Memorable Album Covers of 2021

The vinyl resurgence continued at a furious pace in 2021. By midyear, vinyl sales were up 94 percent from the year before. The week ending December 2 (which included Black Friday) marked second-largest week of vinyl sales since MRC Data began tracking sales in 1991. The popularity of vinyl also underlined the importance album cover art, with online sites such as Our Culture and Exclaim devoting articles to the best and worst album covers of the year.

Album sleeve design plays an essential role in expressing a musician’s vision and sparking curiosity through visual storytelling. In the digital age, album cover art is even more valuable. The cover art is like a totem that appears in both the physical world (the album itself, merchandise, clothing, billboards, etc.) and digital (an artist’s website, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.) Album cover art can also inspire a musician’s followers to create their own fan art based on the original sleeve. The cover becomes a digital totem.

As I have done for the past few years, I’ve created my entirely subjective round-up of the most memorable album covers of 2021. These are neither the worst nor the best. The simply made a powerful impression and stuck with me like a musical earworm. The memorable covers of 2021 reflected a pervasive sober realism. The covers reflected many artists who emerged from the oppressive isolation and tumult of 2020 by facing the world head-on, such as Cautious Clay’s portrait on the cover of Deadpan Love . . . .

. . . Or Lily Konigsberg’s Lily We Need to Talk Now.

Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever, focusing on Eilish’s tear-stained face, expressed Gen Z angst perfectly. 

Happier Than Ever also inspired a cottage industry of fan art. Here are a few examples:

Source: https://www.artstation.com/jowerly
Source https://www.deviantart.com/sk-graphix/gallery

But there was plenty of room for whimsy and humor, such as Baby Queen’s The Yearbook and Lil Nas X’s Montero.

Lorde’s Solar Power expressed a carefree spirit that spoke to the album’s theme.

St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home was awash with provocative retro.

But on the whole, the albums that stayed with me felt simple, direct, and sometimes humble, like Joy Orbison’s Still Slipping Volume 1, which looked like a scene from a Charles Bukowski short story. 

For more memorable album covers of 2021, check out my SlideShare presentation. All these covers spoke to me. I hope they speak to you, too.

Why Adele’s Victory over Spotify Matters

Adele fought Spotify. And Adele won.

As the world knows, Adele recently unleashed her new album, 30, amid the fanfare and fan love that we are accustomed to seeing whenever she records new music. Adele is an artist who understands the power of big moments to create awareness and to build loyalty. She also cares about how her music is shared and sold — which is why she has clashed with streaming services over the years. For instance, in 2015, she initially restricted her album 25 from Apple Music and Spotify because she believed that they devalue music by giving too much of it away for free. This time around, she’s taken Spotify to task for how it serves up albums to listeners through random shuffle play. And she has enacted a change that will benefit artist and fans.

Adele’s Victory Explained

For some time, when we listen to albums on Spotify, the app has defaulted to playing the entire album on auto shuffle. This means that Spotify has prompted listeners to experience songs in some random order dictated by Spotify instead of people listening to songs in the sequence that the artist intended. Well, until Adele put her foot down.

She tweeted that she has convinced Spotify to disable the default auto shuffle mode. Going forward, an album can still be played on shuffle mode if a listener chooses that. But Spotify will default to playing an album in its intended order of songs.

She tweeted, “We don’t create albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason. Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.”

Now that’s what I call leverage. One artist enacts a change that will affect all artists.

Why Adele’s Victory Matters

So, why does all this matter? When I shared an article about the demise of default auto shuffle on Facebook, my post inspired several comments. They fell into two camps:

1 It’s high time that Spotify respects musicians and fans.

One of my Facebook friends put it best, “Spotify strongly discourages users from listening to albums: its absurd, mystifying UX design makes that very clear. The service wants me to shuffle and graze an infinite playlist, and I refuse to do that, for the same reason I won’t read a single chapter of a novel or memoir and then set it aside to read another chapter by another writer with similar background or influences. I listen to music the way Adele makes and releases it.”

Here’s another representative comment: “GOOD. I hate spotify for that very reason. Artists create their albums in a certain way for a reason.”

2 Music listeners really don’t care.

On the other hand, I noticed a number of comments asking whether music listeners will even notice or care about Spotify presenting albums in their original order of songs the way artists intend.

One writer commented that people who actually listen to albums from start to finish are a vanishing breed. “ . . . our style of listening is disappearing, as surely as 8-track tape,” wrote one Facebook friend who grew up in the era of album-oriented music.

Another commented, “Modern and younger listeners are single-driven and the current pop scene generates singles and assembles album listing order aesthetically, with no underlying theme or concept. It is almost non-existent to have a concept record. Last popular one that comes to mind is Green Day’s American Idiot record.”

My take: Adele’s victory over Spotify matters. Here’s why:

  • Human beings matter more than algorithms. A machine no longer decides for you. A human being does. That’s a victory for humanity in my book.
  • Music listeners and artists win. Yeah, we like to remix music. Customized playlists are fun! In fact, music listeners have been making their own mixes since the days of cassette tapes. But it’s important that listeners have a choice by having access to the original source material recorded and shared the way the artist intended rather than have an app choose for them. Adele did something right for the listener. She restored the integrity of the artist/fan relationship.
  • ”Singles first” is neither new nor permanent. It’s true that today listeners are conditioned to consume music in bite-sized morsels while we go about our days exercising, working, and playing — which means we gravitate toward singles. But this behavior is not new. People consumed music mostly through singles decades ago until artists such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles ushered in a new era of album-oriented music, aided by the popularity of FM radio. But the resurgence of vinyl record sales underscores the reality that people do care about listening to albums. The point is that Spotify needs to allow listeners to adapt their preferences to their lifestyles, and that’s what Adele is forcing Spotify to do.

