Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.
In 1978, the Canadian rock band, Trooper, released an album called Thick as Thieves. On that album was a song called, “Raise a Little Hell”. I was fourteen years old at the time. To say that Trooper’s song catalogue played a significant impact on the soundtrack of my youth would be a massive understatement. As a teenage boy growing up on Cape Breton Island, bands like Trooper, April Wine and Boston were the soundtrack of my youth. I grew up believing that guitar-driven, arena rock was what rock n’ roll was all about. If you had been able to flip through my collection of albums during and right after my university days, you would have found plenty of Styx, Bob Seger, Tom Petty, Kansas, Journey, Foreigner and the like. There has always been something satisfying about good old three or four chord guitar music, catchy vocal hooks and good drumming. For me, that love affair all began with Trooper and their string of hits that were as strong and impressive as any in Canadian music history. Besides, “Raise a Little Hell”, Trooper could trot out “Boys in the Bright White Sports Car”, “Oh Pretty Lady”, “The Santa Maria”, “Two For The Show”, “Round, Round We Go”, “General Hand Grenade” and, of course, the classic, “We’re Here For a Good Time, Not a Long Time”. While all of their albums sold pretty well in Canada, their greatest hits collection called, Hot Shots sold in the millions, making it one of the best selling albums in Canadian music history.
But out of all of Trooper’s classic tunes, the one that tends to be remembered the most is “Raise a Little Hell”. It is the only one of their songs that made any sort of impact south of the border, becoming a Top Ten hit there. However, more importantly for Trooper, “Raise a Little Hell” has gone on to become known as being more than simply a good rock song. What has happened over time is that it has come to occupy the same sort of rarified space that a song like “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes does, making it one of the most popular and easily recognizable sports stadium hype songs in North America. In fact, a recent poll conducted by Rolling Stone Magazine rated “Raise a Little Hell” as being the seventh most popular sports song of all time. In Canada, for many years the Ottawa Senators hockey team used to play the song each time they scored a goal. It has a fist-pumping, rah-rah spirit embedded within its chords and lyrics making it a difficult song not to move along with whenever it plays. For me, the first time I heard “Raise a Little Hell” properly…by that I mean…loudly, through a good stereo…was when I stood on the main street of my hometown as a teenage boy with my friends on a Friday or Saturday night, as the cars with souped up stereos drove round and round, blasting their eight tracks or cassettes into the night sky. Those were heady times for this small town boy. I thank Trooper for helping to make me feel grown up.
Trooper began way back in the 1960s when singer Ra McGuire and guitarist Brian Smith decided to form a band. Initially, they called themselves Winter’s Green and mainly played gigs in and around Vancouver. As the 1970s dawned, the band changed their name to Applejack. It was as Applejack that early Trooper classics like “Raise a Little Hell” and “Oh, Pretty Lady” were first played in public. At one of those Applejack shows, the band was spotted by Canadian music legend Randy Bachman. He had formed a record label by this time and signed the band to a contract. Once in the fold, Applejack became known as Trooper. The lineup at the time of signing stayed fairly consistent for the next four decades! Under Randy Bachman’s initial guidance, Trooper released their debut album and headed out on the road. Over the course of their forty plus year career, Trooper were known as a band that would travel anywhere and everywhere for a gig. They even came to my neck of the woods on Cape Breton Island! As Trooper began to develop hit songs, they outgrew their relationship with Randy Bachman and signed with MCA Records. It was while with MCA during the mid to late 1970s and into the 1980s that Trooper had its greatest success. Over the course of their career, Trooper released albums that went a total of six times platinum. They have received several SOCAN Awards, which are presented to a band or artist each time one of their songs receives over 100,000 plays on Canadian radio. One of the biggest tributes Trooper has received was when their greatest hits album, Hot Shots was covered, song for song, by Canadian punk bands for a benefit album called Shot Spots. Punk legends, DOA covered “Raise a Little Hell”. SNFU covered “We’re Here For a Good Time, Not a Long Time”. You can listen to SNFU’s irreverent tribute here.
Just last year in 2021, Ra McGuire and Brian Smith decided it was time to retire. That is funny to me because I actually retired before they did (in 2018). It is really something to think that my entire teaching career was bookended by these two men and their various friends who played in Trooper. If you ever happen to find yourself in Ottawa and have some time on your hands, head on over to the National Archives. Once there, ask to see the Trooper collection. The band has generously donated much of their original lyric sheets, their financial records, posters, playbills, stage props, etc. as part of the Archives quest to accurately document the Canadian music scene in the 1960s-90s. Who knew that archivists would be so willing to “Raise a Little Hell” on their own. 🙂
Thanks to my high school pal, Allister Matheson for nominating this song. He spent just as many nights downtown while the cars shot the drag as I ever did! As always, I accept requests for just about any type of song from any genre and any era. If there is a story to tell, I will do so to the best of my ability. So, feel free to drop a few suggestions in the comment box and I will see what I can do for you. In the meantime, make the day great by listening to some great Canadian rock! Check out “Raise a Little Hell” by Trooper in the links below. Bye for now.
The link to the video for the song, “Raise a Little Hell” by Trooper can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the official website for Trooper can be found here.
The link to the official website of The National Archives of Canada can be found here.
This edition of Today’s Top 40 is filled with absolute bangers. In my opinion, each artist/band presented below is worthy of their own full post based upon the varied and interesting things they are all up to. I wanted to publicly say that I am thoroughly enjoying creating the Today’s Top 40 posts series because it is allowing me…a card-carrying Boomer…to stay in touch with the world of modern music today. There are so many talented performers out there and so many innovative ways that they are connecting with their fans. I am excited for this edition to begin so, without further delay, let me remind you that I used the following official music websites/charts to select the artists I am featuring this week: BBC Radio 1, Billboard Magazine, CHUM-FM and Indie88-FM (from Toronto), Spotify and KEXP-FM (from Seattle). For this week’s post, all artists chosen find themselves somewhere in chart positions in the 20s on their respective music charts. Enough said. Here we go!!!!!
The Arctic Monkeys have been one of the most interesting bands out of the UK for well over a decade now. They have always played a form of Alternative/Rock with a roguish charm, intelligent lyrics and lots of confidence and style. They burst out of the gates with a huge #1 hit in the UK called “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor”. In order to appreciate the magnitude of difference from how The Arctic Monkeys began their career and where they are now with their latest hit, I think it is instructive for you to take a moment and listen to their debut single here. They were a fast and furious bunch. They took the UK by storm and were always very popular there over the course of their first three or four albums. But then, The Arctic Monkeys reached a creative crossroads. Like all successful artists they started questioning their musical direction. Specifically, they started asking themselves if they wanted to continue along the musical path that had brought them so much success and would, in all likelihood continue to do so or should they follow their creative muse and head out in another direction, damn the impact on their careers.
So, a few years ago, The Arctic Monkeys left England and moved to America. Like The Beatles, David Bowie and, even U2 before them, there is something about leaving home and immersing yourself in the great myth that is America that changes you. The Arctic Monkeys began this transformation by releasing an album under the direction of a man named Josh Homme. Josh Homme is the lead singer of a loud and heavy sounding band called Queens of the Stone Age. Under Homme’s direction, The Arctic Monkeys released an album that contained fuzzy guitars and a slower, more deliberate sound. From that album came the song, “Do I Want To Know?” which was the song that caused The Arctic Monkeys to finally gain some notice in America. They played all of the late night talk shows and made a sincere effort to become more media savvy and friendly and, as a result they became a bigger draw in the US. But then, the metamorphosis continued in the form of a new album that was completely different from anything the band had done before. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino was a concept album about colonizing the moon. Lead singer Alex Turner adopted the persona of a Vegas lounge lizard. The music was Jazzy and Bluesy; nothing like the straight-ahead rock of their entire musical catalogue up until that point. The album had a polarizing effect on their fanbase in much the same way that Radiohead’s album, Kid A did a couple of decades ago for them. *(You can read about Kid A here).
This brings us to today’s latest single, “There Better Be A Mirrorball”. Fans of The Arctic Monkeys waited with bated breath to see if their favourite band would return to their classic sound or continue on meandering down their newly chosen path. “There Better Be A Mirrorball” is a slow, ballad-like song that, on the surface, plays like a break-up lament. However, it is not a break-up lament for a girlfriend who no longer loves the singer. Instead, it is more of a lament for having to let go of something that no longer seems to be working on an emotional level. That something is the band’s old sound. As you know, a mirrorball is constructed in such a way that it reflects light in a multitude of directions all at once. In this song, the mirrorball is meant to reflect the band’s emotions being sent into a thousand different directions as they move forward as they feel they must, hopeful that love and companionship will continue to be theirs. As with all things, time will tell as to whether or not this is the right move for the band in the longer term. But, there is a legacy of great bands making bold mid-career changes in direction (The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Radiohead, etc.) so, I will trust that the boys in the band know what they are doing and wish them the best in their musical journey.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
If you followed popular music at all thirty years ago then you may be aware that the song “Buffalo Stance” was a big hit for Neneh Cherry way back then. So, what in the world is the same song doing back on the charts three decades later? Well, here is the story.
In a world where Cardi B., Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion…strong, talented successful female rappers sit atop the musical mountain…Neneh Cherry is actually someone who is viewed by many as being one of the originators of the entire female rap genre. So, as the 30th anniversary of her one big hit approached, Cherry was asked to revisit her music catalogue and re-release new versions of her hits. The result is a new album called Versions. The idea behind Versions is to teach some history to today’s music fans and introduce them to a true musical innovator in the form of Cherry. Neneh Cherry is supported in this project by musical heavyweights such as Sia and Robyn *(Both artists were profiled in earlier posts that you can read here and here).
