Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"real and famous"



"Still be real and famous" - the impossible dream of hip hop captured in five words by Migos's Quavo

Not one of their great songs, or great videos, mind

This though





Feel like Migos and the young Bryan Ferry could have found a connection - pools, cars, scantily clad young women, and all things deluxe and delightful




Thursday, July 12, 2018

the splendor of appearances

Someone I should've included in Aftershocks as glam inheritor - the real unreal thing. 

This 2012 piece I did on Lana Del Rey (and our atemporal times) for Spin is overtly oriented around the retro-as-entropy / vintage aesthetics angle (it was the lead story of a special themed issue on Retro Activity) but looking at it again, leitmotifs to do with glamour, illusion, fame, the artifice of persona, and a chronic hyper-visuality stick out as strongly. (Retropastiche is itself a subset of glam, of course, something it arguably pioneered)


Watch out Adele! There’s another soul lady coming up behind you and her name is Lana Del Rey.” So said a Top 40 radio deejay last month, transitioning between “Rolling In the Deep”  and “Video Games”. This piece of patter wasn’t just a smart way to introduce an unfamiliar, relatively edgy song to mainstream listeners, it was a rather astute bit of music criticism. Think about it: Adele and Lana Del Rey are young women who’ve had their hearts broken and who sing about it in musical idioms that are overtly non-contemporary:  Etta James-style Sixties soul, with Adele, and in Lana Del Rey’s case, something less tightly anchored to specific sources but equally old-timey in its evocations of the Fifties and early Sixties.  The question both singers raise is “why do these otherwise thoroughly modern women express first-hand feeling s in such second-hand imagery? Why coat something raw and real in this vintage veneer?”

Lana Del Rey arrived on the scene too recently to make it into my book Retromania, but—like Adele—she is an absolute gift when it comes to talking it up: “look, see,  that ’s what I’m  on about!” . That said, they  represent different kinds of retro-pop.  Adele’s is unselfconscious, just an artist who’s embraced a decidedly old-fashioned style and reiterates it without adding much to it. Escort, the New York disco troupe featured in this special issue of Spin, are another example. The hallmark of unselfconscious retro is not dressing the part, not looking like you’ve time-travelled from the era  in which the music is sourced.

Lana Del Rey is much closer to the hyper-conscious retro that’s endemic in indie/ underground music, where clothes and artwork reference a bygone era, while the lyrics and the music itself often teem with crafty allusions.  Frankie Rose & the Outs, also featured in this issue, are prime exponents,  from their  Sixties girl group sound to songs like “Thee Only One” (the “thee” probably nodding to various bands led by Sixties-revivalism-pioneer Billy Childish, but traceable even further back to a fad among Sixties garage bands like Thee Midnighters) to the cover of the 7-inch single version of that song, which Rose wanted to “look like a cross between a Blue Note album cover and an old French pop 45.”

Retro of this kind, where a group’s sound-and-visuals incorporate citations and where spotting them is an integral part of the fan’s enjoyment, is not a new thing. It’s been part of indie almost from the beginning  (The Smiths’s iconographic record-sleeves, Jesus & Mary Chain or Butthole Surfers “sampling” riffs or backing vocal refrains from Sixties and Seventies rock legends). It can be traced back further still, through glam rock’s Fifties echoes to The Beatles’s Chuck Berry pastiche “Back In the U.S.S.R.” and Zappa’s doowop album (both 1968). At the same time,  there’s no doubt that this kind of conscious retro-activity has intensified in the 21st Century, partly as a result of just how extensive the archive of pop history is now (five or six decades) and partly because the broadband era has made accessing that history so damn easy. YouTube, in particular, is a vast, evergrowing repository of promo and music-on-TV clips along with every other kind of pop (and unpop) culture.  And YouTube is as much as audio library as a video archive. You can school yourself there, free of charge.

Which brings us back to Lana Del Rey. Her rocket-like ascent was propelled by videos she put on YouTube made out of footage she’d found on Youtube.  “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” put History in shuffle mode:  a miasma of Americana that drifts back and forth across the decades  but  is unified by its sustained elegiac mood of not-now-ness.  Amid the appropriated home movie footage of swimming pools and skateboarders and kids on mopeds,  specific allusions pop up: the Hollywood sign, Chateau Marmont, Lana in Lolita sunglasses from Kubrick’s movie, Lana in a racing driver jacket that suggests Evil Knievel or maybe the  70s road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, Lana in a white leather fringe jacket that echoes Easy Rider or maybe Elvis in Las Vegas. 

