Tag: Madonna Page 1 of 2

Thank you, Jimmy

Photo via

A wave of deep sadness washed over me as I learned the news of Jimmy Scott’s passing. After that, gratitude. I am so blessed to have seen Jimmy Scott sing live.

It was a steamy June evening in 2012, in the basement supper-club of the popular Red Rooster Restaurant in Harlem. Amidst the distant clattering of dishes and the clinking of wine glasses, Scott entered, humble, and clearly moved by his ecstatic reception, wheelchair-bound and physically frail, but with a fierce determination and passion that flickered across his smiling face. A microphone was lowered, and for the next hour or so, Scott closed his eyes, furrowed his brow, and had the intimate room spellbound.

I first stumbled across the recordings of Jimmy Scott as a teenager. Some of the artists I admired had mentioned him as an inspiration in interviews, and, trusting them as great arbiters of taste, I followed their advice. This time period coincided with my discovery and embrace of a lot of jazz sounds: Ella Fitzgerald (whom I saw live a few years later), Miles Davis (who I’d already seen live, scant months before his passing), Dizzy Gillespie (who again, I saw live before his passing), Billie Holiday (alas), and Frank Sinatra (who I wish I could take a time machine to see live in the 1950s). While Little Jimmy fit within that jazz world, to say he was a “jazz singer” would, for me, be sticking him in a bin that was a bit too narrow for what he did, and really, who he was. Just as he himself defied norms (not at all by choice), his voice — and the way he used it — defied conventional categorization. He belonged in an ornate church the way he belonged in a smoky jazz club; that is to say, he was a bit of everything, embracing, synthesizing, integrating influences and styles, but then re-making, re-creating and expressing something wholly and entirely his very own. As Anthony Hegarty put it to The Quietus in 2011, he “sings like a sobbing diamond.”

It’s this very individuality and subsequent beauty that so astonishes and quiets us.

And yet, some might argue it cost him mainstream success. Jimmy’s name isn’t as well-known as say, Sinatra, or Dean Martin, or Tony Bennett. He doesn’t have the cachet of his jazz-singer brethren. But again, Jimmy wasn’t just one thing. He worked with Lou Reed and David Lynch; he was in a Hal Willner-produced tribute concert for Harry Smith; he was name-checked as inspiration by a variety of artists, including Nick Cave, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, the latter saying Jimmy was the only singer “who’d ever really made me cry.”

photo via

Lou Reed had said, “we all bow at the altar of Jimmy Scott.” Lou, I think, understood Jimmy in a profound way; both of them appreciated the deep relationship that has to exist between identity, artistry, beauty, and authenticity. Lou got it; Jimmy got it. And, in the brief moments the world had them, we, the audience, got it.

To say the experience of seeing Jimmy live was special would be far too reductive and trite; to say it was akin to going to church would be too predictable. There was something other-worldly, haunting, and wholly transcendent about hearing him live. Recordings may flit at the edges of his greatness, but, like a great opera singer (Pavarotti) or a wondrous instrumentalist (Gillespie, Davis), the nature of art, to say nothing of how we, the audience, experience it, changes in a dramatic way within the live realm. Never mind style; Jimmy Scott’s whole soul — in life, in love, in art, in sound and fury — was expressed in the blessed short hour I and the rest of Ginny’s Supper Club had with him that night. Experiencing Little Jimmy live re-affirmed the centrality of music and culture in my life, and reminded me of my responsibility to the authentic in everything I write and do. Sometimes we are all motherless children; Jimmy made us know, understand, and find the beauty in the pain, the pain in the beauty, always, unquestionably, unapologetically himself.

Holy Spirit

One of the strangest things I overheard about the Pussy Riot verdict occurred recently when I was out with friends. An older woman at a nearby table was talking into her cellphone, eyes obscured by heavy tortoise shell glasses.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said not-so-softly, tilting straw hat ever so slightly toward the blazing sun, “you can’t just go around saying any goddam thing you like anytime , any place you like. They should’ve known better, those girls.”

They should have known better. The words echoed and bounced around in my head as the gin and tonic glinted in the the afternoon sunshine. Should the members of Pussy Riot -Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Ekaterina Samutsevich, 30, and Maria Alekhina, 24 -stayed quiet? Writer Lynn Crosie recently observed that the girls’ actions were “hideous” to have happened in a church. Watching the video for their new single, it’s not difficult to see how they offended traditional, church-going sensibilities. The elderly nuns look perplexed and more than a bit pissed off by these pesky masked aerobi-dancing young women. But the protest did not involve any swear words or cussing, nor did it use a holy name in any obscene way; it lasted less than a minute and invoked a religious figure, in a sincere request for delivery from a perceived (if very real, to every day Russians) evil. The hypocrisy of the trial and obscene harshness of the sentence are all out of proportion to the actual crime, but Pussy Riot have become an international cause celebre in the process.

