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.

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.

The Artistic Triumph of Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin

Everyone loves a comeback story, and the music industry is full of memorable ones. I recently examined one of the most compelling comebacks in music, Elvis Presley’s return to greatness in 1969. Today, let’s take a closer look at the king of comebacks, Johnny Cash, who had more than one throughout his storied life.

Johnny Cash and Elvis have a lot in common. Like Elvis, Johnny Cash changed popular music — in Cash’s case, country, folk, and pop — by recording with Sam Phillips in Sun Studios. Cash served in the Army before Elvis did. Like Elvis, he suffered from a drug dependency. Both Johnny Cash and Elvis also restored flagging careers by collaborating with the right creative partners. Elvis revived a moribund career through his work with producer Chips Moman, which resulted in some of the best music of his career. In 1994, Cash returned to artistic greatness when he and producer Rick Rubin released American Recordings at a time when Cash thought his recording career was over.

And Johnny Cash working with Rick Rubin was a collaboration that no one saw coming.

The Meeting of a Lifetime

In February 1993, Johnny Cash had a meeting that changed his life. He was performing in a rinky-dink club in southern California for an audience that numbered, at best, a few hundred — a far cry from the days when he could pack a large arena. He’d been told that a record producer named Rick Rubin wanted to meet him. Cash had no idea who Rick Rubin was, but he agreed to a meet.

The backstage encounter lasted no more than 15 minutes. At first, they seemed to have little in common. Rubin was a 30-year-old music impresario who had produced Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Slayer. Cash was a 63-year-old country star on the downside of his career. Cash wore black. Rubin walked around barefoot.

As Cash would remember in an interview included in the liner notes for the anthology album Unearthed, Rubin came across as “the ultimate hippie, bald on top, but with hair down over his shoulders, a beard that looked as if it had never been trimmed, and clothes that would have done a wino proud.”

But they had everything in common. And Rubin knew it.

Rubin was interested in producing Cash, because he wanted to record with someone who was “great and important, but who wasn’t doing their best work.” And Cash fit the bill. Rubin was fascinated with Cash’s dark side. He thought the man who once wrote, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was as much an outlaw as the most hard-core rapper from Compton.

At the same time, he saw in Cash’s work the voice of a vulnerable outlaw who wrestled with remorse and pain. Over the years, Cash’s music had lost that dark edge, which made him less interesting.

Rubin wondered if he could capture that voice again on the American Recordings label that Rubin owned and operated from his home studio near the Sunset Strip.

Cash remembered Rubin telling Cash he’d like to record him.

“What for?” Cash responded. Indeed, what for? Cash had a recording contract with Mercury Records, but no one had demonstrated an interest in producing him for years.

“I think if you let me record you singing the songs that you love, that you want to sing, that we’re going to find some that the people are going to like and are going to buy,” Rubin replied.

Rubin went on to pitch the idea of recording Cash alone and unplugged.

“You would take your guitar, sit down in front of a microphone and sing me the songs you love,” Rubin said. “Just sing me everything you want to record.”

Cash was intrigued. It turns out he’d once thought of doing an album like that. And he saw a conviction in Rubin’s eyes — a man of music who believed in what he was doing with probably more passion that Cash himself possessed at the time.

“Why don’t you give it a try?” Rubin asked.

“All right,” Cash replied.

A Decline

How far had Johnny Cash fallen when he met Rick Rubin that day?

Very, very far.

He had not released a Top 10 country album since 1976. He was no longer a concert draw. His long-time record label, Columbia, had dropped him in 1986, and his current label, Mercury, treated him with indifference. He was writing lackluster songs that relied on tired formulas. He sometimes made embarrassingly bad music, including the notorious “The Chicken in Black” song in 1984, which was about a three-way brain transplant. Its video featured Johnny running around in a weird costume.

“The Chicken in Black” was a far cry from songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire” — music that had challenged popular music tastes by fusing Americana, folk, and country. At the height of his fame, he was a singular talent akin to Jimi Hendrix — someone whose style was so distinctive that no one could really play and sing like him. He stood apart from the rest.

His 1968 album At Folsom Prison had made him a hero to the burgeoning rock culture. He cemented that role with a popular and progressive TV show, The Johnny Cash Show, which featured both country and rock acts alike. On his show, he introduced younger generations to a body of work that included the great hits that had defined his career: brutal, honest, but hopeful songs about outlaws and searchers. He also invited rock greats such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young to perform, which made The Johnny Cash Show culturally relevant.

At the same time, his close relationship with televangelist Billy Graham made him beloved by the Christian Right. As a result, in the early 1970s, he found himself in the improbable role of being loved by two opposing ends of a vast spectrum, which maximized his commercial appeal by broadening his audience. He toured heavily and pulled down large paychecks each time he performed. His record albums sold well. He was a TV star.

But, unfortunately, he overextended himself.

Everyone wanted a piece of him, and he said yes to everyone. Unfortunately, recording episodes for The Johnny Cash Show sapped his creative energy. And when he wasn’t taping TV shows, he was touring. When he wasn’t touring, he was appearing at Billy Graham religious crusades. When he wasn’t crusading for Jesus, he was crusading for various social causes, such as prison reform. He also made artistic choices that distracted him and spread him thin — like his costly and ill-advised trip to Israel in 1971 to produce a movie about Jesus Christ. The Gospel Roadturned out about as well as you might expect from someone with zero film-making experience.

Truth be told, the business of being Johnny Cash was costly and time-consuming. Not only did he have a family to support, but he had a lot of people on the payroll, especially when he toured with a large retinue of supporting musicians. He also liked expanding his horizons, but projects such as The Gospel Road were a drain on his finances. In addition, his involvement in the Billy Graham Crusades and his social causes came from a desire to do good.

