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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 MUSIC ARCHIVES

How “The Con” Raised Tegan and Sara to Indie Pop Royalty

Tegan and Sara’s 2007 album The Con is so sticky it’s impossible to get out of your head. The gently plucking chords ring of fear and anxiety, the lyrics are dense and emotional, and yet it remains — somehow, impossibly — upbeat, its brightness shining through the darkness. It is the album that brought Tegan and Sara into indie pop royalty, that saw images of their faces pinned on the walls of my high school, that made heartbreak seem not only manageable but survivable. But in the past year, playing hits like “Nineteen” and “Back in Your Head” and “I Was Married” just haven’t felt right for the identical twins onstage.

“There were a few times over the last two years where our ‘pop’ show felt like the wrong tone or vibe for what was happening in the world,” says Sara Quin. “It was hard to make adjustments after [all the] horrific events.” She mentions Paris, and Orlando, and Brexit, and Trump. The positivity and fiery synths of The Con no longer worked, and so the band found a way to make them. Last week, in honor of its tenth anniversary, they put out The Con X: Covers, a re-release of their iconic album featuring tunes sung by the likes of Hayley Williams, Mykki Blanco, Cyndi Lauper, and Ryan Adams.

“I still identify strongly with the helplessness and grief I was suffering with at that time in my life,” Sara says, and the covers, each of them in their own unique way, certainly make the inherit darkness of the album more prominent. Ryan Adams takes the upbeat keyboard riff and jaunty rhythm of “Back in Your Head” and replaces it with a distorted electric guitar and a screaming chorus. Cyndi Lauper’s digital bonus track interpretation of the same song whispers, stacks layered vocals on top of a synth beat, and somehow makes the poppiest song on the album a little creepy. Hayley Williams transforms the rapid drums and vocals of “Nineteen” by cutting the BPM in half, doubling the length of the song, and making it a home for sorrow.  The cover turns away from the original and refinishes it in grime and vulnerability. The covers, Sara says, feel “more appropriate for where our heads are at. It’s somber, emotionally complex.”

For the two nights before the 2016 election, Tegan and Sara Quin held church in Washington, D.C. The city had been buzzing for weeks with anticipation over the election, the atmosphere inside the district limits a mix of nervousness and excitement. 

The Quin sisters played two shows at the 9:30 Club. I saw only one, but it felt like relief. Outside was the world, the incessant fighting and constant arguing, but inside this cavernous chapel we were all together. Tegan and Sara were onstage in their white pants, playing songs for a crowd who cheered raucously when Sara, during a little midshow banter, mentioned that “I hope that when we are here on Tuesday that we are about to watch history be made.” (The District of Columbia went 91 percent for Hillary Clinton, after all.)

“I would rather speak my mind and have no career than be silent and popular,” Sara says now. That night onstage Sara described the election season as a “bad acid trip,” and in the days after that sentiment rang truer than ever before. The day of the election, I had “Floorplan,” a 2007 track from The Con, stuck in my head. “(I know) I’ll hold this loss in my heart forever/(I know) I’ll hold, I’ll hold,” they sing in harmony, their voices speeding up through the line “I’ll hold this loss in my heart forever” as if though the memory is lodged forever, the pain of it is already fading. They hadn’t played it at the show, but when I returned to the album track, it stuck with me in a way it hadn’t before.

In the light of the morning after, when there was a temptation to make everything in the world about Donald Trump, my cue-up Spotify playlist with “Floorplan” felt a little too on the nose. So when I reached Sara Bareilles’s cover deep in the back half of The Con X: Covers, it felt like coming full circle.

Bareilles slows down the song on the piano, giving it an echoing hymnal quality. Instead of being about a loss we move through quickly, the song becomes something we’re forced to sit uncomfortably with. Namely, grief.

Tegan and Sara

For the covers album, Tegan and Sara intentionally curated a diverse group of artists in terms of race, gender,  sexuality, and even musical genre. This is in keeping with the band’s outspoken desire to support women, people of color, and queer folks, but here diversity also creates an immense variance in sound and interpretation that many cover albums lose by curating so many similar artists.

“I have always been bothered by the idea that our early albums weren’t thought of as wise or sophisticated or equal to the albums our male peers were being praised for at the time,” Sara says. “Hearing so many different artists at all different stages in their lives sing these songs proves to me that our experiences weren’t adolescent or naive; they were carefully crafted from experience and still hold up.”

Certainly the themes of anxiety, depression, death, and rejection that saturate The Con are just as relevant in 2017 as they were in 2007.  But since election night, the Quins felt inspired to transform those feelings into action. They launched the Tegan and Sara Foundation to support LGBTQ girls and women; all of the net proceeds from the covers album will go to the foundation. They are also touring this album currently in a show that Sara says “feels more appropriate for where our heads are at,” and that it will be a “bring your tissues for your tears kind of show.” A year later, instead of confidence and joy, Tegan and Sara are trafficking in something a little darker, and it’s a testament to just how much range their work has that the same songs can do both.

