Country market

One of the defining characteristics of pop music is its transitory nature. No one sits still for long with the next big thing nipping at their heels. As a result, the music tends to lack any substantive sense of permanence, and the values it projects are a moving target.

Look no further than the original pop masters, the Beatles. In less than 5 years, the Fab Four went from shaggy but clean-shaven crooners to mustachioed psychedelic messengers, then bearded socialist peaceniks. I don’t doubt there were conscience awakenings taking place, but the Beatles were also savvy enough to devise a go-to tactic of the pop playbook — always keep your audience guessing. It gave them a strategic advantage over bands like the Dave Clark Five, who were every bit their equal in 1965 but dated relics by the end of that decade.

In soul music, Marvin Gaye underwent a similar evolution that separated him from “safe” Motown acts like Smokey Robinson and the Supremes. And in rock, punkers pushed beyond the comfortable boundaries established by legacy bands such as the Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

But some audiences don’t want to be kept eternally guessing. It’s no surprise then that a considerable number of abandoned masses gravitated to the Eagles-led country rock revolution and its successor in modern country. Amid the political and social upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s, country remained steadfastly committed its core values. As its name indicates, it draws upon a vision of rural America where life centers on family, faith and patriotism. Throw in an undercurrent of rowdiness, and there’s a winning formula.

Let me be clear: Country artists are in my estimation as musically engaging and innovative as their pop, soul and rock counterparts. But their marketing strategy is unique and, I would add, quite ingenious. In a pop cultural landscape that’s subject to a dizzying pace of change, they offer a slice of permanence. To be sure, the music has evolved into various interesting hybrids that Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize, incorporating pop, hard rock, soul and even hip hop. But the message remains firmly grounded in country’s rural roots. Even its impish rebelliousness — a necessity in all pop-oriented music — is framed in the larger paradigm of traditional American life.

Modern country’s ascendance into the mainstream somewhat mirrors that of NASCAR, with both institutions slickly presenting rural sensibilities in ways that resonate with urban audiences. In referencing a simpler past, the themes echo a universal yearning for the good times. You don’t have to be a redneck to relate. Lyrical references are heavy on beer-drinking and truck-driving and, other than mild patriotism, light on politics.

It’s a legitimate point then that country music, as a social force, favors cohesion over challenge and too often stands up for the status quo. But it’s that way by design. These are not, as some derisively suggest, dumb hicks. Country artists know what their audiences want, right down to the cowboy hats and cut-off sleeves. A case in point: This observation I made of two concerts Kenny Chesney played at Lambeau Field, four years apart.

 

Chesney is selling a good time, and a big part of the pitch is the packaging, a big part of which is familiarity. There’s a reason you’ll find McDonald’s hamburgers and Budweiser beer to be identical in Rhode Island and Wyoming. Like those companies, Chesney understands his market. Is it hokey? Well, he sold out Lambeau Field — twice — something only a few acts in the world can do.

Again, this isn’t a knock on the merits of country music. I simply marvel at its grasp of essential marketing. Other artists do it — think KISS wearing the same masks/outfits they wore in the 1970s, or Journey going to great lengths to replicate former singer Steve Perry’s vocals. Whatever your view of artistic integrity, popular music, country or otherwise, is a business, and experimentation invites commercial risk. While the Beatles may have won critical accolades for their adventurous later albums, it was their early output that sold millions of records and filled concert venues. By its association with a more conservative fan base, country has been able to bottle and sell, with its own distinctive twang, the spirit of pop music at its peak.

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Hitwomen

Say what you will about “token” minority appreciation months — I always seem to learn something by indulging the concept. For instance, in honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I’d run down a short list of the female recording artists who have expanded my musical horizons, and I found myself naming name after name after name. After name. It turns out they’re not a subset of popular music. They’re an integral part of it, pushing songs up and down the charts, innovating, regressing, occasionally blowing our minds, and yes, occasionally flopping. It occurs to me that the story of women in pop music is really just the story of pop music. They’ve been playing right along with the men, and although I didn’t know it, I’ve been listening the whole time.

As I said, whittling my favorite female artists down to a list of 10, or 50, or 100 is a ridiculous exercise. But since I want to pay tribute to women whose music means the most to me, I narrowed the field to those who wrote the music they recorded, highlighted by the one song that epitomizes their talents. Make no mistake: These are musical giants by any measure. Consider the five I’ve named here not as a listing of “best women in music,” but a sampling of the very best artists in pop music who happen to be women.

