Nothing inspires the worst kind of schmaltz like the subject of love. Schmaltzy love songs that are the musical equivalent of a Hummel figurine or a Margaret Keane painting, syrupy drivel that makes you want to put your genitals and your heart in a bank vault and go live in a cave somewhere. And you would think that an elderly Frenchman in a bad suit singing in front of a plastic Christmas trees would be precisely that kind of smarmy. Especially in 1974, when French guys in suits were very much le contraire de la mode. But Charles Aznavour didn’t enjoy well over 70 years of popularity for being a sentimental hack (and he’ll have you know that he is Armenian.) Sometimes under the trappings of schmaltz lies something beautiful and it takes a masterful performer to extract it. It may look like music for housewives who missed the sexual revolution boat, but when that man starts to sing all the trappings fall away and you can forget all of your cynical thoughts and bad jokes at the expense of people less hip than yourself. It’s a good love song that does what good love songs do: touch the the tender part of the heart that hasn’t yet sunk into ironic indifference. When you love someone and they’re your world, you can talk about them in blown-out corny language and act like every cliche of a love-sick fool and no one can sink your sincerity, and it’s that precise feeling that is so very, very hard to capture in song without sounding like a driveling moron. You have to believe it to deliver it. Just embrace that schmaltz and those old lovers’ cliches and deliver them like they’re written in your soul. That’s what crooners of Aznavour’s generation made an art of, and it’s become a lost art, since the advent of rock’n’roll with its undisguised libido and emotional juvenility.
Just as we’ve established that all songs are about sex, we now see that most songs are about women, some are by women, and a select few are all of the above. Now, we explore those things in more depth. We will confront the dreaded ‘male gaze’ and its female sidekick ‘the muse’, and what we can learn from them both, and, of course, what female artists have to say about it from their side. Who better to kick that thesis off than Marianne Faithfull, who still has the words ‘professional muse’ stamped at the top of her resume decades after she walked out of that job and slammed the door. There is a lot to unpack in Faithfull’s embodiment of the muse, and she unpacked it very well herself. (Hint, read her book.) The short of it is, it’s impossible to be a fully flowered artist when you occupy a pedestal of other people’s making, and in order to become one, you have to kick your youthful, pedestal-occupying self into the dirt, and having destroyed her every vestige, move on with your life. What Faithfull has to offer, in her second life, is real hard-won perspective on a woman’s inner life, a clear view of what scars we carry as we move away from our prime muse years and into our real prime. Love, sex and romance aren’t what songs written by men make them out to be. In fact, they’re often the opposite, and men’s romantic gestures are very often just plain abuse dressed up with flowers. That’s something that has to be learned the hard way, and it makes the allure of pop song romance fade quickly. Romantic pop songs come from a place of unquestioned privilege or from the deeply naive. Torch songs and the blues are where it’s at. That’s what Marianne Faithfull’s torch songs have to teach us; they’re love songs for when we’ve become too grown up to fall for love songs anymore. We know that to be fully creative and self-sustained, we have to reject the romantic fantasies we pursued as girls – the ones that got us walking blindly into growth-stunting, manipulative, abusive situations with men who offered us pop song platitudes – and choose sometimes to be lonely, unsupported and sexually frustrated because it’s still preferable to ending up in a cage gilded with romantic gestures.
“You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown…”
New York City in the 70’s was a dirthole riddled with filth and crime, making it the perfect place to be strung out and at loose ends. It may have been a miserable place to live, but the people who lived there – and the ones who just visited – were busy mythologizing it as a smoggy Babylon of self-expression and debauchery. So of course, The Rolling Stones, connoisseurs of sewer-rat glamour, gravitated there. Mick Jagger happily hit the cocaine circuit of Studio 54 in the company of celebs like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, while Keith Richards relished the city’s turn-a-blind-eye anonymity as he fought his heroin addiction and the unraveling of his family. The Stones create their own Babylon wherever they go, it’s what they do, but they sucked up the highly specific place energy of 70’s New York and added to the canon of quintessential New York albums.
All you need to know about Laurie Anderson is that she is a very serious art person and her work is intellectually rigorous. You can tell those things because she wears all black and has a lesbian matron haircut. I’ve actually never listened to any of her albums besides this one. Too much intellectual rigor, I guess. Maybe my cutoff point for artistic seriousness is a lot closer to the easily accessible end of the spectrum than I care to admit. However, I do recommend this record. It was an unexpected success in the mainstream-ish music world, and I think it’s actually pretty accessible. It’s weird and ahead of its time, for sure. (And yet also very 80’s, because nothing screams “It’s the 80’s!!!” like a Peter Gabriel cameo.)
Portugal. The Man, stealin’ from the sixties again. Can’t complain about it – they nail the whole psychedelic rock sound so well that if I didn’t know better I’d be wondering what obscure Haight-Ashbury collective is responsible for this. They got it right, right down to the song titles. What I can’t help but wonder with these guys is just how serious they’re being. You can’t fault their musicality, but is there a subtle element of ironic mockery at play? It may be that I’ve just been raised to expect ironic mockery in everything and have a hard time accepting sincere homage as real, being the jaded millennial that I am. But this is now, and you can’t just sell sunshiny melodies without a dark evil underside. If you’ve ever watched any of Portugal. The Man’s videos, they’re usually as dark as the songs are tuneful. If the music isn’t exactly ironic – and I think that it’s too lovingly well made to be – then it’s at least self-aware.
Usually, you could count on David Bowie for being a thoughtful and nuanced interpreter of other people’s material. (And, you know, his own too.) He chose interesting songs and covered them in interesting styles. But sometimes nuance and thought went out the window in favor of sheer mega-watt campiness. On the Pin Ups album Bowie chose a motley selection of obscure 60’s classics and attacked them in full Ziggy Stardust mode. And Ziggy always was one for maximum drama. To be fair, in this case, the Yardbirds’ original was already very dramatic. It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to top Keith Relf’s delivery, but David Bowie heard it and thought, “Challenge accepted.” This is probably his most bizarre vocal performance; he belts it out like a drag diva delivering a death scene. It’s just unparalleled. Enjoy.
The sea shanty is about due for a revival. Since sailing has ceased being a major industry and seamanship a major career option, so the shanties have died out. But with all things old-timey and artisanal being currently on-trend, I think we can expect to see some of the more obscure and niche types of folk music becoming a hip thing for trendsetters to be in-the-know about. Bluegrass music has been steadily becoming more popular for some time, while the general interest in backyard gardening and the long-lost pickling arts shows no sign of waning. People want to do things with their hands again, they want to feel connected to some kind of heritage, they want to feel some sense of self-sufficiency, and learning musical folklore is part of that.