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Jai Yen

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Category Archives: Divas

there’s been an interesting little tit for tat on teh blogs re: the rehabilitation of “Don’t Stop Believin'” as a hit for the ages (now available as totally awesome for the first time in the UK!). I think Scott’s right on point, here: a lot of popular music, back in the halcyon days of the great authenticity divide, was considered illegitimate solely based on the performer’s close ties with the industry. As these associations become eroded by time, the keepers of the pop/rock pantheon – largely including contemporary creators like David Chase – can capitalize afresh on the song’s genuine awesomeness without tapping into that aversion to big industry names. 2005 brought Journey back to younger audiences in a big way, not just thanks to the White Sox, but also Lauren & Stephen (fwd to 2:30 for a clip of the moment in the show. ah, how fan montages skirt copyright infringement….)

and the Family Guy bit where peter & pals sing the song at karaoke, and really, an endless string of college keg parties (if i could count the number of times…).

we know well enough how the advent of p2p filesharing and streaming video exonerated listeners of mainstream pop music from listening to the wrong thing, since we no longer have to pay money to the big bads in order to jam out to our bad goods. this, of course, also opened the door to major label top 3’s by indie tastemakers, and brought along with it the rap against rockism. funny, though, how many of us still feel guilty of our guilty pleasures regardless of money spent, signaling a sense of ethical value tied to music that goes beyond economics! there’s a lot to untangle with the ethics of musical taste; i’ll suffice it to say here that our lingering guilt for liking cheesy pop music is probably not without good reason. it is also largely responsible for the biggest prank in internet history. (…and another pop gem’s awesomeness hath been restored!)

so here’s an oldie-but-goodie that hasn’t yet triumphed anew:

in 1996, céline epitomized soft rock bombast, and thus everything that was wrong with mainstream music. now that hipsters have come to realize that smooth music really can rawk, it’s only a matter of time before this one blows up. which is to say, if it hasn’t already – i’ve already been led through a dozen or so sing-alongs with this song over the last couple of years, which has led me to believe that most people actually really love this song, deep down. granted, i hang out with more gay guys than the average american, but still – you bust this out at your next karaoke night, and just see whose devil horns shoot up first. because, friends, this song is EPIC, just like journey is EPIC and lady gaga’s videos are totally EPIC and this song too was so incredibly wtf EPIC!!!

EPIC-ness has caught on in a big way over the last few years, but you wouldn’t be caught dead in the mid-90’s sacrificing the indifference of your ironic hipness to the gods of the monster ballad. now, though, an epic quality is a boon: it evinces the balls that were ne’er to be found in the cynical nineties and early-oughts. not the balls of mortal men, mind you – i’m talking the balls of a performer who can carry the drama of a song through sheer force, through the bedazzling spectacle of vocal acrobatics and soaring guitar leads. let’s stick with my sexist metaphor for a while: these here balls might be contrasted with the brain of the songwriter that lends drama by different means: through a sly chord progression, or a poignant lyric, or what have you. what’s long been denigrated in music history is the songwriting brain that instead lends force to these balls, stroking them and caressing them in all the right places so that the performer might propel the song into the stratosphere of high melodrama juuuust at the right moment. in the case of céline, this happens right at 4:33 in the video – that “baby! baby! baby!” just hits so perfectly, right at the tail end of a lengthy chord progression stretching out the tension to beethovenian proportions, just as the tempo slows dramatically, readying the listener for the full rush of satisfaction that comes with the recognition of a chorus returned. this isn’t (just) a cheap pop trick – it’s a classically engineered narrative climax, a peak in the story told by sound in motion.

high drama in pop music has a long history of denigration, from country to soft rock to musical theater, as something that signals unrefined taste and sentimentality. high drama also has a longer history of artistry and admiration, from grand opéra all the way back to, oh, right, THE EPIC BALLAD. i reckon that its disparagement within pop music spheres, like that of journey, has to do with its close ties to industry, ties that are being remade all over the place currently. surely the ties will take hold again in all the wrong ways, but for the time being, it would be nice to appreciate just what is so great about big drama in big music. my boyfriend and i got into a tiff a couple weeks back on this point: he was of the mind that dolly parton’s “i will always love you,” like most originals performed by the songwriter, was better than whitney’s, and just because whitney could “sing the fuck outta that song” doesn’t mean that she did it better. to which i would agree that, yes, singing the fuck outta any song doesn’t automatically make it better, but what about singing the fuck outta something that needs to be sung the fuck outta? turns out that dolly’s song was conducive to the stop-and-start magic of whitney’s recording that, in my opinion, transcends dolly’s. (to be fair, dolly’s recording has way more heart, where whitney’s only has flair.) whoever arranged this song for whitney deserves a medal (although i imagine they’ve already made a fat dollar on the song, so whatevs) – starting off with whitney’s solo voice at the beginning was a brilliant stroke in itself, but the way it leads up to that caesura at 3:09, only for whitney to bust it open in a key one half step up, is a masterstroke in suspense and release. and then there’s whitney’s vocals (R.I.P.), coasting on effortless melismas and embellishments, sailing easy into the money spot – there are balls, people, and then there are whitney’s balls.

