If you haven’t heard of or don’t remember Cat Power, just note that today’s music scene owes her a lot. Seventeen years ago she pretty much singlehandedly started the trend of feminizing manly rock songs, thus paving the way for acts like Nouvelle Vague and everybody and their dog’s covers album. In 2000 a girl with a breathy voice covering (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – without the chorus! Sacrebleu! – was both a novelty and a sacrilege. Now every cock rock anthem is ripe to be reinterpreted as a female lament. Personally, I love this trend. This is one trend I can get behind. Obviously, that’s partly because I love unexpected covers. Every sacred cow needs to be seen with fresh eyes (so to speak) every once in a while, even if the results aren’t necessarily spectacular. I also love that women’s perspectives have come to the forefront in pop music, and co-opting classic male tropes is a particularly cheeky aspect of that movement. Cat Power isn’t about to make me set aside my feelings for The Rolling Stones, and she isn’t going to make anyone forget Hank Williams either. That isn’t the point. The point of these covers is twofold. First of all, these tropes are as old as time; Hank Williams didn’t invent the idea of the rambling man, the rambling man has been a character in the popular imagination for centuries before Hank Williams came along. These tropes are tired because they’ve been repeated over and over by same kinds of people – men in cowboy hats, men with electric guitars, men with mandolins, angry young men with long hair – turning themselves and their stories into cliches. But the second part of what makes a smart cover relevant is the reminder that these tropes that we’re so used to are bigger than the artists that perform them. Underneath the cliches are stories and ideas that have hung on because they’re universal. They don’t have to be told by men in cowboy hats, they can be told by anyone. Is the cover as good or as important as the original? No, and it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes removing the specificity of expected context is necessary to make a piece of art fresh again, to remind us why it’s art and why we cared about it in the first place.
You turn to the Decemberists, like you turn to a midcentury novel, for reminders of the near-forgotten; words and concepts like ‘spinster’, ‘always the bridesmaid’, even ‘raincoat’. Literature and music have always been better at recording history than history itself, in the biased hands of historians, ever has. We look back at the last stretch of living memory, and its memorabilia, and witness society steadily lurching itself out of the dark ages. Here it stands, a bit battered, unsteady on its feet, still coated with the filth of history, but at we’re slouching forward, at least. Nobody says spinster anymore, but unmarried women are still treated like apples rotting under the tree. We can toss our raincoats aside and blithely not own an umbrella, because we’re children of science who don’t remember that a sniffle and a cough used to foreshadow a visit from the grim reaper. Sometimes it seems that the only reason we remember history at all is because it still clings to our language.
Mmmm, talk about sorely missed. Watch Amie Duffy get her Roxie Hart on. So glamorous, so retro! Well, apparently, Duffy is not one of those people who enjoy strutting around with no pants on, and getting sucked into the fame machine just about gave her a nervous breakdown. Which is why she isn’t recording anymore. Getting the short end in comparisons to Amy Winehouse hurts an artist, and getting groomed to look like somebody’s retrograde idea of a sex kitten hurts a woman. Those were not things that Duffy wanted for herself, and I hope that someday she’ll find the motivation to come back with an image more to her own liking. Even if not, she made enough of an impact with what she did do. If I had to compare her to anyone, it would be Nancy Sinatra, who looked doe-eyed as a baby doll and sang about vindictive self-empowerment.
This sounds like a ramshackle bar band drunkenly signing off an hour after last call. Complete with a ‘goodnight’ at the end. That’s exactly the point of The Raconteurs, and all part of Jack White’s vision of highly contrived authenticity. That’s not a knock; few people follow their vision as wholeheartedly as Jack White does. But bending the world to your vision is, of course, a contrivance, and Jack White is not an old troubadour crossing county lines in a painted wagon. He’s facing, like many before him, the conundrum of how authentic an artist he can be now that he’s a millionaire entrepreneur. Nine years ago that wasn’t as much of a pressing question, though. Nine years ago it was all “Let’s throw together a band and dress like we deserted the Confederate army and play a bunch of shows until we make our fingers bleed and/or get bored and move on to the next fun project!”
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.
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.
In 2008, the underground rapper M.I.A. officially ‘crossed over’ (a phrase with loaded meaning for an immigrant and child of political activists.) She brought her unique diy aesthetic into the mainstream and created one of the hits of the decade. If she turned out to be too weird for the mainstream, too outspoken politically, too unhappy with the boxes she was stuffed into as a woman and a person of color, too unique in her music and her style….well, good for her. The world doesn’t need another ‘fun’ pop star with a little flavor; M.I.A. is all flavor and it’s the kind of flavor you find in neighborhoods you’re afraid to go into because all the signs aren’t in English. She’s been offering a view into that world for over a decade – not always hitting the bullseye, but never not interesting. Her music is for everybody, but it’s not about everybody. That may be hard for some people, but that is what great artists do.