Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Who's the "Wrecking Ball"? Miley Cyrus In the Now

            With all of the media hoopla following Miley Cyrus lately, she seems inescapable. For a week after her controversial VMA performance, CNN’s home page ran multiple headlines about her. One can’t sign onto facebook without seeing people both praise and complain about her. That was the context in which I first heard her music, after reading an article discussing the double standard that women are judged more harshly than men in pop music. I, too, had noticed she seemed to be getting all the blame, and although at that point, two days after her performance, I didn’t even know she had performed with Robin Thicke, I imagined that there was a deeper story there that wasn’t being told. Cyrus herself astutely pointed this out afterward, noting that “It was a lot of ‘Miley twerks on Robin Thicke,’ but never ‘Robin Thicke grinds up on Miley,’ …. So obviously there’s a double-standard” (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”). Lots of people focused their VMA commentary on Cyrus’s dancing and costume without giving much consideration to the song itself. 
In “We Can’t Stop,” the first single off of Cyrus’s forth-coming album Bangerz, most people hear a party anthem, a grown-up version of Cyrus’s teeny-bopper hit “Party In the U.S.A.,” but I hear it as a call for help, a gasping sigh of desperation. I hear the fear that she can’t stop, that she is unable to stop.
            The song suggests drug addiction. One lyric is “dancing with molly,” a street name for the drug extasy (sic). Referring to the drug as “molly,” a girl’s name, personifies it, makes it so she has a relationship, a friendship even with the drug. Later she sings about being in line for the bathroom as she’s “tryin’ to get a line in the bathroom.” This could refer to a line of cocaine. The video shows her pretending to cut off her fingers with a kitchen knife, only to have her bleed out pepto-bismol, which might make one think of vomiting due to a drug overdose. The video also shows her in pools and bathtubs (“We Can’t Stop”).  Seeing her writhe around the bathtub or jump into a swimming pool, the dim, faraway look in her eyes masked by sunglasses, I find it impossible not to think of Whitney Houston, who drowned in just inches of bath water earlier this year. Her obituary showed cocaine in her system.
            In interviews, though, Cyrus often seems to have her head on her shoulders. She seems to be in control of her image and how people see her. She recognizes that “it’s an important time not to Google [herself]” (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”). She wants to study photography in college, but worries that she would not be allowed to have the life of a normal college student (“Miley Cyrus on Weed”). Her biggest role model is Dolly Parton (“Miley Cyrus on Weed”). She is aware of her theatrics – when she cried in “Wrecking Ball” she notes that it wasn’t because the song was so emotional, though she wants listeners to tear up, but that she produced the tears by thinking of her dog who had just died (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”). These things all make her seem stable and self-aware.
            Perhaps most surprising are the incisive comments she gives on America’s love-hate relationship with offensive media, comments that make sense and keep her performance within the bounds of what she finds appropriate. Cyrus notes that:
                        America is just so weird in what they think is right and wrong. Like I was
watching Breaking Bad the other day, and they were cooking meth. I could
literally cook meth because of that show. It’s a how to. And then they bleeped out 'fuck.' And I’m like, really? They killed a guy, and disintegrated his body in acid, but you’re not allowed to say 'fuck'? It’s like when they bleeped ‘molly’ at the VMAs. Look what I’m doing up here right now, and you’re going to bleep out ‘molly’? Whatever. (“Miley Cyrus: Confessions”)
The adolescent shrug-off of “whatever” seems a bit immature, but Cyrus is right about the hypocrisy. If the censors have problems with foul language, why don’t they have a problem with extreme violence? Why can they show drug use on TV, but can’t even mention it during a song? She really seems to hit the nail on the head when she questions why the censors didn’t cut off her performance if they were really interested in protecting the audience. In Cyrus’s eyes, it is the network’s censors’ job to make sure that what the airwaves transmit is appropriate for its audience, and she sees them as failing. Elsewhere in “Confessions of Pop’s Wildest Child,” Cyrus discusses how she actually toned down her original idea for the performance to avoid censors, knowing what they considered over the line. This suggests that she was fully aware of the risqué nature of her performance, but also knew that it could go a little over the line and stay on the air if the network thought people would tune in to see her.
