U2’s continuing quest for authenticity

Susan Fast, McMaster University

“We wanted to make a very personal album,” U2’s Bono told Rolling Stone upon the release of the band’s most recent album, Songs of Innocence. “The whole album is first journeys…geographically, spiritually, sexually. And that’s hard. But we went there.”

Those first journeys also include some of the band’s formative musical influences, including The Ramones and The Clash, who are examples of stripped-back rock and roll par excellence.

Now, the band is slated to embark on its iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE tour in support of the album.

For this tour, the band is certainly scaling back: they’ll be performing in the relative intimacy of arenas. It’s a stark contrast to the record-shattering production of the band’s last tour – called U2 360 – which was seen by about seven million people in huge, open air stadiums and grossed over US$700 million.

On the surface, it may seem as though U2 is suddenly seeking a return to the simpler times of its early years, both in their sound and their performances.

But for those who have followed the band’s career closely, talk of returning to “roots” of some kind when a new record is released is nothing new for U2. If anything, it reveals the well-worn strategy of a band that seeks to remain relevant even as it ages – a pattern of alternating between radical experimentation and mining the myth of authenticity.

Two poles – sometimes blurred

The first time this trope was invoked was with 1987’s The Joshua Tree and the follow-up album and documentary film Rattle and Hum. For those albums the band, weaned on 1970s punk, turned back to the American triumvirate – blues, folk and gospel – the deeply “authentic” music they felt they’d missed out on growing up.

In interviews from this time, they began their tendency to, off and on, romanticize “stripped-down” rock and roll.

This backward turn came in the wake of the band’s first project with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire.

Interestingly, that album’s atmospheric, experimental sound was enthusiastically embraced by the band as an attempt to switch gears from the hard-driving, guitar-oriented, stripped-down rock that characterized 1983’s War.

The live shows that have supported the band’s more experimental albums have been suitably mammoth endeavors, often taking place in outdoor venues, with every technological bell and whistle imaginable in tow.

But the sound of the group’s music doesn’t swing quite as easily between these poles as their discourse around it would suggest.

For example, the atmospheric, experimental influence is present on Songs of Innocence (The Troubles). Meanwhile, the stripped-back sound can be found on the most “out there” album in U2’s oeuvre – 1997’s Pop – in tracks like Wake Up Dead Man and The Playboy Mansion.

Extravagant productions often accompany the tours of U2’s experimental albums. The band’s stop in Mexico City during its 360 tour drew a crowd of over 100,000 people.
Henry Romero/Reuters

The tension of fame

So why frame the process of making an album as a kind of recurring existential crisis? One that seems to require a radical rethinking of musical and thematic direction?

One answer to this question comes from what counts as “authentic” in rock culture: the quest narrative – the constant search for “realness,” for what is perceived to be “genuine.”

Led Zeppelin, for example, “reinvented” themselves on their third album, turning to acoustic folk music. The infamous battle between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards over whether to stay true to the band’s blues roots or move in a more contemporary direction began with their 1983 album Undercover.

But U2 is particularly committed to this narrative. Their need for reinvention, the casting off of what came before, the re-examination of directions, the restlessness, can be viewed as part of a discourse that helps construct U2’s rock authenticity.

I’m not suggesting that their quest is disingenuous. But one only has to look at musics other than white rock to see that the terms of authenticity vary with genre, among other things.

In fact, it could be argued that there’s no such thing as authenticity, except in the minds of those who construct the idea.

For the band, however, there is more to this discursive struggle. Rock authenticity is premised on a revolutionary sensibility – a rejection of authority. And rock musicians who become commercially successful often struggle with how to remain true to these ideals.

The strategy of forever searching for a new sound becomes especially important in these circumstances: there’s nothing that shatters respectability like a commercially successful rock band that rests on its laurels.

Returning to one’s “roots,” though, or being on the cutting edge of contemporary music becomes part of the strategy to maintain credibility and relevance in the wake of unprecedented commercial success – to demonstrate that the ideals on which the band was formed are still driving them.

Could this explain why U2 recently made an (intially) covert busking appearance in a New York City subway station?

U2 recently performed – initially, in disguise – in a New York City subway station.

After all, busking is perhaps the quintessential authentic performance genre – live, unmediated, accessible, risky and non-commercial (if you don’t count the pennies collected in the guitar case).

