Lady Gaga — Gay Rights Activist and Opportunist

If Michelle Obama is FLOTUS, is Lady Gaga FLOGR?

The gays have been good to pop artist Lady Gaga, and so in return, she’s become a frontline activist in the fight against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the controversial military policy which could be repealed this week.

On Monday, speaking before a crowd of hundreds in Portland, Maine, Gaga said:

“To the senate, to Americans, to Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts.  Equality is the prime rib of America. Equality is the prime rib of what we stand for as a nation. And I don’t get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat my country has to offer. Are you listening?”

Gaga also said:

“Doesn’t it seem to be that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is backwards? Doesn’t it seem to be based on the Constitution of the United States that we’re penalizing the wrong soldier? Doesn’t it seem to you that we should send home the straight soldier who hates the gay soldier? The straight soldier who has prejudice in his heart where the military asks him to hold our core American values … If you are not committed to perform with excellence as a U.S. soldier because you do not believe in full equality, then go home.”

I’ve written about DADT before, so I’d rather not go there. (It’s a complex issue with mostly grey area.) Let me angle this a bit differently: This was the latest in a series of brilliant calculations which have defined the young career of one Ms. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. I’ll battle anyone who says she’s the next Madonna — give her a decade before making that comparison — but like Madonna, she understands when to assert her political beliefs and how it will impact her base.

She couldn’t lose speaking out on this issue. I wonder if all the meat references came from being pitched an absolute meatball. She knocked it out of the park, buying herself more time on a career that passed 15 minutes long ago.

Obligatory Atmosphere Plug

Minneapolis hip-hop outfit Atmosphere hit No. 1 last week with the release of its double EP, To All My Friends/Blood Makes the Blade Holy. How it is an independent hip-hop act from the Midwest did with a double EP that was barely promoted is beyond me, but nevertheless, I celebrated by snatching up tickets to their November 28 show at First Avenue. (Anyone else going?)

Fifth Element — the home base of Atmosphere and it’s record label, Rhymesayers Entertainment — posted three clips on YouTube last week, with the first two focusing on how Sean Daley (Slug) has grown as a writer and how the double EP came to be. The No. 1 spot may have been a fluke, but give Daley a few minutes and you’ll jump on the bandwagon:

New Hip-Hop From the Home Team

This isn't a record store — it's a Center for Hip-Hop Appreciation.

In 1993, for the time, I heard bass thump from a 10-inch subwoofer in the trunk of Casey Ugland’s 1988 Chevy Beretta. He was playing an NWA cassette tape, and it was like the music was alive, kicking and punching at his backseat like someone was tied up in the trunk. Strange, but that was the moment I fell in love with hip-hop. Casey was my best friend Travis’ older brother, and we would have him buy parental advisory albums which we’d hide from our parents. Hip-hop was my first (and only) rebellion.

Yesterday, Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere released a double EP, To All My Friends/Blood Makes the Blade Holy. I first heard Atmosphere in 2002, but never really “got it” until 2005. I’ve purchased — not downloaded, purchased — everything they’ve released the past five years. Their music’s even better now as I recognize street names and landmarks often mentioned in their songs. Furthermore, it’s thinking man’s hip-hop, often steeped in political and social commentary. Every Atmosphere album release day takes me back to that garage in 1993 and back to hiding tapes between my mattresses.

Atmosphere is the most successful act on Rhymesayers Entertainment, the Minneapolis-based independent hip-hop label. You can find all of the label’s music and merch at Fifth Element in Uptown, where it’s not uncommon to catch an artist roaming around the store or someone who’s been mentioned in a song running the register.

I picked up my copy from Fifth Element and forgot how good it feels to flop a CD on the corner and hand over $10. I damn near left a tip just for the experience. The double EP clocks in at 12 songs and just over 40 minutes. The content’s noticeably shorter on profanity and big on political commentary. It seems the Recession has inspired MC Slug, like on the “To All My Friends”:

I was the ugly kid that didn’t listen
Little big man, full of ambition
Based on imagination just like you
Daydreaming, thinking about the things I might do
I used to paint, draw, illustrate
Mom would facilitate, and it would feel okay
Seems like yesterday still plays a part
When I grow up, I wanted a job making art
Picture that, how many years old
Young enough to mix up love with career goals
But I was just this tall when they told me
That the world was mine, but the papers weren’t signed
There’s no deed, so proceed to go see
Up the whole piece like it owes me groceries
Don’t breathe until you formally know me
Won’t leave, better call authorities
It’s all love we’re cool
But you don’t tell an astronaut what to do

On “Americareful,” Atmosphere puts a broken health care system in the crosshairs with unfortunate stories about a Tommy and Katie. (Pardon the quality. This video will likely get taken down at some point today for copyright reasons):

On Friday at 10 a.m. CDT, tickets go on sale for back-to-back Atmosphere shows at the legendary First Avenue on Nov. 27-28. The tickets will sell out in minutes, because short of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings, few local celebrities get more love from the locals.

(You can download their new track “Freefallin'” by going here.)

