Michael Jackson is Back. But For How Long?

Johnny Loftus

After the wholesale failures of HIStory and Dangerous, and his increasing reliance on foreign sales receipts to purchase Neverland’s animal feed, it seemed unlikely that Michael Jackson would ever again rise to Thriller levels in the hearts, minds, and dancing feet of Americans. In fact, Jackson’s tenuous grip to his King of Pop throne was seemingly strengthened only by screaming throngs of Japanese schoolgirls (always an impressionable lot — remember, this is the same demographic that went rabid for teen albums by Alyssa Milano and Alanis Morrissette…) and the occasional US fan who, most likely, was also an avid watcher of “Wings” and “Coach” — two long-running sitcoms that no one ever admitted to actually viewing. Nevertheless, Invincible, the latest unassumingly-titled effort by Michael Jackson — and his first new studio album since 1992 — will debut at #1 on next week’s Billboard chart, bolstered by first-week sales of over 360,000 units. Taking into consideration the prevailing cultural view of Jackson as a guy just a few slices short of a loaf, his new album’s early success might suggest it a new name — Inconceivable.

Even his stable of high-priced producers admit the difficulty in navigating the hills and valleys of Jackson’s oeuvre to discover the trail to success with today’s youth. “It’s real weird to see a new generation accepting Mike,” said Rodney Jerkins, guru producer of Brandy, Britney, and now The Gloved One. “That was the mission for all of us [while making the album]: ‘How do we get the younger kids?'” And Jerkins didn’t mess around. His beats for Invincible’s lead single “You Rock My World” find Michael Hee-Hee’ing and Shah-mon’ing over a punchy backing track and a great mid-song loop that will definitely blow up in the clubs. And yet, if you dropped Blu Cantrell or R.Kelly vocals onto the track, it would be just as successful. Despite the best efforts of Jerkins and his hotshot mates, there’s nothing in Jackson’s new work that is as seamless as his 80s heyday. An invisible barrier separates Michael’s trademark MS-DOS vocal delivery from his albums’ Windows XP production techniques, making communication between the two impossible. The hype is in place, sure. There’s a longform music video with big Hollywood stars and extended dance moves. Chris Tucker stops by for a skit or two. And there’s a promotional budget that overtakes the GNP of Finland. But at the heart of it all is a frail-looking eccentric who — whether by his excesses or idiosyncrasies, scandals or disappearing acts — has distanced himself from, er, himself, as well as the American Pop audience.

There’s a pained look in George W Bush’s eyes when he addresses “the ‘maircun people.” He puts on a brave face and makes a go of it, but you get the feeling that he’d rather be back at the D.C. Hooters, pounding hot wings and grabbing waitresses’ asses. It’s similar with Michael Jackson. He’s appeared on the VMAs, TRL, concert specials, and has even waved to his fans (seriously — where did they all come from?) in Times Square. But watching his expression shift from grimace, to sweet smile, to glazed fear, and back to bashful grimace, you can’t shake the notion that The King of Pop would much rather be feeding the goats back at Neverland, or at least hanging out in ultra-moderne downtown Tokyo, where even a swan-clad Bjork wouldn’t get a second look.

He might not have to worry about it much longer.

Invincible‘s big daddy status might not last longer than a few weeks. Britney’s shitstorm of a new album will likely sucker punch Jackson with a giant boxing glove shaped like a dollar sign. After all, Jive Records/Spears have at least as much money as Michael, and they didn’t have to pay off Tito to appear on that Jackson 5 reunion special. It will be interesting to see how long Jackson’s newfound connection to today’s record-buying youth lasts. Because even when he tries to be, Michael just isn’t like the other guys.

Jam on it.