The whole affair points to a fetid underbelly of the ruling Russian politburo worthy of deeper investigation and exploration. The name “Anna Politkovskaya” floats somehow, ghostly, above all of this. But what’s been heartening lately has been the outpouring of sincere support from various outspoken celebrities, including the holy (and wholly inspiring, to my mind) triumvirate of artsy female greatness; Madonna, Bjork, and Patti Smith have let it be publicly known they stand with the three members of Pussy Riot. Madonna donned a mask and wrote the band’s name in marker on her own body during a concert in Oslo; Bjork did a manic live dance with a bevy of female chorister-musicians, shrieking in her signature banshee-like howl above the din. It was a beautiful, if perfect echo of Pussy Riot’s own protest in one of Russia’s holiest sites.

“Jesus Christ would fucking forgive them!” roared Smith at recent concert in Stockholm. One senses she’s right. Surely Jesus would smile at the ballsy, youthful vigor of it all. It’s surreal, the protest -tacky, surreal, unsettling, gormless, and… young. That brave, outrageous, ballsy stuff we do when we’re young translates into the stuff we awkwardly admire from the comfortable distance of gap-toothed time and fat adulthood. We may not do it again… but damn, we want to.

The childlike sincerity of Pussy Riot’s protest dances with a childish desire to shock, which isn’t so childish if you know the admittedly scary politics of Putin’s Russia. It’s as if the rioters, in using the slang for female genitalia so boldly, and doing their funky young-wooman-goddess-thing in a Christian environ, are asking people to stop and think where true power lies in 2012 Russia, and where it should lie; they’re daring people to stop, to think, to choose, and to reconsider. As Crosbie wisely notes, “the word “pussy” has been on everyone’s lips for weeks. It’s hard to imagine a more simple and more complex way of disseminating the blunt, beautiful nature of the girls’ mission.” Those colorful masked figures are 2012’s gangly, Gaia-like, guitar-slinging Teletubbies, Mother Russia’s monstrous, balaclava’d court jesters, pointing up the ridiculous nudity of Sovereign, State, and Society. All we can do, us boring grown-up women, is stand and smile as they call upon the Saint for delivery, mouths open, eyes wide, inspired by the bravery of youth and the beautiful danger of pussy power in holy houses made flesh and blood.

Jesus would forgive them – even if they knew better, but most especially if they didn’t.

(Photo credits: Pussy Riot members [top] from Pitchfork.com; Madonna photo from nme.com; Pussy Riot [bottom] by Igor Mukhin.)

ELL. YOU. VEE.


Today is the Super Bowl. Along with the inherent drama of watching grown men crash into each other as they engage in a kind of life-size version of a chess match and the fact that the New York Giants are involved (go Giants!), I’ll be watching because this year’s Halftime Show looks amazing. None other than Madonna herself is set to perform, along with LMFAO, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.. Oh, and Cirque du Soleil are involved. If that isn’t entertainment with a capital “e,” I don’t know what is.

