music

Who Defines Film Culture: The Oscars or the MTV Movie Awards?

Host Conan O'Brien closes the show after Sam Claflin and Josh Hutcherson accepted the award for Best Movie of the Year for "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards in Los AngelesThe burden of guidance is so often placed upon the shoulders of the most youthful generation. After all, they are the future.

But, they’re also the first group we criticize when examining the state of things, and the last we feel safe putting our faith in. According to the old and wise, they’re either setting sail in the wrong direction or dragging the vessel down; the youth of the nation can’t catch a break.

And so enters MTV, which has served as perhaps the most reflective mirror of youth culture for over four decades. What began as an outlet for the naturally-countercultural voice of the young has become a mold that defines the youth mentality instead of complimenting and accenting its evolution. Creativity and music videos gave way to reality television and cheap trash, which only makes sense; the defining media source for the culture of youth must mimic the devolution of the younger generation from a pre-adult, naïve mass into a noisy, pots-and-pans banger of endlessly empty product and consumption. Regardless of the network’s level of quality, it’s timelessly synonymous with the demographic that anchors itself at the forefront of popular culture.

When MTV first began airing its now-annual Movie Awards in 1992, they offered an alternative to the adult-oriented culture of the Oscars. The 1990s saw a resurgence of the adult film, what with the likes of Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction and The Piano washing the bad taste of Chariots of Fire and Rocky out of the public’s mouth. Not since the 1970s had the film industry seen such a desire to release and market films to the older crowd. The public was hungry for maturity once again, so it only makes sense that MTV would step in with a youth-fueled alternative to the stuffy, graying status quo.

The MTV Movie Awards offered a timely chance for the general crowd-pleasers to find their stride and spotlight where the Oscars offered no shelter. The Oscars have always been more inclined to recognize adult-oriented fare,  and the MTV Movie Awards have always been there to crown things like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Wedding Crashers, or Napoleon Dynamite as the best film of the year.

The type of voter choosing the respective winners has always defined the gap between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards. The Academy is comprised predominantly of older white men who are professionals in the field, while the general public chooses the recipients of the MTV Movie Awards. Perhaps it’s here that lies the key to understanding the recent melding of the adult niche and popular appeal, only it’s not the MTV Movie Awards that are changing.

As a matter of fact, it’s the Academy that’s come to conform to the standards of the general public.

The MTV Movie Awards have very little changed their format over the years. There’s a Best Film category that shows little to no discrimination against any particular genre (films from The Matrix, Scream and The Ring to There’s Something About Mary, Bridesmaids, and JFK have each found nominations and/or wins here), whereas the Academy generally sticks to its dramatic guns when it comes to Best Picture. What does this tell us about the Oscars’ standing in American culture? That the Academy is often out of touch with popular mainstream culture—that is until you get to 2009, when the decision was made to expand the Best Picture category from five nominees to a maximum of ten. Five more slots meant five more chances for something like Avatar—2009’s James Cameron blockbuster—to partake in a race it normally would have only entered in the technical categories, as did MTV Best Pictures like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and The Matrix.

Generally, the MTV Movie Awards’ Best Picture category shares around 1-3 nominees with the Oscar Best Picture race, and often the MTV Movie Award winner isn’t even nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture (nor are the other nominees) and vice-versa. On three occasions a film has won top honors at both ceremonies in the same year. It began in 1997 with James Cameron’s Titanic, followed by Ridley Scott’s 2000 smash Gladiator, and then again with Peter Jackson’s 2003 epic The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Each of these films had an immense budget and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars internationally. They were perfect examples of when spectacle of screen and gross become far too big to ignore. The tide of Oscar voting was shifting to favor the crowd-pleaser over the artist.

mtv-movie-awardsThe rise of the blockbuster indicated a key turning point in the film industry; the disappearance of the adult-oriented film in favor of a big-budget spectacle. The blockbuster became par for the course instead of a singular event that came two or three times a year. The melding of the popular moneymakers with traditional Academy fare became ever more apparent when the Oscars—declining in viewership over the years—saw more and more big-budget films that would have normally only found traction with the MTV Movie Awards (District 9, The Blind Side, Avatar) began creeping into the Best Picture race.

The Oscars began their quest for all-inclusivity, which ultimately resulted in easy-to-swallow, non-polarizing, universal films like The Artist, Argo, and The King’s Speech to take Best Picture.

