Archive for October, 2009

A Perspective On Madonna

Celebration...and Scrutinization.

Celebration…and Scrutinization.

I’m not a music snob.

As boring as I think Britney Spears is, I own a copy of the 12″ single of ‘Baby One More Time’ because I think that song was a piece of pop writing on par with some of Abba’s achievements: every line of the melody is a hook. When I find myself in conversations with people who pride themselves on being perceived as connoisseurs of far-flung artists just for the exclusivity of being in on the obscure, I tend to bring up top 40 songs like ‘Love At First Sight’ and ‘In Your Eyes’ by Kylie Minogue…not because I’m a fan in particular, but because those are well-crafted songs whose writers chose the right moment to cleverly bite the style of some 80s Olivia Newton-John singles. Whether an artist’s material works or not, to me, is a separate issue from how commercial or anti-commercial they choose to be.

However I don’t think it’s coincidence that many of the biggest female icons in music have been regarded as nothing more than pop fluff.  They are not thought of as making musical contributions on the level of, say, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Prince, or even John Legend or Robbie Williams…in part because, when it comes to music, western society still shows its dyed-in-the-wool patriarchal values: the straight white male audience still ultimately dictates what is perceived as serious music in the mainstream.

But it can be argued that gay men, in fact, stand at the epicenter of pop music. Because, as early adopters and fiercely loyal supporters of the artists that appeal to them, they cause everybody else to look up and wonder what the hell all of the commotion is about.

The undying support of an army of gay men stands behind virtually every major female star from Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Cher and Bette Midler to Diana Ross, Tina Turner and Donna Summer, through to Cyndi Lauper and Whitney Houston, past Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan, up to Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.  It seems clear that the messages strong female figures are apt to convey help give voice to a part of the gay male psyche. Surnames are dropped as gay men begin to regard these women–from Janet to Kylie to Celine–as close personal friends. Few male artists get that kind of rousing support from the gays, besides passing fixations with boy bands and a handful of gay-like-us mascots such as Elton John, George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys, awarded the solidarity of the queer masses even when the relevance of their output has dimmed.

Labels know they’ve got a hit act when straight men begin to find themselves dragged to homocentric concerts by their hip girlfriends.  And you won’t find many solo male artists with the staying power of these women, doing huge stadium shows years or decades after first appearing on the scene.

Of all of the female icons, Madonna has carved out the deepest, widest swath. My fellow gays have tried to engage me in ‘Kylie vs. Madonna’ or ‘Britney vs. Madonna’ arguments.  You may be drawn to Kylie because she’s more refined, or you may be drawn to Britney because she’s more Of-The-Now, but personal taste aside those arguments seem somewhat ludicrous to me: it’s a fact that Madonna has had the most impact musically and culturally for the longest period of time. An important distinction: unlike many on the Diva List, she’s been at the helm of her career this whole time…from manipulating her own image to co-writing much of the material she sings (right back at the beginning she wrote ‘Lucky Star’ on her own).  The release of her fourth hits compilation, ‘Celebration’, seems as fitting a time as any to discuss what exactly her contribution has been.

I followed her output with increasing anticipation from the beginning up until the late 90s, around the time of ‘Music’. For me, the golden period was from the release of the ‘Like A Prayer’ video to the release of the ‘Erotica’ single, inclusive, because during that run she seemed to tap into the subjects and aesthetics I was ready to absorb at the time. Through the various phases of her career, that type of synchronistic experience has not been uncommon for whoever her 20-something gay male fans happen to be at the time. After the release of ‘American Life’ I rolled my eyes when a 20-ish gay grabbed my shoulders and shook me saying ‘no you don’t understand how brilliant she is’.  ‘How brilliant she is’ was old news, and this was just a new incarnation of Madonna doing her thing…pushing the hot buttons of the collective psyche of a new generation.

She’s stated that button-pushing is her agenda.  Having been given the name ‘Madonna’ at birth, she then had the wits to parlay those built-in religious connotations into a Mother Mary vs. Mary Magdalene (ie. a Madonna-Whore dichotomy) by introducing a heavy dose of overt sexuality into the balanced equation that became her persona. Other female icons who opt to sexualize their image don’t have that built-in balance, because they aren’t inherently pressing that other universal button…the Religion button…all the while.

In the late 80s and early 90s the trendy way to dismiss Madonna was to say ‘well, she’s a great business person, I respect her for that,’ – implying that there wasn’t much else to respect her for. But I think it bears repeating that she’s often had her finger on the pulse, not just in a surface way, co-opting fashion and dance from subcultures at the right moment, but also in that synchronistic way, tapping into the questions people in their late teens and early 20s are grappling with at any given time.  Her precocious curiosity has caused her to ask the right questions at the right moment…coaxing the public consciousness forward to confront specific sexual, religious and political issues…coaxing a little bit of liberalization here and there.

