Monday, March 29, 2010

Playlist of the Week: No One Said to Open Your Mouth!

It's Monday. (I know, I don't need to remind you.) First day back at work or school after a nice, relaxing weekend...or a hectic, time- or cash-consuming weekend, it doesn't matter. Maybe you even have a little hint of a hangover. What can you do if your coworker or classmate or little brother or that girl on the bus with the blaring speakerphone seems to not have gotten the Monday memo and has decided to face the start of the week with his or her mouth open and volume up?

The way I see it, you have two choices. You could go with the violent irony approach and rush over and bludgeon the loudmouth to death with a pair of headphones. Or, if that seems too intense (or you're so Mondayed out you can't be bothered to lift anything heavy enough to do serious cranial damage), pop on some earbuds and take a listen to the new Vertigo Shtick Playlist of the Week (back after a long absence!) for a little pop musical variation on an appropriate theme. Hope it helps.

Shut Up1. "Shut Up" The Black Eyed Peas (Elephant, A&M Records, 2003)

The song for which Fergie was first brought in to sing with The Black Eyed Peas (she was later asked to join full-time) features an argument between a traveling man and a woman scorned, and features one of the singer's best vocals to date.

Don't Tell Me2. "Don't Tell Me" Madonna (Music, Warner Bros, 2001)

Madonna's brother-in-law Joe Henry wrote and recorded the first version of this hit from Music as "Stop" before the Queen got her hands (and producers) on it and made it into the last top ten song for Madonna to date on the Hot 100 Airplay (now Radio Songs) Chart.

3. "Dot (Shut Up)" Destiny's Child (Charlie's Angels - Music from the Motion Picture, Columbia, 2000)

This otherwise unreleased Destiny's Child ditty appeared in the first of the two Charlie's Angels revamps actually for more time than the phenomenal success of a theme song/single by the same artists, "Independent Women, Part I." Go figure.

Shut Up & Let Me Go4. "Shut Up and Let Me Go" The Ting Tings (We Started Nothing, Columbia, 2008)

Though this was the followup single to the English duo's successful debut single "That's Not My Name" in the UK, its appearance in an iPod commercial led to it being released first in the US, before the other single subsquently outperformed it on the US charts. The music video was nominated for Video of the Year at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards.

Speechless5. "Speechless" Lady Gaga (The Fame Monster, Interscope/Cherrytree/Kon Live/Streamline, 2009)

Of the eight tracks on the re-release bonus EP to Gaga's wildly successful debut album The Fame, "Speechless" is perhaps the most maligned by critics, most of whom point to the obvious throwback points to the music of Freddie Mercury and Queen and to Gaga's delivery as unconvincing and/or insincere. Because Freddie Mercury was always a hundred percent sincere, right?

Don't Speak6. "Don't Speak" No Doubt (Tragic Kingdom, Trauma/Interscope, 1995)

The song that was a staple at my middle school dances and every mid-90s kid's boombox topped the Hot 100 Airplay (now Radio Songs) chart for a whopping sixteen weeks, solidifying the long-suffering band's - and ska music's - acceptance into the pop music scene. One of them stuck around. Can you guess which?

7. "Hush, Hush; Hush, Hush" The Pussycat Dolls (Doll Domination, A&M Records, 2009)

Hush Hush; Hush HushI did find it a tad strange that several the other dolls not named Nicole Scherzinger got fed up with the lead singer being featured and left the group earlier this year. A look at the liner notes of the Dolls' debut album, PCD, reveals that all lead AND background vocals for the album were recorded by the former Eden's Crush singer. In a way really, "Pussycat Dolls" has been totally screwing Scherzinger over for years, so why shouldn't the talented songstress get a little lovin' now?

8. "Blah Blah Blah" Ke$ha featuring 3OH!3 (Animal, RCA, 2010)

Ke$ha's second single has performed well enough to keep her from being, as she predicted on Twitter, a one-hit wonder, variously rising and falling for several weeks on the singles charts. But with "TiK ToK" fatigue running strong among consumers and Ke$ha's own recent lapse into obnoxiousness, it isn't likely to shoot back up any time soon.

9. "Shut Up and Drive" Rihanna (Good Girl Gone Bad, Def Jam, 2007)

Remember when Rihanna had a personality? Me neither. But she came sort of close on this and another track from the blockbuster Good Girl Gone Bad, "Breakin' Dishes," both non-starters despite early single release plans.

10. "The Sound of Silence" Simon and Garfunkel (Sounds of Silence, Columbia Records, 1965)

Paul Simon's beautiful eulogy to President Kennedy following his assassination in 1964 prompted folk rockers Simon and Garfunkel to enter the upper echelon of popular music royalty. One of the two stuck around. Can you guess which?

And now that everything is finally calm and quiet...

On the 611. "Let's Get Loud" Jennifer Lopez (On the 6, Epic/Work, 1999)

This throwback dance stomper is the perfect way to snap out of the Monday morning lull and, hopefully, get going on what will undoubtedly now be a fantastic, productive week! Don't worry, Vertigo Shtick will be here for you all week.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Anjulie - "Boom" (Single Review)

I love and welcome music suggestions from friends and readers, and take each one into consideration. But  when a friend of mine texts me that a certain song makes her "want to rape my boyfriend," I sit up and take special notice. After following this..."solid" endorsement, I find that while I have acquired no particular desires for enforced sex acts upon any significant others, I have stumbled across a pretty kickass song, and after a bit more poking around I ended up doing something I almost never do (and virtually never with a new artist): I bought the whole album.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Don't You Know I Dumped Your Husband?

