New book celebrates subversive music throughout history

Music: A Subversive HistoryIn Music: A Subversive History, Ted Gioia makes the case that music has challenged cultural norms throughout the ages. This constant reinvention not only helps music flower artistically but facilitates cultural change. What frightens the establishment in one generation gets embraced (and often co-opted) by the establishment a generation or more later. Gioia calls this force “creative destruction.” Music helps tear down walls, liberating society from arbitrary codes designed to control behavior. Tracing this pattern through four thousand years of history, Gioia shows how the force of change usually originates in outsiders and marginalized groups. I like the description from the dust jacket: “Music is essential reading for anyone interested in the hidden sources of music’s timeless power, from Sappho to the Sex Pistols to Spotify.” Continue reading →

Reevaluating the legacy of progressive rock

The rise and fall of progressive rockIn the introduction to his book “The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock,” David Weigel points out that rock critics have traditionally heaped praise on punk rock while disparaging progressive rock. I’ve noticed this tendency, too, over the years. Yes, prog rock could sometimes be pretentious and bloated. But you could equally criticize punk for being crude and simplistic. Weigel aims to correct this imbalance by telling the story of prog rock. Continue reading →

Horror drag in performance, music, and books

Charity Kase horror dragThroughout the years, drag and horror have not paired off as much as one might like. At least, not unless the pairing springs from comedy. But that may be changing.

When they aren’t awing us with the illusion of a real woman, drag artists traditionally serve as clowns, their exaggerated attitude rooted in camp and satire. I remember watching a humble drag version of Brian de Palma’s Carrie during the late 90s in San Francisco. Hilarious. So I appreciate the clowning around. Especially when, like Lear’s fool, the queen helps us discover some profound truth about the world.

But there’s now a richer world of drag horror waiting to be unleashed. The humor hasn’t necessarily been bled from it completely, but the horror element has a more prominent role. And the drag queens themselves are taking control of the narrative, dissatisfied with being portrayed simply as victims or villains. So let’s take a look at the history of drag and horror. Continue reading →

Funk queen Betty Davis reveals little in documentary

Betty Davis documentaryFilmmaker Phil Cox has produced a wonderful documentary exploring the life of funk singer Betty Davis. A model and uninhibited performer—famously described by Miles Davis as being even too wild for him to handle—Davis oozed unbridled sexuality. As the documentary Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different makes clear, she was Prince before Prince and Madonna before Madonna. The challenge for Cox? Davis turned her back on music and society during the 80s, becoming a recluse who refused to come out from the shadows. The documentary is stunning visually. With performance clips, album covers, photo shoots, and music tracks, we easily understand her appeal. Continue reading →