It’s Just a Matter of Time Before Everyone Loves Lizzo

Under no circumstances will Lizzo play “Flight of the Bumblebee” tonight. Don’t get her wrong. She’s a classically trained flautist, in addition to a singer and rapper, and could twerk circles while playing it (that’s a trademark). But as far as songs go, “ ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ is for basic bitches,” declares Lizzo, and tonight she needs a show-off song.

It’s two hours before a live taping of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO special, and hosts Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson have asked her to perform her signature move, but the stakes — HBO, the 3,000-person-deep audience at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre — call for the kind of song that will make eyes widen, jaws drop. Normally, the trill-filled missile in Lizzo’s arsenal is 19th-century French composer Jean-Baptiste Arban’s “Carnival of Venice,” a song that requires the lung capacity of a runner trained at high altitude and the ability to double-, sometimes triple-, tongue. Except a producer just apologetically entered the dressing room to tell her she’s so so sorry, but she can’t play that particular song. Something about legal. Clearance. Rights.

What to play? she wonders aloud in a mild panic to the eight or so people milling about. The producer helpfully starts suggesting other legally cleared songs. “How about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’?”

Dress by Sally Lapointe at 11honore.com. Earrings by Area at Barneys New York.
Photo: Pari Dukovic

People are often surprised that Lizzo can actually play the flute. At 30, she’s been playing for 20 years, since she was a preteen in her Houston junior high school’s marching band and people would tell her “that shit is corny!” She went to the University of Houston on a music scholarship. She practices four hours a day when her schedule permits. The flute even has its own Instagram account, @sashabefluting (it follows no one). She’s played on most of her albums, starting with 2015’s Big GRRRL Small World, and does so again on her forthcoming major-label release, Cuz I Love You, which drops this spring.

The junior-high punks might have called her corny, but like most hobbies people mock you for in adolescence, it’s now one of her greatest assets. The flute is earning her Shade Room–blessed viral fame, especially after one particularly notable moment from a performance at the University of Iowa’s homecoming. As she tells it, that video was born out of a direct challenge to her ability to play the flute — or to perform at all. During sound check, a professor threatened to report her to campus police unless she showed permits. “The privilege that you have to have to walk up to young women, brown women, black women, and yell, ‘Do you have a permit to be here?’ While we’re clearly onstage with microphones singing and dancing,” says Lizzo, shaking off phantom pangs of annoyance. She was so fired up that night, she told the audience the story, then ripped into a flute reworking of “Big Shot,” from Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, while she and her two dancers, dubbed the Big GRRRLS, hit the shoot with more ferocious joy than BlocBoy JB ever had, even though he invented the dance. She ended by lobbing her trademark “Bitch!”

“That ‘Bitch!’ was from the bottom of my heart,” Lizzo tells me. “That was for anybody who tries to stop my shine and tries to challenge my existence. Don’t challenge my motherfucking right to be here, bitch.” She posted a video with the caption “have u ever seen a bitch play flute then hit the shoot?” And since nobody had, it got half a million views. People started making Lizzo flute YouTube mash-up videos. She released a single version of it called “Bye Bitch.”

When Lizzo plays the flute, it’s a gentle “Fuck you, yes I can,” to everyone who is surprised to see her take the stage in a spandex bodysuit and play a song by an old Frenchman. She knows she’s doing something with the instrument that nobody’s ever done (please see: recent Instagram videos from her album-listening party in an L.A. strip club — a singular moment in flute-performance history). Her career has been full of those kinds of expectation-defying swerves, ones that shock, delight, and challenge preconceptions. And not just ours, but her own. “I’ve said it before, but me just existing is revolutionary,” she says again. People think they know what to expect from a pop star, but then they meet Lizzo.

She pulls out her beloved Sasha Flute (so named for Beyoncé’s third album, Sasha Fierce) and begins to run scales. “I could play some fake jazz shit, but that’s boring.” She improvises some exaggerated riffs in the key of Anchorman. Finally she decides to play “Bye Bitch,” in tribute to her viral moment. She tests a few bars, making sure she can play and clap cheeks at the same time. She can.

Sunglasses by Givenchy, similar styles at 747 Madison Ave. Fishnet bodysuit by Dreamgirl at trashy.com. Bodysuit (underneath) by Christian Siriano.
Photo: Pari Dukovic
Bodysuit by LemonGirl at amazon.com. Rings (left to right): Pearl ring by Mikimoto at 730 Fifth Ave. Ring by Tiffany & Co. at tiffany.com. Ring by Kwiat at kwiat.com. Ring by Bulgari at bulgari.com.
Photo: Pari Dukovic

In January, Lizzo released “Juice,” an energetic funk affirmation that should have Bruno Mars watching his throne. When she sings, “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine,” in the song’s bridge, it’s both an earworm and a mission statement. By her own declaration, Lizzo has been at the forefront of the positive movement. Which positive movement? All of them. She’s sex positive, body positive (hers and yours), vocally practices self-love and self-care. “I am a pioneer in creating modern self-love, body-positive music,” she explains, which could ring cheesy — or, worse, totally disingenuous. But it isn’t just the modern twists she puts on old self-help sentiment (e.g., “I just took a DNA test; turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch”) that keep it from teetering over the line. It’s the fact that Lizzo has been teaching herself to be 100 percent that bitch since she was Melissa Jefferson, a self-described dorky, overweight preteen.

Lizzo’s family moved to Houston from Detroit when she was 9. Her parents worked long hours building a succession of businesses, and her two older siblings were often doing their own thing, so music was an early babysitter. In sixth grade, “the flute chose her,” when her school’s band director asked Lizzo if she wanted to learn the instrument. At 14, she formed her first rap group, the Cornrow Clique, with two of her classmates and got her nickname, Lizzo. (She was originally Lissa, but Jay-Z’s “Izzo” was a popular song at the time.) She could rap — which should have made her popular — but she was in marching band, so she wasn’t. Also she smiled too much and laughed too loud. Sometimes she wore hippie clothes, like flowing shirts and bell-bottom jeans. She listened to Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie because her older sister did. She wore Uggs, the tipping point. Her classmates said she was “too white.” “But like, Lil Wayne also wore Uggs,” she points out.

She started college in 2005, but by her junior year, she felt trapped by all of the boxes she was trying to fit herself into. Was she an AKA, making the rounds at all the historically black sorority and fraternity parties? Was she the rapper performing at late-night shows? Was she pursuing the flute professionally and committing to 7 a.m. master classes? She couldn’t make all those identities fit together, so she dropped out. Her parents had moved to Denver, and without the dorms, she often slept in her car, a T-boned 1990s Subaru. But the universe always offers another weird portal — and a floor to sleep on. In 2008, she joined her first real band, playing the flute in the prog-rock-inflected Ellypseas. “I dead-ass asked them if they wanted to get on MTV.” They did not. She didn’t realize it then — or maybe she was afraid to admit it — but those were her ambitions. The band never made it to TRL, but it was good enough to book shows at South by Southwest.

She slept at the band’s rehearsal space, sometimes on the drummer’s floor. “I would drive around to my friends’ houses, and if they were having dinner, I’d be like, ‘Hey, come hang out! You got some food? Let’s kick it!’ And just eat the chicken and rice. Actually, I was a vegetarian. So I would eat the chicken-juice-soaked rice.” She shrugs. “I was like, ‘I’m too broke to have morals.’ ”

In 2010, the band retired, and her father passed away. She communicates with him now, through a psychic medium she frequently visits in L.A., but at the time, it sank her into a depression. She finally answered her mother’s pleas and joined her in Denver. Ten months later, restless, she moved to Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, at the behest of a friend who thought she’d like the music scene there. She did. Aaron Mader, a.k.a. Lazerbeak, a local producer and member of rap collective Doomtree, describes the Minneapolis scene as a collaborative utopia. One night Lizzo could open for a punk band; the next, she could collaborate with an electronic band. She lent backup vocals for a rock-soul group and performed at the legendary First Ave, the venue made famous by Prince. To prepare, she watched Purple Rain, took a rowboat into the middle of Lake Minnetonka, and purified herself, just like Prince did in the movie.

For all the diversity of genres, though, the scene was still dominated by white dudes. Younger acts — especially women and women of color — found it difficult to break through, but it also meant that people noticed Lizzo a lot faster. “When someone is a force and has an energy about her that is pretty magnetic, it didn’t take her long for people to pay attention,” says Mader.

Lizzo formed two bands. First, the Chalice, which made melodic pop with a little bit of rap like the Spice Girls. Later, she and the Chalice’s Sophia Eris started GRRRL PRTY and went full N.W.A, explains Lizzo. “We were crazy,” recalls Eris. “It was like a riot onstage. Women just like drinking, cussing, and rapping and singing.” GRRRL PRTY became a local darling. Even Prince took notice, asking them to record a song, “Boytrouble,” and inviting them to play a show at Paisley Park. They couldn’t curse or drink onstage, but they did get to play in front of a projection of Finding Nemo.

On the side, Lizzo was also working on solo material. She felt a lot of anger and sometimes a crisis of confidence. She needed an outlet. “There’s one line on my first album where I say, ‘I got a lot on my chest, so here’s my breast reduction.’ ” She’s referring to a line from “Hot Dish,” off Lizzobangers, which she worked on with Lazerbeak. They met when she tweeted, “I wish I could afford a Lazerbeak beat,” and he responded, “Just give me a case Mike’s Hard Lemonade.” After Lizzobangers, she entered what she calls her artsy-fartsy phase, which, like any good indie musicians in 2015, included bangs, a visit to Bon Iver’s Wisconsin studio, April Base, and a Pitchfork mention. The album that resulted, Big GRRRL Small World, persuaded Atlantic to sign her, and she moved to L.A., taking as much of her Minneapolis crew as she could. Next thing she knew, she was opening for acts like Sleater-Kinney, Florence + the Machine, and Haim.

Coat and floral necktie by Marc Jacobs at marcjacobs.com.
Photo: Pari Dukovic

An hour before showtime, with Sasha Flute safely in the care of a stagehand, her nerves begin to quiet. She turns to me and apologizes for her earlier mood. “I don’t always feel like a bad bitch,” she says, just as a bottle of Casamigos tequila, her favorite fake-a-bad-bitch-till-you-are-a-bad-bitch liquor, is delivered. Someone pours Lizzo a drink (a heavy pour plus “a bee’s dick” more worth of tequila and lemonade), and suddenly the clutch is released on the energy in the room. Marko Monroe, the crew’s “skinny white boy” and Lizzo’s stylist, helps her into her outfit — a pink blazer over black bike shorts and white platform sneakers. (“Business on top, ho on bottom,” Lizzo calls the look.) He hands her a chain. “No more chokers that make your neck green. It’s all about Chaneeeel now,” he drawls in a friendly baritone.

No More Green Necks is a status afforded to those at a certain level of success, one Lizzo is finally hitting. “Juice” charted on Billboard’s Hot R&B. She just announced her debut Coachella performance. Will Ferrell dressed up as Ron Burgundy, previously the most notable flautist in pop culture, and responded to her #FluteandShoot challenge on Twitter. (“That was surreal!”)

She steps back and adjusts her blazer. Her makeup artist dusts finishing powder on her creamy brown complexion; everyone stands back and admires for a second. “It’s a Lewk! A Lewk Skywalker!” she says, shaking her Diana Ross waves. Lizzo’s friend and hair stylist, Shelby “The Beyoncé of BabyHair” Swain, walks over and begins to pour herself a drink and tops off Lizzo’s. “Shelby has the best twerking videos,” Lizzo says by way of introduction.

