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There’s Nothing from the Twenty-First Century

Yes, this is the line that Anna Kendrick says in Pitch Perfect after she looks at the Barden Bellas’ set list. I never thought I’d agree with that assessment, but I’m coming around to the idea.

 Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect Movie  Image #5

The twentieth century brought us Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, the Supremes, and basically most of what we consider pop music today. As a child of the twentieth century who is growing increasingly scared of some of the strange music of the past 13 years, I’m tempted to just shake my cane at the whole industry. As I’ve started going to this ballroom dance class, I can’t help but imagine some contemporary pop songs as background music. “Somebody I Used to Know” would be a lovely contemporary accompaniment for the quickstep, and you could do a fantastic jive to “Cowboy Casanova.”

So, here’s a quick countdown of 10 songs from the 21st century that capture the essence of “contemporary,” “pop,” and “music,” and what makes them so great.

2003: Eminem, “Lose Yourself”

I wasn’t really aware of this song when it came out, but what I also wasn’t aware of was that this was the dawning of 2000s Eminem, vs. 1990s Eminem. 1990s Eminem was an angry, sadistic man, but in the 2000s, he started manning up, coming into his own as an artist and as a person. “Lose Yourself” was the first step, written and released for the movie 8 Mile in late 2002 but skyrocketed to popularity in 2003, coasting all the way to the 2004 Oscars and winning, the first rap song to achieve this feat. Before “Lose Yourself,” I was one of those “anything but country and rap” people but this song exemplifies R-A-P (rhythm and poetry) in its cascading verses and positive message.

What dance it would accompany: Solo – club jam or jazz. For a couple – not many, maybe a Viennese waltz or a reaaaaally energetic foxtrot? If I were to ever go into boxing, martial arts, bungee jumping, or gain superpowers, this would be my theme.

2004: Dido, “White Flag”

Dido’s been around for awhile, but “White Flag,” I feel, gained her a lot of mainstream fans up against the likes of Christina Aguilera (whom she lost out on the Grammy Awards to for “Beautiful,” another heartfelt slow song but a bit hackneyed and obvious) and Avril Lavigne (whose “I’m With You” was also nominated that year, but sounds better when anyone but Avril Lavigne sings it…there’s a Josh Groban version out there which is spellbinding). It has echoes of Sinead O’Connor’s classic angst anthem “Nothing Compares 2 U” but with less of a fatalistic outlook; its message is one of strength and resilience. The haunting cello makes an excellent counterpoint to the higher notes, and Dido’s voice is just angelic.

What dance it would accompany: Solo – ballet, modern. For a couple – perfect for a rumba or a waltz, but a tango would be intriguing. When I hear this song, for some reason, I think of a commercial for a jewelry line or a perfume or something with a lot of white and possibly fur.

2005: Shakira, “La Tortura”

At this point in her career, Shakira’s had some major English-language hits like “Whenever, Wherever” (which would make for a hot samba number) and “Underneath Your Clothes” (…yeah, I’ve got nothing) but “La Tortura,” a collab. with Alejandro Sanz, is the epitome of sexy and provocative Latino music but not quite Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights provocative. I’ve heard both the English and Spanish versions, and though the English version received more buzz, I’m more partial to Shakira singing in her native language. (Speaking of Spanish, bienvenidos to my first visitors from Peru, Chile, and El Salvador!) With “La Tortura,” Shakira provided a stepping stone for other Latino/a artists to break into mainstream American music, adding some much needed flavor, as most bubble-gum brands lose over time. Good job building bridges Shakira!

What dance it could accompany: Solo – jazz, belly dancing, flamenco. For a couple – what couldn’t it accompany? Salsa, cha-cha, samba, quickstep, an energetic waltz even. Definitely one of the sexier songs of the decade.

2006: Natasha Bedingfield, “Unwritten”

Ah, “Unwritten.” The song that I loved so much I made it part of my screen name. Both the American and UK music videos are amazing, and this song is just the most uplifting, stereo-over-the-head, positive songs I’ve ever heard. It’s not too difficiult to sing and makes a rather banal karaoke choice, but it just fills me with sunshine. I used to have a rule that if the song comes on the radio while I’m driving, I couldn’t change the station, and if it comes on my iPod, I couldn’t skip it. Those days are gone now, but it’s a replica of a simpler time, a better time. Wait – that was freshman year of college for me, so maybe I’m better in the present.

What dance it could accompany: This is the only song on the list that isn’t really a song to dance to, other than maybe the gospel side-to-side clap.

