Marriage and Music

So here we are – gay/equal marriage is finally legal in England and Wales. I’ve written a lot over the past couple of years about my issues with the debate. Nonetheless, while I think it’s important to keep critiquing the issue (not only in terms of marriage’s wider role in society but also with regards to very practical concerns like the spousal veto) it would be churlish and hard-hearted to ignore the happiness which this is bringing to a lot of people. Indeed, today I’m attending a marriage between two men, one of whom being someone I’ve known for nigh-on ten years now. He was a livejournal ‘friend’ in America and someone I never thought I’d meet in real life, until circumstances led to us both moving to London at different points. We’ve known each other ‘in real life’ for the past seven years or so and I’ve seen first-hand how his relationship has brought him peace of mind and contentment. I also know that, with him being American and his partner British, marriage bring tangible legal benefits to their lives. They’re good guys and they deserve to be happy. Congratulations Matt and Tom.

Music is such an integral part of my life that I almost process events like this via that medium. So this week I’ve been thinking about songs concerning marriage and weddings. The one which instantly sprang  to mind was The Hidden Cameras’ Ban Marriage (above), an encapsulation of some queer critiques of marriage as an institution presented by a narrator who is about to marry his boyfriend. You quickly know what you’re getting with this song, its opening lines being:

I was late getting to church on the morning of my ceremony. Stayed up too late the night before from fingering foreign dirty holes in the dark.

Quite. It was written in response to the debate around legalizing same-sex marriage in Ontario, over a decade ago. There’s always one isn’t there?

Then there’s this:

In which Elton John struggles to remain silent at a wedding because he used to bang the bride and wants to do so again. As implausible as that particular scenario may sound, it’s impossible for the titular ‘bride’ not to be loaded with subtext given what we know now. And the basic mechanics of the story seem perfect for some gay wedding melodrama.

Which leads nicely onto the arch camp of Kate Bush’s The Wedding List:

Based on 60s film La Mariee Etait En Noir (The Bride Wore Black), the song sees Kate as the wronged bride of a groom murdered on their wedding day. Now she seeks revenge against the men she holds responsible (“You’ve made a wake of our honeymoon and I’m coming for you!”) The list here, then, is obviously not of desired gifts but rather of men the bride intends to kill. The parallels with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill are obvious, even if he claims to have never heard of The Bride Wore Black prior to making his film. The performance above is essential viewing and looks like the most fun you could ever have at a wedding. Though this seems close behind:

In which America’s sweetheart reveals herself to be a bit of a cow. Seriously, it’s bad enough that she shows up to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and disrupts it but does she have to be so brutal about it? “Her snotty little family all dressed in pastel”; “she is…wearing a gown shaped like a pastry”. This wedding may not be murderous but Taylor is just as motivated by revenge. That this is delivered by the supposedly squeaky-clean Taylor and packaged as a stereotypical ‘dream’ wedding makes the high camp all the more potent and pleasurable.

As opposed to the nightmarish camp of:

For all its deceptive simplicity, this must surely rank as one of the most disturbing pop videos ever made? Bowie not only looks deathly but absolutely demented, more likely to bury an axe in your skull than kiss you. The relationship documented in the song sounds suitably unhealthy – the blank disconnect of “sometimes you get so lonely, sometimes you get nowhere” doesn’t sound like a good foundation for a marriage. It’s said that the song is Bowie’s last attempt to save his marriage with Angie – he must be glad he failed. Years later he would document his euphoria at marrying Iman Abdulmajid by putting two versions of The Wedding Song on his Black Tie White Noise album.

It goes without saying that a gay wedding made me think of:

This video probably caused gay marriage.

But I’m told I’m a contrary sort so I’ll end with a video from another difficult old queer:

There’s something quite magnificent (and clearly deliberate) in Moz singing about his eternal bachelorhood while a succession of young men hug and kiss him. Love is a many-splendored thing indeed and sometimes it’s difficult to put a label on it. And why should we care if we can’t? Whatever completes us, in whatever form it may take, can’t be bad if it does no harm to others. So yeah. Best wishes to Matt and Tom, and to everyone else finding or trying to find their own bits of happiness in the world.

