Tag: 1980s

Darling George

photo via

I have known and loved the music of George Michael for almost as long as I have known and loved opera. The sound of that creamy tenor has been as omnipresent in my life as the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. It was strange, and strangely satisfying, to see the idol of my youth aging and growing as an artist, cultivating his talents while expanding his range, repertoire, and sound with quiet determination.

The grimness of 2016 intensified with news of his passing on Christmas Day. I learned the news as I imagine many others did, on Facebook, noticing the update, “RIP to the best pop star of my life” from music writer Maura Johnston. I didn’t need to click on the link she’d posted to realize, with an awful sinking feeling, who she was referring to. Maura and I share a deep, abiding love of George and his music; we had traded tweets and notes about it over the years, and I had even contributed a piece to her magazine about that passion, which became part of a multi-issue, George-Michael-focused release. Maura has penned a perfect tribute for TIME and another, more personal piece for The Guardian; the latter is filled with smile-worthy memories and brilliant observations, this one striking so many recognizable chords:

While I was initially drawn in by Ridgeley’s cheekbones, I stuck around through Wham!’s breakup, and Michael’s eventual solo career, because the songs were thrilling, spinning like tops perched on a ledge, ready to fly off in another direction at any moment. Michael displayed reverence for all the right things – compositional craft, searing vocals, kindness, writing pop songs to make the world feel, briefly, like everything was OK – while also feeling ambivalent toward the aspects of his job that distracted from them.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect I am the only classical writer who contributed both to that all-George issue of Maura, and to Torontoist, in the form of a live concert review — which strikes me as funny and quite delightful, especially since one of George’s most memorable concerts in the last decade happened at the Palais Garnier. Indeed, George (it feels strange for me to call him anything else, though I never got the opportunity to meet him) was the first contemporary artist to play the historic opera house, and, all things considered, he seemed eminently suited to it, not only because of his then-recent Symphonica release, but because his deep and continuous cultivation of musicality, music history, the ever-changing pop idiom, and his place as an older artist.

(photo: Caroline True, via)

As a current opera writer with a pop-loving past, I tend to live in multiple sonic worlds that embrace rock, funk, R&B, hiphop and country right alongside classical. My current work and the way I’ve grown to listen and pay attention to performance and voice have opened the door for a broader appreciation of the musical gifts George Michael offered over his almost four decades of output. That magical tenor of his was far more agile, sensitive, and expressive than has been sometimes been acknowledged; over the years I’ve heard it called “flat,” “bland,” “too smooth” and “devoid of emotion.” Such criticism always struck me as facile at best, and snobbish at worst; they pointed to a kind of passive-aggressive whisper of, “that music isn’t real music” and “he isn’t a real musician.” As a teen, I’d hurriedly point out he played all the instruments on Faith and even did the backing vocals; it wasn’t vanity, I said, it was talent, an intentional exercise in creative control. What is “real” music anyway?! There are any number of overwhelming examples to point to that might explode such a ridiculous accusation, but more potent than all of them was the live experience.

My first big stadium concert experience was attending the gargantuan Faith tour in the late 1980s. Outside of hearing my favorite singer with tens of thousands of other cheering fans (I recall it being overwhelming at times), hearing that voice, live, was  —and there’s no other way to say it — life-changing. Even amidst tends of thousands of screaming teens, with amplification and effects, that voice was incredible; it swung, it swooped, it mewled, it roared. Having seen Pavarotti and Domingo live at the Met as a teenager, I knew the effect a beautiful voice could have — on me, and on others. I didn’t understand technique back then, and I didn’t fully appreciate what I was hearing, but listening back to both his live and album material now, as an adult, I am, more than ever, struck by the myriad of ways George could shape and bend his sound, to say nothing of the length and power of his vibrato to make a sound that glistened, floated, soared, or roared, cut, slashed; George did it all, with class, style, and elegance. He wasn’t a screamer, and he didn’t feel the need to be. In an era where “soft” was equated with weakness, and “sensuous” with vulgarity, he became the object of ridicule. Throughout my high school years, when being out wasn’t even an option, he was laughed at, his music met with eyerolls; George wasn’t “macho” enough for many of my fellow students to like (or at least admit they liked) —but it was always the lack of screaming, the lack of roughness or aggression that I liked.

