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Film Review: Get on Up

February 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Get on Up (2014; Directed by Tate Taylor)

“Don’t tell me where, when, or for how long I can be funky!” exclaims the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) to a flustered USO officer in late 1960s Vietnam, where Brown and a reduced remnant of his 22-piece band have just landed to perform for American troops rowdily anticipating the music superstar’s arrival. Their plane has come under enemy fire and is forced to land with one engine aflame. Despite Brown’s fondness for incendiary theatrics and grand entrances, he’s not thrilled about the danger he’s been placed in, excoriating the USO man further: “You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”

This scene, coming very near the start of Get on Up, Tate Taylor’s semi-nonlinear narrative of James Brown’s life and career, taps entertainingly (but fleetingly) into the characteristics that made Brown so great: swaggering, electrifying, death-defying, self-aggrandizing, hilarious, and more than a little dangerous. Unfortunately, Get on Up touches that live wire only briefly, in moments rather than sustainedly. Brown endured and even thrived in his life on the edge for quite a long time, but Get on Up retreats to the safer, stabler environs of musical biopic convention more often than not, despite a blazing central performance from its star Boseman and gestures towards an artfully fragmented narrative and metaphoric structure.

Taylor’s cinematic narrative of Brown’s life (from a script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) generally progresses chronologically along his common-enough rise from rags to riches, filthy anonimity to blazing fame in the burgeoning 1960s popular music world. Brown came from dirt-poor beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s South; there he is abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis), beaten and then traded off on relatives by his Army-bound father Joseph (Lennie James), and inculcated into performance by the charismatic local preacher of the ecstatic African-American church and at the brothel run by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Possessed with a keen eye for maintaining a swag appearance from a young age, James Brown filches a fine pair of shoes from a lynched corpse (the film’s rare and thus conspicuous nod to the reality of mortal terror for black people in Brown’s younger days) and is later thrown in prison at 17 years of age for stealing a man’s suit.

There, James Brown’s easy charm and evident talent catches the eye of visiting gospel singing group leader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), whose family sponsors Brown for his parole. The two men become key allies through the gradual but boiling rise in fortune to come, first with Byrd’s group the Famous Flames and then under the later concert-hall-owning band fronted by Brown. Managed by wily industry vet Ben Bart (a nice supporting role for Dan Aykroyd, who had Brown himself as a guest performer in Blues Brothers), Brown’s odyssey winds through showstopping performances, creative and business trailblazing, identity crises, political tensions, personal struggle and change, and Brown’s legendary volatility and reputation for difficulty.

The latter fraught aspect of his identity receives a strong push, as Brown is shown clashing with his talented band (his lead saxophonist Maceo Parker, played by Craig Robinson, is in consistent conflict with him in the film), smacking his second wife Dee-Dee (Jill Scott) around for slight perceived offenses, and eventually breaking with longtime collaborator Byrd. Taylor prefaces his film with Brown’s dangerous unpredictability, opening with a scene depicting a dramatic and notorious episode of Brown’s well-known behavioural troubles (no, not that time he allegedly struck singer Tammi Terrell with a hammer, nor any of his drug arrests): a 1988 incident involving firearm discharge and armed threats at his Augusta, Georgia offices.

Get on Up is primarily focused on Brown and Byrd’s relationship, at times a partnership of equals but increasingly a hierarchical arrangement with the mercurial Brown as petty dictator. Their interactions and stubborn friendship, one supposes, are intended to reveal something essential in Brown’s character, something deeper and less guarded than the direct, fourth-wall-breaking, narrator-like statements about his career and life that Boseman’s Brown makes to the camera. I’m not sure it does tell us much about James Brown’s soul, ultimately.

It hardly helps that Brown’s idiosyncratic political views – he believed fiercely in black pride and self-determination, but supported and expressed admiration for U.S. politicians as diverse as Democrats Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy as well as Republican President Richard Nixon, to say nothing of his high regard for segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond – get distinctly short shrift. These are reduced to his aggressively neutral peacekeeping during a tense Boston concert after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and inviting black school children to sing on the recording of “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, trading the ski chalet sweater he donned for a white-audience-aimed Frankie Avalon Show performance earlier on for politically-conscious African-style garb in the process. Far more running time and effort is spent detailing how he and Bart broke the concert promoter cartels by using local independent radio to drum up interest in his shows, or his innovations of the rhythmic grooves that would define funk (and later hip-hop and modern R&B, genres that would sample his music extensively). The implication, and not an inaccurate one, is that for James Brown, laying down the funk was itself as profound a political act as he could envision or enact. Anything else was mere electoral theatre.

Questionable thematic balance aside, Boseman is spectacular as Brown, nailing the small details of his dancing, his impassioned vocals (though Boseman doesn’t do all of the singing), his volatile swagger, his gravelly seductive Southern bark of a speaking voice, his swelling pride and confidence. One might nitpick that Boseman doesn’t vanish utterly into the role as, say, Jamie Foxx did as Ray Charles in Ray, or that the lean six-foot-tall actor can’t truly approximate the physical impact of the compact, muscular five-and-a-half-foot-tall Mr. Dynamite, imparting a sense of flowing grace to a performer who was much more an explosive dynamo of demon energy.

As good as Boseman is and as entertaining and even insightful as Get on Up can be (young James’ dream-fantasy encounter with the sweaty, movement-heavy African-American church congregation is especially effective in establishing a recognizable model for his stage persona), the cocksure promise of that Vietnam scene is never quite delivered upon. For all of its gestures towards fragmented non-linearality and metaphorical illustrations of James Brown’s peculiar genius, appeal, and faults, Get on Up skews consistently and with mounting disappointment towards tired musical biopic cliches. Like Taylor’s 2011 Oscar fave The Help, Get on Up can tip into the uneasy feeling of a patronizing white-centric depiction of African-American culture when it isn’t inordinately careful. It won’t go down in history as the movie that killed the funk, but it’s hard to say that it doesn’t water it down more than one might have wished.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Music and Images of Special Magnificence: Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert

December 3, 2016 2 comments

First performed in 2008, the live symphony orchestra performance of Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning musical score for the first film of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogyThe Fellowship of the Ring, has come to the composer’s hometown of Toronto for the first time. The score is performed live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, two full choirs, and soloists, and is conducted by Ludwig Wicki, whose Switzerland-based 21st Century Symphony Orchestra was the first to play Shore’s classic score live in concert with the projected film and who has toured the world in the years since conducting globally-renowned orchestras. Working closely with Shore (as he has with many other major film composers on similar projects), Wicki has trained himself to conduct his musicians and singers to the film’s cues themselves, presenting a seemless aural and visual experience in top-notch orchestral halls around the globe.

