Archive for the ‘pop culture’ Category

Roger Waters Delivers Another Brick In His Legacy

Monday, June 12th, 2017

E72A2147.jpgWith all due respect to the Beatles, if he didn’t invent the concept album he certainly perfected it.  First with Pink Floyd and later as a solo artist, Roger Waters has never been shy about expressing his emotions – if not kicking his audience in the teeth with them.  His latest rock LP released on Friday, “Is This the Life We Really Want?” – his first in nearly a quarter century – is no exception; a non-sugar coated look at the world today and its all too common and disturbing dysfunction.

1973′s “Dark Side of the Moon,” a tale of passing time, greed and mental illness told with jazzy instrumental flourishes and background vocals, is still considered by many as one of the greatest albums of all-time and, certainly, it is among the top selling.  Want barnyard animals to unsubtly communicate your disdain for the political elite? Look no further than 1977′s “Pigs.” Yet, for perhaps the biggest emotional ‘bang for the buck’ there’s 1979′s “The Wall,” a tale of disenchantment and isolation. Buying and playing this album for the first time in high school, I could not believe what I was hearing.  Like an individual coming across a bad accident, I was disturbed but could not look away.

This ability to force us to consider and then consume a sometimes-bitter pill is what Roger Waters is a master at. It is what we have come to expect – even embrace – from his work.  I just downloaded his latest and, through listening previously to samples and reading about some of the lyrics and themes, I am incredible excited to take a full listen and, it appears, from early reviews, with good reason. Stark, beautiful, poetic and humorous, “Is This The Life” is also bleak, angry and unapologetic with topics ranging from drone warfare to terrorism to refugees.  And, consider this line: “Picture a s-house with no f-ing drains. Picture a leader with no f-ing brains.”

When he arrives at the Palace of Auburn Hills later this year, Roger Waters is sure to give quite a show. Always theatric, I’ve read of on-stage visuals at recent shows that have Vladimir Putin holding a baby Donald Trump in his arms. Indeed, where Roger Waters is concerned, the phrase: We don’t need no education simply does not work.  Because, as Waters once again proves, we do need his commentary – be it no holds-barred or delivered with subtlety.  We just need it more often.

 

 

Original Caped Crusader Most Endearing

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 5.58.45 PM‘Holy Heartbreak, Batman!’ exclaimed the USA Today on Friday as we learned of the death of actor Adam West, 88, of leukemia.  The article’s headline, homage to the trademark remarks of Burt Ward’s Robin on the hit “Batman” TV program of the 1960s in which he costarred with West, was picked up in newspapers and online media outlets from coast-to-coast.  It was a reminder that, while West was revered in later years, the show’s campy approach and by default, its star’s deadpan style would cause a fan backlash that would last decades.

I’ve written before about typecasting and, not since George Reeve’s TV take on Superman in the 1950s had anyone become more locked into a public mindset than Adam West would become with the Caped Crusader.  Airing for the first time in 1966 on ABC the series was a runaway success, marking the first time Batman had ever taken to the airwaves in any broadcast medium (the 1940s had seen Saturday morning movie theater serials produced).  With a catchy theme song, kaleidoscope costumes ideal for the newly minted color TV and twice weekly broadcasts (the second settling a cliff-hangar from the previous show) the program jumped off the screen with camp, humor and POW! BIFF! WHACK! action. I know I was hooked.

Yet, the actual Batman comic books were becoming dark and serious at that time, thanks in no small part to a young new writer, Denny O’Neill and wildly talented artist, Neal Adams, who brought a new reality to the medium that has endured for over 40 years.  The shift brought an end to the comics code and, as the “Batman” TV series ended (after 3 years) and its audience (like me) grew up, the irreverent silliness of the show became passé, even embarrassing to us; and Adam West became relegated to B-lister and “has been” in the eyes of many through the 1970s and 80s.

