Searching for Sugar Man

For every genius we have, imagine how many countless others have slipped through the cracks and gone unnoticed. By accident and political circumstance, one such artist was given a second life half way around the world.

Imagine for a moment that you are an American folk singer in the early 1970s. You put out two albums that, according to your producers, will make you bigger than Bob Dylan. Everyone in the industry thinks you’e a genius. And then nobody buys your records. The public ignores you. The music labels are dumbfounded but have no choice to drop you and move on.

At the same time, your first album, Cold Fact, somehow makes it to South Africa. Unbeknownst to you or anyone in the music industry, your songs explode in popularity and provide the anti-establishment anthems for an entire generation. In South Africa, you are bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones, and nobody outside of South Africa knows this, including you.

How is this possible? Continue reading “Searching for Sugar Man”


Hendrix Was a Cowboy

The popular narrative of American individualism may explain why the rock & roll pantheon consists of English bands and lone American men.

Earlier this week, I made the argument that iconic English bands are better than their American counterparts. The Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Floyd, Queen and the Who blow away the likes of Aerosmith, Metallica, the Eagles, CCR, Skynyrd and Guns n’ Roses. When it comes to individual artists, however, the Americans are gods.

As mentioned earlier this week, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the Beatles as the greatest artist/group of all-time. Second on the list was Bob Dylan. Also in the top ten were Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Little Richard – the very heart of rock & roll music, and all American. Also high on the list are Bruce Springsteen and Prince. The first Englishmen are Elton John and Eric Clapton, who both come in at around 50. Although many consider the Beatles to be the greatest rock band ever, virtually everyone in the rock world agrees that Jimi Hendrix is the greatest guitarist of all time. As Tom Morello said, Hendrix “exploded our idea of what rock could be”.

Does it even mean anything that the greatest rock bands are English and that the greatest individual rock stars are American?

Perhaps the disparity has to do with the idea of American individualism – cowboy philosopher on the stage – reckless guitar slinger with a conscience. Popular American bands did exist. But the pinnacle of American rock & roll expression was the singular disgruntled, rebellious young man – James Dean with a mic. Angry young bands on the other hand were more like gangs and mobs – such an Old World concept. It’s not that Americans are or ever were more individualistic, but that the dominant narrative of the American spirit in popular culture permitted the worship of only those artists that conformed to it.

Sorry America, but English Bands Are Better

Rock & roll music is more American than apple pie. The great American bands, however, pale in comparison to their English counterparts. Is it something in the water?In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine compiled their list of the 100 greatest artists of the rock & roll era. The list isn’t perfect (no list is), but it captures a relatively undercovered transatlantic disparity. Unsurprisingly, the top spot is held by the Beatles. The next band on the list is the Rolling Stones. The next, and first American band on the list is the Beach Boys.

Beatles…Beach Boys.

Other English bands on the list include Led Zeppelin, the Clash, the Who, Pink Floyd, Queen, Radiohead and the Yardbirds. The American bands include Nirvana, the Doors, Aerosmith, Metallica, the Eagles (I hate the fuckin Eagles, man), Creedence Clearwater Revival, R.E.M. and Guns n’ Roses. With the exception of perhaps R.E.M. and Nirvana, I feel confident in asserting that every single one of those English bands is better than every single one of those American ones.

It should be noted that all of the English bands mentioned took inspiration from distinctly American musical roots. The Beatles were vocal in their indebtedness to Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, the latter of whom incidentally stayed with and advised the Fab 4 during their stay in Hamburg, which, according to Malcolm Gladwell, marked the turning point in the Beatles’ career in terms of them actually becoming a good, and eventually, great band. The Rolling Stones made it no secret that they were following in the footsteps of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and other greats of American blues and R&B.