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The fact he was also blessed with good looks, great style, and a clear need to move to a beat helped. When acts like New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli cropped up, I curled my nose. How were they more acceptable (or even better) than George? Aside from their music holding no appeal, respective choreography seemed forced and joyless; by comparison, George’s hip-shaking, arm-waving, and bum-wiggling seemed fun, sexy, and frankly, familiar. He seemed like he’d be so much fun to go out dancing with. Also, I couldn’t listen to either Kids or Vanilli for very long; those voices were, to my ears, not good.  I’d been so spoiled. The way George had performed Black Cherry’s classic “Play That Funky Music” live, for instance (as part of the Faith tour), was saucy, playful, and very funky, with all of the original’s bounce intact, but a keen awareness of pace and rhythm. It was deeply musical and fun and smart and… you could dance to it! The combination was intoxicating, and remained so, through many decades.

However, the past few years deepened my appreciation of his vocal gifts. George had a warm, wheaty timbre he could expertly wield to accommodate any number of styles, including classic ballads, soul, funk, rock. His skill with balladry was on full display in the astonishing “One More Try” from Faith; he lived the words of that song, lovingly infusing each one with a profound, personal meaning that makes listening to it almost unbearably personal. The halting quality in his voice as he sings “stranger” and then “feet” in the second verse, then the sharp, biting contrast with singing “danger” and “heat” in the second couplet, reveals a world of heartbreak and thwarted hope that colored so much of his later work. It was one of George’s most famously soulful moments, and I feel, one of his most operatic.

(photo: 10awesome.com via)

Similarly, many will recall his soaring performance of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” in 1992. Who else could have realistically stepped into the shoes of the great, opera-leaning Freddie Mercury, and done such a bang-up job? He wasn’t Freddie — but he didn’t aim to be. “I work hard,” he declares at the start of the second verse, improvising a higher melodic line and threading it in with the main melody. Simultaneously buoyed by a monstrously wonderful backing choir and a regal authority, his was the performance everyone remembered from that tribute concert. (It was lovely to come across a video recently showing David Bowie smiling at that rehearsal.) Near the song’s end, George soars into a smooth if equally impassioned falsetto with the ease and grace Mercury excelled at, bringing a raw vulnerability to a raucous, jaunty rock and roll classic.

Years before this performance, he’d caused shock with “I Want Your Sex” but I suspect it wasn’t solely the title or song’s content that caused controversy. The way George sings it is just deeply, deliciously dirty. His is a throaty, pushed kind of growl, one cleverly combined with whispers, shouts, and whimpers. One of the supreme pleasures of re-listening to the entirety of Faith over the last few months has been how nicely the material, and this song in particular, translates into adulthood. We (us fans) all merrily sang along to “I Want Your Sex” as teens, screamed it back at its creator live, winked and giggled and may have done some theatrical pelvic thrusts on the dance floor on Club Med vacations, but hearing it as a woman, the reaction is (for me at least) less outward, and more quietly confident, a seduction delivered in slow smiles, eyebrow raises, lingering stares. The subtleties of the song — and they are myriad! — reveal themselves in George’s exquisite vocals, which are brilliantly contrasted by the repeated, organ grinder-esque synth lines and a squishy, pumping rhythm. The simplicity of the arrangement echoes that other perfect synth masterpiece, “Everything She Wants” but contains its direct opposite in experiences, while holding the same musical tension and intensity. Near the song’s close, as his own backing vocals provide a rhythmic, staccato-like declamation filled with a sort of hip-thrusting jubilance (“Hua, SEX!“), George’s knowing vocal punctuates the line:

I’m not your father
I’m not your brother
Talk to your sister
I am a lover

These lines are delivered as statements, full stops, declarations; the confidence of the vocal is breathtaking, to say nothing of the beautiful howl that erupts at the end of that, followed by a carefully-pitched, descending moan. Every time I hear it now I think of Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from the opera Samson et Dalila — each being, for me, a delicious, potion of desire, fever, seduction, even romance — a fervent paean to being alive, a shiny talisman against despair.

