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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1984 Pazz & Jop: The Rise of the Corporate Single

The 11th or 12th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is fraught with many significances. You got capitalism rampant and alternative capitalism and maybe even alternative politics, you got 1984 come true and the light at the end of the tunnel. You got three top 10 bands from Minneapolis and try to make a “sound” out of that Mr. Bizzer; you got three top 20 albums on Black Flag’s label and try to beat that Walter Yetnikoff. You got a Panamanian law-student-turned-sonero-turned-law-student and an Obie-winning musical and a British invasion that went thataway. You got three “black” albums in the top 10 and six “girls” who just want to have everything. You got a shitload of rock and rollers past 35 and more than a couple pushing 50. But for the moment let’s reappropriate that line from singles-charting Deniece Williams. For the moment, let’s hear it for the boys.

The boys in question aren’t young turks like Minneapolis’s Replacements (now at Warners in spite of themselves) or NYC’s Run-D.M.C. (now running for “kings of rock”) or Britain’s Smiths (cut ’em off at JFK). In fact, they’re boys only in the most abstract sense. As he turned 35, Bruce Springsteen put out more exuberantly than he had for almost a decade at least in part because he no longer dreams about being a teenager forever; at 26, Prince is an old pro with six LPs behind him. And between them they dominated American popular music in 1984 — not as monolithically as Michael J. in 1983, of course, but jeez. They dominated commercially. And in the opinion of the electorate — to nobody’s surprise, since they’re old Pazz & Jop faves and had already topped several smaller polls — they dominated artistically as well.

The critics’ runner-up album, Purple Rain, has sold some 10 million copies and spun off four major-to-huge singles b/w non-LP B sides, one of which, “When Doves Cry,” won our poll in a walk, with its follow-up, “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City,” finishing sixth. The winner, Born in the U.S.A., is now quintuple platinum behind Springsteen’s last-chance power drive on what was once AM radio. His three top 10 singles (bringing his career total to four) sported not just non-LP B sides but disco remixes by Arthur Baker; Baker deserves as much credit as the ur-rockabilly neoclassic “Pink Cadillac” (a B that got 17 votes on its own) for propelling “Dancing in the Dark” to number two on the singles list, though “Born in the U.S.A.” made 15 on its own stark authority. Pretty good, huh? Never before have two artists finished one-two albums and one-two singles on our own charts, let alone Billboard’s too. And when I compared previous polls I really got impressed with these boys. For with one exception, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain are the biggest point-getters, proportionally, since Pazz & Jop went over 50 voters back in 1976 — not counting This Year’s Model in 1978, they’re the only albums ever named on more than half the ballots (56.7 per cent apiece) and the only albums ever to earn more than seven points per respondent (7.3 and 7.0; This Year’s Model averaged 8.1, with London Calling’s 6.7, Imperial Bedroom’s 6.6, and Thriller’s 6.3 trailing).

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Me, I was rooting for Bruce, who finally overcame my abiding distrust of his abiding romanticism. By enlarging his sense of humor and adding a vibrant forward edge to his music, he got tough, as the Del-Lords might say, which means refusing despair as well as nostalgia and born-to-lose mythopoeia. Despair was my problem with Springsteen’s baldly anti-pop Nebraska, and it’s also my problem with Prince’s quirky, dangerous, unabashedly pop Purple Rain. For Prince, Purple Rain is ingratiatingly unsolipsistic — but that’s only for Prince, aptly described by Howard Hampton as a “meta-Byronic auteur” who’s “callow, insular, and arrogant in all the time-dishonored rockstar traditions.” What’s someone who doesn’t trust Bruce’s romanticism to make of romanticism that doesn’t even promise to abide — that dances by apparent preference on the lip of apocalypse? As if in illustration, Minneapolis’s pride accepted one of his made-for-TV American Music Awards while Alternative Poobah RJ Smith and I tallied the “When Doves Cry” mandate: “Life is death…,” he announced, and waited the full three beats of a born bondage-master before adding, “…without adventure.” Whew — another close call, climaxing, typically enough, with a message marginally salutary and not exactly true. And yet there’s no denying his achievement. Unabashedly pop though he may be, he’s no Michael J. (or Lionel Richie, or Tina Turner). Rather, he’s the first black to appropriate “rockstar traditions” and put them over since Jimi Hendrix, and you can bet your boody he won’t be the last. So, especially given the rhythmic bent of the electorate — who but Arthur Baker would have figured dance stalwarts Vince Aletti and Michael Freedberg for Springsteen voters? — I predicted a handy Prince victory. And instead got Bruce by a head, a margin reflecting the more responsible artist’s marginally more nutsy critical support.

