Goodbye and thank you, David.

David Bowie

In this age of grand illusion

You walked into my life

Out of my dreams

I have a broken heart today. The last time I woke up to a bunch of messages about David Bowie it was January 2013 and he had just made his surprise return with Where Are We Now? I spent my initial half-awake moments thinking he had died; instead he had been reborn. The Fantastic Voyage had set sail once again and it proved as thrilling as it ever had been.

Now the journey has turned to erosion and, even though he died just after his 69th birthday, David Bowie will never get old. He will forever be a young hippy with curly hair, floating round his tin can; he will always be an ethereal, beautiful alien, casting an arch glance at the freakiest show; he will stand eternally in light, plaintively telling us that we can be heroes. Just for one day.

Just turn on with me and you’re not alone

Let’s turn on with me and you’re not alone

Let’s turn on and be not alone

Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful

I have a broken heart today. Social media is full of people telling their own stories of how David Bowie made it okay. And as trite as it sounds, he really did. He made it okay to be different. He made it okay to be queer. He made it okay to be an awkward, bookish kid at a Catholic school in Hamilton, trying to figure out why he liked looking at boys when he’d been told again and again that only freaks and perverts felt like that. I feel sorry for those who can’t comprehend why people would weep for someone they’ve never met because it means they never found anything like the indescribable connection which so many had with Bowie. He not only saved us, he showed us a way to live. As much as I cried this morning for the end of Bowie’s journey, for no more mornings waking up to new music and shaking with excitement, my tears were of course also about that kid I used to be. It was fitting that the first song which came on when I put Bowie on shuffle this morning was As The World Falls Down:

As the pain sweeps through,

Makes no sense for you.

Every thrill is gone.

Wasn’t too much fun at all,

But I’ll be there for you

As the world falls down.

I have a broken heart today. However we found him, so many of us scrambling through the jungle of our teenage wildlife grabbed onto Bowie like he was a ladder out of there and, whatever his missteps, he never let us down. It was Bowie (and Madonna and the Manics, two artists clearly enormously influenced by him) who pulsed through my veins when I wore badly-applied mascara, feather boas and cheap plastic tiaras out to nightclubs in Glasgow (my face was indeed a mess). Even today, as a 35 year old man, I find enormous comfort in, and take strength from, his music. You can easily spot the fellow travellers who found a flattering mirror for their awkwardness in Bowie, just as you can quickly recognise those who only namecheck him because it’s the done thing to do. The latter group may be somewhat bemused by today’s reaction; for the rest of us, things will never be the same again.

I can’t answer why

Just go with me

I’m-a take you home

I have a broken heart today. I cannot imagine my life without David Bowie. I cannot imagine myself. We are the dead. Yet as the starman himself finally disappears, a vanishing deity as foretold in The Next Day, we can think of how fortunate we have been to have had him and how much better he has made this place. We will always have that and David Bowie will live on in millions of hot tramps who owe so, so much to him.

Goodbye and thank you, David. I will always love you, more than anyone could ever know.

Rebel Heart

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Madonna is a 56 year old woman. It’s important to mention this fact at the beginning because it’s the dominant prism through which her career (and indeed her life) is viewed these days. After the already infamous wardrobe malfunction at the BRIT Awards, social media was awash with terrible jokes and easy slights all premised on her being a frail elderly woman while her refusal to ‘cover up’ inevitably leads to demands that she ‘puts it away’. She is called a ‘cougar’ (a woman I was discussing Madonna with the other day disparagingly called her ‘cougaresque’ before stating with no hint of irony that she was ‘opposed’ to the ageism she faces) and mocked for her efforts to appear ‘young’ while photos where she ‘looks her age’ regularly form sneering tabloid stories. She is labelled ‘vampiric’ for daring to work with younger, on-trend producers and even ostensibly positive articles about her invariably buy into the notion that she is desperately clinging onto youth and/or relevance.

‘Desperate’ is not an adjective you will often hear thrown at legendary male musicians. When Prince, also 56, returned last year with a band made up of younger women and singing songs you could easily imagine someone half his age performing, he was met with unbridled praise. Yet the sexism behind this double standard operates in ways more subtle than the ‘mere’ fact that men face far fewer constraints on who they are expected to be as they age. If we look at Kate Bush, for example, we see a 56 year old female who is massively respected and praised; if we look at Joni Mitchell or Stevie Nicks, we see artists 10 years older who are similarly admired. The opprobrium Madonna faces, then, is not solely because she is an ageing woman but rather because she is an ageing woman making contemporary pop/dance music.

