Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Montage of heck

Kurt Cobain once wrote what might well be the most perfect rhymed couplet in popular music, "What else can I say? All my words are grey." Instead of using that on the final record, or in later live performances, he changed the second part to "Everyone is gay". Whether he was trying to piss people off, as he regularly claimed, trying to obfuscate the meaning of the lyrics, as he often did, or simply breaking off the perfection from the song to make it more jagged, less perfect, I've often wondered. There's probably a little of all of that, and I'm not sure even he ever had a real sense how that balanced out himself.

In the publicity leading up to the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, his daughter Frances Bean Cobain gave an interview in Rolling Stone, Frances Bean Cobain on Life After Kurt's Death. It created the expected firestorm, with news outlets everywhere posting versions of the big quote, "I don't really like Nirvana that much. Sorry, promotional people, Universal. I'm more into Mercury Rev, Oasis, Brian Jonestown Massacre."

The best part is that is reports her grinning after the first statement.

Man, does that sound like something Kurt would have said.

She could have said, "I don't really like Nirvana that much. I'm 22 years old. I'm more into Vampire Weekend, Death Cab For Cutie, Mumford & Sons."

All of the old fogey alternative guys like me would have rolled our eyes and sighed, a little about how we're old and a lot about how the kids of today will never understand how much better things were when we were that age. The same thing every generation of old fogeys has said since time immemorial.

But, no, by choosing contemporaries of Nirvana, and ones considered so much less cool by the kinds of music fans who like Nirvana, she really stuck in and twisted it, didn't she?

Fuck us old fogeys! And, man, so many of us got sucked right into the trap. Just beautiful.

So, now I've seen the documentary myself. I wasn't sure if I wanted to or not. I knew I was going to, mind you, but I wasn't sure if that would be an expression of my joy or not.

The movie switches a lot between a normal talking heads documentary and chaotic montages of events and impressions. It is very much working for the same kind of approach as Nirvana's blend of catchy pop hooks and hard core punk rage. It only rarely seems to find those "Lithium" moments where it seamlessly fuses the two comfortably into something uniquely accessible and haunting. I'm not sure that means it doesn't work.

The movie definitely feels sometimes like it's breaking off its smooth edges for something more jagged, less perfect.

It does stumble a bit. I expressed how tired I am of the overuse of animation to fill in the gaps in documentaries. It's a nice idea, but it rarely works. First, most don't have the budget to quite manage what they think they're doing with them, and, second, what they're doing tends to feel a bit lazy.

Some of the animation in Montage of Heck really do work. When they sloppily animate Kurt's drawings and journals some into chaotic montages, like punk rock versions of the Gerald Scarfe animations in Pink Floyd - The Wall, that attempt to capture something about Kurt's spirit and person.

Other times, though, they used some kind of awful smoothed over Flash animation is used to recreate events that don't exist on film and those are so awful that I wanted to vomit blood in disgust at the inappropriateness of them. Yes, I believe that somewhere there are some really great storyboards for those sequences. The angles and choices made for them was solid, but the cheap, slick animation used was so slick and over-polished looking, they just grated on me. Perhaps in another Kurt Cobain documentary, they would have fit. I suspect in that one that Frances told Montage of Heck director Brett Morgan she didn't want, the mythic, romantic Kurt Cobain documentary.

Most of the time, this is the one that uses shitty looking footage of Nirvana's 1992 performance at the Reading Festival when a readily available DVD of that show, Nirvana: Live at Reading, shows that there is very clear, beautiful footage of the show. In fact, I believe most of the footage in the documentary is just roughed up versions of that, or perhaps pre-cleaned up versions of it. That footage, rough and cut tumble, feels right. It feels like the very personal, warts and all story they're telling, in a way that feels exactly right to capture the spirit of the man they're trying to tell us about. It's exactly the right decision in the same way that the animation on the flashbacks is exactly the wrong decision.

I confess, there was probably never any satisfying me in the making of this. I have my own confusing, complicated relationship with Kurt Cobain, which this only confirms and complicates. I am an old, overly self-conscious man. I know exactly how easy it is to fall into confirmation bias in seeing the commonalities with an artist one admires. It's just a matter of ignoring the similarly obvious differences. This, though, not only confirmed a lot of the ones I already knew, but exposed ones that hadn't been discussed before, or I'd never taken notice of before.