Glitzy can be compatible with authentic

Interestingly, three out of U2’s last four records have been premised on the idea of “going back to roots” or “stripping down the sound.”

And ironically, these albums have been more commercially successful than the last two attempts at sonic experimentation (Pop and No Line on the Horizon). So one wonders – perhaps a bit cynically – if the “returning to roots” discourse is not only a means of reaffirming rock authenticity, but also a way to sell more records. This is as much an observation about critics and fans (for whom the discourse of rock authenticity is religion), than it is about the band.

For my part, I’ve always found U2’s experimental records and some of the gargantuan tours more interesting and more true to the spirit of rock and roll than their trips back to the past. Pop is a sonic masterpiece, as are Zooropa and Achtung, Baby. The last of these, incidentally, was also a very personal album, chronicling, among other things, the shattering effects of divorce (Edge’s) and the complications of being in love.

In fact, the mammoth Zoo TV Tour that supported Achtung, Baby and Zooropa was one of the band’s most politically astute and successfully mounted social commentaries. In a (self-referential) commentary on celebrity, Bono took on the character of the bloated, leather-clad, shade-wearing rock star. And the main premise of the show was a harsh critique of the desensitizing effects of contemporary media.

Thus, contrary to the well-worn dualism in rock between “small and simple equals good” and “big and glitzy equals bad,” some of U2’s most incisive music and social commentary have come out of the latter.

It seems that “small and simple” (if arena shows can actually fall into this category) is where they’ll land on this tour, but there’s already a hint of where the band is going for the next album. In a New York Times essay written on the eve of this tour, Bono had this to say about Songs of Experience, the album that will follow Songs of Innocence:

We’re keeping the discipline on songs and pushing out the parameters of the sound….One of the things that experience has taught us is to be fully in the moment. What’s the moment? Pop music.

And so the quest continues.

The Conversation

Susan Fast is Professor of Cultural Studies, Director, Graduate Program in Gender Studies and Feminist Research at McMaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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A scarf can mean many things – but above all, prestige

Nancy Deihl, New York University

When International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde goes to the G8 summit in June, she may well be wearing a scarf – a fashion accessory that she’s become known for, and one that’s been drawing more and more attention. In fact, the BBC recently identified scarves as a “new power symbol” for women.

True, just as some men choose amusing neckties to enliven monochrome suits, many women who work in an atmosphere that requires conservative business apparel will wear scarves to add a fillip of color and distinction.

But the trend is anything but “new.” In looking at the history of scarves in the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s clear that the allure and power of scarves has always existed – and persists.

A single piece of cloth

The scarf is the most simple form of adornment: a single piece of cloth. For this reason, it’s one of the most versatile clothing accessories, used for centuries across a variety of cultures, for a range of purposes.

Many Muslim women wear headscarves for modesty, while ladies of a certain age favor scarves with a triangular fold to protect expensive or elaborate coifs.

Votes for Women: the scarf as a political statement.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A scarf can be a political statement, and can denote a wearer’s affiliation or beliefs. Early 20th-century crusaders for women’s rights used their clothing to promote their cause, wearing scarves in the movement’s colors: white, green and purple.

During World War II, scarves expressed nationalist sentiments. The British firm Jacqmar produced designs with propaganda-themed slogans. One featured the phrase “Shoulder to Shoulder” on a map of England emblazoned with British and American symbols. Another design mimicked a wall covered with posters urging citizens to “Lend to Defend” and “Save for Victory.”

An elegant fashion

But in Western culture, the scarf is most prominently known for its use as a fashion accessory, one that first gained widespread popularity in the 19th century.

The fichu was a predecessor to the scarf.
Wikimedia Commons

The fichu is a typical 18th- and 19th-century style that can be seen as the forerunner of modern scarves. A piece of fabric worn lightly draped on the upper chest and usually knotted in front, it provided modest covering but was also an opportunity to add an especially fine textile – sometimes lace edged or embroidered – to an ensemble.

Lightweight, finely woven silk and cashmere shawls from India were one of the first fashionable scarf styles. Empress Joséphine – the first wife of Napoleon – had an extensive collection (thanks to her husband’s travels), and the style persisted through much of the 19th century, spawning cheaper imitations fabricated in other parts of Europe, notably France and Paisley, Scotland.

