Sunday, May 31, 2020

"Nothing Compares 2 U": You Throwing Shade On Sinead?

I'm sorry, but something about Sinead O'Connor just makes me chuckle. She's like that girl in high school English class who, no matter how innocuous the topic, always finds a way to register a complaint.

I love how Sinead O'Connor is essentially famous for two reasons: 1) "Nothing Compares 2 U"; 2) saying crazy shit. Note that the "Musical Career" section of her Wikipedia page is the same exact length as both the "Controversies" and "Personal Life" sections of her Wikipedia page. Because Wikipedia knows what we came for! If it's true that "there's no such thing as bad publicity," there may be such a thing as "publicity that keeps you in the public eye but doesn't actually help you have more hits." Although I'm about 97% certain that Sinead O'Connor didn't give a flying fuck about having hits. Quick: name all of Sinead O'Connor's hit singles. There's that Prince song she didn't even write, and ... I guess "Mandinka"? (Yes, she has had a smattering of other chart appearances in the UK, but my point mostly stands.) And yet somehow, doesn't it feel like Sinead O'Connor has had this highly lengthy career? Like Scotch tape, or Wrigley's gum, she's just always been around.

I have, on hand, at least one partial explanation for her seemingly non-one hit wonder status: O'Connor never met a tribute album she didn't like. She has contributed to everything from Stay Awake (a Disney songs tribute album) and Brand New Boots and Panties (an Ian Dury tribute album) to Just Because I'm a Woman: Songs of Dolly Parton and God Don't Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson. You're putting together a tribute album? Better call Sinead. There are artists who launched entire musical careers solely so that one day, Sinead O'Connor could contribute a track to the tribute album that would eventually be produced in their honor. Back in the day I possessed a copy of Two Rooms: Celebrating the Songs of Elton John & Bernie Taupin, to which O'Connor contributed a tremendous, virtually a capella version of "Sacrifice," transforming it from a mid-tempo light rock pleasantry into a haunting, soul-wrenching ballad dripping with remorse and longing. But that's not what I remember most. Oh no. What I remember most is this. Every artist who recorded a song for the album, be they Sting, George Michael, Kate Bush, or Eric Clapton, wrote a little blurb for the CD booklet, essentially describing, in three or four sentences, how much they loved Elton's songs, and why they chose the track they did, and how they went about reinventing it, etc. etc. Sinead O'Connor's blurb for "Sacrifice" simply consisted of the following: "I can't believe no one did 'Candle in the Wind'." That was it. That was her entire blurb. No comment about the song she actually covered, no comment about how much Elton had meant to her as a little girl, blah blah blah. Just one sentence about something that had bothered her. We're talking some peak Sinead right there.

The other Sinead anecdote that stands out to me is when "technical difficulties" occurred during her performance of "Mother" at the Wall - Live in Berlin concert in 1990. From Wikipedia:
Roger Waters tried to get Sinead O'Connor to sing her parts anyway, or mime the song, while the error was being fixed. Offended by being asked to mime, she didn't return after the show to re-record the performance (which is how "The Thin Ice" was saved for the CD/Video release.) Instead, the release version of "Mother" comes from the dress rehearsal on the previous night before the concert.
Dude. When you've made Roger Waters look like the calm, cool-headed professional, you know you're in a category of your own. When you've out-tantrummed Roger Waters, you have really brought it to another level.

I guess I would take O'Connor more seriously if I didn't sense a complete lack of a sense of humor in her music. It turns out she does have a self-deprecating side, given that she named her 2013 tour the "Crazy Baldhead Tour," and let's not overlook this excerpt from her Wikipedia page: "While her shaved head was initially an assertion against traditional views of women, years later, O'Connor said she had begun to grow her hair back, but that after being asked if she was Enya, O'Connor shaved it off again. 'I don't feel like me unless I have my hair shaved. So even when I'm an old lady, I'm going to have it.'"

