Wednesday, April 30, 2014

When videos go wrong

Decades as we remember them tend not to coincide with the calendar. There are things that we think of as belonging to the '50s that are really the early '60s. 1980 was definitely more like 1979 than it was like 1985, but was 1980 more like 1975 than 1985 as well? I don't know; I'm only thinking of it because of Billy Squier.

There were three main things that I learned from Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's I Want My MTV that I had never heard of before. One is that the playing of black artists started mainly because CBS forced the issue. I'm sorry it had to be that way, but I am glad for CBS's efforts. Another was that the reason that everyone referred to Michael Jackson as "the King of Pop" is that he made them. I was pretty disgusted by that. Also, Kurt Loder probably leaked it, so it should have been possible to know, but I didn't. Finally, somehow, I had never seen or heard about "Rock Me Tonight":

I did despise Billy Squier, so I can't rule out that maybe there were times when I could have watched it and chose not to. I feel bad about that. First of all, many people who are quoted on the topic describe him as a really nice guy, so it was probably wrong of me to find him so repulsive. But also, somehow, I missed out on something legendary. Video Gaga called it one of the worst videos of all time. Wikipedia, in director Kenny Ortega's article, says "often cited as the worst music promo clip ever made". This is a bad video, and I missed it.

Watching it years later deadens the impact, but it's still pretty bad. As is my wont, I started performing an autopsy.

Yesterday we talked about not being overly literal in the message of the song, and I forgot to mention being overly literal to the lyrics. Here, as Squier sings "We go down in the shadows and crawl between", it is a little dimly lit, not necessarily shadowy, but yes, he does go down and crawl and it is hideously cheesy.

The other thing I noticed is that while everyone makes a big deal about the pink tank top, there is also aqua, and pastels, and art that isn't exactly Nagel, but reminds me of that style. I thought maybe they were trying to bring a guy from the '70s into the '80s, where he did not belong, but technically, Billy Squier is from the '80s. He was a professional musician in the '70s, but going solo and signing with Capitol happened in 1980. His big hits were in 1982. I just say those were actually still the '70s.

The song is moving toward the newer sound with more synthesizer, so updating the look of the video (with his previous videos being very concert performance-oriented) may have made sense, but not this way.

Squier's initial idea, according to the book, was to show him getting ready for a show, and the fans getting ready individually, culminating with everyone at the show. That works well with the message of "Rock Me Tonight". The song seems to be more about two people planning on having sex, but it doesn't contradict the general feeling, and if every song that was about that had a video about that, there would be a sad loss of creativity.

I don't know if that would have been a good video or not, but I know Squier prancing around a bedroom does not make a good video. It's kind of train-wrecky, but also boring.

Ortega choreographed Dirty Dancing, so I know he can do a good job, but it is really easy for just one person dancing for an extended period of time to be boring. The only similar video that I can think of that works is Janet Jackson's "Pleasure Principle, but she has a more interesting dance environment and also, she is a better dancer.

Even the video for Michael Sembello's "Maniac" was inter-cut with other things. If you just watch that final scene in the movie, it's not as exciting. (Plus, she had a dance double, reminding us that not every actor or singer can do an amazing dance sequence.)

So it was a boring video, but it did not feel true to the musician, which was the real problem. In this case that meant people wondering if he was gay or on drugs. Oddly, both had a bigger stigma back then.

Ortega claims he tried to toughen it up, and it was Squier's fault, but I don't believe Squier came up with those moves on his own. If I recall, Squier said he expressed concerns and Ortega kept saying to trust him and that it would all look right at the end, which does sound like something directors say, but I think ultimately that they never really met up artistically on their vision for the song.

Having someone who has made other successful videos can be great, but it's no guarantee. Looking over Steve Barron's video credits, no matter how much I love "Take On Me", I see a lot of titles that I hate. For A-ha specifically, the video for "The Sun Always Shines On TV" worked pretty well, but after that they just kept getting weirder.

My favorite collaboration was between My Chemical Romance and Samuel Bayer. He was hired for "Welcome to the Black Parade" and did a video that fits the theme and echoes the album artwork and is kind of amazing, but he wanted to do one for "Famous Last Words", before they had even titled it. And he made it work budget-wise too, where they just burned the set from the previous video to create a new set.

Technically this is an example of video shoots going wrong too, kind of, with Bob Bryar getting burns that got infected, Gerard Way getting hospitalized with leg and foot injuries, and a canceled show based on doctors orders, but still, you do have a successful video that is an interesting companion for the other, and hey, art for art's sake. The point is the band found someone who spoke their language.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Music videos - not so literal

While the songs of the day were coming from the Women Rock play list, one of the songs I considered using was Pink's "Please Don't Leave Me". I decided against it because of the video.

I like the song -- which covers fairly normal dysfunctional relationship issues -- a lot. The video is a little garish for me, so I hesitated to put it out there, but I probably still would have if the video represented the song better. The relationship in the video is abnormally dysfunctional, and seems to have pulled a lot of its inspiration from the movie Misery.

