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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

2003 Pazz & Jop: Reasons to Bother

How laughable, cracked wiseacres in re the 30th or 31st Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, for hopefuls in this nation’s other flawed, fragmented democratic exercise to claim hip-hop — Howard Dean enlisting Wyclef Jean, Dennis Kucinich employing a campaign rap called “Go Go Dennis” (sounds great, huh?), and, drop the bomb, Wesley Clark quoting “Hey Ya!” before assuring young supporters that breakups needn’t be permanent, just look at him and Bill. But it doesn’t seem so funny to me; not much does these days. Why shouldn’t they claim hip-hop, and mean it as much as they mean anything? In 2003, hip-hop became America’s official pop music. If it’s no surprise that John Kerry’s theme remains “Born in the U.S.A.” (as classic as “Hey Ya!” plus the Vietnam thing) and King George’s “Wake Up Little Susie” (progressive as of 1957), well, tastes differ. Anyway, Wyclef Jean ain’t Lil Jon any more than OutKast are 50 Cent.

I give you our 2003 champion, and hell ya, I’m down. As in 2000, Atlanta duo-for-life OutKast swept both our competitions, with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s three-to-two edge matching Stankonia’s, and “Hey Ya!” ’s three-to-two dwarfing “Ms. Jackson” ’s. There’s never been a one-artist album-and-single combo like it. But though OutKast thrashed the White Stripes — aptly, given Jack White’s stated belief that rap is a low form stuck in 1986 — they were far from our biggest winner ever. Nirvana, Hole, Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft,” and, most dominant of all, Beck’s Odelay (over the Fugees’ The Score, take your pick) each won by at least 1.80-1. As I hope you noticed, these are all white artists; the strongest black finish came in 1987, when Prince’s Sign ’O’ the Times defeated Bruce Springsteen’s indelible Tunnel of Love 1.63-1. Racist? Us? Can’t be. It’s just that Euro-Americans make more aesthetically commanding popular music than African Americans, year in and year out. History shows that, right?

I’ve bewailed Pazz & Jop’s institutional racism before, and except to say that I don’t exempt myself I won’t excavate it now; should another periodical choose to devote dead trees or living megabytes to the question, I’ll sit for an interview. The numbers are always there, and in 2003 the poll put bells on them. Not that hip-hop albums finished so strong: the four in the top 15, including foreign interloper Dizzee Rascal, were tailed only by female principle Missy Elliott and white Southerner Bubba Sparxxx. Nor were the six black top-10 singles unprecedented. The difference was the commentary, where voters couldn’t stop raving about “Hey Ya!” and other beat treats but rarely waxed evangelical about albums. This undercut my custom of letting respondents speak up for their fave longforms in “Top 10 Plus,” where I settled for a meta-ironic Radiohead squib and had to solicit the arguments the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow and the New Pornographers’ Electric Version deserved. So this year, “Plus” means singles.

As fans of the downloading wars know, this shift is poetic and hip. From utopians feeding slugs to the heavenly jukebox to suits letting the MasterCard/broadband equipped purchase music online, it is agreed that people want songs, not albums — in our archaic parlance, singles. But it’s one thing to plug in the jukebox, another to select 10 among millions of selections: BMG666, TH5446, BE45789? So though some 1,461 different singles were cited by the 508 voters (out of 732, up from 2002’s 695, hubba hubba) who listed singles, the consensus naturally favored songs that had gotten through gates narrower than Google’s or Kazaa’s. And though radio remains basic, its alternative/college/public/Internet version didn’t exert much clout on our singles chart. Beyond Johnny Cash’s video-driven “Hurt,” a sentimental favorite that came hauling a fine death album and an outtake box, these were radio/TV hits that with only two partial exceptions going down to No. 16 — focus cuts from the year’s Nos. 2 and 3 albums — got goosed on the dance-club cum singles-bar circuit. This went for white artists as well as black — Junior Senior and Electric Six are groovesters, and Justin Timberlake is a wannabe no longer.

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Although I don’t barhop like I ought to, this trend suits me fine if that’s what it is. I always hear music differently at the hop or in da club than in my lonely room — “Get Low,” hidden at the end of an album whose importance (and offensiveness) my daughter had flagged, blindsided me at a Halloween bash — and I cherish that difference. Nor is beatmastery the main reason. Our singles list is a token of sociability in a hermetic subculture, and something positive in a year when my political pessimism, which has never been deeper, has fed on my fears for the future of music, which are new — an infrastructure unlikely to strengthen in an economy based on overwork and the planned destruction of social-service jobs produced the shortest Dean’s List since 1996. A year ago the bad war I’d seen coming the minute the second plane hit made the woe-are-we at the major labels seem trivial even if it was true. But as we acclimate to long-haul horror, we look around for reasons to bother, and Tower has gotten pretty depressing. Though the death of the majors won’t equal the death of the record business, much less popular music, I’d rather they stay solvent, properly chastened. The singles that got the voters excited sounded rich-and-famous. And with Naderites, Chomskyites, and Strokes fans alike ready to vote for any ambitious glad-hander the Democratics deem electable, let me mention this — the profiteering vulgarians who run record companies are rarely Republicans.

As usual, our album chart could care less. Independent labels bankrolled some 15 of our top 40, maintaining the high level of recent years, and an unprecedented four of our top 10. But that doesn’t mean the quality album is now an indie specialty. In a revived farm-team model, the top-five White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs cracked the poll indie and then panned for gold; the Drive-By Truckers mixed it up, putting their DIY Southern Rock Opera on consignment at Universal’s Lost Highway Quilt Shoppe before bolting to Austin upstart New West for Decoration Day. But beyond Warren Zevon we register no exodus of superannuated status symbols following Tom Waits to Anti- and such. And of course, our charts aren’t Billboard’s, or even CMJ’s. Less so than ever.

Precisely two of our rock finishers went platinum. One of them, duh, is Led Zeppelin. But the other, hey, is the White Stripes, who garnered not only sales but notoriety — Jack insulted rappers, courted movie directors, and punched no-talents just like that other Detroit White. Two more broke their labels’ venal little hearts by stopping at gold: the Strokes, whose low-affect-high-IQ TRL run was clearly a misunderstanding, and Radiohead, whose hot-ticket tour failed to generate the sales levels of Kid A. If anyone might save Pazz & Jop’s prognosticating license with a late surge, it’s third-place Fountains of Wayne, who once “Stacy’s Mom” proved Collingwood & Schlesinger pop as well as “pop” were ready to surpass 1999’s 19th-place Utopia Parkway. They were up for two Grammys — including, NARAS does love a joke, best new artist — and though they got shut out, let’s hope the EMI mafia follow the sly “Mexican Wine” down the road to “Hackensack” and “Fire Island.” This is conceivable because, as our voters want to tell the world, Welcome Interstate Managers is through-crafted, one bittersweet tune after another as humane and unsappy as the rest of its vision of premarital suburbia. But FOW’s “single” was a teen novelty that downloaded up there with OutKast and Beyoncé‚ and their album never broke 115 Billboard.

Chart peaks aren’t sales totals, and by now Fountains of Wayne have surely moved more units than Grandaddy, Belle & Sebastian, or the Shins, all of whom, remarkably, did break 100 in Billboard. But with Radiohead less meaningful than rumoured, the Strokes not worth the covers they’re plastered on, Liz Phair a disgraced hussy among Adult Top 40 Recurrents, and the White Stripes getting on people’s nerves, it would help me feel better about next month if not next year were this deserving critics’ record to transcend its fluke renown and make a bunch of bizzers a load of loot. Because though 2003 was hip-hop’s year in many ways, not least how many partisans believe it’s fallen into enemy hands, I’d appreciate a market-based correlative to another story evident in comments and results, one sure to bore futurists even more than hip-hop: rock and roll revival.

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Some will scoff. Revival is so 2001 — neoclassicist Strokes/Stripes guff, swept away by the DOR swank of Interpol and the Rapture. The latter surrounded their epochal 10-word single with a literally sensational 2003 album joined on our chart by all manner of consumer electronics: the jolly Danes of Junior Senior, the tame tunes of converted selbstaendigrockers the Notwist, the multilayered, multireferential pop-funk-soul-techno post-house of Basement Jaxx, the eccentric retrotech of Four Tet, and — speaking of through-crafted — what-him-emo Ben Gibbard topping his 34th-place Death Cab for Cutie album with the Postal Service’s sweet synth-pop one-off, which floated out of the ether to finish 17th. That makes six — are you impressed yet?

