1 February 1942 – 21 January 2020
Marlene Dietrich was not like other stars of Hollywood. Between her diva-like professional demands, her freewheeling personal life, and her sexy gender-bending style, she was what we now call an ‘instant icon’. For example, she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood despite never having made a Hollywood movie. She gave detailed instructions to directors of Welles’ and Hitchcock’s stature on how she wanted to be filmed. And she barely bothered pretending to lead a normal life offscreen. It hardly mattered, beyond all that, that her talents were relatively negligible. The only role she really knew how to play was herself, and it was enough. It certainly wasn’t uncommon; many Hollywood stars based their entire careers on their ability to loosely embody an archetype rather than any passion or talent for acting. Dietrich’s singing career outlived her acting by decades, and her recordings might indeed prove to be more enduring than most of her films. Dietrich was, by any technical standards, a poor singer. She had a deep, husky voice and no high range at all. At a time when popular music was extremely bland and singers were expected to sound as pretty as they looked, Dietrich predated the modern idea that a strongly individual delivery and a compelling persona could be more important than technical proficiency. She performed with her personality, conveying a sense of ironic detachment, languid glamour, a sly sense of humor, and whole lot of sexual oomph. Her songs were very frequently risque, and even the conventionally romantic ones feel disruptive. Dietrich makes no pretense of being the kind of a gal who would actually pine for a guy who stood her up; romantic pining is a joke to her. She was well known for always juggling a handful of lovers of both genders, assured that if one left there would be a line of eager replacements standing behind. The sense of knowing irony that she brought to the torch songs she sang was her real musical talent, and it was ahead of her time – as she was in so many aspects of her life.
10 September 1933 – 19 February 2019
Sherlock Holmes may seem like an odd choice for a figure of masculine ideal, at least romantically. He was a crime-solving genius, obviously, but he had zero luck with or interest in the ladies, due to being the kind of antisocial that today we call ‘spectrum’. Also he spent a lot of time hanging out in opium dens and mainlining cocaine. Also, he was fictional. But Sparks’ Russell Mael never runs out of imaginative ways of being rejected by women or finding ideals to fall short of. He’s written songs about his fears of being rejected for not being athletic enough, not drunk enough, and not Morrissey-esque enough. Add to that not living up to the Platonic ideal of towering intellect that Sherlock Holmes represents. It is, of course, all in good fun, and completely tongue-in-cheek. The joke is that it wouldn’t really take much to out-sing, out-dance and out-romance Sherlock Holmes.
Coming to the end of our sexy songs about sex, we’ve illuminated nothing, I think. Let’s cap it all off with something mindless and fun. Chromeo isn’t known for depth or perceptiveness, but they are known for… actually, I’m not sure what Chromeo is famous for. Hyper-caffeinated dance music influenced by funk, disco and old school hip hop, according a swift bout of research. Post-millennial party music, I guess. Let’s just say that when these guys write a song about a sexy socialite they’re not trying to explore the problematic intersection of gender roles and institutional class disparity. There’s artists who do want to explore those things, but at the end of the day, people just want to dance and pretend that it’s still 2001 and Paris Hilton is the role model we all look up to. So file it under Music for Sleazy Parties.
25 March 1942 – 16 August 2018
I’ve often wondered about who Emily is and what she’s doing. I’ve read that she was everything from a British socialite to a child Syd Barrett encountered in the woods, both of which things sound legit. Either way, she sounds like kind of a sad person. If she’s a figment of Syd’s imagination, she’s clearly got to be pretty sad. Or, she’s a socialite, and her socialite life is hollow and meaningless and filled with miserable parties.