Everybody knows the best book about Twentieth Century music is Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise but there’s another brilliant book set in the same period – Wilfrid Sheed’s The House That George Built, a history of the golden age of American popular music. It’s about the generations of American songwriters, starting at the turn of the twentieth century in what Sheed calls ‘the piano era’, who essentially invented what we now know as popular music.
It’s sub-titled ‘with a little help from Irving, Cole and a crew of about fifty’ and it’s told through the abbreviated life stories of the dozens of lyricists and composers who grafted on Broadway, on Tin Pan Alley and in Hollywood to make us all song addicts. It’s warm and entertaining and full of mad insights into the psychology and economics and aesthetics of pop music.
It’s also a catalogue of amazing songs – from Basin Street Blues to Body and Soul to Baby it’s Cold Outside to April in Paris. I’ve created a Spotify playlist for each section. The artists are a bit variable – performers from the other end of the Twentieth Century aren’t as well-represented as they ought to be on Spotify – and there are a few gaps but it’s an amazing mosaic of song. Let me know if you’ve found better versions.
I’ve run a number of pretty big web sites in my time, often maintaining large customer databases and, of course, log files. We kept those log files indefinitely but rarely consulted them. When we did it was always at the request of law enforcement and always in the presence of a warrant. At another.com, which was a free webmail service, it was usually a Russian cracker caching passwords or credit card numbers and on one occasion it was child porn. I dealt with maybe eight or ten such cases in four years or so.
We kept those logs because we wanted to be able to do the right thing in the event of an alleged crime. We didn’t keep them so that witless media giants could build cases against us or compromise the most basic rights of our users. I don’t usually come out on occasions like this but I think that Viacom’s shocking and ignorant raid on YouTube’s user data demands a response. This is legal and moral vandalism on a global scale (national boundaries don’t apply here).
It’s a kind of legalistic ‘fuck you’ from a doomed media monolith, showing the kind of disregard for natural justice, morality and public opinion that leaves people (millions of Viacom’s customers included) open-mouthed in amazement. And I say ‘doomed’ because this is the kind of comically stupid misstep that often marks the beginning of the end for even powerful and profitable businesses like Viacom. What were they thinking? Let’s hope a wiser judge in another court quickly sets this piratical tactic aside.
Joan Didion has been the unassailed Queen of the New York liberal elite for decades – essayist, novelist, political commentator. Her latest NYRB piece is hard-hitting but reads like a lament for lost freedoms and lost certainties in the post-9/11 United States – a good place to start to understand the crisis in the American liberal consensus produced by the War on Terror and the resurgent right.
I sometimes listen to Radio 3’s Mixing It. Freaky stuff from every corner of music and only occasionally a bit po-faced. This week I stumbled across a web page about their visit to NYC in August 2002. They recorded a one-off programme with members of the downtown music scene, many of whom lived and worked within a few blocks of the WTC – Sonic Youth in Murray Street, Laurie Anderson in Greenwich Street, for instance. The programme is excellent – you can listen to it in Real Audio. Some of the artists interviewed have obviously had their worlds turned upside down by the event. Others do that amazing thing that only artists and egomaniacs can do – coming through a world-changing trauma, worldview, prejudices and ego intact – “yeah. It was a nightmare. And now I’m mostly working with tabla and tape loops…”