SIGNAL PATH – Plugging in to the history of headphones

About 20 years ago, there was a late-night show on WLUP (“The Loop”) in Chicago called ‘Headphones Only.’ Predictably, each episode promised to take you, the listener, on sound-filled journey featuring the sites, sounds, and vibes of albums that were “meant for headphones.” Curiously, 90% of the music programming on ‘Headphones Only’ featured songs already in the Loop’s daily dosage of AOR rawk n roll. You know: plenty of the ‘Floyd, Grand Illusion-era Styx, and ELO…or was it ELP? Doesn’t matter. The point is that ‘Headphones Only’ never really lived up to its self-professed hype. Sure, plenty of 70s rock opuses featured studio hijinks meant to ensure headphone heaven for the listener. But even if you had the really bitchin’ Jensens, the squelch and pop of the FM band was going to limit your aural pleasure. So rather than revealing the sub-channel, multi-tracked intricacies of, say, BB Steel’s On The Edge, ‘Headphones Only’ played out like an aging rock jock’s sonic reefer fantasy. “Dude, I think I can see the inside of my mouth, man…”

‘Headphones Only’ has long since left the radio dial. And headphone use itself has left the home completely, in favor of mobile use. While your pale-skinned audiophile friend probably swears by his $850 Sennheisers, the majority of us are happy with the unobtrusive in-ear units that accompany most portable music sources. Because they don’t envelope your ear in a collapsing-star sort of way, these headphones tend to let in the external sounds and general undercurrent of train announcements, traffic, and idle chatter that is the soundtrack of life in the city. Inevitably, this background noise affects the sound of the music from your headphones. There are different ways of solving this public headphone dilemna. One option is to purchase a Discman that features volume levels in the deafening range. To drown out nuisances like horns, trucks in reverse, or yapping friends, one needs only to turn it up and tear off the knob. For some reason this option is the first choice of club kids, Samhain fans, the unwashed, and lovers of Salsa music.

I stumbled across another solution while listening to Kid Loco on my headphones.

A French producer/studio tinkerer who specializes in downtempo beats and esoteric post-party chill music, Kid Loco’s music is seemingly stuck between multiple worlds. While his DJ skills create a subtle groove, his contribution to the DJ-Kicks Series from Studio K7 takes things to a new level, incorporating a melange of international flavors on top of traditionally chill beats. After a brief introduction with the obligatory Cypress Hill sample, the deep drones of a tabla drum drop in behind a scratchy female vocal loop. Walking down a busy street in Chicago’s Loop, I added to this backbeat the grinding, banging sounds from the construction site across the way, as well as a grumbling diesel bus engine and the high-pitched moan of the newspaper vendor. At first, it was a bit odd to have all of this going on. Especially because, when listening to Kid Loco in a subdued, indoor environment, the album seems almost ambient at times. But there’s just enough urban groove in the beats he chooses that the pounding and yelling of city life seems like a real-time remix.

It’s true that not every record, when listened to on a mobile CD system, will be effected so positively by the noise of the city. I can’t see Nick Drake adding the rumble of a tractor trailer truck to his quiet folk music, “just to get that city vibe.” But in a way, albums like Kid Loco’s DJ-Kicks set are just as suited to headphone use as the high-concept AOR studio albums whose sonic operas ruled the airwaves each Wednesday night during ‘Headphones Only.’

JTL

Are you plugged in?

I found the best record reviews on the web. The site is called Plugged In and its mission statement is: “Helping parents and youth leaders guide teens through the world of popular youth culture.” And boy, does it ever. There are reviews of movies and television too, but the record reviews are the best. Critic Bob Waliszewski appears to be the author of most of these critiques and this guy can really turn a phrase. Check out how he skewers Beck’s Midnite Vultures:

Beck’s bizarre, nonsensical stream of consciousness flows into some stagnant pools. On “Debra” he propositions a store clerk, saying he wants to have sex with her and her sister, concluding, “Ain’t no use in wastin’ time getting to know each other . . . ’cause you got the thing I just got to get with.” “Milk & Honey” prattles about wet dreams, Buddha and roofies. Erotic fragments also refer to a ménage à trois (“Peaches & Cream”), sadomasochistic sex (“Sexx Laws”), hookers (“Pressure Zone”), incest (“Get Real Paid”), lesbianism (“Mixed Bizness”) and twisted fantasies involving public gratification (“Hollywood Freaks”). Beck’s sexual assault begins and ends with suggestive CD cover art.

