Joseph is the name three singing sisters from Oregon/USA have given themselves. They have released four albums with unique and timeless songs that range from atmospheric folk music to power pop with a hint of rock – the latest is called The Sun and is about mindfulness, resilience and healing.
„I thought I was the light switch you turned on / But I am the sun.” Bang! Finally, lyrics that stick with you. Striking, clunky and inspiring in the best sense of the word. They are by the American band Joseph and can be heard in The Sun, the title track of Joseph’s fourth album which was released in the spring of 2023. In The Sun, a person frees themselves from the bonds of a seemingly healthy relationship and begins to shine. The person in the song thought that their constantly depressed mood was “normal” and looked for faults only in themselves, without realizing that the other person in the relationship was primarily concerned with feeling superior: „Well, you wanted me small / So you could feel like someone at all / And I played along / And normalized, telling myself I was wrong.“ But now something has changed. Suddenly, “Feeling good doesn’t feel bad anymore” and the unfair game stops: “I’m done playing a game that can’t be won.” The motif of the light switch that crops up in the main lyrics seems strange, but was chosen deliberately: It accentuates not just the artificial glow that the person in the song has long taken for granted, but also being instrumentalized and used. The person in the song now knows that they are not just some switch the other person pulls to create an artificial glow – they are a star shining brightly on their own!
Of course the assumption is that this song is primarily about a romantic relationship. But the lyrics are kept so general that the dynamics described can also be applied to other relation-ships: those between children and parents, between team members and supervisors, or more generally, between members of a group. And anyone who has gradually grown tired of euphoric self-assertiveness hits like Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Cher’s Strong Enough or I’m Still Standing by Elton John, might discover an understated alternative in the hymnal-optimistic Joseph song The Sun.
What makes the song worth listening to, aside from the pointed lyrics and captivating melody, is the soulful performance and the unusual people behind it. Joseph is a trio that is already somewhat well-known in the United States, but tends to fly under the radar in the rest of the world. They are the twin sisters Allison and Meegan Closner and their half-sister Natalie Closner-Schepman, who is four years older. Together, they bring harmonies to the stage which are almost indescribable and which only such an unconventional group of sisters can pull off. And we’re not talking about clinical perfection, i.e. an artfully smooth but ultimately soulless fusion of voices, but a very special overall sound that each singer enriches with individual nuances. Natalie Closner-Schepman isn’t just a vocalist, but also “the one with the guitar” and the spokesperson in interviews. She originally tried her hand as a solo singer-songwriter and then, when things weren’t taking off, persuaded the no less talented Meegan and Allison to join her in a band. The name of the trio? Well, Joseph is a town in Oregon, the state the three are from, and Joseph was the name of their beloved grandfather – sometimes it can be that simple and down-to-earth. For almost a decade the soulful sisters have been offering up everything from atmospheric folk music to power pop, while effortlessly integrating elements of country and rock, but without allowing themselves to be pinned down to a specific genre. What they do has a timeless quality. Their music is so rich with beguiling melodies, unusual harmonies and great lyrics, their performance so charismatic, that Joseph should have been superstars long ago. But they aren’t. They are probably just … too idiosyncratic.
It starts with the way they present themselves. They usually go onstage seemingly without make-up and in casual clothes. And when they do “dress up” it looks more old-fashioned, like grandma’s birthday or a school prom, than in the style of “real” pop stars. There are flashes of rock glamour here and there, but on the whole you can’t help but get the impression that these sisters are just having fun, perhaps even self-deprecatingly putting on something of a show so they can ultimately focus on the only thing they really want to do: go out and sing.
This is why, although there are a few “official videos” of the trio’s songs, these seldom seem to be lavishly produced and, it must be said, are also rarely very riveting. Much more exciting are the countless live or unplugged clips of Joseph circulating on the internet: The three women can be seen standing somewhere in the countryside, in cramped studios or in auditoriums, stores or libraries, performing their songs in a raw lo-fi sound. Sometimes they seem so immersed in their music that you find yourself holding your breath, even when watching them on your device. As a result, the ending of every Joseph song on the sometimes lavishly arranged studio albums with a band line-up – which are well worth listening to – is properly composed, i.e. it never fades out. Joseph’s songs are self-contained compositions for live performances – they get to the point in every respect.
Yes, I can really rave about this band. But from all the exceptional characteristics described above, it’s easy to circle back to songs like The Sun. Because just like the person in this song frees themselves from negative influences and begins to shine from within, the band’s development and approach also reflects its will to resist, above all to remain true to itself, to avoid artificiality, even self-deception and to not betray its own artistic aspirations. In interviews, Joseph talks openly about insecurities, self-doubt and fears, about a family dynamic that was not always harmonious, about successes, difficult partnerships and failures – and about personal development, for which they also sought therapeutic help.
Some earlier songs were, in fact, already about intense relationship work, self-assertiveness and empowerment. The 2023 album The Sun now documents a re-emergence of the band and is almost entirely about “more-ness”, as the protagonists call it: about recognizing that you are “more” than you think you are – and even more than what society, your personal environment and your partner want to reduce you to. So the ten songs on the album are something like the sound of resilience, with unusual lyrics like the following, which come from the constantly rising and falling song Waves Crash: „There’s no need to define / How I measure up next to anyone / Or how well I stayed in the lines / I’m a tall, tall tree reaching up in the breeze / All I have to do is breathe / I’m a limb of goodness in motion / (…) / You wouldn’t tell the flower it was made of sin / You know it’s good just for being / What if, what if I’m not made of sin? / What if, what if I’m lightning?“ No, life isn’t about comparing yourself to others and fitting in. It’s about existing freely – like a tree or a flower, as a natural being, without guilt and with good intentions. Wow, that makes you sit up and take notice again. But it’s a disarming perspective. With a surprising final question: “What if I am lightning?”
Mindfulness, resilience, empowerment – these are the buzzwords of our time. Many pop stars use them too, especially female ones. But what American stars in particular are selling as “female empowerment” isn’t always convincing: Some stars who are living in the lap of luxury thanks to countless hits in the charts, and who have unlimited financial resources, suggest that you can simultaneously be a superstar, successful pop entrepreneur, sex symbol and a perfect mother, too. Other stars present themselves as especially tough and independent, but try to conceal the fact that their crude lyrics and glamorous looks, which have been enhanced by cosmetic interventions, fuel entire industries – and, even more, fulfil the expectations of heterosexual men. This all sells well, but creates ideal images which are questionable, if not downright unattainable – and which ultimately widen the gap between female artists and fans.
