Music – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Walling the Garden and Putting the App into Apple Music Tue, 07 Jul 2015 13:00:54 +0000 Z100's Jingle Ball 2014 Presented By Goldfish Puffs - Show

Post by Tim Anderson, Old Dominion University

Let’s begin with Taylor Swift so we can get that out of the way: Swift stands tall, talented and influential. Her ability to call bullshit on not paying during a “promotional” period should stand as a reminder that the best weapon for a musician in the industry is knowledge. Historically, musicians have not received royalties when their music was being “promoted” through radio airplay and free copies. However, this promotion had nothing to do with Swift’s or any other artist’s latest release. The three-month promotional period is about promoting the Apple Music service. The latest streaming music service is an iteration of Beats, which was an iteration of MOG. As every Apple user knows, Apple does not invent technologies so much as refine them. In this case the five days I have been using the service has brought me to an odd conclusion: I am impressed, and am convinced that we have seen just the tip of what Apple Music can add to a counter-reformatory music industry of continually-concentrating publishers and labels.

I say this for two reasons. First, the June 8th presentation of the service at the annual WWDC was muddled and confused at best. Seeing Jimmy Iovine stumble and Eddy Cue dance awkwardly while they proclaimed another revolution simply felt forced, and now we know why. The service is hardly revolutionary. Instead, it is a very interesting and important entry into an already-existing streaming game. Even the new service of “Connect,” which purportedly connects artists with fans, feels like another version of Twitter or Instagram. Furthermore, Apple couldn’t even deliver the service on time and delayed new versions of iTunes for OS X several times throughout the day. These delays suggest that they were pushing to the very last moment to produce a product whose capabilities they have yet to truly conceive. In other words, expect changes, many of them, and expect them often as iTunes continues to mutate while Apple Music finds new ways to service its listeners.


Secondly, this is really about extending the iTunes application. This already-overloaded portal that delivers iOS updates, books, podcasts, movies, and more is Apple’s most important application. It most likely has your credit card and now it offers a very convenient and quality walled garden of a streaming service for a monthly fee. Indeed, the three-month promotion is Apple’s 90-day gift, allowing users to freely frolic in a garden of 256kps streams that seamlessly integrates in your iTunes. It will likely temper thousands of skeptical users into their service. And unlike Spotify, iTunes’ advantage is that it is the playback device that you’re most likely to use first when you play any music. By placing the streaming service in the iTunes app, Apple has, again, used its most important consumer-face application as the media-oriented Trojan Horse that it is.

As gifts go, the user in me doesn’t mind accepting this one. Although Apple consumes my data while it surveys every single stream and search I provide it, as a streaming service I find it a worthy successor to Beats and a competitor to Spotify. Please note: Spotify and the seemingly doomed Tidal offer comparable catalogues with better bitrates. However, the combination of convenience and the fact that I don’t stream through the most high-end equipment in the world means I will be using this service a lot more than I ever anticipated.

Truth is, until relatively recently, Apple had not anticipated offering such a service. Steve Jobs never believed that subscription models were viable when it came to music. Indeed, when Apple purchased the pay-per-stream music service Lala in 2009, it was rumored the streaming service was purchased primarily to acquire its engineers. Indeed, Apple quickly and quietly gobbled up the firm only after it had submitted a never-released iOS app to Apple’s App Store that practically turned an iPhone into a portable, cloud-based jukebox where users could license the infinite playback of any track for a dime. Impressed, Apple transformed the basis of Lala’s services into the form of Apple’s iTunes Match, a service that allows users to essentially store 25,000 songs in the cloud and stream them through an iOS device. Still, the acquisition of Beats Music pointed to something much, much bigger. Indeed, the 2014 $3 billion U.S. purchase of Beats happened in a new Apple, one that was almost three years beyond Jobs’ passing and willing to bet on becoming a competitor to the dominant music-only streaming service, Spotify.[1] Five days into using both services, my gut feeling is that Apple Music will be able to compete with Spotify. Furthermore, I suspect that the two will lead a new oligarchy of on-demand streaming services. As interesting as Tidal may be, its app and debut has stained it as a loser service that – along with Rdio, Deezer, and the all-but-forgotten streaming pioneer, Rhapsody – will be vying for a distant third place. These big two services, and little three to whomever, will be a very substantial portion of a near future of the industry that is based on data aggregation and mining rather than sales.

All of which makes me yearn for 2005. Ten years ago I penned a post for Flow noting that after multiple record chains shuttered and MySpace had emerged as an interesting distribution mechanism for artists, such as Annie and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, that we had “a chance to, like punks in the late 1970s and hip hop of the early 1980s, once again see what it means to get really small together.” If anything, the fact that I find the debut of Apple Music a pleasant service makes me believe that this chance has, for the moment, passed. With Apple Music and Spotify the legal alternatives to piracy have emerged and have found supporters such as Taylor Swift and Led Zeppelin. And while The Beatles have yet to allow their catalogue to become “streamable,” one of the last classic rock holdouts, AC/DC, has relented and placed their music on both Spotify and Apple Music. As more and more legacy acts have relented to a ever-improving technical capacities and new business models, streaming services are now in a position to dominate. And at $14.99 a month for my family of five to legally access eight million plus records, Apple Music is providing a walled garden of goods that, although they could not have imagined to be successful, sounds great and has nothing revolutionary about it.


[1] Technically, YouTube is the dominant music streaming service. Indeed, rumors have abounded for the last two years that the Google-owned service would debut its own service, somewhat independent of Google Play.


The Cultural Significance of Booty Music Wed, 12 Nov 2014 15:00:38 +0000

Cover art for “Anaconda” single.

2014 has been proclaimed the year of the booty. This is, in part, due to the onslaught of butt songs, like “Booty” by J. Lo and Iggy Azalea, “Wiggle” by Jason Derulo and Snoop Dogg, and “All About that Bass” by Meghan Trainor. Even “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift seems to be about shaking your rump, as a cast of multicultural characters join Swift in shaking it through the video.