There are times when artists respond to fans. There are times when artists lead fans. Adele is leading through her actions.

How Netflix Is Becoming a Retailer

This is what agility looks like: Netflix launched Squid Game globally on September 17. By October 4, Netflix was selling official Squid Game merchandise on Netflix.shop, Netflix’s e-commerce site. By October 11, Netflix and Walmart had launched a Netflix Hub on Walmart.com, where shoppers could find merch based on Netflix shows, including Squid Game. Netflix has always had a knack for creating culturally relevant shows that connect with people through their beliefs and behaviors. Now Netflix is reading the pulse of culture and cashing in through retail.

Netflix.shop Launches a New Revenue Stream

Netflix launched Netflix.shop on June 10 to sell merchandise based on Netflix shows (as Disney has done so well with entertainment since the dawn of time). With the help of Shopify, Netflix uses artificial intelligence to quickly spot trends in consumer tastes and sell culturally relevant merchandise — which is exactly what is happening with Squid Game, the most popular debut show ever on Netflix.

Netflix.shop is an important foray into e-commerce for Netflix. The existence of the store represents a shift in thinking for the company that has define New Hollywood success. Netflix’s stock continues to eclipse previous all-time highs, but the company is spending $13.6 billion on content in 2021. Rising costs, coupled with a decline in subscriber growth, has led to ongoing speculation that the company will adopt advertising in some form. But so far Netflix has resisted an ad-supported tier as its competitors have done.

Selling licensed products is a revenue opportunity too big for a content creator to ignore. Sales of licensed products tied to shows, films and characters were about $49 billion in the United States in 2019, and $128 billion globally, according tothe most recent study of the industry by Licensing International, a trade group.

In fact, Netflix actually been in the merchandising business for a few years now. In 2019, Netflix and bike maker Mongoose agreed to offer a limited edition Mongoose based on a fictional bicycle used in Stranger Things, which was followed by the licensing of more Stranger Things-inspired bikes. Netflix also launched 75 co-brands, including those with Burger KingCoca-ColaH&M, and Nike.

These relationships — hybrid in-show product placements plus real-world merchandising — offered a glimpse of how Netflix would monetize its titles more broadly. Notably, the tie-in capitalized on the growing popularity of Stranger Things, which was a turning point for Netflix’s commitment to merchandising.

But even then, Netflix viewed merchandising and co-brands as a way to gain exposure Netflix shows as opposed to being a serious revenue stream. CEO Reed Hastings said that Netflix did not want to “get distracted with alternative revenue sources,” because its subscriber engine is what drives revenue, Hastings said in the earnings interview.

“The core focus is, create all these merchandising opportunities, tie-ins, touch points, so that you feel the ‘Stranger Things’ energy so that more people join,” Hastings said. “We do monetize all that. It’s just we’re monetizing it through our giant engine rather than through little sidecar vehicles.

A Change in Strategy

That’s not the case now. In 2020, Netflix hired Nike and Disney veteran Josh Simon to lead its Consumer Products division. Since he came aboard, Simon has tripled the size of the Consumer Products team. In addition to the partnering with Walmart, he’s been behind Netflix arranging distribution deals with Targetand Amazon to sell Netflix-inspired clothes, toys, beauty supplies and housewares.

Simon told The New York Times that Netflix.shop operates as a boutique, with Netflix instead focusing its efforts on more deals with store chains and fashion brands. “Practically speaking, the revenue will come more from those partners around the world in terms of sheer footprint and number of locations and magnitude,” he said.

And this is where Walmart comes into play. The online hub is Netflix’s first such site on another retailer’s site. A dedicated hub makes it easier for shoppers to find Netflix merchandise and also raises Netflix’s profile with customers of the world’s largest retailer. In addition, Walmart said that an initiative known as Netflix Fan Select will make it possible for fans to vote for the merchandise they would like to see from favored Netflix shows. Steven Mallas of Seeking Alpha says the relationship gives Netflix two pricing tiers:

First, the Netflix shop destination at its own site could focus on higher-priced items, including limited editions and other collectibles. Higher price points allow the company to more efficiently sell its items: i.e., take more money per unit and carry less units, which reduces risk compared to a mass-merchandise production plan.

The other side of the coin, the Walmart deal, will presumably focus on the latter merchandise model. These will be items that are priced to sell for a wider swath of the Netflix fandom.

Indeed, for Squid Game, Netflix and Shopify have unveiled merchandise ranging from $50 hoodies to $35 custom tees.

The products capture some of the iconic moments and characters in the violent show about people playing for their lives in a deadly series of games. The Netflix Hub on Walmart sells similar Squid Game merchandise, including tees and caps, but at a lower price.

Mallas also says that Netflix Fan Select opens up some intriguing possibilities:

Crowd-funding is something I always believed Amazon (AMZN) would have pursued to an effective degree/scale by now, but Netflix/Walmart easily could exploit this form of funding. It would reduce risk of production by collecting capital upfront from the very consumers who want to buy the product. And if both companies are serious about taking this website beyond online shopping carts and search engines, perhaps special exclusive filmed entertainment content could be crowd-funded and sold.