Androgyny has always been an appealing attribute in pop music vocals. Perhaps as much as the mass market consumer enjoys the vocal acrobatics of the Mariah Careys and Christina Aguileras and the American Idol contestants of the world, there's something to be said about being able to sing along to our favorite songs, and what easier songs to sing along to than those that fall in the middle range of the unisex register? It's no coincidence that the biggest names in pop music tend to fall in the tenor/counter-tenor range for males (Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Usher, Prince) and the alto or mezzo range for females (Britney Spears, Pink, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Sade...the list goes on).

Of course, the best examples of androgyny are the ones that cause a lot of "That's a BOY/GIRL?!?! I thought it was a girl/boy!" types of reactions without diminished appeal. (While I am still attempting to account for and explain the immense appeal of Justin Bieber to the rabid young female audience prone to rioting at shopping malls and keeping the name trending on Twitter almost constantly- and believe me, I'm trying - clearly the voice has a lot to do with it, since let's face it, the kid's just not that attractive, even in a teen beat pinup sense.) One of the first examples of this sex mixup in my personal musical experience occurred in 2000 when I first heard "He Wasn't Man Enough" on the radio on the school bus home and momentarily mistook it for a curiously progressive bit of sexual role reversalism (keep in mind that my formative years in pop music were from about 1996-'99, wherein one of the big hits was White Town's "Your Woman," so I had learned early on that gender was more fluid in this brave new world). But when I found out later that the masculine lead vocals belonged to "Un-break My Heart" crooner Toni Braxton, it took nothing away from my enjoyment of the sassy single (and once I found the music video in college I knew I was in kitsch heaven).

Nowadays, Braxton is apparently in the early stages of a comeback. After years of legal problems with former labels, from her abrupt departure from Arista Records following the flop of her fourth album in 2002 (Braxton was pregnant around the time of the release and Arista refused to postpone, resulting in Braxton being able to do little promotion) to her recent release from Blackground Records after numerous disagreements with its manager and publicity nightmares including a public feud with Jay-Z and Kanye West (she claimed on a radio interview that the rappers had taken money from her childrens' college fund), the only good exposure Braxton has gotten in almost a decade came from her historic headlining gig at the Flamingo in Las Vegas from 2006-08 and an appearance on the seventh season of Dancing With the Stars and its subsequent tour. With her sixth album, Pulse, due to be released on May 4, 2010, it remains to be seen if Braxton's comeback more resembles Britney Spears' or Whitney Houston's. For now, here's an oldie but goodie from the one and only Ms. Braxton for a beautiful Saturday.

"He Wasn't Man Enough"
Toni Braxton
(LaFace Records, 2000)

Trivia: Braxton has won six Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist in 1994, four awards for Female R&B Vocal (including one for "He Wasn't Man Enough") and one for Female Pop Vocal ("Un-break My Heart"). In addition to becoming the first headlining black performer in Las Vegas to have her show chart in the top ten in sales data, Braxton was the first (and only) black woman to play the leading role in Disney's Beauty and the Beast on Broadway.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Trivia Quiz Answers and Winner

On Monday I posted the first Vertigo Shtick Pop Music Trivia Quiz, ten questions (and one bonus) for pop music aficionados and greenhorns alike to test their knowledge of the music and artists who have defined the genre over the past quarter century or so, and maybe learn a few things in the process! It seemed like a neat idea, a bit of fun for readers from casual to devoted; but perhaps it wasn't as alluring of a diversion as I'd imagined, since over the past five days I received only one entry! But a winner is a winner, and a prize is a prize, so congratulations to Jason Toner from Windsor, in Ontario, Canada, for winning the first Vertigo Shtick Trivia Quiz! Jason will receive ten free web song credits on, the up-and-coming music website whose business model I believe is destined to become the future of digital music (and Apple seems to agree: it bought the company in December 2009), courtesy of Vertigo Shtick.

As I'm choosing to explain away the dearth of entries as merely an indication of a stumped readership, here are the correct answers to the inaugural quiz for your edification and enjoyment.

1. Which single holds the record for most consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100?

The honor belongs to Mariah Carey and Boys II Men, whose collaboration single "One Sweet Day" spent a record sixteen consecutive weeks at number one on the Hot 100, from November 26, 1995 to March 16, 1996. Six singles are tied in second place with fourteen consecutive weeks atop the chart apiece, including Boys II Men's 1994 "I'll Make Love to You" and Carey's 2005 smash "We Belong Together."

2. What was Rihanna's first Billboard Hot 100 number one single?

Rihanna, whose latest single "Rude Boy" currently reigns atop the Hot 100 (her fifth number one as a solo artist and sixth overall), earned her first stay at the peak of the main singles chart in 2006 with her third single, dancehall anthem "SOS," which reigned for three weeks in a row. (The Barbadian singer subsequently saw  solo singles "Umbrella," "Disturbia," and "Take a Bow" reach number one, along with "Live Your Life," the 2009 single by rapper T.I. which featured Rihanna.

3. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were performing what song when the latter famously exposed Jackson's nipple on live television?

Jackson and Timberlake were performing the closing lines of Timberlake's recent single "Rock Your Body," As Timberlake sang the closing lyrics "Gonna have you nekkid by the end of this song," he yanked at the front of Jackson's top to reveal the singer's bare breast, her nipple partly obscured by a nipple shield, for about a half-second on live television before CBS cameras cut away. Angry parents everywhere exploded in rage and sued everyone in sight, thus assuring that their victimized children would not only be able to view Jackson's now legendary exposed breast whenever an internet-capable computer was within reach, but also know to look for it in the first place.

4. Who was the uncredited female vocalist on Flo Rida's 2009 single "Right Round?"

The uncredited (and unpaid!) vocal belonged to then-brand new labelmate Kesha Sebert, whose stage name, Ke$ha, emerged largely in response to her having appeared on a number one hit single and having no income nor recognition to show for it. Of course, Ke$ha's debut single "TiK ToK" spent nine weeks atop the Hot 100 earlier this year.

