Prolific isn’t the same as great, but for a soul singer, it’s very difficult to achieve the latter without some of the former. More work makes it harder for history to forget you, and less likely for a valuable release to be considered an aberration.
Consider the “classic” singers of soul and funk. The Motown crew knew the importance of ubiquity: Marvin Gaye put out five studio albums, a movie soundtrack, and a collaboration with Diana Ross in the ‘70s; Stevie Wonder did eight records in that decade (two were double albums), and Diana Ross’s total exceeded Wonder’s. After breaking into the big time in 1967, Aretha Franklin released more than an album a year through the ‘70s. Al Green had 11 secular LPs from 1970 to 1977. James Brown and George Clinton put out albums like they were going out of style—long before they did, in fact, go out of style. Clinton needed more than one band so people didn’t get tired of his name.
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German police are considering creating software that would allow them to identify right-wing music being played online or in public.
"The new software would let police quickly identify neo-Nazi rock music, which officials regard as a ‘gateway drug’ into the far-right youth scene," Der Spiegel reports. “The regional police office in the eastern state of Saxony has developed a prototype system of registering audio fingerprints from neo-Nazi rock.”
Germany has a regulatory infrastructure for dealing with media that it deems harmful to youth. The Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors can place restrictions on music, making it harder for people under 18 to get access to it.
Read more. [Image: Shotspotter]
In her 2004 music video for “My Prerogative,” Britney Spears issued this warning before crashing her speeding sports car into a fancy pool: “People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth. The question is: Can you handle mine?” In 2013, on the eve of her eighth studio album, Britney Jean, the question is more like this: Do people even want her truth in the first place?
It’s worth asking: For 15 years, Spears—a former Atlantic cover star—has been one of the country’s (and the world’s) most influential and reliable vessels for fun, flirty dance music. Spears’s albums have also traditionally offered some commentary, meta or otherwise, about her life and career, and those PR-polished messages—and how they’re sold to mass audiences—reveal much about music fans’ relationship with celebrity. In the run-up to the album, due Tuesday and now streaming on iTunes, Spears and her team promised that Britney Jean would be her “most personal album ever.” It looked like they meant it: In interviews, Spears said the songs were the equivalent of therapy following her breakup with fiancé Jason Trawick in January, and she’s listed as a co-writer on every song.
Read more. [Image: AP/Al Powers]
When she’s not singing about being the other woman, Swedish electro-pop singer Robyn likes to sing about robots. On “The Girl and the Robot,” she tells the tale of a workaholic lover who leaves her feeling desperate and alone. On “Fembot,” a song about turning 30 and pondering having children, she opens with the declaration, “I’ve got some news for you / fembots have feelings too.”
Inspired by Robyn’s fascination with the non-human, a group of mechatronics students at Sweden’s KTH Institute of Royal Technology have spent much of the past year building a robot dedicated to her (and her furious, fist-swinging dance moves). Robyn finally met up with their creation, and while the video of her reaction is as adorable as Björk explaining television, it’s also—like Björk’s explanation—a little deep.
Above, there’s a shortened form from a new classical work, the improbably if appropriately named Hubble Cantata by Paola Prestini. The piece, which played on Saturday at the Brookyln Academy of Music’s celebration of “contemporary art song,” celebrates the beauty of the space telescope’s imagery. It was created by four specialists: a composer, a librettist, a filmmaker, and an astrophysicist.
With each passing year since the advent of CDs and mp3s, artists have turned up the volume. Digital recording now allows sound to be louder overall without introducing audible background static and tape hiss, so audio engineers often elevate the volume of a song to the recordable limit through a handful of brute-force methods—dynamic range compression, limiting, brickwall limiting, and clipping—that sacrifice quality and fidelity for loudness.
This escalation over time has come to be known as the “loudness wars.” Most audiophiles hate it. Numerous petitions and online campaigns have pleaded for artists and engineers to avoid techniques that destroy the dynamic range of sound, saying it denudes music of its impact and emotion. When everything is loud, nothing is loud, the argument goes, and the results exhaust and agitate listeners. Bob Dylan referred to it as the dissolution of music into static.
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If you’ve ever gone on iTunes or Spotify and searched for a particular pop song—let’s say Katy Perry’s grandma-friendly “Roar”—you’re likely familiar with the experience of finding both the original song and more than 100 imitations of it, none of which are actually performed by Katy Perry.