2007: Justin Timberlake, “LoveStoned”

“The One That Got Away” is a Katy Perry song, but it could probably be about Justin Timberlake. He is indeed the one that got away…from the 1990s boy band scene. Pretty much every mainstream 1990s group was yesterday’s news when the 21st century hit; N*SYNC, 98 Degrees, O-Town, Backstreet Boys, Hanson, and the Spice Girls just missed the boat, among many other smaller, forgotten groups, but other than Posh Spice (who only retained her fame by marrying David Beckham and just being generally gorgeous 24/7), only Justin Timberlake seems to have emerged unscathed. In fact, his career is getting better and better. No longer is he Britney’s ex with the awful hair; he’s a sex symbol, viral video star, and is a better actor/comedian than half the current SNL cast. Seriously, Lorne Michaels, just put him on the payroll. “LoveStoned” is not his biggest hit, and maybe not even his best hit, but it took him off the Bar Mitzvah circuit and onto the 21-and-over nightclub floor. The instrumentals plus Justin’s massive octave range blurs the line between teen heartthrob and dashing gentleman, two qualities that have made Justin Timberlake the star he is today.

What dance it could accompany: Solo – club jam, hip hop, breaking, something a la Fosse jazz. For a couple – salsa and cha-cha, most def., but could work for a quickstep, a foxtrot, or a tango.

2008: Leona Lewis, “Better in Time”

While we were suffering through country boys on American Idol, Simon Cowell was churning out stars across the pond, and Leona Lewis was one of them. Most people thought she’d be a flash in the pan, and in truth…she kinda was, and sounding very similar to Jordin Sparks didn’t help her case, but she had several hits, most of them severely overplayed (yes, I’m talking to you, “Bleeding Love”). “Better in Time” was an after-thought and underrated, a subtle response to “Bleeding Love,” in fact, I wasn’t even aware of it until much later. But it’s living proof that the torch song still reigns, and every time I hear it, I think the same thing: it does get better in time.

What dance it could accompany: Solo – nothing really, maybe some Martha Graham-esque modern. For a couple – anything slow, like waltz, rumba, or even quickstep. Apropos, Ms. Lewis has amazing hair.

2009: Jay-Z & Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind”

This unlikely but fantastic pairing set 2009 (and 2010) on fire with “Empire State of Mind (Part 1)” which some said was a response to Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” – or maybe the other way around. If this song had been around seven years earlier, I think it might’ve replaced the national anthem. This late-night tune celebrates the Big Apple, Jay-Z’s sometimes nonsensical rapping notwithstanding, but Alicia Keys provides killer vocals and the music video is stunning. Let’s hear it for New York!

What dance it could accompany: Solo – modern, or a slow club jam. For a couple – much like the previous entry, anything slow (waltz, rumba, quickstep). This song will always remind me of getting off the Chinatown bus on a solo trip to Manhattan (it was randomly playing on the bus’ radio at the time), and even more of the end of that trip, where my aunt got stuck in Midtown traffic and in order to make my bus back, I had to jump out of her car with my backpack and rolling suitcase, and run several blocks, including through Times Square, at sunset, and seeing the lights of Broadway brighten as I ran. I was out of breath, but managed to watch the remainder of the sunset from the bus window.

2010: Lena Meyer-Landrut, “Satellite”

2010’s hit is another trip over the Atlantic, but this time to Germany. Well, actually Oslo, Norway, aka the location of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010. Long-described as a “musical trainwreck,” not many have made it out of Eurovision and enjoyed a lively career, with the obvious exceptions of ABBA, Katrina and the Waves, and Celine Dion. But 2010’s winner, German teenager Lena Meyer-Landrut (now known as just Lena) provided a refreshing pop treat with her rendition of “Satellite.” At first, I was disappointed, due to her winning over some of my personal favorites, Albania (Juliana Pasha, “It’s All About You”), Armenia (Eva Rivas, “Apricot Stone”), and of course Israel (Harel Skaat, “Milim”), but once I actually listened to the song, I was like…this is just precious. It straddles the line between adorable and obsessive, and is one of my favorites to do karaoke. It’s fun and bouncy and just so lovable. Surprisingly, even with her follow-up hit “Taken By A Stranger” (which got her close to winning Eurovision again the next year) and her cover of En Vogue’s “What A Man,” Lena hasn’t taken off here in America, and not even that much outside of Germany and its neighbors. Guess it takes a lot to overcome the Eurovision Curse.

What dance it could accompany: Solo – club jam, dance-around-in-your-underwear. For a couple – an energetic cha-cha, or a fun jive. I love you Lena, but you really need better PR people. If Ylvis, PSY, and One Direction could cross over, surely you can?

