The State of the Music: Rihanna, Ann Powers, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Diana Ross, Sam Smith and Music Conferences in Barcelona and Britain

Compiled by Daniel Garrett

She can be delicate.  She can be tough.  She dominates amid a multitude of rhythms.  Her mastery is increasingly impressive.  Rihanna’s albums, from Music of the Sun (Def Jam, 2005) to Anti (Westbury Road/Roc Nation, 2016) have inspired great public attention; but, a figure of glamour and sometimes scandal as well as creativity, Robyn Rihanna Fenty has been active in different fields, including film and fashion.  Following her splashy attendance at the May 2017 festival in Cannes for the film Okja, a film by Boon Joon-ho, about a large strange animal cared for by a girl that a corporation wants to present to the world as an ideal food, Rihanna appeared as an actress in the Luc Besson summer filmValerian and the City of 1,000 Planets, about a complex future world of diverse species in which the established peace is threatened.  Her Fenty cosmetics products are going on sale in more than one hundred countries.  Rihanna, according to Billboard magazine, has had another hit record—no surprise.

Billboard, as of September 8, 2017, offers its September 15 list of the top 100 hits, with its top ten music recordings being Taylor Swift at number one with “Look What You Made Me Do,” followed by “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi with Daddy Yankee; “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” by Cardi B; and at number four “Wild Thoughts,” by DJ Khaled, featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller; Charlie Puth’s “Attention”; “Believer” by Imagine Dragons; “Unforgettable” by French Montana, featuring Swae Lee; “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back” by Shawn Mendes; and “1-800-273-8255” by Logic, featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid; and, lastly, “Strip That Down,” by Liam Payne, featuring Quavo.

One of the pleasures (and frustrations, too) of the summer was provided by music critic Ann Powers through her collaboration with other women writers, and National Public Radio and Lincoln Center in New York, in the creation of a list of the 150 greatest musical albums by women artists, including work by Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Joni Mitchell, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Oumou Sangare, Carly Simon, Patti Smith, and other artists.  Ann Powers has a book from HarperCollins on sexuality in popular music, Good Booty (2017).

There have been a lot of interesting and even important books on music over the years, such as LeRoi Jones’s Blues People and Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and Stanley Crouch’s Considering Genius and Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans and now the editor and writer Dylan Jones’s big book—more than five-hundred pages—on the life and work of David Bowie has been published by Crown/Random House: David Bowie: A Life (September 12, 2017 was the publication date).  The book, on his family, love life, and collaborations, promises a juicy read about a gifted, mercurial and original artist.

Horses (1975) and Radio Ethiopia (1976) and Easter (1978) were the early declarations of Patti Smith’s genius; and she has remained an inspiration for generations.  Patti Smith performed “People Have the Power” on late night television recently (Jimmy Fallon, September 12th).  Her voice sounded great—and every word was clear, true encouragement.  Smith, who has just published another book, Devotion (Yale, 2017), following Just Kids (2010) and M Train (2015), is to receive the John Lennon Real Love Award in New York in December 2017.

The classical music singer Angela Gheorghiu with tenors Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo participated in the tenth anniversary Pavorotti concert in Italy at the Verona arena (in which many operas have been presented), celebrating the late tenor’s life and work with his surviving family and an enthusiastic audience.  Since then, the beautiful opera diva Kiri Te Kanawa(with a fine voice that could be wild and piercing), now an elder in the field, has declared her retirement, noting the beautiful younger voices to be heard.

Kindergarten and first grade classes are now being held at a new school offering daily music instruction in addition to academic study intended to be innovative and rigorous at the Washington Heights and Inwood Music Community Charter School at 401 East 164th Street in Manhattan, New York.

A music conference, October 9 through 11, 2017, in Barcelona devoted to criticism is prepared to cover a lot of ground, including theory and practice, cinema and the internet, gender and society: the online announcement states, “This conference addresses the complex world of music criticism during the second half of the twentieth century, with particular emphasis on the relationship between music criticism and pivotal changes in politics, society and economics.” The conference was organized by the Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini of Lucca and the Societat Catalana de Musicologia of Barcelona.

An American in Paris remains a favorite film—of mine, of many of us.  La La Land, Into the Woods, and Get on Up are among the variety of musical films the last few years have given us.  Last Call Pitches, a sequel to the Pitch Perfect film series, is scheduled to open at year’s end, as is The Greatest Showman, inspired by P.T. Barnum.

Billboard, as of September 19, 2017, offers its September 30 list of most popular albums, according to reported sales, with the top ten albums being: Thomas Rhett’s Life Changes; The National’s Sleep Well Beast; Odesza, A Moment Apart; Lil Uzi Vert, Luv Is Rage 2; Jack Johnson, All the Light Above It Too; XXX Tentacion, 17; Dustin Lynch, Current Mood; Kendrick Lamar, Damn; Khalid, American Teen, and Kip Moore’s Slowheart.

New recordings from ECM include the Vijay Iyer Sextet’s Far From Over and the Gary Peacock Trio’s Tangents.  Legendary performer Robert Plant’s new Carry Fire is being released by Nonesuch Recordings, as is a 10-CD box set from Natalie Merchant.  Innova Recordings seems excited about Ephemera from Jesse Jones and Trios for Two from Molly Gebrian and Danny Holt.

