Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rest In Peace King of Pop

It seems that events having to do with music rarely make headlines. In other forms of entertainment, such as sports, we can always count on hearing about the World Series or Super Bowl champion when that time of year comes around. In music however, the only thing close to a major yearly event is the Grammy Awards, which seems to get less and less important/respected every year. Though music is a huge part of so many people’s lives, it affects us all in different times and different places. Furthermore, developments happen slowly and aren’t fully realized until years later. With the exception of the Beatles’ concert on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, I can’t think of single, specific music-making event that went down as truly significant in recent history. As you might have figured out by now, all this goes to say that music only makes news when people pass away. It’s just the nature of the partnership between music and the media.

Without a doubt, I can say that Michael Jackson is the most famous musician to die in my lifetime. I’m sure I can speak for many people to say this came as a shock. As unhealthy as he looked, that was the basically the norm and I never imagined that this giant would ever kick the bucket in the current decade, or even in the next one. His music, his oft-imitated dance moves, his tabloid appearances and all the jokes about him seemed to be as much a part of our culture as iPods and cell phones. Because of this, it will take us awhile to adjust to having the throne of pop sitting startlingly empty.

Shortly after hearing the news, I felt the need to pay my respects here on Page 43. To tell you the truth, I’m not that much more familiar with Jackson’s catalogue than the average 20-year-old. I’ve heard “Billie Jean” tons of times and attempted to do the moonwalk with little success. I’ve seen the music video for “Thriller,” grooved to the awesome bass of “I Want You Back” and sung along with “ABC” when it's been on the radio. I even bought a copy of Off the Wall a couple years ago and oddly enough, checked Thriller out from the library two days before MJ died. Nonetheless, I’m hardly an expert on the man’s career.

I can say this, however. Michael was tremendously talented and recorded some of the catchiest songs ever heard. It’s easy for music snobs like myself to scoff at people like Mr. Jackson while we listen to artsy bullshit all day long simply because that’s the route we’re supposed to take. Well you know what? Michael Jackson’s work is just too damn good to categorize as bubble gum music. Off The Wall is the only album I’m entirely familiar with but it’s instantly clear that this is a well-crafted record of substance AND style. I give the great producer Quincy Jones a huge credit for this, but if anyone out there this can listen Michael sing “Working Day and Night” and honestly not feel just a little bit inspired to bust a move, I pity you deeply.

A month ago, if I’d posted an homage to MJ, it might have been slightly weird. A common reaction might be, “Umm…yeah that’s nice and all but why are you throwing praise at a guy who spends his free time doing God knows what with small boys?” This is very sad. As we (myself included) got caught up in making fun of “Wacko Jacko,” we neglected how much life had screwed him over. The press, his own family, his management and just about everyone connected with him exploited his fame and the guy just wasn’t built to take it. I have no doubt he was an extreme oddball and certainly am not defending what he may or may not have done. Still, we’ll never know exactly what went on in Michael Jackson’s head and what he would have been like if he hadn’t become a global icon at 24. All that we have now is his music and I know I won’t stop listening to it till I’ve had enough. And trust me, that won’t be anytime soon.

P.S. Last week’s subheading was from Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” Let’s see if anyone can guess the next one.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Back In the USA

After two weeks in China, I am back in the land of forks and knives. The trip was a true whirlwind of awesomeness. The group of 71 PLU students and faculty went to Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai to play concerts in each city and look at the scenery along the way. If you’d like to know about all the sightseeing I’d be happy to tell you but as this is a music blog, I’m going to keep this post limited to that aspect of the adventure.

As I was anticipating, sharing jazz with unfamiliar listeners was a blast. In Xi’an particularly, the audience went absolutely crazy. Probably the closest I’ll ever be to rock stardom and that’s okay. Despite my varied experience playing music, this is the first sort of tour I’ve gone on and what a first taste! Each facility we played at was different from the next and of course, the best of all was the Great Wall of China. Not only did we play on the 4,000 mile partition, we played during a windstorm of epic proportions. Apparently the ancestors didn’t approve of our modern sounds.

Musically, China is an interesting combination of Eastern and Western styles. This is true for just about everything there but I thought is was interesting hearing Pearl Jam in the hotel gift shop shortly after seeing a Chinese flute/pipe player perform live at a restaurant. Another example of this is the music shop in Shanghai where I purchased my liuqin or Chinese mandolin. One half of the store was filled with guitars and band instruments, the other with gongs, erhus (Chinese violin equivalent) and pipas (Chinese lute equivalent).

I’ve written a few times about the never-ending abyss that is Western music. Popular, classical, and all that fall in to this category make up a more vast set of sounds than we can imagine. But focusing on Western music is often like looking only at the Milky Way instead of the entire universe. There are so many other styles of music, built on entirely different sets of fundamental principles. This is a bit overwhelming and I don’t claim to ever become an expert on any other musical system. Still, it’s important to know what else is out there at the very least.

It would take more than two weeks abroad to really digest anything substantial about the Chinese musical tradition but still, I’m now very interested and hope to spend this summer picking up recordings and teaching myself the liuqin. Speaking of summer, after my month-long hiatus, I plan on writing here with consistency again. Also, I may do some contributions to this sports blog a friend of mine has set up recently.

Lastly, congrats to Luke Freedman on getting the last subheading which was from The Beatles' "Hello Goodbye." Who’s up to the next challenge? And here’s the latest music review. It’s of the New Pornographers Twin Cinema album.