I haven’t the trained music-writing expertise to comment knowledgeably on Shore’s compositions or the specific performance of them by the TSO itself. Music writer Doug Adams does have that expertise, and has demonstrated it in his book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (excerpts from which can be read in the TSO’s program for the concerts, downloadable from their website). For a more easily digestable analysis of Howard Shore’s use of themes or fellowshipinconcertleitmotifs in his Rings scores, check out this excellent video essay by the “Nerdwriter”, Evan Puschak.

I can only scratch at the surface of their superior analyses, but scratch I will. The Fellowship of the Ring is my favourite film of Jackson’s trilogy, and really, my favourite film period; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but the TSO viewing was probably somewhere in the twenties. There is much to love about it, from the masterful cinematic storytelling to the committed performances (Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, of course, but also Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, Sean Bean’s doomed Boromir, and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the poised clownish hobbits, Merry and Pippin) to the impressive totality of its visual design and execution. But as time has passed and initial passion has turned to enduring appreciation, it has become more evident that Howard Shore’s music might be the best thing about Fellowship as well as its sequels.

Shore’s music is remarkable varied and often rousing and magnificent in its own right, but the way it melds with Jackson’s filmic images, supplementing and amplifying the moods, tones, and meanings onscreen, is what makes it special. In live concert performance alongside those images, the score’s great transcendent success in this role is particular emphasized, granting a symphonic grandeur and flow to Jackson’s film in collaboration with its composition, camera movement and motion inside frame, colour, and editing.

The effect was always evident in Fellowship‘s highlight sequences. Look at Arwen’s flight to the Ford of Bruinen, astride a galloping white horse, safeguarding a mortally wounded Frodo from the black-clad and black-steeded Ringwraiths in pursuit of the One Ring that he carries: shot and edited with pulse-pounding exhiliration, Shore’s music drives and expands the pace of perhaps the most exciting riding sequence in film history. Or the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence, the relentless deep rhythms and staccato male choir Dwarvish chants soundtracking a desperate chase through the carved caverns of Moria and portending Gandalf’s fall into shadow, which is gorgeously lamented by a boy soprano solo.

This contrast of deep and harsh with high and ethereal, a hallmark theme and tone of Jackson’s film, is perhaps most memorably imparted in Fellowship‘s most resonant visual metaphor: a craning wide shot from above of the grim industrialized pits of Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard scored by a cruel mechanical march, suddenly interrupted by the delicate naturalistic hope of a fluttering moth scored by an elegiac, angelic vocal solo. Even seemingly incidental sequences of narrative advancement become streams of artistry when Jackson’s imagery and Score’s music work effortlessly together: witness the intercutting of the Fellowship travelling down the River Anduin out of Lothlorien with Saruman’s Uruk-Hai strike force thundering through the woods after them.

Shore and Jackson even reach into film music history to heighten the effect of the trilogy’s battle scenes. Watch and listen to the lead-up to the battle in Balin’s Tomb in Moria. Notice how Shore’s music picks up pace and timbre as the Fellowship are confronted with signs of impending attack and prepare to fight for their lives, building to a crescendo as the two forces collide and then dropping away entirely to be replaced by the brutal cacophony of clashing steel and battle cries, the symphony of hand-to-hand death? This is a direct borrowing from/homage to the Battle on the Ice from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky, with music by Sergei Prokofiev likewise climaxing and then dropping away at the moment of joined battle. Jackson liked the effect so much that he repeated it in The Two Towers (the Warg attack sequence) and The Return of the King (the Rohirrim charging the Haradrim’s war oliphaunts at the Battle of Pelennor Fields).

Howard Shore mixed diverse influences from centuries of music (from Romantic opera like Wagner to the abstract dissonance of 20th-century composition) to create a memorable score for a memorable film, and witnessing his music in live performance with the movie further entrenches both score and film as impressive and moving modern works of art of vision and grandeur.

Categories: Culture, Film, Music

An Emotional Farewell to the Tragically Hip and the End of an Era in Canadian Nationalism

August 21, 2016 Leave a comment

For nearly three hours on the night of Saturday, August 20, 2016, Canada paused and gathered for the collective wake of their favourite musical sons, the Tragically Hip. Broadcast live across the country by national public broadcaster CBC from an arena in the enduringly popular rock band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the final concert of the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, though never explicitly advertised as definitely their last, was understood to be the emotional farewell of a band that defined Canadian nationalism (or a certain strain of contextual thought and sentiment disseminated as such, as I will discuss in a moment) for nearly 30 years. The lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and faces an indeterminate death sentence. Although couched as a national celebration and frequently infused with a positive vibe, a cloud of sadness and mourning was cast over the proceedings as well, and Canadian social media vibrated with those feelings throughout the extended set.

Taking to the in-the-round stage, the Hip’s instrumentalists – drummer Johnny Fay, bass player Gord Sinclair, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker – clustered close to Downie in the show’s first section, as if they were a phalanx of plains bison protecting a wounded comrade from threatening predatory forces. The show proceeded in album-specific mini-sets, covering three or four successive favourites from classic Hiphipkingston1 records like Fully Completely, Up To Here, Road Apples, Day For Night, Phantom Power, Music@Work, and even the new Man Machine Poem. It reached numerous emotional high points, particular with adored, complex, Canadiana-drenched ballads like “Wheat Kings”, “Fiddler’s Green”, “Toronto #4”, “Bobcaygeon”, and “Scared”.

Uniformly strong though it was, the concert was, to this seasoned attendee of Tragically Hip gigs at least, highly familiar. The band performed as they have for decades, tightly, impressively, but reliant on the dynamic Downie to raise the proceedings to something more special. The trying physical circumstances that he faced must be considered, but it should be noted that although Downie mustered a Herculean effort to perform a hockey-game-length rock and roll show despite debilitating brain cancer, he often fell heartbreakingly short of his customary high standards. Though in relatively strong voice (he joked about his neck scarf made from two socks for this very purpose), Downie’s iconic kooky-uncle dancing and unpredictable stage movement were both badly curtailed. He frequently glanced down in consultation to his monitor at his feet, which hid a teleprompter with each song’s lyrics, to remind him of the many words he poured forth to the world. This arrangement, though doubtlessly necessary in allowing a man with brain cancer to perform at all, did lead to occasional, uncharacteristic missed or flubbed lines, most noticeably and tragically in the glorious bridge of “Bobcaygeon” (“That night in Toronto…”), which he missed entirely. Again, the context of his illness cannot be lost sight of, and Downie’s fight against its constraints was moving and impressive in its own right. If anything, the flubs made the show more affecting, not less.

