Posts Tagged ‘symbolism’

h1

Christina Aguilera – Bionic. (album review)

June 14, 2010

As you can tell from my current blog layout, I am very much feeling the imagery of Christina Aguilera’s current Bionic era.  It’s fierce, severe and pushes the envelope.  Artwork such as the front cover (above) and other graffiti-inspired cyborg manipulations handled by D*Face push the envelope and also serve to symbolise Christina as human machine which creates fine music hence “Bionic”.  Various analyses of this robotic imagery could be and have been made: on the one hand, Christina Aguilera in her superhuman form triumphs over all her competitors and makes superior , near-perfect music because she has this bionic element to her; on the other hand, as part-robot, Christina can only ever produce a facsimile of what music is supposed to be, while never quite getting close enough to the organic, human qualities in music that elevate it beyond the calculable – qualities which cannot be quantified or mechanised.  In Bionic, as in life, the truth lies somewhere between these two opinions.

Bionic the album is a long listen – 18 tracks in its standard version, 23 in its deluxe (with iTunes bonus track “Little Dreamer”, a likeable but throwaway confection, making a grand total of 24).  I’ll dispense with the additional 5 bonus tracks first: they are, by and large, bonus tracks for a reason: either they are not strong enough to be considered for the main album (“Monday Morning” is pleasant but lackadaisical; “Birds Of Prey” is lyrically mysterious and interesting, but musically and vocally it’s too much mainstream dance that Kelis would do a lot better with on her current Flesh Tone project), or they don’t fit thematically with the empowering / sexual / carefree / mature feel of the album.  “Bobblehead” is a thrilling production that stutters and races to its climax with the wonderful lyric: “I never play dumb to get what I want / and always come out the one that’s on top”; however, its main hook is a nonsensical mumble that may be the point of the lyrics, dissing idiot girls who dumb themselves down and preferring to deploy her own intelligence, but it’s still a nonsensical mumble which fails to use Christina’s vocals to much effect.  “Stronger Than Ever” is a ballad that is lyrically strong (and embodies my current struggle with my parents) and vocally able, but it just lacks that something.  “I Am (Stripped)” is a lovely album closer but is a more acoustic version of one of the main album tracks, and so it’s understandable why it’s relegated to bonus status.

So, to the main event. To my ear, Bionic moves in three arcs.  In its first, it goes for the jugular with relentless, futuristic uptempos; it then cools down into a sensuous, emotionally vulnerable, mature ballad section; finally, it picks up again for a closing triad of uptempo songs that epitomise fun.  While it’s possible that the album could be trimmed down to make a more concise, compelling listen, it flows very nicely throughout and only has a couple of stumbling points.  Christina Aguilera said that she wanted something which sounded futuristic, but with elements of the organic; something which integrated her new emotional maturity as a mother with her desire to remain playful and sexy.  On this point, she has succeeded: Bionic has elements of all of this.  Tracks such as “Bionic” and “Elastic Love” incorporate computerised effects to distort Christina’s voice, along with buzzing, whirring productions that sonically embody the bionic cyborg face of her album cover. However, on tracks such as standout “You Lost Me” and “All I Need”, Christina is stripped of the musical gloss of the faster tracks to be backed by little more than a piano.  “All I Need” is also a touching, mature tribute to her son, which nicely avoids being mawkish or saccharine like Britney Spears’ unlistenable “My Baby” from Circus.  Finally, sex is all over this album, and from the enticing “Woohoo” to the seductive “Sex For Breakfast” (which I have yet to play for my boyfriend, but when I next see him in July, I am using this song on him!), it’s explicit without being pornographic, edgy without crossing that line.  In this respect, the Christina Aguilera of “Dirrty” is still present, knowing how to be provocative while still being musically relevant.

