle to Dusseldorf, perhaps he was feeling fine with the idea that Kraftwerk are now an object of retro-tech nostalgia.

Fandom and Celebrity - recent bibliographic finds

Some recent sources found when looking for fan-related scholarship:

Beebe, R. (2002) 'Mourning Becomes...? Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and the "Waning of Affect",' in Beebe, R. et al eds Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Cultures. London: Duke University Press, 311-334.

Franco, J. (2006) 'Langsters Online: kd lang and the Creation of Internet Fan Communities,' in Holmes, S. and Redmond, S. eds Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture. London: Routledge, 269-284.

Hamilton, M. (2007) 'Searching for the Blues: James McKune, Collectors and a Different Crossroads,' in Weisbard, E. ed Listen Again: A Momentary History of Popular Music. London: Duke University Press, 26-49.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2007) 'Audiences and Everyday Aesthetics: Talking About Good and Bad Music', European Journal of Cultural Studies 10(4): 507-27.

Hills, M. (2007) 'Fans on Trial? "Documenting" Emotivism and Fandom in Wacko About Jacko,' Social Semiotics 17, 4, 459-477.

McCann, G. (1995) 'Biographical Boundaries: Sociology and Marilyn Monroe,' in Featherstone, M. et al eds The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. London: Sage, pp. 325-338.

Mihelich, J. and Papineau, J. (2005) 'Parrotheads in Margaritaville: Fan Practice, Oppositional culture, and Embedded Cultural Resistance in Buffett Fandom,' Journal of Popular Music Studies 17, 2, 175-202.

Stevenson, N. (2009) 'Talking to Bowid Fans: Masculinity, Ambivalence and Cultural Citizenship,' Euopean Journal of Cultural Studies 12, 1, 79-98.

Zanes, R. (2002) 'A Fan's Notes: Identification, Desire and the Haunted Sound Barrier,' in Beebe, R. et al eds Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Cultures. London: Duke University Press, 291-310.

Mark's current research projects...

For spring 2011 I am focusing on several projects:

a) A book on Elvis Presley for the Equinox series, Icons of Popular Music.

b) A textbook on media fandom for Continuum.

c) An article on Hitchcock's The Birds for the Journal of Celebrity Culture.

d) A conference paper on the reception of Ben Myer's book Richard for the upcoming LitPop conference.

e) Guest editing a special issue of Popular Music and Society on fandom.

Follow my research on Twitter

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mark's posts on Race

Judge Dread (The 1970s cockney reggae answer to Eminem)

Michael Jackson (1958-2009) (The myth of pop's greatest legend)

Michael Jackson's swansong: 'This is It' (2009)

'Gangsta Rap', Louis Theroux's Weird Weekend, BBC2 (New Orleans rap and the glamorization of violence)

Literacy in the hood (on Fifty Cent's new self-help book 'The 50th Law')

Three kings for Christmas 2009 (Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Orson Welles)

Jews, Race and Popular Music (review of Jon Stratton's 2009 book)

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

A couple of days ago I awoke early to hear the shock news that Michael Jackson had died of a heart attack at the age of 50. The Sun's headline that day - "JACKO DEAD" - caught the ambiguities of moment. Jackson had attained royalty status as the 'King of Pop' yet he was also 'Wacko Jacko', the most eccentric celebrity and global icon of our time. Paul Morley squared this circle on BBC 2's Newsnight Review by explaining that Jackson had culturally died, in effect, in the early 1990s, and his celebrity image - "remnants" as Morley put it - had been recycling in the media ever since.

Certainly, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a turning point in Michael Jackson's long and fruitful career, or perhaps they were rather a point of inflection, like the middle of David Lynch's strange narrative in 'Lost Highway': a time when a charmed prince turned into a disillusioned king. The reason was that Michael Jackson was essentially in between and could never be anywhere else. He was adolescent, between ages -boyhood, manhood and fatherhood never sat easy with him - but equally he was between races, genders and musical styles. Jackson was the man in the middle: empire builder of a hegemonic brand that fused song, dance and show business glamour.

