Creative Response / Ability

This is the twelfth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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What is Creative-Response?

“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit (originally published as Bitter Fruit in 1937) was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in protest at the lynching of African Americans. Over the course of seventy years, from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, 4,733 people were recorded as killed by lynch mob. The mob’s preferred method of execution was by hanging from the branches of a tree: strange fruit indeed.

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Why am I telling you this? Because, as Antonino D’Ambrosio explains, the song is a great example of creative-response, this afternoon’s topic for discussion. Billie sings of the poplar trees, beautiful and vital in nature, now transformed into an instrument of death. “To use that as a metaphor, the strange fruit of people that are hanging and then rotting on the branch,” Antonino says, “is a creative-response.”

Antonino is a passionate advocate of the concept of creative-response, a term he coined to capture the impulse that makes an artist create art. Abel Meeropol read about the lynchings and was moved to write Bitter Fruit. In 1939, Billie Holiday heard Bitter Fruit and was moved to share those lyrics on a recording that, sixties years later, Time magazine named the song of the century.

For Antonino, the song is so successful as creative-response because Billie sings the song from her the bottom of her soul. “Creative-response is an embracing of our emotions and our passions and linking them with thoughts and ideas,” he says. “This resistance that we feel from the dominant culture is that you cannot express your emotions and that is somehow considered weakness – and, being Italian, I’m emotional first.”

Antonino sees all creative work as an integral part of the politics of society, whether the artist realises it or not. Creative-response is the conceptual framework that enables this realisation and allows artists “to think about what they’re doing, to frame their work in the context of a greater good and the community of solidarity”. Some art is more obviously a part of this community of solidarity than others, a protest song like Strange Fruit for example, but all art is, at root, a response to something and can therefore be placed in a wider political context.

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Indeed, creative-response sits at the very core of Elevate. “The festival is a combination of music and critical political discourse and art,” Elevate co-founder Daniel Erlacher says. “Not necessarily having the artists being politically outspoken on stage,” he explains, “but rather bringing topics and content together in a certain framework.”

Swivelling gently in his chair, Antonino agrees. “The Elevate Festival truly is a creative-response,” he says. That creative-response is even embodied in the history of Dom Im Berg, the mountain-heart of the festival. “A cave that was built by slaves to protect an occupying powerful military force, transformed into a place that brought all of us together from all around the world to engage in art, culture and connection is itself a creative-response,” Antonino says. “So that’s a very tangible example that many of you have already participated in.” I look around at the audience; we’re all doing creative-response without even knowing it.

Antonino D’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. “It was a great time of despair,” he says. “For people like my family, there just seemed to be no future, no place for us.” He pauses, drifting back to memories. “Then I discovered, all at the same time, punk rock, rap, graffiti and skateboarding.” As he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his side walks into skate parks, he realised that another world was indeed possible, where obstacles were opportunities.

These art forms, which operate in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, embody what Antonino calls creative-response. “We transform our world by asking the questions that we’re told not to ask: What if? Why not?” Antonino says. “Creative-response is about not asking permission; it’s about embracing our imagination to see us connected as one people, that allows us to make everything possible.”

In times that are overtly political, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the turmoil of 1970s and 1980s Reaganomics and Thatcherism, art seems to become more overtly political, with We Shall Overcome protest songs, Fight the Power rap and London Calling punk. Yet creative-response is nothing new, it has been “alive in us throughout history” according to Antonino. “Creative-response,” he says, “is embedded with compassion, our greatest human talent.” Public Enemy couldn’t have written Fight the Power without compassion for the suffering of others.

For Antonino, creative-response, embedded with compassion, is the opposite force to cynicism. “Over the last thirty years, cynicism has become a dominant force in our lives,” he says. “The United States has been a great proponent of cynicism, it has exported that as one of its cultural products.” For a country traditionally more famous for the wild optimism of “The American Dream”, this is a strange export indeed. So what changed in that thirty years?

According to Antonino, Reagan and Thatcher “transformed compassion into cynicism”, telling us that society doesn’t exist and that the individual is paramount. Their rhetoric of cynicism bled into our minds and changed the way we think about our roles in society; from “citizen” to “consumer”. “If you’re cynical, then you don’t participate,” Antonino says, “and, without participation, you don’t have society or democracy.” In this way, the rhetoric of cynicism becomes self-fulfilling.

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What does Creative-Response mean to You?

Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, is the daughter of an Italian mother and a black father from the south. This “revolutionary union” made her political from birth. “Creative-response is really everything I do,” she says. “It’s why I’m sitting here, it’s why I don’t give up, it’s why I started in the first place.”

In her poetry, her music and her life, raising four black boys in America, she fights back against the apathetic belief that one person can’t do anything. “What can one person do?” she queries incredulously. “One person can do a lot!” For Ursula, we must always speak out, we must always give a creative-response. “If you never say anything,” she says, “then you’ll certainly never find out what one person can do, and you also won’t find out what one person in cooperation with other individuals can do.”

By making a creative-response, we break open a crack in the conversation and give others the opportunity to speak out for themselves. Fight the Power, a mere song, gave African Americans (and others) a voice and a coherent way of resisting the discrimination they face in the US (and beyond).