It's not intended to be taken seriously, but on the off chance that someone new to Pink was going to click on it, I went "Who Knew", which is not only a softer introduction, but also fits the mood of the song better.

Yesterday I wrote about how perfectly the video for "Della May" works for the song, but that does not mean that it is the only possible vision that could have worked. A good song has room for a lot of inspiration, and not taking the most obvious path can free you. There is an ache for a girl in "Take On Me", but nothing that automatically says that ache will pull the girl from out of a cafe and into a comic book.

I remember reading in the forum for "Dancing With The Stars" in its very first season. Someone was complaining because one couple had been criticized for trying to follow this story in their routine, and another couple was praised for the story behind theirs. The poster felt like it was a double standard, but even without looking at the two numbers it was so obvious what the judges meant.

Telling a story with a beginning, middle, and ending is one thing, and it is very common in books and movies and short fiction. With poetry and music the emotion is more important than a plot. If the song has a normal structure, with multiple verses separated by a chorus, it may be impossible for the images to fit the music and tell a strictly linear story. It doesn't mean that there's not a story, and having a story doesn't mean that you see all of it.

There's some freedom in realizing that. It can take you interesting places. Looking at My Chemical Romance, and the videos off of Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge, each one works perfectly in its own way. "Helena" is the most literal, where setting it at a funeral totally makes sense. The song "I'm Not Okay" is feels like it's more about a specific romantic relationship than alienation at school, but it works so well for alienation at school. The video for "The Ghost of You" is the furthest from what you would think hearing the song, but it's poignant, and the sense of loss is there.

I'm going to be referring to My Chemical Romance a lot in this series, but I am also going to be referring more than you might expect to Reggie and the Full Effect. I learned a lot from watching this:

"Get Well Soon" is off of Songs Not To Get Married To, the album inspired by James Dewees' divorce. Divorce is a downer of a subject, and I hear a lot of raw pain just listening to the song.

In the video, though, it's the Loch Ness Monster. That may relieve some emotional pressure just by being unexpected, but it doesn't remove it. Nessie is devastated and losing it. The excessive drinking, the aimless stumbling around, and the tears are all things that people do, but that it would be very uncomfortable to watch a person do, and it would be very hard to get the acting right. Having it be something not human allows us to understand the extent of the suffering without bearing the full brunt, and having it be an iconic monster like Nessie means that when he loses the lake, that means something to us.

Pretty good for a puppet.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Two videos

I said I had been thinking about writing on music videos since June, and the reason I knew that was because it was related to the Fall Out Boy concert, but there were a couple of other things.

I reviewed Snow White's Poison Bite the week before Fall Out Boy, and Turrentine Jones the week after. Those two bands had videos that stuck in my mind as the opposite of each other, and there was so much going on with the Fall Out Boy videos, that all of those being on my mind so close together is a big part of why we are getting into this segment. I just had to write about a lot of other things first.

When I first saw "Meet Me in the Graveyard" I thought it was a total mess with way too much going on. I think some of that was the initial jolt, because on subsequent viewings it doesn't seem as jarring.

There is still a lot going on, from a murder scene, the victim's trip to the graveyard, the band playing both with and without makeup, tiny animated skeletons, and cheerleaders. With all of that, it's kind of hard to focus.

One thing that I find interesting is that you do see the band both with and without makeup. Most bands seem to stick with one or the other. They may go through different phases, but within the phases they are consistent. If you had seen the band only without makeup before the arrival at the graveyard, and then only with the skull faces after, that would cover both, but with greater consistency and an apparent meaning.

Also, the murder victim's struggles inside the coffin seem to indicate that being taken to the graveyard is not desirable, but the song calls it "a better place", and then there are cheerleaders, so overall it just seems very scattered, and not of a firm mind. From what I have seen, their other videos are more focused, but I think the one that works best is "There's a New Creep on the Block", which is essentially a performance video.

On the other hand, "Della May" is the beautiful in its simplicity. Well, it is more beautiful from a cinematography level too. It does seem to be easier to make things look good in black and white, but in this case it is also very compatible with the lack of complication.

Starting with an overhead shot of a bright-eyed baby in a crib, we see a progression from little girl, to young woman, to adult. There is a gradual wearing down, seeing less enthusiasm, and less joy, but as the older woman returns to the playground, she remembers and rediscovers, and we go backwards closing out on the infant again.

The idea of a circle is reinforced through images like a mobile rotating above the crib, merry-go-rounds on the playground, and even a circular picture as we focus on the adult, and as adult and child both she partakes of the back and forth of the swings. It all work together, in my mind, to say that life does have its ups and downs but happiness comes from not forgetting the simple (there's that work again) pleasures. I could be misinterpreting, but it seems to work perfectly, both for and with the song.