Not surprisingly, he had little time to write songs. So he began phoning them in. And they were not very good. For instance, one of his songs, “Strawberry Cake,” was a trite tale about a bum who spots a strawberry cake in a fancy hotel, grabs a slice, and runs away. The song was an embarrassing attempt to connect with a blue-collar audience the way Merle Haggard was successfully doing with his own albums and songs. But Cash wasn’t putting in one-tenth the song-craft that Haggard invested into his gritty songs about working-class people struggling to get by. No one could relate to a strange tale about an everyman stealing a piece of strawberry cake.

Living in a Comfort Zone

But deeper problems were eating away at Cash’s creativity beyond lacking time to write. He was also easing into a comfort zone. And comfort zones can be deadly for artists. 

Cash’s comfort zone consisted of his role as a good-time gospel singer and noble Christian, which he embraced fully after he became a father to his son with June Carter Cash, John Carter, in 1970, and got more involved in Billy Graham crusades.

The man who once wrote songs about murderers had become a warm, cuddly teddy bear who sang at Billy Graham conventions and waxed poetically about his faith in public. There’s nothing wrong with a secular artist performing inspirational gospel songs, as Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley can attest. But what made Johnny Cash great was how he drew from a well of inner conflict and wrote about both his demons and his angels.

Inner conflict had driven him to artistic heights. He had written “I Walk the Line” to express his commitment to being a faithful husband (even though in real life he was unfaithful). But he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” too. He sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And he also sang, gleefully, about killing his woman in “Cocaine Blues.”

That was Johnny Cash at his artistic peak: a searcher and a scoundrel. But when he got too comfortable being a moralist, he lost his edge. As Robert Hilburn wrote in his excellent biography, Johnny Cash: The Life:

When it was time to go into the studio, Cash would just bring in the last batch of songs that had caught his ear. He didn’t sit down and plan them. There wasn’t a feeling of life and death about them anymore. He had other priorities.

Years later Cash told me he was lulled by his success in the 1960s and early 1970s into taking his music for granted. He felt he could devote most of his attention to his family and spreading God’s Word and still have plenty of time left over to make records. But suddenly, it seemed like everything dried up. By the time he realized what was happening, he didn’t know what to do about it. Besides, he enjoyed those new priorities.

Drugs

An even more insidious problem ate away at him: drugs. He’d battled an addiction to pills off and on throughout this life. In the 1960s, he suffered the public humiliation of multiple busts for possession of pills, and it’s widely believed that he was under the influence of drugs when he started a forest fire that destroyed 508 acres in the Los Padres National Forest. Although he kept churning out albums during the 1960s, he became an unreliable performer and entertainment outcast.

But with the help of June Carter, he’d gotten sober in 1970. He stayed that way until 1977, when he began abusing amphetamines again. And the drugs killed whatever creative spark he might have possessed at this point. This description of a disastrous recording session, courtesy of Johnny Cash: The Life, speaks volumes:

He showed up wearing brown knee-high boots, only to look down and declare there was no way that he — the Man in Black — should be recording in brown boots. While the musicians watched, he sat on the studio floor and carefully painted the boots black. Then he learned that Julie Andrews was recording in the studio down the hall, and they recorded a song. After all this delay, Cash started recording the gospel album. With just two songs done he announced he was going out to get some milk and cheese.

Hilburn noted that after going out to buy his milk and cheese, Cash never returned to the studio. Instead, his car got stranded in a ditch in a field, and then spun the wheels so hard that the grass caught fire and burned up his car.

Cash was no John Lennon and Paul McCartney making Revolver with a nudge of LSD, or Keith Richards on heroin creating great guitar licks for Exile on Main St. Johnny Cash had run out of great songs. And the drugs kept it that way. He eventually entered the Betty Ford Center in 1983 and would return for treatment at various hospitals in 1989 and 1992.

After he emerged from his 1992 rehab, something happened that offered a glimpse of Cash’s artistic turnaround. In February 1993, Bono invited Cash to do a guest vocal on a song he’d penned with Cash in mind: “The Wanderer,” for U2’s largely techno-fused album Zooropa. At first, Cash wondered what on earth he could contribute to what seemed like an experimental electronic album. But when he read Bono’s lyrics, he felt encouraged. He went into the studio and laid down his track. Afterward, he was sure that Bono would wise up and re-record the vocals in his own voice. But Bono called Cash to say that U2 loved his performance and that “The Wanderer” was going to be on the album the way Cash sang it.

This was a huge moment. Cash felt a spiritual connection with U2 that transcended their musical differences. He was also flattered to be part of an album that would reach millions of people, something that Cash could no longer do on his own.

Later that month, Cash met Rick Rubin.

At Rick Rubin’s House

Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash began recording on May 17, 1993. Rubin had paved the way for Cash to record with him by striking a deal with Mercury that allowed Cash to record under Rubin’s label. He made Cash feel right at home — Rick Rubin’s home, to be exact. Rubin had set up simple recording equipment in his house near Los Angeles, where Rick sat barefoot with his dogs and listened to Cash play. (Rick Rubin would later recall for the Unearthed liner notes that the sound of his dogs barking would sometimes ruin one of Cash’s takes — the occasional price of his laid-back approach.) True to his word, Rick Rubin encouraged Cash to play the songs that Cash felt like playing, just Cash and his guitar. He said to Cash, as they got to know each other better, “I’d love to hear some of your favorite songs.”

