The clip's a mish-mash of ideas, but I think this is the strongest song yet from I am... Sasha Fierce. Perhaps this is the album of increasing returns, considering the trajectory from the limp If I Were a Boy, which seemed to be splicing If God Was One of Us with some essentialising gender assumptions. (Single Ladies never completely grabbed me.) But I remain opposed to the basic concept -- that Beyonce's 'true' self and 'Sasha Fierce' self aren't able to be reconciled. AND PS I don't want to mention her by name, but I also want to acknowledge how horrible this is. It pleases me that she's fast becoming a caricature of herself, even though she was going for pastiche all along -- I'm sick of her wide-eyed I'm innocent but not look. And seriously, the song (which I will not name) appears to be a RomCom synopsis sung (badly) over MOR rock. I give it 2 years before she's got a Rita style sitcom.
I saw you flinch! Shania Twain, you say? Well, yes, I acknowledge the cringe factor, but let’s not forget that around 1997 Shania Twain was an unstoppable force, bringing country to the masses, and From This Moment On to TTfm and wedding chapels the world over. Come on Over sold 34 million, and established Twain as one of the world’s top artists, and a byword for dependable, no-nonsense country spirit (even though she was, umm, Canadian). But what happened next? By the time Come on Over was stomping over the globe, Shania was living a very un-country vegan life holed up in her Swiss chateau, with her hubby/producer John ‘Mutt’ Lange. We didn’t hear much for a while, but in 2002 the Shania machine was back in gear with Up! which was, arguably, music’s first ‘world album' and, arguably, a complete disaster.
This wasn't a world album in the sense of later-years Peter Gabriel oddity, or Readings 'world' section, but in the production line sense of population-specific tinkering of the same product to suit distinct markets. This was the plan: each population would receive the same ‘Pop’ disc, but in the US this would also come with a ‘Country’ disc in which the same songs were recorded according to US country tradition. In the ‘International’ markets (defined in classic US imperialist terms as everywhere not in the US), the album would come with a ‘World' disc, in which the same songs were recorded with, wait for it, a Pop-Bollywood style. I cannot convey how hideous this disc was, which, unfortunately was lumped on the Australian market (by this point I must confess that I bought the thing back in ’02.) Just imagine the country sass of I’m Gonna Get You Good recorded with a Bollywood beat… So impossibly awful, you must listen here. Apparently this Pop-Bollywood travesty was intended to ‘crack’ the Indian market.
Not surprisingly the album did not fare well (although Wikipedia tells me it was huge in Germany). As with any lofty album strategy, people got confused: why was a country-pop artist releasing Bollywood tracks? And for a country market already suspicious of Twain’s country cred, a token trad-country disc was not enough to appease concerns triggered by her dabbling in threatening ‘World’ music (was this… ANTI-AMERICAN?? Even though she's Canadian). While Shania had big plans of conquering the globe with a little bit of what everyone wanted (as seems so inevitable in retrospect) the results were spread too thin, and only produced one hit single (I’m Gonna Getcha Good). And Shania hasn’t really done much since, apart from a lazy Greatest Hits album.
But what of the music itself? While for the most part it’s catchy in a kitchen-sink kind of way, and produced from the same comforting formula as Come on Over, it remains very hard to connect its sketches of average-Joe American life with the Shania Twain vegan living in a Swiss chateau. Which means it all seems a bit mannered. Note the too-eager use of exclamation marks: Nah!; (Wanna Get to Know You) That Good!; Ka-Ching!; Waiter! Bring Me Water!; What a Way to Wanna Be!; Thank You Baby!; I’m Not in the Mood (to Say No!)...
In a systematic fashion, all the average Joe boxes were ticked. There was a song about a brave young mum deciding to keep her baby (‘I had a baby at 15, Daddy never did forgive me, never heard from the guy again…’), an everyday gal havin’ a bad day (‘even my skin is acting weird, I wish that I could grow a beard, then I could cover up my spots…’), and a stab at the hypocrisy of the beauty industry (‘Why be perfect, no, it’s not worth it… don’t be so obsessed'). As was pointed out in a particularly prickly interview, Shania as of course modelling for Revlon at the time.
The problem’s not so much that Shania was sketching characters – if I knew anything about the country tradition I'd assume that was part of it – but rather that the characters being sketched were a bit two dimensional. In contrast, Taylor Swift, for example, manages to put together a concept album about the schoolyard that, through its wit, detail and humour seems much fuller (although, to be fair, Taylor was barely out of school when she wrote it). But this two-dimensionality wasn’t new for Twain – Come on Over’s similarly full of faux-down-home vignettes. The difference, perhaps, is that during the Come on Over period Twain was maintaining the fiction that she was a country artist. When it came to Up! however, she was holed up in her Chateau with her eyes on India. Here's another hideous 'World' version. And another. Got the point? This needs to be remembered.
Some people have lumped X into the Body Language clearance bin, framing it as yet another failed attempted to recapture the voodoo-magic of Fever. But I disagree. While like many other K fans, I’m sad it didn’t represent the hallowed fusion of Impossible Princess lyrical openness and Fever pop smarts that's been anticipated for so long, it’s still a quality pop album that holds some of the best songs of K’s Parlophone era. Unfortunately X, as a set of songs, is obscured by two things. Firstly, cancer, or its absence: for some the album was immediately written-off because it didn’t deliver the confessional that was expected of Kylie after her two year ordeal, dramatic cancellation and spectacular comeback (a pretty arrogant assumption, I’d say). And secondly, the disastrous promotion the album received from a beleaguered Parlophone, which was at the time caught up in the near-disintegration of EMI. As we start gearing up for the next album, I think it’s time to look back at what went wrong, but also at what actually went right.
