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WANNA BE

Desperately seeking somewhere to party tonight? Express yourself at Madonnathon, Cathyland’s 11th annual tribute to the Material Girl. Dress yourself up in your best Madge look (be it lucky star, cone bra, or Breathless Mahoney) and get into the groove as performers like Chris America, Tammy Faye Starlite, Erin Hill and Her Psychedelic Harp, and the Rhythm Knights Dance Troupe justify your love for the Queen of Reinvention in all her myriad forms. Want to live to tell about getting onstage and singing with the band? Just strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.

Sat., Aug. 16, 8 p.m., 2014

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BAM’s “Punk Rock Girls” Burns Down the World Again

‘We’re the Stains, and we don’t put out.” This is the slogan of the DIY teenage-girl trio fronted by Corinne Burns (Diane Lane, only 15 when shooting began and ferociously charismatic) in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), the second and final film directed by rock impresario Lou Adler. A supremely gifted on-the-spot self-mythologizer whose provocative stage outfit consists of a cherry-red see-through blouse, black bikini briefs, and fishnet stockings, Corinne explains to a judgmental TV reporter why the catchphrase isn’t a contradiction: “It means don’t get screwed. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t get had.”

The lead singer’s credo would make an apt tagline for “Punk Rock Girls,” BAMcinématek’s 11-film series (plus a program of shorts) organized in anticipation of the May 30 release of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, which is based on his wife’s graphic novel about her own teenage years as a punk enthusiast. Featuring another female-adolescent troika, Moodysson’s film, a sneak preview of which opens the retrospective, is set in 1982 — the year of not only Fabulous Stains‘ release but several others in the showcase — and salutes the era when Corinne and her fed-up sistren took to drum-bashing, guitar-thrashing, and other insurrectionary acts to voice their rage.

“Punk rock” is an expansive term here — the program includes the electroclash sounds of Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1982) and Madonna’s dance-pop in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) — as is “girls,” with some of the protagonists (like Madge herself) several years past legal voting age. (Only once is the definition of “movie” strained, with the inclusion of 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats.) The most satisfying titles focus solely on adolescent heroines and not only illuminate the emotional extremes of this tumultuous developmental stage but also demonstrate how the best response to powerlessness might be self-dramatization.

There may be no character more abject or more unforgettable in the series than Cebe, played by the fascinatingly feral Linda Manz, in Dennis Hopper’s unsparing family drama Out of the Blue (1980). Two years after her debut in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Manz (born in 1961) is dropped into hell in this brutal story: Cebe’s dad (Hopper) is in jail for drunkenly plowing his semi into a school bus full of kids (which a younger Cebe, in the truck’s cab with her handsy — and much, much worse — father, witnesses firsthand), and her mom (Sharon Farrell) is a smack addict, nonchalantly tying off in the TV room. Like the Stains’ Corinne, Cebe also has a rallying cry: “Disco sucks. Kill all hippies. Subvert normality” — lines made even more indelible by Manz’s distinct New Yorkese (“Punk is here forevah”).

Worshipping Elvis and Sid Vicious, the rudderless high schooler drifts through her grim Pacific Northwest environs, a handheld cassette player and a teddy bear her only true companions; her nighttime escapades include barely escaping a pervy taxi driver, and impromptu percussion-playing at a club where other unconventional sexual practices are part of the mix. With her coiled, baby-butch swagger, Manz, whose androgynous features uncannily recall those of Jackie Earle Haley, her contemporary, perfectly embodies fragile bravado, her character’s bluster negated by her habit of sucking her thumb. “She wants to grow up so fast,” Cebe’s junkie ma sobs, and you could argue that the teenager’s most violent act is also her most perversely mature one.

