Friday, June 17, 2005

Dangerman



Watch out, ladies! Jerry Lee's divorce is final and anyone could be Wife Number Seven. Yes, there's only been six. To be honest, I thought he was under suspicion of foul play for that many in addition to the two or three known survivors.

Few can surpass the Killer's career in scandal or in mystifying turns of fate. Cousin love that blazed new trails in tabloid outrage. The improbable late 1960s comeback as a country artist. Taking "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," one of America's most famous songs by one of America's most famous singers, and making it his own. The marriage misadventures. The turn as Iago on the stage. The classic "misunderstanding" at the gates of Graceland that ended with the Killer jail-bound the same night his dad (Elmo, no less) was bailed out. And speaking of Graceland, let us not forget the words pulled from Lewis's soul circa 1977:

"I was glad [when Presley died]. Just another one out of the way. I mean, Elvis this, Elvis that. All we hear is Elvis. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn't get ahold of?"

In a world more absurd (and just) than our own, Jerry Lee would be recording the duets with Jessica Simpson, for the expiration date on his dignity expired long ago. No good could come of pairing a blanc slurp du jour with such smoldering depravity. Indeed, even her towering mediocrity could not resist the gaze of the Pentecostal Janus, the Christ/Satan of legend. Nay. She would emerge from the hellfire in his eyes reborn and momentarily interesting. Such are the Killer's powers even in decline. Do you doubt that you should hide your helpless wives and daughters?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Take the glove off

The oft-meandering Kelefa Sanneh of the NYT ponders Michael Jackson's next album, Okay, Call It A Comeback:

In a pop era dominated by fleshy young stars, Mr. Jackson is a fleshless old one, a ghost who's hard to hate but also hard to love. As Mr. Jackson plots his inevitable comeback attempt, he may well find that this public ambivalence is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability.

As Jay-Z and many other accused celebrities have shown us, the best way to survive a public scandal is through swagger: act as if you're not bothered by your sins and your fans will eagerly play along. That's the slightly counterintuitive strategy that helped put Mr. Kelly back on top even before his trial started.

I think we're talking about a little different brand of scandal here.

Criminal behavior has a long and storied tradition in popular music stretching back to the early years. Jerry Lee Lewis' child bride and Sam Cooke's unfortunate night in a hotel room are but two famous examples. Musicians' drug use ceased to be a scandal in the 1960s; coming across the stories of excess in a books about the Rolling Stones may inspire laughter, but not outrage.

Not to justify R. Kelly's behavior, but if every musician who ever cavorted with teenaged girls went to jail, we'd have to turn Manhattan Island into the penitentiary in Escape From New York. If times are changing, good. My point is, the public is used to Kelly's kind of misbehavior, and has been since shortly after the Killer took up with Winona Ryder. Gang violence, time as a low-level drug-dealer, Bobby Brown's ongoing problems—face it, on the outrage scale all of it together registers less than a political comment by a Dixie Chick.

Child molestation, though? A different matter entirely. That's the deepest, darkest shit in American culture. There's a reason pedophiles don't last long in a prison's general population. Whether Michael Jackson has ever done anything criminal or not—and some writers are convinced he's across-the-board innocent—he's facing life as an accused child molester. That's a stigma even celebrity can't remove. And let's not forget it's a rep he's battled (in vain) for over a decade a now.

It may be that his audience is so huge that he can reach out to the tiny percentage of true believers and still move 500,000 units. Hell, maybe even a million. But his days as a significant pop culture figure—long over anyway—are through. Nothing can save him, not whatever talent he has left, not any campaign his label's marketing department can come up with. (Talk about a challenge.) As the Times article notes, only 24% of those polled described their reaction as "outraged." That suggests Jackson has a chance. In all likelihood, though, it really registers fatigue in the respondents. Media saturation makes many of us give-a-shit.

Oh, the loving mobs of Thailand and Japan no doubt await him. Perhaps in ten years his Thriller years will get a nostalgia moment. But he's not coming back.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The other MJ

Money talks, baby. Take it away, Slate:
"I'm your daddy," Jackson wrote to the boy accusing him in a note read at the trial. "I'm very happy to be your daddy. Blanket, Prince Michael Jr., and Paris are your brothers and sister. Love, your daddy."