The streamlining of film culture into an amalgam of crowd-pleasers that resonate with adults and youth alike led to the increasing relevance of the MTV Movie Awards, which were once considered a useless appendage as a celebration of everything that was already gratuitous about Hollywood; cheap laughs, violence, spectacle, big stars, hot sex, and superficiality (what else can you expect from an awards show that contains a “Best Shirtless Performance” category?). With the rise of the $100-million grosser as the studio norm and the Oscars’ increasing pandering to a more generalized audience, the MTV Movie Awards complimented the industry’s shift toward flashiness over sophistication without evolving at all.

The MTV Movie Awards remain the one facet of the network that inserts its audience into mainstream culture instead of shaping their tastes for them; MTV executives seem to nominate films and performers that the target demographic has responded to in other ways (whether it be big box-office or social media interactions), and then lets the public vote to determine the winners. The MTV Movie Awards largely reflect the true general consensus of the average American moviegoer, where the Oscars now find themselves as the potential outcast caught between championing the adult film and appealing to the masses by recognizing popular films and performers.

It used to be that the rift between the Oscars and the MTV Movie Awards represented the split tastes of the American public. Today, the tentpoles that define summer and the crowd-pleasers that permeate the Oscar race often share recognition at both awards shows. There’s no need for the MTV Movie Awards to champion films that wouldn’t have a shot in the Oscar race; now there’s more room for everyone everywhere, and the culture at large is far more inclined to watch and tweet about three hours of bubblegum stars winning bubblegum awards at a bubblegum awards show that offers the same films up for grabs as the much-stuffier Oscar race.

Even recently, the Oscars are still a place where the adult film can flourish. Challenging pieces like Amour, The Tree of Life, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have proven that the Academy’s taste has not completely gone soft—and that this affinity can even propel little-seen, mature films to actually win Best Picture, like 2009’s The Hurt Locker. The problem is that the studio-shaped landscape is shifting so greatly that space for these films to grow and find an audience is shrinking by the day to the point where the Oscars are becoming the only place for films like this to succeed. For every Grand Budapest Hotel we get six of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though The Academy is likely to recognize both in categories with varying levels of esteem attached to them.

So, then, the MTV Movie Awards have separated themselves from the serious-minded awards groups without doing a single thing different over the course of their 22 years. They’ve become reflective of why our culture both works (the voice of the people, what with social media, has never been stronger) and what’s wrong with it (taste is far too often defined by the powers at large pushing dreck like superhero movies and big-budget blockbusters on a weekly basis so that they’re no longer event pictures but the standard). The MTV Movie Awards reflect the reality of our star-obsessed, instant-gratification culture far better than the Oscars do, and that’s evident by the way the Oscars have shifted their own categorical structuring since 2009 to include a wider range of films. The public demands more inclusivity as their wallets get bigger and their dollars more attracted to larger spectacles.

The people who watch the MTV Movie Awards are probably not the same ones who highly regard film awards in general. They’re the same people shelling out dollar after dollar to see blockbuster after blockbuster in quick succession; the audiences might be throwing their money at the same thing over and over, but it seems that MTV and their target demographic know which way to point the sails.

Their most recent Best Film winner (Catching Fire) also happens to be the top-grossing domestic film of the year, so it’s about time we start paying attention; they seem to know where the ships are docking.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Catching Up with Alex Young: Excerpts from my Interview with her from East End Fashion Magazine

“It was a sweet bird,” she says, fumbling for words in the most endearing way possible. “I wouldn’t necessarily characterize birds before this particular photo shoot, but now I know they have a lot of personality. They’re really willing to pose.”

She’s ever a gracious soul, even to feathered co-stars unable to understand a single thing that comes out of her mouth.

It’s a good thing humans easily understand the effects of sweet, sonically seductive musical stylings is as easy as kicking back and switching your brain’s pleasure dial to the tune of “indulge.” It’s the essence of grace that makes indulging in everything about up-and-coming New York City-based pop singer Alex Young so unbelievably satisfying. One day her crystalline voice wafts through a set as the opening act for Cee-Lo Green, the next she’s modeling gorgeous vintage clothing alongside toucans and a python, poise and grace successfully intact for both.

So, let’s give her credit; she has actually far outgrown the generic label of “pop singer.” After all, you don’t make it to MTV’s airwaves without paying your dues, although it helps when talent is imbued at a young age. She says music has been a huge part of her life ever since she was a  child, with memories of her childhood involving parents who filled the house constantly with music, embedding it in her mind and forming a warm relationship that endures to this day.

Sentiment aside, her contemporary career was built upon electronic and pop sounds, but her latest single, “Don’t Play With Me,” threw a funky wrench into the musical machine, complimenting her signature quirkiness and flamboyant performing style.