Monroe and Swain are part of Lizzo’s creative team, but she counts them as family. They’re mainstays on the road with her — getting wild in Vegas hotel rooms, sleeping head-to-shoulder on flights, and documenting every moment, from every best angle, on Instagram. “I don’t just hire people because they can do the job. There’s a connection that happens,” says Lizzo.

Lizzo takes another sip and emits a sigh, like she’s sliding into a hot tub. “My brain just relaxed in the most amazing way. I just felt the tequila encircle my brain and hug it a little bit. They say it’s the brain dehydrating,” she jokes. She and Swain feel loose enough to make one of their freestyle videos for Instagram. Swain starts pounding out a beat, and Lizzo starts spitting: “Bitch I feel amazing. Tequila blazing. Bitch I’m in a blazer … Ilana Glazer.” She pauses, rooting around in her brain for the next lyric. “Ain’t here,” she says, dissolving into a laugh that sounds like a Jamaican vacation.

By the time Lizzo landed her record deal with Atlantic, every slogan of every positivity movement had been slapped on her. She’s the “fat-a-bulous” “body-positive rapper who will change the world” by making “chunky funky.” Some of the labels are true but boring, some border on offensive, but none of them comes close to capturing how delightful Lizzo is as a human. Rolling her into the same genus as Dove Real Beauty ads and #fyourbeautystandards hashtags feels like another box.

“I’m embracing the title,” she says of her body-positive crown, and has been featured in campaigns for Good American and Lane Bryant. “But,” she continues, “it’s not a label I wanted to put on myself. It’s just my existence. All these fucking hashtags to convince people that the way you look is fine. Isn’t that fucking crazy? I say I love myself, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so brave. She’s so political.’ For what? All I said is ‘I love myself, bitch!’ ” she says, like it’s easy. “Even when body positivity is over, it’s not like I’m going to be a thin white woman. I’m going to be black and fat. That’s just hopping on a trend and expecting people to blindly love themselves. That’s fake love. I’m trying to figure out how to actually live it.”

Lizzo has always been open about the amount of work she does to maintain her stubbornly upbeat attitude. She goes to therapy. She’s improved her relationship with her mother. She’s canceled shows when she realized she wasn’t taking care of herself. She quotes her own lyrics to herself for motivation. Onstage that night at Kings Theatre, Williams and Robinson will ask her to give advice about self-care. She proudly owns, to the enthusiastic delight of the audience, being thick, being single, being black, being a woman, loving anime. “I started really doing work on like deep crevices of myself,” she explains. “I was like, Girl, do you love your back fat? Yeah, you do. Girl, you have a good ass, don’t think you have a bad ass!”

Bodysuit by Lemongirl at amazon.com. Earrings by De Beers at 716 Madison Ave. Pearl Ring by Mikimoto at 730 Fifth Ave. Ring by Kwiat at kwiat.com.
Photo: Pari Dukovic
Necklace by Gucci at gucci.com.
Photo: Pari Dukovic

Lizzo’s happy place is anywhere she is — and the energy extends to BK9, a Caribbean restaurant in Brooklyn. It’s late, post-taping, and the place is Monday-night empty when we walk in, but Lizzo immediately starts to identify what’s good about the place: All black people in the kitchen? Food will be lit. Bar is still serving tequila? Perfect. As the hostess leads us to a table, she grabs Swain’s arm and points to a darker-skinned Morris Chestnut look-alike at the bar. “I love these Jamaican-ass men.” She quickly corrects herself: “Or not Jamaican, Bajan.” Everyone ogles freely.

“We love a strong nose in this family,” Lizzo says to Swain.

“I love a strong man,” Swain responds. Not quietly.

“Oh, I know you do. I love a big dirty-hair man, like a mechanic with oil all over his hands.” Whatever fantasy she’s about to spin gets interrupted by the waitress, Cass, whom Lizzo in turn interrupts to ask where she’s from (Trinidad, to Lizzo’s delight. “I love Trini girls!”) and what we should order — oxtails, jerk wings, plantains and garlic sauce, and a medley of fruity margaritas.

Soon everyone has been rendered silent by the jerk sauce. It’s just the sounds of sucking wings, smacking lips. “Oh my God,” Lizzo moans. “Bitch, this don’t even need sauce,” she says to the plantains, “but I’m trying it just because this sauce is so good. Oh my God. Damn, sis, fuuuck. I’m losing my mind. Plantain is my favorite food in the fucking world.” Cass comes back over with extra plantains nobody asked for but everyone is happy to see. “How is everything?” she asks.

“Oh my God, this sauce. Who made this food? I want to suck the dick of whoever made this sauce.”

Cass pauses for a moment. “My dad,” she says, so straight-faced everyone laughs, thinking she’s just quick on the uptake. “No, for serious.” The table goes quiet. Swain’s fist goes to her mouth like a gag ball. Lizzo’s eyes pop until her lash extensions touch her hairline.

“I’m canceled. I’m canceled. I’m definitely canceled,” she yelps, and everyone at the table falls all over each other cackling. Another round of margaritas appears without request — another ramekin of that sauce, too — and bites of oxtail are exchanged for chicken wings for shrimp.

Cass comes over with our bill, and making a surprise cameo is her dad — the dad — via FaceTime. Everyone passes the phone around and says, “Thanks for the food,” but Dad only has eyes for Lizzo. “Give me back to the thick one,” he says. “She cute.”

Lizzo’s expression changes from a grin to something like a wince. “Oh, am I the thick one? Did you hear that? I’m just ‘the thick one’?” she says quietly to Swain. The moment passes, almost imperceptible.

That moment — the wince — comes up when we meet again a few weeks later at Atlantic Records. It’s after-hours and we’ve all assembled in one of the office’s many artist lounges to listen to tracks from the new album. Lizzo lies down on a teal suede couch. She’s wearing a pink suit the color of the Energizer Bunny’s fur.

“Did I wince?” she asks. “I assume I was just responding to some way I must have felt in the past. Like subconsciously. Sure, I’m the thick one. I’m a lot of things. It doesn’t really bother me,” she waves me off, because today it really doesn’t. She kicks up her silver Givenchy sneakers on the coffee table and changes the subject. “I was just sitting on the toilet, peeing, thinking about Beyoncé saying my name, and I swear I got wet!” she says. “It’s gonna happen. I can hear her say it.” She switches to a Beyoncé-as-God voice, “Lizzoooh.”

If imagining Beyoncé saying her name is any indication of her faith in Cuz I Love You, Lizzo is pretty sure she’s got a collection of bullets. “Missiles,” she says, explaining the sound as “if Aretha Franklin made a ratchet-ass rap album in 2019.” “So I’m going to become iconic musically,” she declares. “I don’t mean in the way all the kids are using it now for everything like, ‘Oh, I took a nap. How iconic.’ Even though it’s valid; naps are iconic. I mean iconic like an icon. Like when you see the go sign or the stop sign, you know what it means.”

Her publicist plugs her phone into the room’s sound system. The title track she plays, “Cuz I Love You,” is dedicated to an ex she won’t name, who used to ask her to “please stop crying” whenever she did it in front of him. “He’s a Gemini,” she says with daggers in her eyes; then, in the booming voice of a preacher at a pulpit, she announces, “This is for every woman-ah, who has ever-ah, been victimized by a Gemini.” She pauses to consider if she’s committing astrology prejudice. “Should I slander Gemini?” she asks the room. “You know what? Yes. Give us a reason to like you, Gemini.”

Next she cues up “Like a Girl,” and as she explains the meaning behind it, her voice takes on the tone of an executive making an ad presentation. “The phrase ‘like a girl’ has such a negative connotation,” she says. “I wanted to reclaim that phrase, like, ‘Bitch, you wish you could throw like a girl!’ ”

I have to stop her. This is the first time Lizzo’s message has sounded like the slogans designed to make people cry during Super Bowl commercials. And in fact, “Like a Girl” was a slogan from a 2014 Always campaign that was then considered “groundbreaking” but now just sounds like a maxi-pad commercial.

“I think deeply about how to take a message and how to push it forward.” She cites her 2017 song “Truth Hurts.” “I sing, ‘I will never ever, ever be your sidechick,’ but originally the lyric was a sidechick.” She waits for me to get the subtle difference. “Bitch, what about sidechicks! I don’t want to exclude them! I don’t want to make them feel bad.

“I think that’s why this feels brand-new. I’m trying to be inclusive. Could this song be in a Dove commercial? Yes, but it won’t. They aren’t thinking about everybody.” To her credit, Lizzo’s “Like a Girl” is about throwing dollars at strippers “like a girl.” It probably won’t be used in a commercial for feminine products. “The old heads aren’t ready for that,” she jokes.

Though Lizzo tries to be careful, recently she got caught in a wave of backlash from the same body-positivity community that’s already given her icon status. In October, Oprah’s team asked if they could use the bouncy, inspirational “Worship” in a Weight Watchers commercial. Weight Watchers has undergone a makeover recently — under Oprah, it is a less diet-shaming endeavor, but still, a diet. Lizzo was ecstatic. Holy shit! It was Oprah. She tweeted the campaign, Instagram Storied it, expecting the same amount of excitement she felt. Her fans were immediately disappointed. They DM’d her about “her brand” and how she’d betrayed it, and them.

Lizzo archived the post but put up a new message: “Let me explain to you what I was going through and if you have any care — ’cause I’m a human being. I’m not just like some totem on the internet.” She admits now that the situation threw her into an internal conflict. It was a rare chance to push herself into national consciousness, and it’s Oprah — shouldn’t she be allowed the opportunity? And yet she genuinely wants to uplift communities, specifically this one. “I didn’t know it was gonna be that deep,” she says. “I’m not gonna lie to you.”

She finally gets to the last track she wants to play — her real show-off song, “Tempo,” featuring Missy Elliott. The beat drops in like a booty metronome, and suddenly Swain and Monroe, who were sleeping so hard they both have creases on their faces, are immediately reanimated. Monroe starts body-rolling in his chair, mouth open. Swain pops up and places her hand squarely on the floor like a quarterback and starts bobbing her butt up and down. Lizzo leans back, arms open, grinding her seat. “Man. Bitch, I need to hear this. I listen to my mixes every day, and I just get like, Fuck! Yes! I am excited about life!”

Photo: Pari Dukovic

*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

 

Source: It’s Just a Matter of Time Before Everyone Loves Lizzo

Jay-Z Halted A Lawsuit By Pointing Out the Lack of Black Arbitrators – Rolling Stone

Jay-Z won a court battle on Wednesday in a lawsuit against his company Roc Nation, on somewhat unusual grounds: The rapper-entrepreneur argued that the lack of African-American arbitrators presiding over the case left him susceptible to unconscious racial bias.

The suit has to do with Jay-Z’s Rocawear clothing brand, which he sold in 2007 to clothing company Iconix. Last year, Iconix sued Jay-Z in federal court, alleging that Roc Nation’s new line of baseball caps with the Roc Nation paper plane logo violated the two parties’ 2007 agreement; Jay-Z countersued, arguing that the agreement applied to Rocawear and not Roc Nation. The parties entered arbitration, in which each side is supposed to eliminate names from a list of 12 potential arbitrators picked from the American Arbitration Association database (four are chosen by each side, and the association also chooses four itself) until they both agree on one — which is where the suit saw its hangup.

