Episode 13 - Usher & Nas, Jakob Danger, Bloc Party

Musicology With Kurt - Episode 13 - Usher & Nas, Jakob Danger, Bloc Party.jpg

Show Notes

This week, I see the future of music videos in Usher and Nas' new anti-police brutality protest anthem, which uses your computer's webcam to force you to not look away from the victims of such injustices. We also discover that Billie Joe Armstrong of 90's pop-punk rabble-rousers Green Day has a teenage son (!) whose real name is Jakob Danger (!!) and the kid can write some pretty decent tunes (!!!). Lastly, I profess my undying love for Bloc Party's 2005 debut album Silent Alarm (and try to keep it as objective as possible).

  • You can view the fully-interactive version of Usher & Nas' song 'Chains' here (webcam required, desktop browsers only). Or you can see a longer standard version on Youtube here.

Other music videos mentioned:

  • Jakob Danger's 2015 self-titled EP is currently available on Amoeba Music here. Alternatively, you can head over to his Soundcloud page.
  • Bloc Party's 2005 album Silent Alarm can downloaded from iTunes here.

Our theme music is provided by PodcastThemes.com - thanks!


Segment Times

Jump to your desired section at these points:

  • Usher & Nas

00:55 to 08:55

  • Jakob Danger

08:56 to 13:46

  • Bloc Party

13:47 to 19:39


Show Transcript

 

Intro

Hello and welcome everyone to the lucky number thirteen episode of Musicology With The Eagle! I am The Eagle, and I hope that all you listeners out there had a fantastic week.

Since last week’s episode, which focused on music from South Africa, there have been some interesting developments in my home country. I think they tie up quite nicely with this week’s main news segment. Let’s get stuck in…

 

Usher & Nas

Our slogan here at Musicology With The Eagle is “There's so much more to music than what meets the ear”. Nowhere is that more true than with the videos which accompany the music we listen to.

Humans are primarily visual creatures; we crave and thrive on content placed right in front of our faces to scrutinise. Combine that experience with the sensation of sound, and you’re onto a winning formula.

Particularly over the last fifty to sixty years, music videos have morphed from simple mimed promotional performances to elaborate short films, weaving together lavish storylines and visual effects. But it’s mostly been a passive experience: you sit and watch the film on whatever medium you choose, be it a television, your smartphone, or computer screen.

I guess there are two ways to look at innovation and development in music videos: from a content perspective, and from an interaction perspective.

In terms of content, music videos have shifted alongside the technological advances of the film format – with new cameras, new methods of editing, etc, there’s more you can do with the end product. In turn, you get greater budgets and directors on board with cinematic ambitions.

Starting with ‘talkies’ in the 1920’s, musical short films were rudimentary entertainment – sing-along cartoons, live action performances, often combining music and dancing. Even as longer Hollywood musical films began to emerge from the 1930’s to 1950’s, such as ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ or ‘West Side Story’, the promotional aspect for a particular artist had not yet caught on in the short form. And when it did in the 1960’s – like it or not - it became the dominant purpose for the existence of the music video.

With rock ‘n roll paving the way, record labels began filming promotional clips (then known as "filmed inserts") for their artists, to be distributed and broadcast in other countries so record releases could be promoted without having to make in-person appearances. The promotional soon led to the protest – in the following decades, cunning artists have made wise use of the global platform they have to champion their own causes, to protest problems in society and write songs to be seen, as well as heard.

As sophisticated as these films have become, for whatever purpose they’ve served – commercial, artistic, or activistic - there’s that nagging frustration: we’re still passive observers in this game.

Think of all the truly innovative music videos from history – the cinematic scope of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, a-ha’s blend of live action and pencil-sketch animation in ‘Take On Me’, OK-GO’s insane Rube Goldberg machine in ‘This Too Shall Pass’ – no matter how frivolous or fervent, all these are just innovations in content.

Which is why I sat up in interest when I heard about R&B superstar Usher’s new collaboration with rapper Nas, called ‘Chains’.

