American Life revisited

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

American Life is a reminder of the Madonna that existed before she decided to stay young forever, and in a sense its failure sent her on the path she's still treading now, with increasing cringe-factor. Whereas Confessions on a Dance Floor was a reclamation of dance, the body and youth (and for which Madge seemed suitably refreshed), American Life was framed as a meditation on her life at a juncture between past and uncertain future, in the broader context of conservative America and celebrity culture.

"I prefer my South American dictators to be played by Madonna"

But this is where the intent of the album became somewhat unstuck. As its Patty Hearst-inspired, faux-photocopied cover art signalled, Madonna was at war against... something. What exactly it was was never specified. The fame-machine she helped build? Her own excess? American foreign policy? Madonna's strength has always been picking a range of different reference-points and then stitching them into something new, but not necessarily logical... and then defending any lack of coherence by labelling it art. But for an album with an apparent political intent, this was not convincing. While American Life's infamous rap took a stab at teasing out her own complicity in the world she was trying to critique, it didn't cut it. Instead the effect of a global superstar famed for her capitalist instinct and self-focus vaguely critiquing America, fame, and the superficial seemed, at the very least, a little limp.

Black hair=serious artistic period.

But if you subtract the half-hearted politics, there remain some beautiful songs that provide a bittersweet reminder of what Madge has left behind on her way to the Candy Shop. The album's emotional core sits in a trio of songs, Nothing Fails, Intervention and Xstatic Process -- all melodic, delicate, vulnerable, and unfortunately probably also about Guy Ritchie. There's still the odd dud lyric (Madge's lyrical quality control being generally quite appalling), but as songs they engage you on a level other than 'superstar album.' I'm So Stupid and Nobody Knows Me are the most overt critiques of celebrity culture, but don't really work musically (albeit because of a presumably intentional abrasiveness). And while I think Mother Father is channeling some kind of therapeutic free association, it comes across as year 8-diary-confession detritus. While not always successful, the thought that's gone into the songs is certainly a revelation in the context of Hard Candy's laughable attempts at meaning (e.g. Devil Wouldn't Recognise You).

But perhaps the main reason American Life seems a bit hollow is actually to do with history. Because what happened next seemed to fully undermine the album's sentiment. After it failed commercially and (mostly) critically, Madonna, like the Terminator, returned to the forge. She re-built herself, re-grouped and came out with the dance album to beat all dance albums. While this was magical to watch, it nonetheless suggested that she maybe couldn't handle a life without the success she was apparently so ambivalent about. As impressive as Confessions ultimately was, as Madge continues to strut from stadium to stadium, more ghoulish by the day, I wonder what form she'd be in today if she'd stuck to the artistic direction mapped out (occasionally bodgily) by American Life?
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
I'd prefer not to link to Perez, but oh my, this is like theatre. What a strange character he is (and perhaps, hopefully, this is a character he's enacting.) He comes across as some kind of horrid grown up Valley girl-pure Id creature that you can imagine screaming 'I want it NOW' to hapless sales staff and then smashing things. And so unaware of the vitriol he spurts out every day -- e.g. I am a human being and should never be a victim of violence [true]. Ps Fergie's a "fugly bitch" and's a Fa****. And way to fight your war on homophobia by deploying fa**** as your ultimate insult... Progressive reclamation? Doubt it.
Sunday, June 21, 2009

No need to write about music, as this week I'm doing it over here. So instead I will write about my Alcopops party.

But first I need to talk about Steve Fielding, who I find annoying on a number of levels. For one thing, I find it insulting that he would put Families First ('Family grows out of heterosexual relationships between men and women'). But that's not all. He rejects harm minimisation, rejects a woman's right to choose, doesn't believe in climate change, and suggests that 'stronger families' are the solution to everything from addressing indigenous disadvantage to fixing the health system. Where did he get it into his head that the family is marginalised? This guy is a *nut*.

So, I thought the best way to honour Fielding would be to celebrate his famously contradictory stance on an 'Alcopops' tax increase, in which he claimed to have won the war against the alcohol lobby by voting down a rise. This was against a mountain of evidence suggesting that taxation is the best way to fight problem drinking. Perhaps families function better if little Sally and Tommy are sucking down a Breezer or two before moving on to various other rites of passage like STIs and teen pregnancy.

But anyway, I digress. My point is that to celebrate Fielding I threw an 'Alcopops' party (with the emphasis on POP), and here is what I learned:

1. Once you go Alcopop, you can never go back -- no need to endure the taste of alcohol ever again, with the added bonus of SUGAR. Cheers to that!

2. Alcopops should not be consumed while also trying to create Martha Stewart style lighting vistas. By which I mean, tea candles are very dangerous and can lead to serious burns (and perhaps an honourable mention in 'Stuff White People Like.')

3. And music-wise: Lady GaGa remains highly devisive on the dancefloor, Kylie's The One remains the most satisfying playlist peak, along with anything Freemasons, and why bother with emo when you can enjoy The Veronica's Untouched.

