Monday, December 15, 2008

Legends

This post should be titled Late Pass, as it’s filled with stuff I’ve been meaning to post about for several weeks, if not longer. And it’s a long one. It also kind of serves as my year-end film & music wrap-up but it’s not really about Top 10 lists or anything. It’s just a quick freestyle of shit that I, while typing this post, can remember liking a lot or being moved by. It’s a cluster-fuck of rambling ideas. "Original programming (posting)" continues after the "station break."

Legends



      I devoted a lot of time this year to thinking about cultural legends (across the strata of culture/subcultures), trying to figure what about them was instructive beyond nostalgia, and what was instructive within nostalgia. Etta James, Grace Jones, Q-Tip… Thoughts on the matter tumbled around my head as I worked this year on a Flaunt magazine piece about the Hollywood Bowl, attending a lot of concerts at the venue, including those by such relative newbies as Feist (to whom I really hadn’t paid much attention before) and Paulo Nutini. I became converts for both. At her concert, Feist was an art-school visualist, opening her show from behind a scrim, backlit, her shadow singing a cappella. As the concert progressed, hypnotically surreal images were projected onto the backdrop while she sang her heart out, jammed mightily with her band, and bantered (true wit style) with the crowd. Here’s a clip of her performing in Paris. For his show, Nutini and his band walked onstage in the standard-issue uniform of the day, ‘70s thrift-store garb and dirtily tousled hair, with Nutini clearly already wasted. What is that contrived, over-calculated, alterna-sheep sartorial indifference even meant to convey anymore? (The clip below is from a UK television performance.)

      I was ready to dismiss him outright. But the Scot-born singer of Italian descent and his band proceeded to blast through their show with such genuine folk, rock & soul power, and undeniable stage presence that I was on my feet for most of their set. Imagine a son of Otis Redding fronting a rowdy but technically on-point pub band and you have some idea of their live show. Then there was Gnarls Barkley. Goddamn. Fried my brain from the wattage of Cee-Lo (easy candidate for best male singer on the planet, and far beyond the confines of any genre), whose cocksure, big-belly-led stroll onto the fabled stage was validated by vocals he peed – operatic blues / soul / rock wails and arias that transformed the amphitheater into a revival tent spectacle, something that pushed far past the hype and cleverly (and wonderfully) stylized “otherness” of the duo (who are queer in non-sexual but beautiful, powerful senses of the word) into a realm of emotional truth wrapped in jaw-dropping theatricality. (I tend to gush when I'm happy.)

      But it was Etta James who literally made my jaw drop. Her show was far from the best I saw this year, her voice having been ravaged by time (giving it a grainier bluesiness), which often made her control of her celebrated instrument unsteady. She frequently lost the audience by doing lesser known (and lackluster renditions of) tunes from her repertoire while sabotaging arrangements of the familiar classics. That’s not to say that there weren’t some lovely moments, some powerful bits of singing. But what I most remember was the high-raunch content. For almost every song, no mater how mournful or reflective, Etta pantomimed sucking dick. She shaped her hand like she was holding a penis of massive girth (hey, if you’re gonna dream, dream big) and then proceeded to lick the imaginary shaft and head over and over. And over again. She repeatedly spread her thighs to furiously stroke her crotch. She exaggeratedly fondled her breasts. Fans of Etta know this behavior is not new but I just assumed (ageist on my part, I guess) that someone creeping up on 300 years old (though she looks amazing; slim and fit; beautiful face; hair laid) would tone it down a bit. I shuddered when she introduced the band with, These are my two sons…
      Now, Etta “Jamesetta Hawkins” James, how you just gon’ suck invisible dick in front of your own offspring?
      This concert was long before the film Cadillac Records was anywhere close to being in a theater but I remember thinking even then that there was no way the sexless Beyonce, who portrays Etta in the film, would have the ovaries to play this aspect of Etta. It’s not just Yonce who lacked those ovaries, however, but the film’s weak script. Here is an extended version of my review that ran in the LA Weekly:

      Although the real-life based but fact-challenged Cadillac Records stars heavyweights Jeffrey Wright (typically fantastic in his portrayal of Muddy Waters), Oz’s Eammon Walker (as a gruffly commanding Howlin’ Wolf), Mos Def (whose Chuck Berry nearly walks away with the film), Columbus Short (who easily steals the scenes Mos doesn’t) and Adrien Brody (all moist-eyed empathy as Chess Records founder Leonard Chess), the hovering question was always how well Beyonce would do as Etta James. She’s adequate. In this film about the rise and fall of legendary music label Chess Records and its stars, Yonce cusses up a storm, wields her lushly voluptuous body (still all wrong for the roundness of Etta) like a WMD, and navigates an emotional drug OD scene without embarrassing herself. But when she performs James classics “At Last” and a well-placed “I'd Rather Go Blind,” her limitations and the film’s snap into focus. Beyonce’s pop-soul voice lacks the earthy, evocative carnality and gritty pathos of James, and when Yonce tosses her signature yodel-riffing in one classic tune your ears die a little. Similarly, director Darnell Martin (I Like it Like That) races through the script’s sometimes painfully true but over-familiar bullet points – R&B is built on the dreams of white immigrant sons and Black sharecropper descendents; white appropriation of Negro creativity is played out in boardrooms and in the thievery of style and ideas; soul music and the blues are sounds of Negro self-affirmation – with a brisk superficiality that leaves crucial plot points unresolved, and refuses to engage the dark side of Leonard Chess’ paternalism. The film is frustrating because it’s filled with loaded symbolism, imagery and actions that it leaves hanging, leeching the embedded emotion without fully earning the dramatics it’s going for. Take the scene where one of Muddy’s side-pieces drops their infant daughter with his “wife,” who oh-so-gently (saintly, even) weeps while it slowly dawns on a drunken Muddy what has happened. We never again see the girlchild, never learn if her mom came back for her, if she was simply absorbed into the family or how her presence affected the dynamic of the household. Cadillac’s screenplay tries so hard to squeeze in so much with its quick-sketch approach to history and character that it’s filled with such dropped balls, seemingly unaware that its half-baked treatment of Negro lives makes it guilty of some of what it claims to critique. Only the acting prowess of Wright, Mos Def and Columbus Short makes the film watchable, makes some of those quick sketches actually resonate.

      The product Beyonce (is that redundant?) and the film Cadillac Records share the same basic flaw. They possess no depth. Each is a tapestry of assorted cultural signifiers draped over a void, and whose makers & bean counters bank on (or pray for) the audience thinking something significant is being signified; the audience's hoped for and frequently triggered Pavlovian assumption is the loophole out of anyone actually doing the work of coming up with meaning or something thoughtful. It’s a way to avoid making a statement for fear someone might be offended, some potential shopper might not shop. Cadillac’s racial outrage is remedial (Racism bad!) though hilariously pungent in Mos Def’s line-readings, which threaten to nudge the film into substance but are reined in to settle for laughter; the film's depicted clashes of black masculinities – the various Negro male wounds, survival techniques, strengths and weaknesses – give the film some heft but they’re too underdeveloped to really throw the punch they could and should. Instead, you all but feel the film contort itself to make Leonard Chess some sort of hero even as a more complicated truth keeps edging forth and being shoved back. (As has been pointed put elsewhere, his brother Phil – crucial to the label’s existence and success – is nowhere to be found in the film, reportedly because he wouldn’t sell the rights to his life story.) Similarly, Beyonce’s legendarily substance-free press interviews are anchored in the determination to not possibly turn off any demographic in her quest for a spot on pop's Mt. Olympus. Having made it clear that she hungers for and is determined to achieve icon status, she's repeatedly riffed on (sorry, paid homage to) all the greats to whom she nakedly desires comparison: Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand. She wants to be a triple-threat (singer/actress/dancer), longs to be a fashion icon, curries favor with the kids… she has lusted to walk a ballroom floor. The most interesting thing about her (and this positions her as a daughter of Madonna) is that she is a Borg – effortlessly absorbing affect / gestures / poses from assorted cultural terrains and assimilating them into her steely efficient being. The single “If I Were a Boy,” is her pulling on sensitive-white-girl-singer-songwriter drag, intoning the words as though they were written in some foreign language she’s mastered phonetically, and then confusing (as do so many of her peers) volume for emotion. She has no connection to the song save for the fact that it’s a market-calculated move intended to convey her musical range and inner complexity; in fact, it underscores the converse. When the “Single Ladies” video first dropped, sharp-eyed mainstream fans noted it was a “tribute” to the choreography of Bob Fosse. But “the children” lovingly and admiringly noted that Miss B was replicating some very specific subculture moves – theirs. Like Madonna with her own highly profitable appropriation of colored faggot innovation in “Vogue,” Beyonce is doing a masterful fusion of “high” culture and “low,” of mainstream and margin, and the drag-queen-centric “Single Ladies” video quickly outpaced the actual single as a cultural phenomenon.