Now, hindsight can be often be ’20/20′ and, as Joni Mitchell so famously sang in ‘Big Yellow Taxi’: Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.  The main premise, further, of pop culture author Chuck Klosterman most recent book, “But What If We’re Wrong,” is that, more often than not, we as a society don’t recognize an individuals’ talents or significant contributions while they are still living. The same might be said about Adam West, although redemption actually would come much sooner.

Though he never appeared in any of the seven Batman theatrical releases he was considered for the role of Bruce Wayne’s father in the 1989 Tim Burton “Batman” – which exposed most to a Dark Knight many a fan boy had been reading about for more than 20 years. Burton’s masterpiece and follow-up would ignite an insatiable appetite for all things Caped Crusader and West would soon begin lending his voice talents to Batman cartoon features.  Over the next 20 years he would subsequently and gradually make peace with this career and become an admired and appreciated pop icon; this through regular appearances at Comic Cons nationwide and well-received turns on “The Simpsons” and “Fairly Odd Parents,” as well as a recurring animated role on “Family Guy.” A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame would follow.

Funny thing, nostalgia.  It can come back to grab you by the heart and mind.  Two years ago, DC Comics premiered a “Batman ’66″ comic with characters styled from the 60s TV Show.  And, last year, West participated in the animated adventure “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders,” a direct to DVD but full-length feature which also showcased the voice work of ‘Robin’ Burt Ward and Julie Newmar (Catwoman). This will now be considered West’s swan song; “Batman” from 1966-1969, a classic. Holy vindication, Batman! It’s just how pop culture – and human nature – works sometimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pros and Cons of Comic Con

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 4.36.02 PMIn recent days I was with client “Downtown Dearborn” recounting an initiative we had successfully promoted that saw the Dearborn Symphony and the city’s Green Brain Comics join forces for a pop concert of “comic book” music.  One of the participants in the meeting said she had no idea people still read comics.  With a smile I informed her, ‘you have no idea.”

In reality and after this weekend it appears I had no true idea just how much the comic book industry had grown in recent years. On Saturday I attempted to attend the 2017 Motor City Comic Con at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi only to make a hasty exit upon realizing there was no parking left for miles and there was a line of eager convention goers virtually wrapped around the outside of the building.

It really is no surprise when one considers what the industry is today. Fueled by mega-budget super hero movies, TV shows, merchandise and video games, the industry has never been hotter. The last time I attended a comic convention (I believe some 20 years ago), the lot was half full and I walked right in.  By Sunday I had learned my lesson, purchasing advance tickets online and arriving 30 minutes before doors opened. This time, there was a small line inside the venue, which moved quickly toward securing a wristband and program.

As the industry has grown, so have the comic conventions, including the annual event here in Detroit.  That has meant an even greater caliber of guest celebrities and artists.  Among those I was able to meet for the first time was Neal Adams.  Most likely you have never heard the name, but in the early 1970s he would turn comic book art on its ear – bringing grim reality and emotion to the ink-filled pages like no one had ever done before.  You’ve heard of Stan Lee? As an artist, he couldn’t hold Adams’ pen.  Adams’ turns on Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow in fact ensured the ‘funny paper’s were no longer called that as his books began tackling far-ranging social issues – including racism and drug addiction – comics code be damned.

I will always remember fondly and nostalgically evenings where my dad came home from Skelton’s Pharmacy in Champaign, Illinois bearing gifts.  For me, it was a Batman comic. For my younger brother John, typically Richie Rich or Donald Duck.  The story telling joy those books brought then are even better today (if not sometimes a bit too violent) with Neal Adams (at 76) still at the top of his game.  I can tick another item off the bucket list.  Next time, I just need to do a little better job planning ahead and remembering: I’m no longer the only comic book geek in the room.

Black Hole Sun

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

f7db2b2d592dd542e7470e2307a5848060837565Was there anyone that wasn’t shocked and saddened to turn on the radio or TV this morning and learn of the tragic and untimely death of singer Chris Cornell?  After performing last night in Detroit at the Fox Theater with the reformed Soundgarden, early media reports indicate he may have taken his own life.

