The ArchAndroid: The intro and companion playlist

Trying to fit all of the musical, literary, and cinematic influences that came together to create Janelle Monáe’s concept album The ArchAndroid into one 33 1/3 has been a fascinating, if difficult, project. The story of Cindi Mayweather—runaway android wanted for the crime of loving a human and destined for messianic greatness as the ArchAndroid—is rich in a way that defies distillation. The story can unfurl itself in a thousand configurations, coming to mean something different to every listener.

Food and Japanese Popular Culture

Most fans can agree on two facts about Shonen Knife: first, it’s impossible to be sad while listening to them; second, it’s equally impossible to not get hungry. Ranging from songs about savory ramen to sweet candies, Shonen Knife’s tunes work a synethesial magic on listeners’ tummies. Their forty-plus songs about food give new meaning to the phrase “musical taste.” But why does Shonen Knife have so many songs about food? I develop a couple of answers to this question in Shonen Knife’s Happy Hour: Food, Gender, Rock and Roll; one explanation is that food is a topic that all humans can relate to and take pleasure in, but that is not the only one.

Rockin’ Ramen

The Nissin Company, founded by Ando Momofuku in the early 1950s, rose to prominence with the invention of Cup Noodles instant ramen in 1971. Since then, instant ramen has become a prominent staple around the world and poor college students have spent weeks living off the savory soup-y meal. Indeed, Ando envisioned that Cup Noodles could help alleviate world hunger and bring about world peace. It should come as no surprise that Ando’s company is based in Ikeda, right next to Shonen Knife’s hometown, Osaka and now there is even a museum honoring Cup Noodles there. In Ikeda, the Osaka spirit of kuidaore or “eat til you drop” is strong. And like Ando, in Shonen Knife’s musical vision the optimistic belief that food can bring human beings together shines through. 

Midnight Train

Image of Jorja Chalmers

For a decade or so, Jorja Chalmers has been performing saxophone and keyboards with Bryan Ferry. She’s a dazzling presence on stage, as befits Ferry’s carefully curated and casually sophisticated image, plus her contributions to his concerts can be outsized. During a recent, pre-Covid performance at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles I attended, the backup singers on the iconic song “Avalon” lost their way in the final section. Ferry looked wide-eyed at Chalmers, who swiftly crossed the stage to guide the singers back in sync. Ferry, clearly grateful for Chalmers’s cool, shrugged off the misstep.

Fascination’s Fascination

Image of Walter Egan and Stevie Nicks

This year, Walter Egan released an album partly about a crush he had on Pamela Des Barres, a famous rock ’n’ roll “super-groupie” with a long list of friends and lovers in the music, film, and television industries. She came of age on LA’s Sunset Strip, in Laurel Canyon, and on the beach, relishing the full landscape of Southern California sensations. Egan met her briefly in 2001 and then again over a weekend in 2013, noting in his journal at the first encounter that she “was famous for ‘hanging out’ with rock luminaries.”

Eurodisco, Europop and Storytelling

Image of Donna Summer

In Funk: The Music, the People and the Rhythm of the One, the music ethnologist Rickey Vincent (1996) decries Eurodisco productions for a lack of a cohesive musical song dramaturgy. They were, he says, “producer-made tunes” generally lacking in a sense of sequence, i.e. beginning, build-up, catharsis, release. They relied instead on being simple and catchy enough “to bring rhythmless suburbanites and other neophytes flocking to plush dance clubs at strip malls from coast to coast”. By song dramaturgy, what he is actually talking about, rather than story told through lyrics, is a kind of narrative structure that might be found purely in the music instead.

Disco-lit

Image of Donna Summer

Progressive rock and disco and on the surface might look like binary opposites, natural enemies even, given the way their audiences were often characterized (one male, white, heterosexual, the other female, black, gay). However, during the second half of the 1970s, it was evident that some of disco’s more adventurous producers were attracted like moths to the same literary flames that inspired many progressive rock concept albums.

Literary Liner Notes: Part 1

The resolutely minor genre of liner notes recently received a considerable boost in cultural stature when Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar decided to feature Nat Hentoff’s commentary on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as the first chapter in their Library of America anthology Shake It Up: Great Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z. Hentoff was the most prolific producer of these simultaneously ephemeral and essential paratexts and it’s fitting that his introduction to the young Bob Dylan also introduces this collection of popular music criticism’s bid for literary respectability.

Growing up with the Beatles

Image of the Beatles

Like many if not most of us my musical memories begin with The Beatles. The four floating faces, half in bluish shadow, on the cover of Meet the Beatles! is the first album cover I remember. It’s a memory that comes back to me in a fragmentary spectrum of sounds, images, and words. Not surprisingly the first songs on side one echo most clearly and completely. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” are more than memories; they are memorized. They persist as strips of sound in my neural networks corresponding note by note and word by word to the ridges and grooves along which the needle moved.