Madonna has had an interesting career. Her self-titled debut album is a classic of early 1980s dance floor electro-pop. After that, though, she focused on the sensational aspects of her public persona. This often meant a hyper-sexualized one. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, it often seemed to pander, or at least resort to pandering and filler at album length — she could still knock out great singles. But by the mid-1990s it seemed almost like she was stuck churning out slightly eroticized pop ballads, and she had taken that about as far as she could. So Ray of Light was a somewhat daring turn toward electronica, pairing her with producer William Orbit. The album draws a bit from the down-tempo trip hop scene, but retains a kind of mainstreamed rave dance floor appeal. This turns out to be one of her best album-length statements. Nearly twenty years after release, it still sounds good. Madonna comes to terms with middle age here, in a way. Maybe it avoids some of the exuberance and daring of her early hits, with more brooding and introspective qualities in their place. But at a certain point Neil Hamburger had a point with his joke: “What do you call senior citizens who rub feces on their genitals? Madonna!” Countless musicians have tried to make a mid-career update, to seem more “with it” and adept with current fads. The thing is, Madonna pulls off that feat better than just about anybody here. Nothing about Ray of Light seems like faddish pandering. And she sings as good as ever here — her vocals are much stronger and extend to a much wider array of techniques than back on her debut. Too bad all pop albums aren’t this good!
Del Rey’s second full-length album made strides over her debut Born to Die (and the Paradise EP) in terms of being a bit more consistent, especially from a production standpoint. This is more rock-oriented than her debut. However, the songwriting sometimes falters, or just comes up short, which still makes this seem like a good EP padded out to album length. The best songs are “West Coast” and “Brooklyn Baby.” Lou Reed was supposed to provide guest vocals on the latter, but he passed away before he could record them. A year earlier, she released the song “Young and Beautiful” on the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby, which is more in line with the style of most of her best songs.
The Brazilian musician Tuca (born Valeniza Zagni da Silva) was an enigmatic figure, these days relatively unknown. If at all, she is recognized for her collaborative work writing songs for and playing guitar on Françoise Hardy‘s La question and playing guitar on Nara Leão‘s Dez anos depois (both from 1971). There is little biographical information about her readily available in English. However, Françoise Hardy’s memoir Le désespoir des singes et autres bagatelles recalls how Tuca lived in France in the early 1970s, then, after returning to Brazil, died at age 34 due to complications from an aggressive weight-loss program. Hardy also noted that Tuca (a lesbian) was infatuated with the Italian actress Lea Massari, who was heterosexual and not interested. Tuca also had some type of physical ailment that caused body odor (trimethylaminuria? fistula? diabetes? an overactive thyroid?), leading to self-consciousness. These currents of personal ambition, hope, self-doubt and disappointment contextualize what Tuca’s music was about on Drácula I Love You, her third and final full-length album.
The album was recorded outside Paris at the iconic Château d’Hérouville studio, where a host of well-known Western pop/rock artists made recordings in the early 1970s. The music is pop, in a way. Yet it does not fit neatly into any genre categories though. It draws from the mainstream to more skewed avante-garde rock, melding aspects of Brazilian music — Erasmo Carlos‘ Carlos, Erasmo… and Rita Lee‘s Build Up make somewhat decent reference points — to French chanson and prog rock. The album’s personnel included co-producer Mario de Castro, plus François Cahen (of Magma) on horn arrangements and Christian Chevallier on string arrangements. It oddly relies on a lot of acoustic guitar, with sequencing that shifts between spare acoustic passages and elaborately orchestrated ones. There are occasional electronic effects. Tuca’s vocals are very androgynous. She often sings in a lower register than most female singers.
The tone of the album is often despairing and melancholic — recalling La question and Dez anos depois. But, equally, this has glitzy horns like much Brazilian pop music of the the time. This is also weird personal stuff, the sort of thing found on lo-fi “bedroom” recordings. And there are some strange parallels to The Rocky Horror Show (which was on stage in London the prior year) too, especially the way the album cover shows Tuca in what one review described as “Hammer horror-movie glam[.]” Dracula was apparently “in” for 1974. Even Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr were exploring that theme in music and film that year too.
