The Story Behind Uptown Funk

When singer Bruno Mars and producer Mark Ronson first landed on the instrumental track and a few lines of what would become the hit song “Uptown Funk,” Ronson says the room was filled with electricity.

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“There’s nothing more exciting than that period of the song, because the potential is unlimited,” Ronson tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

But then the process turned long and labored for the co-writers. Mars, Ronson and Jeff Bhasker would meet up in Los Angeles or London or Memphis and work on it, but the energy wasn’t the same.

“You can never get that spirit back,” Ronson says. “You try to write another verse, and it seems forced, because the first one was so natural.”

In fact, there was a moment where Ronson says they thought, “Maybe this song wasn’t meant to be.” But Ronson, who also plays guitar in the song, says he knew there was potential, so he kept fighting for it.

“I’d wait maybe a month until everyone’s nerves cooled down and be like, ‘Hey, can we get back in and try to work on that song again?'” he says. “Eventually, we did get it.”

The song, on the album Uptown Special, just ended its 14-week run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Ronson has put out four albums under his own name, and they all feature other artists singing the songs he co-wrote and produced.

Ronson has also had a hand in other hits: He produced some of Amy Winehouse’s 2006 album Back To Black, including the songs “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good.”

Ronson recalls the first time he met Winehouse, who died in 2011.

“She came to my studio one day. I was on … Mercer and Canal in downtown New York. We hung out, talked about music,” he says. “She was so magnetic, and just her energy — I just instantly liked her and I wanted to impress her, basically. I wanted to have a piece of music that would make her be like, ‘Wow, I want to work with this guy.'”

Mark Ronson is a music producer, DJ and guitarist who's recorded with Adele, Paul McCartney, Ghostface Killah, Lily Allen and Duran Duran, among others. i

Mark Ronson is a music producer, DJ and guitarist who’s recorded with Adele, Paul McCartney, Ghostface Killah, Lily Allen and Duran Duran, among others.

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Ronson grew up in the music world. His stepfather Mick Jones co-founded the band Foreigner, and wrote its hit “I Want To Know What Love Is” for Ronson’s mother.

Ronson was born in London, but his family moved to New York when he was 8. He says he was allowed to hang out in the studio with Foreigner, and that sometimes Jones would bounce ideas off of him. Jones would come home the same time Ronson was leaving for school.

“He’d play me the most recent mix of songs in the studio and ask for my input,” Ronson says. “And I don’t remember any of this happening, but he’d always tell me that I’d be like, in my little English schoolboy voice, ‘Well, I remember the bass was turned up slightly more on the mix from last week, and I thought that was good.’ … I was kind of destined to probably be a studio rat.”


Interview Highlights

On creating ‘Uptown Funk’

I think that where it came from and the initial birth of it — it did come out of a jam at Bruno’s studio. He was playing drums and Jeff Bhasker, who co-produced the record — that’s who’s on synths — and I was playing bass, and I think that that spirit, or at least the raucousness, of maybe that is in there. And then, yeah, like, along the way you fine-tune it because you’re thinking, “We need to turn this into a song.”

Bruno, I think, is probably one of the greatest hook writers of… certainly anyone I’ve ever worked with, if not this current generation of pop artists. Also, when you’re doing something that doesn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time, you almost need to like, iron-clad it, to make sure it gets through.

You have to put these hooks in it. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got all that ear candy in it to get it through the gate.

On how stressful it was to come up with his guitar part for the song

One of the last things to happen was to get my guitar part, and I guess just the pressure of knowing that I still had to come up with something, to basically [do] my end of the deal. … Bruno had done this great vocal, Jeff had all these great synth parts. And while we were doing the guitars, I had done 50, 60 takes of it, and I couldn’t get a part that I liked.

And we went out for lunch, and I sort of — I guess the pressure of this song and the guitar part — I fainted in the restaurant. And let’s just say I redecorated the walls in the bathroom of this nice restaurant and had to be carried out. … And, luckily, I went to Toronto two days later, because that’s where Bruno happened to be on tour … and I got it there. It just became easy. Maybe it was just psychological, getting out of home, whatever it was.

On meeting Amy Winehouse

Her first record had come out, and I just remember really liking this one song off it called “In My Bed” and being a little bit enamored. [She’s] this young Jewish girl from North London — and I’m the same thing, from a Jewish family in North London. [She has] this incredible voice, so I said, “Yeah, I’ll meet her.”

To be honest, it wasn’t like I was some big shot. At that point, I was meeting with anybody who might want to work on music, because you never know where chemistry is going to come, or your break, or whatever it is.

On getting the retro-soul band The Dap-Kings to play on Winehouse’s album

I had started to use Dave Guy, the trumpet player, an incredible musician. I had started to work with him a little bit because I was making these demos of cover versions I did for my second album, Version. But I was doing all the tracks, and then we’d work out the horn arrangements together. So he came into the studio one day, and they had just cut a cover of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for something with Sharon Jones, and I just was blown away by how they got that [sound]. I mean, it was just so much the real deal.