1983, when Madonna released her debut album, was “an era where disco was anathema to the mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again”. Madonna’s roots lay in a music scene which belonged to the queers, the blacks, the latinos, the drag queens and yes, the women. The infamous ‘Disco Sucks!’ movement typifies the sexist, racist and homophobic opposition which this music met with and it was in this context Madonna released a debut where she solely wrote 5 of the 8 tracks. As Michael Rosenblatt (A&R of Sire Records at the time) puts it, even Warner Bros dismissed her as “just a little dance girl.”

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It seems fair to say that Madonna has faced variations on this attitude in her career since, whether it be accusations that she slept her way to success, assertions that her ‘real talent’ is marketing and self-promotion or the attribution of her successes to the men she has collaborated with. It’s not an accident that her most respected albums, Like A Prayer and Ray of Light, are the ones where she most ostentatiously seemed like a musical auteur while, for example, the high concept brilliance of Erotica or the cleverness of MDNA as her second divorce album were generally lost in the midst of dance beats, Sex books and Super Bowls. Over the years ‘rockism’ has, of course, been chipped away and Madonna has won a begrudging respect from many. In the past decade or so, however, she’s faced another set of prejudices under the guise of ‘poptimism’, an approach which sees the rejection of ‘authenticity’ and the ‘rock canon’ as its liberating raison d’être. This is fine up to a point but (as I’ve written about many times before) it has led to orthodoxies as facile and constraining as rockism at its worst: a fetishising of and supplication to youth; a hyper-sensitive rejection of sincerity and earnestness; a deep suspicion of ‘traditional’ markers of musical talent (ie the endless whining over guitars) and an irreverence which frequently tips over into petulance. It’s this approach which led us to the absurdity of a pop album where the ‘artist’ doesn’t necessarily even sing entire verses attributed to her: poptimism has, ironically, a contempt for pop music at its core.

Madonna, on the other hand, has always taken pop music seriously and approached it sincerely. How could she not? Disco and its aftermath wasn’t about empty, half-understood post-modernist; rather it was about life. A celebration, yes, but at its most basic level it was about the survival and defiance of those the mainstream rejected. Madonna came to music knowing that it mattered and knowing that her self-expression as a pop artist was one of the most powerful statements she could ever make. Her famous statement that she wanted ‘to rule the world’ was not (just) hubris but a statement of intent that she could make things better – not for nothing does her debut single command ‘Everybody’ to “dance and sing, get up and do your thing”.

In 2015, then, we have rockist relics forever suspicious of Madonna making pop music and poptimists who can’t understand why she should warrant any respect or even attention unless she’s delivering instant gratification. She’s at least double the age of your average pop singer on the charts yet hasn’t ‘toned it down’ and gone the route expected of her  (witness the contrasting responses to Annie Lennox’s ‘graceful’ ageing at the Grammys vs Madonna’s ass-baring.) She is quite unique in being a middle-aged female pop artist who refuses to go quietly into the night or become her own tribute act, a move which I’m certain would quickly gratify her to many detractors who want little more than nostalgia from their ageing musicians.

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This latter approach was exactly the one taken David Bowie in 2002 with Heathen (when he was 55), and by Bob Dylan in 1997 with Time Out of Mind (when he was 57). Both, of course, tick a lot more of the boxes warranting ‘respect’ than Madonna but by recording albums which harked back to their heydays, firmly met expectations of what they should be doing and nodded towards the fact of their ageing, they were greeted by an avalanche of acclaim. Madonna’s not an idiot. Coming from the commercial disappointment of MDNA (though two million sales these days is nothing to be sniffed at) and facing an uphill battle to ever have a hit single again, she surely knows that if she were to reunite with, say, Pat Leonard, dye her hair black, put on some conservative clothes and sing some ballads about how awful it was getting old before knocking around singing Like A Prayer, she’d have a much easier time of it. Yet Rebel Heart is, in its way, as much a restatement of values as Time Out of Mind or Heather were. It is also just as much about ageing.

Ever since Madonna stridently sang “Unlike the others I’d do anything, I’m not the same, I have no shame” on Burning Up, she’s done a good line in ‘nothing’s gonna stop me!” songs. Yet given Madonna’s current position there’s something poignant in hearing her sing ‘Now that it’s over/I’m gonna carry on’ over a throwback 90s house track in Rebel Heart’s opener Living For Love. The proposed concept of Rebel Heart, abandoned after leakageddon, was apparently a double-album comprised of two ‘sides’: rebel and heart. This isn’t particularly different from the stated theme of Hard Candy, which was to juxtapose Madonna’s toughness with her ‘soft centre’ and, like HC, Rebel Heart is an album which looks backwards a lot. Yet while Hard Candy sonically revisited the r&b-inflected pop of Madonna’s early years (her debut was allegedly the template), Rebel Heart is possibly the most musically diverse album she’s ever released. It’s also one very much about taking stock and moving onwards into an uncertain future.