“The song was just a natural evolution and progression. I’ve always been a lover of old-school Motown and funk music,” she says. “I wanted to incorporate funk somehow… and we took it from there. I’m really excited with the sound.”

The risk paid off. “Don’t Play With Me” garnered Young extensive airtime on MTV-U and the music video for the single (featuring Young in a dazzlingly stylish old-school red jumpsuit) now has over one million views on YouTube.

“You work so hard on putting music together and getting the right sound,” she says of creating the song. “Thankfully the fans were very receptive of the new style. I wanted to go in a slightly different direction, so I don’t think it’s a departure from my sound. It’s derivative of my music, but I always want to push the envelope and keep things new. When you start to concern yourself with what other people are thinking, your music is totally screwed. Your focus is external when it should be internal, and I try my best to concentrate on only that.”

If there’s one thing that’s clear about Young’s career, it’s that she harbors a deep appreciation for the fans that make her work possible. Always a present force on social networking sites, Young never misses an opportunity to interact with her growing set of followers on Twitter and fans on Facebook, 30,000 of which she’s netted on the former. Her page promotes her latest endeavors and projects while Young communicates with her fans, shining a bit of positive light on those who make her career possible.

Along with the new single, Young says she’s currently working on a killer follow-up album to her debut LP, “Amazing,” released in 2009. The album is a return to her roots in electronic pop, while moving in a new direction entirely less traditional than funk.

“Trap” music, as it’s known, is a relatively new stylistic subgenre incorporating elements of dubstep and urban dance, although infinitely “more listenable” than those, Young assures of the new style we can look forward to on the album.

“It’s really an evolution of dubstep. There are a lot of DJ’s playing it right now. It’s very, very new and a lot of people haven’t heard of it yet, especially from a mainstream artist” she says. “I really wanted to bring it to its full scope. It’s relaxed, it’s not as hyped up…it’s that groove that keeps you moving, listening, and involved.”

As for what’s inspiring these slight alterations to her music career, Young says it comes in the form of, well, typical everyday experiences.

“I take a lot of my creative process through ordinary things. The city is constantly inspiring me, and fashion on the street is a huge part of that,” she says. “In New York City you never know what you’re going to see. When you walk on the subway you’ll see someone in a bumblebee outfit or an outfit that’s pop art with a modernistic touch, huge headpieces, leggings and platform shoes… all kinds of style that’s always pushing and inspiring me.”

While we won’t be seeing Young take to the stage in costume as a five-foot insect in stilettos, her appreciation for unabashed confidence and fashion shines through in her clothing line, simply titled A Young Rose.

The line, a collaborative endeavor with her stylist, Arlinda McIntosh, is a minimalistic reinvention of the classic, funky styles of yesteryear.

“The next installment is going to be old Hollywood with a lot more funk,” she says. “I want to throw some fun colors in there and have some fun. Arlinda is in her 50s, I’m in my 20s and it’s an interesting dynamic between the two of us creating a line that speaks to everyone. There’s no age base, it’s style-based.”

Young also cites two very interesting inspirations for fashion and style in general. Audrey Hepburn, the classic film beauty who exudes class and regality. The other? Studio 54 legend Rollerina, a large-and-in-charge drag queen personality straight from the heyday of the club kid scene, whom Young recently had the pleasure of meeting.

Cranking out pieces for a fashion line isn’t the only way Young unleashes her inner fashionista. She creative directs many of her photoshoots, including the aforementioned shoot where she posed with various birds and reptiles.

“I love creating concepts and imagining a scene, whatever it might be, how it relates to my music, and producing it,” she says of the visual creative process. “This photoshoot was always a dream of mine, from the setting to the clothing to animals to the dark and mysterious, yet powerful tone, it’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

But, there are some aspects of her career, found in the most glamorous of places, which test her fearless demeanor.

“Alright, I did have mixed feelings about the snake,” she admits.

Alas, the end result is gorgeous. The snake looks happy. She looks comfortable.

So, Ms. Young does have limits. Luckily for us, she isn’t prone to paying them much attention.

My Interview with “The X-Factor” Contestant Tora Woloshin

“People tell me that the reason they let me go was that they knew they wouldn’t be able to make me into something that I’m not,” says 22-year old Tora Woloshin, singer, performer, and two-time contestant on a pair of the biggest reality competitions on national television.

She speaks candidly about her most recent appearance on (and elimination from) Simon Cowell’s “The X-Factor,” which debuted earlier this Fall. The show is structured similar to “American Idol,” a competition both Cowell and Woloshin have a history with; “Idol” eliminated her as well back in 2005.