And at the time, Amy and I were working on demos for Back To Black, and I was probably using whatever computer trick I could. They have plug-ins for your computer that make things sound old or whatever it is, and I played Amy this recording of Sharon Jones. And I said, “How good is this? We should get these guys to play these demos.” And she’s like, “Yeah, yeah.” She would say, “It’s the nuts” if she thought something was really good — it was “the nuts.” So she said it was “the nuts” and we got the whole band, not just the horn section.

On writing ‘Rehab’ with Winehouse

She wrote “Back To Black” and “Rehab” while we were there in the studio, in like kind of a matter of hours. So when she was telling me this story about rehab — we were actually walking down the street and she was saying, “There was this time a couple of years ago, and I was in this dark place, and my family came over and some friends, and they tried to make me go to rehab, and I was like, ‘No, no, no.'” And she put up her hand, and I just thought, “That’s such a catchy turn of phrase, and should we go back — and do you want to try to write a song with that?” Because it just instantly sounded like a hook to me. I remember it so well. She was telling me this really deep story, and I’m kind of like, “Is it gross?” — all I can hear is a big pop hook in there.

On starting his career in music by DJing at clubs in New York

I started off DJing when I was 16. And I had two turntables and a handful of records, maybe 10 records, and I’d buy two copies of the same record, so I could practice scratching them and bringing the breaks back by emulating my favorite DJs on the radio, which were Stretch Armstrong and Funkmaster Flex, Red Alert. I would listen to their routines and try and copy in my best way what they were doing, because I didn’t really know anyone else who was a DJ, who could teach me or show me the stuff. And like anything in the beginning, you just play wherever you can. Someone’s doing a gig, they’ve got 20 bucks, you’re there with your whole speaker system and turntables. … You love this stuff so much, you just can’t wait to get out and do it, and you’re just like, “Any way that I can get discovered.” And then after a couple years of playing in clubs in downtown New York, people like Puffy and Guru and Premiere from Gang Starr and Biggie and Jay-Z and all these heroes of mine suddenly [started] coming into these places where I’m DJing, and it was a thrill. And if you do a good job, there’s the chance they might remember who you are, and that happened with Puffy. And he started to book me for other gigs and later with Jay-Z, as well, so that’s how I started to make my name.

Wolf Alice Bros

By Robin Hilton

Rock or Bust

AC/DC’s peculiar musical talent is the ability to remake virtually the same album every few years as if no time at all has passed at all since the last one … and as if the music world itself hasn’t changed a bit since the 1970s. Indeed, any of the 11 songs on these Aussie rock icons’ 15th album in 42 years would have sounded right at home on any of the band’s releases. In 1975, for instance, original lead singer Bon Scott (who died in 1980) sang, “It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll).” Four decades later, Brian Johnson proudly boasts, “In rock we trust, it’s rock or bust!”

For AC/DC, then, the institution of rock music is as close as the band is likely to ever get to religion. But will it really console these guys as the ravages of time and the consequences of poor choices take their toll?

In mid-2014, the band announced that at age 61, rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young could no longer record or tour due to dementia. In a recent issue of Guitar World, his brother Angus (the 59-year-old lead guitarist who still proudly struts across stages in his famous schoolboy get-up) said of Malcolm’s descent into the disease, “Mal got a little disconnected when we were making our previous album, [2008’s] Black Ice. The tour after that was difficult. And in hindsight, I realize I was noticing things even before then.” Stepping into Malcolm’s shoes on Rock or Bust is nephew Stevie Young (who is just a year younger than Angus).

If that weren’t tribulation enough, drummer Phil Rudd recently landed in significant legal trouble, with his real-life choices echoing the assassin-focused lyrics of the band’s 1976 hit “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” In November 2014, Rudd was arrested on charges of murder for hire, possession of methamphetamine and a separate charge of threatening to kill someone. The hit man charge was dropped for insufficient evidence, but Rudd still faces trial for the other allegations. Shortly after the arrest, Angus told Australia’s The Age, “Phil created his own situation. It’s a hard thing to say about the guy. He’s a great drummer, and he’s done a lot of stuff for us. But he seems to have let himself go. He’s not the Phil we’ve known from the past.”

The rest of the band’s response to all this? Well, let’s just put it this way: “Hail, hail to the good times, ‘cuz rock has got the right of way!”

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“Hard Times” finds the band determined to face adversity with, well, determination: “Hard times/Blue and sad/ … They try to hold you down/But they can’t push you around/Trying to hold you back/Getting on the right track.”

Objectionable Content

AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson is 67. But that doesn’t keep him from singing about sex as if he were eternally young and preternaturally potent. Thus, “Rock the House” offers a thematic reboot of the signature 1980s hit “You Shook Me All Night Long.” And lest we miss that connection, Johnson connects the carnal dots with, “Mistress, mistress, all night long/Hey, ooh, keep on coming/Hard and strong.” He then adds descriptions of touching, tasting, screaming and squealing.

