Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Native New Yorker" Odyssey

“Native New Yorker” is sad but beautiful disco song. For some reason it only hit number 21 on the Billboard charts and Odyssey, the group that recorded it, never became a household name. Stranger still, it was not meant to be a disco song (and Odyssey, was not originally a disco group). It was written by Sandy Linzer for Frankie Valli. One could say it’s the sequel to “Dancing Queen.” It’s what happens to a girl who never finds her king on the dance floor.

Unlike the Dancing Queen who is “only seventeen”, the Native New Yorker is “twenty-five, thirty-five, hello baby.” Either she is a composite of several girls, she lies about her age or she is ageless. Movement itself plays a huge part in the song, from the ambulatory bass line that struts throughout the song to the lyrics themselves. She is “running pretty”, “riding the subways,” “up in Harlem, down on Broadway”. Yet for all this running around she has never left New York City or found love. This makes her “the heart and soul of New York City.”

The song slows down for a moment for the word “love” as sung by lead vocalist Virgin Island-born Lillian Lopez. But then she movement continues as it’s explained that this love is “just a passing word / It's the thought that you had in a taxi cab that got left on the curb / When he dropped you off at east eighty-third.” The chorus explains that this sort of on-the-go lifestyle makes her a “native New Yorker” and that she should “know the score by now” having lived in the city all her life. Harsh. Eventually our heroine, no longer the star of the “Broadway show” in her mind is watching people couple off at a disco, dreams of finding “someone to set [her] free from New York City.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Like a Virgin" Madonna

The eighties were a strange time. It seemed that all of the cultural and sexual progress being made consistently since the fifties came to a grinding halt. Feminists and the religious right became unlikely bedfellows combating pornography and other forms of sexuality together while the AIDS crisis left everyone, not just the gays, feeling paranoid about sexuality. Enter Madonna, a comely young lady named after the Virgin Mary who dressed like an East Village whore. These contradictions would make her, along with Michael Jackson, the perfect pop superstar for the 1980’s, a decade with plenty of strange contradictions of its own. “Like a Virgin” was the perfect pop vehicle for such a superstar. It is her signature song and remains her biggest selling single.

“I made it through the wilderness,” sings Madonna, referring to a time when she was sexually promiscuous and less discriminating. Or is she referring to the seventies in general? “Somehow I made it through,” she adds, probably expressing her surprise that she never contracted AIDS. She then describes a man who makes her feel so loved and cherished that she now feels “like a virgin/touched for the very first time.” The production arrangement is also a tribute to more innocent times. The instrumentation, helmed by Nile Rodgers, is performed, for the most part, by real musicians. There is a tiny punctuated accent performed by a synthesizer to give it a modern touch but that’s it.

After all the excess of the sixties and seventies, it was impossible to return to a state of innocence. The seal had long been broken on our collective hymen so the eighties were about using whatever modern technology available to achieve the same benefits. The sixties and seventies were the “wilderness”. The eighties was the taming of this wilderness. Body hair disappeared from male porn stars’ bodies. Hair gel and mousse became ubiquitous grooming products. If you were no longer a virgin, you could practice monogamy or safe sex. If you weren’t born a blonde, you could die your hair and let the roots grow out and then dye it a different color the next week. If you weren’t born rich, you could get an MBA and make a fortune on Wall Street. If you didn’t have an ideal body, you could go to the gym and reshape yourself or envelope yourself in gauzy loose-fitting flea-market clothing. If you weren’t pretty you could get plastic surgery, distract attention away from your face with gaudy jewelry or hide behind your bangs and your make up. Madonna wasn’t a virgin. She was “like” a virgin.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Billie Jean" Michael Jackson

When you know certain biographical details about a pop star’s life, it can be easy to snicker over the contradictions between said singer’s life and what he or she claims to experience in the songs they sing. In 1985, for example, then-closeted pop stars Elton John and George Michael both collaborated on a duet called “Wrap Her Up” in which they both took turns fawning over women they considered really attractive.