There are reasons for not always having the video be so synchronized with the song, and reflecting the song can mean different things anyway - I know that, and will be writing more about that. Snow White's Poison Bite has a completely different feel from Turrentine Jones, so it would not even make sense for them to have a video like "Della May".

I still think this video is a little slice of perfection.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Band Review: We Are Forever

There are two previously reviewed bands that I have been thinking about while listening to We Are Forever. They remind me of Sunderland because I am very aware of their youthfulness. There is an plaintive earnestness that especially comes through in Aren Andersen's vocals.

At the same time, there is a kind of a punk feeling to their riffs, reminding me of Atlantic Aftermath. So, perhaps this is earnest, bright-eyed punk. Technically, though, they list themselves as pop/rock.

A good example of how the different elements work together can be found on "Half Awake", probably my favorite track off of 2013 release To Be Alive.

Some other tracks are more downbeat, like "Forget the Sun" or "Goodbye My Hero", making it seem like the band has grown more serious since making a wrestling video for "Take My Hand", off of Lights. Still, there's that intro on "Say My Name." They'll work out the right balance.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Band Review: Andrew Joslyn and Passenger String Quartet

I can't make this a typical review.

When Andrew Joslyn first followed me on Twitter, I wrote down Passenger String Quartet for the band to review, but with his name. (That's my normal procedure for when I am followed by a band member rather than by the band itself.)

The tricky thing is that so much of what is done, both by Andrew on his own and by the Passenger String Quartet, is supportive in nature, that characterization becomes pretty difficult.

Just searching for the music to listen to is its own trick. For example, on Spotify under artists there is Lerin Herzer and Andrew Joslyn together, and Passenger String Quartet. However, under Kris Orlowski you also find Joslyn and the Quartet in album titles.

Under Portfolio on his site, Joslyn does a good job of listing different projects, but there is so much to listen to, and so varied, that it defies normal review attempts.

So instead I will just provide some appreciation, and direct you to a video:

I responded most to the collaborations with Kris Orlowski, perhaps because of previously being immersed in that music for a different review:

In this case, I think "Waltz of Petunia" is a really good example of how the supporting instruments add to the song. The song could have been recorded without, but would it be as charming?

I also think there is a good argument for why exposure to classical music is important, because it provides a foundation that enriches contemporary music. As instinctive as music can be, knowing more, and having more to work with, helps.

These musicians can make your song better.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Take On Me

"Take On Me" by A-ha, has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence lately. In 2012 it became a battle cry for the Washington Nationals baseball team, in 2013 it was sampled by Pitbull and Christina Aguilera for "Feel This Moment" (featured prominently in The Lego Movie trailer), and it was also featured in a Volkswagen commercial that also mimicked the video.

That has led to more various articles talking to the former band members. One with singer Morten Harket made me think, when he said what the video did was allow people to pay attention to the song. It was a good song, but people didn't latch on to it on one listen.

I thought of it differently then. I knew the song had been released twice previously without gaining any traction, and that it was the release with the classic video that made the difference, but I hadn't really thought about why.

I am much more aware now that some songs require multiple listenings before you appreciate them, but I would not have expected "Take On Me" to be one. That one segment should work as a pop hook. Maybe timing was an issue too, but the video worked.

For me, I know it was not just the video, based on the number of times we went through Hunting High and Low and Scoundrel Days. (After that they did not focus on the US as much, and I did still get some of their later albums, but it was different.) That being said, the video had a huge effect on me.

I could not even tell you if the local radio stations were playing A-ha before. My first glimpse of them was the video, but it was just a clip in a commercial. I wanted to see it so badly, just based on that glimpse, but it never came on when I needed it. Suddenly I caught it one night while babysitting, and the parents came home before it ended. So yes, I totally appreciate how the internet allows me to call up things instantly now.

I do think the rotoscoping aspect was something that drew attention. The live photography was attractive, as was the band, and simple storyline worked. The drama followed the music nicely. You can try and analyze all these points, and you do learn things by doing it, but also sometimes there is just magic. It captured a moment, and it worked for the band.

The music landscape is different now, and things don't always work the same way, from what is necessary to reach your audience to what budget you will have to do it, so we'll spend some time on that over the next week or so. For now, it's good enough just to appreciate a classic video from a magical time:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Videos that I don't like

The three videos that I mentioned loving yesterday ("Take Me Home Please", "My Own Worst Enemy", and "I'm Not Okay") were not just videos that I have liked over the course of a long life of watching music videos, but they were also three that I used to play together. I played them along with a fourth video, except I didn't like that video that much, and was only playing it to hear the song. That song was Alkaline Trio's "Mercy Me":

I love this song, but I don't really care for the video. It is inventive and visually interesting, and the images don't really take away from the song. Obviously the favorites mentioned had strong humorous elements, but there is some humor here too. I don't have any clear reason for not liking the video; it just doesn't do it for me.