This close finish suggests that Springsteen’s victory isn’t any more a vindication of what he personally stands for (compassion as agape, maybe agape as conscience) than Prince’s would have been (eros flirting with compassion). It’s more instructive to see both as the stars of this year’s big story: an art-commerce overlay unparalleled since the poll began. The onset of hegemony makes critics even more nervous than marginality-their-old-friend always has, and their ambivalence is drastically apparent in the results. On the one hand, we’re not just talking gold albums; about 10 or so selections will eventually achieve that distinction, which is par at best. We’re talking one multiplatinum blockbuster after another, a formidable chunk of the biz’s 1984 profits, well-made albums by such artists as Tina Turner (album at 5, singles at 3 and 24), Cyndi Lauper (album at 11, two singles at 10, video at 2), Van Halen (album at 25, single at 5, videos at 3 and 6), ZZ Top (album at 32, video at 7), and even Huey Lewis and the News (whose Sports finished a creditable 49th, between Lindsey Buckingham and John Lennon/Yoko Ono; 41 through 47, by the way, went The Black Uhuru, Eurythmics, XTC, Van Dyke Parks, That’s the Way I Feel Now). And on the other hand, we’re talking unkempt indies rising: Los Lobos, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Run-D.M.C. in the top 10 with Minutemen and Meat Puppets right behind (previous top 20 high was four, including Island/Mango’s Sunny Ade as an equivalent of Warner/Slash’s Los Lobos, in the big indie year of 1982). And amid a record 14 Corporate-Hits-for-Radio and a complement of airplay pleasures and damn few straight dance records come two all but unprogrammable Amerindie smashes, both spawned if not made in Minneapolis: the Replacements’ “I Will Dare” tied for 17th and Hüsker Dü’s outrageous “Eight Miles High” an amazing fourth.

There’s no factionalism to speak of here, no rad-lib or boho-bourgie split. Forget Los Lobos and the Replacements with their Warners connection and Run-D.M.C. with their (that’s right) gold album and stick to Pazz & Jop’s rawest indies, the three SST finishers: of the 23 voters who listed two of them, 15 supported Bruce or Prince (or both) as well, just as a random sample might have. The common thread? Ho-hum Tim Sommer (who says he likes both albums) may have tripped over an actual idea when he labeled Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime “coffee table hardcore,” but not because they flaunt their chops and certainly not because they’re slick or well-made. It’s because their double-LP size proclaims their ambitions in recognizable terms while obscuring their limitations — which are by no means crippling but which a lot of critics listen right through. Which is understandable. You look around at America and conclude that it needs yowling nay-sayers even more than it did in the yowling nay-sayers’ heyday, back around ’77 or ’80 or ’82 or whenever. You’re aware that these are articulate yowling nay-sayers, with big ideas. And if you’re like a third of the voting critics, they’re where you make your stand.

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I don’t want to be reductive — tastes differ. Me, I like to have my raw and cook it too. I love the Dolls and the Clash (and the early Beatles) because they yowl tunefully, which is also why I prefer Let It Be to Zen Arcade and Double Nickels (and Hüsker Dü’s Metal Circus to the Replacements’ Hootenanny). On strictly aesthetic grounds, others may well find this disposition a touch genteel; they may simply get more of a charge out of Hüsker Dü’s dense rush or the Minutemen’s jerky beats. But even the strictest aesthetic grounds are usually informed by or productive of general beliefs, and it’s those beliefs I’m trying to pin down. I’m a fan of the SST albums myself — “Turn on the News,” the enraged never-a-single that leads off side four of Zen Arcade, gets my nomination for song of the year. On strictly aesthetic grounds, I ranked the perhaps pop but definitely fucked-up Let It Be, a more precise and impassioned piece of half-a-boy-and-half-a-manhood than Bruce ever pulled off, just a shade below Born in the U.S.A. And I’m also high on Los Lobos, whose powerful third-place showing was the poll’s most gratifying surprise (and an even bigger one than the soft finish of third-handicapped Cyndi Lauper). Let me emphasize too that the critical resurgence of the indie album reflects serious drawbacks in the way popular music is now produced. But for all that, I thought 1984’s real action — its excitement, believe it or not — was in corporate rock.

I reached this conclusion listening to the radio — specifically, CHR, which is bizese for Contemporary Hit Radio. In January, April, and August three blatant white-male CHR commodities zapped right through my defenses and diddled my synapses directly, as the biz intends. Such a trend can’t show up clearly on the Pazz & Jop charts because it’s not about peaks of top 25 magnitude; it requires an array of essentially arbitrary stimuli kicking off the desired consumer responses in a much vaster array of individual record-buyers. For me the taste treats were John Waite’s “Missing You” (the most unequivocal such commodity to chart, though the loathsome “Like a Virgin” came damn close) and the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” and especially the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” while for Greil Marcus they were .38 Special’s “If I’d Been the One” and Barry Gibb’s “Boys Do Fall in Love” and the Cars’ “You Might Think,” and for James Hunter (long a proud addict of this particular media-fuck) Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and Elton John’s “Sad Songs Say So Much” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie.” Once again I don’t mean to be reductive; it’s not as if the manipulation I’m describing doesn’t interact with meaning, in critics and normal people both. In fact, such meaning-mongers as Bruce and Prince and Tina and Cyndi (and Van Halen and ZZ Top and Huey Lewis?) engage in musical practices much like those of “Missing You” and its soul siblings. It’s just that at their best they put the same surefire elements — which these days boil down to multiplex hookcraft, resonant production, and a sense of caged energy and/or weathered emotion — to richer epistemological uses.