In a court petition on Wednesday asking a New York Supreme Court judge to halt the arbitration, Jay-Z said that when he started looking at the list, he was “confronted with a stark reality”: there was an inability to “identify a single African-American arbitrator on the ‘Large and Complex Cases’ roster” supplied by the American Arbitration Association. Additionally, when he took that observation to the association, it searched for eligible arbitrators out of a 200-strong group and found only three African-Americans — one of whom had a conflict of interest and became ineligible.

That left “no choice at all,” said the rapper’s lawyer Alex Spiro, who argued in the petition that a lack of black arbitrators “deprives litigants of color of a meaningful opportunity to have their claims heard by a panel of arbitrators reflecting their backgrounds and life experience,” putting Jay-Z at risk of unconscious bias by white arbitrators toward black defendants. If unresolved, the issue would “deprive black litigants like Mr. Carter and his companies of the equal protection of the laws,” he said.

The court upheld the petition and the arbitration will be paused until a hearing on December 11th; parties involved in the suit have not commented publicly, but Spiro called the ruling “historic” for its spotlight on discrimination in legal proceedings.

 

Source: Jay-Z Halted A Lawsuit By Pointing Out the Lack of Black Arbitrators – Rolling Stone

The Monster Mash History: More Than a Graveyard Smash

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from David Buck, who last hit us with some chatter on scale models. This time, he dives into one of the most iconic novelty hits ever created. Check it out!

Today in Tedium: We all know the story—some guy was working in a lab, late one night, when he begins to see several movie monsters doing a fancy dance. Sung with a perfect Boris Karloff impression by the one and only Bobby “Boris” Pickett, “The Monster Mash” really did become the hit of the land. Since its debut in 1962, the seriously goofy novelty song has been a perennial hit, scaring its way onto the airwaves and into the hearts of generation after generation. There’s more to the song and its singer than one might expect. Just in time for Halloween, today’s tedium does the MASH; the MONSTER MASH. — David @ Tedium

1962

The year “The Monster Mash” topped the Billboard charts, on Oct. 20 of that year. The song married the popular “dance-style” songs of the day—like Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time (1962)” and Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again (1961)”—with the doo-wop style so prominent in the 1950s. Crafting lyrics based around Pickett’s Boris Karloff impression proved to be a stroke of genius the song needed to be a hit. The song would go on to hit the charts again in 1973—a full decade after its initial release! Today, it’s probably the quintessential Halloween song.

Tell them “Boris” sent you…

The story of “The Monster Mash” begins with an old doo-wop tune. In the early 1960s, Bobby Pickett got home from the Korean war and moved to California to become an actor. While there, he got together with a band called The Cordials and began performing doo-wop tunes and recording several demos for their group. Per the liner notes for The Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection, the group was performing a song called, “Little Darling”—a song which happens to contain a monologue in the middle. Bobby decided to perform the monologue with a Boris Karloff voice and received quite the positive reaction. In an October 2006 interview with Dr. Demento, he tells the story of how he and co-writer Leonard Capizzi came up with the idea and how it almost didn’t happen:

Lenny Capizzi—like myself—was a horror movie freak and love Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. [So], he and I were the perfect team to get this idea kicking…and he had suggested it one night after we had sung “Little Darling” by the Diamonds. You know there’s that monologue in there…and I did at as Boris Karloff…and the audience cracked up. After the set he said, “you know we oughta do a novelty record—they do very well.” And I said “No, I’m a serious actor, I’m off to other places…so I got an agent and after two weeks, the agent died of a heart attack. So, I called up Lenny and I said, “you know that idea you had, like, a few months ago? Let’s get together and do that. So we did.

Per Pickett, the song only took about an hour to write and practically wrote itself, to which Dr. Demento responds, “a lot of the great ones do.” Time has shown us that he isn’t wrong. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering what the background singers are saying in the background of the song, Bobby has the answer from that same interview:

It’s “Ooooh, tennis shoe, wah-oooh.” We don’t know why.

The recording would only take a few hours and featured piano playing by Leon Russell and be produced by Gary Paxton—the guy who did another popular novelty song of the day, “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles.

“With lyrics like ‘it was a graveyard smash,’ the BBC failed to see the funny side and banned the song for being ‘too morbid.’”

— A BBC retrospective article, discussing why the broadcaster decided to ban song from its airwaves. Though the lyrics are fun and silly, the BBC read way more into them than was actually necessary. The quote, “it’s a graveyard smash” was apparently too much for some programmers and, perhaps, listeners at the time. The song wouldn’t be heard on the BBC until 1973, when it hit number three on the UK charts. Not bad for a three minute song that was written in under hour.

Monster Mash

There was a whole album of songs just like “Monster Mash,” of course

Following the success of the single, a 1962 full-length LP followed. Released under the group name Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-kickers, The Original Monster Mash is a series of loosely connected follow-ups to the lead, all done in a decidedly surf rock style.

There’s doo-wop style background vocals, 1960s surf guitar solos, horns, silly lyrics and plenty of Pickett’s signature Boris Karloff impression. Songs highlights are “Blood Bank Blues” are about a vampire who just can’t seem to catch a break, “Skully Gully,” a catchy, rocking tune about all the different movie monsters and, a parody of “Alley Oop” called “Wolfbane.” There’s even a bit of a ballad in “Me & my Mummy.” “The Transylvania Twist” makes an appearance also, as a rollicking, harmonica and organ driven instrumental with occasional talking bits. No wonder Dracula loves it.

The album is fun, campy and very much a product of the 1960s, existing as a bit of time capsule into the still-strong world of novelty music at the time. The best part? The album contains one of many follow-ups to the original “Monster Mash”—“Monster Holiday,” the exact same tune with Christmas themed lyrics.

“Well, I’ve heard all kinds of stories. I’ve heard people have used it as their wedding song, getting married on Halloween and stuff. People who made love for the first time in the backseat of a Chevrolet when it was playing on the radio. All kinds of stuff.”

Bobby “Boris” Pickett, on the legacy of the song and what it means to people. From the book Monster Mash: the Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America, 1957-1972 by Mark Voger. The book contains a small interview with Bobby, where he elaborates a bit more on his horror movie fandom outside of the song itself.

The real graveyard smash

In 1964 Bobby released another follow-up single called “The Monster Swim.” Ostensibly another “monsters doing a silly thing” type of song, “The Monster Swim” was released during his time working in Pasadena radio. The song is weird and the lyrics insist that doing the monster swim is great because it’s “bigger than the mash”—but that’s simply not the case, as it didn’t really chart and outside of aficionados and Dr. Demento fans, it’s tough to find someone who remembers the song. Its B-side, “The Werewolf Watusi,” is hilarious.

Later, Bobby got together with Peter Ferrara to release the popular “Stardrek” skit, but he just couldn’t leave “The Monster Mash” behind. Realizing the song had a bit of a narrative—a scientist working in a lab raises the dead, only for them to have a party (I wonder if this is the same dead man’s party Oingo Boingo sang about in 1985?)—Bobby decided to continue the story in the 80s. In 1984, he released “The Monster Rap,” an almost remixed, synth-heavy revision of the song. Bobby introduces the monsters between the repeated refrain of “shock the body.” If we examine this within the narrative, this is probably just before the monsters begin mashing, when Bobby is “working in the lab.” Oh, and the monster does a totally tubular rap in the middle.

Finally, there’s “It’s Alive,” the rock n roll/new wave follow up to the original dance. In this part of the story, our scientist has passed on his work to his progeny. Only this time around, his son created a heavy metal-loving monster! It’s a far cry from the original, but brings the story to a close at least.

Despite these follow-ups, the original still caught the public’s imagination and inspired countless musicians over the years to not only create original music, but to cover the tune itself.

Tedium’s six favorite “Monster Mash” covers

Some songs become better known as cover versions, years after the original versions are lost to the annals of time (or simply forgotten). At other times, cover versions become an entirely new, enriching listening experience. And sometimes, they’re just weird. Of course, there are many more cover versions of the song floating around out there—all of which vary in quality—but these six tend to stand out as unique interpretations of the classic.

1. The Misfits. Punk rock fans may know these purveyors of horror/movie-themed tunes by their iconic skull logo and fantastic hard-rocking albums. Others may know them as the band who juxtaposed crazy horror movie ideas and aesthetics with killer musicianship. Still others may recognize them as recently covering the Rose & the Arrangement tune “The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati” for Dr. Demento Covered in Punk, an album their current manager, the wonderful and hilarious John Cafiero.

2. Zacherle. Legendary horror host John Zacherle—known as “Zacherley, the Cool Ghoul”—released his own version of the song shorty after the original. His version is just as fun as the original and the album Monster Mash contains some other Zacherle gems including “Dinner with Drac.” Later in life, Zacherle and Pickett would attend conventions together around Halloween.

3. The Kids of Widney High. The Kids of Widney High are an amazing group of high schoolers from California who perform a range of delightful music. Led by teacher Michael Monagan, they took on the song for the recent Dr. Demento Covered in Punk album. The song is covered in the style of a punk-rock concert and seems more like a monster mosh than a monster mash—a fitting and wonderful interpretation that provides a fresh take I’ll be listening to for years to come.

4. Vincent Price. In 1977, horror icon Vincent Price joined the fun with his own version of the seminal Halloween tune. After a lengthy preamble against those evil humans, Price jumps into the song with aplomb. “To celebrate the entrance of a new member,” Price says, “may we hear our song?” (Maybe he was practicing for “Thriller”?)

5. The Beach Boys. That’s right, folks! The pioneers of surf rock themselves covered this song during their early years. This 1964 performance on the ABC network is dripping with camp and sees lead singer practically devouring the scenery—as any monster might. It’s fun and silly, just the way the song should be heard at least once in your life.

6. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. No list of “Monster Mash” covers (are there any beyond this one?) would be complete without a mention of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Vivian Stanshell does one heck of a Bobby “Boris” Pickett-doing-Boris Korloff impression, bringing this 1969 version of the song to life on their Tadpoles album. The use of horns is unique to say the least, but matches with the Bonzo’s sound.

“Oh please. A Halloween song? Who’s gonna do a song about Halloween?”

Darlene Love, one of the backup singers on the original recording. In an interview with Billboard, she discussed the difficulty of singing backup on the song because of how ridiculous it was and was just as shocked as everyone else when it became a hit.

While “The Monster Mash” isn’t the only—or the best, really—Halloween song, it is the tune most folks associate with the holiday, and that’s a positive thing. It’s still inspiring parodies and tributes, decades after its initial popularity. In 1996, reggae band The Toyes smoked some “Monster Hash” and in 2014—only four years ago—Youtuber The Key of Awesome released an amazing, spot-on parody called “The Modern Monster Mash”:

The strangest aspect of the song’s legacy, however, is just how few Halloween-specific songs have been released since. We had The Shaggs’ “It’s Halloween (1969),” but that could hardly be called a hit outside of outsider music circles. There are certainly songs with horror or scary elements, but they’re few and far between. Elvira, Mistress of the Dark got close with a few of her songs from Elvira’s Haunted Hits and there were definitely few here and there in the indy circles…but no new “Monster Mash.”

Halloween was a big deal for bands like Oingo Boingo, where fans could dress up and enjoy their concerts, but they didn’t really have any Halloween songs. Ditto Frank Zappa who put on superb Halloween shows, but didn’t really have much thematic material relating to the holiday. In the mid-90s, early-00s, we began seeing more Halloween-specific music with faire like Heywood Banks’ “Halloween Song” and Stephen Lynch’s “Halloween.” Perhaps the most overlooked—and certainly interesting—Halloween song came in 2005 with the North American Halloween Prevention Initiative’s “Do they know it’s Hallow’een,” the charity song aimed at stamping out Halloween by raising money for UNICEF. Elvira, Beck and David Cross, among others were involved.