There may be a tone mismatch. While I say the images don't really distract from the sounds, at the same time, the images don't have the same energy. Also, there may be kind of an "uncanny valley" effect going on, where they look almost natural, but not quite. That mismatch can repel people. (This may also be my some people find clowns off-putting.)

I'm leaning more toward the aesthetic issue, because as I look back on the various videos that I hated, and would refuse to watch, with a lot of them it was that there was something ugly or gross about them. This included George Thorogood ripping off his face to reveal robot parts in "Bad to the Bone", the Spitting Image puppets in "Land of Confusion" by Genesis, squished hands and residual tentacle slime in Greg Kihn's "Jeopardy", and the clay forming images on and around Peter Gabriel's head in "Sledgehammer".

It may also include the faces morphing in Godley & Creme's "Cry". I'm not sure that it does, because morphing has been used in a lot of other videos and not bothered me. I think maybe the problem was that I didn't like the song that much, which kind of leads to one of my most hated videos of all time, "Ebony & Ivory", by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.

I did not start out hating "Ebony & Ivory", but then it started stalking me. The climax was when I came home from school one day and turned on the television. It was on MTV, so I switched to VH1, and it was there too. I turned off the television and switched on the radio, and it was there too. Obviously with all of that switching I had already started hating the song, but that was the clearest sign of its level of infiltration.

Just two years earlier I remembered not minding that songs got overplayed, because they were songs I liked. Why did I hate this one so much? I think the issue is that it's not a very good song.

I hate saying that, because I'm in favor of racial harmony, but if we are going to address such an important topic, can we do a little better lyrically?

We all know that people are the same wherrrrre EVer you go
Side by side on my pi-an-o keeeeey-board, oh Lord why don't weeeeee?

Cake gets away with having the lyrics mismatch the tempo, but they're edgier. I think it's a bad song, and in small doses you can overlook it, but over and over again it could actually increase racism and desires for segregation. And Stevie Wonder, I know you can and have done better.

I have been re-watching these videos before writing, and one thing I remember from some kind of "I Love the '80s" special was them talking about music video cliches, and that if you didn't know what to do there were a few standbys like curtains blowing in the wind. Guess how "Ebony & Ivory" starts?

So maybe it's easier to make a lazy video for a lazy song, but there's one other video that really bugs me. This is the one where everyone will know my judgment can't be trusted, so I guess it's good that I saved it for last. I'm not a big fan of "Thriller".

I never got into Michael Jackson. I tried, because it sure felt like everyone else loved him, but eventually I just accepted it. Because I did not really like his music, I never grew to love any of his videos, but I would still watch them, except for "Thriller".

Part of this is the ugly/gross thing, which keeps me from enjoying zombies. Beyond that, looking back at it now, I feel like the song does not serve the video. The length is monstrous, but very little of the footage actually has the song playing, and playing the song over those segments would not feel right.

There are things that are interesting about it. The opening segment does definitely hit some points for harking back to the '50s creature features, and we use some of the dolly tracking shots that we associate with the '70s - it hits some of the right notes - it just takes too long, and it feels like with too little purpose. Whether that is more of a John Landis issue or a Michael Jackson issue, or just an issue of them collaborating, I don't know.

Most likely their goal was to make something really cool, rather than thinking specifically about what the music video would do for that song. The song did end up being very popular, and Michael Jackson made a lot of money, so it's hard to argue with success. I still don't like it.

Nonetheless, tomorrow we will spend some time on the purpose of music videos.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Three favorite music videos

To start off this segment on music videos, I decided to start with open gushing. I am not necessarily saying that these are the three greatest music videos of all time, or that they are my top three favorite videos ever, but I love them a lot. As we get into why I love them, that will launch the broader discussion, but today will be only praise.

"My Own Worst Enemy", performed by Lit. From their album A Place in the Sun, the video was directed by Gavin Bowden and released in June 1999.

There are several strong points here. You do get a sense of the band as they are, watching them perform in the lounge. You also get to see them as - I guess the issue is really that they are retro, but the initial thought is that they are nerds - nerds who are great bowlers. That gives them an underdog plot, because they enter the alley to people giving them the side-eye, but their amazing skills win them acceptance and admiration, and then they get to go party.

This classic storyline builds in a manner congruent to the buildup of the song, with the bridge coinciding with the most impressive bowling footage, climaxing with a ball joke that would be funny anyway, but is more so because some band members are clearly so much more comfortable with/skilled at it than others.

It's bittersweet too, because Allen Shellenberger is gone, and I can never not remember that when watching, but part of that is that coverage of the band is pretty well balanced too. You get to see everyone doing their thing, and not just the lead singer.

(To be fair, A. Jay Popoff in this video is where the term "bedroom eyes" suddenly clicked for me; so THAT's what it means.)

"Take Me Home Please" by Reggie and the Full Effect. I don't know the director, but it was the second release off of Songs Not to Get Married To, from 2005.

