Eternal Goddess Tori Amos has announced her 14th studio album (12th of all new, non-Christmas-themed material) and it has a name that walks the paper-thin line between fantastic and terrible: Unrepentant Geraldines.
Tori made the announcement through Facebook, thusly:
EXCITING NEWS! – Tori has a New Album and World Tour coming Spring of 2014. The album is entitled UNREPENTANT GERALDINES and the World Tour kicks off May 7th! Click below for tour dates and Info.http://toriamos.com/tours/ugtour.html
Here are 8(ish) things we want from Unrepentant Geraldines:
A shortish run-time: 12 tracks or less.
A singular and defined musical aesthetic à la Boys For Pele or From The Choirgirl Hotel.
A cohesive theme, lyrically.
No impenetrable alter-ego or character based gimmicks or concepts.
Especially if they involve bad wigs.
Great cover art (so anything as long as it’s not Midwinter Graces).
At least ONE fantastic music video. This is not too much to ask for.
Dawn Richard - Goldenheart (Our Dawn Entertainment, 2013)
Earlier this year, whilst the rest of the internet debated Justin Timberlake’s eligibility with regards to making black music, I turned my attention to an artist who - in my humble opinion - has released the best album of 2013 so far (and certainly, a much greater album than ol’ JT) but has received 1 hundredth of his critical acclaim and sales.
Whilst The 20/20 Experience debuted to nearly 1,000,000 sales in America and sat pretty on top of its album chart, earlier this year, Dawn Richard’s far superior Goldenheart charted at 137 with 3,000 copies sold.
Why is this? Poor promotion? Possibly. Lack of radio-friendly lead single? Probably. Although I think, really, it’s got more to do with the fact that Dawn Richard is a woman, an American woman, an American woman of colour, who used to be part of a mainstream girlband, has worked extensively with P Diddy, and yet, makes a blend of panoramic, weird, euphoric, forward-thinking pop melded to traditional R&B harmonies, song structures and themes.
Some critics have rushed to pile similar descriptions on Justin’s music, but whilst Timberlake deals - lyrically - with the well worn chart-friendly themes of his enormous libido, his talent, his prowess as a performer and lover, and his unending adoration for his movie star wife, Richard’s work is far more ambitious. Love lost and love won - those old pop standards - are present and correct, but Richard postulates on religious themes, deploys cohesive and imaginative Biblical imagery, battle iconography and a barrage of obscure and carefully written lyrics. The work is the spiritual offspring of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and Madonna’s Ray of Light. It’s spectacular.
The album is inventive and expansive in all the ways that usually get critics frothing at the gills - and, certainly, Richard has had support in lots of channels that are usually lucrative for white leftfield artists, namely a five star review in The Guardian, and a glowing review from Pitchfork - as well as support from black music channels and blogs, but for some reason this has failed to connect with a huge audience in the same way that similarly ingenious music often does.
And it really is ingenious. Goldenheart is excellently plotted (songs running subtly and superbly into each other), and technically assured (never taking the easiest course, structurally or lyrically, and filled with head-swivvelling innovation, from frenetic panned handclaps to interpolation of classical music). It is exactly the kind of album, that, released by a British woman, and sanctioned by traditionally acceptable journalistic establishments (BBC’s Sound of Poll, The Mercury Prize, The BRITs) would result in huge sales and success. But there doesn’t seem to be a similar industry support structure in America to help progressive popular music artists start out.
It’s a shame, really, as Dawn Richard’s Goldenheart is supposedly the first in a projected trilogy of albums, and I can only hope that these are more commercially successful for her, so she can continue to make music for many years.
So if, like me, you’ve suffered from Timberlake ennui in 2013 and are looking for an album of orchestral electro-R&B to buoy your spirits and inspire you (or just a great album to listen to, period), look no further.
*this is technically Dawn Richard’s debut album, although in another sense, it’s not. She released an album independently in 2005 under a different name (Dawn Angelique) as well as an 11 track EP entitled Armor On in 2012, which charted lower in the US, but sold 30,000 copies off the back of its more accessible series of singles.