5. Which single by Michael Jackson debuted highest on the Billboard Hot 100?

In 1995, Michael Jackson became the first artist to have a song debut at number one on the Hot 100 with the R. Kelly-penned "You Are Not Alone," the lead single from the massive hits album HIStory. It was also Jackon's final number one single.

6. Britney Spears' Grammy-winning single "Toxic" was originally turned down by which artist?

The Bloodshy and Avant-produced smash hit and winner of a Grammy award for Best Dance Recording is arguably the greatest track of Britney Spears' career (even Pitchfork liked it!), but all of that was only possible because Kylie Minogue, to whom the song was originally offered, turned it down. 

7. Who holds the record for most simultaneous Billboard Hot 100 singles by a female artist?

On the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the week of November 14, 2009, country singer Taylor Swift had no fewer than nine singles on the chart.

8. Fergie became a member of The Black Eyed Peas after being originally hired to perform a guest vocal on what track?

The former Kids Incorporated child star and singer auditioned for the featured female vocal on the romantic squabble song "Shut Up" from the Peas' 2003 album Elephunk, which ended up featuring the singer's vocals on five additional tracks, and she was invited to become a permanent member of the group shortly before the album hit stores.

9. What is Madonna's highest-selling worldwide single to date?

"Hung Up," the lead single from 2005 album Confessions on a Dance Floor, made the Guinness Book of World Records after topping charts in 45 countries

10. In 2003 Celine Dion covered "I Drove All Night," a 1989 hit by which artist?

The song became the final top ten hit to date by '80s pop queen and onetime Madonna rival Cyndi Lauper, and was the only hit from Lauper's third studio album A Night to Remember.

Bonus: "I Drove All Night" was originally written for which artist, whose rendition was not released until 1992?

The song was originally written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly for the aging Roy Orbison, who did a preliminary vocals recording in 1987 before his death in 1988 left Lauper to turn it into a transatlantic hit. Orbison's version was included in a posthumous memorial album, King of Hearts, released in 1992.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Vertigo Shtick Pop Music Trivia Quiz #1

Friday, March 19, 2010

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Most popular music fans my age or a bit older know of Brandy, even if they know of her for different reasons than others. Those who were tuned into the R&B scene in the mid '90s may know of her from her Grammy-nominated debut with her 1994 self-titled album, which scored nominations in 1996 for the album's first two singles and one for Best New Artist; they would be the first three of fourteen Grammy nods to date. Others may know her from the long-running UPN television series, Moesha, in which Brandy starred from 1996 to 2001, or perhaps for her more controversial subsequent television appearance in which she essentially gave birth to her daughter on camera in 2002 for an MTV reality series.

Still others (myself partially included) know her from her star turn in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Bernadette Peters, one of the first (and still best) features to come out of the then-recently revived ABC Sunday night special The Wonderful World of Disney. And likely a much smaller number know of Brandy from her periodically brilliant studio albums Full Moon (2002) and/or Afrodisiac (2004), although neither of them could truly be considered blockbusters.

I remember my first introduction to Brandy with the eerie clarity that typically accompanies only my most influential or obsessed-upon memories of my childhood and early adolescent life: it was thanks to a neighbor and friend who happened to own the 1996 Grammy Nominees cd* (those were the days; I can still picture the back cover of the case), which featured such inescapable smash hits of the day like Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," TLC's "Waterfalls," and "One Sweet Day" from Mariah Carey and Boys II Men, among others. But near the end was Brandy's second single (and first big hit) "Baby," a mid-tempo hip hop/R&B groove-fest that totally latched onto my twelve-year-old white boy mind and has yet to let go nearly fifteen years later. And since I realized I have not yet brought up this fine artist on the blog to this date, I think nothing would be more suitable as the Song for the Day on this TGI Friday.

(Atlantic Records, 1994)

Trivia: Of Brandy's fourteen career Grammy nominations, only one has resulted in victory: her smash hit duet with fellow R&B artist Monica, "The Boy Is Mine," which spent a record-breaking thirteen weeks atop the Hot 100, won the 1999 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

*How sad is it that my spellcheck did not even recognize "cd?"

Take Off Your Bra, If You'd Like

Okay, say what you will about Gaga and Beyoncé's video for "Telephone," but there was one thing about it I loved far more than I should. Am I the only one who thought this casting was fantastic (see below)?

And she gets to take part in the best line exchange of the video, too ("I told you she didn't have a dick." "Too bad.")! Oh Miss Mann...still watching over our ladies.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rihanna, Ludacris, Lady Gaga Return to Chart Tops

Follow That Chart!
Week of March 27, 2010
(Data from Week Ending March 14, 2010)

The new Billboard charts announced today contain none of the shockers of last week; instead, while all five of the main pop-related charts Vertigo Shtick follows (Hot 100, Billboard 200, Radio Songs, Digital Songs, and Pop Songs) welcomed newcomers to each of their top spots, each of the five acts to reach new heights this week have been on top before, albeit some more recently -  and others more often - than others. Here's a breakdown of what happened and what might happen next.

Hot 100 (Singles)

"Rude Boy," the third single from Rihanna's fourth album Rated R (released way back on November 20, 2009 and this week holding steady at number 22 on the albums chart after debuting and peaking at number four), finally managed what its two predecessors from Rated R could not ("Russian Roulette" and "Hard" peaked at numbers nine and eight on the Hot 100, respectively). In its leap from number four to number one, "Rude Boy" knocks off last week's chart-topping shocker debut "Break Your Heart" by Rihanna label-mate Taio Cruz, making it the first time Island Def Jam Music group has had back-to-back top singles since Kanye West's "Gold Digger" took over after Mariah Carey's dominant chart run with "We Belong Together" in 2005. Rihanna also earns the distinction of having the most number one singles in the time since her debut in June 2005 with "Pon de Replay" (which peaked at number two), with her current reign being her sixth, and fifth as a lead artist.