The strange, incongruous juxtapositions of elements and styles hint at what this album really captures so well — the struggle to balance the public and the private, the introverted and the extroverted. The album’s personality emerges in the way it can’t find any direct expression to capture what it wants to say. So, instead, there is an oscillation between coordinates that kind of surround its center, its core. Also, much like Jim O’Rourke‘s “pop” albums from decades later (Simple Songs, The Visitor, etc.), there is a kind of catharsis in the way the music comes together in spite of a conflicted, ambivalent attitude toward conventional commercial success. Tuca sings and plays guitar with a kind of punky edge, never completely at ease with the grand orchestrations that rise up again and again, persistently returning to raw, truncated guitar strumming and warbled, dispirited vocals. There are up-tempo songs with celebratory rhythms. Tuca seems unable to enjoy them. So she creates her own twisted, downer take on them. Not speaking Portuguese, the lyrics are a mystery, but the music alone conveys a lot.
A strange album that still sounds ahead of its time.
While expanding upon the palette of the first two albums, and adding slightly more propulsive rhythms, this still retains the essential prettiness. Many die-hard Belle and Sebastian fans insist this is better than If You’re Feeling Sinister. I’ve long felt that it lacks the poignancy and context of its predecessor, replacing the layered production with punctuation by odd instrumentation of that prior album with a more organically woven sonic fabric. Rotating vocals among band members is sort of ineffective. Still a good one.
The Paradise EP, released following Del Rey’s breakthrough album Born to Die (and appended as bonus tracks to it on reissues), eschews the trashy dance pop that padded put most of the debut and instead dabbles in romanticized pop with dramatic vocals akin to Jeff Buckley‘s cult classic Grace. (If that seems like an odd comparison, know that Del Rey has expressed admiration for Buckley and one of the songs here shares the name of his former band). But Del Rey is also following the Madonna playbook. Just like Madonna’s second album, Like A Virgin, took the most scandalous elements of her music (as judged by mainstream tastes) and ran with them, Del Rey similarly tries to capitalize on the sensational. Lyrically, Paradise dwells on the ribald and lascivious. It is an awkward approach, leaning too hard on shock value. Throughout, there is a lot of emphasis on traveling and getting away — just the sorts of Americana mythology that has driven so many other musical recordings. She is clearly trying to make music with some amount of substance. But she only partly succeeds. Best tracks: “Gods and Monsters” and “Body Electric.”
Calling Honeymoon “bubblegum nihilism” hits pretty close to the mark. It calls up a dark, dispirited mood — not far off from old, melodramatic movies like Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? or twisted latter-day recreations from the likes of David Lynch — set against sparse electronic beats dressed with occasional strings and chamber pop instrumentation. Del Rey’s vocal tone, timbre and range are not especially memorable, and the lyrics are so often raw. But those qualities actually suit the music. The tempos are all slow, much slower than the songs seem to call for. The backing as a whole drifts off, a kind of indistinct mass of the vaguely familiar. Her vocals pierce through the music, but in a disinterested way. She conveys a kind of apathetic disgust with everything around her, especially when her surroundings are at their most glamorous. The quality of stepping back from it all is perhaps the most admirable one she advances. There is also hedonism and a kind of electronic new ageism lurking behind much of this. Yet aside from that there is also a clear admiration for certain refined strands of bohemian culture.
“Freak” is one of the best songs. A slow recurring guitar riff recalls a film noir rather than goth/rockabilly version of The Birthday Party‘s “Say a Spell” (from Mutiny!). Playing a guitar chord that way turns the harmonic elements into melodic ones as each note stands almost alone.