While 2 Hearts signalled an appropriately oddball new direction, one of the first reactions X met with was a bewilderment that someone who’d just been through cancer could sing about Speakerphones and ‘lookin’ hot’ before a big date. Against that enormous emotional backdrop, I guess it was inevitable that X would seem shallow in comparison. But its lack of reference to the last few years (with the exception of No More Rain, Stars and Cosmic) did seem particularly pointed. There was no White Diamond-style melding of life-affirming sentiment with pop sparkle. For the most part, she was singing about cheap nightclub thrills, just like she did in Light Years and Fever.
This is criticism that seemed to grate: whenever it was put to K, she would visibly bristle, and seem almost defiant when she made the very logical point that part of what she wanted to embrace with X was a new kind of normality. Her experience had made her value the normal and the trivial even more – a sentiment most people who’ve been through a health crisis, big or small, would share. But this is also a criticism that pre-dates ‘the cancer stuff.’ It’s been a perennial complaint of K fans that we rarely get to see beyond her pop façade. She rarely reveals anything. Which would be fine, except that after the dark, revealing and lyrically brilliant Impossible Princess, we know there’s a lot going on.
Love me, I’m…. The One
But as with most K albums, the odd moments of brittle vulnerability end up channelling something much more personal than the words themselves, and seem all the more powerful because we really don’t know anything else of her (while harbouring a deep suspicion that, like us, she’s fragile and slightly messed up). For me, the most personal moment in the album is also its most formulaic track – The One. Yes it’s about circling someone in a club (probably The Peel or its international equivalent,) but when she sings ‘I’m the one… love me, love me, love me, I’m the one’ the effect is so potent she may as well be singing about that basic human need for connection that’s never quite possible, but haunts you nonetheless (or, umm, something). Because of this emotional punch, as well as its elegant production, The One is by far X’s standout track. Which makes its commercial failure all the more dispiriting, and infuriating.
Parlophone screwed it all up…
Not only was Wow a retrogressive choice (in parts it sounded like Aunty Christine singing a Karaoke version of Love at First Sight after a big night on the piss), but the decision to release different singles in different jurisdictions signalled that Parlophone was nervous about the album. It also meant two very bodgy clips for the price of one: in Wow she looks like a frigid Star Trek creature, and In My Arms, while clever visually, seemed like it was filmed for pennies. But it gets worse. There was a half-hearted crack at the US market, with the decision to release the Janet Jackson-lite All I See. While K gamely went on the promo trail (albeit with a few shaky performances), Parlophone decided that the US could be cracked sans clip. Eventually K suffered the indignity of filming, and funding, her own promo vid (canoodling with dancer Marco de Silva against a white screen) as a ‘gift’ to her fans. Not a good look for a superstar. And when finally there was talk of releasing The One, first it was on, then it was off, then it was digital only, then it was canned. Once again K stepped in and filmed her own clip (which wasn’t bad at all), but to anyone looking closely, it seemed like the Kylie machine was in chaos. Apparently there had been a rift between K and Parlophone after the decision to release Wow/In My Arms (although this rumour doesn’t quite make sense as she seems to love both of those songs, although it would certainly explain a lot).
By this point it didn’t really matter that Parlophone was fucking her ‘round, since the KylieX2008 tour was kicking off and there was finally a chance to present the songs as she wanted to. I’ve obsessed over the tour here, so I won’t go over it again. Although, the fact that the tour rolls on with no rhyme or reason (Morocco, some ski resort, Poland, Madrid, US) suggests that the normally slick K machine is still in a state of partial chaos. But what of X? What would we make of it if things hadn’t turned out the way they did? It’s not a great album, but there are moments of greatness. It’s biggest weakness is perhaps its lack of adventure – while tracks like Speakerphone and Nu-di-ty are interesting, and quite oddball, they disappoint by sticking firmly to the Bloodshy & Avant mold, channelling the generic Sleazy-Britney sound pioneered by Gimme More. And for the record, hearing a 40-year old Australian singing about ‘dropping socks with your mini boom box’ is less than convincing.
But a further light is shed on X by the tracks that never made the album. Lose Control for example, another Kish Mauve track, perfectly fuses themes of claustrophobia and escape (in its talk of ‘wheels turning’ and ‘ropes tightening’) with modern, anthemic dance. Why K chose not to include it, and other similarly revealing tracks, is food for thought. Whether it was record company medelling or her own fear of personal revelation, we’ll never know. But as the forums heat up with talk of album no.11, the same debate will no doubt rage on – will this finally be the confessional watershed we’ve been waiting for? Or maybe what we actually want from K is that she has the self-possession to not reveal herself, realising, as I think she does, that what we all invest in her is meaningful in itself.
Umm, so Michael Jackson died. And I feel strangely unmoved. Obviously I feel terrible for his kids who will no doubt be launched into an even more intensely surreal circus, and I feel sad that a man has died, but in terms of Michael Jackson the icon dying, I don’t really feel much at all. And I think it’s because for a while now Michael Jackson, the legend, had ceased to need Michael Jackson, the person, to tend to make it real. So when I hear Billie Jean I won’t feel sad that Michael Jackson has died, but will just think it’s a really awesome song.