Tag Archive: music


Music, Consensus, and Rock Greats

With rock greats like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominating lists of the best musicians of the past century, I’ve often come to wonder who will remain relevant in the decades from now. The other day, I read an old article written by journalist and author Chuck Klosterman about comedian and late night TV legend Johnny Carson after the celebrity’s death. He said that Carson was a funny person, but his true significance and importance lies in the fact that he was basically the last great cultural icon.

The connection between these two ideas may seem far-fetched, but trust me, they are more related than you’d think. I think what Klosterman was getting at is that there was once this sense of a shared, collective culture and a perceived consensus, probably because of limited media sources.  As he said, “There will never again be cultural knowledge that everybody shares, mostly because there is just too much culture.”

Back in the ‘60s, we are led to believe that everyone in America was watching when the Beatles performed “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan Show. This is probably somewhat likely. Back in the days of limited television channels and definitely no internet in sight, the outlets through which popular music was transmitted were limited, at least compared to today. Magazines such as Rolling Stone would put rock stars like Jim Morrison on its cover and tell us that he was worth caring about. The majority seems to have listened.

Today, we have an infinite number of choices, which is an idea that Klosterman also draws on. With blogs, social media sites and the like telling us about this band and that band, this obscure singer and that under-the-radar rapper, it’s hard to keep up. I’m not saying that there aren’t cultural figures that many of us seem to know and agree on and that there were in the past. After all, I think that the passage of time definitely explains why many of us can stand back and say that Jimi Hendrix was an amazing guitarist or that Led Zeppelin led the way for many metal bands that were to follow.

I think, however, that the idea of a consensus is harder to believe when two-way communication dominates our interactions with the media. Today, there are millions of blogs and sites like Pitchfork or Live Music Guide devoted solely to music and reviews – individual listeners can argue back against mainstream expressions. So what if many magazines named Kanye West’s recent album the best of 2010? We don’t have to listen. With a click of the mouse and flickering of our fingers across the keyboard, we can tell the world that we disagree or agree or are completely confused or that, frankly, we could care less. The media is still telling us what to believe, but we can just as easily drown their messages out with our own opinions and voices. Now, we are the media.

It’s hard to compare the current cultural and music environment of our time to that of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It can be argued that rock ‘n’ roll basically dominated much of those decades, basking in its newness and unfamiliarity. Today, the assortment of genres and subgenres that receive radio airplay have vastly increased – hip hop and pop are more likely to reach number one on top 40 charts than rock. In that vein, however, we don’t even need to listen to the radio. We have Pandora, GrooveShark, etc. We can choose what we want to listen to and when we want to listen to it.

Perhaps these are some reasons why the idea of the “greats of yesteryear” seems unattainable for our generation. To some extent I have always believed there was somewhat of a consensus about great musicians of all time, even if I personally disagreed with the choices. For example, even if I used to be a little less than crazy about Queen (don’t worry – I have since reformed), I feel like I understood their place in rock cultural history. I knew better than to expect that every single person liked every single popular band, but still. So, here’s the question: years from now will a list of the great rockers of right now (the future past, if you know what I mean) develop? Or is our cultural identity becoming less and less homogeneous by the day, to the extent that a consensus will be as ancient as cassette players? It may be a little clichéd, but only time will tell.

-Margot Pien

Favorite Music-Centric Movies

Today, I offer a run-down of some of my favorite music-centered movies. My humble list doesn’t include popular films and documentaries like the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” or the Martin Scorsese flick about Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home.” However, I think these movies show the interesting blend of music in films, whether through fictional bands or semi-biographical retellings.

“Almost Famous” (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s flick about a teenage journalist who follows a rock band called Stillwater on the road during the ‘70s has resonated in the hearts and minds of many. With the unforgettable scene in which the bus full of musicians, managers and friends burst into Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” the movie has cemented itself into pop culture history (did anyone catch that Super Bowl ad?). Apparently based on Crowe’s own adventures hanging with the Allman Brothers Band, the film has the perfect mix of an amazing soundtrack, lovable characters and skilled acting. Patrick Fugit’s portrayal of William, the teen who is eager to become pals with his rocker friends, and Kate Hudson’s role as Penny Lane, who leads a group of self-professed “band-aids” (not groupies, she claims), are both memorable.