(photo via)

And this, in the end, is George Michael’s catalogue to me. I haven’t even mentioned the many beautiful collaborations he did with favorite artists — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many others — or the sparkling cover versions he did of of songs new and old. His music (whether it’s specifically his, or music he has made especially his own) isn’t so much a tie to a rosy, cozy pat as it is a flowing river connecting that past with a harsher present, and ever-shifting future. He was magic, he was opera, he was a legend, but he was also defiantly, utterly himself — and in that act, he whispered, moaned, shouted, crooned, and pleaded, with that magical voice of his, for me to be myself. We never got to go dancing (something I’d dreamed of as a teen) and I never got to shake his hand (something I dreamed of as an adult) but he showed me how to listen for the beat, to create my own steps, to choose my own partners, and to walk off if things weren’t working. I owe him so much. We all do. George, you have been loved.



The Women Understand

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Confession: I finally saw the classic 1980s movie The Breakfast Club in its entirety last week. I’d only ever seen it in bits and pieces before, like a giant, talky jigsaw; viewing it all the way through, uninterrupted, proved to be a revelation.

As a child of the 1980s, it’s strange to think this symbol of an era passed me by, because of all of John Hughes’ films, The Breakfast Club is perhaps the most celebrated, widely known, and deeply loved. It’s surreal seeing symbols from my generation being embraced -indeed, appropriated, worshipped, and idolized -by far younger generations. Following the movie’s screening, I combed through various websites and tweets, curious to gauge reaction, get a sense of the age of these new fans, and investigate how they expressed their love. The level of passion for a 28-year-old film, from a generation populated by those sometimes young enough to be my own kids (gulp), is nothing short of astonishing. Yes, the film is fascinating, funny, and captivating in its poetic simplicity as well as timeless in its themes -but I honestly did not expect the intense love from millenials that I found.

In the years since John Hughes’ untimely passing, I hadn’t thought much about his films, or his characters -or indeed, the chemistry of his ensembles, the genius behind his casting choices, or the thought-provoking subtext of his characters. At the time of writing my 2009 tribute to Hughes, I was floating in a sea of nostalgia. I recalled how Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made me feel then, as a kid -not now, an adult. While it’s strange to think I missed the TBC (and perhaps it’s a bit of a shame, because I was strangely oblivious to the cultural earthquake it created –thanks very much, MJ, Duran Duran, and childhood best friend), seeing it now, as an adult woman, has allowed a very unique insight into the nature of youthful infatuation versus adult attraction. While the “popular” boys of Hughes’ films have implied sexual histories, there’s precious little to indicate they enjoyed “it.” While that’s partly down to language -Hughes seriously toned down the vulgar vernacular that so characterizes teenaged boys -it’s also deeply related to how he portrayed female characters. Hughes consistently placed his “good” boys with supposedly “skanky” girls. It’s curious (and, looking back on them now, depressing) that sexually experienced females are portrayed as mean sluts.

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Perhaps this was a symbol of the director’s identification (/fascination//obsession) with his (perennially virginal) female lead, a sort of latter-day outcast Elizabeth I, who was never allowed to be friends with “those”sorts of girls (if Ringwald’s character in TBC was, we never saw it). Andie’s buddy Jena in Pretty In Pink is a possible-maybe exception to this rule, though the nature of female-female relating in that film seems geared entirely toward Andie’s glaringly absent mother. Regardless of the “good” boys dating the “slutty” girls in Hughes’ movies, I get the sense now, watching them as an adult woman, that there is an implied (if very identifiable) subtext of the boys never really enjoying the sex they were getting -even though it happened to be with females who had considerable power on the social ladder and were aware of that power. The boys were getting it, not feeling it, and that was an important (if romantically teenaged) distinction in the world(s) Hughes created.

