Thursday 17 November 2016

MADONNA: The Immaculate Collection

(#416; 24 November  1990; 9 weeks)

Track listing:  Holiday/Lucky Star/Borderline/Like A Virgin/Material Girl/Crazy For You/Into The Groove/Live To Tell/Papa Don’t Preach/Open Your Heart/La Isla Bonita/Like A Prayer/Express Yourself/Cherish/Vogue/Justify My Love/Rescue Me

"Sometimes, though, you want something more:  work so intense and compelling you will risk chaos to get close to it, music that smashes through a world that for all of its desolation may be taking on too many comforts of familiarity.  Sly created a moment of lucidity in the midst of all the obvious negatives and the false, faked hopes; he made his despair mean something in the midst of despair it is all too easy to think may mean nothing at all.  He was clearing away the cultural and political debris that seemed piled up in mounds on the streets, in the papers, in the record stores; for all of the darkness of what he had to say and how he said it, his music had the kind of strength and the naked honesty that could make you want to start over."

Greil Marcus, Mystery Train, pg. 89

The shock.  The loss.  It has been a hard few days now, with more, I know, to come; and the immediate response here was to be alienated, utterly, from music.  The ocean of sound was silent, waveless; or even if it did have waves, I was too numb or worried or angry to be able to hear them. 

A shock like this (if indeed you experienced it as shock, and not sad confirmation) can throw you off of a lot of things, but for me it brought into almost unbearable contrast what Marcus talks about here – there is lucid music, music that helps in one way or another, and there is mere entertainment that gets washed away in the aftermath.  Music becomes, everything becomes, terribly personal, but also bigger than life.  New ties are forged, alliances made, tentative uneasy things are now impossible.  Everything is in a new light. 

I was part of something like this once, on a personal level, and while I won’t go into details – it is the feeling here that counts – I recall enough of it to remember the embarrassment, the trickle of details that became upon my questioning a flood.  I wasn’t supposed to know about any of it, presumably until after the event.  My ignorance was required because my loyalty was to the person who really wasn’t supposed to know.  I was not just uninvited; I was not trusted, nor was the person trusted.  Suddenly all became clear, and I wondered, had I not been there that night, who would have told me. 

But the upshot was, there were people there, and I wasn’t one of them.  Us vs. Them.  The disdain of the ultimate Us over all the others. Supposed unity becoming  disunity, disarray.  The only way out is to say, out loud even, “Well now I know” and not be intimidated, should the time come and you see that ultimate Us again.  But you do see those who, if you had met them, would have said nothing, very differently.  And they respond, by not even replying to a hello, or being friendly themselves.  Because you are, in whatever social order is left, beneath them.  Maybe you always were, in their eyes. 

In the face of this, writing about Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection is difficult.  Perhaps for some it meets Marcus’ qualities of toughness and naked honesty, but listening to her remixed greatest hits does not help with my engagement with the world.  She is not able to speak to me, and then I realized not quite blithely that for the most part even back when these songs were new, she wasn’t really speaking to me.  I was not a Madonna fan in the '80s/'90s apart from a few songs, ones where I felt she actually was feeling something and seemed to be speaking from some personal experience.   The fact that this is the best-selling album in 1990 in the UK or her biggest album period worldwide is interesting, but doesn’t really matter to me here; however I will look at it long enough to perhaps figure out why.

The liner notes, by Gene Sculatti, are pure praise the entire way; mysteriously, he has written them in such a way to enthuse endlessly about her, without actually telling the reader that this is a bunch of remixes and as such the remixes don’t do much for the songs except make you want to hear the originals again.  I am under the impression that he was given a list of songs, a word count and a deadline, or maybe he did know and didn’t bother to tell the reader, as fundamentally it wouldn’t matter anyway.  Look at the cover; she is not there – she whose face was ubiquitous, not there.  (There are plenty of the equally ubiquitous Herb Ritts photos inside, where she looks like a glammed up Chico Marx, or perhaps Pinocchio.)  She is Brand Madonna now and does not need to put her face on this collection. 

Sculatti defends True Blue, he burbles on about “Hot” radio formats (mentioning Shannon’s immortal “Let The Music Play” which just makes me want to listen to it, and not this).  He mentions how “Vogue” was originally supposed to end the album, but two new songs finish it instead; I will get to those in a moment.  What is more interesting to me is one of the quotes (unattributed) that starts the piece: “an outrageous blend of Little Orphan Annie, Margaret Thatcher and Mae West...”