Jackie DeShannon, “When You Walk in the Room” (1963): She’s best known for recording Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love,” but Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee Jackie DeShannon was no slouch with the pen, composing the classic “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” and co-writing “Bette Davis Eyes,” later a chart-topping hit for singer Kim Carnes. “When You Walk in the Room” echoes many of the female-oriented hits of the early 1960s — notably the Carole King/Gerry Goffin penned “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — that regarded love with a tentative shyness and anxiety of a teenager*. To cite individual lines does an injustice to the entire piece, which paints an agonizing portrait of a lovesick wallflower whose world lights up when the man of her dreams enters her room. Painfully, she keeps her distance, observing from afar what she believes is unattainable. It’s heartbreakingly sweet, an ode to teen awkwardness that presumably fades in adulthood.

*It should be noted The Searchers covered “When You Walk in the Room.” Like most great love songs, the lyrics are not specific to gender or, for that matter, sexual orientation.

Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris” (1974): I was never big on Joni Mitchell as one of the folk mothers of the ’60s, but her influence on the genre is undeniable. Her “Woodstock,” covered famously by both Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, became a touchstone for a generation defined by that legendary music festival. In the 1970s, Mitchell moved toward fuller, jazz-infused instrumentation that produced such hits as “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris.” The latter recounts an excursion to Paris she made with friend David Geffen, during which the ascending record executive, accustomed to dealing with “dreamers and telephone screamers,” was able to forget his cares, if only briefly. One can imagine Geffen letting his responsibilities slide away on the Champs Elysees to the refrain of “I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody calling me up for favors, no one’s future to decide.” That Mitchell nailed him so precisely is a credit both to the depth of their relationship and her songwriting mastery.

Liz Phair, “Mesmerizing” (1993): For a few albums in the 1990s, Liz Phair was so original, so genuine and so refreshing. I’d never heard anyone like her. She talked about sex, love, relationships, marriage, divorce and children in absolute frank terms. She gave the listener unfiltered access to what was on her mind, turning from schoolgirl sweet to shockingly filthy in the same stanza. Her 1993 debut “Exile in Guyville” carries so much interesting baggage, as titles such as “F–k and Run” and “Divorce Song” indicate, but “Mesmerizing,” in which Phair lyrically empties both barrels in a blaze of defiance and hurt, showed me a new way of recording music. It’s sparse, with little more than an electric guitar, a hint of percussion and her world-weary voice. But it holds up. Phair grew more polished in follow-up albums, including the excellent “Whitechocolatespaceegg,” but slowly fizzled into obscurity the further she strayed from the cut-to-the-bone sound that made her so, well, “Mesmerizing.”

Carole King, “It’s Too Late” (1971): Carole King is a no-brainer for this list; it’s just a matter of which song to single out. Luckily, as hugely productive as her years with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin were, those were collaborative efforts and don’t count here. Her extensive solo catalog doesn’t make the job a whole lot easier, but given the enormous impact of her landmark 1971 album “Tapestry,” let’s start there. Even then, with a loaded track list that includes the wrenching “So Far Away,” I basically had to flip a coin to arrive at “Too Late.” First off, I’m a sucker for major 7 chords, which she throws liberally into both songs. The tiebreaker then is the latter’s unique appraisal of why a relationship failed, best summed up in the line, “Now you look so unhappy, and I feel like a fool.” Maybe it’s the female perspective. Maybe it’s just great writing. Either way, there’s a keen understanding that breakups aren’t always about what went wrong or who’s at fault. Sometimes unhappiness and foolishness just happen.

Stevie Nicks, “Silver Springs” (1977): As part of the rock ‘n’ roll soap opera that was Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks had a treasure trove of intraband relationships and dalliances to mine for writing material. She did not waste them, crafting soul-baring songs like “Gold Dust Woman,” “Sara” and “Landslide.” How it was that “Silver Springs” led an orphaned existence as a B-side left off the group’s 1977 “Rumours” album will forever be a mystery to me, as it’s one of her finest efforts, both as a writer and singer. Aimed squarely at bandmate and ex-lover Lindsey Buckingham, “Silver Springs” explores betrayal, musing over what could have been before devolving into the obsessive ranting of a stalker. If it’s not clear from the line, “And can you tell me was it worth it/Really I don’t want to know,” how emotionally devastated this woman is, the refrain seals it with “I know I could have loved you but you would not let me.” Nicks alternately voices pleading, scorn and finally desperation as she pledges to “follow you down till the sound of my voice will haunt you.” And haunt it does. It’s rare to see heartbreak so powerfully written. It’s even rarer to see it so expertly illustrated.