Manipulative pop is always around, but in 1984 it was more plentiful and more meaningful — better — than at any time since the early ’70s, or maybe even the halcyon mid-’60s, whose pre-prog radio most critics started pining for back when punk reminded them about fast three-minute songs. Because the accumulated craft of Generation ’77 and its pop-rock allies finally had somewhere to go, you could hear a winning professional elation in artists as diverse and ultimately insignificant as Billy Ocean and Bananarama and the Pointer Sisters and Duran Duran and Talk Talk and John Cougar Mellencamp. Say what you will about CHR, you have to admit it plays pop hits even diehard rock and rollers can love. So we got what we wanted, more or less: stations that both registered on the Arbitron scale and didn’t make us barf. And now, since we’re rock and rollers, we’re wondering whether we lost what we had. For some critics, of course, this isn’t a question; the guys and gals who use rock and roll first and foremost to one-up all their stupid co-humans are in no way assuaged by the blandishments of CHR. But even hidebound populists who love CHR remember one big advantage of their recent marginality: music whose formal-expressive potential isn’t limited or leveled by marketing considerations, including the perfectly honorable need to communicate. All the Born in the U.S.A. in the world isn’t going to make us give up United States Live or “World Destruction,” as long as they’re still out there. Which we want to make sure they are. Keep your fingers crossed.

It would be unfair to brand the CHR-oriented multiplatinum blockbuster a conservative force — not even Bruce and Prince, and certainly not Tina and Cyndi, were established singles artists before this year. But the new dispensation sure does have its downside. So far, at least, though programmers may get more cautions about burnout potential, it’s created a singles logjam, because once an album yields a couple of smashes radio demands more of the same, pushing the current star in preference to some lesser-known corporate knight-errant with an equally obscene independent promotion budget. And while it may be an accident of timing — I do remember the Beatles, really — I note with dismay that blockbuster artists tend to be marketed as individuals. While Purple Rain makes one of its Biggest Statements by (gasp!) billing Prince’s band, I dare you to tell me who’s in it, and while you’re scratching your head swear you don’t picture David Lee Roth when you try to remember what Eddie Van Halen looks like; if it isn’t quite enough to make you send letter bombs to MTV and People, you still have to wonder whether Susanna Hoffs (she’s a Bangle) or Paul Westerberg (the irreplaceable Replacement) will prove suitable for framing. Finally, CHR induces artists and especially producers to forget the album as a whole and concentrate on three or four (we hope) singles. That’s why I first figured Private Dancer for a B plus and kept She’s So Unusual out of my top 10 — wonderful though the best parts of both records may be, their filler sounds more like filler than need be.

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Which leaves the indies precisely who-knows-where. Five years ago their chief use was singles and EPs, but now they may have inherited the album (and group?) aesthetic the way the Labour Party inherited the British railways after World War II. Since they’re largely populated by artists who are in it for love, all that keeps them from coming up with good albums-as-albums is budget (the dire strait of Zen Arcade) and talent (their most songful bands do show a taste for upward mobility). Ignoring imports and disqualifying Warners-supported Los Lobos, the seven indie albums the voters selected are way up from 1983’s three and 1981’s two but not as impressive as 1982’s nine, so we shall see; on my personal list, much shorter than it’s been for the past few years, the 24 indies constitute an all-time high. In any case, I believe the indies will continue to get by economically on scuffling distribution, u-drive-it tours, alternative disc jockeys, and let us not forget press support (bet there are more Pazz & Joppers on SST’s list than on CBS’s). Plus, certainly, the occasional bonanza of a major-label buyout or coop deal.