The Closner sisters, on the other hand, are neither models, nor are they desperately trying to be so. They seem to be focused only on their songwriting, authentic, approachable, sometimes weird and vulnerable. They interact on equal footing with their audience. This low-key, almost “normal” approach and the ultimately too complex messages are probably what have prevented them from achieving international stardom so far, even though songs like White Flag reached number one in the billboard-“Adult Alternative Airplay”-charts in October 2016. “Burn the white flag!” goes the rousing chorus. And of course it’s all about not surrendering. However, the opponents are neither personal or political enemies nor any sinister villains, but the skeptical voices and the fear of failure that prevent you from doing what you actually want to do.
In Fighter, a similarly catchy song from 2019, Joseph put their very own spin on a common theme of self-assertiveness. Contrary to all pop conventions, here it’s not the person in the song who is celebrating themselves as an uncompromising fighter for survival. No, the narrator has been fighting for love for a long time, but now also demands that the other person does not retreat, but is just as committed to fighting to save the relationship: „Don’t keep yourself from me (…) Don’t lie this time / I need a fighter / You’re my bright side / I want it brighter / Don’t leave me in the dark.“ In turn, lyrics like this tie in with Canyon, an irresistible power pop song in which the person in the song prepares to finally get closer to their counterpart, characterized as a country, a mine and an ocean. But this counterpart is so closed off and, figuratively speaking, so “far away” that even a few centimeters distance seems like an unbridgeable canyon: „Can’t get, I can’t get / Can’t get close enough to be close to you / Can’t get, I can’t get there / An inch is a canyon.“ Never getting close enough to really be able to talk about closeness – that sounds like heavy emotional labor.
Which brings us to that key word ‘love’. Yes, love is also an important topic for Joseph – as a central element in families and partnerships, but also as a driving universal force. However, in their deep dive into this universal force, the three avoid throwing around overly naïve and kitschy phrases like “All you need is love” or “Love is the answer”. On the contrary: The person in the song Love Is Flowing, also from the current album The Sun, is realistic – they feel pain, see suffering, but feel powerless and can’t help: „Something’s burning / But I can’t reach it / Phantom limb on fire / Someone’s hurting / But I can’t fix it / And I don’t know how to try.“ Even all-encompassing love, of whose existence and constant flow the person in the song is at least convinced, cannot really be felt, let alone channeled into something that benefits all people. But there is a longing for an entry point, and that at least gives us hope: „Love is flowing, love is flowing, love is flowing, love is flowing / And I wanna get in it.“ The bubbling rhythm and gently undulating vocal line visualize this inspiring river, which one wishes would eventually permeate everyone and everything. These are bittersweet lyrics. They are neither flirtatious nor pretentious. Just apt.
We live in turbulent times. The pandemic, wars and political crises have changed the world, depressing news every day, certainties are dissolving. And one often gets the impression that the people in ones own personal circle are behaving differently, more unpredictably than before. In times like these, bands like Joseph with songs like Fighter, Canyon, The Sun or Love Is Flowing don’t only provide support and comfort, but also energy and confidence. Pop as therapy – for the artists and for the audience.
In the mid-70s, Pink Floyd released Have A Cigar, a song criticizing the music industry and its scummy managers. Today, some of those historic fronts have dissolved while others have shifted significantly. And some heroes from back then aren’t what they used to be.
“Oh, by the way, which one (of you) is Pink?” We’re in the 70s, Have A Cigar by Pink Floyd is playing as usual. And like every time this song gets played, you are captivated by the heavy, almost metallic-sounding groove that the band is unleashing here within the context of a state-of-the-art studio production, as well as by the rather aloof-sounding vocals. But when the singer mentions a part of the band’s name yet again, you start to wonder. Asking about someone called Pink in a song by the British art rock band Pink Floyd of all things? That’s weird. At some point you also start to analyze the lyrics. And you realize that it is precisely this question about the band member called Pink which proves that the song’s narrator is a hypocritical ignoramus – and which reveals the lyrics’ unusual narrative situation.
Have A Cigar was released in 1975 on the LP Wish You Were Here and has the characteristics of a dramatic monologue. This lyrical form of presentation differs from the classic monologue in that the narrator is speaking within a very specific communicative or dialogic situation. Although the other person is not quoted at all, their presence can be felt: Because they are being addressed directly or because one of their comments is being responded to. The lyrics thus don’t mirror a soliloquy, but rather the monologue of a central character which has been detached from a stage drama. The great dramatic monologues of literary history are often gripping because the narrator is in a unique, emotionally charged situation and is allowing the audience to participate in an evolutionary or decision-making process. This can also lead to surprising revelations, or even self-revelations. Of course, the lyrics of Have A Cigar are far too short and compact to cover such an exceptional range of content – and yet Pink Floyd’s lyrics and vocal act in the mid-70s go significantly beyond what garrulous songwriters usually produce in pop songs.
The narrator of the piece is clearly a music manager who – in an arrogantly avuncular manner and with suggestive rhetoric – is trying to persuade a talented young musician and his band to make a deal. First he entices and impresses the artist with cigars, a symbol of success-oriented machismo and big-wiggery, then he promises him the moon. He says the “boy” – and with him his bandmates – are destined for success: “Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar. / You’re gonna go far / You’re gonna fly high, / You’re never gonna die, / You’re gonna make it, if you try. / They’re gonna love you.” However, as the lyrics progress it becomes increasingly clear that the manager is not seriously interested in either the musician or his music: “Well, I’ve always had a deep respect, / And I mean that most sincere”, he flatters and emphasizes how wonderful he thinks the group he wants to sign is: “The band is just fantastic, / That is really what I think.” It’s all so over the top that it’s hard to believe. And then the manager asks the cringey question that finally outs him as an unempathetic wheeler-dealer: “Oh, by the way, which one is Pink?” Of course, we can assume that the “authors” of the song are also addressing themselves here. And anyone who is even slightly interested in Pink Floyd will definitely know that there is no band member with the first name Pink – that the band name is in fact made up of the first names of the blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. So our brash manager put his foot in his mouth – without even realizing it.
Worse still, in the chorus that follows he cheerfully admits that he and the company he works for are just playing a game centered around money: “And did we tell you the name of the game, boy? / We call it riding the gravy train.” By now the narrator has revealed himself to be a representative of an ice-cold, profit-hungry music business that only assesses people and artistic achievements according to their market value and is exactly the opposite of “sincere”, namely insincere and dishonest. Against this backdrop, the machine-like groove and the “windy”, slightly drugged-up vocals make even more sense – cue the cliché of fat decision-makers in the music industry who are busy doing coke and think they are star-creators, or to put it more mundanely: the greatest, i.e. gods. What is fascinating in this context is that the manager’s speech also sheds light on the construct of the rock brand “Pink Floyd”: It is not only able to stand for many other bands, it can also easily take on the role of an extra in its own song.
