There’s nothing more American than football, except maybe giving an outsized trophy to a first-place football champion. The Super Bowl combines both of these time-honored traditions into an extravaganza of patriotism, performance and spinach-and-artichoke dip. The New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks met last Sunday for the 49th such extravaganza. SPOILER ALERT: America won.
The best part of Super Bowl Sunday is usually the commercials. They are the reason for Betty White’s recent career comeback. They are the reason you think you need to drive through the desert in a Nissan Altima. But this year, most of the commercials were terrible and did not make you want to drive through the desert in a Nissan Altima. Nationwide Insurance apparently thought that “Your Child Might Die!” would be a compelling message for consumers. The trailer for “Fifty Shades of Grey” was predictably icky and lame. Capitalism is typically the true winner of the Super Bowl, but this year’s commercial offerings only made me want to deposit my earnings into a savings account. And then hopefully save more money using new software by Turbo Tax.
The halftime show, featuring American musical legend Katy Perry, did not disappoint. Perry sang a medley of her greatest hits in a series of brightly colored outfits, even inviting a few guests to share the limelight. Lenny Kravitz joined in for a few verses of “I Kissed A Girl” and then promptly disappeared back into the ether of minor roles in major action movie franchises. The real star of the show was Missy Elliot, who captivated the stadium with a rendition of her classic “Get Ur Freak On.” But the real, real star of the show was the literal star that Katy Perry rode across the field. Was it a metaphor for the arc-shaped career of the modern pop star? A simile about the fleeting nature of human existence? One thing is for certain: It was shiny.
All of this, however, is secondary to the movement now sweeping the nation, the cultural force signifying a total paradigm shift in the American consciousness. I am referring, of course, to Left Shark. In case you missed it: Katy Perry briefly danced in front of two people in full-body shark costumes, and Left Shark could not keep up with the aggressive tempo maintained by Right Shark. The Internet, seizing on the opportunity to laugh about something weird/a person’s failure in the most public moment of their life, has made Left Shark into something between a meme and a lifestyle. Nothing will ever be the same again, until Buzzfeed discovers the next thing That Will Give You Life.
Most years, the over-the-top theatrics of the Super Bowl are confined to the halftime show. But this time, the game itself managed to out-drama Perry and her shooting star of musical wisdom. With two minutes to go, the Seahawks were down by four. A bobbled miracle catch led them almost all the way to the end zone. Seattle’s victory was imminent. Then, following what has been described as the worst play call in the history of the sport, the Seahawks threw an interception from the one-yard line. The players took a quick break from the constant threat of concussion to literally punch each other in the head. After some light fisticuffs, play resumed. And in yet another glorious example of American might stomping on the majesty of Mother Nature, the Patriots defeated the Seahawks, 28–24.
Thus, another Super Bowl is etched into the annals of Wikipedia history. This Super Bowl truly was the Superest Bowl yet. But who was the real winner of the game? The Patriots, who won the game? Katy Perry, whose magical performance elevated a nation?
No, the winner was someone considerably less glittery and talented: me. This Super Bowl had enough drama, snacks and camaraderie to last me until next year’s identical occasion. Plus, as a Midwesterner, it brings me great joy to see disappointment in the eyes of someone from either coast. Victory in the Super Bowl is only temporary, but Super Bowl party leftovers last slightly longer.
The candidly personal, the retro and the acoustic have dominated music for about a year.
You could say it started with the massive and simultaneous hits “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky,” two songs that harkened back to an earlier era with their disco beats and gentle falsettos. Pharrell Williams, mastermind behind both songs, returned to the formula to create “Happy,” which predictably became the most ubiquitous song of early 2014.
Finding the real source of pop’s current obsession with low-fi and low-key requires that we travel even further back: to the deluge of glitzy, futuristic, synth-pop ushered in by Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas and nurtured by the likes of Ke$ha, Flo-Rida and Katy Perry. The reign of techno was so relentless, that somewhere in the long expanses of 2012, I propose, the novelty wore off. People got Auto-Tuned out.
