Four years ago on January 8, David Bowie gave us a majestic gift on his own birthday: Blackstar, his 25th and final studio album. I believe Blackstar is the most significant work of popular music in the 21st Century. For with Blackstar, David Bowie taught us how to die.
Death is an excruciatingly difficult topic for most of us to come to terms with — and yet death will happen to all of us. We often associate aging and death with images of our bodies and minds crumbling away in nursing homes and hospital beds. Perhaps author Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up our widespread apprehensions best in his utterly depressing 2014 Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” In the essay, he wallows in all our worst fears about growing older and descending ever closer to death — the weakening of our spirits, erosion of creativity, and withering away of our bodies.
But with Blackstar, David Bowie gave us a new perspective on death and dying. He recorded Blackstar as he was suffering from liver cancer although few people knew of his condition at the time. When Blackstar was released on his 69th birthday, in 2016, the album made an immediate impact. The album announced its bold intent with a sprawling 10-minute title track that meandered its way into our earbuds and demanded our attention in an age when most listeners are conditioned by Spotify to treat songs like little snippets of white noise. The lead-off song was rife with references to mortality and death, as when he sang:
Something happened on the day he died Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
“Blackstar” recast our journey toward death as a strange, wondrous exploration of another world, a vibe that is even more striking in the song’s surreal video. The video is far from comforting, but it exudes movement and adventure, not the decay we associate with growing older:
On the album’s centerpiece, the reflective and moody “Lazarus,” Bowie embraced the specter of death more directly and powerfully, especially in the song’s video, where he cast himself as a dying man about to release his spirit.
“Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” Here, he assumed the voice of a narrator whose impending death gives him a more powerful and cogent self-awareness that perhaps he lacked when he was younger and careless:
Look up here, man, I’m in danger I’ve got nothing left to lose I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl Dropped my cell phone down below Ain’t that just like me? By the time I got to New York I was living like a king There I used up all my money I was looking for your ass
Although those two songs made the strongest impression on me when I first heard them on the day the album was released, I found Blackstar as a whole to be a uniformly grand, intensely personal statement. The songs were infused with improvisational jazz overtones owing to Bowie choosing to collaborate with musicians such as saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Throughout the entire album, Bowie’s keen understanding of mortality — and his desire to create art from that understanding — was an underlying thread, down to the final song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” in which he sang:
I know something is very wrong The pulse returns for prodigal songs With blackout hearts, with flowered news With skull designs upon my shoes
On David Bowie’s 69th birthday, I, like many others, celebrated Blackstar as the triumph of a man who was creating vibrant art as he was knocking on the door of 70 — and a challenge to give music our full attention instead of treating songs like digital background noise while we exercise and clean the house. As Jon Pareles of The New York Timeswrote in a pre-release review January 6, 2016:
Instability and ambiguity are the only constants on David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the strange, daring, ultimately rewarding album he releases this week on his 69th birthday. It’s at once emotive and cryptic, structured and spontaneous and, above all, willful, refusing to cater to the expectations of radio stations or fans.
Then, on January 10, everyone who had heard Blackstar saw the new album in a new light, when it was announced that David Bowie had died of liver cancer. Our joy at Bowie’s triumph turned to shock — and then wonder as we considered the album’s exploration of mortality in a new context.
As news of Bowie’s death reverberated, we now saw Blackstar for what it really was: his farewell gift. We listened to every song again and re-watched the videos, which took on a new poignance when the stories about Blackstar emerged — such as Bowie, deciding to end his cancer treatment and accept death even as he was filming the “Lazarus” video. His producer, Tony Visconti, talked openly about Bowie’s commitment to creating art even as Bowie was battling cancer. On Facebook, Visconti wrote of Bowie’s death:
He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.
The richness of that gift manifested itself again and again when I listened to the album with the knowledge of his passing. “Lazarus” sounded like a more personal reckoning with death from a man who knew what was coming, down to the images of Bowie in a hospital bed, and the enigmatic line, “Just like that bluebird, Oh I’ll be free.” Even the album artwork was a parting gift as fascinating and strange Bowie himself, thanks to designer Jonathan Barnbrook. It took time for fans to realize this, but if you removed the album from the sleeve, the black paper behind the cut-out revealed a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve was held up to a light source.
Blackstar becomes more meaningful as its listeners experience the album year after year amid the passage of time. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24, 44, or 74: aging and dying are inevitabilities. But David Bowie taught us that it’s possible to face aging and dying with vibrancy, dignity, and grace.
As NPR’s music critic Ann Powers said later in 2016, “There’s no doubt that Bowie was aware of how very, very sick he was. But he also kept the dire nature of his illness from his collaborators and insisted that he would be able to continue on. So, does it feel like a dying man’s gasp? No, it doesn’t — it feels so eloquent, yet it offers this view into that experience that is useful to all of us, even as it’s so sad to listen to.”
Blackstar was more than a gift. David Bowie challenged us to consider the gifts we’ll leave for the world.
In the digital age, album cover art remains an essential artistic and commercial element of any musician’s work. And 2019 was no exception. As Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You demonstrates, album covers are arguably even more important than they were in the golden era of vinyl. That’s because on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, album cover art such as Cuz I Love You can be a more viral and potent form of self-expression than it could sitting on the shelf of a record store.
The memorable album covers of 2019 consist of fierce, uncompromising self-portraits. On Cuz I Love You, Lizzo presents her nude self as a fully realized woman exuding power and grace. Cuz I Love You is an important statement of body positivity, and one that Lizzo made often throughout 2019.
On the other hand, the striking close-up of Jenny Lewis’s torso on the cover of On the Line invites curiosity by what it reveals and does not reveal – her bare arms and cleavage complementing a glitzy dress that evokes vintage Las Vegas (in fact, the dress is an homage to one that her mother wore when she performed in 1970s Las Vegas).
Both Lizzo and Jenny Lewis capture images of artists in control of their own bodies, sharing what they want on her own terms. For more memorable album covers from 2019, check out the link at the top of this post (or go here).
What are your favorite album covers in recent years?
Kanye West has made a career of throwing people off balance, just as he is doing now with his embrace of Christianity. And when Kanye embraces something, he goes all the way. In October, he released a set of Christian praise songs, Jesus Is King. The next month, he appeared at the mega-church of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen. Oh, and on Christmas Day, he released Jesus Is Born, an album version of his Sunday Service worship events.
Is he for real? How could a hip-hop artist who has seemingly rapped about every sexual act imaginable now release Christian music? Is the Sunday Service a sincere attempt to spread God’s word, or is Kanye just hustling us to sell more music and $240 crewnecks? What’s up with West appearing at Joel Osteen’s church, discussing his love for Jesus, and then announcing that he’s the greatest artist God has ever created?
