Where Lady Gaga and Bon Iver Collide

What do Lady Gaga and Bon Iver have in common?  Well, um, give me a minute…

Okay, they’re both musicians, have released albums in the last month or so, and are both very talented in very different aspects.  And both of them apparently enjoy a nice saxophone solo.

The two artists are on completely opposite ends of the genre spectrum; one wears dresses made of meat, rides into the Grammy’s in a giant silicone egg, and writes lyrics that express her views on immigration reform and LGBT issues, while the other records his albums in a converted swimming pool attached to a veterinarians office in Wisconsin, wears plaid button-ups, polo’s and khaki pants, and surprises his fans by popping up on a Kanye West track.  But on both of their new albums, one can hear striking similarities in heavy saxophone solos and synthetic keyboard instrumentals that would play nicely on a mixed tape between Phil Collins’ “One More Night” and Madonna’s “Open Your Heart.”

Lady Gaga’s Born This Way features several 80’s inspired tomes; the track titled “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion” calls to mind Madonna’s interpretation of the black saint in “Like a Virgin,” while its instrumentals might encourage a cameo by Paula Abdul’s MC Skat Kat.  The single “The Edge of Glory,” features a fantastic saxophone solo by the late Clarence Clemons of the E-Street Band.  The video, which you can watch below, is simple by Lady Gaga’s standards, and seems to be inspired by basically every Michael Jackson video made in the 1980’s.

Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album is considerably more complex than Born This Way.  The alt-indie group led by Justin Vernon has touches of 80’s noir, blended with the strong folksy sounds we’re accustomed to hearing from the band.  In a surprising mix, Vernon fuses the decidedly 80’s sounds of the keyboard, electric guitar and saxophone with the twang of a country-esque slow jam on the albums closing song “Beth/Rest.”  You can watch the official video for Bon Iver’s first single “Calgary” below.

So this is 2011, what’s with the flashback?

1980’s music rode heavily on the revolution of the industry with the premiere  MTV; heavily digitized and highly visual, the most successful artists of the era left their mark by making loud statements and challenging the mainstream (See: “Like a Virgin”).

Collectively, the US spent much of the 1980’s recovering from a global recession, conservatives idealized American Exceptualism and President Ronald Reagan, technology was rapidly evolving with the creation of portable devices such as the mobile phones and the Sony Walkman, there was ongoing war in Iraq and the US military bombed Libya.

Pop culture is often at its best when it accurately reflects reality, so it’s no surprise that our music, like our history, is repeating itself.  Additionally, many of those who make up pop musics core demographic were born in the 1980’s — like myself — and while obviously well aware of Madonna and Phil Collins, our experience of the decade is limited to second-hand knowledge.  This 80’s sound, the political outcry, the visual/metaphorical messages people once saw only when they tuned into MTV are now disseminated rapidly through the internet.

To many engaged listeners this music isn’t a revival, but revolutionary.

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Holy Superheroes, Batman!

The superhero genre is an American creation, like jazz and stripper poles, exemplifying American ideals, American know-how, and American might, a mating of magical thinking and the right stuff. (May Vanity Fair)

After Barack Obama was elected in November 2008, Hollywood saw the trend: This man would save America, from the economy, from foreign opinion, from war, from the Bush era.  He would bring America back to its former glory.

After a decade of sorted superheroes flying across green screens with the greatest of ease, in 2009 and 2010 only two films from the superhero genre were released, Iron Man 2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Both films were sequels; America didn’t need any new superheroes, we had Obama.

Now over two years into Obama’s term and things are changing.  If you needed any other signs that summer is finally (almost, kind of) here, you only need to look at the swell of blockbusters hitting the screens.  Johnny Depp with his raven locks and guyliner, took over the box office last weekend with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but two weeks ago it was America’s superheroes who officially launched their summer tour.  Thor, which has grossed over $145 million in the US since its May 6 release, is the first of four big-budget superhero films set for theaters this summer (X-Men First Class, June 3, Green Lantern, June 17, Captain America: The First Avenger, July 22).

Even more capes will be flashing across the big screen in 2012 with The Avengers, Superman: Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spider-Man.

So what’s going on?

In almost every year since 2000, at least one film from the superhero genre has cracked the top 20 list of domestic box office grossers.  The X-Men and Spider-Man franchises alone have grossed over $1.9 billion domestically, spanning across seven films.

Comparatively, however, the 2000’s were unable to capture a tone befitting the era, as the genre has done in the past.  Superman ruled at the box office from 1978 until 1988, releasing four films in the franchise.  The escalating Cold War and an economic crisis encouraged a country in distress to embrace the nationalistic timbre that defined Ronald Reagan’s presidency; Superman, with his ability to withstand bullets and leap tall buildings in a single bound, was an ideal guardian for America during the turbulent 1980’s.

As the last great enemy of the United States vanished with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America became the world’s only remaining superpower, and in turn with the tide in 1989, Tim Burton would reboot Batman. A superhero who lacked any superhuman abilities, save perhaps his high intelligence, Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, was a wealthy businessman-turned-vigilante fighting crime at night dressed as a bat, using an array of highly developed, tech-savvy weapons.  Batman was symbolic of the abundant wealth and economic dominance of Wall Street and Silicon Valley throughout much of the 1990’s.  In addition to America’s dark knight, Hollywood also created film versions of dark, morally ambiguous superheroes in The Punisher (1989), Spawn (1997), and Blade (1998).

But the post 9/11 America never found itself a consistent superhero; along with the X-Men and Spider-Man, Hollywood also gave us Hellboy, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Chris Nolen’s take on Batman, another Superman, and Iron Man.

What makes 2011/2012 different is that, contrary to previous years when we saw the same characters over several films, only two of the upcoming superhero flicks are sequels, The Dark Knight Rises and Ghost Rider.  The remainder are either brand new franchises or reboots, such as Captain America and Superman: Man of Steel.

In 2008, America thought it had found its hero.  Now, however, it seems the “honeymoon” is over.  Obama’s campaign of “hope” and “change” were stalled by reality, and despite the achievements he has made thus far — passing health care legislation, over-turning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and now the death of Osama bin Laden — people still can at most times only talk of his failures, such as the slow economic recovery, high unemployment, and unforthcoming closing of Guantanamo.

Obama couldn’t perform miracles or walk on water, and he couldn’t instantly pull America out of the hole it had dug for itself since 9/11, as so many had expected him to after they built him up during the campaign.

Perhaps the words of Commissioner Jim Gordon closing lines of The Dark Knight best describe the decline of Super-Obama: “he’s the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now. And so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.”