Category Archives: music

Lifetime’s remake of ‘Beaches’ is an unfunny joke

Nia Long and Idina Menzel star in ‘Beaches’

Lifetime original movies are really a trip now, aren’t they. Once a haven for out-of-work TV actresses who flexed their acting muscles playing all kinds of abused/victimized women, Lifetime has since branched out, churning out tabloid trash biopics/docudramas and is now also working on remaking campy, soapy melodramas from the 1980s. First we saw a reasonably successful take on Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, and this past season saw Lifetime’s post-millennial take on Beaches.

The intended audience for this remake will probably have already seen the movie a million times, own the DVD, and the CD, and have memorized every line of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” so I’m still a little unclear as to why there was a need to remake Beaches. Also, the Gary Marshall original – released in 1988 – is an exceedingly mediocre film, and in no way was an update needed, as the original did what it set out to do: make women viewers and gay male viewers cry.

And as absurd, tawdry, and overblown as the original was, it had a major selling point: Bette Midler, in a tailor-made vehicle. She didn’t so much chew the scenery as chop down on it, like Ms. Pacman. The C.C. Bloom character – a raucous, campy, torch singer with a bawdy sense of humor – was a perfect fit for Midler, and really it was just an extension of her concert persona. The movie gave Midler a chance to sing, vamp, crack jokes, and just be a terrifying whirlwind of emotion.

In the new version, Midler is replaced by Idina Menzel, Tony-Award winning singer-actress, known for her turn as Elphaba in Wicked. And though she has the singing chops, her C.C. is distressingly boring and blah. She lacks Midler’s queer/camp persona and screenwriters Bart Barker and Nikole Beckwith aren’t sure how to figure out their version of C.C. There are visual cues that she’s a misft – her hair is wild and crazy, and her apartment is messy. But otherwise, Menzel’s performance lacks the charisma and star power of Midler’s.

And then there’s the best friend role, Hillary. In the original, poor Barbara Hershey was hired to be beautiful and to bravely brace herself at the onset of Hurricane Midler, before dying to the bathetic strands of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” In the new version, Nia Long gets saddled with the thankless job of being C.C.’s wind beneath her wings, and though the actress tries to inject some life into the role, she’s constantly thwarted by a script that wants to force her into rote cliches.

Besides the blah casting, there’s also the weird fidelity to the original. Very little is done differently in the new version of Beaches, except some shuffling of events from the original. There are even echoes of some of the lines (none of the funny ones, though). The new film does nothing to update the film, save dress its heroines in contemporary clothing and have Minzel belt some already-dated AC/pop tunes (the less said about her reaching cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings” the better)

The theme of the story is about friendship – long-lasting friendship between two women that begins in childhood. The friendship begins on a Venice Beach boardwalk, with a 10 year-old C.C. busking for coins, and an awestruck Hillary watching. In the original, we have Mayim Bialik – who seemed born just to play Bette Midler as a child. Bialik was able to mimic Midler’s Borscht Belt/Catskills schtick perfectly. In the new version, we have the pretty Gabriella Pizzolo, who kinda-sorta looks like Menzel. Pizzolo does what she can but she’s not given much – the writers rush through the childhood scenes, so that we get Menzel and Long right away. In half an hour, so much happens! Childhood, marriage, divorce, and then we finally settle into the meat of the film, in which C.C. and Hillary profess their undying love for each other.

Throughout the film, I wondered just how the producers convinced such classy actresses like Nia Long and Indina Menzel to star in such schlock (I’m hoping each got such a huge payout for this thing that they can now buy private islands). The writing is superficial, glossing over any real examination of the friendship, and there isn’t a trope that the writers can’t resist: even if you haven’t seen the original, the minute Nia Long stops for a second to catch her breath, you know not to get too closely attached to her.

Of course the ending of the movie is supposed to be this huge emotional crescendo – the one where you reach for your Kleenix. But the film as a whole is so manipulative and cheaply-made, that instead of sadness or catharsis, there’s relief – finally, the movie’s over. There’s so little to recommend in this nonredeemable exercise in mediocrity. The actresses – so much better in other projects – flounder and looked confused because of the subpar material. The writing is paper thin and the recycled bits from the original just remind viewers of how much better the older movie was (and that’s not saying a whole lot). The only thing this film has got going for it, is the sets are sometimes pretty (the beach house C.C. and Hillary share is very pretty – the Hollywood mansion C.C. enjoys as a big time pop star is a tacky monstrosity, complete with an even tackier white piano).

The original Beaches is camp – it’s hokum, but camp. The new version – strangely amateurish, and feeling like a cheapo rush job, fails as camp and merely settles into crap.