One of the most popular songs is “Anaconda,” by Nicki Minaj. As you can see in the cover art for the single, she is squatting down in a thong, bra and some blue Air Jordan’s, looking over her shoulder and inviting the male gaze in a textbook example of to-be-looked-at-ness. The “Parental Advisory” label on her rump centers our focus on her derriere, a visual symbol of this song’s central motif: Minaj’s butt. “Anaconda” is an homage to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 song “Baby Got Back,” and samples Mix-A-Lot’s lyric, “My anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun” as part of her chorus. Let’s forget that the music video presents a visual montage of Minaj’s butt from many angles to demonstrate that indeed, she does have “buns.” Minaj tells us through this song that the men she encounters and pleases with her sexual prowess can tell “I ain’t missing no meals,” that they “love this fat ass,” and dedicates this song to “my bitches with a fat ass in the fucking club.” She then dismisses slim ladies with the anthem “Fuck the skinny bitches! Fuck the skinny bitches in the club!” Beyond these lyrics, the synthesized bass line, also sampled from “Baby Got Back” works as an aural keynote that connotes the booty throughout this song.

“Anaconda” and “Baby Got Back” are two examples of the plethora of songs about ladies’ behinds. Popular music has been explicitly telling “Fat Bottomed Girls” to “Shake Shake Shake” Their Booties since at least the 1970s. Looking at lists like VH1’s Booty Booty Booty: 15 Greatest Songs About Butts, Buzzfeeds’ 10 Of The Best Songs About Butts or Shape Magazine’s list of Booty Tunes: 10 Tracks to Get Your Rear in Gear, there is a lot of butt music out there. Trace Adkins country song “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” reminds us that white people like booties too. For the most part, however, booty songs are hip-hop songs performed by male artists. Which brings me to the racialized and gendered nature of booty music.

Sarah Baartman on display in London.

Singing about butts is culturally significant, and exoticizing the bodies of women of color dates back centuries. African woman Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was exhibited in London and France as the “Hottentot Venus” in the early 1800s. She was dressed in minimal tribal garb that emphasized her “primitive” background and distinct physical features, but most specifically on display was her bottom. Baartman’s exhibition functioned to reinforce cultural ideas of racial difference between Caucasians and Africans, as well as a gendered-racial hierarchy in which blackness became articulated with the body, primitivism, and hypersexuality.

The exoticization and fetishization of non-white female bottoms is thus nothing new. However, songs like LL Cool J’s 1989 “Big Ole Butt,” or Mos Def’s 1999 “Ms. Fat Booty” are not cut-and-dry misogynistic objectification. In many ways, these songs reject hegemonic white beauty standards and celebrate the beauty of African American women. Take, for instance, the way Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” begins with the irritating  white valley girls criticizing a black women. The song uses this as as spring board to lampoon and dismiss white beauty ideals, mocking Cosmo and pop stars like Madonna.  Mix-A-Lot tells us “You can have them bimbos, I’ll keep my women like Flo Jo. A word to the thick soul sisters, I wanna get with ya.” However, inherent in many booty songs is also an unequal power dynamic between the men performing and the women on display. In most booty songs by male artists, they describe what they want in a woman – a fat ass, bubble butt, bedonkadonk, dumps like a truck– and what they want women do with their body. This results in commands like “wiggle wiggle,” “shake ya ass,” “get that thing jiggling,” and more. Here then, male booty songs dismember and define women through their butts, and they become erotic objects that are exulted, while also being evaluated, judged, and subjugated.



Is it then empowering when female artists like Trainor and Minaj sing about their own butts? When Destiny’s Child tells an assumed male spectator that he is “not ready for this jelly” in the song “Bootylicious,” are they exerting female strength? Is it a feminist act for Fergie to sing about her “humps?” Maybe. I cannot watch Minaj’s “Anaconda” and not be overcome by both the strength of her aggression and confidence, along with her sexual objectification. Trainor sings of her body and her “base” as a non-conformist symbol of defiance against the hyper-thin photoshopped beauty ideals we see in fashion magazines, and in this sense her song pushes back against mainstream beauty ideals. However, overall, these songs still define women by their beauty and ability to attract a man within the boundaries of a heterosexual relationship. I am also conflicted whether or not Meghan Trainor’s song “I’m All About That Bass” culturally appropriates the butt from women of color, especially given the way she uses colloquial terms like boom-boom, and junk. I think her vocal performance also conjures blackness through the timbre and pitch of her voice. Is it cultural appropriation for white women to sing about their booties when this association between non-whiteness, butts, and hypersexuality is itself rooted in racist, colonial practices and discourses of racial difference? What do you think, dear reader? Post below. Whatever your thoughts, I hope this post reminds us that, while it may be “the year of the booty,” booty music is a site of complex and ambivalent discourses about social power.


Bad Blood: “Taylor Swift” vs. Spotify Mon, 03 Nov 2014 18:15:27 +0000 Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 12.09.21 PMAs the number of release windows for media continues to expand, the “windowing” of a given media text has shifted accordingly. Although windowing has typically been a term reserved for motion pictures, in which a film goes through theatrical, home video, cable, and network distribution windows in roughly that order, the advent of streaming media has created similar patterns in television—where some Hulu series have week-long exclusivity for cable subscribers—and music, creating a broader “crisis” in distribution that the industry is working to solve.

Within music, where no such windowing has existed, streaming services like Spotify and Rdio have created a distribution problem that a number of labels have been pushing against. Whereas in film we see the challenging of existing windows through day-and-date streaming releases, with Spotify we see artists—such as Beyoncé and Coldplay—actively withholding their albums at release to force users (including those who subscribe to these services rather than streaming music for free) to acquire them through legal—or, depending on the user, illegal—means, creating selective windowing.

