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The Late Movies: Rock On, Wesley Willis

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"I make music, I sing my ass off." With these words, Wesley Willis opens a short documentary shown below. Willis was a bizarre musician -- a chronic schizophrenic, his music was crude and thus considered "punk," but in a way no one had heard before. Willis's songs generally consisted of spoken-word poetry over a keyboard's built-in "demo" track, with (generally off-key) choruses sung every now and then.

Because Willis was mentally ill, it was hard to be sure how to take him or his music -- was it okay to find it funny? (In other words, could you enjoy his sense of humor and his music without feeling sorry for him?) I always thought so -- when I met him in the late 90's (I ran sound for one of his shows in Tallahassee, Florida -- and yes, he head-butted me) I got the very clear sense that what he was doing was not ironic. He was completely singing his heart out and expressing himself, and the audience I saw laughed with him, not at him. Willis died in 2003 at just 40 years of age. Below I've collected samples of his work.

Wesley Willis Documentary

Watch Willis write a song about Taco John's. "It's a whole lot of Mexican," then record one of his many "rock on" songs in the studio, get a haircut, entertain some kids at a motel, then be introduced by Jello Biafra at a concert. Warning: a bit of crude language shown onscreen but not spoken.

"Rock and Roll McDonald's," Live 2002

Willis's biggest hit. Amazing. Listen to the audience going nuts and singing along. Sample lyrics: "McDonald's will make you fat. ... They serve hamburgers. ... They'll kill your ass. ROCK AND ROLL MCDONALD'S...."

"I Wupped Batman's Ass"

Fan video. Warning: some crude language pertaining to Batman's overly high opinion of himself.

"I Whipped Spiderman's Ass"

Audio only.

"Cut the Mullet"

"Get out the hair-clippers, jerk. ... Get the rat's nest off your head. ... Tell the barber that you're sick of looking like an asshole." Fan video with various mullet pics.

Live at the Double Door, Chicago

An interview and live performance.

Wesley Willis Interview

Willis visits a high school journalism class in Bloomington, Illinois and the students interview him. Audio only, with still shots in the video.

"Wesley Willis's Joy Rides" Documentary Trailer 1 & 2

"I made about 45 albums in five years, and I'm fixing to make about 100 more."

More on Wesley Willis

Check out Willis's artist page at his record label Alternative Tentacles, Wikipedia (note the "partial discography" -- it's huge), and A Tribute to Willis by various artists. Also, a full-length documentary, Wesley Willis's Joy Rides, has just been released on DVD (trailers above).

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Art
6 Great (and Not-So-Great) Works of Art Made by Robots
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Cold, calculating, unfeeling—none of the stereotypes associated with robots seem to describe makers of great art. But that hasn’t stopped roboticists from trying to engineer the next Picasso in a lab. Some machines and algorithms are capable of crafting works impressive enough to fool even the toughest critics. As for the rest of the robot artists and writers out there, let’s just say they won’t have creative types fearing for their jobs anytime soon. 

1. A BEATLES-ESQUE POP SONG

If you heard the song above at a party or in a crowded store, you might assume it’s just a generic pop tune. But if you listened closer, you’d hear the dissonant vocals and nonsense lyrics that place this number in the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley. “Daddy’s Car” was composed by an artificial intelligence system from the Sony CSL Research Laboratory. After analyzing sheet music from a variety of artists and genres, the AI generated the words, harmony, and melody for the song. A human composer chose the style (1960s Beatles-style pop) and did the producing and mixing, but other than that the music is all machine. It may not have topped the pop charts, but the song did give us the genius lyric: “Down on the ground, the rainbow led me to the sun.”

2. A NOVEL THAT MADE IT PAST THE FIRST ROUND OF A FICTION CONTEST

Will the next War and Peace be written by a complex computer algorithm? Probably not, but that isn’t to say that AI can’t compose some serviceable fiction with help from human minds. In 2016, a team of Japanese researchers invented a program and fed it the plot, characters, and general structure of an original story. They also wrote sentences for the system to choose from, so the content of the novel relied heavily on humans. But the final product and the work required to string the components together was made possible by AI. The researchers submitted the story to Japan's Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Contest where it made it past the first round of judging. Though one notable Japanese author praised the novel for its structure, he also said there were some character description issues holding it back.

3. A 'NEW' REMBRANDT PAINTING

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In 2016, a 3D printer did something extraordinary: It produced a brand new painting in the spirit of a long-dead artist. The piece, titled “The Next Rembrandt,” would fit right in at an exhibition of art from the 17th-century Dutch painter. But this work is entirely modern. Bas Korsten, creative director at the Amsterdam-based advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, had a computer program analyze 346 Rembrandt paintings over 18 months. Every element of the final image, from the age of the subject and the color of his clothes to the physical brushstrokes, is reminiscent of the artist’s distinct style. But while it’s good enough to fool the amateur art fan, it failed to hold up under scruntiny from Rembrandt experts.

4. DREARY LOVE POETRY

What do you get when you dump thousands of unpublished romance novels into an AI system? Some incredibly bleak poetry, as Google discovered in 2016. The purpose of the neural network was to connect two separate sentences from a book into one whole thought. The result gave us such existential gems as this excerpt:

"there is no one else in the world.
there is no one else in sight.
they were the only ones who mattered.
they were the only ones left.
he had to be with me.
she had to be with him.
i had to do this.
i wanted to kill him.
i started to cry."

To be fair, the algorithm was designed to construct natural-sounding sentences rather than write great verse. But that doesn’t stop the passages from sounding oddly poetic.