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Why Mariah Carey’s New Year’s Eve performance was not a disaster

Mariah Carey getting much-needed support

Mariah Carey getting much-needed support

So Mariah Carey is supposedly having a bad 2017 so far because of her “disastrous” performance at Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. When “trying” to “perform” her big 1991 hit “Emotions” it was clear that she was either planning on lip syncing or at the very least, sing along with a backing tape. Either way, something went wrong because instead of miming gamely to the canned music, Carey – with a beautiful mix of bemusement and annoyance – wandered around the stage, drifting in and out of the choreography, while grousing about the sound issues.

Quickly fingers began to point. Carey’s people charged the show’s producers with sabotage and the producers of the show insisted that it was all on Carey.

Social media popped up with memes – one popular one has Jennifer Lopez gleefully gloating – a clap back at Carey’s infamous “I don’t know her” – and some suggested that Carey’s nonperformance was the perfect capper for 2016 – a pretty shiteous year.

But here’s the thing – the performance was not a disaster. It was sheer genius.

First of all, let’s agree on one thing before I go further: Mariah Carey is no longer a radio/hit artist. She’s amassed an impressive resume of hit records, multiplatinum albums, sold out shows, etc.  But the days when kids would want to hear the latest Mariah Carey song are gone.

But that’s okay, because in place of the top 40 artist is the new Carey: eccentric and volatile diva.

The word diva is thrown around so much, that it no longer means much. It seems like every female artist is called a diva. But Mariah Carey is the epitome of diva.

Since 2001, her one unassailable feature: her fantastic voice, had come into question. There were pitchy moments during concerts, and her whole 2002 post-Glitter album Charmbracelet is a sad testament to Carey’s degrading voice. So because of these moments, Carey’s concerts suddenly became high-stakes events, where fans waited with abated breath to hear if she’ll be able to hit those crazy high notes. Her performances now are similar to the late-in-life performances of divas of yore like Maria Callas, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf.

What’s even better about Carey’s performance was her “I couldn’t give enough fucks” attitude. Instead of playing the kind-hearted trouper (‘cuz that would be boring), she immediately starting throwing all kinds of shade.

That’s what I love about post-Glitter Mariah Carey. Let’s face it: she hasn’t really made any good music in about ten, fifteen years, but she’s never been more entertaining. The too-tight dresses, the young boyfriends, the crazy, rambling speeches. It’s all part of this fabulous package – she out drags drag queens.

When she started out in 1990, she was a fresh-faced ingenue with a gigantic voice and model good looks. She was chaste and pretty – she was going to be the poor man’s Whitney. She was also kinda boring. But we can blame that on her label and its executive, Tommy Mottola, who was Carey’s Svengali. He micromanaged her career and image, offering up Carey as a shiny, perfect pop princess.

But once she ditched Mottola, the real Carey came out. And thank goodness. Even though the record sales slipped (as did the quality of her music), she emerged as this supremely ridiculous pop queen, who looks and acts like a cartoon rich lady.

The latest fracas is just another notch in her ridiculous belt. Something that she’ll simply shrug off, as she counts her gagillion dollars in her Manhattan penthouse, surrounded by her gold and diamonds.

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Miranda Sings offers a fun – and empowering – evening

YouTube comedienne Colleen Ballinger has taken her now-iconic alter ego, Miranda Sings, on the road, in a fantastic and often-empowering show that highlights comedy as well as some sneaky progressive politics. Performing at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, IL, Ballinger has done a great job in transferring her creation from the short, five-minute videos she posts on YouTube, to a fleshed-out, 9o-minute show. The performance was a great showcase for Ballinger’s many talents, including a beautiful singing voice, but more importantly, her sharp wit and comedic vision.

The show starts off with Ballinger performing as herself. First dancing to Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” (joined by two dancers, one being her best friend Kory DeSoto, a fellow YouTube personality), then belting “Gay Best Friend” a reworking of a Frozen number that she sang with DeSoto, the strongest moment came when Ballinger brought out her ukulele to warble a neat little ditty that slammed all of the hate comments she got on her videos (some of the comments are brutal). The hate comment song is an important part of the show because it highlights much of what Ballinger – and Miranda Sings – stands for: self-empowerment. Like many performers with large tween fanbases, Ballinger does a good amount of work on anti-bullying, and making light of the horrible comments is a way for Ballinger to inspire others who may also be suffering from cyber bullying (though it has to be said, being a famous and wealthy celebrity may take some of the sting out of the meanness).

And as appealing a performer as Ballinger is, it’s her character Miranda Sings that is the real attraction for the audiences, as Ballinger has an inventive way of introducing her creation. She begins by singing “Defying Gravity” from Wicked, and in the middle of the song, she does a quick-change on stage, before finishing the song as Miranda Sings, smoothly segueing from Ballinger’s pretty, trained voice to Miranda’s strangled yowl.