“Miss Adventure” also gets right to the sexual point with, “Love you, love you all the night/Make you, make you, nice and tight/Miss Adventure, hot surprise/Bare essential, yeah that’s nice.” “Sweet Candy” salutes a stripper’s sensual prowess (“She do a dance/Slides down the pole/She turn a backflip/Make your heart roll/ … Crawls across the floor/Calls for attention/The boys yell out for more/Sweet Candy.” Meanwhile, the band’s longstanding penchant for double-entendre-laden naughtiness is again on display on “Emission Control,” the cheeky title of which already tells us more than we really need to know about it. Allusions to pornography and masturbation turn up on “Hard Times” (“Hard times/Get online/Make a grown man blind”)

The band is equally vocal about its passion for alcohol. “Play Ball” says, “Pick me up/Fill my cup/Pour me another round/Come on in, mix in the sin/ … I said, it’s party time/ … Listen, drinks all around.” Johnson loves his liquor so much, in fact, he’d like to swim in it (“Dive on in and swim in the gin”). A pub is the destination on “Rock the Blues Away” (“Drivin’ in my car/Headed for the local bar/ … Drink the night away/Until the light of day”).

Summary Advisory

If you asked AC/DC’s members what the meaning of life was, the lyrics to their songs here (and on all of their albums, for that matter) suggest a simple answer: To rock. Oh, there’s plenty of sex and drinking to go along with that, mind you. But the debauchery is just part and parcel of the life of real rockers, the kind that never age … and never seem to mature much, either.

On Rock or Bust, we’re told that rock ‘n’ roll is a salve for pain (“Rock the blues away/Up all night and day”), a drug (“I get high on rock and roll”), a source of encouragement (“And when I’m on the way back home/I listen to some great rock sounds/That make you wanna sing out loud”), a vocational calling (“Down on your luck?/I’ll turn you around, I’m here to help you/Show you what I’ve found”) and, as I said earlier, something like a religious faith (“It’s rock or bust/In rock we trust”). Rock is a way of life for these guys that encompasses seemingly everything.

It’s as if they really don’t know yet that real-world pain and loss can’t be coped with by simply turning up the radio, downing a pint and shaking all night long. Or, more likely, they’re just stubbornly refusing to admit it.

Shaped Splintered And Remade

February 07, 201512:40 PM ET
The sound salvation, cleaning up the nation.

Colin Davey/Getty Images

Music critics these days love to argue about “rockism,” the unexamined prejudices we bring to our musical judgements, and “poptimism,” an effort to celebrate commercial stuff that some think goes way too far. My book, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, aims to get us out of that endless back and forth by focusing on the key place songs become pop: radio, which, beginning on AM with Top 40 in the 1950s and then moving to FM in the 1970s, gave music its deepest connection to Americans. Radio made new tunes and styles familiar, perennial, memories. And unlike movies or TV, radio was structurally segmented: Different formats like country, R&B, rock, Top 40 and Adult Contemporary targeted different audiences.

Top 40 Democracy

The Rival Mainstreams of American Music

by Eric Weisbard

That’s formats, not genres: Radio sold listeners to advertisers, not music to fans, and that meant being pragmatic about the tastes of groups highly defined by age, gender, race and class, not vaunting musical standards. True believers could fume all they wanted, and they have, from Elvis Costello attacking “Radio, Radio” in his punk days to Public Enemy‘s Chuck D questioning black radio’s blackness. But the cynicism of lowest common denominator formats was good, I argue in my book, because even idealistic gatekeepers like music snobs are inherently narrow minded. In catering to chunks of everybody, not everybody all at once, what I call Top 40 democracy produced a pop scene of striking diversity, armored by commercialism. Think of the Grammy Awards, which routinely dwarf the Oscars in the number of categories represented and in demographic range. Normal, in music, became a bunch of different, simultaneous, normals: parallel and jostling mainstreams, rather than everybody forced to fit into the same blockbuster formula or accept marginal status.

How do you tell that radio format history, let alone assess its impact? I used case studies, letting The Isley Brothers tell the tale for R&B, Dolly Parton for country, and Elton John for Top 40, with a radio station, Cleveland’s WMMS, representing the rock format, a record label, A&M, representing adult contemporary and a final chapter on formats in the 21st century. It’s a lot to reckon with, so I’m grateful to get the chance to discuss my findings with three writers versed in the music I cover and attuned to questions of mainstream pop and its cultural role. For the discussion below, I asked Maura Johnston, Jason King and Michaelangelo Matos to each take portions of the book for us to focus on. Pick a mainstream, any mainstream …


Part One: Was 1984 The Greatest Year In Top 40 History Or The Beginning Of The End?

Prince performs on stage during the Purple Rain tour in 1984.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

Michaelangelo Matos: Last September, Rolling Stone‘s website asked Maura and I to help determine and write up a list of 1984’s greatest Hot 100 hits. (I requested a sequel of the 100 best non-Hot 100 hits, but no dice. It could be done, easily.) That was a fecund time, and certainly a world-building year as music fan for, I would imagine, everyone here to one degree or other.