The 10 Best “Single Ladies” Clips (in random order)...

10) Beyonce’s original clip. Highlights: the stretch from :53-1:00, and the 2:58 mark, where the camera is focused on Be’s upper body but there’s the suggestion of a funky breakdown taking place just below. Be sure to check out the very end, after the trio finishes dancing and Yonce's heavy breathing from the strenuous routine suggests that she’s human after all... until you realize that’s exactly what the robot wants you to think.

9) Beyonce shows she has a sense of humor and can actually be quite charming in this Saturday Night Live spoof of the video, featuring Justin Timberlake.

8) The OG tribute clip. Shane Mercado was, I think, the first and certainly still one of the best to do his take on the clip. Damn near flawless. He gains points for the way he fills in editing bay blackout moments in Beyonce’s clip. He loses a few points because he did that shit barefoot. Beyonce was in heels.

7) This clip of Mercado performing “Single Ladies” on the Bonnie Hunt show has him spliced in with the original video. I love the audience’s enthusiasm and support for him.

6) “Single Ladies” gospel edition. This bit is far too long but very funny.

5) Proof that Beyonce fans are insane. The Alaska edition.

4) I was beginning to wonder if heterosexual women actually listened to Beyonce anymore. This version cleared that up. If I were actually ranking the clips, this one would actually be lower on the list. But I felt sorry for them; there’s so little hetero / biologically female being repped on here. And of course black girls ain't gonna be denied a chance to get that hair toss & flip in…

3) Who says there’s no support for faggotry in the Negro community? Makael’s flaming ass is joined by Ray-Ray, BeBe, NeNe and a random thug from down the block who just wandered into the living room while this version was being shot. Nothing but love.



2) Husky Ladies. It’s all about the split…



1) Your version…
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STATION BREAK: Christmas Gift Suggestion

If you don’t yet have my book(s), or haven’t yet done all your Christmas shopping, the two Blood Beats volumes would make great stocking stuffers. Check it:

Book excerpts:
Here
Here
Here
Here
Here


BLURBS

Ernest Hardy has long been the culture critics’ critic, a rare writer whose every opinion we read and debated and measured our own against. Blood Beats: Vol. 2 shows why: the expansive mind, the humanistic ear, the timely question, the passionately committed voice. There may be no better guide through pop’s image-storm of identities than Mr. Hardy.
—Jeff Chang, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop;" editor of "Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop"

I’m not sure whether Ernest Hardy is a pen name or not but his writing is everything his name implies. His dissections of pop culture are neatly carved into well-thought proportions over which he pours a tangy, sometimes biting, down-home styled gravy. To read his work is to think twice. He raises the question that only someone who truly believes in the power of art would seek to answer.
—Saul Williams

