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kottke.org posts about music

How the Sears Catalog Undermined White Supremacy in the Jim Crow South

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 16, 2018

Sears Catalog

Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection and plans to close hundreds of stores in an effort to keep the company afloat. The Sears catalog is perhaps one of the most important and under-appreciated innovations in American life. Starting in 1888 with a mailer advertising watches and jewelry, Sears introduced millions of Americans to in-home shopping by using the growing networks of the railroad and US Postal Service, much like Amazon and other retailers would using the internet decades later.

The time was right for mail order merchandise. Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided the mail order business by permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge entitling these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 also made distribution of the catalog economical.

As historian Louis Hyman explained on Twitter, the way Sears sold goods to their customers also provided new opportunities for black Southerners living under the Jim Crow system.

Every time a black southerner went to the local store they were confronted with forced deference to white customers who would be served first. The stores were not self-service, so the black customers would have to wait. And then would have to ask the proprietor to give them goods (often on credit because…sharecropping). The landlord often owned the store. In every way shopping reinforced hierarchy. Until Sears.

The catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices!

This excellent piece by Antonia Noori Farzan has more info. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of blind auditions, the practice of auditioning orchestra musicians behind a screen to help cut down on gender bias during the hiring process. While not entirely free of bias — opportunities for discrimination by postal workers and Sears employees were still possible — the Sears ordering process was essentially a blind retail transaction, a screen placed between the store and black customers. (The catalog also advertised racist costumes so obviously Sears wasn’t some bastion of social progressivism…they simply wanted to sell more goods to more kinds of people.)

According to Sears historian Jerry Hancock, Sears also developed a policy to help those who couldn’t read or write that well to be able to place orders:

One of Hancock’s discoveries was Sears’ response to the needs of a rural South in which literacy was rare. For someone who could neither read nor write, placing orders and following written protocols were problematic. Richard Sears responded with a policy that his company would fill any order it received, no matter what the medium or format. So, country folks who were once too daunted to send requests to other purveyors could write in on a scrap of paper, asking humbly for a pair of overalls, size large. And even if it was written in broken English or nearly illegible, the overalls would be shipped.

Music scholar Ted Gioia notes that blues musicians were able to buy instruments from Sears that were unavailable to them from local retailers.

With Sears declaring bankruptcy, it’s worth remembering how much impact this company had on American music. In my research into blues and other traditional styles, I found that many, many musicians started out on Sears instruments.

Even under Jim Crow, music was an avenue for upward mobility for African Americans, and Sears and other mail-order retailers were more than happy to provide them with instruments.

Music Can Save Lives: A Playlist for Perfect CPR Chest Compressions

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2018

If you’re ever called on to perform CPR in an emergency but you don’t have training, the American Heart Association recommends performing “Hands-Only CPR”. There are two easy steps: you call 911 and then you press hard and fast in the center of the person’s chest 100-120 times per minute. As their fact sheet explains, familiar music can help maintain the proper tempo.

Song examples include “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira” or “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. People feel more confident performing Hands-Only CPR and are more likely to remember the correct rate when trained to the beat of a familiar song.

When performing CPR, you should push on the chest at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute, which corresponds to the beat of the song examples above.

New York Presbyterian Hospital maintains a Spotify playlist of “Songs to do CPR to” that hit that 100-120 bpm sweet spot.

The playlist includes songs familiar to lifesavers of all generations, from Book of Love by the Monotones to Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd to Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles to Sorry by Justin Bieber. Stayin’ Alive or Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body are probably more appropriate to the situation, but should the need arise, my go-to CPR song is now Crazy in Love. Who knows, Beyoncé might help save someone’s life someday. (via @juliareinstein)

Joan Jett Rocks “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Nirvana Reunion

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 09, 2018

The surviving members of Nirvana (minus Kurt Cobain, of course) held a six-song reunion at the Cal Jam festival with a couple of special guests, including Joan Jett taking over vocal duties on Smells Like Teen Spirit, and All Apologies, and Breed. The video above captures the whole thing from the crowd…here’s another view of just Smells Like Teen Spirit:

This Stumbling Deer’s Hooves Sound Like Phil Collins’ Drum Fill on “In the Air Tonight”

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 03, 2018

This deer stumbling through a children’s play set sounds just like the drums in In the Air Tonight (you know the ones).

This might be the best things that sound like other things yet, although the falling shovel that sounds like Smells Like Teen Spirit will always occupy the top spot in my heart. (Thx to the many people who sent this in knowing that I would love it. I feel very heard right now.)

The oral history of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 21, 2018

On Sunday, September 23, OutKast’s double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will be fifteen years old. About ready for a learner’s permit. Damn.

Okayplayer assembled an short oral history of both albums, with fresh input from contributors like Cee-Lo Green and engineer Neal Pogue as well as digging into the archives for commentary from Andre 3000 and Big Boi. Just like the albums, it’s a lot of fun.

Cee-Lo Green: They don’t make physical copies of physical CDs anymore. So basically, streaming is just like, “We like this a lot” It’s like analytics. I don’t know what else actually did Diamond or better. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below will probably be one of the last albums in history that will have moved physically over 10 million copies. That ain’t never gonna happen again.