Ursula’s chosen track, Sound of da Police by KRS One, although twenty-one years old, reminds us of the very current events in Ferguson, Missouri, where African American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. Despite the tragedy, Ursula sees hope in the mass demonstrations since. “I am so excited about the response, the human response, from people about Ferguson,” she says. “I hope everybody is paying attention for how far we can take this if you’re brave and courageous and compassionate enough.”

For Deanna Rodger, a British spoken word artist, creative-response is “saying aloud the things that are on my mind, the things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, that make me feel small, that quite frankly just piss me off”. She figures those things out on a piece of paper, constantly asking herself, Why am I feeling like this? How have I been conditioned? How can I challenge myself to recondition myself? For Deanna, creative-response is an exploration of the self and of society. “Laws, norms and values should constantly be scrutinised to see whether they still fit,” she says.

For Austrian electronic musician Chris Hessle, the response part of creative-response is not so obvious. “For me,” he explains, “it’s not always such a conscious response to an issue or something I read in the newspaper – but I guess it’s somehow in there. It takes some detours or takes some time until it becomes visible in maybe a completely different place.” Daniel Erlacher speculates that electronic and noise music is “working on a different level”: it’s not as explicit as other art forms, like hip hop or writing, where you can speak directly to your audience.

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Ksenia Ermoshina, a musician and activist from Russia, sees her homeland distancing itself from the international community of creative-responders. “What I’m seeing now is the Iron Curtain is closing again,” she says. “It’s closing Russia from other cultures, from respecting and seeing others as others, with their right to be other.” This brings back memories of the Soviet Russia that her parents knew. “My dad was engaged with the radio amateur community,” she remembers, “building radios, so he could get to Radio America and record Pink Floyd, Doors, Deep Purple and all this sixties music that was important for the generation of my parents.” This kind of cultural resistance was almost criminal in Soviet Russia, but it opened up the wider world of music to Ksenia and to her father’s friends.

But Ksenia became disappointed with the commodification of that world. “Even rock and jazz harmony became mainstream, incorporated into capitalism,” she says. “Jazz was a form of resistance, but now it is a product.” So she asks: “How can we create something that will not be an object of desire?” The answer is noise music.

By definition, “noise” is something that we don’t want to hear. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for all these marginal people,” Ksenia says with a smile. “We, here, who are not very pleasant guests in this society, we are kind of noise for global corporations.” She gesticulates at us with her pencil. “Let’s be noise, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture – SZSH!” She’s replied with the static SZSH of applause.

At this point, Daniel Erlacher reminds Ksenia that, in Russia, the SZSH is being repressed, citing the infamous imprisonment of Pussy Riot. “It depends when, where and how you make the SZSH,” Ksenia admits. “Pussy Riot made SZSH like a BOOM!” Laughter. “They are not only about creating sound, but about creating sense. When you do this, you become enemy.”

Art as Activism?

This brings us to the concept of art as activism and to the repression or censorship of artists. For Ksenia, whether art is activism depends on the form and how it is shared. She was an adbuster in Russia for three years, rewriting messages and adverts put up by corporations and Putin’s political party. Her group used to stick speech bubbles on billboards selling cosmetics, making the models quote philosophy and criticise Russian politics. “We had a creative-response to every law that we judged unjust,” Ksenia says.

“I take my responsibilities as a citizen of the world very seriously,” Antonino says. “I don’t know if I’d call it activism, but art, by creating, in its very nature is an action.” Creativity is a response to a particular set of circumstances; sometimes that response will be more overtly political than at other times, but it is always in the background. “Have I experienced censorship?” he asks. “Yes, of course, all the time.”

Antonino’s current project is working with Frank Serpico on a film about police corruption called Only Actions Count. After the recent publication of an article on politico.com, Frank, who still carries a bullet in his brain for exposing police corruption in the sixties, received a slew of death threats for being “anti-American”.

For Daniel, these death threats raise the question of how far you should go, as an artist. “That’s what these threats are there for: they want you to withdraw,” Chris says. “I think it’s really important to stand together and speak up together in a way that you and they and everyone else knows that you are not alone.”

Ksenia tells the story of Voina, an activist group in Russia. They started out quite tamely, throwing cats over the counters of McDonalds and holding a wake for an absurdist poet in a metro carriage. They ended up by filming a tutorial on how to flip a police car with four people and throwing Molotov cocktails. They spent three months in prison, with Banksy putting up the bail money
. “Everybody doesn’t have to go that far,” Ursula says, softly. “That’s awesome, but what I always try to tell people is you don’t have to do that. Everyone has different levels and different ways of speaking up and standing up.”

Molotov cocktail-throwing artists are creative-response; a comedy boyband writing about “Pies of Peace” are creative-response. It’s a question of what level of response you’re interested in. “Everybody can do something,” Ursula adds.

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Creative-Response Today

Despite the environmental and social crises facing our generation, Daniel does not see the same mass artistic response that we had in the seventies and eighties with hip hop and punk. “Where are the artists speaking out on climate change?” he asks to a roomful of silence. Chris makes the point that climate change is really hard for people, including artists, to grasp. “As a phenomena, it’s just so huge,” he says. Chris suggests that perhaps you might be able to see a creative-response to the more immediate secondary consequences of climate change, such as the refugee crisis in Europe. Even then, from the Austrian music scene, Chris can only offer us one reggae and one hip hop track about refugees who were killed in police custody. “But I don’t know any more than these two songs in the last fifteen years,” he adds.