Not as friendless as Cebe but just as hard is Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson, a Brooklyn native who shares Manz’s thick city-kid dialect), one half of the duo at the center of Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980). This snaggletoothed outer-borough throwaway becomes pals with another motherless child, the T. S. Eliot–quoting Dalton student Pamela (Trini Alvarado), when they’re both assigned to the same hospital room for treatment of “neurological disorders.” Breaking out of their ward, the class-discordant friends set up house in an abandoned warehouse on the Hudson and take a series of age-inappropriate jobs along the Deuce. They destroy televisions, form a band — the Sleaze Sisters, outfitted in garbage bags — and incite otherwise good girls to join their uprising. More than just a tribute to teenage fury at arbitrary adult rules, Moyle’s film also serves as a vibrant sociohistorical record of squalid, teeming Koch-era 42nd Street, much in the same way that Desperately Seeking Susan and Seidelman’s first film, Smithereens (1982), are essential chronicles of the East Village (and other NYC neighborhoods) during those same years.

The other punk epicenter, London, is terrorized by a quintet of distaff insurgents in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978). A tart reference to the previous year’s silver jubilee, the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne, Jarman’s film honors the scabrous sentiment expressed in “God Save the Queen,” the Sex Pistols song that also consumed the U.K.’s attention in 1977: “There is no future/In England’s dreaming.” In fact, two Sex Pistols, Steve Jones and Paul Cook (plus the Clash’s Paul Simonon), have parts in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. The presence of these three punk demigods may give the film, whose script was reportedly inspired by writer Nancy Dowd’s first Ramones concert, more authenticity. But nothing rings truer to the movement’s defiant spirit than Corinne’s gender-specific wish: “I think every citizen should be given an electric guitar on her 16th birthday.”

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HANG UP

It was 30 years ago when Madonna’s self-titled debut launched the bohemian New Yorker from local club kid to national star. Tonight, head to Brooklyn Bowl to celebrate not only the album’s anniversary but also the 10th anniversary of the Madonnathon dance party. Performers at this year’s Madge tribute include Chris America, Tammy Faye Starlite, Lena Hall, and Shannon Conley. And if your costume is good enough, you might be selected to sing with them onstage. One problem: How do you choose which hit tune to sing?

Sat., Aug. 17, 8 p.m., 2013

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The Big Wedding is Vile, Racist, and Embarrassing

When Michael Haneke’s sobering end-of-life drama Amour premiered at Cannes last May, many critics reflected on the presence of a shared cultural legacy. Its stars, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, evoked the iconography of the New Wave, the once-young faces of Hiroshima mon amour and My Night at Maud’s now withered in old age. To watch them slip agonizingly into death was, in a sense, by extension, somewhat like watching the movies of our past fade away.

Justin Zackham’s vile The Big Wedding also opens with a foray back through silver-screen history, though in this case the legacy is embarrassed. When Ellie (Diane Keaton) walks in on her ex-husband, Don (Robert De Niro), as he moves to perform kitchen-counter cunnilingus on his new girlfriend, Bebe (Susan Sarandon), it’s possible, as in Amour, to see aging legends of the cinema imagined suddenly together, as if Annie Hall and Travis Bickle and Louise Sawyer one day found themselves playing out some producer’s laziest scene ideas. There is, in other words, a lot of history in The Big Wedding—a history the film not so much squanders as utterly defaces, recalling greatness before swiftly denigrating it.

It’s a sad thing to see a great actor descend, after decades of valued work, into self-parody—feebly mimicking the trademark tics and mannerisms of former glory. It’s an even sadder thing to see three actors plummet to new career lows over the course of a single film. De Niro, of course, has been in steady decline since Analyze This took him on a 13-year detour through lowbrow comedy, but it was at last beginning to seem, with his recent Academy Award nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, that things might be turning around. The Big Wedding was shelved for years before finally seeing the light of day, so it’s of the bad years. De Niro plays a tired schtick for broad laughs, futzing around his oversized lakeside home in exaggeratedly dowdy Lebowskian robes, sneaking in snifters of whiskey when his family isn’t looking. Nothing more than a catalog of crass clichés acted out as affectations, it’s the worst kind of sad clown routine: mopey and vulgar, Don is reprehensible even when inevitably redeemed.