A while back I came across a year-end playlist for KQRS-FM, the AOR/classic-rock warhorse of Minneapolis/St. Paul: The Top 92.5 Songs of 1984. It featured, for surely the first and last time since the very early seventies, at least, actual contemporary black music, and not just “Purple Rain” — a song that, as Alan Light reveals in his new Let’s Go Crazy, Prince played after calling up Neal Schon, just to make sure he wasn’t accidentally ripping off a Journey song. That shift happened at WMMS-FM in Cleveland, as well. That chapter almost uncannily mirrored my memory of every major rock-radio shift through the late Nineties.

But the early-to-mid-Eighties particularly interest me, across Democracy‘s chapters. Right after the big post-disco crash of the record business in late 1979, when what had previously been described as a “recession-proof” business had overextended itself, radio buttoned up. The most exciting new music around was post-punk (broadly defined) and hip-hop (still in its pre-Run-D.M.C. days), but you wouldn’t hear either on rock or R&B radio for a long time, except as the occasional novelty.

What I recall from that period — and this is undoubtedly down to being around people with fairly tame musical tastes, which isn’t a judgment — is a lot of AC (adult contemporary), and a lot of country crossover. So Dolly Parton’s shrewdness in mass-marketing herself (“TV appearances became the most complete way to experience Parton’s multiplicity,” Eric writes) and negotiating the mainstream market (her producer, Gary Klein, “represents the middlebrow middleground in our business,” said an exec) resonated. So did the utter whiteness of pop radio pre-Thriller, as Eric reports in his Isley Brothers chapter; black hits constituted a paltry one-tenth of the Top 40 by 1982.

Anyway, there’s a lot to pull out of this book, and there’s a particular interest of mine that the book doesn’t address at all — dance music. Much of the backlash against the term “EDM” has come from the way it collapses distinctive styles that might have much in common: Deep house is very different from dubstep. (And both “deep house” and “dubstep” have wildly different meanings based on era and audience. Just like all the categories in Eric’s book — hmmm.)

But it’s foolish to think of EDM as a genre, because as Eric demonstrates using five very different and longer-lasting musical areas, it is instead a format. You go to a festival like Electric Zoo in New York, or TomorrowWorld in Atlanta, and you get X amount of progressive house plus X amount of deep house plus X amount of trance — ad absurdum. It’s no different than programming a radio station, because a formula is calibrated and then tweaked in more-or-less real time, or at least as often as the books allow. With festivals it’s a lot of wheeling and dealing — and a lot more names than on a typical radio playlist, even one as wide as Top 40 at its broadest. Format is precisely right.

Eric, as you wrote the book, I wonder if you remembered any time frame differently than the way you found yourself describing it. Did the book correspond to (any of) your memories of specific eras?

Eric Weisbard: Thanks, Michaelangelo, I’m eagerly looking forward to reading your book The Underground Is Massive this spring, which will finally give us the history of EDM that we’ve been looking for. EDM, as you point out, despite its long history, is the new commercial pop sound of the 2010s, aided in particular by Top 40 embracing its sonics, and in return diminishing hip-hop as a textural underpinning for hit records.

I’ll add a note about Top 40. Going back to its 1950s start, the quintessential crossover format has risen and fallen every single decade, hurt at different times by hard genre sounds it struggled to package: hippie rock, heavy metal, rap, etc. That hasn’t happened in the 2000s: Top 40 radio has kept winning. The ongoing primacy of Top 40 resists the myth of internet-fostered “long tail” undergrounds succeeding. Top 40 wins as a movement of a different kind: a global force for all kinds of migrant sounds and migrant identities.

As for the late 1970s, early 1980s: Yes, that’s a key moment for Top 40 democracy, because it’s when much of the economic progress that had fueled the format system when it extended to all these different categories in the late 1960s — stations targeted different populations because now blacks, working class kids, southerners, and the like had money to spend — froze in place forever. Yuppies, that minute group of people, became a radio obsession, because 25-54 is the quintessential ad demographic and advertisers stopped believing, for a time, in the social outsiders. This is a periodic pendulum shift in radio, with huge consequences for music. Advertisers and programmers had this loss of faith in the format system: Top 40 abandons R&B and hard rock, for songs that started in country and AC, which were both whiter and — no small thing — connected to upward economic categories, the Sun Belt and white collar women workers. Rock radio flirts with Top 40 and black artists for a second, thanks to MTV, then splits into classic rock for those aged 25-54 and modern rock for … who exactly? This is where your question about memories and research comes in. I remember the early 1980s as the moment when new wave hits on MTV and modern rock radio led me to college radio and I felt part of a vanguard. Now, I think of us as a conquering elite, unaware of how our contempt for format pop justified contempt for the non-collegiate U.S.A.

Jason, for me one of the most gratifying parts of this book was telling, in detail, the story of The Isley Brothers, whose hits from the 1950s to 2000s defined R&B, their main format but at times also — from their perspective, as a group that wanted to reach all kinds of listeners, but did best within the corporate confines of a black-oriented major label subdivision — their prison. R&B flourished, but was not exactly Black Power. Do you see that glass as half full, half empty, or something else?


Part Two: The Isley Brothers And The Prison Of Crossover Success

The Isley Brothers performing on television in 1964.