5. A CREEPY CHRISTMAS SONG

Christmas songs rely heavily on formulas and cliches, aka ideal neural network fodder. So you’d think that an AI program would be capable of whipping up a fairly decent holiday tune, but a project from the University of Toronto proved this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Their algorithm was prompted to compose the song above based on a digital image of a Christmas tree. From there it somehow came up with trippy lyrics like, “I’ve always been there for the rest of our lives.”

6. A CROWDSOURCED ABSTRACT PAINTING

Art made by a robot.
Instapainter

The image above was painted by the mechanical arm of a robot, but naming the true artist of the piece gets complicated. That’s because the robotic painter was controlled by multiple users on the internet. In 2015, the commissioned art service Instapainting invited the online community at Twitch to crowdsource a painting. The robot, following script commands over a 36-hour period, produced what looks like graffiti-inspired abstract art. More impressive than the painting itself was the fact that the machine was able to paint it at all. Instapainting founder Chris Chen told artnet, “It was a $250 machine slapped together with quickly written software, so running it for that long was an endurance test.”

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11 Surprising Facts About Kidz Bop
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If you have kids, they've likely forced Kidz Bop upon you. And if you don’t have kids, you’ve almost certainly seen the commercials and wondered who in their right minds would willingly listen to children singing sanitized, high-pitched versions of pop songs ranging from "Uptown Funk" to "Bad Blood." But there's more to Kidz Bop than meets the ear—here's what you don't know.

1. THE COMPANY STARTED BY SELLING OLDIES COMPILATION ALBUMS.

Cliff Chenfeld and Craig Balsam, the men who launched Kidz Bop, started their first music company out of Chenfeld’s apartment in 1990. Their big idea? Compilation albums. They started with "Those Fabulous ‘70s," a record of hits from the likes of the Partridge Family, the Bay City Rollers, and Starlight Vocal Band. (You may remember seeing the kitschy infomercial above.) "Monster Ballads" was another big hit for Chenfeld and Balsam, with more than 3 million copies sold.

2. THE IDEA FOR KIDZ BOP CAME A DECADE LATER.

Nearly 10 years later, both founders had families, and they noticed a void in the music offerings available for children too old for Barney but too young for Britney Spears. So they hired some kids to sing 20 songs, cut a record, then marketed the crap out of it. Investing in TV commercials paid off: The first Kidz Bop album sold 800,000 units—and it wasn't even available in stores.

3. THE KIDZ BOP KIDS HAVE HAD MORE TOP 10 HITS THAN MADONNA.

The 22 albums that have hit the Billboard Top 10 make the Kidz Bop Kids more successful than Madonna and Bob Dylan (who have had 21 albums each) and Elton John and Bruce Springsteen (who have 18 albums each).

4. “THE KIDZ BOP KIDS” HAVE EVOLVED.

The “Kidz Bop Kids” were originally just a variety of anonymous singers, likely low-cost talent as the company was finding its footing. These days, several talented tweens are chosen to be the Kidz Bop Kids every few years (Jezebel refers to it as the "Menudo Model"); they’re marketed as full-blown personalities, even being likened to this generation’s Mouseketeers.

5. ZENDAYA IS AN ALUMNA.

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The singer-actress-model-designer was a member in 2009, along with fellow future Disney Channel star and boy band member Ross Lynch. Other Kidz Bop successes include singer-actress Becky G and actress Spencer Locke.

6. THERE HAVE BEEN CONTROVERSIAL LYRIC CHANGES.

Even though the whole point of Kidz Bop is to be inoffensive, sometimes the fact that certain lyrics are deemed “offensive” is offensive in and of itself. For example, when Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was rewritten to exclude words like “gay,” “lesbian,” “transgendered,” and “bi,” people took note.

7. LAST-MINUTE ADDITIONS TO THE ALBUM AREN'T UNCOMMON.

To take advantage of the most current chart-toppers, Kidz Bop albums currently come out at the rate of four per year, up from the previous schedule of two per year. The quick turn means it's not unheard of for albums to be nearly complete when a song unexpectedly takes off, causing producers to scramble to get it included. That was the case with "The Fox" by Ylvis, which was rushed onto the Kidz Bop 25 album just days before it was manufactured.

8. THEY DRAW THE LINE AT CERTAIN SONGS.

Though the company is able to change most suggestive lyrics into words that are more kid-friendly—sometimes to hilarious effect—there are some songs that just won’t work. One of them: "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke. “There’s no way we can do a song like ‘Blurred Lines’—it’s just too suggestive,” COO Victor Zaraya said.

9. THE MAJORITY OF THEIR SALES ARE PHYSICAL CDS, WHICH IS UNUSUAL.

In an industry where sales are increasingly moving to the digital realm—CD sales have hit a record low, in fact—the majority of Kidz Bop sales are still physical copies. Zaraya says that's due to the extras they offer with each purchase—like stickers and magnets. "There's a tangibility," he says. "Parents want to be able to put something in their kid's hands."

10. THERE’S A LOGICAL EXPLANATION BEHIND THE “Z” IN “KIDZ BOP.”

The “z” in Kidz Bop isn’t there just to be edgy—it’s there because the alternate spelling made it easier to trademark.

11. THEY'RE NOW IN THE ORIGINAL SONGS BUSINESS.

The gang did their first-ever original song on Kidz Bop 30 in 2015, a spunky little ditty called "Make Some Noise." They even shot a video for it:

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