In his interview for the Unearthed liner notes, Cash explained,

I went to Rick’s home in California. He had the recording equipment in a big room, fully equipped with everything — but actually all he needed was a couple of microphones. One for me, one for my guitar. And I started singing. And this went on for days it seemed. Day after day I would go in with the guitar, sit down, and start singing. One song after another . . . and it gave me a profound sense of déjà vu. It very much reminded me of the early days at Sun Records. Sam Phillips put me in front of a microphone at Sun Records in 1955 for the first time and said, “Let’s hear what you got. Sing your heart out,” and I’d sing one or two and he’d say, “Sing another one, let’s hear more,” and on and on and on I would sing for Sam Phillips until I had something he wanted to record — which was “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hey Porter,” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” He kept saying, “Let’s hear what you got, let’s hear what you got,” and I kept on singing. It was the same thing with Rick, the same kind of freedom, but with a more laid-back attitude.

Having Johnny Cash strum his guitar and sing whatever he wanted sounded like a simple approach — but it was also a challenging one. Cash had never recorded all by himself. Even when he recorded with Sam Phillips, he’d brought musicians with him. With Rick Rubin, Cash’s sound was stripped to its bare essence.

Rubin had a reason for recording Cash this way. As recounted in Johnny Cash: The Life, when Rubin recorded with musicians, he usually talked with them first in order to understand the people behind the music. But Cash was a man of few words. Rubin encouraged Cash to speak through his music. He also wanted to rebuild Cash’s confidence.

At first, Rubin did not turn on the recording equipment — he just asked Cash to start playing. Cash dipped into his songbook to play a range of music, from gospel to train songs. On their second night playing together, Rubin became intrigued by a song, “Oh, Bury Me Not,” an old folk song that Cash had learned to play as a boy. Cash opened the tune with a two-minute spoken poem, “A Cowboy’s Prayer.”

As he told Robert Hilburn, “It got back to the sort of mystical root of who Johnny Cash is. It was something that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him. It was epic, and that’s what Johnny Cash was to me — epic.”

Rubin turned on the recording equipment and asked Cash to do the song again. It was time to start finding songs for an album.

Cash unleashed more songs. Murder ballads such as “Delia’s Gone,” which Cash had written in the 1960s. A Kris Kristofferson song, “Just the Other Side of Nowhere.” And one he’d written four years earlier, “Drive On,” a powerful song about a Vietnam veteran. The evocative “Drive On” was significant, because it proved Cash could still write great songs. And Cash knew, deep down, what a great song sounded like: he’d refused to record “Drive On” for Mercury, because he thought the effort would have been wasted. He was saving the song for someone who might come along some day and do it justice.

That day had arrived.

As important as “Drive On,” was, “Delia’s Gone” was an even bigger breakthrough. The song is a brutal recounting of a man who kills his beloved and then suffers the anguish of a lifetime of remorse. Here are some of the lyrics:

First time I shot her I shot her in the side
Hard to watch her suffer
But with the second shot she died
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

But jailer, oh, jailer Jailer
I can’t sleep ’cause all around my bedside
I hear the patter of Delia’s feet
Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone

Even though Cash had written the song decades ago, Rubin had never heard it. He was ecstatic. This was the kind of song that connected Johnny Cash with contemporary hip-hop and rock at their grittiest and darkest — the emotionally bruising side of Cash that had been missing for years, but which could make him relevant again to contemporary culture. As he told Robert Hilburn,

I’m talking about the original Johnny Cash who loomed large and was surrounded by all this darkness, yet who still had vulnerability. I wanted, if you will, to take him back to the “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” Man in Black, and “Delia’s Gone” did it perfectly. He kills the girl, and then is remorseful. I loved how the brutal act was followed by this haunted life. I was trying to get him to go from all these years of thinking his best stuff was behind him and just phoning in records to thinking we could make his best albums ever. I don’t know if he really believed that, but he was willing to give it a try.

“Delia’s Gone” was a turning point. Cash was encouraged by Rubin’s enthusiastic reaction to the song. His confidence was building. After “Delia’s Gone,” Cash and Rubin roamed through more songs. Cash unleashed another compelling song he’d written, but was hiding, “Like a Soldier.” Rubin, emboldened, began to suggest songs for Cash to try, such as “Thirteen,” written by goth metal rocker Glenn Danzig, one of the musicians Rubin had worked with over the years.

As Danzig remembered when talking with Rolling Stone magazine,

I think somebody from Rick Rubin’s office or Rick called me and asked me if I knew who Johnny Cash was, and I said, “F — k yeah, I know who Johnny Cash is,” and they said, “Would you write a song for him?” . . . “ wrote [“Thirteen”] in, like, a half-hour, as soon as I got off the phone. It was that quick. The song was just my impression of who Johnny Cash was and what he meant.

Rubin saw a connection between Danzig and Cash — the dark, tormented songwriter. As he said to Robert Hilburn,

I wasn’t trying to look for songs that would “connect” Johnny to a younger audience . . . I was just trying to find songs that really made sense for his voice. By that I don’t mean baritone. I mean resonate with his character so he could sing the words and have them feel like he wrote them.

But even so, Rubin had to tread carefully and bring up “Thirteen” at the right moment. This was the kind of song that might have turned off Cash had Rubin brought it up earlier in the recording process. It might have come across like Rick Rubin was trying to force a marriage between Cash and goth metal. But in context of “Delia’s Gone,” “Thirteen” seemed like a natural fit:

Found me with a preacher man confessin’ all I done
Catch me with the devil playing 21
And a bad luck wind been blowin’ on my back
I was born to bring trouble wherever I’m at

Their adventurous exploration also resulted in one of the most stunning moments of Cash’s career: his cover of “The Beast in Me.” The song had been written by Cash’s former stepson-in-law, British rocker Nick Lowe, who had been married to Cash’s stepdaughter Carlene Carter from 1979 to 1990. Despite the dissolution of the marriage, Lowe and Cash remained on good terms. Lowe even wrote “The Beast in Me” with Johnny Cash in mind. Cash had heard Lowe play an unfinished version of “The Beast in Me” at one point, and was impressed by the work-in-progress. Here was a song that Cash himself could have written:

The beast in me

Has had to learn to live with pain

And how to shelter from the rain

And in the twinkling of an eye

Might have to be restrained

God help the beast in me

As Cash and Nick Lowe would later recount, Cash never lost sight of that song. Over a period of 12 years, he would ask Lowe, “How’s that song coming along?” Finally, Lowe finished a demo.

