Sunday, August 21, 2016

When I Think Of A Great Janet Jackson Song ... Strangely, My Mind Goes Blank

If one were to evaluate Janet Jackson's love life by the contents of Control's first two singles, one would conclude that every man in Janet's life had either been a narcissistic, lazy, ungrateful boyfriend or a disrespectful, leering, horny felon-to-be. Surely not all men were complete and utter drags? A nice girl like her - you know what she needed? She needed to get herself a handsome lawyer or a doctor, you know, settle down, stop surrounding herself with all this riff-raff. Well, it looks like there was at least one man who treated her right.

I feel like "When I Think Of You" is Janet Jackson's "Holiday," her "Girls Just Want To Have Fun": no matter how many great singles she's released throughout her career, let's get real here. This shit can't be topped. It's the kind of song you can only make when you're young and on the way up and you feel absolutely zero pressure to out-do yourself.

But another part of the charm of "When I Think Of You" is that it's a breather, a respite from Control's dominant mood of defensiveness and self-empowerment. Here, for four minutes at any rate, Janet simply skips down the street like a carefree schoolgirl walking off the bus, waiting to meet a (finally) non-abusive boyfriend! But the masterstroke is that the music sounds like that feeling. First of all, it has one of those patented '80s irresistable intros where each sparkling element enters the mix in staggered, piece-by-piece fashion:
  1. Two chiming keyboard chords, isolated, forsaken
  2. Frisky multi-octave synthesized bass line, bringing a sludgy light to the darkness
  3. Eminently skippable drum machine rhythm
  4. More chiming keyboard chords (that chime in a completely different way from the other chiming keyboard chords)
  5. Tacky imitation brass synth blasts, coupled with funky rhythm guitar, and then, finally...
  6. Janet
How can you lose with an intro like that? She had me at "Oooooh! Bay-beh." And the whole song just rides those two keyboard chords. There's no bridge or modulation or anything. And yet somehow the song never becomes boring or seems like it's repeating itself. That's probably because, at the halfway point, Jam & Lewis shake things up in a number of delightfully imaginative ways:
  • 1:56 - A chorus of mini-Janets playfully chant "So-In-Love" in conjunction with the chiming keyboard melody discussed in bullet point #4 above
  • 2:13 - The bass line unexpectedly disappears, and then Janet recites the song title in deadpan spoken word form (helpfully, when the bass re-enters at 2:29, Janet speaks the word "bass" in the same ennui-laden tone)
  • 2:46 - Now the chorus of mini-Janets create an entirely new melody, and also sound like a hive of monosyllabic robot people ("I'm. So. In. Love. I. Just. Think. Of. You.")
  • 3:19 - Thwarting the expectations of all but the most prescient listeners, Janet suddenly utters the word "break" and she and Jam, or she and Lewis (or perhaps all three of them?), descend into several seconds of indecipherable grunt-speak. Janet's gone ... Animal Planet?
  • 3:36 - The doors of Hades sound like they're about to burst open and let all the evil spirits of the underworld run rampant on '80s R&B radio, until...
  • 3:39 - Janet lets out an impassioned squack, holding the devil's children at bay, which she promptly follows with...
  • 3:40 - A disarmingly natural-sounding giggle, the carefree effervescence of which probably took even Jam & Lewis by surprise, followed by a sloppy, post-chuckle "Feels so good!"
This is, to quote The Maltese Falcon, "the stuff that dreams are made of."



Naturally, as with "Everything She Wants," the official video features a completely different (and, in my opinion, less enjoyable) mix, which I've never heard on the radio ever, of a song which, in its original incarnation, was the definition of flawless, leaving me reluctant to ever watch it. In other words, when I think of "When I Think Of You," I never think of this mix. The drum machine pounds instead of skips, the snippets of dialogue are jarring, etc. etc. The most egregious addition is an extra keyboard riff (on top of the other two keyboard riffs that were already present!) that sounds like it belongs on Janet's subsequent "Love Will Never Do Without You" but shouldn't have been let 10 miles near "When I Think Of You." It's like that scene in Amadeus where the Emperor tells Mozart that his composition is excellent, except it contains "too many notes." Substitute Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for Mozart, and you know what? The Emperor was right!