2011: Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”

Another song that kind of annoyed me when it first came out but then grew on me to the point where I will sing it in the shower at the gym (the acoustics of the tiles make it fill the space very nicely) and will not give you the pleasure of judging me. I’m too old for that, screw you, I do what I want when I want and it’s not hurting nobody. The previous year, Adele had begun her world takeover with “Chasing Pavements,” another song that kind of annoyed me, but like “Rolling in the Deep,” it grew on me. Even though she hasn’t released much new material other than “Rumor Has It,” “Someone Like You,” and “Skyfall,” what makes her fresh in my mind is her versatility. Her young voice has so much old-school soul, yet “Rolling in the Deep,”  “Skyfall,” and “Rumor Has It” are so different that it could very well be three different but equally talented singers. (sidenote – when I heard “Rumor Has It” for the first time, I did not know who sang it, but said “Adele would make an awesome cover of that one”…and then I found out that it was Adele. Whoops.) Adele is, as Christina Bianco correctly puts it, “the reigning British queen,” and many, like me, are anxiously awaiting her forthcoming album. Take that, Kate Middleton!

What dance it could accompany: Solo – not sure, I’ll go with modern. For a couple – something standard, like a quickstep or a Viennese waltz. Yeah, not much of a dance track, but there is never not a good time for this song.

2012: Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”

The waitress from small-town Texas turned American Idol has arguably had the most successful career among her fellow alumni, along with Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson. She suffered some career hiccups with the epic disaster of From Justin to Kelly and the poorly-chosen (but still popular) lineup for My December but came back to her sometimes lovable, sometimes frightening self with hits like “All I Ever Wanted” and “My Life Would Suck Without You.” “Stronger” has a rough,tough rock-n-roll appeal but also could be the soundtrack to an exercise class for moms. It defines “power anthem” without being too “girl power!” and that’s what makes it all the stronger. Good on you, Kelly.

What dance it could accompany: Solo – um, club jam, hip hop. For a couple – a fun salsa or cha-cha. Plus, the music video’s pretty neat and it’s just such an empowering song.

2013: Ariana Grande, “The Way”

Ariana Grande has been on my radar screen since 2010, when I was working on 13 The Musical in Israel, and had the soundtrack imprinted into my brain, a soundtrack that included vocals from a young and practically unknown Ariana Grande. After spending her teens with the gang at Hollywood Arts on Nickelodeon’s Victorious, Ariana spread her wings to fly solo. Not every baby bird can fly right off the bat, and she fell flat with the jokingly lame “Put Your Hearts Up,” which even she herself admitted should have never happened. But she got right back up with “The Way,” and with comparisons to Mariah Carey, took to the sky as more than a pop star wannabe but a vocalist with style and gymnastic ability not heard since the days of…well, Mariah Carey. The video ruffled some feathers for its not-so-squeaky-clean content, including a kiss, but in the grand scheme of music these days, it was relatively tame. I predict a long and successful career for Ariana Grande even if she is kind of annoying on Sam & Cat, her new Nick series which lacks the fun of Victorious and the maturity of iCarly.

What dance it could accompany: Solo – hip hop club jam, any day of the week. As a couple – seriously, just about anything fun and fast: salsa, cha-cha, rumba, samba, even a lively waltz.

I just spent about two and a half hours writing this. I clearly have my priorities in the right place.

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This Time for Africa

I decided that instead of “Book Review: Author, Title,” I’d adopt an actual title for all future book reviews, starting with this one. Today’s book review is Africa United by Steve Bloomfield. This copy has been traveling with me ever since I bought it at a Half-Price Books in Houston, and it’s been through about ten states and at least two plane rides, waiting for me to open it. I finished it last night just before drifting off to sleep.

In Africa United, Steve Bloomfield, a Kenya-based news correspondent, travels around Africa in search of connections between the continent of Africa and the world’s (except for the USA) favorite sport. The impetus for this book came about upon the announcement of South Africa as the host nation of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. After narrowly losing the bid for 2006, South Africa rallied to become the first African nation to host the World Cup, a feat for a continent which has yet to host a major international sporting event, such as the Olympics. This sparked a movement across South Africa and the rest of the continent as a “unified Africa,” fueling an already fervent love for the sport among Africans.

Steve Bloomfield starts from Egypt in his journey down the continent, through some of the “best and worst” teams in Africa – Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Kenya, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Zimbabwe – before arriving in South Africa at the beginning of the World Cup. Bloomfield notes that he couldn’t cover all the countries of Africa in his introduction, but oddly enough, his “best and worst” happened to omit three of the six African teams who qualified for the World Cup; Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana, leaving me to question his judgment of “best and worst” – aren’t these three countries among the “best,” who qualified in the same way that Cote D’Ivoire and Nigeria did?

