“do what u want [remix feat. christina aguilera]” – lady gaga (2014)

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The Oscars aired last night and, continuing my streak for a while now, I did not watch. For me, watching the Oscars has always just been entertainment, not something to take seriously.  And while the Academy deserves to be checked for not being inclusive enough when it comes to films coming from people of color or from smaller, independent filmmakers, how seriously people take this celebrity spectacle frankly just bores me.

After the broadcast, I did check online to see the winners.  Most were standard and assumed, and a few were surprises.  And, as expected, people ended the evening upset. It always happens. No matter what, the toxic culture of social media amplifies the manufactured outrage and they rally about injustices that really do not matter. This usually lasts a few days, sometimes a week, and whatever did upset them goes into the dustbin of history to be remembered years later in some snarky op-ed about some future Oscars ceremony or in a pub trivia question.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Of all the categories, the only one I felt was an absolute 100% guarantee was “Shallow” for “Best Original Song” from Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born.  Joined by his co-star, Lady Gaga and Cooper performed the song together at the ceremony with all the confidence of people who knew their Oscar was just moments away. And while “Shallow” was the best song in the category, this win, unlike the others during the night, troubled me a bit.  Specifically, its loose connection to the other big pop culture story of the last week.

Kelly was arrested last week after two decades of committing sexual assault against minors, many of whom he had groomed from an early age and kept trapped in the cult of personality carefully crafted and cultivated by the disgraced singer. Kelly’s arrest came right off the heels of the documentary series Surviving R. Kelly that aired in January.

While I applaud that Kelly has been arrested and will, hopefully, pay for his crimes, I am deeply disturbed by how long it has taken. Kelly’s sexualizing of underage girls and women can be traced back to the early 1990s through his lyrics and comments he has made, both public and in private. In the mid-1990s, Kelly married his 15-year-old protege, Aaliyah Haughton. In 1996, Tiffany Hawkins sued Kelly for emotional and physical abuse stemming from a sexual relationship with him.

In 2000, Jim DeRogatis and Abdon M. Pallasch, two reporters for the Chicago Sun-Times published the first report of Kelly’s relationships with underage girls. Since then, DeRogatis became entrusted by these girls and young women to expose Kelly for the abuser that he was. DeRogatis was sent video evidence of Kelly having sex with an underage girl, immediately sending it to the authorities.

One would think that video DeRogatis received would have ended Kelly’s career and landed him in prison.  However, it did not. Kelly was sued and taken to court by multiple women in 2002, but all the cases were settled out of court and Kelly was able to continue living as a free man. Being a teenager at this time, this part of Kelly’s history will always be remembered through Dave Chappelle’s portrayal on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show, a satirical take on Kelly with Chappelle performing the song “I Wanna Piss on You.” This was a takedown from a comedic master who was truly ahead of his time, even though the rest of his industry was not. Kelly was allowed not only to continue his career but thrived within it every time he faced controversy over the years.

Now, let’s jump to 2013.  It has been roughly two decades since the earliest documented evidence of Kelly’s comments about underage girls, over a decade since his first court appearances and Chappelle’s super popular portrayal, and Lady Gaga is preparing to release her third studio album Artpop. In just a few short years, following the release of The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way, Lady Gaga was dominating the music industry with her pop hits. Designed to be an introspective look into pop stardom with a Warholian slant, Artpop was meant by Gaga to show that she was more than just the latest pop star in a long line of pop stars.

When the second single from Artpop, “Do What U Want” dropped, it was blowing me away.  Filled to the brim with raw, dripping sexuality and the freedom within, this 80s-style synthesizer-heavy track was a serious jam.  I loved it.  Or, more correctly, I wanted to love it. As hard as the music slapped and as well as Gaga performed on the track, one thing kept me from truly enjoying it as much as I could; R. Kelly was a guest vocalist on the track.

I listened to “Do What U Want” a lot when it came out.  However, with each listen, I liked it less and less.  Not because I was getting tired of it, but because Kelly’s involvement with the song really made me feel uneasy.  I was questioning why Gaga, who had survived sexual abuse herself, would give Kelly space on her album. It felt like a slap in the face to people who had experienced violence and had seen Gaga’s music as a place of refuge where they felt valid for who they were.  Gaga, in response to the criticism to working with Kelly, said

“I’ve been living in Chicago and spending a lot of time there, and that’s where R. Kelly hails from. I was working on Artpop and I wrote [‘Do What U Want’] on tour. It was about my obsession with the way people view me. I have always been an R. Kelly fan and actually it is like an epic pastime in the Haus of Gaga that we just get fucked up and play R. Kelly. This is a real R&B song and I [said ‘I] have to call the king of R&B and I need his blessing.’ It was a mutual love.”

