On NPR First Listen, you can stream the new rock opera by F****d Up, entitled David Comes to Life. I can’t say that I’m crazy about it (yet) since I’m not one for the heavy-metal-shouting vocals. The guitar parts are pretty neat, though, and the structure of the piece got me thinking about rock operas in general. Some of my favorite albums of all time are in this format: Tommy, Quadrophenia, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Jesus Christ Superstar, arguably Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots…
The basic idea behind rock operas is that they tell a coherent story through rock music, often featuring different voices for different characters (much like a real opera). So, what makes them different from, say, musicals? Why is Rent not considered a rock opera? And why is Jesus Christ Superstar considered one? My guess is that this distinction is based simply on the artist’s initial intent for the use of the music. Some stories that are set to music are supposed to be staged, while others are not.
These rock operas that were written for “ears only” can sometimes be adapted into successful plays and movies (Tommy, JCS), but sometimes not (Quadrophenia? Ziggy Stardust? The Wall?!). Many rock operas are basically just concept albums with slightly more specificity; that is, they are meant to be listened to straight through from beginning to end, of course, but the moods that are evoked along the way are much more important than the plot is. We touched upon Quadrophenia earlier, but let’s take the plot of Bowie’s Ziggy for instance. According to Wikipedia, it is: “the story of a rock star who is told by aliens to write music in the years preceding the end of the world.” Hmm. How about 21st Century Breakdown by Green Day? “It follows two lovers named Christian and Gloria as they struggle with religious beliefs and rebellion in the 21st century.” I see. My favorite is probably Wiki’s summary of Mastodon’s Crack the Skye – “a story of a quadriplegic space traveler who can only travel through astral projection.”
See how vague these plot lines are? They wouldn’t make good musicals or plays unless someone tried very hard – by interspersing dialogue, for starters – to adapt them. But I would argue that the focus on shifting mood and character development at the expense of a good plot is what makes a great rock opera. The best ones are probably the vaguest, because these are the ones that you can relate to, and the ones that you can listen to over and over again.
David Hajdu (actually the father of a former classmate!) has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times, theorizing on why not only Bob Dylan, but lots of other notable musicians are turning seventy right around now. All of these artists were actually right around the age of fourteen – teenage, newly pubic – when the rock and roll movement was gearing up. Daniel Levitin (a name that I may drop often as this blog grows, since he is the premier researcher on music and the brain, at McGill University) had this to say:
“Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes…Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.”
In fact, Levitin, Paul Bloom (in his book How Pleasure Works) and others have written about how musical tastes actually stabilize between the ages of 18 and 21. So, we discover lots of music (and actively seek various kinds of music) during our teenage years, and then, once we know what we like, we are unlikely to change that. This is why adults don’t “get” what the “kids” are listening to “these days” (haha, sorry for the uber-quotage, but those phrases are way too cliche). Is this literally because we are unable to rewire our brains to listen to and understand new genres of music? Probably not. It is likely, as Levitin says, that our musical tastes are part of that self, that singular identity that we try so hard to forge. This is why I think people – or at least people who are music enthusiasts – get more offended when you insult their musical tastes, than when you insult almost any other aspect of their identity. I have to say that I have been guilty of dissing others’ tastes; because I am so passionate about music, and I have a very clear idea of what I think is good, I have a propensity to judge music that I dislike as unworthy.
So, I apologize. I may not be into Bruno Mars or Kesha, but hey, my parents aren’t into squarepusher or Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.
A piece in Slate about how Lady Gaga and others are bringing the saxophone back to pop music
Sometimes, when I listen to a popular song from the ’80s (“Time of my Life” from Dirty Dancing being a prime example), I am tickled by the inclusion of what seems to be an obligatory sax solo. I am tickled by it, because it almost always comes off as cheesy. I’m sure that people didn’t always feel this way, because the saxophone was a key instrument on many pop tracks back in the ’80s (at the Prince concert that I attended in January, his guest, saxophonist Maceo Parker, was playing almost the entire time). So what happened to it? I think that people just got bored; when an instrument that is supposed to add an element of “pizzazz” becomes a staple, then you know that you’re ready for a paradigm shift. According to Jonah Weiner in the aforementioned Slate article, the demise of the sax was an inevitable consequence of the culture of the ’90s:
“The rock music that dominated in the decade of ironic detachment had little room for a shiny, curvaceous, elaborately valved instrument that is impossible to play while looking like you don’t care.”