Have A Cigar is one of two songs on Wish You Were Here that explicitly criticize the music industry, the other is called Welcome to the Machine. And if you take this criticism as the central theme of the album, then the accompanying cover- and postcard designs, which at the time we fans simply found spectacularly surreal and somehow cool, also send clear messages: There is the man in a suit in flames, to whom another man in a suit is holding out his hand – as if he is literally being burned by closing a deal. There is the person whose bare legs are sticking straight out of the water of an almost mirror-smooth lake – a deceptively beautiful image for gleaming illusions in which the human being seems to be just an appendage, or also for the insignificance of human activity, because the person in the picture is not making any waves. There are the two machine hands that, once again, come together for a contractual handshake.And there is the faceless man with a bowler hat and briefcase, reminiscent of figures by René Magritte, who is trying to sell records to fans somewhere in the desert. All iconic images of rock culture. And maybe the casting of the vocal part of Have A Cigar was also a tiny sign of rebellion: Because the wonderfully crazy voice of the song’s sly narrator is not supplied by a Pink Floyd member, but by folk singer Roy Harper. During the production of Wish You Were Here he happened to be recording in a neighboring studio and ended up stepping in, either because the band vocalists who were supposed to do it couldn’t do it properly, or because they simply didn’t want to. In any case, this was also not quite what the record bosses were expecting from their “cash cow” Pink Floyd.
In fact, the gentlemen at the head of the record company were less than enthusiastic about the cover designs and song messages on the Wish You Were Here album. The latter have long been seen as the band’s reaction to the pressure created by the worldwide success of the previous Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon (1973). “We need a follow-up album that is at least as successful as this one”, is what the record company’s expectation is said to have been. And Pink Floyd didn’t want that. It is almost ironic that they ultimately fulfilled this expectation and that Wish You Were Here is now a frontrunner in various lists of the best albums of all time. Just like the fact that the band did end up introducing a guy called Pink into their universe just a few years after Wish You Were Here and Have A Cigar. We are, of course, talking about the fictional protagonist of the 1979 concept album The Wall: This Pink is definitely not a grinning hero, but a musician plagued by psychosis – but that is almost obvious.
Songs like Have A Cigar harken back to a time when the boisterous rock-n-roll of the 1950s and 60s had gradually come of age. Rock music had matured and become a profitable global business which produced saturated superstars – so much so that it was in danger of betraying its old ideals. It was a time when large record companies dominated the rules of the game and charismatic managers such as Brian Epstein (The Beatles) or Thomas Andrew “Colonel Tom” Parker (Elvis Presley) controlled the fortunes of “their” artists. Even the counter-movements of punk and new wave produced similarly enigmatic figures, who are also referred to as “Svengalis” after a sinister behind-the-scenes protagonist from George du Maurier’s horror story Trilby (1894) – think Malcolm McLaren (The Sex Pistols) and Bill Drummond (Echo & The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes). No question: In the 1970s and 80s, being a serious fan meant cultivating a healthy mistrust of the mainstream and the major labels, combined with a passion for the underground bands and independent labels that were springing up like mushrooms. Of course, there was nothing wrong with still listening to idiosyncratic rock dinosaurs like Pink Floyd in the privacy of your own room – after all, nobody needed to know.
Big record companies and management gurus on the one side, brave indie creators on the other – this juxtaposition seemed to be set in stone and to offer a sense of direction designed to last forever. But then came digitalization, the internet and social media – and suddenly nothing was the way it used to be. Historic fronts dissolved and unprecedented opportunities arose for today’s musical artists. At the same time, new images of ‘the enemy’ emerged. Today, we look back at bands like the Arctic Monkeys and stars like Billie Eilish who became famous not with the help of a major record company, but rather through the internet, and who have long since successfully enjoyed a lot of artistic freedom. We celebrate independent starlets and stars, but also superstars like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé – the latter runs a kind of family music empire with her husband Jay-Z.
And we lionize phenomena like Taylor Swift, a megastar personality whose success across all analogue and digital platforms has almost managed to create a significant industry of her very own. Once dependent on labels that marketed her first albums without her, Swift regained control by simply covering her own early albums, i.e. by re-recording them with slight changes and then marketing them herself. Today, she is dictating terms to providers such as Apple Music and breaking all attendance records with her tours. Which leads us to a flipside of today’s music industry, the streaming services. Because they pay artists showcasing their work on these platforms negligible royalties, which means that only the industry’s top stars can actually earn any kind of money there. And that, in turn, pits the smaller artists against the top earners. Yes, the times they are a’ changing – and so are the historic fronts. So much so that the chasm between successful and unsuccessful, between rich and poor, is almost greater today than it was in the 70s, that era of industry-criticizing titans such as Pink Floyd and their ilk.
So what has become of the “good old” cigar-smoking record bosses and the egocentric Svengalis of yesteryear? They have simply disappeared. Or, except in the case of casted test-tube acts, they have become almost irrelevant. It’s true that there are still things that artists have professionals manage for them – from bookings to studio rentals, from accounting and legal advice to video shootings. But in stark contrast to 30 or 40 years ago the stars of today, including a pleasantly large number of women, very often have a high degree of control over their work and actions. Nobody would write a song like Have A Cigar these days. And to be honest, by and large some artists from back then aren’t what they used to be. In fact, the members of Pink Floyd have been at odds for years. And Roger Waters, something of a band leader and globally feted social critic in the 70s, is facing headline-grabbing police investigations and attempts to ban him from performing in 2023 because of weird pro-Putin statements and the irritating integration of anti-Semitic symbols into his stage performances.
This article first appeared in the „LyrikLINES“ series on the ‘Faust-Kultur’ portal
A legendary, tragic love story set in the rock-n-roll milieu for a change? Or a cool rock-n-roll epos that incorporates elements of a tragic love story? Daisy Jones & The Six, the bestselling novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid, works on both levels, infusing everything with a nice shot of 70s nostalgia while perpetuating the eternal trope that great art is born mainly from pain and suffering. Although the film version of the glamorous rock star fiction as an Amazon Prime series makes a few dramaturgical modifications, it is a more than congenial reincarnation of the original book – and it gives the world the music album of a group that doesn’t even exist.
The 70s are over: Daisy Jones & The Six have made it – they are globally celebrated rock stars. But at the very height of their career, the band breaks up. Fans are stunned. How could it have come to this? Many years later, the estranged band members and some of their confidantes are interviewed separately for a documentary. All the little comments, anecdotes and sometimes contradictory reckonings morph into abundant flashbacks – the rise and fall of a brilliant band unfolds, including the true reasons behind the break-up. Only at the end does it become clear who is conducting the enlightening interviews. It’s a heart-warming revelation with a surprising twist.