Meanwhile, Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" stays put at number two, ahead of last week's champ "Break Your Heart," which predictably slides to number three after failing (also predictably) to crack the top ten in the notoriously molasses-quick Radio Songs chart. Former champ "Imma Be" moves the Black Eyed Peas up one spot to number four, and Train's simmering success "Hey Soul Sister" inches back up one spot to number six, while Young Money's "BedRock" (3-7), Ke$ha's "TiK ToK" (another former champ, 6-8) and Jason Derulo's "In My Head" (8-10) all experience minor slides. The only two newcomers to the top ten are new act B.o.B., whose single "Nothin' On You" (featuring Bruno Mars) leaps up eleven spots to number five thanks to strong digital sales, and "Telephone" by Lady Gaga featuring Beyoncé, no doubt buoyed by the release a week ago of its controversial music video. Gaga's "Bad Romance" slips six spots to number 15, while Ludacris' "How Low" drops from number ten to number fourteen the same week its accompanying album topped the album chart.

What to Watch For: With the baffling loyalty Rihanna enjoys added to the actual strength of "Rude Boy" as a single, it is far from unlikely that the Barbadian pop diva may enjoy the first consecutive reign atop the Hot 100 since Ke$ha's nine-week domination with "TiK ToK" earlier this winter, but the rapid rise of B.o.B.'s "Nothin' On You" in both digital and radio arenas makes it a worthy contender; "Need You Now" is unlikely to get that final push needed to take the top spot now that the field has become competitive after the winter lull. "Telephone" will likely continue to climb, albeit slowly, as long as its airplay remains as high as it has, but since it has been available for download for such a long time it is unlikely to surge in that area, dampening its chances at the top spot. A concentrated effort by the frighteningly massive legion of Justin Bieber fans to get one of the teenage heartthrob's singles to the top may make some scary headway in the digital charts, but unless airplay jumpstarts he is unlikely to prove a major threat. Ludacris may find himself back in the top ten soon if second single "My Chick Bad," featuring an irresistable Nicki Minaj, continues to climb at its current rate (it rose from 44 to 27 in the past week and has a good deal of word of mouth).

Billboard 200 (Albums)

Five debuts on the albums chart join two long-term mainstays, two relatively recent sales victors, and one holdover from the previous week in the top ten of the Billboard 200. Rapper Ludacris comes closer to making history as Battle of the Sexes becomes his fourth number one album, landing him third all-time among rap acts (but far from the record in first place: Jay-Z has had a whopping eleven). With 137,000 sold, Ludacris edges out a strong showing from animated band Gorillaz, whose third album Plastic Beach sold 112,000 copies to finish in second, the highest chart position for the virtual band fronted by Damon Albarn and known for previous singles "Feel Good, Inc." "D.A.R.E." and "Clint Eastwood." A posthumous release of Jimi Hendrix material titled Valleys of Neptune lands at number four, ahead of country singer Gary Allan's Get Off On The Pain, debuting at number five. Rounding out the newbies is the self-titled release by Broken Bells, a collaboration between producer Danger Mouse and Shins singer James Mercer, which bows at number seven after moving 49,000 copies.

Lady Antebellum continues its hot streak with another 105,000 copies of Need You Now and the number three honor in its seventh week, while former number one Soldier of Love by Sade slips to number six in its fifth week of release, and Blake Shelton's EP Hillbilly Bone, in its second week, moves a measly 29,000 copies which is still enough for tenth place.

Meanwhile, two perennial juggernauts continue to sit comfortably in the top ten well after their respective release dates. Lady Gaga's debut album The Fame dropped only 3% after the previous week, selling another 48,000 units in its 72nd week on the chart to finish seventh, while The Black Eyed Peas shifted 43,000 more copies of The E.N.D. to come in eighth in the album's fortieth week on the chart.

Pop Songs (Top 40 Airplay)

Although usually I cover the Radio Songs chart, which measures airplay from all arrays of radio stations regardless of genre, this week the more interesting movement (if it can be called that) occured in the Pop Songs chart, also an airplay chart but one that only reflects the playlists of 132 national "Top 40" stations (i.e. mainstream pop radio). Lady Gaga scored her sixth number one single on this week's chart (I also write this as a respectful asterisk to Gaga's triumphant claim of "six number ones" that she is no doubt trumpeting all over the social media; she has to date earned two number one singles on the Hot 100: "Just Dance" and "Poker Face," while "Bad Romance" peaked at number two) with "Telephone," the stomper featuring Beyoncé that slides up one spot to the top. Another point of significance: the Pop Songs chart was the last holdout of Ke$ha's "TiK ToK," which held the top spot through last week's charts despite falling on every other chart for the past four weeks. Those Clear Channel DJs, though, never seem to get the memo.

Other than that, the changes within the Pop Songs chart are typically miniscule; the only newcomer to the top ten, Kris Allen's "Live Like We're Dying," inched up a measly one space from number eleven.

Digital Songs (Download Sales)

The Digital Songs chart has become pretty much the best indicator of what people actually want to listen to, i.e. what is actually "popular" in as close to real time as possible. Taio Cruz's "Break Your Heart" held a second week at number one, but obviously not with enough downloads to repeat its radio-unassisted domination of the Hot 100 like the previous week. "Rude Boy" stays in second, but with large gains in sales, and will likely take over next week. That is, if "Nothin' On You" doesn't leapfrog it after jumping from fifteenth to fourth this week. Justin Bieber holds in seventh with "Baby," although the imminent release of his full-length debut My World 2.0 (due March 23) will likely cause a downloading riot in the coming weeks. Timbaland rebounds back into the top ten with "Carry Out" (featuring Justin Timberlake) at number eight, but so far none of the singles from Shock Value II have done much more than that.