Imagine a short film based on the Stranger Things universe brought into existence by the fans, and then sold as a digital download, or even as an NFT… it just depends on how far the two partners want to go. It would be an easy way to create brand extensions at attractive economics; consider a toy company such as Hasbro (HAS), which has a history of seeking financing from fans for crowd-funded projects. Why simply vote for a product when you can also pay for it too? There does exist a consumer willingness to help corporations out in this regard, so long as there is sufficient demand for a certain concept.

Meanwhile Netflix has now engineered a way to stoke the fires of cultural relevance with its content and brand. If Netflix sees a show trending on social media, it can move nimbly — an approach Nike is taking by building its Nothing But Gold site. The need for speed influenced Netflix’s decision to work with Shopify to run Netflix.shop. Shopify President Harley Finkelstein told The New York Times that Shopify understand how to handle big merchandise drops ranging Taylor Swift albums to sneaker releases, “We’ve been battle-hardened around some of the largest flash sales on the planet,” he said.

Well Positioned to Grow

That Netflix could launch Squid Game merchandise so quickly is remarkable. Squid Game seemingly emerged from out of nowhere to take the world by storm, with its popularity based on word-of-mouth marketing.

Netflix is well positioned to grow its e-commerce business. But the company also as challenge: it’s one thing to cash in on a show such as Squid Game that builds enormous buzz early on. But other shows can take time to build the kind of fan loyalty that translates to a steady stream of merchandise sales. And lately Netflix has been quick to cancel shows in their infancy. In 2020 alone, Netflix canceled 18 original series, prompting Ken Renfro of Insider.com to note that “Netflix has a TV-show problem.” The company may need to be more patient to allow shows to become merchandise-friendly brands.

The Adele Mystique

Adele demonstrates the power of mystique. Merriam-Webster defines mystique as “an air or attitude of mystery and reverence developing around something or someone.” Adele creates that air of mystery by holding back. She avoids TikTok. She has tweeted only nine times in 2021, and her tweets consist of bland announcements probably written by someone on Team Adele. On Instagram, she has shared 14 posts in 2021 (and a recent Instagram Live chat with her fans). Avoiding social media is the wrong move for anyone trying to build a brand in our hyper-social attention economy. And yet, Adele’s new song “Easy on Me” has broken a Spotify record for most single-day streams even though she has not released any new music for six years.

Adele’s approach works for her. But why? Crucially, she built a devoted fan base when her breakthrough album, 21, took off in 2011. She attracted fans who were (and are) not necessarily into following music trends, social media, and pop culture — but who are into Adele. As Nielsen analyst Dave Bakula commented when Adele’s 25 was released in 2015, “[Adele is] an outlier of outliers because she brings in people who are not regular music buyers,” he told Billboard. “Maybe they haven’t bought a record since Adele’s 21.”

Adele has inherited the mantel of heartfelt singer-songwriter from the likes of Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Her fans connect with her songs at an intensely personal level. She is known to draw from her real-life relationships, which gives those songs an authenticity that resonates even more. “Easy on Me” is reportedly based on her divorce from Simon Konecki, as is her forthcoming album, 30.

Having a low profile on social strengthens that connection by keeping her fans focused on understanding Adele through her music, not through her social posts. Being on social risks exposing cracks in the Adele persona and can distract from her narrative. In 2020, she posted on Instagram a rare unguarded photo of herself wearing her hair styled in Bantu knots while she wore a Jamaican flag bikini. The post sparked accusations of cultural appropriation, a rare moment of public shaming. This was not the kind of attention that suits her narrative.

Social media is about creating impressions — little moments that create a steady stream of visibility. But Adele is in her element when she creates The Moment. Like hosting Saturday Night Live.

Or becoming the first person to appear simultaeously on the cover of both the U.S. and British Vogue.

She can control these moments. And then she can retreat behind the veil of mystique. She is like Steve Jobs with his big product reveals when he ran Apple. Adele’s latest big reveal is 30, being dropped on November 19. On Adele’s terms.

The Passion of the Rolling Stones

I swore I would never write one of those “Lessons I Learned from the Rolling Stones” blog posts.

And yet, here I am doing just that.

Why?

Well, a few nights ago, I came upon a YouTube video of them performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” onstage September 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina. I decided to watch it even though I already know the song well, and I’ve seen them perform it live. Frankly, I was curious to know how they sounded. After all, they’d just lost an essential member of the band, drummer Charlie Watts, who died August 24 after being their backbone for 60 years. On the other hand, they’d been holed up for months, grounded by the pandemic. The Charlotte concert was only the second show of their No Filter Tour. Would they sound energized by the road after all this time? Would they perform in sync with their replacement drummer, Steve Jordan?

Within seconds, I had my answer. These guys were on fire. Mick Jagger sliced through the air and skipped across the stage like a kid on a playground. Ron Wood and Keith Richards traded guitar licks like a garage band with something to prove. Richards crouched, twirled around, glanced at the heavens, and laughed. Wood swiveled his hips, tilted his guitar, and spat out lick after lick.

This was a moment of passion.

