Tag: weekly column

Music on Trial: The Grammys: what are they even good for?

I can’t say that I care about the Grammys all that much, but certainly I pay attention to them. As football is to the Super Bowl, so music is to the Grammys; even if you don’t think that the Super Bowl necessarily portrays what is best in football, you still think there is something noteworthy about the event, if only by virtue of the fact that it’s such a big deal.

About a week ago, however, the events that transpired during these latest Grammys left me really bewildered and got me thinking about what it is the Grammys are supposed to do.

In what seemed to be a sort of self-deprecating joke, Kanye West pretended to run on stage after Beck won Album of the Year for his album Morning Phase, presumably to make another speech like his infamous “I’mma let you finish” moment. Later, Kanye West claimed that Beck needed to “respect artistry” when he won the Grammy for Album of the Year over Beyoncé and give the award to Beyoncé.

Regardless of whether you agree with Kanye I have admittedly listened to neither album, which makes me a terrible music columnist, it does seem to make sense that music’s biggest award night should be an event about respecting artistry in music, given that other awards such as the Oscars, the Emmys, etc. seem to be about rewarding excellence and “artistry” within their respective mediums. Yet, the notion of artistry is itself a strange one, one that I am skeptical the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences captures through the Grammys.

Artistry in music does not, first and foremost, necessarily translate into popularity, though if Grammys were straightforwardly awarded based on popularity rather than some abstract notion of “artistry,” the whole thing would be a whole lot less complicated. That’s because popularity translates into easily accessible numbers; we can empirically prove which artist or song was the most popular in 2014.

Once we start accessing things like artistry or excellence, things become more complex and much more subjective. For one thing, when we start talking about artistry, we bring in a whole slew of other concepts such as accessibility, songcraft and authenticity that befuddle rather than elucidate what artistry is supposed to be.

There are also the numerous genres of music to consider. What makes excellent pop music can be very different from what makes excellent rock/hip-hop/R&B. While they might share some things in common, it seems difficult to choose an Album of the Year or Best New Artist if the candidates are from very different genres. Comparing Beck and Beyoncé seems to be, generally speaking, absurd.

The question becomes even more difficult when what makes music good on paper does not necessarily translate into good music. You can have a technically “good” R&B album that completely fails for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with “artistry.” The album might just be boring, stale or too derivative. In this case, the enjoyability of the album is based on purely subjective experience. Whether or not Beck or Beyoncé deserved to win becomes a question of taste and enjoyment rather than some abstract notion of artistry.

If it is mere taste and enjoyment, why precisely do the Grammys exist in the first place? Are we just honoring the artist’s ability to entertain rather than make art?

The answer – looking at the usual list of nominees for the biggest awards in the ceremony – the answer seems to be yes. Sans one token rock artist or hip-hop artist, the nominees for Best Record, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Best Song are almost always pop artists.

Personally, I would suggest just ignoring the Grammys and developing musical tastes on your own. There is too much music out there to confine yourself to what a bunch of mysterious judges think passes for good music these days.


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St. Olaf Sentiments: February 20, 2015

An Emotional Male Response to the50 Shades of Grey Trialer

Steve: This is a huge moment for both Nick and me. We’ve both lived sheltered, safe lives amongst our Lutheran brethren, free of sin and corruption. That’s about to change. We’re about to embark on a journey together, through the 2:25 of devilish pleasure that is the 50 Shades of Grey official trailer.

Nick: That’s right, Steve. It’s time we caught up with the rest of the country, and put on the handcuffs. And since we would never stoop so low as to see this movie in theaters, I guess we’ll stick to the trailer speaking of trashy, let’s ignore the fact that the last movie I saw in theaters was Fast and Furious 6.

Steve: Mine was Guardians of the Galaxy. A true work of art.

Nick: Chris Pratt for president.

[The trailer begins]

Nick [0:10]: We’ve learned that she’s a journalist. I identify with the main character already. I wonder if she would write for the Mess?

Steve: It’s great to see that we’re going to finally see a film about an intellectual woman fighting her way through a patriarchal society. I’m sensing that this is going to be an empowering film for all the young women out there.

Steve [0:23]: Oh, we’re seeing an executive male standing by a big window behind a desk looking out the window at the big city. This is some brilliant and original cinematography right now. I just haven’t seen anything like this before.

Nick: And he’s dressed in gray. Subtle connection to the title there.

Steve [0:32]: “He’s polite, intense, smart and intimidating.” Sounds like a real gem of a guy. If there’s one thing I look for in a companion, it’s someone that I’m too scared to make eye contact with. What a catch.

Nick: I second that.

Nick [1:00]: “I exercise control in all things.” Direct quote from Christian Grey. Definitely a psychopath. Or a Pub Safe officer.

Steve: The music is scaring me a little. I vote psychopath.

Nick [1:10]: They’re making out in an elevator. Is this movie about sex? Based on the title, I imagined choosing paint swatches at Home Depot.