Deanna has done some small events on climate change, but nothing on the scale required. “We need to be doing a lot more,” she says, “in terms of making more noise and more visible noise.” Ksenia suggests that creative-response has evolved to take in new media, citing viral YouTube videos of the ice bucket challenge, which raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Okay, so it’s not high art or anything, but it’s a popular response to a real problem. More interestingly, Ksenia describes one such video that went viral in Russia, in which a message floating on an ice cold river changed from “Putin forever” to “Putin is defective”, a difference of only one letter in Russian.

“Creative-response is not just the terrain of musicians and writers and painters and film-makers,” Antonino points out. “Scientists and economists have to mine creative-response.” Chris and Ksenia nod in agreement; you can feel understanding spread through the room. “We all have the talent to creatively respond,” he explains. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world,” he adds. “That’s very important. We have a chance to make history by our actions or our indifference.”

Ursula puts it even more succinctly: “Say something, do something, let’s continue this work,” she says. “That’s the lesson from tonight. We need more of this, we need more Strange Fruit, we need more Who you callin’ a bitch?, we need more response – I mean positive, palpable, effective response that leads to positive, palpable, effective change.” Applause cracks and breaks out.

This idea brings us back to the purpose of the Elevate festival itself. “We hope to inspire artists also in the next ten years,” Daniel promises. “When you try to inspire someone,” he says, “you can be sure inspiration comes back to you.” He smiles. “That’s the most beautiful thing.”

So we turn the speakers up loud and listen together to Public Enemy, Shut ’em Down.

“I like Nike, but wait a minute
The neighbourhood supports
So put some money in it
Corporations owe
They gotta give up the dough
To the town
Or else we gotta shut ’em down.”
– Chuck D on Shut ’em Down

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Creative Response/Ability >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

Mimu: Instant Choir

This is the fifth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Mimu is late, bounding on stage, puffing, out of breath from running up the mountain into the Dom Im Berg cave. “There are many musicians,” she says, once she’s caught her breath, “that are actually preparing their instruments so they can work with every sound quality that that device is able to give. And I was thinking: but no one plays the audience.” She smiles. “This is such an unused resource and I really want to see what is possible.”

So she gets us to take out our mobile phones and exchange phone numbers with the person next to us. There’s a buzz of chatter and a clattering of bottles as feet shuffle. “Please exchange phone numbers really quickly,” Mimu says, “so we can proceed to the actual happening.”

The actual happening involves calling the person next to us, switching our phones to loudspeaker and experimenting with what Mimu calls “something like a really, really easy ping-pong delay with your phones”. The closer the two calling phones are to each other, the more apparent feedback loop. “And also,” she adds, “if that is working, you can add some sound like bah, oh, ah and you will see that it is going to be looped.”

“So please call each other now, switch on loud and enjoy the silence.” Something remarkable begins to happen. The cave is filled with digital crickets, or perhaps bats, chirping and kurking. Mimu holds the microphone to the front row phones. Monkeys join the crickets and wooahs loop around the walls of the cave.

“This is just a small example of an everyday hack,” Mimu shouts over the monkeys. “Just an example of how you can misuse, playfully, technology that surrounds you.” She laughs as the crickets continue their chirping unabated. “I used to call it the instant choir: human resources as an instrument.”

Patrick Wurzwallner: Head Cleaner

This is the third in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Patrick Wurzwallner, hair scraped into the blonde ponytail that appears to be the distinctive tribal mark of an Austrian artist, settles himself at the drums. After the intensity of John Holloway’s opening speech, Patrick promises us a “head cleaner”, a short solo percussion piece. “At the end,” he says, “I would like to invite you to sigh, as relief.”

Silence settles as he adjusts his seat, his sticks. Then, with a slight intake of breath, he raps a singular totemic beat, managing the reverberations with his left hand.

Head slightly shaking from side to side, the bass kick steadily joins. Louder. His left hand doubles the rhythm, pulsing. Then the hands split off in two directions, spiralling frequencies faster and faster.

Rapid blurring climax, both hands in concert again. Now on the one drum, slight, coming close together. Slower. Until just a pulse on the kick drum, like letters on an old typewriter.

One foot keeps up the beat while Patrick prepares pans on the drums skins. Thin tinny clang-tings. A quick one-two on the snare, right arm in the air – and a collective sigh of release.

What the Woop Woop is Creative Response?

Antonino d’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. Then, all at once, Antonino discovered the mysteries of punk, rap, graffiti and the skateboard. And, as he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his sidewalks into skateparks, he realised that another world was possible.

These art forms, which grew up in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, Antonino calls “creative response”.

The rest of this evening’s panel contributed their ideas of what creative response means to them as artists. For Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, “creative response is everything I do. It’s why I’m sitting here, why I don’t give up.”

Ksenia Ermoshina’s creative musical response is with experimental noise. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for everyone who is marginal – for us, here,” she says with gathering excitement. “We are kind of noise for global corporations. Let’s be noisy, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture.” On cue, the crowd breaks into applause, laughter, whooping.

“Creative response is saying aloud the things that are on your mind,” says Deanne Rodger, a British spoken word artist. “The things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, make me feel small, marginalised. Creative response is an exploration of the self.”