However, in the video for “Not Myself Tonight”, Xtina makes her return and perhaps pushes the envelope a little too far.  S&M get-ups, Madonna tributes aplenty, and bisexual flirtations are almost par for the course at this point, and Christina Aguilera is more than entitled to use them considering her influence on current female artists in the mainstream over the past 10 years.*  However, although “Not Myself Tonight” is an understandable choice as Bionic‘s lead single considering its radio-friendly sound, it’s not futuristic and it’s not exciting enough to merit the edgy, sex-fuelled imagery.  Rather than hookless, it sounds like a bunch of hooks jostling together for attention over a dance beat (which has a couple of exciting tribal flourishes), the result of which means that sometimes the song sticks, on other listens it doesn’t quite get there.  A better first single might have been the thrilling, soaring title track, or uptempo album standout and follow-up single “Woohoo”, on which Xtina extols the virtues of good oral sex, recruits Nicki Minaj for a fine rap segment, uses her vagina (the titular “Woohoo!”) for a cowbell, and tops it off with a throbbing, buzzing dance break coda for good measure.  Along with “You Lost Me”, “Lift Me Up” and album closer “Vanity”, “Woohoo” is an album standout where all of Christina’s chemical ambitions for Bionic come together perfectly to produce some exemplary pop.

Bionic itself has no bad songs, but there is some filler: “Prima Donna” comes at the end of the first album arc of jugular-ripping uptempos, and is the weakest of them, with little lyrical know-how or production excitement to give it its own identity after the tracks preceding it.  “My Girls” is a ‘riding in the car with your top down’ sort of song, but comes off as fluffy compared to the album’s meatier offerings: although Christina proves (responding to criticisms that she oversings) that she can vocally restrain herself on songs such as “Elastic Love” with its amusing and witty stationery metaphors, and the tender “All I Need”, “My Girls” needs the vocal melisma to give it some spark; as it stands, it’s a little too laid back.  Nevertheless, 2 out of 18 songs (or 15, excluding interludes) is not bad and perhaps a better result than I was expecting.  Sure, several songs on the album are not immediate: “Glam” takes a few listens to hit its stride with its subtle, fibrillating beats and “Vogue”-esque spoken-word verses, while “Vanity” initially startles the listener with its unbridled use of the word “bitch”, references to Christina making herself “wetter” before marrying herself as her “lawfully wedded bitch” and effectively giving the finger to everyone who doesn’t have such bravado.  Only by the song’s end (and possibly a couple of repeat listens) does it sink in that the track is a storming highlight, a perfect album closer, utterly hilarious and ridiculous (and knowingly so), with a vocal flourish that knocks all competition to the floor before her son’s voice confirms all suspicions: his mother really is the shit.

At the end of the day, it’s this kind of confidence that makes Bionic a great success – Christina Aguilera believes that she rules the world, and this kind of ambition almost single-handedly propels her music to heady heights.  It’s a new page for Christina, and she’s secure enough in her ability to try different things: the mélange of styles is a little disorientating until repeated listens expose the subtleties and intricacies in her vocals, lyrics and the songs themselves.  “Lift Me Up” is another beautiful, soaring track that was slightly superior in its stripped down live version performed on the Haiti telethon, but still thrills within the album.  “I Am” is a declaration of humanity, imperfection and adulthood that lends substance to the polished sheen of Bionic‘s robotic side, deployed confidently, efficiently and effectively for example on clubsong “Desnúdate” (which neatly remembers and includes Christina’s Spanish-speaking audience and heritage).  If Christina experiments with textures in her voice, sometimes preferring subdued rumbles to soaring melismas, she still shows that she can do both better than most other female artists.  At the end of the day, Christina Aguilera is an musical artist with a personal and professional vision that she fulfils 85% of the time.  Her misfires are excusable and never in poor taste so much as merely a little bland or inconsistent – in time, Christina will learn to totally excise these from her projects.  Most importantly, while some of Bionic indeed caters to current mainstream tastes and is hardly an obscure sonic revelation, the majority of it is interesting and thrilling, and rings true as Christina Aguilera’s own personality and intention which doesn’t give a fuck about current radio trends (in my opinion, less than half of Bionic would get spins on mainstream radio).  For this, her sales might suffer, but her artistic integrity remains intact and hopefully the mainstream radio audiences and buying public one day will catch up.