And, yes, everybody finds nominal redemption in The Big Wedding, which plots out narrative connections like a second-rate Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, whose conspicuously layered narratives (Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros) seem subtle by comparison. The wedding here is an excuse to draw together a dozen-plus cardboard characters whose prefab arcs end as obviously as they begin. The moment we’re introduced to handsome but virginal doctor Jared (Topher Grace), we can be assured that we’ll see him pop his proverbial cherry by film’s end. Same goes for elder sister Lyla (Katherine Heigl), whose pained journey from barren womb to baby bump is too predictable to bother spoiler-warning. But worst of all is the inane sub-sitcom premise and ludicrous circumstances that require Don and Ellie to carry on a farce of a fake marriage over the course of the wedding.

It’s hard to sell a plot this patently absurd, so naturally the filmmakers fall back on a reliable excuse: Casual racism of the most flagrant and galling variety. The son about to be married is Alejandro (Ben Barnes), adopted as a child from Colombia. His biological mother, the devoutly religious Madonna (Patricia Rae), will be visiting for the ceremony, and since she is under the impression that Alejandro’s adoptive parents are still married, the film reasons that they must continue the illusion lest Madonna lose faith in the future of her son. Madonna is joined by Nuria (Ana Ayora), Alejandro’s biological sister, and together the two represent some of the most repugnant foreign stereotyping in years. The film divides these women—the only non-white characters in its ensemble—into a literal mother/whore dichotomy. Nuria is relegated to the demeaning role of grossly oversexualized fetish object, an exotic Other only present to strip nude and seduce one of the white male leads; after she’s introduced skinny-dipping in public, she gives her new host a hand job under a restaurant table.

Madonna, meanwhile, looms over the action with the watchful eye of the delicate, old-world soul, thoroughly desexualized and emptied of insight or agency, made a constant punchline for her foreign values and inability to speak a word of English. The Big Wedding presents itself as a raunchy bit of family fun, a rom-com with heart—but the warm and fuzzy feelings only apply if you’re white and middle-class (and straight: a late-film gag makes a twist out of revealing its least likeable character as secretly queer). Many Hollywood films are founded on privilege, but few are as open and nasty about their racism, misogyny, and homophobia. It’s a feel-good movie for people who are only comfortable around people who look and act just like them.

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Buzz Off, Rihanna, Flo Rida, and Ke$ha! Here’s Why I Hate Music!

Because the winners of TV talent shows seem to spend their entire careers in the competitive mode. Every note is designed to win something. … Those shows also give a boost to washed-up singers who become judges and suddenly have hit records again. How many career chapters do these people really need?

The number-one slot on the chart generally goes to whoever gave the most free copies to concert-ticket buyers that week. The second week, they’re suddenly not even in the top 100. … Adele is happy. … Once you’ve heard the title of a Taylor Swift song, there’s no need to hear the actual song. … The “Piano in the Dark” sample in Flo Rida’s “I Cry” drives me cuckoo crazy. I keep wanting them to finish the phrase! … Someone please tell Rihanna it should be “shine brightly like a diamond.” … Boybands are back. They’re like a case of crabs you just can’t get rid of. I really like their hair, though. … The musical repetition that started with all those Kesha songs is now in every single mix-mix-mix-mix-mix by every singer-singer-singer-singer. Stop-stop-stop-stop. … People who walk around listening to music are generally oblivious to everything else, not even aware that they’re endangering your life as they step into traffic in the middle of the street. Somehow they always come off scot-free as they glide through everyone else’s tragedies. They’re probably listening to Eminem.

