Rick Astley and Nirvana are Never Gonna Give Your Innovative Spirit Up

August 10, 2020


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a post over at RedefinED making the case that as horizontal drilling was to hydraulic fracturing, and Rick Astley was to Nirvana, so too is distance learning to project-based micro-schooling. A full commitment to innovation is what I’m thinking of, you know wouldn’t get this from any other wonk.

Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: The Decade in Pop Music

December 31, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Technically, I think a decade is ending tonight. Or maybe it ended on Dec. 31, 2009. I don’t really care- New Year’s Eve 2010 feels like the end of a decade, and a good excuse for a random pop culture apocalypse: the decade in music.

Ten years ago, I was a thirty-three year old hipster-doofus living in Austin Texas soaking up all-girl Japanese speed metal bands at SXSW.  These days as a busy father of three, I don’t get out quite as much. That’s okay, as all-girl Japanese speed metal bands are only good the first time anyway.

Anyhoo, here are what I think are a few music highlights from the last decade.

The biggest change in music over the decade was a shift in the industry itself. The rise of Napster, Ipods and Itunes has killed/is killing the era of record labels getting bands to put one or two popular songs on an album/cd with a collection of lesser efforts and sticking the fan for $15. No thanks- we’ll take the good song for 99 cents, thank you very much.

I came to appreciate what a huge change this was years ago when I a buddy of mine were in Rain in Vegas and we witnessed a basketball arena sized dance club of 20 somethings completely freak out when the DJ played “ABC” by the Jackson Five. I asked a guy next to me “how do you kids even know about this song? Was it on the O.C. or something?” He just said “Dude- this song is totally awesome!”

My next experience along these lines was in a karaoke bar in DC with a group of friends. As a canary in the coal mine for what was to come, a 21 year old looking kid from Georgetown sang “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, and the place went bananas. Kids were jumping on their chairs, people were going nuts, and I was stunned. “This song was released when I was in 8th grade- how can these kids even be aware of it?” I asked.

“Get with it grandpa!” came the reply.

After that, Don’t Stop Believing went through a pop-culture renaissance that I never would have dreamed possible, led of course by this:

It’s tempting to crown Don’t Stop Believing as the techno-zombie resurrection song of the decade, but there was some good original stuff. I was in a hotel room on business in 2009, and was watching the MTV video music awards out of sheer boredom. I was feeling my age: the whole thing seemed entirely juvenile and absurd. I was watching it mostly out of morbid fascination. The host, that British guy who is currently married to Katy Perry for the next few months, is distilled obnoxious in a bottle.

Anyway, the big build up, Mr. Perry announces that Jay-Z is in a car in Manhattan on his way for the final performance. The tension builds- scenes of the limo driving…Jay-Z walking through the building…

I thought to myself “This is going to totally suck. There is no way this is going to deliver on this much hype.” Early in the song, Jay-Z refers to himself as “the modern-day Sinatra” and I thought “I knew it- this guy is setting himself up for failure.”

But then, about a third of the way in, I started to change my mind. By the end, I was blown away by An Empire State of Mind:

Jay-Z may have 99 problems, but being unable to deliver aint one.

Despite Jay-Z, there can be little doubt that the music industry is in decline. The biggest grossing tours from this year: Bon Jovi and AC/DC. No, that is not a misprint. The fracturing of music into micro-genres makes it difficult for any new act to rise into Rolling Stones/U2 type of global dominance. I heard Alice Cooper discussing his I-tunes inspired popularity in Europe (who knew?) and he basically said that the new acts are at a severe disadvantage these days, because they must compete with the greatest hits of the past, not just with each other. I don’t think Jay-Z is worried about competing with Alice, but I think Alice has a point.

Dinosaur acts can still rock though:

Some day, I’ll have to write an entire post on why I both hate and dig Robert Plant. In the meantime, this collaboration with Alison Kraus was cool:

I seem to have a fascination with duets, really liked this one from Moby and Gwen Steffani:

Nothing of course beats a good spoof. I thought this one was great. When it came out, one of my 20 something coworkers thought the lead singer was hot, and another appreciated the satire. Mix spoof and nostalgia, drink up a tasty cocktail:

The dropping cost of video production now means people can make their own videos. I get a kick out what a group of California film students did with the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah song “Maps.” Low-tech creepy geeky cool:

Of course, the ability to do inexpensive audio remixes has led to the advent of the mash-up. Also known as “bastard pop” this basically entails taking the music from one song and inserting the vocal performance of another. Most of these are not worth a listen, but when it works it is great fun:



Overall, I’d give the last ten years a B-plus, but only because of resurrection factor. Maybe I’m just too old to “get” Lady Ga-Ga. Feel free to enlighten me with links in the comments!

Random Pop Culture Apocalypse: Genre Benders

July 3, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Earlier we had a lively debate on the obvious superiority of cover songs. This is a good lead in to my grand theory of popular music, which is: there is nothing new under the sun, so you may as well repackage tried and true things.

My theory holds that rock music essentially played itself out in 1974 with the creation of Punk Rock. If Rock and Roll was ultimately about rebellion, then you can’t get any more rebellious than anarchists who don’t know how to play their instruments screaming into a microphone. Of course most punks were poseurs. As Johnny Rotten said in advance of a reunion tour for what remains of the Sex Pistols “I am the Anti-Christ, won’t you buy me merchandise?”

But I digress.

Rock has been dead for ages, what to do then? Answer: take other genres of music, put a fresh coat of paint on them, and sell them to the kids as something new and cool! Much of it actually is cool.

The Ramones invented punk by taking 50s bubble gum pop songs, speeding them up, and giving them a psychotic twist. The Police were basically a Anglo-American reggae band. Paul Simon went through an interesting and profitable stage of his career by blending African music into an American context. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and others brought Swing music back into fashion in the 1990s, and Green Day and company did the same with punk, etc. etc. etc.

Bryan Setzer is obviously a master at this- having brought back Rockabilly with the Stray Cats and Swing with his orchestra. His latest album is a fun work that develops swing/rock versions of classical music.

Sting not only dabbled in reggae with the Police, but also jazz and even country music as a solo artist. In Desert Rose Sting wrote an Arabic song and got the biggest Arabic singer to do the song as a duet:

Genre-bending reached it’s natural conclusion with the development of mashups, which I understand to be matching different lyrics and music, with a good bunch of sampling thrown into the mix.

Example: take the tune to Jimmy Hendrix’s Purple Haze. Now do the same tune, but sing the words to the TV theme song to Green Acres in place of those of the original.

There, you just did your first mental mashup!

Some of the DJ’s doing mashups these days are really quite creative. They move in and out of genres within a single song, briefly foreshadow something to come, and then beat you over the head with the best part of it.

Here’s an example of two things you wouldn’t think would work in a fairly basic mashup: Madonna and the Sex Pistols

Ebert once describe Quentin Tarrantino movies as throwing a whole series of big scenes at you. He said that most thrillers might build up to a single shocking or grizzly scene, but that Tarrantino hits you with 12 of them with plenty of homages to previous films thrown in to boot.

A good mashup does the same: rather than having a song build to some single crescendo, they’ll take an alternate path to build to the same crescendo and then flip on to another. You already know how the original got to the crescendo-why not fast forward to the fun part?