Spotify has value for artists and labels: on demand streaming has become a metric within the Billboard Hot 100 charts, for example, and the service’s 40 million users represent a cross-section of listeners that may not buy music now but could buy music in the future, making it a valuable promotional platform. However, the issue is that the infinitesimally small royalties paid by Spotify and other streaming services—which have drawn criticism from artists and labels—limit this value. Accordingly, while having your music on Spotify has promotional value, the remuneration is significantly less than if artists sell albums or singles on iTunes, or convince you to go out to a store to buy a deluxe version of the album featuring exclusive material.

Big Machine Records and Taylor Swift have been at the center of this conflict for some time. Swift’s album Red, which debuted in October 2012, was an early example of a label withholding a marquee album from streaming services—while each single from the album became available near its release, the full album was not made available for streaming until the summer of 2013. At the time, Billboard reported Big Marchine founder Scott Borchetta framing streaming as a “struggle,” arguing that “it doesn’t make sense to a small record company” compared to a larger conglomerate with thousands of albums to sell to Spotify.

The decision was controversial at the time, although there was no evidence that Spotify was fighting against it—the service simply did not have Red available, which Big Machine hoped would push users to go purchase the album. However, earlier this year Spotify went on the offensive, creating pages for albums that are being withheld from the service—including the latest albums from Coldplay and Beyoncé—that inform listeners that “the artist or their representatives have decided not to release this album on Spotify. We are working on it and hope they will change their mind soon.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 11.12.01 AM

Such a page has been in place for Swift’s 1989 since the album’s release last week, although as of this morning it is notably the only album page on Swift’s Spotify page. As widely reported, Big Machine has pulled all of Swift’s music—including “Shake It Off,” which had been the most streamed song on the service—in the midst of negotiations with Spotify, the most public move yet in the service’s battle with labels. In return, Spotify has begun using social media—including a blog post entitled “On Taylor Swift’s Decision to Remove Her Music form Spotify”—to call out Swift’s decision and incite her to “Stay Stay Stay,” a reference to a song from the now unavailable Red.

Spotify’s rhetoric is nearly identical to that of cable channels in the midst of carriage disputes—just last night, AMC used The Walking Dead to inform DirecTV subscribers that the channel’s contract with the satellite service is up soon, and that their provider is failing to negotiate in good faith. It’s a call to action, mirroring AMC’s conflict with Dish by asking the show’s large fanbase to become engaged in a public campaign to influence negotiations in their favor. In Spotify’s case, they are using social media to rally their 40 million users to spread the word using the #JustSayYes hashtag (itself taken from her song “Love Story”), and sharing a playlist of “What to Play While Taylor’s Away.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 11.26.27 AM

In part due to this messaging, most major news reports regarding the decision are framed in these terms: TIME suggests “Taylor Swift Just Removed Her Music From Spotify,” while Mashable—one of the first to report on the story, and who had reported on 1989’s absence from the service last week—implies that “Taylor Swift removes all music from Spotify after ‘1989’ bickering.” However, to frame this as Swift’s decision obscures the presence of the label, who Billboard reports—citing sources beyond conjecture and Spotify’s social media postings—is behind this decision as Big Machine asserts itself in the midst of an attempted sale. There is no evidence that Swift herself is behind this decision—while TIME cites a Wall Street Journal op-ed where Swift herself expresses concern regarding the streaming service, neither she nor Big Machine Records has made a public statement, meaning that any narrative has been created by Spotify to better position the company within ongoing negotiations.

Spotify’s choice to make this about the artist—never once acknowledging the existence of a label—highlights the challenge of getting users to invest in the full dimensions of why albums are held from Spotify. This is by all accounts not primarily a conflict with an artist whose principles are in opposition to streaming music, but rather a case where a label is leveraging the sales power of their biggest artist to challenge the economics of a still nascent, controversial distribution method, and where that artist—despite her ubiquity—is subject to their business decisions. But whereas Spotify vs. Scott Borchetta is a story for the trades, Spotify vs. Taylor Swift is a story for the masses, one Spotify hopes will create fewer blank spaces in their library.


]]> 4
Casey Kasem Signs Off (1932-2014) Tue, 17 Jun 2014 14:00:29 +0000 Casey KasemIt is easy to get swept up in the lurid details of Casey Kasem’s contentious final months. News items circulated last fall and into the following spring about the ongoing feud between his children and wife, Jean, about visitation rights and conservatorship following his diagnosis with Lewy body dementia. Speculation accelerated a month ago when daughter Kerri Kasem filed a missing persons report for him before it was revealed that his wife checked him into a Washington state hospital. Following these developments, Kerri received the right to visit her father, intervene in medical decisions for him, and ultimately confirmed his passing in a Facebook post on Father’s Day.

It is also easy to read tragic irony into Kasem’s diagnosis, which took away his capacity to speak. Kasem’s smooth, imitable tenor brought him fame in 1970, when he began hosting the syndicated radio program, “American Top 40.” It ran until 1988 and tracked the shifting chart rankings of the upper echelon of Billboard‘s Hot 100 each week. As New York Times music critic Jon Pareles summarized in his obituary, the disc jockey:

didn’t invent Top 40 radio, the countdown show, the on-air dedication or the brief performer bio. But the weekly show he introduced on July 4, 1970—when the No. 1 song was ‘Mama Told Me (Not to Come),’ the Three Dog Night hit written by Randy Newman—brought those elements together in a design that was as much psychological as musical. Echoing the broad mass appeal of Top 40 hits, the show took pains to exclude no one.

Kasem’s program did not address the politics undergirding trade publications like Billboard and their influence to determine, codify, and redefine commercial musical genres. One might argue that Kasem’s show didn’t address anything; it simply plotted the American recording industry’s market fluctuations. His on-air persona eschewed controversy altogether. This gave electricity to recorded outtakes of the host contradicting his image with tirades against the show’s production process or specific recording artists. Sound collage outfit Negativland immortalized one such rant in their 1991 U2 EP, which poked fun at the Irish quartet’s earnest commercialism. They used a sample of Kasem saying “these guys are from England and who gives a shit?” This prompted litigation from U2’s label, Island Records.