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The act itself comes across as dirty or perhaps ridiculous (ie, The Geek or Long-Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles) -surely not pleasurable, but silly, reckless, something belonging to the (supposedly) joyless world of adulthood, and as a result, there’s something curiously sexless about the male characters; sure, that’s part of their innate charm -they are awkward teenagers, after all -but, viewing them from an adult perspective, it’s still curious. Hughes was portraying class-challenged kids (his forte), but the sexual dynamics, and the realism of their energy, are of particular importance for to the works’ continued watchability; casting is central to this energy. Michael Schoeffling, Andrew McCarthy, Eric Stotlz, Matthew Broderick, and Emilio Estevez, as they appear in Hughes’ movies, are all boyish, pretty, and entirely unthreatening. In The Breakfast Club, Estevez’ Andy fits in perfectly with the handsome-boy archetype Hughes was developing -heightening the idealizing is Andy’s being an athlete (albeit unwillingly) -and proves himself a nice guy in making himself available as a confessional figure in whom the shy Alison can trust. All these male characters (who appeared in Hughes’ films between 1984 and 1987) have two important things in common: conventional good looks and moral fortitude. You could take Jake, Blaine, Keith, Ferris, or Andy home to mom, and mom would surely approve.

The Breakfast Club‘s John Bender however, is a different breed. Unsettling and damaged, he’s the guy you’d never take home to mom. But despite – or because -of this, I think Bender is far and away Hughes’ most interesting creation -and perhaps the one best-suited to an audience beyond the one intended. Featured between Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty In Pink (1986) (The Breakfast Club was released in 1985), the role was originally meant to be played by John Cusack, but eventually went to then-25-year-old Judd Nelson, who was so committed to the role he emulated “Bender” between takes and ad-libbed some of the film’s most beloved moments and lines. He brings a mesmerizing, deeply authentic sexual heat unlike any other actor in the Hughes canon. It is certainly not a teenaged vibe (at least to my mind), and while it’s fair criticism that quality lessens the “realism” of the film Hughes was so keen on capturing, I’d argue it’s greatly contributed TBC‘s enduring popularity for close to three decades.

Unlike Hughes’ other male leads (including Estevez), Nelson is not conventionally handsome (though very striking, he is certainly not from the same mould as model-turned-actor Michael Schoeffling), and his character is clearly not morally upstanding. Nelson transcends his character’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks cliche, using charm, smarm, a jangly physicality and greatly contrasting speaking volumes (shouting/silence); his attractiveness is intensified as a result. The ensuing soupcon of tangibles and intangibles (bad attitude, tender vulnerability, physical prowess, louche fashion and verbal dexterity) is something online fangirls understand, just as they try to analyze him and daydream about his future with Claire. It’s interesting how Hughes gives short shrift to sex appeal and its role in attraction; The Breakfast Club, interestingly, hints at just this. Claire’s correcting Bender in his pronunciation of “Moliere” is fascinating (Ringwald’s flashing smile suggests, to me anyway, far more than mere friendliness), and in another memorable scene, we see the “Princess” looking through the various photos of females the “Criminal” keeps in his wallet. He simultaneously examines the contents of her purse, and the two converse. He asks her why she carries so much stuff around; she asks him why he has so many girlfriends. Claire eventually tells him she never throws anything away, to which he neatly responds, “Neither do I.” The look on Nelson’s face here, similar to when Claire later visits him in the closet, is wonderful to behold. Voila, a Hughes character who clearly, unabashedly enjoys sex. Bravo!

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There is a distinct (and refreshing) lack of innocence about Bender that goes far, far beyond the romantic “bad boy” image so popular in cinematic history (and which many fans revel in). This isn’t to say he isn’t sensitive -he is, clearly -or that he isn’t afraid -again, he clearly is, as are the others. But Bender is menacing -an angry, abusive, violent figure living in a violent situation, horrified at exposure of his own vulnerability but simultaneously dying to put it on a stage for attention. He is also sexually confident. When he’s hiding under the table, he sees Claire’s white-pantied crotch beneath her skirt, and, integrating both sexual and provocative instincts (perhaps correctly guessing at this point that she’s a virgin), moves his face between her legs before the mortified Claire kicks him, surely a perfect example of the repulsion/attraction principle at work. Bender openly questions others’ virginity and is looked up to, becoming a de facto leader of the “club” not only because of his detention experience, but, I suspect, because of his sexual experience. This, to my mind anyway, is in line with teenaged mores.