Spotify playlist at the link above. Last year I initially didn’t think much of Call Me Maybe, the song that ended up being my favourite single of the year. That’s kind of a theme this year, with at least half the tracks being ones which I either purposefully avoided for a while (hello, Miley) or which took their time to grab me (I hated Mirrors for a while, Full Of Fire was difficult to extricate from the album). It’s difficult to pick one of these songs as my favourite – Roar, Royals, The Next Day and Flatline are probably my most listened to. I only very recently discovered Song for Zula and it instantly blew me away.

Wrecking Ball – Miley Cyrus
Royals – Lorde
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Roar – Katy Perry
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
The Next Day – David Bowie
The City – The 1975
Get Lucky – Daft Punk
Everything is Embarrassing – Sky Ferreira
Flatline – Mutya Keisha Siobhan
You’re In Love – Betty Who
#Beautiful – Mariah Carey ft. Miguel
Hold On, We’re Going Home – Drake
Full Of Fire – The Knife
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake
Song for Zula – Phosphorescent
Sweeter Than Fiction – Taylor Swift
Drew – Goldfrapp
Copy of A – Nine Inch Nails
After You – Pulp

My Singles of 2013

Click on the title for the Spotify playlist. I’ve not put them in any particular order but suffice to say that Bowie’s comeback was my musical highlight of 2013. I thought nothing could beat the rush of waking up to his surprise single in January but watching him back in action in the The Stars (Are Out Tonight) video was awe-inspiring. Nothing else comes close, which is saying something as there are some astounding albums in this list.

They Die By Dawn & Other Short Stories.. – The Bullitts
Pale Green Ghosts – John Grant
Rewind The Film – Manic Street Preachers
Pure Heroine – Lorde
Electric – Pet Shop Boys
Upstream Color – Shane Carruth
Beyoncé – Beyoncé
Once I Was An Eagle – Laura Marling
Immunity – Jon Hopkins
The Electric Lady – 
Janelle Monáe
{Awayland} – Villagers
Pedestrian Verse – Frightened Rabbit
Reflektor – Arcade Fire
The Diving Board – Elton John
The Thieves Banquet – Akala
Mosquito – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Tales of Us – Goldfrapp
Trouble Will Find Me – The National
The Next Day – David Bowie
The 1975 – The 1975

My Albums of 2013

Lou Reed

I know, I know, in a career which offers a bounty of treasures both renowned and ‘hidden’, offering a U2 clip in remembrance of Lou Reed seems rather discourteous. Yet if this was one of my first encounters with him, the result of my brother’s obsessive U2 love at a time when I was still fixated on Madonna and Michael Jackson, it’s only the appearance which keeps floating into my mind. Even back then Lou’s interjection seems to be beamed in from across the ether, a spectral approximation which fits far better than a run-of-the-mill ‘guest appearance’ ever could.

It would be a few years later that Lou and the Velvet Underground fully burst into my consciousness, part of the soul-shaking musical awakening brought about by my falling for David Bowie in 1996. Bowie’s Phoenix set changed everything and as part of my incessant replaying of it I heard White Light/White Heat hundreds of times:

I had never been so thrilled by music before and concomitant to my pupil-dilating Bowie rush came tumbling discoveries of Transformer, the Velvet Underground & Nico, Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith. Each encounter felt like a alien visitation, sublimely unfamiliar and stirring  – it’s no exaggeration to say that so much of who I am was forged in that brief period. I can’t pretend that I comprehensively explored Lou’s solo work in the same way I did with Bowie, or even the Velvet Underground, but I still had an awe-struck awareness of how central he was to so much that seemed, and still seems, sacred to me. His impact still ripples today and everyone who sees pop music as more than entertainment, more than song-and-dance, should pay their dues today. 16 year olds will have their own big bang moments with Lou at the centre for the rest of time. That spectre singing Satellite of Love will never die.

