Eurovision 2012 - Semifinal two contestants

Posted Monday May 7, 2012 by John Gunders in |

Part two of my brief assessments of this year’s Eurovision contestants (part one is here).

In this second half of the draw, the piano ballad is king, although there is a fair range of styles from Eurodisco to bat-shit crazy. It also contains the favourite, Sweden, although it remains to be seen if the bookmakers have to pay out on that one.

Tomorrow I’ll post my opinions about the “big six”: that is, the five western European countries that bank-roll the event and the previous year’s winner, in this case, Azerbaijan.


Eurovision 2012 - Semifinal one contestants

Posted Sunday May 6, 2012 by John Gunders in |

Well it’s that time again. Yes, we are off to Baku in Azerbaijan for Eurovision 2012. This will be the most easterly Eurovision ever, and the first time it has been hosted in Eastern Europe—Latvia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2005 are the closest the competition has come to the countries that seem to take it the most seriously.

Below the fold are my frankly ill-informed assessments of the first semifinal contestants, based on a single hearing of the Youtube video. There are presented in alphabetical order rather than performance because… well, because. I was going to add links, but I couldn’t be bothered. The Eurovision site is here.

I’ll be back in the next couple of days with the second semifinal contestants. In the meantime, enjoy :-)

"Forever Young" and Nuclear War

Posted Monday February 8, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Since I originally posted it in June 2006, the most read article on Memes is one called Forever Young and the Politics of Meaning, a short meditation on the way in which context and personal experience change the meaning of a text. It generated a reasonably brisk debate at the time, but then I moved on, and most of the commenters did also.

But for the last three and a half years we have had an average of four visits a week from people googling something like “meaning of forever young.” I’ve visited other sites that come up in this search, and I think that it is time I added my view on the song, because I don’t think many people get it.

The song was originally written by German synth-pop outfit Alphaville, and “Forever Young” was the title track on their 1984 debut album. For me the clue is in the date of the original release: 1984 was smack in the middle of the Cold War and the song captures the sense of existential dread and fatalism that afflicted many young people at that time:

Let’s dance in style, let’s dance for a while
Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst
Are you going to drop the bomb or not?

This isn’t a political song; there is no advocating about arms reduction or political solutions, just the plea to forget politics and go out dancing. While the songwriters don’t want to die, anything seems better than waiting around for an apocalypse that ordinary people felt they didn’t have a way of stopping.


Best Music Scribbling 2009

Posted Friday January 29, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Thank you to Jason Gross at Popmatters for naming us alongside writers like Trent Reznor and publications such as Salon and The Wall Street Journal in their 2009 Best Music Scribbling Awards.

It’s nice to get some acknowledgment, especially from a professional in the industry.

The post he liked was this one.

But make sure you visit Popmatters and read the other articles as well—they are some great ideas, well put.

More Chinese Lip-Synching

Posted Sunday January 24, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Another lip-synching scandal in China (via ABC News):

Authorities in the Chinese province of Sichuan say two Chinese pop singers face fines amounting to around $12,000 for lip-syncing during a concert.

The two women are alleged to have mimed through a concert last September.

A ban on the practice was brought in after a young girl was embarrassingly revealed to have lip-synced at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Just whose version of authenticity is this? The integrity argument in pop music authenticity—that the output of the artist is the sincere expression of their effort and lived experience—derives directly from the Enlightenment and, especially, Romanticist philosophies. That is, strongly Western forms of thought that have never had much purchase in Eastern philosophies.

I wonder why the Chinese are importing these outmoded and largely irrelevant themes along with the genres and structures of Western popular music?

Rock Culture and the Academy

Posted Monday September 21, 2009 by John Gunders in |

The definitions of rock culture used by academics and critics all presuppose a fan culture of consumers whose main engagement with the culture is through the purchase of CDs, DVDs, concert tickets, entry to clubs, and so on, or through the free consumption of music texts on the radio, television, or other media. Nowhere is it acknowledged that the consumers of the culture might be producers in their own right. In fact, Simon Frith goes so far as to state that most pop fans are “technically, non-musical” (139).

William Bielby’s sociological account of the emergence of popular music in the southern suburbs of Chicago between 1958 and 1963, laments that of the limited number of published articles on popular music in Sociology Abstracts up until 1999, “with only a few exceptions, this scholarship is mostly about commercially produced music and the music industry, not about grassroots performance” (1).

Nevertheless the 1999 study of Australian cultural taste by Bennett, Emmison and Frow showed that nearly thirty percent of the households surveyed owned a guitar—the archetypal rock music instrument—and that seventeen percent of respondents played a musical instrument of some sort “often” or “sometimes” (198). This is not to suggest that everyone has a stake in, or even equal access to the means of musical production, but it does show that a significant proportion of the population have some degree of musical knowledge, and have the potential to produce informed critiques of the texts they consume.


Where were all the sisters?