The video appears to take place on the set of a post-war MGM musical, modeled after a crowded New York tenement, complete with ladies who shake their rugs off balconies, rowdy sailors on shore leave, zoot-suited swing dancers, lazy neighborhood loiterers who sleep in other people's convertibles, photographers who still use flash bulbs, hobos juggling torches, a disgruntled old geezer who keeps threatening to call the cops for no apparent reason, and, nostalgically, a pair of cops who don't actually beat the shit out of people. And then there's Janet, who looks exactly like how she always looked in 1986. The video gives the illusion of having been filmed in one shot, but is actually five smaller shots combined - sort of like a menu item at Taco Bell. Between you and me, while I admire the scale of the production, it feels at odds with the more elemental "Janet and a couple of keyboards" arrangement of the song. Where's the "Lucky Star"/three-dancers-and-a-white-background approach when you need it?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Since You've Gone": Belinda Stares Straight Into The Heart Of Yuppie Darkness, Doesn't Blink, Impresses Future Self

Bewildered with their star's new, um ... "stylistic direction" as they may have been, IRS Records decided to ultimately release three official singles from Belinda. However, a fourth track was released as something called a "radio" single, which I believe meant that it was sent to DJs for promotional purposes but was not made available in stores. Well you know what? They probably should have released it as an official single because, as true Carlisle-ophiles will tell you, aside from "Mad About You," it was arguably the best song on the whole freakin' album. Mundanely generic title aside, "Since You've Gone" actually marked the birth of a new subgenre for Belinda, one that would have seemed wholly inappropriate merely three or four years prior, but one that she would quickly master like nobody's business: the power ballad.

Oh, and Lindsey Buckingham wrote the lyrics. Or rather, it is credited as a Lindsey Buckingham/Charlotte Caffey composition, but sources tell me Buckingham wrote the lyrics, which would imply that Charlotte wrote the music. I have absolutely no idea how the only male member of golden era Fleetwood Mac not named Fleetwood or Mac got roped into this shit, but hey, I'm glad he climbed aboard the Belinda train. Still, as much as I love Stevie Nicks' former musical/romantic partner/nemesis, the music probably outshines the lyrics. But it's all irrelevant when the singer outshines the words, music, the toilet paper hanging in the studio bathroom ... all of it.

Somehow, one way or another, Buckingham found his way into the desolate heart of the Yuppie experience, and captured it in song. However, while he may have filled up the gas tank, Belinda turned the fuckin' key. Those who were concerned that her storybook marriage to a rich dude had killed off her sense of inner torment and despair had no cause to fret. On the surface, she may have seemed like a brand new Belinda, but as "Since You've Gone" shows, somewhere, buried beneath all the mascara and the lip gloss, that frightened, desperate child remained.

Note: The studio version used to be on YouTube as recently as last year (when I began drafting this post) but it looks like it's been taken down again. As impressive as the version of Live At The Roxy is (discussed below), it is no substitute for the studio version, which truly remains in a category of its own. I will add it to the post if it pops up again, but if you choose to download it yourself, mark my words, you will never regret it for as long as you live.

Here we find her, alone in a shadowy bar, grand piano at her side. Some noir strings briefly stir the pot, setting a funereal mood and then quickly receding. Enter our fragile Yuppie queen:
Since you've gone
Nothing really matters
All I do
Is hang out with my pillow
I wait in anticipation
For your call
That never comes

Since you've gone
Don't care about tomorrow
Since you've gone
My heart's barely beating
I wait in anticipation
For your touch
It never comes
Can't you just picture sad little Belinda, lying in bed, clutching her pillow, with cute little Belinda tears in her eyes? Awww. I just want to burst into her bedroom and rescue her. Do anything Belinda, but please, please, don't just lie there and hug your pillow! The image is too unbearable to contemplate.