But do not let it be said that Gord Downie did not rise to what had become a momentous national occasion in other ways. He was keenly aware that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, donning the “Canadian tuxedo” of jeans, jean jacket and band shirt for the occasion; indeed, they shared a hug prior to showtime, a photo of which quickly went viral online. On two occasions between songs, Downie cannily expressed support and fondness for the young Trudeau (“we’re in good hands”), but in terms couched primarily in a pressuring mandate to correct the continuing social and economic and political wrongs done to Canada’s First Nations peoples by an enduring white colonial majority. To take his perhaps final moment in the national spotlight to divert that spotlight on to the tragic, unacceptable suffering of Canada’s least privileged is one thing. To hold a sitting PM’s feet to the fire in terms of meaningful action to correct historical damage before a captive nation is quite another.

If the concert had one truly indelible, transcendent moment, however, it was during the closing song of the second encore, “Grace, Too”. The swirling, mysterious opening track of 1994’s swirling, mysterious Day For Night, the lyrics depict a tense, ambiguous negotiation (possibly between prostitute and wealthy john) but the song closes, as many Hip tunes do, with an impressive jam. From its recorded release through two decades of live versions, Downie has punctuated the instrumental outro with haunting, visceral, rending cries (“Here / Now / Nah!”). As the band leaned into the groove and the moment for the customary cries approached, Downie began crying.

Weakened by terminal brain cancer, Downie had performed for over two hours with as much of his usual passion and peculiarity as he could muster. With the eyes of a nation on him, he was overcome with a brew of emotions we could observe and imagine but never fully comprehend. The truth about Gord Downie is the truth of all human beings: we will never known what is really in his head and in his heart. Downie, however, has been telling us and showing us the contents of his head and his heart for three decades. Those contents have quite famously not always been entirely intelligible, but like all great art they contain multitudes, activating meanings in each person who experiences it that its creator might never have intended or conceived of. The experience has been a rare privilege of insight for us, and a rare privilege of openness and expressiveness for him.

Whatever Downie was feeling – pain and exhaustion both physical and psychological, peace and humility in the face of a crowd’s adoration, regret and sadness at the prospect of performing for perhaps the final time – this unquestionably strong but sensitive man (he would embrace and kiss his bandmates at the end of each set, expressions of a male tenderness too often disavowed and hidden) allowed the swelling emotion to conquer his resistance, and he wept.

He could have simply stood onstage with his tears amidst his bandmates and best friends for 30 years and it would have been the highlight of the night, its most potent spike of sentiment. But Downie interrupted his tears to let out the screams, transmuting all of the joy and agony and nostalgia and love and hurt and hope into wrenching, primal cries against the dying of the light. It was profoundly affecting, indelible. It was, without hyperbole, the most powerful moment of raw artistic expression I have ever witnessed. This memorable moment has been repeated at this point in the set throughout the tour, so it was a stage-managed and choreographed emotional display to some extent. But its cathartic potency was unquestionable nonetheless. Like all art, its impact was as universally intangible as it was inherently unexplainable. And once it was hipkingston2over, Downie collected himself, politely returned the microphone he dropped to its home on the stand, and walked away.

This was not the end, as the band returned for a third encore, putatively ending their legendary live career with one of their most widely-beloved anthems, “Ahead By A Century”. Basking in the applause and cheers of a crowd and a country one last time, the Tragically Hip stood together, passing from the complicated internecine implications of an active popular culture to the gilded annals of artistic and public legacy. They stood for a final time as Canada’s band, but which Canada?

The discourse around the Tragically Hip in the Canadian media and public in the weeks leading up to last night’s show was stubbornly focused on the band’s role as purveyors of a complicated and not-entirely patriotic strain of post-boomer nationalism. It’s worth acknowledging that the collective meaning of the Tragically Hip is difficult to disentangle from the white Ontario-centric Anglo-Canadian nationalistic narratives that have dominated the discourse of national cultural identity for decades, and are still prevalent in the under-diversified Canadian media and pop culture elite.

It’s been very noticeable in the popular culture that those most moved and captivated by this event, those most invested in its national import, are predominantly white and anglophone in a country whose demographics are moving in a much more multi-ethnic and multilingual direction. What do the Tragically Hip’s cottage country anthems mean to Canadians who cannot afford a cottage? How does their meat-and-potatoes rock music, and this celebratory farewell moment, resonate with Sikhs from Surrey, or Caribbean-Canadians from north Toronto, or Somali immigrants in a city out west, or First Nations in a depressed community like Attawapiskat? Probably not as deeply, possibly in ways not hitherto imagined, but in any case those stories have gone glaringly untold.

It would be churlish and unfair to pin the narrow channels of accepted mainstream Canadian identity on the Tragically Hip. Downie has never been a flag-waving nationalist, and has often emphasized nuanced, complex, and not altogether positive elements of Canadian history, society, and politics. His work with and beyond the Hip has striven to expand the boundaries of Canadian cultural discourse, to erase unjust firewalls between sectors of Canadian society, to welcome more people in. This is an ideal of Canadian identity that is often trumpeted proudly and publicly but not as often lived up to in practice.

White Anglo-Canadian nationalism has not always been a force for good, but Downie and the Hip have always worked hard to encapsulate, express, and embody those forces at their best. This “national celebration” in Kingston, this collective moment of delight and grief that the Tragically Hip have given us (at least some of us, but they are always aiming for all of us), might well be the sunset glow of white Anglo-Canadian nationalism as we know it. If the Tragically Hip give us one last true expression of the best intentions and results of those sentiments before they are laid to eternal rest, they will have done a deep service to their country in their closing act.

Categories: Culture, Music, Politics, Reviews

Anything That Systematic Would Get You Hated: Ranking the Discography of the Tragically Hip

Following Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip’s announcement last month that lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie had contracted terminal brain cancer and that their tour this summer would be their last, the band’s new album Man Machine Poem (also presumed to be their last) was released on Friday, June 17th. Assuming that their recording career will end in step with their live performance career, this album release will complete a musical oeuvre that is among the most impressive in the history of Canadian popular music. This makes Man Machine Poem’s release an apt moment to engage in a critical evaluation and definitive (in one longtime listener’s view, at least) ranking of each album in the Tragically Hip’s 30-year career.

