Category Archives: Music

Generation Drake

As you may remember from history class, one way to know a culture–to hold its thought in time– is to look at its art, its literature and its music. In his review of Drake’s new album, Nothing Was the Same, Steven Hyden of Grantland makes just this kinds of observation. “Again, his knowledge of pop celebrity mechanics in the social-media age is instinctive,” Hyden writes. “He gets that the public ultimately prefers the fantasy of accessibility to the fantasy of sequestered opulence.” The confessional style, the identity construction on social media, the “meta self-doubt” is all there.

All of the Drake-iest qualities are represented on “Too Much”: the oversharing of familial dirty laundry, the preoccupation with parsing his own (not too distant) past, the self-confidence disguised as self-doubt and self-doubt disguised as self-confidence, and the strident Y-ish striving. The influence of social media is palpable: In “Too Much,” Drake simultaneously presents a façade that he knows is not entirely accurate while also acknowledging that this façade is not entirely accurate. (I’m referring to the meta reference to Drake’s best-related stress, which, along with phenomena like “yacht envy” and “16-bedroom château guilt,” is experienced by only the truly megalomaniacal.) He undercuts this bravado by talking openly about his problems, but he’s not fully attached to this identity, either. The “real” Drake is situated somewhere between a self-consciously constructed and self-aware avatar and the handpicked highlights of interpersonal drama he has chosen to share with strangers.

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The Curse of “You May Also Like”

Algorithms help us find the songs we like, but that may prevent us from imagining new kinds of music, argues Evgeny Morozov on Slate.


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My Post on BuzzFeed: The 10 Outstanding Essays of 2012

A collection of this year’s best culture writing.

LeBron James’ Hairline, Manufacturing Rick Ross and Lana, Twitter subpoenas, Obama’s paradoxical blackness, an Asian hoops star, doxxing twitter trolls, a future beyond Facebook, our infatuation with busyness, breaking down Breaking Bad, and the revolutionary women of the Arab Spring.

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Childish Gambino: Expanding Life-Scripts for Black Americans

The Racism of Donald4Spiderman Inspired the Label-Busting on Childish Gambino’s new album, “Camp”

Imagine if underneath Spider-Man’s red and blue suit was a Peter Parker with black skin.  Played by a person of color with the same neurotic humor, scientific wizardry, and love for a certain redhead, would the photo snapping wall-crawler be any less amazing?

When fans of Donald Glover suggested he play Spider-Man in the movie franchise’s reboot, the nether-realm of strident racism that thrives online swelled with hostility.  Motivated by the venom spit his way, Glover, known lyrically as Childish Gambino, responded with his new album, “Camp” (Glassnote Records).  Exploding the labels that confined his youth, CG offers a commentary that expands and enriches what a black life can be.

“The last thing Spider-Man should be is another white guy,” wrote Marc Bernardin on the science fiction website io9.   With a list of lackluster, potential actors, (who all happened to be white) Bernardin asked his readers to imagine Spidey with a darker hue. Because Peter Parker is “…defined by the people he cares for, by his career, by his identity as a New Yorker,” casting a non-white actor to play him wouldn’t change much.

While many supporters took to twitter propagating the hashtag Donald4Spiderman, Glover recounts all the hate mail he received.  In an interview with HardKnock TV he retells: “All these nerds were hitting me up on Twitter and emailing me and shit and calling me nigger…. Don’t take Peter Parker from us …and these are nerds!”

Capturing the polar reactions to Donald4Spiderman, Glover jokes on his Comedy Central special, “Weirdo” it was either “Donald for Spider-Man!” or, “He’s black kill em!”

Much more than overt hatred, one reaction infuriated Glover.   He recites: “Listen, the thing about it is there’s no black kids like Peter Parker.”

“It’s fucking 2011,” an aggravated Glover declares, “and you don’t think there is a black kid who lives with his aunt in Queens who likes science…who takes photography?”

Glover’s experience alludes to a narrow and impoverished conception of black Americans. Where white characters in TV and film occupy the entire spectrum of personality, black characters are denied nuance, instead defined solely by their blackness.  A colored man who is also nerdy, cunning, idiosyncratic? Impossible.

Take, as another example, the movie, “Finding Forrester.”A young basketball star from the Bronx is offered to attend a prestigious prep school.  Jamal Wallace, we soon find out, is also a talented writer versed in literature and poetry.  One of his pieces is so exceptional that his presumptuous teacher accuses him of plagiarism.  No black man can excel at basketball and something else.  The scenes where Wallace corrects his instructor on the usage of “farther” vs. “further” or when he educates an arrogant man on the origins of the BMW insignia: “white propeller zipping around a blue sky,” are righteous defiance.

Like Spider-Man with a different complexion, Wallace is strange only because he’s judged without complexity.  Relegated to stereotype, to the limited imagination of American culture, the attitudes people have towards blacks can be one dimensional.

To combat the negative conceptions that hinder life possibilities, Childish Gambino made his music for “white kids who feel like they don’t exist…I made the album for me when I was 13, I made it for black kids specifically who are told who they are all the time.”

