I listened to Big Boi's "Rooster" back when Fluxblog first posted it, and I liked it--it helped convince me to buy the album--but I didn't really grasp how goddamn good it is until I listened to the CD-quality track on headphones yesterday.
The thing about pop music is that while it does feed on the minor miracle of continuous reinvention, sometimes a little bit of actual innovation can be very useful. Because that one little new bit can be much more useful than simple discord in focusing a listener's attention and getting them to pay attention to all the other little non-obvious things that are going on, at least in a pop song. And in "Rooster," I think that bit appeared first to me (although it's not the first time it appears in the song) at the 3:00 mark. Just after the break and as it launches into chorus A, I got a little peek at the beat, and what I noticed was that there was a backbeat being provided by this sample which was, well, kind of industrial. It's that sheet-metal clang that melds with the scratching but comes through clearly at certain points. And it's just so weird--just totally unconnected to anything else in the song, unless you group it with the chicken noises as vaguely music concrete, and so unlike Andre's genre combo pastiches (and I can totally hear him doing a half-industrial track), it's just this totally incongruous element that's hidden among all these other elements. I'd submit that this trick in particular is what Outkast was so great at before, and it's this switch from collage to pastiche that makes Andre's disc seem so different. Big Boi largely stays the course in this regard (except for the jarring-but-great "Ghettomusick," which prompted Miss Clap to exclaim "What the hell did you just put on? Euro-house?" upon hearing it coming through the stereo here at HQ--she's got a good ear), but it's the little bits that are kin to the synth intro or IDM snare rolls in "Bombs Over Baghdad" that make Outkast a haven for genre-spotters instead of sample-spotters, and that's why I like 'em: they speak a language besides hip-hop, in addition to speaking hip-hop really well.
And the great thing about those little bits is that when they present themselves, when they catch your attention and go "where the hell did that come from?" it seems to bring everything else in the song along with it to the forefront. You become aware of the industrial clang or the weird little synth part and all of a sudden you're backtracking through a formerly only catchy song, noticing al the brilliant little ideas that have popped up throughout. For instance: chorus B. ("Tapes CDs...") Absolutely beautiful bit, that well deserves to be repeated, but the sequencing in particular is what makes it really work. Because--and you'd think this would happen in more songs, but it doesn't--it actually flows logically from the narrative of the verses, and it functions effectively as a chorus by revealing and repeating a theme that lay latent the whole time. In this way, it has a superficial resemblance to the folk music model of a chorus, where instead of a lengthy refrain there's simply a two-line turn that comes at the end of every stanza. (For a modern equivalent, see Nick Cave's "The Curse of Millhaven.") The switch to a more simply, nursery rhymey AAA-BBB rhyme scheme and a slower rhythm, when contrasted with Big Boi's machine-gun patter during the verse, serves as a sort of lyrical breakdown, regardless of what's behind it. And the lyrics themselves are actually kind of affecting, at least to a musician like me: while my troubles don't seem as bad as Antwan seems to be having, the life of a musician, while attractive and filled with promise, undeniably causes a lot of problems in a long-term relationship. Not the least of which is the problem demonstrated here: while theoretically a career or a job, it's unlike a job in that you actually have a great affection for music; you're "committed" to it because you love it, and while it might be weird to think of someone being jealous of an abstract concept, it's actually pretty understandable. BB King once said something to the effect of, "I may sleep with my woman, but she knows that sometimes my guitar comes first." And that's maybe sad, but definitely true.
And so backtracking from the narrative flow of the chorus, you suddenly notice that the rest of the song actually has fucking great lyrics too. More than just a collection of good one-liners or traded verses or battle raps, there's actually a story there, albeit a slightly cartoonish, Fresh-Princy one. But since when has that mattered to me? What matters is that the story is good, and that it manages to sustain a real narrative arc throughout its verses, and into the choruses. This, maybe, is another reason to buy the actual disc: all the lyrics are printed. Of course, you can always get 'em online, too. Lemme quote the first verse:
Ok, I start out all alone / `Cause my baby mama left me / Now there's nobody at home
Beginning to feel like Ms. Jackson done got cloned! / Well it's some real shit and I'm living it through this song!