Part of Miranda’s appeal is her self-confidence – she has a lot of it. Ballinger’s inspiration was the glut of self-deluded wannabe singers who clog up YouTube with terrible performances. But what was once merely satire has grown into an entity in itself. Miranda Sings is deluded – she cannot sing and she’s a grotesque (Ballinger slathers on an obscene amount of lipstick and twists her face into sneers, grimaces, pouts, and scowls), but she’s still the heroine of the story. While she rails against promiscuity and overt sexuality (she screeches to her audience not “to be porn!”), she’s still lustful, having her eye for her fellow YouTube star, Joey Graceffa (who is openly gay, but that minor detail doesn’t seem to dampen Miranda’s ardor).

As a major artifact and product of pop culture, Miranda also engages in pop culture. She performs medleys of radio top 40 hits with the unbridled enthusiasm of little kids in their bedrooms. When Ballinger-as-Miranda does herself up in homemade costumes to recreate various pop music scenarios, Gilda Radner’s Judy Miller comes to mind. And like Radner’s creation, Miranda becomes all the more appealing because of her musical ineptitude, which is dwarfed by her enthusiasm.

During her shows, Miranda will invite some of the screaming children on stage to perform with her. On Friday’s show, she repeated the custom, and in one sequence, when looking for a new BAE (Internet speak for boyfriend), she brought on three kids – one of whom, a wriggly little kid name Octavio, nearly stole the show with his hammy stage presence. Even when not being engaged with, he was still drawing attention with his mugging and his goofy presence. When Miranda and he were engaging in some cute comedy bits about dating, he perfecting her strange, put-upon vocal tics (it was clear that Ballinger realized she was dealing with a force).

Part of what makes Miranda Sings rather subversive is that its creator manages to sneak in her world view and progressive politics. An unabashed liberal, Ballinger threads some of her thoughts and beliefs into the show – the most explicit being a picture of Donald Trump under the headline of those who have too much confidence (the largely conservative Rosemont crowd gave a strangely muted response to that joke). She also stresses LGBT equality – both in and out of character, and her gleeful obliviousness to the haters promotes a healthy self-esteem.

As a canny, brilliant creation, Miranda Sings deserves wider appreciation. She’s got a huge following, but it’s largely niche. Hopefully that will change when Netflix premiers her sitcom Haters Back Off (her motto). When appearing with Jerry Seinfeld on his Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Ballinger proved that even when paired with a comedic institution, she can more than hold her own. Because the bulk of Miranda’s audiences are tween girls, many can dismiss the character (too much of pop culture consumed by young girls is dismissed). As proven in her show, Miranda Sings is easily one of the most interesting – and funniest – creation in a while.

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Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg shine in ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’

Florence Foster Jenkins

The trailer for Stephen Frears’ new film Florence Foster Jenkins is misleading in that it makes the film seem like a crowd-pleasing comedy. While very funny, Florence Foster Jenkins is a sentimental dramedy about unfulfilled artistic ambition. Based on the true story of Jenkins, the story talks to those who may be frustrated because they have the will and desire but not the skill or the talent.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a rich socialite who loved music. She also had designs on being a singer, but the trouble was she had no discernible talent. She had no ear for tone, pitch, or key. And though she had a love of music, she wasn’t terribly disciplined, and therefore her performances became legendary in their ineptness. She was an outsider artist in much the same way that Mrs. Miller or the Shaggs were – Jenkins was painfully sincere about her desires of a musical career, though, and her sincerity would eventually prove to be her undoing.

In Frears’ film – written by Nicholas Martin – we meet Jenkins (Meryl Streep), who is holding court at the music appreciation club she founded. She lives in a platonic, but devoted marriage with failed actor, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). An early marriage resulted in Jenkins being stricken with syphilis; despite her grim prognosis, she managed to live over 50 years with the illness, though the physical damage to her body is significant: she tires easily, and cannot play the piano without pain. After a particularly-successful fundraising event, in which Jenkins starred in a series of tableaux vivant, she decides that she wants to pick up her singing. Music is crucial in her life, and aside from the love she has for her husband, music is the most important thing in her life.

It’s a this point, that the movie resembles somewhat, the light comedy that the trailer promises: Jenkins’ money convinces an important conductor to tutor and she employs a fledgling composer/pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) to accompany her. Initially horrified at the untalented Jenkins, McMoon quickly gets enmeshed into this strange world of delusion, as he finds himself becoming more attached to the kind Jenkins. As her ambition grows, Jenkins sets her sights on Carnegie Hall, where she plans to perform for the troops who are fighting in WWII.

