Thursday, October 28, 2004

On Alicia Keys and the comfort of soul. I've never been that into Alicia Keys. When Shane asked if I was going to her concert, I said, "Nah." I remember reading in an excellent book, Mark Anthony Neal's Songs in the Key of Black Life, that her Grammy win irritated a lot of people who felt she was literally R&B-lite - i.e. her radio-friendly music won the award over her more experimental "blacker" peers. I can't remember if Norah Jones faced any similar criticism of her phenomenal Grammy haul, but being too "boring" for the genre in which she claims to perform is an accusion Diana Krall regularly faces.

And then yesterday Lucy handed me a copy of the New Yorker with Sasha Frere-Jones' spot-on-as-always analysis of "Lose My Breath" by Destiny's Child as an expression of militarism. While trying to find an online copy of this review to link to this post, I discovered an early-September blog post on the same song, which I like even more because it likens Beyoncé to some kind of phaser set to "stun" rather than "blow away", the setting adopted for "Crazy in Love".

My god! A girl who looks JUST LIKE Kirsten Dunst just walked past!

But anyway. On the same page was a damning-with-faint-praise review of Alicia Keys' irritating duet with Usher, "My Boo". I can't remember Frere-Jones' expression, but it was something like "her piano-playing, which some people have praised". Delicious. The point of this review is that Keys tries, but always fails, to emulate her soul idols.

This got me thinking about the weird train wreck that was the "soul/R&B" episode of Australian Idol. I thought about this some more that night, when I watched Keys perform "If I Ain't Got You" on The Panel. I think that the very thing Frere-Jones identifies as the "failure" of that song, ie its almost-but-not-quite-divaness, is what actually draws me to it. I was thinking this same thing while watching Six Feet Under this week, when they had a gospel group singing "Oh Happy Day" at a funeral. I will have to go back and listen to Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" again. Now there's a clever lyricist.

It seems to me that certain gospel-influenced strands of pop music are comfortingly familiar and participatory. The chord changes that you eagerly anticipate like waves, and then ride gloriously on because you know them. The massed call-and-response in tight harmony, as on "Held Down" by De La Soul:

Well I, feel the world around me
I've found (I've found!)
that others will bring you down, just to be down (Others'll bring you down, to be down!)
You've got to make up your mind, where you wanna be (Where you wanna be!)
Where you wanna go with your life (with your life, with your life!)

I don't want to highlight the transcendent or sublime possibilities of gospel and soul here. Instead, what draws me to that Alicia Keys song is just what drew me to her first hit, "Fallin'": it sounds just like every other gospelish, soulish, R&Bish song you've ever heard. The piano at the start of "Fallin'" lays down an insistent, repetitive groove and chord pattern, and the pleasure lies in knowing and anticipating how the song will play out. You know that the lead singer will do the first chorus by herself and then the backing singers will come in on subsequent choruses. You know that she'll sing it straight at first, and then improvise on repeat choruses. This is why songs like these get in your head and are so pleasurable to sing in the shower, in the car, in the kitchen making a cup of tea...

More interestingly, they use gospel stylings in a 'cool' way, like Groove Theory's "Tell Me" or Portishead's "Glory Box". It's not euphoric or cathartic - it carries you along on the same chords the whole time. It rocks you like a baby. It's the security blanket of pop.

I want to write a freelance piece about the "compulsory diva" - the way that female pop singers are so often expected to hit those emotional high notes all the time. Trouble is, Australian publications are so conservative, they won't publish something like this unless someone mentioned in the article is touring. And then they'll buy a nearly-identical piece from The Independent It makes me so mad. I tried three publications with my idea about "dirtiness in pop music" and was told it was too "esoteric". Someone tell me how to pimp my writing overseas!

Oh, Lucy's brother Rob will be deejaying at St Jerome's tonight. I wanted his DJ name to be "DJ Lucy's Brother" which Lucy liked, obviously enough, but strangely Rob didn't think much of this idea. I also suggested "DJ Tip-Top" as this would simultaneously connote his white-bread wigga status and that he is the best, plus summon visions of MILFish shenanigans. But he is calling himself the "Sunshine Sanga" instead.

Oh, and I came up with another band name last night: Jiggerypokery. Is there already a band called that? I was so enamoured with this name yesterday that I was already fantasising about "Jiggerypokery: The Musical!"

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