Keystone/Getty Images

Jason King: Let me start by saying that Eric’s Isley Brothers chapter happens to be the most skillful essay ever penned on the band (admittedly, there are not many essays on the band), and I’d vote for it as one of the most thoughtful essays on 20th century R&B I’ve come across.

It’s also a timely read. Just a couple of weeks ago, enigmatic Frank Ocean uploaded a stark cover of the Isleys’ 1976 “At Your Best (You Are Love) to his Tumblr. The cover was in tribute to Aaliyah on the anniversary of what would have been her 36th birthday: The felled singer previously covered the song in 1994 for her debut Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number. Ocean’s cover caused a minor generational stir, at least that’s what my ever-contentious Facebook timeline and Twitter feed tells me. Nonmillenial R&B fan/purists delivered critical beatdowns/history lessons to millennials who had incorrectly tweeted and status-updated Ocean’s rendition as an “Aaliah cover” rather than an “Isley Brothers cover.” The slight, decidedly benign on the scale of pop appropriation, does reaffirm how the Isley Brothers time and again get eclipsed in the historical narrative of the music they themselves create. The 1959 hit “Shout,” a subversive update on the slavery-era ring shout, becomes misremembered as caricature thanks to white frat sleeper Animal House; the 1961 smash “Twist and Shout” becomes quickly overtaken by The Beatles‘ more famous cover. Eric, you demonstrate the complexity of those erasures/appropriations, and you do a good job tracking the Isleys’ wily recalcitrance as musical journeymen over the longue durée. It’s fascinating to consider the larger cultural and political changes that informed black life in America through the lens of the Isleys and conversely, to consider how the Isleys themselves, by way of commercial radio and records, helped inform those changes too — even if they’re sometimes dismissed as thirsty-capitalist musicians rather than benevolent civil rights crusaders.

Though the Isleys have long been a beloved group in and for black communities, their initial success did not start on the black charts but on the Top 40. In the 1950s, the band aimed for the vanilla success of the Mills Brothers before careening into mainstream success at the earliest outset of soul with “Shout.” The Isleys became an R&B staple exactly at the moment that black-oriented radio formats — the kind that ultimately birthed singular talents like DJ Frankie Crocker — came into fruition. Critics endlessly debate the politics of black artists like The Supremes and Michael Jackson and Prince crossing over — that is to say, those artists’ desire to reach beyond a formative niche audience. But the Isleys’ story, as Eric lays it out, is eyebrow-raising because the band crossed back into a segregated R&B format rather than over. And that alternative journey is reflective of the multi-decades story of R&B itself.

The Isley Brothers story gets even more improbable as the decades roll by; in the ’80s the band has its “Caravan of Love” moment (I often ponder how their classics have become decontextualized TV commercial and movie soundtrack fodder in the branding- and licensing-aggressive 21st century) and their 1975 “Fight the Power” screed becomes Public Enemy fodder in Spike Lee’s monumental 1989 Do the Right Thing. Later, the Isley Brothers’ 1983 steamer “Between the Sheets” (currently the title of Chris Brown’s postponed tour, FYI) morphs into an infamous 1990s Biggie sample; and, in the same decade, R. Kelly, who produced the Aaliyah cover, rebrands lead singer Ron Isley as Mr. Biggs in (and beyond) his “Down Low” song/video cycle.

Manning Marable once wrote that racism produced twin responses in African American communities: the push to assimilation and the push to self-segregation/cultural protectionism. Sometimes seen as warring impulses, both responses are equally valid and justifiable, given the terrorizing reality of structural racism. The Isleys worked both sides of that coin. In the mid 1950s, as Eric notes, the band members didn’t hide their disdain at being classified as rock and roll: Despite the popularity of the emergent genre, they, like some other black artists of the era, aspired to more than association with a rebellious culture defined by transitional teen music, indie labels, and novelty singles. After The Beatles lay waste to early ’60s biracial pop utopia, the Isleys signed to Motown and rode high on the boho-inclusiveness and corporate soul message of “Its Your Thing” — the song’s call-to-freedom in turn set the tone for multiple identity movements in the late ’60s and ’70s. Play it alongside the Afro-Latin groove and studio experimentation of 1973’s “That Lady,” the tumescent Quiet Storm of 1975’s “For the Love of You” and the black power fervor of “Fight the Power.” Those shifty moves add up to a compelling story of shrewd careerism in black pop: the will to succeed, the hustle that we admire/recoil from in restless spirits like Diddy and Kanye. Nonpareil journeyman R. Kelly — who’ll croon with Celine Dion while writing Chi-Town steppin’ tunes in his sleep and scandalizing ears with X-rated tracks about black panties — and relative newbie Frank Ocean — who is openly gay and nakedly ambitious — have both followed in Isleys Brothers’ ultra-careerist footsteps (in the dark).