For Austrian electronic musician IZC, creative response is not so simple. “For me, my music is not always a conscious direct response to something I read or saw – but it’s in there. It takes some detours and it takes some time, but it’s in there.”

And, of course, as Antonino says, the Elevate Fesitval itself is a creative response: electronic music and visual arts side by side with intense political discussions. Dom Im Berg, the heart of the festival, is a cave that was hollowed out by slaves and is now transformed into a place for all to come and celebrate our common struggles.

“We all have the talent to creatively respond,” Antonino says, in conclusion. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world. That’s very important.”


For a fuller exploration of creative response and Antonino’s ear-popping soul-dropping film, “Let Fury Have the Hour”, you’ll just have to wait for the book of Elevate 2014!

Bob Dylan live at London Feis 18 June 2011

Quite simply: the best Dylan show I’ve ever heard. Okay so that’s only out of two, but it was also right up there with all the live recordings I’ve heard: The Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975, the Halloween Show in 1964, 1965 at the BBC, and even the infamous 1966 tour of England.

Honestly. Every time you hear Dylan live there’s a moment’s hesitation before you realise what the hell he’s playing and then – bear grins. He’s not content with being a Dylan jukebox on stage; he played a couple of songs straight, but most of them were twisted and refracted in ways that threw new meaning on the lyrics.

Even the ones he did straight featured extensive carnivalesque organ solos. Seriously, I’ve never seen Dylan looking so relaxed. He was having a ball up there. Compared to 2003, when I last saw him, there was so much energy, so much playful creativity, so much identity up there on stage. And the old boy’s 70!

Forget the sunshades, forget the pixie boots and the skinny jeans, forget everything; the reason Bob Dylan is an inspiration was embodied last night. He has been working professionally for about 50 years, he has published 34 studio albums, he tours constantly (102 shows last year) and yet still he is innovating every night. I mean, I don’t know if he ever actually said this, but it sums up just about the best lesson anyone can learn from the man:

I write ten songs a day and throw nine of them away.

If you can do that, then surely, whatever you do, you’ll be set up. Forget the fashion, hard work is where it’s at.

And please listen to this before it gets pulled off the internet for copyright infringement. It is a gut-twisting rendition of ‘Forgetful Heart’, from ‘Together Through Life’, only Dylan’s 33rd studio album. He still got it:

http://vlog.xuite.net/play/MXFTMWxiLTM1NTM0ODcuZmx2

Setlist

1. Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking (Bob on keyboard): Totally baffled 90% of the crowd. Gleefully mischievous.
2. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob center stage on harp)
3. Things Have Changed (Bob on guitar): I can’t remember why this was so good, but so good it was.
4. Tangled Up In Blue (Bob center stage on harp): Ballad style, stretched out, languid and missing a number of verses. No Italian poets that I noticed.
5. Summer Days (Bob on keyboard): Guitar lick twisted with a sour note that could have been ironic, given the weather up above.
6. Simple Twist Of Fate (Bob on guitar): Yes it was beautiful. Done as a straight-faced romantic ballad.
7. Cold Irons Bound (Bob center stage on harp)
8. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (Bob center stage without harp then keyboard): Slowed down to a contemplative funereal march. More sorrowful than apocalyptic vision.
9. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)
10. Forgetful Heart (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on viola): Drenched in pathos. See essential-viewing video above.
11. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on keyboard)
12. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage on harp)

13. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard): Bob’s sop to the singalong crowd – and how we loved it.
14. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on keyboard): Recaptured from Jimi Hendrix, thank goodness!
15. Blowin’ In The Wind (Bob on guitar, Donnie on violin): In a nursery rhyme style. All the patronising preaching gone, replaced by whimsical wisdom. Thank you and good night.

For those who like to keep an eye on these things, we had:

  • 1963 x 2
  • 1965 x 4
  • 1967
  • 1975 x 2
  • 1979
  • 1997
  • 2000
  • 2001
  • 2006
  • 2009

Which shows you what he thinks of his 80s production…

Seize the Weekend!

Welcome to your fourteenth weekend of the year.

What are you going to do with it?

What have you done with your weekends so far this year? Could you do better?

For a lot of people, weekends are sacrosanct. It’s our only chance to sleep late, our only chance to switch off, to meet up with friends for longer than a quick pint.

But it’s also the only chance we get to seize the day for ourselves. The weekend holds no obligations (if you’re lucky…) – no deadlines, no schedules, no timetables. Anything could happen today and tomorrow – anything.

You could find yourself halfway up a mountain by lunchtime.

You could be swimming in that loch in the sunshine.

You could start writing a novel.

You could buy a guitar and sing crazy songs about musical body parts.

You could help your neighbours with their shopping.

You could bake a cake for your nan.

But remember: after this one, you’ve only got another 39 left – and one of those is New Year’s Eve.

Make the most of them. Make the most of this weekend.

Bad Romance: Changes in Pop Lyrics, 1960 – 2010

After inadvertently being exposed to some of this modern “popular” music, I was struck by the lyricists’ choice of words. The subject matter seemed to be quite, er, explicit. There seemed to be an emphasis on going out to parties, getting girls drunk and then having sex with them. Or, if the singer was a female, it seemed to be about going out to parties, getting drunk and then having sex with guys.

