Results tagged “violence”

Heaven, Hell, Marvin, Prince and the Party

January 4, 2013

Every great career in rhythm and blues leads only to heaven or hell. The path to hell is obvious: From Sam Cooke gunned down to James Brown leading a multi-state police chase to Sly Stone strung out on crack and living in a van to Whitney Houston's body lying dead as the industry partied a few floors below, our culture's never treated the shining lights of our most soulful genre with kindness. The archetype of this path is Marvin Gaye, facing his demons at the wrong end of a gun aimed by the man who gave him his name and his life.

But heaven doesn't look much better. Whether it's Al Green leading rote singalongs of his greatest hits, or Stevie Wonder's once-essential annual albums slowing down to a trickle of treacle, or Aretha Franklin being used largely as set decoration to signify which events are deemed Worthy Of A Legend. We start to understand why someone like me who loves Lauryn Hill or D'Angelo (or even Dave Chapelle, a comedian who's lived the career of a soul singer) often want to tell them "I've gotten all I ever need from you; Go take care of yourself." Even my beloved Prince has taken to generously sprinkling a still-vital and compelling live show with bowdlerized medleys of greatest hits, interpreting his ever-present religious fixation as a compulsion to undo the ferocity and provocation that earned him his audience three decades ago.

I always thought Michael was going to buy his way to heaven, but held a grim conviction that he might meet his end at the hands of a crazed fan. With the hindsight of a few years, it would appear that, in a way, he did. Those on the heavenly path of an R&B legend are of course faced with the constant temptations of fate and fame; Given enough success, you can just keep paying doctors on retainer until you find the one who's greedy and starstruck enough to not quit in protest when you ask for a lethal dose of anesthetic.

It's no wonder Questlove's most recent quest is to encourage himself and others in the world of soul music to do what it takes to live well past 50. A grim goal made even sadder by the humility of its ambitions.

This is a simple audio essay I put together to go alongside the rest of this essay, explaining some of the ideas.

The father, the son, the lions, the lambs

You don't even have to wait for a soul artist to say "I was raised in the church" when they're interviewed; If they don't recite it themselves, the interviewer will inevitably provide the affirmation without prompting. But R&B legends are also raised by their families, ranging from a litany of "never knew my dad" absences to the all-too-present presence of Joseph Jackson. But as surely as Tito picked up Joseph's guitar, there's a world of difference between preacher dads and player dads.

Marvin's father was a preacher, his last name spelled "Gay" without the "e", the least-fitting name possible. Marvin Sr. was fire and brimstone and an Old Testament-style lack of compromise. Even years before he murdered his son, he'd undermined his musical genius son enough that Marvin Jr. was constantly felt the need to prove his masculinity, whether through adding a vowel to diminish the presumed affront to his heterosexuality that lurked in his own surname, or through outrageously transparent attempts to affirm how virile and conventionally male he truly was.

Hence the Detroit Lions. Marvin Gaye not only befriended the players — he tried out for the team. While he was a competent player, he was nowhere near capable of playing at an NFL level. But as a symbol of hypermasculine strength, what could be more credible than being a professional football player?

Naturally, an obsession (and insecurity) of this magnitude shows up in the music. Though any "party" that appears in a pop song is necessarily artificial, there really were Detroit Lions players in the studio to provide the introductory party vibe that starts "What's Going On". Marvin spoke of sidelining his musical career in favor of athletics, but the seriousness of the threat was undermined by the ferocity with which he fought Berry Gordy for the right to release What's Going On despite Gordy's objections to its brazenly political stance.

Hired Gun Brimstone

Prince's party was carefully constructed, arranged as if it were a string section, to be multiracial and ambiguously gendered.

Prince's dad John Nelson had none of Marvin Gay Sr.'s misgivings about the music; He was in a band called the Prince Rogers Trio, whence came his second son's name. And though they too had a tumultuous relationship, there was at least enough of a rapport between Prince and his father that they collaborated several times during John's life.

But having a dad who was also a musician must have helped shaped Prince's utilitarian view of relationships, where the people in his life were sometimes just instruments to be arranged in the service of a composition.

It shows up in the way that parties appear on Prince's work. From the track "Eye No" that opens up 1988's Lovesexy, we get a party breaking out over the final fade that segues into Alphabet Street, the next track on the record. But a closer listen to the "party" reveals it to be far more scripted than Marvin's "What's Going On"; All of the folks taking part were part of Prince's studio crew or touring band.

More telling than the fact that the party was scripted (because obviously, it's not like Marvin Gaye was spontaneously recording a house party on What's Going On) is the fact that Prince reuses the exact same recording of party sounds a number of times in his work. Before appearing at the end of I No, the party segue showed up at the end of an unreleased track called The Ball, which was a sort of prototype for the song made a few years earlier. That original recording segued into one of Prince's all-time greatest blues guitar tracks, Joy In Repetition. But that song wouldn't be released until 1990's Graffiti Bridge.

That time period also marked the beginning of the first signs of the wild unevenness that would characterize Prince's post-80s work, so some of the reuse of the party sounds may have simply been in-studio laziness on his part. But the fact that the party didn't even have the pretense of being anything but an element of a larger composition offers a glimpse into the intense, nearly obsessive focus Prince had on seeing everything, and everyone, in his world through the lens of how they could be part of his soundtrack.