Status symbols

Like much of high fashion, scarves can signal one’s status, and limited edition scarves – often only made available to favored customers – can act as specific indicators for those in the know.

For example, fashion houses send scarves, often during the holidays, as thank-yous to loyal clients. Those produced by Parisian couturiers during the 1950s were especially chic, often designed with sketches of the maison; others displayed printed patterns in the whimsical, painterly style of the era.

The House of Dior would present scarves to its regular customers as a token of gratitude.
© 2000–2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Michael Blankfort, in memory of her mother, Mrs. William Constable Breed, 1976

And from the 1950s into the 1970s, the famed Manhattan eating and drinking establishment 21 produced a series of annual scarves and sent them to favorite “regulars.”

The restaurant’s owners commissioned well-known designers, and each year’s scarf design referred to some aspect of the restaurant – its famous façade, the collection of jockey statues outside or the number 21.

Actress Lauren Bacall, an esteemed regular, donated her 21 scarves to the Museum at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, where other pieces from her wardrobe were recently exhibited.

A canvas for experimentation

As a discrete space, a scarf presents an opportunity for experimentation often not available in other realms of dress that are determined – and restricted – by the shape of the body.

In London in the 1940s, Lida and Zika Ascher initiated their “Artist Squares” project, enlisting an international roster of prominent artists to design large scarves, a group that included Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau and Henry Moore.

The Artist Squares were sold in major department stores and also exhibited – framed, like paintings – at London’s Lefevre Gallery.

To celebrate her new couture salon in 1935, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli made a collage of her press clippings and had it printed as fabric for scarves and other accessories, turning black and white type into a striking motif.

A scarf by the American designer Vera offers another variation on lettering as ornament, presenting the titles of international newspapers, each in its distinctive typeface, on a vivid yellow background.

A scarf by Vera, featuring newspaper typeface.
© 2000–2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Heather B. Babb, 1996

Hermès: The crème de la crème

Certain labels are particularly associated with high style in scarves. Ferragamo, Fendi and Gucci – all originally esteemed leather goods houses – now produce desirable scarves.

But for prestige and polish, Hermès represents the pinnacle of scarf culture. Several aspects of its business have contributed to the company’s reputation. Founded in 1837 as a supplier of equestrian supplies, Hermès began offering scarves, called carrés, in 1937.

Their focus on exclusivity has encouraged an almost fetishistic loyalty among customers, many of whom could more properly be termed “collectors.” Limiting the number of designs they offer each season has maintained Hermès’ mystique. The company’s focus on craftsmanship helps justify their reputation and high prices; Hermès takes pride in the impressive number of colors in each design, the hand-printing process and the fineness of their silk, positioning their output as artisanal creations.

A man demonstrates the intricate screen printing process of a Hermès scarf.

While not at the level of Hermès, the American accessories company Echo, founded in 1923, also has a loyal following. The firm pinpointed the essence of the scarf with their memorable ad campaign “The Echo of an Interesting Woman,” introduced in the 1970s.

In contemporary fashion, scarves continue to serve the same functions as those earlier fine linen fichus and paisley shawls; they denote connoisseurship and sophistication.

It’s no surprise, then, that sociologist and image consultant Anna Akbari makes “Put on a scarf” the first entry on her current list of “5 Simple Ways To Hack Your Image,” recognizing their potential for instant uplift and an infusion of individuality.

The Conversation

Nancy Deihl is Master Teacher and Director of Costume Studies at New York University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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What Is Chuffa?

Even though I recognize that Kevin Smith is, despite his success, an obscure comedian, and given that I recognize Bruce Willis as a frontend-only character actor and that personal lives and behind-the-scenes occurrences/conundrums don’t often get construed publicly without his consent, it’s still surprising to me that Smith would have the audacity to talk as much shit as he talked on Too Fat For Forty, Smith’s fourth Q&A (which ended up being 1 Q and 1 A for the entire episode). Despite this career-degrading performance, Smith’s assurance that Willis ripped pages out of Smith’s Cop Out script, calling the pages “chuffa”, created a reality so real and memorable that “chuffa” became a common enough word to appear on urbandictionary.com and other media outlets that year.