When the whispers of her appearance began circulating a few months ago, there were the predictable snickers and groans. What’s the Queen of Pop doing hopping around, glamorous and a-glitter, amidst the quarterbacks? But the Super Bowl isn’t strictly about sports, and you can’t get a more entertaining live performer than Madonna. I was schooled in this many years ago when I, full of cynicism and disliking both her image and canon, was dragged to her Girlie Show tour. Not being Catholic, I couldn’t understand her obsession over the religion (probably why Blond Ambition didn’t appeal to me, or much of her early work) but being in the very new, very scary-meets-cool world of university (ie artsy lectures, cute professors, pub nights, and my own car) meant I was interested in notions of female independence, and what that meant to the wider cultural world. Where did I fit in? Madonna’s hilariously arch, if brutally honest album Erotica, and her photography book Sex, did a lot in terms of helping me figure out that place. Sexual being? Thinking being? Feeling being? All of the above. Next.
Through the years, I’ve developed an enormous amount of respect for Madonna. I love that she’s never been cowed by those snickers and groans, even as she fearlessly integrates so many different aspects of her interests and personality with such single-minded ferocity. Even when she showed us her (fantastically fit) naked body in Sex, paraded down a Gaultier runway topless, referenced Hindu imagery in dance numbers (or Judaism in music videos), Madonna never seems to give a fig about the outrage over her choices. It makes me wonder at her resilience, and about how she’s handling the mean-spirited criticism that’s cropped up the last few years around her face -more specifically, the work on her face. The entertainment industry hates, despises, loathes and abhors ageing. All the praise for Betty White conveniently cloaks the ugly if basic fact that she’d never be cast in a sexual role, that if you’re in the business and plan to age au naturel, you must be sweet, docile, and most of all, dumb (or be really, really good at playing dumb, and have a publicist who can work that angle relentlessly). You must be non-threatening and totally lovable. It goes without saying Madonna is none of these things, and has no interest in pursuing or cultivating those qualities.
The comments on Madonna’s face -and her ageing (she is fifty-three) -range from the catty to the downright nasty. Many have a nasty sexual vulgarity to them, and others are sniping and mean, implying there’s something awfully, terribly wrong with a successful woman over fifty climbing into bed with a twenty-something man. I find this kind of immaturity discouraging, but it’s also inevitable, the result of a relentlessly youth-oriented culture where only those under twenty-five are deemed sexually desirable. Annie Lennox pondered this dilemma, but Madonna is less interested in examination than in entertainment, and really, you can’t blame her. Like it or lump it, that entertainment demands an eternal esthetic of youthfulness. Her video for “Hollywood” from the 2003 album American Life underlined this awareness, offering a scary, freakish depiction of the demands of fame, and of a society where youth (especially female youth) is deemed more important than brains, ability, even talent.
She continues to play with our notions around entertainment, fantasy, and ageing in her latest video, “Gimme All Your Luvin’,” a cheeky little dance number with a pulsing electronic beat and the lady’s deceptively wispy vocals. (Don’t kid yourself: there’s steel behind that sound.) As Madonna, in full Bardot-esque makeup, shakes her big blonde mane (hilariously outlandish extensions or glamorous tresses? who cares?) or walks sideways along a wall with a team of faceless muscular football players supporting her, or walks coolly be-shaded with a pram, or has a (clearly thrilled) Nicki Minaj and (too-cool-for-school) M.I.A. bounce around as her cheerleaders, she isn’t trying to compete with the Gagas, the Britneys, the Katys, or any other would-be pop princesses. She doesn’t need to. She’s competing with the long-held ideas -ours -of how a famous person (famous woman, make that) should look, should move, should sound. The demand to “Act/Look your age!” are just plain boring, in the same vein as the accusations of her affecting an “accent” at the Golden Globes. “You’re from Detroit,” sniffed an online poster. Those attitudes don’t faze her. Like any good pop diva, Madonna seems dead embarrassed by her roots, and fully conscious of her vanity. Why should she act like “one of us” (or put on an act of faux-humility, as so, so many in Hollywood are so good at doing) when she clearly doesn’t move in our world anyway? Those offended by her lack of humility find her pretentious; those inspired by her steely-eyed confidence find her fascinating. There is no middle ground.
Still, Madonna wants to remind us: there’s an album, there’s a movie, expect a tour. This is how it’s done. She’s reminding potential viewers at tonight’s Super Bowl (the football fans, her fans, fans of pop culture itself) that she’s still a force. Does she need to? Yes. Amidst American Idol and America’s Got Talent and The Voice and Glee, Madonna is saying in her iron-hand-in-velvet-glove way: I was here first and I still do it better than all of you. Past this hardness lies the plain truth: she loves doing it – loves the performing, the entertaining, the singing-dancing-sashaying-hopping-bopping singy-songy madness that is pop. Don’t you?
Refusing to be defined (or limited) by her age, by her family, by her motherhood, by her charity efforts or even by her poptastic past, Madonna is defiantly, definitively present in the harsh here and nowness of 2012 Pop Music. While we applaud sixty-two year-old Bruce Springsteen’s latest opus with nary a word about his appearance, we snark over the face of a fifty-three year-old woman, ignoring the euphoric rush of joy her beats bring us, the heady fantasy that the artifice of the pop world presents. It isn’t fair in the real world. But the pop world isn’t the real world; like its namesake in the art world, it’s all about glamour, fantasy, superficiality, and a perpetual youth. We experience those things vicariously whenever we listen, causing a little dance across the kitchen or a tap of the fingers on the steering wheel or a wiggle in our office chairs. We become that young smooth being again, carefree, fierce, uninhibited, curious, and open to everything, investigating the limits (and dizzying non-limits) of our own potential and the joyous exhilaration of true independence, ever-mindful of what being a woman means, for good and bad and everything in-between. Maybe, just maybe, amidst the bleeps and bloops of that ditty, we could take a little holiday. It would be so nice.
Photo credits: Top – AP Photo, Matt Slocum; Middle – Herb Ritts; Vanity Fair collection from Madonnalicious; Bottom, still from “Gimme All Your Luvin'” music video (Interscope/Live Nation) with artwork from Sound Off Music blog.