A moving vehicle took my family / As I slept out on the sofa in the Boom Boom Room / I woke up very upset! / I throw the covers back and peek out of the draperies / My daughter, my baby, my baby mama all escaping me!
In the wind, she was my friend / Like Princess Di before she died / Therefore we tried and tried again
But in the end you pay attention to the pluses / But the minuses behind make it seem like you can't win!
So this is just great, and then when it crashes into the chorus after the third verse (and how fucking cool is it that he can wait until after the third verse!), it's a nice little revelation: instead of having familial problems because he's a pimp/hustler/gansta/what-have-you, it's all flowing from the simple reality (which, in its evocation of road-weariness, gives Big Boi an odd, presumably unintended, kinship with Jackson Browne and Bob Seger) of his life as a musician. Which works, because the rest of the song has already been upfront about the difficulties of separation and single-parenthood and all those kind of good things. And it's all very specific: not throwing a party, PTA meetings, his son pissing on him. And then back into the chorus: the female overlay all of a sudden becomes pertinent, logical, narrative; the cycling and repetition take on the tenor of a never-ending argument. Which, of course, it what it's supposed to be. It's a lovely take on maturity and the difficulties therein, way better than, say, a 400-page novel about the same thing. But I'm kinda biased. (This would be an interesting comparison sometime, though.) This is all to say nothing of the beautiful, ever-rising backing that threads through the song; present in the verse, when the horns come in full-force on the offbeats to second it in Chorus B, it just drives it home that much better.
Oh, and then there's the Chorus A / Hook bit ("Throw your neck out! Throw your back out!") which resolves, in the end, to "My neck and my back...hmm...my neck and my back..." And I don't know what else this could possibly be besides a Khia reference. But I don't have a clue what it means, either in the standalone hook or interspersed with the clear meaning of Chorus B at the end. Maybe, given that the title of the track is "The Rooster," it's a reference to the act of cutting a chicken's head off? Or maybe I've just been too influenced by Alice in Chains. The best I can come up with for the Khia connection is that it's a further evocation of female independence and power; Big Boi is, after all, never redeemed in the song, never reconciled or comforted. As the third verse ends, he's covered in urine and his family's mad at him, and the only thing he can come up with is settling a good example via music. And that's the only place he gets that power back: "through this song." It's oddly upfront and mature. And it's a great song. posted by Mike B. at 11:35 AM
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Fluxblog today is an all Tori Amos affair, and you can see my comment there. I actually used to be a huge Tori fan--like, a newsgroup-mailing-list-autographs-follow-her-around fan, but it's like totally embarassing so you can't tell anyone, OK?
"Professional Widow" is also a fine example of lyrical symbolism at work. Through the use of conceptual imagery, Amos paints a picture of a woman trapped at home, and, on a grander scale, as a gender in society. A domineering male figure is portrayed as a cold businessman, father, and politician who views and treats women as second-class servants whose sole purpose is to obey. The feminine role, "who will supply," is illustrated through the use of Mary references and images of porcelain-white skin. Together, the explosive music and vocal performance seems to represent the depicted woman (women) breaking free from the prison-like setting painted in the song.
