Madonna: new single “cheap titillation”

Oh, Madonna. Two consecutive dud singles in a row is so not you. For time immemorial her second singles have been at least as good as their predecessors. The sugar-free gum of Hard Candy broke the streak. With “Girls Gone Wild” she’s still in the slough. I can’t put it better than Katherine St Asaph:

Even if you discount the fact that the Girls Gone Wild franchise that coined the meme is possibly the worst thing ever, even if you discount the fact that it’s cheap titillation, this is still a conceit that Madonna addressed and demolished decades ago. Madonna has been in the game since 1983. She practically invented the game, as it currently exists for pop artists. There are literally academic programs based on her career and its messages. Madonna has no business singing things like “good girls don’t misbehave, but I’m a bad girl anyway,” not because women shouldn’t sing about sex and definitely not because older women shouldn’t (I can already picture the YouTube comments and snarking squawking heads, and they make me want to yank my brains out through my forehead), but because she’s been past this since she devised her persona. It’s like a groundbreaking female artist deciding to finger-paint Tijuana bibles of herself for no reason except that’s what the market wants, and y’know, it’s not so bad, it’s easy work. The other part of the chorus is hitched to “girls just wanna have some fun,” a sentiment that required Cyndi Lauper’s doctoring to charge its girl power in the first place. Madonna shouldn’t have to borrow from Cyndi Lauper. And she definitely shouldn’t have to borrow from the very cliche construction of sexuality that she’s both teased and stomped to death.

Or, self-cannibalization will nourish you if you don’t munch on your endocrine glands, heart, and brain.

I can’t stand’em: The Artist

Now that The Artist has joined the pantheon of bores, Glenn Kenny tries to destroy a popular canard:

I understand that everyone’s kind of sick of yammering on about the relative assets and liabilities of The Artist, but I have to admit that one not-unpleasant sidebar of all the yammering is that Singin’ in the Rain tends to get brought up a lot. And if there’s one thing I enjoy thinking about, it’s the 1952 film co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and scripted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

However. What is actually kind of weird, if not actually unpleasant, about this sidebar is that, aside from one single solitary thematic point of comparison, I’m largely convinced that the two films have, if you’ll pardon the vulgar turn of phrase, sweet fuckall to do with each other…

After all—I’ve heard the argument go—Singin‘ itself depicts silent-film acting as broad, exaggerated, hammy, and the makers of the films as ego-and-revenue obsessive near-hacks, not artists. This is in fact largely the case, and so what. There’s a big aspect to Singin’ in the Rain that partakes of self-parody, which is somewhat distinct from pastiche. Comden and Green, we may recall, got their start in at least semi-satirical sketch comedy; they, with Judy Holliday and Leonard Bernstein and others, were founders of The Revuers, a troupe that sent up the show biz of their day and before, in a tradition that was followed by outfits as diverse as the SCTVers and the creators of Forbidden Broadway. That is to say, the mockery of tradition/convention was entirely within the bounds of another, not unrelated tradition/convention. While the movie has a great deal of fun not just with silent cinema tropes but also the technical difficulties involved with the transition to sound, it also (unselfconsciously) situates itself within a particular continuum. Most of the comic stylings provided by the almost-literally-born-in-a-trunk former vaudvillean Donald O’Connor in the Kelly/Donen film would not be at all out of place in any non-talking Sennett or Roach short. The joking on silent cinema in Singin’ in the Rain is “inside” in the very best sense of the term, while the condition of The Artist is one of near-complete alienation from silent cinema.

The Artist boasts no lunacy comparable to one of Donald O’Connor’s muggings.

Sleep with a clear conscience: Sinead O’Connor

Greil Marcus and others writing at the dawn of punk recorded how watching Johnny Rotten was so unsettling that an atmosphere of danger and impending doom would hang over the venue. Sinead O’Connor at the peak of her evanescent stardom in the early nineties had that impact on me. I hadn’t seen her alive — what live performance could match the tremors set off by “Troy,” “Jackie,” and “Just Like U Said It Would B”?