In case you don’t know Neneh Cherry’s background, here it is. She is a black singer from Sweden. As a teenager, she came to England and began a career in music and modeling. Cherry arrived just as Punk and New Wave music was starting to explode. She fell in with a hip crowd that included singer Poly Styrene and ended up touring with the highly influential female punk band, The Slits. In addition to being with The Slits, Neneh Cherry became part of an artistic collective that Malcolm McLaren dubbed, “Buffalo Girls”. Her experience being in the cool and hip “Buffalo Girls” movement led to the creation of a song called, “Buffalo Stance”, which became a Top Ten hit around the world in the 1990s. While that was going on, Neneh Cherry stepped back from the spotlight and became an ardent supporter of a new musical subgenre that was emerging called Trip Hop. Trip Hop was a jazzy, more ethereal form of Hip Hop. It was made most popular by groups such as Portishead and Massive Attack (of which guerrilla artist, Banksy is rumoured to be a member and which Cherry bankrolled their first album, Blue Lines). *(You can read about Portishead and Massive Attack here and here). In any case, very quietly (or so it seems), Neneh Cherry has lived a most interesting and impactful life. Therefore, it is not surprising that fellow female singers such as Robyn and Sia would lead the push to rehabilitate Cherry’s career and legacy in the eyes of a new generation. As a result of their efforts, we have the Robyn-assisted remix of Neneh Cherry’s hit, “Buffalo Stance” climbing the charts anew. To my ears, it still sounds as fresh and relevant as it ever did. Enjoy.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
Bailey Zimmerman is Country music’s hottest rising star. Two years ago, Zimmerman was being given his union card and was living his life as a pipefitter. As a young man, Zimmerman enjoyed the same sort of things that many young men do….girls and trucks. However, Zimmerman’s rise to the top of the charts is a very telling tale because of how he was “discovered”, as it were.
Like many young people today, Bailey Zimmerman had an interest in social media. In particular, he liked the app Tik Tok. For those who are unaware, Tik Tok encourages users to create short videos about whatever their little hearts desire. These videos often inspire viral, copy-cat style contests and, as a result, it is not uncommon for relatively unknown people to become “internet famous” based upon a Tik Tok video that they have produced and that has caught on. Most musicians today use Tik Tok as a way to market new material by releasing short teasers of upcoming songs. Anyway, for Zimmerman, he used Tik Tok to make videos about trucks that he and his family owned. Zimmerman hails from a blue collar family that has made great inroads in the trucking world. Because Zimmerman is a handsome lad, his truck videos began to gain some attention from female viewers. Because Zimmerman has a deep speaking voice, viewers began suggesting to him that he should try singing. So, Bailey Zimmerman learned to play the guitar and began posting snippets of himself singing original songs. Then, just like what happened to Justin Biber and Shawn Mendes, Bailey Zimmerman became “internet famous” as a singer. In no time at all, he was contacted by record labels and offered recording contracts. Everything happened so quickly for him that he didn’t even have an agent when all this went down. In two short years, Bailey Zimmerman has gone from a card carrying union pipefitter to playing on some of the biggest stages in America. It is all pretty heady stuff. The song “A Rock and a Hard Place” is a pretty good song that mines the usual Country subject matter of cheating hearts and broken dreams but, having said that, Zimmerman is quite photogenic and has a great singing voice. I imagine that this is just the first in a long line of hit songs to come. Enjoy.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
One of the most viral music trends in the past few years has been K-pop. K-pop is short for Korean Pop music. While “Gangnam Style” by Psy was the introduction many North American listeners had to Korean music, it was not true K-pop. That trend really started a few years ago with the boy band BTS. This boy band seemingly came out of nowhere and then, all of a sudden, their music was everywhere and their popularity soared to stratospheric levels. While BTS was exploding on to the world music scene, South Korean record executives were busy assembling a female equivalent. That all-girl K-pop band consists of four girls and is known as BlackPink.
The K-pop phenomenon is really quite something. While western audiences are familiar with the concept of manufactured boy and girl bands (such as New Kids on the Block, N’Sync, Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls), the K-pop process is at another level entirely. In South Korea, the process to become involved in a K-pop group involves years of training and a selection process that involves the entire nation of South Korea. In the specific case of BlackPink, each girl in the group was selected, one at a time, over the course of a calendar year. As each girl was selected, her selection was announced on national TV and she became an instant celebrity at the tender age of 12 or 13. One by one, the group was assembled. Each chosen girl was sequestered in a dormitory in order for her to begin rigorous training in singing, dancing and fashion. Once all four girls were chosen, their life in the dormitory became the focus of a reality-based tv show in which their lives were on display 24-7. As a result of this exposure and scrutiny, many fan sites were created which meant that these four girls were viral celebrities before having released a single record.
The song “Pink Venom” is their latest hit from their first album. The song is meant to introduce the girls as being darker and more mature than their teenybopper image might suggest. The video for this song is very slick and well-produced. It actually sounds kind of interesting because of the mix of genres at play (Jazz, Hip Hop, Pop), the mix of languages used (English and Korean), as well as the instruments used (traditional Korean instruments and modern instruments from around the world, too). The music is catchy but it is always evident that it is also highly calculated and packaged. Every close-up shot is carefully lit and perfectly staged. Every seductive bat of an eyelash is choreographed. But, just the same, the song does sound good and I am sure it will not be the last song we hear from this K-pop group called BlackPink.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
You may recall that Lil Nas X burst onto the music scene a couple of years ago with the mega hit, “Old Town Road” which he shared with Billy Ray Cyrus. I feel as though I could write an entire book about this young man because almost everything about who he is and how he came to be the man we know of today is extremely interesting to me. Let’s begin before the beginning.
Lil Nas X is a stage name. His real name is Montero Lamar Hill. He is a black man who is openly gay and yet, his foray into the world of music was into a genre known for its conservative values that can, at times, manifest themselves in the form of racism and homophobia. The Deep South is not a part of the world where gay black men tend to go to seek fame and fortune but that is what Lil Nas X did. What is instructive here is how he went about doing it. The intelligence and creativity that he showed prior to becoming a viral sensation says a lot about who Montero Lamar Hill really is and why he is becoming the public force that he is.
Like Bailey Zimmerman and like BlackPink, too, Lil Nas X harnessed the power of social media in a way that it had never been used before. In his specific case, Lil Nas X pioneered a social media technique on Twitter known as Tweetdecking. Tweetdecking is a process in which a person manages multiple accounts at the same time. In this scenario, a tweet is created by one account. That tweet is then amplified by having all of the other accounts that you control commenting and retweeting the original tweet. Thus, the original account can achieve the appearance of having gone viral without actually having attracted that much in the way of real support from real people. As you know, viral accounts shape the algorithms of what we see on our social media sites thus, tweetdecking enabled Lil Nas X to manipulate the causes that he was supporting. In his most famous case, it was in support of rapper Nicki Minaj. If this all sounds fishy to you then, your instincts are correct. Lil Nas X was punished by Twitter for using their service in that manner. However, his use of social media shows how forward thinking he was when it came to launching his own career and managing his image (which included details about his sexual orientation).
Long before Lil Nas X officially launched “Old Town Road” he was using social media to create interest in the song and in his persona. So, in the same calculating, marketed way K-pop worked, by the time “Old Town Road” hit the airwaves for real, it was already a well known song in the online world. Thus, the fact that a black, gay man was singing, what amounted to a classic country song, resembled a Pearl Harbour-esque sneak attack on those who act as gatekeepers of the genre. Lil Nas X manouvered around the traditional routes that country singers take to garner attention and crafted his own journey via social media. His fans online supported him in numbers that overwhelmed any initial opposition he may have faced. “Old Town Road” was already a hit before the folks at The Grand Ole Opry knew what hit them.
In the time since “Old Town Road” became a #1 hit that held the position for over 19 consecutive weeks, Lil Nas X has used his platform to announce publicly that he is Gay and that, to him, this is a normal thing. He believes that he and other people who identify as having a different sexual orientation than hetrosexuality, are entitled to everything in life that everyone else has…happiness, freedom of expression, legal rights, personal protection and so on. In the song, “That’s What I Want”, Lil Nas X sings openly about wanting the sexual companionship of another man. The video that accompanies this song contains explicit sexual scenes between Lil Nas X and another man than many claim to be inappropriate but, in truth, are no different from dozens of others videos that show heterosexual couples in sexual situations. To each his own, I say.
Lil Nas X is a smart young man who realizes that his path to the top will not be a traditional one. He is creative and intelligent and proud of who he is. As such, he has made more headway in his career than many would have predicted for him. These are not the easiest of times to a black man in America nor to be a gay man in America and yet, here he is…one of the most influential celebrities of his time! One thing that I respect about him is how seriously he takes his responsibilities as a role model for other black men and gay men. He was once struggling to live as he believed he should and found courage in the stories told by others such as Frank Ocean, Billy Porter and Tyler, the Creator…all three being black, gay men who became respected for their skills in Hip Hop, Soul music, comedy and theatre in ways that transcended their sexuality. Lil Nas X knows that there are other young people who feel alone and frightened and angry at how life is treating them. If he can light the path forward for anyone else then he knows he will have truly made a difference. You can’t ask for much more from life than that.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
The stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
In 1900, Frank Baum published a children’s novel entitled, The Wizard of Oz. In the century and a bit that has followed, The Wizard of Oz has gone on to become one of the most highly regarded and bestselling children’s novels of all time. By now, the characters are all fairly familiar with Dorothy and her dog, Toto arriving in Oz because of a tornado only to encounter munchkins, a scarecrow, a cowardly lion and a tin man, along with several witches and the Wizard of Oz, himself. The ruby red slippers that Dorothy finds and that the Wicked Witch of the West covets have taken their places among the most iconic movie props in Hollywood history. When Frank Baum published his book, his story was built upon a foundation of advice for children. This advice centered upon such fundamental things as always believing in yourself and staying true to your friends. But, as time has progressed, The Wizard of Oz book came to symbolize something else…something more grown up in nature. In time, adults came to realize that Frank Baum was also making a political statement with his book. That statement had to do with the nature of politics and of governing and how, as citizens, you shouldn’t always believe what you are being told by your leaders because what you are being told is not always the truth. The Wizard of Oz became a bestselling book. Then, it became an award-winning movie starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the story of Oz became a musical. This post is about that musical, which came to be called Wicked and how the appearance of truth can be deceptive, as Frank Baum had postulated over a century ago.
