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.)
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.
Under ‘fun facts I didn’t know about famous albums’, Joe Jackson’s Big World was apparently recorded live, and not just live in the studio, but live as in, in concert. That fact amazes me, because until I perused the Wiki, I never would have guessed. I generally kind of hate live albums. They’re usually really sloppy, heavy on the hits, poorly recorded and used as a cash grab to keep the artist in cocaine and hookers until the next real album comes out. Not to mention that a lot of bands actually kind of suck at playing their own songs, especially some of the late greats who liked to perform while zonked out on a field hospital’s worth of pharmaceuticals, and the live album does nothing but reveal their laziness and lack of skill without the comfort of good studio production. But Joe Jackson, of course, does things his own way, and when he goes to make a live album, he’s armed with the best musicians, an invited audience and an entirely original set of songs. The production quality and sheer musical perfection of Big World belies its origin on the concert stage. It’s so the antithesis of a live record that I’m actually not sure what the point was in the first place. It just sounds perfect. I mean, check out the musicianship in that video.
Bryan Ferry does interesting things with cover tunes. It’s kind of one of his main things. Take something completely unexpected and obscure and make it over in campy lounge lizard drag. I don’t think anybody has made unusual covers such a strong career sideline. Who else would take a Jimmy Reed song and turn it into high glam? It takes away everything from the blues that makes it the blues and comes up with… a Bryan Ferry song. And it works, like glitter magic.
“Shame on you, you’re having too much fun”
Truly, a cautionary tale. This is from Timbuk 3’s debut album, when their future was, well, you know… One wonders what fun was had that prevented them from staying more aggressively in the spotlight in the following years though. It certainly wasn’t the lack of good material. Probably something to do with not having the personalities for stardom; they even wrote a song about that, called B-Side of Life. I like to think that Timbuk 3 was always just too clever and acerbic for the mainstream. Clearly, Barbara MacDonald’s flow could’ve given Debbie Harry a run for her money, but she didn’t have the hair and legs that sell a million records.