As journalist Tobi Oredein wrote of Kanye’s Sunday Service, “He’s employing a choir of people who are not only singing his songs, but are all dressed in his apparel. Is Christ really at the centre of this gathering? I’m not sure he is.”
He’s not the first artist to explore the spiritual and earthly realms in his music. Let’s go back to 1974 to take a closer look at another man who confounded his audience by injecting faith into his music.
Al Green: Sex and the Lord’s Prayer
Al Green. One of the greatest soul singers ever. He sang “Love and Happiness,” “So Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and a host of other hits about love, sex, and romance, on his way to becoming named one of RollingStone’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.”
But at the peak of his popularity, there was more to Al Green than “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” He was also capable of unsettling contradictions. For example, watch the following video from a 1974 appearance on Soul Train, in which he seduces an enraptured audience while gyrating in canary-yellow pants. He sings, “Oh, I wanna dance with my sweet love sixteen” in between grunts and shouts — and then, in one fluid motion, he brings the song “Sweet Sixteen,” a song about obsession with young love, to a close — and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” he prays with the same conviction as when he sang “You try to move your body, you might lose control” only seconds earlier. Then, as his band lays down a quiet groove, he eases into “Jesus Is Waiting,” the song that closes his 1973 masterpiece, Call Me.
“Jesus, save my soul, I’ll live for You,” he sings, his bejeweled fingers gesturing to the audience, his arms outstretched. With a charismatic flourish, he presents the Bible with one hand and Lolita in the other.
The disturbing part is that the moment works. Perfectly. Why? Because in the Soul Train performance, Al Green creates a convincingly smooth persona who is part-Lothario, part-preacher. This persona makes no distinctions between the carnal “Sweet Sixteen” and the spiritual “Jesus Is Waiting.” He is the same slender, twisting, sexual dervish, as he performs both.
In doing so, he shows us there is no difference between seducing and preaching. Both actions draw from the same reservoir of energy. When he recites the Lord’s Prayer, he is both praying and engaging in foreplay.
And is this association off the mark? Not at all. We all know of real-life ministers throughout history whose legacies have been tarnished by sexual misconduct — some of them well known (Jimmy Swaggart), some of them historical (Martin Luther King Jr.). But the stories of prominent pastors stumbling badly keep coming. Consider “the Billy Graham Rule,” or Rev. Billy Graham’s practice of avoiding meeting women in private to avoid falling prey to temptation. Billy Graham knows whereof Al Green sings.
As The Daily Beast commented in the aftermath of a number of high-profile cases of ministerial sexual misconduct, “Exposing religious sexual hypocrisy is, as the cliché goes, like shooting fish in a barrel. If you follow the right Twitter accounts, literally every day there’s a new story of religious conservative leaders philandering, downloading illegal pornography, cruising for gay sex on the down low, or, by far worst of all, sexually abusing minors or other vulnerable people.”
With this 11-minute musical flourish, Al Green seems to say, “It ain’t hypocrisy if you own it.” In doing so, he teaches us something about great art: art confronts and confounds. Great art makes connections you don’t see, but were right in front of you: in this case, the carnal and the spiritual.
Dual Impulses in Song
Those dual impulses were always evident in Al Green’s recorded music. “Jesus Is Waiting” (“Jesus is waiting/If you’re broken down/Jesus is waiting/Don’t let yourself down”) appeared on the same album in which he sang of a smoldering, unapologetically sexual attraction in “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” (“All this love’s inside of me/I believe there’s going to be an explosion”). When he wrote the hit song “You Ought to Be with Me” in 1972, he had God in mind, not a woman. As author Jimmy McDonough recounts in Soul Survivor, a recently published Al Green biography:
When writing the song [“You Ought to Be with Me”], Al explained that he was “playing with God . . . I was so arrogant at the time, not being born again . . . I was saying: ‘You’ — Green pointed upward — ‘ought to be with me.’”
In the song “Take Me to the River,” from Al Green Explores Your Mind, carnal desire and gospel overtones somehow made their way into the same song.
The sacred and the profane themes were an expression of Al Green’s own life. Spiritual forces and sexual desire roiled away inside him always. According to Soul Survivor, he was a notorious womanizer, happily (and callously) partaking of groupies and paramours, even after having a religious awakening in Anaheim in the early 1970s. As Al Green wrote in his autobiography, Take Me to the River:
As I spent more and more time out on the road, I had begun to accumulate a certain type of girlfriend from one town to the next. It wasn’t a romantic or even a physical thing, just a way to satisfy the fascination I’ve always had for beautiful women. I’d come into town and give them a call, and they were always available to drop by and spend a little time.
In 1974, one of Al Green’s girlfriends, a woman named Mary Woodson, assaulted him with boiling grits in his home, before committing suicide, despondent that Green would not marry her. This ugly incident contributed to the mythology of Al Green: a man so desirable that a woman would kill herself if she could not have him.
And yet, spiritual impulses coexisted with his fascination with women. The spiritual longing manifested itself in 1975, when he founded the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church in Memphis. Al Green had become a minister for real.
Alienating His Audience
After he became a minister, Green attempted to amplify the spiritual side of his identity in his concerts, praying onstage and making overt references to Jesus in his stage patter. His immersion in both worlds of love and spirituality could be upsetting. One of his longtime musical collaborators, Mabon Lewis “Teenie” Hodges, became frightened. As quoted in Soul Survivor:
I got scared. He started mixing the songs up, R&B and gospel . . . I can understand if he do a show and then maybe a few gospel songs at the end. But going from “Sweet Sixteen” to “Jesus Is Waiting?” No, I couldn’t handle that.
Al Green’s audiences eventually couldn’t handle it either. Here’s how Soul Survivor describes one night when his references to scripture onstage went too far:
It happened again one night when Al was playing “this weird little casino gig. I stood onstage and said, ‘When you open the Bible to Deuteronomy’ . . . I had never seen 3,000 people leaving out of a place so fast! All the pimps and their ladies . . . were gone.” Lee Hildebrand attended a Circle Star Theatre show where Green started preaching between hits. “I remember a lady sitting behind me saying quite loudly, ‘I didn’t pay to hear no gospel shit!’ She was upset.” When the woman rushed the stage to touch the hem of Al’s garment, he recoiled: ‘No, no, no — I want you to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior.’”
Al Green went from packing theaters to clearing them. His willingness to push an audience beyond their comfort zones was costing him commercially. He continued to mix love and spirituality on his records, as in the 1977 album, Belle, when he sang, “It’s you I want, but Him I need.” But after an incident in which he fell off a stage, he took it as a sign from God that it was time to stop singing secular music.
