Friday, January 7, 2011

It's a Minor-Chord Masterpiece...

Here we are in 2011, eh? Wonder if we'll make it 'til next year, to see if our Mayan grand-daddies were right, y'know, about all that cataclysmic-change unpleasantness? Until then, we can at least track our own individual afflictions. To that end, the CDC has classified and released another new batch o' diseases, for which we may rush headlong to purchase colored lapel pins.
I've helpfully included some of this new guide:
24-Hour Lymphadenopathy (periwinkle), Samoan Leopard Rash (yellow/black), Pinkney's Digit (well, it's pink, innit?), Petulant Toenail (goldenrod), Nervous Folliculitis (aquamarine), Furtive Colon Syndrome (sunburst orange), Echolalia (Red #5), Twilight Sweats (angry purple) and Rapid-Cycling Ennui (either mauve or magenta...oh God, what does it matter?...what does it all mean??!!) and so forth.

So let's all show a little support, eh?


That was Reveille, Honey
I met lots of different people in my comings and goings while on four years of active duty in the US Army.
One of those that left a deep impression indeed was a hard-charging young female E-6. She was an Aviation Refueling Specialist, and someone who - by anyone's yardstick - was a superb soldier.
She was also as gay as the day is long.
No banner-waving, hysteria, nothing set her apart as someone who also wore BDUs, someone who also had a job to do. That's a good thing about the military: it redirects existing or potential prejudices, so that it is often far easier to simply see someone as another service member.
I don't know what she did in her off-time, and furthermore don't care, but I rather suspect she wasn't hitting on every female with a pulse. There are problems to a degree with the modern military, problems which reflect a society in transition. It's no longer all-white (which it was until 1948) or all-male (which it was until 1978). Yet these within-the-ranks problems largely stem from the successful integration of women into those ranks. Where the "gay" kerfuffle erupted from, I'm unsure.

President Obama repealed the Clinton-era Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy on December 22nd, and there are plenty of people up in arms. Radio's clarion-calling Mark Levin equated the repeal to nothing less than an assault on one of the few remaining bulwarks of our society, but is it really?
Is there really a war room somewhere filled with vaguely tousled, driving-moc wearing, John Varvatos-scented radicals who are chuckling over driving another chink in America's armor? Over the advance in their nefarious timetable toward some swishing, mincing debauched barracks? It's laughable. (For that matter, I saw debauchery in the barracks, and it was pretty damned hetero).
We've all seen and heard interviews of people who were in the military, enlisted or officer, some of whom saw combat, and who lived in mortal fear of being known for who they were. How sad. Here are a group of people who only want to do what they feel is right - they want to do what they believe will defend their country! How is that wrong, O hard-righters, many or most of whom have no idea about miltary life because you've never served?

The icing on the cake is that these people want to serve at this particular moment, during this astonishingly ill-advised and ongoing foreign adventure. That should mean something. Willingness to stick out your neck on the nebulous, shifting (literal) sands of the 21st-century battlefield really is remarkable.

Does every straight person walk around in a state of arousal, entranced by and lustful for every person of the opposite sex they see?? Then why would a gay person? And can I please make a point that I've never seen made anywhere during this whole stupid debate?
I'm mentally going over a list of gay friends and acquaintances I've had in life...gauging, in my mind, the prospect of them going into the military with its privations, difficulties, and most importantly - utter adherence to uniformity and routine. Can I imagine any of them charging the gates to enlist?
No. That's no disparagement, either: most would probably tell you the same thing. A Pentagon report was released recently that dovetailed with the repeal, saying it just wouldn't be the nightmare it's been painted as. Apparently, nearly 70 per cent of 115,000 troops surveyed said the controversy was hot air, as they'd already known of a gay serviceperson.

If I'm wrong, then, someone come along and steer me, er, straight.