The ensuing pendulum-swing has had a few major themes. Stylistically, hit songs have tended toward the acoustic, the folksy, the funky, the disco-ish and the Reggae-esque. In their lyrics and packaging, stars have chased after a stripped-down, vulnerable image. What the post-Gaga pushback has sought is entertainment that feels organic.
We’re still living in the aftermath. Glance at the top 10 songs in this week’s Billboard Hot 100 and you’ll find that Pharrell’s minimalist funk is enlivened with comic candor in Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Listen to the Afro-Carribean lilt permeating Magic’s “Rude” and Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong.” Think of Sam Smith’s acoustic smash “Stay With Me” or the flavors of neo-soul running through superstar collaboration “Bang Bang.” Left by the wayside are those who refused to evolve — the Britney Spearses and Lady Gagas, clinging to their icy club bangers as current tastes drift away.
It is in this climate that we get “Anaconda,” a song that jumped 37 spots last week, landing at number two and becoming Nicki Minaj’s highest charting single ever. Critics immediately called it an unlikely hit, and, it’s true — Minaj does seem like a holdover from inaccessible, turn-of-the-teens excess. But is she really so out of place? “Anaconda” is built around a sample from Sir-Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 classic “Baby Got Back,” which makes it precisely the sort of nod-to-a-bygone-era that has prompted so many downloads and spins for Robin Thicke and others. Insofar as Minaj candidly and playfully boasts of her impressive derriere, “Anaconda” is precisely the sort of quirky, brazen self-empowerment anthem that vaulted Swift and Trainor to the charts’ upper ranks.
“Anaconda” speaks to the playful throwback jams that currently permeate the charts. But it remains to be seen whether the marketing of Minaj’s upcoming album will also follow larger industry trends: Justin Bieber tried to pitch his last collection as an intimate exchange with fans by naming it “Journals;” Taylor Swift’s new album includes Polaroids taken by Swift and a title scrawled in Sharpie; last year, Beyonce released her eponymous album without any promotion and gave a statement which read, in part, “I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There’s so much that gets between music, the artist and the fans.” If you’re wondering whether these marketing techniques relate to pop music’s rootsier sound, consider this: Katy Perry’s “Prism” came with literal seed packets. Albums are now framed as your chance for authentic connection with a celebrity.
We’ll soon see whether Minaj packages her album as a revealing glimpse into the woman behind the constructed persona. Whether she follows the trend or, as she so often has, sets her own.
Nero, My Panda is a student band at Yale that’s been together since the spring of 2012. Its members: drummer Andrew Goble ’15, guitarist and live vocalist Paul Hinkes ’15 , vocalist and lyricist Elliah Heifetz ’15, and keyboardist and lyricist Max Gordon ’15, just released their EP this Thursday. The band gathered in Heifetz’s home to talk about the year-and-a-half-long trajectory that has led them to this new release—starting with their crazy, esoteric band name.
Q: First things first. Where did you guys get the band name?
Elliah Heifetz: I was writing a paper on this painting in the art gallery for Nemirov’s class freshman year called “Hero and Leander.” I was talking to Max about the paper for some reason, and we really liked the name of the painting. We were just messing around with it and being stupid, and then came up with “Nero, My Panda.” It had nothing to do with the actual painting.
Q: Had the band already formed by then?
Max Gordon: That was spring of our freshman year. Elliah and I were regularly writing songs together. So I guess it was a project but we didn’t call it a band.
Q: And then how did the others get involved?
Paul Hinkes: I’m in the same singing group as Max … and we were hanging out one night, sort of swapping songs, talking, and I expressed my interest. Max also said that the band was still in need of a drummer. I was lucky enough to have been freshman year suitemates with Andrew, who I knew was a very talented drummer. We had our first rehearsal in the last month of our freshman year. The band was pretty much together by then.
E.H.: Our first show was the fall of last year — parents’ weekend in the Baker’s Dozen house’s basement. And that was when we also put out our first demos.
Q: Are you affiliated with a cappella?
Andrew Goble: I’m not. My association is very vague. But the others are.
M.G.: Paul and I are in the Baker’s Dozen.
