music friday: john renbourn, 1944-2015

John Renbourn died yesterday. He had a long and valued career in music, worth digging into, but as is usually the case here, I'll personalize it and stick with what I know, which is the 1960s and "underground" radio.

My memories ... well, insert the obligatory "don't trust my old memories" ... Pentangle was a band that was listened to by many people I knew, whether on the FM radio or on their turntables. They were a band that came together gradually, even (dare I say) organically. Guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch were well-known in British folk circles, and had even recorded an album together. Singer Jacqui McShee began working with them, followed by standup bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, who brought a jazz feel. In June of 1968, they released their first album, The Pentangle, which is when they caught my attention. British Folk wasn't always my favorite genre, but here, the musicianship and the fine interplay between the band members won me, and many other listeners, over. In the modern YouTube world, you can listen to the entire album here. If you want to get right to it, though, check out "Pentangling", the one song I most associate with the band and with the summer of 1968:

 

The bass player in me loved what Thompson does here, although I never did figure out the double bass myself.

They recorded several more albums over the next years, but it was the debut that I remember best. One album, 1970's Cruel Sister, did inspire one of Robert Christgau's more memorable comments. On the way to giving the album a C+, he wrote, "I prefer "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" to the eighteen-minute 'Jack Orion,' about a noble fiddler betrayed by his serving lad. Don't they realize that every verse of 'Cruel Sister' used to end "Fa la la la la la la la la la" because in the olde days people had nothing else to do at night?"

Here is Renbourn and Jansch in 2011, playing a song from their 1966 album, Bert and John:

 

Jansch died a little more than two months after this performance.

This is John and Bert in 1967:

 

Finally, for you Led Zeppelin fans who enjoy seeing how the band was "influenced" by others, here's Jansch with the traditional "Blackwaterside". (Jimmy Page was a big fan of Jansch ... how big? Check out "Black Mountain Side", "written" by Page.)

 

 

 


going into the broad city

The city in the title of Robert Christgau's new memoir, Going Into the City, is New York. The television series Broad City, which just ended its second season, is also New York to its core. There is nothing else to connect the two works in any obvious fashion ... in one, a man in his 70s looks back on his life, in the other, two women in their 20s create versions of themselves in something resembling the present. In both cases, though, the presence of New York City goes beyond merely adding local color. Christgau grew up in Queens, and so has greater New York in his bones, but the title refers to his move to Manhattan.  Abbi Jacobson, one of the two creators of Broad City, spent her formative years in Pennsylvania, but met up with Ilana Glazer when both were members of New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade (Glazer's background is a little harder to pin down, but she seems pure New York). What matters, in all cases, is that New York City is a crucial component of the people. I can't really call Christgau a "character" ... while he constructs a "Robert Christgau" for his memoir, the construction is "really" him, while Jacobson and Glazer are based-on-themselves "real" characters in Broad City, as Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler.

Christgau admits from the beginning that his memoir might seem different than the norm, partly because other than being a rock critic, his life isn't all that unusual. "Only a teensy bit famous no matter how much of my small pond I hog ... I've had my share of adventures, but nothing all that spine-chilling or at all epic.... As writers go, I'm a fairly normal guy." He quickly adds, "Some might hold that if my life has been interesting enough to write about, it cannot have been normal. As a democrat in all things, I say that's snobbish baloney. All lives are interesting -- how interesting depends on the telling."

Christgau is a fine writer, with a lot to tell, and an audience that is already interested. He doesn't exactly ignore his audience's desires ... he just tells his story in the manner that suits him, and it is largely interesting for the reasons he notes: it depends on the telling, and he's good at it.

I don't know what others expected of the book. Speaking for myself, I was ready for anything, because it was Christgau, which meant I assumed I'd like it. Which I do. There is some name-dropping, but less than you might think. He spends time talking about working at the Village Voice, but as he states, "I didn't want people to think it was about the Voice. That's a book worth writing, but I don't know by who ...." He talks about the members of the first (and to some extent subsequent) wave of rock critics, but I don't think Going Into the City would be the primary text for an historian of the era. We learn which of those critics were his close friends, and get a hint of some of their approaches, but it's a memoir, not an evaluation. What Christgau pulls off is a memoir that might be written by a "regular" person, where the primacy of his experiences is more important than what celebrity he knows.

