Topic Recommends: Fats, Whitney, and the Salinger of Pop

Rappers in New York, 1988. Top row, left to right: Sparky D, Sweet Tee, Yvette Money, Ms. Melodie. Middle row: Millie Jackson, Peaches, a dancer for Sparky D. Bottom row: a dancer for Sparky D, Roxanne Shanté, MC Lyte, Synquis. From the exhibition CONTACT HIGH: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, on view at the Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles. Photograph by Janette Beckman. Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles.

Topic Recommends: Fats, Whitney, and the Salinger of Pop

A curated list of the best stories on the internet that reevaluate musical legacies, from a Broadway icon to a 2010s ear worm.

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. Hello Goodbye. “It’s such a brilliant idea, I can’t believe it’s not been done before”—that’s Danny Boyle on the premise of his new film, Yesterday, written by Richard Curtis of Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral fame. The concept: during a mysterious, 12-second global blackout, a young English songwriter named Jack gets in a bike accident and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up again, everything about the world is the same—except that, now, he’s the only one on the planet who remembers the Beatles. He goes on to debut their songs as his own; fame and wackiness ensue. (Super-obvious idea that someone totally should have come up with before, right?) This movie will delight Richard Curtis fans, but slowly drive anyone who believes in some version of the butterfly effect insane. How could Coldplay—which, weirdly, does still exist in this alternate reality—or any other modern pop bands play the way they do if the Beatles had never been the Beatles? The movie doesn’t seem to care, and Paul and Ringo are reportedly cool with it, so perhaps we’ll just ... let it be.

2. Inside Information. You’ve probably seen that famous photo of President Richard Nixon shaking hands with a shag-haired, giant-belt-buckled Elvis Presley in 1970. It’s one of the most popular items in the National Archives for download and copy requests. But do you know the story behind the photo? Nope, it wasn’t some standard ceremonial visit. It turns out Elvis requested the meeting with a letter written on American Airlines stationery that asked the president to come see him at his hotel (the things you think you can ask when you’re Elvis!) and included the line: “I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing where I can and will do the most good.” He also promised presents: “I have a personal gift for you which I would like to present to you and you can accept it or I will keep it for you until you can take it.” When they met in the Oval Office on December 21, 1970, Elvis presented Nixon with a gift of an engraved, World War II-era Colt .45 pistol with seven bullets. Peter Carlson gives more backstory in Smithsonian Magazine.

3. This Is Crazy. “Call Me Maybe,” but one thousand times slower, performed on classroom instruments, and with every other beat removed.

4. OK By Me in America. Bernstein—Bradley Cooper’s follow-up to his directorial debut, A Star Is Born—will be a biopic about the famous American composer, Leonard, who wrote the music for, among other things, West Side Story, Peter Pan, and On the Waterfront. (Cooper is writing, directing, and will star in the movie.) To bone up on Bernstein’s life, read Robert Rice’s 1958 New Yorker profile of a 39-year-old Bernstein upon the latter’s ascent to the directorship of the New York Philharmonic, which delves frankly into struggles at home, professional setbacks, and a perpetual lack of money. As a new memoir by his daughter Jamie Bernstein acknowledges, part of what made Bernstein’s personal life as dramatic as his professional one is what his wife, Felicia Montealegre, called his “double life” of ongoing romantic relationships with men.

5. The Mersey-sippi. Alexis Petridis chronicles one man’s search for the "J.D. Salinger of pop" in the Guardian, in 2003: Lee Mavers. Mavers wrote “There She Goes”—a recorded, and re-recorded, mega-hit—then disappeared from view.

6. Pushing Back. “No African American jazz entertainer of the 1930s escaped the call to record racist or racially dubious songs,” writes Alfred Appel Jr. in a 2002 piece for The London Review of Books. Some entertainers responded with fairly earnest renderings of the songs, as written; some with gentle ironic distance; and some with what Appel calls “frontal comic assaults.” Fats Waller made comedy out of such songs, Appel writes, while Louis Armstrong was somewhere in the middle: “A chorus of scat could by implication reduce dumb or demeaning lyrics to nonsense, and his trumpet solo would then scatter the remains, as in the coon song ‘Shine.’” Are there examples of contemporary artists who have been asked to perform content that’s demeaning to them, then found ways to subvert it?

7. Stars and Pipes. Just in time for the Fourth of July, here’s Vox’s Estelle Caswell and Joss Fong on why the US national anthem is terrible (and perfect?). Most singers will agree it’s one of their least favorite tunes to sing because it requires extensive vocal range. Whitney Houston, of course, made it look as easy as rolling off a log in a pristine white tracksuit.

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