As an indoor kid who came of age during the mid- to late 1990s in a rural suburb outside of Houston, I began taping Top 40 and Modern Rock radio programs, setting aside allowance money for my Rolling Stone subscription, and visiting the town and high school libraries to pore over back issues of RS, Spin, and Billboard. I also tuned in to 104.1 KRBE on Sundays to listen to Casey’s Top 40, a syndicated program that ran from 1989 to 1998 and relied upon charts from Radio & Records for its playlists. It was an important time for hip-hop—a genre that SoundScan and younger generations of musicians and producers helped make legible to the recording industry after years of omission, hesitation, and animosity.


On the air, Kasem treated the gradual inclusion of hip-hop artists on CT40 as a non-issue. Even though these songs were frequently edited for their lyrical content (though not targeted in isolation), they were never banned from the countdown. In addition, Kasem offered no justification for Warren G, Snoop Dogg, and Salt-N-Pepa, as well as hip-hop generation R&B acts like Tevin Campbell, Toni Braxton, and Zhané sharing a playlist with Madonna, the Gin Blossoms, and Richard Marx. Perhaps he was reporting the market back to itself. Perhaps as a first-generation American son of Lebanese and Druze immigrants who assimilated into radio with a stage name and non-regional dialect, he understood what it meant for the recording industry to include minority forms of cultural production. Either way, I wouldn’t realize the impact until much later.

Applying Jennifer Smith Maguire and Julian Matthews’ definition of cultural intermediaries, Kasem constructed value for media production and consumption by framing goods in particular contexts, demonstrating expertise of the recording industry and its output, and influencing music’s impact on consumers (2012). Before blogs, search engines, and social media, I needed resources to collect recording artists’ biographical anecdotes, understand the industry’s methods of quantitative analysis for itself, and situate my fan practices alongside the listeners whose dedications and letters Kasem read on the air. As a college radio deejay, I would renounce Kasem and his ilk, only to realize that he was part of why I made lists.

Pareles concludes his tribute by noting that the populist, omnivorous impulses of Kasem’s original program eventually gave way to niche marketing, narrowing demographics, and musical uniformity, claiming that it “started with a strong sense of ‘E pluribus unum.’ Since then, that messy, capricious but still culturally essential pluribus is what radio has been trying to tame.” Kasem’s career witnessed and was often complicit in this homogenization. Syndication was responsible for Kasem’s ascendance. It was a tool for regulation and deregulation. It also facilitates his reanimation.

Occasionally, I tune in to reruns of Top 40 on Magic 98 WMGN when I’m tending to weekend errands. I’m especially taken by those moments when Kasem frames selections from artists who charted on some random week in 1977 or 1982 or 1988 but eventually moved to the margins, footnotes, and clearance bins of pop music history. Kasem’s voice breaks introduce me to songs like Stephanie Mills’ 1979 post-disco hit “What Cha’ Gonna Do With My Lovin,'” which peaked at 22. They remind me of tracks that shade memory’s corners, like Swing Out Sister’s 1987 single, “Breakout.” They allow me to recognize the conversation (or competition) Tavares had with Hall & Oates in 1975, when “It Only Takes a Minute” cracked the top ten. Kasem helped put such commercial offerings in a context. In so doing, he provided a resource for listeners to recontextualize that music for themselves.


]]> 1
On Radio: Live Music Festivals as Satellite Radio’s Premium Content? Tue, 10 Jun 2014 13:59:04 +0000 govball-9Subscription satellite radio is certainly not the most local form of radio. The majority of programming is produced in digital radio broadcasting facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C. and satellites are not entities that we encounter in our communities (let alone in our atmosphere). But as a subscriber and listener of Sirius XM, I am hearing the ways in which satellite radio has increasingly been offering musical programming and listening experiences that amplify aspects of radio’s past.

For one, I’m intrigued by the persistence of place, of musical “hotspots,” within the satellite radio universe. This carries on a long tradition of radio connecting listeners to musical and cultural centers. One notable and recent example of this was Sirius XM’s multichannel coverage of the fourth annual Governors Ball, which took place over three days in on Randall’s Island in New York City this past weekend.

“We’re excited that people across the U.S. will be able to experience the diversity and depth of the lineup on multiple channels across Sirius XM,” explained Yoni Reisman from Founders Entertainment, the company that produces the festival. A number of “marquee performances” were played over the weekend on channels including The Heat (Janelle Monae, Outkast), Outlaw Country (Neko Case), The Joint (Damian Marley), Hip-Hop Nation (Childish Gambino), BPM (Skrillex, Disclosure) and Sirius XM U (Damon Albarn). Performances were broadcast live and replays were scheduled throughout the weekend.


Listening from a kitchen in Toronto, Ontario, I could hear the noise of the crowd building as Janelle Monae’s set began with Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, known commonly as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. When festival-goers heard Monae introduce “Cold War” with a speech about discrimination, so too did Sirius XM subscribers.

Satellite radio is delivered to a private, personal space. Often within an automobile but also to laptops or smartphones for those who pay the added monthly fee of $4 for online access. Many listeners are connected to the internet and, thus, satellite radio fits nicely with Michele Hilmes’s characteristic of radio today as “soundwork,” in which, radio must now be understood as “the entire complex of sound-based digital media that enters our experience through a variety of technologies and forms.” As satellite radio becomes more mobile through the ability to listen via smart phones and laptops, programming extends into online spaces and listeners are presented with new visual platforms for interacting with DJs and content. Satellite radio moves with the listener and local boundaries are practically nonexistent. But even as Sirius XM operates on a transnational scale, beyond radio’s former borders, an essence of radio’s pre-digital identity is increasingly prominent in the satellite radio universe, that of providing a shared cultural experience.


Between satellite channels and mobile, individual listening practices, is the persistence of place and the transmission of musical performance sites. The Governors Ball broadcast constructs a radio experience that enables listeners to engage from a distance through new media, continuing the tradition of radio bringing music from centers to private spaces – from the home, the car, and now a mobile space within which one is bound to a smartphone or laptop.