Cash rewarded his effort with a rendition that seemed to capture the essence of all the inner conflict that had made Johnny Cash great. The song would become a centerpiece of Cash’s concerts when he began to tour again after American Recordings was finished. As important as “Delia’s Gone” was, “The Beast in Me” was more personal and relatable to a broader audience.

Cash and Rubin experimented musically, too. When Cash took a break from recording to go on tour, Rubin brought in musicians, such as Tom Petty and Flea to overdub the basic tracks and fatten the sound, as producer Chips Moman had done with Elvis Presley famously in 1969. Rubin listened to the fuller, richer renditions and decided he preferred the stripped-down version. In later albums after American Recordings, Rubin would complement Cash with musicians to satisfying effect. But now was not the time to do that.

The sessions did not go perfectly. When it became clear that the song demos were actually materializing into a real album, Cash became self-conscious. He started to “perform” the songs instead of singing them with the natural ease of those first few days of recording. His delivery lost its organic appeal.

Rubin decided to do something about that: he booked Cash for a single-night performance in the Viper Room, a hip club on the Sunset Strip owned by Johnny Depp. (This was the same Viper Room where River Phoenix had died tragically on Halloween only weeks before Cash’s appearance.) Cash had never performed alone in concert, and he was terrified, which was just what Rubin expected to happen. Rubin hoped that singing in the Viper Room for a real audience — doing a real performance on a stage — would make it easier for Cash to get back into the vibe of singing alone in Rubin’s living room in a more informal way.

Rick Rubin knew what he was doing. The Viper Room had just the right kind of hip rock-and-roll vibe that Cash needed to see how relevant he could be to a contemporary audience. Rubin made sure that some of the stars he worked with, such as Tom Petty and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would be in the room. So was Sean Penn, at the time in the full bloom of his career. They were the right kind of tastemakers, and they welcomed the Man in Black with gusto. Cash debuted songs such as “Delia’s Gone,” and the audience cheered him on. Fortunately, Rubin recorded the performance, and two of the songs made the cut for the album in progress.

The triumphant Viper Club performance was also a turning point for Johnny Cash. Up until then, he was accustomed to playing for tourists and retirees in decidedly unhip venues like Branson, Missouri. He hated the experience. Once again, Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: A Life sums it up:

The atmosphere was touristy, leading him to wonder if the audience even cared about the music. Most of the crowd were bus tour groups who were simply attending shows that the tour organizers had lined up for them.

Playing for tourists and retirees made him feel old and irrelevant. He regretted ever signing up to perform in Branson. But the Viper Room reminded him that a more vibrant, music-loving audience could respond to his work. As Tom Petty recounted in Cash: A Life, “Johnny was so happy. He felt like he was starting to matter again.”

The performance also got Cash to loosen up when he returned to recording songs with Rick Rubin. They continued recording until they’d amassed enough songs to choose for an album. They picked 13 songs and listened to them from beginning to end in Rick’s house. No one said a word. Then Rick commented, “Wow, this is great. And since it’s not supposed to be anything other than great, that’s when you say, ‘It’s done.’” Rubin chose the title, American Recordings.

The Aftermath

One thing about Rick Rubin: he knew how to promote music, as well as produce it. He pulled all the right levers with American Recordings, starting with an album cover design that made Cash look like some kind of wind-swept Gothic figure.

This was a different image of Cash than the smiling man depicted on his most recent album, Country Christmas. Rubin made sure that the most influential music critics received advance copies of the album. He signed up Cash to appear at important events, such as Glastonbury in England and the South by Southwest Festival in Austin.

The real masterstroke was the release of a brutal video for “Delia’s Gone,” which was so striking in its violence that MTV banned it. Getting banned by MTV was perfect PR for Cash. If there were any lingering perceptions that he was a cuddly, lovable man of God, the ban crushed them.

The album sold 236,000 copies, a modest figure by 1994 standards and a far cry from the top-selling album of 1994, Ace of Base’s The Sign, which sold 3.8 million copies. But it was Johnny Cash’s best-selling album since 1971’s Man in Black, and the album rose as high as 23 on the country charts. And American Recordings resonated with the right people, including Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis, who gave the album five stars (the highest rating possible) and wrote, “American Recordings is at once monumental and viscerally intimate, fiercely true to the legend of Johnny Cash and entirely contemporary.”

DeCurtis’s reaction was typical of the critical acclaim. The album garnered rave reviews across the board. It also made Cash a culturally relevant hero to a younger generation. He became a hot concert draw, although health problems would eventually curtail Cash’s touring activity.

Rubin and Cash went back into the studio to make several more albums of covers and Johnny Cash originals, including “The Man Comes Around,” one of Cash’s last great epics, and “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song that drew attention with its devastating video.

They developed a close relationship that transcended music. They reportedly took Holy Communion together every day, even though Rubin was not particularly religious.

Commercially, their most successful effort would turn out to be 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which sold 1.6 million copies, largely because of the power of the “Hurt” video. But critically and culturally, American Recordings had the biggest impact. Rolling Stone would rank the album 384 among the Top 500 albums of all time.

Johnny Cash was back.

For good.