Each review is divided into three sections: Pro-Social Content, Objectionable Content and Summary/Advisory. The Pro-Social Content is often “None,” as in the case of Dr. Dre’s 2001, Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe and Korn’s Follow the Leader. Every single critic in the world has an opinion about Radiohead’s Kid A, and here is Waliszewski’s take on its Pro-Social Content:

“Optimistic” tells fans that doing their best is good enough. Beyond that, the messages are generally neutral and obscure with lines like “I slipped on a little white lie/ We’ve got heads on sticks/ You’ve got ventriloquists” and “This one went to market/ This one just came out of the swamp/ This one dropped a payload.” Nebulous.

Nebulous! In his summary, he advises parents that “teens shouldn’t waste their time on what feels like a 50-minute soundtrack from a despairing hallucination.” Do yourself a favor and go get Plugged In.

Bangs’ Life vs. His Art

Back in the 1930s, a group that mainly consisted of poets created a practice known as “New Criticism” The method, based on close reading, basically said that a given work of art is the thing that must be analyzed as it is. That is, instead of bringing anything to the work, the work, literally, stood on its own. The background of the writing—personal, social, political—was largely determined to be irrelevant. It was, the New Critics maintained, a matter of simply assessing what was produced. Period.

I have generally thought that the New Critics were often missing too much by not taking the context of the creation into account. After all, the point of view of the artist—be s/he a writer, painter, filmmaker, musician—has a lot to do with what is created. By leaving biographical knowledge out, there is the potential of missing important aspects of the work.

But having just read Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books; $15.95), I’m sort of feeling more sympathetic to the New Critics. There is Bangs’s work. There is Bangs’s life. And to the degree that the former is often exhilarating, the latter is disturbing.

Bangs’s father, who apparently didn’t spend a consistent amount of time with his family (being drawn away, apparently, by the lure of booze), died in a house fire when Lester was nine. Lester’s mother was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had a strong influence on her world view (and beyond) [and I am confident that Jeff can provide a Paul Schrader reset in this regard]. Lester didn’t take well to that weltanschauung. He rebelled. As a teenager in El Cajon, California (recently the site of a high school shooting incident), Lester worked to become a rock writer, which he did in 1969, in Rolling Stone. His day job, incidentally, was selling women’s shoes. Out of the box, Bangs was, in the context of his surname, onomatopoeic: writing about “It’s a Beautiful Day” (which is also the name of the group), Bangs didn’t pull back any of his smack: “I hate this album, not only because I wasted my money on it, but for what it represents: an utterly phony, arty approach to music that we will not soon escape.” Imagine his living in the Age of Celine Dion.

Lester managed to get bounced from Rolling Stone. He moved from southern California to what he described as “Deeetroit.” He, as he put it, “did time” there starting in 1971. He wrote for Creem. Five years later, after creating his own form of writerly and personal havoc (the portrait that DeRogatis, whose credits include the Chicago Sun Times, Penthouse, Guitar World, and World of Wrestling, draws of Bangs is a man who had a taste for Romilar and disinterest in personal hygiene), he moved to New York. There he was to write for a variety of venues. And he was to die there on April 30, 1982, probably of a drug overdose (the medical examiner wrote “Acute propoxphene poisoning” and “Circumstances undetermined.”)

Between ’69 and ’82 Bangs wrote many blazing pieces, sometimes changing his mind 180 degrees (e.g., from excoriating the MC5 to extolling the band), but always speaking in his strident, idiosyncratic voice. And speaking of voice, Bangs started bands that he performed with; apparently, he sounded like a walrus. Writing about music wasn’t enough. He had to make it.

