Sometimes I look at singers in their current-day incarnations and wonder what their younger selves would think of the directions that their careers have taken. I wonder how often those artists allow themselves to look back, or if such a thing is too detrimental to consider. When they were children and teenagers – as in the cases of those pictured above: Cyndi Lauper (c. 1970s), James Dean Bradfield (c. mid-to-late 1970s), Gwen Stefani (c. mid-to-late 1980s) – could they ever have dreamed of who they would be in their 20s, 30s and 40s? Is it too strange that I would imagine them imagining those ideas or memories?
Music is all about imagination. The artists have to have it and so do I. Jumping around through the decades, here are six singers or bands who have inspired (past) and do inspire (presently). Ups and downs have been noted.
Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (music video; studio version appears on the album She’s So Unusual, 1983) and “Girls Just Want Equal Funds” (live on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” 2016). We start with one unassailable truth: Cyndi Lauper was, is, and shall always be great. No matter how many decades pass, she will always be perfectly iconic, perfectly weird, perfectly herself.
P.S. Please check out Cyndi’s new album of country covers, Detour. Her version of Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World” is beautiful.
No Doubt, “Just a Girl” (music video; studio version appears on the album Tragic Kingdom, 1995) and Gwen Stefani, “Misery” (live on SNL, 2016; studio version appears on the album This Is What the Truth Feels Like, 2016). In 1995, Gwen Stefani hated the way the world infantilized women and too often compelled them to become, essentially, men’s property; these days she sings of begging to be with a man (Blake Shelton, I assume) because she can’t imagine anything more dismal than being alone. (To paraphrase “Just a Girl”: what she has succumbed to – bad pop – has made her numb.) Sure, you could fine-tune the explanation by clarifying that Stefani is talking about one specific man, not all men in general, and that maybe she’d be fine on her own if only she were not in love with this particular guy… but isn’t it still so disappointing to think that the source of her feminine suffering is the country music judge from “The Voice”?
Lush, “Sweetness and Light” (music video; studio version appears on the EP Sweetness and Light and the compilation album Gala, both 1990), “Ladykillers” (music video; studio version appears on the album Lovelife, 1996) and “Rosebud” (studio version appears on the EP Blind Spot, 2016). Lush has two genre legacies: one is shoegazing and the other is Britpop. The dreaminess of “Sweetness and Light” is the sound that I most often associate with Lush, although my favorite 90s-era song by the band is “Ladykillers,” an uptempo rocker that features different, yet still terrific, vocals from frontwoman Miki Berenyi. After drummer Chris Acland’s suicide in 1996, Lush went on hiatus, but their reformation last year has led to a new set of recordings titled Blind Spot. My favorite among the songs is “Rosebud,” a melancholy melody paired with poignant lyrics about love and loss. It’s so good to have Lush back.
The Stone Roses, “I Wanna Be Adored” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Stone Roses, 1989) and “All for One” (single, 2016). Few bands have had the success that the Stone Roses had with their self-titled debut album in 1989, earning the kind of critical reputation that can put groups in the “legends” category. “I Wanna Be Adored” is a brilliant way for them to open their album. What a statement to make about stardom! Anyway, long story short: the Roses were delayed in releasing their less “indie,” more bluesy follow-up album, Second Coming, an effort which was booed by all but the die-hard fans in 1994. Twenty-two years later, after numerous break-ups and reunions, the band has finally released new material. If almost any other band had recorded “All for One,” an inoffensive pop-rock tune that is easy to sing along to, I might consider it wonderful; because it comes courtesy of the Stone Roses, I’m slightly frustrated. I know it’s not right for me to have hoped for “I Wanna Be Adored, Part II,” but the glory days were so particularly, well, glorious for them that it is nigh impossible not to feel let down by Ian Brown and company.
