Sound and Vision: Why Is the World So Obsessed with Lionel Richie Right Now?

Life is full of surprises, and sometimes, so is pop music. In recent weeks, it’s recovered its long-dormant ability to shock, or at least catch us off guard with the unlikely hit, or the unexpected comeback.

Several months ago, I never dreamed I would ever ask the question that is the title of this article. It had been more than twenty-five years since Lionel Richie’s commercial heyday, and on the charts, he had been succeeded by younger romantic leads in pop and R&B many times over (Babyface, Usher, Ne-Yo, among others).

Then came one of those surprise developments seldom seen in pop anymore: On Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart for the week following the March 26 release of Tuskegee, Richie’s first studio album since 2009’s Just Go (which didn’t make the US Top 20 and failed to go gold), he debuted at No. 2 with first-week sales of 199,000 copies, right behind Madonna’s latest, MDNA.


Sound And Vision: 10 Things to Look Forward to in 2012 (Featuring Soundgarden, the Stone Roses and Freddie Mercury — Alive Again!)

A US Presidential election, Summer Olympics mania (London’s calling”again!), Rihanna’s film debut (in Battleship, out May 18) and the possible end of the world. Those are a few of the things I won’t be looking forward to in the coming year. Fortunately, music will offer enough thrills to distract us from all that we’d rather forget. Here’s what’s topping my 2012 anticipation list:

1. Madonna makes fiftysomething fabulous all over again. Although I’m curious to hear what Madonna does with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. on the final cut of “Gimme All Your Luvin'” when the single is released the last week of January, that’s not the main reason I’m excited about her upcoming twelfth studio album (due in late March), her first since turning fifty in 2008.  “Masterpiece,” a new song featured in the Madonna-directed W.E. (which goes into wide release on February 3, two days before her Super Bowl XLVI performance) and her reunion with her Ray of Light producer William Orbit, is an achingly beautiful ballad that recalls the best of ’90s Madonna while gently proving that she can still create pop magic all on her own.

2. Madonna vs. Elton John vs. Mary J. Blige vs. Chris Cornell vs. Glenn Close (!) at the Golden Globes. Too bad the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has disqualified Madonna’s “Masterpiece” from competition at the February 27 Oscars. Why? Because it’s the second song featured during the closing credits, and eligible songs must either be in the body of the film, or the tune that plays when the credits start to roll. Oscar’s loss. The January 15 Golden Globes showdown featuring five monsters of pop, rock and soul and acting will be just as star-studded”and as tough to call”as George Clooney vs. Brad Pitt vs. Leonardo DiCaprio vs. Ryan Gosling in Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama.


Vocal Points: Singers and their Accents

Every singing voice is unique. After all, that’s what makes vocalists special, and what makes music so interesting. But besides tonal quality, range and timbre, there is another factor that sometimes contributes to a singer’s sound”his or her accent. For some singers, accent doesn’t play a huge role in their music, but for others, it is a defining factor.

The Beatles Liverpudlian accent is, in my opinion, a defining factor in their music. It is very apparent in many of their songs, and is one of many factors that makes the band great. For example, the way that customer is pronounced in “Penny Lane” stands out, as well as countless other examples throughout their catalog of music. Still, it’s hard to know where exactly certain artists come from.

There are so many examples of British singers who sound as if they could easily be from the US. Elton John, Amy Winehouse and even Adele have been known to shed their British accents in song. And then there’s a band like Phoenix, who you’d never suspect comes from France. And this makes sense if you think about it. A regional accent is made up of differences in features like intonation, speech rhythm, vowel length and vowel quality, all of which naturally disappear in song. Intonation is replaced by the melody which the vocalist sings, typical speech rhythm changes based on timing and rhythm of the song, and vowel length and quality are oftentimes elongated and enunciated when sung. (more…)

Vocal Points: Damaged Voices

The fact that some musicians make their living off something that they love to do is spectacular. And the fact that singers can forge a career with just their voice is mind-boggling. To a struggling singer, living a life of luxury thanks to their voice is the ultimate dream, one worth striving for no matter the costs. Those who have made it are success stories, and they give others a sliver of hope that one day, the dream could be theirs. But because the human voice is such a unique instrument, and can be irregular, there is even more pressure on singers to be able to sustain a career.