Ernest Hardy’s gift as a cultural critic is his ability to listen. Whether it be in an interview with a filmmaker, the songs on a pop album, or literary prose and poetry floating off the page, Mr. Hardy hears, feels, and then filters through his own heart and mind the stuff of possibility. His words are not the answer, but the beginnings of deep questions. His analysis bubbles above mediocrity like spring water quenching the thirst of those of us who are parched for a way to understand what it means to create and what it means to consume from the slipstream that is our contemporary culture.
—Cauleen Smith, director of "Drylongso" and professor of film at Massachusetts College of Art

Ernest Hardy’s talent and reputation as one of the preeminent critics working today are beyond reproach, but with Blood Beats: Vol. 2, he establishes himself as a singular force in contemporary cultural criticism.
—Mark Anthony Neal, author of "Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic"

For anyone interested in the historical significance of Black cultural production, from commercial to indie, Ernest Hardy’s "Blood Beats: Vol. 2" is a must read. Witty as hell, an erudite critic, the brotha knows his shit. Whether it’s cinema or music, his prose makes you want to grab your iPod and experience the visceral connections between art, love, sexuality, politics and the sacrosanct role of blackness in the entertainment industry. OK, this academic lesbian fell in love with the gay boy journalist.
—Phyllis J. Jackson, Ph.D, filmmaker, "Comrade Sister: Voices of Women in the Black Panther Party"


Buy Blood Beats Vol. 1 or Vol. 2 at Amazon: click here

Buy either Blood Beats book directly from my publisher Redbone Press, and you are supporting an indie, black-owned publishing house. You can:


1) Mail your order and a money order or cashier’s check to:
Redbone Press
PO Box 15571
Washington, D.C 2003

2) Phone in your order at: 202.667.0392 (Fax is 301.559.5239)
3) Redbone email is: info@redbonepress.com
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If you didn’t watch the entire Grace Jones clip that opened this post, go back and check it out, and stay on till the end. The moment when the 60-year-old iconoclast lifts her skirt and starts thrashing it around is pure Grace – uncalculated calculation, a dash of madness in the performance mix, something dangerously human being slipped through a persona that has always been larger than life, fearlessly self-possessed and completely unconcerned with chart position or mainstream acceptance. True legend; earned status without shameless campaigning for the position. Her Hurricane album was one of my favorites of the year. Other highlights for me:



1) Erykah Badu / New Amerykah. What more can I say? I love this woman. I’m too far gone to be objective. She could belch over a sub-par old Dilla track and I’d buy it. But this CD speaks so much to the state of Blackness in America right now. It’s a prayer, hymn, chant, plea, patient caress for a people for whom there is not much patience. (Oh, that’s right, Obama’s the president…) “Soldier” shoulda been a single. “Master Teacher,” “That Hump,” and “My People” resonate more and more everyday. Special thanks to Alex Demyanenko for the DVD hook-up.
2) Raphael Saadiq / The Way I See It. This shoulda been a huge hit. Huge. Great songwriting, career-best impassioned singing, Saadiq channeled so many soul man greats (Cooke, Gaye, Mayfield) without succumbing to mere karaoke posturing, with lyrics encompassing aches ranging from those of the heart to those wrought by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
3) Jamie Lidell / Jim.
4) Sam Sparro / Sam Sparro.
5) Estelle / Shine.
6) TV on the Radio / Dear Science.
7) Amos Lee / Last Days at the Lodge.
8) Q-Tip / Renaissance.

9-10) The various Philly International re-issues and anthologies put out by Sony Legacy this year: O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, LaBelle, the Jacksons.





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Video of the Day



Oh, yeah...

1 comment:

Mehammed "Abou" Mack said...

Dear Ernest,
Whenever I take the time to read your blog, I am always happier and more educated for it. I'm so glad you ranked the single ladies videos although I would have only added this one, for sheer fierceness' sake. I actually think his rhythm is better than mercado's: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rknRJVdpOo&feature=related

Oh and I LOVE the song "Soldier" by Erykah Badu, I sing it in the shower, and now my room-mate knows the words.