Khujo Goodie: That was the biggest thing it Atlanta, man, because along with Goodie Mob, those guys are the pioneers of Atlanta, Georgia music! They’re the pillars. Just to have some guys representing where you stay, it wasn’t nothing but love when Speakerboxxx/The Love Below dropped, man. And you got a double album, that was just icing on the cake right there!

Big Boi [via MTV News, 2017]: When you’re inside of [the creative process], you don’t know [the impact], you know what I mean? You just go in and try to create something new. One thing that we do is never revisit what we’ve done, although we stand on it and we know it’s there.

I would never go back and try to create a song like “The Rooster”, or “Unhappy”, or “The Way You Move” — That’s too easy, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I could dig about the younger generation. I like to see who’s gonna play it safe and who’s gonna evolve into that other thing.

We really could use a full documentary about OutKast, digging into each of their albums, both principals, and the development of the scene/family around them. Someone should make that happen.

Meet Feng E, an 11-Year-Old Taiwanese Ukulele Prodigy

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2018

Feng E started playing the ukulele when he was just five years old. His father pushed him into it by saying that he wouldn’t play Legos with the boy unless he took up the instrument. Six years later, he can casually slay Zombie by The Cranberries in the back of a car:

Or Michael Jackson’s Beat It on the streets on London:

Or Classical Gas in the park:

Ok, get this kid a duet with this guy’s washing machine.

My Recent Media Diet, Special In Denial That Summer’s Over Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the last month or so. This installment has a few things on it from a trip to NYC and is also very movie-heavy. In addition to the stuff below, I also finished Sharp Objects (HBO series, not the book) and Star Trek: Voyager, both of which I reviewed last time. I’m almost done with Origin Story…might do a whole separate post on that one. Up next in the book department: Now My Heart Is Full, The Good Neighbor, or Fantasyland.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout. I’m not a particular fan of the series, but this was so fun that maybe I should be? Love the practical effects. (B+)

Bundyville. This podcast came highly recommended by a reader but as soon as Cliven Bundy opened his mouth to speak I realized I did not want to spend a single second of my life in this asshole’s ville or town or mind or anything. Maybe this makes me intolerant or incurious? Not sure I particularly care…there are worthier things I can choose spend my time on. (-)

Radiohead at TD Garden, 7/29/2018. I somehow won the Ticketmaster lottery and got floor tickets, so we were about 35 feet from the stage. Cool to see my favorite band that close. (A)

MFA Pastels

French Pastels: Treasures from the Vault, MFA Boston. I don’t have much experience with viewing pastels but these seemed simultaneously alive and dreamy. (A-)

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. One of our culture’s recent great storytellers. It’s dated (and cringeworthy) in places, but that Bourdain voice and perspective is right there on the page, almost fully formed. In the chapter about Tokyo, you also get to witness the prototype for Bourdain’s third and, arguably, greatest career as a culinary and cultural observer of far-flung places. Pro tip: get the audiobook read by the man himself. (A)

My new electric toothbrush. Why didn’t anyone tell me about this sooner? My teeth feel (and probably are) so much cleaner now! (A-)

Holedown. I’ve spent too many hours playing this. It sucks I hate it it’s so good and I can’t stopppppppp. (A-/D+)

David Wojnarowicz exhibition at the Whitney. A strong show about an artist I didn’t know a lot about going in. (B+)

The Problem We All Live With

Celebrating Bill Cunningham exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. The exhibition was in a small room and featured very few photographs, so I was a little disappointed. But I did get to see the Norman Rockwell/FDR exhibition, including this arresting painting. (B)

Through a Different Lens: Stanley Kubrick Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York. Even though I have the book, the original photos were worth seeing in person. (B+)

Eighth Grade. The feelings generated by watching this film — dread, crushing anxiety — closely approximated how I felt attending 8th grade. Well played. (B+)

Sorry to Bother You. If you haven’t seen this, don’t watch or read anything about it before you do. Just watch it. (A-)

Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin. This had me thinking about all sorts of different things. Recommended. (A)

Succession. This wasn’t quite as good as everyone said it was, but I still enjoyed it. My tolerance for watching rich, powerful, white assholes, however entertaining, is waning though… (B)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Unsurprisingly more spare than the TV series but still powerful and unsparing. (A-)

The Dark Knight. If not the best superhero movie ever, it’s close. (A-)

Crazy Rich Asians. A romantic comedy with a strong dramatic element rooted in family & cultural dynamics, women who are strong & interesting & feminine in different ways, and a wondrous setting. Also, put Awkwafina in every movie from now on. (A-)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Fred Rogers was a relentless person, a fantastic example of a different kind of unyielding masculinity. I sobbed like a baby for the last 20 minutes of this. (A)

BlacKkKlansman. Messy. I didn’t really know what to feel about it when it ended…other than shellshocked. Was that the point? (B+)

Tycho’s 2018 Burning Man Sunrise DJ set. Always an end-of-the-summer treat. (A)

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I watched this movie at least 100 times in high school. Despite not having seen it in probably 20 years, I still knew every single line of dialogue — inflections, timing, the whole thing. (A+)

Foggy hikes. (A+)

American Animals. This is like Ocean’s 11 directed by Errol Morris. Stealing things is more difficult than it seems in the movies. (B+)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

A Relaxing Acrobatic Performance to Debussy’s Clair de Lune

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2018

Choreographer & acrobat Yoann Bourgeois and pianist Alexandre Tharaud have collaborated on a performance that combines a trampoline, a staircase, and Claude Debussy’s most famous composition, Clair de Lune. Even though I’ve seen a performance from Bourgeois before and knew what was coming, that first drop onto the trampoline was startling.

