Category: Ann Powers

Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way' video: Making goddess culture accessible


Lady Gaga
has every right -- and, you could even argue, a responsibility -- to fashion her own creation myth. The civil rights activism that serves as both gimmick and moral center in her art resonates more strongly if it’s backed by real political involvement; but since she’s an artist, after all, sometimes symbolic shows of solidarity are enough.

Her new video for “Born This Way” is one such declaration of alliance. Though it’s freaky enough to convince the casual viewer that it’s totally original, the Nick Knight-directed clip simply updates radical feminist lore for the cyber-prosthetic age. In doing so, Gaga gives a slimy new sheen to the Second Wave catchphrase “goddesses in every woman.” Yet for all of the intensity of the scenes where Gaga updates the feminist practice of myth-remaking to make room for both sci-fi surrealism and machine goods, the video ultimately fails its own message -- and all for the glory of a bikini.

While some have rejected the song “Born This Way” as a straight woman’s misguided attempt to claim queerness as her own, its instant cultural omnipresence proves that many fans accept and even revel in Gaga’s symbolic volunteer leadership.  (For great queer analysis of Gaga’s work, I highly recommend the writing that J. Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o have been doing on the Bully Bloggers website.)

Related: Ladies and queens, Gaga gives you "Born This Way."

“Born This Way” is the culmination of Gaga's informal campaign. Its housey beats and diva wails strut through the history of LGBT clubland, and the lyrics make explicit the elements of liberation more subtly driving Gaga’s earlier work: the self-determination in “Poker Face,” the determination to survive depicted in the video for “Paparazzi”;  the victimization recast as empowerment in “Bad Romance”; the celebration of sensuality as a route to innocence in “Alejandro.” In one disco-fabulous fell swoop, “Born This Way” completes Gaga’s metamorphosis from dance floor-damaged freak baby to doyenne of the disenfranchised. She is post-gender,  hear her roar.

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Snap Judgment: Radiohead's 'The King of Limbs' [Updated]


Kingoflimbs Thom Yorke jerks around in the video for "Lotus Flower," the first single from Radiohead's just-released eighth studio album, "The King of Limbs," like someone only just discovering that the body's job is to move. In the clip, choreographed by the British kinesthesis expert Wayne McGregor, Yorke shakes, wobbles and nearly drools to the song's needling dance beat, sometimes elegantly loosening up, only to shake back into awkwardness.

The singer's moves and his bowler hat recall the physical comedians of the silent film era, when onscreen human motion still seemed artificial, almost surreal. It's a typical Radiohead moment in some ways, a visceral expression of the struggle to stay fully human in a world that's been both enhanced and corrupted by technology. Yet it's new, too, mostly because of the music behind Yorke, and specifically the sound coming out of him: his falsetto has never sounded this relaxed before as he sings about the release of dancing, the joy of releasing energy, "just to see what gives." In some dark imagined disco, this song is getting people on the floor. Radiohead, it seems, has become a dance band.

Well, not entirely. "The King of Limbs," which was abruptly made available for download via the band's website Friday, can be heard from several different angles. Fans and critics have already been registering wildly divergent reactions: Some think it's one of the band's best efforts; others find it too low-key or similar to previous work; a few consider it awfully doomy, and a few others wish it were less abstract. The stature and skill of this band allows for so many interpretations that even a decisively unpretentious work like this one sends listeners wide to find its headwaters.

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The Civil Wars: Marching into the unknown


When John Paul White and Joy Williams perform one of the gentle, yearning songs they’ve recorded as the Civil Wars, they lean in toward each other, as if to get the weave of their harmonies just right. Williams might lift a hand to push back a strand of White’s shoulder-length hair. Their musical connection is seriously joyful; it carries them out of themselves and into a space that glows.

White and Williams are a couple onstage only; in conversation, they’re more like teasing siblings than sweethearts, giving each other witty little verbal pinches as they discuss their mounting success. "Barton Hollow," the duo’s debut album on its own Sensibility Music label, has topped the iTunes charts for the last three weeks, and its physical release debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard Top 200.

An appearance on  "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and a coveted closing-montage spot on an episode of  "Grey’s Anatomy" have helped this unknown act vault to national attention. Yet no one, least of all the sparkly, serious Williams and the graceful, amiable White, expected the Civil Wars to start out this strong.