Oh I see.

It has suddenly hit me that the cover of The Face – the one for January 1990, with the '80s summed up as half-Madonna, half-Thatcher – is accurate, depressingly so.  So many girls grew up at this time admiring both (and boys as well) that any subversiveness that Madonna may be trying out there, any defiant gestures, get swept away by  the notion that She Who Must Be Obeyed isn’t just Thatcher, but Madonna herself.  Only one song on this album is addressed to girls, and that’s “Express Yourself” (even here she a gym teacher).  Sculatti complains that when Madonna got the cover of TIME and was questioned about things, no one asked her about music.  I felt like hitting my head against the nearest blunt object.  Madonna is a musician and songwriter, sure, but she was just as much a sizzling look at the time; fashionistas loved her and still do, in part because of that She Who Must Be Obeyed business as anything else.*  Clearly if you like that kind of woman, then here she is; but if not, not.  But I cannot ignore the fact that when Thatcher was made to step down from her position as Prime Minister**, this was the number one album.  The end of an era?  How many bought this for the new songs, or bought it out of some intense hit of nostalgia?  After all, this album sums up that go-get-‘em “hard-hitting” '80s spirit perfectly well, as Madonna – and this isn’t mentioned – just rolled up her sleeves and ACHIEVED and had a tumultuous marriage and made some terrible movies but TRIUMPHED IN THE END and then spent 1990 making one bossy single after another.  People love that kind of story too, and hence, big sales.

If she wasn’t appropriating the voguing scene for her own ends (the voguing scene is still a thing, by the way) she was taking a song by Lenny Kravitz (credited) and Ingrid Chavez (not credited, though eventually she was) and adding a few words to make “Justify My Love.”  Madonna as spectacle; Madonna as a woman in a perfume ad-style video, intoning the words and trying her best to be all sexy...does it still work?  I am not sure.  It is tough to see this song as sexy when the lyrics are all about what she wants to do, lyrics that seem to assume the one being addressed is a hapless male who will fall for something as repulsive and clunky as “tell me your dreams, am I in them?”  I can sense Camille Paglia*** and a whole host of other feminists talking about turning the tables on male objectification (well, maybe not Paglia, come to think of it, though she was obsessed with Madonna) and the whole strong-female-demanding-pleasure-and-not-feeling-guilty-about-it thing, but in the end “Justify My Love” is still a song with a woman demanding love (like “Open Your Heart” with an R rating), but we never find out what he thinks, reacts or feels.  Ultimately it is a song to the listener – there is no Other.  She demands, but that is not enough.

“Rescue Me” is also a song of demands, one where Madonna goes on and on about how difficult she is, like a European heiress in New York who is looking for someone very special, darling:  she is “silly” and “weak” but also “ferocious.”  How ferocious, you might ask?  To this possible Other she can say “With you I’m not a fascist.”   Well now.  What does this mean?  She has an “angry little heart” (immediately I think of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) and this Other can “forgive” this heart.  He can also bring her to her knees “while I’m scratching out the eyes”**** of a world “I want to conquer and deliver and despise.”  Oh, that kind of fascism.  Yes, I can see why so many Thatcherkids were Madonna fans; Thatcher wanted (as far as I can tell) some sort of world where society didn’t exist, but Proud Individuals did; and here is Madonna, Proud Individual, demanding that a man indulge even her worst excesses.  She wants another Proud Individual to care for her (interestingly she doesn’t care if he is “good” for her, just that her understands her and loves her for herself).  I think anyone could have told her this is no way to get a new boyfriend, let alone husband, and just about anyone reading the lyrics here will already know Madonna is pretentious but almost literally impossible to be with....and so the album ends, starting out so innocently with “Holiday” and “Lucky Star” and ending with a woman admitting that she has no ability to get herself out of her mess, that she must be rescued, which is not exactly what a “hard-hitting” woman is supposed to be saying.  Is it? Oh, but she has so much so wealthy and She Who Must Be Obeyed...then this must be okay, right?

Is there anything left to say?  Madonna wrote her best songs here with Patrick Leonard (the title track and “Cherish” from Like A Prayer).  There is, on the cassette, a big blank space at the end of side one that shouldn’t be there – it could have been used for “Angel” or “Everybody.”   And yes, it is the end of an era; the liminal period for Madonna is a difficult one, and she comes out of it as an Official Pop Star who has no time for what is about to happen.  A part of Madonna is stuck in the 80s, or you could say her persistent Catholic symbols are also part of her brand.  And her impact is huge; this album is that impact in audio terms, but there’s a whole world of fashion, videos, movies and  live performances that compounds it.  Are the songs good?  I wish I could say that now I get them, now I understand, but I have not been able to; in high school I didn’t sense they were for me, and I don’t feel it now, either.

