Allegations have recently resurfaced as to whether Michael Jackson is in fact the vocalist on some tracks from his first posthumous album “Michael” (2010). The album was cobbled together from scraps of recording left behind, predominantly from his last album project “Invincible” that he had been working on from 2001 until his death in June 2009.
The songs under scrutiny are “Breaking News”, “Keep Your Head Up” and “Monster” and have been since the album’s release. “I know my Uncle’s voice and there’s something seriously wrong when you have immediate family saying it’s not him” Tarryl Jackson, the son of Michael’s brother Tito, wrote on Twitter in November of 2010. An ongoing lawsuit has followed, led by fan Vera Serova, which has recently led to sources reporting that Sony Music admitted in court to Jackson not being the sole vocalist. Sony have escaped sanction on the grounds that they had no way of knowing that Michael was not the vocalist and Serova has gone on to file suit against the producers Edward Cascio and James Porte who were co-writers of the songs, as well as their company Angelikson Productions.
The ongoing suit raises questions of authenticity in popular music culture and its consumption, particularly with the rise of companies rebranding posthumous artists for economic gain. This is most overt in the perhaps morbid use of holograms for so-called ‘live’ performance of the deceased, from Tupac to Frank Sinatra. Key characteristics of the artists voice, Jackson’s ‘Moonwalk’ or Prince’s shadow over his guitar, are being turned into code and reproduced without the artists consent and the controlling arm of business leaves their voice culpable to corruption and misrepresentation.
Applicants for Music may wish to consider the role of authenticity in music and its effect upon its consumption. Questions surrounding an artists, or composers, intentions are likely to be addressed in a range of historical courses at undergraduate level. Applicants for Anthropology may want to study the role of music and art in Western society and the influence of business upon this.
The results of a new study suggest a link between a person’s level of empathy and the way they respond to music. Empathy can be generally defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others; in psychology empathy is often divided into two categories, with the ability to understand other people’s feelings described as “cognitive empathy” whilst the ability to share those emotions is described as “emotional empathy”.
A study carried out by researchers at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas and UCLA found that high-empathy and low-empathy people responded to music very differently on a neurological level. Participants underwent an MRI scan whilst listening to music that they were familiar with and unfamiliar with, as well as music that they liked and disliked, and were subsequently made to answer empathy-based questions to ascertain how easily they could pick up on the feelings of others and whether they could relate to them.
Analyses of the MRI scans showed that all participants predictably showed activity in areas of the brain linked to auditory and sensory processing; however, those with higher levels of empathy also showed an increase in activity in the dorsal striatum (involved in the brain’s reward system) when a song they knew was played, as well as in areas of the brain associated with social interaction and interpreting the behaviour of others. This suggests not only that listening to recognisable music is more enjoyable for high-empathy people, but also that the brains of such people process music in similar ways to social interaction—relating to music on a neurological level almost as if it were another person. They suggest that these results could have helpful real-life implications; “If music can function something like a virtual ‘other,’ then it might be capable of altering listeners’ views of real others.”
Applicants for Music may wish to think about the implications of this research for both the study and the writing of music, bearing in mind that Psychology of Music is part of the undergraduate course at some universities (including Oxford). In what way, if any, can music be said to resemble social interaction? How can sounds produce emotion? Applicants for Psychology may want to consider whether such studies can be useful for understanding empathy and triggering it in those not predisposed to it.
At first glance, no two phenomena seem further away than contemporary music videos and centuries-old Christian imagery. However, religious motifs have been a significant element in music videos of different genres for several decades. A notable example is Madonna, who is known for pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable since the beginning of her career. So offensive to some was her catholic-girl-gone-bad persona that the pope himself spoke out against her performance during her 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour. Famously, her 1989 video for Like a Prayer caused widespread outrage, was banned by many platforms, and even lost her sponsors; the imagery in this video included the scantily-clad singer standing in front of a burning cross, dancing in church, kissing a saint, and receiving stigmata-like wounds. More recently Lady Gaga, who is often compared to Madonna and like the older singer was also raised Catholic, used a combination of sexual and religious imagery in her music videos for Alejandro and Judas; in the former she presents herself as a nun, whilst in the latter she is Mary Magdalen, caught in a love triangle between biker boys Judas and Jesus—complete with a crown of thorns.
In music videos and popular culture in general, Christian imagery such as the cross and the nun’s habit is often used to represent ideas of transgressive sexuality, purity, morality, and suffering for love. Such motifs are by no means new, nor is the connection between Christianity and sexuality. In the mystical tradition, for example, particularly in the Middle Ages, both male and female contemplatives wrote about intimate and even sexual encounters with Christ; such descriptions emphasised the depth of union with the divine sought by the mystics. This genre was also inspired by scripture itself, specifically the Song of Songs, a biblical love poem which came to be understood on one level to speak of the relationship between Christ and the soul.