Jack Johnson is Simply Summer

My playlist goes through drastic changes come summer. That’s because I need to hear music that reflects the radiant, laid-back nature of the season. For the past, oh, eight years, Jack Johnson has provided the summer soundtrack for myself and many others. As solo artists go, he’s one of the most universally liked artists since James Taylor. I include myself among the throng.

Johnson — as seen in reviews for his new album, To The Sea — is often criticized for being too simple, his messages, too redundant. No one ever confused Johnson for a guitar virtuoso and his songwriting borders on silly at times, but that’s why I like him. Johnson is nothing if not sincere, bells and whistles be damned.

It’s important to note the major growth on his latest album. Go back to 2003, where Johnson’s sophomore album On And On featured 12 songs (among 16) that clocked in at three minutes or less. On To The Sea, Johnson’s uses more space to include guitar solos and extended intros. Eleven of the 14 tracks on this album surpass the three-minute mark. And while I realize this statistic is completely arbitrary, I think it shows Johnson’s growth as a musician and songwriter. He’s making better use of the canvas, becoming more aware of space.

Is Jack Johnson a simpleton? Hell yes, and that’s all the appeal. For some musical zealots, quality is measured by complexity. How many elements can you pull into song to create a cohesive, yet distinguished sound? That brilliance is reserved for acts like Radiohead, Rush and U2, among others. Johnson doesn’t seek complexity for complexity’s sake. His sound is basic, naked and welcoming. No one needs an instruction manual to listen to it.

This leads me to my next point: Jack Johnson is the most accessible artist of our generation. What does that mean? He’s completely comfortable as a pro surfer-turned-musician, a husband, a father, a friend, a guy who’s at peace as long as he can regularly get his bare feet in the sand. His music isn’t about understanding these facets of his life, but rather celebrating them. He manages to be abundantly happy without being obnoxious — a true juggling act in pop music. For this reason, we feel we know Johnson. He’s got no interest in being mysterious.

I save the dark, introspective tunes for the cold season. Jack Johnson has the score for my summer because he sounds like a fire on the beach at sunset, surrounded by good friends, good drink and good music. It’s as simple as that.

If Crystal Bowersox Wins ‘Idol’, We Lose

Crystal Bowersox is the overwhelming favorite after killing her performances in last night's finale.

It took me until the ninth season of American Idol to give a damn. And now, it’s down to two contestants — Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox. Both are 24 and couldn’t be bigger underdogs. After last night’s final performances, it’s clear Bowersox is the bigger talent.

But, for the love of everything holy, I implore you to vote for Lee DeWyze. A vote for Crystal Bowersox is a vote for terrorism, and here’s why:

She’s a modern day Janis Joplin. That’s a high compliment, I realize, and I say it not because of Bowersox’s physical appearance. (You can about imagine the awful makeover she’d be given if she wins — veneers, no more dreadlocks, a summer with Jillian Michaels.) The point is she’s raw and achingly talented, but that won’t make her a commercial success, necessarily. No one doubts Joplin’s brilliance, but she put more into her live performance (and drinking) than churning out chart-topping singles. That’s what the Idol machine demands of its winners, though.

She’s already playing to the wrong audience. Isn’t it strange seeing Bowersox on stage performing before hundreds of the same teenage girls who would’ve made fun of her in high school? Her style is too mature for the iTunes set. Idol winners don’t so much win a record deal as they win a role. If she wins, she’ll be lucky to pen a single lyric. Her future image and sound is being constructed by a think tank right now. The problem? The brainiacs at Idol will try and dress her as another Joss Stone — someone no artist aspires to be. Bowersox doesn’t want to be popular. Not to the demographic Idol will try and sell her to, anyway.

Lee DeWyze went from underdog to endearing soft rocker overnight.

Lee DeWyze has huge upside. Bowersox has been a star since her first audition, while DeWyze has made huge strides throughout the season. He seems like a nice enough guy and maintains that deer-in-the-headlights look we want in our winners. (Think of a David Cook, who looked like he’d been performing on Idol his whole life.)  DeWyze, like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson before him, appears to be someone America could know and love on a personal level, which, in the music industry, translates to “Cha-ching.” DeWyze shouldn’t win because he’s better, but because he stands to benefit more. Bowersox would get to keep her freedom.

This is the most important vote in Idol history. Don’t screw it up. With Simon Cowell leaving and the few winners — Kris Allen and David Cook — already wandering into musical obscurity, Idol needs someone who can be a No. 1 artist. That ain’t Bowersox. Talent doesn’t always win when it comes to female recording artists. (See: Jenny Lewis, Norah Jones, Feist, Tori Amos.) This is a world where Katy Perrys and Ke$has win because they’ll sing ridiculous things, look sexy and make it all really catchy. Bowersox is kitschy, not catchy. DeWyze, on the other hand, benefits from other brooding soft rockers like Lifehouse, Goo Goo Dolls, Counting Crows and — to a lesser extent — Pearl Jam. (DeWyze reminds me of another Chicago-native — Eddie Vedder. The difference? All that goofy smiling.)