A Journey Toward Understanding
Carl Gustav Jung was an amazing man, to say the very least.
He saw the emergence of psychotherapy in the first two decades of the 20th Century as a wonderful convergence of medicine and spiritual analysis. As he immersed himself in its practice, he opened himself and his sensibilities (he was a man already given to perceptions of the immensity of human experience, both natural and supernatural) to a world that produced in him insight, revelation, and not a little madness.
It's him that we have to thank for personality "types," for "projection" and the corollary phenomenon of the "persona," for "individuation," for archetypes and synchronicity and that great, dim germ of being, the Collective Unconscious (itself a refinement of and move beyond Freud's personal unconscious). He dwelled from a young age in a seeming receptivity to dreams and (literal, it seems) visions, events which affected him deeply while steadily broadening his personal and professional quest.

The 2009 release of Liber Novum (aka the "Red Book") was cause for celebration, as Jung's trustees were finally releasing this large, brilliantly illustrated journal for the first time. It renewed interest in a man who we'll most likely always find worthy of repeated visits.

Jung scholar Dr. David Rosen made a pilgrimage to Switzerland in the mid '90s to experience Jung's world and dwellings at closer range. He found in his reflections a man who not only hewed to his own (European) experience and understanding but that also discovered deep meaning in the preserved wisdom of the East, and in particular the Tao te Ching of Lao Tzu. That text sought to impart the Tao (the "way") and its simple flow, through both life and those who were open to its deceptively simple messages.
Rosen, in The Tao of Jung: The Way of Integrity (New York: Viking Arkana, 1996) illustrates the connection Rosen made between the two mens' work. The reconciliation of opposites was of prime importance to Jung, and Rosen sees this everywhere in the marrow of the Tao. From the complement and conflict of male/female, water/fire, inward/outward, he drew some of his firmest conclusions.
Consider his juxtapositions from 1916's Septem Sermonos ad Mortuos (Seven Sermons to the Dead), the nothingness and dissolution of the plemora which is contrasted with the ideal state of creatura ("...we die in such measure as we do not distinguish," he wrote); the duality of t'ai chi in contrast with wholeness of wu-chi; the self 1 of the persona, the old (Freud) ego-base in contrast with one's true, revealed self 2, Self/Tao, and the creation of art as an external thing made by an outer person with everyday needs and concerns in contrast to the person themselves as art.
Rosen's path while on his trip contained significant stretches of solitude, and he learned about the duality of that as well. It fed his spirit, but also amplified his understanding of otherness, of the path of enlightenment, of the burden of revealed truths. It's a book that's well-worth reading.

Richard Noll has more to add on the subject of Jung. In 1997 he published The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung. Noll exhautively consulted theretofore-unpublished primary sources - thus steering as clear as possible of presuppositions and bias - and produced a biography of Jung that delves deeply into the fads and fancies of Germany during its heady 19th-century glory. These include most of the amusements that swept the rest of the world, including mesmerism, seances and other forms of bogus spirituality, but also the growing fascination with the ideas of Volk and Kultur, of land and blood and the ancient Aryan glories of figures such as Arminius, ferocious fighter of the Romans.
Jung was born into this heady milieu, and even traced his personal family to memberships in several of these proud, emergent, staunchly Teutonic enclaves. Noll makes a case for Jung as the developer of a cult of personality around himself, with plenty of supplicants to appreciate his gifts and insights. He also damns as a peurile hagiography the compilation of Jung's thought that was Meanings, Dreams, Reflections, the 1962 "autobiography" which Noll states was merely cobbled together by Jung intimate Aniela Jaffe and contains little critical effort.
He delves deeply into Jung's 1913 break with Freud, with the conclusion that the disassocation left the younger man in a turbulent period during which his explorations into his own shadows led to a literal self-deification 1916, whereupon he saw himself as a Mithraic god with the head of a lion. As a harrowing of Jung's flawed brilliance, Noll's book bears study.

There are several primers of the man and his work, but those seeking an indepth biographical account (containing, yet again, untapped sources and material) should seek out Ronald Hayman's excellent 2001 work Jung: A Life, in which Hayman succeeds in presenting a truly balanced portrait of Jung and his complexities.
Whichever way the reader turns, there is much food for thought to be had from the playful, wizened seeker Carl jung.