* I’ll address this once and only once: anyone who thinks that Christina Aguilera is copying Lady GaGa is a) suffering from memory loss and should go back to Christina Aguilera’s last two album eras which were mired with controversy and blazed with exciting fashions and imagery, b) suffering from hearing loss as Christina can sing GaGa – and pretty much anyone else – under the table, c) has no respect for what Aguilera has achieved over the past 10 years – while GaGa has had a fantastic 2-year run and displays much potential (her music and videos are definitely getting more intriguing), she’s still only been around 2 years and more respect should be shown to anyone who successfully completes a decade in the music industry, and d) completely overlooking Gwen Stefani, whose hairstyle Christina mimics in her “Not Myself Tonight” video, and whose image, sound and career Lady GaGa has borrowed liberally from, mixed with a bunch of fashion designers, and passed off as her own to those too young, too unaware or too amnesiac to know any better.

Advertisements
h1

lady gaga & beyoncé – telephone. (video review)

March 14, 2010

At the end of 2009, I rated The Fame Monster at #18 on my year-end album chart.  Although I do stand by that chart and I don’t think I would really change any of the albums that are on there, in hindsight Lady GaGa would actually be somewhere in the Top 10 (possibly quite high up).  I didn’t think so at the time, but the funny thing about The Fame Monster is that it has hidden depths and its songs are actually really enduring.  What’s more, unlike The Fame, the songs are actually about deep topics such as domestic violence (“Dance In The Dark”), intoxication (“So Happy I Could Die”) and poisonous relationships (“Bad Romance”). I find it ironic that I’ve lambasted Lady GaGa for pandering to radio too much with her repetitive nonsense hooks (“p-p-p-poker face / papa-paparazzi / eh eh / ooh la la ga ga ro ma ma” and so on), but now I find myself appreciating her songwriting craft and finding her songs becoming more solid (although The Fame Monster is streets ahead of The Fame, so in a way I’m just acknowledging her artistic progression).  So I apologise somewhat for kinda turning off Lady GaGa and not giving her her due (although her fans / “monsters” are quite off-putting and need to be less militant), although if she could keep off the repetition of nonsensical syllables that would be good.  Because she doesn’t need to do that.

And so we come to “Telephone”.  The song is about suffocating relationships, and Lady GaGa herself has said that it doesn’t just have to be a romantic situation, but could also symbolise the fact that when her telephone rings, it’s always because she has to get back to work in the studio and she can’t escape that.  The song itself is pretty strong, although it’s not as progressive as some of the other songs on The Fame Monster and resorts to the 4/4 beat that has completely oversaturated popular music (and did so about a year and a half ago).  Beyoncé’s feature is a rapid-fire verse over double-time beats and keeps the song interesting.

The video for “Telephone” was released on Friday, and it has become something of a Pop Event.  The hype the video received even before its premiere was immense, and now it’s being hailed by some as the successor to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.  Others however are lambasting it for its apparent sexism and overt lesbianism.  I read in one place that you will remember exactly where you were when you first saw it, and that much is true (at least for me).  I had just returned home from work, it was about 3:30 and after keeping track of the video reviews on Twitter, I decided to give into my curiosity.  Upon the first viewing, I was a tiny bit underwhelmed but could still see the video’s bad and good points (of which my view hasn’t really changed).  I thought that Beyoncé’s appearance far outclassed Lady GaGa, not just because Beyoncé has had some acting lessons but also because Beyoncé is more of an effortless star (not in reality, but she doesn’t look as if she’s trying so hard).  I detested the overt product placement of Virgin Mobile, Chanel & the GaGa earbud headphones – but all the kids are doing it; I just expected Lady GaGa to have more class.  But then why should she? It’s money in the bank, and when your video is 9 and a half minutes long, you need some bank to be able to make that video look and feel effective and powerful.

I’ve rewatched the “Telephone” video a few times now, and each time my estimation of it has gone up.  While not exactly on iconic level (I think it’s far too soon to be throwing that word around; GaGa has only been around for 2 years), it’s another demonstration that Lady GaGa’s commitment to her artistry is strong, defiant and interesting.  The introductory jail scene serves to debunk the rumours of GaGa’s intersex status (duh), allows her to wear a host of outlandish outfits (striped shoulder-padded body suit / yellow police caution tape / super-studded leather jacket and underwear covered in chains) the best of which is undoubtedly the cigarette sunglasses (still smoking!).  The fashion continues with the huge black tricorne hat GaGa sports upon being bailed out of prison; the shredded USA flag (subtle!) clothes in which GaGa and Beyoncé dance in the diner scene; the folded geometric telephone hat and telephone receiver hairdo GaGa wears on her head; the leopardprint body suit à la Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much”; the closing lavender and black body sheets… not all of these ideas work (on a couple of occasions both GaGa and Beyoncé look nothing short of horrendous – for some reason, in the USA flag bikini and bright yellow hair, Lady GaGa reminds me somewhat of Ken from Street Fighter and I can’t shake this association!), but they all capture the viewer’s attention, and more importantly they all leave you with something to say after watching the video.  That’s possibly “Telephone”‘s biggest success – it provokes thought and inspires discussion.  We know this because even the broadsheet newspapers are talking about it.

