WCBE

Ann Powers

I am a Bowie girl. Not literally: I'm a little too young to have swiped my face with glitter and run out in lime-green platforms to see David Bowie storming through America in 1972 and 1973 with the Spiders from Mars, when he sent queer and alien dispatches across a heartland primed for them by Stonewall and women's lib and the sexual revolution but also feeling the slap of the Silent Majority as the Nixon era lumbered on.

All hail pop rock! Few categories in contemporary music are more maligned, yet what resides within this one can be tremendously energizing, adventurous and fun.

In his rockabilly history Go Cat Go!, ethnomusicologist Craig Morrison describes the typical cradle of rock 'n' roll: a community hall reconfigured to serve as a nightclub for a night. "There might be Christmas lights strung across the back of the stage, tables and chairs around the perimeter of the room, food available for purchase, and maybe booze," Morrison writes. A jittery, ambitious band plays as loudly as possible, in order to be heard over the din of all the flirting, fighting and dancing.

Two stretched concepts made the rock 'n' roll coming out of Sun Studios in the 1950s unlike other music of its kind: time and space. In a shabby little room near downtown Memphis, Sam Phillips gave the men and kids he recorded all the room in the world. "Spontaneity" was Phillips' mantra, which was particularly potent for the youngest Sun cats.

What does it take for a work of art to become an intervention? In music, any reinterpretation alters the original, if only because different fingerprints touch it. But certain lineages — folk music, for example — are built on the bones of those retellings. Whoever owns a song for a period of time connects it to her lived experience and the world in which she lives, and it changes. It might also change the world, or a small part of it.

Leonard Cohen is not a man for manifestos. Peripatetic bohemian, Montreal native, Zen meditator, diaspora Jew: Rock's almost-octogenarian philosopher emeritus inhabits identities that are multiple, contested, and resistant to orthodoxy. He is, however, willing to lay some things on the line. "I'm slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast," he intones over a burlesque blues line in the first track on his 13th studio album, Popular Problems. "You want to get there soon; I want to get there last."

When Willie Nelson was a young hustler selling songs to Patsy Cline's people, he probably never thought he'd become the crowd-anointed sage of country music. But that's what happened as the Redheaded Stranger went gray, turned smoking weed into a brand and a virtue, and produced a discography that added up to its own American Songbook.

When the spirit of Nirvana surfaces in a song, the artist paying tribute almost always shares style points with that treasured band. The hair is shaggy, the clothes a little ragged; the lineage unfolds, relatively neatly, from punk to the present.

In north central Alabama, punk rockers often know as much about football as they do mosh pits. A guy with an arm-sleeve tattoo will open the door for a woman and call her "ma'am." Self-identifying as a blue dot in a red state doesn't preclude Sunday brunch with relatives whose own cars boast confederate-flag stickers. Such differences can arise anywhere, but they can feel more pressing in the Deep South, where history is sticky, like a 90-degree rainy day, and intimate, like Grandma's questionable advice.

A lover's obsessiveness may charm at first, but it can soon turn frightening. For an artist, the relentless pursuit of one object — a sound, a memory dragged up and reshaped, a fantasy that makes the long hours of work feel intimate — feeds creativity or freezes it. Greg Dulli has been chasing the same seductive nightmare since he was 22, when his band The Afghan Whigs formed. Next year, he'll turn 50. He's spent a long time, in his mind, sitting in a darkened car in front of the same house.

The last thing anyone would say about South By Southwest is that it's an avenue for self-improvement. The annual mega gathering, which began last week for film and interactive-technology mavens and turns into a music conference and festival tomorrow, fulfills many needs for the culture nerd. Communal bonding? Yes – somewhere around 100,000 people will wander the Austin streets looking to high-five each other during this time. Fun? For sure.

The most romantic scene from any of this year's Oscar-nominated films begins with a deliciously idiosyncratic pickup line. At a swinger's pool party in 1978, a flabby yet still somehow alluring Christian Bale gently grabs the arm of Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams at her most wide-eyed and guileful. "Is that Duke Ellington on your bracelet?" he murmurs.

The new documentary Muscle Shoals recalls how interracial harmony in tumultuous times made possible a new kind of music. Leading African-American artists traveled to North Alabama — not exactly a place they thought they'd be welcome in the civil rights era — to jam with an all-white crew of session players. In little rooms near the wide Tennessee River, they perfected soul and anticipated Southern rock.

If Bob Dylan's long career as a genius of the American spirit has taught us anything, it's that one fan's trash is another one's treasure. "I never looked at songs as 'good' or 'bad,' only different kinds of good ones," he once said. Dylan's music, from the magpie folk of his early years to the historically conscious balladry of his current albums, has always reminded us that our legacy includes not just ennobling beauty, but also minstrelsy, dirty blues, sentimental sappiness and rama-lama-ding-dong.

Kathleen Hanna's voice shatters things — maybe glass, given the lung capacity behind her vibrating wail, but more importantly barriers and preconceptions. Her '90s band Bikini Kill helped revitalize both indie-rock and feminism; in that group and in Le Tigre, the beats-based trio that followed, Hanna created sounds and spaces that allowed women to feel free and full of themselves.

Why Some Musicians Last

Sep 20, 2012

The mists of eternity wafted over my Twitter feed the other night. Okay, not quite — but talk of eternity, or at least of the pop scene in thirty years, did make for a lengthy and spirited group exchange. It started when a friend who's not fond of singing competitions asked whether Kelly Clarkson will be remembered in 2042.

Yesterday my husband and I had the same thought at the same time. It's not an uncommon occurrence for two writers who've spent decades arguing and enthusing about pop music. I mention it, in part, to stave off accusations that I'm plagiarizing from a nearby source, but also because I think what we reflected upon in light of the writer Jonah Lehrer's fatal mistake was probably in the minds of many music obsessives.

I fell in love with Bruce Springsteen for his swagger. It was ridiculous and offered so much hope. Here was a bony dude with the worst haircut ever, who wore T-shirts covered in holes — seriously, he looked like the fry cook at the amusement park where I worked as a counter girl in the summer — making music as big as the known universe.

Pop singer Donna Summer, whose long career began in the 1960s and reached its apex in the disco era of the '70s, died of cancer on Thursday at her home in Naples, Florida. Summer was 63 years old. According to Billboard magazine, the singer born LaDonna Gaines had 32 singles that charted in the Hot 100. Fourteen of them made it into the top 10. To hear Sami Yenigun's appreciation of Donna Summer's life and career, as heard on All Things Considered, click the audio link.

This Sunday the annual Grammy Award winners will be announced. One of the biggest categories is Song of the Year, which goes to a songwriter. Every day this week, we'll give you a little intel on one of the nominees. Today, Mumford and Sons' "The Cave."

This Sunday the annual Grammy Award winners will be announced. One of the biggest categories is Song of the Year, which goes to a songwriter. Every day this week, we'll give you a little intel on one of the nominees. Today, Bon Iver's "Holocene."