“The Blackest Day” is another good one. It characterizes the lyrical approach of the album, with emphasis on cataloging surrounding artifacts and discrete, quantifiable experiences to allow Del Rey to convey melodramatic feeling in her vocals. Thematically, this and other songs still fit what one critic called Del Rey’s penchant for “exploring the internal worlds of numbed female characters posing as arm candy[.]” Though on Honeymoon that is toned down a bit, and more generalized.
The single “High on the Beach” probably epitomizes the entire album’s sound the best. There is a deadpan melancholy that just seeks to withdraw. It practically suggests going catatonic, in a trendy and visible way. Del Rey sings with a breathiness that seems slightly disaffected — a comparison to “Cat Power-does-Chris Isaak” is fair (as is calling herself a “gangster” Nancy Sinatra, for that matter). She seems to do that not to appear as a stereotypical weak and submissive woman but rather more like the way punk singers sang off key on purpose. The lyrics refer to independence and self-sufficiency, though without much in the way of specifics. Her vocal phrasing is informed by what is old and classy, but her vocals are juxtaposed against what is current and disreputable. This conveys a sense of power to handle, in whatever limited way, those disparate, incongruous elements, against the odds. It is an approach employed in similar ways in photographer Robert Mapplethorpe‘s works that mashed up art deco with gay subculture.
In terms of purely musical technique, she seems to draw some obvious inspiration from singers before her. The closer, a cover of Nina Simone‘s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” positions itself somewhere in the realm of Simone’s occasional forays into twisted, orchestrated rock like the title track from I Put a Spell on You. It also orients the listener, placing Del Rey in her desired continuum of pop music history.
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking in the backing instrumentals. All the songs adhere to the structure of conventional pop songs. Even the specifics seem familiar. Take “Religion,” a poppier echo of The Raveonettes‘ hazy, beat-heavy retro rock.
But, frankly, the gloomy noir elements elsewhere, like on the title track, vaguely recall a (much) more mainstream/commercially palatable “Hollywood sadcore” take on the style of Lydia Lunch‘s Queen of Siam (“Gloomy Sunday,” “Spooky,” “Knives in the Drain,” “Lady Scarface,” “A Cruise to the Moon,” etc.), with electronic dance/hip-hop beats and filmic orchestration in place of no-wave punk rock and cabaret jazz. And Del Rey has that bubblegum aspect that Lydia Lunch has, well, none of, just as Del Rey has none of Lunch’s menacing sarcasm. Honeymoon‘s dark electronics with dramatic singing is also close to, say, Carla Bozulich without the pretension and more emphasis on camp, or even a more dejected and straightforward version of some of David Sylvian‘s (ex-Japan) art pop.
So is Del Rey just appropriating and co-opting elements of creative and independent music of prior decades, like a cultural pirate, or is she turning mainstream culture against itself, like a “culture jammer”? Is it even possible to introduce elements of underground music into mainstream commercial culture without betraying those building blocks? Is she a feminist or just an individualist? Is her sincerity merely being sensationalized by the media industry for mass consumption, or is is her public image entirely just a fake persona? Is she really just a full-bore part of the establishment media, and not really a critic of it at all? These are central questions an album like Honeymoon presents.
Of course, it is obligatory to mention the highly stylized persona that Del Rey has used to put across her music. This persona — part femme fatale ingénue, part stoner washout, part vulnerable introvert, part insecure hipster, part deluded mallrat, and part ambitious artiste — is an odd thing. She broke into international recognition largely through an online music video that she directed, edited and partly filmed herself. Whatever one thinks about her persona, good or bad (or some of both), it is one she largely crafted herself. It is wrong to castigate her for creating a persona in the first place. Even the painter Georgia O’Keefe can be said to have done the same in becoming an artistic celebrity. Every personality, public or private, is to a degree a mask over the void of being. Such masks allow for and mediate a social conception of the self. To the extent that Del Rey puts forward a musical vision in which every person is worthy of consideration, even one as flawed as her persona, maybe that is a good thing. There also is a curious aspect of this persona that suggests ordinary people can follow suit in order to take charge of their own lives in some way, at least by taking responsibility for establishing their own desires and giving no ground to acting in conformity with those desires. In this way it might even be said she is merely trying “to be just extreme enough to be an ‘effective extremist.'” In any event it is a far cry from the stance of “mogul” pop.
