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Culture Tantrum

Stephanie DePrez | Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I was frustrated by a deep-seated conflict when approaching this week’s Tantrum. I began the day by sending out the alert, “looking for a good tantrum, open to all suggestions.” I posted this alert on Twitter, the hub of friends/Joss Whedon junkies/natural grocer advertisers who all deign to follow me on the new-media mammoth site that I have, reluctantly, hooked up to my phone.

By late afternoon I had received two suggestions: “Ark Music Factory = The Disney Channel. So much pain.” This tweet included a link to a video called “Ordinary Pop Star” by eleven-year-old CJ Fam, produced by the super-slick production team that brought us Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” This tweet was followed in quick succession by, “Whatever it is, don’t let it be Rebecca Black. Plz.” Well, unfortunately for tweeter number two, it seems that all tweets lead to one topic. Why we love Rebecca Black, and why we hate Rebecca Black.

Let’s set the stage: cute, bouncy thirteen-year-old who literally looks like she could be hanging out with your little sister lands in the middle of a very well-produced music video with auto-tune sharp enough to make Rihanna weep. Millions downloaded her single. She goes on Jay Leno, sits next to Bradley Cooper (without ever acknowledging she’s sitting next to smolder incarnate) and answers questions as if she were talking to her dad’s college roommate. Meanwhile, everyone who spent the weekend partying, partying (yeah!) remains acutely aware that in the normal wheel of music production and distribution, something is not right.

Here’s the hitch: Rebecca Black’s music video was produced by a company called the Ark Music Factory. Based in LA, Ark is run by two guys destined to live out the music producer’s dream, even if that means making videos for children of loaded Los Angelinos who are willing to back their children’s’ pop fantasies. They seek to reach out to “young artists” by offering them a venue to pursue music that is “clean and safe.” After multiple clicks on Google and YouTube, I found an interview — very staged — with Patrice Wilson, CEO and founder of Ark Music Factory.

“What we do, and the amount of work we put into artists…is very amazing, because we provide that platform. We give that music video, we give that song., we give that photo shoot, that image [a} consultant. How much do we charge? Number one, we don’t charge all artists. If we are to charge an artist, it can range from $2000 to $4000. Is that a bad deal?…You even get lunch!”

Thus speaks Wilson.

The system is clear: parents pony up the cash, and their children get to play rock star for a day. Which is great. Ark Music is happy. The parents are happy. And the kids get to dress up, perform at an Ark Music showcase, get interviewed on the “red carpet” and send a link of their professional looking music video to all their friends. Stasis remains.

But what happens when the parental-pleasing fodder that we roll our eyes at actually catches on at Finny’s? We like to think that extravagant birthday presents such as an Ark Music video remain contained to the little world in which they were produced, but Rebecca Black’s “Friday” proved what many of us refuse to believe — pop music really is just crap that’s fun to sing along to! NOOO!

“Listen to a song on the radio. Try to compare it with the song ‘Friday,'” Wilson says. “A pop tune is supposed to be really, really catchy. Now, regardless of the lyrics, and how easy the lyrics might be, some part… can stick in your head, and you get out of the shower, and you’re singing, ‘Friday, Friday…’ because it’s stuck in your head. That’s the whole purpose, that’s the goal of creating tunes and songs like that.”

Here we have it folks. Jason Derulo may think he’s trying to make art, to be somebody and fight for something greater, but really all he needs to do is write something that goes down in your head — and stays there.

“There is no difference whatsoever to the songs you hear on the radio today and the songs that we make. To get that radio sound, we have to go ahead and create that auto-tune to balance it out.”

And with that, Wilson might as well have said checkmate.

How can we compare “Friday” to “Only Girl (in the World)” and not come out scratching our heads? Ark Music Factory has called out the system by playing right into it. So Black has to get a bowl and cereal instead of being the only one who knows your heart. Does that make it any less fun to sing along to and make fun of? Ark Music Factory is utterly transparent in it is purposes. Wilson literally tells us how much it costs to get to be a pop star for a day. Is Rihanna any more “legit” because we don’t know how her songs are written? The next stage is, of course, Lady Gaga’s place in this debate, but I’ll leave that for another week.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Stephanie DePrez at sdeprez@nd.edu

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Culture Tantrum

Stephanie DePrez | Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Over Christmas break, I was sitting at my kitchen table, wondering about the state of the world and my place in it. Well, mostly, I was just doing the almost-but-not-yet graduated dance, wondering what I was going to do with my life. A particularly profound thought struck me that, as of May 23rd, I will no longer be under the control and guidance — and financial care — of the cash cow. I’m not referring to my parents — who I would never refer to as the cash cow, but something more refined, like the cash llama or the cash flying unicorn — but the illustrious institution that is Notre Dame.

This might seem a paradox, since Notre Dame is that glorious entity which sucks bucks from our savings accounts and parental send-my-kid-to-college pots, but in my experience, Notre Dame is a great place to get free money, also known as grants for unique study of a specific topic related to one’s major. I am —as my smattering of readers already know — a music and film/TV major. I’ve gotten grants before, so it disheartened me greatly to realize that in three months I’ll no longer be able to whip open the grant common app and develop a new project, completely funded by the woman atop the dome. Which is why I immediately texted a fellow music major and said, “Wanna go to Vienna for spring break?”

Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Schumann, Mahler, Schonberg, Webern and Berg all had some sort of massive connection to Vienna. Most are buried there. And that’s pretty much a greatest hits list of music history. So last week, three voice majors and I found ourselves sitting pretty, tight in the womb of Austrian Air, on our way to the original music city. This unique venue — my leg-roomy seat next to a fellow performance-minded Domer on an international flight — is where today’s tantrum takes place. Might I now direct your attention to the delightfully fruitful state of children’s animated film?