From romantic fiction to hit series to chart success
For decades, feature films were the ‘non plus ultra’ when it came to telling stories for the big screen and on screens of all kinds. But contrary to all assertions about our fast-paced times and continually shrinking attentions spans, the opulent series format has been gaining ground for some time now. It offers the chance of letting a story unfold believably and in several narrative threads, of giving characters depth, and of exploring all the positive and negative dynamics between the protagonists. It seems hard to believe, but fans stay engaged, even for six to ten episodes and even for several seasons – if a series is done well. This is also true of pop biopics and -stories. In spite of their entertainment value, several 90- to 120-minute movies have already suffered from the fact that the script had to be limited to a few central topics, and that a band just seen playing rather amateurishly in a run-down provincial club is next seen being celebrated by a large festival audience, only to show its ultimate demise soon after.
The makers of the Amazon Prime series Daisy Jones & The Six have not only benefited from the strengths of the series format, but have also thoroughly exploited the marketing potential of the original, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s successful book by the same name. A clever dramatization, captivating cast and polished performance have allowed them to create a gripping series that you can immerse yourself in for almost ten hours. And instead of a conventional soundtrack album with different artists contributing the songs, they have actually brought the fictional Daisy-Jones-&-The-Six album Aurora to life. As a result, the fictional group and their songs are in the international charts, like a real rock performance.
Fleetwood Mac (and others) send their regards
Two narrative threads initially emerge from the flashbacks. There are the Dunne Brothers, a band led by the sometimes authoritarian frontman Billy Dunne, who are trying to gain a foothold somewhere in Pennsylvania, mostly with cover versions. And then there’s Daisy Jones in Los Angeles, an unconventional young woman surviving through odd jobs, but who is secretly dreaming of a career as a singer-songwriter. The story gains traction when Daisy comes to the attention of the renowned but no longer quite so successful music producer Teddy Price, who takes her under his wing. Meanwhile, the Dunne Brothers undergo several transformations and finally welcome keyboardist Karen Sirko as a new member. The band renames themselves The Six, write more and more original songs and eventually move to L.A. to take the next step in their career. It is more by coincidence that the quirky group, which is increasingly getting its act together, meets Teddy Price. And that’s not all: The Six also manage to convince the influential studio wizard of the merits of their songs. But the producer feels there is something lacking – maybe some lyrical input, plus a strong female voice. And because Daisy Jones is also lacking something, namely a band capable of channeling her lyrical and musical ideas in even more artistically fruitful directions, Teddy Price immediately connects the two groups. And tells them to write new songs together. An inspired move that triggers an unprecedented success story – but also hopeless emotional chaos.
Anyone familiar with the dynamics in rock bands will have one or two moments of déjà vu – there are plenty of well-observed details and band anecdotes to make you smile. Anyone who knows what the music business was like then and now will probably shake their head about powerful and smug corporate record bosses in suits, as well as about shrewd producer and shrill manager types. Anyone who lived through the 70s will definitely be overcome by nostalgia, because the fashions and lifestyle are so aptly captured – even if you don’t have to have experienced every sex and drug escapade yourself. Anyone who likes Fleetwood Mac and their music during the Rumours era will be agog, because the sound, appearance and one or two biographical details of Daisy Jones & The Six were inspired by the legendary British-American band. And even if you just like larger-than-life love stories with euphoric ups and tragic downs, you will enjoy this.
Billy Dunne and Daisy Jones are two extraordinary, not entirely lovable characters – damaged souls who put each other, but also everyone around them, through a lot. The two of them often fight, but hardly anyone fails to notice that they are also powerfully attracted to one another. Billy has a young daughter with his wife Camila. She sees the band as a close-knit family and acts like an uber-motherly arbitrator where needed. But she too must come to terms with the fact that Billy sometimes succumbs to the destructive rock-n-roll lifestyle, becomes addicted to alcohol, and takes a long time to grow into his role as a father after rehab. She certainly doesn’t like the vibes she feels later, when she sees her husband and Daisy Jones performing together. And she too messes up. In addition, there are peaceful moments of happiness and intoxicating highs, a long-secret affair within the band, fellow musicians who suffer from a lack of appreciation, frustrations and crises, including Daisy taking a temporary break in Greece. And then there is also – cue Almost Famous – the journalist from an influential rock magazine who accompanies the rapidly rising stars on tour to score a big story. The gossip and secrets he gleans from the torn band members, independently of each other, just add fuel to the fire. Only the drummer – whose naïve insouciance is reminiscent of the notoriously underrated Beatle Ringo Starr – remains completely unscathed. He actually meets an attractive Hollywood actress, starts a family with her and, one may assume, lives happily ever after. What a wonderful pop cliché – a character who provides regular ‘comic relief’ and enriches the dramatic narrative with a dash of self-irony.
The female perspective
Where rock dramas written by men like to focus on the rock-n-roll lifestyle and highlight their protagonists as torn but ultimately brilliant lonesome-hero-types, Daisy Jones & The Six deliberately focuses on other aspects: For example, the problematic effects that this rock-n-roll lifestyle and the struggle between two alpha males has on the protagonists and everyone around them. The main characters are subtly drawn, with great strengths but glaring weaknesses, too. Daisy, Camila and keyboardist Karen are three self-confident women. On the one hand they are asserting themselves in the male-dominated rock world. However, the societal conditions and attitudes of the time also have a uniquely negative impact on them. For example, it is the women who have to deal with the problem of an unwanted pregnancy and the possible consequences for their careers. It is painful but good that we also see how the previously ‘cool’ frontman Billy Dunne initially can’t hold his little daughter and commit to being a father. Although Daisy Jones shows him a totally new side of himself, he always remains lovingly connected to his wife Camila. It’s complicated. And this is where the female author’s perspective clearly shines through – as well as that of producer Reese Witherspoon, already known for her strong female role as June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.
Just as strong is the impression that Kiley Reough leaves when depicting Daisy Jones. Elvis Presley’s granddaughter galvanizes the audience with her powerful facial expressions, gestures and body language. After various appearances in movies and series, this energy-laden role should help her make her final breakthrough. Her presence alone makes it worth streaming. But the rest of the cast is also impressive, above all The Hunger Games beau Sam Claflin as the often in demand and overwhelmed frontman Billy Dunne. Of the stars playing the band, Suki Waterhouse stands out as the determined, uncompromising keyboardist Karen Sirko. In addition, Tom Wright dazzles as the clever, sensitive producer Teddy Price and Timothy Olyphant (who once played the somewhat rigid sheriff in the famous Western series Deadwood or the bald killer Hitman) shines as the crazy but ultimately professional, suitably empathetic tour manager Rod Reyes.