It was easy for me to just listen to the song without watching the video, which I do fairly often, but I kept coming back to watch the video because of the break-dancing. If it was something that I could do at all, I might be less impressed, but even the moves that Reggie does, which are clearly intended to be more comedic than impressive, are beyond me. I am especially impressed by that little scissor and dip thing the antagonist does around 2:20, but also a lot of it is just gravity defying.

(For convenience I am going to refer to James Dewees at the keyboard in the blue tracksuit as Reggie, and James Dewees in the long black wig at the dance-off as Paco.)

So, I would watch the dancing, but then I would start noticing the individuals. There is one blonde girl (not the pig-tailed one) who does not really seem to be watching in one shot, so I noticed that and thought she was not really into the dancing, but then on a different viewing, she is doing the dancing too. Maybe she was just thinking of something else right then.

So then I started thinking about the individual people and realized that even though you could theoretically just gather a bunch of people who are good at dancing and let them use their own personalities, they are taking on characters, because at times you can see some of them break character.

For example, Paco seems to have two closer friends in this, and since they both wear headbands I will have to refer to them as the cooler one and the nerdier one. The cooler one at one point looks like he is about to crack up, but the nerdy one is consistently nerdy. Is he a more focused actor, not acting, or did the camera just never catch him?

Ultimately the video concept is pretty simple, but the video ended up being one that I find endlessly intriguing.

"I'm Not Okay" by My Chemical Romance, off of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. Directed by Marc Webb, filmed in August 2004.

Let me say that I am very fond of the original video, for its glimpses of Matt, and Gerard brandishing Sting, and Ray doing the same head bouncing that he does in the updated video, which is my signature move when I do it for karaoke. The first video is good, but the second is a masterpiece.

Yes, it has more oral jokes than I would normally go for, but it builds up and follows a path that is appropriate to the song while being something the audience can relate to. In the opening, where you get to hear the voices of Ray and Gerard, and that dialogue is totally real. It's not even "making it" that he wants, but he can't articulate what he does want, only he does know there is something that he wants. That is adolescence.

Again we cut between performance and underdogs. I will say that Frank in the chemistry lab reminds me a little of the Ramones' "Rock N Roll High School", in that my first thought was "Don't let them have unsupervised access to chemicals!" but that is a very small part of this video. It builds an idea of what school is like for the parties involved, and the final sequence is full of great images: Frank's weary look of resignation as Gerard is tackled, Gerard wind-milling on the way to his own sadly ineffective retaliation, and then Ray and Frank making the tackle happen, with Mikey getting in a last shot. Teamwork!

There have been things I have wondered about. For example, in that 2-man tackle, does it make sense to have the fairly short one go for the top of the target, and the kind of tall guy go for the base? The mascot goes down, so I guess it works. Was Mikey really heading to the final confrontation with only a croquet ball? No, he has a mallet later. Okay, that makes more sense. And then for that confrontation, I would generally expect lacrosse players to be tougher than croquet players, but croquet equipment seems like it could do more damage. Seems dangerous.

I actually didn't get into a lot of scuffles when I was in school. It may be obvious. I just know that this video rocks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Band Review: Hydra Melody

Hydra Melody is an alternative rock band out of San Antonio, Texas. I've been listening to them via their web site and Soundcloud. Soundcloud has more tracks available, but I prefer the condensed version that you get on

While often soft and plaintive, with strummy guitars, I like them best when they are rocking harder. For that reason I need to call out "Rubix", which I have only found on Soundcloud. The intro starts with a no-nonsense drumbeat, then adds some less down to earth synthesizer, and as guitars and vocals comes in everything balances right, and you get an interesting song that you can listen to many times, knowing it is still saying more.

I can't really compare them to anyone else, as they pull in different threads. The piano on "Pros And Cons of Self-Liberation" sounds a little honky-tonk, but the rest of the song really isn't. They may be more intellectual than most bands.

The live videos seem to be funkier. I'm not sure whether that is primarily song selection, or just a different facet that engineering didn't pull out when they were recording, however, they do have some live dates coming up, and some of those dates are with TEAM, which should be a good line-up.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Band Review: David Paige

David Paige never really coalesced for me. I feel bad about that, but after several listens I think I understand why.

On his Facebook biography he states "a sound that rocks harder than pop and is more accessible than much of today's alternative rock". I think it straddles that space in between awkwardly.

"Are You Ready" starts out with a strong beat, but it feels like it never fulfills that promise, but instead wimps out. On "Inside Out" at times it reminds me of Del Shannon's "Runaway" and at other points of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by the Animals. Both of those songs have their points, but I am not sure they're compatible.

Some of that may be personal preference on my part, so it's not necessarily a reason not to try him out. There are good listening options on his web site or via Soundcloud. My favorites were probably "In The End" and "Learn To Love You", which had a really good intro. Probably listening to the four tracks mentioned will give you a good idea of whether the music will work for you or not.