I don’t mean to judge this kind of lyric – I’m sure the music back in 1960 was just as boring in its own way – but what interested me was the change in content. I don’t remember listening to Cliff Richard singing about foreplay. So I asked myself how have lyrics changed in the last fifty years?

For this experiment, I took the lyrics of all the #1 hits of 1960 and the lyrics of all the #1 hits of 2010 and compared them.

Changes in the Music Business

Firstly, here’s a note on the change in the music singles business. There has been a trend in recent years for songs to be promoted heavily, hit the #1 spot and then moved on quickly. This explains the difference in sample size between 1960 and 2010.

  • 1960: 16 #1s over 50 weeks at an average of 3.13 weeks at #1. Longest: 8 weeks at #1.
  • 2010: 35 #1s over 53 weeks at an average of 1.49 weeks at #1. Longest: 3 weeks at #1.

With a sample size for 2010 more than double that of 1960, for a fair comparison between the two I refer to word frequencies as a percentage of the total words for that sample. Here we got then.

I, Me, My, Mine

Our lyricists appear to be more selfish these days.

  • In 1960, #1 songs had a balance between “You” and “I”, with “You” just about more popular, appearing as 4.34% of words. 
  • In 2010, 5.76% of words are “I” and only 4.05% “You”.

Does this pronoun switch signal a change in focus for lyrics, putting “I” at the centre, rather than singing songs for “You”. Has the romance of song-writing died?

Love Lost

  • In 1960, the fourth most common word in lyrics was “love”. “Love” was more popular in songs than “the”. [This is what I meant by 1960s songs being boring in their own way!] “Love”, “loved”, “loves”, “lovely” and “lovers” made up 3% of all words in #1 songs from 1960. 
  • But by 2010, “love” had fallen to be only the twenty-sixth most common word, appearing as just 0.72% of the total words.

No kissing!

The collapse of romance in pop songs between 1960 and 2010 is also shown by an even more precipitous fall in the use of the word “kiss”.

  • In 1960, “kisses” and “kiss” made up 0.53% of words. 
  • In 2010, this was down to 0.06%.

Yo, bitch!

I could go on.

  • In 1960, the female protagonist of songs was called “baby”, “dove”, “girl”, “honey”, “dear” – or even “maid”
  • In 2010, the female protagonist is “baby” (or “babe”), “girl” (or “gurl”), “honey”, “lady” or “bitch”

Not altogether romantic.

Shake or sex?

  • In 1960, the most sexual excitement to be found in pop songs were “shaking”, “kissing”, “teasing” – or “marriage”
  • In 2010, we have a bit of “kissing”, but also “fantasies”, “sex”, “foreplay” and straight-out “fucking”.

Lonely or just alone?

There is also an interesting nuanced change to do with loneliness.

  • In 1960, the protagonists were occasionally “lonely”
  • In 2010, however, they are never “lonely”, but only “alone”

It seems to me that this implies a temporary condition that could be corrected by a visit to the local “disco” for some “bitches”, rather than the 1960s long-term loneliness of “devotion” that led to “heartache” for the hero.

Disappearing up its own…

And it’s these discos that represent the most fascinating change between pop songs of the 1960s and the pop songs of today. It’s a change that has come about in lyrical “plots”.

In 1960, there were scarcely any mentions of singing or songs (0.0006%) – or anything else to do with music, but in 2010 an astonishing 1.47% of words are to do with clubs or discos, dancefloors or DJs, clubbing or raving and raves, singing or songs. That’s twice as frequent as references to love in these songs.

  • Does this mean we are a more sexualised culture, interested only in the lust that can be found on a pounding dancefloor? 
  • Or does it just mean that our lyricists can’t think of anything better to sing about? – perhaps because it’s all been sung before, by the singers of the sixties. 
  • Or is it something to do with the rise of the music video? Singing about romance, devotion and marriage just isn’t that exciting. You can’t really make a compelling music video with that, can you? It’s much easier to hire some hip-hop honeys, pack them into a sweat-stained nightclub and wheel out the disco lights. 

Sex sells.

Touring with Dinosaurs

This is a list of the top grossing worldwide ‘tours’ of 2010, according to Pollstar.

1. Bon Jovi

  • Gross Takings: $201.1m (£130.7m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $105.35
  • Number of Shows: 80
  • Gross Takings per Show: $2.5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 48

2. AC/DC

  • Gross Takings: $177m (£115m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $97.21
  • Number of Shows: 40
  • Gross Takings per Show: $4.4m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 57

3. U2

  • Gross Takings: $160.9m (£104.6m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $100.17
  • Number of Shows: 32
  • Gross Takings per Show: $5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 50

4. Lady Gaga

  • Gross Takings: $133.6m (£86.8m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $88.22
  • Number of Shows: 138
  • Gross Takings per Show: 0.97m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 24

5. Metallica

  • Gross Takings: $110.1m (£71.5m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $98.72
  • Number of Shows: 60
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.8m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 47

6. Michael Buble

  • Gross Takings: $104.2m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $83.81
  • Number of Shows: 111
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.94m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 35

7. Walking with Dinosaurs

  • Gross Takings: $104.1m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $50.56
  • Number of Shows: 485
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.21m
  • Got Famous: Late Triassic Period
  • Age Now: 230m years

8. Paul McCartney

  • Gross Takings: $93m (£60m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $138.35
  • Number of Shows: 31
  • Gross Takings per Show: $3m
  • Got Famous: 1960s
  • Age Now: 68

9. Eagles

  • Gross Takings: $92.3m (£59.9m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $121.85
  • Number of Shows: 54
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.7m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 62

10. Roger Waters (ex-Pink Floyd)

  • Gross Takings: $89.5m (£58.1m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $126.14
  • Number of Shows: 56
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.6m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 67

Dinosaurs

With the exception of Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé, I would contend that none of the things touring actually exist any more. Or shouldn’t.