The casting of the two main characters also proves to be a stroke of luck when it comes to the music. Both stars can actually sing, with Sam Claflin having a slightly more subtle voice that occasionally sounds like Tom Petty, and Riley Keough’s performance seemingly effortlessly invoking Fleetwood Mac diva Stevie Nicks, Kate Pierson from the B 52s and one or two other country music icons. It sounds surprisingly strong and full when Claflin and Keough sing in harmony and bring the songs from the fictional album Aurora to life. In the book, author Taylor Jenkins Reid had written a few of her own lyrics to the band’s songs. However, she admits frankly that they didn’t count for much, but were intended more to describe the characters. With Reid’s consent, the series producers then brought in real songwriting luminaries, including Phoebe Bridgers, Marcus Mumford and even superstar Jackson Browne. The experts were given a fairly free hand and provided the music, including new lyrics, for the songs sung by Claflin and Keough.
The new song versions are very clearly designed to convey emotional intensity and, above all, to get to the heart of the characters’ internal conflicts and interpersonal disputes. Summarization, dramatization and modernization – similar effects are also achieved through dramaturgical modifications to the original book: For example, Camila and Billy have several children in the book, but only one daughter in the series. Camila doesn’t have an affair in the book, but she does in the series. And while Daisy is only called Daisy in the book, in the series she is allowed to tell Billy that her real name is Margaret – a moment that creates a special intimacy between the two characters for the first time. Showrunner Scott Neustadter says that keyboardist Karen is no longer American in the series, but British, as an explicit homage to the recently deceased Fleetwood Mac keyboardist Christine McVie. On the other hand, Daisy’s friend Simone, a soul singer and aspiring disco star, is depicted in the series as having a happy lesbian relationship after various ups and downs, in homage to the queer movement. And unlike in the book, when Daisy overdoses she is saved by Billy – who else!
Ingenious pastiche or: Art is born from empathy
Almost more than in the book, the series adaptation suggests that great art comes primarily from friction, pain and suffering. Some of the best moments in the series are the scenes where Daisy and Billy compose music and write lyrics together. They bicker at each other, repeatedly criticize the other one’s lyrics and force each other to navel-gaze. In the process, these seemingly fundamentally different characters realize that they have more in common in their pain and unfulfilled longings than they would like. And they are already writing bittersweet lyrics like: “If you’re gonna let me down, let me down easy”, “I’m an echo in your shadow / I’m in too deep” or “We can make a good thing bad”. “A lot of suffering, more excellent songs” – that’s the principle, and of course it has already been roughly mapped out in things like Fleetwood Mac’s band history. The group was famous for tricky relationships and complicated interpersonal dynamics which are said to have been the driving force behind some of their best songs.
The trope of “great art from great pain” is still often advanced today and routinely underpinned by references to Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, Joseph Beuys and Hermann Nitsch. This includes ideas such as: Positive feelings only need to be enjoyed, negative feelings need to be processed – which is why the latter provide additional and more interesting material for creating art. All of this may apply to some creatives and their work, but can’t be generalized. It also would be somewhat unfair towards songs like Happy, Walking On Sunshine, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Don’t Worry – Be Happy and other evergreens of bliss. They don’t seem to be born out of great pain, not in the slightest, and yet they have undeniable artistic merit, at least for the author of these lines. Last but not least, the Daisy Jones novel itself and – even more so – the series adaptation can be cited as evidence of further sources of inspiration for great art. Author Taylor Jenkins Reid is simply incredibly talented, as she has proven in her previous books. Then she had her next idea, but first she had to do a lot of research – on music and songwriting, on the biographies of famous bands and on the 70s in general. Her love of writing and perfecting, but also a lot of patience, ultimately led to a captivating story about the power of love and the power of music. The creators of the series and the fictional album Aurora, which has in turn become music, took an even more meta approach as part of a large-scale ensemble production. They shaped and supplemented the literary original with a great deal of brainpower and skill, set a professional film production machine in motion and simultaneously commissioned suitable songs. The result is an ingenious pastiche about a couple of 70s rock stars who create great art from great suffering. Not very likely that the series’ creators and their service providers have themselves suffered congenially.
Ebony and Ivory? A not quite flawless anti-racism song … Thoughts on making musical instruments and on the world’s first vegan-certified violin
Music and the animal kingdom: these are two things which, at first glance, have little to do with one another. But if you take a second look, it makes you start to think. Histori-cally, musical instruments are often made out of materials from – killed, stripped – animals: Drums are made with animal skins or covered with fur, and the tortoise shell from turtles is found in mouthpieces. Acoustic guitars use cow bones for the saddle on which the strings rest, and violin strings are made of dried gut. The bows of string players, in turn, are strung with horsehair, which is carefully harvested from live horses, but can also be painful for the animals. Not to mention the bone glue which is often used in the assembly of the instrument parts.
Against this backdrop, Ebony and Ivory, the basically well-intentioned anti-racism song by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, can begin to leave a bad aftertaste. If white ivory and black ebony can harmonize perfectly on the piano keyboard, according to the conciliatory message of the 1982 evergreen, why can’t black and white people do the same? There is a small catch: For a long period of time, the ivory for the white keys came from elephants which had also often been poached. And the ebony for the black keys may not be an animal, but it still comes from a precious tropical tree listed as an endangered species. Thus, Wonder and McCartney involuntarily invoke a questionable state of harmony. To their credit, they probably didn’t know any better at the time – like many fans who enthusiastically hummed along to the song, including the author of this post. Regulations to protect species, which at least limit the use of animal materials and endangered tropical trees, including in the manufacture of musical instruments, have only been in force since the end of the 1980s.
Since then, research into alternative materials has been conducted with a passion. And in violin making in particular, this has led to the world’s first certified cruelty-free violin. The instrument, which received an award from the Vegan Society earlier this year, was made by the renowned violin maker Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh of Hibernian Violins in Malvern, Worcestershire, England. He used steamed pears for the lining, colored the wood with the juice of wild berries, and used regional spring water, among other things, for the binding agent. During the Corona pandemic, Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh was inspired by thoughtful customers who finally wanted to play their violins free of ethical concerns. The award from the Vegan Society, however, only pertains to the body of the instrument – for bows and strings there have long been plant-based and other non-animal options available. The unique instrument retails at approximately 9,600 euros, but this may change as demand increases. And of course Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh is not the only violin maker who works according to vegan principles – his violin was merely the first to be certified accordingly. Among German specialists, the one who is most frequently mentioned is Jan Meyer in Leipzig.
It goes without saying that a key aspect of sustainable instrument making is the question of whether using other materials alters the acoustics – and if so, whether the sound is equivalent or worse. This is a subject of passionate debate among experts. But one can assume that, in light of their own high standards, specialists like Jan Meyer and Padraig ó Dubhlaoidh would not go public with substandard work on principle alone. And that, including when it comes to listening to music, many things just need getting used to.
