Blackout and Erotica

A few years after the infamous MTV kiss with Britney Spears (poor Xtina) Madonna revealed how she had explained it to her daughter:

“I am the mommy pop star and she is the baby pop star. And I am kissing her to pass my energy on to her.”

Certainly at the time, Britney Spears was the nearest thing we had to a ‘new’ Madonna and this was reflected in her increasing involvement in her own music. 2003’s In The Zone had featured 8 Britney co-writing credits, easily the most direct creative involvement she had yet had on her albums. Appropriately enough it was also the album to feature Madonna in its lead-single, ‘Me Against the Music’. Truly there was a sense that Madonna was anointing a chosen successor.

It didn’t quite work out as planned. While Madonna rebounded quickly from the failure of 2003’s American Life, it would be four years before Britney Spears released another studio album. And what a four years they were – Britney went haywire, quickly and decisively moving from an American sweetheart to a TMZ poster child for celebrity dysfunction and drama. She went off the rails in a way Madonna never had. However in doing so (and retreating once again, no doubt due to necessity, from creative involvement in her music) she ultimately delivered the album of her career. Blackout, which is five years old this week,is an almost-perfect postmodern pop album. Yet while it is different in many ways from Madonna’s work, it’s impossible for the ‘baby’ to fully escape ‘mommy’’s influence.

Conveniently enough, the Madonna album which Blackout owes a debt to is also having a birthday this week. It’s 20 years since Erotica was released and while time and familiarity has dulled its power, even today it sounds like an odd pop album. Madonna, coming off the back of the mega-selling The Immaculate Collection and the acclaimed Blond Ambition tour, was having one of her imperial phases (as Neil Tennant so memorably called the periods when commercial success and critical acclaim align for artists). She had cuckolded Pepsi with the Like A Prayer video; she had confronted the Catholic Church when it criticised her tour; she had even made MTV look uncool and turned its ‘ban’ of the Justify My Love video into both a money-spinner and an eloquent attack on moral hypocrisy. It’s understandable that she felt untouchable – but even so, few were expecting what came next.

In retrospect, of course, it’s easy to see that having pushed the buttons of the religious establishment and the moral majority, Madonna had to tread carefully. Moving swiftly onto an album called Erotica and an accompanying coffee table book called Sex was supreme, almost reckless, hubris and it led to the biggest backlash of her career. I can remember the period well – the tabloids had anti-Madonna stories on an almost-daily basis while the publishing of a book called The ‘I Hate Madonna’ Handbook summed up the prevailing attitude. Madonna has since said that the overlooking of Erotica amidst this maelstrom of controversy and recrimination is the biggest regret of her career. 20 years later the album is not quite popularly regarded as a ‘lost classic’ but it’s certainly seen as underrated and its influence is undeniable. Few grasped it at the time but Erotica is that most cumbersome of beasts – a concept album. Understanding this goes a long way to putting its strangeness in context – and boy, it is strange. It is difficult in a way none of Madonna’s previous work had been, the pure pop moments such as Deeper and Deeper and Rain sitting alongside jazz and blues influenced excursions which offer little ‘give’ to listeners. The decision was taken to use Madonna’s heavily processed demo vocals for much of the album, causing her to sound detached – on tracks like Bye Bye Baby and Fever she sounds like a sneering impersonation of herself. These sit uncomfortably alongside much more emotionally engaging material like Bad Girl and the gay rights anthem Why’s It So Hard? It all makes for a disorienting experience. Yet it’s intentionally so – as Madonna states in the album’s opening line, “My name is Dita, I’ll be your mistress tonight”’. Shep Pettibone’s ‘Erotica Diaries’ make clear that Madonna was in creative control and the irony of an album called Erotica which deliberately pushes the listener away is a masterstroke. It underlines that the album is not only about sex – it’s fundamentally about relationships and power. Indeed, much has been written about Madonna ‘opening the door’ for subsequent artists with her use of sexual imagery. This is missing the point. Madonna was very careful not to present her sexuality as mere titillation and Erotica’s genius is that she has the bravery to make a pop record which turns expectations upside down. Rather than being a come-on to ‘fuck me’, Erotica could more appropriately be described as ‘fuck you’.