As far as biopics go, Florence Foster Jenkins is a solid work. It’s Frears’ at his least challenging (at least challenged). The story seems tailor made for this kind of movie. The title character makes for an intriguing underdog to root for: we know that her singing is awful – it’s horribly pitchy, and because she wants to perform arias, almost every note she attempts is hopelessly out of her reach – but she’s a kind person and her desire isn’t so much ego unchecked, but merely desire unchecked. And her passion is infectious, and audiences will root for the woman. And the character is yet another in a long list of brilliant portrayals for Meryl Streep. Possessed with a beautiful voice, Streep expertly produces some ear-gouging notes that do not feel like comically-bad warbling, but the genuine attempts of a hopelessly inept songstress. As with all her roles, Streep digs into the human being underneath the character and finds sincere moments of poignancy and beauty.

And as the befuddled pianist, Helberg is a marvel. Those familiar with his work on The Big Bang Theory, know that he’s a great comedian, but this role requires far more subtle work, and he’s marvelous: his Cosmé is a timid, souful man who loves music as much as Jenkins. Though the character is sexually ambiguous, Helberg adds subtle curlicues to his line readings and his physical performance. Like Streep, he’s dug deep into this guy and has created a full, three-dimensional person, full of tics and quirks. Because the film is so lightweight, I don’t think there will be serious talk of Oscar for Streep, but Helberg should be on the shortlist (just the actor’s reactions alone are worth a mantle full of prizes)

And Hugh Grant? Well, he’s an actor that always seems to be upstaged. In this film, he slips into the role of the hack actor St. Clair Bayfield, effortlessly. Though Grant is more talented, he essentially is the character: suave, debonair, and handsome. He still relies on his bag of tricks: the crinkle-eye smile, the slight dithering, the befuddlement and doesn’t make as near a strong impression as do his costars, but then again, that seems to be the them of Hugh Grant’s career: the laidback utility player, reliable, if unspectacular.

As far as escapist entertainment goes, Florence Foster Jenkins is a high-class production. Careful detail to setting and tone, and an engaged script make for a solid, above-average hour and a half of movie viewing. Frears’ direction seems unobtrusive, though it also feels a bit nondescript and anonymous, too. Still, he draws some great moments from his stars and Streep and Helberg are worth the price of admission.

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Barbra Streisand returns to Broadway with some famous pals on ‘Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway’

Encore: Movie Partners Sing BroadwayBarbra Streisand is linked to the musical theater, which is a bit of a mystery as she hasn’t been in a play in over 50 years. Her long and prolific discography, though, is sprinkled with tunes for the Great Way. In 1985 she had one of her greatest recording triumphs with the number 1 hit album, The Broadway Album, and she followed up with a sequel in 1993. Since then, she’s released a string of pop albums, soundtracks, and live albums, but has finally returned “home” so to speak with her 35th studio release, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. Like her last album, PartnersEncore is a collection of duets – this time by actors who sing. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable record with few missteps. Though the concept – Streisand cuing up to the mic with a fellow superstar – feels hackneyed given that she just had a duets album out a couple years ago, she’s collected an impressive group of actors to share the spotlight. Each partner delivers an enjoyable performance, though, she may be accused of cheating a bit when hiring Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman,  or the late Anthony Newley, as all three of these guys have had great success on stage, screen, and vinyl. But the thespians less known for their vocal work – Melissa McCarthy, Patrick Wilson, and Chris Pine all acquit themselves admirably.

The song selection is all over the place – a little bit of Sondheim, a touch of Rogers & Hammerstein, a soupcon of Berlin. Her close and departed friend, Marvin Hamlisch is represented by two songs: “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, which Streisand sings with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley; and “Any Moment Now” from Smile. Hamlisch and Streisand were kindred spirits, so it makes sense that the songs show Streisand off at her best: she gets to show off her supple voice – still buttery, still strong, though now flecked with grit – but also gets to act. On “At the Ballet” Streisand trades lines with Hathaway and Ridley, each playing the part of a hopeful hoofer. With “Any Moment Now” Jackman and Streisand play a couple on the verge of a breakup, though each feels neglected by the other. The music is syrupy and the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle, but it’s Broadway, so more is always more. Jackman, who fancies himself a song-and-dance man slips easily into the song, his light voice a good contrast to Streisand’s; her sparring with Hathaway and Ridley also works, though knowing the vast age difference between Streisand and her guests stretches the song’s credibility.

Also successful is the playful rewowrking “Anything You Can Do” as a feminist anthem. Streisand is paired with comedienne Melissa McCarthy, and the two Funny Girls start of as adversaries, but they quickly abandon the song’s original conceit of one-upsmanship, and rework the lyrics as a Girl Power theme. McCarthy is a solid vocalist and the two singers are funny, though the song takes on some unintended poignancy in light of McCarthy’s Ghostbusters pal Leslie Jones’ online harassment. The song is so funny that listeners will remember just how funny Barbra Streisand really is. In fact, it’s too bad that she doesn’t devote a whole album to comic songs – there are lots of standards and Broadway tunes that are hilarious, and it would be a refreshing detour from the more staid and serious songs she usually records. And Alec Baldwin – another accomplished screen comedian – has a fine set of pipes, and personality to spare, and proves to a great foil (I’d love for them to collaborate on that comedy album I proposed).