These are estimable records, Europeans notwithstanding; Rapture-good Interpol-bad, Basement Jaxx and Postal Service highly kraftwerked, and I’ll take “post-rock” Four Tet over not just Sigur Rós but My Morning Jacket, the Mars Volta, Kings of Leon, and — right now, as of this possibly anomalous and certainly slight record — the bulk of the indie-rock boys-boys-boys elbowing onto our chart. But no matter what the now people dig in Ibiza and Indonesia, P&J’s self-made aesthetes still favor aggregations of misfits making physical contact with guitars. It’s a Yank thing — with a boost from Britain, home of my two favorite young bands: punk-as-a-drunk-junkie Libertines, a solid 23rd, and beat-shrieking femme-fronted Kaito, riffle-riffle-riffle, here we are, page eight, tied for 252nd. Call them pop, call them slop, call them behind the times. But from Grandaddy to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they’re all rock and roll and you know it. And you also know they’re not going away.

Is Pazz & Jop the world? The nation? Rock criticism? Of course not. Hell, maybe we’re part of the problem by now. Maybe we’re the American arrogance that bombed Iraq, or the alt myopia that frustrates managers into mandating a makeover and leaves my paper looking like Britney Spears on her wedding night. I plead innocent, but I can see why some might make such cheap charges. Obviously the poll’s imperfect. We never get out the hip-hop press. Our rolls are larded with part-timers who buy many records and miss many more. And they’re joined annually by newbies who learned to write from literary theorists and honed their opinionizing skills in the dog-eat-dog cenacles of college radio. These latter tend to festoon their ballots with arcane faves — mostly negligible song-crafters or art bands, or so I infer from artist-title-label, hearsay, and their more familiar choices. But most voters still like songs, obscurities rarely rise to the top, and with a partial exception or three — say Postal Service, Rapture, Broken Social Scene — a decent smattering of over-40s supported even our freshest-faced finishers. Furthermore, though the boundary between rumor and fashion is never what it should be, unlikely records like Four Tet’s Rounds do emerge from the depths. No songs on that one — just instruments or their simulacra clashing and converging playfully and prettily as they shuffle tune and beat. Without Pazz & Jop, I wouldn’t have given it a chance.

If I’ve strayed from loose talk about rock and roll to articulated ambivalence about indie-rock, well, the two are obviously connected. But they aren’t identical. Not all or most indie records are indie-rock records, and some that are barely achieve the synergy/energy that for rock and rollers is manna and chocolate-chip ice cream. The synergy half is crucial, and tricky. Broken Social Scene, for instance, are a collective held together by a bass player, not a band — only that isn’t such a bad definition of a band, and you can hear how their cohesion-in-disarray might be a paradigm for a post-youth bohemia where friends are always screwing around and moving away. More typical are Belle & Sebastian, always static on principle, but with a flow, only this time Trevor Horn revved them up and they rocked even less. Similarly, Cat Power’s chart debut is merely the most interactive of Chan Marshall’s misleadingly labeled singer-with-backup albums, and Death Cab wear their origins as a solo project on their arrangements. And then there are the Pernice Brothers, who are just slow. None of these moderns rocked with nearly the commitment of putative singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, who translated roadhouse raunch from metaphor into music, or Warren Zevon, who recorded his cancer-fueled farewell in his living room so he could save what life he had left for the important things, like getting the guitar solo of the year out of Bruce Springsteen.

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In general, though, indie-rock happens in bars, and bargoers are noisy. So unless you’re Chan Marshall telling Kurt he was right to cut and run because nobody understood him, you try and drown them out — even if you’re Fountains of Wayne or the Shins, although maybe not Grandaddy. And once we get to the soi-disant pop of the New Pornographers, or the soi-disant dance music of the Rapture, we’re boogieing, one might say. Though one record is fulla songs and the other fulla synth, both bands put their backs into forward motion. Of course, so do several finishers I have doubts or worse about, from floor-dragging My Morning Jacket to leaping Ted Leo to molten Fiery Furnaces, although not certifiably Latino Mars Volta, so enamored of melodrama and its shifting rhythmic accoutrements that they could have learned clave from Kansas.

Me, I found 2003 longer on intricately propulsive song than fiercely clamorous beat: Fountains of Wayne tightening up, Yo La Tengo slacking off, Shins bearing in, Drive-By Truckers hiring Jason Isbell as if Patterson Hood wasn’t writer enough, and Wrens fusing heart, soul, tune, harmony, and artificially massed guitars in a Sisyphean labor whose near miss is poetry. (41–50, viewable online along with 1,952 other albums: endlessly circling Jayhawks, dull Thrills, refulgent Wrens, NAACP Image Award nominee R. Kelly, born vocalist Lyrics Born, Can’t-Catch-a-Break Timberlake, Joe Strummer R.I.W., Irish folksingers Ryan Adams and Damien Rice, and Electric Six, who do not exist in real life, thank God.) But born-againers aren’t raving about songs (much less singers, who beyond Rufus Wainwright and an ailing Johnny Cash got shut out). They’re raving about grooves, half a dozen strong: White Stripes and Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Libertines, Kings of Leon and the Darkness. Without these bands’ variously formalist, fecund, facile, clever, and stuck-in-the-mud songwriting, their grooves would go nowhere fast, and sometimes they do anyway; sometimes that’s the idea. Sometimes, too, they boogie only conceptually — they’re not friendly enough. But within a recognizable rubric that isn’t hip-hop, each moves in a distinct way that moves its crowd. Call them old-fashioned, but try to pin down exactly which punk or blues-rock or metal they echo and you’ll end up claiming the Strokes are Television.

For these bands, irony is a bigger nonissue than emo, which despite its three albums in Spin’s preemptive top 40 topped out at 130 Pazz & Jop (Thursday, who deeply regret to inform themselves that politics is anguish), unless you count the outrageous nu-hair-metal of the Darkness, the funniest thing-yet-not-the-thing since the Pet Shop Boys (but remember, it is the thing), or believe the Strokes are lying about their insincerity (which they never would). All these bands seem to feel whatever it is they feel, and though as with emo it’s often painful, instead of wallowing they do their best to run it over — usually, strange to tell, without benefit of much musicianship, and in two cases without a bassist. Virtuosity comes with the Darkness’s concept, and after that the best band-qua-band here is the Strokes. If the Libertines have a model it’s the Heartbreakers not the Ramones, if Kings of Leon have a forerunner it’s the Uniques not the Stones, and though Brian Chase plays a lot more drums than Meg White, the groove of each band is left to a protean guitarist — plus such old reliables as speed, swagger, abandon, and shards of noise indicating that you just don’t give a fuck. For the Stripes and Strokes to take such a groove pop is a tribute to Jack White’s talent and the Strokes’ good looks. I doubt the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will follow, and I’m certain the Libertines won’t. The Darkness are huge in England and making their stateside move as I write. Which leaves Kings of Leon, a band so ordinary I tried to ignore them.

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Kings of Leon excite fans of the Southern, the primitive, the trad, the blues-based, and their backstory, in which the home-schooled sons of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher are saved from a life of virtue by rock and roll. This is rock’s starter myth, irresistible for anyone oppressed firsthand by the culture of rectitude. But a thousand bad bands with their dicks in their hands have made millions turning it into organized irreligion, and Kings of Leon didn’t reinvent its clichés. Even early on the Drive-By Truckers delved so much further into Southern low life, and rocked harder too. Yet what hurts in a year when Pazz & Jop takes a backseat to another democratic exercise (if by some miracle the big one goes well, the music business can take care of itself) is that I need what Kings of Leon represent: the South, some effective portion of its rectitude-ridden, home-schooled-or-worse, class-consciously anti-intellectual masses-yearning-to-be-free. If they don’t speak to me, hell, I don’t speak to them either. Yet we have to get together somehow. That’s one reason John Edwards has been my glad-hander of choice.

Anyone expecting me to claim that our Georgia-based winners resolve this dilemma should get serious. But the metaphors are there. My hot year in hip-hop wasn’t like the critics’ because it was more critical. Only four of the 13 hip-hop albums on the Dean’s List are mainstream, and though both of my undie-rap top-10s are by nonblacks, all but two of the others are African American — unlike most undie-rap fans, and also unlike most name undie-rappers. Give it up to Britbeat original Dizzee Rascal, but to me it’s pathetic that voters should pump 50 Cent and Jay-Z here and Ted Leo and Grandaddy there, yet ignore the indie-rock resourcefulness of the differingly devout Lifesavas and Brother Ali, or at least bohos for life Mr. Lif and Jean Grae. It’s inconvenient for my argument that I can’t add North Carolina’s 80th-place Little Brother, Native Tongues surrogates with a bad case of Arrested Development. But I’ll shore up my pretensions to objectivity by noting that Jean Grae was the only New York rapper her homeboy A-listed this year. S. Carter took an album’s worth of guest shots (just wait) and killed with most, but compare the casual vanity of his Beyoncé to the casual avuncularity of his Missy and the casual geopolitics of his Panjabi MC and you’ll hear why the mulitplatinum Black Album seemed puffed up to me. As for the multiplatinum F. Cent, he could slur the most infectious Drebeats this side of M. Mathers and I’d still wish crime did not play. Same goes for Neptunebeats — but maybe not Timbobeats. I leave it conditional because Timbaland didn’t altogether convert me to Bubba Sparxxx, who for all his class-conscious good-heartedness declines personal responsibility for the post-racist future he’s clearly committed to — in that fatalistic Southern way, he just declares it inevitable. I don’t hold it against him, an American dilemma is an American dilemma, but his people better be talking to Russell Simmons’s people.