And the primacy of his experiences includes his intense devotion to the two most important women in his life, his first great love, Ellen Willis, and his eventual wife and life-partner, Carola Dibbell. In his introduction, he discusses this:

The main way marriage impacted my vocation, however, was intellectually. That's why I feel deprived when, for example, Christopher Hitchens or Ed Sanders or Richard Hell -- all of whose recommended memoirs share ground with mine, and all of whom have their reasons -- fail to indicate how their wives changed their lives and I bet their work. My '60s partnership with Ellen Willis ... set me on the path I've followed ever since.... my chief guide has been my legally wedded wife of four decades, Carola Dibbell, who's also a fine rock critic ... No banal bow to discretion or cool could tempt me to minimize the place of these relationships in my life, or to mince words about them either.... Till death do us part, my marriage is my most satisfying achievement.

This is the kind of thing usually dismissed in a brief note about how "I couldn't have written this without the love of my partner". But Christgau wants us to know from the start that his memoir will integrate his important relationships into his discussion of his work as a critic. There is almost no need for an acknowledgements page for Willis or Dibbell ... the entire book acknowledges them.

It also gets to the core of my own relationship to memoirs, especially since, if I ever had the ambition to write a book of my own, it would fall into that category. The motto of this thirteen-years-and-counting blog is the Pauline Kael quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." To know my take on movies and TV and music is to know me, as well. Christgau goes beyond this, though. His approach is almost the opposite: to know his take on music, it is crucial that you know about his experiences, particularly with the important women in his life.

I accept that it is a stretch to connect all of this to Broad City. But New York is a major character in Christgau's book ... it's a titular character, no less. Part of what sets Broad City apart, though, is that Abbi and Ilana are already in New York ... there is no "going". It's less that New York is a character, and more that Abbi and Ilana have New York inside of them. New Yorkers often assume that outsiders like myself don't "get" the city, that you have to live there, experience it on a daily basis. And I'm sure I miss many nods to locals in Broad City. It is very specific about its New York-ness. But Abbi and Ilana feel universal, despite their specifics as young New York Jewish women in their 20s. I'm much closer in age to Robert Christgau than I am to Jacobson and Glazer ... my kids are a decade older than those two. A typical day for me usually involves doing something with my wife of 40+ years, and while we have memories of the stuff we did when we were young, in honesty, memories are mostly what they are at this point. I don't get high all the time anymore the way Abbi and (especially) Ilana do. I don't have the energy to pursue anything that crosses my mind (Ilana is irrepressible in this regard). But the spirit with which they engage in their world is inspiring, not because I know what it's like to be a young woman in New York, but because that spirit is contagious.

Which is something they share with Christgau. As you read his memoir, you understand better the things that drive him. It no longer seems odd that he listens to music a billion hours a day. He loves to engage with music, loves to keep learning about music, and, of course, he's a master as a critic of writing about these things in ways that engage the reader, and, yes, inspire us in some way.


music friday: the rolling stones, sticky fingers

If I had this blog 40 years ago, each Friday I’d be writing about an album. Nowadays, even when I get a new album, I chop it up into pieces and shuffle play the leftovers. You could say that it proves I really love an artist if I actually listen to their albums, as albums. (Hello, Sleater-Kinney.)

A trend in recent years is for artists to play entire albums from their catalog in concert. Bruce Springsteen has done this several times ... I’ve got a DVD of him doing one of his albums, I forget which, maybe Born in the USA. The Rolling Stones are apparently going to tour North America this year, and one rumor is that they will be playing Sticky Fingers in its entirety. Since that album comes from the times when I listened to LPs, I thought maybe I’d take it on for this week’s post. But, in line with how I usually do things nowadays, I’ll look at it track-by-track, without attempting too much overall contextualizing.