Gaga also said

“R. Kelly and I have sometimes very untrue things written about us, so in a way this was a bond between us. That we were able to say, the public, they can have our bodies, but they cannot have our mind or our heart. It was a really natural collaboration.”

It wasn’t long before I stopped listening to the song and just kind of gave up on Gaga.

Within the last few years, the #MeToo movement swept through the film industry and took down some of the more serious abusers. While a lot of past behavior by many people within the industry went unchecked as the media focused on the bigger Hollywood names facing scrutiny on social media and in the courts, the music industry largely went unscathed.  And despite the massive cultural shift that #MeToo and #TimesUp were bringing, Kelly continued to thrive.

Even DeRogatis, who had been championing justice for the young women abused by Kelly, was becoming frustrated with how Kelly managed to continue having a career.  I remember reading Jessica Hopper’s First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic in 2015, and she discussed the time DeRogatis called her out for supporting Kelly headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013. DeRogatis had questioned Hopper how, as a woman, she could support someone who had a long history of abusing women.  Like Gaga, Hopper’s excuse was that she grew up with his music.

As #MeToo continued to dominate social media and the entertainment industry, some commentaries questioned when it would get Kelly. In 2019, it took a new documentary series, largely retelling the story DeRogatis had been reporting to disinterested audiences for almost two decades, and a new tape sent to lawyer Michael Avenatti, to finally bring Kelly into custody. On one side, it is great that it looks like Kelly will finally pay for his crimes. On the other, when I consider how long it took to bring Kelly to justice, and the voices of people like DeRogatis being largely ignored because the music industry is a large fraternity organization only looking out for their own, I am also disappointed by the complicities of the music industry and the players involved.  Players like Lady Gaga who, because she grew up with his music, felt compelled to introduce Kelly to a whole new generation of potential fans.

Gaga has since recognized the error of her ways.  The track “Do What U Want” has been pulled from all streaming services, and Gaga has gone on record saying she stands by survivors.  She rationalizes the collaboration with Kelly saying, “as a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life, my intention was to create something extremely defiant and provocative because I was angry and still hadn’t processed the trauma that had occurred in my own life.”

I am unsure if I can accept that given that Kelly’s history of abuse had spanned two decades by the time the collaboration was released. I don’t question that Gaga was going through a rough patch in her life, but I do have to question her judgment when there was so much evidence against Kelly. In 2016, prior to denouncing the collaboration with Kelly, Gaga performed the song “Til It Happens to You” at the Oscars, a song written for The Hunting Ground, a documentary about universities covering up rape and sexual assault cases. In the performance, Gaga shared the stage with the victims of campus rape. It surely adds some complexity to Gaga’s history when it comes to working with Kelly. So, with her being celebrated at the Oscars for her performance this year and ultimately winning the award, I’m not impressed. While #MeToo did some great things, there are still many problems within the entertainment industry.  Not only did they award Gaga who was previously complicit when it came to Kelly, but they also gave an Oscar to, Peter Farrelly,  a man who would frequently show his penis to people on set.  It reinforces to me how the Oscars are a farce and not something to take seriously as a measure of quality.  It is hard to not believe that Gaga’s denouncing R. Kelly came only at a time when she could earn an Oscar.

After not listening to “Do What U Want” for several years, it wasn’t until recently that I learned the song was remixed to exclude Kelly’s vocals and replaced with Christina Aguilera’s. Debuting on New Year’s Day in 2014, this “Do What U Want” remix with Aguilera was still released during a time when Gaga was complicit when it came to Kelly and his crimes.  However, I loved the that I could now listen to this jam again guilt free because Kelly was nowhere on it.  Recorded in a session in Carly Simon’s living room, this new version elevates the song and gives it a power that was absent when Kelly’s vocal was originally included.

As people everywhere are groaning over the wrong film winning the top prize at the Oscars for being too white, let’s not forget that the industry is still problematic when it comes to sexual abuse. And Gaga’s win last night reaffirms that.  While people grow and learn from their mistakes, the media cycle moves so quickly that we forget sins of yesterday for the outrages of today. I am not saying that Gaga cannot be forgiven for her work with Kelly. I am sure she is sincere when she denounces it now. We all learn and grow and better ourselves.  However, this was not that long ago, and people are largely quick to forget when they are distracted by things that do not really matter.