The album is littered with obvious references to Madonna’s past – the Vogue sample on Holy Water, the Justify My Love lyrics on Best Night, the cavalcade of song titles which make up Veni Vidi Vici; the title track’s moving reflection on her life; it’s also packed with allusions to Madonna’s status as an ageing pop icon. On electro-folk tour de force Devil Prey she sings “Holding on, but I’m getting weaker/watch me disappear.” Ghosttown, a Ryan Tedder-esque anthem which is probably the album’s best chance of a hit, depicts a barren post-apocalyptic world and finds Madonna musing that “Everything’s bound to break sooner or later.” In the gorgeous Joan of Arc she sings “Even when the world turns its back on me/There could be a war, but I’m not going down.” Album closer (standard version) Wash All Over Me is an elegiac ballad which seems self-explanatory given what I’ve written above:

In a world that’s changing
I’m a stranger in a strange land
There’s a contradiction
And I’m stuck here in between
Life is like a desert
An oasis to confuse me
So I walk this razor’s edge
Will I stand or will I fall?
…If this is the end then let it come
Let it come
Let it rain
…Gonna watch the sun going down
I’m not gonna run from all this sadness

I remember reading a review of Bedtime Stories in Q Magazine which ended by posing the question “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?” Now, over 20 years later, Madonna seems to be posing the question to herself. The most fascinating song in this regard is, ironically, one which seems to have been removed from the track listing at the last minute: Queen is an astounding dirge quite unlike anything she’s ever recorded before and finds the Queen of Pop addressing indirectly addressing her listeners:

We’re at the end of days
For heaven’s sake
The queen’s been slain
She’ll never rule again
…Black parade, motorcade
Destiny sings farewell, church bells
Is anyone listening?
…Who will take her place?
Its written on everyone’s face
The truth is slowly dawning
I hear tomorrow calling
Some things can’t be replaced
The realization of a new generation
On the eve of imitation
All gone, overthrown

She is, in effect, saying ‘you fuckers will miss me when I’m gone’. In fact, ‘some things can’t be replaced’ could fairly be described as the over-arching theme of the album or, to put it another way – Bitch I’m Madonna. The ‘rebel’ songs are less concerned with considering Madonna’s demise (metaphorical or otherwise) than with reminding us that she can do thrilling pop in her sleep. Given her origins and the more subtle versions of ‘Disco Sucks!’ which she’s faced throughout her career, it’s quite apropos that it’s the adventurous, brash and fun electronic pop of Bitch I’m Madonna, Unapologetic Bitch and Holy Water which have been vexing the straight white male critics. Indeed, the fact that Madonna had to point out that the latter song, with lyrics like “Kiss it better, kiss it better (don’t it taste like holy water)”, was meant to be funny speaks volumes about how some perceive her. The heart songs let us know that she’s perfectly self-aware regarding her age and her position – the rebel songs tell us she’s not our bitch, don’t hang our shit on her. She’ll be singing songs like S.E.X. (featuring a ‘lesson in sexology’ which includes “chopsticks, underwear, barber soap, dental chair, fish nets, satin sheets, garter belt, raw meat” – it’s like she felt sorry for the Daily Mail) as long as people keep telling her to stop and tossing off the kind of mercurial melodies found in Hold Tight and Inside Out while her detractors scramble around blowing up photos of her hands. As she puts it in Borrowed Time, she wants to ‘live each moment like our time is only borrowed’.

Taken in one go the ‘Super Deluxe’ version is certainly too long (23 songs, if Queen is indeed missing) but this largely seems to reflect a) the changed nature of ‘albums’ in an mp3/Spotify world and b) the need to get fans to buy multiple copies to shore up Madonna’s commercial fortunes. Presumably because the leaks meant that the songs finished at the time were rush-released, the pacing is a bit off too. Nonetheless this is certainly Madonna’s best album since Confessions On A Dance Floor and, as her public appearances have underlined, she seems more engaged in the music than she has done in a while.

For all the reasons discussed above, Madonna isn’t going to be respected as the preternaturally brilliant talent she is any time soon. The criticism isn’t going to stop being about the same superficial things it’s always about (as opposed to serious discussion of her sometimes problematic and sometimes plain godawful politics.)We’ll do this all again in a few years when she’s 60 and pissing even more people off by showing her ass but, by God, she’s right about one thing:

We’ll miss her when she’s gone.

1989 and Pop in 2014

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So Taylor Swift is a pop star now – it’s true, she said it herself. 1989 is her ‘first documented official pop album’, a pretty bizarre description which has nonetheless pretty much been taken at face value. She may previously have had record-breaking albums, multi-platinum singles and arena-filling tours but this was…something else. Something not pop. Something to do with guitars.

