Flashback to 2005, y’all! It’s pretty much a given that whatever’s at the top of the music charts at any given time is pretty much crap that will be forgotten within weeks. It’s been that way since time immemorial. When a young artist tops the charts with their debut single, you expect them to also be forgotten within weeks. But every once in a while that young artist with the catchy single develops into a real keeper. When Rihanna had this, her first hit, there wasn’t much to put her ahead of all the other pretty girls with promising singles, but she soon established herself as pop music’s resident bad girl. It was her rock solid judgement in picking hit singles, her give-no-fucks attitude, her unapologetic glamour, her turbulent personal life and her honesty about it – all the things that make a great pop star, all in one loud package. More than a decade later, she’s not only still at the top of her game, she’s actually growing out of the gilded pop star box and edging towards becoming an artist with vision. The distinction between pop star and visionary artist is kind of a false dichotomy anyway; plenty of successful pop stars have vision. It’s a vision of themselves being successful pop stars. But there’s definitely a difference between those who are content to sing and dance and make money, and those who see themselves as cultural figures with something to say. Rihanna has been evolving slowly from the former to the latter, and if she never arrives at ‘serious artist’ acclaim, it won’t be because she couldn’t transcend the tropes of ‘stupid pop star’.
I remember the exact moment I first heard Lady Gaga on the radio. Cruising through south Austin in a Subaru station wagon with a person I would now murder if I thought I could get away with it. A far from idyllic memory; the early months of 2009 were among the worst of my life. When most of your time is spent trying to become unconscious, little happy moments make a big impression, and hearing a good song on the radio stays with you. I’ve successfully repressed the rest of that day, but that moment with the radio dial will stay with me forever. Hearing the robotic chorus of Poker Face for the first time, my exact thoughts were, “This song is far too good to be on the radio; I will most likely never hear it again. Better enjoy the hell out of this.” It was like something you would hear at a leather-daddy disco, an aggressively sexual earworm too dark for anything but a three a.m. dance floor. It’s a song designed for that final desperate bout of dancing right before last call, when the fates decide who gets to ride the disco stick and who goes home to cry. That’s to say, it’s a very specific aesthetic. Before Lady Gaga exploded into the mainstream, we were in one of those boring dry spells where the kinky gay club music stayed in the kinky gay club. Now its hit supremacy feels inevitable, the hand of the pop gods at work. But at the time, in that moment, in broad daylight, it had a gorgeous feeling of misplacement, like a straggling reveler doing the walk of shame in their glitter and sweat on a Monday morning.
One of the greatest musical artists in the German speaking world pays homage to one of the worst. The question is, why? Cultural solidarity of some sort, I presume. Nina Hagen and Falco couldn’t have been more different. She tore apart the fabric of musical convention as part of the underground punk scene; he was known for a handful of novelty rap songs. I’m sure you’re familiar with the famous hit Rock Me Amadeus. If not, just know that it is a song of such excruciating badness you can’t help but love it. Really though, Falco’s music was so, so, so, sosososo sooooo sooooooooooooo objectively bad. I mean, this guy was the German Vanilla Ice. He was also the most successful musician to come out of Austria since Amadeus himself. Inexplicably enough, the world really wanted to hear what europop would sound like with more rapping. Why does Nina Hagen, one of the godmothers of punk, see this man as a kindred spirit? We’ll never truly know, because Falco is dead and Nina Hagen is insane. No really, Prima Nina is batshit insane, which is, of course, a large part of her brilliance. Hagen is one of those people for whom aggressive weirdness is not an affectation but a way of life. She has to be weird because otherwise she would explode. It doesn’t help her harness her immense talents towards anything approaching marketable appeal, but it’s made her a cult icon to fans whose alienation is too deep to be salved with what’s readily available. Nina Hagen will probably never follow former fellow outsiders like The Smiths and David Bowie from well-kept secret to Hot Topic sales rack, and that’s ok. She doesn’t want that, and her fans don’t want that. Let the weirdness remain undiluted. So what if a lot of what she writes about makes no sense. She writes from the heart, no doubts about it. If she wants to write a send-off for the soul of a shitty half-forgotten pop-rapper who drove into the side of a bus while high on cocaine, that’s her grace. If Nina Hagen thinks Falco’s soul is worth blessing, that doesn’t elevate his legacy, but maybe we should consider that being an artist is in itself elevating, even if the art is dreck.
One day I’m going to be a sexy older dame, and I only hope to be half as sensual and edgy as dame Marianne Faithfull. There have been many, many songs sung about being old and weary, if anybody can claim to have seen too much, it’s Faithfull. She owns the persona of the rueful old street singer. The other side of that persona is the unrepentant sensualist who savors her experience and can’t wait to live more. Which is incredibly inspiring, for anyone who doesn’t aspire to curl up and die once they’ve passed their golden child years. Life is still full of adventure, even if you’ve outlived your usefulness as an ingenue. There’s the promise of late life romance, free of the shame and stupidity of youth. There’s the satisfaction of wisdom well earned, the pride of self sufficiency, the relief of leaving the young woman’s pedestal behind forever. Once you’ve lived it all and seen it all, the world is your oyster.
There’s nothing like a good torch song. Even if it’s corny, it’s still good for cleansing for the tear ducts. Especially in the hands of an emotive singer, of course. I think that Duffy, despite her limited output, is one of the most outstanding torch singers in recent memory. Her voice is different; she’s not what they call a powerhouse. But her grasp of emotional nuance is above and beyond the normal diva range. Also, her tastes run retro – retro to the point of near-camp sometimes. It works, though it’s a tricky aesthetic to pull off consistently. It works because a lot of torch songs are, let’s face it, retrograde; you need a hint of irony to leverage that out.
Gary Clark Jr. has been a leader in the recent soul music revival, and his album Blak and Blu is a prime example of how roots rock, funk and R’n’B are still fresh and modern, despite harking back to decades before the artist was born. Clark is also a native of my own adopted hometown of Austin TX, and residents have had the pleasure of discovering his music long before the rest of the world did. Clark is known for coming home to play the kind of small, intimate shows where young siblings and cousins jump onstage to sing backup and audience members can reach out touch the star’s shoes. I’ve seen Clark play on a few occasions, and his aw-shucks attitude belies his musicianship. I also have to say that hearing his songs on the radio when I first moved to Austin is one of my warmest musical memories. So my affection for this particular record is very much tied into my own place and time. But I’m pretty confident that it’s also objectively one of the finest pieces of what the Grammy Awards refer to as “traditional R’n’B” in recent memory. Definitely one of the records of the decade, if you’re about ready to compiling that list.
A particular favorite from one of my favorite relatively new discoveries. I’ve been told that Interpol is great live, and that’s evident from this clip. It’s a performance both dramatic and intimate. It even evokes some of the great goth depressingtons of yore that the band has been (often cheaply) compared to. This could well have been a Joy Division song, and I wouldn’t lightly accuse anyone of channeling Ian Curtis. (People who purposely channel Ian Curtis are lazy schmucks.) It’s gnomic and grand, even if falls apart on paper. The meaning is in the delivery. It’s in the image. It’s in the tension that builds from that first arpeggio.