1. Phantom Power (1998)

Phantom PowerThe timing of this album’s release may bias me in its favour: it was the first new studio record by the band to come out after I joined the ranks of their devotees. But Phantom Power (the title is a bit of stage lingo referring to a lingering electric charge after unplugging equipment, but describes the album’s feel and spectral thematic thrust beautifully as well) is also tremendous, lyrically complex, touched by massive melodies and rich textures. Its tone modulates and builds up to its two affecting closers, “Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man” and “Emperor Penguin”, but its early stretch includes two of the band’s greatest anthems of ambivalent national seeking, the Cold War/hockey/marriage history micro-novel “Fireworks” and the ethereal “Bobcaygeon”, which captivated a wider audience beyond their usual core. An earlier generation of Hip fans swear by Fully Completely, but for me, it is Phantom Power above all.

Firework: “Bobcaygeon”. Everyone’s Favourite Tragically Hip Song.

Unplucked Gem: “Save the Planet”. Enervating and unnerving rock distillation of millennial social and political malaise, with flute solo.

2. Day For Night (1994)

Day For NightA serious and purposely uncommercial shift in style and subject matter at the height of their popularity, Day For Night demonstrated that the Tragically Hip would not be your run-of-the-mill stadium rock band. A shadowy statement of dark intent, the record is haunted by the creeping penumbra of totalitarianism, infused with suggestions of human cruelty and death. Downie’s lyrics are fixated on shipwrecks, blood, film noir, Nazi art looting, and tense, intimate negotiations. Densely allusive, the lyrics encompass art, philosophy and history, as well as exquisite tableaux of the mundane sparkling with black humour. Day For Night set the model for the subsequent twenty years of Hip albums, but few of its ancestors can approach its powerful, textured darkness.

Firework: “Nautical Disaster”. A vivid nightmarescape of soul-shaking seaborne trauma without chorus or rhyming scheme. One of Downie’s most blazing vocal performances. And who’s this Susan?

Unplucked Gem: “Titanic Terrarium”. A collection of Downie’s best wry jokes (“Growing up in a biosphere / With no respect for bad weather”) over a subtly magnificent soundscape.

3. Music@Work (2000)

Music @ WorkIt may only be my opinion that Phantom Power was the band’s creative peak, but it was unquestionably their commercial height. It’s wrong, however, to see its 2000 follow-up Music@Work as the commencement of any species of decline. It is, without a doubt, their most sonically textured work, the clearest evidence of the influence of the then-exploding Canadian (specifically Toronto-based) indie rock scene on Downie’s writing and the band’s still-evolving sound, of a piece with the singer’s first two solo records. It has more moments of roughly polished beauty than anything else the Hip have done, and its impact has only grown with acquaintance over the years.

Firework: “Lake Fever”. Deeply Ontarian but rousingly universal, this slow-waxing magic-hour anthem of cottage country tranquility and shaken assumptions, complete with Paul Langlois’ usual froggish backing vocals straining into mightiness, must have a place in the Hip’s top ten singles.

Unplucked Gem: “Toronto #4”. Elegant poetic expression of family loss. Possibly the Hip’s most ravishing, affecting three minutes.

4. Road Apples (1991)

Road ApplesThe apogee of the band’s initial blues-rock phase, Road Apples was always preferable for me to its much more successful follow-up. It’s little wonder that the Hip expanded the boundaries of their music from this point on, as the record makes it clear that they had exploited the form for more than all it was worth. From the killer opener “Little Bones” on, this is a relentless rock record dipped in Shakespeare and Canadiana, with slow-burn interludes like “Long Time Running” and the wrenching “Fiddler’s Green”. They branched out and got better, but Road Apples is pure, raw, nearly flawless rock n’ roll.

Firework: “Cordelia”. So many of Road Apples’ rockers spit hot fire, but it’s hard to top this one, with its loud-quiet transitions and central King Lear metaphor. Cracks your spine like a whip.

Unplucked Gems: “The Last of the Unplucked Gems”. A bit of an obvious choice, but a great bassline from Gord Sinclair and zen simplicity from Gord Downie: “I’m kind of dumb / But so are you”.

5. Fully Completely (1992)

Fully CompletelyThe seminal Tragically Hip album, with multiple hit singles establishing the loyalty of a generation of Canadian rock fans. It’s certainly quite good (I love the sound of Johnny Fay’s drums in particular) but just below the upper echelon of the band’s work, to my mind. There’s some filler but there’s also some greatness, namely “Courage” (Downie’s tribute to hard-drinking, bar-fighting writers and the pitfalls of masculine identity), “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” (cruising, paranoid northern rural noir), “Fifty Mission Cap” (hockey death mystery and cultural commodification) and “Wheat Kings” (an acoustic ballad on prairie society and the David Milgaard case). If the Tragically Hip are to be remembered by posterity for one album only, it’s difficult to argue for any candidate other than Fully Completely.

Firework: “Courage (For Hugh Maclennan)”. Whiplash tick-tock riffing rhythm and Downie’s canny instinct for the mot juste and the anthemic melody make this not just an album but a full discographic highlight. Wonderful, profound lyrics in the bridge as well.

Unplucked Gem: “Wheat Kings”. Far from hidden, but a late-album cut with a complexity of cultural imagery and detail that far outstrips anything they had done prior to it.

6. In Between Evolution (2004)

In Between EvolutionAlthough the Tragically Hip’s recordings from the second half of their thirty-year run always have something worthwhile to offer, you’ll notice them crowding towards the bottom of this list. The mid-2000s were a relatively solid period for the band, however, and this album in particular included some sharp meathooks. It blows through the doors with the breathless opening salvo of “Heaven is a Better Place Today” (another dead hockey player song, this one about Dan Snyder, and the twinned euphemisms common to both sports and death) and “Summer’s Killing Us” before acquiring a more strident political dimension redolent of the midpoint of the George W. Bush Administration: “Gus the Polar Bear from Central Park” figures a depressed zoo-bound super-predator as a stealth metaphor for belligerent American interventionist power, “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” obliquely criticizes flag-waving warmongering musicians like country star Toby Keith, and “If New Orleans is Beat” anticipates the denuding of the great historic city on the Mississippi (with which the band shared a long history) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Another record that has only grown in my estimation over time.