Timbaland was also the genius of two of my mainstream rap picks. But he was the auteur of only one, as Missy Elliott abandoned dreams of a singles threepeat to through-craft the first true album of her hitcentric career — a show of confidence whose eccentricities were so decent professional insomniacs slept on them. But though OutKast’s beats were less thrilling, which isn’t to say Prince and P-Funk won’t grace any inaugural ball I DJ, their eccentricities were impossible to miss, and sleeping on them proved impractical. OutKast’s Janus move is uneven, as I’d figured. What I didn’t figure was that Big Boi’s Clintonisms would flag a bit while Andre 3000’s skits and falsetto showpieces jawed at me all night. With all flaws and flat spots assumed, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below means to prophesy structurally: Big Boi is the self-created positivity of the gangsta culture both rappers long ago moved beyond, Andre the national aspirations they make so much more of than Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent. They’re defiant yet reliable, rooted yet progressive, male yet female they wish, hip-hop yet pop yet something like indie-rock, for God’s sake.

As music, as good as we could have hoped, human error included. Nevertheless, what it portends about the immediate future of the South, new or dirty or pivotal or yearning to be free, isn’t what we’d wish. Lil Jon with his blindsiding single, he’s Atlanta, all the way to the back of the strip joint. OutKast are black consciousness, with prevailing influences from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Plainfield, New Jersey — the black consciousness that almost every American institution still underrepresents, yet that itself addresses only a subset of the war on the nonrich now being waged in King George’s name by both Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. They’re a reason to bother, the best music could hold out the promise of in 2003. All I can say to anyone who was hoping for more of a happy ending than that is that I’m hoping for one too.

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Top 10 Albums of 2003

1. OutKast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)

2. The White Stripes: Elephant (V2)

3. Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve)

4. Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (Interscope)

6. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)

7. New Pornographers: Electric Version (Matador)

8. Basement Jaxx: Kish Kash (Astralwerks)

9. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West)

10. Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner (XL Import)

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Top 10 Singles of 2003

1. OutKast: “Hey Ya!” (Arista)

2. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z: “Crazy in Love” (Columbia)

3. The White Stripes: “Seven Nation Army” (Third Man/V2)

4. Kelis: “Milkshake” (Star Trak/Arista)

5. 50 Cent: “In Da Club” (G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

6. Johnny Cash: “Hurt” (American)

7. Fountains of Wayne: “Stacy’s Mom” (S-Curve/Virgin)

8. R. Kelly: “Ignition — Remix” (Jive)

9. Junior Senior: “Move Your Feet” (Atlantic)

10. Panjabi MC featuring Jay-Z: “Beware of the Boys (Mundian To Bach Ke)” (Sequence)

—From the February 11–17, 2004, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1994 Pazz & Jop: Hegemony Sez Who? Does ‘Alternative Rock’ Rule or Rool?

The shoo-in winner of the 21st or 22nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is hardly a shock, except perhaps to those who’ve declared the nifty little pop band Green Day a sign of the zeitgeist. Most wily young alternacrits had handicapped Hole’s Live Through This at No. 1 months ago, and without much to-do about her gender. One reason Liz Phair’s status as our first female victor in 19 years was so momentous was that it signaled the very change in rock’s sexual politics that renders Courtney Love’s status as our second consecutive female victor relatively incidental. Her gender is integral to her appeal — at the core of what she says and how she says it, essential by definition to her descents into the madness of sexism. But it’s no longer headline news in a milieu where female artists may finally have achieved a measure of permanent respect. Zeitgeistwise, Love signifies as a bohemian — totally identified with a subculture she scolds, consults, and gives herself up to every time she mounts a stage — before she signifies as a woman. And she also signifies as a widow before she does as a woman. Only I don’t really mean widow, I mean FOK, and maybe FOK should come first.

I mean, we got Friends of Kurt all over this poll. We got his wife’s breakout at number one, his group’s exequy at number four, his Dutch uncle’s tribute at number five; we got his new buddy Michael Stipe rediscovering the guitar at three and his replacement love object Trent Reznor superceding the guitar at nine and Seattle’s Soundgarden inhabiting their groove at 11 and Seattle’s Pearl Jam eyeballing his death mask at 25. We got a singles list featuring five records by the above and a video list featuring three of those. We got a bunch of Pazz & Jop-approved and -unapproved “alternative” albums going multiplatinum, never mind Hole’s gold. In short, we got the Nevermind revolution, three years after Nirvana’s major-label debut transformed the Amerindie aesthetic into a corporate tool. Alternative doesn’t just rool, it rules; it’s mass culture, mainstream, hegemonic. Leaving us with not just the eternal question “Alternative to what?” but the brand-new conundrum “Hegemonic sez who?”

On the most obvious level, Pazz & Jop ’94 is the triumph of a subculture and a generation — the nationwide postpunk bohemia that has fed into our poll since the early ’80s, back when everybody from R.E.M. to the Minutemen were critics’ bands. That the triumph is fundamentally symbolic — limited not just to the universe of signs, but to an attempt to quantify quality there — doesn’t nullify its sweep. Talk about your blitzkrieg bop. In 1994, Pazz & Jop’s politely ecumenical mix of Euro and Afro, Yank and furriner, fart and turk was demolished. This was the sorriest year for black music in Pazz & Jop history: the six black artists in the top 40, one in the top 30, and zero in the top 20 are the fewest since we started counting to 40 in 1979; except for 1978, when there were zero in the top 20 but two in the top 30, they’re the fewest ever. The three albums from the British Isles also represent an all-time low, reached just once before. Ambient ethno his specialty, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure was the sole “world music” finisher as well as one of the six blacks, and he needed help from Ry Cooder, one of just three prepunk survivors to make our list. That’s also a record, and at least Ry’s only half a ringer: his fellow oldsters are denim-clad Neil “Forever” Young, whose postpunk affinities date to 1979, and basic-black Johnny “Hard” Cash, whose Rick Rubin–masterminded acoustic pseudocountry record impressed young death-trippers worried that a “real” gangsta might beat them up. As in the “real” world, where people buy their records, Cash’s support from fans of the Mavericks, the Nashville-massaged nuevo honky-tonkers whose 35th-place ranking was an encouraging anomaly, was random at best.

Don’t let my dismay mislead you — as a matter of sheer taste, a judgment of where the musical/cultural action was and wasn’t in 1994, I go along with the electoral trend. It was a great year for good new-fashioned guitar-band rock and roll. This was the first time since 1987 when I didn’t put a hip hop record or two in my top 10. Ditto for Afropop. In fact, the sole black voice among my favorites was provided by dance diva Heather Small on one of the two Brit albums in my top 40. M People’s Elegant Slumming came in an ill-informed 55th with the voters, lower than any other record I gave points to; the other selections in my most critically conventional top 10 in memory finished 1-2-4-10-18-20-21-27-43. The coots on my ballot are Los Lobos spinoff the Latin Playboys, who I assume are in their forties; the mom-and-pop band that is the paradoxically named Sonic Youth, who I know are in their forties; Bob Mould of Sugar, who retreated to the boho enclave of Austin at 34; and Iris DeMent, who at 33 makes a matched Pazz & Jop set with 35-year-old Victoria Williams, two chin-up Southern aunts to balance off sourpusses Young and Cash, although both are young enough to be their sisters (and my daughters). Except for Sugar, all four of these artists were Consumer Guided at an overcautious A minus only to overwhelm me with mature musical command — how rich and right they sounded as waveforms in the air. But it was under-30s like Beck and Hole and Sebadoh and Pavement and most of all Nirvana — as well as such voter favorites as Soundgarden and Green Day and to some extent Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys — who spoke most compellingly to my sense of history. And in this respect I may well have been hearing them differently from their natural-born fans.

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Not one to abjure the comfy emotions of uncledom, I’ve always taken an indulgent attitude toward Amerindie – ingrates might call it condescending. Over the past decade, postpunk has outproduced even such pleasure-intensive subgenres as rap and Afropop, and in addition it’s held out hope for bohemia — for disssenting subcultures where new ways of doing things can be tested. But bohemias are silly and deluded places. Back when my hair was halfway down my back and my Lower East Side apartment cost $45 a month, I scoffed at hippieville’s insularity, self-righteousness, privilege, and half-assed analysis of the marketplace. And in the postpunk era I’ve been wont to ask, “Why so glum, chum?” The charges of nihilism endured by young people with nose rings and unusual hair are dumber than the young people themselves, and not just because nihilism is rarer than it’s given credit for — in artistic output and personal relations both, alternakids make room for considerable kindness and enough hope, and their bleakest moments tap into a musical energy capable of reversing the negative charge. Often, however, the polarity remains unchanged, leaving only misery and rage, passivity and sloth, willful incoherence and helpless sarcasm, naive cynicism and cheap despair. And even when it does go positive — as with Nirvana above all, or Beck — it’s hard for anyone who’s spent 30 years watching fucked-up kids get lives not to point out that there are more direct routes from A to B. Growing up hurts. Duh.