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GIRLS HAVE ALL THE FUN

Cher is a superstar of music, television, film, and Twitter. She’s mastered all genres and mediums she’s explored and made herself one of our culture’s most interesting stars. Last year, the 67-year-old legend released her 25th album, Closer to the Truth, which turned out to be her highest-charting solo effort. For her latest post-“farewell” tour, she’s joined by another icon, Cyndi Lauper, for an evening with the singular mission of making sure the audience is having as much fun as they are.

Fri., May 9, 8 p.m., 2014

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Eric Hofbauer

There’s something deceptive about the informality the Boston guitarist brings to his solo work: On the recent American Grace he makes dabbling a fine art. A short inversion of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” a reverie sparked by Ornette’s “Peace,” a Sacred Harp chant spun for six-string—they’re all loosely filtered through a personality that likes to bend, not break, orthodoxy. This tiny room is perfect for his recital. Baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton opens at 8:30 pm with his own solo presentation.

Sat., Sept. 14, 9:30 p.m., 2013

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Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper has never stopped being quite so unusual: Thirty years after the release of her debut album set a high bar for quirky ’80s pop, Lauper has moved to Broadway, where Kinky Boots, which she scored, recently took home the Tony for best musical. But Cyndi never quite forgets how it all began, and that’s why she’s celebrating that aforementioned anniversary with a tour featuring her playing the album in its entirety. There’s nothing unusual about that.

Wed., July 10, 8 p.m., 2013

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Kinky Boots Kicks Up Some Familiar High Heels; Buyer and Cellar Prowls Barbra’s Mall

I’d probably be able to discuss Kinky Boots (Hirschfeld Theatre) much more lucidly if I could only figure out in what decade it’s meant to take place. The characters use cellphones, but apparently few of them have ever seen a man wearing women’s clothes outside of a nightclub act. The boots themselves, as envisioned by costume designer Gregg Barnes, meld ’60s-mod London fashion with the garish wear of dominatrix characters from that era’s campier Euro–sci-fi flicks.

The show’s central story, about a shoe-factory owner’s son who tries to escape both the family business and the stifling industrial town that it dominates, reaches even further back, calling to mind the industrial-conflict plays of the Edwardian era’s Manchester School. It especially summons up Harold Brighouse’s Edwardian comedy, Hobson’s Choice, revived memorably Off-Broadway a decade ago, with Martha Plimpton as the tyrannical old bootmaker’s tough-minded daughter. Just replace Plimpton with Billy Porter in ultra-glam drag, and you’ll see what I mean.

Not that anything so logically sequential as the action of Hobson’s Choice occurs in Kinky Boots, which is based on a 2005 movie. People arbitrarily get handed huge jobs for which they’re wildly unqualified, inexplicably cooperate, then inexplicably turn on one another, all to give the plot a few more twists to keep its mechanism spinning. The old boss, who goes doggedly on manufacturing an old-fashioned product that he knows no one wants, is matched, after he dies, by the endlessly cheery, self-sacrificing workers who’ll do anything to help his successor launch a new product that most of them think is strictly lunatic. The notion suggests the England of ’30s movie musicals, not the post-Thatcher era.

But, of course, those ’30s movie musicals, with everyone cheerily pitching in to save the plant, offer Kinky Boots yet another underlying model, as do their ’40s reworks, in which song and dance win the war. The show’s sound may strike a contemporary pop-rock note, courtesy of Cyndi Lauper’s songs, but the hoopla is the old hoopla, with only its sexual politics updated. While the factory retools its output to save jobs from draining off to foreign producers who skimp on quality, the workforce simultaneously learns how to fight a new war on behalf of dignity and equality for cross-dressers.

The factory-saving product—women’s thigh-high boots for men to wear—neatly encapsulates both issues. The workers need the jobs and the gender illusionists need the boots. The suspense hinges on whether the factory can overcome its own prejudices and turn out the boots in time for Milan’s super shoe show. In order to get there, both the manufacturer’s son, Charlie (Stark Sands), and his nightclub-queen source of inspiration, Lola (Porter), have to unload a lot of emotional baggage, especially regarding their conflicted feelings toward their respective fathers. All ends well, of course: With a story this preposterous, an unhappy ending would indicate a true pettiness of spirit on the creators’ part.

And these creators—Lauper, book writer Harvey Fierstein, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell—assuredly aren’t petty. Their results may be coarse and slapdash, but the piece has a raucous, amicable spirit that tends to jolly you along even when its showiness starts to get over-showy and you might wish for a little more reality in the mix. Mitchell’s first-act finale, with the drag semichorus of Lola’s backup dancers rolling or prancing on treadmills as they display the new boots, has the same exhilarating sense of organized chaos that the high points in the best old-style Broadway musicals used to provide, as well as the best of Lauper’s perky, bumptious songs, “Everybody Say ‘Yeah’.”