For the most part, though, majors and indies seem destined to function almost as parallel industries. The blockbuster system has shown a welcome appetite for salable oddities, but also a deplorable readiness to spit out the unsalable ones real fast. A recent casualty is 30th-ranked King Sunny Ade, who after failing to break beyond a U.S. audience of 50,000 or so (nice bucks for an indie, red ink for a major) has split with Island; assuming he has nothing multinational up his capacious sleeve, he will no doubt be encouraged to put out his Nigerian records on Shanachie or Rounder or some such, but who knows when he’ll invest time and money in a powerful Afro-American fusion like Aura again. Nor are oddities who sing in English exempt. In a worst-case scenario, the likes of R.E.M. and X could quickly be forced to reveal just how much love they’re in it for as the once-fashionable Ms. Lauper burns out in the general direction of the floundering Culture Club, the underemployed Men at Work, or even the disbanded Stray Cats. That would leave the indies free to earn ever more decent returns from off the unblockbusting markets they serve, though the artists’ crimped dreams and audiences’ crimped demands would eventually leach excitement (and after that profits) from their music. In a best-case scenario, the Replacements or Los Lobos or X or R.E.M. or the Bangles (or even — ick — Let’s Active or the Del Fuegos) could turn into the next megaplatinum oddity. Whereupon indies would start farming out potential bonanzas — I can see it now, Hüsker Dü in the studio with Liam Sternberg for Geffen — and tending new ones, who might or might not grow both sturdy and odd. Certainly the EP list, which ended up showcasing a San Francisco comedienne, a Nashville mother-and-daughter act, and a callow Captain Beefheart (two of whom I voted for myself), bodes poorly. In past years Los Lobos, R.E.M., the Bangles, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Let’s Active, and the Lyres have all made their Pazz & Jop debuts on EP, with the Replacements and Hüsker Dü barely missing. This year only Jason evinces major potential, though Tommy Keene might turn into a less gooey Let’s Active and the Butthole Surfers could conceivably bubble up from below.

New blood might also come from abroad, of course. But as a matter of local loyalty and revealed truth Pazz & Joppers have favored American artists throughout the ’80s, and I don’t see that changing in the short term. Anglophilia did make a comeback with the voters in the wake of the widely rumored British Invasion of 1983. Yet though every winning act except for the Police and Malcolm McLaren (whose 23rd-ranked single didn’t spin off an album until mid-December) was back on the racks in 1984, only U2 (who aren’t English and fell from sixth to 29th) repeated, joined by romantic tyros the Smiths and artists of colour Special AKA and Linton Kwesi Johnson. (If the Pretenders are British, Tina Turner’s white.) Of the others, the Eurythmics (tied for 43rd), Elvis Costello (70th! — lowest previous finish 11), and Big Country (also not English and down from 15 to 92) made top 100. Richard Thompson and Culture Club were lower, Aztec Camera was much lower, and David Bowie justified my steadfast faith in rock criticism by garnering not a single mention. Other Brit bands were heard from, of course — watch out for Bronski Beat, the Waterboys, perhaps Sade, perhaps the The — and a few young Americans also got their comeuppance (Violent Femmes 85th heh heh, Dream Syndicate 94th). But on the (American) trade charts and the (American) critical charts both, this was an American year.

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I’ll try not to prattle on too much about how rock and roll nationalism connects up with the easy-going monster who sits atop the American hegemony to end all American hegemonies. But I will surmise that the affection of the American record-buyer for Bruce and Prince (and Madonna and Motley Crüe) has something in common with the affection of the American voter for Ronald Reagan, that the common element may not be all bad, and that as always those who crave progressive change might well pay closer attention. If Americans are to change, they’ll do so as Americans, not universal humans, and their music is an encouraging index of what Americans might become if not how they might become it. Read what you will into the burlesque escapism of “Ghostbusters” or the pathological deceit of “Like a Virgin” (or the pulp-fascist sadism of Shout at the Devil), I trust that most Voice readers, if not most New Republic readers, still prefer rock and roll’s hegemony to the president’s. And if you want to believe that critics sense trends first, as they often do, then maybe rock and roll portends something better than world destruction.

A few pollyannas may discern smashed sexism in the record-breaking six top 20 albums by women. But especially since there are only two or three more in the next 30, I’ll just applaud the return to “normal” 1979-1982 levels, hope Private Dancer proves less flukish than 1979’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, pray Cyndi and the Bangles don’t go the way of the underrated 53rd-place Go-Go’s, and give thanks that neither Madonna album snuck into the top 100. I’m more encouraged by the 10 black albums in the top 40 (three on the staying power of 1983 product by one Clinton and two Womacks) in a bad year for funk and traditional black pop. Whatever it portends, there is a renewed integrationist mood in the music marketplace, and with major misgivings about who does and doesn’t share the wealth I have to call it healthy. Even Ron Wynn, whose late ballot included his annual anti-crossover sermon, has half-succumbed: surrounding 97th-ranked Solomon Burke among his 15-point albums were Private Dancer, which utilizes white musicians almost exclusively, Purple Rain, which flaunts a flamboyantly integrated band, and Run-D.M.C., by a group with every intention and some chance of cracking the heavy metal market (and don’t be sure you’ll like it — or hate it — when it happens). We also had our first salsa finisher, Rubén Blades, who’s reportedly preparing an all-synth followup. Given the wide (and even) age spread, generational consciousness seemed at once more acute and less hostile — not many kids blaming their pain on their elders or elders condescending back (though Chrissie Hynde’s nasty “I’ve got a kid I’m 33” was one of the year’s great moments). Which may be because rock and rollers are figuring out who their enemies are — our easygoing monster definitely has them thinking. The usual cultural subversion and pleas for peace were augmented this year by lots of music that’s explicitly political rather than just objectively progressive or socially conscious: from the relative subtlety of Laurie Anderson and Clinton and Springsteen and Hüsker Dü and the Del-Lords and the born-again Ramones, all of whom make the agitpop of the movement ’60s seem pretty tame, to the militance of the Minutemen and the Special AKA and Rubén Blades and Linton Kwesi Johnson, possibly the greatest artist in the history of Trotskyism.