The musical, Wicked, is based upon a 1995 book by author Gregory Maguire called, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In his book, Maguire tells the familiar Oz story from the perspective of Elphaba (the real name of the Wicked Witch of the West). Maguire’s ability to present the story from the point of view of one of literature’s most famous villains is an important one because it allows us to understand the need for critical thinking with regard to our history and the stories about our lives that we all believe to be true. One of the great truisms regarding our civilization is that its history is written by the victors. A simple example of this in Canada is how, for so many high school students, Canadian history has come to be stories of how people like Champlain and Cartier sailed across the ocean from Europe and conquered the land now known as Canada. Not much is ever said about the perspective of the Indigenous Peoples of this land who would, not surprisingly, take a much different and dimmer view of Champlain and these other explorers and colonizers. So, it has come to be accepted that those in power get to create the narrative by which we view ourselves and those around us who share our stories. Believe me when I tell you that there are whole libraries filled with books about the impact of our cultural stories on the lives of marginalized groups in our society. For the sake of a specific example, I present the story of Wicked.
Wicked’s storyline begins before the arrival of Dorothy and Toto in the Land of Oz. It starts out with the story of a woman who has an affair during which she gleefully drinks a green elixir. Out of this romantic tryst a baby girl is born. However, she was born with green skin. Needless to say, the colour of her skin has a big impact on how she is viewed by others and how she comes to view herself. The baby girl is named Elphaba. As she grows up, she comes in contact with another girl named Galinda. Galinda is everything that Elphaba feels she is not: she is cute, she is socially popular and all of the adults seem to dote upon her. As Elphaba and Galinda grow up together, the world of politics enters their lives in the form of an organized campaign to cage and imprison animals. In the Land of Oz, many animals are endowed with human-like qualities. In Wicked, one of Elphaba’s favourite professors is a goat who, one day, informs the class that his time as their teacher is drawing to a close because of new laws being passed against animals who can speak aloud. Not long after hearing this news, Elphaba’s teacher is replaced. This new teacher starts her first lesson by parading a caged lion cub in front of the class. The lesson being given is all about power and superiority but, to Elphaba, what she sees horrifies her. In her anger, she discovers that she has the ability to cast a spell. In doing so, she is able to put everyone in her class to sleep while she frees the lion cub. But, by doing so, Elphaba comes to the attention of the headmistress of her school who agrees to instruct her in the art of sorcery. Not long after, Elphaba asks that Galinda also be given the same lessons. Elphaba does this in the hope that she and Galinda can become true friends. Galinda agrees but does not view Elphaba with gratitude. Instead, as a “thank you”, she gifts Elphaba with a pointy black hat for her to wear at a party they are all going to. When Elphaba shows up wearing her stylish new hat, she finds herself mocked and ridiculed…which is the first step toward creating her identity as a black-hatted wicked witch. In time, the headmistress tells Elphaba that she believes in her and thinks she is ready to take her concerns about animal rights to the great Wizard of Oz, himself. Elphaba is thrilled and nervous, at the same time. Upon arrival in the Wizard’s palace, Elphaba and Galinda (who has accompanied her) discover what we all know about the Wizard of Oz and that he is just a puffed up phony with no real magical powers nor legal authority. This disillusionment causes Elphaba and Galinda both to see their world differently. Elphaba dedicates herself to opposing the Wizard’s regime and becoming someone who refuses to “play by the rules” that govern her and society. Thus, she becomes a rebel.
At this stage in the musical, Idina Menzel (who played Elphaba) and Kristin Chenoweth (who plays Galinda) sing the song, “Defying Gravity”. This song is designed to be a show-stopper and is packed with many moments in which Menzel, in particular, gets to show off her vocal range. The song depicts a pivotal moment in the lives of both characters. In it, Elphaba declares herself a free person and promises to go out into the world on her own terms. She offers a seat on her broom to her “friend” Galinda but Galinda turns her down and allows Elphaba to defy gravity and fly away. This song ends Act #1. As Act #2 unfolds, we see that Glinda, the Good Witch, as she is now called, has become the public face of those in charge of the Land of Oz. Meanwhile, Elphaba has fled to the west to Munchkinland and is being called The Wicked Witch of the West by those in charge. There are love stories interwoven within this storyline and other plot developments, too. But, everything else that happens in Act #2 leads us to the climax of the story. Because you know the book, you know what happens in the end. Wicked does not alter the ending. But now, because the story of Oz has been told from a different perspective, we are left to wonder if the death of Elphaba is actually the cause for celebration that it has always been portrayed. Wicked asks us, as an audience, to revisit our preconceived ideas about what we believe to be true and re-examine if, in fact, the truth is real. Wicked leads us to question whether Elphaba was actually ever really wicked in the first place and whether her characterization as such was simply a political move by those in power to cause public opinion to sway against someone that they may have viewed as a threat. Conversely, was Glinda the Good Witch actually the good person she was always portrayed as being?
When I was still a teacher, I often led the children through a unit on Fairy Tales. I always found Fairy Tales to be a great way to introduce the elements of story writing to young children. Most Fairy Tales have well-defined beginnings, middles and ends. Most Fairy Tales have well-defined “good” and “evil” characters, too. However, a great thing used to happen as this unit moved along. As we made lists of the various characters who populated these stories, we would divide them up into charts of “good” and “evil” characters. At that point, I would help the kids describe the character traits that helped to make a character “good” or “evil”. If I did my job properly, at some point during this discussion, the kids would realize that most fairy tales are sexist as all get out. Almost all of the heroic characters are Princes and Kings. Almost all the helpless characters in need of being saved are beautiful females. Almost all of the truly nasty characters are strong women. Again, if I played my cards correctly, without having to say anything myself, one of the girls in the class would raise her hand and say, “Hey! Wait a minute!” because she was seeing these stories for what they were for the first time in her life. Because I took the kids through this unit, I always went out of my way to have books in the classroom in which some of the heroes were female (such as Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch or even Hansel and Gretel) or were Black-skinned or that had male characters in non-masculine roles and so on. Unfortunately, our world is far more complex and nuanced than many wish for it to be. But, our discomfort at having our life stories revealed to be false is no reason not to become critical thinkers. Whether it is school curriculum or the leadlines in our local newspapers, on TV or online, it behooves us to question what we are being told by those in positions of authority. As Frank Baum stated over a century ago, be a good friend to others, believe in the strength of your own character and always be willing to pull back the curtain on those in power. That’s what the Wizard of Oz was about. That’s what the musical, Wicked is about. Like it or not, that is what life is about, too.
The link to the video for the song, “Defying Gravity” from the musical, Wicked can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical, Wicked can be found here.
The stories behind great Canadian songs that mention great Canadian places.
If you are familiar at all with the history of modern music then you will know that musical innovation and change has appeared at regular intervals over the last seventy-eighty years. Here is a general overview that I paint with very broad brush strokes.
Modern Rock n’ Roll all began with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her introduction to the world of a Blues-based form of guitar rock that would be emulated by the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and others. In the 1950s and into the 60s, Rock n’ Roll became the dominant music genre with folks like Elvis Presley taking the lead. As the 1960s unfolded, musical innovation came in the form of longer songs and the use of a wider variety of instruments under the stewardship of folks like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. The 1960s gave way to psychedelic and prog rock of Early Genesis, Rush and Pink Floyd and the rock operas of The Who. In opposition to a form of music that was viewed as bloated and pompous, Punk Rock emerged and shook the world out of its complacency. As the 1970s ended and the 80s unfolded, more and more forms of musical expression came forth such as Hip Hop, New Wave, Alternative and Goth. Before we knew it, the musical landscape was a varied and exciting place indeed.
As the decade of the 1990s began, “the next big thing”, according to the music industry, came out of Seattle, Washington. The media labeled it as Grunge. Bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney and so on all burst on to the scene and raced to the top of the musical charts. These bands rose to the top in tandem with a record label that seemed to eschew traditional music industry practices and, instead, was integrated into the fabric of the very Seattle music scene, itself. That record label was known as Sub Pop. Like all emerging music scenes, the Seattle scene felt organic and true to the spirit of artistic expression. But, like all emerging music scenes, the greedy fingers of corporate rock eventually took hold and it all became a business scene. While we may never truly know what drove Nirvana lead singer, Kurt Cobain to take his own life, one of the things we do know for sure was that he was dismayed that the price tag for Nirvana’s success was having to deal with “the suits” who promoted music based upon financial considerations, first and foremost. I mention all of this because that is how the world of rock n’ rock tends to be. For every fresh-faced innovator, there are countless others sitting behind desks figuring out ways to turn that new form of magic into money. It is sad, in a way that Art and Commerce are so intrinsically intertwined but, they are.