Reading about the Isleys’ fifty-plus year journey in pop and soul made me think about the also-canny Pointer sisters, who moved through a series of genres and formats throughout the course of their singular — and critically overlooked — multi-decades career, and Queen as well, given that I’m currently writing about their work. I’m also thinking about 1990s neo-soul — that return to classic soul popularized by artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, Maxwell and Jill Scott. In early press interviews, some of those artists took great umbrage with the neo-soul classification, seeing it as a straitjacket rather than as a strategic umbrella that might usefully distinguish their work from, say, then-popular new jack swing or the hip-hop soul of Mary J. Blige (herself an R&B stalwart, bopping in and out of formats and genres) and allow them to be expressively free. Part of that resistance, I think, has to do with the struggle against institutional repression itself, the fight to emerge as cosmopolitan and not be pegged as any one particular thing or another (that you didn’t create for yourself.) You can’t be free if you’re relegated to the back of the bus. But ultimate freedom doesn’t necessarily mean sitting at the front but exercising the right to sit anywhere you want to, including the front or the back. The whole bus is yours, and no better way to prove that than by shifting into a lot of different seats on your journey — just like the Isleys did.

Eric Weisbard: Wow, you covered so much there, Jason! The reason I started my case studies with the R&B format is that it predates Top 40: Black-listener-oriented radio started in 1948 on Memphis’s WDIA, before all-hits radio was a thought, then Billboard started its Rhythm & Blues chart the next year, not coincidentally. R&B radio recognized black America as urban and urbane, gave musicians a platform to leap from and a home to return to (lacking in movies and TV). But it was still, always, the worst funded, most inequitable portion of the radio world. And hallowed WDIA is now part of the iHeartRadio chain: the former Clear Channel. You can see that as a sad parable for innovative radio and black cultural aspirations. But I think that, ultimately, cultural formations should be judged by what their worst tendencies accomplish, not just the idealistic, canonical exceptions. The Isley Brothers, chasing every trend, were — like Dolly Parton, like Elton John — the kind of performers who are not, fundamentally, driven by aesthetics — they want results. Those sorts of artists never do well when histories are written; they’re too slippery and their works too varied in quality. But as you put it so beautifully, they sure do find their way to every part of the bus!

Maura, I know you’ve been one of the few critics to champion new mainstream rock in the 21st century: Funny how what’s still the biggest category of music as a genre never made peace with its role in the format system. What do you make of rock’s struggle to get new sounds on radio that can be three impossible things at once: popular, appealing across different demographics, and still considered rock by hardcore fans? Is rock an outlier, or reflective of other challenges that Top 40 democracy has faced in recent years?


Part Three: Modern Rock Is Kind Of A Mess

Kirk Hammett (left) and James Hetfield of Metallica perform during the 2013 Orion Music + More Festival at Belle Isle Park on June 9, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan.

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Maura Johnston: Earlier this decade, Metallica — the kings of thrash — decided to cash in on their capital with metal fans by throwing a festival called Orion Music + More. It might have had the most backyard-barbecue feel of all the American festivals I’ve attended over the past few years; each member of the band had a pavilion devoted to his interests. But what most impressed me about it was its booking, which cast a wide net around the idea of “rock” instead of going down-the-middle with artists who would be expected to appeal to Metallica fans. Country chronicler Eric Church, garage triumphalists Hot Snakes, transcendental metallurgists Liturgy and the bleak post-punkers Arctic Monkeys were on the first year’s bill, while year two had the stomping Dirtbombs, metal-gazers Deftones, scorching Dead Sara and mad scientists of the Dillinger Escape Plan, as well as a stage devoted to EDM. It was, in a lot of ways, my platonic ideal of a festival, thanks to its wide remit; it also completely tanked, and ended after two years.

Orion came to mind a few times while I read Eric’s chapter on rock radio and The Buzzard, the one-time counterculture beacon that helped define both Cleveland’s and this country’s idea of rock and roll. The genre known has “rock” has a wide definition that could be seen as alternately intimidating and incoherent — look at the outcry that occurs whenever someone whose career path lists just a little bit too close to “pop” (itself a nebulous term) gets on the short list for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The business needs of radio, as outlined in Top 40 Democracy, require a certain amount of narrowcasting in order to sell demographics to advertisers; but it becomes more boundary-drawing than anything else, overt decrying of certain influences even while certain signifiers creep into the sounds being played.

In a lot of ways my taste evolution mirrors that old story told by the late Jani Lane on the Behind The Music, about Columbia records swapping out a giant poster of the ogling hard rockers Warrant for one featuring the doom-and-gloom Seattleites Alice In Chains; my taste for spectacle-heavy hard rock gave way to artists who were swept up in the “alternative” boom. Sonically, the bands existed on more of a continuum than some histories claim; I heard Soundgarden’s squalls, Mother Love Bone’s smudged-eyeliner take on glam and Alice In Chains’s thousand-yard staring on Headbanger’s Ball, after all. But the mental visual that was provided by the idea of alternative sweeping aside Sunset Strip-bred leather boys with electric toys by sheer force of their Realness was too tempting for those people who fancied themselves rock purists to not eat up, at least theoretically. That privileging of “real” even persists today; WZLX, the classic-rock station up here in Boston, has let a bunch of bands birthed 25 years ago into its canon, and you can bet that more of them were known for wearing flannel than Aqua Net.

