Archive for September, 2009

Janelle Monae: Socially Conscious Dancing Android?

September 30th, 2009 | Category: Concerts

We can tell by the way tickets are selling (read: really fast) that you all are as excited about Janelle Monae performing live at the Homecoming Dance as we are. Or maybe you are just going because it is a dance, and don’t know anything about Janelle Monae. Well then…

We’ve been excited for Janelle Monae for weeks now for several reasons: her excellent stage presence, sweet dance moves, killer vocals. Because we look for artists that both communicate truth and are artistically excellent, SAB invited Janelle Monae because we believe she has skillfully incorporated thought provoking lyrics and concepts into her first major label debut, Metropolis. She challenges convention by introducing a socially conscious body of work disguised as a dancy cybertronic concept album. The idea of a concept album is lost on so many recent artists, and it is refreshing to see a new artist pull it off so well, especially with such a positive message.

Monday night at Popanonymous, we listened to Metropolis (26 minutes) in its entirety. This was a great exercise for those of us present. We recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet done this: listen to the songs with the words in front of you. Listen to them with your roommate.

Here’s a sample, from Sincerely, Jane:

“Teacher, teacher please reach those girls in them videos
The little girls just broken Queen, confusing bling for soul
Danger, there’s danger when you take off your clothes, all your dreams go down the drain girl

Are we really living or just walking dead now?
Or dreaming of a hope riding the wings of angels
The way we live
The way we die
What a tragedy, I’m so terrified
Day dreamers please wake up, we can’t sleep no more”

Be sure to check out Janelle Monae’s short film “Many Moons” playing now on Messiah Channel 13 (sorry about the sound issues). Bonus points to anyone who can name the reference from the beginning of the song (the “Boo-do-do doo-do…” part). Let us know in the comments section if you can name that where that comes from.

For those that don’t know, Popanonymous is a weekly gathering of people who discuss all things pop culture. We meet every Monday night at 9pm at the Loft. This semester we’ll be talking about Mad Men, country music and politics, Stephen Colbert and Inglorious Basterds. Next week we’re talking about the band Passion Pit. Hope to see you at the Loft, Monday at 9pm.

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Jay-Z’s Latest: Blueprint for Disaster

September 30th, 2009 | Category: Pop Culture

The Blueprint 3

The Blueprint 3 opens with one of the best mainstream beats I’ve heard in a while, wonderful huge rushing synths like blood pumping to veins. But Jay-Z falls into a minor trap right off the bat. While he begins with a lament on street life, he quickly asserts he’s “running the map” and thug life is “just the way the game goes”. In between, though, he’s got a neat subtle rhyme on modern hip-hop and its perception:

I’m talkin’ bout music I ain’t talkin’ bout rap
You talkin’ bout who’s hot I ain’t talkin’ bout that
The conversation is changed

I agree that the real hip-hop today sees itself not as rap, but as music. While mainstream rap is too often all gimmick and braggadocio, the less-famous movement beyond radio is changing the conversation. Underground hip-hop artists like Madlib are leading the charge and receiving critical acclaim. Check him out for examples of creativity and artistry in hip-hop production and beat-making.

Unfortunately, Jay-Z continues to critique his mainstream peers while failing to bring any quality music on his own part. The third track, “DOA (Death of Auto-Tune)” is rife with hypocritical commentary in this vein. While Jay-Z rails against raps with melodies, ring-tones, etc., he completely misses the opportunity to go nuts over a wonderfully fuzzy jazzy bounce beat. A more sensible rapper would touch on a few dozen subjects in a 4-minute song with such a solid beat, but Jay-Z stubbornly sticks to the topic without supplying any insights more intriguing or less clumsy than:

“I know we facin’ a recession
But the music y’all makin’ gonna make it the great depression”

Still, one of his opening lines, “This is Sinatra at the opera, bring a blonde”, perfectly hits the spot, as the lyric gives Jay-Z an aura of unreachable class and irresistible entertainment. Plus, what modern rapper wouldn’t mind having Sinatra’s subtle mob connections in their own mythology? I think that’s the part of the problem with The Blueprint 3: Jay-Z can hit a home run on one line out of a hundred (which is better than you could say about a lot of his contemporaries), but he still strikes out on half his verses by way of clunky rhythms, rotten lines, and terrible flow.