i’d be interested in reading and discussing more about what makes high drama good, as opposed to cheap – something broadway and opera fans know a lot more about than i do. in related news, i’ve got carl wilson’s book on céline and bad taste on the reading docket. i wonder if he talks much about the depreciation of big drama in pop tastes?

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i dare you to dare me not to comment on this.

looks like gaga is testing how far she can push the madonna comparisons.  immediately the music video for “express yourself” comes to mind, as well as the performances from the blonde ambition tour (1990) — the gun bra = cone bra from this era.   it’s also laced with some “vogue”, “oh father”, and “justify my love”.  ah, and maybe a little janet jackson’s “rhythm nation” circa those hard-lockin’ dance sequences, hmm?  gaga makes it look like doing pop music was nothing but creating a frappé of past successes anyway, if the song itself is any indication:

2 cups “don’t turn around” (ace of base) +
2 tbsp. “la isla bonita” (madonna) +
1 tsp. “fernando” (ABBA)

and blend.

funny, too, how just a month ago, xtina was accused of ripping off lady gaga in her own decidedly un-hip take on madonna, when here the video for “alejandro” comes off as a fresher, bigger budget version of xtina’s newest video:

yes, xtina is still mining those too-recent, too-dirrty days when pussycat dolls were huge and stilettos were  hott.   except here she pushes it off the precariously campy cliff of sluttiness-is-power that still held strong in 2005; now it just comes off as trying too hard: yeah, we get it, you like to get good and laid, xtina, and you’re still in control, despite that scary-ass gear.  what’s more interesting about lady gaga is that she doesn’t always seem to be in control in her videos.  okay, yes, she does light her captor on fire in “bad romance,” and yes, she and her hunny B has the diner sleeping with the (fried) fishes, and, yes, she ties up that one random soldier in this video.  but just as often, gaga is either held captive, or unable to secure the object of her desire — she’s a toy, a mannequin.  a more resonant icon, perhaps, for those of us increasingly aware of our lack of agency, whether sexual or political?  despite the darkness of gaga’s videos, this also renders her maybe a little less threatening and a little more relatable to teenagers than bondaged xtina.

beyond the obvious pop references, there are some filmic nods as well.  lynch, anyone?  how about this shot:

which seemed redolent of the man in the planet from eraserhead (1976):

or the closing “film meltdown” shot:

as the freaky laura-dern/dying-phantom face near the end of inland empire (2006)?:

i also got guy madden vibes throughout the video, gaga sometimes reminding me of isabella rosselini’s legless character in the saddest music in the world (2003):

oh, and of course, can’t forget the queen of chain from matthew barney’s cremaster 5 (1997):

right?? can we get barney on board with the next gaga video, please?

this is to say nothing of director steven klein, who more or less rips himself off.  did i mention klein did a piece for madonna’s re-invention tour?

it’s no secret that gaga’s likes to provoke skepticism of her originality as an artist, and seeing as her work is keenly designed to motivate discussion about what it is to be pop, this video doesn’t have me all too worried on that account.  she’s got us talking again.

the homoeroticism, on the other hand, while admittedly titillating by all accounts, also disappoints a bit.  here’s what gaga had to say on larry king last week about the video: “It is a celebration of my love and appreciation for the gay community, my admiration of their bravery, their love for one another and their courage in their relationships.”  what, like, our courage to worship chiseled adonises that act out their troubled masculinities through guns and synchronized dancing?  canny of gaga to play up the sex factor, but it’s unfortunate that she didn’t sex up the abnormal/queer body like she did with the lesbionic prisoners in “telephone.”  that was both startling and hilarious; this is both boneriffic and kind of boring.  can’t a pop diva play to her gay fans without playing the mostly-naked-beefcake card?  to that end, the last real mainstream success was– oh wait– xtina!

2004, folks — and that kiss is still more shocking and moving than anything in “alejandro.”

no matter, the video works.  youtube comments seem even more polarized than those from “telephone”, including a good amount of outrage on the rosary consumption (personally, my favorite moment).  let’s thank dinorock181 for keeping things real:

3 minutes ago
@NAVH94 she put a rosary in her mouth because she wants the lord in all of her cavities. including the oral one

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