Happy birthday, Michael

And the mix:

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Albums of 2014

Playlist here.

Again, no particular order though Jenny Lewis would definitely be my album of the year and the Manics would probably be second. I ‘discovered’ the Rosanne Cash album due to her being interviewed on Radio 2 whilst I was having my haircut. Great times. Special shout-out for the King Creosote album, a project tied into the Commonwealth Games which I think does a better job of capturing the Scottish psyche than a million indy ref thinkpieces.

The Voyager – Jenny Lewis
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Soundtrack – Various
Futurology – Manic Street Preachers
Take Me When You Go – Betty Who
Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse – Mariah Carey
Xscape – Michael Jackson
No-One Is Lost – Stars
Popular Problems – Leonard Cohen
Stay Gold – First Aid Kit
Ghost Stories – Coldplay
High Hopes – Bruce Springsteen
The Take Off and Landing of Everything – Elbow
The Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett – Eels
Do It Again – Royksopp & Robyn
Are We There – Sharon Van Etten
Ruins – Grouper
PLECTRUMELECTRUM – Prince & 3RDEYEGIRL
From Scotland With Love – King Creosote
Live In Dublin – Leonard Cohen
Unrepentant Geraldines – Tori Amos
Tough Love – Jessie Ware
The River & the Thread – Rosanne Cash
Food – Kelis
Kiasmos – Kiasmos
Xen – Arca

And not on Spotify but definitely in my top 5 albums of the year:

I don’t think 1989 is as good as Red – it properly goes off the boil in its second half – but its high points are high enough for it to be included here. Particularly the bonus track New Romantics which, had it been released, would’ve been my single of the year.  But Swift hates the internet so go illegally download it.

Singles of 2014

Playlist here.

No particular order here though Ghost is easily my most played single released this year. My most played song is the demo of Rebel Heart by Madonna, which will shock precisely no-one. The Kira Isabella song was a great discovery – definitely an artist to get excited about. And it’s amazing to have a properly brilliant Smashing Pumpkins song again. If it was on Spotify I’d have had Morrissey’s Istanbul too.

Ghost – Ella Henderson
Take Me To Church – Hozier
Ghosttown – Madonna
Crying for No Reason – Katy B
Wrong Or Right – Kwabs
Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands
Quarterback – Kira Isabella
Say Something – A Great Big World & Christina Aguilera
Dark Sunglasses – Chrissie Hynde
Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars
Love Never Felt So Good – Michael Jackson
High Society – Betty Who (from Worlds Apart EP)
Solo Dancing – Indiana
Yellow Flicker Beat – Lorde
Walk Me to the Bridge – Manic Street Preachers
Going Out – Dinner
If It Wasn’t True – Shamir
A Sky Full of Stars – Coldplay
Living – Adna
Being Beige – Smashing Pumpkins
Falling Short – Lapsley
B a noBody – SOAK
Queen – Perfume Genius
Disclosed – Call Me
Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) – David Bowie

And not on Spotify, the first EP from Alphabetical Order Orchestra:

Justin Timberlake

When the now infamous Janet Jackson ‘incident’ happened at the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake’s reaction was illuminating. As Janet overnight became a whipping post for the moral majority (and her career has never recovered), Timberlake hastily distanced himself from her, declaring himself “shocked and appalled”, invoking the outrage of his “own family” and going as far as he could in saying “SHE DID IT” without actually saying the words. He would have to have been spectacularly dense to be unaware of the gender and racial politics at play in the responses and the fact that his statements played up to the idea of Janet as “a contemporary Jezebel” still seems unforgivable; even more so because from the safety of three years’ later he felt able to observe that “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” Gee, thanks Justin – Janet must have appreciated that.