Eric Harvey notes how O’Connor tearing a photo of John Paul II asunder on “Saturday Night Live” provoked the biggest earthquake of all. Watching it at my uncle’s house, the act happened so quickly and spontaneously that we all sat blinking as if a fly had flicked across our lines of vision. It wasn’t all though:

A couple other reactions bear mention: Tim Robbins, that evening’s host, didnt’t even acknowledge her in the good-nights. Didn’t even look at her or mention her name, and she’s standing right next to him. Tim Robbins! Then it got worse the next week, with Joe Pesci. His “hey I taped the photo back together” stunt was fine, but then he said, “if it was my show, I’d have gave her such a smack!”, at which point the audience applauded. Seriously. A round of applause for a man threatening physical violence against a woman who had made a gesture trying to draw attention to child abuse in the Catholic church. Crazy.

Again: Team Sinead forever. When she walks away from the mic after the above performance, she seemed absolutely fine—no doubt still on a high—until Kris Kristofferson grabs her in his unnecessarily paternalistic way (I think he said “don’t let the bastards get to you” or something?), at which point she seems to break down. Which makes sense.

I’m not being fair to How About I Be Me (And You Be You); it’s the first O’Connor I’ve bought since 2000’s Faith and Courage, an album burdened by superstar productions by the likes of Wyclef, David Stewart, and Brian Eno (she could afford them in 2000?). Although it’s her strongest album-length statement since the first Clinton administration, HAIBM depends on the audience’s knowledge that sundry forces ruined her career and fucked her life. One of those sundry forces is O’Connor herself. Like the folkies whose tradition she cheerfully blasted her way past, she confuses topic sentence plainness with eloquence; the magpie who purloined Prince typography and drum machines, who covered Nirvana and mid-eighties B-52’s, is gone. On “Queen of Denmark” she sports a guitar, two chords, and the truth, which these days runs to lines like “I wanted to change the world but I couldn’t even change my underwear” and “I hope you know that all I want from you is sex/To be with someone who looks smashing in athletic wear.” This isn’t territory too far from 1990’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which she managed to enjamb “You know how it is and how a pregnancy can change you” without tripping over her bare feet.

All credit to a singing voice that has lost some of its bottom end but retains its power to startle. A committed vocal performance means recording a bar or set of verses in one mode and then switching to another seconds later; this tonal imbalance — a commitment to an iteration of “honesty” that requires parody and self-mocking wit — renders the googly-eyed naturalism of her songs even stranger (the 1992 covers album Am I Not Your Girl? failed because, forced to perform in one mode per song, she sounded monochromatic and cowed). The best example here is “Old Lady,” in which the acoustic melody refracts her intensity into the gentlest of irony. She has no problem presenting herself as a dotty old bird carrying parcels and valentines while laughing like an idiot at the fantasy she’s created around loving a man. Savor How About I Be Me, folks — we may not get another.

A spoonful of Sugar

Barry Walters on Bob Mould’s greatest record, which Mould played at a recent gig its entirety:

Although its critical standing is dwarfed by Hüsker classics like Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, Copper Blue is actually the album where everything came together for this guitarist. It’s his own Nevermind; there’s never a moment where the songwriting or musicianship falters, and its vivid production mirrors his authorial voice. Sequenced with the narrative and musical arc of a symphony, Copper Blue builds, peaks, plateaus, and subsides via its creator’s command of ’60s AM radio pop, ’70s classic rock, ’80s hardcore, and early ’90s grunge. Just like Nirvana’s milestone, it’s not a happy record; all the Mould motifs like romantic apprehension and violence and loss are there in full force. But Mould looks back on it fondly because everyone from his bandmates to his record company to the culture at large supported him in a way that he didn’t get during the alcoholic childhood and mutually abusive Hüsker years unsparingly documented in last year’s autobiography, See a Little Light. And because he’s done the right kind of growing up since its inception, he could now present Copper Blue with tough, hard-won love.

When Sugar released Copper Blue in the fall of ’92 the reception at college radio amounted to an outpouring of love. The album, along with Automatic For the People and, er, David Byrne’s Uh Oh, were the soundtrack to my first semester in college. “Helpless,” of course, but also “Changes,” “The Act We Act,” and the gonzo keyboard solo in “Hoover Dam.” What’s remarkable is how Mould uses his newfound craftsmanship in the way an artist is supposed to: as muscle and brains, finding forms in which to redress a lifetime of anger.

