Behind every autotuned 13 year old girl...

It makes sense, doesn't it, that Gawker would do the profile of the man behind Rebecca Black's Friday? Meet Ark Music Factory CEO Patrice Wilson.

Where did Wilson get the inspiration for such lyrics as "Yesterday was Thursday/Today is Friday?" "I wrote the lyrics on a Thursday night going into a Friday," he said. "I was writing different songs all night and was like, 'Wow, I've been up a long time and it's Friday.' And I was like, wow, it is Friday!"

The immense spike of interest in this otherwise unremarkable video begs for an explanation. Needless to say, I enjoy reading the attempts to explain the phenomenon more than the video itself. From one example:

Rob: I like the song too, but I don’t find that embarrassing. It feels like a confirmation of the suspicion that the best pop music must aspire to a formal purity that comes at the expense of content. The best pop songs are the emptiest. At that point, pop music has nothing to do with subjectivity or identity construction: You don’t become empty when you hear it; instead you have your own fullness confirmed.

And later:

To shift the terminology, I think we’ve been in post-Fordist relations of pop-culture production for some time now, with consumers driving the innovations in meaning that culture-industry firms then harvest and exploit. They increasingly supply the playground itself rather than the specific jungle gyms. No one owns the malleable, mutable meanings of pop culture, but the process and the medium for those transmutations is definitely owned. This is the essence of what Jodi Dean calls communicative capitalism.

Next: 1,000 words on the great existential crisis of our time: which seat can I take?

The music business...doing great?

The music business is dying. Or is it? If you look at all revenues, the pie may be growing. Maybe the music business isn't dying, it's just evolving, and recorded music is just becoming the loss leader that fuels the engine.

The longest, loudest boom is in live music. Between 1999 and 2009 concert-ticket sales in America tripled in value, from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion.

It is not that more people are going to concerts. Rather, they are paying more to get in. In 1996 a ticket to one of America’s top 100 concert tours cost $25.81, according to Pollstar, a research firm that tracks the market. If prices had increased in line with inflation, the average ticket would have cost $35.30 last year. In fact it cost $62.57. Well-known acts charge much more. Leading musicians have also, by roundabout means, seized a larger share of the mysterious “service

Drive All Night

A few Sundays back, I caught The Swell Season at the Hollywood Bowl. That was the fourth time I'd heard them live, and they only get better. Glen Hansard is as charismatic a front man as there is in the music business right now.

Earlier this year, The Swell Season played a benefit show at The Largo at the Coronet for an Ed Norton charity. I lucked into a pair of tix, and it ranks among the top 5 concerts I've ever attended. Small venue, long set, plenty of breathing room between songs for Glen Hansard to charm as the Irish raconteur we all wish we could share drinks with at the pub.

The goosebump moment was their cover of The Boss's "Drive All Night." No recordings of it have been issued, but here's a YouTube video of one of their live performances of the Springsteen track.

Media and the social layer

The recent Spotify update added some sweet-looking social features. I say they look impressive because Spotify has yet to release its service in the U.S. With at least four major music labels to negotiate with to get a critical mass of tracks, the woods are thorny indeed, but if they manage to clear that significant hurdle and roll out the following feature set, I'd be ready, at long last, to switch to a subscription service over the model of buying and owning my own music:

Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about the shift of online music to the cloud in a recent issue of The New Yorker. He mentions the usual players (Pandora, MOG, Spotify) and concludes that the age of the computer DJ is upon us.

Similarly, the anonymous programmers who write the algorithms that control the series of songs in these streaming services may end up having a huge effect on the way that people think of musical narrative—what follows what, and who sounds best with whom. Sometimes we will be the d.j.s, and sometimes the machines will be, and we may be surprised by which we prefer.

I think he's partially right. DJ HAL is doing a good job (you can throw Apple's Genius in with those other services), but I still suspect that what Spotify and what I'm sure will be an iTunes cloud-based subscription service will facilitate is the sharing of playlists and discovery among humans. I enjoy MP3 blogs, but I'd much rather follow the lead of musical tastemakers more directly through the same applications I use to listen to music rather than having to read their blogs, go find the music they reference, and then spin those into playlists in iTunes to transfer to my iPod.

Current bandwidths for WiFi and 3G are sufficient to stream music to my iPhone. I'm ready for a cloud-based music subscription service that adds a follower-based social layer (where you can find good tastemakers and choose to follow them even if they don't care to follow you). Such a service is dynamic and ideally improves and changes every time you visit it.

I'm ready for this same revolution to occur in books, too, and with Amazon's latest Kindle app, we're just starting to see the first pebbles of the avalanche skipping by our ankles.

Recently I read David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace on my iPad through the Amazon Kindle app. As I was reading, I noticed some passages had been underlined already. When I clicked on the underlined passage, a box would pop up noting "57 other readers have highlighted this passage".


