Elizabeth Taylor, RIP

The beautiful La Liz has died of congestive heart failure at the age of 79. In a medium filled with larger-than-life characters, Elizabeth Taylor more than held her own. Whether she was going shot-for-shot with Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (and in real life, too) or providing a simple one-word voice for Maggie Simpson, Taylor was always the biggest and brightest star in the room.

She made more than her share of clunkers, and she had a tendency to say some really strange things in her later years, but her presence stands on its own. The headline on the Drudge Report says, simply, “The Last Movie Star.” I think that’s probably true.

Rest in peace.

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Rebecca Black And The Cult Of Fame

There has been an enormous amount of Internet buzz in the past couple of weeks directed at Rebecca Black, a 13-year-old girl who has become an Internet phenom thanks to the song “Friday” and the slickly done video that accompanies the song. As I write this, the video has nearly 30 million YouTube hits. Rebecca Black, it seems, is a star.

The buzz surrounding this young girl is for all the wrong reasons. Put simply, both the song and the video for “Friday” are bad. Not just normal, run-of-the-mill, bad. Not even way-over-the-top “We Built This City” bad. No, this song is so bad it will make your ears bleed. It may well be the worst song ever written and recorded…and the video makes it even worse. It’s the Plan 9 From Outer Space of music. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen or heard it, watch and listen at your own peril.

So this puts me in the very strange position of standing up for Rebecca Black.

Much of the gleeful mockery that happens in discussions and on comment boards comes at the expense of the girl, but I think those comments miss the mark. The most frequent criticism of her is that she can’t sing, that her voice is beyond awful. It’s certainly true that the vocals in this song remind me of Twiki, that annoying little robot that used to provide comic relief in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. But it’s also not her real voice. For whatever reason (oh God, maybe her real voice is worse…no, can’t be), the producers of “Friday” have used Auto-Tune to compress Black’s voice into a robotic monotone. There is almost no trace of a real human voice left anywhere in the song. I haven’t heard such a digitally processed vocal since Neil Young butchered “Mr. Soul” on the Trans album, but at least Neil was trying to sound like a computer. It’s more Kraftwerk than craft work.

The other criticism of Black is that it’s virtually impossible to see a trace of genuine emotion or feeling in her face. Even as she’s croaking about “fun fun fun fun fun” she looks like somebody’s pointing a gun at her baby sister’s forehead.

For this, I can’t blame the girl one bit. On some level she had to know that this song was bad. Even a 13-year-old can read these lyrics and come to the rational conclusion that this brings “suck” to a whole new level. Don’t believe me? Run this past the average 13-year-old and ask them if they think it’s good:

“Yesterday was Thursday
Today it is Friday
We we we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today
Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes afterwards”

Add in lyrics about trying to decide whether to get in the front or back seat of a car and about eating cereal in the morning and you no longer have a song, you’ve got a Kenny Bania routine, and listening to it is like being beaten with a bag of oranges.

Still, the hate directed at Rebecca Black is unfair. She’s a young girl with stars in her eyes, like a million other young girls and boys out there. The villains of this piece are the folks behind Ark Music Factory. For a fee (no doubt a very high fee), Ark Music Factory will write a song for you, record you singing it, produce it, create a professional looking music video, publish it on YouTube, and put your song on iTunes. They’ll even guest star in your video, throwing in a Vanilla Ice-worthy rap about how cool you are.

The entire enterprise is cynical in the extreme. This is not a new Brill Building of talented songwriters churning out songs to be matched to appropriate singers. This is a group of people who have tapped into a new market in the American Idol landscape.

The arts have always been populated with people seeking fame. Somewhere inside every musician is a kid who desperately wanted to be on stage, basking in the glow of devoted followers. For generations, kids would practice, practice, practice in order to get to Carnegie Hall. They paid their dues. Elvis Presley, close to being an instant star with his first single, was a poor kid from the slums of Memphis, singing at talent shows and hanging around tiny Sun Records until they took pity on him. The Beatles played hundreds of shows in The Cavern, a dank, claustrophobic basement in Liverpool, when they weren’t slogging through all-night sets for hookers and thugs in Hamburg, Germany. Whether it’s dodging bottles being hurled at you in a seedy club or struggling through a set at another Bar Mitzvah, it’s called “paying your dues” and most every musician has done it. At least, the good ones have.

In the past 15 years, there has been a new path to stardom. A revival of The Mickey Mouse Club, backed by the strong arm of Disney’s media outreach, turned Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake into stars. The Backstreet Boys and ‘n Sync, among many others, were molded by faceless entrepreneurs to appeal to the widest cross section of young female fans available. American Idol has turned the concept of getting a record contract into a popularity contest. None of this is really new. The Monkees were created for television, and the original Mickey Mouse Club gave us Annette Funicello. What is new is the notion that anybody can become famous if they just get a lucky break. The Monkees were cast as actors because they could also sing, and Annette Funicello had talent that reached past the small screen. But as anybody who’s ever watched the audition episodes of American Idol can tell you, the world is full of people who are completely devoid of artistic talent who nonetheless believe with every fiber of their being that they can become stars. When they are told that singing is not their game they look crushed or defiant, and sometimes both. Who is Randy Jackson to take away their dreams?