E.H.: And I’m in the Duke’s Men.
Q: Do you think your style as a band has been influenced by a cappella?
E.H.: Well, when we play live it helps that three of us sing regularly. If there are any parts of the song that need extra singers, we have just the guys in the group do them. We don’t need to seek outside singers.
M.G.: We like harmonies.
Q: What would you describe as your band’s sound?
E.H.: Um, [laughs] pop music. We listen to a lot of Katy Perry, a lot of punk music too, and rock music, also a lot of ’60s classic old-school pop. It’s just girl American pop music with a wink, because we want everyone to have a good time.
Q: I listened to your guys’ single, “I Just Want to Sleep in My Own Bed,” on your website. It sounded very smooth and well produced. How did you guys get that level of quality?
M.G.: So, we’re working with a producer in the city, the Jedi Master. That’s what he goes by; Jeff Jones is his actual name.
Q: How did you meet Jones?
M.G.: I worked for him as an audio engineer the summer after my freshman year, and we’ve just developed a good working relationship since then.
Q: Who composes the songs?
M.G: Elliah and I write the songs. But in terms of recording, in terms of putting it all together, we’re all playing different parts.
E.H.: The first songs we did we recorded first and then played live, but, with these songs, Max and I wrote them and then we played them live and then we recorded them. Playing them live with the band really informed what sounds worked and what we wanted to put on the record.
P.H.: The single “I Just Wanna Sleep in My Own Bed” was, in its first iteration, played live. We played it in Brooklyn over the summer. It was a much grittier, much less clean song than the final product. Live performances really informed the recorded version.
Q: What venues have you played in?
A.G.: Mostly New Haven ones. Last year we played BDs, SigEp, Spring Fling. I feel like we played everywhere last summer. This fall we played at the BDs again.
P.H.: We’ve had some crazy gigs too. We played at Jack Wills’ clothing store over on York. They reached out to us, and wanted us to play there.
M.G.: We got some nice clothes from that.
Q: Did you guys ever find it difficult to find venues?
A.G.: I think one great advantage is that I’m president of SigEp so that’s a space I have. And those two guys live in the BD house, that’s a space we use, which isn’t that big. But I think an important thing is being willing to play in weird spaces. It ends up being a lot more fun. Even in the BD house we had it packed and there were 50 people who couldn’t fit in. It was just a fun atmosphere to play in.
P.H.: There’s something incredible about being in a room with 100 people that’s meant for 25 and being so hot that you have to wipe your guitars down. We talked about being influenced by 60’s pop. A lot of these bands got their start playing in the small — incredibly small — spaces that are not necessarily fit for a rock band to play in.
M.G.: And the nice thing is that everyone that’s staying there really wants to hear you play. (laughs) They’re overcoming a lot to listen to you play. When you’re in this big open space you can come because you have nothing to do, but these people know every single word. It feels like you’re just at a party and providing entertainment that everyone’s totally focused on.
Q: It sounds like you guys have gotten a lot of experience doing live shows, and now you’re doing the EP. What do you see as the next step in your trajectory as a band?
M.G.: We love making music that people can dance to, that people can have fun listening to, and we want as many people to enjoy that as possible.
E.H.: Getting as many people to have fun is really the goal.
A.G.: There are a lot of goals probably, but in terms of the day-to-day, the hope is of creating that experience, and I think if we’re good, if we do that correctly, the opportunities of showcasing our music to more people are there.
Q:Are there any difficulties or obstacles that you’ve encountered in being a band at Yale? How do you let people know about your shows?
E.H.: A lot of it is just making a Facebook event. If we put it on at a certain time of night, everyone’s going to go on their computers and everyone’s going be on Facebook and people are going see it. Another way is, if we’re [performing at] a house that has a party on, people are going to go there anyway for the party. It’s just taking advantage of that and trying to make the party our show — trying to game the system of being a college band.
A.G.: I think our vibe as a band has lent itself well to big crowds, because it kind of feels like a collaborative experience. We’re feeding off their energy — we’re not playing with our heads down, like we’re recording. For the most part, I think the people who come to our first concerts are likely to come to our second and third concerts, and that has helped a lot in trying to create something that’s fun instead of something that’s more for us than for them.