I'd forgotten the child named Blanket. Any other person, this sticks in your mind. Michael Jackson? Not even in the Top 100.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Little Q & A

The phrase "...best Stones album since Some Girls" has served lazy music critics well over the past twenty-five years. Back in the early Nineties, Chicago Reader rock writer Bill Wyman—not that Bill Wyman—wrote an excellent early goof on that back-handed line of praise. At the time I believe "best Stones album..." was being applied to Voodoo Lounge, an album less significant than what's on sale at the counter of the average truck stop.

Many of us have appropriated the phrase for use in everyday life. For example, "Revenge of the Sith is the best Lucas film since Some Girls," or, "These are the best nachos since Some Girls." Despite the phrase's passage into the realm of cliche, however, what it implies is generally accepted: the last great (or even good) Stones album was Some Girls.

But what was the last great (or even good) Stones single?

The Rogers Park Correspondent:

"It has to—HAS TO—be 'Start Me Up.' And funny thing, it comes from Tattoo You—an album that I always thought was BETTER than Some Girls. Anyway, for proof, they often still OPEN with that song. You can't say the same for 'Harlem Shuffle.' Also, when they announce their latest tours and ineluctably play a two or three songs for the Press, 'Start Me Up' is one of them, along with 'Brown Sugar' and 'Honkeytonk Woman.'"

I too would pull from the much-underrated Tattoo You and submit "Waiting On A Friend," a song with a surprisingly affecting lead vocal and the wry sense of humor the Stones once used so well as a change-up. Nice sax, too. (And the 45 had "Little T & A" on the B-side—good music at bargain rates!) Like most of Tattoo You, the song had sat around awhile. Since 1972, according to one source. They had "Waiting on a Friend" and "Slave" in the can for years and somehow released Emotional Rescue without either!

This is not to suggest the Stones made no good singles after Tattoo You. It is to STATE IT UNEQUIVOCALLY. "She Was Hot" is okay. I have a soft spot for Keith's solo "Take It So Hard." But otherwise the post-1981 singles are by the numbers, and not Who By Numbers, either. "Harlem Shuffle." "Mixed Emotions." "Highwire." Sigh. It's almost perverse the Stones even feel the need to put out new albums (and new singles) to support their blockbuster oldies tours. Then again, the Stones know from perversity.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Danger zone

I have a spot for Kenny Loggins in—well, not in my heart, exactly. But he's lodged in some organ or another, and word that he and Jim Messina intend to tour this summer helped me recall how one of the true Cursed Men of 1980s Culture wormed his way in there.

Years ago, I was involved with a woman of musical bent. For the sake of anonymity, let's just say she made her living at it. She loved Led Zeppelin. She loved a few others things I won't go into. But she also loved Kenny Loggins, enough to pay cash money—American dollars, not lira—to see him perform.

The way I express opinions on popular music in 2005 is muted compared to those days. Then I believed with evangelical fervor that if others could see the satanic majesty of the likes of Kenny Loggins—and Huey Lewis, and Warrant, and Tracy Chapman—that America could be saved. When I should've been wondering how to smother the sitting president's drunken ne'er-do-well son with a pillow!

This was the early Nineties. As far as I know, Messina could've been off looking for the Yeti. But Loggins had spent the previous decade recording a series of one-off hits even more toxic to our culture than the Unbearable Lightness of Michael Douglas. We should've heard alarms in the late 1970s, when Loggins somehow got Stevie Nicks to duet on "Whenever I Call You Friend." The most recognizable member of one of the world's hottest bands, flying to New York for what? Certainly not good coke. They had plenty of that in California.

Who can know the truth behind such strange celebrity alliances? But clearly, someone should've broken out the Pillow of Smothering then.

The teaming was a tuneful masterpiece, though, when compared to Loggins' movie work. We'll give a pass to "I'm All Right" from Caddyshack, as the song brings memories of the movie, and the movie was genius. But science has no instruments to measure the relative awfulness of "Footloose" against "Danger Zone (Theme from Top Gun)." To plumb those depths twice in a few years—wow. Though Kenny had one thing right: if you're gonna slum to make the house payment, brother, make sure it's a big motherfuckin' house.

I had spoken up along these lines before my friend told me she planned to attend a Kenny Loggins concert. Mind you, I have sat through concerts for the sake of romance since then, and many times. Not so then. Too young, was I, and sadly ignorant of her feelings. Anyway, during the conversation, she mentioned that Loggins had done the movie work for the reason most people (me included) pimp for The Man: freedom. One "Danger Zone" pretty much funded his lesser-selling but more sincere albums for ... well, forever.

The woman wisely did not let me get in the way. She attended the show and had a good time.