As the Seattle Grunge scene exploded in the early 1990s, record executives scoured the planet for similar, local scenes that were quietly incubating, ready to emerge. In the UK, that saw the creation of the media-inspired sensation known as Britpop. Britpop gave us bands such as Blur, Oasis, Suede and Pulp, along with a boatload of rivalries and controversies, many of them contrived and staged. Britpop aimed to be the antithesis of the supposedly dour nature of what many perceived Grunge to be. To paraphrase Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher said when asked for his views on Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, why does it have to be all doom-and-gloom?! We’re effing rock n’ roll stars! Have a little fun, why don’t ya!? So, while Britpop attempted to answer the challenge laid down by Grunge, elsewhere in the world, record executives were scouring the rest of the world for pockets of creativity and enthusiasm. This is how a record executive from Seattle-based Sub Pop Records found themselves in, of all places, Halifax, Nova Scotia…which is where our story begins.
In the early pre-Internet 1990s, Halifax was still relatively isolated in terms of its geographic location. When bands set out on cross Canada tours, that often meant traveling from Vancouver to Montreal. Halifax was considered a smaller market so not many bands made the extra effort to travel another fifteen hours east past Montreal to get to Halifax. As a teenager who grew up on Cape Breton Island, I remember how grateful we all were to bands such as April Wine, Trooper, The Stampeders, etc., who played in our biggest centre, Sydney. Not many others did. There are pros and cons to this, as there are with all things. For Halifax, it meant that their music scene was allowed to develop in relative freedom, emerging almost whole and intact when it was finally “discovered” by Sub Pop and brought forward to the rest of the world. Of course, to anyone familiar with this scene, giving Sub Pop all of the credit for putting Halifax on the musical map is a gross oversimplification of what really happened. But, for the sake of brevity, I will start there.
The first breakthrough band from Halifax in the 1990s was Sloan. *(I profiled them in a previous post which you can read here). As Sloan became a bigger name in the Canadian music industry, they did their best to help their local music scene develop by touring with local bands as the opening act, as well as playing in as many local venues as possible in order to help create and then solidify the infrastructure of a local scene. Many bands opened for Sloan such as October Talk (in which a young Sarah McLachlan was the lead singer), Eric’s Trip (out of Moncton), Jale (an all-girl band), Hardship Post (out of NFLD) and Thrush Hermit (fronted by singer/songwriter Joel Plaskett). Of these bands, Sub Pop signed almost all of them except for Sloan, who turned them down and October Talk, because Sarah McLachlan’s parents forbid her from leaving highschool before graduation. There were many more bands, singers and personalities behind the scenes in Halifax but, when Sub Pop blew through town and signed some of the most popular bands around, it gave an air of legitimacy to an organic scene that had been developing in fits and starts over the previous decade or so. But, a funny thing happened to the Halifax Pop Explosion, as it came to be known…Sloan moved out of Halifax, settling in Toronto, Sarah McLachlan was courted by numerous labels and ended up moving to Vancouver after signing with Nettwork Records. The bands signed by Sub Pop were all invited into the world of studio recordings and business meetings and tour planning, many of them heading off to the US to do so. As it turned out, Eric’s Trip, Jale and Hardship Post…although they carved out a legendary place in Canada’s Indie music scene, they never survived their Sub Pop experience and, one after the other, they ended up breaking up. The only person who never left Halifax was Joel Plaskett. He stayed behind of his own accord. To his credit, he has gone on to enjoy a solid, successful career operating out of Halifax. To those who live there, Plaskett remaining in Halifax makes a statement that counts for something.
Joel Plaskett started recording as a teenager in Halifax. Initially, he helped form Thrush Hermit with a few friends. Thrush Hermit had a great deal of local success but, as the boys in the band finished highschool, differences in ideas for their future musical direction caused the band to split up. Joel Plaskett then regrouped with some other local players, becoming the Joel Plaskett Emergency. In that band or as a solo artist, Joel Plaskett has made a name for himself as a songwriter of note in Canada. He has won several Juno awards for his music including a number of awards for his biggest selling single, “Nowhere With You”. Plaskett often includes references to local places in his songs. In “Nowhere With You”, he begins with a reference to riding on the Dartmouth ferry. For anyone unaware, Halifax has one of the best harbours on the eastern seaboard of North America. On the south side of the harbour rests the city of Halifax. On the north side of the harbour sits the city of Dartmouth. There are two big bridges that allow people to travel back and forth between Halifax and Dartmouth by car. But for many, the most convenient way to get from one side to the other is by ferry. The Dartmouth ferry is a low-cost service and, as such it allows people of all socio-economic brackets to make use of it. Thus, in “Nowhere With You”, Plaskett taps into a scenario familiar to many young people just starting out in the world, with only a few dollars in their pockets. The practice of “bumming around”, as Plaskett calls it, is a rite of passage for most teenagers. Exploring the world on a pauper’s budget was a factor in the development of the Halifax music scene, as it is with most organic music scenes around the world. Music scenes tend to develop out of the public eye, in small clubs and bars, growing by word of mouth by those with small budgets to live by and all the time in the world to do the living. In “Nowhere With You”, Joel Plaskett captures the freedom inherent in having all the time in the world and no financial constraints limiting your actions and your decision-making process. As such, the song stands as a shining example of a moment in Canadian musical history when Halifax was “the next big thing”.
Of course, claiming that Halifax’s moment in the spotlight is unique is stretching the truth a bit. All major regional centres in Canada can claim their own form of an organically-created and supported music scene. Toronto has had multiple eras where their scene was the most happening in the land. Montreal has always had an interestingly unique and vibrant music scene. Vancouver has produced some of Canada’s best music because of the geography of their location which is similar in many ways to that of Halifax. Winnipeg has had a scene. Alberta has had their own scene. On and on it goes. Music scenes come and music scenes go. What is most important is the music itself. For me, music isn’t about record sales, internet streams or Spotify downloads. For me, music is about sharing stories and building a sense of community. It is creativity and energy and escape. I have always been an Art-before-Commerce kind of guy. Because of that, it puts me in the initial phases on the developmental spectrum of local music scenes. I have always championed bands before they break out into the big time. That having been said, I have no beef for those who get “discovered” and decide to go for it by signing with a major label. I still like Nirvana and respect them as a band. I still love Sloan and respect them as a band. As John Mellencamp once sang, “I’m still hayseed enough to say, “Look who’s in the big town”. But, for those who stay true to the roots of their local music scene and continue to thrive, I have an extra amount of respect and admiration. So, to Joel Plaskett, I salute you, sir! Thanks for growing up in Halifax and believing that all of the beauty you require can be found along its shores.
The link to the video for the song, “Nowhere With You” by Joel Plaskett Emergency can be found here. ***The link to the lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the official website for Joel Plaskett can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Halifax Regional Municipality (of which Dartmouth is a member) can be found here.
The stories behind the world’s great classical compositions.
Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4 or, as it is better known as “Brahms’ Lullaby”, is a composition that was created by the great German composer Johannes Brahms. Brahms is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time and is often included in a trio called “the three Bs”…Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. The story behind his most beloved and well known work….”Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” is a tale that is partially a product of the history of the times in which it was written (the mid 1800s), partially a product of how Brahms was trained in music as a child prodigy and finally, it is partially the product of how Brahms viewed women and how those views impacted his relationships with them all throughout his life. “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No 4” is easily one of the most famous pieces of music the world has ever heard. It is known everywhere on the planet. The singing of it between parent and child is a universal sign of deep love between the two. However, there is a story to be told of how this lullaby came to be. It is a story that, once told, will change the way you sing and/or listen to Brahms Lullaby. So, sit back and relax and get ready for the story of the most famous lullaby ever created.
First of all, let’s talk about the title of this composition. In German, any composition that has “lied” on the end refers to a piece of music in which poetry/spoken word and music are being combined in an artistic manner. *(“Lied” rhymes with the English word, “seed”). The German word, “wiegen” roughly translates as “cradle”. Thus, the title “Wiegenlied” can be translated as “Cradle song”. Now that we have that out of the way, Brahms’ “cradle song” was written as a lullaby. In classical music, a lullaby is a genre of composition and, as such there are rules about how it is constructed and the emotions it conveys. This brings us to Brahms and the influence of how he was trained as a musician. When Brahms was a much younger man, he preferred composing music as opposed to performing it in public. However, many of his early compositions were viewed as possessing much potential but also possessing many correctable structural errors. So, when Brahms was tutored by seasoned classical composers, he was given a thorough grounding in the “proper” traditional structure of classical music as laid down by some of the early giants in the field such as Franz Listz and Josef Haydn. Johannes Brahms took to his lessons and quickly gained a reputation for creating works that were structurally sound but that used that solid musical structure in new and original ways. Thus, when it came time for Brahms to create his famous lullaby, he followed the traditional format of the genre but, true to his level of genius, he added a personal twist that elevated it into the realm of one of the all-time great classical works ever created.
The traditional format of a lullaby is that it has two halves and that each half expresses a deeply held but differing emotion. During the mid 1800s when Brahms wrote “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4”, lullabies were written primarily for females to sing. The reason for that was simply because the social mores of the time saw women as being the primary caregivers when it came to raising children. Thus, his lullaby was written for the female voice. In sticking to the traditional format for a lullaby, Brahms wrote the opening lines as an expression of love between a mother and her child.
Good evening. Good night.
With roses covered
With cloves adorned,
Slips under the covers.
The opening verse then concludes with the second half of this emotional exchange…the one that is filled with anxiety and fear.
Tomorrow morning, if God wills
You will wake once again.