The Holy Madman of Network
What can you say about a film that provides a deft, blackly satirical commentary on modern media? That includes serious firepower both in front of and behind the camera? That offers the most deeply prescient monologue ever captured on film?
The film is Network, and it's all the more chilling because it was released in 1976, fully pre-dating the rise of cable TV with its 24-hour news cycle and desperate need for programming, no matter the increasing stench. There was a time when Hollywood still had something to say, and the means to say it. There were identifiable divisions between things - newspapers, TV, movie studios - and you could make a point. Sidney Lumet, at the top of his game, did just that.

Faye Dunaway is the statuesque, resolutely braless (it was the '70s, one supposes) Diana Christensen, a lower-level programming exec at failing TV network UBS. She wants something new, something with theatricality..."angry" shows, anti-establishment stuff. She sees in Howard Beale an opportunity.
Beale has been told he has two weeks left on the air due to flagging ratings. He promptly, on the air, promises to commit suicide one week hence. Given a chance to recant by Max Schumacher (a brilliant William Holden), he launches instead into a tirade: it's all bullshit, this "...daily parade of lunacy that constitutes the news!" Frank Hackett, point man for CCA - the corporation that's poised to take over the ailing station - is apoplectic, but then the ratings come in. Beale's a smash.
He's kept on, but with the proviso that the "prophet" bit be dropped. He's moved beyond such considerations, however, either having had a breakdown of some sort or, as he reports to Schumacher, having truly been "imbued" with some new insight. Hackett, impatient, green-lights Howard as the anchor, literally, of the news, with rancorous result. Beale is a man afire, bellowing at the cowed yet rapt audience the words that they then scream from their windows (and which have become a pop-culture punchline): "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
His star burns brightly. The station's evening news slot is re-done as shtick, with Beale heading things up as its anguished focus. There he is, pacing, feverish, on a black studio set - the audience in his thrall - framed only by a circular stained-glass window, and he eviscerates them. They're idiots, driven completely by the "tube," and he demands they turn off their sets now. "You people are reality!" he shrieks, scarcely in control. "We are the illusion [and] we'll give you any shit you want to hear!"
Lumet and DP Owen Roizman sculpt the characters wonderfully, and perhaps no one more than Dunaway's Christensen: during an illicit getaway with the married Schumacher, her every waking moment is permeated with chatter about her programs and their development. For her, TV constitutes even foreplay.
Television veteran Beatrice Straight gets one of the most shockingly affecting scenes. When Max reveals the affair with Christensen, Straight's Louise Schumacher reacts with subtle gradations of pain, anger, and defiance. Her confrontation takes all of five minutes 40 seconds, yet it garnered her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress - the shortest performance ever to land the award.

Paddy Chayefsky was a seasoned writer who'd worked in TV and Broadway, and whose later works included the stark Altered States. His screenplay offers a healthy dose of the absurd to the proceedings, as at the meeting with Laureen Hobbs (around whom Christensen is building a hopeful ratings hit called The Mao Tse Tung Hour). The topic is ratings and distribution, and a battery of lawyers are present. Hobbs (Marlene Warfield, channeling Angela Davis) seethes at the prospect of her money being tampered with. Her fellow revolutionary (and co-star) finally fires his pistol in rage, closing the argument. "Man, give her the fuckin' overhead clause," he demands.
Ned Beatty's Arthur Jensen appeals to Beale personally, and as the head of CCA he must make the man understand precisely what's at stake. There are no nations any more, as he explains, only dollars, only corporations. "It is currency...that determines the totality of life on this planet," he plays out slowly. "That is the natural order of things today." Beale has stepped on that arrangement. "All necessities are provided," continues Jensen. "All anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused." Thus is Beale armed for his greatest declamation yet.