On the whole, then, I find myself cheered by Pazz & Jop ’84, and surprised. Although congenitally unpessimistic except when rattled, I’ve spent the past six months grousing about the worst year for albums since 1975, and now I realize I was wrong. With my Dean’s List at 50 and climbing — which seemed impossible even as RJ and I tallied in late January — I’ve looked back and discovered that not until 1978 did I get above 49 without best-ofs; in 1980, I didn’t get above 49 with them. Counting only compilations drawn from recent history, I can add five guaranteed A’s to my list (John Anderson, George Jones, Marley, Parliament, Scott-Heron), with half a dozen more looking good. Of course, my 1982 and 1983 lists did go up to 70 without best-ofs, and the slippage still makes me nervous — in the absence of cultural upheaval there was some satisfaction in settling for broad-based energy and skill. But as I might have figured in the year of the major-label single — a year when the quaint notion of the album as “artistic unit” lost its last vestiges of bizwise usefulness — most of the decline was in major-label albums, down from 42 to 26. So what else is new? I’ll take anything I can get from the big corporations, but I consider it correct to expect as little as possible, and my dismay at the dip in first-rate LPs was more than offset by an unexpected bonus of consensus: although as always I smell some ringers in this year’s poll, from the Smiths and Let’s Active to the eternal Rickie Lee Jones, every album in the voters’ top 20 was at least an A minus by me. They’ve — we’ve — arrived at a balance of shared pleasure and informed rage that I think fits the real limits and possibilities of the music we all love.

To prophets and fools this will seem not just small comfort but closet (if that) liberalism, a self-informed fellowship of rowdy dissent that can in no way mitigate the present and future political/cultural disaster. And as far as I’m concerned they should yowl all they want about cooptation and War Is Peace and counter-hegemony feeding on hegemony and true oppression caught in the gears, because they’re sure to be telling some of it true. Congenital nonpessimist that I am, though, I just don’t believe they see the whole picture. I’m very aware that there are all kinds of ways for me to be wrong, but I don’t believe the world as we know it is coming to an end. And in my own little sphere I’m delighted to see co-workers closing ranks in response to the unequivocal social crisis that one way or another underlies various ambiguous musical developments. I have even less idea what the future holds than I usually do. But I am pretty sure that insofar as music can help us through — and maybe what distinguishes me from prophets and fools is that I no longer think that’s very far — we still have the stuff.

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Top 10 Albums of 1984

1. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia)

2. Prince and the Revolution: Purple Rain (Warner Bros.)

3. Los Lobos: How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash)

4. The Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)

5. Tina Turner: Private Dancer (Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: Reckoning (I.R.S.)

7. The Pretenders: Learning To Crawl (Sire)

8. Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (SST)

9. Lou Reed: New Sensations (RCA Victor)

10. Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C. (Profile)

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Top 10 Singles of 1984

1. Prince: “When Doves Cry”/”17 Days” (Warner Bros.)

2. Bruce Springsteen: “Dancing in the Dark”/”Pink Cadillac” (Columbia)

3. Tina Turner: “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (Capitol)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Eight Miles High” (SST)

5. Van Halen: “Jump” (Warner Bros.)

6. Prince: “Let’s Go Crazy”/”Erotic City” (Warner Bros.)

7. (Tie) Afrika Bambaataa & The Godfather of Soul James Brown: “Unity” (Tommy Boy)
Run-D.M.C.: “Rock Box” (Profile)

9. Chaka Khan: “I Feel for You” (Warner Bros.)

10. (Tie) Cyndi Lauper: “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (Portrait)
Cyndi Lauper: “Time After Time” (Portrait)

— From the February 19, 1985, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

DANCE IT ON DOWN

In 1967, a news and sports reporter emceed a local talent showcase in Chicago that quickly gained popularity and became a long-running television show. That reporter was Don Cornelius and, you guessed it, the show was Soul Train. In honor of the show’s 40th anniversary, celebrate this revolutionary program that put African-American culture on the main stage, highlighting the best music, dance moves, and fashions, at the premiere screening of the documentary Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America. The film takes you down memory lane with appearances by stars such as Aretha Franklin, Snoop Dogg, David Bowie, and Chaka Khan. The evening also includes a panel made up of ?uestlove, dancer-choreographer Tyrone Proctor, and music journalist Danyel Smith. I’ve often imagined the dance I’d do during the “Soul Train Line”—perhaps tonight I’ll get the chance to show off my moves!

