Tuesday, 21 April 2015

I Like Sir Mix-A-Lot and I Cannot Lie

I’m coming towards the end of the teaching weeks of my university degree programme. Reaching this climax has made me think about the start. The term begins in October, and I try to open each academic year by looking at the main pop events of the preceding summer. In 2013 this was easy. There had been the big news stories of ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’. There was copyright and sexual exploitation to debate.
            The summer news of 2014 seemed more trivial. Big butts were on the agenda. Meghan Trainor was topping the charts in the US and the UK with ‘All About the Bass’, while Jennifer Lopez had released ‘Booty’ and Nicki Minaj had released ‘Anaconda’ (‘I wanna see all the big fat ass bitches in the muthafuckin’ club’). Everything about these releases seemed a bit tired, from the provocative subject matter through to the provoked response. I nevertheless found myself coming down on the side of mild liberal outrage, finding these female artists more exploited than exploiting, not least because each of the songs was primarily written by men and men were also responsible for the sexually graphic videos for the Lopez and Minaj singles.
            Looking at male composers and directors leads us directly to Sir Mix-a-Lot. Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ samples heavily from his 1992 track ‘Baby’s Got Back’, a pioneering work in the field of big butt songs. I played the Trainor, Lopez and Minaj songs to my university students. In general, the response was negative. Most of them thought that the songs and/or videos offered negative portrayals of women. I also played the students ‘Baby’s Got Back’. Here we paused for thought. Almost all of the students loved this track. I do too. And yet its lyrics can’t be said to be any more progressive than those sung by the female artists (‘If you want to role in my Mercedes/Then turn around, stick it out’; ‘My anaconda don’t want none/Unless you’ve got buns, hon’). The song doesn’t even have the excuse of being a larger woman’s riposte to our diet-infatuated society.
            Why do we let Sir Mix-a-Lot get away with it? It’s not because we see him as some authentic pimp, providing us with a slice of ghetto life, nor is it really because he’s perpetuating the innuendo-laden tradition of black popular song. It is instead because ‘Baby’s Got Back’ is great. In contrast, the Trainor, Lopez and Minaj tracks are not. Aesthetics do matter, even when it comes to songs about backsides.
Quality doesn’t need to be maintained throughout the whole of a track either. What makes the Sir Mix-a-Lot song is its opening line. To an extent, you can forget the rest. ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’ may not be Shakespearean, but it’s certainly arresting. More important is the way that Mix-a-Lot delivers it, pausing and rising through the first four words and skipping more frantically through the next four. Meanwhile, the bassline prowls away and the drum machine starts to clatter like crazy, cued by the crucial first mention of the word ‘butts’.  The content of this lyric is as carefully weighted as its style. ‘I like big buts’ is brazen, but ‘I cannot lie’ is confessional, leading us into one man’s story, told in the face of white society’s norms. And so, do we find ourselves liking this track against our better judgement, or is it because of it?

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah?