Push The Button


Amidst the ritz and glitz of the Oscars tomorrow night, I’ll be thinking back to my favorite movie-going moments. When I was a real cinophile -and I was, believe it or not (my degree in Film isn’t for naught) – I’d make a point of going out to see each and every film nominated in nearly every category, with writing, design, and editing being favorites. I remember leaping out of my skin with joy with Eiko Ishioka won for her beautiful, sexy costumes for Dracula; I loved those outfits so much I bought the accompanying film book, complete with sketches. When I saw Sleepy Hollow, the first thing I noted afterwards was its incredible art direction; I predicted then it would win in that category, and sure enough, Rick Heinrichs (art director) and Peter Young (set decorator) were awarded well-earned little shiny golden men.

Last year when I saw A Single Man, I was so moved, I literally couldn’t bring into words the beautiful combination of dialogue, cinematography, and music I experienced while watching it, but I was sure Colin Firth richly deserved an Oscar for it. I was also sure he wouldn’t win.

The nuts-and-bolts aspect of filmmaking has always fascinated me, if somewhat intimidated; it takes a lot of skill to write a compelling story and flowing dialogue, come up with a perfect visual palette, and put those pieces together just so in order to tell a good story. As the superstar hype and fabu-celeb idolatry has become entrenched in the last decade or so (hello internet, I love you, but…), my interest in films and the art of making them has somewhat waned, and these days I’m more likely to watch documentaries or classic films than contemporary fare. That’s not to say I think the stuff out now is crap – I’d love to see True Grit, The Fighter, and especially The King’s Speech -but the hype puts me off. Maybe it’s the move to middle age, working in the entertainment industry, or a cynicism that’s gradually entrenched itself into my perspective. Maybe it’s too much BBC and not enough Cookie Monster.

The Hollywood we’ll see tomorrow night on the red carpet -in all its floor draper, shoulder-baring, spray-tanned, primped-up glory -isn’t the reality, and everyone knows that, and no one cares. And really, it doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is celebrating the image we’re being sold. On a personal level, that parade of glitz and glam wasn’t why I fell in love with movies. The dance of light, shadow, colour, and texture with words, sounds, tones, and finally, silence is, and will always be, magical.

Sparkle, With An Edge

I’m not the biggest fan of movie-to-anything adaptations. It’s unfair, but productions tend to become laden with so many expectations and comparisons so as to sink the show before a note is sung. Lord Of The Rings is a case in point: the 2006-2007 musical suffered in comparison to Peter Jackson‘s epic film series of the early aughties. No matter how silly, small-minded, and un-visionary it may be, people who’ve seen a movie are going to come to its theatrical counterpart expecting to see some kind of approximation. How excellent then, that the musical version of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert does so well in that regard, and, in the process, carves out its own totally-fabulous niche.

Maybe it’s because the splashy work is made up of fun 70s and 80s tunes. Maybe it’s the fact the nature of the work (moving between the exquisiteness of intentional artifice and serious themes) lends itself to the visual. Maybe it’s strong direction, acting, choreography, and design. Or maybe it’s a combination of the all of the above. Seriously, this show’s a winner in all its glittery, glammy glory; it’s fun, fabulous, and stuffed with real feelings. I can’t think of a better way to light up a dark Toronto winter than to scamper down King Street, platform heels and all, to see it in all its disco-ball, swirling-bus glory. It’s really that good.

Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert: The Musical made its North American debut Tuesday night in Toronto. It carries high hopes on its sparkly platform shoes -or make that shoe, which sits aloft the bus (“Priscilla”) which the characters travel in across Australia. The story adheres closely to the 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, loud costumes, lewd language, and lots –lots -of buff, sexy men. Mitzi (also known as “Tick”), the hyper Felicia, and the classy transexual Bernadette travel across the country to play a casino in Alice Springs. It’s there Mitzi/Tick reunites with his long-lost wife and the son he’s never met. The musical version has added a few sparkling elements, including three angel-like figures who pop down from the top of the stage and belt out 70s and 80s pop numbers with aplomb, like sparkly muses floating above the performers’ heads. The show’s music is entirely made up of pop-radio favorites, including predictable (if dancey) hits like Madonna’s “Material Girl”, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”, and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. As if to emphasize the glam, there’s a huge sparkly shoe, and disco ball, that go into the audience, along with a few pounds of confetti and plenty of risque costumes (yes, bare-bum-exposing), all of which make the show feel less of a theatre piece than a Pride party in the Princess of Wales Theatre. In staid, conservative-theatre-loving Toronto, that can only be a good thing.

Will Swenson gives a tender, touching performance as a man trying to reconcile various aspects of his past and present with his ever-fluid identities -as father, performer, and gay man; his duet with son Benjamin (Luke Mannikus) was genuinely throat-lump inducing, even with the amusing pseudo-Elvis impersonations. “You Were Always On My Mind” feels both camp and touching at once -and it’s rare the two can co-exist peacefully in any cultural moment, let alone in a musical where camp is considered de rigeur. As the catty Felicia, performer Nick Adams ups the camp ante to 100, ferociously throwing out one-line bon mots and dancing like his life depends on it. He proves himself both a huge comic relief and a deeply magnetic stage presence.

