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kottke.org posts about music

Hip-Hop’s Fragile Symbiosis With Pop Culture

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 16, 2018

Kool Moe Dee Purple Avatar.png

For some reason, the only YouTube channels I subscribe to are about hip-hop (with one or two dead design vlogs thrown in), and most of the hip-hop reviews and discussion I consume happens there. Likewise, almost all the podcasts I listen to are about sports, and when I’m looking for sports content, I start with podcasts. Who knows how or why these things happen? When I was a media reporter, I’d have theories about these things. These days, I chalk most stuff up to contingency.

Anyways, a favorite show of mine is Dead End Hip Hop, or DEHH, which is a kind of Around the NBA-ish take on new and old music. It’s four guys, all about my age, who have musical touchstones in common with me and each other, who argue with each other about music. It’s brash and insider-y and a little hater-ish, and I love it.

In their latest episode, the DEHH crew and a couple of younger guests answer a reader question: What will hip-hop look like in twenty years? It turns into a thoughtful (and brash and insider-y and a little hater-ish) discussion of the history of popular music, generational change, the relationship between music, technology, and the broader culture, and the dangers of becoming too popular for too long:

The general consensus boils down to three things:

  1. Hip-hop has an unusually rich, symbiotic relationship with pop culture in a way other pop music forms just can’t match, with music and culture informing each other;
  2. The musical dominance of hip-hop has generally been bad for the quality of hip-hop, and the longer this dominance continues, the more degraded the music gets;
  3. There is no reason to expect this dominance to continue indefinitely, and every reason to expect it will be exchanged for another cultural form.

Now, hip-hop has some advantages. It’s unusually capacious, almost greedy, when it comes to culture. It’s not just music, but dance, fashion, slang, and visual art. Plus, when it comes to interacting with other forms of popular culture, you can pour almost anything into it and get hip-hop back out. (For instance, hip-hop was into superheroes before it was cool. And PS: superheroes’ days at the top are numbered, too.)

But is hip-hop really that much more resilient than jazz, or rock n’ roll, each of which had their turn leading the way before turning into something else besides the most popular music in the world? Seriously: jazz is looking at hip-hop with its eyes all the way to the side, along with boxing, musical theater, and smoking cigarettes.

The harder question to answer isn’t whether something will come next, but what it will look like. In the 90s, techno and dance music were legitimate heirs/threats to hip-hop; in comparison, EDM and what’s left of indie rock seem to be pretty insular corners rather than comers.

The coolest thing to imagine is the future evolution of hip-hop, even if it loses its spot on top of the music/culture heap, into a richer and more personal form of artistic expression. I hope we haven’t seen its full flourishing. But then again, I’m 39. That’s the kind of stuff I like. And the days of hip-hop caring about what guys my age like are waning, if not over.

A Song Map of the United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

Song Map

Song Map

Design studio Dorothy has produced a poster of a map of the United States where all the place names are song titles.

Some of our favourite song choices are the ones which require you to think a little harder about connections, such as Space Oddity (David Bowie) which signposts Cape Canaveral, After the Gold Rush (Neil Young) which references Sutter’s Mill, and Homecoming (Kanye West) which is placed near the rapper’s home town of Chicago.

The map is accompanied by a Spotify playlist of most of the songs used…over 61 hours of music in total.

Jazz Deconstructed: John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 12, 2018

A new episode of Estelle Caswell’s Earworm series is always cause for celebration. In this one, Caswell examines the title track off John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” album and what makes it so challenging to play & rewarding to listen to.

John Coltrane, one of jazz history’s most revered saxophonists, released “Giant Steps” in 1959. It’s known across the jazz world as one of the most challenging compositions to improvise over for two reasons - it’s fast and it’s in three keys. Braxton Cook and Adam Neely give me a crash course in music theory to help me understand this notoriously difficult song, and I’m bringing you along for the ride. Even if you don’t understand a lick of music theory, you’ll likely walk away with an appreciation for this musical puzzle.

This is me actually walking away with that new appreciation.

America’s Last Chance at a Gospel Archive

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 09, 2018

Gospel Music.jpg

This is a fascinating Longread from Oxford American, on Baylor University’s Robert Darden’s efforts to create a comprehensive archive (physical and digital) of American gospel music:

In 2001, when Darden set out to write the first comprehensive history of black gospel music, from its African origins into the twenty-first century, he came across citations to many fundamental songs—early recordings by the Staple Singers; “There Is Not a Friend Like Jesus” by the Roberta Martin Singers; “Peace in the Valley” by the Southern Sons— but found that the recordings were long gone, never to be heard again. So he sought what could be salvaged. In Chicago, he climbed to the top floor of a tenement building, where he listened in awe as a woman sang lines to old freedom songs. In Memphis, he swayed and clapped in the pews of Al Green’s church. But when he finished People Get Ready!: A New History of Black Gospel Music in 2004, having painstakingly laid out the history of the genre, he almost couldn’t bear that many of its core components were lost to us.

After Darden finished the book, he got in touch with some of his old contacts from Billboard, gospel scholars and collectors like Bob Marovich, Opal Nations, and Ray Funk. He wanted to determine how much of black gospel music from its golden age was lost or unavailable. They estimated seventy-five percent.