Three is a trend: slowly shredding some pow to classical music and Clair de Lune in the moonlight. (via @alexchabotl)

How Michael Jackson Made a Song

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 05, 2018

In Michael Jackson’s transition from child singer to the electrifying King of Pop, Evan Puschak argues that Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough from Off the Wall marked an inflection point. The song was a combination of the 70s sounds of funk & disco but mixed with other elements to make a pop hit that culturally belonged more to the 80s.

Tycho’s 2018 Burning Man DJ Set

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 04, 2018

Tycho just shared his sunrise DJ set from this year’s Burning Man.

This is going to be on repeat today and for the rest of the week. You can also check out his sets from 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014.

Stephen Colbert connects Chance the Rapper & Childish Gambino to the Lord of the Rings

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2018

Stephen Colbert is a *huge* J.R.R. Tolkien nerd. When Rolling Stone asked the late night host to break a song down, he chose “Favorite Song” by Chance the Rapper (feat. Childish Gambino) and connected a verse in it to both Gilbert & Sullivan and Lord of the Rings.

Whether or not you know it, Chance and Childish, you wrote a song that includes in it this really kind of rare rhyme and rhythm scheme that Tolkien used in the poem that actually influences all of the rest of Lord of the Rings.

I wonder about the “rare” bit though…rappers packing songs with internal rhymes is not a new thing nor is referencing Gilbert & Sullivan in hip-hop. Still, this is superbly nerdy. (via craig)

Yo-Yo Ma plays Bach for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

NPR does this thing called Tiny Desk Concerts where they bring musicians and bands into the office to play behind a desk. Recent guests have included T.I., Erykah Badu, Dave Matthews, and the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma played selections from Bach’s suites for cello, which he’s been playing for almost 60 years, and talked about the value of incremental learning.

Why did Laurence Olivier return so often to Shakespeare’s Othello? Why did Ansel Adams keep photographing the Grand Canyon? Obsessed or awestruck, artists revisit great inspirations because they believe there is yet another story to tell — about life, about themselves.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought his great inspiration, and in turn part of his own life story, to an enthusiastic audience packed around the Tiny Desk on a hot summer day. Ma is returning, yet again, to the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a Mount Everest for any cellist. He has just released his third studio recording of the complete set and is taking the music on a two-year, six-continent tour. Ma’s first recording of the Suites, released in 1983, earned him his first Grammy.

Amazingly, when Ma was only 7 years old, he played in a benefit concert for an audience that included President John F. Kennedy. Composer Leonard Bernstein introduced Ma, saying in part: “Now here’s a cultural image for you to ponder as you listen. A seven-year-old Chinese cellist playing old French music for his new American compatriots.”

Even though he’s only 62 years old, Ma is a great example of The Great Span in action, linking JFK and YouTube and Lil Buck together across seemingly disparate stretches of American history. When he plays a duet with the first virtuoso robotic cellist sometime in the next 20 years, Ma will have more than secured his spot in The Great Span Hall of Fame.

The original demo of Imagine by John Lennon

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

A demo version of Imagine, unheard for decades, was recently uncovered in an archive of Lennon audio tapes. You can listen to the beautifully spare rendition here:

While sifting through boxes upon boxes of the original tapes for Yoko Ono, engineer Rob Stevens discovered something truly remarkable that had gone unnoticed all these years. “Early 2016, during the gestation period of this project, I’m in the Lennon archives with my people going through tape boxes that have labeling that’s unclear, misleading, or missing entirely”, says Stevens. “There’s a one-inch eight-track that says nothing more on the ‘Ascot Sound’ label than John Lennon, the date, and the engineer (Phil McDonald), with DEMO on the spine. No indication of what material was on the tape. One delicate transfer to digital later, the “Imagine” demo, subsequently enhanced superbly by Paul Hicks, appears within this comprehensive set. It was true serendipity.”

Compare it to the remastered studio version and a live version.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

I could definitely get into that. For those unwilling to imagine no possessions, the demo, along with several others, appears on a collection coming out in the fall: preorder on Amazon or iTunes. (via @tedgioia)

Grandmaster Flash built his first mixer using parts from Radio Shack

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 22, 2018

Hip hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash grew up in the Bronx and attended a public vocational high school. There he learned how to fix electronics. He was also into music — his father had a huge record collection. In this video, Flash talks about how he combined those two interests and built his first mixer using parts he bought at Radio Shack.

Grandmaster Flash was tinkerer and a hacker. There were commercially available mixers at the time; he built his own. He absorbed the nascent music culture developing around him and twisted it to his own ends, developing new mixing techniques like beat juggling. He perfected scratching and brought it to a wider audience.