Wed., Jan. 27, 6:30 p.m., 2010

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Secret of Joy

Faith Evans obviously spent a lot of time with Jill Scott’s debut. No crime in that; we all did. And for good reason: Scott gave the genre of the urban woman’s confessional in song—the blues by any other name—license to wax poetic, spin prolix narrative recitative, and elasticize melody like Bird and Sarah Vaughan were in the house. If Mary J. Blige brought the sound of pain and suffering back into the mix, Scott displayed how much introspection and harmony that wail could contain. Her raising of r&b’s art bar undoubtedly helped Evans aim high, making The First Lady her tightest set yet—song for song, production is crisp, ingenious, and bumping; lyrics meet the Chaka Khan criteria in communicating a complete thought; and Evans, often mistaken for a Blige without pitch issues, owns her emotions and isn’t afraid to paint romantic pictures of them that leave pathos for the tabloids.

While her well-known backstory as Biggie’s widow could have made for more melodrama, Evans brings ebullience and the secret of joy instead. The world expects Black women to carry tragedy like it wasn’t nothing but a spare tire, to come out swinging and shining when it’s raining inside, but Evans doesn’t sound like she’s pretending for the public. There’s a bodacious lilt and effervescence to her vocals that suggest her life off-mic is better than ever. Mad kudos to the producers, especially the unknown-to-me pair of Ivan Orthodox Barias and Carvin Rassum Higgins—we’re loving all the old-school changes and funkdafied ear candy, fellas. Plus the steel-pan air that makes you want to whirl about the room like Fred and Ginger on “Jealous,” the Andy Summers-ish guitar that supports “Ever Wonder,” and the duet with additional producer Mario Winans all give up rock attitude without the faux-rock bombast common to these fusions.

The Scott influence is strongest on “Catching Feelings” and “Get Over You,” where songbird Evans floats heart-wrenched, goose-bumped feelings on resilient gossamer wings. For the born-again there’s the closing “Hope,” strangely credited Twista Featuring Faith—until you hear motormouth come out the box from the giddyup, spitting a bevy of mile-a-minute verses about God and the ghetto while Evans supplies the gorgeous, uplifting hook. Weakest is the Pharrell-produced opener, “Goin’ Out”—more video concept than tune and surely meant to display how 30-pounds-lighter Evans is ready to compete in our telegenic, bootylicious Blackpop world, where body-by-Beyoncé currently trumps jazzing-like-Jill.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

The Memory of All That

With the barking fervor of the fanatical televangelists he loves to parody, Mark Dendy prepares his latest work for the opening of the Joyce Theater’s three-week “Altogether Different Festival” on January 10. Aided by choreographic oracle Phyllis Lamhut, Dendy orders his dancers to give him “heavy testicles and heavy ovaries” as they slink into a square formation to the slumming march beat of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”

The new dance, I’m Goin’ to my Room to be Cool Now, and I Don’t Want to be Disturbed, was inspired by Dendy’s recollection of his conflicted adolescent years, when he was waist-deep in surging hormones. His memories of primal rock’n’roll arousal are propelling Cool Now. Joni Mitchell, Aerosmith, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, and Chaka Khan all figured in the fray between the teenage Dendy and his fundamentalist Christian mother.

“I remember we were driving down Monument Avenue—at the time my mother was so controlling my life; I was 13 or 14—and there were these longhaired kids in bell-bottoms on the street,” he says. “She spat out, ‘Don’t look at them!’ as if their energy was going to make me into one of them. And then that Chaka Khan song “Tell Me Something Good” came on—awoink, awoink, awoink, chackakuh—and they get to the chorus and they’re making this hard-breathing sexual noise, ‘Tell me, tell me, tell me,’ and it just sounds like sex. And my mother goes, ‘Turn that off! That’s filthy!’ ”

Dendy spins the fantasy filth into gold with a thumping homoerotic duet for two men, accompanied by solos, couplings, and ensemble numbers like “Walk on the Wild Side,” led by Steven Ochoa in a hot pink spandex minidress and knee-high pony-hair boots. Mom couldn’t have figured how wild Dendy would become when he and his high school theater pals, at parties, discovered 15-minute “turn-out-the-lights” sessions, perfect for a blow job or two. “I had my first rum and coke, my first joint, and my first penis all in the same night,” he claims proudly.