Firework: “Summer’s Killing Us”. Maintains such a breathless see-saw riff-rhythm that Downie’s emphatic “whoo!” comes out as an exhausted “whew!”

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Josephine”. An album without ballads ends with this lovely tune about paintings and teenage daughters with one of lead guitarist Rob Baker’s most nicely-attuned run-off solos.

7. Up to Here (1989)

Up To HereThe reputation and importance in terms of breaking the Tragically Hip gives this smart, skilled but fundamentally basic blues-rock album a bit of a boost in this list. There are some superb examples of the genre on Up to Here, the singles “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans is Sinking” obviously but also the woody stomper “Boots or Hearts” and “38 Years Old”, a storytelling ballad that approximates later, greater such narrative songs like “Wheat Kings” in embryonic form. Up to Here is hypercompetent at the gutpunching bluesy modern rock that made the band’s name (indeed, this is the album that made that name) but it suffers just a bit compared to the exploratory ambition of their later work.

Firework: “New Orleans is Sinking”. The Tragically Hip’s “She Loves You” breakthrough, and an indelible, serpentine Southern gothic kick-up. SWIM!

Unplucked Gem: “Boots or Hearts”. You can’t dance to much Hip, but you can dance to this. Shuffle and handclaps perfection.

8. World Container (2006)

World ContainerProduced by mainstream shiny-rock maven Bob Rock, World Container was a modest commercial comeback for the Hip, who had faded from their position of prominence in the changing youth music market in Canada since the end of the 1990s. It’s certainly the Hip album most at ease with the stadium-rock milieu that was always their dominant métier, and purpose-builds big, broad songs like “In View”, “Yer Not the Ocean”, and the title track for that setting. Enjoyable as it can be for the band to embrace their concert identity on a studio album (“Family Band” is a hugely likable literalization of this identity), this embrace comes with a cost to their art. Bob Rock encouraged Downie to move away from the renowned literary obscurity of his lyrics into more intelligible expressions. This results in some of Downie’s most direct and personal songs (“The Lonely End of the Rink” reminisces on his youth as a top hockey goalie prospect and his memories of a distant father) but doesn’t so much open his creative possibilities as narrowly channel them. In opposition to many other efforts from the 2000s, World Container struck me as strong at first and then faded in my estimation with the passage of time.

Firework: “The Lonely End of the Rink”. A bit too direct? Sure. But the core metaphor of the natural solitude and isolation of the goaltender on the ice reflecting a similar cold distance with his father is beyond solid. Some great guitar work from Baker, too.

Unplucked Gem: “Family Band”. The embrace of old-fashioned riff rock bears juicy fruit late in the album. It repeats the stop-and-powerfully-restart trick from “Little Bones” to maximum effect, and Fay’s timekeeping is merciless. Plus: “One day I’ll make some honest rock n’ roll / Full of handclaps and gang vocals”. A worthy goal.

9. Man Machine Poem (2016)

Man Machine PoemLoose, adventurous, and wonderfully unfamiliar, Man Machine Poem doesn’t pummel the listener with stadium anthems but beguiles them with melodic surprises. The influence of producer and Broken Social Scene supremo Kevin Drew is writ large on what is likely to be the Tragically Hip’s last record (and confirms the reverse influence of the Canadian rock giants on the Pitchfork-approved indie collective’s music which was always a matter of no small suspicion on my part). Like many an indie rock record, and like much of the Hip’s better post-millenial output as well, Man Machine Poem feels like a musical work that will reveal itself more fully and truly only over time. How painful it will be not to receive more gifts like this from the band, but how glad we are to be given one more.

Firework: “In Sarnia”. Canadian place-name in the title. Check. Low-end noodling exploding into moving grandeur. This is a song I’ll love for years, that much is clear.

Unplucked Gem: “Here, In the Dark”. The most Hipesque track on an album that often seems to purposely eschew anything overly Hipesque, with a great arhythmic chorus with Downie wordspilling compellingly. Complex, menacing final minute as well.

10. Trouble at the Henhouse (1996)

Trouble At The HenhouseSharing Day For Night’s dusky textures, Trouble at the Henhouse is hardly as distinguished a release, a valley between the late ‘90s peaks that top this list. It does, however, feature two dynamite anthemic singles, the grand “Gift Shop” and the sublime “Ahead by a Century”, as well as the excellent “Springtime in Vienna” and the spookily epic “Don’t Wake Daddy”. It’s the rare Hip record that peters out into relative insignificance, however; usually the band sequence in a strong deep cut or two in their albums’ latter halves, and certainly nearly always end on an up note. But not here, where the murky dirge “Put It Off” plods off into the distance.

Firework: “Ahead by a Century”. One of the eternals, this coming-of-age ballad could be made the new Canadian national anthem without facing serious opposition.

Unplucked Gem: “Flamenco”. Doggedly down-tempo, this is nonetheless a sneaky melodic charmer, with one of Downie’s sharpest digs: “Maybe a prostitute / Could teach you / How to take a compliment”.

11. In Violet Light (2002)

In Violet LightFor some time my personal selection as the weakest Tragically Hip release since their debut, the Purple Heron Album has revealed its peculiar delights over time and risen in the rankings as mixed-bag late-period releases piled up behind it. “’It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken’” is a good, if not all-time great, single, although “Silver Jet” might be the worst thing the band ever put out to radio and Hugh Padgham’s production is weirdly thin, tinny, and generally unworthy of the artistry on display (the dull commercial font on the cover is the visual match to those sonics). The sheer quality of Downie’s writing and the increasing adventurousness of his vocals reveal themselves with deeper acquaintance, and the top-notch pair of “Dark” songs are both for the annals. Even this far removed from their best, the Hip are still very good.

Firework: “The Darkest One”. A breezy cruiser with a slick riff, it’s the best of the record’s three singles. Plus the music video is a Canadiana classic, featuring the two Gords helping the Trailer Park Boys steal an engine out of a pickup truck, who then tussle with Don Cherry when he shows up to deliver fried chicken.

Unplucked Gem: “The Dark Canuck”. A six-minute-long, beats-to-the-floor modest rock epic in three movements, this is among the Hip’s most arresting album-closers.

