Archive forMarch, 2003

BRITISH RE-INVASION

    The musician with the fattest recording contract in the world isn’t Eminem or Celine Dion. He doesn’t even have a hit in America. But his label is trying to break him here – and working against more than a decade of Anglophobia on the U.S. pop charts.

I was in the gym last week, watching TV on the treadmill, when a video by Robbie Williams came on. The song was “Millennium,” and seeing the 1999 clip made me instantly nostalgic for the late ’90s. It wasn’t just Y2K nostalgia; I was wistful for the relative innocence of that time. Just think, boy-band pop was so hot back then that Robbie’s label actually tried to break this cheeky Brit in America.

Virgin Records must be filled with gluttons for punishment, because they’re about to try again. In a way, they have to. EMI, Virgin’s parent company, just signed Williams to a deal so enormous – it’s valued at $80 million – that it probably will be profitable only if Robbie sells a few million records in the States. His latest record, Escapology, which has already topped charts across Europe, will be out in the States next month.

Who is this guy? Williams, 29, could be called the British David Hasselhoff – a music star in Europe, a curiosity here – but then he doesn’t have a TV career to fall back on. More accurate to call Robbie the 21st Century Cliff Richard, a golden boy of British pop whose appeal may never translate across the Atlantic. He’s a veteran of early-’90s boy band Take That. He sings in a loutish, nasal voice with traces of cockney; half the contestants on American Idol would flatten him in a head-to-head vocal competition. Even in England, he wasn’t expected to amount to much – his colleagues in Take That were better-looking and had stronger voices. Yet Robbie became the solo star. His appeal lies in his laddish, cheeky attitude, two parts randy footballer to one part young Sean Connery.

Since breaking away from Take That in 1996, Robbie has sold tens of millions of CDs across Europe. In the U.S., only one of his discs has gone gold (a half-million copies), and EMI spent so much money promoting that record in 1999 that it couldn’t have been profitable.

Why didn’t the album do better in the States? Maybe it was the title: The Ego Has Landed.

So much for wry U.K. humor. Indeed, no artist better exemplifies the chasm between European and American tastes than Robbie Williams – as if we needed another reminder. On the surface, it’s a mystery why he didn’t catch on here. He doesn’t have a great voice. But then, neither does Jennifer Lopez, and like J. Lo, Robbie is sold more for his star quality than his skill. And he’s hardly the first arrogant pop star. U.S. rock stars and especially rappers are consistently rewarded for their bravado. (Only in country music is humility a required character trait.) Clearly, Robbie is just too British. A handful of U.K. acts have scored here recently after a long drought – Craig David, Coldplay – but these acts promoted themselves in America as being un-British. Being big in Europe is practically a strike against you in the States these days, and Robbie’s brand of so-smarmy-I’m-cool just doesn’t appeal to U.S. audiences.

I reviewed The Ego Has Landed for CMJ in 1999, and Robbie won me over. I’m an Anglophile to begin with, but the shamelessly hooky music really appealed to me. The album was actually a U.S. compilation of two previous British albums, which didn’t hurt. Obviously, they selected the strongest songs – shameless radio-pop, a few rockers, some surprisingly good ballads. More importantly, I guess, I “got” Robbie – he’s no Monty Python in the wit category, but he’s charming, and his lyrics are solipsistic (”Every morning, when I wake up/I look like KISS, but without the makeup”) in a way that’s both self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating. I wanted him to succeed.

In a promotional coup, Robbie won a performing slot on the 1999 MTV Movie Awards, a show that doesn’t even have many musical performances. I was looking forward to his appearance, thinking this was the ideal, glitzy forum for his grabby pop. But even I could see that he blew it. He walked out in a tux, with a gun-shaped microphone and the James Bond theme playing in the background. Fine, Americans know James Bond (so great is Robbie’s U.K. popularity that there are rumors there that he may take over the role from Pierce Brosnan someday). The problem was Williams’s smirky attitude – he looked like a frat boy who thought he was the life of someone else’s party. As he launched into his not-quite-hit “Millennium,” he pranced around the stage, surrounded by leggy tarts. You could tell that this was his trademark act – master of ceremonies, charming rogue – and it had worked great at London arenas; but on the MTV show, it sucked the energy out of the room. It didn’t help that Robbie’s voice was especially wobbly. Or that he was the oldest-looking 25-year-old I’d ever seen, balding rapidly, with deep creases on his forehead.

