Baby, This Is NOT What I Came For

Baby, This Is NOT What I Came For

I feel duped.

I went on Spotify to check out the US Top 50.  I knew the song we heard in our Uber the other night would be in the playlist, but I couldn’t find it.

I had a feeling the song’s title would be obvious, and that it wouldn’t be by an artist I’ve heard of before.  Turns out I would be spot-on with my first feeling, dead wrong with the second, but I wouldn’t find that out just yet…

I glazed over all of the names in the list: Drake, Rihanna, Adele, et al.  None of those could possibly be the artist whose song I’m thinking of.

You’ve probably heard it.  Because it’s everywhere.  Pop dominates right now, and nothing will change that overnight.

“Baby, this is what you came for

Lightning strikes every time she moves

And everybody’s watching her

But she’s looking at


It’s catchy as hell!  But I didn’t see it in the list, or at least, I didn’t think I saw it.

So I clicked instead over to the Discover Weekly playlist, and after 30 seconds or so of the first track, I skipped to the next…

“She’s Looking at You” by Everything But You.

There it was!  The song I was looking for!

But…not exactly.  The words were the same, as was the tempo.  But it was in a different key, and the “you-ou—you-ou—ou-ou” wasn’t as chopped up as what I had heard over and over again.

So I Googled the song and what came up??

“This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris, featuring Rihanna.

And that’s when my adrenaline spiked.

I first heard this song in May, once I had finished reading The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook, and the day after I saw Drake host and perform on Saturday Night Live.  I spent that Sunday listening to all 50 songs in the US Top 50 in order to immerse myself in what the current mainstream culture is listening to these days on the most widely-used streaming site.

I navigated back to the list and sure enough, there it was, sitting at #4 with 852,388 daily plays.

Understand: there are no bands in the US Top 50 on Spotify.

Playing the song got me even more upset.  Because even though the original song by Everything But You employs the use of AutoTune (most professional productions these days do) at least the singer is close.  And the Rihanna version is positively dripping with AT.

Because she can’t sing.  At least not like Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey, or Adele, or even Maya Rudolph.  Rihanna’s talent is looking good, playing the part of pop queen, being an identity for a global brand, and recording songs crafted for her by others.  And she knows it.

According to Seabrook, at an impromptu audition in front of a major label songwriter vacationing in Barbados, a young girl named Robyn Fenty arrived wicked late, and her singing was very pitchy.  She was part of a three-girl group of wannabe pop stars, of which one had a mom who was friends with the songwriter’s wife.

But she was late because she was taking time to perfect her outfit and her makeup.  And it paid off, when the songwriter offered her an opportunity to come live with him in New York and make a demo record.  He didn’t care for the group, but thought, with the right polishing, he could make Robyn a star.

Fenty was desperate to escape an abusive father in her home in Barbados, and essentially said “I’ll do anything you want, I’ll sign anything, just get me out of here.”

Fast-forward to today, and she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, going by her middle name: Rihanna.

So when I found out that the song which is permeating the airwaves of radio, streaming, and TV (I distinctly remember hearing the song at a commercial cutaway during the NBA Finals) is, in fact, a complete sampling and remix of another song, performed by a fabricated pop star, I got pissed off.

You see, unless you are already commanding a great deal of attention, it’s incredibly difficult to break into today’s mainstream consciousness.

Music is not the only industry for which this is true: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have both been in the public eye for around thirty years, and Bernie Sanders was a relatively unknown senator less than a year ago.  Now, at the last minute, we’re being introduced to Gary Johnson and Jill Stein as viable options.

Too little, too late — the public is going to vote for who they know, and they don’t know these third-party candidates the way (they think) they know Trump and Clinton.

And the public is going to listen to Rihanna, not Everything But You.

Because it’s much easier for a record label to take a good song from a new or up-and-coming artist and repurpose it for one of their already-successful stars, than it is to spend time and money nurturing and growing that up-and-comer’s budding career.  Labels want sure things, not what-ifs.

The 1970s are gone.  And so is the record labels’ way of doing business back then, when artists would be signed to development deals, with the understanding that the first album may not reach the public consciousness, but over time, as their talent was honed and their fan base grew, their catalogue of work would create an impact, and therefore, sales.

Today, if an artist doesn’t sell right out of the gate, if they don’t make an immediate and measurable impact, they are cut.  Done-zo.  The bottom line is the most important priority in deciding what music to release, and labels can’t afford, in this freemium culture, to take a chance on an unknown.  There’s too much to lose.

