Friday Music Focus: 3/11/16

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Continuing a recent interest in how music intersects with pop culture and personal identity, here are my five tracks for today (and clips which are music-adjacent).

Elle King, “America’s Sweetheart” (live on “The Late Late Show,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Love Stuff, 2015). Looking critically at some of the most popular women in the American music world from the last few years, the choices are less than thrilling: tall, blonde, model-shaped Taylor Swift’s biggest complaint is about her “haters” (“Shake It Off”); Nantucket native Meghan Trainor and her affected Southern patois gave us insidious, faux-retro bubblegum-pop about how Trainor’s ideal image of love is needing to be treated like a princess on a pedestal (“Dear Future Husband”), expressed via a watered-down version of Amy Winehouse’s much-copied musical style that makes me miss her more than I already do; Iggy Azalea raised the game by being an even more extreme example of utilizing a Southern US accent while not actually being from that region (sure, she’s from the South… New South Wales, Australia), breaking out on the charts with – as is so often the case in rap and hip-hop – an ode to her own awesomeness and all the material possessions that make her cooler than you (“Fancy”). This brings us to one of the newest stars in music, Elle King. I wasn’t a fan of King’s breakout single from this past fall, “Ex’s & Oh’s,” which bothered me primarily on the grounds that the title incorrectly uses apostrophes to indicate plurals, and secondarily because it sounds like a weird mixture of mainstream-ized folk rock and the kind of blue-eyed soul-pop that female singer-songwriters from the UK have mastered. Still, King has grit in her voice, and I liked what I saw (including a Grand Ole Opry-approved jumpsuit) on “The Late Late Show.” Both in talking and in singing she is extroverted, loud, kind of silly and somewhat exaggerated in her actions, but she seems to be having fun. She’s not a perfect role model, as the song says, and who ever said that she has to be one? Maybe some of King’s energy comes from being (I’m totally serious) Rob Schneider’s daughter, but I’m glad that she’s gained her own fame without his last name because I would probably do the same too if I had a parent who wrote and starred in a movie like Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

Robert Tepper, “Angel of the City” (from the film Cobra, 1986). O lucky viewers! Thirty years ago, Sylvester Stallone – the real America’s Sweetheart, am I right? – provided us with the cinematic majesty of Cobra and its centerpiece, a montage designed around the super-cheesy song “Angel of the City.” No, this isn’t a music video made to promote Cobra’s soundtrack; this is actually a scene from the film, made just like a typical MTV clip. Hours pass in the film’s universe, and instead of hearing dialogue from Stallone (a detective hunting for crazed serial killers) or Brigitte Nielsen (the model who is the only living witness to the criminals’ deeds), we get this series of shots that alternate between Stallone’s search through the wee hours of the night and Nielsen’s… whatever that photoshoot would be called. Are there sufficient words to explain a gig that involves posing sexily with robots? (It was the 1980s, after all, and given audiences saw in Rocky IV the year before, I’ll bet that Sly personally requested the automatons.) And then there are all of Nielsen’s wigs, easily the most hideous hairpieces that that decade could cough up. At least the androids got something good out of the deal; Nielsen pairs a frizzy ‘do (and oh-so-80s headband) with one of those high-cut swimsuits that were all the rage back then, but the modish bot displays haute couture mink. Get that fella a contract of his own!

Suede, “Beautiful Ones” (from the album Coming Up, 1996). The visuals in the music video for this Britpop gem effectively contrast the ridiculousness of the “Angel of the City” montage. I first discovered “Beautiful Ones” when iTunes made it their free music video of the week, probably around eight or nine years ago. I didn’t know anything about Suede at the time, but I loved the video straight away. The imagery complements the songwriting so well, taking pop culture to task while still sort of loving the incorporation of those products, fads, brands and logos. Suede fell a bit short of the wave that Oasis and Blur rode into America in the mid-90s (they have also had to be rebranded in this country as “The London Suede” due to a lawsuit brought by an obscure American lounge act), but Brett Anderson really deserved superstar success here in the States; he was (and still is) tall, lean and good-looking, but he also has that distinct nasal voice, which I guess is a very take-it-or-leave-it tone. (The band is still in fine working order, if you ask me, and the Brett Anderson/Emmanuelle Seigner duet “Back to You” is one of the most exquisite songs of the 21st century.) The black-and-white aesthetic of the “Beautiful Ones” video brings me to the next clip: we’re returning to the Manic Street Preachers.

Manic Street Preachers, “You Love Us” (from the album Generation Terrorists, 1992). When I wrote about the Manics last week, there was so much music to discuss that it was inevitable that some things would be left out. “You Love Us” is one such song, and the video is particularly interesting because it contains so many elements worth analyzing: lyrics that assert the band’s authenticity, demonstrating spirited opposition to derivative, manufactured pop idols; turning the making of a music video into high-glam parading around for the cameras, complete with heavy makeup, supermodel stances and vacant stares, especially coming from the group’s poster child for rock ‘n’ roll deification, Richey Edwards; images of Malcolm X and atomic warfare; the juxtaposition of black and white skin; eroticized Popsicles and oysters; the band members being torn apart in the frenzy at the end. The video begins with a mission statement from the turn-of-the-century Futurists (“Regard All Art Critics as Useless and Dangerous”), but citing a quote from 1910 is at odds with some of the slogans that MSP used to wear on their homemade clothes, like Richey’s “Bomb the Past” shirt and Nicky Wire’s “I’m So Modern That Everything Is Pointless” jacket. (On the other hand, as the Wire once said: “We reserve the right to contradict ourselves.”) The video didn’t even take its tangle of themes as far as it could have gone; there was supposed to be a segment that showed Richey as a “Suicide Bride” (“looking unspeakably gorgeous in a white wedding dress, a hand grenade stuffed in his mouth like an apple,” to quote music journalist Simon Price), but it was cut from the final edit.

Nicky Wire cooking mac & cheese donuts (on “Sunday Brunch,” 2014). As guest Kevin McHale says at one point: “Donuts and mac & cheese – it’s America in a dish.” I wish that the US had a show like “Sunday Brunch,” combining celebrity panel discussions with hands-on cooking and baking; it seems like a pleasant way to spend a morning, both for the participants and for the viewers at home. If this is where longevity in the music business can take you, then it’s a nice destination. Connective tissue attached to the previous video: Nicky Wire wears a “You Love Us” button on his blazer.

Shirley Bassey featuring James Dean Bradfield, “The Girl from Tiger Bay” (live on “BBC Radio 2 Electric Proms,” 2009; studio version appears on the album The Performance, 2009) + a clip about the creation of the song.

Growing up in small-town south Wales in the early 1980s, you never saw your home town on television; never read its name in print. Even if something newsworthy were to happen – then or today – you might never hear about it, as topographical anomalies mean that many households cannot receive local television news (their aerials point to the west of England instead). For all you knew, the place you came from might as well not exist. (Simon Price, Everything (A Book About Manic Street Preachers) (1999), p. 5)

Although Shirley Bassey grew up in the capital of Wales, Cardiff, she is specifically from a community around the docks that was referred to as Tiger Bay, perceived by many as a dangerous area. The locale as Bassey knew it no longer exists because it was torn down, rebuilt and renamed in 1999, but this tribute to her extraordinary life – written and composed by the Manic Street Preachers – ties her identity to that humble place of origin. While early in the 90s the Manics were vocal about loathing their cultural wasteland of a hometown (Blackwood), “The Girl from Tiger Bay” is about pride. Instead of exhibiting a sense of hiraeth, which is a uniquely Welsh term for homesickness mingled with nostalgia and melancholy, “Tiger Bay” is a celebration.

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