Singles reviews 2/24

Let me risk mixing metaphors: the quiet erosion of Nicki Minaj’s Jukebox support and stopping the bleeding from the latest embarrassments in the Chris Brown-Rihanna farrago. But as the scores indicate, this is by far the the strongest, most erratic Jukebox week of the year (hi, Cassie!).

All scores based on a ten-point scale. Click on link for full review.

Cassie – King of Hearts (7)
St. Vincent – Cheerleader (6)
Melanie Fiona – 4 AM (5)
Andrea Balency Trio – Lover (5)
Charli XCX – Valentine (5)
Chris Brown ft. Rihanna – Turn Up the Music (Remix) (4)
Brianna Perry – Marilyn Monroe (4)
Capsule – Step on the Floor (4)
Brandy & Monica – It All Belongs to Me (3)
Lil Chuckee – Wop (3)
Nicki Minaj – Starships (3)
fun. ft. Janelle Monáe – We Are Young (3)
Rihanna ft. Chris Brown – Birthday Cake (Remix) (2)

Goodbye house, goodbye stairs – Viva Hate

No solo album of Morrissey’s infuriates me like Viva Hate. Fab singles, a spectacular B-side that everyone (rightly) assumes was an A-lister (“Hairdresser on Fire”), marvelous slowburn album tracks (“The Ordinary Boys,” “Break Up the Family”), aptly named, endless epic that does for self-pity what George Harrison did for Krishna in 1973 (“Late Night, Maudlin Street”), compressed production that turns the guitars into ice squeezed through a cheese grater (“I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me,” “Alsatian Cousin”). Still, it’s hard to think of an album whose virtues remind me of a solid B-sides collection instead of a Proper Album — a delicious idea since Morrissey’s first proper B-side collection Bona Drag sounds like a proper album.

Co-writer, producer, bassist, and rhythm guitarist Stephen Street’s latest interview is illuminating. I’ll dedicate this post to the long-lost friend in whose room we spent a quarter of an hour with a thimbleful of smuggled brandy listening to “The Ordinary Boys” and “Break Up The Family” before the start of our last year of high school.

Mumblin’ and crumblin’ – Lambchop


Apprehending Mr. M does not take a genius, nor does it take an English degree, nor does it take 180-gram vinyl and an $800 Scandinavian turntable with counterweights made out of rare geodes. What it does take, I think, is patience. I like tarted-up, throat-grabbing music as much as the next frantically inattentive twentysomething. I also find a deep satisfaction in Lambchop’s subtlety, which never makes the mistake of thinking that being high-minded or instructive will get us over to their weird team. Nobody, not even the most depraved among us, needs to be slapped on the wrist in order to see beauty. And still, despite Wagner’s protests that he doesn’t know what the fuck they talk about, Mr. M sounds aware of itself as an argument– an argument for the kind of patience the music on it demands.

And yes:

Wagner’s voice is the center to Lambchop’s fascinating, ornery riddle. By this point, he has acquired the intelligent stink of a veteran character actor, able to summon an entire worldview in a single squint. His singing voice is wildly variable, and it contains a lot of peculiar notes: throaty and possibly lovely, it emerges in little trembling honks, as it if were passing through a goose’s throat. He sounds a little choked up, a man giving a speech at his daughter’s wedding day. Conversational, a man looking you evenly in the eye and informing you that you are a prick. A man mocking emotion, a man overcome with it: he might be either.

Too often good albums inspire bad writing, lots of it. Not the case this time. this album teaches us how to listen to it as it plays. It’s taken a while for me to embrace these intelligent songs because Wagner’s voice is a stumbling block. A block — not the only one. Most of these tracks drift — I mean this literally — past the five-minute mark (The National studied Lambchop’s tone like Alexander Hamilton did Hobbes). I’ve less reluctant now – I haven’t stopped playing the thing since January.