A taste of honey…

If there are folks out there who would like their first legitimate, high-quality taste of Wilco’s unreleased masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, you should get your ass to your local newsstand and pick up a copy of the November issue of Jane Magazine. Make sure you get a copy with the enclosed CD, because it contains “I’m the Man Who Loves You” in all of its glory. This will be of interest to Wilco fans who are obsessive collectors who need to own every single item that has anything to do with Wilco. It should also appeal to audiophiles who are not satisfied with the fidelity of the MP3 files that have been floating around the internet (even encoded at 192 kbps, mp3s still don’t sound perfect).

Plus, Jane Magazine rocks.

Jane was founded and is edited by Sassy creator, Jane Pratt, who is a really cool chick. My wife has been subscribed to Jane forever, and I’ve always said that it reads like a Grand Royal magazine for girls. Or women. Or whatever. But it’s not gender exclusive. There’s smart, funny writing that really stands out in the “women’s magazine” genre. I flip through a lot of Allures, In Styles, Teen Peoples, and Glamours on the crapper and Jane is the only one that I don’t leave on the bathroom floor when I’m done. Even Vogue with its great movie reviews has let me down recently. All those other magazines really seem to have an overwhelming disrespect for women at their core, but not Jane. Jane rocks.

The CD contains lots of cool songs besides Wilco, including tracks by the Beta Band, the Silver Jews, Faith Evans, and lots of artists I’d never heard of before. This is a good thing for me because I really feel like I’m losing touch and losing interest in what’s happening these days in music. I don’t want to be one of those old men who only listens to the bands I listened to when I was 19, so I appreciate the exposure to shit I would never hear otherwise.

I truly do love rock and roll

Okay, that’s it. I can no longer defend her. In a cleverly annotated transcript of a dial-an-interview with Britney Spears, Jim DeRogatis reveals that she doesn’t know where Elvis is from and doesn’t know who originally made “I Love Rock N’ Roll” famous. In case you’re wondering, the answers are Tupelo, Mississippi (although Memphis would be acceptable, and even preferred by some) and Joan fucking Jett and the fucking Blackhearts. I could’ve forgiven her thinking Elvis was from Las Vegas. Maybe she just misspoke, and who really cares anyway? I think it’s really cool that she’s dressed in a white bedazzled jumpsuit for her HBO special in Las Vegas. That’s fine. That’s clever. It’s cute. I like it.

But don’t fuck with Joan Jett.

If I were in charge, I would publicly execute anyone who thought that “I Love Rock N’ Roll” was a Pat Benatar song. I’m serious. That would be the Law, and the Law would be very strictly enforced. I might even make people answer that question before they could get their drivers license, vote, or open a bank account.

I realize that Ms. Jett did not write that song, but it’s her song as much as “Jailhouse Rock” or “Viva Las Vegas” belong to Elvis. And Pat Benatar sucks. If you’ve ever heard her cover of “Just Like Me” by Paul Revere and the Raiders, you know I’m 100% right about this. We’ve discussed this issue before, and it sickens me to have to acknowledge it myself. Oh Britney, my Britney, why hast thou forsaken me?

I saw him dancin’ there by the record machine

I knew he must a been about seventeen

The beat was goin’ strong

Playin’ my favorite song

An’ I could tell it wouldn’t be long

Till he was with me, yeah me

The Art of Writing

A question of the relative (de)merits of so-called “art rock” was raised earlier on this site. The comments excoriating the genre were posted with the degree of fervor that had been anticipated. One observation can be made from the posting is that it seems there is a good percentage of the current listening public for whom the term “art rock” is basically a cipher. While hoary characters like Aerosmith and the Who still resonate, art rock musicians have slipped silently (albeit stylishly) below the surface (“Emerson, Lake and Palmer—what’s that, a law firm?”).

One of the best movies made about music appeared in 1991. It is Alan Parker’s The Commitments, based on Roddy Doyle’s novel of the same name. Read the book. See the movie. (I note the film first simply because I suspect that more people will go to the video rental place than will go to the bookstore or library.) The Commitments limns the development of an Irish band that is created to play soul music. James Brown. Motown. As one of the characters in the novel, Jimmy Rabbitte, says to two of the musicians who will be part of the band:

—Where are yis from? (He answered the question himself.) —Dublin. (He asked another one.) —Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are. (Then a practical question.) —Who buys the most records? The workin’ class. Are yis with me? (Not really.) —Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from.