But in the end, Sinead's unpredictability is a feature, not a bug. I can chuckle at a singer and enjoy her music at the same time, right? The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive. I'm not quite laughing with her, but I'm not quite laughing at her. At least she's not boring. You know what? You go girl. You go ahead and say that controversial thing that no one in the audience actually came to hear you say.

The question, then, is not how a singer this uncompromising and volatile ever made great music, but rather, how a singer this uncompromising and volatile ever scored a hit as massive as "Nothing Compares 2 U." You might say that Sinead O'Connor having a massive #1 hit was about as likely as, I don't know, Dexys Midnight Runners having a massive #1 hit (Pfft, like that would ever happen). But "Nothing Compares 2 U" was one of those rare global monsters, hitting #1 virtually everywhere in the universe simultaneously, as if all of humanity had a mind-meld and proclaimed, "THIS song ... shall be #1." The single's Wikipedia page lists its chart performance in twenty countries, and it hit #1 in every single one of those countries except for France and Spain (maybe they like their women a little more submissive on the Bay of Biscay?). I mean, what the what. An early '90s release from, say, MJ or Madonna performing like that, I could understand, but a virtual unknown? It's not like "Nothing Compares 2 U" was written by a pop superstar or anything.

[whispers into Little Earl's earpiece] Wait, really? He wrote that? Get outta here.

For the first time in my life, I just listened to Prince's 1984 demo version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" (courtesy of Mr. Rogers Nelson having died and his estate not having the same stick up their lavender-shaded butt over the concept of one's music being accessible online), and then I proceeded to listen to the version released by The Family, one of those Prince-in-all-but-name projects that came out circa Purple Rain. A comment on YouTube underneath Prince's version sums up the situation: "If you ever thought Sinead did this better, please... NEVER call yourself a Prince fan."

Done. Easy.

Quick digression on Prince: I admire his catalog, and would not argue that his place in the critical pantheon is particularly undeserved (I also have come to appreciate his music more deeply now that he has passed). I simply just never find myself coming home after a rough day and thinking to myself, "You know what I really need to listen to tonight? Prince." I wrote the following to several friends a week or so after The Purple One's demise:
The metaphor I’ve occasionally used to describe my feelings toward the musical output of Prince: Imagine a delicious gourmet meal, stylishly displayed on a fine silk tablecloth, featuring every kind of tasty dish you could ever want – roasted duck, buttered lobster, pasta primavera, baskets of ripe fruit, freshly-baked muffins, turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, peach cobbler, pie a la mode – you name it. The fanciest wine, glistening silverware, scented candles … cuisine fit for medieval royalty. However, sprinkled ever-so-slightly over this magnificent feast, here and there, are warm droplets of semen. Boy, that meal sure looks delicious, but, I’m sorry, I am not going to be eating any of it.
Prince isn't just Music For Guys With Girlfriends, he's more like Music For Guys With Bondage Partners. I want to relate but ... I just can't. Also, I know many critics and fans have praised Prince as a singer, but I don't particularly care for his voice. I don't hate it, but I don't connect with it either. And there's an awful lot of Prince's singing in Prince's music. Honestly, Prince just never seemed to struggle with much self-loathing or self-doubt to me. Like Highway 61-era Dylan, Prince's biggest problem simply seemed to be that other people failed to understand how much of a genius he was and that they were annoying him all the time.

Sinead O'Connor, on the other hand ... now here's a singer who's had some genuine problems in her life. When Prince sings "It's been so lonely without you here/Like a bird without a song/Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling/Tell me baby, where did I go wrong?," I don't quite buy it. These just sound like lyrics Prince cribbed from a million other soul ballads he listened to when he was growing up, and he figured he should just throw them in there for effect. But Sinead O'Connor? She can't even make it through a freaking music video shoot without sobbing. We're talking one sad cookie here.