If you are expecting a long blog post eviscerating Lily Allen for her comeback single and video, “Hard Out Here”, you’ve come to the wrong place. This will be a short blog post and ‘evisceration’ is not on the table.
Lily Allen has done something she clearly thinks is admirable: speaking out about sexism, specifically in the music industry. The only problem is that she has nothing new to say, neither does she have a knack for satire.
If you can’t see the problem with supposedly ‘mocking’ sexism by parodying black culture and offering black women’s bodies up as jiggling, detached flesh in the exact way that you purport to despise, then we can’t help you. You won’t listen and we can’t educate you, so we won’t try.
If you can’t see the problem with suggesting that jiggling your arse and having a brain are mutually exclusive, then we can’t help you. You won’t listen and we can’t educate you, so we won’t try.
If you can’t see the problem with blacking up your husband’s penis to mock a Woman of Colour that you are engaged with in twitter beef, however childish it has become, whomever started it, we won’t be able to convince you otherwise. You won’t listen and we can’t educate you, so we won’t try.
If you think this is ‘feminism’, that this is cutting edge or helpful or will end sexism, well… we can’t convince you otherwise. You won’t listen and we can’t educate you, so we won’t try.
Katy Perry was always going to ‘go mature’ on her third record - after the candied excess of Teenage Dream - she even hinted that she might ‘go dark’ in a series of teaser trailers that hinted at a pseudo pop-rock-goth direction. But we didn’t expect her to go bland.
And that’s the problem with the bizarrely one-dimensional Prism: The 90s-infused Black Box-style dance track “Walking On Air” aside, there’s not much here to get excited about, even when the songwriting is of a decent calibre, everything’s laminated and blanched.
Lead single “Roar”, whilst catchy, still fails to pack any sort of punch, emotional or otherwise, and follow up cut, “Unconditionally”, lurches even further into AOR/MOR territory with production so inoffensively non-committal, I would be hard pressed to even describe it.
Elsewhere, “Birthday” sounds like it was engineered solely to replicate the success of “Last Friday Night (TGIF)”, “Dark Horse” - despite its electrifying, if problematic, white girl trap beats - sounds like it was engineered solely to replicate the success of “E.T.” and “Legendary Lovers”, with its soaring chorus and twangy sitar riff is a stale attempt at an ‘exotic’ “Teenage Dream”.
It doesn’t work, and by the time you’ve made your way through the entire LP - death-by-boredom-inducing bonus tracks included - you’re left with a sensation similar to consuming an enormous meal and still being left quite hungry.
The preachy, evangelical christian singer-songwriter feel to the latter half is particularly grating, even with some bland - if momentarily attention-holding - pop production chucked over the top.
The problem seems to be, that Katy Perry has finally decided (or her record label has decided, or her management has decided… basically SOMEONE has decided) that she’s going to be, or appear to be, herself on this album. And it doesn’t work.
Up until this point we’d been fed Katy Perry the caricature: on her first album, 2008’s One of the Boys, Ms. Perry was a tediously ‘naughty’ 50s-style pin-up doll, all knowing winks, faux-femme-lesbianism and tomboyish platitudes. On her second album, Teenage Dream, Katy became a living doll, able to fulfil any fantasy that a listener might have: she could be the teen wet dream you never had, the reassuringly benign self-help gay icon, the candy-coated sex symbol, the icy unattainable alien goddess, your goofy, hilarious former self (who inevitably blossomed) or the great love of your life. She could be the scorned tough cookie who joined the army, or a fairytale princess.
But in both cases, Katy was presented by herself, or those who controlled her image, as a doll, superficially imbued with characteristics, but ultimately a blank avatar for your projections. Of course, this was part of her wide appeal, that she was so pliable and diverse. But, I get the feeling this started to wear thin on Perry.
Certainly, I don’t blame her for wanting to be human on her 3rd LP. The presentation of women as dolls of any kind is a classic misogynist way of denying women autonomy or agency. It is demeaning, patronising and offensive, and even though Perry doesn’t identify as a feminist, I can see this breathlessly cartoonish alter ego getting old, to her. It’s also disappointing that to achieve success, Katy had to assume these doll-esque roles for two very long album campaigns.