As with any Streisand duet, the success of the song largely depends on the partner. If it’s a vocal cipher with little-to-no vocal oomph of his/her own, then Streisand has a tendency to drown him/her out – poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, Don Johnson (yup, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson), Bryan Adams, and Josh Groban have all been victims of Streisand’s vocal body slam. So poor Chris Pine just didn’t even have a chance. Despite a respectable showing in Into the Woods, he’s not distinct or assertive enough of a singer. And Antonio Banderas, a solid singer in his own right, also cannot seem to keep up with Streisand’s belting.

But more of than not, Encore works. When Jamie Foxx and Streisand tackle the nearly-operatic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” the album closes on a high note (literally). Though Foxx’s range is naturally limited and Streisand’s has been narrowed with age, there are some subtle key shifts and tone changes that accommodate for that, and the two end up really selling the song.

At 74, Barbra Streisand’s been recording for over 50 years. At this point in her career, when it seems like she’s recorded every song possible, it’s a little difficult to be innovative or cutting edge. The A.V. Club had a feature in which the writers suggested how veteran artists can shake up their later-day recordings – someone suggested that Streisand hook up with Jack White for a total makeover. But as seen on Encore, Streisand is no longer looking to be the envelope-pusher of the 1960s. The album is lush, plump, and luscious  – with wall-to-wall orchestra. And Streisand is in fine voice, hitting notes divas a quarter of age would only be able to reach via an elevator. If she’s become predictable, that’s okay – she’s also consistent.

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway on amazon.com.

 

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With ‘Erotica’ Madonna offered an F-U to an overly hostile public

EroticaIn 1992 Madonna was arguably the most famous woman in the world. She had some tough competition: Oprah, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, but the pop diva seemed omnipresent in every form of media. And because this was pre-Internet, pre-YouTube, pre-social media, popular culture was much more narrow –  Touré referred to it as a monoculture, when one cultural product – a movie, a CD, a book – was able to dominate. Record sales were still in the millions, and Madonna seemed to be everywhere.

With that kind of exposure, came the inevitable backlash. People said that Madonna was a slut. She wasn’t talented. She used sex and shock to sell records. This period of her career, roughly spanning from 1992 to 1994, was paradoxically one of her most high profile periods, yet it also represented an encroaching nadir. She came out with five major projects during this time: Erotica, her fifth studio album; Body of Evidence, an erotic thriller directed by Dino De Laurentiis; Dangerous Game, a drama directed by Abel Ferrara, Sex, a near-pornographic coffee table book; and her The Girlie Show tour. The work she did was informed greatly by her use and exploration of sexuality as well as examining of taboos in our society. Unfortunately, the noise that surrounds Madonna as an entity drowned out any virtue of any of the work at the time.

And that’s a shame because stripped of its baggage, Erotica is a fantastic record, easily one of the best in her oeuvre. The album feels like a defiant fuck you to all of the naysayers who seem to find pleasure in denigrating her career and her choices. It’s as if she internalized all of the slams thrown at her, and excorsized them on Erotica. She seemed to say, “You think I use shock value and sex in my music to sell records and get attention? Well buckle up, fuckers, ’cause you ain’t see nothin’ yet.”

Erotica starts off with the title track. Over a thumping bass, we get tinny record scatches  and cold industrial beats. Madonna’s voice is a monotone drone, as she portrays Dita, her dominatrix alter-ego. Throughout the song there are swishy record scratches and lonely, melancholy pianos, along with the iconic horn sample from “Jungle Boogie.” The song’s lyrics – penned by Madonna, Shep Pettibone, and Shimkin, explore the various sexual fantasies that Dita would fulfill. It’s a departure from Madonna’s other music – it’s darker and less commercial, signaling that the album itself would also be more challenging for her fans. During the song we hear the clanging of chains and the haunting chants, while Madonna herself alternates between her croaky mumbling and simulating orgasms.

Quickly, the record jumps to trancey house with Madonna’s cover of “Fever.” It’s an appropriate song to ape, as its original artist, Peggy Lee, like Madonna, combined the cool, calculated blonde image with simmering sensuality. Like “Erotica” and most of the album, the song’s production is precise and chilly. Her vocals are distant and sound bored, despite the fiery image of the title, as well as the lyrics’s preoccupation with passion.