By November, however, I was feeling more simpatico. Partly it was coming to terms with Kurt. Weighing in late, after the bullshit had cleared, I read several books, reimmersed in his catalogue, and got serious with MTV Unplugged, music I had earlier dismissed regretfully as a low-energy holding action turned last will and testament. But although like most live albums this one isn’t without redundancies and flat moments, it goes a long way toward establishing Cobain’s genius. By singing his opaque lyrics instead of howling them, he shades in his affect, and Nevermind’s and In Utero’s as well — thus helping well-adjusted optimists like me empathize not just with his pain but with the extravagant alienation that fed off it. And by November, it wasn’t just a dead guy making me feel that way. As a left-of-McGovernik electoral skeptic, I don’t believe a shift of a few percentage points among lever-pulling registered voters signals a transformation of the national character. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frightening to watch editors and pundits leap slavering to that self-fulfilling analysis. It doesn’t mean the real-life consequences of the Republican takeover won’t be horrific for Americans who can least afford more shit. And it doesn’t mean that without Tom Foley to kick around anymore, the nattering nabobs of negativity holding forth on Capitol Hill — not to mention the medium that long ago gave us rock and roll — won’t now take out after more genuinely marginal types, “alternative” rock (and “alternative” newspapers) included.

So my November was as shitty as many Pazz & Joppers’ April, a disjunction in timing suitable to someone who has long believed rock and roll shouldn’t be a religion — that if your life is saved by rock and roll, either it would have been saved anyway or it wasn’t only you don’t know it yet. Kurt’s suicide distressed me, but it didn’t surprise me much, and it took the equally unsurprising suicide of America’s corporate liberals to traumatize me into feeling it as deeply as my young friends did. Suddenly all the anarchic, discordant records I already considered 1994’s best were expressing an inchoate rage that I felt. Suddenly the loopy jokes, bitter asides, and free dissociations of Beck and Cobain made perverse sense. Suddenly all that angst and confusion and cynicism and despair felt like part of my daily life.

The under-35 Amerindie natives who now constitute our largest voting bloc rarely fret so about personal identification. Although some alternacrits look back wistfully to when they could fairly be characterized as under-30, even under-25, for them — and for most of today’s rock criticism audience, even in this historically hyperconscious, culturally catholic periodical — discordant-to-anarchic guitars are the world. Many respondents delightedly or defiantly or dutifully or desperately broaden their aural perspectives, and only a few are so ignorant or intolerant that they never venture out of the compound. But whatever smorgasbord of hip hop and funk and jazz and r&b and classical and pop and blues and country and dance and trance and African and Hispanic and Asian (and lounge?) they sample, guitar bands of a certain scruffiness remain their staple diet. For 10 or 15 years these critics’ lives have revolved around clubs, shops, and radio stations that specialize in such bands, and far from finding the musical language limited, they suspect, more as a habit of thought than a tenet of faith, that it can be adapted to any meaning worth expressing, any need worth satisfying — at least any meaning or need that interests them.

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I don’t want to overstate how narrow this world is. Many alternative-identified voters — although too separated from each other (and probably their faculties) to comprise any counterconsensus — would find our top 40 hopelessly pop, slick, unindie, etc. Anyway, discordance is a dinosaur-era tradition — cf. Neil Young, cf. Soundgarden, cf. even pomo scam artist Jon Spencer — that remains discreet in such new singer-songwriters as Liz Phair and Kristin Hersh and to a lesser extent the postmodern folkie Beck and to a greater extent the premodern folkie Johnny Cash and to any extent you care to calibrate the eternal folkie Jeff Buckley, and just about inaudible in such alternative-by-association singer-songwriters as Freedy Johnston and Victoria Williams. Moreover, while such finishers as industrialist Nine Inch Nails and rap-derived Beastie Boys and demo-hawking Magnetic Fields and pop-ambient Portishead and fiddler-engineer Lisa Germano and music therapist K. McCarty and gosh-jazzlike Soul Coughing all utilize guitar sounds, not one made a true guitar-band record. So there’s variety aplenty on our list. Even if Nine Inch Nails and Portishead are both technoid, one’s as assaultive as Archie Shepp, the other as soothing as the MJQ. Even if Pavement and Pearl Jam are both guitar-driven, one’s as cool as Sade, the other as corny as Mariah Carey. And even if Michael Stipe and Courtney Love are both politically outspoken FOKs, one will settle for a cup of coffee while the other wants the most cake.

So, OK, I’m being fair, right? And remember, I said this was a great year for loud guitar bands, got off on most of the faves myself. Yet seven of our top 12 — Hole, Pavement, R.E.M., (the admittedly unplugged) Nirvana, Guided by Voices, Soundgarden, and Green Day, with Young and Beck and Nine Inch Nails this close sonically and lucky sophomore Liz Phair not all that far away (which in case you’ve lost count leaves Uncle Johnny standing alone with his unwhine and his hand-powered axe) — somehow seems too uniform. It’s exclusionary, myopic; it can’t last, it won’t last, and even though it vindicates all of us (not just Amerindie natives but their older supporters) who’ve been fending off rock-is-dead rumors for as long as we can remember (would you believe 1969?), I don’t want it to last. Gratified though I am by how my favorites placed, that’

s all the more reason for me to suspect that this year my dissents from the consensus aren’t just nitpicks, judgment calls, and specialized pleasures.

For starters, there’s the critics’ hype and fantasy of the year, Guided by Voices: nerd concocts obscure hookfests in basement, transmutes magically into Michael J. Fox onstage. And hey, he’s almost old besides, just barely under-35, plus he has a real job. (Let me here give thanks that my fourth-grader is taught by someone who loves her job rather than Robert Pollard, who has bigger dreams. At least Courtney limits her ministrations to her own kid.) Then there are the mainstream hypes: Big Jawn, who’ll capitalize by collaborating with the Dust Brothers on the vinyl-prereleased Outlaw Rap, and Ms. Liz, lavishly forgiven for producing a barely adequate follow-up instead of an unmistakable sophomore stiff. There’s the future presaged by the least enthusiastic EP list in poll history — the 1994 album by the Pizzicato Five, who with 15 EP mentions would have been fifth in 1993, finished below 140. There’s a 41-50 list where “alternative” continues to wield an iron hand: Veruca Salt, American Music Club, Sonic Youth, L7, Pretenders, Richard Thompson, Jack Logan, Seal, Seefeel, Wu-Tang Clan. There’s the disgraceful shortfall of the noisebringers of 1987, Sonic Youth (43rd) and Public Enemy (60th), perennials who elaborated their innovations with something very much like wisdom in 1994 and were counted old and in the way by voters whose tradition of the new makes them semiofficial biz interns, chain-gang volunteers shoveling bands into buzz bins. And there’s the collective point inflation of Phair, Kristin Hersh, Luscious Jackson, Lisa Germano, and the less female-identified K. McCarty, which suggests to my obviously nonfemale ears an electorate that considers gender solidarity (by men as well as women) a suitable substitute for full-service politics.

I do more or less exempt Hole from this charge. Live Through This’s punk song sense, screechy lyricism, and all-around voracity would have taken it top five if Kurt had given up music to become a narcotics agent. Still, I note that Courtney could be the second straight winner to make girls who don’t know any better think twice about the perils of feminism. Liz Phair didn’t “sell out,” children, but she sure did “freak out,” as we used to say, so you have to wonder when the far crazier Courtney’s far more stressful bout of fame will simply waste her, to the relief of the fools who find her bad personality and lust for attention distasteful when in fact they’re her skillfully orchestrated aesthetic ground. I’m not asking Courtney over for dinner, but I am rooting for her, because I think she’s smart (and lustful) enough to make a great record, not just a fortuitously timed very good one — a record that bounced around the bottom of my top 12 along with five other guitar albums, landing higher than it probably deserved. Which is to admit that I don’t entirely exempt Hole from suspicions of special-interest support. But it’s OK, really — since one proof of Nirvana’s greatness was the spontaneous antisexism of its ordinary-joe apotheosis, it’s only natural that girls in Nirvana’s wake should get extra credit for being girls. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help me hear their records. With Hersh especially the disconnection may be personal — I’ve never gotten Laura Nyro, but I grant others their response to her emotionalism. With Luscious Jackson, however, I’m positive there’s not much there, because I wish it was, and so feel certain they’re being rewarded for their (theoretically) funky agape as Veruca Salt are passed over for their cynicism or calculation or something — which I find inaudible, and isn’t it the stuff you can hear that matters in the end?