It's intriguing to think about whether the different styles can be merged better, or if he should come down more squarely in either pop or rock, or that maybe it works but is just not for me. I will say that my issues are just with the song structures, but execution is well-done.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Okay, so who killed the video star?

No one should be too surprised to find out that money was involved.

The following video does have language bleeped out, but there is a lot of it, and the attitude is a little abrasive. It also makes me laugh and has some truth in it, so watch if you want to:

There is a factor that was not mentioned in the video but that still played a role, relating to advertising dollars. When MTV initially launched, people watched for the novelty alone. There would be videos you loved and videos that you didn't, but it was all so new that people would tune in. There would still be some influence by demographic issues and time zones, but people tuned in. That level of fascination couldn't last.

While from one point of view every video was an ad - promoting the song, album, and band - the channel still needed advertisers. Advertisers buy in blocks, but if you don't know who is watching when, or that they don't have a motive to switch away any time a lame video comes on, it's hard to feel confident in the investment.

Programming still provided some answers to this. Some times of day would have a theme instead of random videos. That's how we get "Yo MTV Raps", "Club MTV", "Headbangers' Ball", and "120 Minutes". (I assume VH1's "Pop-Up Video" filled a similar role, though I don't remember them having a lot of shows.)

They did other shows too. I loved the game show "Remote Control", got into "The Monkees" enough to go to their reunion tour (which I doubt would have happened without MTV airing the shows), and once they started airing "Monty Python's Flying Circus", my friends and I started quoting it a lot. I never got into "The Young Ones" but it didn't bother me that it was on.

None of this was awful so far. The turning point is widely recognized as the debut of "The Real World" in 1992, launching a craze of annoying shows depicting horrible people doing stupid things (for fun, mix and match those nouns and adjectives), but which many find fascinating and they are often quite inexpensive to shoot.

Since the station was generally getting music videos free, any shooting expense for any series should have been less attractive than the free music videos, but I think there are a few factors that came into play, based on my own experience.

The truth is I had sort of already left MTV behind. In 1992 I was in college, and I could go down to the basement and probably find the right channel on one of the two communal televisions, if no one else was already watching something different, but it didn't happen that often. Then I was on my mission, and not watching any television.

I did try again, in August 1994, and it didn't appeal to me. I saw grunge and rap, and everything had kind of a nasty edge. I know the bands that I did like made music videos, but maybe I didn't have time to wait around for them. There was work, and finishing college, and always something that needed to be done.

The music changes, and what's in style changes . In the video when he says what artists they would be playing today, he is absolutely right. There was briefly a channel (I think it was a VH1 spin-off) that was playing old videos from the '80s. We did tune in and watch it for a while, but still, who has time for that? So maybe some of that nostalgia is not only for watching music videos, but for having enough free time that watching random videos is a reasonable use of time, and for being the desired demographic. Once your tastes were hot contemporary, and now they are oldies. I can sympathize with that.

Videos may still be free, but the record labels do not have the budgets that they did. That point about the phones being shown in every video, and being the reason that the video is paid for, is completely true. I can think of awkward phone placement in videos by at least two of my favorite bands, and they aren't even particularly new videos. Frankly, that's weird; shouldn't there be more than one type of product that can benefit from product placement? Why is it always phones?

Regardless, needing product placement is a budget issue, and it is one that came from people no longer buying music. Again, record companies were too slow to adapt, the amounts of money were ridiculous for what the labels actually did, and Napster was a huge missed opportunity.

I have written about that before. If I have something new to say, it will work it's way out, but for the next phase I want to focus on music videos themselves. What do they do and what can they do? Which ones work, which ones fail, and why? I have been planning on doing this since at least last June. (I have reasons to believe Frank Iero is my spirit animal, but if not, it's probably a tortoise.)

So, lots of video links coming up. For now, here are some previous posts, and the books that influenced them, and influenced this post.

Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, by Steve Knopper

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Video didn't kill the radio star; it was the Telecom Act

There is this quote that I have been hanging onto for a while:

“The Telecom Act profoundly affected the radio business, removing station ownership caps, and unleashing an unprecedented wave of consolidation. Radio deregulation left the public airwaves dominated by less than a handful of companies—Clear Channel, Cumulus, Citadel and Viacom—who laid off hundreds, decimated community programming and all but standardized playlists across the country. Average listening time plunged. FCC Chair Reed Hundt had justified the legislation by arguing “We are fostering innovation and competition in radio.” But by all accounts, KMEL’s innovative years were over, and competition, the driving force of that innovation, was about to end.”
This is from Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. The funny thing is that I read that before I even started reviewing bands, though I think the writing was on the wall.

I think about this when no one can find anything good on the radio, I think about this when no one has heard of bands that are really quite good, and I think about it when Tara Dublin writes about saving radio.