Any scientist, engineer, or artist would recognize the process at work here, how tightly coupled the development of new technology and fresh ideas is. Club DJs wanted a way to transition from one record to another without missing a beat, so the mixer was invented. Once that technology existed, people started using mixers to do things other than their initial purpose. New tech begat new ideas begat new tech, the adjacent possible expanding all the while, until a curious kid who dabbled in electronics and was obsessed with music came along and helped invent hip hop, the most culturally significant movement of the past 40 years. (via kelli anderson)

Aretha Franklin’s soul roots and gospel power

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2018

In this video for Vox, Estelle Caswell explores Aretha Franklin’s unique blend of pop, soul, and gospel, particularly in her cover songs and live performances.

Aretha Franklin will always be the Queen of Soul. In the 1960s songs like “Respect” became the symbol for political and social change. It’s likely the reason her music moved so many people wasn’t necessarily the lyrics, but the way she delivered them.

Aretha was raised in the church, and her life and music was rooted in gospel music. You can hear this so clearly in her live performances and covers, where every musical decision she made was in the moment.

Listen to any one of Aretha’s songs and you’ll understand the power of gospel music, but her live performance of “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “Son of a preacher man” are a great place to start.

Holy moly, what a voice.

Detroit’s own Queen: Aretha Franklin at history’s crossroads

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 17, 2018

Detroit Free Press - Aretha Franklin.jpg

There are many very fine obituaries and appreciations of Aretha Franklin, who passed away this week at 76. I have two favorites.

The first is a whip-crack of an essay by the New York Times’s Wesley Morris that, better than most, taps into Franklin’s own musical energies.

Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym. Obviously, she was far more than that. We’re never going to have an artist with a career as long, absurdly bountiful, nourishing and constantly surprising as hers. We’re unlikely to see another superstar as abundantly steeped in real self-confidence — at so many different stages of life, in as many musical genres….

The song owned the summer of 1967. It arrived amid what must have seemed like never-ending turmoil — race riots, political assassinations, the Vietnam draft. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his championship title for refusing to serve in the war. So amid all this upheaval comes a singer from Detroit who’d been around most of the decade doing solid gospel R&B work. But there was something about this black woman’s asserting herself that seemed like a call to national arms. It wasn’t a polite song. It was hard. It was deliberate. It was sure.

The second essay, for NPR by dream hampton, “Black People Will Be Free’: How Aretha Lived The Promise Of Detroit,” is more slowly wound, and less about the music than the time and place that produced Franklin and in which she flourished. It bleeds like a wound, a wound the size of a city, where the Industrial Revolution met the Great Migration and became the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s impossible to talk about Aretha without talking about her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. Born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Franklin began preaching and soul singing as a teenager. Just after World War II, he, like so many black Southerners who were fleeing racial terror and looking for work, found himself in Detroit. Mayor Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, called him a “preacher’s preacher.” And when Franklin died from gunshot wounds after being robbed in his home in 1979, Mayor Young said his “leadership of the historic freedom march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by his side in June of 1963 — and involving some 125,000 people — provided the prototype for Dr. King’s successful march in Washington later that summer.”

It is important to understand the tradition of black liberation theology, a term coined by James H. Cone, that sought to use scripture to center black self-determination. In Detroit, pastors like C.L. Franklin and Albert Cleage of the Shrine of the Black Madonna used black liberation theology to help a growing black city to imagine itself powerful. They used their churches to launch the campaign of Detroit’s black political class, including Coleman Young. At the same time, Rev. Franklin’s church remained a touch point for even more radical organizing. He opened New Bethel to black auto workers who were waging a class struggle within a racist United Automobile Workers union. He gave shelter to Black Panthers who were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against them. Later leaders of the fractured Black Power movement like the late Jackson, Miss. mayor (and Detroit native) Chokwe Lumumba gathered at New Bethel to form the Republic of New Afrika.

A new sound rooted in older sounds; a new politics rooted in older politics; a new, triumphant individualism rooted in the liberation of entire communities. In all these things, Aretha stood at the crossroads of history. Maybe no one else could have done it.

How constraints lead to creativity: making music for Super Nintendo games

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

In this short video, Evan Puschak talks about how music is made for Super Nintendo games. That system was first released in 1990 and the audio chips could only hold 64 KB of information, only enough room for beeps, boops, and very short samples. But composers like David Wise, whose soundtrack for the Donkey Kong Country series of games is on many lists of the best video game music, were able to make the SNES sing despite its limited capabilities.

Clair de Lune in the moonlight

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 16, 2018

NASA recently published this visualization of sunrises and sunsets on the Moon set to the strains of Claude Debussy’s most famous work, Clair de Lune.

The visuals were composed like a nature documentary, with clean cuts and a mostly stationary virtual camera. The viewer follows the Sun throughout a lunar day, seeing sunrises and then sunsets over prominent features on the Moon. The sprawling ray system surrounding Copernicus crater, for example, is revealed beneath receding shadows at sunrise and later slips back into darkness as night encroaches.

