Pop Stars



"Lazy Moon" by Emily Williams


I am a person who rarely, rarely turns on a TV. I haven actually owned a TV for most of my adult life; I broke down and bought one just a couple of weeks ago, from a girl who sold me her used IKEA loft off of Craigslist, and threw in her old TV/VCR for $23.50, which was too good a deal to pass up. Since I ve bought it I ve turned it on perhaps three times, catching the news, an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and something called, I think, American Idol. The American Idol show put me in mind of something that showed up on cable, one of the last times I was trapped in a hotel room with nothing else to do. The other show was called Pop Stars, and they were both designed along the same premises--a zillion kids aged 18-24 get to audition to become rich and famous overnight. They sing and they dance, they go before panels of judges, they are critiqued and called back and rejected, and after months of anguish, a very few of them are allowed to cut a record, and the rest is preordained, highly constructed, media-manipulated history. They do a concert in front of screaming fans (one concert), get their pictures on a CD which may or may not have a song played on Top 40 radio, and then move out of the way for next year crop of manufactured pop stars. Both shows were horrible, but I couldn t look away--it was like watching a road wreck. What better way to prey upon the natural insecurity and egotism of adolescence than to tell the youth of America, we will make you famous if you are good enough, and then tell seven million and thirty out of the seven million and thirty-six youths who show up, sorry, you didn t make the cut ? And then shove a camera in the face of some kid who has just been told, go away, you suck on national TV and ask, how do you feel about that? I won t even try to describe the emotional carnage I witnessed.One thing I noticed was that every girl on either of these programs, of whatever social, ethnic, or cultural background, sang like Whitney Houston, and every guy sang like Stevie Wonder. Some of them would be told by the judges, very nice, you have an original voice, but the general soft-pop warble was never lacking. Not that I have any objection to the music of Whitney or Stevie, but it struck me that the range of what was deemed pop star material was rather limited, even in context. Each candidate sang about 30 seconds of some widely recognized Top 40 song, and none of them played an instrument. The eventual winners had pretty faces and pretty voices, and seemed to enjoy their moment in the sun, bouncing around on stage, singing someone else songs in someone else s voice. I don t begrudge them that.Besides, I cannot even mount a sense of moral outrage against a system which is voluntarily financed by the dollars of the very people it is tormenting. Nobody would mount such an elaborate program of adolescent-exploitation if the adolescents themselves did not enthusiastically support it, not only by flocking to kamikazi auditions, but, more importantly, by watching the programs and buying the CDs. There is such a thing as karma.However, I did have a moment of clarity and revelation while spending an evening at Bar Fly in Guanjuato, Mexico, last April. The main attraction was a duo called Ember, billed solely as Celtic Music. Ember was not exactly Celtic, but they were phenomenal. m not exactly sure of the Girls ages, but I think it s safe to say they are in their early twenties, more or less of the Pop Star generation. But Emily Williams and Rebecca Sullivan are not counting on anyone else to make them famous, or even particularly worried about fame in general. They are, simply, kick-ass musicians who travel around the world, making music, and getting paid enough to keep traveling, although not much more than that.I bought their CD, entitled Winejig, selling for a modest 100 pesos, about $11 U.S. My purchase of said CD kept them in rent, bread and avocadoes for a day or so, and Emily visited my studio. Emily is from Wales, a bright, ebullient, curly-headed chick, who told me that Rebecca frequently gets grossed out by her belches and fascination with things like picking scabs. We got along like a house on fire. She told me how the two of them met, in the year 2000 in a youth hostel in Spain, started singing and writing songs together, rejoined a bit later, and started traveling together. In August of 2001 they recorded Winejig in Wales, with twelve original songs, put up a web site, and now they travel around Europe and North America, booking gigs in advance through the miracle of the World Wide Web. They don t do so badly, if we don t kill each other, says Emily.I listened to Winejig in my studio. I listened to it again, and again, and again. I started singing along with it. It is brilliant. They do it all themselves; the lyrics, the harmony, the instrumentation. Both of them play guitar, Emily plays violin, and Rebecca adds a Spanish touch to the song Skin with a simple set of claves.What works about Ember is that they are fully integrated. The lyrics to their songs are funny, poignant, clever, and startlingly mature. They had the crowd guffawing with the opening lines to Postcard Song, : here is the postcard I promised I d send you/ It s been a month and a half since I ve thought about you... then moved almost to tears by Rebecca Solo in March ve got to learn to cry but not to crack/ when beauty doesn t love you back; /throw away the dying lilacs... . Their diction is clear, their harmonies are pure, their phrasing is original and considered, their instruments are effectively used. I got several different songs off their CD stuck in my mind for days. It stays with you.Ember has gotten all kinds of gigs, in all kinds of places; Emily told me about one, in some Mexican resort, where the management charged about $1000 US a night per room; the place was packed to the gills, and they didn t get paid. They were tipped, an unconscionable $4. Total. There is such a thing as karma. The management of that hotel will return in their next lives as fame-hungry adolescents who don sing quite as well as Whitney, I am sure.I told Emily, you two have got it DOWN. They are supporting themselves with their art, albeit barely; they are able to travel, meet people, see the world, gain perfomance experience and material for artistic growth. What could be a more floor-stomping success than that, for a couple of talented kids?I would highly recommend going to Ember s website, emailing them, and getting them to send you a copy of their CD, not because they need the money, although it will certainly come in handy. No, you should buy their CD because it is a brilliant work of art by two sterling human beings which will heal your soul. Emily and Rebecca are the immutable stars, and they will be here next year, and the year after that, making beautiful music, if they don t kill each other first.

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