4. Flash photography does not flatter alcopop-fuelled trash dancing.
Monday, June 15, 2009

This is so fun! It sounds like The Peel. And the clip is like a time capsule back to 2000, with the boy-boy dancing shots borrowing from the era of bodgy N*Sync and Britters clips (but for some reason what comes to mind most is Bardot's ASAP.) I am however unsettled by the singer, who seems to share the same smoothed-out features as Bold's Hunter Tylo...

Wait, this is too much. The Veronicas wrote/performed t.A.T.u's All About Us? If random people on youtube do not lie, then this is taking the whole sexy sisters thing a step further... Which reminds me, I'm very excited that 4ever is being released in the UK. I really hope it takes off, because this is one of the greatest songs in the history of the world, particularly for any 19-year olds who might be weighing up the pros/cons of bad drunken sex (the song's key message being "we're all going to die one day, so let's hook up".) I also enjoy The Veronicas' recurring refrain of "because we just don't care." Because, the thing is, they do care. I might have said this before, but I love careerist pop stars feigning that they just don't care.

World's most extreme disasters...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

It's been a while since I've sat through Madison Avenue's infamous "water glass" incident, but I think this needs to be remembered. Not only as a stark "note-to-self" about the probable outcome if my occasional dreams of pop stardom were ever achieved (tuneless singing, general sense of catastrophe), but also as a reminder of a time when nappies and boots were "the look". It's also quite shocking to see an award ceremony from the time before Big Brother-style digital displays and general visual overload became de rigeur.

Oh, I couldn't resist. I was just going to mention the water-glass incident (which came to mind while putting together an envelope-pushing pop-trash playlist), but how can one mention pop disasters without mentioning Britters' disasterous VMA meltdown. This has been analysed to death, so I won't add much. Except to say that it's fascinating to watch pop stars revert to their default moves in the face of catastrophe. For example, when Britters realises she's out of time with her dancers, she does a bit of shimmying, and then deploys my favourite Britney move, the "point hands outward at hip-level, thumbs up, and strut". Also amusing watching her cleverly cover her "mic" with her hand when she's supposed to laugh on the backup track. Why would we ever think you don't sing live? (Actually does Britters even deny?) Another painful reality-check that the globe-dominating pop juggernaut that I could, in my head, one day become should best be left in the box. Because when boys wanna become Madonna, they don't. They become Darren Hayes.

AND ONE FINAL ADDITION: Oh God. Try to watch to the end. It just keeps getting worse.

Saturday, June 13, 2009
This blog will not die like all the others. Rather, I've been momentarily pre-occupied. And in the interim there have been some significant shifts in the landscape of pop. Mostly, I no longer hate Lady Gaga. As much. And I'm late to the party here: it's not just me. I don't quite know what it is, but something has shifted, as if she's now got some meat (as in, substance, not c***) to back up her constant references to Warhol and pop as art which have always irritated me, mostly because they implied this concept was something new. As if she was not aware of KylieFever2002.

For me and many others, the tipping point has been her amazing Jonas Akerland-directed clip to Paparazzi which is the most exciting piece of pop imagery I've seen in a long time. It makes me as excited as I used to feel waiting for Frozen to arrive on Video Hits when I was a young thing, and sadly, makes me realise how unadventurous everyone else is being. Come on Madge -- this ghoulish look you're working up could really be used in an interesting way, if you had the courage.

I'm increasingly liking GaGa's look too, now that she's removed those irritating lightning bolt things. What I particularly like is the sense of fragility she seems to be evoking in each outfit -- glasses you can't see out of, umbrella to keep the sun away, tea cup etc. Very decadent, as in the bit where the over-ripe grape starts to rot. And she's always being clasped and propped up by big beefy guys, looking slightly dazed and confused. This is so different to the normal stardom protocol which is to appear even more strong and in control as your star ascends, papering over the inevitable breakdowns and benzo addictions. Intentional or not, it's as if she's acknowledging how chaotic it is inside the whirlwind she's created. I like this a lot.

Blind, clasped.


Of course, I still understand the rage that she seems to tap into -- all that Haus of GaGa stuff is a bit twee. And I still maintain she's not as in on the joke as she insists she is, somewhat like the 19-year old Arts undergrad who's not quite the socialist they think they are. And there are some duds on her album which, interestingly, reveal the various other artists she could just have easily been (Xtina, Pink). But annoying as she is, she is doing such interesting stuff that I can no longer call myself a hater.

Other things I'll get around to, in no particular order:
  • Make a case for the transformative power of B*Witched's Blame it on the Weatherman and The Corrs' Breathless
  • Reassess Madonna's American Life.
  • And finally, I'll do a bit of Kylie housecleaning, to keep track of her completely *bonkers* touring schedule (do you really care about Poland, Ms. Minogue?)