Despite this, Africa United takes no prisoners; as Bloomfield wends his way through the countries, he also gives us some insight into their history, geography, and politics in addition to their individual relationships with soccer. What I enjoyed the most were the chapters through nations we don’t see very often in literature, like Chad and Somalia. Somalia, in particular, poses quite the pickle regarding international team sports; its status as a failed state with no government leads to very little in the way of facilities and amenities, not to mention safety. Ergo, all their matches – even “home” matches – are played outside the country. Another factor that can lead African teams astray are due to politics and money; the chapter on DR Congo was enlightening in that respect, with prime minister vying for dominance via a bunch of guys just kicking around a ball. Local politics also play a part, establishing unification or establishment of difference. In Liberia, George Weah took his sport to the next level, running for president in his country’s first democratic election. Despite his popularity on the pitch, he lost out – but it would have been interesting to a sportsman of his caliber (who is also a college student in the USA) become the leader of an entire country. In Cote D’Ivoire, soccer filters down to the level of education, with some parents taking the money they would have spent on textbooks and school supplies for their sons and putting it towards expensive soccer clubs, thinking that their son will one day be as famous and wealthy as Didier Drogba, a footballer who made it in Europe and has become a cultural and national icon. The Zimbabwe chapter is by far the saddest, recapping a country once known as the “breadbasket of Africa” on its downfall to a dictator-led state with the world’s worst economy. Age fabrication is rampant, showing the even further lengths some countries will go to for just for the win. Some nations import players from Europe who were born or have ancestry in their countries; sometimes they arrive and change things, but more often they end up disappointing people, or not showing up at all. On the flip side, some countries’ entire teams skip town, as Bloomfield mentions in his epilogue of the Eritrean national team, who were no-shows for their return flight from a match against Kenya, opting instead to decamp in Nairobi and seek asylum there.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In the chapter on Nigeria, Bloomfield talks about how its national team and its purpose-built capital city of Abuja seemed to ease tensions and increase cooperation between the northern Muslim parts of the country and the Christians to the south. Whereas in Cote D’Ivoire, the provenance of players provided some much-needed kinship with its former enemy neighbor, Burkina Faso, where blurred geographic lines and movement resulted in some Burkina Faso players being Ivorian, and vice versa, leading both countries with someone to cheer for on either team.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed the book. Some of the transitions are a bit clunky, or as Julian Hall puts it in his review “jumpy yet urgent” of the author, imploring him to further express “a little more passion in his reportage” (Hall). Bloomfield has a habit of switching rapidly from fun sports to refugees and genocide, but I guess that’s part of the greater story of Africa, that pride comes through pain, and that sports and games have a habit of doing just what they were made to do: create distractions, rivalries, and fun.

I’m not so big on the whole sports thing, except rooting for the Orioles, the Ravens, and briefly pausing on the Olympics when flipping channels. So this book taught me something. In fact, while the World Cup was going on, all I knew was that if I tuned in, my ears would immediately be assaulted by the dreaded horn known as the vuvuzela, which has now been added to the dictionary. Oh, and the theme song for the games, which had a music video in which this happened:

Entitled “Waka Waka,” it was a good beat to dance to, but drew some criticism. First, its lyrics are kinda vapid and stupid. Second, it wasn’t even performed by an African – despite including some words in an African language, deriving from a Cameroonian tune, and backed by the South African band Freshlyground – it was non-African pop singer Shakira who got to take the lead vocals. This only contributed to “Americanized” feeling of the opening ceremony’s featured entertainment – a sentiment expressed by many South Africans who were disappointed at the lack of local performers – as she performed in a roster that included Alicia Keys and John Legend. For the record, Shakira isn’t even American; despite her success and popularity in the USA that doesn’t change the fact that she’s from Colombia. On the song’s Wikipedia page, Shakira declared the song “multinational,” using African, South American, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to create the song. Again, the lyrics and the insipid chorus leave something to be desired, owing to English not being Shakira’s first language. She probably hasn’t gained much of a fan base in Africa, but since’s she’s an otherwise beautiful, successful, fabulously awkward and delightfully Hispanic singer who gets away with doing things with her voice that would cause most other peoples’ vocal chords to explode, she’d probably give her haters something like this:

Even though Shakira does acknowledge Africa in her song, addressing some of the cultural appropriation that it utilized, she completely and woefully ignores the culture of the real coiner of the catchphrase that made her song famous:

facepalm (217) Animated Gif on Giphy

Tsamina mina zangalewa: no love for Fozzie Bear.

Works Cited:

Bloomfield, Steve. Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa.” New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Hall, Julian. “Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, By Steve Bloomfield.” The Independent. 6 June 2010. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/africa-united-how-football-explains-africa-by-steve-bloomfield-1989567.html