Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ode to Norah Jones' 'Chasing Pirates'

The advantage of blogging is that you can publish whatever you want, whenever you want, on-topic or not.

Sometimes a guy just has to get away from the Connecticut Senate race, death in pro wrestling, and the copyright wars. To do that these days, I kick back and play Norah Jones’ “Chasing Pirates.” For my money, it is the most perfectly crafted pop single since “Conceived,” the minor 2006 hit by Beth Orton.

(And yes, I have a thing for felicitous female voices. Shoot me.)

“Conceived” had sent me diving into Orton’s full oeuvre, which turned out not to measure up to that song’s lightning-in-a-bottle incandescence. Jones, of course, is a different story, having burst on the scene with instantly recognizable and transcendent crossover talent that made her the It Girl of 2002. I don’t apologize for being slow to the party. That is my way. I discovered the Beatles in 1972.

Except for knowing what I like, I know squat about music. So before putting fingertip to keyboard, I rehearsed this essay with one of my sons, a trumpeter who played and occasionally soloed with the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble, and whose musical enthusiasms are both catholic and tasteful. Here’s the best I can come up with.

First, I do not recommend that you run out and view the music video of “Chasing Pirates” on YouTube. The video is a plausible exploitation of Jones’ multiracial beauty and waifish mannerisms, but the viewing experience has the unfortunate effect of reducing the song’s ethereal imagery to prosaic narrative. Instead, I suggest consuming the aural core without sensory filters. Don’t even download the audio track; just wait for it to land in its regular rotation on a radio station such as San Francisco’s KFOG.

What you’ll immediately notice about “Chasing Pirates” is that it’s built around a singular riff and bass line. That’s an old device of pop-hook manipulation. Bo Diddley did it. So did Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” And, of course, the entire genre of funk beats us over the head with it. Now Norah Jones does it, but in a tantalizingly small package, and with the breathy and understated tones that have led some critics to deride her as “Snorah Jones.”

I have not been a partisan in that debate; I was not a fan, and knew Jones simply as a gifted musician with uneven material. But “Chasing Pirates” shows why her detractors have it wrong. Jones has the voice of an angel – obviously – but her stylings aren’t just seductive, they’re searching. Like jazz vocalists going all the way back to Louis Armstrong, she knows how to coo, illegally and irresistibly, off the beat.

Contrast Jones in “Chasing Pirates” with Brandi Carlile’s “Dreams,” another current hit with spare architecture. Jones is a singer of preternatural depth. Carlile is a pretty good warbler – a modern-day Linda Ronstadt with a great instrument but a mediocre grasp of drama and dynamics. Dreams don’t usually scream, and Carlile (like Ronstadt mangling Roy Orbison) does too much screaming.

The last thing Jones’ pipes and phrasing facilitate is lyricism. I don’t know whether Jones writes her own stuff, and I have enough cynical background in the culture industry to realize that it’s a racket and the names on the credits don’t always tell the truth. I’m not going to bother looking it up because it doesn’t matter. Whoever composed the melody and words of “Chasing Pirates,” Jones’ performance owns them.

Check out the rhyme scheme of the chorus. Abandoning the cheap trick of rhyming at the end of the line – or the somewhat heftier technique of a false rhyme – Jones buries hers in the middle of the line “My mind’s racing / from chasing pirates.” The juxtaposition of “racing” and “chasing” is almost unbearable, allowing Norah to draw out “pirates” across the rest of the measure, and a little differently each time.

Enough exegesis. For the next two minutes and forty-two seconds, just shut up, listen, and weep.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Pam Samuelson to Google Judge: Wait for Supreme Court Ruling in 'Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick'

In a 23-page letter brief submitted to Judge Denny Chin on January 27, Pam Samuelson, the Richard M. Sherman Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California in Berkeley, sets forth ten core objections to the Google Books settlement.

No. 3 is what Samuelson argues is the need to wait for the Supreme Court's ruling in Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick. Objecting to Google's "seemingly narrowed definition of 'inserts,' and more generally to the narrow definition of 'book,'" she adds: "If the Supreme Court rules that owners of copyrights in unregistered works are eligible to participate in copyright class action settlements, the court should direct the parties to renegotiate the agreement ..."