More and more, even as the world becomes super-connected through the internet, we are identifying with individuals.  People to whom we can relate, who share the same struggles as we do.

And sadly, too many females can relate to getting the crap beat out of them by their boyfriend.  But most of them don’t end up getting their own line of perfume.

I’ll still listen to the song, but I hate that it’s Rihanna and not the original artist.

And I’ll still vote for the Democratic Party presidential nominee, but I hate that it’s Hillary and not Bernie.

Baby, this is NOT what I came for.

“She’s Looking at You”:

“This Is What You Came For”:

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Let he who would move the world first move himself. — Socrates

Copyright © 2018 John Kay, All rights reserved.


The DSO Does Bowie

The DSO Does Bowie

We were late…

Not that we didn’t plan to arrive on time, in fact, we left early in order to scope out the situation.  I hadn’t been to Meadowbrook since I was a little kid, when my family saw the Detroit Symphony Orchestra perform Wagner’s infamous Die Walküre, replete with a laser light show (it was the mid-1980s, when such exhibitions were in vogue).

The concert was billed with a 7:30 start time, which, to me, meant the performance would start at around 8:00.  At least, that’s how it works at seemingly every other gig I’ve attended in the last decade or more.

So we arrived at around 6:45, saw that there was plenty of parking available, and decided to go grab a quick dinner before the show.  We dined at a restaurant right around the corner, and left to head back at around 7:20.

Big mistake!

Vehicles were lined up for over a mile in each direction to get to the venue, because the road leading to Meadowbrook is only one lane wide.  It took us until after 8:00 to park, and once we did, it cost $15, even on the outskirts of the lot.

Upon exiting the car, it was immediately apparent that my queen and I were overdressed for the occasion, in our respective dress and suit.  But we got a lot of compliments, especially her, since she styled her makeup in true Ziggy Stardust fashion.  Most people looked as though they came directly from their family’s backyard BBQ.

After hoofing it a half mile up a dirt road, we got to the will call window, whereupon I showed my ID and promptly received the press passes I was promised by Ben Breuninger, Public Relations Coordinator for the DSO.

[I had contacted the DSO back in March when the concert was first announced to inquire about press passes, since the release included the information to do so.  My blog reaches hundreds of people, and I don’t see many under the age of 50 reviewing classical concerts.  So I figured, what the heck, why not??  The worst thing that could happen is they say no.  Not only were they happy to accommodate my request, Ben got on the phone with me the day after the show to answer some of my questions about the event.  You don’t ask, you don’t get!]

Tickets in hand, we waited in line for drinks — $13.50 each for tiny vodka sodas?? — and faintly heard what I could only assume at the time was a cover band warming the crowd up for the big show with “China Girl”, “Starman”, and “Heroes”.

We wouldn’t learn, until a woman sitting near us, whom the conductor randomly picked to come on stage and lead the band through “Golden Years”, showed me the set list she was given, that we had actually arrived at the end of the first half of the show.  Turns out, we got to our seats during intermission.

I was giddy when I saw where we would be sitting: in the pavilion, row X, seats 101 and 102, on the aisle, the third point of an equilateral triangle with the speakers on each side of the stage.  Perfect listening seats, and a great view!

The band and orchestra took their places, tuned, and the vocalist came out to a warm applause from the audience.  After riling up the crowd, the ensemble launched into “Modern Love”, and I instantly knew we were in for an interesting night…

Because I could hardly hear the strings!  I had to use earplugs in order to reduce the reverberations so I could make out what the strings were actually doing.

Mind you, I’m not a lifelong Bowie fan, still I hold a huge respect for him as an artist and musician.  He always pushed the limits of popular music throughout his career, challenged convention, championed originality.

It wasn’t until just before his death that I began to dive into his work, catalyzed by the production of his last album, Blackstar.

Blackstar is David Bowie’s final truth, told to the world.  The album is deep, with lyrics addressing topics ranging from his own death (“Lazarus”) to the current culture of mindless popular music (“Girl Loves Me”) to even ISIS and religious fundamentalism (“Blackstar”).  His confidants have gone on record to say that Bowie essentially willed himself to live long enough to complete the album, to see it through to the very end.  He died two days after Blackstar‘s release.

But even though Blackstar became Bowie’s first album in his 50-year recording career to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 in the US, it would not be represented in the program.  Neither would anything he created in the last three decades.

I spoke with the show’s arranger and conductor, Brent Havens, a few days after the gig.  He said he loved the title cut from Blackstar, but being over ten minutes in length, it would have comprised nearly a third of the entire program.