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Given my feelings in the Veruca Salt matter, which inspired water-balloon attacks and even food fights in a community you’d think had more important things to argue about, I’m relieved the critics had enough fun in them to select “Seether” their No. 2 single, behind the song of the year, Beck’s “Loser.” And there were plenty of titles not on top-40 albums in the lower reaches of that list, which is always a sign of health — of voters actively enjoying records with a life of their own. Seven of the top 10, however, were from top-40 albums, the most since 1986. Worse still for pluralists, six of these came from “alternative” albums in the top 15 and only two didn’t score as videos. Worse than that, the five rap singles were the fewest since 1987, and only one of what might loosely be called the three dance records — Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love” — could also be called a club record.

I assume these patterns aren’t permanent, but they worry me. In the techno era, dance music has become such a DJ’s medium that hits no longer cross over automatically — you have to seek them out, which can seem like one of the seven labors of Lester Bangs in a market predicated on mastermixing, exoticism, and disposability. As for what any critic worth his or her baseball cap now calls hip hop, Touré’s unapology (headed “Skills, Son”) speaks for itself. I’m enough of an East Coast chauvinist to give props to several of his designated aesthetic milestones; at his behest I’m reconsidering Wu-Tang, and nonspecialist though I be, I could always hear the art in Jeru and Nas (with the proviso that Nas’s music is in his rhyming/rapping). But the questions Touré barely thinks to ask are precisely those so many more-alternative-than-thous consider beneath them. Why should anyone outside the hip hop community care? And isn’t the failure to induce outsiders to care an artistic flaw in itself? In a culture of overproduction, skills aren’t all that hard to come by.

It’s true that the core audience for albums like Illmatic and The Sun Rises in the East seems economically self-sustaining, and it’s undeniable that hip hoppers are historically justified in paying small mind to outsiders — if not the large number of African American music lovers with no interest in Jeru’s subtly disquieting beats, certainly white pleasure-seekers. As the American apartheid rap prophets ranted about becomes a malignancy so virulent I won’t waste space on the exceptions, racial separatism — deliberate or de facto, power play or default position — becomes ever more inescapable in hip hop. Not to respect the impulse is to give too much slack to the racism it reacts against. But it has to trouble integrationists — because we don’t like being left out, sure, but also because it seems short-sighted. It’s not just that uncommitted fans who are given an, er, alternative will probably pass on spare purist beats yoked to in-crowd rhymes — hip hop that rejects pop music and pop imagery. It’s that there’s no guarantee the larger black audience will provide sustenance once somebody comes up with a more reassuring and legible option. One thing that can be said for Pazz & Jop’s alternarockers, including the dubious ones, is that as heirs of the dominant culture they know how to make themselves legible. A hip hopper or anyone else could be forgiven for confusing K. McCarty and Lisa Germano at a distance, but in sound and sense, the distinctions between them are still broader than the quite real distinctions that differentiate Nas and Jeru.

What’s more, this counts for something. Pazz & Jop rewards legibility — pop hooks, pop success — and that’s as it should be. Of course it’s about aesthetics, about the enduring satisfaction experienced listeners find in their records. And right, surface meanings don’t endure as reliably as the stuff you can hear. But one way or another this is still pop music, and for most of us, sharing its outreach validates and enriches its satisfactions. The belated Nirvana revolution produced broad-based sales on a scale that was only a projection in 1991. It sweeps into prominence one- (or two-) hit platinum (or multiplatinum) wonders like Weezer and Offspring (two album mentions each) as well as non-Billboard 200 critics’ choices like Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. And if it’s a trifle giddy in its self-regard, its landslide here was assured as much by generalists swept away by a cresting subgenre as by the Amerindie bloc. Even at that, had our electorate been approximately 15 per cent African American, as were our invitees, rather than 8 per cent, which is what we got back, we would have gotten a more useful overview of the nation’s hip hop succés d’estimes. My guess: baby gangsta Warren G still on top, Wu-Tang a finisher, Biggie Smalls well up from 68, Public Enemy and the Digables (and Jeru) holding if they’re lucky.

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Generalizing about blocs is tricky — most African American critics, for instance, are not hip hop specialists (and many who are don’t credit our vote any more than the government’s). Still, I’m struck by the third-place reissue — Bar/None’s Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, by ’60s Mexican pop-mewzick orchestrator Esquivel. Esquivel is a wild-eared kitschmeister whose vogue is generational — over-40s won’t give him try two because he reminds them of the hi-fi pap their parents used to drive them out of the rec room with. But beyond pomo’s weakness for anticanonical nose-tweaking, his demographic edge was Bar/None’s mailing list, which reaches lots of youngsters who may not see a free reissue all year. No matter how shrewd you are at the used-CD store, you can only vote for records you hear; a slab of world-historical genius like the Louis Armstrong box made 34 ballots instead of 150 because no more than (a wild guess) 60 respondents were serviced with it. And that isn’t just because publicists are chintzy with big-ticket packages — it’s because many voters receive only “alternative” product, if that, from the major labels. As rock history expands in every direction, it’s damn near impossible to become a young generalist, and the majors, for whom ’zines and local weeklies are an adjunct of the boutique marketing that now complements all blockbuster strategies, don’t care if they make things worse — specialists are ideal chain-gang fodder. For somebody so balmy as to still believe in criticism, this is tragic. I’d like to think that, given the chance, many young crits would find Slim Gaillard (eight votes, not bad considering) pretty anticanonical. Unlike Esquivel, he means to be funny.

Of course, that’s assuming young alternacrits want to become generalists. In fact, most of them can’t be bothered, especially when it comes to contemporary pop, defined by purists as what happens when a record on Matador is distributed by Atlantic and by triumphalists as the shallow stuff dumb people buy instead of Guided by Voices, Johnny Cash, Tall Dwarfs, or Anal Cunt. And to me insularity on this scale looks suspiciously like a species of, well, suicide. Hegemonic sez who? In the world where people buy their records, our assembled tastemakers’ landslide is merely a thriving pop-music taste culture. My hope is that — like alternacheerleader Renée Crist (see “Fun Matters”), who’s probably too openhearted to be typical — alternacrits and the subculture they represent are intelligent enough to put out a few feelers when the truism that it can’t last hits home as truth. My fear is that a taste of power will put the kibosh on whatever chance the alternarock bohemia had of not ending up yet another self-contained enclave in a balkanized Amerikkka where one citizen in eight now pays a community association to police the streets.

The strangest thing about our national-election commentary this year is that with a few notable exceptions there wasn’t any — especially from alternacrits, who had plenty to say about Courtney’s flawed feminism, who’s really punk, and whether Minty Fresh is a Geffen front. The mood I sense is that Washington is them, alternarock is us, and let’s hope the twain never meet, because we’ve now got a big enough piece of the pie to feed us in perpetuity. Not the whole pie, even in music-biz terms, not actual hegemony, but we’re not greedy. As indicated, I think this is deluded. Since the right-wing agenda is as much cultural as economic, a reaction to everything “the ’60s” are thought to have done to this happy land, direct attacks on weirdos correctly perceived as modern hippies are inevitable once hippie sellouts like Bill’n’Hill are out of the way — that is, yesterday. If alternarock should prove more a fad than seems likely, our piece of pie will shrink pronto. And while alternarock had developed a solid infrastructure well before the big boys started throwing money at it, key components of that infrastructure are now in peril — left-of-the-dial radio, college loans, relatively humane public-service jobs, and the whole edifice of middle-class leisure on which slackerdom is based. But why fool around? The main reason alternarock separatism bothers me is that I think it’s wrong. It isn’t just intellectually bankrupt for critics to ignore or dismiss music that doesn’t fall into their laps — by which I mean not yet more indie obscurities but hip hop, dance music, straight pop, and, increasingly, a canon that ought to be understood before it’s rejected or reconfigured. It’s also morally weak. So there.

I say this in full confidence that some will ponder and others jeer, and I’m Dutch uncle enough to believe both responses are healthy. We always need young jerks pumping obscurities no matter how useless 95 per cent of them are. For years I’ve been grousing about the ideology now dubbed lo-fi — the notion that poorly engineered records are aesthetically and spiritually superior to ones where you can hear separate instruments and make out some of the words. One of my problems with Live Through This, in fact, is that I suspect it shortchanges Hole’s guitar sound — Courtney’s singing is lo-fi enough on its own. And one reason I love MTV Unplugged in New York is that I can hear Kurt’s every creak. But as it turns out, my three favorite 1994 albums deploy the lo-fi idea instead of stupidly embracing it. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star cuts the modest gloss of Dirty and Goo with a textured evocation of where Sonic Youth are going and where they’ve been. Mellow Gold uses sounds of vastly disparate purity to create a convincing neorealist environment for Beck’s best-recorded and best recorded songs. And the Latin Playboys — David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Mitchell Froom, and Tchad Blake, whose big statements on Kiko I found sententious, cautious, and, well, overproduced — construct dream music that reveals ambient techno for the cerebrum trip it is. Without considering content or zeitgeist, I made Latin Playboys my No. 1 because it was the most beautiful record I’d heard in years. But in a separatist year when this nation’s ample xenophobia has come down hardest of all on California’s Hispanics, maybe it has more to teach than I thought. Sure reaching out and touching somebody is a corporate hype. But like “alternative rock,” that ain’t all it is.

