Music

Perform This Way: Lady Gaga’s “Joanne”

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01-lady-gaga-press-photo-cr-collier-schorr-2016-billboard-1548Over the summer, I briefly plunged myself into studying camp for a couple of pieces I did. Its definitions varied, one of the great conceptual terms whose definition is as elusive as the transient nature of what it may or may not describe. For some, it’s merely the love for kitsch; for others, it’s pointed exaggeration to subvert normative values in art; and for some others, it’s the enjoyable bad, where badness does a 360 and becomes good again in spite of itself. The common connection was the role artifice plays. It’s either tool or catalyst, coding in each second of a given text a kind of language recognized and shared by a niche group of people.

And then at some point, camp was mainstreamed, and what was once kind of secret became kind of populist, even if in a tangential way. Ryan Murphy, Madonna, Hairspray as a musical, and the grande dame, Lady Gaga. Read the rest of this entry »

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Children Will Listen: 100 Favorite Songs

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Photo of Amy WINEHOUSEAmongst my worst qualities as a human being are my aggressive need to be right about the James Bond movies, my habit of impulsively buying food, and my disinclination to listen to complete albums. It’s not to say I haven’t done it (LEMONADE y’all!), it’s just that my taste in music, unlike my taste in people with whom I sleep and subsequently kick out of my room, is very high and finnicky. So, most of the music I listen to I’ve heard in commercials, trailers, movies, commercials and trailers for movies, the radio, and once in a while, recommendations from friends, enemies, and former lovers’ sister’s best friends. In honor and celebration of nothing in particular, here’s a list of 100 favorite songs that I originally intended on posting last year, but due to laziness and a bout of post-Mad Men depression, I never got to.  Read the rest of this entry »

BØRNS This Way: BØRNS’ “Dopamine”

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cover1400x1400That guy – the one whose hairs cascades down his back like a nymph, straddling a line between art school sexy and Bushwick eye-roll worthy; the one who waxes poetically about peace, love, understanding, the latest Gibraltar coffee ad; the one that casually quotes Descartes and whose very nonchalance about the name dropping makes him all the more intriguing – has an album out, and it is both very good and also kind of silly. That guy is BØRNS and that album is Dopamine. Read the rest of this entry »

Sleep No More: Guillermo del Toro’s Lullabies

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Tinged in red – or crimson, shall we say – the Universal Studios and Legendary Pictures logos fly across the screen. Hovering above our heads and in the back of our minds, in a space where sonic beauty and horror will find comfort throughout the duration of the experience, is a lullaby. Floating in and out of the air, only lasting briefly, on settles in for an adult bedtime story, a glorious story woven from things past and present, and spun with excitement and tension by Guillermo del Toro. Read the rest of this entry »

You Were Expecting Something Else?: Re-ranking the Bond Themes

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Quantum-of-Solace-1640As I intimated back in 2012, “The Bond Sound” as we know it is mostly a cultural construct that was borne more out of John Barry’s orchestrations from the 1960s than much else to do with the theme songs in and of themselves. But, another few years and another couple of Bond tracks later, and I guess I should regroup and rerank them all, because that’s what you do when a new thing comes out, right? Listicles, man, listicles. My grading criteria shifts from son to song because I was rejected from SPECTRE membership, but it’s on two levels of consideration: a) is this a good song? And b) is this a good song for the Bond films? Because this is what you do when you have a lot of time on your hands. Read the rest of this entry »

Listen to All My Sh*t: The Music of Spring Breakers

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yellowIntroduction

For all of its universality in portraying seemingly good people revealing their true nihilistic selves and behaving badly, Harmony Korine purposely focuses his debauchery filled new film Spring Breakers at contemporary youth, or what some people have labeled as “Millennials”. But he does this neither in the choice of Spring Break in general nor even choosing the nubile actresses themselves, but, most notably, in the choice of music. Korine is, like Tarantino (but perhaps less well known), good at choosing music, often to ironically tonally subvert a scene, or, in this case, an entire film. Korine’s choice to hire Cliff Martinez and Skrillex is telling, as well as their decision to include certain tracks and music in the film. All of these points to a focus on a particular group of people and how nasty they really are. Three tracks in particular perfectly illustrate the themes of the film and the personalities of the characters: Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, and Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. The three tracks work not only as a representation and epitome of the generation that this film is directed at, but also as a distillation of the film itself.