The Flawed Preacher
Al Green began to record gospel exclusively and focused on preaching. He met another gospel singer, Shirley Kyles, who became his wife. But this new direction didn’t stop women from throwing themselves at him, even in church — perhaps especially in church. For Al Green as a minister was as charismatic as he was a singer. Now he possessed spiritual agency. And women knew where to find him every Sunday. According to Soul Survivor:
One woman in particular was a thorn in Green’s side. He and the band returned from the road to find an unexpected visitor in Al’s home. “She’d jumped over the fence, went to the pool and was lyin’ out there naked.” This same dame showed up at the service wanting to say a few words about what the Almighty had done for her. “The Lord turned out to be Al Green, and she was dreaming of having sex with him right there in the middle of the service,” said Johnny Brown, who claims Al “knocked her cold.”
A man facing these kinds of temptations regularly needed more than the Billy Graham rule. He needed a 24/7 watch. And, as it turns out, he fell, and fell often. Shirley Kyles filed for divorce twice, alleging adultery and spousal abuse. He admitted to spousal abuse under oath.
Although his church sermons evolved into free-form concerts, his recorded music became one-dimensional. Gone were songs about burning for women. He sang about God full-time. He won Grammy awards for his gospel, but McDonough contends that Green lost his artistic spark. Indeed his gospel albums are generally less critically acclaimed than his secular music, and I seldom listen to them. His gospel lacks the tension between the secular and spiritual; the tension that made his music so interesting was gone.
In addition to losing his secular audience, he also struggled to gain acceptance by other gospel singers. He was viewed with suspicion, as Kanye West is now. Was Al Green for real? Was he going gospel only because he had run out of secular songs to write? But those misgivings did not stop him. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he recorded even more gospel. At the same time, he was immersed in cocaine. His performances became erratic.
Such are the risks that people take when they strive for a life of the spirit: they fall short. And he fell short in his personal life, while becoming a less-interesting artist.
A Return to the Secular
Eventually, Al Green returned to secular music, recording three albums full of familiar themes of romance and love throughout the 2000s. These albums received generally positive reviews. They did not open any new artistic vistas, but they reminded the world that he was capable of singing about those time-honored themes that made him famous in the 1970s.
These days, Al Green continues to preach at Full Gospel Tabernacle Church. It is said that his sermons are still like dynamic showtime. Here’s a taste of Al Green in the present day, exuding emotion as he preaches and sings in a free-form style — you can judge for yourself:
He recently toured as a secular artist, too. At one concert in Chicago, he played the role of gospel-tinged romancer, handing out roses to the women (as he famously did at the height of his fame) and once again moving between songs about earthly love. But he was older and out of shape. His performance lacked the power of Al Green in his prime, although that sweet voice could still hit those high notes.
This duality was evident when Kanye appeared at the mega-church of Joel Osteen on November 17. He talked of God sending him visions and the struggle to be taken seriously as a gospel performer. He referred to himself as a superstar and then said, “The only superstar is Jesus,” in one sentence.
Here, apparently, is Kanye West as he wants to be known today: follower of Jesus and denier of the devil. “I’m here in service to God,” he said at Osteen’s church, and denounced his past “service to fame.” Even so, standing onstage at a church, his notorious egotistical behavior emerged as he gave his confession: “Now, the greatest artist that God has ever created is now working for him.”
Hence, the questions about Kanye. Is he in love with God, money, himself, or all three? In fact, the Kanye who talks of money is completely in sync with the teachings of “prosperity theology,” a type of Christianity that teaches God rewards the faithful with material blessings on earth. Prosperity theology also teaches that God wants us to experience happiness and joy. Prosperity theology has been criticized for encouraging people to become focused on material wealth. Its critics also contend that and that taken to an extreme, prosperity theology’s ethos of self-care can lead to narcissism.
Prosperity theology has been around awhile, adopted by a number of televangelists, such as the aptly named Creflo Dollar. Guess who the face of prosperity theology is today? Why, none other than Joel Osteen. But he’s far from the only proponent. After analyzing the growth of prosperity theology and visiting with Osteen personally, Edward Luce of the Financial Timeswrote in 2019:
Hardline evangelicals dismiss the prosperity gospel as unchristian. Some of Lakewood’s more firebrand critics even label it “heresy.” They point to the belief, which Osteen seems to personify, that God is a supernatural ally whom you can enlist to help enrich your life. There is scant mention of humanity’s fallen condition in his motivational talks.
Yet the market share of US churches run by celebrity prosperity preachers, such as Osteen, Creflo Dollar (sic), Kenneth Copeland, and Paula White keeps growing. Three out of four of the largest megachurches in America subscribe to the prosperity gospel. Formal religion in the US has been waning for years. Almost a quarter of Americans now profess to having none. Among the Christian brands, only “non-denominational charismatics” — a scholarly term for the prosperity preachers — are expanding.
Though precise numbers are hard to find, one in five Americans is estimated to follow a prosperity gospel church. This offshoot of Christianity is quintessentially American — a blend of the Pentecostal tradition and faith-healing. It is also expanding worldwide. Among its largest growth markets are South Korea, the Philippines, and Brazil.
Luce also observes that Osteen himself has a fortune estimated at $60 million and lives in a $10 million mansion. So just how incongruous is Kanye’s Jesus-Is-King-of-My-Wallet ethos with this brand of Christianity? It seems perfectly fitting that there is talk of Kanye and Joel Osteen touring together.
Will the Struggle Stay Real?
As with Al Green, Kanye West now faces perhaps one of the biggest challenges of his career: growing as an artist. Jesus Is King debuted at Number One on the Billboard charts, and all 11 of its singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100. But the jury’s still out as to whether the album represents an artistic triumph. The album received a 55 Metacritic score, meaning mixed or average reviews.
I find Jesus Is King to be fairly standard praise music — overreaching for emotional highs in a singular pursuit of sermonizing. And frankly, the video for “Closed on Sunday” looks like a cringeworthy, if slickly produced, segment of Kanye and the Kardashians.
As for Kanye the flawed preacher, I’ll let Al Green have the last word from his biography:
Black people in America have always been torn between walking with Jesus and wandering in the world, clear back to the times of slavery when we either cried out in captivity by singing the blues or held out for a better hope by singing spirituals. We’ve been walking the line for hundreds of years. It’s only natural that some of us lose our balance once in a while. That struggle is part of what makes us great as a people, and part of what makes our music so powerful.
Struggle makes Kanye West create great art. Will Kanye the Christian keep the inner struggle alive?
Netflix, the leading New Hollywood entertainment company, secured 17 nominations in film categories, an all-time Golden Globe Awards high for Netflix. The noms include Best Motion Picture – Drama for Netflix originals Marriage Story, The Irishman, and The Two Popes.
No one achieved as many film nominations as Netflix did. The runner up, Sony Pictures, got 10. New Hollywood rival Amazon Studios got two noms.