Anger, abs, and tears aside, I found Tony Sheldon’s performance as the elder stateswoman of the troupe most moving; he didn’t have the bitter bite of Terence Stamp‘s filmic counterpart (see? comparisons are inevitable!) but instead conveyed a remarkable combination of dignity, warmth, and longing. Having played Bernadette over one thousand times onstage, and with a lengthy list of theatre credits (including performing in works by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Stephen Sondheim), Sheldon brings a refreshing sense of balance, toning down the campy, outlandish qualities of the show. An older man playing a tranny, toning things down? True. More than anyone, Sheldon clearly conveys the sense of outsider-ness the troupe face in the wider world. Hiding behind big sunglasses, long, blonde hair, and louche outfits a la Lauren Bacall, there’s a remarkable sense of sadness combined with faint vestiges of hope. Sheldon shares a nice chemistry with Canadian actor C. David Johnson (as a kind mechanic), and conveys confident poise, particularly when coming to the defence of Felicia after he’s been beaten up in the tough town of Coober Pedy. Bernadette’s response to a rough cowboy’s rude demand is perfectly executed, and superbly delivered. Ouch.

While it would be easy for the performers to fall back on Thomson’s eye-popping design, but thanks to Phillips’ instinctual direction and the strong chemistry between the three leads, that thankfully doesn’t happen. But it must be said: the set is a magnificent thing to behold, as is that sparkly bus of the title. Designer Thomson borrows liberally from the rock and roll world in his use of LED screens and colour. It was interesting, in watching the show, to see just how much the music-and-theatre worlds collide Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Remnants of past tours involving artists as diverse of Parliament Funkadelic, Madonna, David Bowie, and even U2 were discernible in the set, lighting, and costume design. There is a definite element of rock-pop concert to the proceedings here, adding a party-like atmosphere, and keeping nicely in-step with Mirvish’s other big production, Rock of Ages, which is currently playing down the street.

With gorgeous visuals, jaw-dropping costumes, genuinely joyful performances, energetic choreography, and peppy musical arrangements, one is nudged into the realms of beautiful fantasy here, even as we’re pushed out of that fantasy and shown a much uglier side. The decision to not flinch away from hatred is brave. Showing the nasty lettering that gets spray-painted on the side of Priscilla following a performance the gals give in another small town they travel through allows for a vital bitter edge amidst the sugar. Likewise, keeping the salty language of the film version shows tremendous respect to the source, as well as to the essential nature of the characters being portrayed. Like the movie, the work examines the ugliness of homophobia without dwelling on it. By the end, the definition of ‘family’ -in all its complications and challenges -has been stretched and moulded into something much deeper and wider than any of the characters could’ve imagined at the start. If you’re in Toronto, take your feather boa’d self to the Princess of Wales for some solid, first-rate theatre; if you’re not in Toronto, well… get in that bus. Just remember to bring your dancing shoes.

Photo credits:

Top Photo: Company: Foreground (l to r) Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, Nick Adams in the North American premiere production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical Photo by Joan Marcus.

Middle Photo: Will Swenson and Luke Mannikus in the North American premiere production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bottom Photo: Tony Sheldon as Bernadette by Tristram Kenton.

Big And Proud

You’d expect opera to be “big” but… in some cases, you’d be wrong.

As I detailed in my last blog post, the grandeur normally associated with the opera Aida has been unceremoniously stripped away in the most recent production from the Canadian Opera Company. This would be noble, but for the fact that the concept itself trumps the heart of the piece, rendering it a hollow, pretentious shell, and giving it the sort of empty grandeur director Tim Albery was purposely going against. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have a super-thrilling, emotional experience involving grandeur the very-same night, though. Quite the opposite.

“Big” as a concept (specifically applied to a live musical event) was openly celebrated once outside the Four Seasons Centre the night of Aida’s opening. My opera-mate and I walked into the start of Nuit Blanche, the fifth annual all-night celebration of all things artistic. Now, I railed against the event in this blog last year, but having spoken with several people who both work inside of it and/or adore it, well… my position has somewhat softened. I have to admit, it does offer a cool experience, though I wish it was more than once a year (say, in the summer, during or just before Luminato) and not just a single all-night, foot-wrecking event. This year I was eager to see Daniel Lanois‘ brilliant, beautiful Later That Night At The Drive-In, held at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, directly in front of City Hall. The space is normally a huge, empty expanse of concrete, with a functioning ink rink in the winter, but during this year’s Nuit Blanche, it was utterly transformed into… well, a drive-in. Kind of. Together with local artists and a team of talented organizers, Lanois had transformed the space into a truly communal setting where the idea of “spectacle” (whether it be drive-in, rock concert, whatever) was being mocked, milked, celebrated, and shared.