Halloween songs are probably never going to be as ubiquitous as Christmas carols, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining or relevant. Dr. Demento does two full shows each year focusing on Halloween music and sites like Roger Barr’s i-Mockery once celebrated Halloween online for two months straight with Halloween songs. They’re slowly becoming part of the musical background of our culture and may one day enter the collective consciousness as folk songs. Who knows?

Bobby “Boris” Pickett passed from this mortal coil in 2007, but his legacy lives on. His old website, TheMonsterMash.com still exists in a primitive form and he wrote a book shortly before he died, Monster Mash: Half Dead in Hollywood, that is well worth a read for anyone wishing to know more about this amazing entertainer.

Bobby loved the song and it stayed with him throughout his life—he updated it as “The Climate Mash” before he died—and the song is sure to delight audiences for years to come. So, this Halloween be sure to do the mash for Bobby and will someone please tell Drac that we already found out what happened to the Transylvania Twist a few paragraphs ago?

 

Source: The Monster Mash History: More Than a Graveyard Smash

Ninja Sex Party is the quintessential YouTube band — except it transcends the Internet – The Washington Post

Imagine if Peter Parker had never become Spider-Man. Instead, he kept getting bullied, yet still had the compulsion to dress in spandex. And he started a band.

He would probably sound a lot like Ninja Sex Party.

The comedy songwriting pair of Daniel Avidan and Brian Wecht have created the quintessential Internet Band: Their music, first published on YouTube, is heavily inspired by 1980s pop and hair metal, as if Belinda Carlisle were the lead singer of Van Halen. You’d be correct in guessing the lyrics are raunchy, but they’re also ridiculous and earnest. Their advice for combating bullies? “You put your hands in the air and then stick out your rear end / And then you wiggle it real hard and you hug your closest friend.”

The band has been going for almost a decade, which is a millennium in Internet years. Their YouTube channel has reached 1.2 million subscribers, and millions more have streamed their songs on Spotify. Their album, “Cool Patrol,” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s rock albums this year, beating Imagine Dragons. And they’ve held the top spot for comedy albums for the past seven weeks. Their most-watched music video, the aforementioned anti-bully anthem “Cool Patrol,” has more than 12 million views.

Still, when Conan O’Brien had Ninja Sex Party play on the late-night TV show in September, Wecht couldn’t help but feel nervous.

Wecht, 43, is a retired theoretical physicist who has years of live musical and comedy performances under his belt. Becoming Internet famous means millions of people are familiar with his persona, Ninja Brian. But about 20 seconds into his Conan performance, Wecht’s hands trembled over his keyboard. He can’t remember the last time he visibly quaked from being nervous. “It’s the first thing we’ve ever done that doesn’t feel niche,” he said of the performance.

For the first time in years, Avidan said, they didn’t know who was watching them. At a concert earlier this month at the Fillmore, the sold-out, 2,000-strong crowd knew every word, every inside joke, every character that appeared on stage. When Ninja Brian deliberately messed with the rest of the band’s instruments, the fans knew that the character is meant to be a villainous, yet fun, foil.

Late night TV watchers don’t have that context. The band’s fans, however, know exactly what they’re getting into at a Ninja Sex Party show.

“When the camera’s on, you have no idea who that’s going out to and who might be watching,” said Avidan, 39, whose stage persona is Danny Sexbang and also performs as the other half of the YouTube comedy duo Game Grumps. “That was the biggest reason we were more nervous than we thought we were [on Conan]. When we realized how big the come down was, physically and emotionally, that’s when we realized it was a big deal.”

Avidan has always wanted to be a rock star. His first years out of high school were spent in small bands aping shoegaze Brit rock bands like Radiohead. Wecht was introduced to Avidan over email through mutual friends in the New York improv comedy circuit.

“He came to me and was like, ‘Here’s the idea, it’s called Ninja Sex Party. I think you’d be a ninja, and that’s all I got so far,’” Wecht said. “You didn’t have Danny Sexbang the name originally, right? It was Sweet Nuts, right?”

“No, I did have Sexbang. Danny Sweet Nuts was the name of my ‘Guitar Hero’ character. Before we met, I thought, ‘That needs to be more explosive,’” Avidan said.

Their first video in 2009 was “I Just Want To (Dance),” which was a Queenlike ballad rocker about a ninja-cum-dancer. Their first big “break” came via their friend Donald Glover, whom they met while they all worked and studied at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the famed improv and sketch comedy group. On his blog, Glover featured Ninja Sex Party’s second video, “The Decision,” after Avidan helped Glover’s father get into a UCB show.

“The video got 6,000 YouTube views, and we were like, ‘We did it! That’s it baby!’” Avidan said. “I remember getting teary eyed. Even though you look back at that and go, ‘Come on dude, get it together,’ at the time after years of bands where I couldn’t even get a hundred people to listen, there was this sudden feeling of people liking a thing we did. It’s the same feeling no matter how big the scale around it is.”

In 2013, the band had 40,000 YouTube subscribers. Then YouTube gaming personality Arin “Egoraptor” Hanson invited Avidan to be his co-host on Game Grumps, which at the time had 250,000 subscribers.

Avidan’s response? “How could anyone be that famous?”

Game Grumps now boasts 4.8 million subscribers. They upload two to three new videos a day, and their videos collectively have more than 4.3 billion views.

But the changing landscape of YouTube algorithms and different waves of “influencers” coming and going can create enormous pressure. Avidan’s glad this viral fame has come during his 30s, when he feels more in control of his emotions. Age has given him distance from the anxieties of having to produce and perform for people online every day.

“The thing about YouTube is that there’s no one to tell you to stop,” Avidan said. “There’s no one to tell you, ‘All right, your job is done for the day. Go home.’ There’s also the constant knowledge that as soon as you stop, there’s someone else still going, which is why so many YouTubers suffer extreme burnout.”

Because of the band’s slow burn toward success, Wecht said, it no longer relies on YouTube as its primary source of revenue and attention. Spotify is about to become its most profitable digital partner, giving the band a solid and diverse revenue set that isn’t beholden to algorithms — including album sales, merchandise and touring. (Most of Ninja Sex Party’s audience is 18 to 24 years old, a generation unfamiliar with the concept of buying music.)

The band is independent, and the duo do much of the work themselves. Their tour manager, JP Hasson — who works with several YouTube personalities like Jacksepticeye (20.5 million subscribers), as well as other comedy products like the show “Bob’s Burgers” and comedy duo Tim & Eric — also doubles as a stage hand and even their villainous laser dinosaur character, who appears on stage and is defeated only by the “positive energy” of the crowd.


Ninja Sex Party perform their hit song, “Dinosaur Laser Fight,” to a sold-out crowd at the Fillmore Silver Spring in Maryland on Oct. 9. (Gene Park/Washington, D.C.)

And the Fillmore crowd had exuberant positive energy. Phones lit up like lighters during a balladic version of one of the band’s biggest hits, “Dinosaur Laser Fight.” Part of the act involves shouting vulgarities at Ninja Brian, but it felt like good-natured ribbing. The crowd chanted the names of Avidan’s parents, who were in attendance. Danny Sexbang ended the show with a message: Everyone, no matter what their background, is welcome to the party.

“They go the extra mile for us,” Avidan said of their fans, who typically line up for shows eight hours in advance. “Who knows how long this lasts? It feels like it’s been trending upward. But if it ever goes sideways, it won’t be because we didn’t care enough.”

“It never ceases to amaze me that we have these crowds,” Wecht said. “How is this even possible?”

After the show, Avidan went to a desk to sign a stack of posters and shirts. The pair later met lingering fans behind the venue. Like superheroes, they understood their power, and the responsibility they hold over their fans.

Source: Ninja Sex Party is the quintessential YouTube band — except it transcends the Internet – The Washington Post

The Problem with Muzak

“Anything you want.
Anyone you want.
Anywhere you want.
Anyway! Anyway!”

—Priests, “Pink White House” (2017)

Imagine you are in an airport, and you have forgotten to eat lunch. It’s a mistake you will pay for with a dull, expensive dinner. Hungry, meandering, you happen upon one of those iPads that line every other table, a machine that allows you to order without talking to other humans—a circumstance provided by capitalism’s boundless quest to cash in on convenience. Of course, this doesn’t make your experience any easier: within minutes, an employee scrambles over to assist you with the device, which keeps freezing when you choose the “bowls” tab. “Can I just tell you my order?” you ask, half-laughing, thoroughly hoping for a moment of commiserating solidarity over this disruptor™ fail. Instead she grabs the thing and helps you finalize your purchase. This person hates her job, but she’s lucky that, for the moment, she still has it.

This worker is teaching people to use the iPads that will one day replace her. It’s an awkward phenomenon that now pervades a growing cross-section of industries, a type of techno-solutionism that’s unbearable because it insistently capitalizes on quick fixes for problems that didn’t exist to begin with. It’s also a disadvantageous mutation of principles that marketers have historically leveraged to make us feel bad about ourselves so that we’ll buy more shit we don’t need. It is all of these things, and it is also becoming the operating motive of the music industry.

The music world continues to be exceedingly vulnerable, and there are looming questions that desperately need to be addressed. Most important: How can artists distribute and sell their work in a digital economy beholden to ruthlessly commercial and centralized interests?

Enter Spotify, a platform that is definitely not the answer. In fact, it only exacerbates such conundrums. Yet for now it has manipulated the vast majority of music industry “players” into regarding it as a saving grace. As the world’s largest streaming music company, its network of paying subscribers has risen sharply in recent years, from five million paid subscribers in 2012 to more than sixty million in 2017. Indeed, the platform has now convinced a critical mass that paying $9.99 per month for access to thirty million songs is a solid, even virtuous idea. Every song in the world for less than your shitty airport meal. What could go wrong?

Billionaires have thrown a lot of money at Spotify. As of September 2017, the platform has been valued at $16 billion by venture capitalists who see it as the next Netflix, and who have perhaps fooled themselves into trusting that this exploitative model will “save the music industry.” Spotify’s endgame, for now, is to go public. The company could be worth $20 billion by next year, when it will likely be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. According to Reuters, Spotify plans to file its intention of a public offering with U.S. regulators before the end of this calendar year and to go public in the first or second quarter of 2018. Bloomberg reports that it recently hired Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, and Allen & Co. to “assess its options.”

Yet, despite its conventional market viability, there are key differences between Spotify and its rivals, Apple Music and Amazon Music, which both have the luxury of capitalizing on overpriced, fun-sized plastic and metal surveillance machines. For Apple Music, the bottom line is selling iPhones, laptops, iPads, and other hardware. Streaming music makes those products more valuable. For Amazon Music, the motive is similar; they aim to sell Alexa devices and Amazon Prime subscriptions.

But Spotify’s worth is more ephemeral. Its value—what makes it addictive for listeners, a necessity for artists, and a worthwhile investment for venture capitalists—lies in its algorithmic music discovery “products” and its ability to make the entire music industry conform to the new standards it sets. This means one thing: playlists are king, and particularly the ones curated by Spotify itself. An unprecedented amount of data (“skip rates” and “completion rates” determine whether a song survives) and “human-machine technology” are deployed to quantify your tastes. This is what lies behind the “magic” of Spotify.