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“i’m still standing” – elton john (1983)

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This past week has been a real emotional rollercoaster. Some highs, some lows.  So, this blog post may be all over the map today.  And that happens.  It is OK. Not every entry will be strong or necessarily cohesive.  So, I’m treating this week as if it is a diary about my weekend.

Late Thursday night, on Valentine’s Day, a close friend from the community radio station I volunteer at passed away unexpectedly.  As of this writing, there is no known cause.  She was someone I admired because she was always full of joy and lived life in a way where she did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.  She did not give a damn.  I deal with anxiety more than I would like to admit, so I always saw her as an inspiration for the way one should feel about themselves and the life they live.  I was devastated when I got the news because it was not something anyone saw coming.  I’m still processing it.

All Sunday morning, I was feeling rather moody. It is February and that is the worst month.  I know January gets a lot of flak for being terrible, but it is nowhere near as terrible as February.  February is colder, snowier, wetter, and just generally miserable.  The earliest signs of spring are just a few weeks away and February just exists to test one’s patience.  For being the shortest month, it feels like the longest.

Sunday was also a day where I had some social commitments.  I didn’t feel like going, but I felt compelled to do so. And I’m glad I did.

First stop was to meet friends from my book club for a social gathering at a German bar in Logan Square that is closing called the Radler, a place where beer comes in boots and you can hammer nails into stumps.  I started feeling better.  Maybe it was the beer, but I really enjoyed the warmth and positivity I was feeling around me.  The energy felt fantastic.

After that, I walked about a mile through the snow to get to a friend’s place.  He’s a guy who used to work with me at this terrible non-profit when I first moved to Chicago.  We made some vegan pasta and just chilled listening to music.  First was an EP of tropical disco tracks that were just amazing jams.  Then, we moved on to Led Zeppelin’s untitled record (typically Led Zeppelin IV) before moving onto Led Zeppelin III. It was a very primal and masculine experience. We rocked out and chatted and got our stuff to go out that evening, two warriors ready to conquer the night.

We went to a bar where a friend from the radio station was DJing, playing a mix of all women and women-identified artists.  It was a very different atmosphere and energy from the one I just left.  My buddy and I just chilled and listened to the music.  It was a rather feminine vibe, but the emotion behind the music was warm.  The energy was soothing.  I talked with my friend DJing about life and missing our friend we just lost a few days earlier.

After a while, my buddy got bored and said we should hit up a nearby arcade bar.  I said sure.  However, I was not feeling the energy when we got there.  Lots of noise, plus my buddy was just working the crowd to get laid.  It felt very weird being there as I just wanted to chill and didn’t want to play games or hit on women.  So, I split and went back to see my friend continue her DJ set.

I sat there listening to the music until a friend of the DJ came and talked to me.  He was an anxious guy who seemed troubled by something.  He was asking me very deep and personal questions about me such as how I find happiness and why do I drink alcohol.  I just kept telling him that happiness comes from within and that everything is fine and that we were all there to chill and relax.  I’ve got my problems too, but I was really feeling good where I was.

After some time, I left and ordered a Lyft.  On my way back home, I spoke to a beautiful woman who was sharing the car with me.  We talked about our evenings and her studying psychology.  It was such a lovely conversation.  When the car arrived at my apartment, I turned to her said “I hope you find joy wherever you’re going” and we shook hands.

Monday, I spent time with myself.  Cleaned my apartment, made a healthy lunch, and walked around a few different neighborhoods killing time until I met with friends to play trivia.  The friend who passed away was also friends with one of my trivia partners.  We talked about that and what we appreciated about her.  I didn’t stay long.  The trivia was being held at a new venue and it was loud and disorganized.  So, I went back home to read and finish planning my vacation for next month.

On Friday, my dad came to town to visit.  I had tickets to see Elton John perform during his final tour, Farewell Yellow Brick Road. I went with two close friends.  The concert was fantastic! Elton performed well and I heard all the songs I wanted to hear.  My friend had just passed the night before, so a concert sounded like a nice way to distract myself.  Especially a concert that was a farewell tour where memories and lessons were talked about with wisdom and nostalgia.

The song I had to hear the most was “I’m Still Standing.” I wasn’t sure he would play it, but he did play it before the encore with the video screen playing clips from Elton John’s many performances and pop culture cameos.  Released as a single in 1983 from the album Too Low for Zero, the song is about Elton still maintaining relevancy as his career entered the 1980s.

When I was talking to my friend during her DJ set, we talked about how we felt about our friend passing.  I told her I was upset and that I was processing. She told me it hadn’t hit her yet but anticipated when it will.  I told her that we were still alive and the best thing to do was to continue living our lives the best way we can.  We were survivors, and we should find joy in that.  I find joy in that.  I’m still standing.