1989 has been greeted with the kind of hysterial, ostentious hyperbole which characterises poptimism, with lots of CAPITAL LETTERS about SQUEEING and imagined ‘real music’ snobs who are gnashing their teeth at her popularity (hello, NME). I’ve written about this kind of thing many times previously – about how it stems from a patronising, insecure relationship with pop where there’s an implicit sense that this stuff is actually beneath the person SQUEEING. They write in the persona of what they imagine a pop fan to be – an over-enthusiastic child. They think they’re being transgressive in liking the most popular act on the planet, simply because it’s ‘pop’.

One of the central tenets of this approach is an opposition to any serious consideration of what they’re professing to love: see the big push-back against critical discussion of Swift’s Shake It Off video. This stuff is just fun! It’s just silly! Don’t take it seriously! SQUEE! So the critics don’t actually perform any criticism. Yet the concept and execution of 1989 says some rather interesting things about modern pop. The fact that it was signposted very explicitly as Swift’s first pop album is fascinating enough in itself, given that she’d sold over 100 million units prior to its release. Yet the signposting did its job, with pop audiences previously ambivalent to Swift jumping on board and delivering her biggest first week album sales to date.

Swift is clearly a canny operator but I think both this and the Red campaigns have marked her out as an artist with an enormously perceptive appreciation of how pop music currently works. Previously viewed as a ‘country’ star, with Red she made a real push to broaden her already massive audience. This happened most obviously with the choice of Max Martin as a collaborator but there were more subtle aspects too. The lead single features that line about her douchebag boyfriend listening to ‘some indie record that’s much cooler than mine’ while third single 22 features ‘cool kids’ scoffing at her (“Who is Taylor Swift anyway?!”) as she sings of dressing up ‘like hipsters’. I didn’t see a single review which grasped just how clever this was in positioning the enormously popular, all-American Swift as some outsider artist who wasn’t taken seriously by ‘music snobs’ (as opposed to being a multi-Grammy Award winner who’d performed with very-credible-indeed artists like Stevie Nicks, the Rolling Stones and The Civil Wars). Swift got the poptimism which dominates the current music scene and was tickling its tummy with an imagined victimhood. Suffice to say, it worked a charm.

With 1989, it was pushed further. Signifer was heaped upon signifer to let everyone know that Swift had ditched those boring, ‘authentic’ guitars and was now FULL-BLOWN FUN POP YAY! Yet, again, I’ve not seen any review which has grasped this as a marketing approach above all else (and I’m not particularly saying that as a criticism). Swift understood perfectly that this was the route to the hearts (and more importantly, the wallets) of listeners turned off by the ‘rockist’ trappings of the country-pop she’d previously been associated with. So in comes more Max Martin and also the equally ubiquitous Ryan Tedder. The first single, Shake It Off, was a self-conscious statement of intent which went out of its way to sound like it could have been from a heap of other current pop acts. As it happened, most of the rest of the album wasn’t particularly different from what she’d done previously in terms of the actual songs – but the production (synths over guitars) and the framing concept were more than enough to turn this into a sense of some dramatic transformation.

Indeed, 1989 was presented by Swift as an homage to an era of ambitious pop when artists like Madonna, the Eurythmics and Phil Collins (all name-checked by her) were making “the most incredible, bold, risky decisions as far as pop music goes”. Again, this has largely passed without comment. Yet if you look at the execution of Swift’s vision it’s surely a testament to just how moribund pop is right now? If we look to Swift’s apparent inspirations, they had little in common beyond being popular. In fact, if you look at the big pop acts of 1989 it’s pretty remarkable just how diverse they are and, not uncoincidentally, how little overlap there is in their collaborators. Swift, in contrast, has ‘gone pop’ by working with the same writers/producers as Katy Perry, Britney Spears, P!nk, Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, Jessie J, Jennifer Lopez…I could go on. Far from being ‘incredible, bold, risky’, Swift has again managed to package a pretty conservative move as something transgressive.

Now this isn’t to say that Swift doesn’t stamp herself over 1989 creatively or even that it’s a bad record – at times it’s a very good record. Nonetheless, it seems sad that that rather than being perceived as previously delivering her own unique take on pop, Swift has to be incredibly obvious and aim for homogeneity in order to be widely received as a ‘pop artist’. It’s even sadder that few amongst the folk who are supposed to love this music the most have bothered to take it seriously enough to move beyond patronising stock responses.

