Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Decoding Jody Rosen's James Brown obit: Rosen's text in black, commentary in green.

"He Made The World Funky" (Terrible headline. The world did not get "funkier" during James Brown's career. After the 1960s, it got crueller and more sadistic and blissfully neglectful of the suffering of its working-class populations. Brown, a hypercapitalist musical dictator, became a hero to the post-"Blues Brothers" fraternity bond traders of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, and gleefully assumed the role of Reagan White House court jester with his "Rocky IV" set piece "Living in America" (Ivan Drago was definitely not funky). We get a hint too of the hagiographic fallacy inherent in Rosen's understanding of popular music and its heroes. Why did "he" and not Big Bill Broonzy and the Staples Singers and the Meters and Ike and Tina and Sly Stone and the thousands of other African American participants in the making of R&B and soul and funk "make the world funky"?)

"In the spring of 1965, James Brown went into a Charlotte, N.C., studio to cut a new record. (Like the insanely grating hollywood biopic obssession with primal scenes and Rosebud traumas, mainstream music writing is bedeviled by a tendency to streamline diffuse cultural moments into single pivotal moments.) The song's lyrics were little more than a laundry list of dance crazes, but the music was eerie and unusual—a jittery blues vamp, with oddly accented beats and horns darting and honking in the vast, empty spaces between whip-crack snare hits. "I was hearing everything, even the guitars, like they were drums," Brown would recall in his autobiography. Sure enough, the guitar sound was heavily percussive, clanking like a sledgehammer striking a rail spike. Brown flubbed a couple of lyrics during the recording, but when he heard the playback he decided, correctly, that the piece was too good to warrant a second take. "When I saw the speakers jumping, vibrating a certain way, I knew that was it: deliverance," Brown remembered, adding, in the understatement of all-time, "I had discovered that my strength was … in the rhythm." (How convenient that the memoirs of a notorious megalomaniac are trusted as an authoritative source... and that the creative contributions of the anonymous musicians who created this music are absorbed within Brown's "deliverance.")

"The song was called "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," and for once it's not glib to say that the rest was history. With "Brand New Bag," Brown created funk and laid the groundwork for disco, hip-hop, techno, and virtually every other style of modern popular music that has come since. He taught the world to wring percussive noise from every instrument—to hear drums everywhere—and to treat every song as the occasion for a riotous party. And he embarked on his most fertile period, a decade that produced dozens of the hottest records ever made: "I Feel Good," "Sex Machine," "Brother Rapp," "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," "Super Bad," and "Mother Popcorn" (my personal vote for funkiest song in the universe), among many others." (Not glib? According to whom, Matt Lauer? Even the most traditional "great man" historian would bristle at the reductionism of Rosen's historiography. In popular music, as in most fields with rapid shifts in style and technology, innovation tends to be collective and social, not the product of individual geniuses. That's why so many "geniuses" feel the need to rewrite history after the fact, claiming the mantle of innovator-heroes in their autobiographies. And dare I risk being pedantic by mentioning that even if we wanted to attribute innovation to individuals, those individuals should be Jimmy Nolen and Earl Palmer and James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Zigaboo Modeliste and Bernie Worrell and the Horny Horns as well as James Brown? And why does that "my personal vote for funkiest song in the universe" line bother me so much? Is it because "vote" is awkward, "universe" an adolescent stab at coolness, and the fact that plebsicites on the canon of funkiest songs among yuppie music writers, and funk itself, seem so mutually exclusive?)