As it’s 1993, and Madonna is nothing if not an astute cultural observer, New Jack Swing finds its way into Erotica with “Bye Bye Baby.” Madonna’s sound and image has always skirted around the edges of black pop culture. From her swiping of black and Latino gay culture (particularly drag culture) to flirting with race in her imagery and in her music videos, Madonna’s career has always had a messy relationship with cultural appropriation. “Bye Bye Baby” is complete with Old Skool record scratches and samples of soulful shouts that recall Lyn Collins’ “Think (About It).” To fit into the theme of emotional distance, Madonna’s voice is processed through record filters that tweak her already-thin voice to squeaky, Betty Boop-like levels.

If Madonna fans were confused and slightly disappointed at this moment, it’s understandable, because though Erotica is opened with a trio of dance songs, they’re hardly the dance floor thumpers her wannabes are used to. As if to assuage and anxiety about Madonna’s status as a disco diva, we come up on “Deeper and Deeper,” a self-referential, autobiographical song that is a logical sequel to “Vogue.” Just like “Vogue” Madonna extols the virtue of clubbing as a form of escape. One of her queerest songs, “Deeper and Deeper” feels a touch out of place on Erotica, which up until now, felt like an exercise in perfunctory sensuality. “Deeper and Deeper” is the kind of Madonna song that fans love: humane, poignant, and celebratory. It’s the first song on Erotica to remind listeners of her club roots, her fascination with Latin music (there’s a brief bit with Spanish guitars and castanets), as well as with her allegiance to queer culture with the self-referential sample of “Vogue.”

“Where Life Begins” is the first song that isn’t a single, and it’s easy to guess why. It’s about cunnilingus. Produced and co-written by Andre Betts, celebrates a “different kind of kiss” in which she urges her listeners to “go down, where it’s warm inside.” On any other album, the tune would feel like filler: it’s not sonically all that innovative. But its lyrical content forces listeners and Madonna’s public to confront a woman who not only is comfortable singing about sexuality and sexual desires, but is comfortable in being demanding and assertive in her desires.

“Bad Girl,” a song that broke Madonna’s stretch of 27 consecutive top 20 hits, is the albums first ballad (and features one of her best videos, in which she gives a moving performance, confirming that Madonna is a gifted actress in brief spurts). The song is a pop ballad that tells the story of a woman who turns to vice – alcohol and smoking – when her love life falls apart. It’s a strange topic and point of view for a singer who a few years before roared that women should express themselves and kick scrubs to the curb. In what feels like strange moralizing, Madonna’s narrator seemingly condemns the titular bad girl who goes through her life making seemingly bad choices. While initially it seems like a scolding song, after a few listens, it takes on some resonance, as it fits neatly into the theme of Madonna’s career of doing the unexpected. Just as soon as we think we’ve got her figured, she swerves, offering contrition and regret for anti-social behavior.

Betts gently guides Madonna back to hip-hop with “Waiting” which is yet another New Jack Swing number that yet again includes Madonna’s ever-present spoken verses. The song as a companion piece “Did You Do It.”Both songs share the same backing tape – a thumbing pass and a floating horn, but in “Did You Do It” two men are sharing tales of bedding a conquest. Betts admitted that when Madonna was out of the studio, he added the rap over the track, and the song was greeted with good humor and enthusiasm. “Did You Do It” is a self-aware mocking of the sexually-explicit hip-hop that became popular in mainstream radio. But as the song progresses, we’re made to understand that the rapper’s braggadocio is all an act, as his companions dismissively sniff, “you didn’t do it…she’s still waiting.”

“Thief of Hearts” is the closest thing to actual filler for Erotica. It’s a snippy number in which Madonna adopts a bitchy persona, warning her listeners of the thief of hearts, a maneater that is cause for alarm. Like “Bad Girl,” “Thief of Hearts” can feel a bit regressive and anti-woman. It’s unclear if like the misogyny of “Did You Do It,” is the female-on-female crime is merely a joke. The production – courtesy of Shep Pettibone is a capsule of early 90s pop house with thick beats and muted pianos.

Moving away from the snide “Thief of Hearts” comes “Words” a brisk dance song that has Madonna sing about the power of language and its potential for emotional violence. Though the song could be about a lover, it could also work as Madonna working out her frustration with a nasty press, who use words to denigrate her work and her career. As with the other Pettibone songs, “Words” is a song that feels claustrophobic and crowded as sounds, instruments, elements, and vocals seem to compete with each other. Like “Erotica” there are Middle Eastern influences as well as listless spoken verses (again, raspy, as if Madonna needs to clear her throat bad). As the song reaches its crescendo, the sounds start to pile on top of each other, cleverly conveying the paranoia and frustration Madonna feels when words are used against her.

