Hey all…just an fyi that I’ve switched blogs. You can now follow me here…
Brian James Barr is a photographer and writer living in West Seattle, Washington. A contributor to The New York Times, Tin House, Oxford American, Seattle Weekly, and others, he is currently at work on a photo series documenting Seattle's diverse, working class neighborhoods White Center and South Park.
Hey all…just an fyi that I’ve switched blogs. You can now follow me here…
In the words of my old pal Kevin Patnik, I think I’m getting in touch with my inner 13-year old girl. Here’s a thinkpiece on trashy pop sensation Ke$ha from the 2/16/11 issue of Seattle Weekly.
Admit it: The first time you heard Ke$ha’s breakout hit “Tik Tok,” you were interested. You might’ve found it repulsive, catchy, stupid, annoying, bewildering, dazzling, or offensive to your otherwise refined ear. But “Tik Tok” most definitely made you sit up and listen. First, there’s the pulsating, strobe-light beat that erupts into a full-on electro-trash shout-along chorus. Then there are the lyrics—the kind you can’t believe someone actually wrote—in which Ke$ha half-raps about the nonstop party we’re supposed to believe is her life. She wakes up in the morning “feeling like P. Diddy,” brushes her teeth with Jack Daniel’s, and pretty soon hits the club with her friends, where she prick-teases all the boys “tryin’ to touch my junk, junk.” Finally, there’s the voice delivering those rhymes—a somewhat grating-yet-amusing nasal drip that sounds like a teenage Alanis Morrissette drunk on Auto-Tune. It’s all so void of depth that listening to it makes you feel dumb. You love it, don’t you?
“Her songs are just so unabashedly trashy and catchy,” says Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts for Billboard. “It’s the kind of thing where you hear it for the first time and go ‘What is this?’ and after a couple times you go ‘God, I love it!’ ”
For the most part, that which appears dumb in the pop world is fueled by a stroke of genius. Some wear genius on their sleeve: Beyoncé is a one-woman blaze of talent and elegance; Lady Gaga makes up for her music’s lack of depth by wearing raw meat in public. Ke$ha’s genius, on the other hand, is a little more elusive.
When Ke$ha Sebert splashed onto the scene in 2009, she arrived looking like a Barbie doll who’d been up all night with Mötley Crüe—disheveled blonde hair, torn fishnet stockings, heavy bracelets on her wrists, and the same sultry/pouty face you see on every teenage girl’s Facebook page nationwide. During interviews, Ke$ha even acted like a Sunset Strip rocker, drinking beer and bragging about how hard she’d partied the night before. She burped heartily, referred to her BlackBerry as her “DoucheBerry,” and offered no apologies for doing so.
The persona is there to match the music. In her songs, one is dazzled by fantasies of Ke$ha and her girlfriends living it up at big-city clubs, prick-teasing the boys. At best, the boys in Ke$ha’s songs are allowed to cop a quick feel, or invited to a naked slumber party in her basement. But for the most part, they’re cast aside like wastepaper. For a female pop star, her themes are familiar—self-empowerment and individual freedom a la Katy Perry and Pink—but there’s a twist.
“Ke$ha’s particular spin is that she acts like a guy,” says Ann Powers, pop critic for the Los Angeles Times and author of several insightful reviews of Ke$ha’s work. “She embodies certain qualities that are stereotypically male. She’s overindulgent and aggressive. She puts herself first; she doesn’t care about being polite or pretty, yet she’s not androgynous the way Patti Smith was.”
Ke$ha’s not the first to have dabbled in this arena. Lil’ Kim turned the tables on rap by embracing the genre’s aggressive sexuality. Crass public behavior has been an on-again/off-again theme for Madonna for 30 years. One could even hear women like Ethel Waters singing openly suggestive numbers in Harlem nightclubs in the ’20s and ’30s. While it’s still not the norm, sexual frankness among women is certainly not so shocking in the 21st century. The particular freshness Ke$ha has brought to the table backs up the attitude displayed in her music with a very believable public persona. “While most female pop stars merely put on its costumes and masks, Ke$ha fully embodies the character,” says Powers. “She is very consistent in the way she presents herself.”
And that character is a shit-talking, lipstick-smacking girl next door, a sweet girl who has no trouble hanging with the boys. Just as she has a beer in hand during most of her interviews, Ke$ha finds a way to mention guzzling booze in nearly every song; just as easily as she drops words like “vagina” and “douche” into interviews, she finds ways to integrate words like “dick” and “slut” into her songs. Among men, stuff like that is second nature, and we’ve come to expect it from many male performers, from Guns N’ Roses to Eminem. It may no longer be taboo for women to flaunt their sexuality, but it still is somehow socially unacceptable for women to act drunk and horny in public, like a man. Yet Ke$ha presents that crassness without shame, and she does it with the angelic face of a Barbie doll.