Then I came across them performing “Satisfaction” a few nights later in Pittsburgh. Here was an eight-minute version of a three-minute song we’ve heard countless times — and yet, every second felt fresh and exciting, with the band building up to an explosion of energy.

I have reflected on these moments. These guys are pushing 80 — Mick Jagger is 78, Keith Richards, 77, and Ron Wood, 74. Now, I don’t point out their age in a “Wow, they can still play into their 70s!” way. Their age matters because when you see someone several years older than you exuding that kind of joy and passion, well, you cannot help but feel encouraged that you can keep your inner flame alive, too, year after year.

I mean, it’s one thing to find your passion. But how do you keep it? Make it stronger? It’s easy when you’re just starting out in your career, whatever that is for you. You’re flush with the excitement of learning your craft. Of figuring out how to collaborate with a team. But then, the responsibilities of life start to compete for your energy. Professionally, you encounter hassles. Maybe you have a run of bad bosses or deal with a toxic co-worker. Maybe your job gets cut, and you need to learn a new gig with someone else. And then, there are the personal distractions that creep up on you, like monthly rents, student loans, and the endless minutiae of adulting. At some point, more serious personal setbacks that can crush your spirit enter the picture: like losing loved ones or handling a health issue of your own. All those things happen, and if you’ve somehow been spared and cannot relate to what I’m writing, well, just give it some time.

The Rolling Stones have endured all those setbacks. The loss of Charlie Watts is the latest. They’ve also lost other band members before Charlie, sometimes tragically. They’ve endured the same pressures that less-famous people like you and me face, including serious financial issues (they were broke in the early 1970s), legal scrapes, self-inflicted problems such as drug addiction and health scares (including heart surgery for Mick Jagger in 2019). Any of those obstacles could have sapped their spirit.

But not the Stones. They’ve released dozens of albums. Their work includes some of the greatest rock music ever recorded, and some not-so-great albums, too. But all of their music matters. Their most recent single, “Living in a Ghost Town,” was powerfully relevant to pandemic life.

And they keep touring.

On the surface, they don’t need to tour. They have all the money they need. Touring means travel. Being away from families. Enduring the rigors of road life. But I believe those video clips on YouTube say something else: touring is what fuels their passion. Touring means performing, and performing onstage ignites an inner spark. If you’ve ever performed onstage — whether acting, singing, or presenting at a conference in front of an audience — you know how that live dynamic feels. The energy. The nervousness. The “What if I suck?” doubts. Well, all that energy — both the nervousness and the excitement — creates a spark. And that spark keeps them vital.

Mick Jagger recently commented on performance when he was asked how and why he keeps touring into his 70s:

I’m very passionate about touring. Every time you go onstage it’s a very exciting moment, because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s always different. A lot of unexpected things happen. Each show is a new event. You’re in a different place with a different audience. It’s a very exciting couple of hours and it’s a very intense relationship with the audience.

Keith Richards was more succinct in a Rolling Stone interview: “It’s what I do, man. Give me 50,000 people and I feel right at home. The whole band does.”

It’s what they do. What do you do to keep your passion alive?

How Jim Morrison Lives through Rock Mythology

In 1985, I crossed paths with Danny Sugerman, co-author of the controversial biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. By the mid-1980s, a global Doors revival was in full swing, and No One Here Gets Out Alive, released in 1980, had a lot to do with that. Sugarman and co-author Jerry Hopkins cast the Lizard King as a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun, a tortured poet trapped in an ugly world of rock stardom. No One Here Gets Out Alive also speculated that Jim Morrison might have faked his death at age 27 in 1971 — an unsubstantiated claim that sparked much debate and critical backlash. Well, accurate or not, the book sold millions of copies.

I was working at a book publishing company in 1985, where I was editing a book about rock and roll, You Say You Want a Revolution: Rock Music in American Culture. I wanted to use a photo of Jim Morrison and had written Elektra Records asking for permission. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from Danny Sugerman. In his laid-back California drawl that suggested Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he explained that he held the rights to the photo I wanted. Then he asked me about the book I was editing. I explained how the book captured the essence of rock music’s influence on American culture, and a photo of Jim would be perfect. He didn’t ask me another question about the book or the rights to the photo. Instead, we spent two hours talking about Jim Morrison and the Doors. I told him I’d been to Paris for the 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death. He talked of the power of Jim to change lives singlehandedly — Danny’s life and many people he’d met since publishing No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Author photo from 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death
Author photo from 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death

When we hung up, I was reminded of how powerful Jim Morrison’s gravitational pull could be. Clearly, Danny Sugerman would forever remain under Jim’s spell. I also realized the phone call had nothing to do with rights and permissions. Danny had wanted to share his belief in rock and roll mythology, specifically the mythology of Jim Morrison, the rock god and poet. Somehow early in the conversation he must have sensed I was another believer he could bond with. He didn’t come across as a historian. He seemed to me like a disciple. I also saw No One Here Gets Out Alive in a new context: an important addition to rock mythology. That’s how I view it today.

Why Rock Mythology Matters

Since that conversation with Danny, I have come to understand and appreciate the essential role of rock mythology. Rock mythology is important because it liberates us from the mundane realities of life through its epic scope and sometimes sensational storytelling. For true believers — those of us whose lives have been changed by music — rock mythology imparts meaning. We need to believe that the rock gods who influence us also live and die in extraordinary ways.