This album is not entirely successful. The cynicism of Honeymoon ties it to precisely that which it claims to break away from. Is her position against and outside those things — like Céline Dion’s music but for younger, hipper audiences — just a coping mechanism under late capitalism, and therefore a reinforcement of it? And yet, the pleas to be a “freak like me” and Del Rey’s rejection of some typical major label promotional activities (combined with a continuation of others) do suggest an ambiguous relationship with mainstream success. It is an old dilemma. While she has already stepped back, musically, from the element of “having it both ways” (as a victimized yet manipulative femme fatale) evident in her breakthrough hit “Video Games,” Del Rey will have to go further to really be a countercultural force that undermines — or at least minimally overcomes — the media industry from the inside (what the somewhat similarly mall/Hollywood-inspired filmmaker Michel Gondry has largely failed to do since his early music videos gained him notoriety). That especially goes for her music videos. But Honeymoon shows that she might well have both the inclination and talent to do so. This certainly stands above what she has done before at album length. The best songs are the best generally because they introduce a larger stylistic gap between the vocals and the backing, forging ahead in spite of that gap, while the lesser songs tend to come across more like straight genre exercises. There are not any obvious missteps — though the T.S. Eliot recitation “Burnt Norton (Interlude)” is jarring, and some of this just treads water (“24”). And there is much less reliance on guilty pleasure trash pop than on her breakthrough Born to Die. The best songs (“High on the Beach,” “Freak,” “Honeymoon,” “The Blackest Day,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) are really quite good, maybe even great. But the album could have used a few more great songs to be a great album as such. As it stands, Honeymoon still suffers somewhat from the problem of being a really good EP padded out to album length. Still, even just looking at the singles from the album, it is certainly an achievement to place music this depressing into the pop charts at all, which hasn’t happened much since the “grunge rock” era. On the whole, this might just be a personal turning point when the price of fame has sunk in enough for Del Rey to feel the sting, but also while she still holds enough widespread appeal to become a sort of anti-hero for a disaffected age. Or not.
Upon her breakthrough to international audiences, Del Rey elicited a polarizing reaction. After hearing buzz about her, my first exposure to her music was her terrible appearance on the TV show “Saturday Night Live.” I wrote her off as another pop music bimbo. Born to Die, her breaththrough album, is really in the classic pop tradition of having one or so great singles and a lot of filler.
“Video Games” is indeed a pathbreaking pop song — amazing in that it has no syncopated beat and a glacial tempo. It is great precisely because of the sympathy it elicits for for the song’s protagonist, who debases herself in desperate and self-defeating attempts to achieve her ends against and within seemingly hopeless structural social constraints only to (eventually) realize the power to claim her own identity. Contrary to a literal, “Stand By Your Man” reading of the lyrics, which should be discarded, it is an identity of numb isolation and doubt, but it is her own, and a product of her own free will. When she sings, “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you” the listener should think of the scene in the horror film The Omen in which the nanny, under the influence of demonic forces, climbs on a ledge of a mansion during a gala party and declares, “Look at me, Damien! It’s all for you,” then jumps off the ledge and publicly hangs herself. The song deftly implies a whole lifetime spent absorbing a gender role and the learned helplessness that goes with it. The protagonist’s assigned role requires external validation because “they say that the world was built for two / only worth living if somebody is loving you.” Every soaring crescendo of the orchestral backing is an anti-climax. It ironically presents a kind of sorrowful self-realization that breaks free of the imposition of meaning enough to look back in from outside, from another perspective. By the end of the song, reflecting on how others say it is “only worth living if somebody — is loving you,” Del Rey sings, “Baby now you do — now you do.” The repetition of “now you do” is flat. There is no joy in Del Rey’s vocals. She hums a line, but sounds puzzled and almost baffled. The strings disappear. There is a background vocal of “now, now you do / now you do,” which plays the role of society reinforcing the “proper” perspective. She sings “now you do” again in a flat way. A harp plays a glissando and a piano plays a brief repeating melody as her voice has dropped away. Del Rey is absent as the song concludes. The conditions imposed by society have been satisfied, but the song subverts that supposed achievement. Instead, the protagonist, in her socially imposed role, effectively commits