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Album review: PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake'


Most supernatural tales are marked by that moment when a double walks in — a longed-for loved one, usually, whose presence makes our terrified heroine relax for a beat, but then recoil in horror at this stranger in familiar skin. The doubles may be demons or revenants, or humans driven so utterly out of their minds that they can no longer recognize themselves. In the scariest instances, the double is the self: Natalie Portman facing the dance-studio mirror in “Black Swan,” watching her own face go dark and her limbs grotesquely twist.

Doubling deepens horror stories by forcing us to confront the ways we ourselves are cracked: the inching decay of every human body, the lunatic edge in every human mind. Rock-era pop music also taps into this force, though more triumphantly. Unleashing both the sexuality and the ugliness others repress, rock stars double themselves as heroes, not demons: human, but wilder and freer. Only occasionally does a rock artist make that uncanny transformation the very essence of her work, revealing its process, confronting its consequences.

Polly Jean Harvey is rock’s master polymorph. For 20 years she has pulled herself through the ectoplasmic core of whatever musical style currently fascinates her — blues, post-punk, gothic rock, Victorian piano ballads — to show us how music can reshape the person performing it. Her lyrics, too, often dwell on violent acts of self-uncovering. Imagining herself as a man, a mother, a gargoyle or a ghost, lining up those identities within the singing and other sounds that best fit them, Harvey has created a body of work that serves as a resonant hall of mirrors, where listeners can go to explore the way music, and life itself, dissembles and renews them.

Harvey’s eighth studio album, “Let England Shake,” transforms her and her music in a groundbreaking way. On this album, which explores how nationalism both binds us and blows us apart, Harvey becomes a “we.” Love of country is her subject; the muddy fields where nations baptize themselves in blood are, mostly, her settings. And the music, at its core, is patriotic folk — some the battle cries sung in pubs or as soldiers plod forward; others the sentimental ballads shared by those left behind to record loss and justify its cost.

“I wanted the music to have an energy and sense of being uplifting, of energizing, of unifying, of … gathering together as people,” Harvey recently told the English magazine NME. “I wanted it to be communal. So the melodies had to be something that were conducive to wanting to sing along with.… Many voices could sing these words.”

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Grammy Awards: Mississippi Night at the Grammy Museum: Fat cats and muffler guitars

"People have been talking this week about the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan," said Ward Emling, director of the Mississippi Development Authority's Office of Film and Culture, from the stage of the Clive Davis Theater in the Grammy Museum on Thursday night. "This also would have been the 100th birthday of Robert Johnson."

Directing the audience's thoughts toward the legacy of the great Delta bluesman, Emling defined the mission of the second annual Mississippi Night, part of the museum's festivities for Grammy week. As one of several officials in the room repping for the state that calls itself the birthplace of American music, Emling had an agenda: convince the VIPs in attendance that a trip to the Deep South can still unlock the deepest meanings of America's greatest art form.

Mississippi Night, which Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli confirmed will be an ongoing annual event, brings bright young talent from the Magnolia State to Los Angeles to promote tourism and music-industry investment in the region. This year, much talk was of the Misssissippi Blues Trail, a statewide path of interactive markers tracing the development of one of contemporary music's fundamental styles. A film offered testimony from Mississippi native B.B. King as well as stars such as Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt about the continued relevance of the Delta region.

The loudest case was made, however, by the trio of musical acts who provided the night's entertainment. Touching on deep blues, atmospheric folk-pop, and gritty, wide-reaching rock, these artists were anything but mired in the past.

The Homemade Jamz Blues Band is a remarkably young sibling trio that has been taking the international blues festival circuit by storm. Fronted by 18-year-old Ryan Perry, a gritty shouter with flashy guitar skills, the group demonstrated a hopped-up approach to classic blues. Perry's younger brother Kyle was a fleet-fingered secret weapon on bass, while sister Taya, only 12, thumped the drums like a little Meg White. Dad Renaud Perry provided support on harmonica as Ryan strutted through the crowd, his trademark muffler guitar lighting up as he leaned in toward the ladies and showed his prowess.