What was frustrating about the battle between Amazon and publishers over digital book pricing was that no one was talking about how to enhance the value of the digital book by capitalizing on what a digital, internet-connected book delivery service could provide, and that is a social reading experience. Publishers were demanding that Amazon charge higher prices for Kindle editions of books, but not once did I read anyone saying how they might justify that price hike by creating something more valuable for the reader.

In college, I hated buying used copies of textbooks, despite the significant price savings, because a book that was marked up and highlighted violated some aesthetic sensibility, especially if the previous owner had highlighted passages I didn't consider important.

But with the Kindle, you can enable highlights and notes to be turned on selectively. To pivot off of David Foster Wallace for a moment, recently the University of Texas acquired the David Foster Wallace archive. DFW was a voracious reader, and besides drafts of his writing the archive contains actual books from his personal collection.

There are also some two hundred books from Wallace’s own library. “Virtually all of the books are annotated, many are heavily annotated,

Mind Heist

One of the reasons the trailer for Inception is so effective is the sturm und drang music behind the eye-catching visuals. It leaves one with the feeling that Inception will be the most momentous movie of the summer. The track isn't by Hans Zimmer, who's scoring the movie, but by Zack Hemsey, and it's called "Mind Heist."

<a href="">Mind Heist by Zack Hemsey</a>

Songs sung worse

Lee Dewyze sang three mediocre to poor cover songs last night, and for that he was crowned American Idol tonight. As John August termed it last night, the mediocriterrorists won.

Nothing against Dewyze, who seems like a genuinely good guy and whose rise from paint store salesman is a great story. But Crystal Bowersox was the most consistent performer throughout the season, and she sang circles around Dewyze in the finals. It's not just that Dewyze was "pitchy" (trademark Randy Jackson) -- I couldn't help but grimace when Dewyze was given the line "what would you do if I sang out of tune" in tonight's final episode -- but he was also closed off, inaccessible and detached as a performer.

Two years running, the people ignored the judges and crowned the lesser talent. Maybe Simon Cowell decided "to hell with the people, I'll go start a show where the voters listen to me."

Well, as with so many things in life, the voters get what they deserve. As for Bowersox and Bowersox nation, take solace in thinking about where Dubya and Gore each ended up in the long run.

Why "TiK ToK" went #1

Why was Ke$ha's "TiK ToK" such a smash hit? This analysis fascinates me as an example of a field of research that attempts to deduce patterns of popularity in artistic work. Like studies that analyze faces that most people find attractive (we like faces that are symmetrical and that tend to be averages of faces across a large population), the film and music industries have tried to reverse engineer the hit and break it down to a reproducible recipe.

I haven't read Futurehit.DNA, the book whose research is applied here to TiK ToK, but some success elements it identifies in the song are quite specific. For example:


There are two crucial points in the song where the music basically drops out and forces the listener to engage. This is an essential point for any new song to prevent it from being passive. You need it to be active in order to engage people to listen multiple times and actively purchase. The first drop out occurs at 31 seconds when the verse ends and creates a half second of silence before the chorus kicks in. This actively accents the chorus and makes sure you are paying attention before it starts. The second point is just after 2 minutes when the bridge after the second chorus drops out most of the instruments and all the rhythm. Typically most listeners start getting bored right at the two minute mark, so having this change up right at this moment is the smartest move the producers could do. There’s also a subtle, yet crucial change in the chord progressions at this point. This is key as this also creates a shift that engages the listener. This draws from chapters 3 and 4.


The song is in D minor, but that chord first comes in at the 7th beat of the 16 bar progression. So when the song ends cold on the first note of that progression, it ends on Bb. This gives the listener a subtle feeling of an unfinished song, even though it ended on the 1st beat, which is typical of most songs. By not resolving the chord, the listener is more apt to hum the song and therefore more likely to need to listen to it again. This is detailed out in Chapter 5.

A few years back, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called "The Formula" which delved into efforts to crack the formula of hit songs and movies.

Wait for it.

Sorry, I was just trying the Dropout strategy for my writing, inserting a random gap at about 2 minutes in to see if it would keep you interested.

Anyhow, Gladwell profiled a music company, Platinum Blue Music Intelligence (now Music XRay) which used software to analyze songs and predict their hit potential. The more interesting company discussed in the article was Epagogix, a company that claimed to be able to predict the box office potential of any film project given just the script.

It's not clear whether or not these companies can do what they promise with any degree of accuracy. The secrecy around their algorithms makes it difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. One could argue that if they did work, artists, studios, and labels might all have an incentive to keep it a secret from the public. No one likes to think they've been duped by some paint-by-numbers artistic work that preys on some Pavlovian wiring in their brain.