So it finally hit me. You know what O'Connor did with "Nothing Compares 2 U"? She turned a Prince song into a George Michael song. Just listen to that intro. There are times I've heard that initial chord on the radio and, frankly, I figured I was hearing the start of "One More Try." I'm sure Sinead has had enough of danger, and people on the street, and is looking out for angels, just trying to find some peace, you know? An extremely 1990 touch was utilizing a vaguely hip-hop beat in a chilly ballad that was built around Euro-classical elements such as violin, grand piano, and random monks chanting "Ah-ah-ah-ah." Let's hear it for surprising little touches like: 1) the drum beat entering on the fourth measure, not the third or fifth measure as one might expect; 2) the chorus gaining several additional, unexpected chords the second time around; 3) even more additional, unexpected notes popping up at the tail end of the last verse ("But I'm willing to give it another tryyyy-uh-ah-hi-yyyyee"). She brought all of those touches to the party herself. You know what O'Connor did to Nothing Compares 2 U"? She completely, utterly de-Princified it. Personally, she turned it into a song I might actually listen to upon coming home after a rough day. I kind of wish she would have done this to the rest of Prince's catalog. Just imagine her versions of "Head" or "Jack-U-Off." (Quick note on the iconic video: the best music video Joan of Arc never made?)

Prince's attitude toward O'Connor - at least according to O'Connor - further validates my hesitation to fully admire the man, for while "Nothing Compares 2 U" may have been a match made in musical heaven, an encounter between the two strong-willed artists conjures to mind something more like Godzilla vs. Mothra. From Wikipedia:
I did meet [Prince] a couple of times. We didn't get on at all. In fact, we had a punch-up. He summoned me to his house after "Nothing Compares 2 U". I made it without him. I'd never met him. He summoned me to his house—and it's foolish to do this to an Irish woman—he said he didn't like me saying bad words in interviews. So I told him to fuck off. He got quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at five in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine.
Come on, man. The woman just turned your dopey throwaway ballad into a hypnotic, gut-wrenching worldwide smash, and all you can do is dictate how she should and shouldn't behave in public? I'm with Crazy Baldhead on this one. Well, if Prince couldn't say it, at least I'll say it. Thank you, Sinead O'Connor. Thank you for making a version of a Prince song that wasn't sprinkled with semen. And I'm sure if I ever thanked you in this exact manner to your face, you'd probably just tell me to fuck off. But I wouldn't mind.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

"Freedom '90": A "Super" "Model" Of Image Dismantling AKA Freedom '90, Quarantine '20

What the ... my God. How many sex change operations did George Michael end up having merely to make this one single video? Let's see .. he got himself a succession of nose jobs, grew a mole, even dyed his skin a couple of times ... the guy was truly sick. I know everyone's disturbed by Michael Jackson, but this is beyond the pale.

At any rate. I'm a sucker for artists who, at the peak of their popularity, just say, "Fuck it," and decide to alienate their audience. Because if it doesn't pay off at the time, it always seems to look good in retrospect. And hey, sometimes it even pays off at the time (see: Pepper, Sgt.). The easy thing to do is to simply keep giving the audience what they want - but are you giving yourself what you want? Ideally, an artist can do both, but, let's face it, a lot of people are stupid. They just want to blow a couple of hours on a Friday night watching Fast & Furious 23 or Rocky 48.676. Most people aren't looking for a challenge.