After the MTV showcase, Robbie remained unbroken in America. A few of his songs made top 40 radio – the ballad “Angels” did particularly well in certain U.S. cities – but it largely amounted to naught.

No wonder EMI wants to pretend Operation Break Robbie I never happened. Don’t be surprised if you hear Robbie’s songs bullied onto the airwaves and MTV in the next few months. Whether it will translate into sales and popularity this time is an open question. I basically feel like the ship has sailed for Robbie Williams in America. I’m a big fan of the polish and wit of modern U.K. pop, but I’m no longer convinced that this wanna-be Bond will be its U.S. emissary.

Comments

NOCTURNE IN F MAJOR

    I’m so glad The Pianist was rewarded at the Oscars. It was not only my favorite of the five Best Picture nominees, but it had special resonance – both for me as a music fan and at the particular moment I saw it.

You should have heard me whoop when Adrien Brody won the Best Actor Oscar on Sunday night. Okay…in part, my cheering was selfish – I had picked him on the ballot at my friends’ Oscar party; the cynic in me was convinced that a split between veterans/front-runners Daniel Day Lewis and ol’ Jack would leave a clear field for the 29-year-old Brody. The cynic in me also was thrilled that Miramax didn’t Hoover up every award. But I also genuinely loved The Pianist. It was the last of the five Best Picture nominees I saw and the one I liked best (yes, including the excellent Two Towers). Notwithstanding my reservations at Roman Polanski’s personal transgressions, I thought The Pianist’s creators deserved all the praise heaped on them.

I saw the film two weekends ago and have been telling friends about it ever since. My shorthand on The Pianist is that it’s an amazingly fresh take on a well-worn subject. Frankly, I say this to people because I know why they’re staying away from it. Call it Holocaust fatigue, call it an aversion to eating-your-spinach moviegoing – I think many people feel they did their tour of duty 10 years ago seeing Schindler’s List, or they cynically feel that Holocaust dramas have been well covered by Hollywood and overpraised by the Academy. I can’t say I disagree.

Still, The Pianist is something special. It’s gripping not just because it’s a true story or because of the inherently intense subject matter, but because its protagonist, by his actions, expresses something I think many of us feel in times of global crisis, even a crisis that touches us personally: Why can’t I just go on doing what I’m meant to do? That may sound horribly selfish, but I think it’s a natural tendency to wish for normalcy when things are falling apart around you. Not to get all religious or metaphysical, but it brought to mind a formative lesson from my Dad; I was a kid, having some existential guilt about suffering in the world and my wish not to experience suffering myself. The lesson was this: It’s normal not to want to suffer. I’ll never forget this – my Dad said (I was raised Catholic, FYI), “Chris, the line in the prayer is, ‘Deliver us from evil’ – you don’t want to have to face evil. God doesn’t think less of you because you want not to suffer.” Dad’s common-sense message came back to me repeatedly as I watched Wladyslaw Szpilman (Brody), who was spared the dehumanizing fate experienced by his fellow Jews and his own family. Not without compassion, but quietly, forcefully, he’s just trying to go about his business – becoming the best pianist of his generation.

Any music lover owes it to herself to see The Pianist, but not because the actual music in the film is exceptional. It is, but there’s a stretch of at least 90 minutes where there’s virtually no music. What I found so empathetic about the film was its understanding that music is an otherwordly presence. I often find that the song stuck in my head (assuming it’s one I like) means more to me than any recording I can play; it’s a presence, whereas the music I put on is just background. Of course, Szpilman doesn’t play CDs; he’s a performer, and he longs to perform again. But as Brody plays him, performing is just what Szpilman does; music is what he lives. One of the handful of great scenes in the film finds Szpilman in a hideout flat with a piano he can’t play – so he mimes a Chopin piece, his hands floating above the keys, soaring on the concerto playing in his head. Music makes life worth living, not just because Szpilman does it so well but because it exists outside of the world, beyond the daily struggle he faces and the violence all around him.