Although if Rihanna is any indication, one must never say never.

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Playlist: The New Billboard Hot 100 Top Ten

Rihanna's "Rude Boy" New Hot 100 Number 1

Though you should tune in a bit later for a full debriefing of the latest Billboard charts out today, while you're waiting here are the new top ten on the Hot 100 Singles chart for your...enjoyment?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Not Only See...But HEAR

I'm excited because as soon as this post goes up I'm off to spend the day at my favorite place in the world, or, if you prefer, The Happiest Place on Earth: Disneyland! It will actually be my second trip to the House of Mouse in the past seven days, as last Tuesday evening one of my Disneyland buddies had the thrill and the honor of introducing me to a piece of the park's past that was most dear to her growing up but which for one reason or another I had never experienced. Yes, as of late February, for an undetermined length of time to come, visitors to Disneyland have the opportunity to revisit or discover Captain EO, the sixteen minute, multi-million dollar 1986 3D film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, produced by George Lucas, and starring the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson in the title role (Anjelica Huston plays a pivotal if mostly unrecognizable supporting role). And what a thrill it is to experience the unabashed mid-80s techno-geek pop music-driven glee that unfolds in front of your 3D-goggled eyes. Sure, the 3D is noticeably outdated in a post-Avatar world, the story is ludicrous, the special effects are "special" in the less complimentary vernacular sense, and the hair...oh, the hair!

But the audience is excited as ever, and still cheers when Jackson makes his entrance (rising from the floor of a ragtag spaceship, back to the camera); there is still something utterly fantastic about a clumsy blue elephant-like alien in a wifebeater who constantly screws things up ("Where's the map?" "I think I ate it!" "You ATE it?!?!"), and how the sinister guards of the twisted metallic Supreme Leader (Huston) magically transform into neon-clad backup dancers at the wave of Jacko's hand, and Huston's delightfully wicked line deliveries ("Turn them into...*long pause*...TRASH CANS!" - surely a study for her subsequent performance as the Grand High Witch in The Witches). But it is Jackson's gleeful performance, the choreography, and the very Jacksonesque main tune with which Captain EO transforms the Supreme Leader from a bundle of wires into Anjelica Huston, entitled "We Are Here to Change the World." As a single (it was not released as one) it fits perfectly into Jackson's post-Thriller, pre-Bad repertoire, and the dancing is, of course, superb as always; in a way, Captain EO is the brainchild of the "Thriller" video and ancestor of such overblown mini-theatrical events like the recent music videos for Lady Gaga's "Telephone" and the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be Rockin' That Body." And because it's for Disney, it simply does it all leaps and bounds better than any of those descendents.

I'll leave you with the main theme song to Captain EO as I venture down to no doubt experience the joy another time or two; if you happen to find yourself at Disneyland in the forseeable future, I recommend taking the time to check it out at least once, whether for the sake of nostalgia or unenlightened novice curiosity. You'll leave singing.

"We Are Here to Change the World"
Michael Jackson
Captain EO
Disneyland, 1986

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Britney Spears: Songwriter? or, The Age of the Bonus Track

As contract performers go, Britney Spears sure is a doozy. In case you ever wondered why a big-name record label, a great number of writers, producers, musicians and others in the industry (including more than a couple household names), big corporate sponsors and a major concert promoter would bother going through the bother (and expenditures) of attempting to revive the career of a mid-20s newly single mom with mental health concerns and a lengthy string of bad publicity built up who had fallen out of shape and even at her best was never much of a singer (in the strictly musical sense, and certainly not live) and had little to no interest in or demonstrated knack for songwriting, you're not alone. The answer, however, is simple: just look at number five on this list right here, of the top forty money-makers in the music industry in 2009. There you have about 38,885,267 reasons the 28-year-old pop royal (she exists now somewhere in between "Princess" and "Queen," despite Danja's proclamation on the fantastic shoulda-been-a-single "Kill the Lights") has proven herself to be every bit worth the trouble.

Britney Spears exists on her own plane as an act. She's not a singer, that's for sure, as some crabby Australians, Ellen Degeneres, Pink, Ke$ha, and even Lady Gaga (that hopefully was a misguided slip of the tongue, however) have pointed out with varying levels of indignance; she may once have been a dancer, but at the moment she is still in the "getting there" phase (and may never quite escape it); she isn't a "concept act" like Gorillaz, the Pussycat Dolls, the current incarnation of Rihanna, or, at times, Lady Gaga, and indeed her musical existence does not now nor has it really ever seemed like her brainchild alone; she is neither, however, a producer's instrument (e.g. Leona Lewis, the previous incarnation of Rihanna, anyone from American Idol not named Clarkson, Underwood or Hudson).

Neither is she a songwriter, the one element excluded from the Britney Spears act that could potentially prove detrimental to its success in the future, to some extent. This is not to say she has never participated in the writing of a song (that has gone on to become produced and an official part of the Spears repertoire); in fact, eight of the twelve tracks on Spears' fourth studio album In the Zone (the product of the artist's essential parting of ways with her former artistic and professional handlers and creative takeover of her material) feature Spears' name in the writing credits. In that imperfect but fascinating and timely album, it was clear Spears, much to many people's surprise, had a creative mind of her own, and one that combined impressive instinct with ability and experience earned over six or seven busy years of de facto apprenticeship to Swedish pop genius Max Martin yet entirely without any direct input at the hand of the master.