“She’s like a squeaky-clean Peaches,” says Caulfield. “Or a dirty Britney Spears.”
Pop is about right now, and there’s no question Ke$ha was engineered by her producers for this moment. In addition to taking female sexuality to another level, she’s written songs so blaringly catchy that they jolt from the airwaves like a cell phone ringing in the middle of a funeral, and she’s stripped her message of substance so that we’re left with pure vapid entertainment, a la Jersey Shore.
So far she’s managed to sustain the momentum of her 2010 debut, Animal, with Cannibal, a nine-song EP. Cannibal’s text-speak-titled single, “We R Who We R,” gave Ke$ha her fifth consecutive #1 hit. But as times change and attention spans grow dimmer, one has to question her staying power. Already she’s hinted at future musical directions by citing David Bowie, the Flaming Lips, the Beastie Boys, and Prince as her influences. And while it was curious to hear a pop starlet appealing to Pitchfork readers with such name-dropping, one need only hear Animal‘s “Backstabber” for evidence of her possible trajectory. In it, Ke$ha disses some jealous, loose-lipped girl she knows over a disco-trash beat. But she goes it sans Auto-Tune and less nasally, revealing a layer to her music on a par with that of Brazilian dance-floor hedonists CSS.
“I’m interested to see how Ke$ha evolves,” says Powers. “She’s obviously smart. She will have to adapt her character over time, but that’s common in pop. Look at Pink. She had a #1 hit this year after 15 years as an ‘ingenue.’ It can happen!”
“Every time an artist has this sort of of-the-moment success, people are always asking, ‘Well, are they going to age well?’ ” says Caulfield. “I don’t think it should be about whether they can age well. Everyone was writing off Madonna early in her career. When she first came out, everyone thought Cyndi Lauper was the great artist and Madonna was the trampy slut.”
Last Monday, I finished up Black & White I at Photographic Center Northwest, a fine art photography school here in Seattle. The class has pretty much consumed all of my time and energy since September 27. My teacher, the wonderful Jahnavi Lisa Barnes, guided us through the fundamentals of the analog B&W process, from the ins-and-out of the camera to development to Zone System to trial-and-error printing in the darkroom, etc, etc. To say the class was fulfilling would be an understatement. Not only did I become a better photographer, but the class was a vindication of sorts.
From the first week of class, Jahnavi recognized the way I viewed the world and how I wanted to convey that through pictures. Never once did she dissuade me from making the kind of pictures I want to make. Instead, she made me feel as though my “vision” was worthwhile, which was just as valuable as learning the practical technicalities of the photographic process. Her reaction to my final prints last Monday was proof that I was absolutely right in pursuing photography.
“The greatest compliment I could give you,” she said. “Is that I just want to keep looking at your pictures.”
Those words meant more to me than I could ever explain.
Why did it take me till age 30 to find photography? I’ve been wrestling with that question for the last year and a half. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. But I don’t think I was ready for it either way. Even if I had picked up the camera earlier in life, it would have been useless because I hadn’t spent enough time looking–truly looking–at the world. Life feels really, really good right now.
This Sunday, I will have the pleasure of reading at one of Seattle’s finest booksellers, Elliott Bay Book Co. This will be one of my final readings as part of the 2010 Jack Straw Writer’s Program. I’ll be reading with three of the best in the program, Bill Carty, Esther Altshul Helfgott, and Tara Roth.
Here’s the when and where…
Sunday, Nov. 7 @ 2pm
Elliott Bay Book Co.
1521 10th Ave., Seattle
I have yet to decide what all I’m going to read, but I do know one of the pieces will be an excerpt from a story called “Graceland”, which has been around in various drafts for too many years. Thanks to Jack Straw’s lighting a fire under my ass, I think I finally finished it. Here’s an excerpt, which is basically the original nugget I sketched out when the idea first came to me, driving down Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, August of 2002.
Elvis Presley Boulevard was a far cry from what Vicki Myers had imagined. To her, it was just one cluttered strip of BBQ joints, fried chicken stands, and check cashing outfits. She looked over at her husband, Rick.
“It’s different from what I pictured,” she said.
Rick was fixed on the road.
“Doesn’t it look different?” she asked.
Rick shrugged. Then, finally, “I guess I didn’t know what to expect.”