Steve [1:20]: Mr. Grey is so mysterious. One minute he’s creepily sitting by a piano, the next he’s chilling in a helicopter, and then he’s running through the park with his hoodie on. I still see no hint of a plot besides the fact that this guy is a pretty versatile, creepy male.

Nick [1:27]: “I don’t do romance.” And this was the country’s most popular Valentine’s Day movie?

Steve [1:35]: All he does is take his shirt off and say semi-threatening things. Wait, he’s in a helicopter again. This is so weird.

Steve [1:52]: Mr. Grey just unlocked a door. Now somebody is tied to a bed. I’m scared.

Nick [1:57]: Well…that was explicit.

Steve [2:07]: Oh, they used a Beyoncé song! That’s nice, isn’t it? Makes up for all the weird chains and whips shenanigans they had going on earlier.

[Trailer ends.]

Nick: First reaction: Is that fun for her? I think there’s something in the Geneva Convention against some of that stuff.

Steve: My main emotion is that I hate the world. Do you think that’s the reaction the producers were going for?

Nick: I’ll take a hard pass on this one.

Steve: I think I’ll just stick to Pixar movies.

– bowlin@stolaf.edu and nolans@stolaf.edu

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Music on Trial: What is love? And why is it the main focus of so many songs?

Why does everyone write music about love? If one were to take a survey of American popular music of the last 50 to 60 years and use that to determine what human life was like during that time, it would give the impression that love is really the only emotion that people feel, or at least the only one that people write songs about.

“Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Unchained Melody,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “In My Life,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Wonderful Tonight,” “I’ll Be There,” “My Girl” . . . the list goes on.

Think of the stupid songs we slow-danced to in middle school, believing that this one-hit-wonder gem perfectly related how we felt while we stared wistfully into our loved one’s face from a safe distance. Clearly, there are other emotions we feel which have the potential to be – and have been – expressed through music such as anger, happiness, fear, awe, etc., yet the love song is the favorite by a long shot. Why is that the case?

There’s the cynical take, which states that love is an effective mood which musicians use to sell music. If music is meant to be emotionally appealing, then love is an ideal topic. Everyone relates, or wants to relate, to a love story. It is universally ideal in a way that something like anger can never be in that it seems everyone is in some varying progression of a romantic relationship, or everyone wants to be there:

In a relationship? You relate to the song perfectly. Not in a relationship? You wistfully want to relate. Just done with a break-up? You sob into your gallon of Kemps Cookies ‘n’ Cream. Everybody is into it, so everybody buys it. Hence, capitalism, supply and demand, bada bing bada boom. All of a sudden, everyone is selling love songs. The less cynical side of the argument is to consider the emotion of love itself. Have you ever tried to describe the feeling of being in love? It is an exercise in frustration, the words rolling out like explorers trudging in molasses that has been frozen in a snowstorm. We end up talking about it indirectly. We write songs and poems and hope to God that someone understands us. Once again, a lot of other feelings come out pretty easily; hate, for instance, is easily described as the feeling you get when you would enjoy nothing more than kicking that ONE GUY’S TEETH IN GRAAAAGTHGH. Love does not come out easily, and so lends itself to strange side roads and metaphors that, to be completely honest, seem to have little to do with love itself.

Maybe the answer comes somewhere in the middle of cynical and hopeful. We write and listen to love songs because it is an ideal we want to experience. Why? Because we feel alone. While we surround ourselves with other people, filling up our headspace with incessant chatter, what we really want is something deeper with another person that extends past talk and moves into something more emotionally grounded. We presume that this “something more” is the feeling of love.

So we write about it, talk about it, try to feel it and listen to it. It is a shared experience of connection. Hence, a fitting topic for music, the most ready and egalitarian medium of human experience.


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St. Olaf Sentiments: December 5, 2014

First-years: your future

By Stephen Nolan and Nick Bowlin

Greetings, freshmen. You may have almost finished your first semester of college, but don’t think you’ve even come close to knowing everything there is to know about St. Olaf. The Hill is a deep, dark and mysterious place no Oxford comma, with so many secrets that it’s almost impossible to uncover all of them. There’s so much you need to experience, so much you need to learn, so much you need to know. I bet you don’t even know where Skifter Hall is.

Let’s start with the obvious. You’ve never experienced finals. Don’t think that just because you survived midterms without your parents pulling you out of school doesn’t mean that you’re at all prepared for finals. Tears will be shed and and angry yaks will be posted.

Finals week does have its silver linings, however. One night each semester, the Caf opens at night and serves breakfast food. It’s called Late Night Breakfast and you should be sure not to miss it. Not only do professors and even PDA himself serve the food, but it also will be one of few times in your life when you can eat bacon after dinner. No, the Caf eggs don’t taste any better at night, but it’s a finals tradition, so don’t question it!

You’ve never experienced Christmas Fest. Oh yes, that wonderful time of year when campus will be overloaded with old people wearing eccentric sweaters. The average age of people on campus goes up by 42 years during this week. It’s been scientifically proven. Additionally, prepare to have your taste buds blown or destroyed by the magic of lutefisk. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can put it some in milk and drink the concoction instead. Just make sure to have a bucket nearby. And Christmas Fest itself is great. When else do all the St. Olaf choirs sing you to sleep?