For me, the incident neatly summed up Justin’s musical career: he’s become rather ridiculously successful and admired by appropriating black music, stripping it of everything vaguely ‘risky’ and presenting it to audiences as ‘innovative’, all the while coasting on his image as a wholesome white boy (the kind who tickles America’s tummy regarding its demonisation of Hugo Chavez just days after his death). Justified is a hugely derivative album of warmed-up Prince and Michael Jackson retreads – heck, ‘Rock Your Body’ was even originally written for the King of Pop. The singles aside, it’s absolutely atrocious. Prince looms even larger over the follow-up FutureSex/LoveSounds yet all of his perversity, his religious ecstasy, his danger, is gone. Even the ostensibly raunchy SexyBack offers little more than a self-conscious swearword. Hilariously, this album offers a ‘socially conscious’ song where the former Mouseketeer sings about a man addicted to crack – it’s not only dreadful but inadvertently highlights how his songs are almost never actually about anything. Still, by singing about crack he’s at least being urban, or something.

Of course many pop stars appropriate black culture but it particularly grates with Timberlake for two reasons: firstly, his entire musical career is based on it yet, as with the Janet incident, he is very careful to remain removed from any aspects of it which may prove difficult and actively promotes himself as this banal, clown-like Hollywood filmstar who just happens to have loads of black friends who want to make music with him. It’s an odd but important dichotomy. Secondly, I can think of no other pop star for whom the gap between their reality and the hysterically overblown guff written about them is so large. This piece from this week is a perfect example. He DOES EVERYTHING! Clearly singing r&b, having black producers, singing about crack and appropriating big band imagery is enough for this white man to be the natural successor of the renowned victim of racism and support of civil rights, Sammy Davis Jr. The fact that anyone would even write that piece highlights the central problem of Timberlake’s career – there is no sense that he’s had to work for this status, no sense that he is questioned or challenged in any way.

The largely positive reaction to The 20/20 Experience further underlines this. It is a deeply odd album, not least in the fact that its songs typically run 6-8 minutes long. There are two observations arising from this: firstly, that Timberlake has clearly been paying attention to Channel Orange (and to its rapturous reception) and its stand-out track, the almost-10 minutes long Pyramids. Secondly, that Timberlake has stated the song lengths were influenced by bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Bob Dylan. The latter artist is actually frequently cited by him as an influence but I defy anyone to find any of those artists present in any way in his music. No, what Timberlake is concerned with here is the appearance of authenticity and of ambition. Serious artists make long songs! The unfortunate thing is that he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and this woefully exposes the agenda – the songs are long solely to draw attention to their own length and what that signifies. Every song is a highly conventional 4-5 minute pop track bloated by 2-3 minutes of self-conscious beats and ad-libbing. The single edits are clear and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would mourn if the songs were shortened. Furthermore, the lyrics are almost entirely forgettable and terrible – these are more songs about nothing but what they can be said to reveal about the creativity of the man on the album cover. This makes the album seem deeply cynical. Indeed, it’s a surprise that any ‘Poptimist’ would claim Timberlake as ‘their Bowie’ when he is clearly deeply concerned with the notions of authenticity, talent and ambition which they so scorn. It’s no accident that the video for Suit & Tie begins with Timberlake playing the piano, just as it makes perfect sense that there is apparently a second instalment of The 20/20 Experience coming later in the year (nothing says ‘creative’ like a double album after all). This is what people who don’t actually listen to pop think of as ‘ambitious’ – it doesn’t matter that it has zero emotional resonance and is a chore to listen to as most of the critics praising it will never listen to it again for as long as they live.

The sense given by his musical return, then, is that he’s popped back to ‘remind’ everyone that he’s a renaissance man. It seems obvious that he will again disappear from music for a long period afterwards – at least then he’ll have the four albums to base his ludicrous status on. Instead he’ll return to being a Hollywood film star – a sphere where there is little cultural cachet in appropriating blackness (for a leading man, anyway). As this astute review notes, his career seems like a succession of role-playing. The Janet Jackson episode was the biggest and clearest example of his trying on a role and then fleeing it for safe privilege when it didn’t work. Such insincere fluidity may make him a pop star for our times, certainly – but not a pop star worth celebrating.