Memorable Album Covers of 2020

Vinyl album sale are hitting historic highs in the United States, casting a spotlight on the importance of album cover art. 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. That’s because digital gives musicians more ways to raise awareness for their work through the visual power of an album cover — on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. The memorable covers of 2020 expressed the times we live in. The album sleeve for Taylor Swift’s Folklore captured the essence of social distancing and a newfound longing for nature that led to skyrocketing visits to national parks during the pandemic.

Taylor Swift, Folkore

Duval Timothy’s Help reflected something we’ve been missing and wanting during the pandemic: the human connection . . .

Duval Timothy, Help

. . . as did Heavy Light from U.S. Girls:

U.S. Girls, Heavy Light

SAULT’s Untitled (Black Is), with its simple upraised fist, symbolized Black empowerment during a time of social upheaval.

SAULT, Untitled (Black Is)

Those themes of Black empowerment where everywhere, including Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here? from Flo Milli . . .

Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here?

. . . Legends Never Die from Juice WRLD . . .

Legends Never Die from Juice WRLD

. . . and Twice As Tall from Burna Boy:

Twice As Tall from Burna Boy

But there was plenty of room for artistic expression on its own terms. The goofy design of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters reflected a bit of whimsy, mystery, and arch sense of humor that has defined her work for years.

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Madeline Kenney’s Sucker’s Lunch shared a sense of deadpan humor that works for any era:

Madeline Kenney, Sucker's Luncb

For more memorable album covers of 2020, check out my SlideShare presentation. I hope you like it. 

Why “Beat It” Is Eddie Van Halen’s Defining Moment

Social media continues to erupt with comments about Eddie Van Halen, who passed away October 6, a victim of cancer. Most of the posts (including a few of my own) consist of very loud audio clips of Van Halen shredding the guitar with his famous finger tapping technique.

More than a few discuss his lifestyle of debauchery and excess (after all, he was a god who walked the earth, and being a rock god confers carnal privileges that mere mortals can only dream of). But my enduring Eddie Van Halen memory comes from hot, sweaty day in 1983 when a bearded dude named Bobby schooled me on Van Halen’s impact on popular tastes.

I was helping a family member move apartments – back-breaking work on any day much less a summer afternoon. I can’t remember exactly how Bobby fit into the picture. But he was a helping hand. And because I’m the last person you want to rely on to transport a fold-out a sofa without the thing opening up and pinning your volunteer moving crew against the wall, I greatly appreciated Bobby.

For most of the day, I stayed out of everyone’s way, which was the best move I could make for the safety and patience of all concerned. But I did strike up a few conversations with Bobby while he grunted and lifted and I looked busy doing nothing. Bobby, who wore cowboy boots and could have won a Kris Kristofferson lookalike contest, regaled me with his music passions, which were simple: country, rock and roll, and nothing else. Basically, if a song didn’t feature a hard driving guitar, a pedal steel guitar, and a testosterone-fueled lead singer, he had little use for it.

“But you know,” he said, in a laid back voice that predated the Dude by 15 years, “I gotta tell you something that really, really surprises me. I never thought I’d ever say this, but that new Michael Jackson stuff rocks hard! He’s got it down right.” And then he proceeded to play air guitar to Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo.

Michael Jackson didn’t need Eddie Van Halen to become a global superstar. By the time “Beat It” was released as a video and radio single in early 1983, the Thriller album was already taking off big thanks largely to “Billie Jean,” which exploded in January 1983. But it was “Beat It” that changed everything by fusing rock and R&B. “Beat It” not only made Thriller rocket to Number One, it also helped Michael Jackson become a crossover star, reaching a far wider audience, including cats like Bobby who would never have given Michael Jackson the time of day. At a time when music was becoming more programmed and segmented, “Beat It” defied expectations. 

Eddie Van Halen’s song canon includes far more complex and intense guitar solos, but perhaps none more influential than “Beat It.” And that’s just what Michael Jackson and Producer Quincy Jones wanted. Jackson wanted to include a rock song on Thriller “I wanted to write a song, the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song”). Jones was happy to oblige. (In fact, depending on what source you read, the idea of recording a rock-oriented song was Jones’s idea.) Years later, Van Halen would remember joining Jones in the studio to record the famous solo:

Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes,

“Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”

I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.

I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”

Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”

The solo didn’t happen because Eddie Van Halen spontaneously walked into a recording studio. The solo happened because Jackson and Jones possessed the artistic vision and commercial instincts. And Eddie Van Halen brought the genius for improvisation. That’s why guys like Bobby discovered Thriller back in 1983. And why they do so today.

How Elvis Rediscovered Greatness

Why do artists lose their creative spark? And how do they regain their mojo?

To find an answer, I examined two famous artistic comebacks: Elvis Presley’s resurgence in 1969 and Johnny Cash’s return to glory in 1994. Both men have a lot in common. They started their careers in Memphis recording at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips in the 1950s. They suffered creative tailspins before experiencing triumphant comebacks (in Johnny Cash’s case, two comebacks).

Elvis and Johnny Cash also regained their creative powers by collaborating with the right partner.

Let’s take a closer look at Elvis’s story. I’ll follow up later with a post about Johnny Cash.

The Return of the King

In January 1969, Elvis made one of the most important decisions of his life when he chose to record music with producer Chips Moman in Memphis, the city Elvis called home. This was a crucial time for the King. He had pissed away most of the 1960s by making bad movies and recording horrible soundtracks. But in December 1968, he showed signs of greatness when the “Elvis” Christmas special showcased the raw talent and charisma that had catapulted him to fame in the 1950s. On the heels of that artistic and commercial triumph, he wanted to go back in the studio and record new music.

But he couldn’t pull it off by himself.