A lovely way to spend five minutes. (thx, gina)

Auctioneer chanting, “the poetry of capitalism”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2018

Auction Competition 2018

For the New Yorker, photographer David Williams visited the 2018 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship in Bloomington, Wisconsin. Amanda Petrusich wrote about the competition and his photos here.

This year’s champion, Jared Miller, of Leon, Iowa, took home a customized 2018 Chevrolet Silverado truck to drive for his yearlong reign; he also won six thousand dollars, a world-champion belt buckle, a world-champion ring, a money clip, and a bespoke leather briefcase. In interviews, Miller, like many successful auctioneers, appears personable and polite. When he begins his chant, his mouth only opens so much — when you’re talking as fast as he is, the tongue does most of the work — but what comes out sounds something like a undulating yodel, or a less guttural take on the Inuit tradition of throat singing. Once you tune in to its particular rhythms — and it can take a few minutes to acclimate to the crests and swells — the prices become discernible: “One dollar bid, now two, now two, would you give me two?”

You can listen to Miller’s winning chant on Facebook.

I hadn’t realized Werner Herzog made a 45-minute documentary about auctioneers at the same competition in 1976 called How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, although the audio isn’t synced that well:

According to the article, Herzog called auctioneering “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism”. This poetry can be difficult to follow, so this auctioneer explained what he and his fellow chanters are saying up on the stand.

Rap music also has a claim on being “the poetry of capitalism” and Graham Heavenrich had the genius idea of layering auctioneer chants over beats; you can listen in on Instagram or with this compilation:

Ok and just for kicks, when I was searching for the auctioneer beats thing on YouTube, I ran across this young woman rapping the entirety of Rap God by Eminem (the part starting at 4:26 = fire). Sign her up for the 2019 World Livestock Auctioneer Championship!

Music and depression

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

Consuming media when you’re depressed is a delicate business. Too much emotion, too much novelty, too much engagement can be overwhelming. You want familiarity, but you don’t want to spiral into rumination on your own past. You want reassurance, you want escape, you want meaning and meaninglessness. You want something that can square the circle of proximity and distance when your own thoughts feel all too unfamiliar, yet too close.

For me, it’s doo-wop, and/or old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But writer Blair Thornburgh loves sea shanties, and she makes a compelling case for why they were so moving to her during her own depression.

In the shanties, there are gals: the gals o’ Dublin Town, the gals o’ Chile, New York gals, Spanish ladies, the girl in Portland Street, Maggie May, Lucy Long, Susiana Brown. There is food—salt beef, salt bread, oatcake, codfish—and (of course) there is drink: grog, rum, whiskey, lime juice, beer. There are ports in Quebec, Bonnie Scotland, South Australia, ‘Frisco Bay. There is longing, there is forward motion, there is purpose; a shore behind and a shore before.

But there is also endlessness, the futility of a horizon that spills wave over wave. A life adrift is the only life that can endure, one journey after another the only way to earn your keep. There is certainty without stability, there is solid ground only briefly under your feet. Then poor old Jack must understand / There’s ships in docks all wanting hands; / So he goes on board as he did before, / And bids adieu to his native shore. / For he is outward bound, hurrah, he is outward bound.

The language of depression can be curiously maritime. It comes in waves; it drowns us; it’s the Mariner’s albatross around our necks. We long for smooth sailing, for hope on the horizon, an even keel. And the summer I stopped taking Seroquel, my depression was a riptide. I could see the shimmering okayness of everything around me, all the way to the edge: I was employed, insured, well-fed, loved. And yet it was useless to me: I was either plunged into hopelessness, or dying slowly of thirst.

The artist who paints music

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 26, 2018

Melissa McCracken

Melissa McCracken

Melissa McCracken

Melissa McCracken has synesthesia and experiences seeing the music she listens to as shifting colors. In an old artist statement, McCracken explained how she sees the world differently than many people:

Basically, my brain is cross-wired. I experience the “wrong” sensation to certain stimuli. Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space. But the most wonderful “brain malfunction” of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song.

Great Big Story did a short video profile of McCracken a couple of years ago:

I like how she says she dislikes how some songs sound but likes how they look. What a cool way to be able to experience the world.

McCracken is a bit coy on her site and Instagram about which songs inspired which paintings, but the paintings above are titled Love Is Touching Souls (from a Joni Mitchell lyric), Life on Mars (David Bowie), and Wasn’t It Kind of Wonderful (lyrics from a Lianne La Havas song?).

My media diet for early Summer 2018, special roadtrip edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”,1 so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past two months or so. My summer has been a little slow, media-wise…the World Cup, my roadtrip, and time spent enjoying the outdoors have conspired to limit my reading and watching time. This is not a bad thing. I’m still working my way through The Odyssey w/ the kids (now on hold b/c they’re at camp) and David Christian’s Origin Story. I wanted to get way more reading done this summer than I have…maybe I can pick up the pace in August. (Ignore the letter grades. Or don’t!)