Happy birthday to the beloved singer-actress Beyonce Knowles, who celebrated her special early September day in Philadelphia with an impressive black and yellow geode cake from Cake Life Bake Shop.  Her businessman/performer husband Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) was performing in Philadelphia at the time. Earlier in the year (March 6, 2017), CNN, the Cable News Network, reported that Carter is expanding his enterprises with a venture capital fund, called Arrive, supporting new entrepreneurs.

In late August Diana Ross played Tanglewood, the music site located on the lawn of the large Tappan family estate, a site that presents classical musicians and great popular artists.  Diana Ross came to fame with the Supremes under the tutelage of Berry Gordy’s Motown, before beginning a long solo career with and without Motown; and she was featured in theatrical and television films such asLady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, The Wiz, Out of Darkness and Double Platinum; a career for which she has received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the latter hung affectionately around her glorious throat by Barack Obama in November 2016.  “Ross made a triumphant return to Tanglewood on Wednesday, playing a 24-song, 110-minute set that had the crowd up for much of it.  And while there was no encore, no one seemed to be too disappointed,” reported Derek Gentile for the online Berkshire Eagle (August 31, 2017).  The Tanglewood performance was preceded by Ross on June 30, 2017 at the Essence Festival in New Orleans on a bill featuring John Legend and India.Arie, before an audience that included Anthony Anderson, Ava DuVernay, Boris Kodjoe and his wife Nicole Ari Parker, and Roland Martin—Ross performed as well May 25, 2017 at the Cannes film festival’s AmFar gala to raise funds for AIDS research, attended by Will Smith, Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman, Jessica Chastain and other film and fashion folk.

The experimental musician Pamela Z, a composer and performer, has worked with voice, electronics, and multi-media techniques, with both classical music and jazz collaborators, in America and abroad; and in an article in San Francisco Classical Voice by Mark MacNamara, August 29, 2017, Pamela Z reflects on the vulnerability of artists in general and herself in particular: “I’m a lone person in the world (no partner)…I support myself, and things are going reasonably well.  I have a space in a building that’s not too expensive and I can do my work.  But there’s always the fear: What if I lose that?  What if something happens and all these artists get kicked out of this building, where would I go?  What if I apply for things but don’t get them anymore?  What if I get sick or lose my voice?  Actually, I’m not so afraid of that.  I’m more afraid of what happens if Trump pulls all the arts funding and all that’s left are private foundations, and what if they don’t feel generous next year?  What if I need to find a ‘real’ job, at an age when nobody can get a job.”

Seattle’s Benjamin Hammond Haggerty is better known as Macklemore through works such as the extended play (EP) recording Open Your Eyes (2000) and the full album The Language of My World (2005), and for his work with Ryan Lewis—several EPs and The Heist (2012).  Macklemore’s song “Same Love” (2012) broke ground for its liberal approach to sexuality.  Macklemore’s Gemini is much awaited, having been preceded by the soaring song “Glorious,” featuring Skylar Grey.

Sam Smith, the singer-songwriter whose song “Stay with Me” and album In the Lonely Hour (Capitol Records, 2014) led to popularity, fame, and Grammy and Billboards awards had something planned for September on Spotify—a photographed billboard suggested that: and, the song “Too Good at Goodbyes” was announced and is now available, with video, online.  (Meanwhile, Tom Calderone, who had been head of Spotify Studios, overseeing its visual productions is leaving his post, reported Billboard magazine in late August 2017.)

Fans of the band Insane Clown Posse (The Ringmaster and Bang! Pow! Boom!)—called the Juggalos (mostly white working class guys who paint their faces like clowns)—marched at the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday, September 16, 2017, in protest against being labeled a gang, as they were said to commit crimes of assault, drug sales, and theft, by the Justice Department—a conclusion made in a 2011 gang assessment report.  (The band Insane Clown Posse, with the ACLU, sued the Justice Department in 2014 but the suit was dismissed; then it was reinstated by a federal court in 2015.)

It was hard to believe Gregg Allman was an old man—just as it is even harder to believe that he is no longer with us: working with his brother Duane, Gregg Allman was at the center of a great bluesy southern rock band, the Allman Brothers Band, with popular songs like “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider”; and Gregg did a lot of work alone as well.  In recent years he got great reviews for his album Low Country Blues (Rounder, 2011); and before he died he recorded Southern Blood (Rounder, 2017), and there is a documentary about the album’s making, Back to the Swamp (2017).

Rolling Stone magazine, the popular music industry resource, is being offered for sale, according to media reports.

Writing about contemporary artists?  A three-day conference on writing about musical artists in different musical genres has been planned by the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom for October 20 through 22, 2017.  The conference is open to a variety of approaches.  Christopher Wiley is the contact person.  The presentation of papers should last about twenty minutes with ten minutes allotted for questions.  Is that enough time for discussion?

The Afropunk Festival is scheduled for October 2017 in Atlanta; the California Roots Music and Arts Festival for May 2018 in Monterey; and Coachella in April 2018 in Indio, California.


Daniel Garrett is a writer of fiction, poetry, and essays, and a critic of literature, film, and music.  His work has appeared in All About Jazz, American Book Review, Cinetext, Offscreen, Pop Matters, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today, as well asThe Compulsive Reader.