Seeing The Pianist in mid-March, days before the start of the war, only made its themes more resonant. I don’t think Brody was just grandstanding when his Oscar acceptance speech connected his Szpilman performance with “the sadness and the dehumanization of people at times of war.” I’d guess that for some lovers of The Pianist – say, your average Oscar voter – the message was Art Will Conquer All. If that won votes for Brody, Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood, then fine. But it’s much richer than that. Szpilman didn’t deserve to be spared because he was an artist. Luck played a role, as did tenacity. But the movie’s message seems to be that you can be sustained by a force greater than yourself, greater than just your natural instinct to live. You want to live life in full again. And the idea that a full life is one filled with music is one I connected with innately.

Comments

TRYING TO STAY POSITIVE

    What better way to get one’s mind off the war than a live show by a bratty British rapper? Turns out hip-hop clichés are universal – and, sometimes, fun.

A contact at a music PR company put me on the guest list for a Brooklyn concert by The Streets, the U.K. hip-hop act I’ve been obsessing over for several months now. Of course, the publicist did this weeks ago, before anyone suspected that Wednesday, 20 March, might be the start of the U.S.-led war on Iraq. I hemmed and hawed about going, pacing my apartment with the TV on, debating with myself over whether it was my patriotic duty to watch the President’s address at 10:15 p.m. Finally, I decided I had already witnessed one Bush war address in my lifetime, that I could probably see a replay of the Bush II address later, and that I’d regret not going to the show. So off I went. I got to the Williamsburg club Warsaw at 10:45, just as Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, was kicking into his first song.

“Kicking” is the operative word. The key innovation of the Streets’ urban-Brit sound is its un-selfconscious embrace of both garage’s club beats and those U.K. mainstays, two-tone, dancehall and ska. Live, the music’s deep, rude-boy bass gives the music a potency one wouldn’t expect from a white British lad. Of course, Skinner doesn’t work alone, contrary to what the press and the liner notes of the Streets’ debut CD suggest. In addition to a live bassist and drummer, MC Kevin Mark Trail – also a credible singer – provides effective counterpoint and is so omnipresent onstage that one might suspect that the Streets is a duo, or at least a hip-hop collective.

But Skinner – clad in droopy jeans, T-shirt and a wry smile – was clearly the focal point. It’s been said that he’s not a great rapper and that his production skills are the star of his show, that the Streets succeeds in spite of his weak MCing. I sort of disagree. Though not possessed of the verbal virtuosity of an Eminem, a Q-Tip or a Rakim, Skinner has a more skillful flow than first seems apparent. He’s not just rambling – his words, however meandering, are indeed chosen for their rhythmic properties. Observing Skinner onstage confirmed my suspicion: not merely aping his recordings or yelling into the mic (the refuge of the lame, studio-created MC), he played with his words, emphasized the rhythmic ones and, even when distracted, remembered a key phrase or hook when the time came to deliver it.

Skinner was distracted a lot. Proving that some clichés are universal, especially those of live hip-hop shows, he goofed off plenty onstage: crowd-surfing, demanding chants (”Lemmie hear ya say ‘New YORK New YORK!’”), starting water-bottle fights with homeboy Trail and pouring full beer bottles onto willing audience members – the only way it could have been more hip-hop would be if the bottles had been 40-ounces of St. Ides. And it was a short show to begin with, barely an hour. To be fair, youthful bravado onstage isn’t the sole province of rappers, and most young musicians usually grow out of it; from Beck to the Strokes, I’ve observed a number of rock acts that kidded around or mouthed off onstage early on, only to come back with a polished, professional show later. I would have preferred less screwing around from Skinner, but with a second or third album under his belt, he’ll hopefully put on tighter concerts one day.

Still, somehow, all the onstage bullshit made me smile. Maybe I was enjoying the distraction from heavier thoughts, maybe I was charmed by the sight of a 23-year-old Brit “geezer” getting off on his command of a New York crowd, and maybe I just let it all slide when Skinner earnestly dedicated “Stay Positive” to wartime New York. The important thing is that the Streets is the real deal, doing what good hip-hop is supposed to do: represent for its hometown but make everyone feel like they’re down. Good-natured, multitalented, wickedly clever, Skinner stands every chance of staying in the game.