“This ain’t deep Dendy,” he admits, although when Nicole Berger plows into a torturous, bare-breasted solo to Janis Joplin pleading for a Mercedes-Benz, and Lawrence Keigwin spins out glorious phrasing to “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” you know the feelings, at least, come from his gut. “It’s meant to empower gay men and let them recognize their spirit and to embrace the straight people in the audience who have gay spirits—and for the ones who don’t, to lift them up with a gay spirit. It’s kinetic, sexual Dendy,” insists the choreographer, who took Lamhut’s advice to throw away a planned theatrical script and turn it into a “dance-y dance.” The seven performers passionately inhabit the songs, even though most were in diapers when the music was recorded.


Seven companies appear on the “Altogether Different” roster this year, including ChameckiLerner, the John Jasperse Company, and Compagnie Flak (the first Canadian troupe in the Festival) making their Joyce debuts. “We’ve been edging toward going outside New York in the past few years,” says Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce, adding that local companies have been chosen in the past so they could take advantage of seminars on fundraising and producing offered in conjunction with the festival.

Each troupe is allocated three performances spread over the festival’s 18-day run. Several veterans are returning this season: the Wally Cardona Quartet, Iréne Hultman and Friends, and Mark Dendy Dance & Theater. And some of the heavy-hitting groups—such as Armitage Gone! Dance (the souped-up troupe of near expatriate Karole Armitage), Jasperse, and Dendy—could arguably have filled their own weeks. “We’ve been able to keep the ticket price at $20, so the audience can really experiment,” says Shelton of her choreographic smorgasbord.

The memory of a song that Venezuelan-born José Navas’s father sang to him as a baby lent itself to the title of Compagnie Flak’s Perfume de Gardenias, a poetic and provocative work for six dancers that has its New York premiere January 11. The piece explores the flavors of desire and love exhibited by humans—in this case six naked human bodies. Navas chose to literally expose movement by having the dancers remove their clothes during the rehearsal process. “When we are onstage with no clothes on, there is a different way to move when you are just with your skin and bones and flesh,” he says. “We try to push that farther; that material is what we took to construct and structure the piece. It is my version of what heaven should be—if we go to heaven.”

Back on earth, the highly acclaimed team ChameckiLerner performs reality checks with its Rashomon-like Poor Reality on January 12. Four dancers, including company founders Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner, in near identical dresses and turbans, range through a landscape of mirrored Plexiglas panels that leave open to question who is real and who is not. “It is about how we deal with the fact of understanding reality,” says Chamecki. “I look at you and I think you remind me of somebody I knew. I have an image of her and she has an image of who she thinks I see. And then there is the image that she has of herself and what she actually is.” Got that? Set to the music of Dusty Trails, Poor Reality glides hypnotically from a sequence in which the dancers assimilate each other’s gestures to a dramatic trajectory at the end of which the performers finally connect physically.

True to the spirit of the festival, each of the three companies opening next week wants audiences to take something different away. Says Navas of Perfume de Gardenias, “I want people to leave the theater with a different understanding of themselves as desired objects or as humans who have desires.” In Poor Reality, Lerner asks viewers to look “at the brutality we inflict upon ourselves, how it becomes painful to accept ourselves.” Dendy says of his work, “It’s just a piece that’s slick, that moves, that doesn’t sacrifice my homosexual conversion values.” With his characteristic diabolical grin, he adds, “There’s a list of all the boys I want to convert, Jerry Falwell, so you’d better try to find it before I get to the next one.”


“Altogether Different Festival 2001” includes the work of seven troupes in rotation over a three-week period. For complete schedule information, see the dance listings in next week’s Choices section, call 212-242-0800, or visit www.joyce.org.

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Music

Back to His Roots

Howe Gelb is one of those guys you assume must have been an original punk, because he’s unsettling to behold when not styled punk at all (Zappa-ish hair-mustache-goatee with decidedly unindie silver necklace), and because when he shambles into the set of shambles that time has proven to be his own, uninterested in alternative categories, the crowd skitters out of the room. Since the last Giant Sand studio album, Glum, in 1994, Gelb lived the death of his tumor-stricken collaborator Rainer Ptacek, recording part of his 1998 solo album Hisser from Ptacek’s hospital room. His comeback was to have begun last fall, but V2 at the last minute declined to release Chore of Enchantment, which will now come out in March on Thrill Jockey.