Ask them why, and the answer gets complicated. “Part of it is racism,” Darden says. “Part of it is economic.” Part of it has to do with the consolidation in the music industry (some record companies hold the copyrights to these songs, but, lacking financial incentive, don’t make them available in any form). And the last part, as he sees it, is the religious aspect of this music. Marovich put it to me this way: “When I was growing up, there was always, in our neighborhood, a couple of guys in white shirts and black ties that wanted to talk to you about Jesus. And you wanted to run the opposite direction from those guys… . Gospel is a little frightening to the unknowledgeable.”

In February of 2005, Darden wrote an op-ed in the New York Times lamenting the loss of these treasures from gospel’s golden age: “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music,” he writes. “It would be a sin.” The apparent imbalance of that remark stuck with me. By any honest standard, we sin regularly. A cultural disaster seems like a much more grievous affair. But I also had the feeling that he was onto something—that the loss of this music was a moral failing born out of a history of oppression and neglect. He explained to me that when he wrote that, he had in mind Jim Wallis’s (at the time controversial) claim that racism was America’s original sin.

One of the songs referenced in the article as the archival project’s unofficial anthem is “Old Ship of Zion,” recorded by The Mighty Wonders. I found it on YouTube:

There’s a beauty to these recordings that belies their historical importance. John Lewis has said that “without music the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.” Some antebellum spirituals are said to have held instructions for slaves to escape. You can also find the roots of almost every major American popular music in the various strands of gospel, from country to hip-hop. It would be very American to lose these strands, but it’s the better kind of American to bring our collective resources and technology to bear to save and recirculate these records for the public good.

How VW Turned Beastie Boys-Inspired Theft of Car Parts into a Clever 80s Ad

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2018

In the music video for (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!) and in promotional material surrounding the release of the band’s debut album Licensed to Ill, the Beastie Boys’ Mike D wore a chain with a VW emblem around his neck.

VW Beastie Boys

In the US and around the world, fans of the band started stealing VW emblems from the fronts of cars on the street and in dealer lots. In the UK, facing down some potential bad publicity, Volkswagen cleverly turned this into a marketing opportunity with this magazine ad:

VW Beastie Boys Ad

Using the iconic layout of the groundbreaking “Think Small” and “Lemon” ads and calling their logo a “designer label”, VW offered fans of Beasties a free emblem just for writing into the company and requesting one. Brilliant ad. (via @imperica)

Watching a Teen Music Star Grow Up

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2018

Vanity Fair interviewed singer/songwriter Billie Eilish last October just as her career was taking off. A year later, they repeated the interview with her, now 16 years old, using the same questions to see what had changed — 2017: 257K followers on Insta, playing to crowds of 500 people. 2018: 6.3 million Insta followers, crowds of 40,000+. The result is really affecting, particularly on questions like “Do you feel pressure?” where the difference in answers is greatest.

Eilish’s situation is extreme, but some version of this is playing out with all of America’s youth right now, dealing with how to be in the world when interacting with thousands or even hundreds of thousands or millions of other people, far beyond Dunbar’s number, is increasingly commonplace. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye and who’s playing that Cat’s in the Cradle song anyway?!

Long-Delayed Documentary About Aretha Franklin Finally Set for Release

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2018

In January 1972, the Southern California Community Choir, a group of Atlantic Records musicians, and Aretha Franklin gathered at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles to record music for a live album. That album, Amazing Grace, went on to be Franklin’s best selling album and is still the top-selling gospel album of all time.

Director Sydney Pollack, who would later win a Best Director Oscar for Out of Africa, filmed the two-day recording for a documentary but wound up not being able to complete the film because the picture and sound couldn’t be synced — they hadn’t used a clapperboard before takes. So the footage, which includes the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts jamming out in the back of the church, was shelved. Before he died in 2008, Pollack entrusted the footage to Alan Elliott, who was able to sync the sound and make a 87-minute film out of it.

The film was going to be released a few times over the past decade, but Franklin successfully sued to keep it from the public, saying that her likeness was being used without her permission Even though she professed to liking the film, Franklin was strident about her finances. After Franklin’s death, Elliott screened it for her family and they approved its release. According to Variety, the film will screen at the DOC NYC film festival on November 12th and then later in NYC and LA to qualify for the Oscars.

The trailer for the film is embedded above. Elliott seems to have snuck it online without anyone noticing — as of now, it’s got fewer than 800 views on YouTube.

My Recent Media Diet for Fall 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 05, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the last month or so. Ok, two months in this case…it’s been awhile. There are a lot of movies on this installment of the list, but I’ve actually gotten some reading done as well. I’m still making my way through Making a Murderer’s second season, just started Small Fry, and am looking forward to seeing the Fantastic Beasts sequel with my kids in a couple of weeks. I’m trying to convince them to dress up when we go to the theater but no dice so far.