On the other hand, if these algorithms really did work, you'd think it would be well worth the cost to employ them and that a higher percentage of songs and movies coming out of the big labels and studios would be commercially successful.

Peter Gabriel covers, gets covered

Peter Gabriel is releasing an album of covers on Feb 15th. Titled Scratch My Back, it will include covers of tracks from indie band heavyweights from Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and The Magnetic Fields to Bon Iver and David Bowie.

The twist is that these artists will, in turn, cover some Peter Gabriel songs on a future album. Covers of favorites are no guarantee of quality, but hit that first link for a preview of Gabriel's cover of Arcade Fire's "My Body is a Cage" and a tracklist; count me intrigued.

Alicia and Stephen

Monsieur Colbert gives Alicia Keys an assist on "Empire State of Mind."

At the start line of the NY Marathon this year, as we stood at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, waiting for them to release our wave, they had someone sing the National Anthem and God Bless America, and then they blasted Jay-Z and Alicia's majestic "Empire State of Mind" over the loudspeakers. We were all so pumped up that when the pistol shot fired to start us, all thoughts of not going out too fast were tossed aside and carried away by the stiff winds that morning. We all blasted through that first mile up the bridge in record time; I'd pay the debt for that some 17 miles later.

When I hear that song, I'll always think of that moment at the foot of the bridge, thousands of people hopping and vibrating in place, all overflowing with anticipation and nervous energy.


Mira and I saw Dudamel conducting the LA Philharmonic in Verdi's Requiem last Thursday night. After the show, as we were walking out, two women approached and one of them asked if she could interview us. She was from the Christian Science Monitor.

I suspect we were picked out for being the only two people in the crowd who didn't appear old enough to collect social security checks. Apparently Verdi's Requiem just doesn't bring out the kids like it used to.

We ended up quoted at the end of this short online piece. Well, "quoted" should be qualified. Those weren't exactly our words, despite her use of a tape recorder. It's more like she took some of our thoughts and summarized them, then bracketed them with quotation marks.

A few bars into the opening of Verdi's Requiem, one of the more haunting openings in the canon, someone's cell phone went off. After it rang twice, Dudamel dropped his arms and brought the piece to a halt, and the crowd of septuagenarians let out a bile-filled hiss. I tried to see who it was but never identified the person.

Having my cell phone go off in the midst of a quiet performance--a play, a classical music performance, a book reading, to name a few--is one of my greatest fears. Even after I've turned off my phone I check it at least three or four times during a show. Someone just lived out my greatest fear that night.


To those who wonder if the Madden Football video game teaches one anything about real life coaching, exhibit A is the New England Patriots. Their offense resembles the way I play offense in Madden. Spread the field with a lot of wideouts, put my QB in the shotgun, and put the defense under constant attack all over the field, perhaps tossing in a no-huddle for added duress. Look for Moss deep in single coverage, then check down to Watson on a deep in or hit Welker dragging shallow across the middle. The Colts and Cardinals are well-suited to that style of offense in Madden, also.


Eric and I planned to meet Bill Simmons last night at his LA book signing. We were up in Burbank beforehand for work and had to fight the usual horrific LA traffic to get to ESPN Zone across from Staples Center. The signing started at 5pm, and we got on the 101 at about 6:30. The same way a great quarterback has an internal clock that lets him know when he has to either commit to a pass or dump the ball or risk taking a sack, I had a sense we were pushing it, that he might be gone before we arrived.

As we approached Staples Center, we ran into another microclusterf*** of automobiles. It turns out there was a Clippers game at Staples Center and a So You Think You Can Dance concert that night at Nokia Live next door (in fairness to the Clippers, they probably didn't account for most of that traffic; I blame SYTYCD). As cheap about parking as Eric and I were, we weren't about to mess around with nearby lots to save a few dollars. We paid the $25 king's ransom to park under Nokia Live, then sprinted through the crowds of SYTYCD fans lined up outside Nokia Live to reach ESPN Zone.

Our hustle paid off. We walked in as Simmons was packing up his stuff. We introduced ourselves and he graciously signed our books. We told him we worked at Hulu and he said he was a big fan, that he had used the site to watch Miami Vice and White Shadow (which, being huge fans of his ESPN column, we knew).

We presented him with a Hulu hoodie and thanked him for mentioning Hulu in his column from time to time. He said it would've been the coolest gift he received that night if not for the fact that a porn actress had come in earlier, bought a few copies of his books, and dropped off some DVDs from her, uh, oeuvre. Yep, that's a tough comp.

If you're an NBA fan, Simmons' new book The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy is a must read (it made it to the top of the NYTimes Non-Fiction bestseller list, reflecting his massive fan base). His knowledge of NBA history is impressive (when he says he's one of the last few true NBA fans, he's not kidding), and his ranking of the top 96 players in NBA history is very fair despite his Celtics' loyalties.