When it comes to bedtime for babies, it was no different two hundred years ago than it is today in the sense that children need their sleep and mothers need their own restful time. However, what made it a much dicier and more precarious proposition back then was that the rates of infant mortality were much, much higher then than they are today. Back then, it was actually fairly common for babies to not wake up in the morning. So, for many mothers, the act of putting a child to bed at night also created a sense of danger. This meant that the act of singing a lullaby could possibly be the very last thing that many mothers would ever get to do with her baby. This emotion was revisited, night after night, for many months until the health of the baby became unquestioned.
The same sense of dread can be witnessed in the words of the famous children’s prayer, as can the format that sees the first half of the prayer being filled with love and the second half with anxiety:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
So, Johannes Brahms wrote “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” for the female voice because it was traditionally mothers who saw to the bedtime routines of their children. He followed the structural format of compositions written in the lullaby genre. But, because he was known for using tradition as a springboard to creative innovation, here is the part of the story in which the creation of a children’s lullaby becomes a love story for the ages. It is a story that draws upon Brahms’ view of women in society and is based upon how he interacted with the important women in his life as a child/teenager.
Johannes Brahms grew up in a house that featured a mother and a father and two other siblings. From everything I have read, he was raised and cared for properly, wanting for nothing out of the ordinary. However, one thing that was clear about his childhood family home was that his mother and father were not truly in love with each other. Theirs was a platonic marriage. Some would even go so far as to deem it a loveless marriage. So, for much of his formative years, Brahms grew up never seeing his parents engage in affectionate behaviour of any kind. Consequently, he grew up believing that all women were reserved and stand-offish. That was until his early teens when he was hired to play the piano in what turned out to be a brothel. The brothel was billed as a theatre so Brahms’ parents had agreed to allow him to perform there because they assumed it would be before the usual music loving audience. However, instead of being on a stage before an adoring crowd, Johannes Brahms found himself beside a stage while women danced for the pleasure of a male audience. In time, the dancers at the brothel took to their innocent young pianist and began to shower him with good natured affection. Their affection was so completely different from how Brahms had watched his mother interact with his father that he didn’t really know how to respond. Thus, as Brahms grew into adulthood, he did so believing that women were either emotionally cold and reclusive or else, very promiscuous. In short, Brahms was confused when it came time for his own first serious relationship.
That happened in his early twenties. He had begun composing cantatas for ensemble singing. In one of the choirs he was training, there stood a mezzo-soprano singer named Bertha Faber. In time, Bertha and Johannes began a friendship that extended beyond the confines of their choir practices. The two would share long walks and friendly dinners in public cafes. Soon, the sense arose that, perhaps, this could be more than simple companionship. But because Brahms didn’t really know how to go about exploring his feelings, Bertha took charge. On these walks she began finding quiet moments where they would stop and she would sing directly to him. One of the songs that she would sing was called “S’ Is Anderscht”. Here is where the story takes a magical turn. When you listen to “S’ is Anderscht”, you may detect some of the same notes and chords that are also present in Brahms’ Lullaby. That is no accident. Here is what happened. Even though Johannes Brahms felt genuine affection for Bertha Faber, his fear of commitment (based upon his parent’s chilly marriage) caused him to decide to break off their relationship after a number of years. Heartbroken, Brahms buried himself in his music. Faber, after a few years, met a new man and became married to him. A year or so after that, she gave birth to a son and then, a year later, was pregnant and about to give birth to a second child. It was while pregnant with her second child that Bertha was spotted by Brahms one day out in a public square. The sight of her instantly rekindled his feelings for her. They met and talked. Bertha brought him up to speed on the status of her life which, of course, included the fact that she was now married and was unavailable to Brahms. They parted shortly thereafter. They didn’t see each other again until one day just before she was to give birth. Brahms appeared before her with the completed lullaby in hand. What was special about this, beyond the fact that it was a thoughtful gesture, was that Brahms had taken the musical structure of the song Bertha used to sing to him when they were courting (“S’ Is Anderscht”) and embedded it within the musical structure of “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” as a counter-melody. In this way, whenever Bertha sang the lullaby to her new son, she would be singing parts of the love song she once sang for Johannes Brahms back when they were young and in love. To place a cherry firmly on the top of the sundae that is this love story, when Bertha gave birth to her new son, she insisted he be called, “Johannes”.
So now, whenever you hear that well known melody that denotes the world’s most famous lullaby, I hope that you will hear it and feel it differently. “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No.4” is a musical composition that was built upon a foundation of the love that existed between a mother and her child, as well as the love that can exist between two soulmates. Brahms’ Lullaby is one of the world’s most popular pieces of music for a reason. That reason is love.
The link to the video for the composition, “Wiegenlied Op. 49, No. 4” can be found here.
The link to the video that explains the love story between Johannes Brahms and Bertha Faber better than I am able to can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Johannes Brahms Museum can be found here.
The link to classical music radio station, Classical 103.1, found right here in my very own hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.
***The header photo shows the beautiful city of Hamburg, Germany. This is where Johannes Brahms was born and where he fell in love with Bertha Faber. The link to the official website for the city of Hamburg, Germany can be found here.
“Old Man” is Neil Young’s second biggest selling single of his career, trailing only “Heart of Gold” *(which you can read about here). Both of these classic songs, along with “Needle and the Damage Done” were all on the track list of his highly successful fourth solo album called, Harvest. Harvest was released fifty years ago and was the biggest selling album of the year in America in 1972. The funny thing about that bit of success is that it made Neil Young completely uncomfortable. In his mind, mainstream success was going to mean a career spent, as he put it, in the “middle of the road” whereas he always claims to feel more comfortable “in the ditch”. So, the Harvest album was Young’s last big radio-friendly album for quite a few years. But like it or not, history has smiled kindly upon Harvest and, in particular, the big three singles that emerged from it. Many music critics consider it to be one of the top 100 albums of all time. In Canada, it was ranked as the #1 Canadian album ever!
As much as Neil Young presents an image of being a contrarian and a curmudgeonly person, the fact of the matter is that he is a pro’s pro when it comes to his music. The story behind the songs that became Harvest is that while on tour in 1971, Young was workshopping many of those songs in with his roster of established songs. Many artists do this as a way of working out any kinks a song may have, seeing how audiences react to the lyrics or the musical structure and so on. So, as luck would have it, one day Neil Young was asked to appear in Nashville on the set of a television show hosted by Johnny Cash. The producer of that show was a man named Elliott Mazar. Mazar was about to open a new recording studio called Quadrafonic Studios. He asked Young if he would like to record something there someday. Young replied that he had an album’s worth of songs at the ready and would be willing to record them that very night if Mazar could arrange for some professional session players to show up and help out. Mazar found some musicians on very short notice. Meanwhile, Neil Young did his bit and performed on the Johnny Cash Show with fellow musical guests, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. When taping was over, Young mentioned to Taylor and Ronstadt that he was going into Elliott Mazar’s new studio that night and asked if they were interested in singing back-up for him. They agreed. Not only that, James Taylor even laid down some tracks on which he played a hybrid banjo-guitar that Neil Young had created. The recording sessions went on through the night. By sunrise, “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” were mostly complete. A few tweaks happened in later sessions with audio technician-types but, for the most part, the Harvest album’s biggest songs were all recorded in one night.
The song, “Old Man” was written by Young based upon a conversation he had with a man named Louis Avila. At the age of just 25 years, Neil Young had already had enough musical success to be able to afford to buy his own ranch in California called The Broken Arrow Ranch. Because the ranch was 100s of acres in size, Young inherited a maintenance staff that included a groundskeeper named Louis Avila. Avila was twice as old as Young when Neil Young first showed up at the ranch as the new owner. He and Avila toured the grounds and, as they did, they talked about life. Avila, who had worked with his hands his entire life, looked at Young and attempted to size him up by asking how it was that he had been able to afford such a large property at such a young age. Neil Young replied that it was probably just dumb luck. Louis Avila probably thought so at first as well but, after getting to know Neil Young better, Avila came to respect him as a hard working and principled man. In reply, Neil Young wrote “Old Man” about Avila.
“Old Man” by Neil Young was written fifty years ago but, to my mind, it still sounds just as good and just as fresh today. I guess that type of staying power is one of the hallmarks of a well-written song. I am happy that this song was nominated for inclusion in the Reader’s Choice series. Just a reminder to all who are reading these words, I do take requests. If you have a favourite song or songs that you feel would lend themselves well to the type of storytelling I like to do then, by all means, send your requests in to me. I consider song requests from all eras and from all genres of music. Everything is on the table. So, send me your lists and I will tell you a story. That is what Reader’s Choice is all about.
The link to the video for the song, “Old Man” by Neil Young can be found here.
The link to the official website for Neil Young can be found here.
The link to the video for the episode of The Johnny Cash Show in which Neil Young appeared can be found here. He is introduced by Cash and then sings “Needle and the Damage Done” which was about a musician friend of his named Danny Whitten.
As usual, I have consulted the following music charts to help me compile the songs in today’s post: BBC Radio 1, CHUM-FM and Indie88-FM (from Toronto), Spotify, Billboard Magazine and radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle, Washington. In this week’s post, I looked at songs found in the #1 position on each chart. So, let’s stop with the prelims and get to the main event! Here are the songs in Today’s Top 40.
This song is debuting on the charts at #1! It is not very often that a song does this. In doing so, Nicki Minaj has knocked Harry Styles, Lizzo and Beyonce all down a notch or two on the charts. Needless to say, there is a lot of buzz about Minaj and her return to the world of music. She had taken some time off because she became a mother just as the pandemic was starting. But she is back in a big way with “Super Freaky Girl”. For those who may not know, Nicki Minaj is highly regarded in the world of Hip Hop music. There are many who call her the “Queen of Hip Hop”. It is a title that is well-earned. Minaj has made quite the career for herself, with hit after hit, selling over 100 million albums in a genre of music that is typically known for male performers. One of the ways she has managed to make herself heard above the masculine din is because of the utter and unwavering sense of self-confidence she projects. Whenever she performs, she exudes power and strength. Thus, it is no surprise that she would mark her return to the music world with a song like “Super Freaky Girl”.