An artist beloved to many leaving this world much too soon is certainly nothing new; we have experienced this all too often in recent years, from Prince to David Bowie. Yet the prospect of suicide can take any death to a different level. Certainly, the feeling of helplessness and confusion can become even more daunting to process and overcome.

Over the course of his long and successful career, Chris Cornell has been both beloved and reviled.  Coming out of the grunge era, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, his was the voice of a flannel-shirted generation. Lightning would strike twice with Audioslave as his powerful, gravelly, despair-tinged voice continued to move and resonate with millions of fans.  As he matured and took to solo work he also took chances – most notably with Timbaland – delving into pop music, much to the dismay of many of his followers.

Providing a degree of comfort this morning were several Detroit radio stations, most notably 89X and WRIF, who eschewed their typical programming of all-talk, jokes and revelry for thoughtful discourse with fans interspersed with Cornell’s music.  Music is personal and emotional. These radio pros did their industry proud.

And so we listen back and remember, including to perhaps Chris Cornell’s most well-know song, “Black Hole Sun,” searching more some kind of meaning, insight or sign in his words: In my eyes, indisposed, in disguises no one knows

 

 

 

Media Made Mothman Mainstream – in 1966

Sunday, April 30th, 2017

MothmanBig Foot. The Loch Ness Monster. The Abominable Snowman. All are a part of folklore and legend yet some believe are entities existing outside the realm of traditional science or nature. Like UFOs, they are typically considered by mainstream society and certainly the media with tongue-in-cheek – at worst hoaxes and at best misunderstood but explainable, naturally occurring phenomenon. And then there is Mothman.

Least known of the so-called ‘cryptids’ of lore yet most seen and covered by media over an extended time period, Mothman has been the subject of numerous theories and speculation for more than 50 years.  Is it a bird, a plane or something more? screamed the headlines in scores of newspapers in and around Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966 and, soon, across the country.  The Point Pleasant Register, Herald-Dispatch, Charleston Daily Mail – all covered extensively what would soon become, over a year’s time, hundreds of sightings of an entity the size of a large man yet possessing the wings of a bird and, most prominently and unforgettably, witnesses described, red, mesmerizing eyes.

Last week, I visited the small town of Point Pleasant on my travels. I had previously read about Mothman in the past, most notably after the release, in 2003, of the Richard Gere’s “The Mothman Prophesies,” a movie based largely on the book of the same name by reporter John Keel.  What has always fascinated me is how local media covered the sightings – as legitimate, front-page news – perhaps like no other mainstream press before or since.  This was not a joke; it appeared, but a series of eyewitness accounts over many months that put a community on edge.  Leading the charge for area news was Mary Hyre of the Athens Messenger. A society reporter for the paper, Hyre knew virtually everyone in the 5,000-person community.  As such, when one and then scores of individuals kept seeing the same, unexplainable thing, she vetted them, believed them, and quoted them in print. This was no ‘one and done’ story but one with legs (and wings).

The tale would ultimately culminate with the tragic collapse, in December 1967, of the Silver Bridge, which for years had joined West Virginia and Ohio across the Ohio River.  Nearly 50 people were killed.  UFO sightings, ‘Men in Black’ appearances and a host of other strangeness had also perplexed citizens during this Mothman time period.  After the collapse, the creature was not seen again (or has he? see below).

Since that time, countless books, movies, an annual festival and a Mothman Museum (hosting clips of much of the media coverage I described previously) have all kept the legend alive as questions persist.  Was Mothman an angel? Devil? A harbinger of doom? Were his appearances a warning of the disaster that would soon befall the community? In November 2016, photographs from a man purporting to have seen and photographed Mothman were shown by a local TV station.  The anchor smiled and joked and, no doubt, the story ran at the very end of the newscast.  Google the local papers and you will find no coverage listed online.  Which begs the question: Should we remain skeptical of such phenomenon or retain an open mind? More recent history suggests we gravitate toward the former when perhaps we should lean a bit more to the latter. Certainly times have changed, especially in an era of video hoaxes and photoshopping. Still, who really knows? After all, at one time the world was flat and the sun revolved around the earth.