My musical comrade and I’s choice for in-flight entertainment was the animated Disney film, “Tangled,” which opened in 2010 and was politely ignored by most of the wider industry. I assumed it would be a pleasant little film, with voices by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi, which would only be worth my time because I didn’t really have much else to do. Instead, it was a great movie, with catchy music and truly funny moments. My friend and I were laughing out loud and smiling the whole time, except for the unpredictable climax, which had me clutching my stuffed ducky and staring intently at the little five-inch screen with the attention and devotion of someone watching Boromir’s death scene.

It was a fabulous movie, and if I had kids, I would certainly have taken them to see it. When it was over I turned to fall asleep, but my friend, visibly delighted by the film, put his headphones back on and decided to watch it again. This got me thinking — is there any movie in the past year, or past five years, that I would honestly want to watch twice in a row? Nay say I, but in that moment I did honestly contemplate joining in a second time. Why? What was it about this seemingly throwaway animated movie that made me feel so content with my entertainment?

In the past year, “Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Tangled,” all were released to strong reviews and achieved very successful box office numbers. Yet their coverage and popularity was all but drowned out by Oscar’s heavy hitters such as “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan.”

Last semester in Film Theory, our professor walked in and told us “How to Train Your Dragon” was the best film he’d seen all year. I rolled my eyes. A non-Disney animated movie? Seriously? But I saw it before Christmas, and it was, indeed, fabulous – especially the orchestral score. “Toy Story 3” is the only movie I’ve ever seen that made middle-aged men cry as hard as 13-year-old girls. And here was my friend, sitting on an airplane watching “Tangled” twice in a row. Which leads me to think — why aren’t we going to see more animated children’s movies? They are doing something right!

The Academy instituted the award for Best Animated Feature in 2001, with hopes that it would bring more prestige and attention to animated films. Unfortunately, it also pegged most animated films to a singular destiny of getting the honor of being nominated for an Oscar only to lose to Pixar’s offering of the year, as has been the case for the past four years and counting. It also means that nobody bothered to vote for “Toy Story 3” for Best Picture, since everyone knew it was getting a golden haul anyway.

So here’s my call to my collegiate cohorts: go out and watch the animated movies you planned on seeing only if it were on in your friend’s room, or if you had to take your little sister. They are worth your time, and often far more satisfying than the big-name movies hogging the marquee. I saw “Black Swan.” I was intrigued, scared and ultimately unimpressed. It doesn’t take that much to act crazy and anxious for an hour-and-a-half. It is, however, quite an accomplishment to convince someone to be swept into a fantasy world and make a bid for human dignity. Especially when you’re doing it with dragons.

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Culture Tantrum

Stephanie DePrez | Wednesday, March 9, 2011

There is no way to avoid pop music. It’s your ringtone. It’s on your iPod when you walk to class. It pumps into your bathroom while you shower. It plays constantly at Waddicks, Sbarro and in your earbuds while you study. It has become ubiquitous within the undergraduate lifestyle.

But pop songs, specifically those songs that are undeniably “popular” regardless of musical merit or your opinion, have a very detailed role within our collegiate society. Their purpose, far and wide, is to create a common touchstone of community that can be recognized and shared within any context, and the only way that happens is if the lyrics are good enough to be remembered.

Yesterday at my breakfast and coffee meeting with chums at Waddicks, one of my friends expressed deep consternation about the fact that Katy Perry’s song “Last Friday Night” is not as popular as, say, “Firework.” She was upset because, in her opinion, the lyrics of “Last Friday Night” are far more interesting.

“There’s a stranger in my bed/There’s a pounding my head/Glitter all over the room/Pink flamingos in the pool/I smell like a minibar/DJ’s passed out in the yard” are just a smattering of the lyrics my friend so passionately defended as she read them in declamatory fashion from her Blackberry.

My other friend decided to step up to defend a song he felt was far superior, “Like a G6” by … do we even care? “Poppin bottles in the ice, like a blizzard/When we drink we do it right gettin slizzard/Sippin’ sizzurp in my ride, like Three 6/Now I’m feelin’ so fly like a G6.”

His argument seemed to center on the fact that “G6” remains focused on a singular topic, whereas “Last Friday Night” is far too busy, lyrically.

I sat in not-so-silent awe, watching two of my friends share stalwart opinions as they debated the poetic merit of Perry vs. Far East Movement. The music major in me had passed incredulity and ended somewhere around mild mental engagement. This is pop music, I was thinking. Who on earth cares about the lyrics of pop music, as long as you can sing along?

This brings me to the tantrum of the day, specifically the purpose of pop music and its necessary position within our 18- to 22-year-old society. A pop song provides an isolated event that, at any given moment, can surround us with memory and community. We hear a song and think of where we first heard it, when we memorized the lyrics to it and who we were with when we were dancing to it last weekend. It causes immediate recall and emotional association, which in most cases brings up a positive correlation.

The second attribute of this banal beast is that popular music can play alongside our lives in literal soundtrack fashion. Apart from the moments we are in class, we can surround ourselves with music every second we are not asleep. When those waking moments happen in the public sphere, we are going to hear pop music and develop a relationship with it whether we want to or not.

So how does a pop song succeed in worming its way into our ears 24/7? I think all a pop song needs is a good musical hook and a dance beat. Au contraire, mes amis. As I found out, if you can’t sing along to it — and enjoy singing along to it — it’s going to fail.

I come from a camp that considers pop songs to contain the mindless dribble of half-annunciated hipster-pop slang. But apparently, I’m wrong. People listen to lyrics and care about them, no matter how bad they sound during a dry-run recitation. As displayed by the conversation I witnessed yesterday, lyrics matter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Stephanie DePrez at sdeprez@nd.edu