In another finality, Max leaves Diana. He makes no bones, either, he's the last thing tethering her to flawed humanity, the only bulwark against the "shrieking nothingness" that otherwise constitutes her life. "You're madness, and everything you touch dies with you," he says. "But not me." He's another man from another time, with only memories of bracing newsroom deadlines, Ed Murrow, and a medium not yet given full rein in the minds of its viewers.
As the madness grows, Diana proposes a truly radical measure to save the station. Hackett and company sign off on it, and Beale then charges, howling, into the void.

Lumet was already a formidable presence when he directed the film. His imprint shaped 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe and Serpico. The year previous, he'd helmed Dog Day Afternoon, another triumph. He picked up a Golden Globe for Best Director, Chayefsky received Best Screenplay, while Finch and Dunaway scored Best Actor and Actress. The latter three repeated their feat with matching Oscars (Finch, sadly, posthumously), while Straight was awarded the aforementioned Best Supporting Actress Oscar: the film's nominations totalled ten.

As if to underscore the movie's enduring passion and message, it was named one of the Top 10 Movie Scripts by the Writers' Guild of America in 2006. It was a fitting capstone for a film that remains as gripping as it ever was, with a message more resonant now than ever.


Brothers in Arms
In May 1974, Island Records released Kimono My House by expatriate Los Angeleno brothers Ron and Russell Mael, whose band was called Sparks.
The group weren't unknowns: they'd already appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test to mixed reception. The appearance wrinkled a few brows, but spread awareness greatly and increased their growing fanbase further. They'd soon blow the lid off the premier UK program, the venerated Top of the Pops, on which they umlimbered a stomping workout called "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us." The single hit #2 UK, the LP #4. Sparks' reputation as left-field, larger-than-life innovators with boundless energy and sui generis sensibilities was established.

They were products of '60s L.A., and pursued art and film studies at UCLA while soaking in both the Sunset Strip scene and the progressive new crop of bands from England. Music seemed a natural outlet, and after a couple of attempts at forming a band (Moonbaker Abbey and Urban Renewal Project), they settled on the name Halfnelson.
Halfnelson produced a 12-song demo called A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing which - its status as a demo aside - came in a deluxe package, the better to catch the reviewer's eye, perhaps. The band's lineup settled, by 1971, as Ron on keyboards, Russell as vocalist, Earle Mankey on guitar, Jim Mankey on bass and Harley Feinstein on drums, and this is the group that caught the ear of Todd Rundgren. Rundgren lobbied Albert Grossman for the act to record for Grossman's Bearsville label, with Rundgren producing.
The album was recorded and released as by Halfnelson, even as a February 1971 name change to Sparks took place. Here was the fruit of the brothers' efforts, and it's as if they sprung, fully formed, from the forehead of L.A.'s creative community. Even among fans the debut is perhaps underrated, even though it offers arguably the most consistently amazing pop debut ever from US shores.
We kick off with a perfectly constructed, pleasantly cantering number called "Wonder Girl," a song that was the germ of their UK popularity, then encounter "Fa La Fa Lee," an arrangement marked by bold tempo changes and Ron's interactions with both guitar and rhythm section. The taut "High C" fully anticipates swooning, anthemic '70s FM before it even exists, but still makes room for vocal flourishes aplenty. Next, "Fletcher Honorama" is an elegant slice of psychedelia appended with music-hall piano that appears as through ether.

The grandeur and world-weary cabaret vocals of Russell transform "Simple Ballet" and "Slowboat," two swaying, moody, quietly insistent songs that build into undeniable emotional crescendos. Earle Mankey contributes the vocal on "Biology 2," a mutated love ditty driven forward by a synth riff that beats Devo to the punch by half a decade. The group's unique orthodoxy informs "Roger" and "Saccharine and the War," which simply cannot be explained: "Big Bands" percolates along nicely until jumping in for the finish with a rocking conclusion complete with a spoken overlay.
The LP ends with a six-minute "No More Mr. Nice Guys," which perfectly measures out its coiled energy and ends in a rain of distorted guitar and pounding piano.

Warner Bros. picked up the record for re-release (as by Sparks), but not before one more recording for Bearsville. This time the group chose their demo's name for the LP, and so began the recording of A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, with engineer Thaddeus Lowe as producer.