Manic Street Preachers, interview and “Motown Junk” (“live” (lip-synched) on Snub TV, 1991), “Land of My Fathers/You Love Us” (live at Cardiff Castle, 2015; studio version of “You Love Us” appears on the album Generation Terrorists, 1992) and “Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)” (music video, 2016; promotional single for Euro 2016). You kind of have to enjoy the unflinching determination visible in the Manic Street Preachers in the early days: steely-eyed Richey Edwards stating that “youth is the ultimate product” and that the Manics were “the most original band of the last 15 years just ’cause we don’t wanna do anything that’s been done before”; Nicky Wire asserting that “we will never write a love song, ever, full stop” (five years later he wrote “Further Away”); James Dean Bradfield saying that “we’d rather be sensationalized than be just another NME band and get easy critical respect.” Strong words coming from guys who wanted to rule the world. They didn’t realize how difficult that would be.
Cut to 2015/2016: after a quarter of a century, the Manics are obviously a different band. I can’t begrudge them the patriotic tendencies they discovered twenty years ago; there was undoubtedly a time when they never would have believed that anyone would ask them to record the official song for Wales’ football team, yet that is exactly what they’ve done for the Euro 2016 tournament. They once joked about being “national treasures,” but I think these underdogs finally have become exactly that. And yeah, “Together Stronger” is a cheesy song, full of clichés and platitudes, but the band is so thoroughly earnest about the entire affair that it’s tough not to cheer the song on regardless. (Sean Moore, wearing his ever-present drumming gloves, retains total integrity by doing his job, doing it well and looking good while doing it.) The Manics have had their unfair share of sorrow in their thirty-year history, and no matter how they appeared to the public while in the midst of vitriolic youth, they earned the right to become who they are now. So they can perform the Welsh national anthem and then do their old ’91 classic “You Love Us” in the same breath at Cardiff Castle and not think twice; Nicky Wire famously once said that “we reserve the right to contradict ourselves,” and that is something the band continues to do all the time – which keeps us fans on our toes.
And as much as some things change, one thing always stays: the Manics’ relationship to photography and media representation. Or maybe I’m thinking specifically of Nicky Wire’s relationship to images. The Manics have always promoted themselves as much as their music. It seems to me that there is no difference between the photos taken of Nicky at music video photoshoots or in shiny NME spreads back in 1991-92 and the shots he posts on the Manics’ Twitter feed in 2016; only the method of disseminating the pictures has changed and now the artist himself has control. This week, highlights have included the usual post-gig selfie (as part of the Everything Must Go 20th anniversary tour) and, to the probable delight of every devoted Manics enthusiast, a selfie displaying Nicky’s everlasting affection for his favorite type of animal-print miniskirt. Whether at 22 or 47, the love of leopard never leaves a true believer.
Radiohead, “Just” (music video; studio version appears on the album The Bends, 1995) and “Burn the Witch” (music video; studio version appears on the album A Moon Shaped Pool, 2016). To many people, “Creep” may be the defining moment from Radiohead’s early days, but I have always had a particular affection for “Just,” which I used to listen to a lot when I was a teenager. (I also often connect it to the memory of seeing the music video played on VH1 Classic a couple of years ago; has it really been so long since 1995?) “Just” is one of their finest songs and people will likely be trying until the end of time to decipher what words are said at the end of the video. I guess what I liked best about the song and video as a teenager was that Radiohead seemed to have made them the way they wanted to, not the way a record company would want.
(A brief interlude Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood interviewed by Jonathan Ross in 2003. It’s a really amusing clip.)
This month, Radiohead resurfaced after years of speculation about an upcoming album. (The new opus, A Moon Shaped Pool, was released online on May 8.) After wiping their Twitter and Facebook pages clean of all previously posted information, the band started anew by sending out a music video for a brand-new single, “Burn the Witch.” For an industry already curious as to what Radiohead was up to after their apparent disappearance from social media, the song was a perfect choice for a rebirth. The fact that the video retells the story of The Wicker Man in the form of stop-motion animation somehow makes perfect sense for a song about the many dangers facing our societies today: people jumping the gun on which groups should be blamed for whichever problems, the pitfalls of mass media and social media, the pesky phenomenon of groupthink, etc. I guess Radiohead have held onto their principles, and Thom Yorke is the kind of lead singer whose dignity remains intact since he tends not to do things for the benefit of easy public consumption. A Moon Shaped Pool isn’t the kind of album that’s made by a band looking for number one hits. I admire such dedication to originality and purity.