Spotify and Chill

To understand the danger Spotify poses to the music industry—and to music itself—you first have to dig beneath the “user experience” and examine its algorithmic schemes. Spotify’s front page “Browse” screen presents a classic illusion of choice, a stream of genre and mood playlists, charts, new releases, and now podcasts and video. It all appears limitless, a function of the platform’s infinite supply, but in reality it is tightly controlled by Spotify’s staff and dictated by the interests of major labels, brands, and other cash-rich businesses who have gamed the system. On Monday, you’ll find “Discover Weekly,” an algorithmically created playlist of recommendations based on your listening habits. On Friday, there’s “New Music Friday,” a highly coveted and well trafficked playlist of mostly Top-40 content, thoroughly inaccessible to anyone but major labels. The rest of the front page arrangement depends on the date and time, but you’ll likely see one of its most prized brands—like the popular and also major label-saturated “RapCaviar”—or else music that somehow opportunistically rides the news cycle: Which celebrity musician died today? Otherwise, you’ll find songs tied to moods or activities, like “Good Vibes” or “Wild + Free.” And you will most certainly see something along the lines of “Chilled Folk,” “Chill Hits,” “Evening Chill,” “Chilled R&B,” “Indie Chillout,” or “Chill Tracks.”

Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.

As an industry insider once explained to me, digital strategists have identified “lean back listening” as an ever more popular Spotify-induced phenomenon. It turns out that playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll: “Chillin’ On a Dirt Road,” “License to Chill,” “Cinematic Chill Out.” They’re all there.

These algorithmically designed playlists, in other words, have seized on an audience of distracted, perhaps overworked, or anxious listeners whose stress-filled clicks now generate anesthetized, algorithmically designed playlists. One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”

We should call this what it is: the automation of selling out.

Indeed, Spotify’s obsession with mood and activity-based playlists has contributed to all music becoming more like Muzak, a brand that created, programmed, and licensed songs for retail stores throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s, the company prioritized workplace soundtracks that were meant to heighten productivity, using research to evaluate what listeners responded to most. In many ways, this is not unlike the playlist category called “Focus” that we see now on Spotify. In March 2011, Muzak was purchased by Mood Media, a company that provides in-store music, signs, scents, and video content. The similarity between the objectives of companies like Muzak and Mood Media, and the proliferation of mood-based playlists on Spotify, is more than just a linguistic coincidence; Spotify playlists work to attract brands and advertisers of all types to the platform.

The Automation of Selling Out

Advertising and branding products are used all over Spotify: videos, audio, commercial breaks, clickable image pop-ups, overlays, the sponsoring of (extremely popular) Spotify-owned playlists, the sponsoring of live session videos, home page takeovers, and standalone advertisements. Some are banner advertisements, others are advertorial, and still others blur the line. And this is part of a grander confusion: the very idea of what it means to be an “independent artist” in 2017 has been eroded as more and more artists find themselves beholden to corporate platforms of all types.

Spotify also presents a new and complicated extension of hyper-commercial webspace, and it’s a development that could prove to be particularly harmful for musicians: the corporate-branded playlists. This “feature” could be explained as the platform’s interpretation of corporate personhood, where paid-for brand accounts can create their own profiles and make playlists in the manner of the platform’s regular users. This has led to a proliferation of playlists made by brands. For example: the “Coffeehouse Pop” made by the official Starbucks page, or the “Running Tempo Mix” created by Nike Women. So long as corporations have at least twenty songs on their playlists and don’t include an artist more than once, they’re good. In the past, such an arrangement would require a given artist to sign a licensing or advertising deal, and it often appeared transactional, hence the traditional notion of “selling out.” Today on Spotify, artists often have no idea they’ve been added to these playlists. I only managed to discover this phenomenon upon plugging a friend’s band name into a tool called “Spot On Track,” which uses Spotify’s public API to present the different playlists where specific artists and their tracks appear. My friend’s band was completely unaware of its inclusion on the Nike and Starbucks playlists, and the band receives no additional compensation beyond the usual streaming royalties sent to labels and rights-holders.

We should call this what it is: the automation of selling out. Only it subtracts the part where artists get paid. On their “Brand Playlist Guidelines” page linked within the company’s Terms and Conditions, Spotify offers telling advice to brands:

If you have a reason to believe a specific artist may have a problem with your brand, it’s probably smart to stay away from that artist . . . Keep your playlists editorial in nature; don’t try to make it a commercial for your product. Just like other Spotify users do, show the world what kind of music your brand likes to listen to while partying, driving, or enjoying a cup of coffee.

It is absurd to suggest that a playlist created by Bacardi, Gatorade, BMW, or Victoria’s Secret could exist for any purpose other than the sale of its liquor, sports drinks, cars, or fancy lingerie. And this encouragement of a false sense of objectivity found on its Terms of Service is seen nowhere on its “Spotify for Brands” website, where it has published a series of articles luring corporations to the platform: “In the biggest game of the year, many of the ads feature music front and center, whether it’s a big hit like Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ [Chrysler’s memorable 2011 spot] or an indie jam like Hundred Waters’ ‘Show Me Love’ [Coca-Cola’s 2015 spot],” the article explains, directly equating branded playlists to an expression of commercialism. “Using music effectively can also mean curating the perfect playlist that reflects the sound of your brand.”

Brand playlists are advertisements, even if Spotify strives to imbue them with so-called editorial integrity. Such uncompensated advertorial playlists are harmful in that they offer artists no option to opt-out, but also because they undercut what can sometimes be a valuable source of revenue for artists. If brands can align themselves with artists without having to pay specifically for individual tracks or artist appearances, what do we think they’ll do? Can we at least give people the option to sell out if they want?

“For artists who do have those opportunities and are comfortable with it, sponsorships, as well as commercial syncs, can contribute an important revenue stream, a component of how they’re able to scrape together a living,” says Kevin Erickson of the Future of Music Coalition, when reached by phone in September. “If brands are able to use branded playlists to score extra cool points from the association with musicians, but without the expense of actually paying musicians anything extra for lending their aura of cool, without even having to obtain permission for the association—well, maybe we’ll start to see that revenue stream dry up too.”

No Platform

The avant-punk four-piece Deerhoof’s 2016 single “Plastic Thrills” is featured on “Nike Running Tempo Mix,” which boasts over five hundred thousand followers. The playlist is featured prominently on the “Workout” sub-page within Spotify’s Browse feature, along with a few other Nike playlists, which is considerably rare—not many playlists found through Browse are currently curated by brands other than Spotify itself or the major labels.

In conversation with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier about the Nike playlist, he recalls a time in 2007 when a group of artists filed a class action lawsuit against Camel cigarettes and Rolling Stone for publishing an advertorial on the history of indie rock, one that used more than one hundred artist names without permission. The band was happy to be included and inspired to see their peers push back against corporate exploitation. “The difference now is that, if you don’t bow down to Spotify, you might as well tell whoever runs the guillotine that’s above your neck to just let her rip,” Saunier says, as the band sits in their van, on tour, en route from Grand Rapids to Detroit. “These streaming services are literally the only option for a music career nowadays.”

Deerhoof is in a unique position: the band formed in 1994, and it has released more than a dozen albums since. Their career began well over a decade before streaming became the norm. Deerhoof’s members have generally proceeded on their own terms over the years, steadily putting out records and touring with support from indie labels like Joyful Noise, Polyvinyl, and Kill Rock Stars. But as collaborators in a DIY-minded group who tours with young and underground acts, they’ve seen their friends struggle in this new environment, and they’ve experienced first-hand how streaming services generally make it harder for musicians to navigate their world with a sense of agency.

“It is compulsory in our system, with the absolute commodification of everything, that [artists] become their own brand,” Saunier says. “The musician is more and more similar to the Instagram Star in that sense. Or a gambler. Someone who just creates something from their imagination, from their time and energy and hard work, and money . . . and then just, posts it, basically, and hopes for the best.

I want to believe that it’s not too late to beat the billionaires and the bots.

“And so, if some absolutely infamous Sweatshop-Owning Shoe Company decides to include you in their playlist to make them look hip, are you going to complain? No. What a joke . . . And if Nike is the one putting the song on their playlist, then well, your lips are now touching their Nike shoes. Because that’s your ticket to something other than absolute oblivion.”

But who’s to blame? Saunier recognizes the tough spot so many artists and labels are in, where they’re unable to outwardly criticize their corporate overlords without risking total irrelevance. “The people I would blame the most are the greedy chauvinists in charge of companies like Spotify and [those] who own Google,” he goes on:

These are the companies that have presented themselves as hip, huge, harmless . . . In fact, they are ruthless and as hungry for profit . . . They’re shark-like. Just eat up everything, take all of the world’s creations. Digitize them and offer them back to humanity either for free or for an incredibly low price. And don’t pay, or massively underpay the creators, and just kick back and put your feet up, and know that if Greg from Deerhoof doesn’t like it, well that’s fine, because there are a million other people lined up behind Greg who are perfectly happy to volunteer their music to exactly such a scheme in hopes of doing something besides being a barista their whole life.

Label Fate

The consequences of such an unfair system are only now revealing themselves. Much of the business and music presses credit Spotify with contributing to the first increases in recorded music revenue in years, which data proves is factually true. But more gross revenue in the music industry does not in any way translate to an industry that is healthier or more sustainable for the majority of artists. Unsurprisingly, as the platform has grown, it has emerged as yet another variation on there’s-an-app-for-that thinking, a rationale that aims to benefit a wealthy cadre of pop stars, major labels, and tech workers—all while exploiting the labor of most everyone else. Spotify’s “pro-rata” payment model, for example, means artists are paid a percentage of the total pool of royalties relative to how their stream count stacks up in the entire pool of streams, meaning the tiniest of payouts for most independent musicians.

Spotify’s relationships with major and independent labels are vastly different. Still, in the wake of the platform’s expansion, all labels are reimagining their workflows. The major labels employ dedicated Spotify liaisons, who interface with Spotify’s own dedicated major label liaisons and have weekly chats with the company about upcoming priorities. (They generally scratch each other’s backs in a way that recalls the longstanding quid pro quo between major labels and commercial radio.) Meanwhile, independent labels delegate new streaming strategies to their digital marketing employees, who play the platform’s games and study data pulled from their APIs, fingers crossed, shouting into the void, hoping to get noticed for a precious playlist spot for one track off their latest release—their only hope on a platform that doesn’t care if they exist.

No matter how you look at it, it’s clear that Spotify is trying to replace labels. That’s a sentiment echoed by folks across the industry, major and indie alike, but it’s a reality felt most harshly by independent labels. The algorithmic nature of the platform makes it difficult to navigate, says one independent label employee. In the past, if a music shop ordered copies of a record, independent labels could do simple things—like send thank-you notes. “Since Spotify is so algorithmically based, there isn’t a lot of back and forth conversation between you and anyone there,” she explains. “It changes the nature of how you sell and pitch music to retailers, and the places where you’re making money. You’ll say, ‘Oh, I noticed this one song got on this big playlist, is there someone in indie genre editorial who is a big fan who I could say thanks to?’ And they’re like, ‘No, it did well on this playlist, so we added it to this playlist, and it did well on this playlist, and this playlist . . .’” Thanks, algorithm! “How they place things seems to really take away a lot of the personal aspects of how music transacts,” she adds.