“I feel like people on [these shows] really have the talent, but for some reason what they’re being made into is not as appealing as their natural selves,” she says.

Woloshin’s outward appearance can hardly be described as “natural”; a gorgeous array of tattoos (she’s got 17 of them) cascade down her slender frame; a symphony of vintage garb intertwines seamlessly with neon embellishments, dazzling patterns, and just the right amount of girly-girl ornamentation; all nestled comfortably in their dynamic chaos beneath a luscious stream of homemade platinum blonde hair. A Harajuku copycat, some might say; but in the words of the great Coco Rocha, “don’t ever confuse style with gimmick.”

Thankfully Ms. Woloshin’s blood runs thick with style.

It’s funny to see her striking wardrobe so bluntly serve as a metaphor for her demeanor; usually that’s the job of the journalist to lay bare for their reader. With Woloshin, I’m not sure I have to.

“Um, hello, I just got a call from this number?” Woloshin says, returning a phone call I’d placed to her mere minutes after our interview’s scheduled time. It was a quarter to six in the evening.

“Yes, is this Tora? This is Joey, we had an interview for six thirty tonight, so sorry I’m a little late,” I responded.

“Umm…I thought you said six? It’s only three forty-five…”

Time zones don’t translate well in Woloshin’s world. Thankfully she wasn’t up to much.

“Well, right now, I’m extremely broke,” she says. “[After these shows] they just drop you and don’t tell you why. My days consist of pilates, writing music…which takes a long time. I just recently started getting the hang of Garage Band, trying to make all the music myself.” Things clatter in the background. She laughs. Composure maintained.

She then tries to explain one of her tattoos to me, a byproduct of personal experiences she tones down her usually bubbly demeanor to reveal; her amazing style compliments her infectious presence, but it’s also a living testament to the struggles she’s battled her way through.

“My sleeve and my chestpiece are combined. It’s sort of like a map of where my heart’s been,” she says. “It’s about…well…it has biomechanics…it’s kind of my way of saying robots can’t love because they don’t have a heart…kind of like, well, if I was a robot, I wouldn’t have had my heart broken as many times as I have…it’s hard to explain…if you get it, you’ll understand what I mean…you know what I mean?”

Her chest reads “Love vs. Hate.”

Woloshin was a victim of rape at a young age, the effects of which remain with her to this day.

Her voice goes bleak.

“It all started when I was 14,” she says. “He stole my virginity. I wanted to save it until marriage. I had a couple of abusive boyfriends; I deal with a bad wrist because one of them broke it.”

She perks up.

“But I want to be able to change people’s lives with my music and with my words. I feel like I’ve been through so much in my life and millions of other people have been through the same thing,” she says. “I want to be able to bring them hope. That’s why I do [what I do].”

Woloshin has been perfecting her art since she was only two years old. She’s started taking dance and vocal lessons, from California to Arizona, when she was only four. She won a singing competition, Lucky Break, back in Tuscon.

But, while she was tearing it up onstage, a very different side of Tora was burning rubber—literally—on the streets of Tuscon. Woloshin was a drag racer by the time she was sixteen.

“Don’t tell my mom,” she says with laugh.

While her tatted and tanned complexion certainly screams to be framed amidst the backdrop of an underground drag race, Woloshin’s style functions more as a testament to her inner self versus “fitting in” with any subculture she may be associated with. Appearing on “The X-Factor” didn’t help diversify her image any further, she says.

“They didn’t tell my whole story,” she says. “They only said a couple of things; that I like cars and that I like to sing. Obviously that’s not all there is to my life.”

She says she was hoping to showcase her vocal ability even further with a rendition of “Hotel California” at judge Simon Cowell’s house; one final performance to wow him before he selected his final four (which ended up being five) contestants for the live round of shows. She told the camera crews she was nervous about forgetting the lyrics, becoming visibly shaken during a taped interview.

The editors, however, only showed one of her two performances; a rendition of The Rolling Stone’s “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” “They made me look like an idiot, like I couldn’t remember the lyrics to a ten-word song,” she says. “That was a dick move. [For ‘Hotel California’] I had a mic stand, I had a lot of emotion, and I sang it spot-on. I definitely know for a fact that they did not show that song because they knew I was going to be eliminated. Obviously they’re not going to show the better performance because the audience would have been more pissed off than they already are [at my elimination].”

And so Tora was kicked to the curb once again. Her shine, however, fails to dim, particularly in regards to her “broke-chic” vibrancy exuding from her closet. Consignment shops are a quick fix for those on a budget, she says.

“I mostly go to vintage and thrift stores before I go to the mall,” she tells me. “You can find some of the best things there. I think a person’s style should be able to make a statement of who they are. It should definitely say that.”