So now, Lady Gaga has Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band helping on some tracks. I think that’s great, and it makes sense for Gaga, considering that she is the leader in bringing both a disco feel and a Madonna feel back to pop music (side note: I know that people are split on Lady Gaga, but I appreciate her innovation and creativity in an era that has been dominated by soft hip hop. I also like her integration of performance/visual art with her music, since we live in a multimedia age in which you cannot avoid attaching a character to a voice). So the ’80s sax is appropriate, but let’s hope that she does something new with it.
Other artists have also started incorporating the saxophone recently; one of my favorite tracks from the new Fleet Foxes album is “The Shrine/An Argument”, especially because, somewhere near the middle of the track, there is this incredibly jarring but awesome saxophone jabber. Listen for it!
In the New Yorker this week, Kelefa Sanneh did a profile of the up-and-coming rap group Odd Future. Odd Future is distinctive in that its meteoric rise took place almost exclusively online. The group has been releasing videos and mixtapes for a few years now, and people are impressed by their quirkiness and the honest abrasiveness that they display through their clever lyrics. Tyler, the Creator is the leader of the group, but another popular member is Earl Sweatshirt, who has been “missing” for a while now. He was the star of one of Odd Future’s most popular videos, “Earl,” and he is one of the group’s most compelling rappers. Sanneh says that, compared to Tyler, Earl is “more graceful, more fluid, and although he shares Tyler’s belief that sex and violence are funny, especially in combination, he often gets distracted by the musical potential of words.”
So, where is Earl? His fans have been chanting “Free Earl” at most of Odd Future’s shows, they’ve been cursing his mother (thinking that she is preventing him from recording and performing) and Google searches have abounded. Finally, with some clues taken from Tyler’s lyrics, he has been found – at a boarding school in Samoa. Once Thebe’s (Earl’s real name) online musical experiments yielded real results, his mom, who worried about the uncertain effects of sudden stardom, sent him there. She says, “I just felt like, given the record that we have of sort of crash-and-burn situations of young people who get eaten up too soon, that he just deserved a chance.” And Thebe is not resentful. In fact, he is enjoying his time away and looks forward to making a comeback in the future.
What a brilliant woman. Indeed, Michael Jackson’s early fame had a deleterious effect on his mental health. And let’s not forget the crash-and-burn experiences of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and others. People are saying “Free Earl”, but in fact, isn’t he trapped if he’s not allowed to finish out a normal childhood? Granted, Britney and Michael did not have much of a choice. Record execs wouldn’t “get back to them” once they turned 18. In fact, part of Britney’s appeal (given her limited talents) was her youth. Earl is lucky that he wasn’t being hounded by million-dollar contracts that he had to turn down. And you know what? I think he will still have an audience when he comes back from school. His stint away has probably only added to his appeal in the public eye.
One of the most profound parts of the article, in my opinion, was a quote from Tyler -
“‘In three years, I could be a failure,’ he said one night, unprompted. ‘I’ll only be twenty-three – some n****s are twenty-three, they have their whole lives ahead of them. I could f*** up. This next single could be a failure…Dude, I’m nervous.’”
The anxiety that this young man is struggling through is not unusual for someone in his position, but it’s also not entirely fair. Something tells me that Tyler may be envious of Earl’s position. Being in the spotlight has its perks, I’m sure, but it’s also taxing, physically and mentally. Anyway, I wish all the best to this innovative group, and I’ll have to listen to some of their stuff soon!
This past weekend, I spent a significant amount of time sporcling. Sporcle is a website containing many quizzes on many different subjects that all operate with the same principle – name as many things as you can in a short amount of time (warning: it is ADDICTIVE). My friend Evin sent me the link to one such quiz that involved naming popular songs from the year 2001, by listening to 10 second clips from these songs. I was amazed at how well I did at this game, even though it had been years since I had heard most of these songs. I did well on the years 2000 and 2002 as well; even more surprising was my accuracy on the “music without lyrics” test, during which I had to name songs based only on short riffs that contained no lyrical content.
I started wondering about how I could possibly be storing these melodies so well, even though I hadn’t accessed them – or, more formally, reconsolidated my memory trace for them – in so long. Relatedly, how can elderly people who have forgotten so many details about their lives remember so many songs from their youth? It seems that musical memory is not quite the same as other forms of semantic memory.