12. We Are the Same (2009)

We Are The SameThe band’s second collaboration with Bob Rock also represented the end of the creative relationship. Although it’s more likely that this had more to do with the Hip’s desire for continued variety in collaborators, perhaps they saw that Rock’s emphasis on straight-ahead clarity in music and words wasn’t doing their output as many favours as they might have thought. We Are the Same is hardly a failure. There are several fine songs, at least one classic tableau of detailed empathy (“Coffee Girl”), and some ambitious turns. But this band has honestly been much better than this, and not only earlier in their career, either. Half-assed album cover, too.

Firework: “Coffee Girl”. There’s a touch of creepy middle-aged man watching young women in public to this, but it’s an infectious and beautifully observed portrait of a type outside of Downie’s personal experience, with Beck and Cat Power shout-outs.

Unplucked Gem: “The Depression Suite”. Bob Rock may have over-polished the Hip’s sound, but he did oversee this spectacular, rambling, rousing, ambitious, strings-assisted suite. Downie pulls disparate strands from Farley Mowat’s books, the isolation of urban capitalism, and the corporatized transformation of New Orleans for tourist profit into one of his most comprehensive pictures of modern malaise and the vital comfort of fellow-feeling. A great musical moment, and maybe their last on record.

13. Now For Plan A (2012)

Now For Plan AMade with prominent Canadian rock producer Gavin Brown, Now For Plan A makes very little impression of any kind, it pains me to say. Maybe it will grow with long-term acquaintance, and some of it is kind of nice (“About This Map” and the title track are low-key efforts with unsounded depths, I feel). But with this album coming after the similarly middling (by the band’s high standards) We Are the Same, a long-running loyalty to the Tragically Hip’s continued release of new material was tested. Cheeky album cover, mind you.

Firework: “Man Machine Poem”. A title track for the album that follows this one (how eccentric!), it’s lyrically minimalist but massively sung by Downie and full of productive tension.

Unplucked Gem: “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. That reliable Hip standby, the killer album closer. Also a classic slice of Hip Canadiana, with Downie delighting in squeezing the remote northern indigenous community’s mouthful of a name into a rock lyric, although just mentioning the place, with its crippling and largely disavowed social problems, is a laudable act of social justice.

14. The Tragically Hip (EP) (1987)

The Tragically HipThis EP debut really barely represents the Tragically Hip as we came to know them at all. Downie is listed as co-writer on only half of the songs, with Sinclair and Baker sharing credit in a three-composer triumvurate. Canada’s future rock poet is vocalist only on both of the EP’s singles, including its best song, “Last American Exit”. Sinclair’s misbegotten “Evelyn” may be the biggest mistake they every committed to tape, and the EP concludes with a couple of jokey semi-novelty songs. Only the unremarkable “Highway Girl” made it onto the fan-voted 2005 Yer Favourites compilation from this EP, and even that was only due to the legendary “Double Suicide” live version. It’s generally unaccomplished, but then they were pretty young at the time. Only hints of what is to come can be discerned here, but it can be safely enough dismissed as simple juvenilia.

Firework: “Last American Exit”. Road trip blues-rock with a soaring chorus and an undercurrent of classically Canadian knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Nicely done, Other Gord.

Unplucked Gem: “I’m A Werewolf, Baby”. A silly tune, fairly terrible but still a definite oddity in the band’s oeuvre. Pretty fun, even if it’s an extended joke, and you’ve got to love Downie’s improv reply to Langlois’ repetition of the title phrase: “Not you too!”

Side releases worthy of mention: Live Between Us, the much-bootlegged band’s only official live album, recorded on the Trouble at the Henhouse tour in Detroit; Gord Downie’s brilliant, pure indie solo records, especially Coke Machine Glow and his energetic collaboration with the Sadies, And the Conquering Sun; “The New Maybe”, one of their most achingly gorgeous songs ever, from the Yer Favourites best-of album.

Categories: Music, Reviews

Endure the Wonder of Survival: A Legacy of Gord Downie

May 24, 2016 1 comment

It feels wrong, ghoulish even, to eulogize a man while he is still alive. Still, the painful news that Gord Downie, the singer and lyricist of venerable Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal, incurable brain cancer is already being greeted in the Canadian media and across the country’s internet social platforms in much the same way as the recent deaths of much more famous and internationally successful musical figures such as David Bowie and Prince. Although the band announced a final tour this summer and has a new (perhaps final?) album, the rhythmic, ruminative Kevin Drew-produced Man Machine Poem, due out on June 17, the announcement of Downie’s cancer has struck a defined segment of a generation of Canadians with the heavy blow of a final passing.

For these Canadians, and most definitely for me, Gordon Edgar Downie was our Bowie, our Prince. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak to what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to its fans, devoted and casual alike, although swellings of emotion at expressions of national sentiment and the poetic language of his lyrics certainly recur (check out The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon for the best official documenting of fan sentiment). It’s less difficult, though still far from simple, to summarize what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to me. But, to quote Downie, there’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do.

Like a lot of Canadians coming of age in smaller communities in the 1990s, the Tragically Hip were a notable cultural force where I grew up, an inescapable part of the musical landscape whether or not you liked them. I did like them, though, their muscular but melodically surprising bluesy rock melding with Downie’s enigmatic, sophisticated lyrical imagery woven around national touchstones. The Hip were an important shared interest in my group of friends, and a common reference point for most young people that I grew up with. Albums new and old (the brilliant Phantom Power was and remains a particular favourite), videos and appearances on MuchMusic, and gorddownieconcerts built up a collective mythos around the band, and Downie, as singer, primary songwriter, unpredictable onstage live-wire, and utterer of gnomic observations, was the focal point of that mythos.

The meaning of the art that Downie produced shifted for me over time, taking on different associations at different points in my life. But on balance, Downie’s songs with the Tragically Hip (and to a lesser extent his solo records) are, alongside the golden years of The Simpsons, the single most important artistic influence on my perspective, my writing, and the way I understand the world around me. This is what I mean by saying that he was my David Bowie: just as Bowie represented a unique, offbeat, edgy, or ambiguous ideal for many shaggy outcasts from square society, Downie arose out of and commanded the admiration and fondness of Canada’s earthbound, essentially conservative rural and suburban middle class but also transcends it and sees the best in it, injecting erudition, empathy, and inclusive fellow-feeling into a subculture that could bend towards illiberal tendencies. But he also respects the salt-of-the-earth commitment and care of this class, and does not sneer or talk down to it, even while rubbing elbows with the urban indie elite of the Canadian music scene.