Last year, the Oscars’ Best Song category only managed to dredge up two nominees. This year, they’re being forced to come up with five, whereas a better idea would be to just eliminate the whole obsolete category! … Any recording artist over 40 has about as much chance of getting played on the radio as they do of getting their own Disney series. … Why go to concerts when you’re just going to see your favorite stars lip-synch their hits? If I want to thrill to the sight of them moving their mouths without activating their larynges, I can just watch their videos. … When you’re seeing the stars “perform” in an arena, you’re mainly watching them on a large screen anyway. You’ve paid hundreds of dollars to basically tune in to a lip-synched TV show. Again, stick to the videos! … Madonna hits the stage so late that the audience is ready to switch to Gaga (though you have to admire Madge for being willing to emerge in public a couple of hours older than she needs to be).

Performers with flopping new albums always insist on playing all the songs from them in concert, to the detriment of their way-more-interesting back catalog. They seem to be the only ones who didn’t get the memo saying, “The new stuff sucks.” Why don’t they realize that the best way to promote the lousy new album is to not play it?

Country music was getting sexy and almost topical for a while, but now it seems to have gone back to Grand Ole Opry–style hootenannies. … Local-bar-band patter too often runs along the lines of “This next song is a song about love. [Pause.] And how it really sucks sometimes.” … The only way I could listen to music during the blackout was on a 1980s Walkman I happened to keep in a dustbin, just for an occasion like that. But all I had on cassette was the chirpy cast album for Thoroughly Modern Millie. It drove me extra nuts!

Every song today happens to be “featuring” someone. Would the Beatles have had to give up their instrumental breaks to someone rapping about bitches and hos? … Auto-Tune saves absolutely everyone from disgrace, so while some of our greatest singing stars can barely carry a tune, the public will never manage to find that out. Please! Celine did not need Auto-Tune! (Maybe Paula Abdul could have used it, though.)

And now, I interrupt this kvetch-athon for some “Why I Hate Music” reasons from a music journalist even more wildly plugged in to the scene than I am. Here are his gruesome gripes:

“Remember selling out? Now it’s a good thing to have your song featured in a commercial! … The show Nashville has better country music than the real Nashville does. … Indie bands seem to be competing to see who can be the least rousing and emotionally engaging. They’re generally flat and self-consciously unconnected to the emotions. If Nico’s voice were a beat, that’s what they’d be dancing to.

Pitchfork.com is an intentionally obscure website that reviews every indie record, rating them with a score from 1 to 100. It’s hard to get a score over 73. They create stars, like Melody Maker and NME did in England 20 years ago, and then they turn on them. As a result, your EP will sell 6,000 copies in Brooklyn, and then your full album will stiff. If you’re no longer new, you’re not as cool to them. They love bands they never heard of, and they love Neil Young, but everything in between is not good.

“The Starbucks for the indie crowd is the iTunes store. Amazon is also selling directly now. You can’t even own the music if you don’t own the physical device. There’s no such thing as ‘your copy’ anymore.

“We saw in the election how Bruce Springsteen is still the guiding saint of working-class white people. But if he recorded a song right now, there’s not a radio format that would play it. There are no stations that play new, straight-ahead, old-fashioned rock songs. The Nirvana-style music supplanted old-school rock some time ago.”

And now back to my own vengeful complaints: Curry in a Hurry is actually not always that fast. No, wait. That’s for the next “Why I Hate Food” column. All this bad music has me woefully confused. Let me stop-stop-stop-stop.

 

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The Material World: Masses Entertainment

Karl Marx was famously of the opinion that world history happened once as tragedy and again as farce. But for Gittel Fenster, the aspiring revolutionary heroine of Dan Fishback’s charming, wise new musical The Material World—now playing at Dixon Place, in a production skillfully directed by Stephen Brackett—history returns again and again in song-and-dance numbers: medleys with the future; duets with the past.