“Thank You” comes with a strong triumphant beat, but it’s an inconsistent track. Jay-Z stumbles in places when trying to pull off the classy, urban flow demanded by the music, instead delivering lazy clunkers like “we are really high tonight” that reveal this song as a lame attempt at the laid-back, cigar-smokin’ feeling of elites like Notorious B.I.G. and the lesser-known DOOM . Other moments, he seems to be going for a futuristic aloofness, but Del tha Funkee Homosapien has already done it better.

We also get all the obligatory guest star tracks, featuring Alicia Keys, Rhianna, Kanye West, and Young Jeezy. The best of these is also the top song on the album, “Empire State of Mind”, which features Ms. Keys. The name has to be a play on the famous 1994 Nas song, “N.Y. State of Mind”, although Jay-Z looks at the classy bright lights side of the Big Apple rather than the gritty street side his rival was revealing. Thanks to a relaxed piano beat and Keys’ soaring vocals in the chorus, this song actually is only slightly inferior to Nas’ classic track. Jay-Z puts aside criticism of other rappers and gives a quality performance, including another Sinatra self-comparison.

The other guest-featured tracks aren’t very noteworthy, with one exception. “On To The Next One- feat. Swizz Beatz” is ridiculously annoying, and I’d probably rather eat a cactus than subject myself to its repetitive beat again. This is way worse than anything I’ve heard on the radio. I understand that rap albums are known for filler, but this obnoxious song is an atrocity against humanity. And hearing this after Jay-Z’s earlier ranting on the pitfalls of mainstream hip-hop just adds insult to injury.

There’s no excuse for so many subpar songs, especially when you’ve had 2 years since the last album, and Jay-Z should be at a point in his career where he doesn’t have to sacrifice musical aspirations for financial necessity . Why bother releasing an album if you’ve only got 5-6 decent tracks? Rappers have done this for years, but that doesn’t make it excusable. Also, the second half of this album is filled with the same gimmicks and tricks found in on radio hip-hop- like using a old and relatively famous song like “Forever Young” as a crutch to hold some low-effort beats and dopey posturing. If you’re gonna call yourself “the greatest”, at least make an effort to avoid the same pitfalls your lesser contemporaries have fallen into.

There are a few bright spots in The Blueprint 3. Many of beats on the first half are outstanding, and I’m hoping this is due to the increased influence of underground producers on mainstream hip-hop artists, and not just an aberration.

For the most part, while Jay-Z brings out the glitz and glamour of New York City, he leaves the substance at home. Half of the time, he sounds like he’s mimicking other famous rappers. Even when he’s himself, Jay-Z brings weak lyrics and is unable to stretch beyond the topic directly in front of him. At this point in his career, he’s really gotta turn in his self-proclaimed title of “greatest rapper”.

Just like you can’t be Elvis without shakin’ your hips once in a while, you can’t be considered a hip-hop god without busting consistent gold lyrics and separating yourself from the masses. The Blueprint 3 fails on both counts. Jay-Z’s not Elvis, and he’s not Sinatra. How about some Neil Diamond comparisons on the next album?

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Metal at B-Sides: Texas in July

September 28th, 2009 | Category: B-sides

Metal as a genre of music has always been cast aside as garbage, an excuse for violent kids to let their anger out by screaming words no one can understand. Why then did B-sides book local metal band-gone-signed Texas in July to play this Wednesday? Is SAB trying to trick people into coming only to watch them writhe in pain at the show? Not at all. The goal of B-sides is to showcase bands that bring artistic ability, cultural significance, truth, and a sense of appropriateness to our campus. TIJ will not only live up to these goals but embody them perfectly.

Listen to any good metal band, and the technical achievement of their music will immediately become apparent. Many musicians in the genre can play their instruments with mind-blowing speed and in complex rhythms that most performers wouldn’t think possible. Guitarists dance their fingers across the strings of their guitars with ninja-like speed, while drummers use their great endurance to keep up constant bass hits with not one, but two pedals. It is truly a sight to behold live.

But one of the best things about metal is the lack of constraints in the genre. A band could, for example, interlace jazz or orchestral strings into a song. Bands like Between the Buried and Me and Protest the Hero do this constantly. In many musical genres that would be unheard of, perhaps it would even go as far as shifting the bands musical niche. In metal, you can do anything. In a culture that has begun to melt and fuse different elements of nationalities, races, and religions together, doesn’t this “no barriers” rule of metal have some relevance?