When asked if she considers brand names superior to no-name bargains, she pauses.

“Only when it comes to cars!” she says, giggling.

So, will you find a gorgeous menagerie of vintage couture lining the interior of Ms. Woloshin’s closet?

Well, sort of.

“My closet is not…um…very ‘presentable’ right now,” she says with a laugh. ” But I’ll invite you over to my house and you can look it over and explain it to me.”

Pop Revolutionary V.V. Brown Roars Back With “Children” (feat. Chiddy)

I’ve been waiting for this day for what feels like ages. And I couldn’t be happier to report that it’s finally. Freaking. HERE!

V.V. Brown returns with an infectiously saccharine, candy-coated electro-infused pop gem “Children”, which features fellow artist Chiddy, released on iTunes today.

The single, the first off her to-be-titled 2012 follow up to “Travelling Like the Light”, harnesses Brown’s signature larger-than-life pipes and marries them to an uplifting, skipping-to-and-fro beat.

Chronicling the lengthy process of crafting of her upcoming album on Twitter (@VVBrown) since she began touring the U.S. with Maroon 5 back in 2010, Brown has hinted at  everything from experimentation with tribal drums to electropop-tinged confections , and “Children” delivers in more ways than one.

The contemporary UK music scene, once a hitmaking juggernaut for up-and-coming ladies since the late Amy Winehouse paved the road nearly 6 years ago, has hit a rough patch as of late. Duffy’s latest tanked, Adele converted to American standards (What? No? I know, but I had to conform her style to fit the point I was trying to make somehow…) and Lily Allen’s all but dropped off the face of the earth. Brown’s drastic departure from the pop-funk vibe that pervaded her freshman LP breathes new life into not only the British front but into the lungs of pop music in general.

Here’s hoping the sophomore LP is as groundbreaking as the first.

Follow Brown’s progress on the album in a series of video and live chat events, which the singer will release over the course of the next month or so on her website, www.vvbrown.com

The first of such teasers:

 

Listen to (and purchase) the new track on iTunes today.

Am I Wrong to Mourn Amy Winehouse?

(Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

He can only hold her for so long,

The lights are on, but no one’s home.

Amy Winehouse

It’s a seemingly trite verse lifted from a tune which appears on the late Ms. Winehouse’s sophomore (and, unfortunately, final) album “Back to Black.” Without context, it doesn’t mean much. When examining the all-too-brief life of the woman who wrote it, though, it becomes as searing as her out-of-this-era voice.

The lights were certainly “on” in one way or another for Ms. Winehouse. Five Grammys. International sales certifications named after every precious metal in existence. Top 10 hits in what seems to be every country that hosts broadcast radio.

But no one seemed to be “home” to discipline the young lady with all the accolades. Certainly not Ms. Winehouse herself.

Images of the singer trolling the streets of London, barely coherent, come quickly to mind. This seems to be how the media favored her. She was the celebrity screw-up. The headline disaster that struck once a weekend. An easy target. The butt of the joke. All for being brutally honest about her life, including her addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine.

She was an addict. But she was also one of my biggest inspirations.

Fans know the tragic last years of her life as the “old” Amy. This wasn’t the Amy they wanted to see come out with another album. This was the Amy that whenwillamywinehousedie.com preyed upon; certainly not the Amy I hoped would survive.

The media awaited — and at certain points, even I painfully expected — the breaking news of her death-too-soon.

“I’m absolutely disgusted that her death is receiving more coverage than the tragedy in Oslo,” one of my friends said to me. “People are crying for Amy but can’t even point out Oslo on a map,” he continued, “It’s just proof of this country’s pathetic obsession with fame as well as the total lack of empathy with the common person, albeit in a different part of the world.”

His frustrations have been echoed by many a hipster-Greenpeace-vegan hybrid since the news arrived of Ms. Winehouse’s death. I mean, “anti-establishmentism” is the bees knees nowadays.

It’s not hard to see that Ms. Winehouse was a godsend to many. The fact that news of her death impacted so many people is no fault of the media which is reporting it. If a story is being read, it would only make sense for an outlet to cover it. The public has spoken, and news of Ms. Winehouse’s passing seems to be hitting home with far more than just those “pathetically obsessed with fame”.

News of her death hit me as hard as the first note I heard escape her tiny, delicate frame. I was 16. She was around the same age that I am now. But her voice smoldered with tinges of another era (though it’s done heapings of injustice by any comparison whatsoever) that took me to a place I could experience only by way of headphones and “Back to Black” on repeat.