 

 

David Cassidy: A (Brand) Identity Lost and Found

Monday, February 27th, 2017

2545764400000578-2936558-image-m-6_1422890689144 I don’t know what I’m up against. I don’t know what it’s all about. I got so much to think about…This week, former pop idol David Cassidy announced to the world that he has dementia and, after nearly 50 years of performing, he is retiring.  His life has been an extreme rollercoaster ride that has touched many and, as much as any, tells a cautionary tale of a brand identity run amok, lost and later found.

A working actor and musician in his teens, Cassidy always sought stardom, appearing on a slew of early 70s high-profile television series, including: “Medical Center,” “Bonanza,” “Ironside,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Adam-12.” But nothing could have prepared him for his role in the Cowsills-inspired “Partridge Family” that would, virtually overnight, elevate his status to one of the most famous and sought after pop stars ever while leaving him wondering who he really was.

For Cassidy, the fame would become both a blessing and a curse as he has described the phenomenon of “him” in interviews over the years.  Media of the day worked both for and against him.  At a time before cable, the Internet, MP3s and video games, there were only three national TV networks; as such, millions watched while millions more bought Partridge Family records (myself among them).  As such, to much of the world David Cassidy was Keith Partridge – whether on television, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine covers, lunch boxes or in concert (where he sang series songs).

Exacerbating the problem for Cassidy was that in a time before the Internet and cable, there were few media platforms to appear as “yourself” – no personal websites to tell the tale of who you really were as an artist rather than fictional character; no E! Entertainment cable network to run stories on a day in your life.  And, further, there were only a handful of network TV talk shows where one might appear “out of costume” as it were; the granddaddy being “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” although this aired late nightly and long after most teenyboppers went to bed.  As a result, David Cassidy lost himself with a personal brand and identity virtually hijacked by a TV network (ABC) that owned his likeness and a recording company (Bell) that owned his voice. It was a disastrous recipe for typecasting and, for many years, resulted in something akin to career suicide. Just ask one-time “Batman” star Adam West.

Cassidy eventually would resurrect his career and take his talents to Broadway and then Vegas and, in time, return to touring and playing (and enjoying) the songs that initially made him famous enough to sell out Madison Square Garden and Wembley Stadium, among others, back in the day.  However, it would take walking away at the top of his fame and drastic measures (appearing mostly nude on the cover of Rolling Stone).  Radio and music buyers would largely eschew his new offerings for years.

They say time can heal all wounds and hindsight is forever 20/20 and, to be sure, in recent interviews he has talked about the positives of extreme celebrity and how it has allowed him the opportunity to positively impact the lives of many. As he enters the twilight of his life and a difficult road ahead, perhaps David Cassidy has also finally come to terms with and accepted the pivotal role Keith Partridge played in his life.  One would think that, at the very least, he’s met him halfway. And you know what they say about that.

Ray Kroc’s Grand Brand Plan

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

raykrocnw2On Friday, at the kind invitation of PR pro and educator extraordinaire Dr. Linda Hagan, I guest lectured a class of young artists at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. In fitting with the curriculum of business and marketing trends and practices, I advised the group on how best to go about creating their own brand.  A significant slice of what I covered is evident in the excellent new movie, “The Founder,” starring Michael Keaton.  Because when it comes to brands – iconic brands – McDonald’s best-known owner Ray Kroc was a true visionary.

I began the CCS class by asking students, ‘What constitutes a brand?’ In response I heard, ‘A logo’ and ‘A slogan’ before another chimed in with, ‘What you stand for.’  All correct, I told them, when taken together.  Because, I further opined, a brand is the sum of all attributes of a particular company, product or service – it is how you answer your phones, how you treat your customers, referral sources and employees. It is how you differentiate yourself from your competition – not just in words but also by delivering upon a value proposition and brand promise.

