Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Music Made Me a Crabby Old Man at a Very Young Age

This post is dedicated to the lady at the Shell station, this weekend, who was eavesdropping on my conversation with fellow editor Bryan Wawzenek. When she heard me utter the words, “Music Made Me a Crabby Old Man at a Very Young Age,” she declared — based on her “20 years at BMI” — that I needed to write that song. Sorry to disappoint, ma’am. Not writing that ditty anytime soon, but I will write that blog.

What we were discussing, as we queued next to the Slim Jims, was my supposition that music is never so important to you as it is when you’re 15. You’re pissed at your parents because they don’t understand you. You feel increasingly isolated and alienated at school. And just a glance from a member of the opposite sex sends your hormones into overdrive. You can’t drive yet, which (to an extent) tethers you to your house, to your bedroom. The head, the body — it’s a boiling cauldron of confusion and unfocused, intense emotion.

For a 15-year-old, music can be a refuge. Artists are still mythic figures. You’re not quite old enough to see their faults or discover their frailties. The lyrics are religion. “The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams/It’s Heaven and Hell” might as well have been Shakespeare to me. I knew what Ronnie meant. And the music itself — you live and die on every note. I could replicate every nuance of the extended “My Generation” from Live at Leeds in my head while sitting in a classroom and trying (probably unsuccessfully) to look attentive. And life isn’t so crazy when you’re 15 that you can’t escape to your room to listen to music, meaningfully, every night. Life never again affords you that luxury. You sneak it in on car rides or over dinner. But nightly time for headphones and liner notes just evaporates when college and careers arrive. Music at 15 can be…everything.

The thing that happens, though, is that you spend the rest of your life chasing that feeling and, quite naturally, you rarely (if ever) capture it. And so, as you discover music later in life, it doesn’t quite measure up to the music that you loved as a teenager. This, in turn, causes the ears to close on new things. I fully admit to waging this constant internal battle. I fall into comfort zones for months at a time with ’90s Britpop, NWoBHM, ’60s Beat Music, Classic Rock…you get the idea. Old stuff.

And that’s why I’m so grateful when someone shakes me out of one of these musical comas. The aforementioned Bryan handed me a disc by The Hold Steady this weekend, a band I never bothered to learn based…well, on nothing really. The name, maybe? Seems like one of those trendy little fourth-generation, Gap-Punk band names. And yet, this stuff is good. I’m not the world’s biggest Springsteen fan, but this modern mix of The Boss, Thin Lizzy and maybe a bit of Elvis Costello is interesting. Intriguing, even.

I’ve been lucky enough to bump into sharers at several crucial stages in my Crabby Old Mannedness. In college, that lender was the Leon County Public Library in Tallahassee, FL, which turned me on to jump blues and a bit of classical, sure, but also some new music that couldn’t fight its way through the worst Classic Rock playlist ever concocted for radio. (Thanks, GULF 104, for hiding #@*$%! England from me during the #@*$%! ’90s!)

In my brief time in Massachusetts, my buddy Grover introduced me to Oasis, beyond the familiar singles. If I’ve annoyed any of you over the years with my Oasis-mania, you now know whom to blame. And this served to spark a ravenous appetite for all things Britpop.

When I got to New York, I had several musical lenders and sharers, if not mentors, along the way. I think I already gave most of these guys a shout-out in my last post, but it bears repeating, the immense personal value I place on their generosity, loaning CDs or burning discs of things I had turned my nose up to, forcing that stuff on me for my own betterment. Thank you, DCers.

I also discovered KEXP online, which allowed me to listen to the radio without wanting to bludgeon a station manager…or a Clear Channel computer, as the case may be. And WDST, Radio Woodstock, one of the rare broadcast stations that still plots its own course, playlists be damned. They may be few and far between, but these little pirate ships of music do exist, I’m happy to report.

And now I’m in Nashville, surrounded by a new batch of music lovers. I’m looking forward to sharing and learning about other brave new worlds of sound. If you’re sitting out there reading this, listening to Abbey Road for the 9,000th time, I encourage you to step outside your cocoon and trade some CDs or MP3s with your friends — friends who maybe don’t have the exact same tastes as you, who exist outside your comfort zone.