If Erotica as a whole seems like a rather uncommercial work from an aggressively-commercial artist, then “Rain” would be the one concession to pop radio. As such it’s probably the least interesting song on the record. An elegant pop ballad with Madonna harmonizing with background vocals, it’s very pretty, with a simple message of love and romance, but little else. From any other artist, “Rain” would be a career high, but given the complexity of Erotica and the experimentation that she does, “Rain” feels like a safe retread. It’s the sole moment when Erotica reaches A/C territory.

But as soon as “Rain” is over, Madonna returns to the shakier arena of experimentation with the reggae-pop of “Why It’s So Hard” a socially conscious song about tolerance and peace. It’s a song of good intentions, but like Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, it just misses the mark ever so slightly because instead of addressing an actual ill or issue, Madonna sings about love and peace and chants “brother, sister” over soupy beats.

Far better is “In This Life” a dirge-like ballad about the scourge of AIDS. Madonna’s history with AIDS is well-documented. As a dancer and struggling singer in the late 70s, early 80s, Madonna was a first-hand witness to the disease’s destruction. It’s a surprisingly complex tune, given the simplicity of “Why It’s So Hard,” with Madonna switching from recounting a personal story of a friend who died of AIDS, to asking larger questions about the disease and its accompanying stigma. This song reminds viewers that Madonna is nothing if not sensitive – beneath the bluster of her sexually-charged image, beats the heart of a sensitive singer-songwriter. In 1992, homophobia was largely accepted by mainstream pop culture, and the AIDS epidemic only further bolstered that fear and hatred. For a pop star of Madonna’s mainstream acceptance and cred, speaking to the anti-queer stigma that hampers any advances in the fight against AIDS is pretty bracing and brave. Just like “Deeper and Deeper” and the aforementioned “Vogue,” “In This Life” is an explicit call to Madonna’s large queer fan base.

After the sadness of “In This Life,” the tone shifts to the humorous “Did You Do It,” before ending on the trippy “Secret Garden” which sounds influenced by Deee-Lite. Madonna’s flirtation with trip-hop and acid jazz is a bit prophetic because she would later show an affinity for the sound when she scored a major critical success by working with Massive Attack covering Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You.” “Secret Garden” further argues the case that Erotica is arguably Madonna’s most adventurous and interesting record (if not her most consistent). The jittery, dancey drum, a twinkling piano, a lumbering bass, and an airy vocal performance by Madonna makes the song a standout among a collection of songs that all vie to push Madonna’s sound into different directions.

When it was released, Erotica was met with a muted critical and commercial response. Its reputation was further damaged when it was dragged into the scandal of her other sexually-charged work of the period, thereby ensuring that it would be quickly forgotten. None of the singles are particularly well-remembered, and her follow up, 1994’s Bedtime Stories, a collection of pillowy lush tunes and luxury pop ballads seemlike an apology for her hell raising. But Erotica deserves multiple listens because even more so than her genre-defining pop classic, Like a Prayer (1989), it shows that Madonna wasn’t merely a dance-pop singer, but an artist who was looking to grow creatively.

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‘Head Over Heels’ was Paula Abdul’s last-ditch effort to reclaim her pop music throne – and a great segue into her second career

Head Over HeelsPaula Abdul’s career is a strange and patchy mess. A former Laker Girl who graduated to an Emmy-winning career as a choreographer, Abdul parlayed her pop music connections into a multi-platinum pop music career. From 1988 to 1992 Abdul was one of the biggest pop divas in the music industry, scoring ten top 20 pop hits, six of which went number one. Her debut album Forever Your Girl (1988) was a smash hit that sold over 12 million copies world wide. Her sophomore effort, Spellbound (1991) was almost as successful, selling over 7 million copies worldwide. Then Abdul’s pop music career – a seemingly unstoppable force suddenly stopped. She stepped away from the music industry, battled some health issues, and tried her hand at acting. By the time she was ready to reacquaint herself with the music industry, it had changed greatly. Her third album, Head Over Heels dropped in 1995 – a time when shiny, sparkly dance music lost its favor for more hip-hop inflected pop music. Abdul’s cheif colleagues, Madonna and Janet Jackson were able to adapt to 1995-era pop music, but Abdul seemed like a creature from the past. Head Over Heels was a dogged attempt at being contemporary and up-to-date. After its failure, Abdul all but left the music business until joining the panel of judges on American Idol in 2002. And a star was reborn. Abdul’s second bat at fame consisted of her judging struggling and up-and-coming singers (many of whom were better singers than Abdul ever was), while her public image changed from a sexy pop diva to the wacky, slightly-loopy nurturing salve to Simon Cowell’s mean, barbed critic. Once she was known as a Madonna wannabe, now she’s famous for being the female answer to Ed McMahon.