What’s more, Bender is able to use language in a way the others may not because of that experience -even when he’s only talking to himself. His joke as he crawls through the air duct, with its vulgar element of the “two foot salami” and the naked, poodle-carrying blonde, is left famously unanswered; it’s an interesting (and I think, genius) choice Nelson made in ad-libbing the punchline-free joke, with Bender bolstering his own confidence and soothing his nerves by referencing images with such clear sexual underpinnings. It reveals so much about Bender as a person -his past, his attitudes, his values, even, dare I say, his self-opinion.

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That doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t sexually confident, and it’s notable, therefore, that the character isn’t punished for his carnal confidence or knowledge (unless you count his abusive home environment), nor is he rewarded for them (though some may argue the virginal Claire is his reward, but it’s interesting their overture is left purposely unresolved); he is, rather, used as a symbol for the alienation all of the characters feel, his raised fist, both defiant and victorious, closing the film. Might he also be an unintentional beacon of a burgeoning sexual confidence in the others? And can he, through associating with the virgin Claire, “redeem” himself? Of what?! Should he be sorry about his past deeds? Should he burn all those girlfriend photos? Should he go hawk Claire’s earring? Some contemporary fans seem devoted to the idea of romance between the two (or not), and though my little teenaged heart sighs at the thought, my adult heart scowls.

It’s rather ironic an image of Bender closes The Breakfast Club; never again would film audiences see such an unapologetic, likeable, sexually potent figure in a John Hughes movie. Sadly (if unsurprisingly), Hughes never cast Nelson again. (One can only conjecture over why.) Does all this now mean I don’t enjoy Hughes’ movies? Certainly not. I look at old favorites like Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as warm, comforting old chums, momentos from the “woolly cotton brains” of youth. Twenty-first century teens, saturated as they are with internet culture, with easy access to porn, having grown up with a myriad of saucy images and sexting, feel an affinity with his work (especially TBC) and it lives on in various ways, through various media. Perhaps, if I’d seen the movie when it came out, my reaction would’ve been similarly worshipful. Then again, as a youngin, I always preferred the smooth, pretty boys, the ones with the nice cars and the good manners who I could bring home. I loved Duckie because he was sweet, silly, and protective of his best friend; I loved Ferris for his posh tastes and intelligence. Fantasy was fun, but those fantasy figures had to conform to a certain standard of acceptability in my social and familial circles. No creeps were allowed, especially sexy, dangerous creeps. Eeeeek.

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It’s only been with time and experience -life -that I’ve thrown out ideas around acceptability and come up with my own definitions. These days, my head has been turned, not by aesthetics or fantastical ideas, but by that undefinable quality that manifests itself as a mix of confidence, charm, curiosity, respect, and knowingness. Everyone gets older, and in the process, everyone gets clearer on what they want in life and love.

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What happened on Monday? That’s the question everyone who’s seen The Breakfast Club asks. Forget romance! My rose-colored glasses of teendom are long gone; I hope Bender ditched class and paid a visit to the Principal’s wife. I’d expect nothing less -or more. Neither should you. Life goes on… carpe diem. Don’t you forget.

(Photo credits: Emilio Estevez as Andrew Clark via; Andrew McCarthy as Blaine McDonnagh via; Eric Stoltz as Keith Nelson via)

Excellent Super Good

Love electrorock? Hiphop? Electronica? Um… dancing? Check out early 80s New York band ESG.

They were so heavily sampled that they actually titled an EP, Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills.

They opened for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their work’s been sampled by acts like TLC, The Beastie Boys, Tricky, and Wu-Tang Clan. Pretty impressive for a group of sisters from the Bronx.

I love them because of their blend of old-school and new-school approach; they use traditional instruments (bongos, guitars, bass) to produce a futuristic, near-electronic sound that reminds me of Krautrockers like Can and Kraftwerk. ESG were able to produce some very atmospheric sounds with a mix of minimal melodics and maximum rhythm, capturing the magical madness of New York City like so many before and after.

ESG play their final gig in June at Le Poisson Rouge.

Go if you can. Thank me later.

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