But, despite all this, whether or not Prism is a true representation of Perry’s personality and/or the music she wants to make at this moment in time (and I’m not entirely convinced it is), there’s just not enough character or oomph, even in lazy party girl tracks like “This Is How We Do”, to carry a full length album.
I started this mini-essay/blogpost almost two months ago now but with unstoppable K-Pop megaforce 2NE1 looking like they may finally break America - a feat they have been teetering on the edge of for a long, long while - it seemed as good a time as any to try to finally get my arse in gear and finish it.
It’s not just laziness that has caused me to put off finishing this post; this is a difficult subject for multiple reasons:
Firstly, it’s a complex topic to write about and five years away from academia have stunted my critical thinking abilities. Secondly, it is also hard to confront less-than-desirable ideologies that may have be ingrained within me and, linked into this, it is difficult for me to write about this as a white western male without sounding like I’m trying to distance myself from my unfair position of power.
Let this act as a disclaimer: I know I am writing from a position of privilege in this and I’m trying to use my privilege to confront. I am also not slamming K-Pop or K-Pop stars, I am trying to look at the way the Western world perceives K-Pop critically.
This blogpost is about our attitudes, as part of Western society, towards K-Pop and how, not too far under the surface, Orientalism may linger there.
Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism was groundbreaking, revolutionised many areas of study in humanities and is of huge importance to critical thinking, especially postcolonial and postmodern studies.
I’m going to refer to Said a little in this post but I’m also going to try to keep this post as readable and relevant as possible (not to sound patronising but I know I personally rarely have the energy to read long, wordy articles that are verbose just for the sake of it).
Orientalism as a system functions by posing ‘The Orient’ against our own society, applying our pre-conceived ideas and misjudgements about ‘the East’ (both Middle and Far), making false assumptions about their cultures, making them something by which to oppose, define and form our own identity against.
Often (but not always) this consists of thinking of the Orient as full of savages. But it can also include over-romanticising and exoticising the peoples and cultures of these lands in artworks, in literature and film.
Take, for example, the way ‘Oriental’ people are depicted in these paintings below:
A Street Scene in Cairo; The Lantern-Maker’s Courtship (1854-61) - William Holman Hunt
The Women of Algiers (1834) - Eugène Delacroix
Orientalism also operates by conflating cultures of the East so that both in art and in our thinking there is no distinction between any ‘Oriental’ culture or peoples, they are bulked together as ‘Oriental’/Other. This leads to culturally inaccurate and offensive depictions of these peoples and their cultures.
Keeping this related to Pop music think of this line from Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love”:
"When I was Geisha he was a Samurai/Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai"
Why would a Samurai, a warrior class of Feudal Japan, speak Thai? Please do enlighten me, songwriters.
The video itself is a pefect example of Orientalism in Pop Music, with Minaj dressing as a Geisha and using makeup to exaggerate the shape of her eyes so that she is in a mild form of yellow face.
Of course Minaj isn’t the only Pop star to do this. Take, for example, Madonna’s entire Ray of Light era during which the Queen of Pop, co-opted a wide range of ‘Eastern’ cultural influence for aesthetic, and, allegedly spiritual, purposes. I was shocked when I recently re-watched the “Nothing Really Matters” video:
Because Orientalism is still part of Western culture, not just in art, the non-existent territory of ‘The Orient’ acts a mirror, showing us not the Other but rather our long-standing deep-set prejudices and attitudes, it confirms that just because the old Empires have fallen, colonial attitudes haven’t just disappeared
Personally, it seems the best way to begin a discussion on how Orientalism may influence our attitudes to K-Pop, is to first establish what K-Pop is.
A cursory search of the internet, of course, brings up many results so here are two to compare:
“K-pop (an abbreviation of Korean pop)is a musical genre originating in South Korea that is characterized by a wide variety of audiovisual elements. Although it comprises all genres of “popular music” within South Korea, the term is more often used in a narrower sense to describe a modern form of South Korean pop music covering mostly dance-pop, pop ballad, electronic, rock, hip-hop, R&B, etc”
Neither of these are considered to be the most reliable sources of information online when it comes to academia or ‘serious’ journalism but I feel that for these purposes they will suffice, and in fact may serve the purpose better.
