Thursday, August 6th, 2015

See You in September!

photo by Elisa Casas

photo by Elisa Casas

Did you ever wonder how the beatnik anti-establishment Sonny & Cher of the mid-1960s became the most popular mainstream couple in the country by the the early 1970s?  Guest columnist and Sonny & Cher expert Rich Hough shares the story of that transformation with Stargayzing in this exclusive piece.

Whatever good will Sonny & Cher had managed to sustain post-1967 wasn’t due to rock and roll credibility: Sonny had managed to squander that with a series of career moves which at once alienated the hipsters who bought records, while attracting establishment ridicule. And he wasn’t writing and producing especially good records either. Sonny’s 1968 anti-drugs PSA propaganda film (clad in the gayest gold satin outfit this side of Woodstock) would become the defining moment of “Narc Chic” for all time owing to its ridiculousness. As the self-imagined Pied Piper Of Youth Everywhere, his ambitions and politics knew no bounds. He took nobody’s counsel, as Sonny & Cher’s sure and steady slip from their 1965 peak (five records simultaneously in the Top 40) dashed industry predictions for the pair’s longevity.

Sonny and Cher, 1969

Sonny and Cher in Paris, 1969

Musical success didn’t however strike Sonny Bono as a base to be nurtured and perfected. It simply fuelled his megalomaniacal tendencies as he turned his energies to cinema — content in the knowledge that a Sonny & Cher musical (Good Times, 1967) would show both Elvis and the Beatles how it was done. Not chastened by its failure, he plowed every cent they owned into the self-written and self-produced Chastity (1969) as a vehicle for Cher The Actress – ignoring the business truism that you don’t sink your own money into your own projects unless you’re crazy. And if you’re doing R-rated cinema verité, it’s probably not a good idea to sanitize the script while shooting the picture. Another flop, it further blurred Cher’s status which lay somewhere between muse and meal ticket.

By the end of the decade, the IRS was demanding close to a quarter-million, and Sonny & Cher were broke and working Howard Johnson’s, not at the counter but in HoJo “showrooms”—playing to crowds of twenty or thirty.  In his wildly inaccurate though self-serving 1991 autobiography (and later TV movie) The Beat Goes On, Sonny succinctly sums up their 1969 career situation in drawing comparison to Tiny Tim. Failure didn’t elicit humility, self-examination or defeat in Sonny Bono – it shored up his belief that he belonged on top and he was damned sore about not being there. Feeling emasculated by their record label replacing him as producer on Cher’s 1969 3614 Jackson Highway LP, he wasn’t unhappy when that groovy album tanked despite heavy promotion, effectively ending their recording contracts. His album credit (for “spiritual guidance”) however summoned no divine intervention, they were kaput and it was everybody’s fault except Sonny’s.

[the beat goes on, after the jump]

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Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

The Science of Music: Same Old Song

THE kids these days play their music too loud and it all sounds the same. Old fogies familiar with such sentiments will be happy to hear that maths bears them out. An analysis published in Scientific Reports by Joan Serrà of the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona and his colleagues has found that music has indeed become both more homogeneous and louder over the decades.

Dr Serrà began with the basic premise that music, like language, can evolve over time, often pulled in different directions by opposing forces. Popular music especially has always prized a degree of conformity—witness the enduring popularity of cover songs and remixes—while at the same time being obsessed with the new. To untangle these factors, Dr Serrà’s team sifted through the Million Song Dataset, run jointly by Columbia University, in New York, and the Echo Nest, an American company, which contains beat-by-beat data on a million Western songs from a variety of popular genres. The researchers focussed on the primary musical qualities of pitch, timbre and loudness, which were available for nearly 0.5m songs released from 1955 to 2010.

burning mic

They found that music today relies on the same chords as music from the 1950s. Nearly all melodies are composed of ten most popular chords. They follow a similar pattern to written texts, where the most common word occurs roughly twice as often as the second most common, three times as often as the third most common, and so on, a linguistic regularity known as Zipf’s law. What has changed is how the chords are spliced into melodies. In the 1950s many of the less common chords would chime close to one another in the melodic progression. More recently, they have tended to be separated by the more pedestrian chords, leading to a loss of some of the more unusual transitions. Timbre, lent by instrument types and recording techniques, similarly shows signs of narrowing, after peaking in the mid-60s, a phenomenon Dr Serrà attributes to experimentation with electric-guitar sounds by Jimi Hendrix and the like.

What music lost in variety, it has gained in volume. Songs today are on average 9 decibels louder than half a century ago, confirming what industry types have long suspected: that record labels engage in a “loudness race” in order to catch radio listeners’ attention. Since digital audio formats max out at a certain decibel level, as the average loudness inches towards that ceiling, songs will lose dynamic range, becoming ever more uniform.

This homogeneity is not just jarring to melomaniacs. It might confuse the popular algorithms for identifying and recommending tracks, like those used by Spotify and other music services. Many of these rely on timbre measurements to sort songs into genres, for instance. Some musicians are bound to respond by confounding expectations with new sounds. Whether audiences wish to be confounded remains moot.

Reprinted from The Economist, July 26, 2012 by L.R.

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