Origin Story by David Christian. This is a book based on Christian’s Big History concept, a story that weaves everything from quarks to water to dinosaurs to humans fighting entropy through greater energy & resource usage into one long history of the universe. (B+)

Slow Burn Season 2. Leon Neyfakh and his team are operating at a high level…this is one of the best podcasts out there. I had two major and conflicting thoughts while listening to this season: 1. Bill Clinton is not a good human being, should not have been President, and should not be embraced by contemporary progressives, and 2. The investigation of Clinton by the “independent” counsel was motivated entirely by partisan politics, was mostly bullshit, and shouldn’t have led to anything close to Clinton’s impeachment. (A+)

Three Identical Strangers. Fascinating entry in the nature vs nurture debate. This movie had at least two more gears than I expected. (A-)

Prohibition. Really interesting three-part documentary from Ken Burns & Lynn Novick about Prohibition in America. For instance, I didn’t know that the early temperance movement was led by women who were basically fed up with their husbands coming home and beating & raping them. Between this and some other stuff I’ve been thinking about, I’m convinced that while prohibition isn’t the answer, the US would be a better place to live if alcohol consumption were much lower. (A-)

Seeing White. What even to say about this? Fantastic and fascinating podcast series about the notion of “whiteness”, where racism comes from, and a lot of related topics. For instance, the synopsis for the second episode is “For much of human history, people viewed themselves as members of tribes or nations but had no notion of “race.” Today, science deems race biologically meaningless. Who invented race as we know it, and why?” Two episodes particularly stick out: the one about Native Americans and the one on white affirmative action, which was extraordinarily eye-opening. Top recommendation, a must-listen. (A+)

Smokey and the Bandit. This always seemed to be on TV when I was a kid. I gotta say, it’s still entertaining. But whoa, the casual overt racism that made it into movies in 1977. Oof. (B)

First Reformed. Ethan Hawke is terrific in this spare film. (B+)

Deadpool 2. I feel like I should feel bad for liking this so much. Probably did laugh until I cried. (A-)

A Beautiful Mind. I saw this when it came out and it seemed more straightforward than Oscar-winning this time around. Best Picture? I don’t see it. (B)

Mad Max: Fury Road. Fourth or fifth viewing? God, this movie is just so simple and devastatingly effective. It just *works*. (A)

Now My Heart Is Full by Laura June. Roxane Gay wrote of this book: “Sometimes, a book swells into something far lovelier than you assume it will be.” Exactly right. (B+)

Montreal bagels. Better than NYC bagels. And it’s not close. (A-)

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. A bit uneven in spots, but there’s some really great stuff in here. Rogers really was an incredible person. (A-)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Getting ready for the sequel. (B+)

Maniac. I’ve watched the first four episodes of this. Good aesthetics and quirky but I’m wondering if I really need to finish the rest of it. (B)

Searching. Worth watching for the unique way the story is told. Solid & engaging plot too. (B+)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I’ve already forgotten what happens in this movie. (C)

Last Seen. No one knows who stole $500 million worth of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in 1990 nor has the art ever been recovered. This podcast details the major theories and suspects. (B)

Civilizations. This wannabe art history nerd loved this series. (A-)

Reply All: The Crime Machine. Fascinating story about how the NYPD got hooked on crime statistics, which helped them to clean up the city but then went wrong. (A-)

Schwartz’s Deli. The smoked meat sandwich somehow lives up to the hype. Don’t skip the pickle! (A-)

First Man. I noticed many of the things that Richard Brody did in his review but don’t consider the film a “right-wing fetish object”, Armstrong’s red baseball cap aside. It seemed to me that the arrested emotional development of Armstrong & his fellow astronauts was not played for heroic effect but actually seemed rather sad. If this was the great America we need to get back to, count me out. (B+)

Kingsman: The Golden Circle. Not as fun as the original. (B-)

Tomb Raider. This should have been better. (B-)

Bohemian Rhapsody. Pro tip: always go to fandom movies on opening night, even if you’re not particularly interested in the movie. I saw this with a packed theater of Queen fans. People were dressed up and they sang along to the songs. During We Will Rock You, the theater was actually shaking. Really fun. Like this guy, I also have a new appreciation on Queen’s music. Oh and if you’re bent about the liberties taken with the story, this take on the film by a Queen superfan is worth reading. (A-)

The TED Interview podcast w/ Elizabeth Gilbert. The second section, on the grief she left after her partner died earlier this year, in particularly worth a listen. (B+)

X-Men. Viewed during an 11-hour plane ride. Solid but shows its age with the action stuff, which was slow and inconsequential. I also watched the two sequels. (B)

Moneyball. I somehow hadn’t seen this before and really liked it. I think I need to read the book again. (A-)

Ocean’s Thirteen. Surprisingly fresh for the 13th movie in the series. Don’t @ me. (B+)

Volver. I need more Almodovar (and Penelope Cruz) in my life. (B+)

Farsighted by Steven Johnson. The advice on how you can make better long-term decisions is actually quite short, but Johnson’s explanation is typically well-informed and buoyed by keen storytelling. Favorite line: “The novel is an empathy machine.” (B+)

Conversations with Tyler w/ Paul Krugman. Tyler Cowen might have the best interview questions around. My favorite aspect of this episode is how many times Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner, says some version of “I don’t know” in reply to a question. (B+)

Conversations with Tyler w/ Malcolm Gladwell. Another thought-provoking episode. Gladwell answered every question. (B+)

Conversations with Tyler w/ Michael Pollan. Psychedelics seem increasingly promising. Time to read Pollan’s book on the subject perhaps. (B+)

Making a Murderer. The second season isn’t as compelling as the first (at least through the first 2/3s) but the show is still an intriguing examination of our legal system, class & wealth, the power of the human imagination, and all things Wisconsin. (A-)

I also covered a bunch of stuff I experienced in Berlin in this post so I won’t repeat myself. I plan on writing a similar post for Istanbul this week.