Since No One Here Gets Out Alive was published, many more myth-makers have emerged, such as Stephen Davis, author of another controversial and salacious book, Hammer of the Gods, about Led Zeppelin. The surviving band members criticized the book for being inaccurate, but the criticisms missed the point: Davis had canonized Led Zeppelin as the ultimate gods of decadent cool, and most certainly did them a favor by elevating them to mythic status. In 2005, Bob Dylan published a memoir of mythology, Chronicles: Volume One, in which Dylan chose episodes of his life to create the portrait of a poet minstrel. Martin Scorsese built on that mythology with the release of the 2019 documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. The movie focused on Dylan’s famous 1975 tour that included a band of merry minstrels (such as poet Allen Ginsburg) and musicians. The movie confused many watchers by including authentic-looking interviews with actors who, it turned out, were playing people who did not exist, or real-life people who fabricated stories. The audience was left to wonder how much of the documentary was authentic and how much was made up. And critics were annoyed that they’d been duped. In retrospect, it seems to me Scorsese was playing with the concept of rock mythology by mixing fantasy with facts.

Elegantly Wasted Rock Gods

Rock mythology needs to have enough elements of truth to be believable, but it also needs to amplify the larger-than-life details. Rock mythology might also be based on stories that are generally agreed upon to be true — but the mythology omits details that are inconvenient. For example, the mythology about Keith Richards being a dangerously romantic rock star has been earned by well-documented drug addictions and scrapes with the law. But the closest Richards has come to dying (as of this writing) was actually from slipping and bashing his head on a palm tree trunk, a pedestrian story that is usually omitted from his rock mythology.

Keith Richards was friends with Gram Parsons, and both of them shared serious drug addictions. The life of Parsons, who left this world in 1973, is the stuff of powerful mythology. He was a boyish Southern gentleman who threw away a pampered existence (he came from a family of wealth) to embrace the hard life of an elegantly wasted rock star. Like Jim Morrison, he was a tortured soul; he was scarred by the suicide of his father when he was 12 and the alcoholism of his mother. Oh, and in his early 20s, while battling the demons of a heroin addiction, the rock god Gram Parsons cut two record albums that influenced the rise of modern-day Americana. Because gods of mythology live very, very large.

Of course, he did not die like any mortal. No, Parsons succumbed to a drug overdose in a lonely motel in the desert. But the story does not end there. His loyal road manager Phil Kaufman (who, in the tradition of rock mythology, was once a cell mate of Charles Manson) stole Gram Parsons’s corpse and burned his body in Joshua Tree National Monument. According to rock mythology, Parsons had wanted his body burned in the desert. Apparently Kaufman was the only person Parsons had bothered to tell, but there can be no other reason why Kaufman would have gathered a posse to steal the body and burn it. In any case, verifying details is not important to rock mythology; what’s important is the highly impressionistic portrait that has emerged of Gram Parsons as a romantic, gone-too-soon, fragile soul. This mythology is so strong that visitors to Joshua Tree (including me) who know the story of his death make it a point to find the spot where his ashes were scattered. (Google “Gram Parsons Joshua Tree site,” and see for yourself.) Who can say for sure where his ashes were actually scattered or whether indeed he wanted his body burned in the desert? But mythology is about storytelling, not pinpoint factual accuracy.

Why is the myth of the rock star who lives fast and dies young so compelling? Perhaps because according to popular mythology, rock and roll itself is a subversive force that emerged from the depths of hell to corrupt the young. Rock and roll is supposed to be dangerous. After all, Ian Drury sang, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” Rock stars are supposed to be dangerous. And under the subversive influence of the devil’s music, rock stars are vulnerable to the temptations of rock life. They may even become agents of the devil himself. Rock mythology says that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil; it tells us three members of Led Zeppelin also forged a contract with Satan. Many others, such as Ozzy Osbourne, might not have been known to sell their souls to the devil, but according to mythology, they did the devil’s work.

Contemporary Myth-Makers

Thanks to the internet, anyone can create their own rock mythology to endure for the ages. If our myths became challenged by the facts, we can either ignore all but the most unavoidably inconvenient truths or incorporate them into a new mythology.

A good case in point is the recording of the last Doors album with Jim Morrison, L.A. Woman. Popular rock mythology says that when the Doors went into the studio to record L.A. Woman, Jim was a bloated has-been who’d run out of ideas and needed to plumb the depths of his childhood journals to find something fresh. After Jim Morrison’s infamously chaotic performance in Miami in March 1969, the band suffered from a slew of canceled concerts. Jim Morrison was charged with obscenity, a process that drained him and the band. Cast adrift, they struggled. By 1970, when the Doors were recording L.A. Woman, the Doors sounded so bad in rehearsals that their producer, Paul Rothchild, quit them, fuming that the Doors sounded like a cocktail lounge act. But somehow — so goes the mythology — Jim Morrison managed to tap into some muse that was still burning inside, and he forged a new instrument from his hoarse, beaten voice.

That enduring perception is probably true, and probably false. Who knows? That’s the point of rock mythology — to paint pictures we hold onto for those moments when our mortal lives feel too ordinary. And so, the myth of L.A. Woman persists.