I am sure Loggins, unlike me, remains a part of her life. Given what she had to deal with regarding me, she chose the right guy.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

You don't know Jack

As mentioned yesterday, Chicago now has its own outlet for The Jack—the anarchy in the U.S.-flavored radio format that purports to play anything. An outbreak of Jack hit nationwide over the weekend, so perhaps your town now has such a station, too. Search the radio dial! In the meantime, a few first impressions:

Oldies are goldies

As in other Jack formats, the station goes heavy on the old hits—old being the Seventies through the Nineties. That would be okay if they only skipped the Eighties. It would be more okay if a little more contemporary music got thrown in, as with sister format The Bob. (Trust me, I feel ridiculous typing these monikers.) A few hours of here-and-there unscientific listening suggests the Jack intends to toss out some songs from the twenty-first century, but only the tried and true already-overplayed megahits need apply. Think Outkast’s "Hey Ya!" and Liz Phair’s "Why Can’t I?"

Why use an asshole motif in your promos (Lucky Town)?

The Jack’s canned announcer is a blatant knock-off of the voice doing similar duty on Nine FM, our other "We Play Anything" station. Not a biggie. When it comes to radio, imitation isn’t a form of flattery—it’s the sole source of (so-called) inspiration. But, oh, how much tone says. The Nine’s guy sounds vaguely like a dork. A friendly dork, however. The Jack decided—I think—on irony. Their voice, alas, comes across as a self-satisfied prick. Yeah, that’ll rope ‘em in.

Why use an asshole motif in your promos (Human Touch)?

The Jack’s promos push two points over and over: (1) We play what we want; (2) No requests, and don’t even think of making one.

Let’s contemplate the No Requests rule. This must be a marketing decision made at the executive level. It is my guess that the brains behind The Jack have data that suggests its fans don’t wish to hear voices of Da Common Folk on the radio. Quite frankly, if any of the data comes from listeners of the oldies station (WJMK) that once occupied its place on the band, I can understand. On occasion I listened to the lunchtime request show. What can I say? "Ode to Billy Joe" really makes me think. But the conversations between the jock and listeners—well, you think you cringe at the sight of scorpions? This could bring on seizure.

Thanks to the voice on the promos, though, this comes across vaguely as, "We’re placing a very high priority on not listening to your uninformed opinions." An alternate interpretation might be, "Fuck off and die." Well, okay, "Fuck off and listen."

But thank God we have another station that plays "Invisible Touch."

Update: Chicago Tribune writer Eric Zorn sums it up:

So this aging boomer is thrilled that `JMK has adopted this new “Jack-FM” format, which, near as I can tell, has replaced “Songs You Are Sick Of” with “Songs You Are Not (Yet) Sick Of.

When you walk on by

I hate The Breakfast Club in all tenses—hate, hated, will hate. From the moment I paid money to find out what a friend said was "The only realistic teen-ager movie," to more organized thoughts later on that John Hughes was an antichrist, I have advocated—always while intoxicated, the only time I talk about The Breakfast Club—that the film does not deserve a place in my generation’s nostalgia.

Ally Sheedy played the only character who approached any archetype I ever saw at my schools. Estevez was far too clean cut for a wrestler, for let's face it, the prep wrestling squad is the refuge of stoners and alcoholics with upper-body strength. Ye Gods, I could complain enough to crash Blogger. The wise janitor. The "it changed their lives forever" tag line. The U2-derivative theme song turned down by Chrissie Hynde but scooped up by her then-husband. I’m getting hives just looking at the IMDB. Cusack in the Judd Nelson role? Well, at least I would’ve killed myself in the first twenty minutes.

As the world knows by now, MTV reunited part of the cast over the weekend. At first I saw the photo and thought, "Kiefer didn’t show up?" Then I remembered I always confuse Kiefer Sutherland and Emilio Estevez. Revising, I thought, "Emilio didn’t show up?" He didn’t, apparently. Judd seems to have passed, too.

To show I can be positive, let me end on a high note. I am happy to say the one great part of the film has endured. Molly Ringwald’s mouth is still supernaturally magnificent.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The perils of anything

Friday afternoon, longtime local oldies station WJMK-FM at last abandoned its twice-daily airings of "Baby Love." It’s place on the band has thrown in with the hot "Play Anything" anti-format, under the moniker "The Jack." From a quick reading of the wires, The Jack has landed in other places as well. But the early reading of the chicken organs—i.e. listening to the station—reveals potentially grim omens.