Work Bitch

I find Britney Spears endlessly fascinating. Not musically, of course – I rarely listen to her these days – but for what she represents in modern pop (and attitudes towards it). When she was added to the panel of American X Factor I wrote about what a perfect fit it was, both pushing a “dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells.” On Britney herself, I wrote that:

Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

Now this doesn’t mean that Britney can’t be involved in great pop. The brilliance of Blackout was (and remains) that it got the point (or more apropos, the lack of one) of Britney:

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?”

Post-Blackout, of course, there’s been a long attempt at normalising Britney’s image once more. X Factor was the apex of this, sending Britney into people’s homes every week in an acknowledgement that personality (the appearance of being ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’) is what really matters in modern pop. In truth, she didn’t come across as any less dead-eyed and lost. The crucial thing, however, is that she wasn’t unavoidably absurd. She remained inoffensive and blank – as such, people could keep on projecting whatever they wanted onto her. In a sense it’s the same projection which David Bowie used to such great effect on The Next Day, albeit inverted. Bowie had fun with it, documenting in a very real sense his ‘fall’ from mythical vacuum to a real, functioning artist again. He stamped his authority onto the void which he had become in the same way that Blackout did for Britney. Since then, however, Britney and everyone around her (you really don’t get the sense she cares much about any of this) have done their best to avoid it and pretend it’s business as usual (with the odd crack in the facade). So we had Femme Fatale, an album which sounded thoroughly modern and overwhelmingly anodyne – whatever the quality of the songs, they could have been anyone for the most part. By this stage, however, that’s more than enough. No-one expects much of Britney other than to leave them be to project whatever they like onto her. In this process rather generic material is elevated as it acts as a reservoir for the listeners, who feel that in Britney’s blankness they recognise the ultimate ‘pop personality’. How could they not think this – they’re really only recognising themselves.

‘Work Bitch’ is business as usual. It really is Scream and Shout part 2, from the generic EDM beats to the faux-British accent and it could easily be one of those one-hit wonder dance tracks which feature anonymous women both singing and being objectified to comedic levels in the video. It’s one stamp of personality comes from its appropriation of the language of (black) drag culture, reflecting the same appropriation by Western white gay men who exchange lines from Ru Paul’s Drag Race in facile approximation of an ‘edgier’ identity. For her part, Britney keeps out of the way: as with S&S there is literally nothing about the song which is unique to her aside from the appeal to her mythology (S&S very deliberately so, with the ‘Britney bitch!’ line) which these days is synonymous with her blankness. Here, we’re long past any notion of pop as something which can be sublime and cathartic; instead it’s something functional which makes no demands and serves primarily to validate the listener. Perhaps in that frame of reference this is a brilliant Britney Spears single. Unfortunately, a brilliant Britney Spears single in 2013 is one which displays little more than contempt for pop music as an art form which can contain its own character and integrity, rather than subsuming itself in the listener’s ego.

Wild Is The Wind

FAR BE IT FROM ME to join in with the Moran bashing (and God knows this isn’t important) but as a massive Bowie fan I found this pretty incredible. All props for identifying and posting the original article go to the brilliant Bowiesongs, which you should definitely check out.

When Bowie made his surprise comeback earlier this year, Times journalist Caitlin Moran was perhaps the ‘high-profile’ personality most vocal in her jubilant excitement. She wrote about it a lot. An awful lot. A small selection:

You can find more here, which is how I found the links (lest anyone think I obsessively pored over this for days).

Now…check out this at Bowiesongs. Reproduced below:

It’s a piece written by Moran for Bowie’s 50th birthday in 1997. I know, I know, you’re thinking ‘oh well opinions change!’ But read it. It’s not the work of a big fan who thinks he’s going through a fallow period. It’s a demolition piece. She calls him ‘embarrassing’, incapable of ‘a good album’, compares him to ‘Michael Bolton’, complains that her generation didn’t have him in the ‘halfway decent years’. All of this, incidentally, about a period which is probably Bowie’s most interesting after the 70s. I got into Bowie with 1.Outside when I was 15. I found it thrilling and it led me on a journey which forever changed how I thought of pop music. I didn’t wish I’d been around in the 70s to hear Bowie at his ‘peak’ – he spoke to me compellingly enough with what he was doing in the present. It’s a sure sign of a Bowie pretender that they lazily dismiss his 90s work/’later period’…even more so if they only paid the slightest attention again when it was acceptable to do so (ie when he self-consciously became an ‘elder statesman’ and started recording albums which deliberately harked back to what these folk consider his glory days – the cover of ‘Hours…’ announces this period by depicting Bowie cradling his Earthling persona.) 