However, we also hear how privatized spaces and experiences are transmitted, especially as music festivals are critiqued as focusing too heavily on branded experiences. Another important critique to raise in this instance is one of exclusivity. Festivals sell out, they cost a lot of money, and often require travel time and expenses. In a preview of the weekend’s musical offerings, Sirius XM explained that “the exclusive broadcast, showcasing a diverse line-up, will include Jack White’s performance, which comes days before the release of his anticipated second solo album, Lazaretto.” While satellite radio overcomes these obstacles to some extent, it also requires a subscription fee. Accessibility is limited, but as subscription television becomes increasingly watched and revered, premium content delivered by subscription radio is not a surprising development.

Given that music festivals are becoming a larger component of the music industries and a greater source of income and promotion, I am certainly interested to hear how satellite radio continues to transmit the sounds of live musical performances.


]]> 1
Everybody’s Doing Molly? Dance Music Cultures and Drugs Wed, 02 Oct 2013 14:10:18 +0000 large

The high-profile cancellation of the third and final day (September 1, 2013) of Made Event’s Electric Zoo festival on Randall’s Island, New York, following the drug overdoses of two festivalgoers, shined another spotlight on one aspect of electronic dance music (EDM) cultures that is either an intimate or inherent part (depending on where you’re standing); namely, the presence of MDMA.

After it was revealed that Olivia Rotondo, 20, died after ingesting pure MDMA (the drug sold in pill form as ecstasy and in powdered form as molly), and that Jeffrey Russ, 23, died after taking a mix of MDMA and methylone (another stimulant often mixed with MDMA and also sold in powdered form as molly), both an expected heartfelt apology from Made Event and a torrent of soul-searching from those within the scene followed. If nothing else, the commentary that emerged, whether contributed to by Pasquale Rotella (the promoter who is himself no stranger to drug-related deaths at EDM events) or EDM performers Kaskade or Diplo (who was attempting to break the twerking “world record” at Electric Zoo) suggests that there isn’t a consistency of opinions about how best to tackle the problem of drugs within EDM cultures.

It seems that until the solution is abstinence (unlikely), harm reduction (as preached and practiced by DanceSafe, the education-focused nonprofit), or something revolutionary, the fact remains that a cycle of drug-related death, followed by media framing of said drug-related death, and internal commentary on how best to prevent another drug-related death so as to avoid the cold glare of the media and the subsequent fatal stare of lawmakers, seems inevitable. (This is all not to bring up the elephant on the dancefloor, which is the fact that “molly” can mean both “pure MDMA in powder form” as well as “who knows what is in this amphetamine cocktail I just snorted.” Semantics can be harmless when writing about the drug but potentially deadly when ingesting it.)

While a comparison with the ecstasy-related death of English teenager Leah Betts in 1995 might be instructive in thinking about how the media frames the relationship between dance music cultures and drugs (Betts literally became the face of drug abuse for the British tabloid press and the face of an anti-drug campaign spearheaded by her parents within the space of a few months), a more useful comparison might be to take a wider view, in order to sketch the similarities between the mainstreaming of rave music cultures in the mid- to late- 1990s and the mirrored mainstreaming of EDM cultures in the early 2010s.

Indeed, the superstar DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling who earned 1990s-ridiculous sums of money find their doppelgangers in the megastar DJ Afrojack, who earns 2010s-ridiculous sums of money; the Ministry of Sound superclub, which eventually joined up with sponsors like Sony and Pepsi in the rave boom of the mid-1990s has a contemporary twin in the megafestivals like Electric Daisy Carnival, which is sponsored by Sony and Red Bull; and advertising campaigns for sneakers and candy that used rave imagery are rebooted in TV commercials for Doritos or Kia that wub to an EDM soundtrack.

Journalist Stephen Kingston bemoaned the neutering of rave in 1995, and his words sound especially eerie today: “The house movement has been herded into a capitalist kraal. Club culture used to talk a lot about ‘freedom.’ It’s turning out to be the freedom to be farmed.” One wonders what he would have to say about a festival whose moniker is a sort-of-synonym for kraal, or, more significantly, the mooted IPO of the Live Nation-affiliated concert promoter SFX, which looks, after the success of the TomorrowWorld EDM festival on the weekend of September 27-29, 2013, to be a sure thing.

Given the mainstreaming of rave in 1995, it was a sad truth that drugs would similarly go mainstream. As Matthew Collin suggests in his history of dance music culture Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House (Serpent’s Tail, 1997), at the same time that rave culture boomed, the unsavory aspects of that same culture also boomed. As he comments, “Recreational drug use in Britain underwent a process of democratisation that mirrored the evolution of dance culture.” And while he is careful to not foist causality onto dance culture, it is nonetheless a fact that drug use exploded in Britain at that time.

I do not want to claim that the mainstreaming of EDM cultures has caused a contemporary mainstreaming of drugs, drug use, or drug-related deaths. But I do ultimately wonder what happens when the forces of unchecked capitalism associated with the mainstreaming of music cultures prevent those cultures from protecting or regulating their own.


What Are You Missing? Apr 28 – May 11 Sun, 12 May 2013 13:05:45 +0000 WAYM-Iron Man 3Ten (or more) media industry news items you might have missed recently:

1) This installment starts with news that that I’m sure no one missed. Iron Man 3 made its worldwide debut, but all eyes were on China, which put up a respectable $21.5 million on opening day. In North America, our $68.3 million opening day brought IR3 within striking distance of a half-billion dollar box office after less than two weeks of release. Keeping all of that in mind, can you really blame RDJ?  But life’s not all about the Benjamins, friends. Apparently, Tony Stark is doing good business (“business”?) among pirates, who elevated IR3 to #3 on TorrentFreak’s list of the most illegally downloaded films. Haven’t seen the movie yet? Here are some other ways to enjoy the atmosphere: becoming Iron Man, keeping up with Robert Downey, Jr., on Sina Weibo, or basking in RDJ’s charisma.