Today, I’ve begun to notice chuffa happening in my everyday life, pages I wish I could rip out before they started, much like Willis did. So what exactly IS chuffa? It’s those parts of a movie that have nothing to do with the plot, something that fills time and space but could easily be removed and the story would still be the same, unhindered message. It’s the stuff that the writer thought was artistic, visually beautiful, or helped with pacing, but has no bearing on whether or not the movie will be good in the end. It’s those scenes like showing a guy walking down the street to get from point A to B, or someone shaving before going out for the night. Or someone driving a car with no dialogue or music on. Basically it’s The Brown Bunny, or any other worthless piece of garbage you felt was a complete waste of your time. That’s chuffa.

When I walk down the street and listen, for the 9th time, to a friend’s diatribe about how shitty their life is, how messed up their girlfriend or boyfriend is, or how unhappy they are, as if they are the only ones who are unhappy, or like what they’re saying even matters ever, I realize that life is full of chuffa. It’s full of moments that you could live without and you’d be fine, nothing would be different. Hearing your mom gossip about the neighbor isn’t interesting. Yea, there’s a lot of crazy people on the subway in New York City, but most of the time it’s just people going from point A to B. That’s what ipods and iphones are for. That’s what books are for, so you don’t have to deal with the mundane, boring, pointlessness that happens before you on a daily basis.

One of the worst forms of chuffa in pop culture is reality TV. Why do people want to watch other people living their lives? Don’t they have lives to live? I hate, with a passion, when I’m watching something with my girlfriend and realize that what I’m watching is two people watching TV. That isn’t entertaining. It’s pathetic and a borderline scam. When I watch a TV show, I should be entertained. The point of a movie isn’t to show you what living is like, you already know what it’s like. The point is to thrill you, to take you out of your world for a bit and show you something fantastic. And if what you’re watching isn’t something you turn around and tell someone about because of how much it affected you, then maybe you just watched a movie full of chuffa.

Beyoncé’s Dancing Has Become The Funniest Meme on Twitter

As we all know that Beyoncé, a.k.a. “Queen Bey”, has always been the dominator of the stage. However, her dance video clips are going viral all over Internet this weekend by a Twitter user and fan named @MascotMY_Tweets created the hashtag #BeyonceAlwaysOnBeat, and apparently he got a lot of fans on his own to prove that Beyoncé looks awesome dancing to everything! Let’s take a look at those clips!

How do you haha? LOL through the ages

Lauren Collister, University of Pittsburgh

Laughter is uniquely human. Sometimes deliberate, sometimes uncontrollable, we laugh out loud to signal our reaction to a range of occurrences, whether it’s a response to a joke we hear, an awkward encounter or an anxious situation. The way we laugh is, according to anthropologist Munro S Edmonson, a “signal of individuality.”

And an outburst of laughter is an important enough part of communication that we represent it in text.

In a recent The New Yorker article, Sarah Larson wrote about laughter in internet-based communication – the use of hahaha and hehehe, even the jovial hohoho.

Larson writes, “The terms of e-laughter – ‘ha ha,’ ‘ho ho,’ ‘hee hee,’ ‘heh’ – are implicitly understood by just about everybody. But, in recent years, there’s been an increasingly popular newcomer: ‘hehe.’”

However, even before texting and online chatting, textual representations of laughter – most of which have onomatopoeic forms – have appeared in writing since Chaucer’s time.

Like all language, it has merely evolved with our culture and adapted to new technology, becoming in the process far more nuanced – much like the true “spoken” laughter it’s intended to represent.

A brief history of laughter

In her 2011 book Variationist Sociolinguistics: Change, Observation, Interpretation, linguist Sali Tagliamonte shares three historical examples of laughter in literature.

Page 340 from Variationist Sociolinguistics (click to zoom).

As Tagliamonte shows, hehe is not exactly a new invention: it appears in a Latin grammar book written by Ælfric of Eynsham in about 1000 AD. Haha appears in Chaucer 300 years later, while ha, ha, he can be found in the works of Shakespeare.

Using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows users to search for words and phrases in all of the books that Google has scanned, it is evident that hehe – along with haha and hohohas been in use for quite some time.