Chuck Barris, Scott Baio and the Village People

The Scariest Halloween Costumes Ever

The Electric Company Easy ReaderAt Glorious Noise, we’re always decked out in orange and black, so it’s like Halloween 365 days a year. And strangely, people ask us all the time if we’re wearing masks, when it’s really just our real faces. Anyway, if you want candy, but you don’t have a costume, check out some of these at retrocrush. It’s like a trip down the K-Mart aisle of marked down memories, with some of the finest examples of the classic “cheap ‘n flammable” costume, with the plastic mask in the shape of some lovable celebrity, and a plastic smock which was easy to clean the vomit off of after you ate a whole bag of candy corn and circus peanuts. It reminds me of many Halloweens as a child, making the trip to the supermarket on the night of Halloween, just after they marked down the costumes and candy, my little brother crying because they were sold out of the Spiderman costume he wanted, my mother yanking a “Small Wonder” costume off the rack for him, while I roamed the bulk candy aisle sticking my head into the barrel of malted milk balls and chowing down until the store managers dragged me outside.

[link via coudal partners]


Corporate Posturing On a Grand Scale, And Michelle Branch Just Smiles Through It All

By Johnny Loftus

There is no question in my mind that the Popstar gravy train, so brazen for the last few years, will derail itself by Summer, 2002. The mediocre response to Britney Spears’ new single is proof enough, as are recent appearances by various boy bands that play more on a previously established cult of personality than any hint of their musical output. However bland the musical product these groups have put forth may be, it has still been their stock in trade. And to see Spears, N*SYNC, Jessica Simpson, 98 Degrees and the rest reduced to their base selves – to be used as simple, marketable brands for their respective labels and whatever corporations might like to use their likenesses to move product – to see them basically forsake their “music” in favor of face time – only proves the inevitable implosion of their longstanding rule of Pop. Which not only spells doom for Britney, et al, but also their record labels, ever conscious of the bottom line. For some, hiring Helmut Jahn to design their next HQ all of the sudden seems like a real bad idea.

On Tuesday night, Michelle Branch rolled into Chicago’s Double Door with Maverick Records labelmate Jude Christodal for the latest stop of the “2001 Unlisted Tour of the Big 10,” a traveling marketing concept behind which Kenneth Cole (the designer of the Unlisted brand) and Maverick hope to sell a few of their respective wares. Its website describes Unlisted as “a brand targeted to Generation Y and designed to promote being expressive, proactive, and experimental while seeking out trends and making discoveries.” Buying into this positioning, Maverick entered into a partnership with Unlisted to promote its young artists while spreading the word about fashionable square shoes to campuses throughout the Midwest. The deal even features a nationwide magazine ad campaign, with Jude and Michelle posing in rags like Maxim, Cosmo, and Teen People while wearing Unlisted gear. If that’s not enough spin control for you, Badger Kry & Partners, the marketing firm behind this onslaught, even came up with a battle-of-the-bands-type program for the night before each town stop, encouraging local talent to vie for a potential Maverick contract. Is it just me, or are record labels and youth-skewed fashion companies trying like hell to connect with young wallets?