A blurb that appears on the cover of Let It Blurt from Cameron Crowe says, in part, of the book, “it reads like rock and roll.” Which may, indeed, be the case. Breakups and screwups. Highpoints and low. Maybe it is less a celebration, and more of a cautionary tale.

The Board

Well, well, well. The Board is finally seeing some action. First of all, RmpIV makes a case for contemporary soul music. What do you think of modern soul? Next, Scott C buys a used jacket and is overwhelmed by the memories that came along with it. If you haven’t checked out the Board yet, do it now!

Update: The old board has been replaced by the new board.

Money for Nothin’…and MTV

As Johnny writes below:

“The problem was, I couldn’t locate Simpson on the stage. There was Daly and his bland, olive loaf smile. There were the three galoops vying for her hand. But where was Jessica?”

and:

“But the sad truth is that no one really knows who Jessica Simpson is, beyond those 70s Farrah glasses and white stretch pants. The jackasses jockeying for a slot next to her would probably line dance on rollerskates for any blonde with a figure such as hers, minor celebrity status or not.”

Little did he know how right he is. Check this quote from the 28 March DTW Free Press: David Lovejoy, the guy who “won” the mutant Dating Game, said: “I made a complete fool of myself on national television. I line-danced, answered a few questions and rode a mechanical bull, all to get a dream date with a celebrity I didn’t even know.”

This sounds like the conditions in the Soviet Union, when people used to see a queue forming and simply got in line, not knowing whether they’d get bread or motor oil when they reached the front. But in our Bread-and Circuses Culture, we don’t need to worry about essentials; we just go down to some resort and attempt to “win” whatever is winnable, to hell with the what. It’s all about commodities and about getting them with the least amount of effort. Notice that while there have been game shows essentially since there has been television, game shows have been elevated out of the daytime or pre-prime time right into the center of the mix. MTV, the channel that has done more to create slick packages out of ostensible rebellion than any other outfit, is now saying, in effect, “Sure, the other guys may let you win a million dollars, but we can provide something that’s at a whole different level [smirk, smirk].”

So what is it about: Music?

Is This Website Real & How Do You Know?

A front-page story in a recent edition of the LA Times looked into the creation of web sites for entertainment products—films—by alleged fans. As the story, “Fake Fans, Fake Buzz, Real Bucks” by Dana Calvo (20 March ’01), opens: “The 34-year-old computer whiz in Silver Lake got a phone call from the friend of a friend—the head of publicity for a movie studio. The offer as $10,000 a week for an Internet ‘project.'” The project was to create an indie-appearing website to flak a movie.

The story of the generation of the enthusiasm for The Blair Witch project is well known. And because of the usefulness of the Internet to create interest (Blair cost about $1-million to make; it grossed, according to Calvo, $128-million in just five weeks), this is becoming a marketing strategy. And let’s face it: movie companies are record companies. The names are different but the suits are the same.

Calvo writes: “The hired enthusiasts don’t reveal that they are on entertainment company payrolls. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to verify which Web pages are by genuine fans and which aren’t even by tracing the registered owner of the site.”

Which strikes me as somewhat disturbing.

Take this site, for example. How does someone know that those of us who post to this page aren’t really in the thrall of some anti-Sting cabal? How does someone know that there is actually more than one person writing this stuff? I don’t want to get into some sort of riff on solipsism here (“Hmm. . .I haven’t been to France for a while: How do I know Paris exists?”), but to simply muse on the fact that those who participate in the creation of bona fide sites about stuff really need to concentrate on providing authenticity of voice, a reality that can’t be bought by corporate suits. I suspect that if you were to go to Yahoo and search for a pop artist, beyond the “official” sites there are more than a few that are nothing more than genuine-for-hire. It may be dismissed as just a matter of the unenlightened not getting it (“So what?”), but it seems to me that this is sort of a slippery slope to the world described in 1984, where the Government (or in this case, the Industry) creates the entertainment for the proles. And there are one hell of a lot of proles whose spending affects what gets elevated and what gets quashed.