A recent case study in the Archives of Neurology documents an experiment done on a 64-year-old musician with semantic dementia. In this disease, one loses the ability to find words, name objects and comprehend familiar words. This man’s case is so severe that he cannot even handle objects correctly (because he can’t remember what they are or what they are for) and he is mute. Since he performed music for so many years (he started at the age of 8, was skilled in Baroque music performance, and plays harpsichord 2 hours a day), the scientists, led by Jessica Weinstein, decided to test his knowledge of pieces that he knew in his past, such as J.S. Bach’s Minuet in F. Not only did he miss only 1 note out of 260 in this piece, but he even added in appropriate stylistic embellishments in his performance! He demonstrated his knowledge of formal music structure and rhythm as well.
Since in semantic dementia abstract concepts (such as “justice”) are more likely to be preserved than concrete ones (e.g., “chair”), the authors theorize that musical concepts may be stored much like other abstract concepts are. The authors write, “Musical semantics depends partly on understanding the structural attributes of a musical piece without ties to concrete visual referents and thus partly may resemble the semantics of abstract concepts.” Indeed, the patient’s deep understanding of the pieces, as evidenced by his embellishments on them, rather than his rote replication of them, speaks to this theory.
By the way, the authors also mention another case – a non-musician with semantic dementia who can hum the tunes of many popular, familiar songs.
My friend Zack sent me this news story the other day, about how Bob Dylan is the most oft-quoted songwriter in legal opinions and briefs. A few judges, including U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, have recited lines from songs like “Chimes of Freedom” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, when passing down their rulings. As the author of the article writes:
“[Dylan's] signature protest songs, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’,’ gave voice and vocabulary to the antiwar and civil rights marches. His most powerful ballads, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and ‘Hurricane,’ have become models for legal storytelling and using music to make a point.”
Bob Dylan’s lyrics are certainly effective and his imagery is beautiful; in fact, I personally think that he is a better poet than he is a musician. But it’s no surprise that Bob Dylan’s best and most-cherished songs were released in the 1960s, since they were a direct comment on the sociopolitical atmosphere of the time. Dylan was a major participant in, and inspirational figure for, the civil rights movement. And some of his songs were literally about events of the time – for example, “Hurricane” was about boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s murder trial.
I think what makes Bob Dylan’s lyrics so admirable is that they stand the test of time. Even in the face of shifting political climates, you can pick out lyrics that apply to your situation and make you feel like they were written for you. Like most good poetry, certain themes (such as protest) run through his work, so I can totally understand the quoting by judges and other peddlers of the law. I think that when lyrics get too specific and argumentative, we’re more likely to be turned off. Jackson Browne is another outstanding songwriter who, recently, has also presented his political bent to his fans – but I detest some of his most recent lyrics. For instance, “Where Were You” from his 2008 album, Time the Conqueror is about how President Bush handled the Hurricane Katrina disaster. And it is obviously, and only, about that. Here are a few lines:
Where were you when you heard the stranded
The injured and the empty-handed
Running out of food and water at the Superdome…
And those who left the Convention Center
Were stopped on the bridge when they tried to enter
The safety of the Westbank and higher ground…
Ick. Superdome? Convention Center? Hey, I’m no poet myself, but I vote for subtlety – subtlety and applicability across context.
Sadness is a blessing
Sadness is a pearl
Sadness is my boyfriend
Oh, sadness, I’m your girl
sings Lykke Li on the core ballad of her latest LP, “Wounded Rhymes”. “Sadness is a Blessing” is a fantastic track – seemingly your typical electropop bubblegum at first, but it becomes more and more haunting on every listen. The sentiment of the song is an intriguing one; here is a girl who is singing confidently – almost triumphantly – about her depression. The idea of sorrow as one’s lover and truest companion is not a far-fetched one. In many instances, depression is resistant to treatment because getting out of it and finding new hope is actually a frightening prospect. Sadness can be comfortable. This may be even more the case when the sadness is directed at a particular loss – for example, a breakup with, or the death of, a loved one. In these cases, it is tempting and comforting to dwell on the past.