2) Speculation about NeXtBox – can we make this a thing? – is picking up ahead of a launch event set for May 21. Exact details about the release date, price, and specs are yet to be revealed, but as I get on in years, I find what matters most is that I be allowed — encouraged even — to play alone. What do we know about NeXtBox? Well, apparently it supports a projector system capable of making you wish that you didn’t have so much furniture. Don’t invest in a blank wall yet, however; Illumiroom may not be ready for Microsoft’s next-gen rollout. If you’re not on Team Microsoft, there’s always the PS4 to look forward to.

3) The future is arriving at the speed of time, and next-gen gaming systems are just the start. San Francisco played host last week to the first NeuroGaming Conference and Expo, where “ineluctable modality” was just a string of cool-sounding syllables. Commercial potential for games that track player heart rate, brain waves, pupil dilation, and a host of other physiological data is still slight, but Google Glass may help start-ups find a direction. We all saw Strange Days, right? Less pie-in-the-sky are developments in controller design. Thalmic Labs’ Myo promises “effortless interaction,” bringing us all one step closer to living out our childhood fantasies or five steps closer to saying, “Remember when…?” Also, this exists.

4) Let’s pretend this is a surprise. Google Glass is coming, presumably for people more interesting than myself, and some of the source code has been released, so developers have been put on notice. What are the possibilities? Where to start: wink-based photography, making Vine videos, making and uploading YouTube videos, ARG gaming (a covert valorization of early adoption?), Facebooking, and updating your software. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; get a head start on worrying about surveillance, privacy, basic social interactions, keeping expectations realistic, and not looking like a jerk. And you don’t have to be excited about the tech itself to enjoy the ad campaign. White Men Wearing Google Glass has made a game of tracking down the instrument’s target demographic. So far, though, I’m most concerned about a different set of would-be users. Finally, I’m going on record. Google Glass is still only playing second-fiddle. The Large Hadron Collider (or any particle accelerator) exists; for the rest of us, there’s Google Glass.

5) First, some context: The Syrian Electronic Army has been around the digital block a few times, becoming something of a nuisance for high-profile critics of the Assad regime. The group’s latest target was The Onion Twitter account, where it posted a number of pro-Assad and anti-Semitic tweets just because they couldn’t take a joke. The Onion responded as you’d expect: one news story poking humor at the hack and another announcing tighter security. (When connectivity is a weapon, I feel compelled to point out that feelings of levity should be brief. See the end of the WaPo story for evidence.)

6) How are things at DreamWorks? Awesomeness abounds.  It’s overflowing even, so they’ve sent some to China. But is ‘awesome’ for DreamWorks ‘awesome’ for everyone? It may be for a selection of YouTube content providers. Subscription channels are coming. Big Bird may be involved, but WWE isn’t biting (for now?).  As much as things change, other things remain the same…unless this happens. That would be a fairly significant development.

7) Netflix’s streaming service lost almost 1,000 titles on May 1. Users and the media took to calling the event Streamageddon, but I was partial to Apocaflix. Netflix (see, it’s right there in the name!) has begun testing new layouts, which makes me wonder if Facebook has conditioned us to complain. Then again, Netflix has its competitors to think about, and they do seem to be cropping up. If the market gets tight, there’s always money in the banana stand.

8) A smattering of stories about trademarks and copyrights… Instagram has the dubious honor of having its name informally tacked to recent British copyright legislation. Do you think Warner Bros. performed a “diligent search” before being sued for its unauthorized use of Keyboard Cat and Nyan Cat? Barry Diller is calling broadcasters’ bluffs over Aereo, and Fox is doing its best Shredder impression, claiming the court battles are just beginning. For what it’s worth, Aereo is taking steps to keep that from being the case. Also, who has the heart to argue with Harper Lee? If Gregory Peck were still around, I bet he’d get involved.

9) What’s killing cinema? Steven Soderbergh has the answer. “[F]ive and a half hours of mayhem,” you say? It sounds so Shakespearean, but I expect it signifies more than nothing. Don’t worry about Soderbergh, though, he’s got a Plan B, available for your enjoyment here.

10) What else is there to talk about? Rest in peace, George Jones, Deanna Durbin, and Ray Harryhausen. In case you’re unfamiliar with any of them, here’s the greatest country song of all time (by some accounts), an appreciation and analysis of fan appreciation for Durbin, and a primer on Harryhausen’s work. (The pay wall won’t block the videos, so click on through!) Ender’s Game is on the way. To my father’s great shame, I’ve never read it. As for Mr. Card, he depresses me too much to make a joke. Star Wars day happened. Nielsen says welcome to the family. And get ready for some AIP remakes!

11) What?! That’s right. ELEVEN! One extra for the art and science that caught my eye. Here’s a stop-motion movie using atoms as pixels, meaning there’s at least one digital format with resolution superior to 35mm film. Roger probably would have stood his ground on this one. I know people who actively change the typeface of their handwriting every few years. Earth driving is easy. The mysteries of the cosmos are out there to be discovered, but don’t forget that people can be pretty gosh darn cool, too.


The Power of Women’s Voices in The Great Gatsby Thu, 09 May 2013 13:00:41 +0000 the-great-gatsby-movie“[T]here was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

If his classic novel, The Great Gatsby, is any indication, F. Scott Fitzgerald loved the sound of a woman’s voice. The book, upon which Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming film adaptation is based, is like a textual serenade to a thrilling and unique feminine voice that rings out like “a wild tonic in the rain.” Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby will hit theaters this Friday, with Tobey Maguire voicing Fitzgerald’s masculine narrator and Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s intriguing feminine voice – which belongs to Daisy Buchanan – will be embodied by Carey Mulligan. Gatsby’s promotional materials indicate that Mulligan’s performance will offer the nuanced physical performance demanded by the role – but if Gatsby’s trailers are any indication, Daisy’s voice will have some impressive help from the film’s soundtrack. Her voice carried little influence or power in Fitzgerald’s day – in an age in which “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool” – but Gatsby’s soundtrack artfully blends Fitzgerald’s 1920s female voices with a cast of contemporary female musical powerhouses, who insistently reclaim Daisy’s silenced perspective.