Comments (1)

ELECTRO CRASH?

    If punk and ska both enjoyed populist comebacks, electro deserves one, too. It’s just that no one has produced a great electro album yet, and it’s possible that no one ever will.

At an apartment-warming party earlier this month, I was chatting up a friendly chap who was relatively new to New York. Having learned that I write about music, he asked me to explain to him what electroclash was. It was a good question: that poorly named, art-damaged music niche has been obsessing New York rock fans, clubgoers and scenesters for the past year.

I chuckled apologetically and said he was right to be confused – no one has yet come up with a quick, coherent definition of electroclash. I attempted one, saying that it was basically an amalgam of several early ’80s sounds: synth-pop, post-disco club music and early, breakdance-fueled hip-hop. (For the record, I have unilaterally decided that much as skacore and nü-metal are pointless modern variations on ska and metal, I am dropping the clash and referring to this venerable music by the name coined in the early ’80s: electro.)

Last week, userinfobradamant offered a short LJ post on electro group/art project Fischerspooner. She was sharing a savage review of Fischerspooner’s debut album by Slate critic Gerald Marzorati.

I clicked on the link to Marzorati’s review with some trepidation, steeling myself for an attack on electro. I also felt a bit vulnerable because I had actually purchased the Fischerspooner CD, #1, having heard that it was a friendly homage to ’80s Euroweenie digital rock. If there is a target audience for the revival of electro, I admit, I’m it: a 30something rock fan with fond memories of synth-pop, who longs to see the classic synth sound made relevant again. I figured Marzorati was about to puncture my wish and ridicule me for wishing it.

Fortunately, the withering review was fairly even-handed. It turns on the concept of camp, which I would argue is not the sole motif of electro but is certainly a key element. Marzorati makes the following astute point:

    Fischer, it would seem, has listened to old Human League and Depeche Mode recordings but not carefully enough: He has no idea how to create an ingratiating hook or build to a climax by layering electronic textures. (Human League and Depeche Mode: Now they’re great camp!)

Not just great camp, but great rock; part of what makes the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” or Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” such spine-tingling pop songs is their self-seriousness, the same intensity that makes, say, “Yesterday” or “When Doves Cry” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” transcendant. Many of the best pop songs take themselves very seriously indeed, and if they’re later appreciated as camp, the passage of time is the main factor, not any musical deficiency per se.

Having listened to #1, I can confirm that Marzorati nailed the Fischerspooner CD pretty accurately. It’s lame, and while I am not ready to call it the year’s worst album, it is fairly dull-witted. But I’m not as ready to give up on the electro revival as Marzorati. The problem with #1 is it’s not good electro or even good electroclash: flaccid, lifeless and white where the best early electro was tight, vibrant and poly-racial. Think back to Madonna’s “Lucky Star,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” Newcleus’s “Jam on It” or Shannon’s “Let the Music Play.” It’s impossible to peg these songs as purely pop, or just good examples of their respective genres – in order, dance-pop, synth-rock, new wave-funk, breakbeat-rap and club-R&B. The fact that I have to concoct a hyphenated genre name for each indicates what brilliant stylistic melanges they were. You could have played all five on the same early ’80s top-40 station, not just because radio was freer then but because all five songs tapped into burgeoning subcultures and amalgamated them into something whole. Electro is by its very nature a stew of post-punk/post-disco sounds. The fact that it infused its way into records by a diverse array of artists without them trying shows that, contrary to current electroclash criticism, it was a truly organic movement.

The core ideas fueling the 21st-Century revival of electro are sound. Hip-hop is now less a subculture than the zeitgeist-definer. Digital tools have democraitized music-making more than ever. And, not incidentally, Gen-X and Gen-Y have finally reached nostalgia age. Electro is hip-hop, digital and retro all at once. If punk could finally “break” through Nirvana and, later, Green Day and Blink-182; and if ska could finally win over America through Sublime and No Doubt, there’s no reason electro can’t have its moment in the sun. But there’s no question that in the implied battle between ’80s and ’00s electro, the ’80s are still winning.