According to Del Rey, though, the recurrent invocations of places like Vegas and LA in her videos (and also her lyrics) aren’t really references so much as mood-tints.  “The thing that fascinates me about all of them is the colors of the places,” she says on the phone, in transit to another mythic-Americana landscape she adores, Coney Island.  “The muted blues and greens in California, the bright lights of Vegas...  People ask me about what the Fifties imagery from California represents to me, but actually I’m mainly just a visual person.   Sometimes when my producer and I talk about songs, we talk about them in terms of colors. In a way the  album was visually driven. “

Part of the nostalgia effect of the found footage in  Del Rey’s videos derives from the properties of the different kinds of film stock, including the specific way that it ages and decays.  The bleached and blotchy textures trigger a poignant sense of time’s passage, an inkling that even your most halcyon memories will fade to nothingness.  “Blue Jeans” explicitly forefronts the idea of “dead media” and antiquated formats with its opening footage of a hand grabbing a pack of Eastman Ektrachrome Super 8 film.

Lana Del Rey may, in fact, be about to become the first Hipstamatic pop star.  Photo apps like Hipstamatic, Instagram, and ShakeIt!, or Fuuvi’s new faux-Super8 device the Bee, offer a digital simulation of an analogue past. Something similar is going on with Lana Del Rey’s music : old-timey instruments like mandolins, strings, harps and twangy surf guitar make up much of its texture, but there’s also  unidentifiable sounds flying about that are clearly sampled and processed, while the beats on Born To Die are boombastic,  hip hop in impact if not actual feel.  The result:  the RZA meets Lee Hazelwood. Factor in Del Rey’s choices in clothes, hair, accessories and make-up, and it’s clear she’s the perfect pop star for the era of vintage chic. Not that she’s only artist around with sound-and-visuals that are pre-faded and artificially distressed. Take Perfume Genius, also featured in this issue: there’s a similar “warm”,  softened-by-age sound, and a video, for “Lookout, Lookout”, set in a quaint motel, complete with rotary phone. 

It’s not just the stylized form of Lana Del Ray’s songs that feels out-of-time, it’s the emotional content too:  a language of romantic excess that harks back to Roy Orbison’s most over-the-top ballads or Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World”. Love as malady and madness, delirium and delusion...  and at the ultimate degree, death. “Dark Paradise” is a song of morbid fidelity, an abandoned or bereaved lover who prefers to keep the company of ghosts: “There’s no remedy for memory...  I wish I was dead.” Elsewhere, Lana sings “I’m not afraid to say that I’d die without him.”

“I don’t really condone relying on another person to the point where you’re going to die without them,” says Del Rey.  “Something I never really expected was to have gotten into a relationship that ended up being very tumultuous.  But I had met someone who was so magnetic and made me feel differently from the way that I felt for so long, which was sort of confused and bored...  and because in the end we couldn’t be together, it ended up having a  do-or-die element to it.  That was an experience that struck me and I kept on falling back to that place in terms of inspiration for the songs.” 

Born To Die goes beyond retro-romance, though, to retro-sexuality, retro-gender.  All those yielding, doe-eyed ballads of abject devotion...  seem to look back in languor to a time when men were men and women were thankful. A pre-feminist world, or more precisely, America before Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique  was published (1963).  So in “Without You”, Del Rey coos “I can be your china doll if you want to see me fall”, while “This Is What Makes Us Girls” seems to define femininity as being a fool for love:  “We all look for heaven and we put love first/Don’t you know we’d die for it?/ It’s a curse.”  At the other extreme, there are songs about women who uses wiles to get what they want. “Off to The Races” recalls Ginger, the Casino character played by Sharon Stone, except if Ginger actually enjoyed being a kept woman and was as docile and adoring as DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein hoped.  She’s a moll, wasting a rich man’s money (“give me them coins”), breaking into a Betty Boo squeak for the lines “I’m your little harlot, starlet” and purring “Tell me you own me”.

 “I’m an interesting mix of person,” says Del Rey defensively, with just a hint of annoyance.  “I am a modern day woman.  I’m self-supporting. I went to college. I studied philosophy. I write my own music. But at the same I also very appreciate being in the arms of a man and finding support that way.  That feeling influences the kind of melodies I choose and how romantic I make the song. Maybe it ends up giving it a slightly unbalanced feeling.”  Asked about the references in other songs on Born To Die about good-girls-gone-bad  (“degenerate beauty queens” is one memorable lyric), she points to David Lynch’s movie Wild At Heart as not so much an inspiration as a parallel with phases in her life. “The way I  ended up having relationships and living life, it sometimes mimics those more wild relationships.  Wild At Heart was an influence – in terms of the way it was shot, but also the love story.”