It was a good album, and it suggested greatness around the corner, but then came the knee injury on the set of the video for "Outrageous," which I still believe was the real catalyst for the 2004-2008 Decline and Fall of Britney Spears, causing her to cancel the second half of her "Onyx Hotel Tour" and allowing for the lull in production in which, no longer occupied with her career as she had been constantly since her early teens, she (and the rest of the world) discovered that Britney Spears, the person rather than the pop star, had a particular knack for making poor decisions. Cut to the present day, when the leap forward In the Zone was and all that could have been are essentially forgotten in the pop music mindset, and Spears is back operating largely as she did during her early career, which would probably be just great with everyone except that she no longer (or not yet?) has quite the spice and extraordinary talents to go with it. If Britney Spears 2009 had been making her debut in 2009, she very likely would have been all but forgotten by now as just another ho-hum pop artist, which is never enough on its own but even less so in the current world of Lady Gaga.

Yes, in many ways, the 2008 album Circus reads almost exactly the way ...Baby One More Time, Oops!...I Did It Again, and (albeit to a lesser extent, as Spears was beginning to show moments of what was to come) Britney do: several incredibly strong singles ("Womanizer," "Circus," "If U Seek Amy"), a handful of entertaining or even occasionally good non-singles ("Unusual You," "Kill the Lights," "Shattered Glass," "Lace and Leather," "Blur"), and a remainder of pointless, crappy filler ("Mannequin," "Out From Under," "Mmm Papi," "My Baby" (bless her heart)). Spears gets writing credits on only two tracks on Circus, and both are in that third category; she had the same number on Blackout, both of them thematically similar strip-club stompers that, while strong in their own right as nearly all tracks on the album are, make for a telling and unimpressive pair of writing credits.

So what, then? Has the songwriting Britney Spears, who made an impressive debut in 2004 only to be waylaid by circumstance for the rest of the decade, gone the way of the dancing Britney Spears and the knowingly brilliant mixture of innocence and sex appeal Britney Spears, never to return? Spears' upcoming album, due the middle of 2010, will make the answer much clearer, but from only the apparent available evidence, the prospect is less than encouraging.

But fret not, Spears devotees, for there is slightly more to the tale than immediately meets the eye. Circus was one of the first high-profile new releases to utilize what has become a new sales strategy in this post-iTunes digital download-ruled industry, particularly by contract artists: in addition to the universal track listing of the album (i.e. twelve tracks, "Womanizer" through "My Baby," which are included in every release of the album worldwide), bonus tracks are used as incentives to purchase the entire album when buying digitally (i.e. instead of picking and choosing specific tracks to purchase a la carte). But wait, that's not all: different bonus tracks are offered with different releases of the album in different markets, meaning the bonus tracks included when a U.S. customer purchases a digital copy of Circus from iTunes ("Phonography" and "Rock Me In") are different from those that, say, a Japanese customer receives as part of his digital download ("Amnesia"), which in turn differ from the bonus tracks included for those who pre-ordered the album on iTunes prior to its December 2008 release ("Trouble" and "Quicksand," the latter written by a pre-superstardom Lady Gaga). It's all a thoroughly confusing but ultimately inconsequential marketing gimmick that also happens to be a good way to get rid of a few of the tracks that for one reason or another didn't make the final album cut but had already been recorded and/or produced (as opposed to a song cut from or rejected for a certain album prior to being recorded and mixed, e.g. "Telephone," also written by Lady Gaga for Circus but rejected by the label for the simple reason that it already had selected enough songs for the effort); such tracks have existed as long as contract artists have existed, but prior to the digital age they usually only saw public access as B-sides to singles, if at all.

In the end, whereas upon initial release of such an album with this kind of bonus track strategy some of the extra tracks are more accessible to some consumers than others are, as the tracks inevitably filter their way through the web (which is mostly unaffected by national borders) they serve at best to enhance a recent release while at worst having no appreciable effect on it in the slightest (the whole thing exemplifies the notion of possessing one's cake and consuming it as well). Every so often, an individual will discover a preference for a certain bonus track over one or more of the main album tracks, and if so, so much the better for him; with spot-shot albums like Spears', bonus tracks can help atone for one or more of the album missteps. It is even possible that one such preferred bonus track may just happen to have a certain name in the writing credits, the inclusion of which may even offer a glimmer of hope for the future potential of a certain songwriter whose work is otherwise sub-par or non-existent.

 Is Britney Spears as songwriter finally coming out of her cage?

This happens to be the case with a Circus bonus track I discovered, or at least tried out, only recently, with unusually positive results. Admittedly, I enjoy the playful pun-stacked innuendo of "Phonography," not only is it essentially a rewrite of Kylie Minogue's "Speakerphone," which wasn't exactly Pulitzer material to begin with, I felt the production suffered from a thematic disconnect from the content and subject matter that in the end marginalized the track for me (I feel similarly about Sugababes' single "Push the Button"). But it is the other of that particular bonus pair that excites me: the energetic, compelling, entertaining "Rock Me In." Spears' vocals are as solid as they are at their best; the melody moves nicely from major to minor and back like a European techno-pop melody would; the beat is solid, strong and consistent; as a finished product, it would not have been out of place in the slightest on the final Circus track list. Best of all, though, is something I didn't know until I sat down to write this post, originally intended as a "song for the day" quickie: "Rock Me In" contains a writing credit for none other than Britney Spears herself. In fact, the song essentially comes from the team that brought us "Mmm Papi," which proves two things at once: first, the possibility and commonality of excrement and gold coming from the same source; and second, that someone over at Jive needs to get fired (or at least reassigned to the mail room) for the apparent inability to recognize a no-brainer either-or decision when the correct answer is so painfully and universally apparent.