The “Monsters” Within

It may be one thing to choose Cliff Martinez to score your film, whose nostalgia drenched Drive is one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, but it is entirely something else to also have Lord of the Bass Drop, dubstep mastermind Skrillex, to also be on board.  So, while the film’s score oscillates between various transmutations of dubstep, electro-hip hop, and something a little ‘80s driven as well, it might be a little surprising at first to hear Skrillex’s most famous track begin the film. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” is originally off of the DJ’s second EP of the same name, and its title alone suggests the characters. When you listen to the track however, the thematic elements of the title play in reverse, almost as they do in the film. Something sweeter and nice starts playing, sort of like an electronically produced candy land, with something sinister underneath. This is, of course, juxtaposed against images of teenagers “celebrating” in Florida. But that sense of unbelievable, too good t be true pureness in electronic sound suits the film’s four characters, played by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.

When you just look at these four attractive actresses, you wrongly have the sense that they’re nice and sort of angelic. Their neon bathing suits, streaked hair, and distinctively feminine qualities are exemplified in the beginning notes of the track. Once you get deeper into the film and get to know the characters, the monsters are let loose. For, what is scarier to the general male that the concept of a woman being in control of her own agency, her own sexuality, and using that as a form of power? These “scary monsters” are scary from a popular cultural perspective, a society which undermines young women’s intelligence, their abilities to decide for themselves, and the fact that they can give any man a run for his money when it comes to toting a gun. The femininity of their “sprite-like” façade is subverted by Skrillex’s trademark “bass drop”, where you hear the screams of a young girl saying, “Yes, oh my gosh!” This is a shout of triumph, the girls perhaps being stunned by their own power and subsequent prowess. The progressive house tone that the song transitions to is intentionally cacophonous, thereby showing that the girls can be mean, but drawing the line at evil. Who are we really to classify these girls as monsters? Or are these the monsters we made ourselves by our reflexive oppression and objectifying? However, the song is able to transition back and forth between these two qualities: the sound of the Nice Sprites and the sound of the Scary Monsters. The girls themselves oscillate between being those sprites and monsters; between the immaturity of young girls and the maturity of grown women. These women are in control, in such a way that we, as an audience, cannot even fathom it.

 

Hit Me Baby “Everytime”

The centerpiece of the film and what is, by consensus, said to be the very best part, is the use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”. I made a point in my review to make some comparisons to Britney Spears as a person and as a songstress, but “Everytime” is the kind of majestic scene that only one could ever hope to conceive, never mind execute flawlessly. Calum Marsh wrote a very good, very interesting article about how the song and the scene essentially prove that Spring Breakers isn’t a satire. I would go a step further and assert that, not only is the song not used ironically, but that it fits the relationship between the girls and James Franco’s Alien. The song originally appeared as a single off of the Princess of Pop’s fourth album In the Zone, and was allegedly written in response to ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s hit single “Cry Me a River”. The song plaintively apologizes for all the harm and wrong that occurred in a relationship, where Spears’ persona basically “owns up” to most of those faults. Why is the song played at all? The remaining three girls, Hudgens, Benson, and Korine, ask Alien to play something inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps a little odd considering that the song is basically a breakup… but is it?

by the water

This is well into the film, and after the young women have asserted their power over Franco himself. So, now that the girls essentially have shifted the power hierarchy in their bizarre relationship, why not sing a breakup song? Or, rather, a “post-Breakup song”. The girls are saying goodbye to Franco, for they know, for all of their feminine power, they can supersede him in Florida and then return home as if nothing ever happened. That is what college spring break is all about: creating momentary relationships with people you don’t really know, creating a dynamic that doesn’t last, and then leaving it all behind. Not only that, but the song opens with the words “notice me”; by exerting this power, the girls are able to get people to notice them. Even Gucci Mane. It feels a little ironic and a little satirical, though, because of where the song is used and over what. In beautiful slow motion, “Everytime” is played over scenes of Franco’s gang assaulting people, pistol whipping them, while the girls are just as much a part of the action. Who the leader of this gang is becomes incredibly blurred. Even from an aesthetic point, the use of the song is transcendent and one of the film’s most dizzyingly beautiful moments. Like Korine said, it’s all about that haunting piano. It’s sinister yet innocent, and completely beautiful.