I stand by my statement that GaGa does seem to be trying awfully hard at being controversial and “artistic”.  She’s made a couple of great videos now, but in view of the numerous costume changes (see above), storylines and scenes, it doesn’t seem to come easily.  For comparison, where better to look than her costar Beyoncé?  For the definition of an iconic music video, look no further than “Single Ladies”; everyone and their mama has seen that video and knows the dance.  The video is in black and white, has no storyline or costumes (other than a leotard and metallic glove), is done in one take and isn’t even an original idea (see Bob Fosse’s choreography on youtube). Most importantly, Beyoncé did it almost as an afterthought to her video for “If I Were A Boy” (which in my opinion is a truly beautiful, excellent video) without breaking a sweat; and yet this is the video that captured everyone’s attention.  Now, of course Beyoncé is not anywhere near as effortless as she appears; but she makes it look easy.  GaGa does not make it look easy, and although it’s admirable that she’s so committed to the symbolism and artistic integrity she conveys (and GaGa is clearly an intelligent and talented woman), I’m scared that because the media and the fans are so interested in her image, her look, and what she’s going to be wearing that they forget that Lady GaGa is actually a singer and a musician – the most important thing should be her music.  Which, as I said at the top, is actually quite good and shouldn’t get lost in all of the surrounding gloss, however layered and substantial that gloss may be.  What happens when Lady GaGa can’t get any crazier?  What about when she wants to strip away all the layers and be more vulnerable and natural?  Will everyone turn away from her then, because they just wanted the fancy clothes and elaborate videos?  Can people not listen to her music, her lyrics without the accompanying visual?  I hope I’m wrong, because if not then that’s pretty sad.

The storyline, just as the lyrics of the song itself, can be interpreted in various ways and I’m not going to get into that here; I think that some of the reviews I’ve read have been hilariously in-depth and I think that GaGa is intelligent enough to play along in pretending to have input heavy symbolism into outfits, storylines and lyrics where there is none; people seem to need to have a meaning to every single thing, whereas I often think that GaGa is just having fun and being crazy.  Which is great!  It’s entertainment.  And the “Telephone” video is certainly entertaining; I hated the product placement, and I don’t feel that the use of the Pussy Wagon was necessary (the Tarantino homages are apparent, with elements of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction included) – but then that’s just because I find the Pussy Wagon unfeasibly garish.  Which, in Kill Bill, was the point, and I understand that.  I really enjoyed Beyoncé’s homages to the “Paparazzi” video in her poisoning the teacup, Minnie Mouse glasses and hand over her mouth when they censored the swearing.  I loved the Japanese cooking-programme style of “Let’s Make A Sandwich”, and the dialogue between Gaga and Beyoncé was intriguingly half-cheesy, half-hard-boiled (although Beyoncé can somewhat act, and Lady GaGa really can’t – yet).  Tyrese and Beyoncé’s subtitled conversation, spoken with only looks and facial expressions, was genius. The Thelma & Louise-esque ending neatly gave closure to the video, but also made viewers wonder what was in store (that “To Be Continued…”) for next time.

