Saturday, April 5, 2014

Pizza-Shell Game (or What Up, Dough?)


At the time of this writing…

Last night I watched a DVR'd replay of Aloe Blacc on the American version of NBC's hit The Voice. Aloe Blacc was serving as an assistant coach for "head-coach" Usher. As fate would have it, the song that the battling contestants were to sing for that night’s episode's head-to-head competition just so happened to be Blacc's "I'm the Man". What are the odds? More on this later. Providing a story of encouragement on the face of high criticism, Aloe discussed how he came about writing the hit song. He said that after Dr. Dre had slammed his songs, he  "…went home and wrote 'I'm the Man.'"—SSKIRRRRRRCHHHH!!!!! [cue tire screech]. WROTE?!? "…I'm the Man"?

For months I have heard this song playing as bumper music on one of my favorite television sports shows…ESPN's First Take as it was going to commercial. For those who're not familiar with the phrase bumper music, it's the 10 to 20 sec bit of music that's used to transition into and out of the commercials. As such, I would hear just the chorus of the song in question. For those who haven't heard it, the song sounds exactly like Elton John and Bernie Taupin's (ironically titled) "Your Song"
for the first five words And you can tell everybody ominously/blatantly/again ironically omitting YS's this is your song. In this era of broadcasted music, where you seldom hear the performer named by the on-air radio personality (I'm guessing it's because centralized programming-fronted spokespersons require very little personality), it is good to at least see text titles such as those shown when First Take plays to commercial. For the song in question (phrase-pun probably well intended), there was added the familiar Dre Beats logo. It turns out that Beats has expanded its impressive over-the-ear headphone empire into the song download site arena. Aloe Blacc is a Dr. Dre artist. Draw your own conclusions. I even have my suspicions that this blatant plagiaristic practice follows the meme that any press is good press, and is in part a publicity stunt of sorts.

Last summer, the big song-controversy as such involved Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke's strange borrowing of the late great Marvin Gaye's "Gotta Give It Up". At first I thought it to be an homage resurrection of a decades old summer hit. But when the PH/RT camp reportedly denied there were any similarities to works of persons living or dead, well… We all just have to sit down together and have a talk. Now the song-elephant in the room is the usurping of a great Elton John classic. If I'm not to call out the emperor as being buck naked, may I at least be permitted to refuse him a seat on any of the cloth upholstered seats in the elephant's room?

I'm often accused by my Hip-Hop supportive peers of being too tough on that culture—especially its music offerings. What must be understood is that Hip Hop began as a DJ/emcee/rapper medium. Music for them was not something to create, but to recycle—first to records playing beats in the background, later to the sound of records being deftly manually manipulated in the background, then as sampling technology arrived: looping samples of recordings. Fast forward to 2014, the popular music side of the record industry in American is run on the creativeness of those whose genre encourages them to create by means of recreation. Instead of sampling these days, the sign of prestige for a rapper is to have a live band in a broad sense playing samples or four measure recognizable motifs from which that which may be called a song is cobbled. The heroes of today's Pop genre are unapologetically former or concurrent heroes of Hip Hop. Pharrell came on the scene as a genius beatmaker in his group N*E*R*D. Aloe Blacc, in the aforementioned The Voice segment made reference to his being an emcee. And the sampling did not originate with Hip Hop; there was Devo's use of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" on "Whip It", Vangelis' Academy award winning use of "Born Free" on his Chariots of Fire theme, and the ever-popular Ray Parker recycle of Huey Lewis and the New's "New Drug" for Ghost Busters.

Okay, here's my food analogy: When pizza first made its mark on the favorite foods scene, it was a wonderful handmade culinary work of fine craftsmanship. There is the iconic image of a pizza chef tossing and spinning dough. As I am writing this, Classical WQXR NY is playing one of a collection of dance suites from George Frideric Handel's opera Amira with a zesty classical Italiano orchestral piece as my soundtrack; so I feel as if I am on a mission from the great I Am…amen. Somewhere down the line, in efforts to usurp the throne of real pizza, quick shortcuts came in forms frozen, literal half-baked quickie $5 K-Mart pies and grocery store shelve "pizza shells". For many the convenience factor won out over the fullness of good taste, but true disciples like me would rather hold out for the real thing. Applying the analogy to music, computer technology provided the usurpers the means to side-step craftsmanship to the degree that songs are widely judged as good not on their goodness but on their overall sales. The rationale must be that if so many like it, it must be good. There's a paucity of critiques that call into question originality or musicianship. The hypocrisy of it all on the ubiquitous talent shows is this: I'll see the judge/coaches (whenever it is that they ever do) give harsh critiques appended with their this is for your own good/gonna hurt me more than it's gonna hurt you explanations that their brusque and painfully honest responses are only meant to help the contestants to be all that they can be. Then the contestants will take those remarks at heart and during their next performance do a singer-sound-alike rendition of maybe a more classic Pop piece, and not only not be called on their plagiarism, but be praised and *overly-qualified for being *very unique in their delivery. Maybe it's more ignorant than hypocritical; let the to-be-poison, select their own.

Last words wordplay.

In the violent side of Hip Hop street culture, "Gotta Give It Up" and "I'm the Man" reflect the threat of force to take something from its owner or respectively the customary self-exaltations thereafter. True creativity goes unrewarded when beholders either do not recognize progressive originality that moves a genre forward, such as experienced in the late 60's through the pre-Disco seventies. When the arguably higher old ways are disregarded as irrelevant by those who are blinded by the shiny newness of the new, it's like someone saying that the shiny new fresh of the lot Ford Focus is a much better piece of machine design than the dated not-so-shiny 1999 Ferrari 360 parked next to it. Keep up this trend, and pizzas made of catsup and cheese powder sprinkled over saltines will be all the rage.

Until my next words…


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