Fair point, to be sure…but why not “Lazarus”, the lead single from Blackstar?  The first lyric in the song — “Look up here, I’m in heaven…” — transports you right next to Bowie in Valhalla.

And “Lazarus” leaves an arranger ample room for orchestral accompaniment.  When the vocalist stated to the audience (paraphrased) “I listened to a lot of David Bowie’s music right after he died, and when I got to this song I started crying,” my queen was getting her tissues out because she thought it was going to be “Lazarus”.  It gets her every time.

But it turned out to be “Space Oddity”.

In fact, the most recent work in the 18-song program was “Blue Jean” from the 1984 album Tonight, which, according to numerous critics, is one of the three worst albums in Bowie’s oeuvre.  And he had released nine studio albums since, two to critical acclaim.

Granted, Havens was already in the process of arranging and putting together The Music of David Bowie prior to the icon’s death in early January.  When I asked why he chose not to include anything Bowie released in the past 30 years, Havens stated he was aiming for “songs most people would know”, songs from albums that “sold the most”, and frankly, songs from the era of Bowie that Havens personally “grew up with.”

Which sparks another observation: most of the folks seated in the pavilion had full heads of gray hair.  My queen and I were members of the minority, that is, people under the age of 50. Understandable, considering David Bowie released his first album in 1967.

That’s not to say we stuck out like sore thumbs (beyond our outfits, of course), there were many people our age and younger in attendance, and several thirty-something parents with their kids.  But they were mostly on the lawn, the “cheap” seats, which went for $20 apiece or $60 for a four-pack.

Our tickets had a face value of $55 each, tickets for seats up front went for $75.

My first introduction to Bowie was “The Man Who Sold the World”, and that’s only because Nirvana covered it when they performed on MTV’s Unplugged back in the day.  I wonder how many others in attendance had the same experience.

That thought led me to ask Breuninger what the DSO is doing to increase visibility among Millennials.  He told me that the DSO aims to be “the most accessible orchestra on the planet”: they stream concerts online, offer student packages with ticket discounts, have an education wing dedicated to connecting with young people, hold family concerts, and champion diversity in the programming.

Maybe I don’t attend many concerts (I don’t).  Maybe I don’t have a great deal of disposable income (I certainly don’t).  And maybe being a performing musician for nearly three decades impairs my judgment of what is truly entertaining (up for debate, I suppose).

But the night was billed as “a one-night-only symphonic odyssey that explores the incredible range of David Bowie’s musical genius,” according to the press release, and it came off as a brilliant cover band playing a spot-on Bowie-classics revue, who just happened to have an orchestra on stage with them for effect.  I just didn’t feel the impact I expected.

“My concept for The Music of David Bowie was to take the music as close to the originals as we could and then add some colors to enhance what Bowie had done…The band is reproducing what Bowie did on the albums, verbatim,” said Havens in the aforementioned press release.

And Havens lived up to that concept — the band nailed it, the vocalist did a fantastic job.

“The wonderful thing with an orchestra is that you have an entire palette to call upon…having an orchestra behind the band gives the music a richness, a whole different feel, a whole different sense of power.”

That’s exactly what was missing from the show…POWER!  It felt more like a concert in the park, especially since the sun didn’t set until just before the show had ended, rendering the would-be light show lackluster.

People surely knew the songs, though “Ashes to Ashes” received a tepid response.  They sang along heartily with “Space Oddity”, and got funky during “Young Americans”, which featured a trumpet solo instead of saxophone (I could hear the horns all night!), everyone moved their bodies to “Let’s Dance”, of course.

During the show’s closer, “Life on Mars?”, it seemed as though the orchestra finally came to life — or maybe the sound guy just cranked them up for a big finale.  But as my queen flicked her Bic and swayed it in the air, we couldn’t help but notice we were in the minority again: everyone else was holding up their cell phones.  Traditions change with the times, too.

Havens and I agree that “Life on Mars?” was the perfect final number for the show.  Though the song was originally released over four decades ago, the poignant lyrics are still relevant to our current culture — “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy…”.  Hopefully people left thinking.

Full disclosure, my queen is a diehard Bowie fan, with a tattoo of Blackstar‘s album cover on the back of her neck, and I love to make her happy.  If Ben wasn’t so kind and benevolent, I probably would have bought tickets anyway.

But we wouldn’t have sat in the pavilion, not at $55 a ticket, no sir.  In a strained economy the entertainment budget is generally the first to get slashed.  Between dinner, parking, drinks, and tickets and service fees, it would have been more than my monthly car payment. And that’s a shame, because if we weren’t sitting where we did, the show would have been even less powerful.