Blackout could be similarly described. Its opening line has obvious echoes of Erotica’s – “It’s Britney, bitch” is an uncompromising invitation – command, even – into Britney’s world. What’s fascinating, however, is that whereas Madonna invented the persona of ‘Dita’ to play with her listeners, the character here is ‘Britney’. This is the fundamental genius of Blackout. At its core is the absence of its main star. Circumstances undoubtedly dictated this yet the producers took the ‘fuck you’ template of Erotica and went crazy with it. The album makes a virtue of her lack of presence, from its ironic almost-mocking title to its production. Britney’s voice is twisted, treated, transformed though-out so that she often doesn’t sound like ‘Britney Spears’. Instead she sounds like a demented robot, another production tool in an orchestra of sonic wizardry that goes far beyond anything on any previous Britney record. If Madonna played up detachment on Erotica, here it becomes the entire focus. In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

The contrast to be found between Madonna’s control in Erotica and Britney’s lack of it in Blackout speaks untold volumes about the differences between them. Yet in both cases the albums use their context as a weapon and make the listener complicit in their message. This more than ever underlines the truth behind the often-trite mantra that ‘manufactured’ music can be dazzlingly brilliant and, fundamentally, speaks to the power of pop music. Perhaps, in some small way, that’s what Madonna was passing on with that kiss.

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Happy Birthday, Madonna

In the recent ‘celebrations’ of the 50-year anniversary of (partial) decriminalisation of homosexual activity, one of the central themes which emerged was the importance of pop culture to LGBT* life. It has provided much-needed recognition and an outlet for expression while helping transform the world. In so doing, and in ways too numerous, too tiny, too enormous to express, it has transformed us. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how large a role Madonna has played in my life. She was there when I started to question the Catholicism I’d been raised with; she was there when I started to realise I was ‘different’; she was there when I started having sex and battled both the religious and societal conditioning that doing it with men, and with many men at  that, was wrong. She provided my own ‘Ziggy on TOTP’ moment, the men passionately kissing during In Bed With Madonna, the first time I can remember seeing not just gay men, but gay men expressing their sexuality. At every step she was there, both as an enormous, alien, mighty figure looming large over (seemingly) the entire world and as a small voice whispering to me, “you are ok, you are going to be ok and you are allowed to be ok.’ And she did it, and continues to do it, with a gold-plated soundtrack which remains an unparalleled testament to the power of pop; one which can still fill a club in Hackney with people dancing joyously; one which still thrills me and shakes me to my core. I love Madonna, and I always will love Madonna, with a sincerity and earnestness which you’re not really supposed to express in 2017. Happy birthday and thank you @Madonna

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Bowie: One Year Later

My first Bowie memory is of listening to ‘Life on Mars?’ which, as I wrote previously, “exploded from the cheap, tinny speakers in technicolour”. In retrospect it feels like a moment when life itself burst into technicolour, when the narrow confines of my perspective collapsed around me and I found myself alert to exciting, daunting possibilities. Listening to that song, I caught my first glimpses of Oz.

 

As an artist Bowie tore up my notions of what popular music could be. I will remember sitting in that room, being carried somewhere completely alien, for as long as I still have my faculties. I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t just the strange, wonderful music which grabbed me but also the aching alienation which pulses through ‘Life on Mars?’ I’m not sure I yet had a real understanding of sexuality but I knew I was different from most of the other kids. I knew I was lonely and I knew I wanted something more, even if I couldn’t begin to conceive of what that was. “Is there life on Mars?” spoke to that, a plaintive yet hopeful howl that there had to be something, somewhere else out there (…over the rainbow).

As with so many queers my age and older, Bowie spoke to something within me before I necessarily could even articulate what it was. He helped usher me through some very difficult years to a life I could never have imagined. I never dreamt that I would get to be/The creature that I always meant to be. The Oz I glimpsed in ‘Life on Mars?’ came roaring into view and it was magnificent, even that sense of alienation has never quite gone away; I’m not sure it ever does for people like us. Yet for that, there was always Bowie. Always Bowie.

When I woke on a dark, cold Monday in January to the news that Bowie had died, it felt for a few days as if the world had been plunged back into black and white. In what became a year of dismal shocks, his death remains the thing which most affected me. I cried a lot the day I found out. I cried in Berlin a couple of weeks later as I visited his old haunts.