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Top 10 Albums of 1994

1. Hole: Live Through This (DGC)

2. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Monster (Warner Bros.)

4. Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC)

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels (Reprise)

6. Liz Phair: Whip-Smart (Matador)

7. Johnny Cash: American Recordings (American)

8. Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand (Scat)

9. Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (Nothing/TVT/Interscope)

10. Beck: Mellow Gold (DGC)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1994

1. Beck: “Loser” (DGC)

2. Veruca Salt: “Seether” (DGC)

3. Coolio: “Fantastic Voyage” (Tommy Boy)

4. Warren G: “Regulate” (Violator/RAL)

5. Beastie Boys: “Sabotage” (Grand Royal/Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (Warner Bros.)

7. Pavement: “Cut Your Hair” (Matador)

8. (Tie) Hole: “Doll Parts” (DGC)
Liz Phair: “Supernova” (Matador)

10. Offspring: “Come Out and Play” (Epitaph)

—From the February 28, 1995, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES

Jeopardy’s Five Best Music Moments

Sure, selling almost 180 million records worldwide is pretty special. As is winning 17 Grammy Awards. But last week, Beyoncé’s legacy was bestowed with arguably the highest of all honors: She got her own category on Jeopardy. Personally, our favorite part was Alex Trebek’s delivery of the phrase “Jay-Z is featured on this Beyoncé song that mentions ‘that liquor get into me.’ ”

In case you missed this glorious moment, you can see it here:

See also: An Illustrated Guide to Beyoncé’s Insight and Empowerment

Jeopardy, of course, has a long and rich history of taking stuff that’s cool and sexy and For The Kids and making it sound extraordinarily awkward and sanitized and, rather ironically, really damn stupid. Here are some of our favorite musical moments from the show’s history.

1. We’re guessing a student intern was responsible for this.
In 2012, Jeopardy reduced much-lauded emotive indie quintet Fleet Foxes to “folk-rockin’ dudes” with this clue. To celebrate, Sub Pop Records tweeted a link to the incident and hashtagged “Trebek!” for good measure.

2. ‘The 1990s Rap Song’
In a particularly delightful episode of Jeopardy: The Battle of the Decades, there was, rather magically, a category titled “The 1990s Rap Song.” The questions — er, answers — included clues relating to Notorious B.I.G., Shock G, and MC Hammer, but it was Trebek’s enthusiastic renditions of Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Brain” and Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” that truly made this a special moment in TV game show history. This is possibly the most animated we’ve ever heard him.

3. Who Is Buddy Holly?
Sometimes, under pressure, contestants do crazy things on Jeopardy. One time, a guy actually ended up face-down, passed out, during Final Jeopardy, and another lady got laughed at super-hard by the audience for giving “Chris Farley” as a response to a Johnny Cash clue. However, it’s difficult to imagine how one woman, in response to the clue “His widow Maria Elena and actor Gary Busey were on hand when his star was dedicated outside Capitol Records in 2011,” came up with this:

We hope that when someone finally makes a movie about Ice-T, Gary Busey is allowed to at least audition. We would pay to see that.

4. Most Bizarre Clue Ever
We’re pretty sure you could put this in front of every single member of Mötley Crüe and even they wouldn’t answer it correctly. Who the hell came up with this?

5. ‘It’s a Rap’
Plucky contestant Mary holds her shit together really, really well until the very last moment of tackling the “It’s a Rap” category. What sends her over the edge? Trebek doing Public Enemy, that’s what. “I don’t know why that’s making you laugh so much!” the host declares. We think you do, Trebek. We think you do…


 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

James Brown Killed Dumb Biopics: Why the Messy Get On Up Gets It Right

James Brown stripped pop to its rhythmic essentials: the groove and the grunt, the bridge, and the scream. Tate Taylor’s Get On Up likewise reduces James Brown — and the biopic form — to all that matters most. Here are the highs of the man’s life, both artistic and recreational. More importantly, here’s his presence. Taylor invites us to thrill to Chadwick Boseman’s Brown onstage, to cringe at him off it, to laugh with and at him, to hate and admire him, and to kind of feel as if we have some idea of where he’s coming from. But the movie — written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth — never lies to us that we can fully understand him.

That’s a breakthrough for commercial filmmaking. It’s hard to psychoanalyze a folk hero, but studio-picture screenwriting demands that films about great lives usually try. That means Walk the Line must suggest that a childhood tragedy is the root cause of all those years when Johnny Cash was hopped up on pills and tearing new assholes for everyone who loved him. That’s the wrong kind of reduction, cutting the powerful chord of selfness to just a single, clanging note.

See also: Stephanie Zacharek’s Get On Up review

Get On Up digs into Brown’s own hardscrabble upbringing, a broke-ass boyhood of petty crime and long-gone parents, all caught up in the sweaty exaltation of cathouse and church house both. But the movie presents each hardscrabble detail as just another messy chunk of Brown’s mad totality. That moment he stole shoes off a hanged man doesn’t explain James Brown, just as his endorsement of Nixon a quarter century later couldn’t. The filmmakers get that Brown the man was like the funk he forged. He beat “Cold Sweat” from everything that came before it, from everything that surged inside and around him, not any one thing in particular.

One of the film’s best moments is a rehearsal between Brown and his first great band, the Clyde Stubblefield/Maceo Parker/Pee Wee Ellis group. Brown is raging at Parker, a sax-man trained in music theory, because Parker has dared to suggest that one of Brown’s instructions is, technically speaking, not “musical.” Brown responds like the worst/best teacher you’ve ever had: vain and pedantic and infuriatingly right, pointing out that in his band, keys and time signatures and notions of musicality are all subordinate to feeling.

Further, in his band, he insists, every instrument is a drum. The movie’s like that, too: There’s no “Rosebud” moment because every moment is a Rosebud. Every moment of James Brown’s life was the most important moment of James Brown’s life because — and this is very important — he was James Brown.

Get On Up is a mess. A scene of apparent sketch comedy will fall into a scene of spousal abuse, which will cut into a blistering (lip-synched) live performance. But isn’t that something the way time with James Brown might have actually been like? Occasionally he narrates his own movie, in-scene, looking at the camera, and the effect isn’t distracting the way it was in the film of Jersey Boys. Watch the real James Brown turkey-cock and motor-mouth in the great documentary Soul Power: Dude was always narrating himself, often in third person, often hilariously.

Here are other key ways that Get On Up smashes the template of dreary prestige biopics like Ray. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest here that it’s probably Walk Hard that first killed movies like Ray. Even if you didn’t laugh at Jake Kasdan’s bang-on parody, you might appreciate that in its wake, filmmakers seem terrified of repeating clichés it speared.)

This James Brown Is Liberated From Cornpone Biopic Lesson-Learning

James Brown was a force, a pioneer, a genius, a villain, a cartoon, an institution in his own time. He certainly wasn’t given to crises of conscience. He doesn’t grow or change the way movie heroes usually must; he just ages. So, of course the standard three-act structure doesn’t fit. Instead of a Walk the Line–style price-of-fame breakdown, and then a come-to-Jesus repentance, Get On Up builds to a PCP-fueled car chase, a stint in the slammer, and then the man himself, well older than 60, staring into a mirror and saying his own name as if he still can’t get over how great it is to be him. In the final moments, he does perform an act of kindness for old friend Bobby Byrd, but it’s a performance — Brown singing, onstage, the only place he was guaranteed to be what everyone wanted him to.

Get On Up Doesn’t Dwell On the Miserable

Guess what? Being married to James Brown would be terrible. Get On Up makes this abundantly clear in just a few smart, sharp scenes. Then it gives us extended concert scenes, that famous near-riot in Boston the night after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and a hilarious lesson on how Brown broke out of the music industry’s longstanding promotion racket. Meanwhile, over in Walk the Line, Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash suffers and yowls in scene after miserable scene — wouldn’t it be more satisfying to emphasize the times when Cash was awesome?

Get On Up Doesn’t Bother With Much Exposition

“The ’60s are an important and exciting time,” Jenna Fischer’s June Carter stand-in observed in Walk Hard, a perfect attack on the here’s-what-year-it-is dialogue in most of these life-spanning flicks. There’s none of that here. The decade — and Brown — moved so fast that scenes set in1966 must feel wholly distinct from those of ’68. The movie trusts you to get this by hair and beats.

Get On Up Digs Into Great Moments Even at the Expense of Familiar Ones

The film’s longest single sequence is a recreation of a 1971 concert in Paris. The epochal 1963 Live at the Apollo gets just a couple minutes. The ’71 show — made commercially available in the ’90s on the impossibly great Love, Power, Peace album — is short on famous hits but long on the hottest funk ever laid down by his hottest band, the Bootsy and Phelps “Catfish” Collins–era JBs. You’ll sweat just watching it. “I Feel Good,” meanwhile, is represented only as something of a pop sellout.