Shannon McNally was as laid-back and pensive as the Homemade Jamz Band was hot. The singer-songwriter, a New York native, relocated to northern Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina drove her from her chosen home of New Orleans, and she spoke with amusement about the process of assimilation, noting that the skinny street cats she'd adopted from the 9th Ward soon grew fat from eating the big bugs and other critters in the fields near her home in Holly Springs. McNally sang material from the albums she recorded with the late hill country great Jim Dickinson, as well as "Thunderhead," a vivid song about childbirth from her new album, Western Ballad. Her heartfelt rendition of "Miss the Mississippi and You," first made popular by the state's favorite country son Jimmie Rodgers, showed her soul-deep affinity for her new environment.

For Jimbo Mathus, that connection is a given -- raised in Clarksdale and still hugging the border between the north end of his home state and Tennessee, the Squirrel Nut Zippers founder turned solo raconteur has spent his whole life becoming, as he put it, "fluent in this strange tone."

Mathus, who is a ripping guitar player, regaled the crowd with tall tales and his fractured country blues, first solo and then with help from a local band that included Zippers drummer Chris Phillips. The rollicking, too-short set offered strong support for Mathus' pitch to this music-biz crowd -- which succinctly said what the Mississippi officials had taken much longer to communicate. "Put us to work in Mississippi and in Memphis, Tenn.," he said. "We're the best, and we work cheap!"

-- Ann Powers

Album reviews: Jessica Lea Mayfield's 'Tell Me' and Anna Waronker's 'California Fade'


Feminine reticence is a deeply embedded trait. Women songwriters in the rock era have used it strategically. Freedom is linked to noise, the earthy squalls of Janis and Aretha or the riot grrrls’ indignant hollering. Yet quieter voices can get to the heart of many predicaments women face, precisely because they embody those binds: the challenge of asserting oneself in a father-dominated family or a social guy zone; the persistent worry that raising your voice might mark you as overly needy, crass or just too big.

Two new releases from women sure of their quiet voices reflect that predicament. Jessica Lea Mayfield is only 21, but she’s been performing for years as part of a family bluegrass band, and “Tell Me” is her second solo album. Working with her producer, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Mayfield has developed a sound that’s coy and plain-spoken, a fascinating take on the demure female singer, especially as that role has unfolded within Mayfield’s chosen home base of Americana. Her cool connects her to Patsy Cline; her haunted side recalls Gillian Welch. She also has a bit of the shambolic indie rocker in her, sometimes even sounding like a female J. Mascis.

Mayfield’s slim soprano relies on a sly drawl that makes you wonder if she might be teasing you, and her lyrics are frank and poetic, the confessions of a young heart learning how to contain itself. “Where did my … self … control … go?” she breathes ever so carefully in “Run Myself Into the Ground,” as Auerbach’s mix of spacey electronics and vintage tremolo guitar form shadows behind her. Mayfield’s internal debate about whether self-control is something worth preserving is her most interesting subject, a deeply relevant counterpoint to the exhibitionistic tendencies of so many young performers.

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Oxford American magazine celebrates the Year of Alabama Music

Secret-Sisters1Like Narnia or some of Shakespeare's fantastical lands, Alabama is a place whose gateways and byroads are often not immediately visible. This is true of the landscape, whose thick forests give way to meandering prairies and watery deltas; and of the culture, which incorporates a deeply unsettling history and an equally powerful sense of defiant regional pride.

If you've never spent time in Bama, the state might come to mind only as the punchline in a redneck joke or the troubling moral of a fable about human dignity and civil rights. Otherwise, outsiders probably think of Southern cliches: college football, shack barbecue, music made exclusively on banjo-cluttered back porches or in smoky juke joints.

But let the stereotypes loosen their grip, and Alabama -- like any place you don't really know -- surprises. The first rocket to go to the moon was built in Huntsville. Gay Talese, the éminence grise of New Yorkish writerly urbanity, learned his craft as a University of Alabama student, writing sports columns about the Crimson Tide. The impoverished agricultural Black Belt is, startlingly, home to one of the nation's most innovative architectural training programs. And an organic farming movement is gaining steam around Birmingham.