It begins with another girl, as "Girl From Germany" puts Lowe's meaty mix on display. There's still a lithe counterpoint that's pure Mael, however. The barnstorming gallop (with calliope interludes folded in) serves notice that again, the listener needs to buck up and prepare for something different. Brisk strings enliven the charming chamber pop of "Here Comes Bob," and it's followed by a strange, martial, alien dream called "Moon Over Kentucky," wherein Russell offers cryptically that "...I'm just finishing my first encounter...what a letdown..."
The boys retool Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Do Re Mi" and the result is the Sound of Music by way of Sparks. The elements of "Underground" fade in and out, as if transmitted from afar, indeed, underground. There is another clutch of oblique tracks, including "Nothing is Sacred," "Angus Desire" and a snippet called "Batteries Not Included." All of which brings us to closer "Whippings and Apologies" which Ron kicks off with a sly bit of John Cale's viola (ca. "The Black Angel's Death Song") that he works into a turbocharged raveup which ends the record...and Sparks Mk I.

One indication was the album's penultimate track, "The Louvre." It's sung in effortless French by Russell, and is so smart, agile and Continental that it's a damned monster. It demanded a move, demanded something. Island Records provided that opportunity, but only if it involved the brothers alone. Bringing over a full band would've been a big step. There had been a handful of UK tour dates thus far, so Ron & Russ were able to recruit Martin Gordon (bass), Adrian Fisher (guitar) and Norman "Dinky" Diamond on drums. Muff Winwood (who'd begun doing A&R for Island after the Spencer Davis Group folded) would produce.

The glittered throngs ruled the streets of London in 1973, when Ron began writing the songs for a new album. What he delivered (even though the group continued to defy categories and any sort of labeling) was a gift from the Glam gods. Opener "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" was a shot across the bow and declaration of newfound focus. Speaking of the track, Ron opined "'s written in A and by God it'll be sung in A." He wrote what he wrote. Russell adapted and dug deep to vocally meet his brother's standards. The next song, "Amateur Hour" was the LP's second single, and its addictive hook took it to #7, a nice companion for the "This Town" #2 posting. The comic narcissism of "Falling in Love With Myself Again" is a big nudge-and-wink for Marlene Dietrich in 3/4 time. Ron again: "Quite honestly, I never liked myself. I'm not my type." The song needs huge guitar, huge drums, and they're here.

The boys' wry humor is everywhere on display here, as on "Thank God it's Not Christmas" (as that's the one day a person can't escape to be alone), and "Hasta Manana, Monsieur," a thematically simple ode to a guy trying to chat up a girl. It soars, though - an anthem on an album of anthems - with lashings more guitar. The track chosen for the US single was "Talent is an Asset," a perky and infectious number wherein those in the orbit of the young Albert Einstein hope he'll remember them when he's famous. Cheeky and enigmatic, "Here in Heaven" and "Complaints" set us up for the swaying pomp and ambiguity of "Equator." A fellow looks around, muttering "...equator, equator, you said you'd meet me here..." so where is his girl? A tootling sax provides a melodic little squib over the falsetto tradeoffs of the title, then we fade. Thankfully, the most recent reissue of the record appends it with the b-sides of the two UK singles, so we're given "Barbecutie" with its pulsing, knotty rhythm, and the blistering guitar underlying "Lost and Found," a punchy number meant to be heard from a single. Thank God for their inclusion.

Fan and writer Madekine Bocaro notes that Karl Stoecker was called in to shoot the LP's sleeve. This was a bit of a coup, as Stoecker was in the midst of shooting acts such as Mott the Hoople: he was also shooting the legendary early Roxy Music sleeves at this time. Two models from Japan's Red Buddha Theatre got dolled up in geisha gear and posed amid an air of amused disdain. Set against a stark, apple-green backdrop, the shot proved an enduring image for an enduring album.