Fanatics, populists, egotists and conspiracy theorists have highjacked the headlines. Not just in politics and society at large, but also in the field of music. I’d like to train a critical spotlight on the United States, the country of pop, where anxious bands are hastily changing their name and the debate on racism is having some bizarre outcomes. Where a rap-idiot wants to become president and even the superstars aren’t what they used to be.
Weimar/Germany, in August of 2019: An art event featuring copious amounts of toilet paper accuses Johann Wolfgang von Goethe of being a sexist. The objections center around the 18th century poet’s macho image of women and on his distasteful poem about the “Heidenröslein”. The small attack on Goethe’s garden house goes largely unnoticed in Germany and when it does attract attention, tends to be laughed off. As it happens, this prank is nothing compared to what will happen thousands of miles away just a few months later. After the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was stopped by police in Minneapolis and killed after a policeman violently pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, various historical figures, mainly in the US, Belgium and the UK, are knocked off their pedestals, in the literal sense of the word. “Black Lives Matter” demonstrators attack statues of colonial rulers and of politicians responsible for the oppression of people of color, defacing them, beheading them, or dumping them into rivers. Columbus and Churchill, even the most famous names aren’t spared. These are violent symbolic acts directed against state power and oppression – which want us to forget shameful periods of history.
Tear down the Colosseum. Cancel the Reformation…
The rage is totally understandable. But many people who aren’t participating in this kind of toppling of monuments are inevitably asking themselves where this is bound to lead – what comes next? In the context of the Goethe dispute in 2019, Thomas Wischnewski speculated that “For example, one day Otto Hahn will be condemned for nuclear research and Gottlieb Daimler will be knocked off his pedestal as an enabler of climate change.” Wischnewski is the author of the online portal ‘magdeburg-kompakt.de’ and talks about dangerous attempts to erase history. He warns: “Retroactively condemning the zeitgeist of a period in history smacks of fascism. (…) Those who reinterpret their own history and try to cast it off, lose the ability to deal with it in a responsible way.” The fears that he voiced then can easily be amended today: The Reformation will be cancelled because Martin Luther wrote anti-Semitic pamphlets in the 16th century. Antique statues and sites, triumphal arches, the Colosseum will be torn down – as disgraceful monuments to empires and conquerors who laid waste to continents and enslaved and slaughtered other human beings – or had them slaughtered. Masterpieces from the “Brücke” will be banned from museums since, when it comes to the painters, suspicions of pedophilia continue to crop up. And finally, the books of Karl May will be burned since his body of work is also marked by racist, colonialist thinking.
Two truisms say: People are full of contradictions, with good sides, but also with moral abysses and hidden depths. And: People are shaped by the era, the culture, and the norms in which they move, they can’t help it. The boundaries between “perfect” and “monstrous” are always fluid. Only the absolutely monstrous is clearly defined and socially ostracized – but before this stage is reached, there are countless shades of gray which we all have to deal with. Many people who have done great things have also done reprehensible things, especially from a historical perspective. Usually it is wiser to engage with the darker aspects of life, to draw conclusions from them, and to look for ways to address past injustices whenever possible. This is what happened with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which dealt with crimes from the apartheid era, with Germany’s collective reckoning with the Nazi era, and with the Protestant Church’s critical reflection on the anti-Semitic passages in Martin Luther’s work. When, in the run-up to the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, a Protestant pastor and the church commissioner for Judaism symbolically blindfold a statue of Luther in Hanover/Germany, when even representatives of the Jewish community, despite their well-deserved criticism, can find positives in Luther’s revolutionary impulse and his successful translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew, then much has already been gained in terms of a joint reappraisal of history.
Are we still allowed to play Michael Jackson on the radio? This question was also hotly discussed recently, in light of the ongoing posthumous abuse accusations against the superstar. Daily life has already answered this question: Yes, you are still allowed to play Michael Jackson on the radio, and yes, you are also allowed to listen to him. Because his music in no way constitutes a crime, because it has given and still gives a lot to countless fans – and because ultimately, boycotting his songs would also unjustly punish all the people who contributed to Jackson’s art, e.g. musicians and producers. At the same time we need to be able to remind people about the transgressions of the “King of Pop”. Which is also why I think it would be absurd to take films with the exceptional actor Kevin Spacey, who was banned for sexual assault, out of circulation.
The past is as complicated as the present
People who, along with the questionable aspects of an oeuvre or era, simultaneously want to erase the entire oeuvre and/or era from the collective memory, are disowning themselves and may, in a hundred years, be erased from memory themselves, when people in other contexts re-evaluate them. In some cases, there have already been immediate retaliations: For example, in response to the attacks on statues of white colonialists, the graves of former slaves and monuments of African-American authors were desecrated. In Bristol/UK, a musician of color was seriously injured during a targeted car attack. A senseless spiral of violence was set in motion that might eventually lead to deaths. Is it worth it? Removing monuments was and is common practice – usually implemented during regime changes, after parliamentary resolutions (e.g. because the objects are no longer considered timely) or at the request of certain interest groups. That an initiative of self-declared cleaner-uppers is now arbitrarily tearing down monuments smacks of hubris. Media commentaries in recent weeks have made suggestions as to how things could be done better, e.g. by putting the controversial statues in museums, by discussing them and letting the public decide what to do with them, by setting up central memorial sites for the victims of colonialism and/or by creating a counter-narrative with new monuments. Monuments for pioneers of democracy and anti-racists, for courageous female politicians and outstanding peace activists, for specific victims and the “Black Lives Matter” initiative, and also for the leaders of the #metoo-campaign or the “Fridays for Future” movement. Because, according to the Spanish daily newspaper “El País”: “The past, which is just as complicated as the present and which we can neither conclusively condemn nor acquit, is also inherent in these statues, monuments, buildings.”
Instead, pop stars succumb to angry activists and unabashed “haters” by immediately changing their supposedly racist stage names. I’m referring not only to Lady Antebellum, a trio from Nashville whose country rock ballad Need You Now was a gigantic hit in 2009 and who now call themselves simply ‘Lady A’, but also to the Dixie Chicks, three fundamentally fearless Texans who mutated into The Chicks under pressure from the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Hard to believe, really. Because when you take a closer look, the allegedly offensive words are just as complex as the history of colonialism – and open to many interpretations. Of course “Antebellum”, Latin for “before the war”, is an established term which refers to the period in American history before the Civil War (1861-1865) – in other words the era in which the brutal system of slavery prevailed in the southern states. It was also the era of “southern belles”, bourgeois ladies who, because African-American slaves were doing the work, had time to pursue an education and engage in cultural activities. Antebellum is also the term for a specific architectural style characterized by the pillar- and porch-lined villas of white plantation owners, which are showcased in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained, among others, but in particular in the film classic Gone with the Wind. This epic, one of the most successful movies of all time, is also being critically scrutinized because of its Southern perspective and sugarcoated depiction of slavery. Which is absolutely valid. What is less understandable, however, is that the streaming service HBO Max briefly removed the movie from its roster and re-introduced it in June with a trigger warning. Both the movie’s merits and its problematic aspects are well known, including from a broad range of secondary literature, so the viewing public should not be denied a certain degree of critical competency. And of course, despite all the justified criticism, here too the question is: What comes next? Where will this end? Will hundreds of thousands of movies, books, paintings, operas, plays now retroactively get trigger warnings? “It could be painful…” My suggestion: Best put a warning label on the entire planet Earth!