Let me not be misunderstood: I highly doubt anyone would invest his life savings in the future Britney Spears songbook upon hearing "Rock Me In" (except perhaps the fool who selected "Mmm Papi" for the track listing). Like the recent music video for "3," "Rock Me In" is not an arrival in itself, and should not be judged with such a rubric; rather, it is merely a promising step in the right direction at a time when the next step has yet to be taken, and its direction yet to become apparent.

At least, that's MY opinion on it. What, if anything, is yours? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shoulda Left My Phone At Home...

At long last, Lady Gaga's so-called "masterpiece" has hit the airwaves and cyberworld: the long-awaited (and oft-delayed) music video for latest single "Telephone," featuring Beyoncé, dropped earlier this evening. Although Gaga's website is, understandably, down, I found a copy of the video to embed here for as long as it's allowed (although Gaga is one of the few artists smart enough to know that finicky closed-fistedness around where her videos are available has fewer rewards than the ubiquity of her product, so if she has anything to say about it, it may be allowed indefinitely). I'm not sure about the "masterpiece" label, but then I wasn't too keen on "Bad Romance" for about two weeks, before it suddenly crept in and overtook my entire soul. Gaga's music has an eerie tendency to do that.

Enjoy...or whatever.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscars Playlist: Fifteen Great Past Winners for Best Original Song

Kickoff time for the 83rd Academy Awards draws ever nearer, and one award to be announced tonight will be to the 75th song to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. All week I've been highlighting some of the notable moments in the history of the category and of movie songwriting itself, so to wrap it up, here is a new Vertigo Shtick playlist of my fifteen favorite (read: the fifteen greatest) previous winners of the gold statuette since the category debuted in 1934.

1. "Over the Rainbow" — The Wizard of Oz (1939) Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg

2. "When You Wish upon a Star" — Pinocchio (1940) Music by Leigh Harline, lyrics by Ned Washington

3. "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" — Song of the South (1947) Music by Allie Wrubel, lyrics by Ray Gilbert

4. "Baby, It's Cold Outside" — Neptune's Daughter (1949) Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser

5. "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Qué Será, Será)" — The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954) Music and lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans

6. "Chim Chim Cher-ee" — Mary Poppins (1964) Music and lyrics by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman

7. "Windmills of Your Mind" — The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman

8. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David

9. "Theme from Shaft" — Shaft (1971) Music and lyrics by Isaac Hayes

10. "I Just Called to Say I Love You" — The Woman in Red (1984) Music and lyrics by Stevie Wonder

11. "Under the Sea" — The Little Mermaid (1989) Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman

12. "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)" — Dick Tracy (1990) Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

13. "Beauty and the Beast" — Beauty and the Beast (1991) Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman

14. "Streets of Philadelphia" — Philadelphia  (1993) Music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen

15. "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" — The Lion King (1994) Music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice

Hear Me Today on "Up All Night" on BBC Radio 5!

I will be a panelist on the annual Oscar broadcast on BBC Radio 5's "Up All Night" today, 1-5am GMT, 5-9pm PST (live during the 83rd Academy Awards ceremony)!  

Richard Burton 0, Three Six Mafia and Eminem, 1 Each

Back in the good old days, music was used in the movies as just one of many coexisting visual and aural methods of storytelling, whereas nowadays even the finest film score can usually be referred to at its best as mood music, a helpful sort of aural "applause" sign of guidance for the viewer (harsh, deep bass, quick repetitive chords in minor key = "tense;" violins = "emotional moment;" pizzicatto strings = "shopping spree;" and so forth), since God forbid screenwriters actually build mood and emotional investment into the screenplay - that might mean having to write something that isn't a remake, ripoff, biopic or sequel, and that just wouldn't do! Pop in an old Disney animated classic like Cinderella (1950) and observe how while in those days, pizzicatto meant not "shopping spree" but specifically "Jacques' hurried footsteps as he attempts to escape Lucifer," the closest we really come to that now is something like "'Suddenly I See' plays whenever dowdy and/or clueless girl obtains career position at fashion magazine."

 Did I hear KT Tunstall?

This shift in music as filmmaking device has invariably led to the annoying fact that a good deal of nominees nowadays for Best Original Song and a handful of winners as well, even, don't even appear in the movie itself, instead showing up just in time for the end credits to roll (and indeed, the Academy was compelled at one point to amend Rule 16, which covers music awards, to specify that an eligible song must have been "used in the body of the motion picture or as the first music cue in the end credits." Often, a certain year's Best Original Song nominee crop requires selecting the song that best sums up or represents its film (i.e. "Which songwriter actually read the screenplay first, and which did so the best?).

This is not to say that in this field a songwriter cannot reach various levels of success that almost justify themselves as award-worthy on rare but existant occasions. One such occasion in 2003 turned out to be significant for numerous reasons, the biggest of which as far as the film world is concerned is that it marked the moment that The Oscars Meet Rap Music, the first indication of the Academy's fascinated schoolgirl infatuation with hip-hop: it makes it uncomfortable, it feels a bit wrong, the elders definitely don't approve, but something is so irresistible that you can't escape it and almost want to embrace it to become one of the cool kids you so despise. "Lose Yourself," controversial rapper Eminem's theme song from his first (and last?) starring film vehicle, the Curtis Hanson-directed 8 Mile, rather neatly summarizes the plot of the film and appeared as the exit music over the end credits of the film, and in a relatively weak year of competition (a bland new song for the Chicago film version, something from a Rugrats-related film by Paul Simon, and some song by U2 (i.e. a song that sounds exactly like everything else U2 has released since 2000) it became the first rap song to win the Oscar, something so supposedly unexpected by the white rap diva that he skipped the ceremony, even to perform (the truth of his reasons for doing so are probably more closely linked to unresolved issues regarding censorship for the live performance during the Awards).

