Tag Archives: Popular music

Barbershop redux

barbershop

Four voices of homogeneous gender in close voicing with the melody line sung below a tenor harmony, avoidance of dissonance and vibrato, and liberal use of dominant seventh chords define barbershop quartet singing.

This style of popular singing developed under the influence of German and Austrian harmonized folk song, blackface minstrelsy, and race relations in early 20th-century neo-Victorian America. The formation of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America in 1938 formalized the style and its corresponding subculture, and its use by Walt Disney and Meredith Willson propagated it.

Contemporary barbershop singing turns this nostalgic vision into lived experience, as the old songs function as repositories of idealized social memory.

This according to Four parts, no waiting: A social history of American barbershop harmony by Gage Averill (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003; RILM Abstracts 2003-7333).

Today is Barbershop Music Appreciation Day! Above, Norman Rockwell’s classic take on the barbershop quartet; below, the International Quartet Championship finalists at the 2019 Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual convention.

 

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Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” period

Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue is one of her most universally recognized works. Generations of people have come of age listening to it, inspired by the way it clarified their own difficult emotions, and critics and musicians admire the idiosyncratic virtuosity of its compositions. The largely autobiographical albums of what might be called Mitchell’s Blue period lasted through the mid-1970s.

In 1970 Mitchell was living with Graham Nash in Laurel Canyon and had made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter notable for her soaring voice and skillful compositions. Soon, though, feeling hemmed in, she fled to the hippie community of Matala, Greece. Here and on further travels, her compositions were freshly inspired by the lands and people she encountered as well as by her own radically changing interior landscape.

After returning home to record Blue, Mitchell retreated to British Columbia, eventually reemerging as the leader of a successful jazz-rock group and turning outward in her songwriting toward social commentary. Finally, a stint with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and a pivotal meeting with a Tibetan lama prompted her return to personal songwriting, which resulted in her 1976 album Hejira.

Mitchell’s Blue period featured her innovative manner of marrying lyrics to melody; her inventive, highly expressive chord progressions that achieved her signature blend of wonder and melancholy; her pioneering approach to personal songwriting; and her contributions to bringing a new literacy to the popular song.

This according to Will you take me as I am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer (New York: Free Press, 2009; RILM Abstracts 2009-1442).

Blue is 50 years old today! Below, the full album.

Related article: Joni Mitchell and 1960s sexuality

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Erroll Garner and “Misty”

When Clint Eastwood was asked to “play Misty for me” in the classic movie of the same name, the song was played by its composer Erroll Garner, one of jazz’s most popular and prolific artists.

A completely self-taught pianist who never learned to read music, Garner created a unique and idiosyncratic but always accessible style. His musical approach was based on elements of swing and bop, while being harmonically reminiscent of French impressionistic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. This style, combined with a winning stage persona, made him arguably the most successful jazz artist of the 1950s.

Garner composed several songs that went on to become jazz standards, but the one with which he will be linked forever is “Misty” (1954). With lyrics by Johnny Burke, the song became a hit for such artists as Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughan

The critic Leonard Feather eulogized him as a pianist who played “cascades of jubilant chords that seemed to tell you, ‘Boy, am I having a ball!’”

This according to “Garner, Erroll” by Michael R. Ross (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 641); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Garner’s 10oth birthday! Below, the composer holds forth.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Cole Porter and café society

Asked once whether his songs would endure, Cole Porter replied “I never gave it a thought…my enjoyment was in writing them.”

Porter’s passion for music was socially embedded; his personal performances were as central to his life as his songwriting. From early in his career, he loved references to historical as well as contemporary figures, usually in some brash situation that flatters his audience.

As a lyricist, Porter loved metonymic things, particularly lists. On the one hand, these lists frame a particular kind of eroticism—they most often appear in songs of romance (however ambivalent) and employ potentially endless wit, since the list could hypothetically continue to exhaustion, in the service of courtship.

But the list also serves to create an implied social world in which Cole’s immediate audience, which certainly recognized the references, was joined by a larger and more inchoate audience through magazines, recordings, and radio. Still, he depended heavily on the evanescence of the references, so his lists can have an unusually short cultural half-life—which is a cornerstone of their charm.

This according to “Lists of louche living: Music in Cole Porter’s social world” by Mitchell Morris, an essay included in A Cole Porter companion (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016 73–85; RILM Abstracts 2016-2611).

Today is Porter’s 130th birthday! Above, with his wife, Linda Lee Thomas; below, Anything goes includes numerous references to café society figures and events that were well known in Porter’s time, but are largely unfamiliar to today’s audiences.

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Melissa Etheridge’s creative process

In a 2020 interview, Melissa Etheridge recalled the genesis of her Grammy Award-winning Come to my window.

“I almost didn’t put it on the album. I thought it was a little too ambiguous of a song, that maybe people wouldn’t quite know what I’m talking about.”

“The chorus came first. Actually, I wanted to write a chorus that had a lifting melody, that kind of went up.”

“I was in a relationship that was the kind of relationship you have in your early 30s. You think you’re all in it, but it’s all complicated.  I had just hung up from a conversation where we didn’t say anything.  And I just hung up and said, ‘Why did I do this?’ Oh, well, ‘I would dial the numbers, just to listen to your breath.’  I just want to connect with you so badly.”