They came to a stop light. The car next to them was throbbing, the music was so loud.
“I guess I pictured it more as being out in the country, y’know?” she said. “Like more private, I guess. I can’t imagine building your mansion near all this fried chicken.”
“Elvis loved fried chicken,” said Rick.
“Oh sure. All Southern boys like fried chicken. Those guys I knew in the service, that’s all they ever talked about was their momma’s fried chicken.”
The light turned green and Rick drove on, following signs to Graceland.
“Yep,” Rick said. “Elvis liked his chicken and his peanut butter and pickle sandwiches.”
“Sounds like a weirdo,” Vicki said.
They had been driving for two days. Rick was beginning to wonder why.
As some of you know, I am a member of the 2010 Jack Straw Writer’s Program. This is a long-running non-profit program in which 12 Seattle writers are selected by a curator (this year, it was my pal Jared Leising) and given vocal coaching and several opportunities to read our work in public. In addition, Jack Straw prints a lovely literary anthology of our original work.
Anyway, the Jack Straw blog recently posted the podcast of the reading I did at the Jack Straw studios back in March. The story is called “It Was Nothing, Really” and it was pretty much written overnight…the quickest fiction has ever come to me.
Here is Jack Straw’s take on the story…
Deftly weaving together people and scenes, Brian James Barr presents rich commentary on adult relationships. Barr’s characters speak with an open and true voice, creating genuine intimacy in his writing. His vernacular, subject matter, and style, all work to make Barr’s writing distinctly contemporary.
Recently, I had the pleasure of briefly interviewing Will Oldham, inarguably the finest singer-songwriter of my generation. My wife and I have been listening to him for well over a decade and one thing that makes buying his albums such a pleasure is how often they make us laugh (for example: the above photo insert from 2007’s The Letting Go…hilarious, right?). Here’s what Will had to say about balancing laughter and sadness in music and life…and why his lovely song “A King At Night” boast a random exclamation of “You Fuck!” mid-song.
There is a danger at times of taking life too lightly. Easily this is as precarious a path as taking things too seriously. It is in laughter and tears that we find release, and that we can find that our guards can be let down enough to accept fellowship. Crying and smiling feel the best in the arms or company, at least, of others. Life can be such a son of a bitch; the past, especially, is always there to nip at your heels if not rip the fucking seat out of your trou. “You fuck”, the exclamation, puts us into the present. Tear-inducing laughter exists no place but now.
I also asked him if he thought pre-release publicity distracts from the experience of listening to and accepting an album.
I believe that it is hard in the making of, and aftermath of making, a record to communicate to the great folks at a label, and the good folks beyond, what the making of the record is. With Beware, there was an understanding that trying to communicate the essence of the record was going to be tacked on to the making of the record. My feeling is that the record has too much on it, and I like to think that it is a good record if you cut the last couple of songs off; I like those songs, but the record works if it ends at “I Am Goodbye”. Then i think it’s a really good record. With Lie Down In The Light and Wonder Show of the World, there was no cluster fuck of energies upon their completion, and they came out how we had hoped. Also, most of the music that is important to me came to me with zero hoopla… just the music itself. And I understand that this is not conducive to letting folks know the music exists… but there is time. Life is for a long time, happily. Often.
My write-up on Will will appear in the 8/4/10 issue of Seattle Weekly.
Illustration by Tom Dougherty
Certainly one of the more interesting pieces I’ve done in a while, this article appears in today’s (7/28) issue of Seattle Weekly. And is the illustration they ran with this piece awesome, or what?
As publicist for the rock band Wilco, Deb Bernardini can pretty much count on the band getting publicity any time they need it. Because Wilco is one of the most successful indie bands in the country, she can land a slot on The Late Show With David Letterman or have its latest album reviewed by David Fricke at Rolling Stone with relatively little hassle. But over Wilco’s 15-year career, she’s turned to one promotional outlet time and again—National Public Radio. Why would a rock-‘n’-roll publicist rely on a medium known for its devoted following of college-educated, hybrid-driving, tote bag–slinging, granola-munching, Obama-voting elitists?
“To be frank,” says Bernardini, “[NPR] sells records.” To be fair, the NPR audience is a very broad swath of folks, not just blue-state yuppies. Still, “the NPR crowd” is hardly a demographic that springs to mind when discussing today’s music-buying public. But among all the recent hand-wringing over how to battle disastrous record sales, the death of radio, and the demise of good music journalism, NPR seems to have something artists crave—like Starbucks, they have customers who are curious and actually buy music.