There could be an argument raised that this is done only for the “name” acts, but isn’t it posible that given the comparative low cost of creating sites (the guy from Silver Lake obviously got one hell of a deal; I imagine that Jake may be wondering at this point. . .), it would be the marginal artists who are more likely to be the ones for whom Internet crypto marketing is done. The budget may be low, but the Internet is infinite.

The truth may be out there. It’s just hard to find.

(Next time: Man on the Moon? Fact or a bad movie shot at Area 54?)

Jessica Simpson: Put Another Dime In The Jukebox, Baby

Jessica Simpson tries like hell to get noticed.

Recently on MTV I discovered a contest, hosted by the ubiquitous Carson Daly, called “Celebrity Dream Date: Jessica Simpson.” 3 fellers were up there aiming to win said date with said popstar.

The problem was, I couldn’t locate Simpson on the stage. There was Daly and his bland, olive loaf smile. There were the three galoops vying for her hand. But where was Jessica? All I could see was a spandex-clad Britney facsimile with plenty of sow-able wild oats and none of Ms. Spears wink-wink nod-nod sex appeal.

If you don’t know (or care), Jessica Simpson is a late comer to the Nubile Popstar Category. But unfortunately for her, all of the good public images had already been tried on by the other girls. First on the scene, Britney’s people molded their charge into a wholesome, yet wholly sexual being who appeals to little girls’ dreams and their older brothers’ fantasies all at once. Followup diva Christina Aguilera’s niche was her Latin background and truly powerful singing voice.

And Jessica? Well…

After signing her to Columbia, label figurehead Tommy “Yeah, I Fucked Mariah Carey” Mottola simply talked up his new girl’s Christian rock upbringing while making up her 18-year old mug to look like a slutty Christie Brinkley. But Britney started milking the good little Christian girl routine in 1998, leaving little room for another pretty young thing cut from the same southern cloth. And with Britney’s routines come only the suggestion of sex. Simpson’s overdone makeup, Carey-esque vocal posturing and dull-lidded glare? Well, let’s just say she’s ready to start sleeping through church. Because of her tardy (and tawdry) arrival to the game, the girl’ll never be anything more than an also-ran, making overt sex appeal her only tangible sales tool. It’s goddamn cold standing in Britney’s shadow. And thus poor Jessica is left balancing on a popstar highwire stretched precariously across a chasm of Penthouse photo shoots and top-lifting appearances on The Howard Stern Show.

According to Jessica’s official bio, “she possesses a voice that is capable of expressing the heartache of first love and the wondrous possibilities of an everlasting tomorrow.” But all she was expressing Monday on MTV was a desire to watch her potential suitors make asses of themselves in front of a jostling crowd of shirtless white college kids. She went through the appropriate motions, smiling wanly at Daly’s platitudes and revving up the crowd with an artificial excitement that those forced to slum in an MTV “celebrity” dating show must mainline backstage. But the sad truth is that no one really knows who Jessica Simpson is, beyond those 70s Farrah glasses and white stretch pants. The jackasses jockeying for a slot next to her would probably line dance on rollerskates for any blonde with a figure such as hers, minor celebrity status or not.

Britney has joined the hallowed pantheon of Pepsi hawkers on her way to a movie career. Christina is crooning with Ricky to further solidify each others’ Latin street cred. They’ve moved on from tripe like MTV’s Spring Break programming. But there’s Jessica Simpson, standing on a stage in Mexico, slugging it out with Carson Daly and a bunch of brainless undergrads, trying like mad to be noticed anyway she can. It’s just my opinion, but I’m pretty sure the dopes in the crowd weren’t applauding so much for Jessica’s new, slow-jammin’ single as much as they were for her phenomenal gams.

Someone get Jim J Bullock on the horn. Are there any open spots on Hollywood Squares?