“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson (1983) could easily be one of these songs. The song is about a seductive young woman who seduces Michael Jackson and then entraps him by claiming that she has had his son. Considering that Michael Jackson has never convincingly demonstrated any such sexual interest in adult women and considering that Jackson doesn’t seem to be the biological father of his own children, it would seem that “Billie Jean” would inevitably turn into a giant punch line. But it hasn’t. It is considered one of Jackson’s signature songs and brims with authenticity. Even though the song is about an experience that probably would have more likely to have happened to one of his groupie-besieged older brothers, Jackson’s performance is illuminated by a genuine sense of tortured sexuality. Years after the song was recorded, it seems that we are getting a sense of just how tortured Jackson’s sexuality may in fact be.

The song is not a disco song in terms of structure and content; it’s a Motown-flavored rock/pop song with disco elements such as the introductory beat and bass line (the same one used for Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”, another pop song rife with sexual contradictions). It’s as if the story the song was telling takes place in a disco. When Jackson meets Billie Jean, there is no indication of anything Jackson really likes about her. We know she must be attractive because she has captured the attention of everyone else at this nightclub, but the male protagonist never really comes out and says that he desires her. “She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene,” says Jackson, perceiving her as more of a generic icon than object of desire. When she approaches him, his response is surprise. “I said don’t mind but what do you mean I am the one?” It is an honor to be chosen by this popular lady, but she herself isn’t something he seems to want all that badly. Nor does she give any reason as to why he’d be “the one.” He just is. And from the get go, we are immediately suspicious of this woman. Our suspicions deepen further as Jackson recalls various warnings people have given him about women (suspicions that Jackson probably did actually grow up hearing). The most interesting warning, though, comes from his mother who tells him to “be careful of what you do because the lie becomes the truth.”

The chorus fills us in on the result of the dance between Jackson and Billie Jean. “Billie Jean is not my lover/she’s just a girl who claims that I am the one/but the kid is not my son.” She is then described as having “schemes and plans.” But just when you start feeling sympathy for Jackson, Billie Jean shows Jackson’s girlfriend a photo of a baby “his eyes looked like mine.” The lie has become the truth.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"One Less Bell to Answer" The Fifth Dimension (Bacharach/David) and "I Will Survive" Gloria Gaynor

These two songs were released ten years (or so) apart and they are also mirror images of each other. The first, “One Less Bell” from 1970 (or 1967, if you count the less-heard Keely Smith version) is about a woman’s initial defiance over a breakup giving way to despair and heartache. It is a torch song. “I Will Survive” from 1978 is about a woman learning to be defiant over a breakup that once left her desperate and heartbroken. It is an anthem. Both songs are considered iconic, often parodied and very popular in karaoke bars.

“One Less Bell” is a spooky song. It is said to have been inspired by a remark made by Angie Dickinson (who was then married to Burt Bacharach) at a dinner party she was hosting. She asked one of the guests who’d arrived early to answer the door for the remaining guests so there’d be “one less bell to answer.” The line inspired Bacharach to write the song to a six-note bell-like motif. Our female protagonist is trying to convince herself of the positive outcome of her breakup. She has, for instance, one less bell to answer. She also doesn’t have to make him breakfast or pick up after him. (“One less egg to fry/One less man to pick up after…”) What was the nature of this couple’s relationship? Clearly he lived with her or spent evenings at her apartment (since she used to make him breakfast and pick up after him). So why doesn’t he have a key to her apartment? Why does he have to ring her doorbell every time he comes over? It’s possible that the relationship simply hadn’t gotten to that domestic level yet. But if the couple weren’t that committed to each other, why was he coming over to see her, as opposed to coming inside with her after a date? And why was she making him breakfast? Shouldn’t he have been taking her out for meals? Was he married to someone else and simply dropping by occasionally to have sex with her and spending the night? There isn’t any suggestion in the song that the couple had a life outside of the woman’s apartment. And it seems that the woman (a sixties “career gal”?) owned or rented the apartment herself because at no point in the song does she contemplate having to move now that the affair is over. However, her initial defiance gives way to her depression as she admits that “All I do is cry.”

At first “I Will Survive” seems like the seventies sequel to the sixties “One Less Bell…” “At first I was afraid, I was petrified,” admits Gloria in the prelude, almost picking up the story where Marilyn McCoo left off. But now that the man is gone, Gloria has “spent so many nights” contemplating what a jerk this man has been to her and “grew strong.”