In many ways, Simmons is one of the original bloggers, a guy who wrote about what he knew for AOL long before millions of bloggers were doing the same. He's not afraid to write about pop culture and television and sports and all the things he cares about, the same way Chuck Klosterman writes about music and sports and topics he cares about or the way economists like Tyler Cowen and Steven Levitt write columns and books about all sorts of topics that economics touch on.

I was so flustered and out-of-breath when I arrived that I forgot to pre-sign my book for him. He'd made a policy of just signing his name after some of his other book signings ran long, but I'm sure he would have signed his name below any made-up salutation.

"To Eugene, my reader with the greatest length and upside."

"May this 736 page behemoth of a book last you over 300 post-Mexican meal seatings on the toilet."

Dudamel's Inaugural Concert

Thursday night I attended 28 year old Gustavo Dudamel's inaugural concert as music director of the LA Philharmonic. I saw him conduct the orchestra many times last season, so the novelty this night wasn't seeing him in action as much as it was experiencing the city's reaction to his coronation.

That's what it felt like: a coronation. The block of Grand Ave. in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall was closed off for a post-concert gala. Magenta spotlights lit up the brushed metal skin of the concert hall, and a carpet of matching hue ran from the sidewalk up to the entrance. Shouts from the photographer's den rang out each time a movie star strolled past, Hollywood having gained, for this night at least, a newfound appreciation for classical music. In my brief stroll up to the entrance, I saw Rachel Griffiths, Andy Garcia, and Jason Schwartzman. Even those people I didn't recognize were dressed to the nines this night; I felt almost bourgeois in my suit.

My seats this night were in the orchestra viewing area, behind the orchestra, directly below the organ, facing the conductor's podium. It felt like sitting behind home plate at a baseball game. I was concerned the music would sound odd given my seat location, but the acoustic qualities of that hall are so magnificent that the music sounded fine, if spatially reversed.

The first piece was the world premiere of Charles Adams' "City Noir." It is a jazz-infused symphony which the program noted would be the first in a triptych of pieces inspired by the California experience. I never played many jazzy classical pieces growing up, so these types of pieces are more opaque to me. As with many Adams' pieces, I found moments to be evocative and mysterious, with echoes of familiar sounds, but the overall emotional construction was challenging to grasp.

At intermission, complimentary flutes of champagne were set out on tables on each floor. If the interior of the space were more ornate, the gowns on the women a bit puffier, the men's tuxedo shirts a bit more ruffled, we could have been in 18th century Vienna, so excited the crowd seemed to be for classical music.

If Simon Cowell were to offer Dudamel any advice this night, I suspect he would have lauded the song selection. After intermission Dudamel selected Mahler's First Symphony. It's one of my favorites, a piece that showcases so many sections of an orchestra and builds to a rousing finale that is standing ovation ready.

More importantly, Dudamel clearly loves it, conducting from memory. Many times throughout the piece, he broke out in smiles of pure joy. The piece plays to one of his strengths, his ability to draw from his players a torrent of intensity and power. Were there rough patches to give ammunition to the inevitable naysayers? Sure. A bass solo was hit one note flat, the first violin section may not be as precise as one would like, and perhaps the horn section from Chicago which I listened to in my youth is stronger.

But I have yet to attend a Dudamel concert that wasn't exciting. Part of it is his style on the podium, the sheer variety of his broad gestures, as if willing the desired emotion from each phrase of the piece. I could hear his sharp intakes of breath whenever he launched the orchestra into a crescendo.

So moved was the audience that they broke out in applause between the first and second movements. As Dudamel led the orchestra towards the finale of the piece, I got goosebumps, and when he hit the final note, the crowd leapt to its feet in an outpouring of ecstasy I've never seen at a classical performance. About the third time he emerged to acknowledge the cheers, magenta and silver confetti rained down from the ceiling.

Will Dudamel save classical music? It's a silly question but often asked of him. Soccer has a better chance of becoming a major part of the U.S. sports landscape. I didn't see any significant shift in the demographics of the audience this night, nor would I expect to see any such shift in the years to come. It will take more than a conductor to restore classical music to a central role in the cultural landscape for the youth of tomorrow.

But perhaps classical music can continue to survive and thrive at the periphery, sustained by a core base of passionate fans. So much of culture has fractured that all that may be needed is enough of a fan base to fill the hall to 75% some 4 nights a week for seven or eight months a year. If TV shows like Friday Night Lights and Mad Men and The Wire could survive with their somewhat scant (by TV industry standards) but dedicated audiences, why not classical music?