Furthermore, all of the bands on the list, including U2 and ACDC, neither of which are English or American, toured extensively in the States and sold more records there than anywhere else. It can be argued that in terms of inspiration and a market to consume and appreciate them, there would be no Beatles or Stones without the US. But now it feels as though I’m getting patriotically defensive. The fact of the matter is that either by historical accident or some other cultural reason, the iconic bands of England are far better than those bred in the US.

But why focus on mainstream bands? Perhaps there are plenty of underground groups in the States that are better than those in England, but by that logic, underground rockers in Germany, or Korea even, may be better than anyone on the Rolling Stone list. For ease of analysis, my use of the word “better” applies, unfortunately or not, only to bands that have achieved popular success.

Perhaps unfairly, I have intentionally excluded many bands (Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic and essentially every Motown band on the Rolling Stone list). Although these bands can be considered part of the rock world, they are also different enough to merit their own genres. I may hate the Eagles (seriously, I do), but they are unfortunately more of a rock band than the Temptations (who are great). In other words, being called a rock band is not a compliment – it’s a description. Also excluded are Simon and Garfunkel (seem more like Batman an Robin than a band) and the E-Street Band of Bruce Springsteen fame – neither or whose omissions change the larger point mentioned above concerning the English advantage.

Take a look at the list again and let me know if you think there are any deserving bands that were left out. Possibilities include the Cure, Outkast, the Smiths, Pearl Jam, the White Stripes and many more – please don’t say Coldplay. Later this week, I will explore whether the English advantage exists when dealing with individual artists as opposed to bands (hint: it’s the complete opposite).

The Rise of the Ironic White Rapper

Self-deprecation and irony are pushing the boundaries of the rap world, but only among white artists. Where are the weird black rappers?

White rap has come a long way from Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark. Whereas Eminem has been successful in achieving underground and mainstream praise, as well as universal credibility, a new breed of white rappers has emerged. They are extremely gifted but use humor to propel their music.

To call them rappers at all would be to miss the point; they are more entertainers, or rather, stand-up comedians who know how to freestyle and tell jokes to a beat. The most prominent example would be the boys of Lonely Island ( Akiva “Kiv” SchafferJorma “Jorm” Taccone, and David Andrew “Andy” Samberg), who used Saturday Night Live as a launching pad for their over-the-top songs concerning oft forgotten topics. Their first hit (on Youtube at least) was Lazy Sunday in which the members of the group watch the Chronicles of Narnia and then eat cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery – the polar opposite of the typical rap fare. Their breakout moment came just before Christmas 2006 with the release of Dick in a Box, which went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. The hits kept on coming with Jizz in My Pants, I’m on a Boat, I Just had Sex and the sequel to Dick, Motherlover (featuring Patricia Clarkson and Susan Sarandon). The group’s second album, Turtleneck & Chain, was at one point the best-selling rap album in the country in 2011.

North of the border, Canadian comedian Jon Lajoie has been producing similar tunes for years, most notably with his hit Everyday Normal Guy, which is in many ways the antithesis of the ego-inflated chauvinism found in mainstream rap music. The first verse of the song goes:

I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
Nothing special about me Mother Fucka
I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
When I go to the clubs I wait in line Mother Fucka

I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
I got 600 dollars in the bank Mother Fucka
I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
And my sexual performances are average.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Lajoie’s craft is that he’s actually got good songs, i.e. they would make for great radio play as long as one were to ignore the lyrics.

Mac Lethal even went viral while rapping about making pancakes. The current generation is running confidently in the tradition of the Beastie Boys and Weird Al Yankovic, who are no strangers to silly rap and poking fun at themselves.

But where are the strange black rappers? Granted, there’s Andre 3000, who is about as strange and as talented as any rapper out there, but he is not a running parody of the genre. What is unique about Lonely Island and Lajoie is that they are making fun of rap culture itself. Is it that white rappers have a hard time being taken seriously as tough thugs? Or is it that black rappers are pigeonholed as such and prevented from exploring more tongue-in-cheek personas? Or is all of this merely a coincidence?