What makes this song distinctly a statement of the seventies, is that it is about a happy ending to a breakup…but there is no second man picking up the pieces. Gloria hasn’t found “somebody new”, she is “somebody new.” She is the woman that post-breakup Marilyn McCoo could have been if she’d had access to Ms. Magazine, consciousness raising, therapy and disco. (And maybe she’s the “woman” Marilyn McCoo could have been if she’d been a post-Stonewall gay man!)

The man is different too. Unlike Marilyn’s beau, Gloria’s man had a key to her apartment. (“I should have changed that stupid lock; I should have made you leave your key…”) Unlike Marilyn, who waits for the doorbell to ring, Gloria has come home to find him there “with that sad look upon [his] face.” It doesn’t really sound like he’s a lover who has returned to a woman he misses. He sounds like he’s back because he needs a roof over his head. He’s been castrated and now Gloria is the one with the power.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Do You Know the Way to San Jose" Dionne Warwick (Bacharach/David)

In a way, “Do you know…” is your basic bittersweet meditation on the importance of home and one’s roots. This isn’t a new theme for poetry or popular music by any means. What makes this song truly modern, or at least an artifact of it’s time – the late sixties – it’s the role that transportation and travel plays as a subtext.

A female protagonist is asking for directions. She is leaving Los Angeles and moving back to her hometown, San Jose, California. “Do you know the way to San Jose? / I’ve been away so long, I may go wrong and lose my way.” It’s a terribly catchy couplet, especially the rhyming of “long” and “wrong”, but it conveys great sadness. How long does one have to be away from some place in order to lose their way back to it? It’s a five hour drive between the two cities, not an epic journey by any means. But apparently there have been no visits back home for quite an amount of time. What made our protagonist leave and completely separate herself from her hometown? What happened in LA that made her reverse course and go back “to find some peace of mind” in this once dreaded San Jose?

“LA is a great big freeway / Put a hundred down and buy a car,” sings Dionne in the bridge. Apparently LA once beckoned her. And it was easy enough to move there. It was easy to get a car loan and there was plenty of places to go on that “freeway”. LA was freedom and owning one’s own car was an integral part of that freedom. It’s been said that the invention of the automobile was a catalyst to the women’s movement. All of a sudden, a woman could get herself places in a room of her own. She could drive to a job, socialize and even have sexual liaisons out from under the watchful eyes of a family or husband. In an America that no longer had the wild west to conquer, cities like LA became the new frontier – a place to escape civilization and carve out one’s own place in the new world.

But there was more than mere freedom on Dionne’s agenda: “In a week, maybe too, they’ll make you star.” Apparently she came to LA seeking power and glamour in addition to freedom. However, as fast and easy as her arrival in LA may have been, it never really got past the initial promise that that new car brought. “And all the stars that never were, are parking cars and pumping gas.” Ironically, our female protagonist is now a cog in the wheel (so to speak) of an industry she once looked to for salvation.

After a trumpet solo that sounds as mobile and smooth as the ride on a California highway, Dionne admits that she has packed her car and left LA. Again the car is the agent of change. Once it took her away from her home. Now it brings her back. “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” is the refrain.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Time of the Season" The Zombies

There’s not a lot written or known about what inspired “Time of the Season” but almost immediately upon its release in 1969, the song has become a signifier of “the sixties.” There are many television shows and films that use “Time of the Season” as background during a “sixties” or “Vietnam” flashback. Before the placard announcing “1969” appears on the screen, we already know from the bass riff that we are going back in time almost forty years. This song also seems to be the earliest use of the now popular phrase “who’s your daddy?” a phrased used to punctuate dominance or victory.

“What’s your name/Who’s your daddy?” is a wonderfully menacing opening line. It instantly produces the image of an unsupervised minor who is lost and seeking the help of an unscrupulous adult. It is, perhaps, an enormously vivid example of why we are told “don’t talk to strangers” as we are growing up. (See also “Hey little girl is your daddy home?” from “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen.) There is something very sexy about the use of the word “daddy” here as opposed to “father” or “parent.” It’s as if we are witnessing the passing of a girl’s custody from her own father to that of her first boyfriend/husband. And then there’s the fact that “daddy” has long been a slang expression for either “pimp” or “john.”