It's not hard to picture that kind of single-mindedness being grounded in having a father who, in stark contrast to Marvin Gay Sr.'s skepticism, was in fact an accomplished musician himself. Fortunately in Prince's case, that turned into a competitive drive that fueled a nearly-unparalleled burst of pop creativity. The downside was that, rather than seeking out success in a wildly-unfamiliar territory like professional sports, Prince's world retreated to the safe-but-well-known path that leads to being a greatest-hits jukebox.

Ever After

I love this music. It's the soundtrack of my whole world, and usually the way I end the day with my son, listening to these artists and their peers and the echoes of their fathers and their faults. I'm an optimist; I want to believe that it doesn't take extreme and trying circumstances for a talented child to grow up to be a truly profound artist as an adult.

More broadly, I want to think I can be moved by an artist's work without thinking I'm being complicit in their destruction. If they're finding redemption, from the tribulations of their youth or from the challenges of their faith, in creating a work, I don't want my embrace of their celebrity to be an instrument of their undoing.

That soul music is grounded in heaven in hell is the basis of its power. This is why songs that seem like they're incessantly talking about superficial aspects of being in love can tell stories that are profound and timeless. But it seems truly profane that the people most blessed to tell these stories are doomed to follow them to paths that either leave them tormented or robbed of their flame. Maybe the next people who can find salvation in these songs can be those who actually create them.

Related Reading

These themes have been fixations here for a while; Here are some variations on the theme:

Communicating Through Design

February 22, 2007

Here's some examples of how graphic artists are trying to save people's lives.

Japanese Defense Forces Iraq Cartoon Prince Pickles is the manga-style cartoon character who represents Japanese Self-Defense Forces troops deployed in Iraq. Sure, he's cute, but some cartoon characters used alongside Japanese troop deployments are credited with possibly reducing violence against the troops:

[O]fficials in Tokyo say their cute offensive is working. During the mission to Iraq, the SDF decorated water trucks with a figure from a globally popular Japanese soccer cartoon, variably known as Captain Tsubasa in Japanese, Flash Kicker in the United States and Captain Majed in Arab countries.

"Everybody loved it," said Aki Tsuda of the Foreign Ministry's aid department.

Some have even suggested that Captain Majed was the reason the Japanese trucks weren't attacked during the2 1/2-year mission there, although the general area of deployment itself was relatively violence-free.

Radiation Symbol Somewhat less successful, to my untrained eye, is this attempt at making people flee in terror from sources of radiation. The International Atomic Energy Agency commissioned the work as an attempt to find a sign that would communicate with a large number of people, regardless of their cultural or linguistic background.

The new symbol is aimed at alerting anyone, anywhere to the potential dangers of being close to a large source of ionizing radiation, the result of a five-year project conducted in 11 countries around the world. The symbol was tested with different population groups - mixed ages, varying educational backgrounds, male and female - to ensure that its message of "danger - stay away" was crystal clear and understood by all.

"We can´t teach the world about radiation," said Carolyn Mac Kenzie, an IAEA radiation specialist who helped develop the symbol, "but we can warn people about dangerous sources for the price of sticker."

To me, the red triangle pretty clearly says, "You're a fan of pirates, right?"

Quotes

November 9, 2006

Erin McKean, frock star and lexicographer, offers some wisdom:

You don't owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don't owe it to your mother, you don't owe it to your children, you don't owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked "female".

Synaesthesia makes for the best web conversations, even on Ask MetaFilter:

My calendar is a bit like a teardrop-shaped clock going counterclockwise. If you took a clock with a rubbery outer rim, grabbed it with a hook at one o'clock and pulled it a little bit up and to the right, you'd have my calendar. The rounded point of the teardrop is January 1, with the months running counter clockwise from there, although somehow 12 o'clock is only mid-January. June starts around 8 o'clock, and the summer takes up the whole bottom, with 4 o'clock being about mid-September. My birthday, in late July, is at six o'clock. Christmas is around 2 o'clock. I experience January and February as cold, dull months which drag on far too long, but this doesn't seem to be reflected spacially in my calendar.

What happens when a gaming site pauses from fawning over the latest lame sequel and does some actual journalism? Game Revolution:

First off, I have absolute proof that video games are not the cause of this epidemic of youth violence in America. No, really, I do. Ready?

There is no epidemic of youth violence in America.

Lonnae O'Neal Parker, genuine b-girl:

When those of us who grew up with rap saw signs that it was turning ugly, we turned away. We premised our denial on a sort of good-black-girl exceptionalism: They came for the skeezers but I didn't speak up because I'm no skeezer, they came for the freaks, but I said nothing because I'm not a freak. They came for the bitches and the hos and the tricks. And by the time we realized they were talking about bitches from 8 to 80, our daughters and our mommas and their own damn mommas, rap music had earned the imprimatur of MTV and Martha Stewart and even the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Kingsley Jegan Joseph:

In an effort to help further the stereotyped humor popular in these modern times, I have compiled a web 2.0 compliant, clustered stereotype tag soup for India:

  1. Call center, outsourcing, BPO, fake accents, difficult accents, cheat, incompetent, insincere, fake names
  2. Hindu, animal worship, vegetarian, unpronounceable name, orthodox, culturally backwards, caste, social oppression, bride burning, mama’s boys
  3. Muslim, terrorist, violent
  4. Sissy, Apu, 7-11, K-mart
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