            This isn’t Cyrus’s first experience with hypocritical censors. She has courted controversy with media portrayal of her sexuality since she was fifteen In April 2008, her email was hacked and pictures of her in her underwear, which she had emailed to then-boyfriend Nick Jonas, appeared on several internet sites. It would be appropriate for someone to sit down and talk with her about how creating such digital images can come back to haunt you and about being confident in yourself rather than just your looks (and probably for someone to sit down and have a chat with Nick Jonas too), but I felt bad for how the media raked her through the mud. Because she is a public figure, she became a target for people to dig through her personal life and make it public. The media criticized her for even taking the pictures, but no one was attempting to get them removed from the internet sites they showed up on. When the boy who hacked her account was arrested, he was not charged for taking the images and posting them, but only for stealing credit card information. In that case, the media’s double agenda of seeming morally chaste while pedaling sexualized images of women contributed not to any calls for heightened protection of the web, but to many people criticizing Cyrus for doing what many other girls have done and not faced the same public shaming for. (Zetter)
Zombie Apocalypse or auditioning for Les Mis?
            Later that month, it was reported that Cyrus had been photographed topless for Vanity Fair by photographer Annie Leibowitz, who is widely recognized for taking artistic photos of celebrities, particularly musical artists.  Cyrus issued a public apology for the photo, which showed her draped in only a sheet, but she didn’t attempt to keep the magazine from running it nor did she criticize them afterward. When it finally came out, what was perhaps most shocking about the photo was how pale and emaciated she looked. Her mother appeared in the photos with her and, looking more like a mal-nourished zombie than a lithe teenager, it was hard to argue that the magazine was unfairly sexualizing her. Still, Cyrus’s public apology fanned the flames ignited by rumors she has posed topless, and those rumors did sexualize her and only for the purpose of more publicity, not because she had some grand statement to make. Cyrus later noted that her appeal increased because of the scandal. When that happened, it was harder to feel bad about her being misrepresented by the media because she chose to participate in the controversy. The drive for publicity seemed to be her biggest motivating factor. (Singh)
            Two years later, when Cyrus released her Can’t Be Tamed album, her participation in the media’s attempt to sexualize her became even more obvious. The album cover looked more like a fashion ad than an album cover. The clothes, pose and even the font looked more like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad than like something promoting music. This was Cyrus’s more adult attempt to break away from her tween audience. While the songs may attempt to be more grown-up, the overall sound was still aimed at teenagers, the group who had grown up listening to her. She was still aware of whom her audience was, but she didn’t think about what effect she had on them.
Look at me. I'm so cool that maybe I can get promoted from Biker Monthly to the American Eagle catalog!
            Now, older, Cyrus does seem more self-aware. She knows when she steps over lines, but she naively assumes that, just because she is now trying to make music aimed at a more adult audience, the media is going to treat her like a grown-up primarily interested in reaching an adult audience. Maybe now she is aware that many in the media were not prepared for her transformation. More importantly, while 20-year-olds know she has changed, their parents were less likely to follow her career, and more likely to plop their younger kids in front of the VMAs expecting wholesome, Hannah-Montana style family entertainment. Miley still seems rather oblivious to the fact that the audience that is going to seek her out may well be younger than the audience she is aiming her work at. “I forget that it’s, like, people in Kansas watching the show. That people sit their kid in front of the TV and are like, ‘Oh, an awards show! Let’s watch’,” she told Rolling Stone (“Miley Cyrus on Weed”). While she seems mature enough to recognize her music may be problematic, and may send dangerous messages, she doesn’t make any attempt to control those messages, and that is the real problem. She can snort cocaine if she wants to, but she doesn’t need to be making it sound like a fun idea for everyone else.
Ultimately, the question that has to be answered is, would I want to sit down to dinner with Miley Cyrus, and the answer is not at this point. She’s said a few smart things, but she’s still not mature enough. Given a few years, maybe she’ll continue to grow up and become interesting as she finds ways to comment on the media’s hypocrisy without taking advantage of it simply for free publicity.
Works Cited
Eells, Josh. “Miley Cyrus: Confessions of Pop’s Wildest Child.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone. 24
Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
---. “Miley Cyrus on Why She Loves Weed, Went Wild at the VMAs, and Much More.”
Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone. 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Singh, Anita. “Hanna Montana star Miley Cyrus: Vanity Fair photo scandal made fans relate to
            me.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. 27 June 2008. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
“We Can’t Stop.” Dir. Diane Martel. YouTube. Sony Music Entertainment. 19 June 2013. Web. 1
            Oct. 2013.
Williams, Mike, et al. “We Can’t Stop.” Bangerz. Perf. Miley Cyrus. RCA, 2013. MP3.
Zetter, Kim. “Purported Miley Cyrus Hacker Pleads Guilty to Spamming From Hacked Celebrity
            Accounts.” Wired. Conde Nast. 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.

