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Music Reader: Beyoncé, Frank Ocean, The Postal Service, Taylor Swift, more

A weekly recurring feature where we highlight some of the most interesting music writing from across the web.

 

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The Greatest Band On Earth (One Night In 1974 On Late Night German TV) by Will Sheff (Gawker): Let's face it: you probably didn't click on the link to this Music Reader column because you wanted to read about 1970s good-time band hippies Dr Hook And The Medicine Show. They're pretty forgettable, really, argues Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff. Except for this one performance on German TV, on Musikladen, that he has a bootleg of. And Sheff reckons that bootleg is the greatest rock and roll concert footage of all time. And it may be the greatest concert footage of all time, but I haven't watched it, because I kind of feel it might not live up to Sheff's writing. Which is fantastic: his obsessive love of music is so joyous, so deeply a part of his writing about the bootleg, its characters, its odd brilliance and its baffling components.

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Why Can't Beyoncé Have It All? by Nitsuh Abebe (Vulture): Beyoncé is some sort of perfect. She has it all. She's classy, sexy, incredibly talented, friends with the President, has a desirable (and critically acclaimed...and rich) husband, and a beautiful kid. She sings at Obama's Inauguration and becomes the main story for lip-syncing (honestly, it looked freezing, and those kind of temperatures doesn't do great things to a singer's throat), because people are kind of shocked that she's not totally perfect. Then she becomes the main story about the Superbowl. It goes on.

Nitsuh Abebe is fascinated by Beyoncé, by what her music says about us, about Beyoncé's generation. There's this quote from Mary J. Blige: “It’s not like Beyoncé can’t sing,” she tells Women’s Wear Daily. “But what’s missing is the personal. Those girls are groomed to be pop artists, to be perfect, to go to modeling school and learn how to walk and talk. Whereas we had to go through the trenches and get beat up and knocked down by life to learn how to articulate ourselves properly. And there’s no school for that. There’s no school for organic.” But Abebe reckons Blige is too much a 1990s kind of person, and so she misses how Beyonce articulates her (very real) struggles.

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Frank Ocean Can Fly by Jeff Himmelman (New York Times): The best profile of Frank Ocean, now Grammy winner, that I've read. Meaning yes, I imagine Chris Brown won't read it. Ocean comes across as someone with a deep distrust of authority, and a deep perfectionism (the details about the insignia under the bonnet on his customised BMW are instructive). There's good detail here about the making of Channel Orange and about where he plans to go next.

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How L7's Corporate Clout Brought Punk To The People by Craig Schuftan (FasterLouder): The existence of L7, argues Schuftan, is as good an explanation of the philosophy of 1990s alternative rock as any. L7 were punks, but instead of hold to Ian Mackaye-style ideas of independence, they signed to a major label imprint, Slash, because they not only wanted to fight the power, but they wanted to be heard by the wider public -- they wanted to provide an alternative. In today's world, where alternative styles of music are literally at your fingers any time you want them, ever (hi Spotify/rdio!), this is sort of hard to grasp, but there was a much greater sense of monoculture, of having few options back then. Schuftan explains the logic well; in a funny way, pop culture has never quite resolved the dilemma that the likes of L7 were left with.

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The Mumford Problem by Steven Hyden (Grantland): Hyden is killing it at Grantland at the moment; his series on The Winner's History of Rock And Roll is going from strength to strength (see his part 5 on Metallica - a timely segue to our own Metallica feature published today). But here he gets at the fundamental paradox of the Grammys: All reasonable, intelligent individuals agree that handing out trophies to famous people based on the votes of other famous people and their non-famous associates is sort of a stupid exercise, and has little or nothing to do with recognizing artistic merit...and yet it doesn't stop those same reasonable, intelligent individuals from becoming emotionally engaged with those sort of stupid trophies going to the correct famous people, because it's supposed to be based on artistic merit, even though that's never really been the case. That is, critic types generally kind of agree that Frank Ocean's better than Mumford & Sons, but the people tuning in at home want Mumford, dammit! Who's Frank Ocean?

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Gratuitous Pictures Of Your Grief by Lindsay Zoladz (Pitchfork): Lots of people have a similar story about discovering Judee Sill as Zoladz (well, I do too); you buy a record of hers, play it, discover that she seems to be incredibly skilled at writing beautiful, crystalline melodies that echo the Baroque likes of Johann Sebastian Bach. And then you discover her horrible, tragic life and struggle to understand how those melodies and that life go together. But in the age of the internet, there's a solution: writing a tribute to Sill on a website devoted, basically, to dead celebrities; it's trite, perhaps, but there's a truthfulness to those tributes that you might not find on snarky, 140-character-limit Twitter.

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I Dared Criticise Taylor Swift by Rick Moody (Salon): The chatter about Taylor Swift articulates one of the central cultural divides in music writing at the moment. Moody seems incredulous that anybody could possibly think Taylor Swift is any good, finding her music bland and idiotic. He tries to defend himself against claims of misogyny, etc, by pointing out female artists he loves. But it's not his criticism of Taylor Swift that gets the goat of the likes of Maura Johnston (whose blistering reply to it, 'Post-Menopausal Antiquing, Or: Please, Rick Moody, Just Quit It', is on the website for Maura Magazine, her iOS app full of writers writing good things about music, which fans of Music Reader would probably dig). It's that he assumes that his music tastes are indicative of reality, that his particular aesthetic preferences are right. But aesthetic preferences aren't right, because they're a function of who you are. And Moody's are pretty obviously tied up in him being an intellectual old white American guy. Which is generally not Taylor Swift's fanbase. And so his criticisms of Taylor Swift fairly obviously show a lack of understanding of what Swift is trying to do.

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Do We Need A Postal Service Reunion? by Rachael Maddux (Buzzfeed): Well, we're getting one! Anyway, this is a beautiful tribute to how an album like Give Up filtered around the world, how it got into people's hearts; for Maddux, it came via a CD-R, and it's inescapably tied to her first, daunting, semester at college. Her view of the album changed over time, as she grew up, and as the album's casual infiltration of pop culture caught her off balance again and again, but she was surprised, recently, to find that in lots of ways she hadn't really heard the album she thought she loved.

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Previously: Music Reader: Angel Haze, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Richard Marx and more

Tim Byron

(Main image of Beyonce at the Superbowl: http://iam.beyonce.com)

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