It’s 1921, and the squabbling immigrant Fenster clan, denizens of the Bronx, are holding a family referendum on whether or not to go back to revolutionary Russia. Papa (Leo Schaff), a lapsed utopian and veteran of the failed 1905 insurrection, is understandably concerned about pogroms. Mama (Molly Pope), a communist true believer, wants to return and help engineer the workers’ paradise (even though she’s become quite attached to the petit-bourgeois paradise of a well-ordered kitchen). Little Gittel (a delightfully plucky Megan Stern), who totes around the collected works of Lenin like a security blanket, would also like to go back—to a place she imagines as fairer and gentler, an anti-schoolyard where puberty isn’t so painful. Her starry-eyed sister Mitzi (Amy Gironda), on the other hand, is a Broadway bunny, with dreams of fame and mass adoration.

Complicating the debate are the Fensters’ unusual tenants: In one room, Ian (Cole Escola), a dweeb-y little dude umbilically connected to his laptop, is fixated on the 2012 hoopla in Tahrir Square. In another, Madonna and Britney Spears (caricatured with ruthless zest by Gironda and Lisa Clair) are holding a Zohar study group—promptly recruiting Gittel. (There are narrative justifications for this weird historical palimpsest, but thankfully Fishback doesn’t over-explain.)

This might all sound a little gimmicky, but Fishback has his sights set on far more than pastiche. Though he’s a master of camp parody—he can write a synth-y burlesque Madonna jam with the best of ‘em, and lampoon Britney so fiercely some members of the audience actually gasped “Oh no!” with vicious glee—Fishback is actually following Marx’s lead (ol’ Karl loved a theatrical metaphor more than anyone). In the same essay where Marx talks about history repeating itself, the political prophet also imagines social crises as pageants in which revolutionaries borrow “names, battle slogans, and costumes” from the past to stage their world-transforming dramas.

Fishback conjures spirits from the past and pop icons from the present to scrutinize the last century’s hard political lessons for our confused moment. Madonna’s well-known dabbling in Kabbalah allows Fishback to juxtapose Jewish religious mysticism with the no-less fervent imaginings of utopian socialism—another important Jewish sect. The easy affirmations of pop songs rub up against the urgent imperatives of socialist theory (Madonna and Marx agree, of course, on the idea that we are all material people in a material world.) The personality cults of contemporary celebrity culture are implicitly set against the communist versions. And the wide political horizons of the early 20th century dwarf our narrowed vistas. We’ve substituted the materialism of commodity culture for the materialism of left-wing politics—social crass for social class.

The Material World is both smart and a lot of fun; Fishback delivers political analysis you want to hum along to. Skewering the pretensions of today’s laptop slacktivists, our armchair Trotsky wonders in song how he can save the planet when he can’t handle doing his laundry. (The number’s refrain, set to a vaguely surf-rock melody, is “Revolution, hang out, hang out”—it should be the anthem of the Occupy movement.) And Fishback affectionately pokes fun at musical mores: At one point, Mama’s repressed feelings explode in a barnburner of a bluesy belting-friendly tune (“I’m fucking great” she roars)—and Pope kills it. It’s a parody of Big Diva Numbers that also happens to be a show-stopping Big Diva Number.

Fishback has been compared to Tony Kushner—with good reason. The character of Old Gittel (who we meet in a series of very funny and sometimes very sad flash-forward monologues, delivered with borscht-y aplomb by Eleanor Reissa) must be a nod to the Oldest Living Bolshevik from Angels in America. Fenster means window, and Gittel and fam are a handy way to look back: Like Kushner, Fishback seems driven to examine the legacy of Jewish-American progressive thought—a project that grows more urgent as the members of those forward-thinking generations die off. (You may find Material World especially moving if you’ve got a few shtetl escapees or disappointed utopians on your family tree.)

In a compromise familiar to many political hopefuls through the decades, the Fensters ultimately decide that although America is a “bad place for good feelings,” and a “good place for bad feelings,” it’s good enough for them (and better than the frankly scary realities of revolutionary bloodshed and rampaging Cossacks). Like the Fensters, we all ultimately settled for the “good enough” of capitalism with its limited freedoms and manageable oppressions. But like Gittel’s older self we can still feel let down by it—it’s certainly not the perfectly just world young Gittel and her dreaming generation hoped for. But it’s the material world we’ve got.