A Decade in Decline

Elvis was acutely aware of the creative decline that had taken hold after he’d returned to the States in 1960, at the conclusion of a two-year stint in the Army. The problem stemmed from Elvis’s Hollywood train wreck. He had started making movies in 1956 with Love Me Tender, and at first putting Elvis in the movies made sense. Movies broadened his reach globally, and they provided lucrative earnings from sales of tickets and soundtracks. Elvis had even made a few good films such as King Creole before he was drafted into military service in 1958.

But his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, flogged the formula. Between 1960 and 1969 alone, Elvis appeared in 24 films. And they were shlocky films with pointless plots. The titles alone said a lot: Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun in Acapulco, and Harum Scarum to name a few. The soundtracks were wretched, requiring Elvis to sing numbers such as “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad,” “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya,” “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Yoga Is as Yoga Does.”

He knew those movies and songs sucked. He coasted through soundtrack recording sessions as quickly as he could, arriving late for recording sessions, taking as few takes as possible, and leaving early. Every once in a while, he’d jump off the miserable creative treadmill and record gospel music, but gospel had limited commercial appeal. And there was always a new film and soundtrack to make. The ugly truth was that the allure of money was too great for both Elvis and the Colonel. Elvis needed the money. He spent it as fast as he made it. And he spent a lot — on himself, on his large entourage known as the Memphis Mafia, and on his family and friends. The Colonel lived extravagantly, too, and he was a notorious gambler. He needed his cash cow.

But did the movies and soundtracks have to be so bad, though? Well, when your goal is to crank out as many films as you can even though you are not a natural actor, standards are going to go by the wayside. In addition, Elvis’s own business interests got in the way. Elvis did not write his own songs. But through his publishing ventures, he collected a share of the royalties of the songs that other people wrote, an arrangement that the Colonel engineered to line the King’s pockets with more cash (and, by extension, the Colonel’s). The problem from a creative standpoint was that not every songwriter was willing to cut a deal to share the profits of their music with Elvis. So he was limited to the songwriters who would play ball with the Colonel. By limiting his choices, he hurt his creative range.

It must also be noted that when Elvis was in the Army, he began abusing Dexedrine pills (the start of a lifelong dependency), but it’s unclear how much his drug use might have impaired his creativity in the 1960s (although the impact of drugs would become painfully clear in the 1970s). He did not write his own songs. And drugs did not cloud his ability to recognize both bad and good material. He constantly expressed disappointment with the quality of the songs he recorded for his movie soundtracks. When he recorded gospel, where he had more creative control, his instincts were spot-on. It’s likely he would have deferred to the Colonel’s game plan with or without the influence of the pills he abused.

At first, it didn’t matter how bad the movies were; his early soundtracks sold tremendously well. But then the sales dried up. So eventually he had two problems: he was making bad music that no one was buying.

Elvis could have landed some good movie roles during this period were it not for the publishing entanglements and the Colonel’s lack of imagination. At one point, Elvis was considered for the lead role of Tony in West Side Story. But the Colonel shot down the idea, partly because he didn’t want Elvis in a movie about gangs — but also because Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, who composed the film’s songs, were not about to give Elvis’s publishing ventures a cut of their earnings.

Imagine spending nearly 10 years creating something you hate. Over and over. All you get is the money, and then less of it. Now imagine doing that knowing you’d once recorded some of the most important songs in popular music. You invented rock and roll. Now you were a joke.

The Beginning of the Comeback

But the jokes stopped — temporarily, at least — in December 1968, when the Elvis Christmas special reminded the world he was still relevant as an artist.

The Colonel had wanted Elvis to sing a bunch of Christmas carols for the show. But fortunately for Elvis, the show’s producer, Bob Finkel, and director, Steve Binder, had other ideas. Elvis had not performed in front of an audience for many years. They decided it was time to reintroduce him to the American public by having him sing the hits of his glory years in front of a hand-picked audience. To pull it off, Elvis would need to get physically trim and rehearse. Matched with someone who challenged him creatively, Elvis rose to the occasion. Dressed in a stunning black leather suit, he practically seduced his audience in the studio and on TV. The show was seen by 42 percent of the viewing audience, making it the Number One show of 1968.

But a one-off TV special relying on his past hits was one thing. Could he actually record great music again? He and the Colonel knew they needed to strike while the iron was hot. He might not get another chance at credibility if he blew it. The easy and predictable choice was to go into the studios in Nashville, where Elvis was comfortable recording, and work with producers and musicians who would never challenge him. He was, after all, still the king of rock and roll, and the king operated by his own rules.

But Elvis had a good friend named Marty Lacker, who had recorded with a hot shot producer named Chips Moman over at Moman’s own American Sound Studios, also located in Memphis. Lacker told Elvis that Moman was someone who understood how to make hits — and great ones. Moman had produced the first-ever hit single for Stax Records, “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” for Carla Thomas. He cowrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” which had become a phenomenal success for Aretha Franklin, and Elvis needed someone who could write good songs. As a producer, Moman worked with stars such as Joe Tex and Dusty Springfield (Moman produced her iconic version of “Son of a Preacher Man” that would enjoy a revival when it appeared in Pulp Fiction years later). He was working with Neil Diamond on a single, “Sweet Caroline,” that would become a hit later in 1969. He also employed a crack studio band, the Memphis Boys, who could go toe to toe with the great studio bands of Motown and Stax.