Solo: A Star Wars Story. The movie was fine, but I liked the branding for it more. I would watch an Enfys Nest movie though. (B)

The Dave Chang Show w/ Helen Rosner. Chang is an engaging interviewer, and Rosner is a great guest. (B+)

RBG. What an extraordinary person. (B+)

American Innovations. Engaging and informative podcast hosted by Steven Johnson. (B)

Ocean’s 8. Pretty good but would have benefitted from a slightly more clever plot and direction by Soderbergh. (B+)

ye. As I’ve heard from more than one person: I hate that I like this album. (B+)

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This book contains a valuable central message and several fascinating insights but the constant ad hominems, irrelevant tangents, stereotyping, and general antagonistic tone of the writing makes for tough reading. I wish Taleb were a more generous writer. (B)

Incredibles 2. A solid sequel. Kids gave it two thumbs up. (A-)

Everything is Love. Ok, “The Carters”, but they smartly made this a Beyoncé album feat. Jay-Z. This has been on heavy rotation in my car. (A-)

The Disaster Artist. Gave up on this about 30 minutes in…zero interest. (-)

Justice League. Not as terrible as I was led to believe. But maybe DC can trade Wonder Woman to Marvel? (C+)

Caliphate. Finished this…what a great and important series. I know a lot of people think Serial is the podcast gold standard, but this was better and more significant. (A)

Seabiscuit. This one always gets me right in the feels. (B+)

Scorpion. Kanye’s latest album is 23 minutes long while Drake went for a full 90 minutes. I know there’s some controversy about it, but it was genuinely great hearing new music from Michael Jackson. (B)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The remainder of the second season was brutal. (A-)

A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin. An epic story of adventure and discovery, expertly told. (A)

Sharp Objects. This one is a slow burn, but I will watch Amy Adams in anything…she is mesmerizing. (B+)

Star Trek: Voyager. Still making progress on this…I’m about 70% of the way through. It’s better in the middle seasons than a lot of people give it credit for. (B)

Solo roadtrips. The world is a fascinating place…get out and explore it if you can. (A+)

Pacific Rim Uprising. They could have done more with this, but they didn’t. They really didn’t. (C+)

The 2018 FIFA World Cup. I missed most of the knockout stage because I was traveling, but I still loved every minute of this World Cup. (A-)

Jaws. My first time seeing it. (Yes, yes, I know.) Amazing to see so many of Spielberg’s filmmaking techniques on display so early in his career. (A-)

Westworld. This show asks, over and over again, “Is any of this real?” The result is a complete inability on my part to suspend my disbelief…I’m always very aware that what I’m watching is fake. (C-)

Hot Fuzz. Will watch this anytime. (A-)

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

  1. You probably dislike the use of the word “consume” when it comes to media. So do I. It conjures up an image of mindlessly feeding on things that talented and artistic people have worked hard on. (See also “media diet”.) But different forms of work have different verbs associated with them: TV shows & movies are watched, books are read, podcasts are listened to, theme parks are experienced. What one word works for all of those? Enjoyed? I surely don’t enjoy all the stuff I watch/listen to/watch/experience (see!!). Experienced? That suggests a passiveness that doesn’t apply to how I watch/read things. “Consumed” works, for better or worse. Does anyone have a better suggestion? I am ready to consume it…

What a musical conductor actually does on stage

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 24, 2018

I love hearing people talk about how they work. In this quick video, conductor James Gaffigan explains what it is he does on stage and how different composers like Leonard Bernstein shape and enhance the performance of the musicians they’re leading.

If you’ve ever seen an orchestra perform you’ve probably had a difficult time looking away from the person dead center on the stage — the conductor. It’s hard to miss someone as they swing their arms around pointing at the musicians that seem to be focused instead on their music stands. So what exactly is the conductor doing?

An orchestral take on Ibiza club hits

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2018

Gosh, I don’t know what micro-fraction of regular readers are going to be interested in this, but I sure was! In 2015, DJ Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra (under director Jules Buckley) collaborated on a performance of a bunch of Ibiza club hits from the likes of Moby, Fatboy Slim, Orbital, Brainbug, and Daft Punk. Here’s a Spotify playlist of the songs they covered.

Did I get goosebumps when the violins started in on Robert Miles’ Children? Possibly! Some of this stuff was the soundtrack to my web design work & play in the late 90s. kottke.org circa 1999 was at least 20% Fatboy Slim, Orbital, BT, Robert Miles, The Orb, and Daft Punk.

Update: And here’s an album of the performance itself on Spotify as well as a subsequent album featuring different club tracks. Tong and the orchestra are also touring the show around England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Album covers designed by Andy Warhol

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2018

Of course you know he designed the album cover for The Velvet Underground & Nico…Warhol’s name (and not the band’s or the album’s) is right there underneath the electric yellow banana. But he also designed covers for the likes of Paul Anka, John Lennon, The Rolling Stones, Count Basie, Diana Ross, Kenny Burrell, and Aretha Franklin.

Warhol Covers

Warhol Covers

Warhol Covers

Warhol Covers

You can see more covers by Warhol here, here, and here. All of the covers he designed are collected in this book, Andy Warhol: The Complete Commissioned Record Covers.

Trombone + loop machine

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 08, 2018

The golden age of live looping (self-accompanying by performing with one or more instruments using a loop machine) was probably ten years ago or so. The first performer I saw use a loop machine live was Andrew Bird, opening for The Magnetic Fields in 2004. Starting around then, he became famous for them, and other groups (Feist, Pomplamoose, etc.) turned it into something of a middlehighbrow indie-twee staple.