Into this perilous equation comes Branch, a young woman from Sedona, Arizona who has, with the benefit of genuine talent and a truckload of luck, ended up being Maverick Records’ new hope for the future of Pop music. But if there’s any pressure loaded into that statement, the girl ain’t letting on. Arriving onstage with her trusty blue Taylor guitar, Branch and her band immediately launched into a cohesive set of non-threatening pop ditties that showcased not only the 18-year-old’s strong voice, but a backing band of four dudes seemingly chosen by Maverick not only for their serviceable musical chops, but also for their charmingly alternative features and exquisite taste in vintage T-shirts. Performing tunes from her Maverick debut (The Spirit Room) and a few re-worked numbers from her self-released acoustic effort, Branch was confident, entertaining, and even genuinely rocking on a few songs. Absent (thankfully and perhaps oddly) from her set was any posturing for Cole, his Unlisted line, or any mention of Branch’s label’s co-CEO’s, Madonna and Guy Oseary. Which is refreshing, especially when the girl is 18 and those people are paying for her tour. Nevertheless, instead of hawking designer shoe polish, Branch focused on her songs (all of which she wrote or co-wrote) for 40 minutes, and entertained a crowd eager for something fresher than Jewel, but not as old as Sheryl Crow or as scarily intelligent as Lucinda Williams.

Branch’s single “Everywhere” was originally serviced to AAA/Adult-Alternative outlets, the kind of radio format where Lillith Fair never died and Rob Thomas is god. But, Like Lifehouse’s “Hanging By A Moment” before it, the song’s unmistakable riff and genuine pop sensibilities helped it expand to Top 40, “KISS-FM”-type outlets. (In fact, Branch’s first national tour was with – say it ain’t so – none other than Lifehouse). It now rests comfortably between the teeny-boppers getting over Britney and a 25-34 set of professional women who weren’t swayed by Natalie Merchant’s latest snooze-fest. Which puts both Branch, and her label, in an enviable position. In a Pop world turned upside down by falling profit margins and rapidly aging consumer bases, Maverick Records has on its hands a young artist who is just as recognizable to the TRL Nation as it is to sorority sisters, sensitive guys, and Jetta-driving marketing professionals. If that isn’t a cure for a tempestuous record buying climate, I don’t know what is.

And in the midst of all the brand positioning, promotional money, and magazine ads, Michelle Branch simply puts on a good Rock and Roll show. And that’s more than you can say for any of her primp’d, preening contemporaries clamoring for exposure now that the jig is up on their Z-grade musical talent.


Mary Kate and Ashley: Your Sweater Isn’t All They’ll Destroy

Despite his nauseous run as the nervously glowering host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” and whatever you think of those rumors that his standup act is actually really funny, it’s safe to say that Bob Saget has officially made a comeback this TV season. Er, at least for a little while. His new vehicle is the family sitcom “Raising Dad,” a WB product that is allegedly on a chopping block still fresh with the blood of Emeril Lagasse. Similarly, “Full House” alum John Stamos has been thrown a bone by ABC in the form of “Thieves,” some sort of ill-conceived spy comedy that nevertheless must pay better than being a professional Husband of Supermodel. The series’ vital signs are currently stable, but its Friday night timeslot and Uncle Jesse’s bizarrely Richard Grieco-like presence (not to mention any number or re-hashed plots from “Masquerade”) should put it on life support toot suite.

Instead of angling for face-time on the networks, Saget and Stamos might give think of looking up former co-stars Mary Kate and Ashley Olson, the twins who aged in realtime as Michelle, Danny Tanner’s youngest daughter on “Full House.” Now older, yet somehow still JonBenet Ramsey lookalikes, the twins preside over a multi-million dollar corporation built on their squeaky-clean image and cloying omniscience on childrens’ programming. With all the benjamins they’ve raked in with their videos, cartoons, magazines, and television programs, the Olsens could probably spare a few carrots for their former co-stars.

And now, it looks like Mary Kate and Ashley are adding emo-rocker to their list of celebrity accomplishments.

The Olsens will perform a version of Weezer’s “Island In The Sun” for the soundtrack to their upcoming film (see? Another medium conquered by this dynamic duo of capitalism!) “Holiday In The Sun,” the soundtrack of which is due November 20. The girls will perform the song with a band called Empty Trash, a group that seemingly doesn’t exist on the Internet. Maybe its Dave Coulier’s new project. Who knows. Whoever Empty Trash is, and however the twins got the idea of doing a Weezer cover,No one knows what this coition of alt pop and budding starlet will mean for Rivers Cuomo, his band, or music in general. What do all those rabid Weezer fans that Glorious Noise is so good at offending think of this development? And just when will “Thieves” be cancelled?