suicide like the Omen nanny, opening herself to new possibilities. That realization points toward a neutralization of those structural constrains. She can now find her own meaning. She can be miserable if she wants. No longer does she have to feel pressured to enjoy debasing herself to please someone else. This reading comes through listening to the song itself, because the ironic and sarcastic tone of the vocals contradict the literal text of the lyrics. Del Rey did make a music video for the song herself. It features webcam recordings of her leaning against a wall doing some come-hither posturing interspersed with various clips of guys doing tricks on skateboards and paparazzi footage of a drunken celebrity falling down. Just like the skateboarders do tricks for attention and celebrities make a spectacle of themselves, this emphasizes the performative role the song’s protagonist plays. And if she dons her persona just to take power however she can, then maybe she is just adding a twist on what Madonna did decades before (the so-called “Madonna question”), in a time when sexual provocativeness no longer has much effect or shock value.
Some of the songs have Del Rey singing with husky vocal histrionics in the mold of Amy Winehouse. Lots of the filler has her peddling guilty pleasure trash only marginally more sophisticated than what Britney Spears built her career on. “National Anthem” and “Diet Mountain Dew” are the kind of ghetto fabulous novelty pop that fueled Gwen Stefani‘s “Hollaback Girl.” The songs are produced in a way that is mostly predictable and uncomplicated. There is an emphasis on accessible hooks for an era in which hip-hop dominates pop sensibilities.
Born to Die skews towards fun, throwaway pop, while, in spite of that, the album is carried by the success of a couple/few songs — “Video Games,” “Born to Die” — that are something else (more) entirely. The entire second half of the album is instantly forgettable. Amazingly, Del Rey would shift the emphasis to the deeper aspects of this album in her later work. The bimbo act may really have been a means to other ends after all, even if there are many reasons to question that on this particular album.
The Limits of Pop Music
Rihanna’s ANTI makes an interesting case study for the limits of pop music. That is to say the album highlights both the opportunities for what is possible under the auspices of unabashedly commercial, mainstream music and the barriers, constraints and contradictions that go along with commercial, mainstream music.
Much of what pop stardom is about is image and spectacle. Substantive content is at best a distant second behind the cultural symbolism of the persona represented by the music, and how the audience desires to attain the same persona or just consume it to bolster a different yet coupled persona. In fact, this has become an accepted way to analyze and review an album like ANTI. Under this rubric, the ability of a pop star to succeed is all about crafting and manipulating the persona through music to be something other than just a direct manifestation of whatever hedonistic, saccharine, materialistic nugget forms the core of the relevant pop sub-genre. But there are only certain ways that doing so is possible within the structural constraints of “pop” music as such, before a line is crossed and the music (good, bad or otherwise) is simply no longer “pop”. One approach is to deploy much of the trappings of commercial pop, especially using ornate and complex production techniques, but to thread through and embed melancholy and subversive messages that reveal a contrary perspective — a classic example being The Carpenters, but The The‘s Soul Mining fits too as does early Scott Walker. Another is to engage in ironic, cynical distance. This is epitomized by the highly constructed “bad girl”/”bad boy” image of the likes of Madonna, P!nk, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, etc., which pretends to a kind of rebellion while actually being totally compliant with the demands of a big-business music industry that constructs its own “criticism” so as to be powerless and effectively moot. There is a degree of sensationalism here, and mostly this approach is self-defeating (or was simply a front all along). There is also the highbrow intellectual approach, which usually seeks to apply a “respectable” standard from outside of the pop realm to pop music — be it opera, jazz, etc. Examples abound from Josh Groban to Margo Guryan. This approach treads a line that often threatens to undermine the notion of being pop music, by subordinating its own standards to an external one and using musical techniques that are less easily identified with “pop” music. Yet another approach is the “wizard behind the curtain” one, which tries to lift the veil of pop artifice to show the machinations that “really” drive the music. In this category would be stuff like later Beyoncé. Lastly, there is a kynicist approach, which take a multivalent reverent/irreverent approach to pop music — artists who reside here are Ariel Pink, The Red Krayola, any of the tropicalists from Brazil, and even early Beck. Of course, there are other approaches too, but these tend to be some of the most common.
