Carl Wilson

  • Stardust Reveries

    Ashes to Ashes, the second volume of Chris O’Leary’s song-by-song chronicle of David Bowie’s work, reaches its title track around page 155. Of 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes,” which was Bowie’s second-ever No. 1 single in the UK—the first had been “Space Oddity,” to which “Ashes to Ashes” was the mischievous sequel (We know Major Tom’s a junkie)—O’Leary remarks that it is, “in a way, his last song, the closing chapter that comes midway through the book. Bowie sings himself off-stage with a children’s rhyme: eternally falling, eternally young.”

    In mundane truth, at that point the reader is about

  • Chords of Inquiry

    It’s 1984 or 1985, Prince and the Revolution are in California, and they decide to drive out to Joni Mitchell’s house in Malibu for dinner. All devotees—Prince says his favorite album ever is 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns—they chat and admire her paintings, and then Prince wanders to the piano and starts teasing out some chords. “Joni says, ‘Oh wow! That’s really pretty. What song are you playing?’” as band member Wendy Melvoin later recalls. “We all yelled, ‘It’s your song!’” Prince will perform his gorgeous arrangement of Mitchell’s “A Case of You” in concerts up to the final month of

  • Polymorphously Purple

    Remember "masturbating with a magazine"? Not the actual act (though that, too), but the opening scene of the late genius Prince Rogers Nelson's 1984 "Darling Nikki," in which our hero catches the title character in a hotel lobby, in solo flagrante with the glossy pages of an unnamed publication. As the critic and novelist Ben Greenman reminds us in his new book, Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince(Henry Holt, $28), that line led directly to Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center's congressional crusade against "objectionable" music, making

  • Stardust Memories

    Glam rock, the trend that put the roll back in rock 'n' roll after the psychedelic burnout and beardy

    earnestness of the twilight of the 1960s. Glam, the gender-bent dress-up cabaret that helped smuggle queer liberation into mainstream pop culture. Glam, precursor of punk, but perhaps also early warning of today's hall-of-mirrors celebrity culture . . .

    . . . Or, as many Americans might say, Glam rock, what is that? You mean, like, hair metal?

    The easiest reply would be: No, more like early David Bowie. But who else was ever like David Bowie? In Shock and Awe, Simon Reynolds has more than

  • Star-Maker Machinery

    Are you a music lover who’s spent twenty years wincing whenever you hear the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Ke$ha, or Katy Perry th-th-thumping out of passing car radios? Or are you someone who does enjoy chart pop, but mainly as an emotional off-ramp during your afternoon commute or as a launching pad for a dance party?

    Either way, you might side-eye the notion of an entire book by a New Yorker staff writer about how hits like “Umbrella” and “Since U Been Gone” were enabled by a cabal of moguls, producers, songwriters, and radio programmers, a disproportionate share of them from

  • culture August 31, 2015

    East of Intention: Cat, Camera, Music

    In “Chat écoutant la musique” (“Cat Listening to Music”), a two-minute, fifty-five-second video posted to YouTube on December 21, 2010, a black, white, and gray tabby sprawls across the keyboard of a Yamaha DX7. He sleeps and stirs, seeming to enjoy the pellucid, lapping notes and chords of a piece of piano music playing in the room. We watch the cat’s paws depress the keys soundlessly when he arches and stretches.

    In “Chat écoutant la musique” (“Cat Listening to Music”), a two-minute, fifty-five-second video posted to YouTube on December 21, 2010, a black, white, and gray tabby sprawls across the keyboard of a Yamaha DX7. He sleeps and stirs, seeming to enjoy the pellucid, lapping notes and chords of a piece of piano music playing in the room. We watch the cat’s paws depress the keys soundlessly when he arches and stretches. We notice his ears perk and twitch. When the music briefly intensifies, he raises his head and glares fiercely into the middle distance; then, as the tune eases off the tension, he

  • Music for Nothing

    The title of Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free is ultimately more interesting than the case that gets made inside its pages. Early open-source-data activists used to say that software should be both “free as in beer and free as in speech.” Witt sticks mostly to the first meaning—i.e., gratisin his account of the process by which online file sharing since the late ’90s has toppled the once enormously profitable proprietary model of the music industry.

    The book never follows through, however, on the second implication of “how music got free”—free as in libre.

    Witt’s title hints that music

  • Pop-Ed Pages

    Saint Etienne is a long-standing London-based pop group, founded in the late ’80s by two pop writers turned musicians, merging post-punk fanzine culture and the rave idyll. Its sound is a self-consciously cosmopolitan mix of acid house, folk, blue-eyed soul, Parisian yé-yé, and CinemaScope sound tracks; charismatic blond vocalist Sarah Cracknell evokes soft-edged 1960s UK singers such as Dusty Springfield and the early Bee Gees. A few singles (“You’re in a Bad Way,” “He’s on the Phone”) nudged the UK Top 10 in 1995. But since none of the band’s Euro-cool influences carried remotely the same

  • Memphis Agonistes

    People in the arts talk about talent all the time: who has it, who discovered the person who had it, its peaks and valleys, and when it has been “lost” or “wasted.” It’s all said as if we know what talent is, when we don’t. It is more than aptitude or being a quick study. It is more than skill, and closer to ease or sparkle in the skill’s application. It somehow forms a trinity with effort and inspiration, but without talent, those two can seem like sad and misguided cul-de-sacs.

    But there is also a talent to having talent, and to living with it. Talent can seem like an alien invasion of the