Uh, yeah, or it could be about Courtney Love. Sheesh. I mean, granted, there's way too much stuff going on in there for it just to be a C-Lo rip, but the Mrs. Cobain interpretation was sort of the consensus at the time, so you'd think it would at least deserve a mention. Also, I think it's giving Tori's grasp of feminism a little too much credit. No offense, Tors. posted by Mike B. at 12:06 PM
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Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Jessica Simpson - In This Skin
There is a war for the soul of Jessica Simpson, and I don't think she knows. It rages on many fronts, sometimes placing her on the margins and sometimes in the center, but any list of the players would include:
- The idea of "pop as pornography" (posited by Taylor Parkes and seconded by a host of theoryhead British crits--and about which I really do need to post) which might as well be renamed the "Jessica Simpson liner notes theory," given that the mere silhouettes therein would make a lesser man tumescent;
- Adam Green (ex-Moldy Peaches) whose song "Jessica" imagines the new Mrs. Nick Lachey (98 Degrees) as a washed-up ex-celeb and caretaker of her sick mother, possibly in Las Vegas;
- Heather Havrilesky and other assorted critics and viewers of Jessica's MTV reality show, "Newlyweds," in which she seems honestly confused as to whether "Chicken of the Sea" is chicken or fish;
- Sasha Frere-Jones, whose article on Justin Timberlake sought to reclaim the critical reception of pop, and the assorted "popists" on I Love Music;
- Jessica herself, whose coffee table book on her own nuptials (modestly entitled I Do: Achieving Your Dream Wedding), attempts to ensconce her as either an exemplar of American womanhood or a lifestyle coordinator.
- And, of course, there's me, who happens to share a birthday with li'l Jess. (Thanks, Weekly World News!)
Oh yeah, and the music. So what does her birthday buddy think of that? Well, it's pretty bad. I wanted to like it, finding myself generally on the SFJ side of the battlements, of course, but the production is bland, the songwriting is execrable, and one song steals its melody from a Portishead song. ("I Have Loved You" and "Sour Times"--it's just kind of embarrassing.) There're bits to like, but the interesting thing about Jessica Simpson is how, far moreso than other (inevitably female) artists accused of favoring style over substance and not being "real musicians"--Britney, Madonna, Mandy, etc.--Jessica really is about the context above the music. No doubt the music once mattered; her first disc is reportedly kinda good, but this one falls prey to a number of the stereotypes associated with Christian music--mainstream-huffing, unadventurous musically, unspecific lyrically, faux-innocent, etc. But once I knew to start looking for her, she started popping up everywhere, which was weird, because...well, because I just hadn't thought about her at all before, and I am not exactly uninvolved with music. But there she was, like a secret sign I just hadn't been hip to previously. And the more that it accumulated, and the more I listened to the album, the more important the periphery became, and the less important the album was; indeed, I really have no desire to listen to the album ever again, but I'm really interested in talking about Jessica Simpson. I don't think this is a bad thing, necessarily. I've no doubt she puts a lot of effort into a lot of the stuff in her life--the MTV show, the book (which, while definitely fawning, is still kind of bold in a weird, creepy way), her stage show, her appearance, and even her marriage. But the music, despite what she says in the liners ("I have searched to find the words that reveal to you my fears from special places within my soul" etc. etc.), just feels effortless, in that bad way that you'd talk about, say, the food your dad produces on his night to cook, rather than the Ramones. But Jessica herself just slots so nicely into so many of these discussions and ideas, without apparently producing any interest in the part of the participants to discuss her, that you have to wonder if she's maybe prepackaged as that, too. The utter consumability of her as an image--and keep in mind here that I like consumability--is just awe-inspiring. She's blonde and she's (apparently) attractive and she married a member of a minor boyband and presumably Orlando was involved somehow and she's Christian and, and...and you can just eat all of her up. It's really interesting. I feel like it's a secret sign for me to break.
Of course, the other interesting thing is that there are people out there who genuinely like this album, and like her, and will buy it all, in droves. In other words, it's interesting that people like this crap. And I don't mean that in a bad, they-shouldn't-like-it way: people like crap, and that's OK; lord knows I like some crapola. But it's interesting because of the role crap plays in our lives.
For instance, the two major lyrical themes of this album are:
1) Her husband and how much she loves him, and
2) How it's hard to be Jessica Simpson and the struggles she goes through.
The second one is super-disingenuous, seeing as how she looks like this, and if we're being honest, she's more likely to cause eating disorders than cure them, whether she has one or not. I guess this sort of free-floating empowerment crap might appeal to some people, but it strikes me as more of a bare-minimum kind of thing, and anyone who knows anything about Jessica will have a hard time buying her as particularly oppressed.