A Google Ngram graph depicts the prevalence of laughter in text through the centuries (click to zoom).
Author provided

If you look closely at the examples from this search, you’ll see a number of misreads of the text by the search function (for example, hehe is often confused with the name of the Greek goddess Hebe). However, you’ll also see texts from plays and scripts, along with dialogue in novels and even dictionaries of other spoken languages. All of these representations of laughter are connected to words being spoken out loud.

The evolution of LOL

Words like haha and hehe have traditionally been used to represent actual laughter in text, whether in response to a joke or to indicate nervousness or awkwardness.

Only in recent years have various acronyms arisen to represent laughter in text. From ROFL (Rolls On Floor Laughing) to LMAO (Laughing My Ass Off) – and, of course, LOL – these acronyms have become increasingly popular as internet and online conversation has proliferated.

LOL is perhaps the most ubiquitous of these acronyms. According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the first recorded use of LOL is from the May 1989 edition of the FidoNews Newsletter (though some have disputed this).

Almost everyone who has typed these acronyms knows that don’t always represent physical laughter. As linguist David Crystal asked in his 2006 book Language and the Internet, “How many people are actually ‘laughing out loud’ when they send LOL?”

Not many. In one study of online teen language, researchers found that LOL is “used by our participants in the flow of conversation as a signal of interlocutor involvement, just as one might say mm-hm in the course of a conversation.”

And another linguist, John McWhorter, pointed out that LOL has changed from indicating real laughter to a signal of “basic empathy between testers” – in other words, a sign that you have read and acknowledged the message. It’s also a way to interject a bit of a casual flair to a conversation, much in the same way we might use a short laugh or a nod in face-to-face conversation.

So LOL – just like some of the basic laughs that it represents – doesn’t really mean any one thing in particular, but rather displays the speaker’s (or typer’s) attitude. In a sense, LOL works much in the same way emoticons and emoji do: when people send a smiley face, they may not actually be smiling; they simply want to convey that they’re feeling happy.

Just like the many variations of emoticons and emojis, so too are there many flavors of lol: the emphatic lololol, the sarcastic lolz and even lulz-seeking internet trolls.

Laughter signals individuality in text, too

What about haha, hehe, and hoho in our e-language? Returning to the online teen language study, researchers found that haha was the most widely used representation of laughter after LOL on instant message.

Hehe was the third most widely used form – and this one, they say, represented giggling. But what may be new are the connotations that hehe has taken on to differentiate itself from its competitors, haha and hoho.

For example, the users of hehe interviewed in The New Yorker article agree on the giggling aspect of hehe, but vary in whether they view it as friendly or conspiratorial: it all depends on how many E’s the word has.

Clearly, the connotations associated with each form seem to be as unique as the people using them. These variations give all the more support to Edmonson’s assertion from 1987 that our laughter is a sign of our individuality – even in text.

The Conversation

Lauren Collister is Electronics Publications Associate at University of Pittsburgh.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Before watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, you need to understand the artist’s three sides

John Covach, University of Rochester

The new documentary Montage of Heck takes a fresh look at the life and career of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who, while only in the pop limelight for a shade over two years, remains one of the most iconic figures in rock-music history.

In an effort to correct some of the myths that surround Cobain, director Brett Morgen opens a window onto Kurt’s private world, providing at times intimate glimpses of the rock star’s personal life.

But to better understand Kurt Cobain and his songs, it’s important to realize that there are at least three Kurts to consider.

A note written by Kurt Cobain, signed ‘Kurdt.’
girlfriday_/flickr

The first is Kurt the rock star, an image Cobain quite consciously crafted, the side of his persona that he sometimes called “Kurdt.” This is the one most listeners associate with him: the brooding poet, the artist filled with punk-rock anger and aggression who resisted and loathed fame. Kurdt would often make up fabulous stories in interviews, some loosely based on facts (he claimed to have once lived under a bridge), others fabricated in a spirit of playful absurdity (though sometimes journalists failed to recognize the joke). Kurdt was the defiant punk artist who flashed his middle finger at the status quo. It was a role Kurt loved to play.

The private Kurt, by contrast, seems to have been ambitious and driven. While Kurdt disdained fame, Kurt energetically pursued it.