Overall, I thought that the “Telephone” video was excellent, and I’m intrigued to see how the music channels edit it down to song length.  It’s a thrilling watch, and while I’m not going to pretend that it is a perfect video, I think that to compare it to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is unfair; “Thriller” is not even Michael Jackson’s best video by a long shot, and Lady GaGa’s video deserves to stand in its own right.  “Telephone” is furiously entertaining, and shows an artist coming into her own, even if at this point the numerous costume changes and persistent homages, product placements and edgy fashion poses betray an artist not quite comfortable enough in her own skin to exude her artistry naturally.  Once it becomes a little more effortless (as it has for Beyoncé, Madonna and all the other greats), that’s when Lady GaGa will be iconic and symbolic of a new musical generation.  But she’s well on her way, and I hope that the media, fans and public will appreciate that, because I myself am learning to, little by little.

ps. If only my “Bad Romance” video treatment had ended in a jail rather than in a mental institution, it would have led perfectly into the “Telephone” video!  Ah well, can’t win ’em all 😉

h1

Shakira – She Wolf. (album review)

October 11, 2009

Shakira’s new album She Wolf is her first album in four years (since 2005’s Oral Fixation volumes 1 & 2, which represented her best work to date, especially on the Spanish-language vol. 1) and represents a similar transformation to Jewel’s 0304 – Shakira has made an almost-purely danceable, modern album.  Unlike Jewel’s efforts prior to 0304, Shakira has made addictive up-tempo music before: see “Whenever, Wherever”, “Objection (Tango)”, “La Tortura”, “Hips Don’t Lie”.  But never before has she devoted an entire album to the stuff; gone are the tender, thoughtful ballads such as “Underneath Your Clothes” or “Illegal”.  The question nevertheless remains – is Shakira, whose image is now more sexually potent than ever (straight blonde hair, dancing in a half-catsuit in her “She Wolf” video), cashing in, or does she still remain herself?

Mainly, I argue for the latter.  Once the initial shock of the dense production and pounding bass subsides, the melding of cultures and instruments that has always been evident in Shakira’s work is here too.  Listen to “Long Time”, and its reggae beat which gives way to an instrumental bridge that prominently features what sounds like a gypsy saxophone; “Mon Amour” employs a rocky half-time clap that is reminscent of Shakira’s spunkier moments such as Fijación Oral vol. 1‘s “Escondite Inglés”; the only semi-slow moment on the album is to be found in “Gypsy”, where Shakira employs an island feel with a plucked guitar, Caribbean-esque drums and Eastern-European string accents on the chorus.  Not to forget “Why Wait”, which is 2009’s update of “Ojos Así / Eyes Like Yours” with its Middle-East-meets-West instrumentation and production over a storming 4/4 bassline (which becomes positively incendiary in the bridge).  Musically, although it’s a little bit of a readjustment to our expectations of what Shakira’s music sounds like, it is still definitely her, and her claims of wanting to make a “bassy, beat-driven record that maintains experimentation with sounds from other parts of the world” ring true.

Shakira’s lyrics have always been put under a microscope – a fact that has irritated me immensely through the years.  Not only is Shakira an incredibly intelligent woman, but her lyrics are far and away of a much higher quality than those of the majority of traditional pop made by native-English-speaking artists.  The criticism she has gained from reviewers and comedy sketches alike (see MADTV’s parodies of “Whenever, Wherever” and “Objection (Tango)” on youtube – they’re funny, but they’re also unwarranted) is totally unfair and disrespectful of an artist who has mastered a complex language (once you get past the basics, English is a complicated language to speak fluently – I should know, since I have taught it) when I wager that the majority of these critics can’t speak more than a few basic sentences of phrase-book Spanish.  Because Shakira dared to say “Lucky that my breasts are small and humble” in her first English hit does not make her nonsensical.  Listen to “Octavo Día” and “Timor”, songs in both Spanish and English that express criticism with the way that the world is run and our own media-obsessed culture, and you’ll understand that Shakira is very well-aware of what she sings and what she has written.  On She Wolf, there is nothing as incisive as “Timor” or “How Do You Do” (both from Oral Fixation vol. 2) but its opening salvo of “A domesticated girl, that’s all you ask of me / Darling it is no joke, this is lycanthropy” is certainly more sophisticated than “I think you wanna come over, yeah I heard it through the grapevine / Are you drunk, are you sober? Think about it, doesn’t matter” from Madonna’s current hit “Celebration”.  “Mon Amour” delivers a fantastic kiss-off to a boyfriend who has gone to Paris with another woman, while “Men In This Town” ruminates on where are all the good men who can appreciate what Shakira has to offer?  (I feel her on that one.)