First, though, I’ll indulge in a bit of that context. Sticky Fingers is one of my favorite Stones albums, but the best of the best are pretty close in quality. It’s easier to list the albums that aren’t quite as excellent: the debut is a lesser album compared to 12x5, Now!, and Out of Our Heads. December’s Children isn’t quite as good as Aftermath or Between the Buttons. Got Live If You Want It! isn’t very good, Their Satanic Majesties Request is underrated but still below their best, Flowers is as good as Yesterday and Today. But Sticky Fingers sits amidst the best four-album run of studio albums they ever produced: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. (Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! is the live album from the period, and overrated.) Suffice to say that Sticky Fingers is sitting in some pretty impressive company.

Brown Sugar”. Perhaps Jagger gets away with some of the controversial material in this song because there is so much going on, it’s hard to pinpoint anything. As he said, “God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.” Wikipedia tried to list those subjects: slavery, interracial sex, cunnilingus, sadomasochism, lost virginity, rape, and heroin. Bobby Keys adds a sax solo, which was something different as I recall (not for music, but for Rolling Stones music). The video, taken from Top of the Pops, is interesting for another reason. You’ve got a song that begins, “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, Sold in a market down in New Orleans”. I’ve already thought it was odd that the inspiration for the song is said to be about a Black girlfriend, Marsha Hunt, or Black singer Claudia Lennear. I hear slavery more than I hear girlfriends. Anyway, the Top of the Pops appearance features the band syncing to the recorded track while Jagger adds live vocals. When the sax solo arrives, Black musician Trevor Lawrence pretends to play the recorded solo of Bobby Keys, white guy. Just another part of the mishmash, I guess.

Sway”. Where we are reminded that this is the Mick Taylor Era. He lays out some fine guitar work here. Charlie Watts is esp. good, too. And then here come Paul Buckmaster’s strings! The druggy feel could fit right in on Exile.

Wild Horses”. One of their most successful attempts at country. Video is from their 1995 “unplugged” album ... this song plays well in such an environment. Jagger? I’m reminded of what Xgau said about A Bigger Bang: “Mick ... once again proves capable of relating on what we humans pathetically call a human scale. Not that I credit his ‘vulnerability,’ but I'm touched that he cares enough to lie about it.”

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”. Prior to this, the one time the Stones ventured into the kind of long tracks that became popular with bands like Cream came with “Goin’ Home”, which appropriately consisted of Mick turning a short song into an eleven-and-a-half-minute track by moaning and cooing and exhorting about his baby that he’s going to see very soon. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, on the other hand, is dominated by Bobby Keys and (especially) Mick Taylor. This is yet another of Taylor’s shining moments with the Stones.

You Gotta Move”. Oddly minimalist blues. Listen to Charlie’s drums ... this could be a “Kiss”-era Prince recording. Since we’re treating this as an album, I’ll note that this was the last track on Side One. Full circle, you might say ... here, Mick tries harder than usual to sound Black (and for him, that’s pretty hard indeed). I’m touched that he cares enough to try.

Bitch”. Killer riffs, killer Charlie Watts, this one crushes your skull. Unlike “Brown Sugar”, which was ultimately disturbing, “Bitch”, despite its title and the Stones’ reputation, isn’t a woman-hater in the “Stupid Girl” mode. Love is a bitch, Mick explains, and when she calls his name, he salivates like Pavlov’s dog. Video is from a club date about a month before the album was released.

I Got the Blues”. The horns have a Stax-Volt feel to them. Nice organ solo by Billy Preston.

Sister Morphine”. Awesomely moody and depressing, and therefore a highlight of the album back in the day. We didn’t know that Marianne Faithfull had written the lyrics (uncredited at the time), had even recorded it as the B-side of a single that did nothing. It was the first sign of the Faithfull who would emerge with Broken English at the end of the decade. It always seemed ironic, that Marianne Faithfull, of all people, put out an album in 1979 that was better than any subsequent Rolling Stones album. Take that, Mick. I saw Marianne a couple of times in the early-80s. Granted, I get star struck pretty easily, but even so, I was amazed at her charisma. She knew it, too. (Don’t know why, but this reminds me of the movie Mister Lonely, which features aging James Fox and Anita Pallenberg in bed together.) (The video is of her version of the song.)

