I haven’t posted in a week. Sorry, readers. Life intervened. Hopefully life has stopped intervening and I can go back to boring you with long-winded musings.
A while back, I questioned the usefulness of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project. I fully admit I was wrong. Dan Savage may very well be the most important gay in America.
Dana International is back! Yes, everyone’s favorite transsexual pop icon is back in her milieu, and representing Israel again. Her song is a good dance/club song called *snicker* “Ding Dong” (which is not to be confused with Teach In’s “Ding-A-Dong” from the 1970′s.) I’m sorry Lena; I love you and all, but Dana is Dana.
Pure gay bliss.
Eurovision champions and top finishers have a habit of returning for another bite at the apple. This has been going on since the beginning, and I’m uneasy even when my favorites come back. Only Johnny Logan has won twice. Usually the second (or third) time is a poorer finish. ABBA (wisely) never returned.
After they made you, they broke the mold.
It came too early this year. The universe owes me an hour of my weekend.
As of this writing I have 76 hits for today which is far more than I have had in a while. So thank you to whomever is randomly linking to my blog. Maybe one day I can break the 100 post per day barrier on a consistent basis.
1. The US Women’s National Team has won the Algarve Cup. Again. This time it was over Iceland. I didn’t even realize Iceland had a women’s time. It’s nice to see though that the Nordic nations produce such good women’s football (now if only the men followed.)
2. Barcelona beat Arsenal 3-1 to advance to the next round of the Champions League. I was very happy. For those haters who complain about the quality of La Liga, I pose this question. Every Spanish team that faced Barcelona this year had at least one shot on goal whether on or off target. Arsenal did not even have one.
3. To make matters even more embarrassing for Arsenal, bitter North London rival Tottenham advanced over AC Milan. (Once again Zlatan Ibrahimovic goes home empty-handed from Europe. Who will that loose cannon blame this time?) I wish Tottenham luck with all future opponents except Barcelona.
At work I have plenty of time to listen to music. Although I usually let my iPod decide the next song, occasionally I get musical yearnings. This week I was seized by the desire to listen to all the Carpenters songs in my music library.
Ah, the Carpenters. There has been something of a critical redemption for them in the last decade or so, but for years they were shorthand for the clean-cut, all-American, white, Christian, and terminally unhip. And let’s be honest, they were clean-cut, all-American, white, Christian, and terminally unhip. Given that the majority of the Carpenters career was the 1970′s, they were very much not a part of the zeitgeist. Rather they were a throwback to the conformity of the 1950′s. Richard Nixon liked them (allegedly); therefore the Carpenters were unpopular with the rock n’ roll loving youth, their rock rebel icons, and the rock critics who proclaimed themselves the gatekeepers of cool. Which is not to say the Carpenters were unpopular or unloved. Quite the contrary; they are one of the best-selling musical groups of all time. They are many good things–influential, iconic, beloved throughout the world. Hell, they were even innovative in their own way. But “cool” they were not.
What made the Carpenters special was Karen Carpenter’s voice. She had a contralto unlike any ever heard to that point. It was deep, clear, flawless, had a very dark timbre, and was astoundingly beautiful. But prose cannot do her voice justice. That’s because the stunning emotional impact of her voice has to be heard. Regardless of the song, Karen always sounded sad, or more accurately melancholy. Even in the most cheerful of lyrics, the listener can detect world-weariness, as though Karen knew the happiness would not last. The sad songs were absolutely heart-rending.
Very few singers do sad consistently well because it is so easy to veer into parody. Dusty and Billie are the only two others who I can think off-hand, but Karen was unlike either of them. Whereas Dusty and Billie seem to fall apart during the course of the song, Karen was something of an absent genius. You hear the pain and sorrow, but she keeps you at a distance. (This is actually the flip side of the accusation often thrown at Ella Fitzgerald–her blanket refusal to tap into sadness or depression even when singing sad songs was also–unfairly–seen as being distant.)
That distance was amplified by Richard Carpenter’s production. Karen was the heart, soul, and glue of the duo, but only Richard could properly showcase her. His arrangements are spectacular, and the way that he looped her voice is near-miraculous: a symphony orchestra of Karens singing in either perfect unison or perfect harmony.
Everyone has their favorite Carpenters song; I have a few myself. The one that I believe to be their greatest however, is “Superstar”, a song whose lyrics are completely at odds with Richard and Karen’s clean-cut image. Allegedly written about Eric Clapton, “Superstar” is a groupie’s tale about a rock n’ roll star who slept with her and promised to come back but never did (and never will.) The song’s narrator knows she was used, yet she nevertheless holds out hope for his return.
The original version of the song was actually called “Groupie (Superstar)”, and there is an explicit line about sex: “And I can hardly wait to sleep with you again.” Every version before the Carpenters used those lyrics, but the Carpenters could not. Instead “sleep” was changed to “be”. This is not a big lyrical change per se, but it is more suited to Karen’s naturally innocent voice and image. It also changes the song’s story for the better.
When earlier singers sang “Superstar,” there was a tendency to go over the top (kind of like groupies themselves), but Karen underplays the emotion. She is not just some groupie; she is an innocent kid who fell in love with the superstar, lost her virginity to him, and desperately believes that he will be back. She doesn’t just want to sleep with him, she wants to be with him. This time it’s the listener and not the singer who knows that he won’t be back and that her heart will be broken. The effect is devastating.