The Memphis Boys consisted of guitarist Reggie Young, bassists Tommy Coghill and Mike Leach, keyboardist Bobby Emmons, drummer Gene Chrisman, and pianist Bobby Wood. They could play anything from rock to soul (still emerging as a musical form in the 1960s). Tommy Coghill had played a celebrated bassline on “Son of a Preacher Man” and had performed with King Curtis. Reggie Young had opened for the Beatles in 1964 when he played with the Bill Black Combo. Bobby Emmons would go on to work with superstars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. In 1977, Emmons would co-write, with Moman, one of the biggest hits of Jennings’s career, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).” The Memphis Boys never sought the spotlight. They chose to elevate other more famous musicians with their considerable talents.

Elvis knew he couldn’t afford to play it safe this time. And besides, when he’d collaborated with Bob Finkel and Steve Binder on his Christmas Special, he’d achieved both artistic and commercial success. Finkel and Binder had brought skill, passion, and vision to the Christmas special. If Moman could do what they did, maybe he’d score another success.

So he headed to American Sound Studios. He brought plenty of company including his longstanding producer, Felton Jarvis (technically there to assist but mostly there to keep an eye on Moman); a suit named Harry Jenkins from his record label, RCA; Tom Diskin, the Colonel’s right-hand man and spy; and, of course, Memphis Mafia. In addition, other members of Team Colonel Tom Parker would occasionally surface at the studios to Moman’s annoyance.

Welcome to American Sound Studios

Now, there was something else about Chips Moman that Lacker probably kept to himself. Moman was a king, too, and he was not to be trifled with. American Sound Studios was his empire, and the Memphis Boys ruled along with him. The Memphis Boys had their own opinions about how a song should sound, and they were not afraid to share them. Moman and the Memphis Boys didn’t need Elvis. He was a guest in their house.

Elvis walked into American Sound Studios for the first time at 7:00 p.m. on January 13, 1969. Right away he knew this experience was going to be different. For one thing the studio felt different. The place was located in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood. You could hear rats scurrying in the rafters.

“What a funky place,” he said. “I like it. It reminds me of Sun.” Which was a very good sign. Sun Studios was where he had invented rock and roll with Sam Phillips.

At first no one knew what to make of Elvis. From the moment he walked in with his Memphis Mafia, he exuded star power. He was slender and beautiful, like some sort of Greek god, and he took command of the room before he’d even sung a note. As pianist Bobby Wood said, “He was in his prime. He looked better than most women I’ve seen.”

But Elvis also dressed and acted like he was performing for his entourage, cracking jokes and horsing around. Most star performers wore jeans and T shirts in the studio. Elvis wore silk scarves, fancy jackets, and even capes, like he was onstage. And the butt-kissing Memphis Mafia was annoying. When Elvis produced a cigarillo to smoke, several toadies simultaneously whipped out lighters to assist him.

The Memphis Boys were horrified. Who were these people? Was Elvis serious about making music, or was he just going to stand around acting like Elvis? They were about to find out.

Getting Started

The first step in recording was for Elvis to review a batch of songs that the Colonel had sent with him from his publishing company, Hill & Range. Little did Elvis realize, but he also had a few hits in his possession already — the song “In the Ghetto,” which songwriter Mac Davis had sent him just before the sessions started, and “Kentucky Rain,” a song written by Eddie Rabbitt that Elvis friend Lamar Fike had recommend. Moman and the Memphis Boys all offered opinions of the song line-up. Some of the Hill & Range songs, such as “Long Black Limousine,” made the cut. But the Memphis Boys told Elvis many of the other Hill & Range selections were worthless. Elvis’s own people were aghast. No one ever spoke to Elvis like that. He’d recorded with yes-men who’d done what they were told, which meant recording all the songs that Elvis had a financial stake in recording.

As Reggie Young said in an interview years later,

He brought his publisher and they began to play songs they wanted to record. Like those songs he did in his movies. Elvis would ask me if I liked the song we just heard, and I said “No.” He asked Bobby, and he said, “No” also. We didn’t realize that you didn’t say “No” to Elvis.

But Elvis could take a “No.”

He may have been a star who surrounded himself with toadies, but he never lost his ear for good music. It’s just that with the movie soundtracks, no one was presenting him with good music. He was intrigued by the opinions he heard. He’d wanted to try something new, and that’s exactly what he was getting. He listened without argument.

The first song they recorded, “Long Black Limousine,” is a cautionary story about a woman in search of fame who leaves a man behind in a small town, only to return, dead, in a hearse. The song is told from the perspective of the man she left behind. The moment Elvis started singing, Moman and the Memphis Boys knew he was serious about recording great music. From the very first takes, his voice resonated with a sadness and hurt that brought an emotional depth to the words. Elvis’s voice also had a husky edge because he was suffering from a cold. The cold served him well. The Memphis Boys played along with him, tight and powerful.

Elvis sang three songs during his first session. He didn’t stop until 5:00 a.m. the next day. And Moman worked him hard. He patiently insisted on multiple takes. Elvis never flinched. His voice came alive, take after take. It was as if he were unleashing all the pure emotion and passion that had been bottled up during the fallow years. He kept at it until he started to lose his voice.

A Creative Breakthrough

That first night had been a breakthrough. Elvis realized he was going to have to work harder than perhaps he’d ever done in his life. Moman and the Memphis Boys realized that when presented with good songs and challenged by good creative partners, a talented band, Elvis would rise to the occasion, as he had with the Christmas special.

Now that he’d gotten the measure of Elvis, Moman began to make his mark even more. As Elvis returned for more sessions in January and then later in February, Moman started to offer him more songs that he thought might work well, including one that would become a career landmark “Suspicious Minds.” 

“Suspicious Minds” would also cause friction between Moman and Team Colonel Tom Parker. When the Colonel’s men pressured Moman to share the writing credits for the song with Elvis’s publishing interests, Moman pushed back — hard. He threatened to can the entire session right then and there. Team Parker appealed to Elvis, but he refused to play referee. Fortunately that RCA suit Harry Jenkins, who seemingly had nothing to do but watch his star record songs, ended up playing a pivotal role: he resolved the problem by sticking up for Moman.