Right from the off,  commentators have talked of Lana Del Rey in terms of  David Lynch’s dark dreamworlds. They’ve also mentioned singers linked to his work such as  Chris “Wicked Game” Isaak and Julee “Falling” Cruise, whose songs  evoke a bygone era when the brokenhearted died inside but did it in style.  The Lynch connection highlights a curious quality of Lana Del Rey’s whole shtick: not only does it hark back to the Fifties and early Sixties, it inevitably also recalls the Eighties’s own echoes of that time. Movies  like Lynch’s  Blue Velvet, Jarmusch’s Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, the S.E. Hinton adaptations Rumblefish and The Outsiders. Musicians as various as Tom Waits,  Alan Vega, Mazzy Star. 

This Sixties-via-Eighties syndrome isn’t  unique to del Rey  by any means. As much as R&B originals like Etta, Adele recalls forgotten Brit soul revivalists like Alison Moyet, Carmel and  Mari Wilson. The scene that Frankie Rose belongs to—Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls—reaches Spector’s wall of sound and the Sixties girl group’s via Jesus and Mary Chain and the “C86” movement of bands like The Shop Assistants. Then there’s The Men, as featured in this issue, who draw from the harder side of mid-Eighties British psych-revivalism. On their song “( )” they filch not just the riff from Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” but a chunk of the lyric (“And I suggest to you/That it takes/Just five seconds”) along with lines from another Spacemen song “Take Me To the Other Side”.

If retro culture has reached the point where we’re seeing revivals of revivals, citations of citations (Spacemen 3 remade Stooges songs while “Revolution” itself is an already-somewhat-hokey homage to MC5), what are the implications for music going forward? As time goes on, signs are becoming more and more detached from their historical referents, hollowed out.  All these sounds, gestures, time-honored phrases, are entering into a freefloating half-life, or afterlife, where all they are is pure style.

This appears to be the ghosty place where Lana Del Ray comes from.  In “Without You”, she sings “but burned into my brain all these stolen images”  and I can’t help thinking of Blade Runner and the android replicants who are given transplanted memories.  Her lyrics are full of sampled clich├ęs (“ walk on the wild side”, “white lightning”, “feet don’t fail me”) or references to iconic brand-names (“white Pontiac heaven”,  “Bugatti Veyron”).  But she says that the Pontiac allusion isn’t for its pop-cultural associations (Two Lane Blacktop and other 70s movies, songs by Tom Waits and Jan & Dean) so much as “just the sound” of the word. Likewise, the name “Lana Del Rey” was chosen for its lilting loveliness, rather than its rippling resonances (a Hollywood movie idol with platinum blonde hair and a turbulent private life, a California beach town, a make of 1950s Chevrolet). It was “a big risk” renaming herself, she says, “but my music was always beautiful and I wanted a name that was beautiful too.”

“Beautiful” is a word that crops up repeatedly in Del Rey’s conversation, as it does in her lyrics. She seems to be intensely susceptible to the splendor of appearances, to the point of vulnerability. “You look like a million dollar man/ so why is my heart broke?”, she beseeches plaintively in “Million Dollar Man”.  In “National Anthem”, she sings about “blurring the lines between real and the fake.”  The gap between image and reality is an obsession. So is fame, portrayed as the dangerous desire to lose oneself by merging into a glamorous facade. “I even think I found god in the flashbulbs of your pretty cameras,” she sings in “Without You”, while the words “Movie Star Without a Cause” flash up in the video for “Blue Jeans”.

Then there’s “Carmen”, seemingly a song about a 17-year-old starlet who’s dying inside and only comes alive when “the camera’s on”, but really more like a perturbing self-portrait. “‘Carmen’ is probably the song closest to my heart,” says Del Rey, who seems vaguely put-out that I’ve heard it. “’Famous and dumb in an early age’—that’s fame in a different way, in different circles, for different reasons. Not really for being a pop star. It’s sort of like, my life”. Once again, you have to wonder about an artistic imagination so colonized by old movies and old songs that it can only express things that really happened in a real life through this “cinematic” prism.  Is this a distancing mechanism, a buffer to manage the emotion? Or was the actual love affair itself contaminated by fantasy and role-play?

^^^^^^

What we have with Lana Del Rey is the problem of the undeniable talent who is also a throwback, and who therefore sets back the cause of musical modernism. (See also: The White Stripes).  She’s not a  straightforward revivalist: the music and the presentation are diversely sourced and the end result is a sophisticated concoction (in that respect, she’s closer to The White Stripes than Adele). But it still falls, ultimately, within the domain of pastiche, memorably defined as “speech in a dead language”.  Given her passive persona, it’s tempting to say that the ghosts of pop culture’s collective unconscious speak through her.    

Born To Die, haunted by lost lovers, the spectre of Spector stalking indie-land... it’s all somewhat gloomy and airless. Are there upsides to the contemporary condition that some call “atemporality”, where past, present and future are blurred and the entire history of music is at your clicking fingertips?  