As far as truth being communicated through lyrics, metal is no different than any other area of music. Good bands will always deliver truth and meaning, where as the not so good will write songs as hollow as their heads. Heavy music, however, does have the addition of screaming for vocalists, an element that conveys a sense of emotion powerful enough to make listeners believe or ponder what they heard. Maybe one will have to read the lyrics in order to understand them, but maybe we should all be doing that for every band we listen to.

That said, I believe it is up to students to decide if these properties make heavy music appropriate for campus. If students say “Yes”, I guarantee there will be significant art on stage. Truth, or at least a quest for it, will become a friendly and common sight as vocalists scream out towards an eager, attentive crowd. And maybe we won’t be able to understand them at times, but is that any different from a Brazilian drum band or a thirty piece punk marching band? Come out this Wednesday, participate in a cultural exchange, learn something, and hopefully leave with an experience you won’t soon forget.

By: Max Fritsche

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“America’s Next Great Folksinger”

September 10th, 2009 | Category: Concerts

Paste Magazine’s cover story on Iron and Wine from their October 2007 issue is worth checking out as we prepare to have Sam Beam’s gentle voice lift our souls on Saturday in Brubaker Auditorium. Reading an interview with an artist like Beam helps us hear their music better, giving us some context about who the artist is and what motivates them. So go ahead and read it.

For those not taking the time to read it, or who need a little taste before deciding:

It turns out that religion is not merely a cultural shorthand or creative prop for Beam but, like Johnny Cash before him, it constitutes one of the only three topics he’s genuinely interested in as a writer. “You have your three big things that you can talk about, basically, if you’re going to write something that actually means something to you as a human being, which is Love, God and Death. That’s basically the thing. Love, which occupies a lot of our time, because we don’t like being lonely. God, because everyone wants to know that there’s a reason behind what they’re doing and what the hell is going on. And death is just the reality of your finite time here.

Here is Sam Beam performing “Upward over the Mountain” at Messiah a few years ago. Check it out for a glimpse of what Saturday is going to be like.

And finally, don’t wait to buy your tickets. There are less than 400 tickets left, and we are selling at a pace of more than 100 tickets a day. This show will sell out. Don’t miss it because you were waiting to buy a ticket on the day of the show.

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J.J. Abrams and the Mystery Box

September 03rd, 2009 | Category: Lost Films

When Paramount Pictures wanted to reboot the Star Trek franchise with a younger cast and a new history, they turned to director J. J. Abrams, creator of both Alias and Lost, and director of Cloverfield. After grossing over 256 million dollars at the North American box office, which is well more than twice the previous best in the Star Trek franchise, Paramount must be very happy with their decision.

Star Trek has plenty to praise. It is very well written, providing a storyline that effectively reboots the franchise without ignoring what has already happened in the Star Trek history (through a clear to understand time-travel-“oh-now-that-he’s-dead-all-of-history-will-be-different” plot device that gives Kirk an understandably new personality). The acting is good, particularly by Zachary Quinto as the emotion-suppressing Spock.

But Abrams deserves a lot of credit. He’s the one who has become the master of creating mystery, as many know from watching Lost. Or think about how the film Cloverfield was marketed. Abrams talked about his use of mystery in a recent TED Talk (more on TED later). He talked about a box of magic tricks he bought (but never opened) when he was a kid, and how that box is somehow more magical because he doesn’t know what is inside. That idea of not knowing what is “inside”, and the potential and hope and infinite possibility that that holds, is the idea behind a lot of what Abrams loves about filmmaking. “Mystery is more important than knowledge,” he says as he expands on the mystery box metaphor, demonstrating his points by showing clips from several films. It is definitely worth checking out.

A little more about TED. TED is a non-profit group committed to spreading ideas that are worth spreading. Their online talks (“riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world”) are very intelligent, and run the gamut from Technology to Entertainment to Design (the original T.E.D.) and beyond. These talks have found an audience in the millions. They are always interesting and usually range between five and twenty minutes. Want to know ten ways the world could end? How schools are killing creativity? How to mod a Wii remote into an interactive white board? Whether violence is increasing or declining in the world? How we could make cheap liquid-filled eyeglasses to help a billion people see better? Check out this site and I guarantee you’ll find something interesting and inspiring.

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