Dead Flowers”. I suppose it’s time to mention Gram Parsons, who hung out a lot with Keith and the boys in those days. His influence is clear whenever the band cranks out a country-rock tune. One problem is that Mick’s tongue is always firmly in cheek on these songs ... he says he always thought of himself as a blues singer, so he couldn’t totally give himself over to the country tunes. This sounds almost jaunty, but as with many songs on the album, a peek at the lyric sheet shines a different light: “Well when you’re sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac, making bets on Kentucky Derby day, I’ll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon and another girl to take my pain away”. Video is from the same club date that featured “Bitch”.

Moonlight Mile”. What a beautiful exit song. The lyrics aren’t particularly novel ... it could be a more elegant version of “Going Home”, with Mick lonely on the mad mad road, thinking about coming home. But there is precious little distancing in Jagger’s vocals, for a change. Paul Buckmaster’s strings actually add something, and trumpet player Jim Price plays lovely piano. (It’s as surprising as finding out drummer Jim Gordon plays the piano coda on “Layla”.)


music friday: what are my friends listening to?

This is an easy way to hear new songs: check out what Spotify says my friends are listening to.

Lauren was listening to “I Am Music” by Common with Jill Scott (not “new”, this comes from 2002, but I hadn’t heard it lately):

Stafford went back to 1990 for Dwight Yoakam and “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose”:

Ann Powers went in another direction with “There’s a New Creep on the Block” by Snow White’s Poison Bite:

Nick Hornby (no, we’re not friends, but I follow him on Spotify) went back to the 50s for Johnny Griffin and “Nice and Easy”:

And Olivia was listening to “It’s All You (Ooh Wee)” by Davina:


music friday: david johansen (your mirrors get jammed up with all your friends)

I appreciate the idea that you can’t make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if you only recorded two albums. I doubt the New York Dolls will ever get that honor. Ah, but those two albums! Acclaimed Music, which collates critical opinion, has the Dolls ranked as the 304th best artists of all time, based only on those two albums (with a slight boost from their recent comeback). To get a feel for that ranking, Dion is #305, the Jackson 5 is #307. All Music gives both albums the highest 5-stars out of 5 rating. Robert Christgau isn’t entirely trustworthy here, since the Dolls are close to his favorite band ever, but he not only gave the two albums grades of A+, he handed out the same grade to their 2006 comeback album. Neither album sold very well, and they soon broke up. Most of the core members of the band have died. Johnny Thunders’ guitar might have been the key to the band’s sound ... I remember once describing his playing to my sister-in-law as, well, lacking in the kind of “chops” that most people identify as “good”. She wondered why anyone would like him. Trust me ... when David Johansen would play Dolls’ songs in his solo concerts, the one thing above all else they were missing was Johnny’s guitar, even though he was replaced by “good” guitarists. He gave the Dolls a feeling of danger, but it was a bizarre danger ... good-natured danger, I’d say. His playing was fun, but you never knew where it was going.

Here they are in 1973, playing the first song from their first album, “Personality Crisis”:

Johansen (and others in the band, including Thunders) embarked on a solo career, and we saw him several times in those years. His debut, David Johansen, was probably his best, although there were other good ones. It wasn’t until his fourth album, the live “Live It Up”, that he made much of an impact commercially. The album was recorded in 1982, and there’s a better live one from 1978, The David Johansen Group Live. Sometime in all of this, he recorded a video of his medley of Animals’ hits ... it’s never been established for certain, but we’re pretty sure Robin and I are in this one. (Look at about the 2:41 mark ... there’s a guy in a t-shirt with his back to the camera, situated next to Johansen’s legs, and there’s a curly-haired woman right behind that guy.)

His first solo album was full of great songs, many of them leftover from the last days of the Dolls. Here’s “Frenchette”:

Johansen’s career wasn’t going anywhere. I saw him open once for Pat Benatar ... the crowd didn’t know what to make of him, and booed him, which admittedly is par for the course for opening acts. (I left before Benatar came on.) He always had a good record collection ... on their two albums, the Dolls covered Bo Diddley, Archie Bell, the Cadets, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Leiber & Stoller.