Applicants for History of Art, especially those interested in sacred art, should familiarise themselves with the history of Christian iconography and the meaning contained within different images. They might want to consider how the use of religious imagery in contemporary music videos reflects and makes use of such traditional iconography. Applicants for Theology may wish to learn about the historical connections between sexual and religious imagery in the history of Christian thinking and spirituality and should ponder the question; does the erotic have a place in religion? For those particularly interested in the study of mysticism, Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches edited by Louise Nelstrop is a good place to start.
A recent article has drawn attention to the ways in which the minimalist movement in music redefined boundaries and drew on popular culture and the modern world. Charles Hazlewood, describing minimalism as the “dark side” of classical music, argues that this groundbreaking genre which came about in the 1960s incorporated not only the rules and rigour of the classical tradition but also reflected the “rebel spirit” of the 20th century rock ‘n’ roll tradition; a brave new world of sound to accompany the brave new world of space exploration. This was done by refuting the narrative nature of Western classical music and basing itself instead on sequence and repetition to produce a meditative, almost trance-inducing soundscape.
In the context of the post-war period, this style also represented a move away from the jarring dissonance of European classical music of that time, reflective of the trauma of the 20th century—“music by creeps, maniacs” according to the minimalist Philip Glass. Alien though it may seem to a contemporary audience, therefore, Hazlewood argues that in many ways the minimalists brought the hope and the harmony back to Western music. This new style was by no means universally welcomed. At the first performance of Steve Reich’s Four Organs in Carnegie Hall, the audience were so distressed that they rushed up and banged the stage, with one person shouting “stop, stop, I confess!”
As intimately connected as minimalism was to the modern world, it also may have had much more ancient influences. Some of Reich’s works incorporated elements from his Jewish culture and faith, while others such as Glass, Riley and La Monte Young were inspired by Buddhism, with its cyclical, concentric images of rebirth. In 1952, the avant-garde composer John Cage wrote his famous work 4’33”, notable for containing no notes at all—a full score of silence. The intention of the piece was to draw the audience’s attention to the ordinary sounds around them, and thereby to suggest that any sound may constitute music. This experimental work reflected Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism, of which he was a student.
Applicants for Music should familiarise themselves with the minimalist movement as a key turning point in the classical tradition, and should think about how minimalist music differs from and resembles other styles in the Western canon. They should also reflect on the very definition of ‘music’, and how far it can or should be pushed. Those wishing to study History of Art might want to consider the minimalist movement in the visual arts and compare it to musical minimalism. Along with students applying for History, they may wish to give some thought to how developments in the arts reflect historical developments, and what we can learn from artists and composers about their era. Theology applicants interested in music would do well to consider the relationship between music and religion through the centuries.
New research from the University of Washington has found that the vocalisations of bowhead whales may in some ways be comparable to jazz music. It was previously believed that bowheads’ songs would be similar to those of their cousins the humpback whales, which, whilst complex and sophisticated, are relatively uniform and repetitive. Instead, it was found that bowhead whales favour a more improvisational singing style, with audio recordings identifying hundreds of different tunes. Such diversity is very rare in the animal kingdom, and is found only in a few bird species. It was Professor Kate Stafford, an oceanographer at the University of Washington and the lead author of this study, who suggested the musical comparison; “if humpback whale song is like classical music”, she says, “bowheads are jazz”. Although many musical genres such as blues and rock also contain elements of improvisation, nothing rivals the complexity of soloist improvisation, or ‘riffing’, in jazz—making it a fitting analogy for the breathtaking music of the bowheads.
These are not just any songs, say researchers, but love songs, “male productivity displays” to attract potential partners during mating season; in fact, male bowhead whales may sing up to 24 hours a day beneath the thick polar ice from November to April. Unlike humans who largely use sight to navigate their surroundings, whales have learnt to rely on sound since light doesn’t travel very far in their underwater environment. Historically, bowhead whales have often been under attack by humans during many centuries of commercial whaling. Although they are currently on the Endangered Species list, Stafford’s research has shown that these remarkable whales are still alive and kicking—and singing.
Applicants for Biology or Natural Sciences might want to learn about the unique songs within the animal kingdom and the way in which different species have evolved sophisticated systems of communication. Students wishing to study Music may wish to consider the role of improvisation in the history of music, as well as the definition of music itself and whether animal “songs” should be included in it.
In recent times, voices have emerged to challenge the appearance of elitism in opera and to clear the way for new audiences and new ways of relating to classical music.
