I present you with the humble folk singer, Robert Plant. If that’s not what you know him for, think again. If there’s one thing his recent career developments have shown, is that Plant rather does fancy himself a folk singer, and perhaps always has. Even when the singer can’t resist unleashing those signature wails, it’s still a folk song. Another lifelong signature (and a controversial one) is the habit of giving himself writing credit for rearrangements of songs whose roots aren’t lost to time enough to qualify as ‘traditional’. This a rearrangement of a Leadbelly song, and it true Robert Plant fashion, the lyrics remain while the shape has been shifted into something quite new. It’s American blues taken through space-time to meet English folk tradition, plus some global stuff thrown in. Of course, Anglicizing American blues music beyond all recognition is what pays Plant’s castle mortgage. So all this getting ‘rootsier’ with age isn’t exactly a new development; it’s an inevitable development.
Yes, this record again. I just keep playing it. I have to say that I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics of this song before, but that’s where unasked-for lyric videos come in. You’ll find that it has a little bit more depth than the glowing melodies would suggest. Of course, Belle & Sebastian cornered the market on bookish romanticism a while back, with their penchant for wordy, Morrissey-esque album titles. This isn’t quite master level, but it’s not quite your garden variety I-Love-You pop either. The slight touch of doom pushes it over the edge. Love just means more when the world is threatening to burn; it’s a refute to the wordy title.
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.
In the face of hundred million dollar offers to ride the nostalgia bus, Robert Plant turns his nose up and says that he’s just not that bored. Sick burn, Robert! While some people *cough* Jimmy Page *cough* *cough* want to spend their time digging through their own archives, remastering the hits, dusting off old demos, and just generally living in the past, Plant is busy trotting the musical globe with a new set of friends. Maybe Plant’s contentious relationship with his old partner and their legacy isn’t very graceful and smells like the bickering of an old divorced couple, but his ongoing creative vitality makes up for it. Sure, it’s detrimental to the kids not to have both fathers hand-in-hand like they used to be. But I’d rather hear new music than forgotten outtakes from Led Zeppelin III, and Plant has been on a Renaissance tear lately. First he did the big bluegrass excursion with Alison Krauss, then he gathered the band he calls The Sensational Space Shifters for a record that pours together all of the folk music of the world. It’s quite satisfying to see him evolve his sound and build on his interests without falling back the damn tropes he helped create. He still likes magic and mythology, and he’s still interested in the heroic possibilities of British folk music, and if he’s less bombastic about those things, all the better for it. And he still has the looks and bearing of a horse lord, albeit now one who has retired with honors from the Rohirrim.
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.