Police brutality and racial profiling are pertinent issues right now in the United States, and around the world. My native South Africa even saw nationwide protests over tertiary education fees this past week take a turn for the worse with unnecessary use of force by local police. Usher wanted to address these head-on, and for ‘Chains’ to be more than just a video. He wanted listeners to confront the ugly truth: that far too many unarmed citizens of colour are being targeted and killed by the nation’s police – and to not look away from those victims.

How was he going to do that - to force people to watch a music video? Through your computer’s own webcam.

If you watch the video on the Tidal streaming service’s website, facial recognition software is then utilized to detect if your eyes are looking away from the screen at any point. Turn your head, and the song is promptly paused, with some text appearing onscreen, saying ‘Don’t look away’. The effect is as eerie as it is powerful.

You truly feel as if you are being watched, and the suspense is heightened as ghostly portraits appear to drift in from the abyss, accompanied by the grisly facts: “Rekia was with a group of friends when an off-duty Chicago police officer shot her in the head with an unregistered firearm. The officer was cleared of all charges”. Or take Ramarley Graham’s fate: “Two officers followed Ramarley home and kicked their way in without a warrant. They shot him dead in his bathroom, though he was unarmed. No one has been charged”

With something as simple as a webcam – a technology found now in almost all laptop computers – Usher has created something for his listeners to really interact with, and the method goes hand in hand with the message of awareness and activism. The song itself is dark and bass-heavy, with staccato bursts of percussion that match the urgency and despair of Usher and Bibi Bourelly’s wails. But veteran Nas steals the show with a rapid-fire verse referencing Booker T Washington – the first African American to be invited to the White House by a US President – and spits lines like “I am no prison commodity, not just a body you throw in a cell” to draw attention to the disproportionately high rates of incarceration for black men and women.

But where else can we see cool ideas like this being utilized in music videos? In Episode 3, we mentioned Fort Minor’s recent interactive 360-degree video for the song ‘Welcome’, and that seems to be a popular trend at the moment, thanks to GoPro cameras and special rigs that allow for multiple cameras to be attached. The likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers literally ask viewers to ‘look around’ various rooms in the video of the same name, Icelandic singer Bjork lets you follow her across a rocky shoreline on ‘Stonemilker’, and things get really weird and trippy no matter which adventure you choose on Squarepusher’s day-glow animated ‘Stor Eiglass’. Bob Dylan’s iconic ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ finally got a music video in 2013 after 48 years of waiting, and it was worth it! The song gets presented on a television which has sixteen channels, where each of the performers is lip-syncing the lyrics – regardless of whether it’s a cooking show or a tennis match!

In all of these examples, the viewer is being asked to manipulate a variety of angles of the same story. But what if the story was your own? Linkin Park’s 2012 video for ‘Lost In The Echo’ allows viewers to connect their Facebook account to see their own pictures being featured in the storyline. Arcade Fire’s 2010 hit ‘We Used To Wait’ goes one further on an interactive film project called ‘The Wilderness Downtown', pulling in mapping data of the viewer’s hometown from Google Maps to personalize the nostalgic lyrics.

We’re reaching a stage now where technology like virtual reality is, well, becoming a reality. Projects such as Oculus Rift will place VR in the hands of consumers, and in time, music videos could be so immersive and real, you could reach out and almost touch your surroundings. Even holograms are becoming more believable – anyone remember Tupac’s performance from beyond the grave at Coachella in 2012?

The concluding text of Usher’s ‘Chains’ experience says "Facing the facts is the first step toward change". For the music video, YouTube may have killed the MTV star, but what lies in store for us next could be far more compelling. Our musicians and film directors have proven what they can do with a concept on one side of the lens – let’s see what they’re going get us as music fans to do. I’ll make sure that I don’t look away.

 

Jakob Danger

This week, we have a new release from a guy who goes by the name of Jakob Danger. “Who’s he?” you might ask. Well I might’ve not known or cared had I not seen who his father is.

Jakob Danger Armstrong – yes, Danger really is his middle name – is the second son of Billie Joe Armstrong, lead singer and guitarist of 90’s pop-punk rabble-rousers Green Day. Yes people, Billie Joe is now of the age where it’s normal to have two fully-grown children, both who happen to be making their start in the music industry. Feeling old yet?