Saturday, December 31, 2011


This is the time of year I am blessed with a little time to read, so I've been plowing through Greil Marcus's Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010 and a bit of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I'm about to start John Hodgman's That Is All. While reading each of those things, two passages in particular caught my eye.

With Marcus, the early stuff is really hit or miss, but starting in the 90s everything is magical. He elucidates late Dylan as well as anyone, and he has the strongest handle on Harry Smith that I know of, which is his true strength. The part of the book that really stuck out for me, though, was from a book review of a memoir by the Clash's least important member, Vince White. Marcus quotes the following passage from White:

"...a bus wasn't a bus. It was an obscene red metal object that moved down the street carrying blank faces that had come from nowhere and were going absolutely nowhere."

Of course, he's talking about buses -- literal buses. What he insists on, though, is that the bus, no matter how real it is, is really just a sign, and it signifies all sorts of things -- nostalgia, pollution, and a whole bag of other shit, but mostly social stratification. What this passage reminds me of is perhaps Ezra Pound's most famous poem, "In A Station of the Metro":

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet black bough.

The faces, moving so fast though the subway station, have features he can't make out in the dim light. They become, then, less-than-human once robbed of their individual identity. They are anonymous, with nothing to differentiate one from the other. Their life is that of the drone. White, most likely unintentionally, just gave the best interpretation of Pound that I've ever read.

The other bit I noticed when reading was in Whitman's "Song of Myself," section 20. Whitman has a greaty line that says "I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones." This is very similar in diction and content, and somewhat similar in syntax, to the like "I'm looking for that sweet fat that sticks to your ribs" in Dylan's "Cry Awhile" on "Love and Theft."

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Christmas In the Heart

Christmas In the Heart (2009)

When the news hit the street that Dylan would be releasing a Christmas album, most people thought it would be a joke. There were all sorts of rumors, including a rumor that persisted a little while afterwards that Dylan had actually written an album of Christmas originals but shelved them after not liking how they turned out. Despite people’s misgivings, and judging from online message boards many Dylan fans refuse to even listen to this album, sales went well. This topped the Christmas chart for several week. That is good, as all proceeds in perpetuity go to Feed America, Crisis UK, or the World Food Programme, depending on which country it is bought in. Also, the music is great. Dylan looks back to the golden age of Christmas music for inspiration, taking his lead from the original recordings of many of the iconic Christmas songs of the 40s and 50s, such as Dean Martin’s “Christmas Blues,” the Andrews Sisters’ “Christmas Island,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” on which he shuns “hang a star upon the highest bough” for the original “we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” He balances these with traditional carols like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Adeste Fidelis” (which he sings in Latin), and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.”

In many ways, Dylan’s singing is better on this album than it has been in years, but I suspect that may be because the melodies to these songs are so deeply ingrained. Also, the musicianship is superb. David Hidalgo is back again, and joined this time by R&B guitarist Phil Upchurch, who has worked with jazz cats like Cannonball Adderly and Dizzy Gillespie, funk legends like Curtis Mayfield and Michael Jackson, to blues people like B. B. King and John Lee Hooker and doo-wop groups like The Dells and The Spaniels. All in all, a fine performance. The heavenly-sounding chorale is composed of a mix of singers, and includes the Ditty Bops, a great, underrated feminist folk-pop duo.

Best song: Here Comes Santa Claus – This was originally a Gene Autry song, and the steel guitar on Dylan’s version gives flourishes of the singing cowboy. What makes this song work, though, is what Dylan does right before the song ends. The last verse includes the lines “Peace on earth will come to all / if we just follow the light. / Let’s give thanks to the Lord above / cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” The last two lines are repeated thrice at the end of the song. The chorus sings the first line and then Dylan responds with the second, and adds a biting, sardonic tone to each word. The first three lines are about God, about the spirit of giving and about love. The last line is about greed and self-centeredness. By emphasizing these last two lines, the notion that we should thank Jesus for a bounty of gifts we truly buy ourselves, Dylan mocks them. The trade-off of vocals emphasizes this in two ways. First of all, there is the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness. The chorus epitomizes commonly held notions of what defines beautiful singing. Perfect pitch, perfect harmonies – they can’t be beat. Dylan’s ragged growl, even on songs where he tries to turn it into a sweet croon, does not. This suggests that the first line, belief in Jesus, is a beautiful thing, and that the second, the commercialization of Christmas, is ugly, and Dylan’s voice, which becomes particularly hard-edged on these last lines, seems to bear out this suggestion. The other dichotomy emphasized here is that between construction and reality. The chorus is constructed. Even if they are not edited with some sort of software or studio trickery, they have been selected to create this ideal meld, and certainly take after take has been taken to get the exact sound desired. Dylan, on the other hand, is raw and ragged; he hasn’t been modified, or at least if he has he does not sound it. The artificiality associated with the sound of the chorus suggests that, at least in society, the message of Jesus rings hollow. Those who proselytize it don’t live it. Instead, the focus is placed on people’s very real desire for material objects, an obsession which is represented by Santa. The end result is that people in general tend to value the hollow as beautiful while their true desires are ugly. The ugliness of these desires, and the attraction to the hollowness, undermines the song’s upbeat demeanor. I don’t think Dylan is out to denigrate the song or the holiday, but I do feel as though the song, at least in my experience with it, sets up this powerful tension that suggests our own consumption is killing our faith by degrees.