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

Koyaanisqatsi Made with Animated GIFs

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 05, 2018

Koyaanisqatsi is a 1982 experimental film by Godfrey Reggio with a soundtrack from Philip Glass. The movie has no dialogue or narrative and mainly features slow motion and time lapse footage of nature, technology, and cities.

Rico Monkeon has built a tool called Gifaanisqatsi that constructs the trailer for Koyaanisqatsi using a random assortment of slow motion and time lapse animated GIFs from Giphy. The trailer you get is different each time. You can compare it to the actual trailer.

I wondered how easy it would be to make an internet version using random Giphy ‘gifs’ which have been tagged as slow motion or time-lapse, playing them along with the Philip Glass soundtrack.

I *love* this and have watched at least 5 or 6 different trailers now…the slow motion cats and dogs are best. I recorded one of the trailers it generated for me:

I miiiiight just want to watch a feature-length version of this accompanied by the full soundtrack.

A Joyous Cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart Again?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2018

New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band somehow reimagines Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart Again as an upbeat jazzy tune.

The band also did a cover of Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing a few years ago.

Robyn’s new album, Honey

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Oct 25, 2018

It’s been eight years since Robyn’s last release, which seems like a Donna Tartt-esque wait in the pop music world. Her new album, Honey, is finally out tomorrow. She’s endured a breakup, a reconciliation, and the death of her longtime collaborator and producer, Christian Falk. Exploration of grief and loss are not the most uplifting themes in dance music, but Robyn has a depth beyond most pop stars.

What’s more interesting is seeing Robyn’s relationship to a mind/body connection play out. She got into psychoanalysis, which she calls “un-rigid and experimental” and “an inspiring, amazing place.” Equally important, she danced throughout the making of the album, getting lost in hypnotic rhythms, which in itself is a form of deep therapy.

Missing U is a solid Robyn dance track.

I hope this release means she and her platforms will soon be back on SNL.

And if you happen to be in Stockholm, she’s playing a “secret” gig on Saturday.

Heather Havrilesky teaches us many lessons via the music of Yes

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Oct 24, 2018

I think we can all agree that Heather Havrilesky is brilliant as Ask Polly, but I’d like to point your attention to her analysis of a prog rock masterpiece.

Today, as an exercise, we’re going to watch this ancient reel of Yes in concert from 1975. Because this is something as far outside of you surrounded by you as it could possibly be. I don’t expect you to enjoy this. Listening will feel like work. That’s the point!

(Whatever you do, do NOT skip to 4:40. Heed the wisdom of Polly.)

She digs in:

Where do we even begin, right? Who starts a song with a four-minute long guitar solo, first of all? And look at that stage design. Is this a local dinner-theater production of Shrek: The Musical! or a major rock tour attended by a massive crowd? Take in the shiny satin prom-dress shirt on guitarist Steve Howe. Take in the notable absence of quality hair-product use. (We didn’t have quality hair products back then. You just poured something like Palmolive on your head and hoped for the best.) Take in the commitment to Peter Pan blouses and flared sleeves. Lead singer Jon Anderson was sort of a timeless hottie, though. He looks like he could be hanging out in a coffee joint in Prospect Heights, smoking weed and reading A Little Life.

I think Anderson always felt like the novice in this group. I mean, what a voice! But look at these other guys with all of their fucking instruments and alternate tunings. How much standing around like an asshole do you think Anderson had to do with these guys around? He had time to visit local gift shops and browse for new super-tight chokers and Robin Hood blouses in between his brief bouts of singing.

She continues:

Now, lyrically, we’ve got journeys and voids and seasons passing you by. There’s a real hobbit energy to Yes. If Zeppelin is like Sauron, Yes is the original hobbit, Bilbo Baggins: humble and connected to the rhythms of the seasons, attached to the comforts of daily life. Hobbits farm the land and sweat and toil, and then they drink a giant pint of beer after a long day’s work. It’s not that they can’t be a little neurotic or a little greedy. They are highly suggestible creatures. But as long as they are, you know, sticking their gross, hairy feet in the mud of the Shire …

And further:

Okay, now let’s skip to 11:44. “Two million people barely satisfied.” This feels like a tribute to the slog. There is suffering in the day-to-day. What do you do? You get up, you get down. Sure, most Yes lyrics are refrigerator-magnet mumbo jumbo of the highest order. But there are loose themes here: We’re connected to nature, to the seasons, and to each other. You can’t resist the bad weather; you can’t turn your back on how connected you are to everything and everyone else, because it’ll make you crazy. We all feel the shame of being regular, flawed humans. We are all BARELY satisfied, dig?

It gets SO much better, so I’ll leave you here to go on the journey of experiencing this classic Ask Polly column in its entirety at your own pace. YMMV, but I find it works just as well read by yourself, late at night in a dark kitchen as it does read aloud to a full car on a family holiday road trip. Oh, and Havrilesky has a new book out, in case it spoke to you: What If This Were Enough? Good read with or without a prog rock soundtrack.