Rihanna’s ANTI cuts across many of these categories. There is some of the cynical “bad girl” approach, and some of the subversive, contrary messaging. The former fails in the same way it always does. That is to say that the music tries to overcome the contradictions of commercial pop music that are at its foundations — like decaffeinated coffee, this is an attempt to have the good without the bad in a way that defeats the premise. Why even be a commercial “pop” artist at all? Would a real “bad girl” not be completely outside the corporate media world? These problems hamper the first part of the album. There are too many synths and the songs are clunky because they gloss over these issues. The opener “Consideration” is a throwaway because it dwells in the most mediocre aspects of Rihanna’s past work. But the latter part of the album shifts towards something that (yes!) is a bit closer to The Carpenters. This kind of swing between approaches is frankly a bit like Kanye West, who does the Carpenters thing (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and then changes up and does the maniacal version of the “wizard behind the curtain” approach (Yeezus), but he does this kind of thing almost in slow motion. And for that matter, while the diversion to retro sounds (“Love on the Brain”) has been done a lot (Bruno Mars), it is worth keeping in mind that it was a staple of the Carpenters too (“Please Mister Postman,” etc.). It allows the music to disconnect from any strict adherence to current fashions and fads. It also suggests there is something — in history — that matters and can be found and taken up again, breaking the tyranny of the present.
The opportunities of pop music are also on display here. For one, the sense of commonality that underlies pop music grant it the widest possible platform. Anybody, in theory, can grasp what this music is about. And there are all sorts of pleasurable musical effect in use. While “Consideration” tries too hard to use reggae singing, “Work” is much better because Rihanna’s talent for that vocal style is more understated and natural. “Desperado” is where the album really takes off. It conveys a sense of hitting bottom but still going on.
ANTI is indeed an album that is better and deeper than it first lets on. Sure, “Same Ol’ Mistakes” is brilliant, and immediately, unmistakably so. But across the entire album, this reveals itself slowly to be fundamentally aiming for something more than just Freud‘s “pleasure principle” of a past satisfaction repeated, and instead focuses on what Freud called the “reality principle,” the mature reasonableness of the ego that postpones and defers immediate gratification in search of something more contingent. The simple pleasure accrue along the way, just for what they are and no more. It would be wrong to say ANTI has colossal ambitions, but it has them and they are what the album is really about.
Sure, these guest-driven remix albums are always uneven. Yes, I’m a Witch is no exception. But Yoko kind of deserved a record like this. Anyway, the best of what is here — with input from the likes of Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, The Brother Brothers, and Shitake Monkey — is really good. Outside of Yoko, Tom Zé, and Scott Walker, there are frankly few artists over 70 years old (!) who so convincingly deliver pop/rock music this relevant and up-to-date. Yoko offered a few more of these remix albums, plus a new version of the Plastic Ono band released some surprisingly good new recordings in the years that followed.
Cohen’s penultimate studio album is a good one from his late-career comeback. The lyrics may not quite reach the insights of, says, Ten New Songs, but this is one of his more musical efforts of the later years. Strangely enough, this is reminiscent of recent Rosanne Cash albums.