These nominations are important because the Golden Globes are considered a preview of Academy Award nominations. (The 77th Golden Globes are broadcast on January 5, 2020. The 91st Academy Awards happen February 9.)
Netflix Creates a Home for New Hollywood Artists
Netflix has accelerated its growth by becoming a home for New Hollywood artists. New Hollywood storytellers create daring, original work that challenges audiences instead of comforting them with predictable tropes. New Hollywood artists are willing to work outside the traditional studio system and finance their films with New Hollywood entertainment companies such as Amazon Studios and Netflix. In turn, New Hollywood companies stream their movies (complemented by limited runs in theaters), thus disrupting the traditional way of distributing movies through theaters exclusively.
Martin Scorsese: New Hollywood Master
The first wave of New Hollywood storytellers, such as Martin Scorsese, have emerged from Old Hollywood. Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, is a risky, expensive epic clocking in at more than 3 hours. It’s a demanding and emotionally draining tale of gangsters facing the consequences of their violent lives. Old Hollywood studios wouldn’t finance The Irishman. So he partnered with Netflix.
But what choice did Martin Scorsese have? Despite his career achievements, and despite his obvious mastery of the gangster genre, this legendary director couldn’t get a studio to finance The Irishman. It’s the same situation Alfonso Cuarón faced when he made his critically acclaimed Roma, distributed by Netflix in 2018. As Cuarón said of Roma,
My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.
As Scorsese said recently at the BFI London Film Festival, “There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem though: we have to make the film. We’ve run out of room, in a sense; there was no room for us to make this picture, for many reasons.”
Netflix gave him room.
Fernando Meirelles and The Two Popes
Another Netflix movie that scored multiple Golden Globe Awards nominations, The Two Popes, may not have received as much attention as The Irishman. But securing two acting noms, a writing nom, and director nom should help. The movie’s director, Fernando Meirelles, is another storyteller noted for making original art, including his acclaimed City of God. When The Hollywood Reporter asked him about creating The Two Popes with Netflix, he said,
With Netflix and the platforms, it is a great moment for cinema because five years ago the studios would have to make films that were for a broader audience. So for whatever story you made, you wanted big names to make the story more appealing for a bigger audience. With Netflix they have a much broader potential audience. So if you do a niche film, say on LGBT or a film on the church, or a film like Roma, no studio would have produced a black and white film in Spanish without known actors. But with a platform it is possible. I know Netflix in India is producing 18 films plus 22 series. This wouldn’t happen with the other system. Now we can have very specific films for specific audiences. I am very excited about this new moment in cinema.
The Two Popes is certainly a specific film for a specific audience, focusing on Pope Benedict and future Pope Francis finding a common ground as they chart a future for the Catholic Church – not exactly an Old Hollywood crowd pleaser like a Marvel movie is.
(And speaking of Marvel: like Martin Scorsese, Fernando Meirelles has a low opinion of Marvel. As he toldThe Hollywood Reporter: “I know that they are big but I don’t watch them. I mean, I like the technique, sometimes I watch fragments and trailers and all the VFX and the production is really spectacular, really first class people are involved. But I can’t engage with the story, I get sleepy. Sometimes I watch those at the cinema and after half an hour I am sleepy. It’s very overwhelming. It doesn’t interest me at all.)
Noah Baumbach: “People Have a Choice”
Marriage Story, with six nominations, achieved more Golden Globe nominations than any other movie, period. Here is another demanding and difficult film from an original voice, Noah Baumbach. He is known for making intensely personal stories such as The Squid and the Whale – a quintessential New Hollywood voice. With Marriage Story, Baumbach takes on the topic of divorce, drawing from his own life.
My movies have always started small and then rolled out. So this release will be very similar to what I’m used to. I love that people are going to get to see this movie in theatres. After that, it’s going to get an audience on Netflix that my movies in the past would not get, no question. People have a choice: they can wait to see it on Netflix or go and see it first on the big screen.
All of Netflix’s nominations face formidable competition, including Joker, 1917, Once upon a Time in Hollywood, and Parasite, all of which scored nominations in major film categories. But regardless of what happens when the Golden Globe Awards winners are announced on January 5, New Hollywood has won. Netflix has scored a major victory: 17 nominations are not a fluke. And when Netflix wins, New Hollywood artists win. Each Netflix nomination is an affirmation for storytellers who want to make personal, risky films that might not appeal to everyone — works that might take time to build a fan base beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Filmmakers are competing not only with blockbuster movies. They’re also competing with games, music streaming, podcasts, user-generated content (e.g., TikTok), and many other distractions across online and offline media.
At a time when I should be de-cluttering my life, I’m accumulating vinyl records. I own four copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s not enough for me to own a copy of Led Zeppelin’s Presence. I need to have a Japanese pressing and the deluxe edition with an extra disc of outtakes. I have circled November 30 on my calendar because it’s the 40th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I count as one of the happiest days of my life when, as a child, I first listened to Al Green’s Greatest Hits on vinyl (and by the way, although I own the re-issue that contains “Love and Happiness,” I also have the original, which contains Green’s cover of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” When you are an addict, you need both.) I also vividly remember the day I found the vinyl edition of Beatles in Mono on the counter of a record store in Schaumburg, Illinois, waiting for me like a treasure (I can still picture where I was standing when I caught a glimpse of the Holy Grail).
I blog about vinyl. I seek out places where famous album covers were shot just so that I can experience the mojo of rock history.
I love hanging out in vinyl stores in different cities – pawing through rows of musical discovery and not knowing exactly what I’ll find. Each store reflects the tastes and lives of the people who live nearby and have released their own vinyl to the world.
I love vinyl so much that when I buy a used copy of an album, I even ponder the lives of the people who owned the copy I hold in my hands. I still think fondly of whoever owned my beat-up, used copy of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album and scrawled in girlish, teenage handwriting “oooo it makes me wonder” on the inside jacket.
Who was she? (She is always a girl in my mind.) What moment of emotional connection with “Stairway to Heaven” caused her to pick up her pen and capture the moment in her loopy handwriting, perhaps while she was alone in her bedroom, shutting out the distractions and worries of the world as Brian Wilson did when he wrote “In My Room,” the painful ode to teen angst that appears on Surfer Girl? I have never met her. But I know her.
Like a true junkie, I don’t have a good explanation for why I am the way I am. Why, on Black Friday 2019, I’ll brave the cold and stand in a long line outside a vinyl record store for the sole purpose of getting my hands on a vinyl pressing of The Doors: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970. It’s one of many new releases for Black Friday 2019 Record Store Day. I already own a Blu-ray of the same concert. Why must I own a vinyl copy?
Usually I don’t think too much about why I love vinyl. When you’re a junkie, you don’t spend much time dwelling on the “why.” You just do what you do. But lately I’ve been wondering why I, or anyone, still buys vinyl in the digital age.