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Album review: Bobby Long's 'A Winter Tale'

Bobby_long_240_ You’ve seen this guy before. Plaid shirt, acoustic guitar; bedhead forelock flopping over a smoldering eye. Bobby Long seems completely comfortable inhabiting the stereotype of the recondite singer-songwriter — he’s even fielded the “new Dylan” epithets thrown his way, admitting that he bought his signature Gibson J-200 after spotting ol’ Bob wielding one like Paul Bunyan’s ax on the cover of “Nashville Skyline.” How could a young artist this adherent to folk-rock clichés be any good?

Long, a 24-year-old English expat known until now mostly for his friendship with the undead rebel Robert Pattinson, achieves success through means as traditional as the framework he’s adopted. His swaggery growl goes tender in the right places; his tunes are sturdy but graceful, like the curve of something hand-carved.

With titles like “Penance Fire Blues” and “In the Frost,” his manly, slightly supernatural ballads tap into an epoch’s worth of old stories, yet his metaphors are original enough to keep the songs from feeling stale. Long sometimes gets a little lost in his own imagination, but it’s better to display a weakness for overreaching than the writerly laziness that afflicts many young bards.

Producer Liam Watson, known for helming the White Stripes’ “Elephant,” helps Long find a sound that’s redolent of many classic folk-rock recordings as well as contemporaries like Damien Rice and Mumford & Sons. To become a great songwriter, Long still needs to feel the shock of an encounter like the one Dylan felt confronting the African American civil rights movement. He’s obviously ready for that.

—Ann Powers

Bobby Long
“A Winter Tale”
Two and a half stars (Out of four)

Album review: John Vanderslice with the Magik Magik Orchestra's 'White Wilderness'

JOHN_VAN_240_ It’s never easy to be subtle within the context of popular music. The crowd doesn’t want it; give them flash and flesh and a sugar overdose. For singer-songwriters, flash equals confession or florid imagery: paperback poetry, easy to grasp. Trying something harder may prove unrewarding.

John Vanderslice, the singer-songwriter and producer whose San Francisco studio Tiny Telephone is an indie pop mecca, makes subtle music that can be a bit off-putting. He’s a minimalist, in the literary rather than the musical sense; his spare melodies and carefully contained rhythms combine with scenes rich in imagery but deliberately short on elaboration. The emotion that seeps through his gently disturbing tales can be hard to track: What’s motivating the fear he communicates? What supports the love? The listener’s reward comes in doing the work of drawing her own conclusions.

“White Wilderness” makes that process engaging in ways that are new, though not necessarily easier. Instead of his usual electronically enhanced folk rock, Vanderslice turned to the composer Minna Choi and her Magik Magik Orchestra to complete the nine songs on this 31-minute release.

The semi-classical setting removes some of Vanderslice’s usual tricks — he can’t kick up the energy with a backbeat or use effects to enhance his gentle vocals. Choi’s arrangements carry the songs somewhere else, away from the tension-release of rock and into the more contemplative realm of art song.

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One Song: Daniel Bejar's Destroyer finds a different angle on Kara Walker's words

Daniel Bejar forces listeners to hear Kara Walker's words from a different angle on ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker.'

Appropriation -- the act of making something your own by copying it -- has been a hot topic in the art world at least since Andy Warhol first closely examined the can that contained his lunch. It's become increasingly relevant in popular music circles too, leading to big questions about intellectual property and the nature of originality.

“Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” employs appropriation in fascinating ways. It's on “Kaputt,” the new album from Vancouver-based bard Daniel Bejar's semi-solo project, Destroyer. “Kaputt” rethinks Destroyer's noisy, rococo indie rock within the startling context of New Romantic smooth jazz, in the process changing the meaning of clichés like “mellow” and “art rock.”

All the songs on “Kaputt” pose this challenge, but “Suicide Demo” goes furthest by featuring lyrics Bejar cut up from text-filled cue cards sent to him by the fine artist Kara Walker. Walker herself is an appropriation genius, known for work that fearlessly interrogates the deep history of African American and female oppression through refashioned imagery. Singing loaded phrases like “Seen you consorting with your Invisible Manhole” or “Don't talk about the South, she said,” in his quavery Canadian tenor, Bejar doesn't become Walker but forces the listener to hear her words in a different voice, from a different angle. Disturbing and illuminating, “Suicide Demo” leads us somewhere new.

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