“It certainly wasn’t what I thought a hit song was. And then, man, it came out and it just kept going and going and going. What do I know, you know?”

This according to “Melissa Etheridge: The Rolling stone interview” by Brian Hiatt (Rolling stone 16 September 2020; RILM Abstracts 2020-57467).

Today is Etheridge’s 60th birthday! Above, a photo from 2011 by Angela George (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0); below, a live performance.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Enya and the female myth of Ireland

The personification of Enya as a modern archetype of female Ireland has become irrevocably intertwined into the grand narratives of popular culture that make up the last decades of the 20th century.

Her music has many cultural significations; Celticism, romance, fantasy, spirituality, and femininity. The common denominator in Enya’s translucent embodiment of this myth is her seemingly unconscious femininity and her self-distancing from the media and her followers. The unwillingness of Eithne Ní Bhraonáin and her co-creators to discuss their work in turn assists the reading of Enya as a text rather than as an object of ethnographic inquiry.

The significations in the music of Enya’s How can I keep from singing? interrelate with the significations in the lyrics, and a semiotic analysis of the visual imagery in the song’s music video further illuminates how her work perpetuates and reinvigorates the myth of Ireland and Irish womanhood for popular culture.

This according to “How can I keep from singing?” Enya and the female myth of Ireland by Anna Maria Dore, an M.A. thesis accepted by the University of Limerick/Ollscoil Luimnigh in 2003 (RILM Abstracts 2003-21780).

Today is Enya’s 60th birthday! Above and below, the video in question.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Selena crosses over

As a musician, Selena Quintanilla Pérez will be remembered for her ability to transform traditional Latino musical styles such as cumbia into viable pop mainstream commodities. As a personality, she has acquired a larger-than-life status, symbolizing tejano music’s increasing profile within the record industry during the 1990s.

Born in Freeport, Texas, Selena was encouraged to perform and record as a preteen. In 1989 the family band, Selena y Los Dinos (simply called Selena by 1991), graduated from generic synth-flavored, dance-pop released on indie labels to a more individualized sound.

The emotional depth of her singing, along with her brother A.B.’s clever songs and slick rhythmic arrangements, netted a Grammy for  Selena live in 1993. Amor prohibido, the last album released prior to her tragic shooting by a former fan in 1995, demonstrated the band’s wide range of styles, including reggae-inflected dance fare, hard-edged rock, and torchy ballads.

This according to “Selena” by Frank Hoffman (Encyclopedia of recorded sound; this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works).

Today would have been Selena’s 50th birthday! Above, Selena live in concert in 1994 by hellboy_93 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0;  below, performing in 1993.

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The Bristol sessions

In the summer of 1927 a group of musicians gathered for a recording session in Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, including musicians who would become some of the most influential names in American music—the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, and more.

Organized by Ralph Peer for Victor Records to capitalize on the popularity of “hillbilly” music, the Bristol sessions were a key moment in country music’s evolution, producing the first commercial recordings by these artists.

The musicians played a variety of styles largely endemic to the Appalachian region. Rather than attempting to record purely traditional sounds, however, Peer sought a combination of musical elements, an amalgam that would form the backbone of modern country music. The reverberations of the Bristol sessions are still felt, yet their influence is widely misunderstood, and popular accounts of the event are more legend than history.

This according to The Bristol sessions: Writings about the big bang of country music (Jefferson: McFarland, 2005; RILM Abstracts 2005-19593).

Below, all four tracks from the Carter Family’s Bristol session.

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Global hip hop studies

 

In 2020 Intellect launched Global hip hop studies, a biannual peer-reviewed, rigorous, and community-responsive academic journal that publishes research on contemporary as well as historical issues and debates surrounding hip hop music and culture around the world.

The journal provides a platform for the investigation and critical analysis of hip hop politics, activism, education, media practices, and industry analyses, as well as manifestations of hip hop culture in all four of the classic elements—DJing/turntablism, MCing/rapping, graffiti/street art, and b-boying/b-girling/breaking and other hip hop dances—along with the under-examined realms of beatboxing, fashion, identity formation, hip hop nation language, and beyond.

Below, the South Indian rapper Smokey the Ghost, who is interviewed in the inaugural issue.

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Rocking the (Chinese) tradition

 

In December 2015, on the Zhongguo zhi Xing (China Star) television program, a reality-show competition among professional pop singers, the singer Tan Weiwei presented a song collaboration with masters of Huayin laoqiang (a xiqu genre originating from Shuangquan village in Huayin), telling her audience that it represented “the earliest Chinese rock music.”

This broadcast, and a second one at the 2016 CCTV Chunjie Wanhui (Spring Festival Gala), led to considerable controversy regarding the three-way negotiation among Chinese rock music, the “Intangible Cultural Heritage’” represented by traditional Hauyin laoqiang, and the political ideology of the Chinese Communist Party.

The reception of these performances among various groups of viewers–general audience members, rock music fans, musicians, and government officials–illustrates how different interpretations reflect audience members’ differing social ideologies. The process of combining rock music and traditional culture is given different meanings based on the identity and stance of different viewers.

This according to “Rocking the tradition or traditionalizing rock? A music performance on Chinese reality show China star” by Yang Shuo (Sounding board 2017; RILM Abstracts 2017-43941). Above and below, the historic performance.

Happy Chinese New Year!

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