It is highly appropriate that the show ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ is at number 7. Arguably Dinosaurs fill most of the other spots as well.

Bands that were big in the 60s, 70s and 80s should not still be massive today. It goes against all the impulses of Rock – and against the very definition of Pop.

The old Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude of ‘live fast, die young’ has been forgotten (or at least part of it) – and from the looks of those box office takings it seems these guys (note: all men) prefer filling their pensionable pockets to dying.

Fair enough – I suppose it’s not their fault that healthcare has advanced to the point where even rockers living fast can still survive to a ripe old age.

And I suppose it’s not their fault that they are top of these charts: it’s just that their fans are the ones with the money, baby-boomers all grown up, cashing in their own pensions.

And why not?

Well you’ve got to ask why the money in music is still with acts that hit the big time thirty years ago? What does that mean for the industry? What does that mean for innovation and new music? Do we really have to wait until we’re retired before we can afford to go and see top-line shows? What price nostalgia?

I guess you can make a parallel with books. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is still wildly popular with young kids looking for their first taste of freedom, just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s our job, writing today, to be better than that.

Otherwise, why bother at all?

Bryanology: The Semantics of Seduction in the Lyrics of Bryan Adams

Bryan Adams, Canadian Poet Laureate, three-time Oscar nominee and true heir to the song-writing legacy of Bob Dylan, is also a prime proponent of cock rock.

In this article I examine some of his poetry for their florid description, astute observation and sound love-making advice.

Bryan Adams and the Physical Act

Bryan doesn’t like to leave much to the imagination. He wants to demonstrate to us, not just his lyrical virtuosity, but also his experience in the bedroom.

This, from Tonight We Have The Stars (2008), explains how we might progress from the dinner date to the bedroom, Adams-style:

We’ll save ourselves a bottle
Of California red
We’ll drink it on a Tuesday
Let it go straight to our heads

And we’ll eat from good china
And make love on linen sheets

Once in the bedroom, Adams is a master of seduction. His ability to describe the Act in words of rhyme is unparalleled, take these couplets from his 1996 smash hit (UK #9) Let’s Make It A Night To Remember:

I love the way you move tonight,
Beads of sweat drippin’ down your skin,
Me lying here ‘n’ you lyin’ there,
Our shadows on the wall and our hands everywhere.

Can’t you just picture it?

However, his experience can be intimidating to us mere mortals. In Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman? (1995, UK #3) he mocks the listener’s sexual prowess. His sneering ‘really’ implying that, while we may believe that we have indeed performed the Act, the woman was not truly satisfied. Luckily, Adams gives us quite a detailed lyrical sex manual:

To really love a woman,
To understand her,
You gotta know her deep inside…

He follows this with an explanation of how the woman can teach the male to arouse the sexual organs:

To really love a woman,
Let her hold you,
Till you know how she needs to be touched.

Then Adams takes it to the next level with an exhortation to extreme oral sex:

You’ve gotta breathe her – really taste her,
Till you can feel her in your blood.

This may seem a little gruesome to the inexperienced, but it reveals Adams’ dedication to the pleasure of the opposite sex.

Bryan Adams and Invitations to Infidelity

In the 1980s, Adams wrote a string of material about sexual infidelity, starting in 1984 with Run To You (UK #11):

She says her love for me could never die,
But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I,
Oh – but her love is cold,
Would it hurt her if she didn’t know?

The question is rhetorical of course. It is unclear if the subject of Run To You was also the subject of his next song, Princess Diana, in Diana (1984):

Oh the first time I saw you was in a magazine,
The next time you was walking ‘cross my television screen,
I knew right then and there that I had to make you mine,
The day that he married you I nearly lost my mind.

Diana whatcha doin’ with a guy like him,
Diana I’d die for you, please let me in.

Just in case Adams’ intentions were even slightly opaque, like a real man, he makes them quite clear in a later stanza:

Since I saw that picture of you,
Nothing matters I just wanna lay ya.

But Adams was also realistic about his conquests. In One Night Love Affair (1985, Canada #19), Adams is clearly cognisant that love affairs are fleeting, transitory experiences:

The night was made for love, it ain’t for keeps.

Later in the same song, he gives one of the most heart-rendering accounts ever put into rhyme of the vacuous lust that is a one night love affair:

One night love affair,
Trying’ to make like we don’t care,
We were both reachin’ out for somethin’,
One night love affair,
Sometimes life ain’t fair,
Oh – and not we’re left with nothin’.

Please note: whether this poem describes an affair with Princess Diana (dearly departed) or not is never made clear in the poem.