JTL

Oops!. . .and the Joy of Monosyllabic Thinking

Back when this site was young, there was a spirited discussion about the phenomenal and physical attributes and values of Britney Spears; consequently, it surprises me that there hasn’t been an analysis put forth about what Spears has recently put out, the lead Pepsi commercial that was broadcast during the Academy Awards telecast. Her packaged paean to the Dionysian aspects of brown carbonated sugar water was in itself unremarkable; the synchronized dance number with a crowd of clones was fresh when Paula Abdul did them, and Ms. Abdul’s sell-by date is long passed. While I am not insensitive to Spears’. . .charms (and I am not referring to the Pepsi logo charm that she had dangling from her belly button), I submit that (a) if she had to put on her own makeup and (b) she was a bagger at Meijer’s, few—if any—of us would give her a second glance. Such are the transmogrifying powers of celebrity.

What is more telling about the nature of pop culture and pop music from those who are manipulating it is the clear contempt with which the consumers of the products are treated. This was evident in the commercial aired in order to keep viewers in an increasing state of anticipation for the Spears commercial to come.

You may have seen another commercial aired last year for a product that is used to remove brake dust and related detritus that adheres to car wheels. There were two guys sitting in plastic-webbed lawn chairs, one of whom was holding a garden hose, both of whom had synapses that fire like a Zippo without fluid. “Yew jus spray it on.” “Yew jus spray it on.” Brilliant. A car-care product for morons.

In the case of the Pepsi spot, the main character is evidently a younger brother (or perhaps uncle) of the two who, in this case, has a job. There he is: white paper hat and apron. A fry cook. (Who among us has not had to wear such gear?) He is shown looking up at something while a fireman in full regalia is frantically working behind the kid, dousing a grease fire (or perhaps Michael Jackson’s dome engulfed in flame, which, as you may recall, was the consequence of a Pepsi ad). Said fry cook is oblivious. The camera reverses so we can see what the slack-jawed focus is on: a TV showing the Britney singing-and-dancing Pepsi commercial (yes, a commercial within a commercial). “Yew jus drink it down.”

What does this say about what Madison Avenue thinks about the consumers of pop?

HE DID IT ALL FOR THE NOOKIE

The Sting/Jaguar love story is a curious one, one which will have repercussions on a mainstream music industry that is seeing its already crumbling credibility disintegrate faster than Sting’s songwriting capabilities.

Sting’s 2000 release “Brand New Day” and its marginal title track lead single failed to jump-start a career that had been stuck in neutral since at least 1995. What was to be done? The sour-pussed rocker himself wanted to release the world pop-ish “Desert Rose” as the next single. But radio put on the ki-bosh, balking at the song’s Arabic intro (sung by rai superstar Cheb Mami).

“Desert Rose” would’ve gone into the poor man’s Peter Gabriel bin, if not for some clever whoring on the part of Sting and his handlers.

The former Police bassist had already chosen the Jaguar S-TYPE as his ride of choice in the video for “Desert Rose,” believing that the car “evoke[d] the feeling and style of success we were trying to achieve.”

And — wouldn’t you know it? — a collaboration with ol’ Sting and his feeling of style and success was perfect for Jaguar’s domestic S-TYPE branding strategy.

Al Saltiel, general marketing manger for Jaguar, expounded about why his company jumped into bed with the fading rockstar and his desperate attempt for “Desert Rose” airplay. “One of our key strategic goals is to reach a broader market. We believe this campaign will help us do that.”

Sting got his wish after the ad began airing in the US. People hearing the song’s swirling, Pier One-esque Arab vocal and worldbeat polyrhythms quickly began requesting it on their local AAA/Adult Contemporary radio outlets.

It’s amazing how a song’s relationship to a particular product’s branding strategy will help it achieve heights never imagined by the artist. Famous vegan Moby’s compositions from his Play LP are some of the most-licensed songs of all time, with top-drawer clients including Nordstrom’s and Nike. After those and other spots featured such tracks as “Natural Blues” and “Honey,” Moby found himself at the top of the Modern Rock heap, appearing on various MTV incarnations as well as The Grammys. It’s a pretty safe bet that without the ad tie-ins, Play’s downtempo beats and Americana sampling wouldn’t have been heard by anyone other than NYC hipsters and people with large headphones on subways. Instead, mid-American teenyboppers, insecure female urban professionals in their 30s and soundtrack buyers all pooled their efforts to push the album into gold status and beyond. Information wasn’t available on how many Jaguar S-TYPE’s were purchased as a result of seeing Sting’s tush in one.