Indeed, if we pull the LP back into the mortal coil of slots, categories and genres, a thought occurs to me. If I posit the band's debut as the greatest US pop debut ever, can't I lay claim to Kimono as being the greatest power-pop release ever? Sure I can, and why not?

More good stuff followed: Propaganda and Indiscreet came on the heels of Kimono, then Big Beat and Introducing Sparks before a fascination with Giorgio Moroder and others in the synth movement led to a new avenue for the band, No. 1 in Heaven, the first of many reinventions. They've never rested, either, releasing albums through the 2000s, and still to critical and fan acclaim (although their highest US chart psotion was #63, for 1974's Propaganda). In May and June of '08 they held the "Sparks Spectacular" in London. For 20 nights they played their 20 albums to date, and on the 21st night, June 13th, debuted Exotic Creatures of the Deep. The current release is The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman - a commission from Swedish National Radio that imagines a 1950s trip to the US by the director, and acts as a meditation on the differences between US and Euro culture and arts. Ripping stuff.

So where else can you find a band that's cited by so many as being directly instrumental in their creative birth, including Morrissey and Kurt Cobain?

The brothers anticipated everything. Influenced everything. Transcended everything.

They are Sparks.


Greatest Britain
I recently headed over to the bookstore, eagerly awaiting the new issue of Mojo magazine. It's a music pub from the UK, and as far as I'm concerned leads a quality field of magazines from over there. Further refining my statement, it's the greatest music mag I've ever seen, period.
I approached the music section of the magazine racks and was floored.
There was my title, only the current issue was packaged - in a deluxe, heavy vinyl slipcase - with a 12" vinyl album!! The record celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the release of Let It Be, the Beatles' swansong, and featured a crop of current-day artists covering the LP's songs. Amazing. The disc was housed in a gatefold jacket, and the whole thing made for a splendid package. I gladly ponied up the pittance of $20 and hurried home with my treasure, convinced anew that the magazine is the best thing going.
Of course, after the delight of the record there was still the joy of reading the magazine. This issue featured a cover story on Paul McCartney's life in the wake of the Beatles' breakup - his initial solo efforts and work with Wings up through the release of Band on the Run. It was illuminating and entertaining. That piece was augmented with two other features: an article on the Beatles' last year in the studio and the friction between them as they left 80 hours of Let It Be tracks in the can and produced Abbey Road in one last, heroic effort, and a story about the misguided Apple Enterprises, which dreamed big, produced little, and went through trainloads of money before folding. Gripping stuff from the boys' orbit...great writing the lot.

That's only the beginning. There are deeply informative pieces on Herbie Hancock, Brian Wilson's new Gershwin-related project, and an interview wherein Sheryl Crow discusses her top 10 Soul influences. There are excerpts from a new Bob Marley book which feature rare photos of the singer from 1975 - 76, shot by Kim Gottlieb-Walker as she moved among the singer and his world. That's one of the great things about Mojo - every issue features a fantastic collection of images, either new or from Pop's back pages. Their pics, whether of musicians or events or the physical ephemera of Pop - records, flyers and so forth - each issue is chock-full of eye candy, and it complements the text wonderfully.
The feature pieces are bracketed first by What Goes On, which celebrates news and happenings new & old, passings, and often things of significance that might be otherwise lost to us. Currently featured are remembrances of Sugar Minott, Tuli Kupferberg and Harvey Fuqua; Radiohead drummer Philip Selway's new solo record, Mississippi (by way of Australia) roots-blue singer C.W. Stoneking, and Duane Eddy's personal and musical rejuvenation. Gaelic chanteuse Imelda May is profiled, and the TimeMACHINE segment remembers the US groups who flocked to the UK during 1963 tours.

The other end of the issue features the comprehensive media review called, quite rightly, Mojo Filter. Here are musical releases new and reissue, books, DVDs and live shows, all presented with an eye toward the same critical quality as the features writing. In addition to dozens of records, the new history of Rough Trade is reviewed, as are a Leonard Cohen 1972 concert DVD, the censors-angering Iranian film Persian Cats, and a Neil Young/Bert Jansch appearance in Oakland.