“Is he rich like me?” is another provocative line. The narrator of the song is establishing his power. Whoever he is speaking to is becoming a pawn in his hand. She is not simply being “asked out” or “hit on”, she is being asked for her owner’s name so that a business transaction can be brokered. Plus there is something plutonian about the narrator’s admitted wealth. Is he Satan, himself? Or just a big spending john? The listener is then asked if said daddy has “taken any time to show you what you need to live.” What does the narrator mean by “live”? Is the narrator talking about the way sexuality opens the senses and makes one feel truly “alive” or is he talking about making a “living” by selling one’s sexual favors.

The bass riff is also seductively disturbing. It is the same riff as “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King but with a twist. At the end of the fourth and final note, a female can be heard exhaling as if in a state of postponed ecstasy. Or is she opening her mouth to say “ah” at the order of her doctor?

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this song is what’s not there. One doesn’t really get the sense from these lyrics what is so attractive about this girl who is being seduced and, therefore, why she is even being seduced. And the seducer isn’t giving the young lady any reason to give into his seduction. There are no promises of love, a relationship or even momentary pleasure. It’s just that “time of the season”. It’s that simple. This girl has ripened and now she must take a lover whether she wants one or not.

Monday, February 18, 2008

"Gold Digger" Kanye West

This song is a great example of a hip-hop composition that does two things that upset mainstream critics: it is has lyrics that many assume are misogynistic and it uses the word “nigger.” However, on closer inspection, it’s really more of a social comedy than anything meant to scare, polarize or offend.

The song begins with an acapella prelude from Jamie Foxx (who had just portrayed Ray Charles in a biopic): “She take my money, well I'm in need/Yeah she's a triflin' friend indeed”. This is a negative or reverse version of the Ray Charles classic “I Got A Woman” which goes, “She give me money when I’m in need/Yeah she's a kind of friend indeed” The Ray Charles song, sampled throughout here, is praise to a supportive, generous, available and faithful woman. The Kanye West song itself is about a deceptive and greedy woman. Perhaps the disparity between the “good woman” of the Ray Charles song and the “bad woman” of the Kanye West is meant as humor. But it also could be a wistful acknowledgement of the charms of this “bad woman”. When singing “I’m in need” is Kanye/Jamie needing his money back…or her?

“I aint’ saying she’s a gold digger/But she ain’t messin’ with no broke nigger” is one of the most catchy couplets in pop music I can think of. Unfortunately, when Kanye West has performed this song in more public venues: television appearances, award shows etc. he has had to change the lyric “broke nigger” to “broke broke.” Less offensive to sensitive ears but totally throws off the meter. Even “Let’s spend some time together” sung by The Rolling Stones instead of “Let’s spend the night together” was less awkward than “she ain’t messin’ with no broke broke” Maybe West purposely made the censored lyric awkward intentionally in order to remind the listener that something fundamental to the song is missing. Although the word “nigger” is often shocking to hear, it has varying degrees of meaning and intended harm infliction. In this case, the term is supposed to be mild. The “nigger” West is referring to is just “some guy”; a “nigger” instead of a rich superstar. He’s nothing special, he’s a nigger, he’s one of us, etc.

West then goes on to describe meeting a woman at a beauty salon. (What is the protagonist doing at a beauty salon? Or did he just need a location that rhymed with “Vuitton”?) Judging by the “Louis Vuitton Under her under arm” he suspects that she is a gold digger but is attracted to her nonetheless. His suspicions are confirmed when he finds himself having to help out her children and her friends (pay for their dinners and get them into show business). He also learns that she has been linked to other high profile hip hop superstars such as Usher and Busta Rhymes, but “I don't care what none of y'all say, I still love her." Maybe he likes her in spite of her being used goods. Yet maybe he likes her because his involvement with her puts in league with men he considers his peers and her arrival in his life is another sign of his success and fame. He falls under her spell but not without fair warning.

The next passage is a bleak look at what happens to these types of relationships. “18 years, 18 years/She got one of yo' kids, got you for 18 years” rants West, describing what happened to a professional football player friend of his. “His baby mamma’s car crib is bigger than his.” Ultimately, though, this fooball player’s financial responsibility for his child is rewarded when, on his daughter’s 18th birthday “he found out it wasn't his.”

There’s a great reversal in the last verse. West now addresses a woman who apparently isn’t that kind of a woman. “I ain't sayin' you a gold digger, you got needs.” He encourages her to stick by her man if he has ambition, rather than dump him for a richer man. This man, West claims whill “make it to a Benz out of the Datsun” and when he does he’ll “leave yo’ ass for a white girl.”