Turn On the “Lights”

The song that plays over the final the neon end credits is fitting to the film: Ellie Goulding’s “Lights”. Off of her album of the same name, Goulding’s ethereal vocals and equally bedazzling song production become sonic manifestations of the glowing and neon soaked cinematography. Deep in the rain and under the water, on the streets and as they drive, the lights shine representing the danger that so entices the girls. But, that danger is what they find alluring and safe. As Ellie Goulding said, she feels safe sleeping with the lights on. By that, the lights reveal things about the characters that they seem to come to understand towards the end of the film. Their Malickian voice over messages colliding with their Godardian rhetoric and a little bit of a sneer of insincerity are the result of this change.

From the 120 beat per second drum/bass line to the star studded eletronica (reminiscent of bounding lights and bouncing piano keys), “Lights” assaults the listener with dark thoughts and a boom that seems like a blast of darkness and then of light. The lights flicker, as they sometimes do in the film. However, here the lights don’t obfuscate. They may be blinding, they may be alluring, but they reveal desire, lust, and dreams. They offer safety and clarity. The importance of light is evident in the film, as lens flare, bright colors, and the lettering of the title are used to intoxicate the viewer and the characters. There is a small bit of irony here, though. Since the song is about feeling safety when the lights are on, this reveals the childish aspect of the four girls’. They may be fascinated by the lights, but they don’t want the dark. Again, as I mentioned earlier, the girls, and the songs, oscillate between the immaturity of young girls and grown women.

Conclusion

Generationally, it makes sense for these tracks to be used. Dubstep is popular amongst the party scene, so Skrillex is an obvious choice. The girls, and the audience, grew up with Britney Spears, watching her rise to fame to her fall from grace and then resurgence years later. And Ellie Goulding is one of the hottest new artists on the scene. It was therefore a wise choice for Korine to use these tracks, appealing to his main demographic and yet fitting them to the characters specifically enough that the film’s commentary on youth culture was that much more on the nose.

If you couldn’t tell by the fact that this is my third post in a row about Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, I’m totally enamored of this film, from every aspect. Every element, thrown against the wall or not, seems to fit. But the key tracks of the film shed light on the characters, the environment, and the commentary. Thus, Skrillex, Britney Spears, and Ellie Goulding all accentuate the atmosphere of the film. Spring Breakers is film fueled by its ability to stagger and stun every sense, and sonically, the film couldn’t do better.

“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” – Skrillex

“Everytime” – Britney Spears

“Lights” – Ellie Goulding

Performance/Art: Sound of Noise

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I played the violin for about seven years when I was younger, probably elementary and middle school ages. I ended up quitting, but nonetheless, I’ve always had an appreciation for music. That, added to my exposure to the show Stomp Out Loud, I think were good preparation for a film called Sound of NoiseSound of Noise presents an array of ideas about art, music, ideas, and statements all in a fairly light package. That’s probably one of the best things about Sound of Noise: it captures all the beauty and complexity of music without being overbearing. It’s the perfect soundtrack.

Tone deaf police officer, or head of terrorist activities investigations (or something along those lines), Amadeus Warenberg, named for the iconic composer, plays second fiddle to his older brother, Oscar, a famous composer and conductor. During this interesting dynamic between his family, world renowned musicians, there is something very odd going on. A beat. Renegade percussionists are breaking into places (a hospital, a bank, etc.) and performing. And this stuff is illegal. Public disobedience or distraction or something? Regardless, as Amadeus comes closer to cracking the case as to who these Bonnie and Clyde of musicians are (although there are Six Drummers), he comes closer to finding the beauty in the Sound of Noise.

