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 →
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 toThe 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.
“Are there any paranoids in the audience tonight?”
With those caustic words, Roger Waters introduced “Run Like Hell” in concert in 1980. Waters continues to taunt and provoke his audience 37 years later when he performs music from his Pink Floyd catalog and solo career, often by injecting venomous statements against President Elect Donald Trump from the stage.
When he taunts an audience and redefines his music in a political context, he leads them into a different relationship between performer and audience, one characterized by confrontation, stimulation, and discussion. I live in a family of artists. We often have conversations about the role of the artist to make an audience uncomfortable — to confront, to reveal, and to invoke anger even. It’s sometimes necessary to create discomfort if you’re going to lead an audience.
There is a time and place for leading an audience by challenging them, and consequences to be paid for doing so (as Jim Morrison demonstrated in 1969 at the infamous Miami concert that led to his arrest for public indecency). And, there is a time and place to make an audience feel warm, uplifted, and comfortable. I want to uplift people and make them feel comfortable when I act each year in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. But I don’t want to uplift necessarily when I write fiction, and neither does my wife, Janice Deal, in her short stories. We both want to lead an audience in our writing, as does our daughter, Marion Deal, in her writing and public speaking. Leading an audience means looking deep inside yourself and taking a risk. You know you’re succeeding when you evoke a reaction. It just might not be a happy reaction.
Case in point: back in the 1970s, Alice Cooper made popular shock rock by putting on concerts that featured imagery and theater that some might consider grotesque, such as a decapitated baby dolls and guillotines. Critics hated Alice Cooper and thought his concerts to be stupid and gimmicky. And even their audience sometimes recoiled in horror. But Vincent Furnier, who headed the band and adopted the name Alice Cooper for himself as a solo act, knew what they were doing.
The band’s onstage behavior was intended to create an audience reaction by synthesizing forms of horror and fantasy, burlesque and rock and roll, shaped by Furnier’s own passion for movies and visual storytelling. He satirized the then-noble notion of rock star as poet and social change agent by creating a villain who sang hit songs only to be executed onstage. He made an artistic statement and was leading the audience in another direction toward a glam rock movement would propel artists such as David Bowie to fame.
In the book What You Want Is in the Limo, an excellent narrative about rock and roll in 1973, Michael Walker discusses Alice Cooper’s rise to fame. Alice Cooper tells Walker, “We never went onstage with the attitude of, ‘Gosh, I hope you like us tonight.’ We’d take them by the throat and shake them and never, ever give them a chance to breathe.”
During one concert in 1969, the band’s in-your-face style so offended an auditorium full of 3,000 people that they all fled the show within about 15 minutes. But one man in the crowd, Shep Gordon, stuck around, mesmerized by Alice Cooper’s ability to move an audience. He went on to manage the band. As Alice Cooper told Michael Walker in What You Want Is in the Limo, Gordon was “clapping like a seal. ‘You cleared the auditorium in fifteen minutes!” he marveled. “Three thousand people in fifteen minutes . . . I don’t care if they fucking hated you. It’s mass movement. There’s power and money in that.'”
Gordon also recalled, “I had never seen such a strong negative reaction. People hated Alice, and I knew that anyone who could generate such a strong negative energy had the potential to be a star, if the handling of the situation was right.”
Pink Floyd’s new (and final) album, The Endless River, had every reason to fail on its release November 10. At a time when album sales are in a free fall, the Floyd released an unabashed 53-minute artifact of the era of album-oriented rock. The Endless River consists mostly of ambient instrumentals (culled from the group’s 1994 album The Division Bell) and no Spotify-friendly singles. Lead guitarist David Gilmour cautioned that The Endless River as “not for the iTunes, downloading-individual-tracks generation” (a comment that most certainly horrified the Floyd’s Columbia Record Label). And yet, The Endless River is succeeding, at least by today’s standards: the album was the most pre-ordered ever on Amazon U.K., is Number 1 in the United Kingdom, and is already the top-selling album of 2014. I believe The Endless River‘s success is a testament to the power of branding and staying true to yourself.