“Riders on the Storm”

A recently unearthed demo of “Riders on the Storm” challenges the mythology that Jim Morrison was in decline when the Doors made L.A. Woman. The demo, uncovered by album co-producer Bruce Botnick, suggests that Morrison’s voice sounded better than ever, even gaining some depth and soul missing from his earlier recordings. Known as the Sunset Sound demo, it feeds into a mythology that I’ve embraced: the rise of the shamanistic Jim Morrison who was enjoying a creative Renaissance, contrary to the has-been Jim mythology.

According to the myth of Jim Morrison as shaman, he had decided to leave behind his Dionysian past and morphed into Mr. Mojo Risin, a blues persona who sang in a gruffier, lower register. Mr. Mojo Risin is best appreciated on the title track for L.A. Woman (in which he name-checks Mojo Risin, which turned out to be an anagram for Jim Morrison), “The Changeling,” and “Been Down So Long.” But Mr. Mojo Risin actually appears before L.A. Woman, notably on “Road House Blues” from Morrison Hotel, which was released in 1970.

How do I know all this about Jim Morrison’s creative renaissance? I don’t know. I believe. But the belief is well-founded. L.A. Woman was a critical success, and it was no fluke. Morrison Hotel was equally well-received. On those last two albums, the Doors released some of their strongest songs, which sounded nothing like the psychedelia of their celebrated first two albums — a sign of a band growing and experimenting with its sound. And on live albums recorded from the few concerts the Doors could book after the Miami incident, Morrison sounds like a man who is experimenting with different personae onstage. Absolutely Live captures Jim applying the confrontational theater style he’d learned from the Living Theatre in Los Angeles. On Live at the Aquarius: First Performance (recorded in July 1969, but not released until decades after the fact), you can hear Jim Morrison experimenting with the Mr. Mojo Risin persona. He improvises the song “Back Door Man,” by incorporating lyrics from the yet-to-be released “Maggie M’Gill” from Morrison Hotel: “Well, I’m an old blues man and I think that you understand/I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began.”

On “Riders on the Storm,” Jim achieved one more creative transformation. He conjured up a frightening Wendigo from Native American mythology to inhabit the soul of Mojo Risin. He’d had a longtime fascination with Native American culture. In a spoken recording, he once talked of a childhood incident in which his family came across an accident on a highway. Several Indians were scattered on the pavement, and the soul of one of the ghosts of the dead Indians inhabited Jim Morrison’s soul. He would also capture that moment famously in the song, “Peace Frog,” from Morrison Hotel. If this story alone does not constitute epic rock mythology, I don’t know what does. It’s fantastic enough to sound ridiculous if you are a skeptic. But if you are a believer, you can totally accept a younger Jim Morrison deciding he was inhabited by the soul of a dead Indian and then drawing from that belief to create art.

In “Riders on the Storm,” Morrison evokes the Wendigo to create a feeling of dread that pervades the song even in its rough form. The early take is simpler than the final version, which would be embellished with an echo of Jim Morrison’s voice and the thunderstorm special effects. But the evil spirit of the Wendigo emerges even in this early version, with Morrison’s words creating a powerful narrative:

There’s a killer on the road 
His brain is squirmin’ like a toad 
Take a long holiday 
Let your children play 
If you give this man a ride 
Sweet family will die

The Wendigo also expresses the chaos of existence in the line, “Into this world we’re thrown” (a lyric that Doors scholars believe was inspired by philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, or human existence as a basic state). Throughout, Jim’s voice is haunting and dark, deep and pure.

He didn’t create the dread alone. “Riders on the Storm” represents a peak performance by the entire band (as well as guest bassist Jerry Scheff) and some brilliant production by the band and Bruce Botnick.

The song was still taking shape when the Sunset Sound demo was recorded. But Jim was already where he needed to be.

The Danger of Rock Mythology

Chasing rock mythology can lead you down self-destructive paths. Gram Parsons killed himself chasing the mythology of the elegantly wasted rock star (a mythology inspired directly by his association with Keith Richards), and in doing so, Parsons only added to that mythology, giving artists such as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt a template to follow. Embracing rock mythology is like dreaming in the day, and as T.E. Lawrence said, dreamers of the day are dangerous men. But the alternative is to view rock stars like Jim Morrison as ordinary people, even unsavory people who lived and died in very pedestrian ways. This will not do. An everyday insurance salesman or an anonymous computer programmer didn’t give the world “Riders on the Storm” and “L.A. Woman,” did they? Those are not the works of ordinary people. They are gifts left behind by gods who walked the earth.

“Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages/Celebrate the symbols from deep elder forest,” Jim Morrison once wrote. We need to reinvent the gods to believe in ourselves and the choice we have made to believe in them through their music.

Why the NFL Needs Kendrick Lamar

The NFL should have given the entire Super Bowl stage to Kendrick Lamar.

The NFL announced on September 30 an all-star line-up for the Super Bowl LVI halftime show, which happens February 13 in Los Angeles. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar will represent three decades of hip-hop, with Mary J. Blige providing a hip-hop soul flourish. (Covering the news, Yahoo Entertainment said “Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop and more lead star-studded 2022 Super Bowl halftime show, thus relegating Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar to “and more” status.)

The announcement showed how far the NFL halftime show has evolved and how far it has to go.

The halftime show come a long way since college marching bands Up with People.

It’s more diverse and sometimes more culturally relevant although not always in ways the NFL expects — such as when Beyoncé, a guest performer for the featured act Coldplay at Super Bowl 50, stole the show by performing her socially and politically charged song “Formation,” which sparked controversy and absolutely slayed.

