The Black Belles: Third Man Records’ Black Sheep?

Even the flip side photograph of the “Colbert single” is mocking the Black Belles.

Whatever happened to The Black Belles? After more than two years they have released four 7”singles, two of which they weren’t the main focus of the product. Oddly enough, Elvira and Steven Colbert were the highlight of two of the singles. Great marketing move having a new band not being the focus of a single with their name on it. Also, the Belles released their full-length debut, with little excitement or promotion, on November eighth, two thousand eleven. Since then, the Black Belles have disappeared into their manufactured darkness.

Jack White, The Black Belles’ Svengali-sound dictator and image overseer weakly attempted to garner excitement about the band with an odd appearance on the Stephen Colbert show where the gals awkwardly backed up Colbert as he goofily sang “Charlene II (I’m Over You).” Can one imagine a newly formed Sex Pistols backing Rodney Dangerfield? Oasis backing Seinfeld as he tried to sing some half-hearted composition? Of course not. Why would White subject the Belles to such humiliation? It’s much like Jagger and Richards delegating Jones to playing sitar on “Street Fighting Man.” It’s worth mentioning that the Colbert promotion focused more on White and his Third Man Record products rather than the Black Belles. Why bother bringing the Belles along if you’re not even going to involve them in the segments? People didn’t purchase the Colbert/Belles 45 for The Belles; they bought it for Colbert. Notice how at the seven second mark, YouTube poster GasperSavage says, “I order his (Colbert’s) new single. . .” Clearly proving that most bought the single for Colbert and not for The Black Belles.

Extending himself a little further, White continued his gimmicky record making–like vinyl needs a gimmick to sell–releasing a reported three hundred absinthe colored vinyl of the Belles debut release that mainly ended up in the hands of eBay vultures that had no interest in listening to the quirky colored record with quirky looking women holding hands on the cover. The news of the greenish colored vinyl release was mainly whispered at the local record store; the larger, iTunes consuming consumers were left in the dark.

After this underwhelming promotional attempt, the Belles have never made a live performance on any late night tee vee shows, which is customary when any band with a buzz releases a new album.  Turn your tee vee on any night and you’ll see a mass of flash-in-the-pan bands poorly performing their “hit” single on Kimmel, Fallon, Daly, Ferguson and, of course, O’Brien. It’s well known that White is a close friend with Conan, and one wonders if White has even thought of asking his friend if the Belles could blow through a three-minute performance of “Honky Tonk Horror” on his late night show. What’s the harm in asking? At the other end of the spectrum, White didn’t have a problem getting Karen “Nico” Elson a sleepy performance on Letterman, nor did he have any difficulty taking Wanda Jackson from the senior home to the Ed Sullivan Theater. But the Belles back up Colbert on a cable tee vee show that is only watched by a certain demographic, one that doesn’t have an interest in discovering a new band, especially one that is made to appear laughable through Colbert’s comedic attempts?

I can’t help but think that there is a larger, feminist issue brewing here. The Black Belles have the songs, the talent, and the look, but they have a management team “Nasty Little Man,” which, rhetorical, their horrible moniker reads like they should be promoting grainy footage of cheaply purchased celebrity porn, not talented musicians. It seems apparent that “Nasty Little Man” doesn’t know how or doesn’t care to market an extremely marketable band. What else could it be? After over two years of being signed to Third Man Records (TMR), Dana West, spokesperson and gatekeeper of the Belles, strangely labels the gals an “up and coming band.” Well, of course they’re going to be viewed as an “up and coming band” after two plus years if you don’t have a management team that properly promotes the band. Hell, the Sex Pistols were together for thirty months, maybe less, and released four singles and one full-length album and their musical and cultural influences still echoes through the entire world. Not comparing the Belles to the Pistols, but the example is used to emphasize the power of how fast a band can explode in the right situation. So are the male performers at TMR and those managed by “Nasty Little Man” treated with the same lackadaisical approach? And I’m sure Dana West will give some sort of statement filled with banal platitudes, or even worse, she’ll just ignore the criticism all together. Most of us don’t like being told when we’re failing (miserably) at our jobs.

Sadly, The Black Belles debut album was simultaneously ignored by Spin, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Paste, Stereogum and Magnet—just to name a few. Doesn’t this become a point of crisis for “Nasty Little Man” management? Outside a couple impressive music blogs, The Black Belles debut didn’t exist. And they still don’t exist.

To add insult to injury, one of The Black Belles first U.S. performances during their 2012 tour was at a The Center Stage in Muncie, Indiana. This is the kind of club Great White could bring down with fireworks. Muncie is most known for a fourth-tiered party college that Letterman graduated from. What a lonely concert that must’ve been. The poor Belles probably put on an amazing show as they sweated black eyeliner and sang “Pushing Up Daises” (a prophetic title for their career under “Nasty Little Man”) while the aloof crowd talked over their performance.