In that better, smarter world, perhaps, thoughtful musicals like this one would be on Broadway instead of Spider-Man—until then, let’s be glad Dixon Place is around to think big in small rooms.

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Dan Fishback’s The Material World

Is it sizzling in here or is it merely the annual arrival of Dixon Place’s Hot! Festival, a celebration of queer performance? It kicks off with Daniel Fishback’s deeply felt and historically accurate musical about a family of 1920s Jewish immigrants who live in a boarding house with Madonna and Britney Spears.

Fridays, Saturdays, 7 p.m. Starts: July 6. Continues through July 28, 2012

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Tupac’s Hologram Asks, “Remember The ’90s?”

To hear retrospectives tell it, the ’80s were an endless parade of Day-Glo, rap breaks, and excesses on the parts of stockbrokers and the people responsible for Michael Jackson’s video budgets. But this narrative conveniently forgets how utterly obsessed with the late ’50s and early ’60s it was. Back to the Future; Peggy Sue Got Married; the soundtracks to The Big Chill and Dirty Dancing; the collected work of Billy Joel, both audio and visual—looking back through a pair of rose-colored wire frames was par for the course for much of popular culture.

Who wants to look back at an era and realize that the people alive during it were themselves casting their glances toward the more idyllic era receding in the rearview mirror? Talk about your depressing panoptics. Better instead to focus on the relatively new phenomena that sprung up, even if doing so only tells a majority of the story.

I wonder how I Love 2012 will play out when it’s streamed into the frontal lobes of VH1 Classic subscribers come 2025. Sure, there will be a lot of ground to cover—the political sideshows alone will probably merit their own spin-off special or two. But what to make of our current obsessions with the past, with the once-buried bands announcing reunions on the daily and the vestiges of long-ago pop-cultural trifles occasionally reaching Bieber levels of online obsession? Will people of my generation cop to getting almost as annoying about The Way Things Were Back Then as our forebears were all those years ago?

The past week served as something of a boiling point for the ’90s nostalgia that has been bubbling for a good couple of years now, its flames fueled by old bands getting back on the horse as much as they have been by new artists borrowing liberally from the sounds of their 15-to-20-year forebears. On Friday, a different kind of resuscitation occurred when Courtney Love hopped on stage with the three people who backed her up in Hole during the mid ’90s—they were celebrating the 18th anniversary of that band’s commercial leap, Live Through This. In addition to that, the British masters of grandiosity Pulp played a two-night run at Radio City Music Hall (then jetted off to Coachella), and the ’90s fanzine Chickfactor honored its 20th anniversary with a three-night stint at the Bell House where the lineup was studded with college-radio mainstays from that decade—the melancholy, delicate duo the Softies, the fiery rock outfit Versus, the feel-good twee act Small Factory.

Elsewhere around town, Kim Gordon’s Sonic Youth side project Free Kitten played a set that was itself a tribute to the German electro pioneers Kraftwerk, who began an eight-night run of shows at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday.

I should note that I reveled in a lot of the aforementioned events; I swayed dreamily to the Softies’ sweetly heartbroken sighs and threw my arms in the air triumphantly as Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker tore through his band’s class-tourism anthem “Common People.” But the news of the holographic performance by the 16-years-dead Tupac Shakur at Coachella on Sunday—which opened with him greeting the fest, despite it being born some three years after he was fatally shot in Las Vegas—gave me pause. In large part, this was because of an event I attended earlier this month: Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson. That night, Madison Square Garden was packed with fans of the late hit master—some of whom were even dressed in costume—ready to sing along with his indelible hits as images from the old Jackson 5 cartoon beamed down from the screens and a giant white sequined glove danced. The fact that Jackson’s corporeal self was far from the action was at most an inconvenience; the songs were still there and still ready to thrill.