The NFL likes to think of itself as make-no-waves family entertainment (make of that what you will). And the Super Bowl is a rare event that strives to appeal to a broadly defined global audience in an era of data-driven television narrowcasting. The NFL plays it safe with Super Bowl halftime entertainment — especially after the NFL made the mistake of allowing MTV to produce the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, resulting in the edgy performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake that introduce “wardrobe malfunction” to our common vocabulary. After that, the NFL circled the wagons and featured safer acts such as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Prince (not the younger, out-there Prince who gave us “Dirty Mind”), and the Rolling Stones (not the younger, dangerous Stones). The social gravitas of Beyonce’s “Formation” was the exception that the NFL did not plan on.

But there’s a problem with this approach: the Super Bowl is losing the 18–49 audience, which is crucial to attracting advertisers. Which brings us to the line-up for the 2022 Super Bowl. The NFL is trying to be more culturally relevant by emphasizing hip-hop and diversity in the line-up, but the performers are play-it-safe choices. We’re not going to see the raunchy and dangerous Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg of the 1990s, but three established brands that appeal to a broad audience (Eminem just opened a restaurant called Mom’s Spaghetti in Detroit). Between the three of them, they could slip in a surprise call-out to their edgier past, but I doubt that will happen. Mary J. Blige, who performed at Super Bowl XXXV and the 2012 Democratic National Convention, is also a safe choice.

Kendrick Lamar, though, is probably the most socially conscious and influential musical artist today. To say that his songs confront American racial injustice is an understatement. His music has become a rallying cry for social and racial justice; indeed, his “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly is considered to be the unofficial protest song of Black Lives Matter.

Kendrick Lamar owning that halftime stage would lend street cred to the NFL and attract more of the 18–49 age group. But I really don’t think the NFL wants to see another “Formation,” as exciting as Beyoncé’s performance was. In the NFL’s eyes, Black performers entertaining a global audience is great; Black performers getting political onstage is scary.

And yet . . . the NFL knows it needs to find a way to connect with younger viewers in a multicultural world. So, Kendrick Lamar will perform in an ensemble role. Th NFL is hedging its bet like a fund manager who offsets a higher-risk investment with safer choices.

But with more risk comes more reward — the kind that Kendrick Lamar can deliver. But you never know: if anyone can turn the moment into a breakthrough, Kendrick Lamar can.

Warner Music Group and Twitch: Why Record Labels Matter

Warner Music Group (WMG) and Twitch recently announced a first-of-its-kind relationship to launch recording artist channels and create a standalone music space featuring premium music-centric programming on Twitch. The deal demonstrates that the legacy music labels such as WMG are as important as ever. In fact, they might play a more vital role as star makers in an increasingly cluttered digital world.  

Why Digital Is a Two-Edged Sword

In the digital age, anyone who has a TikTok or YouTube account can publish music. And in that regard, digital is liberating: you don’t need a deal with a record label to share your music to the world. But how do you find an audience after you upload your music when everyone around you is competing for eyeballs and ears, too? A Scooter Braun discovering a Justin Bieber on YouTube happens rarely. Music labels possess the muscle and money to amplify your name. If they do their jobs right, they solve the distribution and promotion problem for up-and-coming artists.

Why the Twitch/WMG Deal Matters

The Twitch/WMG deal will tap into the power of Twitch as a distribution platform for WMG artists. WMG acts Saweetie, Bella Poarch, and Sueco will receive artist channels on the platform, with more to come. Twitch may also become an important intermediary between artists and some of the brands that have marketing relationships with Twitch, ranging from Chipotle to the NFL.

The relationship will also give WMG a way to scout emerging talent on one of the most culturally relevant platforms in the world. For example, WMG and Twitch have already announced programming that includes a freestyle throwdown for Twitch rappers and a segment, “The One,” in which guest artists will “meet up-and-coming Twitch musicians that they have inspired.”

A closer relationship with Twitch should also give WMG an important listening tool to monitor the tastes of the all-important Gen Z/Millennial audience that Twitch attracts. 

This Twitch/WMG deal is about two powerful brands understanding how to become more influential during the rise of the creator economy.

Tony Iommi: Never Say Die

Who inspires you when you need motivation? What face do you envision when you need a kick in the butt? I think of Tony Iommi, co-founder and lead guitarist for Black Sabbath. 

Let me tell you something about this guy. 

When he was a teenager and aspiring guitar player in the 1960s, he lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers of his right hand in a factory accident. It sure looked like his guitar-playing days were over.

As he later told Loudwire magazine, “I went to the hospital and they cut the bones off and then they said, ‘You might as well forget playing.’ God, I was just so upset. I wouldn’t accept that there wasn’t some way around it, that I couldn’t be able to play.”

So what did he do? He adapted to a two-fingered guitar playing technique. He fitted his damaged fingers with homemade thimbles so that he could still use them on fret chords. 

“It worked,” he told Loudwire, “but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them . . . and it was painful.”

He also slackened the guitar strings, which made it easier to bend them. All these changes added up to a different sound, the heavy metal power chord, that would make him one of the most inventive guitarists in rock history and contribute to a long run of success for Black Sabbath that included 70 million record sales. Rolling Stone would rank him Number 25 on its 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time List.

Now let me tell you something else about Tony Iommi. 