You’ve been warned. Happy Halloween.


Rude Awakening: Glenn Kotche and Guest

Glenn Kotche and Guest at Chicago’s Hideout Inn

As a kid, I never had much appreciation for abstract art. It seemed like just a lot of lines and splotches of color on canvass, or twisted metal and broken glass trying to be passed off as “sculpture.” It wasn’t until I was in 10th grade and I’d found a biography of Picasso that I started to realize what was going on. I saw Picasso as a classically trained artist who could paint portraits as vivid and realistic as a photograph but one who grew tired of the confines of fine art. He knew the rules and broke them. It was an awakening.

Friday night at my beloved Hideout found a room full of sleepers still trying to rub the gunk from their eyes as Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy were packing up their gear after a 40 minute set of spastic percussion and caustic feedback.

The Hideout had a Wilco-heavy bill with John Stirratt’s Autumn Defense (See Jake Brown’s upcoming review of this great band) checking in with material from their new album and Kotche opening the night with an undisclosed performance. Being the drummer for Wilco, questions were bandied about as to what Kotche would do? A half-hour drum solo? Spoken word set to rhythms? Or would he have help? Rumors soon spread that he would indeed have help from none other than Jeff Tweedy.

Rumors of a Wilco members hanging at the Hideout will usually draw a small crowd on any night. An Autumn Defense show draws larger crowds of melodic-pop music lovers. A “secret” performance from Tweedy draws a packed house with dozens of California Stars lovers hoping to catch an intimate performance of their faves like those that long-time Wilco fans brag about in the Lounge Ax days. The place was abuzz with people high-fiving each other for finally getting to see one of these famed stripped down sets. They should be careful what they wish for.

Kotche took the stage with his un-announced accompaniment and without a word from either, locked into a set of unstructured, unrestrained noise.

The crowd was mostly obliging as a one minute of feedback stretched to three, but nervous jokes and furrowed brows soon surfaced and the groundlings began to stir.

“Can you dance to this?” a blonde to my right jokingly asked her beau.

“Number Nine,” a Beatle-hip scenester droned from the back.

Three minutes dragged to ten and conversation circles formed. Most people realized this was a night of avant-garde and resigned themselves to waiting for the next act and the fact that at least they can say they saw Tweedy up close. Still others held out, hoping this was an extended intro. meant to throw the audience off and that soon enough they’d be hearing the heartbreaking strains of Far Far Away and the rawk-stomp of Casino Queen. Surely, America’s pre-eminent songwriter will bless us with his songs!

God Bless Glenn Kotche and Jeff Tweedy for NOT playing any songs. Those folks on the countless message boards devoted to Wilco can rest assured that they did not play Hesitating Beauty for the one-millionth time. This was a night of art. Pure expression devoid of rules.

That’s not to say that Tweedy’s pop sensibilities didn’t pop up from time to time. There were enough riffs to make most hardened Classic Rock station manager grin and Kotche and Tweedy craftily raised and loosened the tension with swells and lulls of sonic pressure. But it was not a night of well-crafted country/folk balladry. In fact, as the screeching howled into the half-hour mark, already alienated No Depressioners around the world could be heard drawing a warm bath and getting out the razor strap.

Friday’s show may have been seen by some as self-indulgent, but Wilco has been struggling to shed the alt.country moniker for years. Tired of being pigeon-holed by an obsessed fan base hell bent on keeping them for their own, the Band who helped define the genre is growing out of its skin and alt.country Rumplestiltskins should wake up and smell the music.