New and wonderful music is out there right now, my friends. Go and find it!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I Love the Noughties

First off, congrats to the Brits for not only (finally!) naming the past decade, but for actually finding a cooler name than “the Aughts,” to which I had previously pledged my undying allegiance and love. I was a bit surprised, when the Noughties ended, to find an overwhelming volume of music that was generated during that period that I actually loved. I admit to having a bit of Old Cootism, even if I try (poorly) to be hip and with it (generally by using terms like “hip” and “with it”). I fall quite easily into Sixties and Seventies comfort zones for months at a time. The Eighties were a bit of a black hole for me (which is odd since that’s my high school decade), but the Nineties…ahh, the Nineties…

The Nineties was a treasure trove for me. As people who know me — or, hell, acquaintances — can attest, I love Brit-flavored (sorry, flavoured), guitar-driven music. So the Nineties, with the resurgence of Britpop and bands like Oasis, Dodgy and The Boo Radleys, was heaven for me. But that scene was dying out by the end of the decade and, quite honestly, it didn’t look like America was willing to pick up the slack with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Creed topping the rock charts.

But indeed the Noughties were spectacular, if you were willing to seek out cool music that might not ever play over the increasingly irritating American airwaves, emanating from the most unlikely of places (Sweden, New Zealand, Nancy Sinatra!). I appreciate everyone who helped me open my ears over the last decade, especially Morgan Dontanville, Leon Avelino, Nachie Castro, Scott Booker and the other music traders I had the fortune of hanging out with during my New York decade.

Anyway, in the spirit of last week’s “Listomania” blog, here is my completely subjective, unapologetic Top 40 Songs of the Noughties:

1. “Do You Realize??” The Flaming Lips
2. “Whatever Happened to My Rock ‘N’ Roll (Punk Song)” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
3. “Falling Down” Oasis
4. “Fat Children” Jarvis Cocker
5. “Sailor” The Brian Jonestown Massacre
6. “Part of the Queue” Oasis
7. “Somebody Told Me” The Killers
8. “Smoking Pot Makes Me Not Want to Kill Myself” Stardeath and White Dwarfs
9. “Lord Don’t Slow Me Down” Oasis
10. “Infra Riot” The Soundtrack of Our Lives
11. “I Woke up in Love This Morning” Doug Powell
12. “Feel Good Inc.” Gorillaz
13. “Turn up the Sun” Oasis
14. “Nevermore” The Soundtrack of Our Lives
15. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” Kylie Minogue
16. “Hate to Say I Told You So” The Hives
17. “The Tears of a Clown” Bertrand Burgalat with A.S. Dragon
18. “Sister Surround” The Soundtrack of Our Lives
19. “Keep What Ya Got” Ian Brown
20. “I Predict a Riot” Kaiser Chiefs
21. “Love Burns” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
22. “Spectral Mornings” Cornershop
23. “21st Century Man” Nigel Clark
24. “Borderline” The Flaming Lips with Stardeath and White Dwarfs
25. “Wayfaring Stranger” Neko Case
26. “Eyeball Tickler” Oasis
27. “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do” Garbage
28. “DARE” Gorillaz
29. “Common People” William Shatner featuring Joe Jackson
30. “One Big Holiday” My Morning Jacket
31. “Burning Down the Spark” Nancy Sinatra
32. “Rehab” Amy Winehouse
33. “Hash Pipe” Weezer
34. “Hit the Heartbrakes” Black Kids
35. “I Heard Myself in You” January
36. “There There” Radiohead
37. “MF from Hell” The Datsuns
38. “Wake Up” The Arcade Fire
39. “Only Mama Knows” Paul McCartney
40. “Pompeii am Götterdämmerung” The Flaming Lips

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Listomania: How I Learned to Love the Laziest Journalistic Impulse of All

I have long been of the opinion that the lowest form of entertainment writing is “The List.” “Top 100 Albums of All Time.” “Top 10 Actors of the Nineties.” “Top 25 Vampires” (a real “story” from Entertainment Weekly, the listiest magazine there ever was.). You know these articles. Even before I was writing or editing for a living, I could still picture the torpid editorial office responsible, just back from a four-day Vegas junket, looking at each other blankly when asked what stories they had for the week. The terror, of course, only lasts a second before someone blurts, “Top 100?”

Because really, what effort does a list like this take? A 20-minute poll around the offices, followed by 20 minutes of tallying. And then? Just lay out the list and write USA Today-sized McNuggets of info under each entry. Lazy journalism, at best.

94 Kirk Douglas

Known mostly for his Gibraltar-like chin and for siring the guy who continues to bogart Catherine Zeta Jones, Douglas also was an actor in films like Spartacus, Out of the Past and Paris brûle-t-il. Of all the men who said, “I am Spartacus,” he was the most convincing.