Energizing the base may not be a sufficient strategy if you're the Republican Party, say, and require a majority to return to position of relevance among the next generation, but for this classical music fan, converting the heathen is orthogonal to my enjoyment (and given that just about every Dudamel show this season has sold out already, might be counter to it!). Dudamel is an electric new presence in the classical world, and that's plenty fine for me.

A waking dream

I had a musician friend visiting me all weekend, and while researching music shows, I stumbled across a unique concert: Bon Iver was going to play a sunrise show at the Hollywood Cemetery Sunday morning at around 5:50am. The doors would open at midnight on Saturday, and various events were scheduled through the night.

As with any hot show, tickets were underpriced at $25 each and sold out quickly. I paid a pretty sum more than that for a pair of tickets from a scalper on Craiglist. We met up at a Chevron gas station near The Getty and exchanged cash for tickets like a drug deal.

I don't remember how I first heard of Bon Iver, probably through an MP3 blog, but his first single "Skinny Love" haunted me. Every story about the album's creation focused on the back story: Justin Vernon retreated alone to a remote hunting cabin in Wisconsin for several months to record most of the tracks. I've never heard what drove him to the woods and what feelings he wanted to put into song, but one listen of the album reveals multitudes.

Soon after the album's release, I saw Bon Iver perform live at a tiny bar in LA called The Echo. The bar held maybe a hundred people at most, all crowded around the stage. I could barely see through the crowd to Vernon, who was seated on stage. That my few glimpses seemed to reveal a bearded mountain man reinforced the back story of the album's genesis. Unlike the hipsters crowding the bar, all of whom had paid exorbitant prices to dress like homeless people, Vernon looked like the real thing.

Any other day, I'd arrive at a show like this Hollywood Cemetery gig filled with excitement. But this day, I walked several blocks to the entrance in a stupor. Saturday morning I ran 19 miles, my longest run yet in training for this year's NY Marathon. The run broke me, not physically but mentally. It's not that I can't do the distance, but it's the frustration of not being able to run much faster despite all the miles logged. On a bike, the more I ride, the faster I go. On foot, the more I run, the longer I can suffer at the same pace, until felled by injury, of which there have been many.

After one of my numerous surgeries for my leg, I don't recall which one (maybe to have part of my meniscus removed), a physician said to me, "Some people just aren't built to run." He said "some people" but it was clear he was being more specific than that. I plodded along for 19 miles Saturday morning, but even when I willed myself to accelerate, when I tried to increase my stride or cadence or some variation thereof, nothing happened.

After a late dinner and show at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, we didn't get changed and out to the Cemetery until after two in the morning. The drive over through a rare and dense Los Angeles fog seemed like a journey through an impending apocalyptic wasteland. On the I-10 headed East, I saw a car on the other side of the highway stalled on the median, it's hood popped open, the engine spewing out flames several feet high. Near the cemetery, angry drivers leaned on their horns and gunned their engines to pass each other, apparently in a hurry to run the next red light. We passed a Korean club in K-town where young males milled about outside looking like they were organizing for trouble. The world felt aggressive, angry.

My legs protested even just an 8 block walk to the entrance of the cemetery. The patch of lawn where the concert was taking place was already full of blankets and people when we arrived in the absolute dark. Bottle Rocket screened on the white wall of a building. I love that movie. The quiet conversations of groups of people throughout the grounds mixed with the occasional draft of pot from the guy laid out next to us who puffed on his pipe without shame. Through the fog I could see the shadowy outlines of a few palm trees leaning over in the sky.

As soon as I laid out my sleeping bag and pillow on a blanket, they were covered with a cool dew. I tried to sleep, but I couldn't find a comfortable position no matter which way I rolled. After Bottle Rocket, the first set of music picked by Bon Iver played at a moderate volume (The LA Times has all the setlists from the night). Then, at some point, a screening of highlights from Planet Earth started playing. I don't know when that began as I was fading in and out of consciousness. I'd sit up from time to time and see colorful birds performing elaborate mating dances, frogs hurtling through the air in slow motion, their arms and legs splayed out in all directions for balance, and then I'd pass out again.

After that screening, a shorter second list of songs selected by Bon Iver played over the speakers. The second to last song was Sade's "By Your Side". My sister used that song for her first dance at her wedding. That was a long time ago. The song made me feel old and sentimental.

After the last song of the list, there was a period of silence where all I could hear were the conversations nearby me. A group of people spoke with excitement about evading security guards around the cemetery, near misses punctuated by ducking behind tombstones and crypts while flashlight beams swept overhead.

And then the chanting began, Buddhist monks chanting in that hypnotic, repetitious pattern. This was the designated alarm clock for the day. I wondered how Bon Iver was able to enlist Buddhist monks. Did they listen to his music, too? Are monks allowed to have iPods? It was dark and I did not see where they were, though I saw a group of lanterns hanging in the distance.