One such stock response is the accusation of ‘nostalgia’ when contrasting the present with the past. Yet if Swift calls on the spirit of 1989 to frame her record, it seems fair enough to look at how pop and its appreciation has changed in that time. There may undeniably be much brilliant music being made now but there’s a real sense that the possibilities for pop music have narrowed. I thought about this while reading a compelling piece on ‘the scourge of relatability‘ which argues that the criteria for judging art, and how we approach it, has been changing:

…to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Now certainly that’s pushing all the buttons that will lead to accusations of ‘snobbery’ and the rest, but it’s difficult not to look at 1989 and its reception without thinking that we do indeed ‘expect the work to be done for us’. People had to be told that Swift was now pop and, for a great many, that meant it was now okay to like her. It’s ‘ambitious pop’ as something dreamt up in focus groups rather than as a dazzling ferocity which demands to be noticed, which shakes things up, which does something different. I think today’s pop scene is starved of this – it’s why there was such an enormous response to Beyonce’s audacious album release, something which seemed to belong to another age of other-wordly superstars (even if it still featured people like Tedder, Pharrell and Sia). 1989, then, is a perfect album for our modern pop age – but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Let’s Go To War

When the Manics released Futurology earlier in the year I wrote that:

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of (obsession with the past, with nostalgia) – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

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The since-announced tour reviving The Holy Bible (to mark its 20th anniversary) fits in perfectly with this. Lest we forget, THB is an aggressive, uncompromising album which acts as a chilling testament to humanity’s brutality in the 20th century. It features song about the holocaust, the violence of the British Empire, serial killers, eating disorders, suicide, racism. More than that, it deliberately baits the liberal sensibility to distance onself from this bleakness and believe that it’s the fault of people ‘over there’ – who’s responsible, you fucking are (it also more directly baits liberals with its pro-gun, pro-death penalty lyrics and its ambivalence towards violence in general). While it’s inevitable that its unsettling power has dimmed with familiarity, we should be under no illusions that this album would be met with a chilly and/or bewildered response from many critics today. We live, after all, in an age where ‘music critic’ is viewed as an aspect of your broadsheet-friendly brand which easily lends itself to writing about fashion or Disney or yourself – all done with the same ironic wink at the audience. THB deliberately tries to shut down this distance, directly addressing the listener and implicating them in its litany of horrors. The band’s performance of Faster on Top of the Pops famously garnered the most complaints in BBC history – there was to be no easy escape and no backing down.

It’s been widely noted that THB came out on the same day as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe with the comparison invariably contrasting the former’s desolation with the swaggering optimism of the latter. Yet both had their roots in almost two decades of a largely-successful war against the working-class. The 1984 miners’ strike has become emblematic of this and it’s notable that (what remained of) the mining industry was fully-privatised at the end of 1994. In retrospect we can easily see this act as cementing the defeat of the working-class, yet at the time it was subsumed beneath the 20-point plus leads which Labour were enjoying over the Tories. There was a real sense of optimism that real change was coming – the first Labour government in almost 20 years. Definitely Maybe captured this zeitgeist but we can now see that THB was a more accurate harbinger of what was the come. Blair’s New Labour may have become almost comically demonised in recent years but, if it did some good, it certainly confirmed that the powerful forces represented by Thatcherism had won.

The left still hasn’t come to terms with this comprehensive defeat – one which stretches around the world and largely ensures that any government attempting to pursue radical left-wing policies is swiftly and aggressively punished (as Labour were in the late-70s). 20 years later we have another Tory government (let’s ignore the Lib Dems) which is widely viewed as being more Thatcherite than Thatcher and a left which is not in good shape. Fragmented, directionless and defeatist, much of the left prefers to dwell on the so-called glory days of the Spirit of ’45 (ignoring the unpleasant aspects of the context in which this happened, not least Empire) and pin its hopes on a Labour Party (or SNP for many in Scotland) which it hopes will be left-wing…just because. An analysis of power, the pressures which position political parties and the need to organise are frequently replaced by a blind optimism.

It’s into this context which THB is being re-born. The many pieces marking its anniversary may have paid lip service to its radicalism but they are steeped in nostalgia – a force which creates the crucial distance necessary for listening to the album without personal discomfort. There is often a sigh at the fact no band in 2014 could be envisaged releasing such a work, an attitude which bears comparison with the Spirit of ’45 nostalgia (we could draw a line from the complaints about the latter’s lack of acknowledgement of race and Empire, for example, to the notion that because no British white men with guitars are singing about politics it is currently absent). The fact that THB gigs were the fastest-selling ones the Manics have done in many years is testament to the power which the album holds over many people around my age and also an uncomfortable reminder of how easily we seek solace in sentimental reminiscing. In 1994, a BBC performance of Revol would have felt dangerous – now it feels like a crowd-pleasing offering to an audience who’ve just put the kids to bed and are relaxing with a drink. That’s what happens – we age and in doing so we hark back to when we weren’t sure who we were, when everything seemed more vivid and when life exploded with possibility (real or imagined). Yet we aren’t defeated until we stop trying and nostalgia is ultimately the enemy of progress. The Manics’ current playing with the past, both in straightforward reliving and in Rewind The Film/Futurology’s more experimental playing, risk obscuring the really important message here:

Working class skeletons
Lie scattered in museums
And all the false economies
Speak falsely of your dreams

Let’s go to war
To feel some pureness and pain
Let’s go to war
We need to go to war again

Kylie

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My photos and videos of Kylie at the O2 last night are here.

