Friday Music Focus: 7/1/16

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After Kanye West’s music video for his song “Famous” was released last week and caused a roaring hullabaloo on the Internet for depicting nude likenesses of celebrities sharing one huge bed, I began thinking about songs and videos which connect to ideas of fame, usually in negative, toxic connotations. Here are a few examples from yesteryear which still ring true.

(Pictured above: an ad for one of Nick Drake’s few live gigs, c. 1970.)

David Bowie, “Fame” (appears on the album Young Americans, 1975). David Bowie’s funk classic – his first #1 hit in America – remains the definitive statement on the ridiculousness of celebrity. Bowie was later quoted as saying: “I’d had very upsetting management problems and a lot of that was built into the song. I’ve left all that behind me, now… I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.”

Genesis, “Land of Confusion”  (appears on the album Invisible Touch, 1986). The lyrics of “Land of Confusion” are not concerned with fame per se, but the music video is the closest approximation to Kanye’s “Famous” clip that I can think of, displaying puppet representations of politicians and celebrities which, frankly, are terrifying in their grotesqueness. The gathering of these self-obsessed, self-congratulating celebrities for a “We Are the World”-style singalong at the end further shows Genesis’s sense of satire while still rallying around the straightforward sociopolitical message in the band’s song.

Kirsty MacColl, “Fifteen Minutes” (appears on the album Kite, 1989). In three short minutes Kirsty pleasantly – because you can imagine her singing with a grin – takes down the extensive network of types who become famous without deserving it: “Then there’s always the cash/Selling your soul for some trash/Smiling at people that you cannot stand/You’re in demand/Your fifteen minutes start now…” Icing on the cake: the clarinet solo at the end, a spotlight on a decidedly not-pop instrument.

Note: the user who uploaded this video to YouTube accidentally included a photo of Ellie Goulding in the slideshow at the 0:55 mark; you could view this error as extra commentary, confusing one English singer-songwriter for another as though they were interchangeable.

Manic Street Preachers, “Kevin Carter” and “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky” (both appear on the album Everything Must Go, 1996). The trappings of fame were often on the Manics’ minds in the early-to-mid-90s. “You Love Us” (Generation Terrorists, 1992), both in audio and video form, observes some of the glamorous yet absurd aspects of being a rock band with a major-label record contract and a presumption by the media that they’re only there to look good (all the while continuing to encourage true believers to maintain their obsessive love for the band); “Archives of Pain” (The Holy Bible, 1994), essentially a song speaking out against the glamorization of serial killers, aligns the band with those criminals by including “Manic Street Preachers” in the list of names sung in the second chorus. Two of the Manics’ most potent examinations of the effects of fame came later, though, in two sets of lyrics penned by Richey Edwards before his disappearance. “Kevin Carter” recounts the life and death of the photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for an image of a suffering Sudanese child with a vulture hovering nearby. Unable to live with the horror of what he had witnessed and the fame he had attained because of it, Carter committed suicide a few months later. The second song, “Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky,” is not explicitly about fame, but I think connections can be drawn between the tale it tells of caged animals and the oppressive nature of celebrity – gawkers looking in and watching your every move. The disturbing lyrics are perfectly offset by James Dean Bradfield’s voice, the delicate strums of his acoustic guitar and the beautiful swirls of the harp.

Britney Spears, “Lucky” (appears on the album Oops!…I Did It Again, 2000) and “Piece of Me” (appears on the album Blackout, 2007). You could look at the difference between these two songs about fame as Before Shave and After Shave since the moment when Britney Spears shaved her hair off in 2007 was probably the ultimate sign that she was no longer the sweet, carefree teen idol she was in 1999 and 2000. “Lucky” can be interpreted as an autobiographical account of Britney’s own life as a pop star, but even if it really is just a generic look at the hollowness of Hollywood success devoid of real love and happiness, it is still a story told effectively. “Piece of Me,” however, is specifically about Britney’s own struggles, told from her point of view. Released only half a year after the head-shaving incident, the song attacks at the destructive nature of tabloids and paparazzi while the video proves that Britney then in her mid-twenties, wasn’t washed up and could indeed rejuvenate her career. The pop queen lives on.

Nick Drake, “Fruit Tree” (appears on the album Five Leaves Left, 1969). I saved this Nick Drake song for the end because his career exists separate from of the usual progressions of fame and time; his mythic ascent to the ranks of the all-time great British singer-songwriters happened posthumously and “Fruit Tree” seems to foretell this. We hear a fragile-sounding man (then only twenty years old) mourning an artist being “forgotten while you’re here/remembered for a while/A much updated ruin/From a much outdated style” (indicating the lack of public interest in Drake’s low-key folk music) and explaining in the chorus that “Fame is but a fruit tree/So very unsound/It can never flourish/‘Til its stock is in the ground/So men of fame/Can never find a way/’Til time has flown/Far from their dying day.” Is it any surprise that happy-go-lucky hippies weren’t flocking to record stores to buy that song? (Although now that I think about it, perhaps the free-love generation wouldn’t have been a key demographic in London then, which I suppose was the only city selling anything by Nick Drake while he was alive.) As Drake sings the final verse – “Fruit tree, fruit tree/Open your eyes to another year/They’ll all know/That you were here when you’re gone” – the after-the-fact parallels with his own career are obvious. No one bought his albums between 1969 and 1974, but after a decade or so, his genius was realized by critics and musicians alike. Nowadays he is a legend. But evidently he knew on some level that that’s what would happen, didn’t he?

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