I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse about the movie, and I'm certainly not sure how I feel about the movie as a document, but it certainly has moved me in a lot of ways, which is all I could ask of it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Remix, remake, rethink, redo

I'm an old fart. I figure I'm supposed to be excited about this victory of the Marvin Gaye Estate over Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. After all, those guys are obviously fucking assholes and brought the whole damn thing on themselves by being fucking assholes.

Not to mention, Thicke was the first modern singer to test my philosophy that people getting older reject newer music at some point as some kind of natural cycle. I mean, sure, there's been lots of music in recent years I don't like, but that I just didn't like in the same way I didn't like music from my generation or from the generation previous. It's just normal old shitty. Seeing Thicke somewhere was the first, and still only, time I saw a musical artist that just fucking pissed me off because of the purity of its awfulness, and how incredibly far that awfulness existed away from anything I've ever considered entertainment.

So, seeing that fuckstick brought down should really bring me pleasure.

But it doesn't.

Because it's wrong.

Here's The "Blurred Lines" Verdict Is Bad News, Even If You Hate Robin Thicke by Michaelangelo Matos, which makes a lot of good points on the matter. Probably better than the one's I'll make.

The thing is, though, I realized I can't say John Fogerty was right in his victory over Saul Zaentz for the claim that The Old Man is Down the Road infringed on Fogerty's earlier composition of Run Through the Jungle or that Morris Levy was wrong in his claim against John Lennon that Come Together infringes on You Can't Catch Me by Chuck Berry and then say these assholes's shitty song was legitimately plagiarism of Gaye's Got To Give It Up and not be a goddamn hypocrite.

So, no, I don't think this was a good decision. Unlike Matos, I don't think it will set any incredible precedent. Frankly, it's not even as shitty as that Levy/Lennon case, although, since that was settled and not decided in court, it's a different legal beast.

The thing is, without even having a strong opinion on the merits of this case, I'm nervous about any of these kinds of decisions. I'm deeply skeptical of recent changes to Intellectual Property law and our societal view of Intellectual Property. I'm not sure I agree with every word, but I'm generally on board with the thinking presented in Why Piracy is Good and Copyright Sucks by Lloyd Kaufman. I certainly think that we need to return the value of the public domain to the public and to the arts as part of the conversation, from which it's been largely removed since the Copyright Act of 1976.

The fact is, I'm a fan of remix culture. I'm a fan of it with the growth of the blues and how those guys riffed off each other and, by today's standards, ripped each other off, building it into new things, up to, and including, the birth of rock & roll.

And I love cover songs. Not all of them. Not even necessarily most of them. But the idea of them.

Look, Louie Louie by Richard Berry is a modest and pleasant little doo-wop song. It isn't until The Wailers got a hold of it did it turn into what we all know it as, a stomping garage rock classic.

Even then, I don't think it really came to all it could be until The Sonics recorded their take in that style that it really turned into all it could be, and that's the only version I ever listen to simply for entertainment at this point.

But we're still in the range of perfectly legal, paid for cover songs. Let's look at some plagiarism.

Let me introduce you to You Need Love, written by Willie Dixon and performed by Muddy Waters. It's a solid, groovy little blues number.

What it's not is great. Dixon and Waters were both great, together and separately, but this is one of their lesser songs. I mean that as a compliment. Not many people's lesser songs are anywhere near that good.

On the other hand...

... Whole Lotta Love finds Led Zeppelin undeniably rips it off. The vocal melody is very much the same and many of the lyrics are even identical and the rest follow the same established patterns. Zeppelin's version takes it to another planet. It breathes and screams and bleeds.

And a lot of the things that give it that life are things that are unlikely to have happened if they had done a straight cover. It's most likely the very things that went into thinking they were twisting it into a whole new song that makes it so special. The fact that they failed at making it an entirely new entity feels nearly irrelevant when you consider it in this light.

It's in this light that I think the problem with movie remakes.

Fogies my age like to bitch about the fact that they remade Robocop. I think the problem is that only risk averse corporations remake these things. Frankly, they're generally not any worse than the other risk averse bullshit the studios put out. It's the fact that they're so obviously risk averse when compared to originals that are so fully of life, vigor and creativity that makes remakes more frustrating.

Imagine a world in which smaller, ballsier studios or independent producers could do with something like that. They could bring in a Carpenter, Cronenberg or Kaufman onto it. Not to mention, the risk averse studios would have to face the risk that their remake could be blown out of the water by the more interesting remake.