I don’t know for sure, really. I’ve heard the theory that vinyl lovers prefer the warm and rich sound of analog record albums. But I’m guessing that maybe one half of one percent of the vinyl-buying public really goes out of their way to purchase a record because they appreciate its sonic qualities. It’s also quite possible that people buy vinyl for the same reason that print books continue to thrive: we still care about the tactile experience of holding art in our hands. Maybe.
But really? I think the addiction has something to do with nostalgia and coolness.
Nostalgia Is a Funny Thing
Take a look at the top-selling vinyl albums of 2019 here. Billie Eilish is right there close to the top, but classic rock works reign, with Queen Greatest Hits topping the list. This news comes as no surprise. The top-selling artist in vinyl in 2018 was the Beatles, who also dominated vinyl sales in 2017. They didn’t quite own 2016 – because David Bowie did. The Baby Boomer-era acts clean up every year. They’re leading the vinyl revival.
But why would they? Well, aside from the fact that the best classic rock acts define a golden era for music, you cannot deny the power of nostalgia. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” And nostalgia is a funny thing. You can feel nostalgia for other times you didn’t even experience. In the 1970s, when I was a kid, I got caught up in Eisenhower and Kennedy-era nostalgia triggered by the success of American Graffiti and Happy Days.
But I was technically too young to have appreciated the time period depicted in the movie American Graffiti (1962) and the TV series Happy Days (set largely in the 1950s). Why? Because American Graffiti and Happy Days were comfort food. (And so was the soundtrack to American Graffiti.) They evoked what seemed like a more secure time. I longed for that security as a child because I was not getting it at home.
Nostalgia is a longing for comfort, really. That longing explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now with Millennials and Gen Z who are too young to have really experienced that decade. When a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a secure embrace.
And that’s exactly what you feel when you pull a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Dark Side of the Moon out of their jackets. Each moment you spend studying the artwork and getting immersed in the music takes you deeper into the sweet comfort of nostalgia.
But nostalgia alone does not explain the enduring appeal of vinyl. There is also the coolness factor to consider. Now, I don’t know exactly how to define cool. But I know what cool looks like. And, my friends, vinyl looks cool. The Rolling Stones leering at you from the blurry cover of Between the Buttons looks cool.
The Doors watching you through the window of Morrison Hotel is an invitation to share in a secret kind of coolness that exists only in the mythology of Jim Morrison.
Robert Freeman’s stark black-and-white shot of the Beatles on With the Beatles is ultra-cool.
Chrissie Hynde on the cover of Pretenders looks like she spits cool in your face.
The Isley Brothers decked out in funky badassery on the cover of Showdown is another category of cool completely.
But all those images compressed to a tiny square the size of a coffee coaster on a compact disc? Not cool. As for streaming? I guess streaming is cool if you consider electricity to be cool.
No one will ever think of CDs as cool. No one will ever think of streaming a song as an inherently cool experience. But a stack of vinyl will always create instant cool, and cool will always appeal.
Don’t ask me why vinyl is cool. You have to be a vinyl junkie to understand. And I’m hopelessly addicted.
Disney+ has The Mandalorian. Netflix has Stranger Things. What does Apple TV+ have to capture our imaginations and light the internet on fire?
Well, nothing approaching Stranger Things or The Mandalorian-level ofwidespread excitement. But the Apple TV+ show Dickinson is quickly building momentum and delivering what Apple TV+ needs: cultural relevance.
Why Cultural Relevance Matters
Cultural relevance is essential for any entertainment company to succeed in the long run. Brands become culturally relevant when they connect with an audience through their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes cultural relevance means shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, too. When brands achieve cultural relevance, they become so inextricably linked with our lives that we become lifelong members of their tribes.
Disney Masters Cultural Relevance
Disney is the master of cultural relevance. Mickey Mouse is more than a popular animated character. Mickey Mouse is an international symbol of childhood. Frozen is a pop culture phenomenon. The Lion King introduced the words “Hakuna Matata” to millions of people. The Little Mermaid inspired cosplayers for generations to come. And now, Disney+ is having a culturally relevant moment with The Mandalorian.
This is what culturally relevant shows do. They inspire conversation that transcends the show itself. Among the streaming companies, Netflix has created the gold standard for cultural relevance (although Disney may catch up and then some). Stranger Things has become a pop culture sensation by tapping into 1980s nostalgia (and arguably engineering that nostalgia). Tidying up with Marie Kondo connects with an American materialism (and its consequences) so profoundly that the show actually created a spike in donations to thrift stores. This is the entertainment company that changed how we watched TV and is responsible for vernacular such as “Netflix and chill.”
Along Comes Apple TV+
Now, what about Apple TV+, which launched on November 4? Well, the results are mixed, and Apple TV+ has been outflanked by The Mandalorian. The much hyped The Morning Show has failed to catch fire. Apple has delayed the release of theatrical film The Banker amid allegations of misconduct against one of the movie’s producers. But on the other hand, a lesser known series, Dickinson, has been steadily building a fan base.
On the surface, Dickinson focuses on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. But what makes Dickinson culturally relevant is that it’s more than the story of a poet. It’s a perfectly timed statement about female and LGBTQ+ empowerment. In addition, the casting is smart. For instance, Hailee Steinfeld, who portrays Emily Dickinson, connects effectively with Gen Z and the LGBTQ+ community. Wiz Khalifa, who portrays a personification of death, is highly relevant to music, fashion, and weed culture. And the show’s soundtrack, featuring artists ranging from A$AP Rocky to Billie Eilish, is a Millennial’s dream. As such, Dickinson is rapidly creating a fan base who call themselves “Dickheads,” and the show has inspired the term “Sexy Dickinson.” Now this is what cultural relevance looks like:
Dickinson has already been renewed for another season.
Keep an Eye on Apple TV+
Creating cultural relevance requires an insight into consumer behavior, the agility to rapidly create content that taps into this behavior, and a platform to share that content at scale. Apple has the platform for Apple TV+ through Apple TV (and a new Apple TV app). As a media brand, Apple is getting better at tapping into consumer behavior and creating the right content. We all remember how Apple stumbled badly with its ill-fated forced download of U2’s Songs of Innocence album in 2014 – a miscalculation of consumer behavior (streaming was overtaking downloading, and people resented being forced to download music they did not ask for) and taste (U2 was out of fashion). But since then, Apple has adapted by launching a streaming service that now dominates the industry along with Spotify.
Apple played catch-up and then became a leader in music streaming by becoming more culturally relevant with content that connects to millennial tastes, such as the Up Next program for developing artists and first-look album drops by artists such as Chance the Rapper and Drake. Original content alone was not the answer to the rise of Apple Music – culturally relevant content that connects emotionally was.