I have tried researching the act, and there are several crazy things about it. It sounds like a Reagan thing, but was signed by Clinton. It's purpose was given as fostering competition, but it failed miserably. We have gone from about fifty major media companies in 1983 to six in 2005. To be fair, it was ten in 1996 when the Telecom Act was passed.

It's not that it was paradise before. I know about the payola scandal and hearings of 1960, and I know about band managers getting DJs drugs and hookers a decade or so later. Those with money still always seem to be able to find a way to make an advantage. However, having corporations set standard playlist that are full of acts that will appeal to the lowest common denominator isn't really ideal either.

In 1987, Z100 played the same pop tunes almost hourly. They were songs that I liked, so it worked for me, but I had a friend who was really into KISS and AC/DC, and it drove him nuts. Also, they would throw the Last Chance Summer Dance in Waterfront Park, and that was a good time.

In 1991, I was at school in Eugene, and I heard songs on the radio that I would never hear when I was at home, and that wasn't only on the college station. There were live people who picked songs to play, and how much their station managers influenced them varied, but it gave a personality and a flavor to the place where you were.

As we get past that fateful date, I am struggling to think of a time and place where radio mattered, and was a good thing, and I can't. I can come up with some very annoying memories, like a morning crew talking about how deep Taylor Swift lyrics are, but if I wanted my blood boiling with rage and contempt I would be listening to talk radio.

I do care about distribution of music, and opportunities for exposure for new bands, but it goes beyond that. People were laid off, then and more recently. People who are still working now need other gigs to survive. That's not helpful in a constrained economy.

It's not particularly good for advertisers either. If you know good music is coming, good local updates, and likable personalities, you stick around through commercials. There is no reason to have that kind of patience.

In yesterday's post, I could have written a lot about the perils and effects on society of losing newspapers as a reliable source of news, and that could still happen, but I think the recurring theme between yesterday and today is that when owners only care about making money, they don't make much of value other than that.

Invigorated radio might not make more money than what you have now, but it could make enough to survive, and it would be worth a lot more. I would like having it around.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Requiem for a newspaper

I have written several times about my affection for the Oregonian. It's dried up now.

The writing has been on the wall for a while, because there had been policy changes and layoffs, but the real death knell came last year, when they announced that it was splitting into two companies. One side would focus on the internet, and the other would be physical distribution. One aspect of that was that they would be switching to delivering only four days a week.

As luck would have it, that happened right around the time that I needed to update my billing information for our subscription, and I delayed for three months as I was trying to figure out if I even wanted to renew it. One thing that bothered me was that there was another service offering to deliver on the other days, so they were still producing a daily paper, just not delivering it to everyone.

It just got worse. Initially the delivery days were Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Wednesday stopped coming, and I thought it might be a renewal issue, but the Wednesday features were showing up on Friday.

I thought it was odd that I could only do the new subscription for 13 weeks, and expected to hear something from them at the end of 13 weeks, but I did not. I returned to the website, which is a site that covers many newspapers, but it does not offer the Oregonian anymore. The three issues per week are still coming, most of the time, but I am not sure through whom, and again, I don't know that I would renew, because the quality has gone down so much.

That is the worst part. Not having a daily paper disrupts things like comics and crosswords, but those are not essential, and there are online options. While there are online options for news, it is not the same.

I do still see articles from many online sources, including the New York Times and the Atlantic and the Washington Post. That is fine, but that doesn't really give me local news. My area matters to me. Yes, we have local television news, but they are just repeating the same things over and over again, and without much enlightenment. The Oregonian had been a source of thoughtful reporting, with frequent award-winning in-depth investigation. Now it even looks like a tabloid, and there is no reason to believe that will get better:

It is frustrating. We seem to still need the Sunday paper, for ads and coupons if nothing else, but we could just pick that one up and skip the rest of the week. I find that even when it is here, I tend not to look at it. That's hard to believe. I subscribed to the Oregonian when I was a broke college student. When I was a high school student at Girl's State I picked up an Oregonian every day. It hurts that it's become this.

I have thought about checking out some of the other local papers, like the Portland Tribune or Willamette Week, but even if they do end up a part of our rhythms, it's not going to be the same. The Oregonian is not what it was, and it's a loss.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Band Review: Lakotah DJ

Lakotah DJ has a lot of music available online. A lot of it is in album form on Soundcloud, without track listings, so taking all of that together, it is hard for me to call out specific songs and recommend individual tracks. I was able to listen to everything once, but not able to do a lot of repeats, simply because of the volume.

It is house music, generally specified as Progressive House, but sometimes Electro House, and sometimes Trap. I don't have a lot of familiarity with those genres. It's pretty good; there was a lot of toe-tapping and knee-bouncing.

I believe I did build up some familiarity, because toward the end I was noticing more. Therefore, I think I can say, and it will be accurate, that Black Hills and Badlands feel more aggressive, while Meet Her In Miami feels better for dancing. There are a lot of female voices on it, and it is kind of bouncier.