What we can glean from them is that K-Pop is as broad umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of popular music from South Korea. There is not one distinct style or sound of K-Pop, so K-Pop may sound like almost any style of popular music.
However (and be totally honest with yourself now, I’m trying to be) part of what we find appealing, as Westerners, about K-Pop is that it does sound different, because it sounds unique, because it sounds, well… foreign.
If we look again at the second definition (by a self confessed K-Pop fan) there is a clue as to our attitudes and preconceptions surrounding K-Pop: they mention that K-Pop features ‘extremely attractive people’.
Now, again, be honest with yourself: how often have you referred to a K-Pop star as ‘cute’? I know I have in the past. I know others, both socially aware and not, who have.
In my previous post for Bells For Her (entitled No Touching) I discussed how demeaning to female musicians it is for them to be constantly consigned the epithet ‘cute’. It isn’t an empowering compliment, it denotes weakness, frailty.
Think now how the connotations of this can take on an extra, even more insulting, meaning when we use the same word to describe Korean musicians. We infantilise them.
I do not mean to say that everyone who describes a K-Pop star as cute is an out-and-out, evil, bigoted racist but by using this word we expose our ingrained cultural conditioning. It is an extremely patronising, Eurocentric view and unfairly misrepresents Korean artists as intellectually inferior, culturally inferior, inferior to the ‘civilised West’ in so many ways. It denies and discredits the years of hard work, the level of effort and sheer determination that these musicians put into achieving success.
It is one step away from the ‘savage’ or ‘exotic’ stereotype of the not-so-distant past.
However, exposing these views within ourselves doesn’t have to be completely negative. By locating and identifying insidious, long-lasting attitudes that we have been culturally conditioned to harbour, we can at last start to challenge them and, hopefully, begin to dismantle this system of West vs. Orient, us vs. them, I vs. the Other.
"it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects"
And as I, of course, do not place the blame for any problematic aspects of our consumption of K-Pop upon Koreans themselves I would suggest that we take her advice and alter it slightly so that we remember it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media from other cultures while also being aware and critical of our more problematic or pernicious attitudes and social conditioning towards these cultures.
As I stated in my opening statement, 2NE1 look set to finally achieve mainstream success in America (something not even many musicians from ‘the West’ manage) with both their new album and their recent collaborations with will.i.am (“Gettin’ Dumb" and "Take the world on”) and this may be, in-part, to the overwhelming success of label-mate PSY’s incredible, unprecedented success with “Gangnam Style” last year:
As “Gangnam Style” was repeatedly played on mainstream radio stations and every weekend in clubs all over the world, Grimes predicted that PSY heralded exciting times and international success for K-Pop in NME and wrote on her blog:
"I’m sorry, but I think it’s fucking incredible that a Korean language song is the most popular thing on the planet. That’s so good for humanity. […] PSY is a genius […] His art is creating a generation of kids that will grow up seeing Asian culture as being as valid as Western culture which they currently don’t. […] Racism isn’t over. Sexism isn’t over. The only way things actually effect social change is by hitting the audience that perpetuates these ideas. Therefore, when a deserving artist blows up its good for everybody."
Of course to attribute the impending international and mainstream success of 2NE1 (that makes it sound like a negative thing, I personally am excited for it) to PSY is once again, unfairly robbing them of credit for their years of hard work and determination. It also does not depict an accurate view of what has been going on behind the scenes in K-Pop for many years.
Yun-Jung Choi explains in her article The Globilization of K-Pop: Is K-Pop Losing its Koreaness, which I have provided a link for at the end of this post, that the three major labels in South Korea (SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment) have been recruiting songwriters, choreographers, producers and other technical staff from ‘the West’ for years, determined to export their acts and achieve international success.
She poses an interesting question:
"Employing foreign talents in so many aspects of music production imitates the process of importing pop from abroad, repackaging it in Korea and exporting it as K-Pop. If that is the case, what is the Korean-ness in contemporary K-Pop?”