Be ready to experience your first Interim class, and pray to your respective gods that you’re going to like the people you have to spend a ridiculous amount of time with through the month of January. Interim classes have completely different vibes than regular classes, and you’re sure to meet some cool new people that can become month-long friends. We always look forward to the feeling of starting a brand new class and knowing that mid-terms are barely a week away. Yay Interim!

The second half of freshman year will be devastating. You heard me. That’s right, some of you unlucky souls will discover that the “perfect” guy or girl you started dating right after the Awkward Dance isn’t “the one.” You’ll realize that maybe spending $200 on Friday Flowers in one semester might have been a bit excessive. Especially when you realize that the only reason you are dating is because you took Intro to Psychology together and both live in Ellingson.

Actually, what do we know? You and your special friend could defy the trend. Chances are, you’ll be just fine. And if when you do break up, you’ll survive and you’ll get along a lot better with your roommate now that your room is a double once again. Silver linings and all that.

Late April, you will run the gauntlet of room draw and it will scar you for life. Here’s a little game to play. Get your 10 best friends in a room. Think about how much you love and appreciate all of them. Now choose which four you want to say goodbye to, because that’s how many friends room draw will tear away from your life. I know you thought you would be meeting up with these same 10 bros at your class reunion in 30 years, but room draw has a way of squashing these fantasies. It’s basically like the Hunger Games, except nobody dies. Usually. And Jennifer Lawrence isn’t here.

It’s okay though. Things are never as bad as they sound. You’ll get through finals. Spring will eventually come, even if it isn’t until May 17, and the Adirondack chairs will reappear on the quad. You’ll forget about your first semester relationship you were so young and immature and you may even locate Skifter Hall. And in the words of the great wizard Albus Dumbledore, “happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.”



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Music on Trial: Popular artists are all about that bass, and lyrical freedom

Miley, Britney, Kesha and Justin Bieber are widely controversial artists. They have each had their ups and downs, including run-ins with law enforcement, questionable personal choices and provocative projects. Many people recognize the influence of celebrities and heavily criticize those who put forth a negative image.

It seems quite logical that the more popular an artist, the more widespread his or her message will be and the more influence it will have on the general population. The phrase “it takes a village” holds truth in that everyone has some impact when it comes to shaping Generation Z. But should impact necessarily mean responsibility, particularly in a society that values so highly rights to speak and act freely?

In arguments against publicizing negative celebrity viewpoints, critics often cite the popularity of certain artists as reasons to be careful of the images and ideals they put forth, but what this criticism fails to recognize is the volatility of the music industry. Can you say you knew Meghan Trainor six months ago? “All About That Bass” is controversial in many ways, and yet it has been near the top of the Billboard Top 100 for 18 weeks, while Miley isn’t on it at all.

Let’s take a second to talk about why “All About That Bass” is arguably problematic, for those of you who are shaking your head saying, “it’s a beautiful song about body image; what’s your problem?” One of the lyrics mid-song says, “I’m bringing booty back/ Go ahead and tell them skinny b*tches that . . . No, I’m just playing.”

So, yes, she took the time to acknowledge that she shouldn’t be skinny shaming, but there are two problems. First, “no, I’m just playing” is so quiet it is practically background noise – an afterthought – thoroughly undermining the work it does to save Trainor from her own implied prejudice. Second, it is sort of like saying “no offense.” Has anyone ever done that to you? “No offense, but… you could stand to participate/exercise/work harder/do better/etc.”

Trainor did not expect the song to go anywhere and wrote the “skinny b*tches” lyric as a joke. So how do we account for negative messages that are spread by artists who had no idea how popular their songs would become? What responsibility do musical artists have to the community? It’s a tough question to address, but let me try.

Music is art. If we lump music in with other arts, rhetorical and visual, we should treat it as such. There are paintings and novels galore that tell gruesome stories, use vile language and depict sexual activity or violence. Other media explore elements of sexual and physical subjects through erotic poetry, nude figure drawing and even pornography. The complexity of, and emotional reactions to, this provocative subject matter lead artists to continually experiment with it in their work.

The music industry is primarily different from these other media because music gains popularity in a way that no other medium does. It is easily accessible via the Internet, the radio and almost any store’s PA system. Musicians are the face of their art like no other creator. We make excuses for actors, because, generally, they didn’t write the film. Authors tell stories which rarely have visuals, and books are not often forced upon people we college kids are in a special, controlled environment.

Given the freedom of speech and art of expression, along with the fact that no other industry operates quite the same way music does, I think it is only fair to allot musicians the same artistic freedoms other artists receive. If you don’t like the music, you can choose not to listen. If something like “skinny b*tches” stirs the pot, as it has, we all have the opportunity to express our opinions on the matter in order to learn what to watch out for the next time a well-intentioned artist with a foolish lyric or two comes along.


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