This is why singers have to take care of themselves. Take the famous, raw voice of Steven Tyler, which is one of the most valuable assets of Aerosmith. Not only does Tyler’s career depend on his voice, but so does the band’s success as a whole. Due to Aerosmith’s long career, Tyler has put a great deal of wear and tear on his voice. Throw in his past heroin addiction, it’s no real surprise that Tyler’s voice became weaker and raspier as time went by. After cancelling a series of shows in 2006, it was decided that he would undergo throat surgery in hopes of fixing the damage. National Geographic’s The Incredible Human Machine did a feature about his voice and the surgery, which turned out to be a success. But not all singers get that lucky.


CMA Festival: Country's Night To Follow

The Country Music Association set the stage again for their annual CMA Festival in Nashville, TN. With artist appearances ranging from fan-favorites Taylor Swift and Shania Twain to newer guns like American Idol winner Scott McCreery, there was certainly something for everyone to enjoy.

But this isn’t your typical festival. Yes, fans do get to experience a weekend full of their favorite music, but this is a different business model. Artists volunteer their time, money and equipment to perform for them. What gives? As impressive as the lineup was and how many celebrities showed up to mingle with the crowd throughout the weekend, what’s more impressive is what purpose this gathering serves for the CMA. In 2006 CMA launched “Keep The Music Playing” (KTMP), a charity that supports music education in Metro NAshville Public Schools through the Alliance for Public Education. With the money raised from ticket sales and donations, the CMA has purchased nearly 4,000 instruments, funded music education campaigns, built music labs and donated to various regional charitable causes.

If a single institution can raise nearly 1.5 million dollars to charity in a single weekend event, how much of an impact could the collective efforts of the entire music world have on their surrounding communities? Yes, we’re all familiar with Live Aid and some of us in the younger crowd might have even been a part of the more recent Live 8, and these events had massive political backing. But this is a singularity: there is no consistency in what is done. Of course, there’s no denying the effect that tthe Live Aid concerts and rallies had, but it came and went. There was no follow-up, nothing continuous. It left our minds after the media hype was over. Since the CMA has a long-term investment with KTMP and needs to show results in order to keep functioning, it assuredly manages its funds and expenses in a decidedly more detailed manner. Not only that, but the whole country music community will be consistently aware of this particular social necessity.

Music has the power to bring people together: what better cause than this?

Sound And Vision: Why I Miss the '90s

Every decade lives twice. Each one seems to get a second shot about twenty years after the fact. The ’50s were hot again in the ’70s (which might be why Happy Days was one of TV’s biggest hits). The ’60s resurfaced in the ’80s (as did tie-dye t-shirts and the British invasion), and Saturday night fever flared up one more time in the ’90s (though that didn’t stop the film 54 from flopping).

We’ve been stuck in the ’80s for a while now, but the ’90s are coming around again. I recently attended a ’90s party at a nightclub in Sydney, Australia, and the dance floor was packed with the retro-obsessed. The beats were technotronic indeed, but thanks to the varied playlist, I remembered that there was so much more to the decade in music than grunge and Europop. (Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Do Me” and Elastica‘s “Connection” provided particularly pleasing trips down memory lane.) Here are five reasons why the ’90s rocked even harder than you might recall.

1. Sisters with voices ruled. And I’m not just talking about Sisters with Voices (otherwise known as SWV). TLC was arguably the most unique multi-platinum girl group ever, while En Vogue was the most glamorous one since the Supremes. Solo stars like Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan joined the hit parade, and Whitney Houston could still raise the roof”and she did with the soundtrack for The Bodyguard. Aside from Adele and Beyoncé (when she’s not huffing, puffing and trying way too hard to bring the house down), none of today’s female hitmakers can match the fierce ruling divas of the ’90s for sheer vocal power.