In an effort that delayed the film’s release substantially, Luhrmann recruited Jay-Z to compile an impressive array of top artists. The most impressive among them are women, performers who intimately express the timeless emotional appeal of Fitzgerald’s Daisy. Beyoncé’s collaboration with André 3000, an eerie rendition of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” is an unsettling confession of compulsive loyalty to an unfaithful partner. The vulnerable honesty of Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” begs for reassurance that love can outlast youth. And Florence + the Machine’s intensely powerful “Over the Love” nods to Daisy’s gendered social restrictions, channeling the frustration of a woman “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

On the surface, these songs may not strike a feminist chord. In many ways, they speak to the powerlessness of Fitzgerald’s jazz age women. But while Lana Del Rey, Florence Welch, and Beyoncé, like Daisy, have incredibly memorable voices, their performances are also overflowing with generations of hard-won power. Welch’s voice has been called “hauntingly powerful” and “too loud for the room,” pointing to the brick wall of sound she pushes from her adept Lungs. She describes her music as “something overwhelming and all-encompassing that fills you up,” putting her right at home alongside female mogul Queen Beyoncé’s authoritative style. And while Lana Del Rey’s tender contribution to the musical compilation is more subdued, her industry prowess earned her featured billing. Setting her apart from other contributors, Warner Brothers’ “Soundtrack Sampler” features a still image of Del Rey’s name in the bold, graphic lettering of the film’s title screen.

Regardless of whether these musicians should be considered feminist or not, these songstresses’ massive voices bubble up under the story’s surface, threatening to overturn the masculine narrator’s perspective in favor of Daisy’s lilting voice. Some of the film’s trailers even seem to take on Daisy’s point of view, layering Carey Mulligan’s beautifully nuanced facial reactions to the violence she both witnesses and perpetrates over contemporary female performers’ driving vocals. Daisy’s voice may not have had much power in the jazz age, but with singers like Beyoncé, Welch, and Del Rey to offer their vocal prowess to the character, Daisy’s perspective takes on a whole new meaning for feminism. United with these musicians’ vocal power, Daisy becomes an illustration of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Fitzgerald describes Daisy’s as “the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” I like to imagine the woman whose lilting speech compelled him to craft such a lovely phrase, but like so many women – both historical and contemporary – her voice has been silenced. In performances that truly speak to the power of a musical message, Florence Welch, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey have taken up her cause. Together, they remind us of the hope in a powerfully insistent voice. They remind us that some voices are forever silent. And, most importantly, they remind us that our voices – and media soundtracks – can be important feminist tools as we “beat on, boats against the current.”


]]> 4
E-distribution gets “Weird” in Canada Thu, 04 Apr 2013 14:00:08 +0000 WeirdCanada-LogoOn April 1st, amidst a steady stream of April Fool’s Day tweets, Weird Canada (an organization that profiles and promotes experimental, under-represented, and obscure Canadian musicians and artists) tweeted that they had received a grant from the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR).

The grant will be used to launch an e-distribution service for Canadian independent artists. Given that FACTOR has been criticized for predominately supporting “a small percentage of well connected insiders” who have both grant writing expertise and an established position in the Canadian cultural imaginary (The Trews, Metric, and Stars, for instance), I found myself wondering if the tweet may have been an April Fool’s prank. Weird Canada, in my mind, wasn’t reflective of recently successful grant applicants. However, the $50,000 FACTOR grant is legit and will be used to “create a specialized e-distro serving independent and Canadian artists, labels, and record stores, along with a customer-facing online store / gateway drug into the infinite mass of Canadian music.” So why am I excited about this?

Artists and labels who identify as “independent” often do so in order to maintain creative distance from the standardized and repetitive aesthetics of major labels and/or the dominant music industry, either sincerely or, of course, sometimes as a convenient marketing ploy. With increasingly affordable production technologies, this distance is more attainable today than ever before. Yet distribution is still an issue, especially in a large country like Canada that has a relatively small and widely dispersed population.

Record labels of varying successes and statuses have faced distribution challenges. A number of labels that have started in Canada have established distribution deals with major (larger, international) record labels as they, as well as their artists, have grown in prominence. Last Gang Records, a label that has grown in recognition alongside groups such as Metric, Death From Above 1979, and Crystal Castles, has a distribution deal with Universal Music in Canada and SonyRed in the United States. These distribution deals enable the label to maintain their relationship with bands that are becoming more well-known, because the music can still reach larger national and international audiences, a task that can be beyond the resources and capability of a smaller label.

Vancouver’s Mint Records, a label that uses a handful of smaller distributors like Outside Music and Shellshock, has faced a different set of complications. For one, their former distribution deal with Canadian independent label and distributor Cargo Records resulted in Mint losing a “substantial amount of money” after Cargo went bankrupt in 1997. Because of this, Mint also lost its most lucrative band at the time, the pop-punk band Gob. Secondly, the label has also lost prominent acts like The New Pornographers and Neko Case because of its inability to manage artists past a certain point. In other words, the label cannot match the power and reach of a major label when it comes to distribution. Both of these instances are nicely detailed in Kaitlin Fontana’s Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records. In the book, Carl Newman from the New Pornographers explains that “Mint was a two-man operation, and Matador [the label that the band moved to] was based in New York and had, like, thirty people working there” (253). As well, Mint Records co-founder Randy Iwata reflects on the artists that left for larger labels, stating that “Neko [Case] and the New Pornographers proved that we aren’t big enough to sustain a band’s career after a certain point” (253).

And beyond Last Gang and Mint, there are numerous small and independent Canadian labels and artists who have access to a very limited set of resources and finances for which to promote themselves. As Weird Canada’s grant application explains, “few emerging Canadian artists or labels have the necessary business acumen, marketing guile, and social savvy to effectively market and sell their music, leaving a great majority of Canadian talent unknown to a larger audience.” The e-distro service would not only serve to connect fans and artists online but also help tangible recorded music reach record stores.