By jazzing up exhuberant black disco-pop and blacking up easy listening ballards, there was a sense in which Jackson's heyday post-Motown albums set the gold standard for both urban music and R'n'B slowjams. Yet as his image and stage show became more bombastic they seemed to be less and less meaningful, to the point where his ego sent a giant statue of himself floating down the Thames. By that time, his sales had gone down and coverage of his scandals gone up, leaving Jacko to disappear and focus on his process of personal reinvention: as an adolescent child-man, a young black woman (like Diana Ross or Beyonce) straightening his hair, singing like a girl and gradually getting whiter. Despite dancing opposite so many young models and frequently grabbing his twitching pelvis, somehow mature sensuality never seemed to enter his performance. He never really lasted with his wives and employed a surrogate, but those women gave him children that were half-white. In the Jackson family myth, it is his father that represented the hyper-masculine stereotype of blackness he sought to so obsessively to escape. When an increasingly white Jackson got his revenge, all his fights were choreographed. Upon his death, however, the black community reclaimed him and that was the mark of his abilities as a bridge-builder.What was that cultural centrality of Michael Jackson all about? In the last two decades, as his face changed and his skin lightened, his age seemed to settle at about 14 and his idealistic politics (at least expressed in music) remained equally universalist and utopian. Sometimes angry, sometimes happy, he seemed to oscillate around a kind of sexless, exhuberant universal centre point of identity. His personality was extremely introvert, but his performance style was extrordinarily extrovert. And in that Jackson was both the consumate performer and ultimate consumer, an American perfectionist believing that the world could be reshaped to his own desires by money - a masochist running from the pain of persecution he had himself created. Finally he disappeared into a kind of frail cyborg simulation of himself, with his children's faces shrouded in veils of gothic mystery. His last incarnation left 'Jacko' as a dandy wrecklessly bouncing about the planet, like a balloon propelled by the gas wheezing out of it: out of control, occasionally flickering into the public eye but representing nothing more than showbiz insanity. Then came the annoucement that he was to stage a huge series of fairwell concerts: a final chance to display his perfect stagecraft.

After the news came of Michael Jackson's sad demise it seemed obvious that his comeback tour would have put a huge strain on his frail psyche and aging body. What was perhaps more surprizing was the whole Elvisness of his death. There were the instantaneous outpourings of grief (now on Twitter) by friends, fans and celebrities, lurid news stories about Jackson's addiction to prescription medication, retrospective re-evaluations of Michael's contribution to popular music. A Times journalist hit the nail on the head by saying that nobody alive in the field of music had a bigger legend than Michael Jackson, but nobody had done more to get in the way of their own legend.

Now that the King of Pop has got out the way of his myth, I will take the opportunity to predict cultural cavalcade similar to that of Elvis:

  • Tacky newspaper insights into Jacksons private life and last days.
  • Bootlegs, box sets and other posthumous releases.
  • A few Jackson biopics.
  • An academic re-evaluation of Michael Jackson with PhDs, conferences, monographs, special journal editions and of course readers.
  • Michael Jackson's estate emerging as a financial player in protecting and licensing the Jackson brand and cleaning up the Jackson image.
  • Tribute concerts and live-after-death video screen spectaculars.
  • Insider revelations in the form of books and documentaries from friends and family egged on by entertainment journalists (Uri Geller is probably already ghostwriting his).
  • Coffee table Michael Jackson photo-albums.
  • A new generation of fans who will cite June 2009 as the starting point of their interest in Michael.
  • Neverland opening as a pilgrimage site.
  • A national day and or stamp in America featuring Michael Jackson.
  • Jacksonian retrospectives and re-evaluations of various sorts.
  • Spooky Jackson-a-like sightings.
  • The rise of Michael Jackson impersonation as a spectator sport.
  • A vast cultural afterlife (think "Dead Elvis" by Greil Marcus).
  • Anniversary events, fan holidays and conventions.
  • An ambiguous separation between the two Michael's: as 'Wacko Jacko' the potential paedophile and cultural joke (freighted with slights against emotional fandom and anti-Americanism), and as 'Michael' the gentle humanist and univeral musical legend.
  • Estranged pronouncements that his servile and misguided fanbase is forming a "religion".

The King of Pop's life has just ended, but his cultural career is only just beginning. He was weird, wired, unique, and the stage was his true home... I will finish, fittingly, with a recollection of reading Mixmag last year, on their 25th Anniversary edition, polling various DJs and musicans about what was their highlight in 25 years of dance music. Daft Punk said it was first seeing Michael Jackson first do his moonwalk at the Grammys in 1983. When I read that, I was unsure about whether the robotic duo were just joking. Seeing footage of the event again last night, I was sure they were not. Whoever Michael Jackson actually was - and we really don't know - he contributed such passionate vocal stylings, well crafted beats and choreographed gestures to the would of pop culture that the rest is bound to pale.