Comedian and columnist Chris Addison argues that far from being exclusive, opera evokes feelings that are universal, and contains “something visceral […] something capable of catching all of us”. Companies such as Silent Opera stand at the cutting edge of this traditional art form, reimagining productions in new and exciting ways. Such innovation in classical music comes partly as a response to dwindling audience numbers and concerns about the future of the industry.
Opera Holland Park has recently undertaken a project to introduce inner city teens to opera, documented in the short film Hip Hop to Opera. Director Michael Volpe points out that “we often look suspiciously at young, working-class people and consequently set extremely limited aspirations for them”. Throughout the process he aimed not to convert the sixth-formers to classical music or to present it as a superior art form, but to help them challenge their own view of themselves and their preconceived notions of what they are capable of enjoying.
In fact, despite its reputation, opera has a long history of appealing to the working class. The most famous patrons of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan are the loggionisti, less wealthy yet highly discerning opera fans who for centuries have crowded into the standing galleries to loudly cheer or boo performances; they are feared and respected by even the most talented singers.
Applicants for Music should consider different models of performance and the impact of those models on how music is received and perceived by an audience, as well as the future of classical music in general. Students interested in art may wish to think about elitism in the arts, and how categories such as class, race, and gender have affected the definition of ‘art’ and the perceived value of different art forms.
The University of Cambridge has recently been embroiled in controversy surrounding the syllabus of the English Literature Course. A group of undergraduates have called for a ‘decolonisation’ of the curriculum, which currently takes a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach. For the first two years, the broad scope of ‘English’ Literature is covered, and it is only in third year that students are given the option to study Postcolonial Literature. Therefore, these students believe that there is a distinct lack of Black and Minority Ethnic writers, and that these writers should be included, alongside bringing postcolonial interpetation in across the board, for example, looking at Shakespeare plays such as Othello and Tempest through a postcolonial lense.
Others have worried that introducing more of these writers would cause the elimination of the white writers who currently dominate the syllabus, but Churchill fellow Priyamvada Gopal has iterated that white writers would not be affected by any of the proposed changes, rather that a more diverse range of writers and text would be considered ‘in coversation’ with one another. Both the students and academics considering the changes believe that it isn’t just about adding texts, but about rethinking the nature of what we consider to be British and English in a post-imperial world, including issues of race, gender and sexuality. The students campaigning also believe that such a development in the curriculum would encourage more students of a BME background to apply, which is another area of concern for both Cambridge and Oxford.
This discussion follows a recent move by Oxford to include a compulsory non-European paper in their History curriculum, following campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall.
English Literature students, especially those interested in literature outside of the British Isles, should consider their stance on this argument and be prepared to discuss the nuances of it at interview. They could also further explore the literature written by authors in the postcolonial era and the themes this change in society give rise to. The same argument could also apply across Arts and Humanities subjects, including History of Art, Music and Languages.
Education students should consider how this may be relevant to education at younger ages, and whether the incorporation of more BME writers at an earlier stage may also be necessary. Similarly, History students can explore how the study of history, both in and out of education, might incorporate a variety of perspectives and how this changes our understanding of history. Politics applicants could consider whether politicians should get involved in such discussions.
The Eurovision song contest: A singing competition whose sole purpose is to judge which country has the best musical talent, right?
If you are under this illusion, then it might be worth rethinking what you understand to be the Eurovision song contest The aim of the 62-year-old contest may be to transcend the political divide and bring countries together through song. However, unfortunately, in current political climates, sometimes that just can’t be.
With Ukraine being the host of the final this year, tensions were always going to be high. Russia’s entry Julia Samoylova has been barred entry to the country, by visiting Crimea in 2015. This led to a decision by the Eurovision council (yes, there is such a thing) to let Russia stream their entry via satellite, thus not having to enter Ukraine physically at all. However, Russia has decided to not enter the competition at all.
Politics have always played a part in Eurovision, with past scandals such as Greece boycotting in 1975 due to Turkey’s participation, just one year after Turkish troops had invaded Cyprus, and Armenia pulling out of Eurovision 2012 in Azerbaijan due to the two countries being in a long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Three years earlier, Eurovision had ruled that Georgia’s entry broke contest rules banning political lyrics. I would advise everyone listen to Georgia’s 2009 very ambiguous political song, ‘We don’t wanna put in’. Get it?
Politics students might start to think how political decisions such as Brexit might start to influence more social and trivial issues. Music students might want to think about whether politics should play a part in music, and visa versa.
Unfortunately the UK this year hasn’t faired too well in both the EU and Eurovision. Only time will tell whether we will get another ‘boom bang-a-bang’ again?