Talking to the enemy

The greatest challenge for a documentary film also happens to be its primary asset — its connection to real life.

Real life is complicated. It’s fuller and richer, if less theatrical, than any drama fictional cinema can typically produce. But it comes at the expense of easy answers and satisfying conclusions.

Documentaries constitute a sizable portion of my viewing habits, but I understand that their purpose tends to be informational first and entertaining second. I can accept that, as I see almost any artistic venture as an opportunity to learn and grow. Also, as a journalist, I don’t want facts sugarcoated. I don’t insist on happy endings to consider a film screening a worthwhile experience. But I admit there are times when the cold, sober truth gets to be too much. War. Hunger. Displacement. Racism. Alienation. Enough already. There must also be some uplifting elements to the real-life human experience.

Enter Daryl Davis. The subject of an Independent Lens film titled “Accidental Courtesy,” currently showing on PBS as part of Black History Month, Davis’ story is unique to say the least. An accomplished rock ‘n’ roll musician in his younger days, Davis has spent the last two decades reaching out to various leaders and foot soldiers of the American white separatist movement. Davis is black.

The premise seems quite ludicrous until you meet Davis and see how he operates. The son of a Foreign Service officer, Davis grew up all over the world, exposed to an assortment of racial, ethnic and religious environments, and consequently is at ease with people different from him. As an adult, Davis approaches those who would hate him — Ku Klux Klan members, American Nazis and other assorted white supremacists — with a simple proposition: “How you can hate me if you don’t even know me?” His worldly background informs his diplomatically oriented posture: If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them, no matter how objectionable you may find them to be.

It’s hard to judge how effective Davis’ quest has been. He boasts about two dozen KKK robes and hoods given to him by former members who left the organization as a result of their friendship with Davis. He maintains cordial relations with many others who remain active in the white power movement. Of one of them, he earnestly proclaims “I consider him my friend,” something that can be difficult to reconcile given the disturbing ideological tenets set forth in their conversations. But his method is one of gentle persuasion. Early on in the film, Davis offers the analogy of losing weight as a gradual and persistent process. He insists he’s not out to convert people; he simply engages them in a respectful and — most importantly — two-way dialogue, after which they may or may not decide to convert themselves. This measure of grace toward hatemongers no doubt raises eyebrows within the civil rights community, but Davis maintains a message of inclusion, that all Americans — even white racists — are countrymen and as such must find common ground.

The discussions are unexpectedly low-key and in some cases lighthearted — as much as they can be when they broach concerns over racial purity and the justification of violence. In one instance, Davis and a Klansman establish a bond through their love of rock ‘n’ roll music, even playfully disputing its original purveyor: Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley. That a claim so ridiculous can get caught up in a racially categorized worldview is distressing, if not comically so. Later, Davis secures another Klansman’s commitment to attend his wedding. The marriage would be an interracial one — blasphemy for white separatists — but the Klansman insists that if his “friend” wants him there, he’ll come.

Considering the volatile potential of Davis’ meetings with white racists, it’s surprising then that the most explosive exchange takes place in Baltimore, where several Black Lives Matter activists express their frustration with race relations in that city and offer a bitter reproach of Davis’ engagement tactics. After unleashing a scathing monologue — during which one of them questions the value of collecting two dozen KKK robes in over 20 years’ time — they deny Davis a chance to respond by storming out of the room, refusing even to shake his hand. It’s the only time in the film when his jovial charm fails him. He shrugs off the encounter with the observation that most people, black or white, reserve their bitterest vitriol not for the enemy but for members of their own group deemed to have sold out the cause.

Undeterred, Davis continues his mission. It’s clear that he takes the long view of history, holding firm to the belief that all people, no matter how twisted and hateful their ideology, given time, patience and a friendly ear, have the capacity to change. Whether they do is up to them. While a cynic can look around this country in 2017 and point out the lack of progress, Davis’ faith in his fellow Americans — even the worst among them — is a sentiment that’s hard to dismiss. He has the robes to prove it.

