For years now, Freeway Rick Ross, the real life drug dealer upon whom rapper Rick Ross bases his stage persona and kingpin image, has been trying to nail Ross (the latter) for making millions by selling his music under an appropriated drug lord persona. Last week, a California judge dismissed Freeway Rick’s most recent appeal, citing the rapper’s creation of original works that only used the name as a jumping-off point. Freeway Rick was not amused.
In a statement issued following the judge’s rejection of his appeal, the real Freeway Rick Ross remarked: “There is a teachable moment about the state of our community when a man who has a respectable job as a correctional officer, has to recreate himself in my former image as a large-scale kingpin to gain what he feels is social acceptance as a successful man.” Though Freeway Rick’s indignation does have a point here, he misunderstands Ross’ motivations. Ross was never thinking about perceived social acceptance as a successful man. He was thinking about actual success. And he actually achieved it by making insane amounts of money because he understands the fan inclination to want to believe that artists’ music reflects a truthful depiction of their lives.
Hip-hop culture has always been based on the appropriation and re-interpretation of communal objects from the past. It’s called sampling. And hip-hop artists have been doing it in with their stage personas forever, pretending to be harder and more dangerous than they actually are. So when Ross took on the symbolic identity of a historical drug dealer, he was doing just that: “sampling” someone else’s life and then turning it into something new. And that is exactly why Rick Ross’ recent lawsuit against LMFAO for interpolating the lyric “Every day I’m hustlin” from his 2006 song “Hustlin” is so ironic, because when LMFAO jokingly altered that line, they were doing the exact same thing. Though Ross’ lawsuit states that LMFAO’s similar lyric is “an obvious attempt to capitalize on the fame and success of “Hustlin,” the reality of the situation is a bit more nuanced.
About a month ago, after One Direction dropped their latest release, Midnight Memories, most reviewers couldn’t help but point out the album’s shameless knock-offs of some of the biggest pop hits of the ’80s including “Jessie’s Girl,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and pretty much any song by Asia, just to name a few. And, yes, while the songwriters behind the squeaky clean boy band’s smash singles make their musical points of reference pretty obvious to any listener older than 12, they also manage to pull off some patently ingenious lyrical references that slipped by most recaps of the album “ mostly because that was precisely what they were designed to do.
Upon a first listen, the first verse of “Better Than Words” sounds like pretty standard fare for a One Direction song: a just-generic-enough description of crazy, undeniable love that sweeps you up in its whirlwind of affection and excitement.
Better than words
But more than a feeling
Crazy in love
Dancing on the ceiling
But, if you haven’t noticed it already, each line is also a song in its own right. The second line. The third line. And, you guessed it. These aren’t just lyrics in a One Direction song, they’re built-in references to seminal pop hits. And they’re placed directly next to the title of the One Direction song, itself the very first line of the song.
To be clear, this is not really about Beyoncé’s new album. It’s not about her incorporation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s feminist TED Talk on the track “Flawless.” It’s not about her anti-marketing strategy. And it’s definitely not about judging whether the music is overrated or not.
Because beyond any of the numerous aspects of the album’s production that Beyoncé had under her control “ the probably insane non-disclosure agreements regarding the album’s release, the video treatments, the feminist lyrics, the genre-spanning production “ what is just as fascinating about the new album are Beyoncé’s fans reactions to it, and the repeated hyperbole that they use when they talk about her, especially in contrast to their own lives.
It isn’t news to anybody that Beyoncé’s fans elevate her to the level of royalty, and, most of the time, to the level of a goddess. It’s become just as commonplace for the casual fan to refer to Beyoncé as “Queen Bey” as it has for some of the press’ most respected music critics. But if you comb through enough tweets and status updates about Beyoncé, you’ll see another interesting trend: that, in their veneration, her fans repeatedly tend to openly highlight their own supposed personal insignificance and lack of achievement to the pop queen’s grandiose accomplishments.
Here are some anonymous Beyoncé-related samples from the recent Twitter archives:
“I can barely make my bed in the morning. @beyonce is on a world tour and puts out an album and a shit ton of videos. what am i doing?”
“Beyoncé made more money in the past hour than I have in my whole life.”
“I don’t want to sound like a crazy stan, but listening to Beyonce’s new album is why we were put on this earth”
“Let it sink in that 2-year-old Blue Ivy Carter already has a verse on a Beyonce song, once again proving she is more powerful than us all.”