Being the child of a rock star – even a legitimate one. A child, that is. Although being a child of an illegitimate rock star must be horrible – what was my point again? Ah yes, Daddy going to work to melt thousands of faces with his guitar wizardry. It’s a dicey prospect. Yeah, you might be on first name basis with all his famous friends, and live a life of relative luxury, but soon as you step out on your own, with his very blood flowing through your veins, judgement will befall you. It’s inevitable.

I admit it, I was not expecting much when I clicked the Soundcloud link to the 17-year-old’s debut EP of the same name. It was either going to be derivative, bratty pop-punk like Armstrong Senior, or some boring left-field experiment.

Wrong, and wrong again. Pop-punk is out, and instead, Jakob opts for catchy, hook-filled garage pop that bobs and bounces with kinetic precision. This dude is all indie, as evidenced by his two favourite bands being The Strokes and Beach Fossils. You can hear strains of the former on ‘Don’t Try’, where scratchy practice-amp vocals tango with low-fi, head-nodding rhythms.

And why should he be influenced by the music of his famous dad? The same thing goes for Frances Bean Cobain – the only child of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love – who has made her fandom for Britpop titans Oasis well-known over whatever her father did with Nirvana. The second wave of rock star children born in the 1980’s or 90’s are now starting to come of age, and Danger shows some promise, recently being picked up on California-based independent record label Burger Records.

If you smell any nepotism in that signing, it’s not because of Billie Joe’s influence – rather from his other son Joseph, who plays drums in the band SWMRS, and is friends with those at the record label. The 20-year-old sits behind the kit for a few songs on the EP, including ‘Don’t Try’ and my personal favourite ‘King Of The World’, which benefits greatly from his frenetic playing.

Danger’s musical maturity is most evident on that track as well, crafting brain-burrowing guitar melodies to match the insistent pace, and delivering surprisingly-deep, dreamy vocals which you could easily mistake for someone like Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio. The lyrics sometimes need work – the gist of ‘King’ is that “I just want to be the king of the world/ I’ll have all these friends and get all the girls”. However, he does concede in the very next line “Have patience and you’ll see/ Who I’m growing up to be”, and you can’t fault the quiet confidence of youth.

Elsewhere, you get another solid track in ‘Waiting To Dance’, a peppy New Wave stomp with what seems like a feather-light synthesizer part occasionally peeking through the chiming guitars, and EP-closer ‘Go Inside’ is the biggest stylistic departure, slowing things down for an angsty piano-led exercise in introspection.

It’s probably too early to tell if this next rock star offspring will make a name for himself and not fade into (relative) obscurity, like some of the Beatles sons have done. The pressure must’ve been immense for those first wave of rock star kids – now mostly in their late-30’s to 40’s - because like any first-borns, you are seen as the trailblazers. There’s no textbook for you to follow: do you avoid the music industry entirely and become an accountant, or try join the family business whilst avoiding people falling over themselves to give you a leg up (or even put you down – as was my indifference earlier)? The same can be seen from the parents’ side, who might’ve been living a wild lifestyle not conducive to raising children, but here they are, all grown up and not that traumatized.

The kid seems pretty well-adjusted, stating in a recent Rolling Stone interview that he loves drawing and acting, and might even to go to an arts college to pursue those dreams. But like any musician starting out, there’s a lot still to make sense of. To quote the man known as Danger: “It's more of a personal accomplishment for me. This is my first time really sharing my music, and I don't really know how to go about that”.

 

Bloc Party

For this week’s retrospective, we are about to look at my personal favourite album, ever. So forgive me if things get a little subjective…

This year has seen the tenth anniversary of a stand-out album from the noughties – 2005’s Silent Alarm by post-punk revivalists Bloc Party. The band’s thrilling debut reinvigorated and helped reinvent British rock music, and overflowed with thoughts and subject matter that is still relevant today as it was ten years ago.

It’s for this latter reason why I still hold the album, and the band, so close to my heart: it tapped into the hopes, dreams and realities of what it felt like to be a young adult living in 2005, and as each year passes, it proves that nothing really changes.

“3 out of 5, 3 out of 5/It’s not enough/6 out of 10/Better luck next time/Just like his dad, just like his dad/Same mistakes/Some things will never be different”.