But with "Freedom '90," I think Georgie Boy managed to have his cake and eat it too. Here we have a single that was simultaneously a giant kiss-off to the entire record-buying public AND a zippy, latin-tinged uptempo hip-shaker that, lyrical claims to the contrary, pretty much gave the record-buying public exactly what they wanted. Merely reading the lyrics on the cold page, one might imagine this song as a ballad, but Georgios rides this "Sympathy for the Devil" groove for six-and-a-half minutes and sounds like he's having the time of his life doing it. (A few of my favorite musical details: the "I Saw Her Standing There"-style hand claps that pepper the vamp which follows the opening chorus; the rapid acoustic guitar strums that kick off each line of the verse; the piano glissando that powers the verse into the pre-chorus.) Against all odds, despite all the bitterness and self-hatred he's dishing out, the sprightliness of the music somehow reflects the "freedom" he's proclaiming in the lyrics. Yeah, go ahead, name me another top 10 hit from the early '90s that's anything like this one. I'll be waiting.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, by the time of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, George Michael was recalling his Wham! years with, shall we say, a distinct lack of fondness. Personally, I'd rather have a Wham! marathon than, I dunno, a Sonic Youth marathon, but that's just me. Come on George, don't be so hard on yourself. But I suppose he was feeling the sting of artistic remorse. In the first verse of "Freedom '90," George prefaces this howl of conscience with a vulnerable plea:
I won't let you down
I will not give you up
Gotta have some faith in the sound
It's the one good thing that I've got
I won't let you down
So please don't give me up
'Cause I would really, really love to stick around, oh yeah
Translation: My new music ain't gonna sound like my old music, but you got to have faith-uh-faith-uh-faith-uh! Then the mea culpa commences:
Heaven knows I was just a young boy
Didn't know what I wanted to be
I was every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy
And I guess it was enough for me
To win the race, a prettier face
Brand new clothes and a big fat place
On your rock and roll T.V.
But today the way I play the game is not the same, no way
Think I'm gonna get myself happy
Well, I can certainly see why he wouldn't have found being "every little hungry schoolgirl's pride and joy" particularly fulfilling. Hi-Yo! But I digress. Have you ever had doubts about something you were doing, and yet ... you decided to keep doing it anyway? I've never had this happen to me personally, but I've had friends tell me what it's like. Wears you out, grinds you down, until one day you just can't take it anymore. And you know that switching gears is going to cost you, but you're willing to pay that price, because it's finally dawned on you that the cost of not switching gears might be higher. That's "Freedom '90":
I think there's something you should know
I think it's time I told you so
There's something deep inside of me
There's someone else I've got to be
Take back your picture in a frame
Take back your singing in the rain
I just hope you understand
Sometimes the clothes do not make the man
You can change, George! It's OK! I allow it! Jesus H. Christ. He's making Wham! sound like the Nazi Party. If so, this is the funkiest Nuremberg trial I've ever heard. And what's he got against Singin' in the Rain? Did Debbie Reynolds step on his foot in a restaurant or something? I think what he's trying to say is "I don't want to be your cheerfully saccharine song-and-dance man anymore," but no one associates George Michael with expertly-composed Gene Kelly routines. Lyric could've used a re-write, but I'll let it slide. Carry on:
All we have to do now
Is take these lies and make them true somehow
All we have to see
Is that I don't belong to you, and you don't belong to me yeah yeah

