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Topic Recommends: Synths, Space, and Natural Women

Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko demonstrates his experimental music-making device, the instrument osobisty (“personal instrument”), in 1969. From the forthcoming book Ultra Sounds: The Sonic Art of Polish Radio Experimental Studio (Kehrer Verlag, 2019). Courtesy of the Collection of the Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź and Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Topic Recommends: Synths, Space, and Natural Women

A curated list of the best stories on the internet about the life cycles of music, from the birth of a star to the end of an orbit.

Every other week, Topic Recommends curates the best stories for you to watch, listen to, read, and enjoy. Anything, really, besides the news. It’s all the work of writer Laura Olin.

This month, Laura is suggesting stories linked to our June theme: Music. Sign up to get this as a newsletter here.

1. His Song. Pop quiz: What is the last musical biopic you saw that was better than mediocre? (Yes, I know Bohemian Rhapsody won four Oscars, but come on.) How about the last musical biopic that was actively interesting? They don’t come around often. Rocketman, out now, is about one of the most fabulous individuals to walk the earth (Elton John, obviously) and is exceeding usual biopic expectations by rendering his life into 91-percent-on-Rotten-Tomatoes material. As Ann Hornaday argued in the Washington Post in 2016, the key to a great music biopic is to not get too literal or rely on mimicry: “When it comes to our most cherished icons, oblique is better than straight on. Characterization surpasses caricature. Interpretation transcends impersonation.”

2. Respect Overdue. The new Aretha Franklin film Amazing Grace isn’t technically a documentary or a concert film: it’s a taping of an audio recording session that happened nearly 50 years ago. The footage, which wasn’t released until late last year, captures a two-night engagement that Franklin played at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, California, in 1972, performing renditions of gospel songs that would go on to become the best-selling gospel record in history. But it wasn’t just the audio that was recorded—the performances were filmed, too, by none other than a young Sydney Pollack (whose technical screw-up contributed to the decades-long delay of the film’s release). In Vulture, Mike Rubin tells the story of how the film finally made it to screens and why it was such a long journey to get there.

3. The Artist As a Young Woman. Here’s the very first New York Times mention of Aretha Franklin. It’s a little quasi-concert review by John S. Wilson about Franklin’s appearance at Philharmonic Hall on Saturday, October 28, 1967: “Saturday she ran through several selections on which she made little use of her soul treatment before she got down to business with ‘Natural Woman.’ Until then she was being overpowered by a blatantly loud orchestra.” In the end, the force of Aretha becomes apparent to Wilson, who was the first critic to write regularly about jazz and pop for the Times: “By the time she got to the last number, she had most of the people who filled the hall on their feet, clapping and cheering as she sang.”

4. It’s Called What? You definitely know what an “orchestra hit” sounds like, even if you’ve never heard that term before. Just audio-picture what comes to mind when you think about that phrase, or better yet, watch this explanation from Vox’s Earworm series, created and hosted by Estelle Caswell, about how a 1980s pop cliché that spans musical history from NWA to the Eurythmics to Bruno Mars actually started with the composer Igor Stravinsky in 1910, who invented it at the age of 28.

5. Zen and the Art of Burial. In a 1996 Esquire piece, Amy Dickinson follows Courtney Love as she carries her late husband Kurt Cobain’s ashes across the country in a teddy bear knapsack. It turns out it can be hard to find a place to put an extremely famous person’s ashes to rest. One cemetery refuses based on security concerns; another wants to charge Love $100,000 a year. As Love and Cobain were on-again-off-again Buddhists, Love eventually brings some of the ashes to a monastery in Ithaca that really, really doesn’t want to turn into a pilgrimage point for Nirvana fans: “We’re no Graceland.”

6. Rocketmen. How astronauts are woken up in space every simulated morning: a long tradition of audio wake-up calls. Check out this history of the songs used for these wake-up calls, compiled by Colin Fries of the NASA History Division, who says that they “date back at least to the Apollo Program, when astronauts returning from the Moon were serenaded by their colleagues in mission control with lyrics from popular songs that seemed appropriate to the occasion.” The first ever: “Hello Dolly,” sent during Gemini 6. Crews returning home often get Dean Martin’s 1965 “Houston” on their final morning in orbit. (Via Jason Kottke.)

7. Bey-coming. At this point, its headline alone has become a meme, but the actual story is, in fact, worth reading: Kelefa Sanneh’s New York Times album review from 2003, in which he proclaims that the solo Beyoncé is “no Ashanti.” He doesn’t appear to have revisited that judgment in subsequent years, so jury’s out on whether Sanneh still feels the same way.

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