Thursday, January 15, 2015

Uptown Funk, down with who???

After several years away I've returned to classroom teaching as a high school jazz and band teacher in great school district north of Boston.  I get to conduct a lot of really high level players in a jazz big band and combo, as well as teach improvisation and assist in a larger concert band.  I also get to teach a class which is now called Jazz in Society, and next year will be called Popular Music in American Society.  So, I get paid to talk about Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Ray Charles and James Brown.  Pretty good gig...

We're currently at the end of the semester, a time where kids are overwhelmed, a million things are due, every virus known to humanity it making its way through the student body and synapses are not necessarily firing as fast as they could be.  So rather than try to teach bebop or Monk, I've been trying to get kids to think about music from different points of view.  And out of the sky comes...

Uptown Funk.  Bruno Mars and some white dude named Mark Ronson.  (though the single flips that order)

75% of my students knew the tune, which in this day and age counts as saturation.  I found the tune because I read Grantland, who published a bit about it and Ronson. (to be fair, Mark Ronson is actually a big-time producer, and one of the driving forces behind Amy Winehouse's monster hit album Back in Black

Even in this day and age, I found this tune and video astonishing how boldly and intentionally derivative this tune is.  It reminds me of several 1970s classical "post-modern" pieces I studied at Eastman that were basically remixes of canonical classical pieces played either for laughs or for cultural reassessment.   To wit (and I discussed this in some detail with my class):

- The tune is a bald-faced mash-up of Chic's "Le Freak" and the Time's "Jungle Love".  The first line of the lyric is a Scarface reference ("Michelle Pfieffer, that white gold").   Maybe the "Hallehujah" in the first bridge is a Ray Charles reference.  Okay, that might be stretching it, but... "Kiss myself I'm so pretty" is definitely a reference to Morris Day or James Brown, or both...

-  Visually, in the first minute the video is a smorgesbord of intentional references to the MTV of yesteryear.  The street setting recalls the iconic MJ "Way You Make Me Feel" video, the opening shot of the lower half of a hot woman recalls  ZZ Top's "She's Got Legs"  (or, pick any number of mid-80s rock videos that disembody women.  One of my female students pointed out sharply that you see quite a few hot women in the video, but only there bodies, never their faces.  Which of course is rather noxious sexist gesture, and another conversation) Those disembodies at about :50 call to mind a flapper, a vamp from an 80s video, and a "flygirl" from any number of rap videos circa 1991.)  Then you have a strobed shot of Ronson screaming, which invokes either Max Headroom or a couple of the groundbreaking Peter Gabriel videos circa "Sledgehammer".  The "fish-eye" shot of Mars and his posse was a staple of early Spike Lee movies and many a hip-hop video of the early 90's.  (The Roots skewered this and every other rap conceit in one of their first videos.  TWENTY YEARS AGO!  "What They Do" aged well.)

- Mars, with his pink sport jacket, recalls Don Johnson in Miami Vice.  Robson, with his shades and grey shirt, recalls Rick Ocesak in all of those iconic Cars videos.  Two of the backups in Mars' entourage particularly jumped out at me.  One is dressed almost exactly like a member of Run DMC (forgive me, I can't remember which one). Another, with his Kangoo and all black ensemble looks a hell of a lot like LL Cool J circa "Goin' Back to Cali".  I have no idea what the hair curlers bit means, but then again I didn't have MTV as a kid...

I could keep going, but I hope you get the point.  I talked about the tune to open a discussion about art, "signifiers" and cultural appropriation*.  The student presentation before this talk analyzed a tune that featured the great (white) cornetist Bix Biederbeck, who along with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver is one of the premier jazz brass players of the 1920s.  Biederbeck, who was white, first was attracted to jazz by the recordings of the "Original Dixieland Jazz Band", an all white outfit who for many good reasons continue to be controversial nearly 100 years after they released the first jazz record ever.  Any conversation about the ODJB or Biederbeck bring to the fore thorny issues of race and appropriation, cultural acceptance and creative freedom.  To me they embody Public Enemy's lyric about Elvis: heroes to many but they didn't mean S&*t to me.  

Here you have a white British producer and guitarist presenting a Hawaiian frontman and a black band playing a tune that is as boldfaced a rip-off of late 70s and early 80s booty-shaking music.  As bold an appropriation of (what Nic Payton calls) "BAM", Black American Music as I've ever seen.  (to be fair, to my mind and ears last year's poster child for this kind of work, "Blurred Lines", was worse in every way)  And yet I don't hate it- it's catchy, the groove is tight, and I think the appropriation is honest and meant to be as reverential as one can be in the marketplace.  But at the same time I can't bring myself to like it either- it's just too damn derivative.  You should've heard the snickers in the room when, after two minutes of this tune I stopped it and played "Jungle Love" for my students.  They caught on immediately.  Is this the future of pop music, clever but vapid mash-ups of something that once upon a time was incredibly funky?  

I have no answers, only questions.  Thoughts are appreciated.

*I realize that this song is not the first time this has happened- I we could have this conversation about Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" or Amy Winehouse or many other songs going back all the way to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  But there was something about the overload of bald-faced references in this song and video that really hit me.  The referencing is so thorough that it was almost overwhelming.  The difference with Bix Biderbeck (or Stan Getz, or Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis, or Peter Gabriel, or even John Mayer) is that while their debt to BAM is obvious and unplayable, they really worked to be creative artists in their own right, attempting with whatever level of success to pull their own voice out of their influences.  Here, I don't here any original voice, just a mash-up of what was before.