Whether lead singer Kele Okereke was singing on ‘Helicopter’ about George W Bush, his own failings, or an everyday adolescent’s, the forward-thinking themes covered across Silent Alarm drift from the personal to the political with “a finger on the pulse and eyes everywhere”, and the band are eager to grapple and process the world around them.

Okereke provides much of the impetus for this exploration, his trademark yelp cutting through the layers of spiky guitars, breakneck drums, and throbbing bass. His songs speak of a desperation – always a desperation – being desperately heartbroken, desperately ambitious, desperately enraged, desperately in lust. Their early work pre-Silent Alarm showed glimmers of this uniformity, whether it was shouty political song-speak ‘a la Gang Of Four on ‘Staying Fat’, or dreamy romantic ballads such as ‘Tulips’ from 2004’s Little Thoughts EP.

Few could’ve predicted the widescreen scope and genre-mashing which Silent Alarm would employ. Bloc Party were just a plucky young British indie rock group with a name which was a play on a neighbourhood ‘block party’, and that also happened to merge Soviet blocs and British political parties into one revolutionary unit.

They had big ideas, and wanted to separate themselves from their indie contemporaries by crafting an album which appealed to followers of different musical genres, such as pop, R&B and electro. Fortunately, they found a kindred spirit at the time in a young producer called Paul Epworth, who helped fashion fiery fully-fledged versions of early demos and draw out new songs in the studio environment. Epworth soon went on to produce for the likes of Adele, U2, Florence And The Machine, and Coldplay – and his work on Silent Alarm laid the foundation for future successes in his own right.

Epworth's production style revealed itself rather subtly: by separating the band's elements, such as accentuating the bass to mimic a club environment and meticulously fine-tuning the drums, guitarists Russell Lissack and Okereke were given space to improvise. Oftentimes, the band had a basic idea about a track’s rhythm, but no idea about how a song would begin or end.

Drummer Matt Tong’s contributions are some of the most prominent on the record, and many of the arrangements on Silent Alarm are strongly percussive. ‘Like Eating Glass’ bursts out of the gates with cold, relentless efficiency, exploring a household where a marriage has begun to fall apart. ‘Positive Tension’ literally prickles the ears with the union of Tong’s crisp drumming and Gordon Moakes grumbling basslines, and a sense of rising paranoia and dread fills early-single ‘She’s Hearing Voices’, with repeated lyrics such as “Red pill/ Blue pill/ Milk of amnesia” and other jagged, abstract imagery adding to the sense of confusion.

Silent Alarm is far being a doom-and-gloom record, and neither can be it marketed as a ‘feel-good’ one (no matter how much I’ve tried to make that work over the years). It’s just, well, real. Who here has felt the coy to-and-fro of a blossoming romance spoken of in ‘This Modern Love’? Or the exasperation and nihilism found in ‘Price Of Gas’ and ‘Pioneers’? Or the wanton desire dripping from ‘Banquet’s’ table?

As much as Okereke maps out the emotional terrain, and Moakes and Tong set the pace of the journey, lead guitarist Lissack oversees the sonic atmosphere, forsaking the brittle torture of most post-punk bands in favour of an ethereal effects-laden guitar sound that adds genuine prettiness to Bloc Party's edgy rush. You hear it in the quieter moments, such as the intricate and tender break-up ballad ‘Blue Light’, or the spacious, shimmering bliss of ‘So Here We Are’.

Bloc Party arguably reached a high water mark with Silent Alarm, as many fans of the band are quick to point out. Its universal brilliance was a subtle wake-up call, a real ‘silent alarm’, that helped redefine what the word 'indie' meant for a generation of music lovers.

Kele and the boys grew and evolved their sound from here on out - for better and for worse – which led to Tong and Moakes leaving the group in 2013 and 2015 respectively. The band has since recruited two new members – a female drummer no less – and have a new album due out in January 2016 called Hymns. Regardless of what transpires from their new lineup, us Blocheads can still find solace in the singular perfection of their debut, which shaped my view of music, and my view of the world.

 

Outro

Well we’ve reached the end of yet another episode. Thanks for tuning in and being a part of our music discussion – let us know if you agree, disagree or have any memories you’d like to share with us. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.