CG aims to complicate black identity by challenging ready-made life-scripts. On the introspective and somber “Hold You Down,” Gambino confesses: “Culture shock at barber shops cuz I ain’t hood enough/ we all look the same to the cops ain’t that good enough?” The insightful and poetic sociology reminiscent of Dave Chappelle continues, “White kids get to wear whatever hat they want/ when it comes to black kids, one size fits all.”

The actor/writer/comedian/musician proudly inverts the popular comparison: “I won’t stop till they say James Franco is the white Donald Glover.”

Feeling pigeonholed as a rapper (like Mos Def and Drake he sings too), Gambino prefers to call his music black rock. He explains, “Oh its a rap album. People are like okay, got you. People think all rap is the same.” On the ardent track “Sunrise” Gambino affirms, “New shit, you didn’t know/black rock like a fuckin’ Lost episode/something for these black kids to call they own/so when you skatin’ in yo driveway you not alone.”

With equal parts salt and sugar Glover cracks: “I really have to thank the racists…That whole Spider-Man campaign is probably the reason Childish Gambino is the way it is now.

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Pandora’s Predicament: Music Discovery and the Future of Internet Radio

Portrayed by a slick and forcible Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, Sean Parker first gained notoriety for his work with Napster. The file sharing program no longer exists at the tech-forefront, but the site disrupted the industry with lasting impact. In fact, piracy remains the dominant mode of consumption. Realizing music’s need for a legal and innovative business model, the enterprising Parker declared last year, “I’ve dedicated the rest of my career to fix what I broke.”

Enter Spotify.  Parker is banking on the popular European streaming service that has just pierced the American market.  Compatible with Facebook’s interface, and with a colossal click and play library, the British based company is poised to blaze through the States.  Industry observers believe Spotify’s expansion will crowd out the music streaming leader, Pandora.  However, the internet radio company should not be counted out.

Pandora’s appeal has always been its focus on music discovery. Personalized radio exposes listeners to new music better than anyone else. It gives Pandora its competitive edge.

The founder of Pandora, Tim Westergren, began with the idea that music could be categorized and organized using a mathematical algorithm.  The Music Genome Project, the heart of Pandora, is an extensive library that genotypes songs, assigning tracks over 400 traits.

Musicians at Pandora listen to every new song and catalogue its features.  The result, as stated in their Form S-1 to the S.E.C, is a “proprietary personalized playlist generating system.”  Pandora makes customizable radio stations based on users’ tastes.

Listeners begin by creating a station based off a song or artists, the station’s “seed.”  From there, songs are played that demonstrate similarities to the seed song or artist.  Users can give a streaming song a thumbs up or thumbs down, offering their radio station insight to their preferences.  Since the company’s inception in 2000, Pandora has collected over eight billion thumbs.

The beauty of the Pandora experience is the exposure to music that is both familiar and fresh.  A mixture of acoustic and electric in Bon Jovi’s “Livin on a Prayer” leads the listener to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” which may lead to a lesser known Def Leppard track and eventually to a brand new artist shaped by British heavy metal.  The exhilaration of discovery, of finding another favorite band, ties the user to Pandora.

Critics of the company argue that music discovery is unnecessary if users have access to an immense collection of songs.  Pandora’s library totals 800,000, dwarfed by Spotify’s 15 million. Westergren addresses this issue by differentiating Pandora’s service.

In an interview with TechCrunch, he said a listener “would find some songs they like on Pandora, and then go buy them on iTunes or listen to them on demand via Rdio or Spotify and use them in tandem.”  Where Spotify is a limitless iTunes library, Pandora informs how preferences and playlists are made.

Another criticism leveled at Pandora is the company’s ad-based business model.  Listener growth is exploding, reaching 80 million users this summer, however the costs of licensing music mounts higher.  Rather than focus on a subscription based model, like Spotify, Pandora offers its users free, limitless streaming with visual and audio ads.  This strategy maximizes user growth while it forgoes revenue from subscribers.

The challenge Pandora faces is converting its popularity into revenue from advertisers.  Although 70% of audio streaming takes place on mobile devices, less than 1% of total ad dollars are spent there.  As a warning to potential investors, the company emphasized it has yet to make a profit.

According to Businessweek, Pandora plans to overcome these obstacles by expanding its ad sales force and by growing its user base through automobile integration.  By 2015 advertising dollars spent on mobile devices is expected to multiply by 12.  In addition, Pandora radio will be found in the 2012 car models of General Motors, Ford, and Toyota, including the Camry. Businessweek reports that by rapidly increasing its user base now, Pandora will be positioned to receive mobile ad dollars in the near future.   Once ad agencies decide to aggressively court mobile audiences, Pandora can offer millions of eyes and ears.

Facing a new competitor in Spotify and lackluster revenue from smart phone ads, many have dismissed Pandora’s potential.  However, with a loyal, growing fan base Pandora hopes to leverage its free and limitless listening to cash in on the future of mobile streaming.  Pandora offers a service that is not simply the music people enjoy, but the unearthing of something new.

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