Spotify’s ambition to superannuate labels is evident. In its quest for total power and control, Spotify has prioritized its own content, and it has made it notably more difficult to find albums rather than playlists. Search an artist’s name, and you’ll more quickly find a Spotify-branded compilation of that musician’s work than an album. If it isn’t clear by now, Spotify wants playlists to be the most influential feature of the platform, an “innovation” the platform claims is driven by consumer habits but is obviously motivated by the company’s own branding interests, as well as their swelling need to provide evidence that will prove its worth as a platform to investors. But if this doesn’t convince you, take heed: Spotify is even starting to creep into the game of pressing vinyl, partnering with the popular subscription service Vinyl Me Please to press their “Spotify Singles” onto 7-inches. “Spotify and vinyl, now living together in harmony,” reads the Vinyl Me Please website. If Amazon is the “everything store,” just think of Spotify as the “everything music service.”

Best New Muzak

Once upon a time, record labels would invest in artist’s careers. Now Spotify invests in its own original content. Earlier this year the company poured significant resources into promoting “I’m with the Banned,” a playlist and video series prominently featured as a response to the Trump administration’s travel ban (tagline: “When people can’t travel, music will”). Like other social-justice-oriented playlists—“Feminist Friday,” the “Pride” playlists series, and “No Moment For Silence,” created in support of DACA—these editorial additions are Spotify’s way of cynically deploying woke optics and commodified “activism.” Unsurprisingly, “I’m With the Banned” was promoted with a media campaign, subway advertisements, and sponsored content on Pitchfork.

This is not the first editorial partnership between Spotify and Pitchfork. Earlier this year, Pitchfork won the Webby Award for “Best Branded Editorial Experience,” a prize it received for its series “Inside Discovery”—a collaboration with Spotify meant to boost awareness of the “Discover Weekly” feature. The series shows Pitchfork editors (and favored musicians) gushing about their love of streaming—the immediacy! The deep back catalogs! One editor says it helps him keep track of his listening habits, while another rejoices at not having to dig through crates at record shops anymore. Yet another likens Spotify to walking around a music festival, discovering something new at every turn.

What does it mean for “the most trusted voice in music” to celebrate an algorithm as preferable to its own crate digging? What does it mean when the tastemaking humans endorse data-driven machines? What does it mean when the algorithms become cool? 8.4 Best New Algorithm!

The music press’s embrace of Spotify becomes more startling as the platform’s totalizing ambitions materialize. Virtually every music publication now relies on Spotify media players to embed songs within online articles, and websites like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone regularly celebrate their playlists with listicles: “Ten Albums To Stream Now.” “The Five Playlists You Need to Hear This Summer.” A subscription to the New York Times can now come with a Spotify membership; a splash page cross-branding the two platforms hilariously pairs Times sections and Spotify artists: Opinion with “Guided by Voices,” Style with “Perfume Genius,” Arts with “Devo,” and so on. One wonders if these artists are even aware they’re being used to sell the paper of record.

Music writing serves a number of purposes: storytelling, criticism, discovery. Spotify has already established itself as a competitive force of “discovery,” and it soon plans to produce more of its own (surely branded) “storytelling” and original content. With this in mind, and when I worry over the publications, labels, and artists who have (reluctantly or otherwise) embraced Spotify, I can’t help but think of that airport restaurant server who teaches you how to use the iPad, thereby contributing to her own obsolescence. Why is the music press generating value for a platform that in every way plans to eliminate it? And what will become of music criticism in a world without records? Will publications review discovery feeds and write profiles of playlists? What good will criticism be when all of music has coalesced into algorithmically preordained Muzak?

I want to believe that it’s not too late to beat the billionaires and the bots. But earlier this year Spotify signed a lease for fourteen floors at Four World Trade Center. The company’s gone on a hiring spree, with plans to add a thousand employees. The new lease costs $2.77 million in monthly rent. And it lasts until 2034.

 

Source: The Problem with Muzak

Robyn Drops New Song, ‘Honey’ (Listen) – Variety

Months after she played a snippet of the song at her Red Bull Music Academy talk — and eight years since the release of her last studio album — pop savant Robyn has finally dropped “Honey,” the title track of her forthcoming album, due Oct. 26 on Konichiwa, her own label, via Interscope. She released the first song from it, “Missing U,” last month.

The new album features contributions from longtime collaborator Klas Alund, Metronomy’s Joseph Mount, Kindess’ Adam Bainbridge, Mr. Tophat, and Zhala. In a statement, Robyn described “Honey” as “this sweet place, like a very soft ecstasy. Something that’s so sensual, and so good. I danced a lot when I was making it. I found a sensuality and a softness that I don’t think I was able to use in the same way before. Everything just became softer.”

Since the release of “Body Talk,” Robyn has released a remix album (and toured behind it), mini-albums with  Röyksopp (2014’s “Do It Again”) La Bagatelle Magique (2015’s “Love Is Free”) and Mr. Tophat called (2017’s “Trust Me”); songs with the Lonely Island, Metronomy and Todd Rundgren; and gave a talk at the Red Bull Music Academy where she played some of “Honey.”

She announced the tracklist via Twitter a few days ago — it appears in print below for those with short attention spans.

  1. Missing U
  2. Human Being
  3. Because It’s In The Music
  4. Baby Forgive Me
  5. Send To Robin Immediately
  6. Honey
  7. Between The Lines
  8. Beach 2K20
  9. Ever Again

Source: Robyn Drops New Song, ‘Honey’ (Listen) – Variety

What does the end of the world sound like? Listen to this. | The Outline

In June, while the earth was experiencing a record-breakingly hot summer, a scientific paper was published in Nature Geoscience suggesting the planet’s long-term temperature rise could be double what was previously predicted by climate models. Drawing on the collaborative efforts of 17 international scientists, the same bleak study argued that the effects of climate change, including the submerging of major urban areas and entire Pacific countries, could also be more severe than previously calculated.

As I read the news from my flat, baking in a dusty, almost radioactive heat, all I could do was open Spotify and douse my brain with “Gentle Rain in a Pine Forest,” a soaking wet field recording from Irv Teibel’s Environments series. The pitter-patter of the water and soft ambient wildlife soothed my brain and body, but as I listened, the recording revealed a grotesque quality. I was listening to a future morgue. The soundscape of chirruping birds and splashing droplets wouldn’t exist for much longer in some parts of the world — that particular environment might not even exist now. For a few minutes, the age of ecological crisis sounded like the lush forest scene emanating from my tinny laptop speakers, in all of its sublime, potentially undead glory.

This might seem hyperbolic, or sensationalist, but it’s not. A few months ago, The Outline reported on another study published in Science Advances proposing that lapland longspurs and white-crowned sparrows are waiting longer for their mating partners to arrive in the Alaskan tundra. Combing through audio data, scientists found that some of the songbirds were migrating earlier than their potential partners, producing a discernible gap in the soundscape. Such findings chime with the work of Bernie Krause, a pioneer in the field of soundscape ecology since the 1960s, who has observed how the natural world is gripped by an affliction called dysphonia, a word that in medical terms means an inability to speak. Put simply, as animals and habitats are decimated, the soundscape they produce is lost too.

With an irony befitting what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene (a new epoch based on humanity’s impact on geology and ecosystems), we seem to be finding our voice at precisely the moment non-humans are losing theirs. A new crop of musicians are actively engaging with such ecological issues, crafting a new vernacular capable of articulating what it means to live through the ecological crisis, but also find a way out of it. Björk’s 2017 album, Utopia, is a snapshot of such forward thinking optimism. Drawing on and working in conjunction with the radical eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, Björk crafts a sound and visual world alive with a fusion between humans and non-humans.

Elsewhere, Anohni’s similarly experimental pop engages directly with the repercussions of a global temperature rise on “4 Degrees,” singing of dogs “crying for water” and fish “going belly up in the sea”. Oneohtrix Point Never, a collaborator on the track, explored a similar eco-fatalism on this year’s “Black Snow,”, revelling in the moment of destruction rather than feeling distressed by it. Within avant-garde electronic music, Dominik Fernow’s work as Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement explores a persistent low-level anxiety surrounding nature, infusing it with both a dubby dread and shimmering magic.

Listen to all the songs mentioned and an interview with Lewis Gordon on The Outline World Dispatch.

Recording under the alias Dialect, Andrew Hunt’s textured electronic compositions deal directly with modern day environmental anxieties and the instability of the natural world. His latest record, Loose Blooms, sounds like an irradiated artifact from No Man’s Sky, oscillating between uncanny, treated field recordings and rich synthwork. Speaking to me from his home in Liverpool, Hunt described how he was inspired by looking at rocks, their compressed layers revealing a long-form story. It got Hunt thinking about geological conditions of change. “What joins all these things together is the idea of co-dependence and mutual causation,” he explained. “You get that idea in all sorts of different disciplines — Buddhism, systems theory, cybernetics — but I think it’s most apparent in ecology. When you’re in nature it’s obvious.”

“It’s so monumental that it’s quite difficult to approach for people. And I really, really, sympathize with people who find it difficult to care or just understand it.”

Musician Andrew Hunt on climate change

Loose Blooms also tackles physical changes in perspectives. “Thirlmere Wash” starts out with a wide ambient landscape before zooming in multiple degrees, to the point where the listener is subsumed within a twinkling microworld. For Hunt, the compositional process is one way for him to wrap around the enormity of the problem, to process how climate issues require a wholesale rethinking of scale. “It’s so monumental that it’s quite difficult to approach for people,” he continued. “And I really, really, sympathize with people who find it difficult to care or just understand it.”

Ukrainian label Eco Futurism Corporation look to the future for such understanding, wrapping club tropes and abrasive sound design around CGI-inflected visions of the organic. Sharing a visual lexicon with Douglas Trumball’s 1972 eco sci-fi classic Silent Running, filtered through a shiny, early 2000s video game aesthetic, the label’s heavy use of narrative posits a scenario where “wild” life has ceased to exist, replaced by corporate vegetation. Welcome To Paradiso, a dense, hallucinatory short film accompanying Chino Amobi’s 2017 album Paradiso invokes climate change iconography transposed to the future. Director Rick Farin depicts the submerged city, the rainforest and barren highway, set against Amobi’s harsh but often beautiful electronic compositions often centered on the modern effects of colonialism. California-based artist, Elysia Crampton, a label mate of Amobi’s, often weaves the modern-day threat of colonial violence into her experimental electronic music, an issue inseparable from the history of ecological crisis.

Fellow Californians, Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith explored softer textures on their 2016 album Sunergy, channeling solar rhythms through the Buchla synthesizer. But with their respective solo work, the pair explore different elements of the natural world. Ciani’s 1982 album Seven Waves is a gorgeous evocation of coastal sounds while Smith’s 2016 album EARS is the sonic equivalent of a lush primordial forest, full of knotty, fizzing melodies. Earlier this year, Smith started her own label, Touchtheplants, with an idiosyncratic pitch exploring what an existential conversation between a plant and a human being might sound like.

Los Angeles-based pair Joe Patitucci and Jon Shapiro are attempting to turn that conversation into a reality with Data Garden, where they attach biofeedback sensors to the leaves of plants, measuring micro fluctuations in conductivity on its surfaces (most similar to a lie detector test). Engineer and developer Sam Cusumano created technology that could turn the “leaf data” into MIDI that could control hardware and software synthesizers, as Patitucci then developed algorithms capable of turning the data and tech into softly ambient plant music. The resulting process is available as MIDI Sprout, with one iteration plugging straight into an iPhone. For Shapiro, it’s a means of lessening the gap between humans and non-humans, which he views as an important step in abating current climate issues. “There’s all sorts of bureaucratic reform that is great but it’s really gonna be a shift in consciousness that’s really going to facilitate change on a major scale,” he told me. “And that fundamental change is overcoming the separation that we have.”