Nobody ever considered Madonna a great singer, herself included: she admits it in the ‘Truth Or Dare’ documentary, and a few years later, before filming ‘Evita’, she began taking singing lessons in an attempt at self-improvement. In her earliest recordings she was squeaky and uncontrolled. But there’s something else there that I feel is rarely, if ever, acknowledged: there’s a spirit in those performances, an unbridled, uncontrolled passion that made it clear to all of us that she was really throwing herself into it. And because she believed so strongly in what she was singing, many of us bought it too.

Witness the moments of full throttle rasp on this series of clips from her pre-singing-lesson days: ‘Holiday’ (from her self-titled debut album), ‘Into The Groove’ (from the ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ soundtrack), ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Where’s The Party’ (from ‘True Blue’), ‘Express Yourself’ (from ‘Like A Prayer’) , ‘Vogue’ and ‘Rescue Me’ (both from ‘The Immaculate Collection’).  On the last three, support from her new mainstay background singers Donna DeLory and Niki Haris drove her to push even harder.

In those days, she also did something vocally that gave the impression she was on the verge of tears as she sang. On certain lines in ‘Stay’ (from ‘Like A Virgin’), ‘Open Your Heart’ (from ‘True Blue’), ‘The Look Of Love’ (from the ‘Who’s That Girl’ soundtrack), ‘Dear Jessie’ and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (both from ‘Like A Prayer’) she articulates a depth of emotion by lowering her tone to a throaty yawn.  (The most obvious example is the line ‘your love parade’ toward the end of the clip of ‘Dear Jessie’.)

According to vocal teachers this yawny tone is the result of a singer lowering or ‘depressing’ their larynx, and it’s not considered good vocal technique. However it’s emotionally effective: we hear her veering toward tears and we veer emotionally with her. I doubt this was pre-meditated on her part; she was probably just using what she had available to her, naturally, to make us feel something. To me, this is what music is about…when something works emotionally, technique is quickly made irrelevant.

After training for ‘Evita’ she immediately became self-conscious of her delivery. On ‘You’ll See’ (from ‘Something To Remember’) she’s lost all of her spontaneous passion…and we’ve lost the Madonna that threw herself into things so fully.  On ‘Frozen’ and ‘The Power Of Goodbye’ (from ‘Ray Of Light’) she’s found a more suitable direction, material-wise, for her opera-esque vocal approach…but it was not until many years later on ‘Hung Up’ that she reconnected that improved vocal technique with her passion and urgency.

Self-consciousness has also been her enemy when it comes to lyric-writing. At a certain point, perhaps after the personal, confessional writing on the ‘Like A Prayer’ album received critical praise, Madonna decided she could go deeper lyrically…sometimes to good effect, but more often not. ‘Erotica’ contains a mess of a ballad called ‘In This Life,’ a song dedicated to AIDS victims. While her intentions may have been good, this is the definition of poor writing: going nowhere melodically, and lyrically hitting us over the head with overwrought emotion and clichés.

On ‘Bedtime Stories,’ her foray into R&B, she succeeds in growing, lyrically, on ‘Secret’ and ‘Survival,’ discovering clever ways to deliver heavy-handed philosophical messages indirectly. On the former she delivers the universal truth of ‘learning to love yourself’ in an egoless fashion by presenting it as a secret someone else possessed (and she didn’t); and on the latter she confesses, with humility, that just like everybody else her life is about survival.  After gaining our trust by speaking to us as equals, we can receive her ‘no risk, no glory’ philosophy without feeling that we’re being preached to.

Madonna had also contacted Bjork, asking her to write a song for this album. Bjork culled ideas from a track rejected from her own ‘Post’ album (‘Sweet Intuition’ a/k/a ‘Sweet Sweet Intuition’), remodeling it as ‘Bedtime Story’ for Madonna. Knowing this, one can only postulate that Madonna admired Bjork’s esoteric lyrical sensibility, and, feeling co-opted, Bjork’s response was to work the system by giving her a recycled b-side that then became a lucrative writing venture…after all it became a Madonna single.

Madonna’s writing style on ‘Ray Of Light’ seemed to be an attempt at that off-center Bjork-esque weirdness she admired. Many of the sincerely introspective songs succeeded, but songs like ‘Skin’ rang with an obvious attempt at obliqueness: it’s not believable when Madonna pushes herself to be anywhere near as eccentric as Bjork is. On songs like ‘Sky Fits Heaven’ she takes it upon herself to dispense lofty advice to us from a prophet. Later in the track she tempers her preachiness, bringing herself back down to our level by listing what her life choices have been, for better or for worse.