And after such a loss, I can’t really take any comfort from this, even though she campaigned for the right side, up to the end. 

Oh wait another minute.  Was “Justify My Love” kind of....pointing to Public Enemy?  Well, in that case...let us ride The Immaculate Collection into 1991, where it’s #1 at the start of the Gulf War, and look forward to....

The sound of thunder; and a deep voice comes out and says:  “The Future Holds Nothing Else But Confrontation.”  A droning noise straight out of shoegaze, looking to beginning grime; and the drums and Chuck D and so many bits of samples and scratches that they scatter around like a popcorn machine going full tilt.  “Lost At Birth” is a reclamation, after much strife; Public Enemy are about the cause “we’re all in the same game.”  Not just Proud Individuals here, but also and especially Proud and Strong Unities. And if you’re down with PE, then they are down with you.

“Now the KKK are wearing three-piece suits.”

This is what I needed to hear, after such a loss.  And it is RELENTLESS.  I cannot even keep up with them, it is next to useless; there is a momentum to this album that is exactly what Marcus is talking about.  Here is naked honesty, tons of energy, more than enough to get the listener to keep going, no not just keep going but to actively do something, to educate themselves.  “Can’t Truss It” presents slavery and oppression that is “inconceivable” and yet unnervingly still present. Have times changed all that much?

“The story I’m kicking is Goree.”  “Yipes.”  Ofra Haza.  This is music that sets music free; endless possibilities and beats and messages are here.  “Lyrical Content May Offend!” says the sticker on the cassette, and “I Don’t Wanna Be Called Yo Niga” is pure Lenny Bruce in a way Bruce could never be; conversational, blunt, funny (it is Flavor Flav).   But can PE’s message be heard?  Not according to “How To Kill A Radio Consultant” (PE are taking NO PRISONERS).  But the interlude – Chuck D telling like it is, looking at the church and liquor store as equal foes of the neighbourhood – is depressingly familiar. 

Eventually PE just give up on being played on the radio.  “I can’t live without my radio!”

And now a song about...well, about the “psychological discomfort” that is there and still there. “ByThe Time I Get To Arizona” is about Martin Luther King Jr., about jails, about the desert – “what’s a smiling face, when the whole state’s racist?”  “The same old ways that kept us dying.”  All to  something that sounds like Sly alright.  BUT THEN THE SCREAMS OF THE CROWD!  The loop of excitement.  “Talkin’ MLK, gonna find a way...This ain’t no damn dream.”  “The hard boulevard I need it now more than ever.”  Reparations, anyone?  One day is just the start. *****

Some critics think that the second side isn’t as good as the first.  Cough.

“See, the black race can’t afford you no more.”  What is “Move” about?  “I’d rather rush a television reporter.”  And it’s about speed, about the truth, “I’d rather spend my time spitting on a bigot.”  What is the truth?  Who has the money?  “If you ain’t with the program....”   “This is a new day!”  Countdown to a new world, where PE still exist despite so many people who would like them to quietly go away.  “’91 PE in full effect.”


“1 Million Bottlebags” goes back to the world of liquor stores, advertising and the inordinate amount of it aimed at the black consumers in the US – “slaves to the liquorman!”  Flavor Flav is trying to get a man to stop drinking his 40 – “another gun to the brain.”  This is like an update of “The Bottle” by Gil Scott-Heron.  Profit and greed....

“They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”   

“IIIIII Didn’t Die Right.....IIIIIII Didn’t Dieeee Right” sings Flavor Flav, doing a bad David Bowie (perhaps).  “More News at 11” brings in Harry Allen, Media Assassin.  Don’t believe the hype, part two...

A lot of rumors refuted....

“Shut ‘Em Down” is a particular fave of mine, because Chuck D says something like “Ted Hughes, gettin’ me sued” even though he doesn’t.  That aside, it’s about economics, the truth, and shutting down....oh come on now, how could I not mention this....

“Fashion Week and it’s Shut Down, Went To The Show Sitting In The Front Row in A Black Tracksuit and it’s SHUT DOWN” – yes, Skepta, he knows what this about...just slow it down to a rough funk...

