A cultural ferment, frozen in amber.
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Run the Jewels, continue to push boundaries with their latest music video. Watch it in virtual reality. Listening makes the blood rush to your cheeks, your heartbeat pulse behind your eyes. The value of the album is held between those two songs: It captures the variegated sides of black life in America and its specific feeling, a dizzying mix of frustrated helplessness and joyous survival.
Run the Jewels gets this. If you listen closely, through their artful grandstanding, you can hear a radical politics.
Which is another way of saying the truth; listen, and hear the world change. It used to be, if you wanted to vibrate at the same frequency as the Mayan spacemen, you needed to move to a Southwestern city that specialized in horse art. It used to be, if you wanted your aura photographed, you had to go to a cramped Chinatown crystal shop. Places that are, for lack of a better word, hip.
It used to be, if you bought an album from a small Vancouver electronic-music label, you could expect some kind of weird minimal techno. These days? Do you catch my drift? It sounds like a poster of a wolf. It sounds like a hologram sticker of a dolphin. It sounds like a tattoo of an open eye. It sounds like the font Papyrus. Why would urban-dwelling gentrified-Brooklyn types embrace the atavistic philosophies of conspiracy theorists and mononymous zither players? One answer is that this is how cool works: Things that used to be uncool become cool, and vice versa. We live in an age of aggressive positivism, a world overtaken by metrics and markets.
To accuse New Age revivalism of insincerity — reducing the possibilities of belief to a binary — is to miss the point. The gentle woo-woo spirituality of New Age is attractive because it refuses the grinding realities of life spent in the shadow of Wall Street and Hollywood and Silicon Valley. If a minute New Age symphony can make you feel good — instead of harried or judged or pandered to — why should you care that it sounds like the soundtrack to a s nature documentary?
A band that signs up to play the Super Bowl halftime show is making a declaration of immense confidence in its ability to hold a spotlight. This brand of wide-screen pop attracts easy put-downs: edgeless, corny, white. Imagine it: Sincerity will once again be on its way out of music, only for a familiar and tender voice to ring throughout the future blogosphere.
High-profile pop songs like this are conceived as nothing less than events, ready to be performed at mega-happenings like the Super Bowl halftime show. What his audience wanted was the warmth of familiarity. The band is built to endure. As good-and-evil Christian morality falls out of fashion among the women in my social universe, a new binary has arisen to organize our outlook. In hell, there is everything else.
There are no nonbelievers, and there is no limbo. Beyond just the pleasures of a classic party anthem — an infectious hook, synth chords to ramp up your heart rate — the song offers an American love story for the ages. Fetty is a drug dealer weak-kneed for the girl who can match his hustle. When he cooks crack, she cooks crack with him. When he dreams of Lamborghinis, he dreams in matching pairs. The couple make money together, and they spend it together too — at strip clubs, on weed, on gifts for each other.
What could be more romantic than two equals teaming up to build their fantasy in a difficult and unjust world? We sang about cooking crack with our babies in the aisles of Duane Reade and on the dance floors of bat mitzvahs. Rattling trap snares drowned out the sound of ice-cream-truck jingles, and summertime was better for it. The requisite councils convened to assess. Blogs weighed the evidence.
On one hand, the song was an ode to the working woman by a man secure enough to love her. On the other hand, a pop-rap song about selling drugs — written and performed by a man — seemed an unlikely entry into the feminist canon. The women in my social circle, most of whom had never sold or even seen crack, breathed a collective sigh of relief. We had received the necessary clearance to enjoy. Apparently, anyone could be one.
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I wonder about the purpose of this exercise. Is it not good enough on its own?
Is the gutted, feel-good pop feminism of that Bustle post the same one that moves a panel of black women to declare Fetty Wap a feminist? In the year that conversations about identity finally entered the small-talk realm of white folks, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that not everything is created for us — not even all feminist things. Identity politics is not always about identifying. Perhaps, in the future, we can find a way to say so without needing to claim it for ourselves.
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The song crept into the collective consciousness in similarly stealthy fashion. The highlight comes in its final scene, when the sculptor-heroine unveils a hideous terra-cotta bust of Richie. Richie has spent several years barnstorming arenas, quietly re-emerging as a top-grossing touring act. Still, the highest sort of esteem is denied him. A reappraisal may be in order.
That mix of understated and overwrought is pure Richie. Say it for always — naturally. The miracle is that Richie makes such sentiments stick. Credit his melodic gift and his knack for arrangements that wash over listeners in cresting, tumbling waves. In short, Richie is a great singer-songwriter and a world-historical cheeseball.
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Richie knows how this game is played — how to laugh at himself, politely, and all the way to the bank. When Richie performs, though, the irony melts away. It was a reminder that some of the most powerful songs are the most gauche, scrambling together beauty and vulgarity, exquisite craftsmanship and appalling taste, exalted chivalric love-oaths and the queasy come-ons of a dork with a mullet. JR is an artist and filmmaker who works with large-scale prints of photographs. It took place at the same time as the Big Ten championship football game, which featured the undefeated University of Iowa Hawkeyes, and on my way there the town seemed to be enveloped in a ghostly hush.
Still, the recital hall was crowded, with a sizable contingent of skinny-jean-clad locals. This incursion of youth into the securely aged domain of the classical-music audience was owed, it seemed, to the promised appearance of a guest performer, Caroline Shaw. A few years ago, Shaw, then 30, shocked the classical-music world by becoming the youngest-ever winner of a Pulitzer Prize in music. In swift fashion, Shaw emerged as the face of a flourishing scene of young composers — people like Nico Muhly, Gabriel Kahane and Missy Mazzoli — who were blurring the lines between classical and indie music.
In Iowa, Shaw came onstage and sat cross-legged on her chair among the string players. Small and pixieish, she could easily have passed for a college student. Her slow, ribbonlike phrases, hovering just this side of harmonic resolution, might have risen from the Middle Ages as much as from the middle of Appalachia.
The players plucked their instruments with picks, banjo-style, and occasionally broke into odd, agitated strumming or sawed away at their strings with the wooden part of the bow.