The show made me wonder if it represented the future of pop spectacle; it actually reminded me of seeing Britney Spears at Nassau Coliseum last year, when the dancers and rafters-shaking bass almost blotted out the gamely dancing void at the center of the stage. In both instances, the name on the marquee served more as a brand identity for the evening than a signal letting attendees know who was performing; it implicitly told people, “You will hear ‘Thriller’ and ‘I Want You Back’ at this show,” or, “You will hear ‘. . . Baby One More Time’ and ‘Toxic’ tonight.”

If the point of going to a concert isn’t to see the artist in question, but instead to feel a rush that can only be experienced when many other people are feeling the exact same way, is there anything wrong with having holograms or dancers or past projections of a performer serve as the headlining act? (Cover bands and karaoke DJs probably have their own answers to this question, but the scale involved with putting on a pop production makes the question loom larger as well.) This, of course, also brings up the economics—namely, will people be more likely to pay for, say, a revue honoring the best songs by Madonna where the Material Girl is only present in spectral form or as a dancing BOY TOY belt, than they will for a set by a bunch of flesh-and-blood musicians wailing away on their instruments? (And which outing will be more expensive?)

Shakur’s posthumous appearance at Coachella caused my West Coast colleague Adam Lovinus to quote Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Over the coming years, as pop mainstays enter the realm of no longer being able to make money on the road and the massive business structures held up by them trying to figure out how to stay solvent, many more scientists will likely fiddle with this equation.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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Madonna Has an Identity Crisis on MDNA

The new album by Madonna, MDNA (Interscope), is in large part a tribute to her contributions to the pop world’s gene pool. It opens with her reciting the Act of Contrition, like she did over squalling guitars on Like a Prayer; she flirtatiously sings “you can be my lucky star,” a callback to her early ’80s hit, on “Gimme All Your Luvin'”; “I’m a Sinner” is a brassier, stompier rework of “Beautiful Stranger,” her floaty, gorgeous contribution to the Austin Powers soundtrack. There’s the requisite Catholic imagery and even an unfortunate foray into rap, just like there was on American Life. This self-tribute is so awkwardly put together, though, that it comes off like a celebrity shouting to someone who doesn’t recognize her, “Do you know who I am?”

MDNA spends about an hour trying to answer that question, but Madonna’s headfirst plunge into the stormy, synthy dance music filling stadiums and festivals is at times so brutal to listen to, it seems like she’s posing that question to herself. It’s an odd tack for someone who has made a career out of turning her name into a synonym for controversy and great pop songs, and it’s enough to make one wonder if the fragmented Internet age has freaked her out in a fundamental way, making her feel like she has to reclaim her throne as the most prominent female pop star of the MTV era.

Even more curious about the identity crisis all over MDNA is the way that Madonna doesn’t even really sound like Madonna for much of it. She has never been a vocal stylist, but her voice at its most powerful provided a rallying cry for ladies, girls, and women around the world to seize the day. Here she’s almost a nonpresence; she sings in a reedy voice for most of it, only exploring her lower register when she feels like she absolutely has to. The end result? The listener knows that MDNA is a Madonna album not because her voice sounds recognizable, but because of the Hall of Fame sonic branding.

Madonna has made a career out of springboarding from current trends and tumbling into a pile of pop gold, so her move toward EDM with this album shouldn’t be too surprising. What is mildly shocking about it, though, is how hamfisted MDNA sounds at times. There are audible clashes between various pieces of the mix that just sound bad; Madonna’s rapping on “I Don’t Give A,” for example, sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody of a Madonna rap song until Nicki Minaj comes in. Minaj lays down a couple of rhymes that are by no means the best in her vast catalog, but her sudden presence shows that the music isn’t the song’s biggest weakness. “Superstar” is a plainspoken love song with an instantly memorable melody, but something about its production brings to mind the Education Connection commercials with the rapping waitress, or perhaps a commercial for a new line of tampons. And then there’s “Gang Bang,” the five-and-a-half-minute slow-burn revenge fantasia that borrows liberally from Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” (take that, Lana Del Rey!) and manages to incorporate both a wobbling dubstep drop and Madonna yelling “Drive, bitch!” in a way that brings to mind her work in Shanghai Surprise and Swept Away. (That particular homage is probably unintentional.) While the open-road guitars that get julienned into the mix sound great, the whole package is unfortunate and overlong.