Havens told me on the phone that two speaker cabinets, one on each side of the stage, had blown earlier in the day, and they weren’t able to be fixed in time for the show.  Perhaps that’s why I was having a hard time feeling the impact I had expected.

I was really hoping for more arrangement liberties to be taken with the music, to push it further.  Moreover, Bowie was not just a recording artist, he knew the power of visuals and imagery.  A dazzling light show is an integral part of any Bowie production, I believe.  Still have those lasers in a closet somewhere?  Dust them off!

Because just playing the songs faithfully isn’t enough anymore.  There has to be an experience!

P.S.  My queen enjoyed herself, we were very happy we went, grateful to Ben and the DSO for the tickets.  And ultimately, we found an upside to being one of the last to arrive…we were one of the first cars to get out of the parking lot!

DSO Does Bowie Set List

Rebel Rebel
Ziggy Stardust
Blue Jean
Suffragette City
Under Pressure
China Girl
Modern Love
Space Oddity
Young Americans
Ashes to Ashes
Golden Years
Let’s Dance
Life on Mars?

Visit the archive:

Join the fan club: Become a Bullfighter

Music: Spotify Artist Page
Podcast: Get After It w/ John Kay on iTunes
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Facebook: /TheRealJohnKay

Let he who would move the world first move himself. — Socrates

Copyright © 2018 John Kay, All rights reserved.

It Could Happen to You

It Could Happen to You

I was abused and assaulted by Michigan State Troopers during Father’s Day weekend in 2011.

They refused to answer three simple questions — What is the purpose of this detainment? Am I under arrest? Am I free to go? — and once I told my companion to begin filming the interaction, the officer pulled his tazer on me and commanded the second officer to perform a takedown maneuver on me which ultimately caused permanent damage to my spine and hip.

Handcuffing me and placing me at the front of their vehicle, they interviewed my companion in private, then spoke with each other in their cruiser. After ten minutes waiting, standing dirty, scratched, bruised, and bloodied at the hood of their vehicle, they returned to inform me I was being placed under arrest for “Resisting and Obstructing”.

“How was I resisting?? I was just asking questions!” I said.

“You weren’t resisting?? Then why do I have dirt on my pants??” replied the officer.

“Because you tackled me to the ground, sir. I have no idea why this is happening, I’ve never been in trouble in my life.”

The senior officer walks over…”What are you waiting for? Put him in the car. Let’s go.”

They took me to jail, booked me, and I was there overnight. The next morning the magistrate read the charges: “You’re being charged with Resisting and Obstructing including assault of an officer, which is a two-year felony.”

“What?!? Assault?? I didn’t assault anyone!”

“It says here that you ‘struck Officer Bell.'”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. That didn’t happen,” I protested.

“I’m just reading the report. You can explain yourself in court.”

Cut to the end of the ordeal: the attorney convinced me to accept a misdemeanor plea deal. His words exactly were…

“My job is to keep you out of the system. They have the pen and paper, and therefore they have the power. They wrote down that you assaulted an officer, and now the burden of proof is on you. Do you really want to tie yourself up in court for years over this? You won’t win.”

I caved. I took the deal and got six months probation…and a criminal record.

And now, five years later, I can’t get no retribution. On paper, I’m guilty. Because I took a deal. The other deal was to immediately go broke fighting our government in an attempt to prove my innocence, with an uncertain outcome leaning toward two years of incarceration.

Since this experience five years ago, the chemical reaction in my body which is generally reserved for fight-or-flight response occurs whenever I see a police officer when I’m out in public.

So I can’t even imagine what it’s like for a black person…whose entire race was considered “unequal” under our laws a few short decades ago…when a police officer engages with them. I wonder if they experience the same chemical reaction I do, the same fear, the same confusion as to why they need to be suspicious of those who are supposedly sworn to serve and protect them.

I bet they do. I bet it’s much worse than what I feel.

I haven’t thrown this story out there publicly much, because these days it seems everyone wants to lead with their victim story. But in light of the relentless killings of black United States citizens, and since it has been a full five years gone since this happened to me, I figured it was an appropriate time to share it.

In conclusion: when a member of “law enforcement” shoots someone and kills them, regardless of color, I have serious doubts and disbelief about their version of what supposedly went down…

And I will still question authority.

So should we all.

“No More”:

Visit the archive:

Join the fan club: Become a Bullfighter

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Let he who would move the world first move himself. — Socrates

Copyright © 2018 John Kay, All rights reserved.