Definitely. You can travel to time-zones that no one else has, as Destroyer did with Kaputt, on which he visited regions of  1980s pop  (Prefab Sprout, Blue Nile)  that neither synthpoppers like La Roux nor chillwavers like Neon Indian cared to. You can create “superhybrids” that draw on disparate sources from far-flung eras and locations, as artists as wildly dissimilar as Vampire Weekend, Grimes, and Rustie have done.  You can become mesmerized by “lost futures”  of  70s synth music and attempt to start again where they left off, as with Emeralds, that  band’s spun-off solo careers such as Steve Hauchildt and his brilliant Tragedy & Geometry LP, and  the group’s allies on the Spectrum Spools label.  Or with the similar moves made off the back of 80s electro-funk and New Age made by Oneohtrix Point Never and Ford & Lopatin. 

The archive can be a radical resource, so long as the immense array of musical precedents it contains are used as launching pads into the unknown, rather than touchstones to recreate. 

The challenge is daunting but not impossible: to make music that doesn’t remind you of X or Y, but prominds you of something yet to come.


^^^^^^^^^

further reading on Lana Del Rey from Lucas Fagen at Hyperallergic

Monday, July 9, 2018

glam in theory

I agreed with our dear departed Mark Fisher on many things...  we fought shoulder to shoulder in joint campaigns like H-ology and Nuum-Wars and so forth... but we weren't in lockstep by any means, even squabbled (respectfully and amiably!) now and then. And there are quite few things where I don't see or hear what Mark saw or heard in something (I'm sure there were many, many vice versas - Arctics and Vampire W immediately spring to mind!)

One thing that always puzzled me was the K-punk enthusiasm for Roisin Murphy and Moloko as a modern manifestation of glam....  Roisin as the true daughter of Roxy

I just didn't see it, couldn't hear it


a sub-Leigh Bowery costume do not necessarily maketh the glam-diva monster

To me they / she seem an archetypal example of that (mostly Brit, but not always) syndrome where all the right moves are made - in terms of presentation, rhetorical pitch, packaging, references, sound and influence palette etc  - but something is missing

That syndrome / lineage would include Goldfrapp,  Janelle Monae (where the checklist includes a whole set of political boxes being ticked), in an earlier era / taste-episteme Curve, and various others

The lack is precisely presence -  the X Factor that makes a person magnetic, as opposed to merely attractive or easy on the eye.

That thing where you can't stop looking  - that place where Fetish (in the idol sense) meets Car Crash.

Presence not meaning vivacious, having nothing really to do with being a lively or sparky interviewee. But something borderline unwholesome, a charisma/need related ultimately to narcissistic personality disorder.

So with the glam-in-theory types, you get all this cleverness arranged around it, even a kind of "excess"  - but there's a fundamental modesty in terms of  what's at the heart of the confection.

A pleasing, able, but fundamentally small voice.  Even facially, a beauty that is too neat and regular





in the mold of Dani Siciliano rather than Marc Bolan

To put it another way, none of them are even Bjork or Kate Bush - let alone Grace Jones.

There isn't that force of self -  the drive to be spectacular - to command an audience.

Nor that slightly disgusting / disturbing desperation for attention, the ravenous lust for exposure, to drink up the gaze of the entire world

(So none of them are Amy Winehouse either)

These are craftily curated projects, art-pop exhibitions  - not exhibitionist art

This "good in theory" / "glam in theory" syndrome is one reason why certain seemingly obvious figures (self-conscious inheritors of glam - e.g. Scissor Sisters) are absent from the Aftershocks section of S+A where I hopscotch through various Eighties/Nineties/21st Century-so-far echoes of glam...   because they don't cut the mustard, whereas other seemingly less likely figures (Nicki Minaj, Kanye, et al) seemed to have the spirit in full fierce force - that despotic drive -  if not making the overt references and allusions, the neatly delineated lineage

And whatever you think of Lady Gaga, she blew the other glam-resurrectionists out of the water... she made the references and the quotations, yes, but she had also had the essentially vulgar voracity, that pushing of the self right in the centre of the world's attention, the sickness of the true star

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

the truth of pop

#1

#2

#3  and #3

or at least a truth - an industry of child labour, child exploitation, child abuse

there's no business like show business #4







there's no business like show business #3







like Drake she became a star by singing about stardom

now stars in the umpteenth remake of A Star Is Born

with the orrible Bradley Cooper, who at least appears in this character to be toning down his irrepressible male energy

"real and famous"

"Still be real and famous " - the impossible dream of hip hop captured in five words by Migos's Quavo Not one of their g...