Here’s the whole album posted to YouTube. Caution: Play it at the gym, and you’ll have a heart attack.

Get On Up Bothers to Make Critical Arguments About Brown and His Legacy

Ray and Walk Hard were both movies about good men who go bad and then remember that they’re good right around the time they become national treasures. Get On Up has no arc, but it does have points to make. Early on, an elderly Brown points out to the camera that every record we hear in the present bears Brown’s influence. That’s no boast; it’s stone truth, and it’s the reason Brown stands as the single most influential musician of the twentieth century — a case the movie shies away from in its end titles. Other theses are aired with some power: The white man at the head of King Records has to be told several times that “Please Please Please” — Brown’s first record — is “not about the song.” He finally listens closely as Brown shouts the simple lyric over the Famous Flames’s vamp, and suddenly understands the primacy of groove, a lesson the whole world would learn over the next five decades. (That said, I wish the movie did a little more with Brown’s ferocious self-reliance rap, best laid out in the song title “I Don’t Want Nobody to Get Me Nothing (Open the Door and I’ll Get it Myself.”)

Get On Up Dares to Break With Bland Movie Realism

This is the most structurally inventive studio film since that last Wachowski siblings thing. Taylor and company arrange a playlist of moments from Brown’s life rather than a strictly linear narrative. Better still, they dare to mash moments up into each other, especially when there’s music playing: A very young Brown, forced to box blindfolded for tuxedoed white swells, watches a Dixieland band play as he lies sprawled and bloody on the canvas. Time slows, and the old-timey music somehow matches up to something inside him — suddenly, the black musicians on this ’30s plantation are ripping into the future-funk of “Super Bad.” Young Brown leaps up and kicks some ass, as if funk were to him what spinach is to Popeye. There is stranger and more daring stuff in the final reels, moments that set off some giggles in the preview audience I saw this with. To them I’ll just say: The movie’s about what moments with James Brown might have felt like, for those around him or the man himself. They’re no sillier than anything in The Buddy Holly Story — but they probably cut closer the man’s actual presence.

Again, the movie’s a mess. So is any human life, especially a globe-straddling musician’s. I can’t wait to see it — and sort through it — again.

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Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film: For Fans Only

If you’re not already a fan of indie country crooner Bill Callahan, watching Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film will be like attending an hour-long set of a capable musician you’ll probably forget about by the next day.

Directed by Callahan’s partner, Hanly Banks, the misleadingly titled Apocalypse — actually the name of the singer’s 2011 album — is short on memorable visuals, ideas, and stories. Between performance excerpts from Callahan’s U.S. tour are too many filler shots of passing landscapes from the bus.

It’s like looking out the window from the back seat of a car while another passenger drones on with nebulous, slightly grandiose statements. “A year ago I decided that symbols were everything,” Callahan says by way of personal revelation between songs. “I love America and I feel like somebody needed to talk to her.”

With his speak-sing baritone, Callahan sounds a little bit like Johnny Cash, if the Man in Black wore a distortion pedal as a shoe and were fond of songs with structures as free as a tumbleweed. Always dressed in a proudly idiosyncratic seersucker suit but meekly averting his gaze, Callahan requests patience from his listeners — an entirely fair entreaty.

Banks seems to hope that merely spending time with her subject will somehow create an illusion of intimacy. But her film’s secretive opacity only makes Callahan a little prince, far away on his own planet.

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John Carter Cash Discovers a Lost Johnny Cash Album

When it comes to settling an estate in the wake of a parent’s passing, the routine is more or less the same for any child shouldered with this sad responsibility. For John Carter Cash, going through his parents’ effects involved opening up a sizable storage vault containing a plethora of relics from Johnny and June Carter Cash’s life together. He stumbled upon a bunch of eccentric souvenirs in 2012, like camel saddles brought back from Saudi Arabia and numerous keys that locked anonymous doors in cities scattered across the country. As his parents had a penchant for collecting things — “I won’t say they were hoarders, but they had trouble throwing things away” — the miscellany he tripped over in the vault and the sheer volume of it didn’t surprise him.

What did catch him off guard were the tapes. Of the hundreds of recordings he encountered, the tracks for Out Among the Stars were just sitting there on a shelf, in the same spot they were placed shortly after the sessions that produced them. Out Among the Stars never saw its release, and there, in that dusty vault stocked with memories his legendary parents left behind, John Carter Cash found a lost Johnny Cash record, perhaps one of the most revealing Johnny Cash records ever made.

“He was still working on the road and selling a lot of tickets for his performances, but the record sales and the radio play weren’t there,” says John Carter, referring to this period surrounding his father’s stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, which ended in 1984. “He was at a great point in his life, spiritually and creatively. When I hear these recordings, I hear this side of the man in early 1984, when he was clear, when he was true, the side not many people have heard. I feel like it’s a quite viable part of my father’s life. You can hear his integrity of spirit in these recordings. You can hear the happiness in his voice when he sings with my mother, because they were together again. The strength of their love is evident, how they sound like they’re frolicking kids in ‘Baby Ride Easy.’ You can hear the laughter in their voices. I mean, there’s so much there in these recordings.”

The context surrounding Out Among the Stars is enough to secure its spot in the Cash family canon, according to John Carter. “It wasn’t long after these recordings were done in ’84 that Columbia dropped Johnny Cash. I think it’s just as an important time of his life as any, creatively.”

The omission of these songs from Cash’s catalog is bewildering, but not entirely: Despite the fact that Cash was an established American icon at that point, the early ’80s were a troubling time for him, one marked by a return to rehab for his addiction to amphetamines and the least lucrative turn of his career. Gone were the glory days of “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk The Line,” and the booming sorghum voice that got him there. At nearly 50 years old, Cash was set to lose it all, including the support of his label, and the songs he wrote throughout this period are just as vital to his being as the now-classics that dressed Man in Black.

So, how is an entire album written by one of the most prolific American songwriters during a fruitful period of self-rediscovery — one that features duets with June Carter Cash and Waylon Jennings, as well as Marty Stuart before he became a renowned country guitarist — effectively discarded? John Carter couldn’t tell you. Neither could the label. “Columbia just literally put it on the back shelf,” he says. “I talked to the guys at Sony Legacy, and they all agree it was the worst decision Columbia ever made. Now, in hindsight, we see the strength of Johnny Cash, the artist. There’s a lot more to it now; there’s a bigger picture. Gratefully, that’s what remains. That’s what endures.”

With the help of Sony’s Legacy Recordings, John Carter set about getting to work on Out Among the Stars: He shipped the two-track recordings from Tennessee to the label in New York, which digitally converted them and sent them back. With the integrity and depth previously established by producer Billy Sherrill, John Carter did his best to maintain and further flesh out the choices Sherrill made 30 years prior at the studio in Nashville, including having Stuart come back in to re-record some of his guitar and mandolin parts. “This record stood alone,” John Carter says. “We didn’t want to take away from that. We wanted to bring another dimension to the new material.”

The result, 12 songs that seamlessly shoulder up to the robust, revolutionary ballads and jaunty verses that defined Cash and influenced countless others, is a satisfying, sentimental achievement for John Carter. He was in the studio as a teenager when his father cut “I’m Movin’ On” with Jennings in one take, and he firmly believes that the tapes he found, which formally debuted on March 25, were too special to leave safe and sound with the rest of the recordings in that family vault.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Is this something that’s getting released for the sake of releasing it?'” says John Carter. “No, it’s something we believe in. It’s something that we feel he would’ve wanted released. We asked ourselves, ‘Is this something that JR would’ve wanted if he was sitting in the room? Is this something he would’ve wanted people to hear?’ I think [Out Among the Stars] transcends time. It’s not about where the world is now; it’s good, true music. There’s not that many true classic records that’ve been made. I think this is one of them.”

 

Out Among the Stars is out now on Legacy Recordings.

 

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Cash Only

Consider this “Ring of Fire” candles on a birthday cake. Johnny Cash, the most recognizable baritone out of Arkansas and somberest guy to ever darken country music’s doorway, would have been 82 this year. For as many refurbished railroad songs he chugged along with, Cash was rock ’n’ roll through and through, his politically minded prison performances and funereal dress signifiers of a smoldering rebellion. Come celebrate the undisputed forefather of alt-country along with the rest of Brooklyn at the Johnny Cash 82nd Birthday Bash, the Bell House’s weekend-long hoedown that has packed the venue every year since the inaugural party in 2005. Alex Battles & The Whisky Rebellion provide the covers all night, supplemented by film clips from archivist Clinton McClung. Have a rollicking good time and a slice of cake for the Cash man, or better yet, a glass of bourbon. Go with the bourbon.