Freedom! (I won't let you down)
Freedom! (I will not give you up)
Freedom! (Gotta have some faith in the sound)
You've gotta give for what you take (It's the one good thing that I've got)
Freedom! (I won't let you down)
Freedom! (So please don't give me up)
Freedom! ('Cause I would really, really love to stick around)
You've gotta give for what you take
And so we come to the critical question of our age: what is freedom? Is freedom the ability to do whatever you want? The ability to live without regret? The ability to release whatever music is floating your boat without the record company complaining about it? The ability to ignore public health experts and take a trip to the nail salon in the middle of a pandemic? Sometimes I wonder if freedom is simply a seductive illusion and the reality is that we're all trapped inside the prison of ill-defined George Michael lyrics. The second verse deftly touches on the existence of Andrew Ridgeley without shedding any meaningful light on his actual role in Wham!:
Heaven knows we sure had some fun, boy
What a kick just a buddy and me
We had every big-shot good time band on the run, boy
We were living in a fantasy
We won the race, got out of the place
I went back home, got a brand new face
For the boys on MTV
But today the way I play the game has got to change, oh yeah
Now I'm gonna get myself happy
Andrew Ridgeley was living in a fantasy, all right - the fantasy that he was doing something valuable in Wham! Hi-Yo! Also, I'm getting this mental picture of the duo's "big-shot good time" peers such as Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, and The Smiths literally running away from Wham!, and I have to chuckle ever-so-slightly. At any rate, the song's bridge might be my favorite section (musically, I certainly dig the key change followed by wah-wah guitars shifting maniacally across the stereo spectrum), because here is where George's dueling impulses of self-loathing and self-acceptance really manage to duke it out:
Well it looks like the road to heaven
But it feels like the road to hell
When I knew which side my bread was buttered
I took the knife as well
Posing for another picture
Everybody's got to sell
But when you shake your ass
They notice fast
And some mistakes were build to last
That's what you get (That's what you get)
That's what you get (I say that's what you get)
That's what you get (for changing your mind)
That's what you get for changing your mind
That's what you get
That's what you get (And after all this time)
I just hope you understand
Sometimes the clothes do not make the man
He's not whining, he's not deflecting, he's not claiming that he was some sort of "victim" who was "taken advantage of" by the business. He chose this path! He's admitting that he was deliberately complicit in the creation of the image that he no longer wishes to perpetuate. To tear it all down is a massive pain in the ass, but, as he says, "that's what you get for changing your mind." He's cool with it. He's ready to deal with the blowback. How should we interpret the "I took the knife as well" line? Is he suggesting that the pain of making mindless '80s synth-pop was akin to the pain of being stabbed in the chest with a bread knife? Or is he suggesting that he took that bread knife in his hands and proceeded to stab his rivals with it on his way to the top? Jesus, who knew the Wham! experience was so violent?

In the end, one last round of the chorus grants George his true vocal freedom, as he lets rip in the fade-out with the kind of liberating ad libs that were the man's forte: "You got to give-uh-whatcha-give-uh-whatcha-give-uh-whatcha taaaayyyy-aaaayy-aaake ... yeah! You got to give-uh-whatcha-give-uh-whatcha-give ... may not be what you want from me, just the way it's got to be ... lose the face, now ... got the new, got the new ..." I'm fairly certain that not even Nelson Mandela, when his 27 years in captivity finally ended, sounded quite as pumped as George does right there.

So after a brief Google search, I found this article written shortly after George's death, from NPR's Linda Holmes, titled "The Individualism and Fist-Pumping of George Michael's 'Freedom '90'," and now that I've read it, I kind of wonder if I could have saved myself the effort of composing this blog post (but nah). To summarize Holmes's take: "Freedom '90 is not just an expression of individuality, but an expression of vulnerability and dependency as well ... and it also grooves like a motherfucker. Which is kind of what I said. Excerpts:
It begins with just the beat, then the bass and keyboards, and the first appearance of a chant that will recur over and over: "I will not let you down/I will not give you up." It's a song of independence, but its first declaration is of mutuality: a promise and a vow, a sort of "I offer" and "I want" rhythm. Then: "Gotta have some faith in the sound/it's the one good thing that I've got." So there's "faith" wordplay, and there's the idea that artists are not just in business, even when they're pop musicians. Again, while it's declaring independence, it's also admitting vulnerability: part of the reason to preserve your artistic and personal sense of self goes well beyond principle – you do it because to do otherwise can make you desperate and lonely. Then a shift: "I will not let you down/so please don't give me up/'cause I would really really love to stick around."

"Please don't give me up." Please. Very often, you find a song of independence – of freedom – steeped in a kind of "I don't need anybody and I don't care what anybody thinks" autonomous flippancy, structured like a kiss-off. This is the opposite...