RIP Paul Allen

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2018

Tech titan Paul Allen died yesterday at the age of 65 of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates remembered his friend in a short piece called “What I loved about Paul Allen”.

Paul foresaw that computers would change the world. Even in high school, before any of us knew what a personal computer was, he was predicting that computer chips would get super-powerful and would eventually give rise to a whole new industry. That insight of his was the cornerstone of everything we did together.

In fact, Microsoft would never have happened without Paul. In December 1974, he and I were both living in the Boston area — he was working, and I was going to college. One day he came and got me, insisting that I rush over to a nearby newsstand with him. When we arrived, he showed me the cover of the January issue of Popular Electronics. It featured a new computer called the Altair 8800, which ran on a powerful new chip. Paul looked at me and said: “This is happening without us!” That moment marked the end of my college career and the beginning of our new company, Microsoft. It happened because of Paul.

Gates also noted Allen’s love of music. In an interview earlier this year, legendary producer Quincy Jones said Allen “sings and plays just like Hendrix”.

Yeah, man. I went on a trip on his yacht, and he had David Crosby, Joe Walsh, Sean Lennon — all those crazy motherfuckers. Then on the last two days, Stevie Wonder came on with his band and made Paul come up and play with him — he’s good, man.

Here’s a short clip of Allen melting some faces:

How the Sears Catalog Undermined White Supremacy in the Jim Crow South

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2018

Sears Catalog

Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection and plans to close hundreds of stores in an effort to keep the company afloat. The Sears catalog is perhaps one of the most important and under-appreciated innovations in American life. Starting in 1888 with a mailer advertising watches and jewelry, Sears introduced millions of Americans to in-home shopping by using the growing networks of the railroad and US Postal Service, much like Amazon and other retailers would using the internet decades later.

The time was right for mail order merchandise. Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided the mail order business by permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge entitling these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 also made distribution of the catalog economical.

As historian Louis Hyman explained on Twitter, the way Sears sold goods to their customers also provided new opportunities for black Southerners living under the Jim Crow system.

Every time a black southerner went to the local store they were confronted with forced deference to white customers who would be served first. The stores were not self-service, so the black customers would have to wait. And then would have to ask the proprietor to give them goods (often on credit because…sharecropping). The landlord often owned the store. In every way shopping reinforced hierarchy. Until Sears.

The catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices!

This excellent piece by Antonia Noori Farzan has more info. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of blind auditions, the practice of auditioning orchestra musicians behind a screen to help cut down on gender bias during the hiring process. While not entirely free of bias — opportunities for discrimination by postal workers and Sears employees were still possible — the Sears ordering process was essentially a blind retail transaction, a screen placed between the store and black customers. (The catalog also advertised racist costumes so obviously Sears wasn’t some bastion of social progressivism…they simply wanted to sell more goods to more kinds of people.)

According to Sears historian Jerry Hancock, Sears also developed a policy to help those who couldn’t read or write that well to be able to place orders:

One of Hancock’s discoveries was Sears’ response to the needs of a rural South in which literacy was rare. For someone who could neither read nor write, placing orders and following written protocols were problematic. Richard Sears responded with a policy that his company would fill any order it received, no matter what the medium or format. So, country folks who were once too daunted to send requests to other purveyors could write in on a scrap of paper, asking humbly for a pair of overalls, size large. And even if it was written in broken English or nearly illegible, the overalls would be shipped.

Music scholar Ted Gioia notes that blues musicians were able to buy instruments from Sears that were unavailable to them from local retailers.

With Sears declaring bankruptcy, it’s worth remembering how much impact this company had on American music. In my research into blues and other traditional styles, I found that many, many musicians started out on Sears instruments.

Even under Jim Crow, music was an avenue for upward mobility for African Americans, and Sears and other mail-order retailers were more than happy to provide them with instruments.

Music Can Save Lives: A Playlist for Perfect CPR Chest Compressions

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2018

If you’re ever called on to perform CPR in an emergency but you don’t have training, the American Heart Association recommends performing “Hands-Only CPR”. There are two easy steps: you call 911 and then you press hard and fast in the center of the person’s chest 100-120 times per minute. As their fact sheet explains, familiar music can help maintain the proper tempo.

Song examples include “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira” or “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. People feel more confident performing Hands-Only CPR and are more likely to remember the correct rate when trained to the beat of a familiar song.

When performing CPR, you should push on the chest at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute, which corresponds to the beat of the song examples above.

New York Presbyterian Hospital maintains a Spotify playlist of “Songs to do CPR to” that hit that 100-120 bpm sweet spot.

The playlist includes songs familiar to lifesavers of all generations, from Book of Love by the Monotones to Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd to Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles to Sorry by Justin Bieber. Stayin’ Alive or Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body are probably more appropriate to the situation, but should the need arise, my go-to CPR song is now Crazy in Love. Who knows, Beyoncé might help save someone’s life someday. (via @juliareinstein)

Joan Jett Rocks “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Nirvana Reunion

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2018

The surviving members of Nirvana (minus Kurt Cobain, of course) held a six-song reunion at the Cal Jam festival with a couple of special guests, including Joan Jett taking over vocal duties on Smells Like Teen Spirit, and All Apologies, and Breed. The video above captures the whole thing from the crowd…here’s another view of just Smells Like Teen Spirit:

This Stumbling Deer’s Hooves Sound Like Phil Collins’ Drum Fill on “In the Air Tonight”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2018

This deer stumbling through a children’s play set sounds just like the drums in In the Air Tonight (you know the ones).

