“This Is America” Reignites a Musical Resistance

The musical resistance just came roaring back with the release of the searing “This Is America,” by the irrepressible Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). Here is a song that reminds us of music’s power to provoke and confront society in the tradition of great protest work such as Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The video invites frame-by-frame dissection with its disturbing, powerful images — such as a Jim Crow caricature, gun violence, images of dancers frolicking amid chaos — and lyrics such as:

This is America

Don’t catch you slippin’ up

Look at how I’m livin’ now

Police be trippin’ now

Yeah, this is America

Guns in my area (word, my area)

I got the strap

I gotta carry ‘em

Released on May 5, “This is America” has gone massively viral, accumulating 23 million views within two days and sparking discussion among social mediaand news media ranging from The Atlantic to The Guardian. Although the song stands alone as a strong statement, “This Is America” assumes even more gravitas when you view the work in context of the political and social consciousness that has gripped popular American music in recent months. Continue reading

Memorable Album Covers of 2017

Don’t let anyone tell you album covers are dead. Album artwork continues to express the visions of artists and the musical content of the albums themselves as powerfully as covers did in the era of album-oriented rock. Memorable album covers of 2017 reflect a year in which artists made compelling political and personal statements.

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Roger Waters Leads a Musical Resistance

When was the last time that popular music made you think?

I mean really made you think about the state of the world and your place in it? The leaders you’ve elected? The choices you’ve made down to the products you buy?

The music of Roger Waters always makes me think. Like when I’m watching him in concert wear a mask of a pig snout and stalk the stage with a champagne glass while his band plays “Dogs.” Or when he examines the plight of the millions of refugees around the world in “The Last Refugee,” a song from his latest album Is This the Life We Really Want?

His songs evoke a time when popular music was a voice for dissent and dialogue about politics and social change – when the Rolling Stones’s “Street Fighting Man” was a rallying cry for Vietnam War protestors and Sly & the Family Stone eviscerated American values with There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

That time is now.

The current political and social unrest that grips the United States and the world has inspired mainstream artists to speak out through their music and actions. No matter what your taste in music is, it’s hard not to notice. For example:

  • In 2016 Beyoncé departed from her usual songs about dancing and grinding to release Lemonade, a celebration of black sisterhood that contributed to the conversation about #BlackLivesMatter.

  • In August, Pink released “What about Us,” with its accusations of betrayal from political leaders.

  • Kendrick Lamar continues to confront American racism on albums such as To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn.

  • (Update: on October 10, Eminem issued a clear and urgent protest against President Donald Trump with his fist-pumping rap freestyle, “The Storm,” which quickly went viral on social media.)

We’re living in an age of heightened activism. Although the groundswell around social justice issues such as #BlackLivesMatter has been happening over the past few years, the election of Donald Trump has unquestionably turned that activism into dissent for many artists (unless you happen to be Kid Rock or Ted Nugent).

According to The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber, the first 100 days of the Trump administration inspired a bumper crop of protest music. As Cat Buckley of Billboard recently reported, 2017 is a year of a “brewing musical resistance” with President Donald Trump the focus of that resistance.

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Memorable Album Covers of 2015

The massive success of Adele’s 25 has prompted the music industry to speculate that maybe the record album as an art form is back. Well, record albums aren’t back — Adele is. Meantime, the album remains stuck in a long, sad period of decline. But the demise of the album hasn’t stopped artists from continuing to grace us with memorable album cover art, and 2015 was no exception, as my new SlideShare presentation illustrates vividly.

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Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear

The year was notable for the appearance of some over-the-top, in-your-face covers from mainstream artists, with some classically elegant and visual mind benders tossed in. It’s as if musicians everywhere got together and decided, “Screw it — if albums are going away, let’s make the last gasp a memorable one.”

Bjork recast herself as some sort of mutant alien on Vulcarina, and Grimes dropped one of the ugliest album covers I’ve ever seen with Art Angels, demonstrating that memorable is not necessarily the same as beautiful. And I’m still trying to figure out the weird plastic thing creature on the cover of Arc’s Mutant.

Bjork

Bjork, Vulcarina

But not all covers needed to be outrageous to be memorable. The album cover art for Fetty Wap’s self-titled album was honest and real, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was socially provocative and thoughtful. Meantime, Colleen Green’s smart-alecky smirk on the cover of I Want to Grow Up was what rock and roll attitude is all about, while Leon Bridges’s Coming Home and Adele’s 25 were throwbacks with their classic designs.

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Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap

Albums may never return to their glory days of the 1970, but album cover art remains an important way for musicians to connect with fans and represent their art. As I’ve mentioned before, their function has changed — from gracing the cover of a single work to acting as a visual totem published across many touch points, ranging from an artist’s Facebook page to their merchandise.

In fact, album cover art is perfectly suited for today’s visual era. Album covers tell visual stories that express the music of the album, capture the personality of the artist, and engage your interest — just as great marketing should do.

Albums as we know them are dying. Long live record album art.