Forgive the breathless prose, but not for nothing is this my go-to music read.

Lest anyone consider Mojo a beautiful fluke, I'm also regularly edified by other such titles as Q, Uncut, Record Collector and Classic Rock. The current issue of Classic Rock came packaged in a school-style pocket folder, and included a CD (also standard with Uncut and Mojo) and a 2011 calendar which featured recipes from metal musician such as Doro Pesch, Andreas Kisser (Sepultura) and Bobby Liebling (Pentagram)! Then there's the magazine itself - another rich stew of features and stories.
The cover story, about the Who's recording of their 1970 giant Live at Leeds, was followed by an interview with Nick Mason, the tale of Pantera's breakout hit Cowboys From Hell, Bev Bevan and The Move, New Model Army's tireless approach to recording and touring, a behind-the-scenes account of Springsteen's recording of Born to Run, and tons more...and if that weren't enough, consider Classic Rock's specialty sub-publications, AOR and Prog.

I took Rolling Stone to task in the first posting for this blog, and it's a shame. Has almost every US rock mag abdicated its throne entirely? If that is the case, I've still got my glossy treasures from abroad.


'Tween-Age Wasteland
We're awash, to all appearances, in a glittery television stage prop of tightly choreographed, adorably shaggy, infectiously beaming 12 year-olds. That they are moving forward like the Mongol hordes, increasing in number seems obvious...that they seem poised to become mainstream pop's contenders in perpetua perhaps less so. They're swaying, bopping, issuing forth pleasing bleats from a series of carefully crafted templates, with the whole shebang run through filters, equalization software and other studio refinement. It's a delirious, undulant playground where the riffs never end and the puppy love never abates. And it leads, dear reader, to the wealth of a sultan for all involved in its creation and marketing.

To look at this infantilization we should go back to the '40s, to the years before R&B and hillbilly boogie fully combined to produce the first ranks of rock 'n' rollers.
Those two musics were performed by adults, moreover, by adults playing instruments. In the case of R&B, there were bandleaders working their groups through challenging arrangements. Shows had to dazzle, and had to sustain interest and energy over several sets a night.
The arrival of pop/rock changed all that. At the risk of rehashing a commonly known capsule history, the Baby Boom saw to it that 1950s America was populated with hordes of teens. The music on the radio, in the record shops, at school dances and at kids' bedsides naturally reflected that. Pop skewed younger.
After the first wave of idols was dispersed there was total market saturation by properly vetted, safe, clean-cut teen idols, the better to control the stuff. Sap was king. The British Invasion blew that away but the invaders were still, once again, teens.

As a counterpoint to the new "maturity" of the '70s (Joni Mitchell, Seals and Crofts, Gordon Lightfoot et al) there was Bubblegum. This phenomenon was less an organic development than a wonderfully marketed production machine that often used studio talent to prop up the marquee vocalist(s), and targeted even small children. They had money, they could buy singles as well as a teen. Even though glossy fan mags had been around since Elvis and Ricky Nelson's heyday, these mags were born anew to print up the likes of Donny Osmond, Tony DeFranco and David Cassidy.
The arrival of Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett and such spritely imps as the Bay City Rollers was a license to print money, or at least endless special editions with huge, fold-out posters. Blessedly for the industry, there's been no flagging in interest and demand for these magazines. Once everyone realized that a steady flow of pretty young things (both male and female: all cuddly) then the path was clear.

The '80s delivered Joey Lawrence, who used a cuddly-doofus TV role to launch a beat-driven pop career, as well as a group of young hatchlings so perfectly groomed for stardom as to have lain in wait like a Soviet sleeper cell. I refer, of course, to the April 24th, 1989 premiere of The New Mickey Mouse Club.
Its six-year run gave us Britney, Christina, Justin and J.C., no surnames necessary.
As we now posit the first three of these as our towering pop giants, our yardstick of units moved and tastes influenced, don't we need a new batch of performers?