Don’t believe me? Listen to it again.
Not coincidentally, “Superstar” is the name of the controversial (and banned) Todd Haynes movie about the life of Karen Carpenter as portrayed by Barbie dolls.
Sadly Karen died because of complications due to anorexia nervosa. If there is a heaven, one would imagine that all the angels sing like Karen Carpenter.
Music I listened to while writing this post: Adele “Someone Like You”; Carpenters “All You Get From Love is a Love Song”, “Bless the Beasts and the Children”, “Let Me Be the One”, “Close to You”, “Superstar”, “Can’t Smile Without You”, “Those Good Old Dreams”, “For All We Know”.
The news out of Annapolis is not great. Today the same-sex marriage bill eked out of committee by a 12-10 vote, and it goes to the full General Assembly. Where once passage seemed assured, now it is on very shaky grounds. The worst part is that it has nearly derailed not by Republican thugs, but by so-called allies. First one delegate from Baltimore, a co-sponsor of the bill, walks out of committee to basically blackmail her fellow Democrats into doing what she wanted (money for schools, or whatever.) Then another one from Prince George County decided she’s not sure if she should vote for it. Then, and the weirdest of them all, a Montgomery County delegate, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat from the bluest of blue areas this side of Cambridge, Massachusetts, decided he found Jesus and could not vote for the bill. This is of course after he campaigned by promising to vote for same-sex marriage and taking money and endorsements from the LGBT community and LGBT organizations. Then after an enormous (and expected) backlash, he voted for the bill in committee and said he would vote it when it comes for the floor for the full vote. It’s not going to save him; his career is over.
Assuming that the bill survives (which is now doubtful thanks to our “friends”) Maryland has a referendum process similar to Maine’s. Even though the polls suggest that most Marylanders favor same-sex marriage, it is not a vote I look forward to.
So to recap, regardless of how the vote turns out, Maryland (and really all American) gays and lesbians have been betrayed by people who claim to be allies. Because these allies don’t think our civil rights are really that important after all. It’s an unfortunate and harsh reminder that in the end, we have very few friends out there, and even fewer who would put aside their own personal interests to do the right thing.
I witnessed a crime at the White House on television today; beloved Motown songs were murdered by a host of pretenders who choked the life out of the poor defenseless songs.
In fairness, it is nearly impossible to cover a popular Motown song. Those songs were and are so popular and so indelible, that anyone who would cover such a song will inevitably fail. Unlike standards, Motown is not meant to be covered. At its 1960′s height Motown produced (among others) the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Smokey and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, the Contours, and of course the Supremes. (In the 1970′s Motown gave us the Jackson 5 and a little kid named Michael Jackson.) The song crafting out of Motown was top-notch–particularly, but not exclusively, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson. As was the Motown house band the Funk Brothers, finally given their due by the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. But the whole of the Motown sound was greater than the sum of its parts (The one glaring fault of Standing in the Shadows of Motown is that it does not give enough credit to the singers. Despite what the filmmaker believes, not just anyone would have had hits with Motown’s songs.)
Along with possibly the Beach Boys, Motown was America’s answer to the Beatles domination of the pop charts. What other American acts were as critically and artistically successful or as durable as Motown?
Motown was not original per se. For example, the Shirelles were a clear influence of the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas (as opposed to the Ronettes who were the original “bad girls”, but oh how Ronnie Spector could sing.) But Motown perfectly melded a black sound in a white paradigm (and made it palatable for a white audience.) In that Motown changed the face of music. But what really set the singers apart was how they sung the songs: plainly. There were no gimmicks, no melismas, no vibrato, no bells, no whistles. Through that simplicity, they forever took ownership of their songs.
Watching this Motown appreciation special at the White House is painful because it is yet another reminder that popular singers today no longer sing well. They need to show off vocal acrobatics or how well they “interpret” the song, usually by using a behind the beat style. It doesn’t work, and it cheapens both the song and the performer.
Aretha is the mother of the melisma in pop songs. In the early 1960′s Columbia records tried to fit her in a white paradigm by having her sing standards. It didn’t work. Then she went to Atlantic and sang soul and became Aretha Franklin. (For my money Aretha is entirely overrated. Her sixties hits were great, but afterwards she went into steady decline. Now she gets by solely on technique and nostalgia. Give me Etta James any day of the week.) Aretha used the melisma, but she used it sparingly. It was Whitney who made the big voice and the vocal acrobatics central to her performance. Then came Mariah who choked songs to death with melismas and squeals, which led us to today’s popular singers who are Mariah/Whitney imitators, Christina Aguilera being the most prominent.
The off-the-beat singing is an old jazz technique, perfected by Billie Holiday who used it to great emotional effect in a way that had never been done before. In the process she changed the way songs were sung. However, the truth is that it takes a special singer, which Billie Holiday was, to do it well. Compare Holiday to her other legendary peer Ella Fitzgerald who did not put emotion into the song, but sang them straight, particularly in her American Songbook series. Equally masterful. The difference is that Ella sings so plainly that one doesn’t realize how hard it is to do what she did. Therefore the effort goes unnoticed. With an off-the-beat style, it gets noticed. On the other hand, Motown singers sung songs straight, and that’s why we love them.
I wish pop stars would go back to singing songs the way they are written. The greatest pop singers did and do. Who will remember the strangled songs of today in another generation the way that we fondly remember Motown?