This might be the best things that sound like other things yet, although the falling shovel that sounds like Smells Like Teen Spirit will always occupy the top spot in my heart. (Thx to the many people who sent this in knowing that I would love it. I feel very heard right now.)

The oral history of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 21, 2018

On Sunday, September 23, OutKast’s double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will be fifteen years old. About ready for a learner’s permit. Damn.

Okayplayer assembled an short oral history of both albums, with fresh input from contributors like Cee-Lo Green and engineer Neal Pogue as well as digging into the archives for commentary from Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Just like the albums, it’s a lot of fun.

Cee-Lo Green: They don’t make physical copies of physical CDs anymore. So basically, streaming is just like, “We like this a lot” It’s like analytics. I don’t know what else actually did Diamond or better. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will probably be one of the last albums in history that will have moved physically over 10 million copies. That ain’t never gonna happen again.

Khujo Goodie: That was the biggest thing it Atlanta, man, because along with Goodie Mob, those guys are the pioneers of Atlanta, Georgia music! They’re the pillars. Just to have some guys representing where you stay, it wasn’t nothing but love when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped, man. And you got a double album, that was just icing on the cake right there!

Big Boi [via MTV News, 2017]: When you’re inside of [the creative process], you don’t know [the impact], you know what I mean? You just go in and try to create something new. One thing that we do is never revisit what we’ve done, although we stand on it and we know it’s there.

I would never go back and try to create a song like “The Rooster”, or “Unhappy”, or “The Way You Move” — That’s too easy, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I could dig about the younger generation. I like to see who’s gonna play it safe and who’s gonna evolve into that other thing.

We really could use a full documentary about OutKast, digging into each of their albums, both principals, and the development of the scene/family around them. Someone should make that happen.

Meet Feng E, an 11-Year-Old Taiwanese Ukulele Prodigy

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2018

Feng E started playing the ukulele when he was just five years old. His father pushed him into it by saying that he wouldn’t play Legos with the boy unless he took up the instrument. Six years later, he can casually slay Zombie by The Cranberries in the back of a car:

Or Michael Jackson’s Beat It on the streets on London:

Or Classical Gas in the park:

Ok, get this kid a duet with this guy’s washing machine.

My Recent Media Diet, Special In Denial That Summer’s Over Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the last month or so. This installment has a few things on it from a trip to NYC and is also very movie-heavy. In addition to the stuff below, I also finished Sharp Objects (HBO series, not the book) and Star Trek: Voyager, both of which I reviewed last time. I’m almost done with Origin Story…might do a whole separate post on that one. Up next in the book department: Now My Heart Is Full, The Good Neighbor, or Fantasyland.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout. I’m not a particular fan of the series, but this was so fun that maybe I should be? Love the practical effects. (B+)

Bundyville. This podcast came highly recommended by a reader but as soon as Cliven Bundy opened his mouth to speak I realized I did not want to spend a single second of my life in this asshole’s ville or town or mind or anything. Maybe this makes me intolerant or incurious? Not sure I particularly care…there are worthier things I can choose spend my time on. (-)

Radiohead at TD Garden, 7/29/2018. I somehow won the Ticketmaster lottery and got floor tickets, so we were about 35 feet from the stage. Cool to see my favorite band that close. (A)

MFA Pastels

French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault, MFA Boston. I don’t have much experience with viewing pastels but these seemed simultaneously alive and dreamy. (A-)

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. One of our culture’s recent great storytellers. It’s dated (and cringeworthy) in places, but that Bourdain voice and perspective is right there on the page, almost fully formed. In the chapter about Tokyo, you also get to witness the prototype for Bourdain’s third and, arguably, greatest career as a culinary and cultural observer of far-flung places. Pro tip: get the audiobook read by the man himself. (A)

My new electric toothbrush. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this sooner? My teeth feel (and probably are) so much cleaner now! (A-)

Holedown. I’ve spent too many hours playing this. It sucks I hate it it’s so good and I can’t stopppppppp. (A-/D+)

David Wojnarowicz exhibition at the Whitney. A strong show about an artist I didn’t know a lot about going in. (B+)

The Problem We All Live With

Celebrating Bill Cunningham exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. The exhibition was in a small room and featured very few photographs, so I was a little disappointed. But I did get to see the Norman Rockwell/FDR exhibition, including this arresting painting. (B)

Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. Even though I have the book, the original photos were worth seeing in person. (B+)

Eighth Grade. The feelings generated by watching this film — dread, crushing anxiety — closely approximated how I felt attending 8th grade. Well played. (B+)

Sorry to Bother You. If you haven’t seen this, don’t watch or read anything about it before you do. Just watch it. (A-)

Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin. This had me thinking about all sorts of different things. Recommended. (A)