M.G.: There’s no point in making something if someone isn’t going to enjoy listening to it. I think that drives a lot of what we do, both in the literal music that we make and in how we present it. It’s all meant to be enjoyable, to be fun, to be exciting, and I think that if you can’t hit those, then I don’t see much point.
Q:You guys are an eclectic-sounding bunch. Do you each have specific genres or styles that you identify with?
P.H.: (nods to Andrew) Weezer.
A.G.: I love alt-rock and classic rock and I just like how they are drum-wise. That and hip-hop for me come to the forefront. The drums’ purpose is to serve up the other parts of the music. If I tried to make every song a résumé of what I can do on the drum set, nobody would be happy except for maybe me. I think some hip-hop does that really well, where even the beat works with the rhythm of the rapper, as do some of my favorite rock bands, like Weezer. I learned to play the drums listening to their songs. They’re so easy and yet there’s so much detail as to why they’re doing each thing and why it works with the music.
P.H.: My taste’s a little less refined. I don’t have a specific genre I truly identify with. I love when a form is done well, whether that be hood stuff, or you know, on the far end, Katy Perry. One of our favorite songs right now is “Timber” [the new Pitbull song featuring Ke$ha]. It’s an amazing song. Elliah and I are getting into this hard-rock band called Japandroids. They’re so good, they’re so different. Whatever the model is, when it’s done well I’ll want to listen to it.
E.H.: I would say the one genre I try not to listen to is country pop.
P.H.: I love country pop.
M.G.: I think “Prism” [the new Katy Perry album] is fucking amazing.
E.H.: The song “Birthday” on “Prism” is one of the best songs to come out of the past four years.
P.H: Headline, headline!
Q: Andrew, you mentioned that you were a high-school musician. What’d you play?
A.G.: I played a lot of jazz, which was probably the most inspiring thing. Jazz is all about fitting in. It helps when I’m playing live, knowing how to create something that meshes and presents a uniform sound.
Q: Were the rest of you previously in bands?
P.H.: All of us were.
M.G.: Just a high school band.
A.G.: I wish I was in a high school band.
P.H.: My high school band was pretty shitty. We dressed up as ridiculous as we could and covered top 40 songs.
E.H.: I was in a really classic high school band. We listened to a lot of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin — a lot of guitar riffing and shredding.
Q: How have you evolved since then?
P.H.: I think there’s a real desire in the group to be a cohesive unit. Our songs our two-and-a-half minutes. There’s no need to spend 45 seconds on a guitar solo. It’s just the song, polished. Here’s the package and we’re very confident with it.
E.H.: It’s not about us. It’s not about the person doing the guitar solo or showing off on his instrument. We’re playing for people to listen to it.
P.H.: The best possible thing is for the song to end and for people to want it to continue.
Q: How have you grown as a band?
P.H.: There’s a great feeling of having done our songs so many times before and getting to do them again.
E.H.: When things start to become inside jokes and traditions, you know you’ve existed long enough and hung out long enough that you’ve become what people call a band. I think that’s the biggest growth — from freshman year to being people who know each other and hang out.
M.G.: Yeah, we definitely shit on each other a lot more now.
A.G.: It’s nice to have someone fuck something up and for Max to be like, “You fucked that up” and for the person not to take that harshly. It’s good that we communicate on a very open level.
M.G.: We definitely have a more refined set of musical references that we can refer to, and that makes communication between all of us in rehearsals or when recording that much more efficient and that much more effective.
P.H.: And now when Max makes weird noises Goble knows what to play on the drum.
M.G.: I was making noise that I think a drum makes [Max makes a “boom boom shhh” sound] and Goble says, “Max, that’s not what I do.” But now —
A.G.: Now he does the same thing but I translate. Sometimes he’ll say noises that just aren’t made by the drum. Usually I can guess what drum he’s looking for but sometimes … (laughs). We’re not as lost in translation as we were before.