But the distraction over the songwriting credits annoyed Moman, and he let Elvis know it. There were just too many people hanging around the studio between the Memphis Mafia and the Colonel’s people. Again, Elvis listened. He showed his entourage and the Colonel’s people the door. The Memphis Boys breathed a collective sigh of relief. (When Diskin informed the Colonel that Elvis had cleaned house, the Colonel replied, “Let him fall on his ass.”)

These decisions were crucial. Free of distractions, it almost felt like Elvis was one of the Memphis Boys. He became less self-conscious and more relaxed. He joked around with the band and laughed at his mistakes. And Moman had Elvis’s ear. The Colonel was absent from the recordings, and there was no one around to filter the song choices. There was just Chips and Elvis talking face to face about songs.

Elvis and Chips Moman

Elvis’s musical instincts were true. He wanted to hear more of what Moman had to offer. He told his own publishing team, “From now on, I want to hear every song I can get my hands on. If I’ve got a piece of the publishing, that’s fine. But if I don’t and I want to do the song, I’m going to do it.”

But he was still a star, and stars have egos. Moman knew how to handle Elvis’s. To gain Elvis’s trust and to avoid embarrassing him, he approached Elvis quietly and one on one when he needed to correct his delivery instead of broadcasting instructions through a talkback microphone from the producer’s booth. Moman also appealed to Elvis’s competitive side. Moman knew that “In the Ghetto” had greatness written all over it. But Elvis was reluctant. He agreed with Moman about the song’s potential, but it was unusual for Elvis to address social themes, and he wondered if he could credibly pull it off, being a wealthy white man who knew nothing about the ghetto. Moman listened and then shrugged his shoulders. If Elvis didn’t want the song, he’d give it to someone else to sing.

Elvis backed down and insisted on singing the song.

Of course, “In the Ghetto” would go on to become a hit and one of Elvis’s best vocals ever. Although Elvis knew nothing about ghetto life, he knew something about growing up poor, based on his hardscrabble childhood. The artist in him drew from an inner well of compassion to deliver the words with sensitivity and grace. A lesser artist would have overdelivered the song. Elvis went in the opposite direction. His quiet delivery gave the lyrics space to be heard, which made the song better. (Listen to how he slows down the tempo on the verse, “Steals a car/tries to run/But he don’t get far.” His phrasing underscores the tragedy of the narrative.)

Redefining Elvis

During these sessions in January and February, Elvis sang songs that redefined him as a contemporary adult star who bridged the worlds of country, soul, and pop. On “Kentucky Rain,” his voice captured a heartache and hope of searching for something lost. 

On “Suspicious Minds,” he created an emotional terrain that spanned paranoia, angst, guilt, and jealousy. He was bluesy on “After Loving You” and flat-out hurt on “Wearin’ That Loved on Look.”

He gave us a new Elvis: someone who had lived and lost. He wasn’t a brash, youthful tease anymore. He wasn’t singing “Love Me Tender” to an adoring woman. He was grappling with rejection and betrayal. Another song from the Moman sessions, “Don’t Cry Daddy” (also written by Mac Davis) explored the topic of divorce, which was also new ground for Elvis. What made all these songs feel fresh was an emotional authenticity in Elvis’s voice.

The Memphis Boys in Their Glory

The Memphis Boys filled out his sound in a way that no one else ever had. Bobby Wood’s piano gave “Wearin’ That Loved on Look” a gospel refrain. Guest pianist Ronnie Milsap (who would become a country) added a forceful piano touch to “Kentucky Rain” (Elvis told him he wanted to “hear the thunder roll”). Reggie Young’s urgent guitar on “Suspicious Minds” added to the song’s sense of fear and angst, and his sitar on “You’ll Think of Me” was soulful and funky. The bell overdubbed at the beginning of “Long Black Limousine” set an ominous tone for the story that followed.

Here, the wisdom of working with a creative force like Chips Moman paid off. These musical flourishes, often overdubbed after Elvis was done recording, elevated the songs to another level of greatness.

Hits and Acclaim

The sessions resulted in two albums, From Elvis in Memphis (released in May 1969) and Back in Memphis (November 1970).

Both of them were excellent. From Elvis in Memphis is regarded as the better of the two. It received uniformly strong reviews and is ranked among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. As AllMusic’s Bruce Eder put it, From Elvis in Memphis “was one of the greatest white soul albums (and one of the greatest soul albums) ever cut, with brief but considerable forays into country, pop, and blues as well.”

RCA also released four singles from the Chips Moman sessions, all of which were Top 20 hits: “In the Ghetto” (Number 3), “Don’t Cry Daddy” (Number 6), “Suspicious Minds” (Number 1), and “Kentucky Rain” (Number 16). In addition to hitting Number 1, “Suspicious Minds” became one of the biggest sellers of his entire career. With a new decade dawning, Elvis, in the prime of his life, was once again an artist to take seriously.

The Aftermath

Elvis would go on to enjoy an all-too-brief creative renaissance. He never returned to American Sound Studios, likely because Chips Moman was just too headstrong for Colonel Tom Parker. But for the next few years, he achieved greatness on stage by redefining the Las Vegas entertainment industry, a period of his life that I discuss in my October 2019 post for Festival Peak, “The Myth of Fat Elvis.”

Elvis managed to squeeze in one more great album, Elvis Country (1971), and a few good ones, too. Unfortunately, a punishing workload and personal woes accelerated Elvis’s drug abuse. His health declined visibly as the 1970s wore on until his death in 1977. But before the fall, he rose mightily and astonished the world.