Of course, selling records was (and still is) the last thing Bob Boilen had in mind when he pushed for NPR to begin covering music more rigorously. Having begged Ira Glass in 1988 to give him a job at NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, Boilen went from associate producer to director of All Things Considered. Throughout, he was overwhelmed by the amount of music he received each week from artists looking for airplay. At the time, the only use for that music was as “buttons,” the snippets of songs that glue together news segments. When NPR went online, Boilen convinced his bosses to let him produce a music show, called All Songs Considered, which NPR ran in 2000 as a web exclusive. The show then migrated to the airwaves as a weekly segment spotlighting some of the music used during regular broadcasts—much of it from the indie-rock world Boilen favored, such as Andrew Bird and Regina Spektor. Seven years later, NPR launched NPR Music (npr.org/music), a sister website with Boilen at the helm. Though it might have seemed NPR was trying to cut in on Pitchfork’s game, Boilen says the impetus was much more practical.
“It was really done to help pull our member stations together under one umbrella,” he says. “That, and to help give NPR a name in music coverage.”
That said, NPR Music came out swinging, with a deep well of musical content produced at stations all over the country. But because the web is the web, Boilen saw opportunities for expansion, from a blog written by Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein to intimate in-studio performances (dubbed Tiny Desk Concerts) to obsessive lists compiled by noteworthy artists. He’s also turned NPR Music into one of the premier places for streaming full albums before they’re released—a promotional opportunity that’s a goal for many of his clients, says Ever Kipp, owner of the publicity firm Tiny Human and publicist for local label Barsuk. Landing full-album streams on NPR—for example, for Laura Veirs’ July Flame, Phantogram’s Eyelid Movies, and Menomena’s Mines (released Tues., July 27)—is “self-propagating,” says Kipp, noting how quickly they get picked up and linked to by other websites.
But unlike so many music sites, Boilen has emphasized strong reportage, making NPR Music one of the few remaining outlets hiring actual journalists to cover music in a thoughtful, detailed manner.
“They’re not just regurgitating press releases,” says Kipp. “They are always going deeper into the music. They take the path less taken when it comes to reportage.”
And because it’s still at its core a form of radio, NPR Music has one big advantage over nearly every other music-journalism outlet—it doesn’t waste words trying to explain what music sounds like.
“It’s radio—people can listen to it and decide if they like it or not,” says Boilen.
On any given day, one might hear (and/or read in text form) a feature on musicians banned from performing in their native countries; a special on Lauryn Hill’s return to performing; an exclusive preview of a forthcoming album; a list of favorite songs compiled by a well-known classical musician; or a story on Latin America’s female-dominated rock scene.
Yet NPR Music wouldn’t mean a thing if nobody was listening. According to Boilen, about 32 million people overall do. But it’s the type of people who listen that really counts for artists and their labels.
“My experience with the public-radio listener is that they generally listen,” says Bernardini. “They don’t change the station if they have never heard of the band that is being featured. They’re a dedicated, loyal bunch.” Furthermore, they’re some of the most thoughtful when it comes to commenting on NPR Music blog posts, writing actual informed responses as opposed to “You guys suck!”
While artists looking for exposure today have countless outlets, most don’t get them very far. “As a publicist,” says Kipp, “the hardest thing is to get past that core fan base and break through to a broader one.” Sites like Pitchfork and Paste offer great exposure, but they’re visited almost exclusively by indie-music lovers, a sliver of the population—most of whom have little money to spend. But since the average NPR listener is not only open-minded but relatively well-off to boot (most pull in annual household incomes over $150,000 and actively patronize the arts, according to a 2002 study), chances are much higher that they’ll buy your latest record—higher even than if you appear on Letterman or Saturday Night Live.
“There’s certainly a prestige in playing those shows,” says Boilen. “But a lot of bands see a bigger bump in sales from NPR. I hear it from PR people all the time. The most recent—though he’s probably not the most representative—being Weird Al Yankovic.”
Boilen gets a lot of props for being so forward-thinking with NPR Music. But in many ways, his approach is about as traditional as the The New York Times‘ style section. In determining what to cover, Boilen throws away all press releases, focusing solely on the music. When he’s narrowed the pool a bit, he does a little research on the artists, searching for unique angles before going out on assignment. Because NPR is a nonprofit, he feels no pressure from commercial interests. But labels and publicists both see direct results, because NPR listeners hear about their artists…on the radio. It all sounds, well, pretty old-school. Like radio.
“Well, we all come from radio backgrounds,” says Boilen of him and his staff. “We’re not just putting up music for the sake of putting up music. There’s always a story to be told.”