I observed in my recent blog about Cheryl Cole that the logical conclusion of the arguments usually wheeled out to defend her role in pop was music originating with computers, with pop fans rooting for their brand of choice. This column in The Guardian is quite timely, then, in taking that possibility and using it to ask what ‘art’ is. Many would argue that it is merely an aesthetic, and largely an individualistic one at that – if I like something, it is art. This is, in fact, the view of many Cheryl fans who have moved a step beyond attempting to justify her as a popstar – when Lucy Jones of The Telegraph criticised Cheryl yesterday, she received several replies pointing out that Cheryl ‘brought pleasure’ to many people and that was all that mattered. On a very fundamental level it’s almost impossible to argue against this – people have different tastes and ideas and woe betide anyone who is seen to be attempting to impose their own onto others. If we step away from pop music, however, I think this argument is far less persuasive. In the ‘high art’ forms, such as literature or fine art, there are readily accepted contexts in which works are judged. We are able to recognise and discuss technique, form, an evolving yet nonetheless fixed history. Indeed, without this context the study and teaching of these forms would be impossible. It is a context which has been forged by human creativity and effort – sometimes affected by technology, certainly, but not replaced by it. We could program a computer to faithfully replicate many of these techniques etc but however satisfying the result, the machine would not, could not, move the form on. Here, then, it seems obvious that ‘art’ requires a human hand.

I will never forget the trauma that was studying Shakespeare at university, where we would spend hours poring over specific paragraphs and unpicking the depths contained within them. I could never quite believe that one artist could have been so skilled, so astoundingly talented. Aside from the poetry of Shakespeare’s verse and prose (and how dismissive that seems!), his plays are packed with references and allusions to history, religion, mythology, other literature and the culture and politics of the period. This requires both intention and insight, which instantly puts the work beyond the reach of any computer. They are also bursting with a humanity (and understanding thereof) which even the most advanced computer could never hope to replicate. So, while judging Shakespeare on the level of ‘do I like it or not? Does it bring me pleasure?’ may answer the question of individual taste, it doesn’t begin to answer the question of whether Shakespeare is art as it doesn’t appreciate that which separates it from random scribbling.

Even with intertextuality, post-structuralism, Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ or Adorno’s negation of aestheticism itself, we rely on these contexts and histories created by humans, even if to react against them (and in doing so, expand and progress the form). All of these things have become part of critical theory and part of our interpretation of art (however much some of the individuals behind them may have despised this development). The same could be said of Punk rock – it reacted against the dominant ideas of popular music at the time and created something new, yet for all of its radicalism it is now seen as influential as the context it kicked against.

Popular music certainly has its own history, its own context. The major difference with the more ‘traditional’ art forms is perhaps that it’s a fairly brief one, with mass-produced recorded music only arising and dominating in the 20th century. The notions of authorship and artistry which we appeal to when speaking about pop music tend to be those which, varyingly depending on your tastes, only hark back as far as Motown and/or The Beatles. The former is held up as the banner for ‘it’s not important who write the songs’ and ‘the star is key’; the latter are obviously archetypes of creative self-determination in pop. In their way, the Sex Pistols were an important crossroads as the perfect blend between the two, having their own Berry Gordy in Malcolm McLaren and playing ‘characters’, yet writing their own songs and playing instruments (albeit in a self-consciously rudimentary fashion.)

Yet the tensions between the two concepts of pop have never really abated; many still pick their side, mocking ‘manufactured music’ or ridiculing ‘authenticity’. What is lost here are the deeper commonalities : both undoubtedly treated pop music as an art form, and there is far more going on in the best of both ‘worlds’ than ‘does the listener find this catchy?

Ironically, it was another meeting of these ‘worlds’ which perhaps ushered in an era where this was obscured: Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, while undoubtedly a brilliant piece of work, was the ‘Jaws’ of the music industry, ushering in the era of the blockbuster. Many of the arguments we hear today – justification by appealing to record sales/popularity, the dominance of love for an artist’s persona over their work, the fetishism of an artist who retreats from their work and becomes the product themselves – can arguably be traced back to this massive breakpoint. Its aftermath certainly calcified attitudes of ‘manufactured vs authenticity’, which is perhaps surprising as most of the pop artists which came after were certainly self-determining. Yet this was also the period where the star, the character, became a visual product and commerce really became an unavoidable part of pop. This spectacle was so removed from what had come before that it paradoxically calcified the tribe mentality.