The time I spent with her music was time I spent getting to know her. Loving Amy was not, for me, about an obsession with fame, as my friend seems to think. When an artist becomes a celebrity because she expresses extraordinary creativity, as Ms. Winehouse did with every song she wrote and performed, she forms a relationship with her listeners. Not only of a consumer-supports-artist nature, but even on a spiritual level.

The darker side of life pervaded Ms. Winehouse’s music. Whether it was in crooning a beautifully subdued rendition of the 1958 Teddy Bears’ hit “To Know Him Is To Love Him” or tackling original tracks like the disturbingly honest “Rehab,” Ms. Winehouse never downplayed her struggles. She needed no safety net, and the public certainly never provided her one.

Underneath the veil of fame was a dark, lonely, self-deprecating human being who placed herself on display through her art. Any fan of hers will tell you that. Her songs are like a diary, written for all of us to read.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big of a Britney Spears fan as the next guy, but I’ll never be more than a “fan” of music products like her. We feel safe with products. Ms. Winehouse was anything but “safe,” in both her artistry and her personal life.

She was a danger to herself and no one denies that. But her public struggle made her a shoulder to lean on for so many people she never knew. And it made her death more tangible to those who loved her. Ms. Winehouse’s lyrics touched the similarly afflicted hearts of those who clung to her as the second coming of Billie Holiday.

Many of the hundreds of thousands mourning her death are simply mourning a friend. We’re not elevating her death above the tragedy in Norway; we’re grieving a personal loss that just so happened to coincide with an unspeakable act of terrorism.

As a culture, we seem to have an “I told you so” mentality. Amy Winehouse detractors “aren’t shocked” or “couldn’t care less” about her death, as I gather from countless Facebook postings and conversations with friends. Now that their “prophecy” has come true, the stake needs to be driven deeper. It can’t suffice that she succumbed to a disease that’s little different from a fast food-induced heart attack or smoking-induced lung cancer. We feel the need to keep talking. Like it’s an addiction.

The song “He Can Only Hold Her” continues:

How can he have her heart,

When it got stole?

Ms. Winehouse’s heart may have been damaged and easily stolen in her search for acceptance, but I’m thankful that I was given at least a piece of it in recompense for the part of mine she’s since taken to the grave.

Rest in peace, Amy. I have a feeling the angels will be doing more listening than singing thee to rest.

Dear Pop Music, Meet Your Next Queen; The Rise of Alex Young

An Interview with Alex Young by Joey Nolfi

Since when did being the cool kid on the radio become so…well…cool? Scoping out contemporary radio consists of nothing more than sifting through a carefully crafted menagerie of pop stars  helplessly clinging to their “humble” beginnings playing at “pubs” and “clubs” in a desperate effort to maintain some spot of credibility with the increasingly-influential hipster crowd. And if you’re at all familiar with the hipster crowd, you’re definitely aware of doling out labels as classifiers for things you know little about, lumping anything similar into such a category, and tossing such things aside because you’re too cool to possibly care about anything other than your own narrow-minded (and bitterly intershared) taste. Thankfully, one thing legitimately amazing underground pop artists have never really been about is playing into a specific label or genre,  which makes sense considering the words “underground” and “pop music”  as genre signifiers tend to offset one another’s meaning. But there’s one artist who manages to combine the swagger of a mainstream pop star with the “underground” flair of the local club singer tearing her set up like it’s the third sold-out night in a row at Madison Square Garden; the ever-fabulous Alex Young.

If you’re asking yourself where you’ve seen (or heard) her before and are drawing a few blanks, don’t feel alone. While Young hasn’t exactly catapulted to the precipice of commercial fame just yet, her incredible talent was enough to secure the chance to release a fiercely amazing debut album aptly titled, well, Amazing in 2009. With the release of her new single “Government Name” earlier this summer and its accompanying music video just unleashed today, Alex Young’s presence in the music industry is poised (and overdue) for a massive explosion.

On the road to achieving her dreams, this stunningly beautiful up-and-coming singer based in New York City planted roots in the entertainment industry longer than (as well as long before) most contemporary pop stars have even seen the light of the public’s eye. Ms. Young’s list of accomplishments range from paying her child-star dues on “Sesame Street” to helming a tribute song to the 9/11 rescue workers that New York City’s famous Z100  radio station broadcasted to countless listeners for three consecutive years on the tragedy’s anniversary…all before she was legally allowed to drive. But Young says (in a candidly pretention-free and genuinely artistic fashion) that she doesn’t aim to become a profit-hungry product of the pop music scene. “I am very passionate about what I do and love the medium in which I’m working. If I were on a completely different path, I would still be singing and performing music that I feel connected to” Young says, “but I do want to share my music on the highest level with as many people as possible. Inspiration is so powerful. It would be lovely to share that with the world.”