Succession. This wasn’t quite as good as everyone said it was, but I still enjoyed it. My tolerance for watching rich, powerful, white assholes, however entertaining, is waning though… (B)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Unsurprisingly more spare than the TV series but still powerful and unsparing. (A-)

The Dark Knight. If not the best superhero movie ever, it’s close. (A-)

Crazy Rich Asians. A romantic comedy with a strong dramatic element rooted in family & cultural dynamics, women who are strong & interesting & feminine in different ways, and a wondrous setting. Also, put Awkwafina in every movie from now on. (A-)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Fred Rogers was a relentless person, a fantastic example of a different kind of unyielding masculinity. I sobbed like a baby for the last 20 minutes of this. (A)

BlacKkKlansman. Messy. I didn’t really know what to feel about it when it ended…other than shellshocked. Was that the point? (B+)

Tycho’s 2018 Burning Man Sunrise DJ set. Always an end-of-the-summer treat. (A)

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I watched this movie at least 100 times in high school. Despite not having seen it in probably 20 years, I still knew every single line of dialogue — inflections, timing, the whole thing. (A+)

Foggy hikes. (A+)

American Animals. This is like Ocean’s 11 directed by Errol Morris. Stealing things is more difficult than it seems in the movies. (B+)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

A Relaxing Acrobatic Performance to Debussy’s Clair de Lune

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2018

Choreographer & acrobat Yoann Bourgeois and pianist Alexandre Tharaud have collaborated on a performance that combines a trampoline, a staircase, and Claude Debussy’s most famous composition, Clair de Lune. Even though I’ve seen a performance from Bourgeois before and knew what was coming, that first drop onto the trampoline was startling.

Three is a trend: slowly shredding some pow to classical music and Clair de Lune in the moonlight. (via @alexchabotl)

How Michael Jackson Made a Song

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2018

In Michael Jackson’s transition from child singer to the electrifying King of Pop, Evan Puschak argues that Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough from Off the Wall marked an inflection point. The song was a combination of the 70s sounds of funk & disco but mixed with other elements to make a pop hit that culturally belonged more to the 80s.

Tycho’s 2018 Burning Man DJ Set

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2018

Tycho just shared his sunrise DJ set from this year’s Burning Man.

This is going to be on repeat today and for the rest of the week. You can also check out his sets from 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014.

Stephen Colbert connects Chance the Rapper & Childish Gambino to the Lord of the Rings

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Stephen Colbert is a *huge* J.R.R. Tolkien nerd. When Rolling Stone asked the late night host to break a song down, he chose “Favorite Song” by Chance the Rapper (feat. Childish Gambino) and connected a verse in it to both Gilbert & Sullivan and Lord of the Rings.

Whether or not you know it, Chance and Childish, you wrote a song that includes in it this really kind of rare rhyme and rhythm scheme that Tolkien used in the poem that actually influences all of the rest of Lord of the Rings.

I wonder about the “rare” bit though…rappers packing songs with internal rhymes is not a new thing nor is referencing Gilbert & Sullivan in hip-hop. Still, this is superbly nerdy. (via craig)

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

NPR does this thing called Tiny Desk Concerts where they bring musicians and bands into the office to play behind a desk. Recent guests have included T.I., Erykah Badu, Dave Matthews, and the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma played selections from Bach’s suites for cello, which he’s been playing for almost 60 years, and talked about the value of incremental learning.

Why did Laurence Olivier return so often to Shakespeare’s Othello? Why did Ansel Adams keep photographing the Grand Canyon? Obsessed or awestruck, artists revisit great inspirations because they believe there is yet another story to tell — about life, about themselves.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his great inspiration, and in turn part of his own life story, to an enthusiastic audience packed around the Tiny Desk on a hot summer day. Ma is returning, yet again, to the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a Mount Everest for any cellist. He has just released his third studio recording of the complete set and is taking the music on a two-year, six-continent tour. Ma’s first recording of the Suites, released in 1983, earned him his first Grammy.

Amazingly, when Ma was only 7 years old, he played in a benefit concert for an audience that included President John F. Kennedy. Composer Leonard Bernstein introduced Ma, saying in part: “Now here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen. A seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots.”

Even though he’s only 62 years old, Ma is a great example of The Great Span in action, linking JFK and YouTube and Lil Buck together across seemingly disparate stretches of American history. When he plays a duet with the first virtuoso robotic cellist sometime in the next 20 years, Ma will have more than secured his spot in The Great Span Hall of Fame.

The original demo of Imagine by John Lennon

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

A demo version of Imagine, unheard for decades, was recently uncovered in an archive of Lennon audio tapes. You can listen to the beautifully spare rendition here:

While sifting through boxes upon boxes of the original tapes for Yoko Ono, engineer Rob Stevens discovered something truly remarkable that had gone unnoticed all these years. “Early 2016, during the gestation period of this project, I’m in the Lennon archives with my people going through tape boxes that have labeling that’s unclear, misleading, or missing entirely”, says Stevens. “There’s a one-inch eight-track that says nothing more on the ‘Ascot Sound’ label than John Lennon, the date, and the engineer (Phil McDonald), with DEMO on the spine. No indication of what material was on the tape. One delicate transfer to digital later, the “Imagine” demo, subsequently enhanced superbly by Paul Hicks, appears within this comprehensive set. It was true serendipity.”