First a word about WJMK. Inoffensive, predictable, venturing off the 300-song playlist only at the behest of lunchtime requesters pulled from the Common People—that was WJMK. In recent years it had quit playing Fifties music at all, consigning Little Richard and Buddy Holly and "Alley Oop" to that narrow part of the AM band where Sinatra maintains a toehold. In its defense, though, WJMK had gotten better in recent months, or so it seemed to me when I (occasionally) tuned in. What's interesting is that by all accounts the station made money. The reporting makes it sound like Infinity Broadcasting blew up reliable cashflow for a still-unproven format. Obviously, they believe.

The eclipse of WJMK comes as the Play Anything idea infiltrates stations up and down the dial. Recently our alternative rocker began to sneak a few Eighties and Nineties memories into its mix. From what I’m hearing, the number has now passed "a few." Not far away, the dismal adult contemporary stop—a station that at any rate never gave up on Blues Traveler—is in on the act. If this continues, The Jack format (so named for the station that developed it) will be the most successful Canadian import since totem poles.

The realignment comes in answer to Nine FM—slogan "We Play Anything"—a mini-Justice League of three low-profile stations and the pioneer for the format in Chicago. Considering the response by other stations, Nine FM must’ve achieved respectability, or at least triple-digit numbers of listeners.

There is an irony here. The town’s oldest oldies station has adopted the format. Yet after a promisingly anarchical debut, Nine FM has backslid into being … an oldies station.

Advocates of the format celebrate its potential for train wreck team-ups. That is, the dynamic/surreal mashing of, say, "Black Hole Sun" and "I Will Survive" with a Franz Ferdinand chaser. Nine FM began with just such a vibe. Of late, however, the contemporary music—the real engine of dynamism in such a format—has fallen by the wayside, as if to underline those emerging critics who claim Anything is a mere updating of the oldies formula, albeit one that lets stations revive the 1990s and, more sadly, the decade that preceded it.

Much is made of the fact the format reflects the iPodization of our music habits. The web site for The Jack even says, "Just listen, it's like your iPod on shuffle." Except that many heavy users of iPods—just at a guess I would say most—download a fair share of new music onto their wondrous little machines.

Granted, Nine FM never dug deep into the contemporary scene. Even the top-tier of alternative acts, bands with a following and a history—Sigur Ros, Sleater-Kinney, Belle & Sebastian, to name three—went without play. But the station did put on big crossovers like the Flaming Lips and White Stripes in addition to a fair amount of what All the Kids Are Listening To. In a medium as imagination-deprived as American radio, this qualifies as groundbreaking, in the same way that your dad giving up wearing socks with sandals is groundbreaking.

On Nine FM, alas, the flirtation with the contemporary seems to be passing. Not only guitar bands, mind you, but Snoop and other (popular) hip-hop artists. Such acts now appear confined to theme-oriented shows like Saturday night’s "One Groove," a stew heavy on hip-hop and reggae. During the day, though, the songs shuffled on the musical iPod more and more predate this century.

That’s a negative development. Very negative. Sure, hearing The La’s is a great experience. Hearing it thrown up against Foreigner is funny. For about five seconds. Then you’re stuck with four more minutes of Foreigner. That, friends, is nothing to laugh about.

The Anything format doesn’t need to tighten up. For Christ’s sake, that’s all radio does now. Let Anything mean anything, even if it lets Shania Twain in the door. Okay, we cannot realistically expect radio to delve too deeply into contemporary music. But it can go deeper. That does us all a service by exposing people to new sounds. If that na├»ve dream is not enough, radio execs, think this thought: stretching the playlist heightens the anticipation of what might come next. If nothing else, Anything should aim at creating that moment—over and over again. To do so, it needs more than oldies.

The Anything format represents hope for those three dozen of us who still listen to music on the radio. But there’s danger here, cherie, danger that the buzz generated by Anything will encourage programmers to allow something that ought to be inclusive to harden into A Format—unmovable, uncreative, and dreadful. Late last week, I served some late-night time on Nine FM. Having asked for water, I was given gasoline—Rupert Holmes’ "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." But you assume that risk with the "We Play Anything" gang. I bore up. A night or two later I heard Nazareth’s version of "Love Hurts," and at loud volume, as it is a song I have an embarrassing affection for. In short, business-as-usual on Nine FM.

Friday evening, just hours into its format change, the new Jack offering played "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." Rupert Holmes is funny once every decade, but only once. Not long after, what came on but Nazareth’s "Love Hurts"?

I fear this was no coincidence.