The album’s back end contains a couple of ballads—”Masterpiece,” which sounds tailor-made for Lite-FM playlists from 15 years ago, is followed by “Falling Free,” which has an odd beauty about it that would probably be more striking if the strings weren’t so precisely placed. (Curiously, two of the best tracks are relegated to deluxe-version add-ons—the M.I.A.-assisted “B-Day Song,” which fuses a bouncy post-punk bassline and single-entendres with a line borrowed from Sonny and Cher and is probably as close to sounding like the Slits as Madonna is going to get, and “Beautiful Killer,” a simple yet shimmering track with “Papa Don’t Preach” strings. There’s also an LMFAO remix of “Luvin’,” for those people who thought the halftime show needed more RedFoo and SkyBlu.)

Much online hay has been made about the “feud” between Madonna and Lady Gaga, with Madonna partisans saying that the shape-shifting pop star owes her entire career to the Material Girl’s trailblazing ways and Gaga fans replying with a variation on “LOL OLD.” (Kids.) But MDNA avoids the goth-metal drag of Born This Way and, as a result, sounds more like a response to Rihanna’s recent wildfire success on the charts; the Barbadian singer’s recent blend of her studio-tricked voice and super-obvious borrowed dance-music tropes has fit right into the four-on-the-floor mix dominating pop radio for the past 24 months. The most obvious homage to Rihanna’s success comes on “I’m Addicted,” a club banger that finds Madonna chanting “MDMA” as synths swirl around her—similar to the way Ri chanted the titular acronym on “S&M,” her 2011 single that was either about bedroom bondage or oppression by the media, depending on what piece of press fluff you were reading.

Up until that point, though, “I’m Addicted” is probably the best song on the album, with Madonna’s voice processed to next week and a thumping beat that will probably sound great at 3 a.m. early Monday. It’s the sort of song that Madonna has always done best—it doesn’t merely pay homage to cultural trends, but instead models them in her own image. But Madonna spends much of the rest of MDNA looking back, both at her career and at the musicians creeping into her rearview mirror’s view, and the end result is disconcerting enough to make one ask, simply, “Who’s that girl?”

mjohnston@villagevoice.com

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W.E.

W.E. is the second feature film credited to former MTV queen Madonna and the second recent film—after The King’s Speech—to dramatize the empire-imperiling affair between King Edward (James D’Arcy) and American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), a woman who couldn’t be queen. The movie was lambasted by critics at the fall festivals, with many citing a late-inning scene in which a Benzedrine-addled, circa-’30s Simpson dirty-dances to “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols as particularly indicative of its maker’s cluelessness. Certainly, W.E. is the work of a woman who apparently hasn’t spent time with normal human beings in a while. But Madonna’s anachronistic use of music is the least of her movie’s problems. It’s basic storytelling that stymies her. In telling of the Simpson affair through the blatantly whacked lens of Wally (Abbie Cornish), an unhappy trophy wife in late-’90s Manhattan who becomes obsessed with the “fairy tale” romance of Wallis and Edward when the couple’s effects are auctioned by Sotheby’s, Madonna borrows heavily from the music-video form she has already mastered: aesthetics first, with an anything-is-possible anti-logic. There is a kernel of a fascinating film here about the dangers of coveting luxuries and of imbuing beautiful things with imagined life. But as Wally’s story goes on (and on, and on . . .), the film falls increasingly deeper into the fetishization it takes as its subject, repeatedly imbuing clothes and jewelry with heavy symbolism, and forgetting any impulse to critique. But even a shot of a pearl necklace falling off of a woman as her husband beats her is too dumb to really gall.