As with everyone else, I don't have an answer. This is another conundrum that lacks an easy answer.

The problem is, we're all treating it like it has one and that we've settled on it. I think we need to open it up a lot.

And, y'know, Free Thicke! Or something...

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Spotify and the death of Rock

So, I write Rock, RIP, which I'd had in mind for a while, and then this happens: Taylor Swift Catalog Removed From Spotify by Andrew Flanagan.

Not exactly, of course. Actually, I knew that story, but ignored it.

Because I don't care.

I literally have no opinion on Taylor Swift, including on her decision to pull her music from Spotify.

Author Laird Barron shared this article, Rich as Fuck Taylor Swift Pulls All Her Music Off Spotify by Aleksander Chan. I have an opinion on this article, that I share with Mr. Barron, is complete fucking horseshit, but still no opinion on Ms. Swift or her decision.

In the discussion there, Making Cents by Damon Krukowski of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi was posted. I believe there are some similar articles out there, mostly by artists at a similar level of success. He raises a lot of interesting questions about services like Spotify. Some people respond to that with "Buy physical media!" as a conclusive answer. I'm sure Ms. Swift, and others like her, would largely accept if we all simply made a direct purchase, even if that is a download file from Amazon.com or iTunes, and I'll take that as the default position in this discussion, as I think too much of that discussion is different.

Of course, that assumes that's the whole question of Spotify and such, doesn't it?

On the other hand, I have a lot of Spotify playlists, and Pandora stations, for that matter, that play mostly things I own. Let's look at Kiss, because they played such a part in the last post and have a number of other points worth noting. So, I have over the years purchased quite a number of Kiss albums. This does not include their output between Animalize and Revenge. I was given the Kiss Box Set as a gift and that does include songs from that period.

For me, having that Spotify playlist means I don't have to rip and re-rip all of those CDs or move them around from device to device, even though I do own the physical versions. So, if I'm listening to Kiss on my phone as I ride the bus, every fraction of a cent Kiss gets from my listening is on top of the money I've already spent. And, in the case of albums I've never bought and never will buy, a couple extra fractions of a cent for the small number of songs I do have on there despite never having purchased.

Off the top of my head, this is also true for 7 Year Bitch, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, Steve Earle, Roky Erickson, Hank3, Judas Priest, MC5, The Monkees, Motörhead, Rick Nelson, Nirvana, Prince, Van Halen, The Velvet Underground and ZZ Top.

Almost all of the times I'm listening to those artists on Spotify, it's because I'm away from the physical media. Every fraction of a cent made from those listens is on top of the money I've already spent on the physical media. And I don't have to worry about how much space is on my phone which albums are or aren't ripped to my laptop if I'm out. Nor do I have to be concerned what mood I might be in before I leave. Worse than that, the night before I leave.

Is that the only thing I use it for? Well, of course not. As I said before, I discover new artists, which again, might be fractions of a penny, but is fractions of a penny more than the nothing they'd make if I never heard of them, so that's something. And it's worth more than just those fractions of a penny. It's also the shares of their music I might make on social media as well as normal day-to-day social being. Not to mention, potential purchases down the road when I have the money to afford to make purchases such as that, not to mention live shows I might attend or t-shirts I might get.

Does all that add up? Well, obviously not.

Plenty of other people are only listening to these albums on Spotify and honestly, as much as I'd like to claim better, I'm moving that way myself, and I love to buy stuff and own stuff.

The trouble I have with the whole rock is dead rhetoric is that it assumes that the world gone by is an ideal and we're moving away from that ideal.

But who all was that an ideal for? Big, big artists. Big, big record companies.

And while Mr. Krukowski's article raises the concerns that this new market is worse, or, at best, not better for smaller artists. That's something I think we need to look for improvements to the new ways for. The old way isn't coming back, and for the most part I think "Good fucking riddance!"

The general success of iTunes and Spotify shows that convenience was at least as big an issue as price.

As I said, and let me be blunt, I am paying a monthly charge for a service that allows me the convenience of playing every Nirvana song wherever I want to listen to them, even though I've already bought all of their fucking albums already! More than goddamn once!

So, instead of focusing the dialog on why the new ways are inherently bad, let's look to what we want them to become. Have we even begun that conversation? I haven't heard it at all.

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