Compare it to the remastered studio version and a live version.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

I could definitely get into that. For those unwilling to imagine no possessions, the demo, along with several others, appears on a collection coming out in the fall: preorder on Amazon or iTunes. (via @tedgioia)

Grandmaster Flash built his first mixer using parts from Radio Shack

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2018

Hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash grew up in the Bronx and attended a public vocational high school. There he learned how to fix electronics. He was also into music — his father had a huge record collection. In this video, Flash talks about how he combined those two interests and built his first mixer using parts he bought at Radio Shack.

Grandmaster Flash was tinkerer and a hacker. There were commercially available mixers at the time; he built his own. He absorbed the nascent music culture developing around him and twisted it to his own ends, developing new mixing techniques like beat juggling. He perfected scratching and brought it to a wider audience.

Any scientist, engineer, or artist would recognize the process at work here, how tightly coupled the development of new technology and fresh ideas is. Club DJs wanted a way to transition from one record to another without missing a beat, so the mixer was invented. Once that technology existed, people started using mixers to do things other than their initial purpose. New tech begat new ideas begat new tech, the adjacent possible expanding all the while, until a curious kid who dabbled in electronics and was obsessed with music came along and helped invent hip hop, the most culturally significant movement of the past 40 years. (via kelli anderson)

Aretha Franklin’s soul roots and gospel power

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

In this video for Vox, Estelle Caswell explores Aretha Franklin’s unique blend of pop, soul, and gospel, particularly in her cover songs and live performances.

Aretha Franklin will always be the Queen of Soul. In the 1960s songs like “Respect” became the symbol for political and social change. It’s likely the reason her music moved so many people wasn’t necessarily the lyrics, but the way she delivered them.

Aretha was raised in the church, and her life and music was rooted in gospel music. You can hear this so clearly in her live performances and covers, where every musical decision she made was in the moment.

Listen to any one of Aretha’s songs and you’ll understand the power of gospel music, but her live performance of “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “Son of a preacher man” are a great place to start.

Holy moly, what a voice.

Detroit’s own Queen: Aretha Franklin at history’s crossroads

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Detroit Free Press - Aretha Franklin.jpg

There are many very fine obituaries and appreciations of Aretha Franklin, who passed away this week at 76. I have two favorites.

The first is a whip-crack of an essay by the New York Times’s Wesley Morris that, better than most, taps into Franklin’s own musical energies.

Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym. Obviously, she was far more than that. We’re never going to have an artist with a career as long, absurdly bountiful, nourishing and constantly surprising as hers. We’re unlikely to see another superstar as abundantly steeped in real self-confidence — at so many different stages of life, in as many musical genres….

The song owned the summer of 1967. It arrived amid what must have seemed like never-ending turmoil — race riots, political assassinations, the Vietnam draft. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his championship title for refusing to serve in the war. So amid all this upheaval comes a singer from Detroit who’d been around most of the decade doing solid gospel R&B work. But there was something about this black woman’s asserting herself that seemed like a call to national arms. It wasn’t a polite song. It was hard. It was deliberate. It was sure.

The second essay, for NPR by dream hampton, “Black People Will Be Free’: How Aretha Lived The Promise Of Detroit,” is more slowly wound, and less about the music than the time and place that produced Franklin and in which she flourished. It bleeds like a wound, a wound the size of a city, where the Industrial Revolution met the Great Migration and became the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s impossible to talk about Aretha without talking about her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. Born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Franklin began preaching and soul singing as a teenager. Just after World War II, he, like so many black Southerners who were fleeing racial terror and looking for work, found himself in Detroit. Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, called him a “preacher’s preacher.” And when Franklin died from gunshot wounds after being robbed in his home in 1979, Mayor Young said his “leadership of the historic freedom march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by his side in June of 1963 — and involving some 125,000 people — provided the prototype for Dr. King’s successful march in Washington later that summer.”

It is important to understand the tradition of black liberation theology, a term coined by James H. Cone, that sought to use scripture to center black self-determination. In Detroit, pastors like C.L. Franklin and Albert Cleage of the Shrine of the Black Madonna used black liberation theology to help a growing black city to imagine itself powerful. They used their churches to launch the campaign of Detroit’s black political class, including Coleman Young. At the same time, Rev. Franklin’s church remained a touch point for even more radical organizing. He opened New Bethel to black auto workers who were waging a class struggle within a racist United Automobile Workers union. He gave shelter to Black Panthers who were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against them. Later leaders of the fractured Black Power movement like the late Jackson, Miss. mayor (and Detroit native) Chokwe Lumumba gathered at New Bethel to form the Republic of New Afrika.

A new sound rooted in older sounds; a new politics rooted in older politics; a new, triumphant individualism rooted in the liberation of entire communities. In all these things, Aretha stood at the crossroads of history. Maybe no one else could have done it.

How constraints lead to creativity: making music for Super Nintendo games

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

In this short video, Evan Puschak talks about how music is made for Super Nintendo games. That system was first released in 1990 and the audio chips could only hold 64 KB of information, only enough room for beeps, boops, and very short samples. But composers like David Wise, whose soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country series of games is on many lists of the best video game music, were able to make the SNES sing despite its limited capabilities.