But Brown's achievement is larger than his own oeuvre and the genres that it begat. Flip on the radio virtually anywhere on earth today, and you will hear the sound of the Brown Revolution, the blare of propulsive, polyrhythmic dance music. Beats have conquered the world, even the West, where polyphony was born and melody and harmony have traditionally held sway. No other musician—not Louis Armstrong, not Elvis Presley, not Bob Dylan—can claim so central a role in this momentous cultural shift. "Make It Funky," James commanded, and from Boise to Berlin to Bangkok, they have. (Okay, come on, this is nuts... Even Thomas Friedman and Niall Ferguson would be embarassed by this vision of cultural imperialism as artistic achievement. Is this not the clearest articulation of a capitalist aesthetics, a value system that prizes above all the conquest of new markets? Again, it is unclear why James Brown should be given credit for this spread of "beat music," and why the syncopated music of most of the world, which had been around for a long time prior to the advent of notation-based artistocratic folk music, and mostly survived its distortions of musical culture just fine, is not seen as the triumphant cultural force, rather than American pop music. Finally, the alliteration is nauseatingly cutesy.)

"The obituaries that have appeared in the wake of Brown's death yesterday at the age of 73 have sketched the milestones and curiosities of his life: his hardscrabble childhood in Georgia, where he was raised by an aunt who ran a brothel; his rise through the chitlin' circuit; his marriages and arrests; his big hits, black pride anthems, and strange fondness for Richard Nixon. And his nicknames: "the Godfather of Soul," "Soul Brother No. 1," "Minister of Super Heavy Funk," "the Hardest Working Man in Show Business," "Mr. Dynamite." No one who ever saw Brown in concert could doubt that he earned those titles. Even in his dotage, he led a band as tight as any in the world and executed his signature shimmies, slides, and splits in dance shoes buffed to a high gloss.

Brown's showmanship merged the fervent emotionalism of the black church with pure showbiz—flashy clothes, vaudevillian theatrics, sweat-drenched movement, and a pompadour flamboyant enough to inspire Al Sharpton (and countless pimps). He was the model for all pop performers who followed him. After Brown, even the whitest white boy felt compelled to shake it a little onstage. (Perhaps Brown popularized his own version of gospel emotionalism plus showbiz, but he certainly did not originate this conjugation. In fact, black preachers had this combination down many years prior to Brown's breakout as a megastar. Rosen's love of "great man" narratives compromises his discussion of Brown's significance here, too: what were the thousands of anonymous jook joint blues performers, the honkers and shouters of the jump blues bands, T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard if not originators of stylized, sexually provocative performance styles? Why is Brown's personal style singled out as a sartorial watershed, when just about every history of African American style and beauty culture recognizes multiple lines of influence and inspiration in the development of hairstyles and pimp chic? And this whole, "After Brown, even the whitest white boy felt compelled to shake it a little onstage" line is racist in at least two ways: 1) rhetorically, placing this line at the end of the paragraph seems to indicate that whatever the significance of Brown for African American culture, his real importance was his impact on "white boys"; and 2) the idea that "white" and "black" are appropriate shorthand for "squareness" and "funkiness." Finally, "shake it onstage" is embarassing writing, and many "white boys" didn't shake it onstage, even after the advent of James Brown.

The world is a quieter and duller place now that Brown will never again stride the boards, although you can relive the excitement by playing the volcanic Live at the Apollo (1963). That record, by far the best live album ever made, (Come on: why is everything in rock critic world about the "best of all time"? Along with "who did it first?" it is such an intellectually degrading framework for thinking about art) is a good place to begin listening, along with the Star Time box set, which includes most of the big hits. But digging into the Brown discography is the task of a lifetime. He made at least 70 albums, and there are brilliant moments on all of them. His earliest recordings, from the late 1950s, prove that his raw-throated ballad singing would have made him a legend even if he'd never found the funk. ("the funk"?) (Hunt down his 1959 debut Please Please Please.) He recorded jazz standards and gospel testimonials and disco, rap, showtunes, instrumentals, and dozens upon dozens of hilarious numbers like "For Goodness Sake, Look at Those Cakes" and "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto"—which I suppose you could call novelty songs, if the grooves weren't so seriously ferocious. ("Seriously ferocious"? What did this guy do before writing for Slate? Compose ad copy for Don Cherry "Rock Em Sock Em Hockey" tapes?)