Beyond matters of class and subculture, that interminable shell game of identity formation and position-taking known as “being cool”, Downie was a preternaturally skilled and frequently astounding user of words. It was in this way that he was most inspiring, in his poetic turns of phrase, his indelible imagery, and in the resonant stories he told. The incredible breadth and scope that he could evoke in the space of a 4 or 5-minute rock song could be breathtaking, but he could also move you with intimate snapshots (“You can leave your jewellery in a bowl beside the bed”) and deploy a killer joke with expert timing. He could not only write remarkable words, but sing them, give them to us, with just the right inflection, the tenderly balanced delivery. When his wordcraft combined with his passion for performance, the result could be very special indeed.

Eulogizing Gord Downie now, when he may have years left to leave a mark on the world outside of the rock n’ roll stage, might not feel so incongruous considering how often and how curiously he probed the frightening, tantalizing mysteries of death. Not just in, say, “The Inevitability of Death” (a title chosen, by Downie’s half-ironic admission, to confound the forced cheer of radio DJs) or “Nautical Disaster” (which is more about the haunting spectres of past trauma), but personally, painfully, honestly in ballads like “Fiddler’s Green” (about the death of Downie’s young nephew from a heart ailment) and, a vastly underappreciated favourite of mine, “Toronto #4”. An aching poem written as a tribute to Downie’s dying grandmother set to a drum machine beat, elegiac guitar, and tinkling piano, it’s a song about the sensations and rituals of death, the quiet enormity of our finite lives, and the comfort that the mortal end robs of those left behind. Gord Downie will be with us for some time yet, but he has left us with many stirring epitaphs, none so perfectly poised as this.

Care for the People on the Edge of the Night: David Bowie – 1947-2016

January 11, 2016 1 comment
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David Bowie, a few days before his death (Photo by Jimmy King)

This thinkpiece on the death of David Bowie will undoubtedly be lesser than most of the plethora of eulogistic tributes that haved budded across the Internet like a fresh, sad spring today. Unlike millions who glimpsed even some fleeting, twinkling reflection of their own quotidian struggles in the music, words, performance, and public image of David Robert Jones, who passed from life late yesterday at the age of 69, Bowie’s art did not uplift me at critical or vulnerable times in my development. It did not save me from despair, inject me with a timely elixir of hope, or steel my spine against the homogenizing imperatives of conformist society and culture. It is not a failing of Bowie’s work that it did not touch me somewhere deep and true when it mattered most. It very much could have, but vagaries of context and circumstance kept David Bowie at a certain remove in my not-insubstantial music fandom as a younger man, and only tentative forays into his voluminous and intimidatingly varied ouevre have followed since.

One doesn’t require intense personal investment to acknowledge and appreciate the breadth and depth of influence of a cultural giant, of course. I could consider David Bowie’s artistic variation, career longevity and image reinventions, his seemingly boundless creative curiosity and tremendously open and insightful intelligence. I can muse over the legitimacy that his embrace of countercultural difference in the midst of an era of encroaching hegemonic conformity of consumer capitalism gave to all those who felt likewise different, who conceived themselves in resistance to centralized forces somehow. I could boldly state that David Bowie created what we now know as “indie” music and culture, for good or ill, and I wouldn’t be wrong.

I won’t do any of these things, but I will briefly consider, in two very famous and definitional musical examples, how David Bowie tapped into the fundamental anxieties of modern life in the 20th Century and molded those fears and uncertainties into grand and moving artistic statements.

The first example, without much doubt, has to be the immortal title track from Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes”. The song was a hit at its edited three-minute version, with the ubiquity of that single edit such that, as a non-specialist in Bowie’s work, I wasn’t even aware that a more patient, grand, complicated, and magnificent six-minute version had featured on the album.

The story behind “‘Heroes'” has passed into cultural legend: its subject is a tragic pair of lovers locked in an embrace in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, their doomed romanticism and messy, fragile humanity fêted and magnified by a triumphal anthem of great magnitude. Composed and recorded by Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno within a literal stone’s throw of the Wall, the dark penumbra of authoritarian oppression haunts its aural footsteps, invoking the ominous converted into the transcendent with the most strenuous and inspired effort.

On certain level, it is classical Romanticism, reifying sentiment and gilding love as the most vital bulwark against the dead-eyed conformity of central-state control. A flower growing up from a persistent crack in the grey concrete barrier between freedom and tyranny. But Bowie reproduces Romanticism in order to deconstruct it, to render it as more difficult and less rote, and to suggest that politics, too, is not so cut and dry. Those quotation marks around “Heroes” are so often forgotten by a culture thirsty for easy glorification, the ironic distance they were designed to impart (and that is fully apparent in Bowie’s remarkable vocal performance) far too frequently trampled by platitudes that buttress status quos no less oppressive and limiting to some world citizens as the Wall was to East Berliners.

Bowie grounds social, cultural, and political nuance in the relatable messiness of romance, and contrasts it with chivalric fantasies: “I will be king / And you will be queen” alternates with “You would be mean / And I’ll drink all the time”, dreams and faults get equal time. By symbolically associating doomed lovers with the harsh consequences of the seemingly intractable ideological differences of the Cold War, Bowie elevates his musical tableau to the plateau of myth. By refusing to conceive of this tragic love in the glow of fantasy and returning it to recognizable complexity and difficulty, he likewise demystifies the epic black-and-white, good-and-evil dichotomy of the Cold War, suggesting that it too cannot be painted with too broad a brush.

The underlying socioeconomic and political struggles (which were always already personal in his work) behind “‘Heroes'” are revisited and recalibrated in Bowie’s closing verse in “Under Pressure”, his lightning strike of a hit collaboration with Queen in 1981. In a song best known for Freddie Mercury’s trademarked vocal calisthenics and John Deacon’s iconic bassline (later sampled by Vanilla Ice), Bowie’s contribution is often overlooked, but his verse building into the song’s coda (“But love’s such an old-fashioned word…”) is a thesis statement for better collective living. Perhaps the most succinct and powerful paean to the platonic ideal of the robust, empathetic welfare state ever committed to a recording device (all apologies to LBJ), Bowie manages to do what artists so seldom do when faced with interminable, impossible struggle: reach out for a practical solution, a solid lifeline.

What did the life and art of David Bowie mean to me? Not as much as it might have meant to many, many others, and I bow to their thoughts on the matter of his passing. But writing and singing, with his singular mastery of modulation of emotiveness and implication, words like “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night”? That will never not mean a great deal as we pass through a hard, open world of pain and wonders.