And then came Buster Poindexter. Buster was a kind of lounge singer with good taste in songs, and on his first album, he covered a soca song that had been around for a few years, “Hot Hot Hot”. It made #45 on the singles charts and #11 on the dance/club charts.

I’m pretty sure that Soozie Tyrell, later of the E Street Band, is among the backup singers in that video. Buster/David even made it to The Tonight Show, where Johnny invited him over to chat. (This time Soozie has a bigger part):

He also found time to play The Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged:

Many years later, Johansen formed David Johansen & the Harry Smiths, named after the archivist who gave us The Anthology of American Folk Music (I told you, he has a good record collection). That group recorded two albums, featuring music by the likes of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Memphis Minnie, and Son House. Here’s Son House’s “Death Letter”:

The Dolls reunited in 2004. Johansen was still there, as was Sylvain Sylvain and Arthur Kane. There’s a movie about Arthur as he prepares for the reunion shows, New York Doll. Less than a month after the reunion concerts, Arthur died. Here they are singing the Dolls song “Lonely Planet Boy”, with Syl adding a bit of Johnny’s great “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” at the start:

Finally, to go full circle, here’s the 2010 David & Syl version of the Dolls with “Personality Crisis”:


music friday: bonnie raitt

Among the many things the new Sleater-Kinney album brings to mind is the 20-year distance between their first album and the latest. It’s amazing, almost unheard of, for an artist to make an album twenty years on that fits well into the overall catalog, but then, Sleater-Kinney are not an ordinary band.

Think about the Beatles. Their first album was released in 1963. Twenty years later, John was dead, George had recently released Gone Troppo, Ringo offered up Old Wave, and Paul had Pipes of Peace.

The Rolling Stones’ first album came out in 1964. Twenty years later, Brian was dead, and the Stones released a compilation album, Rewind (1971-1984), that has since gone out of print.

Chuck Berry goes back to 1955. Twenty years later, he hadn’t had a hit since “My Ding-a-Ling”, and he had only one more studio album in him.

Joni Mitchell? First album 1968, twenty years later, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm.

There are a few artists that have defied my Theory of the Trajectory of Rock Star Careers. Lucinda Williams always comes to mind. Bonnie Raitt is another.

Raitt grew up in a musical family. She released her self-titled first album in 1971 … it didn’t sell, but critics liked it. It was almost pure blues. Her second album mixed in some folk and rock, and made the lower end of the charts. She moved closer to the mainstream, leaving some critics behind, and while sales were better, she was far from a star. In 1975, she released Home Plate, my personal favorite of her albums, which included “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”, my personal favorite of her songs. (I remember one of the times we saw her, after she’d finally gotten famous, she sang “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes” for all of us old fans who still remembered.) In 1977, she had her first hit single, “Runaway”, but critics increasingly dismissed her. By the early-80s, she had been dropped by her record company, and was fighting substance abuse problems.

But then, cleaned up and with a new label, Raitt came out with Nick of Time in 1989. It hit #1, sold millions, and won three Grammys including Best Album. Raitt turned 40 that year.

Nick of Time was a good album. It included two songs by Bonnie Hayes and one by John Hiatt that were a lot better than good. It all made a nice story about someone that was very much loved by her fellow musicians.

Which brings us to her “20-year” album. In 1991, twenty years after her debut, Raitt released the Nick of Time follow-up, Luck of the Draw. This was the album that was as good as people thought Nick of Time was. It sold even more copies and won three more Grammys. It opened with “Something to Talk About”, one of her biggest hits. It included a catchy number, “Papa Come Quick (Jody and Chico)”, which is a favorite of mine. And it included what has become her signature song, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It is a true classic. It’s also hard for Raitt to sing … it taxes her vocal range, and it’s a very emotional song. But, as she said, “'I Can't Make You Love Me' is no picnic. I love that song, so does the audience. So it's almost a sacred moment when you share that, that depth of pain with your audience. Because they get really quiet, and I have to summon ... some other place in order to honor that space.”

Since then, Raitt has put out five studio albums, and a solid live album, Road Tested, also available on video, with some good guest cameos. She hasn’t had the consistency that Sleater-Kinney has managed, but not many artists have. She has given us a strong career, and her “20-year” album is arguably her best.