“We spend money to no end, looking for a friend.”  Stop Funding Hate.  Stop Voting For Politicians Who Don’t Care For You. 

And now, a friendly word from your local KKK – Bernie Crosshouse, who is pleased to see “gangs, hoodlums, drug pushers and users” destroying black communities, so he doesn’t have to.  All with country violins and yahoos and hollers in the background.  Yeah, and who did a lot of country stars vote for?  My question, and I don’t know if it can be answered.  Unfortunately, I can’t ignore such things.....

“A Letter To the New York Post” is perhaps what those critics objected to;  both the Post and Jet get it in the neck; “it always seems they make our neighborhood look bad.”  You can hear Chuck D’s glee in getting his own back, and Flavor Flav as well; so much controversy had been around PE that they had to take (or not)....

“Get The F--- Outta  Dodge” is about Chuck D driving somewhere in the South, getting pulled over by the cops and being told to turn down his radio – and drove out as soon as he could...then being pulled over again in NYC, because he was driving a pick-up truck.  Then the rookie raps, eager to shoot, eager to arrest.  Lest we forget, this album comes at a time when the L.A. Riots are mere months away....

As gravy, the glorious return of “Bring Tha Noize (w/Anthrax)” which is just as rocking and joyful and OH YES as “Rock Box” was back in the day.  Anthrax yell, rap, rock and the Golden Age of Musical Understanding is happening, oh YEAAAAAAAAAAAH BOOOOOOOOOYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.

And then back to the tough “hear the drummer get wicked” loop, and the ending, a wordless tough beat, as if they are moving way ahead of “Justify My Love” to something more inclusive, more responsive, though just as demanding, in its own way. 

Yes, this is the music Marcus meant; the focus is sharper, the angles more acute, but this is the point – this music does not draw back or flinch, and it gives the listener a lot to think about, to get angry about, and a kind of propelling oomph that gives hope and determination, that possibly may even unify.

And now, to the present, and two Canadian albums of note:

One quality of There’s A Riot Goin’ On That Marcus talks about is the fact that not everything is very clear, that there is a sense you have to lean into the album to really get it.  Brendan Canning’s album Home Wrecking Years comes closest to the eerie and yet familiar feelings I get when I hear Riot; it doesn’t have the same menace, but the more you listen to it, the more obvious it is that there are stories galore in it, enough to build a whole novel out of, I suspect.  And there is a languor about it that threw early reviewers off, who just heard another summertime-fine  laid-back Brendan Canning album.  It is that, but the complicated thing is, it’s telling a story of deceit and betrayal, cheating and being caught, as well.  All the qualities of Canning’s voice work well here – he is close to you, very quiet at times, and you have to listen intently, crouch down, to get what he is saying.  I don’t know how much of what he is singing about is from him, from his friends, how much is autobiographical or if it is made up.  But it doesn’t matter, as it feels genuine and all the language of “Vibration Walls” and “Keystone Dealers” is at once normal and just weird/creepy, and by the  time he sings about “I found us some cheap seats in the balcony” you know something very wrong is happening, yet the music is gentle and spaced-out...

...that is, until it gets to “Nashville Late Pass.”  I don’t care if this is just music that he jammed with his band to, this about being caught out, about the pause between the knowledge and the reaction, about the awkwardness and the words may be “accidents, they will happen” but Justin Peroff’s drumming lets you know the thunderous reactions, the explosion, the music roars along and everything is being connected, falling into place.  There is nowhere to hide.  It skips and starts, it is anything but laid back.  Canning becomes almost inaudible, as the music just takes OVER and then stops, cutting off suddenly, like a door being slammed shut.

 The songs are different afterwards – “Work Out In The Wash” is about guilt, using others, taking off clothes....there is a resigned quality to this, as if he knows it’s over but is going to act normal until something is figured out.  So it sounds a lot happier than it is....”keep it coming, love”....”Money Mark” is so much a song about things going downhill, as the bass does.  A knot is being undone musically, and she sings “you’re the young gun anyway.”  How many relationships are falling apart here?  Hard to tell, but it’s happening.  “So long to the innocent comes the evening train, goodnight.”  And so the train pulls away, the tracks and train making the noise “money mark, money mark, money mark...”