“any other way” – jackie shane (1963)

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This past Sunday, the Grammys aired much to the delight or dismay to millions of people.  Depending on who you were rooting for, the Grammys either validated your taste in the latest musical trends or served as a reminder that the famed musical institution is out of touch.  I do not remember the last time I watched the Grammys nor, considering all the relevancy jokes lobbed at the awards ceremony I’ve seen in various pop culture reference over the last three decades, should I feel any need to.  All award shows are always the same.  Sometimes deserving people win, and sometimes they don’t.  That being said, while I did not watch the ceremony, there was only one award I cared about this year.

Since discovering Numero Group for myself in a small college town in Kentucky, I have been amazed by the left of craft and detail they exhibit with every release.  When I was doing college radio from the mid- to late-2000s, I had an underwriting deal with the only record store in town.  In exchange for running a spot on the top of each hour of my two hour long show every Sunday from 10 PM to midnight, I got one free disc of my choice.  And I almost always chose a Numero Group release.

I played so much from the labels Eccentric Soul series.  The Eccentric Soul series were curated CDs, either one or two discs, that compiled rare or unheard material from soul musicians curated specifically centering on a specific artist, geographical area, or regional record label.   Not only was the music incredibly amazing, but the rarity of the music was really cool too.  No one I knew was playing this music.

Through the years I was in college radio, I amassed a whole collection of Numero Group releases (all but one of them is gone after a roommate with sticky fingers took advantage of me).  Since I left college, the label has expanded into other genres.  As much as I revered them for focusing on soul music, and felt they should stick with that, it made sense for them to expand and broaden their audience.  However, their soul music will always what I associate the label with.

So, back to the Grammys! This year, Numero Group had a compilation that was nominated.  In the category for “Best Historical Album,” Numero Group was competing for the famous gramophone statuette for what has become one of their best releases to date.  That compilation, Any Other Way, is a two-disc celebration of one of the great soul pioneers, Jackie Shane.

Who is Jackie Shane?  Prepare to be amazed and delighted.  In the 1960s, if you were in Toronto and wanted to see one of the bets nightclub acts in the city, you would for sure find you way to see Jackie Shane, a black transgender singer who disappeared in the early 1970s.  While many believed that she had die, the Canadian Broadcasting Company produced an audio documentary about the mysterious soul singer, and she started to earn revived following.  In recognition of her pioneering talent, she is even featured on a massive 20-story mural in Toronto depicting influential musicians.

In 2014, Numero Group was able to track down Shane who was now living in Nashville.  Through that outreach, she was able to collaborate with Numero Group for the 2017 compilation Any Other Way, which featured a collection of live and studio recordings from Shane. Prior to this compilation, Shane only released one album, Jackie Shane Live in 1967, and only a handful of singles during the mid-60s on labels such as Sue Records Inc., Stop, Star Shot, Caravan, and Modern Records.

In the notes for Any Other Way, Shane talks about her music career, working with Joe Tex, and reactions to her identity.  Dressed in feminine attire, Shane was just seen as a gay black man.  During performances, in between songs, Shane would play the role of a preacher with the audience as the congregation, with monologues about her identity and the state of sexual politics.  Not only did Shane make amazing music, but she championed her identity during a time when not only there really wasn’t a word for her identity but could also result in violence against her.

Ultimately, Shane left her music career behind in the early 1970s.  Her mother’s husband died, and she stopped pursuing music to take care of her.  However, there was more to it.  The whole push and pull of the industry ultimately left Shane exhausted.  SO, she resided to live a life of quiet until Numero Group came knocking, and she finally earned the recognition she absolutely deserved.

Unfortunately, Any Other Way did not win the Grammy for “Best Historical Album.”  Instead, the award went to Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris, an incredible set compiling sounds and images from people who worked forms in his community.  Voices of Mississippi is worthy of the award for its commitment to tell forgotten stories, although I believe the gender politics of the 1960s America exhibited in Any Other Way adds a significance that is less visible.  Oh well, a Grammy is just a statue, right?

Do yourself a favor and listen to Any Other Way.  Since this blog is focused on an album, I’ll spotlight the title track “Any Other Way,” a soulful, melancholy song initially released in 1963 about broken hearts and saying goodbye. Typical soul music tropes but consider the story behind it.  Sometimes, the person behind song can elevate the music.