Worst song: The First Noel – Around 2:09 the voice just falls apart. Dylan doesn’t have much to begin with nowadays, and too many Christmas songs have a range that just doesn’t work for him.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Together Through Life

Together Through Life (2009)

Oliver Dahan, who directed the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, which Dylan is purportedly a fan of, asked Dylan to write the score for My Own Love Song, a roadtrip drama with Renee Zellweger and Lawrence Fishburne. Dylan wrote up a song called “Life Is Hard” and, en route to recording it, met up with Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, who he enlisted for help to write the lyrics to the rest of the tracks. Dylan and Hunter had previously worked together for two songs on Down In the Groove. When they left the studios, not only had Dylan recorded two or three songs with vocals for the film, as well as several instrumental tracks, but also recorded a whole album of new material, almost all of it co-written with Hunter.

Together Through Life is alright if you don’t take it too seriously, and don’t expect anything too heady. After the last several Dylan albums, which were filled with deep meditation, this mostly breezy jaunt is only meant to be fun. It isn’t meant to be shallow I don’t think, though it is, but once you accept that you can find some things to like. “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” was one of two songs previewed before the album’s release, and from the title people expected a comment on the state of the nation, and much has been made of lines about walking with the priest and “the fourth part of the day” already being gone. This is the deepest song on the album probably, but I think its just a love song, and one with a nice feel to it. “If You Ever Go To Houston” is a fine extension of “Wanted Man,” a song Dylan wrote for Johnny Cash and never recorded himself. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” includes the most effective use of horns in a Dylan song and “Forgetful Heart” is richly ominous, even if it leaves you wanting for more. Also, the playing is fine throughout, featuring David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos) on accordion and Mike Campbell (of the Heartbreakers) on guitar.

Best song: Shake, Shake Mama – Based on a Mance Lipscomb song of the same name, Dylan took the verse about Judge Simpson out of Canterbury Tales. In addition to the tightest groove in any Dylan 12-bar blues, this song also features several hilarious blues couplets.

Worst song: Life Is Hard – The lyric is nearly just a list of clichés, the melody is tired, and Dylan shouldn’t even be attempting to hit those high notes.

Live version: Forgetful Heart – On the record, you can imagine this song working well life, and it does. The record has a more pronounced presence of the bass, while the live version makes more use of the violin, courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, previously of BR-549.

Rhymes: this/exist (“My Wife’s Hometown”); forevermore/door (“Forgetful Heart”); spark/dark (“Jolene”); stuff/rough (“Shake, Shake Mama”); east/priest; James Joyce/voice (“I Feel A Change Comin’ On”)

Images: “boulevards of broken cars” (“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”); “your gun-belt tight;” “a restless fever burnin’ in my brain” (“If You Ever Go To Houston”); “a curtained gloom” (“This Dream of You”); “cop cars blinking” (“It’s All Good”)

Axioms: “hell’s my wife’s hometown” (“My Wife’s Hometown”); “if you want to live easy, baby pack your clothes with mine;” “dreams never did work for me anyway, even when they did come true;” “I got the blood of the land in my voice” (“I Feel a Change Comin’ On”); “a teacup of water is enough to drown” (“It’s All Good”)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Modern Times

Modern Times (2006)

In the grand cultural quilt that makes up “Love and Theft,” Dylan had several favorite sources he drew from – Shakespeare, Mark Twain, the canon of corny jokes and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza probably produced at least three dozen lines for the album when added together. Dylan used a similar technique on Modern Times, and again had favorite sources – the works of poet laureate of the Confederacy Henry Timrod and the letters of Henry Rollins among them. The Bible was also more used on Modern Times than on “Love and Theft. The difference mostly lies in the extent to which he uses pastiche.