2. Rock & roll was king. Grunge may have been a relatively short-lived turning point, but for a moment there, the music was actually more important than the marketing. Thanks to bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Radiohead (all of whose platinum success seemed more accidental than calculated), Britpop (Blur vs. Oasis was so much better than Kings of Leon vs. Glee or the lead singers of Coldplay and Muse being married to Hollywood), and the grrrl power of female and female-driven acts like Bjí¶rk, P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Hole, Belly, the Breeders and L7, rock and alternative music was both popular and interesting.

3. Stars were born, not manufactured on television and YouTube. This year, Rebecca Black went viral on YouTube and became a “star” without ever actually having a hit. (“Friday” topped out on Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 58, 24 notches lower than the Glee remake.) And nothing against American Idol it’s given us some bona fide, hit-making talents (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, among them)”but it’s also gave us William Hung! When music stars are created instantly (in Hung’s case, due to an extreme lack of talent) or groomed in front of our very eyes, pop stardom starts to lose its mystique. Clarkson’s fame will never seem as hard-won as Celine Dion‘s; Carrie Underwood will never be as good a story as Shania Twain; and I’d trade soulful, one-hit wonders like Dionne Farris and Des’ree for Fantasia every day of the week. At least we never had to watch them almost self-destruct in public. Which brings us to…

4. Less was more. Before Twitter, YouTube and tabloid media overload, pop stars always left us wanting more. Now they reveal every thought and all of the minutiae of their lives via endless Twitter updates. (Sean Kingston recently tweeted a photo of himself surrounded by medical equipment while recovering from a jet-ski accident in Miami that nearly cost him his life. Too much?) The tabloids give us 24/7 access, showing them doing just about everything except going to the bathroom (including having sex!). And we can catch them whenever we want to on YouTube (and make them seem more popular than they actually are by continuously pressing play in order to increase their “views”) and watch them falling and bombing onstage, tangling with the paparazzi, and getting prickly with TV interviewers before doffing their shirts and hitting the streets of New York City.

Lauryn Hill was one of the biggest stars of the late ’90s yet she always managed to sidestep overexposure. Where is she now? God only knows (though it recently was revealed that she’s pregnant with her sixth child). If only Amy Winehouse, her critically acclaimed late-’00s equivalent, had been able to fall apart in the privacy of her own home.

5. Courtney Love was far more daring than Lady Gaga. I’ll admit it: I miss Courtney Love. Whatever you thought about her music, the lead singer of Hole was never boring. Take away Lady Gaga’s freaky-creepy visuals, though, and all you’re left with is a talented but over-earnest, politically correct pop star. She’s says all the right things, but listen closely”none of it is even slightly provocative. Her carefully considered soundbites are intended to be up with underdogs and offensive to no one. Even her pro-gay agenda is as respectful as possible to the political right. Just once, I’d like to see Gaga get naked and sexy (for someone who wears so little clothing, she’s remarkably, and safely, asexual), or totally lose it, throwing good intentions out the window and engaging in a public bitchfest. Isn’t the moral majority asking for it?

20 Essential ’90s Albums

Annie LennoxDiva

BabyfaceFor the Cool in You



The Cardigans Gran Turismo

Dolly PartonThe Grass Is Blue

Elvis Costello and Burt BacharachPainted from Memory

Faith No More Angel Dust

John AndersonSeminole Wind

Kate BushThe Red Shoes

k.d. lange Ingenue

Mary J. BligeMy Life

Morrissey Vauxhaull and I (or Your Arsenal)

Neil YoungHarvest Moon

Neneh CherryHomebrew

Portishead Dummy

Radiohead The Bends

R.E.M.Automatic for the People (or Out of Time or New Adventures in Hi-Fi)

Sarah McLachlanFumbling Towards Ecstasy

SuedeComing Up