Friday Music Focus: 3/18/16

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In today’s post we will take a look at what it means to be a woman in the bright and shiny world of pop music (hence the photo of Debbie Reynolds), but in March 2016 rather than in the past. All performances from the videos below were shown on TV this month.

Kelly Clarkson, “Piece by Piece” (live on “Ellen,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Piece by Piece, 2015). After fourteen years, Kelly Clarkson is still our American Idol; as the nation waves goodbye to the final season of the long-running TV competition, Clarkson remains an active part of our musical culture while so many other winners from later seasons have faded from view. The way that Clarkson performs the song “Piece by Piece” on TV is clearly inspired by the stripped-down ballad style of Adele, putting the voice front and center. When Clarkson sings about how her husband, who is the father of her young daughter and soon-to-be-born son, compares with her own neglectful father, Clarkson reminds us why she became a star: she has no affectations, no gimmicks. We the people voted her into the pop-rock stratosphere because she naturally had the talent for it.

Gwen Stefani, “Make Me Like You” (live on “The Late Late Show,” 2016). We all know that there is pressure in the pop industry for a woman to maintain certain ridiculous standards for physical appearance; in Gwen Stefani’s case, it is the necessity to look preternaturally youthful and glamorous, to have a face that betrays no signs of crows’ feet and a body that does not look like it belongs to a woman who has had three children. Stefani, who has been a part of the public consciousness for over twenty years, is in the position of being a 46-year-old pop personality. Her lips are as bright-red as ever, her trademark platinum-blonde hair pulled into a girlish ponytail that swings ’round as she performs for the adoring fans. “Make Me Like You” is an impossibly catchy song, but I can’t help longing for the days when Stefani was the rock ‘n’ roll phoenix frontwoman of No Doubt, particularly the brief moment when she was pink-haired in the year 2000.

Ariana Grande, “Tidal” skit + “Dangerous Woman” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 2016). Ariana Grande, former teen star of the Nickelodeon show “Victorious” and currently planted in the role of pop princess (and, for comparison’s sake, approximately half of Gwen Stefani’s age), hosted “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend. Because Grande is well-known for being able to do impressions of other popular female singers, SNL requested her to reprise the impressions in a skit, playing Britney Spears, Shakira, Rihanna, Céline Dion and Whitney Houston – with the exception of Rihanna, they are the women of yesteryear. Later, the first of Grande’s two musical performances was of her new single, “Dangerous Woman.” It’s hard to imagine a less edgy-sounding title for a song that is undoubtedly supposed to usher in a new era of empowerment for her career (although I applaud her for trying), but to her credit, at least Grande isn’t wearing cutesy cat ears or being carried around.

Sia, “Bird Set Free” (live at South by Southwest, broadcast on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” 2016; studio version appears on the album This Is Acting, 2016). Sia is probably the single most interesting figure in the pop world right now. I don’t say this because I’m a fan – I consider a lot of her songs bland – but the enigmatic nature of her stage presence is continually intriguing. The fact she refuses to show her face, instead hiding herself behind wigs or masks, forces people to concentrate on her voice and lyrics. Again, her songwriting is often generic and cliché-ridden, but she certainly does have a recognizable and gifted voice. It can’t be easy to be a 40-year-old woman in the music business, so the fact that she has become a pop superstar means that she is visible now like she never was when she was an indie singer-songwriter in the early-to-mid-2000s (except, I suppose, in her home country, Australia). We’re all so used to celebrities advertising their faces and bodies everywhere that the idea of a mainstream pop star wanting to shield herself in order to better deal with constant social media scrutiny initially comes off like some kind of weird performance art. (Sia explained in Interview magazine: “I’m trying to have some control over my image. And I’m allowed to maintain some modicum of privacy. But also I would like not to be picked apart or for people to observe when I put on ten pounds or take off ten pounds or I have a hair extension out of place or my fake tan is botched. Most people don’t have to be under that pressure, and I’d like to be one of them.”) People need only Google “Sia’s face” to find out what it looks like, but if obscuring her face now eases the burden of having to perform on bigger stages and on worldwide television, then it’s not really as weird a request as it might have initially seemed.

Demi Lovato, “Stone Cold” (live at “Natalie’s House” on “The Late Late Show,” 2016; studio version appears on the album Confident, 2015). Like Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato is a former teen TV star (Disney Channel’s movie Camp Rock and the series “Sonny with a Chance”) who is now in her early 20s and exploring ways to assert her maturity as a performer. This “Late Late Show” performance is unusual because the show celebrated its one-year anniversary by taping the special episode at a house belonging to a bunch of fans of the show. (Lucky for Lovato that the owners had a piano, right?) Because the setting is so intimate, Lovato’s performance – her humongous voice sounding even bigger in the small rooms – takes on an unusually reverential aura, being observed with such serious fascination by James Corden, Reggie Watts, Colin Farrell, Wanda Sykes, the “Late Late Show” crew and the house’s four civilians. And, like Kelly Clarkson, the song sounds like another attempt to capture the part of the market that loves Adele’s music so.

BONUS: Laurie Anderson performing a song for dogs (live on “The Late Show,” 2016). As an alternative to the pop lifestyle, you could be like Laurie Anderson and make music for canines rather than humans. Just a thought.

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