For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Q Magazine’s review of Madonna’s Bedtime Stories in 1994 has always stuck in my memory. Its final line was “Is it too soon to say that it was fun while it lasted?”

It’s no secret (hey!) that I’ve been immensely frustrated by Kylie for a while now. If I can be awful enough to quote myself (I can be):

Kylie has willingly placed herself into the nostalgia circuit. With her previous few albums clearly struggling to sell outside of her fan-base, it’s difficult to see this changing…if we approach pop as merely fronting persuasive hits, Kylie’s age is clearly against her and she begins to seem increasingly irrelevant.  What’s the point of a blank slate for Calvin Harris when you have Rihanna, for example? I don’t think you have to be too concerned with ‘rockist’ notions to believe that delivering further albums of off-the-shelf electro-pop can only offer diminishing returns, both commercially and critically.

Despite some glimmers of hope that something interesting was stirring (the Anti-Tour, the Abbey Road album which had an air of putting the past to bed, the jump to Roc Nation) the resulting relaunch, Kiss Me Once, was an immense disappointment. It also bombed – the last time I checked, long after its speedy exit from most of the world’s charts, it had sold around 200,000 copies worldwide (2010’s Aphrodite was certified Platinum for shipping 300,000 copies in the UK alone). An artistic risk which doesn’t sell can be a noble failure; a commercial smash which treads water could be said to be giving the fans what they want. The stars don’t always align. With Kiss Me Once, however, the stars weren’t even visible.

Still, live is where Kylie has always truly excelled, right? There’s no doubt that she remains a hugely charismatic performer – and she deserves eternal credit for her live vocals which invariably knock it out of the park. Yet the infuriating, aimless, conservatism which marked Kiss Me Once (and has arguably characterised much of her career in the past decade) carries over into this tour. The show is overwhelmingly familiar – with over 40 top twenty hits in the UK and 12 albums to her name, do we really need all of the big Parlophone singles wheeled out yet again? Do we need performances of Sexy Love/Wow/Love At First Sight, three diminishing return rewrites of the same song? Do we need yet another PWL medley (as fun as it was)? There were the usual semi-naked male dancers, the same old ‘ad-libs’, the standard ‘impromptu’ rendition of an old hit. It was Kylie-by-numbers. There were nods to progression with interludes featuring the Garibay songs she surprise-released the other week but what would Kylie have to lose in performing some of these live? They are the most interesting, if half-sketched, songs she’s released in ages. Lest we forget, she debuted Can’t Get You Out Of My Head on tour back in 2001 while KylieX2008 featured two completely new songs.

In the Kiss Me Once show, however, we find a Kylie who seems hesitant and cowed. Perhaps the underperformance of the album meant she felt the need to ‘deliver the hits’ – but anyone around her with the slightest insight would understand that the vast majority of people (hello, gay men over the age of 30) attending a Kylie show in 2014 would go along for the ride, wherever it took them. The ‘casual’ fans have been drifting away for a while now, underlined by the fact that last night’s third evening at the O2 featured a curtained-off top section:

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Les Folies tour had 5 dates at the O2. KylieX2008 had 7. Are we seeing a trend here?

To go back to the quote at the beginning, I of course don’t think that Kylie’s career is over. Yet it’s conceivable that her time as a relevant concern is at an end and, on the basis of both KMO album and tour, she could be in Cher territory: release a ‘will this do?’ album for the faithful then go out on tour with essentially the same show as you always do. And we shouldn’t be in any doubt that a significant number of her fans would be absolutely fine with this – it’s all they want from her. My frustration, as always, stems from the fact that I know she is capable of so much more than that. I’ve been saying that she has nothing to lose for years – now we’re at the stage where surely even she must be aware of her decline. I think this could be her last chance to do something daring, as she has done before, to win over new hearts and minds. Alternatively, we’ll rendezvous in a few years for her three dates at Brixton Academy, marketed as an ‘intimate’ show but with a telling smattering of empty seats.

And it Feels like Home – 25 Years of Like A Prayer

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“Did this actually make you think or are you just trying to be cool?’

My first high school English teacher didn’t much care for my essay about Madonna’s Like A Prayer, returning it to me with the (barely) implicit message that I would write it again. I’d written about how, at the tail-end of my Catholic primary education, Madonna’s album (and particularly the furore around its first single) had opened up a small but ultimately invaluable space for me to start thinking about my relationship with religion. This had been previously been unthinkable for me; more than that, it had seemed terrifying. It felt intrinsically wrong. That the music so resonated with me is unsurprising when you read Madonna’s thoughts at the time:

“I have a great sense of guilt and sin from Catholicism that has definitely permeated my everyday life, whether I want it to or not. And when I do something wrong… if I don’t let someone know that I have wronged, I’m always afraid that I’m going to be punished. And that’s something you’re raised to believe as a Catholic.”