For more commentaries on MJ click here, here and here. Also see this bibliography.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"I don't deny history": on necessarily forging a passport to the past

Opening his 1953 novel The Go-Between, Leslie Poles Hartley famously wrote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Hartley's dictum evokes the historian as traveller. He or she takes on the privileged role of both explorer and translator. Sometimes reluctant, sometimes shrewd, this confused interloper relentlessly investigates with the aim of sketching a narrative map to explain the terrain of yester year. In the process they become a tourist of Otherness in a land where eccentric natives necessarily go mute.

Having been to a departmental research symposium today, I enjoyed it when my colleague Brian Machin presented a piece on his attempts to trace a family member who died in World War II. In his research Brian found several accounts that did not match and he began to consider the instability of memory as a source material for historic narratives.

As a researcher, Brian was stuck behind enemy lines without a solid map. We have often discussed the dilemmas of history and memory that he encounters and I have no intention of stealing his thunder here, but I want to discuss some things that struck me during Brian's paper. In particular, while the central narratives of history are freqently deconstructed for being "porous" and ideologically motivated, it seems to me that we sometimes forget an associated issue: that of the historian as a reflexive agent in the narrative they are creating.

I recalled James Clifford's argument about anthropologists, that by subtly exporting Western language and concepts (for example, the bloodline notion of the "tribe") researchers have actually created the very phenomenon they are claiming to report. Transposed to the colonizing narrative of history, here the historian is not just editing the past, but empire-building from the present, making in an effort to annex the foreign country that they are actually creating through their maps. And I suppose that - since ideologies are slippery and hidden as "known unknowns" - that process happens in part unconsciously, as we project on to the past. The historian therefore plays God as their subject then becomes a zombie-like doppelganger, wandering the half-forgotten marshlands of narrative memory, looking for a closure that we can choose whether we want to give them. I suggested to Brian that, in a sense, he was responsible for closing that narrative that he had started to excavate / create / curate.

The episode reminded me of Jean Baudrillard's comeback when he was accused of eschewing the historic mode of explanation. With a whiff of irresponsibility he replied, "I don't deny history. It's an immense toy." If history is such a toy, why do we play with it the way we do? To call the narrated past an individual and collective projection is not to reduce it to mere psychology. Ideologies always become values and beliefs, which in turn give events personal meanings. These meanings are emotionally expressed as memories which in turn contribute by allowing survivors to select facts and interpretations that acts as founding moments in accepted historic narratives. Finally those narratives feed back to become a resource for personal and social identities once again. (Think, for example, of the role of national identity in understandings of the trauma of war.) To cut things short I would say that we tell stories about ourselves on the basis of faulty premises, basis because our own ideologies act as founding filters for our emotively remembered past.

I wondered, would my colleague Brian have written differently if he had no family connection to his subject? Although the dispassionate historian is a myth, the distanced historian can more easily become a punk. I am thinking of Michael Lesy's book Wisconsin Death Trip in that respect.

Lesy both closed his narrative of frontier America (around local insanity) and opened it up again (but juxtaposing a craftily selected range of historic and fictional sources). The result was entertaining - as Lesy trawled through various vandals, arsonists and tear-aways - but I always thought it was a bit irresponsible on its author's part. I mean, how would you like it if your family was selectively portrayed as a gaggle of frontier fruitcakes? Oddly, one answer came from an enthusiastic reviewer on who took Lesy's story as unproblematic reportage and explained that it had motivated him to examine his own family roots in Wisconsin. To me he seemed like naively mistaking a constructed parody for an authentic resource.

Relativists might say that, well, as audiences we all make up the meanings in our own heads. What this argument forgets is that historians give us the initial resources and tools that we deploy in our quest. While people do make their own meanings, they do so in contexts not entirely of open or of their own making, situations in which - whether for pleasure, closure, or ideological affirmation - readers frequently collude with narratorial leadership.

Historians, then, necessarily forge their passports to the past in the process of (re)making the terrains that they travel. Their debt is not to some mute original fiction, but ultimately to the ideologies, values, beliefs, feelings, and of course disciplines, that guide them as authors.

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