But Gelb isn’t totally alone: Drummer John Convertino and bassist Joey Burns have played with him for years, and when Gelb dropped out they formed Calexico, enlisting guitarist Nick Luca. As Gelb got moving at the Bowery Ballroom last Thursday, starting at a double-keyboard setup, switching to acoustic guitar and some electric, triggering at near-random intervals DAT tapes of opera, Mexican folk music, and Kansas City boogie-woogie piano, wandering through vocals on microphones that kept distorting, the three weren’t fazed. When Gelb said he’d just been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House (he identified with the comedian there from the dawn of shtick who tells awful jokes and plays worse keyboard) and launched into a gypsy reel, they were right behind him. They know his sound.

And it’s a real sound, as distinct as harmolodics or Beefheart, if less trailblazing. Gelb and Luca fast-picked some country at one point. This is roots music that accepts that roots is anything you feel like listening to, given a western sense of space and a hippie-punk sense of slack. Gelb rocks out less often, but his pacing and textures have never been more musical, and Chore of Enchantment, recorded with PJ Harvey’s John Parish and Memphis auteur Jim Dickinson, might be his best-sounding record. Does it have the strongest set of songs, you wonder. Hey, haven’t you been paying attention? —Eric Weisbard


Khan Do

Sporting hair the color of black cherries and a gauzy, floor-length black outfit that Queen Guinevere might have worn had she been a rock star, Chaka Khan confided to those assembled at the Blue Note last Tuesday that the very next day would see her in the studio cutting tracks for her new jazz album. Since for many of her fans each of Chaka’s albums is beyond category, it was interesting to hear her nail herself to a genre. But everything about this gig suggested Khan’s need to make a point about her career-long flirtation with jazz standards and jazz technique, which no amount of protean improvisation over funk, rock, or disco beats could provide. Oozing charisma and good cheer, Khan fronted a well-drilled quartet on keyboards, bass, drums, and cornet. The instrumental textures were intentionally heavy on fusion-era atmospherics, but the vocals were all bebop sass delivered with a subtle sense of Broadway drama.

Versions of “Them There Eyes” and “I Loves You Porgy” were given confident, imaginative readings. Her sly and triumphant performance of “I’ll Be Around” turned the song’s implicit resignation into wicked glee. She sang “Reconsider,” cowritten with Prince for her recent funk album, with a mean scat break. She recapped her soft-focus rendition of “My Funny Valentine” from Waiting to Exhale, and did a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Man From Mars” that underscored similarities between Mitchell’s unorthodox phrasing and her own. It was an all-too-brief set (a mere eight songs and opening instrumental), but a graceful career transition nonetheless. With both her daughter and Mary J. Blige in the audience that night, Khan was singing both to and for her legacy as the standard all the boldest, hippest, would-be divas have to beat. —Carol Cooper


Getting in Tone

Even while spending the last 30 years studying North Indian music, Terry Riley has never excluded the influence of ragtime and barrelhouse piano, which he once played in bars to earn college tuition money; the power, speed, and touch in this bearish 64-year-old’s left hand bring to mind John McEnroe, if only because Riley’s vagabond piano playing leaves you searching beyond music for comparisons.

In a program at the Merkin Concert Hall on Friday night, Terry Riley and the All Stars performed together only once. Though the ensemble switched formats (solo, duet, quartet) as often as they did modes (composed, improvised, or a combination), Riley’s imprint was prominent, even when he was offstage. He writes wandering sojourns that merge Western and Eastern styles; paradoxically, his music has a kind of restless restfulness. He plays piano with a glassy tone that’s pretty but not simplistic, and—in marked departure from the episodic pulses of “In C,” his 1964 landmark, arguably minimalism’s first meme—he amiably shifts form every few seconds, from witty, repeated chords to silence to fleet, trebly runs.

His group, on violin, saxophone, contrabass, and guitar, answer with subtle inflections, exploring the galaxy of tone. On “Diamond Fiddle Language,” the one quintet piece, Stefano Scodanibbio began by tapping his bow rhythmically on his contrabass, setting a swaying pulse that anchored the music. Riley sang in the Indian raga style of droning microtones, and after the others improvised delicate responses that goaded or delayed the sensuality, Scodanibbio capped the piece by attaching percussive shakers to his strings and gently plucking them. To these rock ears, the remarkable effect was like hearing Astral Weeks being rehearsed by a Bombay chamber orchestra. (Aside: With all five musicians performing, the stage was aglow with braided hair, pastel shirts, vivid vests, and Kenny G curls. Can’t the NEA fund a study to determine why new-musicians dress so badly?)

Riley’s baby-faced son Gyan played about 20 minutes of guitar music written by his dad, virtuosic displays in the classical-guitar tradition, with deft zigzags and finger-picked harmonies, like flamenco played with Buddhist pliability instead of Mediterranean bravura. In “Missigono,” Terry Riley applied his homely voice to mirthful verse that would’ve pleased Allen Ginsberg. “four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten/Judeo-Christianity, Muhammad, Zen,” Riley sang, obviously savoring the tone koan. —Rob Tannenbaum