There is a lot to browse, and several free downloads available, so if you have an interest in house music at all, it is worth checking out for that reason alone.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Band Review: Bunky Echo-Hawk

Bunky Echo-Hawk initially came to my attention as a visual artist, but then I saw that he did music as well and wanted to check that out. It sounds like he sometimes combines the two media in shows, and that he works in other media as well, so I'm not sure that looking only at the music is reasonable, but this is what I have to work with.

Songs are available on Soundcloud and ReverbNation. ReverbNation has much more available, but "Onward & Up" is only on Soundcloud, and it may be the most representative of his house music side. It is danceable and interesting to listen to. Overall there is a lot of variation in the sound, which is why I hesitate to pick one that is most representative.

The Soundcloud grouping feels more political, whereas the expanded offerings on ReverbNation include a lot more about, well, technically a lot of them are about sex. The humor throughout gives it a breath of fresh air, so it does not feel the way you might expect. "Well, Jermaine Helped" is a good example of this. That sense of fun also comes through on "My Big Red Bike", though it took me a moment to catch on to what he was doing.

One thing that was interesting for me was that usually I am not familiar with the original material in remixes, so I can't compare. Echo-Hawk does have a track "Wonderful HAUS" based on Adam Ant's "Wonderful". I am afraid in this case it is the weakest track, because he doesn't really do much to put his own stamp on it. To be fair, I love that song, and part of what I love is its simplicity, so it would probably require a complete reinvention for me to enjoy another version.

Echo-Hawk collaborates well with other artists, including TACTiLE KiLLSPLENTY on "Smudge Away", Brian Frejo and T-Hawk on "Grandma Says", and Lucid 44 on "Motion Sickness". "Grandmas Says" was probably my favorite, in that it drew my deepest emotional response.

I'm not sure that it makes sense to think of the musician without thinking of the artist in this case, but I do think the music can stand on its own.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


One effect of working on the comics is that I seem to be thinking more visually. Recently I had this image of me trying to push up a weight that was coming down on me. My first thought was that I would not be able to push effectively in this way, essentially pushing backwards, but also it was pretty clear I was feeling weighed down.

The Killing of Crazy Horse was a big part of it. The book was a slog, and while I was trying to get through it, I was frustrated by everything that was waiting until it was done, but really that one book only emphasized the real stress: everything else waiting to be done.

It is wonderful that I keep finding new sources of information and things to research and things I want to do. One thing I have noticed lately is that I feel younger, and I think that is because I am constantly trying new things and learning. I am off-balance a lot, because I am trying to get better at things I am not good at, but it's invigorating too.

Trying to balance all the things I want to do with what I need to do is a challenge. I recently moved from trying to keep all my checklists on various slips of paper to something digital. I started with a word document, but that was too disorganized so now I have a spreadsheet. It currently has eight tabs, with lots of entries. Some will go away, and some will just change.

That is basically pressure that I put on myself, and I should be able to relieve that, but some things feel urgent. It makes no logical sense for me to take on a community garden plot now, but I felt like I had too. Thinking about some of the things that feel important, I realized there is another factor that makes things feel heavier.

I sometimes refer to this other reading project, and I have never given it a good description or a good name, because it is hard to define. It has built up messily. I started with an idea that I wanted to know more so I could better help some of the people I have come to care about through Twitter. They are mostly teen girls, but not all. Sometimes I think of it as my troubled teen reading, but that imposes an unfair label on them. Sometimes I think of it as feminist reading, because there are some direct correlations, but that doesn't really describe it.

So, it was just this list of books that felt like they would be important. In July it was ten books, but several months later there are nine books left, even though I have read sixteen, I am nonetheless getting closer to the end.

I realized pretty early on that anything that I read for them would also be meaningful for me, and that there would be this long period of writing, between blog and journal, where things would be coming out, but that there could be some healing in there. That's good, but it doesn't tend to be easy. I feel this heaviness as some things start coming out, and as I feel the end approaching.

It is happening on levels I had not recognized. I don't think it's a coincidence that I suddenly needed a guitar, or that my math and science shortcomings started bothering me. My instincts seem to be working on gaining back the things I had given up on when I was a teenager. Thinking about everything that includes makes me feel a little like I am standing in front of Pandora's box, but there was hope in that box too, so deep breaths and keep going.

That means not breaking down, so I am having to put some things on hold, and be patient. I am so eager for some of the books I want to read, and I have a solid plan for making up that which I feel was missing academically in high school, but it is also something that I will probably not be able to start before September, and will take about two years to complete. I am not doing anything with language now, and I am not currently practicing guitar, because there are some other things I need to get done first. Right now the blog helps too much to cut, but if I feel I need to take a week or two off from it, that may happen.

With that initial image, of pushing backwards trying to not get crushed, because it was visual it was obvious that you don't have full strength that way. For full strength, you need to be facing it. That's what I'm working on over here.