And then lights came on towards the far corner of the lawn, revealing a stage set up for the show, and then the members of Bon Iver walked on stage to the cheers of those who'd stayed up all night and those still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

The first time I saw Bon Iver back at The Echo, Vernon said little. But at the Hollywood Forever show, he spoke early and often, exhibiting a humble humor that went down easy for a crowd half awake. Hearing Vernon's normal speaking voice, one would never imagine the falsetto he uses throughout For Emma, Forever Ago.

If Arcade Fire sounds anthemic, then Bon Iver sounds sacred. As the sky turned from black to slate to sickly orange to pale morning blue, Bon Iver filled the damp morning air with gorgeous versions of every song they knew while the crowd sat on their blankets in a hushed reverence. Vernon seemed just as amazed as any of us that this was happening.

"This is the weirdest thing we've done. Ever." At one point Vernon tried to tune a guitar. "It's covered with dew."

It's as close as I may ever come to feeling the presence of something holy on a Sunday morning. At one point, someone let out a crazy yell of joy.

Vernon paused. "Was that a dead person?"

A few songs from the end, Vernon said, "I know it's standard for bands to pretend to walk off the stage and then come back and play more songs, but we're a young band, we don't have that many songs. So if it's okay with you, we're just going to stay on stage and play every song we know."

He apologized once more before the last song. "This is the last song. It's the only song left that we know how to play. I'm feeling inadequate." Then they launched into "Wolves". During the second half, at Vernon's request, we joined in to sing, again and again, "What might have been lost."

When the final note cut out, we all stood and applauded. Bon Iver had won our hearts. Then we shuffled out of the cemetery carrying our sleeping bags, blankets, and pillows. The morning sun, diffused through a thick cloud cover, dropped a soft white light from overhead.

Over the past year, I've soured on a lot of the shortcomings of the concert-going experience, but a night like this redeems my hope for what a live music performance can be. With every event of the night curated by Bon Iver, from the location to the movies to the music, this was more of an experience than a performance. Simply gorgeous, one of the most memorable shows of my life.

Live from the Artists Den

We just launched Live from the Artists Den at Hulu. It's a concert series in which an artist is invited to perform in a non-standard venue in a town, the performances recorded for broadcast.

Long before we signed this content provider, I received an invite to attend one of their concerts, an Aimee Mann performance at LA's Vibiana Cathedral.

On the road last week I perused the video to see if I made it into any shots, and 4 minutes in, I caught a glimpse of myself as I was sitting in the front row.

Hulu - Live from the Artists Den: Aimee Mann

Here's another good one in the series, The Swell Season, of Once fame.

Anna Netrebko

The Asian leg of my vacation is complete, and I miss Hong Kong and Tokyo already. It's never a fair comparison, pitting the hometown where you've spent years living and working versus the places you visit for just a few days with an itinerary set to plunder the destination's peak offerings. The allure of the new and mysterious almost always overwhelms the mundane and the familiar, especially given how many vacations come after long stretches of work which have whittled your creative energy down to a nub.

I had many more days of exciting discoveries left in Tokyo. It's such a massive city that my four days there were just enough for me to feel comfortable there at the exact moment I grasped, in a very physical sense, its sheer density and magnitude. I left with a feeling that there were more things I hadn't visited that I would love than I had crossed off the list. That's rare for me, being somewhat of a travel completist.

But more on Asia later. Today I come to speak of the Russian Anna Netrebko, widely considered the world's greatest soprano and its preeminent diva, that term being a great compliment in the world of opera.* I heard Netrebko this afternoon in the final performance of her short run with the San Francisco Opera performing the role of Violetta Valery in Verdi's La Traviata.

I will preface my thoughts by saying I am no expert on opera, so those looking for a review of the finer points of Italian diction and an assessment of where she took her breaths will be disappointed.

I first heard of Netrebko from a friend who'd seen her perform early in her career, and then I lost track of her until a cover story profile in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine. She was most well-known for two things, not often paired in an opera singer: her voice and her beauty, both sensual and captivating. If you were a baseball scout grading her voice on the traditional 20-80 scale you'd give it a 75. As for her looks, I showed some friends her CD covers today after the show and one compared her to Monica Bellucci, an apt comp in that she does recall in many ways the full-bodied Italian starlets of old.

I don't often go out of my way to see certain performers live, but I make an exception for generational talents: Michael Jordan, for example, or Roger Federer, and in this case, Netrebko. When I saw her calendar for 2009 included two stops in the US, one in NY at the Met and one in SF performing La Traviata, I snapped up tickets almost a year in advance for a weekend date of the later and knew I'd plan some way to attend. As I noted before, I'm at best an opera dilettante, but I far prefer a good opera to a musical, and that makes me a rarity among my generation. I'm just as susceptible to being bored to slumber by a pondering German opera, but the best of the ones I do love have an otherworldly musical beauty that lifts me up in a way no musical can.