Bryan Adams and Sexual Rejection

Bryan Adams is not always a stallion in the stable of love it would seem – unless, as appears likely, he writes the following verses not from experience, but out of pity for lesser men. This theory is given greater credence by the fact that they are all album tracks, rather than one of those selected for smash hit status.

This verse from If You Wanna Leave Me (1991) mocks the desperation of the dumped and Adams shows his sensitivity to the plight of others by capturing the anguish in words of tearful power:

If you wanna leave me, can I come too?
If you wanna leave me, gonna go with you.
If you say no – I’m still gonna go!
If you wanna leave me – can I come too?

(I Wanna Be) Your Underwear (1996) satirises the desperate lengths that some men will go to in order to become close to the object of their desire. Not a problem I imagine Bryan has:

I wanna be your t-shirt when it’s wet,
Wanna be the shower when you sweat …

Wanna be your sleepin’ bag, baby slip inside,
Let me be your motorcycle n’ take ya for a ride.

But even in the face of rejection, Adams will still insist I Ain’t Losing The Fight (2008):

Bring it on, bring it on I was born ready,
I’m a son of a strong man – I’m rock steady,
Everything you throw I can see it coming,
Ain’t gonna be no TKO just a lot of lovin’.

Bryan Adams and Sexual Malfunction

Fascinatingly, Adams also shows us how to deal with premature ejaculation, in this verse from Hearts On Fire (1987).

First he apologises, as a gentleman:

You know I can’t help,
the way I feel inside…

Then he takes control, as a man, requesting his lady-friend’s immediate presence, telling it straight:

So come on over,
I ain’t hard to please.
Oh baby – what you get ain’t,
always what you need.

No, indeed. Not always what you need; it’s all about what Adams needs. The description of the actual ejaculation is poetic as ever:

Risin’ to my feet I can feel the heat,
It’s tryin’ to pull me under,
Runnin’ through the night,
we can make it right,
It’s comin’ on like thunder.

So the next time you find yourself coming on like thunder, take a deep breath and think of Bryan.

Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: A Reference Guide Part I

Two popular poets and story-tellers. It would be incredible if Dylan hadn’t referenced Shakespeare. Here’s a selection (by no means exhaustive) of references, some obvious, some oblique, to Shakespeare in the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Straight References

These are the ones that even I can catch. Blatant hello mum’s from Dylan to the great bard.

Highway 61 Revisited, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren’t right

Twelfth Night (1601-2) is a play by Shakespeare, innit.

Desolation Row, Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia is a tragic character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599-1601).

Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again, Blonde on Blonde (1966)

Well, Shakespeare, he’s in the alley
With his pointed shoes and his bells
Speaking to some French girl
Who says she knows me well

That’s my boy!

Time Out of Mind (1997)

The phrase ‘Time out of mind’ is from Act 1, Scene 4 of Romeo and Juliet:

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Bye and Bye, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Well, I’m scuffling, and I’m shuffling
And I’m walking on briars
I’m not even acquainted
with my own desires

As You Like It, Act 1, Scene 2 (found and submitted by Nick Dorman to Dylan Chords):

ROSALIND
O, how full of briers is this working-day world!
CELIA
They are but burs, cousin, thrown upon thee in
holiday foolery: if we walk not in the trodden
paths our very petticoats will catch them.

And later in the same scene:

ROSALIND
I do beseech your grace,
Let me the knowledge of my fault bear with me:
If with myself I hold intelligence
Or have acquaintance with mine own desires

Po’ boy, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket,
By the way, what happened to that poisoned wine?”
She said, “I gave it to you, you drank it.”
Po’ boy, layin’ him straight,
Pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate.

Othello and Desdemona are characters in Shakespeare’s Othello (1603). Interestingly, it looks like Dylan has confused or (being generous) deliberately conflated the plot of Othello, in which Othello dies by stabbing himself, with the plot of Romeo and Juliet, in which Romeo dies after drinking a fatal poison.

That’s it for the obvious references (that I can find anyway) – now here’s some more obscure ones.

More Oblique References

You’d only spot these if you’d spent far too much time playing Shakespeare and reading Dylan. I didn’t find these.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go, Blood on the Tracks (1975)

Dragon clouds so high above
I’ve only known careless love
It’s always hit me from below
This time around it’s more correct
Right on target, so direct
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

And in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4, Scene 14:

ANTONY
Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish

Thanks to Ellis Sharp for this stupidly obscure reference!

This reference is given greater credence by the later literary reference in the song to Verlaine and Rimbaud, two other poets.

Mississippi, ‘Love and Theft’ (2001)

My clothes are wet, tight on my skin
Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in
I know that fortune is waiting to be kind
So give me your hand and say you’ll be mine

And in Measure for Measure, Act 5, Scene 1 (submitted by Mike Conley to Dylan Chords):

DUKE VINCENTIO
If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardon’d; and, for your lovely sake,
Give me your hand and say you will be mine.

Other Parallels

Dylan doesn’t just quote Shakespeare, he also uses the same kind of scripting techniques and has even suffered some of the same traps of fame.

Measure for Measure (1604) and Seven Curses (1963)

The folk narrative of the lecherous and unjust judge in Dylan’s Seven Curses parallels the premise of Measure for Measure, when Isabella pleads for mercy to the nasty judge Angelo for her brother, Claudio, who is to be executed for fornication. Over the course of two scenes between Angelo and Isabella, it becomes clear that Angelo harbours lustful thoughts about the novice nun, and he eventually offers her a deal: Angelo will spare Claudio’s life if Isabella will yield him her virginity.