Then the bass lets out a frightening blast, the drums and guitars kick in out of nowhere, and Belinda starts rocking out:
Another wild Friday night
And I'm waiting here for you
My head says stay home and die
But my heart says break on through
Now this is the Belinda I remember! Frenzied, hungry, reckless. The girl's still got a little Go-Go left in her yet. Listen to the way she elongates "wild" and "stay" - such intensity, such raunch! When she sings "another wild Friday night," you better believe she's known more than her share of wild Friday nights, OK? The music calms down again, but Belinda refuses to calm down with it:
There were times
When you really loved me
All the times
We would run together
To the heart
The heart of the city
Dreams that filled
The night
She really belts out "all the times," like she's thinking "This MOR shit ain't holding me back now." Then she repeats an earlier verse, but hardly repeats her earlier delivery. At 1:53, "since you've gone" becomes "siiiiince you've goh-honnn!" as she pushes her throat to the limit, creating some serious mic distortion, but that's child's play compared to 2:05, where she lets out a terrifying "it nehhh-ver comes!" that could have cleared Nazis from the battlefield. "You want mic distortion? I've got your mic distortion right here."

Just when you'd think there'd be nowhere to go except down, then BOOM! The second time through the chorus, Belinda manages to strip herself to her tattered, shambling core. This time she lingers over the words "wild" and "stay," relishes them, like she's rediscovered her inner bad girl and suddenly remembers how good it feels to be bad. The overly-processed drums thunder in the background as she milks the drama for all that it's worth, her torment brought to new levels of grandeur at 2:31 with the unexpected assistance of female backing vocalists joining her on "break on through!" Just as it couldn't get any more tormented, Belinda suddenly hatches a futile escape plan, a long-shot way out of her empty and meaningless Yuppie existence: "I oughta get into my car/Hit that pedal hard!" Yeah! Yeah! Step on that pedal Belinda! Drive, drive on through the Southern California night, speed out of your ostentatious mansion in your shiny new convertible, flee from the sickening dread that's engulfing your wounded soul! I hope she had larynx insurance, because she practically destroys that thing as she proclaims "I'll drive until I'll find my waaaaaay!" But no. She knows that not even a cathartic late night drive through Malibu is going to cure her of that omnipresent existential void, and retreats with a heartbreaking, voice-cracking "Since you've gone away." Then she crawls back into her bed and hugs her pillow.

Although nothing can top the sleek majesty of the studio version, I have to admit that, as this clip from Live At The Roxy demonstrates, Belinda certainly brought the heat to "Since You've Gone" in concert as well.



Funny story: so I watched this clip on YouTube just a couple of weeks before I read Lips Unsealed. It didn't really seem like a big deal. You're probably wondering why I'm even mentioning it. Well, little did I know, but I was about to experience a Charlie Kaufman moment. For as I made my way through her memoir, I stumbled upon this mind-blowing passage:
More than twenty years later, as I was redoing my website, I came across a video on YouTube of me from one of those shows, singing "Since You've Gone," a great song that featured Charlotte playing keyboards. Unsure if I wanted to watch it, I took a deep breath and clicked Play. I was surprised. I thought it was really good.
Whoa, whoa, hold on a second. You mean to tell me Belinda Carlisle herself was sitting in her mansion in ... France, or India, or wherever the hell she lives these days, and she was sitting there watching the very same YouTube clip I was watching?

Oh. My. God.

Dude.

Mind = blown.

And she wasn't even sure if she wanted to watch it! I love this. Well, yeah, that's gotta be awkward. I mean, how many older celebrities just sit around at home and watch YouTube clips of themselves from back in their youthful prime all day? Maybe David Lee Roth. And she had to take a deep breath before watching it! Like, "God, what if I sucked?" But no, she was actually really impressed ... with herself! Don't you see how weird this is? Both Belinda and I were sitting at home watching YouTube, watching the same exact video, and thinking the same exact thing. "You know, actually, I was pretty fuckin' good!"

That makes two of us, Belinda. That makes two of us.