Pop = glitter + ambivalence
But that’s just a side note – back to “Antebellum”. Of course the term is linked to the subjugation of African-Americans. But that’s not all: In addition to making you think of kitsch and nostalgia, there is something morbid about the word. Because Antebellum is a historical phase of decadence that eventually ended with the victory of the northern states. Antebellum, a song by the Californian artist Vienna Teng, shows that pop music in particular is capable of playing with these kinds of concepts, of highlighting the glitter and ambivalence in distinctive words and of giving these compositions even more intensity: She uses the word to illustrate a generational conflict – and doesn’t run the slightest risk of being boycotted for this song.
Why the band, which claims to have had Antebellum architecture in mind when it named itself, bowed to the accusation of glorifying slavery and took the stage name Lady A in an almost painfully repentant way, instead of confidently letting the conflict play out, is beyond me. Just as incomprehensible as the awkward renaming of the Dixie Chicks into The Chicks. It goes without saying that some people found the word “Dixie” intolerable. Strictly speaking, it stands for the southern states during the era of slavery and for many Americans, the word has unwelcome associations. However, the issue here is even more complicated than it is with the word “Antebellum”.
Because “Dixie” is a word that was coined in the northern states, of all places, and is closely connected to a song called Dixie, also known as Dixie’s Land or I Wish I Was In Dixie. The song, written in the late 1850s by Daniel Decatur Emmett, is written from the perspective of an African-American man who is longing to return to a place called Dixie, while using every possible cliché pertaining to African-Americans. What the word “Dixie” actually stands for has never been reliably determined. Possible theories include the homestead of a farmer named John Dixie in Long Island/New York who was friendly to African-Americans, the farm of a not-so-friendly man on Manhattan Island, or the “Mason-Dixon-Line”, the former border between the North and South. What makes the issue even more complicated: The song was sung both in the northern and southern states, including as a kind of war song, with the lyrics being changed according to who was singing it. Dixie was even one of the favorite songs of Abraham Lincoln who defeated the South and abolished slavery.
But it is also true that the song belongs in the context of minstrel shows. These musical theater events of the 19th century employed the now incriminated “blackface”: Unsuspecting Northerners were fed a naïve, clichéd image of African-Americans by white artists who had painted their skin black. And that most certainly is not OK and definitely racist, especially from today’s perspective. Although 19th century Northerners largely opposed the barbarity of slavery in the South, their commitment should not be conflated with that of today’s “Black Lives Matter” activists. The North “attacked the South for the injustice of slavery and simultaneously created an idealized and romanticized world of the African-Americans on plantations,” musicologist Jochen Scheytt explains. “They developed the stereotype of the wandering ‘darky’, a former slave who can’t find his way in the free world and longs for the idyllic and carefree life on the plantation.” In other words: “The white audience, by laughing with and about the minstrel clown, expressed their ambivalence about the issue of slavery.” And Scheytt sees the minstrels fulfilling a further function: They used blackface “in the tradition of the classic jester, too. In Italian commedia dell’arte, the mask served to free the person behind it from all conventions and rules. The person could thus keep joking around without anyone stopping them and didn’t have to fear any consequences. Due to this mask, the minstrels were also able to voice criticism without having to be taken seriously.”
So the word “Dixie” ‘per se’ cannot be affixed to a barbaric tradition of the southern states. It reflects a time when the US was as divided as it is today, but operated against a completely different political and cultural backdrop. One doesn’t need to condone the ‘zeitgeist’ back then, but one can at least try to describe and understand it. Bob Dylan, who certainly can’t be suspected of harboring nationalist or misanthropic tendencies, covered the song Dixie in 2003, in the crazy music film grotesque Masked and Anonymous – without ruling out irony. Perhaps also as an allusion to The Band? Its members, who sometimes were Dylan’s sidekicks, succeeded in genuinely communicating the pain of a Southerner over the lost war and the death of his brother at the hands of a northern Yankee in the song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, without being insulted as racist rednecks. And the legendary country-jazz-rock band Little Feat from California, a Western state which sided with the northern states politically during the Civil War, named one of its most well-known songs Dixie Chicken. It is the tongue-in-cheek ode to a contemporary man-eating hard-drinking southern belle, which mixes Northern and Southern traditions in a conciliatory manner in the music.
Dixieland Jazz? Oh my goodness…
The Dixie Chicks named themselves after just this song and album title – and have been anything but politically conservative ever since. Quite the opposite: As former darlings of the country community, lionized for fusing country and mainstream pop, they had to cope with several shitstorms and a veritable career derailment in 2003 after they criticized the American president George W. Bush and the Iraq invasion at a concert in London. They initially apologized, which in turn enraged fans of the band who were critical of Bush, but they then continued to defend their stance and fought their way back to success, not without regularly expressing their opinions on controversial topics.
So it’s genuinely surprising that the band, which has weathered many conflicts, has now bowed to the pressure of political hardliners again and removed the word “Dixie” from its name. After all, the word is, as has been shown, even more multifaceted than the word “Antebellum”. People associate the word “Dixie” with many conflicting issues, and these days the term ultimately stands for the American South ‘per se’, whose existence can hardly be denied and which can’t be erased from the map. And probably no one would now consider condemning a musical genre like Dixieland Jazz to the dustbin of history forever. Or would they? I’ve suddenly got a really bad feeling: Ultimately, is the band’s name change only due to a radical change in style, perhaps? As it happens, the brand-new album Gaslighter, released under the name The Chicks, features hardly any country elements anymore, but is clearly targeting the mainstream charts. And yet it has some combative tracks again, e.g. the song March, March, a hymn to current extra-parliamentary political activism, from the “Black Lives Matter” protests to the “Fridays for Future” movement. Is the name change just a PR move? No, that would be unworthy of these seminal musicians.