Posted Monday July 13, 2009 by John Gunders in |

Last week was the long-anticipated count-down of Triple J’s most recent Hottest 100 of all time poll, the first since 1998. One of the most interesting things about the poll, aside from the question of why “#hottest100” didn’t appear in Twitter’s trending topics list (over-zealous spam filter is my guess), is the almost total absence of female artists in the 100 songs. Sure, the two Massive Attack songs that made it (“Unfinished Sympathy” #93 and “Teardrop” #22) both had female vocalists, and there were other bands that had female members—The Dandy Warhols, Smashing Pumpkins, New Order, and The White Stripes—but there were no female solo artists or female-fronted bands. This created quite a bit of consternation on the Twitter feed and on the Triple J forums, and I would like to offer my explanation.

First, we must consider the relative absence of any artists from earlier than the 1980s. Only 18% of the 100 songs came from the 1960s and 1970s, and comprised mostly the usual suspects: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and so on. Similarly, genre music was completely absent: two hop-hop tracks (Beastie Boys, “Sabotage” #48, and Hilltop Hoods, “The Nosebleed Section” #17), and three electronic acts (Daft Punk, “Around the World” #58, and “One More Time” #96; Gotye, “Hearts a Mess” #77; and The Prodigy “Breathe” #70). There was a little bit of metal (Tool, Nine Inch Nails, System of a Down) but these don’t code particularly strongly as being outside the dominant rock myth.

What this means is that we are not going to see artists as central to the history of rock music as Aretha Franklin, Billie Holliday, or even Janis Joplin.


Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues Tradition

Posted Monday July 6, 2009 by John Gunders in |

This is part two of my investigation into the construction of authenticity in the Blues. Part one is here.

There are few musicians who enjoy the sorts of legends that surround Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. For most of his short life he was an itinerant artist, travelling to wherever he could find an audience, accompanied by a battered acoustic guitar and little else. The popular legend, apparently based on a misreading of his song “Cross Road Blues”, and the incredulity of bluesmen Son House and Willie Brown that the “little boy” who used to annoy them at performances had become such a virtuoso (DiGiacomo), suggests that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in return for his freakish talent, and that he died after drinking a bottle of whiskey poisoned by a jealous husband. The truth—as much as it is known—is a fascinating story of a little known plantation worker who was largely ignored in his lifetime, but whose brief music career and limited output continues to influence generations of musicians:

Dead at 27, twenty-nine songs, and just two known photographs , we’ll never have more that just a few scattered memories and details about the life of Robert Johnson. In the 65 years since he died, his shadow’s only grown longer, as musicians continue to sing his words and play his music. (Scorsese)

Johnson developed a style of guitar playing that has influenced artists such as Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin. In 1986 he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and made the 2003 Rolling Stone list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (at number five). How the poor, apparently uneducated Johnson, with a career lasting probably no more than eight years, came to be one of the most revered artists in the blues tradition, and—arguably—the father of rock music, is actually a story about the construction of authenticity.


The Construction of the Blues Tradition

Posted Monday June 1, 2009 by John Gunders in |

I don’t mean to boast, but I got a rare gig on Saturday, and my blues three-piece got to come out of the lounge room and play in front of an actual audience of actual people. Actually, we were supporting a 50s-60s covers band who were doing a fund-raiser for the local church’s Girl Brigade group, so the presence of a lot of impressionable nine-year-old girls in the audience was slightly amusing considering the songs in our set:

“Undercover Agent for the Blues”, Tony Joe White (“I was blinded by the blackness of her long silk stockings”; “She kept on getting kinkier”)

“I’m a Stranger Babe”, John Lee Hooker (“Don’t drive me from your door / Let me stay the night with you”)

“In the Midnight Hour”, Wilson Pickett (“Oh babe I’m gonna hold you / Do all the things I told you”)

OK, unlike a lot of blues, these are suggestive rather than overt, and I’m sure no one could understand my vocals anyway, but an old bluesman (I can’t remember who it was, but he was interviewed in one of the PBS documentaries introduced by Martin Scorsese) claims that the only real blues songs are about “S. E. X.”

This intersected nicely with an article I was reading the day before, which had the thesis that what we understand as the blues tradition was carefully shaped by blues scholars to elide the raunchy, explicit songs that were popular at the time.


Ranking Guitarists

Posted Friday April 24, 2009 by John Gunders in |

In my chapter on authenticity and popular music, I’m mounting the argument that popular music operates in (among other things) a tension between creativity and tradition. (Yes, I know, not just popular music—I have read Eliot). My contention is that while this tension remains largely in balance, at any given time one or the other is dominant, and this is the underlying cause of the fact that popular (and here I’m referring to mainstream rock) music often cycles through phases of rock-revivalism in response to some sort of creative excess. Thus, it could be argued, punk was a reaction to the overblown styles of the 1960s rock dinosaurs, grunge to the dominance of the synth during the 1980s, etc. (Don’t lean too heavily on the periodicity: it’s a complex cycle, they overlap, and there are always outliers.)

I want to argue that one aspect of this latest version of rock revivalism—which I would suggest we are just starting to emerge from—presents itself in terms of a suspicion of virtuoso musicians (read guitarists) and a preference for a simpler, truer, style of playing. Thus in the late 1970s the mainstream audience abandoned the technical skills of Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton for the forthright honesty of Johnny Ramone or Mick Jones; in the 1990s Kurt Cobain became the guitar hero, rather than Eddie Van Halen or Kirk Hammett of Metallica.