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Interesting miscellany from our events & elsewhere. Earlier Posts

October 6: You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet

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otd161006There was a time when blackface wasn’t such a big deal. White performers would show up with greasepaint on their faces and sing plantation songs and do dances that as “white folks,” were beyond propriety. If you read Where Dead Voices Gather, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of the blackface performer Emmett Miller, you get a great feel for the place vaudeville and minstrelsy had in the entertainment of the early 20th century.

This is the world in which Al Jolson was a megastar. Born in Lithuania in 1886, the young Asa Yoelsen moved to Baltimore as a child, where he wound up at the same reform school as Babe Ruth. He discovered music fairly early, appearing in vaudeville productions of various kinds from the beginning of the century. His star rose steadily through the first decade of the 1900s, and by 1911, when he returned to New York after a few years on the West Coast for his first solo revue on Broadway, he was a full-blown national sensation. Every Broadway production kept his star rising for the next decade, and at the premiere of Bombo in 1921, Jolson received 37 curtain calls.

In a lot of ways, Al Jolson was the first rock star, or pop idol, of the modern era. He was mobbed wherever he went, his performances were so thoroughly over the top that they seemed silly, and he was vulnerable in a way that only certain opera characters were before that time. Granted, no small amount of that was due to his being able to don blackface to get over in ways that he couldn’t as himself, but still, there was no one better. His blackface served as a metaphor for Jewish oppression, and that was how (white, theatergoing) America saw it.

jazz-singer-1927In fact, that was the plot of the original production of The Jazz Singer, which premiered on this day in 1927. Jolson plays Jack Robin, a blackface performer who has to choose between singing for his disapproving parents and the adoring crowd. (I won’t spoil the ending, but you can probably guess how it works out.) The movie is perfectly serviceable, but it does feature the first lines of dialogue ever spoken in a feature film, and the musical sequences (Jolson sings six songs; it’s largely a showcase for his talent) are sung live. This caused a sensation at the time, and to say that this film killed the silent film industry is not inaccurate. (The first-ever Academy Awards were held the following year, and while The Jazz Singer would have been eligible, they excluded it from consideration, so as to give the other movies a chance.)

The 1980 remake starred Neil Diamond as a Jewish cantor who sang with a soul group at night. There is a blackface scene, but they get past that bit pretty quickly. (It’s terrible, though the soundtrack did feature “America” and “Love On The Rocks,” and Neil is still touring today, so I guess it all ultimately worked out.)

These two clips feature the first live-tracked singing captured on film, followed immediately by the first spoken line (“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”), sandwiched between two of Jolson’s hits at the time. Although the singing style is rather different than today (it was 90 years ago, to be sure), Jolson’s pantomime & tight vibrato voice still get “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” over just fine. And the basic rave-up “Toot Toot Tootsie” is an no-brainer of an encore.

October 5: Educating Stephen

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otd161005It kind of sucks, really. Stephen Colbert’s Late Show is actually quite good. It’s got a charm, Jon Batiste’s band, Stay Human, keeps things moving, the bits Stephen does don’t suck and don’t drag, and you can tell he’s really trying to make it work. But The Colbert Report was one of the most inspired pieces of extended performance art in television history, and his nation was legion. He used his his loud-idiot persona to bring out all kinds of viewpoints that weren’t often seen on TV, especially during the George W. Bush administration.

Science was a big deal on those shows from the very beginning, and so Stephen made a point of bringing on engineers, thinkers, mechanical specialists, chemists, physicists and astronomers, to shed light on what has since become known as the fact-based community. We needed that.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Fly AFAnd one of the science professionals who shone in that kind of setup was Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, and quite possibly America’s Most Famous Scientist. He & Stephen would butt heads about the size of the universe, the reclassification of Pluto as a non-planet, plus an wide array of space walks, eclipses, comet appearances, satellite & space station news, and other celestial and semi-celestial events.

Tyson was a natural. A quick wit who could spar with Colbert at the height of his powers, Tyson could speak with passion about any number of scientific topics at will. He knew a lot about a lot, he projected inspiration, and not for nothing, but his effect on drawing out people who looked like him into the world of science, or at least into the world of nerdery, cannot be understated. No one else could have replaced Carl Sagan (an early mentor of Tyson’s) as the host of the revamped Cosmos, and between his numerous appearances on TV and at conferences, as well as his podcast-turned-series StarTalk, and his ongoing research back at his day job, it’s safe to say that no one (with the possible exception of Bill Nye) has had more of a positive effect on bringing science to the younger people of this generation than he has.

October 4: She Came From Argo City

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otdotd161004Her uncle was a famous climatologist and engineer, who devised an ingenious system to preserve his people as they were attacked from beneath their feet. He surrounded Argo City with a climate dome, and lined the ground with lead, which served to stave off the worst of the oncoming threat, while the planet he lived on hurtled toward a faraway star system.

Soon, her planet is destroyed, and through a series of unfortunate events and lucky coincidences, she winds up on Earth, where she meets her cousin, who is living incognito in the Midwest. She gets adopted by the Danvers family of Midvale, and attends high school as a normal midwestern girl (WITH A TERRIBLE SECRET). She tries her hand at counseling, journalism, and acting in a soap opera, before realizing that she’s really here on Earth to do one thing, and that is kick ass (and, when necessary, chew gum and/or take names). Starting with her birth name, Kara Zor-El, she becomes Linda Lee, or Linda Danvers, or Kara Danvers, depending on what you consider canon. (I await all corrective tweets.)