Head Over Heels is a time capsule of pop music in 1995, but it also shows just how difficult it is for a past-her-prime pop star to remain relevant. Taking cues from Janet Jackson, a woman she once taught how to dance and who she would model her career after, Head Over Heels sounds like a dogged and game effort to recreate Jackson’s blockbuster 1993 album janet. Jackson faced a similarly-changed music landscape in 1993 which moved away from the thick-heavy beats of late 80s/early 90s dance-pop to grunge music and hip-hop. So she smartly toned down some of the more military-style clipped beats of her sound and injected some sexier, rougher tones. janet. was a huge hit and Jackson was rewarded with an album that sold over 20 million copies.

Abdul wasn’t as lucky. Head Over Heels peaked at a solid, if unspectacular number 18 on the album chart, eventually going gold (which in the current pop market, even Jackson can’t reach). The album was Abdul’s way of growing and adapting to mid 90s urban dance-pop. And she certainly did her best. First, she assembled a crowd of songwriters – a whopping twenty-three songwriters were involved in putting together an album that had 14 tracks. The folks tapped to produce the album also comprised of a large and unsteady group. The result was a patchwork quilt of disparate styles, all trying to mold Abdul from chirpy pop thrush into a sensual sex goddess, which was a Sisyphean task.

It’s not that Abdul isn’t sexy – she is. But the problem is the voice. Abdul’s voice, at its best, is an extremely limited instrument, one with little range, and a strange, tinny sound that sounds as if she’s singing from the back of her throat. It’s also a tiny voice, so when she’s trying to sing the sexier numbers on Head Over Heels, there’s an unintended ickiness because it sounds at times, as if a kid is warbling some of the lewd lyrics. Not that Head Over Heels sounds anything like Madonna’s Erotica, because it doesn’t. This is the kind of sexy that may raise an eyebrow or two if the music is played on top 40. The effect is a bit like playing grownup.

The album did have some bright spots – the singles, were predictably solid – “Crazy Cool,” the set’s second single was a decent stab at a summer pop hit. It managed to grow up Abdul’s perky signature sound without alienating her (dwindling) fan base. It’s all rumbly bass and wah-wah guitars and there’s even some charming nonsensical psychedelia, too. The lyrics were silly and dumb, but that’s okay – so what if we have to hear Abdul’s  yearning – if strained – vocals pine about “sexy feelings” that come over her as she compares her lover to a “long, cool glass of lemonade.” And if the more sexed up lyrics weren’t enough to herald in the new Paula Abdul, the song’s video has our diva tarted up, slithering on a stripper’s pole, or riding a mechanical bull and dousing herself with beer froth. It all screams calculation and effort, right down to Abdul’s smokey eye makeup and very 90s Rachael haircut, but all is seemingly forgiven because Abdul is giving it her all.

The other song on the album that deserved to be a hit “My Love Is for Real,” which almost became a hit. It was Abdul’s first single in three years, and was supposed to welcome her back to the pop charts, but the welcome was rather muted. A shame, because song’s an underrated bit of urban-pop heaven. With haunting guest vocals by Israeli pop diva Ofra Haza, “My Love Is for Real” is a mischmash of world music cliches – Middle Eastern instruments like sitars clashing gloriously with pre-programmed percussion and drum machines. It’s all colonial nonsense, but it works. The song is well-written with a catchy beat, and Abdul herself delivers a performance as close to smoldering as she can manage (though truth be told, Haza steals the show). The song should’ve been a big hit (it climbed up to a so-so number 28), and its failure essentially sealed the album’s fate.

But the problem is most of the album is just a hodgepodge of pop cliches circa 1995. There’s watered-down New Jack Swing, brushes of big bang swing (which was making an improbable – but thankfully brief – comeback in the 1990s), by-the-numbers pop-soul, ersatz Latin flourishes, and spirited if deflated stabs at house. Though the producers craft material that works to fit into a wide variety of radio formats, the effect isn’t diverse or wide-ranging, just haphazard and fitful. But all of that could be forgiven, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of the ballads. Abdul can sound kicky and fun during a high-octane dance number, one that hides her massive vocal flaws with a cascading waterfall of synths, keyboards, and drum machines. But Abdul’s pitchy keening is hard to listen through. On “If I Were Your Girl,” the singer seems hopelessly out of her depth, trying to play the part of the soulful balladeer, but she has too few vocal resources.

The failure of Head Over Heels essentially put an end to Abdul’s pop music career. From 1996 to 2002, Abdul slid unsteadily into b-list territory. During that time she was credited with co-penning a few singles for other artists (most notably for Kylie Minogue’s number one hit “Spinning Around”), she also attempted an acting career, and went back to choreographing for films. Then American Idol premiered and Abdul became more famous than ever, judging up-and-coming pop talent. Her heightened profile suggested a return to music, and there were a few one-off singles, but it seems like Head Over Heels is a definite close to an exciting, if too-brief, pop career.

 

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