Apple TV+ has a long way to go before it attains cultural relevance. But Dickinson is a clear win. In addition, Apple has plenty of cash – and a lot of patience. You can be sure Apple is figuring out how to create its next Dickinson.
We live in exciting and dangerous times in the entertainment industry.
First, the excitement: I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the big screen, and I was impressed with the technology Scorsese used to de-age the lead actors, Robert De Niro, 76, Al Pacino, 79, and Joe Pesci, 76. The movie required them to play characters over a span of decades. Scorsese used digital to take years off their faces in order to play their characters at much younger stages in their lives.
I was skeptical when I heard about the approach, but the movie won me over. The technology made the movie better because The Irishman could tell a sprawling story over a period of time using the same actors to show the ravages of time and their violent lives on their faces. It wasn’t perfect: in a few scenes, De Niro’s face looked oddly sculpted and flat. But in the context of a three-and-half-hour movie, the flaws registered barely a flicker.
The de-aging technology in The Irishman is exciting because it challenged actors in ways they had likely never experienced. Even though their faces were altered, the actors still needed to learn how to adapt the way their bodies moved to match how their younger faces looked.
According to a widely reported story, the 79-year-old Pacino needed to do retakes of one scene in particular until he could authentically portray the movements of a character who was supposed to be 49 years old. And I think that kind of challenge is good. All the actors delivered masterful performances, and the technology pushed them to do so.
But not since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a move so ambitiously made de-aging integral to the story. The Irishman is a landmark moment that opens up possibilities for directors and writers to create stories with broader narrative arcs spanning the passage of time without needing to find multiple actors to portray the same character in one movie.
That said, I think the technology needs to be managed in limited doses to be effective. Consider the epic film, The Godfather, Part II. Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for playing a young Don Corleone, only two years after Marlon Brando also won an Academy Award for playing an aged Don Corleone in The Godfather. To this day, they are the only two actors who have won Academy Awards for playing the same fictional character. But what if de-aging technology had existed in the 1970s? Would Francis Ford Coppola have been tempted to cast Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Part II instead of De Niro? Audiences would have been denied two compelling performances by two different actors at the peak of their artistic powers, each interpreting a character in their own way.
Dead Stars Are Coming Back to Life
Now for the danger: a new company is forming in order to bring dead stars to life in digital form. As reported by Janko Roettgers in Variety, Worldwide XR will incorporate digital movie stars into experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and movies. In fact, a digitally recreated James Dean already has a small role in a forthcoming movie, Finding Jack. Worldwide XR holds the rights to more than 400 celebrities, ranging from Jackie Robinson to Jimmy Stewart.
Worldwide XR CEO Travis Cloyd told Variety, “Influencers will come and go, but legends will never die.”
Some present-day stars – as in real, breathing humans – were not thrilled. Here’s what Chris Evans tweeted:
Elijah Wood wasn’t too thrilled, either:
Bette Midler was not having any of it:
As Variety reported, Cloyd reacted with a shrug:
“It’s disruptive,” acknowledged Cloyd. “Some people dislike it.” However, he argued that the emergence of digital humans was inevitable, and promised that his company would vet any potential partners to make sure that they would do the celebrity in question justice. “We will do our due diligence,” he said.
In addition, Cloyd noted that digitally recreated stars go beyond the movies: we can also experience them in virtual and augmented reality, which opens up all kinds of possibilities, such as John Belushi crashing a bachelor party (for presumably a steep fee) or Audrey Hepburn guest speaking at your next corporate event.
“There is a lot more to come for James Dean,” Cloyd said. “Think of it as James Dean 2.0.”
Disruption Has Consequences
Cloyd has a point. Disruption upsets people – especially people who see their jobs at risk. Because that’s what we’re talking about when we bring dead stars to the screen: when a dead James Dean takes up screen time, a living actor loses a role.
On the other hand, the possibility of James Dean in a theme park via virtual reality or augmented reality seems less threatening. I don’t hear anyone complaining about those applications (yet). It’s the incorporation of a digital James Dean into a movie that has the actors up in arms. And I don’t like the idea, either. I dislike the notion of a digitally recreated person taking a role that a living actor could play. I want to see how an artist takes a role and shapes it in context of the times we both live in. A dead person cannot do that.
The Technology Will Be Huge
But the technology is not going away. In fact, I predict it’s going to be huge. Already we’re seeing audiences respond favorably to touring holograms of musicians such as Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa. According to Rolling Stone, a hologram tour of Frank Zappa sold out, with people paying up to $125 a ticket.
. . . a Roy Orbison hologram tour last year was a financial success, selling 1,800 seats on average per show. There’s enough demand that those tours have more dates lined up — Orbison’s will be touring with one of Buddy Holly this fall — and holographic versions of Ronnie James Dio, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse will be hitting the road later this year. It’s a trend that marks a new wave of holographic tours that is much more sustainable than one-offs, like the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012.
But why is there a market to see dead stars when there are plenty of compelling living actors and musicians working today? I think a few factors are at play:
Nostalgia is powerful. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” Nostalgia explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now: when a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a comfortable embrace. If you lived in the 1980s, you might remember the anxiety of the times, such as the ever-present Cold War throughout most of the decade. But we tend to view the past with rose-tinted glasses, and pop culture encourages us to do so.
Like it or not, we’re going to need to make way for dead stars in our lives. And maybe the detractors will warm up to the idea. In the era of the Marvel franchise, actors routinely perform with CGI-generated characters; perhaps it’s not a stretch to go toe-to-toe in a fight scene with a youthful Burt Reynolds from his macho Deliverance days or respond to the seductive power of a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-era Marilyn Monroe? (Or maybe Brad Pitt could have squared off with the real Bruce Lee in Once upon a Time in Hollywood?) And for movie purists like me? Well, I was wary of de-aging technology, too,
Thanksgiving Day means more than eating Turkey and watching football. For British musician Ellie Goulding, Thanksgiving has become a time for social activism, at the expense of the NFL and Salvation Army.
Ellie Goulding Knocks over a Red Kettle
Goulding is scheduled to perform in the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show during a nationally televised Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys/Buffalo Bills game. The show marks the official start of the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Campaign. For the past 22 years, musicians ranging from Eric Church to Destiny’s Child have appeared on the Red Kettle Kickoff halftime show, befitting the particularly close relationship between the Dallas Cowboys (who play each year on Thanksgiving) and the Salvation Army.
At first Goulding seemed like the perfect choice for the NFL and the Salvation Army. Her millennial-friendly electronic pop is interesting without being risky, and she is a noted philanthropist. Indeed, on November 7, the Salvation Army issued a press release gushing about her upcoming performance, which quoted Goulding as follows:
I am honored to perform at the Dallas Cowboys halftime show and kick off The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. With so many people in need, I believe it’s our duty to help, and I encourage everyone to donate to The Salvation Army. The money they raise during the Red Kettle Campaign will change lives for the better all year long.
