Friday, June 26, 2015

Musing: "Bitch I'm Madonna," Madonna 6.26.15

The release of "No Sleeep" by Janet Jackson this week has prompted a string of articles mostly praising Janet's approach to her comeback, contrasting it with Madonna's and, sometimes, Mariah Carey's. Wanted to weigh in.

When comparing entire bodies of work, I would rather take Madonna's or Mariah's greatest hits compilations to a desert island than Janet's, although I do like quite a bit of Janet's material as well. But in my opinion, in the battle for the best comeback approach, I'd rank Janet above the other two. Madonna's "Rebel Heart" comeback has come with three singles: "Living For Love," which I like enough to have featured it in this blog although I did so mostly to be supportive, followed by "Ghosttown," which I appreciated in theory but found annoying in practice, and now "Bitch I'm Madonna," which is a grating mess. The first two singles failed to ignite much interest, and neither entered the Billboard Hot 100. This week, "Bitch" debuted at no. 84, fueled largely by streams of the video above. This is Madonna's first appearance on this chart since 2012's "Give Me All Your Luvin'," a pleasant but underwhelming song that made its way to No. 10.

The "Bitch" video takes quite a bit of heat from critics and commenters for being "desperate," "sad" and "pathetic." I can see three reasons for this criticism:

(1) She is dying for attention, and trying to shock people. I wholly reject this criticism because Madonna has always sought attention and tried to shock people, so those that consider this pathetic must also consider "Like A Virgin," "Papa Don't Preach," "Like a Prayer," "Justify My Love" and "Erotica" all desperate as well. She has always liked to provoke people, so on that level, "Bitch" is an achievement.

(2) She is not acting her age. This is a dangerous criticism to weigh in on because of the feminist implications, but I think it has some merit. One of the admirable things about Madonna from 1983 to 1998 was that she demonstrated confidence, sincerity and truth to herself while always seeming age appropriate. The early days of funky clothes and club jams were fitting of someone in her early to mid-20s. "Vogue" was appropriate for someone who'd just turned 30 -- sexy, sophisticated, fashionable, elegant. In the mid-'90s, in the era of "Take a Bow," "You'll See" and the songs from "Evita," the image and sound were very fitting of someone entering the latter half of her 30s. And then when she rounded the corner of 40, she released the album "Ray of Light," with the singles "Frozen," the title track, and "The Power of Good-Bye." At this time, she seemed true to herself, forward-thinking and also age appropriate -- getting into spirituality, yoga and having bigger-picture observations to make. Since "Ray of Light," we've seen mostly uncomfortable regression, starting with "Music," worsening with duets such as "Me Against the Music" (with Britney Spears) and "4 Minutes" (with Justin Timberlake), and continuing with "Bitch." What seems "desperate" is that Madonna has not found a way to age confidently. She shouldn't need to conform to expectations about aging "gracefully," but her music, image and behavior would be better received if it seemed genuine, and part of being genuine is being comfortable with oneself, and part of oneself is one's age. How she does that, I don't know. But I do know it's certainly not through material like "Bitch I'm Madonna."

(3) She enlisted A-list celebrities to generate buzz about the video. This is the most pathetic thing about this video, in my opinion. If you want to get the likes of Katy Perry and Beyonce to be in your video, fine. Fly them in and do something with them. But apparently Madonna was only able to secure celebrities on the level of Rita Ora and Alexander Wang to come to the shoot, while the bigger stars only had time to Skype in. This stinks of desperation and, frankly, failure to wield the legendary influence and power that the song celebrates. Even Nicki Minaj, whose rap is featured in the song, didn't appear in person. So this makes it seem as if their brief appearances were only orchestrated to increase interest in the video and YouTube views (and, to Madonna's credit, this seems to be working).

All this being said, back to point No. 1, Madonna's primary objective seems to always have been to get people talking about her, and I have just spent several paragraphs doing so, so at the end of the day, mission accomplished.

Compare this to "No Sleeep" and you see a stark contrast that makes Madonna seem all the more desperate for relevancy. Janet's single was released more under the radar, with strategic teases but no big marketing blow-out. The song defies current trends, staying true to her aesthetic and tastes. It's a perfect offering for fans, and doesn't make Janet seem eager for attention, validation, popularity or praise. It's also sexy but in an age-appropriate and believable way. What can be cooler than that?