See these points at the bottom of page 14 of Samuelson's letter, and the background discussion at pages 9-11. The document can be viewed at

Your humble blogger retracts very catty thing I've ever said about the learned and esteemed and wise Professor Samuelson. And the next time a mob of angry wrestling fans forces me to duck inside the Cheeseboard in North Berkeley, the scones are on me.

(Thanks to Edward Hasbrouck for the pointer.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Muchnick on Lessig on Google

Lawrence Lessig has written a very important new essay for The New Republic. I urge everyone to read “For the Love of Culture: Google, Copyright, and our future,”

I’m going to say just a few things about this piece, and not nearly enough to satisfy hard-line critics of the Google Books settlement. The main things on which I want to comment are the levels of engagement here of an obviously erudite and thoughtful voice on newfangled copyright issues. I still think Lessig gives short shrift to my own case now at the U.S. Supreme Court, Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick, and how all these pieces fit together.

Previously, I have written irksomely about a similarly disproportionately small level of engagement by another esteemed copyright voice, Pam Samuelson – who, unlike Lessig, is indeed one of the hard-line Google critics. See “Confidential to Pam Samuelson: Please Add a Teaspoon of Vision to Your Abstract Critique of Google Books,” November 19, 2009,

In the more distant past, I have written even more irksomely about Lessig, a media go-to guy whose aloofness toward our newspaper and magazine freelancers’ copyright case had struck me as more politically canny than intellectually consistent. See “Lessig’s Legacy: Only Halfway There,” February 1, 2008,

Today I am happy to say that Lessig, with the great length afforded him by The New Republic, moved some distance toward remedying what I’ve seen as a cop-out in my limited correspondence with him. (He had pleaded refusal to comment on "Freelance" because he didn’t want to jeopardize his focus by commenting on “a technical issue of law that is not anything I know about.” Huh? I don’t think the esteemed appellate court judge and author, Richard Posner, accepted answers like that when Lessig clerked for him.)

Previously Lessig had written extensively about the woes of documentary film makers, who live off snippets and are chilled in the current ultra-litigious climate by copyright holders demanding payment for “every bit and byte.” Lessig has never gone as far as perhaps the most prominent documentarian in the land, PBS gasbag Ken Burns, who to his everlasting discredit actually filed a brief supporting publishers and opposing authors in Tasini v. New York Times (2001) – the predecessor and underlying case of Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick.

In his new essay, Lessig leads off with the documentary problem, but moves on, with felicity and common sense, to connect it to the Google case. And then on to where I think the article gets most interesting: a rumination on, and vision for, the entire new landscape and how the intricate three-way dance of creators, publishers, and the public interest needs to be choreographed.

Lessig evidently still can’t bring himself to utter the words “Freelance” or Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick – focus focus, you know! – but he comes about as close as you can get in passages like these:

[T]he government should establish the minimal protocols for these registries,... This maintenance requirement should apply to books alone – for now. There are different, and enormously complicated, problems with other forms of creative work, photographs in particular, especially after a generation of law telling creators that they need do nothing to secure complete protection for their work. But the objective should be to include these other works as soon as it is feasible, so that this first and most basic obligation of a property system could be met: that it tell the world who owns what.


The thicket of legal obligations that buries film, music, and every other form of creative work (save books) should be re-made using a rule that gives current owners the ability to secure value for those rights, but through a clearinghouse that would shift us away from a world of endless negotiation to a world where simple property rules function simply.

I congratulate Lessig for his tiptoe in the direction of true comprehensiveness. I am not so partisan about Freelance (let alone Google, where I recommend opt-out) not to appreciate that he thinks and writes with a balance that must be taken very seriously and respectfully as the debate proceeds.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hello From Limbo Land

This blog has been silent for a while and I want to check in with what passes for an update.

There is none. We are all simply waiting for the Supreme Court to rule in Reed Elsevier v. Muchnick. When the justices have spoken, we'll be in a position to assess what that decision means for the future of the copyright class-action settlement and for the writers' rights issues the objectors have been raising for nearly five years.

The closely related matter of the Google Books settlement is also awaiting the next step in the judicial process: its review at the district court level. Anything that I would try to add to that discussion would be redundant at this point. Personally? I like the line of James Grimmelman that "this is no way to run a culture." But I've said that, and said it again. Right now, like all of you, I'm watching and waiting.