Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Best Christmas Song

Very few songs have joined the Pop Christmas Canon in the last forty years with only two at present being considered for inclusion, in my estimation: The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” and Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” Both differ from most of the other songs in the oeuvre by the fact that neither can be remotely called a happy song: in Fairytale, a couple wistfully recounts their unraveling relationship—and their careers and lives as well—amidst the glory around them that is Christmas in New York City. In the “Same Old Au Sang Lyne,” the protagonist runs into an old flame in a convenience store on Christmas eve and they polish off a six-pack in his car while reminiscing.

Both have had a tremendous impact on me—soon after getting married I dragged my wife to New York for Christmas Eve, looking in vain for the NYPD Choir but still managing to have a romantic holiday just the same. And well before we married I took a woman on Christmas Eve to the same convenience store where Dan Fogelberg ran into his ex-beau (yet another advantage of being from Peoria) and split a six-pack in the parking lot just as they did.

But I have my own new nomination for enshrinement into the canon: Snow Day by the group Matt Pond PA.
To call a three minute pop song Shakespearian risks mockery but I am laying my cards on the table: Snow Day is a profound meditation on love and age and faith that slowly unspools in the context of the aftermath of a snowstorm.
The song begins with a familiar trope: recounting the sensory pleasures of walking in a storm with a partner when few others are present.While it’s not exactly original, it is nevertheless satisfying and we can all relate to the silence and calm that a fresh coating of snow instills.

These aren’t a couple of millennials walking around in Williamsburg, looking for the newest speakeasy—this is a couple with some years and a history together, old enough to feel the effects of advancing age. Putting “decaying” at the end of the line may appear at first glance to be merely a way to set up a rhyme but decaying isn’t automatically an adverb here. It’s an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, done in an understated way. And it completely works.Not only have they become old but they’ve become old together, and figured out some essential truths about life and love and faith along the way.However, a few stanzas later it suddenly becomes clear that the song is really about something more elemental.

Rock-and-Roll

Joe Hagan has written what promises to be the standard biography of Jann Wenner—standard, because it’s hard to imagine anyone working up the energy to take another stab at it. Fifty years ago, at the age of 21, Wenner founded Rolling Stone magazine, and he’s been editor in chief ever since. Thanks to the anniversary, he has lately been much in the news. Not only has Hagan’s very long biography appeared, but so has a coffee-table book, 50 Years of Rolling Stone, a slab of self-congratulation recounting the magazine’s most celebrated articles and writers, with a not-humble introduction by Wenner. He has made the rounds on the chat shows, morning and evening. HBO, meanwhile, is airing a two-part, four-hour documentary, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, produced by Wenner and codirected by the gifted left-wing documentarian Alex Gibney. Altogether it is enough commotion to cause the average consumer of media to rear back and ask: “But why?”

As it happens, there are at least two answers to that question. One is that Wenner possesses superhuman powers of self-promotion. In the journalism business, it is usually the writers who leap onstage to gyrate and shimmy in hopes of pleasing an indifferent public, while their editors keep shyly to the shadows, feigning modesty and smoldering with envy. Not our Jann. He has made himself more famous than all but a handful of his writers; the rest bear on their backs the skid marks from his powder-blue 1963 Porsche 1600-N Cabriolet.

The other answer is this: Wenner was a genuinely great editor, and as with all great editors his magazine was an extension of his ambitions and enthusiasms. Rolling Stone and its founder are worth attending to, if not celebrating, because for two or three decades the magazine served as the most articulate promoter of the 1960s counterculture in all its guises: sexual, political, musical, and artistic. By now, of course, the counterculture has dropped the “counter” and assumed dominance over every significant American institution short of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Wenner’s instincts told him where everybody was headed, whether they knew it or not, and he hopped to the front of the parade. As a result he became not only famous but rich—and not just rich but shamelessly, ostentatiously rich, a man who enjoyed his filthy lucre perhaps a bit too much. (The powder-blue Porsche was just the beginning.)

And many of his early allies, who once considered him a fellow radical, have never forgiven him for it. Hagan, a magazine writer who once interned for Wenner, seems as preoccupied with the ebbs and flows of his subject’s net worth as Wenner is. It’s said that most biographers come to loathe their subjects sooner or later, on the principle that no man is a hero to his valet, and the trick is for them to claw their way back to some measure of toleration, if not affection or respect. Hagan fell into contempt and couldn’t climb out. Aside from an occasional nod to his editorial gifts, the biographer never gives Wenner an even break.

A quick flip through the index shows the story as Hagan wants to tell it.