Turning the world on to feminism

It’s a fair assumption that Mary Richards and early feminism had a complicated relationship. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” character was perhaps a little too refined, a little too feminine (quick to cry, always stylishly dressed) and only a few years removed from its earlier incarnation as the model of urbane, wifely domesticity in the “Dick Van Dyke Show’s” Laura Petrie. Feminism, meanwhile, took on a militancy in the 1970s that contrasted Richards’ (and Moore’s) sunny outlook.

But make no mistake: The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” made an immeasurable contribution to the feminist cause. Through television’s vast influence on the popular culture, Americans were exposed to a female archetype that was nothing short of revolutionary. Men saw a woman in the workplace other than a receptionist — a woman whose considerable responsibilities included supervising other men. Both men and women watched an over-30 single woman proceed through life with no particular desire to be married. This was a time when most women were married in their early 20s and had several children by 30. And most importantly, women were shown a new world of possibilities for themselves, their sisters or their daughters. You could get a job in a male-dominated industry. You could advance, and it was OK to be ambitious in your career. And, unthinkable for many at the time, you could be happy as a single woman. But it helps to bring a smile.

Ah, the famous smile that turned the world on. It was that smile that made “Mary Tyler Moore” so deceptive. Who could object to such a radiant intrusion into the workplace? As her naive optimism wore down gruff male co-workers, it also won over America. This wasn’t a rowdy street protest of butch extremists demanding equal rights. It was Mary. She smiled her way into a producer job for a Minneapolis TV news broadcast, then made the job made her own by countering male bluster with quiet competence. She wasn’t selling out the cause but advancing it with a Trojan horse of charm offensive. Behind the smile, Moore was producer of the show. She was the star — the only actor credited in the introduction via the show’s title — and led a cast that featured three strong (even dominant) female supporting characters. She had an array of female writers posing unique storylines that hadn’t been considered by male contemporaries.

But here’s the thing — it wasn’t exclusively female writers. It wasn’t an all-female cast. It was a vision of real life that, in terms of gender, gave a more balanced presentation than anything TV viewers had seen before. And it did so without compromising quality. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” remains one of the most acclaimed and beloved series in TV history. Because for a half-hour, we got a peek into a world in which women and men lived and worked in relative harmony, and we found it fun, even comforting at times, and, oddly, not all that threatening.

A brief shining moment: A “Mary Tyler Moore” scene to remember

 

A change in tune

In his 2012 autobiography “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend relates a revelatory tidbit from the recording of the Who’s breakthrough hit “My Generation.” According to Townshend, the song’s multiple key changes were added at the suggestion of a producer who felt it would otherwise be too monotonous.

That’s saying something for a cut that’s 3 minutes, 18 seconds long. But it shows a canny understanding of the lightweight nature of pop/rock hooks. Good ones immediately catch the ear (and hopefully produce a sale) but often lack staying power. A key change — or in the case of “My Generation,” three key changes — can enable recording artists to extend the 10-15 second essence of their song to a marketable 2-3 minutes.

In most pop music, the general idea of a key change is to elevate emotional impact. It’s not so much a change in tone (from talking to shouting, for instance) as a change in landscape. It’s like staging the scene of a film on a busy city sidewalk, then having the actors recite the same lines in the middle of a forest. While conventional filmmakers typically don’t have that option, songwriters do. After a key change, a song will move through the same chord structure but at an altitude that sheds a different light on the vocals or instruments. Done well, it forwards a sentiment that other songwriting techniques can’t. It can convey new levels of joy — think The Carpenters’ “Close to You” — or profound sadness, as in Classics IV’s “Traces.” Either way, the effect on the listeners is liberating. The first two verses establish a set of parameters before the third shifts them to a new plane. Limits, once comfortable but quickly confining, suddenly become possibilities.

It’s a powerful songwriting tool, and the temptation to overdo it is natural. Last spring, as “research” for a feature I was writing on Barry Manilow, I listened to a dozen or so of his best-known love songs and found that every one of them employed a key change. Manilow was savvy at recognizing, like the Who, when the droning of a refrain needed a kickstart. Unlike the Who, the consistent need for that crutch did not spur Manilow into more sophisticated songwriting. It became a standard part of his playbook, and that of subsequent romance-heavy pop artists like Air Supply.

But it’s not just schmaltzy acts doing it. My Manilow experiment prompted me to monitor more broadly the music I hear at home, in the car, even at the grocery store, and it’s amazing how often key changes occur. Just last week I caught an episode of late-’70s TV sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and amazingly, the opening theme song climbs a half-step between the first and second of its two short verses. I have to admit, it works. And why wouldn’t it? After all, “WKRP” was a series dedicated to the classic AM radio era, an era defined by catchy pop hooks that, from “My Generation” to “Mandy,” made their way up the charts thanks to a boost up the scale.