Once Cobain became a star, he suffered under the new pressures and burdens that came with it. But when asked once in drug rehab why he didn’t just travel far away to escape the spotlight, he responded that he was afraid his fans would forget him. Cobain biographer Charles R Cross observes that at several points in Kurt’s career, he consistently chose the path to fame and wealth, when he could have chosen otherwise. (Of course, “Kurdt” would then complain bitterly.)

The third Kurt is Cobain the creative artist. Any objective survey of Kurt’s writing, songs and paintings reveals an enormously creative mind. In contrast to the career-driven Kurt and the mopey Kurdt, the creative Kurt was an unrelentingly playful personality that delighted in fanciful juxtaposition of images, poked fun at societal roles and stereotypes, and engaged in an almost constant game with language. This Kurt had a particular fascination with following seemingly sensible premises to absurd extremes.

The famous lyrics to Smells Like Teen Spirit are as good an example as any:

Here we are now, entertain us

A mulatto

An albino

A mosquito

My libido

Looking out onto the hormone-infused dancing at a teen party, Cobain follows “mulatto” with “albino,” playing on the number of syllables and ending vowel. If skin pigment is what linked those two words, whiteness suggests having one’s blood sucked out, which generates “mosquito.” But a mosquito penetrates the body (and sucks), and that leads to “libido.” The subsequent transformation of “hello” into “how low”” continues the logic and the wordplay.

This kind of songwriter’s game with rhymes is reminiscent of the bridge to the Beatles’ Taxman, the verses of Leiber and Stoller’s Little Egypt and any number of songs by Cole Porter.

Unfortunately, many Cobain commentaries mistakenly confuse these distinct elements of Cobain’s personality. The most common error – and the basis for the myth Montage of Heck hopes to dispel – is conflating Kurdt and Kurt.

There is nothing necessarily inauthentic in a performer creating a mask as Cobain did; Bob Dylan and others have done this for decades. That the private Kurt contrasts with the public image he projected, then, does not mean that fans have somehow been duped or that Cobain has been dishonest. The public image is an extension of Cobain’s creativity – another dimension of his imagination that he based on himself, not unlike a character in a semi-biographical novel.

Artists often project pubic images that clash with their private selves.
DNFTT2014/deviant art, CC BY-NC-ND

The often unnoticed – but perhaps more serious mistake – is confusing either Kurt or Kurdt with the creative Cobain. It’s all too common to find Cobain’s personal biography breezily read into his lyrics, the attitudes projected by the brooding Kurdt blended into their meaning.

While it’s clear that Cobain’s sometimes sad and desperate personal life was the source of many of his songs, the songs themselves go far beyond personal anger, complaining, sorrow and confession.

Instead, his songs reach for something beyond his own experience: sometimes he’s simply enjoying the craft of songwriting, playfully engaging with the rich history of pop that he knew and loved.

It’s through viewing Cobain in the broader context of pop songwriting – which includes its techniques and history – that one discovers a fascinating artist of considerable breadth and depth.

The trailer for Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.

The Conversation

John Covach is Director, Institute for Popular Music at University of Rochester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Demi Lovato Takes Action With New Campaign To Raise Mental Health Awareness

Demi Lovato has always been very open about her struggles with mental disorders, and almost five years after the singer checked into rehab, she’s taking action with a joint campaign with five mental-health organizations, called Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health. Lovato also opened up to People Magazine and said she’s never felt better, since… Continue reading

Disney Infinity 3.0: Gameplay Trailer And Screenshots Offer First Look At Inside Out Play Set

A second Disney Infinity 3.0 play set has been outted by Disney Interactive, just days after the company offered up new screenshots from one of two Star Wars play sets headed to stores this year, and it looks like Pixar’s new Inside Out film will serve as inspiration for one of the first Disney Infinity 3.0… Continue reading

How BB King’s days in radio helped shape his career and music

John Covach, University of Rochester

BB King is remembered as one of the most important artists in the history of blues, with a long career that spanned seven decades and included classic hits such as Three O’Clock Blues (1951), The Thrill is Gone (1969) and 1989’s When Love Comes to Town (recorded with U2). Widely considered one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, he became, in his later years, a celebrated icon of blues authenticity.

Had it not been for his early days in radio, however, things might have turned out differently for a young Riley King.

When Riley King came to Memphis, Tennessee in the late 1940s and gained prominence as a DJ, he put himself at the center of one of the country’s most active blues scenes.