Let’s fast forward to 2013. Black Sabbath was a legend. Tony Iommi had accomplished everything. He could have rested on his laurels. But instead, he went back into the studio with the band to record 13, the first album Black Sabbath had recorded in many yearsThe album become a critical and commercial success. Black Sabbath went on tour to promote 13, which is when when my family and I saw them in concert one night. Well, Tony Iommi took over that stage. Dressed in a black leather jacket, he looked like a cross between the Road Warrior, the Terminator, and one of the Nazgûl as he wielded his guitar like a weapon. He didn’t preen like Jimmy Page or mug like Keith Richards. He just shot one power chord after another into the air like roman candle bursts from hell.

Oh, and you know what? He was doing this show in between lymphoma treatments.

Here is how he described that tour four years later to the U.K. website Mirror:

After we released the album we went on tour and played 81 shows in 28 countries. I really enjoyed it, but it was tough. After the illness I got really tired. Every six weeks I had to fly home for treatment at the Parkway Hospital in Solihull, just outside Birmingham.

I was hooked up to a drip and given an antibody that sort of coats the cancer cells and stops them spreading. Then I had to be home for two or three weeks recovering before I could join up with the band again. We had to plan the whole tour around my treatment.

Unbelievable. Get hooked up to a drip. Rest. Then go onstage and become a guitar god. But he had no other choice because that’s how he rolls. As he told the Mirror website, “I could be here another 10 years or just one year – I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I should try to live a more peaceful life. Then I think, ‘I don’t want to let the illness take over. ’”

I’ve never seen such a unmitigated display of strength onstage. Tony Iommi inspires me all the time. Who inspires you?

Why Vinyl Stage Patter Matters

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

One of the ways I learn about musicians is to pay attention to their stage patter on record albums, and fortunately the vinyl resurgence makes this particular form of immersion easy to do. On a live album, a musician’s interaction with the audience can reveal something important about the artist. On the Doors album Absolutely Live, when Jim Morrison screams “Shut up!” at a chatty audience in the middle of “When the Music’s Over,” you are hearing an important moment in Jim Morrison’s life when he was experimenting with the confrontational performance technique he’d learned at the Living Theatre in Los Angeles.

Then there’s Mick Jagger on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, teasing his audience with, “I think I busted a button on my trousers. Hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?” This quintessential Mick Jagger moment, all ego and sexual bravado.

Sometimes stage patter becomes as memorable as the music. On One More From the Road, when Ronnie Van Zant famously asks, “What song is it you wanna hear?” the audience’s lusty “Freeeee-birrrd!” response becomes a defining moment for fan zealotry. (Whenever you hear someone at a concert jokingly shout “Freebird!” you now know where the joke originated.)

One of my favorite albums with interesting stage patter is Charley Pride’s In Person, a 1969 recording of a concert in Ft. Worth, Texas.

His personal story is one of overcoming poverty and racism on his way to becoming something very rare: a Black country music superstar. He was born to a family of poor sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1934. At age 14, he learned how to play guitar. Throughout his life, he thought his ticket out of poverty would be professional baseball, and indeed he played a considerable amount of minor league ball until an arm injury cut short his dreams. After his baseball career ended, he worked construction and unloaded coal from railroad cars in Montana, a dangerous job. Well, all this time, he was singing. And he was good at it. When he was playing ball, he sometimes sang before games, which increased attendance and earned him some additional income. After baseball, he keept at it, playing gigs in regional bars. He became good enough to land a recording contract at RCA Victor in the 1960s. RCA believed in him, but it was hard to get record promoters to play country music by a Black musician. But fortunately for Charley Pride, when his songs such as “Just Between You and Me” got played on the radio, where white listeners did not know the color of his skin, he caught fire.

As his popularity rose, he started to perform live to white audiences who were in for quite a surprise when a Black man walked onstage to sing the songs that they’d fallen in love with. The audience did not always welcome you with open arms. But he quickly won them over with his charm and enormous talent. The album In Person captures the essence of Charley Pride – his easygoing singing style and his warmth. “Oh, you’re mighty fine,” he says from time to time, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause. (It’s clear his audience loves him.) During two important moments, he also reveals profound truths about his difficult past. Before he launches into the rollicking “Shutters and Boards,” he says, gently, “I’ll tell you, it’s getting a little warm up here, but I’ll guarantee, I’d rather be seating up here than picking that cotton in Mississippi.” If you’re distracted, while you’re listening you might miss the remark – but when you hear it, you think of the album in an entirely new context. That one remark says everything about where he’s been and his motivation for succeeding. And then, before the final song on the album, “Cotton Fields,” he makes that motivation even more clear when he introduces the song. He says “Cotton Fields” is personally important to him because “It reminds me of what I never want to go back to doing. It hurts my fingers, my back, and my knee. When I go onstage, I try to sing the best I can, because I don’t want to go back to doing it anymore.”

For Charley Pride, there was no going back. He would go on to record 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and 30 of those made it to Number One. After he became an undisputed star, he most certainly put his life on the line performing in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1976 – at a time when it was too dangerous for anyone to travel there to perform. That’s the kind of man Charley Pride was. Brave enough to risk his safety to perform his music. Brave enough to travel down the lonely road of becoming a Black country singer. Brave enough to open up about himself onstage. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2020, he died at age 86 of complications from Covid-19.