A Brand New Culture War That Takes Till It Hurts

Some of you may note that the headline above combines the two headlines directly below this with—what else—but a reference to none other than Sting. As I’ve previously mentioned, I happen to use MSN for Internet access, and when I logged on this afternoon I not only discovered a brand new interface for the site, but right there on top, a photo of the musician in question, who was hired by Microsoft (and for some reason, Intel Pentium 4 has something to do with it: perhaps the performance will be done while the band wears bunny suits) to help promote XP. (At least the folks from Redmond didn’t try to roll out the Stones again a la Win ’95.)

So let’s see. . .We have sab’s “Big Business” slathering Sting across the ‘Net (the concert, physically happening in NYC, is, of course, being webcast); this, unlike what Phil wrote about, is clearly about commercialism, pure and simple.

The benefit concert in NYC, regardless of how good it was or wasn’t, still reminds us of what the best in music is all about, which is a generosity of spirit, if not always one of fact.

Seems to me that these corporate gigs show that “The Man” hasn’t sold us out, but that the people who we may have once thought were on “our” side are really most interested in their own self-interest.

“We won’t get fooled again”? I doubt it.

The Culture War

I am amused by the recently oft-mentioned notion that we can “win” the war on Afghanistan, err. . . terrorism, by bombarding “them” with DVD players and Britney Spears CDs. You know you’ve heard it, this ridiculousness that’s being spouted both by the mainstream media and in annoying chain e-mails. (Funny, this correlation is; there’s more truth in it than anyone wants to admit.)

But is this idea—to show the poor people of the world just how great capitalism is and thereby cause them to embrace us, disregarding their own centuries-old culture for no more than a Slurpee—new or even novel? It’s no secret that for the past 20 years Big Business has been trying to slather our crass commercial culture over the globe like so much Miracle Whip.

How truly insidious is this? Consider the following quote from The End of Marketing As We Know It by Sergio Zyman, former chief marketing officer at CoKKKe: “Anybody who has traveled or studied history knows that the French are different from the Italians, Mexicans are different from Guatemalans, and Brazilians are different from Argentines. Even though they may share borders and some have common languages, each country has its own superstitions, myths, history, demographic makeup, economy, and problems. All of these things make up the fabric of these countries. And it is on these fabrics, or canvases, that you have to paint your brand.”

And what happens when you paint on a canvas? Last time I checked, paint permanently alters the canvas; it will never again be pure and free of color. The same thing happens once we cover the world with brands and consumerism: It will change forever. (Better for the multinational cartels, as it’s an easier sell with every successive generation, as the differences fade and the local culture more resembles our own. Success breeds more success.)

Look closely at Zyman’s statement. Most countries in Europe are attempting to shed their national economy in favor of an E.U.-based economy. Witness, the Euro. “Problems”? As far as I can see it, our problems here in the U.S. have a tendency to take on extreme importance everywhere in the world, as our companies have such great impact on employment and commerce worldwide. (Not to mention our government and its ham-fisted control of the political agenda of most of the first world.) And myths, history and superstitions are nice, but in the face of the ubiquity of Hollywood, they don’t stand a chance. (When in Austria two weeks ago, I went to see American Pie 2—in English. While driving through Italy, I tuned in a pretty good classic rock station: Eagles, Stones, Who, etc.)

Give it another generation and Europe’s culture is gone. Another generation after that, kiss the rest of the world goodbye.

Britney Forever!

So to the people of Afghanistan, here’s what you have to look forward to. From a recent USA Today article: “Among those waiting to buy the double-disc set [Star Wars, Episode I: Phantom Menace] is Doug Radcliffe, 29, of Jacksonville, Fla. He saw the original Star Wars when he was 5 and was instantly ‘obsessed,’ he says. He spent 12 hours in line to watch Menace when it opened in theaters in May 1999 and plans to be at the local Best Buy on Tuesday morning as soon as it opens. Says Radcliffe, ‘I’ve invested a considerable amount of money in a home theater audio system, and the pod race and light-saber battle, especially, should possess enough bass and surround effects to rattle the walls.'”

Rock and roll can change your life.