Upon researching this, I have reached out to The Salvation Army and said that I would have no choice but to pull out unless they very quickly make a solid, committed pledge or donation to the LGBTQ community. I am a committed philanthropist as you probably know, and my heart has always been in helping the homeless, but supporting an anti-LGBTQ charity is clearly not something I would ever intentionally do. Thank you for drawing my attention to this
With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Goulding’s threat to pull out of the halftime show put the NFL into an especially difficult position, and not just from a logistics standpoint. The NFL is already caught in a cultural maelstrom stemming from the fall-out from Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest. The league could really do without another headache like this one.
The Salvation Army Leaps into Action
Fortunately for the NFL, Goulding apparently decided to perform after all, according to TheDallas Morning News. And the NFL has the Salvation Army to thank. Her threat prompted a dialogue with the Salvation Army, which convinced her that the show must go on. Obviously, the Salvation Army is ready for this kind of negative news. Instead of circling the wagons, the organization quickly responded to Goulding and talked with the news media about its stance toward LGBTQ+ rights. For instance, Salvation Army representatives talked with The Dallas Morning News and put a positive spin on the situation. Maj. Jon Rich, a Salvation Army commander in Texas, said,
It brings attention to how inclusive we are as an organization and serving everyone no matter who they are, what their sexual orientation is, what their station in life is. We serve without discrimination. It’s our international mission statement that we serve human needs without discrimination.
He said that the organization is evolving its practices to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons and characterized anti-LGBTQ+ statements from Salvation Army members as uncharacteristic of the Salvation Army’s values. The interview was a textbook case of being responsive in a moment of crisis.
The NFL Is Caught in the Middle
Goulding’s reluctance to perform created a negative news cycle for both the Salvation Army and the league at a particularly trying time for the NFL. The NFL, caught in the middle, was wise to say nothing, even though at least one writer in Business Insider called on the league “to take a page from Goulding’s book and back her up” (the writer stopped short of recommending specific actions). It’s not that the Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is insignificant; rather, the news quickly began to blow over. Why draw attention to the story – especially as the NFL was dealing with Colin Kaepernick once again creating news for the league?
Social and Political Activism Creates Complications
The Ellie Goulding/Salvation Army controversy is the latest high-profile example of a brand/artist collaboration taking a left turn into the realm of political/social consciousness. I recently blogged about the 1,000+ musicians who have boycotted the Intersect music festival because it is sponsored by Amazon Web Services (AWS). The musicians object to AWS’s work with Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Musicians can lend incredible cultural relevance to brands. Lyft bought its way into coolness by forming a partnership with Kendrick Lamar for his Championship Tour. Belvedere Vodka looked woke by working with Janelle Monáe on brand-sponsored short films. But in an era of political and social activism in music, brand-artist collaborations can create tension.
The Lesson for Brands
If you’re going to partner with a musician, it’s important to:
Understand that all musicians now operate in context of a wide-ranging social and political awakening (“pop’s great woke awakening,” as Pitchfork puts it). Do your homework and understand the social and political forces pressuring musicians to take a stand.
Find a musician who aligns with your brand. If your business has embraced brand activism, then an outspoken artist might be the perfect match. If you avoid brand activism, then find a safer musician. Whatever you do, find someone who aligns with your brand values. As part of your due diligence, examine what they say and do on social media.
Be ready to act when things go the way you didn’t expect. As I noted, on the surface, Ellie Goulding aligned well with the NFL and the Salvation Army. But all it took was one Instagram post for the relationship to nearly become derailed. Be prepared to act when the unexpected hits, as the Salvation Army was when its name got dragged through the mud. Anyone who works with performers in a live setting should know that planning for the unexpected is part of the process, politics and social activism aside.
With an election year coming up, brands can expect musicians to become even more outspoken than they are now. Buckle up. We’re all in for a bumpy ride.
Many brands try to create enduring emotional ties with people by being culturally relevant. Cultural relevance is about connecting with an audience through their beliefs, interests, and behaviors. Forming marketing relatinships with musicians is a way for businesses to achieve cultural relevance. The deal works like this: the brand uses its muscle to give the musician exposure; and the musician lend a cool factor to the brand with a desired audience, such as Millennials and Gen Z. Hence, YouTube affiliates itself with the Coachella Music Festival, and Red Bull embraces music through content such as the Red Bull Music Festival, to name a few examples (of which there are legion). But cultural relevance is a two-edged sword, as the Amazon Web Service (AWS) Intersect music festival illustrates.
At the place where music, technology, and art converge, you’ll find Intersect, a new kind of festival coming to the Las Vegas Strip this December 6–7. Presented by AWS, the most broadly adopted cloud platform, and produced by Production Club, the team behind some of music’s most state-of-the-art live experiences, Intersect was born out of the massive after party for AWS’s annual re:Invent conference, held in Vegas since 2012, with over 25,000 guests last year alone. Now open to the public for the first time ever, the festival offers an inspiring two-day journey to culture and tech’s leading edge.
And the line-up sure looks compelling, with right kind of mix of headliners (Beck, Foo Fighters, and Kacey Musgraves) emerging, critically acclaimed voices such as Weyes Blood.
But there’s just one problem: many musicians are speaking out against the festival.
How No Music for ICE Crashed the Intersect Party
The launch of Intersect has galvanized more than 1,000 artists and industry types (as of this writing) to sign a petition pledging not to participate in Amazon-sponsored events. The boycott is known as No Music for ICE. What’s their beef with Amazon and AWS? Well, it turns out that the mighty AWS cloud hosts the software for Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). AWS also works with the Department of Homeland Security. Here’s what the petition says:
We pledge to not participate in Amazon-sponsored events, or engage in exclusive partnerships with Amazon in the future, until Amazon publicly commits to:
* Terminate existing contracts with military, law enforcement, and government agencies (ICE, CBP, ORR) that commit human rights abuses
* Stop providing Cloud services & tools to organizations (such as Palantir) that power the US government’s deportation machine
* End projects that encourage racial profiling and discrimination, such as Amazon’s facial recognition product
* Reject future engagements w/ aforementioned bad actors.
We will not allow Amazon to exploit our creativity to promote its brand while it enables attacks on immigrants, communities of color, workers, and local economies. We call on all artists who believe in basic rights and human dignity to join us.
In addition, two musicians originally scheduled to appear at Intersect, The Black Madonna and Japanese Breakfast, claimed they were not told of AWS’s affiliation with event. The Black Madonna raised such as stink on Twitter that she was released from her contract to perform. Her name no longer appears on the event’s website.