She spoke of the deeply-ingrained but nonetheless taught sense that “If you enjoy something, it must be wrong.” It was ironic, then, that prior to the school discos and end-of-term days where we could bring music into the classroom, we would be given the firm instruction “NO MADONNA”.  This had the obvious effect of making Madonna seem infinitely cooler – even dangerous. And how often can you say that about pop music?

There has been nothing quite like the controversy which erupted around Like A Prayer, either before or since. The single was premiered in an innocuous Pepsi commercial, the product of a then-unprecedented $5 million tie-in deal.

The day after, the now-legendary music video was released. There was instant and widespread uproar, with accusations of blasphemy meeting barely-hidden racism regarding Madonna’s use of a ‘black Jesus’ (the video actually depicts Saint Martin de Porres). The Pope himself condemned the video and the Vatican later censured the whole album. Pepsi quickly ditched the campaign and Madonna kept the money, managing the quite incredible feat of appearing subversive while filling her bustier with multinational dollars.

We tend to believe that boundaries keep being pushed and we become less and less easy to shock. Yet if anything, the Like A Prayer tornado seems less likely to happen in 2014. Pop is more fragmented now, yes. Yet it also seems to carry less cultural weight and have less heady aspirations. The instant response to this in some quarters will be to point out that I’m just older. Sure. But we live in age where even self-confessed pop fans argue for the ‘right’ of pop to be meaningless, frothy background noise, thinking that this is fighting the good fight against elitism. Big artistic statements are so rare that Lady Gaga can hinge an entire career on the mere appearance of offering something beyond the interchangeable pop which dominates, with most of the big pop stars singing variations offered by the same few song-writing teams. Indeed, it’s notable that many listeners of contemporary Madonna long affectionately for the days when she would largely write an entire album with one or two other people (and relatively obscure people at that) – they may not realise it but they’re buying completely into notions of creativity and authenticity (in the spark between writers) which they would probably profess to scorn.

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Going back to 1989, there was little overlap in the collaborators between the dominant artists of the era. Prince’s Batman was created by a total of three writers and one producer. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 – three writers and four producers. Even Kylie’s Enjoy Yourself is entirely driven by Stock Aitken and Waterman, with one cover version. Madonna’s Like A Prayer unashamedly revelled in its ‘rockist’ take on pop, drawing on inspirations like Simon and Garfunkel, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles and Stax Records. Madonna spoke of her love for Tom Waits in interviews of the period, while the album cover is a clear evocation of Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. This was no trite attempt to ‘elevate’ pop by name-dropping so-called serious artists – it was a refusal to countenance that pop wasn’t just as worthy and creative in the first place. If this seems overly worthy, the scenting of the album sleeve with patchouli oil surely provided a cheeky wink at the misunderstood blurred line between artifice and authenticity?

At the time this line was personified by Prince, so it’s unsurprising that Madonna wanted to work with him. What’s perhaps more surprising for some is that Prince equally wanted to work with her (Madonna laughed about how little respect she was afforded as an artist with a wry ““You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut?”) The two had gotten together in 1987 to figure out a collaboration: Prince wanted Madonna to star in Graffiti Bridge only for her to dismiss the script as ‘a piece of shit’ (she was right). A co-written musical was mooted and then abandoned. In the end, the two created some impromptu demos, with Madonna describing how they:

“…sat down and just started fooling around. We had a lot of fun. What happened is that he played the drums and I played the synthesizer and we came up with the original melody line; I just, off the top of my head, started singing lyrics into the microphone.”

Oh, to have been in that room. The result, Love Song, was largely finished off via a tape being sent back and forth (very 20th century) and it is perhaps the most low-key and left-field duet between two pop superstars that there has ever been. Some see it as the weak point of Like A Prayer – I think it’s a febrile treasure. The Purple One also pops up on Keep It Together and Act of Contrition, as well as the 12” version of Like A Prayer.

Prince aside, Madonna again worked with the two men who had largely guided 1986’s mammoth-selling True Blue album: Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray.  Having collaborated with both for years by this point, there was an easy and magical chemistry. Things moved quickly, with Leonard later saying:

“Everything is very quick. We wrote ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Til Death Do Us Part’, ‘Dear Jessie’, ‘Promise to Try’ and ‘Cherish’ in a two week period. I was working on another album at the time so she’d just come in on Saturdays or days off. Nothing took more than 4 hours ever.”