One of the problems with opera, and one reason I think it struggles to connect with a younger generation, is the deadly pairing of plot implausibility with wooden acting. The cartoon parody of opera, not entirely inaccurate, is of an overweight woman in a Viking helmet, her diminutive male counterpart barely the size of her thigh, screeching so loudly that windows shatter, said immense woman playing an ageless young beauty despite sporting the looks of a fifty-something housewife.

It's a gross objectification and simplification, but I have left many an opera wondering what would have been lost by closing my eyes throughout and just listening considering that the stage choreography consisted mostly of a singer walking to and fro on stage, all facial and bodily expression an afterthought in the pursuit of accurate diction and musical phrasing.

Netrebko arrived on stage in style, in the backseat of a classic Buick. She is a bit heavier now than in photographs I've seen of her, but that's understandable considering she had a baby not too long ago. The voice is still the voice. What's amazing to someone like myself, who can't sing along to more than a few songs at a concert without losing my voice, is how effortlessly she can generate a massive, rich sound. At times she barely appeared to be opening her mouth and yet filled the house with her voice. The ease of her vocal power was such that if I didn't know who se was I'd think it was some odd form of lip synching. This incredible vocal power is a huge advantage when acting out more tender emotions. A lesser singer who'd have to contort her body and strain her face to generate the same output is much less likely to convey emotion than sheer physical exertion.

Netrebko actually matches her vocal expression with acting. No one will confuse the work that can be accomplished while vocally navigating passages of coloratura with the type of method acting Meryl Streep accomplishes in a close-up shot, but Netrebko makes it easier for those who don't understand Italian to understand what she's feeling. There were several moments where I missed the text on the prompter because I was peering through binoculars, but as long as I kept my eyes on her I never lost track of the emotional or plot throughline of the scene.

Having just arrived back in U.S. timezones less than 24 hours earlier, I was worried I'd succumb to jetlag during the show, this being a Sunday 2pm performance that was 6am Tokyo time. But a quick powernap and a rare espresso before the show, combined with the excitement of seeing Netrebko live in a fast-moving La Traviata kept me sharp throughout.

I've never seen La Traviata live, and my lack of knowledge of the finer points of opera preclude any other thoughts on this particular rendition. Two other memorable moments from the performance: at the first intermission, I saw a sign that said Netrebko would be in the lobby after the show signing her CDs and DVDs. At that precise moment I knew that about half the cash in my wallet had just been lit on fire, and I felt a pang of regret that I'd left my SLR at my friend's apartment and would have to rely on my iPhone camera in the underlit lobby. Second, at the end of the performance, when Netrebko came out to a standing ovation, she put a hand over her heart in appreciation and blew kisses to her adoring SF fans, here at the site where she'd made her US debut many years past. As the curtains fell for the last time, just as they were halfway down, she suddenly threw inhibition to the winds and hopped up and down like a young girl, waving her arms frantically overhead, as if sending off departing friends from summer camp. It was a youthful, exuberant expression of joy that I just couldn't picture coming from someone like an Angela Gheorgiu or a Jessye Norman, for example.

I waded through a crowd in the giftshop and picked up some $70 worth of Netrebko CDs for the signing, then jumped into a long line that wrapped around the corner of the lobby inside to wait for her to appear. After twenty minutes in which I saw opera house staff running back and forth with some distress, I felt a hand pull me sharply back to clear a gap in the line to a side door to the orchestra seating of the hall. I looked up to see an older man with a staff badge, and who should walk up from behind him than Anna herself, a young female assistant in tow. The old man rushed to open the side door to give her a shortcut through the hall to get to the autograph table in the lobby, but Netrebko took one look at the door, discerned his intentions, and turned away without breaking stride to walk down the hall past her waiting fans instead.

The old man finally popped back out, puzzled as to why she hadn't come on through. By then Anna was halfway down the hall, waving and clasping hands with fans as they greeted her with shouts of "Anna!" and other phrases in Russian and a variety of other languages.

The line did not move quickly, and while we waited a woman from the opera house came walked down the line with a post-it note pad writing down patron names in block capital letters so we wouldn't have to teach Anna how to spell our names. Good idea, but when she came up to us she also said that we could only give Anna one item to sign. Having purchased four CDs at significant price premiums to what I could have paid on Amazon, I was not pleased. If it were an opera I would have burst out into a fiery aria.

But Anna had already defied the opera staff once, and so I held out hope that she wouldn't adhere to such arbitrary house rules. As I turned the corner and saw her, I understood why the line wasn't moving more quickly. While the staff tried to hustle her fans through, Anna would look each fan in the eye, listen to what they had to say to her, respond, often in their native language (I heard her speak in English, Spanish, Russian, and French to various fans), pose for photos, and sign each CD or DVD with the same deliberate pace.