As if in direct opposition to Albery and his pretentiously over-wrought ‘concept’, here, the sense of civic grandeur was played into and played with; to quote Madonna, “Music makes the people come together“, or, of course, the man himself, “I’m not a stranger in the eyes of the maker” -and the maker was us, him, the night, the light, the shadows, the speakers, the sets of eyes and ears and hearts, beating together and out-of-time, in-time, with music, beats, and angles. The maker was the place itself and the people filling it. Visually, ‘Drive-In’ was intoxicating: a series of geometric screens were set up all over the square, on scrims and tall screens, offering live feeds of action happening further inside -but this wasn’t a glorified concert experience. The visuals portrayed dancers, prancers, techies, hanger-ons, and onlookers. If there’s one word to describe the experience, it’d be “immersive” -one was literally immersed in sound, light, colour, and the experience of togetherness within the grandeur of a large outdoor music thingamadoodle. Really. I got the keen sense Lanois et al were purposely keeping away from easy definitions in their presentation, that they were going after something already extant within Lanois’ music: the magical, the meditative, the intimate and the epic, all at once.

So it was no accident the music emanating from Later That Night At The Drive-In was audible three city blocks away. That’s not to say it was L-O-U-D in the rock concert way; rather, there was a feeling of intimacy and sharing amidst the Nuit Blanche crowds, and surrounding this most grand of events, in one of the city’s biggest outdoor public spaces. Instead of shunning the idea of “big”, Lanois and his team were openly embracing it, using the intimacy and immediacy of live music to draw people together. A huge mirror was mounted above the small, Arabesque stage on an extreme angle, so that the small square became a kind of hallowed, silvery frame, bathing everything -and everyone -both in and outside of it in a holy, haunting light that whispered, “you are here, I am here, we are all together…

Whatever expectations onlookers may have brought were both exceeded and gently, deftly, pushed to one side. Big isn’t always bad; there just has to be a big heart behind it, one to make all the others feel they’re somehow a part of it -singing, playing, dancing, moving and being moved. At the end of the day, Big Idea has to equal Big Heart, and sometimes, with the right amount of care, it also equals Big Art. Bravo Monsieur Lanois.

Song Song Sunday

Lying in bed mid-morning this sunny Sunday, two thoughts presented themselves: ‘why can’t I go back to sleep?‘ and ‘what the heck is the name of that French-Canadian electro band from the 1980s?‘ Several cups of Bewleys, a plateful of waffles, a scan of the weekend paper and a load of laundry later, I set myself the task of answering the latter question (there is no answer to the former, other than the mysterious wonders of the human body). A bit of snooping, and… voila. I thought of The Box in relation to Gorillaz‘s new single, “Stylo” -there’s that same pulsating beat, that bloopy-bleepy bass, that high-ish, scarily monotone vocal. It’s creepy and compelling all at once.

I have no way of knowing if Damon Albarn et al have heard The Box’s 1980s hit “L’Affaire Dumoutier (Say To Me)“, but I do hear a definition connection between the two:

There’s always been a European sensibility to what Gorillaz do, much in the same way with what Quebecois artists were doing twenty years ago. That spirit of experimentation, of pushing pre-conceived norms, of being… just plain different, feels weirdly duplicated and canned these days; ideas of what constitutes “authentic” within the musical realm are hazy at best.

I type this after an evening of half-observing the Twitter insults flying around over Ke$ha’s appearance on Saturday Night Live between sips of red wine and bites of calamari in a busy trattoria; I couldn’t help but feel compelled to observe the nastiness being hurled at the “garbage chic” singer/songwriter, and feel, at least, a bit sorry for her. Online, the running theme was that she ripped off Lady Gaga, in both sound and appearance. People know -or like to think they know -a fake when they spot it, and yet more often than not, the same fickle public openly applauds pre-conceived, packaged musical figures who’ve been primed to be the sassy “rebel” while simultaneously keeping a well-groomed public persona that has nothing to do with music and everything to do with celebrity. What’s original? What’s a rip-off? Is being obvious a hugely bad thing -especially when put beside artists that look (and, oh yeah, sound) like they’ve dropped out of a machine? I’d argue the online culture has blurred our ideas of what constitutes originality, in both good and bad ways. To borrow Warhol’s phrase, people want their fifteen minutes -but with fifteen different costume changes and a team of publicists, stylists, and hangers-on, ever singing the same damn over-manufactured, cutesy-wootsy, auto-tuned song. Some of us notice.