“Sleeping Birds Like Lasers” is about that quiet moment when things are said.  “No more room in the spotlight....can we stop at this next light....okay, want me to....”  Or is it “you want me too”?  But I think it must be “you want me to go...” The fact of going is too awful to say. (You see how complicated this album is.)  The song clatters along uneasily, breath heavy and drawing in slowly.  It is over.

“Baby’s Going Her Own Way” is self-explanatory, save for the fact the narrator is asking her not to leave, now.  And yet is sounds upbeat, settled.  Everything is on an even keel again.  Who is this Anna in this song?  Yet another girl?  (There’s an earlier song called “Hey Marika, Get Born.”) But no matter what the narrator says, she is going and not coming back.  Even a “I’m sorry” doesn’t work.  So he turns mean, says she will “fade away” if she goes.  And the bass gulps like a thirsty person, and the guitars and drums gently disappear...

For an album which is essentially – as far as I can tell – just an example of what Canning and his touring band can do, this is a remarkable album and not one that has had much if any coverage in the UK at all.  I only found it by accident a month after it was supposed to appear, tucked away in a mall I’d never been to before. Now, I realize it might annoy some people that this album asks you to listen and make up a narrative, but it is therefore making you participate in its meaning – you can  become part of the album if you wish, and if you’ve lived in Toronto then its easy to think of all this taking place over one hot, humid summer, and resolving in the cool of autumn, when sleep is easier...

It was always the plan. Patrick Leonard had worked with Madonna, so of course Leonard Cohen had to be included.  It was only right.  I hardly know what to write here.  I tweeted about Montreal, the river, the bridges, the languages.  Cohen knew he was coming to the end,  that he had to look back to Montreal again, to Greece, to the synagogue where he first heard music.  The whole sweep of so many places and people.  Patrick Leonard does right by him, giving his knowing, bleakly funny at times writing the gentlest and most understanding of frames, and Adam Cohen deserves our thanks for encouraging his father and making this album possible in the first place.  It can seem depressing at first – the darkness, equal to Sly Stone’s darkness – but Cohen wishes the listener well, and longs for love and peace, actual love, genuine peace.  This was also good to hear, after the loss.  He is leaving, he knows things are inconsequential to him – but then how much truly is consequential in actual lived life?   

Truth will out; time will tell what it is that counts.  Cliches?  Maybe, but Cohen stickhandles around these things very slowly and surely, as if he is showing us a map and noting places, dangers, decisions.  This is his life; this is his wisdom, this in his way is his Unpopular Solutions.  He is “out of the game” but still watching and able to comment; the old player who sees that the game may have appeared to change superficially, but really hasn’t at all.   Cohen knows in a way that can be utterly trusted, and you don’t have to risk anything to reach it, other than looking to the world with more intention, of being more mindful.  Unlike Canning, you know what Cohen is saying, there are no complex narratives that could be rewritten with each new hearing.  Cohen is setting it out straight, to meditate upon, giving the listener just enough before going.  It is as if he is giving us this one last time, as close as he can be, as accurate as he can call it.

And so I return to Madonna and wonder if she could do this, with Patrick Leonard’s help.  Hmm.  We shall see.  It is 1991 now, the palindromic year, and as Cohen writes the songs for The Future (including the ever-hopeful “Democracy”)  and the liminal period is reaching its peak.  Anything is possible, or so it seems.... 

*”I love the way that she clearly enjoys her clothes, and that she’s this very hard-hitting, tough seeming person.  She holds her own in a man’s world and she’s doesn’t want to be granted any favours because she’s a woman.  But at the same time she had really great red nail polish on when she opened the Tory party conference, and lipstick.” – UK Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman on Theresa May, ES magazine, October 21, 2016 The same things could have been said about Thatcher, and certainly are about Madonna.

** Alan Clark:  “You’re fucked, you know that?”  Margaret Thatcher:  “Oh, Alan.”

***Honest to God, the only time I’m going to mention her here. The split face thing The Face did with Thatcher and Madonna is also there  (this time it’s Emily Dickinson and Nefertiti ) on the cover of her most famous book, Sexual Personae. 

****Considering how much endless looking into eyes Madonna sang about in the early 80s, this signifies that she is all done with looking into eyes and trying to understand people, I guess.

*****When PE were the support act for U2 on their ’92 tour, they played this song in Arizona as the last song in their set.  Chuck D was a bit nervous about doing it, but at Bono’s insistence he did.  I can only assume U2 went on to do a storming “Pride (In The Name Of Love).”  Considering how controversial the video was, it was brave of both of them.