Posts Tagged Janet Jackson
The machine has been co-opted countless times to lend street cred to artist branding: early 90s UK techno act christened themselves 808 State; Kanye West dropped it in the title of his disc 808s & Heartbreak. And it’s regularly referred to by name in tracks like–wait for it–’808′ by Blaque. By now, the machine is more famous than some of the artists that use it. When Blaque sings ’cause I’ll be going boom like an 808,’ or Will.I.Am chants ‘we got the beat, that 808′ on the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Boom Boom Pow’, we know they’re talking about the SUV-shaking kick of the world’s most celebrated drum machine, the Roland TR-808.
Legend has it that, in 1981, fledgling New York producer Arthur Baker travelled out to Jersey to buy a used 808. Roland had been manufacturing the unit for a couple of years, but like many new boxes, years can pass before someone stumbles upon a way to bring the art out of the technology. Baker brought the machine home and, reportedly, not knowing how to program it yet, he used a beat left in its memory by the previous owner as the basis of seminal rap track ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, thus lifting the 808 from a potential fate of being a cheap novelty item stacked on pawn shop shelves for eternity. And that is how the disillusioned previous owner of that 808 turned out to be the nameless, faceless originator of that foundational ‘freestyle’ rap beat.
As the 80s progressed simple 808 beats began appearing on R&B jams by monster artists. After a short lull the machine had a strong resurgence in the early 90s, newly realized, in the stuttering double-time swing of ‘miami bass’ and ‘booty’ tracks. Post- millennium, its status as a classic has regularly been reinforced with new rap trends like Plies’ Southern post-booty beats and most recently in the sparse, ultra-high impact production sound of Kanye West and Drake.
Here are the basic, untweaked sounds of an 808.
The low, long tone of the kick drum is what most people recognize first. The clap, snare and cymbal sounds have come to feel like the sleek natural compliment to that low end, and the ‘cowbell’ sound, which bears little sonic resemblance to a cowbell at all, is really some kind of synthesized fifth chord.
Some 808 beats over the last 3 decades: the original freestyle beat of ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force (1982); straight ahead R&B jams ‘Sexual Healing’ by Marvin Gaye (1982) and ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ by Aretha Franklin (1985); the syncopated miami bass beat on Inoj’s cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ (1998) which incorporates a snare sample from another machine; Southern rapper Plies’ ‘Plenty Money’ (2008); the sparse 808 kick intro ‘Heartless’ by Kanye West (2008); ‘Successful’ by Drake ft. Trey Songz (2009).
In the early 80s Roland made a complete line of something-oh-something units. The 303 was a bass sequencer, initially relegated to the accompaniment of one-man polka bands and the like until it found a perfect home within the rhythms of late-80s acid house and mid-90s techno.
The 909 drum machine also sat, semi-used, until disco re-emerged…re-branded as ‘house’ in the late 80s: the 909 is to House as the 808 is to R&B and Hip Hop. The machine’s solid, pointed kick drum, crisp high hats and full-bodied clap, used together, ushered in the meditative swing of house music. In particular, rolling the 909′s snare in a multitude of syncopated patterns became the thing to do.
The 909 in action: pre-house snare rolls and echoey clap patterns on ‘Pump Up The Volume’ by M.A.R.R.S. (1987); syncopated snare on ‘E.S.P.’ by Deee-Lite (1990); Shep Pettibone’s snare-happy house mixes of ‘Escapade’ by Janet Jackson, ‘Express Yourself’ and ‘Vogue’ by Madonna (1989-90); MK’s 909-heavy remixes of ‘Movin’ On Up’ by M People, ‘Can You Forgive Her’ by the Pet Shop Boys and ‘Heart Of Glass’ by Blondie (1993-95); and a 909-only beat on the Musk Men bootleg of ‘I Never Thought I’d See The Day’ by Sade (1995).
There are a few other early drum machines worth noting for the impact they had on music as we know it.
Roger Linn created the Linn LM-1 in 1980, and it quickly became the go-to machine for pop production in the U.S. and U.K.
The LinnDrum and Linn 9000 models followed, adding a few more sounds to the initial palette.
Countless instantly recognizable beats were programmed on these machines including ‘The Look Of Love’ by ABC, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ by the Human League, ‘Love Is A Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar, ‘Shock The Monkey’ by Peter Gabriel, ‘Dress You Up’ by Madonna, ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ by Michael Jackson, ‘Mama’ by Genesis and ‘Everything She Wants’ by Wham.
A friend used to joke that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis must have had a climate-controlled room with a sleek black box the size of a tank to produce sounds as big and clunky as they used on Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ and ‘Rhythm Nation’ albums. Evidently, however, the production team often used Linn machines drenched in gated reverb for Jackson’s signature sound.
Prince crafted virtually everything he produced in the 80s with these machines as well as two others, defining a funk sound we all know.
The raw sounds on Sequential Circuits’ Drumtraks sounded like this:
Oberheim’s OB-DX sounded like this:
With a little manipulation (re-pitching the sounds and adding various effects to them) he was able to create a fresh basis for each new song while defining his production sound. In particular, he seemed to use the Drumtraks clap a different way on virtually every track.
Some samples of Prince’s production from ‘Nasty Girl’ by Vanity 6, through a range of his solo work over the decade including ‘Let’s Pretend We’re Married,’ ‘Little Red Corvette,’ ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ When Doves Cry,’ ‘The Beautiful Ones,’ ‘Raspberry Beret’ and ‘Kiss’:
No tour through notable 80s drum machines would be complete without mentioning Simmons drums. These were actual physical drum kits produced in varying incarnations between 1980 and 1990 with hexagonal electronic pads that triggered a synthesizer box.
Some individual sounds.
The instantly recognizable white noise fakeness shows up sporadically on all kinds of prog rock, new wave and funk. Some examples are the intro to ‘Somebody Told Me’ by the Eurythmics, the whole drum groove of ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ by Thomas Dolby, the accents in the break of ‘Mr. Roboto’ by Styx, and the snare on ‘Word Up’ by Cameo.
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.