A recent Buzzfeed review of Beyonce’s new album takes a cursory stab at dissecting this phenomenon: Even casual fans approach her as a sort of deity, in large part because thinking of her as a superhuman being is part of what makes her music and performances so much fun.”
I really tried to give Lana Del Rey the benefit of the doubt on this one. I swear. I was hoping that her half-hour long short film Tropico, an epic tale based on the biblical story of sin and redemption, wasn’t going to be another poorly“conceived attempt at grand symbolism and “deep” meaning that would inevitably force me to question why I ever derived any satisfaction from her music in the first place and would once again make me come face to face with the full scope of her guileless superficiality and lack of insight. But you know what Mick Jagger says.
So, just for the sake of convenience, even though the biblical triptych of innocence, sin, and redemption is the central conceit of the video, I’m going to ignore the overwrought and overused religious parallels that Lana cuts and pastes with bowling ball-level subtlety and focus more on her decision to include voiceovers of her reading excerpts from Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg poems, which is exactly as pretentious as it sounds.
Amid the avalanche of criticism aimed at Kanye West’s over-the-top, obviously green-screened, naked Kim Kardashian-featuring, fake motorcycle-riding new video for “Bound 2,” is one common complaint that just keeps recurring: the video is too damn cheesy.
And, yes, it is. Yes, it’s the visual equivalent of a romance novel you’d find in the supermarket checkout line, or a drunkenly ill-conceived artistic partnership between Lisa Frank and Thomas Kinkade. But, of course, when a video is this incredibly kitschy, it’s usually a signal that the people who created it must have done so intentionally. Other than a basic lack of self-awareness on the part of the director and star, how else could you explain why an idea so cheesy is executed so gleefully and without restraint?
And if you look at it as intentional, then maybe it’s possible to see the the video as a deliberately corny ode to the feeling of falling in love, to the understanding that the cheesy and stupid emotions that you never thought would ever possess you can be both surprisingly real and frighteningly in the driver’s seat when it comes to your decision-making; that the cheesiness of those emotions actually isn’t fabricated, but real, and might in fact be the only thing really worth championing in a world where so much else is fake and manufactured. This might explain why cheap green-screening takes the center stage in the video: as the visual equivalent of the inherent corniness that real, uncool, stupid-looking human love entails.
But, of course, according to Kanye, that’s not what he means. In an interview yesterday with The Breakfast Club on New York’s Power 105 FM, Kanye stated straightforwardly that his intention with the video was “to show you that this is The Hunger Games. I want to show you that this is the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us, and the only difference is a black dude in the middle of it. Admittedly, this is a pretty vague statement, but his remarks later on in the interview clarify his position a bit, as he goes on to say: “We’re enslaved by brands¦We’re controlled by peer pressure. We’re controlled by the desire for a particular car.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, ‘Pop’ art upended the staid world of fine art by incorporating elements from advertising, television, and consumer product packaging. It fundamentally shifted the public perception of visual art, redefined the acceptable subjects for the medium, and subtly exposed the supercilious pretension and meaningless market forces that governed the art world with shadowy power.
In 2013, Lady Gaga released ARTPOP. It has a track called “Sexxx Dreams,” and includes lyrics like, “Cuz that bitch, she’s so thin (oh la la la) / She’s so rich, and so blonde / She’s so fab, it’s beyond.”
This is not to discount her new album totally out of hand, (because, actually, her R. Kelly collaboration is pretty damn catchy) “ it’s just to say that Gaga’s self-proclaimed revolutionary pairing of high-brow art culture and pop music is actually very far from progressive, especially if you take her at her word about the motivation behind the project.
Gaga has stated that “the intention of the album was to put art culture into pop music, a reverse of Warhol.” So immediately it’s pretty obvious that she considers art and pop music to still exist in completely separate and non-overlapping spheres. This may be true, at least for the majority of serious artists who take on some projects for the sake of pure creativity, because they can’t not make art, and because even in a modern society that has devalued the role of the creators by overvaluing the distributors (ahem “ the Spotify model), they still see value in the process of making stuff for its own sake.
But Lady Gaga’s understanding of art culture seems a bit different. Her obsession and collaborations with huge art world names like Marina AbramoviÄ‡ and Jeff Koons feel a lot like her own admitted obsession with fame, a major, ongoing theme in her music and life. Coincidentally (or not), the artists that Gaga admires most are those that have been prominently in the public eye for years. They are the giants on the world stage. Koons, who designed the ARTPOP album cover, recently sold one of his statues for $58.4 million. It was a gigantic orange balloon dog.
