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Music

Chino, Do You Know Your Miranda Rights?

Chino, Do You Know Your Miranda Rights?

Sooner or later, the gringos kill everything

My favorite genre is the movie musical; my least favorite, the musical-theater-kid movie. Both Spielberg’s Story and last year’s other corny pretender, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, have arrived as quaint, todos-juntos representatives of the latter brand. Bright, high-pitched, and would-be weird, they come from a time when we weren’t shaken by a global pandemic that wiped out millions of the bottom and made billions for the top. Miranda had the audacity to state in a promotional podcast for In the Heights that he wanted to “transcend” (“progress beyond”) West Side Story by not making “yet another gangster movie.” Good for him.

Extremity and Beauty

Extremity and Beauty

My aversion to Indian classical music turned to devotion

The alaap is a formal and conceptual innovation of the same family as the circadian novel, in which everything happens, in an amplification of time, before anything’s begun to happen. At what point North Indian classical singing allowed itself the liberty of making the introduction—that is, the circumventory exploration that defers, then replaces, the “main story”—become its definitive movement, I don’t know; it could go back to the early 20th century, when Ustad Abdul Wahid Khan’s romantic-modernist proclivities left a deep impress on North Indian performance.

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves

On David Berman

Much of what David Berman wrote and performed throughout his life was country music: songs about the sadness and difficulty of trying to get by in the world, along with descriptions of that world. “When God was young, he made the wind and the sun,” Berman sang on the opening song of Bright Flight. “And since then, it’s been a slow education.” When country songs are successful, it is because their outward simplicity, their plain-spokenness, their colloquialisms emerge out of enormous and delicate efforts of emotional compression. You can tell when a country song is just simple—when the necessary effort hasn’t been made—and you can tell when a songwriter hasn’t pulled off the compression, because then the song sounds mannered. But when both elements are working, a country song can shimmer, throb, or glare at you with an uncomfortable intensity.

Travels with Joni Mitchell

Travels with Joni Mitchell

An oeuvre inaugurated by disavowal

Around 2014, I began to talk to friends about Joni and was disappointed—surprised—by how little they knew. These were people who listened to music. I had a conversation about her with a highly accomplished ex-student in New York, a writer who had musical training, who thought I was talking about Janis Joplin. This was related to a problem: the plethora of Js among women musicians of the time, which led to their conflation into a genre. Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell: the last three especially were seen as interchangeable. Even if I put down my ex-student’s confusion to uncharacteristic generational ignorance, I found that, on mentioning Joni to a contemporary I had to work hard to distinguish her from Joan Baez. My friend had dismissed—not in the sense of “rejected,” but “taxonomized”—Joni as being part of a miscellany of singers with long, straight hair, high, clear voices, and a sincerity that shone brightly in the mass protests of the late ’60s. Visually, in her early acoustic performances with guitar, and even in her singing, she appropriated the folk singer’s persona to the point of parody, while the songwriting was absolutely unexpected. To prove this to my friend, I played her “Rainy Night House” and “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody.” It became clear in twenty seconds that Mitchell was not Joan Baez.

Stories of Excess

Stories of Excess

Turn on the Bright Lights, fifteen years on

Turn on the Bright Lights, now experiencing a well-deserved fifteen-year anniversary celebration, is an album that could definitely while away a wistful witching hour or two. I don’t mean this to sound like bragging: though I was one of its composers, I now feel more like a confused participant, or a survivor of PTSD.

Relating to or Resembling a Peacock

Relating to or Resembling a Peacock

Recent and not-so-recent music

There is perhaps no working musician in whose case the asymmetry between critical accolades and actual musical content is so steep and acute, and so misleading. Stephin Merritt’s music is flat, gray, unmemorable, and “melodic” only in most contrived sense; his melodies seem to scream “I am writing a song in a usually disposable medium that is usually meant for mere entertainment but I am smart and special and this is meant to be real art.”