Less nebulous is Oliver Peryman’s work as Fis and his label, Saplings. The New Zealand-born electronic artist told me how we’re living through what Rob Hopkins calls the “petroleum interval”, a short period in history defined by the discovery of oil and the construction of a whole way of life around it. Peryman asked me whether we should be surprised that one of the music industry’s primary carbon footprints is the imprinting of music into petrol-based products, i.e. vinyl, tapes and CDs. Despite the decline of physical music goods, the problem persists in the form of silicon microchips and resource-guzzling server hubs that power an always networked industry.

Peryman’s approach with Saplings is to restore a carbon balance. Entering into a partnership with The Eden Projects, 100 trees get planted for every album bought on the label’s Bandcamp page. Its first release, a collaboration between Peryman and Māori sound artist Rob Thorne, embodies an altogether different conception of a physical music format. In Madagascar and Haiti, it takes the form of mangrove swamp forest restoration. “Mangrove swamps are some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet,” Peryman explained. “So in one sense there’s a few thousand trees being planted but the knock-on effect is indefinite. All sorts of species start to return to those areas.” Such an approach encourages biodiversity but also incorporates the region’s local population. “Eden work with people on the understanding that a kind of material prosperity is intertwined with an ecological prosperity. In that sense, it’s alleviating poverty as well.”

There is, of course, a western privilege at play with the extent to which climate issues affect more vulnerable groups disproportionately — often within the Pacific and South America — than others around the globe. It is, all too often, a deficiency in our understanding of ecological crisis, too — the fact that others are already living with its real, often destructive consequences. Anja Kanngieser, a sound artist and academic, is exploring climate justice issues in the Pacific through the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research at the University of Wollongong. Speaking to me from Australia, they described a formerly colonized region, many countries within it having only gained their independence in the 1970s and 80s. The area lives with the effects of extractive industries such as mining and deep seabed exploration, alongside the nuclear testing legacies of the France, Britain and USA throughout the Marshall Islands.

Kanngieser’s sound art encompasses oral testimony, field recording and data sonification to amplify climate justice issues, weaving a narrative around the people and soundscapes of the Pacific. Their work consciously diverges from the pristine natural soundscapes feeding into conservation practices, which are founded on a western idea of nature at odds with the outlook and needs of communities in the Pacific. “There’s not much discussion about how that particular idea can be really damaging for different kinds of people,” they said. “There are Indigenous communities who rely on their environment for natural resources.”

When I push Kanngieser on what the sound of ecological crisis sounds like to them, they pause for a few moments before answering. Thinking back to a time on Kiribati, an island under acute threat from rising sea levels, Kanngieser said: “It was just a normal high tide and the water was just washing over the road as the cars were driving through. I was standing on a beach, recording the ocean and kids were playing on the sand and running away from the waves. People are just living their lives in spite of being inundated. It’s the sound of that just being a normal way of life.”

Lewis Gordon writes about video games, music and film on the internet. He previously wrote about video game foliage for The Outline.

 

Source: What does the end of the world sound like? Listen to this. | The Outline

How One Tweet About Nicki Minaj Spiraled Into Internet Chaos – The New York Times

Wanna Thompson, 26, has long considered herself a Nicki Minaj fan.

As a freelance writer living in Toronto, Ms. Thompson also counts herself as a cultural critic with a focus on hip-hop, and with her insights, she has built an audience via her personal website and social media feeds. So when she posted a tweet one evening late last month about Ms. Minaj’s recent musical direction, Ms. Thompson hoped only to spark a conversation among the rap obsessives with whom she regularly communes.

“You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content?” Ms. Thompson wrote to her then 14,000 or so followers. “No silly” stuff, she added with an expletive. “Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.”

What happened next was one part dystopian sci-fi, and one part an everyday occurrence in pop-culture circles online: The Nicki Minaj stans — or superfans — attacked. Then, galvanizing them further, Ms. Minaj chimed in, too.

In the week since publicizing the acidic messages she received directly from Ms. Minaj, whose next album, “Queen,” is scheduled for release in August, Ms. Thompson said she has received thousands of vicious, derogatory missives across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, email and even her personal cellphone, calling her every variation of stupid and ugly, or worse. Some of the anonymous horde included pictures Ms. Thompson once posted on Instagram of her 4-year-old daughter, while others told her to kill herself. Ms. Thompson also lost her internship at an entertainment blog in the chaotic days that followed, and she is now considering seeing a therapist.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Ms. Thompson said through tears in an interview, calling herself “physically drained” and “mentally depleted.”

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Such are the risks of the new media playing field, which may look level from afar, but still tilts toward the powerful. As social media has knocked down barriers between stars and their faithful (or their critics), direct communication among the uber-famous and practically anonymous has become the norm. But while mutual praise can cause both sides to feel warm and tingly, more charged interactions can leave those who have earned a star’s ire, like Ms. Thompson, reeling as eager followers take up the celebrity’s cause.

“Her fans mimic her behavior,” Ms. Thompson said of Ms. Minaj, who responded to her critique after some of the rapper’s 21 million followers brought the initial tweet to the attention of their queen.

Ms. Minaj has been particularly present online lately, rallying her troops in the run-up to her new album, as early songs from the project have failed to stick commercially. (Of her two songs as a lead artist currently on the Billboard Hot 100, none is higher than No. 81.) Ms. Minaj and her team declined to comment for this article.

 

In response to Ms. Thompson, Ms. Minaj started obliquely, posting a list on Twitter of her own songs that she considered mature. But in a tweet the next day, Ms. Thompson revealed two direct messages from Ms. Minaj — much of it in unprintable language — in which the rapper called her “ugly” and implored, “Just say u jealous I’m rich, famous intelligent, pretty and go!” (Ms. Minaj also took issue with Ms. Thompson’s characterization of her age; “I’m 34,” Ms. Minaj wrote, before correcting herself in the next message: “My bad I’m 35.”)

It was far from an isolated incident. The practice of the celebrity “clap back” has earned its own recurring spotlight from influential gossip purveyors like the Shade Room, and stars are often praised for batting down some of the thousands of cruel, unfounded comments they receive every day.

Still, some megaphones are louder than others. Last week, Chance the Rapper went off on a Twitter user with fewer than 600 followers who questioned how the rapper had proposed to his girlfriend. “I’m 1 person, and it shouldn’t matter to him,” the user, @Its_RianM, wrote after publicizing Chance’s vexed response.

Image
Ms. Thompson, a freelance writer living in Toronto, said her battle with Ms. Minaj and her fans online has left her “physically drained” and “mentally depleted.”CreditWanna Thompson

Ms. Minaj’s response to Ms. Thompson only served to rile up the Barbz, as the rapper calls her stans. (A “stan,” as in Eminem’s 2000 hit, is internet parlance for the most rabid, loyal kind of fan, devotees who often congregate in large groups online, tracking their chosen stars — and their detractors — as if they’ve taken a blood oath, or tallying industry stats and cutting down rivals like the most die-hard Boston Red Sox obsessive.)

In line with Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters or Beyoncé’s BeyHive, which earned its own “Saturday Night Live” skit, Ms. Minaj’s Barbz are a particularly active force, banding together to, say, send the rapper’s singles up the iTunes chart. But when challenged, they can also strike with brute force.

 

The incident also affected Ms. Thompson’s professional life.

Since April, she had written remotely as an unpaid intern for KarenCivil.com, the eponymous blog of the hip-hop media personality Karen Civil, who also advises artists on social media and brand strategy. Ms. Minaj is a client of Ms. Civil’s — a fact Ms. Thompson said she did not know when she wrote her initial tweet. But as Ms. Thompson’s assessment picked up steam online that night, its signal boosted by outraged Nicki Minaj fans, she was told by KarenCivil.com staff in an internal group chat to delete the tweet.

Around the same time, Ms. Thompson realized that she had been messaged privately by Ms. Minaj. “If I just posted the DM I got,” Ms. Thompson tweeted cryptically, “I will lose A LOT. I want a career in writing and who will hire me after this? But this DM is DISGUSTING.”

Ms. Civil said in an interview that she and her staff believed Ms. Thompson’s tweets were referring to their internal chat to her, and did not know at the time that Ms. Minaj had sent Ms. Thompson a direct message. Hours later, Ms. Thompson received an email from the site’s chief operating officer, Christian Emiliano, informing her that her internship position had been terminated.

Mr. Emiliano wrote that Ms. Thompson had been asked to be “respectful to any of the clients” with whom the site’s leadership “are working with or are building a relationship.” The email also stated that Ms. Thompson had violated a nondisclosure agreement “by talking about an in-house and contained incident.” (Ms. Thompson denies violating her N.D.A.)

Ms. Civil said Ms. Minaj did not order Ms. Thompson’s firing. Ms. Civil added that she contacted Ms. Thompson to smooth things over, and condemned the “cyberbullying” that resulted. “It’s a very sad situation when fans take it upon themselves to say these things,” she said.

As for Ms. Minaj’s role in the barrage, Ms. Civil added that the immediacy of social media is “a gift and a curse.” “If someone is feeling attacked, they respond,” she said. However, “It’s never right to bully anybody in any situation. It’s not fair.”

For days after, the ordeal continued to light up social media, raising questions about the interaction between fans and their commentators, as well as about an entertainment media landscape that blurs the line between journalistic coverage and promotion. There was even a popular hashtag: #Istandwithwanna.

But Ms. Thompson said that while she stuck by her opinion on Ms. Minaj’s music, she wished she had never made it public.

“If I knew it would get this much harassment and that my daughter would be affected, I don’t think that I would have posted it,” she said. “Every person has a right to defend themselves and react to certain statements. But when you start to insult somebody, you’ve crossed a line.

“You have a responsibility as a public figure to present yourself in a certain way,” she said.

 

 

Source: How One Tweet About Nicki Minaj Spiraled Into Internet Chaos – The New York Times

Forty years ago, ‘Rock Lobster’ launched the career of the B-52s — and revived John Lennon’s – The Washington Post


The members of the rock/new wave group the B-52s in front of a staircase. (Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

By 1978, with the Beatles eight years in his rearview mirror, John Lennon had stopped making music — and found himself vacationing apart from his wife and muse, Yoko Ono. That same year, a group of eclectic misfits from Athens, Ga., who called themselves the B-52s released their first single, “Rock Lobster.”

The song was released 40 years ago this week on a small, now defunct label called DB Records. It was later rerecorded and rereleased as part of the band’s 1979 eponymous debut album on Warner Bros.

It’s a bizarre tune containing nonsensical lyrics and circuslike surf music, but it would prove deeply important to the B-52s (it launched them into stardom) and Lennon (it inspired him to team up with Ono and record the last songs of his life).

The B-52s were a new wave band before new wave was an official genre, and “Rock Lobster” hit the masses like a ton of psychedelic bricks. Delirious sounds pumping out of a Farfisa organ flutter and spin around a droning backbeat. Vocalists Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson sing “ohh” and “ahh” in their best imitation of fish during the song’s nearly seven-minute run. At the end, Wilson shrieks like a dolphin. There’s more than a little cowbell.

Strangest of all, though, are Fred Schneider’s spoken-sung vocals about a rock lobster  a red, brown or colorful creature that lives among coral reefs in tropical areas — spotted near a beachside party where “everybody had matching towels.”