In order to set the musical tone for “Super Freaky Girl”, Minaj freely samples from the classic Rick James funk song, “Super Freak”. In addition to using a throbbing baseline, “Super Freaky Girl” hangs its musical hat upon the GOAT-mentality that shines throughout the lyrics. Let me be clear about the lyrics, they are extremely profane and sexually explicit. My age must be showing because, for the life of me, I cannot imagine this song being played during the morning drive time on any radio station. It is a filthy song…which, in turn, is used as a badge of honour. I won’t repeat the lyrical content in this post but, rest assured, if I sat down next to someone in a restaurant or other public venue who was talking aloud like Minaj sings in this song, I would move away. For me, I have no sexual interest in any woman beyond my wife so, when it comes to someone like Nicki Minaj, her sexual forwardness has no impact on me. In the end, all that is left for me is her music. To my mind, I don’t care for it. This is in addition to criticisms that she is using her position of influence to breathe new life into the career of a convicted sexual predator like Rick James.
However, there is no denying that she is a powerful female presence in a genre where strong women are not that easy to find. I wish her luck and am curious to see how “Super Freaky Girl” gets played on public radio. I know that there are “explicit” and “clean” versions of some songs but, in the case of “Super Freaky Girl” by Nicki Minaj, if you take away the explicitness of the lyrics, I am not sure there would actually be anything left except a constant series of bleeps. Maybe this is just me talking. What do you think of “Super Freaky Girl” by Nicki Minaj?
It is the #1 listed song in the US as you read these words.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
Sigh! I feel old as I listen to yet, another new song by a female Hip Hop singer that is cloaked in profane expletives and sexual explicit lyrics. “Big Energy” is the sanitized-for-public-consumption title of this song. The real title is “Big D*ck Energy”. Latto is the former winner of a reality show in the US for aspiring Hip Hop artists. At the time of the competition, she went by Miss Mulatto. Then, she shortened her name to simply, Mulatto. Now she goes by Latto. The “Big D*ck Energy” she sings about is meant to refer to self-confidence and swagger. Latto states that many men exude this privileged air on a daily basis but that it is more difficult for women to do the same and not be labeled in some negative manner. So, she sings about sexual confidence and the fact that the men surrounding her need to up their game in order to earn her attention and affection. The lyrics to this song are very explicit, almost as if Latto is daring the music industry to censor her words and prove her point. Again, whether the singer is male or female, I am not generally a fan of songs built on a foundation of locker room talk. That may just be me. To some, having a woman speak boldly about her prowess in the bedroom is the height of feminism because she is claiming ownership of her body and how she uses it. Admittedly, there is power in that. As with Nicki Minaj and “Super Freaky Girl”, I will enjoy seeing how ”Big Energy”, in all of its frank sexual talk, appears on the public airwaves.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
Like too many young women, Sharon Van Etten found herself in an abusive relationship. She entered that relationship as someone with aspirations of becoming a singer/songwriter. However, as part of the abuse she endured, she was not allowed to sing, write nor to attend public music concerts by her partner. Eventually, Van Etten summoned the courage to leave and strike out on her own. She is now five albums into a journey that began with her simple desire to have her voice heard. I first became aware of Sharon Van Etten because of a standout performance she gave at the Glastonbury Music Festival in 2019. The performance was of a song of hers called, “Seventeen” which is basically a song written in the form of a letter to her younger self. *(You can watch that performance here). Like many performers, the pandemic sidelined her career for a while but now she is back with a brand new album called We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong. The first single from this album is a song called “Mistakes”. The performance you will see in the video is from a recent appearance on the Late Night With Stephen Colbert Show. Van Etten recently performed at Massey Hall in Toronto. From all reports, she was excellent.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
LF System is the name of a DJ duo from Scotland composed of Connor Larkman and Sean Finnigan. They are known for producing House music, which is a style of electronic dance music in which song lyrics are sampled and used in rhythmic, pulsating ways that drive an emotional response in those who are listening. In the specific case of the song, “Afraid To Feel”, Larkman and Finnigan sampled liberally from a 1979 song by Silk that was called “I Can’t Stop (Turning You On)”. *(You can listen to Silk here). In this sample, Deborah Harry from Blondie lends vocal assistance during the chorus. What Larkman and Finnigan did was to play around with the samples in ways that caused them to sound soulful, at times and, at other times more like a Disco vibe. All in all, “Afraid To Feel” has a good beat and is easy to dance to as they used to say on American Bandstand. It is definitely a song that will get your toes a-tapping. Enjoy.
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
“I Ain’t Worried” is the second single to be released from the soundtrack of the Top Gun movie sequel. *(The first song was “Hold My Hand” by Lady Gaga. It was reviewed in a previous post that you can read here). The story behind “I Ain’t Worried” is that Top Gun star Tom Cruise was heavily involved in compiling the music that was to be used throughout the movie. For one particular scene that was being shot on a beach, Cruise went searching for music that would lighten the mood of the film and lessen the tension from all of the action and danger being portrayed on screen. The band, One Republic were made aware of his desire for a “fun, carefree song” and set about creating an original song for the film. Their record label submitted “I Ain’t Worried” to Cruise for his consideration. He loved it and thought it captured the essence of that particular scene perfectly. When you watch the official video for this song, you will see it used as Tom Cruise had envisioned it in the movie. For those interested, One Republic has been around for over a decade now. They had a huge hit a few years ago called “Counting Stars” which was a favourite of my own family for a while. You can listen to “Counting Stars” here).
***The link to the lyrics version of this song can be found here.
Sloan have been one of Canada’s premier Alternative/Indie bands for over three decades now. They formed in Halifax in the early 1990s and quickly became one of the most loved bands in the country. They had a string of hits including “Underwhelmed”, “Coax Me”, “The Good in Everyone”, “Money City Maniacs” and many more. One of the funny things about Sloan is that, despite their success, they are still relatively unknown outside of Alternative music circles. For instance, in a household like mine that is filled with Pop music lovers, I am reasonably confident that I am the only one who has ever heard a Sloan song before. They are under-rated only in the sense that their songs are not written in a Pop formula and therefore don’t usually end up in the rotations of many Top 40 radio stations. But make no mistake, Sloan have been bringing it for many years now and are easily one of the most respected bands in all of Canada.
Which brings me to today’s song, “Scratch the Surface”. The term “to scratch the surface” usually refers to someone or something that has only just begun to realize their potential. The term indicates that only a small amount of what is possible has been shown and that there is much more waiting to be discovered. In a funny way, “Scratch the Surface” perfectly encapsulates Sloan’s career. After taking a brief hiatus for a few years, Sloan reformed, moved from Halifax to Toronto and released a new album. The video for “Scratch the Surface” shows Toronto at its glitziest, all the while the various members of Sloan (Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Jay Ferguson and Andrew Scott) walk around the city unnoticed by the public. The band pokes fun at itself and at its position in the social media landscape all throughout this video. My favourite part of the video (among many parts that I liked) was Jay Ferguson riding a bicycle through a park and discovering a box of records that were being thrown away. Needless to say, as he flips through the stack, many of the records relate to Sloan and/or to bands and singers who influenced them). The video displays a sense of humour and intelligence that has always been a hallmark of the songs Sloan produces. Sloan definitely has a trademark “sound” and “Scratch the Surface” fits seamlessly into their musical catalogue. Enjoy.
***Unfortunately, the link to the lyrics video for this song cannot be found here. So, in its place, here is one of my favourite Sloan moments…”Coax Me” with the folks from Choir, Choir, Choir. Enjoy.
The stories behind the greatest songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
Juno is a terrific movie. However, you needn’t take my word for that. Juno was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it lost to No Country For Old Men …no shame in that), Best Actress (*Elliot Page), Best Writing and Best Original Screenplay (which it won). The movie ended up in the Top Ten year end lists of over forty different magazines and entertainment websites for 2007. The soundtrack for Juno went to #1, making it the first movie soundtrack to do that since the soundtrack to the film Dreamgirls made it all the way to the top a few years earlier. Yet, despite all of the accolades and accomplishments that Juno has earned along the way there is still the very clear sense that Juno is somewhat of an under-rated movie. If you get that sense as well, then that would make the producers and stars of Juno happy because making a movie with big ideals that played like a small budget Indie flick was exactly what they were going for. Here is the story of how they did it and why the song “Anyone Else But You” by Kimya Dawson is the perfect symbol for Juno’s success.
Juno was directed by Canadian Jason Reitman. It starred Canadian actors Elliott Page and Michael Cera. The movie was filmed on location in Vancouver. For all intents and purposes, Juno is a Canadian movie. Not surprisingly, Juno looks like a Canadian movie. If you have watched any number of Canadian movies such as The Sweet Hereafter starring Sarah Polley, Margaret’s Museum starring Helena Bonham Carter or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz starring Richard Dreyfuss you will know that it is fair to say that Canadian movies have a well-earned reputation for focussing on character and language and nuance, rather than big time special effects and flashy cinematography. Juno maintains that tradition very well. It is all about the tremendous acting performances of its cast (that also included Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons) and the razor-sharp writing of award-winning playwright Diablo Cody. Juno is a movie lover’s movie and to this day is lauded for the warmth of its storyline and the realistic “feel” of the emotions at play throughout the story.