“ted, just admit it…” – jane’s addiction (1988)

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During last week’s polar vortex, like the rest of Chicago, I stayed inside practically the entire time.  While my younger self loved snow days where I could do nothing but stay inside, play video games, and watch television, doing that now is a little more difficult for me.  While I had friends who stayed inside for up to 72 hours and got a little stir crazy as a result, I couldn’t even last a day (I went outside for five minutes to help push a car, but I would’ve gone out for another reason like going to the store). I think with living in a major city where I’m used to walking everywhere, plus the fact my I live in a small apartment, it is easier to get a touch of cabin fever than if I were living in the suburbs or a big house. Regardless, I tried to pass the time and got caught up on some Netflix.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, then you know that Netflix released a four-part documentary series called Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. In the series, the life and crimes of Ted Bundy are documented and analyzed through interviews, archive footage, and audio tape from the infamous serial killer himself. It seems that everyone was watching this series based on the number of social media posts and think pieces about the personality of Bundy I saw.  Combine that with the fact the series dropped the sane week as a trailer for a film about Bundy starring Zac Efron. For the first time since his death thirty years ago, people were buzzing about Bundy.

I had barely turned a year old when Bundy was put to death by electric chair in a Florida prison.  Later, I would learn who he was and that he was such a bad guy.  However, it wasn’t until I watched this series that I learned about the media spectacle that surrounded Bundy that turned into a fully-fledged phenomenon, one that was a reflection of the American psyche during dismal period of the 1970s followed by the excess of the 1980s.  Here was a guy that brought the term “serial killer” into the American lexicon, and during a time where the visual medium of television could sensationalize events on a scale that were very uncommon for media prior.

Watching this series, I could not believe the buzz that surrounded Bundy. Living through society in a post-Bundy world, it was so difficult to imagine for a convicted serial murderer could be his own defense lawyer, have women lusting after him, escape prison twice, garner more attention on his looks and education than his crimes, and still generate a media circus years after being convicted. It was absolutely mind boggling. Have this case happened now, any commentary about how handsome Bundy was would be drowned out by condemning editorials that would ignore due process and utilize social media to damn Bundy in the court of public opinion. It was a clear sign of the times that I would never have believed because it seemed so unfathomable.

And in some way, that buzz still is not over. Netflix issues statements that they were just generally weirded out by people posting comments admiring Bundy after they had watched the documentary. At least people in the 1970s had some excuse being that Bundy was not convicted or even admitted to the crimes yet. Thirty years after his conviction, confession, and execution, Bundy’s unibrow still manages to appeal to some dark aspect of the human psyche finds the power of murder quite attractive.  That’s a whole level of psychological analysis that I have no credibility to analyze of discuss other than to think that is just generally weird.  I cannot even begin to understand how the Bundy media circus reflected American society a generation ago, let alone rationalize it in modern times.

A year prior to Bundy’s execution, Jane’s Addiction released their first major-label studio album Nothing’s Shocking in 1988.  Featuring some archival audio from Bundy himself, “Ted, Just Admit It…” is less a call to action for Bundy and more of a scathing critique on sensationalist media.  Running nearly seven and a half minutes, this slow bass heavy song, Perry Farrell sings how the media frequently captures and broadcasts violent and sexual imagery to the point where society is desensitized to.  So much so that sex and violence converge to encompass a single act, a reflection of the lust people can have for power and serves as a reflection that we, as a society, are no longer affected by shocking violence.  Farrell sings that the news is just another show with sex and violence.

Beyond the points the song makes, I need to make clear about the type of sex that the song profiles. Very few cultural experts would argue that Americans would prefer violence over sex in their media consumption. America is frankly a puritanical country where sex is debated constantly.  From discussions about sex education in school, the sale and distribution of pornography, and sexual consent between adults of different genders and orientations, it can seem like sex is a serious taboo in American culture.  Not entirely true as there is a distinction in the type of sex.  Purely erotic, joyful, and consensual sex is challenged in all levels of our society while sex of a violent nature is pervasive.  If you don’t believe me, flip through your television channels or skim the titles on any streaming service.  You’ll find more examples of creative content that center on violent sex, specifically violent sex against women, than you will find where women, or other marginalized groups, engage in positive and joyous sex.

While the Netflix series of Bundy was entertaining and educational, I left the experience a bit disturbed about the pervasiveness of violent sex in our culture based on the sexual admiration many people had for Bundy.  Frankly, it reflects our culture’s values where we’re generally oaky with violence, really in any form. It is indicative of a misalignment of our values. I know that most people will see content like this Bundy series and see it for what it is, but too much time and bandwidth is spent sensationalizing the negative and violent reactions that it skews reality. And that is how our news, and media coverage, can be as violent as any narrative programming.