If K-Pop really is any pop music from Korea then surely we should expect exactly the same things from it as we do from Western pop music? Of course we don’t. Part of K-Pop’s importance, credibility - its appeal - is that it conveys “Korean-ness”. Are we truly any better than those 19th century patrons that commissioned Oriental scenes, revelling in its exoticness?
I’m not sure.
A lot of K-Pop is technically and audibly superior to other pop music put out these days, regardless of country of origin: it is more sophisticated in its song structures, more ambitious in its melding of genres and braver in its production choices.
To boot, K-Pop stars are not ashamed of admitting how hard they work (unlike most Western pop stars who love to portray themselves as lazy, deadbeat party monsters who do not care) and Korean label executives are masters of marketing. The whole K-Pop industry works hard for success so why shouldn’t they achieve that on a global scale?
I feel like K-Pop stars have been forced into a double-bind situation that is familiar in the music industry: if they don’t sell enough they are failures, if they sell too much they have ‘sold out’ and lost what made them special. We expect big things from K-Pop but when it slightly adapts itself to be slightly more marketable on a global scale or works with big music names we accuse them of losing their Korean-ness.
After the occupation and division of Korea by the USSR and USA, North Korea was modelled after the socialist political model of the USSR and South Korea modelled after US ideals. Before this Korea was mockingly known in the West as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ for its policy of isolationism, that is until Japan colonised them in the 19th century.
South Korean politics and attitudes now mirror the extreme capitalist mindset of the USA so it is no wonder that K-Pop stars and the label executives want to make as much money as possible and export their musical acts.
A lot of academic work has focussed on South-Korean cultural exports and it has become a phenomenon known as ‘Korean wave’. It has been viewed as a positive reaction to and ‘soft’ form of colonialism, a way for Koreans to redress the way in which they have been portrayed and wronged by colonial occupations.
In summary, before you regurgitate the tired old adage “uhhh this band was so cool before they sold out”, followed by an accusation that K-Pop stars have lost their Korean-ness, stop and think about the context of the music you are listening to and think about why you are having these reactions.
And don’t you dare call a K-Pop star cute simply because they are Korean.
I will leave you with a link to a PDF version of Yun-Jung Choi’s article I mentioned about and a video of Edward Said talking about Orientalism:
A long while ago we have a vague memory of Kelis explaining in an interview that she was working on two albums. One was a dance and house-influenced LP, released in 2010 as Flesh Tone. The second was a Roberta Flack-inspired soul and R&B record.
Although for the longest time the latter album seemed to have been abandoned or forgotten, AW13 would appear to be the time we finally get to hear it in full, buy it for ourselves and listen on repeat as the infectious rhythms and lush horn harmonies wash over us…
We’ve already heard free download "Jerk Ribs", an essential summer song, but now we have “Been Given A Morning” (above), a stunning slow jazz ballad, gloopy and warmly melancholic.
Supposedly the album these tracks are taken from is going to be released on Dave Sitek’s label late ‘13 or early ‘14. We can’t wait.
Eccentric genius Imogen Heap has been travelling the world in the 3 years since her lush and underrated avant-electronic masterpiece of a third album, Ellipse, was released.
That record was written and recorded as she moved into her parents’ beautiful old house in the Essex countryside. The making of the album was accompanied, in real time, by a series of vlogs that chronicled each song’s progress in tandem with updates about the renovation and redecoration of the building it was being recorded in.
The series of making-of videos for Ellipse may have passed by all but the most hardcore of Immi fans, but they were a joy to watch: addictive, fun, fascinating. I whole-heartedly believe that in centuries to come they will be seen as a valuable cultural item, as they make up one of the few existing detailed visual documents of how an artist’s album is made from start to finish, from conception to release.
For Sparks, Heap’s yet-to-be-released 4th album, she went one step further and created the album song-by-song, project-by-project, each with a different concept, each chronicled (somewhat unevenly) via vlogs and video updates. The projects ranged from cross-cultural collaborations (e.g. a song composed with Vishal-Shekhar) to masterful experiments in technical innovations (e.g. the invention of a pair of gloves that you can compose by wearing and dancing with) and each one blew my mind a little more.