No small irony: After newly becoming the trio ‘Lady A’, Lady Antebellum promptly got embroiled in an embarrassing legal dispute – with, of all people, an African-American blues singer with the same name. Not to mention that every fan and pop expert knows what the ‘A’ once stood for. Absurd: The Dixie Chicks also had to come to an agreement with the members of a New Zealand 60s band called ‘The Chicks’ before they were able to adopt the new name. And they are now known by a word that many women worldwide find derogatory: Because “chicks” not only refers to young women ‘per se’ in a playful way, but often also to innocent young women who are seen as game by male players. So was this really a step forward? Doubtful.
Sweet home, evil flag
If you delve deeper into the subject, you will also come across the phenomenon of Southern Rock – past controversies about bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the use of the controversial Confederate flag in a rock context. Time and again, the southern states have been and are criticized as the home of racism, including in pop and rock songs: prominently in Southern Man by Neil Young (1971), a rejection of “the Southerner” who must atone for his crimes. Sweet Home Alabama, the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic from 1973, is also seen as a response to Southern Man – it moves rather ambivalently back and forth between the condemnation of racist attitudes and proud patriotism. Southern Rock is a musically exciting, but, when it comes to the lyrics, sometimes irritating mix of conservative attitudes and a bawdy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, certainly stoked by defiance against the constant hostility from bands from “the North”, from supposedly progressive hippies and from politically correct fans. This includes flaunting the controversial Confederate flag from the Civil War era, a white-framed blue diagonal cross on a red background, covered with thirteen white stars. Molly Hatchet adorned itself with the “evil” flag – as did Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Republican sympathizer and weapons’ enthusiast Kid Rock, whose hit All Summer Long (2007) is actually an ode to Sweet Home Alabama. In 1985, Tom Petty used the Confederate flag during his Southern Accents tour, but apologized for it and believably called it a misstep. For their part, the African-American rappers Ludicrous and Lil Jon gave the Confederate flag short shrift: They denounced it as a symbol of oppression and Lil Jon proceeded to dramatically set it on fire.
And so to Kanye West: We know that one time, he just took the Confederate flag for himself – and thus symbolically cancelled it. “I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag,” he is said to have told a radio station in L.A. “It’s my flag now. Now what you gonna do?” This might be one of the wittier pranks of this otherwise slightly dim-witted, annoying artist. As a reminder: Kanye West is an African-American rapper who is married to the It-Girl Kim Kardashian and acts in a similarly blustering way to Donald Trump, except in the context of the music industry. He manages to regularly ruin his few, but definitely existing, moments of genius, such as the bizarrely multifaceted sleeper video for the song Famous, through wacky statements and acts. Weird PR stunts, like a surreal visit to Trump’s White House, rude outbursts against colleagues like Taylor Swift, and grotesque criticism of the African-American community (“400 years of slavery? That sounds like a choice.”) have been and still tend to be excused with the artist’s bipolar disorder. Nevertheless, West feels fit and suited for the American Presidency – the idea for his candidacy is said to have come to him in the shower. Oh dear. It might be a wonderfully clever pop gag, but unfortunately, I’m afraid no good will come of it.
Opponents of vaccination and abortion – as if it were the majority view
As a former Trump fan, “Ye” has long since broken with his idol and apparently wants to take over from the failed president at the upcoming election in November – even though key deadlines for entering the presidential race have long since passed. To be clear: West does NOT just want to promote his next album, as annoyed colleagues suspected. No, he really means it. Preliminary reports that he had withdrawn his candidacy weren’t confirmed. Thus, and this also ties in with the thoughts above, this little whippersnapper is acting just as arrogantly as the fanatical topplers of monuments: driven by ridiculous hubris and egomania, by bad style and by a disrespect for political office. Not to mention his strange views: As if it were the majority view, West cheerfully describes himself as anti-abortion and anti-vaccination and introduces, as a possible vice presidential candidate, the completely unknown “biblical life coach” Michelle Tidball. She has a fantastic therapeutic approach for people with psychological problems: “If you would get up every day and make your bed and do your dishes, you would be better.” That is definitely the stuff that forward-thinking political programs are made of. Anyone who looked at Trump and mused, “Things can’t get any worse,” will be disabused of that thought by Kanye West.
And so we are forced to conclude: Pop in the US is in a woeful state. Stars are either intimidated or fatuous self-promoters, and fans are going to extremes: on the one hand politically uber-correct fanatics, on the other bored entitled brats who see politically incorrect gangsta rappers as their new heroes.
What counts is populist posturing and wielding the powerful cudgel of over-the-top “political correctness”. What is missing is style, elegance and progressive power, a pop-specific “moral compass” with a strong moral stance to go with it. Bob Dylan or Neil Young might release new albums from time to time, but their former mass appeal has dissipated. Two artists who could save the day are focusing more on escapism and establishing alibis: Taylor Swift, the almost untouchable white superstar with strong opinions so far, is currently concentrating on releasing Folklore, her very own Corona album. And Beyoncé, the almost untouchable African-American superstar who, as the media often confirms, is sending a message of “Black empowerment”, has just released the 90-minute visual album Black Is King with Disney. This mythically charged, glamorous-opulent ode to “celebrate the breadth and beauty of Black ancestry” is an emotive fantasy trip which has nothing to do with everyday life in the 20th century or with “Black Lives Matter”. Black is beautiful? Without question. But didn’t we already have this once before, in the 60s? Even among African-Americans, Beyoncé’s album is being criticized as “commercialized Afro-folklore”, as a tool for her “Black Capitalism”. That too is telling.
And now even Madonna
And when even Madonna speaks up, the game can be considered over. At the start of the Corona crisis, the once inviolable star had already triggered a storm of protest when, in a video filmed from her luxury bathtub, she hallucinated that the virus makes all people equal. Now, like Donald Trump, she touts the controversial malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for Corona and claims that a proven vaccine has long been available, but is being kept under lock and key so that the rich can get richer and the poor will get poorer and sicker. She cites Texas physician Stella Immanuel, who, according to media reports, blames sex with evil spirits for gynecological problems “and believes the US government is being run by ‘reptiles’. She is also convinced that gay marriage leads to adults marrying children.”
It’s a shame that the many exciting songs and artists that still exist are hardly being heard – and that instead, populists, egotists and esoterics are hogging the headlines. Pop in the United States has turned into solipsistic meandering, has apparently lost its bearing. Is accentuating strange things. Is using and being used – and is therefore rarely much fun right now. Not only with regard to Robbie Williams, who has already outed himself as a fan of aliens and UFOs and who recently remarked that the absurd “Pizzagate” theory hasn’t been disproved yet – these findings are just as valid in Europe. Jarring things are happening in Germany, i.e. Xavier Naidoo as a conspiracy theorist, gangsta rapper Farid Bang (he actually encouraged partygoers to obey the Corona rules on behalf of Düsseldorf’s mayor), or beer tent guests bellowing an old folk song with contemporary rape lyrics. More and more people are going nuts – and pop is, too.