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As truly refreshing as it is to see an artist on the rise who seems so concerned with only sharing her passion with those who will listen, it comes as no surprise that Young’s early life was filled with artistic immersion and musical gratification as far back as she can remember. “For me, family has basically been the center of orbit for most of what I’ve been able to express musically” the singer says of her childhood, “there was a constant flow of music playing at all times in my home growing up. At times there were more than two completely different genres of music playing from different rooms of the house simultaneously. It gave me the confidence and exposure to pursue a path of music at an early age.”

Young’s talent certainly suggests what she confirms about her early life, but in actually listening to her music and exploring the influences Young cites as motivating her craft is when things really start to get interesting. The songstress’ music has often been described as urban-influenced electronic pop; clunky signifiers, I know, but a quick listen to one of her dazzlingly structured songs such as “Cold” or “Heart Stop” (and many more of which recall late 90s experimental electronic bliss infused with club-banging basslines and tints of dainty pop) really assure the appropriate labels. Having said all of that, Young’s primary inspirations in music actually include artists as far removed from contemporary electronic experimentation as one can get; the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and even Frank Sinatra are consistently of reference and interest to Young while crafting music. Young says “I really do always find inspiration around me. Just walking down the street can open my eyes to a new concept, rhythm, or visual for my music. But I feel many of the “greats” had a real sense of truth that they applied to their art. I look to them, hoping I can absorb some of that artistic truth from their portfolio.” And get this; Young also claims that bossa nova music is a constant driving force behind her art, citing Antonio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto as some of her favorites. A word to any and all interviewers out there; Try to get Ke$ha to name just one bossa nova act let alone see such a genre reflected in what she produces. That takes creative bravado right there, people. And as much praise we who eat up amazing music have given to Young’s sonic perfection, she says that she really dislikes being shoved into a compartmentalized category or genre. “I feel that people really feel the need to place boxes around items, concepts or people in order to better understand whatever it is that’s in question. I’ve been influenced by so many different styles I always hope a bit of each style comes through my music” she says. Are you listening, indie-pop-hamburger-phone-owning-urban-outfitter-shopping hipsters? You should be.

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Despite disliking labels for her own music, Young says she’s really intrigued by taking two established genres of music and mashing them together to create fiercely danceable tracks such as her latest single “Government Name”, which is a blissful cross between airy pop chords and intense urban backbeats; think of it as if Robyn’s delightful pop ecstasy made sweet, sweet sexy time with one of Swizz Beatz’s ultra beat-heavy productions. Yeah, the song is just about as hot as that hook up sounds. “Pop music is generally easy and light and urban tends to be more hard and rough. Opposites attract right?” Young ponders as she discusses the track, adding “I think the combination gives dynamic and uniqueness to songs in general. When total opposites combine, it’s always interesting. It doesn’t necessarily always work, but it’s always interesting.” And that’s something else you don’t always hear musical acts discussing so freely; what works and what doesn’t work. Young’s candid ability to discuss her work, her craft, and her process with interviewers (or even her fans via twitter) reflects the vigor and hunger of a true artist. Young’s roots in the urban music scene are reflected in her choice of collaborators, ranging from featured vocals from rapper Yung Berg on last year’s remix of “Cold” to time in the studio working on her debut album with producers Mysto & Pizzi (whom have worked with Justin Timberlake and R. Kelly). Young says that she is never intimidated by big-name producers, though, and that it only feeds her hunger for artistic perfection to work with others who share the appetite. Add to that a dash of pop production credits from the likes of Jonas Jeberg (Kylie Minogue, The Pussycat Dolls) and Cuttfather (Santana, Ace of Base) and you have a resume (after only one album, to boot) that rivals those of the divas topping the charts at this very moment.

Speaking of those ruling the charts right now, Young also has some pretty strong opinions concerning those she’ll be competing for Grammy Awards for in a few years’ time, commenting on the over abundance and exploitation of overt sexuality in today’s music by saying “[exploiting sexuality] just seems [to lose the] essence of why it has always been so extremely beautiful and powerful. It’s been lost in a series of slightly altered interpretations of the original concept, which has forced it to trend toward the extremely raunchy. To me, at that point, it loses all power and comes across as if the sexual side has overtaken and is controlling you, rather than you it. It always reminds me of a person playing with fire who has no clue how to light a match.” Her words ring true, especially when examining the careers of other artists who experienced popularity slumps when their image went from sensual to slutty (I’m looking at you, Blackout-era Britney Spears). But none of this is to say Young doesn’t exude a unique sexiness about herself; the video for “Government Name” is slick and sexy in its own right without ever crossing into XXXtina (circa 2002) territory.