Much of ‘American Life’, and parts of the albums on either side of it, presented a Madonna that had come to believe she had important philosophies to teach the world. This was likely an intersection of Kabbalah evangelism and her self-awarded position of ‘experienced elder who had been through the fame machine and come out the other side’.  She is equally obnoxious critiquing her country of birth from her adopted home in the UK (on the title track) as she is chastising herself aimlessly on ‘I’m So Stupid,’ a song that seems as though it was written off the top of her head. On ‘Let It Will Be’ (from ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’), she can’t resist interrupting a great return-to-form album with more advice from the other side of fame. This Madonna wasn’t received as readily, partly because her promotion to teacher was not entirely believable, and partly because it’s not easy to stomach famous people lecturing on the woes of fame.

‘Nothing Fails,’ (from ‘American Life) works when she confesses personal feelings of love. It falls apart in the next verse when she speaks to us from her high horse again, proclaiming her own wisdom with ‘you could take all this, take it away, and I’d still have it all cause I’ve climbed the tree of life and that is why I’m no longer scared if I fall’.

What Madonna fails to realize is that she makes music that connects and transcends…but only when she zens out: only when she doesn’t overthink her singing or pressure herself to be deep, oblique or wise. I’m glad this new compilation is themed as it is, because her celebratory songs like ‘Holiday’ have served a more profound purpose than some of her spiritual musings.  Her delivery of the melody in ‘Holiday’ has a tinge of melancholic depth to it and the groove has lifted many a spirit over the quarter century since it first appeared.  ‘Express Yourself’ was a passionately belted call to action that was equally feminist, fun and sexy. The ‘Ray Of Light’ album caught her at a moment of reflective experimentation before she fully decided to crown herself armchair philosopher with a really loud microphone. The meandering path she’s been on since then, only broken briefly by the core of ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor,’ has proven that even after plying us for years with sugar and honey in the form of fun dance anthems, the world doesn’t need every artist to enter a ‘deep experimental’ phase the way the Beatles, Radiohead, Bjork or Joni Mitchell have: Madonna’s rousing anthems and unselfconscious, sincere moments have been profoundly useful enough to earn her a place in many of our lives.

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The Polaris Music Prize

Have you noticed in recent years that Beyoncé and Alicia Keys have performed on every major American awards show? As much as I respect Ms. Keys (and am not particularly offended by Beyoncé) the only way I can explain their awards-show ubiquity over, say, The Roots, is that they’ve made it into The Club…an elite club of ‘artists chosen to be promoted by the majors’.

Widely accepted as the institutions that bestow the highest honours in music, England has the Brit Awards, America has the Grammys and Canada has the Junos. As viewers we watch thinking that we’re seeing musicianship rewarded…yet it always feels curiously like we’re seeing advertisements for pop albums we are expected to buy.

But last week I attended a refreshing and inspirational night here in Toronto: the Polaris Music Prize gala. There’s been an alternate reality taking shape in the world of music awards: since 1992 the UK has had the Mercury Prize, since 2001 the USA has had the Shortlist Music Prize and since 2006 here in Canada we’ve had Polaris.

Awards

Anarchy in the UK, the USA...and Canada.

All three Prizes are similar: the award goes to the band responsible for the best album released that year. Not the album that sold the most copies, but the best album…determined via large numbers of music critics submitting lists and/or voting. For the American Short List prize, nominees’ albums must not have reached Gold sales status (500,000 copies).

The Polaris winner gets a $20,000 cash prize, often used by the band to fund their next endeavor. This year’s ‘long list’ of 40 nominees included veteran folkster Leonard Cohen and newly-indie rapper K-Os.  The narrowed shortlist of 10 bands performed live at the gala, simulcast on MuchMusic and CBC radio. CBC host Jian Ghomeshi was one of ten Canadian luminaries that each introduced a nominee, waxing personal about how the album affected them.

At one point a food-fight broke out between the tables of the obvious forerunners: celebrated new wave band Metric, Somalian-born rapper K’Naan and esoteric rock band Patrick Watson–who won the audience over by performing as a marching band weaving through the audience, wearing backpacks that sprouted bouquets of lights over their heads, the singer manipulating his vocal with effect pedals hanging from his neck, the rest of them handing out cookie sheets and wooden spoons for the audience to bang together as a room-wide rhythm section.

Newfoundland’s Hey Rosetta! stunned the audience with a performance that came in like a lamb and out like a lion, featuring a huge ensemble of supporting musicians crafting a painstaking climax around singer Tim Baker’s unmistakeable voice. The surprise of the evening came at the end, however, when hardcore punk band Fucked Up took the stage as the final performers and then walked away with the prize. Indeed, we’re looking at an unbiased jury process here!

I was shocked at the sheer amount of talent laid out before us that night.  I was exceedingly proud to be doing music in Canada, which the world has begun to recognize is a disproportionate exporter of great music. Ask me if I cared about the Grammys after that…?

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