Here is “Papa Come Quick”, performed with another of my favorites, Alison Krauss:

“I Can’t Make You Love Me”:

And “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”:


music friday: maurice chevalier, "i'm glad i'm not young anymore"

The movie musical Gigi came out in 1958, and it was a big success. Based on a novel by Colette, it was nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, and won every category in which it had a nomination. It was a favorite of my parents. In those days, you didn’t own copies of movies on VHS or DVD or Blu-ray. You saw it in a theater, and maybe it would turn up later on network television, and that was it. But, since Gigi was a musical, you could buy the soundtrack album and listen to your heart’s content. So a copy of the Gigi LP sat on the shelf in my parents’ record collection, and I heard it many times as a child. I imagine that’s one reason I love the movie to this day … it’s like comfort food.

The title song won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and the movie also won Best Original Score. I don’t know which other songs are still part of pop culture … I mean, the title song isn't exactly well-remembered. I’d guess that “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is still in the mix. It’s sung by Maurice Chevalier, who charms his way throughout the film, no matter how retrograde some of his character’s ideas seem to modern audiences. “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is fun but a bit creepy, considering Chevalier was 70 years old at the time. The song that still resonates, especially for people of a certain age, is “I Remember It Well”, sung by Chevalier and Hermione Gingold, a spring chicken at 61 in 1958.

I don’t think you have to be past 60 to appreciate the song … I loved it when I was just a tyke … but it quite knowingly works those in the audience who are in that age range. What interests me is my parents … when Gigi was released, my dad had just turned 34 and my mom was 30. But, at least as I remember it, “I Remember It Well” connected with them from the start.

Near the end of the movie, Chevalier offers “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”. He sings it, as he sang most songs, with a twinkle in his eye. Chevalier’s reputation was a bit sullied during World War II, after which he was accused (and exonerated) of collaborating with the Nazis. (He turns up in a very odd scene in The Sorrow and the Pity, explaining his actions during the war.) But by 1958, he was a beloved old-time entertainer, exemplified by the Honorary Oscar he received alongside the nine Oscars Gigi picked up.

He wasn’t done … he lived to be 83.

Here is “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”:

“I Remember It Well”:

And “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”:

Finally, here is Chevalier in The Sorrow and the Pity:


music friday: fifth harmony, reflection

Looking for something new, so I checked out the New Releases on Spotify. Which is why I was listening to Reflection, the debut studio album by Fifth Harmony.

I read some reviews of the album, for context if nothing else, since Fifth Harmony are outside of my normal listening patterns. What I found were generally positive sentiments that nonetheless sounded less than positive from my perspective. The All Music Guide review refers to the group as “The X-Factor's second season third-place finishers”, which isn’t exactly bursting with confidence. Later, critic Matt Collar writes, “Although essentially a radio-ready pop aperitif and nowhere near the cultural touchstone of Beyonce's [self-titled 2013] album, Reflection nonetheless works as a Revlon ad-level post-feminist girls' night out”.

Spin’s Brennan Carley gave it 7/10, and Carley was more positive: “one of the most forward-thinking, sheerly enthusiastic pop releases in years”.

So, did I like it? It was bright, probably uplifting if I’d paid attention to the lyrics. (Lyrics don’t usually have an impact on me until I’ve had several listens. Having said that, Maria Sherman’s “Top 10 Fiercely Feminist Lyrics On Fifth Harmony's 'Reflection'” suggests there is something going on here. The harmonies are good, and for the most part they don’t engage in too much over-singing. They sound like they have a lot of influences, which is a nice way of saying there’s not much new in their sound, to my ears. I don’t hear anything as good as “Wannabe”, but that may be unfairly raising the bar too high.

Here is “BO$$”, which as I type this has gotten more than 41 million YouTube views:

And, because I can never get enough Girl Power, here’s the classic “Wannabe” video (which as of this post has more than 86 million YouTube views):


katy perry

Katy Perry performed the halftime show at yesterday’s Super Bowl. From what I’ve seen online, she was fairly well-received for the grand flamboyance of the show. At the Super Bowl party I was a part of, though, the general feeling was that the halftime show wasn’t going to be worth watching. Not everyone felt that way, but I’d gauge that more than half of the folks planned to use halftime to check out the food situation and maybe grab a smoke. (Notably, once her show began, people began watching.)