I suppose that a certain amount of lyrical straightforwardness is to be expected on an album which is almost purely uptempo and flirts specifically with the electro-pop genre – I can’t get too mad that some of Shakira’s more insightful and wittier metaphors have been sacrificed.  But the three Spanish tracks that round out the album – “Lo Hecho Está Hecho” (“Did It Again”), “Años Luz” (“Why Wait”) and “Loba” (“She Wolf”) – are lyrically superior to any of the album’s English tracks.  For example, “Años Luz”‘s “Esperar es un mar que aún no sé navegar / No te quedes años luz, ya estoy decidida y quiero saber si lo estás tú” translates as “Waiting is a sea that I don’t know how to navigate / You haven’t got light years, I’ve already made my mind up and I want to know whether you have too”.  The English version, “Why Wait”, says “One more night with you, I won’t think it through / Time’s money, but you knew / There’s nothing in the world you can think of that I won’t do to you”.  It’s the same thought, but in Spanish it just comes across as much more elegant and sophisticated.  Not to mention that “Loba” in particular seems to flow much more naturally in Spanish than in English, and the lyrics are perhaps more comprehensible.  In any case, the Spanish tracks add to the album, even though they are retakes of English songs from its first half – it serves to reinforce the fact that Shakira is a bilingual artist who refuses to neglect either her Spanish or English audiences, but instead (as on the Oral Fixation era) seeks to satisfy them both.  This is laudable, and I hope that Shakira comes out with a full Spanish album next year (as has been rumoured).

So it all sounds good so far.  Well, the album is a consistent listen, and its brevity means that each song gets you moving but doesn’t outstay its welcome.  The dense production, in the main courtesy of Pharrell and John Hill, flows throughout (except for the break provided by the relatively lightweight “Gypsy”).  Because of this, there are no really weak tracks, although surprisingly, the Wyclef Jean collaboration “Spy” seems the most rote and uninspired song on the set – its straightforward 4/4 beat has nothing extra to catch the listener’s ear, and sounds lazy compared to Pharrell’s musically adventurous soundscapes in “Why Wait” and “Long Time”.  “Gypsy” sounds like nothing else on the album, but its dip in tempo serves as a break which can sometimes be appreciated by the listener, but at other times seem like an interruption of the party, so depending on your mood, it could be a help or a hindrance.  Other than that, all the tracks are solid, but none of them are immediate standouts save the last track, “Mon Amour”.  With its decidedly rocky, guitar-led music and handclap-driven beat that intensify into a crunchy, heady chorus, it’s the kind of track that you can’t help but get wrapped up in.  Shakira’s vitriolic lyrics, snarling vocals and cutesy airline announcement closing out the song are the icing on the cake, and perfectly embody a girl’s anger with her straying lover’s neglect of her (perhaps similar to 2005’s “Don’t Bother”).  With repeated plays, the appeal of “Did It Again”, “Why Wait” and “Men In This Town” reveals itself, but the songs are certainly not immediate hits like “Hips Don’t Lie”, “La Tortura” or “Objection (Tango)”.

I therefore think that this is a solid Shakira album, and definitely stronger than her breakthrough Laundry Service which contained some fantastic songs but also some uninspired, pedestrian ones (here, the only track I recommend skipping is “Spy”).  However, for me it falls just short of Oral Fixation Vol. 2, because She Wolf is a tiny bit too one-note in its electro-pop approach, and slightly diminishes Shakira’s lyrical mastery in the process.  In terms of her entire catalogue, Dónde Están Los Ladrones? and particularly Fijación Oral Vol. 1 (the Freudian / Eve in the garden of Eden / Madonna and child symbolism were inspired and have yet to be matched in this album’s artwork and photography) are still Shakira’s crowning glories, but the Spanish-language tracks on She Wolf are lyrically more adept than their English counterparts and a worthy addition to both the album itself and to Shakira’s Spanish-music legacy as a whole.  In short, Shakira has far from sold out, and has made a pop album that other artists should be humbled by, such as it melds other cultures and quirky wordplay more than most radio-oriented pop.  And perhaps it is a compliment to Shakira herself that this album still falls somewhat short of her best work, and what I know she is capable of.