When "Freedom '90" rolls into the chorus, it's with the same commitment to mutuality that showed up in the opening: "All we have to do now/is take these lies and make them true somehow." It would have been so easy for this song to be about his freedom, and to just say, "All I have to do now/is take these lies and make them true." But both the use of "we" and the trailing "somehow" – the latter is sung almost on a sigh – make it a song of commonality between a very famous pop star and the people who listen to him.
Yeah, what she said! What's powerful about the song is that George isn't just telling his audience to fuck off (although I kind of think he's doing that); rather, he's asking his audience to accept the "new" George. Indeed, many have read the song as the singer anticipating public reaction to a certain "secret" of his. Here's a quote on Wikipedia from an interview he gave in 2004: "By the end of the Faith tour I was so miserable because I absolutely knew that I was gay... I didn't suddenly want to come out. I wanted to do it with some kind of dignity. So I thought 'okay, you have to start deconstructing this whole image.' " Of course, being arrested by an undercover cop in a public restroom isn't exactly what I'd call "coming out with dignity," but hey, at least the sentiment was there.

And it looks like there was a semi-happy ending after all, because although it stalled at #28 in the UK (lord knows why), "Freedom '90" hit #8 in the US, and I actually remember hearing it a lot more on the radio than I heard "Praying for Time," even though that single hit #1, and basically, what I'm saying is, people loved the "new" George Michael just as much as the old one. Or rather, let me say that in the US, George may have won the battle but he lost the war, whereas in the UK, he lost the battle but won the war. Although his popularity never did wane in Britain, he only managed a few more hits in America after this one, and never did duplicate the success of the Faith era. Sure, George, you can have your "freedom" ... and take it back to Britain with you while you're at it.

OK, so, this video. Whenever my co-blogger Zrbo and I, in our younger years, got around to discussing the relatively overlooked works of the George Michael oeuvre, he would always express his admiration for "the awesome video for 'Freedom '90' with all the supermodels singing the lyrics!" Ironically, while I vividly recall seeing the "Praying for Time" video back in 1990 and finding it rather groundbreaking, although it seems like most people hardly mentioned that video in the years to follow, I have no recollection of seeing the "Freedom '90" video at the time, even though I've learned in retrospect that it was (and is) considered rather groundbreaking.

Here's the deal. Supermodels are generally not the types of celebrities I admire very much, although I'd probably date one if I could (on the other hand, who wants to deal with all that ego?). According to a slew of articles, the "Freedom '90" video "ushered in the era of the supermodel" or some nonsense like that. Am I supposed to ... celebrate this? Although I appreciate the way in which George Michael and David Fincher used the video to subvert viewers' expectations and to render explicit MTV's desire to turn every talented musician into a photogenic pin-up, part of me feels like the video has merely fed into our culture's obsession with superficial glamour while ostensibly attempting to critique it. Yeah, all right, I'm sounding like Professor Higglediggle here, but when half the comments underneath the video on YouTube are statements like "Linda, Christy, Naomi, Tatjana, Cindy all put the 'Super' into Supermodels. They don't make them like they used to!" and "When models were actually beautiful! Today....not so much," I just don't get it. These people rank supermodels the way I rank ... George Michael songs. But George Michael songs can be dark and intense and thoughtful; supermodels are just ... supermodels. Well, people love the video, and I can see why (here's an oral history from the New York Times if you'd like to learn more of the gritty backstory). But if it had featured, say, a series of skeletal gay men dying of AIDS lip-syncing "Freedom '90," now that would have had some real sting to it. Let's see what our fair professor has up his sleeve this time:
Failing to circumnavigate the overworked codes of communal empowerment, Michael avoids using his accumulated symbolic capital to (re)contextualize the repressed "other," instead appealing to the politics of substitution as style. His glottal cry of "freedom" never transcends the sententious dualism implicit in his assemblage of (homo)erotic formations, ignoring Foucault's analyses of sovereign and disciplinary power as formulated in Discipline and Punish. For the viewer, the "freedom" suggested by the reductive co-optation of the "supermodel construct" in the music video serves as a non-subjective reminder of that viewer's physical inferiority. Michael's attempt to "free" himself from his creative history only reinforces his subservient position ("To win the race, a prettier face") per the culture industry that birthed him.