A woefully incomplete summary of who the actor was, followed by three films — one everyone could pat themselves on the back for knowing, one to allow the author the smug feeling of one-upping his readers, and one readers and author alike had to look up (possibly in someone else’s Top Actors list) — followed by a witty summarizing sentence.

Lazy, lazy, lazy! And yet…and yet…

List stories are gold for publishers. They almost always perform better than regular articles, even if they contribute absolutely nothing in the way of new information for readers. My last glance at our top performing stories of the past 30 days showed that at least a quarter of them were lists — and some of those were over a year old. Those are the articles that get reposted everywhere — and all those links back to your site are like money in the bank when you’re counting those “visits” numbers every day.

Why, you may ask — and I have — do these stories always seem to perform so well? Three reasons, I think:

1) First and foremost, they are a breezy read. Admit it. When given the choice in Rolling Stone of reading an eight-page expose on arms deals in Pakistan or reading the readers poll of Top 10 Artists of the Year, which do you read first? Okay, let’s make it fair. Are you more likely to read a densely, but certainly well-written eight-page expose on the subject or a half-page box titled “Top 10 Reasons we have to get out of Pakistan.” If you said the former, you’re either on a Congressional Sub-Committee on Pakistan or, more likely, you’re the author’s mother. McNuggets win.

2) There’s no time investment in a list story. You pick them up, read a few entries and set them aside until you have another spare minute or two. They are perfect reading for the subway or the breakfast table. Entertaining enough to pass the time, but easy to walk away from. From a digital perspective, they are the perfect iPhone read.

3) Most importantly, no matter how banal the subject, the reader will immediately form an opinion and seek validation for that opinion. To put it succinctly, the story title creates an immediate need to read the article. “Top 25 Vampires of All Time.” In a flash, the mind conjures: “That had better include Max Schreck as Nosferatu!” From that moment on, you have to know if your choice made the list. Surely, you will be infuriated. Some pasty emo guy will almost certainly purse his lips in the top 5, while a masterful, nightmarish performance from the 1920s is destined to flounder in the lower regions of the poll — if it appears at all. Still, you have to know.

That’s the ultimate draw of lists: the inherent compulsion they engender. It takes a lot for a title to make a reader feel personally invested in the narrative of a story. And if you look at the list as a narrative, from Point A to Point Z, this is indeed the case.

So, with that in mind, it’s not the worst idea in the world for a publisher or editor or blogger to shed his/her high-mindedness and embrace “The List.” I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords and am currently working on the Top 50 Guitarists of All Time. Come check it out…and get mad!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Artful Scavenger: Music News for the 21st Century (Part 2)

So, when we last left our music site, SkelterNews.com, our editorial staff was laying out a game plan to report on the breaking story, “Skelter tell RollingStone.com they’re breaking up.”

For our team, there are two stories, really. There’s the story of Skelter breaking up. And there’s the story of what Skelter told RollingStone.com. This is where I bring in what I call “the artful scavenger.” RollingStone.com is an information predator. They make the kill. They are an original source. But what about SkelterNews.com? How do our friends in that Poughkeepsie basement office report the break-up without plagiarizing?

Well, they can report the first story — Skelter breaks up — by taking what they’ve learned from RS (thank you, Jann), and using that as a launching pad to other original sources. What does the band’s website say? Did the bassist tweet anything? Anything from the guy at the Facebook fan page, who usually has insider access? They had a show last night. Is there a clip on YouTube? Can I further set the scene of the break-up show with a quick trip to Setlist.com? There are a thousand places where the resourceful folks at SkelterNews.com can gather information to create their own unique story without rewriting one word from RollingStone.com.

But what about that quote the big Texan bassist gave to RS? Is it essential to the story? If so, and if it was given exclusively to RS (and not, say, yelled from the stage), then give credit where credit’s due.

“Bassist Big Tex told RollingStone.com, ‘The singer was impossible to work with, really. Too much of a diva. We just couldn’t take it anymore.’”

The editor of SkelterNews.com is also responsible enough to embed a link to the complete RS article. He knows those guys are thrilled to get links to their site, just as our editor is when someone links to his own site. Links translate both to better searchability and to more traffic. We all — sites big and small — want that!

So, given his very modest tools, the editor of SkelterNews.com was able to deliver a unique report to his readers within minutes of the story breaking. Minutes! That’s the domain of the artful scavenger. Those, who can locate a carcass and make a meal of it the quickest, survive. The rest? Keep an eye out for their sun-baked bones on the savannah.