It’s not about you. You might get the warm-and-fuzzies voting on longshots like Ruben Studdard, Fantasia or Taylor Hicks, but enough with the charity already. Don’t vote for Bowersox if you don’t plan on buying her debut album.

___

Rant complete, I’m looking at tonight’s finale like a divorce settlement. Bowersox and DeWyze will finally split, and while one may get full custody (a record deal), the other can relish their newfound freedom (no record deal but a buttload of fame). Here’s hoping, for the sake of both, DeWyze wins while Bowersox is graceful in defeat. Best bet is your loser will be the winner a year from now.


The Spill Canvas: Here’s to the Home Team

 

Sioux Falls' The Spill Canvas is (from left) Dan Ludeman, Joe Beck, Nick Thomas and Landon Heil

 

Sioux Falls, South Dakota is hardly a hotbed for upcoming rock bands. Not for lack of effort, but it’s a community which fails to support young talent, be it musical, athletic or otherwise.

In fact, it wasn’t so long ago the mother of a highly recruited basketball player from Sioux Falls told the local newspaper, “We tend to eat our young.” It’s true. Whenever someone from Sioux Falls shows promise, the skeptics and cynics come out in droves.

The Spill Canvas somehow emerged from Sioux Falls as an altnernative band with major breakthrough potential. The four members — with whom I went to high school — dabbled in other bands before hopping aboard lead singer Nick Thomas’ pet project. The Spill Canvas, in a span of a few years, grew from Thomas’ coffee house solo set to a viable mainstream act with TRL appearances to boot.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, I’ve known Thomas since we were pee-wee football teammates and bassist Landon Heil and I go back to games of NBA Jam in his basement during grade school. I never really knew guitarist Dan Ludeman, who was a year older, but I knew Joe Beck as the kid who dominated talent shows and pep rallies with his drum solos. Does they make me a homer? Absolutely.

But you can also consider me among one of the original skeptics. Not for lack of faith, but before The Spill Canvas, Sioux Falls had never seen a local band go from talent-show stages to having their one-story mugs plastered on MTV Studios in Times Square. I root for underdogs, but I never actually bet on them.

The Spill Canvas is the exception.

I met up with the guys after their show Tuesday night at the Hawthorne Theatre in Portland, Ore. and discussed the future of the band with drummer Joe Beck. Here’s what you need to know from our conversation:

They make themselves available. Thanks to strong social media savvy, The Spill Canvas are accessible by Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube. They’re posting photos on Twitter on a daily basis, along with giving away tickets to their shows. YouTube has been something of a TSC News Network — if there’s a big announcement, the guys take to their trusty digital camcorder and post it online. They are connected to their growing fan base.

This ain’t your typical follow-up album. In fact, said follow-up album is a mythical thing at the moment. They’ve released two EPs — Abnormalities and Realities — in the past four months. Beck says their label, Warner Brothers, has gotten behind the smaller releases in a way that models the music industry in the 1940s and 1950s: Cut a few songs, take them on tour. Cut a few more songs, keep touring. These aren’t scraps and B-sides, either. The two EPs have been some of their best work as a band and tracks like “Our Song,” “Gateway Drug” and “Dust Storm” sounded exquisite live.

Being from Sioux Falls is good and bad. Beck acknowledged there was heavy eye-rolling a few years back when they band left Sioux Falls to better pursue their dreams. However, he points being established in Sioux Falls, SD is much more original than Los Angeles or Brooklyn. The band is proud to call Sioux Falls home. In fact, three of four members spent the past year and change in Sioux Falls while resting from touring and recording. (Beck lives in Nashville, Tenn. where his girlfriend is set to graduate from Belmont University.)

Fame hasn’t gone to their heads. The band has been touring together for almost six years, so pardon them if post-concert antics are kept to a minimum. After the show back at the Doug Fir Lounge, we stand around a fire pit and talk up-and-coming bands and artists. It’s a sedate conversation with a group of guys who look more like they survived another eight-hour shift at their work-a-day job. Then you remember they’re major label recording artists headlining a national tour. In a few months, they’ll be playing with the Goo Goo Dolls and Switchfoot. For all intents and purposes, these are the biggest celebrities I know and they couldn’t be more unassuming.

Most fans probably feel like they went to high school with a band like The Spill Canvas. I’m proud to say I did. They’ve quickly become one of my favorite bands, regardless of personal association. Beyond their music, I respect their hustle. They are a success story who come from a place where there’s all too few.

Another Shameless Plug

You guys know by now I’m a total homer, so it’s only right I bring to you “Our Song,” the latest track released from The Spill Canvas’ upcoming EP, Realities. It’s a catchy little rock song and the hook seems to borrow the melody from Keith Urban’s “You’ll Think of Me.”

Nonetheless, these guys represent Sioux Falls, S.D. proudly. Roosevelt High School’s finest, ladies and gentlemen.

I’ll be covering their show in Portland, OR on Tuesday, April 27 at the Hawthorne Theater. Should be a good time.