The lyrics paint a strange picture, with senseless imagery …

We were at a party
His earlobe fell in the deep
Someone reached in and grabbed it

… odd clothing choices …

Boys in bikinis
Girls in surfboards

… and a list of the increasingly ludicrous animals passing by:

Here comes a stingray
There goes a Manta Ray
In walked a jelly fish
There goes a dogfish

Chased by a catfish
In flew a sea robin
Watch out for that piranha
There goes a narwhal
Here comes a bikini whale

The song’s inspiration? A strange Southern nightclub.

“I went to this disco in Atlanta, Georgia, called 2001. And instead of having a light show and fabulousness, they had a slide show,” Schneider said in an interview with Boom 97.3. “And it was empty, and they showed pictures of puppies, babies and lobsters on a grill, and I thought, okay, ‘Rock Lobster,’ that’s a good title for a song.”

In some ways, the song was a happy accident. The band went to a Chinese restaurant one night “and we had this big ceramic bowl of a rum concoction that was very strong,” Wilson told The Washington Post by phone this week. During a post-dinner jam session, the beginnings of “Rock Lobster” emerged. Wilson said the band knew it was on to something.

“We were just rolling on the floor laughing,” Wilson said. “It just kind of happened by wanting to have a good time. And we kept following that.”

The song launched the outlandish band into the mainstream, becoming its first to hit the Billboard top 100. It didn’t peak until 1980, however, after the B-52s played the song on “Saturday Night Live.”

“Rock Lobster” also revived a career that had stalled. Lennon’s well of post-Beatles inspiration had dried by 1975. Though he often cited Ono as his muse, the two had never put out an entirely collaborative album. That changed when he heard “Rock Lobster” for the first time while on a vacation without Ono.

“I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda. Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52’s for the first time,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1980. “It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!’ ”

That the song reminded Lennon of Ono’s music isn’t surprising. Wilson told The Post that the song was, in part, “a tribute to Yoko.”

“Yoko was such an inspiration for us in the early days,” the song’s co-writer, Keith Strickland, told Spinner. “That’s definitely an homage to Yoko when Cindy [Wilson] does that scream at the end.”

Ono recalled the moment similarly.

“Listening to the B-52’s, John said he realized that my time had come,” she told Songfacts. “So he could record an album by making me an equal partner and we won’t get flak like we used to up to then,” which referred to gossip swirling at the time that Lennon and Ono’s relationship was responsible for the dissolution of the Beatles. Paul McCartney has since denied the rumor.

The two began before he got home from vacation, singing to each other over the phone every day. They wrote an entire album in three weeks.

Those songs became Lennon’s final true album, “Double Fantasy.” The two released it on Nov. 17, 1980 — mere weeks before Lennon was killed on Dec. 8. Some of the songs also appeared on his posthumous release “Milk and Honey.”

“Constipated for five years, and then diarrhea for three weeks,” Lennon told Rolling Stone of the album. All it took was “Rock Lobster.”

Though Lennon was never afforded the chance to record more music, Ono has continued following her experimental musical muse. But she never forgot “Rock Lobster.”

“You guys made John very happy,” she told Pierson in 1992. “It was a beautiful, delightful thing for him.”

Finally, a decade later, she joined the B-52s on stage to perform that famous primal scream.

The song remains a pop culture staple, even showing up in cartoons such as “Family Guy” — on multiple occasions.

As Wilson put it: “ ‘Rock Lobster’ lives on.”

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Source: Forty years ago, ‘Rock Lobster’ launched the career of the B-52s — and revived John Lennon’s – The Washington Post

Billboard’s charts used to be our barometer for music success. Are they meaningless in the streaming age? – The Washington Post


Clockwise from top left, Drake, Kanye West, Prince and Michael Jackson. (Washington Post illustration; Getty Images; iStock)

Drake and Kanye West — two reigning kings of pop music — both flooded the American consciousness with music this summer in strikingly different manners.

West released a series of seven-track albums, including one bearing his name and one collaboration with Kid Cudi. Drake, meanwhile, dumped the contents of his hard drive on streaming services as a 25-track behemoth titled “Scorpion.”

Both approaches might seem ostentatious, but they also hinted that pop artists might be using some savvy trickery to manipulate the charts.

If that’s the case, it worked.

Despite lackluster reviews, Kanye’s “Ye” charted at the top of the Billboard 200 albums chart. He also set a record: Every single song debuted in the Top 40 of the Billboard 100. Perhaps that’s because it was only seven tracks, which encouraged listeners to spin (stream) it again and again. Perhaps that was Kanye’s plan.

And, despite its own lackluster reviews, Drake’s “Scorpion” utterly decimated current streaming records. It broke the one-week U.S. streaming record for an album in a mere three days, eclipsing Post Malone’s “beerbongs & bentleys,” which earned the record less than two months prior. It debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, and garnered a record-breaking 745.9 million U.S. streams in its first week. It also became the first record to globally generate 1 billion streams in a single week. Perhaps that was inevitable, given the sheer amount of songs listeners had to work through. Perhaps that was Drake’s plan.

These records aren’t surprising. Instead, they’re a function of the charts desperately trying to figure out how to rank music in the streaming age.

Billboard added streaming songs as one of the metrics for its charts in 2012, leading the Recording Industry Association of America and Nielsen to follow suit. The criteria have changed several times in the interim — just last month, the company made changes to weight paid streams on services like Spotify over unpaid ones on jukebox-esque services like Pandora for the Billboard 100 singles chart. Meanwhile, for the Billboard 200, 1,500 streams of any songs on one record equals one listen to that record.

As the charts struggled to come up with a streaming equivalent to an album purchase or a song download, the media has been awash with headlines touting the latest record-breaking chart numbers. Artists such as Adele, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Drake, Kanye, Lil Wayne and Post Malone are constantly breaking each others’ records, leaving bands such as Prince, the Rolling Stones and ABBA in digital obscurity.


Beyoncé performs onstage at Coachella on April 14. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella)

All these headlines spark a few questions: If records are being broken every time the chart-bearers change the rules, then do they mean anything? Is it fair to compare Beyoncé and the Beatles? It was harder to purchase “The White Album” than to put a stream of “Lemonade” on repeat, after all. And if not, what happens to the way we conceive of the history of popular music? Meanwhile, are those shifting metrics altering the actual music we, the consumers, are receiving?

Since their inception in 1958, the Billboard charts served a window to pop music history. Along with statistics collected by RIAA and Nielsen, they offer a road map of what tunes, musicians and genres Americans found interesting enough to consume en masseBut they’ve always been at least something of a mirage.

“When the Beatles were around, there were horrible records of who sold what,” Donald S. Passman, author of “All You Need to Know About the Music Business,” told The Washington Post. “Nobody knew how many records were sold in retail, only how many were shipped to the store. So the charts were based on shipments.”

Smelling opportunity, many record companies would simply send out a bunch of records. Even if they ended up getting half of them back, the albums would climb the charts.

As Steve Knopper — who recently added a chapter on the streaming age to his book “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” — put it: “There was a lot of hanky-panky going on, with record labels lobbying the stores. In the old days in the record industry, there were a lot of interesting ways of goosing the charts.”

That might still be the case.

SoundScan, a technology for tracking music sales and airplay, appeared in 1991 like a sonic boom. Suddenly, the charts were being fed actual, reliable statistics. Things didn’t remain simple for long, though, since the introduction of the iPod meant the rise of digital downloads, which Billboard began tracking in 2003. Then came streaming, which Passman called “the most fundamental, radical change I’ve seen in the music business” in his decades working within it.

Billboard has tried to stay in front of the game, constantly reconsidering how to react to new technologies. The company is always considering what a song download is worth, what the difference is between a stream and a radio play, etc.

“What we do is we react to the marketplace around us. I think we were fairly nimble on downloading and even more so on streaming to make sure we’re reflecting where the music consumer is going,” Billboard’s senior vice president of charts and data development Silvio Pietroluongo told The Post. “Where that will end up, though, I don’t know.”

He pointed out that streaming changed the actual manner in which we listen to music (once again).

“When streaming started, the idea was people would pick the tracks they wanted to hear, but now they’re being fed songs like a jukebox,” Pietroluongo said, referring to curated playlists and Internet radio stations. And Billboard has to “look at whether these actions should be treated differently.”

Because, much like those record stores, some artists appear to be gaming the system.

“I think there’s kind of an emphasis of just constantly flooding the market with songs, rather than building up to a big album,” Knopper said. Kanye appeared to do this with his recent seven-track albums, as did Drake with “Scorpion.” And, speaking of Drake, he’s done it before, with 2016’s record-breaking “Views.”

As Pitchfork’s senior editor, Jillian Mapes, wrote at the time:

There were many factors as to why “Views” ultimately broke single-week streaming records . . . By allowing individual song streams to count toward the album tally in Nielsen and RIAA data, there is an actual incentive for Drake to tack the nearly-year-old “Hotline Bling” onto his already saggy album because “Hotline Bling” is popular, and by virtue of that fact, it will continue to rack up streams.

It’s a knotty issue for Billboard, because streaming is more than a passing fad. It has ostensibly replaced both physical and digital album and single sales. In the first 15 years of the aughts, album sales fell from 785 million to 241 million, according to the Harvard Business Review.

As a result, music journalists often find themselves excitedly comparing things that are inherently incomparable.


Michael Jackson performs during the Super Bowl halftime show on Jan. 31, 1993 in Pasadena, Calif. (George Rose/Getty Images)

“Can you say Kanye is as big an artist, being this successful in streaming, compared to Michael Jackson in the ’80s or the Beatles in the ’60s?” Knopper said. “That seems like apples and oranges. … It’s a completely different type of success and consumption.”

Even if you could, would the comparisons matter? Do the charts even matter to most consumers? Maybe — but probably not.

“They matter to record companies in terms of market share and clout,” Passman said. But “I don’t think consumers really read the charts anymore.”

Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman agreed. “I don’t know if serious or even casual music people care that much about any musical statistic outside of what is currently the number one song in the country . . . I think a lot of people who are drawn to studying the charts are the kind of people who are drawn to statistics.”

And the charts only focus on a frozen moment in time, not lasting cultural impact. Consider this: If someone asked you what was the most popular song in 1972, you’d probably hop on over to the Billboard charts and find that Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” and Roberta Flack’s “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” dominated the year. That might be puzzling, since Don McLean released “American Pie” — a song that endures today — that same year.

“If you’re looking at charts to understand music history, the best analogy is using statistics to understand sports history,” Klosterman said. “You’re looking at something that numerically seems simple but it’s completely impacted and changed by the era it comes from.”

Plus, he added, like all statistics, “charts can be used in any way you want them to be.”

“It does seem that as often as the charts are used to validate someone’s importance, they’re just as often used to show that temporary interest in any kind of art is ephemeral and kind of meaningless,” Klosterman said, pointing to Prince and Led Zeppelin as an example. One could easily point to Prince’s five No. 1 hits as proof of his pop dominance. Simultaneously, one could point to the fact that Led Zeppelin never had a No. 1 hit as proof that singles don’t matter, since they’ve become one of the most pervasive rock bands in American history.

Maybe Kanye was inspired by the biblical number, and maybe Drake was ready to drop a Big Statement double-album. But it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Zeppelin had released “Physical Graffiti” in the streaming age.

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Source: Billboard’s charts used to be our barometer for music success. Are they meaningless in the streaming age? – The Washington Post