Ray Kroc understood this as well as anyone ever.  While peddling milkshake mixers to drive-ins across the country in the 1950s, he stumbled upon a little single shingle establishment in San Bernardino, California where an amazing thing was happening: families were waiting in line (and not long) for delicious hamburgers and soft drinks that took minutes from order to delivery.  This was in stark contrast to the traditional drive-ins Kroc had experienced that were littered with trash, loud music and smoking teenagers in their hot rods. Food often took 30 minutes or more and orders were routinely wrong.  The alternative restaurant? The brainchild of the McDonalds brothers.

McDonald’s was the model of efficiency, consistency and wholesome family dining. They offered a unique brand value proposition and delivered upon it each and every time.  Kroc saw the vast opportunity to take this badly needed model across the country via franchising. He likened the golden arches to the church steeples and city hall flags he saw in every town he visited on his sales travels. These arches would add another icon to the skylines of each and every town in America, he predicted.  And once these restaurant chain stores opened in their respective markets, Kroc worked tirelessly to maintain brand standards in operations, food offerings and, most importantly, customer service.

A brand, I told the class, works best when it is honest, genuine and true to who you are.   As current students and future employees or entrepreneurs in the world of art and film, I offered, they needed to be true to who they were but also mindful that their brand must also keep in mind the audiences they want to reach.  After all, a brand cannot be successful, ultimately, if it doesn’t resonate and compel. It must also stay open to evolution.  In fact, McDonald’s has gone through decades of changes to meet evolving consumer tastes and priorities, as evidenced by their expanded menu options, dollar value meals and healthier fare.  Ray Kroc didn’t found McDonald’s but he certainly honed and developed its brand, building the restaurant into arguably the greatest fast-food chain ever.  And to millions starting in the Cold War era, Americana never tasted so good.

 

Kansas Carries On Its Wayward Band

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 3.39.46 PMOnce I rose above the noise and confusion, set a course beyond this illusion…In 1976, the band Kansas produced its swan song album, “Leftoverture” and signature single “Carry On Wayward Son”.  Though it was not their very first album (that had come two years prior), no one had heard anything quite like this art rock from the heartland.  Some 40 years later and despite the exit of most of its original members, Kansas has found itself re-energized with a new LP: “Prelude Implicit” and a piece of work on par with their best ever.  It’s a study in counterintuitives.

In a recent article on Rollingstone.com, writer Steve Smith provides more background on various aspects of this dynamic, including the fact that only band mates Phil Ehart (drums) and Rich William (guitar) remain from the early days. Of particular note is that the heart of soul of Kansas, singer Steve Walsh and guitarist Kerry Livgren are gone after both forever served as primary songwriters. How does any group survive such turnover? Such an undertaking is particularly tough without your lead singer. ELO II, as it was once named, tried unsuccessfully to make it without Jeff Lynne; the Guess Who without two main vocalists: Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman.

Many groups in recent years have toured successfully with “doppelganger” lead singers culled from tribute bands, Journey and Yes among them.  Yet, it’s one thing to emulate on stage while surrounded by several original members, another to release and successfully market brand new music.  With their first album of new material in nearly 16 years, “Prelude Implicit”, Kansas once again hits the right note despite what might otherwise be creative handicaps – just as it did in the mid 1980s when singer John Elefante temporarily replaced Steve Walsh for huge hits “Play The Game Tonight” and “Fight Fire With Fire”.

And, it appears, lightening can strike twice (three times?).  This time, it’s singer Ronnie Platt who supplies the electricity as Kansas returns to two guitars and heavy organ – harkening back of course to its original sound.  And, the signature violin never sounded better. The timing is also just right for this reincarnation as classic rock enjoys a resurgence and new appreciation by millennials who grew up with their parents playing these artists.  Just look around you at your next Steve Miller or Styx concert to the audience’s demographic makeup.