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I wept at Bowie’s appearance in the Oscars ‘In Memorium’ video; at the Brit Awards tribute where his band was largely made up of the same people I saw him perform with in 2003; at the end of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which I watched repeatedly when I was drunk:

I ended the year welling up at Bowie’s music making an appearance on the soundtrack for the London fireworks. Yet as I find myself in another cold, miserable January, about to enter the anniversary of that bleak Monday, I find my sadness lifted by the knowledge that the world didn’t become black and white again. I made a whole new bunch of Bowie memories: in Berlin he soundtracked a memorable encounter with a Syrian couple; I laughed with a room full of people at a BFI Bug special devoted to him; I went to see Lazarus on a glorious November afternoon; I headed down to the South Bank Centre one Friday after work to see Paul Morley speak about him and hear a choir sing some of his songs; I felt a visceral thrill when he appeared on the screens at a Placebo gig in December.

He’s not gone. He never will be. I don’t think I will ever feel fully at ease in the world and David Bowie will always speak to that. He helped me to accept it, even to celebrate it at times. I will always miss him but as the sadness falls away with time what is left is the sheer joy he has brought me, and which I now know he will always bring me. The world is still technicolour. Oz is still within my grasp. And yes, there is life on Mars.

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My Songs of 2016

Given singles are increasingly irrelevant, I’ve done a list of songs I loved this year.

My Albums of 2016

In no particular order, though ★ was definitely my number 1. It goes without saying that three artists loomed large in my listening this year and here are the posts I wrote to mark their passing:

David Bowie

Prince

Leonard Cohen

George Michael died late in the year, during that period when everything grinds to a halt. I marked it on Instagram.

2016 was a fucking terrible year in so many ways. I hope 2017 is better.

Do not let the spark of my soul go out in the even sadness

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I cannot believe we are here again. It feels like the cosmos is snuffing out the lights, one by one. Yet I know that Leonard Cohen would not agree. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in. And oh how brightly, how magnificently, Leonard shone, illuminating and warming the world.

I came to Leonard very late, in his latter-day renaissance when he was a man in his late seventies. He was producing some of the greatest work of his long career and remained doing so right until the end. As I wrote then I felt, and I feel, enormously privileged to have been able to see him live (twice, as it turned out). Truly, in a world where the word ‘privilege’ is thrown around with abandon, we were fortunate to find Leonard:

Watching Cohen made the modern obsession with mocking ‘authenticity’ seem infinitely mean-spirited and short-sighted. Here was a man who clearly approached his craft as high art, giving himself entirely to its calling with a refreshing and seductive humility and self-deprecation.  At one point he praised his backing singers (a phrase which seems almost insulting, such was their brilliance and centrality to the show), begging them to never leave as without them, ‘no-one would come to see my show’. The musicians on stage all clearly had a profound respect for one another, a spark amongst them which frequently ignited into a dazzling flame. So often I felt that I was witnessing true brilliance, a transcendental magic which made me feel privileged to even be in the same room.

The poem at the top is taken from a pocketbook of Leonard’s poems and lyrics which I have returned to many times over the years. Sometimes, like today, I put it in my bag and carry it with me. All of the wisdom of the ages seems contained in its pages. Only yesterday I was listening to Everybody Knows and thinking how apropos it was for the age we live in:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Everybody knows – but few knew like Leonard. There is some comfort to be found in the awareness that he seemed to know this was coming and had made his peace with it. You didn’t have to parse his last album very closely to know what much of it was about. I’m leaving the table, I’m out of the game. I’m travelling light, it’s au revoir. Hineni, hineni – I’m ready my Lord. In his final letter to Marianne Ihlen he wrote:

Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

These two lines, with their compassion, comfort, self-deprecation and deep, deep well of love capture Leonard wonderfully. Even as an old man he seemed to possess wisdom drawn from another place and a grace which took you gently into its arms and cradled you. Now he is going home and he has earned his sleep:

Leonard will always be with me. I know that I will return to his songs and his words, so without parallel, until the day I too am taken. For now, it’s closing time and I will raise a toast to a truly wonderful man before heading out into the cold.

The days may not be fair, always
That’s when I’ll be there, always
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year, but always.

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RIP Leonard Cohen.