Frank Ocean Triumphs Without Even Trying

Frank Ocean offered two vital and contradictory performances in 2017. On the main stage, he once more played the guy sitting this one out—there he was, canceling headlining performances at major festivals around the world, ghosting on expectant audiences. If he did appear, he was wearing headphones, sometimes sitting down, and avoiding all eye contact: He didn’t cultivate a crowd so much as gather eavesdroppers. This is a maddening standby of his, one his fans depend on even as it denies them a chance to be near their hero. Without his serene indifference to stardom and any of its attendant demands, he wouldn’t be their hero.

Surprise music drops are old news in pop music by now, but Frank made the technique feel like an extension of his persona—insouciant and bored, a rich kid handing you the keys to his Porsche because he never drives it. Taken together, the songs feel like fragments of a whole, perhaps an EP he left in water until it broke apart and spread. They are of a piece, thematically and musically, taking the muted, glimmering murmur of Blonde into newer, freer spaces, with the borders left unshaded, and entire arrangements hinted at with a few sounds. They might not be his most resonant songs, or the most anthemic. But they are the purest distillation yet of his gnomic and enormous talent, which remains allergic to big statements, manifesting itself only in sidelong glances and digressions.

With these songs, he allows himself to doodle in public: The drum track on “Chanel” sounds like two distracted palms slapping on a desk, maybe one holding a pen—a simple noise, made from whatever’s available. The piano chords surrounding it are so faint they are barely audible. He approaches the song’s melody in a similarly offhand fashion, treating the four notes of the chorus like a drunk driver trying to veer around hazard cones. Imagine someone humming a once-loved, now-forgotten song to themselves, or the kind of off-key whistling you might do to puncture a tense moment; that’s the emotional register that most of his music happens in now.

Rapsody On Coexisting In Rap’s Power Gap

In music and the culture it reflects, 2017 was predictably unpredictable: idols fell, empires shook, consensus was scarce. This conversation is one of five with artists, makers and thinkers whose work captured something unique about a chaotic year, and hinted at bigger revelations around the bend.

On the morning I call Rapsody, two weeks before her album Laila’s Wisdom is to be nominated for a best rap album Grammy, she’s still in bed after a late night putting in work at the recording studio in Raleigh, N.C. “I usually get a little tea and honey to start my day,” she says. It doesn’t strike me as the makings of a typical power breakfast. Then again, Rapsody has become quite adept at challenging how power is perceived in 2017.

With Laila’s Wisdom — her sophomore album and first since partnering with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, named for a grandmother who insisted on getting her flowers while she was alive to smell them — Rapsody conveys a dimensionality that’s rare in a genre where flat characters abound. She rhymes tough but tender, philosophical and flirtatious, vulnerable yet aggressive, both in and out of love, while remaining lyrical at every turn. “Power,” the lead single featuring Kendrick Lamar, is propelled by a grinding bass line, over which Rapsody deconstructs the conceit of power from a feminine perspective: “The power of the dussy make a grown man cry / The day I came up out my momma I saw a grown man cry.”
It’s a fitting metaphor for a year in which women have made considerable headway in hip-hop, even as abuses of authority by powerful men in entertainment are exposed almost daily. The music industry gender gap remains wide, and the litmus test for signing, marketing and promoting female rappers still often bends to a scale of desirability — or lumps them in a category unto themselves, away from the center of the culture. Three days after the release of Laila’s Wisdom, Cardi B’s powerhouse anthem “Bodak Yellow” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100; online, fans expressed fear that Cardi’s outsize success might overshadow Rapsody’s long-awaited breakthrough. Rapsody herself, however, wasn’t worried: “You had Cardi reaching No. 1 — that was a moment that should be celebrated. I also have this album that’s critically acclaimed and people love it. We can celebrate these two together at the same time, for totally different reasons,” she says. “It happens with men all the time.”During our conversation, Rapsody is effusive about the men who have stood in her corner. She was the only woman in the hip-hop collective Kooley High when acclaimed producer and fellow North Carolina native 9th Wonder deemed her worthy of solo success. Today she’s the flagship artist of his Jamla record label, where she counts director of operations (and Jay-Z’s long-time engineer) Young Guru among her mentors. Kendrick Lamar featured her on his own landmark album, To Pimp a Butterfly. And, she says, men are the majority of her fanbase by a longshot. In an industry full of paradoxes around gendered performance — including the persistent fallacy that there’s only room for one woman at a time in rap’s stratosphere — what’s most striking about Rapsody’s contribution to hip-hop this year is her determination to coexist without compromise.