The love stuff, on the other hand...well, I guess that's part of the appeal, a big part, because her relationship and her love is very public; she even did the virgin thing, mostly convincingly. (And now it's gone, lads; more's the pity.) The lyrics describing said love are less horrible--if they were, they'd at least be interesting--and more just very banal and very straightforward. But I believe Jessica when she says that these lyrics are heartfelt and hard-won and very important to her, and I think a lot of other people will think so, too, but at the same time I also believe that they're not very good lyrics. Because that's the way it works with music, isn't it? The songs that are brilliant and interesting and special have a place in our top-tens, but the dumb ones--whether dumbly masculine or dumbly feminine, irregardless of the listener's gender--are the ones that really have emotional resonance for us. They're the ones we play at our weddings; they're the ones we get a little weepy about. So yeah, I like the Boredoms and Kid 606 and all that, but I love Pulp and Fountains of Wayne and Jonathan Richman. And I think this applies to all brands of music lovers: you'll like Emperor but love Slayer, like Reich but love Zorn (Masada's pop-cult covers are classic dumb-emotional stuff), like Autechre but love Aphex (lots of emo stuff on the RDJ album), like Lydia Lunch but love Sonic Youth, etc.
I don't think having a place in your emotional makeup is better than a DID placement necessarily, but I do think it's something not often examined or acknowledged; we simply write them off as guilty pleasures and don't worry about it anymore, all the while trashing other people's favs. Adam Green's "Jessica," for instance, goes: "Jessica Simpson / where has your love gone / it's not in your music / no." (Then again, I guess that's basically what I just said.) But maybe we do examine it without thinking sometimes. The Moldy Peaches, after all, did that really well: they made music that was simple and dumb on one level that you could love, but really weird and innovative on another that you could like. Of course, I know a weird number of people who dislike the Peaches, but I think it is actually the inability to get past that first level of emotional dumbness, an inability to admit that the two levels can co-exist, that causes resistance to the kind of joyful music that I like. But I think they can, and often do, go together.
Not so much with Jessica, though, and maybe this is part of her appeal to some people. Maybe they care about those sorts of lyrics more and care less about interesting music, or that's the musical sound they dig, or whatever. I read the lyrics and while they didn't have any effect on me, I could recognize that the potential was there, and in a way, that's something I admire--even if I'm still never going to listen to the album ever again. posted by Mike B. at 10:45 AM
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Monday, September 29, 2003
Incidentally, just wanted to give mad respect to Andre for repping this blog, in the song "Behold a Lady," whose chorus ends with the line "Clap clap, you deserve everything." Yes I do, Andre. Yes, I do.
I think we've all kind of wondered what exactly the fuck they're thinking over there at Vice, and now I guess we have a better idea.
Whenever VICE co-founder Suroosh would say the word paki, white people would be up in arms criticizing him (huh?). It became irresistible to goad people and corner them into conversations about controversial politics because they were so hysterical and easy to anger. Plus, incendiary political statements garnered endless publicity for us and playing with mainstream media became a fun game.
We convinced journalists we were gay lovers, we told them MTV was starting a new series with us, said we were banned from stores we weren’t banned from, I told America I though Jesus was gay on Bill Maher’s idiot show Politically Incorrect — last week we even convinced a journalist we are 40 year-old drug dealers. After leaving Vice Magazine a couple of years ago and working only part time on boring administration stuff, I made antagonizing the press almost my full time job.
And yes, I wrote an article for The American Conservative about a new trend of conservative hipsters. I did it for a laugh. I did it because I wanted to see what it would be like to flirt with Pat Buchanan (and I agree with some of what the AmCon says, just like I agree with some of what The Nation says). In the AmCon piece I made totally bullshit claims like “Terry Richardson was publicly trashing Clinton” and “Our website was filled with people saying the gay media was making women diet too much.” I even invented an “art collective” called Sofia. Any of these things could have been easily disproven, but everyone from The New York Post to Newsweek ran with them. Shocking really.