Incidentally, I remember Madonna’s break-out in the 80s, and her getting the tired old “trashy” / “slut” / “ripoff” insults hurled her way, too. Ergo, there’s something about all the hatred towards Ke$ha that makes her way more interesting to me. Fabulously shabby, awkwardly un-hip, and defiantly dirty, the young singer has less of the Gaga glam that so lends Ms. Germanotta to MAC campaigns and Philip Treacy hats, and more of the desperately young, ambitiously sexy vibe of Madonna’s live performance of “Like A Virgin” from the 1984 MTV Awards. She’s out of tune entirely, gets tangled in the wads of white netting and emanates such a vibe of delicious trashiness, you’ll want to take a shower at the end of it -but you can’t take your eyes off of her, either.

Then again, maybe I’m being an old fart. I do think it’s useful to go back and draw threads from past to present, however obvious, or un-obvious, that may be. Finding an original voice takes time, patience, and most of all, living (especially living away from the nefariously homogenizing forces of the record industry). It makes separating, mixing, kneading, and baking the authentic from the inauthentic that much more rewarding. Imagine a meal in a box; now imagine a meal in the oven. Originality is a tiresome old notion to throw around in the 21st century, but it behooves us to think about it, and how we approach our music, and what we expect from its performers, more carefully. Everything really is everything, as Lauryn Hill sang.

Herewith, a probable inspiration for The Box and Gorillaz -and probably everyone else, too:

Chit-Chat

The new Lady Gaga video is out. One word: wow.

As with many of her other videos, Gaga is pushing buttons here: ones relating to homosexuality, murder, and even rumors of her own androgyny. Directed and co-written by the award-winning Jonas Akerlund, the video -more of a mini-film -makes clear cultural references across the worlds of film, music, art, and dance. I caught nods to Thelma and Louise, Pulp Fiction, the work of Russ Meyer, Madonna (particularly during her Sex phase), Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring (with the bright, cartoon-like coloring and innate sense of playfulness), – even the choreography of Twyla Tharp (with the sharp jerky movements and upper body swings), to say nothing of the influence Akerlund’s past work has on the vid. How many “mainstream” pop artists inject so much thought -and creative approach -into their work? And how many (successfuly) incorporate Beyonce into the mix?

Kudos, Gaga. Keep pushing those buttons. The world -especially the pop world -needs it more than ever.

Hurts, Wrinkles, Desire (aka Life)

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hearing the dulcet tones of Shelagh Rogers float across my office. Shelagh was the host of a program on CBC Radio (since canceled) called Sounds Like Canada, but has since gone on to host a weekly literary program, The Next Chapter. Today’s show had a distinct theme: bleak endings and new beginnings, particularly related to matters of the heart. With the yearly Valentine’s Day assault kicking into high gear, it seemed a particularly timely topic, with a refreshingly bittersweet twist.

One of Shelagh’s guests was Mary-Jo Eustace, the spurned ex-wife of actor Dean McDermott, who infamously left her for Tori Spelling and went on to do reality television. She has a new book about her experience called Divorce Sucks and has been featured in Hello! Canada as well as Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Joy Behar, Access Hollywood, Extra, Inside Edition, Bonnie Hunt, People Magazine and US Weekly. I interviewed Mary-Jo Eustace myself around this time last year. She was co-hosting a cooking show with Canadian food personality Ken Kostick called He Said, She Said. Along with yummy, easy-to-prep recipes, the show featured witty, sometimes salty exchanges of the two acid-tongued hosts. I was eager to meet them and learn more about their chemistry and how they come up with their food ideas.

I was not interested in the tawdry details of her break-up. I’d been warned by the publicist not to broach the topic of Mary-Jo’s personal life, I didn’t, in truth, have any interest in wading into those waters; they were, to me, too deep, too painful, and frankly, none of my business. And, being a foodie, I was more interested in her relationship to food and her viewers. She was polite and classy in answering my questions but I sensed a wary kind of judgment as well, manifest in a few brief barbs related to what she perceived to be my youth.

Regardless of this, I sensed a real sadness about her, and I left the interview feeling her anger was really a ruse covering a deeper wound. I also sensed an intense worry over her age and its relationship to her potential desirability as a woman. Looking at my own wrinkles and bumps lately, I sense that anxiety too. Media outlets can push the “elegance” of all the Meryl Streeps and Helen Mirrens they like -the fact remains that they’re not known as smoking hot babes. If you’re over 30, how do you compete with the like of Elisha, Jessica, Megan, et al? The truth is: you don’t. Self-acceptance is a long road, and it’s certainly made harder with an unquestioned man-boy culture that deems female aging to be equated with worthlessness -or worse, sexual repellance.