The best songs on this album, which takes its name from a Charlie Chaplin film, are better than anything on “Love and Theft,” but the album as a whole isn’t. The most interesting songs are the three slower songs on the last half of the album – “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Nettie Moore” and “Ain’t Talkin’.” These songs take cultural reference points – a Merle Haggard song, an old folk tune, and a conflation of the Garden of Eden with Revelation – and do something new with them. The melodies seem to be original. Some of the other interesting songs use Biblical allusion to great effect. “Thunder On the Mountain” is named for the passage where Moses is given the law, and several allusions to Exodus appear in this song, but so does Alicia Keys, and the whole thing is plastered against a great rockabilly beat. I’m also fond of “Spirit On the Water.” The melody sounds stolen, but I can’t say from where. It opens by describing the spirit as “the darkness on the face of the deep,” which also opens Genesis. It is a love song to this spirit, but a strained love song, and the spirit is God. The speaker in the song is Cain (“I can’t go back to paradise no more; I killed a man back there.”). This opens up several possibilities.

There are a couple songs based on other songs that manage to be at least a bit original, and then there are the three irredeemable sins of the album – “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Someday Baby,” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” Dylan stole these songs from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes and Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie. Dylan copied these songs musically – often to the keys, the arrangements, and even the solos – and his band performs them wonderfully, but they aren’t his (even though he is listed as author). A few lyrics are changed here and there – especially in “Someday Baby” (though the lyrics in the refrain remain the same) – but they are mostly the same as well. In “Love and Theft,” Dylan was also stealing melodies and song titles, but he was mixing them in interesting ways that were surprising and that created juxtaposition. He wasn’t writing, necessarily, but he was creating something new. In these songs he isn’t, and that is where this album’s weaknesses lie. I can go back and listen to my original recordings and be just as pleased, probably more so, than by listening to these covers that are soured by being called originals.

Best song: Nettie Moore – In the fantastic Bob Dylan In America, Sean Wilentz explains how this song work: Dylan is writing in couplets, pairing a line taken from an old American folk tune, then pairing it with a line of contemporary parlance. This means we get great lines like “Lost John sitting on a railroad track…. something’s out of whack.” The song’s title, and part of the refrain, is adapted by the antewar social song “Gentle Nettie Moore.” The rest follows along in the pattern Wilentz describes, and to great effect.

Worst song: Someday Baby – I actually dislike “When the Levee’s Gonna Break” a bit more, but this song pales in comparison to what it could have been. I think Dylan realizes that, which is probably why it is the only song from Modern Times he has yet to play live. Still, the song has proven popular despite my misgivings. Based on its appearance in an iTunes commercial, the song briefly climbed to #95 on the Hot 100 Singles, Dylan’s first appearance on that chart since 1985.

Best outtake: Someday Baby – This outtake was one of the great revelations on Tell Tale Signs, the anthology of 1989-2006 odds’n’ends that Columbia put out in 2008. It is a unique melody, almost certainly Dylan’s, and has many different lyrics that are superior to what ended up on the album. If Dylan had released this and done similar things with the album’s other copied songs, it would have been a much stronger album indeed.

Live Version: Thunder On the Mountain – Dylan was right to give this song to rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. It is a great party tune that is rollicking and unruly with a tight groove. It is an easy crowd please with the crunchy guitars, which probably explains why it has been the most performed, and best performed, song from Modern Times.

Rhymes: bitches/orphanages (“Thunder On the Mountain”); horse/forced; dime/crime; clung/tongue (2-4 from “Workingman’s Blues #2”); berserk/paperwork (“Nettie Moore”)

Images: “I’m sweating blood” (“Spirit On the Water”); “got my mind tied up in knots” (“Someday Baby”); “a greasy trail” (“Nettie Moore”); “the wounded flowers were dangling from the vine” “a toothache in my heel” (4-5 from “Ain’t Talkin’”)

Axioms: “I’m gonna raise me an army of some tough sons of bitches; I’m recruitin’ my army from the orphanages;” “I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows” (“Thunder On the Mountain”); “the buying power of the proletariat’s gone down” (“Workingman’s Blues #2”); “something’s out of whack;” “they say whiskey’ll kill you, but I don’t think it will” (“Nettie Moore”); “I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned” (“Ain’t Talkin’”)