What matters most, though, is the music – and these new tunes sound really, really good.  As a huge Kansas and Steve Walsh fan I was very, very, pleasantly surprised.  Reading reviews, I’m not alone. This is not a tribute band.  As writer Craig Ellis Bacon recounts in the prog report this Kansas brings a fresh, new energy that is also “comfortably confident and mature”, “totally even and incredibly enjoyable”. Give it a listen. I think you’ll agree that 2017 sounds a bit like 1976 again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrity Death Trend Goes Far Beyond 2016

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

690_oak_3d_2017_half_2016As has been written here before, nothing gets traditional and social media going like celebrity deaths. In an era of media done on the cheap, it’s an easy story to tell. In an era of lowest common denominator connections, it’s an easy story to share. This is all natural.

With respect for those who have felt emotionally stung by the death of a celebrity or multiple celebrities, I apologize if this message may be received as insensitive, but, as always, the goal here is to explain.

The popular narrative that seems to suggest that with the turn of the calendar, some sort of anomaly of celebrity deaths will come to an end appears to be driven by factors ranging from wishful thinking to online snark to flat-out ignorance. Celebrities will continue to die in what seems like large numbers because, quite simply, the evolution of media over the past five decades has simply created an enormous number of celebrities.

Once, there were just movie stars, radio stars and politicians, with maybe a few “stars of stage and screen” thrown in. Then, there were TV stars layered on top of that. Then, music expanded, creating rock stars, pop stars, soul stars, rap stars, country stars, jazz stars and opera stars (just look at the sheer volume of #1 hitmakers – it’s staggering). Then, TV expanded creating shows on dozens of channels of genres. Sports expanded, creating star legacies in new markets and in new sports, along with champion players and coaches every year. And so on and so on, to the point today where there are reality show stars, YouTube stars and household names that nobody in your household has ever heard of.

When the celebrity era really stared booming, with the proliferation of TV and the segmentation of music, those who became stars in their 20s and 30s are now in their 70s and 80s. The average life expectancy in the U.S. now is 78.74 years. So what is the chance of someone famous dying tomorrow? Pretty good.

Yes, some music icons died much younger. The reality is, sooner or later, living the way many of them chose to live is going to take a toll. It’s just not because of the year on the calendar.

Another factor is that the celebrities of the World War Two generation have mostly already died. So those who are remembered by Boomers and GenXers are now starting to die. That, in part, makes it seem like more celebrities are dying because we all tend to pay more attention to news that feels relevant to us.

The fact is that celebrity deaths won’t stop in just a few days. Losing an “all time great” or “all time favorite” will be commonplace, but still news, in 2017 and for the foreseeable future.

One More Try

Monday, December 26th, 2016

GeorgeMxlThat’s what George Michael appeared to be preparing for in 2017.  A new documentary film, a new album – all to come nearly two decades after exiting the record charts and moving largely into reclusiveness.  It is a return (redemption?) that will, sadly, have to be realized without him.

I love writing about music but hate writing about an artist leaving us and, in 2016, this happened all too often.  For many of us, George Michael is still in his 20′s or 30′s, singing his heart out and moving about, arguably among the top, true talents to come out of the MTV era.  And while he was a singer, the words he sang spoke to millions of fans across the world.  He knew his audience and they loved him for it.

George Michael could have easily been dismissed after first appearing as a member of Wham! with the bubble-gum pop, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” in 1984 and yet we watched (often in awe) as he not only moved feet but hearts with the haunting “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner”.  As a solo artist, his growth as an artist – singer/songwriter – increased exponentially as he also matured with this audience.  From controversial sex object (“I Want Your Sex”) to existentialist (“Father Figure”) to romantic (“One More Try”) Michael connected with his fans – giving them what they wanted but also keeping them guessing with beats and melodies the likes of which many had never heard.

In a Facebook post yesterday someone noted the cruel irony of Christmas Day being George Michael’s last Christmas, ala his holiday song of the same name.  I prefer instead to refer back to a few of his other tunes (“Heaven Help Me”), (“Praying For Time”), (“Jesus To A Child”),  and, considering his often tumultuous life, perhaps even “Freedom”.  He has turned “a different corner” than expected yet we can still be thankful for the good fortune to have met him. (We) gotta have faith.