Really nice to see Mark giving some love to the suburbs. I'm a big fan of the 'burbs myself--I find them very beautiful and, as he says, kind of futuristic in a way that cities, with their hidden histories barely conceled by new construction projects, just are not. (Except maybe for Brasillia, which I really want to visit.) People generally seem kind of creeped out when I tell them this--and maybe even Mark would disagree with me, since he's talking about the UK 'burbs, tho I love them too--but I really do have an affection for them. Granted, I didn't grow up there, but in more rural towns, but still...
I can't find the review right now, but I remember a Pitchfork piece in which Ott rips on some band for being "too suburban" and tells them to just get to the country for some authenticity, and blech. Since when does it work like that? (And sheesh, could we stop mystifying the country? They watch Friends just like the rest of us.) Wherever you go, there you are, Chris. posted by Mike B. at 2:08 PM
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All right, well it clearly wasn't "upon my return," but so goes my life these days. Still: Outkast.
It might be worth it for all y'all burn-hounds to actually pick this one up (or at least check out someone's physical copy) because the packaging is pretty cool. Well, less the packaging, I guess, and more the liner notes, which, aside from featuring all the lyrics to the non-skit songs (thanks guys!), has some really interesting photos. I mean, you knew it would--it's Outkast, after all, and even if you've only glanced at it in the store, you've seen the borderline-atrocious picture of Big Boi on one cover and the hilarious one of Andre on the other (a Glock and pearls? Oh, Mr. 3000!). But inside...well. How to put it? I guess, basically, it made me understand why Salon assigned someone "writing a book about racial passing in American culture" to review the album.
OK, there's Andre under the Eiffel tower in a plaid suit. OK, there's Andre as a centaur in the heavens with three naked ladies. I'll even give him, sorta, the one with him on a bench with a girl and a bulldog. But the one on the inside back cover makes me wonder. It's him on a hill, having a picnic with his wife, who is in a crew-neck orange sweater with white collar peeking out, and his children, who are in penny loafers. Andre himself has his hair slicked back (as he does in the bench and Eiffel shots) and is wearing what can only be described as an outfit straight out of the 50's. The whole thing resembles either a shot from a religious pamphlet or Far From Heaven. In other words, it's kind of a minstrelry of whiteness.
Which all makes me wonder--and honestly, I'm asking this, I don't have an answer yet--is Andre just fucking with us, with this and the whole "Hey Ya" thing? Is he pulling a fast one on us white people? Outkast, of course, has a bit of a reputation as a hip-hop group white people like (which is probably true, given that they won two Grammies and all) and various critics (unlike moi) have seen fit to hedge their bets on "Hey Ya" in particular, and The Love Below in general, by saying that well, obviously, it's just going to appeal to rock critics (read: white people) more. And while I don't see any particular problem with that, it does make me wonder, as I say, what exactly the master plan is here.
Of course, it also makes me wonder if there's any answer to the question "How much does Andre like Prince?" other than "a lot." Aside from the specific parallels ("Hey Ya" being the "Raspberry Beret" of 2003, for my money, and the minimalism of the drums there in the ecstatic-pop context evoke nothing more than "Kiss"), Andre seems to have, on this album, done a nice job of solving the problem of audience and race that sent Prince spinning into the art-jazz abyss of late--albeit an abyss that's well-deserved, since we'll still be figuring out his 80's output in 20 years, most likely. But from what I understand of the Prince mythos, he began rebelling against his almost universal pop appeal (exemplified, perhaps, by the lack of any bass in some of his best songs) by making what he perceived as "black" music, first with the Black album and now more or less continually with NEWS etc. But Andre has, I think, figured out a way around this, one that's actually rooted in Outkast's appeal: genre-hopping/melding. And one of the genres he's aiming toward is Coltrainey jazz, but if this album is any indication, he wants to fuck with it and mix it with other shit. And that's not white or black but just musical. It's interesting, anyway.
And oh yes: Miss Clap is a big fan of "Roses." C'mon, guys, he says "poo-poo-poo" in the chorus! How cool is that?