Back to the issue of feminism, the only live performance I’ve seen of the Belles was on a DVD I had to spend sixty dollars on through White’s Vault program. Oddly enough, the girls’ performance from the Halloween night extravaganza was pared down to four tunes (roughly thirteen minutes), with most of the performance was visually distorted with the excessive use of a fog machine combined with a camera man that was probably reading the camera’s manual while shooting the show. The other performance on the album was The Greenhornes, a Mudhoney-like band who performed fourteen songs. But who’s keeping count?

Maybe the larger problem originates with White. I mean, he does spread himself thin. Between scripted appearances on “reality” tee vee shows and heavily promoting his forthcoming solo album on SNL, sans the Belles, and frantically creating gimmicks to sell records, maybe White has just lost track of the Goth gals. Maybe he can’t bear to fight for room in front of the mirror with the girls to apply his make up before the red light of the camera flips on.

White almost comes off as a child who received too many toys for X-mas and he quickly tosses the toy fire truck over his shoulder to investigate the miniature train set sitting at his feet. The fire truck being a metaphor for the Belles. He wants to do so much that he ends up doing very little, especially for those bands signed to his label.

While White is busy setting balloons free across the south with some new single that a handful of people might hear, or handing out records recorded at an incredibly slow speed, maybe he should light the proverbial fire underneath “Nasty Little Man” management’s ass and, at the very least, get the Black Belles a performance on The Kelly Show, The View or whatever show(s) Dr. Drew hosts. If something doesn’t happen fast, “Nasty Little Man” and Dana West might be doing PR for Great White or even promoting a new Crash Test Dummies album. These bands seem more their speed.

Lastly, or quite simply, TMR should apologize to The Black Belles, pay out their contract and let them go and flourish with Sub Pop, Polyvinyl, or even Matador. Something tells me that one of these three record companies will cut through the gimmicky bullshit and get The Black Belles the attention they most certainly deserve.

April 14, 2012. Essays. 1 comment.

Lana Del Rey: Born to be Criticized

In recent times, the music world has never attacked and picked apart an artist or band like the corporate music media bullies have done to Lana Del Rey. A writer at Spin magazine spent the majority of his review of Born to Die carefully dissecting Del Rey’s “objectively ridiculous lyrics” like they were a newly discovered George Gissing novel. This writer at the should-be-defunct magazine isn’t alone in his shallow criticism of Del Rey. Whether it is her fake name, her fake lips, her fake nails or her fake career, the vampire half-wits that make up the popular music press are relentlessly feeding on some mythical character they’ve created on their iPad, and in their unfounded hatred of Del Rey they’ve missed her inherent charm. With all this childish chatter about Del Rey, Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker asks, “Why is pop music the only art form that still inspires such arrantly stupid discussion?” Male performers are never placed under such scrutiny, so why is Del Rey such an enticing target?

Del Rey is the anti-Gaga. And this bothers people. Unlike Gaga, Del Rey doesn’t need to piece together some goofy outfit and dance around stage like an Adderall addict to distract the audience from the cacophony that is blasting from somewhere on the over lit stage. It takes a certain brave soul to stand in front of a television camera without holding an instrument, not hiding behind a piano or some fish net mesh covering one’s face and just sing. This is what Del Rey does. This what Del Rey did on SNL. She sings.

Lady Gaga’s lyrics are Facebook fodder filler for soon-to-be-graduating high school seniors to sing along with while they hold the plastic red cup in one hand and their iPhone in the other. But Lady Stardust gets a pass and Del Rey gets crucified. I use Gaga as an example because she has lulled the video game players and the texters and the Twitter twits and the Starbucks suckers to sleep with her loud and screechy songs. There are a million other examples of female performers that write horrible lyrics that never get examined with a coolness thermometer by Spin or Rolling Stone or Juliette “fuckin’ a” Lewis.

I understand the argument. Del Rey has connections. She has a cadre of musical doctors around her to keep an eye on her pop culture vitals; she signed to a large label for her debut instead of releasing it on Matador or Merge; she signed a deal with a modeling agency; and, more importantly, she cut ahead in the pretty pop performers’ line and made it to SNL as an almost complete unknown. I suppose it’s a matter of time before Pavement writes a song about her.

Will we be talking about Lana Del Rey a year from now? Probably not. But don’t count Del Rey out. She will tour and do countless interviews and perform on late night shows around the world, and maybe she’ll perform on American Idol. During this journey she will find her voice, her lyric writers will probably get younger and hipper and better, and Del Rey will give the writers at Spin something new to explicate and criticize while they continue to hand out free passes to whatever flavor of the year infects their iPods.

February 18, 2012. Essays. 1 comment.