I could have saved myself the trouble of copying that from Wikipedia by just making a few edits to the Bob Dylan lyrics:

Old Reilly’s daughter got a message
That her father was goin’ to hang.
She rode by night and came by morning
With gold and silver in her hand

When the judge he saw Reilly’s daughter
His old eyes deepened in his head,
Sayin’, “Gold will never free your father,
The price, my dear, is you instead.”

I got the inspiration for this parallel from Bardfilm.

Bootlegs

Apparently, Shakespeare didn’t want his sonnets published: they were circulated among fans as – what can only be described as – bootlegs.

The parallels with Dylan’s Basement Tapes, recorded in private in 1967 and never intended for release, but widely bought and sold among fans, are obvious. Like Shakespeare, Dylan has bowed to the inevitability of popularity and now regularly releases out-takes from his album recordings and live performances as his very own ‘Bootleg Sessions.’

I picked up this story from NPR.


This is Part I because there is no way that I’ve found all of them, just from searching the internet and my own brain-ears. Maybe one day I’ll throw a corpus-analysis at the entirety of Dylan’s lyrical output and the whole of the first folio of Shakespeare. Probably not though.

If you can spot any more references, please do add them in the comments below. Thanks!

Bryanology: An Analysis of Bryan Adams’ There Will Never Be Another Tonight

Forget Dylanology, there’s a new pseudo-science on the block: Bryanology, the close literary analysis of the major lyrical works of Canada’s Poet Laureate, Bryan Adams.

Today’s study is of Adams’ 1991 hit There Will Never Be Another Tonight (UK #31). This is one of my favourite songs ever. I’m not joking. It’s virtuoso use of language is astonishing. Bryan Adams sets off one lyrical firework after another in frantic pursuit of an apt metaphor to describe his Catherine Wheel of a lover. So set this video (shot at Sheffield Arena, Rachel Weisz in the crowd) to run in the background and I’ll talk you through it.

From the very beginning, Adams struggles with the common notions of femininity:

Put on your best dress darling,
Can’t you see the time is right?
There will never be another tonight.

But he clearly feels constrained by these clichéd words; this woman defies the accepted rules of description. And so he launches a passionate quest for the words that can capture his lover’s beauty.

First the lady-love is some sort of vehicle:

If you got your motor runnin’,
Then I got my engines on,
Say the word and darlin’ we’ll be gone.

Then she’s a witch with diabolic tendencies:

You gotta ride your broom right into my room,
Kick off your shoes make yourself at home,
Wave your little wand – weave a little spell,
Make a little magic – raise some hell.

Then, is she a boat? –

Let the wind fill your sails…

No, Adams explains, she’s a wind-powered train:

A runaway train ridin’ on the rails.

She’s a wind-powered train, Adams elucidates, at a baseball match:

We got the bases loaded,
Home run – power play,
Tonight’s the night we’re goin’ all the way.

But just when we think that he’s beginning to pin this woman down, Adams changes tack yet again – she’s actually a jewellery-operated torch:

Flash your diamonds, shine your lights,
There’ll never be another tonight.

It’s all we can do to keep up with Adams’ lyrical dexterity and fecund imagination – sometimes I wonder if he is as confused as we are.

And so we come to the end of the song and it seems that only one thing is clear: Adams is totally in thrall to this woman he is unable to describe – or is he? Perhaps not:

Cause we got nothin’ to lose, just me and you,
In your wildest dreams…
There’ll never be another tonight.

Has this all been a dream? Does this explain the series of bizarre and contradictory images that run through Adams’ sleep-addled brain? Perhaps the woman of his dreams is exactly that – there will never be another tonight indeed.

What I learnt about writing from Bob Dylan

Nah, this isn’t some kind of stupid ass fan love-in. I’m not going to go on about the deep philosophical meaning of ‘Blowin in the Wind’ – Bob Dylan’s written some real rubbish you know? ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ is kinda funny, but it ain’t no deep and meaningful classic that’s for sure.

But that’s the point. He recorded a lot of pretty dreadful songs – his muse completely deserted him for long periods of his career – but he still wrote songs, he still recorded them, he still turned up for work, waiting patiently, putting in the hours until lightening struck again. And it did.

And when it did, he was still there, ready to put it down.

There are three elements to this philosophy of his (I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t call it that, but hey):

  • Just turning up is heroic. The Never-Ending Tour is symbolic of this. He does 100+ shows a year and of course not all of them are mind-blowing – but he still turns up, in case it is.
  • There is no such thing as personal creative genius, just hard work. Bob has shown us that it’s OK to have creativity problems (jesus, if Bob has problems then I reckon we can), but we’ve got to make sure we keep working at it.
  • The art work is a life commitment, don’t rush in, take your time, relax and it will come. When he didn’t include ‘Blind Willie McTell’ on Infidels, one of his diabolical mid 80s albums, Bob Dylan justified himself thus:

    Relax. It’s just an album – I’ve done thirty of ’em.

    Sure enough, it turned up on the excellent Bootleg Sessions collection – a much grander setting for one of greatest blues songs ever written.