The problem is that electro, even more than punk and ska, is a singles medium – note that all the signal examples of great electro I namecheck above (Tom Tom Club, Newcleus, etc.) are songs, not albums. Few of the albums from which these ’80s classics come are wall-to-wall great; those that are (Madonna, New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies) aren’t really electro all the way through. So it’s no surprise that even today, it’s a sound that’s hard to sustain at full-CD length. Arguably the only really good full-length album of the so-called electroclash era is Felix da Housecat’s Kittenz and Thee Glitz, and it’s debatable whether that is a wall-to-wall electro album or just an electro-informed club CD. Anyway, electro is being judged by suspicious critics at album length, and so it always comes up short.

I’m not expecting a great album to come from the electro revival, and unlike Marzorati, I’m not cynical about this. Actually, all I hope is that electro becomes in 2003 what it was in 1983: a subconscious sensibility, that joins white rock, black hip-hop and urban-savvy culture into something someone outside of New York City could enjoy.

Comments (1)

LONG TIME GONE

    I end a long absence from LiveJournal with a few words about a Dixie Chick. Why? ‘Cuz I’ve got nothing else to do.

My disappearance from the web for most of the last two months was prompted by the busiest winter of my life. My return is prompted by what could be my most fallow spring. Somebody scheduling my cosmic datebook is laughing His ass off right now.

An enormous, five-long-days-a-week piece of consulting work ended the last day of February, and the bulk of the writing of the Kurt Cobain book was complete last week. Just as I was ready to settle into a more sane – but still remunerative – level of work, my biggest corporate consulting client killed off our big project and suspended smaller projects for the rest of March. I have no work scheduled for the rest of the month; possibly nothing until, say, tax day.

This leaves plenty of time to mull over the one thing I hoped to be too distracted to consider: the war. I have no interest in barrelling into the weeks of debate I’ve seen here at LiveJournal. Bottom line: pragmatic liberal that I am, I have a hard time arguing that removing Saddam Hussein wouldn’t be a desirable thing but am fairly appalled at the half-assed non-diplomacy that’s gotten us where we are now. I’m no kneejerk peacenik, but I go to bed at night sad and angry that we’ve been backed into a corner where our choices are A, A and A. More than anything, the thought of war sickens and depresses me; I leave my stereo on all day so I won’t be tempted to turn on the TV and watch the news.

Oddly, I am not that surprised by the relative silence on the war by musicians. Their actor brethren have gotten roundly chastised by the media for speaking out, and the time when pop music was a leading indicator of progressive culture is long since past. It seemed silly to me when critics and pundits complained last month that more artists at the Grammys didn’t comment on the war; those same critics would probably have complained about the musicians’ glib soundbites had they attempted them. Even pro-war musicians have been relatively silent. All of the song-based commentary of the past year has been related to 9/11 or Osama bin Laden, Toby Keith’s included.

Nonetheless, one musician decided to speak out about the war, bluntly, and she’s paid the price for it: Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. What I admire about her quip at a London concert last week, “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” isn’t so much its content or its bravery, but its unrehearsed honesty. I can’t think of a comment by a major pop musician in recent years that was less focus-group-tested than this one. Stephanie Zacharek at Salon admired Maines’s bravado, too, and in a short article, she opines more eloquently than I could.

The one thought I’d add to Zacharek’s well-crafted summary is that Maines deserves the respect of the very people most likely to deride her: heartland, shoot-from-the-hip Americans. These are the folks who’ve praised the likes of Ted Nugent for telling it like it is, despite the disdain with which his opinions are held by the pop mainstream. (Despite disagreeing with 98.5% of what he says, even I get a kick out of Ted.) Well, in country music, expressing a distaste for a Republican President from Texas is just as rebellious, and Maines sure as shootin’ spoke off the cuff. At least give her this, Nashville fans, even if you don’t agree with her: Her anti-Bush quip was every bit as ballsy as the Nuge talking about shooting his own dinner.

Comments