The relentless groove was Brown's specialty, and he proved its pleasures were as profound, its mysteries as rich, as any that art has to offer. He worked hard to refine his craft. Earlier this year, critic and occasional Slate contributor Douglas Wolk gave me an extraordinary collection of MP3s he'd compiled of nearly every single ever produced by James Brown. Listening to these hundreds of songs by dozens of artists, it becomes clear that Brown is a bandleader and musical auteur on par with Duke Ellington. Like Ellington, he presided over a steady cast of players (including, among other greats, bassist Bootsy Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, trombonist Fred Wesley, and drummer Clyde Stubblefield), composed to their strengths, and kept pushing the music into new territory. Listen closely, with a good pair of headphones, and the thousand pointillist details of Brown's genius open up to you: the shifting accents and registers, the variations in dynamics and attack, the disconcerting spaces and silences, the beats piled atop beats. But, of course, that genius is never more apparent than when the headphones come off and you lose yourself in the steamy blur of a packed dance floor. (This is by far the most annoying tendency of new school rock critics-- when all else fails, go for a weird reference to dancing that makes everybody uncomfortable. Thanks, Sasha Frere-Jones, for popularizing this pathetic cred-grab strategy... and I thought that interminable UI set I had to sit through before US Maple played at the Rivoli was going to be the worst thing you ever did to me).

A subtler, often overlooked achievement is the words that Brown wrote and sang. He was capable of writing traditional pop lyrics, but by the late '60s, straightforward narratives and confessions were largely replaced by a surreal flow of catchphrases and exhortations that gushed out over the inexorable (Fuck you: inexorable-- you've got to be kidding me) beat: "Give it up or turn it a loose"; "Gimme some air!"; "Take it to the bridge!"; "Mama, come here quick/ Bring me that lickin' stick"; "Hit me!"; "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud"; "Sometimes I feel so nice/ Good Lord!/ I jump back, I wanna kiss myself"; and, passim, "Unh!," with which Brown proved, again and again, that in pop music, sound is sense, and that a single well-placed, wordless guttural can carry more meaning than a thousand poetaster's stanzas. Of course, in between grunts, Brown slipped in some worldly wisdom. To wit: "Get up offa that thing, and shake 'till you feel better/ Get up offa that thing, and shake it/ Sing it now!" In other words: Dancing is joy's end and its means. As philosophies of life go, it's not too shabby, and it's the best user's guide to James Brown records that I know. (Far be it from me to suggest that a vision of social emancipation and collective struggle against inequality might be a less "shabby" philosophy of life, and that Brown's resistance to linking his music more forcefully with the Civil Rights movement and Black Power might have merited some comment. Rosen's final sentence sucks, too: a philosophy isn't a user's guide, and "that I know" sounds like the formulaic wrap-up that desperate teenagers reach for when trying to conclude bar mitzvah speeches and college admissions essays).

Hey Kurt, Carl here, writing from toronto.

That was hilarious but a bit harsh. Your good points (particularly about the excesses of great-man history and lack of attention to collective processes in the piece, though I'd say these are at least as much endemic to the obituary form as they are to rockcrit) are hashed up with kneejerk assaults that you'd find petty and ridiculous if they were being directed at a musician. ("Inexorable: fuck you!" - and "the funk?" [a banally common expression, btw]).

But mainly I wanted to ask - your line about Sasha Frere Jones was really funny, yet I don't understand why references to dancing "make everyone uncomfortable"? I can see if it were a reference to the author shaking his ass or whatever (though even that seems a little prudish) but just losing yourself on the dance floor? We can't talk about that? Personally I think the fact that critics now talk about dancing is a fantastic thing (and I don't think it's down to SFJ, speaking of great-man theories). What's amazing, and kind of horrible, is that so many critics wrote so many words for so many years about pop music while hardly ever referring to dancing, or scorning music (like disco) that was crafted for dancing. Acknowledging social function as a generative source for music seems very much like an antidote to great-man, product-not-process music criticism. So loosen up, dude.
Carl, thanks for checking in! You are very right that I went over-the-top with the invective. Sour grapes are, in the long run, probably very unproductive, and I ought to keep in mind that civility is a value that bloggers should make an extra effort to maintain... so, I apologize for any excesses of player hating.