The plot of Juno is fairly simple. It involves two teens that may or may not be in a relationship having a sexual encounter that results in an unplanned pregnancy. The whole movie pivots upon Page’s character and how the issue of being pregnant in high school is dealt with. One of the things about Juno that resonates highly with most viewers is how down-to-earth the characters all seem to be and how realistically the plot unfolds. Without giving away the ending of the movie, the most important part of the story is that Page’s character is the one who gathers all of the necessary information needed to make a big personal decision and is supported all the way by those surrounding him. It is Page’s character who, in the end, decides to keep the baby and raise it as his own/have the baby and put it up for adoption/have an abortion….you’ll have to watch the movie to see which of those choices is the one Page went with. But, the point is that the person who is pregnant gets to call the shots. All throughout the movie, it is made to seem normal that the pregnant person would be the one in charge of all aspects of this experience. To some viewers, that this is the case plays as something revolutionary in terms of feminist characters on screen. However, in Juno, there are no grand speeches from any soapboxes or pulpits. In the end, it all seems like a very real situation being handled by very real, flawed, ordinary everyday people who each have the others’ best interests at heart.
One of the ways that director Jason Reitman managed to create such a mood was through the judicious use of music. While several big name artists appear on the Juno soundtrack, such as The Kinks and Sonic Youth, the main contributor to the soundtrack is a person named Kimya Dawson. Dawson is one half of a musical duo called The Moldy Peaches. The Moldy Peaches are now defunct, but, in the early 2000s, they had carved quite a reputation for themselves as an anti-Folk Folk duo. Much of the acclaim heaped upon The Moldy Peaches in Indie circles was the result of Dawson’s quirky singing style. To say that Kimya Dawson is an unpolished singer is not an insult. In fact, it had become The Moldy Peaches’ calling card. So, when Jason Reitman was searching for the right musical tone for his simple, small movie, he thought of Dawson. Kimya Dawson submitted over 200 songs for Reitman’s consideration. Reitman picked almost a half dozen. Of those songs, the one entitled “Anyone Else But You” is the one that really sets the tone for the film. There are two versions of “Anyone Else But You”…one that Dawson sings in her typical awkward manner and one that appears in the movie with Page and Cera singing to each other. The version with Cera and Page was released as a single from the soundtrack and made it into the Top Ten, selling several million copies along the way. Kimya Dawson’s version garnered lots of attention by association and has gone on to be her best selling single by far. Overall, the song is quirky and humble and simple and filled with meaning because it seems to come straight from the heart…just like the storyline to Juno does, as well.
Below, I will give you links to both versions of “Anyone Else But You” so that you can enjoy both ways the song is presented. I will also give you a link to the movie trailer. If you have not watched Juno, then I suggest watching the trailer first in order to give you a sense of why the song works so well. Furthermore, if you haven’t watched Juno yet then consider this post your invitation to do so. It is a sweet, sweet movie that possesses some of the best writing and acting you are ever going to see. I highly recommend it! If you have seen the movie, then by all means, share your opinion of it in the comment box below. I look forward to reading what you have to say.
The link to the video for the movie trailer for the film “Juno” can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Anyone Else But You” as used in the film “Juno” can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Anyone Else But You” by Kimya Dawson can be found here. ***The lyric version of the song can be found here.
The stories behind great Canadian songs about great Canadian places and events.
At 6:30 a.m. on a January morning in 1969, Saskatoon nursing student Gail Miller stepped out into the bone-chilling -40 degree winter air as she set out for her shift at the hospital. The bus stop was two blocks from her apartment. So, Miller wrapped herself up warmly, tucked her head down into her chest and took the shortest route possible to the bus stop through a well-traveled alleyway one block from home. Several hours later, her lifeless body was found in that alleyway. Miller had been sexually assaulted, stabbed over a dozen times and left to silently bleed out into the snow. It would take the Canadian justice system over three decades to determine that Gail Miller was killed by a serial rapist for the crime of walking while female. At the time, the investigation into her death would set off a chain reaction of events that would impact the lives of many people, including one man who holds the infamous record for the longest length of time served due to a wrongful criminal conviction, and one of Canada’s most famous bands, who would write a hit song based on this event and how it forever linked the cities of Saskatoon and Winnipeg together. That man was David Milgaard. The band was the Tragically Hip and the song was called “Wheat Kings”.
As Gail Miller was taking her final breaths in that alleyway in Saskatoon, a few blocks away, three teenagers from Winnipeg were having a rough start to their morning as well. While their problems were nothing compared to what Gail Miller was experiencing, the trio were nonetheless not happy. They had left Winnipeg a few days ago to escape what they perceived was the restrictive nature of having to follow family rules and the lack of opportunities for fun that Winnipeg presented to them. The three teens were David Milgaard, Ron Wilson and Nichol John. On that cold January morning, they discovered one of the facts of life on the Prairies in winter…their car would not start because of the cold. Being rambunctious teens, they were not quiet about their troubles, cursing loudly and trying the engine over and over again. At such an early time in the morning, their actions annoyed those locals in nearby homes who were attempting to sleep. After failing to start the car, the trio broke off and headed in different directions in search of someone who could give their car a boost.
When Saskatoon police arrived at Gail Miller’s crime scene a few hours into the morning, they quickly found evidence of blood, semen and pubic hair at, on and around her dead body. They managed to even locate a bloody paring knife that was shoved underneath her body by her killer. If such a crime had happened today, police would, no doubt, take the samples of semen and blood and perform a DNA analysis on it. They would then interview various suspects and take a DNA sample from them. This would allow them to compare the DNA found at the murder scene with that of each suspect. Hopefully, this would result in a match and the killer’s identity would have revealed itself. However, in 1969, DNA technology did not exist. Consequently, Saskatoon police bagged their evidence and then proceeded to do some old-fashioned investigative work by knocking on the doors of those who lived in the vicinity of the alleyway in which Gail Miller was murdered. When the police interviewed those who lived nearby, many spoke of a group of young people who were making a lot of noise at that early hour of the morning. They gave descriptions of the three youths to police who, in turn, put out an All Points Bulletin (an APB) across Canada to see if anyone had seen the trio since that January morning. As it turned out, David Milgaard had made it all the way to British Columbia by the time the APB was broadcast on the local television news. He had been completely unaware that anything as grisly as a murder had happened while he and his friends were looking for help with their car. But Milgaard knew from the news reports that he and his friends were considered suspects so he turned himself in to the local BC police so that he could clear his name and help Saskatoon police eliminate him as a suspect so they could focus on catching the real killer. Unbeknownst to Milgaard, it was to be the beginning of a thirty plus year odyssey to clear his name.
As one can imagine, the death of Gail Miller shocked the community of Saskatoon. Pressure mounted quickly to find her killer so that residents could go back to feeling safe in their homes and neighbourhoods. When Milgaard turned himself in, he quickly identified Wilson and John as his traveling companions that day so they were quickly rounded up as well. Because the police were under great public pressure, they applied a lot of force upon the three teenagers during interrogation. When it became clear that it was Milgaard who had walked off for help that morning in the direction where Miller’s body lay, the focus of the interrogations turned to pinning the blame on him. Even though neither Wilson nor John believed that their friend had anything to do with the murder, they both ended up giving statements to the police that pointed the finger of blame at Milgaard. So much so that he was officially charged with Gail Miller’s murder and held in custody to await trial. At that trial, Wilson and John repeated their false statements. Neighbours testified that they saw Milgaard heading toward the alleyway and that he was upset and cursing loudly. Milgaard never testified in his own defense. He was charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. The Saskatoon police crowed about how quickly they had found their man. Gail Miller’s family expressed their gratitude for such expeditious efforts. The city of Saskatoon breathed a sigh of relief. The world continued to turn. David Milgaard began to serve his time in prison.
From the very first moment that he arrived in his cell, David Milgaard protested his innocence. Over the next thirty years, Milgaard and his family would write countless letters to lawyers, politicians, news reporters…anyone who they thought would help to reopen the investigation. Even though David Milgaard was a rebellious teenager, his mother knew (as mothers do) that he was not a violent young man. She became the public symbol of his protest, even going so far as to approach then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at a campaign event to plead her son’s case. He referred her to Justice Minister Kim Campbell who, in turn, launched an investigation which ended up claiming that Milgaard had been given a fair trial and there was nothing she could do. Milgaard’s appeal ended up all the way in the Supreme Court of Canada. But, he lost that case, too, as the Justices only looked to see whether or not there had been any procedural missteps along the way during the trial. There were not. So, Milgaard’s appeal was denied. One of the things that ended up tipping the scales of justice in Milgaard’s favour was an investigative journalism show on the CBC called “The FIfth Estate”. It was on this show that Milgaard’s case was given its first real public airing. The investigation done throughout this show indicated that there was plenty of reason to believe that Gail Miller’s killer was still at large and that the wrong man was languishing in prison. As this show was airing, the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip were putting on a show in Winnipeg. David Milgaard’s mother asked for a meeting with the band to tell them her story. The Hip granted her a meeting and listened to her tell MIlgaard’s life story. Lead singer Gord Downie would leave that meeting with the inspiration to write a song about Milgaard and about the faith and love he felt from Milgaard’s mother that day. He also wanted to talk a bit about the history of the places that were connected in this story. Consequently, the song “Wheat Kings” opens with two lines that draw from the history of this part of Canada and which bind Winnipeg and Saskatoon together:
“Sundown on the Paris of the prairies,
Wheat kings, all their treasures buried.”