With the score, as in other departments, the show needs this overarching geniality to compensate for its shortfall in creativity. Bless its makers: They wanted us to have a good time in the theater, and they gave it their best shot. So we have a good time, though script and songs touch mostly well-worn bases, and though Mitchell’s direction often accentuates the material’s signs of wear by leaning heavily on the obvious. His approach has especially disappointing results with Porter, a supple and magnetic performer who, as Lola, has been asked to hammer every line at you hard and loud, flattening any potential charm and putting further strain on a voice already weary from the role’s strenuous demands.

Sands, in contrast, gets to play far more low-keyed through much of the evening, so that when he attacks his big solo numbers, both he and the audience are hungry for the full-out emotional display that he readily supplies. And I suspect that Annaleigh Ashford, who plays his factory-gal love interest, may have a distinctive personality. It’s hard to do more than entertain suspicions, since the show has put immense effort into making her look and sound like an imitation Kristen Chenoweth. Isn’t its stance against manufacturing cheap replicas?


While you might not buy the boots, the mores, or the chronology of Kinky Boots, it could still send you out in a buoyantly materialistic mood. Better merchandise is available in more eccentric downtown locales—like the most architecturally oddball New York theater, the Rattlestick. I’m not speaking, mind you, of the play currently on view there, Jonathan Tolins’s Buyer and Cellar, a one-actor piece that would, in itself, be a very tough sell.

Tolins’s script takes off from the fact that Barbra Streisand has built a replica shopping mall in the basement of her Malibu estate as a showcase for her apparently enormous collection of antique tchotchkes. His tenuous, trivial fantasy imagines what might happen if a gay actor of some sensitivity were hired to pose as its sales clerk and become friendly with his employer.

Why any playwright should find Streisand’s mock mall—or the coffee-table book she’s published about it and the rest of her home decor—a matter of deep dramatic interest is puzzling. What sells Tolins’s silliness, however, is Michael Urie’s adorable presence, as he slides with impish charm among the multiple roles of the clerk, his supervisor, his boyfriend (a Babs expert, of course), and The Employer herself, rendering every inane moment with total lavender-scented conviction. The play itself has to be sent back, but I bought every moment of Urie’s performance.

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Cyndi Lauper Re Trump: “He Goes To The LCD And Stirs Up The Crap!”

Cyndi Lauper has been busy promoting the Broadway musical of Kinky Boots that she scored, but she also manages to give us her true colors on topics like Donald Trump, whose Celebrity Apprentice she appeared on back in 2010.

As the singer/songwriter tells Next magazine:

“It’s just sad.

“I thought he could have done better for his country than just go to the lowest common denominator and stir up the crap.

“It’s our country, it’s not wrestling. If you try and make our President fail, it doesn’t matter who he is, you make our country fail.”

Cyndi knows from wrestling–remember Lou Albano?–but she also knows that it should be completely separate from the political arena, though I’ve definitely been tempted to throw Trump onto the mat on occasion.

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Cyndi Lauper and Friends

To cap off an eventful and likely “fun” year, which has included the release of her memoir and an appearance as the Grand Marshal of the city’s Gay Pride Parade, Cyndi Lauper is now making last year’s successful Home for the Holidays benefit concert an annual event. Tonight’s program, which benefits Lauper’s True Colors Fund—which raises awareness about homeless gay, bisexual, and transgender youth—features a star-studded lineup that includes Lauper, Sarah McLachlan, Adam Lambert, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Roberta Flack, St. Vincent, Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells, members of Counting Crows, and more.

Sat., Dec. 8, 8 p.m., 2012

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Avan Lava

Electropop trio Avan Lava has a defined voice: Think Bon Iver with a propulsive backbeat and a synth line that recalls Cyndi Lauper or a ’90s boy band for hipsters with two left feet. The pet project of Fischerspooner members Le Chev, Ian Pai, and Andrew Schneider, the group avoids the nihilism that pervades the music of much of their contemporaries in favor of the type of irrational exuberance CMJ needs.

Wed., Oct. 17, 2:30 p.m., 2012

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Backwards

The title of Ben Hickernell’s Backwards refers to the motions of competitive rowing, but also to its heroine’s seeming regression from almost-Olympian to high school coach—a movement that, as luck would have it, turns out to be an uplifting process of self-discovery. In the film, Abi Brooks (Sarah Megan Thomas, a former rower who also wrote the script) moves back home for a spell after failing to realize her dreams, slow dances to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” despite being at prom in the capacity of a chaperone, and rekindles an old flame with her high school boyfriend (James Van Der Beek). At no point are the implications of these backward motions explored in depth or even really acknowledged. Instead, Abi channels her passion for rowing through two young girls in whom she sees promise (as well as something of herself) and learns an important lesson in expectation management. Hickernell and Thomas do occasionally touch upon darker territory—once she’s done as a rower, Abi is actually done; despite a promising offer, there’s no comeback to be found here—but always with too light a touch to get their hands dirty and move their film along with any sense of genuine urgency. Subplots are introduced only to be resolved within minutes, characters jettisoned at a moment’s notice. Those who can’t do, teach; those who settle apparently end up pretty happy. Michael Nordine