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Young achieves a uniquely sexy look thanks in part to her love of fashion, of which can be seen playfully referenced in songs like “Government Name” where she sings about a “super nice outfit/from a designer name/can’t even pronounce it”. “It was a little bit tongue and cheek in reference to the fashion world” Young says of the line, “I do have a love for fashion and have fun constructing visuals and sometimes even entire songs around the concept I can get from a single runway outfit.” And her passion for fashion is clear to anyone who’s seen pictures of the extravagant pieces she’s been photographed wearing while attending various events around New York City. As for the designer name she supposedly couldn’t pronounce for the song’s sake, Young says names like Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Louboutin inspired it. Fine taste, indeed.

But aside from all the things that make Alex Young an incredible spectacle on the surface, this talented lady’s got some depth to her, too…something that’s becoming increasingly harder to find in the music industry. She takes her art very seriously, after all this is her life we’re talking about. She wears her passion on her sleeve, though, saying “I believe that art is at the core of self-discovery and progress for most of us. It can change the way an individual or group sees the world. It gives perspective, insight and soul into the keyhole we all view the world from. For me, the most important thing is not who you end up looking to for that inspiration and perspective, but rather where you consciously end up once you find it.” Those are some pretty strong, meaningful words for a “pop singer” as some have been quick to label her. But Alex Young wants to be more than that. “Are your ideas contributing to the greater good? Does it give you a sense of social awareness or responsibility? Does it inspire you to give your own message of truth? Does it push your boundaries? Or does it become a vapid idea that takes you no further than you’ve been?” Young says of art in general, “Does it lie stagnant and never really progress? Does it create more inhibition creatively than where you started? Hopefully it takes you to a place of growth and expansion.” 

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Young says she hopes to never see a phase in which she stops evolving in her art, which currently shows no signs of stopping; she is in the process of crafting her sophomore album sometime in the near future, with “Government Name” being the only confirmed song thus far on the tracklist.

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So, after all of this, what makes someone like Alex Young stand out amongst the sea of other dance-pop beauties out there trying to make a name for themselves? Is it her relentless and untiring spirit that vigorously drives her to create her art? Is it her unique take on fashion and visual flair? Or perhaps maybe it’s her genuine willingness to connect with her growing number of fans on a personal basis as often as she can? In defying everything a typical  “underground” pop singer on the bring of fame should be, Alex Young undoubtedly has one of the brightest futures of any rising star in the market right now. But instead of trying to put my finger on what exactly makes her so magnetic, I think I’ll let the following quote regarding Ms. Young’s ultimate goals speak for itself; “To be able to spread inspiration and self awareness would be the ultimate goal.  Music really is the backbone of life for me. If, through my music, I could, encourage or inspire others to find his or her own backbone, whatever that may be, that would be the greatest achievement for me. My goal is to always continue to find new ways to express and share life through music.” she says. You’re doing a great job already, Ms. Young. Keep it up, the industry could benefit from a few more girls like you helming the reins.

Follow Alex Young on Twitter: here
Watch the “Government Name” music video by clicking here

Hot Wynter; Gordon Teases with New Track, EP in November

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Pop singer turned experimental dance/electro/amazingorgasmicelectronicsoundsthatwillmakeyourbrainexplode goddess Wynter Gordon recently released a new track called “Barbed Wire Bracelets” (linked below) as the latest from her is-it-or-isn’t-it-happening album tentatively titled “With the Music I Die” (currently slated for a Q1 2011 release)…and if “Barbed Wire Bracelets” intensely dark dance-pop vibe can tell us anything, it’s that if this complete piece of work ever sees the light of day, we could have something that rivals the gay-gasmic holy grail that was this summer’s first installment of Robyn’s “Body Talk” series.

With tracks like this released (and leaked, for that matter) here and there for the past few years, Gordon has already built an impressive underground following; a following that’s been learning to stop holding its breath when it comes to the release of Wynter’s debut album.

Just the other day, though, Gordon tweeted that an EP simply titled “The First Dance” will be released next month, but by the sounds of things it will only be a ribbon on the complete package of songs she’s already publicly released over the past year (“Toyfriend”, “Dirty Talk”, etc.).

Stop being a cocktease and give us an album, girl. We’re all ready to be blown away.

Listen to “Barbed Wire Bracelets” by clicking here  (trust me, your ears will love you forever).