But I still listen, because I feel comfort in rock, or at least ZLX’s idea of it, even though it doesn’t have a lot of women and I’d much rather hear “Down Boys” than late-period Chili Peppers. I fully admit that my halcyon era for commercial rock radio was that blip during the ’90s when bands like Veruca Salt and The Breeders — who had women in roles that went beyond “token bass player” — were butting up against Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam. It was an era that felt fairly open to possibility, as close to the freeform-yet-commercial ideal espoused by Boomers as I could have imagined. It was still exceedingly white in a way that presaged the “ironic hip-hop cover” scourge; it was also a lot shorter-lived than the institutional memory would like to think. But it was still interesting enough to prove itself as commercial suicide, ushering in the era of ladies being splintered off to Lilith Fair and Limp Bizkit and their breaking-stuff brethren taking over rock radio.

Rock, in 2015, is kind of a mess, with multiple mainstreams — and that’s still true if you remove a) bands like Fall Out Boy and Paramore who have graduated to a place in the pop firmament and b) those listeners whose idea of “new music” stops at the latest discs by classic-rock mainstays. The two largest mainstreams are somewhat divided by class, or at least ideas of such. On one side you have both the music-for-its-own-sake types championed by “indie” labels and those artists who specialize in what I call “sync-core” — tasteful recordings that could soundtrack a morning at the office or a coolly cheerful car ad. On the other are the strivers, whether they’re the still (righteously) pissed bands of dudes touting their alienation or those bands who spend their summers pressing the flesh at Warped Tour. (A few acts dance between the two poles — Arctic Monkeys and Queens Of The Stone Age, two of my favorite acts, come to mind immediately. Like I said, this split is a very rough one.) One of these mainstreams is disproportionately covered by the press, especially if you count ad agencies among “press.” The other is looked down upon almost reflexively and dismissed — in 2014 two of my favorite albums were by artists who had fronted formerly popular bands from the latter side (Brody Dalle, formerly of Distillers, and Gerard Way, ex-My Chemical Romance) and the lack of critical notice those records received would have probably been more galling if the reasons weren’t so obvious.

The squabbling over the idea of what rock means in 2015 — guitar-drums-bass? no synthesizers? keyboards only if they aren’t electronically amplified? — is absolutely indicative of the struggles listeners have with figuring out what they like, mostly because of how much time they have to do so. (Spoiler: Not a lot.) A rock station in 2015 aesthetically could absolutely encompass the pugnacious spirit of Paramore, the last-call gloom of Arctic Monkeys, the sparkle-flecked gauze of Silversun Pickups and even the more guitar-heavy offerings of the constantly striving Miguel and the harder tracks by Eric Church; the tricky part comes when the commercial imperative is introduced, the delicate art of balancing the needs of the market’s iron fist with the desire to be entertained by rebellion, or at least the notion thereof.

Eric Weisbard: I think my favorite sentence in my book is: “Rock radio had narrowcast itself into a frustrated howl.” But one of the reasons I looked closely at rock, the ENEMY in so many poptimist narratives, is that, as a format rather than an ever-so-touchy and fragmented genre, it wasn’t so oppressive. In fact, it was arguably the biggest loser in the format game. For one, advertisers in the age of the yuppie and afterwards through our moment’s upper class hipsters distrusted its heavy metal leaning, working class, “earthdog” fans. But also, those fans crapped on success with a romanticization of anti-format and anti-commercial styles. Even Metallica could not be seen as, precisely, pop — and this the band with the biggest selling album of the SoundScan era! If that’s not pop, what is? Rock, the format, stopped being able to break new bands regularly after the 1970s. The grunge of the early ’90s that you recall so fondly was an aberration: At the Buzzard, they brought back the program director from the glory days of the 1970s, then fired him when it became clear there was no coming back. And yet: One looks to the continued success of KROQ in Los Angeles, doing what WMMS did in the 1970s, which is to say making new rock commercially attractive without apology and raking in big audiences and big profits. Why can’t other stations pull off the same feat?

Maybe, with huge thanks to my three interlocutors, that’s a good place to end this journey through the music that formats made. I’d question one phrase of Maura’s: To me, “the market’s iron fist” is an abstraction — better to look at specific markets at specific times, discovering along the way how, from the 1970s onwards, music formats have revamped the age-old role of the theater set up alongside the marketplace in the spirit of communal festivity and the spending of coin. Every time music consciously sells itself to one format category and not another it puts the taste of that audience ahead of the taste of an artist or aesthetes. Something is lost in the exchange, but something is also discovered: about what that collective group of people needs, what calls they respond to. It’s a long story by now, informing each of the now-hallowed format representatives you’ll see performing at the Grammys. All will seem utterly normal — that’s the point. Yet think, as you watch, about how category-by-category those musical norms, and the listeners attached to them, are also strikingly different. Top 40 democracy is as messy as any other form of democracy, but it means that when it comes to music we’re not all left trying to carve a piece of the same pie.

Zedd

“I Want You to Know”

If you went to sleep last night wondering if the current electronic dance music craze has finally run its course, the answer is no. And this movement that’s largely been fueled by European DJs and producers such as David Guetta, Avicci, Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia can now add another Continental contributor to that list: Zedd.