The Power of Branding
Pink Floyd had not released an album in 20 years and only four since 1983. Of its founding members — Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright — only Mason remained with the Floyd in 2014, along with virtuoso guitarist David Gilmour, who joined the band in late 1967. Barrett had been kicked out of the band decades ago, Waters had left amid great acrimony, and Wright had succumbed to cancer in 2008. But the Floyd has always been both a band and a successful brand — one that that encompasses a memorable name, successful music, multi-media, merchandise, and striking visual iconography.
Going back to 1967, Pink Floyd created enduring albums that transcended the progressive rock genre and resonated with generations of listeners (including me). And its partnership with art design group Hipgnosis resulted in the creation of album cover designs and artwork that fascinated fans in the 1970s (during the band’s glory years) and remain relevant in today’s era of visual storytelling. Even when the band was not producing music after The Division Bell, Pink Floyd remained in the Continue reading →
Pink Floyd would have been a perfect match for the visually oriented era of Pinterest and Tumblr had the band emerged today.
At the height of Pink Floyd’s popularity in the 1970s, the Floyd’s visually arresting album covers and iconography complemented the artistry of the its music and generated buzz that would make the Word of Mouth Marketing Association proud. Nowhere is the power of Pink Floyd’s visual appeal more apparent than the cover for the album The Dark Side of the Moon, released 40 years ago in March. The Dark Side of the Moon is not only one of the greatest albums ever made, its cover became an visual icon for Pink Floyd itself — a quiet, mysterious team of four musicians who let their music and visual stories speak for them. For its ability to create mystery and intrigue for four decades, The Dark Side of the Moon joins my hall of fame of memorable album covers.
The Dark Side of the Moon cover art created intrigue when the album landed in record stores in March 1973. At the time, Pink Floyd was on the cusp of becoming a mainstream success with a growing fan base. The cover, depicting white light passing through a prism to form the bright colors of the spectrum against a stunning black field, invited listeners to Continue reading →
Rock concerts for causes have come a long way since George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and raised $250,000 to help refugees in war-torn Bangladesh. The Concert for Bangladesh was an untelevised rock show (actually two of them) witnessed by 40,000 people in Madison Square Garden. By contrast, last week’s 121212 Concert for Sandy Reliefwas a multimedia experience accessible to 2 billion people globally, earning $35 million in one night (with millions more to come). Here are five marketing lessons from the 121212 Concert:
1. Extend Your Reach
The 121212 Concert, which supported Robin Hood Relief (a highly regarded organization assisting Hurricane Sandy victims), made it virtually impossible for you to miss the show. The concert was broadcast on 39 television stations, streamed to 25 websites, and aired on 50 radio stations, creating “the most widely distributed live musical event in history,” according to Nielsen. By contrast, even the highly successful 2001 Concert for New York City (which also benefited Robin Hood Relief) was broadcast on VH1 exclusively. If you wanted to watch the concert, they gave you no reason to miss it.
When EMI Music announced in May that the record company would re-issue the Pink Floyd musical catalog via re-mastered compact discs, vinyl editions, and Blu-rays, a friend of mine in his 20s asked me who on earth would buy such a blatantly physical product in the digital era. Answer: Baby Boomers. The Baby Boomer generation is sizeable (nearly 80 million strong) and willing to buy music in analog form.
Unless you know something about the increasingly powerful Baby Boomer generation, the EMI re-issue certainly defies logic. Beginning September 26, EMI will shower Pink Floyd fans with a slew of analog goodies, including:
A re-mastered version of the band’s classic The Dark Side of the Moon via a two-disc “Experience” set, a vinyl LP, and a six-disc “Immersion” set (the latter retailing for $110 on Amazon as of September 25).
Fourteen remastered Pink Floyd albums, available individually and as a “Discovery” box set ($180 on Amazon @September 25).
In November, EMI will release the band’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here via five-disc and two-disc editions and then The Wall will receive similar treatment in February 2012.