Moby is somewhat off the hook in the sell-out category, as he hasn’t compromised his famously activistic tendencies in the wake of his music’s sudden mainstream acceptance. Sting, on the other hand, should be kicked in the shins. No matter how much he loves “Desert Rose” and its mindless Cost Plus World Market approach to international pop, fully shilling it out to Jaguar to hawk their mid-priced sedan to Sting’s fanbase of rapidly aging, boring professionals is reprehensible. And the sad thing is that this sort of overt payola will most likely continue in an age of all- powerful brand strategies and impeccably researched product positioning. If an artist’s music fits a particular brand’s message, then offer him cash and hope he needs a career boost. Ideally, the product sells, the song gets adds on radio, and everyone gets real paid. Not a bad system, until a song with real vitality (i.e. not Sting’s blase bore-core) gets the marketing treatment.

JTL

Time to Put Out the Red Light, Sting

“That Sting—he’s a really good singer.”

—Sting, in a pre-Academy Awards interview during which he explained that (a) he was unlikely to receive an Oscar for “My Funny Friend and Me,” a song that he and David Hartley wrote for “The Emperor’s New Groove (he was right) and (b) what the members of the Academy were going to be thinking after his performance of the tune during the ceremony.

The first time I saw Rod Stewart in concert was in the very early ’70s at the Birmingham Palladium (Michigan, not England), when he was with the Faces, a band that featured the likes of Ron Wood and Ronnie Lane. As the band was essentially unknown then (people may have known the Small Faces), it was a listening situation where my friends and I sat on a bench with our feet propped up on the stage. I saw Stewart and the Faces several times after that, primarily at Cobo Arena. They’d become known. At the end of ’75, Stewart went solo. Before he became a disco Vegas lounge act (without playing Vegas: just running with the accoutrements and the approaches), I’d seen him multiple times.

Although I’m sure that many of you are wondering why anyone who openly admits he’s seen Stewart several times would be permitted to post stuff on the main page, I should point out that (a) when playing Detroit, he’d often invite the likes of David Ruffin on stage, (b) even on the peroxided “Blondes Have More Fun” (’78) he does a respectable version of “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” and (c) “The Mercury Anthology” (’82) is nails.

In 1984, after moving back to Detroit from a stint in Rockford, Illinois (Warren Zevon during a concert at the city’s Metro Center: “Rockford! ROCKford! How can you miss with a name like ROCKford!?! All 100 or so of us in the largely empty hall could have clued him in), my wife and I went to a concert at Pine Knob. It was Rod Stewart. He was out in support of his “Camouflage” album.

Let me say this about that: I once sat through a Three Dog Night concert. (Oddly enough, the lineup was Rod Stewart, Johnny Winter, and then the Night(mare). Unfortunately, I didn’t drive that night and the guy I was with had no idea who the other two acts were. I was nearly whipped to death by the fringe on his suede cowboy jacket as he kept time to the Dog’s greatest hits.

Fortunately, I did have the keys for Stewart at the Knob. We left. Fast. It was embarrassing for me to watch. I am only surprised that it wasn’t mortifying for him.

While never really being much of a fan of the Police or solo Sting, his is a career that is somewhat hard to miss. And there have certainly been some high points.

But will someone tell the guy that it is over? Elsewhere on this site the whole notion of musicians selling their music for wallpaper in ads has been debated. I don’t think anyone has gone as far as Sting and the Jaguar commercial (“What does a rock star dream of?”) He isn’t even driving the damn car! What is that all about?

I happened to catch him during the preshow activities at the Superbowl, during which he ended his act by jumping down about 2.5 feet from the top of an amp. Wow! That’s REALLY rockin’, Sting. His performance of the song referenced above during the Academy Awards show would have seem oddly stiff had he not hit so many flat notes.

Just as Stewart doesn’t fool anyone, Sting’s antics are pulling the wool over the eyes of only those who book acts for big, televised events. Oh, yeah, and the millions of people who still buy his whorish releases.

Rock and roll can change your life.