Just to round things out, compare all this to Mariah Carey's "Infinity." I am a big Mariah fan and like "Infinity," and featured it on this blog. although I'm not surprised it stalled on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 82. The issue with this song, and with a few of Mariah's recent releases like "You're Mine (Eternal)," is that there's no element of surprise and not much evidence of growth. In the first 10 years of her career, Mariah evolved from a gospel-influenced teenager to a confident pop star to an R&B innovator to a diva. But then it stopped, and she's been playing the diva act for the past 15 years, especially the last 5-10, squeezing into gowns and posing for highly airbrushed album covers while churning out solid but mostly uninteresting material (the largest exception being the brilliant "Obsessed," and the underrated song from "Oz the Great and Powerful," "Almost Home.")

All said and done, artists like Madonna, Janet and Mariah have created amazing legacies for which they will be highly regarded for generations to come. Whether they seek to build on those legacies or simply preserve them (and capitalize on them for the rest of their lives) is, of course, their own business. But they should each be cautious about doing anything to call their legacy into question. I think that, of the three, Madonna is skating on the thinnest ice in that regard. Putting on a 21-year-old persona at age 56 sucks the cool out of her status and makes people compare her to today's younger stars, many of whom have more raw talent, greater beauty, more sophistication and more palatable public personas. Madonna should take a few notes from Janet: Stay in your category of one. Don't try to beat today's crop of stars at their own game. Fly above the younger generation. Grow and move forward.

Monday, June 22, 2015

New Good Song: "No Sleeep," Janet Jackson 6.22.15

Here's a new good song: "No Sleeep" by Janet Jackson.

As a gay man in his mid-30s, I am contractually obligated to be excited about Janet Jackson's comeback, and I am. I like several of her songs, and very much respect her as an influential and multi-talented entertainer. I am among a rare group who thought her 2008 offering, "Feedback," was among her best songs ever. Now after seven years of near silence -- which has certainly fueled interest in her, at least among people my age -- Janet returns with "No Sleeep," co-written and -produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her famously influential longtime collaborators.

Will "No Sleeep" be a big hit? I wouldn't dare to make such a prediction. At first listen, I would say no, because it's more mellow, sexy and retro than what's on the charts now. Also, R&B -- real R&B -- is generally unpopular in the '10s, and "No Sleeep" is heavily rooted in that genre. But the public's tastes often surprise me, for better or worse. Perhaps the fact that this single fills a void on mainstream radio will be the very factor that propels it to great success.

"No Sleeep" is a new good song. I'm impressed with the way it's catchy without being annoying and in your face, as so many modern songs are. Clearly this track is not the result of an attempt to mimic current production and songwriting trends. But that's the best thing about it. There's nothing sadder than a living legend trying to reintroduce herself by co-opting modern trends that are antithetical to her artistic identity. "No Sleeep" is a nice reintroduction. Its familiar aspects will please fans, and let younger audiences know what Janet stands for musically and lyrically. If those young people don't take an interest, "No Sleeep" will debut high on the iTunes chart and quickly tumble out of sight, like the recent releases of Madonna, Mariah Carey and other stars whose "comeback" offerings have on some level underwhelmed.

It's hard for a veteran singer to light up the charts, because people respond to what's fresh, new and different. When you're established, how do you walk that line between being unexpected while staying true to your signature sound? The most commonly cited comeback of this nature was Cher's worldwide No. 1 smash "Believe" in 1999. That was an organic sensation. There was no artificial marketing hype around Cher's "big comeback." She just released a great song that people responded to. Santana did the same thing around the same time with "Smooth," featuring Rob Thomas. So successful comebacks happen, but rarely.

But nobody really knows what will be successful, or why. Over the weekend, the top song on the iTunes chart was "Cheerleader" by Omi, a song I almost featured on this blog a few months ago but which I wasn't entirely sold on. I would never have imagined that this song would do so well; it's very out of sync with today's trends. But that's the way of the music-consuming public -- always surprising me. So I'm not going to call the fate of Janet's comeback yet, except to say that I have reasonably good feelings about it. "No Sleeep" is a cool song and it may just ignite new interest in Ms. Jackson. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

New Good Song: "Velvet," Fickle Friends 6.14.15

Here's a new good song: "Velvet" by Fickle Friends, an act responsible for another new good song earlier this year, "Could Be Wrong." Enjoy.

New Good Song: "Body Talk," Foxes 6.14.15

Here's a new good song: "Body Talk" by Foxes. In fact, this is one of the best new good songs of 2015, if not the very best. It's an absolutely addictive '80s-inspired toe-tapper that gets almost everything perfectly right -- instrumental arrangements, production, melody, lyrics, vocals. The only misstep is the abrupt ending; a fade-out would have been more effective for this type of song. But that aside, this is a fantastic offering that I've had on repeat for days. Foxes, you might recall, was the featured vocalist on "Clarity," credited to producer Zedd, which was the 73rd best new good song of 2013. Looking forward to hearing more from her if this is any indication of her taste and abilities. Enjoy.