Recently I heard a radio show about Sgt. Pepper. The weak excuse to rake over old ground about this record was that it was the 48th anniversary of the photo session for its sleeve. That said, hearing some of the hyperbole that surrounds the LP did make me wonder how much of it is true.
            First up was the tale about Sgt. Pepper’s public debut. The story goes that the Beatles took an acetate copy of the album to Mama Cass Elliot’s flat, just off the Kings Road in Chelsea. They played it at full volume at six in the morning with the windows wide open. According to the Beatles’ press agent, Derek Taylor, there wasn’t a single complaint. What happened instead was that local residents opened their windows because they wanted to listen to the music.
            Really? There is no music that appeals to everyone, particularly when it has the convulsive shock of the new. It’s less likely still that music will be welcomed at six in the morning. It’s also the case that different elements of music travel at different rates. What most of the neighbourhood would have heard was the low throb of the rhythm section. Was the whole of 1960's Chelsea into drum and bass?
            This idea that everyone liked Sgt. Pepper is perpetuated elsewhere. The radio documentary recalled Kenneth Tynan’s review of the album for The Times, in which he described its release as ‘a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation’. It also quoted Langdon Winner, looking back on the album a year after it was issued. He believed that:
The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. In every city in Europe and America the radio stations played, “What would you think if I sang out of tune . . . Woke up got out of bed . . . looked much older, and the bag across her shoulder . . . in the sky with diamonds, Lucy in the . . .” and everyone listened. At the time I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In every city where I stopped for gas or food – Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend – the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.
Once again we are provided with the idea that there was unity in appreciation of this album (and once more the people caught up in its public broadcast were somehow hearing pure melodies rather than distant bass thuds).
            Maybe the truth of these statements doesn’t really matter. What’s interesting is that people were moved to say them in the first place: there must have been something about the release of this record that felt like a new community was being forged.
            Could such a thing happen today? The nearest that popular music has come to a unifying force in recent times is ‘Gangnam Style’, or maybe ‘Harlem Shake’. Nobody would write about these songs in such an overblown way.
            This is perhaps to do them a disservice. It could be said that these songs are, in fact, more global than Sgt. Pepper has ever been. They have united people of the west and east. That they’re not taken seriously is perhaps a mark of our times. One of the reasons why the Beatles elicited such highfaluting commentary was because there were divides: between the young and old, between the old and new, between the high and low arts. Cultural critics were keen to validate the Beatles and in the process could get carried away. These divides have broken down in recent years. We’ve all gone pop!
Another reason why ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Harlem Shake’ aren’t taken as seriously is because they are dance songs. Dancing to music is nevertheless just as important as thinking about it. It’s also, in truth, a greater force for change. Although Beatlemania is often seen as the real beginning of the sixties, it should not be forgotten that ‘The Twist’ had already done much to break down social barriers. Dancing can be dangerously cohesive. The Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver once described the Twist as ‘a guided missile, launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia’. Adding that it ‘succeeded, as politics, religion, and law could never do, in writing in the heart and soul what the Supreme Court could only write on the books’. The power of dance had been seen earlier with jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, and would be seen again with disco and rave.
As so often, George Clinton helps us make sense of these things. He foresaw ‘One Nation Under a Groove’. Unity is best achieved through getting on the good foot, not by stroking our chins. Say what you like about Sgt. Pepper – and I’m sure that people will go on saying what they like about it - but it’s not great for dancing to. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Vinyl: A History of 2014

I’ve been slow at offering a report on vinyl sales for 2014. There’s a good reason for this: there were plenty of others willing to get there first. Stories about vinyl are now mainstream, just as the product is itself. The vinyl market is no longer niche; it is an established part of the music economy. In 2014 vinyl album sales in the UK topped a million. They were 65.1% up on the previous year, eventually selling at 1.29m units. According to PIAS, one of the UK’s main distributors of physical formats, vinyl now makes up 20% of their market. Meanwhile, in the US, 9.2 million vinyl albums were sold last year. This represented a 52% increase on 2013. More significantly, these albums accounted for more than 6% of all physical album sales.
            What needs to be borne in mind is that vinyl albums are expensive. They can make people money. Edwin Schroter, managing director of PIAS, has acknowledged that ‘at the higher dealer price this is good business to be had’. He also attributes the rise in the number of independent record shops to the growth in vinyl sales.
            This type of success doesn’t go unnoticed. In last year’s annual report, I noted that independent record labels were disproportionately successful within the vinyl market, accounting for nearly 60% of the trade. The majors are now raising their game. 2014’s Record Store Day was underscored by complaints that some indie labels couldn’t get their product pressed up for it on time. The shelves were instead filled with titles from the major’s stars, among them One Direction and Herbert von Karajan. This activity led to complaints from indie distributors that the day had been ‘appropriated by major labels’.
            The major record labels went on to dominate vinyl’s top 10 as well. In 2014, all but two of the top ten were on majors. Number one was Pink Floyd’s The Endless River. This was in contrast to 2013, when indie labels released all but three of the best-selling vinyl albums.
            Music Week published 2014’s sales figures on 9 January 2015. In the same edition of the journal there was an interview with Tony Wadsworth, marking the end of his tenure as chairman of BPI. Prior to looking after the UK record industry’s trade body, Wadsworth spent 26 years with EMI, where he rose to the position of CEO. This pillar of the UK music establishment has marked his semi-retirement by joining the indie record retailer Sister Ray, with whom he has set up a vinyl-only branch of the shop. In undertaking this move Wadsworth has indicated that he was in it for the love of music all along. He’s also provided further evidence that there is good business to be had.