But it’s still one of my favorite bits of musical wizardry, perfect not just for creating an illusion of a whole orchestra, but for making familiar instruments sound deeply unfamiliar. That’s what trombonist John Sipher does so well in this clip for Colorado Public Radio.

(Via Boing Boing.)

The 100 best one-hit wonders

posted by Jason Kottke   May 31, 2018

Today’s playlist is The 100 Best One-Hit Wonder Songs:

You can read the rationale behind all 100 picks on Consequence of Sound.

The standard definition (determined by who, Right Said Fred?) of a one-hit wonder is a band who has cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 only once. What, you had a late-career single make 41? Sorry, thanks for playing, but charting 41 isn’t the same as 40, right? Um, no … maybe? It gets no easier when you have to wade through dozens of other Billboard charts that count for everything except, apparently, determining a one-hit wonder. And what about all those charts in other countries — yeah, we ignored them. Great, this list is making us xenophobic now.

But that’s getting pretty damn technical, and we’re not numbers people here. Because, technically, Beck is a one-hit wonder. As are the Grateful Dead and even Radiohead if they hadn’t snuck in at 37 with “Nude” back in 2008. Very lucky, Mr. Yorke. Can you imagine if you scrolled through a list of the 100 Best One-Hit Wonder Songs and found Beck sitting at the top spot? You’d collectively crash our site’s server in a contest to see which commenter could say the cruelest thing about our music knowledge, mothers, and cats.

“Technically, Beck is a one-hit wonder.” Also, I feel that Sir Mix-a-Lot should have made the list.

My media diet for Spring 2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 24, 2018

I’ve been keeping track of every media thing I “consume”, so here are quick reviews of some things I’ve read, seen, heard, and experienced in the past month or so. I went to Florida with my kids and we did the Harry Potter thing at Universal & visited the Space Coast. I stopped watching Mr. Robot s03 after two episodes. Still making my way through Star Trek: Voyager when I want something uncomplicated to watch in the evening. (Ignore the letter grades, they suck.)

The Americans. This season, the show’s last, has been fantastic. It’s idiotic to say The Americans is the best show on TV with like 50,000 shows on Netflix alone, but after five strong seasons and this finish, they’ve earned it. (A)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: The Podcast. I wrote an appreciation of this a few weeks ago. (A-)

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew. I love Andrew’s Instagram feed but even so, her book surprised me with timeless and universal themes woven into her life story. (A-)

The Handmaid’s Tale. The first season of this show was great and season two picks up right where it left off. I binged the first six episodes of this across two nights and came away shellshocked. (A)

Wild Wild Country. Not sure why anyone followed the Bhagwan anywhere, but Sheela on the other hand… There were several interesting threads in this documentary that didn’t quite get pulled together in the final episode. (B+)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida. The tickets for this were incredibly expensive and worth every damn penny. This was very nearly a religious experience. (A+)

Downsizing. I wanted more from this about the implications of the evolution of humans into nano sapiens. Still, better than many critics & audiences suggested. (B)

Brain It On. I saw my daughter playing this physics puzzler on her iPad and basically grabbed it away from her and played for 24 straight hours. (A-)

Westworld. Watching this every week feels like a chore. Even though the safeties are off, everything that happens in the parks feels consequence-free. I don’t care about the robots. Should I? (C+)

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Stop-motion animation might be Anderson’s natural medium because he can shoot everything *exactly* like he wants. (A-)

Isle of Dogs. Loved this. The style of it made me want to design something amazing. I could have watched the sushi-making scene for like 15 more minutes. (A)

On Margins - The Making of Rebel Girls. Craig Mod talks to co-creator Elena Favilli about how Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls came about and came to be so successful. (B+)

L’Express. A classic Montreal restaurant. Best steak frites I’ve had in a long while. (A-)

Babylon Berlin. Super stylish. The dance scene in the second episode is amazing. The best things about the show are the music and the world-building in the first few episodes. (B+)

Death of Stalin. I love that people still make films like this. Most of the audience I saw this with had no idea what to make of it or why a few people were laughing so hard at some parts. (B+)

Kennedy Space Center. The solar eclipse last summer awakened the space/astronomy nerd in me, so this visit was incredible. We saw a Space Shuttle, a Saturn V rocket, the VAB, and a whole mess of other great things. Thinking of going back for their Astronaut Training Experience. (A+)

Avengers: Infinity War. The ending of this left me stunned…it broke the fourth wall in a unique way. (B+)

A Quiet Place. This entire movie is a metaphor for trying to keep small children quiet on a long plane flight. (B)

Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire Evans. This book demonstrates that telling the story of technology, programming, and the internet mainly through the many women who helped build it all is just as plausible and truthful as telling the traditionally women-free tale we’ve typically been exposed to. (B+)

Songs of the Years, 1925-2018. So glad this playlist is back in my life. (A-)

The Avengers. I’d forgotten where all the Infinity Stones came from, so I’ve gone back and watched this, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the first Thor movie. Fascinating to see the changes in the filmmaking and pacing. If Infinity War had been made with the pace of Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh!), it would have been 5 hours long. (B+)

Caliphate. Gripping and disturbing and very nearly a must-listen. But I keep showing up places shellshocked after listening to it in the car. (A)

AWB OneSky Reflector Telescope. When I looked through this for the first time at the Moon, my first thought was “WHOA”. My second was “I should have bought a more powerful telescope”. Luckily I can just buy more lenses for it… (A)

I’ve been doing this for more than a year now! Past installments of my media diet can be found here.

