Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The First Cut...



      I really dig the clip above. No disrespect to the great, legendary Bo Diddley (who’s killing it) but it’s all about the women backing him: their slinky evening gowns; the way they break it down with pelvic thrusts and accompanying sweeping/brushing hand movements; those old-school raw, untrained soul voices; choreography that's synchronized but – unlike the cold, militaristic moves that fill music videos now – leaves room for individual, sexy personalities to shine through; and the clip's kicker: an actual musical instrument strapped on one woman’s shoulder, over her gown, and wielded with solid confidence.
      It really makes you think (again) about the ways historical representation (who did what, and when) is shrunken, cut off at the knees and made to conform to diminished options of existence and possibility. The images of black women musicians from the ‘50s and ‘60s run along pretty short rails. (I say that even as an unapologetic fan of the purely pop confection.) But what we have in this clip is the quintessential girl-group aesthetic (the exaggerated hair falls, the matching gowns and choreography) being plucked at the seams, foreshadowing something of riot grrrl and punk and hip-hop female sturdiness and self-sufficiency. And that's just from the margin position of back-up singers. I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent music video of Black women singers/musicians that is more… just cool.
      The Diddley clip was posted on Facebook a few days ago, just after someone else had posted a news item about Melanie Fiona, that long-hyped next-big-thing. It made me go back and re-visit this video:


      I didn’t get all the way through it. And I didn’t the first time I saw it many months ago. It makes me recoil. It’s a case study in too much of what is fucked up about current pop and (who stole the) “soul” music. Let me back up a minute: I’ve long been fascinated with the ways in which art retains and transmits something of the time in which it was created, even as it travels into the future. And I don’t just mean the slang or the fashion of the day (captured in film, music and literature), the sound of recorded music due to the production techniques or recording technology available at a given time, nor do I mean the stylistic innovations and revolutions of the visual arts in any given era. I mean something more ephemeral, intangible – something of the attitudes, values and sensibilities of an era that waft from its cultural artifacts and artists. Example: Madonna’s steely-eyed careerism and [once] signature anthem “Material Girl” marked her as a Reagan-era diva; similarly, Beyonce’s vapidity, steely-eyed careerism, lack of discernible humanity, and unfuckwitable shrewdness – which is not the same thing as “intelligence” – tag her as the consummate Bush-era diva.
      One of the reasons I have spent the last several weeks listening to almost nothing but a two-disc CD set of Elkin & Nelson’s greatest hits that Josh Kun picked up in Spain and was kind enough to burn for me is because the music carries forth a sense of wide-open possibility. In its early ‘70s fusion of genres, in its unbridled experimentation, its joy in creative expression and boundary-pushing, it has something of spirit. Though wholly accessible (my Spanish is atrocious and yet I feel like I am right there with them in every syllable) and “pop” in the best sense of the word, the music comes from a place unconcerned with chart positions, celebrity or world-domination synergy (celebrity fashion lines, endorsement deals, vanity labels, etc.)
      Contrast that with the Melanie Fiona video, which over-powers the music in its contrivance; you can all but hear some record label exec saying, “We need a Black Amy Winehouse.” (Yeah, think about that for a minute.) The video reeks of the market studies, fear-based repetition of what has already been done before, and toothless trendy "edginess" that define the music industry and American pop culture. Although Fiona’s vocal talent is appealing and undeniable, what comes through most forcefully in the clip is the heavy-handed, artless shaping of a commodity, acquiescence to formula. (And not just Fiona’s hair and clothing style; the whole video is a re-working of Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own” music clip.) Compare it to this just below, where Fiona kicks it in a stairwell and knocks it out of the park with surprising accompaniment:


      A few days ago, a former editor of mine with whom I’ve reconnected on Facebook posted a Youtube clip of cult soul singer P.P. Arnold singing her biggest hit, 1967’s “The First Cut is the Deepest,” a cover of the Cat Stevens classic. I hadn’t heard this in years. I'd relegated it to the darkest corner of my mind. After seeing the clip, I was sent scurrying to watch as much as I could of her on Youtube. (Including some relatively recent clips that reveal she still looks and sounds fantastic.) Again, check her amazing style, so very much of its time but so very now. She's not the Aretha-style soul shouter; not the Dionne or Diana glamor girl (though she’s very glamorous); and not a Tina Turner-style rock chick. She’s simply incredibly chic, modern in a way that a lot of her more famous, even iconic contemporaries were not. And from some angles looks a bit like Lauryn Hill:





And click here for a treat.

      I’m closing this post with a couple of hyper-modern remixes of classic Supremes tunes, and some rare rehearsal footage. The first video clip is actually an excerpt from an old promotional clip the trio shot; the re-touched music is a reggae overhaul of “My World is Empty Without You” that is absolutely sublime until it goes off the beat at around the 1:27 mark. Second, sans images, is Omar S’ chill House re-tooling of “Come See About Me,” in which a few key phrases are looped over and over, boiling the song down to its simmering emotional lament. I'd kill to hear it in a club. Last is what is tagged as rehearsal footage for Spanish language TV. Two things make it dope: its low-key performance energy, which translates into something approaching funky for the Supremes, and the fact that they’re wearing their own clothing, “street-wear,” and look amazing.





5 comments:

Jody Watley said...

Spot on commentary, and great choice of clips to bring the points home.

Jennifer Doyle said...

Oh, such a great series of clips and gorgeous mediation. Thank you!

soulbrotha said...

I agree with "Jody." Spot on! Lawd that PP Arnold looks so much like Lauren! (or rather vice versa)

Great Supremes clips. However, I wish the Omar-S mix had utilized more verses than just that one loop. And Reflections is my all time favorite track by The Supremes. I get chills when the spaced-out intro plays.

Bracho said...

Love that P.P. Arnold. Wasn't she an Ikette who stayed in England while on one of Ike & Tina's European tours?

Ernest Hardy said...

@ Ricardo (Bracho): Yep...