Smoke in your eyes: Cosmic Thing

From ILM’s thread on Cosmic Thing:

This is a great and extremely underrated album, maybe the best ever in the “looking back happily on our well-spent youth from the vantage of our 30s” genre. The loss of Ricky Wilson is really felt here but it’s sort of worked through in a kind of joy for the times they would have shared with him at the” Love Shack” or dancing in the garden in torn sheets in the rain (in the RAAAAIN!). Maybe that sensibility is only explicit in a couple of places but I feel like it suffuses this record with an extra layer of warmth. — Doctor Casino


“Roam” will never, ever, ever get old. That song is timeless to me, the way Kate and Cindy absolutely DEVOUR the melody from the very first notes of their respective verses. And not even just on this song, really — the whole band and the hired hands bring their absolute A-game on every track. Nothing feels lazy or phoned in. It was like, “Yeah, yeah, we’re this idiosyncratic pop novelty, now a casualty of the end of New Wave. But check it, we can SING and we can PLAY, motherfuckers. Better than anybody.” — Pancakes Hackman

Having replaced my cassette copy after all these years, it’s difficult for me to accept Cosmic Thing as anything but a triumph. The band doesn’t reinvent itself sonically like Wire did in 1986 (conceptually they remained as obdurate as ever), but like Roxy Music in 1979 they found inspiration and commercial momentum from a subculture whose exposure was limited to can-you-imagine-this? features in Rolling Stone just a couple of years earlier. If you don’t believe me, remember that Doogie Howser, M.D. indulged a lovelorn depression by listening to “Channel Z” (on vinyl! in 1989! a doctor!). Besides the buoyancy of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson’s vocals, there’s Keith Strickland’s rhythm licks, which I loved before I learned the band once boasted another killer guitarist/strategist. No wonder Nile Rodgers produced half of it. For those of you who think the album rests on its singles, try this.

Requisite President’s Day thread

In honor of President’s Day, David Frum plays Scott Bakula in “Quantum Leap” and imagines alternate histories in which, for example, Charles Evans Hughes beats Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1920 becomes the first president to serve a third term. Based on my readings of Edmund Morris’ magisterial Teddy bios and John Milton Cooper’s account of the fight over the League of Nations in Breaking the Heart of the World, I’d say he’s right that only death, hastened by malaria and the killing of son Quentin over the airfields of France, kept Roosevelt from receiving the GOP nomination and probably beating a demoralized, fractious Democratic Party. Although his party was more isolationist and less beholden to Progressive orthodoxy at the end of the Great War, so hungry for a victory were the Republicans that they would have adopted Roosevelt’s platform, shrunken enough at that point to resemble handpicked successor William Howard Taft’s in 1908.

Hughes is an interesting case. I’ve long maintained that he’s the most forgotten major figure in early twentieth century American history. Reform governor of New York, associate justice of the Supreme Court, and secretary of state to Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he came within double digits of beating Wilson (in his memoir Palimpsest Gore Vidal claims Wilson got his necessary victory in California thanks to the machinations of grandfather Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, who told him by how many votes he would win). We would probably have lost the chief justice of the Supreme Court he became in the thirties; he’s famous now for being the swing vote during FDR’s epic court battles and, as the consummate politician, the eventual consolidator of the liberal legacy that later chief justices would protect despite mild tinkering until William Rehnquist’s ascension in 1986. Certainly he would have been a better wartime president than Woodrow Wilson, the most reactionary and thin-skinned chief executive of the last hundred years.

Right side of history at last: Daryl Hall

I posted this on an Ann Powers-instigated Facebook discussion on blue-eyed soul: “Daryl Hall comes about as close as anyone did. What separates him from his forebears — white and black — is his sourness. Forget the songs and listen to his timbre; the guy is almost incapable of projecting warmth (even on “One on One” he’s turned on by the sex games, not the object of desire).”

On Laughing Down Crying, the solo album he released a few months ago, Hall compensates for the extinction of the musical landscape in which he and partner John Oates scored countless hits by singing in as open-throated a manner as we’ve heard since the early seventies. Writing and playing almost every song himself, Hall sounds unexpectedly lithe and confident; if he used Pro Tools or other laryngeal enhancements I’m going deaf (maybe hosting “Live From Daryl’s House” helped). A few years ago the arrangements — strummed guitars and the occasional discordant keyboard embellishment — would have sounded pedestrian, but remember H&O’s Do It For Love and how embarrassingly those two forgot the virtues of counterpoint and harmony. Hall remembers again. He also reacquaints himself with his nasty side, which for a lot of us who aren’t Robert Christgau is precisely what we loved about this rich bitch girl. On “Wrong Side of History (So Cold)” he even writes a conceit I haven’t heard in a pop song before. If you find a used copy of Laughing Down Crying, pick it up.