Let me start off by saying that M.I.A.’s new album Matangi is generally pretty enjoyable, and that “Bad Girls” was used to excellent effect in the trailer for “The Heat.”
M.I.A.’s sometimes frustratingly reductionist views on world politics can easily get in the way of simply enjoying her music; music that is often pretty good, and at its best, manages to pull off a tricky blend of catchy memorability, adventurous experimentation, and irreverent fun. Still, it’s hard to ignore her consistent need to obliquely detail the struggles of the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Which of course she does only as long as it all takes place over a hot beat featuring indigenous drummers recorded in various exotic locales around the world, ’cause that’s how she rolls.
Which highlights one of the more frustrating inconsistencies of M.I.A.’s music. It’s not about the annoying but forgivable contradictions between her lavish lifestyle and her political views “ because really, what successful musician making a living from an anti-authoritarian image can really sustain that point of view once the checks start rolling in? For M.I.A., what’s more questionable is the way in which she portrays herself as the musical mouthpiece of the world’s poor and forgotten third-world citizens, while really using their plight to further her own self-aggrandizement with musical tropes that come straight out of the mainstream pop playbook.
M.I.A. is obviously pretty eager to place herself in contradistinction to meaningless, uncontested pop cliches in favor of more spiritual and alternative leanings, especially on Matangi. “Y.A.L.A.” is a song-length Eastern repudiation of Drake‘s unbearably ubiquitous exhortation to live life to the fullest, and “Come Walk With Me” turns the tables on generic pop calls to action, with lyrics like:
Everybody has heard Lorde’s ubiquitous tune “Royals” somewhere at this point. It was on heavy rotation throughout the summer and has ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for the last two weeks, beating out pop record-destroyer Katy Perry’s new song “Roar” (which, honestly, is a pretty weak effort in itself “ I’m talking to you, Dr. Luke). This is, at the same time, both totally predictable and incredibly interesting.
Lorde has a great voice, a solid stage presence, and she doesn’t write bad songs to boot (and yes, she does write at least part of her songs, though her strong co-writing team consists of a few seasoned vets from the pop-punk scene back in New Zealand, and we all know those dudes know how to write a hit). All of these factors notwithstanding, the song that’s getting the most play from her EP and album is objectively nowhere near the best tune on either of those releases, which arguably contain way better songs than the finger snappy harmony-laden hypnotism of “Royals.” And, weirdly, from a surface-level lyrical scan “Royals” reads like a straight-up denunciation of pop materialism, making it the complete opposite of what people have been clamoring to hear for the last decade or so. Check out this stanza:
But every song’s like:
Tripping in the bathroom
Trashing the hotel room
We don’t care
We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams
Even though Lorde makes a laundry list of the trappings of crass materialism as if she’s a giddy rapper who just got his first advance from UMG, she is quick to tell you: ‘We don’t care! This isn’t us! We don’t need to own these material things to be happy!’ Not only that, but Lorde insinuates that she and her intended audience are even better off without those things.
In a Set It Off song, you’re as likely to find strings and woodwinds as crunching guitars and sugary pop harmonies. The band’s members have been perfecting their unique blend of orchestral pop-punk since 2008 and are about to embark on their biggest adventure yet: a European tour with Yellowcard this spring. We chatted with vocalist Cody Carson about his classical background, love of ’90s R&B, and what advice he would give to up-and-coming acts looking to make their mark.
OS: You guys recently donated over $5000 to the VH1 Save The Music Foundation and you mention the influence of music programs on the band when you were young. What music programs were you involved in when you were in school?
Cody Carson: I went to Tarpon Springs High School in Tarpon Springs, Florida. In second grade, I picked up a clarinet, and I kept playing and I got very heavily involved in classical music. The only reason I went to Tarpon Springs High School was because of their music program; it was incredible. It taught you a great deal of work ethic, and there was also a leadership program that was called Tarpon Springs High School Music and Leadership Conservatory. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons there. I played clarinet and was involved in marching band and wind ensemble and jazz band. Because of the leadership program there, at the end of every year there was always a political campaign and I would run for clarinet section leader and woodwind captain, and those were two positions I held. I met Dan Clermont, our guitarist, there. He was the trumpet player there and he was also trumpet section leader and field commander and stuff like that. The program was incredible to us. (more…)