Whether it was access to a large record collection or gigs fueled by his growing celebrity as a DJ, the young bluesman brilliantly exploited each opportunity that came his way.

The right place at the right time

Radio in the years after World War II was changing rapidly. The nationally syndicated networks that had driven radio in previous decades were now devoting their resources to a new technology: television.

As TV increasingly drew a mass, national audience, radio homed in on appealing to local and regional listeners. This shift gave stations the freedom to innovate. One change was an uptick in the airing of rhythm & blues music, sometimes in late-night spots and sometimes – like at WDIA Memphis – all day and night.

The DJs spinning R&B records were often white: John R Richbourg at WLAC in Nashville and Zenas “Daddy” Sears at Atlanta’s WGST. (One of these white DJs, Ohio’s Alan Freed, would become pivotal in the birth of rock and roll.)

In late 1948, a young BB King was an aspiring blues artist then performing under his birth name, Riley King. He made his way from Indianola, Mississippi to Memphis by working on a delivery truck to pay his fare. He’d already visited the River City once as the guest of his cousin, Bukka White.

King, who had worked primarily in the cotton fields of Mississippi while singing with a gospel choir and playing blues on the street, sought out greener pastures in the music business.

So for this second visit, young Riley had a plan: he would get himself on blues singer Sonny Boy Willimson’s King Biscuit Time show on KFFA – a broadcast King loved from his days picking cotton. Williamson put King on the air singing Blues at Sunrise, and got him a performing gig at the 16th Street Grill in West Memphis. To keep this new gig, King had to get the club mentioned on the radio.

King modeled his on-air personality after national radio star Arthur Godfrey.
Classic Film/flickr, CC BY-NC

After his impromptu performance at KFFA, King ambitiously headed off to WDIA in Memphis, a white-owned station that employed an all-black on-air lineup, which included Nat D Williams, Maurice “Hot Rod” Hulbert and Rufus Thomas. King initially got a regular 10-minute spot promoting an elixir called Pepticon (“good for whatever ails you”), while even writing a jingle (and getting in a plug for his gig).

Soon the young DJ had a more extended slot as host of Sepia Swing Club. He later said that he partly modeled his on-air personality on the nationally known white radio host and performer Arthur Godfrey.

A radio star was born: BB King.

Exposure, influence – and stardom

King’s regular spot on the radio gave the DJ name recognition, and his performing gigs continued to roll in. Soon, he was playing regional shows in addition to the local Memphis ones. Being on the radio also helped King understand audiences: he learned what listeners wanted and how to craft an on-stage personality.

As a regular at WDIA, King had access to the station’s record library. This allowed him to become familiar with a wide range of musical styles within rhythm and blues – something that would not have been possible for almost anyone outside of the industry. Aside from being exposed to new sounds, he got to know the artists and the industry representatives who came through town to promote their records.

King had bombed with his first record release as an artist, Miss Martha King, which he recorded at WDIA and released by Bullet Records. (King would joke that it was “bad enough to drive Bullet into bankruptcy.”)

But when Jules Bihari and his brothers came through town promoting Modern Records at the station, they met King, who had been recommended to them by Ike Turner (King and Ike had done some gigs together). King signed with the Bihari brothers, who released his singles on RPM (a subsidiary of Modern), even recording some of these at Sun Studios with Sam Phillips. (Sun would later be home to Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.)

One record BB King often played while deejaying at WDIA was a single by Lowell Fulson, Three O’Clock Blues. According to Fulson, King played the record more than any other DJ in the country. Soon, King decided to take a stab at his own version of Fulson’s song.

BB King’s first was a cover of Lowell Fulson’s ‘Three O’Clock Blues.’

King’s version of Three O’Clock Blues went to number one in the national rhythm and blues charts in early 1952. Having a chart-topper meant that BB could hit the road, and he began a life of extensive touring that would continue for decades. Being on the road so much made it impossible for him to continue as a DJ, and his success as an artist effectively ended his career in radio.

But in looking back at the musician’s long and successful career, the impact of radio on BB King’s rise can’t be understated.

It opened a door for the young King, one that he was happy to walk through.

The Conversation

John Covach is Director, Institute for Popular Music at University of Rochester.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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