Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, Pink’s ‘Lady Marmalade”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in June 2001.
Insouciant and crisp, LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” is an essential artifact of mid seventies pop soul, a deserved #1. Patti LaBelle does a rare trick: she never sounds as if she means “Voulez-vous couche avec moi?” but the performance works despite the seams, like Meryl Streep embodying Karen Blixen and Azaria Chamberlain (“I didn’t know what it was about,” Patti said, as the audience stifles giggles. “Nobody, I swear this is God’s truth, nobody told me what I’d just sung a song about”); meanwhile, the hi-hats accents are as ebullient as Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash’s background support. Bow, Allen Toussaint. What did the group think when one of the few songs not written by Hendryx became their biggest hit? (Not to worry: Hendryx left the group to become one of the most famous comers in pop; despite a couple of early good to excellent solo albums, she never once got close to scoring a hit).
As loud as a destroyer nuked by Soviet fighters, the remake by Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, Pink acts as if history were bunk. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, about to kick off one of the most fecund hot streaks in modern pop, co-produced the track, without her usual talent for well-apportioned space. Every corner of the mix has a braying performance. The exception: Lil Kim, whose rap updates the track even if the rhymes are at best boilerplate. It’s the only reminder of source material that once summoned — sanitized, of course — Toussaint’s popular version of N’Awlins. But this “Lady Marmalade” cover, despite its carefully negotiated democracy, isn’t interested in the other performers so much as the name atop. There’s a sense in which Christina Aguilera’s co-billings await the Queen’s entrance, and she doesn’t disappoint: she bellows as if she inflating a hot air balloon to fly to Bulgaria. All Saints’ #1 UK version — only a couple of years old and unknown on these shores — with its scratches and homogeneous performances, irritates less.
I’ve got friends who adore Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. From the distance of eighteen years, I remember it as intermittently amusing amid its knowing, allusive frenzy; it pureed several decades of musical and film culture with twenty years of Tony Scott/MTV editing for propulsion. This version of “Lady Marmalade” honors this aesthetic.