Often, a few of these “Roar” copycats will sound like old MIDI cell-phone ringtones; other clones, meanwhile, resemble laborious studio productions. Many are “karaoke editions”—instrumental covers, sometimes with limited background vocals—while some are near-identical renditions belted by nameless vocalists. So where do all these off-brand versions come from?
Well, at least one of them likely belongs to Rick Vogt, who, along with his brother, Doug, has run the Ohio-based Karaoke Warehouse for more than 20 years. The Vogts rent out and sell equipment, produce CDs of karaoke versions for aspiring American idols, and in recent years, as digital music sales have risen, they’ve been releasing those covers online.
Karaoke in public usually takes place in a bar full of strangers, or in a small, dark, rented room where only your friends can hear you belt out Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” But in the era of iTunes and YouTube, plugged-in creative types have found new uses for living-room karaoke tracks, which means entrepreneurs like the Vogts have spotted an opportunity—especially as getting licenses to sell such covers is easier than ever. “Last summer it was ‘Call Me Maybe,’ this summer it was ‘Blurred Lines,’ and next summer it’s gonna be something else,” Vogt says. “As long as the song is popular, there’s a really good chance that someone will want to sing it.”
1623, 2754, and 3622. These are how many murders took place in Juárez, Mexico, in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
18, 13, and 5. These are how many murders took place in neighboring El Paso, an American city within walking distance of Juárez, during the same years.
This is what viewers learn during the first ten minutes of Narco Cultura, a documentary by Shaul Schwarz about the effects of drug trafficking on Mexico’s northern border. And then the scene cuts to a band playing what sounds like polka music. Singers decked out in Polo shirts and aviators carry AK-47s, belting out lines like:
Sending reinforcements to decapitate
El Macho leads wearing a bullet-proof vest
Bazooka in hand with experience
Death is within
If you don’t understand the Spanish lyrics, the music sounds like it could be playing at a bar mitzvah or your grandma’s 80th birthday party.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
Photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has worked in war zones across the world, but those experiences did not prepare him for the unsettling task of documenting the Mexican drug war. “In a conflict zone you usually end up being embedded within one of the sides and you feel fairly trusting of something at least,” he says. “In Mexico it’s really hard to cover anything. You never know who or where the narcos are, but at the same time, you assume they are everywhere.”
For the last several years, Schwarz has photographed and filmed in Juarez, although cautiously, visiting over 20 times but never staying for more than a week at a time. The result is the documentary Narco Cultura, which looks at the city’s pervasive violence and one of its cultural outgrowths: a new musical subculture called narcocorrido. Hugely popular among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the genre celebrates traffickers as outlaw heros. Bands like Buknas de Culiacan, featured in the excerpt above, dress as kingpins, use bazookas as stage props, and sing about torture and bloodshed.
The music’s popularity signals how deeply the drug war is rooted in the cultural psyche on both sides of the border. As El Diario journalist Sandra Rodriguez explains in the clip, “For me it’s like a symptom of how defeated we are as a society. The kids want to look like narcos … because they represent an idea of success and power and impunity. And limitless power. If you can kill a person, that is limitless power.”
Narco Cultura premieres in theaters November 22, and The Atlantic will host a screening and conversation with the director on November 19. Schwarz answered a few questions in advance of the premiere.
One of the defining characteristics of modern country music is its distinctly American way of acknowledging of class and place. Country singers have long embraced their working-class roots and expressed pride in the battles they fight to make rent; the genre’s everyday Joes and Janes are proud to be everyday, or maybe even a little trashy, as evidenced in older songs such as Confederate Railroad’s “Trashy Women,” and Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places” as well as more recent songs such as Trace Adkins’s “Ladies Love Country Boys,” Blake Shelton’s “Hillbilly Bone,” and Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.”
As someone from a rural area, albeit a more-than- one-stoplight town, I can see why it’s liberating to let go of the typical American pressure to try and “move up” in society. Country music has catered to that urge for a long time. But recently, a few female country singers have stepped away from this point of view, portraying small-town narratives in a more melancholy light. Instead of endorsing the country lifestyle, these artists question small-town living, the value of tradition, and the virtue in staying in one’s place. Instead of leaving life unexamined and being happy to be to do so, Kacey Musgraves’s “Merry Go ’Round” and Brandy Clark’s “Pray to Jesus” ask why people continue down the same road as their parents did. And as encouraging as many of the rebellious “embrace-hick-culture” songs were, these new songs feel more appropriate for the time we’re living in.
Read more. [Image: AP/Wade Payne and Evan Agostini]