The bit I find most hilarious is when she complains of ‘music journalists (who), on spotting the name “David Bowie” on a new album, listen to it with rose-tinted ears’. Um:

That, folks, is what you call ‘a hack’.

The Narrative Behind Bowie’s The Next Day

For some reason I knew since seeing the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) that the album’s third promo would be for The Next Day and it would feature Bowie singing the song behind a microphone. It seems like the final destruction of the ‘Bowie is dying’ myth which they’ve been having so much fun with – albeit with an exit which will only invite further speculation.

Where Are We Now? – Bowie the mythic figure, dying in the shadows, more ethereal than corporeal.

TS(AOT) – The big reveal. Bowie is alive and well yet haunted, tormented even, by his past. stalked by his legend.

This – the normalisation. Bowie performs. He hams it up. The curtain is pulled back. The deity figure is snuffed out at the end.

‘Religion is corrupt’ is a rather tired trope these days but it does its job in fuelling the Bowie speculation market. The Decameron ‘title’ on the door at the beginning is a nice touch. From wiki:

Decameron combines two Greek words, Greek:δέκαdéka (“ten”) and Greekἡμέραhēméra (“day”), to form a term that means “ten-day [event]”

That obviously feeds into both the album title and Bowie’s 10-year absence – and the bell tolls ten times. Certainly there is some behind-the-scenes activity in the Bowie camp which suggests something more than just another single release is afoot in the near future.

The video is worthy for this alone:

However it squanders the best moment of the song and one of my favourite Bowie moments ever – the opening line of the second verse, “Ignoring the pain of their particular diseases”. It is ridiculously satisfying to sing along to. You really should try it.

16th July – And now we have the video for Valentine’s Day:

After the deity vanished at the end of The Next Day we have a Bowie who is very much the man who fell to earth. He’s dressed simply – ‘normally’, even – and it’s the first straightforward performance video of the era. Its subtleties rely not on Bowie’s legend but on clever touches which reference the song – the guitars which resemble guns, the flashes of the titular Valentine aggressively storming around while wielding a weapon and a brief flash of a bullet:

It comes in the week Bowie apparently promised ‘more music soon’ in an e-mail to some BowieNet users. He’s had his fun being meta-Bowie – now it’s back to business.

31st October:

A new – and presumably final – video from the re-release of The Next Day and more loaded symbolism. References to Bowie’s past abound, from the bathroom rituals of of Thursday’s Child:

to what are, presumably, red shoes put on in order to dance the blues:

The references to Ashes to Ashes/Scary Monsters and the Thin White Duke are obvious – what’s notable is that they are puppets and projections. As the era of The Next Day began with Bowie as a spectral presence, projected onto comically small figures, it comes full circle with the curtain being pulled back on some of his iconic creations. The background may change but Bowie the artist brings them to life as puppet master and voice and here, he alerts us that the Bowie of this era was another facade. The ‘real’ Bowie watches from the side and LOST in the shadows, obscured by his famous past and obsessively washing his hands, both attempting to ‘stay clean’ (the Thin White Duke being perhaps his most drug-associated creation) and cleanse his persona. This shot:

depicts the Thin White Duke cradling a blank-faced Pierrot and recalls the cover of Hours:

With that album cover Bowie was signalling the death of his ‘difficult’ early 90s modernism and a return to his past; here it almost seems like the victims of his eternal suicides are comforting one another. His past is littered with corpses. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?! 

Yet they never truly die – the face just moves on to a new host. Bowie washes obsessively yet, like Lady Macbeth, he cannot remove the blood. The tap remains on at the end and Bowie has vanished: even with attempted erasure he can never be free of himself. Yet the water still flows – another corpse falls to the ground and he’s not done yet.