Bray summed up the mood which drove the writing forward with such speed: “It’s behind the scenes, definitely, in Madonna’s psyche.” Her relationship with Sean Penn had very publically disintegrated during the album’s genesis, with Madonna finally filing for divorce following a prolonged violent assault by Penn. Speaking about writing her most personal record to date, Madonna said:

“In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me. “

‘Express yourself so you can respect yourself’ was no throwaway line – it’s a fundamental tenet of the record. The result may have been atypical of pop at the time but it was the continuation of a trend Madonna had both pushed and ridden. True Blue’s Live To Tell was the obvious precursor, while Janet Jackson’s Control (also released in 1986) had attracted much attention for its very public rejection of her father Joseph’s influence (and indeed Janet too would push deeper with the themes of Rhythm Nation 1814). You can nonetheless imagine that it was still shocking to hear a pop superstar of Madonna’s calibre singing about an abusive partner, a dead mother and a dysfunctional family.

It’s not noted enough how central the theme of family is to Like A Prayer, despite it being writ large on the record. It is dedicated to her mother, who provides the inspiration for the naked emotion of Promise To Try. Her father is the subject of Oh Father (funnily enough) while on Keep It Together she addresses her five siblings. Til Death Do Us Part of course addresses her former husband while the psychedelic  joy of Dear Jessie is aimed at Pat Leonard’s daughter Jessie whom Madonna had apparently gotten drunk on champagne in 1987. If much of the family on display here is messy and messed up it’s clear that Madonna views it as central to life: “don’t forget that your family is gold”, she sings on Keep It Together, positing them as the key to remembering the essential core of yourself.

It was a self I was still finding, let alone coming to terms with, in 1989 and the following years. Like A Prayer more than any other record not only accompanied me on that journey but helped me to discover myself. It didn’t explode my world wide open but rather, as I said at the start, created a small space where the seeds for what became defining questions about my life were planted. I haven’t even touched on my burgeoning sexuality and how Madonna at the time was by far the most prominent advocate of gay rights (Like A Prayer featured an educational insert about AIDS while the song Spanish Eyes has been said to be about the disease). I’m sure I picked up on that connection, somewhere, but truth be told it was buried deep within me at that stage; I had to get out from under the whole Catholic sinner thing before I could even begin to visit those places. Happily, Madonna would be there for that part too.

So happy 25th anniversary to Like A Prayer, a pop album which remains unparalleled in my humble opinion. More than any other it shows what pop can really be and why it demands to be taken seriously rather than defended as irrelevant fluff. It’s a record which continues to matter while containing some mercurial, evergreen singles –  it remains a watershed moment in pop. Its DNA can be found when Christina Aguilera announces herself as a ‘serious artist’ by getting personal on Stripped; when Rihanna turns the travails of her private life into brilliant music on Rated R and (of course) when Lady Gaga pays ‘homage’ to one of its most famous singles. We now don’t bat an eyelid when, on her most recent album MDNA, Madonna sings of her second failing marriage on songs like I Fucked Up and Falling Free (it’s surely no accident that her second divorce album picks up where the first one ends, with a recitation of the Act of Contrition?)

Was I ‘trying to be cool’ when I wrote that essay back then? Probably. I certainly felt cool liking the record at the time but by God, it really did make me think and it made me feel. Rolling Stone famously called the album ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It may have been intended as a great compliment but fuck that. Like A Prayer is art – great art, at that. And when I listen to it now? It feels like home.

Given that Kylie was my first MusicOMH review it’s fitting that she’s my last, at least in any regular sense. I want to devote more time to my own writing, including finally getting around to sorting out my own domain name and hopefully (slowly) sprucing up the blog.

It’s unfortunate that I disliked the album so much. Kylie is my third most listened to artist so no-one could accuse me of being a ‘hater’, yet I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by her trajectory over the past decade. She’s in a bit of an odd position in that she’s almost universally ‘loved’ but in a patronising and cloying manner which lacks any serious respect for her as an artist. Look at your average Kylie review or the comments beneath it and you’ll find endless variations of ‘you know what you’re getting with Kylie, she’s all about fun, don’t think about it too much’. It’s a damagingly dismissive attitude which rests on the notion that pop can’t be brilliant (and fun) if it means anything – rather the business of making art should be left to ‘serious’ artists’. The cracks in Kylie’s appeal as a cipher grew ever wider as it becomes increasingly incongruous for an adult approaching middle-age to be singing frothy identikit hits which could easily have been offered to one hundred other much younger artists. Down that road lies the musical irrelevance of Cher – and she at least has her larger-than-life persona to retain a degree of interest. Kylie just has…being nice. It already seems clear that Kiss Me Once isn’t going to do much commercially. Something has to give.

Kylie Minogue – Kiss Me Once