In the video for “Sadness is a Blessing”, we see Lykke (looking very natural and pretty) at first downing shots at a table and then dancing by herself while all the stuffy guests around her stare with pity. Eventually, others try to grab hold of her, both to comfort her and to, basically, get her to get a grip on herself. I love the imagery in this video, because someone in a sad mood can feel lonely to the point where she feels that she is in her own world, separate from and indifferent to those around her. Meanwhile, all people on the outside can see is self-destruction and oddness. These people want her to conform, but she does not want to let Sadness go.
When you listen to the song, listen for the poignancy in this line -
Every night I rant, I plead, I beg him not to go
Will sorrow be the only lover I can call my own?
Original, moving, fierce. Love it.
To preface, this is kind of a cop-out post, because I came across these quotes years ago, but I figure I owe it to you to share them.
From a 2006 profile in The Guardian by Dorian Lynskey:
“How ill is it to have someone that talks that much shit and then backs it up?” [Kanye] asks, leaning forward in his chair, a thrilled grin illuminating his face. “And what if I didn’t back it up? How exciting would that be, also? It’s like I’m walking on this tightrope. It’s like the reason why you go to a circus – it’s more entertaining. It’s like, damn, what if he falls? And if I do make it, it’s like, damn, he made it! But either way you’re saying ‘damn’. Everybody else is just walking on the ground.”
I really like the quote, and I truly respect Kanye as an artist and producer. He takes risks, and nowhere is that more apparent than on his latest album, 2010′s most critically-acclaimed album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” It’s a truly overwhelming masterpiece – anything but scarce or minimal. And as arrogant as Kanye seems, he is fantastic at utilizing other talented vocalists, rappers and songwriters to make his work better. He has also always been open to crossing over into different genres, asking Chris Martin from Coldplay to join him on a track on “Graduation,” and collaborating with Bon Iver on “Lost in the World,” the final track of “Fantasy.”
Kanye, as a person and media personality, intrigues me very much. I don’t think any of his PR disasters have been part of some elaborate act. I think that he’s so insecure that he needs to convince himself and others around him that he’s godlike. And I think that he’s very intelligent, even as he is abrasive. I would love to meet him one day; better yet, I’d love to interview him one day.
Another quote from the Guardian piece:
“I’m not really specifically talented at anything except for the ability to learn.” – KW.
I think that that’s true for most of us, no? And it is an unusually humble sentiment for him. Maybe these contradictions just make ‘Ye all the more human.
In the past few years, scientists have been trying to find the neural correlates of musical improvisation, bearing in mind that this process of free action selection is a good proxy for the more evasive construct of “creativity.” One of the first studies by Bengtsson et al. in 2007 had classically-trained pianists improvise a musical sequence on an fMRI-compatible keyboard, and then reproduce that sequence later. The study also had a condition in which the pianists freely improvised (since in the first improv condition, the pressure to memorize may affect the brain regions involved). Bengtsson found that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is more involved in improvisation than it is in simple reproduction of musical sequences. She theorizes that this is probably due to the DLPFC’s role in free choice selection (choosing from a large set of options; inhibiting habitual, stereotyped responses), working memory (holding in mind what notes came before, so as to make the music interesting and variable) and planning (executing an overall plan for the improvisation through top-down influences). Makes sense, right?
Sure, until you consider a 2008 study on jazz improvisers by Charles Limb and Allen Braun. In this one, a few professional jazz musicians played two different (one easy, one “jazzy”) well-learned melodies, and then improvised on each of the two, while in the fMRI scanner. Here, the DLPFC was deactivated in the improv condition. The brain region that was more active in the improv condition in this study was the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a region that has been implicated in such fun stuff as social cognition, self-expression, and autobiographical narrative (ahem, cue complaints about the vagueness of fMRI research).
So, what’s going on with the DLPFC? The authors offer several possible explanations for the contradictory findings (for one, the control condition in the two studies was very different), but the one that I find most intriguing is that the Bengtsson study used classical pianists, while this one used jazz pianists as subjects. Jazz pianists not only find improv to be more natural, but they are also far more skilled at it. For a jazz musician, reproducing a learned sequence might take more concentration, working memory, planning, etc. than improvising does, while for a classical musician, free improv is actually not so “free”. The classical musicians might be engaging their DLPFCs a lot more because they are trying so hard to create something that sounds good. A recent study looked at expertise differences in improv-related brain regions by comparing musicians and non-musicians; I look forward to a study that compares the brain activations of jazz musicians and classical musicians in an improv task.
Just goes to show you – the more complicated the behavior, the more complicated the story behind it.