You know how hard it was to find comic drawings of Supergirl that didn't show a ton of skin?

You know how hard it was to find comic drawings of Supergirl that didn’t show a ton of skin?

DC Comics didn’t realize what a hit they had in Supergirl, going back to her first recurring appearance in 1959, even after selling solid number of issues featuring her character for years afterward. (It turns out the whole comic-book-people-not-recognizing-girl-stuff-as-relevant thing has been going on for a while. I know, I know, I’m as shocked as you.) They tried killing her off multiple times, but fan outcry always brought her back. And now, after multiple stabs at building a franchise, with live-action (or animated) versions played by Helen Slater, Laura Vandervoort, Summer Glau, Kaycee Anne, Brianna Stancer, Molly Quinn, and now the former co-star of Glee, Melissa Benoist, who celebrates a birthday today.

(Note: it took me more than a few days to find out how her last name is actually pronounced. I finally found an interview with her where she introduces herself, and so I feel I can say with sureness that her last name rhymes with moist, hoist and rejoiced.)

After decades of neglect and shuffling about by DC, Supergirl seems to be on stronger footing than ever, and hell yeah for that.

Note: there was a "Superwoman," but her background is even more of a mess. Unsurprisingly.

Note: there was a “Superwoman,” but her background is even more of a mess. Unsurprisingly.

October 3: Tariq Trotter

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otd161003Tariq Trotter has done alright for himself. Born in Philadelphia to parents involved in the Nation of Islam (and both of whom were murdered while he was a child), he met Ahmir Thompson in high school and started playing gigs in the street and at talent shows, before they were old enough to perform in actual bars. soon, they fleshed the group out and took the name The Square Roots.

As a hip hop group that performed without DJs or samples, they were a bit of a novelty, but there was a space for them in the alt-music landscape of the early 1990s. They eventually dropped the word “Square” from their name, and released their first album, Organix, in 1993. It was their third album, 1996’s amazing Illadelph Halflife, that launched them. After that, The Roots were a going concern, and an influence on modern hip hop that extended far beyond Philadelphia.

Trotter’s stage name, Black Thought, was perfect for his demeanor. Neither shouter nor mumbler, not didactic or preachy, he feeds you his lines like he’s walking down the street beside you, telling you what’s on his mind. If you haven’t listened to the Roots before they wound up on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, I envy you getting to listen to (especially) Illadelph and Things Fall Apart. Hunt that stuff down. And after a break while they established themselves as unlikely TV stars, and which Thompson (as ?uestlove) is now the most famous drummer in America, they’ve started releasing albums again, which is absolutely ace.

September 30: Auto-Tune

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otdotd160930When Faheem “T-Pain” Rajm first started releasing singles like “I’m Sprung” and “I’m In Luv (Wit A Stripper)” in 2005, he seemed harmless enough. A reduction of Lil Jon’s cough-syrup party-freak character in Alice-In-Wonderland Mad Hatter drag, Mr. Pain is probably best known to everyone else for his turn in the Lonely Island’s video for “I’m On A Boat,” in which he’s clearly in on the joke. His almost cartoonish devotion to his schtick has meant that while no one can touch him in his métier, his reach is also limited to the occasional feature spot on other people’s tracks, which is honestly where he shines. A little T-Pain goes a long way.

t-painAside from what we can gently call “the occasional legal issue,” he’s still in the game, doing a lot of guest spots with a wide array of modern artists (Chance the Rapper, gospel star Kirk Franklin, Austin Mahone, Timbaland, Ne-Yo; he’s the rare artist that doesn’t seem to have beef with anyone, and can cross camps at will), and in ten years when he gets a Vegas show, I bet it’ll be a hell of a fun time.

While he does seem like a natural hedonist, he’s best known for his liberal and constant use of Autotune, a tool you’re probably sick of hearing about, and which probably shows up a lot more than you think. (Antares Technologies actually owns the trademark for it, although like any partway saleable idea, there are plenty of knockoffs which are varying degrees of acceptable. There’s an iPhone app that can do it for you on the fly if you like.) It works in real time, and many artists use it even during live concerts, and not just hip-hop or R&B acts; Faith Hill, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw all use Autotune in their concerts. Of course, there are purists in all genres too. I don’t know if it matters anymore; what’s the difference between the talent in someone’s actual throat and the quality of a finished song? To the listener, there really isn’t a difference*.

Cher’s producers noticed that in 1998, when they were mixing down her newest single, “Believe.” They tried the as-yet-unnamed robotic effect, and they (and Cher) dug it. It was released, it caused a bit of a sensation, and Cher set a record by being the oldest solo act to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 ever. (She’s had a hell of a career; we’ll get to her at some point.) The effect was known as “The Cher Effect” for a while, until the producers finally came clean and showed how they did it. (It’s okay, everyone got rich.)

There are tons of artists who rail against it — Death Cab For Cutie, Neko Case, Trisha Yearwood, and Michael Bublé, to name but four — but like Bob Dylan plugging in his guitar at Newport, Autotune is little more than another tool to make new music at this point. And once you see it that way, it makes it a lot easier to just enjoy the latest Gregory Brothers single. That’s how pop music works; a little innovation, a little deviation from the norm, and if you can tap your foot and/or sing along to the melody, then it’s all fine.

*But then again, I don’t always buy organic either. I’m hardly a purist in pretty much anything.