Then, after 6 official ‘Heapsongs’ and a seventh project with no studio version or release, Imogen went quiet and has only just announced that Sparks will be released in early 2014. There’s more information about the wildly ambitious project in the video above but it involves a lot of thought, care, preparation and passion.
For now, here’s the only other information we have:
M.I.A. has revealed the album art and tracklist for her long awaited fourth album, Matangi. Featuring singles “Bring The Noize”, “Bad Girls” and “Come Walk With Me”, the work includes production from Hit-Boy, Danja, Switch, Surkin, So Japan and M.I.A and is expected to be released worldwide on the 5th of November.
Music journalists love to speak about new artists in terms of artists-you-may-already-be-familiar-with. It’s understandable: human beings don’t deal well with change, and it’s much simpler to get on board with something unfamiliar if it’s sold to you as something you might already be a fan of.
This becomes a problem, however, when you consider that, whilst white male artists - or bands - manage to shrug these comparisons off almost as soon as they establish themselves as ‘successful’, female artists are followed around by them for the length of their career, usually on the premise that women can’t possibly be original and are instead a mess of jealous cat-fighting or devious plagiarism.
As a feminist music blog, then, it would pain us to describe the wonderful crisp debut from Canadian musician, Jessy Lanza, in terms of other musicians, for reasons detailed above, so we shan’t tell you that it exists at the luxe, chill intersection between Grimes, Iamamiwhoami and the hushed white girl R&B of Jessie Ware. We refuse to say it. But it does.
Pull My Hair Back is a sparse, compact 9 tracks long, but there’s more than enough to sink your aural teeth into. From opener, “Giddy”, featuring an undulating synth bassline that most mainstream pop stars would give their left studded shoulder pad to sample, to the catchy, cutesy but never annoying vocal hook of “Kathy Lee”, Lanza’s work is an uncomplicated pleasure to hear, but never derivative or dull.
The songs range from steely house-flecked instrumentals with manipulated vocals as ornamentation, to fully fledged melodic pop ‘n’ b songs, but the work feels cohesive and complete. Whether Jessy is rather blatantly coaxing a potential lover to call her or mumbling something so obscurely you can barely tell what it is, her mournful, needy, breathy tones never become tiresome, bolstered by glitchy, hyperactive beats and luxuriant synth pads.
It’s an enigmatic and enticing work, both warm and dark, nostalgic and hopeful, erotic and coy, and quite pleasantly - actually - it hints at an artist’s promise and potential that isn’t quite fulfilled yet. Which is exciting. Many new artists feel like they’ve exhausted all their best ideas straight away, but Lanza sounds like this is just the start.
VV Brown emerged in the midst of the nu British soul revival but she never seemed particularly happy with her musical direction: a heady but hollow mish-mash of twee pop, doo wop, soul and 50s rock ‘n’ roll.
Something felt slightly off, as if her ambition had eclipsed her personal taste and she was willing to do anything to get an album out there even if it meant making music she wasn’t privately passionate about (see also Clare Maguire).
Whatever the case, Brown didn’t make enormous waves but had a decent start, garnering a minor radio hit in America with the incredible "Shark In The Water" and landing a spot for herself as one of the faces of M&S’ clothing range. Stardom seemingly beckoned.
Now, seemingly free from the shackles of a major label, VV is supposedly finally following the artistic path she personally desires with the release of a concept album entitled Samson & Delilah. Above is one of two lead singles, “The Apple”.
It’s a fascinating prospect. The imagery and cinematography are both arresting and breathtakingly stunning and Brown looks incredibly beautiful. The music, however, is less interesting: an odd mix of 90s Moloko-esque electropop and psuedo-Florence Welch harmonies and warrior cries. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t quite feel as euphoric and magnificent as it could.
We have yet to listen to the full album, perhaps there are some gems there (interestingly: 2 of the tracks are named after Madonna songs from Ray of Light, surely not a coincidence) but perhaps it’ll all make sense in context.
Either way, Brown seems to finally be making art from her gut and brain and heart, not from someone else’s wallet, and even if it doesn’t totally grab us, it’s a lovely thing that we greatly respect.