Let’s take the opening line first. Waaaaay back when the Hudson’s Bay Company was leading the westward expansion into the wilds of Canada, land agents were charged with the task of encouraging settlers to come from Eastern Canada or from Europe to settle in these new communities that the company had established. In bringing settlers to these areas, the HBC hoped to create a workforce and a marketplace, all at the same time. They also hoped to solidify their claim to the land by discouraging the Indigenous Peoples who already lived there from coming back in any significant numbers. Each land agent was given a commission based upon each and every settler they managed to attract to these new settlements. Thus, many land agents resorted to fanciful advertising tactics in order to lure new settlers. As a result, Winnipeg was once referred to as being “the Paris of the prairies” by these land agents.
As for the second line, the prairie winters cause the growing season to be significantly shorter, so wheat farmers had to develop a strain of wheat that could grow more quickly. The type of wheat they managed to develop was called Marquis wheat. This wheat could grow twice as quickly as earlier varieties and survive droughts and cold snaps, too. As you may know, the term “marquis” denotes nobility. Thus, when The Hip sang of “Wheat kings, all their treasures buried” they were referring to the prairie wheat farmers and their new super wheat seed. Just like that, the song is two lines old and already Winnipeg and Saskatoon have been historically linked. The remainder of the song touches upon the atmosphere of the area during the time of Miller’s death and concludes with the line about the news of Milgaard’s exoneration coming via the CBC which, as you now know, was a tip of the hat to the CBC show, The Fifth Estate, that helped investigate Milgaard’s claims and made the case that a new trial was actually warranted.
A new trial was held almost thirty years after Milgaard’s initial conviction. Both Wilson and John recanted their testimony at this new trial. However, the biggest breakthrough came when the wife of a man named Larry Fisher came forward claiming that her husband was probably the killer. Apparently, she raised her suspicions with police in 1969 but her claims were never investigated. As it was, Fisher was a serial rapist and had already had several rapes against his name when he found Miller walking in that Saskatoon alleyway on that frigid January morning. At first, Fisher refused to admit that he had killed Miller but DNA technology linked him to the crime scene (and, at the same time, proved Milgaard’s innocence) and the case was officially solved. David Milgaard was released from prison after serving over thirty years for a crime he never committed. As a free man, Milgaard worked tirelessly to see reforms enacted in the criminal justice system so that others who claimed to be wrongfully convicted, like him, would have avenues of recourse available to them. Such reforms have been announced by current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the end, much was lost because of the events in January, 1969, in Saskatoon. David Milgaard lost thirty years of freedom. His family lost the freedom to enjoy their lives as they were forced to fight endlessly for their son because no one else seemed to be on his side. But, in the end, David Milgaard was released from prison and completely exonerated. He was given a cash settlement from the Saskatchewan government. The Tragically Hip were able to write a song that has become one of their most popular tunes. They even had the opportunity to sing it live to David Milgaard and his family on one of their tour stops in Winnipeg after his release. As for the family of Gail Miller, they lost the most of all. Not only did they have their daughter stolen from them in the cruelest manner imaginable, they had to relive her death again and again because of how the criminal justice system rushed to judgment and unfairly convicted David Milgaard. To their credit, they have met with Mr. Milgaard and have offered him their support so that both families can begin the process of healing and of recovery. It was a long road to travel, but in the end, justice appears to have been served.
The link to the video for the song “Wheat Kings” by The Tragically Hip can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip can be found here.
The link to a documentary about the Miller/Milgaard story can be found here.
The link to the official website for the city of Winnipeg can be found here.
The link to the official website for the city of Saskatoon can be found here.
**The photo header at the top of this post shows the alleyway in Saskatoon in which Gail Miller was assaulted and murdered (as it appears today). The photo is a screen capture from Google Earth.
The stories behind the greatest classical compositions of all time
It may seem like an unlikely source of inspiration, but nevertheless I wish to take a few moments of your time to sing the praises of a movie franchise that made quite an impression on me and my daughters as they were growing up. The movie franchise I am referring to is none other than Barbie…you know, the doll from the Mattel toy company. That Barbie! The story of how we came to be devoted Barbie movie lovers dates back to the very earliest moments spent with our children. It serves to reinforce an important principle of parenthood which is that reading with your children from the day they are born reaps unimagined benefits down the road. Here is the story of how I became a Barbie movie fan and what that has to do with classical music.
From the very first moment our eldest daughter entered the world, my wife and I knew that something magical had happened. We were determined to love our child as fiercely as possible and raise her to be armed with as much confidence and knowledge as we possibly could so that she could take on the world on her own terms. One of the ways we decided to do this was by reading to our baby every day. Being teachers, my wife and I recognized the intellectual benefits for children to being exposed to language at an early age. But, even more than that, reading to our daughter gave us the opportunity to hold her close to our hearts each day while we read to her. This allowed for the pairing of warmth, security and happiness with the act of reading. In time, our daughter was old enough to hold and choose her own books. When she did, she explored the world of books with a sense of curiosity and excitement. In time, our daughter began to develop a tendency to read certain types of books so we began taking her to our public library and letting her have a say in what books we would borrow there. One of the book series that she became drawn to was the Baby Einstein series. These books were filled with shapes and colours and textures and flaps that opened and closed. But, they were also filled with short poems, works of Art and so on. It was a very enriching experience for our daughter and helped introduce her to people like Mozart and Brahms while doing so in an intellectually-appropriate manner for her young age. These Baby Einstein books led us to discover that there were DVDs available at the library, too. So, our daughter began looking in the DVD section of the children’s department as part of each visit, just as she did the storybook sections that were available to her. As our daughter grew some more, she began watching age-appropriate shows on TV and then looking to pair her viewing habits with books. So, before we knew it, we were inundated with books about Dora the Explorer, Caillou and The Berenstain Bears. Before long, our daughter discovered Barbie. That led to borrowing Barbie storybooks and then, eventually, she discovered a Barbie DVD called Barbie and the Three Musketeers. This is where my family’s love affair with the Barbie movie franchise began.
As of the writing of this post, there are a total of 47 movies in the Barbie movie franchise. The series has gone through four re-boots along the way. Both of my daughters went through their Barbie movie phase but agree that the first quarter of the franchise had the best of the movies. So, let me tell you a bit about why my girls enjoyed the Barbie movies so much and why I recommend them so highly to any parent of children under the age of ten. First of all, just like the Baby Einstein books and DVDs, the early Barbie movies were all based on classic works from literature or the stage. So, our first DVD was the Barbie version of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, The Three Musketeers. From there, the girls watched Barbie and Swan Lake,Barbie and the Nutcracker, Barbie as Rapunzel and Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, just to name a few. For my eldest daughter, in particular, watching these movies gave us the chance to introduce the original classic stories into our home. So, even though the animation was rudimentary, the storylines were faithful to the original classic works which made the experience of watching these movies worthwhile. Secondly, each movie contained a soundtrack that introduced new, original music but mostly featured the real versions of familiar classical compositions. It was through these Barbie movies that my daughters got to hear Swan Lake being performed, as well as the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky. In Barbie and Rapunzel, the girls were introduced to “Symphony No. 9, Movement No. 3” by Antonin Dvorak. For me, the pinnacle of the integration of the Arts with the Barbie movies came when we watched Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses.
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is originally a fairy tale from Germany’s The Brothers Grimm. In the Barbie movie, the same fairy tale was told with long segments of ballet interspersed within the storyline. The opening theme of the movie used the classical composition “Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3, Movement No. 3” by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. The beautiful ballet scenes that formed the core of the story were accompanied by the music of Felix Mendelssohn and his “Symphony No. 4”. All in all, the movies were magical, made all the more so because of the wonderful music that was included in the soundtrack. As I have said before, using such rich pieces of music and combining them with classic tales well told all served my daughters very well. My eldest daughter, in particular, has developed a great love of reading and has challenged herself to read a wide variety of books from the present and from the past, involving a seemingly endless array of subject matter and themes.
The final aspect of the Barbie movies that made them such valued additions to our home was the fact that the storylines all involved strong female characters. There were no helpless damsels waiting for their prince to come and save them. All of the Barbie movies involved an element of “girl power”, which was important for my impressionable young daughters to grow up seeing. In addition to helping our daughters grow up to be literate and knowledgeable, we wanted them to be strong, confident, self-sufficient young women, too. So, having them watch movies based upon classic literature that used classical music gems, and then that showed the female characters being brave and innovative and loyal, all without the need to rely on male characters, added up to a big parenting win in our minds.
In the links below, I will show how the Barbie movies used the original compositions from Respighi and Mendelssohn in the films, as well as a few other styles of music that my daughters each happened to like. All in all, I am aware that the character of Barbie comes with some cultural baggage based upon how she was built and marketed during her heyday as one of the toys that were “meant for girls”. I took that attitude into my initial viewing of the very first Barbie and the Three Musketeers movie that we borrowed from our public library. But, I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of it in all regards. The Barbie movies are not Oscar-calibre films by any stretch, but as a way to expose your children to classic works of literature and music, they are excellent and I highly recommend them…especially the first ten-twelve in the series.
The link to the original composition of “Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3, Movement No. 3” by Ottorino Respighi can be found here.
The link to how “Ancient Airs and Dances” was used in the opening theme to the movie Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses can be found here.
The link to the original composition of “Symphony No. 4, Movements 1 and 3” by Felix Mendlessohn, can be found here.
The link to one of the scenes from the Barbie movie that used Mendlessohn’s “Symphony No. 4” can be found here.
The link to the movie trailer for Barbie and the Twelve Dancing Princesses can be found here.
My eldest daughter’s favourite Barbie movie song is “Unbelievable” by EMF. The link to that can be found here.
My youngest’s daughter is a fashionista in real life. Not surprisingly, her favourite Barbie movie song involves fashion. The link to “Get Your Sparkle On” can be found here.