Somewhat ironically, slightly earlier in the week, there was a discussion about Joshua Bell. The famous violinist a few years went busking in a metro station and it took 7 hours and a paltry $32 before anyone recognized him. This led to a discussion of how we appreciate arts and such. Sound of Noise somehow beautifully distills that sort of conversation and asks similar questions as well. As much as our protagonist Amadeus grew up around music, nearly filling his younger life, he has grown to hate it. There’s an interesting subjective quality to certain areas of the film from the perspective of Amadeus. In certain scenes, when you should hear the ding of a metal tray, the knock against a wall, or the bark of a dog, there is nothing. The man is tone deaf, and this rather melancholic way of showing that is incredibly effective, and, thankfully, consistent throughout most of the film.

Through these renegade Six Drummers is written and performed a manifesto. This manifesto, performed on the streets and in very public places is like the immediate confrontation of an artistic statement. Like anything that Marina Abromovic’s The Artist is Present, the music as public statement adds an interesting, very real intrusiveness to it. But, if you are a member of most of the population, let’s face it, you probably think such artistic statements and manifestos are any of the following: silly, frivolous, inessential, ridiculous, overdone, and/or pretentious. One of the small beauties of the film is the ambiguity with which it treats the idea of “art as public forum”. There are moments when you are not quite sure whether or not the directors, Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nisson, are praising the medium and function or satirizing it. It may be very well that they are doing both. It may be that they are saying, quite possibly, “Artistic statements are important, no matter how insane and unpredictable they are… but you don’t have to always go all out.” That being said, satire or praise, they do not seem to be condemning.

The music sequences are one of the best features of the film and, unsurprisingly, the thing that drew me most to the film. Creative, rather avant garde performance is the kind of thing I sort of love. As aforementioned, I love Stomp Out Loud, in which street dancers and musicians play on trash cans and the like. I love Blue Man Group, which, though less percussively based, is visually inventive and enticing nonetheless. So, a bit of a mix between the two (more the former than the latter) is sort of a performance art dream come true. These sequences are, in their, magical, majestic, and, most of all, fun. There is a wicked, warped sense of humor to them all, from “Doctor, Doctor, Gimme Gas in My Ass”, in which they hijack an anesthetized body and, uh, play music on him; “Money 4U Honey”, where the Six Drummers hold up a bank and proceed perform for the customers; and two other performances. And, like any good, piece of performance art, there’s always another layer of meaning. You could assert that “Doctor Doctor” is a criticism of health care and “Money 4U Honey” is about capitalism. You could make a number of assertions about the instruments that are used in each, their individual sounds, etc. But, the most important part is that these performances, as layered as they are, are just plain breathtaking. They are first and foremost the most entertaining scenes in cinema in a long time. These fun, beat-filled sequences made me, someone fairly cynical, feel giddy and kid-like with wonderment. Maybe that is the primary thesis of this film. That music, found anywhere in all locations at any time is wonderful. The whimsy, spontaneity and yet planned nature of it all is just thrilling.

The film sets itself up like a weird crime movie or heist film. The Six Drummers are led by two, Sanna and Magnus, the two leads portrayed by Sanna Persson and Magnus Borjeson. They round up the other four, and there’s an amusing amount of exposition involved. We do not entirely see the planning out of what is going to happen, but there’s a short and sweet montage of what will be the musical sequences. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven, but shorter, less expository, and with music. That’s a funny subversion I noticed in the film, and while the film is reliant on its musical center pieces, it plays itself like a funny heist movie, seemingly turning those tropes on their head. You have your mild character study of the guy who’s chasing after the “criminals”, your charismatic “criminals”, and the plan set into motion. Granted, the feeling is jarring at first, but the tone is light and humorous. It is honestly one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time.

Sound of Noise’s best quality is that it presents all these ideas, assertions, opinions, and commentaries without the pretension that a lot of films privy to these subjects and techniques often have. It’s beautifully composed and constructed, with wonderful visuals. Most of all, its musical center pieces are simply astounding. However, its most winning and charming quality is its effortlessness. Sound of Noise shows that music can come from anywhere, and from anywhere it’s a wonder.

 

“Money 4U Honey” Clip