Fri., Feb. 28, 9 p.m.; Sat., March 1, 9 p.m., 2014

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Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart traded in his mullet and bejeweled Nudie suits long ago, but one of country music’s most eclectic showmen is still serving up piping hot servings of hillbilly rock. Stuart’s unique recipe of honky tonk, rockabilly, country rock, traditional country and bluegrass has satisfied genre connoisseurs since 1978 — prior to Stuart joining Johnny Cash’s backing band, and long before he was appointed to ’90s country royalty after being named President of the Country Music Foundation. Fast forward twenty years and listeners can hope to hear nearly four decades of legendary Americana, and most likely selections from his 2012 Sugar Hill release, Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down. Also performing is Stuart’s wife and fellow country singer Connie Smith.

Wed., Feb. 19, 8:30 p.m., 2014

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The Gifts That The Other Holiday Gift Guides Forgot

On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… Slim Whitman’s Yodeling Country Songs. In an attempt to help avoid gift-giving mishegas this season, we’ve taken the stress out of speculating what your favorite mosher might hope to find under his blackened hull of a Christmas tree. (Or what your sweet niece in Peoria might omgwant! since it’ll be hard to top last year’s gift of Britney Spears Curious eau de something. Carry on, wayward sons (and daughters), there WILL be peace when you are done. Done shopping, that is.

See also: The Hater’s Holiday Gift Guide

If you don’t feel the need to fund Gene Simmons’ and Paul Stanley’s lavish lifestyles this season by purchasing a “glass demon bust ornament” for your tree (trust me: you don’t), spend your kissmas kash with at the All New Ace Marketplace. Ex-KISS axe man Mr. Frehley offers up a guitar strap — black with silver lightning bolts — so the rockstar wanna-be in your life can be Space Ace in front of the mirror every day! Yes, it’s signed, and as KISS fans know, Ace’s autograph always features his iconic doodle of an ace playing card (duh). Custom made by Jodi Head in New York City, the strap–“just like Ace’s”–is 42 inches long. Wait, just like Ace’s what?! For $300, you can own a piece of KISStory unsoiled by Simmons.

Sweet dreams are NOT made of this Marilyn Manson lithograph. Of his watercolor “Crop Failure,” Manson explains: “This appeared in Rolling Stone with my essay about Columbine and is sort of a caricature of [Eric] Harris and [Dylan] Klebold taken from their high school photographs… It was definitely part of my reaction for being blamed for something like Columbine. I thought the title ‘Crop Failure’ was appropriate for several reasons. Columbine, some people might know, is a flower. And, obviously, [‘Crop’ represents] raising up your children and harvesting them properly. Something did go wrong here, and I think the farmers should be blamed, not the entertainers.” Lay down $1,800 for an exhibit-quality reproduction in a limited edition of 25, signed and numbered by the former Brian Warner himself.

Up next: Taylor Swift and Yanni

When you think blackout, you think: Yanni to the rescue! Yes, apparently the hirsute hottie wants to be your guiding light. To avoid being “caught in the dark,” the New Age chart-topper is offering you a way out for only $6.99. His laser-engraved, 1.5-inch-long super bright white LED is also a key ring! Bonus: four button cell batteries are included. Double bonus: No Yanni music is included!

The words “stocking stuffer” and “Taylor Swift” in the same sentence will likely titillate some baser-thinking music lovers. But the sweet Swift is offering, all new for the holiday season, a package with four RED (her fourth and latest album) doodads including a red RED rubber bracelet, plus a grey RED one, along with a guitar pick pack, an iPhone sound amplifier, and a spiral notebook with artwork from the album. Cute rockstar ex-boyfriend not included. And if you’re still not sold, it’s all on SALE! Regularly it’s $23 shekels, but now it’s a mere $6.99! (According to Forbes, Ms. Swift earned $55 million this year, so she doesn’t need your extra $15.50.)

There are so many great gifts for the Lemmy lover in your life. Of course, Motorhead and booze go together like cirrhosis and Early Times. For your pals overseas (currently only shipping there, apparently), Motorhead is offering — quelle surprise — alcohol! There’s “Sacrifice” Shiraz, which is “first bag-in-box wine” designed especially for Swedes, who apparently are the world’s largest consumer of boxed wine. Hmmm. The box looks like a Motorhead amp, making it a must-have even if you need to go to Sweden to obtain it, and allegedly it tastes better when wearing the Ace of Spades sweater made of jacquard woven 100 percent cotton in sizes up to XXL for even the “biggest” of Motorhead fans. At $90 bucks in eye-popping black and white, it’s not as cool as having Lemmy under your tree, but it’s a close second.

See also: Why the Hell Did Bad Religion Make a Christmas Album?

For the hipster who has everything — except a Bob Dylan harmonica — that’s a problem easily solved, but only if you feel like dropping $5,000 for a mouth organ. Albeit one that’s a Marine Band harp in the key of C, individually signed, and comes in a carved inlaid ebony box. Didn’t Spinal Tap say C “was the saddest of all keys”? No, oh well. This is still pretty decadent, and only 100 of these single key harmonicas exist worldwide. If the lucky recipient doesn’t know which of Dylan’s songs to play first on the new gift, well, there’s a list of harp keys to Dylan songs online here, and personal picks include “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” and we’re sure Dylan wouldn’t mind if the harp was used to play the bagpipe parts on AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top.”)

Where were YOU in January 1971? Well, if you’re old enough, and a hoarder, you may have this January 16-22 issue of TV Guide in your, er, “collection.” If not, don’t spend three months looking in your basement — buy a copy for $25. (It was 15 cents back in the day!) For the Johnny Cash lover who has everything, this TV Guide, with an archetypal photo of June Carter and Johnny Cash, promises it’s in “good,” if used condition with “typical wear.” As if anything about the Man in Black is typical.

There’s one in every family: A Phish lover. The hapless purchaser may not know what a black and red checked hoodie has to do with a band that sings “Free” and “Heavy Things,” but hey, it’s a “super soft hoodie” with a kangaroo front pocket perfect for stashing whatever it is one stashes at a Phish concert. The band logo is on the hood, plus a custom Phish Kindling patch is sewn onto the breast. (If you’re not a Phish fan, it merely looks like a company logo — say, that little polo player. But Phish phans get it — and of course, they know it’s low-impact yarn dyed, and will keep them cozy for every show they go to this December 28-31 at Madison Square Garden.

Gabba Gabba Hey, This Is Delicious! From the kitchen of Marky Ramone — no, not full of roaches, bathtubs, and other NYC staples — comes a truly delicious addition to even your mushy spaghetti. Marky Ramone’s Brooklyn’s Own Marinara Pasta Sauce is a mere 88 dollars a case. And with those 12 jars, shipping is included AND 10 percent benefits Autism Speaks. Yes, the proverbial “win-win.” Apparently, The recipe was passed down by his grandfather, once a chef at Manhattan’s 21 Club, and modern-day famed French chef Boulud is a fan, offering a 21 dollar Spaghetti Alla Chitarra pasta using Marky’s own “drum-punk” sauce as its base! If you’re a NYC denizen, you can track down Marky Ramone’s Cruisin’ Kitchen food truck to buy, or merely order online.

20 years ago, musical gift/swag from Seattle might include SubPop T-shirt or Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped album. Circa 2013 holiday season, Seattle gives us Macklemore and Lewis, and their socks. Yes, nominated for seven 2014 Grammy awards, and you can own their socks. Well, not the ones they’ve actually worn, but a three-pack of fancy foot coverings, one pair in a lovely shade of baby blue, for a mere $20. Merely lift your pant leg to proclaim your allegiance to the pair, whose “Same Love” became perhaps the first top 15 song in the U.S. to promote and celebrate same-sex marriage, which in our book, makes it more than acceptable to sport socks that proclaim you as a member of the “shark face gang.”

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My Father and the Man in Black Is a Full and Vital Look at Johnny Cash’s “Interesting Years”

It’s a weird miracle that Johnny Cash and his primitive twosome banged out music that still feels so full and vital today. And it’s a weird miracle that My Father and the Man in Black is itself full and vital, despite throwing off all sorts of vanity-project warning signs: It’s directed by a first-timer with a personal stake in the story. It tells much of that story through green-screened reenactments in which actors play the father of that director and no one less a personage than Cash himself, that hopped-up oak of a man. It even opens with a conversation between the director at age seven and his father. But it has the heart, and it has the blood, and by the time childhood chatter is played back again, feeling is soaked through it like the sweat in Cash’s guitar strap. Writer-director Jonathan Holiff is the not-quite-estranged son of Saul Holiff, Cash’s manager during what could be called the interesting years: the pill-fueled ’60s, the triumphs at Folsom and San Quentin, the wedding to June Carter, and the conversion, in the early ’70s, when Cash goes all in for Jesus, losing his TV show, many fans, and Saul, a Canadian Jew who is unwilling to tell his client “I accept the divinity of Jesus Christ.” One long phone call concerning Cash’s ill-fated Jesus movie is almost painful. The great man, you’ll hear, could also be pushy and insecure, and he wasn’t entirely free of the suspicions common to other white folks born in Arkansas in 1932. By the end, it’s as much about family as it is about showbiz craziness.