Someone I know posted on Facebook that their partner had asked, “Who is Katy Perry?” I admit to reading between the lines, both at that question and at some of the subsequent comments, but my sense was that not knowing who Katy Perry is was something to be proud of. And I wondered, first, how likely it was that someone wouldn't know who Katy Perry is.

I went to everyone’s favorite research site, Wikipedia, where I found the following information about Perry, some of which I knew, some of which I was aware of in a general sense, and a lot of specifics that were new to me:

Her 2010 album Teenage Dream “became the first by a female artist to produce five number-one Billboard Hot 100 songs”.

“[I]n songs such as ‘Firework’ and ‘Roar’ she stresses themes of self-empowerment and self-esteem.”

“Perry has received many awards, including three Guinness World Records, and been included in the Forbes list of "Top-Earning Women In Music" for 2011, 2012, and 2013. … She ranked fifth on their 2014 list with $40 million. … Throughout her career, she has sold 11 million albums and 81 million singles worldwide, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time.”

“Throughout her career, Perry has won five American Music Awards, five MTV Video Music Awards, fourteen People's Choice Awards, and three Guinness World Records.In September 2012, Billboard dubbed her the ‘Woman of the Year’.From May 2010 to September 2011, she spent a record-breaking total of 69 consecutive weeks in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100…Perry was declared the Top Global Female Recording Artist of 2013 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI).She has accumulated a total of nine number-one singles on the Hot 100, her most recent being ‘Dark Horse’. According to Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Perry is the best-selling digital singles artist in the United States, with certified sales of 72 million digital singles including on-demand streaming.”

I admit that I don’t know a lot about Katy Perry. I like a couple of her songs, and enjoy the “Roar” video. I am also aware that, as is true for many/most top pop stars, there is substantial interest in Perry from culture critics. I don’t think she has reached the level of someone like Madonna, who inspired what was only half-jokingly called “Madonna Studies” as an academic discipline. But it is interesting to think about the level of Perry’s fame, and what that might say about today’s cultural milieu.

My job here isn’t to elaborate on the place of Katy Perry in the world of cultural criticism … I read some of it, I know it’s out there, but in 2015, there is always too much to read and see and experience … we are all, all of us, behind.

Nor am I here to cast aspersions on people who don’t know who Katy Perry is. As I say, it’s 2015 … no one can keep up with everything. Many of us become specialists … when it comes to female pop stars, I’m partial to Pink … I go to her concerts and buy her albums … I know a lot about Pink, and it’s not that she’s a stand-in for all the other female pop stars, but I devote the majority of my pop-star energy to her. There are also people, plenty of us, who throw our hands up and admit we just can’t follow everything. We don’t have a favorite female pop star, because we can’t know about everything. Not knowing of Katy Perry signifies nothing, other than that you have other things on your mind. The number of things I don’t know is pretty immense … I know little about opera, or ice hockey, or reality TV shows. I’m not immune to covering up my lack of knowledge with childish humor … whenever I hear opera, I start singing in ludicrously high and low voices, making fun of the very real talent of the singers because I don’t “get it”. And I definitely indulged in this kind of thinking a lot more when I was younger: if I didn’t know something, it wasn’t worth knowing. In my old age, I’ve hopefully come to realize that you can’t dismiss something until you have a modicum of understanding of that thing.

In general, Katy Perry is not highly regarded by pop critics. Rich Juzwiak’s review of her Super Bowl appearance, “Katy Perry: What Is She Good For?”, was an example of damning with faint praise:

Not that much could be expected of Perry. She is the most underwhelming person to occupy the space of Massively Popular, No-Brainer Hitmaking Pop Diva since Paula Abdul, and at least Paula Abdul could dance. There is no there there with Katy Perry. I don't know if a pop star has ever had less there, in fact. She is superlative at nothing. … If you believe the credits on her songs, she can write a catchy hook. She can carry a tune, sometimes with force. And she can show up to places and do her job without falling on her face or making some sort of career-negating blunder.