Photo power

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes it speaks in a single scream.

Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini shot just such a photo in the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing during a religious festival in Kabul. Rarely have I seen an image so powerful that it immediately brought tears to my eyes, and the Pulitzer Prize Board agreed, awarding Hossaini the prize for breaking news photography.

Hossaini and several of his colleagues are featured in the 2015 documentary “Frame by Frame,” which looks at Afghanistan’s fledgling free press following the 2001 fall of the Taliban and its prohibition on photography of any kind. It’s not an easy job navigating a volatile political and social environment that is one of the most dangerous in the world. Insurgent attacks and government reprisals are common features of the daily news landscape. Female photographers carve themselves a niche in focusing their lenses on the nation’s women, taboo subject matter for their male counterparts, but that, too, comes with peril. When Farzana Wahidy brings her camera into a hospital burn ward to investigate the practice of self-immolation by women in the western city of Herat, officials balk at her presence, citing fears of Taliban violence.

The stories in “Frame by Frame” show a journalism community in its infancy, with its inherent optimism among the young crop of photographers determined to establish a free and vibrant Afghan press after decades of warfare and repression. True, much of that freedom relies on the dwindling U.S. presence in the region, without which the country could easily fall back under Taliban rule. But these photojournalists’ commitment to their homeland — as a Pulitzer winner, Hossaini could go easily leave the country for better, safer work — remains a beacon of hope that Afghanistan can reach its potential for a  peaceful, open society.

When a demo will do

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay

Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album “Nebraska” was a singular phenomenon. The release represented a thematic reversal for Springsteen’s career, both in its lyrics and sparse musical arrangement, but in a greater sense that arrangement signaled a stunning break from conventional wisdom with its rejection of traditional studio production techniques.

Springsteen recorded “Nebraska’s” tracks on a simple 4-track cassette device in his New Jersey home. The intention was to re-record these cuts with his band for the next studio album, but Springsteen decided to stick with the original demos, which would become the defining sound of a dark and barren album. It was a gutsy move for the Boss, who would quickly resume full-throttle studio productions with 1984’s  more commercially viable “Born in the U.S.A.” For one album, listeners were treated to a rarity in rock ‘n’ roll — 40 minutes of a man and his guitar (and harmonica) fully exposed against a stark and depressing lyrical landscape.

I’ve often wondered why albums like “Nebraska” are the exception rather than the rule. True, a demo recording is a first draft of sorts, but you could argue it’s the truest representation of the artist’s vision before a production team refines the song into something more palatable to public consumption. “Nebraska’s” rough edges comprise its greatest charms and in many ways outline the themes the album explores. The uneven mixing and flat instrumental and vocal tones exude a sense of loneliness and distance — and at the same time an intimacy — that fits the mood of the album, which is perhaps why Springsteen chose to go this route. A full album of, say, Britney Spears demos probably wouldn’t work out so well and would be better off in the hands of a skilled producer.

Occasionally I’ll hear demo versions of well-known pop hits that slip out of the vaults, either unintentionally or via official “stripped down” re-releases. Some leave me amazed at the voodoo that studio engineers do so well in turning a humdrum guitar-and-vocal piece into something truly remarkable. But more often than not, I’m disappointed at the intrusion of so much polish at the expense of the heart and soul of a song put forth in the artist’s original recording. When to turn on the studio magic and when to lay off is obviously the artist’s call, in consultation with his or her producers and/or collaborators. But my suspicion is that commercial concerns weigh heavily into these decisions, leaving me only to wonder how “Nebraska” would sound had Springsteen not had the audacity, and more importantly the clout, to follow his instincts.


Here’s an example of a highly polished, fully produced recording in John Lennon’s original studio release of the single “Woman,” from 1980’s “Double Fantasy.” The acoustic guitar is softened, presumably to suit the mood of a love song, and the voice is equally sweetened to puppy-love levels better suited to a high school dance.

Now listen to the “stripped down” version re-released in 2010. It’s technically not a demo, but a “remastered” version of the above studio recording that focuses on a simpler arrangement. The guitar isn’t so effected, and the voice, though not always in perfect tune, is pure John Lennon. This is probably more faithful to his original conception of the song, if not the demo he would’ve provided to the producer.