When I reached her, I chose a double disc set of her performance of La Traviata from Salzburg as the item most worthy of her signature, and she signed it right on the cover of the case. I mumbled something about having been honored to hear her sing, and she thanked me with a warm smile. I turned to leave, but then she saw the other CDs in my hand and reached out her hand.

"Here, let me sign those for you," she said, grabbing the stack. She signed each of them on the cover, but when she reached the last CD, she paused, furrowed her brow, then opened the case and signed the back of the paper insert instead. Then she grabbed the CD of La Traviata back from me.

"I am not sure if this will stay,", she said, rubbing her finger across the ink of her previous signature on the plastic CD cover. But the ink had already dried and did not smear.

"Oh, it is okay!" she beamed.

I usually dread meeting famous people, especially those I admire. The imbalance in relationship of worshipper to hero is so severe as to lead to disappointment more often than not. What can be conveyed in a single autograph line encounter of any substance or genuine emotion between a fan and a celebrity who doesn't know that fan as much more than one of an adoring throng of millions? The usual exchange of pleasantries:

  1. Fan expresses admiration for celebrity.

  2. Celebrity thanks fan, then asks what the person's name is and what they'd like to have signed.

  3. Celebrity signs item while fan perhaps gushes a bit more, perhaps elaborating on the earlier admiration to name a specific moment or instance of the celebrity's work that particularly struck them.

  4. Celebrity thanks fan for that more specific example in which his/her work has touched the fan, hands back the autographed item, and then turns to the next fan.

  5. Rinse, repeat.

I've just recently met two celebrities to have items signed, one being another classical music performer I've followed for decades now, and the other being one of my favorite movie and music video directors. In both cases, the celebrities were brusque, borderline cold, and the encounters left me feeling like a silly fanboy who'd wasted their time by forcing them to indulge in such banal and forced interactions with the ungifted masses.

What Netrebko conveyed in our short encounter was subtle but, given my previous two hero encounters, momentous. She showed genuine appreciation for my appreciation of her work, and she displayed a thoughtfulness that, amplified by the previously noted disproportionate one-way admiration that is typical of fan-to-hero relationships, bordered on genuine intimacy. This ability to convey a genuine warmth and caring in short interactions with complete strangers is something I'd only read about from skilled politicians like Bill Clinton. Netrebko has it in spades, and one has the sense that if she could spend even more time meeting her fans she'd have a relationship with them that not opera critics or vicious opera bloggers could mediate. She can be the people's diva, and more than that, she seems like a genuine person, and so she brings a realism to the flawed operatic heroes she plays on stage.

My friend who was with me said afterwards that Netrebko's charms seemed particularly tuned towards men, but I didn't hear her at first, I was so engrossed in flipping through my stack of autographed CDs with a big smile on my face. If opera is to survive and thrive in the next generation (I could not help but notice, once again, that the median age of this crowd was likely in the late 50's), there is something to be learned from the Netrebko's of the classical music world, and it is not about selling out with sex appeal or crossover albums.

* The term prima donna comes from Italian. Prima is the feminine form of primo--"first"--and donna means lady. The prima donna is literally the first lady of an opera troupe. It's not a coincidence that the term is more often used in English to describe a vain, temperamental person. But the operatic sense of the term looks at the glass half full and connotes someone able to fill the seats of a massive opera hall and satisfy patrons paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege of witnessing a performance from someone with a personality and stature to match the ticket prices in scale. At least that is my layman's interpretation.


I saw Up in 3-D at the El Capitan last night. It's the richest, most moving script from Pixar yet. Animation lovers will love the references to Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky.

I will be curious, when it comes out on Blu-Ray, to see it in 2-D also, but this is probably the most polished 3-D movie I've seen to date. There is a level of control with digital animation that allows the 3-D effects to be extremely precise, with much less of the distracting blurring that makes other 3-D movies feel like gimmicks.


So, did Susan Boyle win in the finals of Britain's Got Talent? Go see for yourself.

I keep forgetting you don't have to sing to be on that show. The finals are like America's Best Dance Crew vs. American Idol.


Last survivor of the Titanic dies. I knew she was ready to pass on after she dropped that blue jeweled necklace into the ocean.


Nadal loses at the French Open. Massive upset. This makes Robin Soderling the future answer to a trivia question. Djokovic is out, too. Federer, the door is open. This is your best, and maybe last chance, to walk down that red clay carpet and on through.


In the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reports that we are likely in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in Earth's history. By the end of this century, nearly half of Earth's species may be extinct. The suspected cause is the pace of human activity.