Moving on, I am very interested by your suggestion that writers sometimes find themselves hamstrung by the formal tropes of obituary.

A good topic for research, too, since I would imagine the form of the obituary has changed a great deal over time, and that with the decline of the bourgeois public sphere, culture heroes are the only remaining figures publicly eulogized in print. It is probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that concious strategies of myth-making on the part of artists and celebrities have evolved in dialectical relationship with the literary construction of "worth" in obituraries. All of which is to say that the way we remember fallen musicians matters a lot to the living as well as the dead.

Re: reference to dancing making everyone uncomfortable. I am always up for opportunities for discount psychoanalysis, so I just reread Rosen's text, and I have to say, it still makes me uncomfortable. Why? Leaving aside my own uptight-ness, which is no secret, I think I can still locate the squeamishness I feel in reaction to it in the text itself, rather than my prudish faculties. To wit: I think the reference to dancing reeks of cliche and false consciousness. I don't mind people talking about dancing, I mind the ad-copy banality of "genius is never more apparent than when the headphones come off and you lose yourself in the steamy blur of a packed dance floor." What makes me uncomfortable is the idea that everybody experiences the "packed dance floor" in the same self-evident way. For what it's worth, I do think that S-FJ popularized this hackneyed and contentless version of the the bad-writing-about-dancing tic...

If we accept Rosen's construction of Brown's significance, then a turn from discussion of Brown's meaning for culture in general (which is in theory of interest to many readers) to Rosen's personal relationship with the music (which requires greater explanation if it is not to appear a self-indulgent aside) ought to be, at very least, specific . This is my bone to pick, not the reference to dancing as an integral part of musicking. I want to know this: What is it like to dance to Brown's music? How about a specific moment when dancing to it had a unique or transformative effect? How is it different from dancing to other music? What about some historicizing of dancing to Brown's music from other informants. My problem is that Rosen doesn't seem to think that this kind of detail is necessary, and therefore, in effect, evinces a snobby attitude towards dancing. Music requires paragraphs of careful discussion; dancing, one throwaway line that could have been cribbed from the worst Manchester rave coverage of the early 1990s...

Also, I have, in the past, enjoyed brutally curt putdowns of musicians, including me. JD Considine was, of course, the master, and Christgau's C- to F capsule reviews, especially of bad indie rock records, were always hilarious.

Nevertheless, I should, indeed, loosen up. Not just in writing, either. In general, I should probably loosen up.

Anyways, thanks for writing, and I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I hope the conversation continues for many years! Hope you and yours are well, and happy new year.
dont loosen up!! you are correct on all fronts! i often write similar things regarding invention, ground-breaking- best in the universe. dont believe the hype. when you do proper research and analysis you find that the same goes for Miles Davis. invented nothing. broke NO NEW GROUND. didn't do it better than everyone. was Years behind with the Lackluster 'bitches Brew' . but in the eyes of most uninformed critics and public, he invented everything singlehandedly. [?!?!?] . these assumptions are for jazz pedestrians, and are scorned by ALL serious jazz fans. the same with the soul/r&b music scene. the priceyest Lps on line are neither Miles or James Brown, and for good reason.
I never paid too much mind to the old figurehead, it was the band that got me. I bought Doin it to Death and Us by Maceo years ago when they were issued as lp's and enjoyed them alongside my long lost copy of the Area Code 615 lp and New Africa by Grachan Moncur III.

This mover and shaker mythos just makes a travesty of the deeper thing, community.

Think of how worthless JB, Motown singers and Nashville stars would be without their respective communities of Fred Wesley's, James Jamerson's and Charlie McCoy's?

Media scribblers as distinct from scholars are ever doomed to being glib scribblers shepherding fools.

When I bought my first jazz albums as a kid in the 70's I was always disgusted by the horrid disconnect between the majestic noise on the vinyl and the scribble gibberish on the liner.
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