Where did this come from? I saw photos of Madonna in W Magazine recently, and I was utterly inspired. She may have had work done, but who cares? She looks glammy, vampy, campy, unapologetic, and utterly present. “Would it sound better if I was a man?” she whispers knowingly in her song, “Human Nature“. I have to wonder if the same spirit applies to women who age loudly, unapologetically, with sexual aplomb, blazing confidence, searing intelligence, and scalding wit, wearing heartbreak, healing, and a hard-won wisdom loudly and proudly. I can only hope that, like Mary-Jo, Madge, and yes, Nigella, I can embody a few of these qualities. Me, go gently into that good night? I don’t think so. But I wouldn’t mind being called a smoking hot babe one more time.

I Wanna Be Your Doll

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

So wrote Oscar Wilde. It seems fitting, the day after Halloween 2009, to think about this quote. Were the ghouls, goblins, and dead Vegas girls running up porches, ringing doorbells, and dancing at parties really make-believe? Or do they reveal something deeper about the wearers? Maybe masks are, to paraphrase Wilde, the truth that dares not speak its name.

I’ve thought about the lines that run between, around, and through notions of play, theatre, past, present, and art a lot lately. As a woman in the twenty-first century, my sense of identity should be more fluid than ever, and yet female image -iconography -feels constricted, claustrophobic, and shrunken. The Irish great may have been using “man” in a general sense, but in considering some recently portrayals of women, I’m coming to believe the masks being presented depend entirely on who is is providing the costuming.

Pop star Lady Gaga has provided no end of interest or amusement for the media-hungry masses. Body stockings, planetary rings, masks -Stefani Germanotta is, in many senses, creating her own personal mythology and wider social iconography in a weirdly similar way to her predecessor, Madonna, who did the same thing over two decades ago. Gaga’s mum may have christened her ambitious daughter with a similarly funny-sad/flaky-weighty nickname, but both have earned their wider social royalty; the latter is making it abundantly clear she never needed a counterpart Lord to have her own title. The clash between the perceived upper echelon of societal position and the Dadaist impulse of giving nonsense names is what Stephanie seems to be aiming at. Maybe. Similarly so Madge, who replaced the outdated, insincere societal version of holiness (and the saintly female icon image) nearly thirty years ago with her own brand of melted-down, rough-soft Pop Culture Femme-Prayer. ‘You may adore me,’ her mask implies, ‘but you will never really know me.’

And so we haven’t, even with babies, charity work, divorce. Madonna is shrewd enough to know that pop culture doesn’t care about the deeply personal, that there’s power in the unknowable. Gaga knows it too. Her hit song “Poker Face” celebrates the power of sexual power at the same time as it shakes hands with Mr. Invisible. Bearing in mind the rough sexual allusions, there’s much to be said for the benefits of maintaining a “pokerface” -it is, after all, another mask. Did we hear Madge respond to ex-husband Guy Ritchie’s inane “gristle” comment with any real growl herself? Maintaining the mask at all costs -even in the face of classless accusations related to pat intimacies -seems to be a necessity for the modern woman.

Cindy Sherman has made a career out of donning masks. Within the California girl, the secretary, the socialite, and the sad clown lives an awe-inspiring range of emotion and experience. This isn’t just about using ingenious costuming, makeup, and photography to capture a “look” -Sherman’s work goes one step further than fashion, turning the “look” into a wider storyline that is frequently disturbing, unnerving, and strangely… real. It’s within the artifice that she finds a kind of truth that speaks to our perceptions around women and their relationships to image. Sherman doesn’t just put something out there to be merely provocative -that’s easy -but to ask questions around ideas of beauty, value, and the hypocritical politics of chauvinistic “inclusion.” She does it in a way that in some ways reminds me of Madge around her Sex book days -willful, angry, daring, fearless, celebratory and challenging.

Seeing Sherman profiled recently on Art 21 (on an episode cleverly titled “Transformation”), I was reminded of something a fellow journalist had written about getting the pop culture we deserve. Publicists and managers now, more than ever, sculpt those in the public eye to be utterly envied, relentless talked about (in good or bad terms), and mercilessly duplicated. How much does someone like Lady Gaga actually control what goes out there? How little? The internet age of music and information consumption has meant that the concept of ‘instantaneous’ has been elevated to an artform. Only yesterday the Globe and Mail featured Halloween costumes that could easily transform you into someone famous. On the cover? Lady Gaga. Duh. Old idea; new ethos. What she is -and I’m still working it out -is somehow far less than what she represents: the colourful, noisy, thighs-splayed busting-open of a modern female identity that is merely an implosion in an old, dirty box marked “hawtness.” In their staged SNL catfight, the first thing Madge grabbed, and kept trying to pull off, was Gaga’s white-blonde wig. Through that small gesture of playful comedy, something whispered, “redefinition, reset, revolution… but only if I’m pulling the strings.” Maybe, as a woman in the twenty-first century, that’s both the beginning, and the end, of escaping that dirty little box, while keeping a poker face firmly, squarely, and sadly, in place.

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