The Songs of the Years, 1925-2018

posted by Jason Kottke   May 23, 2018

Back at the end of 2010, Ben Greenman created a playlist for the New Yorker’s holiday party that featured one song from each year of the magazine’s existence ordered chronologically.

At the party, the mix worked like a charm. Jazz and blues greeted the early arrivals, and as the party picked up, the mood became romantic (thanks to the big-band and vocal recordings of the late thirties and forties), energetic (thanks to early rock and roll like Fats Domino and Jackie Brenston in the early fifties), funky (James Brown in 1973, Stevie Wonder in 1974), and kitschy (the eighties), after which it erupted into a bright riot of contemporary pop and hip-hop (Rihanna! Kanye! M.I.A.! Lil Jon!).

After Greenman’s list was published, others created playlists from it on Rdio, YouTube, and Spotify. I listened to this playlist a lot on Rdio back then; it was the perfect way to time travel through the 20th and early 21st centuries in just a few hours.

I was reminded of the list yesterday after Laura Olin asked about favorite Spotify playlists and discovered that Tom Whitwell’s playlist was still around. He’d created it back in the early days of streaming music services, when Spotify was available only in Europe, so some of the songs had gone missing and others, like those by Michael Jackson & The Beatles, who didn’t allow their music on streaming services then. With Whitwell’s kind permission, I went in and tidied up the list, finding the proper song for every year but 1993 (“Return of the Crazy One,” by Digital Underground, which is available on YouTube…on the playlist it’s represented by “Doowutchyalike”).

Not content to have the list trapped in amber for eternity, I emailed Greenman to see if he had any thoughts on music from the intervening years. Although he’s no longer a staffer at the New Yorker, he generously sent me his selections for 2011-2018.1

2011: “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
2012: “Call Me Maybe”by Carly Rae Jepsen
2013: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk
2014: “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by Run the Jewels
2015: “WTF” by Missy Elliott
2016: “Hotline Bling” by Drake
2017: “Humble” by Kendrick Lamar
2018: “This is America” by Childish Gambino

You can listen to the full playlist embedded above or here on Spotify. Greenman shared some thoughts on updating the list:

The original list was occasioned by a party: the magazine’s 85th anniversary. Almost a decade has passed, and many things have changed. It feels like a less celebratory time, darker and less hopeful in some ways. But pop music persists. In extending the list from 2010 to the present, I tried to think about how those short bursts of sound still give us moments of joy, and how certain bursts attach themselves to certain moments in history.

I love this playlist and am so glad it’s back and updated. Big thanks to Ben and Tom for making this happen.

P.S. If you duplicate this playlist on Apple Music, Tidal, etc., send me a link. Or even better, if you’re inspired to create your own Songs of the Years playlist, send along those links too. I would love to hear alternate musical journeys through that era — e.g. playlists featuring only black artists or only women would be amazing.

Update: John Stokvis recreated the playlist on Apple Music. Apple had the correct Digital Underground song, but not De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I”, so Stokvis subbed in “She Drives Me Crazy” from The Fine Young Cannibals. Here’s the Google Play playlist, courtesy of @neuroboy…looks like Google has every song.

A bit off-topic but still within rhyming distance, Aaron Coleman made a playlist of songs with years in the title from 1952-2031. He acknowledges that some of the songs are “terrible”.

  1. I convinced him to put Drake in there, so if you’re not feeling “Hotline Bling” for 2016, you can blame me. (My rationale: Drake was it for those few years, so you have to have him on there somewhere. Besides, it’s tough to pick just one song from “Lemonade” and it’s not on Spotify anyway.)

    Also, May is a bit early to choose a song for 2018, but “This is America” might hold up. If it doesn’t, maybe Greenman can revisit at the end of the year.

Hans Zimmer’s clever use of the Shepard scale in Dunkirk

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

I’ve written before about the Shepard scale and its use by Hans Zimmer in the soundtrack for Dunkirk.

Zimmer and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan achieved that effect by utilizing an auditory illusion called the Shepard tone, a sound that appears to infinitely rise (or fall) in pitch — the video above refers to it as “a barber’s pole of sound”.

The effect is apparent throughout the soundtrack as a seemingly never-ending crescendo. But as Ed Newton-Rex explains, Zimmer was a bit more clever in the way he used the Shepard scale in the music:

So Zimmer isn’t just using the Shepard scale to build tension. He’s using three simultaneous Shepard scales, on three different timescales, to build tension in three storylines that are moving at different paces. The bottom part represents the week of the soldiers; the middle part the day of the men on the boat; and the top part the hour of the pilots. All start in different places, but build in intensity to the same point.

In short, he’s taken the idea of the Shepard scale, and applied it to the unique structure of Dunkirk.

Cool!