Zedd—whose real name is Anton Zaslavski—was born in Russia but grew up in Germany. Though he’s relatively new on the scene Stateside, he’s already pocketed a Grammy (in 2014) for Best Dance Recording (“Clarity”). And he’s attracted notice from some high-profile collaborators, namely Selena Gomez and OneRepublic’s omnipresent Ryan Tedder, who together wrote “I Want You to Know” with Zedd (along with one other contributor named KDrew).

As is often the case with EDM, it’s not the top-credited band or performer whose voice(s) we hear on this song. It’s Selena’s that swoops and soars as Zedd supplies the stabbing, dance-ready synth beats surrounding her.

What does she sing about in that sonic swirl? “I Want You to Know” is a simple, straightforward and mostly upbeat song on which Selena declares her faithfulness to a soul mate with whom she shares lots of common ground. “I want you to know that it’s our time,” she begins. “You and me bleed the same light.” That’s followed by this promise: “I want you to know that I’m all yours/You and me run the same course.”

For Gomez, resisting her guy’s charms is futile, and she’s quick to inform us, “I’m slippin’ down a chain reaction/And here I go, here I go, here I go, go/And once again I’m yours in fractions/It takes me down, pulls me down, pulls me down low.” Still, she seems to characterize the romance as a shared refuge, singing, “Honey, it’s raining tonight/But storms always have an eye.” And she tells her man, “I’m better under your reflection.”

The only lines that arguably imply something cloudier come when Selena sings, “Tell me you’re covered tonight/Or tell me lies, tell me lies, lies.” It’s the lone moment that suggests something darker than the earnest, bubbling optimism we hear pretty much everywhere else.

The video focuses almost entirely on Selena, who is a whirling dervish on the dance floor. Distilling the essence of the dance club phenomenon quite effectively, Selena is sweat-drenched and her slightly intoxicated-looking visage radiates passionate ecstasy as she loses herself sensually and rhythmically in Zedd’s pulsating beat. It’s an experience, the images inadvertently suggest, that’s about as close to transcendence as many people are capable of getting these days. And the whole thing is structured around Selena occasionally going to the restroom, oddly enough, where she always checks her look, kisses herself in the mirror, and returns to the party wearing increasingly revealing outfits.

A postscript: It seems Miss Selena Gomez is finally putting her famous ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber fully behind her, with many entertainment news outlets reporting that she and Zedd are now officially a couple. She recently told MTV, “He’s this cute little German, and he’s got really beautiful eyes, and he’s very sweet and funny.”

Fifty Years

By Tom Huizenga

Sometimes great things are born from happy accidents. Fifty years ago today in San Francisco, composer Steve Reich premiered It’s Gonna Rain, his first official piece. The music, made by manipulating a recording of a Pentecostal preacher, opened a door to a new way of composing for Reich and helped launch his career. He says the creation of the work came about by chance as he was fiddling with two identical tape loops of the preacher that got out of synch with each other.

“Actually the going out of phase was kind of an accident,” Reich told NPR’s Fresh Air in 1999. “But when I heard it I thought, ‘This is fantastic.’ It’s a kind of seamless process that goes on and on. After I did that piece and another one like it, I began to apply that principle to live musicians from about 1967 to 1971, and then sort of moved on from there.”

Steve Reich, with a phase-shifting pulse gate, photographed in New York in 1969. i

Steve Reich, with a phase-shifting pulse gate, photographed in New York in 1969.

Nonesuch

One reason Reich was drawn to the tape he recorded of the charismatic preacher, Brother Walter, was the sheer musicality of the sound. “Sometimes when people speak, they almost sing,” Reich said. “Tape loops are little bits of tape that are spliced together so that they just go around and around and around and repeat themselves. And when you take a bit of speech like ‘It’s gonna rain,’ the way he says it, you really begin to hear the music of what he’s saying and what he says increasingly blended together so it’s hard to separate them.”

Another reason for Reich’s interest in the sermon was the Cold War. Reich stumbled across the preacher in San Francisco’s Union Square Park in 1964, when the Cuban missile crisis was still a fresh memory.

“And he’s talking about the flood in the Bible and Noah and the ark,” Reich said, “and you’ve got to remember the Cuban missile crisis was in ’62, and this was something hanging over everyone’s head … that we could be so much radioactive dust in the next day or two. So this seemed very appropriate.”

Once Reich realized the beauty of his accidental discovery, he set out to make It’s Gonna Rain.

“There are two loops of his voice, starting in unison,” Reich said. “And then one slowly creeps ahead of the other — I just did it with my thumb on the recording reel of one of the machines. And so they go out of phase. It’s like a canon or a round, like ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ And you get first a kind of shaking, a reverberation, and then you get a sort of imitation and gradually you begin to hear it as a round. And that’s exactly what happens in this piece.”

The idea of notes and phrases closely interlocking, pulsating and slowly evolving is one of the central tenets of what would come to be called minimalism. It’s Gonna Rain is just one example of Reich’s broad musical lexicon that over five decades has influenced countless musicians in classical, electronic and even popular music.