Categories: Culture, Current Affairs, Music

Ryan Adams’ Covers of Taylor Swift’s 1989 Album and Pop’s Distrust of Vulnerability

September 24, 2015 Leave a comment

Indie-roots-rock critical darling Ryan Adams released his latest album recently. It consists not of original compositions of his own but entirely of covers, indeed of covers of one album in its entirety: Taylor Swift’s megaselling powerhouse 1989. This is no mere gimmick (it’s more like flattery, if both Adams’s and Swift’s statements about the record’s sincere intent are any indication), though the album does clinch Swift’s ascendancy in indie music circle as music geeks’ superstar pop princess of choice.

I haven’t a particularly distinct or developed critical view of Adams’s 1989 to offer, seeing as such a perspective would require a closer familiarity with Swift’s original work than I can admit to having, despite previous musings on her oeuvre. I know that it’s worth a listen, and that generally speaking I prefer the Neil Young-ish dichotomy of “wooden music” ache and ragged glory rock anthems practiced by Ryan Adams to Taylor Swift’s polished pop production on every day of the week as a matter of personal inclination and taste. There may be deeper factors undergirding this aesthetic judgement, and I hope to untangle these a bit more below.

One particular contrasting feature of the Ryan Adams 1989 compared to the Taylor Swift 1989 that is impossible to miss is the more openly, nakedly emotional nature of these covers. Listeners with a good grounding in Adams’s songs know that he can muster exquisite, soulful heartache with prodigious and moving skill, and he wrings every ounce of available pain from Swift’s compositions, known more for their peppy radio-friendly joyousness. At Vox, Todd VanDerWerff considers this effect of the album, or rather considers how the reception of the Adams album emphasizes the sadness that he “finds” in Swift’s songs without recognizing that these notes of melancholy and vulnerability were always already present and evident from the original album’s release. VanDerWerff argues that the poppy and the darker elements of Swift’s songs create an “emotional tension” on 1989, and Adams’s cover versions eliminate that tension and go full-on sad, with occasional irruptions of anger.

There’s something to this, but I’m not sure it’s quite right. Many of pop music’s pinnacles are products of the tension of light and dark, hooks of delight connected to depths of doubt and despair: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, and Fastball’s “The Way” come to mind, supremely catchy hits respectively about a thorny paternity controversy, the fragility of romance, and dead old people. You can see a definitely vulnerability in Taylor Swift’s lyrics, but Ryan Adams, with his traditionalist rock approach as the still barely-ascendant shorthand for authenticity (which VanDerWerff is right to be dubious about), is able to pull that vulnerable nature out more readily and evidently than Swift can in her glossier arrangements.

Look at “Shake It Off”, for example, the megahit lead single from Swift’s 1989. With the boppy sheen of the goofy video and the glare of cultural appropriations to distract and direct our attention, Swift’s original emphasizes her beefs with tabloid media speculation about her personal life and emphasizes her overwhelming sense of positivity, her ability to “shake off” the jibes and keep dancing. As it is presented for a mass audience, there’s nothing complicated or (it should be said) particular interesting about the tune (“Blank Space”, as I have discussed, is much more fascinating to think about).

But listen to Adams’s low-key cover of “Shake It Off” and different tones and meanings emerge from Swift’s words. When Swift repeats the criticisms of her intelligence and her worthiness as a romantic partner over the best state-of-the-art electronic beat that money can buy, it comes off as defiant and mocking, a confident kiss-off to the “haters” who are, after all, “gonna hate”. Adams draws out the hurt and sting in those epithets, though, as well as the low simmer of self-doubt that they create. Swift brushes off the hurtful words hurled at her, but Adams worries that they might just be true.

There are deep-rooted factors that condition this reading, that presage the transmission of these meanings. I mentioned, as VanDerWerff does, the lingering claim to authority of expression that rock claims over pop. One can also point, as VanDerWerff does, to the privilege of Adams as a male artist as opposed to Swift as a female artist, and how the underlying sexist norms of the still-patriarchal circle of music criticism construct the soulful, profound male singer-songwriter as superior to the frivolous, superficial pop queen. It is only through the prism of our prejudices that Adams’s versions are seen as deeper or truer or sadder than Swift’s, and any preference for the former over the latter is a sort of discrimination; the prism is a glass ceiling.

This is not exactly VanDerWerff’s point, but the thrust of the observation gets at the point that I wish to make about the duelling 1989s. Regardless of the web of preconditioned perspectives that make us understand the Ryan Adams 1989 as more emotional open and raw than the Taylor Swift 1989, it unquestionably presents that way. This element is not, as VanDerWerff has it, something that listeners of Swift’s songs have somehow “missed”. There’s a melancholy in the bones of Swift’s music, but how her music is composed, arranged, and especially presented betrays a lack of trust in the value of that melancholy.

We might interrogate whether this distrust is Swift’s own or that of the corporate entertainment machine arrayed behind her. Most likely it’s both, with Swift’s uncertainty about expressing the sort of vulnerability that a close reading of her lyrics betrays predetermined by marketing imperatives and focus-group research. Much of this effect has roots in assumptions about gender norms, as well, about how much vulnerability a female artist can safely display. The mainstream feminism attached to a figure like Taylor Swift privileges strength and agency and positivity in a progressive and liberated woman of the modern world. Vulnerability and emotional openness can be considered signs of weakness, and pop-feminism has not often displayed the subtlety and nuance to reconcile these characteristics with its valorization of “Girl Power”. The glossy pop of Swift’s music is an aesthetic (and commercial) choice, but it also serves to distance her pop star persona from the hurtful emotional consequences that underscore her basically happy songs. It can operate as a mask to hide the tears.

It’s instructive to recall that Swift began her recording career in country music, a genre that has annexed much of rock’s sphere of influence with white audiences when it comes to mediated expressions of emotional authenticity. Her early songs, naive high-school fantasies about princesses yearning from their imagined castles though they may be, carried a melancholy about them too, but you could say that it was a melancholy about the limits of their expressive breadth and depth. Pop star Taylor Swift has expanded and sharpened her emotional expressiveness while girding that precious expressiveness in layers of Top 40 sparkle to protect it from exposure. Ryan Adams removes that armour in his cover album of 1989 and lays bare wounded hearts, not only his own but that of the songs’ composer. The record tells us quite a bit about Ryan Adams, but it might just tell us even more about Taylor Swift and the culture that helped to shape her.

Categories: Culture, Music