I am not suggesting that Weird Canada’s e-distribution service will remedy all of the issues, tensions, and complications concerning the circulation of Canadian independent music, or that it will result in smaller labels being able to retain their artists for longer periods of time. The current technological, economic, and legal environments surrounding music are far too tricky to make any sort of assertion, and each band or label approaches music-making with a specific set of goals and aspirations. However, distribution remains a challenge for many artists and labels and this initiative is exciting because it creates a much-needed resource that can allow artists to more easily sustain creative autonomy.

There have been many great developments that have enabled and facilitated do-it-yourself production practices and this new service is a step toward doing the same for distribution. Weird Canada has already established a strong online presence as a distributor and promoter of Canadian music and, thus, they are well-positioned to create and sustain an e-distribution service.

It is also nice to see FACTOR put their faith in an organization beyond the tried, tested, and true industry-types. To borrow a conclusion from a recent post on this issue by Michael Rancic, “Giving Weird Canada any money suddenly makes FACTOR a much more complex organization than they had made themselves out to be. This grant honours FACTOR’s commitment to Canadian independent musicians and represents a huge opportunity for Weird Canada to help level the playing field.”


]]> 1
The 2012 BET Awards as [Black] Family Reunion Fri, 06 Jul 2012 13:00:14 +0000 Just before the season finale of VH1’s controversial hit series Basketball Wives (BBW), some quasi-influential Black folks in the media went to Twitter to express their disdain for a show that for them placed Black women in the worst possible light. The depictions illustrated that we were loud, violent, angry, stupid–in short, everything that our parents’ generation fought against in the battle of positive representation.

BBW epitomizes the contemporary struggle within popular culture and the burden of representation people of color daily negotiate. The failure to comply with the politics of respectability–the notion that demonstrating “good” socially acceptable behavior will make us more accepted in mainstream culture–is not new. But what is new are scholars trying to engage from in-between the positive and negative binaries and the space in-between blind love and total disavowal of these cultural products. Put simply, the space where one can love “foolywang” and simultaneously recognize that the product is, in fact, foolywang is what I want to address. And what better event to speak to that liminality than the 2012 BET Awards?

I love the BET Awards. Some call it minstrelsy* and a bootleg American Music Awards but that is precisely why, to borrow fangirl lingo, I have “so many feelings” about it. From its shoddy production values (which ironically get better each year) to its notorious failure of working props, e.g., the “door” that lifted for the presenters occasionally just stopped working without explanation–it is the disreputable character of the event that makes the BET Awards must-see TV.

The BET Awards’ disrepute, for me, makes it akin to a Black Family reunion. Pride and embarrassment undergird these very culturally specific events where family members who may not have seen each other all year get together and fellowship–often over food and alcohol–with one another. They remember those who have passed on, they celebrate those prodigals who have returned, they make us all pray, and they encourage the youth to display their skills in talent shows (seriously). The BET Awards incorporates all of these functions in its telecast. Let me offer a few examples.

BET’s tribute to Whitney Houston–including a moving rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Houston’s mother Cissy–can ONLY happen on BET. If Cissy had broken down and been unable to sing, I guarantee a barrage of “it’s all right; take your time” responses would have emerged from the audience. When Whitney’s mentees Monica and Brandy sung a few of her songs and the camera cut to audience reactions, the specificity of seeing both Donnie Simpson and Soulja Boy crying in response is tragilicious yet makes sense.

Similarly, Chanté Moore’s tribute to Donna Summer can only happen at the BET Awards because, I mean, who else knows who Chanté Moore is but us?!

Not only that but when BET resurrects old talent who we love and gives them a platform to re-engage, it carries weight. Two years ago, El Debarge performed after an extended leave from the spotlight. From the moment he began singing, “All This Love” to the time he hit his high note on “I Like It” it was like no time had passed. Did we scream in excitement or what? This year, D’Angelo returned to the public eye after a twelve-year absence and the first bars of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” had me sliding off my sofa in delight. I mean, y’all: it was D’Angelo. And he could still “sang.” For those of us who hoped for a comeback, what better place than the BET Awards for it to occur?

I would never expect a regular music awards show to bring tribute to an old-school R&B band. That’s BET’s job. So it was no surprise when the BET Awards gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Maze and Frankie Beverly (for my white friends think of this touring band as the Black equivalent of Phish or the Grateful Dead). What’s more, watching Taraji P. Henson hold her purse and cellphone while dancing and singing to “Before I Let Go” or Beyoncé and Solange Knowles dancing to “Happy Feelings” just encouraged me to dance and sing as well. How can you NOT stand up and sing along to the songs many of our parents made us learn to love?

Finally, a constant at Black Family reunions is the “Jesus angle.” Everybody loves Jesus–or pretends to–for at least a day complete with attending a Sunday church service. This is no different at the BET Awards. For every Maybach Music Group song where a strangely bejeweled woman exits in a, well, Maybach, there’s a church song where inevitably Donnie McClurkin, Kirk Franklin, and/or Yolanda Adams will sing. And you KNOW that Bobby Jones will always attend. Explaining the complexity and contradictions of the Jesus angle would take another column but suffice it to say it is allowed because the awards are disreputable but also because it reaffirms respectability.

Here’s the thing: rarely do Black folks get opportunities to celebrate like this publicly. Rarely do we get the opportunity to “support the culture” as Jay-Z stated in regards to what the ceremony represented. Yes, the BET Awards are ultimately meaningless in terms of cultural cache–I doubt Beyoncé would reject trading her award for an Oscar if given half a chance. Yet, in terms of the Black community, it is the yearly reunion where Rick James and Tina Marie can reunite, running through the audience singing “Fire and Desire” and it is the place where Mo’Nique can do a better Beyoncé than Beyoncé with her “Crazy in Love” show opening. Its disreputability is the protective shield that allows it to be so damn fantastic.

*If Spike Lee calls it minstrelsy he’d be a damned hypocrite this year as he helped Samuel L. Jackson open the show with an old Black man’s version of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “N*s in Paris.”


]]> 2