The packaging promises to be extravagant. The Dark Side of the Moon Immersion box will include a booklet designed by Storm Thorgerson (who designed the original album art), an art print, and even a scarf. And the music is said to be remastered in superior Continue reading →
Elder rockers ranging from Robert Plant to Roger Waters made headlines with new music (in Plant’s case) and an updating of a rock classic via a stunning tour (Waters).
As I’ve blogged before, legacy rockers (sometimes from the grave) provide a relatively young art form (rock) the gift of perspective as they come to terms with their past and chart a course for the future. What did they say about themselves in 2010? Here’s my take:
“The king is dead. Long live the king.” God bless Robert Plant. After re-uniting with three quarters of Led Zeppelin to perform at London’s O2 arena in 2007, Plant endured tremendous pressure to tour again with his old band mates under the Led Zeppelin banner. But Plant would have none of that. Instead in 2008 he toured with Alison Krauss to promote their celebrated Raising Sand. In 2010, Plant continued to firmly keep Led Zeppelin in his rear-view mirror by releasing his latest solo album, Band of Joy (the name is a reference to one of his bands prior to Zeppelin). Anyone hoping for a Zeppelin reincarnation was disappointed. He chose a quirky mix of Americana covers spanning folk and rock (recorded with lesser known musicians) and embarked on a modest tour in places like the Robinson Center Music Hall in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was rewarded with some of the best reviews of his career.
“Remember us.” The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones kept their names in the public eye without releasing any new music. Amid much hoopla, including a weeklong celebration on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Rolling Stones unveiled the remastered Exile on Main St. Months later, Keith Richards, surprising fans with a still-intact and lucid memory, published his 565-page autobiography, Life. In August, Elvis Presley’s entire catalog was released via a massive 30-CD box set retailing for more than $700 — and in an era in which CDs are supposed to be dead, the first-edition limited release sold out. In October, Sony released mono CD editions of Bob Dylan’s seminal recordings from the 1960s (the box set included a thoughtful essay by noted rock historian Greil Marcus). I think that Dylan, the Stones, and the caretakers of Elvis’s brand essentially were re-establishing their places in history for newer generations of rock critics (and it sounds like John Jurgensen at The Wall Street Journalwasn’t convinced). None of them technically released new material (the previously unreleased Exile tracks date back to the making of the original album). Instead, they continued to keep their past achievements relevant (even to the point of the Stones successfully licensing “Gimme Shelter” for use in a video game). I think it’s also significant that the Beatles finally made their music available digitally through iTunes. I don’t think the move was about generating sales (although sales did result) but rather passing the band’s legacy down to digital generations both today and tomorrow.
“I am an artist!” It’s no secret that Roger Waters and his ex-Pink Floyd band mates have fought bitterly over who is the rightful owner of the Pink Floyd legacy. In 2010, Waters made a statement in the best way possible: performing the 1979 Pink Floyd classic The Wall as a high-concept solo tour, replete with the construction of a giant wall in the elaborate stage act (as Pink Floyd with Waters did via a limited series of concerts decades ago). So how was The Wall tour different from the re-release of Exile on Main St.? Because Waters re-interpreted and updated the music he wrote in the 1970s as a modern-day statement against corporate greed and bellicose governments (the U.S. war in Iraq among the topics he explored with the modern-day performance of his songs). And having attended one of The Wall concerts, I think he suceeded.
In 2010, we also heard from many other legacy rockers, including Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, and later, in the year, the king of pop, Michael Jackson. I expect 2011 to bring more of the same. And I have mixed feelings about what’s happening here. I think we should give the giants of rock history their due just as newer generations of readers should continue to buy books by Hemingway or pay admission to see the works of Picasso. But for every dollar we spend honoring the gods, rock fans need to be supporting new music financially. How many new and emerging artists have you supported lately by actually paying money to enjoy their music (whether recorded or in concert)?
I hope you’ll make a commitment in 2011 to both the old guard and the vanguard.