And yes, news anchors uttering the phrase "rap song won the Oscar" flagged some items somewhere across the country, as music purists began to denounce the title of "song" as oxymoronic while others defended the hip hop songwriting method and its legitimacy, and the rest simply tried to get over the fact that Eminem had won more Academy Awards than Peter O'Toole (and, at the time, Martin Scorcese). The Grammy Awards added a new writing category to that year's ceremony for "Best Rap Song," which Eminem won for "Lose Yourself." But what all of that change and shock managed to obscure for the skeptics was that it actually was a pretty great single on its own, not to mention an end credits single; a good relationship with mainstream content and style allowed Eminem great commercial and chart success (the single went 2xPlatinum) which became a large contributor to votes, as did the pure curious thrill of wondering what would happen if Eminem were to win an Oscar.

Not only did the Academy give hip hop the old college try one year, three years later it took its plate back eagerly for seconds, and this time it was rewarded with an actual life performance during the telecast (and several minutes of utter delight to all of those who had for years wondered how to fit the word "pimp," the noun not the adjective, into the Academy Awards without getting Nipplegated by the Schoolyard Censors of the FCC. Poor Dolly Parton, who really did have a great Oscar-bait tune that year, "Travelin' Thru," that she'd written for the fabulous indie road flick Transamerica (starring Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman as a pre-op MTF transsexual, in a performance similarly robbed of an Oscar by a flavor of the moment victor), was like a beauty queen up against a gorgeous deaf-mute for Miss United States ("You can't beat that!"), because somehow the only thing in ManWorld (and a good deal of the voting Academy is still male) that beats a really nice rack is a pimp suit and personal harem of bitches to loan out for a fee at one's discretion.) Hence, therefore, the Oscar going instead to a rap duo known as the Three 6 Mafia for their admittedly entertaining and thematically appropriate theme song to Hustle and Flow, the now legendary "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." In the year with The Tranny Movie, The Gay Cowboy Movie, The Black and White Movie About the Commie-Hating Guy, The Hunky Jews Kill Some Arabs Movie, and The Movie About Really Bad Racist Drivers (which in the end eked out a Best Picture win over longtime fave The Gay Cowboy Movie), somehow the second time around didn't seem as life-changing, although it did inspire a nice dig for host Jon Stewart: "For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Women and Song: Female Songwriters at the Oscars

Since the Academy Award for Best Original Song was first awarded in 1935, 71 songs have won the title of "Oscar winner." But of the well over 100 songwriters who have taken home the songwriting Oscar, how many, would you guess, have been women?

The number is, you might guess, rather small, as it is with so many of the other categories honored with Academy Awards (indeed, if Kathryn Bigelow takes home the Oscar for Best Director on Sunday for The Hurt Locker as many are predicting, she will be the first woman ever to win that prize - as is, she is only the fourth female nominee): in this case, eleven.

One might expect not to have to reach too far back in history for the first of these eleven, but in fact it was only the third year this category was awarded that the first female songwriter claimed the prize. Most folks no longer have heard of Dorothy Fields, but they have more than likely heard some rendition of the song for which she won her Academy Award as lyricist (with fellow songwriting great Jerome Kern, who wrote the music). In the 1936 film Swing Time, Fred Astaire first sings "The Way You Look Tonight" as Ginger Rogers washes her hair in a bathroom nearby, and the melody reappears in the climactic dance sequence; the timeless song also makes significant appearances in Oscar-winning films such as Chinatown and Hannah and Her Sisters, as well as blockbusters like My Best Friend's Wedding and Father of the Bride.

After 1937 there was indeed a lengthy expanse of time before the Oscar for Best Song went home in the hands of a lady: in fact, it was not until Marilyn Bergman won the first of her two awards, for "Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair in 1969. The 1970s saw two statuettes awarded to women, and while both songs were sung on film by one Barbra Streisand, she only wrote one of them; the other was the second of Alan and Marilyn Bergman's Oscar-winning songs, "The Way We Were" (from, oddly enough, The Way We Were), which won in 1974. Streisand, who had been one half of the only tie in history in an acting category when she and Katharine Hebpurn shared the 1968 Best Actress award, won her second Oscar in 1977 for composing the music for "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star is Born)" along with lyricist Paul Williams.

The first three years of the 1980s were kind to female songwriters at the Oscars (though maybe not to the musical sensitivities), as winning songs "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" (Arthur, 1980), "Up Where We Belong" (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1981) and "Flashdance... What a Feeling" (Flashdance, 1982) boasted three women among the ten(!) total songwriters of the three award-winning cringers (all right, I'll give "Arthur's Theme" a pass). But it was not until 1989 that a solo female songwriter took home the little golden man, a feat managed by legendary rock songstress Carly Simon, who won for "Let the River Run" from Working Girl.

Perhaps this feat was simply too huge for the machismo of the Academy to handle, but for whatever reason it was another fifteen years before rocker Annie Lennox and screenwriter Fran Walsh shared the Academy Award with Howard Shore for "Into the West" from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, although that was also the year that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won every category for which it was nominated (and then some). Carrying on the rock icon tradition, in 2007 Melissa Etheridge became the second and so far only other solo female songwriter to win the award, with her stirring "I Need to Wake Up," from Al Gore's eco-documentary An Inconvenient Truth. The following year, Markéta Irglová shared the Oscar for "Falling Slowly" (from Once) with one-time husband Glen Hansard.

No female songwriter is nominated for the upcoming Academy Awards, so the tally will remain at eleven for at least another year.

Hear a few of the Oscar-winning songs penned by female songwriters.

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