We’ll probably never stop asking what art is. What’s remarkable about pop music today is that so few seem to care. As The Guardian blog illustrates, it’s a conversation which never dies with certain forms. I suppose Instragram is its own ‘I like it vs how it was made’ argument…but that’s another story.

Evolutionary music doesn’t mean the death of the creator

Donna Summer: Feeling Love for our Entertainers

I can’t say that I was ever a huge fan of Donna Summer, but I was sad to hear of her passing. ‘The Donna Summer Anthology’ was one of the cds I would always check out of the library when I was a kid (others included ‘Barbra Streisand – The Concert’ and the soundtrack to ‘Miss Saigon’…are we seeing a theme here?) and she was one of those legends whose music was just always there – so ubiquitous that you forgot it came from a real person and never thought about her as an individual. In some ways, I suppose that’s a great tribute to her work.

When such a star dies, the outpouring of appreciation is always moving and life-affirming. You almost feel part of a community with music at its core. I remember walking through Trafalgar Square the day after Michael Jackson died and finding a group of fans gathered around a boombox, dancing and singing to his music. They had attracted onlookers, stood in a circle around them, clapping and filming on their mobiles. It was utterly joyful. There is something uniquely powerful in sharing the transcendent state which the best music, the best artists, bring to us.

Donna Summer, of course, had largely faded from public view in recent years. You weren’t likely to pick up a newspaper or switch on the tv and read about her. With Michael Jackson, whatever his activity (or lack of it) he was put in front of us. With increasing frequency, he was put in front of us for us to laugh at, pity, demonise, ridicule. The same thoughts came to mind when Whitney Houston died. How could they not? As with Michael Jackson, she had very public problems. Unlike Michael Jackson, she had attempted to return to the ‘ordinary’ business of the pop fray, putting out new music, making new videos and trying to convince us all that it was business as usual (as usual as the business of being Whitney Houston could be). The disastrous ‘X Factor’ performance joined the Diane Sawyer and Oprah interviews in being material for ridicule.

One of the most striking speeches I read from Whitney’s memorial came from her real bodyguard, Ray Watson. It was familial and warm yet, in the most striking excerpt, he admonished our culture of ripping these people to shreds:

We got to give a little back to all our entertainers. We got to treat them with dignity and treat them with love and stop ridiculing them. It means so much if we just give them a little love and not just buy a ticket. We buy a ticket, they give their lives to you. They’re not with their families. They’re in and out, on stage, off stage, on planes, off planes, traveling, on buses, just so we can have some entertaining. Whether they’re on the court or whether they’re on the stage or whether they’re on TV, they’re giving us entertainment to make our lives just a little brighter and our nights a little smoother. So, let’s give back to them. Let’s give them love, not just a ticket.

Of course, it’s possible to overstate things. People like Whitney and Michael lead lives that most can only dream of. They enjoyed untold wealth, influence and luxury as a result of their ability to entertain. It’s also easy to imagine such an argument being used to mute any criticism of an artist, however valid it may be. However in asking us to look at what we do when we are so readily vicious about these artists whose music soundtracks our lives, I think it’s valuable. We do live in a culture where celebrity personalities are emphasised and amplified and, in many ways, people like Whitney and Michael became ‘targets’ indistinguishable from the current crop of desperate reality tv stars. 

When I saw that crowd in Trafalgar Square, I wondered if Michael Jackson could ever truly have understood how much he was loved. The joy that Michael and Whitney brought us was obscured by all of the negativity in their latter years. With someone like Donna Summer, we sometimes just forgot it. I’ve long thought that we are far more critical of the legends who have the temerity to keep creating. At some stage, we seem to want them to stop and allow us to hold onto our nostalgia for what they were – and by extension, who we were when we loved them. It’s ever more easy to instantly share our superficial opinions with the world and the quickest way to create an ‘identity’ is to affirm the things that you are not. We don’t often enough take the time to share our affections instead. As lovely as the tributes are, it’s sad in a way that the artists have to die before we even realise how much they meant to us.

RIP Donna Summer