Although Disney dropped such crap as The Cheetah Girls into our laps, they've also given us Miley Cyrus, whose alternately hysterical/sentimental Hannah Montana headed up a brand that would've made Sinatra blanch in envy, and Walt Disney label Hollywood has seen to it that her musical legacy is firmly in place. Her network colleague Selena Gomez graduated from Barney to The Wizards of Waverly Place and her own band-of-sorts, Selena Gomez & The Scene.
After contributing to various Disney efforts she signed to Hollywood as well, went gold and platinum, and now oversees an empire that also includes a clothing line and film projects. Demi Lovato also left Barney behind, and now heads up Sonny With a Chance. Her second album, 2009's Here We Go Again debuted at #1 on Billboard's Hot 200. She appeared in 2008's Camp Rock, which leads us to another smash sensation - The Jonas Brothers.
Nick Jonas began performing at 7, so it's not surprising that the sibs' hegemony is so strong now. Over a four-record career they've built a staggering fan base, and achieved ready renown with their 2008 nomination for Best New Artist at the 51st Grammys, and winning of the Breakthrough Artist Award at the Peoples' Choice Awards. (I absolutely give them credit for their work with diabetes and such groups as the "Change for Children" foundation, but that still doesn't make me a fan).
Sisters Alyson and Amanda Michalka leapt to prominence as Aly and A.J., (currently performing as 78Violet), and their merchandising empire concludes our tour of the Disney date.
Although it's never had the muscle of Disney, Nick - descendent of the cable veteran Nickelodeon - has served up several young warblers.
Drake Bell rose handily from Drake and Josh to release a series of records and burnish his profile accordingly. Miranda Cosgrove (another D&J vet and toothy star of iCarly) dutifully cranked out a soundtrack to her show, on the Columbia-affiliated Nickelodeon label, before issuing a proper debut, 2010's Sparks Fly. Then there's her duet with Big Time Rush, "All I Want for Christmas is You." As far as Big Time Rush, is concerned, they're four guys who were cast in a show and then had a music framework built up around the show. Their debut, B.T.R., was released on Nick/Columbia as a precursor to a major tour.
Such simplification is nothing new. Few things dumbed down music more than the ascendance of the first immortal wave of boy bands. New Kids on the Block, 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, O-Town, and 98 Degrees preened and thrust their collective way toward instant stardom, as did their "urban" counterparts in Boyz II Men, All 4 One and New Edition. In 1999 Dream Street represented this undying well of material, and launched the career of Jesse McCartney (a huge Disney content-provider). After MTV, perhaps there was/is no turning back.

Television's launching pad aside, the rise of stuffed toy Justin Bieber (whose dicovery on YouTube led to multiplatinum success) is perfectly of a piece with the new game, but there are other youngsters amassing a pile by storming the gates. Avril Lavigne perfectly embodies the cynical latter-day ATM that styles itself "pop-punk," while the pleasingly robotic Taylor Swift has bleached "country" of every trace of substance and created a lucrative, purring replacement sound that neither threatens nor comforts.
The road to exposure, let alone stardom, once led through a church choir, or a streetcorner, and often thankless toil in clubs and dives. Now it's not just music by corporate design, it's music (and fame) by instantaneous decree, as displayed on hideous circuses like American Idol and America's Got Talent (although these affronts are a column unto themselves).

Again, you can't lay this at the door of a huge, lumbering record label, as the traditional record label is a thing of the past. This is something larger - this is domination at every level of the game.
MTV got us a long way toward where we are, but the rise of the Internet finished the trip.

We're now in its moment, with handheld toys that can send and receive, "like" and Tweet any little pop-chick or boy band anywhere on Earth, any time. Today's target audience, when it's not squealing in tandem, is alone in its own psychic biosphere, texting twee pronouncements on the flashing spectacle on their tiny glowing screens. It's disposable wonder.

At least a 45 was something you could hold in your hands.

So there we have it.
And as my rebbe Bob Dylan once put it, "He not busy bein' born is busy dyin'."


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