“That Thing You Do” (1996)

I remember at a young age seeing the film that tells the story of the quick rise and fall of a rock band in the ‘60s. The poppy tracks that the fictional group – “The Wonders” – played caught my ear, and I remember loving the vintage nostalgia of the costumes and sets. As the small-town musicians rocket from obscurity to billboard-hit fame, tensions among members inevitably rise and success is short lived. Catch winning performances from Tom Hanks as the savvy manager, Tom Everett Scott as the sunglasses-sporting drummer and Liv Tyler as the spurned girlfriend of the egocentric lead singer.

“Blues Brothers” (1980)

Building on the success of a SNL skit by cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the comedians took their act to the big screen to make the hilarious “Blues Brothers” film. After Jake (Belushi) springs from a stint in jail, the brothers go on a mission to reassemble their old band, win a competition and save the Catholic home where the siblings were raised. My favorite scene has to be when the band, which dabbles in – you guessed it – blues and rock ‘n’ roll, book a gig at a country-western bar. After initially playing their usual material and being booed, the band switches to a rendition of the “Rawhide” theme and a Tammy Wynette hit called “Stand by Your Man”.

“I’m Not There” (2007)

Surprisingly, this is the only film on my list that profiles a real-life musician. This ambitious semi-biographical film takes a look at various stages of Bob Dylan’s life, along with different facets of his personality and music. A share of actors portrays Dylan during various scenes, settings and interpretations; the list includes Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett among others. The soundtrack is almost a character of its own, with a range of musicians covering some of Dylan’s best tracks. Some of my favorites are Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds) and Calexico’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” Cat Power’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement) and The Million Dollar Bashers’ “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

“Flight of the Conchords” (2007-2009)

Ok, so I know this isn’t a movie, but I can’t leave out the unforgettable HBO show about a duo hailing from New Zealand. The show follows Bret and Jemaine as they go about their daily lives, trying to book gigs and penning hilarious songs along the way. The comedians/band members blurred the lines between fiction and reality, releasing two albums and going on tour. It’s often hard to listen to their songs with a straight face, and they often parody different musical styles. Some of the best include the rap battle of “Hiphopopatamus vs. Rhymenoceros,” the song praising a girl for her mediocre looks in “Most Beautiful Girl in the Room,” and the tribute to fashion and hipsters, “Fashion is Danger.”

-Margot Pien

White Stripes

When the White Stripes announced their break up last week, I reacted with mixed emotions. Although I was definitely upset at first, I wasn’t necessarily surprised. The rock group last released a studio album in 2007, and since then we’ve seen singer/guitarist Jack White branch out on many solo ventures and appearances. The more that I think about the announcement, however, the more monumental the band’s end has become.

When I think back to the first time I heard the White Stripes, I envision legos. I remember watching MTV and seeing the video for “Fell In Love With a Girl” hit the TRL airwaves. Until then, my music was admittedly dominated by ‘90s boy bands and a share of Britney Spears, but with that video I was exposed to rock for the first time. Clinging onto my older sister’s teenage viewing habits, I stared at the colored legos dance across the screen, reconstructing themselves into shapes and designs to the beat of the thrashing guitar and drums and Jack White’s electrifying voice.

I’m not going to lie and say that the White Stripes was my favorite band ever or that I will lament the band’s end with a candle-lit shrine and an all-black outfit of mourning. However, each time I listen to different songs released by the White Stripes over the years, I am taken back to different stages of my life. It feels like I grew up with the band, and each time I go back and listen to their work, I appreciate things that once went through my head. While I was transfixed by their mysterious looks and unfamiliar rock music when I was younger, I revisit their tracks and find how they seamlessly embody very different styles, from blues to punk to garage rock. I find myself putting their amazing covers of Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach/Dusty Springfield hits on repeat on my iPod. I start to wonder about their rise and their background, especially after seeing a glimpse of Jack’s life in It Might Get Loud.

I feel like I owe a lot to the White Stripes. They made me love other bands that started to emerge at the time – The Hives, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The groups that spawned from the White Stripes – namely The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather – probably wouldn’t have been possible either without the original band’s success. When Jack and Meg White announced their band’s break up, they said they did so for many reasons, “mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band.” It’s an almost noble move – quitting while they’re still ahead, perhaps keeping their legacy in gold and making this an optimistic “end” rather than a tragic “demise.” It seems as if both members are ready to move on and the announcement merely cemented their intentions. Regardless of future endeavors, the White Stripes will always remain a part of my life. Here are some of my favorite songs – hopefully, they speak for themselves:

“Fell In Love With a Girl”

“One More Cup of Coffee (Bob Dylan cover)”

“Dead Leaves & The Dirty Ground”

-Margot Pien