Enter Ark Music Factory, willing to provide what may be a shortcut to fame. No auditions, no dues, no dodging bottles…just pony up the dough and maybe it’ll happen for you, too. The folks at Ark clearly don’t care whether their charges can sing or not. As long as the check clears, you’ll be up on YouTube in no time. Ark Music Factory has no skin in the game. They’ll be happy to exploit Rebecca Black and so many others like her. So she becomes a national punchline because she’s been saddled with the worst song ever written? Not their problem. My guess is they console Rebecca and her parents with the notion that 30 million YouTube hits is a screaming success. But for Rebecca Black, high school awaits and that poor girl is probably going to be tormented because she believed that fame is won or bought, not earned, and because she had parents willing to open their checkbooks to buy that fame, and because Ark Music Factory was willing to take the money with not a care in the world about the product they put out.

Rebecca Black is famous. People all over the world are laughing at her. Any chance she had of making it in the jungle of the music business is now dead, lying in repose next to William Hung’s début album. But it is the people pulling the strings that deserve to be laughingstocks. They wrote the song, they produced it, they ran her voice through Auto-Tune, they created the atrocious video. And they’re adults. To quote another singer who spent a lot of time playing for food and passing the hat in Greenwich Village, Rebecca Black is only a pawn in their game.

The Listening Post: February 2011

More snow, more cold. Time to light a fire.

  • Burning Down Your HouseThe Jim Jones Revue. They don’t make rock ‘n’ roll like this anymore. Really, they don’t. The Jim Jones Revue are a throwback to the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll music, a furious hybrid of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and the proto-punk of 60s garage bands like The Sonics. This is raw, uncompromising stuff, 11 revved up rockers in barely 30 minutes. No ballads need apply. There is a certain sameness to the album as a whole; one or two change of pace songs might have served the album well as a listening experience, but the album is over so quickly there’s no time to get bored. The main purpose of the album, however, is not to be a soothing listening experience; it’s to get you off your keister and out on the dance floor until you collapse in a pool of sweat. On this level, it succeeds admirably. Like the best of the early rock ‘n’ roll it’s almost impossible to listen to this without wanting to move. George Clinton told us “Free your mind and your ass will follow,” and the Jim Jones Revue provide a mind-freeing experience. This music makes you want to shake like jelly on a plate even if, like me, you’re allergic to looking like a fool on the dance floor. I dare you to listen to this album without at least tapping your foot or playing imaginary instruments. I double dog dare you. Pianos and guitars dominate along with a frenzied, borderline inarticulate howl of vocals from Jim Jones. This is rock ‘n’ roll that should come with a warning label: playing this album loud might, in fact, burn your house down.
    Grade: B+
  • In The CityThe Jam. I’ve never been sure why The Jam were considered a punk band. I get that they played short, sharp, aggressive songs and came out of London at the height of England’s punk scene, but The Jam were always acolytes of The Who and The Small Faces, lovers of all things Mod right down to their haircuts and skinny ties. The Jam were a power pop band, in the very best sense of that term. The power pop they played was not from the “hard rock Beatles” school of Badfinger or the Raspberries, but rather the crashing, catchy two-minute anthems of the early Who. “The Kids Are Alright,” “Substitute,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” and “Pictures Of Lily” are the musical progenitors of “Art School,” “In The City,” and “Sounds From The Street.” Seen as punks, the label that was dropped on them by clueless music executives and critics, the Jam are lightweight. Seen correctly, as power pop heirs to the pre-Tommy Who, the Jam are titans. In The City is a nearly flawless début album, loaded with brilliant gems: “Art School,” “I’ve Changed My Address,” “I Got By In Time,” “In The City,” “Sounds From The Street,” “Time For Truth,” and “Takin’ My Love” are some of the greatest power pop songs ever put down on tape. The rest is nearly as good, from a rave up version of “Slow Down” that shreds the Beatles version to a thrashy version of the theme song to the TV show Batman (also covered, back in the day, by both the Who and the Kinks). Some of the typical punk rock subject matter raises its ugly head (“Bricks and Mortar” rails against urban planning, and features a very Who-like fadeout; “Time For Truth” asks “Whatever happened to the great empire/You bastards have turned it into manure”), and the aggressive nature of the music makes you think there’s an underpinning of inchoate punk rock anger throughout (even when there isn’t), but musically this is classicist rock music. This is smart songwriting, well-played. If you like the early Who, you will like In The City. I love the early Who, ergo….
    Grade: A