How No Music for ICE Reflects Changing Times
No Music for ICE illustrates the impact of changing times. In context of the fractured political climate and culture wars that grip the United States today, many musicians have embraced a social and political voice (a topic I blogged about here.) Their values reflect the surging Millennial and Gen Z populations, who are more likely to hold businesses accountable for their impact on society. In that context, AWS finds itself thrust into a conversation that the company most certainly does not want to be part of.
The Intersect boycott is especially significant because we’re talking about indie artists who could use the exposure, as opposed to a politically active musician such as Roger Waters, who can afford to pick and choose his venues. Fortunately for AWS, the headliners such as Kacey Musgrave have stayed out of the controversy. There is plenty of time for the issue to blow over (although there is also plenty of time for the protest to gain steam). AWS’s best bet is to keep the PR around the event focused on the big names and the up-and-coming acts on the bill who are committed to the event. Tell a narrative that focuses on their music.
The Lesson for Brands
The lesson for brands: tread very carefully when you make a play for cultural relevance through a relationship with an artist. You might get what you asked for, but not in the way you envisioned. Find artists who align with your brand (and, to be fair to AWS, it looks like the company has succeeded with the exception of Black Madonna and possibly Japanese Breakfast). And accept the baggage that comes with today’s climate of political and social consciousness in music.
History has been cruel to Elvis Presley. Last impressions are usually the enduring ones, and our last impression of Elvis is the “Fat Elvis” of the 1970s: a sweaty, blubbery shell of his former self, spaced out on drugs in his gaudy Elvis suit as he butchers his song catalog on a Las Vegas stage. This impression is accurate for the latter years of his life, but it is not a complete one.
The Elvis of the 1970s — especially the early 1970s — was an innovator onstage. Invigorated by his stunning 1968 TV special, Elvis had returned to live performing after a lengthy layoff while he churned out horrible movies for most of the 1960s. He was hungry. He wanted to feel the heat and thrill of connecting with an audience in person. In Las Vegas, he found what he was looking for. But Elvis didn’t just play Las Vegas. He changed Las Vegas.
By the time Elvis came along, Las Vegas was struggling for relevance with younger audiences. The city too square for contemporary rock stars. And being too square for rock and roll was a big problem in the post-Beatles era. Sure, Las Vegas would always attract hard-core gamblers. But the old-guard stars such as Frank Sinatra, who provided essential entertainment for the gamblers, were fading.
And then Elvis hit town. Talk about right place and right time. Elvis rescued Las Vegas as a vacation destination and an epicenter for entertainment. He didn’t just parachute out of the sky and play songs like a country rube that many people thought he was, either. He hand-picked his band down to his back-up singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother). Elvis being Elvis, he also imported an orchestra to fill out the large stage he was about to call his home for two performances for weeks at a stretch at the International Hotel (which would become the Las Vegas Hilton). He told them what sound he wanted, arranged the show the way he wanted it, and rehearsed the band until they sounded as electric as he felt. As he rehearsed, he wore weights around his ankles and wrists to build his stamina.
Elvis also did his homework. So studied Tom Jones — by now a dynamic star of the Strip — and learned some tricks for winning over Las Vegas, such as using his body like a weapon. In the 1950s, Elvis had taught the world the power of swiveling your hips onstage, but it was a long way from the Louisiana Hayride to Las Vegas, a stage where he’d actually flopped when he played the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. He’d never performed night after night on a stage as large as the one he was going to play at the International.
He didn’t want to take his audience down memory lane, either. Now in his 30s, he was getting on in years by rock standards of the time. His musical instincts told him he’d need to play contemporary songs to be relevant — but they needed to sound like Elvis songs. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself as Frank Sinatra had done in the late 1960s, trying to adapt his voice to rock songs that made him sound even more out of touch and a bit desperate. He wisely chose fresh songs that sounded timeless, such as the swamp funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary,” as well as songs he’d just recorded in Memphis, such as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (which would, of course, become hits).
In August 1969, he went onstage and completely changed everything — maybe not on the scale he once did in the 1950s, but in a big enough way to shape the future of a city. No one had brought a rock-and-roll show to Las Vegas like he did. And the critics loved what they saw and heard.
Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said that seeing Elvis “felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant.” Ellen Willis wrote in the New Yorker, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories. Their reactions were typical. Elvis was a smash.
Elvis stuck around for many years, and into the early 1970s, he refined his act, incorporating more stage moves (such as karate chops) and songs. But he didn’t just play Las Vegas. He transcended it. Frank Sinatra had been a legend in Las Vegas, but he was for the gamblers. Elvis was so big he attracted people who came to see him first and foremost. The entertainment industry noticed: instead of touring, a star could stay put in one location and perform for fans who came to the star. And so the modern-day residency was born. Over the years, artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga would make fortunes off residencies. Elvis paved the way for them. He also arguably opened the door for hugely popular shows such as the Cirque du Soleil “Love” tribute to the Beatles, which would become attractions in and of themselves instead of a second-tier alternative to gambling.
As Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegas, wrote in The New York Times, “Elvis brought something new to Las Vegas: not an intimate, Rat Pack-style nightclub show, but a big rock-concert extravaganza. He showed that rock ’n’ roll (and country and R&B too) could work on the big Vegas stage. And he brought in a new kind of audience: not the Vegas regulars and high rollers, but a broader, more middle-American crowd: female fans who had screamed for Elvis as teenagers, families who made Elvis the centerpiece of their summer vacation.”
You can get a taste of Elvis at his early 1970s peak by watching a video clip of “Polk Salad Annie.” Before he even sings a note, he’s in total command of the stage. First off, he looks like he owns the room: lean, tan, and confident, his trim frame almost a little too slender for the tasseled white suit he wears. He smiles and introduces the southern-fried tune with a short introduction that transports you to the country fields of the Deep South. And then he launches into the song, not only with his smoldering voice but with his lithesome body. He gyrates, shakes his legs, punches the air, and moves his shoulders like a singing gyroscope. Watch him closely, especially his right arm. He’s doing more than dancing and crouching: he’s using his body to control the tempo of his backing band. He’s running that show with his voice and his body.
Throughout the 1970s, he also recorded compelling music — the great Back in Memphis in 1970, the excellent Elvis Country in 1971, and the very good Promised Land and Good Times a few years later. Even a decent-but-not great effort like Moody Blue, released the year he died, contained moments of brilliance. Fortunately, some of his live performances from this time period were recorded, too, including Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, On Stage, and That’s the Way It Is.
Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t last. The pressure of performing twice-nightly shows for weeks got to him. He took pills to stay awake and get to sleep. He ate. His shows became sloppy. And you know the rest of the story. But he never lost his voice. Regardless of how out of shape he became, his voice retained that power. And the power of that voice endures for me.