But these critics do appreciate that her enormous popularity makes Perry an important subject for examination, if nothing else. And I’m glad for their work, since, as I have noted, I don’t pay much attention to Katy Perry and am glad to have the opportunity to think about her through the eyes of more astute and knowledgeable critics.

Which takes me back to that Facebook exchange. Everything I’m saying falls apart if my “between the lines” reading is off-target, but that reading is based on past experiences. I once taught a course at UC Berkeley on the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer … a common reaction was “that’s not worthy of a course at Cal” (when pressed, they would often admit that they had never actually seen the show). Something that has stuck in my mind for many years was an afternoon when I attended a WNBA game. The giveaway that day was a poster of … well, it was a long time ago and my memory is shot, but I think it was *NSYNC, although it might have been The Backstreet Boys. Anyway, most of the people I was with gave their posters away to kids who might have more interest, which was a generous move. But the gifts were punctuated with prideful statements that “I couldn’t name a single one of their songs”. I knew why they didn’t want the posters, understood that they might not know *NSYNC since they weren’t the target market for the band, but I didn’t get why their lack of knowledge was connected to feelings of pride.

And so, the Facebook post (yes, I’m off on lots of tangents). One of my favorite comments, because of its self-aware sense of humor, read “I miss when the half time shows were semi retired musicians from the 70s.” And I couldn't keep my mouth shut, so I posted the following: “Pop music may be the only place where otherwise intelligent people brag about not knowing something.”

The original poster replied, “I'm pretty sure popular TV falls in the same category. Like me, how many episodes of, say. Friends, have you ever watched?” And that got me inspired. I wrote:

The point isn't how many episodes of Friends you have seen, or whether you know who Katy Perry is. The point is that it's odd when people take pride in not knowing. I can't pass judgment on Friends because I haven't seen it. I can and do recognize it is important; I know what Friends is. I don't often connect with modern sitcoms, which is on me, not on the people who made Friends. But there is a difference between my not having seen an episode of Friends, and someone not knowing who Katy Perry is, just as there is a difference between saying Katy Perry isn't my cup of tea and saying I don't know who Katy Perry is, with a tone that suggests she isn't worth knowing. I'm not saying that everyone should like Katy Perry. I'm saying it's odd to brag about not knowing who she is. It's the pop culture equivalent of saying I don't know who Toni Morrison is, and it doesn't matter anyway.

The reply to that was, “If you're going to compare Toni Morrison to Katy Perry, I'm going to bed. Winking smile“ (Emoticon approximation.)

That was a good line, and I was asking for it, to be sure. But it wasn't just a good line, as I indicated in my reply: “That statement makes my point better than any more blathering of my own.”

And indeed, the comments ended there. But, being a blather junkie, I came to my blog to jabber some more.

Many of the people in the discussion are or were teachers, myself included. We have all had to deal with students who state (with some pride, it must be added) that they never read books. Maybe they read the occasional book, but only current best-sellers. If we assign, say, The Great Gatsby (or, more appropriately here, Beloved), we will always have students who state with confidence that there is nothing in those books that could possibly matter to them. I’ve done the same thing as a student … with a degree in American Studies, looking for a doctorate in English that focused on American Literature, I regularly complained about the requirement that I take a course in Shakespeare or the 18th-century English novel. What could I possibly learn from Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded?

How is this different from saying, “I don’t know who Katy Perry is, and how could she possibly matter?” There is no shame in not knowing. There is no reason why we should seek out every piece of information in the world, even if that was possible, which it is not. It is sufficient to say, “I don’t know anything about The Real Housewives of Orange County”, just as it’s fine when a student says, “I don’t know anything about Toni Morrison”. That student has an entire semester to learn about the author. They’ve only failed if they dismiss Morrison before they have read her. It’s fine if you don’t know who Katy Perry is, interesting if you do know who she is but don’t like her. And there is every reason, in this age of information glut, to admit that you don’t have time to examine Katy Perry, so you’ll be moving on to something you like. You’ve only failed if you dismiss Katy Perry before you know her.